Last Time Land

Last Sunday Ben turned left onto Fruitvale Avenue and I began to cry. The afternoon had turned from hot and humid to bright and breezy. We spent it enjoying cold pizza from Terun and chilled ice tea in Pat and Bob’s garden while their eight-month old Golden Doodle ran in playful circles around us. A few hours later we stood at their door not wanting to leave but knowing it was time. I wanted to hug them both – a simple gesture of love and affection – but Pat is immunocompromised and we were not willing to risk COVID. The best I could do to let these dear friends know how my life changed from knowing them was to say,

“I’m hugging you in my heart.”

Pat replied, “I know.”

The day that we move to Virginia is two weeks away. And now we can’t help but say, ‘that’s the last time we’ll grab coffee at Printer’s Cafe’ or ‘that’s the last time we’ll be up in the City’ or ‘that’s the last time we’ll sit in their garden with a glass of summer wine’. In other words, sadness and excitement have locked horns. We’re living in Last Time Land.

Last Time Land is an odd place. It’s full of sun bright joy – like the joy felt a few Tuesdays ago. That was the clear blue sky morning when a few dozen friends who have been gathering with me to practice yoga on Zoom gathered instead in Susan’s garden. It was less a ‘going away’ party and more a celebration saturated with love and appreciation for one another. I’m so happy that morning happened. It was an experience I didn’t know I needed.

It’s difficult to describe the other side of Last Time Land. It’s like a deep sigh more than anything. It’s not sad or melancholy. It’s a letting go.

Like the letting go of a good job with good people and where I learned so much. But I’m not sad to be leaving my work at the pain clinic because the space I once occupied there is now occupied by someone else. Nothing has ended, only grown.

It’s the true endings that make this side of Last Time Land difficult to navigate. I had a true ending this week. The experience that came to an end this week was one that created so much possibility for me and over the past ten years influenced so much of who I am as a human and how I walk through the world. I feel a deep sense of loss in this true ending.

A true ending creates a void and an unknowing that leaves us with an imbalance that can’t be made right until we sit in that void and grieve. But in time the void closes, grief softens, balance is regained and surety in the journey forward is found.


Neurographic Drawing

At the start of the year I set the intention of building a writing practice that would allow me to post every two weeks. I created a spread sheet of topics around these obvious themes: yoga, coaching and craft. I hoped I would have the strength and energy (and the technical prowess) to have a brief video accompany the posts I wrote about aspects of our yoga practice. I managed one video, but my posts over the past six months have been consistent. Not what I intended, but consistent. Until now.

Writing, like yoga or art, is a practice that requires our presence. We have to show up. And I find it difficult to show up for writing practice when my brain is full. And right now my brain is full. My beloved and I are three weeks away from a major life transition – our move to the ‘other coast’. Our home has become a storage unit filled with boxes and I’m obsessed with worry about how Bruce – our amazing, elderly, deaf ginger cat – will manage the flight to Virginia and how he will adjust to a new home. There are so many details that need to be attended to that there is no room in my brain for putting words down on a page.

And don’t even mention my preoccupation with…well…everything else.

And so I’ve decided to draw. My art supplies are packed and so all I have to work with are a few sharpies and a mechanical pencil. But that’s all I need for neurographic drawing. The technique, a distant cousin to SoulCollage®, begins with just a thought. A quiet thought, a few shapes and a single line. So simple and yet it doesn’t take long before my energy settles. The jumbled words and racing thoughts become quiet, and I’m lost in the shapes I’ve drawn. I’m lost in the moment, which is a nice place to rest.


Growing Freer

I’ve been thinking about balance.

At the start of the pandemic, which now feels a lifetime ago, I decided that my new found spare time offered me room to begin running again. It didn’t matter that over the previous two decades I moved no faster than a brisk walk. In college I ran to relieve the stress of studies and an unhappy marriage. After college and well into my thirties I ran because when I ran I felt strong and invincible. I wanted to feel that way again. And so I made my preparations. I researched the best shoes for my finicky feet and purchased what I could afford. I found websites and apps with titles like Running for Women, Running for Seniors and Running for Senior Women. I downloaded training schedules and created a list of routes to run and calculated the distances. It didn’t take long for me to graduate from brisk walk to shuffle to an actual jog and in those first weeks I looked forward to a healthy body, a clear mind and the lean, organized structure to my life that I craved.

And then a broken side walk came between my toe and my hopes. While my knees and my thumbs healed I considered giving up. A few months later, when I had a second hard fall, I did give up. 

Falling down was not a rare occurrence when I was a child. My mom would tease, You can trip over thin air, she’d say. When I was in sixth grade one of our teachers who was fresh out of college watched me stumble my way through a tangle of classroom chairs and then, dripping sarcasm, joked about my ‘grace’. It’s funny how we remember these things and not our moments of actual grace. To be fair, it’s true that my knees were skinned more often than not throughout my childhood. But I don’t believe it was because I was clumsy or awkward. I was too busy thinking about the next adventure to notice where I was going. My head was always a million miles ahead of my feet.

And I didn’t think too much about having skinned knees when I was a kid. I always bounced back up, brushed myself off, stuck a bandaid on my scrapes and moved on with life.

But last year the cracks in the sidewalk that sent me flying caught me by surprise. I didn’t bounce back like I did when I was a girl. Something was different. For the first time the trust I had in my body, that all would be well, was questioned. For the first time I found myself afraid of the future and the changes my body would continue to go through as I aged. 

When I stopped catastrophizing about a future that is a mystery to me and began to think clearly I realized that there was plenty I could do now to improve my strength and my balance. How I take care of my body now will inform how my body thrives in the future. I can eat more vegetables. Especially cruciferous ones. I can take Vitamin D. I can add more weight bearing exercises to my routine to keep my bones strong. I can remember that physical balance can be practiced. And then I can make sure to include standing balance poses to my yoga practice.

I don’t really have a formal game plan. It doesn’t mean that I don’t care or that I’m not working toward my healthy future. It means I’m letting go of some of the anxiety I hold about the future. Over the last few weeks I’ve realized that a balanced body goes hand-in-hand with a balanced mind. And to keep a healthy, balanced mind I need to remain present with what is rather than focused on what might be. I can smile more. I can reach out to friends more often. I can immerse myself in the things that I love like art and reading and cooking. 

And I can remember that sometimes we sing the body electric’. Sometimes we fall down. 

This Pablo Neruda poem appeared in my Facebook feed this morning along with this advice: we are growing freer…not older.

You Start Dying Slowly

You start dying slowly

if you do not travel,

if you do not read,

If you do not listen to the sounds of life,

If you do not appreciate yourself.

You start dying slowly

When you kill your self-esteem;

When you do not let others help you.

You start dying slowly

If you become a slave of your habits,

Walking everyday on the same paths…

If you do not change your routine,

If you do not wear different colors

Or you do not speak to those you don’t know.

You start dying slowly

If you avoid to feel passion

And their turbulent emotions;

Those which make your eyes glisten

And your heart beat fast.

You start dying slowly

If you do not change your life when you are not satisfied with your job, or with your love,

If you do not risk what is safe for the uncertain,

If you do not go after a dream,

If you do not allow yourself,

At least once in your lifetime,

To run away from sensible advice.”

– Pablo Neruda


What Would You Carry?

As of this week I’ve filled eighty-six small to medium sized boxes that are light enough for a sixty-three year old woman in good health to lift with relative ease. Each box is numbered, the contents roughly noted on a Google spreadsheet. In twelve weeks – give or take a few days – those boxes that I’ve filled with treasures, junk, books – oh so many books – cookware and memories will be loaded onto a truck by a couple of burly strangers and driven across the country. 

When I was young a move required nothing more than a backpack and a few boxes. I had my life pared down to bare necessities and when the weight of possession became too much I happily gave it away. But to flit about as I did in my youth required a lightness for which I no longer yearn. What I want now, more than anything, is an anchor. I want to feel tied to a place and a people. I want a home. I want family and the sense of belonging that’s alluded me since the days when I was able to pack almost everything I owned into a cardboard box. 

I feel some guilt around my selfish wants. I know there is a difference between a ‘want’ and a ‘need’. I have everything I need and for that I’m grateful. But still, I want these things. Wanting pretty things like porcelain teacups from Japan. Wanting furniture made from wood and not multi-density fiberboard. Wanting a dining room table with extendable leaves and room enough for my beloved’s sisters, his nieces and nephews and their children. Cloaked around the knowledge that it can be taken away without warning is a deep want for stability. But this morning I’m wondering if a stability is determined by your environment or how you experience your environment.

What’s interesting about the process of packing is that as our moving date approaches we’re finding it easier to let go. But I struggle with the precious things. The little things. The tchotchkes that serve no purpose but are the keepers of such potent memories. The carnival chalk ware figurines I found at a car boot sale in Letterkenny, County Donegal twenty years ago. The elf shaped, never-been-burned three inch candle that my beloved keeps at his desk and refuses to abandon. What do we do with the precious things and what would our lives be without them?

The things we choose to keep around us tell our story. They remind us of the places we’ve been, the people we’ve loved, the dreams we’ve lost and the dreams that came true. 

But if I had to chose between these things and my life I would abandon everything without question in order to survive. What must it be like, do you think, to be forced to do that with a moment’s notice? What must it be like to wake up to the sound of explosions and to realize that everything you know, everything you assume will always be there – the school, the hospital, the corner market – is about to be destroyed?

For five weeks we’ve watched missiles rain down on homes that look like the homes we live in and on cities that look like the cities we love. Two weeks ago we saw a mother with her two children, two family dogs and the family friend leading them to safety. One moment they were alive and when the dust cleared they were dead. What did they carry with them? If we opened Tetiana’s rolling suitcase what would we find? What precious toy did her daughter Alise find room for in her backpack? What book was so important to Mykyta that he would choose to carry it with him on their futile attempt to escape a savage war?

What would you bring? What book would you carry?


The Little Things

I’ve begun packing. Our new life on the East coast is still eight months away but I’ve begun to bundle in bubble wrap those things I don’t use but don’t want to lose. It would be far easier to send these silly tchotchkes to Goodwill – after all, they’re just ‘things’ – but I can’t seem to find the resolve. The attachment I have to them is visceral and giving them away at this point is like giving a part of myself away. I did not feel this way when I was younger, when I moved across an ocean and back again. Then, I gave most of what I had away to friends with ease. At the time it was like a cleansing but I realize now that I knew so very little about myself. I had no connection to my own history and thus no connection to the things I kept around me.

But now I do. And it’s these things I’ve packed away – my grandmother’s vase from Germany, the desktop magnifying glass my grandfather used to examine the coins he collected, the wooden puzzle boxes with inlaid images of Mount Fuji my sister and I were given as children, the Bible my mother carried with her through three marriages –  these things connect me to my past and to the blood flowing through my veins. They tell the story of who I am and how I came to be. 

These stories are important. And yet, if a calamity occurred and everything was lost the energetic imprint of these things I hold in my hand would still be held in my heart. 

With the image still fresh of Afghan families huddled by the perimeter walls of the Kabul airport desperate to board a flight that will take them to an unknown destination far away from where they are, and as Haitians emerge newly baptized by the waters of the Rio Grande to gather under a bridge in the sweltering heat of our southern border I am more than aware that the circumstances of my life are sweet blessings.

With that in mind, it’s healthier for me to see the task of deciding what to bring and what to leave behind as a joy rather than a burden. And in the process I can refine the vision I have of the life I want to live with my beloved human and beloved feline in rural Virginia. I can refine the vision of how I want to walk through a world that is so beautiful and fragile.


Knowing What is Unknowable (and trying to sleep)

Insomnia is like the buzz of a fluorescent lightbulb about to burn out. It’s the annoying clack of your office mate’s pencil against their desk. The cackle of canned laughter coming through the floorboards from your downstairs neighbor’s television. Insomnia is silence broken by the gristled smack of someone chewing with their mouth open.

I’m irritatingly sensitive to sound. And I hate insomnia.

When sound breaks through the cocoon of quiet I need to have wrapped around me in order to work, it’s easily remedied by distraction. Moving to another room. Taking a break. Walking outside. Eating. 

They say that when insomnia steals what you hope will be a deep, restorative sleep the remedy is similar. Distract yourself from the fact that you are unable to sleep with a good book or a warm drink or anything that doesn’t involve too much mental energy or screens.

So when insomnia sat on the edge of the bed in our hotel room in Charlottesville last month and incessantly tapped its pointy little finger on the crown of my head I did what any intelligent human being wide awake for no reason at 3AM would do. None of the above.

Instead, I tossed. I turned. I yearned for sleep and each time my eyes closed and I thought ‘at last’ a new stream of consciousness would flood my brain. It was like a movie of my life that had been cut and pasted out of sequence and it made no sense. My thoughts bounced from the red dress I wore for my first grade school photo to lesson plans I wanted to write for my yoga classes. My brain played pin ball with whether or not the new refrigerator would fit in the kitchen to how we would move the family furniture languishing in a Pennsylvania storage locker. Did I really have to keep the cookie jar from my childhood? My grandfather’s turquoise Jim Beam bottle in the shape of a star created to celebrate my birth place become our 49th state? 

All the while, weaving its way through these warped concerns like a repeating weft with a broken shuttle was a singular truth. My insomnia was not about how to move furniture from one state to the other. It wasn’t about my red dress or cookie jars or Jim Beam bottles. It was about trying to find order in the unknown. Which seems to me to be an impossible quest.

Knowing that, however, left me reconsidering the question ‘are we making the right decision?’. I realize now there is no answer. The answer is unknowable. So I release fear and move forward with love and trust. And I sleep really, really well.


Leaving Home: A Climate Migrant’s Story

When I left California the first time, it seemed like a lot of folks had a similar idea. Around the time I took flight for Ireland, Dana and Anya left for Grand Rapids and Nancy headed to Santa Fe. There were others, too, who left. Friends on the periphery of my life headed to Oregon and my the friend who adopted my cat Bob moved to Detroit.

In the late 1990’s, if you weren’t in the tech industry, it felt like life was waiting for you someplace else. So we moved. 

A decade later I came back to the place that felt like home. I guess the Universe knew that the Bay Area had more lessons to teach me. Some of those lessons devastated me. Others filled me with hope and motivated me to not only do better but to be better. To be more kind. More patient. More trusting. 

I purchased my first home through Palo Alto’s BMR program during my second time around in the Bay Area. And I fell into the kind of love that is more than a fleeting tickle in the heart.

My beloved B (henceforth known as ‘BB’) and I first tossed around the idea of leaving California long before COVID changed the way we live. But when last summer served us a shutdown, raging firestorms, intense heat and The Day the World Turned Orange we knew it was time to flesh out what it would look like to leave. What it would mean.

So we created a spread sheet that ranked our potential destinations according to the criteria that was most important to us. We wanted to be closer to family but we also needed affordability, diversity, culture, tolerable winters and, while BB could continue to work remotely, I needed opportunities to continue on my path as a yoga therapist and coach. I also needed room to grow back into the artist side of me I abandoned when I left California the first time. Asheville was too expensive and Chapel Hill too far from family. We didn’t relish the idea of a Pittsburgh winter and potential livelihood for me was sketchy in Richmond. 

But Charlottesville, Virginia? Charlottesville ticked enough of the boxes to warrant an exploratory visit.  By the end of our seven day visit last May, we knew where we wanted to live.

It isn’t Charlottesville. It’s a little town (to be truthful it isn’t a town, it’s a place and yes, there’s a difference) outside of Charlottesville called Crozet. Crozet is named after Colonel Claudius Crozet, the French engineer who built the Blue Ridge Tunnel. The community we’re moving to is near enough Charlottesville to take advantage of all it has to offer but far enough away from city lights so that we can see the stars at night. Maybe even the occasional shooting star.

But we won’t move into our new home until next June. Which gives me just enough time to circle ‘round back about a million times to the question, “Are we making the right decision?”


Guided Autobiography

9F61C78F-98F4-4952-B808-307B50D191E1_1_201_aThe global pandemic is forcing social isolation but technology can bring us together – at least electronically. When we come together with the intention of actively listening to the stories that have shaped our lives – even if it’s through Zoom – our hearts break open. We connect on a level that isn’t available in our day to day interactions. 

This June I’m offering a four-week Guided Autobiography experience. The date will be confirmed when I have the minimum number of participants. If you’re interested, continue reading then reach out via email (mimmpatterson@gmail.com) and I’ll send further details.

What is Guided Autobiography?

Guided Autobiography, a method developed by James E. Birren, is a semi-structured process of life review – an opportunity to reflect on our life story and to share it with others. Reflecting on our life through story supports our health and wellness and offers many emotional and mental benefits. Guided Autobiography creates the space for that reflection. It shines a warm light on memories and helps us to process ‘what came before’. It brings meaning to our lives and helps us to better understand our past and our present. Guided Autobiography shifts perspective.

Our introductory course will be just four weeks, with each weekly session ninety minutes long. We will work through four themes (the first being introduced via email) and each week share with others a two-page reflection written on that theme. We will ‘prime’ each theme with a series of sensitizing questions that are designed to assist in the recollection of memories related to the theme. The sensitizing questions encourage us to look at aspects of our histories that have been overlooked.

This is not a traditional writing class. We won’t be offering critiques to one another. Instead, we’ll be exploring self-awareness and human development. We’ll be sharing personal experiences. For that reason participants must agree to attend all sessions, to complete all writing assignments and to honor confidentiality – what is shared in Guided Autobiography stays in Guided Autobiography. We will create a supportive environment that accepts individual differences and will listen actively while others are sharing. 

I’ve been wanting to become a Guided Autobiography facilitator since I first stumbled upon the process while falling down an internet rabbit hole (the same way I discovered SoulCollage®). The pandemic and shelter-in-place order offered space for that to happen. I’m excited to now be able to share the process with others. 

Join me for this four-week, donation based course. Class size is limited to six.

 


Guided Autobiography: My Aunt Mimm

One benefit of the lockdown: a calendar that has room for classes I’ve been wanting to take for more than a year. Cheryl Svensson’s Guided Autobiography class has been on my radar for over a year. Here’s one of my stories from the eight-week class.

 

IMG_6225My Great Aunt Mimm’s small apartment in Allentown, Pennsylvania had the soft scent of age with a dusting of Shalimar. Her’s was one of several apartments in a pale pink two-story stucco complex built in the 1930’s on one of Allentown’s broad, tree-lined boulevards.

When I close my eyes and wander back to that time and place I remember black out shades and Venetian blinds, a spinet piano in one corner and an early Hammond organ in the other. I can see her long hallway painted with shafts of light from the late afternoon sun. I can see the oak barrister bookcases, with a complete set of Harvard Classics and Aunt Mimm’s collection of tiny porcelain dogs.

These are my memories. But memories are nothing more than stories that change with each telling.

What doesn’t change is the warmth that I feel in my heart for Mildred Matilda Barber. As a young child surrounded by a strange cast of characters, my Aunt Mimm was a soothing constant. She was the one who read to me from storybooks she always seemed to have with her. She was the one who played Heart and Soul with me for hours on my grandparent’s upright or, in winter, suffered through Jolly Old Saint Nick as many times in a row as I asked, until I was certain that Johnny would get his skates and Susie her dolly.

Aunt Mimm was a slight and gentle woman. Her personality illuminated a room not with a frenetic sparkle but soothing glimmer.  She had a solid sense of adventure but was not the type to convince anyone to take a risk. After graduating from Allen High School in 1916, and determined to continue her education, family legend has it that young Mildred visited the local bank seeking a loan to pay for college tuition. They say she pestered the exasperated manager until terms were agreed to and the papers signed.

6E34D4B0-66A3-4B12-B614-4F5025F5C42D_1_201_aShe attended Keystone State Normal School and began teaching with the diploma still hot in her hands. Aunt Mimm loved children and any child would be lucky to have her as their teacher. She loved dogs, too, and often brought her Jack Russell Micky with her to the classroom.

After retirement she traveled. Most often with friends. Once she brought me a tiny steel drum from a trip to Barbados. 

I don’t recall her ever driving. In my mind’s eye she is always dressed in a brown wool skirt that hits just below the knee, a matching cardigan over a white cotton blouse with a pixie collar, thick flesh colored stockings and sensible tie-up shoes. She never married. She never had children of her own. 

My Great Aunt Mimm was buried the morning of my ninth grade algebra final exam. A few days earlier I sat at her viewing with my mother, sister and grandmother on the funeral home’s hard mahogany folding chairs. Four women from the Order of the Eastern Star stood in front of her open casket and sang. I stared at the ruby red carpet not knowing what to do but certain that I didn’t want to cry.

It had been awhile since I’d seen Aunt Mimm. I was in the throes of becoming a hormonal teenager and she was old. My love for Aunt Mimm was muted by pimples and first periods, schoolgirl crushes and broken hearts. I didn’t have time to notice  when she became so lost to herself that a care home was the only option.  It was there that she passed in her sleep.

After her apartment was emptied my mother arrived home with a small bag holding a few porcelain dogs and some jewelry. I was given the gold mechanical pencil she wore on a chain around her neck when she was teaching. I still have that pencil. Her initials are engraved on the side. The spinet piano arrived for me, too, but before I left home for college my mother told me it had to go. And so I sold it to a music teacher for $200.

When I was thirty-five, I was an artist living rent free in exchange for light janitorial work at an art club in Palo Alto, California.  While I swept floors and cleaned studios, my friends were finding partners, having babies and beginning to make money in a fledgling Silicon Valley. 

IMG_6227People knew me as Robbi then, because that was my nickname, having been given the name ‘Roberta’ at birth. I put up with being called ‘Robbie the Robot’ – the character from the move ‘Forbidden Planet’ – in grade school, ’Roberta Flat’  – a play on singer Roberta Flack’s name – in high school, and ‘Rotten Robbie’ – after the chain of gas stations in our country’s middle – while attending college in Nebraska.

But in the summer of 1993, I decided to change my name to the only one that fit: Mimm.

Changing my name did not change my life the way I thought that it might. Still, I take comfort in knowing that twenty-seven years ago the universe had wonderful plans for me to which I was not privy. I also take comfort in walking through life with the same name as the one true and happy constant in my young life.


Still Processing

I was not expecting to feel the way I do. Relieved. Guilty. Annoyed. Two weeks later and I’m just realizing now that I no longer have any reason to avoid calling my mother. I’m realizing, too, that unless I plan on learning I won’t be knitting any blankets and don’t need to keep her collection of needles.

I’m keeping them anyway.  

I’m keeping pieces of paper with her perfect Palmer penmanship. A piece of cardboard with a list of passwords she created each time she forgot the last password. When we first reconciled a decade or so ago I sent the money for a laptop. I told her if she had a laptop we could send letters (she insisted on called emails ‘letters’) every day. In the end though, she really only used it to find out what was on television and to check the obituaries in Allentown’s Call Chronicle. 

Friends tell me this is normal. To be reminded of all that has been lost while doing the simplest things. While walking through the freezer section at Mollie Stone’s and hearing the chorus of a song she sang. She loved music. When we first moved to Lynnport she and my step-dad formed a country and western band called Johnny and the Texas Tophands. Local bars from Topton to Hamburg booked them for gigs most weekends. Once they played before a NASCAR race at the Pocono Speedway. John rented a tour bus to take the band and all their equipment up to the mountains. I think my sister was old enough for the two of us to stay home alone that weekend. 

I suppose what my friends tell me is true. That this is normal. That no matter the gulf between mother and daughter, losing a parent changes a child’s life. Even if that child was born when Dwight D. Eisenhower was President. 

There’s a space in my life that wasn’t there before and I’m not yet certain how it should be filled.