“When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability. — Madeleine L’Engle
Old summer dreams…. It’s a September song, the nip in the air that confronts you one late August morning. You pay attention, tuning in to that flicker on your seasonal radar. It alerts you, sending thoughts reeling – for a moment – toward autumn. Your summer window is narrowing. You look up to watch a tell-tale yellow leaf drift on a puff of cool breeze. It lands at your feet, signaling the end of summer and the inevitable full-color transformation October will bring.
I appreciate old summer, as my husband describes the August-September transition. The word vintage seems more to my liking. This season brings pleasant images of vineyards and harvesting grapes for a fine wine. But then, another word comes to mind. Vulnerable. Like that cool nip in the air, vulnerable is what I feel on late summer days. Summertime this year was celebratory for me. Yet the vulnerability theme kept reverberating in the background. It’s a contrast for sure.
During old summer last year, we attended the Michigan Renaissance Festival for the second time. Our daughter-in-law’s family – lifelong Renaissance enthusiasts – often recounted stories of its allure. We succumbed to the charm one year, then last year enjoyed another fun time in Holly, including indulging in the great Feast of Fancy.
We celebrated the beautiful day, the familial bonds and life in general. After all that’s what the festival does: it celebrates life. We discovered that in an abrupt sort of way, when at the mammoth dinner – in the cavernous hall, packed with rousing, gregarious diners – my husband turned up to be the oldest in the crowd. Yikes. That meant I was second oldest. Yikes again.
The thing is, he was the designated person to begin each portion of the meal, by taking a bite, lifting high the goblet and shouting, “I’m alive!” Then, between meal segments, he disappeared, heading off to the restrooms. That meant that I was called upon for the next portion. So, in view of the craning-necks maddening crowd, I somehow managed to pick up my fork, take a bite ( don’t even remember what I was eating), discover my voice and squawk out, “I’m alive!” I know my face was crimson, and not from the hot, humid day.
While the episode seemed both hilarious and disconcerting – being in the spotlight that way – this unexpected adventure also reminded us of our age.
In early December, we left for a winter camping trip south, the festival adventure long forgotten. But upon our return in February, “I’m alive!” took on new meaning. The whole Renaissance event may as well have been one of those precognitive signs: pay attention.
Presidents Day this year brought a renewed sense of vulnerability. It was momentary, a feeling of perhaps a pinched nerve in my neck as I was getting dressed. Still, it was alarming. The next morning however, I couldn’t get up out of bed. Thankfully, my husband was home. He wasted no time. He called 911. There began my wild ambulance ride to the hospital, and my initiation into the medical world of evaluating and diagnosing what turned out to be a mini-stroke.
The cardiologist said I’d dodged a bullet. He did everything he could to convince me to pay attention, and take my newly prescribed medicine. That unforgettable morning I’d lost all feeling on my left side. I was unable to walk without assistance. I recovered somewhat by the time the ambulance arrived. They went right to work with all the essential moves to stabilize me and keep me calm.
I intuitively recognized all the curves, turns and bends on the back roads to the hospital. “Wow,” I was thinking, “this is wilder than I anticipated.” I felt pretty good, though – enough that I questioned, “Do you have to have the siren going?” “We just wanted to go a little faster,” they quietly assured me. After enduring batteries of tests and being monitored overnight, they sent me home, scripts in hand and a list of follow-up doc visits.
Since that day – navigating the weeks through spring, summer and now into autumn – I’ve become acutely aware of life passages. For many days, I’d wake up, simply delighted that I could get out of bed and walk. When my episode occurred in February, I told my husband that I felt like his brother – who’d suffered a stroke 14 years ago and had to relearn how to walk. He never could be totally normal, but he’d made a remarkable comeback. He was an inspiration to everyone; and I really wanted to talk to him to discuss the experience.
Turns out, before I could do so, we learned that he’d suffered a massive stroke while vacationing in Colorado, and was probably going to die. Still feeling a bit wobbly and off-kilter, I don’t know how I managed the strength to fly out there in March to see him. He was mostly unresponsive, under hospital and hospice care in Denver. It felt strange to watch him; I felt blessed to be alive. All we could do was talk to him, reminisce, and hold his hand.
He passed after we flew back home. Then in April our family rented a van to drive to Minnesota for the memorial in his hometown. I was getting stronger by then, continuing my medication, following up on all doctor appointments, working with a chiropractor, renewing my quest to learn more about heart disease and incorporating even more lifestyle ideas. After all, I’d always thought I was on the cutting edge of focusing on health.
Moon River, moon landings, old-summer dreams…
Summertime– the season of growth – is often the time when we let go, take time off and allow ourselves to reflect on life. We’re never done learning for sure. We’re never done reflecting on life lessons and events.
Besides my health, there was lots to think about this summer. So many anniversaries reminded me how far I’ve traveled on this journey. Much news focused on the decade of the 1960s. Looking back, I can see the pattern of that pivotal time period playing out in my life. It was a coming-of-age decade, one stuffed with monumental events.
I think of the timeline of world events interspersed with personal ones beginning in 1961. Imagine graduating from high school that spring, after Alan Shepherd’s suborbital flight in April, followed by President John F Kennedy’s clarion call in May to land a man on the moon before the end of the decade. It happens for real in 1969, and in 2019 we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
This summer, it was fun digging a bit into my memory archives, scanning each year for inspirations from the past. One of my favorite memory prompts from that decade is the Henry Mancini/Johnny Mercer classic Moon River, the Academy Award winning song from the soundtrack of the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
What a way to begin a decade… off to college, with all the idealism and hope of the Kennedy era, the promise of the space race. Life seemed to flow in anticipation of beautiful possibilities. Moon River felt like a life theme: Moon River, wider than a mile, I’m crossing you in style some day. We’re after the same rainbow’s end, waitin’ round the bend, my Huckleberry Friend, Moon River and me….
For me, the 1960s began to flow like a river with islands in the stream: college years, teaching, living on a river (my own Moon River, the St. Clair), a summer studying in Paris, more university classes, marriage and winding down with a summer in Waco, Texas where my husband was taking classes at Baylor University, the summer of the moon landing.
As my timeline continued personally, along came history-changing events challenging my natural idealism. We navigated the volatility of the 1960s, including assassinations of John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert, Martin Luther King. The Detroit riots occurred the summer we were married (1967). The Vietnam War took a huge toll on our national psyche. Of course, we remember Woodstock, as well as the influence of those Brits, the Beatles, whose music defined that Yesterday. As described on the Wikipedia page for the group:
The Beatles’ first visit to the United States took place when the nation was still mourning the assassination of President John F. Kennedy the previous November. Commentators often suggest that, for many, particularly the young, the Beatles’ performances reignited the sense of excitement and possibility that momentarily faded in the wake of the assassination, and helped make way for the revolutionary social changes to come in the decade.
This summer I re-discovered a personal intersection with that decade that made me smile. In June the nation commemorated the 75th anniversary of D Day, the Normandy Invasion in World War II. June 6 D-Day stories of local native Donald R. Burgett usually surface in a marker anniversary year.
But this special 75th year triggered a memory from 1969. I’d forgotten the summer of the moon landing was the same year that I met Donald Burgett.
His book Currahee, a paratrooper’s account of the Normandy invasion, was published in 1967 by Houghton Mifflin. I’ve kept my copy on the bookshelf over the years, along with myriad news clips featuring his life and heroism, and sadly his obit in 2017. In June, when I took the book from the shelf, I leafed through to the front page, noticing Burgett’s autograph to my husband and me, dated December 13, 1969.
This 50-year old memory of Burgett and Currahee, sent me back to that year – when I was picking up the thread of a youthful dream. In 1969, being in Waco the summer of the moon landing, I spent a lot of time in the library at Baylor, thinking about my writing aspirations. I was no longer teaching; and the idea of following my inclination to be a writer began stirring in me. I’d enjoyed being on the newspaper staffs in both high school and college. Writing about people and their personal stories fascinated me. Soon I ventured out writing for local papers.
My aha moment this summer was recalling that December interview with Don Burgett, one of the first feature stories in my early writing career. But, where I wondered, was it? Surely I’d have clipped a copy. Of course, I didn’t have a printer copier then, nor computer files. Plus, I’m terrible at organizing archival things. So begins a new autumn project – to hopefully unearth the collection of articles I wrote back then.
One thing that dawned on me was realizing that Donald Burgett was just beginning paratrooper training the month I was born in May 1943; and he was only 18 years older than me when I interviewed him. When you’re in your 20s, the idea of being in your 40s, 50s or heavens, your 70s seems far away in some distant future. Being at the stage of looking back down those decades seems like reading someone else’s story, not yours.
An old Yiddish saying I came across seems to fit the moment: Old age, to the unlearned is winter; to the learned it’s harvest time.” I like that positive perspective. I like it especially in view of my health experience this year. Maybe my vulnerability means I’m growing up.
Some say life is a river. Some say that obstacles are like stepping stones in the river. I’ve always pictured little islands that you land on for awhile. Then you get back in the boat and continue on the journey. So, I’ve disembarked, but on what island?
Writer’s block and monarch butterflies both visited me this year. It felt like I’d come ashore on some strange island, with a tangled landscape that I knew I must navigate. I’ve written before about creeping writer’s block. It’s something I’ve rarely encountered. This year, however, it was beginning to irk me. I couldn’t figure out why. I wanted to write. I love to write. But, I kept procrastinating. While I had so many things to write about, much of life was getting in the way and I wasn’t keeping up. I felt out of my element.
Shortly after the health episode this winter, I attended a performance at my favorite theatre. I was startled during intermission when the director said hello, then asked how my writing was going.
Feeling extremely vulnerable that week, I confessed that I’d been suffering writer’s block. Chuckling, he said he always has writer’s block. That touch of kindness moved a little spark in me. It’s amazing how a few empathetic words can lift your spirit. An unexpected interchange can take the shape of a tiny miracle to jump start you to action.
Sometimes miracles occur in your own backyard. Something appears affirming you’ve landed on the right island, after all, even if it is tangled. Each year we’ve tried to save a place for milkweed that pops up in our backyard, hoping to provide a summer landing spot for monarch butterflies. The tiny miracle for me this summer was observing, for the first time, monarchs and caterpillars. It was beautiful to see a monarch flitting, a caterpillar chewing…voraciously plowing through the milkweed. Hopefully next year, they’ll find this little island again on the journey. I’m grateful for their visit this summer.
Moon River, suggests the online Wikepedia page, is about looking to the future and the past simultaneously. The river represents time and the journey from start to finish. It’s about the journey of life. I wasn’t surprised to read that; it’s always been my take on it.
The dream maker, the heart breaker…it doesn’t matter, life flows the way of the river. You don’t know what’s around the bend. In February the cardiologist’s words were like that August morning nip in the air. Pay attention. Get used to being vulnerable. Embrace and accept it.
Throwback articles to previous times are prolific these days. While writing this, I clipped one that brings me full circle: Party like it’s 1965.
Old is new, it proclaimed, encouraging thrift store shopping for vintage finds. Channel your inner Audrey Hepburn.
I’ll drink to that. Cheers! I say, to this vintage time of life: Lift the goblet high and declare, I’m alive.