From Concord to Concordia: A Late-Life Migration

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Empty Rooms — July 2016

Last September I said to my husband, “I want to be in my own house before my next birthday.” We had sold our house in Massachusetts in July, and were spending a few months in Kingston, New York, while planning our next, and hopefully final, move. Today, the day after the aforementioned birthday, I am sitting in our new house in Portland, Oregon.

We’d been fantasizing about just such a migration  for several years. The time between dreaming and doing has been filled with a multitude of decisions, and emotions that have vacillated between nostalgia and anticipation, impatience and satisfaction, uncertainty and confidence.

First, however, there’s gratitude. Not everyone in his or her sixties has the health, energy, and wherewithal to move across the country.

I had lived in the Boston area for my entire life, and my husband had lived there for much of his adult life. We bought the house in Concord when our sons were in elementary school. It was our home for 23 years, the place where we developed our careers, supported each other through multiple challenges, and watched our boys grow into men.

In return, my husband combined his engineering know-how and carpentry skills with my design ideas, and together we turned a plain 1960s ranch into something special .

The house had done its job, just as we had done ours. By the summer of 2011, neither of us was working full-time. My husband had retired after 32 years at the same company, and after almost as many years of steady employment, I no longer had a full load of paid writing assignments. At the time of our move, we had a son living on each coast, and nothing to tie us down. Leaving old friends would be our only regret.

We didn’t have to move, but we both wanted more stimulation and new vistas to explore. I wanted to live in a place where I could walk to parks, restaurants, cafes, and stores. As I wrote in 2012,

I want the bustle and excitement of the city but not the noise. I want to be able to move around freely even when — especially when — I am too old to drive, but worry that the constant press of people will grate on my introvert soul.

While any place that Paul and I are together will feel like home, I also want to find my own niche. I want to write in my office and then meet friends for coffee at a neighborhood café, or spend the afternoon wandering around a nearby museum.

There were practical reasons to sell as well. While the decades of full-time work set us up for a relatively secure retirement, the house had become a big expense. We still had a mortgage, and a home equity loan had entered its pay-off period, increasing what had been a negligible monthly payment by ten-fold.

The house was valued at far more than we owed. Selling it meant that if we re-settled in a less expensive market, we could pay cash and skip a mortgage all together.

At the end of 2015 we got serious about selling the house, met with a couple of realtors, and began strategizing about improvements we needed to complete before putting the place on the market.

All of that went out the window in early 2016, when an acquaintance and her husband expressed an interest in buying our house “as-is.” While they made up their minds, we thought deeply about the implications of leaving.

I, for one, had a private cry in the kitchen every morning, awash in memories as I brewed my tea, and looked out at the wild and beautiful back yard that had given us so much pleasure. As we began saying good-bye to the house, we also had to decide where we wanted to go.

Our older son seemed firmly ensconced in his Brooklyn, NY community, more so than our younger son in Seattle, Washington, who was just finishing up graduate school there. Who knew where he would land? We didn’t want to be far away from both of them.

Though we’d always fantasized about moving to the West Coast, we began considering the Hudson Valley — somewhere near the train into the city. Then we could have it both ways: quiet at home with some walkability, but within easy access to New York City and proximity to our older son.

We spent several weekends that spring looking at houses in and around Beacon, New York. Nothing there felt right. All of the houses we looked at felt cramped. They weren’t particularly close to town, either. In addition, while housing there was inexpensive compared to Boston, the property taxes would have equaled another mortgage payment.

We were driving back to Concord at the end of one particularly discouraging trip, when my husband said, “We could still move to Portland.” The mood in the car instantly changed from dreary to dreamy.

Ah, Portland, Oregon. We’d spent a few weeks there during the summer of 2014. I loved that it was a city, yet it was divided up into neighborhoods with shops located on the main thoroughfares, while houses of all shapes and sizes were sited on the quieter side streets.

We agreed to give New York one last chance by renting a place there that summer, and if we still weren’t convinced, we’d give Portland a try. Our acquaintances decided to buy the place. And in July, we packed up the house and put most of our belongings into storage.

Month-to-month rentals weren’t easy to find, but we finally landed one in Kingston, NY, which has a charming downtown and a vibrant artistic community. The catch was that our rental was nowhere near town and even our morning dog walk was a twenty-minute drive away.

We also went into New York City a few times. And as much as I’d love to explore and master its many areas, its sticky summer streets weren’t much of a selling point. Plus, I hadn’t been there for more than five minutes on one trip when I nearly fell prey to a charming con man.

While I spent most of my twenties living alone in Boston, it was pretty clear I’d have to brush up on my city demeanor. Both of my sons advised me to adopt a slightly annoyed vibe, and to look like I knew exactly where I was going. While the former would be easy, it would be a long time before I could project the latter.

We agreed that neither the Hudson Valley, nor New York City were the right fit. In mid-September, we packed up our van and headed west. While we were reluctant to move so far away from our older son, we were thrilled when our younger son announced his intention to stay in Seattle, just three hours north of Portland.

In the six months since our arrival here, I have cherished the luxury and privilege of having this new beginning. I feel lucky that for now at least, I have the opportunity to craft a daily life that I love. Every morning we walk our dog to one of two nearby parks. Several cafes, award-winning restaurants, and a grocery store are all an easy walk from our new house.

The house itself lacks “curb appeal” and needs some TLC both inside and out. We agreed that we didn’t want to buy a place that was already “done,” preferring to create our own updates in our own style, and by doing most of the work ourselves.

On the upside, what the house lacks in ascetic charm, it more than makes up for by having loads of space and natural light — essential when living in a perpetually overcast environment.

I look forward to becoming politically involved with my new city, and to trying some classes at the yoga studio down the street, and at the photography center across town.

Familiar, but not limiting, urban, with loads of green spaces, and mountains, forests, and the Pacific coast just a car ride away, our new neighborhood — ironically named Concordia — feels just right.

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Home Again – Photo by Martha Nichols

This post is part of a series entitled “Right-sizing” on Women’s Voices for Change.

Dear Mr. President, Please Don’t Extinguish My Energy Star

A few months ago, my husband and I decided to buy an older house in Portland, Oregon. We didn’t want a house that was already “done,” because we wanted to make renovations that met our own needs and taste.

High on the list is making the place more energy efficient, and at the top of that list is replacing old, inefficient home appliances with new ones bearing the Energy Star seal of approval.

We’d been in the house one week and a day when I saw this headline in the Washington Post,

The Energy Star program is good for the climate and the economy. Trump wants to kill it anyway.

Wait, what? Even businesses like this program – it gives their higher-end products a consumer-pleasing caché that comes with a big, fat, money-making selling point. Isn’t #45 all about helping business? Didn’t he promise during his campaign to boost our economy to “make America great again”?

And, more to the point, the Energy Star label helps environmentally conscious consumers like myself cut our emissions, and reduce our energy bills.

According to the Post,

A new White House proposal would slash the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by 24 percent and eliminate 38 of its programs. One of the programs on the kill list is the Energy Star program, an initiative that experts say is as much about saving money as it is about saving the climate. Should it be eliminated, they argue, both consumers and businesses could suffer.

 

Why would anyone suggest transforming a win-win program into a lose-lose one? The stupidity of it all makes my head spin.

Facts may not matter to you, Mr. President, but here are a few pertaining to my government’s Energy Star program.

  • Established in 1992 by the EPA, Energy Star is a voluntary labeling program designed to identify and promote energy-efficient products to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • While computers and monitors were the first labeled products, EPA expanded the label to additional office equipment products and residential heating and cooling equipment. In 1996, EPA partnered with the US Department of Energy for particular product categories.
  • As noted by the Post, “…the program now sets an international standard for energy-efficient products, including heating and cooling systems, appliances, and electronics. Homes and other buildings may also receive Energy Star certification by meeting certain standards for energy efficiency.”
  • Energy Star told the Post that since its inception, it has saved consumers an estimated $430 billion in utility bills and avoided 2.7 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

The White House proposes turning this program over to a non-governmental entity, perhaps one run by industry. Energy experts told E&E News that doing so would result in a less trusted, and less competent Energy Star. According to Lowell Ungar, senior policy adviser at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE),

An internal industry label is not going to be as effective, is not going to be as reliable. The consumers aren’t going to know whether that really is representing energy savings and savings in their wallet.

And, with more than 16,000 partners, who also like the program, perhaps consumers will have some industry help in protesting this latest affront to environmental health. Kateri Callahan, president of the Alliance to Save Energy  told the Post,

My hope is that the 16,000 partners really step up and stand firm and say it’s penny-wise and pound-foolish, to put it as politely as possible, to take money from this program or to try to suspend it when it’s clearly something that is doing so much good across so many fronts. I can’t imagine honestly that the manufacturers won’t fight very, very hard to keep this program in place. 

And I have no doubt that consumers will too.

This post first appeared on Moms Clean Air Force, and has also been posted on Medium.

 

 

I Vote for Clean Air

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I registered to vote in Massachusetts nearly 40 years ago, and I’ve cast my ballot in a voting booth there ever since. So when we moved to Portland, Oregon this month, registering to vote was at the top of my to-do list. The stakes are so high and far-reaching this year —especially when you factor in the fate of our planet — that the possibility of NOT voting is unthinkable.

As  Dominique Browning, senior director of Moms Clean Air Force points out, “ We have a choice for president that is going to influence our lives, and our children’s lives, and our grandchildren’s lives…”

Fortunately, my new state not only makes it easy to register, its system of voting by mail allows citizens to focus on candidates and issues rather than on simply getting to the polls.

My ballot arrived last week and I was determined to wield my voting power with laser-like precision to ensure that Oregon continues to do its part in protecting our environment. This meant going beyond my (obvious) choice for president to learn about the positions of down-ballot candidates, and the implications of local ballot initiatives.

A post about ballot measures on the Oregon Environmental Council’s (OEC)  website was particularly informative. I spoke to its author, OEC’s Health Outreach Director,  Jen Coleman, about why voting “yes” to affordable homes, for example, would also help improve air quality in Portland. She explained,

To have healthy people, we need healthy places for them to live. Our hot spots of air pollution in Portland are linked to low income and minority communities.

Therefore, she wrote in her post,

Affordable housing is integral to meeting environmental goals. High housing prices have pushed lower-income residents out to the edges of urban centers where there are fewer transportation choices. The closer people can live to school and work and accessible transit, the less they need to drive—and less driving results in cleaner air and safer streets.

I also asked Jen about assessing local candidates’ commitment to supporting clean air in my new state. While she couldn’t tell me how to vote, she advised me to read the voters’ handbook. In addition to descriptions of candidates and ballot measures, it includes arguments for and against, as well as endorsements, for each. As she said,

The handbook that comes with your ballot is pretty amazing. Look at those recommendations and base your vote on the assessment of those you trust. A tiny race can make a huge difference in how we use our resources.

With that in mind, my husband and I sat across from each other at our dining room table last night and paged through the handbook as we marked our ballots.

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This afternoon, we’ll send them on their way, confident that our votes  will have an impact that reaches beyond our new hometown and for generations to come.

Now, dear readers, it’s your turn. Please, take the pledge.

PROMISE TO VOTE!

This post was produced with support from Clean Air Moms Action. All opinions are, of course, my own.”

Love at Last

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Moroccan Heart

Ours was not a love at first sight. On a bright winter’s day, I trudged through knee-deep snow to greet you. It wasn’t until late spring, however, that I agreed to see you again.

To begin with, you were compact, rather plain, and, to my then young but critical eyes, a bit homely — nothing at all like the ideal I had carried around in my head for so long. But after our second meeting, I let caution go and decided to give you a try. “It doesn’t have to be forever,” I thought to myself.

During our first year together, we faced some serious challenges. More than once you suffered from a lack of energy that caused your lower extremities to fill with water. And I spent more time with doctors and in hospitals than I ever could have imagined. And yet, you were stalwart — always there, patiently waiting for me to come home.

I have since learned to appreciate your modest looks and embrace your efficient and can-do approach to life. As the years passed, I helped you buff up your rough edges, gave you one or two makeovers, and then watched your quiet beauty emerge.

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In return, you protected me through more physical and emotional storms than I can count. And you taught me everything I know about patience, persistence, and the value of building on what you have, rather than looking for something new.

You let me make mistakes and I learned important lessons from each one.

Moving in with you, however, was not a mistake. Like two dancers, we developed a feel for each other’s frame and learned how to move together with grace. After 23 years of cohabitation, we both wear the patina of age.

It is only now, as we prepare to part, dear house, that I realize how deeply I love you.

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This post is part of a Valentine’s Day series on Women’s Voices for Change.

 

 

 

 

A Mother’s Magic Shield

Photo © Anne Francey, Used with permission

Photo © Anne Francey, Used with permission

Artists tend to thrive on routine. Their work is often the result of doggedly showing up day after day, immersing themselves in their ideas and techniques. But what happens to their creative flow when they face a massive crisis? How do they cope?

For insight into the artistic process under fire, please read my new “Talking Art” column about painter and ceramicist, Anne Francey.

Talking Ibises and Art

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I am a reluctant traveler. Even as I long to break out of my routine, managing the details for leaving home is often like ripping a particularly sticky bandage from sensitive skin. But by the end of this past summer, I was ready go and that’s when a trip to Australia fell right in my lap.

The possibility of heading down under had been brewing on the back burner ever since our friends announced they would be spending their sabbatical there. The decision to go, however, wasn’t made until the last possible moment.

Yes, I have photos of kangaroos and emus and beautiful scenery, which I may eventually share here. But for now, I give you an ibis.

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These beaky birds are as populous in Sydney’s public parks and gardens as pigeons are in New York.

And they show up in the work of artist and ceramicist Anne Francey. I have admired Francey for some time now — as much for her unshakeable grace as a person and a parent as for her art.

To learn more about her, please read my new “Talking Art” column, “A Mother’s Magic Shield.”

 

Having a Senior Moment? Blame Air Pollution

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For weeks now, I’ve been trying to recall the name of a landscape architect I worked with a few years ago. I’ve remembered her first name, but her last name continues to elude me, yet I’m sure it’s there — lurking somewhere within the deepest, tallest stacks of my brain’s library.

An aging brain sometimes takes longer to retrieve certain information than it once did. Like many people over the age of 55, my brain’s agility is often, well…on my mind. So when I saw this recent headline in the New York Times, “Pollution May Age the Brain,” I sat up and took notice.

(Read more ….)

Forest Bathing

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A friend recently sent me this link to an article about “forest bathing,” which says,

This Japanese concept revolves around a deceptively simple practice: quietly walking and exploring, with a mind deliberately intent on – and all senses keenly open to – every sound, scent, color and “feel” of the forest, in all its buzzing bio-diversity.

Of course, readers of my blog know that I have been doing this for years – but not so much recently. It has become so rare that I clearly remember the last time  I let the forest feed my soul.

Time when I am truly alone and surrounded by silence has become a precious commodity. Not just for me, I suspect, but for many of us. We all need time to just sit with our thoughts and our emotions. Time when we are truly “present.”

How often are our minds and bodies in the same place? For a dreamer like me, not often enough and over the past few weeks I have been especially distracted. Just the other afternoon, my body was sitting on the deck eating lunch with my husband, while my brain was back at my computer, parsing through an editing issue for work. When he interrupted my train of thought with a question, I snapped at him.

Forest bathing, opening ourselves to feel the gentle breezes, and fully take in the smells and sounds around us can also teach us to be more present in other parts of our lives. It’s a habit we all need to cultivate.

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Recently, my son urged us to listen to comedian Marc Maron’s podcast, WTF. In listening to Maron interview people such as NPR’s Terry Gross and President Obama, I noticed how “present” both he and his subjects were throughout the entire conversation. Being that focused enabled both parties to listen, hear what the other person was saying, and then respond thoughtfully—unearthing some never-heard-before information in the process.

Uncovering new information, finding insight where you don’t expect it, those all can result when we are fully present. For example, one of the things that the leader of the free world told Maron struck a chord deep within me — and it wasn’t a comment about foreign policy.

He said that because his father wasn’t around when he was growing up, being a good father to his daughters is one of his top priorities. Parental absence left a big hole in my life—particularly my adult life. When Obama said that, I realized that living with that void is why being the mother of two adult sons has been both wrenching and joyous. It is a relationship that I can never take for granted and, more significantly, one that I don’t have a blueprint for.

This summer I have several projects going on, but as I turn my attention to each I am going to keep the image of “forest bathing” in mind — even when I am not walking in the woods.

It’s time for a reset.

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Building a Framework

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Mission Pool

View out the locker room door, Mission Community Pool, San Francisco.

For the past month or so, I’ve been editing and critiquing a book manuscript for a couple of business consultants. The topic is ‘reinvention,’ as in how we can stay ahead of ongoing change in terms of our jobs and careers. There has been a flurry of articles recently about how technology is replacing human labor and about how the list of today’s top jobs will be transformed over the next decade. For a critique of how this impacts actual human beings, read Barbara Ehrenreich’s New York Times book review.

Reinvention as a more personal matter is also in the wind as my friend and fellow blogger, D.A. Wolfe notes in her Huffington Post piece, “The Age of Regret, The Age of Opportunity,” The theme of transforming regret into something positive is also picked up by writer/photographer, Heather Robinson in her post, “Heat Lightning.”  After recently celebrating my 60th birthday, regret, opportunity, and subsequent reinvention are on my mind as well.

While I have enjoyed the editing project, it has also left me a bit restless and frustrated with myself. After all this time, I still do not approach my own writing with the kind of purpose and drive that is present when I a) have a job that pays or b) have a publication deadline.

I am easily distracted and undisciplined, and all too ready to push my own creative work aside in favor of fulfilling other pressing and not-so-pressing tasks and commitments.

Hmmm, which comes first washing the dishes or doing some writing?

Hmmm, which comes first washing the dishes or doing some writing?

That’s the regret.

The opportunity and reinvention reside in my ability to change that. I need to commit to my writing with as much vigor as I have given my exercise regime. No one makes me go to the pool, yet for the past six years, even while commuting to a full-time job, I have been swimming at the local pool three times a week. This past winter, no matter how cold or snowy, unless the roads were impassable, or the gym was closed, I was in the pool every Monday, Wednesday and Friday between 1:30 and 2:15 pm without fail. It’s an addiction. I don’t feel right if I don’t go. If I pursued writing with the same discipline, it would become another healthy addiction.

A friend told me the other day, that with a few rare exceptions, she doesn’t follow people she doesn’t know on Instagram. As a busy person who spends plenty of time working in front of a computer screen, she has good reason for this. The Internet can be a huge distraction and time waster.

In her New York Times op-ed, “How to Find Your Place in the World After Graduation,”  Pamela Druckerman, advises that the creative process benefits from a little boredom,

You need to be blank, and even a little bit bored, for your brain to feed you ideas. … A lot of life consists in the dead time in between events. Don’t fill these interstitial moments with pornography and cat videos.

She is right about needing blank time as well as the pornography and cat videos — to which I can plead “Not Guilty!” with a clear conscience. Yet I do follow a lot of people I haven’t met on Instagram and in other places — Robinson and Wolfe among them. In fact, if I wasn’t such a busybody and cheerleader of other people’s work and ideas, I’d never have any subjects for my “Talking Art” column.

And, I would have missed out on this video, about Kirra Jamison, a Melbourne artist. It has reminded me of something I’ve known for a good long time and have heard from several other creative people, but have not done for myself.

As the video follows Jamison through her morning routine, which involves rising at six a.m., walking her dog in a nearby park, and then riding her bike to a yoga class — all before heading into her studio, she notes,

I’ve learned not to wait for inspiration, but to create a framework for it.

She says her routine grounds her for the rest of the day and gets her in the zone to start working, concluding that,

Having a routine and showing up day after day without fail is the most important thing.

Naturally this looks very appealing when done by an attractive 30-something who lives in a gorgeous live/work space and has no one else to negotiate her time with beyond her dog. But still, every writer and artist I’ve known or read about has this kind of discipline.

My close friend, Martha Nichols, who tops the masthead at Talking Writing, for example, has been an early riser for years, grabbing that quiet time to read and write before the family descends for breakfast. Another friend, the novelist Jane Ward is also an early riser for the same reason.

In her heart-wrenching 2010 memoir, Let’s Take the Long Way Home, former Boston Globe book critic Gail Caldwell describes her typical work day, which back then included a certain amount of desk time before a long afternoon dog walk with her (now deceased) friend and writer, Caroline Knapp. The book, by the way, is a beautiful testimonial to friendship and to dogs. I highly recommend it to anyone who cares about either.

In her new book, Hold Still, photographer Sally Mann describes a typical day in her studio, which has a specific sequence and involves long hours that often extend into the night.

Robinson, whose blog, Lost in Arles, has hundreds of loyal followers and garners a couple dozen comments for each post, recently told me in a comment that she pushes herself to post every Tuesday and Friday. Even if an idea isn’t readily available, that framework helps her make it happen.

In addition to a set routine, all of these people are self-driven and committed to their “own” work in a way that I am not.  Not yet, anyway. The concept of creating a framework for inspiration has captured my attention as something that I really could do. And now that I’ve entered my seventh decade, feels more important than ever.

Without changing my existing routine one iota, the first step is to set a period of time every day —no matter what else is going on — when both my phone and my Web browser are switched off. Step two is making that time my designated “frame” for letting my mind go blank before thinking, reflecting, and writing.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

What about you? How do you get yourself into the right headspace for creative work?

Signs of Spring

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It is an April evening sometime in the past, and I am standing outside on my back deck. The air is chilly, but it has lost much of winter’s cutting edge. As the light slowly fades, I am suddenly awash in waves of sound. It is the high-pitched trilling of the spring peepers.

Hallelujah, spring is here!

I’m a spring baby. My March 21st birthday falls either on or adjacent to the official first day of spring. But living in New England, I scoff at those who believe in Punxsutawney Phil’s February prediction, or even the date on the calendar. Spring’s arrival is much later and more nuanced than all of that.

In fact, long, hard experience tells me that waking up on my birthday means I’ll be facing another 4-6 weeks of winter. It often isn’t until late April or even early May that I can bear to shed the layers of wool, fleece, and cashmere that protect my neck, hands, and ankles from cold, outdoor air.

When spring finally does arrive, the first buds appear slowly, almost reluctantly, until they gradually gain momentum and then, like the peepers’ loud and insistent declaration, the season asserts itself all at once in a flush of cheery, Easter egg colors.

The earliest signs of spring have gained a more personal meaning over the twenty odd years I’ve lived in my house just west of Boston. Their yearly return has become a reminder of my own resilience.

It begins with the daffodils. When we first moved here, they were far from my favorite flower. Yet I’d dutifully buy several bunches of the straight, yellow-tipped stalks when they arrived at the office each spring during the American Cancer Society’s annual campaign.

I’d plunge them into a vase of water, set them on my desk, and pretty soon the buds would open into daffy yellow schnozzes that reminded me of mole snouts, or some exotic creature from Down Under.

Then, one September I bought some narcissus bulbs — their more restrained colors and less prominent proboscises made them seem more sophisticated than the lowly daffodil. I planted them alongside a patch of day lilies and promptly forgot about them.

That winter, I had a health scare that required an unexpected medical intervention in late March. A few weeks later, I noticed the dark green stalks of narcissus pushing up through the frosty soil. “Welcome to the other side,” they seemed to say. My shoulders relaxed and for the first time in many weeks, I believed that I’d be okay.

Six years later, there was another medical procedure — this time a surgery in early December, scheduled months in advance. Remembering how much the last batch of bulbs had meant to me, I bought an even bigger bag that fall, and planted them under a willow tree in full view of the kitchen window. The act was a promise to myself. I would make it through the tough winter to come and when the plants emerged from the ground, I’d be here to welcome them.

Eight years later, it is April again. A few weeks ago, I celebrated my 60th birthday, and right now I am standing outside on my back deck. Until just recently, the yard was knee-deep in snow. Today, however, I can see clumps of green shoots around the base of the old willow tree, and I strain my ears, eagerly listening for the opening notes of the peepers’ joyful chorus.

When I hear it, I’ll know. Spring is here.

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This post was written in response to An April Invitation at Women’s Voices for Change.