For Barbara…

It’s never easy to hear that someone you care about has died, especially if you’ve kept that person alive in your mind for a long time because a good fiction is sometimes better (well, maybe not better, but certainly easier) than the truth. For more than four years I’ve told myself that my friend Barbara probably moved away from her apartment in Edina (Minnesota) in 2015 and forgot to send me her new address.

I met Barbara in the spring semester of 1996. I was finishing my degree at Augsburg College in Minneapolis and she was my advanced nonfiction writing professor. She’d come out of retirement to teach the course, however “retirement” for Barbara, then 70, was hardly like most of us imagine.

We became friends that semester, and when I moved back to Pennsylvania later that year, we began a once-a-year correspondence that lasted nearly twenty years. Every Christmas, we sent each other a letter detailing the events of our year. Some went on for pages, and hers often read like mini-memoirs. Hands down she led the more exciting life. She traveled the world, each year to a new country, and when she was 80, she climbed Kilimanjaro.

In the early 2010s, when she was in her late 80s, her handwriting became more difficult to decipher and her once long correspondence filled only the blank inside of a Christmas card, but her tone never changed. She was always upbeat and joy-filled, never a word of complaint.

Except for the sympathy card I sent her in 2011 after I read in that year’s letter that her cat of nearly twenty years had died, we didn’t respond to each other’s letters except at Christmas. That was part of the unspoken understanding of our friendship. We were bound and committed (almost in defiance of the pithy nature of email) to writing once-a-year epistles that were meaty, vivid, dense, and time consuming, both in writing and reading. I looked forward to her letters with almost childlike anticipation, the kind that Christmas invokes, and I always saved her previous year’s letter to refresh my memory before reading the new one. I also mentally crafted my letter throughout the year, noting the big stuff, of course, but more importantly, the little things, like the details of a moment working in the garden or rocking a grandchild, a habit she stressed all writer wannabes should adopt.

In 2015, I was excited to tell her that, at 52, I’d started a master’s program in composition and literature, and that my decision was largely based on her example of not letting age define her. My letter wasn’t returned to sender, but neither did I receive a letter from her. My first thought was that she had become physically unable to write anymore, so I resolved that I would keep up my end of the correspondence. In 2017, when again I didn’t receive a letter, I allowed myself to think, for a few seconds, that maybe she had died, but I chose not to find out. I kept her 2014 letter in my Christmas card basket, just in case, and I imagined she was living somewhere, perhaps in Ireland, with a new cat.

Writing the Acknowledgement page for my book* last week, I included Barbara, and in typing her name, I knew it was time for the truth. I wrote an email to the alumni association at Augsburg and they forwarded it to a professor in the English department, someone I knew vaguely from back in the day. In his email this morning, he confirmed that Barbara died in 2015 after several months in hospice care.

As I formally grieve my friend, I remember and honor the role she played in my writing life, not only through her teaching and encouragement, but in how she lived and wrote about her life. Her writing was exemplary, often a model for some of my columns and blogs. While she is no longer here in the flesh, her influence will be with me for as long as I write.

Still, I will always miss her most at Christmas.

* Tentative release date for my first book is December. I will have more information about it in the upcoming months.

This One Has No Title

Turned 57 on August 14.

As if 2020 hasn’t been weird enough, these last few weeks have been particularly weird. Maybe weird isn’t the right word. I’ll keep writing and see if a more appropriate word becomes apparent.

It’s been a hodgepodge of things – both that I’ve made happen and naturally occurring – that have kept me on my toes. First off, my liver has decided it’s not happy with my food and drink choices of the last year or two – and I don’t blame it one bit! – so I’m on the wagon, both nutritionally and in the imbibing department.

Not drinking alcohol is kind of weird since it has been part of my routine for years. I don’t miss it physically or psychologically, as in I don’t crave it. In fact, I have way more energy and I sleep better. It’s the social aspect of it I miss. Drinking sparkling water with lime, which I love, isn’t the same as sharing a bottle of wine with my partner or making and consuming homemade basil gimlets with my daughters.

The food part has been a more difficult adjustment than the alcohol. I prefer white rice over brown, white pasta over whole wheat, and ice cream over sorbet. I know, this isn’t how I used to eat; this isn’t the me you might have “met” back in the Lynn’s Weigh days. But over the last few years I’ve basically – honestly and in a nut shell – not cared. Perhaps it was the years of restrictive eating, perhaps it was menopause, perhaps it’s living with a foodie. Whatever the reasons, the choices were mine and the “blame” falls squarely on me.

Unlike fifteen years ago, though, I’m not going to share my numbers or food woes, concerns or successes. I’m just gonna clean up my liver quietly and do my best to be a healthier fifty-seven-year-old (although I reserve the right to write around it here once in a while).

I bought a scale. I haven’t owned one in six years, and I haven’t been on one since October when I was last at the doctor’s office. You can’t weigh someone during a telemedicine visit, so I figured I’d better get one so I can update my doctor on my progress. Not that losing weight is the primary goal, but that’s what will ultimately happen in the long run as I “eat clean.”

I never look at the number on the scale at the doctor’s office, and I don’t look at the after-appointment summary which lists my weight, height, blood pressure, etc. I had a pretty good idea what I weighed, which I assumed has remained the same for years since all my clothes fit, but I needed to know the number. I looked up my last summary online and yes, it was what I thought. Not horrible, but a change will do my body good.

While my weight hasn’t changed, my height has! In my thirties, I was five feet, five and a half inches, and maybe a hair more. When I shrunk to five feet, five inches in, oh…2009 I think, my doctor ordered a bone density scan. Turned out that, in my mid-forties, I had the bones of a thirty year old. People shrink was the explanation my doctor gave me. Now, eleven years later, I am five feet, four and a half inches. Is it because I have new hips that I lost another half inch? If not, at this rate, I’ll need a car seat when I’m eighty!

Speaking of new hips, I officially own my left hip. I paid off the hospital today, thirteen months after my surgery. Not that I was worried that they’d repossess, but given this crazyass year, anything is possible.

Something I’ve noticed the last few weeks – as I’ve contemplated my liver and height and getting older – is that I’m more pessimistic than I realized, and I don’t think I can blame it on the pandemic. I’m not quite Eeyore, but I’m further away from the optimist I was at forty. I’ve noticed that at 3 a.m., when I do my worst thinking, I’m having even longer stretches of bad thinking before I break it up and remember that I can deal with / handle / change / work through whatever it is I’m turning over and over (and over) in my head at that moment.

For instance, last night I was all worried about the three-month subscription for smoothie powders my daughter bought me. Twenty different flavors arrived in the mail on Saturday. I was excited to try them, so I made one yesterday, mixing my milk of choice (an unsweetened nut milk) with the packet of powder. When I brought the bottle to my mouth, however, my gag reflexes went on high alert. I tried four times to drink it before dumping it down the sink. Maybe it was the milk I used, but if I’m going to try that particular flavor again, I’m going to need to bury it in something that will mask the smell, sort of like throwing lime on a deer carcass.

These powders aren’t cheap, and that was at the heart of my middle-of-the-night concern. “I don’t want to waste money. Oh, what’s the use, I’ll never get it right…” that kind of thing. But I just have to keep trying. That’s it. That’s the solution. Keep trying. Don’t give up before I’ve exhausted every possibility. You’d think I’d know that by now since that’s the solution to most obstacles we face in life.

Despite being old enough to get a ten-percent discount at Perkins, I’m not too old to employ new strategies for incorporating more positive self-talk than comes natural for me. I’ve enlisted the help of the Gratitude app. (You can find it on Google Play or the App Store. The logo is an orange square with a simple heart flower in the center.) It’s private, so no one can read your business, and it includes writing an affirmation every day. Today my affirmation was, “I am a writer, and today I will act accordingly.”

So here you go, a bit of writing that I hope, as always, will resonate with at least one person, because being alone in our thoughts and circumstances is a difficult way to live. I told you about my liver and height and the fact that it took me over a year to pay off a hospital bill because it helps to know, even if I don’t get feedback from anyone, that someone read through to the end, and maybe now they don’t feel quite as alone anymore, either.

I still haven’t come up with a better word than “weird,” so I’ll leave it at that. It’s been a weird few weeks, but nothing I can’t handle.