My first autumn

In the picture, Grandma Susie is feeding me with a spoon. It’s a well-framed picture, her own left shoulder at the left edge of the picture, my face in the top half of the center line, framed by her arm holding the spoon, and behind me on the table a bowel of fruit. I’m looking over the spoon toward the camera. Grandma’s smile is visible around the side of her face. A lovely domestic scene.

What draws my eye, though, is not the tender moment, but trying to figure out what print that is on her shirt. Are those early typewriters with interspersed flowers? Or some sort of cash register?

That’s not to say I don’t love the sweet way Grandma is feeding baby me, but I don’t feel a gravitational pull toward toward the domestic bliss. Non-parenting was a good choice for me.

The next blog post in that month shows just how quickly people forget the scourges that once assaulted us. An immunization record I found says I got my first vaccine against Polio on that day.

Last in this month is a happy baby (me) at about 3 months old under a very nice baby blanket. Vague resemblance to me, but if the picture was unlabeled, I wouldn’t know it was. Still, a happy baby indeed.

Let’s go on to the next month. Visiting the other grandparents (my father’s), I’m much bigger, but still pretty floppy as humans go. I’m shown in a clever garment my mother made, basically what amounts to a sleeping bag with sleeves and hood. And, as my mother noted on Flickr when we were discussing the picture, “a zipper down the front for changes”. I could wiggle without kicking off what was keeping me warm. Pretty great for a pre-crawling person. I am still not to my present eye identifiably me.

A photo of my father looking at me as he props me up in his lap. I gaze up at him open mouthed, apparently fascinated. His expression in profile though is calm and neutral. Maybe all faces are subjects of intense interest to four month old babies. He sits on a bench, a photo on the wall behind him of his mother holding him as a baby. Above his head the photo of a past beloved dog and other family pictures are visible in the distance on the knotted pine wall.

When I think about the 21 year old men I’ve known throughout my life, I know that it would be extremely exceptional for one to be ready to make this life choice. I’m delighted to exist, don’t get me wrong! But I do wonder what the lives of those two very different people who came together to—surprise!—make me might have been if I hadn’t come along. My sympathy for those young folks is on the side of being able to have an ordinary college romance, learn from it and move on. Now I know my mother at least gained a great deal from the path of parenthood and I’m sure she wouldn’t have turned back the clock and caused me not to exist. My father felt enormous responsibility toward me, I believe, and genuinely liked me as a fellow human. But he wasn’t cut out for marriage and parenthood so young—few are!—and if he could somehow have known that I could be me and exist as a person while he side-stepped into a different time path, I think he might have. I do not think it would have made as much difference as he might have hoped, but perhaps the opportunity to engage more with his restlessness while young would have helped his journey in later years.

Then a photo of me in a dress made for my maternal grandfather’s christening in 1915. Right arm in motion, tongue sticking out a bit, probably kicking under the long white dress. A perfectly good baby. And many copies of this picture were passed around in the family. I came upon three and my uncle gave me a scan of the copy he had.

Another photo, perhaps from the same day, in a different little white dress, this one more gauzy, with silky ribbons, echoed in the cuffs of my socks. Very fancy outfits for photo day. I continue to wiggle happily. I look a bit Japanese in this photo. One of my eyes still retains more epicanthal fold than the other.

The next photo—three copies of it—has me in my little zipper-front sleeping bag outfit looking positively triumphant about being held up in a sitting position (by Grandma, I think, judging by the watch).

Naked (but mostly concealed by my mother’s arm) baby me looks at the camera as I’m lifted onto a towel after a bath in a big kitchen sink. There’s a toaster behind me.

A slightly eerie picture of me, possibly after bath with wet hair, laying on a plaid cloth, stuffed animal just slipping out the left side of the picture as I make claws with my hands.

The next picture looks more to me like a baby picture of my childhood friend Rick than of me. Grandma Susie holds me on her lap smiling. She’s wearing a flannel nightgown or housedress with lace around the flat collar. She is smiling and looking down to see my reaction as the photographer gets my attention. I’m a chubby-cheeked, somewhat sleepy looking baby here.

Still I don’t really see myself in these four-month-old baby faces. Well, maybe a little glimmer in the one where I’m being lifted. Something about the shape of the eye. Dinah just beginning to come through.

Women and babies and time

Continuing my meditations on the oldest (retroblogged) posts on my blog, I visit the month after I was born.

A picture of my mother, 21 but looking 16, with a wiggling, dark-haired infant in her lap. Holding it (me) nervously as if it might give a sudden lurch like a fish and flip out of her lap. Summertime and we’re both warm. I can see bits of her hair sticking to her cheek, damp despite short sleeves and a skirt that stops above the knee.

A magnificent picture of my great-grandmother, seated in her pearls and a sedate blue-and-gray check short-sleeve dress, holding me in her two hands my feet on her legs and my head raised so she can gaze intently at me. I am so new; pale, plump, and pink. I contrast with her skinny, aged arms, spotted by time and sun, but strong enough for this burden. Her gray hair and the outline of the bones of her skull under her skin place her at the other end of life’s timeline from tiny Dinah. (And now I am far closer to her end than to where this little baby began.) What a thing for the first generation to look the fourth in the face! And how many babes had this woman held in her journey from the end of the 19th century through the tumult over the first six and a half decades of the 20th? Did she want children? Not much option not to have them until not long before this picture. And so she became a wife and a mother and a grandmother and a great-grandmother. A great accomplishment. What other things might she have done if she’d been blessed with the options I have?

On the way to the restaurant where I’m having a late lunch with my laptop, I passed babes in arms and strollers. What options will they have that I didn’t?

I return to the picture. Behind her black folding chair, a cinderblock and board bookcase—Ikea has removed most of those from today’s visual landscape—holding books, many of which are likely still to be on the shelves of my mother’s library. At the end of the top shelf a fancy candlestick—perhaps a wedding gift?—which I recall sitting with its mate on the big wooden sideboard in our kitchen.

To her left, behind my head in the picture, a graceful old piece of furniture with a curved front. Drawers below like a dresser, with a writing desk above. I remember this being beside my mother’s side of my parents’ bed, painted a green reminiscent of weathered copper. And I can’t now picture it anywhere else; I wonder what happened to it? I think all of us must have outgrown it and it didn’t move when they retired. They sold the huge, rambling house I grew up in “as is” and so many things stayed there. Released from our lives.

There is in the picture something big and black atop the back of the desk. My 21st century eye reads it as a wireless speaker, but of course it’s many decades too early for such a thing. A dark black box of paper or wood, with a latch on the front. Perhaps for holding letters and bills and stamps. I was born in the time of paper.

White and pale pink leap out from the picture: her shiny handbag, the outline of a book inside pressing against the soft side; my little baby dress (probably closed at the bottom to keep my feet contained); her pearls; the paper of the newer books on the shelf.

My little right hand is captured in a gesture, middle fingers together, pinky and index held out from the others. Cryptic, but emphatic.

And isn’t that just the nature of infants? Cryptic, but emphatic.

One last picture from this month: my mother and I entranced with each other. She is seated in a narrow armchair, hair in an updo that’s well on the way to a bouffant, wearing the long-sleeve plaid dress again. I am in her lap, resting on her legs, her feet tucked to the side together, ladylike. I look up at her eyes and mouth wide, hands raised, excited to exist and perceive. She is probably talking to me, saying my name, perhaps the name I wear now, perhaps the one that will soon be abandoned as not quite fitting this little bundle. She appears more confident about holding me; mothers learn fast.

I smile in appreciation at that love pouring down on me from her face, and now I close the old photo album, marking those posts private.

Oh, it IS a baby!

The oldest month of posts showing on my site as I start this post are from when I was born. First image: a tiny, round-faced human, sort of identifiable as me but I bet I’d have trouble picking it out of a line-up of similar babies. Strange to know what you looked like the day you were born.

Pictures of my young mother in hospital holding me. Her hair in a sort of bonnet to keep it out of her way, gazing down at the bundle in her arms. There is a giant bouquet of roses on the table beside her.

From the next day, my mother—and oh how her face in this picture is like the one I saw in the mirror at that age—seated in a chair and wearing a very big loose robe, gazing up at her mother, dressed for summer in a flowered, sleeveless shirt, a handbag on her arm. My grandmother is saying something; perhaps advice to a new parent.

A washed out picture of a baby in a diaper in a hospital bassinet, labeled with the name I was given at birth, but which was quickly displaced by “Dinah” (to which I legally changed my name at age 18).

I was assigned the sex “Female” at birth—it’s worked out fine, but seems over hasty to me from the perspective of 2019—and I was 6 pounds 10 ounces. This document has my little footprints. I am a hominid, all right. I theorize that they did the left foot first and I did not approve, so the right foot is all pressed down and the toes are curled.

Sometime late that month I was at home in a little white crib, in a room with blue light. I was a reasonably cute baby. I shared this picture on Flickr and my mother told a story of how they put together the crib wrong and the bottom fell out and I rolled out. No harm done except to cause some new mother panic.

There is a series of pictures of me being presented to my great-grandmother a week or two later. My mother is wearing a dark plaid dress, my father a light blue plaid shirt, rather rumpled. Neither looks well-rested. My mother’s father’s mother is wearing pearls and a neat little white short sleeve dress with a round white collar with a black bow on the front. The dress has a pattern of vertical stripes of patterns of something small, perhaps flowers. Narrow strip of white, double wide strip of pattern, and so on. I am wearing a swaddling cloth sort of arrangement and demonstrating my ability to stick out my tongue—blep—while clinging to someone’s fingers with my tiny right hand.

One of the pictures shows my terribly young father bemused as I apparently refuse to let go of his finger and my mother gazing adoringly at him as he gazes at me. For an unplanned adventure, they did pretty well with me.

Oh my goodness. I wonder if the little saucepan in this next picture of my mother’s mother holding me in the kitchen is the one I just put into the Goodwill box yesterday for Discardia. I think not, but it certainly could be. I am staring over her shoulder right into the camera, though I don’t know enough about babies to know if I’d even be able to focus on anything farther away than a face right over me at 10 days old.

None of these pictures fill me with a desire to have children or any regret that I chose not to. I’m very grateful for the life, to be sure, but I have ducked any sense of responsibility to carry on the genetic pattern.

And that’s probably a good thing. Humankind can do with a good deal less multiplying. Most of our challenges will be easier to solve with fewer of us. What an interesting world that will be. Makes me want to stick around another century, if I’m not in too much pain.

Thinking of the far future, I am smiling as I close the door and mark these posts private to cast the past into quiet darkness. Like putting the lid on a box, setting it in the back of a drawer, and closing the drawer, then walking off whistling.

Well, it’s been two decades, let’s mix it up a bit

I’ve been blogging on my site for over 21 years. I feel really good about doing a project for that long and am going to continue doing it.

From the fall of 1998 it has been a stream of reverse-chronological posts and in general it has been expansive; bringing content I created elsewhere into the timestream of posts.

Today I am beginning something new, the slow shuttering of the earliest posts (which are retroblogging I added to represent my life before 1998) as I add new posts.

A wedding once

In the oldest post I created in my retroblogging on this site, the photo shows half a century ago a young (so young) wedding couple marching up the aisle of a church after their ceremony.

Both are barely out of their teens, about halfway through their 20th years. She is a classic, picture-perfect bride. The gauzy veil of childhood flipped back after that first kiss as a wife. Her delicate neck and collarbones in this setting not the gangly body of a teen kid, but a young woman’s beauty. The yards of white fabric of her gown requiring her to hold the skirt up with one hand, as the other, wedding ring on her finger, loops through my grinning father’s arm. The raised hem reveals the little white shoes. My father is dressed in a dark suit—the photo is black and white, so whether it is black or very dark is uncertain—with a small, precise bow tie and a light fluffy boutonniere. Formalwear worn with style. (And I think of this in contrast to the uniform of his later life, baseball hats, t-shirts, wood-stain-speckled jeans.) His smile glows. His hands are graceful. The picture-perfect groom.

It is a moment capturing having Done It Right.

I am in this picture, though you cannot see me. And that’s another part of doing it right; the ticking clock of my mother’s pregnancy. December wedding, July baby. The nick of time.

Around them are the beautiful lines of the church I knew from all my visits to my mother’s parents. That sweetly elegant little central valley Methodist church with its soaring arches. The heavy wooden pews, built to withstand a century of use. The thick padded carpets on the aisles. The choir loft above the entry so that the voices could emerge high above and behind you as you faced the altar.

I remember the shuffling of feet, the coughing, before and between the parts of the Sunday service. My child feet not reaching the floor. My wise and whimsical grandfather perhaps sliding me a couple 3″x5″ cards from his breast pocket and a little pencil from beside the offering envelopes in the pew-back holders. The music. The words of ritual. The simple, sweeping togetherness of the Doxology.

I do not recall ever believing in God, even as a child. But I dearly love many who do, and the lessons they shared with me both formally in church services and casually in daily life have been essential to my moral foundation. Do as you would be done by. Care for those who need. Work for peace. Recognize our shared humanity even in faces most different from your own. Do not hoard your blessings, but multiply them by letting them flow forth from you.

That sweet little church remains dear in my memories. Though I confess, part of its dearness is the exhilarating freedom I had in exploring it on non-service days as my grandparents performed various supportive tasks. Playing in the Sunday School rooms without any other person around. Finding all the doors between its various rooms upstairs and down in its U-shape, of which the church-proper was only one arm. Playing behind the closed curtain or out in the open, conditions depending, of the raised stage at the end of the big Community Hall. Running the Hall’s length to its big kitchen to check on whatever my grandparents and other volunteers were doing there. It was a thoroughly grand place to be an adventurous little kid.

There are other pictures in this oldest blog post. My mother in classic pose, veil down, bouquet in hands, skirts fluffed and arranged to maximum circumference. Her face is like a merged photo of a child and an adult. Lipstick lips and a strong jaw smiling below a button nose and wide eyes.

The two of them together. Happy and excited, but with some anxiety in their faces. The fingertips of my father’s left hand tucking into the front of his jacket as though he might have just checked his fly. Just in case. I see little of my grandmother in my mother’s face in this picture, but my father wears much of his own father’s look. That shadow was a hard one for him to grow up in; he dreaded turning into his father, and I wonder if the fear of that hindered him finding his own path. Worry that bogged him down so much it became self-fulfilling in some ways.

A photo of them by the cake—unflattering of my father, looking a bit like a mannequin as the camera catches him awkwardly; my mother, gracious, beautiful, perhaps slightly terrified. There is a plate of what I think are three rows of cookies—red, white, green—representing not Mexico or Italy but Christmastime.

The last has them surveying the piles of wrapped presents after a costume change which puts my father in a brown suit and a narrow blue tie and my mother in a chic pink skirt and tall collared jacket.

Here my brain sings “in my copy of a copy of a copy of Dior”, thanks to my mother’s commendable habit of playing good musicals on LP around our house when I was a child.

So there they are, the newly married couple, dressed to the nines, the Community Hall dimly visible behind them, stage curtains open. Here it begins. A direct line from a point below the hem of that perfect little jacket top of my mother’s dress suit to a child singing and telling stories to herself on that stage in an empty room years later.

And perhaps a straight line too, from a musical a couple years later, to my mother deciding a bit over half a decade later there’s gotta be something better than this and getting up getting out and living it.

Close the door then on the scene, with love and appreciation, and change that post to private. Eyes to the present happiness, hearts full.

Examining ‘To-Do’s, past and present

As I wrote on May 17th, I am Creating Space to Be Myself Now. A key part of that, and one which is probably a bit overdue, is letting go of thinking of my old lists of To-Do’s and projects as still current. What I’ve realized is that my experiences of the past few years are so significant that they change my priorities. If I ever decide to activate any of these ideas again—even to put them on a mental backburner with intention of doing them sometime soonish—they will be informed and altered by all that I have learned. That will make them better, should I ever want to do them later.

The first step to allowing new plants to grow is to turn under the old growth and let it turn to compost. I’ve been picking my careful way through a yard overrun with withered branches. Time to prune and put this fertile matter to better use.

The first category of stuff I want to clear away is the To-Do’s I set up for myself about good habits. Everything they tell you about only being able to install one, maybe two, new habits at a time and about it taking four to six weeks to get a habit into daily practice is true. Huge ‘New Year’s Resolutions’ style lists are only useful as a way of giving recognition to change you want to welcome into your life; honor them as that, but don’t try to tick all those boxes off every day.

The two, and only two, habits I want to work on now are about my wellness:

  • Meditate more often, because it eases my anxiety and inflammation.
  • Move more, because it feels good and promotes both my physical and mental health.

There are no other habits waiting in the wing. When these two are automatically happening more days than not, what I need next will present itself to me. I trust my future self to make the right decision.

So where do I have those old lists, clogging up my thinking space? The most obvious of them is the site Habitica, which is a combo of task manager, habit builder, and fantasy game. Fun! And it was useful at one time—my routine now of making the bed every day was formed using this tool—but I overloaded it. And why did I start using it in the first place? Because I’d overloaded the project and task tracker OmniFocus and needed something less overwhelming. Ha!

I still love OmniFocus as a tool, and find it particularly helpful for less frequent tasks (e.g., routine medical checkups; renewing business license) and big projects that take place over weeks, months or years. Since I’ll be keeping it, it’s time to thank Habitica for its service and let it go.

What load was I carrying in Habitica that I’m now setting down? Mostly lots of things that allowed me to check a box and feel like I’d accomplished something.

  • Habits I already have: make the bed, restore general order in the house, do laundry when it needs to be done, wash dishes every day, avoid caffeine, avoid Twitter, usually go to bed at a reasonable time, water the houseplants.
  • Habits I currently want to build, but for which I clearly need to find motivation in some way other than a checkbox: meditation, movement (listed here in many separate parts: strength-building, stretching, aerobic exercise).
  • Other commendable habits that I am not currently choosing to create as a daily part of my life: read all my backlog of books and digital articles, write letters and postcards, check my blood pressure every day (which seems to fall in the category of things that feel like they don’t provide a reward, only the potential for bad news), scan or document old papers or other souvenirs before getting rid of them, volunteer or do other helpful actions for a cause, learn computer game programming, learn another language, keep the area in front of our house swept and looking nice (much harder since fatigue as a side effect of my medications). (Oh yes, and losing weight, which is not a controllable project when your metabolism is being significantly affected by medication; I remembered this when I was unpinning and closing the tab that had Habitica and saw the pinned tab with Lose It! next to it. Not on the list right now. Bye bye!)
  • Pointers to the task list already represented in Omnifocus with encouragement to whittle that pile down.
  • Pointers to my inboxes, paper and digital, with exhortations to empty them. Ditto the stored collections of “to be processed” materials (e.g., genealogy and other family-memorabilia which I’d like to hand off to someone who wants it or document some of it and then let it go).
  • Creative work, which I am now choosing to routinely provide myself opportunities to do rather than assigning to myself as a repeating task. This includes writing, but also curation/sharing on my websites, sewing, D&D gamemastering,

Look at that massive load of expectations of myself I was carrying every single day! That’s way too much. That’s so much it’s just silly!

I am picturing myself laughing at a huge backpack, overstuffed and with all kinds of things hanging off of it on strings. Completely impossible for me to lift, let along hike along for day after day carrying it.

I wipe my eyes clear of happy tears and take the whole thing apart, tossing much of it away. It flies through the air, transforming into moldy applecores and old packed sandwiches, and lands in the trench I’ve dug down my mental garden, ready to be covered over and turn to new soil.

Why and How I Changed Paths

I was diagnosed with the mildest form of a rare autoimmune disorder in fall of 2017, the first symptoms of which had presented themselves at the end of that July. This was just over one year after my biological father had died and I’d suddenly become executor of his estate, and point person for all matters pertaining to cleaning out and selling his run-down and junk-filled little house.

I was prescribed a short dose of prednisone, a steroid which is highly effective at knocking disorders into submission, if not entirely into remission, but very hard on the body’s systems otherwise. I was a whirlwind of activity that fall—adding significant storage and worktable space to our home office most notably, but active on a great many projects in parallel—and the week of steroids only kicked that up a notch. The meds did their job and my symptoms abated. I felt a huge weight lift also as the estate officially closed and, with the scattering of his ashes, my duties as executor came to an end. I turned my attention with relief and eagerness to my own projects, and somewhere inside I began to give myself permission to stop scrambling so hard

Some of that slowing down was just plain stumbling. It was the fatigue of all the hard work I’d been doing and the shocks I’d been weathering, exacerbated by life under the Trump Administration. The anxiety brought on by the past few years—compounded by perimenopause and (though I didn’t understand it well then) the side effects of my medications for my disease—was showing its fraying edges.

Thanks to my years of practicing Discardia, my instincts in times of overwhelm and low mood are good. I began to create space around myself and turn my attention from that which drains me to that which restores my calm. I unfollowed a large amount of my Twitter list, already quite low, to tune my Twitterstream to a generally more positive mood. I returned to my love of games and began thinking about how to create happy, positive, calming games. But I was feeling very tired.

At the very end of December 2017 and in the first days of 2018 I began having symptoms of the more intense form of my autoimmune disorder and my life changed completely. Because my symptoms I had to change major aspects of my daily routine, even after I very rapidly got a confirmed diagnosis and began taking medication—twice the dose of steroids as before. Extreme sensitivity meant I had to change my wardrobe entirely, not only fabrics but the style and fit of clothes. Massive fatigue transformed me from a “these are the 30 things I want to do today, but here are the most important 10” person to a “it was a good day, I got 1 thing done” person. And increased anxiety and overwhelm (plus being on immunosuppressants) further limited my ability to participate in social and political life. The medications distorted my body over the months, bloating my torso and giving me ‘moonface’. But they did work to put the disorder into submission, possibly even remission entirely, though I won’t know until I fully taper off the medications.

And there’s the real challenge. Prednisone works great to knock disorders like mine into submission, but the hell it puts you through along the way is brutal, so you want to take it for as short a time and as low a dose as is possible while remaining effective. Other immunosuppressants like, the post-transplant medication Cellcept, can maintain that symptom suppression with milder side effects (for me mostly bloating and distortion of my lower torso, plus some fatigue). So as soon as my symptoms abated, I added Cellcept to my regimen and began the agonizingly slow process of tapering off prednisone.

You can’t just quit prednisone, you have to wind it down very, very slowly. And because—at the kind of peak dose I was on (40mg/day)—it says to your cortisol system, “Hey, I’ve got this, go take a vacation” you find that side effects continue to be life-disrupting for months and months. I dropped from 40mg a day to 30mg a day of prednisone on February 13, 2018, after taking that highest dose for just four weeks. My taper reached 20mg a day on March 27, 2018, and 10mg a day on May 12, 2018. But it’s that last part that is the most difficult to wean your body off of as you wait—and wait, and wait, and wait—for your cortisol system to wake up again. It’s May 24, 2019, and I am just next week hoping to bring my tapered dose down to 2mg a day.

Had I known then what I know now, I’d have done my taper differently instead of going too fast last summer and winding up needing to spend three months holding at 5mg a day. Now I taper ridiculously gradually by altering my dose within a week. I was at 3mg a day. Then after at least two weeks at that dose, I started taking 2mg instead every third day: 3/3/2. If that is giving me trouble at the end of the first week, I go back to 3mg a day for two weeks before I try it again. If it’s okay, then after two weeks of 3/3/2, I try 3/2/2. That’s where I am now and it’s going well. Next Wednesday I’ll begin a couple weeks of 2mg a day before I evaluate whether I can proceed to 2/2/1. Best case, which I’m learning is unlikely, I’ll be off prednisone in about three months.

Whenever I do finally break free of prednisone, I need to spend at least another month letting its influence leave my system before I can start to consider beginning my Cellcept taper. I’m hopeful (and pretty confident) that that is not nearly as rough a process. But even so, I can expect that the soonest I’ll be living without my body altered by these medications or the presence of this immune system disorder will be over a year from now.

My life has been radically changed for multiple years. My fatigue and anxiety forced me to bring my world to a standstill; to stop the ride so I could get off and evaluate things. And that evaluation and this experience have brought me new skills (meditation and acceptance, most valuably) and clarified priorities. I am not the same person I was, and for all the difficulty, I feel good about who I am now.

Even if I had my old energy and health back this instant, I would not resume the life I had before. I am closer to center than I was and I like that. I continue to work to regain my strength and vigor, but for new priorities. I feel that I am standing in the early morning sun beside a large field, shovel in hand and ready to continue the slow, satisfying work of turning the earth for a garden.