I have only just begun Mary Pipher’s new book, Women Rowing North, but I already know it’s timely. For one thing, while I’m still playing on the floor with my youngest grandsons, it takes me longer to get back up. The day I never gave a thought to before, is now in my awareness: it won’t be tomorrow, but someday I’m going to have to stay in the chair.

By our sixties,” Pipher writes “we may think the way we did in our forties, but our bodies don’t act that age…Until we understand how short life is, many of us make the mistake of thinking our routines will go on forever.

In December, I had my annual Medicare wellness exam and the blood test showed I was “borderline pre-diabetic.” And some borderline something was going on with my liver. I was shocked. There were a few degrees of separation from a full-blown problem, no panic needed, but I have rarely had a negative anything in a health exam. The picture of good health is what I have come to expect.

For the liver function: less alcohol and no Tylenol. For the glucose levels: reduce carbs to 20 grams per meal and, though they didn’t say, cut added sugar. I have been meaning to lose weight, you know how that goes. Now I had a more dire incentive than just wanting my pants to fit.

I started reading about foods with carbs, reading labels in the grocery store, and asking Alexis for a carb count before I put something on my plate. Foods I thought were healthy are high carb (low fat yogurt and granola, fruit); foods I thought were less healthy are low carb (eggs, cheese, butter; fat counteracts carbs, eat bacon, pair cheese with the apple, use full fat yogurt and whole milk in coffee). My favorite foods are terrible (anything in a tortilla; get low-carb ones). I decided to educate myself and eat smarter rather than go all crazy with a regimented diet and see what that got me when I went back for another blood test. I would adjust as needed.

Remember the first rule of the wilderness,” Pipher points out, “Don’t panic.

As for the liver thing, I never use Tylenol, which only left wine, the only alcohol I regularly consume. Nor do I drink white, which is higher carb, so I couldn’t just switch to red. My options for improvement were limited. I reduced my four-ounce nightly glass to three, and skipped some days; and made sure it had at least a 14% alcohol content (also lower carb count). I did not give up my Sunday night pizza (though I switched to wheat crust) or my weekly café bagel with blog writing (changing to full fat cream cheese, which is just flat out counter intuitive).

Two months later, when I returned to the phlebotomist for a follow-up blood draw, I asked to weigh myself on the same scale I’d been on in December. I had lost 15 pounds. Yehaw! The blood test results showed my glucose and liver function were back in normal range. Phew!

It was a wake-up call, and I’m awake now. I’m grateful. My new normal: pay attention to what I put in my mouth; I am rowing north, and I’m not going to float back downstream for the duration. I have stopped assuming I am going to continue to enjoy good health without any effort.

I heard an interview with Mary Pipher on NPR. She said the verb in the title of her book is rowing, not floating, because those of us on this river are going to have to do some work.

I returned to my mother’s garden two weeks ago. I hoed out more weeds and moss—discovering pretty much the whole bed has moss right under the surface, which I left—and decided to cover it with mulch for this season. Maybe next year I will add new soil…or someone will. For now, at least it looks less like an abandoned DMZ. We’ll see if any perennials return.

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The edging I ordered came this week; more work, but it will look even better!

After hauling and spreading twenty-two bags of mulch, my left trapezius muscle was screaming the next day. You know, that one at the shoulder blade that makes it possible to move your arm and neck? Nearly two weeks later, after twice daily ibuprofen, heat and cold, and the massage ball, it still keeps me awake at night, pain radiates down my arm and into my neck by day. I might have to take stronger steps. I’m discovering how energy sapping even relatively mild chronic pain is. I have new respect for the polymyalgia my father suffered. Yes indeed, rowing north.

Here at the end of March, I can no longer deny the arrival of spring tasks. Last weekend, I readied some of the raised beds in the garden. I even amended the soil with one part each vegetable matter compost, vermiculite, and peat…well, peat substitute, I can’t lift the bag of peat. I never do that. I’m more of an “if it grows, it grows on its own” kind of gardener; which is to say, not really a gardener. I don’t know what got into me.

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I weeded more of the boxes than I had planned to though, and wore out before I got the early seeds in the ground. Yesterday I reluctantly dragged myself out ahead of the rain. I planted lettuce, spinach, kale (I’m going to force myself to like it this year), carrots, parsnips, and beets. Then I went back in the house and, as the rain began in a perfect synchronicity of seeding and watering, I took a nap before building what will possibly be the last fire of the season. If no-guilt naps are part of the trip north, I’m not all that displeased. Like Adrian is discovering, it’s a balancing act. (See how I got a photo of my grandson in?)

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I’ve been waiting for years for a good place to tell a story my friend Elizabeth shared with me. She had been seated on a plane next to a 98-year-old former Ziegfeld Follies “girl.” In their conversation, she told her rather impatiently:

You’re always the person you were when you were born; you just keep finding new ways to express it.

Attitude may not be everything, but it’s a lot, Pipher says. Attitude, gratitude, resilience: the superpowers of those of us who really can’t claim to be middle aged any more. Having spent the last nearly six years of end of life with my mother, I am not completely in the wilderness. I have a bit of a road map. Though being a companion on the route she took, I may take a somewhat different one for myself. Resilience was her superpower, but she struggled with attitude and gratitude.

The weeds are out of the garden boxes, but the enclosure is still a mess. It needs to be mowed, the bricks are asunder—thanks to the mole (also all the mole tunnel entrances are exposed, making for a Swiss cheese sort of effect)—but all that will have to wait. I’m busy rowing. And napping. And being grateful that I am able to live in this place for now. I don’t need to see the whole picture, just enjoy what’s in front of me.

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15 thoughts on “Rowing North

  1. Having just celebrated my 69th trip last month, I literally felt every word you wrote about the trip north… and the raised ALT/AST levels… how to do that balancing act, when I am literally losing my balance. I may have to grab that book and see what lies ahead (assuming she is older than I am) or what milestones are in my rear view mirror, and if I learned anything rowing around that farther bend. But the trip… never lose sight of the trip!

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    1. Mary Pipher is 71 and has some health issues. I hope the book is helpful. I’m just getting started on it. It’s always good to not feel alone on the trip. Her previous book helped me tremendously when I was caring for my mother; and Reviving Ophelia when I was raising a daughter. Indeed, “never lose sight of the trip.” Thank you for writing.

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  2. Of course you are a gardener. Allowing all those things to be as they are, to grow as they will, is what separates gardeners from all others. Just as overthinking never solves a problem, overworking will never grow a garden. Attention and care will yield the best result, right ? Same with your body. Same with your beautiful grandsons. I think you’ve got it exactly right ♡ ( And I hope you’re right about napping being a part of that trip north )

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  3. You have to watch those Medicare wellness exams. My first one resulted in a leukemia diagnosis. Fortunately it is now under control. This getting older is certainly no fun. I caught a cold at the beginning of January and was quite sick for two months. The resulting reduced physical activity has had a huge effect on my mobility.. I hiked in Acadia National Park every day in December and was feeling great. Now it is a struggle to get out of my chair because my knees have stiffened up significantly. A two hour hike in Acadia earlier on Sunday left me almost a cripple on Monday. Good on you for taking immediate action. I do suggest switching to half and half for your coffee. It is so much nicer.

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    1. Yikes! That’s not good! Are you using trekking poles? I swear by them.

      As for half and half, it’s better carb wise, but I don’t like it in coffee. I am enjoying the switch from 2% to whole however, though I was perfectly happy with 2%.

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  4. My first glance at the “before” of the slope garden made me think of a Monet waterlily painting. Something about the lavender heather, the green and gray, and the shadow.

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  5. Well the type 2 diabetes hit me at menapause along with the diagnoses of Celiac. Still struggling with the sugar. But my doctor is happy with the ten lbs lost on a tour of Portugal. She says to keep traveling, even if by myself. Next trip is driving 21 days in southern England. I will miss my 74 year old mother who in my first driving trip kept saying, “you’re going too fast” (35 in the hills of Scotland on a highway). I never did figure out the speed limit. I will just put up with the GPS saying “recalculating”.

    And keeping the AC1 at 5/6 is no longer as rigorously held as the standard. She is happy if I kept it at the same level. (At least until the blood work from this week is done and in her hands). We shall see.

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    1. Good luck! And happy travels. I love a road trip, but my 30 minute drive today was not fun; the weight of my arm pulling on my shoulder about did me in. I got a massage this evening, going back tomorrow.

      My sister has type 2 diabetes; I surely hope to knock it on its keister before it grabs hold.

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  6. I’ve found that my blood sugar is particularly sensitive to lack of exercise. I’m still struggling to get it back down where it belongs after eating everything in sight over Christmas, followed by the forced inactivity during the snow. I had just gotten it to behave by the first of February, and then, BAM, I had to stay in the house (because I am terrified of breaking a hip in a fall) when we had icy, snowy weather. Until the past couple of weeks you hadn’t had an opportunity to get out and walk much either.

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    1. It was a stay inside February, wasn’t it? My “diagnosis” was in December though, and it was the end of February when it was back where it should be. 🧐 I try to get to yoga once a week, even when I don’t want to. And I am thinking about possibly trying to do a simple home yoga practice every day, maybe. Or walking up and down the stairs 10 times a couple times a day. Or walk in the woods every day. Or some darn thing.

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