I would like to suggest the perfect gift for everyone you love this holiday season: a red cap. The kind that Jacques Cousteau always wore during the many decades when he was exploring the dark and mysterious corners of the world's oceans. It's a good time of year to wear red, when the world is full of muted shades of grey and brown and green. And the right person might understand the quiet symbolic meaning behind this simple item of headwear.
The other day when I was leaving the hospital I noticed an elderly woman standing near the elevators. She seemed a little confused, so I asked her if I could help. It turned out that she was heading to the exact place in the parking garage as I, so we made the trek together. I learned, as we ventured forth, that her name was Helen and that she lives in Jericho. She had come to the hospital for an eye examination, the kind where they use the drops to dilate things, so I asked her if she was OK to drive home. She laughed and shrugged the whole thing off, explaining to me that she had, indeed, had some troubles with driving not long ago: "I was starting to doze off!" she told me with a smile, "But as long as I stay off the highways, then I'm fine." She was filled with so much confidence and poise that I took what she said to be true. Helen, I learned was about to turn 90 and had moved to Vermont ten years earlier, from Houston. "My husband died," she said, "And one day I was standing outside in the heat in Houston and I decided that I had been living there long enough, so I moved to Vermont."
"Do you have family here?" I asked. "No," she replied, completely matter-of-factly, "I have a son in New Hampshire and a daughter in Ottawa, so this is sort-of in the middle."
"You moved to Vermont all by yourself when you were 80?" I asked, full of curiosity and amazement.
"Yes," she replied, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
I gave Helen a slip of paper with my name and number, in case she needed my help with anything. We hugged good-bye and off she drove, out of the maze of the hospital parking garage and into the Vermont landscape.
Yesterday I had what's called my Exit Interview from the hospice training class I've been taking this fall. It's a time when the volunteer coordinator asks us to share all of the relevant parts of our lives so she can match us well with a patient. It was kind of fun, to sit there and tell the story of my life. And it occurred to me, as I talked about being a teacher, an AmeriCorps volunteer, graduate school student, mother, beekeeper, firefighter, photographer, writer, shop keeper, traveler, sister, gardener, Therapy Dog lady, newspaper editor and now chaplain student, that I've lived a pretty interesting life. It may seem schizophrenic, but going to all those places and doing all those things allowed me to be poor (monetarily) and rich (spiritually) and lonely and afraid and deeply satisfied and hungry for more. This life has brought me in touch with an incredible assortment of human beings and vistas of indescribable beauty. Realizing all of that was the perfect antidote for a week filled with death and illness on the oncology floor at the hospital. I giggled my way through the interview, thinking..."Oh yea...I've done that, too!" Then I emerged from the office and into the beautiful Middlebury day feeling alive; refueled.
Now I'm thinking that maybe what you should do is give yourself the gift of the red cap this winter. Then go and explore, innovate, create, be brave. Fill your life with lots of different kinds of adventures; don't be afraid to change direction, to trust your gut, to enter through doorways you hadn't previously considered. Cultivate a care-taking ethic around the people you love and the magnificent world we all share. Be like Helen. Be like Jacques. But ultimately be you. Don the red cap and go.