They say I looked back out of curiosity.
But I could have had other reasons.
I looked back mourning my silver bowl.
Carelessly, while tying my sandal strap.
I felt age within me. Distance.
The futility of wandering. Torpor.
I looked back setting my bundle down.
I looked back not knowing where to set my foot.
I looked back in desolation.
I looked back in anger.
I looked back involuntarily.
No, no. I ran on,
I crept, I flew upward
until darkness fell from the heavens….
At 50, I turned into a pillar of salt.
After blowing out the last candle on my birthday cake – two wax ciphers and one standard birthday candle for good luck – I straightened up and looked back. That was a mistake. I saw the 20 years of marriage and child rearing that I knew had been long, now like a narrow slit in the fabric of time. It seemed my life had fallen through that slit. All those years just gone up in the smoke rising from the candles.
The last time I had the chance to look up from all the activity, I was moving forward. I was growing up, finding out who I was, looking for love, having children, raising them – or whatever all that hubbub was about – making a career, accruing points. Suddenly, it was over. Movement forward stopped. Despite a new relationship, there’d be no more babies, by biological imperative. Despite a newly earned Ph.D., no prospective career by dint, in part, of age. No more hope for improvement, only making do, at best.
The day after my 50th birthday was, as they say, the first day of the rest of my life. If I budged, I’d start the slide toward the end.
In my 50s, I began talking to myself. Actually, I’d been doing that for a while, but I became bolder, less controlled, madder in some way. I’d be walking along, ruminating, and would suddenly hear myself saying, “So, the point is…”, trying to gather my thoughts into a conclusion. But then I didn’t know what I was about to say, or even what I’d been thinking about.
I talked to myself when performing some task, guiding myself through the steps, not as a reminder of order or priorities, not as a way of keeping myself company. It was a verbal expression of my physical actions and, paradoxically, an escape from my thoughts, silent creations inside the casing of salt. It was to give order and meaning to the world in which I wanted to be fully present yet couldn’t, or wouldn’t, deal with much of it. Before my 50s, I used to look at myself in every mirror or passing window to bring myself out of invisibility. I began looking at myself less frequently in my 50s, probably to return to the safety of that invisibility. Talking to myself replaced the function of self-reflection.
I talked to myself in public without meaning to. Having been caught out on a few occasions, I wondered what people thought of that older woman mumbling to herself. Probably, they simply assumed I was indeed mad. To the extent that I may have started losing some of my mental faculties, those parts of my brain that used to let me do things on automatic and kept things from seeping out through the membranes, they’d have been right.
My coffee, notebook and pen are strewn on the flat top of my rock jutting out over the West River. Today, the water below me is the color of my fresh-brewed coffee, magenta gold. This and its movement between the tree-lined banks explain the relaxing yet stimulating exchange with the river, concealing more than revealing. The water meanders through corridors constructed by its boulders, some rounded and smooth, others honed to jagged protrusions, some hidden, many more sitting in groups of immovable wading mammals. The water slides over their backs and gargles into the swifter water beneath. Tresses of river braid into each other as they meet coming down different routes, and then whirl and twist in the hollows. Bubbles and pockets of foam eddy along the surface, peppered with each sudden breeze by falling autumn leaves. A bird speeds down the length of the river, wings flapping sporadically, looking for fish. But all it finds when it swoops down is just another leaf twirling and turning as it flows down the water.
By my rock, the water ripples and folds like the skin on my chest, which I check every morning to see if maybe a good night’s sleep and more hydration has remedied the condition. I’ve also opened the sluice of my resistance to vanity and have spent too much money on creams and lotions which promise to de-crinkle, unwrinkle and rejuvenate my epidermis. I am skeptically hopeful these balms will halt both the relentless unfirming of my body and my attentiveness to it. The money spent on trying to preserve my youthfulness, for however short a while, has allowed me the temporary illusion of being liberated from the punishment of aging, and thus less reluctant to move forward. Without that hope, I’d soon realize I am like that bird going for the prey, only to come up with a leaf of no possible consequence to it.
A dandelion puff has drifted onto the surface of the water and is spinning along, on and on, without thought. It hardly gets wet, so light, so diaphanous, so inviolable it is. On the south side of the boulder on which I am sitting, the water is calm and still. I can see through to the bottom now, where stones embedded in mud, moss-encrusted rocks and layers of leaves lie warming themselves in the sun, long under, carelessly sinking ever deeper, as the plopping, burbling, slapping, rushing – the language of these waters – reaches my ears, telling me something as I sip my coffee. Would that I could listen more and not just hear, observe less and just be part of the flowing river.
Skin deep thin
taut to loose
smooth to rough
blotched and spotted
lined and grooved
scrubbed, creamed, sanded
toned, peeled, branded
Everything we seem to be
and only were briefly
and all we are preserved from
And then we are
touched by the world.
A couple in their 50s was sitting across from me at the Mandarin coffee house on Moriah St. She was grotesquely me, acting out what I don’t dare to.
Dyed blond hair curling down past her shoulders hung in bangs over her forehead and the tops of her large sunglasses. The bangs were meant to hide furrows but served instead as a sign known to women of a certain age as to what lurked beneath. The visible part of her face was made up and powdered almost white. The makeup covered thin skin pulled tight around an augmented chin and botoxed lips further enhanced by lip liner and lipstick beyond their margins. The deep décolleté of a black jersey blouse with cold shoulders revealed a line of cleavage plunging down a dry, bony chest between flat breasts into the depths of a push-up bra. Her nose, like that on all women with sharp features, had remained strong, but the hands gave away her age, as they always do.
She wore the latest high-heeled boots, pants and long jumper – all black, all skin tight. A woman that age, despite the camouflage, cannot be fold-free or cellulite unchallenged. She was either supporting her figure with Spanx on Spanx – the latest for the aging female – or had had liposuction. Around her neck she sported a leopard-spotted kerchief – a final recognizable cover up.
The couple sat silently, each reading a newspaper. But I was sure as she held up hers she was looking at me through her dark shades. What her shades would have reflected was a woman of late middle age, sitting by herself, scribbling in a notebook, looking up every now and again at the couples and families sitting in the café while she sat alone. Her long, blond-streaked hair fell in curls past her shoulders. Her clothes did nothing for her but cover her apparently sagging and somewhat overweight body. No makeup meant she wasn’t invested enough in her appearance. The half moons around her mouth pulled downward in facial sag, or was it in that familiar sign of depression? What sadness, longing, what threatening hollowness was hidden by her optical, tinted lenses?
Like most women, I’d always been unsatisfied with some aspect of my body, but now the dissatisfaction was compounded by a sense of irreversible aging. The loose belly fat, the drooping buttocks, the ripples in the inner thighs, were virtually unimprovable. There was little I could do to make them firm again, no backstitching on this mortal cloth. At 59, I could deny no more what I’d felt till then I still ought to, still could, fight against. The laugh was on me as on all women who are dieting, exercising, stretching, sucking and stapling, making up and dyeing in an attempt to keep looking young. The obsession with the fight against aging is anything but denying.
The idea of aging was difficult enough at 50. The number – its sound, its suddenness, its implications – abruptly ended the way that I thought of myself as young. I hadn’t accepted the idea of being middle aged till I was past it. Now, at the end of 59, 50 was already a decade behind me. I still might have held off my acceptance of aging if menopause hadn’t struck me down. My hormones changed, and then my body. It seems the estrogen had supported more than just my breasts and ass and skin. What hasn’t changed?! My joints have weakened and creak. Some of them ache. My muscles have slackened and become vulnerable to injury. The very notion of over-exertion has moved down the graph so that things I used to be able to do without thinking, I’m now unable or afraid to do. Injury forces a reduction in exercise, and even in movement, so that “healing” is inevitably accompanied by depletion. So far, I can build the muscles back up, but never to their former state. Consequently, every setback ratchets my fitness backwards as time goes forward. And the operative phrase is “so far.”
It isn’t so much how I look, but what my changing appearance signifies. Or maybe it isn’t the aging, but how it makes me look. If I could be sanguine about the one, I might be freed from caring about the other. But which one is it?
I’ve also developed sensitivities to certain foods. I get bloated when I eat eggplant, my body pulsates when I eat too much, I belch consistently, and fart even when I don’t intend to. And then there are my knees. One was bashed up when I fell on it in the parking lot of the mall. It understandably swells and cracks and snaps and smarts. But the other one has started to ache when I sit in a chair if I cross my legs or just my ankles. My feet are a puzzling matter. Aside from bunions, all kinds of bony, veiny protrusions are taking over. And lately I’ve been dealing with an aggravated case of what might be Restless Leg Syndrome, which has invaded most of my nights and even daytime naps, all of which I fear are symptoms of some underlying degeneration. Whatever I’m exhibiting now will only get worse, I suspect. My legs, which have always given me my sense of power, are the most afflicted now. That’s scary.
I’ve begun swimming, a sport I detest, in the hopes of maintaining physical fitness and shifting some of the sense of strength off my legs alone. I challenge myself to go for longer without resting, but I haven’t got the lungs to go too long. And though there are young, athletic swimmers who come to the pool, I can’t ignore the knowledge that I am not one of them. I’ve taken up this sport like the older swimmers splashing about – because it is less stressful on the older body, because it is good for all your muscles and offers resistance without fear of injury, because it’s good for painful backs, because swimming is the sport of aging.
My back finally went out last summer. The first time my back hurt was when I was vacuuming the living room one day in my 30s. But who cares in their 30s when something hurts? It has no other connotation. I kept on doing what I’d always done, with some mindfulness (“When lifting, bend from the knees and tighten stomach muscles”). Till one night last summer, I got out of bed to go to the bathroom and collapsed in pain.
So now I do exercises for my back, my knees and my stomach. I added Pilates for strengthening, toning and stretching. I do more now for my body than I ever did, but it all feels like maintenance of a failing organism. In my day-to-day, I’ve let certain things go, or ask for help doing them. What seems like just a few years ago, I was doing everything for my kids and they did their few chores grudgingly. Now, I allow them to see they have an older mother. They now help me carry the laundry, bring up the shopping bags, vacuum the carpets. They open jars for me, and move the table in preparation for dinner. They do a lot of the bending and lifting. When they half-jokingly attribute my not being able to do, remember, or learn certain things to my being old, I can no longer get indignant. Soon I’ll be leaning on their arms when I walk, and then they’ll be talking to each other about me in the 3rd person in front of me.
The person I was physically, cognitively, even emotionally is a little off kilter to who I am today, like an unfocused picture that can’t be righted. I’m more fluid now, changing more rapidly, becoming less recognizable, primarily to myself, with no great prospects to balance it all. Nothing exciting to look forward to. Even if I gave myself the opportunity to think about what I might want to do next, and even if I came up with something and took the steps to do it, what the future also brings with it will taint the glory. There can be no unadulterated sense of the openness before me – that exhilarating feeling of possibility that came with my 20s, of the creation of family that came with my 30s, of developing a career that came with my 40s. Boundaries, borders and limitations met me in my 50s, which was when the humbling began. My 60s bring the reality of physical decline. There’s no doubt the continuous eroding of prowess will follow. But I want to hold it back, pull in the reins. “This isn’t me. This can’t be happening to me,” I feel myself screaming at the indefatigable, steady steamrolling of time. Clearly, I need to accept something fundamental but intangible to be able to go on with any degree of happiness. Yet to accept death, which that ‘something’ surely is, feels not only like defeat but also frightening. And to see myself as an old person is unacceptable. I am young, I am young, I am young, I keen.
There must be some way of living the future well.
The way to go would have to be the paradox of denial. Like the woman at the neighboring table. I could be young though growing old, in much the same way as I once felt healthy despite existing pre-conditions, or convinced myself I was dieting despite the munching. Self-delusion as self-definition through large, dark sunglasses.
The air is warm and soothing. I melt into the day sitting by the river. The sun is shining, but my rock is comfortably in the shade. The water is flowing in strands, amber-colored and silky, the silver-white waves between them binding them together. There is a slight fetid smell of animal feces or rotting vegetation wafting in from behind me on the faint breeze. It brings the background scene to life. Everything else is still, perfect. Even the waters in their constant, repetitive rush create a kind of unchanging stillness. Ahead, the trees are at a standstill running up the mountain to disappear over the top into the sky.
Something has happened. A kind of stillness and perfection is visiting my life at 59 after the ups and downs of the menopausal decade. I have little left to complain about, not much I need to change; my family, my friends, my career and interests pretty much in place and moving along steadily; some divisions and separations, but held together by habit, familiarity, silent understandings. I am pleased enough with what I have and who I am, and more than pleased with whom I love and who loves me.
And then there’s that faint foul odor – the decaying, the aging, the time running away with me up that mountain toward the place where heaven meets earth, and takes off. Does it fly? Does it plunge?
I’m a flirt. I guess it’s a habit. It took me till 62, when it’s hardly relevant and certainly not dangerous, to realize that entering the dance floor, waiting for the glance, and twinkling under the attention was flirting. Once I realized it, I knew I’d always been a flirt. And so long as it doesn’t raise eyebrows, why would I stop?
Can I have this waltz?
Off I drive, a smile already turning up my mouth, despite its engraved, downward lines, for the first of this summer’s visits to the bakery for a cup of coffee and a little schmooze with the Baker. Every time I go in, we wind up revealing a little more to one another – about our lives, that is. Nothing else. It’s not that kind of thing. It’s not a “thing” at all. Just flirtation lite. Shooting the breeze. A break from work – his in the bakery, mine in the notebook. Perhaps afterwards, he kneads a little extra fold of sweet delight into the cherry pie crust. And I add a dramatic flourish with my pen.
“Hey!” I greet him cheerily when he walks out of the kitchen into the shop on this first visit of the summer.
“Hi! How’ve you been?” he beams.
“Pretty good,” I answer, not being able to remember the year at all. “And you?”
“Oh, OK,” he mumbles more in character as he moves off behind the counter. He’s wearing his usual head rag, not the slate blue-and-white striped baker’s hat he has his assistants wear.
“Come on out and let me see you, and I’ll tell you how you are,” I offer brazenly. The Baker seems characterologically a bit morose, sporting a nihilistic attitude, a sheath unsuccessfully concealing a vigorous curiosity. In conversation, he usually makes knowledgeable remarks and asks good questions. But his default position is sour. Maybe he suffered the bleakness of a bad marriage all the years I knew him before his divorce last summer. Maybe I will never see a light in his eye and an uncompromising happiness in his face. But I know that if I see anything even close to that, it’ll mean that the Baker has found someone new. And though I have no dibs on him and no stake in what happens, I selfishly want him to remain unattached, with nobody else on his dance card.
He steps heavily out into the customer area and leans on the back of the piano that fills the space with music for the winter crowd but is always silent in the summer. “I gained 20 pounds since last year,” he says, apologetically.
“Is that because you’re being fed?”
“Well,” he chuckles, “I guess.”
“I see.” A twinge of jealousy rises in my chest. The Baker finally looks at me squarely. Not exactly up and down, but just enough to take in my early summer figure. It can still feel like a compliment before the gorging begins on all the food I’ve been missing since living abroad. By the end of the summer I will be feeling apologetic, too.
We’ve sized each other up, and stand poised for the first steps.
“I’m dating someone,” he confesses, and taps swiftly on the top of the piano as if pushing something away. “I call her my erstwhile alleged girlfriend.”
The twinge subsides. Those overly crafted adjectives clearly point to a temporary dance partner for the Baker.
He reports what his friends say about her, about them as a couple. He tells me what she’s done and hasn’t done for him. A step here, another there, and a back step in which he states that he’s waiting to find someone who won’t push him.
A flash of fantasy causes me to teeter and almost lose my balance. For a moment, it is I who am the One, I who does not push and will, therefore, fit the bill. I will be his helpmate in the shop and talk with him by the fire in the evenings. I will move to Vermont permanently and grow fat along with him on the wonderful ice creams we will create together. I will be a Writer and he, my Baker. I will live the life I used to dream about – a big house by the river in the woods, the clean, crisp air and the peaceful New England neighborliness.
I sway in place, the music hurtling towards the coda, till I hear him ask, “So, did you bring your husband with you this summer?” He twirls me around, 180°.
“Yes. Yes, I did,” I answer, partly rueful, partly grateful as I regain my poise.
The conversation becomes calmer, and we are now just rocking back and forth. We’ve gone through the difficult choreography. There is now more eye contact and less shuffling since that admission. There are no more hazards, no waiting opportunities, no motives, no pressure. Just another summer of easy, brief banter. No fancy footwork needed.
“Hold on,” he moonwalks solo back into the kitchen. A few beats later, he emerges with one hand stretched out. On a plastic spoon is a taste of a new flavor of home-made ice cream – Bourbon Peach Pecan. He hands it to me. Very proper. And nice. I lick the spoon. “Not bad,” I say, with a little more enthusiasm than the flavor contains. “Interesting. Maybe it could use a little more zest?” I suggest, licking my lips.
He is a little crestfallen.
That is all we care to dance today.
I stalwartly adjust my expectations and the bag on my shoulder. I’d see him another time. The summer would be long. Three months this year. Longest ever. We will have more opportunities for moves that will never go beyond one round, from hello to goodbye.
“OK, well,” I move towards the door, “see you.”
“Yah. See you. Take care.”
We curtsy and bow. The flirtation, despite its inevitably unresolved final cadence, has brought back some youthful pleasure and lifted me off the ground one more year. I sashay this young 62-year-old self out the door. Oh yeah.
Just when you’re thinking you’ve finally got it made, bad news comes knocking at your garden gate.
Joni Mitchell, “Down to You”
Knock knock. Who’s there?
It was confusing. I’d eagerly awaited the day I could stop working full time. When the time arrived at 64, it was as it had been during so many summer vacations after I stopped going to camp at 17 – an oasis sighted from afar, and a wasteland once at hand. The ideas and dreams, the projects and activities stored in lists and schedules in extremis, were thrown out on day one in favor of the yearly sidelined spontaneity. You hurled yourself towards the lusciousness of creativity and personal gratification. And then, before you knew it, you were sprawled on the couch, watching TV, munching on comfort food, feeling bored, empty, unable to remember what you had planned or wanted to do. So it was when I retired.
I’m back to the list-making stage, the Golden Years variety, in which I make lists of desires and potentialities, plans for the mornings and the rest of my days, and forget to look at them. Soon I’ll be making lists of lists, and then maybe I’ll get my lists tattooed so I can remember I have them.
Am I simply forgetting listed items I am interested in, like I forget to buy something at the grocery store despite it being written down? We know Freudian slips don’t apply anymore. Everything slips. Am I just not interested in what I’ve put on the list? Am I spreading myself now too thin on a surface already thinning, like my skin, my hair, my memory? Basically, feeling somewhat overwhelmed or over-challenged by possibilities squirming on my lists, I leave them all aside and do very little. And lo! Time, too, has thinned. Before I know it, hours have passed on a minor task. A whole morning flies out the windows I’m washing. Hours on emails and posts, on preparing a lesson for one of the few courses I still teach, on making lists. Entire afternoons are blown on my exercise and physical maintenance, evenings on watching TV.
It might appear that I do enough, but it doesn’t feel like I do. Half of what I am occupied with that affords me any pleasure is passive, and so the pleasure is momentary. It goes when the experience goes. The rest is dependent on the extent of my input. These days, I put in relatively little and get very little. A vicious circle. I’m left with my passive pleasures precisely because to get them, I need not make any effort. People will disappoint, prove limited in their devotion, as will I. Efforts will prove useless, thwarted. But the Sopranos will continue to entertain.
I accomplish very little and I deliberate whether this, and the way I’m changing, is OK. Should I be fighting sloth, trying to quicken my life? If I erased some of those items on my list and left myself the few I’m down to and can remember without a list, I’d be better off. I could do them without thinking about what I’m not doing, could do them, then, with more commitment, focus, and depth. Organic quickening.
“Serious leisure.” Leisure as work. What comes first, push or pull, motivation or purpose?
There was an artist in the city of Kouroo who was disposed to strive after perfection. One day it came into his mind to make a staff. Having considered that in an imperfect work time is an ingredient, but into a perfect work time does not enter, he said to himself, It shall be perfect in all respects, though I should do nothing else in my life. He proceeded instantly to the forest for wood, being resolved that it should not be made of unsuitable material; and as he searched for and rejected stick after stick, his friends gradually deserted him, for they grew old in their works and died, but he grew not older by a moment. His singleness of purpose and resolution, and his elevated piety, endowed him, without his knowledge, with perennial youth. As he made no compromise with Time, Time kept out of his way, and only sighed at a distance because he could not overcome him. …[T]he city of Kouroo was a hoary ruin, … the dynasty of the Candahars was at an end, … the staff Kalpa was no longer the pole-star; and … Brahma had awoke and slumbered many times. … When the finishing stroke was put to his work, … he saw by the heap of shavings still fresh at his feet, that, for him and his work, the former lapse of time had been an illusion….
She was watching the clock from the comfortable pale yellow couch, spotted and stained from years of children and a cat. She’d thrown a few red and blue pillows along the back cushions and hung a plaid fleece coverlet over the center to remove attention from the blemishes and to add color and warmth. In front of the couch, a dark wooden coffee table rested on stubby legs. The surface was so highly polished, it reflected the yellow of the couch. The bright colors were coaxed to a shimmer by the sunlight filtering through the loose peach curtains at the living room window.
Every room in the house had at least one timepiece. Each bedroom had an alarm clock. The kitchen had a clock on the microwave. The computer in the study had its clock on the toolbar. Even the bathroom had an old bandless watch face placed strategically in a small basket of potpourri on the counter above the sink. This was not to satisfy any need for punctuality or even to know what time it was. It was for her to observe. She could watch the time wherever she was. More often than not, that was on the inviting living room couch. The yellow and turquoise clock on the opposite wall lent vitality and cheer. It had plain, black, metal hands, and a second hand that ticked along insistently. Between the 15 and 30 second mark it made especially loud tocking noises.
The obsession with observing time was like the magical thinking of an air passenger who has to stay conscious and alert throughout a flight in order to fly the plane to safety. Or like standing over a pot of cooking oatmeal. There is the threat that the pot will boil over if it isn’t watched, but there is also the possibility that a watched pot never boils. Of course, she recognized the futility of her venture to slow time down, but had no better idea of how to handle its flight.
She examined the living room every time she entered it. Its coziness pleased and calmed her. Positioned majestically center wall under the clock and presiding over the living room was the TV. On the too many days when she didn’t have anything particular to do, she might turn it on to watch the morning news over breakfast, and suddenly feel her stomach growling hungrily at the opening credits of the first afternoon daytime soap. Where had her morning gone? How had time dissolved like a thin, flat tablet effervescing into air bubbles? An after-lunch nap, a late afternoon walk, a shower, preparations for dinner and an after-dinner program or two before washing the dishes and getting ready for bed—and the day was gone. Entire days disappeared in this fashion. Days and days of a life slipping away.
One day, she shut off the TV. Attention must be paid.
Now, despite her best efforts not to daydream, her thoughts began to wander to items she had recently thought about adding to the room: a large standing candle, perhaps, placed in a corner by the cane bookcase; a new green pillow to mirror the green weave on the throw; a carpet for more warmth and comfort. Maybe she’d replace the smaller couch and its slightly stiff cushions with a plush armchair or two, though she really didn’t need anything other than her long couch.
Ten minutes had passed on nothing. No candle had materialized, no pillow or carpet, and the stiff couch still sat erect under the window. Useless time.
Here was the conundrum of not letting time pass without imbuing it with content. How could she accomplish both when the very nature of purposeful action made time pass more quickly as it tied the present moments to a future outcome? She knew that boredom would slow down time. What could be more boring and effective than watching the second had go round, hear its tocking, see the blink of a digital minute. But what would be the sense of more of that time?
Leaning on her knees despondently, she caught sight of her bare feet on the cool tiled floor. Her thoughts landed happily on action. Why not a pedicure? Soaking her feet in painfully hot water felt like a near-perfect idea. The experience would be practical, both pleasant and painful, so that the time spent with her feet in the tub would be time well spent, and well kept.
In the bathroom, she ran the tap water to let it get hot. At the same time, she took the pedicure instruments out of a small drawer and placed them on a fresh towel. She spurted five drops of liquid soap into a plastic tub set under the tap. As the tub was filling, she chose her nail polish from a row of bottles in the cupboard. Mauve today. Why not? Something small and faint in her was happily surprised that she was choosing that vibrant color. She pulled the foot cream off the shelf. Carefully carrying the tub into the living room, she placed it in front of the couch, then went back to get the towel, in which she’d wrapped the callous razor, nail clipper, cuticle cutter, nail file and foot cream. With the towel and its contents under one arm, she filled a pitcher with cold water to pour into the tub till it was cool enough to put her feet into without scorching them. This was a painstaking task since cooling it down too much would require adding hot water. Painstaking was good. It meant focus. When the water felt just right, when its heat pricked at her skin like a sock lined with needles, she slipped her feet in and leaned back on the red pillow.
Hugging her chest, she looked out the living room window on her left. It was a beautiful, if somewhat hazy, day. The trees had lost most of their leaves and now stood waiting for their decorator to drape them with new swatches of color. She would have liked to be out there, strolling among the trees and the mossy green grasses that came with the winter rains and were gone as soon as the short winter was over. But it had become too sad, much too sad to pay attention to this magic show—now you see it, now you don’t. The summer was easier. Every day was basically the same. The sky was bright pale blue in the morning, blindingly turquoise by afternoon, slipping slowly to sapphire towards twilight. The evenings were warm and filled with the chirping of crickets, and the summer constellations sat fixed in the black sky. Once the fall winds began to blow through the leaves in the afternoon, she went indoors. Fall meant change. The winds started to rise, temperatures fell and climbed and fell again, trees started to bald. And winter was next. She didn’t want to see any of it, wanted to remain untouched in the bastion of her home, bound to the project of keeping everything at bay.
The water had cooled down somewhat. She was pleased to see on the clock that only a few minutes had passed this time while she was incorrigibly musing out the window. She credited the water’s heat, and extracted one wrinkled and waterlogged foot from the tub. Patting it dry and picking up the callous razor, she wondered briefly how her foot had gotten so puckered in just a few minutes. The room, she decided, must have been colder than she’d thought to have cooled the water down so quickly. Scraping slowly and gingerly at the callouses that had been growing noticeably thicker on the balls of her feet, a wisp of a notion lodged itself in her solar plexus, like a feather in a puddle of muddy water. There was no sound in the room. The callous knife fell from her hand into the tub water, which splashed up and beaded the floor like flat glass marbles. Again, she heard the silence. She glanced at the clock. The black second hand was bobbing up and down, stuck in mid-circle.
She fell back against the soft, deep cushion, disheartened and weak, as if the razor had carved down to the bone of time. Inside the house, life had become a formless swirl of thickened minutes, a grainy, undifferentiated roux. Without her vigilance, time’s passing had been neither slowed down nor noticed. And time unnoticed was, for all intents and purposes, hastened. All her previous efforts to save the moments from temporal kidnapping had become meaningless in that careless instant when she was unable to stop them from tumbling out and scattering like those glass marbles out of the tub.
She was tired. She dried off her wet and now uncomfortably cold feet. She dotted them with the cream, rubbed the cream in carefully and then slipped on her terry cloth socks. She wrapped all her instruments and creams in the damp towel, rolled it up and put it under her arm. Picking up the tub with its murky water, dead skin and nail clippings floating in the spent suds, she padded into the bathroom and poured it all off into the toilet. She unwrapped the towel on the sink counter, took a bottle of alcohol and a few cotton balls out of the cupboard, and cleaned the blades of the clipper, the cutter, the scissors and the razor. She placed them all back in their drawer, took the towel over to the toilet and shook it out, watching a flurry of shaved, dry skin and clippings dot the surface of the water. Flushing everything down, she tossed the towel into the hamper and walked into her room. There she changed her socks and got dressed. She picked up her keys, walked over to the fuse box, opened the cover, and threw the main switch. The fax machine clattered. The printer hummed as its cartridges slid first one way and then the other. The computer sang its closing tune and the refrigerator shuddered. Within a few seconds, everything hissed as the electricity emitted its last breath. She walked over to the clock and pulled it off the wall.
I’ve gotten old, salted, crusty. Age has defeated me, sapped out my energy together with my worth, my sense of purpose with my sense of value. Investment of time to no avail – no goal that carries a promise of direction, no concept of “further” at all except further down the cliff, or backwards.
I want to pick up my hobbies and don’t want to begin. Why bother?
I want to commit to something yet remain dabbling, marginal, floating above. Why make the effort?
I want opposing things at the same time. While I have one, I want the other. Nothing matters enough, and maybe salvation lies where I am not.
And yet, I still shake the tree, a glimmer of hope remaining that some enticing fruit will drop off.
I need a still balance, a quiet, not one implied by a swinging pendulum.
I forget the possibility of simultaneous black and white, and that there is no black and white.
The sun is moving along the upper branches of the sycamores. When it peers over the edge of the leafy sunshade above, it finds me on my rock. I headed out late this morning and didn’t remember that the midday sun would be baking it. I sit dangling my toes in the water to keep cool. Usually, I bring a blanket to sit on, since I can’t take the hard, stony surface for too long anymore, the grinding of bone on rock. Today, I forgot the blanket. My backpack, a book, a snack, and my coffee are all perched or partly wedged into convenient cracks in the boulder. Everything is precarious – might slip, spill or tumble into the water. Pages of writing were once blown by a sudden gust into this river. I managed to catch them before they floated away. The ink turned mauve and fuzzy on the papers. I spread them out on the rock and they turned hard and brittle when they dried, an interestingly textured artifact, but illegible.
This river has always somehow reflected my sense of where I am in my life. That’s why it’s fitting that I can’t remember its name. I also can’t easily recall the names of many other things: actors whom I once could identify in a snap, books I’ve read – titles or contents, students in my classes, people I’ve just been introduced to, or, most embarrassingly, friends I’d love to introduce if only I could.
I also forgot how little snow Vermont had this winter, so I couldn’t have predicted the woeful sight of the naked, dusty-looking boulders thickly choking the river, and the abundance of stepping stones dotting it from bank to bank. The bigger rocks are so dry, you can almost hear them knocking against one another like skeletons, like my own bones beneath my skin, and the lost memories against my skull.
If I were steadier, fleeter, and had less to carry on my back, I could skip across the many exposed stones running every which way to the opposite bank, which is in shade. But I’m not. I sit here in the heat and watch my reflection in the water flow away.
What am I when I’m no longer what I was?
As a retiree at my old place of work, hence a second tier colleague on the staff, I went from being a peer to being an elder, someone to emulate, to seek advice from. Flattering, for sure. But disconcerting, too. I play the role for a while, just to try it on for size, and then prefer to withdraw. I see the younger teachers sitting together during the breaks, and I don’t join them. Now I see myself as they see me, and I feel uncomfortable being around them.
I am a person. A woman. A wife and a mother. A friend of sorts. I am also what I am not. A daughter no longer. There are lots of no longers. People, passions, jobs, talents, dreams come and gone. The stripping has begun. There are minor longings, more like itches, really, sad attempts at holding on to some identity, like adding stuffing to a flattening pillow. It’s a silly attempt, leaving you only with something lumpy and uncomfortable.
Longing is my default state, an imprint from early life that I weave whole philosophies around, the origin of my requirement of a room of one’s own. Even now in the depressed state I’m in, I long for the lusciousness of my empty house. I am glad to be left alone, allowed to make no effort even to communicate. The need is a reproduction of my teen years in my badly blended family, when an empty house meant no tension, no conflict, no need to try, where there was no one to ask me if I didn’t have something better to do.
Something better to do.
If we can’t wrap our heads around what to do, but also can’t unwrap our heads from Doing, all we’re left with is a gnawing sense of missed opportunity and disappointment.
The tree under which several cars are parked across from the café I’m sitting in barely offers any shelter. The gnarled and twisted limbs end in short twigs with sparse, pale green leaves, more feather than meat. It is half shorn, like a punk with a compromised mohawk, or a patient half-prepped for a lobotomy. It stands silent and strange. It doesn’t groan or creak and barely lets on it’s alive.
Could I please just sit here with my coffee on the deck that smells of last night’s beer spills, and watch the pieces of garbage in the parking lot chase each other around in the wind?
Under the water there are boulders stranded, stuck in the river bed, too heavy, too hard, too stubbornly set to move. And yet, with the water gliding through and skimming over them, they are part of the flow of the river. This river changes drastically with even small changes in rainfall, or snowfall and melt, and there’s been little rain. Downriver, scales and scabs of crusty rocks are strewn into a horizon of evergreens and sycamores. They’ve been left here to bake in the sun by the truant rains, and look like they’re drying up the river – the cause, not the effect, of the low running waters.
On the other side, boulders pause on their crawl up the bank, then surge out of the ranks and over the wall that has been containing them. An army of boulders – infantry, cavalry and armored vehicles – in a determined, silent push over the grass, crushing ferns, grating against tree trunks, taking over the land. In the end, all will be stone.
I sit on my rock, and watch what is happening. I do nothing.
I love the river and the rock, enormous and grey, with black lichen like hairs running along its fissures. Yet something vital has been sapped out of it all, or out of me. There is a sameness to the experience now that dulls the senses. The scent of the water drifts up to me, but I have to snort it in to smell it.
I came with the dullness, involved with getting older, with being old. I’ve had the wind knocked out of me by the realization that aging is not a temporary setback. I won’t be getting any better, not even if I buy the perverted notion of the Golden Years, or compare myself to a bottle of wine. Things are no longer popping. I don’t get unhinged, or so angry I spit. Nor do I get transported or excited. I don’t make grandiose plans without knowing they won’t materialize, and don’t have hopes without pessimism, though even the pessimistic isn’t abysmal. Everything has a little frill of desolation around it – the desolation of finitude, and thus the inconsequentiality of just about all of it.
Death, the undertow my long-dead father left for me to reckon with, finally unsettled me when it was a hair’s breadth away from my step-father. Expecting it, I waited for it. I wished the protracted descent would find bottom so it would go away.
Friends too young to die were dying anyway.
My daughter moved away into her own life – a happy prospect that left me feeling bereft just the same.
I am afraid of death. I have seen it too often, and it rattles in every major life change not of my making. It rattles, and my foundations start trembling, the blocks of the structure inching from their place and sliding out. Each falling rock trips the others till everything is crumbling.
Where do I begin to stop the collapse?
Death rattles, and everything is up for grabs again. Nothing retains its meaning. I cannot, will not dwell on that. Instead, I look for the wisp of light that in this darkness is shed onto the regimentation, narrowness, and sameness of the rote life, the unexamined existence that has been chug-a-lugging along, just because. Everything is because it’s been. Now the time has come to check things out, a time for change, an equal and opposite reaction to death.
The water laps at the side facing me of a boulder half submerged in the river, at what looks like its snout. One encrusted eye, bulging like the eye of a frog who’s seen it all, is looking at me as if to say, “What are you on about, woman? Why don’t you just sit and watch the river flow?”
So, I watch the river flow, and I see that it looks like liquid leather, as if its skin too has lost its brightness and fullness. Underneath the surface, there are more stones and silt and sediment than last year, more debris that drifted down and lodged within the increased heaviness, more decaying branches that cracked off the trees under the strain of winter snow and ice. But it’s all invisible beneath the persistent unguent drift of the leathery water.
And now a sunny yellow butterfly, yes! Skimming over the water, flitting through the warm vapors that pass by me as I sit on my rock, one more year. I want to watch the butterfly. I do.
But that eye. That one encrusted eye.
Then suddenly, I get blasted. Depression. Anxiety. Panic.
Depression about aging is fueled by my attitudes about perfection and necessarily falling short. It demands a major shift in my thinking I’m not ready for.
Anxiety feels like dirt in the brain, a sick feeling.
It opens quietly on the tailcoat of depression, a blunt noise accompanying all things – an uninvited byproduct of the battle between the familiar and the new. The familiar fiercely guards the fragile spirit, defends the distance between what is and what can easily not be. The fear of total darkness, of the concept of finitude and the concept of infinity – of life and death.
Panic is the process of exorcism. At first, the devil yammers in the brain to outshout the flux. Do not give up control! Analyze! Figure out. Self-flagellate! Test everything and everyone. Panic is the psyche being rent – the familiar from the new.
The reins of control leave you with friction burns, or vanish in your hands when what you think you have control of just flows on through, like water, or air. Or time.
I don’t know how, or what else to be. I mustn’t change, the yammering insists, I dare not drop defenses, or leave my post. If I do, I know what will ensue.
Oblivion. Cessation. The End. How do you deal with that?
In my late teens, I experienced the first of subsequent bouts of the Depression-Anxiety-Panic triumvirate. It invariably signaled a potentially damaging life choice that turned me into a victim, and needed rectifying. It wasn’t a magic trick or a secret code, but simply a progression whose workings I came to understand and listen to. Yet in the meltdown that ensued this time, starting at the backward glance and heating up at retirement, the progression didn’t make sense. There were loving, easy people in my life now, and the only thing they did to me was invade the private space in which I was hunkering down.
I didn’t want to be where I could so easily be found, in the setting where I’d always been, with the work, the house, the chores, the friends and relationships in their familiar and predictable patterns. I could see the days stretching ahead as they’d always stretched, inflexible and unchanging. With that backdrop, I was the only thing changing as I was getting older even as I was standing still, stuck, afraid to move. My world was closing in on me, setting off my claustrophobia. If I shook up the scene, these forces would no longer be relative to one another, would no longer affect one another, and I would be free of the boundaries that defined me.
Where would I be? My dream had long been to course through America in an RV, feeling free – bound only by the needs imposed on me by the vehicle and the laws of the land. Of course, after a while, these limitations would also be too much, as is the nature of limitations and, more significantly, of me. Maybe the final restriction to get away from, besides the one making all other choices finally invalid, is having to be anywhere: The realization that, even in the very end, you are free, and that the need to prove it lasts only as long as the sense you are not.
I’ve moved to a new spot by the river and in relation to its flow. Downstream is to my right instead of left. It’s disorienting, like brushing your teeth with the wrong hand or putting on your bra by hooking it in back instead of in front. Nothing is familiar. And the disconnect seems important.
The water here is louder where it falls over a succession of rocky steps to one side of me. Yet it’s also softer, slurpier on the other side, where it slides mellowly from the shade into the sun over rounder, smoother stones. I sit at the seam. The trees bend more disheveled into the water upstream. Some have fallen first under the weight of winter snow and then in the subsequent summer storms. Some of these trees are twisted, thin and frail, like men who’ve grown sickly old and have lain down to die. Many trees have broken limbs that will have to go unmended, hanging at crazy angles painful for the eye to see. Some have branches molded by the wind into poses too humanly vulnerable for comfort. The banks seem to be folding into the river, and the trees at water’s edge lean precariously, about to fall in. Across the way, the sun speckles the forest floor and illuminates the tree trunks like doors to a mysterious world, teasing, inviting, and then gone as clouds above extinguish the light.
I would want to sit over there, perhaps, rather than here. But if I were there, I’d be looking at where I am now and longing to be part of this. I am actually afraid of the day I’ll no longer feel that way, becoming so complacent about where I am that nothing else will call to me or make me want. I know the comfort it would bring, so long as I give in to it, to simply being whatever I was, in the moment, entirely. But that stasis and the end of change is the log lying heavily across the bank, perched on a moss-covered rock that stopped its fall into the river. Lying there long enough, the elements will deal with it till it will no longer be a tree.
I see a path light up between the trees and I am sure, sitting on my plastic chair this side of the water, that I’d follow that bright yellow road to wherever it took me, along the river, through the trees, deep into the woods until the path and everything around it turned grey, then forest green, and finally black. In the thick of night, I’d have to close my eyes to avoid the blinding darkness. More than of creatures sniffing around me in the dense woods, I’d be afraid of the perpetual, unmitigated darkness, as black behind my eyelids as in the world around me when I open them. I think if I grappled with the darkness and made it into the light of day, I’d feel at home.
But I sit here on my plastic chair. Today’s adventure is no more than sitting on the right rather than the left of the river. I’m not about to disappear into the woods, not about to face the discomfort, let alone the fear. I am getting closer, am I not, to the inertia of acceptance, the acceptance of inertia … the log perched in waiting for nothing more than more of the same, the stillness to which these waters run.
It should have been clear, but it wasn’t till I realized I had to turn back around and look the other way, forget what I’d left behind, and acknowledge that change had come not suddenly but gradually, that everything was changing still and yet not changing, like the river. Then the chaos died down. Then the yammering became impotent. Then I could welcome my life back. The realization, however, only came after the ground I was affixed to began to quake.
This came in the form of a blowout with the youngest of my three children on her 24th birthday. Despite her best efforts, her expectations on her birthday were always unreasonably high – she also a perfectionist – and were subsequently always crushed. Wanting to meet her expectations, I unsurprisingly failed. The lasagna came out cold in the middle. My mood, already foul as I cut into the dry apple pie crust to its runny center, went hot and dark with the derision and laughter from those present. They claimed afterwards it had been in good fun, but I hadn’t seen the fun. I felt wounded, and stormed out of the house. I was propelled inexplicably by a childish tantrum. On my return, my daughter landed into me. She didn’t care, she said, about the food. She cared that I messed up the evening with my behavior. I was being chastised as though she were the adult and I the child.
I didn’t understand how I had gotten so out of control. But that was the issue – the overriding need for control that depression, anxiety and panic had ensconced to reign over my aging.
Sometime later, I went to visit with my daughter who was then living and studying in Tel Aviv. It was the first time I had the opportunity to see her in her own milieu, an independent grown up. It suddenly dawned on me that I was now the mother of adult children. I no longer could or needed to control them. I was no longer responsible for them the way I’d been when we were a young family, those years whose passing I’d been focused on with a combination of longing and perturbation.
I understood that day that I’d been hunkering down against this transformation on the one hand, and the notion that I had to continue to fulfill my previous role, on the other. I wasn’t willing or able to maintain the old patterns of obligations and expectations, theirs and mine, that had till then defined me as the mother of dependent children. They were defunct. I wasn’t in charge anymore. Though I rued the imminent loss of my familiar function as Mother, I no longer wanted what I’d begun to feel was a shell without substance or sustenance.
As my youngest was leading me through the streets of her Tel Aviv, I spoke with her about these realizations. I was apprehensive of her reaction. Would she feel I was chucking her out of the nest, pushing her away from my heart as I sometimes thought she might have felt when she was little and wouldn’t give up hugging me as the toast burned or the bathtub spilled over. Instead, she said, “Yes, I understand. I get it. You shouldn’t feel bad. You’re right.”
This was what had shifted for all of us while we were still in our pajamas, asleep in our old dynamics.
The birthday fiasco had finally led to a shift. Clearly, the people closest to me that I was fending off even though I loved them very much – my children, my husband, my friends — were no longer who they had been to me any more than I was what I had been or wanted to be to them. Their understanding and love released me and changed the way I felt about much of everything else.
Suddenly the sun lights up the scene. Dappled, partial, to be sure. The trees of which the woods are made are the dappling. Brightly lit water ripples sleekly over river rocks alongside water made muddy and slimy-looking in the shade. They flow together into the pool by my feet where light and dark alternate as through a wide mesh net. Above, the trees interlace their slender, leafy branches. Below, shades of brown, from almost white to near-ebony make the random pattern of rocks under the water look planned.
The sunlight gives the scene its depth. Without it, there are no aspects, no interplay, nothing hidden around bends or behind rises, nothing submerged, nothing obstructed. Without the sun it all looks flat. Everything you see, because you can’t see too well, is right there. Tones of grey on darker grey, bold green on darker green, are smears and strokes on a 2-dimensional canvas. Any design here feels somewhat sinister, certainly mean and pitiless.
But everything changes and shifts, even as I sit here describing it. Not even an hour, and the sun is shining full force on my page. It pleasantly warms my feet but also turns the paper into a blinding light. The sun’s brightness obliterates the fine sprinkle of a waterfall down river. Its glare becomes aggressive, obtrusive. I can see wanting the shade to return. Too much of a good thing and you wish it would just go away.
Now the sun and too much sun are coherent. Everything is both it and other, hidden and da. In fact, I find it comforting rather than frightening. Layers mean there’s always more to be revealed. Opposites mean nothing is cut in stone. Change is always possible, and more is always there to be had. When does this also become too much?
Someone claimed my rock by the river – put a stone marker where I usually sit, and left debris all around – an empty Styrofoam food box laid open on the grass with dried gobs of ketchup, a black bottle of Hawaiian Tropic Dark Tanning oil in the deep crevasse where I place my coffee. That’s ok, I say to myself. The rock is all of ours. And yet I chuck the marker into the weeds. I fling the bottle into the tall grass. I’m not as generous as I’d like to be. Not now. Now I reclaim my rock like I’m reclaiming my life. I am here now.
I feel myself converging. The core scattered into so many far-flung bits of me are homing in. A reunion of parts.
Everything is as you are ready for it to be. Now everything is delectable – reading, writing, taking a walk or a drive, sitting and chatting with my husband, watching a late-night movie, even shopping for food, and eating it.
I sit on my rock, and every time I lift my head from the page, there’s something to look at and love. The water forever running down the river bed; the trees waving in the warm breeze; a butterfly flitting across the thin, white clouds in the distance; a bird circling overhead, displaying its wings.
The bird swoops down and lands on the tip of a jumble of branches standing in the water. The river runs through the jumble, around it, under it. The branches do nothing but sit there, lodged against a rock, somewhat regal in their uselessness. The heap stands strong and firm, performing no clear task except to form an image of importance, a tableau of figures in pose.
Its value is both captured and expunged by the landing of the bird. A bird would rather land on a wobbly branch than on a rock. The branch is curved and slim, and the bird has alighted on it like on the head of a thimble. Sturdy as it is for the moment, the branch is caught in the flowing water. It could dislodge and float downriver at any moment, tumbling and crashing against other rocks. A bird must know that. Yet it chooses this as its perch over the flat, solid, immovable boulder only several feet away. But then, that’s the very nature of a perch. It is precarious, standing higher than what surrounds it, a temporary place from which to eye both prey and predator. A perch is not a nest, not a place to nuzzle and relax.
Which makes the chosen branches all the more insignificant. A preliminary balancing act and a quick swivel of the head with anxious, blinking eyes, and the bird is already gone. It arrived on the branch without too much planning, and lifted off without another thought.
The tangle stands inanimate. It doesn’t budge as the waters ripple past. It doesn’t flag in the shade cast by the clouds moving overhead or perk up when the sun swathes it in warmth. It is regal – impervious and unmindful. An object embodying confidence, whose importance lasts the length of a pause of a bird in flight.
I have always needed to feel I have a perch. A foundation from which to fly, explore, dare to my limited degree, and know I have some place I say “my” about. My house. My green world that awaits me when I step out of the containment of my house. My river. My rock. My family. My friends. Though beyond the appropriation there is not always so much content, though the perch is ephemeral, as is the nature of perches, of life. Threaded through the flight is this sense of belonging and a basic love for everyone who has been part of it – a primal connection. It’s no small thing being part of someone’s life, and I am grateful.
I’d left my husband back at the cemetery in Londonderry. He sometimes likes to sit and write there. I came out to Lowell Lake, where I wrote one page about tunnel vision. I had no more in me, maybe because of the subject, which doesn’t easily lend itself to side remarks and associations. With a little under an hour left before I was to pick up my husband and head home for lunch, I walked back to the car and packed away my stuff. I stood in the parking lot and thought about hiking on the trail. I had always wanted to do it, and always found a reason to put it off. Not enough time. Not the right shoes. Bears in the woods. But today, as I stood by the car with extra time, I wanted very much to take on the challenge, to answer the pull of the forest, to do what was somewhat intimidating, do it alone, and see if I was up to it now at 64. I started doing the math. I could do the shorter trail in the 45 minutes left before I needed to head out to the cemetery. I started out on the trail.
Down the grassy steps from the parking lot, a short way along the lake, and over the wooden bridge by the dam, the staked signs engraved in yellow pointed the way to the shorter 2.6 mile Little Pond Road trail and the longer 3.5 mile Lowell Lake trail. I entered the woods, and followed the arrow, a little nervous but energized. Despite not having planned this, I had on reasonable walking shoes and socks, jeans, a cap-sleeved jersey under a long-sleeved, button down, corduroy shirt. Good enough clothes against mosquitoes and tics, sharp twigs, slippery terrain, cold and heat. I didn’t have sunscreen, but I was walking mostly in the shade of the trees. I didn’t have insect repellent, but had long clothing on. I didn’t have water, but I was only going for 2.6 miles, and it wasn’t hot. I didn’t have my phone, having left it in my bag in the trunk of the car, but I wouldn’t have reception in the woods anyway. I was a little imprudent, perhaps, setting out so rashly into the forest with nothing I needed, and no one knowing, but I felt good about my decision just the same.
I thought, as I watched myself enter the cool, dense woods, that I’d walk for half the time at my disposal, and then decide whether to turn around and come back the same way, or continue and make the whole loop. I hoped there’d be signs showing miles left to go. I walked down the path with the painted blue markers on the pine trees, and thought about bears. There had been no warning about them, about how to behave if confronting one, about whistles to blow and pots to bang. If there had been, I probably wouldn’t have been so brave.
In the woods, I walk unsteadily over rocks and dead branches and tree roots. Unexpectedly, I twist my left foot, my bad one, on the uneven ground, but I keep going. A few minutes later, it twists again. This time it hurts. Damn me and my aging feet, and my legs that will no longer pick up high enough if I don’t tell them to. I keep walking, stiff and plodding, each step feeling unfamiliar and now dangerous. My arms are lifted at my sides to keep my balance, like the broken wings of a bird trying to take flight. I’m looking down more than around, at the hazardous wet, matted leaves that hide the sinews of tree roots and camouflage the jutting rocks and pitted path. I only catch a glimpse here and there of the magic landscape of ferns and young pine trees, the moss emblazoned fallen logs and spider-like netting of twigs and branches caught in tableaux by the sides of the path.
I worry about tripping and breaking a hip, about damaging my foot beyond repair and beyond use, about being slung over some stump till the next hikers happen by – who knows when?
I again naggingly think of bears. I’d first hear the snapping of branches and the crunching of twigs. I know this sound from squirrels and birds. But while they are light and scurry about in staccato, the Black Bear would do it ploddingly, pesante, lento. I hope. I hope he would be plodding and not crashing directly at me.
If he came up slowly, his snout twisting and twitching in the air as he smelled me out, how long would it take him to figure out what I was? Not too long, I suspect. Not much of my biography would get in the way of that. Not too much regarding my neuroses and idiosyncrasies. Nothing about what music I like or what books I’m reading. He wouldn’t know or care that my husband was waiting for me at the cemetery and would worry if I didn’t show in time, or that I even had a husband, or that we live in another country, on another continent, across the ocean. If he knew, what would the bear make of the fact that we can fly like birds every summer and migrate here? No amount of eyeing me down his nose with his deceptively dumb look would help him see that my husband and I have 5 children between us, none of whom we created together. What would he make of this strange scheme of procreation?
What would I gauge of the bear? If he’d finished figuring me out and was going to attack, I guess. Maybe if he were a young bear or not. What do I know of bears? What would I care about knowing any more about him than he about me if he were standing there looking at me?
If he decided I was fair game, I’d have no recourse. Before I twisted my foot, before I blew out my back, before I mashed my knee, before, that is, my body started giving out – I’d have been able to visualize myself shooting through the woods to the road, way ahead of the bear who’d have to lope heavily after me. I’d have been able to envision myself sprinting down the road while reaching for my keys and getting to the car in the nick of time to open the door, start the engine and take off, slamming the car door just as the bear was upon me. Off I’d speed, past his stumped, no longer deceptively dumb look, the stones spinning out from under the tires and pelting the bear in the face as he futilely chased after me.
Maybe I should have brought a whistle and pots to clang together after all – methods that are supposed to work if you can’t outrun the bear but more probably only provide fodder for hearty hunter jokes. (“How do you know the bear you’ve killed is a man-eater? By the whistles you find in his stomach.”) Black bears, I’m told, are not dangerous. And I’ve not actually confronted any in the 12 summers I’ve been coming here. I’m hoping at least one of those two things remain true.
And then, the call of a strange bird. A chipmunk slides down a tree and scurries on to the next one. A boggy patch waits directly in front of me. To my left an oriole is sitting on a lichen-covered boulder staring at me with its one visible black eye. And beyond it, a sunny copse, bright green infused with haze. All demand my attention. I smile as I pass by and I step over the black mud onto solid ground. My arms are swinging now, my pace has quickened, my feet land more firmly and lift off with more spring. As I go on, I begin to look less and see more. The blue markers on the trees greet me like waiting friends.
Before long I know I am not going to turn back the way I came. I don’t know where I am in relation to where I’m going, and it doesn’t disturb me. It liberates me. The whole enterprise has liberated me, and its significance doesn’t escape me. I laugh aloud and the forest smiles down on me.
I am awash in the exhilarating sense of vitality till I see not a bear but that it’s 12:50 on my watch. I need to be at the cemetery at 1:15. I believe I have enough time. I catch sight of the lake to my left through the thick woods, a friendly reminder of my general location. Down the incline towards the water are some orange markers. I think this might be the beginning of the shorter 2.6 mile trail, but there is no other sign, no engraved wooden arrow as there was at the outset, Lowell Lake Trail pointing into the woods and Little Pond Road Trail sitting right under it. Also, what could a shorter trail here be? Over the water? So, no. I stay on the path to the next blue marker, and keep on going.
At 1:00 I again see water and walk down to the lake’s edge. Where in God’s name am I? I don’t recognize the terrain or the view till I look over to my right and see a kayak floating peacefully, the splishing sounds of the oars reaching where I stand. I hope it is the area I see from my writing spot where people go kayaking, and I orient myself accordingly. It seems to me I’m still pretty far away. I start to sweat. Maybe I could get back to the car in 10 minutes and be only a few minutes late. But I resent having this obligation undercut the gratifying, even triumphant uplift I’ve been experiencing. My unfettered freedom in the bosom of the natural world is now sorely fettered by the necessities of the real world, and a husband who is waiting for me at the cemetery.
I scuttle sure-footed away from the water’s edge up the slope slippery with pine needles back to the path. I have to pick up speed. I start jogging on the inclines and scurrying down the descents. I take the stepping stones with ease now across the streams and rivulets, and leap over narrow gorges between boulders. My arms are pumping for speed. I become the Mohican streaking through the forest, feathers and fringes flying. Nothing stops me, till I suddenly come to a paved road. What happened to the trail? I think in a panic.
These moments seem inevitable. I have not been released from myself, after all, or from the exigencies of my commitments. This is not “The Adventures of a Woman Reborn,” despite the desire for narrative relief or a happy end. It is the more palatable tale of an awakening to spirit, energy and vigor despite, and maybe engendered by, challenges.
Even as part of me wants to stay in the woods, I begin to hope that since I’m on a road, some car will drive by and give me a lift to the parking lot. I don’t want to look at my watch. I know it’s late. It’s surely been more than ten minutes since I checked it by the lake. I walk quickly on the road, feeling like a creature out of its element. Out in the open, my steps feel short and my progress slow. The sun is full on me and I feel my shirt sticking to my neck and arms. But I have no time to take it off and tie it around my waist. Even this small action, I’m afraid, will slow me down.
This section on the road is not very long, and soon a familiar wooden sign is visible up ahead, pointing back into the woods. When I reach the sign, I finally see a distance marker. Little Pond Road 0.1 mile. Lowell Lake Dam 1.0 mile. I argue with myself for only a second. How I would love to be able to choose the 0.1 mile path to Little Pond Road, the detour to the lake. But I know that I need to get to the dam, where the trail began right near the parking lot. That means another mile to go! Is that a lot? I don’t know what a mile feels like. I know that distance is invariably longer than I imagine.
Now I am frantic. I am not thinking anymore, not even about why I am frantic. All I know is that I have to move faster, as fast as I can. But if I expend too much energy for too long, I’ll be crawling the last half mile and the increased effort now won’t have been worth it. I intermittently walk and run. When I walk, I feel my left shoe rubbing against my little toe. There will be a blister. That, and my twisted foot, which will give me grief once I stop. When I run, I am both surprised I still can, and aware that the air in my asthmatic lungs is limited. It will give out if I’m not careful.
Every time I see some light filtering through the woods up ahead, I think it may be the path opening onto the parking lot area, but it never is. I don’t really have any idea where the trail will come out at the lake or how far away I am. And then I see a couple ambling in front of me. Where there is an ambling couple, there must be civilization. And a parking lot. But by the time I should have caught up with the pair, they’re nowhere to be seen. Instead, I’m at a fork where a narrow path leads down to a two-story red barn house into which the couple must have disappeared. It’s a lovely house. I wish I could approach and look around. But I have no time to even contemplate the wish.
I walk and run till I find myself in yet another open area. I don’t see the blue markers. Maybe there aren’t any more. Maybe it’s supposed to be obvious to anyone who gets this far where they should be going. But it isn’t so to me, and I momentarily lose my confidence. For lack of a better plan, I keep between grass and tree line till a faint hint of blue in the shadows heralds the trail’s continuation at the end of the clearing. I am tiring the closer I know I’m getting to the end, but I am propelled by alarm at how long this mile is. I begin to wonder if I’ll ever get there. Or if this trail will come out somewhere else, far away from the car, and everything will have gone down the rabbit hole by the time I get to it.
What is “everything”? What “rabbit hole”? My earlier wise insights have been usurped by the demands of necessity – in this case, the responsibility I’ve taken on towards another person. Wise insights are like soap bubbles. They are delicate entities that delight when afloat and inevitably are popped by the air that carries them.
Finally, I recognize where I am – right above the farthest spot I’ve ever sat by the lake. I’m almost there. There’s a sunny path going off to the right that could be a shortcut to the parking lot, but I’m afraid it might not be, and I can’t afford to have to backtrack. So, I continue down what might be the longer way. I am very hot. Sweat is starting to drip down my temples to my cheeks. My left foot is making itself felt. Those last few yards are the longest, the hardest, the slowest. My hand is already at my pocket, grabbing at the car keys. I’m unbuttoning my shirt so I can pull it off as I open the car door. I remember the coffee cup I left standing in the trunk next to my gear. I have to stop and get it out so it doesn’t spill while I’m driving.
I see my little old car almost neighing and rearing up in anticipation of the flight to the cemetery. I look at my watch as I spring open the trunk. 1:35! So very late. There’s not a split second to lose, although I know, I know but push the knowledge away, that it doesn’t matter anymore. I am late beyond repair. I’ve lost the contest with time. Ah, yes. But no time for more insights!
Down the narrow, rocky road I speed to where it meets Little Pond Road, paved and welcoming. I spur on my steed. It careens around bends, albeit grudgingly, to the crossroad at Route 11. I see the 50 mile an hour speed limit, but don’t heed it. I was already doing 50 back on the dirt road. Now, pedal to the metal, I reach and race through the town and up the hill to the cemetery.
From a distance, I see a figure standing on the road. I flash my lights and screech to a halt by his feet. He just stands there. He’s as white as if he’s seen a ghost, and I am it. Mouth agape, breathing heavily, he just stares at the car. He doesn’t budge. I open my window and coax him in. I put my hand on his arm and pat it as I drive, a little to revive him, a little to assure him I am there. I say, “I’m sorry” over and over for the length of the ride as I drive him, head in hand and silent, back home. He’d been standing there long enough to entertain all kinds of thoughts, including that I might be dead. He’d been in the cemetery, after all, but I’d been so very alive.
A bird in flight pulled by its perch. The balance remained to be seen. Again, new dynamics. Again, love.
It is overwhelming, to be sure, the encounter with mortality, with decline, with how much is over, how much is gone, how little is left, with how short life actually is, with the meaninglessness of our arrogant existence, the little we have and are within the incomprehensible universe.
But I finally had enough of being overwhelmed. Growing old is like every other metamorphosis in our lives, only with a philosophic twist of impending finality sprinkled over just about everything. The aches and pains, the limbs and muscles that don’t work the way we want them to, the physical self that is unfamiliar to us, are like those of the infant beginning to walk, the child whose body is incapable of meeting the challenges she’s sure she’d be ready for, the teenager whose awkwardness dashes his sense of self, the woman whose sexuality is trumped by the maternal, the middle aged beings whose hormones seep out of the cells of which they are made. There’s only forward. Everything else is salt, and turns us to salt.
It was a long haul to having enough of being overwhelmed. I raged against the dying of the light, and then learned to accept it. The acceptance wasn’t a capitulation but a product of the process of rage. Everything is what it is, whatever it is. We imbue it with meaning.
I fell on my walk through the orchards one morning. My foot got caught on a root on the path between two rows of almond trees. It lay exposed, but I didn’t see it. I was looking ahead at the fuzzy green shells of the unripe almonds, the new leaves growing on the branches, the white clouds in the turquoise spring sky, the crows that suddenly flapped out of the tree tops as my footfalls loudly cracked on the beds of dry leaves, and the Lapwings that scolded me indignantly in my wake.
I tripped and fell. I was sure I could break my fall, but I thudded on the ground, scraping palms and knees as I skidded a few inches, fully prone. What am I doing here on the ground like a small child, like an old lady? I got up, brushed myself off and checked what I’d injured besides knees and palms and pride. I knew I’d pay later with delayed bruises and pains. I retrieved my phone that had sailed out of the side pocket of my back pack when I hit the ground. A lighter body would have fallen more lightly, I admonished myself. Lose weight. I started walking again and commanded myself to watch the ground from now on, and pick my feet up higher.
I kept on walking because I’d been on my way somewhere and I wasn’t going to be daunted. Besides, I wasn’t more than slightly hurt. Within a few minutes, I was looking around at everything just as I had before and did not keep my eyes to the ground. My feet lifted off the ground no higher than they ever had, and it didn’t matter whether I was old, young, overweight, thin, foolish, smart, injured, or whole.
The storm did not just pass through. It left the river unfamiliar. The destruction all around has been mostly taken care of, including shoring up the river banks, which crumbled and cascaded into the waters. But there is a different lay of the boulders and rocks, creating a different road map of waves and movement. Beneath the surface, there is a new green world of weepy moss and weeds fluttering like flags, something more alive than before, yet trapped within the river. Something sunken that blazes verdant in the sunlight.
I am starting on a new path, heading into a new world that isn’t alien but is still unknown. Part of this process of aging was reuniting with my father, whom I had the opportunity to rediscover when I was 20 years older than he had been when he wrote his post-war travel journal. The journal was written in Yiddish, and my desire to read it and translate it for my children led to a felicitous return home to my mother tongue and hence my roots, my history and that of my family.
That personal project produced a suggestion I teach Yiddish to a group interested in forming for that purpose. It was more a need to jump headlong into a new venture than any confidence I had in my adequacy that induced me to overcome the reluctance I felt. In doing so, I chose to reclaim and redeem what once was, to excavate what was present though mostly buried, hidden, there but not there. Now I would resurrect. Was it also a delusion I was entertaining that this “new” chapter signified not only more to do, but more time to do it in?
I got another job offer to teach Yiddish at the adult education college: teaching a dying language to pensioners. How fitting. But I loved the idea of new things coming my way.
On orientation day, I approached the college auditorium for the ingathering ceremony. From all around the campus, hundreds of older and elderly people were homing in on the building. The atmosphere outside was festive, and when I walked through the doors, I was greeted by a roar of sound and scintillating energy. I took in the astonishing hubbub of vitality, and was humbled. I was going to be a teacher here, but that morning I was being educated in the possibilities of aging, which left me delighted and eager. It was not a matter of aging gracefully or wistfully or through denial, but of going forward, of unsticking one gargoyled foot, and then the other, joyfully. It helped that I found myself in the company of others doing the same.
In this spirit, I joined a hiking group on whole day excursions every few weeks to walk the 78 mile Golan Trail. The members of the group were all seniors my age or older. The oldest was a woman in her late 80s. I was among the youngest but usually found myself only towards the middle of the walking group. I was glad I wasn’t at the end, being the least experienced hiker, and again humbled by those at the front, who were almost running. Though the trail was suited to the age group, some parts were treacherous, others difficult. But we kept going together. When I returned at the end of a day of hiking, I was exhausted and exhilarated.
I was having coffee with a student of mine before our Yiddish lesson one day at the college. We were both in our 60s but sitting there with him and talking, it felt to me as though time had peeled off altogether. Age was not present. Nor was it present as I was walking home one evening through the gorgeous pink-and-orange sunset after visiting with my little grandson. The magnificence presided over the landscape, and I was part of it, part of everything. There was nothing outside my reveling in the moment. I let this overwhelm me.
The depression has lifted, the obsession has waned. The fight has gone out of me. I have no battles to win, no temporal territory to defend. For now, I’m not an aging person. I’ve become a new older person, a new old me.
The river is happy today. After 5 inches of rainfall in 2 days, it is full and flush and flowing like a young thing again. The ferns on the opposite bank stand tall, preening in the late morning sun. My rock on this side of the river is half submerged and I feel more afloat in the water than above it on cold granite. The shapes and formations of boulders that seemed to be grinding into one another like old bones in a shrinking carcass have dipped below the churning surface of the water and are being cooled, cleansed and replenished.
The river is forging through the trees at a mad pace and disappearing from view just past some shrubbery protruding into the water like a foot trying to trip it up on its run to the sea. It careens around a bend in the riverbed, streaking toward the horizon, racing against itself, each wave and its own invisible driver.
The sound is overwhelming. There is no other. Perhaps the sound of one hand clapping or a tree falling in the depths of the forest behind the ferns on the other side. A silent cackle of ducks appears close by, the mother leading her brood of 10 ducklings across the water. She darts out, auburn feathers flying out behind her like a 50s hairdo and her chicks follow, paddling madly. Midway, they pause, and I am afraid the young ones will have no more strength to finish the journey. But the mother takes the lead again and they follow. An extra spurt of energy gets them to the other side. They hop up onto the sunny rocks by the bank to shake themselves dry and peck at their feathers. But they do not loiter. Within a few minutes I see them all gathered in the water and heading back out to this side of the river. This time, one of the upstarts is leading the way with the mother bringing up the rear. They’ve picked a less riotous spot and manage to make it over in one go. I see that the mother uses her wings like secondary oars and realize she is more proficient but also already less nimble. Soon she will have had enough.
The river is happy because it has forgotten the rejection at its origin that set it in motion. Rivers don’t intentionally begin their run to the sea. The source water drips and drops off the high places that can no longer contain it. It rushes to the sea as if yearning, and once there, will not stay for long.