October 28, 2009

Water Under The Bridge

October 26, 2009
Forty years ago today I arrived in the Phoenix desert, a physically fragile seventeen-year-old, to live with family friends. I’d just survived a near-death experience; and a second hospitalization that followed on its heels suggested there was little the Midwest medical community could do for me, a severe asthmatic. Our only real option remaining was to check me into Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, to see if the best minds in America couldn’t find a way to keep me alive. But then family friends unexpectedly stopped by for a visit, enroute to Phoenix for a new job at Arizona State, and invited me to come live with them. The desert was supposed to be good for people like me, and thus I arrived. Forty years ago today—October 26, 1969.

For me, there is much water under the bridge in this Arizona desert. To say that my year in Tempe, Arizona, was the best of my life is an understatement. Seventeen and finding myself suddenly healthy, away from home for the first time, and going to a high school that required nothing more of me than literature, sculpture, and music? Surrounded by new friends and, in today’s vernacular, stumbling onto a BFF? I wonder, do we ever recapture the intensity of being a teenager? A time of life when everything touches the soul so deeply? Is of such import? Perhaps this is why my concurring sexual molestation at the hands of the Christian doctor into whose care I’d been entrusted was so damaging, sliding my happy life sideways and then right off the road—though it was a long time before I ever came out of what feels to have been an emotional coma to the rubble I was in. Aware enough, though, that when I left the state five or six years later, I never spoke of Arizona again. Until my divorce at the age of twenty-nine. So much water under the bridge.

Two and a half years ago, though, nearly four decades of disassociation ended. How to describe this? Once, when cleaning out a closet, a dirty cast fell on my head. Whose broke arm had this been for? I’d wondered, thinking of my children. Blake’s? Phil’s? Heather had broken her leg; it wasn’t hers. Like the cast, my molestation fell out of a closet and hit me on the head. Not that I’d ever forgotten, far from it, but what was it doing back in my life? How did it get here after all this time? And why fall on my head now?

So after thirty-eight years of repressing Arizona I returned to the desert to reconnect with friends “who knew me then” and to face for the first time the trauma that subconsciously defined my life, now floundering on a bedrock of Self that had been smote and cracked, necessitating I live two lives of “then” and “now” with no real way forward. My BFF’s sister, the minister’s wife of the little church we all attended, and one of my youth group leaders took me over to the doctor’s office, now a parking lot for Scottsdale Hospital. Quite the crying jag. I’d never wept over this, but thirty-eight years of pain and confusion broke through some kind of emotional dam. My friends sat quietly with me, but in the murkiness of that gutting pain that caught me off guard and took my breath I sensed their love. How is it that in thirty-eight years of silence such love survives? I was amazed, and fortified, but still I felt I might drown and sink into some kind of emotional abyss, never to return. I could not stop crying, they could not help me—and then I remembered my BFF.

Wayne had been the one who’d begun taking me to the doctor all those years ago—never knowing, of course, what was really going on. I got through it all by picturing him in the waiting room, patiently waiting for me. I can see him still, sitting in a corner, opposite the receptionist’s window. I can see the pictures on the wall over his head, I can see the little table beside him full of magazines. He picks one up, takes a look, throws it back. He jiggles his knee. I only had to survive and he’d take me away. Is there a way to explain this man whose very presence evoked calm, whose smile and humor healed my soul? We certainly were not lovers, nor had we ever admitted any level of love for each other, yet it was evident enough to everyone around us that love was a living thing in our lives. And in all the years ever since? I’ve never heard or seen anyone with such an attachment. But it was by remembering this that I pulled myself together outside Scottsdale Hospital’s parking lot two years ago—remembering my old BFF who never failed to take me away from it all.

Back at home and all cried out, I was happy to have it out of my system at last and ready to begin the task of integrating my lost self with my real self, knitting together “then” and “now” into a cohesive trail forward into time. Not. Dr. Mattson continued to haunt me, as did my life after him—so full of anguish. For I’d I married badly in the Arizona desert, and immediately found myself trapped in a loveless and demeaning marriage. “Your body is not your own,” I was told, the Bible shoved under my nose to prove it. And indeed it was not. Nor was mind, my heart, or my soul. I only existed to be a Christian man’s domestic and sexual slave. Years later, still married, Oregon passed a law against marital rape. My husband was righteously indignant. I yearned to move to Oregon. Yes, a lot of water under the bridge in this Arizona desert.

So this September I found myself again planning a return to what had been the happiest time of my life and concurrently the most unhappy. Consciously it was to escape the rut I was in, an attempt to try and write, check out the job market, play with old friends—to put distance between my stagnant life where I could not find a job, could not focus long enough to write any one of a gazillion book ideas I had in my head…could not forget the desert of my life.

When Judith Couchman heard of my plans she wrote to remind me of the many Biblical stories involving deserts and exile…and forty days and forty nights and sometimes forty years. All were odysseys, she pointed out, taken by individuals, whole cities, entire nations. Always their journeys brought about transformation (http://www.judithcouchman.blogspot.com). I quickly added up the six weeks I planned to be gone. Forty-two days. Close enough. I added up the years. Forty. Right on the nose. Suddenly, my conscious decision to face the desert took on new meaning. This was a spiritual odyssey. Somehow, I think, I’d known it all along: I was desperately seeking transformation.

No one knows what Jesus suffered in his wilderness, or Moses on Mt. Sinai. Or Elijah in the cave at Mount Horeb. Joseph Campbell in his many books on mythology, religion, and psychology, writes that such wilderness journeys are life-threateningly tough. We can feel devoured, overcome, hopelessly lost. Such journeys require tasks to be completed, demons to be confronted, hurdles to be crossed. They’re journeys that require letting go of everything old to embrace everything new and unknown, and which exact self-examination that can border obsession. But not to worry, he writes, we’re all given “magical” help whenever we need it. Jesus received wisdom in the desert, Moses the Ten Commandments on Sinai, Elijah food at Mount Horeb. We too receive. The darkest hour is where we find the divine. All our stories, Campbell points out, tell us it is in the wilderness where we find new health and healing and hope.

Three days into my own journey and not yet at the desert, my faithful jeep of 220,000 miles died—leaving me stranded in San Jose, California, at the home of former friends. Do I go home? It was a viable question to ask. Retreat to safety and stagnation?

Or do I go on? Into the unknown?

Marilyn, upon whose doorstep I’d landed, said, “You need to go on. You can’t go back.” It was a little hard for both of us to miss the Biblical mandate or for me to miss Campbell’s “Call to Adventure.”

And thus I landed back in the Arizona desert just days before the fortieth anniversary of my initial arrival, no longer seventeen but fifty-seven—without a car and the house I’d rented dirty, no hot water, the toilets backing up. As my mother would say, a real fine how-do-you-do. Thank you very much God, thank you very much Joseph Campbell.

As with Marilyn in San Jose, I was at the mercy of former family and friends; as with Marilyn they rushed to help. The house I am renting is actually right next door to my former mother-in-law. In fact, it was Nelda who’d made all the arrangements. It was she who immediately lent me cleaning supplies, a radio, coffee maker, who brought over a Merry Maids mug ironically labeled “Savor your clean house,” and who just now brought over a microwave rice dinner she’d picked up for me at Costco. My old BFF Wayne jumped right in and lent me his car and agreed to help me find a new one. His little sister Carol had me over for supper and sent me on my way with more cleaning supplies and kitchen equipments: dishes, pots and pans, measuring cups, utensils. She came over the next day with a table and chairs and spent several hours cleaning windows and helping me settle in. Ten days into my wilderness venture I was unable to shake the loss of my jeep and the financial drain it was creating…but I was surrounded by love that overlooked decades of silence; in Nelda’s case, deep hurt. I, after all, had divorced her son.

When Elijah headed into the wilderness to seek the brook Cherith, God sent ravens to bring him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening. It wasn’t exactly a balanced meal but it’s a story that tells us there is provision in our desert experiences.

Yet on the thirteenth day of my exile I hit melt down, the many ironies and conflicts—and sheer weariness—catching up with me. My former mother-in-law and I went to church and afterward lunch (“You’re going to Baptist church?” my youngest son had asked the night before on the phone. “You’re going to a Southern Baptist church?), only to find Wayne on my doorstep when we got back. He’d left his cell phone in his car—which I of course had. He wanted the phone back. At the sight of him, hands in his pockets and patiently waiting, a stance I’d seen a hundred times when we were kids, tears stung.

“What’s wrong?” he wanted to know, his grown-up self greeting me at my door.

“Oh, Wayne, I’m having such a bad day.”

He sprawled onto one my couches, but not without laughing at the blankets I’d placed over them both. I amuse him with my leeriness of the dirt around here. His laughter made me laugh. “So what’s going on?” he asked, his summer-sky eyes seeking my face, the color and gaze a part of my past.

The car of course. That I was borrowing his, that I couldn’t work up much enthusiasm to find a new one, my awareness of taking so much of his time in looking. “I just want to buy a jar of peanut butter,” I said. “But there’s a whole row of peanut butter! So many different brands, different sizes, different ingredients. All I want is just a jar of peanut butter!”

But mostly, I told him, the whole molestation thing was hitting me hard. I didn’t tell him it had occupied my attention all morning while a Southern Baptist minister at times made my skin crawl with self-deprecating arrogance. I’d forgotten how some preachers can be this way, how some congregations can laugh, enjoy the comfort of their own superiority over the misguided and unenlightened world. I said instead, “Tomorrow will be the fortieth anniversary of my initial arrival here. Forty years. October 26.”

He expressed no surprise that I could be so anal about this. In reality I have both a calendar—which I remember keeping, and a journal—which I have no memory whatsoever of writing.

"And on November 11…” I had to look away. “I don’t know if I can talk about this,” I said.

“It’s up to you. I don’t know what you need. I don’t understand how this happens in the first place. I can’t tell you how to fix this.”

I slid my eyes sideways. He was watching me.

“November 11th,” I repeated, heart catching, fluttering like a butterfly in my throat, “will mark forty years to the day of his first assault.” I started to cry a little, and had to look away again. “It would have been better if he’d raped me,” I finally said. “I could have at least told someone about that. But…”

Everyone I know and everything I’ve ever read tells me the only way out of this kind of thing is to tell someone. Get the words out, put them somewhere else. Yet how, if I literally cannot talk about it? And truly, if it were that simple, I would have done it a long time ago. Joseph Campbell, I realized, was absolutely right when he said it could feel life threatening. “I can’t—literally I can’t—talk about this,” I explained to my old BFF, obviously with an emphasis now on the second F. “I try, but the words stick in my throat. So, on November 11th…”

“November 11th,” he said, thinking this all through. “That’s Veterans’ Day. There’s no trading. I don’t have to work.”

"This is what I’m thinking,” I told him, buoyed by his willing support with whatever and wherever I was going with this, and shared the plan I’d more or less come up with while sitting in Nelda’s church, the old Baptist hymns holding better memories than the preacher. How had I gotten through before? I’d asked myself. The answer was glaringly obvious. I’d gotten through because Wayne had been there. Waiting for me. Behind the closed door all I had to do was go away in my head and then come back when it was over, and he’d take me away, make me laugh again, plant me back in a world where life was good and wonderful and safe. I said, “I’m going to try and write this down, Really try. But then I think I’ll burn it all and make ashes, and put the ashes in a baggie. I don’t want anyone else burdened; it’s too terrible. But if I brought the ashes to your house? Will you take me up South Mountain? It’s pretty there. I like that part of the desert. I would feel good to just leave it all there. I can find a place to either bury it all or just let it all blow away in the wind.”

“I can do that.”

“But you can’t be there when I do it. I’ll cry. I don’t want you see me. But I need you close by so that if I start howling you’ll know to come get me. I need you to come get me. I’m scared of falling into an abyss and never finding my way out again.” With sudden clarity I knew this was my terrble fear. What if I reentered that place, one last time, disappearing deep into my mind in order to survive, what if this time I couldn’t find my way back out? For surely the River Styx runs through my psyche as dangerously and treacherously as it does in myth.

"I’ll come get you,” he promised.

Amazing how a plan can make all the difference! More amazing is how I can reach back in time and find my friend just as I remember him.

I actually slept well and in the morning, this morning, the fortieth anniversary of my initial arrival in the desert, I hurried over to Wayne’s house, driving freeways that never existed in our former life, actually looking forward to test-driving one of the cars we’d found the day before my melt down. He was waiting outside. “How are you today?” he asked when I jumped out of his Saturn, stretched, and all but jumped into his arms.

“I’m good!”

He laughed.

To the casual observer and perhaps even to Wayne the day was mundane enough. Test-driving one of two cars he thought reliable, taking it over to his mechanic, meeting Carol to celebrate and sign on the dotted line that made me the new owner of a 2005 Toyota Scion. But momentous, too, for all day long with Wayne—taking care of the car stuff, running errands, having lunch and laughing over the differences in our memories, making a date for him to come see me in the Pacific Northwest next year when the movie Eat, Pray, Love comes out—I couldn’t help but compare our “then” to “now” and think of all the water under the bridge. When all is said and done, it is my desert that forges our friendship. That's a good thing.

At one point in our running around and driving past something that astonished me, I asked, "What’s this called?”

He filled me in, then pointed out, “See the orange flowers, reaching up from the mounded foliage over there?”


"That’s Birds of Paradise.”

So that was Birds of Paradise. I fell in love.

He pointed out the sycamore trees.

They were like the eucalyptus.

"Do they smell?” I asked.

“I don’t know.”

For forty years Arizona has been in my mind a barren landscape of sand and city concrete, blinding sunlight and unbearable heat, painted grass, plastic geraniums planted in artificial rows. Now? Today, I found myself suddenly planting a garden in my mind. I’d have Birds of Paradise alongside a lavender-like plant that I have growing in my own garden back home, but which also grows here. I’d put in some of that magenta bougainvillea—the torch kind, the kind Wayne really likes and which Sue Grafton writes about in her mstery series. The orange, the lavender with its silver foliage, the magenta…all back-dropped by an apricot adobe wall? How pretty is that? Add some prickly pear cactus off to the side, some saguaro strategically placed to add height.

"What are you doing?” he asked. “You thinking of taking some of that home with you?”


"Birds of Paradise.”

"No! I’m planting a garden here!” and I laughed, surprised at myself.

It’s evening now. I look around this house I’ve rented. Everywhere I look, I see Carol and Nelda my mother-in-law (we agreed to drop the “former as too precise and probably not all that accurate)—the coffee maker, the table, the dishes, the mugs on the kitchen windowsill.

If I get up and go look in the garage, I’ll find my new car. It’s metallic gray, same color as the pots and pans Carol has lent me, a car picked out by Wayne. Even though he doesn't like boxy cars.

Yes, a momentous day.

I can think of another very similar day.

Not long after my divorce, maybe twenty-five years ago, I was having lunch at Seattle’s Shilshoe Bay with my friend and editor Jerry Jones and some our friends in the publishing business. It was one of those perfect summer afternoons, sun glinting off the water, boats of all shapes and sizes bobbing on the bay, good food, happy company. Afterward everyone dispersed, leaving just Jerry and me—and the swooping, soaring gulls that populate the waterfront. I was suddenly quite overcome with happiness to be divorced, to having endured the pain, to now have these friends, to be amongst people who admired me, who valued me. I threw up my arms and spun around.

"Oh Jerry,” I told him, “I’m so happy to be alive!” and I hurtled into his arms, surprising him and beside myself with gratitude and love.

His snort is actually a delightful sound, one only he can make, a sound I still hear it in my mind whenever I think to listen. That day he snorted loud and laughed hard, and let me wallow in my happiness.

Today is kin. I’m not on the waterfront, no seagulls caw in my ears. I am in the desert. Where much water lies under the bridge.

But water, I'm finding, that can nonetheless nourish my soul.

October 24, 2009

When The Net Appears

“Just go!’ my youngest son said, silencing my many fears and worries over my odyssey to the Arizona desert where I was going ostensibly to write and get way from fifteen months of unemployment. In reality I was headed for more of a spiritual odyssey than anything else. You see, I think I’m actually in full-blown post-traumatic stress—paralyzed by forty years of accumulated anxiety. Time to go back to the desert where life first slid sideways. Time to try and let go of old trauma so I can find a new beginning.

“But what if my Jeep dies?” I asked Blake. Too Cool is the coolest car I ever had. After eleven years of junkers that only a single mother of three can afford, in 1993 I bought myself a brand spanking new Jeep Cherokee Sport. Together and over the last sixteen years we’ve put on 220,000 miles. Every winter for sixteen years she’s taken me skiing, never a moment of fear, not even when we once slid into a ditch. Out she chugged, kids squealing in the back seat. We’ve been to Banff in the Canadian Rockies too many times to count, roamed the prairies, just the two of us, driving Big Bear’s trail, connecting the dots on my great-grandfather’s whereabouts as a Mountie during Sitting Bull, poking our noses into gullies and following old rivers and finding all kinds of surprises.

"Just go, already!” said Blake.

So I packed up Too Cool and headed south, to the desert, to sunnier skies and family and friends who, despite the forty years, still love and care for me. And where I hoped to undergo some sort of esoteric experience of “letting go.”

She started to overheat while driving into San Jose, California, where I’d once lived and where I’d scheduled a stop to visit my old Bible study teacher, a woman who’d tempered the wind for me in dark years of fundamentalist Christianity and other troubles. Controlling the hot engine by turning the heater on full blast, I limped into Marilyn’s place, one sweaty gal and a wee bit worried. Was it safe to drive on to Phoenix where the temperatures would be even hotter? Even if I could, could I cope with the heater going full blast, the temperature outside 100 degrees?

Weekend coming up, Marilyn’s husband Fred advised me to get the car into a mechanic. They called their son-in-law, a former mechanic, to recommend someone else to take a look at my hot Jeep—how ironic her name is Too Cool. Four and half hours later and Friday at five Michael and Company had no idea what was going on. I’d have to bring her back Monday morning for more poking around.

So instead of one night with Marilyn and Fred, I spent several, stranded and at the mercy of these long-ago friends to house, feed, and help me cope with mounting angst. Their love, rooted decades ago, blossomed—their graciousness a fragrance I find hard to describe. I began to hope that Too Cool might be all right after all, for how could bad things happen when I had such good friends? But Monday morning the nice man behind the counter said his only option was to pull the engine, another six hours of diagnostics—and that would only buy me a diagnosis. From there the cost would continue to go up; he was thinking cracked gasket and other mean-sounding things. I was sick to my stomach.

Someone once told me you can’t love things, only people. But I love eucalyptus trees, I love the falling snow, and the first robin in spring. And I love that Jeep. Just three months ago I’d refused to pay $200 to replace a broken seat belt buckle. Too Cool blue-booked out at 300 bucks, and it was hardly worth it, but I found myself okaying the additional $600 diagnostics and called Marilyn to come pick me up.

When she arrived, we sat in her car while I fought tears. She quietly suggested I change my mind and junk the car. It was a punch in the gut to an already sick stomach. “At least take some time to think about it,” she said. So I went in, got my keys, and followed my friend back to her house in tears, only to find that Fred agreed. Junk the car. I called my children.

“Look, she’s served you well,” the youngest said, the same young man who told me, Just go! “We knew she had to die sometime.”

“Yeah but you told me not to worry!”

“Right, don’t worry.”

My middle son said, “Mum, this really should come as no big surprise. You need to cut your losses. Everything will be okay. It’s all just logistics.”

My daughter simply said, “Oh, no! I’m so sorry!” I like her response the best.

I called my best friend from my high school, senior year, seventeen in Arizona, hoping Wayne's humor and smart mind might save me, save my car. “I’m the only dissenting voice,” I told him.

“And why are you dissenting?” he asked when I gave him the particulars. “It’s sixteen years old. It’s a Jeep. (Like Jeeps totally suck.) It has 220,000 miles. You’re lucky you’ve gotten this far.”

“But what if I try to drive it to Arizona at night?” I wasn’t going to give up. “When the temperature is cool?”

He didn’t even hesitate. “Absolutely not. That’s not going to happen.”

How do you even junk a car?

Fred and Marilyn found some phone numbers, a task I seemed incapable of doing. We finally settled on Pick and Pull, an offensive name as far I was concerned; but they offered to pay me $241. Not quite Blue Book, but enough to let me rent a car for the rest of the journey—or get myself home. Marilyn pressed. Forward, not backward. This is a spiritual odyssey. It’s about letting go, new horizons. It’s about trust. True… And I really did expect to let go of things along the way—things like ideas, not my car! I see now it was a rather transcendental view, sounding good on paper and even in my head, but when the rubber, so to speak, really met the road? My car? I had to let go of my car?

When Too Cool was still brand new I’d bought her a fancy ski and car rack. The ski rack had been taken off sometime last summer to load lumber and was still at home in the garage. The car rack, years ago, had gone to my son-in-law—though I maintained dibs whenever I needed it. He’d dutifully removed it from his car back to mine less than a week ago. How was I to get this back to him?

Fred made a cardboard box out of recycle in his garage and we all went down to FedEx and I shipped off all that would remain of Too Cool. It was like removing a wedding band and sending it off to the next of kin. We then stripped Too Cool down to her skivvies and headed for Pick and Pull, gray clouds gathering and clumping like knots in the sky, rain trying to spit against the cracks lacing my windshield.

I parked on the street. Fred and I went in. A rather efficient, cold-hearted operation. I handed over my car title, the man no older than twelve tapped on his keyboard awhile, printed out a check for $241, thirty pieces of silver, and passed it to me over an industrial desk. He and Fred went to “check her in” and I sat numb in my metal chair.

I did not expect to see Too Cool again. But there she was, right there at the foot of the stairway when I went out, right in my face, red ink scrawled all over her windows, a humiliating end for such a faithful car. I looked away, blinking hard, almost ashamed that I could do such a thing, and I walked a little faster, a growing sense of betrayal somehow lodging so firmly inside my chest that my heart actually hurt. By the time we reached the street, tears stung. Fred--an arm around my shoulder and quick hug--said, “Look.” Spilling out of the steely gray swarm of clouds hung the two ends of a brilliant rainbow that arched the expanse of heaven. “Does that say anything to you?” he asked.
Did I say this was a spiritual odyssey? Even a hardcore atheist has to be hard pressed not to see a sign of hope in such a universal symbol.

It’s been four days now. I write from the desert, where I did arrive safely; and I find myself once again trusting long ago friends to take care of me. The house I rented is dirty, there’s no hot water, the toilets back up. And I have no car of. But Like Marilyn and Fred, my former mother-in-law and my friends from high school have pitched in with grace and goodwill. Cleaning supplies, kitchen equipment, Wayne's snazzy wheels on loan. Old habits die hard, though, and I fret over my finances and what kind of car I can buy on an unemployment check. I wake up nights in a cold sweat, dreaming I’m back to the old clunkers I used to drive.

“I just can’t go back there,” I tell Wayne. “I just can’t.” I don’t tell him I’m in the throes of flashback time, so many flashbacks to car failure and danger it’s like watching my grandpa’s old movies. Jerky. Moving too fast. But instead of images of my dad as a boy, it’s all my old cars falling apart. I see myself pumping gas by Seattle’s Kingdome and watching it pour right out the bottom of my camper van. I’m climbing a summit in the Santa Cruz Mountains and losing my clutch, rolling backward, nearly off a cliff. I have to get a kid to the doctor and the car won’t start, again! I shut my eyes to block the jerking kaleidoscope of memories.

“I can’t, I just can’t go back to all that, Wayne.” He tells me not to worry, he won’t let me buy a car that isn’t reliable, and while he doesn’t think it can be done on my budget he’ll find a way, he’ll make this work.

This much I know. Wayne will never lie to me. In the old days he never knew the dark trauma of my early days in the desert forty years ago (something I will probably never share with the world) but he was nonetheless aware of how troubled I was at times. He not only made my life work, but he gave me the best year of my life. So this much I know. Wayne will never lie to me. Never. I suddenly discover that I have at least this much trust.

In San Jose I’d asked my son Phil, “Do you have any last words before I take Too Cool to the junkyard?”

“I don’t know… It’s been a good ride?”

Yes, it’s been a good ride. And though it stings like hell to say goodbye, it is goodbye. Time to let go. Time to trust friends, and to thank God for letting my faithful car die under a rainbow.

Rest in peace, Too Cool.

Family and friends are the sunrise on a new horizon.

P.S. After writing this I found myself in tears again. The son who insisted, "Just go" told me on the phone last night, "Look at this way, Mum. You enjoyed a long and monogamous relationship with that Jeep. You loved her. You'll never love another car like her again. But now I think it's time to start sleeping around. You got to start looking for one that will at least do."

I laughed.

October 05, 2009

It's All in the Feet. Oh, yeah, don't forget the tongue...

Introducing Nathan, my second grandson, seven years old, and hooked on Wii. What was I doing when I was seven? Mmmmm.... Grade 2 and board games. Actually, Nathan and his little brother Jamie are only allowed to play once a week; it's a big deal. The tiny voice you hear in the background? Evelyn Rose, three years old.

October 04, 2009

Leap and the Net Will Appear: On Aging and Going Places

I used to wonder why old people talked incessantly about the past and their health. Now I know. That's all there is.

Their present is awash in physical diminishment. Their future is all about down-sizing and giving up and letting go. No scenic tours anymore; it's a one-way street on a dead end. My old Uncle Tim, who lived to be 104, used to say that if you could eat, sleep, and poop you had nothing to complain about. I don't know. I think old sucks...To stay sane, old people have to focus on the past! They have to talk about their health; together they solve issues their doctors can't or won't.

The whole thing depresses me. I'm not ready to sink into the past, to down-size, give up, let go--be content with eating, sleeping and pooping. I still want to "seize the day," do something wild, exciting, make plans like I was twenty, go places, "live it up." I am not this person in the mirror! I am not this person who keeps talking about gluten intolerance, or who gets excited over Dr. Oz and discussions about blood pressure.

Did I say the whole thing depresses me? I think if I have to live another year like the one before, stuck in my tiny house, the skies endlessly gray wherever I look, my only company being the aging woman in the mirror and my only diversion the relentless task of searching for jobs that don't exist, I will go stark raving mad. Truly. Really, how pointless is it to be fifty-seven years old in a state where "young" is cutting edge, there are only 14,000 jobs, and 360,000 unemployed? The definition of crazy, I've heard said, is doing the same old thing over and over and expecting different results. Can I really expect to continue what I'm doing and not go crazy?

So I've been toying with the idea of going to Arizona for awhile. Why? I don't really know. I just feel compelled. It's like I have to do something. Anything. Yet it's irrational because I have little money and no place to live down there--and figuring it all out boggles my mind! But can I really afford to stay put, fretting over my falling face, talking about my health, and looking into extended care insurance? This is a shrinking world with nothing more to look forward to but Medicare.

I have to ask--Instead of down-sizing, giving up, and letting go, why can't I be like my niece Jamie, who just took off across Canada, BC to Newfoundland, with just her thumb and a couple of friends? Why the bloody heck not?

The answer of course is that I have the weight of age in my soul, Jamie does not. She has a whole future ahead of her. She doesn't need to carry the worry over money like me. She's got her eye on Newfoundland, not Medicare. So this lack of money at my age is a big deal. Being unemployed for 15 months is an even bigger deal. It means that my savings has been leaking like a helium balloon and, last time I checked, I did not have a fairy godmother with a lovely magic wand and handy helium tank.

There are of course a host of other problems that weigh me down. Like an old Jeep with 220,000 miles on it--and no air conditioning. In Arizona! And what about my medications? How will I get the hormones refilled? The thyroid? See? Old people talk about their health all the time. And now that we're back to that, I might as well confess that my aging brain slows down on the necessary logistics that have to be worked through, spinning around and around like the "wheel of death" on my Macintosh computer. Like I said, mind boggled. With no way to reboot.

Yet I used to do this kind of stuff all the time. Never thought twice. Just packed up and took off, went wherever my little heart fancied. And in cars a whole lot less reliable than my sixteen-year-old Jeep. A whole lot less. People used to think I was nuts. Hey, give me this kind of crazy any day. Simply never occurred to me back then to distrust myself, or my ability to conquer whatever problem I might encounter. But now that I'm aging? This unrecognizable, slow-chugging brain of mine finds it almost impossible (certainly difficult) to keep new fears at bay, the logistics sorted, everything logically pursued to resolution. Really, what the heck am I doing? This more or less sticking out my thumb and heading for Newfoundland?

Ah, but into all this mental chaos and soul-searching doubt and high anxiety and suffocating fear that doesn't become me arrives my youngest son, temporarily camped at my doorstep because he has a squatter who's taken up residence in his condo. "Just go," he tells me. "Just do it!"


"Just do it!"

 My friend Heidi has a magnet on her frig. Leap and the net will appear. This is, of course, a divine principle better known as "faith
and trust" in the language of Christianity. For some reason, though, right now it's easier for me to believe a magnet. So Heidi--who's always leaped and always landed on her feet--and with a whole shiny life to show for it--lent me her magnet. So between reading it a dozen times a day on my own frig and my son's "Just go, do something different, hit the road, take off..." I have been doggedly plotting my course for Arizona. Reserving, of course, the right to escape at any time back into my dull routine of getting old and endlessly applying for jobs that don't exist while staring at the gray skies of our Pacific Northwest and watching the new Dr. Oz show. "You don't really have to go, you know," I tell myself. "You can stay put and avoid all this headache and irresponsibility." But Blake counters, "Yes, you do!"

So I've been wading into the tangled mess of logistics, this nest of impossibilities compounded by scams on Craigslist, moving forward one step at a time (still reserving the right to retreat!) until, wow, last night, things actually started to look up. As of last night I have someone to stay in my house; as of last night I have a place to stay in Arizona. In fact, a whole house to myself--always a plus. In fact, right next door to my former mother-in-law! It's magic. A whole huge tangle of logistics nicely unraveling and magically knitting themselves into place. Dare I say net?

Leap and the net will appear. Yesterday afternoon I leaped. By nightfall I had
a net. Here's how I made the plunge.

It was a glorious fall day. Blake, still temporarily camped out on my doorstep and both of us suffering agitation over the latest shenanigans of his squat
ter, went out to burn off excess energy and begin the odd jobs that have to be done to get the house ready for fall--and my Jeep for the trip I still wasn't sure I was going to take. While Blake straightened up the garage, mowed the lawn, and painted the house trim (winter's howling wind and driving rain having peeled the paint to bare wood), I scrubbed and cleaned the inside of Too Cool (the ancient Jeep) and began loading her up. Bedding, groceries, camping chairs... Maybe it was the chairs. One is for me, the other for Carol. Carol is Wayne's sister. Wayne is my high school buddy of forty years ago and way back in the day, forty years ago, we now and then let her tag along. Now she and I are hoping to go camping. Maybe it was the chairs, maybe the sunny, blue-sky day, maybe the company and support of my son, at any rate I was suddenly visualizing future instead of past. I was going to go to Arizona come hell or high water. True, no one to stay in my house yet. And true, no place to live in Arizona. Yet. Oh well. I made a U-turn and got off the one-way dead end. Sticking with the bigger metaphor--I jumped.

"What should we do now?" I asked Blake, tasks done and feeling good for having made up my mind at last.

"You need to go for a motorcycle ride."

"Are you crazy! I can't drive that thing!" Thing being the huge black motorbike in my driveway.

"I'll drive you. I'll take you for a spin through the neighborhood."

"I'm too scared."

He gave me that look that said "you're always scared."

I got the point. "Okay," I said slowly, trying out the idea in my head. I skipped a little, my body catching up to the notion. "Okay!"

"Okay then! Go get a sweater!"

He helped me into his leather coat, zipped me up, then jammed his helmet down around my head. My ears folded over down around my chin somewhere. "Hey! What do I do about my ears?"

"Wiggle the helmet, work them back into place!"

I did...and why can't a face lift be so easy?

I held my chin up to get the buckle snapped into place. I heard a click. Blake gave the strap a tug. I was in. He rotated the visor down over my eyes.

Wow. It was like being inside a fish aquarium. No bubbles, though. No hiss of a pump. Just an odd silence. He swung onto his bike. Patted the seat behind him. I swung on, not as gracefully but I did swing, and grabbed him around the middle.

"Scoot back a little!" he hollered off his shoulder.

I scooted.

He scooted back into me, tucking right into my arms so I could feel his whole body connect with mine. Twenty-nine years ago we'd held this position for nine months. How had this wonderful grown son of mine once been an embryo of life inside me? Not even a heart beat and now making my own heart thud in steady excitement? Vroooom! Off we went, rumbling out of the driveway, this thing called time a very funny thing indeed.

"Slow down!" I screamed.

I raised him well. He slowed down and only once "gunned" it, me screaming my head off the whole time. Felt like I was a hornet headed anywhere.

"Take my picture," I ordered when we got back, adrenalin still going, my body feeling the thrill of being alive, awake to the possibilities of life and energized by the release of fear and worry and my "old peoples" shrinking world of aches and pains and nursing homes lurking on the horizon.

He took my picture. I don't know what's up with the hair--or the Karl Malden nose, but know that I'm grinning ear to ear. See me?

The picture means something to me. Something about riding a motorcycle with my son suggests I've got a long way to go before getting old. It hints of adventure every woman should heed before eating, sleeping, and pooping becomes enough.

Leap and the net will appear.