MY BRAIN GOES TO REHAB

When I stand under the new canopy that came in the mail and is now shading my dining room table from the ceiling light above, I imagine a river flowing, trees soughing, birds singing, little creatures darting, aromas of my supper wafting, the sun setting.  And when I imagine myself standing under this canopy in a far-away campground something visceral happens to me, I can feel a sea change in my body, my mind, my spirit.

For the past months I’ve been leading a very inner life, a quiet contemplative life, immersing myself in writing, reading, listening to Bach, Beethoven, Shostakovich.  My house is calm and comfortable, with many distant views to stare off into.  I take walks, keep up with all my exercises, but mostly I’m absorbed in thoughts and feelings, memories and future plans.  I’m filled with amazement and gratitude that I can live like this, day in and day out.  Every now and then it feels even beyond happiness: it is true contentment.

Living so within myself is a tremendous luxury.  I never had anywhere near enough time all the years that I was working.  I can listen with total concentration to an entire string quartet or cantata, with no nattering voices telling me I should be doing something else, something “useful.”  I can sit in front of my computer for hours writing, even if the writing is just for my own amusement.  I can read an entire book at one sitting if I can’t put it down.  I can float through each day, doing exactly whatever I want to be doing, without looking at the time or worrying about something.

Yet here I stand under my new canopy, dreaming of a very different kind of life.  A life much less comfortable and safe and easy, a life filled with unknowns, a life requiring a great deal of energy.

A lot of what I do when I’m off camping isn’t that different from my life here at home.  I usually spend a part of my day in the campground reading, writing, listening to music, walking, finding a fellow camper to talk to when I need company.  But it’s so very different doing those things in a campground.  For one thing, there’s no wi-fi so I can’t google every question as soon as it crosses my mind, I can’t check my email every time my laptop sends out a little “ping” announcing a new messsage, I can’t play solitaire whenever my mind goes blank.  Also, since I’m not at home I’m not constantly seeing things that need tweaking in my house, or being reminded of chores that need doing, or being interrupted by the phone.  In other words, my ability to concentrate is incredibly greater in a campground than in my house and for that alone I would embark on all my camping adventures.  In a campground my brain is detoxing, becoming clean and clear again.

But there’s more.  For these past months at home, living in this contemplative state, I realize that I’ve arrived at a new stage of life, a stage distinguished by its focus on reflection, on a decrease of ambition, on an increase of tolerance and gratitude.  It feels very good and right, and I think it’s the main event of what is called Old Age.  God! both those words, “old” and “age,” have such a negative PR.  We need a new term for this phase of life which follows middle age and gradually becomes so different from it.  I think I started moving towards this stage when I turned 70, it has been a gradual process, and like probably most other people I’m often derailed by the difficult parts of aging: the decrease in strength and energy, the various aches and pains, the being called “ma’am,” the helplessness at the thought of having to die.

But when I’m here standing under my new canopy, fantasizing about being in a campground, that visceral sea-change that comes over me is a reminder that there’s more to Old Age than the quiet inner life.  My heart still races at the thought of adventure and exploration, and now that I’m retired I have time to indulge in such activities, to my racing heart’s content.  When I drive away from my house, the car packed with everything I might need, I don’t know when I’ll return – one week? one month? three months? – I only know where my first night’s destination is.  When I arrive in a campground I never know how long I’ll be staying, it’s just until I feel like moving on again.  It’s very invigorating living this way, day to day, no entries on the calendar, often no idea what I’ll be doing from one hour to the next.

Living the very simple camping life keeps me bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.  It always takes a few days to get used to not having all the gadgets and conveniences I have at home, but once I’m used to it I like it a lot.  It’s not hard, it’s not uncomfortable, it’s just different and perhaps takes a little more time and work.  With it comes a very satisfying feeling of getting back to basics.  And with it definitely comes a feeling of competence and independence, more and more meaningful as I get older. 

So I’ve been leading this quiet reflective life, writing, reading, listening to music and I’ll continue to do those things when I’m living in my tent.  But really, my whole reason to travel is to explore this country I live in.  All my senses will be turned outward, I’ll inhabit vast spaces filled with beauty and drama.  I’ll see things I’ve never seen before.  I’ll be jolted out of the pleasant complacency that sets in when I’m living at home, and I’ll be forced to face all sorts of unexpected happenings.  I will feel more free and more alive than I do at almost any other time.

And so: that’s why I’m eager to leave this life of contentment, take my new canopy and go off on my summer adventures.  My house will be waiting for me, whenever I return.

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LOVE TAKES A ONE-EIGHTY

Until this week I had lost my camping moxie, it was utterly gone.  I didn’t ever want to be in a campground again.  I no longer trusted my tent after seeing how flimsy it was in those gale-force winds in Death Valley.  I was worn out by all the struggles with that wind, I had no energy left.  The arthritis at the base of both my thumbs flared up dramatically with all the putting up and taking down of the tent, and whatever is wrong with my shoulder got worse too.  I’m still going to physical therapy twice a week and doing exercises every day to try to get hands and shoulders working properly again without pain.  I’m full of resentment and I blame it all on my tent.  Chronic pain is exhausting and it affects every part of one’s life.  It makes me very grouchy.

It was too hard in Death Valley, too much work, too uncomfortable.  I was sure I no longer had the ability to do the kind of traveling that for years has given me so much pleasure.  I felt downright old, as though a whole inspiring lively part of my life had come to an abrupt end.  I was tired, full of aches and pains and complaints, and I didn’t ever want to leave my comfortable house again.  Good lord!  It was awful.  I was miserable.

And then one day I found myself sitting at my computer, scrolling through pages and pages of different kinds of  trailers.  I found the ones I liked, then I looked through pages and pages of craigslist and ebay and RV dealerships, trying to find the best deal.  I even read lengthy chatroom discussions about small trailers, and I became knowledgable about batteries and stabilizer jacks and torsion axles and upholstery colors.  I was an online traveler now, wandering in the world of trailers, a ghostly figure sending out emails which asked “Does it have brakes?”  “Please describe the flooring”  “What size wheels?”  “Does it smell?”  “Do the windows open easily?”  I became best-friends-for-an-hour with people who restore vintage trailers, hearing all about how they’ve retired from teaching or lawyering and now they just love finding an old beat-up trailer from the 50s and making it look like new, and wouldn’t I like to drive to Minnesota and see (and buy) the one they just finished?

I started having compelling campground fantasies in which I saw myself sitting warm and snug inside some little wonder while the wind and rain lashed at the windows.  I began to question why I had ever bothered with a tent, this seemed so obviously the way to travel comfortably in any weather, at any time.  I was no longer miserable, in fact I was once again chomping at the bit to buy a trailer and get going.  Internet therapy!

At last I found a small trailer that I liked that was only a two hour drive away.  This would be the first actual one I would see in the flesh.  I talked Mike into going with me since he knows all the right things to look for and the right questions to ask.  Such a unique relationship he and I have:  one day our friendship of thirty years blossomed very suddenly into a wild passionate flower, and after eight years, when winter came and the flower died, we went our separate ways. Now enough years have passed since our love affair that we seem able to be friends again.  Friendship that follows a romance is so very different from any other, it’s truly unique in many ways.  I treasure it and hope it lasts.

I was practically jumping out of my skin with excitement as we got near to where the trailer was.  In my mind I had already bought it, it was mine.  It was thrilling to imagine having that new toy, and also to imagine no longer having to spend hours in front of my computer looking for one.  I was good and ready to put all my attentions to something new.

I want to make it clear that when I say “small trailer” I mean really small, like 10 feet long at most.  I feel defensive because of all my rants against all the huge RVs that have taken over the campgrounds.  When I was doing The Search I had to scroll through hundreds, maybe thousands, of pictures of enormous greyhound bus size RVs to find one tiny little trailer that might interest me.  Their assault on my eyes online was almost as bad as their assault on my eyes in the campgrounds.  See?  I’m still ranting about them.

It turned out to be instructive to see a real live trailer.  I sat in it and felt cozy imagining that storm lashing the windows. But when I imagined what it would be like to have it behind me on the road, reality entered the equation.  Pulling something that big would take away the feel of freedom on the open road that always gets my heart racing.  I would always be concerned about it back there, and I’d always see it in my rear-view mirror.  My chances of bumping into something when backing up would increase many-fold.  Even though small it’s a huge hunk of metal.  Suddenly, for the first time since I was in Death Valley, I had a rush of warm feelings for my tent.  It was at that moment, seeing an actual trailer, that my tent-antagonism began to thaw.

I chattered to Mike non-stop all the way home.  He’s patient about listening to me go on and on, and I found it helpful to hear myself talk about all the pros and cons of tents versus trailers.  Into the mix I threw the fact that I had just bought my new car.  I hadn’t yet explored all the possibilities that it might offer in wind and rain.  I gave short shrift to the realization that I should have bought a van, not the Outback, because Buyer’s Regret is too painful to spend any time with. (But just think: I could have put in a little bed and a place to cook,  and had it all in one vehicle.  Damn!).

By the time we got back to the Tucson area I had made my decision: I will camp as usual this summer with my once-again beloved tent, and I’ll figure out all sorts of ways to make the Outback as comfortable as possible for the times that there are gale-force winds and driving rain.  I can still buy a trailer some day if I want to, but this isn’t the time.  Decision made: what an incredible relief.

We found a little place to have some Mexican food.  As we clinked our beer bottles together Mike said “Here’s to the simple life on the open road.”  In a rush of feeling I remembered that that’s exactly what I love about tent camping: living simply, living differently.  I cannot wait to get going on this summer’s trip, just me and my tent.