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.