OH THAT EXPLAINS IT – YOU LOOK SO MUCH YOUNGER

I had my annual eye check-up yesterday.  Step One was sitting in a little room with two women, having my vision tested.   One woman barked out orders – “Is 1 better or 2?  how about 3?” and then said something I didn’t understand to the other woman, who wrote it down.  I dislike this test intensely, since 1 and 2 and 3 never look all that different to me, and it makes me feel I’m lacking in some kind of important sensitivity.  

After a while Barking Woman started to have a different sound in her voice, as though there was something seriously wrong.  They had been talking just to each other, those two women, making me feel like a blob in a petri dish, and I never take kindly to that sort of treatment.   So I decided to break protocol and speak up.  They were startled, they’d obviously forgotten I was a complete person there,  but they’re MY eyes dammit.  

“The way you’re saying those mysterious things sounds like there’s something wrong with my eyes.  What is it you’re finding?”

“Well, let’s see.  How old you?”

“I’m 77.”

“Oh!  That explains it!  You look so much younger.  There’s nothing at all unusual here.”

“You mean whatever it is would be unusual if I were younger, but it’s par for the course for us old ladies?”  (I can’t explain it, I love referring to myself as an old lady.  A year ago my daughter Kate made me a deal:  if I stopped doing that she’d stop biting her cuticles.  I notice she’s still biting, so I’m off the hook).  

“That’s right.  Now, which of these two bars is brighter?”

So I got to thinking, since there was nothing else to do while I waited for my eyes to dilate (Step Two) because I’d forgotten to bring something to listen to.   Almost everyone works hard to keep looking as young as possible as long as possible.  But after my encounter with Barking Lady I began to wonder whether that’s really the smart thing to do.   She had certain expectations of my eyes just because she thought I was younger, and her voice did sound not only worried but kind of disapproving.  I know, I know, I was projecting much too much drama into the scene, she was just doing her boring job, hoping 5 o’clock would come soon.  

What I began to realize was that I also have certain expectations of myself because I look younger, and that’s where the real trouble is.  Lots of people these days look younger than they are, and younger than people our ages looked even 25 years ago.  The expectations get more and more demanding.  It’s almost as if there’s something wrong with someone who actually looks 77 when that’s how old they are.  It’s as though we’re living longer but wanting the needle to stay stuck on middle age, at most.  Somehow, we’re not supposed to get old.  Until we turn 100, then we’re worthy of a picture in the paper.

I always have a reaction when someone says “Oh you look so much younger.”   Part of me is relieved and pleased.  But then I think to myself:  wait a minute, I AM older, and that means something, something really important.  I know we all say “you look younger” as a compliment, but I wonder:  is it really a compliment?  

What’s wrong with being old?  Why do we avoid it like the plague?  It means we’re closer to death, and death is still the taboo subject.  Almost everyone still uses the term “passed away” rather than “died,”  and often with a pause before the words, as though the word “died” came to mind but they didn’t want to say it.  If we avoid facing the reality of death, how close we are to it when we’re old, then we deny ourselves the chance to truly enter a distinct stage of life, one in which we know that we could die at any time. Living with that knowledge makes life different, it just does.  And that difference is what’s so very interesting. 

Now don’t get me wrong.  I work hard to stay as strong and healthy as I can.  It takes so much time and effort, more and more each year.   And if I miss a day or two and don’t walk AND do the elliptical machine AND the Pilates exercises AND my physical therapy exercises I don’t feel as good.  Which is a fine motivator for all that work, but boy am I full of resentment at all the time it takes, and every day.  And despite doing all that there’s no question that my strength grows less and my aches grow more and things are wearing out.  Damn!  Sitting there in the eye doctor’s office, thinking all that, I could feel myself slumping over a bit, beginning to feel really helpless.  Having my eyes turn weird with dilation didn’t help either.  

But then I remembered that I have a new Scamp, and that it was because I finally acknowledged my increasing need for comfort and ease that I allowed myself to even think of giving up my beloved tent.  And I got to thinking about where did I really want to go this summer, and an idea came to me that had me almost leaping out of my chair with excitement.  I can make it a really big splash of a trip.  Who knows?  It may be my last (I’ve said that to myself every year, I can rationalize almost anything with that thought).  So I’m thinking about Alaska, and taking that ferry that goes from Bellingham, WA, and getting up into Juneau, maybe even way up to Denali National Park.  

By the time I was called in for my audience with The Doctor (Step Three) I was in fine fettle, even though I could barely see, and even though glaucoma and cataracts are words I’m getting much too familiar with.  My eyes don’t lie. I may look younger than I am, but obviously my body is wearing out in the normal way, I’m not exempt.  This stage of life is therefore different from all the others I’ve gone through, and I’m curious about that difference. I want to pay close attention.  

 

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THE SCAMP

Outside my front windows the wind is yanking the trees around every which way.  I can hear it through the double panes, it’s unrelenting.  If I were planning to camp with my tent this summer I’d be seriously considering staying at home.  But there, in the midst of those whip-lashed trees, standing stalwart and solid, is my brand new Scamp trailer.  It’s so little and so cute I could swear that it’s smiling.  So I look back down at the maps in my lap and continue charting various routes to follow this summer on my way north.  How will I ever decide?  They all look so tempting. 

I won’t be able to leave for another couple of weeks, and that’s fine because I can hone my backing-up skills and get used to driving down the highway with the Scamp following close behind.  I’m eager to get into this new way of traveling.  I see so many advantages to having a Scamp and can’t imagine any disadvantages.  Oh, except that I can’t call myself The Tent Soloist anymore.  I don’t know yet what I’m going to do about that.  

Checking out all the campgrounds along the roads that cut through mountain ranges, deserts, sea coasts, I’m reminded how much I like change.  I like setting up camp in one place, getting familiar with it and with the nearby town, and then moving on to a new place.  I know that there are people who don’t like change, who crave familiarity and predictability. Isn’t that an interesting variable between people?  What makes the difference?  Early experiences?  Slightly different wiring in the brain?  Unfulfilled longings?  It’s like houses:  some people, like me, want as many windows as possible so that the house feels as though it’s an extension of the outdoors, it just happens to have some walls and a roof.  Other people want to feel cozy in a cave, closed in as much as possible from the outdoors.  What makes that difference?  Are the people who like caves the same ones who want to stay put?  Are there other traits that distinguish these two groups, if they really are two distinct groups?

Back to my maps.  I watch my pointer finger move slowly along a red line with little green dots running alongside, meaning this is a “scenic route.”  The San Juan Mountains of Colorado.  I’ve been on this road before, I remember it well.  The word “scenic” doesn’t come close to describing this awesome drive.  The road is high up in the craggy mountains, with sheer drop-offs on the side, both sides in a few places.  The vistas are incredible, high mountains can be seen way into the distance in all directions.   And it’s all right here on this small section of an atlas page, this red line with the green dots, with varying intensities of green splotches alongside it indicating the varying elevations of the mountains.   A tiny simple code representing vast areas of landscape.  

A code that I hope I’ll still be able to read when I’m confined to the rocker on the porch, my finger making its way along a red line with little green dots alongside, my eyes closing so that my mind can stretch in all directions for miles with the memory of driving along each road, my car pulling my Scamp, a tiny speck in a vast land.  I keep getting brochures in the mail, exhorting me to prepare for old age by buying burial insurance and filling out medical directives and calling this or that estate planner and buying long-term insurance.  But to me it seems much more important to store up plenty of sensory memories, with as much variety and as many adventures as possible, so that I can still enjoy a rich life even while rocking all day on the front porch.

My camping life this summer will be radically different in all sorts of ways because of the Scamp.  Not having to set up my tent and cot and sleeping equipment (bedding and lamps and books and clothes) every time I roll into a campground will make life so much easier.  All those things will be right at hand as soon as I open the trailer door.   And if I don’t want to stay somewhere more than one night it will be easy to just move on. In the past I’ve been too lazy to want to move until I’ve stayed in a place for at least a few nights.  I’ll be able to talk axles and hitches with the people in the huge RVs.  I may even look a little neater because I can hang up clothes in a tiny closet that’s provided.  I’ll drink cold beer and have cream for my tea, because the Scamp has a fridge.  I’ll still do all my cooking outside on the picnic table, always my favorite kitchen, and in fact I’ll still spend my days outside, as always.  But if it’s windy and raining then the day will be really different, cozy in the Scamp.  And who knows what other wonders this new life will hold?  

Ah!  now it’s late afternoon and the wind has finally died down. The sound of happy children delightfully far away can be heard, in amongst the bird songs and the deep silence. I’m sitting under the hackberry tree with a cup of tea, staring off at my mountain view.  I feel so very lucky to get to be the person who lives here in my comfortable house.  The very house that I can’t wait to drive away from, my Scamp sailing along behind me, off to have all sorts of adventures. 

IT’S TIME

The other morning when I woke up I stayed in bed a while listening to the wind, which had started blowing hard in the wee hours. I watched the tall pines outside my bedroom windows bending wildly with each strong gust. It reminded me of the gale-force winds in Death Valley, and I smiled with relief that I was in my house and not in my tent. I closed my eyes and imagined myself lying in my tent in Death Valley, and then quickly opened them so that I could reassure myself that I was snug and safe in my house.

While I was brewing coffee I noticed that I was feeling oddly out of sorts. I’m one of those people – so annoying to those who get going slowly in the mornings – who leaps out of bed full of energy and chattiness, so my state of mind that morning was definitely noticeable. I sat down at my computer with my first cup of coffee, ready to tackle the writing challenge I had set for myself the day before. I found that my mind was in a total turmoil, and I was filled with a strange sense of apprehension and doom. I was unable to write a single word, in fact I was unable to stay seated at the table. I paced and muttered to myself and watched the trees and bushes outside the windows dancing wildly in the fierce wind.

It took me a while but I finally figured out what was going on. I’ve been thinking about my upcoming summer camping trip, looking at maps and imagining the interesting adventures up ahead. I always enjoy this anticipatory stage immensely. But this time, because I was so shaken by my memories of Death Valley, I found that I was beginning to dread going off again with my tent. I had to face it: the thought of living in my tent actually scares me. I suddenly feel vulnerable when I imagine myself sleeping in it. I’ve rarely felt this way before, it has always seemed cozy and homey to me, but not any more. Now I see that anyone or anything can come at me from any direction while I’m sleeping, inside my tent I’m completely unprotected. Perhaps the strangest thing about this new perception is that it’s new, that I haven’t ever before paid attention to my vulnerability.

Another surprising change is that, also for the first time, I’m seeing the tent as a great deal of work, even though I have such an excellent easy one. Just thinking about all that putting up and taking down, over and over again with each new campground, week after week after week, makes me tired. So here I am, for the very first time in my life, not wanting to live in my tent. And it’s about time. It took me thinking about being scared and tired – in other words, getting older – to move on to this next phase of my camping life.

As soon as I realized what was filling me with such a strange sense of apprehension and doom, I reached for the phone, almost without thinking, almost in a trance-like state. I called the company that makes the little Scamp trailer that I like, and I ordered one! Just like that!

After I hung up, all my inner turmoil was immediately calmed, but I still was unable to sit down and get to my writing. Now it was because I was so excited. I started imagining a very different camping life for myself, so much easier, safer, more comfortable, especially in wind and rain. I even imagined myself traveling around the country for a year or so, maybe even selling my house and living in my Scamp forever (no, no, not really, I knew I was being carried away by my New Owner enthusiasm).

It will arrive later this coming week. I’ll practice backing up over at the elementary school parking lot when there are no children around. Then I can take it out for some practice runs at nearby campgrounds. It’s a small trailer, inside it’s just ten by six feet, but it has everything I’ll need: a bed, a place to sit comfortably to read and write and eat when the weather is bad, and a place to cook when it’s too windy or rainy to use the picnic table, lots of cupboards. If a bear or a crazy evil person wants to attack me at night, they can enter only through the door, so I can be ready for them. I’ll be able to pull in somewhere late in the evening, take a few steps from my car and get into my bed, and then leave early in the morning. I never want to do that with my tent, ever, because once I have everything set up I don’t want to do the work of taking it down for at least a few days. (I’ve learned how to take laziness to new heights). It has a cooling fan and even a heater, so maybe I can finally get up to Alaska. Altogether, it’s going to make many new things possible. No wonder I’m so excited.

There’s something else I’m excited about. It’s the realization that what has made this huge change possible for me is that I’ve fully grasped the fact that I’m old. Truly. I think I avoided for quite a while taking this step over to a trailer because it seemed in some way like giving up, losing something. It was as though, as long as I could live in my tent, I could see myself as a vigorous energetic still-youngish woman. It’s probably not by chance that it was just in my last blog post that I wrote about coming of age, Old Age, and how I found it quite acceptable. Now I see that it’s a very huge plus. For instance, it forces me to take the easy way, to be as lazy and comfortable as I please, the protestant ethic be damned. Accepting that I’m now an Old Ager gave me the go-ahead to buy my little trailer, which I’ve been thinking about for years. Who knew? getting old is interesting, freeing, and lots of fun. I can’t wait to see what I do next.