TEMPUS FUGIT AT ABIQUIU LAKE

A friend leaned across the picnic table towards me. She had been watching me intently as her husband and I talked, and I had wondered what was up.

“Liz, you must have been beautiful when you were young.”

She said it in an admiring sort of way, it had the sound of a compliment.
Why didn’t I feel pleased?

Encapsulated in that small statement of hers is our culture’s whole view of aging, a view that is lining the coffers of cosmetic surgeons, pharmaceutical companies and snake oil salesmen. Worst of all, it’s making many women feel increasingly anxious and diminished with each year. Men are starting to feel the pressure too. This aging phobia continues on and on unquestioned, and in fact, as more and more of us live longer and healthier it seems to become even more entrenched. There are days when it seems that we’ve all bought into a rigid belief system, we’ve all become mind-controlled members of a world-wide anti-aging cult.

What gets me going about it all is that we don’t question this mind-set, we’re not even aware of it as a weird aberration of thought. It’s almost part of the air we breath. We look in the mirror and shudder. We go by the droves for nips and tucks and injections and the latest wonder drugs. We don’t ask ourselves What do I myself notice and feel about getting old? What do I myself really see, in the mirror and watching my loved ones over the years? Why should we feel such shame at getting older with each year?

Do we think people will like us less if we look old? Will they have less respect for us? Do you like or respect people less each year? I think not. But I think that that particular fear lurks. As do so many fears concerning the whole process of aging. And these fears will have power over us, power to control our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, until we bring them up into clear consciousness and consider them in the light of day.

You may be wondering what got me going on this rant, besides my friend’s statement. I think it’s because of where I am and what I’m doing right now. My Scamp and I are sitting on a huge rocky promontory that juts out into Abiquiu Lake. It’s dotted with scrubby dwarf junipers that all day long provide little snippets of shade that move with the sun. I look at the expanse of water down below me in the midst of the rolling desert, a breath-taking juxtaposition. Everywhere I look there are rock outcroppings and rock cliffs, long rock faces, all of improbable colors, and everything covered with the tiny scraggly junipers, as though the entire land has a bad case of green measles.The horizon in all directions is low, causing the sky to soar.

To see this shimmering body of water in the arid desert landscape is stunning. But what towers over everything and holds total sway is one lone mountain, Cerro Pedernal. It stands alone to the south, and I tell you, it compels attention. I’m never not aware of it, even if I turn my head and look elsewhere. Georgia O’Keefe, whose Ghost Ranch is nearby, painted it over and over, maybe every day, looking out her kitchen window. That seemed a bit obsessive to me until I got here and started living under its spell.

It’s not only its relative height that’s compelling, it’s also the shape of it. It looks as though the peak was sliced off, straight across, and a low flat ledge of rock laid across the cut, the edges lining up perfectly with the sides of the mountain. I make myself wake up early every morning so I won’t miss the rising sun’s first rays hitting only that dark rock slab at the top, just for a few moments turning it to shining gold.

But really, what compels me to sit staring at it is its history. It was beautiful when it was young! And so very different. I try and try to picture what it must have looked like way back in its youth.

It was the bright-eyed eager park ranger that told me the story. Many millennia ago that flat rock that now sits at the top of the mountain was the floor of a deep valley, surrounded by mountains. A cataclysmic volcano eruption nearby caused that valley floor to be covered in andesite and basalt volcanic rock. In other words, that’s when that slab of rock was formed, the one I’m looking at right now, up there on the top of the mountain. Over millions of years, erosion occurred, all those original mountains slid away on all sides of the rock, but it held firm.

I find it hard to get my mind around what exactly one year actually represents, and here I am trying to fathom millions. And since tomorrow is my birthday, tomorrow I enter my 80th year, I find there’s no way I can understand what that number really means either.

I know that I’m as happy and content as anyone could ever hope to be. In the past I would not have rested until I had climbed to the top of Cerro Pedernal. These days I have no desire for that, in fact no driving ambition for anything. I am deeply happy to sit and watch.

It is definitely different, old age from any other, and all the physical details of it are of less and less interest. What’s happening within is ….well, not a volcanic eruption, it’s something that is happening slowly and gradually. In its slow gradual way I feel it as a huge inner change, as huge as was the much more dramatic and immediate giving of birth to my daughters. Birth and death, it makes sense. Because of course death is what aging forces us, if we’re lucky and paying attention, to begin to acknowledge and incorporate into our deepest understandings.

I feel so very different from how I felt when I was young. And now, thinking back, I’m aware of all the doors of opportunity that opened wide for me back then, in great part just because – my friend is right – I was beautiful.

Just so Cerro Pedernal. I imagine the lush valley it was, teeming with life and activity, surrounded by stately mountains on all sides, a veritable eden. And now it stands, a mountain itself, silent and contemplative. And (I imagine) deeply happy to sit and watch.

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GATHERING NO MOSS

I drove out of Black Canyon campground in the early morning and turned right, my little Scamp following obediently behind. I was driving away from a warm safe friendly community of fun and interesting people, a real campground family, and I was going out into the cold cruel world, alone and unprotected. I had been banished, not for bad behavior but because I had lived there for the fourteen day limit. After driving up the road just a few feet I crossed the border, from the sunny Santa Fe National Forest into the foreign land of the Hyde Memorial State Park. Do they still speak English there? Everything seemed immediately darker and somehow sinister.

I continued up the steep mountain road for just three minutes and came to the entrance to Hyde Memorial campground. When I turned right and entered its dirt road, it really was darker, the tall trees were thicker, the air was almost chilly. I had my choice of campsites, there was nobody else anywhere. I chose a site and backed the Scamp in, the very first backing-up job that I’d ever done perfectly, zip zip zip, and damn! there was no one around to applaud. I was completely alone in the deep woods.

I got the Scamp leveled, my kitchen set up, everything in place, then made a cup of tea and looked around. I could see that geography is a major determinant of the ethos of a campground. In the friendly one I had just left the sites were all in a circle, each large enough to provide plenty of privacy, but because of the layout we could all see each other through the trees. The whole campground lay on the relatively flat floor of the canyon. In the new campground the road hugged the steep side of the mountain on a shelf which was just wide enough for the road plus the campsites along the way. The side of the shelf plunged down to a lively stream far below.

There were huge spaces between each site, no one could possibly see anyone else. I had checked it out the day before and it had seemed fairly jolly because it was the weekend of July 4th and every site was taken by people in fun-loving loud party mode. But the day I arrived everyone had gone home.

Because there were no human sounds I became acutely attuned to the birds and the brook and the soughing of the pines. By the time my tea was finished I had been completely seduced by the solitude.  I sat for a long while melting into it all and soon felt that surely I had become a wood nymph.

But then came the moonless black darkness of night and oh my! I became merely human again, and a tiny frightened one at that. I saw the evil glittering eyes of all the wicked night creatures behind every tree, just waiting to pounce on me. Even were I to call for help no one would hear me. What to do what to do? I pulled myself up to full size, activated my Pilates core, and loudly sang bracing snatches of Beethoven melodies as I retreated into my little house. I pulled the curtains and got into bed, where I slept deeply until morning light. Little did Ludwig know that centuries later his music would provide a zone of protection for a woman all alone in the dark woods.

The next day held further extreme contrasts. I spent the morning basking in my woodland solitude, my mind sharper and more focussed than ever, sitting in cool shade, watching shafts of sunlight twinkling through the trees. It was wondrous to think I would have a whole week of this. By afternoon I was ready to drive down to the Santa Fe Starbuck’s to let family and friends know where I was. Starbuck’s had become my source for wi-fi and laptop charging during my two weeks at the other campground and now it would also become my source for human contact whenever I felt the need.

As I drove down the mountain the sky suddenly, and I do mean suddenly, became almost night-time black and huge sheets of water began slamming into my car. This wasn’t rain, it was a deluge. I managed to get to Starbuck’s, and luckily remembered that I had an umbrella tucked somewhere in the back seat. In the parking lot the water turned to huge white balls of hail bouncing on the asphalt, almost breaking through my umbrella. Stunning!

After a few hours the deluge was still in full force. I had emailed everyone I know, I had read every article in the NYTimes, I had even checked out my daughters’ and friends’ FaceBooks and looked up arcane questions on google. The weather report warned of flash floods all over central NM. I pictured the Scamp hurtling off the mountain, pushed by a huge avalanche of water. I ran out to my car and started back up the mountain. There were huge landslides along the way, the road covered by rocks and piles of earth. A snow-plow-like monster truck was clearing everything as fast as possible, and I had a number of waits along the way while it did its duty. I was the only car on the road, I was determined to get back “home.” When I did arrive back at my campsite, the stream down below me had turned into a roiling river but the Scamp stood strong. In my jangled state I could swear it was smiling at me.

Thank goodness the picnic table was in one of the campground shelters that had three walls, and a solid roof, and a dry cement floor,so I was able to cook my supper with the help of my solar lamp. Veggie bean chili never tasted so good.

During the night the water continued to pour from the sky. For a spell there was thunder directly above me, accompanied by immediate lightening. I remembered all the trees around me, and decided that if one fell on me it would not be a bad way for a life to end.

The rain continued for the rest of the week. The sun made surprise cameo appearances during each day, disappearing as suddenly as it had arrived. Santa Fe old-timers that I talked to, ones that came to Starbucks every day for the wi-fi and company, said they had never ever seen the likes of this rain in their fifty or so years of living here. I timed my visit well.

And now I face another big change. Tomorrow I head for Taos and a week of total no-holds-barred enmeshment with twelve other writers. What in the world will that be like?

HOW DID SHE DO IT? (revving up for my memoir workshop)

This is the seventh summer that I’ve spent on the road alone. Let’s see, seven summers, two or three or four months at a time, that makes a total of almost two years living in campgrounds. In the beginning I was drawn to the nomadic life by a fierce desire to see as much of this wild land as possible. That desire still burns, but I’ve come to see that it’s also the living in campgrounds that compels me.

Campgrounds are actually the perfect place for the likes of me. No, I would not want to make them my permanent way of life. My contentment on the road is tied directly to knowing that I can go home, that I have a home, that there is a specific spot on this earth that is mine, always there waiting, and most importantly, that there is a tribe that welcomes me, no matter what.

The thing about campgrounds is that they are full of strangers. We make up a tiny community, ever fluid, ever changing, yet bound tightly together for a brief moment solely by the fact that we are all traveling, we’re all en route, and we all happened to have stopped at this particular spot at the same time.

Living with strangers gives me the freedom to be completely myself, and to learn who that is. I’m not responding to someone’s expectations of me or to how they see me or to our history together, or to my feelings and hopes about them. It’s an absolutely clean slate with everyone, made even cleaner by knowing that it’s unlikely we’ll ever see each other again. And what that means is that there are none of the emotions and distractions, the complex weavings and entanglements of interrelatedness that come with being part of a vibrant community. Surrounded by strangers, the emotional electric currents, set off and constantly vibrating when I’m at home amongst my close friends and neighbors, are stilled.

It took me a while to realize it, but the opportunity to experience myself so clearly, without inner clutter, allows me to know myself much more deeply, to begin to understand who I really am. Many people who seek this kind of self-knowledge go off alone into the wilderness, and I’m in awe of their ability to do so. I know I couldn’t survive that degree of solitude, I would be done in by loneliness. I’d also be too frightened of all sorts of things to be able to benefit.

And I’d miss out on the part of campgrounds that is so appealing to me: the people and all the different kinds of little communities that we form. There are the distant, reserved, sometimes even cold ones, where no one wants to chat or even make eye contact. I don’t tend to linger in those. On the other extreme, there are the crowded partying we’re-all-one-big-boisterous-family ones, and unless I’m in that frame of mind, which is rare, I tend to move on quickly.

Life in campgrounds replicates in some ways my childhood milieu, and it has reconnected me in unexpected ways to the little girl that I was. I know that may sound far-fetched, but I’ve come to think it might be true. In the school I went to there were four of us who boarded, the other three were older boys. I was always an outsider, only loosely connected to the people around me. Every day I watched all the other girls go home to their families at the end of classes. Their lives were mysteries to me (this was an era long before play dates and overnights). I loved the daytime when we were all together, school was always fun, I threw myself into all the activities. According to my report cards I was even something of a mischievous leader, which was never appreciated by the teachers, but to this day it gives me a smile of satisfaction because somehow, to me, it indicates that I wasn’t crushed by my loneliness, there was a spark that kept me going. Of course the undertow of loneliness and longing was strong but far below my conscious awareness. I knew no other life then, no other way, it seemed just a given.

In campgrounds all of us are only loosely connected to each other. I’m sometimes an outsider as well, different from the others in a number of ways. For one, I travel alone, and you’d be surprised how many people remark on it: “My goodness, you’re all by yourself?” For some reason they often say it in a loud voice, like an announcement to the whole campground. Also, it seems most people go camping for a weekend or a week or two, whereas for me it’s a way of life for months at a time. Many fellow campers shake their heads in disbelief when they hear that. And then there’s the way I spend time in the campground. For a good part of every day I sit under a tree reading or writing, an activity apparently beyond comprehension for a dispiriting number of people. I don’t mind any of this, it feels very familiar.

Every now and then I meet a kindred soul in a campground, someone with whom I form an immediate strong bond. A few of these people remain friends to this day, though our contact is solely via email and our paths are unlikely to cross again. To have such a person in a campground with me changes the whole feel of the place, and when one of us moves on I always experience a period of sadness as I make my way back from togetherness to comfortable aloneness. It’s a small price to pay.

Mary Ellen was my best friend at school, a farm girl with long red braids and a big smile on her round face. She was my best friend in the sense that I sat next to her at every opportunity and spent recess and lunch hour with her. The intense social activity of school would end in the afternoons, and I would have to make that transition from togetherness to aloneness and enter my other life, roaming the fields and woods, always alone chattering to myself, feeling ever so free.

It was when I was six years old that I made the first of my houses. This one was in the woods, made by laying leafy branches up against a sapling that I had bent over and held down with rocks. I even put stones around the front to indicate a picket fence. The house was just big enough for me to crawl into and sit, scrunched up with my chin on my knees. I sat in that fetal position, daydreaming a mother who loved me, a father who encouraged me, brothers and sisters who played with me.

And now I lie luxuriously stretched out on the couch in my little Scamp in the woods, looking out the window at the rising full moon. My mind travels through space all the way across the country to Portland, Maine, then across the Atlantic Ocean to Amsterdam, and then around the entire globe to New Zealand, and I think of my very real three daughters in those places, and my very real sons-in-law, and my very real grandchildren, and I’m not at all sure that it’s just the moonlight that makes me look like I’m glowing. And then my mind travels through time, down ever so many many years to that little six year old girl in the leafy-branched house. It was such a very long time ago, and so much has happened every minute of all those years. How in the world did that one little scrunched-up girl blossom out to live all of that?