ON TURNING 81

“Getting old is the pits, it’s all downhill.”  Whenever I hear someone say something like that I get so mad. I’m mad at whoever is saying it for being so stupid, and I’m mad at all the zillions of people over the years who’ve made us think that way.  I want to yell back, “Just shut up and pay attention to what’s really going on.”  I’m no Pollyanna, but the truth is this: Getting old is up-hill.  Yes, I said up. And in so many ways. And when you start getting near the top, if you’re paying attention at all, it’s nothing short of amazing.

Yeah yeah, we’re not as strong, we’re slower, we look different from young people, we think about death a lot, things are happening to our bodies. But so what? Those things are all workable, they’re just changes, differences. We’ve got to do some changing too. And what’s so bad about that anyway? We get to be middle-aged long enough.

Old age is getting such a bad rap. You’d think that once we see our first gray hair we’re looking right down into the depths of Hell. We’ll just shrivel up in misery and ugliness, there’s nothing left. How did that happen?  Old used to mean wise – where did that go? We used to get lots of respect, and our wrinkly faces used to be beautiful. But damn, that’s all gone down the drain.

It sends me into conniption fits when I see a woman looking sad and she’s saying something like, “Oh god, look at my neck! Oh the wrinkles! What’ll I do?” Well here’s a suggestion: stop looking in the mirror and go do something useful or interesting or fun. For godsakes, get on with your life.

Don’t get me wrong: I know just how she feels. I used to be afraid too. I was hit by all that ballyhoo about getting old, just as much as everyone else. And there wasn’t much to counteract it. My mother was useless: she’d never say boo about anything personal, not ever. Her body got all gnarled up with arthritis but she pretended nothing was happening. She wouldn’t even own up to one single little twinge of pain. Now some people might find that admirable, but me, I wanted to know what was up ahead. I wanted some straight-shooting talk about what old age is really like. What else is it that happens, besides our bodies changing? That’s what I wanted to know. I couldn’t believe it would be just misery and nothing else.

So why do we buy all those lies that are dished out to us? It’s not only because almost all you see in movies, magazines, TV, is young people. No, it’s something more. People start feeling ashamed when they start getting old, it’s like they’ve broken the code, they couldn’t keep up. Some of them lose their jobs, their spouses, nobody listens when they talk, nurses pat their heads and baby-talk to them. And they give up, they just sit in their living rooms all day watching TV and feeling achy and sad. The power of advertising – they don’t even stick their necks out to see if maybe they were sold a bill of goods.

And don’t get me started on the “Active Senior Communities.” They’re for the people who have the money to keep themselves looking middle aged (if you squint at them from a distance). In the pictures they’re always laughing away and carrying a tennis racket, and they’re thin and you can tell they’re moving really fast to get to that tennis court, laughing and laughing, like they’ve beat the system, they’ll never get old. God almighty.

Me? I figure the day I turned 70 was when I first stuck one foot into old age, just testing the waters. I’d been middle-aged so long it was quite a surprise to me. I felt a little tremor and knew an earthquake was close behind. The tremors came faster and faster, and I had to do some serious shifting and changing. Mostly my attitude. By my 80th birthday I was able to pull my other leg in and bingo! I was now officially in Old Age. And I was ready. I felt celebratory. I knew I was in a brand-new kind of age zone. I knew things were going to be different from now on. No, it’s more than that. It’s me that’s different, how I feel about things, how I see things. I’m finally really myself. Like everything that came before, my whole life, it was all leading up to this, the real me. And it took 80 years to get here.

Actually, I’ve been here a number of times before, each time feeling that I’ve finally arrived, I’m finally fully grown. Ha! I’ve been wrong every time. One of the things about Old Age is that inner and outer begin to separate from each other, go their own ways. Physically, I’m afraid there’s no other word for it but deterioration. My body is wearing out, no matter how hard I work to keep as much as possible, as long as possible. But everything else – my mind, my spirit, they fly so fast and light now that all the unimportant details that have weighted them down drop away, and I see that so many things that mattered for so many years just plain don’t anymore. What freedom.

I want to scream when I hear someone moaning and groaning about how they couldn’t remember why they went into the other room for something, or how it takes a while to remember a simple word. Their whole day is ruined cause they’re sure dementia is coming at them, and they just stop in their tracks. Yes, of course dementia looms before us like the worst monster from the underworld. But we don’t all get it. What we do get is change in our brains, along with all the other changes. The spaces between the neurons up there get wider, so it takes longer for a signal to make that jump from one to another. I don’t know that that’s accurate, but I do know it helps me not spend my day fretting about what might be up ahead.

And what is up ahead? Behind me lies the vast expanse of 81 years. Now and then I turn back to look, to remember. When I turn to look forward, my nose now almost touches a fog so thick I can’t see through it to whatever’s beyond. I stand rooted on this tiny spot, right here, right now, knowing that at any moment a sudden gust of wind will blow me off, straight into that thick fog. It does take courage, but when I’m able to not give in to that fear of the unknown, when I’m able to look around me and take in exactly where I am, it’s bracing. It makes me snap to and get on with my life.

CURTAINS

There are things about this aging process that are so interesting that I wonder why so much of the writing about aging centers around all the things we lose as we get older. Certainly those things are noticeable, things like strength, memory, youthful looks. But what I find much more interesting are the subtle changes going on constantly in the subterranean regions of our minds and emotions. They indicate how fluid and ever-changing we humans can be, no matter how old. I’m often reminded of this in unexpected ways, and recently one of those ways was my curtain sewing project.

I’ve always disliked curtains. They block out part of the views that windows provide, and let less light into every room. Many of them look silly, especially if there are ruffles, but we’ve become so used to them we don’t notice anymore. They’re magnets for dust and scorpions. Yes, they’re good for privacy at night, but even better are window shades. Shades have evolved over the years, from those flimsy always-curling-on-the-edges things we had in the ‘40s and ‘50s to elegant performance pieces that now can even be activated by a mere touch of a button. They disappear at the top of the window during the daytime, and subtly transform a room in the evenings.

I don’t have curtains, and for years I didn’t have shades either. My house looks down on my neighbors’ roofs, so I felt plenty private, until a friend stayed in my house once when I was off on a trip. He was freaked out by how exposed he felt in the evenings. When I got back I tried to imagine what that felt like for him, and my imagination was so vivid that soon, after ten years of living happily with bare windows, I was sure eyes were looking in at me every night. I immediately ordered shades.

It’s in my Scamp that I’ve had to revisit the whole subject of curtains. It wasn’t until after I got home from my first summer trip with the Scamp, back in 2014, that I discovered that the curtains that came with it were see-through. I had spent four months exploring mountains: the Sierras, the Tetons, the Rockies, a crescendo of mountains leading up to Glacier Nat’l Park at the Canadian border. Almost every night on that trip I would close the curtains, turn on a light, heat a pot of water, take off all my clothes and voila! a delightful sponge bath. I still do that, and I’m still ecstatic with the luxury of it all, after all my years of tent camping.  But that first trip, at night, with the light on and the curtains drawn, anyone could see clearly everything I was doing inside. What can I do but laugh ruefully, thinking of the entertainment I provided in each campground during those mountain months? How is it nobody told me?

For the next two summers I just folded an extra layer of material over the curtains every night. It’s surprising how annoying such a small task can become, but I tried to think of it as just part of my bedtime routine. This spring I decided to find someone in Oracle who could sew opaque curtains for me, but after many phone calls I was unable to find a seamstress to do the job. I researched blinds for trailers, but they are too expensive, and many comments online told of frustrations with them. One morning I heard myself say “Then I’ll do it myself said the Little Red Hen, and she did.”

So I did. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the whole process of making those curtains. It began with looking for just the right material. I hadn’t been in a fabric store for years, and as soon as I walked into the first one I was pulled back into memories of the 1950s when I did most of my sewing.  I remembered poring over the pattern books – Simplicity, Butterick, McCall’s, Vogue. I again let my hands brush over the edges of the bolts of cotton fabrics lined up on the shelves, the material pulled tight and smooth, always looking so full of potential. I was riveted by the huge rainbow of colors that the spools of thread made. As I made my way through these fabric stores I saw them as colorful hotbeds of possibility. Everything in them is in a dormant state, waiting for someone to bring them to life.

When I didn’t find anything that met my Scamp needs in any of the fabric stores, I started in on thrift shops to look for an opaque bed sheet. I would go directly to the linens department of the thrift shop, find all the sheets that were a neutral beige, hold them up to the fluorescent lights on the ceiling and see if they were completely opaque. It was weeks of tenacious looking before I found exactly what I wanted.

In the meantime I had become overwhelmed by my online research into sewing machines. The last one I had used was in the 1950s, when I was a teenager. It had been left in the old barn of a redwood house that we rented in Santa Barbara from 1949 until 1955. The sewing machine, a Singer, was probably made in the 1930s. How I loved working that treadle, the feel of it under my foot, the whirring sound it made, the trembling of the old house’s redwood boards when I got going really fast. I sewed clothes for myself and shirts for my boyfriend. I could make buttonholes and put in zippers. Luckily, curtains don’t require any advanced sewing technique, only straight seams.

I was able to give up trying to choose one machine from the zillions that showed up online, when I discovered a store in Tucson that sells only sewing machines and vacuum cleaners. This store should be the model for all small businesses. They helped me choose the most basic machine, and then spent an hour with me, showing me everything about it. Later that week they had their monthly sewing class, so I went to that too. I was the only person who showed up, so I had a private tutorial. A week later, when I couldn’t figure out how to unscramble the bobbin, I took the machine back to them, and again they spent time with me, explaining and fixing.  What a difference it makes to have a store stand behind a product like that. The people who work there are mostly middle-aged women who all seem to have a lively sense of humor and a true desire to help everyone learn to sew. I keep hoping I’ll have another problem so I can go back again.

It wasn’t until after I had bought my lovely new sewing machine that one of the thrift shops had exactly what I was looking for. And it was a king size sheet, so there would be plenty of material for mistakes and do-overs, if needed. It’s a neutral beige, it’s a thin material that I can pull back from all the windows during the daytime and they won’t be noticed, and best of all, it’s completely opaque, even with all five lights turned on inside the Scamp.

I got all set up on my dining room table, cut out the curtains, and with great excitement started to sew. I made every mistake that can possibly be made with such a straightforward, simple job, and all the hems look as though I suffer from palsy or was sewing during an earthquake. But finally they are all sewn and hung up in the Scamp. They look just fine, and I know that in a while I won’t even notice them. They’re just curtains, and they’re good enough.

I was surprised by the sense of potency this small project gave me. At this stage of life, retired from my work and no longer playing the cello, I don’t often get that sense, the feeling that I still have agency in the world. I wanted more of that feeling. So, after my curtains were finished, for the first time in years I vacuumed my house. For over 25 years, it has given me a luxurious feeling to hire someone else to do it, but I think maybe I’ve had enough of luxury. Now a sense of accomplishment, no matter how small, is more satisfying to me.

I find that my needs and desires continue to change. Old age is definitely not a static end zone, a passive waiting for death. It’s quite possible that I’ve changed more since I turned 70, eleven years ago, than I did in many previous decades. The changes all feel like real growth to me. I understand so many things more clearly now, including myself.

From my little curtain-sewing project I’ve learned that for me, at this age at least, feeling useful outweighs comfort and luxury. I’ve seen how stimulating it is to challenge myself to do new things. I’ve seen also how easy it is to fall into a rut, doing the same familiar things over and over, never daring to strike out in a new direction. While figuring out all the details of making those curtains, my brain felt livelier and more interesting. It wouldn’t surprise me if I even stood up a little taller and straighter, and maybe even walked a little faster.

 

On the Line

(This was written for org4change.nl, an activist group in Amsterdam)

In 1961, one year after I’d moved to Berkeley, I met the man who would become the father of my three daughters. He was a lawyer and a Marxist, deeply involved in radical politics. For our third date he invited me to join him in front of the Atomic Energy Commission building (now the Nuclear Regulatory Commission) to protest the nuclear bombs being tested in Nevada.

When I arrived, there were only six people walking slowly in a tight circle in front of the main door. My heart pounded as I joined them, I had never taken part in any political action before. I was giddy with excitement at seeing again the man I had already fallen in love with. But my heart pounded also for another reason: I had learned early in life to keep my head safely down, to silently and without complaint do whatever was asked of me. I was naive to a fault, and the idea of walking in front of a government building carrying a sign saying Ban the Bomb, No More Hiroshimas, or Down with the AEC, seemed not only impolite but downright dangerous.

Our little circle was so meek that when someone went in or out of the door, or when people walked by on the sidewalk, we moved aside to let them pass.

As the hours went by and nothing dire happened, I began to relax. I began to feel that we were the only thing standing between the AEC and total nuclear annihilation. I stood taller, my steps became firmer, I started talking earnestly with passers-by. I became suffused with a sense of power, the likes of which I’d never before experienced.

When my oldest daughter Kate was two weeks old, I carried her in  the crook of my elbow on a march in Vallejo. It was a warm sunny day, full of joy and optimism. We marched on the side of the highway, where the trucks carrying napalm to be shipped over to Viet Nam rolled by. This time there were about twenty of us, there to support the four brave souls who actually lay down across the highway, risking their lives to stop those trucks in their tracks.

In just one year, political protests had developed into actions of danger and sheer courage, secretly organized by small groups, designed to cause unexpected disruption. By the time the police showed up, the napalm trucks had come to a complete standstill, we protesters were marching all over the road and in between all the trucks, the place was a confused frenzy, and the police were faced with a brand new kind of traffic problem to solve.

A hostile group had formed on the outskirts of all this mayhem, shouting at us that we were “UnAmerican,” “Bolsheviks,” “Dumb Hippies,” but the most fervent name-calling was directed at me: “Go home!”  “Take care of your baby!” “Evil mother!” “You belong in jail!”  It was a relief to hide in the car every now and then when my baby needed to nurse.

I continued to march and demonstrate throughout the 1960s. By the time all three of my girls were born I was adept at carrying one on my back and fitting the other two onto one stroller. Throughout those years my sense of political power continued to strengthen and was interwoven with my strengthening sense of the power of love, learned for the first time in my life as I became part of the family that was growing around me. My inner and outer horizons were expanding simultaneously.

This past January, I took part in the Women’s March on Washington, with Kate by my side. She and her husband are spending the winter with me here in Arizona, and we joined the march in Tucson. My other two daughters were marching in their homelands: Susan in Amsterdam, Emily in New Zealand.

It was thrilling to be surrounded by 15,000 other marchers. The atmosphere was cheerful, the crowd well-behaved, the side streets cordoned off, the police smiling and some even wearing pussy hats. Though we were all drawn to the occasion by a shared horror at what lay ahead after the elections, the march’s purpose lurked deep below the almost celebratory surface. The fear we all felt erupted only occasionally in angry shouts and on banners and signs.

Marching along with such a huge crowd of like-minded people made me forget, for the moment, the utter helplessness I had felt after the election results were in. In that crowd I felt again some of the power, the potency, I had first encountered in front of the AEC building in 1961. But the feeling was short-lived, it dissipated as soon as I was alone again, reading reports of what was happening in Washington, DC.

In the 1960s we were small in numbers, our actions unpredictable and threatening to those in power. With the Women’s March it was the opposite: huge numbers, orderly well-publicized action, with little lasting effect. But now, small isolated acts and large marches are no longer enough. In response to the radical changes taking place in the White House, new methods of political protest are evolving, and the heroes at Standing Rock make clear that it will be increasingly dangerous and more difficult than in the past. Yet it is more urgent now than ever before that we take action. At the very least, we can make our opinions heard by our representatives, we can vote, we can march.

I turned 80 this year, and to celebrate I gathered my three daughters from the far corners of the earth, along with one son-in-law, the two oldest grandsons, and one dog. We lived together in my Arizona mountain house for a few weeks, an unprecedented togetherness for us all. After dinner, we sat outside around the camp fire, talking and laughing, passing the guitar around and singing together, long into the nights. The world around us, explored each day with gusto, shrank at night to only as far as the firelight glowed. I looked at our faces, held in the fire’s orbit, shining with love and happiness, and we seemed an entire universe unto ourselves.

This is the universe that we fight for when we put ourselves on the line, when we fight for what is right. This is what will help us maintain a steady moral compass as so much crumbles around us. It is for this that we must be willing to risk everything.

LOOKING FOR MR. OPLA

The afternoon was dark, ominous, which colored everything that happened.The rain-filled clouds lurked low over my head and when they let loose I knew they were trying to press me down into the ground with the weight of their water. Even the wind had evil on its mind as it snaked through the trees.

I had been hearing whispers here and there about a very old man who lived alone in a nearby town. I had interviewed only two men in their 90s thus far, so finding a third would be a real coup. Nobody knew him well enough to him ask if he’d be open to talking to me, but how dangerous could such an old geezer be, anyway?

To get to the town I left the highway and drove a rutted dirt road for about seven miles.There were no other cars. As I went downhill into darker and darker forest, I distracted myself by thinking about good and evil. I tried to imagine that heaven had first been envisioned as deep in warm black earth, all cozy and womblike, and hell as high up in the sky, the light searing our eyes so that we scream in pain. Impossible, of course; those images are too entrenched to ever change.

When I got to the town it turned out to be just a few rickety old houses fairly close together. The street between them was muddy and rocky and hard to walk on, especially while carrying an unfurled umbrella. There was nobody to be seen, and only one place open, since it was Sunday, a cafe that sold fishing gear on the side, and even some guns. When I sat down at one of the two tables a young man appeared behind the counter. I was startled to see that he looked like a well-groomed college student with a beatific smile. Just what had I been expecting?

We had a lively exchange. He was indeed a college student, at home for the summer helping out his parents in the cafe. I began to relax, and when I looked out the window at the town I saw that the houses were not rickety at all, it was the darkness and rain that cast a pall over everything. I sat back and enjoyed my tea and the young man’s company.

I asked him if he knew of any OPLAs living nearby, and he told me about that same old man. We were interrupted by the arrival of two couples who sat down at the other table. They were parents of friends of his, and he caught up on his friends’ news while he took their order. He told them what I was looking for, and they immediately mentioned the old man. None of them knew him well enough to contact him for me; in fact, none of them had ever actually seen him. But they were able to draw me a map of where he lived: it was a former small hotel way out in the woods, with the name of the hotel apparently still dimly visible through the peeling paint.

What was going on? Was the old man the town ghost? Did his shadowy presence serve some function in the smooth workings of this community? He was beginning to sound like an imaginary character in a folk tale, and now I couldn’t wait to meet him.

With their map in hand I started out. I drove about a half mile and then took a left, just as the map said. I drove up over a hill and then way down into an even darker forest, just as they had said I would. I usually get lost a few times trying to follow instructions like this, but was pleased with myself for doing so well. My mood had completely lifted, though the afternoon had, if anything, become even more dark and menacing. “It’s only weather and woods” I laughed to myself. But then at the place the map told me to turn right, there was no right. I continued on for maybe five miles: no right turn. So I found an opening between the trees big enough for my Outback and pulled a U-ey.

Along the way I had passed a number of cabins. No, come on, they were falling-down shacks, each with its very own decor of rusty old trucks, stained bathtubs, broken toilets, and scraps of ancient machinery out in front. The shacks were few and far between, each one looking lonelier than the last. I hoped a person would appear somewhere so I could ask directions.

Finally I saw two guys looking down at a fallen tree. There was something about them that made me hesitate. Was it their black straggly hair and messy beards dripping with rain, their beady eyes, their not smiling? Or was it the weather? The dark woods? If it had been a sunny day and the land cleared and open, would I have felt differently about them? Maybe they were saintly beings, beloved by all, but I waved as I drove right by them without stopping.

In about a mile a young guy was standing alone by the side of his house. He was way back from the road, and to talk to him I would have had to get out of the car and walk through the trees to get within earshot. Again I waved as I drove by.

Another mile further along two old guys stood under umbrellas talking to each other. I drew to a stop and got out of my car. Thank goodness the rain had let up for a moment. Was it the comic note of the umbrellas that made me trust them? One of the guys had long gray hair spurting out from all over his head, only his nose and eyes showed through. What image could he possibly have of himself, with all that wild hair? What did he think we saw when we looked at him? The other guy’s skinny frail body was bent and his voice quavered when he answered my question about the old man in the hotel.

“Yup, he’s down here alright. But young lady, you don’t want to mess with him. He’ll tell you all sorts of things but they ain’t necessarily so. And if you go knockin’ at his door he’s as likely to point his rifle at you as not.”

“Yeah young lady,” said Bushy, “you’d best just get outta here quick and go back where it’s safe. He’s right nearby, but I don’t want nothin’ happening to such a nice young lady.”

All those “young lady’s” felt creepy. And then it hit me: was the skinny frail guy the man I was looking for? Somehow I didn’t dare ask. I thanked them for their advice and got in my car. It was the word “rifle” that finally decided me. I found my way back to the cafe, which now had a Closed sign on the door.

Damn. What a let-down. It had seemed like such an adventure, full of dramatic possibilities, right up to the very end. And then poof! it all fizzled out on the wings of one word.

Double damn. Not only did I miss out on finding a third OPLA man, I also missed out on having a good story to tell. Sorry!

THAT QUESTION, YET AGAIN

I woke in the dark that morning, the thermometer saying 28 degrees. In two pairs of tights, woolen socks, and two sweaters I’d been snug all night under three thick blankets. Quickly I turned on the heat and in five minutes the little Scamp was warm. I put the kettle on and that made it warmer still.

I opened the curtains and in the dark outside saw the vague outlines of the aspen trees around me, the trees whose famously fluttery leaves had turned from delicate green to bright yellow in the five weeks I’d lived amongst them. The field was white with frost, the tops of the mountains with snow.  When the water boiled I added tea bags, and squatted and stretched while they steeped. When I pulled the cream from the fridge it was frozen solid. I took a knife from the drawer and chipped off enough ice shards to splash into the steaming cup. Cradling it, I turned slowly to throw a grateful “goodbye” out each window and then got down to work. It was time to move on to warmer climes.

This time there’d never been any doubt about where I’d go next. I’d finally had my fill of the high mountains, I longed for the desert. In less than an hour I’d secured everything and cooked a pot of oatmeal. I’d backed up the car to exactly the right spot so that the hitch cup fell down perfectly on the hitch ball. By 7 am I was on my way, a bowl of that cereal on the seat next to me.

As I drove through Aspen one last time, and then through the nearby towns, I smiled at all the houses in which lived people over 90 years old that I’d interviewed. So many! So healthy! So articulate! So welcoming!

Just as I finished the last bit of oatmeal, I turned onto I-70 going west, and had to pick up speed. There I was, rolling along the highway, complete and self-contained in my car and my Scamp. I had everything I needed, an entire house, even a pantry and a library. I took up very little space, and relatively little fuel. For a few moments I enjoyed the wave of contentment washing over me, and then I remembered the question I’d been asked, yet again, by a fellow camper the evening before: Why in the world do you go camping for so long and all by yourself?

By the time I stopped for gas, the answer to that question seemed easy. I moved to Arizona from back east when I retired, and I wanted to see the West, all of it. Distances are vast, I now had plenty of time, I dislike motels, I love camping. Traveling alone is just a continuation of living alone, and I’m fine with that. It all seemed obvious and straightforward.

But of course I am an oddity in campgrounds, almost everyone travels in pairs. People do notice the lone woman, and when they learn that I go for months at a time, of course they’re curious. I’ve also become curious, because it clearly fills some important need in me, it’s not only a fun way to spend my summers, though it is that too. What is that need?

I was now clear of the mountains and on a wide plain filled with little towns and isolated ranches and houses, plus Grand Junction. I’d begun to fret about finding a campsite near Moab. I’d read that this was the time of year it was most crowded, and I wondered what in the world I’d do if there was no place for me. In all my years had I ever approached a new campground without this worry? Probably not, despite the fact that I’ve always found a place, every single time. But maybe today would be different. No use giving it a moment’s thought until I got there.

I think that need has something to do with getting away from the irresistible pull of the internet. I’ve tried to do it at home, once even going so far as to lock my computer in a room so that getting to it took considerable effort. It didn’t work. I would interrupt myself in the middle of reading something, even something compelling, to google a question the reading had raised, or to compulsively check my email, or, most humiliating of all, to play solitaire. I was ashamed of this behavior, even as I was standing on a chair to reach the key to that room. The internet holds me absolutely captive in its mighty gale-force winds.

There’s no wi-fi in campgrounds and it usually takes a couple of weeks to become aware that my brain is changing. It’s quieting down, relaxing. It’s thinking longer thoughts and taking bigger leaps to make interesting connections. It’s able to stay on one subject for long periods, I can read or write for hours at a time without distraction. It feels like my own brain again, I’m in charge of it, it’s part of me and nobody else. It’s the way it used to feel before computers. When I’m camping I become my true self again.

Now I was turning off the highway onto a bumpy little two lane road. I was the only car on that road for the first twenty minutes, as it wound through little canyons and over straggly desert land. The earth got redder, and then there were red stones, and then I came to the start of huge red rock formations along the strangely olive-greenish Colorado River. My heart soared, and I knew that whatever else was going on, this is why I travel, I don’t need any other reasons. Within five hours I had gone from probably the most beautiful mountain spot in the entire world, decorated everywhere by those little fluttering aspen leaves, and arrived here at this other-worldly place where enormous silent impassive rock giants crouch by the river.

I would think about all the other reasons for my camping alone another time.

My long narrow campground was squeezed into a canyon formed by towering red cliffs. And there was one site left, only one, and it was right next to the river, tucked into a bower of tall oak trees, the only shady spot around.

When I had backed the Scamp into a perfect place and was setting up my kitchen on the picnic table, a car slowed and the driver leaned out the window and asked, full of hope, “Are you leaving?”

“Never!” I laughed.

THE OPLA PROJECT – the first month

When I started out on my camping trip a month ago, I had no idea what to expect. I knew only that this trip would be different from all my trips in the past because of my decision to find and interview old people living alone (OPLA). I thought the difference would stem mainly from my having a job to do rather than just floating along day by day. I had no inkling how fascinating every aspect of this project would become.

My first stop was the town campground in Telluride, Colorado. As in all past summers, I always choose the most spectacular places in the West and the Southwest to set up camp. In Telluride I found not a single OPLA, but it was there I discovered that the search itself is rewarding and full of surprises. I feel free to approach anybody, telling them what I’m doing, and asking if they know anyone over 90 who lives alone. I’m still bowled over by the response I get. Almost everyone is immediately pulled in by the unusual question, they want to know more. And then they call over to a nearby friend and tell them about it. They pull out their phones and call people who might be able to help.They start reminiscing about every old person they’ve known in the past who lived alone but is no longer alive. They start talking amongst themselves about what an interesting project it is. For as long as I’m in town, whenever they see me they wave, smile, come running over to ask how it’s going. This has been happening everywhere I go.

The response is so gratifying that I might have kept asking about OPLAs even if I never found one. But as soon as I left Telluride and started exploring other small towns I did find them, surprisingly many of them.

I found the first one, a woman of 94, through the waitress at a cafe. The waitress was best friends with the woman’s great-granddaughter, and had been a part of the family for years. She called the woman, who lived in a nearby town, told her about me, and asked if I could come and talk with her. We arranged a time, I got directions to her house, and that was that, it was that simple.

All the OPLAs have invited me into their homes for the interview, with only one exception (“Oh, my house is too messy!”). I’ve sat with them in their living rooms or at their kitchen tables or out on their back decks, my notebook on my lap, my pen in hand. They’ve all been eager to engage with me, they’ve been open about their lives, both past and present. Even future. They’ve given serious thought to all my questions. We’ve been fully concentrated on each other, our attention has not wavered for the entire hour or two, sometimes even three, that we sit together. There’s been a great deal of laughing, and surprisingly few tears. I’ve been shown paintings, needlework, poems, crochet-work, and photographs, some of them of astonishing beauty. I’ve looked at hundreds of family photos on refrigerator doors. I’ve been held tight in loving grateful hugs. It’s an extraordinary experience.

Most surprising of all is the effect that being interviewed seems to have on most people. It surprises me every time. After I bring an interview to a close, the person I’ve been talking with does not look tired or ready to stop; in fact, they look animated, energized. And some have been nearer 100 years old than 90, and they haven’t gotten up the entire time to give their legs a shake. What’s going on?

I think it’s more than just a break from loneliness for them, since not all of the people I’ve spoken with have seemed lonely. I think it has to do with being listened to for an hour or two, with palpable curiosity and without judgment, with the focus completely on them. When I ask them at the end what it’s been like to be interviewed, many of them report that it’s the first time in a long long time that they’ve thought about themselves and their own lives. Many of them talk at length about each one of their family members, with pride about accomplishments and worries about difficulties. I keep pulling them back to themselves, to get them talking about their own life, their own feelings, their own memories. They seem to have lost the knack. As one 98 year old woman told me when we’d finished:

“I’m so revved up, my brain feels like it just woke up. I haven’t remembered all those things for ages, and now you’ve got me started. It’s all so long ago, and it looks different now. It’s so interesting! And even the hard parts don’t make me sad anymore, they’re over, and I can see that..…well….they were just a part of my life, along with all the good parts. It’s going to be hard to get to sleep tonight, I want to go on remembering and thinking about all these things.”

Could there be a more gratifying reaction to an interview?

I’ve been doing this for only a month now, so it’s too early to come to any conclusions, or to even decide exactly what I’m going to do with all this information I’m collecting. I feel I’ve barely begun. From what I’ve seen so far, being over 90 is truly a distinct stage of life, different even from 80. There are physical differences, of course, though in this age group, the ones who are able to live alone are all healthy in mind and body.

More interesting to me are differences that I’m just beginning to become aware of. They have to do with attitudes towards the world, towards life, even towards self. I’ll hope to learn more about this in the upcoming second month of these interviews.

Another month! Lucky me!

WHAT MAKES MARSHA SMILE?

“Oh my god, if my husband had seen me wearing those he would have been grabbing my ass so hard!”

We’ve just watched a svelte young woman walk by, with three large jaunty pineapples printed on the back of her tights.

“Do you miss that part of life?”

“Do I ever! Are you kidding? But now I like the young men. I had an old one, enough already, but now it’s the young men. I think about them, I look at them. Boy do I look at them! But I’m too old now, what’re they going to do with me?”

Whoa! Marsha has suddenly sprung to life, after talking and talking morosely about all her ailments and her diminished life. She’s 91, short and shapeless. She walks slowly with a cane, wincing with each step. Her face is lined and splotched and puffy, her rheumy eyes almost hidden, her teeth yellow. She has lived alone since her husband died, 22 years ago.

She’s the first OPLA I’ve talked with who has owned up to still having sexual feelings and interests. I mention this to her.

“God I know! We’re s’posed to shut down and shut up and just make nice once we get old. We’re not s’posed to have any feelings at all any more, we’re nobodies.”

Now she’s animated, her face lively, her eyes sparkling, she’s full of mischief. She’s beautiful.

My interview with Marsha got me thinking about sex and the aged. It had been on my mind since the other day when I heard about group sessions being held to discuss “all aspects of sex,” offered by the Unitarian church “for people of all ages,18 to 65.”  I figured that must be the cut-off point for socially acceptable sexual urges, and I’d been stewing about that. Is that what everyone thinks? That that part of us dies and is no more, once we hit 65? Or is it just another way in which we gradually disappear the elderly, part by part?  Of course, there’s always the chance the Unitarians think that by 65 we’ve mastered that aspect of our lives and have no further questions.

My three daughters are all in their 50s now, all of them accomplished wise strong women. Yet I still am filled with the motherly drive to encourage them, protect them, help them on their way, even though they clearly no longer need that kind of mothering. What can I offer them at this point in their lives? What might be helpful?

I think one of the things I can do is show them what they realistically can expect in the years up ahead. Mostly what we learn about this stage of life, directly or indirectly, is negative, and it comes at us from all directions: old age means no longer being able to think clearly and creatively, old age means no longer being worth looking at, old age means aches and pains, old age means no sexual pleasure, old age means diminishment of everything we’ve enjoyed up until then.  It’s all about loss, incapacity, pain. And some of that, of course, is valid, it’s part of the story. But damn, it’s not the whole story, and I want my daughters to know the whole story.

So back to the sexual part of aging. What will counteract all the messages that tell us that that part of our selves atrophies and is no more? What can I report to them of my own experience? Because I think that’s one thing that is needed, more first-hand accounts from the trenches. Functioning, vibrant older people are becoming a little bit more visible. But the pleasures of the flesh, for this age group alone, remain a taboo topic.

What can I report to my daughters of my own experience? I can assure them that the sexual part of me did not disappear fifteen years ago when I turned 65.  But it did start to change, and that changing continues to the present. As with so many other things, the changes have been towards slowing down. The urges are less frequent, the pleasures more intense. From my close friends I’ve learned that this is not an unusual development. We laugh together about our former lustiness, evoking all sorts of wild memories, but we agree: we don’t have that kind of energy any more, it’s different now. And we’re thankful that the expression of our urges has changed to fit that difference.

Now here’s the really surprising news, for me anyway: old age may be the best time for orgasms, at least for some of us women. Orgasms are such an extraordinary feature of our bodies, aren’t they? Especially for women, since as lures towards procreation they really aren’t necessary. Perhaps they were granted as a compensation for the pain of childbirth. But what a surprise to have them last through old age, and even intensify. My friends and I had no idea that this was up ahead for us.

Yes, there are plenty of other factors that may affect our sexuality, but here it is, here’s what I want my daughters to know: aging itself is definitely not a death-knell for sexual pleasure.

Ninety-one year old Marsha drew the line at talking about it, but I suspect that now and then she smiles happily, dreaming of young men.

P.S. About that night in the Telluride Library: what would you have done? Would you have stayed? As the footsteps on the stairs came closer, a picture flashed across my mind: me in the huge scary dark unfamiliar building, with all the doors locked so that I couldn’t get out. I walked towards the stairs and smiled: “I’m just leaving.”