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!

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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.”

TEMPTED IN TELLURIDE

I’m on the road again, me and my little Scamp trailer. I’m back to scouring the countryside for all the OPLAs (Old People Living Alone) that I can find. This time Telluride, Colorado, was my first stop, and I settled in by the banks of the San Miguel River that runs through town. I started my quest by going up one side of the main street, store by store, waiting till the owner wasn’t busy, then asking my questions. And then the next day going up the other side.

I always begin by saying something like this:

“I’m a writer, working on a new project. I’m looking for any and all old people – and by that I mean people 90 or over – who are still living alone, without a spouse or family member or friend, in their own place. And I wonder whether you know of such a person here in Telluride?”

When I start speaking, if it’s a man I’m talking to he often looks disinterested at first, distracted, or wary. He may keep looking down at something he was doing on the counter, or his eyes roam around the store as I start. But by the time I get to “90 or over” he makes direct eye contact with me, he’s interested. Women are more likely to be engaged right away, they seem ready for a chat about anything, though they also perk up at the mention of “90 or over”. I know this sounds sexist and over-generalized, but it was something I began to notice as I worked the street. It did surprise me how enthusiastically everyone reacted to my project.

What could it be that sparks interest when I mention that age? Or is it that by that point something in my voice has caught their attention?

The immediate response to my question was usually something like this:

“Oh goodness…let me think. Well, there used to be this woman who lived down on…Hey Judy! remember that old woman who used to come in here, she hasn’t been in for a while, she must be around 90 or so, isn’t she?…the one who…”

Then Judy comes over and joins in the conversation about a woman who, it always turns out, died a while back. They talk together about her, remembering everything they can about her, until I bring them back on track to the possibility of someone still alive who is living alone. I have a moment of feeling I’ve done the old woman a good service for making people remember her, even reminisce about her.

In Telluride the conversations always ended :

“No, I’m sorry, I can’t think of anyone that age who’s living alone here right now. But I’ll ask around, maybe I’ll hear of someone.”

I spent another day or two going around to the library, the fire department, the medical clinic, the historical museum, the realtors. In those places the answer was still the same: no OPLAs. There were a couple of nearby small towns to explore, which was delightful, but again, no dice. There was talk of a 97 year old man who wore shorts, summer and winter, and rode an old bike everywhere. Everybody mentioned him, everybody had noticed him, but nobody had seen him for a while, and nobody knew where he lived.

Even though I didn’t find a single OPLA, I had a lively time there in Telluride. And the beauty of the mountains towering over the town is nothing short of staggering. Anywhere I looked up caused inner gasps of wonder. The sky alone could do it: Telluride is at almost 9000 feet, so it’s right in the middle of all that wild weather that congregates around the tops of high mountains. Of course, that meant that there was lots of rain, in fact more rain and mud – and even snow just a bit higher up – than I’ve experienced in all my camping years. Usually it was intermittent and thus bearable, lasting only a short time. But there was one day that it never stopped.

That day started out bitter cold. For the first time on this trip I turned on my heater. No response. None. The rain had started during the night and when I stepped out to make sure the propane was turned on I found a lake was already forming around the Scamp. It looked like the tents of my fellow campers were floating in water. Oh poor them! They all managed to get their dripping wet gear in their cars and drive out of there, but I decided to stay. Surely the rain would stop soon.

It turned out the propane was turned on, so drat! the solution was not going to be simple. By the time I got back inside I was wet and cold, despite my rain jacket and umbrella. I quickly put on more layers, got out my little hikers’ propane stove and made a pot of tea, which warmed me considerably. More squats and stretches than usual helped too. I decided to go read at the library until the rain let up. I’d deal with the heater problem later.

The rain never let up. I did the best I could, making a cup of cocoa last an hour in a warm cafe, inspecting every item in the enormous two-storied Ace hardware store, always returning to the warm library to fly off to the Amazon jungle in the book I was reading. But just the short walk between those oases undid all the warmth I‘d garnered. I was cold, and wet through to the skin, all day. But I knew it was temporary, it would end eventually, I would be warm and dry again, so I kept my mind on problem-solving and didn’t get discouraged. At least not too much.

Luckily the library stayed open until 8 pm that day, so after an early dinner, warming my innards with spicy Thai food in a restaurant filled with laughing glass-clinking young people, I went back one last time to spend the rest of the evening there in the library, fighting for my life in the Amazon jungle. But when they announced they were closing in ten minutes it was still raining. And now it was dark too, and the streets were empty. For the first time that day I felt much too lonely, and the thought of going back to the empty dark campground and my cold Scamp was unbearable.

I was upstairs in the library, the librarians were all downstairs. I was sitting in a huge leather chair, and next to it was a huge leather couch. Behind the couch was a dark space that I was pretty sure I could fit into. What if I hid back there at closing time, when they came to check to make sure everyone had left? What if I stayed in the library for the night? The mischief of this idea was exhilarating. I imagined the librarians’ desk drawers filled with good things to eat, and maybe a change of clothes that I could wear as pajamas while I waited for my own clothes to dry. There was a bathroom with plenty of hot water. I would have everything I could possibly need.

How bad could the penalty be? Would it be considered a felony or a misdemeanor?

Now I heard sounds of closing up. I heard people leaving. I heard someone coming up the stairs. I had my wet raincoat back on and my book and computer packed up. It would take only a few seconds to get behind that couch.

Quick! Should I do it?

 

THROUGH THE PEEPHOLE

Oops! …..Oh goodness, you scared me. I thought I was the only one here on this blog page.

Hi there.  I’m just checking to see if there’s a new post. Hmmm, I see there isn’t. 

Yeah, it’s been a month since she last posted anything.

Where the hell is she?

Yeah, where the hell is she?

In her last post she sounded as though she was getting going again.

I know. Did you read that last post? She started that new project, and I was really looking forward to hearing about it.

Oh that’s right, her new project. What’s she calling it again?

It’s about talking to old people who live by themselves and …..

Oh yes! The OPLA Project, Old People Living Alone.

It seems like she just got started and then bang, she stopped.

Yeah. Something must have happened to her – I wonder what.

You know, the other day I was waiting for some stuff to download so I came here and reread some of her posts from past summers. Her birthday is in July and ……

Oh that’s right! she always posts something when it’s her birthday, she writes about what aging is like for her, what her thoughts and feelings are about it.

Yes, and it’s July now. And I think this is the year she turns 80.

What a detective you are!  So what do you think she’s doing?

Well, your guess is as good as mine. But 80 seems like a very big turning point, it’s like once you’re 80 you’re REALLY old, no two ways about it. And no matter how young you might look or feel, I think turning 80 is a huge deal.

Yeah, 80 is really old. Maybe she’s sick, in the hospital somewhere. Aw, I wish I could send her a get-well card.

Or maybe she’s died. I wonder what happens to blogs when the writer dies.

Oh god, I’m not going to imagine that. D’you know anything about her? Like what sort of family she has?

Let’s look up there at her bio, just below that photo of her tent pitched at the ocean……

Well look at that, she’s got three daughters and they live all over the world. Maybe they all got together to surprise her, maybe they kidnapped her and whisked her off to South Africa or Borneo or somewhere.

Ha! Yes! Maybe they’re all having an amazing adventure in some exotic place!

Oh! I like that idea! I’m going to hold that picture in my mind until she gets back.

Me too. And now my real life is calling me.  Bye!

DREAMING FROGS, LEAKING REFRIGERATORS

Last night the half-moon shone brightly even though it was behind a veil of thin clouds. Under the pines I had to turn on my flashlight, but in the open meadows I could see by the moonlight. It was late, even the lake seemed to sleep. On the dry crisp grass each of my footsteps set off a small explosion no matter how careful I was, so I found myself a rock flat enough to sit on.

In the silence I began to hear the night sounds. A slight rustling in a nearby tree became, in my mind, a bird in its nest trying to get more comfortable. A tiny splash at the edge of the lake became a frog, startled by a dream. I was pretty sure that it was a wolf I heard howling in the far distance, a sound as evocative and lonely as a distant train whistle. I felt myself melting into the scene. Soon I was without thoughts, without yearnings or regrets. I was still. 

This morning it was all I could do to leave the warmth of my bed. I put the kettle on and opened all the curtains. It was 41 degrees! Astonishing, when I think that record-breaking high temperatures, maybe over 120 degrees, are predicted for Phoenix, only 4 1/2 hours away. While I waited for the water to boil I put on layers of sweaters, and while the tea was steeping I did some squats and stretches. By the time I got back in bed I was warm and fully awake.

So here I sit, my icy cold computer on my lap, ready to write up my notes from the first interview I’ve been able to get. I got it yesterday afternoon, thanks to the fire chief. Ever since I set up camp here by Luna Lake a week ago – five miles outside Alpine, Arizona, population 145, elevation 8012 – I’ve been talking to everyone I can, trying to find people in their 80s or 90s who still are able to live alone. My plan is to seek them out in every small town that I camp near. I want to learn what their lives are like, how they manage, how connected they still are with the community, what they do about loneliness, frailty. It’s a loose plan that I’m going to let develop as I go, and see what grows organically out of my efforts.

Whatever comes of it, it’s turning out to be an excellent way for me to get to know a bit about the workings of each small town. I’m always curious about the different ways groups of people live together, and I’ve always chatted up the librarians, the waitresses, the farmers at the farmers’ markets, the storekeepers, anyone who is open for a conversation, trying to get a feel for what each little town is like. But with this Old-People-Living-Alone (OPLA) project, a new dimension has been added. It gives me a purpose, and I’m finding that everyone responds, wants to help, even teenagers.  Now when I pass someone on the street they stop and ask how it’s going. Or they smile and wave when they drive by. I’m not just a tourist passing through, I’m involved in the life of the town, albeit in a very small way and for just this moment.

I stopped in at the fire station to see if they might be able to direct me towards an OPLA, and by some wonderful chance Travis, the fire chief, was just about to visit Helen, a woman in her 90s who lives alone, and who has a leak in her refrigerator. The fire department here in Alpine is apparently the go-to place for any problem any resident might have. And I mean any problem: he told me they carry wood in for people in the winter, sometimes even chop it, drive people to appointments or for groceries in the larger town 25 miles away, they fix appliances, do house repairs, rescue dogs and cats.  And every now and then they unfortunately have to fight a fire, sometimes even an overwhelming one like the Wallow fire in 2011, just outside Alpine, the largest forest fire in Arizona history, 

“Well, what else are we going to do between fires?” laughed Chief Travis. “And anyway, no one else here is doing those things for people.”

I followed him in my car and we drove to Helen’s house. He introduced us and we watched as he stood looking at the small puddle of water running out from under her refrigerator.

“I’ll have to come back in the morning with Stan. This baby’s got to be moved before I can see what’s going on.”

“Well why can’t you move it?”

“Oh no, I don’t want to show off in front of you!” He laughed and pretend-flexed his muscles.

They bantered and laughed together for a while. He’s known her since he was a boy living down the road from her, some 30 years ago, I’d guess. 

“You sure you’re married?” flirted 94 year old Helen when he was ready to leave.

“Oh yeah, my wife reminds me every morning. Even though I’ve told her and told her that I can think so much better when this ring isn’t stopping the blood flow to my finger.” He slid the ring up and down.

He left, and Helen led the way into the living room. She settled herself into a leather recliner and muted the TV. I sat down on the couch next to her, opened my notebook, made sure my pen worked, and my first OPLA interview began.

Which reminds me, it’s time to make another cup of tea and type up my notes. Without looking at them, the two sentences that I remember most clearly from our conversation, the two that she repeated a number of times, always with a rueful laugh, were these:

“Oh, I don’t have time to worry about that, I’m too busy watching TV and playing solitaire.”

“It’s a good life if you don’t weaken.”

PERFECT TIMING

This morning I lifted the hatch-back door of the Outback and voila! there was my pantry, everything neat and tidy and inviolable in plastic drawers and boxes. And there it was, as usual, the sprinkling of little black mouse turds over everything. I have faced this every morning for weeks and weeks and have shrugged it off. I’ve even smiled at the reminder that I share this earth with all my fellow creatures. I even admire their tenacity, the way they continue casing the joint, night after night, even though they never find anything to eat.

But this morning it got to me. I resented in retrospect all the mornings I’ve had to clean up after others. I thought about all the reports I’ve read about the hantavirus that is spread by mouse droppings. I pictured hundreds of mice climbing up the wheels every night with triumphant little squeaks, scampering all around MY car, over MY stuff.

And when I went over to the picnic table I found it covered, as always, with the slightly larger black pellets that the chipmunks leave. For the first time since this trip began, almost three months ago, I got an image of my rodent-free kitchen at home and wished I were in it.

That got me wondering what else I missed about home, so I decided to make a list. It was surprisingly short:
My kitchen
My books
My toaster
My home-alone button

That’s it, that’s all I could come up with. What’s striking to me is what ISN’T on it:

Running water. I still enjoy filling my water jugs at a spigot and carrying them to my campsite, even though they seem heavier every year. Women have been going to the well since time immemorial, and I can feel that history reverberating deep in my DNA. I like being conscious of each drop of this dwindling life-essential, and when I pour it out of the jug it sometimes looks to me like melted diamonds. Most of us think we couldn’t possibly live without a daily shower, especially in hot weather, but it’s easy, I keep clean enough with sponge baths and handi-wipes. And showers are available in the recreation centers of most towns, for an exhilarating treat now and then.

Electricity. I use almost none in my daily camping life, even now with the Scamp. I prefer the solar lamps I have, and the fridge runs on teaspoonfuls of propane. I do have to charge my laptop and I do that while I’m driving around, or when I go to a library to use their wi-fi.

My self-imposed exile from the world of electricity is one of the things that makes my long solitary nomadic summer trips so compelling. I find it deeply, mysteriously rewarding to live for some months every year in a way that is as different as I can make it from my life at home. It keeps parts of me alive and kicking that might otherwise fade into disuse.

It was while I was eating my breakfast that five words sprang into my mind, seemingly out of nowhere: it’s time to go home. I hadn’t been thinking that when I woke up but some rumblings must have been at work subliminally, maybe for days, and those little black pellets just pushed me over the edge. It happens like that every summer on my trips, suddenly one morning it’s time to go home.

When I looked at my calendar and saw September 1 on the new page, the day I might get home, something jolted me. September 1 had had some important meaning in my past, what was it?

It wasn’t until late morning, walking in the San Juan Mountains under aspen trees along the side of a lake, that it came to me. It happened exactly eleven years ago, and I have not thought about that day in all those eleven years. September 1, 2004. I pictured it vividly now. I saw myself walking towards my car in the parking lot of my office in the town of Red Hook, N.Y. I had just locked the door for the very last time, and as I walked towards my car I turned to take one last look. The sign on the door still said

Elizabeth LaFarge, Ph.D. —   Psychologist

and I remembered how it hit me back then: “Oh my god, I will never do therapy again. Never again in my entire life. It is really over.”

I could see myself standing there, looking up at the building in which I had spent the major part of my life for twenty years. It was late evening, the doctors and the dentist had gone home, I had always been the last one to leave at the end of a day. My office was in the basement with the entry in back, perfect for a therapy office, people could enter unseen. The stairs going down directly to the waiting room were perfect too, leading to a space that was partially underground, an unusual realm. A fitting entry to the unique relationship that is the bedrock of therapy.

Standing under the aspens by the lake, I could still see that dark empty parking lot, the scattered houses all around, a few trees, the street lights just turning on. An ordinary-looking little town. And yet through that door that still held my name, down those stairs into that netherworld, I had had an extraordinary life.

I would wait in my comfortable leather chair and they came, one after the other, all day long. During the intense fifty minutes I sat with each person, they allowed me into the inner recesses of their lives, their thoughts, their feelings. They all came in search of something, hoping for change or relief or understanding, and it was my job to help them find it. There was never a split second when I wished I had chosen a different profession.

And yet there I was, after altogether a total of 34 years of being a psychologist, walking away from it all, never to return.

Did I become sad and full of regrets as I stood by the lake? I did have a fleeting frisson of nostalgia, remembering such a different time in my life, remembering myself as Dr. LaFarge and all that that had entailed, remembering what it was like to have the ending of my life seem far away. But regret? No way! I still, after all these eleven years, wake up every morning full of wonder and gratitude that I get to live this extraordinary life of almost total freedom.

I don’t even mind sharing with the little furry beasts. At least not on most days.

BACK FROM THE BRINK. AGAIN.

There are emotional dangers to traveling alone for long periods of time. I never know when loneliness is going to engulf me, and this past Sunday it came at me and knocked the wind right out of me.

For days there had been talks on the radio and messages on bulletin boards and notices and interviews in the newspapers about peace activists descending on Los Alamos. Really, it sounded as though there would be hundreds of people, maybe even thousands, coming from all over the country for a weekend of activities to mark the 70th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There would be a weekend conference, a sack-cloth-and-ashes peace vigil, and it would all culminate on Sunday in an afternoon of speeches calling for nuclear disarmament.

My campground was just a half-hour up the mountain from Los Alamos, so of course I drove down for that final afternoon event. To get into the town I had to stop at one of the many booths stretched across a plaza and show picture ID to an imposing uniformed man wearing lots of badges. There were no other people to be seen around the huge complex of buildings where the atomic bomb was designed, built, and tested back in the 1940s, where in fact design and building still go on today. I don’t know about testing. The whole town had an odd feeling about it, more creepy than friendly, as though the company had provided everything everyone might want, and in a big way, but with little thought for actual comfort or pleasure. Proportions were off, to my eye, in many ways, starting with the fact that the town of 18,000 apparently has more millionaires per capita than any other town in the entire country, and the town itself sits in one of the poorest counties in all of the USA.

In Ashley Pond Park too, where the rally was held, the visual proportions were way off. The small group of participants (I counted only about 200, which caused the first sinking of my heart) sat on the vast lawn in front of a huge cavernous stage, a stage that dwarfed all the speakers. I leaned against a tree at the back of those people and found it hard to keep my mind on the speeches. And not only because the microphone seemed to lose power regularly.

I had come hoping to feel inspired, to feel less powerless, hoping to hear some new ideas for constructive action. But as I stood there I saw myself back in 1961 in Berkeley. I was walking with about eight other people in front of a nondescript office building that said Atomic Energy Commission on the door. We carried small hand-lettered signs that said Ban the Bomb, No More Hiroshimas, World Peace. We were so meek and polite that we moved aside to let passers-by walk past us. The Sixties had definitely not yet begun.

But I was almost brought to tears when I remembered the potency I had felt, taking that action, touchingly naive as it seems now. And now here I was, over a half-century later, standing under my tree behind the small sprinkling of people in the park, the speakers all making a call for disarmament, and all I could think of was the thousands and thousands of nuclear bombs that have been built since that day in Berkeley, bombs that are kept carelessly and without basic safety precautions firmly in place, bombs that are ready to detonate at any moment, either by intention or through carelessness.  Nuclear bombs. Thousands and thousands of them.

When I did tune in to the speakers I couldn’t stand it.  Most of them were self-promoting, telling us about all the fine work they do, about the awards they have won, the nice things famous people have said about them. The only actual suggestion for new action that I heard I could hardly believe: one speaker spoke as though to all the 9800 employees of the nuclear weapons laboratory, demanding that they quit their jobs immediately and join the peace movement. The next speaker, to her credit, did point out that that was not realistic, they needed those jobs, but she called on all the employees to refuse to work any longer on developing and improving the bomb, and instead to work only towards solving the problem of nuclear waste and of guaranteeing the safe storage of the current bombs. A great idea, of course, but was there even one single employee even listening?

I stood there feeling critical and mean-spirited, and was aware that because of my wandering mind I may have missed all the good parts. But still I was unable to change my attitude and join in with the audience. They applauded often and enthusiastically during the speeches and seemed inspired and full of hope. Somehow that just increased my growing sense of disconnection from my fellow humans. I was totally alone, impotent, terribly discouraged.

So on the drive back up the mountain I felt sad and hopeless. I desperately needed to be with a good friend, right away, but all I had were my fellow campers, and when I got back I found that most of them had packed up and gone home. But as I got out of my car one of the couples who were still there walked by. We had never said more than hello to each other over the past few days so I was surprised when they stopped and asked where I had been, what I’d been up to. I told them a little about my afternoon and then asked what did they think about it all?

“Oh god,” said he “I wish we had nuclear bombs all around every inch of the perimeter of this country, pointing out, ready to shoot off at a moment’s notice.” Wow. I had made some rather large assumptions about them based solely on the fact that they were camping in a tent, not an RV.

Well, I knew it was not the evening for me to stay put all by myself in the campground, so I drove down the other side of the mountain to the tiny town of Jemez Springs, population 375. The town seems to consist of just some buildings by the side of the mountain road. There’s an impressive library with a huge skate board park in front, five restaurants, six art galleries, plus some mineral hot springs and ten inns and B&Bs. No gas station, no grocery store. A town devoted to the visitor.

I chose the restaurant that had an outdoor balcony over the river, shaded by tall leafy trees rising up from way below, and from which I heard soft music coming. There was an empty table waiting for me, amongst the other four tables, two with parents and small children, two with couples, everyone dressed in shirt and jeans, just like me.

Once I had ordered I turned my attention to the musicians. The old geezer who was singing still had a good voice and knew all the words to what seemed like every song ever sung during the ‘60s. Next to him the sexy old harmonica player was flirting with him like mad, through both her playing and the way she twisted in her chair towards him. The two of them were on a roll, great fun. The drummer and bass player were unobtrusive.

It was the keyboard player who gradually pulled me in and had me totally mesmerized. He looked like he should have been on a surf board, young, handsome, with dirty blond hair and a sunburned nose. He played softly, as though just to himself, but everything he did was in reaction to the singer and harmonica player, or a gentle nudge to them to veer in a new direction. They were so tuned in to each other I don’t think they were aware of him, but I certainly was. He was inventive, full of tiny surprises, some real playfulness, and every now and then a few minutes of heart-aching beauty.  Being so aware of every note he played I felt I was a silent participant in the group, I was one of them. It brought me back to feeling connected to my fellow humans again. I was no longer discouraged. I was no longer lonely.

Plus I had managed again to bury the acute awareness of how close we are at all times to total nuclear annihilation. I guess maybe it’s good to become aware of it now and then and face that reality for an afternoon. Maybe. Thinking of that keyboard player I know that it’s certainly good to be reminded often of the things that would make it a tragedy to be annihilated, and make sure we pay close attention at all times to those things. I drove back up to my campground humming and smiling.