Out of the Closet

I won’t even tell you about what didn’t make it back into the closet.

Now that I’m retired, I am finding all manner of diversions to keep me occupied. I weeded our vegetable garden, planted broccoli and cauliflower, took a pick ax to the pampas grass, baked enough cookies to feed an army, re-homed thirty-five pounds of plates, painted sealant on the back porch steps, and tore apart our hall closet.

Everything came out. All boxes exhumed and examined. Decisions were made, items pitched, a portion repackaged and returned to the closet.

This is what made it back into the closet:

  • The kid’s childhood sketch books
  • 42 rolls of toilet paper
  • Hobbles and a green halter in case we need to restrain a wandering horse
  • A vacuum cleaner and a cobweb duster
  • Letters dating back to the 70’s from friends and relatives, living and dead
  • Art, mostly mine, dating back to 1961
  • Four picture frames in case we suddenly notice a bare wall
  • Supplies for water color, candle-making, embroidery, and crochet in case we decide to get crafty
  • Christmas ornaments
  • Three soapstone chops and a tin of orangey-pink chop paste we bought in China twenty years ago

I’ve got a big plastic bag headed for the landfill with stuff I couldn’t imagine ever needing for any reason. Things that had been in our closet for eleven years, and some that were shipped from Colorado to Guam to Oahu to Maui and back to Colorado, then Texas, Oilseed, and Troutsfarm.

Hell is not other people. Hell is the stuff you shackle yourself to and haul around from place to place, carefully placing on shelves in a succession of closets in case you might one day find a use for it.

Under the Sweet Gums

I push her through the automatic doors into a blindingly beautiful day. Past the others in their wheelchairs under the shadow of the main entrance overhang. I want her all to myself. When we leave the shade, my mother forms two shelves above her eyes with her hands. “I lost my sunglasses,” she says cheerfully and I picture the three white visors I put into a box yesterday. Mom’s scalp is as pink as a newborn mouse beneath her perfect white hair.

We head around the back of the building and enter a canopy of sweet gums. I think of my mother’s own sweet gums, the three lonely teeth poking up from her lower jaw, never pulled, her uppers misplaced and gone, necessitating a pureed diet. My brother told me the other night he’d left her eating pizza with a spoon. Everything she eats goes through a blender. I park Mom beside a picnic table and lay on my back on the bench so I can admire the blue post-hurricane sky with its bright, white clouds.

Mom and I sit under the trees for a long time, not caring if we ever return to her nursing home room. We talk about whatever comes to mind, like I used to do with my school mates. A gum ball hits the ground making me jump, and Mom says, “You’re a Horton – they have that trait.” She retells the story about her mother offending a man in line at the bank after hearing a sharp noise and responding with an involuntary, “Oh my dear!” Crouching over the keys he has just dropped, the man looks up at her and says, “I am NOT your dear!”

I flew four hundred miles north this morning out of Hurricane Florence’s slippery, wet grasp to get a head start on packing my mother’s apartment. There was plenty of stuff in there when my mother went to Shippensburg State Health Care Center in February, and more than plenty now. My father spends the day at the apartment and sleeps at my brother, John’s house. He is a man who rarely throws anything away.

The knight in shining armor here is my brother, Michael. Several months ago, Michael moved out from Colorado with a plan to shepherd my parents into their twilight years using his background in Healthcare. With his patient support, my father has bought a trailer big enough for himself, Michael, and Mom and then set his mind to a State-approved transition plan for Mom’s release. No easy feat.

None of Michael’s five siblings have been able to accomplish this miracle, and not for want of trying. Michael has a special way with Dad. Maybe it’s because Michael doesn’t carry his childhood baggage the way the rest of us do. Or maybe Dad is hearing him more clearly because Michael has been away for twenty years. Maybe, as James suspects, Dad doesn’t trust his married sons because they under the influence of women. Joe, the priest, is under the influence of the Catholic Church. And I, myself, am a woman. Or, maybe Dad is finally ready to accept reality. Most likely, Dad has been pushed off dead center by all of the above.

The next day I crack open the apartment door and take a look around. Dad is asleep in the other room. I’m alarmed by the immensity of the task, every horizontal surface, including much of the floor, cloaked in a shambling collage of plastic Madonnas, torn envelopes, food, tissues, documents, photographs, and clothes. My brothers coined a term for parental sprawl. They called it the shifting sands. “We don’t dare put anything down,” they said, “Or it might disappear under the shifting sands.” On one of his recent visits, Joe lost his cell phone for half a day.

The windows are closed to protect my father from pollen. The stagnant air is revolting, and I fight the urge to bolt. Stymied, but determined, I decide to work my way in from the door. I open the hall closet door to my left, fold eight inches of hanging clothes around their hangers, and push them to the bottom of a large box. When that box is full, I tape up a smaller one for audio tapes. Two hours later, I’ve got everything out of the closet and packed in my bright yellow rented Jeep Renegade.

I’m joined by others after they get off work and Dad has been shuttled to John’s house. We are careful not to pack the things Dad will miss, things on and around the couch and the bed, and in the kitchen and bathroom. We hope to upset him as little as possible.

The cavalry arrives Saturday morning, James with a U-Haul truck, Bob with his credit card and tool kit, and John’s son, Brandon join Michael, John, Darla, and me. I dub us the Magnificent Seven. Before noon everything is out and Darla spends the rest of the day cleaning. Bob buys a file cabinet and two book shelves. Michael unloads a gift from his friend, Dave, a sturdy dining set made of real wood. Brandon is everywhere with energy and muscle. James helps Bob assemble the book shelves and populates them with books and movies. John goes back and forth to his house, helping our temporarily-displaced father with his meals. I wash bedding and towels and make the beds. Michael mows the lawn.

At 3:00 PM we take a break and go see Mom. It isn’t every day she gets to see five of her six children at once. We wheel her out to the sweet gums where she basks in our love. James shows her the picture he took of her couch in the new place and her face radiates joy. We sit under the sweet gums, drenched in team work and a sense of closure, breathing the clean air of a fresh start.

Bob, John, Jim, Michael, Mom, and Camille

Bob, John, Jim, Michael, Mom, and Camille

Sixty – More Than a Number

I caught up with Bob Armantrout outside Playa Mexico the day before his sixtieth birthday He’d driven to the coastal town of Emerald Isle with his wife to celebrate at the beach. He didn’t have to point out that this is the absolutely best time of year to be dipping in the Atlantic.

I asked the soon-to-be sexagenarian if he had some words of wisdom to share with the younger generation. Sure, he said, and this is what he told me:

1. Life is too short to use crappy soap or bad toilet paper.
2. Being nice to people is easier than the alternative.
3. Keep the tools of your trade sharp.
4. Stay abreast of industry news.
5. Be a good team mate.
6. Don’t get addicted to nicotine.
7. Keep your things in order so your kids don’t have to do it for you.
8. Incrementalism works. Don’t wait until you are overwhelmed by some task; do a little bit along the road so you don’t have to do something Herculean. Take it in small bites.

Enough said. And with that, we walked into the Playa and ordered up some big plates of food. And tequila…

Florence

Although it starts soggy, by mid-afternoon the day turns bright and crisp. The kind of day you can pick out individual leaves on the willow oak across the street. Hurricane Florence was already inhaling humidity from 600 miles away.

I take advantage of the pre-storm calm, washing and hanging the bed sheets and shower curtain. If Florence stays her course, we’ll get our moisture back with interest in feet, not inches, and her throaty winds will test trees and roofs. We could be without electricity for up to a week. So I vacuum, bake, and launder everything I can think of, including the shower curtain and the shear white curtains over the kitchen sink.

Earlier this week I hauled our recycling and trash to town and searched for a gas station that wasn’t already out of fuel. There are six filling stations in town, and only one did not have bags over the pump handles. I changed my mind about fueling up in town when I saw the line of anxious motorists bleeding out into the courthouse circle.

I ran into a lot of people I knew at the grocery store. Nearly everyone had a few moments to exchange hugs and chat about the coming storm. The atmosphere was celebratory with a tinge of urgency. It felt a lot like the hours before a Super Bowl. I bought tomatoes and lettuce because Bob and I are in the middle of an epic BLT jag and helped myself to a bag of kettle chips.

Among strangers there was an edgy undercurrent. The gas station line was spooky, reminiscent of fuel shortage altercations of the 70’s and I’d had an unsavory interaction at the trash collection center. A friend pulled up to the trash hopper and she and I were getting caught up as the guy in the truck behind her walked by with his trash bags. He barked at us – something about holding up the line.

We continued talking as my friend emptied her car, and he came by with another round of bags and a menacing look. This time he loudly pointed out that there was a whole parking lot right over there if we wanted to chit chat. The attendants were shaking their heads, and they told me this wasn’t the first time that man had behaved uncharitably. “He’s a preacher, you know,” one of them confided. I’m pretty sure a lot of people around here carry hand guns.

Nineteen years ago Bob and I lived on Guam, thirteen degrees north of the equator, where hurricanes are known as typhoons. We lived in an air conditioned cinder block apartment, a chilled box as long as the electricity is on, but a suffocating hell when it fails.

During one of many short power outages, our neighbor confided that he liked typhoon season because the power stayed off for a long time. He chuckled at our surprise and explained how people gather at the old style houses, the ones that look like screen porches on stilts. Everyone pulls food from their deep freezer and takes it over to grill under the shade of the house and they drink and eat and party until the power comes back on. “It’s like the old days,” he says.

Bob and I have had a good time battening down the hatches. We’ve mined our deep freezer for casseroles and replaced them with buckets of water which have frozen into ice blocks. We have a gas range for cooking hamburgers and warming up soup, but when the power is out our oven won’t light. So we dine on Eggplant Parmesan and Macaroni and Cheez confident those ice blocks will hold food for a couple days, maybe three.

We filled two 5-gallon buckets with water for cooking and drinking because when the electric goes out, so does our well pump. We can flush with water from the big blue rain barrel. I drove Christine to the front yard where she is less likely to get smashed by a falling tree, and Bob is considering using a tie down on the back porch roof.

Home from my hurricane preparedness shopping trip, I begin receiving calls, texts, and emails from family and friends near and far. They send good wishes, tips, and invites should the shit really hit the fan. The next day Florence appears to be backing off, but I’m still savoring the sense of camaraderie, hoping under my breath she really does force us to hunker down amid friends. Thank you Florence for giving us a taste of the old days, and fingers crossed we don’t lose an automobile or a roof.

Lucky

The orphan, resting comfortably in Shelley’s lap.

When Shelley returned home after two weeks away, she was confronted by a loud and needy cat. Lucy let her know, in strident tones, how much she had missed her and how devastatingly hungry she had been. She went on and on about it, while Shelley busied herself with unpacking and reacquainting herself with her very own kitchen, sofa, and bed. Just when she thought she would settle down for real, the neighbor called to say they had an emergency and could Shelley help.

It turned out a very young kitten, black and white just like Lucy, had wandered onto their doorstep. Highly allergic, they could not let it in their house and the poor thing appeared way too young to be outside fending for itself amongst the hawks and possums, and well, maybe Shelley could take it in. Shelley sighed, unable to think clearly amid the sharp mewling of the lost little waif, and took charge.

As far as Lucy was concerned, inviting this flea-bitten critter into her environs was an absolute no go. Insult to injury. And so Shelley set up a kitten holding pen in one of her outbuildings, out of earshot, and wandered back into the house hoping for a good night’s sleep.

The next morning, Amy and I met at Shelley’s house at 7:30 for our first Tuesday walk in weeks, excited to see our friend and hear all about her trip. We all had plenty of new news to report, so it wasn’t until about three miles in that Shelley got around to telling us about her little problem.

Amy thought about it for a minute and ventured that maybe this wayward critter would make a good birthday present for her mom. Shelley’s face brightened. Meanwhile, I was flooded with the memory of a similar situation involving a frightened motherless kitten.

Pink water in the sink – Camille bathing Lefty on Maui in 2001

Kihei, Maui May, 2001
We stared, unbelieving, at the tiny blur of a kitten running towards us, scraggly little tail pointed straight up, kicking up puffs of dust on the hot Maui side street. She cried as loud as she could with her small sharp voice, and ran until she reached Shaun’s legs. Hooking her needle-thin claws into his skin, she continued upwards towards his friendly face. Shaun reached down and disconnected her from a thigh, and Bob and I leaned in for a closer look.

Her right eye was swollen shut, and her head dwarfed the attached bag of bones. We looked at Shaun, stunned and on his way to helplessly smitten. He had recently lost his cat and vowed not to take in another animal, something we had sworn not to do some five years earlier. Knowing we had a better chance of keeping that promise, we volunteered to take the kitten and find it a home. Relieved, Shaun fixed us up with a litter box and bowls and we stopped at the grocery store for canned cat food on the way back upcountry.

It was obvious she was going to lose that eye, so we named her Lefty. I bathed her in the sink, watched the water turn pink, then took her to a spot in our sunny garden wrapped in a towel, and with a fine-toothed comb combed out the fleas. It took three baths before the water ran clear, and the pile of fleas on our lawn probably weighed more than Lefty did. We fed her and watched her sleep.

We built a cardboard castle in the kitchen to contain her. Leftie was the first one up in the morning and let us know she was lonely with her shrill little voice. She liked to climb up our legs and curl up on Bob’s chest when he napped.

Lefty and Bob

Lefty napping with Bob, Maui 2001

Lefty was soon sturdy enough for a trip to the vet’s where we arranged for them to remove her ruined eye, de-worm, vaccinate and whatever else she needed, and find her a home. They didn’t think prospective parents would appreciate our sense of humor, so they renamed her Lucky. As in “lucky she ran into you,” they explained. As we left the clinic, we were relieved, but sad. We knew we had done the right thing for all concerned. But it had been nice sharing our little home with this tiny animal and we knew we would probably never see her again.

A month or so later, we received a card in the mail from Lucky’s new owners. In it, they thanked us for rescuing her and making it possible for them to adopt her. They wrote that she was a perky little thing and was adapting spectacularly to her new life. I read the note twice and had to put it down when my vision got bleary.

Back to Moncure, North Carolina August 2018
Shelley, Amy, and I finished our five mile walk, ending up where we began, as always, at Shelley’s house. “Would you like to see the kitten?” she asked. Amy got her phone from the car so she could send some pictures to her sister, and we trotted to the shed behind Shelley. We heard the little fella about fifty feet out, chirping like a demented bird with every bit of his lungs. Shelley picked him up and passed him around. The poor thing had the same needle-sharp claws I remember from Lucky, the same matted coat and emaciated body.

Amy snapped a couple of pictures and left, and although I was tempted to stick around and give the tiny tyke a bath, I drove off to run some errands. A few hours later, Shelley let me know that Amy had returned with a cat carrier. A minute later, Amy told me she’d brought the cat home, dunked him, fed him, and he was sleeping on her lap. Her daughter was smitten and they were tossing around names. Later her mother got to meet the little guy and got him over to the vet who de-wormed him saying that the rescue couldn’t have waited much longer or the worms would have finished him off.

This may sound like a little story, but it felt like a big one to me. First off, every neighborhood needs a Shelley, a “fixer” – someone they can call when they run into a problem. Second, there is the serendipity of this rescue. The neighbors find a cat, Shelley shoulders the burden, Amy takes him off her hands, and her mother is happy. Finally, there’s this: while our weekly walks may seem like non-essential self-indulgence, it’s not. Getting together with friends on a regular basis creates a synergy that strengthens neighborhoods. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are not enough. We need real face time, with real people, to solve little problems, and make real things happen.

At Some Point

I’ve been doing more reading than writing lately. Novels, magazines, nonfiction: the usual. I usually steer away from poetry, having lost my appetite for this abstract literary form shortly after high school.

Poetry usually leaves me hungrier than when I began. I need complete thoughts. My brain is not wired to appreciate unfinished sentences. Poems are as frustrating to me as someone who leaves you dangling in conversation. “I thought I’d go grocery shopping but the cat wanted out, so.” Or, “I ran into so-and-so today and…(segue to a text on their phone)” “What?” “What?!” “So, what?” I want to say.

But, after reading The Complete Short Stories of Truman Capote, I could plainly see the poetry in his prose and it occurred to me for the hundredth time that good writing often either comes from or resembles poetry. Consider the following Capote gems:

Ottilie was used to boldly smiling at men; but now her smile was fragmentary, it clung to her lips like cake crumbs. – from House of Flowers

The coach was a relic with a decaying interior of ancient red-plush seats, bald in spots, and peeling iodine-colored woodwork. – from A Tree of Night

It was a furnished room in the East Sixties between Second and Third Avenues. Large enough for a daybed and a splintery old bureau with a mirror like a cataracted eye, it had one window, which looked out on a vast vacant lot (you could hear the tough afternoon voices of desperate running boys) and in the distance, like an exclamation point for the skyline, there was the black smokestack of a factory. – from Master Misery

If only I could write like this! I have a few friends, poets who write beautiful prose, Jenn and Mary, to name two. Time to bite the bullet, I thought. Time to give poetry another chance. I asked Mary where I should begin and she suggested I begin by reading (rather than trying to write) poetry. Good poetry. And she lent me her collection of poems that caught her ear for one reason or another. Among them I found examples of stellar writing like this:

Oh flawed species,
who has fashioned spears from saplings,
notched points of flint, sliced
the coral flesh of the salmon,
pounded tapa from the inner bark of the mulberry.

With heavy brains balanced on slender stalks of spine, we have gazed
through ground glass, listening
for the music still humming,
from the violent birth of the universe.
Ellen Bass

And this:

This is a place where lakes are brimmed glasses all
sitting on the same water table, where one hillcrest
has first cousins and second and third, where filled silos
stand like shiny blue Indian totems of fertility and future.
Mary Barnard

Inspired, I wrote the following, not realizing it was a poem until the words were splayed across my screen:

AT SOME POINT

At some point, you stop trying to keep up with technology.
At some point, maybe, you stop trying to curb your appetite.
You stop trying to zip your lip.
You stop trying to give up coffee, or wine, or cigarettes.
At some point, you stop caring what the neighbors think.
At some point, you stop caring for your body as if it were a finely-tuned machine.
You stop flossing, exercising, and getting outside every day.
At some point you stop looking for the good in others.
And for the good in yourself.
At some point you get lazy and you stop trying.
Maybe never. Maybe tomorrow.

At some point, I might add, I will appreciate poetry. Maybe today.

Dueling Adages

Depending on the situation I’ll either say, “Opposites attract!”, or “Like attracts like!” as if that explains everything. And actually, these two statements cover just about any kind of relationship. From good friends who see eye-to-eye, to December/May romances. But when it occurred to me that these two adages are mutually exclusive, I set out to reconcile the discrepancy.

My first thought was about Bob and how we are both old hippies who share the same cultural background and values. In the early stages of my relationship with Bob my mother gave me this advice: “The most important thing is that you share the same values.” My enduring friendships are also based on common values. My friend Pam and I call each other two peas in a pod, Haruka and I both believe in supporting our husbands with clean laundry and cooked meals, and Shelley and I keep the same kind of welcoming, high-and-tidy home. This all makes sense and explains “Like attracts like”.

On the other hand, I also like to hang out with people who are not like me. They give my life a little extra zip with their spontaneous, fun-loving chaos. And to be fair, Bob and I are not so, so alike. He tends towards hedonism while I cultivate an air of self-denial. I speak mostly in the declarative, and Bob is an accomplished questioner. And you only have to look at our desks to see one other telling difference. But these are traits, not values. And therein lies the difference. When two people have different traits, they balance each other out and this is just as important as seeing the world through similar lenses.

I believe that opposites attract on a primal and more physical level. Back in our tribal era, humans were compelled to expand their gene pool by selecting mates from other tribes. Otherwise we would be an inbred mess, easy victims for a bacteria or virus targeting our particular gene sequencing. So, when puberty began tugging at our hormones we often wandered outside our familiar circles. We set our sights on people who didn’t look or act like us and threw in with them. In this way we created diversity and ensured the success of our species.

Well, that about wraps it up. We have to think enough alike to get along, and act and look different enough to mix things up. And so, both adages, “Like Attracts Like,” and “Opposites Attract” are true and not at all mutually exclusive.

Straying From My Lane

I’m going off the road, I think, my heart pitching to the beat of a noise I can’t identify. “Knock, knock, knock, knock, knock”, so loud it drowns out all rational thought. “Do you hear this?” I shout into my phone, shoving it towards the window. “Yes, I hear it,” Bob answers, “Calm down so I can ask you a few questions.” I fill my lungs and the call is dropped.

The morning had started out normal, except that I’d noticed the rear tire on the passenger side was squishy. I aired it up on the way to work and saw it was down to sixteen pounds.

Bob and I are in transition again. We made a big decision one day last month and that night we slept like babies for the first time in a while. “We get to have another adventure!” I said the next morning. Bob grinned sleepily. “And this time, we don’t have to move!” A nation of two.

No lane traffic in Kumasi, Ghana

Transitions suck. I have trouble letting go. My tendency to overdo kicks in big time, and I cannot keep my nose out of other people’s business. Witnessing my struggle, Bob sends me an article.

I glance at the title and recall a conversation with Amy and Shelley. We take long, early-morning walks and talk about everything. We three are what you call “pleasers,” anxious to be of use, quick to over-commit, and liable at a moment’s notice to get all tangled up in someone else’s problem. Enabler’s Anonymous, we jokingly call our weekly outings.

Last week, Amy brought up the very same article. Staying in Your Own Lane is about accountability and Paris’s no lane traffic circle at the Arc de Triomphe. Okay, I think, reading the article. Advice from the cosmic sphere.

Now here I was, hands tight on the steering wheel, trying to stay in my lane as if my life depended on it. The Gum Springs Road has soft shoulders, steep drop offs, elevation changes, and a lot of curves. The car begins to wobble and I fear I won’t make it all the way to Performance Automotive. I notice a sheriff’s car parked at the Robeson Creek boat ramp and consider pulling over. I have never felt more like a damsel in distress than right now. But I keep creeping along, unwilling to admit my absolute loss of control to a stranger.

When I see the cell service bars return, I call Bob. “I’ll meet you at Johnny Burke.” I make it to our rendezvous destination and leap from the car.

My heart surges when I see the zebra-striped hood of Bob’s Mercedes wagon. He slides behind the wheel of the wounded car and takes off, faster than I think prudent. The problem is immediately obvious. The right rear wheel is flopping like a flounder. Gesturing wildly, I run toward the car. Bob gets out, crouches down, sees a big screw stuck in the tire, and then we gape at the two remaining lug nuts. He fishes the jack and lug wrench from the trunk while I stand by, useless and shivering in the suffocating heat.

We drop the car at the shop and Bob takes me home to bake cookies. Because we drive old cars, we are prone to making unscheduled drops. Years ago I started baking cookies to show my gratitude. When the problem is small, a loose gas cap triggering the check engine light or a flapping wheel well liner, they often say, “No charge Mrs. Armantrout.” “Are you sure?” “You just keep baking us cookies.”

The next day I return to the shop with a heaping plate of peanut butter chocolate chips. The owner smiles and asks, “How’s Christine?” “Oh, she’s enjoying retirement under a tarp in the back yard,” I say of our 1994 Ford Escort. We named her that after finding the lights on several times like the car in Steven King’s novel, Christine. “You have names for all of your cars, don’t you?” Pleased that he knows this I answer, “Yep, Oliver is the olive green Outback, and the white Mercedes is Blanche, an aging southern white lady who sometimes depends on the kindness of strangers.

And so I get back on the horse. I climb into Oliver and nose my way out of the crowded lot. I have heard the message loud and clear. Play your own part, don’t over reach, stay in your lane, and always check your lug nuts.

Faces I Remember

I was talking with my brother, Michael, after dinner last night and he conjured up an old face from way back when. He’d been visiting with our father, and Dad mentioned his long time friend. “Peter someone,” Michael said, and I grasped at his last name until it came to me. It was Curran. Peter Curran.

Even so, the minute Michael mentioned the man, Pete Curran’s face popped into my mind. They were in the war together, Michael informed me, which made sense because it seems that face has been part of my memory bank forever. Searching for my earliest memory associated with Peter’s face, I settled on an enormous house on the hill outside of Norvelt, Pennsylvania. We moved from that house when I was three years old.

Peter Curran was “a professor of mathematics at Fordham for nearly five decades”, according to his obituary in Fordham News. We moved from the Eastern Seaboard when I was sixteen, and I am pretty sure I have not seen him since. Yet, his face is still easily retrieved from my memory vaults.

Our ability to remember faces is astonishing, especially these days when no one can remember a phone number, or what they just finished reading on their Facebook news feed. I search my brain for the right word when I speak, and carry a notebook to record all the little things I think of during the day. One minute it’s in my brain, and the next it has evaporated.

I was sweeping the pine bark off the sidewalk at work this morning, chasing an errant thought, and a different thought popped into my head. Maybe we have trouble remembering things as we age because there are so many faces stored in our brains. Back in college anthropology class, I learned about Koko, a gorilla with an impressive vocabulary of 2,000 words. One piece of Koko’s story stood out. At 2,000 words, she was still able to pick up new words, but for every new word learned, she forgot an old one.

It is common knowledge that although our world is very different from the world of our cave people ancestors, humans have not evolved much physiologically. Our knees, unused to jogging and other extreme sports, break down with alarming frequency. We still crave sugar, salt, and fat. And we probably only have room in our brains for a couple hundred faces. Problem is, we meet thousands of people in our lifetimes, all of whose feature our eyes expertly scan and sock away for future retrieval. Survival depends on knowing the difference between strangers and our tribe.

Dad’s old army buddy died last April, a few days after my father’s 92nd birthday. I may have trouble remembering Peter Curran’s name, or much about the year I lived in Norvelt, or even what I had for dinner last night, but his face, a face I have not seen for close to fifty years lives on in my mind’s eye. I am certain both my father and I will be able to call up this face, and many others until we draw our last breath.

Disassociating

“It’s not them, it’s us,” Bob said, stepping from the shower on October 20, 2004. “We need to leave.” We had been living on Maui for four years. George W. Bush was up for reelection. 9/11 had happened, the administration had cooked up the whole “weapons of mass destruction” fiasco, and Bush had ordered the bombing of Iraq.

The recycling advocates we had thrown in with weren’t all that they seemed. In a telling moment, one of them scoffed at our frugal idealism, saying, “What we do here has no effect on the people of the third world.” The turning point came when some of our colleagues showed open support for four more years. Sadly, we began to see that they were not in the minority. The war monger actually had a chance of winning!

After Bob stepped from the shower, we thumbed through our latest copy of The Caretaker Gazette, and targeted a job on a tiny Caribbean island. We were packed and gone in two months. So, when people ask, “Why would you move from Maui?!” we inhale and say, “We left for political reasons.”

A couple of nights ago I dreamed I was dying. The sensation was not unpleasant and it came in stages. It felt like letting go. Kind of like when you sink into a tub of warm water. I could feel my life force evaporating, and things that had once seemed important were disappearing from my mental lists. I recall standing on a platform looking out over the landscape, big sky all around, and feeling my molecules dissipate.

When I told Bob about my dream he said, “You were disassociating.”

Up north in Pennsylvania, my parents are disassociating. This year my father wasn’t up to joining our annual family get together, and we weren’t sure my mother would feel up to it, either. At 86 and 92, their energy has dwindled to a low flame. Although my mother is still engaged with family, she is largely preoccupied by her schedule at the nursing home. When I call her on the phone she only has a few minutes because she is eating breakfast, or about to be weighed, changed, or put to bed.

When Bob and I were in town, I joined my brothers John and Joe for a short drive to one of their beloved mountains. We picked up three sandwiches and parked near a fire tower. Joe went to the top, leaping like a goat, while John and I laid out a picnic on the wooden platform. We ate amid the sounds of the woods, letting our thoughts drift into the trees.

After lunch, I climbed the tower, peering down from each landing, mostly as an excuse to pause and gather my strength. It reassured me to see my brothers down below, but I had mixed feelings about seeing them growing smaller and more distant.

Back home, Bob and I settle into our routine. We putter around the yard, mowing and weeding, growing food, cooking, and eating. We don’t have as much energy as we did when we first got here ten years ago. Back then we were in the thick of things, hosting potluck every Thursday, playing crokinole, and collaborating with our friends.

The neighborhood has changed. A few young families with children moved in. Haruka and Jason closed down their farm and went traveling. Bob started buying produce from the farmers market. Our next door neighbors walled off their borders, disappointed when their low ball offer on the farm was rejected. For a time there was a school and a healing center. Potlucks became sporadic and spontaneous.

I have changed. I don’t work as hard as I used to. I spend more time in our hammock, and not as so much in other people’s living rooms. It came to me while I was washing dishes the other day, that I am more of an observer than a player now. I walked off the playing field and climbed up into the bleachers. When I tell Bob my thought, he says, “That’s fine with me,” and we both smile.