Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Crazy Blue Flits By

I was staring meditatively out the upstairs bathroom window while brushing my teeth a few days ago.  It was snowing, as usual, and something slate-colored flashed among the flakes, followed by another slightly duller, slate-colored something.  When they alighted on the roof of their tiny nest box on the wall of the garage, I recognized my crazy bluebird and his patient wife.

For the last two years I watched the male arrive when the snow was still deep on the ground, and spend days on the treetops, yodeling to entice his mate to a nest box ridiculously close to our porch and clearly intended for wrens.  Then, for hours and days on end, while she was busy laying eggs, he would bang feet-first into the window despite our best efforts to dissuade him, for the sheer fun of driving the dog insane.

So now, in the middle of a February blizzard, here was the couple, like a pair of human "snowbirds" come to check that the pipes hadn't frozen in their Vermont summer residence.

I lay all this at the feet of the azure-winged, sunset-chested male, who, once an idea, no matter how foolish, lodges in his tiny brain, is unable to let it go.  His browner, duller, but more sensible wife would, if left to her devices, only show up in proper nest-building weather, when the sap is running and six-legged beings, the bluebirds' only diet, are starting to move around.  But in this bug-free, merciless season, what can two insectivores find to eat?

The nest-box must have been in good order, because I didn't see the pair again and concluded that, satisfied with their home inspection, they had flown back to Dixie.  But a couple of days ago, when I opened the hen-house door to let in a bit of sun before the next nor'easter hit, I heard the clear notes of my crazy bluebird, calling in vain for spring in the woods behind the house.

Monday, February 17, 2014

I'll Never Be Like That!

They cluster around the enormous stone fireplace, a couple dozen of them, mostly women, clutching cups of tea and eating doll-size cucumber sandwiches.  Their scalps shine pinkly through their short white hairdos.  Their backs are bent and their voices crackle and squeak like a poorly-tuned radio.  I walk into the room and immediately I want to run back out, into the icy parking-lot, into my car and back to my house.

But I am handed a cup of tea, and somebody else offers me a tiny sandwich and asks where I'm from.  Because I have no choice, I make polite conversation and somehow, before I know it, the wrinkles and the faded pupils and the hearing aids recede from my awareness, and I find myself chatting with a person who talks about life in this "continuing care retirement community" with enough wit and irony to keep me interested.

Not a moment too soon, I am learning how to be around the aged.  I am learning to stifle the "get me out of here!" reflex that springs from my own dread of aging, for here before me, drinking tea by the majestic fireplace, are images of what I myself will be in ten or fifteen years.  My scalp will shine pinkly through my snow-white hair;  my hands may shake as I hold the cup;  and I may even lean on a walker with a little basket hanging from the bar.

I make an effort to hold this image of myself in mind, even as the primeval cry rises up from my  depths:  "Not me!  I'll never be like that!"  And then it occurs to me that this may be just what people in their fifties say silently to themselves when they see me as I am now.

This age business is so complicated.  My own mother remained alarmingly youthful into her nineties.  She achieved this in part by associating almost exclusively with people a good two decades younger than herself, and refusing to identify with her contemporaries.  "Look how old these poor people are," she would mutter, practically holding her skirt aside as she passed a group of her coevals.

On the other hand, there is George Sand, who said that on the day she decided to admit that she was old she instantly felt twenty years younger.

The average age of people in the retirement community to which we plan to move is eighty-three.  The average age of entry is seventy-eight--almost a decade older than we are.  There are people there who are a few years younger than we, but not many.  Will the company of our elders infect us somehow, and cause us to age faster than we would otherwise?

I tell myself that this need not be the case.  I tell myself that we are simply moving to a smaller house, and that with that house come a number of services and activities that we can choose to take advantage of, as the mood strikes us.  I envision our little cottage as a base of operations from which we can range--as far as we are able, for as long as we are able--to enjoy the proximity of the "big" (in Vermont terms) city of Burlington and that public ivy, the University of Vermont.

Note that, again, I'm comforting myself by telling myself that I don't have to be "like them," or "with them" all the time.  But what if, as the phantasms of aging crowd closer to me day by day, I find instead that the company of my elders is stimulating and affirming?  What if I find, once I get used to the sight of walkers and hearing aids and trembly hands, a company of mentors and models of how to age wisely and well?

We expect to be in our cottage by early summer.  I have a lot to do between now and then--sorting, and packing, and letting go.  And working on shedding the pervasive, tyrannical prejudice against the old that I, along with almost everybody else in this culture, have absorbed.  Learning to see them as people just like me, and learning to see myself, if not right now, then soon, as one of them.

(But one thing I'm not going to do is cut my hair.)

Monday, February 10, 2014

"Like the Fingernail from the Flesh"

In the Spanish medieval epic, The Poem of the Cid, the hero fights to help his king regain territory lost to the Moors.  Like all such epics, the story is mostly battles and bloodshed, except for the moment when, preparing to leave on a raid, the Cid says good-bye to his wife, and the two part "like the fingernail from the flesh."

That was me last night, sorting books to give away in preparation for our downsizing.  I was working on the French bookcase, boxing up my high school French books, my college anthologies of French lit., the fusty Old French lays and epics and romances from grad school, and finally the texts I'd used to stuff all that knowledge back into the heads of my own recalcitrant undergraduates.

With a few exceptions, the books were dusty, since I hadn't touched them since our move to Vermont nine years ago.  For that matter, I hadn't touched many of them since grad school, except to take them down and box them up and then shelve them again at each of our many moves. 

But this time is different, because Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre and Roland Barthes won't be coming with me.  They'll be going to new homes or, more likely, to recycling plants, because who wants a bunch of old French books these days?  I'll be keeping the leather-bound Prousts and Colettes and a few others.  But the rest--the yellowed and brittle copies of long-ago works of genius with  my maiden name written inside the cover in green ink and the bizarre upright handwriting that I thought distinctive in my youth--I'll never see again.

As I forced myself to place each book in the box, it did feel a bit like the  fingernail being parted from the flesh, over and over. 

Today I'll tackle the Spanish and Catalan bookcase.  Next will come the art books, and then the dog books, and the country-living books.  I must be ruthless and not keep too many of them, because there's still three floors of material possessions to sort through, and I don't want my independent-living cottage to become a shrine to my past.  I must remember that the key to successful aging is flexibility, non-attachment, and a sense of adventure.

I know I'll get through it somehow, but by the time this move is over, my fingers will be a bloody mess.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

There Be Dragons, Continued: Quandaries and Apprehensions

What if in the process of downsizing I throw out/give away stuff that I will later wish I still had?

What if I don't throw out/give away enough stuff and my adorable "independent living" cottage ends up looking like a rag-and-bone shop? 

Will going from six bedrooms and eighteen acres to two bedrooms and a handkerchief-sized garden give me terminal claustrophobia?

If an heirloom was foisted upon me in the first place, am I bound to hang on to it forever?

What makes an heirloom an heirloom?

Will I ever read La Chanson de Roland in Old French again?

Can Kindle and the internet really replace the contents of ten tall bookcases?

How many antique canning jars (the lovely deep-blue ones, with zinc lids) am I morally justified in keeping?

(To be continued.)