There are the days when you’ve just had it up to here. You feel your aging body and you see it too. That’s the way life goes. Crepey skin, lacking moisture and resilience. Weird hairs growing in the wrong places. I’m a swimmer, and now after 45 years or so of doing the same repetitive motions, my shoulders have begun to ache, the pain and stiffness waking me at night. A pressing sense of urgency pushes me to hurry up and get all those things done that are sitting on various to-do lists and which feel very important. But are they important? Am I important? I can walk down the street wearing an unmistakable cloak of invisibility which I once thought would be a magic power. Not so much any more. To the bustling young people in their invincible minds, I am unseen. I’m exercising and trying to eat right and doing brain exercises. I still remember ridiculous amounts of information about a wide range of topics. So what. The inexorable slide is still happening. For some people with good genes, the process may be slower than it is for others. Some have been forgetful for years. Others, like me, are still able to experience powerful recall. Many older folks do without the intimacy and physicality of their youth. Lots of people drifted away from sex long ago. Those of us who still have a powerful drive may be stuck without the partner we used to have.
News at home and abroad is lousy and oppressive. You try to do some good where you can but are left feeling insufficient and overwhelmed. Everything feels annoying and you’re muttering stuff to yourself like, “shit rolls downhill,” “what goes around comes around,” and, “ha, you pompous child, one day you’re going to be in the place I am right now – we’ll see how you like it.” The fact is that older women are marginalized, kicked to the curb, both personally and professionally. Everyone just can’t be Jane Goodall, that wonderful person or other famous women who’ve bucked the odds. Lots of us are just regular. We grew up trying to find ways to navigate societal expectations. Many us found partners who stuck and many found partners who didn’t. Some never found anyone. We went to work and school, had babies and aging parents and balanced full schedules every day for years. Those of certain economic classes, that is. The poor, the victims of domestic and sexual abuse and the uneducated are marginalized all their lives. I won’t forget that truth. I push back. I have my opinions, my morals and my standards and I don’t feel like getting kicked to the curb. When you’ve fought your way through the grief of losing a life partner, your parents, siblings and friends, you want a little attention and empathy. And you want it to be given freely without asking for it. But as the song goes, you can’t always get what you want.
Yesterday, I wanted my husband to be alive. Of course I always want him to be alive, but some days are harder than others. I wanted something from him that I can’t get anywhere else. I’m pretty warmhearted but I have my boundaries. I don’t like people touching my face. I don’t know why. When I was young, it was okay that my mom did it. She would relax me. But as I got older, I shied away from that. There’s just something really intimate about having a person lay hands on the place where your deepest thoughts and feelings are just underneath your skin. At least that’s how it works for me. One time, not long ago, my sweet grandson touched my cheek. I sat very still and didn’t jump away from him. But that was a challenge. He doesn’t perceive that invisible wall. I want Michael to touch my face. He would take both hands and shove my hair straight back and stare at me. Ironically, I have widow’s peak. He loved my hairline and looking into my eyes. And I trusted him. I miss that sense of security a lot. Instead there are all these other oppressive and irritating daily struggles that I’d hoped would have been far more improved in these last fifty years. Me, too. Me, too. So what do you do when you just can’t do regular life? For me, it’s hitting the road. My butterflies have flown the coop.
I left too. I set some goal for myself after Michael died. One was to see all 50 states in this country. Just before my knee surgery in July, I got up to 43 visited. Feeling antsy and discontented, I decided to take a few days and knock two others off that list, Mississippi and Alabama. My sister, who retired recently, came along with me. I have to say, these two states aren’t high on my list, mostly because my political stance is diametrically opposed to lots of people in these places. So I tried an itinerary which included nature, a little pop history and maybe some Civil War sites. I don’t talk much about the depth of my interest in that war, but I’ve been obsessed by it for years and have read a few hundred books about it. I still gave trouble fathoming the fact that people from the same country lined themselves up across from each other and blasted themselves into oblivion for four years. I thought I might find a place to ponder that subject on my getaway from reality. We started out by driving to Garden of the Gods in Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois.
I’ve been there before but it doesn’t get old. Imposing sandstone bluffs that emerged from Pangea as the earth shook itself into pieces are still awesome to experience. Old stands of beautiful birch trees commingle with other species and create a peaceful quiet that is really soothing. No wonder forest walking has become a recommended therapeutic device. I managed to snag a few rocks that had chipped off the large formations. After we wandered through there, with me being grateful to have knees that work again, albeit a little gingerly, we drove to a nearby town for some delicious barbecue and a good night’s rest.
This morning after breakfast, we took off and headed to Mississippi. The weather was pleasant, cool and sunny. I’d finally synced Michael’s ancient iPod to the car. As we zipped along, we crossed the Mississippi, heading into Tennessee on our way to Tupelo, birthplace of Elvis Presley. I like bridges and taking photos of them while driving which in turn, drives my sister crazy. Sometimes it just doesn’t seem as risky as texting.
In any event, I got a few shots and then got interested in fields far different from Illinois’ corn and beans. Cotton fields, some harvested and others in bloom. I realized that random tufts had blown to the edge of the highway so I pulled over to collect a few.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen this before. There are special cotton picking machines which somehow collect the cotton and roll it into brightly colored stretchy plastic bales, like hay. Imagining the backbreaking labor of slaves bent over the plants was disturbing.
As we drove through Tennessee, my GPS was sending us off the main highways to shorter routes that took us through small towns and back country. I was just getting ready to make a turn on some side street when I caught sight of a marker pointing toward Shiloh National Battlefield. I’ve always wanted to go there after having read so much about it. Tennessee was considered the Western theater of the Civil War and water throughways there were critical to victory for both sides. Pittsburg Landing located close by, was a crucial port. The battle was fought over two days in April, 1862. Over one hundred seven thousand soldiers participated with a casualty rate of 21% from both armies. The fighting raged over terrain that was both heavily wooded and dotted with clearings where people could be mowed down. The amount of artillery was astonishing and caused devastation that astonished the country.
There are names like the Hornets’ Nest and the Bloody Pond, accurate descriptors for what happened there. There are mass graves in several locations along with peach orchards and farmer’s fields, those average people whose homes were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Driving through the dense peaceful forest, with deer, squirrels and birds abounding, it was hard to inagine the deafening, smoky, violent madness that occurred there. It’s like traveling with the echoes of ghosts. Two future presidents fought there, Ulysses Grant and James Garfield, as did General Lew Wallace who wrote “Ben Hur.”
And then there were the faceless thousands who died, were maimed or survived and went back to their lives. Being on that ground was a moving experience. Times gone by in a flash of chaos.
We finally made it into Mississippi early tonight, waylaid but glad for the digression. I’ve only been gone for a couple of days but I do feel less annoyed and grumpy about life in general. A little change of scenery can go a long way. I’m already thinking about what comes next.