A couple of days ago, an old friend of mine sent me these two photos in an email under the subject title “Memories of a Simpler Time.” They were taken in 1971, outside a place called Earthworks, a grocery store which was the center of an effort to build an alternative community in our college town. There was an Earthworks Garage and a bike shop and a restaurant called Metamorphosis, and Strawberry Fields, which still exists in my community as a natural food and dry goods store. There was a drug counseling service called Gemini House just down the street. I lived across from it. We were part of a somewhat loosely connected and yet often, intimately connected group of people, who had basically decided to divorce ourselves from the culture at large to live within a more progressive society of our own design. On campus, there was Record Service, a music store which provided economic fuel for a great number of projects like a community health center, and there was a homemade clothing store called Thimble and Threads. Eventually there was a community resource guide which listed all the services that mushroomed out of that valiant attempt to turn our backs on the heartless culture which was racist, sexist and classist, and which spawned the Vietnam War that was killing our peers. The resource guide was called The Earthworm. My friend who is in the photos wanted to see if I could identify people on those Earthworks steps, aside from the few he remembered. That was ironic because Michael and I are standing about four people away from him, but with our backs to the camera.
Here is the final cover of The Earthworm. I labeled us as I brought that catalog with me to the exhibit I prepared as part of Michael’s celebration of life which took place in December, 2017, seven months after his death. I needed that time to recover from the last months of his life and in fact, the five plus years that preceded his death. A simpler time. I’ve been thinking a lot about what that might mean in this era when in the U.S., every day for the past three and a half years, staccato bursts of hard-to-assimilate news stories rattle the mind from morning until night. Some people limit their intake of them, attempting to stay calm. For people like me, who can’t look away, there have to be other methods of trying to cope with the madness. But wasn’t there always madness of one kind or another? Is this time any more complex than other times? Is it just that as we exit our youth, life gets more layered which makes coping more complicated and strenuous? That may be partially true for those children who grow up in safe, stable environments. But I know that can’t possibly be the way it is for kids who from the earliest times in their lives, are scrambling to survive amidst all kinds of challenges and dangers. My mom, a fun-loving person and inveterate storyteller, wove an interesting and evocative tapestry of her life which she readily shared with me and my siblings as we were growing up. Her tales ran the gamut from humorous, entertaining and exciting, to treacherous and frightening. Her childhood was filled with deaths, embarrassments and neglect, and wasn’t very long as she married my dad at only nineteen. Her perceptions of that youth depended on her age at the time she was telling her tales. Sometimes she romanticized being a young girl and talked about how much less complicated life was back in those days. At other times, she bitterly decried all her hardships. Often, her tales were dramatic and harrowing. When I was a young kid, when she crossed all kinds of parent/child boundaries while sharing her tales. I thought her life was impossibly complex and scary, as she seemed a living miracle for having escaped so much trauma to become a mostly “normal” grownup. And so, inadvertently, she added a pile of worries to my young life, which required me to navigate some significantly adult issues while I was still a kid. I guess that’s why “a simpler time” doesn’t really resonate with me. I’ve always thought life was complex and way more problematic than not. Ironically, the wife of my friend who sent me the photos which sent me off on this train of thought was Julie, who died in March after a lengthy struggle with a stubborn cancer. Over 50 years ago, when I was still a teenager and Julie a scant year older, we dubbed the murky, below-the-surface mysteries of our lives, the “deep debris.” It still seems like an apt description for what life is really like for most people.
Right now, life for me is still that curious mixture of simple and complicated. On one hand, for the foreseeable future, my days are pretty much the same, and fairly limited. I spend most of my time at home. I’m lucky because I can work in my garden instead of being trapped indoors. I’m out there for hours, laboring away. It’s a big yard, too big for me, but here I’ll stay as my daughter and her family live across the street. Another good thing, being able to see them rather than being separated by many miles. I have no idea when I’ll be able to travel anywhere again. The world is full of questions right now, so even though it’s simple figuring out what to do every day, it’s complicated trying to look down the road, wondering how long I’ll be healthy, if I can reach for the goals I’d set for myself, post Michael’s death and pre-pandemic. The advent of the social justice furor of the past few weeks created the only decision-making situation for me – should I as a person in the most vulnerable group for Covid19, leave the safety of my home to participate in a demonstration for a cause I believe in or not? That turned out to be an easier choice than I thought. I absolutely felt the weight of my moral responsibility to attend so I did. But demonstrations won’t be happening every day. So how to maneuver through this deceptively simple new world that is here to stay, whether I like it or not? All I read tells me that in order to stay safe, this limited life is likely to stretch out for much longer than most of us hoped it would. My cost/benefit analysis about staying healthy keeps leading me back to staying close to home. I’m trying to figure out how to readjust my outlook, absent the ability to make plans, so I can avoid sinking into unproductive frustration. Looking ahead is murky. My hard earned skill of living in the moment is still fairly effective. I think about all the people who’ve navigated the horrors of living in a single cell, with no way out, for years on end. I don’t want to be a spoiled whiner who thinks that this current situation is that big a deal. How did we ever get so entitled and self-centered? I don’t want to become someone I don’t like. So I’ve decided I’m going to look back for awhile. I’m making a personal anthology of both the big and little experiences in my life that have gotten me to where I am today. The national parks I’ve visited are part of my tapestry. The travels I’ve been able to experience and am missing now are great memories. But I’m also interested in thinking about the little bits of life which flesh out how we become the people we are. So far I’m working on lists of the books I’ve read, the movies I’ve seen, the television shows I loved throughout the years. But what’s really been fun is digging around for the small stories and buried facts that don’t often come up in conversation.
My first story is about the fact that I’ve driven over one hundred miles per hour. Which feels really fast, I suspect, to anyone who doesn’t drive race cars. One of the big enticements I used to convince Michael that the institution of marriage wasn’t inherently awful, was to promise that if we actually did it, we’d get enough money to buy a decent vehicle. We wound up with this green Chevy Blazer with a white roof. In the almost ten years we shared before having kids, we took a lot of long road trips. Michael, a born speed demon who didn’t want to be ticketed, bought both a CB radio and a “fuzzbuster,” or radar detector, as must-have equipment for our new vehicle. The CB radio, which we primarily used to communicate with the semi-trailer drivers on the highway, required that we have “handles,” names that we used to identify ourselves to those who’d give us warnings about where the police were hiding to catch speeders. Michael chose, “Swamp Fox” which was the name of an American Revolutionary War officer who was credited with being an impetus behind the development of guerilla warfare, tactics dear to his heart. For the sake of simplicity and easy identification of our vehicle to those with whom we were communicating, my handle choice was “Lady Fox.” When we’d take turns driving, whoever held the wheel handled the CB. I laugh out loud as I remember the lingo that went along with this – “breaker 19 for a southbounder on I-75.” But I did it. Miraculously traffic would move along at 90 mph and higher, so as Michael napped, I’d just press the accelerator, hang on to the wheel and hope for the best. I developed steely nerves bombing away down those roads. Good times.
Another story that I recalled had to do with our visits to a lovely state park located about 30 minutes away from our town. This park has over twenty deep ponds that were reclaimed from strip mining many years ago. While people could canoe and fish there, swimming was prohibited. So of course, swimming is what we decided to do. We brought along some inexpensive floating rafts and our two dogs who were always with us. My little border collie, Ribeye, was extremely sensitive and very attached to me. We found a secluded spot with no one else around, stripped off our clothes, hopped onto the rafts and pushed off from the rocky shore to sun and dip ourselves into the water. Ribeye, who was anxiously pacing the shoreline, decided that the separation was too much for her, leapt into the pond and swam out to me and attempted to join me on the raft. Of course, her nails punctured it, thereby dumping both of us into the drink, just as a group of people were approaching our hidden corner. I can still hear Michael’s uproarious laughter as I swam frantically for the shore and some cover, dragging the crumpled raft with Ribeye happily splashing along beside me. I hadn’t thought about that in years.
As I muck around in the garden, my isolation-reliever, I’m going to practice letting my mind wander back through incidents like these, which collectively, add up to the bigger picture that is my life. Tiny oases that provide temporary escape from the present and which help hold the uncertain future at bay. We’ll see how long this approach lasts.