When your life is unfettered by the requirements of work, of caring for a family, of having a mandatory inflexible schedule, your mind is free to wander. Years ago, I think I aspired to be the Bloom character in Ulysses, wandering the streets of his city and thinking in sentences that could be ten or even twenty pages long. Stream of consciousness is fun. I usually wake up with some thought in my head and ultimately the combination of music, swimming and life in the garden carries me into unexpected corners of my brain.
This morning, before I went swimming, the first thing I did was feed my one and only fish. I had aquariums most of my adult life, and cockatiels too. Now I’m down to one small tank with a tetra that’s survived all the others and has grown quite large. I know I’ll feel bereft when it dies, although I haven’t worked hard to keep a pristine environment but rather a murky algae-laden solution. Anyway it’s worked so far. Next, I checked my garden, my birdbaths and feeders. My eyes are always scanning the outdoors for something interesting or different or even the familiar. I suddenly realized that basically, I was doing the exact same behaviors I did as a five year old. I would eat my breakfast, feed the fish if my brother let me, and then mom would give me a jar for collecting all the potential finds of the day. She made air-holes in the lids, I’d stuff them with leaves and twigs and then scour my block for caterpillars, grasshoppers, four-leafed clovers and whatever else caught my eye. I always had filthy feet back then and my dad called me the horrible racist nickname, Chief Blackfoot, as he scrubbed their bottoms with a hot soapy washcloth. I started laughing when I realized what a circuitous journey life can be, me still tramping around on my self-assigned missions.
Mom, who wasn’t exactly interested in letting her kids take risks, gave me a gift back then, my outdoor freedom, one which has lasted my whole life. Maybe she was glad I knew how to keep myself busy. She certainly didn’t see my interests as a sign that maybe a career in biology was ahead of me. I think she thought, within the limits of her imagination at that time, that I was a bright young girl who would grow up and get married just as she had. In our later years together, she told me I should upend my life, go to medical school, become a psychologist, anything other than the more mundane lifestyle she’d thought was my fate. But I wasn’t unhappy. She just felt guilty that she hadn’t encouraged me to aspire to something she hadn’t foreseen. Mom was a fun-loving kid disguised as an adult, but she evolved over the years. We were more peers during our life than a typical mom and child, but despite the mentoring parts I missed, she could be an awful lot of fun. Her life was tough but she had a positive spirit which I believe is the key trait I inherited from her. She loved music, dancing and popular culture, keeping up with the times and being open to new things. In my upbeat, expansive morning mood, more rare these days in light of so much dark news, I remembered the time she and I drove around in my car so I could play her the powerful Amy Winehouse album, Back to Black. Not the average musical choice for an 83 year old. That was a special moment. I decided to spend the rest of the day thinking about and doing all good things, sometimes tough for me to accomplish when I’m busy worrying about the state of the world.
I went from thoughts of mom to remembering the confusing time of the late ‘60’s to the early 70’s. Although I was moving smoothly into radical political activism, on the personal level, I was conservative, cautious, scared and uncertain. As the third kid in my family, with a significant gap in our ages, I had the advantage of watching the dramas of my older brother and sister play out in their love lives. They had lots of pain and crises, none of which looked very appealing to me. So I remained careful and was, according to an old commonly used phrase, pure as the driven snow. Rich was my high school boyfriend, who remained with me through my freshman year of college. He never pushed my boundaries. Danny was a lifetime crush with whom I occasionally dabbled in flirtation, which meant occasional handholding and a kiss or two. David and I had been good friends since second grade. As a sophomore, I was on my own until I fell in love with Al, beginning a tormented relationship which he was way too young to handle. As we grew more serious we had frequent breakups and reunions which made us both miserable. I was nineteen years old and in those days of “free love,” was convinced I’d be alone forever, the last virgin on the planet. So I decided to cross that sexual rubicon, with someone who wasn’t torturing me with all this push-pull behavior, who actually liked me so I could just join the rest of the “free love” human race. I was that psychologically damaged. Over the next couple of months, I approached each one of them with my proposition. And despite being regular young men with normal urges, each one turned me down. Independently, each refused, out of respect for me and our childhood friendships that accompanied us into this quasi-adult time. At the time, I was annoyed and disappointed. Later I was filled with gratitude that no one let me make a regrettable mistake or a mess of my emotional well-being. I’ve always remembered how fragile I was back then, how I overcame that state and how lucky I was to have friends who refused to take advantage of my vulnerability. I hadn’t thought about those days in a long while. All these years later, I’m still in fairly regular contact with Rich and Danny, no embarrassing regrets a part of our shared history. Was it the times or more? No matter. What a good thing.
When I finished swimming, the air was cooler than it had been after weeks of blistering heat. I decided to take a stroll, wanting a respite from the daily struggle to keep my garden alive. So instead of going home to grapple with hoses and sprinklers, I walked through our local arboretum which I hadn’t visited since spring when the trees were laden with cherry blossoms. The effects of the drought were evident in the small lake there, but the rest of the area was being irrigated, looking lush and beautiful. Having a natural refuge nearby is another good thing for which I’m grateful.
When I went home, I explored the garden for awhile and was pleased to see the pollinators showing up to feast on the plants I’ve been struggling to maintain. I remembered how I found my way to realizing that if I couldn’t solve all the huge problems in this world, the least I could do was to reach out my hands and fix whatever was within my reach. I’m doing my bit for conservation right here in my backyard. And that is also another good thing.
Later that day, I spoke on the phone to my oldest friend who still lives in our hometown of Chicago. My grandson came over to my house to talk about his thoughts for his upcoming school year as a first year middle school student, and to watch a movie which he thought might make a fun weekly event. He’ll be twelve in August. I’ve been recording Jeopardy games and I watched a couple, pleased that my brain still works fast enough to retrieve so many random facts from my brain. I listened to my 31 year old air conditioning unit crank and was grateful for how amazing it is to have a functioning piece of equipment that’s given such steady service. I read the bulk of a really fascinating book, ate the sweet cherries which are my favorite summer treat, and watched a few episodes of a really entertaining television series called “The Bear,” which takes place in Chicago and evokes powerful memories of home. Sometime during that evening, my mind wandered to a time when I was crazy enough to climb on the back of Michael’s Triumph motorcycle, not a helmet in sight, and blaze down the highway for two hours to spend a weekend with friends. Mostly we were just with each other. Flying through the wind, glued together like that was an amazing feeling, even though I was far too cowardly to do it again later in life when my risk-taking tolerance had decreased substantially. All in all, it was a smallish day, when for virtually all of it, my mind felt nothing but good. I recommend periodic moments like this for anyone lucky enough to grab one.