Tuesday, February 07, 2023

Walking And Falling

Sunday was a gorgeous day so I used it the way I most enjoy using gorgeous days, which is to walk. 

I considered a nature walk, then an urban one, but wound up choosing what authors Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts call "the true wilderness." That is to say, I chose to cut through an empty office park to a once-paved service road between heights of barb wire-topped chainlink fencing. On one side was an abandoned water park. The slides remained, faded yellow, blue, and red, curling and coiling in their descent from rusty towers to bone dry pools where peels of paint mixed with leaves from last autumn. On the other side was a wasteland that occasionally fills with water when it rains heavily. Today it was dusty, dotted with garbage and natural debris that was washed there during the last storm. 

There were a lot of shopping carts along the way although the nearest grocery store is a good two miles off, which told me that I might not be the only human out this way. I imagine people were sleeping rough or otherwise living in the harsh shrubbery that clumped together here and there, but other than those shopping carts, I saw no evidence of them, no smoke from a campfire, no sound of distant voices.

I was quite alone in these "edgelands," except for insects, scavenger birds, ground squirrels, and rabbits. I'm sure there were rodents around, but they, like the humans, were staying out of sight. Of course, I could hear traffic in the near distance; jets passed overhead, low and loud as they approached the airport; power lines, empty municipal infrastructure buildings, and other evidence of humans let me know I wasn't alone in the world, but simply alone in this place that was neither nature nor civilization. 

On Thursday, we buried my mother-in-law Patricia. In keeping with the Jewish tradition, the funeral could not be delayed, so last week had been a whirlwind of arrangements, relatives, and telling the stories of her nearly century of life. In his essay entitled "Walking" Henry David Thoreau celebrated the art of sauntering, and that is what I was doing, taking this moment, this gorgeous morning in a place of broken pavement and peeling paint where no one else wanted to be, to settle into an aimless, unhurried pace that seemed necessary after days of strong emotion and purposeful action.

Of course we had talked of Pat's accomplishments, her opera career as one of the leading coloratura sopranos of her era, her doctorate, her years as a self-proclaimed radical feminist professor of English and women's studies, her Judaism and temple life, and her late in life career as a respected poet. But what I was thinking about as I sauntered was what Rebecca Solnit, in her book Wanderlust, refers to as "the unpredictable incidents between official events that add up to a life, the incalculable that gives it value."

Pat once came to visit Jennifer and me when we lived in Germany, before the birth of our daughter. Jennifer was then unexpectedly called away on a three-week business trip leaving the two of us, mother- and son-in-law, unexpectedly alone together in a foreign place for an extended period. In those early days, Pat made no secret of her concern that I wasn't bright or accomplished enough to have married her only daughter. My young man's ego took offense, which meant that our relationship was often prickly. The prospect of three weeks alone without Jennifer there to run interference was horrifying. 

On our first day together, Pat and I carefully, over-politely, circled one another. 

She was a bourbon drinker and we had laid in a stock of her favorite brand in anticipation of her arrival. As I began to prepare dinner for two I offered her a drink and poured one out for myself. As we loosened up, we quickly found the one topic that was to forever unite us -- Jennifer! And that's what we did for three weeks. No matter how the day had gone, we came together each evening over bourbon and dinner to talk about a person we both loved unconditionally. I learned things about my wife and my mother-in-law learned, despite her continued misgivings about me, that I nevertheless loved her daughter and that would have to be enough. This incident, this accident of being thrown together, this edgeland between official events formed the foundation, the common ground, of our relationship for the next three decades.

I was sauntering without a predetermined destination which is, of course, an obvious metaphor for a life well-lived. Obituaries are about destinations attained, but life as it is lived is more like sauntering through the edgelands, discovering things you didn't know needed discovering, learning things you didn't know you needed to learn, becoming things you never knew you wanted to become. This is what makes life joyful. It occurs to me that the most cursed person would be the one who succeeded in living their life according to a plan.

As Solnit writes: "I have been threatened and mugged on the street . . . but I have a thousand times more often encountered friends passing by, a sought-for book in a store window, compliments and greetings from my loquacious neighbors, architectural delights, posters for music and ironic political commentary on walls and telephone poles, fortune-tellers, the moon coming up between buildings, glimpses of other lives and other homes, and street trees noisy with songbirds. The random, the unscreened, allows you to find what you don't know you are looking for, and you don't know a place until it surprises you. Walking is one way of maintaining a bulwark against this erosion of the mind, the body, the landscape, and the city, and every walker is a guard on patrol to protect the ineffable."

For the past several years, Pat was afflicted by dementia brought on by a series of strokes. At first, we didn't recognize the cognitive decline, probably because the bumps, bruises, and broken bones caused by her regular falls seemed more urgent. For a time, she lived in an assisted living facility, until she began to saunter off on her own. After she was discovered in her nightgown wandering around the University of Washington campus at 4 a.m., where she had taught for a decade, we had no choice but to move her to the memory ward of a Jewish retirement community, a place she couldn't leave unless she was in the company of others. Even then, she spent her days on her feet, roaming the floor, taking part in every activity, pausing only to eat. The staff estimated that she walked 10 to 20 miles a day right up until the day she fell so hard she would never walk again.

As I sauntered in the edgeland, I found a yellow golf ball that had escaped from a nearby driving range. I picked it up. As I did, I recognized that this is what Pat would have done. She would always return from her walks with things she hadn't known she was looking for. Often, when we arrived to take her out to dinner or to a family event we would find that she had used those random things she had collected the way a child might, to decorate her walker or herself or a corner of her room, finding meaning and purpose in those random things.

Pat was a brilliant human, a woman who accomplished enough for a dozen lifetimes. I can understand why someone might say, "Too bad," about these past few years, and it was, in many ways, awful for her and for those of us who loved her: a cruel trick played upon her by life itself. Yet still, through it all, through the true wilderness of life, she continued to move, not forward or backward, but through wherever she found herself. "Children," writes Solnit, "begin to walk to chase desires no one will fulfill for them: the desire for that which is out of reach, for freedom, for independence from the secure confines of the maternal Eden. And so walking begins as a delayed falling, and the fall meets with the Fall."

Pat delayed her falls right up until she could fall no more. She continued to go out into her world, even when her world became small. She continued to seek out the random, to learn, to strive, and to chase desires no one would fulfill for her. That is the incalculable that gave her life, any life, value.

We tucked her body in with dirt from our own shovels, another Jewish tradition. But the person she was, the person she is, continues to saunter within those of us who knew and loved her.


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