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My young neighbor, ready for a nibble of me

I'm happy to be taking to my life in the RAV4 slowly–testing things out one by one. My first trip was to the forest home of some friends who live in the Northern New Mexico Nacimiento Mountains. I already knew I planned to build an over-the-foot shelf for storage when I return to Albuquerque with my reward check (what a Navajo friend calls our Social Security checks) in hand. The need for such a shelf was definitely confirmed on this trip, as it will help so much with organization, which is essential in a small space.


The main thing I was testing was the comfort of my sleeping arrangement. The RAV4's back seats break down in a 60/40 configuration, so my 4-inch memory foam mattress is cut to the size of the 60 side, giving me plenty of width for turning to sleep on either side or my back. When the seats are folded down, they are referred to as "nearly flat." They do, however, slope slightly upward, which I thought would be fine, as such a slope is recommended for addressing reflux, which I do sometimes have. The place where the seat back breaks from the cargo area has a ridge that proved uncomfortable right away. I solved that by placing my self-inflating lumbar pillow at the division spot. In this way, I spent two nights of excellent sleep, but I noticed that gravity pulled me down toward the foot end enough that it created some low back strain.


On my drive across the checkerboard area of Navajo Country, the following occurred to me: I will be getting a 4'x8' sheet of plywood cut at the lumber store for my shelf, and there will be a lot of wood left over. I can make a very low sleeping platform–the head end resting on the top end of the folded down seat, and the foot end on supports that make the platform just level. That will be so much more comfortable, and at my age, comfort becomes ever more important. This will probably make exactly enough space under the platform to store my small aluminum folding table, too. Coming up with solutions like this is exceptionally gratifying. Of course the next step is the execution of it!


I had already done a dry run to test the ease with which I could get up and sit on the honey bucket during the night, and that proved to be easy in real life. I did experiment each night to see whether accesibility was better with the 40 seat up or down. Folded down, it turns out.


Both nights I spent the first few hours listening to the music of rain on metal roof–one of my favorite sounds. I felt snug inside my spacious new home. When I woke at 2:30, the rain had stopped, and the waning half-moon made the droplets on the windows shimmer. The Ponderosa pines were silhouetted tall and dark against the night sky. When I rose it was to the extraordinary smells of the high desert–rain-washed earth, pungent pine, cedar and piñon, sagebrush, and the dusky sweet of yellow asters. The world shone with the brightness of clean, and I was grateful to be alive in it.


The trip across Navajo Country involved a stop in Crownpoint at Basha's Diné Market to use the facilities and buy a few items. I grew up in the Navajo Nation (I'm white, in case you're new to me and my writing), and walking around the supermarket reminded me pleasurably of the old-time trading posts of my childhood. Every contemporary item you'd find in any US Supermarket filled the shelves, and the surprising luxuries of a deli and bakery stood to one side. And then there were the items you'd never find in a store in Albuquerque, NM or Grand Rapids, MI: galvanized buckets and tubs; bridles; saddle blankets; loops of stiff rope; salt lick blocks; Bluebird flour in sacks of all sizes; five-pound bags of dried, whole-kernel blue corn; sacks of blue cornmeal for making mush; speckled enamel kitchenware—coffee pots, basins, plates and bowls; and saddle bags, although these were made of nylon, not canvas. I felt at home and loved exchanging smiles and a bit of chat with other customers and the clerk.


For the next few days I'm staying in my brother's cabin in the Zuni Mountains, adjacent to the Cibola National Forest. My neighbors are thoroughbred horses– brown with white blazes on their foreheads. I am surrounded by pines and meadows filled with yellow asters. Grateful all over again to be alive.


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I open with words from Travels with Charley (John Steinbeck, of course): "When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. ... Nothing has worked. Four hoarse blasts of a ship's whistle will raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping. The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye, the hot palms and the churn of stomach high up under the rib cage. In other words, I don't improve; ... I fear the disease is incurable."


A year ago I thought I would settle in a dwelling that could not be more grounding–my brother Rick's Earthship--and I moved there last October. By April I was gone, moved to live temporarily in Albuquerque with Catherine, my co-author on a new book project. But the plan, from the beginning, was to go back eventually to living on the road.


Yesterday, someone asked if I was back in Albuquerque (read to live permanently). When I described my plans, she said, "You might as well just say you're a nomad." I don't know exactly why I've been reluctant to say it. I think it's in reaction to people saying things like, "Oh, you're moving again? How many moves is it this time?" "I hope you're going to stay here for a while. A few years, at least." "You're a just vagabond." I always hear a criticism in these comments, though the person who told me yesterday to embrace being a nomad was laughing with pleasure at the idea. So some of it is my own opprobrium. Why can't I just settle down?


When Steinbeck took his trip in 1960, apparently there weren't a lot of pickups fully outfitted with self-contained campers. Before he left his home on Long Island and all along the way, people asked to see it and were impressed in a way that suggests it was a novelty. And it seems the wish to wander dwells in the hearts of many, at least in some form. People told Steinbeck longingly that they wanted to leave too, from wherever they were. One small boy offered to do all the chores along the way, if he could just travel with John and Charley, the standard blue poodle.


When I started off on my book tour, friends wanted to check out the van I'd made into my home in much the same way. I planned to live in it for the next two and a half years, which were ultimately truncated, but that's an old story. As they perused my cozy little home, folks got a faraway, wistful look in their eyes and applauded my adventuresome spirit. But they left the adventuring to me.


I suppose some of my hesitation to embrace the nomadic appellation is the fact that I haven't always felt that I was adventuresome. My peregrenatious tendency seemed more like a complulsion, a disability, almost, or an inability–to settle. An incurable disease, as Steinbeck put it. I'm getting closer to accepting and loving being a nomad, and I'm feeling excited about my–yes–upcoming adventure.


Steinbeck writes about all the preparations, deciding what to take and what to leave behind. By his own admission, and I agree, he took far too much. The vehicle I've chosen this time, still wearing the faithful YODA plate, limits what I can take, but so does my minimalist mindset. I got rid of all my big possessions except my art, my mattress, and my Lazy Girl this time. What is left fits into a 5'x10' storage unit with space to spare.


And now I'm reveling in the great pleasure of outfitting my little RAV4. The above photo represents the first stage, and on Wednesday I'll be doing a trial run, which will help me decide what else I need. I do know that when I return from this short trip, I will build an over-the-foot shelf to add storage capacity. So far I've gotten the mattress (4-inch memory foam), bucket for nocturnal use, privacy tent for changing clothes & showering, Solo Stove that burns twigs for fuel, back of seat storage pockets, solar laptop & phone charger, solar fan, and a comfy folding chair. Things I already had: folding aluminum table, cooler, camping kitchen stored in a clear plastic boot box.


I do recommend Travels with Charley, which I'd long been meaning to read. I'd forgotten how beautifully Steinbeck writes, so that was a simple pleasure. I found his way of engaging with such a variety of people along the way fascinating and admirable. He always came from a place of genuine curiosity about them–their thoughts, their way of life. He made observations in 1960 about the growth of cities in the US and our practice of using migrants for the jobs US citizens don't want to do and the inherent potential harm, showing astonishing foresight. His return to the Salinas, California of his birth and youth was poignant. There is a fair amount of overt sexism that he could likely not get away with in a book by someone of his stature today, but I could think "1960" and "travel stories" and thus be able to bypass those instances.


Stay tuned for more photos and my travel stories as things progress.

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I didn't want to admit that turning seventy was hard. I talked about how I just couldn't grasp it, but I kept saying it wasn't hard to be getting older. Until I knew that it was. Then I bought three books on aging well. I started with the one by Sister Joan Chittister, and that one didn't move me or give me anything to chew on. Then I took up Aging as a Spiritual Practice: A Contemplative Guide to Growing Older and Wiser by Buddhist priest Lewis Richmond. And this is where I am. Every morning I read until I find something that speaks to me. Then I underline it and journal about what I've noted. Or I journal on the questions at the end of each chapter.


The chapter I've been working on over the last few days is titled "Stages of Aging," which isn't, as it might sound, about what happens to you in each decade as you grow old. Instead it explores how we come to terms, adapt, and appreciate our aging. Responding to this chapter's "Contemplative Reflections," which ask us to look at the emotions involved in reckoning with aging, here's what I wrote yesterday morning:


Initially, as I began my sixty-ninth year, I felt baffled. It was because on my next birthday, I would turn seventy (obviously). I simply could not grasp that this was happening. To me. Such mystification had only happened to me once before–when I was about to turn five. I recall lazily swinging from the oak tree above our house while my mother hung clothes down below. I shouted to her, "I can hardly believe I'm about to be five!" My mother, with typical Dutch bluntness, shouted back something to the effect of, "It's no big deal," and went on hanging diapers.


But seventy sounded so much older than sixty-nine. Dealing with it was akin to trying to grasp that one day I will die. One day I will no longer be here in the only place I remember having been–on the Earth. When I reached seventy-one this year, I felt that over the previous two years I had embodied the age I now am. It is what is, I tell myself, and I feel I've accepted it and am ready to explore it now–to find out what it's like to be this old. What might it mean as I progress through more years, if I'm given them?


In part it has meant that I felt another emotion–regret. Richmond says there's often some other emotion underlying regret, and he names fear, anger, or anxiety as possibilities. For me it's sorrow. Sorrow because I have not been successful in creating intimate relationship. Capital R Relationship. I've had two long-term relationships that lasted seven years each, and I would not describe them as successful, though I learned a lot through both. I've been single now for more than thirty years.


Shortly after I turned sixty-nine-I fell in love with a much younger woman. We became good friends, but my feelings of being in love and hoping for something more were not returned. I couldn't help feeling if I'd been younger it might have been different. The unreturned love, sorrow, and regret about things I have no control over–another person's heart and my age–became part of the stage Richmond calls "Coming to Terms" with aging. For months, I wanted to go back to being younger.


Now I'm consciously choosing to enter a new emotional stage–one of gratitude. And I am grateful–grateful to have reached the age of seventy-one, to be in excellent health, to be physically remarkably fit. I am grateful for the gift of life, for the beauty I'm privileged to witness every day, for the love of friends and family, and for continued meaningful work. I'm grateful that I am beginning to engage in the spiritual practice of aging.

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