I have written this before, in my post about break-ups, that it’s incredible how a friend can say something in passing, that changes your direction. It’s even more enlightening, when a person steps into your life as a stranger and changes the way you think, or makes you appreciate the world around you. If you listen, if you embrace those moments, you’ll realize that there are so many people in this world to learn from. To grow from. This is a story about a woman I meet with once a week, who, whether she knows it or not, has taught me a great deal about appreciating the world I live in. I wanted to change her name, for confidentiality purposes, and because we happen to meet on Tuesdays, it felt like “Laurie” was most appropriate.
I think the definition of “elderly” has changed over the years, and I certainly wouldn’t want to insult the woman I have come to respect, but I guess for description’s sake, Laurie is an elderly woman. An avid reader, collector of books and self-described recluse. She’s cultured in a way you wouldn’t expect an older, reclusive, American woman to be cultured. Don’t mistake my usage of the word “cultured” with education, that’s not meant to insult older American women. Perhaps “progressive” is the right word; ahead of her time. She’s attempting to read though the books she has in her apartment, with a plan to donate what she doesn’t want to keep. We all have a stack of half-read or will-read books, right? She’ll admit that she gets caught up in the books she has already finished, but wants to read again. I really like that about her, actually. As for my roll? I’m a book messenger, of sorts. I’ll take them to the library, or a local community center. In fact, I have even left a few in one of those little library boxes you find on trails. I like the idea of another hiker picking up one of Laurie’s books. I will admit though, that with little persuasion from Laurie, I have even read a couple. Every time she gives me a book to donate, shes says, “read it if you want… at least read the first and last page. If you have a pull for more information, read the book.” It has me wondering what she would think of the first and last paragraph of this blog post. Even though she will likely never read it, I’ll try to finish strong.
Laurie used to live in Chicago. She once told me that she looks back on her experience there and recognizes that she didn’t use Chicago the way the city deserved to be used. During one of our visits, she looked out her window and asked me if I knew what happened with the restaurant across the street. She can usually see the neon open sign from her living room chair, but it hadn’t been on in over a week. It turns out that they were still open, but their sign was in repair. That conversation gave me an aching new perspective of Laurie’s day. For whatever reason, Laurie is not in a position to use Maine either. It’s the sunrise or the sunset, whichever is the case from that window, but not both. She can see the cars that drive down the main street in her town, but she can’t see the people walking in and out of the shops two blocks over. It’s a reminder of the things we take for granted; a simple walk across the street, to see if a diner has closed. She uses her space quite well; stacks of books and magazine and pictures of her great nieces. The TV playing “Rocky Mountain Vet”, or anything else that will give her joy in 700 square feet. But her curiosity is resolved to the confines of her apartment, to the confines of the words in her books. Laurie told me that someone once suggested that she was a book in your past life. “I’d like to think I was the ink.” I didn’t have to ask her what that meant. The book is just a vessel. It’s the ink, the words, that are filled with possibility. The writer decides if a book exists or doesn’t exist. But ideas, insight, those things can come without our permission. They are free.
My visits with Laurie are short, but every week I leave more enlightened than the last. She has been seeing a physical therapist for a leg injury. After eight leg raises, the therapist asked why she didn’t do ten and Laurie said “because I don’t think like that.” It’s not if you can do eight, why not do ten. I made a plan to do eight.” She compared that logic to her sister’s advice, when they were kids. “She used to say, let’s run to the end of the street.” “Why? Why the end of the street?” Why not just run until you want to rest?” I laughed and told her that I use that logic while I’m hiking, “just get to the next tree.” She said, “yeah, well at least the tree will be there to hold you up.” Laurie went on to say that if she had used that logic, maybe she would have been as active as her sister. “She did start crawling uphill at nine months after all.” Not Laurie though. Laurie didn’t defy the odds when it came to child development, and as an adult, she describes herself as someone who is “not the save the world type.” Its sounds pessimistic when you read it like that, but that’s not how it read in person. It’s realistic. She’s an older lady who has lost the mobility of her prime, but she is also not sitting around saying, “I wish I had.” Every time I leave Laurie’s apartment, I appreciate the world a little more. Not just because of what she doesn’t have, but because of her eagerness to utilize every corner of what she does have.
Maybe the lesson here is that we don’t always have to meet some expectation of success. Ambition and discipline are positive characteristics. They move you towards success. It’s in the search for success though, that we can miss the ordinary, the simple. Maybe it should be about enjoying your life, enjoying what’s in front of you. For me, it’s about balance. I have seen such beauty in the world, since I started training. Beauty by way of mountain tops, beauty by way of unwavering support from the people who love me, and encouragement from the people who I’ve met along the way. There have been times when I’ve needed to tell myself just to get to the next tree, and there have been times when I’ve stopped purposefully, and looked at nature in ways I have never looked at it before. I do wish Laurie could see what I have seen though, just as I can tell from every book suggestion, that she wishes I have read all she has read.
Laurie’s sister got to the end of that driveway as a kid, and metaphorically, she has in her adult life as well. Laurie took the road less traveled, or at least the road traveled slower, and she seems to be ok too. She’s a person who knows her limitations and speaks of them freely. So freely, in fact, that it just borders self-deprecation. It’s something else, though. It’s self-awareness. Self-awareness, as anyone who has crossed paths with it will tell you, is war with yourself. Acknowledging your own faults and making changes, or worse, accepting them, is an internal battle between intelligence and insecurity. Ignorant bliss is a far more pleasant path to pursue. Laurie chose the path of resistance, and I don’t know if she’s better for it or not, but I am certainly better for having met her. Laurie said she hopes she was the ink in her past life, but the truth is, if the plot is about her and me, she’s already the ink.