There’s just something about a Fall day that calls to the spirit to “come outside and breathe.” The withering heat of summer is long gone and the rain, having recently begun in earnest, has taken a rest for a day or two. So, I go for a walk, intending a short one, and wind up staying out for hours.
Unlike my usual walks in the city (when I adorn myself with an Iphone and earphones, getting exercise and listening to an audio book, squeezing the most out of multitasking), I set out plainly on this Island walk, taking only mind and body, nose and ears and eyes. I remind myself that I should walk like this more often, as the crunch of the gravel path, the rustling of leaves not yet fallen, and the calls of birds fill my senses. The sun, low in the sky, falls warmly on my skin. I’ve dressed for the cool autumn weather but soon roll up my sleeves with the brisk pace, spurred by a freshness in the air that seems to visit only at this time of year.
I breathe deeply and relax my shoulders in a way that doesn’t normally happen. The stress of the everyday keeps them tensed but now, given freedom, they fall and lengthen my neck, like some kind of walking yoga pose. I imagine the tree-formed oxygen entering my lungs and traveling through my bloodstream, giving life to every last cell, even the one on the end of my pinky toe. It strikes me that my body is a marvel of engineering, built to absorb my environment and, no matter the age, profit from movement and air and… smiling. You can’t help but smile under these circumstances. There’s just too much excitement going on.
There’s a right turn where I usually go straight ahead and I take it, immediately gratified by the decision. This road is even quieter, not a single car, not a human soul around. My head is on a swivel, looking this way and that at autumn leaves, and hawks in the sky, and tiny little animals running around in the fields. I spy on people’s back yards, big ones with wood piles and houses with enormous windows, clearly built to take advantage of their placement in the cool forest and the views out back. Is that last house actually overlooking the natural area where I watch for eagles? Yes, yes, it is. I feel a pang of envy, imagining how satisfying it would be to sit on that porch with a pair of binoculars and track the eagles and the sandhill cranes overhead. Then I remember that I’ll return home to my little floating house on the river and remind myself that I have everything I could want there and more. Especially the herons! But still…
Soon there’s a fork in the road. Will I ever come upon one and not reflexively hear Robert Frost’s New England voice with its slow, methodical cadence?
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
The now-yellowed paperback where I first read those words as a kid still sits, proudly, in my bookcase. No poem meant more to me then and few since have touched my heart as much. Something about it resonated for reasons unknown in youth but now, looking back, I realize the simple words became a sort of emblem for my life. And, just like the man said, it turns out that taking that road less traveled has indeed made all the difference. Thank you, dear Robert, for showing me the path.
On this particular day, taking the little gravel road rewards me in unexpected ways. The quiet is luxurious and I wonder, who gets to live here? The road winds past several country houses and then down into a hollow where, wonderfully, a pond appears. As I walk around the perimeter, the road dwindles to nothing, ending in a grassy knoll where someone has thoughtfully placed a meditation bench. I walk towards it and then I see a stone.
Suddenly, my visit takes on a solemn air. This is no ordinary bench, is it? I walk over to the stone and see…
… a memorial to another Robert, “A 20th Century Man”, one Robert P. Jones. I imagine he might have liked sitting by this pond, as I am now. Unknown to each other, we share a connection. A love of the quiet place, perhaps? I feel grateful to his family and hope someday I might be remembered in such a loving way. Rest in peace, Robert. It sounds like you had a good life with people who loved you, the best we can ask of this world.
Having reached the end of my gravel road, I turn back toward home. On the way, I meet a woman raking leaves in her garden. We strike up a conversation about gardening, and how leaves get ahead of you if you don’t keep up, and work, and living in a place for a long time, and the Island, and houses, and taking walks, and neighbors. It’s a funny thing how you can connect with someone you’ve never met before and share a moment where it seems you know some of the same things, in the same way. The older I get, the more this happens. There’s something about older women, in particular, that seems to open this door more readily and I have some theories about why this is so.
I believe there is a recognition between women of a certain age – however unconscious a realization – that we have lived… a lot. That, despite differences in economic, ethnic, religious, educational, or other backgrounds, every one of us has persevered through multiple layers of life’s complex demands. We’ve worked hard and long at jobs or families or just surviving. We’ve endured, by this time in our lives, more trials than we care to count and, evidenced by the fact that we’re still here, have apparently won more battles than we’ve lost. And, I think, because the winning has so often been hard-fought, we try to savor it as long as we can and are willing to share it with those we know have fought hard, too. Men, of course, have persevered through adversity as well – wars and other terrible burdens come to mind. But it strikes me, in our current debased political climate, that humans who have lived their lives as women share a special bond in knowing that many of us have struggled for reasons that shouldn’t have been there in the first place if we are, truthfully, equal members of this society. The phrase, “Me too” is so much more than a hashtag. It’s a medal of honor, a sign of a singular endurance, in a world where misogyny has ruled for far too long.
Often, I walk down the street or up an aisle in the grocery store and encounter a woman my age. Invariably, she will look up and we smile, quietly. There’s almost always a warmth and an unselfconsciousness in that shared moment, sometimes even a nod, that seems to say, “I see you” in a way that I did not experience as a young woman. It occurs to me that we were all so full of angst and worry that it made us too conscious of ourselves to realize we were all in the same boat and could make it across the stormy sea together, stronger in the uniting.
I’m happy that most of us did, finally, make it across the sea. In recent years, I’ve had the pleasure of reconnecting with old college friends and can see in them now the mature, gracious version of the nice kids they were back then. For some of us, life has tried pretty hard to take us down – or out. There are health problems we could only imagine as young women and probably never thought we’d actually have to deal with. But it’s been a pleasure to see that we’ve persisted and have gained a perspective we couldn’t lay claim to at twenty.
I have an idea…
Maybe sometime we could all take a long walk together on a country road and relish the quiet, the peace, and the knowledge of what we have become. Maybe we could build a little bench and put our names on a rock so someone would wonder who we were and what we were like. Twentieth century women, who flourished well into the twenty-first, sharing love, and warmth, and admiration for where we each have been.
Wouldn’t that be something?