“Oh. Well that’s cause you live over the hump.”
N and I were paying a brief visit to his ninety-year-old Great Aunt Violet en route to Denver after an early August week in the remote Rocky Mountain wilderness.
It had been a while since N had come to this small, mountain town–a lapse Violet was quick to explain as we walked in. (By ‘hump’ did she mean ‘Rockies’? I asked after we left. Yep, N nodded. It’s pretty much all the same to her.)
“I was just working on this quilt,” Violet nodded toward the craft project laid out on the dining room table as she led us in the house–a ranch residence at which she’s evidently outlived three husbands. “One of our families at the church just had a baby! Now come in where it’s comfortable.”
We followed her through wood-paneled rooms to sit on furniture hailing from the Wilson administration: she sat straight-backed on a chair and motioned us toward a printed fabric couch. She’d cropped her gray hair close to the scalp; covered her ankles with dark boots laced up for work.
Violet crossed her denim-clad knees as she updated us on her latest: the old schoolhouse she had fought (finally, with success),to designate a National Landmark; the custodial job she’d lost at the town library, but swiftly replaced with work at a DNR office across the street. (I used to walk, she explained, But I really need to bring my own Shopvac.) Before we got back on the road she gave us a tour of her garden: lengthy, manicured rows of colorful collards, beets, tomatoes, broccoli.
Later that night we visited with another of N’s relatives, a charismatic cousin who does construction in Alaska. He told us about driving through that town a few years back and pulling over, enraged, when he saw Violet atop a ladder, cleaning second story windows.
I asked how he thought she got her youthful strength; he took a bite of a sub sandwich and leaned back in his deck chair.
“She has no idea,” he said, “what’s going on in the world.”
I have been processing this insight ever since: questioning why it is that we keep up with news, national and international (I want to understand Syria, but do I need to?); whether ignorance is the key to longevity (information is exhausting); whether being active in one’s own community should trump a broader awareness that falls short of action (what’s that line about everything being local?).
And if not those things, than what? A ninety year old woman with the physical fortitude to scale buildings and the mental will to conquer a federal bureaucracy–she must contain some lesson, some certain and splendid wisdom. Right?
This weekend I saw a few friends and family during a brief visit home. I stayed with A on the Lower East Side, which (in addition to the daily workout of her six-story walkup) enabled a lot of walking: I blasted Pavement and Otis Redding in my earbuds as I hustled up and down the east side between doctor visits and coffee dates.
I made plans, I changed plans, I cancelled plans; friends did the same.
I felt myself, in a few moments, begin to get agitated by small stuff–money and family and mismatched expectations, all obscured by texting. (I know it’s convenient, but please, can we stop!?) Malkmus crooned about Zurich, and I decided to shrug it off.
Maybe it was that uniquely intoxicating energy of moving along New York streets. Maybe it was my increasing understanding of the care we must provide ourselves before giving to anyone else: how I am a completely useless friend and sister and girlfriend and daughter unless I’ve done whatever’s necessary to get myself straight (or as one friend put it in a recent essay, “get clear”)–whether it’s running or writing or listening to favorite albums from college whilst racing up Broadway.
Maybe it was Violet.
Regardless of where she directed her energies, there was no question that she was remarkably intentional about it: she possessed a clear set of priorities–the schoolhouse, her community, her garden–and to those, she dedicated herself unflinchingly.
Too often, I thought, I let energy seep out of me with careless misdirection: toward envy and trivial interactions and endless, preposterous layers of insecurity. Too often I find myself, at the end of the day, drained–mystified by what, exactly, has sapped me so dry.
Let’s be honest: I’m sure that the compact matter of Violet’s body and brain contain no small depths of wisdom from which a strung out city girl like me could gain. But wisdom doesn’t get passed down in an afternoon, or even a lifetime–we choose what we want to learn from people. We figure things out when we’re ready.
And in this moment, in the oddly calm countdown to my thirtieth birthday,what I need to learn from Violet isn’t to read less news or grow more kale (though neither, it’s true, is a terrible idea), but to be more mindful of my pursuits. To be more conscious of the fact that my capacities are finite, but that I can control what fills them.