Friday, August 1, 2008

Joy Rider

So I'm stopped at a red light and this dragonfly alights on my car's windshield wiper. Its long, slim body is a lustrous sage color. It's a cool insect. The light changes, I gently accelerate, but instead of flying away, the dragonfly clings to the wiper and stays put. It faces into the relative wind, wings aflutter. I wonder if the dragonfly foreleg may be trapped in the wiper's jointed mechanism. When stopped at the next light I tap the windshield under the dragonfly. The dragonfly promptly flies away. It certainly wasn't stuck to the windshield wiper. I think it was joy-riding—enjoying forward motion without all the usual effort of flying.

Bird owners report that parakeets, cockatiels and parrots invariably like riding on the owner's shoulder. And a couple of weeks ago I saw a dog enjoy joy-driving. Two friends of mine and their little dog had a layover in Houston, so I drove to their airport hotel to take them out to eat, dog and all. It turned out that Cozy Dog, a delicate Yorkie, loves to perch on a driver's lap, put her front paws on the hub of the steering wheel, and "drive"—ears pointed forward, bright eyes looking at the passing scenery, obviously enjoying the experience. It goes without saying, humans like every imaginable sort of joy-riding just as much. Witness all the lines for roller coasters at the amusement park. We're all joy riders at heart.

For a lot of us, reading is joyriding too. Especially reading science fiction. SF is the refuge of bright but tired minds: people who enjoy stretching the minds' diaphanous wings out in the slipstream of the imagination and letting a story carry them to new places.

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Traveling is joy-riding too. Travel is a cognate of the word travail, meaning labor pains (as well as a medieval instrument of torture.) In the old days, travel was like that. Endless exertion, exhaustion, and mortal danger. Now we've got cars and trains and planes, all these engines that do the labor.

For me personally, however, travel is peculiarly travailous. I have an ingrained aversion to the prospect of travel. I honestly don't think it's in my genetic makeup to be a reluctant traveler. My mother joined the Women's Army Corps in 1943. She stayed in the service for nine years, with final a rank of master sergeant, and thoroughly enjoyed all the places she saw in the Army. One of my own earliest memories is the tarmac at the Salt Lake City airport. I was with my mother on the way from our home in Pocatello, Idaho to her home in Troy, Alabama. I remember cheerfully trying to help Mom with her bags. I was three at the time. Unfortunately for me, this was right after she divorced my father. Besides losing my home, I never saw my father again. My grandfather, Mom's father, was an abusive old womanizer who died of natural causes not long after Mom brought me back to Troy. I soon lost Mom too, in a way, because she sank into a decades of chronic depression. The end result for me: being royally traumatized about traveling. Thanks Mom. Or as a therapist commented, when I told her about the Salt Lake City memory: "Let her carry her own damn bags!"

The travel-and-change phobia has been my constant companion in life. The prospect of going to college, going to graduate school in California, moving back to Houston several years later, and even relocating from one house or apartment to another in Houston, all conjured the shades of hell for me for weeks. Travel opportunities like a cruise, a vacation, or a science fiction convention in another part of the country, just give me the cold shakes for a week or so beforehand.

Even for me, though, some kinds of travel are relatively easy. After my grandfather's death, my grandmother, my mother and I moved to be with my mother's sister in Columbus, Georgia. That's where I grew up until I left home to go to college. (Read: tore myself away from home like tearing off a full-body bandage hoping and praying not to fall apart or bleed to death without the bandage on.) College was in Houston. Trips back home revealed that I like going west much, much, much more than going east. Every time I ever drove or flew back home to Georgia was traumatic. Going west, back to college, was always better. Not easy, but better than the prospect of traveling east. It was forty years before I stopped disliking pine trees because they remind me of the Southeast.

Once I actually set out on travel, I typically love it. It's the dread beforehand that nearly drives me crazy. Friends who've traveled with me can attest to this. After they pry me out of my house and put my baggage in our car or airliner or small airplane, and the wheels start rolling, I come out of anxiety-disorder-land and turn into a happy traveler. Every time I come home from anywhere, it literally, but very pleasantly, surprises me that my home is still in one piece, that my life is intact, that there there's food in the pantry, that all is well. That I can actually go anywhere without losing everything.

Things change. Not always for the worst, not even when it looks like it's going that way. A year and a half ago it became apparent that my mother has Alzheimer's. It looked like an utter nightmare on my doorstep. And part of it was going to be a lot of traveling to Georgia, where she still lives. In blessed irony, it has turned out better than I could have imagined. After a rather spectacular learning curve, I figured out that she should be in Assisted Living, found a remarkably good facility, got her there, and got a handle on her finances. I had unexpected, priceless, revelatory help all the way. From professional caregivers and Assisted Living staff to helpful financial professionals; from old friends and new acquaintances struggling with the issues of parents with Alzheimer's, to wonderful cousins in Columbus, I've had all kinds of good advice and unexpected help. I've been terrifically lucky. How many people have cousins who work in the estate sale business and know all the pathways taken by older folks in declining condition, and also know how to sell all kinds of belongings and the house too? They live five minutes away from the assisted living facility, and help my mother in small and large ways every week. They put me up when I go to Columbus. And I enjoy their roomy house, their neighborhood with a really good walking park, and most of all, having family. Thanks, this said in an utterly sincere tone, Roy and Judy.

It turns out that Mom is happy in Assisted Living. She's made lots of friends there and the staff like her. She somewhat resembles the good-natured, adventurous WAS she was years ago. I'm pretty sure the structure of Army life was very good for her, the structurelessness of being a housewife was bad, and the social vacuum entailed in being a divorced woman in the South in the 1960's was even worse. The mother I grew up with was inhibited and depressed. She organized her mental life around worrying about me, which didn't do my mental life much good. After she retired from teaching, she took up walking and dancing. Being active not only got her to the age of 85 in good physical health, it also gave her the social life she had lacked since her divorce. She brightened up. She connected with people. To give the devil its due, Alzheimer's may have knocked out some socially crippling inhibitions starting as much as eight or ten years ago. I also credit Alzheimer's with her becoming the mother who is vocally proud of my writing career, tells people her daughter is a writer, praises me for being smart and a hard worker, and cheers me on. I never heard anything like that from her for the first twenty years of my writing career, or while I was in graduate school or college either. But right now, in the golden interval between early Alzheimer's and the day it drastically disables her, I've been infinitely surprised to get the kind of affirmation from my mother that I always needed and never had before.

Best of all, through the journey of dealing with my mother's Alzheimer's, I got my grandmother back. Ruth Thomas Howard was a hard-working, intelligent, deeply religious, generous and charitable woman who did more than her share to raise me. But ever since my grandmother died, when I was eleven, it was as though I couldn't clearly remember her or feel what I once felt for her and what she felt for me. Maybe by that time I had overdosed on loss, but my friend Pat gave me an analogy that feels apt. Pat, like me, grew up an only child very much in the glare of parental fixation. After her mother died, Pat experienced something like static that went away. She was able to hold her grandmother more clearly in her mind and heart. Me too. The static went away, starting when I was clearing out Mom's house and finding some of my grandmother's things and the dishes she used to serve company on. She did love table fellowship, and she was a good cook and hostess. The dishes spoke to me.

At the end of my most recent trip to Georgia, I hit the road in my mother's Chevy Impala which my cousin Judy had cleverly loaded up with all of the things from my mother's house that I wanted to bring back to Houston. Included were Mom's army footlocker, my grandmother's favorite chair and her Singer sewing machine, plus a quilt and some dishes, scads of books, and all kinds of mementos from my childhood and college years. That was one well-stuffed car. I was overjoyed not only because this trip was going west (west is good!) but also because I could feel it healing my life. Now, in my Houston home, I have my grandmother's favorite chair, in my bedroom. Her Singer sewing machine graces my living room. I find it easier to remember her here and now than in my mother's house with the air between us full of that parental static. Last week I had people over for dinner, and channeled my grandmother while making preparations and making sure everybody had good food, drink and fellowship. It felt good and it was fun. A few weeks before that, I was at church, St. Stephen's Episcopal in Houston, which has a nice small church building with enough old wood that the air smells like the church I grew up in. That Sunday the director of music had skillfully sprinkled the liturgy with old Southern hymn music. There happened to be an empty spot on the pew beside me. I imagined my grandmother sitting and smiling there. When I later mentioned this to the Rector, she commented, "The community of saints is real!"

On the road trip back from Georgia in the well-stuffed Impala, I detoured from I-10 in Mississippi to go down to the coast and see how Biloxi and Gulfport have fared since Hurricane Katrina. Three years later the damage still shocked me. But when I stopped to wade in the Gulf of Mexico, the water was warm and soothing. I saw how in Biloxi in the U.S. 90 medians a lot of the stumps of shattered palm trees have been carved into birds and dolphins, like totems of life coming back.

Things change. Sometimes the change is utter disaster. But sometimes healing or recovery, or resurrection, comes after that.

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So next week I'm off to Denver for the World Science Fiction Convention. I'm driving the Impala. It's really too big a car for me, and the gas mileage around town too low, and the styling a bit stodgy for my taste, so I may not keep it too much longer. But it's a comfy, cushy road trip car with lots of luggage room. I'll stop in Oklahoma to pick up another writer. If we want to, we can hit the dealers' room hard in Denver and easily pack the loot home. After the WorldCon, I plan to venture to Vernal Utah. I have part of a novel situated somewhere in that vicinity and I need to look around. In other words I'll go even further west. West is good.

This being the brink of a trip, that ol' debbil Travel is in play as always. I am half convinced that disaster will strike. I'll never make it home again. Or if I do I'll find my home burned to the ground or blown away by a hurricane. So it feels; I know those things aren't quite as probable as they seem. As a matter of fact, this is the least traumatized I've ever been about prospective travel. Things change and sometimes it's for the better.

Once the wheels are rolling westward, I intend to make it a joy ride.

1 comment:

Gary said...

thank you for such a revealing honest reading experience.