Although I enjoy traveling to rowing regattas, sitting in the car on long road trips can leave my rump feeling squashed and the backs of my thighs a bit sore. Stretching exercises help, but they don’t always get me fully back to normal. Last week I made sure to do some stretching and foam rolling, only to have some lingering aches anyway.

One night when I got into bed, I remembered a time, five or six years ago, when I had persistent achy feelings in my upper arms. That went away a long time ago, but I found myself randomly wondering if old worries had somehow gotten lodged in there, weighing me down and generally making it harder for my body to maintain and repair itself. If so, maybe they needed to be gotten out somehow.

Then it occurred to me that my imaginary archetypal self-appointed bodyguard, Dame Shadow, had a history of using annoying aches and pains to get my attention. She hadn’t been around much lately, but that did not necessarily mean she wasn’t a suspect.

The Dame’s long skirts rustled as she sat down on the corner of my bed. “You know what, you’re asking the wrong question again,” she informed me.

I blinked at her silhouette in the darkened room, feeling confused. “Well, I didn’t think I had asked one.”

“What you could do to get those old worries out,” she clarified. “Haven’t you realized by now that there’s no need to wrestle with a heavy load of emotional baggage? You simply need to fill the space with something new, leaving whatever’s bothering you to fall away by itself.”

I heard the click of a large metal clasp as she opened a capacious handbag. “We’ll start with a tasty slice of apple crumb pie. Imagine how delicious it looks.”

Photo of apple crumb pie.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

She reached into the bag as if taking something out, and then she touched my upper left arm. Warmth spread through it, and a delicious apple pie aroma filled the room. Repeating that performance with my right arm, the Dame said, “Here’s a custard-filled donut sprinkled with powdered sugar.”

Continuing to touch one arm and then the other, she told me, “Cherry turnovers just out of the oven. Chocolate lava cake with whipped cream and red raspberries on top. It’s October, so we can’t forget the pumpkin spice cupcakes with leaf-shaped sprinkles. And last, but not least, a fortune cookie, as a reminder that the future holds many exciting discoveries.”

By now, my bedroom was full of wonderful bakery smells. The Dame closed her bag and declared cheerfully, “There’s no room at the inn for old worries!”

My rowing club’s annual training camp, on the first weekend in May, left me feeling stressed. That was mainly because I hadn’t left myself enough time to rest and recover after traveling with my husband on a road trip to Chattanooga the previous weekend. We had fun, but it was a long way home, and then we were back to work as usual.

I hadn’t quite gotten back my energy when the rowing camp started, and the weather conditions left much to be desired—heavy rain on Friday, then high water, and a chilly wind. Walking between the boathouse and the dock, I noticed violets blooming in the grass, but I didn’t pay much attention to them because I was more focused on avoiding the goose poop.

Afterward, I was lying awake in bed on Sunday night sometime around midnight, still feeling unsettled. My bed felt like it was not firmly attached to the floor but, instead, was bobbing around like a boat on the river. Then it occurred to me that my archetypal imaginary protector, Dame Shadow, featured in several posts, hadn’t been around for quite some time. Admittedly, she could be troublesome: her past antics included giving me a backache to get my attention (twice) and shrieking at me to trust no one.

Still, I felt that Dame Shadow’s protection would be helpful at that moment. I did a bit of searching in odd corners of my psyche, trying to determine what had become of her. Although I didn’t see or hear the Dame anywhere, my bed started to feel like it was solidly anchored again. Behind my closed eyelids, tiny violet dots appeared all over the comforter, which floated peacefully above me; and I drifted off to sleep.

By morning I still didn’t feel entirely refreshed, but the image of violets floating on calm water had helped to settle my mind. I had a quiet workweek, followed by a mostly unhurried weekend in which I spent time in the yard, weeding and mulching. Meanwhile, my husband traveled to Michigan for a junior rowing regatta where he was a referee. He sent me a photo of the course, which was beautiful.

Photo of starting line at rowing regatta.

After he returned, we went for a short row in our double; he wanted to spend some time outdoors with me, even though he was tired from driving and from waking up early. We also rowed on Monday and Tuesday.

I wasn’t expecting to go out yesterday because of rain, but it started tapering off later in the day. My husband said we’d be fine with our raincoats. I wasn’t as confident because we’d gotten soaked through our raincoats during the rowing camp, but it turned out he was right. The water was calm, the rain moved off, and we saw a rainbow. It was getting dark by the time we took the boat out of the water, and the grass was still wet, as were my feet; but then I thought about walking through violets, and all was well.

The world felt unusually quiet when I woke up to a cool, overcast morning on Saturday. I got myself some breakfast and, while sipping Raspberry Chocolate coffee, set my art display to a painting of spring blossoms with a peaceful lake in the background.

Painting of spring blossoms on an overcast day with a lake in the background.

(Image credit: Linda Apriletti)

My mind felt quiet, too, like there was nothing I needed or wanted to do. That was peculiar enough to make me wonder if there might be something wrong. I didn’t feel like reading a book, browsing on the computer, or writing a story or a blog post. Nothing else was distracting me—no chores or to-dos demanding attention. What was going on here? Had all of my creative energy mysteriously gone missing?

I imagined myself stepping into the picture on the art display, but not much seemed to be going on there either. Just another cool, overcast morning with painted spring blossoms. I looked around for interesting characters and didn’t see any, so I sat down on an imaginary log and gazed out over the pond. A few pink and white petals floated by. A frog jumped on a rock at the water’s edge.

“Doesn’t this give your mind the loveliest space to wander?”

Turning my head, I saw one girl, alone. Sara, cheerful as always, had come up next to me while I was looking at the frog. The path behind her led away into the woods, and I could just make out the tiny tree houses of Channelwood in the midst of the spring foliage.

“Ella and Queenie both have been working hard since they woke up this morning,” she went on, arranging her long skirts comfortably as she sat down beside me. “There’s always something to do. Chores, projects—so many ways to stay busy. People forget that they need to leave space for imagination.”

The frog hopped off the rock and landed with a splash.

“I wasn’t busy at all this morning,” I told her, “and I felt that I had plenty of empty space—but, for whatever reason, there was nothing to fill it.”

“That’s what happens,” Sara replied earnestly, keeping her big green eyes fixed on me. “When imagination hasn’t been given enough space in your mind to wander around and make itself happy, it finds somewhere else to go. Then you have to coax it back, like a neglected pet; and afterward, even more time has to pass before it feels comfortable again.”

I pondered that for a moment, unsure what to say. Then it occurred to me that she was a fictional character, after all; so I didn’t have to come up with an answer right away. Instead, I could put this scene on pause until I had a better idea of where it was going.

After giving myself a day to consider the proper care and feeding of imagination, I returned to the conversation on Sunday morning. The spring flowers picture on the art display didn’t match the bright sunlight streaming into my house from a clear blue sky; but I let it stay there for the time being, just for continuity of thought.

Sara was sitting on the log where I had left her, although she wasn’t in exactly the same position. She had turned her head to watch the bees bustling about on the heavy blossoms.

“They look very busy,” I said, following her gaze.

“Yes, they never stop to wonder what might happen next. I don’t suppose that means they lack imagination, though. Perhaps that one,” and Sara pointed to a bee hanging upside down from a large blossom, “is imagining a warm and sunny day, with just the lightest of breezes under a bright blue sky. Maybe it’s easier for them to pretend simple things like that because their minds aren’t cluttered with worries. Imagination doesn’t come from idleness. What it needs, instead, is regular practice, along with enough space to grow.”

I glanced away from the art display for a moment, and I had to agree with Sara when—in real life—I found myself in exactly the bright, sunny day she had described.

I had a massage appointment Tuesday afternoon, which followed about a week of having a tight, painful area on the right side of my back. The therapist worked on it for awhile, but it was still bothering me in the evening. I had not lifted anything heavy and did not seem to have any bruise or injury, so I thought it was probably caused by stress.

I woke up feeling thirsty around 3 AM and drank some orange juice. Then I got back in bed and was just about to fall asleep when I remembered that a sore back was among the tactics used by Dame Shadow, my self-appointed subconscious protector, when she felt I wasn’t doing enough to address a problem.

“Okay, Dame Shadow,” I said sleepily in my thoughts, while lying face down on my pillow, “I know you like to keep me guessing, but can you give me at least a small hint as to what’s going on here?”

After a moment, I felt a weight on the edge of the bed as Dame Shadow sat down next to me, dressed in a luminous velvet gown with long, rustling sleeves. She had brought with her an assortment of oil pastels, but no canvas or paper.

Photo of oil pastels in a stack.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

The reason for the absence of a canvas became clear when the Dame started pressing the pastels, one at a time, into my back and shoulders. Evidently she was placing dots of various colors on my skin, but I had no idea what the pattern might be. She didn’t seem inclined to explain what she was doing, either. I lay there for a few minutes without saying anything, but then she poked an especially tender spot.

“Ow! Isn’t that enough? Just what are you doing anyway?” I complained. “Whatever you’re drawing on my back, you know I can’t see it. Even if we had some daylight, I still would need a mirror.”

The Dame added a few more dots, leaned back as if to admire her handiwork, and chuckled.

“That’s often the way life is,” she told me. “We can’t see the picture in real time, but only the reflection later.”

Long ago, in a cabin deep in the forest, there lived a woodcutter’s wife who imagined on Christmas Eve that she saw an angel through the fog outside her window. That was, at any rate, how her husband described it when she told him about it.

“You’re imagining things, Lindy. It’s only a trick of the light reflecting from the snow,” he said impatiently. There were chores left to do, as always. Time couldn’t be wasted with foolish daydreams.

When Lindy looked again, nothing was there in the twilight but snow and fog. “Yes, that’s what it must have been, George,” she conceded, as she began closing the blinds.

Christmas morning dawned clear and bright. The only angels to be seen were the statues at the church and the ornament atop the tree. After church, Lindy had a busy day preparing the holiday meal with help from her daughters, who were grown and married with small children of their own, but lived nearby.

After the roast beef had been eaten and the gifts exchanged, Lindy wasn’t expecting to see anything besides a happy family around the tree. When she stepped outside on this frosty evening, she had in mind only to say goodnight to her departing children and grandchildren. Standing on the front walk, however, she distinctly saw a silvery figure with glowing wings in the moonlight.

“I saw the angel again just now, George,” she declared, as she stepped back into the cabin’s warmth. “At the edge of the clearing, where the road leads into the forest.”

“Hmph,” he snorted. His muscular neck rippled under his graying beard. “Nonsense. It’s probably the change of life—doesn’t that give women strange thoughts sometimes? You’d best come with me into town in the morning, so that you can see the herbalist while I deliver wood. Maybe there’s a potion for what ails you.”

Although Lindy hadn’t been feeling at all poorly, she supposed there couldn’t be any harm in seeing the herbalist. She felt certain that George meant well; he was a sensible man and a good provider. And, however distinct the figure might have looked to her, seeing angels surely was out of the ordinary.

“I’ll come along with you, George,” she agreed.

They rode into town early in the morning with a cartload of wood drawn by their brown ox, Ralph. Strong and well trained, Ralph had been a dependable beast for many years. When they reached the town’s narrow, cobblestoned streets, Lindy hopped down at the corner where the herbalist’s small shop stood. She crossed the street, being careful to hold her long dress up out of the half-frozen muck.

A bell jangled when Lindy pushed the door open. Candles gave off a pleasant apple-spice fragrance, illuminating shelves full of jars and sacks. The herbalist, a kindly woman named Kate who was short and round-cheeked, asked Lindy what had brought her to the shop on this fine winter’s day.

“Well, I don’t rightly know,” Lindy confessed, taking in a deep breath of the apple-scented air. “I saw an angel outside my cabin—twice. George says that I’m only imagining things, and he wanted me to ask if you have a potion for that.”

“For angels?” Kate’s friendly laugh was melodic, blending with the high chime of a clock that had started to strike the hour. “Most likely, you just have a touch of the winter blues. No cause for worry—a good tonic will soon have you feeling right as rain.”

Lindy left the shop with a small stoppered flask, which Kate assured her would remedy most winter ailments. She dutifully took her afternoon dose when she returned to the cabin with George. It tasted of mint, among other things. When no angels appeared for the rest of the day, Lindy went to bed thinking that perhaps she’d been cured.

She woke long before dawn the next morning, jolted out of a sound sleep by howling winds that shook the cabin ferociously. George hurried to hitch Ralph to the cart by lantern light. Tiny particles of swirling snow left no doubt that a bad storm was coming; today’s wood needed to get delivered right away, before it got worse.

“Stay indoors after you collect the eggs, Lindy,” he warned. “Don’t wander off chasing angels. It feels like there’s a blizzard on the way.”

Lindy nodded in agreement. She didn’t need any convincing; the wind-driven snow stung her face bitterly, even through a thick scarf. After George drove away, she plodded out to the chicken coop, head down, with no thoughts of anything but getting back inside the warm cabin. It wasn’t until she reached the coop that Lindy raised her head and saw the angel standing, large as life, only a few paces away.

“Who are you?” Lindy asked, looking into the angel’s shimmering silver eyes as the otherworldly figure loomed above her, wings outstretched as if about to take flight. “What do you want from me?”

The angel only smiled, extending a hand in invitation. When Lindy took a step closer, the angel, hovering just above the frozen ground, began to drift slowly back toward the forest. Lindy felt compelled to follow, even though George had told her to go back inside after getting the eggs. She hadn’t yet collected them, after all; so she wasn’t exactly breaking a promise.

Soon Lindy found herself among the trees. Dawn brought only a weak light, barely enough to see a path that was quickly becoming obscured by new-fallen snow. The angel still gleamed brightly, not far ahead of her.

Footsteps crunched to her left, and Lindy turned her head. She recognized her son Peter mainly by his tall stature and nimble gait, rather than by his face, which was covered against the biting wind like her own. He carried a sack over his shoulder, from which a beaver tail protruded.

“What are you doing out here in this storm, Mother?”

“I saw…”

Raising a hand to gesture toward the angel, Lindy looked in that direction again, only to find that the silvery glow had vanished. The path she had been following sloped gently downward, barely visible through the thickening snow.

“Nothing,” she said quietly, as much to herself as to Peter. “I must have imagined it.”

“Mother, go home now. Whatever you saw, this is no day for anyone to be out of doors. I’m going back to my cabin as soon as I check my last trap.”

Without any argument, Lindy turned back toward home. She made her way along the path as much by memory as by sight; the whirling snow blotted out every landmark. When she got home, she collected the eggs right away and went straight indoors, as George had told her to do. No more foolish visions of imaginary angels for her.

It was much later in the day when George returned, shivering and covered in snow. Lindy took his coat and hurried to pour him a mug of hot cider while he stood by the fireplace warming his numb hands.

The empty cart had overturned in a strong gust, George told her, not far from home. The harness had snapped. Ralph the ox, spooked by the crash of a tree falling close by, had bolted into the forest. His tracks had disappeared almost at once in the blowing snow, and George had not been able to find him anywhere.

“I’ll have to go back there right away and search for him again, Lindy. We can’t lose our only ox. If he’s not found soon, he could freeze to death or be taken by wolves.” George drained his cider, handed the mug back to Lindy, and reached for his coat. “Keep an eye out—it’s possible Ralph may come back on his own.”

After George trudged back out to the road, which couldn’t be seen at all by now, Lindy went to take a look around the outbuildings. There was no sign of Ralph, but of course that didn’t mean much; the snow was falling so heavily that Lindy couldn’t have seen the ox unless he came within arm’s reach.

Muttering about how useless this was, Lindy turned a corner of the barn and found the angel standing directly in front of her. A radiant, benevolent smile graced the angel’s smooth features. Lindy, however, was in a very uncharitable mood by now.

“Just what are you doing here, you horrid thing! Are you trying to get me killed in this blizzard?” She advanced on the angel, waving her fists furiously. “You’re not real—and even if you were, I don’t want you interfering in my life! What good are you? It’s all your fault that my husband thinks I’m crazy—and I may very well be losing my mind, talking to you when you can’t possibly be real! And now the ox is lost, and without him we’ll have no money to buy food this winter, and, and…”

Lindy had been taking angry steps toward the angel with every few words, not realizing what she was doing. All at once she noticed that she wasn’t standing next to the barn anymore. Instead, snow-covered trees surrounded her. The angel had led her into the forest without her being aware of it.

“Now I’m sure you must be trying to kill me!” Lindy shouted, turning on her heel to go back to the cabin. She had lost all sense of direction by now, though. It wasn’t possible to retrace her footsteps, which already had disappeared under the thick snow; and nightfall was coming fast.

After she blundered around for several minutes without coming back to the clearing, Lindy saw the angel with open hands, beckoning to her.

“And just why should I follow you,” Lindy demanded, “when you’re responsible for getting me lost? I have no reason to trust you. Less than no reason!”

The angel silently beckoned once more and then glided away through the trees, leaving Lindy alone in the deepening gloom without any idea of how to get home.

“Wait, wait, don’t go away—I didn’t mean it!” Now starting to panic, Lindy hurried to catch up to the angel’s fading glow. Rocks underfoot, snowbanks rising on both sides, and indistinct shapes of trees looming high overhead came together in Lindy’s mind, showing her where she was. The angel had led her into a ravine not far from her cabin.

Just ahead, an animal bellowed in fear and pain. It was the lost ox. Ralph had gotten his forelegs tangled in a pile of fallen branches and could not move. Although most of the branches were too large and heavy for Lindy to pick up, she found a smaller one that would work as a lever to shift the others. After a few minutes, she was able to free the ox. Ralph had a few cuts and bruises but was not much worse for wear.

When Lindy looked up, she was not surprised to find that the angel had disappeared. That was all right; she knew how to get home. The storm had almost ended, and the setting sun’s faint rays helped Lindy to find her way. Ralph obediently limped along beside her.

George came home soon afterward, while Lindy was in the barn tending to Ralph’s injuries.

“He was in the ravine,” Lindy said, rubbing more liniment on the right foreleg.

Looking puzzled, George asked, “How did you find him in the storm? The snow was so thick, I walked in circles for hours and couldn’t see a thing.”

“The angel showed me where he was.”

“Hmph.” George looked as if he might have wanted to say more, but then—evidently thinking better of it—he closed his mouth again. Lindy finished tending to the ox and went back inside the cabin with George.

——————————

The Crone’s knitting needles clacked busily away as she finished a row of her scarf-in-progress. Leaving it in her lap, where it had been when she started telling me this story, she picked up a gingerbread cookie from the plate on the end table.

“Did Lindy ever see the angel again?” I asked.

Taking a bite of her cookie, the Crone chewed meditatively for a moment before she gave the question back to me.

“Well, what do you think—did she?”

“Yes. Maybe.” I paused to arrange my thoughts in a more sensible order. “If she had a reason to. If something happened and she needed help.”

“Indeed.” The Crone gave me an encouraging smile before she went on to say, “Wayfinding is much easier when we trust that help will be there for us, even if it doesn’t always come as we might expect.”

Picking my steps carefully, I made my way through the woods on a foggy Christmas Eve, traversing the chilly landscape of the collective unconscious. There in the land of imagination (just as in real life this year) a thaw had left the ground damp and squelchy. A thin film of half-melted snow blanketed the fallen leaves along the muddy path. Every now and again, something crunched underfoot when I stepped on a rotten branch or an icy puddle, concealed by the leaves and snow.

In the soft midwinter light, the cabin in the clearing looked tiny and far from civilization. It wasn’t really; the archetypal Crone kept her dwelling within a day’s walk of the village and was part of its communal life, although she often spent time in the solitude of the woods to gather herbs and meditate on nature’s wisdom. I had come here on this wet, dark day hoping that she could help me find clarity in a confusing world.

Cabin in a snowy, foggy woods.

(Image by Millie Walker)

As I approached the threshold, a flock of small birds took wing, dimly silhouetted against the snowy forest until they disappeared into the fog.

The Crone opened the door and welcomed me inside, taking my coat while I put my muddy boots on a thick horsehair mat. A crackling fire, complete with roasting chestnuts, made the cabin warm and cheery. A mostly empty teacup on an end table beside the sofa, along with a plate of gingerbread cookies and a half-knitted scarf, made plain what she had been doing before I arrived.

“I’ve been having some trouble finding my way through the fog—of life, that is,” I told the Crone, as she bustled around setting out another cup for me and pouring hot tea for both of us. “This has been a good year for me, overall; but sometimes I feel that I’m wandering aimlessly, without clear landmarks. Perhaps you could tell me a story about finding direction, if that wouldn’t be too much of a bother?”

“No bother at all,” the Crone replied cheerfully, pushing back a strand of silver hair that had fallen across her face. “I can easily talk and knit at the same time.”

I sat down in the old-fashioned parlor chair on the other side of the table, waiting while the Crone settled herself comfortably with her knitting in her lap. She finished the last bite of the gingerbread cookie she’d been eating, and then she began the story.

“Long ago, in a cabin deep in the forest, much like this one, there lived a woodcutter’s wife who imagined on Christmas Eve that she saw an angel through the fog outside her window…”

(continued here)

I didn’t sleep well on Sunday night, perhaps because of the time change. Waking up at some dark hour, I tossed and turned for what seemed like a long time. Old fears, mainly about having no money and being powerless and pushed around, wandered out from dusty corners of my mind.

Then I fell halfway back to sleep, and it only got worse. Some kind of thick, heavy energy was sitting on my chest, directly above the solar plexus. When I tried to push it away, it solidified into an enormous boulder and squashed the middle of my body totally flat.

Boulder in a field on a cloudy day.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

Despite my dream-body now being mostly separated into two pieces, I was somehow as much alive as ever, and I was angrily trying to shove that gigantic boulder away from me. Not surprisingly, it didn’t budge at all. I felt that nobody would help me with it because all the people who should have helped me in the past, but didn’t care enough to do much, were responsible for putting it there.

After a while I thought of someone who might want to make herself useful: Dame Shadow, an eccentric bodyguard of sorts who inhabits my subconscious as a self-appointed protector of the realm. When I last wrote about the Dame on this blog, she had given me a backache as a melodramatic way of prodding me to think about how much emotional weight I’d been carrying around.

I figured she owed me something after that annoying stunt, and I launched into an imaginary tirade. “Dame Shadow, I know you can hear me, and you’d better do something to get rid of this horrible boulder RIGHT NOW! You like to pretend you’re a superhero who can move mountains to save me, but where are you when I really need help?”

Another minute or so passed. Crickets chirped. Finally I heard light footsteps, and Dame Shadow walked around the boulder. She was dressed in a Wonder Woman outfit, complete with lasso.

“Okay, whatever,” I gave an exasperated sigh. “Just lasso this boulder already, and get it off me.”

The Dame replied, with an evil smirk, “Haven’t you learned yet that letting gravity work for you is much more efficient than brute force?”

She beckoned with her right hand, and several peasants promptly came forward and began digging along the downhill side of the boulder. They were dressed in muddy clothes and had bits of straw sticking to their boots. The shovels they were using looked (and smelled) as if they’d been mucking out the Dame’s stables very recently. Needless to say, the Dame had prudently positioned herself at a comfortable distance upwind.

Given the fact that my body had been effectively cut in half, I didn’t see myself as being in much of a position to complain. So I kept my dignity and pretended everything was fine while the peasants kept on digging. Eventually they undermined the boulder enough so that it rolled a short way down the hill. My midsection started inflating at a steady rate, as if by means of an air pump, until everything was back to normal.

Dame Shadow smiled again, this time with what looked like genuine friendliness. “You see, there are always plenty of sensible solutions to be found, but first you have to take the time to reflect on them.”

Ever since Fannie, my imaginary 119-year-old future self, suggested a few months ago that I might want to invite the archetypal Crone to play tennis, I had been turning that idea over in my mind. It made sense on a basic narrative level—if I wanted to explore possibilities other than the usual negative beliefs about aging, then I needed to be more creative in how I pictured older people. That included expecting the Crone to do more than just sit and tell stories, as in my previous post about her last winter.

Tennis didn’t work, though, for several reasons. First, I never played the sport or had much interest in it, and an imaginary outing where I bumbled around cluelessly on the tennis court didn’t hold much appeal. Of course, I didn’t have to be as realistic as that; but I didn’t want to be the Crone’s opponent in a sporting event anyway, or even her doubles partner, which would carry another well-defined set of adversarial socially-scripted baggage about pushing one’s body to the limit and always competing to excel over others. I really did just want the Crone to tell me stories, but without the typical cultural strings attached.

So, after I recently spent some time browsing through winter landscape scenes and imagining myself (as I mentioned here) on a snowy forest adventure, I decided to invite the Crone to be my companion on a mountain-climbing trip. That would be active enough to dispel the old-woman stereotypes, but we wouldn’t be opponents in anything, and there would be plenty of time for insightful conversation. I’ve never been a mountain climber in real life either, but that was okay—a hiking trail along a mountainside, without need for rock-climbing gear, would be sufficient.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

The crisp mountain air carried the scent of pine trees and snow. The wind was just right—enough of a breeze so that the Crone and I wouldn’t overheat as we hiked up the trail in our heavy winter gear, but it wasn’t blowing hard enough to make us want to pull our scarves up over our faces.

“Oh look, just over there!” exclaimed the Crone, as we went around a curve dotted by rocks and small bushes. I didn’t see much of anything else, but the Crone sounded quite excited indeed. She bustled over to a spot of green in the shelter of two rocks, where glossy leaves and a few bright berries could be seen poking up through the winter’s debris.

“It’s just another wildflower nowadays,” she explained, lovingly brushing away twigs and snow to give me a better view. “But long ago, skilled herbalists would have come out looking for this and other healing plants, even in winter. Many of them were older women, you know. They brought apprentices on mountain hikes very much like this, pointing out where the medicinal herbs could be found and how to recognize them.”

After carefully replacing the small twigs and dry leaves that protected the plant from the cold air, my companion stood up and went back to the trail. We continued around another bend, winding between several thick pines, while I considered the message in this little interlude.

“It’s just a myth, then, that old women didn’t do much but sit by the fire and tell stories,” I said after a minute or so, as I took a few quick steps to catch up to the Crone. She had gotten ahead of me while I was preoccupied with my thoughts, and she walked with plenty of vigor.

“Life was much harder in those days,” the Crone noted in a reflective tone, as if describing her own past. She slowed her stride a little. “Every pair of hands was needed. If an elder didn’t have the strength to work outdoors, she might indeed sit by the fire—but there would always be chores she could do while sitting. Of course, that didn’t prevent her from telling stories at the same time. When surviving through the winter couldn’t be taken for granted, stories and song went far toward keeping joy and vitality in the soul, just as herbal remedies kept the body healthy.”

We came out of the pines onto a steep ascent. The snowy peaks loomed majestically above us, just as they would have done thousands of years ago. I felt grateful for their enduring wisdom, as well as for my companion’s gentle words, as the imaginary adventure faded away.

Last week the rowing club was more adventurous than usual, traveling to a large regatta in Florida. My husband and I stayed with another club member at his mother’s house not far from the race course. She is a delightful English lady who loves to have guests and is very outspoken, making blunt remarks such as “Absolute rubbish!” when, for instance, my husband suggested that we might take our clothes to a laundromat rather than inconvenience her by using her washer and dryer.

She is 86 years old and very active, going sailing once a week and doing charitable work regularly. When the heat got to me on the practice day before the races started, she sympathized with me by saying that she recently had gotten rather dehydrated playing tennis for two hours on a hot day.

That evening I still didn’t feel quite right after rowing and being outdoors for a long time in the heat. When I got in bed, I felt as if it might be rocking gently, like a boat. That reminded me of reading Kon-Tiki as a child and pretending that my bed was a balsa-wood raft floating across the Pacific Ocean. So, as I couldn’t get to sleep right away, I decided to populate this imaginary scenario with my adventurous future self, Fannie. I pictured us looking up at the stars from a natural-fiber mat on the raft, with plenty of comfortable pillows.

Photo of the Kon-Tiki raft in its museum.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)


“So, Fannie,” I asked her, in my best faux-English accent, “would you say that the stories our culture tells about aging are absolute rubbish?”

“No, I wouldn’t actually,” she said, drawing out the vowel into an absurdly long ‘ah’ sound, “and by the way, you are rubbish with ah-ccents, and I never got much better with them over the years. So we might do better to stick with ordinary American conversation, though there’s nobody around but a few imaginary flying fish to hear us embarrassing ourselves.”

Fannie snuggled deeper into the pillows and went on to say, “Putting energy into rejecting a cultural narrative only feeds it more power. What we resist persists; that’s from Carl Jung, a very wise man. When you feel that society has you in a box, there’s no need to kick and beat on the walls. Just look up, and you’ll see the sky and feel a breeze flowing through. The box is not solid. All you have to do is step out of it. Dance and skip out of it. Do handsprings and cartwheels out of it. Oh, was there a box around here somewhere? I hadn’t noticed. Where it went, I can’t say. Maybe it’s in that field over there, behind all those tall weeds.”

“Once upon a time, long, long ago,” I said, getting into the spirit of it, “there were people who thought they had to stay in boxes; or at least, that’s what my great-grandmother told me.”

“Lost in the mists of time,” Fannie agreed cheerfully. “And while we’re on the subject, maybe instead of picturing the archetypal Crone just sitting and telling stories, you might want to invite her to play some tennis. Yes, I know you are rubbish at tennis, but the Crone hasn’t played in many years either. Of course, I’m no better at it, since I am you, so that’s nothing personal.”

I thought that I heard Fannie chuckling quietly to herself, but a fish leaped out of the ocean just then and landed with a particularly loud splash, so I couldn’t be quite sure.

When I started writing a recent post about cultural beliefs and archetypes related to aging and health issues, I have to confess that I wasn’t quite sure where it would end up. The plan was simply to visualize my inner Crone, ask her what she’d like to say on the subject, and wing it from there. I was pleasantly surprised when she offered to tell me a story.

Closing my eyes for a moment while I sipped my imaginary coffee, I listened. She began the tale with the traditional “Once upon a time,” and then she went on speaking in a smooth, flowing cadence…

——————————

In a far western desert valley, there lived a girl named Rose. The name suited her well because she climbed all over everything, just like the big pink roses on the trellis outside the kitchen window. She climbed pine trees, getting the sticky sap all over her saddle shoes and poodle skirts; and she climbed the high cliffs on both sides of the valley.

Her favorite spot to climb was the steepest part of the cliff, right next to a little stream that flowed out of the rocks and through her family’s small farm. A smooth ledge, almost all the way up, made the perfect place to sit and watch everything that happened in the valley. Sometimes she would lie down on the ledge and look at the clouds drifting by.

When her parents saw her up there, they scolded her about the danger. Rose had no fear of falling, and she imagined that she would keep on climbing to her favorite ledge forever. But eventually she grew up—as we all must—and her days of climbing cliffs became a distant memory. She spent time with friends, but she never married; and when her parents died, she inherited the farm and lived there alone.

She rarely felt lonely because she had a big shaggy dog, Jack, to keep her company. There were days when she felt unsettled, though, as if she had lost track of something that once had meant a lot to her. On a hot summer day, after going for a long walk with Jack, she came back to the house feeling tired and achy. A hawk passing over the farm made her glance up, toward the ledge on the cliff.

“I am starting to get old,” she said to herself, wondering what had become of the little girl who loved to climb. Had it really been that many years? Wanting to get such thoughts out of her mind, Rose impulsively decided that she might as well just go and climb that cliff right now. After all, there was nobody around to tell her to act her age.

She set off toward the cliff, taking long strides across the rocky ground. Jack happily trailed along, though he didn’t look as cheerful when Rose began to climb. She ignored his whine of concern as she pulled herself upward, searching for the handholds that once had been so familiar. It took a lot of effort. Sweat dripped down her face. The ledge still looked far away. Could this be the same climb that had felt so effortless in her younger days?

Nowhere to go but up, Rose told herself. It can’t really be that hard—after all, people say you’re only as old as you think you are.

The sound of splashing water soothed her as she climbed higher. On her right, the stream that sprang out of the cliff was flowing steadily. She placed a foot carefully to avoid a mossy rock that looked slick, and then she reached for the ledge.

Just as she started to pull herself up with aching arms, Rose lost her grip. The ledge hadn’t been as dry as she thought it was. She tried to catch herself, as she always had been able to do before; but she wasn’t nearly as slim or as limber as she once had been. She tumbled all the way down the cliff, breaking several bones in her feet and ankles.

Slowly, nudged on by Jack, she managed to crawl back to the house and reach a phone to call for help. The doctors at the county hospital patched her up as best they could; but even after they told her the bones had healed, putting weight on her feet was still painful. To get around the farm, she took slow, difficult steps, leaning heavily on a walking stick.

Almost every waking minute—which now included much of the night because her aching feet often kept her awake—Rose berated herself for having been such a fool as to think she could still climb that cliff. She also had a lot of anger toward the doctors, at first because they hadn’t completely fixed everything and, later, because they cut off her pain meds out of concern about addiction. Soon after that, she stopped going to town. It was just too hard, and she didn’t want to see anyone’s pitying faces. In fact, she didn’t want to see anyone—period.

Giving up any hope that she might ever be healthy enough to farm again, Rose leased much of her acreage to the power company for wind turbines. She arranged for her groceries and other supplies to be delivered. If there wasn’t anything perishable, she might leave the boxes on the porch for days. Nothing seemed to matter anymore.

After a while Rose’s old truck rusted out, and brambles grew around it. Weeds filled the yard. A cold snap one winter killed most of the climbing rose on the trellis. Rose didn’t care—she had no interest in looking out the kitchen window because that was the direction of the ledge on the cliff. She kept the curtains drawn and spent most of her days lying on the couch.

Jack, who faithfully kept her company, was by now an old dog. A veterinarian living nearby, whose name was Henry, was kind enough to make house calls. The day came, however, when Jack fell gravely ill, and there was nothing to be done.

When Henry came back with the urn after having Jack’s remains cremated, he also brought—much to Rose’s surprise—a small brown mixed-breed puppy.

“One of my clients was giving away the litter,” he explained in a deep, gruff voice, looking somewhat uncomfortable as he shuffled his big feet on the dusty hardwood floor. “I thought you might want him.”

“Well, you thought wrong,” Rose snapped. “Take him away.”

“Maybe just think about it for a bit, then. I’ve left a bag of puppy food on the porch.” Putting down the puppy, Henry scooted backward and was out the door before Rose realized what he was up to. By the time she struggled up off the couch and got to the door, Henry’s van was roaring away.

Rose’s first impulse was to shout something very nasty after him; but she didn’t want to frighten the puppy, who wasn’t to blame. Instead, she just said, “Oh, for pete’s sake!”

The puppy wagged his little tail happily, in the evident belief that she was talking to him. Rose couldn’t help but to smile at that; and then she told him, “All right, so it looks like we’re stuck here together for now—Petey.”

Although she gave him a name, Rose had every intention of giving him back to Henry at the first opportunity. The last thing she needed, as she saw it, was the nuisance of having a puppy around. She had to take Petey out for walks because he was small enough that he couldn’t be put outside unattended, or he’d be a tasty snack for a hawk or coyote. Leaning on her walking stick, she trudged along painfully on cold winter mornings while Petey, at the end of his leash, gave impatient yips.

As hard as it was, though, she had to admit that by the time Henry finally showed up about a month later, she was doing better. The more she got off the couch and moved around, the easier it seemed. By then, Petey was fairly well housebroken, and she had gotten used to seeing his perky face every day.

“I might keep him,” she allowed grudgingly. “Not making any promises, mind you.”

Henry just grinned.

Winter soon turned into spring, and Rose found that she had enough energy to start cleaning up the house and yard. She whacked weeds, cut back the half-dead rose on the trellis, and got rid of the old truck. Instead of just heating up random food from a can, sometimes she cooked a nice dinner and invited Henry over to eat with her.

Now that she was in better shape, Rose didn’t need to lean on her walking stick like she had before. She still carried it out of habit, though. Her pain, although no longer constant, hadn’t gone away. She still had twinges during the day and bone-deep aches that left her tossing and turning at night, often with her mind troubled by those old angry thoughts.

On a warm evening in midsummer, Rose was throwing a tennis ball for Petey to fetch. He had grown a fair amount but, still, he was a small dog—mostly terrier, she thought. She threw the ball especially far, and Petey dashed eagerly after it. Just then a large coyote bounded over a rise, heading straight for him.

The panicked dog fled toward the nearest cliff and somehow managed to scramble most of the way up. Rose ran toward the coyote, shouting and brandishing her walking stick until it ran away. Shaking in terror, Petey sat huddled on a ledge. It was the same ledge from which Rose had fallen; but, with her thoughts entirely on rescuing her dog, she didn’t even notice that until after she had climbed up. With Petey tucked under her arm, she carefully made her way back down to solid ground.

It wasn’t until Rose got back to the house that she realized she had climbed the cliff without any pain or difficulty. Climbing had felt natural, in fact—just like when she was a young girl. She hadn’t even remembered to pick up her walking stick, which still lay at the base of the cliff where she’d dropped it when the coyote ran off.

Just as soon as those thoughts came into Rose’s mind, the pain came back. But this time, instead of letting herself get overwhelmed by stale feelings of anger and helplessness, she opened the curtains wide and gazed out at a beautiful evening.

Rose sat down at the kitchen table, with a contented Petey wagging his tail at her feet. She sat with the pain until it faded into the last gleams of sunlight on the cliff, the pale blooms of the rosebush, and the stars coming out across the desert sky; and then she went to bed and slept soundly.

——————————

I put down my empty coffee cup and said to the Crone, “Thank you for the story, and for taking the time to visit with me. Both are very much appreciated!”

The Crone rummaged in her handbag for a dark red lipstick and touched up her lips before she answered. “Any time, dear. I’ve quite enjoyed your company.”