‘It Is Well With My Soul’

by Maire Palme, September 23, 2010

“Just because I am fat I am not stupid!” I blush. This is my first time in the Senior bus and already I have managed to insult the driver. An inauspicious beginning, or an omen for those coming plain speaking, enlightening times, when the minds are fluttering white flags in a breeze, the brains humming like crowded fast lanes and the thought-sensors have gone for a coffee break? What did I say? I repeated a sentence, so haphazard and trivial that no memory of it remains, but its repetition might have sent an unintended note about every kind of lurking insinuations about body sizes, will powers and neural fitnesses, or that corpulent people are auditorily challenged. No fear. Dick's eyes are flashing already via the driver’s mirror, the universal pacifying gesture, “OK.” The red of the mind’s traffic lights turns green. I resume my breathing. This is how it began years ago and then slowly, one death at a time, exited. Charmian was the last. The grateful writer, the above-mentioned inadvertent insulter, remembers and records.

Draw a line through the ages and mark on it events that have twisted and warped the life's course and the destinies who knotted it: wars, revolutions, momentous inventions, the Mother Earth outbursts and paroxysms. Between these boldly painted signs the history’s bellows, there a sensitive watcher discovers an almost infinite quantity of tiny pebbles scratched with impressions about swiftly flowing-by images of minor incidents yet with vitality and just enough in them to once have had the power to excavate buried bones and pearls from someone's heart. An underlined sentence in the diary. An unexpected mercy in difficult times. In this particular case the stage for this blessing was a bus, inside of which every Wednesday for a couple of years were five women and a corpulent man — the driver.

Four of the women are gently old and wise in their unique way. If living in China they would be cherished as “national treasures.” Among the Pomo they would be honored as Grandma Medicine Women, but here in The Valley they prosaically are “seniors.” The fifth member, the youngest, is an aspiring elderly at her trifling age of 65. Compared to her companions she feels embryonic and as shallow as a late summer's frog pond.

Jean, Charmian, Marietta, Virginia, Dick and the writer, the only one still alive, now left to practice the wise aging that her companions so naturally and poignantly mastered.

Jean, the one who collects the most years in the aging game, has a dark, silky hair, not yet touched by the winter’s snow. She has an easily triggered flash of a smile, soon erupting into a laughter, so clear ringing and reverberating that the fortunate listener finds herself searching for its wellspring somewhere among the hazy crevices and nooks in the back of the bus. Surely this petite, lovely old lady could not have birthed this operatic sunburst. “How old am I?” Jean throws this tricky trap to me while I watched a pair of sparkling stars being born in her eyes. Careful! I go for a guess that I attempt to garble with my Finnish accent for safety. “A little over 80?” She is way too perceptive to accept anything below this number, suspecting flattery. “Just under 90!” A relief washes over me. Then envy. I notice that in her glistening hair an escaped sun ray has caught a curl and sent it briefly into a spectral flame. Jean once had a beauty salon in Chicago, and knowing this I never dare to embark our bus unless I had just washed my hair with my most expensive shampoo. This act she always rewards me with her sunny-days-are-here-again smile. “I love diamonds,” she adds, as I visualize her younger days in her parlor where her gifted hands made women beautiful like sparkling diamonds in the midst of the post-Depression period of despair. She is reading my mind. But so is everyone else in this mystery bus. Month after month, and counting Wednesdays like chocolate covered raisins in a quarter-pound bag, we all have become psychics. Silent thoughts have no place to hide anymore.

Every event, if reported on a scrap of paper or in any other medium including a well-remembered mind, becomes, as the times dance along, “historical.” It can be transmitted as a curse or a blessing to those who come later. In the friendships the best place to keep this history is in the heart. Curiously, the significance of an event relating to its position in history’s timeline is so malleable that if you ask a Chinese historian about the American Civil War he will answer, “too early to tell.” The same question to a Western academician will unload on you the weight of so many printed pages that even a thousand beasts of burden would be reluctant to carry it. But here the inquiries about the relevance of this dusty bus with its aging passengers is like asking the price of a rainbow. No scholastic analysis makes any difference whatsoever. Your heart knows, and this knowing, beyond logic, saves you during those days when the “tears from the stars” just keep on pouring down. “Once —” you begin a bit of a memory, a scratched stone in the pocket of your soul and a cloud releases the sun. Why could it be so consequential to anyone that a bus that kept on traveling Wednesdays year after year over a hill to a small city with a peculiar name that reads ‘haiku’ backwards becomes such a shiny pebble on history's highway? The last one standing looks at the after-images that refuse to fade.

Virginia offers me a small green covered book titled “Chinese Proverbs,” inviting me to open it randomly. “Man has a thousand schemes; Heaven has but one.” No, it is not too early to tell that something far-reaching occurred, at least to one of the passengers, in a bus traveling back and forth over and over again between two destinations in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century. You journey through a darkening night forest and then you become lost. Suddenly a lightning illuminates an ancient live oak, etching its gnarled silhouette onto your garbled mind. You grasp the tree's strongest branch. Your anchor. “To follow the will of Heaven is to prosper; to rebel against it is to be destroyed.”

The bus rattles on. Marietta, the angel, who in her lifetime has sent out thousands of Christmas wishes to the people in The Valley and sweetened their bellies with her divine cookies — the only kind the angels know how to bake — is beginning to sing about His garden, “While the dew is still on the roses.” Dick's resonant baritone, now and then dipping into the bass, greets the walls (“Hello walls”) while Charmian attempts to teach her most hopeless student, me, how to sing in harmony. “Oh Danny Boy —” Oh, Boonville, the village where one grows older and barely notices it. At least today.

This bus marked with the letters “Anderson Valley Senior Center” is really an experiment about living. The main research always appears to be focused to the back of the bus where Dick has been assigned to be the captain of a tight and tiny ship with a bunch of ever enterprising lady busmates whose ingenious activity that stays beyond his grasp appears to be subverting his plans and constantly threatening his sanity. Here we generously — don't say carelessly — mix our purchases in plain sight of our now slightly sweating leader of the pack against his strict warnings. Five women against a lone man. The basket marked “Virginia” should never accept anything bought by Jean, unless a gift. Every item purchased by Charmian should not wander into the territory named “Marietta.” No vegetables belonging to Marietta are allowed to enter anywhere except into her specially designated basket. The logic is impeccable: you bring your produce home and, whistling “When the Saints go marching in,” you begin the cooking of your supper. Halfway through the terror strikes. Your heart begins to flutter the way it never has before. Your precious tomatoes in your paper bag that turned into eggplants. And your eggs have been going through a metamorphosis into jalapeno peppers. The sight of them brings an instant sweat on your forehead. Time to improvise and calm your nerves. Let's start frying onions — Charmian's secret to solve all our cooking challenges. Besides, the playful game of mixing and matching makes life spicier. And if the shocking realization that you have nothing to blend because your knitting materials and your purple 100% acrylic sweater and all your other treasures never even left the store attempts to defeat your sunny disposition, don't worry. Onward, the intrepid travelers, back we go. “The gem is not polished without rubbing nor a woman perfected without trials.”

“Red skies at night, sailors delight.” It's morning and Virginia has just opened her door. Now she briskly — her apparently only speed of moving about — is heading toward the bus. The night has no speaking parts in this story. The sun is bright but it's Virginia's sunset golden and reddish curls rebelling against the confinement of her moss-green hat and streaming over her ears that inspires the singer to call forth every sailor's best omens for smooth sailing. A good day. Yet there is subtle sadness. Virginia's eyesight is dimming everyday more and more. For a librarian whose love of life is intertwined with her love of reading the way a butterfly's soaring rainbowy light is just a string of words without the sun's heat — this is a true tragedy.

Take a note of this one. It is possible to accept the afflictions of aging with equanimity if one's soul has a firm grip on its source. Scientific studies show that aging people who have deep spiritual convictions live happier and longer. It does not matter what our beliefs are as long as they reach beyond our limited personalities, beyond our self-focused obsessions. And then again exceptions abound. Look around.

Marietta turns toward Charmian and softly begins singing her favorite. “And He walks with me and He talks with me and tells me I am His own.” Charmian takes wing immediately and with her high soaring soprano flies in. This is the song with which their lives are celebrated in their funerals, but now there is only the wind, playing a coiffeur and fussing over their hairdos, and the sun splashing its lights audaciously like a stage designer for an avant-garde ballet. In other words, the perfection of the moment has been reached and time holds its breath. Until, and this “until” always follows by the mandate of some yet unknown universal law, someone, the anonymous one, is stricken by a burst of creativity that challenges valiantly the original vision of the songmaker. This is the true glory of the old ones: invention over convention. Try singing on the street corner when you are young. “Get a job,” or “How cute” are the offerings. Do this when your wrinkles remind the spectators about their ironing and you are simply seen as a slightly unhinged but lovable “elderly person” who very likely is totally harmless. Maybe we don't push and pull and punch when standing in a crowd around the Chinese buffet, but we speak and teach manners in our subtle ways. The secret of this gentle and resilient aging is not what happens to us but what treasures we find hidden in these events. Into the caves of the mysteries where ordinary lights are failing we bring something more potent. Open up again Virginia's little green book and read: “If heaven wants to rain, or your mother to marry again, nothing can prevent it.” You can take the fight only to a certain point; beyond that the exhaustion will get you. Almost 400 years of living, congregating in this bus; our combined ages. Still, the first growth redwood trees look at us and are amused.

Dick, the bus-driving man, does not need any introductions by others as he will always be the first one on the scene. A swift, graceful dance step and a story. He is not an icebreaker. He is a first-class, fully certified ice-detonator. An exhilarating Fourth of July fireworks show that flashes out your pretensions and cracks your shields. A Zen master with a visionary fire that burns down your proverbial roof so you can watch the Milky Way arching over your dinner table while you are hiding your brussel sprouts under your smashed potatoes. Preach to the choir if you are so inclined. Here the icy rivers have melted long ago and, cascading freely, they mirror the blue expanse above. Our masks have crashed and crumbled and we have become too ancient to be bothered with new paint, glue and wire. Or is this happening only in this bus where there is no need to hang onto a tightly constructed narrative? Sea captains tell stories about how their passengers are revealing their deepest secrets while being rocked by the waves of the Emerald Mediterranean and the hearts of the New York City taxi drivers are broken by the stories of their back seat travelers who then disappear, never to be seen again, into the shadows of the big city asphalt wilds, leaving behind an aching feeling of nostalgia. Shouldn't all the therapy sessions be conducted in moving vehicles and sailing ships for the sake of the client's soul, that while watching the perpetually shifting images, shimmering and dashing by and intimating about our impermanence now open fragrantly like a flood of an old-fashioned rose revealing its center?

So I did get lucky. Or was it the “fate stepping in” event that I fantasized about when I first learned this English idiom as an 11-year-old girl in a Finnish school? This I thought while sitting Tuesday in the Boonville Community Methodist Church and celebrating Charmian Blattner's life and her “slipping into the next room,” the way she described her deathless death that she experienced on Saturday, September 9. Marietta Young, Dick Sand, Virginia McConnell, Jean Riley. All of them slipping away before and then it was her time to do the same.

A little bus journey through a tiny segment on history's highway. For women with angels wings tucked under their soft sweaters and a big man in body and soul. Let’s ride!

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