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Open Road

by Catherine Watson
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Learning to Stay Home

As a career travel writer and a lifelong traveler, I am hardly a poster child for the famous slogan, "Bloom where you are planted.'' Nor have I been particularly good at making lemonade every time life hands me lemons.

This winter, I am being forced to do both.

Because of a painful back problem in late fall, I have been ordered into a heavy-duty physical therapy program - twice a week, through March. It's a clear effort to avoid having surgery. (As my genial neurosurgeon put it, "if I do surgery now, you are going to hate me.'')

When I first heard that, I was in enough pain that a solid winter of P.T. sounded delicious. Only later did the rest of its meaning sink in: I can't go anywhere.

No escape to the sunny Southwest, where I spent last winter. No continuing the silver-smithing class I'd enjoyed there. No painting vistas of desert and sky. No exploring new places. No having my old habits automatically erased by new geography. No finishing a pesky manuscript that I seem able to work on ONLY when I am somewhere else...

I recognize, of course, that if I want to get well and stay that way, I can't travel right now. I do have to stay home. The problem is, I don't know how.

Much as I love my house, it's mainly been where I keep my stuff, pay my bills, do laundry, and catch up with family and friends between trips. That's it. For me, "home'' has literally been the road itself.

At first, I grieved over losing that blessed distance. (And still do, whenever I get updates from the animal shelter where I volunteered last winter or, this week, when the historical society I'd joined out there asked if I'd like to be a docent at its February tour of homes.)

Eventually, it occurred to me that I couldn't mope all winter and expect to do very well at healing. I began considering friends who contentedly bloom here all year round. How do they spend their downtime, their wintertime?

I realized then that I had never explored the two cities I've always lived between. I don't know Minneapolis and St. Paul - or rather, I don't know them NOW. I still spend my home time mainly where I hung out in college. So there are whole neighborhoods I don't recognize, full of new restaurants, galleries, coffee shops, theaters, new things to do, and new cultures to explore.

I looked at my lists of things I'd planned for this winter in New Mexico and started wondering how many of those experiences could be had here, just as well. How much of "away'' could I have while staying home?

Plenty, I discovered, as I searched on line; I've already joined a book group and signed up for art classes.

But what about writing? I'm terrible about making myself work on that book manuscript here at home. How would I ever finish it, if I didn't go away?

The breakthrough came when I woke up one morning and thought, "What if I pretended this winter was a residency?"

Brilliant! But it brought me face to face with my abiding lack of will power. Here, I have to walk right past the TV set on the way to my upstairs office, and for a writer who procrastinates as a matter of course, that's a deadly temptation. Avoiding such temptations is much, much easier somewhere else.

This house is like my own skin. Everything I do here is a habit, honed by decades of repetition. For the residency approach to work, I'd have to break every habit I have. I'd have to make this so-familiar house unfamiliar.

Obvious solution: Move the furniture! Oh, wait, that's against doctor's orders. How do you rearrange your house - your life - when you can't pick up things heavier than 20 lbs?

There are, I am discovering, ways.

I've hung pictures in new places (where, so far, they look wrong); started sleeping in the guestroom (which my dogs think is wrong); abandoned the upstairs office (surprisingly not wrong) and set up my little netbook on a kitchen counter, where it actually feels pretty good.

To be honest, about all I've written there is a whole bunch of new lists, but then this literary residency is just getting started.

The Pink Dress

Forty-six-and-one-half years ago, when I was a student in Lebanon, I fell in love with a beautiful sundress in a shop window on Hamra Street in Beirut. I was 19 that summer, surviving on a budget. The dress was a deep rose-pink with a scooped neck and a ruffled hem, and it looked perfect on me. I couldn't afford it, but I couldn't make myself stop craving it, either.

I debated that dress every time I passed the store, until finally I gave up. Or gave in. I decided it would be worth its price just to stop my torment. But when I finally went back to buy it, the dress - of course - was gone. I have missed it ever since.

In this season of giving and - let's face it - getting, that pink dress was back on my mind again this week when I opened an email from a good friend. The message field read, "Need support here."

She explained that she has fallen in love with an unusual floor tile for her sun-porch, now on the verge of a long-saved-for renovation. It is - of course - too expensive. Should she buy it anyway, she wondered, or be sensible and get her second choice?

I opened the attached jpg and saw that the rectangular tile was lovely -- a warm, deep blue - and also familiar. It was the exact shade of something I'd loved in childhood, thanks to an old archaeology book my parents had: The Ishtar Gate of ancient Babylon, now preserved in an antiquities museum in Berlin. When I finally saw the real thing, as an adult, it felt like a homecoming. If the choice were up to me, I told my friend, I'd regard this coincidence of color was a cosmic sign.

The same day she queried, I got a Christmas letter from another old friend, an antiques buff whose passion is 19th century American glass. Retired now, he still goes antiquing with a companion, he wrote, but "since we're both on limited budgets, we have to be very selective about our purchases. If you don't suffer from the 'collecting bug,' you may not realize what a challenge this is!''

Actually, I do. My own passion has been Victorian walnut furniture. Antiques prices were dropping even before the economy crashed, and they've dropped so far since then that pieces I bought in the 1970s are cheaper now than they were then. But reality is reality, and the retirements so many of us saved for no longer have the same wiggle room we expected.

Too bad, I think, each time I pass up one of those old wooden treasures. I'm being sensible, but it still makes me feel like Bob Cratchit, before the conversion of Scrooge. (I even pull my coat closer around my shoulders as I walk away, as befits genteel Victorian poverty.)

This is the season when we Americans are acutely aware that we shouldn't crave so many material goods, even as we elbow through our annual spending frenzy. Mostly, I agree. But too much frugality, however wise, can eventually wear down the brightest of spirits.

Sometimes, I think, a material good really IS good - as long as it brings you joy and doesn't hurt anyone. I thought back to that pink dress I left behind in Lebanon, a lifetime ago, and wrote this to my tile-troubled friend:

"If you have found the perfect material - PERFECT is the operative word - then that is the right thing for the floor. You will never be happy with second-choice. It will nag at you every time you go into that room. At best, you'll get used to it. You may even forget what could have been. But you won't love it. And what you want - what we all want - is something that makes you go "Ahhhhh!'' every time you see it.

"This isn't about money,'' I told her. "It's about contentment.''

Looking for Mom

"We waited too long,'' my sister Jane kept saying, and I agreed. We were on a fact-finding mission, spending a cold November weekend on the Canadian border, hoping to find out anything we could about our mother, who grew up there. She died 25 years ago this month.

Everyone we talked to - while they were plenty old - were too young to remember what we most wanted to know: What was our mother like when she was a girl?

We had to settle for what life was like in Rainy River, Ontario, and Baudette, Minnesota, in the 1920s and '30s. But what we learned helped flesh out our image of Mom. And along the way, we got a startling lesson in the unreliability of family memories and family lore. Family legends would be a better label.

I've long thought of myself as our family's archivist, the one who "does genealogy'' and keeps track of ancestors. But on this trip, I realized that I hadn't been curious enough about my mother while she lived.

Growing up, I had asked her things, of course, and I remember what she told me, but there is a big age spread between her oldest child (me) and her youngest (Jane), with three other kids in between. They all asked questions too, but our questions weren't the same, so we ended up with different answers.

Each of us assembled this information into a portrait of our mother, and the portraits turned out not to match any better than our questions had.

All of us knew she had been a good student, that her father had died suddenly at age 49, that her mother had worked hard to keep the family afloat afterward. We knew that Mom got a partial scholarship from the University of California at Berkeley, that she made Phi Beta Kappa studying economics, and that she cleaned houses to help support herself.

I remember her saying that she sometimes had to study for finals while she vacuumed other people's carpets, holding a textbook in one hand, pushing the vacuum cleaner with the other.

From tidbits like that, I had fashioned a gloomy, fatherless life story along the lines of "Wuthering Heights,'' her favorite book. I pictured childhood hardship, not warmth; hard work, not happiness. But there had been all those things in her young life, and our trip to the Canadian border gave us new glimpses of it.

With help from the local historical society in Baudette, Jane and I were introduced to a 90-year-old man who remembered seeing our mother - "she was older - I didn't know her '' - but he did know her younger sister and her brother, a high school football star.

And he remembered vividly what it had been like to be young in their hometown. He described, just as my mother had, how much fun it was to skate on the frozen Rainy River. Who made the skating rink? we wondered. Nobody made a rink, he said. As long as it wasn't snowing when the river froze, the ice would form as smooth as glass, and you could skate for miles.

He told us how it felt to cross the river in summer, before the car bridge was built. Kids went back and forth all the time, he said, walking on the old single-track railroad bridge, hoping a train wouldn't come through.

Our mother was scared of getting trapped on that bridge, we told him. She used to have bad dreams about it, years later. "Oh, it WAS scary!'' he said, but it didn't stop anybody.

He also told us where Mom's house had stood in Baudette - the one her family moved to after her father died - and added that it had a big front yard. "We played pom-pom-pull-away on that lawn,'' he said, smiling as he saw it again in his mind. And I realized I had never pictured my mother playing.

The best moment came in a conversation with one of the man's neighbors, a tiny woman of 88, who said she was too young to know our mother. Jane and I were disappointed, starting to say, yet again, that we had waited too long...

But then the lady offered a detail we never thought to ask about: "My older brother went with her in high school,'' she said, as if it were routine.

To us, this was stunning news -- like getting a gift -- and it added another dimension to our mother. I'd never pictured her dating, either!

The beau had died some years ago, the old lady said, but she proudly showed us his photo. Even in old age, he'd been a strikingly handsome man. It occurred to me that he and my mother must have been a great looking couple.

What was there for high school kids to do in Baudette then? "They went dancing", the lady replied. "They went to movies. Just normal things.''

Normal things -- those are the very things that kids don't think to ask about, and parents don't think to tell simply because they ARE normal.

I've been pondering this ever since Jane and I got home, and I've concluded this:

Kids NEVER ask the right questions. They CAN'T - they don't have enough information to go on. And they never ask enough. And then they grow up and kick themselves for it. I think it's time their elders - namely, us - helped them out.

There is always more to everyone's life story, more than we choose to tell - or think is worth telling. But that's what kids, even grown-up kids, are going to want to know. It's time to start telling them everything we can remember - everything - even if the kids and the grandchildren and the nieces and nephews don't ask the right questions.

It's time for all of us to answer as if they had. Think of all those stories as a gift you can give them - because someday that's exactly what they'll be.

Painting, Someday

Most of a lifetime ago, when my best friend and I were in junior high, she told my father she was thinking about going to medical school. He was a doctor, and she - as he often said - was the "most capable child'' he had ever met. (That didn't hurt my feelings because he was right: She really was the most talented person I ever knew.)

He told her yes, but she still looked doubtful. "But I'll be 30 years old when I get out of school,'' she said, dismayed.

"You'll be 30 years old anyway,'' my father replied.

My version of that dilemma came a few years later, when I was in college. The Peace Corps was brand new, and like many of my friends, I applied. I got accepted for Morocco and told my parents that I was going to join as soon as I finished school.

The only drawback was that it required a two-year commitment. Two whole years! Now it's an eyeblink, but then it was daunting. Too daunting.

In the end, my best friend didn't choose medical school, after all. Sure enough, she got to be 30 years old anyway.

I told myself I could always join the Peace Corps later and accepted a job at the Minneapolis Tribune instead. I'd been a reporter there for four years when truth suddenly hit me: If I'd gone to Morocco after all, I realized, "I'd have been out of the Peace Corps for two whole years by now!''

The Third Age version of those stories involves the challenges we all put off, waiting for the perfect time to meet them. For me, it was painting. I intended to study art "someday,'' but instead of starting, I just collected art supplies.

Some things I bought new, but I got a lot from local estate sales - good brushes, unopened tubes of oil paint, a portable easel, unused sketchpads, a stack of blank canvases - legacies of people who must have waited too long. That should have been a lesson. Eventually, my basement came to look like an art-supplies store, but I still hadn't painted a stroke. I was waiting until I had the perfect moment, the perfect "someday.''

Then one fall, I took a creativity workshop led by artist and educator Jerry Allan. He handed everyone a timeline of the next decade and asked us to fill in "significant'' events, including the date we planned to start those things we'd been saving for "someday.''

This was on September 22, 2001 - not even two weeks after the Twin Towers fell - and the whole class now knew how quickly people could lose all the somedays of their lives. The room went silent as people bent over their timelines.

I marked a start date for painting that was a sensible five years out, but it looked too distant. I crossed that out and marked a date one year away. It looked wrong, too. And then, with a weird kind of clarity, I knew what to mark - not some date in the future - but now.

The moment I got home, I rummaged through the basement for a brush, some oils and a small canvas, took them outside and did a bad - a very bad - painting of the maple trees changing colors on my block. I also made myself a promise: I would do a little art every day for the next year and see whether I improved.

When the year was up, I was better but not good, so I kept going - sometimes for just a few minutes a day, sometimes an hour or two, trying every medium from charcoal to acrylics and every painting style in Western culture - until keeping my promise became more important than the daily art it produced.

Over time, I think I drew every object in my house. I drew my dogs more times than I can remember. I drew my hands, my shoes, the folds of a red dishtowel, light reflecting off a doorknob, the shadows in raindrops on the kitchen window.

I drew whether I was sick or well, whether I was home or on the road. I practiced perspective by drawing my living-room furniture, and I carried a sketchbook on every trip I took, no matter how exotic, even drawing one night in a farmhouse in the Himalayas in a room so dark I could not see the page.

Finally, on September 22, 2011, I hit the 10-year mark, and it felt like a good place to stop. Now I can draw or paint when I want to, not just because I swore I'd do it every day. I am still no artist, even after all this time, and that's all right. I found out what I needed to know, thanks to Jerry Allan and 9/11, and now when it comes to "somedays,'' that makes me feel as if I'm 10 years ahead.

Daylillies

When I was little, my younger brother and I spent our summers at our grandparents' cabin up north, while my parents stayed home in Minneapolis with the even-littler children. The cabin was a kids' paradise - thick pine woods, a safely shallow lake, a sandy beach, minnows to catch, little shells to collect and, best of all, Grammie's blueberry pies (baked on top of a kerosene stove) and Grampa's projects. He liked to work wood, and he built things - once, a swing for us under a big oak and, one summer, a tee-pee tall enough for grown-ups to stand in. And the cabin itself, which is still in my family.

Grampa also gardened. One summer, he planted daylilies near the garage and built a couple of wooden tubs beside the house and filled them with good soil and flower seeds. We still have a color snapshot of my grandmother in a red dress, beaming proudly beside a tub of pink zinnias and orange marigolds.

The whole property was shady, and the sunlight in that photo is so dappled that, when I look at it with adult eyes, I'm surprised those flowers bloomed. The daylilies, in even deeper shade, never did. But they still came up every year.

Every summer for more than 50 years now, when the first wave of relatives goes up north to open the cabin for the season, someone invariably points to their stringy green leaves and says, "Oh, look, Grampa's daylilies!'' And someone else adds, "After all these years!''

There's a lesson in this kind of botanical persistence, but I've never been sure what it is. This summer, I found out.

We opened the cabin later than usual this year, and I didn't get up there until late July. The neighbors had been at work by then, thinning out the woods between our properties, taking down dead trees and cutting out straggly oaks and skinny pines that had been too crowded to thrive, so the place looked brighter and more open than I remembered. I was unloading my car when I noticed something else - a spot of orange over by the garage....

Grampa's daylilies. After all these years. They had outlived the trees that shaded them - outlived my grandparents and parents too - and for the first time in my life, they were blooming.

It isn't stubbornness they represent - it's patience. And that makes the lesson of the daylilies about more than mere tenacity. I find it comforting to think about them now, as we approach the 10th anniversary of September 11, in a time of economic troubles and ever-bitterer politics.

Sometimes, when you least expect it -- when you've lost hope and given up -- sometimes a bit of sun breaks through. And something blooms.

Mama's Visit

Mama went home to Costa Rica last week after a long-awaited - and far too short -- visit with my younger sister Jane and me in Minneapolis. She's a decade younger than our real mother would be, but she was Jane's host mom on a high-school exchange program 35 years ago, and both of us have called her Mama ever since.

Thirty-five years is a long time to be in touch with someone who lives so far away, but it's testimony to what can happen when student exchange programs really do their job and build bridges between people and cultures.

But the real bridge that has spanned these many years and held our long-distance family together is Mama herself. She is one of the most remarkable women I've ever known. The only other in her class was my own mother, who died 25 years ago this fall.

Both women grew up poor. Both learned very young, as Mama once said, that no one else was going to take care of her, so "I had to take care of myself.'' Both of them raised five children. Both saw their children graduate from universities and embark on good careers.

They met only once, on Mama's first visit, when she came north by bus just to see us. And to see winter, I have to add: Mama had always wanted to see snow. She and my mother even had a snowball fight in the front yard; it delighted them both.

Because both Jane and I were working, our Minnesota mother and our Costa Rican mother spent long days together, sitting at the kitchen table, just the two of them, drinking coffee and happily talking. Neither spoke the other's language.

Their families -- up in Minnesota and down in Costa Rica -- have marveled over their conversations ever since. How had they managed with no one to translate?

"We understood each other perfectly,'' Mama said this summer . "We talked about our children.''

When our own mother died, Jane and I still had Mama for comfort -- a bonus mother, even if we seldom were able to see her. But Mama will turn 85 this fall, and all three of us were aware this might be our last visit. It made her - and her wisdom - even more precious. Here's a sample:

"Pone todos sus problemas en la mesa,'' she once advised: "Put all your problems on the table -- problems shared are problems lessened."

When my job pulled me in conflicting directions, and many people advised me to focus, Mama did it more memorably with a Costa Rican folk saying: "It is not necessary to fatten a lot of pigs,'' she said. "Just fatten one of them well."

"Es necessario tener un plan,'' she said, when I was struggling with the retirement question. "It is necessary to have a plan. Then when you weaken, you can look at the plan and remember what you really want.''

Even her farewells have always been wise, loving and her own: "Adios no existe," she says -- "there's no such thing as goodbye.''

The day before her flight home this time, we sat for a gentle hour in a friend's garden, sipping lemonade, nibbling cookies, and - of course - talking, in an ad hoc patois of Spanish and English. My friend has heard my stories about Mama for more than three decades.

"What we have all learned from you,'' she told Mama now, "is how to love.''

I translated, and Mama replied firmly that life was too short to do anything else.

Now, even though it's full summer, I keep thinking of something she said on one of her earliest visits. It was autumn, and she'd been out in the crisp sunshine, gathering red and gold maple leaves to take home.

"Dias esplendidas!" she had said, "splendid days!'' At the time, I thought she was just talking about that visit, but I see now that the phrase has much more meaning. With Mama, they've all been splendid days.

Outward Bound Reunion

Up to my ankles in the Boundary Waters, I was holding the prow of a canoe so it wouldn't blow away and thinking how much I hate squishy boots. Especially when they're my favorite boots, like now, and they're probably ruined....

As if she'd read my mind, Katie Bartholomew, ankle-deep and holding two canoes, looked over and grinned. "Squishy boots!'' she said. "I LOVE squishy boots!''

Strange, I thought, how life eventually manages to teach you the lessons you missed when it tried the first time.

This lesson -- the wilderness version of the glass that is half full or half empty, depending on your attitude -- had taken 30 years to catch up with me.

In 1975, Katie had been my Outward Bound instructor in these same waters on the Canadian border, and I had been part of the outdoor school's first Minnesota program "for mature women" -- meaning anybody close to or over 30.

Three decades after the first trip - and now REALLY mature - seven of our original Outward Bound brigade had reconvened at Homeplace, the school's headquarters near Ely, Minnesota, for a reunion voyage: Bernie Murphey, Ellie Ogden, Robin Hasslen, Peggy Craig, Shirley Joy Shaw, Katie and me.

Outward Bound treated us like prodigal stars, albeit fragile ones. The staff even provided lightweight resin canoes in place of the heavy aluminum Grummans we'd used before. (And this time they didn't start the trip by marching us through a swamp of crotch-deep mud; nothing has ever been that icky since.)

I'd signed up the first time because I was about to spend a year rambling around South America. I was scared then, and I hoped Outward Bound would make me braver. Now, a lifetime later, I was hoping for the same thing. I had just retired from the newspaper job I thought I was born for, and I was scared all over again.

On our first morning back together, we stood in a circle at our campsite, surrounded by rustling fir trees, with bright blue water glinting in the background, and talked about our shared and separate journeys.

I was surprised at how many of the others used words like "courage,'' "bravery'' and "strength'' to describe what they had needed then and hoped for now.

"I want to be feeling that I'm strong and I can take care of myself,'' said Peggy. "It's almost as if it was the first time around.''

Between our two trips lay the landmarks of our adult lives -- careers, marriages, births, deaths, illnesses, divorces -- and all the readjustments, joys and griefs that came with them.

Now all of us were poised on the lip of another future. Age had put us there, and the question hanging over our heads had gotten heavier with the years: How are we going to spend the rest of our lives?

Not even Outward Bound, with its focus on facing fear and developing skills, can answer that question. But it helped. Both times.

For years, Ellie said, "I'd be in the middle of doing something tough and think, `Outward Bound helped me do that'.''

But Bernie and Shirley -- the women I had most often paddled with -- sounded as if they'd gained the most.

Bernie had been a hog farmer's wife in rural Minnesota. In her 40s and the mother of four boys, she signed up because "I just thought it would be so great to be with women for a change,'' she remembered. "It changed my life.''

Within a few years, Bernie divorced, moved to Minneapolis -- a city that up to then she'd been afraid just to drive in -- and started over. Now she was starting over again, facing the triple challenge of retirement, recovery from illness and moving to a new home in a new town.

Shirley had been 39 the first time, divorced, with four kids and a difficult choice to make -- finish college or get married again. "I thought, I need more courage.'' She got it.

She said no to the proposal, paid the Outward Bound tuition with her rent money, finished her degree, raised the kids alone and went on to found Rakma, an organization of group homes for people with Alzheimer's. Now she too had just retired.

That put all three of us, once again, in the same boat.

Our trips felt like bookends to me, bracketing my life, closing off the best part of it. "I don't know how to be this next person,'' I told the group.

Katie's response was as different as her take on squishy boots. "Not bookends,'' she said. "Jumping-off points.''

In the next few days, as our muscles got used to lifting packs and paddles again, our minds got used to our new realities. Now some of us needed physical help -- getting into and out of the canoes, over treacherous rocks, up steep portages.

And some of us needed help of a different kind -- a hug, a listening ear.

We leaned on each other more, asked for help more, combined our strengths more. And I, who had always loved traveling alone, felt a rush of relief and comfort from being in the group.

"The first time, we had to prove we could do it,'' Robin said. "Now we HAVE proved it, and we can just BE.''

Mid-trip, the wind picked up, rain thrashed us, and for two days and two nights we were pinned down on a high rocky shore, trying to keep the tents from blowing away. But that wind brought me another lesson. Or rather, brought one back.

For three decades, on trips to places from Easter Island to the Arctic Circle, whenever I'd felt scared or just reluctant, I'd always pictured canoes crossing a lake in a killer wind.

That visual mantra had been a part of me for so long that I no longer remembered where it came from. Suddenly, I knew.

Those had been our canoes, on a blustery afternoon near the end of the first trip. We had spent as much of that day as we could behind sheltering islands, but now we had to risk open water, and the wind was treacherous.

By then, though, we'd been building our skills and testing our nerve for nearly two weeks, and we were ready. Shouting between canoes, we discussed the risks, opted to go anyway, and came through safe.

Somehow, I'd associated that image only with travel. I hadn't thought to use it at home, let alone apply it to my future. Now, in the wake of the second trip, I do, all the time, in words I first heard on Outward Bound:

When in doubt, face your fear. Stay together. Ask for help if you start to capsize. And when the going really gets rough, turn the canoe straight into the wind.

Bittersweet Spring

I intended to spend this morning writing about last week's triumph: I'd finally accepted that I wasn't going to recover my grandmother's loveseat or restore the pair of Victorian walnut sidechairs that have been waiting in my basement for close on three decades.

Last week, I donated them to a charity and reorganized the basement, and I thought I could use that as a springboard for something pseudo-deep about simplifying one's life. Instead, I put the writing on hold - just as I'd done for years with the furniture in the basement - and went outside to marvel at the two-story crabapple tree that that anchors my backyard.

This was the first truly summer-like morning of the year, hot and sunny, and overnight the big tree had burst into billows of hot-pink blossoms. In full bloom, this tree is one of the most beautiful things I've seen, anywhere in the world, and I wanted to revel in its transient glory.

Then I made the mistake of walking around to the woodsy side of the house, to admire the result of last fall's battle with the bittersweet vine. Bittersweet is the scourge of my garden, and I'd spent far too much sunny, warm, autumn time attacking it with a branch trimmer. It had seemed worth it: I was sure I had done it in this time.

No. It had grown back. More than grown back: It had thrived, expanding its territory under the snow, and resurfaced more enthusiastically than ever. And in countless places: It puts down roots wherever it touches, and grows more and more of itself. I'm surprised it doesn't cover the planet.

So this morning, instead of sipping iced tea in the pink shade of the flowering crab, I fell to cutting bittersweet again, untangling its incredibly strong tendrils from the adjoining bridal wreath and trying to dig out its parent roots without destroying the ferns and the flowers around them.

This vine epidemic began years ago, when "country'' was the home-decorating style of the moment. One October, I bought a small bouquet of ripe bittersweet at a farmers' market and hung it on the front door, where its orange berries looked cheery as cold weather came on.

I didn't know that those sweet-looking little berries contained viable seeds. I didn't find out until the first hot weather of the next spring.

My house is old and has window air conditioners, and when I turned on the one in the window beside the garden, it gave a sad, desperate hum and died.

The reason was bittersweet indeed: Perhaps the wind carried a seed into my garden, or a passing bird had dropped it, but at least one berry in that bouquet had taken root and sent a tendril straight up into the AC's vents and around and around the fan blades, killing the machine.

I installed a new air conditioner in a different window, but the battle was joined, and because I don't want to use herbicides - they'd kill the rest of the garden I'm trying to save - the battle has been going on ever since.

There's some kind of life lesson in this, I imagine, but as I went mano a mano with the bittersweet vine this morning, I kept thinking of the tortoise and the hare. How did something slow and plodding get to be heroic? If the goal is self-renewal, the vine would win - definitely a bittersweet victory.

Part of the Deal

Packing up for the trip back to Minnesota from New Mexico, I'm pondering what I've learned by escaping three months of winter. Quite a bit, as it turns out.

I've learned that you can't necessarily write an entire book in three months, but you can make a dent. That virtually constant sunshine, day-in, day-out, does NOT get boring. That you can reinvent yourself at any age, if you really want to. And that the real trick is wanting to.

I was thinking about that in aerobics class this morning - a roomful of retired women exercising to a soundtrack of once-popular songs like "Leader of the Pack'' and "Goin' to the Chapel, an' we're gonna get ma-ar-aried!'' We know all the words, and sometimes we sing along. It looks and sounds a little silly - but I always come out of the class revved up and smiling.

I was also thinking about people I've met who wouldn't be caught dead doing that. They're the same people I've overheard all winter, complaining about being out of breath at the top of a single flight of stairs, or lamenting how much their feet hurt from a routine trip through the grocery store, or just plain lamenting.

"Fight it,'' I keep wanting to tell them. "Fight it hard.'' Because if you don't fight now - and you just keep telling yourself you're old - old is what you will be.

I firmly believe that. Bust sometimes I give in to bleak thoughts and wonder "who am I kidding?'' That happened late one night a couple of weeks ago, when the only bedtime reading on hand was a little, beat-up volume of meditations that I've carried on trips for nearly 20 years.

It's a collection of excerpts from "A Course in Miracles,'' and over time, I've filled its margins with my own notes and discoveries. I don't turn to it very often now, but this night I needed to. I felt old and dismal.
The lines that grabbed me were in my own handwriting, about a personal trauma. In the spring of 1992, I was attacked on a walking path near my home in south Minneapolis, on a warm afternoon, in full daylight.

I knew I was being killed. But neighbors heard me scream and my dog bark and came running. They rescued me, but it was a full year before I dared travel alone and much longer than that before I could go through a day without thinking about it.

What I'd written in the little book, several years later, startled me into a better frame of mind: "When my life was spared on the path,'' it read, "there was a sort of contract in it - to stick around for the future - and much as I despise it, growing old was part of the deal.''

True enough, I thought. That's exactly what it was - and still is.

Fountain of Youth?

I think I've discovered the Fountain of Youth, but I'm still getting used to the water.

The secret, I've found, isn't just learning something new, as every article on successful aging insists. The real secret is tackling something so new - and so scary - that it makes you feel about six years old. Presto: Instant youth.

A week ago, I started taking a ten-week jewelry-making class called Beginning Lapidary. Advanced Lapidary, I was assured, would involve polishing and setting stones, but the beginning class was just working with silver.

I pictured everybody happily pounding decorative dents in bits of metal, with tiny little hammers on cute little anvils. I did not picture myself holding an acetylene blowtorch on the first day of class, let alone trying to light it or panicking when I couldn't.

There are a dozen people in this class, most of them women, aged from 50 on up into the chronological stratosphere. I watched while the others, one by one, met the acetylene challenge with seeming ease:

Open the valve on the handle, snap the friction lighter at it till the gas ignites, and, well, presto! Out shoots a narrow blue flame with an orange halo - easy as that.

As my turn approached, the inner child I seldom hear from began to fidget like a first-grader. "I am really scared here,'' it was saying.

Of what, I wasn't sure. Blowing up? Getting burned? Feeling stupid? Or just failing while the big kids watched? All of the above, frankly.

For guys who took shop in junior high, this would have been a cinch. But at my school, the only option for girls was home ec, where I had to sew an apron I never wore - on a treadle machine, come to think of it - and cook "goldenrod eggs," among other foods I never made again.

Beginning Lapidary, then, was anything but routine for me. Even the teaching technique was startling. The instructors wasted no time on theory. There was no discussion. There were only facts and tasks. They demonstrated; we mimicked.

That first day, we also spent two intense hours learning the names of scary machines, all of which could hurt us, and being told even scarier rules for using them:

Always wear your safety glasses! Keep the torch aimed away from you! No long sleeves! Wear closed shoes! No gloves when you're using the buffers! Never, ever polish chain - you could lose your thumb!

"This is a lot to take in,'' a woman classmate whispered to me as we were leaving. I agreed. Yes, I had managed to get the damned torch lit without setting anything else on fire or feeling particularly stupid. But this class wasn't just "learning something new,'' it was mental boot camp.

If the learning curve was steep in that first session, it was nearly vertical in the second, which, as I write this, was only yesterday afternoon. I wasn't aware of learning how to do anything, but by the end of those two-and-a-half hours, there were things I clearly had done.

I had soldered pieces of silver together with the blowtorch, heated them till they came apart, cleaned them in an acid wash, soldered them again and then again and finally held the flame on them until everything melted and pulled together into a ball, like a little red-hot pearl - just as the instructors promised it would.

Huh, I thought, watching this transformation. I really did it. I really did it.

Reduced to a few paragraphs, this may not sound like much. But every single moment of that class was like going to Mars - utterly new. When I walked back out into the sunny afternoon, I felt new too: Bright and shiny - like silver. If I'd really been six years old, I would have skipped all the way home.