I think on this trip I am learning how to be old.
Tonight I was talking with someone about Mary Oliver’s instructional book on poetry, how reading it depressed me because I’d wanted to think that poetry was so utterly an art. Every page had some new complexity that had never occurred to me. Like gardening, I wanted the picture of poetry, the image in my mind, to be the reality. But every summer the truth reveals itself. There is more to the endeavor than planting bush bean seeds and going in the house to watch the news.
I think aging might be like poetry. Or gardening.
Today, Mary Shields showed us her 44 lb cabbage. It was still in the ground, a mountainous cabbage with leaves spread out like oceans. She talked about the cabbage and how she has constructed raised gardens so she can extend the growing season at her home outside Fairbanks. In addition to the extraordinary cabbage, Mary’s garden was full of flowers. She told us to pick one and put it in our hair or on our jackets because “everyone looks better with a flower” and so we all did. We’d known her five minutes and we already wanted her approval.
Mary Shields is the first woman to finish the legendary Iditarod, the 1,049 mile sled dog race from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska. We went to meet her and her sled dogs today.
She had come from her log house in a motorized wheelchair to where we were waiting in the garden; it took a good long while for her to cross the yard and get situated to talk to us. She introduced herself to the group, explaining that her ankle had recently been amputated. It was said casually, treated as if her pinned together pant leg was an inconvenience but uninteresting. And so, just like that, it became uninteresting.
From the garden, we went to the dog yard. Six hefty dogs, bigger than one would see running the race now, all healthy and sturdy like they could pull a car out of a ditch each one on their own. The dogs were joyful and obedient. And before long, everyone in our little group was the same. Glad to be there with Mary and her fine dogs. And then there were the puppies.
Inside Mary’s log house, we were served cake and chocolate chip cookies. Mary switched to another wheelchair. I figured she had an outside wheelchair and an inside chair and later, when I went downstairs to the bathroom, I saw another wheelchair, and it became clear that whatever happened to her leg had a long genesis. She had been hurt or injured or sick for a time. Her situation wasn’t new. It made me think about her in a whole different way and I was struck by the tragedy of it all – a woman so devoted to sled dogs and running the trail for days on end wouldn’t be able to stand on a sled anymore.
Mary told stories of running the Iditarod through terrible weather, snowshoeing in front of her team to break a trail, sleeping on the ice with her dogs packed around her, and racing to the finish line in Nome to see a crowd of women holding a sign that said, in the spirit of the 70’s, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” She finished 23rd. It took her 28 days.
She said all these things in the most matter of fact way, no embellishment, no superlatives. It was hard to pull out of her any talk of a feminist victory, the importance of being the first woman to finish the race. She hinted at tricks that were played but didn’t dwell on the struggle. She looked like she had no need to make more of it. And she was right not to. What she did was good enough.
Everything about Mary was genuine and hopeful. I bought her book and she signed inside, “Dear Jan, Come back in winter and try mushing. Mary Shields” And for a few short minutes it seemed like something I could do if I wanted to. She would teach me, sitting in a big parka in her wheelchair calling out instructions while I fumbled with the dogs’ harnesses. I could see it in my mind’s eye as crazy as it was. Mary would be the book on aging I have been looking for.