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I am a 60 something Californian, former world traveler of the back packing variety, a Buddhist, a writer, photographer, and teacher.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Remembering Georgia

Remembering today. Not sure why, but the memory of a woman I met in my traveling days has settled in my mind today, a friend of a few days only, but a person with enough mystery and originality in her chosen way of life to occupy any writer for many pages indeed. Her name is lost to me – it has been 36 years – but I will name her Georgia, since the name would suit her. I don’t doubt she is gone from this world by now, or about to leave it. She was in her late fifties or early sixties when I met her, wrinkled from eyes to knees, with fine lines everywhere as if her body had shrunk and left her skin to do what it wished to make up the difference, draped over a well made structure of bird-like bones. Indeed that is one of the things that HAD happened to her that I know of. She showed me pictures of herself as she had been 10 years or so before I met her – in Texas, married to a businessman, dressed robustly in the wifely uniform of the middle class fifties, dotted blouse, long skirt fortified with petticoats, her hair in a teased blond buffont. And she was plump, even alarmingly so. Her blue eyes looked out from under a stiff thatch of mascara. Her lips were ruby bright, smiling falsely in the glare of the camera flash. She had just won a contest held by the Ladies Orchid Society of Houston or some such organization dedicated to virtue and flowers and middle class behavior control. She was surrounded by a coterie of similar women, sealed into a life different in every way imaginable from the one she lived now.

There was irony in her smile as she gazed down on the photo, self-bemusement that she clearly wanted to share. We sat in her small house some 12 feet off the ground in a tree, among a village of such casually constructed dwellings at the base the cliff that fronts the Arafura Sea in front of Darwin Australia. Lameroo village, it was called then, a hippie rest stop for traveling backpackers bound to Asia just to the north, or returning from it. One could live for almost nothing there in the early 1970’s – just get off the bus and settle into any recently vacated treehouse, or create one of your own. Join communal dinners at a nightly fire where a pot of rice and beans simmered and everyone was welcomed in to help chop vegetables and make music, to smoke hashish and linger in the slow Australian twilight, telling stories of where they had been or where they were going.

Georgia had one of the nicest houses in Lameroo, high enough to require a ladder. It had been cleverly constructed by a series of previous occupants, bright and sunny with an ocean view and with a real double bed mattress well shielded by tarps from the daily afternoon thunderstorms we all endured, replete with menacing black walls of rain and driving winds. A basin tied into the roots of her aerial kitchen held her plates and cups. A water container and foodstuffs were neatly stacked on shelves, and the pictures, of that other life in an utterly different place, were tacked to branches above us.

In the year she had been there, Georgia had shared this dwelling with a series of lovers, mostly merchant marine sailors who came and went as their vessels allowed them. Currently the man in question was a burly black haired Frenchman she favored with real affection, though I glimpsed him only once. When he was gone, she even sent him letters, dressing for the occasion of going up the cliff to the Darwin post office in a long hand embroidered dress of brilliant saffire blue and then carefully cinching it at the waist with a bright yellow and orange Nepalese sash she had been given. On days when she did not leave the village in the trees, she wore nothing at all, as we were all free to do (though I was shy enough to wear at least a sarong). Her greying yellow hair danced in curls about her always smiling face, and she moved as gracefully as a dancer. I met her one morning as we both went for water at a spigot on the side of a giant city cistern some half mile down the beach. When the long slow tide pulled out, the way was opened, though rocky, and we made our way carefully, laughing and telling our stories, water jugs carried on shoulder or head, feeling graceful and connected to the place. Natives out of time, warmed by sun and freedom, eager for the gifts of each novel day.

I was 26 that year, a natural time in life for adventures, for trying things out with all the daring one can muster. But Georgia? In years she was closing on elderly. In spirit, she seemed to have gone beyond all time. In my memory she lived at the edge of the world, wide open to joy, accepting the changes of each day, and never calling them loss.
Looking back now, less sanguine in my own early sixties, I wonder what extraordinary earthquake of the soul could have taken her so far. Was she mentally ill? She did not seem so. She bubbled, but she did not babble. It was a spiritual sea change that had moved her. And a fearlessness I had not ever seen before.

I remember her now perhaps because I have at last arrived at her time of life – in a far different place and state of mind. It seems to me sometimes that all my daring was spent in those years of traveling. Now I sit like a barnacle, locked into routine that has staled my mind almost into unconsciousness, too timid - so far - to let go of prudence even a little. In a year I face a decision, to retire with a meager monthly check and dare to try new things again - or stay on, cautious and fading, to a healthier income. The world calls to me again. Georgia laughs at me out of her bright eyed, wrinkled, ageless face. Love, she whispers. Live. Don’t be afraid.
I’m trying.