I do not consider the day’s options rolling down the wheelchair ramp at 9 AM, only that there are too many. An embarrassment of riches, a wise person would say. I am not a wise person. At best, and only recently, it does occur to me that my need to daily construct a life may not be a failure, but a something else. The word ‘opportunity’ does come to mind, but there is an overly sunny cast to this which, in this land of success gurus, one must view askance. Never mind. Possibilities, albeit too many, will do.
Or it should do. Life’s weeds keep encroaching upon this start-of-the-day experience. Take the morning meditation by the garden. What transpires there by the raised beds is at once baffling and reliably reassuring. Things are growing. Things I have nurtured. Unwanted things are growing also. And it is all following an unwanted course, too late this year. Garlic, for example, normally grows and grows, then as though someone has pulled a switch, virtually keels over. The side leaves wither. The tops turn brown. In past years this has happened so quickly that in the absence of vegetation, I had to dig around to find the actual garlic bulbs. Not this year. While Jane and I are freezing our tushes off in Northumberland, my garlic will be yawning and stretching, barely considering next steps. In any case, it is all demonstrated here, a living lesson, how life and its processes can be encouraged, but not controlled, certainly not scheduled.
At 10 AM the children visiting the man upstairs come bounding down the steps. They are small kids, and everything is a clatter of bicycles, helmets and fatherly admonitions to head for the car. I intercept the dad. I think he should know about the summer kids’ concerts. Just a minute, I say, rolling inside to get the Music@Menlo brochure. He notes the dates and I, feeling rather shy about it, suggest that we go together. Thanks, he says, they are off to the park. It embarrasses me, this exchange. I have detained him slightly, but more to the point, I have injected myself into his life. As though I do not have sufficient life of my own. Not enough to do, one might say. As though I feed off the existence of others, extracting their vitality and completeness, vampire-style. This thought signals a general need for change. Something else must happen now, and my repertoire being rather limited, all that comes to mind is additional caffeine.
No, this is completely untrue, for what really comes to mind is the ambience of Menlo Park’s coffee options. Peets? Noisy and impinging on this particular Sunday. Something in me feels fragile. What that something is remains elusive. One thing is clear, however. I am not going to achieve greater clarity here by the garden. My neighbor and his kids have departed. So must I. It begins now, the bouncing journey to the heart of that good Menlo land. Which is conveniently located only three streets away. And here they are, the suburban hordes, all five of them crowding through the door to Peets. Inside without inquiring as to the nature of my own personal delicacy, life gives me a real-world demonstration. The five suburbanites rushing past me to their cappuccinos have, like spawning salmon, found themselves trapped in the shallowness. They are queuing with 10 or 12 others. I am rolling back out the door, for this is too much. Whatever.
My next destination? Either the upstairs coffee bar at the local supermarket, which has a Terence-Rattigan-with-Formica feel about it, or a more complicated run down the street to get some money from the bank, then onto the Café Borrone experience. Where the entire staff acknowledge me in a most pleasant way. How are you? What is it like to be so old, so many generations away from us, and may we take your empty fruit plate? Anything else aside from the cappuccino? I am no stranger, that is the thing. Nor am I at Trader Joe’s. I muse heavily over the cheese, considering the options and their impact on the rest of the day.
For I have hit on an expedient approach to the bringing of snacks to tonight’s meeting. Who or what has decided to meet? My local Jewish congregation. Their annual gathering. The purpose is all business. The attendance is usually substantial, maybe 75 of us, adding up to the cliché count of 150 opinions. Actually, 149. I have none, or very few, uncharacteristically. After all, what do I know about any of this? My ignorance is profound. I am more or less along for the Jewish ride. Which makes me feel like something of a wimp when the congregation gets into vociferous and protracted discussions. They are fiery hot, the issues of rent and how much to pay and where. Not that the latter is an altogether impractical matter, but that I am not very interested. Unfortunately, I leave the governance of the congregation to others.
But not the snacks. This is the only part of the evening that is truly comprehensible. Bring something to eat. Dessert is an option. But I am more practical, if that is the word. After all, I am at the pleasant stage of using up and cleaning out. Most recently the cheese biscuits, a.k.a., crackers, purchased last summer in London. What an embarrassment. How can this be? Nonetheless, I am almost certain that Fudge’s biscuits emanate from June and the Waitrose supermarket near Russell Square. And being rather bleary of mind, the box sat in one corner of my kitchen visible and untouched because of an essential misunderstanding. Fudge being the only word prominent from my wheelchair vantage point, I assumed chocolate. Forget it. Fudge is someone’s name, and the product inside is crispy and thin and designed to be eaten with cheese.
By a certain date, of course, and never mind that this time has passed. I opened one of the remaining cellophane-encapsulated packs this very morning and sampled a biscuit or two. They were best before…well, you don’t really want to know. But it was a good time of year, and Thanksgiving was vaguely on the horizon. Now, whatever is happening to the garlic, nothing terribly bad has been happening to the biscuits. Nothing stale about them, that is the important thing. Lacking in robust flavor, perhaps. So what? You guessed it, they are heading for tonight’s meeting along with some cheese. Which brings us back to Trader Joe’s where people know me. Including the strange person offering to pluck one of the cheeses down from a high shelf. Sure I say, assuming this is a stranger, thanking her absentmindedly and only looking up at the last minute to realize this is a former chorister. A soprano, I think. Another person who knows me. I am not alone. Although I am the only person lingering over cheeses, particularly concerned about color. I know these people, I am thinking. Actually, the only thing known is unknown, their preferences in the cheese department. I am thinking a blue and an orange. Cheeses with contrasting colors for people in a hurry. Snacktime will be brief. As for the stale…which they curiously aren’t…biscuits, I buy a backup package of Trader Joe’s savory wheat crisps.
In short, it is all a dream. The past merging with the present. The shortening of my wife’s lifespan confusedly merging with the shelflife of cheese biscuits. And what of the country that named and invented them? What do my frequent trips there mean at this stage of my shortening life? Initially a refuge, then over the decades a second home, what is it now? Like everythi
ng else, it is that most quintessential British thing, a muddle. An expensive one, that is the only complication. I go there eagerly, that is the only certainty. For now, I pack my bag of cheese and crackers, for that is what it is, this being America…and head for my meeting.