When you’re a kid, your life revolves around playing with your friends and focusing on the now. You give very little thought about the future because the assumption is that you live will forever. You haven’t yet learned about race or class, or that you are better than or less than a friend because of social standing. It’s a time of purity and wonder.
As you age you measure yourself against others, obsess about achieving. You feel inadequate if your house isn’t big enough, or if you can’t afford a house. If you have a job you love it’s not good enough, you need to get a higher position in the company to feel validated, and make more money for a bigger house. These are generalizations. There are plenty of people who live frugally and have the home and car they need and do not spend their lives discontented with their present station in life. Good for them. They are a step ahead of the rest of us for whom there is a burning desire to fare better than our parents did, live in a nicer place, get more education…
A couple of weeks ago, Ivy and I took an unexpected trip to the Salton Sea, to visit my father and step mother, Lola. It’s about a two hundred mile drive to their place, which we’d never seen. When I’ve visited them in the past bunch of years, it was at my sister Tammy’s place in Arizona. Ivy hadn’t seen them since she was nine years old which was way too long.
Ivy and I drove, chatting along the way as the miles flew past. As we neared the destination, there was a movie-like fade in. Windmills. Hundreds and hundreds of them in sync, blowing, spinning round and round like enormous pinwheels. I imagined a voice narrating. “And now it begins.”
After the surreal windmill scene, miles and miles of nothingness followed. Dry, dead, drought grass as far as we could see.
Then suddenly to our right we saw light gleaming off the Salton Sea, the one-time tourist attraction extraordinaire turned highly salinated, somewhat toxic, dead-fish-on-its-shores site. It’s stunning to see, as mesmerizing as any real ocean, with its sparking waters, and rhythmic waves. It was a joy to spot this oasis, this vast rolling ocean within miles of barren landscape.
Before long we saw the RV park up on the left, a bright white oval eye against a flat, dry yellow face. I know, I know, me and my symbolism. In my defense, the park is called Fountain of Youth so I’m not the only one who is a symbol enthusiast.
This 55+ park is where Dad and Lola have spent most of their time in the last nine years or so, going up north to another park in summers, or to stay with Tammy. Once we passed through the security gate, Lola pulled up on a golf cart and told us to follow her. We drove down the small cozy paved roads, peppered with flowering shrubs and trees, until we reached their home. We dropped off our things, jumped in the cart, and drove to their friend Sophie’s lot where we spent most of the rest of our visit.
There was a parade that day, and we watched as the residents, all of them good friends, marched on with their floats, each proudly showing off their activity: hiking, bocce, golf. People from all around the world ended up there. Two fire trucks showed up for the parade too and everyone waved at them. Lola said they see the emergency workers a lot because it’s a senior park and people are always dying. She said it as a matter of fact, no emotion or commentary. I thought of a neighborhood of children, when suddenly one child leaves in a moving truck, never to be seen again. You move on and just enjoy the friends you have left. The residents here do the same.
After the parade, the crowd flowed up to the deck at Sophie’s place, the roomy home with the desert and sea view, with a wall of bright pink azaleas and a mini Mourning dove who watched us suspiciously from her nest. The Chocolate Mountains perfectly completed the backdrop. The whole day felt like a movie broken up into scenes with Ivy and me moving from seat to seat, spending time with different combinations of Dad and Lola and their friends, listening to their conversations, telling them our stories.
There was a lot of champagne flowing that day, and the people at the party were as lively as college students, and enjoying their lives just as much. Fountain of Youth, indeed. From what I saw and heard, their days consist of hanging out and playing, reading, enjoying the pool and hot tub, and taking walks with their dogs. Their pensions or social security or savings cover their expenses. They can just enjoy living, having earned it after so many years of “adulting.” I’m sure there are real issues they deal with beneath the surface, worrying about their grown children, or people they have conflicts with, or their health; but for the most part, they collectively seemed to be content, right where they landed.
At one point I sat with a British man from Canterbury. He and I sat on a wicker couch. I asked him what he did…before. Everyone here was retired after all, and from all over the world. I was curious about his job when he was on the work force. He paused, said no one ever asked that. He was fine with telling me but realized no one ever asked. His life before does not matter for this blog, only the point that everyone in the park lives in the now. He looked around and pointed, “I don’t know what he did before, or him, or her…” but added, “They’re good people.”
I suggested that everyone was on a level playing field here, it seemed. He said yes, exactly. Some of them had a lot of money, some not so much. In the complex, there were probably doctors and lawyers and who knows what, but now they’re retired. What they had before or were before…none of that mattered here. He said something along the lines of, “I’ll probably die here but I’m okay with that. I like it here.”
It got me thinking. At the end of the day, or the end of your life, when careers are over and your children are grown with children or grandchildren of their own, it’s your time. Your season to hang out with friends, and relax, and talk about the journey you are on together, in the now. Because then is long gone and what remains is all that matters. All the corporate climbing, and the fancy cars and clothes, and how popular you were in high school, it matters so little in the scheme of things.
Now they are all living in similar small seasonal homes, drinking champagne on a deck and looking over at an ocean that was at its prime when they were children. And like them, time may have changed it, weathered it, made it not as healthy as it once was; but it is just as strong and vibrant and full of life.
They take each moment for what it is. One bocce tournament at a time, one karaoke night, one homecoming parade, one round of golf on the sand course, one friend leaving forever in an ambulance…
The next morning we went to Bombay Beach before breakfast. To me it was a sad, forgotten place. The area was mostly abandoned. The beach sported derelict buildings and structures that many years ago could have been thriving hot dog stands or amusement park rides. I pictured tourist families running around on the beach, excited to be escaping from their life to come to this miracle ocean. I contrasted it to life now: the empty beach, the empty buildings. No one around except for some residents who live close by, in the tiny area of homes before the vastness that stretches on until the park where Dad and Lola live.
We went to the American Legion and met their friends from the night before. A man who was probably eighty held up a paper cup with a Bloody Mary in it—the drink of choice for all of them. “Some party last night!” I didn’t know him but laughed at the relaxed frivolity amongst them. In the corner, an older man played his guitar and sang country music. We sat with Dad and his friends at a long folding table, and we ordered off a paper slip menu with check boxes. It was an adventure.
I couldn’t help but imagine the narrator’s voice then, the Buddha-esque Carly who puts things in perspective. “This is the scene where you look around and drink everything in. Where you came from, where they came from does not matter. You are part of their journey and they are part of yours. ” Their friend Sophie looked at me then and smiled. “There’s a lot of kindness here.” Her eyes scanned the room as mine did. “A lot of kind people.”
A short while later, Ivy and I said our goodbyes and began the drive alongside the Salton Sea, now to our left. We drove until we were surrounded by the windmills again, lulling us back from what felt like our dream sequence, the symbolic end of our trip. And into the heavy traffic of the 10 and the 5 and 118…and back to our own version of now. The hurried, break-neck pace of our lives with jobs and college and our everyday challenges.
There is something to be said for retirement, and slowing down, and appreciating life at face value, seeing your friends as you did when you were children, without the filters of color or finances. The gift is to savor what is here now and not what is next. Life is fleeting, and the next thing may never come. But now is all around us, and there is a lot of kindness here.
And that is what I learned on my trip to see my father.