On the Faultline

Godalmighty, when the continents begin to shift in you, you can’t tell tomorrow from yesterday, you run just like that herd of pigs, over the cliff and into the water.

—Tim Winton


In the Winter Dark


I lived by myself in a cabin in the high desert above the San Andreas faultline. It could get shaky around there. It could get lonely. In less than two days I heard three women talk about loneliness. One was an 83-year-old cowgirl named Billie; the second was a 59-year-old retired dentist named Shanti, who was heading out to clean toilets to earn her rent; the third was 68-year-old me.

The cowgirl no longer broke broncos. There’d been too many falls, too many years down a long hard road. We talked over her fence. She moved slow as patience to water the young trees in her side-yard. Her middle-aged quadriplegic son lived in the house next door. She was his care-taker because “all the weirdos the County sent for homecare ripped off his drugs and his heart.” She was thinking about getting a couple of Nubian goats, but her son had forbidden it. “Look at your hands, ma,” he had told her.  “You couldn’t milk a mouse.”

“I’m glad you moved into the neighborhood,” Billie said to me. “It gets damn lonely way out here.”

Shayla the dentist no longer told anybody to relax and open their mouths. She had not been able to ignore the direction her profession had taken. “The more I learned, the more I saw that if I wanted to stay in business I would have to pimp my patients’ vanity.  And Western medicine is too often about poisoning people so they can survive in a toxic culture.”

She grinned. “At least cleaning houses is an honest living. But you better believe it’s a crummy way to meet men. I haven’t been touched or held in six years.”

I had been lucky to be able to keep writing. Two serious hiking falls and over 70 years had not stopped me. If I thought about the last time I was touched or held with affection, I ached. Billy and Shayla were my kin. We were single. We were old. If you looked hard into our eyes you saw too much: too much knowledge. Too much hunger. Too much love for our independence. Too much awareness of what that costs.

We three were lucky. An Eastern friend wrote to me about that time. We had been wild middle-aged women in the ‘80s, a time that seemed like it was 20 centuries ago. She used to be a potter. I used to be a counselor who knew her real work was writing. Wet clay and Lake Front winters twisted my friend’s hands with arthritis and took her craft. Too much theory and too little mystery took my faithlessness to my craft.

J. became a fine print-maker. I became a writer. A year ago arthritis took her from her home into her daughter’s house. I'm doing pretty good. I am depressed as I adjust to the new regime but am grateful to be on one floor. Arthritis has taken over my life. It's hard to deal with aging, I don't want to be 71. I am having lapses of memory and show up for appointments on the wrong day...                                    

Thirty years ago a different eastern friend and I had talked about aging. I was 38, B. was 37. We were at a faculty dinner. We watched the men watch the young waitresses and graduate students. “We are becoming invisible,” I said. We knew her husband was somewhere in the room flirting, and my lover was holding forth to a circle of wide-eyed post-docs. “Yes,” B. said, “I don’t want to end up like my grandmother. Alone. Afraid. Needy. So needy no one wants to be around her.”

“We need to talk about the future,” I said. “We need to plan, to do what has to be done so that we will have a community when we’re old.”

“A commune,” B. said. “We’ll buy an old farm. I’ll have my garden. You’ll be working on your tenth book.”

It is now the time B. and I saw moving toward us. We must have thought we had forever. Now, B. lives with her second husband. J. lives with her daughter. Billie, Shakti, and I live alone. I tried for two months to share a kitchen and bath with another woman. It drove me crazy. The last 20 years of solitude had marked me.

Now what? The continents will continue to shift. Who knows if there will be tomorrow? But there is this: I want to read something new about being old. I can’t bear the pathetic jokes about aging or the upbeat articles on how to stay young. Despite the women who write about menopause as power surges and glorious cronehood, real aging for many single old women is not an inspirational essay. Real aging is a hard slog up a talus slope toward a summit no one wants to reach. I suspect that if I want to read something new about aging, something that walks a tightrope between ageist blather and wishful fantasies, I will have to write it. Perhaps these are the words:

So I lived alone above the San Andreas faultline and visited Billie. I talked with Shayla. I sat under the old Joshua Tree behind my cabin and watched dawn shimmer on the western mountains. I walked alone on miles of sandy roads. I followed twisting washes, the trails of flash floods and lizard tracks lacing the sand. I was grateful for a body without pain, a mind only a little shaky. Later I would write: the continents are shifting and there is nowhere to run.

Photo by author

Mary Sojourner is a writer, writing teacher, and fiend for the Mojave Desert. I moved to Flagstaff, Arizona thirty-one years ago, after reading Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang, to write and fight for the Western earth. The natural world is my medicine. 


I am a writer, writing teacher, and fiend for the Mojave Desert. I moved to Flagstaff, Arizona thirty-one years ago, after reading Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang, to write and fight for the Western earth. The natural world is my medicine.