Summers Away

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The exquisite pleasure of swimming across the lake with my friend P. brought up multiple thoughts about summers and how best to spend them as I rhythmically gasped for air, splashing my arms into the chopped surface of the lake and kicking as hard as I could to ward of the cold that was grinding its way into my bones. It was all I could do to keep from freezing, pushing my arms hard into the water, thinking about pleasure and laziness, being in gorgeous places and hanging out with friends in Vermont. I flashed on hikes up Mount Pisgah with the girls, afternoons under a blue sky watching Bread and Puppet performances and late night boat rides with friends, drifting for hours while the kids sang, the adults drank and we watched the moon rise over the hills. Periodically, P. and I would slow down to rest and swim leisurely as we talked, making heart shaped strokes and chatting about people and places, where we felt at home and why. I peppered her with questions about her boyfriend. I was twenty six when she was born but we are swimming partners, and we never let a summer go by without making our trek across the lake.

It’s already late. By mid-August the weather starts to cool down up here and I’ve been waiting all summer for P., who has been traveling. I took a few quick swims after running and relished the cold water, going out far enough to achieve the illusion that I was in the middle of the lake, but knowing I wasn’t even close. I didn’t dare swim across without a partner, though I’ve done it before, because I can get anxious out in the middle by myself, and my husband and kids don’t really like me doing it either.

This morning P. was determined that we should go even though it’s been cold and rainy for days. I was more than game having waited so long but we both procrastinated for a couple of hours, finally finding our nerves around eleven. We jogged the quarter mile down the dirt road to get the blood flowing but the water was still very chilly when I jumped in. It was drizzling. There were a couple of people out in kayaks but otherwise the lake was devoid of other humans. We swam hard as long as we could to get warm but it wasn’t long before we slowed into breast stroke and started talking. The green of the hills around us seemed brighter this year, maybe because the summer was a cool one. The water felt silky against my arms and legs and sweet in my mouth, but the sky was an angry gray. It was windy and the current felt like it was slowing us down because the dock on the other side did not appear to be getting closer.

“It’s weird,” P. said as we swam, “it starts to look like you’re getting close and you get all excited and then it takes a long time to actually get there.” She’s right. It’s very tricky to tell how far you have to go when you’re in the water. The only way I can tell if I’m past the halfway mark is to look back and compare the scale of the cabins on the shore I just left to the ones I’m approaching. It’s impossible to have a sense of time passing. We were definitely getting there, but she was right. The dock didn’t seem to be getting bigger fast enough.

When we finally did reach it we were too cold to get out. We crouched on rocks to rest our muscles and shiver with only our heads above the water. As we sat there panting, the cold was like an enemy gaining on us as our heart rates slowed so we decided to get on with the second leg of our journey. The other side seemed even further away and as we got out deep I suddenly felt panicked about hypothermia. I thought I might be too tired to keep swimming hard enough to stay warm. But with P. there with her gorgeous smile and chatting about whatever, my anxious mind never had a chance to overtake me.

I concentrated the rest of the way on staying warm. Our bodies were spending energy just to keep the heat in our veins, so we swam hard in spurts, enough to keep from freezing without depleting our stores. As we neared our home dock we realized the girls, my kids, were not on the dock with our towels. The thought of getting out with nothing to wrap around us, having to wipe the water off with our hands, was unthinkable. But just as we got within striking distance, they emerged from behind the trees cheering us on. The air was bitter cold on my wet skin and I shivered convulsively as I toweled off and struggled to pull on pants,  and a polar fleece. I noticed my kids were in their pajamas which seemed incredible. To me the air was as cold as a winter’s day but it was only about 62 degrees out. We flitted down the road, high on endorphins, a middle aged and a much younger woman, both in wet clothes with their hair in towel turbans, and two young girls in pajamas. We must have looked a little weird to the one car that drove past us.

Even a long hot shower didn’t manage to eradicate the chill that had settled deep inside but we were exhilarated from the effort, the beauty and the excitement of our swim. “Let’s do it again tomorrow,” P. had grinned as we pulled up onto the dock, the lake dripping onto the aluminum, and I’d said yes.

The C word

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I took the kids to a science museum in New Hampshire yesterday and there was an exhibit on seeing inside the body. On one side of the small room was a display of X-rays you could hold up on a light box. Fractured ribs and femurs, and household objects that were harder to recognize.  Frances who is seven was interested in the large films and I explained that they were probably donated by a hospital, and that now most places use digital xrays.

On the other side of the room was a computer set up to explain the many types of imaging they currently use in cancer detection. MRI, CT scan, PET scan, mammography, ultrasound and colonoscopy were all explained with detailed pictures, videos and explanations of how each one works.

We looked at the colonoscopy page for a long time, Frances having remembered that I’d had one a few months ago and that a friend of ours has colon cancer. She asked a lot of questions and was fascinated that a tiny camera had shot the footage of the inside of someone’s you know what.

We also spent a few minutes looking up breast cancer and lymphoma because those are the cancers that her maternal grandmother and great grandmother died from. It gave her an opportunity to ask how my mother had found the lump in her breast and how big it was. We talked about different kinds of cancer and how some can be more easily detected than others.

“Kids get cancer too,” she stated, very matter of fact.

“Yup. They do,” I said hoping not to spend too much time on the subject. Frances frequently throws out the possibility of dying young, which I hate because my mother had the same habit. In an attempt to cap the conversation I said, “Some people live a long time and others don’t.”

“Yup,” she answered, mirroring my tone. “And that’s just the way it is.” I smiled at her.

I’m a big advocate of talking about death with kids, normalizing the subject as much as possible, and it was good to have a very easy exchange with Frances about cancer too. When I was growing up and my mother had cancer, it was still a very uncomfortable subject for people. I remember another mom who I didn’t know very well, whispering to me that her mother had cancer and was now in remission. The fact that she was whispering to me even though there was no one within earshot made me reluctant to ask what remission meant, but it didn’t stop me from dreaming that my mother’s illness would do the same thing, and that she’d still be around when I was old enough to be a mom too.

After my daughter was still born, people would often do that whispering thing. They’d come up close at a party, and in barely audible words tell me that they’d lost a baby once. In both cases the impulse seems to be in the name of keeping the subject quiet around the children, even though I was still a kid when the mom whispered to me about remission.

Cancer has touched my life many times over in my fifty years, but thankfully I know more people who have survived it than have died from it. And I know my chances of getting some form of it are pretty good. It feels more normal to me now. It’s something that happens, it’s not necessarily a death sentence like it once was, and it’s easier for people to talk about it.

A little girl I knew as a child had Leukemia and when she died my mother didn’t even tell me. I found out many years later, I guess when she thought I was old enough. But I wish she had been straightforward with me instead of telling me the girl was very ill when she’d already died. It would have been a good conversation to have. For both of us.

Rabbit Rabbit Rabbit

rabbitI used to say three rabbits on the first of the month, before saying anything else that day, if I could remember to do it. I was a superstitious kid and took every opportunity to make a wish or bestow good luck on myself.

I ran into a rabbit yesterday, just as I was entering our house in Vermont. All I saw at first was a an animal, bigger than a mouse but smaller than a raccoon, flash across the shed floor. I couldn’t see it in the dim light among the recycling bins and the rakes so I waited, unsure what it was. Someone’s cat? A fox?

A moment later this handsome rabbit hopped out from behind some old boxes and stared in my direction long enough for me to grab my phone before running off.

I took it as an obvious sign. I have run across many rabbits (literally crossing paths as I run) already this summer, so when this one was right at the front door, I knew it was for a reason.

I was born in the year of the rabbit and rabbit people are meant to be gentle and kind but also fearful. I immediately thought of fear, and timidity and wondered, have I been acting out of fear lately? Have I been too timid? Is this a signal to take a risk or play it safe?

For a real rabbit, I think of fear as a defensive mechanism. Maybe cautious is a better word for the instinct to flee, and maybe the human idea of fear isn’t something we can transfer to animals. I’m sure rabbits feel some kind of fear but whether it’s like human fear, I have no idea. But it made me consider how I use caution and fear as a way of avoiding discomfort, and as a stalling tactic.

The part of my life where I see the most fear is my career. I am not afraid of love or pain or even dying. But somehow I have always been very timid about my work life. Pursuing my career as an artist or writer or whatever has been a series of baby steps, and not a lot of risk taking.

When I was younger I felt ashamed that I wasn’t comfortable putting myself out there. I loved making stuff but I wasn’t any good at promoting it or sending it to people or even just being very assertive socially. I just wanted to make stuff without having to sell it to anyone.

I’m much more confident now and I do my best to get my books published and my art out into the world. I’m willing to work hard at it. But I have to admit, I have to push through a lot of resistance and discomfort to really go for it.

This week I’ve been seriously procrastinating from finishing a drawing of a bobcat from a photograph that I took. I read that bobcat’s main source of food is rabbits, and I saw this bobcat while I was running, back in Pasadena in June. Like rabbits, and maybe those of us born under rabbit’s sign, bobcats are good at hiding, but they’re also stealthy predators and ruthless killers. That cat was trying to tell me something too. Maybe, for me, it’s all about balancing the two. I can be as kind and gentle as a rabbit, but I ought to be more strategic and aggressive in my pursuits.

Rabbits don’t seem to like attention any more than bobcats or reclusive artist-types, but this rabbit didn’t seem that timid. He knew I was there, waiting for him to come out and he went for it, staring me down for a good long moment before taking off. The young bobcat I saw in June did the same thing. It was like they were saying, we don’t like being exposed any more than you do, but a little attention is okay, see?

I am almost finished with my book, so this is the time to step up and get my work seen and heard. Get the drawing finished. Keep working diligently on the book and start gearing up for the next phase of getting that big baby published. The rabbit and the bobcat are essentially reminders that staying safe is just one way to live. And it’s not really the best way. Not for me.

In Memorium

FrancesinPineForestOur home in Vermont is on a road called Cemetery Loop which makes me happy because I have always loved cemeteries. Even better, the reason for the name is a beautiful historic place with stones dating back to the earliest settlers of this region in the 1600s. My kids and I love wandering among the grave markers, reading the names and dates, imagining the lives of the people long gone whose granite stones still stand. Many are for young children. Some markers are nameless, like the one that reads, simply, “Mother,” instead of the mother’s name. I wonder if this woman was just known to all as “Mother” or if her role was considered by her family more important than her name. It’s fascinating to think about what life was like up in this rural area back then when just a few families forged a new community. I like to remind my kids that people had to walk great distances along these same roads to reach one another. People still walk of course, but for the first few generations of settlers, horses were a great luxury used mostly for farming and not personal transport, unless someone was too old or infirm to make the journey. People walked for miles in the worst weather to visit, to help, to aid and to work.

My other favorite “resting place” up here is the incredible pine forest of Bread and Puppet Theater. B and P is a small theatrical company based here in Glover Vt that has been operational since 1964. Celebrating fifty years this summer, B and P has had many performers, puppeteers and musicians pass away over the years. Each puppeteer or friend of the theater who has died has a small house or structure built in the woods that is decorated with things that relate to their loves and talents.

After their weekend shows, audience members often wander through the pine forest and usually there are a lot of kids running through it, laughing and playing among the memorials. It draws people in and encourages contemplation beneath the towering pines that make it feel almost as if you are in a giant fort. I wish I could post pictures of all of them because there are so many that are heart breakingly beautiful. All are simple, understated symbols of the pure love that Bread and Puppet Theater is built on.

I love graveyards for their historical value and for carving out places reserved for honoring the dead. But the Bread and Puppet pine forest and all the memorials that stand under those trees is in many ways a more practical way to pay tribute. All the materials used will eventually biodegrade and there are no bodies buried there. Just the markers stand, built of wood and scraps of metal, maintained lovingly but with the understanding that they will eventually rot along with the memories of the people that were part of something, long after it’s gone.

Inheritance

baby treeI have this nagging feeling all the time, that I have more to do. I can only get away from it in moments, when I meditate or run usually, and I guess when I’m accomplishing a task on the never ending TO DO list.

In college I had a boyfriend who didn’t understand the acute need I had to always be working. I had trouble lazing around on a Saturday morning or going out to a late lunch with him because I knew it was costing me work time. I had a lot of studying to do, but more than that I had a lot of art to make. He accused me of being a workaholic when I would grow uneasy during our long dates cooking dinner or watching a movie at his place. I was racked with anxiety about the time I was wasting.

That was a long time ago and I’ve learned to deal with my work anxiety but it has never gone away. I have never been one of those people that can sit around doing nothing. Even reading for more than an hour is hard for me. I am a big advocate of relaxing, but for me it is always a conscious act. I make time to sit in the woods or dangle my feet in the lake. My favorite way to relax here in Vermont is sitting on the porch at sunset, but I usually have paper and pencil with me and after a few minutes of sitting and listening and watching, I’m back to doing.

Most of my life I have not questioned the origins of this habit, especially as it was reflected in all my female role models. My mother rarely sat down unless she was reading a book and that was serious business for her. She loved to read but it was always a task, never just pure pleasure. She didn’t waste her time with trashy novels or mysteries or even magazines. She would decide on a difficult subject or an enormous biography and then plow through it.

My step-mother, who raised me from the time I was a teenager, was similar but different. She busied herself with the garden at the summer house or with the apartment and all of its lustrous plants in the city. She worked full-time and played tennis frequently so her leisure was limited. She would “rest” sometimes on weekends, which usually meant laying down in her room with a book and the door closed, but when she was up on her feet, she was busy. No doubt her mother and both my grandmothers were the same.

The energy of busy-ness in both of my mothers had a kinetic fury to do do do. The only time I saw either of them really relax was at parties, at the beach or, briefly, at dinner every night. And that’s just how I am. But only recently have I realized that anxiety, and in particular anxious workaholism, is a side effect of grief. Many people who’ve lost a parent or someone close in their youth have this habit of constantly doing.

Grief is such an interesting process that seems to unravel over decades. It’s amazing to me how much of my life has been colored by it. Not that my life would have been some perfectly balanced existence if Mom hadn’t died. And not that a lot of people, grief or no grief don’t suffer from anxiety. But I think the relationship between losing someone and feeling this pressure to accomplish as much as possible is fascinating. It’s like this subconscious effort to fix. Like if I manage to DO enough, to get everything done, to get it all finished, that somehow I’ll find peace. I’ll outrun the sadness that is always at the edge. God knows after almost 40 years living this way I’ve learned it’s not the way to go. Yes I accomplish a lot. But the best moments in my life are the ones when I remember to stop.

Homesick

GraceMotherhood is a fickle business. As someone who has always felt a strong connection to my own childhood, raising girls is a push – pull ride where I often feel I am being stretched in two directions at once. Emotions bubble to the surface easily as I empathize with my children’s feelings and needs, flashing back to my own experiences whenever challenges arise. On the one hand it makes me a compassionate parent who listens carefully and encourages them to tell me how they feel. I try to make things right for them when I can without shielding them from inevitable hurts. On the other, sometimes I get hurt, or let my own baggage about childhood color my reactions to things they’re going through, and I’m not sure that really helps them.

I took my older daughter Grace to camp two days ago and all sorts of feelings came up for me. She was nervous as we got ready to make the ninety minute drive to southern Vermont and she literally circled me as I tried to do some yoga in preparation for the drive, peppering me with questions about my own camp experience. Did I make friends the first day? Was I sad at bed time? Did I like my bunk mates? Did I have trouble sleeping? And on and on. I made reassuring comments as I tried to ignore my own anxieties about being away from her for so long.

When Grace was a baby, my best friend who was a few years ahead of me down the parenting road advised: “Parenthood is just one long letting go.” I am now somewhere between dropping her off for her first day of kindergarten and taking her to college in a few years. On her first full day of school I had stuffed down the urge to cry as I hugged her good-bye, which surely didn’t help her feel confident about being on her own. I could remember my mother leaving me at school for the first time; the pang of fear in my chest, and the smile on my teacher’s face as she tried to distract me by showing me where to put my things and what would happen next. Driving to camp Grace and I talked about her nervousness and decided there was nothing to fear. It was just the not knowing and never having been there aspect of camp that was scary. We didn’t discuss our common anxiety about being apart, and it was my job to put on a good face and tell her I knew it would be fine. I had learned to contain my own anxiety until I left her.

My husband likes to remind me how important it is not to let your kids be your entire life so that when they leave you don’t lose your sense of self worth. I’m so glad to be an artist because I have always needed to make things for my own mental health. I get very grumpy when I neglect my own work, so I make time for it. But I also know that the day I take her to college will be one of the hardest of my life. Taking her to camp, and kindergarten, are just warm ups for that day. First full day apart. First two weeks. First several months…

While she is at camp for two weeks, non-emergency phone calls are limited to Sundays and without internet or cellular service we won’t be checking in via social media or texting.  It felt strange driving away, knowing I wouldn’t talk to her for at least a week and I vowed to write her a letter the next day, which I did, and it felt really good. The woman at the post office said it would only take a day to get there and I imagined Grace opening my letter on Tuesday, having been away for two full days. By then she would be settling in and I hoped enjoying herself. My letter might pull at her emotions and make her miss me more than she would otherwise, but I also knew how much it would mean to her that I had written right away.

The interesting thing is that I’m sure it’s harder for me than it is for her. I miss her terribly, more than I imagined I would, and more than I have when she has gone away for a few days on a trip with friends. In those cases, I knew she was having fun and even if we didn’t text or call, I knew we could if we wanted to, which made a difference. Part of my missing her is wondering how she is. I have no way of knowing if she’s really having a good time or just putting on a good face. Are there girls there she can relate to? Is she feeling lonely or left out? It’s hard to stop mothering her just because she’s not with me.

Shortly after we arrived, late, having gotten lost, Grace went with the other campers to round up the horses from the fields and bring them back to the barn. Grace and I hugged briefly and I felt this welling up of emotion, a mix of regret and sadness and fear that probably matched her own feelings but then she walked off easily. I know she will be fine, just as she was in kindergarten and will be in college. I stood and spoke to the director for a while and felt very reassured that the culture of the camp will be a good fit for Grace. A lot of the camp is focused on taking care of the horses and riding which, in the words of the director, “demands a lot of kindness, respect and clear communication. The girls tend to treat each other with the same level of respect that the horses require.”

A lot of preparation had gone into getting there. We had to buy a lot of riding gear- boots, chaps, breeches, gloves, a vest and her own lead rope- and make sure she had enough warm clothes and various things like warm slippers, a good flash light, her own set of towels and two sets of twin sheets. She needed muck boots and a laundry bag. I spent weeks online in the spring getting all the gear, making sure it fit, sending it back and reordering until she had everything she needed. We had spent the day before she left washing clothes and marking each and every item she was bringing with her name in black sharpie. “My mother had to actually sew labels into all my clothing because they didn’t have sharpies back then,” I told her. “Come to think of it, my mom tried these iron on labels the first year I went and they all fell off in the wash. I told her she had to sew them in like all the other mothers had, and the next summer did.”

We drove in rain that came and went with the varying dark clouds overhead as we trundled down the interstate. I had clicked on a link on the camp’s website for directions and the page was up on my computer which Grace held on her lap. We listened to Justin Timberlake and sang every song together-It’s like you’re my mirror, my mirror staring back at me, keep your eyes on me…- for the fifty odd miles to our exit. I reached over and rubbed her arm, asking how she felt and she said she was still excited and getting more nervous. When we exited the interstate she read the directions off the computer which had us take several roads and routes for sixteen miles until we reached the last step and there was no camp. “Let me see that,” I said, pulling over to the side of the dirt road with farms on either side of us and took the computer onto my lap. “Shit.” The directions had us at a random location that shared one word of the name of her camp. “I should have double check these directions. What an idiot.”

It was 2 pm, the time we were supposed to be there, and the only thing we could do was drive the sixteen miles back to the interstate and hope that we would have cell service enough to get the address of the camp and use the map on my phone. It was sprinkling and Grace was calm. “It’s fine Mom. It doesn’t matter.”

Grace was very upbeat as we fumbled around on the roads trying to figure out our way, back tracking and turning around more than once. “It’s actually good we had to go through all this,” she said, “because I’m not nervous anymore. I just want to get there.”

When we finally arrived an hour and a half later, it was raining hard. Her roommate showed us their room and I offered to bring her things in while she went to an orientation meeting already in progress. I lugged the heavy bin full of all her stuff up the stairs and into her small shared room. As I stared at the bed and the empty chest of drawers that would be hers I considered unpacking for her and making her bed, since the other girls had already done that. But I realized she would be fine. She’s old enough to do it all by herself. Maybe her roommate would even help.

 

 

 

 

Held by Bricks

Saarinen ChapelI had the honor of attending a beautiful funeral this past weekend. It was not someone I knew well, in fact I’d only met him once, but he was married to someone I’ve known all my life and I wanted her to feel my support. Interestingly, I had planned to run a half marathon that day, but when I found out the date of the service I knew I wanted to be there. Not to get out of running the race which I had trained for, but because I’d had a feeling all along that I wouldn’t be running that day and now I knew why.

Life has been like that lately. I sort of feel what is going to happen before it does and I’ve learned to trust that intuition to guide me. It makes life easier, less stressful because I know that things usually work out, even when they don’t look like they will. It’s a sort of Zen approach, that when something seemingly bad happens, there is sometimes an unforeseen positive outcome. Missing the race will probably turn out to be a good thing, I thought. I knew I needed to go to the service.

When someone dies suddenly, accidentally, it’s virtually impossible to make sense of it. One never gets over that kind of a loss or thinks it was for the best. We are reminded that bad things happen. And if you’ve survived something traumatic, it is very hard to watch another person go through it. You know how hard it is and all you want is to reassure them that they will survive.

The service was in an exquisite, tiny mid-century modern building designed by Eero Saarinen. It was the perfect space for a small group of friends and family to show their love and support to my friend and her children. It felt as if we were all being held by the sturdy brick structure that looks like a little fortress, complete with its own picturesque moat.

I came away feeling very lucky to have been there. To witness the outpouring of support for my friend was very affirming. A good reminder that in terrible times people come together and support one another. There is no making sense of a tragedy, we can only learn to cope with it. Life rolls along smoothly until it doesn’t and we all must face something terrible. Not that long ago, people were far more accustomed to loved ones dying, suddenly and for no reason. There were far more accidents and untreatable disease. Most families lost several members before old age. But today, we are not comfortable with someone dying young. There is a lot of fear around death as it becomes more remote from our daily experience. No wonder horrible deaths are so abundant in books and movies.

My father, who is 90, told me last week that he is not afraid of dying. “Never have been,” he said. He attributes that to having had so many people in his life die. He lived through “the war” and no one in his large family made it to old age but him. But I think it’s easier to be brave about death when you no longer have children depending on you.

Over time, as we mature, we see that our deaths, like our lives, are not things we control. We have to surrender to the whims of nature and allow that we won’t all celebrate a 90th birthday. The value of a life, as evidenced by this particular person’s untimely passing, is surely not measured by it’s length. He died young, yes, and left behind young children which will be hard on them and their mother. But he lived an incredibly full life, and his death inspired me, and everyone in that beautiful little chapel I think, to be as voracious in our living as he was.

 

Oceanic

FrancesonthebeachWe went to the beach today, the girls and I, with their favorite cousin, my older sister and my Dad. It was gorgeous, not too hot or humid which it can be this time of year on Long Island, but the sand was burning as we trudged along carrying bags looking for enough space to lay out our towels and play paddle ball. Once we settled all three girls headed for the water, prancing in the shallow edge of the Atlantic.

It felt ice cold as I waded in to watch them and make sure the surf wasn’t too strong. “You get used to it!” my niece yelled and they all begged me to take them out past the breaking waves. The two older girls are both good swimmers, but Frances I would have to hold.

I suggested playing paddle ball to get warmed up and after we swung our arms for a while, barely managing to volley more than a few times, we were feeling sweaty. I coaxed Frances to wait with her aunt while I took the older girls out. They were both giddy as we pushed through the waves until we faced a wall of water and dove under to avoid getting slapped in the face by its foamy crest.

The water felt alive and velvety. Salt water has that smoothness to it. Both girls were nervous and excited to be out there handling the waves and I remembered exactly how they felt. I would go out with my father when I was their age, my mother too nervous to take us, and I remembered feeling desperate that I needed him, even though he didn’t do anything more than encourage me. I had to do the work of swimming out and diving through the waves, but I felt sure that if he left me I would be swallowed up or pulled out too deep to make it back. And he was nonchalant when he abandoned me to catch a wave. At least once the big wave he left me for caught me up and tumbled me hard, spitting me onto the sand, knees scraped from the force of it, my hair tangled with seaweed, eyes stinging and coughing saltwater as I stumbled out.

Visiting the family that made me with the family I’ve made is something like swimming in the ocean. It’s lovely as we bob in the swells, the watery environment both a comfort and a pleasure, but the big waves can come at any moment. A sibling might confront me with old stories and hurt feelings. My ninety year old father may lose his temper or become agitated over something as small as a door improperly closed. Feelings seem to swirl us around exercising their enormous power to pull us under, smothered in history and childhood illusions, unable to find our way back up.

And then it was Frances’ turn. I held her in my arms, staying where I could barely touch between waves, and lifted her over them so she could feel the excitement of being a part of that endless sea, it’s gentle lift full of whale like power. A big wave came and I told her, “We’re going under this time! I’ll hold you!” And she held her breath and came up blinking and wiping her eyes, a big smile. She was exhilarated in her terror, so eager to go in and happy when I said my arms were tired. As my feet stepped back firmly on the sand I could feel her small body tremble with relief. We sat on the hard sand together, legs extended and facing the waves with her body exactly on top of mine and the remnants of broken waves washing up under us, moving us a little as we sank inch by inch into the shifting earth.

Dad came toward us, leaning much of his weight onto my sister’s arm, and I got up to help. We held him steady against the crashing water until he reached the calm where he floated and swam happily for several minutes. His joy spread like a storm over us all, so glad to be there, with smiles billowing on our faces. He hadn’t been in for a couple of years and his enjoyment was as sweet as the grand kids’.  Then we helped him get out and I went back to my place holding Frances on my lap in the wet sand. We didn’t speak. We just sat for a long time, waves washing us, seagulls flying above, thousands of tiny shells jingling around us and felt how lucky we were to have each other, and to be at the ocean that day.

Scat Cat

Bobcat2I’m a little scattered and short on time this week as I prepare to move my family out of our house and across the country to our summer home in Vermont, so I decided to let this post be a mixture of little reflections I’ve had this week.

This will be our first time coming back to the house we purchased last year as summer residents and I am looking forward to a couple of months in the lush woods that surround us there. Such a contrast to the desert suburb where we live in California. Having much of the packing finished, I am starting to allow myself to get excited about being there. I can’t wait to take long walks in the woods with my binoculars, to swim in the icy lake, to take long runs alone on the dirt roads, to play in the grass with my kids, to get wet in the rain and watch fireworks explode over our heads.

It’s the summer solstice and even though I am busy packing boxes and suitcases, I am also appreciating this long day and opportunity to reflect on how I interact with nature. I like to show appreciation and gratitude for the earth on this day because it feels so potent. Like reaching the top of the mountain on my favorite run, the summer solstice is another apex in the cycle of light and dark, our rotation around the sun. It’s a good time for gratitude.

Gratitude was always a hard one for me, but after a while and a lot of practice I feel I am getting the hang of it and realizing just how boundless it is. I used to get a little skeptical when people talked about having gratitude. I assumed it was just something anyone can have anytime and I didn’t understand why people talked about practicing it until I tried it myself. At first I noticed a cold place in my chest whenever I tried to be thankful for things, even something as small as a leaf of sage. I realized I had a powerful sense of lack that sat in the way of feeling it. As I practiced the simple ritual of being grateful for small things, I noticed a shift that grew exponentially the more attention I paid to it. I also noticed how much my relationships improved. I am more patient. More forgiving. More fun and easy going. But it might be my relationship to nature that has changed the most. I notice more birds flying around me, animals showing up and saying hi and plants thriving in my care. I still kill plants once in a while, but I used to find it impossible to keep anything green alive for long.

On a run this week I ran into this bobcat. I was coming up on a little hill on a remote trail when I saw this head with pointy ears. I knew it was a cat but at first I thought it might just be someone’s house cat. When I got over the crest it was still there and I could see the pointy ears and the short tail. It was a cub, almost full grown. We both stopped and stared and I spoke to it softly, telling him (or her) how beautiful I thought he was. He jogged off nonchalantly but with the loping adolescent gate of a young carefree cat. He didn’t seem nervous, and it occurred to me that maybe he hadn’t seen many humans yet, or maybe none at all. When he got a little further away from me he stopped and turned to look at me again. That was when I pulled out my camera and said, thank you for letting me see you. You are a truly beautiful creature.

 

The Commodification of Sadness

tissue boxI went to see “The Fault in Our Stars” last night with my eleven year old daughter and her best friend. We’d all read the book and agreed that the movie is an excellent interpretation of the wonderful “young adult” novel by John Green.  It was the second time for my daughter Grace, who had already seen it with her father, and I was particularly interested to go after hearing them report that the audience’s reactions made as much of an impression on them as the movie.

Apparently when Grace went with Dave there was a group of teenage girls seated behind them who cried loudly throughout the film. They said one girl kept bawling all the way through the credits. Dave’s theory was that kids today don’t get many opportunities to feel powerful emotions because they live over-protected, over-mediated lives. My theory, upon hearing their account, was that perhaps the girl who couldn’t stop crying was studying to be an actress, or had a personal experience that made her especially sensitive. Grace’s theory was that the girls were competing to see who could cry the hardest.

“Get your tissues out!” The usher announced as we sat down and the movie was about to start. It was as if we were getting on a ride at an amusement park and he was warning us we might get wet. It was strange because everybody laughed when he said it. I often cry in movies, but I am accustomed to that show of emotion being private as I sit in the dark theater and I’m certainly not used to being warned about it. I felt almost violated by the assumption that we would all cry and it actually made me determined not to! (I would show him.)

There is no denying the movie is a tear jerker, but it’s also a great story about two teenagers who both have cancer. I liked it because it’s all about my favorite topics, love and death, and it handles them well. It’s not sappy and it lacks a triumphant Hollywood ending, which is always refreshing. I wanted to scream out at the usher and his warnings, “This is not just about feeling sad! It’s about living life!”

Of course I did cry and so did many of the young women around us. Grace and her friend did not. Maybe they’re just a little too young to have emotions around heart break yet, or maybe they were too embarrassed to cry in public or in front of each other. But they were fascinated by all the older girls crying around us and I was too. I thought Grace’s assessment was correct. It was a sort of emotional competition. In the hallway outside the theater a cluster of mothers and teenage daughters stood comparing notes.

“I cried the whole time!”

“I only cried at the end.”

“Marissa cried so hard she got my sleeve wet!”

They were laughing, still wiping their eyes and running to the bathroom to fix their makeup. It made me wonder if this is a trend. Does the popularity of The Fault in Our Stars mean we are in for a slew of sad stories spilling out from Hollywood? Is it a reflection of the collective fear we have around cancer, with an outlet (all the crying) attached?

In any case I’d say that’s good. It’s good for sad to be cool for a change. And it’s good to have open conversations about cancer and young people dying. We have so much shame in our culture about cancer, crying and death and maybe this means we are ready to change that. We are ready to cry in front of others and be proud. On the other I wonder if it is just a show. If those girls were trying to prove to each other that they are real or deep or something like that. I wonder if the movie makers are trying to prove they can deal with serious subjects and still make money. Either way, I’m all for it.