Subtle Growth

bluefeather

I found this stunning turquoise feather on the trail this week and thought of my friend L. She had been very excited to find a lovely brown one of a similar size in my yard the day before. I snapped the above picture and put the feather in my pocket. When I got back to my car and texted the image to her she asked, “Did you pick it up?” “Heck yea!” I answered, which reminded me to pull it out of my pocket but it was already gone.

I wasn’t sad about losing the little gem. I had picked it up out of habit more than desire. I used to pick up feathers all the time, often thinking they were signs or gifts. Weightless indicators I was on the right path or doing something right. They probably were. But the little turquoise feather didn’t strike me that way at all. I saw it as a happy coincidence. Some pretty little bird dropped it and I happened to see it before it floated away.

I still pick up really special feathers. Just this summer I found a loon feather that thrilled me. Like eagle or hawk feathers, loon feathers are large and unusually patterned. They carry the majesty of the birds that shed them and I feel I’m bestowed some magic powers when one is laid across my path. But the sky is full of birds and the streets and roads are littered with their cast offs if you look carefully. I still get excited about a nice crow feather because of its deep black sheen and any feather with a pattern or bit of color is always nice to find. I use turkey feathers for smudging with sage and I have a few special feathers around the altar where I meditate, but I really don’t need any more feathers.

I’m guessing the little turquoise feather belonged to a parrot. Parrots don’t belong in southern California any more than I do, but like me they found their way here years ago and have chosen to stay. In my time I’ve learned that Los Angeles is not the promised land, but it is a damn good place to work on yourself. Today I had another incredible massage to help with the shoulder that is slowly, stubbornly coming out of its habitual lock up. As my friend worked on it, connecting the tight muscles to other tight muscles in my legs, hips, spine and jaw, I let myself imagine the tightness leaving. I’ve been going at it from all directions, using yoga, Pilates, my regular breathing meditation, something called TRE, and a lot of writing to help move it all through. And it’s happening. Slowly but surely, things are changing deep in my muscles and bones. Right now I’m still in it. In the change. In the work. In the process of letting it drop, like another feather from my wing.

 

True Grit

open mouth

Illustration by Oscar Romero

The older I get (now that I’m fifty I can say that) the more I realize I will probably never outrun or outgrow my “issues,” which is a very unsatisfactory word for personal problems that never seem to go away. What would a better word be? They’re not my demons or personality traits, although they are related to those. I’m talking about the gristle that all my struggles seem to boil down to. The tough tendon that I just can’t chew through and ends up on the side of the plate, staring back up at me, ugly and colorless.

One might think that after decades of working on them I would have made progress, beat them somehow or at least figured them out. I actually have made a lot of progress but sometimes, when a button gets pushed or something happens to highlight the fact that I’m still wrestling with the same ol’ sh*t, that’s hard to remember. It’s like being surprised by my period. By now I should know better and expect that certain people or situations trip me up, but no. My issues creep up like some cartoon spy in a black cape, strangers I don’t want to know but who I have actually known since the dark days of adolescence. Actually, if I’m really honest with myself, which is my latest endeavor, then I would say I actually do feel more affectionately toward my problems. (Problems? That makes them sound like defects.)

Maybe if I name it I’ll have an easier time labeling it. So my biggest, most life-long die-hard issue is my need to speak up and be heard. Doesn’t sound that big, I know, but it can be. When I was a kid, I had trouble breaking into the conversation at the dinner table. I was the youngest and I would often raise my hand when no one seemed able to hear my verbal attempts to be noticed. Someone, usually Mom, would say, “Yes Annie?” and all eyes would fall on me and the important point I wanted to make would vanish like so much steam off my plate. My lower lip would tremble from the pressure of their stares, which had the unfortunate effect of making my siblings giggle and my parents try to stifle their own amusement. It’s hard not to laugh at your kids sometimes but when it was happening to me it made me furious! “I feel like a monkey!!” I yelled out of frustration on one occasion and boy, I never lived that one down.

So it’s always been there, this frustration around communication and speaking up. I guess it’s something I was born with. It certainly hasn’t stopped me from making an effort to express myself and in fact I would say it has been the motivating force behind most of my work. It has hampered me as much as it has been the guiding force, which is pretty cool when I think about it.

Once, a long time ago, I stood in the rain in some woods hugging a tree and complaining that I hated my issues and wanted to trade them for something else. When I wiped my tears and looked up there was a deer staring at me from a few feet away. The gorgeous doe looked at me and I stared back at her for what seemed like a long time. Everything changed in that moment because that deer pulled me out of the hole I was in.

Ever since then I’ve made an effort to make friends with my issues, whatever I perceive them to be. Sometimes it’s that I’m too uptight. Sometimes I think it’s an inferiority complex. Sometimes it’s that I have trouble telling the truth. But today, and most days, I’m convinced it’s this problem of feeling I need to speak up.

So whenever there is some kind of energetic shift, an increase in my self-awareness that makes me feel as if something in me has changed, this issue of speaking up usually lightens. I notice that I’m telling people what I really think and being listened to. It’s a great feeling to know I’m making progress and makes me feel that my life is not some meaningless moment in the grand scheme of things. If I’m changing that means we can all change, and that gives me hope.

Letter-Shoulder-Wings

We went to see an art exhibit in Tokyo that I didn’t actually like but it did get me going on a fast train to healing something that was long overdue.

In the show, the artist had constructed three small free standing rooms, each maybe six or seven feet square with three walls so that one side was completely open. They were elevated slightly so you had to step up to get inside and there was only room for one person. In each room the artist had provided a place to write, paper, pencil and envelopes. On the wall, next to the video of the artist talking about the piece and telling you what he thought it was about instead of letting you figure it out for yourself, there was a set of instructions, written out on a big board. It was long but the gist was we were supposed to enter one of his rooms and write a letter of apology or forgiveness to someone we love. As I read, the person to whom I owe an apology popped up, clear as a bell without even a moment of thinking about it or going through a list of names. There was just one name. One face.

I thought for a moment about doing it and I peered into the little space that was nearest to me but it was occupied. I wondered how long these letters usually took. The walls of each structure were lined, on the inside, with neat little transparent pockets in which you were meant to leave your letter for anyone to read. I liked the immediacy of getting something off my chest right there and of people, strangers, reading it. I glanced back at the instructions, which I hadn’t finished, and it said that if we had the person’s address, we should include it. The museum would mail all the letters at the end of the show. Immediately I knew I was not going to do the stupid project. Of course I had the address but I was not going to let them send my letter of apology when I wasn’t even sure my person deserved it. Not yet at least.

I woke up on the morning of our departure from Japan with a very stiff left shoulder. I could move it but not without pain, and the flight home only made it worse. The next day I went to see an old friend who is a wonderful massage therapist and told her what was going on.

“This shoulder has been giving me trouble for years,” I said, resigned. “I think it’s trying to get me to let something go.” I was thinking of that letter I was supposed to write. As she worked the muscles, I mean the knots between my shoulder blades, the word resentment came into my mind as I thought about the intended recipient of my letter and how long I’ve judged her for being resentful of me.

“What can you tell me about resentment?” I asked my friend as she worked.

“One of the first things they taught me in massage school was that it gets trapped right here,” she said poking the spot she’d been working on. I guess I’ve got resentment of my own then, I thought.

“Of course the remedy is forgiveness,” she piped which I knew and as I meditated on that and she kneaded my flesh I saw the big black wings that flew back to Malificent in the movie by that name, attaching themselves to her back in the same spot that was full of pain for me. I remembered how moved I was in the scenes when her beautiful wings are cut off and when they found her again.

Over the next couple of days I kept seeing wings everywhere. A friend who’s on tour was posting images of herself wearing a set of big white wings during her shows. Then my sister sent me a picture of someone with a big bird tattooed on her back, the wings outstretched from the center. The next day I was waiting in line behind another woman with wings tattooed on her back, right between the shoulder blades. The same day there was a Native American man giving a presentation who asked if anyone wanted to take a picture with him. I ran up and he spread the huge feathered wings he was wearing around me. I had to laugh at how hard I was being pushed to see.

The connection was made and I started to write. I began with a list of all the things I appreciate about this person and a list of all the things I don’t. I wrote her more than one letter in which I ranted, apologized, resurrected the old stories and described every wrong she ever inflicted on me. I worked on forgiveness and revisited the list I’d written. All the things I like about her are true, and all the things I could do without are really just criticisms I have of myself. In all my relationships, I know that when someone makes me mad or gets on my nerves, it’s really just an opportunity for me to look at my own issues. I know how pointless it is to get mad or hold grudges against people, but it was still hard to admit I’ve been holding on to old grudges I’ve been telling myself were past. My job now is honesty, the deep kind, with myself. My job is to work at forgiveness, until I have truly arrived. This week I managed to forgive her, but none of this is about her anymore. The person I really need to forgive is me.

Not one of the letters I wrote needs to be sent. But what I could do, and I just might, is write her to say thank you.

 

 

 

 

Fat Gold Watch

waterreflect

A combination of jet lag and catching up on life has kept me from writing here this week so I thought, instead of doing nothing I would post a favorite poem. I am reading Sylvia Plath’s Journals right now and they are astounding. They begin in 1950, just before she starts college and end several months before her death, thirteen years later. I find her writing to be exquisite and her journals are even better. In them she is truly free, not trying to impress or please, only making a window into her life for her own refection. She perfectly captures her experience of being a brilliant and talented young woman in the 1950s and her torment as such. I have always loved her writing but the journals are giving me a chance to appreciate her anew.
‘Morning Song’ by Sylvia Plath

Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.

Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.

All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.

One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square

Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.

Tokyo Love

GoldenPavillion2

It’s hard to believe we are almost through our time here. It feels as though each day we are still just arriving, getting over our jet lag, lazily making our way through the streets to be greeted by the onslaught of beauty, order, cleanliness and calm that is Tokyo. I have never been in a city this packed with people that appears to remain so peaceful. There is a relaxed tone to everything, from the well trimmed shrubs and vibrant trees neatly encased in cement squares to the cashier who hands me my change and receipt with two hands, a smile and a bow. The rushing and stress that I associate with life on the streets of a large metropolis seems to be absent. Yes, at rush hour, one feels a definite press of commuters, but even then, most people are moving at a reasonable pace and the frenetic energy I associate with big cities and the resulting rudeness and gruffness is not to be found.

Yesterday we took a tour of Kyoto and hired a car and driver for the job. Mr. Araki, who had lived in San Diego for ten months, was a delightful wellspring of suggestions and animated discussion. “Japan people are rigid, not like Americans. Americans are so frexible!” I’m sure American flexibility is something I ought to appreciate more, but so far, Tokyo has given me a snug feeling of order that fits very well with my temperament.

Araki was right about Japanese rigidity, which may sometimes beget tension, like I saw in the face of a restaurant manager when a photographer, eager to get a picture, mistakenly stepped on some moss in the immense rock garden that ran along the outside of the dining room where we were eating. The manager seemed unable to get over the offense, even after the photographer apologized profusely, bowing a dozen times in deference, and the manager continually bent down over the trod upon spot to lovingly sooth the moss several times as we looked on, slurping up seafood entrails and strange fungi.

The devotion to order and cleanliness is impressive in action. I love the warm wet towels given before meals and the people who stand, often white gloved, at the entrance to a subway platform, a restroom, a department store or any number of places whose sole job seems to be to tell you where to go. They are like traffic cops for people, making sure to keep us flowing in the right direction. Since our arrival I’ve seen men feverishly scrubbing a bench on the subway platform, a woman removing fingerprints from the glass cases in a museum minutes after they were made, and a bathroom attendant, dressed like a french maid keeping the stalls pristine and the sinks furnished with warm towels.

Today was the Autumn Equinox which is a national holiday in Japan. The culture demands a reverence to nature that I wholly approve of and has its roots in the prevailing religion, Shintoism, which is often combined with Buddhism, and is largely based on honoring and praising Mother Nature above all. In Kyoto we visited a few temples and shrines and watched people perform various purification rituals – washing hands and mouths with water, and smudging with incense – in order to enter the places of worship. Like many Eastern religious practices, the rituals are practical measures taken to achieve a certain outcome with different statues and shrines devoted to specific goals like love, money, success or good health. But built into these themes is always the overarching idea of praising nature, the elements or sometimes certain animals in order to live well.

Above all, the thing the Japanese seem to to have mastered is the idea of balance. It takes precedence in everything, from the beautiful gardens to the striking architecture and design, to the way people dress and arrange flowers, to the precious boxes of colorful food arranged just so. We are staying in a very fancy area where the sight of an ill-conceived outfit is rare. The people on the street are not just dressed expensively, as they are on Madison Avenue or Beverly Hills, they manage to have individual style. But it’s not just a matter of being fashionable, though most people are, it is the balance and restraint and just plain good taste in almost everything that has impressed me the most.

Balance is enormously important in how the gardens and plants are tended to. When we visited the Golden Pavillion in Kyoto it was almost ridiculous how perfectly picturesque each view of it was. The greenery surrounding the structure, the pond and trees and mountains behind it, are all designed to frame it like a picture. You couldn’t take a bad photo of it if you tried. Here, nature is not wild and unpredictable as we thought. It is an expression, beautifully balanced and tended to with the utmost care and devotion.

Nothing is perfect and I’m sure there are steep prices paid for all the perfectly harmonious beauty I’ve perceived on this visit. But I will go home in a few days inspired to live my life, tend my garden and get dressed every morning with reverence for the Gods who rule the natural world, and I will strive for the balance and calm that I have witnessed here.

The Anxious Traveler

wormtracks

“I want to live each day for itself like a string of colored beads, and not kill the present by cutting it up in cruel little snippets to fit some desperate architectural draft for a Taj Mahal in the future.”

-Sylvia Plath, from The Journals of Sylvia Plath

I love this line because it captures perfectly the trap I often fall into. I can worry with the best of them, to the point of making myself sick, and if I don’t keep the anxiety in check, the disease can spread. It’s a common affliction among depressives and this story illustrates the problem well.

I’ve talked about this before, but travel always makes me anxious. I’m excited to plan adventures, and I love getting there, but the lead up is always a major challenge for me.

This past weekend was devoted to getting ready for a trip to Tokyo with the girls, to meet Dave for his first show there, a trip we’ve all been excited about for months.

In an effort to keep myself focused I made long to do lists, which were supposed to help me avoid spinning out. But as I obsessively checked off each completed task I was adding more items to the bottom. I packed our bags early so we could spend the day before departure at the park, relaxing with friends in the shade at a birthday party, and avoiding the anxiety.

I don’t have any trouble repressing my stress and ignoring the lists as long as I’m away from them, and the house with its incessant piles of dishes, bills and laundry. But when we got home after the party, the girls and I, the anxiety resumed full force. My sense of humor and ease vanished as I glanced at the clock and counted the hours I had left. My kids are used to the way I am before a trip and were good about taking care of themselves as I ran next door to use my neighbor’s fax machine and struggled to check us in online. I reserved a taxi for the airport and gave the wrong departure time. I called back to fix it and got it wrong again. It took three calls for me to get the taxi reserved for the right time; an obvious indication I was losing my cool.

Our flight wasn’t leaving until the afternoon but I was determined to have everything done before I went to bed the night before. Bags packed except for toothbrushes. Travel documents printed and stapled. Bills paid. Notes to cat sitters written.

Still spinning like a top after the kids were in bed, I decided they needed little journals to write in for the trip. I grabbed paper, folded it in half and stared at the crease, trying to figure out how to bind it. It was midnight as I struggled, kneeling on the floor of the closet with a knitting needle, poking through the stack of paper and binding it with yarn.

In the morning, my twelve year old told me tearfully that she didn’t feel well. She was shivering under her blanket and turned out to have a fever. She was in tears, afraid the trip would have to be cancelled and I too had a moment where I thought the same thing.

Luckily everything was done and I could devote the morning to her. This is the upside of being fanatically organized. I called the on-call nurse associated with our health plan (which could be another post entirely-a saga right out of Blade Runner) and called my husband in Tokyo. We decided not to change our plans and just see what happened. If she was really sick and they wouldn’t let us fly, perhaps they would let us postpone the flight.

Then I did what I’d been planning to do all along which was to breathe. I didn’t blame myself entirely, but I felt there was a correlation between my stress and my daughter’s illness. Like me, she is sensitive and vulnerable, anxious in her own ways, and I knew that if I calmed down it would help her. “Breathe” was the final line on my to do list.

As soon as I lay down to do my breathing meditation I started to release all the struggle. I focused on the earth beneath me. As I began some sadness came out and the next thing I knew I was shaking out all the anxiety and stress, into the floor. I felt the carpet, the cement and the dirt under me like arms gently wrapped around me and I thanked the earth for absorbing my toxic energy. As I deepened into the gratitude I felt for the earth an enormous wave of energy pulsed up through me, like a burst of manna, and I let it rise up into my body and shake me loose, like rocks in a gravel pit. After a whole lot of shaking the energy calmed down and I breathed normally, lay still and listened. Jays were calling outside and the oak leaves were trembling, sharp and brittle in the dry wind.

My meditation practice never fails me. I got up feeling full of love and completely relaxed. I touched the four stones I have situated on our property to give thanks and praise to the elements and to ask for protection on our trip. As I touched the south-facing stone, I heard a scuffle of wings nearby and saw a beautiful band-tailed pigeon a few feet away. (This is a west-coast bird, similar to the rock pigeon that populates every city and town world wide, but different.) It was staring at me and I thought of the dove as a messenger of peace. I thanked him or her for the message and continued my rounds of the property. At the north stone, eyes closed, I felt the near silent cutting of air near my head and turned to see a crow had almost clipped me. A gaggle of them landed on the wires above me, raising their wings and griping at each other.

The earth with all of its expression in the plants and animals offers an instant renewal of faith that I’m safe, that life is good, that the earth that has always supported me will continue to do so as long as I appreciate, honor, and respect her. She responds quickly and forcefully to admiration and gratitude, awe and praise.

I like the word “praise,” and I use it as in “Praise God,” but I praise the earth-God. She is the most benevolent of them all. In Greek mythology the heroes must make offerings and give praise to appease their Gods, who are vain and angry most of the time. Earth is much more benevolent than Zeus or Poseidon ever were. She recycles my sadness (the root of my anxiety), letting me cry into the arms of a tree or on my meditation floor and always returning it with a sense of peace and wonder and love. Never ending love.

We are over the Pacific now and Grace sits beside me, peacefully watching a movie, her fever gone, her sense of excitement for this trip reborn.

The Upside of Doubt

green pool

I am absolutely depleted today, having handed in my manuscript late last night, getting four hours of sleep and still managing the business of being a mother today. I even managed to run a couple of miles and take a nice photo on the trail before crashing.

There is nothing like a deadline to get my ass in gear. I had promised this latest rewrite to my editor in May, then June, July, you get the idea. I would still be promising it to her “soon” if she hadn’t been forced to give me a deadline due to her work schedule. I had one week to get through the last 50 odd pages.

I knew I could do it. I didn’t know how well I could do it in that time frame, but I knew I could get it done and I did. For that I deserve a big high five along with a sizable slice of chocolate cake, because finishing is a big deal. And yes I managed to indulge in my share of celebration. It’s much easier to get caught up in the voices that say its a worthless project that’s not going to go anywhere than it is to actually finish. The self-doubt lets me put off finishing, especially when I get bored with the project and there is no agent or a publisher breathing down my neck. I have an editor for hire who doesn’t really care when I finish, until she does. The Gods must have noticed I needed a push.

Doubt, it turns out is also a great motivator. No matter how hard the voices work to convince me my work is pointless, or of such poor quality I ought to be embarrassed, I can still side with the other part of me, that calm pool at the center that has the will to prove countless thorny voices wrong. It’s doubt that pushes me. I’m never really satisfied as I work because at my core I know I’m a mediocre writer at best. Someone (Who are you? Would you like to buy my book?) may disagree, and like anything else, writing ability is relative. Compared to many writers, folks who have published lots of books, have popular blogs and may make a fine living at it but whose writing I abhor, I feel pretty good. I can turn out decent sentences and dream up images just as well as the next guy. But I more often compare myself to the greatest writers in the world. The masters, Pulitzer Prize winners and the wunderkinds. Compared to Dickens or Shakespeare, Munro or Tartt, I suck noodles.

I came late to writing, which is my fall back excuse. I wasn’t an English major in college, and I never did very well in literature or writing classes. When I was a freshman, my English 101 teacher told me I needed a tutor, which I got and even the tutor gave up on me. Apparently I was a hopeless case, which kept me from writing for a long time.

My college professor had a different opinion, but the beauty of writing is that with practice, any schmuck can improve. A child can string words together, just as they can draw a line. It’s not like singing, where you either have the instrument or you don’t. Or ballet where that instrument’s peak is steep and narrow. Writers only get better with age. Some may do their “best work” at a young age, but most writers, it seems to me, keep going.

I too intend to keep it up. I love writing. I love the craft of it, how you can work a sentence one way and then another, sculpting it, getting a different shape and feeling out of it with every change. And I love fighting the good fight with self-doubt, and all the issues, all the demons it forces me to confront.

Janus

janusWe’ve been reading a wonderful book called Classic Myths to Read Aloud by William F. Russel (Three Rivers Press) and learning all about greek and roman gods and goddesses. Having never taken an interest in the classics during my days as a uninspired high school student I was unfamiliar with Janus, the god of beginnings and endings, or as we might say these days, “transitions.”

Today is September 1 and it also happens to be Labor Day, both of which signify the end of summer and the beginning of the school year. There was a period when the school calendar didn’t impact my life and I was just a worker bee who got two weeks of vacation a year if I was lucky, but that was a brief interlude. For the majority of my fifty years I have either been in school, or worked at school, or had kids to bring to school, so this month is always a time of switching gears for me.

I learned that January, my birth month, is named for Janus because it marks the beginning/ending of the calendar year. In the Aeneid, Virgil’s epic poem meant to rival Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, I learned that Aeneas, the story’s hero, prays to Janus as he leaves Troy with his family and a group of followers to escape death while their city is being destroyed by the Greeks. As they fled in fear, Aeneas’ prayer was meant as a reminder that though they were leaving their home and life as they knew it behind, they were also embarking on a new adventure.

We are all excited around here for the first day of school tomorrow, but I for one am mourning the conclusion of one the most glorious summers I can remember. Our time in Vermont this year was augmented by new friends, a deeper connection to the community and warming up to our responsibilities as Vermont landowners. We had great weather and good times and the kids both grew tremendously in the best sense of the word. I think they are finally appreciating how lucky we are to get to know two such contrasting places as Southern California and Northern Vermont.

I was interested to find out that Janus is also said to be the god of doors and portals, which are symbols I’ve used heavily in my book to signify the effort it takes to communicate when family members erect emotional walls around themselves in the face of disease and death. Annie, the main character, is constantly opening and closing doors, standing in doorways, listening with her ears pressed up against them and wrestling to open the ones that are stuck shut.

I am finishing the final version of the manuscript this week. It has been five years in the works and I am finally in the home stretch. I’ve thought I was there many times before, but this time I’m convinced. Ha! It’s not easy writing a book but finishing is even harder. There is this terrible pull that doesn’t want me to release it from the place of draft into the realm of complete. It’s an awful moment in many ways, uncomfortable and awkward as I fight against my demons and the powerful inertia that would have me keep the book in it’s infant stage. Today, as I struggled to describe an idea not fully formed it occurred to me that writing a book is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s like being trapped in a bad marriage with myself.

As I work to finally complete this project I’m going to say a few prayers to Janus. I’ll let him remind me that it’s time to stop nursing the baby protectively and past due for the adventure of putting this book out into the world and let it forage on its own.

 

When Stars Align

reading

When we first talked about having a party on the last weekend of our summer in Vermont, it seemed like bad timing. Parties take a lot of energy and I knew I would want to focus on packing up the house and organizing. But it was the only weekend that worked and as it approached people kept asking if they could come visit and before we knew what was happening we had a dozen people staying with us. Then more people showed up unexpectedly and we kept inviting even more and the simple potluck we’d planned was turning out to be a bash.

I did the shopping ahead so all we had to do the day of the party was get the house ready and set up all the food. There was a lot to do but thanks to the many guests staying at the house, it all got done in a few hours. The kids grabbed rakes and got to work on the freshly mowed back yard and when it looked beautiful they lay down on the grass and listened to Paula read from a book of classic myths. We were finished with all the preparations well before party time so a big group of us went down to the lake to swim. The sun was shining and the water was gorgeous and clear. I swam out deep with a few others and said a little prayer to the weather gods not to let it rain on our party since there would never be enough room inside for the throngs we were expecting.

After we got home and everyone showered and dressed, a formidable buzz, our collective anticipation of the party, was building. We’d all worked hard cleaning up the house, lining trash barrels, making runs to the store for ice, forming dozens of hamburger patties with our hands and arranging tables and chairs. Because it was a group effort, there was no stress, and everyone felt invested so that we practically cheered when the first guests, Sofia and Dante, rode up on their bikes. In minutes people started pouring in carrying salads and side dishes, drinks and desserts and before long the tables were full of food, Eric was busy manning the grill and there was no room to walk in the kitchen. Vermonters take their potlucks seriously and the kitchen counters were bursting with freshly picked salads, homemade pickles, and sumptuous pies. Someone brought a huge bowl of blackberries, along with a mountain of whipped cream and broken up bits of chocolate to pour on top.

I was sitting outside talking with a pair of new friends, a wonderful cook and and her boyfriend, when a few members of the Bread and Puppet band started playing their horns. It was a soft melodic tune, not one of their usual raucous songs, and the music colored the early warm stages of twilight with cool colors. It was my favorite moment of the party as it was just getting under way, the jittery fear of “What-if-no-one-comes” long past, but the party still feeling like it was brimming with potential that kept me higher than the hard cider I was drinking.

There was no lull. Every time I turned around there was someone else standing there I wanted to talk to. Kids were running in circles around the yard playing “zombie tag” when my friend Pete tugged at me to witness Frances, my eight year old, on the porch having a serious conversation with Nick, a muck boots and overalls sixty-something with an Abe Lincoln beard.

Pete lit a bonfire just as it was getting dark and the band, now playing more energetically, moved up to the fire.

Much later, after many great conversations and many plates of food, and after giving more than a few guided tours through Dave’s studio, I was back in the kitchen and people were leaving. I don’t think anyone left without expressing thanks and saying “great party!” I never once felt like we’d done anything special except invite a lot of wonderful people we happen to know in this little corner of Vermont.

 

Summers Away

PP

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.