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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Reclamation

The to-do list is growing shorter. The hedges are trimmed, roof leaks sealed, mower repaired. I unwrapped beds and aired linens while my husband rebuilt sections of rotted porch columns. Our children have been conscripted into yard work and cleaning, fetching rakes and brooms and hand tools when we holler for help. This kind of work is meditative. There’s a rhythm to sweeping and scrubbing and mopping that leaves me free to ponder our, my, relationship with this camp. It’s not a vacation. At least, not by my definition of the term. It is, however, a restoration. A reclamation. Together we are working to restore the camp from slow decay, and in doing so we reclaim our family, our friendships, and even my husband’s past.

The camp is called Dingley Dell. When it was established between the wars, the founders called the campers “The Adventurers”. My husband grew up on his father’s Peter Pan-esque stories of the boys who built giant sailing ships and roved pirate-style up and down Lake Champlain. Those glory days are long past. The assembly hall is filled with bird nests and pockets of blown-in leaves. Fractured remains of boats are beached in the woods. Each summer when we first arrive I have a tendency to make inappropriate jokes about arson and tell my husband we could pay the taxes if we rented the camp out as a location for a horror movie. He has different eyes, though. Here and at home he can look at a building and see its potential. Work doesn’t daunt him. He has the skill and the patience and the drive to make this place better. And he’s right. A week of work and it’s comfortable. A second week plus the artful placement of peonies — cut from the ghost of a garden — and the buildings become charming.

It’s not easy. At home, the children spend much of their summer playing electronic devices, sometimes with friends, often alone or next to each other on the couch — each in their own pixelated world. I am no different; I spend most of my days at my computer. I call it work but spend as much time chatting with friends as balancing checkbooks and paying bills. My husband works, hustling off after breakfast and returning just in time for supper. His evenings and weekends year-round are punctured by the need to accommodate customers who aren’t available during the day. While I aspire to be an engaged and inspirational parent, trips to the museum or  swimming pool often take more effort than I can muster. 

Here, electronics are forbidden until the end of the day for all of us. Instead we work, together. During a post-breakfast board game each day we go over what chores need to be done. We do take breaks for games and (when it’s warm enough) a trip to the lake to wash off the day, but so much needs to be done that we can’t just relax. The children gripe, but I smile to myself as I see them at their father’s side, taking in his lessons on carpentry, repairing slate roofs, how to properly construct a bonfire. They’re also absorbing our lessons on a strong work ethic and taking pride in a job well done. Their objections are slowly diminishing as they become accustomed to helping. They’re taking on more, too. At home I take care of all the housework. Here, each child is responsible for doing the dishes by hand after a meal. I no longer have to order them to help hang the laundry and bring it in when it is dry (or re-hang it indoors when the rain comes). They even have created a project for themselves, turning the loft into an indoor play space and sleeping fort. With some help from us they relocated drifts of abandoned furniture and pulled up layers of peeling linoleum to expose the wood floor that needs to be caulked and painted. They filled two giant bags with trash and detritus, swept the floor, and primed the walls. Together they chose a first paint color — fluorescent orange immediately vetoed by laughing parents — and settled for a gray green that won’t show dirt quite so well.

I have to admit: I am not good at this level of togetherness. In the usual course of events I spend several days a week by myself. I am adjusting, slowly, to the constancy of my family. Every activity is spent with at least one other person. It is difficult for me, but I can see how beneficial it is for us all. We are forced to express our needs out loud, rather than hiding in a different room until the moment passes. My daughter, queen of getting her own way, is starting to compromise and share. Our son, who excels at disappearing, is reluctantly participating. I am practicing being present rather than off in my own head or with my electronic circle of friends. My husband must take other peoples’ needs and abilities into consideration. We are growing closer. It’s subtle, but our family is gradually being reclaimed from the distractions available in the outside world.

Not that we’re entirely isolated. Our first guests came last weekend. He is a high-school classmate of my husband, nearly forgotten until a reunion five years ago. He and his wife are road-tripping up the East Coast thanks to their daughter’s summer camp plans. Their email, “Can we pop in?” was surprising, but by the end of their visit we’d exchanged email addresses and made tentative plans to visit them in the spring. Upcoming visitors will include college friends and some online pals I’ve never met in person. I count myself incredibly fortunate for this opportunity. Back home everyone is always so busy. Despite the relative flexibility of my schedule I have to schedule weeks in advance to have lunch with a friend. Without social media many of my relationships would completely wither. Even with that touchstone, I can feel how hollow many of those are. I do my best to share openly, honestly, frequently. I’ve been warned by at least one person that I say too much, too publicly. Most people give only glimpses of their lives, assuming that it is enough. How, though, can I call someone my friend if I have no idea what is really happening in their life? Here we have the opportunity to reclaim old acquaintances and forge new ones. So much can be said over — and after — a meal. We create connections without words while staring out at sailboats on the lake, and make friends of strangers over card games and croquet. I find the allure of the internet fading as I plan meals and prepare guest rooms and figure out what activities we will share.

My husband tells stories of roving the woods with friends and family, getting into, and out of, trouble. On our first visits here, when we had to place half a dozen buckets to catch the leaks and the ceilings were falling in and raccoons nested in our beds, I couldn’t understand why he wanted to come back. Now I have thousands of pictures of him working — raising sinking foundations and re-slating an entire roof and fixing, fixing, fixing. I have scrubbed floors and walls and ceilings and painted them as well. My pride-of-place is growing to match his. And with each sailing adventure or tennis match, with each cocktail hour and cheese plate, with every walk around the property and every tale told of the boys who built the place and the man and woman who have worked so hard to restore it, those peter Pan stories come closer to life. It isn’t easy, coming here. It’s not a vacation, but it is worth it.

Monday, June 1, 2015

L'Etranger

In two weeks a stranger will move into my house. This is the truth. In two weeks a friend I respect and trust will be living in my home. This is the same truth.
We met online and have known each other about two years. I believe we’ve become friends. At least, friendly enough that I asked him to house-sit while our family travels. DH is anxious. He doesn’t have two years of near-daily posts to reassure him. I, on the other hand, have seen this man's regrets and hopes. I’ve read stories of his family and his parents and his pets. We have not met in person, but I know him as well or better than many people with whom I spend time in real life. This is the strange thing about online friendships — the intimacy afforded by distance.

Still, I am nervous. Every time we displace ourselves I follow rituals of deep cleaning, but this time feels more urgent. My friend has never been inoculated to the quirks of my family. He’s never been over for supper or stopped by to chat. He’s coming in blind. And that makes me feel strangely naked and vulnerable. I scrub in preparation and wonder what stories my belongings will tell. What conclusions will be drawn from the spines on the his-n-hers bookcases -- my side full of young adult fantasy, gardening, and poetry, my husband’s a catalog of military history. The paintings on the walls and the sculptures in corners are bits of me on display. Who do they say I am?

I’m culling. I’ve gone through the linen closet and the bathroom cabinets. The children and I sorted through their rooms and captured five trash bags full of donations for the thrift store. Five years of old records are cleaned from my files. Ancient canned goods are pulled to the front to be eaten, and the freezer is nearly empty. The drifts of paper magnetted to the refrigerator have been curated to a few important pictures. I joke that I do this every time. I know better. I’m trying to make a good impression. This is silly, because — assuming my friend reads my posts in turn — he knows me as well as anyone.
This is all incidental. The intersection of our lives will be momentary. I will come home, and nothing will have changed. After months away, new books will be added to my shelf. I will see my art with fresh eyes. My friend will leave, hopefully to adventures of his own. We will stay in touch online, or maybe not. I will have met a friend. We will part, still strangers.

Sunflower

Winter darkness is difficult for me. The spanish word for sunflower is girasol -- literally: turn sun. I am a sunflower, turning to the light. Today the sun shone and I woke and smiled. The dogs took me for a walk. I took pictures and said good morning to neighbors as they sat on their porches facing the sun with steaming mugs of coffee. We came home. I have faced the sun. My mug steams. I am filled with light, and life is good.

Planting

We went to the plant store yesterday, my daughter and I. She pushed a flatbed cart and we collected random pots. She had been eager for days, pushing pushing pushing for us to go to the store. There was no time for me to plan my purchases. Usually I stare at the ground, considering the gaps, imagining late summer lushness. Gardens are tricky. In the first lust of spring it's easy to be fooled by the spare shoots surrounded by bare earth. There's a post-winter desire for abundance. But too much and the garden chokes itself, the final hurrah fizzling in a pool of green. Gardens are a constant lesson in both hope and humility.

I wasn't prepared. She was hot and tired after field day, and impatient with me. She is often impatient with me. I am more deliberate than she. I read instructions. I plan. I ponder. I consider possibilities and only then do I act. She is a hummingbird, chirping and changing directions so fast she leaves me dizzy. I admire her until I attempt to redirect her toward half-finished projects. Then we argue, and I catch her impatience, throwing away half-used things and growling that she needs to think her plans through.

We lost two roses this year, glorious giant bushes of pink flowers that marked my home as much as the yellow slide in front. My daughter chose stately white replacements, tea roses rather than floribunda. I like the titles. Tea. Floribunda. Grandiflora. Rugosa. They feel like a secret code which I pretend to understand. I chose Spanish Sunset, an nother tea, because I crave intensity in my garden. The contrast beween winter's white and brown, and summer's vivid oranges and purples satisfies some ancient seasonal part of me.

I will plant everything today. Agastache and thyme and hyssop. In the heat of the mid-summer sun my garden smells like a fertile candy store. I will miss much of it this year. I am planting hope.
It's a solitary ritual for me, digging in compost, knocking the pots, watering everything in. Alone, but not lonely as I think of my mother and helping in her garden. Then I will stand back and admire the thin spires and tiny carpets, islands in the dirt, imagining the glory to which I hope to return in August.

Field Day

Today is field day. Today I will stand on the sidelines, cheering my child in ways my mother never could. I always came home with meaningless participation ribbons. We shared our disinterest in those ribbons, my mother and I. Field day still holds no meaning for me.

There is less competition now. There are more team events, and silly ones where blindfolded students with squirt bottles hunt down their teachers with the vocal support of their peers. The very tall first grade teacher is just the wrong height, and walks away from the field with a soaked crotch. We bystanders are unseemly in our amusement. 

I wish adults in offices could have field days. Not horrific structured "team building" events dreaded by everyone but management, who pat themselves on the back for their innovativeness while the staff wishes they could be back in their cubicles poking at the internet and avoiding the busybody in the next hole. No. A real field day. A day every year when we could romp and attack each other with squirt bottles. A day when we could be surrounded by good natured cheering and have ridiculous competitions and there was no judgement. Days when the reward was pointless and we could be honest in our disinterest, focusing instead on our popsicles. 

When I am finally released by my sticky and triumphant child I will come home to sewing projects and email. And I may enjoy a popsicle.

Routine

Shuffling through the routine this morning. My daily dance, done to the music of "mom, have you seen . . . " I resent and love it in equal measures. My son walks into the kitchen and we hug before I hustle him to his breakfast while I make lunches for us all, love quietly packaged with their sandwiches.

He is nearly as tall as I am, now. Each successive mark on the doorframe is a countdown to his leaving. I carry goodbyes inside my ribcage. If I think of them, they flutter until I can't breathe. Instead I wake my daughter and grump at her for being slow.

I can't cherish this time, this moment, because doing so acknowledges that these moments are finite. That my routine will come to an end. I give each child a hug and a kiss and send them off with my love. That will never end. 

Today it is warm enough to go to the garden store and acquire pretties. Miss Awesome and I are going to plant them this afternoon. Before then? Phone calls and deskwork. It feels good to get things off my list.

Memorial Day

The sun shines. The sun shines through the skylight. The sun shines through my eyelids. The inside of my skull glows.

Thoughts of war fill my head as I wake. It is a day to remember but I am confused. I think of our million-year ancestors and wonder at the gifts they gave us in tiny genetic packages. Strong spines, forward looking eyes, and the urge to conquer through violence. We call them primitive, these early hominids, but the first story on my oh-so-advanced electronic device is about war. Who is more primitive - the club wielder who attacks his neighbor, or the business people who develop ever more sophisticated ways to kill larger numbers with less personal involvement?

I remember. I am reminded daily by the men on the street corners who are broken and asking for help, though the only true cure would be a time machine to take them back before they were scarred into helplessness. I remember the cold maps with their arrows. I know how to translate the advances into casualties. I remember those lessons. My heart sinks, knowing that memory isn't enough.

The sun shines. The inside of my skull glows. I am become a being of light. I shine. I open my eyes and it is bright. I am safe and warm. There is blue sky. I have my children with me, and today we will remember, and maybe, just maybe, their generation will learn the right lesson. Before that, there is bacon, and there are cinnamon rolls.