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Monday, July 27, 2015

Anchor

It is the last Sunday in July. I know this only from a phone call with my mother last night. It is Mountain Fair weekend in my home town, and the fair is held on the last full weekend in July.

Dates and alarms are anchors in my usual life. At home I am tethered by clocks -- next to my bed, on the microwave, on the computer, facing me each time I look at my phone. My schedule regulates me: rise, eat, listen, manage, shepherd, make, collapse. Again. There is little freedom in routine.

Confession: I need the boundaries of expectation. Without limits I waste time and use time and spend time, and when I am careless with hours and days my productivity "goes down" and in this day and age, this time, when value is measured and displayed in getting things done, I become worth less. Worthless.

I am unmoored here. We have clocks, but they are unreliable like the melted time pieces in Dali's paintings, mere constructs of an outside idea not germane to this place. We rise when we wake, sleep when we are tired. Lunch happens at 3 p.m., or 11 a.m. or is a bite of an apple taken in passing between events which expand or collapse based on who is interested in participating. We have Day and Night, but even those are fluid. In these northern climes dawn and dusk are elastic, stretching silver across the lake. I wake with birdsong. The dog barely raises his head in mockery of my wakefulness, so I roll over and go back to sleep. The clock means nothing.

I wonder at our fixation with time. We don't like to admit that it is a cultural construction. Travelling, I used to joke about being on local time, expecting people to be late for everything. I felt superior, with my promptness and exactitude. I hope I am wiser now.

Checking the calendar, we have three weeks more here. In a short while (what is short?) I will need to begin setting schedules again to ease us back into our normal lives. To anchor us again to the world outside.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Doubts

Every once in a while a word flies into my head, fluttering in desperate circles like a moth against a lighted pane. Most recently it was dudas — Spanish for doubts. I was hauling branches at the time. My husband had decided to trim the lowest branches on the maples that ring our “back yard” to let in some light. There are many maples. There were many, many branches. Over and over again I grasped three or four limbs and dragged them from the tennis court past the house across the road to the burn pile. The abundant leaves rasped against the drying mud. At first I fancied myself a peacock trailing fifteen feet of emerald glory, but after many trips it became nothing more than drudgery. Sweat salted my lips. I resented the dull exhausting task, piled as it was on top of all the others that have been ticked off the list since we got here. Dudas flew into my mind.

It is easy to construct an admirable self-image within the bubble of day-to-day existence. In a carefully regulated environment of one’s own choosing, being strong or beautiful or competent or smart is a habit of circumstance. Displacement throws all those carefully established tropes in disarray. I pride myself on being strong and competent, characteristics I claim to have inherited from some remarkable pioneer women. My surety crumbles here. It takes so much effort to open, clean, and maintain the property; before it is ready I usually find myself overwhelmed and in tears. It’s not the individual tasks so much as the endlessness of them. Chore after chore is added to list of work needing to be done. My enthusiasm wanes with each. My husband soldiers on, promising that tomorrow we’ll go to the lake, or for a bike ride, or play tennis. We just need to get a few things done. I am daunted by his drive. More accurately, I am shaken from my sense of self by my own reluctance. My weakness. A few hours of physical labor and all I want to do is sit down and read. A week and I become unbearably grumpy. The shiny links to my ancestors tarnish with shame.

This upsets me. Perhaps it shouldn’t. I don’t often get challenged at home, especially not with big, ongoing projects. I’ve made sure of that. I’ll help on a workday at the maternal family cabin, or volunteer for an afternoon at a school-related function. Events are bite-sized and perfectly manageable. I have created a cocoon and happily snuggle in to it. When there is physical labor to be done, my husband usually brings his work crew over and they take care of it in a bustle of manly energy. Here, he is occupied with work only he can do, and the children and I are expected to fill in the gaps to the best of our abilities. Honestly, nothing he asks is truly beyond me; if I refused a job he would reassure me and, if I still felt uncomfortable, he wouldn’t push. His confidence in my abilities is higher than my own. The dudas are mine.

A friend once asked why, if it is so difficult, do I keep coming back. My immediate answers focused on family time and the guests I adore and, mostly, because it means so much to my spouse. There’s more to it, though. Traveling is as much about self-discovery as it is about seeing new sights. Last Christmas our family went to Italy for three weeks. It was a grand adventure for us all, but wasn’t a huge challenge for me. I’ve traveled extensively, and Europe has all the amenities a middle-class American could want or need. I picked up enough Italian to get by (with the gracious assistance of locals, of course). The food was deliciously familiar, as were the museums and transportation systems. 

In the weeks before we left both my children fretted about how long the flights were, and not being able to communicate, and staying in hotels, and what they would eat, and would pickpockets leave us destitute on the side of a Roman boulevard. By the end of our journey, however, they were easily navigating the metro, and choosing which sites we’d visit, and chatting in broken Italian with service personnel. They had discovered that capacity in themselves, and carry in their hearts the knowledge that they are capable of traveling abroad. I am sure that confidence will serve them well

I come here because I do want to see my East Coast friends, and because it does make my husband happy, and because our time here binds our family more tightly. I also come here because it challenges me tremendously to step outside my little world. I fail, and I cry, and I am weaker than I like. But we eventually cross everything off the list, and I can look through our photos at the end of the summer and say “I helped with that.” And whatever doubts may spring up, I learn again exactly what I can do. And sometimes, it’s more than I ever imagined.

Grocery store

The wind is sighing through the trees, through my heart. I am alone in the dining room as everyone sleeps. The sun glows through promising clouds, but I cannot read the promise.

I am planning a trip to town for groceries and sundries. This is not simple - I must think of everything before I leave. 7 miles to the mainland, 25 miles to the store. My lists are detailed and compartmentalized by store name. Hardware, grocery, home goods, thrift.

These trips are joyful in their aloneness, and fraught with homesickness. I miss the checkout ladies - Donna and Mary especially - who have been helping me with groceries for longer than my children have been alive. I ache for the ease of a store just 10 minutes away. I long for stranger-smiles, which are not customary here. Instead my fellow shoppers glare at me with suspicion, and walk away from my assumed intimacy.

Out and back, just like at home but somehow totally different. I still am a stranger here, caught in a web of partial familiarity after 5 summers in 10 years. I know the roads and the stores, but I do not know the place.

In these summers I am a traveler, restless and rootless. This is not a bad thing. The experience makes me more flexible and adaptable. I certainly appreciate the luxury of my home, my life, far more when I return. My children are ineffably enlightened as well, and we all become closer. Most importantly, I get the chance to spend time with people I otherwise would never see. Still, these mornings when I go through my list a dozen times, I dream of home.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Metrics

We play games after breakfast here. Uno. Cribbage. Qwirkle. Waterworks. Dishes can wait. The work list is discussed (there is always work). With each card, each tile, a connection grows. We know each other better. It is subtle, but i learn to predict what they will play. The games get more difficult, more strategic.

Some days I beg off. I feel compelled to start my day, urged by habit and upbringing to complete chores early, as if a full sink at 10 a.m. says something awful about me. Other days I ache to be alone. The big homes and empty rooms of modern living suit me. I have a deep appreciation for doors, even though mine are usually open. The option of solitude is a grace not often acknowledged.

It will be sunny today, then the rain returns. Hurry, hurry to do more while we can. The weather is a capricious master, and it drives my husband mad. He cannot not work, therefore the children and I must as well. What fools we modern people are, always making lists for ourselves and condemning our imagined shortfalls and the end if the day. I hearken back two hundred years - even without artificial light there was so much more time. Progress is measured, I think, in strange metrics.

I will attempt laundry, despite the moisture that hangs heavy in the air. We will paint the house. These are Good Things. Perhaps I will steal time and waste it immersing myself in an enchanting tale of genies and golems and old New York City. An eyebrow will be raised my way if i am caught. I will apologize, but in my heart I know that my fanciful travels, the ones that change me from the inside out, those are the actions that give me meaning. That is my measure of a day well spent.

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.