Tuesday, August 31, 2010

How I know it's time to go back to school

The image quality on my iphone is not great indoors, but here is Abigail, standing on her head while reading A Wind in the Door.

Clearly, it is time for me to send her off to third grade.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Nomads of New England

A year ago today we were settling our heads down on the deep pillows of a bed and breakfast in Dublin, too excited to sleep before our big trip to Nice. We had cut our ties to before, and were heading off to who knows what. We faced that future with our old eyes. Bill was not just glass- half-full about things, but glass overflowing, certain he would find adventure at every turn. I was on the lookout for danger, steeped in regret and caution and fear. Grace was pretty sure she would find treasure and beauty, while Abigail hoped for nothing more than a steady diet of candy and TV.

A year later, we're back in America, and still wandering, deeply changed by what we found. Now I have started to roll with the punches, and itch for new experiences almost as I crave the nest. Bill, having pitched all four of us up a big steep hill, is now slowly rolling back down towards the familiar. Our world has widened, but also contracted. We know that everything that really matters is here in the bonds among the four of us, in the family we create. This won't be true forever, certainly, but it's our new center of gravity. For now, who we are comes from right here, wherever we may be.

Grace did, in fact, find treasure and beauty, but along a windier path than any of us had expected. Abigail still loves her candy and TV, but also became the most patriotic child in America, with a serious Varoise accent and a hankering for the smell of thyme, the taste of duck, and massive squirts of Verviene eau de cologne.

And now, for the next three weeks or so, we are still on the road. We travel by Toyota rather than by Camel, finding new places to lay our grateful, weary heads every week or so. We're home-rich, rather than homeless, although none of these homes is ours. So far we have hit all of New England aside from Maine (I have an extremely rare allergy to our nation's 23rd state.)

We'll be back to some sort of routine in Brooklyn no later than the first of September. Until then, here are snapshots of some of our campgrounds (literal and figurative) and our fellow-travelers.

Friends since birth at Zealand Falls Hut in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

I forget the name for this rather adorable sort of relation: the children of first cousins. Second cousins, perhaps? At any rate, here are my cousin's kids, with one of mine, Little Lake Sunapee

Sisters at Little Lake Sunapee. (See, I really am taller. As long as I stand on a big rock.)

The whole gang, Zealand Falls Hut. This backpack and matching hiker-headband combination makes me cooler than I otherwise am.

City Cousin BFF's, Spring Lake. I love these children nearly as much as I love my own.

All in the family, at Rhoda's Pond. I have a second photo, where Finn's tongue is pointing the other way. Just as cute.

Finny-Foo, during a Menemsha sunset. He and Abigail were playing a pretty rough and tumble game of tag, but nobody fell in the bay.

Look very closely to see the sliver of a half of a moon, above the clouds.

I didn't realize, until I posted all these portraits of happiness, that every single one was taken on a gloriously sunny day, within spitting distance of still, or flowing, or deep salty water. Now that's some kind of summer.

So much for all the danger I worried so hard about. I still have plenty of cranky moods, but I'm not sure anymore why. For, as it turns out, there has been an oasis nearly everywhere we have needed one, each brimming with plenty of cool, clear water.

So were these safe harbors always here, waiting for us to find them?

How is it that we have only just learned how to look?

Friday, August 6, 2010

Memory, Menemsha

We're here all together for a week's beach vacation, celebrating my in-laws' fiftieth wedding anniversary -- Gus and Linda, with their kids and grandkids, in a rented house on the Vineyard. We've cooked big meals and eaten on the wide wooden deck overlooking Rhoda's Pond. We have canoed around the brackish lake, bought sunflowers and eggrolls at the farmer's market, and all gone swimming at various beaches. Today was the only rainy day of the week, for all of two hours maybe, so we headed into town to go window-shopping and buy bags of gumdrops and licorice. I watched Abigail ride the Carousel in Oak Bluffs. She looked so focused, studiously grabbed at the rings each time she passed; clearly, she's just as susceptible as I am to the habit of turning life into a project rather than a game. "I got one every time," she told me, proudly. "It was easy. I got a whole big stack."

Tonight we drove to Menemsha, a little fishing town that faces each night's sunset. We ate lobster and steamers and fish tacos together on the porch of a restaurant, surrounded by other big (presumably happy?) families on vacation in their Wellfleet t-shirts and summer tans. It wasn't simply hot, but so stickily warm that we were nearly sweating as we sat still, so the grownups drank Var rosé on ice and the kids downed cups of fresh lemonade.

I write this all down, with every detail fresh in my memory: the taste of the sweet clams in the butter, the rosy shade of the setting sun on our faces, the graying shingles of the houses, the weatherbeaten American flag down at the end of the pier. I write it all down, knowing that this too will pass. It's midsummer now, but on days like this I can't help but remember that it is so much later than I think.

My memory feels to me like it has been fraying a bit at its far edges, for reasons I can only pretend to understand. Whereas once I felt like I never lost anything -- a name, a place, an idea and its origins -- now I sometimes feel like the past is a soap bubble, popping just as I reach for it. I tell myself that the details are dissolving for some reason or another: like the dislocation of all this travel. Like the impossible fullness of a life's experience. Like I'm suddenly here at forty, my brain is old, and there is just too much to recall. Like the new warm swelling of my heart is somehow overcoming the old, cold sharpness of my mind.

We walked down to the end of the pier and looked over the fishing boats, across an uninhabited green spit of sand, and towards the setting sun. This little place was almost impossibly perfect -- not a Disney fake version of a fishing village, but the thing itself. It was messy in places and worn in others, yet still so beautiful it might have been composed by an artist. You could look through one window of a blue-grey shack, entirely hung with fishing lures, through to the window on the other side, and onwards toward the water beyond. At the end of the pier, some awful destroyed hunk of an old building was slowly rusting into the salt water. We ate soft ice-cream-cones by some big grey rocks, but they dripped faster than the kids could keep up. The hot wind blew their hair around and spattered drops of melting ice cream on their shirts and onto the dusty ground.

As I am writing all this, I want to burn it into my memory. It is three hours of one day among the hundreds we have shared together, the thousands over the years, the tens of thousands we can only hope to have if we're as steadfastly lucky and wise as Linda and Gus. Today we have each other in a way that feels perfect. It feels like forever, but as I have started to learn, the best of our days fly away against our will. The sun keeps setting. The kids grow up. We ourselves grow older, and the warm wash of our summer memories together will slosh and dilute and slowly fade away.

And that's only if things go well. Fifty years worth of sunsets is almost too much for anyone to hope for.

I have set up my computer so that every five minutes a new photograph shows up as the screensaver behind whatever I'm doing. There, behind my word processing or pointless internet search emerges one random shot from the over seven thousand images stored away on it. A blue sky and soft blonde grass from a hillside in France. Hayden and Zeke, eating hotdogs on Katie's porch four years ago. A sea of a hundred freezing people at Obama's inaguration. My Dad's seventieth birthday. Mom and Dad's anniversary. Field Day. Full Moon. Christmas morning. Each time a new shot appears, unbidden, I'm back in some other happy memory, some other place elsewhere. Each one is an instant memory, but arrives with the shock of the unfamiliar: How could I ever have forgotten that?

On our drive home, we wound slowly around the twisting North Road through Tisbury, back towards Lambert's Cove. We put on music that made us all happy, bouncing around to Hawaii 5-O and Vida la Viva and eventually Abigail's other favorite, the Black Eyed Peas. As we pulled into the driveway, last summer's inescapable hit was playing. We turned it way up and got out of the car to dance on the lawn under a crabapple tree. When Gus and Linda, Laura and Finn drove up, they danced with us, too, just for a few minutes. The loud song echoed out into the quiet woods. I got a feelin…that tonight's gonna be a good, good night…

That song has played in a whole lot of places, on a whole lot of nights, almost certainly too many, on the whole. But for tonight it was just ours, as we jumped around on the fallen fruit, all three generations dancing together.

We all went inside, and the kids got cleaned up and ready for bed. Abigail read Finn a story, while Grace sat on the sofa with us and giggled. She's been a shaky and tentative these past few days, in the way she sometimes can be, but tonight she was fully herself. Maybe it was the ice cream. Maybe it was the dancing. But we were glad to have her back in full form. We sat together and made plans for our next day, and then all drifted off to our corners of the house to read, or watch a movie, or fall asleep. I haven't been sleeping all that well these past few nights, but the storms and the wind had finally started to cool the house, and as the cold air came in from below and the warm air drifted out the window of our sleeping loft, I fell in. Deep.

Maybe it was an hour. Or two. Or only fifteen minutes, but suddenly I saw Grace standing there, right next to the bed. She was smiling at me, just on the edge of speech. I started to sit up, started to ask her what she needed, and just as the words started to form between us, she dissolved into thin air. A ghost. A trick of sleep. I knew then she was down in her little twin bed, not there in the loft next to mine, but her presence had felt so real. She was there, and just as quickly she was gone.

Like all those memories I never write down. Like all those summer nights. Like all the photographs I never thought to take. Like all of these moments and days and years.