Monday, August 30, 2010

Keep a hand open

At school, we always begin our new year meetings (the faculty and staff) with time going around the circle for each person to say something about her summer. It used to be that this was free-form -- just a chance to share and catch up with your colleagues.

I forgot, as I was thinking the evening beforehand about what I'd say, that our new head of school puts parameters around it -- what inspired you to set a new personal goal this summer? what one highlight resonates in a way that will carry through as an inspiration of hope for the year? I'll simply say that I prefer the old way.

Anyway, there I was, listening to what colleagues had to say and not having a whiff of an idea what I'd say when it got to me.

Out of some deep place inside my consciousness, something like this came out:

We had a horrific start to our summer, after having had an awful year. Things just kept getting worse before they got better at all.

But what I realize about myself, about our family of three, is that we've come through all of these experiences having somehow found the way to be able to hold tragedy in one hand -- to be able to hold it, to be brave enough to open up our hand and look right at it, and to be able to find the way to process it so that we figure out what pieces of it we really do need to hold on to and what pieces of it we can finally let go of. And somehow, miraculously, we also discovered that at the same time in our other hand we can still hold joy. And we can celebrate and honor and hold on to that joy in a way that's much deeper and more meaningful for having that other hand of sorrow and grief. That, ultimately, the real tragedy is in allowing both hands to be filled with sorrow, and not leaving a hand open to joy.

For me, the wonder and delight of our summer is that we've had a summer that we can all look back on with a great deal of joy.
Always keep a hand open to joy.

Not conceding

I know that there are some sports, some contests in which it is considered in good form to concede before the match is over -- that, rather than playing it out to the bitter end, you are supposed to graciously accept that you cannot win and concede your loss. As much as I try to be a good sport, and person of graciousness, I struggle a little with that concept. Aren't you always supposed to try, right up until the end? Never surrender?

I am trying to figure out to be gracious about today. I have to go back to work today, and I do not want to. I do not want to concede that my summer is over. I do not want to call this the start of the new school year. I am hiding behind Dean, given that the official kids-return start of school isn't for another 10 days. If he's still on summer vacation, then I can live through him a little, even as I sit through a week of meetings.

We took every pleasure where we could this summer, Dean and I. Turning a trip to the car dealership for repairs into an excuse for Frappucinos and cinnamon-y breakfast cakes. Stopping spontaneously to bowl a frame after buying a new pair of soccer cleats. Sleeping in, staying up late, reading a good book straight through.

We took Ken along for the ride when he could break away from work, including a trip to Boston for a Cirque du Soleil show.

We've got a few more things up our collective short sleeves before we call this one done. Maybe I should put a little sand in my shoes before I put them on this morning, just to help me keep pretending.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The long version

I am in the unfortunate habit of rushing everything. On the chances I get to post here, I'm always giving the quick version just to get something down, just to get something done. But I regret that rush-rush-rush all the time, and think about how much I enjoy Natalie's posts with her careful storytelling and generous sharing of pictures. So with Natalie as my guide and model (which is true in so many ways!), I undertake telling you a long story, with many photos.

My beloved brother Tony and his wife Carol (also beloved), generously spent their summer vacation week here with us. It's not cheap to fly from southern Missouri to Boston, and they don't get a lot of vacation time. In a year where the importance of family is in such high relief, it made more difference than I can say to have them here.

Tony's first brilliant idea of the trip was to rent kayaks on a local pond. Do you ever feel totally delighted and chagrined to find out after years and years that there are wonderful things to do in your own backyard that you don't discover until someone comes to visit?

With the five of us, we rented two doubles and one single, and took turns in each boat. Everyone particularly loved the single -- it was the highest quality boat, for one thing, and being able to just propel yourself around was exhilarating.
Here are Tony and Dean in their twin hats, getting the feel of the boat.

Ken and Dean, with Ken (in my opinion) doing his best officer-of-the-law imitation.
Now you can see why kayaks have been added to our wish list, even though it will mean having to clear out the garage to make space to store them.

Ken turned 51 during the week and his birthday was the only day he could take off from work, unfortunately. His heart's desire was mini golf, and

homemade chocolate cupcakes. Easy wishes to fulfill.

The rest of us spent a day tooling around Boston, walking the waterfront

and stopping for ice creams at the Public Gardens. Tony and Carol, although both native Chicagoans like me, are not city people. They enjoyed the bits of sightseeing but preferred to get away from the throngs whenever possible. Again, being local, I forget the impact of being able to point to a church and comment off-handedly that Benjamin Franklin was baptized there.

We took off mid-week on a road trip up to the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Carol loves waterfalls, and even in the dog days of a hot summer there was still plenty of big water running up there. Our first stop was Flume Gorge at Franconia Notch State Park, where the water was big but so were the crowds.

Worth it, though, for the breathtaking walk up through the gorge, cooled by the running water and deep shade.

No, this is NOT Mount Washington (on day two, when we *should* have been able to see it, it was hiding behind the skirts of a morning fog), but can you see the profile of Washington in the mountain top on the left?

Dean was our expert guide here; last month was his hiking trip up to the Lonesome Lake hut. He was the one who guided us in the big choice of coming up here in the first place and we would have bought him a beer for the good tip (but got him a box of maple sugar candy instead).

A geology and animal behavior lesson. While they also managed to log an inordinate number of hours on the Wii together, Tony and Dean shared their love of the outdoors, of hiking, of animals and nature. The balance of Dean's local knowledge against Tony's vast years of experience (but all in the Midwest) gave them so many opportunities to compare notes and deepen their close relationship. It's hard having family so far away -- we only see them every few years -- but turned out to be pretty easy to catch up on lost time.

We spent some time on the Appalacian Trail,

and while we're very used to the word "trail" being applied to places that look like this, Tony and Carol were fairly shocked -- no clear walkway to be seen so it takes the skill of watching carefully for trail markers to avoid getting lost in the woods.

And also the good sense to take them at their word and turn around at the appropriate points.

No sense of loss, though, in turning back sometimes, given how much is accessible with moderate effort.
It would have been nice to have a whole week up here, so that there was never a need to hurry anyone away from their explorations and thoughts; maybe next summer?

I managed to say only a few, well-timed "be careful's" and to let Dean explore, crossing back and forth across running water.

And fortunately we never needed the spare pair of dry shoes (or dry clothing) from the car. Dean is gazing up at the next stretch of the trail; we didn't continue that loop because we didn't have the time and the terrain was beyond what Tony could handle given that he just had knee replacement surgery 8 months ago.

But again, it didn't feel that we were missing out in any way, and each trek we managed to time so that we had the falls to ourselves -- meeting others only on our way back out.

Including the kind of fellow hikers who are happy to take your picture for you!

The evening included pizza for dinner and a pool lesson as well (more good ideas on Tony's part),

with amazing local ice cream for dessert.
Are you thinking what I was thinking? I couldn't resist the temptation to check it out, just to be sure. I could imagine some horse lovers in New Hampshire deciding against the glue factory when the time came, but it turned out to be the Wallace C. Horse memorial cemetery instead.

And like trying to hold the cold mountain water in your hands the week slipped away.

I read an article recently about the superiority of experiences over "stuff," when you have the opportunities to make that choice. And my piece is that the experiences can be very local, no matter where you are; I imagine there could be some nearby gems that you've yet to discover. The whole staycation thing. Count me in, and come visit me any time you'd like for your own chance at some of these wonders.

Friday, August 13, 2010

A boy's life

Our favorite local mini-golf place was lovingly carved out of an existing dairy farm by the farmer's son, who was looking for ways to keep the property in the family and to keep the farm open. The course is beautiful, and lovingly landscaped in ways that pay homage to farming in New England. And it doesn't hurt that the ice cream there is outstanding.
Dean suggests that next season we keep track of our scores across all games played, to crown one grand master at the end. My suggestion was that we not keep score at all anymore, given that we're all now playing at an equal level and games generally end with no more than one or two strokes separating first from third. I'm fine either way, just as long as we're getting in as many games as we can. We might even head out again today.
The other current favorite outdoor activity is shooting Dean's bb-gun on our home range. I appreciate the fact that allowing a child to use a gun of any kind is not everyone's cup of tea. Dean's was a gift from his uncle, my brother Tony -- a responsible, dedicated outdoorsman who does bring home a deer or two during the season (which he is able to process completely -- tenderloins for the freezer, sausages, home smoked jerky) and who believes that teaching children gun safety is vastly superior to leaving guns a mystery (since that's what can lead to tragedies should an unprepared kid come into contact with a gun at some point).

We're super, super careful. Dean's wearing safety glasses, which you may not be able to see, the course is set up to avoid both anyone's walking in the area as well as to ensure no stray bbs do any harm (it's a mile of wooded conservation land with no public access beyond the target), and the procedure of safety on/barrel up is followed after every shot. And the reality is that the archery set that we have and use is actually the more potentially lethal (although of course THAT has all it's own safety rules as well).

So here we are, getting the most out of these last few weeks of summer -- made s'mores for dessert this week and looking forward to more badminton this weekend. My brother Tony and his wife arrive tomorrow from southern Missouri for a week's visit and we're planning to do some kayaking on a local lake as well as show them around Boston. Things just keep getting better.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

In which we grasp at "summer"

I accept that I will never cease to be amazed at how quickly time goes. Whoosh! There it goes again!
"Summer," that word that used to mean an endless string of lazy days and of mini golf and ice cream and the beach and sunscreen and bare feet and nothing in particular that had to be done -- well that word now seems to mean something entirely different. Something too much like more of the same but with hotter weather.

We've done what we could to make it mean vacation and family. Dean and I took a trip to Chicago to visit with some of my family and see the sights and enjoy each other's company (poor Ken had to work).

(Chicagoans call it "The Bean" but the artist called it "Cloud Gate.")

And real cloud gates! Our gorgeous view one morning from the top of the John Hancock Tower, when the clouds descended to street level and showed us a sea of buildings, bobbing up above the surface.

I'm sorry, but there IS no better place in all the world to watch a major league baseball game than Wrigley Field. We call it The Friendly Confines for good reason -- this gem of a ballpark fills, on a weekday (and every day) for a team that hasn't won The Series in, um, a while (OK, 102 years but who's counting?). It fills with fans who share the love, even with fans from the opposing team (I can tell you that you do NOT want to openly express support for the opposing team when you're at Fenway here in Boston.) Not an inappropriate word was said within our earshot (again, a refreshing change from Fenway) and no, we didn't really care that our Cubbies didn't win (not too much).
(Behind Dean, up at street level across the river, they were filming Transformers III.)

I am very happy when I am home. In Chicago. No matter how much changes, I still know this place as I know no other place.

And this past weekend our niece was married. I took a gazillion pictures, but I'll share this one for now -- they got married on the grounds of a golf club and here you see them having fun with their photographer. It was an intense, emotional day; Lori was missing in person but entirely there in spirit.
We thoroughly enjoyed the day, which couldn't have been more ideal -- low 70s, sea breeze, abundant sunshine. Seeing all our friends and relations for a happy occasion was cathartic, even though we all had to choke back tears from time to time.

For now I simply leave you with this incredibly good piece of advice, courtesy of Lincoln Park Zoo. Natalie has me hungry for a road trip which is an entirely different and wonderful kind of summer phrase; we just might have something up our sleeves (if we had any) in that regard.