The lake trip was part of my weekend with college friends in Vermont. For a brief period it seemed like Fate --in the form of a significant subway-stopping power outage, an incompetent cab driver, a faulty transmission (or was it a computer chip?), Hartford rush-hour traffic, a torrential rainstorm, serious road construction and more than one accident-- was conspiring to prevent me (and friends Cathy and Mitchell) from actually MAKING it to Vermont, but lucky for me C and M have overcome far greater crises, and refused to be stopped. We got there later than we had hoped, but we got there dry, safe, well-fed and in reasonably good spirits.
As beautiful as the surroundings were that weekend (trees, crickets, falling asleep to the sound of the creek in the backyard), they were only part of the pleasure. The Earlham College people have known each other for about twenty-five years now, so even the non-EC spouses are old friends at this point. It's been five years or more since I've seen some of these folks, and while that is too long a gap, it's nice to rediscover that we can simply pick up where we left off, like we just had coffee the day before.
While my old friends were clearly recognizable, their children were a different story. One boy wasn't even a twinkle in his parents' eyes last time I saw them, one boy had only just learned to sit up, and another was only beginning to consider the possibility of thinking about giving walking a try. Now, at ages five, five and seven, they're real people with distinct personalities. Don't get me wrong, I love babies too, but this transition to walking, talking people with likes, dislikes and opinions about more than naps and the virtues of mashed peas is always fascinating to me. Of course it's great fun seeing Beth's impish smile combined with Tim's hearty laugh in their son, or seeing Liz's beautiful eyes and Matthew's lanky build in their offspring, but it's even more fun seeing the kids being their own people, doing their own things, perplexing, surprising and delighting their parents in equal measure. The three boys all bonded well, and spent most of the weekend exploring the natural world in the same ways I did at their age, namely catching small animals and putting them in buckets. They maintained an admirable 'catch and release' policy however, which I don't remember following. I didn't kill things, I just wanted to keep them for longer than fifteen minutes. These guys are more disciplined than I was, clearly. Close examination followed by longer observation of a creature in its natural habit was their course of study. Very impressive.
It was also nice seeing how in their element my friends are as parents. I don't mean to belittle their struggles or fears, nor suggest that they have all the answers, but clearly parenting sits well on them. When I first knew them we were in our late teens and early twenties. Over many a late night pizza we debated everything from how we challenged the cycles of hatred and violence in the world to how we got that hottie over there to notice we even existed. (We didn't use the word 'hottie' though. That's very 90s. What did we say? Babe? Sexy Thang? No, we were far too earnest about breaking the cycle of objectifying others to use terms like that. On another note, is it just me, or do many of the most intense parts of college life happen after 11pm? Were we all just sleep-deprived? Was there something in the pizza?) Now many of those folks have children. Nothing else shows me the passage of time quite so starkly, and I couldn't be happier about it.
But I mustn't forget my friends Bryan, Molly (the only double EC couple) and their twin daughters. The girls were under ten last time I saw them, I believe, maybe around age seven or eight, so they had already fully made the transition to interesting people with distinct personalities. Now, at age fourteen, they startled me with another quantum leap in development. They're poised, grounded, funny, bright, fully engaged in the world through books, athletics, art, music, able to respond with equal patience to the concerns of young boys and the silliness of old folks (here I speak largely of my own silliness).
Their mother, my friend Molly, also happens to be my second cousin. One of the additional gifts I got from Earlham was developing close ties to many of my more distant blood relatives, including Molly, her sister and many other second cousins. Molly's dad is my mom's first cousin, and was one of her regular playmates at family gatherings. Mom remembers one summer that they formed The Good Deeds Club, and their first act -- she recalls with chagrin-- was to deny membership to their younger siblings. Ah, the pitfall of many a philanthropic organization.
What this meant in the case of my second cousins-once-removed E and K is, not only was I enjoying them for their own sakes, not only could I glimpse evidence of their mom and dad in their looks, interests and movements, I also saw echoes of lots of other relatives. That looked like cousin Esther's smile to me, but is that because it's actually their grandfather's smile or what? That serene stillness they possess, is that a genetic thing, a learned behavior from generations of Quaker relatives, or some alchemy of both? It was fascinating.
(Naturalists in action: Molly and K identify various dragonflies, while the boys examine their collection of frogs, salamanders and minnows.)
(Friends Matthew and Molly)
(From left: Mitchell, Bryan, Liz, Russ, Cathy, Beth. Missing from my photos is Tim, S and E. Peter and Justin came up only for the day, and hadn't yet joined us.)
Renewing old bonds and discovering new ones made this weekend a joy. These people are some members of my chosen family. I'm one of the lucky ones, I get to enjoy my biological and (extensive) chosen families. I know not everyone is as fortunate. As you can well imagine, such reminders are especially valuable right now. I've had lots of these events in the last year. I'm not sure they make very interesting blog posts; what's that opening line from Anna Karenina, about happy families all being happy in the same way, but all unhappy families are unhappy in different ones? I don't have a copy with me, and I'm not going to google it. But you follow my point, yes? My grief for James isn't erased by these reminders of loving people and close bonds in my life. If anything, it is sharpened at times. But that still feels right, and necessary. Seeing people I love getting on with the business of life, loving, arguing, cooking, baking, catching frogs, drinking wine, learning to dive (I'd forgotten that one HAS to yell "cannonball!" when doing one; it's like, ya know, a rule) and telling stories in all sorts of ways, it all reveals the bedrock of life to me again.
This weekend was only the most recent occasion for this reminder. My friend Beth (Bethia, not to be confused with Vermont Elizabeth: my life is rich in Elizabeths, Catherines and one Bethia) visited me in NYC, letting us pick up again our discussion of our life-plans-in-progress, including our firm resolves to be more spontaneous (seriously). At James' memorial a stunning blond bombshell of a woman came up to me, and it took me a second to realize it was my friend Mindy, whom I hadn't seen in over ten years. After we hugged, I said "you look fantastic!" She said "you look like shit!" We agreed I was entitled, even obliged, under the circumstances. A quarter of a century of friendship is nicely summed up in that interchange. Blogger friend Birdie came to visit during my time in Indiana, once again jumping into the deep end with my family, and paddling along as cheerfully as her name would suggest. This is by no means a complete list of all the acts of love and kindness I've experienced from people in the past two months. James' death has perhaps intensifed my internal debate between living in the moment and finding my vocation, but it's also made me pay attention in some valuable ways. The fact that I have trouble articulating all this leads me to suspect this is going to be one of those lessons I learn, forget and relearn on a regular basis. I'm adding it to the list. Is this what middle-age is, accepting what lessons one has to relearn regularly? Well, at least the company is good.