Sunday, August 02, 2009

Vermont Weekend: A Family Reunion

This Vermont Lake is where I spent my Saturday last week. It's been over two years since I swam in a freshwater lake, or swam much of anywhere at all. (I don't count the daily laps I swam in British Columbia last year around this time: indoor pool in a hotel with a South Seas theme, where the exercise was mostly an attempt to make sense of some big-time weirdness. Yeah, not the same thing at all.) I love swimming outdoors. Frankly I wish I could be amphibious, though at this point it's dropped down the priority list a tad. Got other things to do, ya know. Nonetheless, this day in the sun and water was good for the soul in so many ways. My suntan lotion application, or maybe reapplication, proved to be a bit spotty, literally, and my back still looks like I'm turning into some weird leopard snake, but even that didn't put a damper on the day.

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)
( Beth, Cathy, Russ (and Matthew, above) were all on my freshman hall. We've been friends since 1984. The kid is a total stranger, though I think he became comrades with our young frog-catchers.)

(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.


Marta said...

I still think of you every day, and having a scheming mind, am still scheming on your behalf, lol! But so far I approve of your own plans for yourself: spontaneity and fresh water swimming (especially when naked, I must add, after my skinny-dipping in one Iowa pond) would be high on any list of schemes I might have for you! I'm so happy you were with family in Vermont -- it really is heaven there isn't it? You wouldn't happen to have been at Silver Lake, would you? My dad lives near Woodstock, and we go to Silver Lake a lot, and those pictures look very familiar -- but it could be lots of Vermont lakes look alike.

Joe Jubinville said...

On the first page of his novel Ada, Vladimir Nabokov turns Tolstoy’s famous observation on its head: “All unhappy families are alike, all happy families are happy in their own way.” I guess its a toss-up as to which author had the better bead on the way things are. I think Nabokov’s point was that unhappiness is banal. Happiness is rare, and therefore invariably marked by genius, which is to say, individuality.

Of course our families, both blood and chosen, are always both. I quoted to Birdie last week “Life is comic to those who think, tragic to those who feel.” For most of us then, I went on to say, its a tragicomedy. That brought a laugh from Birdie. It was the laughter of recognition.

Thank you, Patrick, for helping to clarify, by way of example, the cousin rankings. I never could understand the difference between the numerical positions and the removal ratings. I suspect we all have a cousin or two who have been removed more than once, but that’s another custom.

I love a fresh water lake - if it has a sandy bottom. Or a mucky bottom that’s too deep to touch. But what a lovely respite for you - Vermont in late July, surrounded by another branch of family, no less deeply rooted, a few days on “the bedrock of life, revealed,” revisited. Looks like your summer of 09 is gonna be one helluva touchstone.

Birdie said...

Sweet Patrick, while we grieve with you we also envy the deep connection you share with your families of origin and choice. Such wealth, my friend.

Greg said...

Oh, such a rich post from you, Pal. How I have missed recently the way you look at the world, the words you choose, the images you and Camille agree upon.

I knew you'd be seeing old college friends in VT, but didn't realize the scope or scale of the reunion (I've been having them this summer, too, but in more focussed trios, it seems). What fun. And dragonflies! I was just lamenting not having seen any this year, but it is only JUST August.

Thanks for all these words, and these lovely images...and your steady and good-natured view of things. : )

Java said...

From what I can tell so far, yes. Middle age is accepting what lessons one has to relearn regularly. Plus a few new ones. In my experience, anyway, it's not boring.

Your tales take me on trips of my own, sometimes following you, and sometimes leading off to other paths. Wherever we end up, I always enjoy reading what you write.

Beth(ia) said...

I'm so glad to have you on the path with me. xoxo