Camp Life: Epilogue

IMG_6096

Summer has always been a time of possibility, newness, indulgence. Fifteen years ago I fell in love in the middle of July. My babies were born in the heat of July, August and September. This summer has also been one of the most memorable of my life. For every new source of stress (avoiding skunks during nightly- yes, literally every single night- walks to the bathroom with sleepwalking kids) there was something wonderful that balanced it (walking back to the camper at 3 a.m. under stars and moonlight and the first drops of a summer storm). I also decided steamed edamame balance out roasted marshmallows. I am a major proponent of everything in moderation. Summer is not a time to hold back.

IMG_5994 IMG_6030

My husband was happy to see me happy about purchasing the camper and happy to let me immerse myself in camp life. Everyone I ran into this summer asked, “How does your husband do it? Going to a professional work setting after sleeping at a campsite!” Um… He’s not exactly a high maintenance guy. He rolls out of our narrow dinette-bed and spends the majority of his time in an air-conditioned office. How hard could that be? I’m the one living the camp life 24 hours a day with three children under 9. And loving it.

IMG_5741_1jpg

IMG_5765

Loving the view of Lake Champlain that met me every morning I opened the door. French-press coffee and greasy camp breakfasts. The girls hauling water from the spigot between morning loops around the circle riding two to a bike. Hearing more French than English for months. Lingering in the used bookshop between switching loads at the laundromat. Communal lunches with friends where we covered the picnic table with a rainbow of vegetables and fruit, cheese and hummus and a coating of sand on everything. Sharing our upstate experience with a good friend visiting from Germany. The pleasure of fighting sleep in the sun while the girls splashed in the far reaching shallows of the lake. How pleasantly cool and shady and breezy it is inside the camper during the heat of the day. Hours and hours with my best friend on the phone, sharing celestial days through conversation. Exhilarating and exhausting days. The contentment of building a fire and sitting alone in the dark when everything is quiet. Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison playlists.

IMG_6140 IMG_6112

We had a day or two away from camp and found that upon returning it felt like coming home. Some people suggested the camper was too crowded or too old or their worst nightmare. And I wouldn’t mind a new paint job, reupholstering the seats, diner style counter and table tops. But I’m not interested in glamping. I want to keep my 1950s camper campy. The girls and I had a blast perusing dusty junk shops for turquoise melamine dishes and vintage camp gear. I added a bohemian vibe with throw pillows and scarves and garlands because I can’t help myself. I framed some of my favorite things, homemade art and fortunes. My most treasured find is my vintage upstate New York postcard collection. I love the beautiful art and colorized photographs of Ausable, Champlain, Adirondack forests and high peaks. I love thinking about these places stretching back into history, long before I made it here.

IMG_6017

Once we realized we would definitely be moving at the end of the summer, we had a choice to make. Sell the camper or make the repairs necessary to haul it long distance. We decided to make it road worthy. The summer has come to an end and the camper is in storage for the long upstate off season. I look at the camper as an investment in summers yet to come. Forget about resorts and amusement parks, give me the open road and a campsite with a view. (I blame at least some of this on having read Travels with Charley this spring.) I would like nothing more than to return to the Adirondacks for vacation and, optimistically, to travel throughout America with my little camper.  And why hold back? All I need now is a big old vintage pickup truck…

IMG_5820

Only the Lonely

IMG_3802I’ve been thinking about the concept of a hardship post. The term has come up more than once in conversation over the last two years. Plattsburgh hardly qualifies as a hardship post but on a very small scale it embodies some of the qualifying characteristics. Isolation. Harsh climate. Scarcity of goods. When we set out for the North Country in the early summer days of 2012, friends and family saw us off with farewells bordering on ominous. It was as though we were leaving civilization behind and setting ourselves up for disaster. But downcast proclamations have a way of bolstering my confidence; projected pessimism is an excellent challenge.

Like anything else in life, there was an adjustment period. Complications with selling our house made it difficult to settle in. But I soon found things about this region I really connected with and found, well, myself. In the last couple of years I have thrived in this hardship post. It helps that I haven’t had to worry about a hostile government or parasitic infections. But the isolation and severe weather and limited stuff is all real. And all really wonderful for someone like me. (Hibernating all winter with a stack of books in front of the fireplace between walks along the frozen shoreline? Count me in!) It is as though long dislocated pieces of who I am finally fit together in this undesirable destination.

I have been intrigued by the common thread running through the people I’ve met here. Because we are nearly all transplants from varied backgrounds and, though there is some overlap, we tend to have our own unique lifestyles. One incentive of hardship posts is the depth of community. Akin to wilderness survival, people recognize the benefit of quickly forging bonds and cooperating for the greater good of the group. And I have found this to be true in this region. When you meet someone here and detect even a hint of connection, you’re texting and reciprocating dinner invites within a week. The casualness that in the past has taken years to achieve with close friends comes quite naturally here. It’s kind of like, hey, what you see is what you get for miles. And you’re like, I’ll take it!

On the flip side of the instant BFF phenomenon is the fact that I like isolation. Distance and limitations are ideal for me. It is not simply that I like loneliness. I find I appreciate a thing more when I have the opportunity for longing. I need contemplation and reflection in my life. I participated in my first book club this summer (a dork’s dream come true). And the once a month meetup with the other participants was more satisfying than a lot of other social interactions I’ve had. Each month we read the same pages, worked over questions in our minds and prepared to come together to share ideas. Like reading, the loneliness of the North Country affords me time to be alone with my thoughts. And what I have come to realize is this: it’s not selfish, it’s who I am.

Nothing makes me happier than walking through the woods or hiking up a mountainside in silence. Even with children, there are moments when it is just a wordless conversation between my self and the natural world. My thoughts pour out freer than they ever could with another person. And I am washed with sound and scent and the ecstasies of earth and sky. It is worth the forsaking of material luxuries and social opportunities. I will be forever grateful for these two long years. The time I have spent here has forced me to grow and to open myself to possibility. I am in love with this place: the rough, overpowering darkness of the mountains, the alluring movement of the water; how it has taught me to embrace the unknown.

Summer is quickly fading and my hardship post has come to an end, something that has been a long time coming and yet so abrupt. Moving away from the Adirondacks and Lake Champlain feels like losing a part of who I am. Someone recently said to me that this place is my spiritual home. I think that’s pretty accurate. In 30 years I have never felt I belonged until I arrived here. I think I can be at peace with leaving the North Country behind because I take it with me and I know I will return. In my thoughts and when I visit and perhaps, someday, to live here once again. It is inside of me, always, wherever I go from here.

The Garden Party

IMG_6256

Menu

Heirloom Tomato & Herb Salad
Cheese & Dill Stuffed Squash Blossoms
Zucchini Fritters
Garlic & Oil Shrimp Linguini
Blue Lake Pole Beans & Wax Beans
French Bread
Lime Tart with Wild Blackberries
Lemon Balm Lemonade

IMG_6155

Friends invited us over for a summer supper, the menu inspired by and setting provided by their garden. While our daughters collaborated on flower arrangements, we created a table spread of from-scratch food and pretty place settings. And laughed about how other people might not get what comes naturally to us: tables and chairs dragged through the garden gate; the evening blocked around photo ops (and our children expecting as much). We sat down as raindrops teased and the day’s light withdrew. And the evening was filled with fine things. Cool night air, depths of sunset, easy conversation, sharing sketchbooks and new art and promises of plans down the road. What is a friend if not someone who nourishes who you truly are?

IMG_6172 IMG_6173 IMG_6179 IMG_6198 IMG_6262 IMG_6244

 

I Let the Waves

IMG_5545I let the waves
climb my body like a clinging child,

hair floating in clouds;
there is no center here.

Legs touch slippery-warm
(how we forget what is most familiar).

Waiting for the wave to carve its impression
the way it returns to the rocky outcrop,

surface creased like fabric/flesh,
the rock waits to coarse with the sea.

Careless but not uncaring,
trying to remember how it feels to be

so small in such a great expanse.
Pressing past turquoise map folds

where you wait with ideas and
earth and I surprise you with hands full.

Cold footsteps after dark,
sea and sand exchange temperatures;

lights line another shore,
always, though some days I forget

to look, believe that I can reach
such luminescence.

All color and light,
a hundred moons reflect a hundred more,

a fixed distance
no matter how hard I swim.

Yes, Virginia Woolf, There is a Double Standard

IMG_1197This month’s trending social media challenge asks people to post five photographs where they think they look beautiful. I have only seen women participating, which is to be expected. There are also the ‘no-makeup selfies’ many celebrities are apparently sharing, with some Upworthy headline calling it brave. And there was the buzz surrounding an “article” about how women in their 40s have suddenly become sex goddesses in 2014. Before that they were resigned to a shackled, maternal, sexually dysfunctional existence out of the light of day as they awaited death. Thank God women finally got the hint and dug deep to find another decade of desirability. Not that I put much stock in the magazine that printed that tripe but I think the writer most likely lives on another planet.

In an ongoing discussion with a group of fellow female artists, we have expressed frustration over societal expectations put on the female, the artist in particular. As creative types, my friends and I have all struggled with how personally our work can be critiqued. The success of a piece of writing or a painting or a photograph is often mixed up with our body language, our lifestyle, our parenting decisions. Honest, intimate work is mistaken as an invitation to overstep boundaries.

I suspect a century ago that same extraterrestrial magazine writer would have spoken on behalf of another society. One that took to task any female who dared express confidence in her intellectuality, her sexuality or her chosen path, perhaps a path that substantially strayed from what was expected of her. We are damned if we do, damned if we don’t. Because women have always had to give an explanation for themselves. A man earns accolades for his body of work while a woman’s body of work is inseparable from her body. Whether she is a presidential candidate or a career mom, whatever the fruits of her labor, they are judged along with her wardrobe, her birth control, her marriage and motherhood and muscle tone and moods.

Our looks, private relationships and personal choices weigh heavy when determining our value to society. It is an entire realm of expectations unique to women. Men have the privilege of being opinionated or withdrawn; fit or fat; enjoying outlandish leisurely pursuits or being total bores. Even at their worst, all is forgivable. Women get away with nothing. The female is constantly being reevaluated from head to toe. Not only must we live through a lifetime of hormonal phases, ever shifting and transitioning, we must also endure public opinion about it all. Note that there is not a male equivalent for the descriptor resting bitch face.

I propose we start holding women to the same standard as men. This means conceding a woman knows for herself how to balance work and children, something we never call into question with men. This means keeping our eyes on a woman’s work product, whether it’s lawmaking or cheesemaking, and off of her fashion or figure. Never heard of any instances of men being warned about their skinny jeans being too tight for the workplace. This means respecting a woman’s right to take risks, to change her mind, to reveal as much or as little as she wants. This means that a woman gets to define beauty and bravery and sexiness for herself. This means shifting the conversation to accomplishments and contributions and interests, however that looks for a woman; personally, there’s nothing I could desire more.

 

All Or Nothing

This month I have lived moment by moment, day to day. It is out of necessity and it takes everything I’ve got. Without the convenience of appliances my time and energy is leached by daily chores. Cooking and cleaning and meeting my children’s basic needs. Continuously organizing and rearranging in order to maintain reasonable living space in a tiny camper. But setting my clock by sunlight and getting down to basics has also forced me to be in the moment. I have a more immediate appreciation of each day’s gifts. Wildflowers gathered by the girls for my table each morning. Wading in shimmering black water under exploding fireworks. Dinners with friends too abundant for a single picnic table. Watercolor art sessions on the beach. Releasing a birthday balloon into the sky with a 5-year-old wish. Gifts as varied as spin art and help with towing and buckets of fresh picked fruit. Falling asleep each night with the people I love best within arm’s reach, watching stars through the open window overhead. Life has become all or nothing.

IMG_4777

IMG_5968

IMG_4915 photo IMG_5527 IMG_6240  IMG_6259

Off the Grid

IMG_5454I have written extensively about the desire to live simply, intentionally, in the moment. Minimalist, anti-materialist living is kind of an aspiration of mine (a lofty one I will never truly realize). Taken far enough, one enters into conversations about living off the grid. It is one thing to fantasize about such an extreme existence while maintaining a much more mainstream lifestyle. It is quite another to actually go for it when the opportunity presents itself. This is the situation we found our family in this summer. For two years we have rented a lovely house just outside of Plattsburgh. My only complaint has been that it is too much house. Too much empty space to clean and heat and look conspicuously spartan. Continue reading

Glow

IMG_5006One of our favorite family activities is watching the annual sunrise balloon launch at the Adirondack Balloon Festival. There are few things that motivate me to be up before the sun. Easter morning. All-nighters. Road trips. Hot air balloons. That’s pretty much it. This week we happened to be in the Saratoga region during the first ever balloon fest at the Saratoga Fairgrounds. Friday night we went to the Balloon Glow, where a field of tethered balloons are inflated and illuminated at dusk. We ran into cousins and ordered crêpes and it seemed the sun could not set fast enough. Evening was cool and windy and we were drawn to the heat of the roaring burners. Life has been hectic and it was a relief to be in a crowd of quiet strangers, everyone gazing together. We stayed until the balloons were deflated around us, the silky fabric billowing and sounding like wind rustling leaves. The girls tiptoed away from the collapsing softness big as buildings. Brushed the colors with their fingertips. Summer arrived on an eve of illumination.

IMG_5001IMG_4997IMG_5028

A Feminist Shout-Out to Fatherhood

IMG_4622Growing up, one of my favorite stories was Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Though to some the book may seem sentimental and folksy, Alcott counted Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller as family friends. Alcott belonged to a group of intellectual transcendentalists and as an adult supported women’s suffrage and the abolitionist movement. As a young girl I was drawn to Alcott’s affinity for family and feminist ideals. What spoke to me in particular was the profound connection she wrote about between mothers, daughters and sisters. I grew up in a family of three girls, though my sisters are 8 and 16 years younger. The fact that we were never peers only added to my desire to be a mother, as I grew up taking care of children and loving them as I now love my own girls. I was thrilled to end up with three daughters. I truly love living in a house full of girls. Continue reading

Sunday Afternoon

IMG_4561

We cast no shadows in the park on Sunday afternoon. We bring fruit on ice and books to read and blankets to spread. The pages of my book are blinding. The fruit warms, purple juice sweating all over our fingers. The girls run up and down steps, skin their knees, roll down the hill until their faces are red and their hair is shining. They beg to go down to the water. There is a high wall overlooking the lake and it is lined with men, all shirtless, all in work boots and with fishing lines running out to the water. There is a staircase cut out of the wall. The girls could kneel on the bottom step where the water is deep, scoop cold water into their cupped palms. I want to feel it, too. But there is only one set of steps and many people at the park today. I send the girls across the hill to a patch of shade, long and narrow, under the trees. On my back I take off my shoes, roll up my jeans, shade my eyes with my arm. When I turn my head I see shapes and movements of the girls through the green grass. Feet intertwined they laze, trying to instigate an argument. They pick burrs from the bushes. I hear their laughter, the water slapping the wall where the men aren’t catching fish, birds calling from the branches bending to the girls. Looking straight up I see only blue, clouds. I think of the masts I love to watch in the harbors dotting the lake. How they dip and rock and seem to belong more to the sky than the sea. Bare and docked and lonely they rise like grand architecture. The masts exist for the water but still there is a sense they climb like ladders into the water’s blue twin, into the cold of the clouds.

IMG_4564 IMG_4567

 

From a Mother of Girls to the Cult of Conquistadors

IMG_7632

In all the conversation this week surrounding the killing rampage that took place in California, there has been a recurring quote by Margaret Atwood on social media,

Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.

The killer was motivated by insecurity stemming from issues surrounding his sexuality; he felt ignored by women and threatened by other men. And though people are outraged, nobody is surprised. Mental illness may be a factor but part of the root of his psychosis is real. And archaic.

Consider some of the oldest slander on earth: the role of Eve’s sex in bringing sin into the world. On the page we read that Eve and Adam lived in perfect relationship with God and with one another (and had no shame about their sexuality, by the way) and yet each chose to sin. But at some point in extra-biblical history Eve’s sexuality became serpentined throughout the story. Adam was not tempted by his own flesh to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, Eve used her fleshly enticements to deceive him. Throughout time and cultures women have been associated with the origination of sin, having a greater inclination toward it and a knack for leading their counterpart astray. Females have been made into symbols of temptation and lust; sin incarnate; something to be conquered. Continue reading

Blush

IMG_4448In the waiting there is rain
gray thick enough to grasp
to wrap in folds like a shroud
brought low and near by silence
or everything that fills it
the day becomes the night
no light to tell the time

and there is only one window

which when opened reveals
prisms and watermarks
a day’s worth of color
blushing in surprise
released in a wash
the sun and its luxuries
suspended in the interlude

IMG_4401

IMG_4415

IMG_4403

IMG_4444