Tuesday, June 1, 2010

I am a rock, I am an island


"We are each an island. It is your task to bring to your island what you need to live long and well: love, beauty, diversion, friends, work that sustains, a meaningful life."--Kay Redfield Jamison

Mike and I were up at the family cabin again this weekend. First time in the hammock this year, first time putting my bare feet in the water.



The wildfires in Quebec caused a grey haze to obscure the mountains and made the air smell as sweet as a late-night campfire. It was a very pleasant smell, something LL Bean might put in a sachet and sell for $9.99.

I experienced my usual love-hate relationship with nature. In the hammock with my book, a gentle breeze keeping the mosquitoes away, I was as happy as a kid getting a turn on the swing. Then there was a buzz near my ear. It startled me beyond reason and I lost my page in the novel I was reading. I have a very knee-jerk reaction to buzzing. It not only annoys me but it fills me with anticipatory dread. I can't relax until I know the perpetrator is smashed and his accomplices have fled the scene.

I looked around for the source and saw that half a dozen dragonflies were circling the weeds, rocks, and trees around the hammock. What a hypocrite I was! Dragonflies were the theme of our August wedding. People had given us dragonfly-themed presents: pieces of Kate Spade June Lane china stamped with golden dragonflies. Framed color photographs of dragonflies. A dragonfly candle. Even a dragonfly magnet. And how was I reacting to the real creatures? Like they were the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz--proving once again that I like the sanitized version of nature better than the real thing.

Mike and I climbed down the rocks to get to the lip of Lovewell pond. The feel of the mucky pond floor actually appeals to me. It must be all those times my parents took me to lakes when I was a kid. In the shallow end I could touch the floor, and though it felt slimy it was also cool and soft, like stepping into a bowl of pudding. My father preferred jumping into deep rock quarries, places where a kid would need to know how to swim (which I didn't and still don't.)

The pond water had receded and pollen had left yellow bands around the rocks like chalk marks on the sidelines of a football game.


Something about being in a natural setting on a beautiful day makes people want to say something profound about life or death or the state of humanity. I am not immune. Some of my most intimate talks with my husband or with a friend have been when we're away from the city. Like looking out the windshield of a car eases the discomfort of a difficult conversation, talking openly seems natural while watching the small ripples on the surface of the water, the setting sun an airbrushed orange.

I asked Mike why it is that even in a beautiful, peaceful place like this I still worry so much. Is it that I'm addicted to thinking of worst possible outcomes? Mike suggested that I might be trying to prepare myself in case something unforeseen happens--even unlikely things like him falling on a rock and splitting his head open. Of course, he doesn't make me feel secure when he's jumping from one unbalanced boulder to the next.

I'd make the most anxious mother in the world.

It didn't help that I had chosen to bring Nothing Was the Same, a memoir by Kay Redfield Jamison about her husband's death from cancer, as my Memorial Day Weekend read. Did I WANT to be depressed? My wiser cousin Mikki, who was also staying at the cabin, had gone into White Birch Books in North Conway and asked the bookseller to recommend something fun. Meanwhile I was wrapped up in a book about losing a life partner. Yippee!

Mike said that probably more people have these feelings than I realize. It is hard sometimes to imagine other people having neurotic worries like I do. As empathetic as I try to be, I still have the tendency to think that other people have it together where I don't. I'm confident in some areas, sure. But feeling happiness in the present moment without worrying that it will be taken away in the future is incredibly hard for me. How do other people experience life?

One of my favorite authors to work with, Ellen Graf, brought up this very topic last time we spoke. She's married to a Chinese man who came to America to live with her. In order for them to live peacefully together she had to let go of some of her assumptions about other people and how they think. This is harder than it sounds since we all look through the lenses of our own thoughts and experience. It's difficult to imagine a Republican's point of view if you're a Democrat, a life of poverty if you're privileged, or the perspective of someone from a different culture than your own. Graf had the opportunity to experience this firsthand and it proved essential to her marriage.

Knowing that I'm not the only one to feel sad or anxious sometimes, even when there's a spectacular sunset before me, cool water on my feet, and someone I love at my side, is enough to rouse me out of my funk. I may sometimes feel unmoored in life, but this is not a disaster, and I'm not alone.


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