The Light You Do Not See

Solitary Sunrise (c) 2017

At 4:30 a.m. the waterfront view is fully saturated one day and colorless mist the next. The best hints I gather from my starting vantage point a few blocks away lie in the light: usually a patch of shimmering silvery-slate in the deep blue-black signals an unsubdued sunrise, and I quicken my pace.

It’s a little bit like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, or the first view of monochromatic tartan turf from inside Fenway Park: you might gather clues or intuit what your senses will tell you before you get to it, but until you do it’s never a sure thing.

I took this shot before the morning light last week before travelling several hundred miles for my younger daughter’s college graduation.

My little girl.  I dropped her off at college and when it was time to say goodbye watched her twirl around and dance away in a swirling aubergine skirt, knowing she was “alright as she left” her home port.

Ten hours later, driving back to a truly unoccupied house that had seemed empty when it was inhabited by a family of only five, I was lost in an industrial park in Connecticut and found the CD my husband had somehow arranged for me to find two-and-a-half years after he died, popping it in to play and knowing only that he had selected for me John Hiatt songs from an enormous ouvre.

Before leaving home I asked my youngest if I should bring anything–did she want me to bring the necklace her father gave her for her birthday, just three weeks before he died? On a delicate silver chain is a ruby–her primary school color, and a shade not unlike her long, curly hair–surrounded by small diamonds, a treasure she let me keep in a safe place despite knowing of my tendency to forget where I have secreted such things.

She did, and I brought it for her to wear.

When we arrived, my now young adult youngest child met us at the airport, smoothly executing a parallel parking maneuver I still can’t pull off.  She whisked us to her apartment and commencement eve’s blizzard of friends and activity.

A university her father did not know she would attend.  A boyfriend of four years whom he never met.  A city he had never visited.  Friends whom he would have been so delighted to see supporting her.

This was to be the fifth college commencement my husband would not attend in a traditional way.

After deftly reparking the car I had left egregiously unmoored from the curb, my graduate-to-be walked ahead of me in a flowing, bright printed dress, part of a wardrobe I’d never seen.  I recognized the shoes, heels with an intricate cut-out design which we’d bought for her first birthday without her dad.  We’d traveled together to Vermont, where the six of us had often spent her winter birthday, and I’d trudged aimlessly in an uncharacteristically muddy early March, hearing a little girl happily calling out “daddy” from a bunny slope.

While we were together I saw my daughters exchange glances quite a few times, at more than one restaurant, before gently reminding me that I kept asking for tables for one more person than was to be dining with us.

Only one of us does not have a major transition going on–new homes and jobs and graduate schools, and all their attendant and considerable hopes and stresses.

We can’t know exactly how all of these changes will work out, and while it may not be wise to steer too hard a-starboard, keep walking ahead of me.  Someday I may catch up.

My Own Private Penguin

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2016’s nine favorite stateside phone camera shots include nine geese-a-flying, six ports, four seasons (heavy on autumn), three states, two sunsets and sunrises, and one heart-shaped bivalve immobilized by the weight of burnished sand.

At the center of my array is a moonless super moon. I caught a single sailboat in its immense silvery shimmer long after the eager ocean photographers had captured their more traditional images and headed home.

(I think Jim would have stuck around in the quiet dark as well, though he would have had a tripod and the right lenses and his shots would have been crisper.)

Only two interior shots, and not a human in sight.

You’d have to know my own interior thought processes awfully well to discern what you can’t see in these pictures: I wasn’t crying when I took any of them (though there was some light weeping on the way to the spiral staircase, but that’s a long story having to do with the last time I had been in Damariscotta, Maine); the autumn tree is in a stunning cemetery in which I walked in work heels through ankle-high crunching fallen leaves; one was the first sunset I sought out in what is now one of my favorite secret sunset spots. And the lighthouse stairwell shot didn’t look quite right going up, though objectively it was nearly identical to the shot I took looking down towards the roiling sea. (“The moments when you’re in so deep, it seems easier to just swim down,” sings my earworm.)

Or maybe it’s my traditional no-one-in-sight landscape photographs, when I’m alone at the lens with my thoughts, which are my interior shots.

Even when outside on New Year’s Eve, packed and pressed by the movement of thousands of people with, let’s say, more traditional human companionship, I feel I’m alone in the dark and inside some weightless barrier.  I’ve looked at others’ photographs from New Year’s Eve: crowds hundreds deep looking towards fireworks, hatted heads and red-cheeked faces poking into frames, selfies miniaturizing seasonal displays.

My shots were different.

I slipped through the maze of a boisterous crowd at least six deep around barricades protecting newly-carved ice sculptures. Alcohol vapor already lingered in the air, and appalling unpleasantries floated from across the street, where a handful of men sat on a curb in a swirl of cigarette smoke.

I found a spot where the crowd melted away into the night and a street-level spotlight became a perigee moon over the shoulder of an ice penguin it turned into mottled gold.  If it’s possible to make eye contact with an ice sculpture, I did.

I get you, little penguin.

perigeepenguin

 

Among my nine photographs I also see myself in that one goose who’s a little off-kilter, a little nick in the spearhead formation as his brethren resolutely hurtle forward.

I was surprised to have culled any interior shots among 2016’s favorites, and more surprised still to discover this year that I was not alone–uber alone, given my proclivities for rising far too early and wandering far too deep and away–when taking every one of them.

The scalloped lemon and gold glass bowl, rimmed in rust (with the somewhat heavy hand of my beagles’ natural eyeliner), was in an art museum I visited with a friend on his birthday.

It’s a start.

Misty Memories

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“Memory — fragile, hazy-bright, miraculous, was to them the spark of life itself, and nearly every sentence of theirs began with some appeal to it . . . .”

— Donna Tartt, The Little Friend

One of my sons joined me on a recent summer night to seek a view of northern lights predicted to swirl so atypically southward that they would be within view if we drove just a few hours north.

On the way he indulged me as I pulled off the road and scampered with my camera towards relatively tame mountain vistas.  Like his father, he is very patient.

Meteorological predictions went unfulfilled.  But the fact that we saw no aurora of dazzling blue and green lights did not make it an unsuccessful jaunt.

The two of us wound our way in the dark around the White Mountains.  Mt. Washington’s serpentine blackened hulk loomed over us, reminding me of a dream I had when I was ten: my toddler-aged dream self was standing knee-deep in the ocean and I was surrounded and dwarfed by stacks of boulders.  No one else was in sight.

Ours was the only car on the highway, our headlights muted echoes of two stunningly bright lights in the night sky.

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The night’s dark watercolor whorl beckoned to both our former selves.

Still more coming . . . x, y, z . . . . ”  I murmured to my firstborn, who is now not far short of a doctorate in pure mathematics.

We were here before, and you and your brother wanted me to read Chicka Chicka Boom Boom the whole way.”  I added.

He had been only three on the night I remembered last winding down this road.  In the deep dark of that recent June night, though, I still could see not only the long packed-away picture book’s saturated pinks and oranges, green coconut tree leaves and neon letters, but the carnation pink velour shirt my baby girl had worn, the holly-sprigged cobalt parka in which one son had been swaddled in his car seat.  My husband Jim would have been playing his music, though a Raffi tape would have been at the ready.

Unsaid: the “we” in “we were here before” was our family.  It was I who read to the children in the car because my husband, their father, who has since died far too young, had always taken the wheel when we traveled.

“I remember,” my son said.  He paused a beat.  “I think this was the first time I went skiing, and dad took me and he brought me up a rope lift.  And the aunts were there, too, in a different part of the place we were staying, and there was something about a refrigerator?  A broken refrigerator in one of their rooms?”

He jogged my memories.  He was right on all scores.

“How did you remember that?”

We drove on, trading off pieces of our family memories, sequences of bright clattering dominoes, pictures from our past.

“We came back over this bridge with the big stone circles and it was raining, and we stopped right over there and had pancakes.”

“And here–just about a block away, around the corner–do you remember we stayed overnight and we were in the room decorated with the baseball posters?” 

“Oh, and then we went a little way off the highway near the mountain the next day and dad found a trail with a waterfall, and we went through a little tunnel to get there….”

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A few years ago I heard on my car radio a story about an elderly professor who remarked that when his wife died, all their family memories died for him too–that there was no point in his holding onto a past she was no longer there to curate with him.

Mercifully, that is not so for me.

In under a week it will be the anniversary of my wedding.  (Perhaps there should be a word for a widow’s or widower’s wedding anniversary . . . a widoversary?)  I have very few photographs of our wedding, which took place in the days of film photography.  We have no moving pictures, no preserved sound.  But I can easily call back our friend Gary playing the guitar, our friend Patty singing, the exact timbre and measure of our best man Jon’s words to Jim, my long-gone grandmother’s bright blue-green eyes and her patting the chair next to her and telling me to sit with her for just a minute before we left on our new life.

Rather than any formal recording, I gladly rely on what my aunt has referred to as the “haze of memory” of vows which lasted and which yielded this new family and all these boundless memories.

*****

My son and I spent several hours driving that recent night.  We stopped away from ambient light and walked into woods, peeper frogs and crickets providing the soundtrack, but no northern lights appeared.

Near midnight I stood next to my son, who towers over me.  He is nearly as tall as his father.

We gazed on glittering gray starlit skies reflected in Chicorua lake, much too dark to capture with my camera . . .  but a photograph, after all, itself is never just a photograph.  So that night too will softly slide into memory’s soothing mist.

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Love Lessons: A Marriage Manifesto

Overhead at the spot where we married, Memorial Church, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Overhead at the spot where we married, Memorial Church, Cambridge, Massachusetts

” . . . [T]here are three people in a marriage, there’s the woman, there’s the man, and there’s what I call the third person, the most important, the person who is composed of the man and woman together.”

–Jose Saramago, “All the Names”

” Because, you know, you and your spouse are, like, one.”

–Melissa Gorga, “Real Housewives of New Jersey”

I’d like to weigh in as a mom.  One with young daughters and sons.  The remaining member of a couple who lived out our wedding vows until–and in a way after–death us did part.

I believe in osmosis–the continuing two-way exchanges within a good marriage.  It’s not so much that one consciously molds or shapes a partner, but I think sustaining loving relationships let us incorporate the best parts of one another.

The person the two of you become can be a better human being than the people you once were.

(I refuse to link to an original mom “manifesto,” issued by, I am somewhat pained to say, a fellow alum who produced two sons.  She wrote an open letter–published in the school newspaper of the university her son then attended–exhorting the nubile female undergraduate population promptly to set about seizing husband material from the upper classes.  In a subsequent self promotional tour, she paused theatrically and announced, without benefit of a preceding question, “Yes, I went there.”  To which John Stewart responded, “Where?  The 1950s?”).

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Wedding Flowers

I’ll spare you reading that screed and report that–while celebrating the supposed uber-marriagability of her sons and their male classmates–her clarion call to to other mothers’ daughters did not contain a single discussion of love, kindness, faith, grace, friendship, or anything like a commitment of souls for better and worse.

Your College Romantic Relationships, or Lack Thereof, Will Not Doom You.

Three Cheers . . .

First a disclaimer: I happen to have married a man I met when I was a teenage college student.  It was a statistical improbability that this relationship would last.

He broke up with me after nearly a year.

I didn’t take it all that well.

What he said, with some puzzlement at my surprise: “Did you think it would last forever?”

What he didn’t say, but what I read in his decision and discomfort: “You’re my first girlfriend.  We’re still teenagers.  Neither of us has any experience with a serious relationship.  How could this possibly survive?”

As it happened, he reconsidered.  And it did last forever.

Jim’s Closing Ceremonies took place in a church on a school campus, attended by multitudinous children and teenagers.  The Reverend commented on the beginning of our marriage.

“And don’t rush it, guys,” he told them. “But if you chance to meet someone at seventeen and think, ‘This is my life partner,’ know that sometimes it works.”

The key word here is chance.  Happenstance.  Serendipity caused us to meet.  A confluence of love and hope and compatibility, as well as innumerable concrete events we did not control, led us to marry.

Absent any of these whispers from the wings, Jim could have been to me and I could have been to him, as Greg Brown put it, “just another face in the crowd.”

Had any number of other choices been made in either of our lives, no doubt we would have had other relationships and become very different people.  But I guarantee that the quality of the marriage wasn’t influenced by us attending the same college.

If my own children one day emerge in their adult lives with partners they had in college, then great.  And if not, great.  I will never subscribe to, let alone ply, the misguided notion that a “name” school is necessarily the ideal breeding ground for . . . well, finding someone with whom to breed.

I do believe that everywhere my children have gone and will go–from the playgrounds where they ephemerally encountered fellow littles (hat tip to E.  Lockhart)  to the coffee shops they may frequent; from the bands, dance troupes, trivia nights and game boards where they gather to the far-flung countries where they are immersed in different languages and cultures–is a way to learn how to love and value other people.

If romantic love comes to town along with that, fine.  And if not–as any widow or widower can tell you–that’s not all there is.

The capacity to love, wherever you found it, endures. Continue reading “Love Lessons: A Marriage Manifesto”

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