Commonplace

seeking the story in the ordinary

You come from the hill by the lake.

It’s dotted with wooden huts that overlook the water.

On long Saturdays, campers sit on towels stretched below the summer sun—barefooted, knees bent. Or toss frisbees, rest on the rise and fall of a kindred’s chest, seek shade.

Come nightfall, heads tilt toward every star in a midsummer sky. Then they tuck behind bunks where, swallowed by shadows, they share a young kiss.

This is the hill where you trade secrets, wage war against waning memory, bear witness to time’s steady passage. To sunrises. To moonfalls.

You will stand at the edge of this hill, sunscreened and teeth-clenched, determined to swim the length of the lake outstretched beyond it.

You will skinny-dip and dance. Wonder and sing.

This is the hill that will watch you grow.

It sits atop a winding path off Upper Woods Road. You can go the back way if you like. Take the second left onto the dirt road that leads to Equinunk Creek. If you reach the cemetery by the church, you’ve gone too far.

Twenty years ago, I met your father there.

~

That April morning you were born, we rose before the sun. Walked in crisp dark air from the parking lot to the hospital doors. “Feels like camp weather,” I said.

Maybe I should tell you about the night before. We went out for Mexican, cleaned the car. We tucked your brothers into bed. Do you know my favorite days are the ordinary ones? Your Dad’s too.

Now I wait in front of the steely doors of the Operating Room, hair netted and IV-poled, haunted that I can’t see the end of our story. Can anyone? With Paul Kalanithi’s book by my hospital bedside, I wonder: what makes a life? And how does one make it last?

On other floors in this building, people are leaving this world, and here you’ve just arrived. The sunlight has yet to touch your skin. There’s something about hospitals, I think. All manner of humans gather, reduced to their most basic needs, to getting another day, to caring for each other. A hospital is a melting pot of humans helping humans.

That day, the world narrowed to a single hallway—industrial carpeting and floor-to-ceiling windows; my only goal to walk it up and then back down.

All else fell away.

On one of your first nights—the specific smell of the postpartum ward sitting in my nostrils—the melody for “Taps” slips past my lips as I sway to soothe you.

Where we’re from is woven into our words, our world. It is the sounds we start with, the notes we forever hum by heart…

~

Our life was like a song, even before you came along.

You come from the park bench drenched in lamplight in lower Manhattan where I said yes. From dancing in the little apartment on 12th Street and no phone calls till morning.

You come from late nights cruising a hand-me-down Camry along the New Jersey Turnpike, road trips through Western New York, diner coffee, living by the water.

You come from summer camp romances, train platform farewells, mix tapes.

You come from under the boardwalk, R.E.M. concerts in the pouring rain, and New Year’s Eve on the beach.

You come from Old Friends and Bleecker Street, Feelin’ Groovy and April Come She Will.

Hello lamppost, whatcha knowin’ and the only truth I know is you.

You come from two apartments and then a house on the south side of Philadelphia, with a stoop to sit on and a park across the street.

You come from Magnolia cupcakes, study lounges off dim hallways, long dinners with old friends, port wine.

You come from fireflies and 4 AM.

You come from Bunk 53, second to last room on the right.

You come from three sons in quick succession followed by a pause.

And then you came.

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~

On our way home, we wheeled past the recovery room, retracing our steps from days—decades?—ago. You come from there too.

And while we were inside, the seasons changed. The chill was gone from the air and spring had settled in its stead. Get used to it, my girl. Everything will move just a bit faster than you might like.

We left that room behind, where we first uttered your name. Lane Marlowe.

Lane for where we’ve been, what lies ahead.

And Marlowe means “from the hill by the lake.”

We’re all from somewhere.
Where we’re going, no one can know.

But you, my girl. You come from the hill by the lake.

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I found myself on a flight to California the other day to visit family. As we boarded the aircraft, touching our fingertips to the fuselage, these could be my last steps on earth, I think, and then again as we slowly taxi down the runway, these, my last moments in life. Morbid, maybe, but I think it all the same. Conjuring worst case scenarios is my mind’s way of making sense of uncertainty.

I settle in between my mother and youngest son, look across the aisle to my husband, flanked on either side by our older boys. They’re already engrossed in their screens, heads bent, eyes cast downward. They don’t see me stealing a glimpse of their sandy skin, the hair framing their sweet faces—no longer wispy, no longer white blond.

What have I left behind? I wonder. If this is the end, what will remain?

On the two-year anniversary of this blog, I question, perhaps now more than ever, why I’m doing this. Why any of us are. Why we feel compelled to record, to share our stories, to put words to the moments of our mundane lives, to mold meaning out of them.

And yet. Simply by being human, you have a story to tell. I couldn’t believe this more.

I sat back as the plane reached cruising altitude and thumbed the pages of my new book. (New to me, but I’d actually bought it used, as I often do. I love that someone else’s hands held it before my own—the book like a link between two disparate lives.

On this copy of The Art of Memoir, there is a small coffee stain on the back cover, roughly the size of a quarter and, aptly, shaped like Texas. I run my fingertips over the warped paper and wonder about its prior owner, that other life, now seeping into mine.)

Memoir writing begins, Mary Karr writes, with “a curious mind probing for truth . . . a fierce urge to try re-experiencing your own mind and body and throbbing heart alive inside the most vivid stories from your past.” We don’t let things go, we couldn’t if we tried. “Nobody,” Karr continues, “can be autonomous in making choices today unless she grasps how she’s been internally yanked around by stuff that came before.”

We spent the day hurtling against hours, moving backwards across a morning that, it seemed, had no end. The plane pushed against time’s passage, crossing from Eastern Standard into Central, then Mountain, and finally, Pacific. Perhaps if we kept flying, the day would never grow old. Time, temporarily, had nothing on us.

It has been a long, full year since I marked this time last December.

There are the beginnings of a book and a fourth baby.
Several published essays, several more submissions.
A shelf lined with books whose authors I feel I know.
Two months living in the Pennsylvania Mountains with my sons in a beloved camp bunk.
School buses and packed lunches and outgrown shoes and boys who grow bigger and older and read and play and cry and think and fight and love.
Prospects for a move to a town where we might settle, and stay.

It has been a good year in a little life.

When I feel that familiar reluctance to letting it go, I gently chastise myself with these words recently read, “Perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments — an inability to accept life as ongoing.”

I stood on the beach last night with my family—four silhouettes in fading light—as the sun slipped behind the sea for one of the last times this year. It was as beautiful as it was irretrievable. You could no more stop its setting as you could wrest it from the horizon with your bare hands. We all must move on, every minute, but we can also make our mark. Line up the words one after another—the days too. Marching together into the unknown. With, at once, a tight grip on our past and palms open to what lies ahead.

So I put pen to paper, make my small, seemingly insignificant imprint on the slippery sands of time. Like the sharpie-scribbled names on backstages or the quotes on camp bunks. Like the initials I dug into the wet cement of the driveway that led to my childhood home—that still remain. I’ve been back, I’ve checked.

I was here, these words say. They evince a dogged determination to make sense of what was—pulling it along like a Radio Flyer wagon—connecting it to what will be.

As I deplaned, past luggage-laden passengers swapping coasts, I turned back toward the aircraft that shuttled us safely across the country—a last look at what I was leaving behind. And then walked on, the wheels of my suitcase sliding over the thin airport carpeting, leaving an ever so subtle trace.

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Look at me, dancing my little dance for a few moments against the background of eternity. – Sarah Manguso

 

The other morning, I woke to speak with a man I’d never met.

After 13 minutes of failed Google+ attempts, we got through. It was just after 5am and pitch black outside the window above the desk. I curled my legs underneath me as we smiled with relief.

Conversations with strangers are so touching and intimate these days. Maybe it’s simply that any conversation with a stranger, since such conversations are more and more rare, represents something you almost didn’t do.    – Heidi Julavits, The Folded Clock

It was (a shortened version of) this quote that prompted Philip McCluskey, the Thirsty Wanderer, to reach out over Twitter and then suggest we meet for a virtual drink. He does this often. He has drinks with strangers.

The premise is simple, yet stunning: you have a drink and conversation with someone you’ve never met. It need not be alcoholic—we, for example, had coffee.

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He was kind and accommodating and sincere. He says what he thinks and asks good, hard questions. He listens to the answers.

There was a slight (inevitable) awkwardness, and yet a surprising ease to our conversation. Either because of limited time—threatened as we were by the impending wake-up of my youngest son—or his nature, probably both, we got right to the heart of things.

What matters? What do you wish you could tell the world? Did you see yourself ending up where you are?

In the span of an hour, we talked of faith and friendship, religion and travel, parenthood and professions, family and where we’re from. He told of other people he’s met—each had left a mark, I could tell. This is a man who is affected by those who cross his path. We spoke of taking comfort in uncertainty as we grow older, and how writing creates uncommon connections, allows you to be more honest somehow—like in a conversation with a stranger.

As Philip says in his brief video intro to the project, “There is no past with a stranger. And there’s probably not going to be any future either. There’s no broken-in feeling of comfort there, but there’s also less expectation.”

It reminded me of being 17, when I would talk long and late into the night to a red-haired boy named Jon until we’d fall asleep with the phone receivers still pressed between one ear and the pillow. He referenced books I scrambled to read, quoted song lyrics like poetry, and made me question…everything.

Why do we have to stop having these conversations at 20?

I used to wander city streets on Sundays, alone, and strike up conversation with anyone. I once met an actor waiting for his scene in a Jack Nicholson movie they were filming on my corner, an older gentleman riding out his last days in a laundromat, a woman with a thick Russian accent who clerked at the local video store and spiritedly debated me on the meaning of the movies I rented.

But at some point we settle down, get set in our ways. We find our four walls and, for the most part, stay within them. But what if we blurred the line between self and other, between here and elsewhere?

What if any two people, anywhere, could meet and talk?

I let him in to my morning. Still in my pajamas and, at points, with a sleepy two-year-old on my lap. It wasn’t pretty, but it was real.

When I opened the front door for my oldest son to board the school bus later that morning, I lingered a little longer, took in a few gulps of fresh fall air and thought of him, stepping out into his own day. Many miles lay between us, but for a moment, an hour, our paths crossed, our lives ricocheted off each other, and it was as if, particle by particle, a strand stretched across the vast space separating us…

What matters?

What matters, I wanted to say, is this. Exactly this. Connecting with someone else in a sincere way. Breaking down boundaries, seeing one another for who we really are, discarding fear, diminishing distance and difference. Starting with a simple hello, a warm smile, a good morning, it’s nice to meet you.

And going from there…

…the quiet of stealing hours from the night

…of the early morning hours, when you wake, before sun, before sound

…pierced only by the click-clack of keys that, for now, are typing the most dreadful first draft

…of what might, one day, be a book…with a binding…that bears your name

…the silent stir of your spoon in the coffee as you strain to keep it from clinking

…the quiet in the weeks and months that stretch out after “submit”

…while you await a response

…or receive a pass

…the whispering echo of your own self-doubt

…the quiet resignation of seeing each rejection as evidence of an attempt, as proof of a willingness to try, to fail

…the quiet here, as I write elsewhere

…of words sitting still on a page, written but unread

…the quiet of remembering when

…of conjuring conversations where you speak both sides, without saying a word

…the quiet loneliness of few friends in a temporary town, a waypoint where we will not stay

…the comforting company of questions unasked

…of a secret, carefully kept

…of friendships formed only in the ether, by messages sent through silenced phones

…the quiet of staying in, missing out

…of staring into old photographs

…of sharing silent space with someone you love

…of a rural landscape, left behind

…the quiet of arriving first at a room that will soon be filled

…of sitting in solitude on an evening train into the city, watching out the window as the sky yellows, then pinks, then settles into a deep navy

…the quiet at the slow outset of a song at a concert of an old friend

…on a familiar stretch of a city where you once lived

…of walking its streets to find that storefronts haven’t stayed the same, that nothing does, that nothing will

…the quiet of a bed in a room of your own

…of him working late and long into the night

…of a light left on

…of sleeping alone

…of the tick-tick of time, of a life fading from present to past while your sights are set on simply getting through the day

…the quiet of sliding calloused feet between cold, clean sheets, of pulling the comforter up to your chin

…as you sigh, quietly

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Thirty-five is the rhythm of everyday life.

It’s seeing someone and thinking, I knew you well once.

It’s knowing where you are happiest—but how to cope when you can’t be there.

Thirty-five is realizing you’ve lived twice as long as the counselors caring for your kids at camp.

It’s getting dizzy on the roller coasters you once loved as a child.

Or collapsing cross-legged on the floor—but “needing a minute” to get back up.

Thirty-five is confidence in The Way You Do Things.

And at once an awareness of how little you know, how much is uncertain.

It’s being comforted, not frightened, by that.

Thirty-five is out of the honeymoon phase of, oh, just about everything: parenting, profession, marriage, friendships.

It’s realizing life goes on after losing its luster and digging in to the gritty work of it all.

Thirty-five is watching friends become wildly successful in ways that make you tearfully proud, but still remembering that time you shared a bed or bath in your younger days—over twenty-five years ago.

Thirty-five is appreciating time alone more than ever before. It’s knowing what to do with it.

It’s feeling less patient with other people’s peccadillos. But mastering not letting that show.

Thirty-five knows just how to comfort her children during a thunderstorm.

It’s unsubscribing from new moms email groups, viewing those early months of motherhood as a quaint memory.

It’s feeling secure in and sated by your marriage.

Thirty-five relishes setting out, but knows returning home is far sweeter.

It’s coming to terms with the fact that you’ll never wear red.

Or listen to your old mix tapes again.

Thirty-five is feeling that life is, for the most part, sorted and known, while still harboring hope for possibility on your path.

It’s songs on the radio that remind you of someone, soap scents that transport you to a specific place. Thirty-five is wistful. Thirty-five is remembering when…

It’s part of you wanting to go back, and all of you knowing you can’t.

Thirty-five is still battling breakouts, while simultaneously mapping the lines that etch and extend their way between your eyes, around your mouth.

It’s wearing undergarments that suck all of you in.

It’s feeling comfortable letting it all hang out.

It’s finding bars too loud. And Friends reruns far more alluring.

It’s the same gray hoodie and black sweats thrown on at the end of the day.

It’s a long pour of red wine after sundown.

Thirty-five is facing the frailty of family and friends, coming to terms with the truism that every day on this earth is a gift.

It’s accepting certain vices—nail biting, that coffee addiction, your stubborn streak—as immutable.

It’s realizing that, even as you become more set in your ways, dig deeper grooves in the ground beneath your feet, you can connect with anyone over something.

Thirty-five is looking in the mirror to see beautiful-tired staring back at you.

It’s salt and pepper strands slowly overtaking, but not to the point where you do anything just yet.

It’s making sure that nighttime moisturizer says something about anti-aging on the label.

Thirty-five is wondering if jeans with a slit in the knee is trying too hard.

Thirty-five is neither here nor there.

It’s kissing your kids goodnight and then turning in yourself, giddy to have a good book in hand.

It’s waking at 4am to the contemplative quiet of the early morning hours before your world wakes.

At thirty-five, freedom is flooring it in your minivan.

It’s imagining one more…positive pregnancy test, round belly, warm soft baby against your slackening skin …but worrying whether your body, and everything else, will break under the weight of it all.

Thirty-five is cobbling friends together in odd places and in ways perhaps you’d once scoffed at—through office companionship, school drop offs, social media.

It’s knowing that however these friendships formed, they’re the ones you can’t live without.

Thirty-five is feeling at peace with your life and lot, but still sensing the subtle stirrings of discontent. A nagging awareness, a whispered question: can this be all there is?

Thirty-five is not the end of the story.

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My 35th birthday was a little over a week ago, and I wrote this post to capture a moment in time. I was inspired by Galit Breen’s gorgeous This Is 39.

“That’s all that exists in the end, what has been written down.” – James Salter

Jena Schwartz

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