We found our way through the Port of Pireus across a short, quiet stretch of water to the island of Aegina. After a perilous taxi ride (no roller coaster has ever terrified me that thoroughly), we arrived in a quiet, pine-shaded compound, with limestone grottos and placid Mediterranean blue waters.After a moment of deep appreciation for the view, we sunscreened up and climbed in. The water was intoxicating in our near private bay, warm and clear and calm.A ten minute walk brings us to the tiny town of Aegina Marina, which is sadly reduced from the days of Adam’s youth, and where ambitious and long abandoned buildings stand as archaeological ruins from the ’80s.As the daylight waned, I spotted a path up the pine slope along our grotto. I resolved to see where it led. The answer was boring (a hotel), but there was this enchanting rock, almost made got by the sun, where I sat for an hour to watch the sun fall beyond the bay and behind the mountains.In the gloaming, I returned to fetch my youngest son, and we watched the light disappear in the West to be to replaced by the great swath of stars. The Milky Way cut a path from Athens towards Africa. Jupiter was bright at our feet, with Scorpio perilous under the tread of that wanderer. It was gorgeous, and glorious and I spent an hour on that warm rock with a cool breeze and the sound of gentle surf below. There are precious moments in life, and that was one.Tomorrow, more swimming. We plan on spending the entire day at the beach. But today? Was perfect.
Nineteen years ago, Adam and I took our first trip together, to Greece. It was a gift from his parents, this trip to a place he’d grown up visiting every year for vacation. It was also our honeymoon. We were married so long ago, those still took place immediately following the wedding.
I am sure that other people have much better ways of planning their vacations. I came up with a list of three vacation spots, and started fleshing out the options. I ran out of time when I’d only finished the first option. Thus, a return to Greece!
If I’d really been thinking, I would have waited until next year, a pleasing symmetry with our 20th anniversary. But I wasn’t, so the 19th anniversary it is.
We’ve been in Athens for just over a day, following marathon travel. So far we got up at the crack of dawn to see the Parthenon before the crowds woke. We’ve met stray cats, tread polished stones where citizens with voting rights have walked since the concept first originated, eaten in cafes, tracked down favorite spots from (gulp) last century, read books, bargained in the Plaka and gotten a ride from someone’s cousin who happened to grow up in Toronto and study linguistics. So far Athens is very on brand.
Tomorrow we take a ferry to the island of Aegina, to the port of Aegina Marina. We’ll dive off the rocks, like they did thirty years ago. I’m hopeful we’ll see some good stars, play some games, read some books and sit in Panos’ Cafe.
Guys, I hate to be the one to tell you, but SUMMER IS ALMOST OVER!!! QUICK PANIC!
It’s possible that I’ve counted out the remaining summer weekends on my fingers and come to the conclusion that this weekend needed to be ALL THE SUMMER. This was definitely exacerbated by a realization I had during my “sabbatical” that I only had four summers left with Grey after this one, and I might well never spend another July with him. I am not ready for many (or any) lasts with my children that do not involve diaper pails. My friends will point out that I’m always looking way ahead and anticipating what happens next with my kids. This is true, but in this case it nicely focuses me on what I need to do right now: panic.
So this weekend I tried to cram in as much quality family summer time as humanly possible.
It started on Friday night with some rock climbing. A Very Nice rock climbing gym has recently opened about 3/4 of a mile from our house. Adam and I both did belay classes, and went in together (and with the kids) to get certified and do some climbing. Both kids loved especially climbing with a top rope (obviously they’re not lead climbing). We had a great time just being together and doing that as a family. The kids are excited about going back, and I’m excited about more activities we can do as a family that don’t involve sitting down.
Saturday morning on the early side, we headed up to New Hampshire. Over 20 years ago, Adam and I hiked up to Mt. Major with our fellow college friends during Fall Break. The boys ran up the mountain, in an excess of testosterone. We have never revisited it, until this weekend. It’s a pretty easy hike with a big scenic payoff. There might have been some whining as we climbed to the top of the mountain, but not too much. We celebrated our summiting with a meal at nearby Hart’s Turkey Farm. Mmmm turkey gravy poutine….
But we needed to get back in good time, since some friends had invited us over for dinner! BBQ, of course, being the summer. A neighborhood-favorite game of bottle bash broke out, prior to the consumption of hamburgers. It was great to catch up with some friends! But we had to leave at a moderately reasonable time, due to needing to get up early again today.
See, it’s already August and we have not yet hit the beach! I mean, our children have been MIA for most of the summer, but basically all remaining summer weekend days are spoken for. So we HAD to hit the beach this weekend, or not at all. And so we did, on a summer morning with perfectly blue skies and relatively warm waters.
Now, when not posting breathless updates to my blog, I’m cleaning out the first and second floor hallways. Finally, almost a year after it should have been done, we’re doing the last planned part of the attic project and getting hard wood put into the first and second floor hallways, and pulling the carpet off the stairs. Given that this carpet may well be older than me, it is past due. But I definitely procrastinated on the work of it! Also, once again I failed to take a “before” picture. Why do I continue to be so bad at remembering that?
Anyway, back to panicking!
There’s some debate about when Camp Gramp really started. Was it the first time my parents took their first-born grandchild? Did it require all four of the current Camp Gramp generation? Was it simply the first portrait on the wall in my ancestral home, right below the senior portraits of myself and my siblings? Regardless of your opinion of the previous, this year was at very least the 11th Camp Gramp. The babies (quite literally) in that first portrait are now majority-pubescent and taller than me. They know more about my wifi than I do, and speak in a language that is half-meme, half whatever replaces Vines.
But still we have Camp Gramp.
The lobbying was hard and heavy this year for another “RV” Camp Gramp. The cynical parental view is that this particular Camp Gramp methodology doesn’t interfere with the video gaming that is the shared Linga Franca amongst the campers. But the grandparents are loving, and obtained at great cost and with significant trepidation a behemoth to shuttle the campers across a modest half of Canada. Adam and I warned them about the Bay of Fundy (regardless of when you’re there, the tide will be wrong for whatever you’re trying to do. Also, it will be raining.) But we waved a cheery farewell as they trekked North. I was personally anticipating a few coveted days in the house ALL BY MYSELF as my children trekked through Quebec and my husband role-played in Indianapolis.
It wasn’t long though before things started going awry. The stress of driving the behemoth made my mother question the probity of her heart (nine hours in the ER in Augusta Maine is just as much fun as it sounds) and the night that was intended for Acadia was instead spent in a Walmart parking lot. The ‘fridge on the RV went. The wipers failed to turn on during an epic rainstorm. The systems seemed to take turns failing. My indomitable parents, who spent four years in the heart of Africa (including while pregnant with me) were finally bested by the drumbeat of mechanical failures and returned to the safety of my home and high throughput of my wifi.
It was really lovely to get to spend time with my mother and father, niece and nephew. These are people I see far too little of. I was glad to spend a few extra days with them, and sad to see them leave this morning. We are a few years into the “I wonder if this is the last one” stage. This one was extra, uh, character building. But watching those kids together, I’m so grateful that they know each other as the family they are!
Last night, I drove to Camp Wilmot for what seemed like the umpteenth time this year. I was picking Grey up from his fourth week of camp, and he’d just returned from a remote Maine island where he’d spent time in a tent right near the beach with a small group of campers and counselors. The pictures looked amazing.
I’m incredibly impressed with what Camp Wilmot does. When I first dropped Grey off as a shy 8 year old (only five years ago? surely more!) I knew nothing of the camp, other than that it was the Presbyterian camp serving our Presbytery – and that summer camp was super important to me. In every year since, I have seen and understood more of what the camp does and offers than I did the year before. That first year, there were only about 10 kids in the second youth week of summer camp. The first week was bigger, with over 40 kids. We sent him to the smaller camp, to break him in.
This year, there were over 60 kids in both two youth camp weeks, as well as Adventure Camp teen weeks on either side. “How” you ask me “Did a middle Protestant Christian camp go from a faithful few to a packed, month-long hive of kids buzzing with energy?” It really feels like an old-school, Hollywood-type miracle. We Presbyterians are not growing. The summer camp I attended as a kid has been shut down, as have many others. But here’s Camp Wilmot, thriving!
I haven’t fully gotten to the bottom of the secret. I think it might have something to do with the energy and dedication of the new generation of directors. They’re former campers who were passionate about the camp, enough to put their time and their youth behind the work of running the thing. I heard a story of them asking Presbytery not to give up on the camp – but to give them enough time to graduate and give back to the camp they loved. That love, I swear, runs through every board and blade of the buildings and grounds. I can feel it now, when I walk there.
But that wasn’t all. They also realized that there was a tremendous need for high quality summer activities for kids who may not have as many options for how to spend their summers. So along with a very generous donor, they set up a campership fund and started working with the guidance counselors in local school districts to identify kids who would especially benefit, and make sure those kids were able to come. It turns out that almost half the kids who come to Camp Wilmot do not regularly go to another church. This is not a camp designed only to appeal to the Sunday School crowd, but to kids from city Boston and rural New Hampshire who have never sat in a pew before.
And I’m watching it play out with my kids. That first year, Grey was alone. By the next year, he’d talked no fewer than four of his buddies into joining him. This year, our town sent 10 kids. I’m pretty sure that Grey would also fight, work, and commit to keep the camp where his heart lives open.
Are you excited by this camp? I am. In a world that seems full of bad news, watching scrappy young people fight for something they love and make it a haven of welcome for a whole new generation of children is exactly what my soul needs. I really want to support it, and I invite you to as well. So how can you support the camp?
They’re hosting their second 5k Funderaiser in September, and I’m going to be running it! (It’s a hilly course – this 5k is no joke!) I invite you to:
Sabbaticals that don’t come to a planned end are usually called “retirement” – and that’s a milestone I’m still years or decades from. So it turns out that tomorrow I have to pack up from this cabin and go home and resume the mantle of daily living. (And for the few of you who have inquired as to the availability of this cabin, here’s the AirBNB listing. Weekends in August look pretty full, but September is wiiiiiide open.) This period of rest has been exactly what I needed, and even largely what I planned. I have been somewhat surprised at how much I want to be out hiking. Only one day of this entire week have I failed to lace up my hiking boots. It’s been less reading than I thought. This may actually have something to do with the chairs in this otherwise lovely cabin not being incredibly comfortable for lounging in. I have written more blog posts, got halfway through a ghost story (sorry!), but my mostly-finished novel is completely untouched. I think that the process of editing feels too much like work and too little like exploration.
My loneliness/extroversion techniques have been interesting. I have spent several days entirely by myself. Physically. But I am struck by the generosity and kindness of my friends in having not one, but two people make the drive all the way up here to go hiking with me – on hikes I would otherwise have had the good sense to pass up doing alone. Those were two excellent days for me. There may be a better way to have deep and meaningful conversations with people than hiking, but I have yet to find it. Conversation flows as breath ebbs and views wax on the horizon. I loved the hikes, but I also loved the chance to go really deep into conversation with people I deeply like and admire.
And as Anthony cogently observed “I thought you were going up to the mountains for solitude, but you’re all over social media.” There is a constant dialogue in my head with … you? But in the tumult of work that’s usually with my colleagues. And so often I find that I have little interesting to say, or my interesting thoughts are still nascent and unformed. It takes time and space to take the germ of a thought and grow it into any kind of meaningful expression. And time and space are notably lacking in my usual daily life. But I definitely countered the aloneness by writing, and reaching out on social media. Perhaps I would find it less enjoyable if I actually was really alone. I am brought back to an era – I am the last of this era – where I used to write actual letters and then get responses in the mail. I think that worked almost as well, if more slowly. No one writes me letters anymore, and I write few to the remnants of generations past who do not “Facebook”.
When I first came, that first night, I wrote down my intentions for the journey: both those things I did and did not want to do. I also set some goals for myself, which were really permission to do what it was I needed and wanted. Here were my goals:
1) To truly rest and recharge
Admirably accomplished, I think. I fell into conversation at a trail head with some passing cyclists and they actually commented on how well rested, clear eyed and happy I seemed.
2) To understand myself and my desires, wants and needs better
I think this is definitely a B+ or better. I learned some interesting things about myself, with time and space. I also importantly reinforced things that I have previously believed, but had become separated from – like my passion for hiking. It’s a little divorced from reality, though, since who I am without obligations, family or work is not at all who I actually am. There is always work to be done here.
3) To sit down and recall a slower pace of life
Again perhaps a B+. When I wrote this, I imagined a reptilian torpor stealing over me where a whole day or two would languidly pass and I’d barely note their passing. Instead, I laced my shoes and went hiking. I think that reveals not failure, but who I really am. That said, today I spent almost a full hour sitting on a rock in a river doing absolutely nothing. I noted every charming, unexpected, delightful aspect of that creek – seeing things nearly an hour in that I’d failed to see in the previous many minutes. I don’t think I could have sat so still so long at the beginning of the week.
4) To write, especially fiction
I wrote, but it was mostly connectional and not fiction. I have no idea what it would take for me to actually write the fiction.
5) To hike, and use my body in joyful motion
Nailed it. This is pretty much what I did.
6) To reacquaint myself with nature and become friendly with mountains again
Speaking to that journey of self-discovery, it was interesting to watch me orient myself in place and history. I read up on geological formations and historic notes. I stared at maps. I learned the names of the peaks I could see. I went to as many New Hampshires as I could reach: biker bar, art gallery, 7-11, microbrewery, rugged trail, townie trail, literal castle, unpretentious state park, BBQ joint, etc. To the watching eye, you could almost see me laying down the filaments of roots to see where they might thrive and where they would be crowded out. You do not come to love nature in the abstract, but must love it in the most concrete. I like mountains, but I love Chocorua. I like rivers, but that stretch of unnamed river I dwelt in (perhaps the Chocorua?) for a long hour I knew and loved. I like trees, but I know the beech silhouetted against the darkening sky has one branch that has been stripped of a foot’s worth of leaves. To reconnect with nature in the abstract, I found I had to get very close to very concrete parts of it and introduce myself.
I recognize keenly how very, very fortunate I am that I was able to take this time, this distance and this week. There are so many aspects of lucky: the supportive husband, the older children, the resources to book a nice place for 10 days in high summer. But I wish that all of us could have these times and moments set aside to know ourselves and our surroundings.
The place I’m renting is for sale ($400k if you’re interested, with a two family plus the cabin). The house next door is also for sale, with the same gorgeous view and slightly less stuff going on and also $256k. I might possibly have called a realtor to take a look. The house, well, it’s not for me. And I know what I’m really doing is wishing I could stay in the easy-ness of this week, and look out on mountains that heal my heart. But it’s time to go back, hug my beloved family and take up the yoke of my labors again.
Since I have discovered that I apparently am incapable of writing in the third person, and since I have insufficient time this sabbatical to remedy the issue with more structured fiction, I figured I’d be adventurous and attempt this blog post in the third person. Don’t worry – this won’t be the normal thing. You will soon be able to resume not-reading my first person blog posts.
The day started with pie. There are much worse ways to start a day. This pie was made of tart, locally grown cherries picked in season, and almost entirely pitted. And as all the best pies should be, it was eaten for breakfast. The pie was a gluten-free gift from the wife of today’s hiking companion, Anthony, sent north from Massachusetts to nourish and sustain the travelers. It was well established that Brenda likes pie quite a lot.
The day was slated to be very hot, to the point of records being set. There is no way to hike Chocorua in only the cool of the day. The hike was planned for 10 miles, crossing from Champney Brook to the bald summit of the mountain. They’d then turn their steps towards the invisible ocean, claim the summmits of the other two sisters, then tackle the long, hot descent through beech forests to the waiting car in the White Ledge parking lot.
Champney Brook has a quick loop that for the measly cost of .1 of a mile gives you a long and lingering view of beautiful waterfalls across granite. The morning was still cool when their steps brought them to the falls, already the province of old hikers and young enthusiasts alike. With hours of hiking in front of them, they still lingered in front of the splashing spray of the clear mountain river, pure and golden in morning light. Heedless of risk to shoe and sock, they hopped across stones like a pair of young kids instead of the sedate software Stonehamites you may have met. Pushing across shimmering waters, they found a long dark wall of basalt with a vernal fall silhouetted against the impossibly blue sky and green leaves. They lingered in the spray of the waters, marveling at the work done by ephemeral water against impossibly soft stone. But the summit still awaited, and the heat would only mount throughout the day. They tore themselves away with deep regret that they and their to-be weary feet would not pass this way again. At least not this trip. If there were secret heart-felt vows to come back again with hiking-reluctant loved ones, they were only somewhat spoken.
Altitude, time and distance all fell under their greedy boots as their strides sought the open skies.
“You know, last time I did this trail I didn’t have a single undamaged tendon in my entire left knee” Brenda marveled, boosting herself up the granite. “I did this all with no left ACL, major tears in both meniscus, a bone bruise and two cysts – only to be stymied a half mile short of the summit by the sound of thunder.”
No thunder sounding in the mounting heat – only birdsong, the persistent buzz of mosquitoes, and the elegant huffing of two friends hauling themselves up a mountain side for fun. As they broke into the sunlight, they were rewarded by spectacular views of their next climb and refreshing breezes that swept aside both mosquito and humid heat. Despite their desire to achieve that summit, they stopped often to admire it and revel in the New Hampshire spread before them: lakes and civilization to one side, unpeopled White Mountain vastness to the other. Both raised the cameras to the horizons in the fond hope of capturing this warmth and joy for the cold, long days of winter.
A quick scramble up the last steep incline, and the summit was theirs. It was peopled with similarly victorious hikers: kids with their parents, the kind of retirees that the ardent hikers someday hoped to be, young folks bursting with energy and vitality, selfie-takers all. Long they lingered on the summit, seeking the freshest breezes and the most glorious views. The remaining hours of hiking gave them no fear: the days are still long so early in the summer, and the miles ahead were all downhill. The breezes blew away their fears, the warmth baked into them melting New England ice. The birds flew below them, hovering on hot winds. Snacks were consumed.
Long they lingered. Long they looked. Long they tried to record every moment of sound, scent, feeling and sight into their minds, for future recovery. But at last the miles ahead beckoned and then slid down the mountainside they’d lately ascended, headed to the other two sisters of the peak. Long was the discussion about which one was Middle Sister and where the Little Sister peak might be found. The second summit of their day boasted a spectacular view of their first, as well as old ruins and new mysterious towers. On the last high bit of ground, they looked back over the work of their feet, ate cheese, and were satisfied.
They descended into the long, slow slope back to civilization. Finding on the farthest trail the unexpected beneficence of a granite slope with lovely views and ripe blueberries, they picked a portion for the maker of pies, still in Massachusetts. As he carefully filled the Pringles can with the blueberries, she sat in the sun. “You know, some day we’ll be talking and I’ll remind you of the time we picked blueberries on the mountain together.” “Ah,” he responded, “But I’ll have to say ‘Which time'”? The friends grinned and picked the blueberries for those who had not been able to eat them, sunwarmed, in the waning slopes of the mountain.
The hike down was long, leafy and buggy. No more views beckoned. No more summits summoned. Only the beer and burger which are the inalienable right of all hikers remained of their adventure. But all through the descent of hard-earned altitude the theme spun: when can we hike again, and who can we bring along with us on the next journey – to share these wonders and joys.