August Break

august break

A few years ago, I got wind about this thing called The August Break. It was a blogging thing, a thing where you took a break from blogging for the month of August. Or, at least, a break from the writing part. You were still supposed to post a picture every day and let that picture hold space for your words. I spent the month doing just that, exhausted still from our move north and trying to figure out what blogging meant for me anyway. And I was trying to figure out what living back in New York meant for me. It was a fun summer, as I remember, but stressful. We went from living a thousand miles away, on our own without anyone asking for our time or giving their input on our lives, to living fifteen minutes to our closest relatives.

An August break was a welcome one. As I remember it, I quit blogging about a month later. It didn’t carry the same weight as it had when we lived so far away. One of my motivations for starting the blog was to share with our far-flung family. Now we were back, so what did it all mean? I realized what truly excited me was photography, and I continued to pick up the camera day in and day out. I taught myself how to use Lightroom to edit my photos, then decided it was too much work and I’d just shoot film. Film stood on its own and didn’t require any more hours at the computer. That made me happy.

***

A few mornings ago, I sat in the living room reading, then got up to get a cup of coffee. The living room is on the wrong side of the house to see the sun coming up. If I want to read, I have to use the lamp, even though I can see out the bay window that the sun is kissing the world hello. I went to the kitchen to pour my first coffee of the day and was met with a beam of bright sunlight shooting across the kitchen table, which was clean except for a small vase of flowers. The flowers glowed, lit from the back by an oozy orange sun, and I paused, took a deep breath. It was a moment, one I would have missed had I stayed on the couch reading. I poured my coffee, finished it off with some milk, then looked up and the light was gone. It had disappeared into the trees and the kitchen was dark again. I returned to my book, hot coffee in hand.

Later, I stood at the kitchen sink in the dark. All morning, the sun dips in and out. The trees are doing their job of shading us, but I want the light. I want a bright kitchen. I wash the dishes slowly while looking out the window at the backyard, all lush greens. I am grateful there’s a window over the sink, a bit of natural light where I stand again and again doing dishes. It’s a cool day for August and the windows are open. I hear breezes whooshing through the trees over the music playing in the background. It’s been a slow morning. I’m taking it one step at a time.

***

Today, the kids are at day camp and my husband is at work. The house is quiet. I walk from room to room, toys and books and papers in piles everywhere. They are proof that life is being lived here. We’re alive and we’re making messes. The messes are easier to tolerate when no one’s here, when it’s quiet enough that I can pause, take a moment to check in with myself. I walk into the bathroom and remember I need to wash the towels today. I lift them from the hooks on the back of the door and stop again. I remember no one else is here. I want to hold this moment a little while longer.

Summer is so beautifully intense. On the one hand, I want the full weight of summer to rest itself on me – the heat, the lolling about, the unscheduled days. I want all the idyllic moments. But with them come the proof-of-life stuff. We are home together all day. We bring our conflicts, our bad attitudes, our joys, our creativity, our messes, and our bodies into the mix. Some moments are light; others are dark. We make the most of it, but all the messy day-to-day splashes over onto the calm. We don’t lie around in hammocks taking naps all afternoon. We are like every other family; we have fights and eat snacks and try to find ways to occupy our minds.

So, the kids headed to camp for one last week this summer. I’ve been working more than usual to get ready for our vacation, which starts in nine days. There’s no paid time off at my job. So, I’m trying to work ahead. This is interfering with my daydream of peaceful hammock-napping and lolling about, but when we get into the car and head off on our trip, it will be worth it.

***

I made a mistake in July. Actually, I made a few. The biggest, though, turned out to be overcommitting. I took on a writing class and an extra writing project. I wanted to announce plans for our re-launch of hello there, friend. I wrote most every day for my 100-day project. It was too much. I flipped the calendar to August and took a deep breath. It was time for a break. I set a few goals for the month: get ready for vacation, keep on top of work, say yes to adventures, take a Sabbath every week.

A friend wrote me a letter asking if writing brings me peace. She had started writing her story, she said, something to share with her daughters when they get older. What is it like to share my story? she wants to know. What does it feel like? I don’t know how to answer, so I’ve avoided writing back. The truth is, writing doesn’t necessarily bring me peace. Or, maybe, more specifically, it’s that it hasn’t brought me closure. Writing brings me more questions. It makes me probe deeper. I learned that more and more as I made a futile attempt at writing a first chapter of a memoir I’m not ready to write. I spent three long days writing about my past, starting and stopping and shedding more tears than I thought I had. Then I quit. I quit even after I found a sweet little story about a summer I spent with my grandparents, a story I didn’t realize I had. I quit because I had to.

***

A week ago, we went to the lake for the first time. It was the second day of August. It felt like an exhale. I sat with Adam out front, on the side of the house that faces the lake, listening to the water whoosh against the retaining wall, and we watched the sun go down for the first time this year. I had my camera out, trying to capture the fleeting moment when the sun first kisses the horizon. Then, I turned to the water. It’s higher than usual, finicky. But I missed it. I missed the full weight of it, of sitting at the water’s edge watching the day pass, of taking the boat to the abandoned beach andpretending like it’s ours and only ours.

The next day, we went to that beach with a cooler and a waterproof speaker. We played catch in the water with the kids and laughed as they jumped off the boat. Adam made a fire and cooked hot dogs, and we ate cherries and spit the pits back into the lake. It was the first time this summer that I didn’t worry about what I was doing or wasn’t doing. I was in the middle of nowhere and no one could find me except the three other people I most love to get lost with. I just sat there on a rock beach, watching the water and sky.august break lake ontario

Gratitude, Humility, and Lying on the Floor

Lindsay Crandall writer photographer

A few years ago, I took my kids to the Lamberton Conservatory on a Saturday afternoon in winter. It was cold and I was sick of being housebound. So, I grabbed my camera and the three of us headed to the conservatory to see some greenery and hopefully beat away some of the winter blahs. The conservatory is filled with tropical plants and lush greens in one room, and cacti and desert plants in another. The walls and ceilings are made of glass. Tiny quails scurry across the floor, and turtles and fish swim in the pond.

Lily was four and Josh was one, still small enough, both of them, to need hand holding and the occasional scooping up into my arms. We walked through the conservatory, making our observations and me snapping photos. Halfway through, I bent down to pick up Josh and felt something shift in my back. I gasped in pain, put him down, and told them both quietly, “We need to leave now. I just hurt myself.”

Adam was working that day, so I was on my own, fearful of getting the kids out to the car and driving them home. I was grateful that both kids could climb into their car seats and all I had to do was buckle them in. I plopped down in the driver’s seat and immediately felt better. But I drive a stick and every time I lifted my leg to shift, a tiny spike of pain shot through my back.

No matter. We made it home. I flipped on the TV for the kids and whispered a prayer of thanks that it was almost dinnertime and the day would be coming to a close soon. I called my husband and he said to lie on the floor with my legs up, so that’s just what I did.

Flash-forward to today, and I’m lying on the floor again, legs in the air, back in massive pain. Only this time, instead of picking up my child, I was standing on a chair in the kitchen trying to take a photo of some wildflowers I stole from the abandoned house down the street as they lay in the light on the counter. I bent over to fuss with the flowers, straightened up, and knew I was in trouble. Worse was that I was about to leave to pick Lily up after a sleepover last night. And, again, Adam was at work.

Thankfully, my friend was able to bring her home, so I could lie on the floor with Josh, reading him book after book, then listening to him play Yahtzee while I read a chapter out of Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Option B. Sandberg’s option B was living without her husband after his unexpected death; my option B was lying on the floor and giving up my plans of stopping at Trader Joe’s and going to yoga at the Y later. Not exactly apples to apples, but it gave me pause.

Just two weeks ago, I pulled my quad muscle in a parent-child relay race at Lily’s school and spent a week resting. I didn’t realize resting was so hard. I’m used to moving around a lot and exercising hard a few times a week. Taking a break for a few days was hard on me. Having to rely on others for help was challenging. I knew rest would help me heal, and I was grateful for to give my body what it needed, but I wasn’t happy to take a break. Rest was more mentally demanding than I expected.

My quad healed, but now I’m lying on the floor with back pain.

Maybe there’s something to this. Or maybe I’m looking too deeply. Part of me thinks, Maybe I need to be humbled. Maybe something’s wrong and I’m doing too much, and this is God’s way of showing me I need to slow down and rely more on Him. But another part of me shrugs that off because right now I don’t want to deal with God.

Either way, I’m stuck here on the floor.

When this happened a few years ago, I didn’t read too deeply into it. It just happened, like any freak thing can happen. The next day, with my back still in serious pain, Adam and I drove to his visit his grandfather for the last time before he passed away. My in-laws kept the kids so we could have our visit, and I remember feeling flushed with gratitude despite the pain I was in.

We sat in the living room, making awkward small talk. Someone asked me about my back, and I felt funny talking about it. Should you talk about something so commonplace as a pulled back when someone in the room is dying? What’s the protocol for that? In Option B, Sandberg says we should talk about the commonplace and also the elephant in the room – in this case, the impending death. But what to say? I didn’t know.

We gave our hugs and said goodbye. All of it was strange, like walking through water, slow and deliberate. We drove the two hours home and I laid down to rest, thankful for the day and one last goodbye.

Gratitude, it seems, is part of this, a place of rest in the midst of pain. Perhaps (and I’m thinking deeply again), gratitude is tied to humility. We get brought down low and humbled, then fill with gratitude about what we have, things we might overlook if we were healthy or proud. When we’re hurting or low, we have our pain and we have whatever good we can find. We are thankful for what tends to itself, for helping hands, for time and space to heal. Whatever it is, we might not see it except by lying on the floor with our feet up on a chair.

Questions, Wonder, and Curiosity

rilke dillard kephart writing

Last week at an end-of-the-year class party, Lily received an award from her teacher for being most inquisitive in the class. She shook her teacher’s hand with a big smile on her face, then ran over to show me. A tiny clip art detective with a giant magnifying glass was smack in the middle of the page. “This is wonderful,” I told her.

I was having a moment of mommy pride. Other kids received awards for being fashionable or remembering every vacation they’ve ever been on. Some got awards for their big hearts or endless helpfulness. My kid got an award for asking questions, for being curious and probably annoyingly so. But she asks and wonders. She wants to know about what’s going on.

I can relate.

I have a clear memory of talking to my dad when I was about Lily’s age – maybe a little older – when he told me I asked too many questions. I didn’t realize that was a problem. “When I was a kid,” he said, “I just accepted things the way they were.”

I considered that, and thought maybe I should ask fewer question, at least of him. I tried, but I couldn’t stop. I wanted to understand things – how things worked, why people did what they did, myself. My curiosity only grew as I got older and now I have a daughter who’s either picked it up in her DNA or (more likely) picked it up from my behavior.

I mean, I want my kids to have critical thinking skills. I want them to think independently and ask why before they do things. I want them to be curious about life and other people and themselves. I hope that someday when they go out into the world as adults, people find them interesting. I hope that someday, when I spend time with them as adults, I find them interesting.

The day school got out, I sat on the couch while Lily read me all of the personal narratives she’s written this spring. There are dozens. She’s prolific. Last week, we listened to the #Amwriting podcast and she told me she loves writing personal narratives much more than fiction. She’s just like her mama. (In fact, she told me she wants to be a baseball coach and a writer when she grows up, in addition to being a mom, of course.)

Lily read me story after story about the things we’ve done – going to the pottery festival where she got to throw a pot on a wheel, getting lost in the woods when I took Josh and her to a park we’d never been to, a playdate with her friend where she admitted she didn’t know how to use a Slip-n-Slide, getting her ears pierced for her birthday. These are the stories that make up her life. And most of them are stories that also make up mine.

I smiled as she read each one, thinking of the writing exercise in Beth Kephart’s Handling the Truth where she suggests writing about a pivotal event from childhood. First write in the present-tense viewpoint of yourself as a child, she says. Be present. Write as if the event is actually happening. Then write it again from the past-tense viewpoint of yourself as an adult, someone who’s gained some perspective over the years, someone who’s learned something. Notice the differences, she says, and not just because of the wisdom we acquire from hindsight. Children see so differently from adults. It’s refreshing.

I think of how far we’ve come this school year, all the challenges we’ve faced, what we’ve rejoiced over. Life is equal parts astonishing and dull. Annie Dillard said it best: how we spend our days is how we spend our lives. We spend it huddled in the trenches together, going out and coming back, trying this and that to see what fits, and making sure there’s a safe place to land. We ask questions, we wonder, we explore. That’s all I ever wanted as a kid; it’s all I want now.

I was young when I read The Writing Life. I hadn’t considered what Dillard said so well – that there’s writing and there’s life, the things we do and the lives we’re living. We need to be mindful of both.

Later in the book, she writes:

“Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it all, right away, every time. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water.”

It hit me in the gut. I wrote it in a notebook and later put it in the sidebar of my blog. This idea of using it all up, giving everything, and believing that there will always be more and the supply will replenish itself – it was absolutely novel to me. It was in direct contradiction to what I’d been told as a child. Maybe I didn’t have to hold back and hoard everything that was good. Maybe I could ask my questions and wonder and be endlessly curious. 

I am writing the story of my life. I am, as Rilke says, learning to love the questions.

So, yes, let’s spend it all, even when we don’t know what’s next, even when our questions are unending and annoying and bigger than us, even when everything is pressing down and we can’t find our way out. Let’s give it all and believe something better is coming.