Here I Sit and Curiosity

storytelling writer, personal story, memory, family

Here I sit at my desk in the upstairs room. My husband just left for a hunting weekend, and we put our kids on the bus an hour ago. I did the dishes, vacuumed the dirty floors, and lit the candle I bought the other day when the house was hot and I couldn’t stand another minute of sitting in this upstairs room trying to write.

This morning, I took a minute to read a few essays online that I had bookmarked, one of which suggested starting an essay with the words “Here I sit,” which seems as good a way as any to start an essay. That line can always be cut later.

So, I type “Here I sit” and start thinking about today. This morning, I read for a bit before seven o’clock when the kids came out of their rooms and climbed on the couch with me, each of them tucked under my arms, their heads on my chest. I pulled them closer, then thought, Remember this. I think that a lot. I’m sure some of it will stick.

I made breakfasts, then lunches. I drank my coffee and talked to my husband about his trip this weekend. Then we all played cards, a habit we started last year once everyone was ready for the day and we had a few minutes to wait for the bus. Last year, I taught my daughter to play rummy. Last week, I taught her gin.

She can barely hold all the cards in her hands, but she’s learning. I was around her age when I learned these games. My grandparents taught me after I watched my grandfather and my mother play the most intense card game I’ve ever seen. “What game is this?” I asked them. “Gin,” they replied. I knew I wanted to learn. I also knew I wanted to be very, very good at it.

They sat at the kitchen table, engaged in this battle called gin, several times that summer. I sat with them, quietly observing. The table was wood veneer and oblong with four large swivel chairs that banged into the table as I swiveled them back and forth. “Knock it off,” I was told, the chair bumping the table and disrupting my mother’s concentration. My grandmother stood at the sink that overlooked the backyard. In her hands were a dry cloth and a dish she’d just washed.

She was the one who played cards with me the most. She taught me how to count my cards and keep score, and I remember her handwriting being so precise that it was unsettling. Her penmanship was perfect. We did a lot of things together that year – craft projects and gardening, watching videos in her new VHS player. My grandfather was sick, but I didn’t realize it then. He didn’t have much time left. I’m not sure anyone knew how little time we had left.

A few months ago, for a class I was taking, I ended up writing about my grandparents and the summer when my brother and I went over to their house every day. It was the summer I learned to play rummy, the summer my mother went back to work after leaving my father, which has always put a damper on how I look back at that time. But as I wrote, word after word, line after line, I realized how magical that summer was and how much I loved it. Maybe I didn’t know my grandparents all that well, but I loved how I felt when I was at their house, how my grandmother set up her old typewriter for me in the basement, how she let me roller skate down there while listening to the oldies station. I memorized the words to all those old songs. I carried them with me.

Now, looking back, I think that time at my grandparents’ house was a saving grace. I have happy memories from a time when my family was falling apart. I had a place to belong when suddenly I didn’t know how I fit in – with mom or with dad or with both or neither. Even though my grandmother was the kind of lady who wore a neck brace for a week after a mild bump in the car or who sometimes ran around the house screaming that she couldn’t take us kids anymore, even though she hid her smoking from me and she wasn’t a touchy-feely kind of grandma – despite all that – she showed up every day and gave me space. She taught me how to play games and, also, how to entertain myself. She read the stories I wrote. She turned up the volume on my favorite oldies songs.

Last week, I wrote to a writer friend to ask her a question about writing about the past, especially painful, uncomfortable things. I told her I’ve been afraid to write because I’m afraid it might send me into a spiral. She told me that she’s gotten used to the uncomfortable feelings. When she writes, she puts her judgment aside and writes with curiosity. It’s okay to be scared. It’s okay to not know how something will end or if it will all tie together in a little bow. Just see if you can write another word, another line. Keep writing.

I’ve been setting aside whole days to just to write. I do nothing on those days but write or read or re-read what I’ve already written. I still feel afraid, I still feel uncomfortable, but I’m trying to lean into those feelings and accept that they aren’t going anywhere. They are part of this process, and I have to be okay with that. They aren’t wrong, they aren’t bad – they just are. I carry them with me when I write and I carry them when I don’t.

So, here I sit, putting one word on the page after another, believing that sometimes those words will take me into something that hurts and other times they might lead me back to something I didn’t realize was there – something good, something special. Sometimes I might be the hero in the story and sometimes the villain, but the story, whatever it is, is still worth telling if I can stay curious and open.

storytelling, stories, writing, memory, family, personal

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.