“. . . for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore. . .”
It’s been a long time since I had a proper vacation. The kind where you go somewhere and just relax with no agenda, no sights to see, no one to visit or need to socialize.
Oh yes, there’s that obnoxious internet article that’s going around about how mothers don’t actually get vacations, we only go on trips, because we still have to make meals and do dishes and referee fights and, well, Mom. But, well, I don’t agree with that author at all about what separates a trip from a vacation. I don’t think I need to leave the kids and the cooking behind in order to have a relaxing vacation.
And then there’s the funny Onion article: Mom Spends Beach Vacation Assuming All Household Duties In Closer Proximity To Ocean. And there’s some small kernel of truth in both of those. When you travel with kids there are still so many little tasks to be done and you are never free of work. But they both miss a deeper truth: That a change of scene, especially going to a place of beauty, can do wonders for the weary soul even if you do still have to tend to all those pesky bodily needs.
The lake right outside the windows. The sound of water lapping on the rocks. The haunting call of the loons. Sunrise and sunset and night stars and thunderstorms. Tall pines and hemlocks and beech trees with the winds blowing through them. Flowers and hummingbirds. Our very own dock where you can stand and peer through the clear water to the sand and rocks and lake weed on the bottom of the lake. Winds that push up whitecaps, breezes that freshen and chill. The natural beauty reaches deep and soothes the weary soul. It’s a powerful elixir. Oh I found some peace there, dripping slow as the pace of life slowed… yes, peace, even with five screaming, running, door-slamming kids.
And the house. The house was so, so, so beautiful. And so much bigger than our house! Let’s not discount the power of a lovely space to dwell in to bring some peace to the soul. Yeats may dream of a small cabin of clay and wattles made. I confess my ambitions are a little grander. This house came close to being my dream house. Uncluttered, light and airy. Large rooms with windows and windows and more windows. Smooth wooden floors with broad boards and a few well-chosen rugs. Rooms that didn’t get filled with toys. Only a few discarded books and clothes to manage. Rooms that were new to me, full of new furniture, new pictures, things to look at and ponder: ships in bottles, model ships, shells, candles, curious chests and baskets and lamps. Pretty things chosen by someone with a good eye for quality and full of personality. Lovely tables and rocking chairs and cabinets with carved duck decoys and delicate china teacups. But not too nice. A little shabby. Comfortable. Graceful and cozy. Chosen by strangers and thus inviting speculation and wondering: who furnished these rooms and why did they pick these pieces? And full of windows with so many lovely views. Oh to do dishes while looking out the window at the lake. To make the bed while the wind sighs through the trees and lake water laps outside. Housekeeping can be enjoyable, even refreshing, when you have a beautiful, uncluttered house to keep. A change of scene gives it all so much scope for the imagination, a house that you love and that doesn’t seem to fight with you frees the soul.
I left my computer behind and my phone didn’t get a cell signal. Yes, the house did have wifi, and I did make a few forays into Facebook land. But for the most part I stayed offline. I finished two books. I even wrote in my journal two times. I taught Bella how to play chess. I took random cat naps. I drank more beer and wine than usual. Life slowed down with fewer screens, with no television. With fewer distractions. Peace dropping slow.
I finished the biography of Rumer Godden, which was enjoyable, even if I felt like after her autobiographies much of it was not really new to me. And I also picked a book off the shelf in the living room where so many books tempted me from the built-in shelves. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as my unlikely choice after I’d browsed through a couple of others, a book I’d never have bought or even checked out from the library. A book I didn’t love and which had some images I’d sort of rather not have put into my head, but which kept me up late one night reading into the wee small hours and had some interesting locations and a few thoughts to ponder and some genuine blood-creeping chills. Can I admit I sort of like reading a book that scares me, even when it makes me double check the locks and jump in terror when Anthony rolling out of bed slams the door in the middle of the night? I also began the first chapters of a biography of John James Audubon, which coincidentally fits nicely into our current history study. Funny that not too long ago I’d never have considered bringing only biographies along with me on vacation. I read almost no nonfiction.
Time to read and time to ponder. Time to practice some benign neglect. I didn’t read much to the kids. Only a few short bedtime stories, one a night or so, mostly culled from the hodge-podge of ancient books the children unearthed in a cupboard in the living room, a mixed bag some good many dreck, but the kids enjoyed even the dreck. The only one of our current read alouds that we touched at all of the pile I brought with us was the two chapters of Peter Duck I read one afternoon when we had a series of thunderstorms swooping down upon us and the children were restless and Sophie was scared. That was delicious and I almost wish we’d had more storms. We really do love that book.
But as it was the children got to swim every day. They got to fish off the dock. They got to sit on the dock and run up and down the hill and scrabble through the trees. Bella saw fish and sketched them in her book. Ben saw a hummingbird. We all spotted some chipmunks. One day Uncle John happened to be in the area for business and came by to take us for a spin on the lake in the powerboat. It was lovely to see the lake that way. And we even spotted a loon not ten feet away from the boat, what a sight!
Bella found a rock studded with mica. Sophie pocketed some little green hemlock cones. We all brought back pocketsful of memories we won’t soon forget.
We left last Friday morning about 9:30 and with a stop to buy some groceries we got to the lake around 1. We had lunch and unpacked the car and then went for a swim. We grilled every night and ate crowded together around the cozy kitchen table and that was lovely too.
On Saturday Dom tried to take out the canoe, but the lake was too choppy. They had a brief cruise around the dock and then he called it quits. But the swimming made up for it. The children all loved splashing in the water and the three oldest all found that with life vests on they could confidently doggie paddle to the far side of the dock. Soon they were all swimming around and thrilled with their new mastery. Now we just have to get them to do it without the vests.
On Sunday we went to Mass at nearby St Anthony’s church. Anthony approved, of course. The church was simple. No vestibule or entry, you just walked straight from the door into the nave. Plain wooden beams with acoustic tile in between. A few rough statues: St Anthony, the Sacred Heart, Our Lady of Grace, and St Joseph the Worker. The stained glass was simple green and purple squares except for one Good Shepherd window and the risen lamb window behind the tabernacle. A homely touch, though: a row of rocking chairs behind the last pew and a handful of stuffed animals and a shelf of children’s books: an invitation to families with little ones.
We got there early, not sure which of the two Mass times we’d found was correct, and while we waited I heard one of the old ladies behind me complaining that there was no organist. Such a shame, she said, it really is too bad. They need an organ. As it turned out there was no choir or cantor either. The young priest announced the opening hymn, and it was a real hymn, not a praise and worship song. And it was grand and lovely and everyone sang and it sounded good. (I can’t recall which hymn it was, but a familiar one and a favorite.) And then the priest chanted the psalm from his chair (looking at the text on his phone, which I could tell scandalized at least a few of the congregation). It was beautiful. We chanted the Gloria and the Lamb of God and the Sanctus and he chanted the first part of the Eucharistic Prayer. And then he chose another lovely old hymn for the recessional and everyone sang yet again. Oh the beauty and simplicity of that Mass with no annoying jangling music to distract me, it was a delightful birthday present.
Yes, Sunday was my birthday and I am now 41. We had a simple celebration. I made some allergy-friendly brownies and topped them with fresh strawberries. We lit Ben’s baptism candle and renewed our baptismal vows because it’s also his baptism day. And Dom gave me a T.S. Eliot shirt. And then I got to video chat with my dad and my brother Tim and his wife, Amber. (And the next day I chatted with my mom and the day after that with my sister.) And it was simple and peaceful.
And the rest of the week settled into a sort of rhythm The only errands were a couple of trips for food shopping and one excursion to the town dump. no sightseeing or adventures. Just being. I could have stayed a month or more.
The children did lament the lack of toys a few times. I pointed out that they didn’t have to spend so much time picking them up either. I heard the first “I’m bored” within hours of arriving at the lake and I heard it repeated a few times over the week. But mostly they played outside. I heard them referring to the tall hill as Mount Everest. I saw them drawing pirate flags. They played dominoes and cards, War, and games of their own making. Once, Ben pretended the grape stems were boats. Another time I saw him driving the dominoes like cars. When Bella and I were playing chess Ben and Sophie took over the captured pieces and made up their own war games.
They read lots and lots of books. they drew pictures. They jumped off of furniture and pulled each other around on blankets, and fought and doctored each other’s wounds. Ben fell off the dock one day and got his clothes wet. It seemed just about every time I looked down to the dock there were one or more kids down there. Staring into their water, dangling their feet, climbing over the canoe. They collected leaves and pinecones and rocks and snail shells. They lived in kid world and it often didn’t impinge on me for more than an hour at a time.
Food was simple too: most nights Dom grilled— hot dogs, pork chops, chicken, sausages, steaks, and one night lobsters— I made a few vegetable sides and put out some sliced fruit or grapes. Everyone seemed satisfied and no complaints about the meals. Breakfasts were toast and fruit, eggs or oatmeal for those that like them, a few days sausage or bacon. Lunches were sandwiches— deli meat or pb&j— with chips or pretzels and fruit. Cleanup was easy and I found myself hand washing as often as I used the dishwasher. And yes, washing dishes while gazing out the window at the lake is a profoundly different experience than washing dishes in my own kitchen. Tonight as I did the washing up, I yearned for that beautiful vista.
But we did have to come back. We gave the house a good cleaning as a thank you for it’s kind harbor. And we hope, hope that perhaps we might make it back next year.
Also, thank you very much to the Ford and Davie families for generously making this retreat available to our family. You were remembered in our prayers every night we were there.
The Lake Isle of Innisfree
by W. B. Yeats, 1865 – 1939
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.