Monday, August 23, 2010

Prodigal Daughter

by Zinta Aistars

Now that I have that thought it mind, I can't let it go. Or it won't let go of me. That thought: that a decade from now, give or take, or an even dozen, I will be living my lifelong dream: living in a cabin in the northern faraway, in the misty beyond, in the enchanted forest.

I've been amusing myself with a daily search of property listings in and near the Keweenaw, that finger of a peninsula, at a slight crook to the east, pointing north into Lake Superior. To my excitement and pleasure, enchanted forest, misty beyond, northern wilderness places abound. Many of them are called "camps." That is, not year round residences, but deer camps (for those who have seen Jeff Daniels' hilarious movie, "Escanaba in the Moonlight," you'll know what I mean) tucked away and very nearly forgotten for most of the year. The whole point of these camps is to be well hidden. Those who hunt deer live in these camps in deer season (that would include pretty much every red-blooded male and a growing number of females in Michigan's Upper Peninsula) and otherwise leave them be.

For me, as I spend my evenings surfing listings for these charming little cabins, they hold promise of being extended into a year round residence. Most of them do not have what one might call "modern amenities." No flushing toilets, possibly no running water, or even electricity ... water is hauled in, presumably on the back of that pickup truck with the guns slung across the back window. Outhouses have crescent moons cut out the doors for a bit of fresher air. Or else, there are none at all. The forest is there; use it.

Then there are those cabins, many built out of logs, that are a bit more luxurious. Sinks are tucked into corners, a partial bath may not have a shower, but there is a white porcelain throne with running water. Tiny refrigerators stand on pedestals. Wood burning stoves have cast iron pots on them and flames flicker below. Some go even further ... with lofts overhead, reached by climbing log ladders, with windows cut to the sky.

Of course, there is also vacant land. A plot awaits my plot to unfold. I could pitch a tent, build a campfire, sit and dream on my long weekends and too few vacations, drawing lines in the air of where my future home would be. There the living room, with window turned toward the cool blue lake. There the tiny kitchen, all compact. There, the spot where I will sit, rocking away the hours of contemplation, reading dense poetry and rereading, again and again, Thoreau's Walden, about a life lived in simplicity and solitude.

What will I find? What will take hold of my heart? What land or camp or tiny cottage will call to me in the voice of Home?

I have held this dream inside like a treasure, a hushed secret, since I can remember. Since I was a little girl. My big sister chattered away about raising a big family, marrying a fine man, living in a big house, blessing her clan with her love and being blessed. I could understand that. But my heart was always drawn to something else. My sister got her dream long ago. I had mine deflected for a time, and have no regrets, not one. There were houses and marriage and children and picket fences and dogs curled up on the hearth. All good. I respect these traditions very much.

Yet my heart pulled, and tugged, and longed ... for something else. So now when my children are adults, married life has been tried and set aside, my career has thrived and given me much satisfaction, I find myself coming full circle. I look in the mirror and see the face of an older woman. I like those fine lines. I really do. My heart grows tender when I see them, for I earned them with honor. I have blessed others with love and have been blessed. But now, it's my turn.

A woman lives a life of servitude, and I do not say that with anything but utmost respect. We open our hearts to others, and we make our work that of building and sustaining strong relationships. Even when we pursue careers outside the home, we continue to nurture our partnerships, cradle our children soft and warm, and we sacrifice, we sacrifice, we give and give and never count how much. I enjoy being a woman. I have enjoyed being a wife. I have adored being a mother. Even when such loving and giving has given me test and trial.

Now it's my turn. Or nearly. For what is ten or a dozen years? It's time to plan, and I realize I am actually behind on these plans ... I need to catch up. I need to prepare. This is one plan that I am determined to not let fall apart or myself to be distracted.

In a couple weeks, I will head north, since earliest childhood my favorite direction. I will head toward that peninsula off a peninsula, the Keweenaw on the U.P. At its very tip is the tiny picturesque town of Copper Harbor, where my father brought me many summers as a little girl. He set up his easel in the rocks of the Superior shoreline, mixed his paints, and painted the harbor, the boats, the white lacy waves, and the line of dark trees on the shore. I sat on the sun-warmed rocks with an open notebook in my lap and drew with a pencil, imitating my Tetis. I can still remember him looking at my drawings at the end of the day, nodding, smiling, his big warm hand caressing my upturned face. "Good."

Where have the years gone? Where has life gone, so quickly, sometimes so slow and heavy, but all in all, looking back, in a blink of an eye, gone, gone.

I am much older now than my father was then. My father now is an aging man with slow steps and bent back, but still with paintbrush in hand.

Full circle.

My sister is traveling in the Keweenaw with her eldest daughter at this very moment, sending me occasional cell phone photos of places that steal my breath with their beauty. I know every spot she photographs. I know that land. I am stunned to find myself weeping as I stare at the tiny photos on my cell phone. These are tears of a quiet joy, the tears of a prodigal daughter. Two weeks from now, I will be standing there, beside me, a realtor with directions to my favorite listings.

What's another decade, I think. I must get ready. I must get my finances in order, erase any remaining debt, squirrel away savings like acorns for the long winter. I must have a mission and stay on it, not lose focus. I have carried this dream too long to conclude this life not having lived it. 

All my life, I have longed for Home, the place that calls to me and then holds me. I have known many homes. I have loved many of them, left slivers and chunks of heart behind in each. Yet Home eluded me. Until now. I know now. My eyes tear up at the tiny photos sent from afar because I finally see.

Perhaps I will sit, a woman with graying hair, on those sun-warmed rocks where once a girlchild sat, on the Superior shoreline and draw with a pencil. Draw the white lacy waves, the boats rocking gently on the waves, the scraggly trees bent to the wind, and beneath them, there, a tiny spot, see it? a little house tucked away. A woman standing in the open doorway. Her face turned, bright, to the sky, and smiling.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Good Guys Win ...

by Zinta Aistars

Again, another article this morning in my health and science batch of newsletters that I receive at work, beginning of my day. I skim for interesting headlines. Yet another headline about men cheating and the various causes. I wince and roll my eyes. I've had enough dealing with cheaters for one lifetime. The damage caused to relationships, families, health, is far reaching and horrific. Gee, it's good to be a singleton again!

Enough already, I say. But the blurb below the headline catches my eye. Something different here. "Men more likely to cheat if they are economically dependent on their female partners, study finds. The more economically dependent a man is on his female partner, the more likely he is to cheat on her, according to research to be presented at the 105th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association."

There's a twist. The article goes on to say that while men are more likely to cheat on top earning women, women are less likely to cheat on top earning men. One would understand from this that men still and ever want to be heads of households, in the traditional role of provider and protector, while women still either respect their men in these roles ... or perhaps are simply more dependent on them, especially when children are involved. I have read enough studies, after all, about women who are in their 40s and 50s being more inclined to divorce than men, once they achieve financial independence and the children are raised. And, once older women set out on their own, they are likely to continue to choose the life of independence.

Then the scale tips again. If men make TOO much more than their partners, they are off to chase skirt again. Too much of a discrepancy, apparently, is not good, either. The ideal, the article states, is that "Men were the least likely to cheat when their partners made approximately 75 percent of their incomes." Mutual respect and equal partners? I like the sound of that.

Can't say any of this was particularly surprising to me. What did raise my eyebrow, however, was another statistic. A happy one!

"Putting all of these numbers in context, Munsch said that very few people cheat on their partners (or report doing so in a survey). An average of approximately 3.8 percent of male partners and 1.4 percent of female partners cheated in any given year during the six-year period studied."

Hurrah! The good guys win! Nice guys are everywhere! And we nice girls really, really appreciate them.

Yet there I was, initially wincing at the headline, thinking there we go again. More of this, again. People hurting people, families breaking apart, heart breaking and shattering on every corner, in so many households. After all, isn't that the impression we all get when we watch the media? When we read those headlines? When we talk to each other socially? You would think Bad Boys abound, and that the women who wish to tame them are everywhere. The truth is quite different than the media would portray. Most of us respect our mates and remain faithful. We may argue ... but at night, we kiss and make up. Those who do not are the very slim exception to the rule, and more a case of a individual's faulty character and weakness than a matter of "boys will be boys."

Yet this is far from the first time I have seen such encouraging and positive statistics. I've been noticing them more and more lately, including a recent article in Women's Health, Is Fidelity Obsolete? with the answer being: no. It is just a myth of the media, a false impression given by all the questionable sites available on the Internet. Looking back on my own experience, too: the good guys, the nice ones, are in abundance. Break ups are more about different dreams and goals, personality clashes, or a variety of other reasons. It's not always about the man leaving his longstanding and loyal but aging wife for the pretty, young thing. In fact, it almost never is. Marriage is still alive and well, and most of us are still very appreciative of our mates.

So I read the article and smile, and I decide to take note. It's like listening to the evening news. If that's all you see, you would think the planet was seething with war and tragedy and evil. There is plenty of that, far too much of it. It is crucial, though, to pause and step back, consider the bigger picture here. What is that cliche about bad apples? We tend to remember that one sour and wormy bite more and longer than we do that bite of luscious and sweet fruit.

Nice guys win. Less than four percent of you suck.

Now, about that need to be top dog ...

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Quite Bearable Lightness of Being

by Zinta Aistars

I can see the floor of my closet. Hardwood. Nice. An extra blanket for those deliciously chilly winter nights is folded in the corner, and side by side, my slippers.

All that space. Space. Not a void, but a space, which is entirely two different types of empty. One nothing is not equal to just any other nothing. Full now ... is the recycling bin, the trash can, and a large plastic bag of discarded clothing awaiting its trip to a shelter.

I've long been curious about the phenomena of space, of a physical emptiness. Does it have an effect on us? Does physical clutter equal clutter of the mind? Does a spirit choke up and sputter for air when our closets fill with unused stuff? How does STUFF infringe on our lives?

For as long as I can remember, the American society in which I live has worshipped STUFF. We have competed with others for more stuff. We have spent our lives pursuing more and more stuff. The one with the most stuff dies .... well, let's see, not taking stuff along, but presumably unloading it on offfspring and pals, who no doubt have more than enough stuff already.

I often think of comedian George Carlin--now moved on to what I would guess is either an unstuffy heaven or hell or perhaps even a true emptiness, a nothing, or simply become other stuff, food stuff for worms and eventually an earthy compost (with all due respect, Mr. Carlin)--when I think about stuff and how it multiplies. He had a memorable skit that was all about stuff. How we live in houses and move into bigger houses, not so much because the houses are shelter for us, as much as warehouses for all our stuff which somehow ends up breeding and producing more stuff. I think of that often, because his comedy resonated with a slightly uncomfortable truth. We, our lives, tend to get bogged down with stuff.

So are we happy folk for all that stuff? Apparently not. Rich with stuff, super-sizing everything in our lives from houses to cars to television sets to our bellies, we stood in the middle of all that big stuff and still felt empty. Huh. Now and then a study pops up in the media citing who where is happiest. Go figure, but it is not the guy with the most stuff. Americans have steadily been falling in the ranks of the world's happiest nations, while those who live in collaborative communities, with moderate stuff, just enough stuff, have been rising. What has been rising in this stuffy world is obesity, addictions and obsessions, use of anti-depressants, domestic violence, foreclosures of houses, and the list goes on and on and on... and it's an ever darker list.

I'm not going to throw myself into that cliche about money not buying happiness. As someone who for too many years lived as a single mom working two to three jobs at a time, on occasion without health insurance, in various housing that was in various stages of falling apart, staring into an empty pantry and wondering what mish mush I was going to feed the kids tonight and if I was going to make it to the next paycheck ... I can tell you, money can buy happiness. It can buy security. It can buy health care for my family. It can buy a new roof to replace the leaky one on my house. It can feed an empty belly and feed it with better quality food. It can finance a vacation so I can finally take a breather from all those work hours. The heck money doesn't buy happiness. It does. Poverty is a ball and chain, and money is a key to freedom to make choices about how one lives.

Having enough, however, doesn't mean we have to keep chasing more. Happiness is having enough and knowing it. There's a movement toward simplicity of late, and it is, I think, a pendulum swing toward enlightenment.

If a little is good, and enough is wonderful, more is not always a luxury. More and more and more is a very slippery slope, and it doesn't slide up.

I stood in front of that overfull closet and said, Enough. I need space. I need room to breathe. This is too much. This is more than I need.

There is no doubt in my mind that the current state of our economy has everything to do with people missing the enough mark. The word is greed. Perhaps there are other words, too, such as insecurity, leading to the need to impress, to prove oneself to others in a neverending cycle. It is when we get into more, more, more, that happiness begins to fade and that clang of empty space inside refuses to be filled. Addiction to anything means losing the ability to recognize enough and begin that dangerous spiral of self-destruction until a life lies in ruins.

There is nothing like that moment of revelation when one has spent one's life, spent it all, chasing more, more better, more bigger, more beautiful, more perfect, more thrilling, more more more ... to suddenly realize you have lost it all. Ever more and ever better is ever more meaningless.

We live in a time of ruin because we have lost the ability to recognize enough.

I brought out the bags and opened them next to my closet. As good a place to begin as any. Fortunately, I have never fallen into the trap of chasing more. There was a time that I lived a life of plenty, walked away from it, and now, at last, have regained it on my own steam. I am richly blessed. I have known joy in times of being poor. That taught me a valuable lesson about not needing stuff to be happy. The best blessing is always hope, and I had enough. It was only when I lost hope that I felt empty. I've lived a materially wealthy life, and I have a lived a life of poverty. I have lived in a big and beautiful house with maid service, and I have lived a life being homeless but for a canvas roof over my head at night. The first wasn't bad, but the second wasn't that much worse. I haven't forgotten that.

I toss a shirt I haven't worn in at least a couple years into one of the bags.

I have had an adventurous life, traveled many places, lived many places, and I have taken many risks, some fruitful and some not. I have loved with all my heart and have been richly loved. What more? I think back to when I was a girl. I was a daydreaming child, the kind that could sit in the treetops, swinging my legs over an oak tree limb, singing at the top of my lungs, letting my mind wander wherever it pleased. I had one dream back then. One dream. Someday, I told myself, someday, I would live in a little log cabin in the woods, far far up north, and I would write myself silly all day long. Taking just enough time to occasionally climb a big oak tree, sit in its branches, and sing at the top of my lungs.

Funny. That girl dreaming was nearly half a century ago. Today, all those many adventures later, I find I still have one dream: to live in a little log cabin in the woods, far far up north, and write mysef silly all day long. Taking just enough time to occasionally climb a big oak tree, sit in its branches, and sing at the top of my lungs. Preferably with no neighbors anywhere in the vicinity to hear me bellow and trill.

I toss an old sweater that has seen its best day into the bag.

More, much, not enough, I've tasted them all. I've tried each on for size. I am blessed to know, today, as I did when I was a girl, my personal mark of Enough. A few days ago, I sat down and opened a notebook and wrote out a plan. I listed all the debt I still owe. I did some math to figure out how long it would take me to pay off the house, wipe out the last of the car loan, and why is this tuition loan still here? I did a bit more math for savings. I calculated what would be enough for me to live a comfortable life, day to day, and how much I could afford to save for that day of realizing an old dream. That one dream that has outlasted everything. I thought about what that dream would look like, and where I could give it root. How long? I sat and wrote and figured and calculated. Then I sat back and took a deep breath. Hey. Not bad. I can do this. Stop chasing more, pin down enough, and I can do this. And I won't have to wait to turn 93 to realize it.

I wiped the dust off a pair of shoes I rarely wore anymore and placed them in the bag.

I sat down on the floor by my closet and started to sort through the papers, printed off e-mails, files, boxes of photographs, publications in which something I had long ago written had appeared, old letters. The clothing was easy. Skimming old correspondence was a trip. Over the day, I traveled over time. I was, now and then, surprised at what I had forgotten. Thoughtful at how the perspective of today had tainted the memory of yesterday. It's not a bad thing to now and then look a little closer at the evidence of our past to remind us that yesterday we were doing all we could, as much as we could, the best that we could.

As I ripped up one page after another and put the many torn pages into recycling, I sometimes felt like I was ripping up pieces of my past and setting them to rest. Some unexpected emotions stirred. I let them go. I read and remembered, my eyes at moments got a little damp, my heart squeezed and trembled, and I folded, tore up, put in the bag, and let go. I paged through magazines and newspapers where I had a byline, marked the past achievement, sometimes set a copy aside, but more often than not, placed those too in the bag. No one was going to read them anymore. Publication was a nice thing, a moment that felt good, but it was never my motivation to write. Toss.

By day's end, and it did take the entire day and late into evening, I had five bags of ripped up paper in recycling and two bags in the trash bin and one large plastic bag of clothing for the shelter. I saw the closet floor. My heart wasn't entirely light. It was a little travel weary. But I liked the look of that floor, that space, that open place. I folded up my winter blanket and set it in the corner. I put my slippers side by side in the other corner. Done. More closets await, more cupboards, more hidden nooks and crannies that have absorbed years, and memories, and the detritus of a life lived best I've known how. Achieving lightness of being takes time, as all good things do. But I have a plan now, one I check back to on a regular basis, to check my list, do a bit of math, subtract one line and add to the other, and watch my progress.

There's a dream a little girl once had, and this woman would like to someday give it to her. It will be just enough. It will be everything.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

On Silence and Solitude

by Zinta Aistars

That bustle, that hustle quieting, that noise receding, those crowded weekdays, with their alarm clocks and traffic wheeze and slick sirens and babble of office voices and that near endless whir and buzz and hiss and ring of machines and clack of technology backing away and making room...

...for a Sunday morning.

I go out on the back deck in my bare feet, coffee cup in hand, bookmarked book. Sitting, tipped back a bit, on the deck chair, my eyes keep wandering from the page. So quiet still, so still this quiet. I have it all to myself, yet shared with a thousand life forms: my old chow pup, who has found a pork chop bone to chew on like hidden treasure in the grass, my tortoise-shell cat, who is nuzzling a clump of the pup's red-blonde fur loosened from his tail, curling her paws around it and tucking it beneath her soft underbelly as if a found kitten to protect. She hates the dog, barely tolerates him. She loves his fur. The tiny chickadee in the tree, tiny but big with song, a raucous racket filling the backyard and all the way to the rooftops. Buzz fly swirling in the air, round and around in dizzy circles. Ladybug on the fencepost, a tiny gleaming red button like a drop of blood.

Read. And again my eyes wander up, and up, to the treetops overhead, giving lacey shade. The day is already warm and threatens to sweat and simmer in its afternoon, but now, now a cool breeze tosses in the trees. I watch the trees, I listen to them. Surely the world was always this fascinating, even my own backyard, yet it is only now, in recent year or two, that I have noticed it, all of it, so overwhelmingly all and much of it, such dance and sound and so much to see and know and contemplate. So much, so much, a bounty, a treasure trove, an endless miracle, all magical, all fairy tale.

The Sunday summer breeze tosses the tops of the trees as if they were full green skirts at the ball. I watch it move invisibly from tree to tree, flirting with one and then the other and then the next and then the entire row of trees, like dancing girls with green leafy lacey skirts to the sky. The wind may be invisible, but I see it play, I hear its swish and hum and purr. There, to my left, to the west, it is there now, fluffing those green skirts and thrilling the trees, their limbs bending and swaying in near silent song. There, just above me now, slipping the green lace from side to side, so that the spots of escaped sun dapple and dance, tipple and twirl. There, moved to the east of me, shimmering light on leaf, tickling the leaves of the maple and the oak and the birch and the crabapple, leaning into the border of evergreens, who resist with all their might.

Surely I have seen all this before. Surely I have. As a child, I often escaped to the woods, to the meadow across the street from home, hiding from mother's voice, hiding, and watching the treetops, climbing up into them, wanting to be one with them, or one of the birds, one of the fuzzed little animals burrowing beneath the roots. I saw the wind then. I heard it play, I ran with it, I danced with it, I tossed my ribboned braids into it and turned my face to the sky.

And then there was so much life, too much life, an avalanche of life. A torrent, a hurricane, a constant storm. I forgot to listen to the wind while I was in it. I was too busy to turn my face to the sky.

I still am. Only now I know how to be a thief of hours. I steal those early Sunday morning minutes and make them mine, in disregard of the begging chores and errant errands. All the things I must yet do and now do not do, not now. At this other half of life, I have learned, again, what I knew as a child. That to be still and silent for a while in the midst of the noise is not a mere luxury. Not a thing to pad and buffer the moments of importance. These are the important moments. These. Here. Now.

I've noticed it, I've taken note first in wonder and then acceptance and then with utmost pleasure, how happiness has rooted itself in me again. Its roots grow and sink deep when I sit silent like this, still like this, and let my eyes wander from the page and be do know nothing, be do know everything, just another little animal rooted in the earth and gazing up at the sky and listening to the wind and letting it toss a wisp of my hair into my eyes.

These moments of solitude and silence are my own gold. Are my vitamin. Are my muscle to take into the week to come and wrestle it back into shape. Are my wine, giddy thrill rushing rich through my veins. Are my hope renewed, my life reclaimed, my heart unfolding like a sail to the open wind for the voyage into the far horizon.

That breeze, that picking up wind, have you ever really watched it? Like this, sitting and face to the sky and bare feet on the warm planks of wood below and cat curled beside and dog panting softly and in rhythm to a pulse in the earth and fat white summer clouds tumbling across the blue to the other side.

This is today. Tomorrow, this day will be gone.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Camp Bliss on Oak Knoll

by Zinta Aistars

I don't ever camp in the summer. Not ever. Not unless tied and dragged through the heat and humidity, wincing between the crowds of vacationers, screaming for cool. I will camp in summer, however, if accompanied by my son. For my boy, who hasn't been a "boy" in quite a few years now, I'd walk through summer hell. Or a state-owned campground.

Don't get me wrong. I love to camp. I have a deep need to camp. To get out into the woods, sleep under the stars, sit aimlessly by a crackling campfire and watch the sparks dizzy-dance their way up toward the tree tops, and leave civilization far, far, very far behind. Yes.

Just not in summer. I have a legendary low tolerance for heat. Let's state it here in public print firmly: I do not like summer. I barely tolerate it and not well. It is my least favorite and least productive season, the season I would be happy to do without, and I have no ability to comprehend those who speak of it with longing. How can one possibly enjoy sweltering heat under a blazing sun with air so thick it looks like milk? For me, fall is the most wonderful, although I will happily debate, with myself or others, if winter isn't tops. Air that is cool and crisp, leaves on the trees turning an array of colors, nights that refresh. And winter snows, lots and lots of that white stuff ... yes, by golly, I love it. My time living in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan holds memories of snow reaching half way up my bedroom window .... and my bedroom was on the second floor. Glorious.

Still, serendipity combined with an acceptable July weather forecast (Saturday in mid to high 70s Fahrenheit with overcast skies and slight possibility of showers, and Sunday in low 80s with blue skies), combined with a restlessness for a bit of adventure and that ever present need for green, combined with my 28-year-old son's cheery shrug, "Sure. I'll go," combined with a late cancellation that freed up my schedule, all came together to point toward a camping weekend.

The moment felt right, the stars had aligned, and I was excited to pack up the camping gear and GO.

State and county campgrounds, alas, as I quickly found out, were booked solid. My son and I weren't thinking of going far. We didn't want to spend precious time on the road. We aimed for about two hours north, along the Lake Michigan shoreline, and when I called the Muskegon State Park for a possible tent spot, I was told the campground was booked for July at least six months ahead, prime spots as much as a year. The voice on the other end of the wire sounded stunned that I hadn't thought of this.  

Apparently, the world thinks differently than I do, and heads en masse to the campgrounds in July, the hottest month of the year. I did a quick search for campgrounds off the beaten path - always a better idea. Oak Knoll Family Campground fit the request. They had spots, they promised they would reserve the quietest and most secluded one, and they were delightfully in the middle of nowhere, a short drive north of Muskegon and deeper into forest.

We were on our way. The morning was pleasantly cool, and I liked the overcast skies that kept the sun from getting overly enthused. We headed north of Kalamazoo to Plainwell, turned off the main drag toward Holland, then drew a nearly straight line north on US-31, more or less along Lake Michigan. Within a couple of hours, we were north of Muskegon, near tiny town of Holton, surrounded by forest.

A light rain pattered on our windshield. I glared at the sky and the rain stopped. Okay then.

The campground owners had kept their word, and our spot really was the best on the grounds, a corner area snuggled up against the woods. Not perfect (that category is reserved for Michigan's UP and nearly all Alaskan camping areas), but oak trees shaded us from three sides and the center of the campground was mostly pine. My son hadn't pitched a tent in many years, at least ten, and he was pleased to see how user-friendly camping equipment had become. We literally had the tent up in less than five minutes. Two flexible poles crisscrossed at center, and our home for the night popped up effortlessly with open door flapping and waving us in.

I had convinced my son that there was no need to be so manly when he kept insisting he would do just fine throwing his sleeping bag, or even just a blanket, on the tent floor and snoring through the night. Granted, my boy is made of hard and well-tested mettle. When he says he could sleep on a bed of nails, I believe him. He has adventure and misadventure stories most dudes wouldn't touch with a ten-foot tent pole. I'd slept in some pretty odd places, too, and had once given up my lease on an apartment and camped in a tent for three months solid, traversing ten states from Wisconsin to Maine, looking for a new place to settle (which is how I finally ended up in the UP of Michigan). I suppose I qualified as homeless back then, but never stopped long enough to think about it. But maybe it is precisely because of those adventures that I appreciate a little luxury with my rustic these days.

"Trust me on this one," I said. "Snap open the little cot, and you don't have to inflate any air mattress nor feel rocks and sticks biting your soft flesh all night, even through eggshell padding. Toss your bag and pillow on it, all set to snooze."

"Eh," he shrugged with a manly shrug.

"Trust your mama."

When he watched me open up my cot and set it in one end of our little blue tent, toss bag and pillow on top, he nodded in appreciation. He opened the box for his brand new one and set it up on the opposite side.

Tent up, beds made, we headed for the water. For those who have not been to Michigan, land of the five great lakes, the name of Lake Michigan may bring to mind some small puddle of blue. Lake Michigan, however, is more like standing on the shores of the open sea. She's big. Her horizon is not visible, not even with binoculars in hand. Her waves plosh softly at your feet, or rile up for a fight in white foamy curl, depending on her mood. Her dunes rise like golden hills and ripple on for miles, and miles, and miles. And miles. My favorite of the great lakes is Lake Superior, aptly named, but Lake Michigan does me right when I am not quite on the ocean.

My son was more drawn to watching the boats and the ships, walking out to the Muskegon lighthouse, checking out the harbor and coast guard post, than he was with any sandy beaches. Like his mama, he tends to avoid too hot beaches and too bright sun and too big crowds. We passed through the state campground and shivered in unison when we saw the hundreds of campers, strung up like sardines in the woods, RVs with television antennaes out and strings of Japanese lanterns, tents raised side by side by side by side to hear each other snort and snore through the night.

"I thought camping was about communing with nature," my son muttered. "What the hell ..." and I just shrugged. Lucky there was no spot left for us. I might have turned around and gone back home.

We explored the Muskegon harbor. We walked the marina, peering at boats, picking our favorite names, admiring the tall masts, enjoying the graceful lines. My favorite was a sailboat called Mystery; his was a sleek racer in bright red called Nitemare.

We walked out to the lighthouse and watched the gulls swirl on the air current and settle in rows on the blue posts. We watched the fisherman wait for fish, and wait, and wait, gazing into the glistening water. We watched the boats sail, the jet skis rip through the waves. We watched the water in its eternal movement, washing in toward the shore, wash back out again, in its soothing rhythm.

"What is it about water ... "

"Our own rhythms?" I guessed. "Basic elements? Resonance to our own being, almost entirely water?"

He didn't answer. He was daydreaming blue, leaning on the blue post, eyes squinting out at the sparkle of a moving mirror, and I watched him as much as the water, both giving my heart ease and pleasure.

Fire is the same way. Primal and a basic element of the four needed for life. He built the campfire in the evening, and we sat in our canvas chairs, another nod to camping comfort, and stretched our legs out toward the fire, unable to look away from its dancing flames. The book I held in my lap never got opened. I couldn't look away: the crackling fire, my son's face in the moving light of the fire, and back to the fire again. And perhaps that is the best part of camping - that we remove ourselves from the rush and hurry, we remove ourselves, and we simply are. Doing nothing, but in some way doing what is most important of all: simply being. Sitting, breathing, daydreaming, mesmerized by the flames, resting our eyes on a loved one's face, momentarily tracing the line of surrounding trees to where the leafy limbs lead up to sky, and even the occasional slap of a buzzing mosquito does nothing to interrupt the reverie, that life can make sense, after all, and most of all when doing nothing. Just being. 

Just cooking is a special pleasure in the outdoors, too. We had treated ourselves to a good lunch at a Muskegon restaurant called Hearthstone, highly recommended by a friend, but it was the outdoor sizzle of meat on a cast iron pan that brought a grin to my son's face. We fried up slices of pork, roasted bratwursts until their rounded sides blistered and peeled away, tossed unpeeled corn cobs into the burning hot embers, and finished it all off with toasted marshmallows for our s'mores. Everything and anything cooked under the stars and over an open fire tastes better than anything in a proper restaurant, no contest.

And then we sat. Just sat. Just watched the fire. Just smoothed our full bellies, sipped our cool brews, watched the orange sparks flutter up to the treetops. We sat in silence. We didn't try to solve or understand any world problems. We left the politicians to wage their own battles for the evening. We let Chelsea and Marc have their grand wedding in peace, without us. We left festering tragedies and great human wrongs and minor gripes all be. The world turned without us. We let the work we left behind at home, the half painted upstairs bedroom, the pile of laundry, the unread submissions to The Smoking Poet, the novel I'm writing left at midsentence in mid chapter, the unweeded vegetable garden, the long unmown grass in the backyard, the unedited freelance assignment, the three book reviews still unwritten, the pile of week's mail unsorted on the counter, accrue a while longer. We didn't worry over chores left undone and errands unrun. We didn't even think about how short life is and how quickly it goes by. We dug our heels into rich earth and slowed it down.

We just sat. We just sat in silence. We just sat in silence and watched the fire, and felt the night fall slow and gentle and the birds exchange their last song for the day, and we slapped at the occasional mosquito and sat some more, saying nothing, doing nothing, just sitting. Now and then, I caught my son's eye or he caught mine and one of us smiled a little and the other one smiled a little back.

This kind of summer evening I can just about handle. In fact, I can handle it just fine.

The next morning, waking to the slow light seeping through the trees, we renewed the fire and cooked up slabs of bacon, scrambled brown eggs, toasted oatmeal bread on the grill, and sat back to sip coffee in our blue tin cups. And we watched the fire. All morning, we sat and watched the fire. In silence. Smiling just a little, a lazy smile. We had all Sunday ahead of us to do nothing.