If you browse the tourist traps lining the South’s historic, wide streets, with their rows of books about spooky houses and battlefields, you’ll soon discover the South is full of ghosts. Or at least, it wants desperately to be.
On Tybee Island we stayed in a sparkling yellow bed & breakfast, so ripe with butterflies that I had to swat them away. There were bunnies – four, though we only saw three – who roamed the grounds, freed from their cages. There was a cat, but I don’t really like cats and today, two full weeks later, I couldn’t even tell you what color it was. There were wind chimes on its sprawling second-floor porch, but our time on Tybee was hot and I didn’t hear them move.
I wasn’t thinking about the ghosts of the south at all, that first night on the island.
On the dance floor, halfway through our first dance, which we almost didn’t even do, the DJ announced that everyone was invited to join us. No one moved. My heart pounded; already it had been too long a time of people staring at us, too much time in the spotlight. So she repeated it, insistently, and I laughed out loud, grateful to her, and suddenly the floor was bursting with people, overflowing with couples dancing. We swirled around in the middle and I gripped my new husband tighter and I saw my parents, my aunt and uncle, all our friends flooding into us, and right then, I thought, “This is it, this is the moment that encapsulates everything.”
I was so much more affected by that first dance than I ever expected to be. And that is the cool thing about weddings, about big life events, about life in general: what you don’t expect to gut you sometimes does, and it’s everything.
As the song ended — Ingrid Michaelson’s cover of “Can’t Help Falling in Love With You” — the DJ seamlessly started the next one. Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” had never sounded more beautiful; suddenly, the room was pumped, and I felt electric.
There’s something both kitschy and sad about a Jersey boardwalk, but also comforting. Especially in September, when the crowds have gone but the sun still lingers, and you’re with your friends for the weekend in a gorgeous house your sister’s father-in-law owns, and everyone is taking care of you, and the weather is perfect, and you watch a wedding take place on the beach, and you chuckle and think you made the right decision by sticking to the city for your own wedding.
We indulged all weekend. A lot. But I feel greedily at peace with it all — the 11am cocktails, the double cupcakes. So much cheese, so much pizza. The lounging, the laughter. My whole body has felt light and fluid since then. I came home overwhelmed; too much friendship, too much love, too much grace. Our house is a mess — boxes everywhere, bags and bags of books (decoration for the wedding). There’s still so much to do, only not really, just some stuff that needs to be wrapped up, and I’ve reached the point anyway where I don’t care. The details don’t matter anymore. All the important stuff is done. All the love has surfaced.
Tonight I saw some leaves fall, the first of the season, and I tucked myself deeper into my jacket and laughed out my excitement. It’s autumn, my favorite precursor to my favorite season. Everyone gets back to business this month; everyone tries to remember what it is they’re paid to do. Everyone lets the laziness linger as long as possible, sure, but there’s no escaping the lost sunlight, the passing of time, the packed agendas.
I had a board meeting tonight and during it I had to remind myself being present is a choice; good ideas sprout from listening. When I came up with something well-received it was like digging up a grave I’d forgotten was buried; a hand reaching up through the dirt. My mom once asked me if I spent my days in meetings, wonder lacing through her words, and when I told her yes, and some nights too, she sighed and said she was jealous; my mom, whose work taxes her muscles and forces a diet of Advil and early bedtimes.
So fall is ringing the bell, and this weekend I’ll spend one last weekend on the beach, only it’ll be a different beach, in a stunning house with my closest friends for my bachelorette party. In three weeks I’m getting married and I can’t wait. I can’t wait for the day and I can’t wait for my life and I can’t wait, honestly, for it all to be over so life can be normal again, so life can be about what’s for dinner and who paid the cable bill and where are we going for Thanksgiving and what’s on TV instead of crossing things off a spreadsheet. When fall finally settles in here in New York, I’ll be away, chasing the sun down south, clinging on to what’s left of summer, and I’ll return in end-October with a new season of my own.
What do you do when you have too much on your plate? Count your lucky stars.
I’ve been accused of being too Pollyanna-y, and that’s a fair assessment, but the truth is the world is sweaty and exhausting and we all end up the same anyway, so why not make it a point to find the light in darkness? Why not try?
This morning I attended an event held by New York Women in Communications, where a panelist relayed the above quote, and last night I (finally) read the Entertainment Weekly interview with Josh Whedon, and I swear these two things are related, because together they have re-lit a spark in me that I thought was gone: Do what you love. You are not stuck. People believe in you, believe you can do more than you yourself think you can do.
During my annual girls’ beach week vacation last month, one bright day we were walking from our rental house to the beach, a straight shot of four blocks, past the LBI historical society, past all the Victorian houses that serve as bed & breakfasts, past my childhood, when a teenage girl pulled out in her car in front of us. “Class of 2013″ and “Vassar-bound” was soaped on her windows, and I thought, wow, there’s a girl who’s excited about her next steps. And I felt it, that unmistakable pang of regret that I never felt the same about college. My own journey was less exciting; through various circumstances I ended up at a school I didn’t care about (and soon actively disliked), and so I transferred second semester freshman year, and my new school was fine, it was great, even (it was just voted top public college in the north!); but I’ll always be missing that sheen of anticipation that high school seniors should have. That will always be a gap in the conversation when I talk about that time of my life. And I don’t want anymore gaps in conversations.
Basically, I had a bit of a revelation this morning, and it has me wondering, what’s holding so many of us back, and why.
I tried fresh coconut for the first time in Sri Lanka, sipping the warm liquid straight from the shell, and it tasted like the opposite of how it smelled, sweet and dewy and mild. An impromptu game of cricket had started, and I took the opportunity to rest my feet, my back. Six days of labor were behind me, but two remained ahead, stretched out like impossible scenarios.
In 2006 I went to Hikkaduwa, a coastal town in southern Sri Lanka that had been washed away by the 2004 tsunami. When I got off the plane, a 13 hour flight from London, the air was so thick — it was mid-January, their summer — that it lodged itself in my throat and stayed there all eight days, wrestling with my airways. My hair hung in limp ringlets, thin against my head. Everything everywhere around me drooped.
Crossing the street from the hotel to the line of shops, bursting with tarnished jewelry and buddha statues, was a risk. There are no real traffic laws in Sri Lanka. Limbs hung out of buses where windows should be, person on person; stray hands that rested flat against the rusting bus, resigned to the kind of heat that no breeze can shake.
One night we took a canoe through the river, rounding bends over alligators. I had never seen anything so beautiful, so still. I had never felt more different. We ate a meal I can’t remember in a backyard lit up with torches, but I bet the fish was still on the bone; I bet I thought, this fish survived the tsunami only to be eaten by me, a stray American.
Today I am working on some revisions — converting a series of third person chapters into first — and Mike Doughty is playing on my iPod. For some reason I was really into “I Hear the Bells” that winter of 2006, and when I mixed the cement that week, turning heavy piles of stone and paste over and over with impossible shovels, I sang that chorus in my head; the same refrain over and over. Now I can’t hear it without feeling that blanket of heat, that angry sun. That last day, the day of coconut drinking and cricket, the day I watched a group of local kids tease the Aussies and Brits about their game play, was the day my arms gave out. Too much cement, too much shoveling. Too much left to do; what was the point when 15 people couldn’t even build a single house that week, when so many people had lost everything.
The moments of kindness still stick out the most. Afternoon tea breaks, steaming hot and sugary, still the best tea I’ve ever experienced, and the best company — a family of seven, living in a house of two rooms, sharing a single bed, and still offering us all they had, all they could think of. A colleague, seeing my collapse, who said, “You’re good, you’re good, here, come sit next to me,” and every year after that we’d still meet up for lunch in London, until one year we didn’t anymore, and now I can’t even remember his name.
But I remember his eyes and the way they helped me that day. I remember the cement, and the shovels; the ladders we stood on to reach the rooftops, the creaking of my hips each night as I stretched out, sore and stiff. The soupy air. The Buddha statue in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The lapping of the water over my ankles, the sunsets, the tourist bars. The knowledge that I would forget most of this soon, that I’d never see these people again.
In the summer I listen to Jackson Browne because that was the music of my sixteenth summer, and even then it was old, it was the music of my boss at my summer job, but it played in our store on the best corner of Long Beach Island and I memorized every word without realizing it. My boss loved him so much she even named her son Jackson; I babysat him one winter, in the off-season, and I kept dashing into his bedroom to make sure he was still breathing. Babies are terrifying and also too simple.
A few summers later her car wrapped around a tree on her way home. I can’t remember how I found out about it – I suspect my mom broke the news – but I do remember standing around the kitchen of my summer restaurant, hating the looks of sympathy my coworkers were sending me in between waiting tables. This wasn’t about me; I didn’t want their emotions.
I can’t think of summer, I can’t live summer, without thinking about her. Or this: the lingering concern that I spend too much time trying to get back to those July days when a cut of blue air would land on my heart, when the hours drifted by in a haze of cotton, a distant radio, sand tracked on tile floors. Shift work. Lunch breaks. A register ringing. Crushes on the coffee boys, a car that rarely started.
My favorite place to stretch out, to escape, is the floor of my living room. I’m below the line of earth outside the front windows when I’m that low; I can see the sky, the growing building across the street; a different view every day.
I have always felt airy and so this recent need to be at level with the ground outside is interesting for me to watch. No judgment. Just now, I left the counter, where I have piles of papers spread out, working on a memoir project for a new imprint, to take to the floor. The pull was intense. (Maybe I didn’t get enough savasana in yoga today.)
This weekend, our neighbors are away in Ireland, along with another group of friends, there for a separate wedding, so in addition to suddenly feeling like Ireland is the place to be we are babysitting some plants they left in our care: basil, peppers, an unnamed leafy thing that is flourishing. Lying down in my spot, all three loom over me from the windowsills, bigger than they actually are, curving towards the late afternoon sunlight. The very sunlight that, I fear, will be much changed once the building across the street is fully erect.
When our plant-sitting stint is over, the only greenery we’ll be left with is the bamboo a dear friend gifted us when we moved in together last year; a Chinese tradition. I always say I don’t want a garden but when in one’s vicinity I find myself swayed, picturing weekends filled with sore backs and muddy knees and a bounty. I imagine myself with a pride in growing something from scratch, from seed. Something beautiful, or delicious. Something to make ourselves remember the ground is a gift; a surprise.
Today the sun fought with the rain, a war I watched from a treehouse in Princeton. Off and on the clouds breathed on the tall windows, surrounding us in a gray sweater, only to be pushed away a few minutes later by rays of sun that just wouldn’t give in.
I appreciate a good set of windows. My friend — the one who lives in the treehouse, which is really a detached garage apartment that sparkles with colors and patterns and rainbows, with framed photos and homemade artwork and coziness, with skylights and floor-to-ceiling glass that overlooks a greenery I never fully appreciate until I see it in person — shares her space with deer and rushing creeks and a wall of trees that manages to startle me each time I visit. I miss certain kinds of trees here in Brooklyn, and the ones in Princeton — old, peeling, with branches that crack and fall to the tune of thunder — are what one thinks of when one hears the word ‘forest.’
It is nice, to say the least, when a group of women comes together with no purpose other than marking a passing of time. My friend always has a plan for her birthday. It’s a day she celebrates by inviting a curated list of people, which sounds exclusive but is handled deftly in a way I admire, and creating an agenda of food and poetry and yoga and sangria. She hosts us in an old-fashioned way — hands out goodie bags and treats on our way out the door, down the treehouse steps. We never get to the poetry reading part; we spend all our time catching up instead.
At a certain point in your life it’s easy to say no, to say that’s so far for a day’s trip, to say I’m busy and I’m tired and I just saw you last month and I’ll see you again next month and can’t we just Facebook instead? It is easy, and sad, and each time I say yes, each time I make the effort to see my old friends face-to-face, in their own treehouses, I am greatly rewarded.