wedding days, and wedded years

IMG_7659I see iris, I think of my wedding day.  Well, the parts I’m able to remember, anyway.

 

From Monday’s The Writer’s Almanac, courtesy of Garrison Keillor:

Tonight is Mid-Summer Night’s eve, also called St. John’s Eve. St. John is the patron saint of beekeepers. It’s a time when the hives are full of honey. The full moon that occurs this month was called the Mead Moon, because honey was fermented to make mead, and that’s where the word “honeymoon” comes from. It is a time for lovers.

 An old Swedish proverb says,

“Midsummer Night is not long but it sets many cradles rocking.”

I have a vivid memory from the mid-summer of 1983, when my sweetheart and I were newlywed tourists. A group of schoolgirls approached us in Bangkok, anxious to practice their English on us. “Why did you come to our country?” they asked, their question delivered by committee. We tried to answer them with the simplest words possible: we are traveling for fun, we are traveling after our wedding, we are… we needn’t have gone any further. One of the girls, with a huge smile on her face, exclaimed joyfully, “Honeymoon!”

Well, yes. We were on the grand tour after our big day, a double-header adventure that seemed hugely significant at the time. But in retrospect, the whole of that summer—our wedding day, our honeymoon, the nuptials we attended, one after another, once we got back home—was all mere prologue. Our wedding was a chapter-header, an acknowledgement that we were about to take a ceremonial first lap before a long series of journeys, some that required luggage, many that didn’t. We didn’t know yet how many times we’d come to a crossroad, literal or metaphoric, and ask each other, “This way or that?” We didn’t know how much more love there would be, as the decades rolled on, how much good fortune. We also didn’t know how we would buoy each other when we were visited by heartbreaking sadness. We were clueless about the true meaning of the words, “For better or worse, in sickness and in health.” We didn’t know the difference between reciting our vows and living our vows. Life was so good! What could possibly stand in our way, between to have and to hold, and so long as we both shall live?

IMG_7469Honestly, if I had some wedding photos of ours to post, I would.  But this summer, they’re all in a box, somewhere…

It was hard to imagine, back then, how much of our future was writ in those promises we made. I was so very sure that our marriage was meant to be: me with my crown of baby’s breath, my sweetheart with the iris and freesia pinned to his lapel, our family and friends all around. Truth be told, I barely remember speaking those vows, since I occupied myself through the whole ceremony by inspecting my shoes, trying with all my might to distract myself from tears. Happy tears they certainly would have been, but still, I let the words wash over me, so as to not be overwhelmed with the emotions that might bubble up right there, in front of everyone who mattered. I regret that I made it through the ceremony with thoughts of peas and carrots to keep me intact. I also wish there had been someone with a video camera, so I could revisit that lovely day, our kindly minister, my dear friend Melanie telling the brass quartet to cut the Handel’s Water Music, the sweet Glee Club friends who sang to us of Glorious Apollo, the applause that broke out from the balcony.

IMG_8178Everywhere I look, wedding venues. This one on my beloved Route 16B loop.

I’ve been thinking about weddings a lot these days. It is June, after all, which is when we celebrate our anniversary. But we’ve also entered a new territory, one defined by the years that have passed since we exchanged our vows. It began last autumn with the novelty of the first hand-addressed invitation in decades—what a lark, people still do this? Now, the floodgates are open. The children of our friends, the friends of our children, our various nieces and nephews are all approaching the age when getting married is what comes next. Our own sons aren’t there yet, but I know how this gig goes. What seems like just a ski season or a summer vacation will have come and gone, and then, pow! Five, ten years will have flown by. And before we know it, there we’ll be, sitting in the front row, across from the mother and father of the bride, before we’ve even had a chance to blink.

* * * * *

We went to a lovely wedding last weekend, at an island on Squam Lake. The groom was calm and steady, and the bride was lovely and beaming. Someone asked her if she was nervous, and she said yes, until she was walking down the aisle. Then she saw her sweetheart, and it all made sense. Oh, there’s Todd!  Everything will be fine.

IMG_7876Oh, happy day!

I suspect it will be. The two of them are thoughtful and grounded, and have spent enough time together to know each other, really know what makes the other tick. Their parents are completely delighted that they found each other. They will be worthy companions for the sorts of adventures they suspect lie ahead.

IMG_7912We left that wedding and stopped to visit this church, where we were married, on the very same weekend in June.

A mere 31 years earlier.

 

I had all that same certainty, three decades ago.   And now, looking back, it’s amazing to me to realize how many things have worked out for us through a combination of just plain dumb luck, along with decades of unanticipated vigilance around things we’d entirely neglected to ponder, back when we were in our twenties. The day we went to see some friends’ photos of their trek in the Himalayas, complete with stories of dysentery and altitude sickness, and afterwards looked at each other and agreed, simultaneously—is that on your bucket list? No? Phew! Me neither!  That was dumb luck.  I did, after all, marry the sort of guy who likes the outdoors, likes to hike, likes a challenge.  I’m more of a day-hiker gal, always happy to find the hot shower at the end of the trail.  That one could have gone either way. The way we enjoy each others’ company, trust each others’ feedback, get each others’ jokes, and give each other the space to do what we love to do, together and on our own, has been a series of miraculous strokes of luck, in my book anyhow.

IMG_7455Cousins gather for graduation celebrations, for now…

We never discussed what kind of parents we wanted to be before we were married, and now, here we are, our children approaching the ages we were when we promised ourselves to each other. I can’t help but feel both humbled by the young men our kids have turned into, and relieved that we didn’t know how hard it would be, how magical and exasperating and joyful and exhausting, back to back to back to back.   We both love our sons beyond known human bounds, and we feel so incredibly lucky to have made it to this place, two decades out, knowing that our synchronicity around when to stand firm and when to cut some slack as our sons grew up made all the difference.  And bless that man of mine, for taking those boys on long hikes and long walks, off to ride the escalators while I cooked the turkey or wrapped the presents, away to baseball camp in Florida and to animation summer school at UCLA. I may have done the heavy lifting on the day-in, week-out stuff, but oh, did he ever pull his weight on the special events package. Truth is, I didn’t see any of that coming.  We worked hard, and it all worked out.

So much I didn’t know, back then. So much has happened, so many events I fear I couldn’t have faced alone. Our wedding day was joyous. Our life together ever since has been, as Edith Bunker once said about her life with Archie, “Less Fourth of July, and more Thanksgiving.”  Amen to that.

And as was sung to us, in that beautiful church, those many Junes ago: “Thus then combining, hands and hearts joining, long may continue our unity and joy.”

 

this one I’ve got for keeps

IMG_7121Within these thread-leafed Japanese Maple branches, there be warblers…

Somewhere in the deep recesses of my email inbox, there’s a reply to an email I sent to my friend JZ a few years back, regarding Mount Auburn Cemetery in the springtime. Beautiful though it may be, I told her, spring was my least favorite time to visit, since spring was when my beautiful and quiet refuge would be full of obsessive birders on the lookout for migrant warblers. I allowed that I’d be happy when the visitors, avian and otherwise, had pushed off, so I could have the place back to myself, for my purposes. Which was strictly to mosey about with my eyes peeled for coyotes and foxes and hawks and owls, and to skip all the fuss about these flittery little passers-through. JZ shot back a response that was just this side of: Dear One, Please get your Head out of your Ass. On the kinder side, I mean. She sent me photos of a dozen amazingly beautiful birds I might see if I just showed up. She implored of me that I give it a try.

Well, okay. As Woody Allen says, 90% of life is showing up.

And so, I went. At first I took my birding book, and after awhile I just ripped out the warbler pages and stuck them in my back pocket, for quick reference. I even signed up for some early morning outings with Audubon groups and knowledgeable guides. As I followed along, I learned how to look for movement with my eyes and raise up my binos to the spot where the bird might still be. I also got good at guessing which birders would be happy to school me about what they were training their magnifiers on. Guys with tripods and massive lenses festooned in cammo print are generally happy to share their knowledge, and often, a peek through their spotting scopes. Which, alas, only work for birds that sit still. It didn’t take long to figure out that the sorts that migrate through are not inclined to pose. You need to be able to follow them through the foliage, catch what glimpses you can of their wing bars and eye rings. And, boy oh boy, does it ever help to know their songs.

IMG_7756Confusing doesn’t even begin to describe the situation, in my mind anyhow.

Here’s where I’ve come to realize that I will never be an expert birder. Because when it comes to identifying birds, if you can’t recognize the songs, you’re disadvantaged, to say the least. And in this regard, I am beyond debilitated. I not only can’t remember the song of a warbler that passes through twice a year, I can’t even remember what the birds around me every day sound like. Honestly, I’ve searched in branches over my head to figure out what marvelous creature was singing to me, only to have to remind myself, over and over again: ah, yes. The robin. Must try to remember that song.

I’ve even coined a name for what I’ve got: Audio Avian Alzheimer’s. Because I’m like that old coot at the doctor’s office, given a list of words to remember, having a 30 second conversation about blood pressure meds, then being asked to repeat back that list of nouns. Bird songs just flush straight through my gray matter. I hear them, I try to remember some identifying trait, and I lose them, just like that. I have no capacity whatsoever to hold onto the songs of the migrants. It’s like being color blind to azure skies, or having no sense of smell for lily-of-the-valley. What good is a sense if it only works for the more mundane sounds in this life?

So, despite JZ’s entreaty that I avail myself to the wonderfulness that is the Mt. Auburn Cemetery in May, I am still a little overwhelmed when the place is packed with knowledgeable birders, and when I am frustratingly aware that I can’t tell what I’m looking for.  As a result, I tend to do my springtime birding at my reservoir, where the runners and dog-walkers outnumber the card-carrying life-list birdophiles.

IMG_7126I cannot even begin to tell you how out of my league this bird is, Senor Tyrannus savana.

But then, just a few weeks back, I got an email from another college friend, another gifted artist and birder. (Question for another day: why do I know so many world class birder/artists? Maybe I’d feel like I was a better birder if I didn’t know how high the bar can be set.) “You’ve probably already heard,” Jim’s email began, then went on to describe the FORK TAILED FLYCATCHER, a vagrant from South America, spotted in my beloved cemetery, in my home town. The capital letters are his, not mine. (Another question for another day: Why is it that, when a memo or email starts out, “As you surely know,” or, “You’ve probably already heard,” I, more often than not, don’t know, and haven’t heard? Is this the price I pay for not being on Facebook?) Clearly, this was the sort of opportunity that sets a true birder’s heart aflutter. I needed to go, even if this creature was way beyond my realm, geographic or otherwise. That it happened to stop in at the height of warbler season was just something I’d have to get over.

IMG_7066All caps, three underlines, one big star and two exclamation points. Yep, this was a Big Deal!

I never did see that remarkable creature, though I shadowed some folks who seemed to have good intel about where it had last been sighted. I was a day late, alas, and a flycatcher short.  And as on safari, when there are no lions or leopards or elephants or rhinos about, you’d best find something else worth looking for, or your day will feel like a bust. So a-warbling I went.

IMG_7082Seriously, if birds just came with tags like this one, I’d be all set.

I headed off  in a direction that would provide me with some privacy, someplace where I could line up my binoculars in the direction of robins, and hope to photograph some lovely unfurling ferns and flowering trees if all else failed. Bless their little hearts, the folks at the Mt. Auburn Cemetery have labeled all most everything that grows up out of the ground. Would that they could get the feathered visitors to wear nametags.

Turns out, I do know black and white warblers, and when they turn their tail feathers to me, I can spot a yellow-rumped warbler with the best of them. Those were the two varieties I kept seeing, over and over that day, in the absence of foreign flycatchers. I couldn’t tell what else I was hearing, other than the human couple I kept bumping into, speaking in hushed tones about Nashvilles and Yellow Throats and Blackburnians. I was feeling hopeless about what else I might successfully identify on my own, beyond the possibility of a showy scarlet tanager or a Baltimore oriole, both the sorts of birds that you just know when you see. I can almost identify an oriole song, in that it’s a pretty song, and I know it’s not something I regularly hear. I have only slightly overcome my audio Alzheimer’s by dividing my birding world into the songs I hear all the time, even if I can’t remember who sings them, and the songs that sound vaguely different. Not much help this day.

And then. Oh. My. Goodness.

IMG_7125This, ladies and gentlemen, is a Wilson’s Warbler.  Which is now in my pantheon of Warblers I Have Figured Out, All On My Own. Bless this little creature, he practically came out and serenaded me.  He sat where I could see him.  He brought friends.  He repeated his tune, over and over, while I rifled through the Cornell Ornithology web page on my exceedingly smart phone and finally landed on their audio link to the Wilson’s Warbler’s song.  And dang if their sample wasn’t singing the same tune as this little guy.  Okay, not that photo, but one just as lovely, and similarly willing to be identified.

Truth is, I may have seen a Wilson’s Warbler before.  If I had, it could only have been when I was with someone who knew what we were looking at. That’s another thing about my birding skills, which mimics my driving/navigation skills, namely:  if I’m not at the wheel, I don’t remember the way, or any of the landmarks along the way. With birds, the ones I figure out on my own are the ones I own. Which, given my audio handicap, is a challenge.

IMG_7078This photo has nothing to do with my Wilson’s Warbler story.  But it is, for the record, a Carolina Silverbell.  That I know for a fact.  Thank you, Mt. Auburn Cemetery, for the signage!

 

Needless to say, I left Mt. Auburn that day, hardly caring that I hadn’t spotted the rare and vagrant fork-tailed flycatcher. I now owned the Wilson’s Warbler. I’ll know that one anywhere, forever after.   That one, I’ve got for keeps.

IMG_7108And thank you, Augustus Flagg, for sharing your Wilson’s Warbler stopover venue with me.

 

 

 

 

a clean sweep

IMG_7490The calm before the jubilee. They start lining up the chairs a week in advance.

This past Thursday was commencement day in my hometown. It’s a day full of pomp and fanfares and tradition, always tradition. Fair Harvard’s sons and daughters throng to these festival rites, and so long as the weather cooperates, it’s a day that is reliably and predictably delightful. Lucky for this year’s degree recipients, last Thursday dawned cool and cloudless and primed for a celebration.

IMG_7531There was no shortage of photo ops.

I confess, yet again, I love it all. I will forever be inventing excuses to wander through the crush of folks headed for their seats, on the Thursday morning after Memorial Day. This year, like so many before, I woke up to the parades of graduates and the knots of traffic around Harvard Square, the twang of bagpipes, the tweet of a fife. Always, the honorees in caps and gowns form rag-tag lines, each juggling sunglasses and cell phones and water bottles and Starbucks cups. Most wear the black robes of newly minted bachelors’ and masters’ degrees, the only variation in their uniforms coming in the form of a splash of crimson for the masters’ hoods, and a hint of a previous degree designated by a dash of color on the inner hood, a spot of Princeton orange or a whisper of Dartmouth green, perhaps. Meanwhile, the doctoral degree recipients are the true peacocks of this day, festooned as they are in their crimson robes, a tint that spills over to something just this side of fuchsia. It could not be more exuberant, that PhD pink.

IMG_7527There be Ed School and School of Public Health graduates, lining on up.

 

As for the proud family members, there’s always some of everything: grandmas in sensible shoes and big hats, little brothers in seersucker suits and clip-on ties, Hawaiians sporting gorgeous orchid crowns and leis, families from around the world, dressed in native garb, in hues and headdresses that make me feel like a drab little sparrow. Always, there are the vendors hawking helium-filled mylar balloons and last-minute flowers, from single roses wrapped in cellophane to exuberant mixed bouquets. And always, a few clever souls take the year-end college newspapers and turn them into SPF 75 top-knot protectors .

And every year, there is something wonderful and wonderfully unexpected from the honorary degrees. Last year, it was famed tenor Placido Domingo serenading Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. This year, Aretha Franklin got the respect she deserves and sang the bejesus out of the national anthem. It was, by all accounts, a very good day to be a citizen of this little corner of the world that I get to call home.

IMG_7658Aretha got to rock the fuchsia robes.  I only know how to spell fuchsia because a friend of mine missed it in a spelling bee.

 IMG_7507Adams House, one day before commencement.

IMG_7625Adams House, one day later, back to the business of kids and balls.  On and on it goes, the circle game.

* * * * *

Curiously, I had completely forgotten that it was exactly one year ago, also on Harvard’s commencement day, that I finished up my radiation treatment and got a certificate to mark that auspicious event. Time flies, it most assuredly it does. Years pass in a trice. I’ve put twelve months between me and the crap that comes with the lousy mammogram. One year of getting back to normal, or more accurately, to figuring out what my new normal may be.

Endings and beginnings, commencements and finish lines. They are all made of the same fabric, these starts and stops and starts again. Adjust the hat, resume the journey, turn the page, call it a day, begin all over again. I’ve been here before; we all have. This seems to be the only constant: the fact that in this life, nothing stays still. It all just keeps moving on to the next thing, the next phase. Get complacent, think you’ve got it all figured out, and sure as rain, something in your life is about to shift.

IMG_7611It takes forever to set up 10,000 chairs, and about half a day to make them all go away.  I wish they’d leave the banners up.

Last spring, my commencement day job was to show up and be zapped, one last time. There is something incredibly easy about that piece, when all that is required of you is to make it to your appointments on time. These days, the path to my health is far less anxiety provoking (nothing oncologically scary, huzzah!!) and, simultaneously, far less clearly defined. A medical dream team, it turns out, does not magically coalesce around one’s random middle-aged joint pains. The good news about ailments that are pesky but not malignant, is that you get time to think things through, to take matters into your own hands. Talk it up, do your homework, go out and see what the world of healing has to offer, and from there, figure out what to do to get back to something approaching whole.

IMG_7642Now, there’s a project.  Confession: my Delft tile behind the stove was just contact paper.

Meanwhile, what helps now, what has always made me feel more healthy, more useful, has been to get up and be busy, doing something. Needless to say, this little renovation project of ours has given me ample projects that required lifting, loading up, moving on and out. The day came, finally, when we officially vacated our house and handed the keys to the contractor. The critical items have been disconnected—the downstairs plumbing, the gas line to the stove, the lights and fans and speakers and suchlike are all unhitched, left dangling. The demolition was about to begin.

IMG_7224Bye-bye, fuddy duddy tub.  Bye-bye, pink and black tile.  Bye-bye, decades of mildew in the cracks and corners…

After I’d waded through the festival rites down the street, I wandered home, to see if there was anything left for me to attend to. It was nearly impossible to believe that I’d done it all—boxed everything up and sent everything packing, to storage units near and far, to Good Will or out to the sidewalk with a “Free Stuff” sign attached. Nope, there was nothing left to clean up, Mrs. Tittlemouse-style—except for one project outside, one last yard waste collection effort, all around our back porch and driveway. If I didn’t do it right then, before the construction dumpster showed up, I’d be faced next fall with a whole season of maple tree droppings—the first little buds, the later-stage dangly yellow flowerets, the inevitable deluge of twirly sticky helicopter seed pods—all mushed into every crevice of my back porch, turning to every inch of our driveway.

So, I made one last clean sweep. And I commenced the end of Year One and the start of what comes next by clearing the decks, on all sorts of fronts.  It seemed appropriate.

IMG_7525One last sweep.  Onward and upward we go.