A gentle fading

Sunset, sitting on the dock at my ex-stepgrandfather’s cottage, I dangled my feet into the still lake, watching the tiny waves ripple out. I’d gone down to the dock feeling a bit melancholy, trying to say goodbye. I scooped up a handful of water and tossed it into air. The water shifted into tiny spheres as they fell back to the water, splattering its surface with dozens of little bullseyes. But then something interesting happened: all the little bullseyes joined into a giant one, a target that radiated outward, then disappeared. There’s physics to explain this, said my smart sister, but I was astonished nonetheless: it felt like my own little discovery.

And that’s one thing cottages are for, surprising connections with the natural world that widen your eyes and narrow your focus to just one little thing.

Of course cottages were for other things too: sun and swims and sugary treats, dinner in damp bathing suits and after-supper boat rides, fields turned into baseball diamonds, fireworks and fireflies, a sky improbably full of stars. They’re for happy hour turned happy hours, card games and cleansing pints, the clinking of glasses and dominoes and dimes in Crown Royal bags, the gentle swing of a hammock and the wheeling arms of Heels Over. They’re for diving for golf balls, finding fish in pockets of shade, holding your breath as long as possible. For laughter and loon calls echoing across the lake, the tinny patter of rain on the roof. Hamburgers for breakfast, the Dairy for lunch, corn roasts and vegetable dinners, tea and cookies on the dock in the evening. For wild hair, calloused feet, and always a bit too much sun.

I’d been going to that cottage for 29 years. For a long time it was my favourite three weeks of every summer. It’s where I became part of a new family, embraced with open arms, though I was, I’m sure at least at first, the baggage that comes with marrying a divorcé, the awkward +1. I made new friends too, had crushes, got my first bikini, learned to back dive and play Chinese checkers and identify the fish I stalked in the shadows beneath the raft. I swam almost as much as the resident loons and was marginally lake-famous as the teenager who swam the length of the lake and back on a bet with her dad.

It was a place of so many beginnings, though on this recent visit I was there to help weed through old stuff, to prepare it for sale. Many years every bed was full, even the couch—the cottage was a cup spilling over. But now, so many were gone—died, divorced, moved away—and there was no one who could give it enough time to hold on.

We like to imagine things will go on forever, and perhaps that’s why goodbyes are so hard: we’re forced to face that they don’t. But it was a place that had already seen a series of goodbyes, and the evidence was all around us: we flipped through old photo albums, my grandfather dropping a finger on each face and announcing them dead, unearthed my late-nana’s wedding dress, now yellowed with age, packed up old lamps and crib liners that once seemed worth saving and now were destined for the dump. We drank gin and tonics every afternoon at 4:30 in honour of another departed grandmother. My dad, still alive but no longer a part of the family, lingered in photos, in the wood sign that once hung over the garage. Every time I’m there I feel his absence keenly: he is a great connector of people, and without him we sometimes seem like those water droplets, our ripples overlapping but not quite joining up.

The other thing about goodbyes is they’re hopelessly inadequate, of course: we expect them to be a period, a tidy cap on a long book of feelings and memories, people and landscapes and the tiniest details, like an ugly magnet or faded paperback. Really a goodbye is more like the periods in an ellipsis, the beginning of a gentle fading away . . .

I was reading an old New Yorker on a plane recently and stumbled into Kathryn Schultz’s wonderful meditation on loss, “When Things Go Missing.”  She starts by ruminating on misplaced objects (wallet, keys, etc.) but before long she’s talking about the loss of her father. “We will lose everything we love in the end. But why should that matter so much?” she writes. “By definition we do not live in the ends, we live all along the way.”

I struggled with the right way to say goodbye to the cottage, but as Schultz reminds us, that part is beside the point. Perhaps the best goodbye is being alive to the moment, savouring that moment of dockside astonishment, and not forgetting to take in the scenery as the car turns off the dirt road one last time.

Constrain me

My friend and I just spent two nights at an off-grid cabin: no electricity, no fridge, no running water or flush toilet. When I tell people about this bare-bones expedition, they have one of two reactions: enthusiasm or complete horror.

I started in the first camp and happily remained there, found our retreat defined by a soothing, encompassing ease despite peeing in a bucket in a cold outhouse. We coddled the cast-iron woodstove as you would an infant, checking on it often, coaxing it and feeding it, anticipating its needs. We went for leisurely walks around the farm and woods around the cabin, counted cats in the barn and squinted to read the names on cows’ ear tags. We followed the river to see where it would go, observed interesting trees, crouched to take in the red and orange leaves sealed under the ice on the pond. We drank warm beverages and wine, we dined simple meals, some we’d prepared ahead of time and heated up on the propane stove. We lounged and read books by the light of oil lanterns that Laura Ingalls would have recognized. We talked easily, and often, the way old friends can. With few chores and no real responsibilities beyond the ravenous stove, it was almost a return to childhood. Do what you feel like. Be where you are.

It sounds idyllic, and it was, mostly (with only a couple small debacles around that woodstove baby), and there are lots of reasons for that, but one is that it highlights what is essential: shelter and warmth, good food, good friends, time in nature. When we strip away so many distractions we can see the importance of what remains.

I feel this way of my year of buying no new clothes: it has tuned out the crowded marketplace crying, “New! better! best!,” helped me step off the hedonic treadmill and focus on all that I have already and on other things that matter more. I had coffee with a journalist who was in the middle of being vegan for six months, and though it wasn’t easy (“You get the point that you see a lentil and you could just die,” she said), she saw it as a way to recalibrate, to pay attention to what she actually needed, to see what she could live without.

All the inspirational gurus,all the marketers, they try to convince us that our potential for happiness and success is stratospheric, if we just work harder, spend more, are more positive, more connected, and also more disconnected, if we keep up, slow down, know it all, be it all.

While at the cabin I was finishing Heather Havrilesky’s sharp, insightful collection of essays about modern life, What If This Were Enough?, and in it she zeroes in on so much of what I’d been thinking about lately.

Many of us learn to construct a clear and precise vision of what we want, but we’re never taught how to enjoy what we actually have. There will always be more victories to strive for, more strangers to charm, more images to collect and pin to our vision boards. It’s hard to want what we have; it’s far easier to want everything in the world. So this is how we live today: by stuffing ourselves to the gills, yet somehow it makes us more anxious, more confused, and more hungry. We are hurtling forward—frantic, dissatisfied, and perpetually lost.

We think of limitations as obstacles, as something to be smashed through like prison walls. But constraints also clarify, they help you focus and prioritize, they allow you to savour success and contentment. Every day, of course has constraints, every lifetime. Maybe one day we will upload our conscious selves to the Cloud, have an infinite life in an infinite space with infinite rooms. But after we’ve dissolved all these limits and boundaries, we may find ourselves adrift in an endless sea, eyes forever locked on an unreachable horizon.

This is not to say that constraints are the final word, that no one should try to improve their circumstances, improve themselves, improve the world. We need not all move to one-room off-grid cabins or become vegans. But I do think we need to get friendly with our constraints, which is to say get more friendly with ourselves and our lives. But instead of looking beyond them to what we aren’t, let’s look to what we are. Our better, happier self might not be found by forever chasing it, remaining a person in perpetual motion; like hunters, we can’t forget the importance of standing still and paying attention.