It’s the Friday before Memorial Day weekend and I wake up early, thinking of a lake I know. It’s 5 a.m. and everyone else is asleep. I tiptoe around pulling on clothes, rolling out my mat, the rich blues of pre-dawn casting just enough light to practice by.
As I breathe, begin to move, notice what’s stiff, what’s open, I also try to notice the light changing in the sky but never catch it in the act. Another bird adds her secrets to the rest of the sounds, and I think about my mom and how she now wakes alone, and my dad, who never had to, at least not since their wedding day.
I close out with yoga mudra, padmasana, utpluthih, and get up to put the kettle on, listening to the gas escape from the burner as I lay back down, letting muscles and my active mind go. Then I climb upstairs to wake my husband.
Gradually, we click into the rhythm of the morning, and the kids wake, too, fumbling their way to the bathroom. I can hear them murmuring about whether it’s hot enough for shorts today, whether it will rain again, and my husband’s voice, still warm and scratchy from sleep, prompting them to come on down for breakfast.
I hug my boys as they each descend the stairs, hair spoking out like unkempt feathers, their soft, beautiful eyes still opening and adjusting to light as I ask them what books they want me to pack for the weekend, because later we will drive to that retreat by the lake where I’ve gone since I was 17.
In 1941, E. B. White published an essay in Harper’s Magazine called “Once More to the Lake.” I remember first reading it in high school, and then trying to teach it to my own high school students – a junior class, I think, at Vermont Academy.
I’ll never forget one student’s response to reading the essay. “This is so depressing,” he said, irritated. “Can’t he just go to the lake and enjoy himself? Why does he have to get all morose and start talking about death?”
I loved the essay so much that I hadn’t ever asked myself these questions. It was a teaching moment for this teacher. Why indeed. Was E. B. White, at this point in his career, just a brooding, nostalgic old man? Not at all. In fact, he was the exact same age as I am now.
But back then, in my mid-20s and somehow at the helm of this English class, my student stared at me, unimpressed, as I inelegantly made a case for experience being a gateway to insight, and ultimately, to our own mortality.
“Just go swimming, dude!” shouted my student in reply. “It’s summer! Enjoy yourself!”
It had never occurred to me that White didn’t enjoy himself. He brings his son to the lake he visited every August as a child, nervous about “how time would have marred this unique, this holy spot…sure that the tarred road would have found it out.” But in many respects, White finds that it hasn’t changed at all, which presents a different sort of experience.
To put it simply, he realizes he’s not a child anymore – which, of course, is not so simple a thing to realize:
“I looked at the boy, who was silently watching his fly, and it was my hands that held his rod, my eyes watching. I felt dizzy and didn’t know which rod I was at the end of.”
White’s not just going fishing with his son here and experiencing a little vertigo. He is seeing himself for the first time as the father – once the child and now the man who longs for a place he knew as a boy. He’ll never again be able to feel it the way a boy feels it. That role is now filled by someone else, just as it must have been for White’s father, who brought his son here to enjoy the lake so long ago.
Watching his son, White describes a sort of disembodying sensation, as though he’s stepped into a generational hall of mirrors:
“I began to sustain the illusion that he was I, and therefore, by simple transposition, that I was my father. This sensation persisted, kept cropping up all the time we were there…. I seemed to be living a dual existence. I would be in the middle of some simple act, I would be picking up a bait box or laying down a table fork, or I would be saying something, and suddenly it would be not I but my father who was saying the words or making the gesture.”
Old lakes have a way of doing this to a person. So do reentries into spaces that one first absorbed as a child. It’s like stepping into a painting of your life that you appreciate as much for the underpainting that peeks through the layers, thereby giving the place a magical sort of depth – which, in turn, reveals its conspicuous absence from the places you only first encountered as an adult.
Places like these – especially the highly anticipated, rarely visited ones – have a knack for making us contemplative. It’s as though our lives are flapping along in a stiff breeze and then get pinned down for a spell. The usual quickness slows, the loudness becomes muffled or feels delayed, like sound traveling over water. Our memory has a chance to congeal around moments, preserving them better, casting them in an impervious, perpetual glow.
This is why we long to go back, and also why we hesitate to.
My boys chatter over breakfast about how we’ll pick them up from school early and what they plan to do when we get to the lake, how they’ll put their suits on right away and jump in. I stand in the kitchen loving the excitement in their voices, missing it in my own, now that everything is different, now that my dad is gone and my mom is still working to right herself. We all are.
But we’re going back anyway, and she’s coming, too, to the place where, as a girl, I would crawl stroke and side stroke between docks until breathless, thinking, damn, I gotta get better at this. I’d stay in a suit all day, turn brown, sit alone on peeling wood planks to watch the sun dip down, wondering about the life that lay ahead of me – the life I’m in now that takes me back there to open everything up, let in the damp air, hook up the float, hang the hammocks, sweep the deck, rake the beach.
Feeling the blisters form, I’ll wonder how many more years we will come here to watch the water snakes and the beavers, their noses splicing the glassy surface before dawn, where we remark on loon calls even though we’ve heard them a thousand times, where we sail when the wind’s up, canoe when it’s not, and read so much more than seems possible at home.
Maybe I’ll teach a niece or nephew to waterski, doing my best to drive like Dad drove those many glassy mornings when my mom would instruct me how to slowly, steadily slide my toe into the invisible boot behind me after dropping one, left leg burning, right toe searching and not finding the boot, eyes on Mom in the back of the boat, her arms straight out in front of her reminding me to do the same.
I’d ski like that, zombie-armed, pointed toe trailing wildly in the wake, thinking, shift weight slightly, slide foot in, lean back nice and easy to let the right leg finally take the weight, do a lap (hardly ever two) and pat my head for home, Mom’s smile shooting back at me across the water – the smile of a wild girl who used to ski one-legged with the handle around her neck.
Maybe it’s because of those things or maybe it’s not, but I stay at the sink while the tears well and pass before hugging my boys and hustling them out the door with their dad as they ask me to pack their snorkels and masks and wonder about their fishing poles, whether they’ll still be behind the door with the paddles in the wood-paneled bedroom downstairs and whether they’ll get to use live bait this year.