I have an office now. A genuine room of one’s own. It has walls of planked pine painted periwinkle blue and a ceiling that only just clears the top of my head. Most of the walls in the house are stone plaster, meaning you can’t just go hang up any old thing — but not this room. I have my New Yorker birthdate cover above me, a nibbed pen and a pot of ink. On closer look, the ink is the night sky. To my right, another constellation, this one under an ee cummings quote — “Listen there’s a hell of a good universe next door let’s go.” A cheap print but a fine quote.
The office overlooks the backyard, an acre of dry lawn, splotched green here and there by crab grass, that is suddenly, abruptly engulfed by a ream of sweet briar and oriental bittersweet. There’s a crab apple tree and an enormous, ancient hemlock and a corner of copper gutter. It’s a good view. Nothing to take one’s breath away, mind you. But it’s calm (minus the screams of my toddler), and green (minus 75% of the lawn). It’s faintly astonishing that it’s mine.
How instinctive, the possessive. From a young age, I learned histories and read stories of man vs wild. The versus our manifest destiny. The wild anything (or anyone) who was here first. In our yard, the sweet briar is wild, and the bittersweet, the pretty purple loosestrife and the mile-a-minute vines with their museum-quality berries in ivory and seafoam and a dappled magenta, and the bower of bush honeysuckle that runs along the far side of the thicket. They are wild and invasive, though most of them were introduced deliberately, for their prodigious defense against soil erosion.
Did you know that a single loosestrife flower can produce up to a million seeds? I recall Annie Dillard’s rant against nature’s absurd profligacy in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Instead of a million seeds that become twenty plants, why not make twenty, and give them a fighting chance?
Because nature is dumb, and also wise enough to know that dumb works.
But back to the possessive, and the urge to tame and its more academic sister, the urge to know, to classify, to map. It’s become apparent only belatedly how privileged these are, and how white.
There is a scene in Lucy, Jamaica Kincaid’s semi-autobiographical novel about a young Antinguan woman who works as a nanny for a wealthy American family, that I can’t get out of my head. It is the dregs of winter, and Mariah, the American mother, is very excited to show Lucy a field where the first daffodils appear. As a child, Lucy, who grew up on an island many thousands of miles from anywhere daffodils might grow, nonetheless had to recite a poem about them. The women stand before the flowers, each overcome by emotion. But where Mariah sees the harbinger of spring and all the springs before it, Lucy sees the humiliation of being taught that the stories that mattered would never contain things familiar to the students. “But nothing could change the fact that where she saw beautiful flowers I saw sorrow and bitterness. The same thing could cause us to shed tears, but those tears would not taste the same.”
It’s only a yard, but at some point, it was a forest.
I want it to be a meadow. No watering, heaven for pollinators, all the wildflowers a girl could want. To make a meadow, you have to scorch the earth. Start over. Or, you do nothing. You wait. Maybe the invaders win. Maybe the natives do. Eventually you have a meadow. Left to its own devices, the meadow becomes a thicket. The thicket becomes a forest.
We’ve gone to the Vineyard. Our first real vacation since before Perry was born. When we booked it, in March, I did not think it would happen. Five months was well beyond the extent of anticipation. I do very little in advance, because there is no pleasure in it. But there we were, mid-March, half-buried in snow, thinking as little about the future as possible, and now here we are, in gentle sun and farkleberries and weathered grey shingle and pea gravel and late-summer hydrangea. The beach by our house is buffered by very tall dunes and a brief forest; it zips and jags for miles in either direction. I’m conscious of the specific type of beauty the island offers, and my own inclination towards it.
The house has an outdoor shower. I lather the kids up; ignoring their howls. Clean, they scamper at my feet — my turn, I say, copping Perry’s insistence — inspecting twigs, stones, bits of moss. Later that night, I sit on the floor of the boys’ room, waiting for Perry to fall asleep. Instead he is talking to himself — about popsicles — and I am typing and casting a large glow into the dark. My head is close to his. I can’t smell but for a moment, I can smell his hair. Lightly floral. Slight tang of salt. Simple. Clean. The Vineyard is expensive but a child’s shampoo can be had for a few dollars.
One afternoon, I steal upstairs while the boys are on a nap ride to read The Dutch House. I read feverishly, scooping up the linden trees, the hidden window seat, the paneling and portraiture and third-floor ballroom with its starry ceiling. But I cannot picture the house itself. The glass exterior seems discordant with the furnishings, with the old Dutch owners and their turn of the century cigarette lucre. The room I’m reading in is simple, nothing like the rooms in the Dutch House, but the window by the bed looks out on a very large linden tree. The sunlight bounces off the leaves, which are ruffling softly (though the wind was fierce at the beach).
How preposterous, to be able to take one’s children on vacation here — in the midst of a pandemic, no less. The world wretches, contracts, and we eat lobster. There are, of course, the realities of life with two small children — the sleepless nights and tantrums and refusals to share and the endless flotsam underfoot (now, with sand). But there are also moments when all four children are playing nicely, when our friends’ youngest takes her first steps, when Irv scuttles all the way down to the waves and gets himself well and fully dunked — and then wants to do it again. There is a proper date night, a whole 6 (!) hours to ourselves, and a sunset that — well, there’s nothing new to say about beach sunsets, but this one was tops. By the time the sun was red and almost into the sea, Perry and Jude had gathered up nearly every piece of seaweed around.
How preposterous — but I can’t say we won’t do it again.
And now we are back. It’s five o’clock on the Friday of Labor Day Weekend — perhaps no holiday is more fully enshrined in glossy mag culture, even this year. I’m listening to my old dog sleep-whimper on the brick patio beyond the office and thinking about how little I know of current events anymore, and how much of the detachment can be blamed on this new suburban work-from-home life versus the (originally sheepish, and then less so) desire for a break. What starts out as momentary detachment can quickly become willful ignorance — and then, maybe more insidious, obliviousness. Fodder for a different post, but also, note to self: It would be very easy to end up oblivious, here.
The lobsters, by the way, were excellent.