“you’ll miss the water + the trees”: north shore getaway (pt. 2)

palisade head 4It’s summer, the fourth of July, but cool temperatures and the possibility of rain had us awake early on Wednesday. Day two of our little getaway was my to play. I wanted to drive northeast to Palisade Head, and pick our way back south, stopping as we wanted.

Palisade Head rises in sheer cliffs, three hundred feet above Lake Superior. On clear days, it’s a stunning panorama. The Sawtooth mountains and Shovel Point to the northeast, Split Rock Lighthouse to the southwest, and across the lake, the Apostle Islands.

We only stop once on our way up (for me to jump out of the car and snap photos of lupine along the shore — the first I’ve ever seen growing wild), but by the time we reached the lookout, the lake had vanished. Banks of white fog obscured everything, leaving only the base of the cell tower, and the rocks immediately in front of us clear.

A man with Ontario license plates shook his head at me when I joked about the view.
“Waste of your holiday,” he said, then warned me of coming storms.

The man had a camera on his neck, and I understood his gruffness. This lake is unruly, dangerous. It has its own weather patterns, and if you expect anything from your visit, you’ll likely be disappointed. I didn’t care though. That we couldn’t see the water, but could hear the waves roll over boulders at the base of the cliff was its own experience, gave the day its own beauty. We didn’t leave, but climbed down the billion year old lava formations.

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In the white fog, I thought, strangely, of death. This lake is, historically, treacherous. The “graveyard of the Great Lakes,” Superior has more than 500 ships on her floor, and as Gordon Lightfoot said, Superior doesn’t gives up her dead. The water is too cold for a drowned body to release the post-mortem gases that would, in a kinder lake, bring it to the surface. (As I told Chris on our drive up, I was really into shipwrecks for a while.)

I tried to explain how its in this space between beauty and danger that I find my love of Superior. It’s like the mountains, or the Grand Canyon. Like any wild place of beauty, we come to it, because it dwarfs us. We come to it, because we need it to dwarf us.

Lake Superior exists separate from us. Beyond our intervention or desires. It’s unruly and dangerous, and in this largess is its majesty. This lakes is powerful in the ways that it is, resonant and restorative and clarifying, because it exists beyond and beyond and beyond us.

Climbing these cliffs with so little visibility, I felt closer to the raw power of the lake. It’s large enough to have its own ecosystem, its own currents, and the fact that it’s landlocked and not ruled by global tides makes it somehow more powerful, more set apart from all its comparisons. It’s 2018, and we don’t navigate by lighthouses anymore, but this lake still demands respect. Just a year, a girl slipped from the very place we were climbing, and died on the rocks below.

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We were quiet in the fog, careful on the rocks, and cautious when we looked over the edges on our hands and knees. There was so little lake to see, but still, it was there. Just before we were about to leave, the fog shifted, and I could see the low waves that, previously, I’d just heard. The eddies of fog broke, and the lake to the northeast opened for us. Behind me, the cliffs we came to see.

For all I’ve said about the lake not existing for us, this felt like a gift, like the lupine on the highway felt like a gift. I didn’t expect it, didn’t need it, but oh my god, to receive it. The cliffs rise up, reds and oranges and grays, above sheets of hammered metal. You see the forests that rise and fall with the low mountains, and the lava formations that stand above the water. The fog kept the coast and water hidden, but I’ve seen, on clear days, the shore recede to haze and the lake stretch farther that you can see. I snapped photos furiously, then put my camera down. It’s a kind of worship, to sit before so much.

The clearing only last ten, maybe twelve minutes, and when the fog returned, we climbed back to the road. Growing between the lichened rocks, I came eye level with a blueberry bush, the berries still waxy and green. I snapped a photo, and kept climbing. I took hours for me to realize that I’d be gone by the time they ripen.

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Preparing to move away has left me with so many separate pieces. There’s the deep sadness of being away from family, but that sadness doesn’t diminish the sense of adventure. The waves of fear that we’ll fail (finances are my anxiety) are separate from the excitement that we’ll will be building something entirely our own. I hadn’t yet tried to reconcile all these jagged pieces, but they were with me as we picked our way down the shore.

Heavy rains truncated our plans, but we stopped once more to visit Split Rock Lighthouse, a Minnesota icon Chris has never seen. We skipped the tour to walk the grounds on own own. The thick white fog that had obscured the lake at Palisade Head was gray and heavy here. It hung over the trees and buildings, and turned everything to shadow.

Here, again, is a shore I know so well. Even under blankets of fog, I can trace the outlines of the cliffs and rock patterns. I’ve seen this beach on hot summer days and in crisp fall weather, with fat snowflakes falling on and in the earliest spring when the ice was breaking up. Its broken pieces made music riding on small waves.

For two days I felt this returning. All the ghosts of who I’ve been, from my childhood to my adulthood, are here. This lake is part of me. All these memories, all these stories kept coming to me. That’s my favorite beach, and if you climb past the no trespassing signs, it stretches all the way to the mouth of the Beaver River. When he was a toddler, my brother wore his flippers and goggles on the walk to Gooseberry Falls, but when he got there, there was barely a trickle  of water coming over that wide terrace. Six years later, he and another almost-brother scaled that rock face. We watched waves on this beach the year my dad turned 50, and if you keep driving north, that’s where we spent Thanksgiving.

On the beach beneath Split Rock, I submerged my hands in the water, a holdover from childhood when I wanted the water, the lake itself on my skin. We were getting ready to leave, fog heralding more severe weather on the way. I expected to be bowled over by grief. How many times in the last nine weeks have I asked myself ‘am I really leaving? And I really leaving the home I love, the land that feels apart of me, the family to whom I’m anchored?’ That we’ll be back is a given, but when? I’ve never left home with a plan to return.

The water was cold and clear and bracing, and with my hands in it, I felt clarity instead of sorrow. All the pieces of fear and hope and sorrow and excitement and possibility, all gathered into something that felt whole.

Cheryl Strayed’s Wild came to me. How she wrote, “Of all the things I’d been skeptical about, I didn’t feel skeptical about this: the wilderness had a clarity that included me.”

I think about what my friend told me about leaving: It’s not easy, but it’s not scary, and the doors that open make it worth it in the end.

But I’ll miss the water and the trees.

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ps: read part 1 here

merry christmas: thoughts on tradition + what comes after seasons of waiting

As a child, I was militant about holiday traditions. The music we played when we decorated the Christmas tree, the dishes served on Christmas Eve, the snack we chose when we drove through neighborhoods at night, looking for lit-up houses. My mother, survivor of a sad childhood and painful Christmases, worked hard to create a whole season of warmth and love and the familial familiar. She did far too good of a job. I looked forward to the month of December with an anxious longing. There was so much light for us to bottle up, so few days to do so.

I remember waiting for the nights to grow so long the bus would drop us off in the dark. I’d run down the hill towards home, looking for the straw star, hanging in the kitchen window, gold against the deep blue of winter night. As an eight year old, it stirred in me something too deep to name. Family or home or some form of safety so fundamental, so elemental it strikes against our evolutionary code.

Last year, my grandfather died two days before Christmas. A sudden, cruel phone call that cut through all the tinsel and lights. Grief and then illness cut Christmas short. I pulled all the decorations down on the night before his funeral, and boxed them hurriedly. My grief was dark. I needed lights off to feel it, sit with it.

I wonder if it’s the coming anniversary of his death that has tempered this holiday season, or if it’s simply, as I’m finding in different ways all across my life, that I don’t need the rhythms to give me comfort this year. I decorated a tree, sweet and small and a hand-me-down from my grandmother, but not on the pre-appointed date (day after Thanksgiving, always, so the short season will be as long as possible). I’ve watched some of the movies, listened to some of the music, but have done neither with the same kind of strategy. It sounds silly, but I had a schedule — this movie, at this point in the month, to accompany this activity. I baked cookies, both alone and with people, but I haven’t baked what I always deem “traditional” yet. At this point, I likely won’t get to them at all.

At some point in my teenage years, my mom had to talk to me about my traditions-stringency. It was too much for the rest of the family, too much for her. I had so many expectations, so many demands. I took the joy out of our customs when I required they be performed, and I removed from our family the ability to relax into the season, adapt to our always-changing selves.

I mellowed out after that. (Thank God. I remember the anxiety I used to feel to try to squeeze! it! all! in! Even as a child, I worried about how fleeting the holiday season was, and how long it would take to get back to it again. In high school, I faked sick to give myself an extra day to bake cookies, and sit under the lights of our tree). But even with my mellowing, I was still careful to perform my traditions. This song, first thing on the morning of Black Friday, as I unpacked the decorations. Thinking about it now, it’s no wonder I always cried as a child, silently and without understanding, on the drive back home from my grandparents’ house. I was so desperate to stock up on joy; I couldn’t stomach it all ending.

This year, I feel mellower than ever about Christmas. Two days from the day and on the anniversary of my grandfather’s death, I don’t feel desperate or giddy or anxious or panicked about what the season was or what the next few days will be.

When I decorated my Christmas tree, I turned into a child again. I cleaned my apartment, organizing corners and dusting off shelves, to prepare for the tree, and when I unpacked the ornaments, I did so with the explosiveness of a toddler — everything out so I could see it. Then I hung each ornament with extraordinary care, tracking down the memory that accompanies each one. When I drove home, one night in the dark, I nearly wept at all the lights on houses and trees. Every single decoration tickled something young and enchanted inside of me. One of the first pieces of writing I ever had published was a short essay about Christmas wonder that my dad sent in to the Twin Cities newspaper without me knowing. I re-read it this year, and even though I shudder at my use of adjectives (people, who, other than 16 year old Torrie, uses words like dulcet and cordiality), I resonated with the idea that Christmas is a season of “anticipation,” of “the beautiful, unrestrained and determined faith of a child.”

I don’t observe Advent, but I do think about what it means to wait. Last year at this time, I was sad and angry, and, although I didn’t know it at time, on the brink of some of the deepest soul-searching and self-building I’ve done yet. I was waiting for something hidden inside me to come to bloom. Out of the darkness of my grandfather’s death, out of the ensuing grief and the shattering loneliness that marked the first months of 2018 came something really beautiful: a life I was happy to be living.

This Christmas, I’ve felt less beholden to a performance of Christmas and more childlike about Christmas than I have in years. I feel mellow and happy and glad for the season. I baked a cake on Wednesday, and plan to frost it before we leave for a Christmas party today. My mom said about Thanksgiving that she likes how our family is at ease, but doesn’t want us to sacrifice tradition. I don’t see it that way. I’ll spend Christmas Eve at my parent’s house, with the people I love. We plan to bake cut-out cookies, the kind we baked when my brother and I were young, but who knows how much of the family will actually participate. We’re going to be together. We’re going to sit in front of an actual fireplace (my parents heat their house with burning wood). We’ll have stockings hung, and trees lit, and I’m sure I’ll get shouted down when I suggested we watch a Christmas movie together. (At this point, that’s happened enough to call it tradition). I’ve done about half the Christmas “stuff” I usually do, and have enjoyed all of it twice as much. After Christmas day, I’ll have some time off work. I’m looking forward to rest, to New Year’s Eve, to 2018 beginning. I’m so grateful for all of it.

I wonder if this is what it’s like to be, at least for a little while, at the end of the waiting. To just, for a little while, be.