Our family has been going to Chincoteague for a week or two in July-August for nearly 30 years, and this summer was no different. Only now the little boys have become men, husbands, and fathers, and instead of a dome tent or pop-up camper, our growing family rents a several-bedroom house (or houses). Not much else has changed, though. We still enjoy biking through the wildlife refuge, passing egrets and marshmallows, turtles, herons, and wild ponies; and setting up our rusty old chairs and rickety umbrellas on the coarse sand of the national seashore, accompanied by raucous seagulls and the rough Atlantic surf.
The sun still rises, a red ball, over the glossy waters of the channel between Assateague and Chincoteague Islands; folks still crab off the bridge and along the web of waterways that snake through and around the clusters of houses and campgrounds and through the refuge. There's not much else to do other than bike, crab, maybe take a kayak out, build sand castles, walk, and read. We like that.
Family vacations have a checkered reputation, for good reason. Though we love Chincoteague, and being there with our loved ones, not everything is as serene as the postcard pictures look. For example, our three-year-old granddaughter becomes a fearless and fearsome little water sprite in a hot pink bathing suit, running headlong into the crashing waves at every opportunity. When not defying Poseidon (she can't yet swim), she likes to tear up and down the beach, far ahead of her panting grandpa.
Nor is it more restful back at the house. For years, we have combined our vacation with that of our dear friends, the Welters, who have (I think) at least 13 children, many of whom wouldn't miss the beach week, along with their partners, children, and friends. Altogether, more than 20 adults, teens, children, toddlers, and babies circle round the barbeque grill each evening — and that means organizing cooking teams (and that's only the beginning). Everything is a jumble of comings and goings, board games, croquet, beach fires and roasted marshmallows, tag, hide-and-seek, over-tired children, and smiling (but exhausted) adults. In the roiling and boiling, there are inevitably the unacknowledged tensions, frayed emotions, and thin skins that add to the cauldron of family life. We are none of us at our best.
Which is why I am glad to get back to the small mountain where Rolling Ridge nestles in the green forest, though there is no escaping the frailties and hazards of being human and alive. The morning after we returned home, we all gathered at Foxfire to help Bob and Jackie move out of the house they had built 14 years ago and into a new life away from us. Bob called on the mysterious love of the universe to wrap us round, and we needed it.
After the move, Billy and I hurried home to continue unpacking from the beach, stowing bikes, cleaning barbeque skewers, washing towels ... the thousand and one things that needed putting away ... and facing the many tasks of answering week-old emails, preparing for the upcoming retreats, catching up business and busyness by the armload.
While all around us, the forest breathed. Thank goodness.
Summer here these days is clear and buoyant. This afternoon, young dog Erin and I went for a walk under the green canopy. The light in August has a deep, lush brightness. The trees glow from within, creating a haven of emerald light.
Mary Oliver writes,
When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, "Stay awhile."
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, "It's simple," they say,
"and you too have come
into this world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine."
So, we are home from the beach, a little older, and perhaps a little wiser; aware once again of how distant we are from whom we would hope to be; confronted by the necessity of letting go — of people, and of the need to accomplish. I, for one, am grateful to be once more among the trees. After all, they have it right.