Parallel journeys

     And just like that they're gone.
     The alarm at 4:30 signaled the beginning of the thirty minute flurry: I, in my pajamas, in the kitchen making cinnamon toast and cutting up melon; they, in their bedrooms, putting on sweatshirts, hiking shoes and passport wallets; Bob, in the driveway, stowing duffels in the van, the porchlight waning as the skies lighten.  The dogs, excited and nervous at this unusual activity, wag their tails and stand hopefully by their bowls.
     The other travelers arrive, the bags are stowed, Anna and Andrew kiss me goodbye (twice!) – and they're gone. For them, this is the first leg of their glorious summer trip. They will drive to Boston, fly to Toronto, bus to Temagami, barge to Garden Island, and tonight eat dinner in the rustic great hall of Camp Wabun, built in the 1930s, with some of their best friends who they haven't seen for eleven months.
      Within three days, Anna will begin a 42-day canoe trip on the other side of the Arctic Divide, where the rivers flow north to Hudson Bay. This is the trip of a lifetime for her: at sixteen, she will paddle lakes and whitewater, portage around waterfalls, see eagles, moose, possibly wolves and bear, and finish at a First Nation village on the shores of the Bay. This is her ultimate trip as a camper, and she and her section will return to Wabun in August on paddle-in day with the confidence and quiet authority of Those Who Have Been Tested. The younger campers and parents alike will watch them with some measure of awe.
      I'm left here with the dogs and their dog bowls, empty juice glasses and plates with traces of cinnamon sugar by the sink, and the silence. Bob will be back later this morning, and our own six-week odyssey of temporary empty-nesting will begin.
      Right now, though, my heart is split, half here in the quiet, half in the van amidst the noisy excitement. We will not hear from them but once – possibly twice from Andrew – as there are no post offices or cell phone towers where they are going. This is good, for them and for us, even though it is at times hard. But as they discover who they are and what they are made of, I remember who I am and what I am made of.  I am also on a journey this summer.  And it starts now.


My Whip-poor-will

     I woke up before dawn, eyes wide open, with a start.  Through the open windows came a sound that I don't ever remember hearing here, but I recognized it instantly.  I was thrilled to hear an Eastern Whip-poor-will -- at least for awhile.
     Whip-poor-wills are medium-sized birds with some notoriety: they startlingly "appear" with a really loud, long, repetitive song, often after dark or just before dawn, but no one ever sees them.  Nocturnal habits and camouflage coloration are their invisibility cloak.  Overall fairly common, the population is beginning to erode to the point of disappearing at the edge of its range.  In Maine, they are drifting away like ghosts. 
     I have been trying to start and end my days with a conscious thought of gratitude. So when I turn out the light at night, I let the good things of the day drift through my fading awareness and I form the thought-words “thank you” in response. In the morning, when I first return to consciousness – but before my mind puts a name on the day or a list in my head – I form the thought-words to thank the birds that are singing or my bed for being soft or my house for its snugness. 
     Tuesday morning, the Whip-poor-will woke me. I didn't need to evoke gratitude; it surged with the excitement of hearing this increasingly rare bird. 
     The bird sounded like it was in the tree right outside our window. If you've never experienced a Whip-poor-will singing, the thing to understand is that it is incessant. 
     I have heard, and have come to believe, that when essentially the same thing keeps happening to you, somewhere in that is a lesson that you need to learn, a life lesson. For example, when people are continually attracted to others who aren't good for them, there might be something to learn about self-worth or trust. Recently I learned a lesson about stress and sickness, and the necessity of conscious breathing (see Breathe). 
     As I lay in bed listening to that Whip-poor-will before dawn last week, after awhile my gratitude began to ebb as annoyance flowed in. I realized that if I was going to be able to sleep, I would have to let go of the annoyance, and just let the presence of these disappearing birds, reincarnated momentarily in one singer outside my window, be a gift. 
     Eventually I did fall back asleep. And I realized the Whip-poor-will's gift was not just his appearance, but the lesson that I need to learnwant to learn – from his song: to voice my own gratitude, every day, unwaveringly. 
     The Whip-poor-will did not return the next pre-dawn morning, nor the next. But I've been keeping up with my silent thank-yous. It's not hard to do, but if I get lazy, the practice could erode over time. Maybe the Whip-poor-will will come back again if I need to be reminded. 
     I guess that would be a true mixed blessing.