At midnight I walked out onto the dock, and for the next half hour I simply looked at the sky. It was one of those amazing nights here at the lake in northern Minnesota, the Milky Way running from the southwestern horizon to the northeastern, disappearing into the pines behind our house. My parents and grandparents built this lake house the year I was born, and I've come here every summer (and many winters) since. My grandparents are gone, and in the past few years my parents have hit hard financial times. And so I find myself paying a mortgage on this house to keep it in the family. I want my parents to have this place to come to for the rest of their lives. And I want to have this place for me. It's a lot of money each month, though. Sometimes I wonder if it makes sense.
This summer I've been here more days than perhaps any summer of my life. From the end of June to early August I had 40 days in a row. And after a week out west to see friends (and visit the OTHER house I own but don't live in), I got to come back here for a week before I head back to Virginia to teach. I leave here in two days.
No matter how much time I get here, it's always hard to leave. And no matter how well I live the time I'm blessed to have, it passes. I find myself befuddled by this every year, but especially this year. I mean, I had FORTY days here. When I tell my friends this they roll their eyes and sigh and say they should have been a professor. But even forty days pass, and now even this bonus week is almost gone. There's just nothing to be done. Except give thanks.
I've been doing that a lot this summer, giving thanks. I don't know what else to do. I am really, really good at beating myself up for not working harder. And yes, maybe I didn't need to take a nap every afternoon. But the nap on the screened-in porch, after a run, a swim, and a late lunch--the moment when I lie on the floor and wrap myself in my grandmother's old quilt is... I mean, it's why I'm spending a quarter of my monthly income (maybe it's more, who knows?) on this place. That, and the time I get to spend with my parents. And the sounds of loons at night, and the barred owls, and the crickets, and the quiet. And the clear, cool lake water--that alone is worth it, at least that's the thought I had when I first went swimming this summer: this is why I'm paying for this place. That, and the last minute of a long run when I'm coming down the slope through the woods, sweating, feeling all high on endorphins, and kind of proud of myself for overcoming the thousand excuses for not running, or for stopping during the run when my calves were screaming. And too, the fact my old friend Luna is buried here, and after nine months away it feels almost like I'm with her again.
And... so, I have tried to live this time as well as I could. To work as hard as I could on the new book idea, to read for hours a day, to swim, to nap. And to walk out onto the dock at midnight and simply look at the sky.
But looking at the night sky is never simple, at least not for me. I am almost always brought to thoughts about my life, and how I'm living, and how time is passing. I think these are good thoughts to have, good things to be thinking about--how am I living this brief time I've been given. I'm guessing this is a pretty common human response to coming face to face with the universe. I always think about how seldom I see a real night sky like the ones here at the lake. And how most of us in the industrialized world never come face to face with the universe anymore. In The End of Night, one of the people I interviewed told me he didn't think losing the sight of the universe was the worst thing that was happening in the world, but he thought it was symbolic of the worst things. We are cutting ourselves off, he said, from the sources of our lives.
This lake is the source of so much of my life. That's why I come back each summer. To give thanks.