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Following the Light

Rhode Island

Last week we returned from what I hope is becoming our annual summer beach vacation. We went to the Rhode Island shore, just like last year, and like last year, our days at the beach were like a dream: sun-kissed toddler shoulders hunched over sandcastles, kids squealing with delight (and holding on to me for dear life) as the waves crashed in, salt in the air and left on our skin at night, the ocean breeze keeping the bright July sun in check. These days were interrupted only by thirty-meter walks from the beach to the fried food emporium for clam strips, calamari and pizza or across the street to the ice cream place where our day's work let us use phrases like "double scoop" and "brownie mix" without remorse.

That's all to be expected, you say, nothing but another perfect, sun-soaked beach weekend for the Souzeks. The unexpected came in the last half of Saturday. After a long morning of swimming and role-playing ("I'm a baby duck and you're a mama duck," etc.) in the hotel pool, we headed to Newport for some clams, mansions and more of the Atlantic. Our van, specifically those parts concerned with providing electricity to the vehicle, had other ideas. In the end, we only lost a few hours of our trip but the anxiety that accompanied having a car break down—on vacation, an hour away from the hotel, with two antsy kids in carseats, on an early Saturday evening when everyone was closing up shop until Monday morning—was enough to run us ragged. But the most interesting parts of this already interesting evening were the places we ended when we were at our wit's end. For instance, the first time our car refused to start, it was here:

Our Lady of Fatima

Then hours later, after multiple calls to AAA, desperately searching for the solace of a mechanic's open arms and playing out every possible Sunday/Monday scenario in our heads, Dinka dropped me off at a park with the kids while she went to look for some long-overdue dinner. This was the view from the park (click the image for full size):

Newport sunset

Hours of frustration and worry punctuated by breathtaking, otherworldly beauty. Places like these have a graceful but overwhelming way of putting one's life into perspective. As I drove home on Sunday with these images still alive in my head, I thought about how it's always possible to react to difficult situations in the way that I had been coerced into reacting by my surroundings. That kneeler in the garden in front of Our Lady of Fatima is always there, the sun rises and sets in the big sky every day. If we remember to seek these places out, in the world or in our minds, a more peaceful path (not to mention less anxiety, quarreling, stomachaches) is not much farther.

This beautiful pair of coincidences reminded me of Anthony Doerr's memoir, Four Seasons in Rome, which I finished last week. I became acquainted with him through his letters and essays on The Morning News and jumped at the chance to win a copy of his new book. His descriptive power as a writer is matched only by his wonder at the natural world, even the familiar. Take for instance this passage from "We are Mapmakers", a letter about visiting his childhood home for the holidays:

Everything is familiar and new all at once: the slickness of well water in the shower; the leafless hardwoods ringing my parents' house; the smells of slush, gasoline, and wood in the garage... I have not been to Novelty in almost two years. I have not lived here in a decade. But to return to where I grew up, these six acres beside a pond, is to wander through a thicket of memories. My feet know which paths to take through the snow; my hands find the two hollows in the sycamore where I used to practice my pull-ups.

His journal entries from Rome are as breathtaking as I imagine the city to be. He sees beauty and poetry everywhere—in the pine trees and the light, fountains and funerals, the overwhelming history and the smiles of passers-by. But to my point, as a parent of similarly young children, the most memorable passages were those in which he contrasted the exhaustion and tedium that accompany the mundane tasks of raising children with those rare moments when all time seems to be suspended and all you can do is drown in the love that they bring into your life, the new perspective they bring to your world. I hope he (and you) will not mind if I quote one of my favorites at length:

After a month it got so we could not remember whose diaper had been changed, who had been given what medicine, or even what day it was. There were nights when Owen screamed from dusk until dawn. There were nights when we had poured enough milk bottles and changed enough diapers and stayed awake enough consecutive hours that the rituals seemed to become somehow consecrated. I would stand dry-eyed over Henry as he stared up at the ceiling at three or four in the morning, and in something like a waking dream he would seem so wise and sensible that he became like some ancient philosopher.

He never cried, not even when his alarm went off. Swaddled in his Moses basket, wires trailing out the bottom, his monitor flashing green, green, green, his entire four-pound body motionless except his eyelids, it seemed his understood everything I was working so hard to understand: his mother's love, his brother's ceaseless crying; he was already forgiving me for my shortcomings as a father; he was the the distillation of a dozen generations, my grandpa's grandpa's grandpa, all stripped into a single flame and stowed still-burning inside the thin slip of his ribs. I'd hold him at the window and he's stare out into the night, blue tributaries of veins pulsing in his neck, his big eyelids slipping down now and then, and it would feel as if tethers were falling away, and the two of us were gently rising, though the glass, through the trees, through interweaving layers of atmosphere, into whatever was beyond the sky.

This experience of finding the eternal in the everyday seems to motivate much of what I do (reading, watching films, vacation) and what I try to express (writing, photography). I hope these photos give you at least a piece of the joy that went into taking them:

Rhode Island '07

August 04, 2007 | Comments (2)