What My Parents Wanted

Yesterday on La Gomera, one of the lesser known of the Canary Islands, I was ambushed by emotions about the people i most intensely wished were there with me. The first was my late husband, Jim, who was an even bigger geology nerd than I am. La Gomera is one huge shield volcano, meaning that instead of going off in a way that creates the typical cone shape, it builds up through many leaks of lava on its surface. This resulted on La Gomera in massive numbers of volcanic plugs, the magma that didn’t quite make it out into the air, but solidified in a tubelike shapes inside the earth. When endless time eroded away the softer materials around them, only the plugs remain (Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, a central feature of Close Encounters of the Third Kind is perhaps the most famous example).

I could almost hear Jim saying “WOW!” every few minutes as another came into view (one in the photo above from the internet). I tried to conjure him to see it with me and I hope it worked. Then I started thinking about my parents, both of whom died in their early sixties. How they would have loved the opportunities I have had to see the world, and how utterly happy they would be for me. Of course, even if they had lived much longer, they would both be well past the century mark now, and even under better circumstances they would have been unlikely to know how this part of my life has turned out, much less come share it with me.

I have now lived without them for more than half of my life and am a decade older than they lived to be. They were of a generation and an upbringing that made them not seek to be forever young, or care much about physical appearance. They both went gray, had little sense of fashion, and never tried to be cool. They were—well, parental. I liked their (mostly) easy company and I basked in their love and appreciation of me.

I didn’t appreciate them nearly enough in return. Recently I ran across an article in which the author asked a simple question: what did his parents want? If anyone reading this has parents who are still alive, it’s not too late to ask, but I am stuck having to guess. I am sure the first thing they both would say is “more time.” I wish they had that also, but what else?

My father, Ivan Forest Weeks, probably in his forties here

What did they want for themselves? My guess is their answers would overlap in many ways but also diverge. I am certain they both wanted my mother not to have the crippling dual disabilities of ankyloid spondylitis and severely reduced lung capacity that kept her from doing many things. They both very clearly wanted a stable, loving family home. They also wanted (but rarely got) time away from that home— opportunities to travel, and (I assume) to escape responsibilities now and again.

My father was happiest in his intellectual work as a theoretical physicist .I think he loved disappearing into his thoughts, and though he was not in the least aloof toward my sister and me, he was not always there either, even when he was physically present. I don’t remember him playing any role in caring for my sister and me. He earned the money and made sure were were all okay. That was his role. I don’t remember him reading to us at bedtime, supervising a bath, or making sure we had lunch money. I remember one incident where my mother had apparently told him to clip my toenails (I wonder whether she had read him the riot act about maybe helping out once in a while). I wanted her to do it, of course, because the whole thing was so odd. The reason I remember it is that he did such a poor job that he drew blood from nipping the quick of one nail. And that was the end of that. I think he liked having his two daughters. I know he loved us dearly. I think, typical of the times, he just wanted to come and go from the mundane parts of parenthood.

I think my mother did too. And of course she couldn’t. What else was she to do in the 1950s and 60s? I think she did the best she could, but really wanted another life. I think she would have liked to have a career. I think she would like to come home to a house she hadn’t cleaned. I know she preferred dinners she hadn’t cooked, regardless of what they might be. I think she would have liked more chances for intellectual stimulation. I wonder if she ever indulged in a fantasy of running away and chucking it all. I suspect if she did, she felt guilty about even the thought. She shouldn’t have. It was a reasonable response to the dilemma of too little of life turning out the way she imagined when she got an MA in chemistry and was briefly a single woman working in a cutting-edge medical lab.

What did they want for me? They both wanted me to go as far as I could with my education. They were projecting graduate school for me when I was in junior high. I hated their expectations back then, but they understood me better than I did myself at that age. They wanted me not to settle down until I could be set for life with a foundation I had made for myself independent of a husband.

Did anyone else’s mother react to the engagement of her daughter with a desperate, pleading, “But why????” Yeah, my mom said that.

When I went on to get a Ph.D. and teach at university, they relaxed about the marriage thing working out, without really knowing how underneath the surface it wasn’t working out well at all. Though neither was alive when I divorced, they would have been pleased to know that I earned enough money that I didnt have to stay.

All that was a long time back. What would they want for me now? I think they would be thrilled with what I have done with my life. Although my mother believed I would write the Great American Novel, I suspect she would be pretty happy with my four lesser ones. I am sure they would be happy that my career kept alive the life of the mind. I imagine my cruise lecturing is beyond even their wildest imagination for the life their daughter might lead. I suspect they would be totally supportive of my present vagabond lifestyle, because when the details are stripped away, the prevailing theme of my life right now is choice. Choices they never had.

A line from Mary Oliver is my screen saver, to remind me to ask myself this question every time I open the case: “Tell me, what are you going to do with your one wild and precious life?”



Is that how my parents saw their time on this earth?

They were born into an era where it was so much harder to say, “no, I’m going to do this my way.” My father died before he retired. They never got to hold hands and jump into that wild and precious world of possibilities. I can picture their glee as they drove off in their camper to do who knows what for however long they wanted, or got on their first plane to a place on their bucket list. Except it didn’t happen. But it is happening for me, and I plan to do a better job in the future of remembering that everywhere I go, they travel with me, tucked in my heart.

Four generations. My mom (Jean Coleman Weeks), holding Adriano, with my grandmother and me (pregnancy pudge still quite apparent)


Whose Clothes Are These?

A few days back I arrived in Barcelona after living out of a suitcase for seven weeks. The hotel had very nicely stored my cruise suitcase for me the entire time. Getting it back was the beginning of a very strange time as I adjust to the change in my life that these suitcases represent.

I thought two things, as I neared the end of my road trip. The first was that I wanted to take the handful of clothing I had worn day after day straight to a dumpster. The second was that I couldn’t wait to get into my other suitcase and get out something different to wear, something that didn’t have the dinge of hand washing and (I am being charitable here) a persistent hint of Eau de Laurel.

It wasn’t like that. I spent several days in Barcelona, staring from my bed at the second, larger suitcase over there in the corner of the room. I just didn’t want to deal with it. I kept wearing the old clothes, because they were available and familiar, and I think largely because I still felt like the person who wore those, not the person who would in the future wear what was inside the other bag.

When I got on board the ship and actually unpacked, I got a glimmering that I have another life that requires a different presentation of myself. Of course by now, the third day on board, have worn mostly things that were in that other suitcase, but it is still an odd, liminal state I feel myself in, as if the clothes I am wearing aren’t really mine. Right now as I type this, despite having loads of options, I am in pants and a top from the travel suitcase (washed by now in a real machine at least).

So what’s going on here? Why is this so different from what I predicted? I think part of it is that there are many subtle, unexpected differences between having and not having a permanent home. Then, my life switched back and forth from home to traveling. Now it switches from one form of impermanence to another. I guess I thought opening that suitcase would be like throwing open my closet door after a long trip and reveling in my options, and it wasn’t. I still live out of a suitcase. The only difference is that now it is a bigger, currently unpacked one.

But, more important, when I was traveling on my own, I was stripped down to a self who felt no qualms about going out with wet hair, and putting on what I wore yesterday because there it was, draped so conveniently on the chair. Now I have this interior monologue going on about what would be appropriate, what image I want to project. Now I have to manage expectations. Now other people matter. And maybe I’m just not all that enthusiastic about that.

And maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe I brought forward something in myself through my solo journey that I want to keep front and center—the me that says what I wear is just not that important. And then again, it is. I have a role to play on the ship. How I look matters. So okay, I can play. I can do dress-up Laurel (see dinner photo below) and professional speaker Laurel, but I have a clearer sense now that they are projections, self-inventions. More than costumes but less than authenticity.

In Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, the protagonist, Isabel Archer, gets in an argument with Madame Merle, about whether clothes are the measure of a person. Her mentor says that clothes are very much a statement about who one is, but Isabel argues that clothes are simply things other people have designed that she wears according to social expectations and that they are not a measure of her as a person at all. I guess Madame Merle and Isabel are warring in my head right now. The battle of the suitcases has changed my thinking about how I present myself to the world, and though it is fine with me to do what is expected, I have a clearer sense of a me I really like who is hiding inside the me others see.


Changing Seasons, Changing Plans

Tumultuous times in my head. I am almost six weeks into this travel adventure and it feels like a shakedown for my next chapter. Living on the move like this leads me every day to evaluate what still works for me, what I am done with, and what my priorities are. 

Yesterday was lovely in the ways a well chosen day in Europe is lovely. I took a day trip to Montreux and Vevey, two must-see spots on Lake Geneva (Lac Leman to locals).  My first reaction to the lakefront promenade in Montreux was “I want to stay here forever!”  Things didn’t stay perfect, and I won’t explain because that’s not the point here.  I then went the short distance to Vevey, and thought the same thing.  Indeed Charlie Chaplin thought exactly that and lived his last 25 years in a villa above the town. He is buried nearby. 

The Montreux Promenade
Charlie Chaplin sculpture in Vevey

I hate to put this in writing, but I am noticing I am getting older. This was illustrated in Ljubljana a while back (it’s a blur now exactly how much time has passed), when after a full day tour, I practically fell out of the van from exhaustion and another younger couple on the tour went off to keep their day going with time in town. That used to be me. Today’s version of me is usually done by 4PM. In Montreux yesterday I planned to walk the 45 minutes to the castle of Chillon, but my hips and legs protested so loudly, (after 70 miles on foot in the last two weeks), that I turned around

I didn’t really know,  as I set out with enthusiasm yesterday morning, how drained I really am.  Add to this the sad news  yesterday that I have lost another age mate to cancer.  The day felt heavy with thoughts of her. Our relationship had been fraught with tension and conflict when we worked together decades ago now, and only resolved in the way it can when people have time to reflect and grow, appreciate and  reconnect.  I am sorry we didnt have longer to enjoy our genuine affection. We both became better people than we were then. 

Montreux and Vevey offered me all their charms, but I brought only part of myself to them yesterday. I think maybe I peaked ( no pun intended) with the Matterhorn, and now it is all denouement. But that’s not exactly right.  I’m feeling more of a zig, wnen I was zagging.  Now I need to figure out what that zig is calling me to do. 

When I decided to structure this trip around public transportation, I knew I would be staying in cities for the most part.  I used them as a base, and went out to see the natural beauty and smaller towns, but with the exception of Zermatt, since I left Montenegro it has been an urban experience overall.   And I’ll be blunt here: there is a sameness about cities, even charming European ones, more so now with global commercialism.  At this point I am feeling as if I don’t really need to see any more.  I know that may sound like a problem born of extreme privilege, and indeed I am very spoiled. That’s my reality, though, and thus my starting point in reevaluation.  

One of the pivotal insights in Hinduism, Samsara, is that we can’t get over cravings by ignoring them or willing them away.  We get over cravings by getting what we think we want, then discovering that we were wrong about what would make us truly happy. I have known for a long time that travel wouldn’t plug any holes in my psyche.  I wasn’t looking for thiat.  It was fun, and stimulating, providing new opportunities to learn and do new things. I still need life to be all that, but I recognize now that maybe I need to find new sources for continued reinvention

So was seven weeks on the road too long? Not at all. This has been an awesome, incredible six weeks, and even the disappointments have been instructive, but I won’t end up wishing it could have been longer. That is a first for me. I got exactly what I asked for, and  It had to be a bit more than I really wanted, because I couldn’t otherwise have had the insights that came with piling it on a little too thick.  

The good thing about being on my own is that insights can be acted upon. I have changed the plan once again for my last week, deciding that I really should visit Avignon and Perpignan when I am not tired of cities. It took a while to figure out how to make another plan work out because I had gotten my thinking locked in to using public transportation.  Then the simplest of thoughts occurred to me: I could rent a car and spend my remaining time in the countryside. What I really need now is a walk on a rural road, and vantage points  that are not rushing by as I travel by train or bus.  

So I cancelled everything for next week. Tomorrow, I take a train to Montpellier, where I will immediately rent a car and head out for a few days into the beautiful hill towns in that region of France. I really don’t know yet where exactly I will go, and I think I may try the experiment of not having a plan at all except to see and do what moves me as I go. I will slow down, rejuvenate, and then move on refreshed after a restorative dose of rural autumn and country air. 

Yes.  Sounds like a good way to keep the growth going. 


The Meaning of Mountains

As I write this I am about as high in the alps as one can get without mountaineering. I am at Gornergrat, the end of the cog railway going up, up, up from Zermatt, already high in the alps. 

I have been brought to tears twice already since arriving in Zermatt yesterday. The first time was when I saw the Matterhorn for the first time. Am I the only one who sometimes has to look away because the sight is just too much? Too beautiful, too powerful, too much of a bucket list suddenly fulfilled? That’s what it was like. I walked through Zermatt to a lovely park, just as the setting sun created a halo around the crooked shape of the mountain. And that’s when I choked up. “I did it,” I told myself. “I’m here!” It wasn’t just the mountain. It was the me that brought me to the mountain. The me that has made this whole trip happen. 

This morning I took the cog railway from Zermatt to Gornergrat. Old Laurel realized about halfway up, as my breath got shorter, that i really am “ not supposed to” go much above 6000 feet because of borderline asthma. (Did I give this a thought when settling on Switzerland for a week? No.) I thought about whether i should just enjoy the ride up to 10000 feet and right back down and call it a day, and decided wisely against a hike between two stations. But in one of those allegorical journeys over the course of about ten minutes, I went in my head from Old Laurel to New. From “I can’t” to “I can.” Heroine sets out on a journey. Heroine faces obstacle. Heroine conquers obstacle. Heroine returns in triumph. I am stronger than I think. 

I was a downright mountain goat about climbing even higher than the terminal  to the 360-degree viewpoint. The only people higher than I went were on the rocks behind me in this photo.

It was on the way up those last steps that I choked up again. Here is how my inner dialogue went:

Here you are, doing this. You made it happen. You are on top of the world in more ways than one. You remember those days when you struggled just to keep on living. When not turning the wheel of the car on a curve would have put an end to your problems. When you felt so small and invisible that you thought you might disappear altogether. And sometimes you wanted to. More than once you hid in a corner of your closet because the toxic air was just too much. And now, look at you, here on this mountain. You endured. You prevailed. And the life you have made now is your reward for it.”

I mean, who wouldn’t choke up?

I felt utterly restored and renewed, as fresh as the snow that had recently dusted the peak I was standing on. I have a new appreciation of the present, and a new perspective on my past. My story is not that of a victim but a persister. A winner. I was winning the battle even when I doubted it, because I was enough. I am more than up to whatever challenges this latest travel adventure brings.  After all, I am five weeks in and still thriving, still learning, still growing. And the journey will continue.

In the course of a few  days I have gone from being underwhelmed (commercialized, homogenized Italy) to speechless. In two more weeks I will be at sea level, switching into my cruising world.  I have a feeling what happened to me here on this mountain will stay with me in ways I have yet to discover. For now the air is crisp, the sun is bright, the colors are brilliant, and I am present in it.  Here is  a photo I took right after i finished drafting this post. Can you tell I am having a very, very good day? 

Before I took the train back, I stopped in a little chapel to light a candle. I love the idea of candles sending prayers heavenward, even if I am not a believer.  I prayed for everyone I love who is facing challeges, then expanded the prayer to everyone who is not at peace, realizing how astoundingly blessed I am to be exactly where I am right now. . 


Verona, Where Are You?

I visited Verona for the first time about thirty years ago and fell in love with everything about it. I went in November, when the residents had reclaimed the city, and saw for myself the rhythms of life there—the children  walking home from school, the passegiata, the cafes, the storefront displays magical in the golden light of evening.

Verona was the first place I truly appreciated the incredible creativity of Italy’s artisans—how shop after shop had unique designs for everything from handbags to kitchenware. I learned quickly that if you wanted something you needed to buy it right then because you wouldn’t see it anywhere else and you might not ever find the store again. I learned not to navigate by what was in the store window at the corner where I needed to turn, because the love of creative display meant that in the interim the window display quite possibly would have changed. 

This is my first time back in Verona, and I have been —sad to say—quite disappointed. The main shopping street is lined with the same stores you see everywhere—Stefanel, Luisa Spagnoli, Benetton, et. al.—displaying the same clothes on the same blasé looking mannequins I’ve seen everywhere. Not until I got to Bolzano yesterday on an overnight side trip did I see in a scattered handful of stores the kind of originality ( like the yellow boots in the photo below) that once was common everywhere in Italy.

While I was coming back on the train for one final day in Verona, I had a long talk with myself in which I pointed out how, when I was here before, everything was new to me. Even products I wasn’t remotely interested in fascinated me, and every street held new things to get excited about. I told myself if I judged Verona today only by stores on the main tourist streets , or by whether I had ever seen anything similar in the years since, it was my own fault if I didn’t enjoy myself. 

So, this afternoon I set off to wander off the tourist path, and lo and behold, it’s still a great little city! I found quiet neighborhoods, beautiful viewpoints, and every three or four blocks, a proprietor still selling original things from his or her own quirky shop. 

Forget Juliet’s (fake) balcony. There are streets with overhanging timbers and exposed stone walls that look as if they haven’t changed much in centuries.  There are places where the cobblestones are worn with age. Walking these streets in a light drizzle in late afternoon added to the sense that I was in another time, far removed from Hugo Boss and the Nike Store. 

I had a rejuvenating day when I least expected it. I am off to a bucket list destination tomorrow—Bergamo, a medieval town perched on a cliff, loaded with history, and ( based on descriptions) charm. Yesterday I was wondering whether it too would have become so homogenized it would engender boredom more than the wonder and newness I seek from travel. But I know now it doesn’t really matter. Though the Italy of artisan entrepreneurs may be harder to find these days, there are always back streets where surprises await.