My mother used to say I was “so demonstrative,” because I loved to hold hands with my boyfriend, or put my arm around a friend. It was meant as a criticism, because what she really meant was that I was expressing with my body more than was seemly for a girl of good repute.  I never understood why I shouldn’t show through touch how I felt about someone.  I still don’t.

In museums I often stand at a distance and whisper about how great something is. I want to do what seems the most natural thing—to connect physically with what is mesmerizing.. Were artists  really thinking “I hope this is roped off so that people only see it from beyond arm’s length”?  Works of art vibrate with life, telling stories that can’t really be complete without direct contact.

I get it.  Masterpieces would be wrecks if we all could indulge.  But still, the sparks that touch creates are such a part of being alive. I think of movies I’ve seen—ET’s finger for one, and so many others where touch sent a person into another reality, or where it was the precursor to love. It is such a huge part of how we know that anything is real. 

I had such a moment recently. I was on the island of Lewis, off northwestern Scotland, visiting the Calanais Stones,  a Neolithic site known for several groups of deliberately  placed upright monoliths. Unlike Stonehenge, which this site predates, you can still walk around freely among the more than three dozen stones at the main site.  This meant that I could stand close enough to the stones to touch them, but even before I did, I found myself unexpectedly fighting back tears. I was standing in the middle of the story of everyone involved with creating this place—their lives, their beliefs, their needs. They must have had blistered hands and exhausted bodies. They must have stood together and admired their work. They must have hoped it could deliver whatever powers they needed it to have. And here I was, centuries later touching the same sparkling and corrugated shards of volcanic rock and feeling a link to everyone who has ever shared the same emotions I feel, the same hopes, the same uncertainties. 

Whether it’s Neolithic stones, or the thick impasto of Van Gogh or Monet, or the smooth surfaces of Barbara Hepworth and Constantin Brancusi, being able to touch connects us to others far beyond our time and place. People who know me see how I seek out artisan-made jewelry and textiles  because I want to sense the hands that shaped the metal, wove the design, set the stone. But most touch doesn’t reach across time and place. Most of it connects us more intensely to what is happening in the present. I recall one point in my time as a cruise lecturer when I had been away from home for several months, and I felt an almost electrical jolt from the grasp of a deck hand helping me off a tender onto the ship. “I have not been touched in such a long time,“ I thought, and realized how much that mattered, how much my life was not in harmony with that basic need. 

It’s why that extra second or two transforms a hug of greeting into a real connection.  Why snuggling may be more intimate than sex. It’s why it matters so much to me that after being on a ship for a few weeks, some waiters and bar crew put their hand on my shoulder when they are at my table, or give me a high five or a hug when they see me. It tells me we mean something to each other. It’s a way to know that we are real, both to ourselves and to others, some from the Stone Age and some right now. My mother was wrong. Be demonstrative, then be demonstrative some more. Touch as if your life depended on it, because in many ways it does. 


Maybe It’s Not About Iceland at All

Today is my last day of a month in Iceland.  What was supposed to be a shorter assignment was  doubled when the speaker set to replace me canceled suddenly. The lovely thing about the way I am living now is that I can say yes to so many things without encumbrances, including not going home when scheduled. 

I have been puzzling over why I feel so melancholic about leaving. The scenery is magnificent but I have been seeing much of the same kind of beauty in every port. I can’t say Iceland is my favourite place I’ve ever been, or if it would make “best cruises ever” list except for how much time I had to form a feeling of intimacy with it that I can’t get when ports and countries go rushing by. And I certainly don’t want to move here! Puffer jackets, wool sweaters and even long underwear some days in mid-summer?  I need shorts, sandals, and t-shirts to feel really at home this time of year. 

So why was I tearing up a little today that  this is my last waterfall through tundra-covered rocks, my last chance to pick Icelandic thyme and smell its fragrance, to feel the cold mist on my cheeks, to watch the fog brush the tops of jagged volcanic peaks.  I have been in this port four times, so why was I taking some of the same pictures, like this one from the deck of the ship?  It’s not even as good as some I took on visits one, two, and three. 

It hit me just a few moments ago that it is because goodbyes are so much harder than they used to be. Maybe in our seventies we start to grasp that even if we outlive the actuarial charts, we don’t have forever. We may not even have much time at all. I am not feeling morbid about this, just realistic that probably I am seeing this place for the last time. Lucky me to have seen it at all.  Luckier me to have seen it so abundantly. But still…

I think my mood today may not be about Iceland at all. It’s all the goodbyes life hits us with.  Some are heartbreaking at the time, and others later. We often don’t know we have seen someone for the last time until we learn that we won’t ever be seeing them again.  So far I have been lucky, in that my age-mate friends from high school, college, and various jobs are almost all still here, but I recognize that the time is approaching when I will get sad news a lot, if I am among those who live longer. I imagine I have already seen some of my friends for the last time, but I just don’t know it yet. 

The Dao teaches that everything contains the seed of its opposite.  Maybe that’s part of it too.  I often whisper to myself “I am so happy,” while on a bus taking me on a tour through wonderful countryside, or watching beautiful landscapes go by from the windows and decks of the ship.  All the sensory, soul pleasure of the moment, however, gets more and more tinged with sadness at this point in my life. Often thoughts of my two lost boys are next, as if the joy isn’t real without the loss. One of my favourite words, which I first heard used to describe Strauss’s “Four Last Songs,” is “autumnal.”  The bittersweetness of this stage of life can be felt at any time of year, or perhaps more precisely can never not be felt any more. 

I am just leaving Iceland, not losing it. It’s not as complicated as it is with people, because I don’t have an emotional investment. I won’t be leaving a chunk of my heart behind. I think I feel the emotional heaviness today because of all the other times when leaving has become losing.  Particularly one time, seven months ago, when I learned that I had had the last earthly contact I would ever have with my beloved son Ivan.  My goodbye to him continues every day.  A cold, rainy day in Iceland is a good time to grieve all the leavings, all the losses. A good time too to practice gratitude for all the memories and all the time I still have to experience things autumnally. Even if it is for the last, or perhaps the only time, it is good to be here, good to be wherever I am. 

My last photo of Iceland leaving the fjord for open sea.


What I Remember

I am feeling melancholic in a way I didn’t expect, as I come to the last few days in Iceland before the ship turns south for the British Isles.  I’ve been in Iceland a month now, for all or part of four different sailings. There are some ports I have seen four times and none I have seen less than twice. In at least the parts of towns that cruisers see, I know where everything is, what is just a bit off the beaten path, and what is worth seeing or doing a second or even a third time. I feel settled in, as if these familiar cliffs, valleys, rocks, fjords, flowers and birds are at least a little bit mine. 

Today I spent the day in Heimaey, the largest of the Westman Islands just off the coast of Iceland, and as I came back to the ship on the tender, I thought about how this was the last time we would stop here.  Never say never, of course, but despite the soul soothing I have gotten from Iceland’s clean, clear air and water, its friendly people, and its magnificent scenery, when I think of how many more places I want to go for a first time or return to, I really doubt I will be back.

That got me thinking about what I remember, not just about here, but from all my travels. What sticks? What, on the other hand, is really just one wonderful moment before moving on? I have to admit, I have trouble remembering what I did even yesterday when I am cruising because I live most thoroughly in the present when I am traveling. It seems as if trying to burn a lasting takeaway into my mind is only a distant thought compared to what is registering with my five senses at the moment. Perhaps that’s part, at least, of why I post  here so rarely when I am on the road, or sea in this case.

I rarely remember the weather in the places I’ve been unless it is an essential part of the experience. I don’t often remember whether a day was sunny or cloudy, chilly or warm. I don’t remember food. In fact, I am amazed that on my land trip from Croatia to Barcelona, I can only remember eating once or twice.  Obviously I did, but most food just doesn’t leave a lasting impression. As for people, I meet so many, but I only remember a few.  Often I remember vividly the person I was traveling with, how their being illuminated my time in their presence.

I remember some things very well.  Views, for one.  I remember standing overlooking a spectacular river in Montenegro.  I remember being gobsmacked by the Matterhorn.  I remember looking out over the Negev desert.  I remember the hugeness of the Amazon, the power of waterfalls, the outlines of islands. Sunsets, sunrises.  

I remember people whose stories seemed written on their faces.  Little villages where life seems to work despite hardship.   Cities buzzing with people going about their lives every day, not just the one I happen to be there. Children chattering in languages they have no idea how few people understand. 

Sometimes I wish I had noticed more, asked more questions. Stood a little stiller, been a little quieter a little longer . But those chances are gone. Now all I hope for is to expand my capacity for amazement in the moment, because that is the only place we actually are.

Of course Mary Oliver says it far better than I can. Here is one of her poems:

My work is loving the world.

BHere the sunflowers, there the hummingbird — equal seekers of sweetness. Hear the quickening yeast; they’re the blue plums.

Hear the clam deep in the speckled sand.  

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn? Am I no longer young and still not half-perfect? Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work, 

which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.

The phoebe, the delphinium.

The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture. Which is mostly rejoicing, since all ingredients are here,

which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart and these body-clothes, a mouth with which to give shouts of joy to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,

telling them all, over and over, how it is that we live forever.


Whale Time

I haven’t posted in quite a while. I’m not sure why not, other than it must be a mix of having simultaneously not much and too much to write about. I suspect this is a common state of mind for people returning to what passes for normal while still processing an enormous loss that takes away the feeling that things will ever feel normal again. 

For the “back to normal” part, most days pass now without debilitating emotional surges.  I suspect people I meet for the first time would have no idea that there is a fairly freshly grieving Laurel underneath the cheerful, friendly one.  They can’t know the deflation of energy I feel, the pep talks I sometimes have to give myself to rise to being the person it used to feel so natural to be.  Sometimes I realize that a day or more has passed without a huge rush of overwhelming sadness, but then, there it is again.  Something triggers the enormity of the truth that I will have to go through life without either of my children. No one to call, no one to send a photo to, no one to joke with, no one to do any of the things that require both people still to be in this world.  

But everything else is pretty much as it was. I am currently on a cruise assignment that is going very well. I give and get a lot of affection from the crew. I find guests who are fun, intelligent and entertaining to do things with. I get to talk to audiences about subjects I find interesting—one of the things that is central to my identity and that I know I am good at. 

There have been plenty of triggers, plenty of opportunities to try to find meaning in the experiences I have been having on this remarkable itinerary that has taken me from the west coast of France, through the British Isles and now extended time in Iceland. I have wiped away tears on buses, walks, and boat rides.  I have stared out at dramatic land and seascapes sometimes with my head buzzing and other times empty. I have passed hours, and sometimes days without any sorrow at all, just wonder and gratitude.  It’s not like there hasn’t been plenty to write about.  

I guess what I am trying to say is that it seems important to me now not to try to force anything to have meaning. Archibald MacLeish said a poem should not mean but be, and I guess that’s true of a grieving person finding her way as well. So the simple answer to why I haven’t posted is I haven’t wanted to work as hard as writing demands.

Today I went whale watching.  It was a huge success.  One woman said she counted sixteen surfacings.  I’m not sure how many were different whales but I would guess at least a dozen.  Humpbacks in particular love it here in the north of Iceland.  We would see one surface and the boat would try to get as close as it safely could, but usually by then the back had arched and the fluke had risen and the whale was gone.  Then we would stare out at water that seemed empty but is full of life, waiting the five, eight minutes the whale would stay under before it surfaced again. Occasionally it would break very close to the boat, but often much further away. Or there would be another we would go off to see.  

I struggled with the waiting. I’ve always been like that.  Maybe that’s why I hadn’t gone whale watching before. These days I am trying to talk with myself about patience, since something is telling me it is key to my well being. So I thought about whale time. For the whale, the day was going just as it should.  It came to the surface, breathed a little, then dove again to do the business of its life. It changed direction when that seemed like a good idea. It stayed down for as long as felt right. I was the one out of sync, out of my element floating on the water, feeling stuck in a moment I wished would pass. I need more of my life to be like whale time.  And there it is—a flicker of meaning worth writing about.  A long time coming, but it feels good. It feels like me.