Monday, July 8, 2013

Shrink and Swell

By the time my newborn settles into sleep, a whisper of rain skitters through the forest scattering birds. A black swallowtail butterfly prances from one spruce needle to another, stretching the pattern on her wings. An Eastern yellow jacket hops hurriedly across the deck. The sound of a motor runs on a lake I can’t see.

Through four skylights, I watch white clouds bleed across a blue sky. My feet are bare, hot against the floors of a hand hewn log cabin, which sits on 1.5 acres along Egg Harbor in Door County, Wisconsin. I walk slowly through the three-bedroom house, admiring the craftsmanship of the builder. It’s the kind of home I’d love to retire in someday — every detail is handcrafted by local artists even the custom cabinets and furniture.

The owners, Maureen and Moe Toshner, worked hard to offer a “restoring experience” to their guests. “There is something about the warmth of wood and the smell of pine that relaxes me. The logs make me feel like I am a part of nature, I'm away from it all,” Maureen says.

The bottom of my robe tumbles down a winding open staircase that the builder spent a lot of care trimming. I press my cheeks to the cool stones of a natural fieldstone fireplace and run my fingers along the cracks in the logs.

Having owned a log cabin, I’ve always been drawn to the process with which logs shrink and swell. After a tree dies, water in the hollow portion of the wood cells evaporates first. When all the water inside the cells is lost to evaporation but the cell walls are still swollen with water, a fiber saturation point is reached. Shrinkage only occurs below this saturation point, when cell walls lose their moisture. The drying-out movement along the log’s diameter causes cracks or checks to occur slowly over time until an equilibrium is reached with the surroundings.

The baby purrs against my chest, snuggled deep in a sling. She likes my slow dance to settling wood. My toes purposefully rock the planks that trigger a squeak, crackle, or snap.

I wonder if the wood is resisting its circumstances as am I. Today is my 40th birthday. My husband left two hours ago, taking my seven-year-old daughter and four-year-old son to pick up a friend from the airport. His gift: a few hours of “writing” time (newborn permitting, of course) in this quiet luxurious cabin. As soon as they return, wedding festivities will begin. A classmate from my MFA program is getting married and soon my tomboy will be twirling on wet grass in a white flower girl dress and my son will need a lot of hugs as he juggles ring bearer jitters.
Photo credit: Matt Moeller
Photo credit: Erin Wilcox
Turning 40 feels akin to reaching a saturation point. Ten years ago, I imagined I would be climbing Denali or spending my 40th photographing and writing about a Wonder of the World. Today, I wrap my arms around a Door County log instead of a Tetrameles nudiflora, whose famous roots filmed in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider choke the ruins of Ta Prohm in Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

I try not to feel disappointed. That I should’ve accomplished more in my career, been a better friend, wife, or mother.

I try not to feel sad. That it’s time to let go of some dreams.

I should be tougher. Let critiques like these repel rather than soak in:

"If you give up medical school, you'll always worry about
money and you'll end up writing on the side anyway."

“I told you you were making your life harder by having a third.”

Mostly, I wish I could have proven them wrong. I wish there were less regrets.

Feeling terrible for admitting these thoughts, I collapse onto the couch, prop my feet up on the knotted surface of a coffee table made from planks of an old barn, and close my eyes to the absence of kids, Internet, cellular connectivity, and anything that normally pulls my attention in multiple directions. Thunder rumbles above. Through the screen door, a cool wind blows in the calming smell of cedar, poplar, and birch. I can hear the wood in the cabin settling down with me.

I allow myself to consider that wood is not resisting as much as relaxing into its circumstances, something I desperately needed to do. The cracks give the logs character and in the end, when all is settled, creates a work of art.

Later that night, my husband will put down the kids so I can enjoy the hot tub on the deck. As soon as I dip my feet into the water, flashes of lightning will light the skies followed by chilly rain. I will shake my fists at the stars and try to laugh instead of cry.

After the jets have soothed my bug bites, I will tiptoe into the cabin and check on my family. The baby is asleep on my husband’s chest. Upstairs in a custom log bunk bed made by the builder, my daughter is snoring but my son is blinking at me. He cups my head in his little hands and says, “You’re the best mommy in the whole world! I have the best family.”

When I ask him why, he gushes about the bunk bed, the cabin, and all the fish he and his sister caught all by themselves for the first time yesterday.

Photo credit: Scott Frickson
He reminds me that this is how I should choose to remember my 40th birthday. That somehow despite all the things that I should’ve done, it is the things that I have tried, the cracks that I made in my life, that matter.

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  1. Photos look great! Very cool blog. Great to have met you.

    1. Thanks for capturing such a happy moment. Good eye!

  2. Beautiful post! Honest, poignant, uplifting.

  3. Leslie, this is such a lovely piece. It makes me weep. I'm much older than you are. Life mellows with age, and a decade or two after this you're going to feel even more content with your choices. What a lovely family you have.

  4. Leslie, a few years ago, I took a writing retreat for a week in a log cabin owned by a friend of a friend in northern California. A wonderful environment for dreaming and writing. It must have worked for you to if this lovely post was the result. I couldn't imagine trying it with a newborn. Happy Birthday!

  5. Thank you! I really do hope I feel contentment at some point.

  6. This is lovely. It's hard sometimes to want what you have (instead of what you thought you wanted) but it's worth it. As John Lennon said - Life is what happens while you're making other plans, right?

  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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