Following Our Daughter Up to the Trees

The Deceptive Calm of Mirror Lake

Escape to Lake Placid.  Every summer, I enjoy idyllic thoughts of the peace I’d find in nature.  Or should I say, “idyllic illusions.”  This year, after Willa returned strong and browned from her Wisconsin wilderness retreat, I kept picturing myself trekking happily through the wild trees with her.  So Rick and I and Willa packed ourselves into our family Prius and motored up to the village of Lake Placid — where we’d see this view of Mirror Lake from our hotel room patio.

I did my best to prepare: I left my high heels back home and slathered myself with sunscreen and bug spray.  But if my image were reflected in this picture of Mirror Lake, you’d see me burned and bitten.  And even putting aside the sunburn and bug bites, Lake Placid wasn’t exactly, um, “placid.”  In the middle of our first night up there, when we were sound asleep after our long, long drive, the carbon monoxide monitor in our room went off.  Having suffered a similar emergency at home, I have to admit, I freaked out.  Rick stayed calm, got hotel staff on the line, turned off the room’s defective heater, and threw open the windows and doors.  So no harm, except that I was afraid to sleep the rest of the night.  The next day, when I tried to soothe my nerves with a peaceful canoe ride, I capsized before even leaving the dock.  And then, I came down with a cold from the draft in our room.

After that, I stayed on shore and admired the flowers while Willa canoed successfully and hiked up Owl’s Head and the Cobble Hill trail.  On the way home, she told us she plans to travel across the country next.  I tensed, ready to object.  But then, I realized the problem:  I was picturing myself struggling through the trip.  Willa will do just fine.

The Flowers of Lake Placid

A Tree Tries to Grow in Brooklyn

Wild Trees (courtesy of Willa Moore)

My eighteen-year-old daughter, Willa, has just returned safely from her wilderness survival immersion — back to our usual urban survival immersion:  Brooklyn.  I try not to be an anxious mom, but I barely slept the two weeks she spent in a natural environment.  Ironically, I slept peacefully as soon as she got back, despite news of a shooting at nearby Union Street and Franklin Avenue.  (For Brooklyn Crime Map, click here.)

Okay, I admit, before Willa left, I made her sit with me for about an hour, reading every line on the website of the Teaching Drum Outdoor School, where she’d be staying in the wilds of Wisconsin (click here).  I learned that — and this may be obvious to folks who know about camping — while connecting to nature from her tent in the woods, our Brooklyn-born, Brooklyn-raised child would have no electricity.  Which sounds cool, until you think:  no air conditioning.  Also, no phone or texting, no computer, no video games, no Google maps, no refrigerator.  And she was traveling alone by Greyhound halfway across the country and back to do this, voluntarily!  

Once Willa hit camp, there was no way to know how she was doing.  I told myself, she’s eighteen.  She has to learn to take care of herself.  It’s time.  I tried to keep calm by reminding myself that the Teaching Drum web site was well written.  She was with careful people, who took time with their grammar: Nothing would go wrong. 

It turned out that our Brooklyn kid loved the woods.  The lack of fridge made no difference her first day, spent fasting to cleanse her urban body.  After that, lunch was raspberries picked after paddling across a lake.  Dinner was steamed milkweed and fresh-caught fish.  If there were leftovers, she just wrapped’em up and popped them in the marsh.  If she wanted to find north, she looked at the sun.  If it was too cloudy to see the sun, she didn’t leave camp.  Why leave, anyway?  The clouds were peaceful.  The trees were tall.

This weekend, with Willa back home, we went about our usual outdoor chores: mowing the grass and clipping the leaves that grow from the stump of our street tree, originally planted not long after we moved in, when Willa was five.  By last summer, that tree was half dead from years of fighting to survive on our street, and the city took it down.  What’s left of it is still doing its best, but it will never be a tree.  Maybe Willa has the right idea after all, heading out to the woods to grow. 

Rick clipping what’s left of our street tree.

Who’d Think a Brooklyn Brownstone Could Fall?

Our Brooklyn Block

Folks never used to sell brownstone houses here in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn — they passed them down to their children.  For two years, my husband, Rick, and I bled away crazy rent on a duplex in Cobble Hill, all the while praying that someone, anyone, in Carroll Gardens would diss their kids and put a three-story house up for sale.  When our landlord threatened to hike our rent (again), we gave up and went to contract on a house in nearby Boerum Hills.  When even that deal fall through, we cursed our luck.  And then our brownstone came on the market. 

It’s an old house, leaning on the rest of a row slanting down toward the Gowanus Canal.  The row was built in 1899, and from a sign at the corner of the block, I’d thought it was part of the Carroll Gardens Historic District.  But it turns out that district ends just west of us — more luck in disguise, as our house needed renovation (it had been used as a rental property, not a home), and this way, as we tore down walls, put in a laundry room and a kitchen, and cut a door from the kitchen into the garden, we dodged the hassle of historic district red tape.  

Our house has sheltered us as our daughters have gone through elementary school, junior high school, and high school; it’s even welcomed our oldest back from college.  We’ve shoveled the sidewalk each winter, planted flowers in the windowbox each summer, all the while leaning cheerfully on the houses on each side.  Only when a brownstone collapsed a couple of blocks away did it occur to us that any of our houses could fall.

A Worker Guarding the Fallen House

What Holds Us Up?

House Collapse on Our Street

At the beginning of July, a house collapsed just a couple of blocks from my home.   And at the end of the month, lightning struck a neighborhood church steeple, dislodging debris that fell and killed a man who was walking by.

On our block, it still looks like the usual summer here in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, with kids running in and out of each other’s houses and backyards, and neighbors keeping a gentle eye from their stoops.  But we’re all a little sad and nervous right now.  We don’t want to think about how we all depend on each other:  We live in rows of old brownstones, each leaning on the one next door.  Take away the house on either side, and ours would fall. 

Here, where the walls between houses are more like the walls between rooms, we learn to politely ignore each other’s lives.  We don’t listen when the next-door neighbors decide to tack up a new picture on their bedroom wall, when they vacuum, and when they have a whopper of a fight.  Even now, no one is quizzing their neighbors — although we’re all hoping they’ve been tackling all necessary upkeep.  These houses have been here since the late 1800’s, so it feels like they’ll stand forever.  But without a little help, they won’t.  And once they fall, it’s like there was never anything here.