Friday, January 29, 2010

Caymans with Kate

The Caymans with Kate
an essay by Mary Morris

I remember where we were sitting when the thought came to me. It was at the dining room table during dinner. I was trying to get my eleven-year old daughter to talk about her day and eat her meal. She sat with her legs tucked under her, offering what had become her usual monosyllabic responses to our questions. If we let her, she'd have dinner with her headset on.

This was not the child I knew. My daughter used to bubble with excitement, sharing each tidbit of her day, each goofball cafeteria anecdote. But lately we'd noticed the difference. We used to share everything. Hot baths, long reading sessions in bed, walks to school. Now everything was separate. We read in our separate rooms, if she read at all. And as I'd walked her to school on her first day of sixth grade, she'd asked me to kiss her good-bye a few blocks from school and head home.

Kate was on the brink of adolescence and I starting to feel that the mothering part of my life coming to an end. Where had those years gone? And worse, a feeling of nostalgia crept over me. They would not come again.

For months now there had been no big hugs before school. No warm embraces afterwards. Our time together was doled out between phone calls and email. But I had also been extremely busy with my career and my life. It seemed hard to believe, but I saw, though I hesitated to admit it, that somehow both of us were moving on.

My daughter, after all, was entering a new phase - an age-
appropriate period of separating and beginning to lead her own life. I understood that I had to honor that; I also understood that I was losing something. My parents were quite elderly and Kate is my only child. I didn't want to cling to her, yet I wanted to keep her close. And I was looking for my own appropriate way to do so.

A friend of ours whose children were all in high school had warned me. When they turn thirteen, they're gone. And, though she sat across from me, I found myself missing my own daughter. That was when I turned to her and said, How about just you and me taking a vacation over spring break?

She peered up from the food that seemed to be circling her plate. Her tired brown eyes widening. We had always traveled well together and I saw I'd lit a spark. Sure, she said, where?

I mulled it over in my mind. London would be nice, but too civilized. A spa? Too easy. The Andes. Too rough. Let's go to the Caribbean. We can go snorkeling.
Her dad, who couldn't get away, agreed. It would be great if you girls had some time together that was all yours.

It was late, but I worked at getting reservations. Not much was available, but the Holiday Inn at Grand Cayman had space and we took it. The idea of the trip gave us something to do together, something to plan. We bought guidebooks. I picked up the Peterson guide to Caribbean fish. Another guide to shells and coral. Kate had always been a lover of the nature world and I felt this was just what we needed to rekindle her interests as well as our interests in one another.

In the weeks before our journey we made ourselves a pact. We seemed to arrive at the decision together. We would bring no electronic devices. No Discman or Gameboy for Kate. No Laptop for me. We would have books, journals, adventures and ourselves.

But even just having ourselves proved problematic as we set out on our journey. On the plane Kate wanted to play Hangman all the way to Grand Cayman. After an hour or so I was ready to read a novel set in the Caribbean. Why don’t we read or relax, I suggested.

If you'd let me bring my Discman, she complained when I suggested she do something else.

When we got there, she was reluctant to help carry luggage. I had thrown my back out ice skating just weeks before, and it ached to carry anything. I was mad at myself for not having made the purchase of suitcases on wheels (I subsequently would). She said the bags were too heavy, but I told her to pitch in. She was tired from the journey and wanted to get to the hotel, but still she didn't seem to want to help.

It turned out that our hotel which was nicely sited on the beach was going to be demolished right after spring back. Morale was low, services poor. Our room had an air conditioner that clanged like a train engine and no view of the sea. Let's see if we can't get a nicer room.

I got us a room right on the beach. It was a little more expensive, but I thought, how often do I take a trip like this with my daughter. I wanted to walk out of our room on to sand. But when I got back to the original room, Kate was flopped on the bed, complaining that she was too tired to move. Come on, pick up the luggage one more time. I'll carry what I can.

As we moved the luggage again, we were barely speaking. But Kate loved the new room, right on the beach. Once we were settled, we stepped on to the beach. Kate looked up and saw a parasailor (person riding a parachute) floating by. Hey, Mom, I want to do that.

I looked up and thought about my aching back. Well, you can go alone, I told her, That's not my cup of tea.

Already old patterns seemed to be settling in. You take yourself with you, my mother said to me, years ago, when she put me aboard the SS France. I'd somehow thought that this journey would let the barriers and obstacles that had grown up before us melt away. But it was already obvious that it hadn't.

I wanted my peace and quiet, my books and solace. Kate wanted to play in the pool and party all night long. I was up at six, ready to explore; she slept until ten. I spent my early mornings, sometimes when it was still dark, walking a lonely beach. Once she was up, she was grumpy and it took until noon before the day could begin.

I knew in my maternal gut that we had to find a compromise and I found it through the adventure tours at the hotel. They had daily snorkeling adventures to Sting Ray City and Eden Rock, to the Wreck of the Calley, and I signed us up for one. The boat left at ten am which meant Kate had to be up at nine. She was tired but soon there were baby sting rays, resting in her hands, sting rays, swimming through our legs. We visited the cavern of a spotted moray eel, named Mama, and stroked the back of a nurse shark.

That night we slept like babies. I began sleeping later and Kate got up earlier for our daily expeditions. I watched as she found the hiding place of a giant sea turtle near the Wreck of the Calley and swam with it as if out to sea. She took my hand as we explored caverns with our guide. We developed a language for being underwater together, a way of pointing and applauding, of giving a thumbs up if something had been great and calling time out if we were ready for lunch.

I had been told by a another guest in our hotel that Cemetery Reef was an easy place to go skin diving alone. That lots of people went there and it was safe. I asked Kate how she felt if we packed a picnic lunch and going on a snorkel, just the two of us. The next day I packed a lunch. We took our dive bag and hopped in a cab to Cemetery Reef.

We found ourselves on a strip of pure white sand, coconut palms. An almost deserted beach where we spread out our things and enjoyed the sea air. Then we put on our gear and headed to the reef. We kicked placidly in the warm waters, snorkeling, pointing at any fish we saw along the way. Sometimes when we snorkeled Kate took my hand, but now she swam off in directions of her own.

About a quarter mile from shore we came upon a huge, multi-faceted reef. Its orange and purple colors shimmered in the sun and together we swam across the top of it, pointing at the fish we wanted the other to see. Kate seemed happy when the school of Sergeant Majors approached us. There were hundreds of them, palm-size black and yellow fish that soon surrounded her and before I knew what was happening they began to nip and bite at her. She began flailing, fighting them away.

Reaching for me I saw that she was terrified and I swam her to shore. When she got in, she ripped off her mask. She was trembling, on the verge of tears. I'm not going back. I'm not going in that water again.

I understood her fear, but I was also trying to understand why the fish had attacked her, not me. As I was comforting her, I felt the gold chain around her neck. Honey, it's the chain. I knew this much about being in water. You aren't supposed to swim with shiny objects on your body; the fish think its smaller fish. They think its little fishes. Here, let's take it off.

Still she refused. I know enough about my daughter to know her stubborn side and er vulnerable side can become one in the same. I also know the importance of getting back on the horse when you've fallen off. I promise you, I told her, if they bother you again, we'll get right out of the water and you’ll never have to get back in.

I took her chain and put it in the dive bag. Then we put on our flippers and masks. As we were stepping into the water, Kate reached for me. Mommy, she said, hold my hand. We swam together to the reefs, hand in hand. The sergeant majors, which we later learned were called the piranha of the Caribbean, did not bother her again.

When we were done snorkeling, we hailed a cab that took us back to the hotel. The Barefoot Man Band was playing and there was a seafood buffet. We ate, danced, and headed to bed before ten. En route to our room, we paused before a man who writes your name on a grain of rice and Kate had him write her name, then seal it in a dolphin charm.

That night in her sleep, my daughter poised on the brink of adolescence, my girl who was almost gone, called out to me from her sleep. Mommy, she said, reaching for me, hold my hand.

And I reached across the pillow and held it the whole night long. The next day she was up early. When she asked what we were doing, I said we were going parasailing. I trembled as two men strapped me into the parachute and plunked Kate between my legs. I gripped my arms around her and, as we rose above the sea, I started to scream. I screamed and screamed, absolutely terrified, my back hurting, and felt Kate clutch my hands. It's all right, Mommy, she said. Look, it's beautiful.

And as we sailed in the air up and down the shore, past palm trees, along Seven Mile beach, my daughter clasped against me, it truly was.

It's become a regular thing. Maybe it's not a big trip. It might just be what we call spa day when we take hots baths and slather ourselves in mud. Or time out day when we do special things like go to Chinatown for lunch. I learned to know when Kate's asking for my help and when she can be private. I've learned to accept that private doesn't necessarily mean secret and she's learned that she can grow up and still ask for me to hold her hand.

Our next spring break is in its planning stage but already choices loom. There's that invitation to Hawaii or the trip with friends to Peru. Or we might stay home and opt for a shopping expedition and lunch; that moment when you say, I think that sweater looks nice on you... Whatever we decide, we know we can go together. That growing up doesn't have to mean growing apart and that the bonds between can be renewed whether it's on a journey or just up the street for a manicure.

* * *

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Sailing to Byzantium...

When I was a girl and my brother and I were having a fight, my mother used to tell us, "Say Constantinople." It seemed that the time it took to say this word would be sufficient to let tempers wane. It seemed to work because when my brother and I said it, we weren't angry anymore.

I'm not sure when it was that I began dreaming of Constantinople. As with Yeats when he dreams of Byzantium, Constantinople had that distant, exotic ring. I think it was the first faraway place that I ever imagined. And in fact what I imagined isn't that far from the truth. I envisioned markets that sold spices that burned your tongue or seemed sweet as a garden. Carpets, men wearing strange things on their heads. Veiled women. Perhaps I'd read the Arabian Nights too many times. And probably I had. Anyway just as Yeats imagined sailing to Byzantium, I dreamed of Constantinople.

One day in December I felt as if I'd had enough of New York. My dog had just died. I'd been to one cocktail party too many and overall I was tired of my mundane life. I needed an adventure. An exotic retreat. A promise of something that was distant from here. I woke up in the morning and said to Larry, "I want to go way."

"Where?" he replied.

"Istanbul," I said. I am not really sure why I picked Istanbul except for me it is a city that marks the passage between West and East, that crossroads where Europe meets Byzantium. And even as I say it it excites me. In fact I cannot wait to go. It was only later, much later, after flights and hotels were booked and I had gathered guidebooks and spoken to friends and done basically all I could do to prepare for a trip that I remember my mother's admonition to my brother and me. Say Constantinople.

Once, when I was older, I asked her why this word and she said because it had so many syllables, but the truth is my mother made me long for a place that I'd never been and didn't even know existed. Or perhaps more elegantly to quote Yeats. "Set upon a golden bough to sing to lords and ladies of Byzantium of what is past, or passing, or to come."

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Before my daughter, Kate, was born, twenty-three years ago on this Saturday, January 23, I went out for one last hurrah. It would be a long time before I'd be traveling solo for quite a while. A friend and fellow writer, Dan O'Brien, who lived on a ranch in South Dakota invited me to visit. I recall little of where I slept or what we ate except that conditions were rustic. And Dan lived on this vast, seemingly endless expanse of plain.

I once spent a fair amount of time in the West, riding, traveling. And I had a certain nostalgic, and I'd have to add romantic, notion about what the West was. Or what it had been. For a time I fancied myself a free spirit and I would have just hopped on a horse and ridden across the plains. But that was behind me now. I certainly wasn't going to get on a horse, given that I was seven months pregnant. Instead I walked.

For days I walked around Dan's ranch. His ranchhand, Ernie, was there and the two of them enjoyed regaling me with gruesome farm and ranching stories, then would laugh their heads off as I winced. Dan had a hawk named Dolly. He wrote a book about her. He would take her out and I'd watch her fly. It was a lonely time for me. I wanted a baby. But I was having her alone. And I felt very alone at this time. The future was full of doubt. I didn't know where we'd live or how'd we manage. I had no idea what to do with a baby (I would soon learn).

But there was no turning back now. Still I felt as if my life was suddenly going to be divided into two halves. Before and after. And I knew that nothing would ever be the same. Friends had warned me not to have a child. One told me that my life would never be my own again. Just that past year in '86 I had gone from Beijing to Berlin by rail - a journey of several months. Basically around the world. Now I thought I was grounded. I'd never go anywhere again. My head was filled with these fears.

One afternoon when Dan and Ernie were out doing chores, I went for a walk. I had my camera with me and, as I was roaming, feeling a little sorry for myself, I came upon Blackie - Dan's horse - standing alone in this golden field, before a storm came. It was this beautiful magical moment and something settled over me. I felt that everything would turn out all right. The next day I returned to New York. This is the last image I took before Kate was born.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Kindness of Strangers

Having just spent a little time in Key West, it is difficult not to think of Tennessee Williams who lived here for many years. In fact the legend is that he and Carson McCullers wrote together on the same long dining room table. As Tennessee once said, "I can write anywhere, but I write better in Key West."

I was just down in KW, visiting a friend, who told me that I should bike by the old compound where Tennessee lived and also find the house with the pink door, called The Rose Tattoo House - probably my favorite Williams play and a great Brando, Anna Magnani film. Whenever I go to Key West, I go to the butterfly conservatory. I seem to be going down once a year and once a year I make it a point to stop here.

I'm not entirely sure what the allure is for me. I have to get there at 9 a.m. to avoid the cruise ship tourists. And it's a kind of New Age, touchy-feely place, but I love it. I love seeing the faces of children when a butterfly lands on their shirt. And, well, I love butterflies. I always have.

When I was a girl, I had a small science lab in my bedroom where I kept my rock collection, my assortment of plants, and insects. The insects I collected in jars usually for a day or so. But once in a while I got a caterpillar and once, as I recall, a monarch butterfly actually emerged from a crysalis I'd watched all winter. My parents, who didn't pretend to understood my fascinations with the natural world (and it was always changing) had the good sense to nurture it.

For gifts I received a microscope (where I examined blood I drew from my poor brother) and various samples of quartz. And my South American butterfly book. I couldn't put that book down. I studied and read everything I could get my hands on. But the morphos, those magnificent blues, entranced me the most. And they are everywhere in the KW conservatory.

This year I did my usual thing - arriving at 9a.m. Always alone. I sit in the gazebo and draw and write, but then after a while I started to walk around. I came up a sculpture of blue herons in a small pool and wanted to sketch them and, as I did, two morphos landed on my journal and stayed as I drew. I took a few snaps with my cellphone, but a lovely young man, named Markos Alexandrou, took the pictures I am posting. It was very thoughtful of him to do this.

This is one of the things that I love about traveling. That a perfect stranger will do a simple act of kindness. I realize that the original use of this phrase (in Streetcar when Blanche, as she is escorted away to the asylum, addresses the doctor and says those famous words - how she has always relied on the kindness of strangers).

But the truth is strangers can be kind. I can think of no better reason to tour the world than to prove that this is so. The butterflies stayed on my journal for a long time. In fact I wound up walking around with them on the book until they flew away. But it was one of life's little blessings and I am glad that Markos took these pictures and recorded the moment for me.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Moving through the World Like a Child

The other day I was thinking about how to help my students write in scene. Some of them put things that happen before they really happen. For example, "On the steps stood Marjorie Cooper" even though the narrator has never met Marjorie before and can't really be sure yet that this is Majorie since he/she hasn't been introduced.

I was trying to think of a way to help my students think about the scenes they are writing and help the writer to see and experience the moment as the characters see and experience in. Then I thought that the best way to write narrative, and also to travel, is to move through the world like a child. With a child's sense of wonder and surprise. To move as if you've never been somewhere before, even if you've been there a thousand times. As if you are experiencing everything for the first time.

This is actually something that my husband has often said about me, and not always in a complimentary way. Every village we travel through, every painting we see, every meal eaten. It is as if I've never done these things before or been to these places.

This summer when we were living outside of San Sebastian in a little fishing village and big boats would float past our living room window. Every time a boat went by, I shout to my husband, "Look, a boat!" It didn't matter how many times a boat went by, each time I was enthralled. And truthfully so was he.

So I was thinking about how to help my students and it came to me that this child's sense of wonder if a very good way to be a writer as well. To allow yourself as a writer to still be surprised, to walk into a room as if you've never walked into that room before. To meet a person as if you are seeing them for the first time.

Recently in the news I read the strange case of a man who could form no new memories. While I wouldn't envy this man, I do think it is an intriguing notion to wake up each day afresh, to do everything as if you've never done it before. I think it is that child's sense of wonder that makes for good writers and good travelers.

And, after all, children are people who are able to live very much in the present, unplagued by thoughts of the past or concerns for the future. Perhaps that's really the thing about travel - for me at any rate. It allows me to be in the moment, present, wherever I am. As if I am six years old again. And I am happiest when I am there. Tomorrow we head to Montreal. A place we've been to many times, but I'll see it with fresh eyes as if I've never been before.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Blue Heaven

Blue Heaven is just my favorite place to eat and hang out in Key West. Love their breakfasts, their lunches, their drinks and the cats and the chickens and the inspirational message on the paper dispenser in the bathroom (The Magic is In Your Mind)and the rumors about Hemingsways boxing ring and the funny shower. But mainly love the food and everyone is nice. Also tried their new place on Higgs Beach - Salute. I feel as if I'd been dropped somewhere in Italy, maybe the Amalfi Coast. Loved it. Go. Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Inner Maps

On Sunday I flew down to Key West (where it is the coldest is has been since 1919). I've been here many times for short stays - maybe six or seven. I was down last year as well. The first thing I do when I land in Key West is rent a bicycle and I spend my days, when I am not writing, peddling around.

But when I arrived on Sunday, it was as if I'd never been here. It was a very strange feeling. I couldn't remember the roads, the houses, the restaurants. I couldn't remember anything. But slowly a kind of internal geography took over. I remembered that the bike shop I like to rent from is at the intersection of Simonton and something.

As I walked in that direction, I felt this inner map forming inside my mind. I started to know where things were. The bike shop was at Simonton and Truman. The butterfly conservatory at the end of Duval. Hemingways house on Whitehead. Then peddling along the ocean I saw a sign for Vernon Street and took it because I knew I'd lived at the base of it when I came to KW one year. And right beside it was Louis' Backyard, a restaurant that brought back memories of one very wine-sotted night. After an hour or so a place that had at first seemed unfamiliar returned. It had taken shape in my mind and I remembered where everything was.

It is the same with faces, isn't it. We walk into a restaurant and someone looks familiar. A face takes shape in our minds. We recall five, ten years ago. This person was a neighbor, the boyfriend of a friend. And suddenly a world of memories comes up around this face. You recall everything (a meal shared, an argument never resolved) and you decide to say hello. Or look away. With places I like to say hello. Slowly it seemed.

At home behind a couch we have a large plastic bin and in it is every map for every place I think I've ever been. I keep them all here and when we are heading somewhere, anywhere, I go through that bin. Prague, Montreal, Palermo, Guanajuato. My mother used to joke when she'd see me looking at maps. "Oh, oh," she'd say, "she's going to travel again." And she was usually right. I'd get restless. My legs would start to roam.

Today in Key West it is very cold, but I'm going to bike around all day. There's an old fort I like and I want to go through the old Bahama part of town. Maybe stop for lunch at Blue Heaven if it's not too cold to eat outside (which it probably is). I'm not taking a map with me. I don't have to. It's all inside.

from Tennessee Williams...

"I can write anywhere, but I write better in Key West."