“Would you like to come up to the cabin this weekend?”
When I was 11 or 12 years old this was the most earnestly hoped for invitation of the summer.
The cabin, a simple little house on a northern Wisconsin lake, belonged to the family of my oldest and dearest childhood friend.
For me, going to the cabin was about more than swimming, boating, and all-around outdoor fun. Going to the cabin was a much-needed break from the monotony and loneliness of most of the summer weekends of childhood. My dad was an over-the-road trucker. On the rare summer weekends when he was home, we savored time together as a family, enjoying summer’s simple (and affordable) pleasures — a picnic, a free concert at Lake Harriet, a visit to Como Zoo. But when he was gone, which was most of the time, summer weekends were endless. My mother did not drive, so we were pretty much homebound. The acronym “FOMO” (Fear of Missing Out) didn’t exist back then, and even if it had, my siblings and I didn’t fear we were missing out. We knew we were missing out — on summer fun, yes, but most of all, on the secure feeling that comes from spending time with both parents.
A weekend at the cabin took me away from all of that. A weekend at the cabin delivered unbounded happiness.
Summer followed summer, and my friend and I moved through our teenage years. We could not know that an earthquake lay ahead for each family.
In January of our senior year of high school, my friend’s young, vibrant mother suffered a catastrophic stroke that left her virtually mute and confined to a wheelchair for the remaining few years of her life. The next January, my father dropped dead of a heart attack.
My friend and I pulled ourselves toward adulthood and its many choices, carrying within us the trauma of profound loss. But we were strong kids, resilient, and happiness found each of us. We both married young and built large families- my friend, moving thousands of miles away to Israel, and me, about twenty-five miles from where I grew up.
My friend came back to visit often; most of her family remained in Minnesota. But there was something more — something in the clouds and the air and green of this part of the world that she needed a regular dose of to feel whole. When I finally reached Israel for the first time in 1998 the experience was life-changing, and it left me with the same feeling. There is something in me that can only be replenished there.
If “home” is “the center and the circumference, the start and the finish of most of our lives” (Charlotte Perkins Gilman, an early 20th century American writer), then what happens if there are two places that exert an unmatched pull on your heart, memory, and spirit, and each one lacks something only the other can provide? When that happens, “home” shifts — from navigating around one circle to doing a figure eight around two. To be at home in two places is a great blessing.
And there’s this — the circle of home you only get to visit becomes the place you view in the most generous and forgiving light. When I’m in Jerusalem I’m enveloped in its glow, entranced by its scents and sounds, energized by its exuberant and irrepressible Jewish life. Traffic? Crowds? They barely register. When my friend is back in Minnesota her eyes linger over the puffy clouds and vast greenery. She soaks up the tranquility. Once, she spent several winter months here. I remember meeting her for coffee and watching her stride carefully but confidently down the icy sidewalk, bundled from head to toe against the frigid weather…and smiling. She saw winter’s beauty and, for a moment, reminded me of what I stopped seeing long ago. Perhaps I do the same for her when I am in Israel.
My friend and her husband are spending this summer in the US. The family cabin now belongs to them. A few weeks ago, she called with an invitation.
“Would you like to come up to the cabin this weekend?”
The last time I visited the cabin I was a young teen, at least 50 years ago. Our whole lives were still ahead of us, our choices to be shaped by a thousand factors, influences, and motivations. Some of those we can see, in retrospect. Some we will never see.
The distance to the cabin seemed shorter than I remembered, the sound of tires crunching on the gravel road exactly as I remembered. The lake was unchanged, glittering in the bright sunshine. I’d forgotten the enormity of the white pine trees that towered over the cabin.
At one point during our leisurely, nostalgic conversations that Shabbat, we mused over our favorite poems. Both of us love Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” a poem in praise of making unconventional choices in life. Frost doesn’t promise that the road less travelled will always bring success, I said, only that it “makes all the difference.” Choosing the road not taken leads to a more meaningful and interesting life. But my friend saw something else in the poem:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler…
You can only, ever, be one traveler, living one life. A life lived somehow. A life lived somewhere.
As she said these words, my eyes rested on the gigantic white pine tree nearby, at least eight feet in circumference, soaring several stories high. Two enormous trunks thrust skyward, and looking up, you could think you’re seeing two trees. But looking down, you see that the trunks join and emerge from a single base.
It’s one tree, rooted in one place, stretching itself across the sky.
One tree. One life.
Fifty years ago, visiting this cabin was a respite. Now? An affirmation.
We can feel deep attachment to two places, two circles of home, and if we are very lucky, navigate them in a figure eight. But Frost (and my friend) got it right — each of us is but one traveler. With every choice in life, a door opens, and a dozen others close firmly behind us.
And yet, to be here at all, to be one traveler, is a miracle and a wonder. That is what washed over me on a peaceful Shabbat afternoon, alongside my lifelong friend, as we sat together by the tranquil lake.