The Walking Life (Part 1)

“Let’s go for a walk.” Growing up, taking a walk was what we did a lot of. Partly because we were somewhat out in the country. Partly because there were six of us children in a seven-year range, and it was cheap, accessible entertainment. Plus it got us out of the house, and out from under our grandmother’s feet, who needed a respite from us now and then. But mostly, because taking a walk was something my mother and her brother, our Uncle Dick, really enjoyed themselves.  They grew up in Vermont, and spent a lot of time on their feet, in town and in the hills. They loved nature, its beauty and peace, and were not afraid of it.  So, we walked.

As kids we walked mostly up the hill from our backyard onto to the mountain, which was a fairly modest stretch of the Talcott Ridge in Connecticut.  But the walk was special in many ways, not least because along the ridge was the Metacomet trail, supposedly the route of travel of the Wampanoag leader, King Philip, during the early colonial war. Perhaps Metacomet did follow that route on the way to the burning of Simsbury, a neighboring town. In any case, it was marked with blue dots, and we hiked perhaps a couple miles until it intersected a road, where we departed. On our way, we saw the three flashing red lights, warning planes coming into Bradley Field.  And stopped at the “Cliff”, a shear rock face with views for miles around.  It was a different world, and we could only get there by walking. 

 We walked, too, through and around a golf course, with a kind of magic of its own. One side bordered a mountain meadow with bluets in the spring, an ancient maple, and ramshackle sugar shack. Another side path was used by the farmer to bring cows from the barns to the fields. More than once we encountered the herd, lead mostly by Morris, the wizened old Jewish man, who’d escaped from Nazi Europe to start life over in the company of more peaceable beings, the cows.  That route was particularly good for wildflowers, and in spring and summer, our mission was to bring home a bouquet of wildflowers for Mom, daisies and tiger lilies and Queen Anne’s lace. She loved them, and accepted them with such pleasure, even the ones already wilted and dying from our hot, sweaty hands.

 Through my young adulthood, I walked a lot, as my main mode of transportation, turning necessity into a virtue.  At college in California, walking was the way of students, from class to class, with our bags and books. On campus, among the redwoods and overlooking the Monterey Bay, we got so caught up in conversation, sometimes we forgot all the beauty around us. During my two year sojourn in Vermont, I walked a lot and alone on those back country roads, as a way of exercise and meditation. One of the patrons of the theater where I worked called me, “The Walker”, before he knew my name; not much is missed in those small towns. In New York City, I put miles on those streets, thankfully in sneakers rather than heels.  It was a Zen experience of another kind, to be in the crowd in a rush with so much pressure to move on, and not to dawdle. In fact, I found myself muttering to the older or slower walkers, “Could you go any slower?”  Mostly, I remember my aching arms from carrying bags home from the store, or anywhere, my short but unforgettable experience as a beast of burden.  Who knew it would also be a life-long investment in good health?

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A Life Slogan

We don’t control this earth. Not now. Likely not ever. Hurricane Sandy was an incredibly huge reminder, in case we needed one.

Monday was strange here in eastern Massachusetts. We lost power around 2:30 PM, much earlier than my husband and I expected it. In an effort to not get lost in the repeated hype that is our culture–hype over anything that can be hyped–my husband and I were not as proactive in preparing for this storm as we could have been. We took care of some things, but not others. The phones and iPad were not completely charged, but the laundry was almost dry. I wasn’t set up with batteries for a radio and flashlight, but I had candles and both our cars had gas, so could be called into commission to charge the phones and ipad, and possibly drive for ice if need be…because I had drawn water, and I was prepared with fresh food to feed our dog, but not with ice-filled coolers to keep our refrigerated food from spoiling.

After working over the weekend, my husband and I were both focused on cleaning that day, our drawers and closet of warm-weather clothes. The wind and rain were kicking up outside, and I was still in my sweats, so my husband took the dog for her last walk of the day, and I took a hot shower, not knowing when I’d get one again. I made it short, so he could have a shower when he got back if he was cold and wet. I proceeded to dress myself in long underwear, sweats, a sweater, a sweatshirt, two hats, and my fur-lined boots. As easily as I get cold, I wasn’t going to under-prepare in this department! I will not forget the time I went white-water rafting in the Colorado River. August, but the water was in the 40s, so we were all equipped with “wet” boots that were supposed to function like a wet suit for your feet. That would require your feet to have some heat in them to start, which mine often don’t (ditto, my body), so those “wet” boots functioned more like “ice” boots for me, the entire painful trip. I was going to keep my body heat in at all costs.

With a big glass-enclosed candle set up on the little dresser in our narrow walk-in closet, I set to work. My husband came home, peeled off his wet outer layer, reclined for a moment, and promptly went to sleep–for about 2 1/2 hours. That’s one way to handle a disaster, a pretty good way at this point as there was nothing we could do. I promptly began to sweat–it was only in the 60s outside–so removed the hats, and began to peel off layers.

As twilight set in, and the wind blew rain and leaves sideways, our dog was starting to talk about dinner. She was two plus hours off her walk and it was time to eat. I wanted to keep doing things until the last bit of daylight was gone, and I when I opened the refrigerator a few inches to slip some food out, I wanted to slip out dinner for everybody. Setting up candles around the kitchen, I continued with paperwork and bills until dark–when I noticed that the houses right through the trees behind our house had lights on. And so did our friends around the corner in our neighborhood my husband soon discovered. Our appreciation at the minor inconveniences we were experiencing from this historic storm now became tinged with annoyance, knowing people a stone’s throw away were enjoying the normal comforts of their home while we sneaked food out of the refrigerator and tried to see what we were doing. We ate in shifts, me lighting the gas stove with a match. I washed the dishes by hand, and headed upstairs with a couple candles to read in bed. My husband came up a couple hours later–he had charged his phone and iPad and was talking with people and browsing the net.

Our power came on around 2:30 AM, full force. My husband was downstairs with the dog, who had become very spooked over something, and come upstairs, where she is not allowed, to cry at our door. Surprises finally over, we woke up in the morning to not a day of rain, as predicted, but sun peeking through the clouds. Beautiful.

But between our two families, there are many homes owned in NJ, coastal NJ, and coastal Delaware. Extend our circle out to friends, and there are too many people with homes in these hard-hit northeast coastal areas to even count. The first primary video clip that hit the national news picturing beach bungalows destroyed by Hurricane Sandy in Ocean Beach, NJ, gave us our first look at the the neighborhood where my husband’s parents bought a small beach bungalow over forty years ago. We can watch that video on the computer, and freeze it, and my husband can pick out the houses of long-time family friends. His father is long-passed; his 86-year-old mother’s bungalow is just out-side the scope of the video. That’s all we had. Then other pictures and news started to trickle in, showing scenes like the fire just north of his sister’s house. The flooding in Hoboken where our niece lives. A telephone pole had fallen across my mother-in-law’s driveway at her home in central NJ; she has no services, but a clear view of the large branch that smashed through her neighbor’s window. More devastating news and more devastating pictures are trickling in, but we still have far from a complete picture. And every time I think of the possibilities of what the amassed damage may be at the end, just to people I know personally, or watch new clips of another ransacked coastal area, I tense up–my neck, my shoulders, my gut. How much work. How many families displaced. How much money needed to repair the damage. How many families who will not have that money. I am physically recoiling at the sense of the magnitude of this disaster, a natural reaction. Yet not a productive one. We rarely find flight from our challenges effective. In fact, flight generally leads to personal disaster. And fight, in the literal sense, doesn’t generally lead to positive results either.

Accepting whatever new challenge our modern life has floated by, or flown at, us, as peacefully and rationally as possible is the most productive response. Change is scary, and in a disaster, so, so scary. Unfortunately, as a culture, I think we are poorly prepared to handle any kind of change, minor or huge. Indeed, we are constantly conditioned to be generally petrified of what is ahead, barraged with messages on all fronts, fanning the flames of why we should so fear the future. Why do we go with this? Such fear of the future can only be based on a deep anxiety that we won’t emerge triumphant. And yet, we almost always do.

Forward is not just a campaign slogan. It is a life slogan. We cannot control this earth, nor the life we live on it. There is always a silver-lining if we aren’t recoiling too severely to connect with it. We will figure this out.

Forward.

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Dishwasher Woes

I may have used toilet bowl cleaner to wash the dishes the other night.

We have a new dishwasher. I chose it after some research. It is a Bosch, a company that makes smaller dishwashers, built on the European model, I am told.

I lived in Amsterdam for two summers while I was in college. My father took a consulting assignment there to live out a dream my parents had of living in Europe. Overlooking a canal, they rented a lovely apartment with a huge living room, two decent-sized bedrooms, a narrow, cramped bathroom (one night I knocked my mother’s loosely-stoppered bottle of Joy perfume, newly arrived from Paris, into the commode, which was basically directly under the cosmetic cupboard) and a closet-sized kitchen that included a clothes washer that held a maximum load of about a shirt and pair of underpants, maybe a pair of socks, too, if you wanted to really stretch capacity. Not exactly designed to American scale. I think we washed the dishes by hand…at any rate, I know European small.

So originally, I decided I didn’t want European small for the dishwasher, but I kept circling back to this Bosch for all the other positives, especially the energy efficienciency. I decided to take the plunge, placed the order and took the earliest date for installation, which was when I was out of town. So I didn’t get the chance to get acquainted, or ask the installer any questions. My husband was in charge, and I was just thrown into the mix when I arrived back home to, of course, some dishes in the sink ready to be loaded.

I keep the dishwashing detergent under the sink. There is a  bottle of hand-washing detergent and bottle of dishwashing machine detergent and I have mixed them up before. This seems relatively harmless, although when using regular detergent, the finished product definitely suffers. Both of these bottles are on the right side under the sink, along with the big empty plastic apple juice bottle that I use to water my plants and a paper bag collecting recycling. On the left side is a plastic caddy with household cleaning supplies and bottles, like glass cleaner, bathroom cleaner, and toilet bowl cleaner.

Apparently, what I also missed while I was away, was the reorganization of an area that was rather roughly separated at best…the result was the recycling of my watering bottle, and the handy access on the right of the bottle of toilet bowl cleaner.

You would think I would have noticed the bottle had an unusual shape for filling the dishwasher, with that handy little neck crook. But the bottles of drying agent that had arrived with the dishwasher and now littered the counter had thrown my mental state into disarray. My husband informed me using this agent wasn’t optional; it was necessary to get a good sparkling dry finish. However, after very consciously opting for the smaller energy-efficient, environmentally-friendlier dishwasher, here I was reading the label of the drying agent filled with precautions and dangers about human body membranes coming in contact with this substance, and what to do if they did, this substance that was to go into our dishwasher, on the dishes off of which we would be ingesting our every meal, and then down the drain into our environment on a very regular basis. After much trepidation, I had poured a half-amount of this stuff into the dish-washer opening I decided must be for the drying agent, and then grabbed the bottle under the sink from the spot where I kept the dishwasher detergent, poured away into the neighbor opening, and after a few false starts with the buttons, started the new dishwasher. Not until a day later when I looked for my watering bottle realized everything was out of order down there did I realize my potential mistake.

Did I rinse every dish, glass, knife, fork and spoon in the cupboard, as was my first thought, to make sure we weren’t now ingesting toilet bowl cleaner? Nope. The kind-to-the environment theme that led me to invite this little dishwasher into our kitchen also draws me to buy organic cleaning products. I read the label of my organic toilet cleaner and from everything I can gather, it is a hell of a lot safer than the rinsing agent. Hmmm. Maybe the toilet bowl cleaner will also leave my dishes sparkling and dry…

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Porches, Decks and Yards

Those other living spaces, porches, decks and yards – the add-ons to everyday life, the symbols of rest, repose and quiet.  Hm…I read recently that few people report actually spending time on their porches and decks, and even fewer out in their yards, except to mow.  Many people like the idea of a porch or deck, and furnish them with inviting lounge chairs, tables, and umbrellas. But the reality of using them is a bit different. They are “unwired” places, without electronics generally. Used mostly in the summer, they are also “unairconditioned”. Without screens, they may also get buggy at twilight and dusk. Beloved vestiges of a past where people sat out and visited, perhaps with a drink or dessert, many of these places remain purely decorative, uninhabited by live beings.

 That’s not to say that I haven’t experienced the pleasures of indoor/outdoor living spaces. Growing up in Connecticut, we had a front porch, large enough to accommodate a group of Christmas carolers, perhaps. It was not furnished, but we could sit on the steps during thunderstorms to watch the lightning across the valley. The old Victorian house in Vermont where my father grew up had a large wraparound porch, dark and shady, with a full-sized swinging sofa that amazed us kids. My sister got a lot of use out of her small back porch with permanent picnic table — once the place was screened in; it was the scene of many family cookouts and celebrations. A friend of mine has made use of her elevated porch as a crafts center and/or snack area, although more recently it has turned into what I can only call a cat lounge. We writers sometimes meet on the porch at a member’s house – with a laptop, admittedly – a perfect place to read and discuss writing.

 Regretfully, I admit the deck at our home in Bedford is a failed experiment in outdoor living. Recently renovated, nicely stained with a crisp white railing, it’s handsome and solid, and almost never used. The main problem is logistical. At the back of the house, it gets the late day sun, oppressive in the summer. Even under an umbrella, we get sweaty and drippy within minutes, little breeze to relieve us. We talked for years about a retractable awning. However, the contractor for the renovations quickly informed us that neither awning nor a more permanent roof would work, as the late afternoon comes in at a slant, not from above. All hope is abandoned.

However, I’ve come to appreciate time on the deck at the back of the house in Falmouth. True, we have to wait until the later part of the day when it’s in shade. We pull out the cushions for the chairs, and somebody claims the “zero gravity” lounge. For us, it’s time for “mezza,” essentially happy hour with drinks and appetizers. The beer drinkers get cold cans from frig, while the light-weight lady drinkers sip pink zinfandel in a tumbler, no fancy wine glasses for us. Mostly, a bowl of nuts, crackers and cheese, or pepperoni or hummus. On special days, Grandma’s flakey cheese beureg (turnovers in a filo dough).  The conversation is laid back, desultory. The view is mostly watching the breeze in the trees, the birds that dart in and out, and rabbits enjoying the grass in the yard we share.

 At the community college, we used to read a selection from Ray Bradbury’s “Dandelion Wine” about the rituals of summer, including hanging the porch swing and sitting out on the porch in the evening. In the story, the child narrator finds it comforting to hear the adult voices blending with the noises of dusk, eternal and reassuring. When I asked my students, would they want to live in that world, about half said yes, and the other half thought it was too boring. The major difference, we concluded, is that world of porch- sitting represents shelter, retreat, and intimacy, instead of more modern values of novelty, stimulation and diversion. Better, worse, or just a time gone by?  It’s a world I like to visit sometimes, and would miss our time of mezza on the back deck, watching the light change.

 

 

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How Does Your Garden Grow?

Better than mine, I hope. Actually, make that two front gardens, one in Bedford and one in Falmouth, without a lot of color or pizzazz.  My apologies to the neighbors.  However, at least they are not as weedy and overgrown as they have been in years past, when I was away in the summer so much that nothing got watered or weeded.  Yet, I persist in the notion that I have potential for rather lovely, admirable plantings, if only I had the opportunity.  My mother was an avid, inspired gardener. While she was able, she kept up ambitious but natural-looking, landscaped gardens.  In fact, she led her senior community in both gardening and outdoor seasonal decorations to the point that the town gave her money and a commission to keep up the communal flower beds.  I feel somehow, deep down, I have some of that unrealized ability, and that it would bring me pleasure. It just hasn’t happened yet.

 I enjoy the planting, and don’t mind the weeding. I have both watering can and hose at my easy disposal. It’s the consistency of care that’s the problem.  And the chipmunks.  Plus, perhaps the deer and/rabbits. As it is, they have nothing to fear.  The Bedford front garden beds are mulched every few years, with the same basically healthy shrubs that came with the house 16 years ago.  Over the years, I have added a few perennials – hostas, lupines, bleeding hearts, coralbells, yarrow, and mountain bluets that have come up faithfully each spring. Unfortunately, the original placement of the plants may not have been the best – partly owing to my encouraging the boys to dig and plant alongside me. And partly due to spreading and crowding. Yes, I know, they can and should be cut back or moved, but that hasn’t happened.  Each year, I fill in between the larger shrubs with annuals – petunias or geraniums – something for color. These, sadly, rarely make half a season, due largely to the intense summer heat. And this year, gone within a week, food for the chipmunks. Last year, I added a shepherd’s hook for a hanging plant. Good idea, that. Except hanging plants are even drier than those in the ground.

 My younger son and I have done a number of experiments in growing vegetables – mainly in the side yard which is probably too shady in the first place.  In fact, we were able to get things to grow there – carrots, zucchini, cucumbers and pumpkins – but not what you’d call a harvest. The carrots were sparse, pinky-finger sized. The cukes were probably our biggest success, and I recall sharing a couple with my mother-in-law with some pride. The pumpkins were our biggest disappointment – wondrous vines and leaves, beautiful yellow blossoms, but not a single pumpkin.  We didn’t know then about fertilization, and the necessity of bees. With so few flowers, and so few bees, it was incumbent upon us to do shake the pollen into the stamens by hand, but we didn’t learn until too late.

 How I enjoy a beautiful garden, even realizing that it’s probably somebody’s back-breaking labor to make it all bloom so lushly.  I’ve enjoyed the botanical gardens in Brooklyn, NY and in Atlanta, GA.  With my mother, we’ve explored the Wildflower Gardens in Framingham, MA, and the orchid greenhouses at the Lyman estate in Waltham. Just recently, we took a trip to the Heritage Museum and Gardens in Sandwich, MA – lovely even after the rhododendron season has past. Even the little postage stamp gardens of our Portuguese neighbors in Falmouth, or the window boxes of the stores in the center make me happy.  I’m just wondering if my day in the sun – and the garden – will come before I’m too old to bend, or too arthritic to weed.  In a few more years, I will not have gained the knowledge and experience of a lifetime of gardening; I’ll be starting anew. As much as I’m tempted at the garden center, I have learned to hold back.  Like so many things, it’s about choices and commitment, and timing.  In the end, perhaps I’ll be happier with the garden of my dreams remaining in my dreams.

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Welcome, Wood Friend

 
We’re getting new wood floors in our family and living room. The man recommended to do the work appears to consider the wood not a material, but a colleague. He shares insights into the different personalities of the woods, the different ages and journeys–he is big into reclaiming–with the enthusiasm of someone telling a favorite family story. I like this; we choose him. Now, the new wood–we went with virgin–has arrived to breathe in the air of our house for a few days, to get used to a new place to live.

I studied horticulture, perhaps an unusual profession for someone who can’t pull up a weed without feeling like a murderer. Anthropomorphic trees, flowers, fruits and vegetables are one of my very very favorite things in the entire world. I own two copies of Peach & Blue by Sarah S. Kilbourne chronicling the growing friendship between a fallen peach and a frog; one to read and one to cut out and frame. I have other books in my library with pictures featuring cabbages in a row opening their eyes to morning or photos of grapefruits smiling to greet the day. Over my desk in my kitchen are two fabulous Michael Sowa postcards, one featuring potatoes walking about their business over cobblestone streets, while an eggplant directs traffic and pickles drive by in their pickle jar car; the other features two pears, a plum, an apple, and a lemon on a picnic holding up their glasses to toast.

Natural woods surround my house. When I go to sleep at night, I think about the different sizes and shapes of trees as kind old souls, quiet but strong sentinels literally watching over me and my family and the house and yard while I sleep. In my woods, unlike Dorothy’s, these gnarled creatures never get cranky or throw rocks. When I can’t go to sleep, I think about flowers, peaceful-faced rambling roses exuding a delicate scent or smiling meadow daisies carefree in the breeze, to free myself from worries and cares and slip me back into dreamland, escorted by my flower friends.

The first Bible passage that truly stayed with me, arriving on one of those hot slow summer Bible-school mornings, solidified then, there, and forever, that leafy creatures and humans were at least on a par.  Actually, the leafy creatures appeared to have a bit of an edge, at least in the wisdom department:
“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin; And yet, I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore, take no thought, saying What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink: or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?”

So how do I come to terms with the harvested sleepy-eyed cabbages that I grate for coleslaw, the baby-faced Peach that drips down my chin as I take a big bite, the diligent sentinels that now lay cut into flooring planks resting in my house? Not easily, but one has to believe that our botanical colleagues are only living out their natural purpose, and how wonderfully, spectacularly, honorably, humbly, and amazingly they do it. I am indebted.

Dear and generous wood; welcome to our home.

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Life in Extremes

Recently, I was talking with friends about the reluctance of young people to go out on their own. Even those with college degrees were not eager to become apartment dwellers with rent and bills to pay, and having to share space with others. Living independently, their standard of life was lower than what they were used to. This generation doesn’t tend to run away; they are hesitant to live outside the nest. But it wasn’t always so. In many cultures, young people traditionally had some kind of rite of passage to adulthood, whether symbolic or testing their ability to survive. Most likely, it was a universal norm in the past, including our own ancestors who came to a new place and had to adapt to an unfamiliar and sometimes dangerous environment.
 
But what about the people who choose to live in harsh landscapes, and have seemed content and even committed to doing so?  I’ve always had a fascination with how cultures adapt to their environments, changing the land around them, or else changing themselves to fit their world — especially those in difficult places such as deserts and arctic regions, where daily life is often a matter of life and death, not by enemy, but by extremes of weather or climate.In these places, strength and character are not true until tested, and the measures are other than fortune or fame.
 
In Arizona, we visited the dwellings of ancestral Indians, who made a home high up in caves, requiring them to come down rock-faced cliffs for water and food. Mainly, these were places of defense, but generations lived there and seemed to thrive. While in Sedona, a Hopi woman spoke to us about her culture – those who consider themselves “the peaceful ones”, who live high up on mesas in the middle of the desert, far different from the Navaho’s and Apache’s who were nomads from the north. I was intrigued by Hopi spiritual life, the ceremonies in kivas and the Kachina’s, who live in the mountains and visit the Hopi, regulating all aspects of life from cradle to grave. Every moment of every day is sacred, ritualalized,lived with awareness from first prayer to last. In their origin stories, the Hopi clans were separated when they emerged from the earth, and spent eons searching to meet up at the right place. Other places they stopped were too green, easy, and pleasant; that is where trouble began.  Better they find the hardest place to survive, and know that every moment is a gift that must be given thanks for. And so on the mesas they stopped, finding Eden not in a garden but in their souls.
 
Recently I had a student of Inupiak origin, born in Barrows, Alaska.  She wrote about a childhood skating accident on the tundra that was a near-death experience.  This culture, too, is the source of great art, like that of Cape Dorset, with strong connections to the spirit world through shamans and relationships with birds and animals. I rented a video called “Atanarjuat – The Fast Runner”, filmed in northern Canada in the Inuit language. Long, powerful, and sometimes hard to follow, it depicts the legend of two brothers who have overcome their father’s bad luck in hunting. But their success is met with jealousy by the son of the tribal chief, who received his leadership under questionable circumstances. One brother is murdered and the other escapes naked across the tundra, until by some mysterious force, he is able to leap a chasm and land near the hut of a family who saves him. When he regains strength, he returns to the village, intent on revenge. But in a vision he sees that revenge will only destroy the clan. A spirit speaking through a female leader says the offenders must leave and try to live elsewhere. The cycle is broken, the group is preserved.
 
We preach moderation, but there is wisdom in the extremes.

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Getting Back to Nature – 2012

            In the coming year, I would like to renew my relationship with nature. My time in nature has always been precious to me, yet lately, I feel it has been pushed to the back burner. My time has filled up, my energy has slowed down, and I’m reluctant to go out if it’s too hot or too cold. I put on my IPod to get me up and down the street in twenty minutes, but I miss the pleasures of the natural world, and I lose perspective on what’s important. I also miss the beauty of nature, both in growth and decay, and the surprise of discovery, even in places that I’ve walked so many times before. Spending time in nature, for me, is a spiritual practice, and like any practice, it needs to be attended to, to gain any benefit. 

             Over the years, spending time outside in nature was part of my daily life, giving me exercise, fresh air, and a sense of being part of the greater world. Growing up in a fairly rural area, playing outside was a big part of my childhood. All of us kids spent time in the woods or on the mountainside; we enjoyed the freedom and were not afraid of being in the great outdoors. In my college years, I spent time near the shore or hiking in the woods with friends. When I had my own family, I spent lots of time with my sons outside, just going to the ponds, streams and woody areas around our house. It was important to me to help my children establish their own relationship with nature – to be familiar and comfortable with it, to feel a part of it.

             As an adult and as a writer, I would go to the Great Meadows Wildlife Refuge in Concord, MA, two or three times a week, observing the changes in seasons, or taking my binoculars to do some bird watching. Even at the most trying times of my life, these experiences gave me some balance and breathing room, and a good way to get out pent up energy. Plus, I had the entertainment of watching creatures at their daily lives. Many times, even as I was scanning the sky or marshes for signs of life, I would be working out writing problems in the back of my head.  Every step I took and every breath I inhaled gave me new energy and fuel for the creative process.

             This past year, I had a chance to get away to two places that gave me some of the joy and inspiration of nature. The first was Dorset, Vermont, for a family reunion in the towering and majestic Green Mountains, where the shadows of the clouds on the mountain sides are like small boats on an ocean. For a writing retreat, I spent a weekend in Ogunquit, ME along the rocky shore. The waves pounding on the cliffs and the far off horizon give such a perspective to my little problems, and the feeling of being just another of God’s creatures in this natural element. These getaways were like a wake up call to remind me how much my relationship with nature means, and how much I miss it when I don’t make the effort. And that, sometimes I have to put it first.  

 

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Let The Sun Shine In

sun

August is vacation time for me. I run a full schedule the rest of the year, often taking on more professional and personal commitments than is wise, but August signifies time for rest and relaxation. That means beach for me. I spend as much time as I can at any beach, day trips, week vacation, visiting friends or relatives at the beach.

When I begin my regular routine again in September, catching up with everyone I haven’t seen, this is what I hear, repeatedly. “Oh, you got a lot of color.” I don’t say thank you. I’m not sure this is a compliment. They may be thinking, what are you, nuts? Ruining your skin? Encouraging skin cancer? Shortening your life for those few moments in the sun?

My mother was a self-professed health researcher. She came by the profession naturally. Her father was a research chemist and professor. She was a nutrition major with a chemistry minor. She spent the latter several decades researching health. Not what was making the 6 o’clock news. She delved into what wasn’t making the 6 o’clock news. From the very beginning, she said stay away from sunscreen; that stuff is full of chemicals. Like many of our fabulous synthetic concoctions of the 20th and 21th century, sunscreen presented to her as just another substance that allowed you to override your body’s natural signals. I believed her then; I believe her now.

I love the water, the sand, and yes, I love the sun. But I don’t stay out in it all day. I’m out in the morning and in the afternoon. Through the middle of the day, I stay out of the sun because…it will BURN ME!! That does not seem like a good idea. When I can feel the sun getting too hot, before my skin starts feeling brittle and dry and uncomfortable, I get out of the sun. Is this rocket science? Over time, my skin behaves the way it was designed to, and produces a golden–dare I say it?–healthy-looking bronze tone. Taking in the sun’s rays feels good to me. Hmmm. Hard to decipher why this would be? I do have a bachelor’s degree in science, but I don’t think one needs any  B.S. to recognize that the large majority of living organisms on this planet require sunlight for growth and vibrant life. Sun is good for us. In moderation, like anything else.

The new spin in all the magazines and on the news is exactly this: that humans benefit from being in the sun. Wow. News flash. We are now not only permitted, but encouraged to take 15 minutes a day without sunscreen in the sun. And, interestingly enough, sunscreens in number that approach three digits are now frowned upon in most circles. Skin professionals have stopped recommending anything higher than around 30 because the chemical content is too high. Let’s think about that…and take a guess that using tons of 15 or 8 or whatever probably isn’t the greatest idea either.

One could say to me, you are lucky, you have that “mediterranean skin,” as my mother called it, that tans such a nice golden color. What does a fair-skinned red head do? Wears sun screen when unavoidable, and stays under the umbrella! I can burn, too. I live under the umbrella much of the time. And I’ve worn sunscreen. When I’m going out on a boat, or doing some adventure day trip in the tropics or something and I know it’s going to make life really difficult if I try to get completely out of the sun for much of the day. But I don’t embrace slathering on the fancy-smelling stuff like I’m doing something really healthy for myself. Slathering on sunscreen and going out for hours in sun that is too intense for your skin seems akin to drinking too much or smoking cigarettes. It may seem to be just what you want at the moment, but it is clearly not something your body agrees with!

Before media entered every facet of our lives, attempting to make anything and everything the next big story, people used their common sense more. There is a reason that a peak, fabulous experience came to be called “your moment in the sun.” Good morning, sunshine.

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Disaster in My Wake

There seems to be a pattern of natural disasters in areas I have recently visited, myself and/or with family. This sounds absurd, but I don’t find it so funny. Let’s review the facts:

Most recently, I visited — Vermont! The region in this area most devastated by the recent hurricane, which turned into a tropical storm, inconveniencing many. But Vermont got the worst of it, including Rutland, my dad’s hometown, and a little town called Rochester where my Aunt Betty and Uncle Ed live, which has been cut off  from the rest of the state. I hope to hear news of them soon. Another cousin informed us there is no power and no phone service, that helicopters were delivering medicine, folks with ATV’s were being asked to cross mountain roads to deliver water, cow herds were swept down river, folks were left homeless and caskets had risen out of the cemetery.  The name of this storm was Irene, also the name of our family matriarch, whose history I had compiled.

This is my most recent disaster.  Others date back at least until 1989, Hurricane Hugo in Charleston, SC.  Donald and I happened to be there at a WWII reunion of his father’s where we were attempting to sell souvenir items.  One week we’re lounging on Isle of Palms beach drinking beers under the moon; next week, it’s blown away.

And then the April 2005 trip to New Orleans, 5 mos. before Katrina.  How many people take their school age children to Bourbon St., I ask you?  But I wanted the cultural experience, and it was our point of departure for a cruise.  At the aquarium, the docent assured me that New Orleans was in a bowl, and the experts knew it was a matter of time before the levies failed. They were right.

Then there was Tahoe 2008 wildfires.  Another April trip, visiting brother in law Tom. We were poolside when we saw the smoke. I approached a firefighter on the roadside: “We’ll evacuate if it gets bad,” he said. Then the fireplanes and helicopters.  I told Don I wanted to leave for Reno airport a day early, just in case…the smoke cloud followed us for miles.

Another vacation, another disaster – this time 2009 Myrtle Beach, SC.  Myrtle Beach! We saw a smoke plume as we were driving – seemed so far away. And then, after dinner, leaving the restaurant, what seemed like little gnats, in fact were ashes falling from the sky.  But no panic, no warning, and we returned to our hotel next to the beach….safe, of course.  At night, I awoke to acrid air – the slider open only an inch.  I turn on the TV: the wildfire is out of control, and not a mile away.  Outside the window the smoke was so dense, I couldn’t see the shoreline below. “Close doors and windows, put wet towels at cracks.  Visibility nil, stay off the roads.” I didn’t wake the boys; what would we do?  The next morning was safe to travel, so we went south of town to get out of the bad air.

Another trip…more recently.  We were safe in Sandestin, FL, but our friends that we visited, who had come down from Birmingham, AL, returned to face the worst tornado in their history, just following.  I’d asked them over dinner, “Was it ever a problem with tornados coming through?  They assured me, not.

Santa Cruz, where I went to college, wrecked by an earthquake.

New York City, where I lived for three years, terrorist attacks, no less deadly than natural disasters.  

There’s my record. The question is, what to make of it?  Is there some meaning I am supposed to find?  Modern travel brings me to all kinds of destinations? Global warming is touching us all?  Just unlucky, or causing bad luck – a karma thing?  Or, a force field around me so powerful it disturbs the atmosphere?  Some other kind of superpower that I don’t realize I have?

My critical thinking self says, just coincidence.  My spiritual, superstitious self says it’s a message of some kind.

We choose, don’t we, whether to find meaning in things? If there’s a message, I think it has something to do with nature, and something to do with suffering.  And it may be something to this effect:  what you do matters, influences the rest of the world, and you must do something to help this world, not merely observe, staying safe and comfortable. Because, in time, disaster touches us all.

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