Tuesday, May 31, 2011


Our town's Memorial Day parade makes a few stops along its short route: at the Veteran's Park to dedicate a wreath, at the graveyard to listen to elderly soldiers graciously mourn the boys left behind so many decades ago. And we sing the national anthem and recite the pledge of allegiance. Our parade, by the end, has swelled way beyond it's beginning numbers; townspeople walk behind the parade proper and gather people faster than polyester gathers lint.

My family fell behind after the cemetery ceremony. It was hot. One of us is three and too stubborn to be carried very far. We sat in the shade, we shared a lollipop. We found this: an oak tree growing out of an oak stump. The initial seed was probably an accident but evidence of tending could be found in the few dead daffodil stalks planted around the wispy trunk, the potting soil heaped into the rotted cavity of the old tree. I'm not a religious person (though spiritual, in a may-the-force-be-with-you kind of way) and I've never read the bible except for a few perusings in hotel rooms, but I know there's that whole rebirth theme running through it, right? And here was rebirth in such an obvious form. Stump, sapling.

“I don't want to die,” moans B at odd moments. His knowledge of death is both limited and vast. I wish I could tell him about a heaven, about meeting those we love who've died before us. I wish I could describe a grandfatherly guy dressed in silver robes who will bake us cookies and pour us milk upon our arrival. I wonder if this is why people sometimes turn to religion after having babies: an immediate set of explanations. My explanations, though, happen in terms of compost. “When we die we turn to dirt,” I tell B. “And then flowers grow out of the dirt.”

At the cemetery, B knocked on the door to a mausoleum. “Only dead people in there,” I told him, before I could consider the implications and slap a hand over my own mouth. But he took it in stride. He probably thought it was some sort of walled, doored garden, all those dead people stacked up, turning to dirt, sprouting fleshy mushrooms and pallid moonflowers.

Maybe this is our religion: everything grows, everything dies, and it's very sad but also very necessary because there isn't much room. Everything has its turn. Sometimes an oak tree grows twice.

I’m amazed at the power of sights, sounds and smells to snap you back to the past, instantly. On the stereo this week in heavy rotation is an Elizabeth Mitchell CD. Every time I hear her rendition of “Three is a Magic Number,” a song near and dear to my mommy heart, I am once again a small child in front of the TV watching Schoolhouse Rock. Yet a strange thing happens when she gets to the lines: Faith, Hope and Charity. Somehow my brain starts to supply another set of lyrics and I start singing “Where Charity and Love Prevail.” It’s as if the words to this hymn are lodged in my brain. I can sing what I imagine to be all of the verses, no hymnal required.

Smells too seem to have a transporting effect. If I close my eyes in the presence of lilies, I am seated in my church where I sang in the choir, had my communion and confirmation, and kneeled next to my grandmother for almost every Sunday as a young girl. These memories come to me when I least expect them.

Then there are the moments that bring the Here and Now sharply into focus. There are those serendipitous moments when I stumble onto a quote or phrase that puts my life into perspective, all in just a few simple words. Following some photography links to different websites this week I found this quote by the Dalai Lama: ‘My religion is very simple, my religion is kindness.’ Reading those words I drew in my breath, because this truly summed up how I try to live my life. I want to be kind thoughtful and caring, putting other people’s needs before my own. It’s this last bit, though, that often gets me into trouble. When will I learn that too much of a good thing isn’t a good thing anymore. After thinking so much about others-- rearranging my schedule for an unforeseen run to the airport or a last-minute bake sale--I often get depleted, my resources spent and I spiral downwards.

The lesson I’m trying to teach myself, though there are no textbooks, rules or guidelines for this—just like everything in life it seems—is that being open to receiving kindness is just as important as giving. These past few weeks have been particularly challenging as I summon up the courage to see myself as I truly am at this particular age. Yet I have been on the receiving end of so much kindness: An unexpected invitation to a choral concert, seats saved at an evening event, a handwritten letter arriving in the mail just when you need it most, friends making time in their busy schedules to see a movie together, delicious food made for a holiday picnic, thoughtful presents given out of love rather than duty or obligation, a husband doing lawn work after a long hot day so as not to break a promise, time spent in companionable silence on a deck by the lake. I’m trying to give and to be open to receive. It’s not easy. Yet nothing worth having ever is.

Next Week's Word: Whiskey

Monday, May 23, 2011



Both T (the Boy) and L (our kitty) went to their yearly wellness check this week. The doctor couldn’t get over how tall T had grown. The vet remarked, quite enthusiastically, how long L was. Giving it some thought, I was surprised to find that these two share so many other similarities. In appearance, both are lithe with gangly limbs. Seeing them in the morning makes me feel as if they are made of taffy, having been stretched overnight. Someday all too soon they will fill out and take on a more grown up persona. At least we think so. This is what we tell ourselves as we are going through those growing pains of having two young adults in the house at the same time.

I find that they are alike in demeanor as well. Both love to sit on their perch in the loft bed and take naps. If you’re looking for one or the other, they are probably sitting on the chair in front of the computer, though not at the same time. Both hate to see a closed door or a conversation that excludes them. Each take the stairs two at a time. Due to extreme hunger, one races to the bathroom if he thinks someone is headed that way in the hopes of being fed (kitty); the other (boy) is more self sufficient when it comes to food. But his searches through the fridge seem constant, and he doesn’t always leave items in the fridge for his parents to eat. Most days there are often cries from each of them when in front of a “screen” for entertainment. The kitty calls out for someone to look out the window with him at Chipmunk TV, though sometimes he watches the Bird Channel upstairs. T frequently yells out in the hopes someone will come to check out his video game progress. We try to appease each by showing an interest. Sometimes.

Neither sits still for very long, and if I try to “smother” them with affection there is a look of “Oh I wish you wouldn’t” on their faces. Now that they are teenagers, they make me pine and long for the days when they wanted me to sit and hold them endlessly. Alas, those days are long gone. But occasionally, very briefly, there is a sweet, shared moment between us.

A long week of rain has made for a long lawn.  Chuck a gardening glove off the porch and you'll lose it in the jungle that is our yard.  I managed to plant grass seed in the horse paddock the day the downpour started (seven? eight? days ago) and I expect as soon as the sun manages to break through the cloud cover those seeds are going to develop attitude.  And altitude.

"Can I use the lawn mower?" T asked the other day.  "Can I mow the back yard?"  I'm tempted to say sure and show him where we keep the gas, but a whisper of parental doubt slaps a hand over my mouth.  "Let me talk to Dad," I answer.  I picture gory toes, bloody stumps where his thin tapered fingers were supposed to grow.  "I'm old enough now," he points out.  And he is.  How did my first baby get so grown up?  So confident and smart, so good looking and long?

He invites an equal measure of girls and boys to his birthday party.  They dance in the rain on our unruly lawn, not caring about hair plastered to foreheads and drenched clothes, just kids with nothing to hide from each other yet.  Long legs darting among the tulips.  I want them all to stay in the right now, rain and all.  But they slip away with their goody bags and their sugar highs.  My boys fall asleep early, tempers barely in check.  T stretches out on his bottom bunk, new Legos populating his pillow.  "Rub backings?" he asks.  Of course.  I lay down beside him, careful not to upset the various primary colored towers, and rub his back.  His long, straight back.

Monday, May 16, 2011



Today is: rain, clean laundry in four piles, planting potatoes and getting very wet, chipping away at a mound of work, three cups of Constant Comment in a row, matching coffee cups (after much discussion), checkers on the kitchen floor, a couch pulled away from the wall for an army base; little-boy faces begging for leftover birthday candy; spreading grass seed on the paddock at 6 am; wearing a comfortable shirt to yoga class; deciding to keep Molly forever; having no schedule besides an early bedtime; pasta boiling on the stove. 

Today is: good.

A few months ago, in response to a part of the book, “Little Princes” that I really loved and insisted that she read, my friend started waxing enthusiastically about her camping stove.  In the book, Connor Grennan writes about a time at the orphanage in Nepal when he would bring home toy cars for the boys to play with. As much as they loved them, the cars were always smashed by the end of the weekend. The store-bought toys did, however, inspire the boys to make their own cars out of lids and soda bottles. They discovered that varying the water you put inside made them move differently. As an added bonus, because the boys built them, they could also repair them. What my friend admired most about her stove, she said, was that she could take everything apart. All the bits and pieces, as tiny as they might be, could be cleaned, repaired and replaced. And so, because I was interested, she brought it all to the Library so that I could see it for myself.

We sat in the backyard and she laid out all of the pieces while she told me how it worked. She described the whole process and how it changed the liquid into a gaseous state. Listening to her talk I suddenly wished that I had the power to transform from one to state to another that easily. While we chatted she decided to clean some of the pieces. It was so much easier to do, she said without kids clamoring around wondering when it was going to be time to boil the water for the pasta. After a long day of hiking it’s easy to see why the kids would be so focused on food. I find that food away from home tastes so much different than what you normally eat. I can only imagine that a meal cooked on a tiny stove made from ingredients you’ve carried in your pack as you made your way up hills and down into valleys must be oh so satisfying.

We talked more about the simplistic design of this type of technology. From there our conversation moved from stoves to wheelchairs her brother has helped to design for people in need to helping other countries. Even though it was still bright daylight I felt as if we were seated at a campfire in the evening on a warm summer night. The stove, though in pieces, was our center round which the conversation whirled and swirled. There was the warm glow of friendship as our voices became light as a gas, first wrapping round me and then lifting up into the sky.

Monday, May 9, 2011


Head, shoulders, knees and toes… so goes the song I remember from childhood and often sing on Wednesday mornings, much to the delight of the toddlers at my Library storytime. They know those body parts and are happy to point to them, as fast-paced as I make the tune. Looking back to those days of my own youth, it seemed so easy then: a name and function for each part of me, no debates or disputes. Then I got older and started to realize that it’s what’s inside that counts, the stuff you can’t really point to that actually matters.

For awhile I thought that it was brains that mattered most. I was considered an egghead in school. I was class president, always had perfect attendance. I graduated second in my class with several scholarships to an all women’s college. In high school I was driven, and didn’t date much. (Boys don’t make passes at girls…)

College meant being on my own and learning to balance my head and my heart. This was something new to me. Before I woke up everyday, went to school, came home and did my homework. Now I only had myself to answer to and sometimes I found that going to the park on a beautiful sunny day rather than going to class was actually the better choice. Yet if I had it to do over again rather than pursuing my academic studies, I would definitely take more art classes. It’s not that I don’t appreciate all of the knowledge that I gained back then, but I can see with the clarity of hindsight  that concentrating in one area (putting all my eggs in one basket so to speak) didn’t actually prepare me for this life I’m living now. I love to write, take pictures, knit and bake. If I had experimented with the arts back then, maybe I would have enjoyed myself more. Not that I can change things for me, but I do try to stress some of this with the teenager in my house who seems destined to follow along a similar high school path.

The question of which one to listen to--head or heart--often arises for me, but there’s no debating the fact that they are both necessary. In “The Wizard of Oz” the scarecrow asks for a Brain and the tinman a Heart, I feel like I have both of those in abundance. But at this stage in my life I might have to side with the lion and ask that all-mighty all-knowing wizard for some Courage.  I wish for the ability to be brave enough to be more selfish, to pursue my own interests. I work in a service industry where I help people find information. Often times I feel as if this is what I was born to do. Though helping people can get be a bit wearying at times and when I least expect them the meltdowns occur.

I hacked off my hair in a fit last night. Looking in the mirror I’m hoping to find Courage to live with it. So what if I can’t put it up in a clip, pigtails are much more my style anyway. And in some ways my head feels lighter, as do the cabinets and drawers I have purged and reorganized this weekend. I’d like to discover the Courage to move on into a new personal decade, leave some baggage behind. But as my body grows older and changes occur I wonder if I will ever sing “Head and Shoulders” with my own little one again? My head knows it will be okay, but my heart isn’t so sure yet.
Last week I forgot to pack L a sandwich to eat for dinner on his way from karate to baseball.  I also forgot his baseball mitt.  And I forgot that England is five hours ahead of us, not five hours behind.  Which caused a significant upheaval to the interview I had scheduled at a certain time.  On Saturday I forgot to add string cheese and yogurt-in-small-plastic-bags to the grocery list depended upon by M and his mother; the boys will not be pleased when they open their lunch bags at school today.  Yesterday there was a certain word I couldn't remember, a perfect word, no other word would do.  I would tell you what it was but I never managed to come up with it and now I can't even remember what I needed it for.

When my grandmother was first slipping into the warm sea of dementia we laughed at the treasures we found wrapped in tissue and tucked in drawers.  Photographs, pens, stones, orange peels got the same treatment as jewelry and coins.  She'd worry us and amuse us with stories of bearded strangers storming into her house and demanding tea.  Most of her sentences remained unfinished after her death over a dozen years ago, thoughts forgotten midway through, left to fend for themselves among the misfiring synapses of her addled brain.

When I am addled, I do not laugh.  I get angry, and I worry.  I worry about that same fate falling to my own head.  The loss, the absence, the vacant opthalmological windows.  Of course it's more likely that my calendar is the culprit, the reason behind my forgetfulness.  May is...busy.  All the other months are training - May is the marathon.  Soon will come June - picnics, playgrounds, hot dogs on the grill, the fair, open windows - we just have to get through May.  And then, hopefully, my head will recover, relax, release, and rejoice.  Until then, dear reader, be kind and lower your expectations.  My head, it is doing its best.

Monday, May 2, 2011


My boys are going to the beach today. M took all three of them to visit grandparents in the ocean town I grew up in and even though it's still spring-chilly out there, they will go and dig in the sand, skip pebbles on the surf and clink rocks into their pockets for me to find next time I wash their clothes.

From the second floor of the house I lived in as a child you could see the ocean. It was far away but it was blue. And hazy, even on clear days. From the third floor there was more of it and I imagine the roof offered an even grander view, but there are limits. I haven't been in that house since I was eighteen; maybe global warming has brought it even closer, I don't know.

I miss the ocean. When you turn your gaze toward endless it does something beneficial to your brain. It's like sleep, only with an awake level of awareness. Growing up I took the beach for granted; I could walk there from my best friend's house and we spent hours every summer coated in sand. Now going to the beach is an event and has to be planned, prepared for, talked about, and then there is the inevitable disappointment - someone gets sand in their eyes, someone else has their snack stolen by a daring seagull. It's not like the lazy, floaty days I remember from when I was a kid. Nothing ever is, is it?

Ocean rocks lie all over our house: on the windowsill above the kitchen sink; lining the porch railing, on the hearth in the living room. They have no use but to hold the house down and remind us of the beach, that there are things much, much huger than ourselves moving in the world, that something as malleable as water can smooth over, break down something as hard as rock.

I miss my men when I'm alone in the house, and the missing feels so good. I can eat when I want, drink a glass of wine in the afternoon, stay up late writing in bed. I can move freely out the door to run to the lake without a trail of questions ("Where are you going? Can I come?") following me down the driveway. But when I know they are on their way home to me, that's even sweeter. Here they come, bearing their hugs and sticky kisses, pebbles from the sea presented to me like the jewels they are.

I often wonder why the water has such a pull over me. Today in an attempt to find the perfect shot, M and I went to the river. We each walked around in companionable silence with our cameras trying to capture the scene in front of us. As I gazed into the current I was mesmerized; the movement pulling me along, my focus on the everchanging patterns of the waves. I could have spent the whole day there, content to have the sun shining down upon us. Spring is finally here, the one that we have earned a thousand times over. The snow has only recently left us, in fact much of the water down below is from the recent thaw. As it makes its way to the sea, I wonder if I could just jump in and float to that same destination. I don’t presume to think it could be as easy as that. I have been trying for years to move closer to some body of water, pond, lake, river (I’m not that particular) but each time, it seems, my plans are thwarted. Twice we have looked at houses that have a view of the river, but both of those deals fell through, for one reason or another. Two years ago I was offered a job in Maine. I would have had a view of the ocean from my office, but it was not to be. I don’t see how I could have worked there. I would have wanted those I love nearest and dearest to uproot and move with us--which would not have been possible. So here we stay.

Last week one of the women who comes with her toddler to my storytime stopped in to pick up some new books and to deliver her sad news in person. She told me her little family would be leaving the area shortly. As she talked about the reasons to be going back to where they originally lived, being near the grandparents was high on the list. But when she talked about being near the ocean again, I could see in her eyes how desperately she needed to have that wish come true.

In some ways the ocean and I have a long distance love affair. I count the minutes until we can be together again, I get a little giddy when I start to anticipate a trip to the beach, I replay my favorite parts of our time together over and over again in my head, and when I have to leave to come back home I almost can’t tear myself away. I often threaten to live on the beach. I adamantly tell my family they can go home without me. I imagine making a fort or shelter under the life guard’s chair from whatever scraps are at hand. My address under the chair would sound a bit Harry Potterish and my hair would constantly be whipping in the wind. My skin would probably take on a too-pink tinge, and I don’t know that the sand would ever leave my shoes, but I think I would be happy. At least I’d like to give it a try.

Word for next week: Head