Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Gratitude, Dude

 It doesn't take long for a garden to change. I was away three days and on my return the flowers bordering the patio and the front of the house had blossomed like fireworks.

The day lilies splashed orange against their green foliage, the hollyhocks bloomed both pink and rose red.

The geraniums sported huge scarlet flowers...

and the phlox, with their musky scent, were spots of hot pink against the lush green of the giant Rudbeckia Nitida 'Herbstsonne' whose absurdly small yellow flowers are just forming.

The front garden is a watercolor wash of pinks. The fairy roses are the soft pink of a new baby's skin, the bee balm is closer to magenta. The weeds grew as as fast as the flowers, making hours on my knees a necessity.

The vegetable garden has been tidied as well. There are some stray pole beans amid the bush variety so I've constructed tepees of tree branches to give them a place to climb. The cucumbers are reaching for the fence with which I've surrounded them. The tomato plants are reaching for the sky. I noticed dozens of fruit hiding amongst the leaves.

It is good to be home again, to wake in the morning to a wash of warm gold over my feet as I sit on the patio sipping my first cup of tea. I like to watch the day hatch itself from the egg-blue sky, to hear the bird chorus sing up the sun, to smell the fresh watermelon scent of newly mowed grass and the rich brown smell of tilled earth.

In the afternoon, when the work is done and the sun slants through the screened tent, I stretch out on the outdoor swing and marvel at the beauty all around me. A nap is as restorative as the Yoga I've now undertaken. So is the thankfulness I feel for the riches I enjoy every day.

Monday, June 28, 2010


 my childhood home

There are myriad ways to go home again; the only impossible thing is to be a child again, to turn the clock hands backward until adulthood falls away. Home is a concept of the mind and heart as well as a physical place and if one has had many homes, as I have, revisiting those physical places can trick the mind and pull the heart out of shape.

I was raised in an old post and beam farmhouse bought by my city-dwelling paternal grandfather in the 30s and made over to his vision of a "country estate." My mother remembered the original owner returning once for a visit and exclaiming, "Oh! You've ruined my house!"

I loved that house. I still do, sometimes so yearning to be living there again that I am reduced to aching tears. If circumstances were different, it would be I who lived there, I who cooked in the blue tiled kitchen, waxed the yellow pine floors and tended my mother's old flower and vegetable gardens. That house is where my soul still lives.

a rather fuzzy shot of our hand-built log cabin in VT

After leaving home and marrying, I lived in a variety of apartments until my husband and I bought a small house in CT. A few years later, with our four children in tow, we moved to the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont where, as novice back-to-the-landers, we cut our own tall fir trees for log cabin walls, cleared an overgrown acre of meadow for a vegetable garden and raised chickens and pigs for meat. The first two years were pure subsistence living. We had no running water, no electricity, no indoor plumbing. Finally, my city-bred husband despaired and left us for a way of life that didn't frighten him so much.

 Hollyhock Cottage - my current home

I moved back down to my old family home in 1987. My parents were gone and my sister, wanting to develop her travel agent career, invited me to stay with her, keeping house while she traveled. My youngest daughter and I moved in; the three older children were all in college and now had a spacious home to return to on school vacations. It was an idyllic time. But the house was old and in need of expensive repairs that neither my sister nor I could afford. Eventually we had to sell the house and we both moved, she to be nearer her twin sister in the west and me to a succession of smaller and smaller apartments until I ended up here in my tiny but delightful cottage.

All this reflection on home and what it means had its beginnings in this past weekend when I traveled back to Vermont to say goodbye to an old friend. At 102, she is on her last adventure, moving away from all the homes she's known toward an unknown place where she hopes to find a welcome. On prior visits, when she could still get out and about and  make lively conversation, we'd spoken of her fears and her hopes, of the many homes she'd made in all her years, of what was to become of her present home and belongings once she's gone. (An aside: she purchased her current house when she turned 96, asking with a wink, for a 30 year mortgage!)

When I left her, I met my two sons on the town green where memories of them as children were as thick as the summer foliage. They were in VT for a high school reunion and before we turned in different directions for our respective homes, we talked of the days when we called that town ours. I took the back way to the highway, revisiting the log cabin where we'd lived in another lifetime. I drove down the dirt road I'd walked along so often on my way to the neighboring farm to get milk or to a further neighbor who employed me to read and sometimes edit his latest books. I pulled the car to the side of the road and wept, releasing again the ache for all the past years when my children were small, when life was a struggle just to keep warm and have enough to eat. These crying jags don't come often and they don't last long but they are cleansing, making room again for acceptance and hope.

I am home now, trying to get ahead of the weeds in the gardens and the dust and spiders in the house. The cracks in my heart and my resolve are healing over, leaving me feeling safe again, and whole. Saying goodbye, whether to a place or a loved one, makes one vulnerable but being vulnerable in turn makes one stronger. It's a lesson worth repeating.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Ready and waiting for some serious nap time!

In the past four days I've been:

- wakened at midnight by a marauding fox (it was after the cat but settled for a duck that didn't make it into the duck house in time);

- stuck in traffic on I-495, making my usual 2-1/2 hour trip to see the grandkids into a 3-1/2 hour nightmare complete with 88 degree temps and no air conditioning in the car;

- a cheerleader at my granddaughter S's gymnastics show, my grandson J's baseball game, S's marathon Father's Day round-robin softball tournament and an afternoon of poolside napping in the heat while the grands swam and played in the water (their parents were on duty);

- a delighted (and well-fed) guest at parties for my two sons' birthdays, and a Father's Day cookout;

- a happy participant at a riverside picnic;

- a willing chauffeur for my eldest son while he's visiting from the West Coast.

Tomorrow is clean-the-cottage-weed-the-gardens-do-the-laundry-and-shopping day, Thursday is mini-family and friends reunion day, and Friday we are off to northern Vermont for B's 25th high school reunion and a visit to my friend who, at 102, has been quite ill.

I'm waving at you all. Back next week, right after I take a really LONG nap :)

Sunday, June 13, 2010

One Size Fits All?

My younger (and smaller) sister once worked for a company that occasionally received goodies from the trucking firms that ferried its goods. I was in the office one day when a representative left a couple of baseball caps with the trucking firm’s logo emblazoned on the brim. They were quite nice. The label inside the caps read, ONE SIZE FITS ALL.

“Sure,” remarked my sister as she donned one. It immediately settled on the bridge of her nose. From underneath, she remarked, “One size fits all but me.”

She rubbed her nose ruefully. “It’s the same with every size-less hat I try on. I wanted a straw hat for summer to keep the sun off my face when I garden. Every single one covered my face all right. My whole face. Winter hats are the same. My nose peers out the left eyehole on a ski mask. I have to roll up the brim of a knitted hat at least three times to keep it from smothering me, and my head sits so far back in a hood that I look like some faceless thing from the black lagoon.

“I went on a motorcycle trip once,” she continued. “I had to borrow my ten-year-old niece’s helmet. When I put on the adult size and turned my head, I was looking out the ventilation holes on the side. And sweatshirts! How can a shirt that fits a 160 pound frame with bones like an emu fit a 106 pound frame with hummingbird bones? I found one once that was just what I wanted. The color was perfect, the price just right. It was made of cuddly fleece that was as soft as a bathrobe. It fit like a bathrobe, too. I could have belted it and worn it as a dress. A way-too-big dress.”

Her remarks reminded me of a shopping trip I’d taken with my daughters, one of whom is considerably less endowed than I and the other who is a statuesque beauty with legs that go on forever. We were looking at bathrobes in one-size-fits-all. I can’t tell you who they might have fit but it surely wasn’t one of us. The robe barely covered one girl’s anatomy, the “long” sleeves rode up past my elbows, and the whole garment wrapped around the other daughter twice. When I told my sister this she laughed, remarking that she and her twin could both fit into a single pair of one-size-fits-all sweatpants—at the same time.

Give me the old 10, 12, 14 (well no, stop at 12) sizing. Even small, medium, or large gives you a reasonable idea of how a thing will fit. But don’t try to tell me one size fits all because it sure won’t fit like it should.

photo credit:

Friday, June 11, 2010

Magpie Tales #17

It is the last week of school and my days are harried and hurried, but when I saw that jar of pencils, this past post popped into my head. It is a rerun but sometimes things are just as good the second time around.  

Chair Germaine

My Mèmeré, Lorida, and my mother, Germaine (and we four children), at the time they were exchanging letters.

I came across a box of papers the other day and among them were some of the letters my grandmother had written to my mother from 1944 - 1963. They were written in French, my Mèmeré’s native tongue, and each one began Chère Germaine - Dear Germaine.

It brought to mind all the letters that used to fly back and forth between them. Every week a letter would come addressed to my mother in my Mèmeré’s spidery handwriting. Every week a letter would go out to my grandmother, sometimes with little notes written at the bottom in English from her grandchildren. Because the letters were always written in French, my father would tease my mother, asserting that she must be saying uncomplimentary things about him in a foreign language so he wouldn’t catch on. Then he would pick up the latest letter and begin, “Chair Germaine.”

My British-descended father could fracture French like no other. He had no concept of silent letters, pronouncing the “s” at the end of every word whether he ought to or not, thus rendering the French “vous” (you) as voose and “trois” (three) as troys. He would have my mother laughing helplessly as he read, “Say mon mantoe a mon chapo noof key jay dance less portraits.”

We children would be laughing too, knowing that whatever my father had just said could not have come close to what Mèmeré meant. “What does it mean? What did she really say?” we’d clamor and my mother would translate for us.

“Cest mon manteau et mon chapeau neufs qui danse les portraits.” (It’s my new coat and hat that I have on in the pictures.)

Then my father had to laugh. “I would never have guessed that a mantoe was a coat,” he said. He put on his own jacket and went to the door. “I have put on my mantoe and am leaving now,” he said, bowing deeply to all of us as he went out.

Once my grandmother wrote of a party they were having. Hors d’oeuvres were mentioned as part of the menu. “Horse doovers?” my father guessed, and “horse doovries?” Finally, “Horses ovaries? At a party? What kind of party are they having?” My mother was laughing so hard she could not translate but even we kids knew what “or-derves” were.

Bonjour (hello) was one of my father’s favorite French expressions. “Bon joor monsoor,” he’d say, affecting a heavy French accent. Monsoor was any person he happened to meet, male or female. Sometimes he’d give thanks in French. “Mercy bow coop,” he’d say jauntily when someone passed him the butter at the supper table or paid him a compliment of any sort. And at bedtime he would fold his hands and intone, “Nos Pére,” only he’d pronounce it nose pear.

This went on for all the years my mother and grandmother corresponded. When, after Mèmeré died and the letters stopped, so did the fractured French. I don’t believe my father discovered whether or not they ever made fun of HIM.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Life's Lessons

Before someone told me the awful truth I was content to view the world as consisting of two bowls like the china ones in my mother’s cupboard. One bowl was filled with earth upon which some thoughtful deity had planted grass and flowers and trees. Atop this, upside down, its inner sides painted the loveliest blue, rested the other bowl. It was a comfort to know that when I lay down on my bed and pulled the covers to my chin, I was safely ensconced between the two bowls and I would never, ever fall out. Eventually some well-meaning adult told me that I actually was standing on the outside of a huge ball in mid-space and that, worse yet, the ball was spinning. Gravity, it was explained to my horrified mind, was the force that pulled all objects earthward and kept them from flying off into space. It was hardly reassuring now that my bowls were smashed to smithereens. It was a long time before I felt safe again.

I learned other frightening truths as I grew up. One was that nothing and no one, no matter how well loved, stays with you forever. My first brush with death occurred when I was five. It was Sunday morning and we had just returned from church. Still wearing my dress-up clothes, I went looking for my new kitten only to discover it crying piteously on the doorstep, half in and half out of the mouth of a snake. I screamed for my mother. She dealt the snake a death blow with the garden shovel but it was too late. Moments later, my poor little kitten was dead. I was inconsolable. Why, I argued to my mother’s explanation, could God not have gotten his own kitten? She had no answer and I began my long journey away from the simple faith of my childhood into the world of the unfathomable.

I was fairly selfish and self-contained as children are wont to be and I was sure that what happened in my life happened in everyone’s. When I stood at the top of the stairs in my pajamas and implored my mother to come up and get the monsters out from under my bed she told me there weren’t any monsters. She didn’t even come to look. She would have seen them there as plain as anything, their long tails curving into the darkness, their evil eyes casting reflections in the windows. I turned on the bedroom light and that brought her up the stairs. I told her monsters didn’t show up in the light but she didn’t believe me. She turned the light off with strict instructions to keep it off, and left me alone with my demons.

I was right about that, though. All my monsters still disappear with the light. In the dark reaches of the night when my mind turns somersaults, when undone tasks loom large or regrets come to haunt me, I remember that in the light of day these things will take on their ordinary, nonthreatening proportions and the world will again resemble two bowls of safety.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

One Green Day

Green spreads around me in rippling waves. The trees are fully leafed, singing emerald songs to the sky-blue sky. The morning air has warmed under the bountiful hand of the sun until by late afternoon it shimmers. I set off across the fields. Sweet smelling bedstraw is suddenly thick underfoot and I kneel to drink in its heady scent.

I take off my shoes and wiggle my bare toes in the meadow grass. There is no one to see me so I throw my arms wide and twirl until I am dizzy—earth and sky and earth and sky and earth and sky—before I must stop or fall.

I stretch out in the soft grass and think that green smells like fresh air and sunshine and newly turned earth. I look up into the sky and let my eyes look beyond the blue, beyond the known, into the vast emptiness that is not really empty but inhabited by the unknown, and I fall in love with it all—the sky, the earth, the fields, the woods, the flowers—all over again, just the way I did when I first discovered the world as a small child.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Surrounded By Starlings

On my walk the other day, I came across a flock of starlings busily pecking in the rain-softened earth of a newly planted cornfield. On some cue I could not discern, the birds suddenly decided to move to the other side of the road and I found myself completely surrounded by starlings. Their exuberant chirping and the synchronous beating of hundreds of wings enchanted me. I wanted nothing more than to lift my arms in joyous imitation.

There are days when I would gladly resign as an adult and be a child again, giving in unthinkingly to the moment, dancing to the music of bird wings. As I stood gazing at the starlings, it occurred to me that our ability to think too much about a thing does not always serve our best interests. I looked hastily around, saw that the farmer who had been puttering about the nearby barn was nowhere in sight, and in a moment was twirling about in the middle of the deserted road, happy as the starlings that flew all around me.

The sun at their backs, their shadows flew along the ground below them, mirroring in silhouette the beating, pulsing wings. Like all moments of sudden and unexpected beauty it startled my heart into seeing and was over too soon. I stood and watched the birds swoop and rise and swoop again, wishing I too, could fly, wishing that I knew exactly where I was going and how to get there, pulled like the starlings by an instinct I didn’t have to ponder.

Go here to read another post about starlings and see a phenomenal video.

photo credit: Animals/starlingroost.jpg 

Thanks for this,  Hilary!

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

WOW Moments

 You wake up early and the rising sun is shining through your window. Tiny little dust motes do the dance of life in the light beams and the silence is so loud you can hear it. Then a cardinal pipes his song from a nearby tree and the silence wavers a little. You hold your hand to the light and see the blood pulse through the network of delicate veins just beneath your skin. The silence and the song and the sight of your own lifeblood throbbing come together in a moment of intense awareness and you think, WOW!

How can a day be ordinary after that?

We think of our days as commonplace, but we’re mistaken. When we really look closely, the ordinary becomes extraordinary. I clasp my early morning mug of tea in my hands and think of two other hands that held raw clay and shaped it into the cup I now hold. I think of the discoveries that led to firing and glazing; I think beyond the mug to the tea in it. What I drink so often (and so often heedlessly) was once an integral part of a living plant growing somewhere on a hillside a continent away. We are linked by the commonplace. Can we not see that as remarkable?

I have a friend who is hiking the Appalachian Trail for the first time. She’s never pushed herself to walk more that a few miles, never spent more than a few hours totally immersed in natural surroundings, never spent a night in the woods by herself. Now she climbing higher than she’s ever done and the view of her surroundings takes her breath away. “It was there all the time,” she says, but now when she climbs a peak, turns a corner, looks out over vast tracts of unpopulated forest and woodland, “It’s like, WOW!”

We need to do more than just stop and smell the roses. We need to immerse ourselves in moments, recognize our time here for what it is – brief and irretrievable – and celebrate the WOW moments often.

“I can’t,” you say. “I can’t ooh and aahh my way through life. I’d never get anything done.”

But, I say what we do now is only half done if we can’t make the moment count, if it isn’t considered a miracle. What is time but a string of moments, some noticed, some lost in the rush as we hurry to get things done? It doesn’t take much time to listen to a bird sing, to watch leaves rustle in the wind, to feel the warmth of a sunbeam, to join in a child’s laughter. What better thing would you be doing with that fraction of a moment?

I saw a Baltimore Oriole the other day. I haven’t seen one here in years but suddenly, there in the brush at the side of the road was a brilliant orange bird. It lifted into the air and glided across the meadow grasses like a bit of colored glass. “WOW!” I breathed, enchanted. The image lingered for hours, making me draw in my breath and smile each time I thought of it.

All our days are made up of such moments. All of them are WOWs. We just need to pay attention.