We Planted a Garden

Garden 2018Yesterday, my father-in-law and I planted a garden. To be clear, I told him what plants I wanted and he told me where to plant them, how deep to dig the holes and so on. We planted six tomato plants, six herbs, a cucumber, a yellow squash and a bell pepper. This is the second time we’ve done a garden in my backyard at this house, but last year I didn’t help plant it. Last year, he did it as a surprise while I was away. I love the idea of gardening, but I don’t seem to be all that inclined to put in the work, so when Bill offered to bring the plants, I eagerly agreed. To be frank, I’m a little worried about the garden’s potential for success with me as its main caregiver. I don’t have the best track record with plants. In fact, I’m quite good at killing every plant that meets me. My mother and my sister, on the other hand, can grow anything. But they don’t live near enough to ensure that I won’t murder my garden. I tend to forget to water plants for days or even weeks at a time or, the case of one summer night last year, I leave the sprinkler on all night long. (What a waste of water! I know!)

It’s a wonder, really, that I was able to raise two baby boys into healthy young adulthood. But between my husband and I, we did. Our eldest is just starting to train for his next cross-country season while also taking summer classes to make up for credits lost when he transferred schools. And our youngest will be graduating high school in two weeks. I’ve been wondering what shape my days will take after our youngest heads off to college, leaving our nest empty. After so many years of focusing on parenting, it’s difficult to fully imagine the open spaces he will leave behind. It’s not that I’m worried about filling the time, it’s more like I’m curious to see how I embrace the transition.

As for the garden, I’m lucky that my father-in-law lives nearby. As my husband, Tom, likes to share, Bill grew quite the garden when Tom was a boy. I think they even grew corn! I’m nowhere near that level of gardening commitment, but I do love fresh tomatoes off the vine. They taste better than any store-bought tomato. And I have fond memories of keeping my grandmother company on hot summer Baltimore nights while she watered her beloved tomato plants. I feel certain that Bill will give our tomato plants the dedication that I may lack.

Nala in shade

I never knew Bill to have a garden because he and Ann, my mother-in-law, moved into a townhouse just before Tom and I married. Then, when Tom’s mother’s Alzheimer’s disease took hold, they moved into a senior retirement community and there is no land for gardening there.

But before all that, they grew the big garden and they raised up three children into adulthood who they watched graduate high school and then college. They watched those three children marry and have their own children who then were raised up into adulthood. See, our younger son is Bill's youngest grandson. When our son graduates high school in two weeks, that will be the last grandchild to graduate high school.

I wonder how many tomato plants Bill has planted in the years between his youngest (my husband) and our youngest graduating high school. It feels right in some elemental way to mark this new phase by planting a garden. I like the idea that by the time our son leaves for college in late August, we will still be harvesting tomatoes. (And for the record, I remembered to water the garden today).

Rosebud

Singing with Bobby

A few weeks ago, I learned that Bobby McFerrin was going to lead a CircleSong at my church. Stalwart followers of this blog will remember that I wrote a post about Bobby a few years back, after he’d been interviewed by Krista Tippett for On Being. I was struck and inspired at that time by the way that Bobby talked about coaching students through fear. He tells them to open their mouths and sing for ten minutes. He tells them that about a minute in, every fiber in your being will want to stop. Don't stop, he says. Keep going.

At that time I’d been struggling a bit with my writing and had been waiting for fear to simply go away. Bobby inspired me to stay in my seat and keep showing up at the page. It seems to me that Bobby's encouragement of young singers speaks to Elizabeth Gilbert's observation of fear.

Liz Gilbert Fear and Creativity

When I met Bobby last year, I gathered the courage to tell him about the blog post. His response: “Cosmic.” So, when I learned that he was leading a CircleSong, I decided I would go – even though I have zero training in singing. For one, he’s about joy and spontaneity and creative expression. Who doesn't need that? He believes that humans are meant to sing. I believe that too. I just happen to think that my singing is best kept inside my car with all the windows rolled up. Also, did I mention that he’s Bobby McFerrin?

Having never seen or participated in a CircleSong, I walked in with two fears. One: that he would expect that we have singing experience and two: that we would sing individually.

The pews were at least half full with people when I arrived. Immediately one of my fears came true: Bobby asked everyone to gather according to their voice type. I have no idea if I’m a soprano, alto, or what. I lurked at the back of a group as he walked around singing a note and asking the group to sing it back. The group I’d chosen was way too high. I kept moving myself a few steps to the right until I felt like my voice fit in.

Fortunately, my second fear didn’t come true. We never had to sing on our own. What happened was Bobby would give each group a little piece to sing. We’d repeat it back to him until he was satisfied that we’d gotten it. Then he’d move to the next group. After all five groups were singing their pieces in repetition, he improvised over us. Though this video is not our church, the experience was a lot like this:

https://youtu.be/vALN3LZm3J4

Even though I stayed at the back of the group, I was captivated by the joy of people raising their voices together in song. After an hour, our songs took a turn toward silly as Bobby started one group repeating phrases after him that become more and more absurd until many of us burst out laughing.

When the group broke up, I slid out the side door. As I walked home in the dark of an October evening, I possessed that delicious airy feeling of having tried something out of my comfort zone and having a blast doing it. That's the thing about fear. It keeps us small. But opening our mouths and letting our voices be heard? That's when we expand and take up the space that was intended for us in this world.

(Elizabeth Gilbert quote from Pinterest. Video from YouTube).

Taking a Tumble

  A little over a week ago, the morning after a long day in the car following two weeks at the lake, I chose to go for a run. The July weather was unseasonably perfect for a run with low temps and no humidity. Running was not advised as I’m battling plantar fasciitis, but I was tempted and I gave in. Reasoning that it would be better for my foot (and less painful) to run on a soft surface rather than roads, I headed directly for my beloved trails.

Lush with recent rainfall and filled with the music of birds, the wooded path offered me the peace and shade I craved. Reaching the halfway point, I turned onto the path for my route home. I passed a woman walking four dogs, the first person I’d seen that morning. I stumbled over a rock on the path and caught myself. I wondered if the woman saw me and then I wondered why I’m so self-conscious. A mile later, picking up speed on a flat area of the path, I stumbled again, but didn’t catch myself. I went sprawling. A young couple emerged from the curve on the path as I picked myself up.

“Are you okay?” said the young man.

 

“Yeah, I think so,” I said, looking over my scrapes.

“Here, take some water to wash them out.” He handed me his water bottle.

I squirted water over my elbow and knee.

“That’s how we wake up out here, right?” the young woman said, grinning. “Take a tumble, wake right up.”

The trails where I run are studded with rocks so the surprise is not that I fell and scraped myself up; the surprise is that I’ve never fallen. I’ve stumbled plenty, but I’ve always caught myself. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that I took some pride in my quick reflexes. Now I felt oddly…betrayed. Not by the lovely trail, but by my body.

“I’m so old,” I complained when I arrived home dripping blood from my elbow and my knee. “I’m not as nimble as I was.”

“You’re reading too much into this,” my husband said. “You just fell. It happens.”

A friend and fellow trail runner said the same when I ran into her – my elbow bandaged up - at a favorite coffee shop a few days later.

“Oh, I fall all the time,” she said cheerfully

“She does,” her husband agreed.

I reasoned that my friend falls while running because she’s a super-fast runner whereas I simply fell because I’m clumsy. I do this a lot. I reason away someone else’s similar mishap and view my own mishap as a personal failing of some sort. It’s an oddly egocentric approach, like I’m holding myself to a higher standard than I hold for others.

IMG_1898Yesterday I returned to the scene of the crime while walking with my dog. The particular part of the path where I fell is no different from any other part of the path where I was running. Dirt and rocks bordered by ferns and trees. Lovely as always. There’s no reason for me to have fallen in that spot versus any other. Just as there’s no reason for countless things that happen – good and bad – to me and those around me. Things happen. Not because we are good or bad. They just happen. Friends get cancer. Family members die. Our kids face challenges. We fall down. We get back up.

My cuts and scrapes are pretty much healed now and I’m hoping this plantar fasciitis resolves soon so I can get back out there. And if I fall, I’ll simply get back up.

 

 

North Country Rejuvenation

  morning on the dock.jpgThis morning is my last at the lake for this trip. The Adirondacks have received more than their fair share of rain over the last month or so and we've experienced some of that weather during our two weeks up here. On the mornings that have allowed it, I pour my coffee and walk down to the dock to take in the quietest part of the day. The gentle lapping of the water against the rocky shore and the ruffling of the leaves in the breeze accompany the slight rocking of the dock.

On the rainy days, I've scribbled out some stories and curled on the couch to read books. But most days, the weather allowed me to paddle out on my beloved red kayak. One day I saw a gaggle of geese. I wondered at the chicks' innate ability to line up neatly between two adults.

gaggle of geese.jpg

When I walked my dog, I noted again the rock cairns that someone has created. They hold a mysterious benevolence to me.

cairn.jpg

One sunny day, when my arms were tired from so much paddling, I hopped on a mountain bike to explore a park that we've driven past many times. What I found enchanted me. Narrow, but well-groomed trails barely held off the lush greens of ferns, firs and birch. Wooden bridges crossed bubbling streams packed with moss-covered rocks. When I learned that the park was conceived and built specifically to accommodate wheelchairs, I loved it even more.

John Dillon Park.jpg

On July 4, we walked to the town beach to enjoy sausages grilled by the Fire Department and live music. When evening began to fall, we returned to our dock for the fireworks.

evening.jpgfireworks.jpg

Though this morning broke gray, the clouds are moving fast and the sun is peeking through. I hope for one more paddle before we begin to pack up for our return home. If not, I can take the peace of this place with me, knowing that I will return.

fire.jpg

 

We Were 16

I met her on the sidelines of a high school football game on a sunny Friday afternoon. I’d just returned to my neighborhood school after 3 years of being bussed to another one. She’d just moved from the city to the suburbs. I was trying to figure out high school and rekindle friendships that had gone cold in three years. She had already been welcomed into a group that included some of my old friends from grade school. I was average height, skinny and flat-chested with dark straight hair. She was tall and voluptuous with a tumble of wheat-colored curls. Her wry smile was my favorite. She lived in an old farmhouse on a country road. Her bedroom seemed huge and bright compared to my small room in our townhouse. A four-poster bed sat in the middle with a pair of ballet slippers dangling from one post. She didn’t dance anymore, she’d explained. But she liked the ballet slippers hanging there. She introduced me to the Violent Femmes and the Thompson Twins. I introduced her to the country roads where we partied next to cornfields.

reisterstown-around-1986

A few weeks later, she and I had the opportunity to bond further. A bunch of us girls had thrown a party at her house while her parents were away. She and I had been caught. She had a strict dad and I had a strict mom. While our new friends were out partying every weekend, she and I talked for hours on our landlines. We shared the stories of our lives. We shared our hopes and dreams. Our fears. Our firsts.

She’d had a crush bordering on obsession with one of the senior lacrosse boys. When he picked me from our gaggle of giggling sophomores, her friends hissed at my betrayal. But she said she was glad he’d chosen one of us instead of that blond senior captain of the cheerleaders. And when he tossed me aside to return to the blond senior captain of the cheerleaders, she was there.

Then tenth grade was over and she invited me to Ocean City for a week where her parents had rented a condo that walked right out onto the boardwalk. All day, we lay on the beach, lathered in baby oil, blaring Madonna from tinny speakers. At night we flirted with boys, testing out the high wire between girl and woman.

ocmd-around-1984

By senior year, we were mostly moving in different social crowds, but still good friends. We thought we might end up at college together, but I decided to go north to Philadelphia and she headed south to Richmond. We saw each other here and there through college. I'd gotten into the Grateful Dead. She'd gotten into photography.

After college, our lives diverged. One night, while I was living in New Jersey, she woke me with a phone call. I can’t remember if it was very early in the morning or very late at night. She shared that she was facing a difficult decision. She wasn’t sure what to do. I was newly married and my grandmother had recently died. Looking back, my sleepy response had more to do with where I was in my life than where she was in hers. I don’t know what she decided to do. That was the last time we spoke.

We became Facebook friends, so I knew she’d had a son. I was happy for her. Having children was one of the fears of her 16-year old self - and one of her dreams too. Last week, I learned that she’d died in her sleep. We hadn’t seen one another in decades, but immediately, those sparkling eyes, that wry smile, and those wild curls filled my mind. A lovely soul is gone too soon. I’m grateful to have known her.

 

Amazing Grace

Two weeks ago, on Martin Luther King, Jr Day, I was running errands when the radio announcer stated that "Amazing Grace" would be played at 11:00 a.m. on radios everywhere. As the song began, I pulled over. It was the version by Joan Baez, recorded live. I listened to the first verse and then joined in, singing alone in my car. My voice wavered with emotion over the beauty and power of Dr. King's life and death and my worry that our new reality would not extend the dream that he'd begun. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tRsr6OGH990

On Friday, President Trump was inaugurated and on Saturday I marched in Philadelphia. You've heard all about the marches - how many women turned up with signs and pink hats and children and friends (many of whom were men!). The march was peaceful and positive, joyful and affirming. The march was about women's rights and immigrant rights. It was about respecting our fellow humans - all of them. It was about healthcare and choice and access. It was about standing up against negative rhetoric. It was about demonstrating that this administration does not reflect our hopes and dreams. It does not reflect who we are.

philly-march

On Saturday morning, when I read the news about the executive order that President Trump had signed stopping immigration from specific countries, I wept in confusion and anger over an action that could harm men, women and children already traumatized by war. On Sunday in church, in response to the question of what we can do, our priest invoked the last line of the first reading of the day from Micah 6:1-8: "...do justice...love kindness and walk humbly..."

Later that day, while baking (because I tend to bake when I don't know what else to do), I listened to On Being with Krista Tippett. This week, she'd re-broadcasted a 2015 interview with Representative John Lewis. I'm sure you remember Donald Trump's recent tossed off tweet stating that John Lewis is all talk, no action. John Lewis was a leader of the Civil Rights Movement. He literally led the walk across the bridge in Selma and was beaten unconscious. On the Civil Right Movement and nonviolent action he said:

rep-john-lewis

"The movement created what I like to call a nonviolent revolution. It was love at its best. It’s one of the highest forms of love. That you beat me, you arrest me, you take me to jail, you almost kill me, but in spite of that, I’m gonna still love you."

I have not been beaten, arrested or jailed for my beliefs. I have not almost been killed. I cannot yet feel that love that John Lewis and Martin Luther King, Jr called for.

John Lewis also said, "When you pray, move your feet."

That I can do. I can move my feet.  I can call my representatives. I can state my beliefs. I can stand and be counted.

(video from YouTube, photo of Rep. John Lewis from OnBeing.org, Philadelphia Women's March photo my own)

Not a Drop to Drink

We're up at the lake house for the week between Christmas and New Year's. We come up here most every year at this time - except last year when we stayed home to have a party for our younger son's 16th birthday. long-lakeWe arrived on Monday to a nice layer of snow on the ground. The lake is partially frozen and if the current weather continues, it'll be completely frozen by February. On Tuesday, our caretaker called to ask if we had water. Tom tried the tap. The pressure was down, but we had water. Turns out that there was a leak in one of the pipes that runs beneath the lake. They couldn't find the leak so they were turning off some people's water. Whew, we thought. Dodged that  bullet.

Having lost water at our new house at the same time last year, we knew how challenging it is to live in a house with no running water. Just to be safe, I filled some empty pots and water containers. The next day, after returning from cross-country skiing, I flipped on the faucet to wash my hands. No water.

water-jugs

I'm not going to lie. I was bummed. I wondered if we could stay in the house for four more days without running water. We got a call late that afternoon. The diver had gotten too cold to continue working. They'd turned our water back on for the evening, but it would be off again in the morning - as soon as a new diver arrived with a heated diving suit. I filled more containers with water, did a load of laundry, ran the dishwasher and prepared for a full day of no water.

As it turned out, we ended up having water intermittently throughout the day, which was a pleasant surprise. We didn't have water during the time I was preparing our son's birthday cake. I stared at the dirty dishes piled in the sink and wondered how best to tackle them. I wanted them clean, but I wanted to use the least amount of water possible. I did my best. Then - when I realized the water had returned - I washed them all a second time.

That night, after celebrating our son's birthday, he thanked us for everything and said how excited he was about the online class led by a director he admired, which we'd purchased for him. Werner Herzog, he told me, was born at the end of WW II and was forced to hide for years in the forest living with no electricity or running water. Years. With no running water.

Here's what I learned about myself: I'm a wimp who needs a minimum of 19th century technology in order to live happily. Also, I'm a scarcitist. Okay, I made up that word. But there should be a word for someone who has a fear of scarcity. After I brought home 4 gallons of water, my husband wanted to make coffee. I said no, that I didn't think it made sense to use some of our precious water on coffee. As if we couldn't drive 2 miles to the Stewart's buy more. I guess I need to go back and read my own post on Abundance.

Last thing I learned is something that tend to need to re-learn over and over: it'll all be okay.

tom-and-nala

I'll leave you with images from today's cross-country excursion. Pure abundance - of peace, beauty and joy.

[wpvideo 3M56btpj]

Making Those Cookies Again

sand-tartsA while back, I wrote this post about baking and memory and how entwined they are for me. I knew I'd written a post about the cookies, but I thought it had just been a couple of years ago. Here I am, six years after that post, still making the cookies. Last year, I wondered if I wanted to continue carrying on the tradition of making of the Sand Tart, passed to me by my grandmother -- cookie cutters, pastry cloth, recipe and all. They are challenging to make by oneself because they cook quickly. Also, If you aren't careful about applying liberal amounts of flour to both the pastry cloth and the rolling pin cover, one or the other will get sticky and you're dead in the water. You can't roll out cookies on a sticky pastry cloth.

rolling-cookiesWell, I went ahead and made them last year. Just one batch. That's enough for two tins. One for my mother and one for our family. I used to make several batches. I'd make sure to get one to my dad, even if I didn't see him on Christmas. And I'd give a tin to my father-in-law and to my great-aunt (my grandmother's sister). But my great-aunt has passed and I can't seem to find time to make more than one batch - which takes me hours.

Years ago, before I had kids, I'd make the Sand Tarts plus four other types of cookies. I baked and baked and baked. But in recent years, it's just the Sand Tarts. This year I knew I'd make them, but as I prepared, I wondered if maybe this would be the last year. I wondered if maybe over the years I'd imbued these cookies with more meaning than was due a simple recipe of flour, sugar and butter, rolled thin and sprinkled with colored sugar.

cutting-cookiesBut here's the thing: Baking my grandmother's cookies is like a time-travel machine. I stand at the counter and roll the dough and I see her in her apron, scraping the dough from the sides of the bowl. I see my sister selecting the cookie cutter she wants to use. She would go for stars, but our grandmother preferred diamonds because you could get so many more cookies out of the efficient diamond shape. As I cut the cookies, I see my grandmother help me pull away the extra dough and pop a little in her mouth. After the cookies are light golden brown, I sprinkle them with the same mixture of green and red sugar. I see my mother move them from the cookie sheet, which was the only job my grandmother allowed her to do.

So much has changed over the years that I've been making those cookies. I think the time travel sense comes from the sameness of the experience. I'll make the cookies again next year. My sister lives too far away to bake the cookies with me, but maybe I'll get my mom to join me. She's retired now and she always was good at sprinkling the sugar and moving the cookies from the sheet to cool.

May this holiday season allow you to experience joy and peace. And some cookies. Below is my grandmother's recipe as she dictated it to me at least two decades ago.

Sand Tarts - Kitty Harlan. Makes about 2 tins of cookies.

2 sticks butter

2 c. sugar

3 eggs

2 c. flour

1 tsp. vanilla

Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs and vanilla. Mix well. Add flour and beat with electric mixer. Refrigerate overnight. Roll out extremely thin on pastry board with covered roller approximately 1/2 c. of dough. Dust with flour as needed. Bake until just slightly brown. Could 6-8 minutes on 325 - 350.

cookie-cutters

More Alike Than Different

Maybe you’ve seen the iPhone commercial featuring Maya Angelou reciting her beautiful poem, “Human Family.” Some people seem to think that the use of the poem to sell iPhones somehow diminishes the poem. I disagree. I love hearing Angelou’s distinctive voice over the many images of human beings during the course of the commercial. Over the weekend, I was reminded of that poem. My husband and son were running the Philadelphia Half-Marathon in support of the Alzheimer’s Association. The morning broke clear and crisp and I rode my bike through our glorious Wissahickon Park to the area where the race was taking place. cresting-the-hill

Finding an excellent viewing spot just after mile 7, I parked my bike and waited for the first runners to crest the hill. Before the first runners, were the paralyzed athletes using handcycles to propel themselves up the huge hill. We cheered them on. A bit later came the leaders: three slim black men running 5 minute miles like it was no big deal. We cheered them on. Later, more runners climbed the hill. Young men and women like my son and his friend, well-conditioned from cross country season. We cheered them on. Then I jumped on my bike and parked myself at mile 12, just 1.1 miles from the finish.

zach-and-friend

Soon, I saw my son and his friend. Then my trainer. Next, my husband. I cheered them on. As I waited for my son and my husband to join me, I continued to cheer. I had watched as the participants morphed from ropey runners in tank tops and shorts to, let’s say, more round runners in running tights, long-sleeved shirts and headphones plugging their ears. The front of the pack runners made it look easy, like they could run that pace all the way to New York, if need be. The runners at the end of the pack were fighting for every step.

 

But every person out there was there for the same reason: to complete 13.1 miles that day in Philadelphia. Black, white, brown, beige and pink. Tall, short, thin, fat. Running on two legs, running on two blades, running while juggling. Propelling themselves on recumbent bikes, walking fast, walking slow, hobbling on a sore leg. Wearing race gear, wearing tutus, wearing a Captain America costume. Kids in middle school, adults well past retirement age and everyone in between. They all showed up to do the same thing. In these post election weeks fraught with fear and anxiety, I was struck by the common purpose of these 12,000 individuals and I cheered them all on. I agree with Maya Angelou. We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike. We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.

drummers

Human Family

I note the obvious differences in the human family. Some of us are serious, some thrive on comedy.

Some declare their lives are lived as true profundity, and others claim they really live the real reality.

The variety of our skin tones can confuse, bemuse, delight, brown and pink and beige and purple, tan and blue and white.

I've sailed upon the seven seas and stopped in every land, I've seen the wonders of the world not yet one common man.

I know ten thousand women called Jane and Mary Jane, but I've not seen any two who really were the same.

Mirror twins are different although their features jibe, and lovers think quite different thoughts while lying side by side.

We love and lose in China, we weep on England's moors, and laugh and moan in Guinea, and thrive on Spanish shores.

We seek success in Finland, are born and die in Maine. In minor ways we differ, in major we're the same.

I note the obvious differences between each sort and type, but we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.

Work To Be Done

One of my volunteer activities at my son’s Quaker private school is to shelve books in the library. If you know me, you know I love books. And if you know libraries, you know that they can almost always use an extra pair of hands to re-shelve the countless books that are pulled by students doing research or simply browsing. Today was my first time shelving in two weeks, which is to say that it was my first time shelving since the election. Some of the books that needed shelving today were in the 700s. There must be a teacher who annually requests a term paper on famous painters. I remember shelving these same books last year. The majority of the books were in the 200’s and 300’s – the social sciences. As I shelved the books from my cart, I also picked up random books that students had left lying in carrels. There was “We Should All Be Feminists” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of “Americanah.” Also, a resource book about being supportive of LGBT students. (It was an older book, there was no Q in the title.) There was “The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to his White Mother” by James McBride. And “Black Man in a White Coat,” by Damon Tweedy about race and the medicine.

Maybe students had used these books for research projects. But I wondered if maybe they had pulled the books during a free period, when they were trying to make sense of the election upset last week. I like the idea that these books may have helped some students navigate a path that they didn’t expect.

I’ve been wondering, too, over this last week if my stories matter, if my words matter. Last week I saw a Humans of New York post featuring Barack Obama. He was asked about a low point in his career and he shared about losing badly the first time he ran for Senate. He was thinking that maybe that work wasn’t what he was meant to do. I can’t imagine Barack Obama doubting that he was intended for public service. And yet, he did.

barack-obama

The words he shared about how he got through that low point have been replaying in my mind over the last days. It is clear that there is work to be done. I just need to figure out what my role will be.

 

The Beautiful Reality

When I learned that Hillary would be at Independence Hall with the Obama’s and Bill and Chelsea – I had to be there. That the first female candidate for president would be rallying at the birthplace of our country seemed profound and I wanted to witness it. As it turns out, I didn’t plan all that well. Apparently, while I was hanging out in a coffee shop reading a book, people were lining up to get in. By the time I exited the subway at 2nd Street around 5:30 pm, the line to get into the rally was – no lie – a mile long. Undeterred, I found a spot at the barrier fence where I could mostly see the Jumbotron and waited.

rally

While standing there, I struck up a conversation with a man wearing a green hat who’d waited in that mile long line for two hours before he decided to cut his losses and find a spot to see and hear the speeches. I met an Irishwoman who’d traveled to the United States specifically to witness this historic election. She, like me, had made the trip to Old City by herself just to witness the rally. Unlike me, she’d never been to Philadelphia and still found her way!

As we waited in the chill, a quiet crowd filled around us. Despite the quiet, the crowd emanated a sense of hope, of anticipation. Next to me was a couple with a ten-year old; they’d driven from Lambertville. Behind me was a group of college students. Up in front, standing against the barrier was an old woman with two other women who could have been her adult daughters. A nearby man told me that his mother was born the year that women got the vote. He said that she was excited to vote for the first woman president. She’d wanted to come to the rally, but she’s wheelchair bound.

a-waiting-crowd

Finally, after almost two hours of waiting and chatting, Jon Bon Jovi took the stage. His last song, dedicated to Hillary, was “Here Comes the Sun.” As he sang, everyone around me joined in, hundreds and hundreds of voices rose into the clear night air, united in this moment. Next, Bruce Springsteen sang three of his classics. I loved that after he sang his songs, he spoke in support of Hillary while strumming his guitar.

Chelsea spoke of being proud of her mother; Bill spoke of Hillary being so qualified. Their words were familiar, but being on that city street, surrounded by supporters, elevated the experience of hearing those words. About halfway through Michele Obama’s speech, a heckler disrupted our crowd. In a booming voice, he yelled out insults. Someone yelled an insult back. Another person called out, “When they go low, we go high.” A chorus of “Love Trumps Hate” rang out.

When Obama was introduced, the crowd erupted into joy. And when he stated that Hillary was more qualified than he was, the crowd went wild. Hillary took the stage to overwhelming cheers. The heckler continued to bark out his insults. A woman offered him a hug. People chanted “Hillary!” An older man near me declared that the heckler needed to be stopped and he turned to confront the man. We urged him to stay with us, not to engage with a man so full of anger. Someone guided the heckler away. Hillary made her famous statement about the woman card. The heckler yelled out an insult, but now he was so far away that his voice seemed inconsequential and laughter rippled through the crowd.

After I left the rally, as I walked the streets of Philadelphia, I felt proud of our country and joyful from spending time with others who had felt moved to attend the rally. This morning I voted. The volunteer held open the curtain like a gentleman holding a door. The curtain closed around me and I looked at Hillary Clinton’s name on the ballot. Unexpectedly, my eyes welled with tears at seeing a woman’s name on the ballot for President of the United States of America.

I understand that some of you who are reading this post will have voted the same as me and some of you will have voted differently. The beautiful reality is that today, we each have the right to vote in the way that we choose – regardless of “race, color or previous servitude,” regardless of socioeconomic status, regardless of gender. We each have one vote. How cool is that?

Small Efforts in Response to Big Things

Between the World and MeOne day last week, the day after I finished listening to an audio version of Ta-Nehisi Coates's book "Between the World and Me," I went for a run. Truth be told, parts of the book were a tough listen for me. Coates's language is gorgeous. But he had hard words for our country and when the book was finished, I felt a sense of despair that more hasn't changed in the one hundred fifty-one years since slavery was abolished in this country. Or in the fifty some odd years since the Civil Rights Act was passed. So,  I went for a run. And I decided that on that run, I would smile at every human being that I saw. It was a sweltering morning in Philadelphia with the humidity pushing the temperature to feel closer to 100 then the actual 85 degrees. We were all sweaty out there. We were running; we were walking; we were biking. We were young and old and we were men and women and we were all shades of color. We walked with dogs or strollers or just with friends. Some of us were alone. I smiled at every one of us. Many didn't register me, either engaged in conversation or maybe working through the pain of their workout. Some met my eye and didn't smile back. But others did. They caught my smile and tossed it back to me, doubled. A smile may seem a small thing, but it was a small thing that I had control over.

That night, my younger son had some friends over. Well, he's said it would be a few. It was closer to a dozen. With Coates's words swirling in my head, I watched these teens enter my house, all different shades of the human rainbow. They'd gathered because several of them had pitched in to build a computer for one of the guys so that he could game with them. These are not kids who grew up the dangerous parts of our city, like the area where Coates grew up in Baltimore. But neither are they all suburban kids, protected with fenced-in yards. I marveled, not for the first time, how different my sons' lives are from how I grew up. How much more of the world they've seen, how much they already know about justice and compassion and right living.

I can't repair the scars that divide our country all by myself. But I can do what I can in my corner of the world. And I can share my smiles with all of those traveling this road alongside me.

 

 

Abundance

I've heard the old idiom: Enough is as good as a feast. I understand the sensibility behind it and I do try to live my life so as not to take more than my fair share. At the same time, that phrase doesn't exactly sing to the soul, you know? Enough sounds restrained and slightly worried. So it shouldn't have surprised me when I realized recently that I relish abundance. Hope Roses.jpg

As I walked the streets of my still-sort-of-new neighborhood through the early summer season, I was enchanted by unabashed roses bursting forth in gorgeous pastels. As summer moved in with purpose, I was greeted by heavy-headed hydrangeas, bold Black-eyed Susan's and bright crepe myrtle. I loved these rich displays of nature everywhere I turned.

MNYK Hydrangeas.jpg

I saw abundance in a bowl of red, ripe cherries; a miles-long trail beneath a lush canopy of leaves; a creek rushing with water; a loaf of fresh-baked bread.

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I wondered: was my response to abundance just greed in disguise? Should I settle for enough? To me, greed feels needy, like there's a hole inside that craves to be filled. Greed says there's never enough. My love of abundance doesn't feel like a sort of Mr. Potter need to grab everything for myself. My response to abundance is more like joy at the possibility of what could be. Abundance hints at promise and hope, while enough is, well, it's enough. Maybe it's a privilege to relish abundance. Or maybe it's a matter of perspective. If enough looks like abundance, then maybe enough is truly as good as a feast.

 

A Morning Walk in the Wissahickon

Winter on the WissahickonWhen we first start our walk, my dog and I, snow swirls around us, forcing me to hibernate in the furred hood of my winter coat. The snow tapers and I pull back my hood, opening my ears to soft sounds of a winter morning in the forest. My dog’s paws crunch the papery leaves littered on the forest floor, like nature’s biggest suicide pact. My boots squeak on the new snow layering the rocky path. A bird sings sweetly and then falls silent. We cross a stream that giggles and somersaults its way to the large creek, which greets the silly stream with solemn fullness and little time for acrobatics. "Come on, Come on," the creek says. "We must be off." And with her children cradled within her wide banks, the creek marches, purposeful and hurried, over the falls.

We walk on in the hushed morning until the strident honking of a goose barges into the quiet. Is she admonishing or pleading? My dog and I do not know. We turn to head back the way we came and I see that the sun has perched herself on the very top of the hill there. She kisses the tips of the trees that reach for her and whispers promises to warm them in due time, promises that she would never leave for good.

Nearing the end of the walk, the sun shrouds herself in downy clouds and the light snow falls again, sprinkling a blessing on me and my dog as we depart the woods and head into the day.

The Hydrangea Tree

This tree sits in the middle of my backyard. This morning is cool and clear for August. As I sit on the deck of my new home, my line of vision is caught on the old hydrangea tree with its graceful draping branches exploding with blossoms. My neighbor has lived here all his life and he’s also a landscaper. He estimates that the tree might be 75 years old. He’s said that he hasn’t ever seen one so big.

Yesterday, after the painter left, after more furniture had been delivered, after the cleaning person finished her work, when there was only the carpenter and me remaining in the house, the doorbell rang. I was upstairs at the time, chagrined to realize that most of my comfy summer clothes were apparently downstairs in the laundry room. A minute and then another ticked by as I pawed through my dresser drawer. The carpenter called up to me.

“Laura, there’s someone here with a connection to the house.”

I tugged on a shirt and found my way down the stairs. I had no idea what to expect. Someone with a claim on the house? Someone looking for the previous owner?

A lovely young couple stood politely on my porch waiting. They introduced themselves and the woman explained that her grandmother had grown up in the house. The couple lived in Florida and were visiting the area on vacation and they wondered if they could take pictures of the outside of the house to share with the grandmother, who was the only remaining relative who’d lived there.

Of course I invited them in. I’d made a similar trip as this young woman after my grandmother’s sister died. I’d gone to my grandmother’s house and walked all around it, seeking the connection I’d had to my grandmother, pulling my memories of her from the wraparound porch, the gardens and the old cherry tree. Some of you will remember that my grandmother’s house featured in a book I wrote a couple of years ago.

The young woman entered the house, took one look the stairway and pulled in a deep breath. She explained that she has a photo of her grandmother on her wedding day tossing her bouquet down those steps. I pointed out the original aspects – as much as I knew them: the huge old windows, the carved baseboard moldings, the fireplaces and their intricate mantels. She sighed over all of it. She pointed to the hardwood floors in the dining room and remarked that they must be new. I said they were. She told me that there used to be a button on the floor to call the servant.

They went outside to take photos and just as they were pulling out of the driveway, I ran out to give her my email address.

“Would you share that photo of your grandmother with me?” I asked. “The one on the stairwell?”

She smiled and said she would. I don’t know if I’ll hear from her or see that photo of my house from the 1950’s, but that’s all right. I look at the blooming hydrangea tree, which was a young plant when that grandmother was a girl growing up in this house, and I feel an invisible thread connecting me to that grandmother across time and space. This house was a home long before that grandmother lived her and it might be a home long after I’m gone. For now, I’m entrusted to make it as happy a home for my family as I’m able. And I plan to do just that.

Paddling, Paddling and More Paddling

SUPWe arrived at the lake late Saturday night after our younger son competed in the Philadelphia Youth Regatta obtaining second place in one race and, well, let’s just say not quite as good in another. On Monday, we woke to a gray and chilly morning. There were many odds and ends we needed to tend to, as we hadn’t made it to the cabin since the Christmas holidays. By noon, the gray chill had burned off and I seized an opportunity to take the kayak out for a quiet paddle toward the north end of the lake. I never tire of the view of mountains rising in shades of gray and green or of the seaplane flying toward me to land at the public beach. The next day it seemed that everyone wanted to kayak so we paddled across the lake – one of us in our kayak, three in the canoe, to rent a second kayak and a SUP. We returned to the camp each manning our own vessel and I learned that I don’t love paddling a canoe by myself. I’ve never mastered the J-stroke and so I find myself paddling one side and then the other in an attempt to travel in a straight line. Needless to say, I was the last to arrive at the dock. Excited by our new fleet, the boys headed back out in kayaks and Tom on the SUP. Not interested in the paddling the unwieldy canoe again, I plopped into the lake on one of our big inner tubes. I floated for a bit like that, but I’m not so good at floating and doing nothing else, so I started paddling with my hands. I wondered vaguely if I looked strange paddling an inner tube with my hands, but I didn’t care all that much. I found that when you’re traveling that slowly, you see everything. The seaweed growing from four feet below surface, the rocks sitting beneath the bottom of my tube and the silver-gray root fingers of old trees sawed off at the top. I managed to get myself around the bend before I saw Tom returning on the SUP. He offered to switch vessels with me, but that seemed more trouble than it was worth so I continued my paddling, now following him back to the dock. The boys arrived shortly thereafter and we rewarded our efforts with a big lunch and chilling on the dock. green kayakOn Tuesday, I woke early, ate a good breakfast and took the SUP out for a spin. I’d been dying to buy of those for our lake house and I was eager to check it out. I admit that when I first stood on the SUP with my long paddle, I was tempted to belt out Italian opera, viewing myself like a Venetian gondolier. After I pulled away, though, I found what everyone has said about stand-up paddling to be true: it’s peaceful and a good core workout. It’s so peaceful and simple that it feels primitive. I loved it. Unfortunately, before I was halfway to my goal destination, a little brown house in the cove north of us, I experienced a twinge in my back and had to return. I continue to be resistant to the fact that I am at the age where twinges limit our efforts. I’m a stubborn girl, what can I say? Not long after we returned, the boys trooped down to the dock and Zach urged us out for a family paddle. This time, I was in a kayak and Tom and Mitch took the canoe. I helped Zach unmoor his kayak, urging Tom and Mitch to go ahead since canoes are obviously much slower than kayaks. By the time I paddled out from the dock, my neighbors were warning that I had little chance of catching them. Much to my chagrin, they were right. Maybe canoes are slower than kayaks, but when you have two strong rowers in said canoe, the odds shift a bit. Eventually, we all met up and crossed the lake to experience a different set of scenery. By the time we returned, against the wind, my shoulders were screaming for a break. Now it’s Wednesday and I feel well-rested and the heat is expected to rise. I wonder: what vessel will call out for paddling today?

YA Dystopia: Where the Chicks Get to do the Cool Stuff

“War is peace.  Freedom is slavery.  Ignorance is strength.” I just finished re-reading George Orwell’s 1984. I say re-read because I read it once in high school (didn’t we all?) but I felt as though I was reading it for the first time because all I remembered was a white male protagonist, an oppressive regime and something about sex. Last spring I read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 for the first time. I was surprised to realize many similarities between the two books.

Orwell’s book came first, published in 1949 and inspired by anti-Stalinist sentiment as well as the realization of the relationship of society and government to the people. Bradbury’s book was published in 1953 and was inspired by the McCarthy hearings. No matter the initial inspiration, the effect is quite similar between the two. In both books, the protagonist is a fairly unexceptional middle-aged man living in an oppressive system. In fact, in both books, the protagonist’s job is essentially the destruction of words. In the case of 1984, main character Winston “rectifies” past newspaper articles so that they agree with the current sentiments of the government. 451’s Guy Montag is a fireman, he sets fire to books, which are illegal. In both books, the main characters view their wives as vapid, shallow women with whom they are unable to connect. In both books, a young vibrant woman is the spark that sets the main character toward his path of rebellion. And both books feature a somewhat mysterious man who assists the main character in his brave act.

“There must be something in books, something we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.”

The worlds of these books are exceedingly well conceived. There is much to respect in each of them. But it’s what I didn’t see that grabbed my attention. I didn’t see myself. Reading these books made me remember why I fell in love with young adult literature. The young adult dystopias that have landed on best-seller lists and subsequently made into movies are like feminist retellings of these old classics.

Even if you don’t feel that the protags of some of the recent big sellers can rightly be called feminist, you’ve got to admit what absolute fun it is to see girls at the helms of these stories. Girls who aren’t vapid or shallow or manic pixie dream girls, but girls who shoot arrows and start revolutions, who leap from trains and save their friends, who defy what society demands in order to do what is right.Katniss

I grant you that we seem to have traded the middle-aged man paired with young nubile female for teen girl chased by two overly handsome brave boys, but still — if I’m going to read something and try to find myself, I’d much rather see Katniss or Tris than Julia or Clarisse.

I grew weary of adult fiction when I couldn’t find myself there anymore. I wasn’t in the middle-aged men having affairs. I wasn’t in the mothers unfulfilled by motherhood. I wasn’t in the working women who loved to shop. I definitely wasn’t in the Red Room of Pain. Young adult literature offered me girls as main characters, girls who worked toward what they wanted, girls who fought and feared and loved and lost. Girls that spoke to me.Tris Climbing the Ferris Wheel

At the end of the day, isn’t this what the #weneeddiversebooks campaign is all about? Every child should be able to open a book and see herself — no matter what color her skin or who she loves or where she came from. It’s up to us to make sure it doesn’t take another sixty years.

(book covers from Amazon.com, Katniss from moviepilot.com, Tris climbing the ferris wheel from pinterest.com)

The Magical Chandelier

Magical chandelier at the Writing Barn  

The title of this post has exactly nothing to do with the content except that this magical chandelier hangs outside the Writing Barn in Austin, TX, where I spent last weekend at the Art of the Sale workshop led by Siobhan Vivian and Jenny Han.

Siobhan and Jenny are talented and passionate about children’s literature; they take their work seriously, but at the same time, they aren't afraid to play. As they tell it, Siobhan and Jenny met in graduate school and have been sharing writing ever since, culminating in their recent collaboration on the Burn for Burn trilogy.

Let me take a step back to give a sense of place. If you’ve never been to the Writing Barn, it’s like a spa for writers. Owner and founder Bethany Hegedus has attended to every detail from gorgeous linens to yoga mats. Fresh coffee is available all day and the meals are both healthy and delicious. The environment, a beautifully restored horse barn, sits on seven acres of tranquility tucked into a suburban neighborhood.

This beautifully restored former horse barn provides the primary workshop space.

Just retreating and writing there would be great. Coupling that space with lectures and critiques by two successful authors was fantastic. With thoughts of the weekend occupying my thoughts days later, I thought about what was the high point for me. Certainly the one-on-one critique with Siobhan was amazing. The level of attention she brought to my pages humbled me. Their lectures were excellent, offering up experience, information and insight on the landscape of publishing today. Meals with the attendees and the authors gave us all an opportunity to get to know one another more deeply as writers, but also in addition to being writers. The highlight, though, may have been the readings. After receiving my critique, I used Siobhan's comments to revise a scene that my friend suggested I read. At first, I was a little overwhelmed. I wondered if I could hit the depth that Siobhan had suggested. But after I read the revised scene to the group, Siobhan basically said I’d nailed it.

This is why we must take the risk to put ourselves out there. And by out there, I mean sharing our work, obtaining feedback and using that information to move forward. Sure, it can be scary to share your stuff with people you barely know — not to mention two authors you respect -- but it’s difficult for to see how far you’ve come without other eyes to show you where you were before.

I'd like to say that the magical chandelier could help you reach your writing dreams, but really it's just a matter of staying in the chair, sharing work and keeping an open mind. But connecting with other writers and authors in a beautiful space doesn't hurt either.

(Chandelier photo my own, Writing Barn photo from thewritingbarn.com)

Miles To Go Before I Sleep

Lake Eaton 12-30My older son is a senior in high school and he recently chose a quote to accompany his photo for his yearbook. I was impressed that in the midst of his friends choosing quotes from SpongeBob episodes (not offense to the Sponge!) or rap lyrics, he chose something sincere. Similarly, when I was a senior in high school many of my friends wrote abbreviated messages to one another rather than actual quotes. When I think about it now, that space was like a Tweet, allowing a specific number of characters that resulted in messages that only a select few could decode: "NB LM JS nvr 4get. Srs rule! luv ya 4eva!" In fact, I remember that my boyfriend at the time was offended that I didn't mention him in my quote space. The truth is that it hadn't even occurred to me to mention him or any of the five girls I considered my best friends. To me, that space was intended to share something of yourself so I chose the last three lines of Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

On the verge of ending my high school experience and leaving my hometown for college in a big city, I was seeking new experiences. I hoped to do something with my life other than what may have been expected of me. To many, it may not appear that I took the road less travelled. I am married with two children and a dog. I no longer work outside of the home. I volunteer at my son’s school and at my church. Sounds pretty ordinary.

But when I think about the way that my life has unfolded, it doesn’t feel ordinary at all. It feels pretty spectacular. And when I walk in the Adirondack woods near our cabin with my husband and my dog, it’s a different Robert Frost poem that rings in my ears. Sometimes I wonder about continuing to pursue a dream that doesn't appear to draw any closer to my fingertips. But pursuing dreams well into adulthood is a form of taking that road less traveled. And I think I have a long way to go before I sleep.

In that vein, I’ll leave you with Frost’s words - along with my wish for something extraordinary for you in the New Year.   Dusting of Snow

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

BY ROBERT FROST

Whose woods these are I think I know.

His house is in the village though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer

To stop without a farmhouse near

Between the woods and frozen lake

The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask if there is some mistake.

The only other sound’s the sweep

Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” from The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem. Copyright 1923, © 1969 by Henry Holt and Company, Inc., renewed 1951, by Robert Frost. Reprinted with the permission of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Source: Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays (Library of America, 1995)

Writing Around It

thHow do you write about nothing when there's something? How do you write around the thing that occupies every waking moment when the people closest to it need privacy? When driving home, I need to remind myself what a green light means and when I arrive home, I double-check that I put the car in park before I get out. Writing fiction feels impossible, let alone useless. Running is not an option. That sounds like a euphemism. It's not. I've bullied my Achilles tendon to the point that I'm in a boot. Reading has long been an emotional refuge, but after reading the same paragraph five times, I push the book away. Instead, I attack my bathroom with bleach, cleaning out the space beneath the sink like I'm clear cutting a forest because life's too short to have so many half-empty bottles of conditioner, worn down eyeliners and gauche shades of lipstick.

While walking the dog, a soccer ball clangs against the chain-link fence and I jump like it's a gunshot. Loud music and laughter is shrapnel in my ears. I try the news, but I can't digest the stories of war and death and discord and I can't look at this computer screen for another minute, so I pull out the hose, the bucket, the sponges and that cleaner that smells terrible and I scrub the porch furniture even though it's half-past September and the season for sitting outside is pretty far gone.

When a snatch of peace arrives, I sit on my back porch in one of those portable fold-up chairs that you take to watch your kid play soccer. My dog lies content in a patch of sunlight. A single bird sings. And I know that though I've been changed permanently, I will be okay. We all will be. Eventually.

(image from alisonlongstaff.blogspot.com)