The Random of Winter


It’s going to be over fifty degrees in New England today. Last week is a blur and the Iowa caucuses will be held tonight in much colder weather than the balmy experiences we are having here. Yesterday afforded the chance to rake a few leaves, pick up a few sticks and hope the garden won’t wake up too early. Now, as we cross the harbor on this train, the slice of sun in the Eastern sky is about to pierce the grey gloom of early morning light.

I wanted to write after the on-the-marsh dog walk a few days ago, about the creepy bird noise heard in the meadow or the surprisingly loud boom of an ice sheave heaving over one of the rivulets on the plain. As sometimes happens in the random of winter, however, this writing didn’t happen: after the marsh it was a day of stops for an annual physical, a fluid stop and drop for routine lab work, a day of talks on coming and present climate change, an evening chat of our catechists strategizing about the brood we tend. And suddenly, more life had passed: the long surgery on a friend; the Star Wars movie seen; cleaning the over-the-top spots of the homestead; laundry and bills sandwiched in-between.

Mild days in the random of winter kiss us with the promise that of course sustained warmth and new growth will once more present a plentitude of outdoor chores. The air, like today, will lighten. We’ll emerge from the extra clothes we know we haven’t really needed all that much thus far but keep at-the-ready, just in case. February is a short month, however, and perhaps there is no need to hurry or worry. We’ll get there in good time, one day at a time.

By the way, the book[i] in my bag today is a great find. The author’s a master of internal rhyme.


[i]Padel, Ruth. Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth. London: Chatto & Windus, 2014

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Bring Back Snowpants

I returned from my conference in New Orleans just in time for a blast of normal New England weather. Not as cold as the deep Midwest, to be sure, but the ‘real feel’ this morning was negative 8. We managed to fit in a dog walk yesterday, and on that walk I wanted to send another shout out to the battered long, lavender commuter coat I stitched up last year after the dog had pulled it apart for no good reason, unless wanting to lie on something of mine counts as an excuse.

This coat cuts the wind, makes the arctic blasts turn on themselves and run. No ‘puffer vest’ for me, I thought as we trudged around the meadow; this coat is armor. I was thinking about this coat on the trackside today, wearing my “pretty good and looks better coat,” and double pants, and two hats, and I wondered: could this be the winter I trend set with my sixth grade tactic: no analysis, just pull on the snowpants? I don’t know what’s more remarkable: that “they” made us wear dresses in elementary school on those bone-cold days, or that I really am old enough to remember them.

But I digress. I’ve left behind some great food down way on the Delta with pretty close to a vow to send my boys to the WW2 museum in NOLA. During this, my third conference and trip to that city, I was again able to pull up a chair with some beignets and hot chocolate and watch the ships and barges float by. (here’s a shout out to my conference roommate, who is also happily entertained by such things or, at least, comes with me to sit deckside at the Mall branch of Café du Monde to see these sights.)

Back up here, we have a Pats win to celebrate and folks are still discussing the long ball heave and end-zone catch by The Pack late Saturday night. I also realize it’s lighter now in these early morning commutes, and, as I gaze out the train window across the thin blanket of white and spy a hawk looking for his breakfast, someone’s phone rings full volume with a sound like my family’s old wall mounted unit of those snowpants days. Let me check….where am I again?! The phone is ringing, and I am wearing snowpants!

But at this stage of life, if it’s Tuesday, I think I am going to work. And if it’s January, some kind of snowstorm is due this weekend. But if that comes, I am ready. Bring it on, you crazy now for 25+ years New England hometown of mine. I’m full of gumbo, and I’m back.

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“Eat More Root Vegetables.”

What a day it’s been as I collapse into this train seat and watch a string of commuters pass me. They’ve come from all over the city and now, contained, will head north and away from the Hub. I think back on the day and realize I knew halfway through there would be things to write about. I also decided we really should get out of the office more often.

The root vegetables idea came to me as the day began and we drove through the early dark to the station. We may not know what to do about our political situation, the guns, or the fear. We’re probably not too sure whether to consider the newest suggestions of cancer-causing foodstuffs (bacon?) and related, what seems like much higher drug costs to treat this and probably everything else (ear drops for the teen this week, $65 down from $110, really?) All this uncertainty makes eating more vegetables seem like something we can actually achieve. As is my annual, small foray into the Gem District, the yearly pilgrimage I make to fetch the awards I’ll give to deserving authors next week at my conference. Today was that day!

This trek begins with the subway and its usual updates: today,  a new app that delivers alcohol to your home;  “pokethebear” (whatever that is)  being part of this dubious scheme. Another poster describes what I would call an uber uber: an app that provides more than any old taxi ride: this helps you get all the way to New Hampshire. Did you know every 4 minutes someone forgets to take his/her prescription meds? I’m glad to be reminded there’s an app to help with that. And for a change of pace, some pull-off cards for  an upcoming poetry contest. I almost take one.

Besides the posters, there’s the people: a woman sitting on the sidewalk next to a sign, “Good Karma for Sale.” The cheery Museum shop manager informs me the used bookshop I’m trying to find has moved “up the street, turn right and down 5 blocks”: I won’t try to find that on these winding cow paths today. Finally with errand complete I return to Park Street, where a busker looks my way and barks with the inviting ask, “You Look Rich!”

I’m overwhelmed as I hustle down the concrete stairway, wondering how rich he thinks I am in my $3.50 thrift store jeans, out-of-date flip phone and hat, scarf, and backpack I’ve inherited from the kids. I suppose I do possess a T Pass (partly subsidized) and a new haircut (a rescue after an unfortunate experience in a generic shop, but that’s another story.) There’s also my (work owned) laptop but it’s still probably a symbol of my useful occupation. Even though this man can’t know the debts I carry, he’s sure I have more than he does. But do I, and is it as much as he thinks?

Perhaps it is if we consider the immeasurable: the warmth of the woodstove in the (still mortgaged) home; the children (nearly) all launched; good friends; a joy giving job. There’s also my faithful dog and all our walks in this beautiful, natural world. I love this earth and the opportunities I have to notice her small things, like the sparrows sitting on the ledge of Park Street Church just as if they’re on the very horns of the altar. I am not rich by some standards, and certainly rich by others.

Now when I look out my train’s square window it’s totally dark, and hard to hold all this in my mind. The disparate thoughts are folding their tent and I don’t have or want the pegs to stretch them out. When the woman next to me answers her silent phone and briefs her friend on another friend’s cancer, I find myself whispering, “I hope she’s not too tired.”  Don’t you agree?

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All Encompassed or All Consuming?

It’s cozy here by the woodstove on this cold, Boston night. Our return from Waco’s 75 degrees to our (normal) 37 was only slightly shocking. The dog and the cat sleep on opposite ends of the long sofa. The last of the travelers is due in tonight (delayed) at 2AM, and the now sleeping husband will rouse himself to go fetch that one, leaving me to work late here with the animals and dancing flames, then to rise early, and get myself back to the office as this long but swift year ends.

Our holiday trip to see the Texas family provided plenty of time for relaxing and learning the intricacies of care given to baby Jackson. We all shared wonderful meals, navigated to Shipley’s doughnuts and Target and walked twice along the Brazos River. And while I still haven’t yet made it into the Dr Pepper exhibits, our Christmas Eve Anglican church service was held in part of that Museum. I’m getting closer!

It was on one of our River walks that I found myself thinking about this difference of being encompassed or consumed. A quick dictionary check of the former is “to cover or surround,” with consume technically meaning to “destroy or expend by use: to use up.” This was Christmas, after all, and I realized that despite this long journey with its Very Early beginning (a quarter mile long security line at 3:30 am? Really?), the many miles, the many preparations, I felt not consumed but encompassed. We had come to enjoy a brief, but rich portal of family time, joy and meaning. It was wonderful to let go of all that was “back there” and enter into this place, their place, and find ourselves together there.

Tomorrow I’ll board the train to town and it will feel very far away from my daughters and their young, growing families. But I am comforted to know they are both doing what they need to be doing in the places in which they need to be doing those things. Just as I’m here doing the things I need to do, in the place I need to be doing them… except for this small and humble blog, which, perhaps, I’m not really supposed to be doing, given a few other pressures on me at the moment. Or am I?

I am encompassed, not consumed, and it’s okay.

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A Moment for ‘Nimbility’

With post-its four deep on one side of the laptop and three deep on the other, in sitting for warmth under part of my rain-soaked coat but not under other part to stay dry, this seems a moment to pause and consider this word I made up rooted in that popular phrase in the workplace: ‘we must be nimble.’

Most of the time my associations with the word nimble are in conjunction with what it takes to live in my house. For years nimble meant stepping over those tiny legos designed, as many have said, to impale the tender underside of an adult foot rendering immediate pain. At my house you have to be nimble to stagger downstairs to go out with the dog at 5:30am or stagger up the attic stairs to feed the cat at 10:30pm. We have lots of old, angular furniture to steer around and you need to be nimble to avoid catching a hip or worse, a full limb. Outside, the marsh walks we take across meadow and stream or up to the top of the hill require steady footwork in the rain, but ‘nimbility’ when there’s ice.

The twist on all this during the week was that several non-physical moments required this trait. I think I was nimble to take the old milk jug to the rain barrel so that the latter got drained and the former, filled. When I ate the Hostess snowball at tea time yesterday, wasn’t it just a little nimble to think that from one angle it looked like a Stormtrooper? I tried a new recipe for “Breakfast Cookies” yesterday-lovely and delicious, and nimble, surely, to create a cookie that starts the day nutritiously? And just last week when I experimented making Mango Chicken Curry and found (of course) there was no curry in the house, I remembered: use the web! I made my own curry and yes, even with turmeric I found in the cabinet (that’s a shout out for the nimbility of my husband, don’t you know.)

When the tree cutters came yesterday and the dog couldn’t have run of the garden, I popped him into the van for a nearly unheard of mid-day walk, changing directions three times as various realizations arose (I lack treats, I’ll go to the pet store and buy some, he can’t make it that far… and so on.) I’d returned from walk #1 and found myself deep cleaning the back bedroom/laundry room–which I’d had no plans even to contemplate doing. I also made a moment on the return from walk #1 to swing by the car mechanic so I could return the shop shirt he’d left in the van last week. Nimble!

My hope for myself and for you, if you’d like, is that these next few but fully packed days will be fertile ground for the nimble work not only of literally packing (as we take Christmas on the road, or rather, through the skies) but also of letting go, slowing down, enjoying what gets done and not fretting over what doesn’t. The holidays and holy days are coming, and we need the nimbleness, (is that a better word?) of the Holy Family. Surely that will help us nimbly stretch our gaze past what is visible to include the wonders of the small and often the unseen.

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“We need the network.”

At the end of this frenetic week, it’s good to pause and consider all the people around that make up one’s network. My husband and I discussed this earlier this week in the context of taking the van (again) to our local repair shop to get the heater fixed: we just needed him ‘to do it.’ Sometimes the subject of network arises when we think about moving to another climate: we balance the love we have for the West (and slightly warmer climes) against the present infrastructure here and now that we depend on each week. The medical and dental crew are but one part of this. There’s also, quite literally, the butcher and the baker although no candlestick maker (yet), unless you count Yankee Candle Company, but I know their wares are sold nationwide.

No, the network includes mostly the little things: the neighbors, the next door winery, the place and means to get the dog walked. This morning I even gave thanks for the utilities that made it possible for me to leap into a lit hallway and hit the hot shower when I overslept a half hour and went racing for, yes, this commuter rail, another moving part that gets me in and out of town and provides a moment or two along the way.

This week I returned a call to one of my mother’s first cousins. At age 92 she’s sharper than I am at the moment, reminding me of ways to look at the farm we own with our other relatives and on which she, her siblings and other extended family were raised. That particular pocket of the family network was particularly close: four girl cousins amongst two brothers and many aunts and uncles were all very close in age, living on the same farm and going through school together. Two of these girls of whom my mother was one, looked forward to “green jello on their [mutual] birthday: can you imagine?”

At first blush it is hard to imagine excitement at green jello, but in those tough times it must have been a special treat. But it was part of what that network did and the love therein was no less than the love and friendship we have today.

This morning my train seatmate nearly burst into tears while making a phone call asking her friend to take to the bank a check she’d forgotten to deal with the day previous. “As you walk in the house, look in the urn toward the left side, inside the fabric from the party last year….you’ll find the check in there….just DO IT!” she wailed into the phone, frazzled and at breakpoint. It’s probably been a tough week and season for many of us, I thought to myself. All the more reason therefore to give thanks for the networks that keep us afloat, a little bit sane, close to on-time, and maybe, just maybe, able to do the next thing in front of us because they are doing it with us. Hooray, hurrah, for the network! Amen.

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Snatched, and Achingly Beautiful

It’s a bright midday ride into town today and the silent pressure of a million things to do squawks and seeks to ensnare me from my phone, backpack, purse, from all the pockets and totes I carry both physically and mentally on this day, and at this time, of year. The dog’s been walked, a pile of laundry got tossed into washer then into dryer; two phone calls got made and no, the dishes didn’t get done (again). “Snatched” seems the theme at this week’s end. I’m snatching moments both to cram things in and take things out and try to get a breath along the way. Even worse, I’m finding instead of making a moment for reflection, or taking a pause to appreciate, I’m snatching at the deep and at gratitude.

This week a life was snatched by a cause yet unknown on our campus, and our nation continues to see others’ lives and our own trust and goodwill snatched. Perhaps that is too kind a phrase: are we experiencing grand theft of good and reasonable assumptions? And what, I wonder, are we to do?

I arrange my commuter pass to be inspected as the train leaves my home station, and I glance, if not snatch, a view out onto the tidal river. “It is achingly beautiful,” I think to myself. I take in the view, let it soak over and into me, and race for my computer to tell you about it.

There’s not one special thing going on out there: no wild birds, no boats, no raucous weather. No color, even, save the greys and tans and crusty browns of life slowed down for a time of rest. So what is arresting here? The silence? The normalcy? Perhaps the peace?

And that leads me straight to thoughts of that wonderful book entitled Peace Like a River[i]. Various copies inhabit our house: used bookstore finds, hardbacks, the paperback copy given me by a dear friend. One of our family jokes is that it took me three years to read this book because when the man was on his horse near the shed a good two thirds in, I froze and couldn’t go on: I was afraid of what would happen to him and to the others, and probably to the horse as well. But when I decided to go on (I almost wrote “to be brave,” but I’m not sure we decide to be brave as to go on and do), well, if you’ve read it, you know where we end.

Now the city is well in view and my tasks won’t wait anymore. So I wish you Peace, like a river, a lasting peace despite much what we now see, and a peace so achingly beautiful it can’t help but drill into your soul.

[i] Enger, Leif. Peace Like a River. New York: Grove/Atlantic Inc, 2001.

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