Doing Something New

Winter is a desert.  It is quiet and arid.  Human events are magnified against the still, dormant backdrop of bare branches and snowy hills.  I think this is what is meant by “cabin fever”–that phenomenon when daily doings suddenly take on much more weight than they were ever made to hold.  We get restless and cranky and start to pick at each other.

My own little problems:  a dog with a terrible wound (caused by vet error and truly grieving me); a cancelled trip to the Philadelphia Garden Show (which was to be my antidote for Winter Woes); general lethargy and fatigue (read:  I’m sick of trips to the woodpile).  It’s February and I expected no less.  I know the darkness before the dawn.  And I am comforted, even brightened, by a Bible verse I heard as though for the first time:  “Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see, I am doing something new!  Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?  In the desert I make a way, in the wasteland, rivers.” (Isaiah 43:  18-19, 21-22)

I like to keep most of my deepest beliefs private.  This one, though, I’ll put out on a cushion in a case–it’s the Hope Diamond of who I am:  God is in the business of creation.  No matter whatever else happens, there is always the promise of renewal.  Created in God’s image, we are also creators.  I’m bogged down right now.  I need to remember not the events of the past.  Time for doing something new.

In Only Twenty Minutes


When I was twenty, I was a full-time Deaconess Hospital nursing student, a part-time University of Minnesota humanities student (preparing for a lucrative Liberal Arts career if nursing didn’t work out…), and had a weekend job. Somehow I managed to take all those classes, do all that reading and writing, work, eat, play the piano, and occasionally do laundry and take showers. How on earth. I probably had about twenty minutes of “down time” per day. I thrived on the fast pace.

Now? My most mundane activities have to be broken into twenty-minute chunks. Get dressed. Brush teeth. Eat breakfast. Etc. I move very slowly and have to think about every tiny maneuver. I know part of this phenomenon is related to being in pain and part of it is what they call “the aging process.” I wish I could summon some of that bright, elastic, generative energy of years gone by. For now, I have my little chunks.

Fortunately (or oddly, depending on how you look at it) the world currently seems to operate on the “twenty minutes per day” principle.  Want beautiful, younger-looking skin?  There’s a twenty-minute protocol for it.  You can learn Italian in twenty minutes per day.  Or improve your golf swing.  Or have better thighs.  You can prepare a delicious dinner, write a novel, create custom jewelry, and become a professional tap dancer if you will only commit those twenty minutes every day.

My own Twenty Minute Menu is not very ambitious, I’m afraid.  My day starts with the twenty minutes it takes from having the thought to actually getting out of bed and goes from there.  However, I have found a few twenty-minute schemes that really do make a different.  One is my yoga routine.  Rodney Yee only asks for twenty minutes and delivers my continued mobility http://www.gaiam.com/product/rodney+yee%27s+daily+yoga+dvd.do.  Another is a daily meditation from Irish priests who keep my spiritual tank topped off http://www.sacredspace.ie/prayer-advice.

The most revolutionary twenty minutes I’ve added to my recent days is my new housework scheme.  Anyone who knows me understands that twenty minutes of cleaning per day in my house is literally shoveling sand  against the tide.  But wait!  This really works!  Rather than trying to clean the whole damn house all of a day, I now just chip away in little twenty-minute spurts and things are getting cleaner.  Here’s the formula:http://www.apartmenttherapy.com/the-schedule-house-cleaning-in-131142.

Which leaves me with just enough time for this blog, but now my twenty minutes are up.  Gotta go.

Forty Days

Today is Ash Wednesday. Just when the winter seems most endless we come against this season of reflection and lonliness. Forty days in the desert. I’m not sure why this dry desperation is so important in the cycle of life, but it is. This year feels a little juicier to me than most, so I’m coming to Lent quiet and curious. We’ll see what happens.

Some Gentle Ways to Help Vermont

Thirty years ago this weekend I gave birth to my daughter at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, then took her home the next day to our little cabin on the Houghtonville Cemetary Road in Grafton.  Today, these dear places are battered victims of Hurricane Irene.  Grafton is isolated, with all roads in and out impassable.  Brattleboro is a mess of twisted, washed out streets and stores filled with mud.  Springfield, my home now, has been mostly spared thanks to the Army Corps of Engineers reservoir built in answer to the huge floods of the 1920’s.  Most of Vermont, though, is in turmoil with power outages, ruined roads, homes and businesses and  covered bridges washed away in the flood.  It will be years before everything is made right.

I’m grateful to my friends and family who have called to check on us, and for the wishes of friends and strangers alike in the social media outlets.  I know a lot of you would like to offer some kind of help.  Many of you will contribute to the Red Cross, or the Vermont Food Bank, or any number of other charities offering direct aid to the hurricane victims.  Those contributions are very important as we try to help our neighbors get through the tough times ahead.

I’d like to offer a few other ideas as well.  As most people know, we are just at the beginning of the Fall tourist season here in Vermont.  People from all around the world travel here to see the beautiful foliage and enjoy the Vermont landscape every autumn.  It is truly one of the most amazing things you will ever see.  So, my first gentle suggestion is that you continue with your plans to visit us.  Of course you’ll need to make adjustments if your original destination is no longer an option.  There are many, many places you will have access to and lots of local activities will go on as scheduled.    Here in Springfield the Vermont Apple Festival will be held on Columbus Day Weekend.  The Wellwood Orchard will have it’s yearly Customer Appreciation Day  this Saturday, Sept. 3–lots of fun with a petting zoo, hayrides, apple picking.

Vermont is an agricultural state.  I can’t say what the effects of the hurricane have been on local crops, but my educated guess is that it hasn’t done them any good.  I don’t know how apple picking will be this year.  I don’t know what effects the hurricane has had on the apiaries.  The farm stands will probably suffer (I know my own garden is ragged after all that rain–and we didn’t have the flooding problem).  But if the farms are to live to see another year, we need to help support them.  Remember that most small Vermont farms diversify in terms of production:  they produce maple syrup in the winter, apples in the fall, honey from the bees around the orchards.  And farms consume other local products and services:  fuel, feed, building materials, equipment.  One thing we can all do is buy some Vermont farm products.  Here are a few websites for ideas:

For Vermont cheese: http://vtcheese.com/cheesemakers.htm

For apples:  http://vermontapples.org

Honey:  http://vermontbeekeepers.org

Maple products:  http://vermontmaple.org

All of these websites contain information about local farmers who sell their wares over the internet.  If you can’t come visit one of the farms/orchards, you can order online.  Think about your Christmas lists…

With gift-giving occasions in mind, you might want to consider the work of Vermont artists and crafters.  If you’re coming to Springfield, please stop by the VAULT (Visual Art Using Local Talent) Gallery on Main Street.  It contains the work of local artists and crafters and is a beautiful gallery (http://gallelryvault.org).  Other Vermont artists, many of whom sell their work online, can be found at http://www.vermontdirectories.com/artisan.html.

A small, important gesture you could offer is to buy a little bottle of Vermont maple syrup at your supermarket (be sure it says Real Vermont Maple Syrup!  Even better if it has the label from the local sugarmaker…).  You will help the sugarmaker, the distributer, the tractor dealer, the chainsaw dealer, the fuel company, the truck driver, on and on.

Vermont will survive.  Because we live our lives on such a small scale, gestures on a small scale will be especially meaningful.  I want you to know that this is still the most beautiful place in the world.  There are many very sad scars here today, but when I look at the blue sky and the magnificent trees I know Vermont will be all right.  No doubt the most powerful of gentle gestures are your thoughts and prayers for us as we pick up the pieces.  We are grateful.

Waiting

We’ve all had this experience:  the appliance is broken.  You call a customer service rep who is sitting at a computer in New Delhi; he tells you the repair person will be there on Thursday between one and five and that  you will get a phone call a half-hour before the person arrives.  Thursday comes and you start to wait, fully realizing a) the repair person probably won’t come at all and b) you will certainly not receive a phone call warning you he/she is on the way.

Such was my story yesterday.  It was a truly gorgeous summer day in Vermont:  75F, sunny, breezy.  I cancelled my afternoon schedule so I could await the repair person and started puttering around with small projects in the meantime.  I felt a little restless, anxious.  I feared I was wasting time.

I hung linens on the clothesline, trimmed suckers from the tomatoes, watered a few hanging plants, practiced advanced stain removal on a pair of Walter’s work slacks.  I baked bread in the bread machine–twice, because I wasn’t very happy with the first loaf.  I made a curry in the crock pot.  I sat on the screen porch and read the newspaper.  I didn’t turn on the radio; I stayed off the phone (in case “the call” would ever come.  It did not.).  I made lists.  I deadheaded the petunias.  I waited.

At two o’clock my anxiety was mounting.  By three o’clock the anxiety was turning to resentment.  Such a beautiful afternoon, I thought, and I’m wasting it just sitting around, waiting.  Imagine me sitting at the kitchen table, all scowly and cross, with that thought bubble popping out of my head.  Then imagine the next frame:  I’m laughing at myself and the thought bubble reads “You just spent the afternoon most people wish they could have had today,  leisurely picking away at little tasks, no distractions, lovely weather, all the time in the world.”  I reminded myself of something I have to re-learn every now and then:  it’s only “waiting” if you want to call it that.  Otherwise, this condition is merely the passing of time.

The most precious lesson of waiting I’ve ever learned was on the day I had to put my dear dog, Josh, to sleep.  He was very near death, struggling for each breath, curled in the corner of the living room.  I had called the vet and asked to have to procedure done at home because I didn’t want Josh to be worried (he hated the vet’s office).  The vet was on the way.  I sat on the couch with Josh’s head on my lap and waited.  But then I decided not to think of it as waiting.  I decided to think of the time as the last dear minutes I could spend with my friend and that I wouldn’t count them, I would live in the stream of the present.  And that made all the difference.

The repair guy arrived at six yesterday evening.  The range won’t be repaired until next Thursday because he had to order some parts.  I won’t be able to cook the way I usually do.  We’re planning a big party for Sunday that just might be minus the potato salad.  I’m sure there will be times over the next week when that old anxiety and restlessness will rise again, but I’m going to do my best to live in the stream of the present.  I’ll try not to be waiting.

Love Letters

Ever since I found the kids’ Power Rangers sitting on the ice cube tray I’ve been staging McDonald’s Happy Meal Toys in the freezer.  Just to keep things interesting.  You might also find one of the diaspora of four-inch plastic beetles where you least expect it.  My piano students loved the plastic dung beetle crawling out of the cup on the bathroom sink.  Open one of the awkward cabinets built into this crazy house and cascades of ribbon will curl onto your head.  I’m not a collector, really.  I guess I’m letting these little surprises tell one side of my story.

I want to hang on to the things that delight me, but I know I can’t hang on too tightly–the old “if you love something, set it free” bit.  I don’t want a box full of Happy Meal toys on some shelf, or a row of plastic beetles either, but I don’t want to throw them away quite yet so I scatter them around and smile when I happen upon them.  The same is true for my love letters.

I suppose I’ve been lucky in the love letter department.  I’ve received quite a few, from the little notes left around the house to a large collection of fragile blue air mail letters from China.  I can’t bear to throw any of them away, though they may be indicting or embarrassing in the wrong hands.  I don’t want to tie them in bundles with black ribbons or stash them in fancy boxes.  The expressions of love I’ve received in these letters have been various, spontaneous, always fresh, intimate.  So I infuse my life with love letters hidden in books.

This is not a new idea.  I always thrill at the experience of finding an old love letter in a used book.  The sweet, breathless experience of coming upon somebody’s open heart is as humbling as it is exciting.  Clearly the letter had been forgotten–or there wasn’t enough time to rescue it before the next thing happened.  Or, as I, did the book’s owner simply leave the letter there because she couldn’t throw it away, or put it into some visible category?  I can’t imagine the poverty of the coming years when love letters won’t even exist.  How do you “happen upon” a tender email, or God forbid, a “love text?”  That’s a problem for another time.  My heirs and assigns will find plenty of material as they empty my house some day.

Edgar Allen Poe’s story, “The Purloined Letter,” left a great impression on me when I read it in my early teens.  The prize is hidden in plain sight.  My letters, too, are hidden in plain sight.  I haven’t kept track of their whereabouts; there’s no cataloging system.  I’ve probably lost a few in old book sales.  It’s comforting to know they’re surrounding me.  If I push into the little crevices of my life, the books I read a while ago, I might get a whiff of some past sunny day.  It’s enough to know it’s there.

Strawberry Season

I think today would be my grandmother’s 110th birthday.  Anyway, it’s that day of the year my thoughts turn to her because I’m about to hull my first pint of strawberries for the season.  My grandmother loved strawberries and often served them, syrupy and warm, over angel food cake for “lunch” (the meal you have at 2 p.m. when the men come in from the field before evening chores).  I’m serving this pint, cleaned and lightly sugared, over slices of cheesecake that has a loose graham-cracker crust to soak up the sweet pink juice.

The strawberries are pretty good this year:  we had a lot of rain and just enough sunshine lately to ripen and sweeten them.  The past few days have actually been warm.  Summer is upon us.  I’ve waited a long time for these effortless days–now that they’re here, I encounter something I forget from year to year:  Summer makes me sad.

Maybe I depend on the exertion of the woodpile, the snow shovel, the Advent and Lenten rehearsals, the drumbeat of the academic year, for equilibrium or distraction.  All of a sudden I’m in a broad expanse of Ordinary Time and I feel depressed.  Once again, I haven’t measured up.  My life reads like a series of embarrassing failures.  The bright enduring light of summer seems like too much to bear.  The pair of finches who built a nest in my hanging fuchsia didn’t show up for a few days and my worst fears were realized.  I carefully removed the four tiny dead fledglings and wrapped them in white tissue paper before I buried them.  My eyes were full, but I didn’t cry until I heard this song on the car radio.

My grandmother lived to be 99.  She and my grandfather farmed and raised 10 children through the Great Depression.  She made quilts, had a lovely garden every year, and shyly covered her mouth when she laughed.  I hope someday the story of my life can be told in three such interesting sentences.

We expect so much of ourselves when, actually, all we need to do is live the life than unrolls in front of us.  Summer is daunting in its sweetness and intensity.  But oh, the sadness of having only 100 summers.