Last week we had an election. The results mean that those of us who view things like clean air and health care as basic rights are going to have to work harder and speak more loudly and clearly than we ever have before.
We have to wedge ourselves into the cracks, take root, and push through the wall of short-sighted self-interest.
Last week’s election results were dispiriting, but we can’t give up, we have to get through to the other side of that wall, and climb that fence.
Until we can light it up from the inside out.
“Am I crazy?” I asked the approaching paddle boarder. “Not at all,” he said. “The water is the warmest it’s been all summer.” His white hair and British accent gave him an air of authority. I wanted to believe him, but my big toe told me that my concept of “warm” was a world away from his.
It was mid-September at Alice Lake Provincial Park in British Columbia. The air temperature was in the mid-sixties, and at 6 pm, the sun was on its way down. I was perched at the edge of the dock, dressed only in my Speedo. No heat to be found anywhere.
Still, I willed myself to take the plunge. I hadn’t been swimming in weeks, and I thought stretching my legs in the water would feel good after the day’s long hike. The paddle boarder disappeared and I was alone again. There was no one around to witness my bravery—or my lack of it.
I jumped in. As the icy water closed over my head, I was transported back to summer camp. Memories of night-time dips and swimming lessons in a lake rushed in as the scent of fresh water filled my nostrils. Gasping from the shock of cold water, I managed to swim out to the beaded line and then back to the dock. Not exactly the 20 laps or so I had hoped for.
Today, as I sit wrapped in wool at my desk back in Massachusetts, the memory of that aborted swim—undocumented and mine alone—and of the visceral, unexpected feelings and scenes from my youth that suddenly flooded back, fills me with joy and nostalgia over and over again.
The rest of our time at Alice Lake is a blur of blue sky, mossy woods, and the amputated stumps of mighty trees felled by loggers. In this case, however, I have documentation.
Back at the campsite, we ate salmon and vegetables grilled over an open fire with mashed potatoes. Dessert was s’mores.
After three nights in the tent, two longish hikes, and the aforementioned swim, we headed south, exhilarated and exhausted.
Karina and I had some time alone in the woods this morning. It’s a dampish day, no actual rain but the air is full of water. That cushion of soft, gauzy air made me feel a bit wraithlike — as though I was wrapped in the spirit of the woods.
The two of us padded lightly over the leaf-strewn trail. Walk with us, will you?
We stopped, we listened, we noticed:
Soft grasses, and how their verticality matched the trees around them;
the fragile nests of dew in the pines;
and the sound of water dripping and leaves falling. Can you hear it?
And man-made totems added an air of mystery.
Or the shine on these leaves — can you see it?
This evening the air is set to turn colder and wetter, but I am still cloaked in the warmth of the everyday, extraordinary beauty of today’s morning walk. I’m letting those woodsy spirits nestle deep in my bones. They are my armor against the chaotic bluster of the winter winds to come.
Ever since our January trip to California, we’ve been talking about returning to the west coast for a longer stay. We think we might like to live there. At first, we were talking about the Bay Area. As I’ve said, many times, I want to live in a place where there are cafes, museums, and shops all accessible by foot or on public transportation. How lovely it would be, for example, to walk home, filled with good food, after a meal at our favorite neighborhood restaurant.
But we also want nature to be within reach (I’m not giving up the car just yet) — and it has to be a place we can comfortably afford. For all of those reasons, we set our sites on a mini-sabbatical in Portland, Oregon, with possible side trips to Seattle, British Columbia, and San Francisco. And, we wanted to drive because if we were to gain any sense at all of what daily life would be like in a new place, then we couldn’t leave behind someone who is an integral part of that daily life.
After months of talking and planning, things fell into place at the end of July. We had a place to stay in Portland, and after much looking and financial strategizing, we also had a van that would reliably transport us there—and back—and that could serve as Paul’s work vehicle upon our return.
And so, on August 21, we set out, stopping in Michigan that first weekend for a family wedding.
After we left Michigan, my mind, which had been focused on wedding-related logistics, suddenly sat up and took notice. The clouds overhead and endless sky when we hit Minnesota were an ongoing source of fascination.
Once we’d arrived at our first stop in Portland, just sitting on the front porch was entertaining. There were kids going by on bikes and skateboards, older people walking their dogs, and Karina found the parade of neighborhood cats, who would sun themselves under our car, especially riveting.
Our daily walk through the park at the end of the street, toward a dog park that bordered the Willamette River felt special.
There were also dinners out at places right in the neighborhood, and several cups of coffee at cafes with outdoor seating where our four-footed companion was the subject of much admiration. Karina lost some of her shyness on this trip.
But what I love most about traveling—and what I miss now that we have returned—was that I took the time to notice my surroundings and activities. The small, daily routines, like making my morning tea in an unfamiliar kitchen, were more satisfying because of that.
I gave things my full attention in a way I do not when I’m at home. In fact, just the other morning, I found myself dashing from the kitchen to my computer, and then back, first when my tea water boiled, and then again when a timer went off. Now that I am ensconced in familiar surroundings, I seem to have switched over to autopilot as automatically as I switched to full awareness while traveling.
Then last week I heard part of an interview with Ellen Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard. The topic was mindfulness, which the announcer defined as “the simple act of noticing new things.” And, according to Langer,
When you notice new things, you come to notice that you didn’t know what you thought you did, as well as you did. Everything is always changing. By noticing new things about the familiar, it becomes interesting again.
This mind-set, she went on to say, was good for fighting more than just boredom, it can also impact our health** and enable us to view in a new way someone whose behavior troubles us.
In fact, a few years ago, an advisor gave me similar advice, suggesting that I just sit back and “observe” someone who had become a source of distress. As Langer notes in this interview, when I adopted the observer’s mind-set, I realized what was really driving this person, and soon exchanged my upset for empathy.
Learning to “observe” so that you can respond, rather than react, to other people is another whole conversation. To learn more about that, you can listen to the entire interview here.
Right now, I want to tackle the bit about noticing. Before we left for the trip in late August, boredom with our local scenery had taken root. I felt as though I was seeing the same old things over and over again. When we returned in early October, many things did seem new. New England was in the middle of a gorgeous autumn, which no matter how jaded you are, is pretty hard to overlook.
For example, I noticed these coppery leaves while with a friend who was gathering leaves for her son’s after-school project. Adopting a child’s point of view definitely helps adults view their surroundings with fresh eyes.
Now that it’s getting colder and darker, I will have to work especially hard to cloak myself in the observer’s mind-set I wore so mindlessly during our travels. So far, the extra effort seems to be working.
While the clouds here don’t hang suspended mid-sky as they do out west, they have their own beauty when hovering over a local farmer’s fields.
And this circle of farm machinery provides a whimsical contrast to the straight-edged fields beyond.
There were many things I sensed and felt during our six weeks away that can’t and won’t be contained in my snapshots. There’s that light-as-air feeling I got when the daily cares and worries of home faded from my consciousness as we racked up the miles; the friendly, welcoming attitude of the people we met in Portland; the rush of memories I felt when I dove into the frigid waters of a lake in British Columbia; and the satisfaction of an intense hunger quenched by a warming bowl of Pho eaten in a Vietnamese restaurant off the beaten track in Iowa on a dreary, windswept day.
These experiences are worth noticing. They are worth holding on to. And they are worth adding to. On a chilly afternoon a few days after we’d returned home, I sat in my kitchen and watched my two fellow travelers carefully take note of our back yard under a darkening sky. There was love in their looking and noticing, just as there was in mine.
**Coincidentally, (or perhaps not) Langer was the focus of an article in this past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine about using a mindful mind-set to offset aging and possibly illness. To read an interesting analysis of that piece, read D.A. Wolf’s take on it in Daily Plate of Crazy.
I was working on a post this week about unsolicited advice that was based on an incident at my gym. I was trying to be light and funny about something that many of us don’t appreciate (according to an online poll, 62 percent of us don’t like receiving such advice). I shared it with an editor who usually loves my work. She was happy to hear from me, and even offered to publish the piece, but she ended her email this way,
“p.s. but…it does seem to me (speaking as your editor) that you do come across in this post as a bit too prickly over such a trivial offense.”
Given that I’d rather not appear prickly when it comes to something trivial, we agreed to deep-six the post.
I am, however, proud to be prickly about preserving the environment. The scenery I saw as I traveled from coast to coast and back brought to mind the words from “America the Beautiful,” while it also made me more passionate about halting climate change.
My post today on Mom’s Clean Air Force shares one of the lessons I learned while on the road.
I am also prickly about boycotts. I don’t participate in random ones espoused by individuals. I want my actions to have real meaning and to carry real weight—which they only can when my voice is part of a larger group.
But I wholeheartedly support organized boycotts and petitions for causes I believe in — especially ones that put corporate polluters in their place. For that reason, I signed this petition asking EBay to withdraw its support of ALEC, a group that has pledged to launch “a political tsunami against EPA.” I hope you will too. You can read about why we are boycotting EBay here.
When it comes to important stuff like climate change, I’m prickly — and proud of it.
I thought I was so clever back in July when I wrote “Postcards from Home.” I knew that at some point in the near future, my husband and I would embark on a cross-country road trip, and I thought that post would be the perfect segue for sharing photos from our journey.
I envisioned myself pulling out my computer after a day of driving and pouring my experiences into the blog. That didn’t happen — though I did post photos to my Instagram account.
I’m not sure exactly why not, other than fatigue, hunger, and bad Wifi connections made sitting down and writing unappealing. Plus, there was so much input, both when we were traveling and when we were staying put. I enjoyed living in the moment, and allowing myself to be swallowed by landscapes like this one.
But I’m sticking with my postcard analogy: This post and the ones that follow are postcards that don’t arrive until the traveler has already returned home. Sometimes the mail is slow or sometimes the cards aren’t mailed until the journey is over.
After driving from Concord to Detroit to attend a family wedding, we headed west, toward Portland, Oregon. In Minnesota we took a hike.
The trail overlooked the Mississippi River.
I should note that while the above scene was captured with an actual camera, I took most of the photos on the trip with my phone camera. As my friend in San Francisco likes to say, “The best camera is the one you have with you.”
From Minnesota, we pushed west through South Dakota toward Montana, hitting a corner of Wyoming along the way.
Little Big Horn gave me chills, made me angry too.
Driving into Montana, there were purple mountains.
In Bozeman, there was a walk through town.
And a hike at Peets Hill.
And have I mentioned who was traveling with us? She made herself right at home and cooled off in a little stream at the end of the hike.
Today while swimming laps in the pool, I began thinking about postcards. Because I didn’t write to her at all the first summer I went to overnight camp, the following year my mother tucked seven plain manila postcards that she addressed and stamped into my foot locker. My friend Martha used to send me a postcard while on her yearly June vacation. I loved getting her missives from Greece or Spain. But, alas, like Martha’s free time (she’s a mom now), postcards have gone the way of most hand-written communications, and become a rare and precious thing.
While I’m not filling up anyone’s mailbox myself this summer, below are a few snapshots — postcards from home — that chronicle my summer so far.
More postcards and at least one big adventure to come.
The summer visitors have arrived. They show up all of a sudden, in an array of styles and colors that practically scream, “summer is here!” One day the landscape comprises a crowd dressed in varying hues of green and the next — well, see for yourself.
My “Little Miss Kim” lilac shows up in a burst of grapey color and then immediately fades to white, leaving behind a trail of sweet perfume that fills the yard for days.
Here in eastern Massachusetts, the transformation from late spring to early summer is a visually joyous one. In the woods, the air feels both lighter and fresher — a soft caress has replaced the chilly slap of April. I may still need a light jacket for my morning walk, but the knitted cap and gloves remain in the closet.
Yet underneath all the outward cheer, early summer leaves me feeling a little empty. As the weather warms up an old sadness resurfaces as its mid-June anniversary approaches. And as a young, working mother, the close of the school year, with its many festivities and fond farewells, was always tinged with melancholy. One more year of their childhood torn from the calendar.
My days of year-end band concerts, sewing on name tags, and packing trunks for summer camp are long over, but for me, June will always outrank January as an important marker of passing time.
The great thing about getting ‘older,’ though, is that I no longer have to concern myself with summer’s superficial branding. While I do pay attention to advice about protecting my skin, I can turn the page when I see headlines like, “4 Weeks to a Bikini Body,” because, really, who cares?
Instead, I’ll look beyond the sunny façade and shake things up. That warmer air and lack of weather-related obstacles frees us all to tackle something different, something hard.
Never finished Middlemarch? Maybe this is the summer to do it. Climb a mountain, learn another language, or try a new form of writing. Test the limits of your brain and your body.
Or—as my husband and I plan to do after decades of full-time work—give yourself a sabbatical. Taking a road trip, living someplace new, and launching a project are all on our agenda.
So yeah, the summer visitors are here, let the season begin.
This post also appears today on Women’s Voices for Change.
Last night’s rain swept everything clean. This morning, Karina and I headed to the woods. As we entered the trail we were both startled by a wild turkey that took off in a rush of feathers a few steps ahead of us.
As we walked further into the woods, my racing heart quieted. The sound of the wind running through the trees enveloped us, broken only by a single robin belting out her sunny tune.
We stopped to admire how the rain had stained the stone, and then we stood there and listened for a long, long time.
SOME PEOPLE KEEP THE SABBATH GOING TO CHURCH
By Emily Dickinson
Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –
Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –
I, just wear my Wings –
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton – sings.
God preaches, a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along.