Two towns there were, that with one sea were wall’d.
Built near, and opposite; this Sestus call’d,
Abydus that ; the Love his bow bent high,
And at both Cities let one arrow fly,
That two (a Virgin and a Youth) inflam’d:
The youth was sweetly-grac’d Leander nam’d,
The virgin Hero ; Sestus she renowns,
Abydus he, in birth; of both which towns
Both were the beauty-circled stars ; and both
Grac’d with like looks, as with one love and troth.
– Musaeus Grammaticus
The last twelve months has seen us bid farewell to our feline companions of the last decade, renowned Tiberius of doughty strength, ineffable charm and unquenchable mischief and lovely Data, the sweetest cat ever to be worn as a scarf. Thus ended our second generation of cats – the first being Justice and Magic. But for us, a house without cats is only a house. It is the tread of paws which transforms it into a home. We gave Data a due period of mourning. We completed our adventures and camping – brainstorming cat names as we drove the sylvan road from Frankfurt to Strasbourg.
We had many pairs of names for boys: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Two girls were much harder, perhaps Tigris and Euphrates? Boy/girl we were spoiled for options: Tristan and Isolde? Abelard and Heloise?
Driving back from camping for Labor Day, Adam spent the entire trip filling out online profiles for adopting cats. When we adopted Data and Tiberius, there were probably 40+ adoptable cats in the shelter. But we were finding that there was no “stock” of cats, and they were getting adopted wildly quickly. We got a call on a way to the adoption appointment on Sunday night not to bother – there were no adoptable animals. But there were, she gave us insight, a bunch of them going through the process of being checked, neutered, etc. And we should watch the listings. On Monday late night, 10 adoptable cats were added. I fretted – Tuesday we had soccer and bass lessons and I didn’t know how we could go. But then the rains came and the field was flooded and the bass instructor got food poisoning and all of a sudden signs pointed to cat. By the time we got to the shelter at 6:15, there were only five of those ten cats remaining, and only three within the criteria we were looking for.
The first cat we met was a handsome long-haired tuxedo called Sterling. He fearlessly permitted himself to be picked up and handled, and purred under adoring fingers giving him pets and scritches. He was five months old, and just a wee little kitten. Data was a tiny light cat at the end, and this little critter was half his weight. Sterling had extremely long and dramatic whiskers, ridiculously hirsute (or firsute?) and hairy ears and the most adorable socks – the ones on his back legs being extremely decorative. We learned that he was out of Virginia – and just a baby with no history. We pretended not to have decided that we were adopting him when we put him back, but it was all pretense.
The second cat was a tortie – mostly black with orange highlights except for the very tip of her five-month-old tail which is vibrant orange. Violet, as she was called, was lithe and powerful like a tigress, and ardent in her affections to the hands which stroked chin and shoulders. She’d been returned along with another cat after a week, with no reason given, so we don’t even know where she hailed from. She is DEFINITELY trouble, but that is the nature of a cat. She’s also sweet and affectionate and snuggly and has cat ADHD (in my very professional diagnosis).
They were not bonded, nor did they come from the same place. (Massachusetts usually imports stray animals from parts of the country with lower spay/neuter rates.) But they were both charming, friendly, affectionate and definitely coming home with us.
We’ve had them for a few days (each in a different attic room, slowly getting used to each other and each other’s smells). And so far they are very much kittens with so much kitten energy. They’re affectionate and funny and noisy and all over the place. They do have some epic zoomies. We’re totally in love, and can’t wait until we can unleash them on the house, and looking forward to many fine years of their soft and silly company.
Nine years ago, we brought home a pair of 8 year old cats from a shelter. Older cats are hard to adopt, but this particular pair was the most engaging, sweetest and most fun set of cats we’d ever met. I thought at the time that we would have them for a shorter period than if we got young cats. I remember thinking that they’d be coming to the end of their predicted life spans when my eldest son was in high school. This is unimaginable when you have a little kid – an impossibly distant future. But…. Grey is a rising junior. Here we are.
Tiberius left us in October of last year. We learned, in that moment, just who was responsible for 99.9% of all the cat related hijinks in the house. We THOUGHT with two cats we probably had two culprits, but noooo. It was entirely Tiberius. With only Data, butter could be safely left on the counter, we never were startled by a cat leaping out of an unsecured trash can, and you could plate dinner without leaving an armed guard or two and still find it on your plate.
But Data, like Tiberius, was approaching 17 – quite an advanced age for a cat. Despite being teeny to start with, he was losing weight every vet visit. His kidney numbers weren’t great. He had to have a thyroid cream put on his ear. But for the last year, no lap went unclaimed. I started calling him “Fur and purr” – so insubstantial but omnipresent and loving.
This last week, though, he started refusing food. Including tuna. I may not be a vet, but I know that a cat who will not eat tuna is a cat who is done living. I took Data in to the vet who said that he basically had no more kidneys whatsoever, and that his numbers were literally higher than the test could measure. He also looked very uncomfortable – hunched up. He started hiding, and could only endure about 10 minutes of lap-petting before he went back into a hidey hole. He was telling us in clear terms that it was time. I asked the vet to take some palliative measures (rehydration, anti-nausea meds) and called Lap of Love to see when they could come. Data purred past his last breath.
His parting was easy and painless, if not quite as funny as Tiberius’ (who literally died with a Dorito in his mouth). Unfortunately, both boys were away, so it was just Adam and I saying goodbye. Data was the sweetest, snuggliest, softest cat it has ever been my privilege to live with. He had a kind heart, and was very simple: he just wanted to love and be loved.
With no children and no cats, the house is very quiet. I find for myself, cats are what transforms a house into a home. My nest is not yet empty, but my children are fledglings. We are unanimous on one thing: we definitely want more cats. I’m not really even sure how long we’ll hold out before we welcome new furry friends into our house. I can only hope and wish that we may again experience the joy and pleasure like Data and Tiberius brought to us.
Farewell, Fur and Purr. You are already deeply missed.
January hit hard this year. We had locked down from Thanksgiving onward, due to the high transmissibility of the Omicron variant, which looked like a hockey stick in the charts – erasing previously visible peaks and trough with it’s through-the-roofness. So the holidays were lonely and quiet. In January, we had to even stop seeing the one family we’ve been able to spend time with through the whole pandemic. And the dark cold of New England winter – always a challenging time – felt downright impossibly claustrophobic. But a ray of light beckoned: if we could thread the needs of infection, we planned on doing something so impossible in the COVID era it seems beyond the realm of fantasy: travel to the Mediterranean island of Malta.
A thousand things had to go right for this to work. We couldn’t get COVID. My parents couldn’t get COVID. No one could get a close exposure. The days leading up to my folks arrival and our departure felt impossibly fraught. I was terrified to take a test and have all hopes dashed, but the uncertainty begged for the reassurance of a negative test. But through a miracle, I found myself on a Friday night lifting into the oncoming night, sunset scattered behind us. I had bought an absolutely ridiculous journal for the trip – leather bound, and closed with a long strap and a charm, with extremely heavy watercolor paper. It’s the kind of journal that’s too nice to write in – and it came with a gorgeous box and amusingly a perfectly sized tiny backpack. Through the trip I journaled and drew on alternating pages.
It was not as bad as I feared, flying transcontinental in a mask. We were tired, pulling the redeye, and it was so strange to find ourselves amidst other people and in places we’d never seen before. We found ourselves finally at the three room apartment we had rented, which was in the old city of Valetta and dated back an unkonwn number of centuries, but was likely at least 500 years old. The sandstone steps were well worn in the middle, and each room, though small, occupied an entire floor. The mandatory balcony looked out onto a street of stairs, and every morning at 9 am an old woman would lean outside her balcony and smoke a cigarette above the day’s drying laundry.
What we wanted from Malta was novelty and change. Having looked so often at the same four walls, I yearned for something new to think about, to talk about, to imagine. I wanted to unlock doors of the mind that did not spring from the hallways of my everyday life. And so we did – carefully. We ate outside all but one meal, despite the cold, and did few things indoors. Masks and vaccines were rigorously enforced. But they did not inhibit our enjoyment a bit! Mostly what we did was appreciate the history and culture of the island. We didn’t see EVERY museum in Malta, but we did go to: The Archaeological Museum, the neolithic Hypogeum, the War Museum at St. Elmo, the medieval walled city of M’Dina (with the cathedral museum and a preserved ducal palace) and the catacombs of Rabat, the upper and lower Bukkarra gardens, the best Turkish hammam (only?) in Malta, the neolithic Tarxien temples, the Citadel in Gozo and the old prison and smaller Archaeological museum, the cliffs of the northern coast, the Roman era salt flats, Ġgantija (the oldest freestanding building in the world – older than the pyramids), the armory museum, a boat tour of the harbor, a horseback ride at sunset, the astonishingly ornate Co-Cathedral and the firing of the signal cannon.
We also attended a baroque concert and TWO amazing jazz trumpet sets in alleyway bars that made me feel MUCH cooler than I actually am. And everywhere we went there was emblazoned – in ironwork, or masonry, or marquetry, or paint – the Maltese cross.
As I wrote in many post cards: I have good news. The rest of the world did not disappear while we were all responsibly locked down. The sun has not hidden itself forever from a cold and weary world. There are new things to be seen, foods to be tasted, experiences yet to be had. Welcome back to the world.
I’m at about the 18 month mark of my artistic journey, from my very first drawings in my very first sketchbook. I’ve really enjoyed the discovery: I love watercolors, like drawing, and lack the exactitude and patience needed to do lettering arts (I have bought like 10 books and every time I try to do it I’m like … this is boring. Let’s watercolor instead.) But I felt like I was getting to the edge of what I could learn by myself, from books and via Skillshare online classes. It was a wonderful stroke of luck when one of my friends sent me a gift certificate to Slow River Studio. Browsing through the classes was a little like that feeling you got when the college released the course catalog for the next year, and you found yourself dreaming of that Thursday night “Death, Dying and the Dead” seminar and the sticky noting the fascinating classes (before you realized that you a) didn’t have the prereq and b) they all conflicted with your required courses … pretty sure I ignored at least a) when I did sign up for DD&D). I finally settled on spending Wednesday evenings in Essex doing “Creative Kickstart”.
It was a six week class, and I both really enjoyed it and feel like I learned a few things. I also feel like I did my first ever piece of art that had a thing to say (other than “mountains mountains mountains mountains TREE!”). Here’s what we did (click on each for a bigger version and page through):
(I’m trying a new format with the gallery!)
Here’s the 98355 poem:
9 Mineral Lake: Old Mill Pond, Loggers Long Gone, Farm Bred Trout
8 Mt. Rainier: Active volcano, Ancient Ice, New-born Stone, Dangerous beauty
3 Sky: Cerulean, Above Clouds
5 Hill Road: The winding road to civilization
5 Towards Round Top: Gateway to the Wild Lands
Just over eight years ago, Grey did 170 chores in order to earn the right to get a cat. This cat was preordained to be Data, for reasons that made sense to an 8 year old. When we went to find Data in the shelter, we looked at all the pretty cats and the young cats, but the ones that grabbed our heart were the friendly cats. It was a pair of brothers – 8 years old and therefore very hard to adopt. One was all black – he became Data. One was a veritable tank of a cat – hefty and friendly and assertive of his desires. Sticking with the incredibly subtle Star Trek theme, we named him after a fellow confident pudge – James Tiberius Kirk. He also looked a bit like a Roman emperor on a bender. So Tiberius he was. (You can read the welcome-home post here.)
We had not had Tiberius home for a month when we discovered that although he scarfed his food, he also immediately barfed it back up. He was in liver failure and only the application of vast wads of cash (and feedings through a neck tube every four hours) kept him alive. Eight years ago last week, he was within 12 hours of me deciding that he wasn’t going to make it. But then he perked up, started holding down food, and healed. And earned the nickname “Tube-erous” for his feeding tube.
These two cats have spent the last eight years knocking things off counters, eating any unguarded food, learning to open cat food containers (and trash cans, and cupboards), and walking through my unfinished watercolors. They sleep together in ying-yang patterns on the chairs. At this very moment, Data has decided that there is enough room on my lap for a laptop AND a lap cat. He is sitting on my arms. The guys have been the friendliest, snuggliest cats in the world. They want nothing more than to snuggle (and steal your Cheetos). They’ll flop on their backs and show you their bellies – and will actually not claw you to death should you succumb to temptation and put your face in their fuzz. They are really people-cats, and want to be with you and get scritches. (Now Data is grooming Tiberius). They lay on legs. They stand in front of tvs. They join us at the dinner table, because they are part of the family.
Two weeks ago, Tiberius started yowling. We took him to the vet, who found a grapefruit-sized tumor in his increasingly emaciated belly, and gave him two weeks to live. He is a sixteen year old cat. Options for surgery or treatment seemed cruel rather than kind. So he’s had two good weeks with anti-nausea drugs (probably the longest our floor has gone without cat vomit) and pain medications. And he’s definitely fallen off in that time. Not that Adam didn’t JUST pull him out of the trash can, but he’s spending most of his day sleeping and he’s light as a feather. Most of his weight is now tumor, and he trembles when he jumps from the kitchen table to the sink to see if anyone HAPPENED to leave anything tasty there. We won’t let him fall all the way to suffering. On Friday, we’ll say our last farewells and bury him beneath the plum tree, to the left of the pawpaw planting.
I am so grateful that we had the company of both these cats during the long internment of the pandemic. Their sweet affection has warmed fearful days. Their purring company drives fears away. Their soft fur has been a consolation to young and old in this household. Their mischief – considerable as it is – has been both exasperating and charming. I so wish for more time, but mostly I’m so grateful for the time we have had together.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things. – Philippians 4:8
I don’t know if this rings true for you, but lately it seems like every topic of conversation, every news article, every new thing I’ve learned is something awful. Ranging in severity from the bad behavior of celebrities I like to the climate cataclysm already breaking over our heads (and of course, let’s not forget COVID), it feels like everything is awful and nothing is good.
So when I am able to find something that is truly good and really meaningful – and also beautiful – there’s hardly a greater gift that I could be given. My kids got to spend three magical weeks at Camp Wilmot again this summer. Despite screen deprivation, they love to go. They spend three weeks in nature being active and creative. They build meaningful relationships with others, and are nurtured and loved by some of the most kind and caring people I have ever met. There is silliness and smores and stars and songs. They come back inspired, and better people. Of all the influences in my children’s life, Camp Wilmot is one of the most profound and positive.
They’re not alone. Camp Wilmot is small, but reaches over a hundred children in its ministry. Over half the children do not attend church anywhere – this Camp is what they experience of God’s love as shown by Christians. A very large percentage of the campers are also only able to attend due to the generosity of donors who set up Camperships. This camp MATTERS to these kids, these counselors, these directors – and the parents who love them. It creates loves, and hope. It is a beacon in a dark time.
Next Saturday, I’m headed to Camp Wilmot to go run in the 5k to raise funds for a campership. I would be incredibly grateful if you would be willing to support me (and this awesome ministry, and my kids who love it with their whole hearts) with a financial donation at https://www.campwilmot.org/donate . Or come join in the fun! Register and run too!
Over the coming year I’ll probably be talking a lot more about Camp Wilmot. As I come out of my rest period in my life of faith, I cannot imagine a more worthwhile work than to help this camp thrive in this generation and the next. Please be patient with me if I talk about it. And if you feel inspired, like I am, please join in community. Join the 5k. Sign up for the newsletter. Adopt a cabin. (Sponsors weekends was fuuuuuuun!) Rent the site in the winter. Sponsor a kid to attend. Pay attention to this beautiful, true thing among us.
For the last two and a half years, my hiking buddy Anthony and I have been waging a concerted campaign to show people how fun and beautiful hiking is, and to lure the unsuspecting from the comfortable back yards of sleepy Stoneham up to the ankle-breaking, muddy trails of the Granite State. After every trip, we post glorious pictures: sunrises, summits, friendly birds, glorious wildflowers, pictures of our boots hanging resting on granite slabs overlooking vistas of vast wildnernesses embraced by mountains whose names and journeys have been graven in our shared experience and captured on personalized “New Hampshire 48” maps on our bathroom walls.
Yesterday marked my halfway point on my journey of New Hampshire 48 mountains taller than 4000 feet, as we strode along Signal Ridge to summit Mt. Carrigain. And instead of my usual glorious celebration, I’m going to give you the gritty insider view of the Real Secrets of the Stoneham Mountaineering and Libation Society*
Wednesday before, text: Brenda – “Free Saturday, thinking Carrigain. You free?” Anthony – “I hiked with you two weeks ago, did a 20 mile five mountain traverse last weekend and am hiking on Sunday too. So you have to drive.” Brenda – “Deal.”
The night before, 8:30 pm, Brenda’s head: I should really go to bed. I have a hike early tomorrow, and I never sleep well the night before. I’ll just catch the women’s soccer game – two hours is perfect.
11:30 pm: Well, I didn’t really expect that to go extra time and penalty kicks. And I still need to make my sandwich and get my pack ready.
Midnight: I’m sure the next 5:45 will be the best quality sleep I’ve ever have.
1 am: Moves downstairs to guest bed due to husband who likes to dance flamenco in his sleep, especially on the night before hikes.
Hiking day 5:45 am: Alarm goes off. Birds are singing. The first light of morning is warming the Eastern skies and throwing golden light on the trees outside the window. Our hiker hero arises, stretches, and celebrates not sharing a room by launching into a stream of profane invective. Time to get up. She presses the button on the coffee, heads up to brush her teeth and don her traditional summer hiking garb. First breakfasts are a big bowl of Lucky Charms. It takes forever to fill the 4 liters of water she’s packing. The sticky note on the door reminds her to bring water and her sandwich. Everything else is already in the pack.
6:35 am: Arrive at Anthony’s door. Celebrate most on-time departure yet with a surly welcoming growl and slurping on first of 64oz of coffee packed for the drive. Debate whether to take I93 or I95 and agree on a loop route. The mountain is 2.5 hours away no matter which way you go, so a minimum five hours of driving await our heroes. They enjoy the scenic rusting bridges, dump trucks and road construction along the way. Anthony refills Brenda’s coffee from thermoses twice.
8:15 am: First stop of the day is the traditional fortification at the McDonald’s in Lincoln. It has very convenient access, bathrooms, and incredibly slow service. In exchange for a few measly dollars, our heroes use the facilities and come out armed with Sausage McMuffins (Brenda), Breakfast Burrito (Anthony), hash browns (both) and orange juice (Anthony). They still have nearly an hour to the trail head, but gloriously no one gets in front of Brenda on the Kankamagus and she can demonstrate to Anthony how she learned how to drive “on roads just like this” and tells him that the yellow speed advisory signs are for “amateurs”. Anthony comments how unusual it is for him to get car sick, and wonders what might be different today. They both agree it’s probably pre-hike nerves.
9:15 am: Three miles up an shockingly well maintained dirt road with a shockingly poorly maintained wooden bridge. Anthony comments on the narrowness of the single lane road right before a giant pickup truck flies by the opposite direction. Finally they arrive at the trail head. Of course, it’s completely packed and there is no available formal parking. There are about five cars trying to find a way to park, the inhabitants of whom will spend the next 10 hours passing and being passed by our hikers. As Brenda expertly executes a 46 point turn to get into an available section of ditch, they play the traditional game of “car accident or trailhead parking”. Eventually, they’re parked between the gigantic pickup truck with extra sized wheels, broomsticks holding up an American flag with a black stripe and a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag – and on the other side a diesel Volvo with Vermont plates and a series of increasingly faded Bernie Sanders for President stickers. I feel encouraged by the fact that among all our differences, we are all here together and love hiking and mountains.
9:25 am: Finally time to hit the trail! We didn’t forget anything this time. In the past, we have discovered such adventurous forgotten elements as hiking boots (Anthony) and food (Brenda). Despite being the last day of July (we said it was the first of August all day, because time means nothing on the trail) it was about 45 degrees and snowflakes were seen the prior night on Mt. Washington. Brenda presses the “go” button on her satellite phone, knowing that the at home spouses will be anxiously checking the hiking pair’s progress all day. Or maybe once if they get curious to see just how slowly we’re moving.
9:35 am: Suddenly the gallon of coffee consumed on the hike up makes its presence known, and the search commences for an appropriate tree/rock. Anthony says “at least we don’t have to worry about anyone coming down the trail at this time of day”. Seconds later a fit young man comes running down the trail at full speed with two fit looking dogs deftly trailing his heels. Hiking the Whites inspires a lot of humility, but appropriate trees are found with privacy from hikers in both directions.
From then, the hiking. This has been a historically wet summer in New England. This time of year, all the trails should be completely dry, and definitely not muddy for miles. But not this year. The first two miles of trail are easy and even beside a glorious mountain stream. This increasing the foreboding because we have 3500 feet of elevation to gain and lose, and every mile you aren’t climbing a little means the trail will be that much steeper when it finally hits. And hit it does: the last three miles are an unrelenting forested UP. The trails are very crowded today, and we leapfrog with some hikers of similar speed, while being passed in both directions by the speedy. Discussion breaks out: which are the most depressing, the trail runners who effortlessly pass us breathing less hard than we do, or the 70 year olds who encourage us as they pass by telling us it’ll get easier once we get in shape in retirement?
Finally we break treeline. All along Signal Ridge groups are spread out watching the clouds break across Washington, making up stories about the red scar that dramatically mars Mt. Lowell, or talking about their upcoming wedding dress fittings. We linger for a lunch of ham and cheese sandwiches, Pringles, and fruit snacks. The cold winds carry the bite of October, and the stunted krummholz shows as clearly as a sign what the prevailing wind direction is. Eventually we doff our winter layers and tackle the last push to the summit.
We linger at the summit too, reveling in the 360 views of old friends we have hiked or will hike or want to hike. It does take a while to orient ourselves and figure out that the Pemi wilderness is in the direction of the sign that says “Pemigewasset Wilderness”. I say my standard prayer that some day there will be a lightening strike on the Owlhead summit which would have the best view in all of New England … if it wasn’t wooded. A conversation breaks out on the summit as we share food and gaze in shocked amazement at the guy (wearing only bright orange shorts) who brought up a pulled pork sandwich. Boasts and exaggerations flow around previous gourmet foods we’ve consumed on the trails. Eventually, reluctantly, we part from our new friends and start down.
When you are young, you complain about up because it’s hard on the system – real work. When you are old, it’s the down that gets you as your joints complain about the miles of basically controlled falls on to rocks that are sharp, unsteady, slick – or in special instances all three. I usually vow at this phase that I’m going to work on strength and flexibility between hikes. It’s hard to look up, because the footing requires all your attention, and you’re starting to get tired. By the time we hit the flat mud section again, we’re almost quiet having exhausted all the gossip, observations, upcoming plans, and discussions of trails we have hiked and will hike.
At the last, a few tenths of a mile from the trail head, we linger at a sylvan pool with crystal clear waters crashing down polished granite into deep and mysterious pools whose clarity leaves you wondering if they are 4 or 40 feet deep. The roiling waters seem impossibly consistent, an impossibility of constant motion and change as the dying light slants down the steep sides of the mountain we just climbed to the dark green of the pines and maples clinging to a carpet of soil over the granite bones that are never far away. When we attempt to stand and resume our packs, it takes three tries.
6:10 pm: Like Mr. Rogers, we end our day like we began it, changing our shoes in car. Sore, but happy. And not looking forward to the drive home. But we are the Stoneham Hiking and LIBATION Society, and one more thing remains to be done in our traditional hike.
7:30 pm Almost There Tavern: The after hike meal is highly anticipated event, and the topic of great conversation on the trail. This is one of my favorite spots, due to having Tuckerman Pale Ale on tap and friend green beans, both known health foods. They also have outdoor dining – not only important due to Covid but also due to the distinctive fragrance of people who have hiked through mud for 10 hours.
10:15 pm Finally back home again. Barely able to climb the stairs. The shower descends over blistered feet and aching knees, washing through sweat-tangled hair. As a last act of consciousness, I color in the trail and note the date.
24 down, 24 to go. The real secret is … it’s totally worth it and I can’t wait to go again.
*Fictionalized and exaggerated, because that’s how the SMLS rolls.
A year ago was a dark time. The pandemic was just settling in for the long haul and we were all coming to terms with the fact that the promised return to normal would not be days or weeks or months. I’m not sure any of us really believed years, but we sure as heck didn’t know what was coming. The bright days of summer, with their brief abeyance of death and loss, only served to highlight that darkness ahead loomed uncertain and fearful. There were also some things in my personal life – not for sharing on a public forum (reach out if you really want to know – we’re all hanging in there) that left me devastated, fearful and feeling broken.
The great crashing of my personal life happened just before we spent a week at Camp Wilmot, trying to drag some fun and normal out of this hard hard summer. I remember going on a run, knowing that I needed to practice meticulous self-care to make it through all this mostly intact, and the thought suddenly popping into my head that I wished I could draw. And in the gift of time the pandemic reluctantly gave us, maybe this was the right time to learn. I don’t even know where this inspiration arose – was it the slanting of the evening light? A mix of form and beauty that caught my eye? Was I going through a catalog of things I would wish I had done when I looked back on my life? This moment is lost to recall. But I came back and I ordered a book: Learn To Draw in 30 Days.
And I did. I worked my way through the book methodically, gradually convincing myself that basic art was indeed a skill which could be learned by interested (if likely untalented) practitioners. And it was fun. It was so different. Especially early on, I was constantly astonished by what I could do instead of frustrated by what I couldn’t. There were new tools and techniques. My eyes saw things in different ways. And at the end I, previously a creator of the ephemeral, had this lovely *thing* that existed in this world, outside of the binary memory of the cloud or the listening ear of another human. I persisted without me in a way words and music did not.
As I pushed on the edges to discover what about it I liked (shading) and what I hated (erasing), I realized that what I really wanted to do was to capture the majesty of the mountains, the wild things, the natural world which has so long been my great consolation. I bought about a thousand books on how to draw wild things with your pencil, but they missed the color and light – especially the light – that turns a leaf into a graceful flicker. And so in the vastness of my ignorance I thought maybe watercolors would be a good way to draw, but with light. I have always liked to color (my collection of coloring books was extensive BEFORE that was, uh, “cool”), and I had watercolor pens, so that was like the same thing, right?
Once again a vast vista opened in front of me, of what watercolors might be and do and how I might feel if I could capture the light with a brush. Art supplies being expensive, but much cheaper than therapy, I walked tight-masked into art stores, armed with lists from the stack of books I began acquiring, and began the delightful acquisition of color and paper (two long time favorites of mine.)
There were so many things I didn’t understand. For example, every book on watercolors has a color mixing section – eg. two parts Prussian Blue and one part Indian Yellow to make a dark green. But I tried to do it by squeezing the tubes to be 2:1. No one explained that part. (FYI, I am pretty darn sure that’s not how you do it – you take the color on your brush and mix a smaller amount usually, but I’m still not sure.). I didn’t understand that once watercolors in your easel dried, you just rewet them and used them again. I thought the whole thing was rather wildly wasteful in that context (good thing I started with cheap paints!). I still struggle to admit how much of watercolor is water, and how little is color. I learned about masking fluid (and how it can take off sizing). I learned about sizing. I learned about blocking with masking tape. I came to understand why the weight and quality of paper mattered so much.
I learned what gouache is, when and how to use it, how to pronounce and aspire some day to be able to spell it without looking it up. At nights, when my thoughts ran dark and fearful, I’d turn my thoughts to the names of colors – glorious names like Indanthrene Blue, Alizarin Crimson, Veridian and Aureolin. I’d think about Caput Mortuum violet and Venetian Red and how those tubes, innocuous on my particle-board desk, stretched back in time hundreds of years and tied me to a far older tradition. I’d plot out paintings I would do some day when I had the skills. And I would fall asleep in the fearful still dark of the night, instead of spinning over and over.
And I got better. I painted mountains. I painted the northern lights (also a bit of a pandemic obsession). I drew things that I painted. I made terrible paintings. I made bookmarks. I slid paintings into the hundreds of letters I also wrote during this time. I was taught by books (I have learned I like to learn by book). I was taught by online videos. I set up my Instagram feed to be all the amazing art of people who were way better than me. I attempted to compose and create my own scenes.
Perhaps my magnum opus was a painting I did for a friend of her favorite quote. I felt gloriously vindicated and complete in that through a LOT of iterations, I had accomplished something that I was proud of, and that I hoped would speak to her.
And it was such a solace to me. To turn away from words, which felt caught in my throat and dangerous, to this way of speaking to which one could hardly be held accountable, was beautiful. The freedom to be terrible is a glorious liberation. The fierce joy of creating a thing of beauty, or the bubbly humor of creating a disaster, were both panaceas to me. My failures all had a back side that I could use instead. Or they could be cut into bookmarks. Or saved as glorious evidence later of how far I had come.
Things are better now. I am in less desperate need of consolation. The world is spinning back up, and the gaps of time are evaporating, and I don’t think I’ll be on my periodic “one a day” track of watercolors. But I am so, so, so grateful for this time and the gift of this light, and color, and lightness of being.
I actually have an album of many of the paintings and drawings I’ve done. You can see them here!
In the bleakest days of the bleakest winter of my life, I look to the summer as a beacon of hope. Vaccines would arrive. The weather would warm. Even under pandemic restrictions, I could seek solace in the forest and the trees, with my boys on the banks of the Mad River.
When the Memorial Day camping trip fell to bone-chilling (near record) cold and miserable drizzling rains, I consoled myself. 4th of July is as close as New England gets to guaranteed good weather. We had five full days set aside for hammocks, hiking, tubing and white water river rafting. There would be a balm for my chapped soul.
Two days before the trip began, the sky was a metal welkin as a record number of 90 degree days in June steamed the countryside. I fanned myself and contemplated the cooling breeze that ran as an unseen river just above the noisy banks of the Mad River, where I would be shortly.
We got the tent up. We got the tarps pitched – almost all of them, given the weather. We hung hammocks draped in rain flies. And the temperature dropped 40 degrees and the rain began – the heavy, soaking, life-giving rains that April is supposed to command. The rains that fill aquifers and nourish plants and wash the world clean. And there we were, in tents, trapped and cold and so very, very humid.
This might be enough to cement the trip as a lousy one. When we bugged out after 4 days, we agreed this was the worst SUSTAINED weather we’ve ever had. I mean, we’ve camped through hurricanes, cold, blowing winds, flash floods. Heck during the Memorial Day trip it snowed in the mountains. But this one, took the cake for non-camping weather. But that was only part of our calamities.
As we packed up to go, with the kids headed to Camp Wilmot right behind this, I was on their case to get their laundry done. We have two laundry setups – a small European washer/dryer combo in the second floor and a more “parent of children” separate set of units in the basement. The second floor unit takes about 5 hours a (small) load. Finally, my procrastinating children got the better of me and I put a load in the basement to make sure that SOME clothes would be clean. But when it came time to pull them from the dryer, I discovered that the dryer was no longer working. (A fact which is only ever learned when you have a pile of wet clothing.) I couldn’t even dry them outside as I might have the day before due to temperature drop/rain starting. At best, a working dryer would be available in the middle of the following week. These things happen, but the timing could hardly have been worse.
As we got our campsite set up and I was just preparing dinner, I pulled out the new knife I’d gotten for the glamorous task of 1) cutting the bacon I was making for the hamburgers 2) opening a package of hot dogs. On that second unsheathing, the knife got stuck. As I pulled it free, it slid across my left index finger right at the bottom knuckle. I am very lucky – there was no tendon or nerve damage. But it was deep. And bleedy. So we had to go (starving) to the local ER and spend some quality time getting some lovely blue stitches put in.
Thursday also our camping companions texted to say they were going to be a little late – one of them had woken with a swollen eye and they were trying to figure out why. So no hanging around the campfire or gaming tonight. And the planned tubing for the next day was already cancelled due to rain, so didn’t need to be cancelled due to finger-can’t-be-submerged or eye-swollen-shut.
A friend texted to ask whether I was camping, due to her looking at the forecast and it’s dismal aspect.
Friday we went to a local old-timey arcade (which was actually open and fun). We planned lunch in Plymouth, which had a cute downtown with some nice restaurants, a gaming store, a book store and an art store. Not a bad place to pass a rainy afternoon. But just as we arrived and went in to the diner we were hoping to eat at, word came down there had been a water main break on Main Street. Every single one of those places could not prepare food (no water for handwashing) so Every. Single. One. was unavailable for lunch. Also no bathrooms.
I found a diner far enough away to have water and near enough to feed the hungry. It was just closing when we got there. There was a brew pub not far away. It wasn’t open for another hour. We ended up at this “saloon” which specialized in mediocrity and western decor. It was bad, but it was food, I guess.
That morning, we heard our camping companion, on his birthday, had shingles in his eye. Stabby pain. No camping for him. Happy birthday Kevin.
The next day, the boys went swimming in the Mad River anyway, in the rain and cold. Because they are nuts. And the rain came down without ceasing. Everything was damp. The tent started seeping. The air itself was so moist that nothing was truly dry. The sheets on our bed are flannel, and I am here to tell you that few things in life are as unpleasant as clammy flannel. It’s just the worst. We resolved that we had enough of this crap, and we were going to head home Sunday assuming a long enough break in the rain to pack up. We just climbed into our clammy bed with the periodic drips promising a damp night when Grey called out in increasingly alarmed tones. He was in his own tent, and discovered that what he thought was some tracked in dirt was actually a hatch of tiny mites – millions of them. Over everything in his entire tent. An entire mat of mites. He slept in the car that night, and we threw away everything in that tent the next morning.
We were able to pack up in a dry spell, although the clouds opened again that day. And we brought home all the damp, dirty clothing and bedding to a house with no dryer. I spent the rest of the 4th of July in the laundromat, spending a shocking number of quarters to wash and dry every stitch of fabric we took on that trip.
Given our luck I feel fortunate that the injuries were minor and we all survived. But it does raise the question of why I like camping. I might even review the forecast before doing the Labor Day trip!
Yesterday, in the most glorious of Spring days ever birthed on this earth, I drove south to a place I’d never been before: Gillette Stadium, home of the New England Patriots (and New England Revolution). As I followed the clearly marked signs, I thought about how I’d been just about to get around to going to a football game one day, to enjoy the spectacle and noise and party atmosphere, and complete inability to actually watch the game. Such an aspiration seems like it comes from some science fiction book I read once. Windows down, I navigated the vast and spreading parking lots around the grand stadium.
It felt a little like a movie of being onboarded into the afterlife. There were clear sign and instructions – no doubt on what to do next. There were a steady line of us coming in, all keeping apart from each other. There was no talking as we double masked and did not walk up the elevators, instead being taken passively to where we were supposed to go – an unknown location.
A sign we could see on the field flashed the vaccination count every 30 seconds or so – in the 300ks while I was there. Every time it climbed inexorably. Every number of that vast sum represented a hope, a dream, of a world restored.
When my time came I sat uncomfortably close to the nurse, who already had most of my card filled out with neat and lovely handwriting. After very little preamble, she placed the biting edge of a tiny needle into the limp muscle of my left arm. I asked her to put it right next to my smallpox scar, symbolically. And like that, I was now on the quiet path out, waiting silently in chairs set six feet apart and watching the Revolution practice on the field below.
I have grown accustomed to having the greater part of my mind and focus be on fear and disapproval. On my run that morning, I had passed signs forswearing a vast array of kinds of hate: Stop Asian Hate, Black Lives Matter, We Support our Trans Siblings. I marveled at how many different varieties of hate we need to revile, and am somewhat astonished at the energy of people to persecute on so many channels.
In my daily life, I have reshaped my entire world in response to the fear of contagion. I do not see my friends. I do not go to work. I do not eat in a restaurant. I do not drive to the mountains with my hiking buddy. I do not sit in Gillette Stadium and complain about how terrible the new quarterback is. This fear has so far been effective. I have not once been identified as a close contact with someone with COVID. This whole time, I have never had to take a COVID test, or been afraid I had it. This is not just virtue – it is also wild good luck, and privilege. (I may not go grocery shopping, but someone goes into that store to get my food. It is just not me.)
With this habit of angry disapproval and fear, long cultivated, yesterday felt odd. Things were so beautiful in the world. There was this strange butterfly of hope in my heart. So long we watched the deaths and illness counter tick up inexorably. To watch the vaccination counter do the same caught my breath in my throat. The loveliness of the world, so long ignored and hidden and frozen in the ice of winter pandemic, just burst through like the waters of a thawing river and would not be ignored.
As I waited fifteen minutes after my shot, trying to be cool and not cry, I also thought on what a great testament to humanity this all was. Destruction is easy. It takes just a few moments to burn down, deface or defile. Creation is hard. There is a tunnel on the bikepath where artists come and do breathtaking murals of surpassing skill and often loveliness. But it is graffiti and there is no one watching it. So periodically someone comes through and defaces days of work with scrawled penises and blots out art with “TRUMP” in dripping spray. But somehow, despite how much easier it is to destroy than to build, there is so much that is built. Every home, garden, building, concert, organization, sanctuary … it represents the balance of how much more we humans create than we destroy. It is not just 10:1, it is 100:1 or 1000:1.
And the wild creation of the mRNA (Moderna) vaccine in my arm tells that story so well. Imagine that we humans have been so foresightful that for 20 years people – who could have dedicated their lives to their own enjoyment, or making money in banking, or inventing the next erection drug – instead saw with wisdom and clear eyes the threat that Coronaviruses posed to humanity. They made huge personal sacrifices to pursue new ways of responding to this simmering threat in the border between the wild and the human. They prepared for an event none of them living had ever seen. They had capacity, tools, plans, investment ready to go. And when the call went out, while we were still eating, drinking and living merry lives with our friends in the winter of last year, they laid down their plans, their leisure, even their health to work night and day. So that I could stand in a stadium a year and a month after the start of this virulence and be inoculated, blessed, by a matter-of-fact nurse who would jab hundreds of other arms before she herself could go into the warm spring night.
Our era is a recitation of the litany of fear – on both sides of the aisle. You can count the rosary beads of outrage as well as I can. But I am telling you, friends, we are a better species than we give ourselves credit for. We can plan for problems and fix them. We can build things, and rebuild if they are destroyed. We can make meaningful sacrifices for the good of people we will never meet, who will never know our names. And not only CAN we do this, but we DO do this every day.
In six weeks, I will be liberated to live a life more of my choosing, still bounded by the obligations to keep my community safe, but not as much by fear for my person. By then, summer will be nipping on the heels of spring. And I will remain so grateful to those who gave of themselves to give me the gift of this liberty.