Brenda currently lives in Stoneham MA, but grew up in Mineral WA. She is surrounded by men, with two sons, one husband and two boy cats. She plays trumpet at church, cans farmshare produce and works in software.
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.
This year was particularly difficult, not just because of the pandemic but because all the candidates seem like excellent folks we should be pleased and proud to have serve our community. I hate to feel like I’m voting “against” any of them! May Stoneham always be so lucky to have this be our set of choices! That said, I think more than ever it’s tough to make a decision between folks so qualified, and I hope that the candidates not elected this time will consider serving again.
I have been impressed with Raymie’s work on the Selectboard since she was first elected. In a role like this, I think that a mix of experience in how to get things done and optimism things can change are an ideal mix for a board, and Raymie has both.
The choice between Robert Lawler and David Pignone was a harder one. In the end, it came down to access and communication. I strongly believe that Stoneham is best served by a Selectboard that serves all 20,000+ residents of the town, not just the few thousand who are already well connected. David’s communications to people outside the already well established channels weren’t as strong as Robert’s (Robert did a number of open Zoom forums). David also did not respond to my requests to talk to him about his candidacy, where Robert reached out to me several times. I think Robert’s background and experience are good and a good mix with the current board. I’m hopeful if elected he would continue to serve all the residents of the town well. So in my final decision, I give Robert Lawler the edge.
School Committee (full term)
I’m grateful for George Georgountzos for his continued interest in serving the town, but his educational experience and commitment is considerably less than Jaime (the incumbent) or Melanie Fiore (who has significant volunteering bona fides, and is serving an appointed role now).
School Committee (part term) – SUPER HARD CHOICE
OK, this was by far the hardest choice! I want both Rati and Betty! They both have great backgrounds in education, and they both have a wonderful perspective to offer to Stoneham! Their outreach and platforms are similar. I really wrestled with this one! At the end, I finally leaned towards Rati, in part because of her experience with special needs kids, which is so important to vulnerable members of our community. Making sure our schools are addressing the needs of ALL our children is a critical contribution.
And now for something totally different. I have a tendency to accumulate small and obscure interests. I don’t talk a lot about them, since I have long since learned that few people are interested in going in depth on things like Wagner’s Ring Cycle and it’s mythical connections to Tolkien. If you try, you can get me going on some of these at a party, when we have parties again.
Anyway, one of my small obsessions is solar phenomenon. At least, specific solar phenomenon. For the last five or so years I’ve been totally obsessed with the Carrington Event, a Coronal Mass Ejection at the beginning of the industrial age that lit up and partially destroyed the telegraph wires (as well as painting skies across the world with vibrant auroras). I sort of fail to understand why this isn’t a bigger deal. It’s one of the most likely civilization disrupting events (right next to, uh, pandemics). Events of that size hit earth every couple hundred years, depending on a solar cycle much more complex than I realized. (We’re in solar cycle 25 right now, although it seems clear there is also a meta-cycle that lasts longer than our scientific observations and is hard to map to any permanent stuff here on earth.)
Anyway, I decided this summer to dig deeper into the aurora and the coronal mass ejection (and also Northwest Lookout towers) and read this great book called “The Sun Kings: The Unexpected Tragedy of Richard Carrington and the Tale of How Modern Astronomy Began” by Stuart Clark. Towards the end of it, after the unseemly death of the title character (Clark seemed to hate telling that part, but dutifully dished up the promised salaciousness), you get some lovelorn English gents wandering to Egypt with the expected malaria, ill health, and bad neighborliness. They go to investigate the Zodiacal light. Given my obsession with all the other weird phenomenon, I couldn’t believe I had missed one. The Zodiacal lights are a pyramid shaped column of light seen at dawn and dusk roughly between the tropics. And those ill-fated Englishmen (did they die of dysentery/malaria? I don’t recall, but it seems right) couldn’t figure it out. In fact, the mystery stretched down to my reading of the book.
There was a pyramid of light in the sky, and no one knew why.
Until last week.
We launched a probe, Juno, a decade ago. And with it’s vast solar panels, it discovered something in space – a vast section of dust fiercely pinged and pitted the light-catchers. And that dust lined up perfectly with both the trajectory of Mars, and the Zodiacal lights. That pillar in the sky? Mars dust. So cool. Of course, in the manner of all scientific discoveries the answer to one question simply raises another: how did all that dust get into space in the first place? Interesting, but not quite as cool as the mysterious pillar of light in the sky.
Anyway, Zodiacal light has been on my mind this week, so I decided to make this, ahem, artist’s rendition of it. It’s SO CLOSE to what I wanted, without quite being perfect. Ah, the life of a person attempting to make art. Anyway, this picture is definitely an exaggeration. But I got these pearlescent watercolors, and they seemed just right for this dim and misty light. And pyramids are fun. If I’d had skills I would’ve added a camel. But I don’t have skills. I did add two zodiacal signs to either side of the pillar – can you spot or identify them?
Few of us have failed to notice the anniversary of the time when our world screeched to a halt, and we entered a time like none living had ever experienced before. Like so many, I know the day my world changed. I was supposed to go to Del’s funeral (now rescheduled to be virtual), but flying to Seattle for a gathering of a couple hundred wise old men seemed like a bad idea. So honoring his outdoor memories, I went hiking instead. The morning was normal. But as we got flashes of signal, we watched the NBA cancel the season and the stock market fall hard and fast. A nurse with her daughter took our picture at the summit, and we wondered if we should, you know, be worried? We had pizza and beer at a great restaurant on our way home (with the nurse and her daughter). By the time I got home, we got word that school was cancelled for two weeks and no one was going back to the office for now.
You know the rest. We worked from home. The kids played SO MANY VIDEO GAMES. I watched the Great British Baking show and was inspired to bake all the things. Strange things became scarce. Yes, flour and toilet paper, but fencing was hard to get and bicycles and snowshoes are still unobtanium. I had reflected, in the before times, on how impossible it seemed that my life might ever slow enough (this side of senility) to have quiet and boredom and leisure for activities. But I played through “Breath of the Wild” on the bed with my kids by my side. I read books. I exercised. I had social Zoom calls on top of hours and hours of work video conferences.
With the warming of the year and the dropping of infection rates, it seemed possible the worst might be over. If the trends stayed good, if we stayed careful, this might be unlocking. We went camping, had backyard fires, hiked, ate in outdoor seating and felt downright Mediterranean. How odd it is, but I feel nostalgic for the freedom and folks of the summer of 2020.
And then there was the catastrophe of the holidays. Watching it coming, we locked down hard again in November, removing those little eases we’d added over the summer. I sent Christmas card after Christmas card, in the darkest part of year and pandemic, exhorting hope and the inevitable waning of winter and plague. I wrote those words mostly for myself. In the cold stillness of winter, two of my uncles died. They did not die of COVID, but it prevented me from reconnecting with my family and introducing my children to a bevy of aunts, uncles and cousins they haven’t seen in years. I find myself wondering if COVID will fragment my extended family, like an iceberg breaking apart on its way to melting.
Now in this year mark, I am caught on the juxtaposition between hope and vast weariness. The hope is clear: we have multiple vaccines. They are extremely effective. The ability to manufacture and distribute them is improving. I will be vaccinated this year. My parents and mother-in-law are already in progress. The children will eventually go to school wearing pants. I will eventually go to an office. There will be a resumption of a new life that includes people and places. At the same time, I am so direly weary of everything it is safe to do where I am. My creativity to “make things fun” is entirely sapped. I love reading, and watching funny tv shows, and going on hikes in the Fells, and making dinners and writing letters to distant friends. I’ve come to love watercolors, and the bleed of the first stroke against wet paper. I like sleeping in and playing video games. But it seems like all these activities have been so overused that they hardly register. My husband brings me breakfast in bed every morning for a year now, but I swear I can hear “I Got You Babe” to the infinitely familiar sound of heavy-laden feet on the stairs.
Still, I hold the gift of this moment. So many have lost so much, that it is hard to both reflect on the deep and difficult challenges of the year. “I still have a job and a home” we tell ourselves. “No one I love has died of COVID … yet” we barely dare say aloud. We know better than to think we are uniquely struggling. But it also seems unwisely unkind to turn this into a “count your blessings” moment. But in all our lives, there have been dire challenges and there have been little blossoms of delight that could never have grown in the thick forests of our lives as they were.
For me, it has been fascinating to learn what I would do if I weren’t so damn busy all the time. The truth is, I am still exhausted. But it’s a different exhausted. I’ve laid down almost everything that was optional (my life has had some particular challenges), and I still do not want to tackle the items in my email inbox. I’m waiting to see if I start to recover. If I resume having “brilliant” ideas and kicking things off and volunteering for things. Or if perhaps that time in my life has now past, if not for good then for longer than a year. I am also quite surprised by what has filled the rooms of my mind dedicated to those things I long for. I would have said, before, books and music and cooking. I have read a lot. I have played almost no music (perhaps because there are always 3 other people in the house? Or maybe because I am good enough at music that improving seems daunting, especially with no audience to play for?). I am ready to not cook again for like several months. Or a week. Whatever.
But the art took me entirely by surprise. In retrospect, I can kind of see where it came from. The longing to make something beautiful, distinct and individual. The love of colors. The obsession with paper and pens. But I have spent forty(cough) years knowing that I was TERRIBLE at art and couldn’t even draw a compelling stick figure. This is true, by the way. But in the vaccuum of time and life, on a run, I was inspired to think, “I wonder how much I could improve if I tried”. And then I ordered pencils and paper and a book from Amazon. And on a July morning I sat down to draw my first picture. It was terrible. But it has been such a great consolation. My eyes are seeing things differently. When my mind wanders, it is to colors and shapes and picking apart the problems of “how do I” and “I wonder if”. I’ve gone from uncertain and fumbling, to practiced. And for the person who loves people – when I post my art (good, bad and indifferent) my friends without fail comment on what they like, what they see. They connect with me. Recently, I’ve gotten to a point where people would even accept a picture for their wall, and it feels a little bit like it did when I could feed them, and place a delicious meal made with my hands in front of them and invite them to eat until satiated.
In this year, I have come to know my home and neighborhood with a passionate intimacy not available to the commuter. Every view from every window, every house on every stroll that emerges from my door is known and observed. I have spent hours with cats on my laps, pushing my hands off the keyboard with their assertive love. I have named the rabbits that live in my back yard and eat the flowers. There has been a rootedness, and space never before known.
As the uncertainties of our path out of pandemic begin to clear, and the road can be seen further ahead, we consider what it is we will do when we are vaccinated, when our friends are too. We think about how wondrous strange (and scary?) it will be to sit at table with people we have hardly seen in a year and have upcoming vacations to talk about. But I have come to this conclusion: we will never return to where we were before. Time never flows back, but usually we are in the boat being pulled along. Now we have walked along these half-frozen shores, and we will re-embark in a strange land that looks something like the one we left, but also entirely different. There will, for example, be 800k fewer Americans than there would have been (the half million who have died so far, and the 300k babies who were not born this year). There will be masks. There will be the work from home. There will be a long shadow of fear and caution. There will be relationships set adrift, and ones set on fire by the anger of the “you’re paranoid and living in fear” vs. the “you are irresponsible for yourself and society”.
So here’s to the memory of what we have sacrificed, lost and had taken from us. Here’s to the small consolations we’ve gained in the darkness. And here’s to a coming of spring, a new day, and a world ready to be reborn.
If you follow me at all on social media, you know that I’ve fallen hard for watercolors. I’m posting pictures several times a week: some I’m proud of and some I’m frustrated by. I dream about watercolors, when I am not having that dream where you go to a party and realize halfway through that no one is wearing masks. My art adventure started in July with basic of learning how to draw, and then in September I tried a watercolor of White Lake. I’m saving the before/after until I’ve been doing this for a year, assuming I’m still interested this summer. But I’ve made a lot of progress.
I’ve been waiting for two weeks breathlessly for a shipment from an art store. (Shockingly Amazon isn’t a good source for the stuff I’m trying to buy.) I’ve been whining a lot about how it’s taken TWO WEEKS to get me these paints. I, unlike most Americans, like STUFF. When I was a kid, the best part of going to school was that sweet, sweet 64 crayon box with all the sharp, unblemished colors. I’m not alone in having learned the names of every crayon Crayola produced for years. But my art education never advanced past the Crayola and Coloring phase, although my love for colors shows in my extensive pen selection.
For years, the closest I’ve come to artistic expression has been stamping cards. This is also a pleasure with color and paper – the sharpness of a crease, the perfect match of pattern, image and words. My favorite was always coloring in the stain glass window stamps with watercolor pencils – a bare step above coloring book and crayola. But with the water colors, all the joy of the 64 box has come flooding back, but with even more complex and multilayered joys.
One of the first books I read advised me to buy about 8 colors of paint. So I went to Michael’s and bought 8 tubes of cheap student’s paint (appropriate, given my skill level). The book had instructions on how to mix the colors to make other colors, but neglected to understand just how inexperienced a student might be. I struggled mightily squeezing out gobs of paint trying to get proportions right and cleaning huge amounts of paint off my little plastic palette after every picture. It felt… wrong and wasteful. Because it was wrong and wasteful.
I’ve been doing a lot of classes from a teacher online, and my new strategy has been to have blick.com up for the materials section of every class and buy everything I don’t already have. NORMALLY they’re here by the next weekend’s painting time. I’ve learned quite a bit about the tools and my preferences. For example, the right brush is absolutely transformational – at least at my skill level. I adore indigo with a deep and enduring passion, but cerulean is just meh. And it’s not just the one color, it’s the colors as you move from pure paint to nearly-water with the same paint. It’s the richness of the paint, and how the paint loves the water. Whether it longs for or disdains the paper. Is it smooth? Is is translucent? Does it haunt your dreams? But it’s hard to guess by paint names. I mean, cerulean is a great color name. Indigo is boringer. But I love indigo so much.
So this last order I got a dot sheet, which allows you to paint from a tiny dot of watercolor all 109 colors that Winsor & Newton make. 109 times you introduce the paint to the water, and share both with the paper. It’s a deeply contemplative activity (how can a person be bad at painting swatches? But yet I am.) It took me almost two quiet hours. And in that time I delved into a world previously unseen to me. Each color is coded with the permanence, series number, staining, granulation, transparency and light-fastness. These are realms I have not considered.
As the time spread like water on the paper, I also started contemplating the color names – so different from their Crayola predecessors. I think of myself as having a pretty good vocabulary, but have never heard of perylene or quinacridone or gamboge or indanthrene. Mysterious patterns lay themselves out: there are cadmiums of every color, and then a non-cadmium option. Why? What makes the cadmiums both so prized and so flawed that they cannot be left out but also need some alternative? What does it mean that there is one Winsor in every color. Does that harken to the manufacturer? Does it mean the base color, like a box of 8 crayons? Then we go a step farther. One of the colors is caput mortuum violet. I know that once they made a paint called mummy brown, made of mummies. Is this … latin for mummy brown? There is a tale to this color, likely over a century old. And every color in this swatch. And then there is also the science to it. Intrigued, I looked it up and caput mortuum is made from hematite and the name stretches further back than the 19th century to the alchemical experiments of the enlightenment and yes. Is related to mummy brown.
I stand on the banks of the river of my ignorance and am only now seeing just how deep and wide those waters run. Truly, I have known nothing and come to this as a babe. It’s been so long since I have approached something so innocently. I mean, this is just paint colors that have my heart running fast with excitement tonight. There are other paint manufacturers, who have other storied colors. There are other kinds of watercolors, like the unpronounceable and unspellable gouache. There are brushes. I know they matter, but I do not know what they MEAN. The papers, sold with so many languages on their covers, hint at sacred mysteries like cold pressing and rough grain. (Are these mutually exclusive? How do they change the dance with the paints and the brush?) There are techniques, and trick and things everyone knows (did Picasso have one shade of blue he used in his blue period?). There’s the difference between pigment and hue. There’s how to see, and how to communicate what you see, and which tools you need to pick for what you’re trying to do. And that’s before we get to acrylics or oils.
In this pandemic time, I feel like all my horizons are room-sized: small and constrained and maybe just a little worn. Watching this world of painting unfold in my own mind is like braving a winter hike to stand on a summit and gaze beyond purpling horizons lined with mountains. When I first started hiking, those mountains were unnamed and undifferentiated too. And now I know them with the intimacy born of sweat and suffering.
There is no telling how long this phase of exploration lasts. Do I quit when progress is no longer immediate? Is my time swallowed by the return of the world? Does it lose its charm? Do I develop a near-fatal allergy to cadmium? Even here I have no path, and simply walk ahead, seeing what vistas may yet await me the next time I pick up a brush.