The season of rituals

Ritual has an interesting place in the culture I find myself living in. Rituals, especially shared rituals, are falling aside in this era of individualism. What are our remaining shared rituals? I find myself thinking “Well, there’s Sweet Caroline in the 8th inning…” Many of our oldest, time honored rituals seem to be evolving past recognition (weddings used to be a religious service) or falling away altogether. I myself didn’t watch fireworks this 4th of July, and have eaten Thanksgiving dinner at a Denny’s.

When starting a family, especially when far from your own family, one is confronted with the question of what rituals you’ll create. Will you open presents on Christmas Eve? When do you put up the tree? There are other rituals which simply arise through repetition – like when you realize you’ve thrown a last-minute New Year’s Eve party every year for the last three years. And then there are the rituals that are some sort of strange hybrid, like making up your own holidays and investing them with energy, love and meaning until they become as rich and real to you as any holiday that lives on a pre-printed calendar. (Also, it turns out you can now print your own calendars…)

One tradition that I loved from my family of birth, which I had trouble carrying over to my family in Massachusetts, was the Christmas Tree. Living in the land where Christmas trees grow, we’d always go to Jim Hale’s and tromp around the fields getting increasingly cranky and objecting to each other’s selections of tree. (The fight was actually an acknowledged part of the ritual.) Then we’d get a tree that was too tall and struggle to get it home and into the house. Mom would hide in the kitchen “making cookies” while we wrestled the lights onto the timber, cut about two feet off the bottom with a chainsaw, and argue about the best order of cutting the bindings. Then we’d all gather together and hang the ornaments while listening to Roger Whittaker’s iconic Christmas album. It was always a stressful day, but somehow what began in tumult – with broken icy ground underfoot – ended peacefully, eating warm cookies and debating whether Darcy the Dragon was an ironic anti-capitalist morality play in the warm light of our own Christmas tree. (Assuming no one was still on the roof putting the cut-off top of the tree on top of the ridgeline to at least make it look right from the outside.)

I tried to pull as much of this as possible into my home, but my husband does not love hanging lights (so I can’t disappear to make cookies). There are no cantankerous octagenarians selling Christmas trees around here. And our ceiling is now and always has been a mere 8 feet tall. So over time I’ve learned to change the tradition to match our reality. This year, I decided also to give up my hope of recreating what I thought it should be, and lean into what it was at that moment. So maybe I didn’t have all four of us hanging ornaments and talking about their history and what they meant to us. Maybe I wasn’t making cookies (but Grey was). Maybe I would just do the parts that were important to me, and my family would join me if it was also important to them.

The tree got up in record time, and it was much less stressful than usual. But my husband commented afterwards that although he’d never really loved the ritual of adorning the tree, somehow not being in the scrum of snowflake hanging had hollowed out a little bit of the festive feeling he got looking at the tree. As he and I tread through our fifth decade (and third decade together), we begin to understand more about ourselves. A ritual may not need to be fun or enjoyable to be meaningful.

On the flip side, the last year or two I’ve really wanted to pull the Advent Wreath into our own practice of the holiday. I find it hilarious that in a society so willing to create any Christmas crap you can think of (Santa toilet paper? Zombie gingerbread men ornaments?), it’s actually hard to find something that’s a huge part of the religious practice of Christmas. I looked for years for a home advent wreath that would accept thick pillar candles that could burn the season through. I finally found a five-stand candle holder, and discovered Ikea sells advent candles. Woooo!

But you can’t just go light an advent calendar, willy nilly. It needs, well, a ritual. So over the last year or two a small family ritual has quietly evolved. This year, I’ve been particularly enjoying it. We gather as a family in front of the tree, and we talk a little about the theme of this particular week in Advent. Last week was hope. This week was peace. We dwell a brief moment on those, and what they mean in our lives. Then there’s a small reading. Last weekend was the Magnificat. Today, I asked Grey to read The Peace of Wild Things. We light the candle. (Thane likes that part.) We sing a hymn. (I like that part best.) Last week was “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” (traditional for Advent communion Sunday). This week, I chose “O Come Emmanuel”. And then we are done and return to our evening, the growing line of light fighting against the waning of the sun. It is brief and beautiful.

What are some of your precious rituals? Have you successfully ported rituals from one generation to another? Which ones did you create with intent? Which ones evolved from repetition? Which have you lost forever, and how do you mourn them? What do you wish you had a ritual for – to make deeper and richer?

The children love the angel

The Peace of Wild Things
Wendell Barry

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Like a memory it falls

I woke this morning at about 6 am and couldn’t fall back asleep. For those of you who know me, that’s a statement bordering on absurd. I do not awaken at 6, unless there’s a plane to catch, and when I do happen to stir I turn over and quickly fall back asleep. But this is not a normal morning. The time before last that I laid my head upon a pillow, it was in Singapore. I am profoundly jetlagged – enough to wake me for the day at 6 am.

This early November has introduced itself warm and wet to New England. Last night as I readied for bed the temperatures were clement and the rain tapped beguilingly on the roof and windows. I was alone in the bright, clean bedroom we’ve created – my husband being up in Vermont for a gaming convention. I cracked a window open and felt a familiar, forgotten sense of peace steal over me. You’ve heard so much about the attic project – the bathtub, the flooring, the way the house looks when it’s nothing but bones. But we all have secret agendas, and for me one of the great hopes was for the rain. You cannot hear the rain on the roof from the 2nd floor. But here in the eves of the attic, I hoped it would sound like when I was a girl. The very best sound of rain at night had come when we lived in a trailer in Mineral (you know, the trailer park type – but it was a double wide!). We spent only about a year there – a cold and snowy year. It was actually the manse for the church (housing provided to the pastor) – but the church was without a pastor and we were without a house, so it worked out for a bit. That was my 5th grade year, when I got chicken pox and had run-ins with my reading teacher. I walked across an abandoned baseball diamond to school through vast, spectacular forests of frost that rose 2 inches tall. The ice rose in columns of crystal, elevating clots of dirt skyward. I always felt bad stepping on them, even knowing they’d be entirely destroyed by mid morning and rise again the next day. I was young enough then to hear the rain and not the overwhelming thoughts of a busy mind.

There was a day, as spring edged into summer, when there was a knock at our trailer door. A lady we did not know stood there. She had heard we were looking for a house, and they were planning on selling theirs. Did we want it? That is, no joke, how my parents ended up in the house they live in to this day.

That house is a vast frankensteinian construction. It began life as a company house, alike in size to its neighbors. Those houses are very small. But over time new additions had mushroomed on various sides without any sort of plan or cohesion. A dining room popped out the front. Two bedrooms off the side. An inconvenient solarium off the back that was always too cold or too hot, depending on season. And most spectacularly a two story garage-and-cathedral-ceiling-living-room. The living room is made up entirely of window and is truly vast. My parent’s church easily all fits inside for worship service when the furnace fails to start at the church down the street (a more frequent occurrence than you might guess). But those vast windows overlook on the dark, ominous, steep sides of Stormking on the sunset side. To the North you overlook the town of Mineral up to the waters of Mineral lake, which would curl with fog in the mornings as the waters bequethed their warmth to the air. On the sunrise side of the house, if you can look past the wires and abandoned cars and abandoned houses, Mt. Rainier rises in all her glory above Round Top. I loved both of them with all the passion of my young heart.

Mt. Rainier is unbearably splendid in all seasons (when she can be seen through clouds). I loved the alpenglow of her pink shoulders when the sun had slipped behind Stormking. I loved her pale shadow against the rising sun – one cloud among many on the horizon. I loved her white and blue and green – like the wedding quilt my sister made me – in the bright days. One of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in my life, which struck my heart to its very core, was one quiet morning in high school when I arose while it was still dark and saw Mt. Rainier glowing with new snow in the predawn, a crescent moon rising above her and hanging brightly off the tail of that moon was the brightest gem of the night sky – Venus. Such loveliness can never be forgotten.

Mt Rainier in the middle and Roundtop to the right. Not the view from our house – and when I was a girl the shoulders of Roundtop were still covered.

But for all my passion for Mt. Rainier, I loved Roundtop too. When the rains came, as they so often did, Mt. Rainier would vanish, but Roundtop would remain. The Northwest is an interesting place for a history lover. Gazing at the cliffs – golden or hoary depending on the light – you could sense the vast and boundless weight of history. But Washington does not know her history. The town was founded at the turn of the 20th century as a logging town (still is) and a stop on the railroad. My mother has mentioned with shock that she is the longest serving pastor in the history of our small white church. My parents have lived in Mineral, which seemed old before we came, for nearly a third of all the time it has existed. Before that, the lands had been the home of native peoples – likely nomadic in that region. I once found a hand adze in a stream, and I know that there was history in those mountains. Stories. Names. Legends perhaps. But I did not know them. It is possible that no one does – that they were forever lost.

When I went from girl to teen, I loved those quiet rainy days. I discovered an LP, and on those days where Mt. Rainier was hidden and Roundtop shrouded mysteriously with scraps of fog, I would put that record on the record player (entirely anachronistic – I also had the CD of the same album) and listen to the scratch and warmth of the vinyl. I would gaze at the mountains and wonder what their unknowable history was. My gaze would linger over the cliffs that had bested my attempts to climb them (honestly I’m lucky I didn’t die…). And my heart was filled with such unquenchable yearning and joy and longing and perfectness. The album was “Sounds of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel. And when “Kathy’s Song” came on, “I hear the drizzle of the rain, like a memory it falls…” I was in unrequited love with the whole world and there was nothing short of poetry, song and mountains vast enough to contain it. It’s still one of my favorite songs. Better yet, it’s Grey’s favorite too.

Such passion is harder to come by for an ancient person like me. Forty knows much more than fourteen ever did. I probably have the tools now, if I so chose, to find out what legends are actually known about those views. My days are full of Things To Be Done. My heart, in these days of fear, is so full of anxiety and guilt and horror that there is little room to be slain by beauty.

But this morning, in the dark before the sun rose, I heard the rain on my roof like I did when I was a girl. There was no Roundtop waiting for me at the top of the stairs, but when I cast my eyes out the window they land on the 150 year old slate-roofed Hawkins mansion. The golden-glowing fountain of leaves falling like snowflakes from a gray sky lands on soil whose history half a millennium back is known to me. On the headboard of the bed above me, wrapped in a brown cloth backing with gilt letters, is the “History of Stoneham Mass” by William Stevens – a gift that made me feel profoundly known. (If anyone lands their hands on Silas Dean’s history I will very gladly pay for whatever it takes to obtain a copy!)

And for just a moment I can reach back through the veil of time and burdens, through the sludge of fears and sorrows, and touch the same inarticulate, joyful yearning in the rain.


Kathy’s Song
I hear the drizzle of the rain
Like a memory it falls
Soft and warm continuing
Tapping on my roof and walls.

And from the shelter of my mind
Through the window of my eyes
I gaze beyond the rain-drenched streets
To England where my heart lies.

My mind’s distracted and diffused
My thoughts are many miles away
They lie with you when you’re asleep
And kiss you when you start your day.

And a song I was writing is left undone
I don’t know why I spend my time
Writing songs I can’t believe
With words that tear and strain to rhyme.

And so you see I have come to doubt
All that I once held as true
I stand alone without beliefs
The only truth I know is you.

And as I watch the drops of rain
Weave their weary paths and die
I know that I am like the rain
There but for grace and you go I.

Turning 40

A remarkable thing happened at midnight on Saturday – I left my 30s behind and entered my 40s. At that point, I was sitting around a backyard fire with a bunch of my friends around me, having celebrated for most of the evening together. It was a fantastic day, ending a fantastic decade.

S’More creation
The reel

The weekend started heading north as fast as possible after work. Camp Wilmot was hosting a 5k, and Grey had begged to be able to go. My husband was mysteriously hiding in the kitchen and forbidding me to look in. So up north Grey and I went, arriving at Wilmot shortly after dark. We sang songs by the fire in the 100 year old barn, then moved to the equally ancient farmhouse for a ceilidh. That evokes a certain celtic air, but in fact there was rather more Macarena – although we did do one really fun reel! It was about 11 when we went to sleep in the gables of the old farm house. I was amazed at how quiet it was outside. There was no noise of traffic – no matter distance. All you could hear was the rustling leaves.

Camp Wilmot from the other side of White’s Pond
A friendly squirrel

We slept well and woke up sliiiiightly late for breakfast (but not too late!) After breakfast, we were at our leisure for a few hours. As Grey caught up with old friends, I took myself on a tour of the grounds and walked around White’s Pond. It was a remarkably peaceful hour. I was responsible only for myself. There was nothing I needed to be doing, or even could be doing. I could walk at my own pace, take as many pictures as I felt like taking when I felt like taking them. It is a beautiful place – so quiet and peaceful but full of so much vibrancy and life. And it’s a place my children love deeply. Grey waxed rhapsodic about waking to the sound of the loons in pearly gray mornings there.

Ready to run
The runners

I was back in plenty of time to get ready for the race. The weather was perfect – cool without being cold with a bit of a breeze and a bit of a haze. I forgot my arm band, so I handed my phone over to my son to capture the memorable moments. I got off to a fast start – it’s hard to accept being passed up by thirteen year old girls who are singing Moana as they easily swoop by you. But the route was not an easy one. It was picked to be as unhilly as possible, but Camp Wilmot is in a hilly area. So there was a pretty brutal last hill up to the North Wilmot church. Still, thanks to a summer of running about 4.5 miles per run, I didn’t die (or, you know, stop running). I ended up with a pretty darn decent 33:24 finish – 19th of 43 total runners (I thought there were 61 – alas no). I even had some church friends who made the trip up and were cheering for me as I crossed the finish line! It was a pretty affirming way to say goodbye to this decade. But best of all was that through the generosity of my friends, family and especially my church, I raised enough to send a kid to a week of summer camp next summer. Overall, Camp Wilmot raise $5,233.50! I know how important Camp Wilmot is in the life of my kids, and I’m thrilled that more kids will be able to go!

Grey would like you to know that the tennis courts are a lie

We came home immediately after I finished running the race. I went upstairs and gave myself the gift of taking a shower in my brand new shower. The steam unit is CRAZY POWERFUL. It’s a really, really sweet experience and I don’t think I can go back to my old shower. Then I came downstairs, willfully ignoring what was going on around me, and got dressed in a nice dress just because. Finally , Adam told me what the circumstances really were. He’d spent days getting ready to make all my favorite foods, and invited as many of my friends as he could find contact information for. He was expecting 60 people and was wondering if: chili, cornbread, six loaves of bread, cassoulet, beef barley soup, macaroni and cheese, egg salad sandwiches, blue cheese scalloped potatoes, bagels with cream cheese and lox, Doritos, watermelon, massive amounts of Lucky Charms, butter toffee peanuts and a Grey-made chocolate birthday cake were going to be enough food. (Edited to add: also, four pork tenderloins, wilted leaf lettuce salad & a charcuterie plate of my favorite meats and cheeses) (Fun fact: it sure was!) Those are, of course, all my favorite foods. I stuffed myself past stuffing. He did a fantastic job and it was all really delicious.

We all have our own guilty pleasures
Dramatic re-interpretations

The first guest to arrive was, to my great surprise, my sister! She and I don’t get a chance to see each other very often, and it was amazing to have her here! It was also rather fun to watch people do double-takes when they heard my voice from someone who wasn’t me. Heh. We sound a lot alike. I was incredibly touched by the fact that Adam had asked people to bring or send poems/writings about me. They were amazing. Adam’s was an ode to coffee (which I think we can all get behind). One friend wrote a column. There were a significant number of limericks. (Apparently Brenda rhymes with Splenda.) A friend’s daughter drew a picture of “Brenda the Bold”. I woke up this morning and reread them all – my heart is greatly touched.

An ode to the transforming effect of coffee on me

I think it’s natural at moments like this to take stock of your life and ask yourself whether you are living your one and only life in the way you intend. This weekend felt pretty amazing that way. I’m physically healthy and strong. I’m raising my children to be people I enjoy spending time with, to have strong moral and philosophical cores. I know how to nurture myself in nature. I have an amazing relationship with a remarkable man who shows his love for me in thought, word and deed. And caffeine. And I’m surrounded by an astonishing number of people who care about me. I really can’t imagine what more I could ask for in life.

My sister and me

Thank you to all of you who came, or sent notes, or sponsored my run, or wished me a happy birthday. It mattered a lot to me, and I’m very grateful. If we missed someone in this, forgive us! Finally, if you were there and you have pictures, please add them to my album!

Not going to rush to take this down!

The prophet John Muir

“I must drift about these love-monument mountains, glad to be a servant of servants in so holy a wilderness.” John Muir – “My First Summer in the Sierra”

My friends, I’ve fallen head-over-heels in love. This is the literary equivalent of texting your bestie from the bathroom at a date to tell her that you have found *the one*. I can’t believe I’ve gone this long without really getting to know this man who is so very perfect for me.

My heart-throb

In a desultory fashion, I saw his book when I was up at Mt. Rainier buying All The Mt. Rainier Things. And I now own no fewer than two t-shirts that say “The mountains are calling and I must go” citing him and Rainier in the same breath. So before I headed off backpacking with my son I downloaded his “Nature Writings” – which start with his autobiography. His life starts out both hard and common. He speaks of the beatings, the fighting, the memorization that mark his childhood. To modern ears it sounds beyond brutal and brutalizing. In his teenage years, his father abandons him down a well for the better part of a day for days on end (where he nearly dies), and his growth is stunted by the heavy constant labors of plowing and toiling in fields. But somehow he wakes up hours early every day and invents (without the internet, or even many books) devices whose purpose I can’t even understand, never mind whose workings.

Somehow, from that drudgery and brutality, is born an open-hearted poet.

This man speaks to me in a way I thought only Tolkien could. He is a co-religionist in every sense. Like me, he was a Presbyterian, although raised in a much more stern and unforgiving religious environment. But he seems to find God in the same places I do – in the mountains and streams and forests. His love of nature is a worshipful reflection of a God whom he never seems to be able to see as nearly as cold and unkind and punishing as his father apparently did. While is story of his youth makes you want to pity him, you can’t. Because through the 16 hour days, the frozen feet, the stunted growth he’s always noticing the beauty and the loveliness of the world and people around him.

Me and the mountain that most often picks up the phone to call me

I’ve just started on his “My First Summer in the Sierra” and oh! How he speaks of the mountains! It’s like hearing someone praise your own beloved, but in words better than you could find. It’s like hearing a prophet speak of your faith, or finding a poet whose words express your heart’s great secrets. I thought that in reading Muir I’d have to put on my “reading 19th century white dude” filter (well-honed to note and then pass by mysogyny, colonialism, racism, and a belief that not only were the spoils of the Americas limitless they were the rightful property of white folks). I’ve been astonished to meet among the pages of these mountain praises the thoughts of a man who generally seems to see all other humans as of equal worth – a man who also understands the gift and limitation of nature’s bounty. Even as he leads sheep to fatten on alpine meadows, he laments the impact of mankind and our beasts on the world, “Only the sky will then be safe, though hid from view by dust and smoke, incense of a bad sacrifice.” (p. 208) One begins to understand by whose hand, and why and how, these marvels were set aside for us in the first place.

My reading has just begun. I start to wish that I had a lovely copy of his works – a Riverside Muir as you would. It seems almost sacrilegious to read his works on the most quintessentially modern Kindle. I feel like I should find a grove in which to encounter his texts as sacred witness to God’s most glorious creations.

Chocorua from White Lake in November

There should be some great conclusion here – some wrapped up discovery. Instead there’s just a hopefulness – that his other writings refresh and inspire my heart so. The astonishing awakening of the morality and decency of those from whom we expected a more “of their era” myopia – and perhaps a similar inspiration to be better than our own era demands. The rising heart of someone who has discovered a whole body of work that seems designed to inspire them, and of which they’ve barely sipped. I can see my future self slowly meting out writings in moments of either great reflection or great need, to feed a famished soul.

“Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days, inciting at once to work and rest! Days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God. Nevermore, however weary, should one faint by the way who gains the blessings of one mountain day; whatever his fate, long life, short life, stormy or calm, he is rich forever.”

Mt. Chocorua at sunset

Muir, John. John Muir: Nature Writings (LOA #92): The Story of My Boyhood and Youth / My First Summer in the Sierra / The Mountains of California / Stickeen / essays (Library of America) Library of America. Kindle Edition.

My mind was filled with wonder

I’ve been joking at work lately that I need an upgrade to my short term memory. I’m really good at writing things down, which has been even more critical lately since I struggle to remember the details of meetings I had just a week or two prior – there are so many incoming data pieces, decisions, challenges and threads of conversation. My home life is just as complicated and interwoven. I rarely drop balls and I usually try to be as reliable as sunrise, but before I left I failed to communicate to my husband that a) I had people ready to take our farm share b) he needed to feed the neighbor’s guinea pig. (You’ll all be happy to hear that Nova was just fine, since it turned out our neighbor’s plans had changed.) I find such lapses in myself deeply disturbing. There are many things and people that rely on my reliability.

When I landed in Washington for a week and a half of desperately needed vacation, I felt a great burden temporarily lifted. For a few days, I was beholden to no one but myself, responsible for nothing but myself. Of course, myself had planned a rather rigorous agenda of activities, but the price of failure was only my own disappointment.

My mountain

That first day we landed, tired and thinly spread, I went by myself up the winding mountain roads to Longmire to stake my claim on a piece of the mountain for two nights. And I found myself considering how my wonder and awe had been eroded over the years. Here I was, three thousand miles from the point I had awoken in the morning. Here I was, in the home of my heart looking at the great giant trees who have stood sentinel for longer than the age of a civilization. Here I was, on the exposed bones of a giant volcano fire-God, now sleepily wreathed in ice. And where was my mind and heart? Everywhere but here. I watched my attention flitter and fly like the most frivolous child, returning not to amazement, awe and gratidutude, but rather to the mundane, mean and platitude.

I thought about how my mind used to be, as a kid. I know that I didn’t spend as much time in nature as my memory and stories would make it out to be. But yet. I also know how it feels to break a dandylion stem, and have the slick mucilagenous ichor of that hollow frame slide beneath my fingers. I know the best way to walk only moderately sliced into a blackberry bramble to attain the ripest fruits. I know not only how the underside of a sword fern looks, but how its octopus-sucker spores feel rough and unmoving to the touch. And I know that in comparison to the high-growing bracken fern, sometimes taller than my youthful head, hiding dens of small girls and deer under shadowing leaves. When I was young, I really saw. And I was awed and amazed that I was *here* and got to see *this*.

For years coming home, my passions for place and awe would fly home with me – like an ancient Icarus able to take wings and fly across the clouds with a pace nearly as fast as the setting sun t chased. I was back. I was home. Here was that one Starbucks I’d loved as a girl. Here the view of Mt. Rainier that had stricken my heart with its beauty. But in recent years, that sense of wonder has dimmed. I’ve chased sunset and sunrise across the continent too many times to be impressed with it anymore. I’ve risen on one continent to sleep on another a few too many times. There are too many Starbucks, and their sugary drinks are less interesting to me. The mountain is hard to see in this hazy, fire-strewn sky.

And this year, for the first time, I saw that distance and lack of awe and was greatly grieved by it. There is no gain to such a loss of marvel.

As a parent, I’m a huge proponent of the “growth mentality” – which echoes that ancient thought that we are less who we are born to be and more who we choose to be. Driving highway 12 past the firs and vine maples, I made and affirmed my decision to be a person who notices. A person who sees things. And a person who marvels at their beauty.

By the time I got to Longmire, I had stilled my attention enough and awoken my wonder sufficiently that the rangers asked if I was ok. Something of it was showing on my face, I think. With a back country permit in hand, I slowly slowly walked the Path of Shadows, to remind myself. I sat still and looked at the lovely framing of Mt. Rainier by Rampart Ridge – made of the volcanic floes stopped by glacial ice. I smelled the sulfur of the hotsprings. I touched the broad needles of the fir with familiar fingers. I contemplated the daytime darkness of the preserved cabin. I marveled at the craftsmanship still on display in the round river stones used to for the wells – themselves harkening back two thousand years to Greek baths. I listened to silence, and I made the silence play in my head.

That lonesome valley

Two mornings later I awoke late and gazed at the most glorious beauty on my way to the high latrine. I looked over this mountain valley in the few glorious weeks in which it is open and unsnowed and covered by flowers. In that entire valley were only two humans living, myself and my son. And my heart was filled with wonder. He walked with me around that lake, and we sat on the far side, perched on warm rocks above the clearest of mountain pools. He told me his favorite hymn, which is also mine. And we sang it together. And my heart was filled with love and awe.

The very rock upon which we sang

I am down off that mountain now. Into the clarity and quiet of that mind, I have put in the highest art. I have filled my eyes, my ears and my mind with new materials (even as I have filled my lungs with smoke and my belly with good foods). Sitting under the ancient ponderosa pines near the babble of ash-filled Lithia Creek, I am readying myself to return to that world where my mind is too small to hold all it needs to hold, and my attention is bespoke by the employer who makes such cross-country jaunts possible in the first place.

As I go to close the book on my vacation, and lay down both the mountains and the Muir, I hold firm to the ground I have reclaimed. I will be and wish to be that person who notices, who marvels, who takes the time to see and know how astonishing and lovely this world is.

The living waters we drank

Teenage Angst at Parties: A How-To Guide run by the Son

We entertain and are entertained pretty often. Grey has had a lot of experience at parties where he is not the primary focus of attention. Following a few parties in which Grey behaved impeccably and carried on some very reputable conversations with adults, he asked to do a guest-blog on my post. The following is his advice to his peers about how to survive social situations “elderly guardians” such as myself inflict upon suffering teens.

Parents/Guardians, call your teens over to read this then vacate the area.

We know what happens. A baby-shower, a office party, a retirement, it’s time for a get together. You go, and you stand around sipping your soda while trying to seem interested in the conversation, after the pause in it you try and add a few words. You get some head nods from condescending adults trying to be nice, and you slowly walk away. You sit down, back-rigid, and pick at your health food while eavesdropping on what’s happening with so-and-so, and who-and-who is having a fight with this-and-this. Some elderly (aka anyone over 30) come over and squeal the typical, “Do you remember me? From that office party like a insert years equal to infinity in teen-time years”, “I remember when you were this tall! *levels hand about waist height*” and the ever so common, “Oh you’ve grown so tall!”.

You. Are. Bored. This is how to fix it, or just barely pacify it.

1. Grab your phone/Ipod/Mp3/etc and listen to music.
This is pretty obvious, but if you grab your music player and make it very obvious that you are listening to music, people will often come over to inquire what you are listening to (Very Important! Make sure it is not rap! Elderly and sometimes even younger couples will not understand or not care!). When you are asked, make sure you gush about it and ask them what music they like. The conversation will probably progress from there.

2. Stick near your guardian.
I know, I know. This sounds terrible, and not very fun, but it has it’s upsides. If you are cynical, sarcastic, or just plain witty, you can usually crack a few jokes and make yourself entertained with whomever your guardian is speaking to. Remember, keep the topic on whatever you are terrible at or amazing at if you are talking about yourself. This will usually open up a few dad jokes, and then progress on. Yes, you will get the elderly woman treatment, but at least you can keep talking about yourself.
Example topics about yourself: Your height, your grades, your skill in ______ sport/s, etc.

3. Bring gags.
Disclosure, not recommended if you are going to a formal party, or if your guardian thinks it’ll be inappropriate.
Bringing gags livens up a party, makes it more casual, and people will usually congratulate you and make it less conformist for you if you do it right. Do not bring any old age gags, inappropriate gags, or gen-z/millennial gags, because these gags will not appeal to a wide audience and could possibly get you in trouble. Remember, everything is key. The performance, the tone, and the audience. For example, I can do a decent Batman voice, so I can bring a Batman mask. This fits in the three categories: Performance: Decent; Tone: Funny and cool; and Audience: Batman has been around since 1939 and has been featured in America, which fits Baby Boomers, Millennial, and Gen-Z Kids. Example of what not to bring: A “Hi, Welcome to Chili’s” vine T-Shirt (They exist, trust me). Performance: Sly (Not great); Tone: Giggly but stupid; Audience: Gen-Z kids, and very late Millennials. This couldn’t appeal to Baby Boomers because they think a vine is something grapes grow on and in an office party, Baby Boomers are most of the people you’ll find. This fits into only one category, tone, and just barely. Not great to bring.

4. Be nice.
It’s annoying and tiring, I get it. I’m going to keep this short and sweet. People will like you better, you’ll leave a good (first, second, third) impression, and you will have more leeway if you do.

So finally, If I’ve missed anything, yell at me on Instagram (@cynicalgrey) or at school next school year. Goodbye, farewell, and amen that I don’t have to go to any parent parties anytime soon.

2018 – Looking forward

This is a fantastic time of year for thinking. We think about what we really believe. We think about the folks who are close to us – or maybe not as close as we want and intend. We think about what we did in the year past. And then, at the end of our thinking time, we think about what we want to do in the coming year so that when our thinking time comes again, we’re satisfied in retrospect. New Year’s resolutions get a bad rap, but if you view them as the annual tradition of thinking hard about where we are and where we want to be – and what we need to do to bridge that gap – it seems more like a virtuous tradition than an exercise in futility.

Here are some of the things I’m looking forward to in the new year.

New Attic
We are finally for reals I swear this time kicking off our attic project. When we brought our drawings to contractors the number they agreed on came back, uh, much higher than we were expecting. More saving was in order to afford it. So after a few false starts and stops (and having cleaned it out and refilled it a bunch of times) we’re now planning to really actually do this thing. Our original start date was in January, but I’m guessing it’ll be more like February given the lack of start date from our contractor. I’m a little nervous. Fun fact – I am not abundantly supplied with taste. I know home renovations can be really disruptive and tiring. And it’s another project to manage. But on the flip side, Grey is a tween. Not sharing a bathroom with him will be great! And our new bathroom will be amazing. And it will finally clear the logjam of projects so we can also do some of the smaller things I’d like to have accomplished. And insulation. And a clawfoot tub and steam-shower. So much awesome.

New Jobs
Adam and I are both getting started on the new roles we landed ourselves last year. It’s always the phase where you need to prove yourself by working extra hard. You have to learn fast, work hard, be patient and show up early. The rewards are great, but there will be no mailing it in during 2018!

The kids
They’ve had a great year so far. I’m looking to help them find good strategies to be 100% on the ol’ homework turning in (my mom has a plan to help with that!). I’m also continuing to try to expose them to things that might inspire passion in them, and when they find it to support them. They’re a huge and joyful part of my life!

Vacations
I usually plan out all our vacations for the year this week – and this year was no exception. It’s not as ambitious as last year. We have three camping trips (one without kids, possibly). We’re headed to Mexico in February and Washington State in August. I really want to go backpacking AND go to Ashland. I’m getting another week of vacation this year (Adam is not) so in my contemplations on how to do this, I’ve struck on the idea of doing a guided backpacking tour after he’s gone back to work. (Don’t feel too sorry for him – he usually does about a week of gaming conventions while I stay home with the kids.)

Stoneham History
I have two things I’ve been planning to do here for a while. One is run a fund-raiser to put up signs for the Nobility Hill Historic district. I’m not in it, but I can see the cool kids from my house. This is just a matter of getting a design finalized, canvassing the neighborhood to let folks know what we’re doing (and ask for $$$$) and then getting it installed. It’s already a Historic district. I’ve also been saying for a long time that I’d consider being on the Stoneham Historical Commission. I should probably actually get around to doing that. It’s just hard with the timing. But now that the kids are more independent, I have a little more time to do stuff like that. Finally, I’d really love to finish the story I was working on set in Stoneham. I’m like 10k words from done. But I have a hunch they’re the hard 10k. And I haven’t really been able to work up any momentum.

Health
I don’t think it’s lame that after the indulgence and excesses of the holiday season, we all take a moment to reset ourselves to a healthier baseline. I did ok in 2017. I ran 107 miles this year, usually in 5K increments. I did a very rigorous climb. I’ve kept pretty active. I eat a lot of healthy food, but I also eat a lot of unhealthy food. I’d like to make at least an incremental improvement on my health and fitness. We’ve talked about putting a treadmill in the abandoned basement laundry room (once it’s been moved to the 2nd floor). But I think I need to find a few more ways to sneak healthiness into my life.

Photography
A few people noted that I wasn’t in the Christmas Card picture we sent out. It’s true. And it’s kind of lame. I signed up for another round of digital photography classes, to refresh what I learned two years ago. I’d like to do a good job of documenting our life in photographs, since they mean a lot to me afterwards. And I want to make sure I’m *in* plenty of the pictures, however I think I look.

What are some of the things you’re looking to do in the coming year? What are you looking forward to?