Three years ago this week I attended my grandmother’s funeral in Merced, California. The family-sitting-around-the-table time included a lot of stories about the trips up to Yosemite with the camping trailer and the four kids and even my great-grandparents. Our celebration of my grandmother’s life included the part in church (which was a huge part of who she was), and also included a trip up to Yosemite Valley – another huge part of her life. We just missed the firefall, but the weather was clement and we hiked up the sides of the valley past rotten snow and remembered stories of bears and cookies and pranks and times past.
My mom always had this t-shirt, a light heathered blue with dark blue trim, straight from the 70s. I still have it somewhere in a box. It said, “Go Climb a Rock” on it and I loved it. Climbing boulders at Yosemite was a favorite memory from my childhood too, although rarer than my excursions in the northern mountains. What a great commandment – “Go Climb a Rock”. Stop taking yourself so seriously. Just get outside and be a kid.
So on this trip, I bought a t-shirt of my very own that says this very thing, and remembers the four generations of mountain-loving women I come from.
Front Text: Yosemite Mountaineering School and Guide Service
Back Text: Go Climb a Rock
This was a strange and difficult year in the life of the world. For good or for ill, I think we’ll remember 2017 in the history of the world. (I mean, assuming there is a history to be written and that the triumvirate of Trump/Putin/Kim Jong Il doesn’t end our species in a blast of radiation.) (These are the kinds of caveats 2017 has felt like it’s all about.) It’s been a terrifying and uncertain year for many in the wider world – especially immigrants, people of color, non-CIS folk, or anyone with pre-existing health conditions. But in the life of my family, it’s actually been an excellent year, despite the background fear, anxiety and attendance at protests.
Here are the big things that went on in my family this year.
We went to Europe.
This was the kind of trip you fantasize about and remember your whole life. We spent time in Barcelona wandering the narrow alleys, we took the train to Carcassonne. We ate cassoulet in the cooling evening in the shadow of an impenetrable fortress built on Roman walls. We found a local guide who brought us to the fastness of Lastours and guided us across the narrow chasm into the ancient, tiny town of Minerve which we’d visited last in a fantastic Cthulu game run by my husband. It was exceptional – the whole thing. The kids were great. The weather was hot hot hot. The history was amazing. I loved every minute of it.
The kids watched the eclipse.
As part of what must be one of the best summers of their lives, the kids did a cross country road trip with their grandparents and cousins and got to see an unobscured totality from the middle of Idaho. It was hard to fit it in between their weeks at Camp Wilmot (they want to go back for three weeks next summer!), tubing with friends, boating camp, and camping trips, but their sacrifices were duly noted. Truly, this summer was epic.
We said goodbye and hello to friends and neighbors.
Looking through my year in pictures, I was struck at how so many in the spring and early summer included our dear and loved neighbors. (I think we had about 12 goodbye parties.) And then how empty the spot felt in the summer. We miss you folks every day, and twice on Saturdays. But our new neighbors, while not the same, are pretty awesome in their own rights. It’s been a sort of generational shift in our little street. I can’t help but feel lucky to have not one, but two generations of awesome neighbors!
Adam and I had great years at work.
It was a very strong year, professionally. I had a huge (internal) project exceed all my expectations for success in March. It might be the most successful, amazing thing I’ve ever done at work. (And all the more so for being surprising in the process!) Adam made a huge difference in his job, and then was lucky enough to get a new role at a fantastic company where he’s getting to code more and learn a whole new programming language. In the waning hours of the year, I’ve also gotten great news about getting to transfer to a new team I’m super excited about within Alphabet. I do try to keep work and home life separate, but obviously work is a huge part of one’s actual life. For both of us, it’s been an intense year but with good results.
We hired a pastor
This was a huge part of my year. I spent so much time, effort, passion and energy on this search. I learned a lot. I prayed a lot. I felt a full range of human emotions. I got to know people very well. It’s not *quite* over yet, but we’re nearing the end. I’m very weary, so looking for how to recharge these batteries.
It was a Francophone year
In addition to our time in France, we also visited friends in Quebec City and took a lovely long weekend trip to New Orleans. One of these was very cold and one of them was very hot. Both of them were very fun.
I finally climbed Chocorua.
I’ve been passionately wanting to do this for a very long time, but it was a hard one to get done. This year was the year though! It was everything I’d been hoping. I had great company. I am not sure I’ve ever used my body that hard. The weather was excellent. The lodgings close and comfy. I loved it so much.
I had a very productive close to the year – lots of important work got done on both the home front and the work front. But I didn’t get around to writing my “Christmas letter” blog before the calendar flipped over to a prime number. So in this last day before the real world whirs back up to it’s usual frenetic pace, here’s a look back at the year I had.
2016 was a hard, hard year for many people around me. The loss of seminal artists to our generation was heavy and unrelenting. The division along political lines was hurtful and scary to many. The sense that we’re all in this together fractured. It may never have been true, but it now certainly does not feel true. The future feels unusually unknown and uncertain. Some of the tragedies felt extra close to home to me. Our pastor died of brain cancer. A firefighter was killed on my street when he and a buddy were goofing off with a gun. I watched the ambulances and fire trucks pass. A colleague of mine was brutally murdered. The killer remains at large.
But most of the sorrows and tragedies of the world happened outside my home, my friends, my family. And many of them are tragedies in potentia (obviously not all). It’s fear, not yet fact. So we’ll work to prevent those fears from coming true. And on the whole, 2016 was a good year for me and for my family.
The first big milestone of the year came in February, when my grandmother died after a long and loved life. My family has an odd (and I think healthy) attitude towards death. While we miss grandma, her time had come. If ever anyone had the hope of the resurrection in God’s time, she would. I’ve known very few people of such faith as she was. So when we came together for her funeral, we didn’t mourn as much as we celebrated. I was reminded what a neat family I’m so lucky to have. Does everyone have a blast at a funeral? I sure did! I also got to sneak in my “West Coast Mountain” fix. I had a conference in LA the same week, and got to spend some time in Yosemite with my family, take a weekend to myself in Sequoia (a new one for me!). It was pretty glorious.
Adam had a big year. When I was pregnant with Thane, he started a new job. (I remember particularly because he renovated “the nursery” in his 2 weeks off between the jobs.) Thane is in second grade, and Adam just switched to a company. (The company is curing cancer. He’s writing internal systems for it. I’m trying to convince him that basically means he’s curing cancer!) This has had a huge impact on our family. The work is much faster-paced and intense, and he’s learning a lot. On the personal front, he’s been doing a lot more with wood-working. Ask him about the joint-cutting work he’s doing! For someone who works mostly with their mind, producing something you can feel and touch is intensely satisfying!
Adam and I celebrated our 16th wedding anniversary this year. It also marks 20 years that we’ve been “an item”. We celebrated by going to Ashland Oregon and catching the Shakespeare Festival. Highlights included Timon of Athens and the Japanese Spa.
The boys are crazy. And awesome. Or maybe crazy awesome. Something like that. Grey started Middle School this year. (I KNOW. HOW DOES THIS HAPPEN!) He’s doing very well, although still working on the concept of just how badly a 0 for not turning in your homework affects your GPA. (I totally support learning this lesson in 5th grade, when it really does feel like just practice.) The Middle School transition has gone more easily than I expected, frankly!
Thane is in Second Grade and doing a good job there. He’s funny and independent and incredibly loving. Also, his penmanship has improved remarkably. He still enjoys math, although he’s declined to take extra classes to learn more. He reads a lot (mostly at school when he’s supposed to do other things). He’s revisited some prior loves – namely Legos and Scooby Doo.
We’ve switched up our childcare situation. After YEARS of going to the Stoneham Y, we switched to a different afterschool situation. The kids have a little more autonomy there, and it’s awesome, but it’s also a lot less controlled. It’s been going really well so far! It feels like a huge deal in the daily life of the family, and like a marker in the “wow, they’re really growing up aren’t they?” page. One change is that childcare isn’t available for the break weeks – like winter break, Feb break and April break. We just worked from home this last week (or took the kids into the office!). We’ll ship them out to Washington in February, and import Meme for the April break!
This was a huge and hard year in the life of my church. Last Christmas Eve was the last time our Interim Minister worshiped with us. We’re coming up on the 1 year anniversary of his diagnosis with glioblastoma. He was gone by Easter. We scrambled to keep things running, and I’m proud of how well we have stuck together. We finished the Mission Study (a process I ran). We finally have started the Pastor Nominating Committee (which I’m chairing). I’m also on Session (our leadership board) right now. Adam is chairing Trustees (the “let’s keep the building and finances in one piece” group). It’s a lot of work in a hard time for the congregation. But it’s meaningful work, and it’s with people I care deeply about.
For me, this was a good year. I am still obnoxiously happy with my job. I got to travel all over the place this year (which actually gets pretty tiring after a while). I went to Madrid, Chicago, Houston and LA. I am pretty sure I went more places, but I can’t remember them. I’ve continued my faithful once-a-week updating of this blog (although the readership has declined prodigiously, which makes me sad). A new thing for me this year was running. I started running in April, and have gone on 44 runs since then totaling 113 miles. I generally run about a 5k on my runs. I’m slow, but it’s one small fight against entropy.
We have continued many of the rich and wonderful things we usually do. We went camping 3 times this year. We hosted Piemas and Mocksgiving, and added in Flynns Fiery Feast as the third event of the year. We played tons of board games at 9 pm when the kids were finally in bed. We went on hikes. We watched movies. We took trips and had adventures. We visited Quebec City in April, spent Thanksgiving hitting museums in DC, and took the boys to their first gaming convention. We played Pokemon Go. We spent time with our neighbors, fund-raised for a service dog, and stuffed Easter Eggs together around the fireplace. We learned we loved roller coasters and that the kids have absolutely 0 fear of heights.
It was a joyful year. I can only hope that 2017 is also a joyful year – not just for my family, but for yours. May our worst fears evaporate and our greatest hopes come to pass. May the next year find us more peaceful, more joyful and with a bounty of love and sufficiency spread across all humanity!
So, my life is pretty much pandemonium right now. Word just came that our pastor died on Friday. I just got back from a 9 day tour of California that started with my grandmother’s funeral and ended with a work conference. Piemas is happening this coming weekend. I have international travel planned the week after Piemas. My husband is traveling for a week in there. Holy Week hits then, with the church services and trumpeting. I have a great candidate (Anthony Wilson) running for Stoneham Town Selectman whom I’d really like to support. And to top it all off, Grey has a three month research project due on Beethoven – which is brilliant teaching but requires real work to be done at home. I need to finish the final report on the Mission Study Taskforce (maybe Grey and I can work on our reports together?) And I promised the Historical Commission I’d kick off a project to get some signs for Nobility Hill “at the beginning of the new year” (a time quickly passing).
So what does a Brenda do when she’s swamped?
Time for some good old-fashioned escapist daydreams.
I’d love to hear what your favorite daydreams are and were. But a preferred genre of mine is the frontierswoman/forager fantasy. I read “My Side of the Mountain” at a tender age, shortly after having read the extremely influential “Nya Nuki: Shoshone Girl Who Ran“. Both of these books include children whose ingenuity in living off the land and foraging offered a kind of independence – not just from grownups, but from civilization itself. I desperately wanted to be the sort of girl who could safely skin a porcupine, or tan my own leather clothing in an oak stump. I even (oh bliss!) lived in the middle of the woods. Real woods. The kind of woods where if you got lost you were in deep trouble. Woods that had deer and bear and cougars. (I actually saw a cougar in person once only a few miles from my home. Memorable.)
Surely with a hatchet, all the information I’d gleaned from many re-readings of both books (plus Swiss Family Robinson, Robinson Crusoe and several of the other classics – this was actually before “Hatchet”) I’d be all set to live off the land. I was pretty happy and had no desire to run away from home, but I planned out how I could make it work with my extensive skills if needed.
Only one problem – I had no skills. Sure, I knew the uses of a handful of plants. Wood sorrel is extremely tasty and I still often grab a few when I’m wandering in the woods (happily I didn’t eat enough to discover that overconsumption can lead to kidney stones). There’s an abundant plant in the Cascades called Vanilla Leaf that smells great. I was unaware of its insect repelling properties, but had sachets of it tied in my closet for years. (I’ll probably gather another one this year!) I knew to rub the immature heads of fiddles on my nettle stings (somehow I managed to encounter either nettles or blackberries almost every time I went into the woods). The blackberries of the west are so prolific and numerous that it’s hard to imagine anyone going hungry in August from their sheer abundance. I enjoyed a huckleberry from an old stump as much as the next girl.
But that was about it. I never fished. I never hunted. And I didn’t have any other plants in my repertoire. I would’ve gotten hungry right fast. And I could never find a book that taught me what I wanted to know…
I tried various things during my life to remedy this. I looked for books on plants at the library. They were all arcane and above my head and didn’t have nearly enough pictures. I tried to take a class on Ethnobotany in college. They denied me. Something about “300 level botany class” and “your only science course was Chemistry for English Majors”. Mom and I had a precious book of flowers we took with us backpacking and managed to bag almost all of them, except the Mountain Bog Gentian (above) which took me nearly 20 years.
But I was no nearer my goal of wilderness sustenance. I’d read “survivalist” books while camping, but so many of them are long on concept and short on the sort of detail you want before you put a wild plant in your mouth.
Then, the other day I was in Barnes and Noble with a $20 gift certificate ALL FOR ME. I wandered through the shelves of this actual physical book store. And I came across Northeast Foraging, by Leda Meredith.
Folks, this is the book I’ve been waiting for my whole life. It has great, clear pictures. It has instructions on when to find this stuff, and where. It tells you how to use the parts that are useful. It helpfully informs you about risks or dangers or poisonous lookalikes. It even tells you if the plant is endangered or not. (My favorite lines come from some of the more invasive plants. She says about sustainably harvesting japanese knotweed “You’re joking right? … I guarantee that despite your most ambitious collecting, it will survive. Harvest at will.”
I’ve been reading about a few plants every night, and it’s awesome. In the pages of this book, I’ve met many old friends whose names I never knew. I used to play with plantain on the playground (man, I would have LOVED to have known uses for it back then!) I first met chicory the first summer I actually spent in New England and have long admired it from the car window. There’s a mulberry tree on the walk to Lindenwood which I now intend to raid this fall. I’ve seen the odd-looking stands of mayapples and the spring-loaded seed-pods of jewelweed provided me with many a happy moment of lightly touching them to make them go SPROING! But I never knew their names, or uses. It’s such a pleasure to finally come to know a friend you’ve known by sight for a long time.
There are some that are theoretically common which I’ve never seen. Perhaps I’m too north in the range. (Thinking of you, paw-paws!)
But now, in the midst of this tumultuous period, I go to sleep thinking of the old friends, the past walks, and the future adventures I’ll have trying to find and eat some of these.
What do you like to daydream of? Which daydreams did you have as a kid that you’ve sadly lost in grownuphood? (Or did they evolve?)
Fifteen years ago today I woke up as Brenda Johnstone for the last time. It was a bright, clear August day in Washington State when I exchanged vows in a tiny white church with my beloved. The whole congregation was there. My family was in force. His family had a long way to travel, but came too. Some intrepid college friends made the transcontinental journey.
I remember that a big beetle got caught in the lace of my mother’s wedding dress. My left knee shook through the whole service. Adam wouldn’t stop mouthing “I love you”. My brother forgot a verse of the Wedding Song (a faux pas he’ll never be allowed to forget). I insisted on Wagner’s version of Lohengrin’s Bridal March for the processional and Medelssohn’s proper recessional. But we did not have live music. We used the same version of the wedding vows my parents had used – and have claimed ever since that “I slipped Elden a $20 to add ____ to the vows.” (Usually “entertain me”) (Elden’s integrity and incorruptibility is what make that so funny.) At the buffet reception there was chocolate cake, Martinelli’s sparkling cider (it was a dry wedding) and an espresso van.
That night I fell asleep in a bug-ridden nearby bed and breakfast as Brenda Flynn, for the first time.
Fifteen years is a long time. If you’re thinking “I didn’t think Brenda was that old!” Well. I was 21 on that bright August day. Fifteen years, three homes, two children. Fifteen years also marks the length of time we’ve been playing once a week with the same gamers, and how long we’ve been members of our church. These are not coincidental numbers. That day fifteen years ago marks not only the beginning of my married life, but my adult life. It’s been a wonderful, joyful fifteen years.
If I had it all to do over again, I would joyfully do so.
While my parents and children were off exploring colonial America (and being Very Hot in the process), Adam and I took an alternate track and went up North to the Bay of Fundy.
I struggled quite a bit with what to do this vacation. I knew it would be happening, as it’s a crying shame not to go on vacation with your spouse when your parents are taking your children for a week. For a while I dabbled with the South of France, but after a very lovely month off and tropical island vacation between jobs, that seemed a touch financially irresponsible. (Tragically. Still saving it for next time.) So then I figured we’d go camping in Canada. You know – like the White Mountains only with Tim Hortons. I did not very much research, no prebooking, and very little planning. I knew I wanted to see the Joggins Cliffs. I knew the Bay of Fundy was internationally renowned for have the world’s largest tidal differences. I knew it was a Dark Sky preserve. And I knew it was in Canada. On this vast wealth of knowledge we went on vacation.
On Friday we went to a very swank French restaurant in Boston (the meal there may have cost us as much as the rest of the week put together) and walked across a glowing Boston back to where my car was parked at my office in Cambridge. Then Saturday we packed and headed north. The first night we spent in Bangor (which might be the first time I’ve ever used rewards miles for anything). The second day, we listened to podcasts and hit the Bay of Fundy National Park. We went to the middle of nowhere, took a right, and drove for another hour on mosquito-ridden roads to get to Point Wolfe Campground. I’d picked it because it seemed rural, tent-focused, and was right near the bay we’d come so far to see.
It was also, it turns out, crammed cheek-to-jowl and lit with obnoxious street lights. (Which seriously – National Park in a dark sky reserve with street lights?!?! What are you thinking, people?!) The sites were also often too small for us to pitch our (granted – enormous) tent on. We picked the least bad site and thought dark thoughts about switching campgrounds, although we were too lazy.
That first night we came in was beyond foggy. We kept driving past these viewpoints that claimed to be veiwpoints that were really fog-points. It started raining almost as soon as we entered Canada, and not a day on vacation was without its precipitation. But that first night was the foggiest. We went down the trail in the dying light to the Wolfe Point beach. We walked and walked on slick rocks and red clay and never found the ocean – it was too far out. Our shoes and pants were covered nearly to the knee in the reddest of clay. It was otherworldly in the mist, as we could not even hear the sound of waves and mountains appeared and disappeared to our right and left. As we slept that night, raindrops fell on our head through the thin cover of our tent-sides.
On Monday we went to Cape Enrage. With the timing that evinced my careful preparation and thought, we were there at high tide (which meant we couldn’t see very much). We opted not to do the zip line or rappelling, but we spent a long time sorting through rocks finding all manner of 320 million year old fossils. We thoroughly enjoyed the treasure hunt of finding the fossils. In fact, so much of my photography of this journey was fossil-related I have an entire album of fossils from Cape Enrage and Joggins Cliffs (penultimate day) which you can see here. We also got some dulse. Gamers beware.
It should be noted that someone (who would that be?) quite literally did not think for a minute about the well known fact that our cell coverage does not extend to Canada. We grabbed 15 minutes of wifi a day by parking outside of the National Park headquarters, and once or twice dining in establishments that offered free wifi. We navigated with actual paper maps and brochures. How very odd it was!
Tuesday we went sea kayaking. Given that we’d come so far to see these cliffs and tides, this seemed like the thing to do. Fun fact: sea kayaking is quite a workout! We didn’t turn over (there are hardly any waves that we witnessed in the Bay of Fundy, although we saw dolphins twice). We did manage to keep up with all the appallingly energetic Quebecois couples with their teeny French-speaking children who went on the tour with us. Mostly. It was a really lovely trip on what we were assured was a “beautiful warm” day on the Bay of Fundy. By which they mean light rain and mid-60s. Man, those are some muscles I don’t use often. But it was a lot of fun!
Wednesday I thought far enough ahead to plan for a day that involved a lot of sitting. It also involved thunder as we drove through Moncton. We arrived at the Joggins Fossil Cliffs after a long drive and several outlandish theories about Nova Scotia (supported by too few data points – eg “Nova Scotia is primarily inhabited by cows”).
So here’s the thing about your Bay of Fundy vacation.
1) Be prepared for it to be cold, even during a heat wave in Boston in mid summer.
2) Be prepared for it to be soggy. See also #1. 3) Plan your trip around the tides.
But in this case, I tragically did not calculate the tides. One great thing I got out of this was a clearer understanding of how tides world. They go low to high every 6 hours and 18 minutes – based on where the moon is as the earth turns plus the fact that the moon is also in motion (that’s the 18 minutes). We got to Joggins 2 hours before high tide, just as the water was getting high enough to prevent us from getting to the coolest stuff. And four hours before it would be any lower than it was that very moment (at 3 pm, a 3 hour drive from our tent). We hunted the shore for neat fossils and found very many indeed – but I was really sad that we’d come so far in order to NOT see the famed standing trees which have stood where they took root for well over 300 million years. Trees that helped Darwin understand evolution. And they remained past a spit of land that the high tide kept from us. So close!
That night, for the first time, we truly enjoyed the dark skies afforded us by being 100 miles from the nearest Starbucks. The Milky Way was as clear as though it was painted across the sky. The stars were close, glorious, beguiling, beloved. We stayed out, necks crooked, enjoying the brilliance of the archaic night sky.
By this time, we’d pretty much exhausted the entertainment options within a 2 mile drive. I mean, there were hiking trails. And, um, er… the Hopewell Rocks. We didn’t see those. It was a beautiful, lovely, restful place. But the combination of an inhospitable campground and not much else to do encouraged us to go home a wee bit earlier than originally planned. On Thursday, we awoke to a novelty. Sunshine.
We grabbed the advantage to go on a hike. Now, Adam was nervous because the hike said “difficult”. When you take a “difficult” hike in the White Mountains (or even a “moderate”) you’re well advised to name your next-of-kin and carry a body brace in for the very likely event you break a leg falling off a cliff after being struck by lightening. I trusted this was more a “difficult” hike the way every other place I’ve been rated difficult and my confidence was rewarded. We hiked up these rain-forest hills along a bluff and to a spectacular lookout of the Bay. It looks almost cheery in the sunshine!
Then we crawled in the car and began the 10 hour drive home.
It was a good vacation. It was restful. It opened the clogged arteries of the soul. We had a really good time being together, as we so often do. I crossed off a few bucket list items: sea kayaking, Joggins Cliffs, dulse, dragging my husband to Canada. But it was not a transcendently wonderful vacation in the way the Wonderland Trail, Istanbul, or even Ashland have been.
This is the first time I’ve ever taken the kids swimming and not gotten in the water. (It’s cold. And buggy. They’re crazy.) They’re making up their own rules and I’m not having to say
anything at all. This is the way they grow up, my friends, on Saturday mornings when you feel too lazy to put on your own swimsuit.