I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter

tl;dr – I’m looking for penpals, or people who would be interested in getting a letter from me! No promises.

June 16 2020 update – I’ll be happy to accept folks who want to be penpals indefinitely! I’m very much enjoying sharing correspondence, so don’t worry that it’s too late!

The older I get, and the longer we live in the digital era, the more I realize that I was born in the waning phases of another civilization. When I was a girl, methods of communication were different. I was thinking about this, as we’re all trapped without libraries right now. Adam and I have approximately 12 big tupperware tubs of books in our basement at the moment, because he’s in the process of building bookshelves for our hallway. In addition to those tubs, we have books in every room of the house: fancy books, cookbooks, gaming books, paperback novels, kids books, comic books. I confess, I bought two books just today.

Growing up, entertainment was much scarcer. 13 channels on tv. VHS tapes. Your parents bookshelves – and the library. Plus the radio. (Folks – I’m talking so long ago this was before you could get NPR in Washington State.) Trust me, I knew what time Paul Harvey would be on, and waited for it. If this had happened then, we would have both been better prepared for the boredom, and also had many fewer resources for dealing with it. I had read every even slightly interesting book in my parents bookshelves (blech – regency romances and naval sea battle fiction!) My sister and I had read through our classroom libraries (much less a thing), our school libraries, our town library (the librarian was very shirty and didn’t believe we could possibly be reading as much as we took out) and made monthly trips to our regional library.

In another example, I know how to navigate with a map. I know how to get unlost if you’ve gotten lost (lots of practice with my sister). I have driven across country with a Road Atlas and a AAA Triptik, the route highlighted by the patient woman at the counter who put it together from vast drawers that spanned the whole country.

But the one I’m thinking about today is the letter. I LOVED writing letters. I recently got some of my boxes of letters from my parents (they’re trying to clean out our crap) and there are so many of them. Half of the people whose letters I saved I don’t even remember. I’d pick up pen pals wherever I went. I ran into an exchange student from Indonesia while I was at summer camp (he was just visiting the campus) and we wrote to each other for YEARS. I wrote to my uncle. (All his letters were on yellow legal paper. Half the fun for me was my extensive stationery collection.) I wrote to whatever guy I was dating at the time. I wrote to the concertmaster of my orchestra. I wrote notes in code to the other girls in my class, cleverly folded to make their own envelope. I wrote to my grandmother. I wrote to the paper. Heck – my very first job in college was “email correspondent” to write letters in this new fangled technology. (I made the job up. It worked.) And I loved it. I think, looking back, that I was writing as many as 3 – 4 letters a week.

This was my all time favorite stamp. You had to lick it. The pixels gave it a lovely texture.

And I loved it. I loved finding and buying stationery, and picking just the right notes for the recipient. I loved the 19th century air of sitting at my desk “tackling my correspondence”. (I’ve always had a weakness for paperwork which is simply inexplicable.) Sometimes I’d steal my mom’s carbon paper (I AM SO OLD) and experiment with it. I loved going down to the post office and selecting stamps, saying with the sagacity of a fourteen year old that “pretty stamps are the same price as boring ones”. I remember when stamps went from 22c to 25C (it hurt my budget) and from there to 29c. Of course, the very best part was getting a nice, thick letter back in the mail, full of news and notables, or maybe stickers, or drawings. You just never knew, until you opened it.

I held on to mail for a very long time. As a young adult I bought about a billion rubber stamps with which to make cards to send out. Over time, it’s gotten harder (and more expensive) to buy stationery. You no longer find packs of colorful or saccharine or coffee-themed paper and letters in every drug store and bookshop as you once did. You only find single (expensive!!!) cards and a handful of increasingly lame packets of thank you notes.

I’ve never fully stopped sending letters. Sending a letter to everyone I know is a huge part of my sacred Christmas rite. But I’ve somewhat run out of people to send general letters to. But here we are, in this strange time, where we harken back a bit to those earlier eras. I’ve discovered the best way for me to pay attention in Very Important Business meetings is to … color. So I’ve been coloring in pieces of art, and stamps. And then during social Zoom calls, I’ve been crafting them into note cards. And on beautiful evenings and weekend days, I’m sitting in my back yard or my front porch and writing letters.

I’m working through my Christmas card list, and sending notes to folks as inspiration strikes. But even that list hasn’t kept up with the making of new friends. So here’s the offer – if you’d be interested in getting a letter from me, send me an email at brenda@tiltedworld (dot com) with your address. I make no promises that a letter will actually be forthcoming. If you get one and are moved to write me back, I’d love that! But you’re under no obligation, either.

The Christmas with no pictures

I believe that there are generally two kinds of events in life: the ones that are fun at the time, and the ones that make a good story later. As Christmas 2019 winds to a close as one of the “fun to experience” Christmases, I’d like to head back through the mists of time to tell the story of another Christmas.

This Christmas Eve I spent nearly 10 hours wrestling my 2019 photographs into submission. I firmly believe in the near-miraculous value of a good picture to help you remember an event as being much more fun than you thought it was at the time, and so I take a lot of pictures. I suspect this year’s tally was somewhere around 12,000 pictures (which was impossible for most of human history). I have pictures of almost everything. But there is this one Christmas where we go from this:

Setting out Santa’s cookies

To this

Hallway Hex Bugs

Strangely missing from the otherwise complete photographic documentation of my life is all the Christmas morning stuff. Where are the kids faces coming down the stairs? The stockings? The chaos of a living room in a flurry of wrapping paper? The look on my sons’ faces when they open their “big present”?

Well, let me tell you a story. The year was 2013, and on this Christmas my sons were 8 and 5 years old: peak Christmas aged. The joy and excitement were running high on Christmas Eve, and the full paraphernalia of both religious and secular were on display as we came back from Christmas Eve services to lay out a plate of cookies and milk for Santa. The children were nestled all snug in their beds, and the parents stayed up very late making sure that the scene to be uncovered in the morning was absolutely perfect. We were tired but satisfied as we went to bed that night, imagining the joy our children would experience because of our efforts the next day.

In the midst of our sugar-plum dreams, in the cold dark of a December morning, a sound intruded into our sleep. What could that be? But ah well, our children had yet to awaken us, so it couldn’t be that important. We rolled back over. But then, it came again. Was that… a squeal of joy? Wait, was that the sound of paper being torn? As if of mutual accord we flung ourselves out of bed and down the stairs, only to be confronted by a veritable blizzard of confetti-sized wrapping paper shrouding our two hellions as they tore into wrapped packages with a savagery usually only found in hungry, wild beasts.

Yes. They had gotten up and started on Christmas presents all on their own. They’d unwrapped over half their presents before we came down, screeching. It took me HOURS to get over it enough to take any more pictures. I was WROTH. I knew, in some tiny corner of my mind, that it might eventually be a funny story. I’m here to tell you that the amount of time required to accomplish that is no less than 6 years.

Here’s the decision-making, as paraphrased from the retelling of my eldest son.

So if you’ve ever met my mother, you would know that she is not what you would call a “morning person”. So when I woke up early on Christmas morning, I knew that my parents would not be excited to wake up so early. So I woke up Thane and went downstairs to give them a few more minutes to sleep. But our stockings were right there! I figured it would keep Thane quiet if we just opened our stockings, so we did. But then we’d opened our stockings. And I thought it wouldn’t hurt to open just one present to play with it, so Thane and I each opened one present. But then, before I could stop him, Thane opened a second! And it was only fair that I should open a second one too. Things after that got a bit out of control.

Now, every Christmas Eve, I remind my children that there is NO OPENING PRESENTS WITHOUT ADULT SUPERVISION!

And to those of you who just lived through one of those, uh, challenging celebrations: take pictures. It’ll be a great story, someday.

Explaining his perfidy to grandma

Remembering Del Loder

The struggle of explaining my relationship with Del always started with how to describe him to people who didn’t know him. I usually settled on calling him my Godfather. It had the right ring of near-familial without blood-relation to it, and in some ways it was quite true. Of course, Presbyterians don’t usually do godparents, and Del had been a few continents away when I was born and christened.

Pirates of Penzance

What he started as was my grandfather’s best friend. They’d been Boy Scout leaders together most of their adult life, although Del was a decade younger than my grandfather. In my earliest memories of him, I’m probably 7 or 8. We made the trek to Seattle to visit my grandparents for a great family tradition: the annual Gilbert & Sullivan outing. I’m not sure exactly which show it was, but I remember seeing Yoeman of the Guard, so it was then or earlier. My grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, cousins and various family friends were all there – a huge crowd of us for dinner, a speech by Del about the play we were about to see, and the play itself. A few years later, after the performance, he asked my parents if my sister Heidi might be able to join him for some other plays, and with their assent, a new relationship was born.

Gilbert & Sullivan time!

My turn came when my sister got too busy to attend the plays, perhaps around my freshman year of high school? Del and I had so much fun together, we had to set a rule that we could only have an event in Seattle once a week during the school year. (Seattle was a 2 hour drive for me. My Jr. year of high school I put 1000 miles a week on my parent’s car.) He brought me along with him with his season tickets to the ACT, Seattle Rep (I nearly died of embarrassment when we caught “Angels in America” there when I was 16), Intiman, Seattle Opera (my favorite – he got me a signed copy of Lohengrin by Ben Heppner which shows how in tune he was with my obsessions) and “Oregon Shakespeare Festival. We also caught musicals at the Paramount, and the periodic Seattle Symphony Orchestra concert (my favorite was New Years ’98 concert in Benaroya Hall’s inaugural year). Throughout high school (and summers in college!) I got a world class arts education, first hand, from Del.

Del was in almost all our family pictures

It wasn’t just that we watched the plays together, either. Most of our outings included a dinner. I remember one night eating at the Four Seasons in Seattle where he apologized to my future husband, who would not be able to take me anywhere fancier to propose to me. (In point of fact, Adam took me to Applebees. After Del had met him and approved of my then-boyfriend, he’d offered the advice that Adam should take me to Der Rosenkavilier to pop the question.) We had car rides to the plays, dinner before hand, the plays themselves, and then the post-play breakdown. I almost always loved it, but recall Dels’ surprise when I was particularly critical of 7 Guitars when it premiered Seattle. We skipped it when it subsequently showed in Ashland.

Del and I talked a lot. About everything. We talked about the shows we’d seen and would be seeing. He spun me extremely specific tales of Seattle of yore – the people, places & events. He witnessed much of the city’s growth from a regional backwater to nationally important center. At the height of Microsoft’s power and dominance, we even once sat behind Bill & Melinda Gates at a relatively exclusive showing! He told me about my grandparents, and my father as a young scout. He talked about Baden-Powell, and the Order of the Arrow, and his mother. He told me how his parents would take him out to fancy balls, and he’d explore with the other kids and then fall asleep in the coat room. He told me how the doctors believed he’d been a twin in utero, due to the mirror-placement of his internal organs. He talked about KING TV, and the day he had a heart attack at his desk at work, died, and was brought back. From that day on, without fail, he ALWAYS ordered the salmon at dinner. Always. He’d encourage me to get creme brulee for dessert and then stare at me wistfully while I ate it. I particularly remember the long drive from Ashland back home to Mineral, where he spent no less than two hours explaining the whole concept of an “HMO” to me, and how it would work amazingly, back when that was a brand new concept to the world.

Del at our wedding

He was also always there for me. I am not sure I played in an orchestra concert where he wasn’t in the crowd, nodding his approval. He noted my interests and helped me pursue them. Most of the time when I met up with him, he had newspaper clippings he thought I’d be interested in. He never forgot a birthday. As time went on, he was increasingly at every Thanksgiving or Christmas gathering. My mom kept tea in the cupboard, which only he ever drank. After I left to go for college, Del and I were frequent correspondents.

My parents, in a sign just how much he was truly family, stepped in when it became clear that he could no longer live alone. They tackled with love and compassion the task of preparing a home he’d lived in for 75 years (which, in all our time together, I’d never once seen) for sale and a new generation. My mother says that in all the extensive files he kept, I was his longest & most voluble correspondent. My parents have been with him since, treating him like the grandfather to me he is like. My father kept vigil with him today, as his breathing became unsteady, labored and then finally ceased.

At home together

My relationship with Del was just one chapter in the book of a great man. There are many who look at his life’s work, and can be forgiven for thinking he dedicated it to excellence in the way they knew him. His scouting service was legendary. His name is inscribed in the outdoor theater at Ashland. He had an eidetic memory, and could (and would) give you the life histories of all the important people ever buried in Queen Anne Hill. He was a great patron and lover of the arts. He also worked a full career, starting with pushing elevator button on the Smith Tower (a favorite topic of conversation), through the rise of television.

He was a remarkable and generous man, and I’ll be forever grateful that he gave me so many rich gifts: of experiences, tickets, meals, marble heads of Wagner (ok, only one of those), but mostly – his time.


If you have any remembrances to share, or want to learn more about this amazing person, you can visit delloder.com

Panos

Back in the ’80s, when women had perms and air travel was just adjusting to being unregulated, Adam’s family came to Greece for the first time. Adam’s father worked for Saudi Aramco, and the four of them lived in the American compound in Dhahran. Greece is a very convenient hop from Saudi, so their first trip became an annual journey.

I’m not sure why they picked Aegina. It’s not a fashionable island, although it had a moment in the sun then, still discernable by the thirty year old abandoned buildings. It’s pretty traditional, and many of the people sunning themselves on the beach are Greeks escaping Athens for a day. I’ve heard few American accents here.

Thirty years ago, Adam’s family left the hotel to find breakfast, and ended up at the Cafe Marina, or as we simply call it, Panos’s. For the decade the family spent a week every summer here, the cafe was home base. They’d break fast here in the morning, reading through breakfast. They’d drink at chat at the bar until late at night. Adam would bring his book and read, then fall asleep.

Twenty years ago, Adam brought me here on our honeymoon and introduced his young bride to Panos and his wife Gelen. I read all of Ivanhoe sitting right here, and developed a fondness for the English breakfast.

We talked a lot before we came about whether Panos would still be here. A lot can change in twenty years. The economy here has struggled greatly. The refugee crisis and fiscal austerity have punished the county. Panos was not a young man. My father in law, Michael, who had shared many a beer at Panos’s bar, died ten years ago. We could learn little from internet stalking. But I tried not to get my hopes up when we arrived for breakfast yesterday.

But as we walked up, there they both were – Panos and Gelen. After a few moments, they remembered Adam (Eleni was particularly amused at how Adamiki used to fall asleep here). They think Grey looks like a little Adam.

I ordered the English breakfast. The boys all dove deep into their books (they’re working their way through the collected works of T. Kingfisher on my Kindles), and for another generation, we connect. It is a great joy.

#28daysoftshirts – Day 25 Let’s Go Climb a Rock

Go Climb a Rock

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.

Color: Orange
Fabric: Stiff
Front Text: Yosemite Mountaineering School and Guide Service
Back Text: Go Climb a Rock

On the Yosemite trails
(My mom, my sister, my grandmother – I’m probably running ahead somewhere!)

2017 in the rear view mirror

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.

Lastours

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.

Eclipse

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.

Our last night together

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!

Our 17th anniversary

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.

Dear friends on cold days

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.

Victorious Views!

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.

A few other highlights –
We worked with Fealty Design to create a family crest, which I have been LOVING. I think I managed to include it four times on this year’s Christmas cards.
We bought a new car
We practiced civic engagement, on both a local and larger level
I completed the two year project of listening to all of the Wheel of Time on audiobook
We went camping, but only twice. I’m still regretting bailing on the third time.
The children have both been thriving at school. It’s been an excellent year for both of them, with mental, physical and emotional health.

2016 retrospective

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.

Johnstones in Yosemite
Johnstones in Yosemite

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.

Crazy, and awesome
Crazy, and awesome

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.

My kid in a nutshell
My kid in a nutshell

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!

Christmas Eve Congregation
Christmas Eve Congregation

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.

Still a very serious person
Still a very serious person

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!


Here’s a highlight album of some of my favorite pictures from 2016!

Chicory and jewelweed

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).

I swamped!

So what does a Brenda do when she’s swamped?

Time for some good old-fashioned escapist daydreams.

Chicory - helping solve the "no coffee if you're lost in the woods" problem
Chicory – helping solve the “no coffee if you’re lost in the woods” problem

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.

My favorite northwest trail snack
My favorite northwest trail snack

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…

Mountain bog gentian. Mom and I had been looking for this for years!
Mountain bog gentian. Mom and I had been looking for this for years!

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.

Northeast Foraging

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.”

You know Japanese knotweed, whether or not you realize it
You know Japanese knotweed, whether or not you realize it

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

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.

Man and wife.

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.

The college crowd

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.

Still newlyweds

The Bay of Fundy

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 wasn't bad when we were by ourselves, but a bit crowded when four other families were there.
You are seeing four campsites in this picture.

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.

We thought it looked like Venus, or some other planet.
We thought it looked like Venus, or some other planet.

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.

Rocks in the fog
Rocks in the fog

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.

Adam examines the cliff faces at Cape Enrage
Adam examines the cliff faces at Cape Enrage

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!

I handed the camera to Adam
Me, sea kayaking in the Bay of Fundy

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!

The tilted strata were so very clear. Apparently further down the coast than we could go with the tides stand 320 million year old trees where they first grew.
The tilted strata were so very clear. Apparently further down the coast than we could go with the tides stand 320 million year old trees where they first grew.

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.

This was my favorite of the fossils we found, with shells embedded throughout it.
This was my favorite of the fossils we found, with shells embedded throughout it.

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.

It's quite literally a beach of priceless fossils, where at any moment a rock might fall and our understanding of early life on earth might change.
It’s quite literally a beach of priceless fossils, where at any moment a rock might fall and our understanding of early life on earth might change.

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.

Point Wolfe, at near low tide
Point Wolfe, at near low tide

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!

LOOK! We even vacationed together!
LOOK! We even vacationed together!

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.

Next time, I do more research.


I did take many pictures!

1) Pictures of us hitting the beach before Camp Gramp kicked off
2) Pictures of our time in New Brunswick (with narrative comments)
3) Many many pictures of the cool fossils we found (and left behind)