September 15, 2014

September weekend at the monastery

Monastery in September

Saturday morning, it rained. I sat in the little guesthouse at the monastery, watching the water slide down past the big glass window, listening to the drops thumping on the roof. I opened a brand new journal, thrilling at the sight of all those blank pages, and began writing. I drank hot tea, I stared out the window, and I wrote page after page. When finally, I ran out of words, I put on my red raincoat and ran over to the chapel, climbing down the stairs into the crypt lit by dozens of votive candles.

Eventually, the rain stopped. I began the walk I always take, rambling though the barnyard and sheep pastures. The monks had been busy preparing for winter. Tall stacks of hay stood in a row, high up on the hills. The sheep were busy eating the green grasses, fattening themselves up for the long winter ahead. The guard donkey, whose function is to keep the coyotes away from the sheep, wandered over towards the fence. The sun came out long enough to make me take off my rainjacket, the warmth didn't last long. When the rain began again, I walked over to the bookstore, where I knew I'd find Brother Beekeeper. The rain was keeping him from his usual chores on the farm, so we settled down for a long chat.

Guard donkey

September 02, 2014

Labor Day at camp

Goose Bay in August Monday morning, I woke to the birds of the marsh singing outside of my tent. I made my way down to the dock and climbed into my little red kayak, wedging the dry bag that held my camera into a spot between my feet. The water level had dropped as it always does with the approach of all, and the lily pads stood high, curling and flapping in the wind. The great blue heron that nests right at the edge of the cattails flew off as I approached. The kayak glided easily over the weeds and lily pads as I paddled along the edge of the marsh, up to the little creek. I expected to see carp, but the even the pools of water between the big masses of weeds were still. The only person I saw was my father, rowing his little sailboat out past the weeds so that he could take a morning sail on the river.

August 24, 2014

Living in our garage

On the woodpile

Keeping the woodpile in the garage means that even in the most miserable weather, I have only to go a few feet to grab dry logs that will burn nicely. But it also means that on an August day, when I wandered out into the garage barefoot to begin cleaning the backshelves, I was not alone. All along the woodpile, little heads turned toward me, woken by the vibration of my footsteps or perhaps my scent carried across the warm air.

Snakes love a woodpile.

A few years ago, when I asked my students what I should do about the snakes in my garage, they acted like my question was silly. “Why would you want to get rid of the snakes?” a young man said. “They'll eat the mice. And unlike mice, snakes don’t carry diseases.”

As I was cleaning the garage, I tried to remember my students’ words. One snake stretched atop a log like a sunbather on the first day of summer. Another, clearly the shy younger sibling, curled in the corner, almost out of sight. “At least they keep the mice away,” I told myself. I kept up that line of reasoning even when I began sweeping underneath the shelves and came up with a dustpan of mouse droppings.

I found myself tensing up just a bit as I sorted through stuff, even though I was pretty sure that snakes wouldn't climb the metal shelves. When I opened a box of snowboarding boots, I didn’t see any snakes, but it was filled with shredded paper that just might be a mouse’s nest. I carried the box in, set it on the table, and promptly forgot about it. That turned out to be a mistake as I discovered several hours later. With-a-Why, sitting at the couch with his computer, noticed it first. “I think I just saw a mouse run across the room,” he said.

“How could that be?” my husband asked. “We have FIVE cats.” Three of the cats, in fact, were in the room, stretched out comfortably on the carpet. Then I noticed some movement on the kitchen table. A baby mouse ran to the edge of the table, looked down, then ran the other way. Another mouse peeked out of the cardboard box. Another little mouse had reached a wooden chair and was heading to the floor. I yelled for my family to help as I began scooping baby mice up and tossing them out the back door.

The five cats in the house and numerous garter snakes in the garage? They did nothing.

August 03, 2014

Turn left at the castle

Castle at first light

With my body still on east coast time, I woke up at dawn. The sun hadn’t yet appeared over the mountains, so the long beach outside my window was in deep shade. I pulled on some clothes, grabbed my camera, and went out for a walk. It was colder than I had expected. The soft sand I stepped into felt more like snow. It looked like snow, too, the way it was sculpted into shapes by the wind. Waves rolled in, the white foamy crests striking in the early morning light.

I turned north to walk up towards the big rocks that make an arch. I had the whole beach to myself. I didn’t see another person although I did find a sand castle built yesterday and evidence of an evening bonfire. I wandered up the beach, happily taking photos, sometimes wandering in the water to get just the right shot. I didn’t really have enough light yet for good photos, but I didn’t really care. Having a camera in hand just makes me notice how beautiful everything is.

I was glad, as I walked, that I was wearing a warm fleece, and I began to regret the decision to go barefoot. The sensations in my feet were painful at first, and then they began to go numb, so that it was as if I was dragging along these heavy blocks of ice. “As soon as the sun comes across the bluffs, the sand will get warm,” I told myself. I kept looking hopefully over to the string of beach houses to the east. I turned back towards my motel, wondering how far I’d gone. I’d been out for at least an hour.

I knew it was getting later because I saw another person on the sand, a woman walking a dog. I looked enviously at the sneakers and thick socks she was wearing. By then, I was feeling eager to get back to my warm room. Just one problem. None of the buildings along the shore looked familiar. I remembered that the motel was built of weathered grey wood, but that described almost every building I saw. In my wanderings, I’d been so focused on the ocean that I hadn’t looked towards the shore, and nothing I was passing looked familiar. Maybe I’d already passed the motel. My feet were so cold that I probably looked drunk as I stumbled along the cold sand.

Just then, the sun finally crept past over the tallest bluff, sending rays of light across the sand. I saw a sand castle in front of me — the same one I had noticed earlier! That meant I was right near my motel. With relief I stepped onto the sunlit sand. Already, it felt warmer. I sat down in the sand to take a photo of the castle and absorb the sun as it spread across the beach.

August 01, 2014

Rocky beach in afternoon light

Second Beach

My husband and I are traveling slowly down the west coast, taking the time to explore beaches, stop at lighthouses, hike rocky trails, and stay a couple nights in each beautiful place we find. Last summer, we cancelled our vacation when his mother went into the hospital, so this year we decided we deserved two weeks instead of one. Besides, our 30 year wedding anniversary is this month, and we figured a relaxing vacation would be the best way to celebrate.

July 29, 2014

Here comes the bride


Whenever I send my parents beach photos, my mother asks, “Did you go swimming?” She spent childhood summers on the Jersey shore, where she and her sister spent hours in the water every day. Here in the Pacific Northwest, where the surf is rough, the water icy cold, and rocks jut out from the sand, no one seems to swim. The beaches we’ve been going to are mostly empty of humans, except for a few who are walking, or making forts from driftwood, or sitting in a sheltered place to enjoy the sun.

To get to our favourite beach this morning, my husband and I hiked through a lush forest of tall hemlocks and spruce, with ferns that were waist high. We saw only a few other people. They were young people who reminded me of my college students: dressed in hiking boots and warm fleeces, they carried packs and we could see their tents set up near the piles of bleached trees that edged the beach. 

We explored four different beaches, each with a different personality. One beach was rocky and windy, with huge piles of driftwood. Another was sandy and sheltered, a calm place where we could sit and talk for hours. We saw no lifeguards and no one in bathing suits. Mostly, we saw seagulls and the occasional hiker. Late in the afternoon, though, we came to a secluded beach at the bottom of a steep trail and found, to our surprise, a young woman in a wedding dress, posing with her groom.

Here comes the bride

Atcha Ta Aye


I woke up this morning in a little fishing village in the Pacific Northwest, on land where the Quileute people have lived since the beginning of time. Ocean waves swept across the beach outside my window, leaving smooth wet sand. It was only 5:30 am, but my body was still on east coast time, so I slipped out of bed, pulled on some clothes, and went outside to explore.

Mine were the only footprints on the beach. Seagulls screeched over the rhythm of the waves. Huge bleached logs — whole trees some of them — lined the edge of the beach, creating lovely seats and shelters and forts for kids to play in. Across the water, out beyond the breaking waves, tall rock islands stood like guardians to this cove. They are sacred islands, where ancestors are buried and spirits roam.

I wandered along the beach and over to the marina, where some of the fishing boats were just leaving for the day. A thick fog clung to the shore. On the far side of the harbor, I saw some harbor seals, ducking in and out of the grey water. When a slight breeze came out, the rigging of the boats clinked and chimed. I passed a man about my father’s age, wearing a heavy coat and carrying a bucket. He nodded and smiled at me as I went past with my camera. Near the Coast Guard dock, two young men in uniform were walking out, just about to start their shift. By the time I walked back, cutting through the little village, the single yellow school bus was weaving its way down the street.