February 15, 2015

Sunshine, warmth, and wet sand

Far Beach

It’s been a long, cold winter. So when I had a chance to go somewhere warm, I took it eagerly. It was just a quick weekend trip, but still a couple days of sun can make all the difference in the world.

The best part was Sunday afternoon, which we spent on a little beach in the islands. It wasn’t a very sandy beach, but the water was warm and shallow, and the beach wasn’t very crowded at all: just a handful of locals. A big family had taken over some picnic benches and were barbecuing food. They spoke Spanish, and at too fast a pace for me to keep up, but even with the language barrier, I could read the family dynamics. That old man and woman, clearly they were the grandparents. Two sisters lounged against the fence, talking rapidly, while their toddlers played. Teenage cousins, too cool to be with the rest of the family, brought their food over to the edge of the parking lot.

One little girl came down to the water’s edge, intent on making a sand castle. She had these plastic molds that didn’t work very well and a bucket that she kept filling up with water. She gave me a big smile, and soon I was helping her with the sand castle. We dug moats, and piled wet sand into cool shapes, and decorated the whole thing with seaweed. It was utterly relaxing to spend a sunny afternoon scooping up wet sand, wading to find seashells, and poking sticks into mounds of sand. As I left, reluctantly, to go back to my hotel, I was wet and sandy and utterly relaxed.

  Late afternoon in the Keys

February 02, 2015

Winter retreat

The chapel in winter

I decided to begin February this year in a place I love: the Benedictine monastery where I go with my friends on retreat. We arrived on one of the coldest nights of the year, but the little upstairs bedroom where I slept was cozy.

When I woke up Saturday morning, the sun was making the snow sparkle. Luckily, I'd brought lots of warm clothing. I dressed hurriedly, eager to get outside into the morning light. The icy cold air felt good in my lungs as I tramped up the road and down the hill toward the chapel, the barn, and the other monastery buildings.

I saw tracks in the snow, mostly deer and rabbit. The sheep pastures curved towards the woods, white and unbroken. I wondered where all the sheep were on this winter day. My footsteps were the only ones in the barnyard.

Barnyard in January

Tall stacks of hay filled two of the barns: these monks have a pretty large herd of sheep to feed. In the third barn, I finally found some sheep: the rams! They are kept separate from the ewes. One ram stepped out into the snowy barnyard to stare at me as I walked through. On this icy day, I envied the sheep their wool coats.


I love the way snow transforms familiar surroundings into something alien. The stacks of hay in the pasture looked to me like whales rising from a light blue sea. I wandered happily about, yanking my mittens off to take photos, until the my feet and fingers were numb, and then I retreated into the warm chapel to light some candles.


January 12, 2015

Top shelf

Last week, I decided to clean my home office, tossing out papers and filing important stuff away in a desperate attempt get the top of my desk clear for the start of the new semester. This ambitious project was hampered by the fact that I could barely get to my desk because so many books were piled on the floor. I really don’t know where all those books came from: the piles grow like stalagmites in a dark cave. But the piles were so high they’d begun to topple over, and I realized that the time had come. I needed to organize my bookshelves and weed out the ones I no longer used.

Pulling books down, sorting them into piles, stopping to read pages — it was all great fun. Soon the living room floor was piled with so many books it looked like I was opening a store. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any to part with. When it comes to books, I'm the worst sort of pack rat. I keep them even after I lose the covers.

Then I stumbled onto some parenting books I'd bought at a feminist bookstore. I carried them into the living room and looked across at With-a-Why and Boy-in-Black, who were sitting on the couch with their laptops, immersed in discussion about the computer strategy game Starcraft.

Me: Am I done raising kids?
Boy-in-Black: What?
Me: I mean, you kids turned out great. I guess I don’t need these parenting books any more.
Boy-in-Black: What was your build order?
Me: (in surprise) You talking to me?
Boy-in-Black (grinning): Yeah.
Me: (looking at the titles of the books) Well, I wanted my sons to be feminists.
Boy-in-Black: Anyone who says they aren’t a feminist is an asshole. Unless maybe they don’t know what the word means. Like they think it means hating men or something. But if you get that it means that everyone should have equal rights and opportunities, well, who would ever say they weren’t?

He turned back to his little brother, and they resumed talking about Starcraft. I swept the parenting books into a bag: my work was done.

January 05, 2015

Getting outside

Over the last three weeks, I've spent most of my time at home. The house has been filled with family and food, which means I've had little reason to leave it. Every night as my husband and I go to bed, we say good night to the gang of young people downstairs: usually one group gathered at the kitchen table, playing a board game, and another group in by the fire, with books or laptops. My kids and extras are mostly either teachers or students, and we take winter break very seriously. I love hanging out at home when everyone is there, just eating and talking.

But when I talked to my friend Signing Woman the other day, she said, "You need to get outside." She was right. I'd stopped taking daily walks in my own woods when hunting season started. So I pulled on my boots, Signing Woman arrived with her dog, and we drove a few miles to the canal, where we've walked many times before.

The cold, fresh air felt great after so much time indoors. We had the towpath to ourselves as we walked along the canal, the dog Breeze running ahead to find squirrels. Falling snow coated tree limbs and bushes and most of the ice, although some dark open water remained near the muskrat home that Signing Woman pointed out to me. She's a naturalist (as well as an interpreter for the hearing impaired) so she kept pointing to tracks in the fresh snow and coming up with theories as to what animals had just run through.

We walked and walked on the endless towpath. The frozen canal, which really does go on for miles and miles, made me think of Hans Brinker (does anyone watch that movie or read that book anymore?). We used to skate on the canal when I was a teenager, but this year the ice is far too thin. We talked as we walked along, of course, often so deep in conversation that we didn't notice how hard it was snowing and at other times interrupting ourselves with exclamations about how beautiful the winter was.

January walk along the canal

December 28, 2014

Waterfall walk with Biker Boy

For the last couple of weeks, my home has been filled with family and friends. But there’s one person I hadn’t yet seen over the holidays — Little Biker Boy. This morning, I drove out to the town where he lives so we could spend some time together.

Biker Boy is not little any more, although he still does love to ride a bicycle. He’s taller than me now, and in a dark hoodie and shorts (yes, shorts even in the winter!), he looks like the teenager he is. But despite his height and facial hair, he is still the same affectionate, good-natured kid. After I picked him up, we ate pizza at a local pizza place, as is our tradition. Then we drove to the nearest park, a place with rock cliffs and a waterfall surging with snowmelt, to take a walk.

It’s been almost two years since Biker Boy moved in with his adoptive parents, and it’s just incredible to see what a difference a loving, stable home can make. We talked about school and girls and snowmobiles and video games, and the whole conversation was wonderfully normal and low-key. All the anger that used to simmer below the surface has dissipated, leaving just all the good characteristics that were there all along.

We walked along a trail that gave us a good view of the waterfall. Biker Boy took my phone and began snapping pictures, and then he started teasing me by saying he was going to climb over the fence. “I should KNOW better than to take a teenage boy anywhere near a waterfall,” I said to him. “My sons always did the same thing.”

“I’m so much like your kids,” he said, dropping back to walk next to me, pretending to push me off the path.

“You are,” I said. “I’ve always told you that.”

December 24, 2014

Christmas Eve, this time with robots

Building the robots

We're ready for Christmas. The tree is decorated. Family members have arrived, the younger ones bringing sleeping bags since we don't have enough beds for all. The refrigerator is so filled that I've resorted to stacking food on a table in our conveniently cold garage. We'll be using all four burners on the stove, plus several crockpots on the counter. I've carried in enough firewood to keep the fire going. Twenty-six family members will gather at my house for Christmas Eve, and most of us will be here again for Christmas dinner.

Traditionally, we each buy only one gift. It was With-a-Why's turn to be Secret Santa this year. He declared himself the King of the North, and he matched up family members, sending us each an email telling us who to buy for. Great secrecy surrounds the Secret Santa gift exchange, and I haven't guessed yet who has me. Most of us wrap our gifts quite simply, sometimes even just stapling together the store bag, but it's a tradition for Boy-in-Black to wrap his gift in the most ridiculous way possible, using every empty box piled in the garage and every bit of leftover wrapping paper. His project this year was an eight-foot robot that is taller than the Christmas tree. His name is GMO, and he's standing in the corner, ready to greet family members as they arrive.

Ready for Christmas

November 26, 2014

On the Eve of Thanksgiving

Snow for Thanksgiving

The snow came this afternoon — fluffy wet snow that stuck to branches and tree trunks and eyelashes, covering my woods with a relentless beauty that was impossible to ignore. It’s winter here, the day before Thanksgiving, just two weeks since my sister’s funeral. I’ve been eating hot soup all day, lentil soup made with rice that a close friend dropped off yesterday. “I know that soup is your comfort food,” she said.

Tonight, we are gathered inside by the fire. With-a-Why, Boy-in-Black, and my husband are on the couch, watching something on With-a-Why’s laptop. My daughter is at the table, drinking tea and grading papers. Shy Smile sits next to her, laptop open. Sailor Boy is stretched out in the chair by the fire. The house has been full of family every weekend this semester, as we’ve coped with first my sister’s illness and then her death.

My son Shaggy Hair Boy and his fiancĂ© Smiley Girl spent today driving. They left when it was still dark to drive to Big Midwestern City to spend the holiday with Drama Niece – and her boyfriend, who is still so new to the family that he doesn’t yet have pseudonym. I am happy that Drama Niece, who has flown here twice in the last month, won’t be alone for the holiday. When I get the text that they’ve arrived safely, I call my Mom to tell her the news and I hear her call out to my father. He’s been busy getting out the extra folding chairs while she bakes pies for tomorrow’s dinner.

My brother and sister-in-law will arrive in the morning. They usually aren’t here for Thanksgiving, but they’re changing up the tradition this year. My out-of-town sisters won’t be here: we’ll see them at Christmas. Blond Brother-in-law will come, of course, and he’ll carve the turkey, like he always does. We’ll see his three daughters, of course. Blonde Niece will sit by Boy-in-Black, Red-haired Niece will bring her boyfriend and possibly her dog, and Schoolteacher Niece will come with her husband and her six-month-old baby, who has red hair and chubby legs and the cutest smile.

When I talked to my mother earlier, we went over the plans for Thanksgiving dinner — who was coming this year, how many chairs she needed — and we talked about plans for Christmas Eve and for Christmas dinner too. We always do that, counting up family members, making sure we know where everyone is and who is eating where and how much food we need. We didn’t have to say aloud what we were both feeling because we both knew. So we talked about whether or not we should have peas in addition to green beans, and I told her that we had to include green peas because Boy-in-Black and Red-haired Niece both love them, and once we’d adjusted the menu to suit every family member who will come tomorrow, I put my phone back in my pocket and walked outside in the snow to see what sympathy cards the mailbox held today.