November 12, 2015

By the ocean, with babies!

Beach in fall

At the end of last month, my husband and I took the long drive past Big City Like No Other, over several bridges, and out onto the Very Long Island to visit my sister, her husband, and their twin baby girls. The twins are four months old now, plump and smiling, laughing aloud if they hear the right funny noises.

My sister lives in a summer vacation spot, but on a cold fall day, most of the tourists were gone. When we took the babies for a walk on the beach, we wore winter coats. My sister carried one twin under her coat, and I took the other. The beach looked different without lifeguard chairs, umbrellas, or towels. But the ocean waves were just the same, crashing down onto the wet sand.

I love everything about walking on the beach: the smell of the salty air, the rhythm of the surf, the big sky that stretches forever, the softness of sand underfoot, and that realization that the ocean is so much bigger than I am. But the best part of the walk was carrying a warm baby under my coat, her little face just inches from mine. She kept looking right at me and smiling; it was clear that my new niece loves the ocean just as much as I do. How fun it's going to be when the twins are a little older and I can build sand castles with them.

October 25, 2015

Sheep may safely graze

Monastery in fall

The Benedictine monastery is set amidst sheep pastures. In this photo, you can glimpse the steeple of the chapel, the old white farmhouse that serves as a guesthouse, and the big barn that has become a landmark to local people. But mostly, the buildings of the monastery are hidden behind trees: that seems appropriate because the monks who live there are not ones to call attention to themselves.

It was dark when my friends and I arrived for the weekend. We carried our bags into the women’s guesthouse and set about making ourselves at home. I choose the smallest room, the one we jokingly call the closet. It just barely has room for a single bed, shoved tight between the walls. I pushed my bag under the bed and changed into sweatpants. When I sat on that bed to write in my journal, I could look out the single window. I like small rooms, especially on dark nights: there are no places for monsters to hide.

My friends and I had spent the car ride talking, and we all went to bed early that evening. That’s the first thing I need before I can be contemplative: a good night’s sleep. When sunlight through the window woke me, I grabbed my winter coat and went off for a walk. The monks had already been up, praying: their first service of the day is at 4:45 am. But still, the monastery grounds were mostly quiet as I roamed about, checking out familiar spots: the sheep barns, the apple orchards, the sheep pastures, and the stone bench in the oblate cemetery. The sheep turned to look at me curiously as I walked along the pasture fences.

The wind was chilly despite the sunshine, so it felt good to enter the chapel. It would be empty, I knew: the monks were at breakfast. As I pulled open the heavy wooden door, the musty smell of incense met me, triggering memories. I kept thinking about my visit a year ago, when I knew that my oldest sister was dying. I can’t believe, actually, that it will soon be a whole year since her death. My sneakers made soft noises against the stone floor as I walked into the chapel.

The long stone staircase to my right led down to the crypt, which is my favourite place at the monastery. In the middle of the dark room stands a fourteenth century stone statue of Mary, holding baby Jesus, lit by dozens of flickering candles that visitors have placed at her feet. In this candle-lit room, which smelled of melting wax, I sat cross-legged on the stone floor – to meditate, to pray, and to think about all that has happened in my life since my last retreat.

  Monastery sheep

October 21, 2015

By the ocean

At the ocean

That’s my mother in the photo, walking along the beach. Growing up, she spent her summers down the shore, which gave her a lifelong love of the ocean. I took this photo on the very last weekend of September. That’s the weekend that my mother and I drove across the state, through Big City Like No Other, and out to Long Island to visit my youngest sister, her husband, and their twin baby girls. 

We managed to hit some lovely summer-like weather, and our visit included not just a walk on the beach, but a swim in the salty water that had retained the summer heat. But the best part of the weekend was simply spending time with the twins. At three months old, they’ve plumped up into the most adorable little girls ever. All weekend, my mother would take one baby, and I’d take the other, and we’d make funny noises just to watch the babies laugh and smile. I know no better way to spend my time.

Even though my sister and her husband did look exhausted (twins!), they also still looked like a couple who had stepped out of a glamour magazine. My sister is thin and beautiful, and somehow surviving on practically no sleep. Her husband, who has become an expert on all things baby with pretty much no prior experience, found the time to make us delicious Middle Eastern food (he knows I’m vegan, which makes it the perfect meal for me) which he served by candlelight, complete with jazz playing softly in the background and cloth napkins, on Saturday evening after the babies had gone to bed for the evening.

My mother and I spent the whole long drive home talking about how much we loved those babies and what a great time we'd had.

October 19, 2015

Fall weekend in the mountains


Every year at the beginning of October, my parents and I drive to the mountains, where my father worked as a musician back in the 1950s. We admire the fall foliage, we stop at several lakes, we eat lunch at restaurant that used to be a railway stations, we drive past places where my Dad used to work, and we stay the night at an inn that was built in 1903.

This year, the sun shone, but the wind was cold, so none of the walks we took were long. At dinner time, when we went down to the lobby of the inn, we appreciated the warm fire burning at the hearth. “Fall has definitely arrived,” my mother said as she sat down on the comfortable couch near the crackling flames.

Just then we heard footsteps on the crooked old staircase. It was my son Shaggy Hair and his wife Smiley Girl. I’d invited them to join us for dinner, but I’d kept it a secret. Both my parents were surprised. “Where did you come from?” my father asked, so startled that he almost dropped the drink he was holding. My mother laughed and hugged the newlyweds.

Dinner was fun. The owner of the inn, who had been in on the secret, had saved a round table for the five of us. Shaggy Hair Boy and Smiley Girl were full of stories: they’d been to the Wild Center that afternoon. Of course, it wasn’t long before my father was telling Shaggy Hair Boy some of his old stories. They’re both jazz musicians, sixty years apart in age, and my father was Shaggy Hair’s age when he worked up in the mountains. Even though the meal was delicious and filling, we lingered long enough to order dessert.

The five of us gathered again for breakfast in the morning. We ate looking out over the lake, and we drove to Fourth Lake for a walk on the pier. The wind had died down, and the sun felt good as we talked and admired the views. Shaggy Hair Boy and Smiley Girl ran into the little playground in town to climb on the playground equipment, just as if they weren’t a grown-up couple now. My parents and I took the long route home, following a river that wound its way through brilliantly colored trees.

October 14, 2015

On the roof

On the roof

It’s a tradition. Whenever I go away for the weekend, whether it’s an academic conference or a weekend with my friends, I cajole someone into posing for Project Naked. I try to find someone who is willing to get naked outside: the body looks best in natural life, and the whole point of the project is to celebrate the human body. Of course, I live in a cold climate, which means I’ve asked friends to pose barefoot in the snow and naked in subzero winds. Really, I have the most cooperative friends. 

We’ve had such a warm fall this year that when I asked Quilt Artist to pose for me, I figured it would be an easy shot. We were in the mountains and the gorgeous sunny weather felt like summer. In fact the weather was so lovely that the summer camps still had docks and boats in the water. The lakefront camps hadn’t yet been boarded up: people were out strolling along the roads, sunning themselves by the lake, and enjoying the last bit of summer.

“We might not have much privacy,” I warned Quilt Artist. We were walking along the road, looking for a spot for a photo, and it seemed like suddenly, there were people everywhere. She shrugged. She’s posed for me before. And it seems, somehow, that the more often a woman poses for me, the less concerned she gets about passing strangers witnessing the photo shoot. After all, once your naked photo has been posted to a blog for the world to see, why worry about the occasional tourist catching a glimpse of your skin as you undress?

I gestured to a lovely old house set back against the woods. We knew the owners, and we figured they wouldn’t mind if we borrowed it as a prop. A tall wooden staircase rose past the roofline: I figured that had potential. After all, a staircase could be symbolic. But when I began walking up the stairs, I realized my mistake. They were in the shade.

“If I’m taking off my clothes, it’s got to be in the sun,” Quilt Artist said. “I don’t want goosebumps in the photo.”

I looked out from the top of the stairs. “The only place in full sun is the roof.”

I was kidding. But Quilt Artist climbed up, hoisted herself over the railing, and scrambled onto the roof. “Perfect!” she called to me, and promptly stripped off her clothes.

“Be careful!” I yelled as she trotted across the shaded parts of the roof and towards the edge. One misstep and she’d tumble two stories to the ground.

But I didn’t really need to worry. Once Quilt Artist reached the sunny patch, she sat down, safely away from the edge. I relaxed, and so did she. “I can see right up into that pine tree,” she said. “This is pretty cool – even if I am getting pine needles on my butt.”

Read more about the history of the naked blogging project and check out the gallery of photos.

October 08, 2015

Going grey, turning fifty

Going grey, turning fifty

“If you take a naked photo of me,” my friend said, “I want you to highlight my grey hair. I’m turning fifty this year.”

I couldn’t help but smile. I can remember being four years old and telling everyone, “I’m four-going-on-five.” When I was little, I always insisted that everyone recognize just how old I was. In childhood, aging is a badge of honour. I loved that AlmostFifty still thought that way, and wanted to highlight her passage into her fifties.

To be honest, AlmostFifty’s hair looked dark brown to me. But then she pulled the hair up off of her face, and I could see that the underside was streaked with grey.

“We need a grey backdrop,” I said. “Like that stone wall out behind the house.”

The sun was shining, and the stone wall was in a fairly private place, tucked behind a house so that it couldn’t be seen from the road. So AlmostFifty stripped off her clothes and stood in a patch of sun, pulling her hair up to accentuate the silver strands.

Read more about the history of the naked blogging project and check out the gallery of photos.

September 23, 2015

Swimming weather in the mountains


Every fall, I travel to the mountains with a group of women friends for a weekend retreat. It's a tradition. We bring warm clothes and hiking boots, as well as books and journals. Weaving Woman brings her loom; Quilt Artist brings an art project. I'm the firekeeper, and I carry in armloads of firewood while my friends make big pots of delicious soups and stews. We normally spend hours by the fire each night, talking, sometimes dancing, always eating.

This year, Signing Woman — whose generous family owns the beautiful old camp where we stay — moved the weekend from October into September because she's going to a wedding on our usual weekend. The weather was unseasonably warm, and that meant that we got, for the first time, to see this great camp in summer weather, the season that it was clearly built for.

Instead of huddling inside by the fire, we threw open all the windows, letting the breezes flow through. We sat  out on the dock. We swam to the raft and soaked in the water that had been softened by months of summer sun. Makes Bread and I tried out the paddleboards: it turns out that a paddleboard isn't that different than a canoe, except you stand up instead of sit. Best of all, the camp has a little sunfish sailboat. I took the sunfish out for sail on Saturday, and then again on Sunday. Zooming along under wind power, using my body to shift the boat into the right position, made me remember just how much I love sailing.

By the end of the weekend, we were all as relaxed as a bunch of kids on summer vacation. The tough part was remembering that we had to pack up and go back to work on Monday.


September 16, 2015

The last bit of summer

End of the season sail

Labor Day weekend at my parents’ camp is often cold or rainy, coming as it does at the end of the season. But this year, the weekend was sunny and warm. “This feels like July,” we all kept saying. It felt like a wonderful bonus.

About fifteen family members gathered for the weekend, bringing tents and food. My brother brought his sailboat so that he and my father could take several long sails on the river. Red-haired Niece and her boyfriend brought their dog and their motorboat: I went out on the river with them for the fun of leaping off the boat into the deep, clear water. We ate corn on the cob that had been picked that morning, we swam in the afternoon, and we sat by the fire in the evening, enjoying the absence of the mosquitoes.

Schoolteacher Niece brought her one-year-old daughter, who had fun playing at the beach. She seems to love water in all forms, whether it’s water to drink or water to play in. When I handed her an empty bucket, she started right down to the dock with the intent of filling it up with water.

Off to get water

I took several leisurely paddles in my little red kayak. I love the river in September when the cattails are high, the water is low, and the creeks are secret, hidden places. I usually start off by paddling as hard as I can against the wind, and then once I’ve gone far enough, I drift with the wind, taking photos and looking down at the water to spot fish swimming through the weeds. When I was a child, I used to spend hours lying on the bow of my father’s sailboat, staring down at the underwater world of mysterious green weeds and imaging the fairy people who probably lived there.

  Into the creek

September 11, 2015

An event in a history book

My first year students are mostly seventeen and eighteen years old. When we talked about the 9/11 terrorist attack, none of them chimed in to say where they'd been or what they remembered. They were just little kids: they don't remember it at all. The kids who grow up in Big City Like No Other have heard about that day from parents and family members, and others learned about it in school, but they don't remember it. They're too young.

August 31, 2015

And the season changes


This morning, I had to wake up to an alarm clock, put on real clothes, and drive to campus. Fall semester has begun. I don't know how it happened, but somehow another summer has gone by. 

Gardens are filled with black-eyed susans and bright sunflowers. We're still eating zucchini. I spent yesterday evening chopping up tomatoes, filling quart bags to put in the freezer.

With-a-Why, my youngest, is entering his junior year of college. A music major, he's auditioning for a jazz singing group, so he spent last night at the piano, playing and singing The Girl From Ipanema. Boy-in-Black and Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter, who had come by and were just hanging out in the living room, offered helpful suggestions as he practiced scatting. When Boy-in-Black took a turn at scat, he sounded like the bear in The Jungle Book.

My son Shaggy Hair Boy and his wife Smiley Girl are back from their honeymoon. They both teach in the public high schools in Snowstorm City so they will going back to work soon. My daughter, a clinical psychologist, starts her final internship tomorrow. And Boy-in-Black started a new job a few weeks ago.

So we're all busy. I'm always sad to see summer end, but I'm looking forward to everything that fall brings: homemade apple pies, a weekend in the mountains, get-togethers with friends, and a crackling fire at the hearth.