June 28, 2008

Off to camp

We'll be staying for a week, but I don't need to pack much — just some clothes, the two tents, my journal and camera and a few books.

It's time for our annual family vacation at my parents' camp up on the River That Runs Between Two Countries. I'm looking forward to a week of swimming, sailing, and canoeing. We'll play bocce and horseshoes and Ultimate frisbee. We'll sit by the campfire at night, talking and slapping at mosquitoes.

At night, I'll sleep with my husband in a little tent tucked under a stand of white pine trees. After the hot, humid air inside this house, I'm looking forward to the fresh, cool air that comes off the river. I always sleep well in a tent, soothed by the sound of frogs and woken in the morning by birdsong. I'll come home well-rested, with pictures and stories.

June 27, 2008

Talking in the sun

Lazy afternoon

It's a common sight: my daughter and Film Guy sitting on the couch, or lying on a blanket in the sun, or lounging on the floor in front of the fireplace. They can spend hours just lazily talking. We've known Film Guy for ten years; he and Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter have been in school together since seventh grade. They dated all through high school and remained best friends through college. Since they both went to Snowstorm University, they'd see each other pretty much every day.

When my daughter went to European City with the Famous Bridge for a semester, so did Film Guy. And last year, their senior year in college, my daughter and her friends lived on the bottom floor of an old house, while Film Guy and his friends lived upstairs. They share a passion for music; I can't count how many concerts and musical festivals they've gone to, including ones that involved driving for hours or traveling to other countries or camping in southern heat. I'm not sure my daughter has ever been to a concert without Film Guy at her side.

Film Guy has always teased us about the candle ceremony that we do to celebrate birthdays; he'll come in late and say, "Is this STILL going on? I tried to miss it." But we held a candle ceremony for him tonight anyhow, about a dozen of us gathered in the living room, telling stories and anecdotes in the candlelight. Because Film Guy — the kid we knew in seventh grade, who once dyed his hair bright blue, who was my daughter's first boyfriend, who first taught Boy in Black to play the guitar, who introduced With-a-Why to the Simpsons — he's leaving tomorrow.

True to his pseudonym, Film Guy graduated from college with a degree in Television, Radio, and Film, a career that will take him far from home, all the way to the west coast. He's flying off to live in City Named After Celestial Beings. He's committed to staying in Movie Star State for at least a year, although he hopes, I think, to return someday to this coast. His parents and brother live here in Traintrack Village, so we will see him at the holidays. Like most young people their age, he and my daughter will be connected via computer and cell phone, but I think the separation is going to be difficult.

We'll miss him.

Stormclouds and sunshine

Sunlight and shadows

In hot humid weather, we welcome storms. When a wind began bending the flowers in the garden and dark blue clouds moved across the treetops, my kids ran outside to feel the coolness. They were hoping for rain. But instead, inexplicably, the sun began shining, even though we could see storm clouds. "Look at our shadows!" Shaggy Hair Boy yelled, and they began dancing, all at the same time, while their shadows moved across the lawn.

June 26, 2008

That's where you'll find me

That's where you'll find me

The weather has crazy mood swings this time of year: bright sunshine one minute, a loud thunderstorm the next, and sometimes bursts of hail that bounce white pebbles off the hood of my car. At the monastery, a big storm sent dark clouds rolling across the sheep pastures. Inside the little guest cottage, I wrote in my journal and drank hot tea while I listened to rain hitting glass. Afterwards, I walked through a landscape that smelled like broken blossoms.

June 25, 2008

With or without the robes

Beyond the shadow

When I'm at the monastery, I take more photos of the barn than the chapel. The chapel is pretty cool, I admit, and I like the simplicity of the design. It's an octagon, with high windows that let in natural light, a floor made from stones from the monastery land, a plain stone altar in the center, and a circle of wooden benches. A long rope attached to one of the beams goes up to the bell in the roof that rings a few minutes before prayer. The four doors of the chapel face in the four directions: north, east, south, and west. A long stone staircase leads to the crypt below the chapel, where a fourteenth century stone statue of a young Mary holding the baby Jesus is lit by the glow of votive candles.

But the barn, too, is a sacred place, where hay is stored in tall heaps every winter, keeping the sheep alive when the ground is frozen, and where the ewes are brought in the spring to give birth. Each Benedictine monastery is self-sufficient, and the monks at this particular monastery are farmers, pledged to live and work this piece of land for the rest of their lives. In the morning and evening services, the monks wear dark robes, but during the middle of the day, they are likely to come to prayer straight from the garden or tractor, wearing boots and workpants.Benedictines pledge to the house, not the order, which means they stay in one place, the rhythms of their prayer life running parallel to the rhythms of the seasons and other creatures of the landscape.

Brother Beekeeper teased me when he saw me taking yet another photo of the monastery barn one evening before compline. "How many photos do you have of that barn?" he asked.

I turned the camera in his direction and snapped a few photos of him. "I took a bunch of photos of sheep, " I told him. "My blog readers love pictures of sheep."

"I'm going to have to read your blog one of these days."

"Hey, want me to take a photo of you for the blog?"

"You just took a photo of me."

"Oh, but I don't show faces on my blog. So I have to take a photo from the back."

Brother Beekeeper laughed and turned to do some kind of crazy dance. "How about a dancing monk?"

I snapped the photo fast: the bell was ringing for compline. It was time to put my camera away.

I had forgotten this conversation with Beekeeper until last night, when my mother and I were talking about my weekend at the monastery.

"Brother Beekeeper posed for a picture for my blog," I said. "But it's not a great photo so I'm probably not going to put it on."

My mother looked at me in surprise, "One of the monks posed naked for you?"

When I looked properly shocked, she explained, "Oh, I just read that Sue Monk Kidd book ... you know the one I mean."

So now I feel obligated to post the photo just to save Beekeeper's reputation. He did pose for the blog. But yes, he kept his robes on.

Dancing for the blog

June 24, 2008

Beneath the clouds

This sky, these clouds, just these

Saturday at the monastery, I ate breakfast in the little guest cottage, sitting at the table in front of the window and looking out at the sheep grazing in the sun-touched field while I sipped hot tea. But for lunch, I walked up to the Women's Guesthouse, an old farmhouse at the top of the hill. It's a pretty walk that winds between two sheep pastures and then up through hay fields filled with grasses and wildflowers. I stopped halfway up at the oblate cemetery to look back at the view, peering through the line of trees to make out the familiar buildings.

The white steeple of the chapel rises to the left, with the dark monastery — that is, the building where the monks live — behind it, mostly hidden by trees. Beyond the chapel, the low square building holds the bookstore across from the old stone farm house where I sometimes stay when I come with friends. The bigger men's guesthouse, with its meeting room and library, rises square and bulky behind the stone farm house. Beyond that cluster of buildings, I could see the famous barn of the monastery, with its white cross on the front, and the two tiny guest cottages tucked in just below them. Below the trees are more barns and the farmyard where the farm equipment is stored.

A car pulled up next to me, its engine humming. It was Brother Beekeeper, on his way to do a some errands. An extrovert living in a community full of introverts, he always has time to chat. He entered the monastery in the fall of 1960, which means he's been living on this piece of land for my entire life. He'd been busy: an old tree had fallen on one of the beehives. And one of the fences needed to be mended.

Even despite my stopping to talk to Beekeeper, I was early when I reached the Women's Guesthouse. The hayfields across from the house cover a rounded hill so they seem to go on forever, with no trees to break the view. The woman who lives in the guesthouse, Lovely British Accent, had hung sheets and towels out to dry, and I snapped a picture of the clothesline before I came through the door into the kitchen.

"Welcome back," Lovely British Accent said as she gave me a hug. She turned back to stir a pot on the stove. "You're taking pictures of my laundry?"

"Um, yeah."

She rolled her eyes. "I had a guest who was an artist, and she sat out in a chair and painted a picture of my laundry hanging there." We both laughed. Funny to think that the stiff, faded towels at the monastery — not exactly luxury items — might be famous.

I offered to give her the link to my blog so she could see my photo, but she shrugged. "I don't have a computer."

We ate lunch on the enclosed porch of the guesthouse, a sunny room with windows on three sides. Usually there's a handful of women at the guesthouse, but it was empty this weekend — very unusual — and it was just the two of us for lunch. That gave us time to catch up on all our news, everything that had happened since my visit in April, and talk about our plans for the summer. After we'd eaten, we sat for awhile with our tea and watched storm clouds moving across the sheep pastures below us. "Storm coming," Lovely British Accent said. "Time to take down my laundry."

June 23, 2008

Summer, officially

It matters which way the shadow falls

The monastery grounds, which consist mostly of sheep barns and pastures spread high on a hill above farmland and woods and a sleepy river, seemed the right place to welcome summer. On the longest day of the year, I wandered along paths, smelling the dried grasses, the new timothy, and the wildflowers that clustered along the gates and fences. The scents of summer sank into my muscles, relaxing me. Perhaps it's because I've always had such carefree summers of camping and hiking and gardening, spending as much sunny weather as I can outdoors, that warm air brushing against my bare arms has the ability to brush away stress. As a child, I always liked the "summer" sections of books: the adventures of the Melendy family in the Elizabeth Enright books, or sunny weather on the prairies with the Ingalls family, or the walks on the Big Hill with Betsy, Tacy, and Tib. I'd read them on winter afternoons just to feel soothed by the descriptions of summertime.

Perhaps you need to experience winter in a place that gets a whole lot of snow to fully appreciate how wonderful it feels to walk in the evening without a sweatshirt, watching the long shadows fall across the fields. I love the lazy rhythm of summer, and at the monastery, the summer quiet is especially deep, broken only by the bleating of the sheep and the tolling of the chapel bell, calling monks and inviting guests to prayer.

Growing fast

How they've grown

During this visit to the monastery, I stayed in a tiny guest cottage near the sheep barns. The cottage is two rooms, really, with a small table set near a big window that looks across the sheep pasture. When I sat at the table to write, I could watch the sheep grazing and look across at the way the clouds swirled in the sky.

It was only two months ago that I spent a weekend at the monastery watching the sheep give birth — and playing with the baby sheep. Those baby sheep have grown that short time, some of them nearly the size of the adults. Of course, the adult sheep looked skinnier than usual — naked almost — because they were shorn the end of May. The baby sheep still were still acting like baby sheep, some still nursing. The bleating, too, is loud this time of year. One sheep would start, and the rest would chime in. Even from inside the guest house, I could hear the shrill sounds of the babies and the lower toned bleating of the mothers.

June 20, 2008

Sneaking away

I've tossed some books and clothes in the car, and I'm leaving the house while everyone else is still asleep. I'll be driving through miles of farmland until I arrive at the monastery, a cluster of buildings set high in the hills. I'll be spending the summer solstice on retreat, surrounded by farmland and woods, monks and sheep, sunshine and birdsong.

June 19, 2008

Why our socks never look clean

These socks will never look clean again

Shaggy Hair Boy, after helping me move wheelbarrows of dirt across the front yard, takes a rest on the dirt pile.

Playing in the dirt

My father with his chainsaw

When we built our house nine years ago, Builder Friend wanted to just bulldoze everything on the front two acres of the land and put the house in the middle. I explained to him that I liked the woods and asked that he cut down as few trees as possible. Each spring, I do a little landscaping myself, cutting down non-native trees like the scotch pines that were planted by the CCC and planting trees that are native like river birches. And then I add stuff that grows well here, like lilacs and day lilies and peonies. I'm all about gardens that require no care.

This year, I've decided to work on a section of the front yard, getting rid of some of the smaller trees, keeping the two maples, and filling the low spots to discourage the poison ivy and mosquitoes. I'll probably add another garden of coneflowers or daylilies, and this fall I'll plant some white pines near the road. I'm thinking that eventually I want to put a hammock between the two maples.

My father came over this week with his chainsaw to cut the trees I had marked, and my mother and I dragged the tops of the trees and branches off into the woods. Minutes later, a truck arrived to deliver the dirt I had ordered: 15 cubic yards of dirt. So that's what I've been doing for the last 48 hours, shoveling dirt into a wheelbarrow and carting it around to where I need it.

I like working outside, and I like manual labor. After a few hours, blisters began forming on my hands (I never remember to buy gardening gloves and I don't like wearing them anyhow), so I cut up the cuff of an old sock to put around my palms. When my arms got tired last night, I recruited Shaggy Hair Boy to help me for awhile. But mostly, I work by myself in the early morning, before it gets too hot. I move a few wheelbarrows of dirt, I rake dirt into low spots, and then I walk around and look at the yard from different angles, planning what trees I want to plant and where. It's like building a snowfort or a house of fallen leaves or a fort from bedsheets. The process is the fun part.

Taking a break to play in the dirt

That's my father in the top photo and Shaggy Hair Boy in the bottom photo.

June 18, 2008

Zen beagle

Riding in the stroller

Do creatures who live together begin adapting each other's personality traits, even when they aren't the same species?

Last week, two of my conference friends, Wild Hair and Peace-loving Feminist, came to town for a reading. They live in the midwest, and this was the only second time they've been to Snowstorm City. It's always great to see conference friends outside the hectic schedule of a conference: we enjoyed a leisurely meal with Mentor Poet, without any rushing to get back for a plenary speaker. And they brought their dog, Female Beagle Who Has a Male Name, who has been their companion for as long as I've known them.

Beagle is an old dog now so when Peace-loving Feminist and I took her to Pretty Colour Lakes for the afternoon, we brought a dog stroller. I'd never even heard of a dog stroller before, but it turned out to be similar to the stroller I brought to the lakes when my kids were little. I quickly fell right back into stroller rhythm, walking briskly along the cedar-lined paths and finding places where we could stop to sit on a bench and let Beagle out to sniff the ground. I remembered, too, how handy it was to use a stroller to carry stuff: we piled bottles of water and a bag of cherries in the basket.

Peace-loving Feminist and Wild Hair are both calm, centered people who incorporate such things as meditation into their daily lives. And Beagle seemed to have that same personality. In the stroller, resting her weary old legs, she seemed content to look out at the world with bright eyes, perfectly happy and at peace. Outside the stroller, she meandered along the water's edge while Peace-loving Feminist and I talked. It was a hot day, but we stayed in the shade of the cedar trees, looking out across the blue-green waters as we caught up on all that has happened in our lives over the last few months. The lazy afternoon melted away before we even realized what was happening, and soon it was time for the three of us to make our way back to the car.

June 16, 2008

The Swamp Walk

Swamp Walk

It's a beloved family ritual that has been passed from generation to generation although certain family members do not seem to fully appreciate it. Some ungrateful family members have even been known to mock it. But it's a tradition that combines sound ecological practice with elements of family bonding, a noble tradition that involves family members overcoming their primal fears. We call it the Swamp Walk.

The dock at my parents' camp stands amongst the cattails in a shallow creek of muddy water that fills with weeds so thick that sometimes the boats have trouble getting in and out. A Swamp Walk means, quite simply, gathering family members and getting them to go into the marsh to pull the weeds up by hand. It's a low-impact solution compared to the one locals used in the 70s, which was to widen creeks with sticks of dynamite. I'm not kidding about that either: I can remember looking across the bay to watch about half an acre of cattails go flying maybe fifty feet into the air. Although a stick of dynamite sounds like the most exciting way to keep a creek clear, something tells me the other creatures we share the marsh with would not agree.

To participate in a Swamp Walk, each person puts on a bathing suit and an old pair of sneakers. My technique is to wear socks without shoes, relying on the heavy cotton to protect my feet and keep the any leeches off my ankles. Walking around in the mud can feel creepy at first, as you sink through several feet of muck, bumping up against cattail roots and weeds that rub against your skin and sometimes wiggling creatures. As soon as the first person starts moving, the water becomes thick with mud so you can't see below the surface, and somehow that makes everyone a little nervous. A Swamp Walk is almost always accompanied by squeals and false alarms: "Is that a snake over there?"

To get the weeds out, you have to reach as low as you can while somehow managing to keep your head above water, make a swirling motion to find the weeds, and grasp them as near the roots as you can before giving a strong yank. What works best is to fill a canoe with the weeds, floating it amongst us as we work, and then pulling the canoe out into the deeper area to dump it. After a few hours of work, everyone will be covered with mud. It's not unusual for family members to take out their frustrations by throwing fistfuls of mud and weeds at each other, so that even the person in the clean white shorts who annoys the group by shouting suggestions from the dock will end up dripping with mud.

Last weekend, after working on the dock, my brother pulled up a few weeds, doing an impromptu mini-version of a Swamp Walk. This gave my mother an idea. Combining the innovation of the internet with the decades-old tradition of the Swamp Walk, she sent out an email to the extended family, announcing that we'd be doing a Swamp Walk up at camp when we're all up for the week of Fourth of July, and that she was looking for volunteers.

Red-haired Sister has a tendency to scream when she sees a common water snake, but she emailed that she'd be happy to volunteer "so long as there are people around me so the snakes get them first." Blond Brother-in-law volunteered Crazy Golden Labrador as well as the rest of his family. It's true that Crazy Golden Lab's swimming does help keep the channel clear, but the presence of barking, clawing dogs in the muddy water is not, in my opinion, a positive addition to the Swamp Walk, although Red-haired Sister, owner of four crazy dogs herself, would argue that the dogs do help keep the snakes away.

Seventeen-year-old Blonde Niece shot back another email minutes after her Dad: "I hope that in volunteering the whole Blonde Family, my dad did not mean me. I will be tanning out in the field although that mud is tempting, lemme tell ya." Her Sister, Red-haired Niece, chimed in with an equal lack of enthusiasm for stepping into murky water that contains "I don't know what living creatures."

Red-haired Sister scoffed at Blonde Niece's reluctance: "Just think how much you would pay for a mud bath in a beauty salon! It also makes a wonderful hair treatment! You could wrap yourself in seaweed too! All for free!!"

Boy in Black pointed out that Older Neighbor Boy, not even a family member, had participated in a Swamp Walk free of charge, which meant that anyone in the family should be able to handle it. "It's really not that bad. Just wear some socks so the leeches don't get ya."

I'm not sure all the talk of water snakes and leeches is creating the proper enthusiasm for the tradition. But once we're at camp on a sunny day, and a few people start into the warmwater, laughing and splashing and tossing weeds and bragging about what great work they are doing, other family members will wander down to the dock just to watch, and next thing you know, they will be in that murky water with everyone else, having too much fun to worry about what creatures are hidden under the muck.

In the photo above, my brother demonstrates good Swamp Walk Technique: stand firmly in the mud and yank weeds out until you have a floating mass of them that you can pick up with two hands and throw.

New growth

New growth

June 15, 2008

Catching up on sleep

Nights are cool at camp, especially in early summer when the still icy river puts a chill in the breezes that sweep across the water. Inside the tent, I pile blankets, old quilts, and ancient sleeping bags to snuggle into. My father always says, "These nights are great for sleeping." All the fresh air and exercise and sunshine of the daytime makes me so tired that I fall to sleep within minutes of finding a comfortable spot on the floor of the tent.

When you sleep in a tent, you wake at first light, with the songbirds of the marsh making more noise than any alarm clock ever could. On cold days, I'll wake up early to eat breakfast and then drag a blanket out into the sunny field, where I can stretch my body into the warmth and let the sunlight massage me.

At home, Boy in Black and Older Neighbor Boy are nocturnal creatures, often playing the guitar or biking in the middle of the night, but at camp they both went to bed right after we doused the campfire, which was not much past ten o'clock. I wasn't surprised to find them napping under the pine trees after breakfast. I think their bodies needed to recover from the shock of a decent night's sleep.

Morning nap

June 14, 2008

In the muck

Pounding the posts in

It wasn't all work. We had time for a few games of bocce in the big shaded field that lies between the grove of oak trees and the curving line of white pines. We ate meals at the picnic table and sat by the campfire at night. I sat on the green bench by the water and wrote in my journal. I think almost everyone but my mother found time for a nap: all that fresh air made us tired.

But mostly, this few days at camp was a working vacation. My father had decided it was time to repair the dock. Boy in Black, Older Neighbor Boy, and I drove up to join my parents and my brother for the project. Boy in Black and Older Neighbor have similar personalities in that they are both easy-going by nature, and yet intensely single-minded when it comes to anything they are passionate about. They have snowboarded together for eight years now, and played music together for nearly as long. Older Neighbor Boy is as obsessed with biking as Boy in Black is with Ultimate Frisbee, and they are both willing to discuss these sports endlessly. I think every conversation we had during the car ride mentioned Ultimate or biking, with a few offhand comments about the music they were playing.

The dock project went as planned. My father had already chosen eight trees that he could use as pilings, the straightest trees he could find. He cut them down with his chainsaw, and his crew of workers dragged them out of the woods and pounded the posts into the marsh with a sledge hammer. The tricky part came next: my father wanted to replace the crosspieces underneath the dock and raise the dock a few inches. That meant we would have to lift the existing dock and hold it while my father nailed the crosspieces underwater. The plan was to put a long pole underneath the dock, and two of us would lift on each side, keeping the dock up while my father worked. This plan did not surprise me. I've done projects like this with my father my whole life, and my role always is holding stuff up or holding stuff down.

Our dock is in a marsh, at the edge of acres and acres of cattails. Mostly when we swim off the dock, we float as near to the surface as we can, using inner tubes or air mattresses. As soon as one person tries to stand in the water, it becomes riled up and filled with mud, a thick silty mix. As I stepped off the dock, I began sinking immediately into the muck, my feet getting sucked down lower and lower, the layers of decayed matter brushing against my ankles, then my knees, then my thighs.

You can find all manner of debris buried in the thick layers of mud: my brother pulled up weeds at first and then old poles and pieces of wood. Boy in Black reached down to find a long bone from some dead animal. He'd left his sandals on to protect his feet, but that turned out to be a mistake; when he tried to pull his long leg out, fighting the suction of the mud, his sandal broke. Working in the marsh always makes me think of a movie I saw once about animals getting stuck in tar pits.

So mostly, we stood in the muck, shifting back and forth to find a place to stand, and held the dock up while my father nailed crosspieces into place. My father's hammer was underwater the whole time so I have no idea how he knew what he was doing, but he seemed to get the job done. Boy in Black and Older Neighbor exchanged jokes across the dock every time anyone said anything that could be a double entendre. Each time a crosspiece was finished, we'd move farther down the dock, deeper into the water. As the shortest person, I was at a decided disadvantage, but being paired with Boy in Black meant that I didn't really need to do much lifting at all. By the time the job was done, we were all covered with mud and shivering with cold, but our mission was accomplished: the dock was above the water, set sturdily on new pilings and crosspieces.

Above water!

That's my father's newly rebuilt sailboat at the dock. He took off the cabin. In the top photo, that's my father with the sledge hammer. My brother is to the left and my son to the right.

June 13, 2008

Hammer and splash

At work

My father, at camp working on the dock that needed to be raised. He's removing a crosspiece that broke underneath the dock. He keeps saying he's getting too old for these kind of projects. But then he keeps doing them.

On the river

The first part of this week was so hot and humid that I felt myself moving sluggishly, as if I were underwater. The low pressure systems that kept moving through left me on the edge of a migraine. Even the cats in the house just stretched out on the floor as if they were dead, too hot even to hiss at each other.

Driving up to my parents' camp was like stepping through a window into another world, a cooler, shadier one. The wind blew across the deep cold river and through acres of rippling cattails and swept through my brain. I put on long pants almost as soon as I stepped from my car and put my fleece on for the game of bocce we played under the oak trees. By the time the sun had begun to set, I was looking forward to the warmth of the campfire and the coziness of a sleeping bag inside my tent.

Under the oak trees

June 11, 2008


No, we don't have air conditioning. We don't need it, most of the time. But each year in June, we do get a heat wave that makes everyone in the house lie on the floor and complain about the heat. In this humid climate, any temperature above 90 degrees can make the creatures in this house miserable. We have lots of windows, but we've never gotten around to buying blinds, insulated or otherwise, because we don't need them for privacy in this rural area, and because we mostly suck at buying stuff like that. So on a hot day, the sun that feels so great in the winter months makes the temperature inside the house considerably higher than the temperature outside. Which is not a good thing.

Yesterday Boy in Black said nostalgically, "Remember when we were little and you'd fill up a wading pool?" He gestured to the linoleum-covered area where our kitchen table stands, halfway between the living area and the kitchen area. "For the summer, let's move the table out and put a pool there." He's over six feet tall, so the thought of him folding himself into a plastic kiddie pool of cold water made me laugh, although he was completely serious.

The heat and humidity has not prevented the young people of the household from playing Ultimate Frisbee. Not at all. It may be too hot to do chores ("You really expect me to clean the kitchen in this heat?"), it may be too hot to go to bed at a decent hour ("What? I can't go upstairs into that sauna!"), and it may be too hot to cut the lawn ("I might pass out!"), but it's never too hot or humid to play Ultimate.

Sunday night, I got an urgent phone call from Boy in Black, who was out in the field nearby that the kids use for Ultimate: they had an odd number of players and needed me to play. Yes, when the teenagers are desperate, they ask the 47-year-old Mom to play. I figured that since they'd already been playing for a couple of hours, they'd be tired, and I could keep up. I was wrong about that.

Playing Ultimate on a hot, humid day with a bunch of fit teenagers and college students is not much of an ego booster. The game goes like this: everyone runs frantically up the field. Then everyone turns and runs frantically down the field. Then they all turn and run back up the field at top speed. Every once in a while, someone throws the disc and someone else catches it. It's an incredibly exhausting sport.

Only my competitive spirit kept me from just throwing myself on the ground. Well, that and the mosquitoes that kept attacking anyone who wasn't moving. And Boy in Black doesn't let anyone quit. "We have to play until dark! No breaks! We don't have much daylight left!" But to his credit, he and the kids yelled things like, "Nice bid!" if I even made any attempt to get near the disc. And they never once complained about the fact that the person I was supposed to be guarding was wide open about half the time. They always treat me like a serious player even though I'm about a foot shorter and thirty years older than most everyone else.

The air was so thick that I could feel my legs moving through it. Skater Boy's cotton t-shirt was so drenched in sweat than when I touched his shoulder, my hand got wet. Older Neighbor took his bandana and wrung the sweat out of it. My daughter's face was flushed with red from the heat. The kids always bring water bottles and a huge thermos of water, but that night, we actually drank it all.

Despite the sweat running down my face and neck, it was fun to be out in the field, listening to the kids joke with each other and analyze the game as they played it. When darkness finally, thankfully, arrived, I rushed into the house first so that I could strip off my wet clothes and step into the shower. I had to admit that Boy in Black had the right idea: hard exercise in the heat totally eliminated the sluggish feeling I'd had all day. When I was dressed in a clean t-shirt, I came back into the living room where the other players were stretching out.

"You ought to stretch with us," Boy in Black said. "You didn't play as long as we did, but you're old." Yes, he does know how to give a compliment.

So I did the stretching exercises and listened to their talk of the game. Shaggy Hair Boy kept explaining how the heat and humidity is actually good for playing Ultimate: your muscles stay loose and you're less likely to get an injury. It made sense, what he was saying, but still, when a thunderstorm came roaring through this afternoon, bringing a rush of cool air with it, I didn't hear any complaints from the Ultimate players.

June 09, 2008

Shining through

Shining through

I'd emptied the trash, a whole plastic bag of kitchen garbage, filled with crumpled mail and wet lids and broken bits of junk, and I washed out the trash can, this big rectangle plastic box that fits perfectly between the dryer and the wall, just inside the laundry room, right off my kitchen, and I was putting in a new plastic bag, a 33-gallon trash bag because we use the biggest size, and I was thinking as I shook out the folds of the plastic that this was the most mundane task, the most boring and repetitive and thankless motion, but just then the sun came shining in through the kitchen window, lighting up the edge of the plastic trash can, warm colour spilling in through the wrinkles of the plastic bag.

June 08, 2008

What to look for in a teacher

Pianos fill the room: new pianos so shiny that they reflect faces bent over keys, older pianos with beautiful wood and carved details, and even a grand piano in the far corner. When they are waiting for their music lessons, my kids can't resist pulling up to a piano and playing for a bit. Piano Teacher, a beautiful woman with a Russian accent, always smiles when she comes out of the practice room and hears Shaggy Hair Boy improvising, just making up stuff as he goes.

"I don't know what makes me more jealous," she'll say, "his gorgeous hair or the way he can improvise."

Trained as a classical musician, long ago in Cold War Country, Piano Teacher says she never learned to improvise. When she sits down at the piano, she has to have sheet music, a specific song to play. She's always marveling at how my kids will just sit down at a piano and make up stuff or play bits of old songs they know or just fool around with music.

I love it that she thinks my kids are wonderful: it's a great quality for a teacher to have. When my shy youngest son With-a-Why first began lessons with her, I said to her anxiously, "Does he talk to you?" And she said, "Oh, you're lucky that he's shy! Shy kids are so great!"

The other day, she and I were sitting at table for a minute with our calendars, figuring out when we could schedule some summer lessons, and the two boys were, of course, fooling around on the pianos. With-a-Why started a piece I've heard him play before — it's called Solfeggietto or something like that. I'm so used to hearing piano music in my house that I wasn't really listening. But Piano Teacher looked over at him and then at me. "He's playing Bach, " she said, laughing. "He plays Bach for fun?"

I shrugged.

She turned back to the calendar we were looking at. "I just love your kids," she said.

A fine quality for a teacher to have.


Shaggy Hair Boy at the piano studio.

June 07, 2008


The minister wore a long purple robe, and she used a braided rope that looked kind of like a giant friendship bracelet to tie together the hands of the couple. The ceremony, held outside at a nature center, was attended by family and friends as well as a red fox, a red-tailed hawk, and several peacocks. Teary mothers lit candles, little children squirmed in white folding chairs, a man played folk music on a guitar, and the couple exchanged vows in soft female voices. The congregation could not help laughing every time a peacock chimed in with a screeching call.

Driving to Gorgeous City that morning, I had speculated as to whether or not LovesWolves would wear a dress to her own wedding. She did not. She wore cream colored pants and shirt, with a maroon garment over the top that looked formal and ethnic. Her bride wore the more traditional white wedding dress with a most lovely swishy, swirly skirt. I kept waiting, during the ceremony, for some explanation of LovesWolves' garment, but the outfit, she told me later, was just something she'd bought. Disappointed, I began spreading rumors that it was a traditional wedding garment worn by her greatgrandfather and brought to this country in a wooden box, passed down through the family. The symbols on the cloth were Celtic, I told the people sitting at my table, and the fringe represented the community that would be supporting the new couple. By the time I had told the story three or four times, it was beginning to sound quite plausible.

This wedding was the first I've been to in a long time that didn't include any sexist traditions: I didn't mutter under my breath even once, which might be some kind of new record for me. Afterwards, we carried our chairs from the lawn down into the big main room of the nature center for an afternoon of eating and talking. Several family members got up to the microphone to give toasts that were funny and touching. "The ceremony was great," the man next to me said. "It was just this side of sappy." I spent time sorting out the relatives on both sides of the family as I sat at a table eating delicious food. The wedding cake was chocolate and vegan: definitely my kind of wedding.

Just married

The bride and bride.

June 06, 2008

The art of the nap

The Art of the Nap

Our house is noisy and crowded. The downstairs is one big room, kitchen and living area combined, and it's filled with musical instruments. From where I am sitting in the comfy chair, I can see Boy in Black and Skater Boy at the counter, pouring themselves bowls of cereal. With-a-Why is at the piano, Older Neighbor Boy is doing something to his guitar, and Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter has her laptop out. Always in our house, someone is eating, and someone playing music. They are the two things that can be counted on.

Amidst the music and chatter, you can often find at least one person taking a nap. Boy in Black will fall asleep right on the floor, so that anyone walking in the room has to step over his long body. The comfy couch, with its cushions always yanked out of place and pillows strewn about, will often hold more than one sleeping body. Shaggy Hair Boy, especially, can usually be found stretched out on the couch in a deep sleep, oblivious to the jazz flowing from the hands of his little brother or the clinking of dishes over in the kitchen area.

The ability to sleep anywhere, anytime, is an art, a skill to be cultivated. When I go away for the weekend with my women friends, they look on enviously when I fall asleep on a lawn or next to the lake or on the floor in a sleeping bag while CDs are playing. If I've been up late reading a book or spending time with my husband or talking to a friend, I look forward to that afternoon tiredness that means I can snuggle into the couch with a pillow and drift off into sleep. Sometimes I'll prepare for a nap with a snack, or a cup of herbal tea, or chapter from a soothing book, but just as often, I'll just throw myself down somewhere to close my eyes and dream.

That's Shaggy Hair Boy in the photo.

June 05, 2008

Hanging with my niece and nephew

Hanging around

Red-haired Sister had given me a pillow, sheets, and a quilt for the futon where I was to sleep. She'd assured me that the anole lizard crawling loose in the room wouldn't likely bother me at all. And the two birds flying above my head? The parakeet and cockatiel that took turns landing on my head when I sat at the table and opened my laptop? They were harmless, really, and much cleaner than those pigeons that people feed in Europe. She forgot to mention that the birds would both wake at dawn to sing and chatter and fly about the room just above my quilt.

Red-haired Sister and Tie-dye Brother-in-law live in a house crowded with animals, plants, and science projects. Their four dogs, like many rescue animals, have issues and get into the occasional fight, growling and snapping their teeth. The rabbits and hen stay in the backyard in the summer, although I think the rabbits occupy the upstairs bathroom in the winter. The cat, slinking quietly about, is no trouble at all. The butterflies were hatching from cocoons during my visit; we watched as new butterflies flapped their wings to dry. I don't know the status of the compost worms: I didn't ask.

Dandelion Niece and Suburban Nephew are homeschooled, which perhaps explains the science projects going on in every part of the house, and the posters on the stairway that show the planets and the solar system. The bay window in the living room is filled with plants, and the gardens all around the house spill over with flowering bushes and thick clusters of perennials. Both my sister and brother-in-law like to cook generous mounds of food that fill the kitchen with good smells. When my sister buys stuff for a picnic, she includes olives and fresh bread and chocolate. When my brother-in-law picked us up at the airport after our European vacation, he brought with him fresh water, fruit, and dark chocolate for the ride home.

Red-haired Sister was sitting at her computer, with two dogs at her feet and a bird on her head, her daughter leaning against her shoulder, when she gave me an explanation for her lifestyle. "I think I was unduly influenced by the movie Dr. Doolittle."

For the birds

June 04, 2008

Off the shelf

So I came out to my poetry friends at a workshop last night.

That's right. I told them. I knew they'd be shocked, maybe even a little horrified, but I couldn't hide it any longer. We were sitting in Queen Bee's living room, passing around copies of our work, talking about books and readings and summer vacations, and I knew it was time to tell them.

I just said it straight out, with no apology and maybe just a tinge of shame.

"I've been writing creative non-fiction."

Bearded Poet looked at me in horror. Woman on the Floor nodded and gave me an encouraging smile.

I took a breath and continued, "In fact, I brought a page of prose instead of a poem with me tonight."

This shocking announcement was met by silence. New MFA stared at me, puzzled. Metaphor Man set down the poems he'd been putting in alphabetical order. Then Queen Bee Poet smiled indulgently. "Because it's you, we'll allow it."

And once they were over the shock, once they'd adjusted to thinking of me in this new way, they settled down to the business of critiquing my work. They pointed to contradictions, they told me what parts they liked, they found phrases that could be cut. Really, I kept assuring them, it's not that different. I still love to play with words.

The pipes, the pipes are calling

The pipes, the pipes are calling

Honestly, this is what I picture when I hear the song Danny Boy.

June 02, 2008

How my day began

By 9 am, I'd already been in a car accident.

I had just dropped my kids off at school and was returning home on a perfectly clear day on dry pavement. I slowed down to take a right turn onto my road, and suddenly, the car behind me speeded up to pass me on the right by driving onto the shoulder of the road. Unfortunately, he didn't have room to pass because this pesky street sign got in the way, so he scraped one side of his car on the street sign and rammed his front bumper into the passenger side of my car. It was bizarre to have a whole car suddenly come up on the lawn next to me, almost as if he was deliberately trying to prevent me from turning.

We both got out of our cars to assess the damage. The driver was a younger man who seemed shaken up by the whole incident, and he kept saying, "Are you okay?"

I felt pretty calm because I'd been going so slow when the accident happened, and I'd barely felt his car hit. I was not hurt at all, and I could see that he wasn't either. I asked him, "How did that happen?"

He said, "I saw your directional, but somehow thought you were taking a left turn and I could squeeze by on the right." Um, yeah. Good plan.

He gave me his insurance information, and he kept saying, "I'm glad you're okay. I'm glad you didn't get hurt."

Since I had my camera in the pocket of my pants, I took it out and snapped pictures of his vehicle, his license plate, and the tire tracks on the grass that showed the path of his vehicle. I well know how stories can change once claims adjusters start asking questions. He watched me curiously.

"You've got a camera?"

I nodded. "Yeah. I'm a blogger."

He looked at me again, and I could see he was trying to figure out what that meant.

Finally, he shrugged and reached out to shake my hand. "Well, nice to meet you."

June 01, 2008

That keeps us star gazing

We put on sparkly capes and marched down the main street of town, chanting. We ate dark chocolate and watched the Muppets. We hiked for hours, went skinny dipping in a spring-fed pond, and danced on the table at a local bar. We got kicked out of a karaoke bar for acting too wild, ran through a park at night barefoot, and performed a community service by reporting a rabid raccoon. We took naked photos — amazing, fantastic photos that we intended to sell to a tabloid — but then dropped the camera in the creek so that we have no record of the event.

Well, I might be exaggerating a little. Or maybe even making up stuff altogether.

After more than three years of online friendship, I finally met Phantom Scribbler, the famous and beloved blogger. (Yes, she's still on hiatus. No, she hasn't been hit by a bus. Yes, she's as smart and articulate and warm in real life as she is in writing.)

We planned the weekend in January, shortly after I had made the New Year's pledge that 2008 would finally be the year of our blogger meet-up. We exchanged many emails about what crazy things we might do together. But in reality, what we did: we talked.

We talked for eleven hours straight on Saturday. Sure, we'd pause for a moment to order food or nod to Flaky B&B Woman or look at a map. But otherwise, there were no lulls in the conversation. We talked and talked, ate food and talked, then ate more food and talked some more.

And then in the morning, we opened our eyes, began talking again. And suddenly, another seven hours had gone by, and it was time for us both to go home. We had been so busy talking that we hadn't got around to taking blogger meet-up photos. We hadn't had time to do the usual blogger meet-up ritual of discussing every blogger we'd ever met. We hadn't even watched the Muppets!

But there's always next time ....

Phantom Scribbler

Here's the one photo that survived the mostly fictional photo shoot.