October 31, 2008

Skin

To meditate, I go first to my meditation cave. That sounds pretty official, but actually, it's just the inside of my clothes closet. If I shut the door to my bedroom and then the door to my closet, I am double doors away from kids, cats, telephones, and computers. I sit on the floor, my back against the wall, shirts brushing against the top of my head. I breathe in the smell of freshly laundered cotton and leather shoes. The darkness hugs me.

At first, I find myself chomping on thoughts — the salty bits, the sweet morsels, the spicy spiraling thoughts that smell so tempting. I keep grabbing one without even realizing it. One minute I'll be sinking into meditation and the next moment I'll be saying to myself, "I can't believe he said that!" It's difficult to push those thoughts aside, leave them lying in the air. And below the thoughts are layers of feelings, boxes and bins of anger and sadness and frustration, the feelings that tend to sink below the happier thoughts that I live with daily. The little clothes closet quite fills up with thoughts and feelings, all swirling about in the darkness.

Some days, I am able to push the swirling aside and sink into stillness, allowing myself to separate from all the chaos and find a place where I can simply be. Some days the closet around me — the sneakers, the shelf of jeans, the hanging dress shirts — disappears. Sometimes I can move into a place where I can listen to a power greater than myself. Other days, the jangling thoughts are just too loud: I feel successful if I can just get them to quiet a little.

So I'd be lying it I said that I stepped out of the closet with profound spiritual insights, with nuggets of great wisdom. Mostly, I don't. And often I'm angry at myself for letting thoughts intrude. Always, it's a struggle to achieve anything that even approximates meditation. And yet, something is happening, something that keeps me at this practice.

I can feel it. Even though I'm sitting still the whole time, I am twisting and turning, rubbing against rock. My skin turns translucent and peels away. I am shedding.

Skin

October 29, 2008

First snow

First snow

We always get some snow before Halloween. Often the ground isn't frozen yet, so the snow doesn't stay very long, but it's enough to remind us that we need to get out the wool socks, the mittens, and the snow shovels. It means we need to hurry to bring in the firewood, put away the lawn chairs, and get the snow tires on the car.

Last night, the snow was just beginning as I drove home. I built a fire and settled down on the comfy couch for the evening, but my older kids decided to go out to get something they needed for their Halloween costumes. My brother and his wife are having a big Halloween party this weekend, and family members of all ages are dressing up.

Shaggy Hair, who had been taking a nap on the couch, decided to go with them. Still half-asleep, dressed in sneakers and a t-shirt, he opened the front door. A cold gust of wind blew snowflakes across his hair and face. White covered the lawn, the trees, even the road. I could hear him laughing as he stepped into the slushy snow.

"This fucking sucks," he yelled dramatically. He turned to add: "And at the same time, it's awesome."

October 28, 2008

Dipped in hot sauce

We eat french fries in class. Every day.

Because they take science courses with labs and recitations, most of my students have pretty tight schedules, with no time for lunch. And my schedule is the same way. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I teach three 80-minute classes in a row, right in the middle of the day, often followed by a meeting. I cannot survive that long without food. Seriously, I would faint if I tried it. So early in the semester, I discussed the situation with my students. I realized that many of them were not eating lunch — and often they hadn't had breakfast either. No wonder they were ready to crash by the time they got to their late afternoon classes.

I told them I sometimes bring food or juice to class, and they were welcome to do the same, so long as they ate it quietly, and when they left, removed all evidence of food. Since I teach in a classroom that's in the same building as a dining hall, some of the students will rush down in between classes and bring food back up with them, usually a plate of food for themselves and something to share with the class.

So what food can be shared amongst twenty people, some of whom are vegetarians? The answer is simple. French fries. Every Tuesday and Thursday, for my 12:30 class, at least one student will appear with a steaming mound of french fries, along with hot sauce and ketchup, and we'll quietly pass the food around while we talk.

The result is that I've been trained like Pavlov's dog. When I walk into the classroom, I begin to salivate.

October 27, 2008

Meant to be broken

Path

On Friday's picnic, FireAnt, BusyLifeAlsoWrites, and I hiked first along a trail with a nice path, even a handrail. But then we came to signs with ominous warnings: "Danger! Stay on the path!" Of course, we ignored the signs and climbed over the fence. Those signs have been there for years, but the waterfall has been there even longer. And who in their right mind is going to pay attention to words on a sign when they've got the sound of a waterfall in their ears? The paths that lead down to the creek at the bottom are still navigable, even if the state doesn't want us to use them. We looked around hopefully, to see if some cops would come to arrest us — what great blog fodder that would be! But sadly, no one showed up with handcuffs and we hiked down into the valley without any excitement.

Breaking the rules.  Again.

That's FireAnt in the photo, blatantly breaking the rules.

October 26, 2008

Cold wind and spray

Over rock

We meant to get naked. But the season for outdoor naked shots is pretty short in my part of the country, and we've already had snow. All three of us women were dressed in layers -- socks, underwear, jeans, shirts, fleece, winter coats. FireAnt even brought gloves. We'd hiked down to a waterfall, a secluded spot perfect for a naked photo shoot, but it wasn't modesty that kept our clothes on. It was the cold October wind.

Even fully dressed, we were already a bit cold when we started the picnic. FireAnt and I arrived first and carefully reserved a picnic table in the sun. Well, it turns out that reserving the table was a bit unnecessary since we were, actually, the only people in the whole picnic area. By the time BusyLifeAlsoWrites arrived, we welcomed the hot thermos of tea she'd brought, wrapping our hands around the cups as if they were minature fires.

I explained that we should be lying on the ground, that we'd be much warmer. We'd be in the boundary layer of the earth's atmosphere, I explained, a microclimate that is actually much warmer than where we were, sitting perched several feet above the ground on the picnic table. We needed to be down in the boundary layer, where mosses grow, and the wind speed is reduced.

FireAnt looked at me the way people always do when I start spouting off science stuff that I've learned from my students at Little Green College. That is, she ignored me as if I was crazy. "Isn't the ground wet?"

Besides, she had already spread a red and white cloth out on the picnic table. She'd brought a whole canvas bag of food, including the best potato salad I've ever tasted. Fireant made the potato salad with olive oil instead of mayonnaise, and lots of dill, with bits of cut-up onions and carrots and peppers, with black-eyed peas and fresh parsley, and I'm not even sure what else. All the ingredients soaked in the olive oil while it was still hot so the flavours blended together, coating each chunk of potato, which were still slightly warm as we began eating. She explained how she'd made it, but I was too busy shoveling it into my mouth and letting the soft bits of potato roll over my tongue to pay full attention, so now I'll just have to beg her to make it again next time we have a picnic.

After lunch, before hiking off to see the waterfall, I found a sunny spot and lay down on the ground to demonstrate how warm it was. FireAnt flopped down on the ground next to me, stretching out in the dead leaves, and then looked over in surprise. "Hey, you're right. It is WARMER."

Of course. My students are always right.

Warmer on the ground

FireAnt, taking photos from the ground, where it was warmer.

October 25, 2008

Framed

First I heard loud scraping noises, along with muttered cursing. Low talking and laughter was followed by a series of thumps and banging sounds. I could make out a few of the words: "Take the door off" and "It's too long" and (of course!) "That's what she said." I thought briefly about getting out of a warm bed to investigate, but then dozed back off to sleep. Towards morning, I could hear the pounding of a hammer, as if elves had come to build a house in the next room.

Yes, all noises indicated that my kids were involved in another middle-of-the-night project. I've learned from experience not to get up and investigate. Because really, it's always too late anyhow. No sense losing any sleep.

Earlier in the week, I had asked the kids to take charge of getting rid of our old couch. Sadly, our furniture tends to be so beat up by the time we are done with it that we can't even donate it to a good cause. Even places like the Rescue Mission don't want it. I used to think that this had something to do with the fact that so much of our furniture comes from the Rescue Mission in the first place, but I've since changed my mind and blame the cats. No one wants secondhand furniture that's been clawed and peed on. I know, it's crazy, but that's the way it is.

I did, however, think that Boy in Black might know some college-aged people who would want an old couch. He was the one who kept saying, "Why get a new couch? This one is FINE."

It turns out he had a better idea. During the night, the kids decided to carry the couch up the stairs and put it in the boys' room, where it could serve as both bed and lounging area in the already ridiculously crowded room. But the long couch would simply not fit up the stairs, even after they removed the door from the bathroom at the top of the stairs and the door to the boys' bedroom.

Undaunted, Boy in Black flipped the couch upside down and cut it in half. Then they carried it up the stairs in pieces, and inside the room, he rebuilt the frame and hammered it back together. By the time I saw the couch the next morning, it had been re-assembled in the boys' room, where it just barely fit, shoved up against the futon that's already there. Boy in Black, stretched out on the couch, was just going to sleep. He grinned at me sleepily. "Hope you like it. Because you can't get it out of the room now without cutting it in half."

Framed

"Don't worry, Mom," said Shaggy Hair Boy, "I borrowed your camera and took a photo for your blog."

October 24, 2008

Friday fall foliage

Fall

Outside

The grass in the cemetery was still green, but the trees were beautifully yellow, orange, and red. As we walked, leaves crunched under sneakers, hiking boots, and one pair of pink flip-flops. In the shade, it was cold enough that I felt glad I'd worn my winter coat. "Let's find a patch of sun," I said to my students.

We'd begun class in a windowless room, in stiff plastic chairs under fluorescent lights. But we've been reading Linda Hogan's Dwellings, a book that talks about our spiritual connection to the natural world, and it just seemed wrong to have the conversation inside a box-like room. So soon after class started, we voted to move class outside. Little Green College is in Snowstorm City, an urban setting, but we're right next a cemetery filled with rolling hills, curving paths, and more than 80 species of trees. According to my students, it's the second largest cemetery on the eastern seaboard. Built just about 150 years ago, it was designed in the style of a rural cemetery, with huge old trees spreading branches over hills carved by glaciers.

We found a patch of lawn on the side of a hill, just below a line of tombstones, and sat down in the sun. Flippy Hair pulled out her sketchpad and began sketching a tombstone that was covered in vines. Beneath the hum of traffic from the nearby highway, we could hear squirrels and birds. "A black-capped chickadee, " Talkative Girl said, tilting her head to listen. "And a bunch of crows." Near the ground, the air was warm, and those of us wearing bulky winter coats rolled them up to use as cushions against the gravestones.

Earlier, my students had been talking about the calculus exam, scheduled for later in the day, and the chemistry test they had just gotten back. "It's overwhelming," one student said as she talked about how much work she had to do. But as we sat in the sunshine, talking about the book, listening to the leaves rustle as a squirrel ran through the canopy, I could feel the energy in the circle shifting, changing. Worries seeped into the not-yet-frozen ground. I could feel the bodies around me relaxing as they turned their faces towards the sun.

October 22, 2008

Well, yeah

"I can tell when you've got papers to grade," another blogger said to me the other day. "Your blog posts get really short — just a photo maybe or some paragraph of description."

Well, yeah, it's hard to write anything meaningful or lyrical when I've got a stack of papers to grade. The unmarked essays take up all kinds of space inside my brain, squashing any profound thoughts or witty insights.

I don't know why grading essays is so torturous. I like the topics I assign, and my students come up with cool, perceptive ideas. When the students are working on their papers, and we go around the room with each student talking about his or her topic, I always think to myself, "What great ideas." And then I tell my students, with complete sincerity, that I'm looking forward to reading the papers. The weird thing is that I do mean that.

And I do like reading the essays. I learn all kinds of stuff. If I could just sit by the fire, read the essays, and not write anything on them — well, I could be done in a couple of hours. And it would be a pretty enjoyable experience.

But it's the writing on the papers part that drives me crazy. I hate having to judge the paper to give it a grade and then try to explain to the student why the paper got that grade. It always seems like a lost cause. I mean, if the student understood what made an A essay an A essay, it's likely he wouldn't have written a C essay to begin with. And it seems rude to say to a student, "Yeah, this essay was adequate but you just had nothing insightful to say."

I hate reading a paragraph, figuring out what's not quite right, and then trying to say it tactfully to a student. Well, okay, I'm not even always that tactful. I have been known to circle a sentence and write in the margin, "This sentence says nothing." Or sometimes I'll underline a sentence and say, "Read this aloud. Does it make any sense to you?" I'm not sure how tactful it is to circle a whole paragraph and write, "You could improve this essay by cutting this paragraph out completely."

I like it when I get to an A paper. Those go fast. And the really bad essays are fun in their own way because I can quickly see what the problems are. I know what to say to the student. It's a bit like watching someone on a sinking life raft and knowing you can at least throw them a line. It's nice to feel needed.

But all the in-between essays take me forever. I want to explain to the student what she did right, which parts she should feel good about — but then separate that from the stuff that needs to be improved. I want to tell a student that his thesis was wonderful, but starting out the introduction with the words "In the modern world of today" makes me want to bang my head against the floor. I want to tell the student what needs to be improved, but also say something encouraging.

And so, I read the essay, write some comments, reread the essay, figure out the grade, read the essay again because I haven't yet said anything encouraging .... and then look back at my messy handwriting, the scrawling on the margins of the student paper, and feel like I didn't do a good enough job. And then, because I'm feeling discouraged, I get up, do some housework, have a snack, and check my email. Then I sit back down again. Only 59 more essays to go ....

Morning sky

Morning sky

on my way to work.

October 21, 2008

Turning towards winter

We're supposed to get snow tomorrow. The kids and I are gathered in the living room, me in the comfy chair and the kids piled on the comfy couch in front of the fire. I've got a stack of papers that need to be graded, but instead I'm listening to the idle chatter and surfing about on my laptop. Outside, a cold rain pelts down through the trees, bringing down what leaves remained.

Inside the house, post-it notes have been dropping, losing their stickiness as the fire dries the air inside the house. We've been sweeping them up and throwing them away for weeks now, but still I keep finding more. I suspect our extra kids decided to join the fun and add some. I found lines of Dylan Thomas' poetry on the microwave, song lyrics on the cupboard. I picked up a seashell from a shelf and the note that fluttered down said, "Can you hear the ocean?" And it was just the other day that I noticed that the Raggedy Ann in my office, a doll that my kids find creepy, had been tagged with a note that said, "Why so serious?"

October 20, 2008

Sunday afternoon

Sunday afternoon

On a sunny October weekend, the usually empty trails at Pretty Colour Lakes fill with people. As my husband and I took walked around the lake, we passed family groups, complete with sleeping babies in strollers and toddlers begging to be carried, runners in shorts and headbands, elderly couples meandering slowly, and teenagers in groups, giggling. Two men were fishing near the boathouse, and one couple had claimed a bench in the sun so that they could read the Sunday NY Times. The trails were filled with dead leaves, yellow and brown, that smelled delicious as we scuffled through them. I wore my fleece in the cool shade of the cedar trees, but I'd take it off whenever we hit a patch of trail in the sun so that I could feel the warmth on my arms. I need to get as much sunshine as possible before winter begins.

Phragmite

October 18, 2008

Golden

Golden

When I stumbled downstairs this morning and opened the back door to let in a cat, I saw a backyard transformed. Every blade of grass, every dead flower in the garden, every leaf and pine needle glittered with frost. Leaves, made heavy by the ice, kept fluttering down all around me as I walked out to warm up the car so that I could take Shaggy Hair Boy, Skater Boy, and Blonde Niece to the five-hour course that's required as part of getting a driver's license.

My daughter was coming home on the early afternoon train, so it was time to kill the fatted calf — or at least make vegan chocolate cake. By afternoon, the whole family (and assorted extras as well) was home. It's just been an ordinary kind of day: all of us hanging out by the fire while the kids joke around. The house was messy as usual, with books and papers and laptops strewn about the living area, but it smelled like chocolate cake and woodsmoke. With-a-Why and Quick sat on the floor of the living room to play a long game of Go. Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter sat on the comfy couch, with a brother on either side of her, looking up stuff on her computer.

By late afternoon, Boy in Black was stretched out on the floor in front of the fire, sound asleep with a cat on top of him. I stepped over him to claim a spot on the comfy couch next to my daughter. First Extra showed up for the poker game that's now going on at the kitchen table. Quick moved from the board game to the piano. My husband and I had plans to clean out our closet (yes, that's the kind of exciting plans we make for a Saturday night), but we abandoned the project after about ten minutes. Sometimes a change in weather means giving into the luxury of just hanging out by the fire with the rest of the family.

October 17, 2008

Fall

Autumn

The kitchen smells like onions and basil. I've been making soup. Shaggy Hair Boy is at the piano, playing Satin Doll, a Duke Ellington number. With-a-Why and Philosophical Boy are setting poker chips out on the table. Boy in Black and Frisbee Friend are hanging out by the fire. Skater Boy is doing something to the strings on his guitar. When my husband opens the back door to let in one of the cats, cold air cuts through the smell of basil and woodsmoke. It's fall.

October 16, 2008

Through

Within walking distance of Signing Woman's family place — the beautiful old camp where we wild women gather each fall — a labyrinth is built onto the shore of the lake. It's made of mulch and brick, with circling paths that follow the pattern of the stone labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral. Walking the labyrinth is a moving meditation, a spiritual practice that is centuries old.

At least once each day during our four days in the mountains, I walk down to the labyrinth with my friends. We tramp along the narrow road, scuffling through piles of dried leaves, past stone fences and summer cottages and trees in bright colour. We joke and laugh about all kinds of things, but sometimes we talk seriously, too, about our spiritual lives. "I feel like I'm always trying to let go of stuff," I complained to Quilt Artist as we neared the labyrinth one evening. "Always, I'm working on detachment."

She laughed sympathetically at my tone, and then gave me a hug. "Maybe this time you should think about what it is you're walking toward."

I always take a few minutes to sit on the ground before I enter, saying a prayer to quiet myself down. When I begin walking, I begin the meditation, pushing aside obsessive thoughts, setting them to the side, allowing myself to walk deeper and deeper into a silence. I'm walking away from thoughts, walking through emotions, and moving towards myself.

When I reach the center, I sit down on the mulch. Around me, I am just barely aware of my friends moving in circles, their energy creating this safe place. The wind sends leaves fluttering and acorns bouncing. The waves on the lake match my breathing. In this safe place, I allow myself to just be, letting the energy uncurl from my spine like a snake moving along a warm rock.

Walking the labyrinth

October 15, 2008

Those naked women

I meant to return from my weekend with a photo of naked women on top of a mountain.

The conditions were right. The weather was unseasonably warm. I was hiking with close female friends. By the time we reached the summit of the mountain, we were warmed-up and sweaty, ready to take off our clothes. The rock ledge we were standing on was in the shade, but the mountains in the distance were in full sun and I figured we could take a classic silhouette photo.

When I casually mentioned my idea, my friends looked at each other and then turned on me. "You have to pose too," said Quilt Artist.

I shrugged, handed my camera off to the nearest person, and started taking off my clothes. "Who's going to join me?"

Dark Curly Hair, who was now holding my camera, looked a bit alarmed. That's when I remembered that she hadn't come on our retreat last year. It's possible she wasn't quite prepared for the naked photo tradition. But she quickly grasped the key point — that taking the photo meant she could keep her clothes on. "Tell me which button to push."

Within seconds, I had left my clothes in a pile and was perched on a rock outcropping, with the lovely view in front of me. Gorgeous Eyes and Quilt Artist stripped off their clothes and joined me. "Face this way, " I instructed. "I don't show faces on my blog."

Denim Woman and Makes Bread yelled instructions from the rock where they were sitting.

"Do a yoga pose!"
"Put your arms around each other!"
"Act like you're looking at the view!"
"Why does Gorgeous Eyes have a hat on?"

We danced about on the ledge, the three of us in a row, shivering as the wind rose. It was late in the afternoon, and the sun had mostly moved past this ledge. Dark Curly Hair snapped a few shots, and we ran back to pull on our clothes. It wasn't until I was fully dressed and we were hiking back down the trail that I looked at the viewfinder of my camera to see the photos.

And here is what I saw: on the rock ledge, my two friends stood posed, their bodies dark, classic silhouettes against the foliage and sky. And the third figure, too, was posed against the mountains, my body another silhouette. Except for one thing.

You know how in corny movies, a single shaft of sun will come down from the sky — a prophetic streak of light pointing to the secret cave, the lost treasure, or the spot X on a map? I've never thought that that kind of thing happened in real life. But apparently, it does.

In this case the single shaft of light was directed right at my butt. Yes. My butt. Even in the little viewfinder, my rear end shone so white it seemed to glow, while the rest of my body was in dark silhouette. Yes, it's true that my butt is white compared to my tanned arms and legs, but this was ridiculous. When I showed my friends the camera, they laughed so hard we could barely make it down the trail. "Karma!" they kept yelling.

"You didn't notice that?" I asked Dark Curly Hair incredulously.

"It looked different in the viewfinder," she said. "And I followed your instructions EXACTLY."

At dinner that night, I put the photos on my laptop so we could all look at them, and each glimpse caused a fresh round of laughter. I haven't heard so many butt jokes since about first grade. "My cheeks are a bit sunburned," Gorgeous Eyes said, patting her face. "How about yours?"

The photo was ridiculous. It was hilarious. And there was no fucking way I was going to put it on my blog. When I could get my friends to stop laughing, I explained my dilemma, which I intended to make their dilemma. I needed ANOTHER NAKED PHOTO. I was not going to follow my friends' suggestion that I simply go with the title "Nice ass" and see how many hits I could get.

My friends know, collectively, very little about blogging — only a few of them have even seen my blog — but they understand the importance of tradition. And mostly, they wanted to please me. It's even possible they felt guilty about making me the butt of so many jokes. Besides, we had a reputation to uphold. We wanted to be known as the Wild Women, not the Mild Women.

So they set about granting my wishes, taking a naked photo in front of the fire. Two friends fiddled with the lighting: moving candles into the picture, moving a lamp onto the floor. And three obligingly stripped off their clothes. "Is this good enough? Want the panties off too?"

The resulting picture — a lovely old fireplace with women lounging at the hearth — looked like a Christmas photo. Well, except for two things. There are no stockings hanging at the hearth. And the women in the photo are naked.

"So how truthful are these photos?" a blog reader asked me in an email once. "Do you women really get naked all the time when men aren't around?"

I can't answer that question. Perhaps we really do lounge around the fire naked. Maybe we do, and maybe we don't. I'll never tell. What we do in the mountains stays in the mountains.

But even a completely staged photo is truthful in the way it expresses the intimacy within this group of friends. We aren't afraid to get naked with each other. We talk about our faults, our obsessions, our childhood demons. We share with each other our spiritual journeys, our struggles to be better people. These women are friends who aren't afraid to tell me what I don't want to hear. Even when it's jokes about how white my butt is.

Naked in the firelight

October 14, 2008

Last swim of the season

Although nights were cold in the mountain, the daytime sunshine made it feel almost like summer. Since we all live in Snowstorm Region, we were eager to make the most of these last bits of sunwarmth. We stripped off layers of clothing whenever we could and spent as much time as possible outside, searching out spots in the sun. In the late afternoon, the group of us who were lounging on a blanket, eating snacks and talking, made sure we kept moving the blanket down as the cold shade crept near us.

The clear water of the lake lured several of us to take a swim, accompanied by shrill screams and laughter as skin met icy coldness. We weren't, it turns out, the only ones tempted by the way the lake sparkled in the sun. On a morning walk, I came around a bend to see two teenagers, dressed in t-shirts and shorts, splashing in the water, screaming and laughing as they plunged into their bodies into the coldness. On a warm fall day, there is just something about a mountain lake that is hard to resist.

Splish splash

Warmth

When I spend a long weekend in the mountain with my friends, each day ends with all of us gathered by the fire. Sometimes we dance. Sometimes we give each other massages or reiki. Always we talk. Quilt Artist will stitch bright bits of fabric, LovesCats will knit, and we all bring books and journals. We had a full moon ceremony one year, out on the porch, and another year, we took a long walk in the dark. Sometimes we listen to music, and other times, the crackling of the fire and the faint sound of the wind chimes on the porch keeps us company. Nights end with intimate conversation, as I stay up late to confide in one of my friends.

I fall asleep on the floor in front of the fire, settled cosily in a sleeping bag. When I wake in the morning, the fire is gone, but often the coals are still warm.

Because we stay up late, we get a slow start to the morning. Sleepily, we stumble out of bed, one at a time. Gorgeous Eyes makes coffee, filling the room with that wonderful scent. I don't drink coffee, but I love the smell. I fill the tea kettle with water and put it on the stove. I find a warm place on the porch to sit with my tea, positioning myself so that the sun will touch me. One at a time, my friends join me, the screen door slamming gently shut as each woman arrives with a bowl of food or mug of coffe. Slowly, we drink hot liquid, let the sun warm our skin, and gaze out at the lake. A peaceful start to the day.

Morning coffee

That's a close-up of my friend Gorgeous Eyes.

October 10, 2008

Gone wild

Every October, I spend a long weekend in the mountains with a bunch of female friends — a weekend that one of our husbands jokingly dubbed "Wild Woman Weekend." I'm leaving in a few minutes to drive up with Signing Woman to the beautiful camp her extended family owns on a big lake in the eastern part of the mountains. Eleven of us are going, eleven women who like to talk and dance and eat and hike and talk some more. We've known each other for years, and we all live in Snowstorm region so we see each other throughout the year, but there's something wonderful about spending a whole weekend together, where there's time for serious, in-depth conversations and relaxed, silly games.

Just follow

Just follow

When you're weary

When you're weary

In the mountains with my parents

My parents

I would write a lovely, descriptive post about the two days I spent in the mountains with my parents, but I'm just too exhausted. My parents are in their seventies, but they are still high-energy kind of people. In the last 48 hours, I've hiked the hilly trails around a mountain lake, wandered through a famous hardware store, hiked down into a bog, tramped along the shore of another lake to find the inn where my father used to work at a musician in the 1950s, climbed up big rocks, walked through a closed-for-the-season campground to reminisce about the old days, climbed an old locomotive, walked a town dock, visited the camp of Kindergarten Friend, risked my life to take a photo from a bridge, eaten a meal at an old train station, walked along a beach, and driven a couple hundred miles. We stopped at almost a dozen mountain lakes and took several hikes. In this photo, my parents are walking through a campground where I came as a little kid, and where my husband and I have camped with our kids.

October 09, 2008

Scent

Floating

In the fall, the mountains smell like pine needles and crumpled leaves.

October 07, 2008

Off to the mountains

I've tossed essentials into a bag — my camera, my journal, a change of clothes. Autumn has come to the mountains, and there's no time to lose. I'm leaving first thing in the morning. I'll stop to pick up my parents, and then we'll drive east and north, up through winding roads lined with trees that are rapidly turning red, yellow, and orange.

It's an annual trip I take with my parents. We drive to the small towns and lakes in the western part of the mountains, to the place where my father spent so many summers as a young man. He worked as a musician in the 1950s, playing every night at the mountain resorts. We'll visit his old haunts, including the rambling old hotel on the lake where he stayed each summer. We'll stop at the campgrounds where we camped when I was a little kid: tent sites scattered amongst pine trees, with picnic tables and a small lake where we kids learned to swim. The open dump where black bears used to gather at dusk is closed now, and much of the private land near the towns has been developed, but inside the park, the landscape hasn't changed much in my lifetime.

We're staying at an old mountain inn with crooked floors, flowered wallpaper, and a big fireplace. If the weather is warm, we'll sit in the wooden rocking chairs on the front porch of the inn and look out over the lake. If it's cold, we'll sit in by the fire and drink mulled cider. Mostly, we'll spend a couple of days wandering around, just looking at the bright leaves, the sparkly lakes, and hillsides full of color. For sheer beauty, the mountains in October are hard to beat.

October 05, 2008

Strawberry fields forever

When Aunt Seashell was dying, she talked often about childhood summers playing with her sister and her cousin at the shore. The landscape of Aunt Seashell's childhood, the beaches and ocean waves, the boardwalk with its splinters and the sandy porch with its wooden rocking chairs, the lunches of chicken noodle soup and pumpernickel bread, was more real to her than the cold winters here, where she'd been living for those last few years. The shore was still the place she felt most connected to, the landscape she held in her mind. I've heard that immigrants as they get older and nearer to death will begin talking about the landscape of their childhood, even if it's far across the ocean.

My earliest childhood memories include playing outside with my sisters, my brother, and Show-off Neighbor Boy. We'd pick wild strawberries, those tiny little berries, for hours in the hot sun in the field east of the house. We'd play in the old apple orchard, stepping across rotting fruit that squished under our feet and swinging up onto the low, crooked branches. The apples were small and blemished, but when you took a bite, the tartness was worth the risk of eating a worm. We'd picnic in the woods and fields, eating our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on an old blanket and picking daisies to bring back for the vase on the kitchen table.

Outdoor Girl and I explored the woods when we were older, making a fort in two trees that were covered with vines. We'd grasp the vines with both hands and climb as high as we could, sometimes falling dramatically to the ground when a vine would rip away from the tangled web. We had a huge fight with Show-off Neighbor Boy when he threatened to chop one of the trees down, saying that it was on his parents' land.

During the years when we kept a horse behind the house, we'd take turns galloping across the big meadow, on the hard path that ran between chest-high grasses. We shared the land with other creatures, of course. From my bedroom window, I could see white-tailed deer, grazing in the early morning. The raccoons and rabbits made themselves known in the garden, and the snakes loved to curl up on the manure pile to warm themselves.

I didn't move away from that landscape: I live only a few miles from the house where my parents live. My father still wakes up early each morning to take a walk, and he'll take photos to send over the family email list. And yet, though I still live here, the landscape of my childhood exists now mostly only in memories. It's disappeared gradually, one field or grove of trees at a time.

The process is sadly familiar. First, come the wooden stakes with the pink or orange surveyor ribbons. Next comes the equipment, big yellow machines, roaring so loud that conversation with the humans atop them is quite impossible. Then comes the muddy road, the fallen trees. The building begins, an office building usually. Soon the land is paved over, covered with asphalt and parked cars, or perhaps a smooth green lawn with no wildflowers at all.

The fields where I picked wild strawberries disappeared under a highway, a road that came so close to my parents' house that the state need to seize some of their land. The mountain of dirt, higher than the house even, separated us from our neighbors on the other end of our rural road; we kids never really saw those neighbor kids again. The meadow where we rode our horse holds an office park now, buildings filled with shiny windows and parking lots filled with cars. The highest hill near us was sliced, made smaller, to accommodate a new wide road for an auto parts plant. The trees near the corner were cut down to make room for a convenience store, where workers from the auto parts plant eat their lunch. The field where we used to cross-country ski, stopping in the old barn to rest and eat oranges, is a neatly mowed lawn now, with square buildings and a long paved parking lot. The marsh that lay below the FamilyofEight's house was filled in for a mall.

Bit by bit, the wild fringes of land, the pieces left between the developed areas, are shrinking. Friday, my father went for his morning walk, hoping to walk through the trails that wound through the old apple orchard, the overgrown field that was left. Instead, he found surveyor sticks, a muddy road, and a huge clearing. The trees had been bulldozed, left in piles. Yellow equipment stood by the road, waiting. The worst part, for my father, was seeing in the mud the tracks of the deer and fawn he'd been watching for the last few weeks. "Where will they go now?" he asked.

I wonder when I come to die, what stories I will tell my grandchildren about the landscape of my childhood. Perhaps I'll tell them about picking wild strawberries, that frustratingly tedious search for bits of sweetness. Perhaps I'll talk about galloping a horse across a wild meadow or cross-country skiing through the woods. But I won't be talking about a landscape far across the ocean or in another state. I'll be describing the landscape of Snowstorm Region, where I still live. And yet, most of it is already gone.

October 04, 2008

A stormy blogger meet-up

By the lake

He says I tried to drown him. That's not quite true. He did end up soaking wet, but it wasn't really my fault.

When I first started reading blogs, just about four years ago, A Delicate Boy was one of the first blogs I read. So I was excited when Nels told me he was coming to Snowstorm City. He promised to make time for a blogger meet-up. I'd met Nels before actually, at a feminist workshop, but that was years ago, back before I knew what a blog was. This would be the first time we'd meet as bloggers.

I gave Nels time to register for his conference and get a nametag, and then I swooped in and kidnapped him. Surely, nothing going on at those early morning sessions was as important as meeting me.

The sun glinting off the lake when we first arrived at Pretty Colour Lakes. We walked the trail to the farthest possible spot, where we hung around and talked and took photos, and managed to completely ignore the ominous storm clouds even though we were taking pictures of those very clouds. So that's how Nels got to take a hike in what is very typical Snowstorm Region weather, a strong wind and driving rain that came at us sideways.

"See, this is why people here don't bother with umbrellas," I explained helpfully as the slanting lines of rain come across the lake. Luckily, we'd already take our official blogger meet-up photos.

The rain convinced us to put away our cameras, but it didn't stop the stream of talking that continued on as we made our way finally to my car and then to the warm interior of an Italian restaurant, where a perfectly dry waitress led us to a booth. With our hair dripping onto the menus and steam rising from our wet jeans, we ate and talked about our lives. The time went way too fast. Far too soon, it was time to drop Nels back off at his hotel and go take With-a-Why to his piano lesson.

October 02, 2008

Top-secret blogger meet-up!

Ta da!

What is that blogger doing with that bottle? What's the mysterious fluid in the bottle? What's behind the door? What is she screaming? And most importantly, why isn't she naked?

I'd like to answer all these questions, but I'm sworn to secrecy. You know how it is with blogger meet-ups.

Yesterday's meet-up was especially fun because SeekingAcademia and I quickly discovered all kinds of things we have in common — including a conversational style. I talk fast and excitedly, and my hands move like crazy when I talk. Normally, I try to slow myself down when I'm meeting someone for the first time. But talking to SeekingAcademia was like talking to one of my sisters. We interrupted, we exclaimed, we overlapped, and we covered about a zillion topics in a very brief period of time. There were no lulls, no pauses, no empty spaces.

We ran out of time way too quickly. But I'm guessing we'll be meeting again.

October 01, 2008

Evening in the monastery guest cottage

Flame

One of the best parts of a monastic retreat is having time to sit quietly and stare into flame.