June 29, 2012

Even my toes had a wonderful time

In the studio where Jackson Pollock painted

On Saturday morning, my friend Ocean Breeze took us to a meditation class held outside in a lovely garden filled with sculptures. It was a walking meditation, which we did barefoot in the grass, stepping slowly and silently.

It seemed that all week I experienced this wonderful place through my feet. As soon as I got to the beach each morning, I took off my socks and shoes so that I could walk through the sand and wade through the surf. The beach house had lovely hardwood floors that felt cool on my bare feet. All winter, my feet are bundled in socks and boots, so I appreciated the summer warmth that allowed me to wriggle my toes.

One afternoon, we toured the former studio of Jackson Pollock, the artist who would lay his canvas on the floor and fling paint onto it. The original floor of the studio is still covered with the drippings of paint, still bright after all these years. The tour guide gave us foam shoes and told us we could walk on that floor. I walked carefully around the room, looking at the pictures on the walls, and trying to let the creative energy rise up through my soles.

Standing on the gestures

That's my friend Ecowoman in the top photo, and my friend Ocean Breeze in the pink dress.

June 28, 2012

Wading into morning

My friend Ocean Breeze believes in pampering her guests. The night that I arrived, she made my bed with ironed cotton sheets that had lacy edges. I love the smell of ironed cotton: it reminds me of when I was a little kid and used to take naps while my mother was ironing. I am far too lazy to iron anything myself, but I love it when my friends do.

As comfortable as the bed was, I soon abandoned it to take my pillow with its fancy case out to the deck, where I could hear the ocean waves and see the constellations. The deck to the beach house is up a whole story, which makes it feel a bit like a tree house. I turned a lounge chair into a cot by folding it down, settled down to stare at the stars, and fell asleep to the surf rhythms that came through the night air.

Birds woke me at dawn. Seriously, they were louder than any alarm clock I've ever owned, although admittedly more pleasant. I like getting up early when I don't have to. Grabbing my camera, I stumbled down to the beach, where the ocean breezes swept the dreams out of my head. I walked ankle-deep in the cold water, enjoying sunrise at the edge of the world.

Montauk Sunrise

Sunrise on the beach.



Thanks to fresh produce from the local farmers' market and the culinary skills of my friends, we had marvelous meals all week. Even breakfasts were a treat: Ocean Breeze set out bowls of fresh fruit and made scones to go with local strawberry-rhubarb jam. But perhaps the biggest treat were the dill pickles we brought home from the farmer's market. They were just the right mixture of crunchy and sour. I set them on the counter in the late afternoon when we were all looking for a snack, and we chomped through them in minutes. Only in places near Big City Like No Other can you get dill pickles like that.



I’ve known Ocean Breeze for 11 years now, and from the beginning of our friendship, she and I have shared stories about the places we love. Last week at her beach house, she showed me the eastern tip of a very long island, a place she’s known since she was a baby.

She took me to the bluff on the beach where the bank swallows live, and we watched them darting in and out of their holes in the morning light. We walked through docks of fishing boats where a local fisherman was bathing with a hose after a morning of fishing. We watched men in their fifties gliding on waves at a beach they’ve been surfing since childhood. We climbed on the jetty behind the lighthouse, did a walking meditation in a garden filled with art, and spent one evening around a campfire on the beach, singing and talking long after the sun went down.

I was with a group of wonderful women, nature writers mostly, and we would have had fun talking, writing, and eating no matter where we were. But it was especially amazing to gather in the incredibly beautiful landscape that Ocean Breeze has been telling me about for years.


June 22, 2012

At the beach

Montauk morning

I'm spending a few days with a group of wonderful women friends on a beach at the eastern tip of a very long island. Our plans include writing, reading, talking, eating, and dancing naked in the moonlight.

June 20, 2012

Close call

I was making a big batch of applesauce to send over to Film Guy’s mother; she’s going through what we hope will be her last round of chemotherapy. In the summer, I usually cook at night, after the house cools down, so it was dark outside, with clouds covering the moon.

When the compost bucket began to overflow with apple cores and peelings, I decided to take it out to the compost pile, which is right near the back door. In barefeet and shorts, I walked outside onto the dewy grass, bucket in hand.

As I stepped over to the compost pile, I could see something moving in the dark. I figured it was probably one of our cats who had noticed the open door and wanted to come in. I stepped aside to let the cat brush past my ankles as I turned the bucket upside down. I figured the cat would know enough to move out of the way before getting covered with apple peels.

Just as I shook out the bucket, the creature moved again. In that split second, I realized my mistake.

I jumped back into the house and slammed the door, but not before a strong odor filled the air. The smell followed me into the house.

 “Ew,” said With-a-Why.
 “Don’t come near me,” said my daughter.
“God, that stinks,” said my husband.

All I could smell was skunk. I was pretty sure I hadn’t actually gotten sprayed, because I think I would have felt the spray on my bare legs, but the odor was so strong that I couldn’t really tell. I kept asking family members to come over and smell me, but they all seemed eager to keep their distance.

Finally, I figured out that the smell was coming in the open kitchen window, so I closed any windows that faced the backyard. That strategy seemed to work. “Or maybe we’ll just getting used to the smell,” said my husband.

That’s when Boy-in-Black and Shaggy Hair Boy arrived home from their late night trip to the grocery store, I didn’t tell them anything about the skunk. I asked, “What does the house smell like?” 

Boy-in-Black set down a bag of food and said, “Cinnamon.”

Relieved, I went back to making the applesauce.

June 18, 2012

The sadness of farewell

My father's sailboat

Whenever I meet people who camp on our stretch of the Big River That Runs Between Two Countries, I say, “My father has the wooden gaff-rigged sailboat.” Usually, they give a start of recognition. “I’ve seen him sailing!” The sailboat, which he designed and built himself, is very recognizable. In the early mornings, he’s usually out gliding around, the boat making no noise as it slips through the water, the white sails tall above the cattails. When I'm at camp, I'll get up early to go with him.

But this summer, no one will see that familiar sight. After 26 years and extensive water damage to the hull, my father decided to send the boat “over the breakers.” He spent last weekend sawing it into pieces, cutting it up until the boat was no more.

My father built his first sailboat in the basement of our house back in 1967. I was six. I can remember sitting on the stairs, watching him work. (I always sat in the same spot, on the stairs looking down. I wasn’t allowed to come any closer because of the power tools.) When supper was ready, my mother would come to the top of the stairs and I’d call down to him. At supper, he’d tell us kids stories about the adventures we were going to have on the sailboat. He taught us nautical terms, which he’d mostly gotten from books.

When he needed to bend the wooden boards around the hull, he brought down every lamp in the house to generate enough heat. Once the hull was finished, we had a boat-turning party, complete with food and music. He removed part of the basement wall; then his friends helped him pull the boat out and turn it over. The local newspaper ran a story that made it sound like he’d built the boat in the basement and then realized suddenly he had no way to get it out and knocked out a wall. Even as a little kid, I was angry at the media twist, which I knew was ridiculous. He’d built the house himself, and he knew how to take down part of a wall, which he’d planned to do all along.

All summer, we sailed up on the river. In the spring and fall, my father kept the boat in a marina on the big lake near us. He and I would drive out to take an afternoon or evening sail. Sometimes I’d bring Outdoor Girl with me, or Kindergarten Friend, but often it was just the two of us, sailing for a couple of hours before returning to the dock. We’d stop at an ice cream shop on the way home.

That first sailboat lasted for more than two decades. When the hull became filled with dry rot, my father knew he had to give it up. We had a ceremony, which included me reading aloud entries from the ship’s log, my youngest sister putting daffodils down the forward hatch, and my brother playing taps on his trumpet. Then my father set the boat on fire. We were still busily taking photos in front of the burning boat when someone noticed that the fire had gotten out of control, spreading to a nearby field. The touching ceremony ended with local firefighters hosing down the remains.

That year, my father built a new seventeen-foot wooden sailboat, based on his own design. He used what he had been able to salvage from the old boat: the wooden mast, for instance. I was expecting my first child, and he proposed a race to see which of us would deliver first. The day I was in labor with my daughter, almost exactly 26 years ago, I came over to my parents’ house. The sailboat was on a trailer, and he was raising the mast just to see if everything worked.

My father and I have been known to get into loud arguments. In fact, family members will try to make sure we’re at opposite ends of the picnic table at meal times. But in the thousands of times we sailed together, my father and I never had a fight or even an argument. We sailed in silence sometimes, just listening to the wind or the birds, or we had lazy conversations interrupted by brief comments in the sailboat jargon my father taught me when I was a kid: “Ready about. Hard to lee.” But there’s something about the rhythm of sailing that dictated the conversations be peaceful.

Memorial Day weekend, my father began removing cleats, fittings, and even the nameplate off the boat. There were two strips on the bow of the boat that held the boat’s number. He kept one, and gave me the other. It’s on my desk, propped up under the window, in my line of vision every time I sit down to write.

My father is 81 years old, and he won’t be building another boat. This sailboat was his last.

Sunset and evening star

June 16, 2012

I will lay me down

“Let’s stop at the nursing home on our way home,” I said to With-a-Why. “You’re all warmed up so you can sing for your grandmother.”

We had just left a school board meeting that included a performance by the high school chamber choir. They were celebrating the gold rating they’d gotten in a music festival. I knew my mother-in-law would enjoy seeing With-a-Why dressed in his concert clothes, a black dress pants and a black dress shirt that makes him look like a young man rather than a scruffy teenager.

“You can sing the solo you did for the competition,” I said.

Les Berceaux?” With-a-Why said. “THAT is not going to cheer her up. It’s about sailing off and leaving behind the families you love. She doesn’t understand French so she won’t get the lyrics, but she’s going to know it’s sad.”

“She’d just like to hear you sing,” I insisted, and my husband turned the car down the road towards the nursing home.

Minutes later, we crowded into my mother-in-law’s room. The aides had already dressed her in a blue nightgown, but she was awake enough to smile at her grandson. Her roommate, Oboe Player, was watching television, but when I asked if we could turn off the sound while With-a-Why sang, she said, “Of course.” Oboe Player played for the local symphony when she was younger and taught music lessons for years. She and I have had many conversations about my musical children.

With-a-Why stood awkwardly, his black dress clothes a silhouette against the beige curtains that drape down between the beds.

“It’s going to be loud,” With-a-Why warned. He glanced out to the hall.

“That’s okay,” I said. I thought of the noises of the nursing home: alarm bells on machines constantly going off, the blare of televisions turned up loud by almost-deaf residents, the way that certain residents yell for help as if being attacked by bears. I didn’t think anyone was going to mind the sound of a young man singing.

And so he sang. He sang Les Berceaux, even though it’s beautifully sad. He sang some of the old standards that my father has taught him. Then my husband joined in for the last song, Bridge Over Troubled Water. When they were done, Oboe Player clapped her hands. My mother-in-law is too weak to clap her hands, but she smiled again and then drifted off to sleep.

June 14, 2012

Half time

Half time The Ultimate Frisbee summer season has begun. All four of my kids (and several extras) are on the same team this year, which makes it easier for us spectators. We always know which team to cheer for.

June 11, 2012

Creatures of the dark lagoon

Where the sea monsters live

In the little kayak, I paddled out across the bay through tangled mats of weeds until I was almost to the rocky island on the other side. I put the paddle across my lap and waited, drifting slightly. No motorboats come down to this end of the bay; it’s too shallow and weedy. The light wind sent ripples through the cattails and the yellow irises in the marsh. I was all alone, just floating amidst the lily pads. 

Something splashed, just a few feet from the bow of the kayak. A thick, scaly body reached up out of the mud and then plunged down again. A dark shadow raced toward my kayak. It knocked against the hull with a thump, then flipped and splashed, leaving a trail of bubbles. Through the muddy water, I could see the gleaming sides of a body twisting and turning.

The carp were spawning. In the muddy water, they darted and leaped, breaking the surface of the water the way that sharks might. My little kayak weighs 36 pounds, so light that I can carry it with one hand. Some of the carp are heavy than that, reaching 40 pounds or more. Earlier, I saw a dead, bloated carp floating, the size of a small dog.

They are just fish, I told myself, as they swam through, nudging my kayak out of their way as they churn through the weeds and mud, leaving tangled weeds in their wake. Just fish, I repeated to myself, as the kayak swayed from the impact, and I imagined tentacles reaching up to pull me into the muddy water.

From the kayak

From the kayak

We've already got a bunch of canoes up at camp — I buy canoes at garage sales the way anyone else might buy tupperware. But this year, I've added a small kayak. I chose a light one, only 36 pounds, which means I can carry it with one hand. The advantage of a kayak is that I can take it out by myself, which means there is no one to complain at how often I stop paddling to take photographs.

June 09, 2012


Through the marsh

My parents’ camp is a peninsula tucked into marsh that’s protected by the 1972 wetlands legislation. Their dock extends into a little creek filled with cattails. When the water is high, water snakes will sometimes slither onto the dock to sun themselves.

This year, the water is low, and the snakes we see from the dock swim through mats of weeds and lily pads. We don’t have any venomous snakes in this northern climate. They’re common water snakes, harmless to humans.

But even common water snakes can be endlessly fascinating. When Red-haired Niece, sitting on the bow of a boat, decided to lure a snake over towards her, we all watched from the dock. She leaned down, flicked her fingers to make the water splash, and the snake moved toward her.

“Put your toe in, and see if the snake will take a bite,” Shaggy Hair Boy suggested. Pretty soon we were all splashing the water to lure the snake to the dock, but our clumsy attempts didn’t work at all. Red-haired Niece would splash lightly, the snake would move toward her, one of us would splash, and the snake would retreat. Only Red-haired Niece had the right touch.

We stood there in the sun for twenty minutes, just watching the snake move in response to my niece, and trying to figure out why it was so attracted to her fingers. I suppose we shouldn't be surprised that the snake would move towards the vibration: after all, we’ve seen these water snakes eat little frogs, and I’m guessing that the splashes must have been a good imitation of a little frog. But mostly, we’ve decided that Red-haired Niece is a snake charmer.

June 08, 2012

Summers are for drifting

Summers are for drifting That's With-a-Why in the red kayak. Boy-in-Black and Blonde Niece are in the canoe, with Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter sitting on the floor of the canoe between them.

June 06, 2012


When I woke up this morning, I was determined to finish the landscaping project I’d been working on. The flagstone walk was in place, the low spots on the lawn had mostly been filled, and I figured about 20 more trips with the wheelbarrow would finish the job. Every time it rained the dirt got heavier, so I wanted to take advantage of the few hours of sun we might get this morning. I dressed quickly, put on sneakers so caked with mud that they are heavier than ski boots, and got to work.

But the universe wasn’t cooperating. The tire on the wheelbarrow had gone flat. Since curse words didn’t fix the flat, I decided to try the air pump at the local gas station. Almost everyone in the house had already left for work or school, but there was still one car left in the driveway. I opened the trunk of the car, grabbed the heavy, muddy wheelbarrow, and dumped it in. That’s when the back windshield of the car shattered.

I yelled into the house to let Shaggy Hair Boy know that he no longer had a car and would need some other way to get to work. While he called family members who had already left for the day, I rooted through the garage to find an old toboggan that I could use as a sledge. A bright pink plastic toboggan with a bit of clothesline worked fine for transporting small loads of dirt, and I got back to work immediately. Then it began raining.

I ignored the rain and kept working. That strategy seemed to work, because soon the rain stopped. Not long after, my husband drove home to pick up Shaggy Hair Boy, took pity on my situation, and used his car to bring the wheelbarrow up to the gas station.

Despite the awkward start to the day, I finished the project. By noon, the dirt pile was completely gone, and I was walking around, scattering grass seed and clover seed the way that Almanzo Wilder might sow wheat. (For some reason, any project that involves dirt and manual labor makes me think I’m a character in Farmer Boy.)

I walked out to the middle of the road to admire my work. Everyone in my household was at school or work or a conference for theoretical physicists, so I waited until I saw the elderly man with the sea captain hat who walks his dog every day. I said to him proudly, “The pile of dirt is gone! I finished the project.”

Sea Captain Hat looked at my front lawn while his little dog yapped and ran around me in circles. Then he said to me, “Aren’t there any able-bodied men in the household who could have done the work?”

It was a rhetorical question, of course. He knows I’ve got a bunch of tall, athletic sons – he sees them going and coming every day. I sighed and said patiently, “Sure. Anyone in the household would have helped if I had asked. But this was my project. I like working outside. I like the exercise of manual labor. The rest of the family has helped out by doing the indoor chores. Boy-in-Black, for instance, cleans the kitchen and does the grocery shopping. My husband does the laundry.”

Sea Captain Hat yanked at his dog's leash, and I could tell he wasn’t listening. He came up with a new theory: “I guess if they’d done it, it wouldn’t have come out the way you wanted it. My wife is like that. She’s never pleased with what I do.” Yeah, that’s right. No one helped me because I’m a control freak. That must be it.

I looked directly at him. “My kids or my husband could all have done a perfectly good job. And they offered to help. But this was my project. I wanted to do it. I like working outside.” I didn’t know how else to explain it to him. So I shrugged and looked back at the lawn to admire my work, while he and his little yappy dog walked on down the street. I looked at the flagstones, the newly seeded spots on the lawn, and the smooth area where the dirt pile used to be. Then I went inside to get some lemonade so I could sit on the front porch and admire my work some more.

June 04, 2012



A huge truck delivered the dirt to my house: 15 cubic yards of it. Yes, if you stop and picture what 15 cubic yards looks like, it’s a pretty huge dirt pile. I had all kinds of projects in mind, especially filling in low spots on the lawn that often make it too wet to mow, but mostly, I just love playing in dirt.

I think it’s my parents’ fault. When I was a little kid, my father had a whole truckload of sand delivered to our backyard. That sandpile kept us kids occupied for years and years. Many of my earliest memories involve playing trucks in the sand with my brother. We made roads and caves, and we spent hours pushing around yellow metal trucks.

This dirt pile has kept me busy for several days. Of course, one landscaping project leads to another. I’ve been filling in the potholes in our gravel driveway – mostly by piling in dirt and stone and then jumping up and down on it to tap the material in tight. Then I decided to build a flagstone path from the driveway to the house. And naturally, I need to plant another tree or two. I’ve spent hours out in the dirt pile, coming up with new ideas for the front yard while I shovel dirt into the wheelbarrow again and again and again.

After my daily visit to my mother-in-law in the nursing home, watching her struggle to even move her arms or speak, it feels to be outside and use my own muscles, moving 15 cubic yards of dirt one shovelful at a time.

June 03, 2012

Afternoon nap

Mule deer We were cool while we were hiking in cold water in the deep shade of a slot canyon, but temperatures in the rest of the park were in the 90s. Once we left the river, we found tourists and wildlife alike moving slowly in the hot sunshine. This mule deer, who was resting in a shady spot, didn't even move when I walked close to take a photo.

Towards the light

Hiking out That's my husband in the photo.

June 01, 2012

Shadow and sunlight

Dark recesses of the canyon

In the narrow parts of the canyon, the river touched rock walls on both sides. The smooth dark rock reached into the water like the legs of a dragon. We were walking through a fantasy novel.

I thought briefly about flashfloods. On my raft trip through the Grand Canyon the boatmen taught us that when we hiked through a slot canyon, we should always have an escape route planned. I looked around — and there was simply no place to climb up, especially in awkward dry pants and boots. "If there is a flashflood," I announced to my husband dramatically, "we are going to die."

He shrugged.

I knew eventually we'd have to turn back, but I kept wanting to go farther. Each bend brought a new sight: a springfed waterfall, a huge boulder in the middle of the river, a curving side canyon, or a glimpse of sunlight shining down into the canyon.

Sunlight and shadow

Through the Narrows

Morning light in the Narrows

Imagine hiking for hours through icy cold water that rises sometimes past your waist while you pick your way through a riverbed filled with misshapen bowling balls. Okay, maybe they aren’t bowling ball rejects, but river-worn basalt rocks. Even though the rocks make you stumble and you can feel the river grabbing at your buoyant dry pants, you aren’t really watching where you put your feet because you’re staring up the whole time at the incredible sheer cliffs of red or brown or black, towering walls of rock on either side of you. That’s the experience of hiking the Narrows.

We knew we would be hiking through icy cold water so we rented equipment the night before: neoprene socks, boots, dry pants, and a dry bag for my camera. The young man who rented us the equipment handed us walking sticks as well: “You’re going to need these.”

The slot canyon is so narrow that it’s in shade most of the day, and we hiked for a couple of hours before we even found a patch of sun. During the first part of the hike, the canyon was fairly wide, with piles of sand and rocks deposited on the insides of the curves. I soon figured out the rhythm: we’d walk for a couple of minutes on the shallow side of a curve, then cross the river to get to the shallow part of the next curve. The deep parts of the river were dark and green, while piles of rocks created white water that we could hear throughout the hike.

After hiking trails that meant climbing upwards in hot desert sun, the cool shade of this slot canyon felt wonderful. When I had to cross deep parts of the river, I found the stick useful as a brace: the buoyant dry pants I was wearing kept my legs dry, but created more resistance to the water current that threatened in places to sweep me downstream. The slot canyon got more narrow and more beautiful the farther we hiked — it goes on for miles — and I felt increasingly intoxicated by the way that light shimmered down from the top through the sandstone walls.