Above Tree Line: August x 2

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Any month that includes two trips above tree line is a good one.  Earlier this month, David, Anne and I hiked up Mt. Garfield, making our way easily up the 10 miles of trail to a clear summit.  Earlier this week, David, Anne and I hiked again, this time with five other friends, to celebrate my 6oth birthday.  We climbed Mt. Carragain, again 10 miles and only 250 feet of additional elevation gain over the 3,000 it takes to get to the summit of Garfield.  But the trail is far gnarlier, with rocks and roots and straight ascents up Signal Ridge, rather than the mostly even footing up the switchbacks of Garfield.  It was not an easy hike, but it was glorious.  When we got to an opening on the ridge with views down into Carragain Notch, we stopped for lunch and a birthday celebration.  Alison had brought cake, she lit a candle, and a group of young men and women, on an orientation trip from Yale, joined in singing “Happy Birthday” to me.

It was just what I wanted to celebrate this milestone birthday.  Not a big deal, but really, a big deal — a day in the mountains with friends, savoring good conversations, a challenging but satisfying stretch of my muscles and strength, and long views off into the waves of mountain ridges, blue fading into smoky gray then climbing back up into bluer sky.

A Tedious Habit of Introspection

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Albany is a city of contrasts.  Historic brick row houses line streets leading downtown, where the castle-like State Capitol building points its red-roofed turrets into the sky next to the stark, flat geometric shapes of the enormous Empire State Plaza.  “Albany is full of concrete,” Sam said to me when I told him David and I were headed there for his 40th medical school reunion.  Actually, it’s marble, not concrete, but the Empire State Plaza is a huge expanse of gray space, rimmed by tall gray buildings, and I could easily see why someone would remember Albany as a city full of concrete.  There’s even a giant gray Egg, a performing arts center that sits on the plaza like a space ship.

The highlight of the weekend was spending time with Harry, David’s good friend, and driving west out of Albany to a small town to find the farmhouse David rented for three of the years he was in medical school.  On the way there, David was talking about some recent issues that had been bothering him, and Harry said, “Your problem is your tedious habit of introspection.”

David and I laughed and nodded in agreement immediately.  Harry meant tedious to David, and in laughing and nodding in agreement, I was acknowledging how tedious my own habit of introspection is to me.  “You intellectuals think and talk too much,” another friend said to me years ago.

Yes, David and I are introspective and we talk about that introspection a lot.  In fact this blog post is going up a day later than I’d planned because we got caught in a long, tedious and deeply introspective cycle of talk yesterday.

But that’s okay.  We’re both old enough to be able to ride along with who we essentially are and make our way to the moments of appreciation and peace that the tedious process of introspection makes possible.

And how does this all relate to Albany other than Harry having made the comment there?  The contrasts in that city between ornate historic buildings and vast modern buildings remind me of what it’s like inside my brain.  Grand and multi-faceted, gray and flat, tall and wide, big in scope and rich in detail, simple and complex, all cycling in a swirl that lets me laugh at my own tedious habits and relish what they make accessible at the same time.

Talking About Feelings

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“I sad, miss Mama,” Emilio said to me on a Friday morning, after Adrienne had been away since Tuesday.  I’ve been impressed with Adrienne and Matt’s natural parenting instincts since Emilio was first born, and they’ve enhanced those skills through reading and paying attention to what other parents have to say.  One thing they do is help Emilio recognize his feelings behind difficult behavior, like saying to him, “I know it’s frustrating to you when I say no more videos,” when he fusses as they put away the iPad.

So I felt proud of both Emilio and his parents that Friday morning when he was able to tell me what he was feeling.  Helping a toddler recognize his feelings, and express them, is important regardless of the child’s gender, but it’s particularly encouraging with a boy, given how few cultural messages there are for boys to express feelings.

All of which reminded me of a talk I tried to have about feelings with Sam and two of his friends, more than a decade ago, when they all were about 12.  It was late on a Sunday afternoon in the cottage we were renting for a week on Squam Lake.  All our visitors for the weekend had left and I realized I now had a week ahead with a lot of male energy in a small space — Eric, Sam and his two friends Ben and Mike.  The boys and I were sitting in the living room of the cottage.

“Okay, Guys,” I said.  “Since I’m going to be the only female here all week, let’s practice talking about our feelings.”  The boys looked at me.  “What are you feeling right now?”

After a pause Mike said, “I feel hungry.”

Ben looked puzzled for a moment and then smiled.  “I feel sand between my toes.”

We all had a lot of fun that week.

Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse

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As soon as we walked into the Chanukah party a family friend was having at Sammy’s Roumanian we knew we were in for  a good time, and not only because it was our first chance this holiday season to all be together — Adrienne, Sam, Matt, Emilio, David and I. Told to expect something along the lines of the cheesiest Bar Mitzvah we could imagine,  we weren’t disappointed.

We’d walked through the sketchy neighborhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and down the steps to the crowded basement dining room, graffiti scrawled across the sign above the door.  The walls were plastered with photos and business cards, old news clippings and posters.  The ceiling was low, and in one corner, practically on top of the tables, a man at a keyboard was enticing everyone to get up in between the tightly packed tables and dance the Horah, circling the room.

“Who’s a Jew?” he shouted and everyone cheered.  “Who’s happy?” he shouted again and again everyone cheered.  “You’re a bunch of liars.  There aren’t any happy Jews!  Okay, okay, should we sign a Christmas song for the goys?”  More cheers.  He started playing the keyboard and singing, “Jingle bells, jingle bells, Jesus was a Jew.”  Everyone laughed. He looked at a couple sitting at the table right in front of him and nodded at the man.  “I recognize you from last year.  You’ve gained weight.”  More laughter.

The 750 ml bottles of Ketel One vodka came to the table frozen into blocks of ice.  Following large bowls of chicken liver chopped with onions and strips of turnip, the platters of food kept coming out of the kitchen piled high with meat, meat and more meat, then a few potatoes.  The two long tables of our party talked and laughed and ate and shouted over the music and the talk and laughter of all the tables squeezed around us.  The man at the keyboard took a break, then came back and shouted and swore and made fun of more people, and played more music.

The friend who hosted the party said he first found Sammy’s decades ago when he was in graduate school in New York City.  Nothing has changed.  As the night wore on, tables were taken down in the middle of the crowded room and the man at the keyboard started playing dance songs.  More bottles of vodka frozen into blocks of ice came to the tables.  Strangers and friends and family got up and danced.  Then sang and danced some more.  Emilio got passed from Adrienne to Sam to me to Matt, bobbing his head and dancing along with everyone else, long past his bedtime, his eyes frozen into wide circles of fatigue and excitement.  Chanukah had already been over for more than a week, but nobody cared.

The next morning I asked Emilio if he’d enjoyed the party the night before.  He nodded his head.  “Yes,” he said.  “Music!”

Repositioning the Fan

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“Our family’s fan is positioned too close to the source of shit,” Sam said to me Sunday evening, as we were leaving the hospital.  We’d been visiting a dear friend, hospitalized because of troubling symptoms, yet to be clearly diagnosed.  We had a Thanksgiving weekend rich in family and friends, all gathered essentially to love each other.  “Your family has a remarkable capacity for being together without any conflicts,” David said to me at one point over the weekend.

True, but in the midst of the weekend gathering we’d gotten a phone call about our friend that let us know, once again, the fan was in the direct path of the shit.  But our Thanksgiving weekend was also full of fun with epic eating, hours of sitting in the warm sunshine on the south side of the porch, and a walk everyone was able to take on Friday morning, including my mother who was in the hospital herself, barely able to get out of bed, just a few weeks ago.

The domed pile of brush I’d been adding to all summer and fall got torched on Friday night, burning quickly in a hot whoosh of flame, then settling down into a warm, firewood-fed campfire.  A gang of Sam’s friends had come for the weekend, and along with family, and more friends, a ring of us sat around the fire talking and laughing and telling stories.  Feeding the fire, we were feeding our selves, soaking up the fundamentally satisfying act of watching wood burn while sitting with people we love.

So I’m repositioning the fan, or at least putting it on oscillating mode, so it can swing between all this weekend’s memories — the food, the fire, the family and friends laughing and walking and sitting in the warmth of the sun and the burning wood, and yes, the suckiness of more illness in our lives.  Back and forth.  Here we go.

Coincidental Conversations

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Three times in the last week I’ve stumbled into wonderful conversations with people I didn’t know before we started talking, and found much to affirm the almost constant swirl in my own head about what I’m doing with my life right now, what I think I should be doing, what I could do better if I’m not doing things exactly right or according to some indiscernible grand plan, and how I might be doing something different if that’s what I want.  Or think?

Sound confusing?  It is, but the conversations helped.  The first was with a long ago friend of David’s, at a birthday party for another long ago friend.  A group of people who had either lived in or been connected to a large communal household in the Boston area 40 years ago had gathered for the celebration, and David and I had a long talk with Barbara, another artist, trying to understand what role art and painting plays in her life.  Right now she’s not interested in “having a show,” painting for the purpose of selling her work, or even painting for anyone else.  Instead, she’s interested in finding her voice as a painter, and trying to explore and understand the role of creating beauty as a primary purpose of art.

As she talked, I could feel her thoughts resonating with ideas of my own I hadn’t even articulated to myself.  Why do I want to write?  Why aren’t I writing more?  Who am I writing for?  Is it enough just to write when I want, however I want, for whatever reason?  Does ambition about getting published and read and recognized help in the writing process, or hinder it?  And do I even care about any of that?  Talking to Barbara helped all these questions come to the forefront, and I’m far from answering them, but I know this is a conversation I want to keep having, however I can fit that into my life.

On Tuesday, with clear days and clear calendars ahead of us, David and I went north to the White Mountains for a couple of days.  We hiked first up Mt. Madison and spent the night at the Madison Spring Hut, allowing us to stay above tree line on the grand Presidential ridge.   The Appalachian Mountain Club huts provide sleeping bunks and hearty meals to hikers at high elevation locations, making staying in the mountains a truly in-the-mountains experience.

The night at the hut gave David and me time to summit both Madison and Adams, two of the tallest mountains in New Hampshire, and the chance to share dinner and breakfast with two interesting people, extending our own dialogue, both internal and between us, about what we’re doing, what we want to do, what we should do and how do we fashion our lives in the absence of huge jobs and the presence of significant creative urges.

Francois is from outside Montreal, and was on a multi-day hike, peak-bagging, and staying in shape for his central goal, which is to climb the highest peak on each continent. He’s already done 4, including getting to the summit of Everest last May.  He’s driven by a singular goal, focused, direct and intent.  Talking to him about his adventures was wonderful, because he seems to live with very few questions about what he’s doing.  When we asked him why he’s climbing the highest mountains in the world his answer was simple.  He loves it, he loves mountains, he loves the process and opportunity for success.

We also spent a lot of time talking to Cathy, the mother of one of the hut crew members, there to visit and spend time with her daughter in the mountains. Cathy is between major projects at this point, her children grown and starting out in their own lives, her own career as a landscape architect on hold for now.  She’s interested in writing, community design, food security, urban garden planning, and her family.  Talking to her was, again, like talking to myself.  What is this later life I’m experiencing for?  What’s the best use of whatever time I have left, where should I put my focus?  What am I doing?

One thing I’m doing is finding interesting people who are happy to talk about what they’re doing, whether they have a clear answer to why they’re doing what they’re doing or what it means, or they don’t.  Because it’s really all the same, isn’t it?  We’re here and we’re doing the best we can.

Early Crocuses

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The crocuses are up early across the Northeast this year, the year with more or less no winter.  I saw crocuses weeks ago in New York, and now they’re here in New Hampshire. Helen’s crocuses, a carpet of spring  color on a neighbor’s lawn, planted decades ago by Helen Johnson when she was still alive, most likely long before I knew her when she was young, are blooming.  I wrote about the crocuses on this blog last year, including the poem about Helen and her flowers that was published in my chapbook of poetry, Fever of Unknown Origin.

Here’s another poem from Fever of Unknown Origin, this one about Norm Johnson, Helen’s husband.  Norm was a wonderful neighbor and a good friend.  He would pull his jeep over to the side of the road when he saw me in my garden and I’d go stand at his window and we’d chat.  Helen and Norman both died many years ago, but I think of them often as I look around my neighborhood, a lovely farm landscape they helped create and maintain throughout their lives.

And one interesting note, you can buy a copy of Fever of Unknown Origin on Amazon, for $3.00, or $66.00 or for $161.62.  If you want the $166.62 copy, let me know and I’ll make a deal with you.

Some Days

Stakes sawed raw at the point
slit the earth, hitting frost
only once all day, a good day,
for a body yanked by years
to this stiff heave from the cart
to help hold the barbed wire taut.

Most days are spent in a seat –
bucket loader, tractor, dump truck, mower,
these days mostly the jeep –
chatting with neighbors, napping, watching
one day as the milk herd is loaded into trailers
strangers drive away.