#I Love Where I Live

The hashtag #ilovewhereIlive is a favorite of mine on Instagram, because I post a lot of beautiful photos from around my house, and because I really do love where I live.

Part of that is the cows. I’ve lived with cows as neighbors most of my adult life. In my 20’s, when I moved a lot, the houses Eric and I rented often bordered pastures. This house, where I’ve lived for 37 years, has an active dairy pasture across the street and again, there are the cows, out of the barn and into the field, a couple of new, tiny ones among them.

There has finally been some rain and the tall grass has a wet sheen, seed heads bent. As I walked home from a friend’s house yesterday I looked for the newest calf and only her ears showed, patches of white on brown, through the overwhelming green where she was lying down.

There are also cows on the other side of my house, owned by a family with three children. The oldest daughter is training one of the heifers for show and when I see her walking the cow down the street, hand on her halter, I remember the others I’ve watched do the same over the decades, including the girl’s father. I’ve watched boys and girls teach cattle to pull a sled, to walk led by a halter, to stop when commanded and to hold still.

I know when the heifer is out being trained without having to see her and the girl. One of the cows left behind bellows nonstop until the heifer returns. Her plaintive cries fill my yard and even seep into the house, a reminder I live among animals who have something to say.

At one point walking home yesterday I passed a patch of Lady’s Slippers, pink scrotums of flower dotting the pine needled hill. How lovely, I thought, to be in the country, in the quiet beauty of a unusually chilly spring afternoon. The packed dirt road sloped downhill, bordered by a stone wall silvered with age and under a grand old maple starting to fall apart, as the maple in my yard is, as many of the maples in this neighborhood are.

Like us, maples age. They loose limbs and leaves and hollow out and fall, then  saplings takes their places. When I moved here the maples at the corner of my road and up at the cemetery were still grand, tall and full and thick, with no edge of decline yet showing. But 37 years is a long time. Trees get old. My achey legs and creaky back after long days of gardening and long runs let me know I’m getting old too.

Still, walking that road, under the old maple, listening to birds sing and cows moan, was exactly where I wanted to be, with the misted light, the lush vegetation, and a world pulsing with life around me.

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Falling In Love With Lilacs

February 16, 2009 — An Island Journal*

Eric and I found a lilac bush and a house to go with it. It was 1981 and we needed to move. For the past five years we’d moved around New England as Eric built his career in food service management. I didn’t care where I lived, as long as I was with Eric. I was a poet, I could write anywhere. The shifting landscape of Eric’s work had landed us in New Hampshire two years before. We rented a house and got married in the backyard. Adrienne was born in our bedroom. We settled in. But after a year the couple who owned the house needed it for her parents. We wanted to stay in New Hampshire, Eric had a good job, it was time to stop moving. We began looking at houses to buy.

Eric fell in love with the lilac bush by the front door of the house we bought, the only house we ever owned.  When we first saw the house it was a mess. Old, wide-reveal aluminum siding left smudges of white on your skin or clothes if you rubbed up against it, metal gleaming through in patches like a bald skull under thin hair. The rows of windows on the porch running along the south and west sides of the house had peeled to bare, raw wood, the glass barely held in place by dried caulking that flaked off in chunks. There had been a grease fire in the kitchen the year before and black soot still crawled up the walls to the ceiling, an echo of the flames. An old corner room had been turned into a bathroom, a toilet and free-standing sink and tub spread across the space. It was an upgrade from the two seater outhouse in a corner of the barn.

But the massive lilac bush was in full bloom by the front door and the air was sweet with scent. We stepped over the threshold into the living room and looked at each other.

“This is it,” we said to each other with our eyes.

In the week after Eric died, the lilac blossoms burst open and I sat on the porch, next to the bush, and wrote and listened and watched. The world was all new again, focused around absence. A catbird I wanted to believe was speaking to me for Eric sat on the wires crossing through the crown of blossoms, and sang over and over. The songs varied in pitch and melody, as if the bird was trying out for parts as other birds, other beings. A pair of sparrows was nesting in the yew hedge on the other side of the porch, and when the catbird wasn’t singing I listened to the chicks squawking as the parents brought them food. Birds became my porch companions. They occupied my grief and gave me a new language, one I didn’t have to write down or try to remember.

The passage above is from the The Island Journal, the first iteration of the memoir I recently completed — a book I intended to write only on islands, in a handmade journal David gave me in the first months we knew each other. There are many reasons there are very few traces of that original Island Journal in the finished draft of the memoir (the primary reason being that people who read it couldn’t figure out what was going on), but there are so many memories packed into that journal that come to me at different times.

Like right now when the lilac bush is coming into peak bloom. I still live in that same house, the lilacs still make me think of Eric, and I still bring a bouquet to Eric’s grave every year. I’ll bring one tomorrow.

The Tower Room

Eric loved this room. It’s on the second floor of the tower that connects the house to the old barn loft, so it’s high up. With three big windows to the south and one to west, it’s full of light and the views are outstanding — the old farmyard and silo across the field next to a line of tall spruce, and the slope of Fort Mountain to the south. The forsythia is a bright splash of yellow at the edge of the road and the maple tree we planted five years ago as a memorial to Eric is thick with red buds.

Eric watched TV and napped and slept in this room. Once we built the tower as part of a house renovation he spent more time here than anywhere else in our house, even counting sleeping. He’d watch sports or the history channel sitting in his Danish leather recliner in the evening, fall asleep, then get up at some point and sleep on the couch. In the middle of the night he’d get into bed with me. He was a nomadic sleeper.

When he got sick we moved a bed into the room and this is where he spent his last three weeks. This is where he died, about a foot from where I’m sitting right now. My desk crosses into the space that held his bed.

The tower room is now my study and the room where I spend most of my waking time. I look out these windows and feel like one of the luckiest people ever, to get to be in such a beautiful space while I do work I love. Eric missed so much, sometimes I try to appreciate things double. Or maybe it’s just that I know how quickly it can all be gone.

Eric died twelve years ago this morning by the day, tomorrow by the date. I planned to light a yahrzeit candle for him tonight, sun down to sun down, but I couldn’t wait. I came to my desk earlier to work on the manuscript I’m putting together and couldn’t concentrate. That Sunday morning in 2006 is so present in this room today. I couldn’t only think about it, I needed to do something.

So I lit the candle early. I look out the windows. I write.

 

 

 

Neighbors

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When I bought my house 37 years ago I didn’t realize I would be completely surrounded by one family, the Johnson’s. Johnson family members owned the farm across West Street, the house kitty-corner on the other side of the cross roads, the small pasture across Canterbury Street, the white cape on the other side of Narrows Brook along with that barn and corner of land, and the corn field across Route 107.

How lucky I’ve been, to have Johnsons for neighbors. There have been the inevitable shifts and changes and now my property doesn’t abut Johnson land on every side. But many family members are still in the same houses, with one significant exception.

Arlene Johnson died last Friday, at age 96. She was a remarkable woman. At her service the minister talked about what an “extraordinary ordinary”person she was. But, he said, she wasn’t perfect, no one is except in Jesus.

Arlene’s neighbor on the other side of her house disagreed. She stood up when people were invited to share stories about Arlene and said, no, Arlene was perfect. The fact that this neighbor is someone who’s lived 200 yards from me for 18 years and I’ve only ever seen her three times, and who introduced herself as the person who never leaves her house, gives a tiny view into who Arlene was — such a special person that she could connect enough with a deep introvert that the woman not only went to the service, but stood up in front of a church full of people and spoke and cried and described how Arlene loved her. And she loved Arlene.

I agree with my introverted neighbor. Arlene was as close to perfect as anyone I’ve ever known. She was invariably kind, friendly, spunky, cheerful and helpful. Even though she and her family have a deep faith in Jesus and believe in the redemption he offers, she never once tried to talk to me about her faith or press her beliefs on me. Rather, she was curious about Judaism. When we were preparing for Sam’s bar mitzvah she told me she’d never been to one and wondered what it was like. I invited her and her daughter-in-law and they came and had a great time.

Over the winter, as Arlene’s health deteriorated, David and I visited as often as we could. David would play guitar and I’d chat.  I showed her my photos from our trip to Ireland and she told me about her attempt to climb Mt. Major last year; she only got halfway before she realized maybe she was a bit too old to reach the summit. At her service her grandson said the one thing she left undone on her bucket list was zip lining. Until just about a year ago she was walking to the corner store on a regular basis, and up the hill to the old maples to collect fallen branches to haul home for kindling.

The minister at Arlene’s service talked a lot about the love and saving grace of Jesus, but the face Arlene showed the world was one of a deeply human, considerate and caring individual. Her favorite verse was Micah 6:8: And what does the Lord require of you? To do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.

That was Arlene. What a world it would be with more people like her in it.

Yes, Sweet Things Happen Too: A Tea Party

You know you live in New Hampshire when you get invited to a tea party to celebrate your elderly neighbor’s house turning 200 years old. At the party the many older women there tell stories about growing up in this town.

“There was the time the horse fell through the floor of the barn. My father tied a rope to his tail and dragged him back up. How else was he going to do it?”

“I would visit Sam at the farm because otherwise I didn’t get to see him and one day I went in to the milking barn. His father and uncle pushed me between two cows and said, ‘Can’t come out til ya get some milk outta that udder.”

“There were only 40 of so students in each class at Coe Brown (the high school) and the boys didn’t know enough to ask a girl to the prom so the teachers had to tell them — ask a girl. They all asked the same girl.”

When you’re asked where you live people know your house by the family that owned it four generations ago.

Everyone goes around the room to say how they know the elderly hostess.  Connections that reach back three generations are discovered — a grandfather’s uncle lived on the farm next to a great-aunt’s mother (or something similar).

One women reads from a card with notes about who owned the house first — a couple who grew up on abutting farms (of course) and had eight children but only five lived to grow up.

There are fewer farms now and lots of people who live in this town are “from away” and the elderly neighbor no longer walks up the hill to collect branches blowing off the old maple trees bordering the ceremony to bring home and use as kindling. She’s too frail now. So her family keeps her house warm and makes tea and scones and fills the house with stories and maybe another 200 years will go by and another circle of women will gather and talk and make connections that radiate out from a center of home.

“Every Day I Have to Figure Out How to Detach Enough

to have a life that isn’t consumed with anxiety and terror.”

“How’s it going,” Jon Lovett asks.

“It’s difficult, man.”

So says Marc Maron in this week’s podcast of Lovett or Leave It. Maron goes on to counsel that you do have to figure it out. Trump thrives on making us mad and scared so when you let the unprecedented unprecedentedness of the terror of his presidency keep you from enjoying the clear blue of a cool autumn day in New Hampshire after spending two days playing with the unspoiled and precocious children of your child, then he’s won. Resistance is enjoyment of simple pleasures and there’s nothing better than a rainy Saturday morning entertaining beautiful children so their parents can have a rare morning of sleeping in together.

I have to say this over and over in order to write blog posts. What difference do my experiences make, as sweet as many of them are? Well, they make a lot of difference to me and then I have energy to at least try to do my fifteen acts of resistance a week (way off that average recently having taken over a month more or less off). And my frequent emails to Mitch McConnell (go here and join in the fun) telling him I’m afraid in a way I have never been as an American (fear is a core motivating message of Republicans so I love being able to honestly use it to oppose McConnell’s unconscionable behavior) are actually renewing.

Life has been good to me recently and horrifically hard for a number of people I love. So all that makes sense is to share the extra generosity of my life. Mortality and change and rain then sun, zinnias and eggplant running into colder weather but no frost yet, bouquets in the house still and all the colored paper clips put away from Ava “working” at my desk this morning.

Ava loves to help put things away and clean up. Emilio has an arm that’s astounding for a six-year-old. Really. We measured our football throws this morning and as I thought he can throw twice as far as me.

I’m ready for the next week.

A Ball to the Head

Thursday was my first full day at home without any commitments since returning from Ireland. I planned to garden and open the memoir file on my computer and start to sort out my next steps in the revision process.

Instead, I got up and made a list for the day, starting with four people I wanted to call. Then I did a lot of puttering — folded our Ireland hiking maps and put them in a cupboard with all the foreign country maps I’ve collected over the years, rearranged files on my desk, filled out medical forms for an upcoming appointment, made a big pot of black beans.

Finally I opened the memoir file and fiddled with it for a few minutes. Then closed it. Looked out the window. I went out to the garden to pick flowers and make bouquets for the house, hoping that might dislodge the heavy funkiness and floating dislocation I’d felt all day.

Arranging hydrangeas in vases to dry for the winter, I thought about Chris. Two summers ago when I spent so much time with her as she was dying, the first thing I’d do when I got home was pick flowers for the house. And here it is just about two years since she died. Tomorrow is the deathaversary.

Then I got the “ball to the head,” the term Adrienne uses to describe the sudden smacks of grief you don’t see coming.

The four people I’d put on my list first thing that morning to be sure to call are all friends who’ve lost a spouse. Of course I wanted to talk to them, check in. I know how hard it is to figure out your way through the loss of a life partner. But I wanted to talk about grief for myself too, and access the rare benefit that comes from deep loss — being able to talk to others about it.

Having people to talk to who’d gone through a loss like mine was such a comfort for me after Eric died. It comforts me still.

Summer: There, Here, Gone

I’ve been an infrequent blogger this summer, mostly because for the second summer in a row I’ve largely let go of any writing habit. It started with the week in June with Emilio, playing like a six-year-old since I was with a six-year-old, which was enormous fun but left no room for writing. An editing job with a July 1 deadline also ate up most of my desk time, making other people’s writing work better, leaving little energy for pulling my memoir into a better shape.

Then it was vacation time with family, followed by a week at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers’ Conference, a week spent immersed in workshopping, generative writing, outstanding readings by the outstanding faculty and talks about the craft of writing. It was inspirational and gave me a clear bead on exactly what I need to do next to get my memoir in shape to get it out into the world. But there’s was no time to actually work on the memoir.

The week at home after the conference and before returning to New York for another week with Emilio was consumed with harvesting and processing the bounty from my garden (yes, an electric mesh fence really does work — at least so far — to keep the woodchucks from eating my vegetables and flowers before I can get to them). The time I did have for creative focus I found myself drawing, pulled into my right brain after a week of such intense language, left brain focus.

Today I fly back to New Hampshire and will have 24 hours at home before David and I leave for over two weeks in Ireland. It’s been a very fun week again with Emilio — playing miniature golf, seeing how many times in a row we can catch each other’s throws (55 is our record), going to parks and playing the game of Life. He and I can be silly, serious, focused, scattered, wild and quiet together. He’s sweet and intense, loving and competitive and fiercely athletic. I’ll miss being with him and Ava every day; the energy of small children is amazingly centering because there’s no time to be anywhere other in the moment you’re in with them.

An added bonus of the week: celebrating my birthday which included Ava painting her legs with the blue frosting on my ice cream cake. It was impressively messy and abandoned. Emilio continued his habit of taking whacky selfies while I’m driving.

Now I’m looking forward to a traveling adventure with David. It’s been a long time since we’ve spent a couple of weeks only with each other, exploring a new country. We’ll be walking the Beara Way, then traveling to Connemara and Donegal. From everything we’ve read and heard about Ireland, I expect we’ll be stunned by beauty, heartened by a friendly culture, and cheered by the camaraderie of pubs. I’m also going on a Twitter fast. Who knows, maybe I’ll even go a day or two without checking the news.

All of this activity has made the summer fly. But it’s not over yet and this next journey should be as rich as all the summer I’ve already lived. Want to get a sense of what it’s like to walk, drive, drink, tour, discover and relax in Ireland? I’ll be blogging while we travel, so follow along.

Peony Porch

 

 

Home, on my porch, as gray storm clouds pitch across the sky and peonies poke through the balusters. For a change I’m not going to miss peony season in my yard. The last couple of years I’ve been away during the peak of peony blossoming. To extend the season, I wrapped buds in newspaper and stored them in the refrigerator. When I took them out weeks later, once I was home for awhile, they bloomed.

This year I’ll get to pick the heavy heads as they open their extravagant faces, petals tucked in petals tucked in petals in silky folds that seem like forever. The house smells like heaven. I have such peony bounty yesterday I brought a bunch to a family gathering in Massachusetts.

This morning I sat on the porch of the beach house my siblings are renting, watching sun begin to brighten the ocean out near the horizon, the never ending in and out of the waves, white water on white sand. Beautiful.

But I’m happy to be home. Instead of the hot, dry, empty, full ocean beach view, now I face a green world of rampant vegetation and peonies so thick they become part of the porch. I live in a beautiful place and it’s a treat to be here in the height of the light season.

I’ve been away a lot. Last week I was in New York playing with Emilio. We had a blast — a ferry ride to Fire Island, wave tag on the beach, ice cream every day, a DIY water park in the backyard with Ava, timing how long it took to round the bases of a ball field and run the smallest circle on the running track at the park. Short distance, Emilio is faster than me. Youth is a powerful thing.

Now I’m sitting still on my porch as the rain approaches and wind begins whipping the tall grasses in the field across the street. Most of the coming week ahead I’ll be home. Next week too. And the next and next and next until I’ve been home the seven weeks I don’t have to be anywhere else for longer than an overnight. I’m delighted.

I’ll bring in a fresh bouquet of peonies every day. Then it will be zinnias and cosmos, marigolds and nasturtiums, salvia, rudbeckia and poppies. Plus lettuce, kale, peas, beets, squash, cilantro, basil, peppers, and dill.

Yes, I’ll say it again. I’m happy to be home.

 

Unplugged

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“This is the most unplugged I’ve been for a long time,” David said last night as we drove back to our house from our camp rental on Jenness Pond.  After three weeks of living on the water, mostly sleeping in a corner of the screened porch so that lying in bed at night I could look out on the overhanging maple and oak trees to the night sky beyond, and spending much of every day in the water or looking at the water, I knew just what he meant.

For the last three weeks it’s often been almost unbearably hot out in the world which continued to report the usual bad and distressing news.  On the water it’s been comfortably cool and when it got too hot, I got in the water.  When my periodic checks of the NYTimes website to stay updated on Trump missteps was too distressing I clicked off my phone, put it on the hutch on the porch and went outside.

There were stretches every day when I didn’t know where my phone was and didn’t care. There were days I didn’t open my computer.  There were many meals with many friends and lots of family eaten on the long porch table, watching the sun set over the pond. There was an unending supply of zucchini brought to the camp by visitors.  Emilio learned what a “dip” in the pond before bed is (a skinny one) and learned to jump off the swim raft, plunging deep and popping back up above the water with his eyes wide and blinking every time, as if he was just being born.  That was the big news of the week.

Now I’m on my porch at home, listening to geese chatter as they circle the farm ponds across the street.  There’s a breeze and late light on the horizon, the geese silhouetted as they circle the fields.  Tomorrow instead of waking up to water off the porch it will be the cows in the pasture.  But I may keep trying to lose track of my phone periodically. Unplugging  can be blissful.