A Gift of Experience

 

Emilio at the Whitney Biennial

A week ago David and I finished the holiday gift I gave him for 2017 — a commitment to visit at least one museum and have one outdoor adventure a month. Experience gifts make sense — we already have so much stuff — and they’ve been a needed break from the dread and disgust that’s been too present for the past year if you’re paying any attention at all to what’s happening in the world. Which we are.

Early on we decided if we went someplace outdoors we’d never been before, that could count as an outdoor adventure. It didn’t have to be arduous. Just new. We also realized early on that there are a lot of museums near us. New Hampshire has a snowmobile museum, several rail depot museums, a telephone museum, a model railroad and toy museum, and a classic arcade museum that has pinball machines and electric games built no later than 1987. We didn’t go to any of those, but we did go to the NH Historical Society museum which has an old ski-doo snowmobile as an exhibit.

So what did our year of art and adventure include?

We trudged through snow up a hill in an orchard under a full moon. We camped in Evans Notch and hiked the Baldface Circle (very arduous!), slept on the front porch three times in the last month, toasty in big down bags, swam in the North Atlantic twice in September and in Long Pond during the second week of October. Wet suits are magic in cold water, but we came out a bit off balance from the cold affecting our inner ears.

 

We walked in Ireland and hiked in Zion Canyon, Kolob Canyon, Snow Canyon and Jenny’s Canyon (Utah is amazing) and lowered ourselves into lava tubes, caves hollowed out of old lava flows. We stayed in the Mitzpah Hut near the peak of Mt. Pierce and hiked to the summit of Mt. Mooselauke twice

 

Our museum visits ranged from interesting to mind blowing. The Deep Cuts exhibit at the Currier, featuring impossibly intricate and detailed paper art, was a marvel. We took in the Whitney Biennial along with Adrienne, Emilio and Ava. We went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston twice, most recently to see a phenomenal performance of poetry read by Jane Hirshfield (her own and her translations of Japanese poetry) and music composed by Linda Chase. The three part piece was a collaboration written in response to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and was masterfully done. Stunning music along with spoken words in the best weave of the two I’ve ever heard. And that was after being enchanted by the exhibit of wild and vibrant wall-size murals by Takashi Murakami.

My favorite museum visit was to the Northwood Historical Society’s museum, open on August Saturdays from 1:00 to 3:00. The town’s artifacts are housed in the small, square, brick building that was the Northwood Narrows branch of the library when I first moved to town. It’s around the corner from my house.

David wore his short wetsuit for that visit; we stopped at the museum when we saw it was open on our way to swim. The Historical Society volunteer staffing the museum that day didn’t pay any attention to the wet suit. She was too busy watching the two helicopters circling over the fields and woods of the Narrows, looking for a fugitive batterer, a man who’d come to town after abusing his girlfriend and then ran away from the police when they found him at a house on Blake’s Hill.

They caught him. It was an exciting day in the Narrows.

Boardwalk at Coney Island

Last Friday we walked the boardwalk on Coney Island, a good choice for our last outdoor adventure of the year. Closed for the season, the arcades and amusement parks were like huge broken toys. We walked with a cold wind at our backs, then turned and walked into it, along the gray water, the winter sun low in the sky. We walked for a long time.

I’m grateful to have a life that allows me to choose experiences like this, to take breaks that refresh and energize and inspire me. I hope to keep it up next year.

 

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October Swim

Full wetsuit, bathing cap, goggles. Warm clothes to put on as soon as we get out of the water. A tentative wade off the small beach to make sure the water temperature hasn’t unexpectedly dipped into an intolerable range.

It hasn’t. Plunge. My face stings and the tips of my ears that aren’t covered by the swimcap ache. I keep swimming. Thirty strokes into the swim my two toes that don’t tolerate any kind of cold are numb but my face is fine. I look up and see David’s blue-capped head swimming up behind me. Back to counting my strokes, twenty breaths to the left, twenty to the right.

When I lift my face for air the hardwood trees along the shore are red, orange, yellow and gold against the dark green of pine. Face back down to pull my stroke the water streams a cloudy bronze as my fist punches bubbles under the surface. Face up again to the string of color on the shore. I catch a glimpse of blue sky as the fast clouds above break apart.

Across the pond and back, heading into a hard wind left from the front that blew through with rain this morning. It whisks the surface of the pond blue-black with white wave caps. I stroke harder.

When we get out the air is warmer than the water and there’s no wind under the pines on the beach. We’re not as cold as we expected, but there’s still a chill somewhere deep. We’re a bit off balance from a half hour of cold in our ears and tilt as we get dressed.

We go home and take hot showers. For a long time.

Clifden to Donegal

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Clifden Castle in Connemara

David and I love open air swimming, so we had it on our list of must-do’s in Ireland to get into the northern Atlantic at least once. Our second day at Dolphin Beach Guest House in Clifden we took our first dip. Nestled into the side of a steep ridge of rock, heather and gorse poking out the end of Connemara, the guest house has a small beach that is sometimes visited by dolphins and always tricky to walk on, as it’s all small rocks. There were no dolphins the day we went in, but I’d been running and was hot and the day was warm enough (in spite of mist), and the tide was high, so we went for it. Well, not exactly a swim. More like a dunk after hobbling over rocks.

There were many other aspects of our visit to Connemara that were equally thrilling, Just getting to the Dolphin Beach was exhilarating. It’s on a loop of road that climbs over and around the ridge, giving views in every direction. And those views are stunning. Sea, mountains, surf, wildflowers and the ever-changing show of clouds forming, racing, floating, opening, raining, and misting. The exhilarating part? That road is one lane with sheer cliffs on one side, so driving in and out from the guest house required total attention and occasional pulling over into small spots to let another car coming from the other direction go by.

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Connemara bogs

But we managed the drive, and all the other one lane roads around the peninsula that makes up Connemara. There are areas full of small loughs, or lakes — ponds, really — where there is nothing but peaty bog and pockets of water. Driving across it was like driving on a different planet. Lough Inagh sits in a fold between two mountain ranges and the road along its shore is dramatic, with mountain slopes falling to the water on every side.

From Clifden we drove to Donegal in northwestern Ireland. When we drove up the steep pitch leading to the Rossmore Manor B&B David and I were smitten. The view across the tidal inlet to rolling hills of green pasture outlined with the darker green of hedgerows is the perfect of image of Ireland.

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Rossmore Inlet

But Donegal County is more than rolling green hills. Again, there are vast patches of boggy land where we could see peat harvesting in progress. Slieve League, perhaps the highest sea cliffs in Europe (hard to say for sure because everyone gives you a different answer here) is on the southern shore and the day we climbed up beside and then over the top of the cliffs we were often walking through mist and then heavy rain showers.

But we could see that out at the end of the point there was sunshine holding on, in spite of the clouds stuck on the top of the Slieve League ridge. We headed for the sun. In Glencolumbcille, where we’d planned to do a small loop hike, we were stunned by more cliffs — only 200 meters, not the 600 meter cliffs we’d just seen, but still incredible.

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Glencolumbcille Cliffs

But we still weren’t in sun so we kept going until the road ended. Stunned again. We found ourselves at Malin Beg which we’d had no idea was a scenic spot. Below the parking lot was a long scallop of white sand in the curve of 100 foot cliffs, falling away from green fields. The water looked turquoise over the white sand. We climbed the many many stairs down to the beach to get a better look.

The sand and rolling waves were beautiful and the sun was out, warming us up after our chilly couple of hours on Slieve League. When we got to the end of the beach, where no one could see us because we were so far away, we talked about going in the water again. We had no bathing suits or towels, but here was the perfect spot. Sand under our feet instead of rocks, sunshine instead of mist, and the most beautiful beach either of us have ever seen.

We took off our clothes, left them in a pile under out boots so they wouldn’t blow away, and ran for the water. It was warm enough to be bearable, and cold enough to make us feel brave. We came out laughing and ran back up to our clothes so we could dry off and put all our layers back on.

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Malin Beg

Today we drive back south and tomorrow we fly home. The trip has been terrific in so many ways — scenery, being outdoors for most of every day, walking, walking, walking, meeting lovely people everywhere, eating local fish, meats and vegetables, and best of all, boiled new potatoes with butter and mint.

Nothing better than all that.

Silver Water

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Though David and I have been renting a camp on Jenness Pond, a few miles from our house, for over a week now, we’ve only just started staying here at night. There’s been a wonderful assortment of people filling the camp — family, friends, and friends of family, including our children and grandchildren and our children’s friends and their children, lots of little ones from age eight to two. There’s nothing like the noise of children playing in water. There’s nothing like playing in the water with children, no matter what age.

With fewer visitors coming through the camp this week, last night we blew up the air mattress to sleep on the screen porch for the first time, something I’ve been thinking about since we did it last summer. Falling asleep in the night air is such a treat, and not having to set up, then crawl in and out of, a tent to get that sky-just-past-the-mesh feeling, is a highlight of this camp.

Except last night was the coldest yet this summer. Rain all day, wind, and temperatures in the low 50’s, by dinner time we lit a fire, the first time in this house, probably the first time in July. After an evening warming up by the fireplace in the living room, we went out to the porch to go to bed. Layered between two comforters beneath and three above, David in a wool hat and down jacket and me in a hooded sweatshirt, we fell asleep with a cold summer night all over us. What a treat.

This morning David and I sat on the porch couch, a comforter over our laps as we read. A pair of kingfishers spent the morning chitting from the trees along the shore, flying to the post at the end of the dock and the railings of the raft ladder, scanning the water for a meal. At one point a guttural squawk made us both look up. A heron was flying directly towards the porch, then turned and moved along the grasses on the shore.

Late this afternoon the noisiest event on the pond was the flapping and prancing of ducks, lifting themselves out of the water by the dock with a furious slapping of their wings. The sun and clouds traded places and the pond was silver and then black. There was enough sun to warm the air, enough that I probably won’t have to pull up the hood of my sweatshirt when I go to bed.

I’m so lucky.

 

Floating

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Now that it’s wet suit weather again, David and I spend a few minutes floating when we go to the pond to swim.  I’ve never been a good floater, my hips and feet sinking any time I’d try to lie back on top of the water.  In swimming lessons as a kid, once the teacher stopped holding up my middle from underneath I’d go down.  Trying again when I got older didn’t make any difference.

Except in a wet suit in the ocean, where the extra floatation and the salt keep me on the surface, face to the sky, arms and legs spread, slowly lifting and falling with waves. The ease of floating is part of what makes me love swimming in the ocean so much.

But really, I love any outdoor swimming, and somehow just recently David and I have discovered we can float in the pond too, as long as we’re wearing wet suits, which we are now that the water is cooling.  Could we always float this way?  We’re not sure.  We were both so sad-skinny when we first met and started swimming together in Long Pond, a small, quiet pond close to our house.  We probably would have sunk then if we’d tried, even in wet suits.

Now we both have more floatation around our middles and we’re coming out of a summer that’s left us relaxed enough to want to be home, to not be rushing off somewhere all the time, to take a few moments to stop, on our backs, in the middle of the pond, and float. Today the sky was cloudless.  Yesterday there were light cirrus clouds.  With my ears in a swim cap, lapped by water, I don’t hear much.  My heart beats, I hover, I look up.

In describing our personalities Eric used to say he was a floater and I was a swimmer. He could move from task to task without a clear sense of where he’d end up.  Not me.  I organized tasks in a sequence so I got things done.  He did things.

David’s a swimmer like me, and I’m still getting focused on getting things done a good part of every day, but I’m also floating.  At least for a few minutes.

 

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.

On Jenness Pond

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A small fish jumps from the water beside the dock and skips five times, like a flat stone, disappearing into the rushes that circle the pond, a green edging blushed with the copper of small flowers.

Dawn, no wind, thin shreds of mist floating a few feet above the water. When the sun breaks the horizon behind the trees to the east it colors the clouds which colors the water around the dock, a peach atmosphere.

A heron cuts across the view framed by the screened panels of the porch, barely clearing the water, great wings floating in their long, slow rhythm.

Light fills the sky and the hill across the pond brightens, a single tree near the top already golden, a beacon.

Wood plank rafts float in a curve that follows the shore, a long lane for swimming.  The water is warmer than the air for a change.  When I dip my foot in it feels like a hot tub.

A fragment of rainbow hangs over the trees on the far shore,  deepening as the morning comes on.

Swallows scan the surface of the pond for insects, twirling and swooping, touching down in quick spurts that send rings out into the barely rippled surface.

The clouds directly above begin to unthread and a rich blue shows through.

David and I sit at opposite ends of the table on the porch, writing.  A bald eagle flies by, scanning the length of the pond.

Evenings, a pair of nesting loons with two chicks float past the end of the dock, making a circuit on the pond, then scream and warble as dusk tightens.

On the Water

 

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A sudden shift to port, then a slow thud back to starboard, followed by a gentle swaying. The hanging lamp over the table sways, the view out the long, narrow porthole windows floats up and down, back and forth, the railing of the dock on one side, the neighboring boat on the other.  Water is my ground.  For four days I’m living on a houseboat.

We had trouble finding Hermitage Moorings when we arrived in London on Sunday night, but we had a friendly taxi driver who was fine about driving up and down Wapping High Street, not wanting to let us out in the rain and wind without knowing we had close shelter.  We finally located the address and John, our AirBnB host, came to greet us at the top of the ramp leading to the docks.  As we walked down I looked up.  Glorious — the Tower Bridge and the Shred building lit white against the black sky, just down river.

At the boat, Paul stood in the doorway and helped us get our bags on board and pointed out the steep stairs to our apartment, dark and narrow and low enough even I had to stoop.  Then I opened the door and stepped in.  “Oh, this is fantastic,” I said and I heard both John and Paul laugh in appreciation.  They love their Maxime and it shows in every detail of design and decor.  Boat living is tight, so smart, tidy arrangements work well and they’ve worked wonders.  Our apartment is both ingeniously compact and beautifully appointed.

After three days living on a boat I don’t feel cramped or annoyed by the pumping in and out of water for the toilet and shower, the small refrigerator and tiny galley, the way I have to squeeze between David in a chair at the table to get to the small living room space.  I’m not here to cook or do a living room chill, I’m here to enjoy London.

Which I have.  David and I have walked over 17 miles in the last two days, and I’m doing my half marathon training runs on top of that.  We’ve walked along both sides of the Thames, up river past three historic pubs, down river to the Tate Modern twice (the Alexander Calder show is brilliant), through Parliament Square and Piccadilly Circus, past Buckingham Palace and through St. Jame’s Park, hunting down the Grenadier pub, with its 400 year-old tin bar and reputation for being haunted by a soldier who was flogged to death there after being caught cheating at cards.  It wasn’t easy to find, but it was fun, the ceiling plastered with US dollar bills with sharpie markings, mostly declaring the origin of the bearer but one unfortunately proclaiming “Trump 2016.”  I certainly hope not.

No, I don’t feel cramped.  I feel soothed.

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Tide fractured by wind
infinite ripples except
the river does end, flat
marsh then ocean.

Day Two — Seaside and Sky

 

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Steely water runs out of a creek, cutting a bank through sand before disappearing into the froth and fury of the ocean, blue beaten white as it crashes on the beach.  The wind is hard and cold, clouds low. David and I walk with our heads down, trying to keep the chill off our faces.

We gather driftwood sticks, feathers, black curled strings and bubbles of dried seaweed. I’m imagining a mobile of sailboats hung from sea bleached wood, feathers floating between the curls of seaweed. There are small white feathers, long broad gray ones, one with white circles on a dark background. The mobile will be for my father, a man who grew up on the ocean, who taught me to sail, who took me and my sisters to the beach during hurricanes so we could watch the surf smash over the seawall.  I’m making an ocean he can hang in the house, a beach above the table where he paints sailboats and marshes and waves.

We guess the distance from one end of the beach to the other. We get it right. When we turn to walk back the clouds open for a few minutes of sun and the warmth is startling, backs to the wind, faces to the light. The far shore is luminous under a sky the color of a new bruise, blue beginning to bleed into black.  No yellow yet.

By the time we’re headed home it’s so dark I feel lost.  I can hardly see the road, the early night so heavy we’re wrapped in blankness.  The tunnel of winter is coming, an approach I feel more than see.

My father is 91, he hasn’t been on the ocean for over a decade.  He never walks the beach anymore, though he sits by the harbor and watches boats come and go. He takes photographs and paints, creating a seaside. I’m creating the sky.