Every college campus should have a spot like this. A path to ponder, a place to dream. To walk towards the horizon with nothing but sky ahead. No limits. Anything is possible. The world is yours. All that.
As a college student, I often came to this very hill, a short distance from my dormitory. Decades and a lifetime of adventures later, I visit my freshman daughter here. And this road in the clouds still evokes the questions: Where to? What next?
We came to look at the cows. R loves cows.
Tetley remained ambivalent. Not even a bark.
I know, I just wrote here about my new-found attraction to the city as a place to grow old – but hey, it’s not time for that yet. Back home I searched the real estate sites to look at houses and land in that part of the state. There’s still relatively inexpensive places to be had. With space for cows.
Just when I figured out I’d prefer to be old in NYC than in the suburbs, I read this article: Broadway actress Elaine Stritch moved to a suburb of Detroit. A pretty shocking decision for such a NYC icon – to leave her longtime life full of Broadway and nightclubs, pretty clearly, to die. I get it — her family is there. But yikes.
The way I see it, there are worse fates than to be an oldster shuffling across the avenue long after the light has changed. (what’s with that timing, NY?) In the no-longer very distant future, I can envision returning to live in noisy, nasty New York. Of course, as my dear sister reminds me, there is plenty of peace to be had there. I can see myself in Riverside Park, sitting on a bench overlooking the Hudson River – a mere stone’s throw from the heaving hordes on Broadway. Maybe I’ll even feed the very squirrels I now have no affection for. I might become one of those old ladies I used to worry about.
Perhaps, on a good day, I’d make the hike or take a bus or hop (okay: creep) onto the subway to catch a concert at Lincoln Center or an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum. Certainly any of this sounds better than withering away on a couch hidden behind doors in suburbia. Much better to be around teeming life – the lovely and less so buzz of humanity always on – than in front of a screen all day.
This change in thinking is notable because, although I was born and spent most of my childhood as a city kid, I always wanted to get away from it. I didn’t like the crowds, the noise, the dirt. I longed for country life with space, woods, a garden. And I do love all that – it’s my alternate fantasy in fact. But I wonder about my future ability to maintain said garden, house, car, etc.. It all takes money and so much work — work that gets harder to do as the bones grow brittle.
And most importantly, you need to drive. Where I live now there is no neighborhood coffee shop to hobble over to meet friends to discuss politics, art and okay – the grandkids. I have to drive to get anywhere here – and this in a relatively urban suburb. It seems to me, unless your lucky or overlooked, eventually your right to drive will be taken away. And with that, you lose your power, your independence. Reliant on others to get out into the world, it’s harder to stay interested in it. What’s the point? And from there, it’s all downhill. That’s what I’ve seen.
In America, the elderly get farmed out to ‘places’ with other geezers, maybe to Florida where they have compounds of fellow geezers. In other countries I have lived in like Japan, Italy, former Yugoslav countries, old folks are included in life. Generations live together in one house or nearby. Evenings on any square in Europe, all ages gather to drink coffee and wine, little kids run around, grandparents watch. On the market streets in Japan you’ll see all ages doing the daily shopping, together. Everyone’s part of the whole. Families, communities. You can still see that in some neighborhoods in NYC.
My daughter sweetly envisions R and I living in the little place she’ll have next to her own big house full of kids. Well, okay. But meanwhile, there’s this lovely brewing plan that as the years catch up to us, we will move to Manhattan where we can be artsy old folk. And lucky me, unlike Elaine Stritch, that’s exactly where my family is. (It’ll be fun, A!)
Birds and bugs weave across the sky, skirting the patchwork of green and golden field grass. Yellow butterflies – Monarchs? – float by, a Hummingbird buzzes past my ear. A Crow caws from somewhere in the forest and a pair of Wrens creep upside down along the branches of the willow tree beside me. A frantic Robin flies back and forth, filling the gaping beaks of her babies parked right outside the door we go in and out – as annoying as that may be for Robin-mama, she must feel safe from predators. With every breeze, the leaves of a stand of Aspens across the field shimmers like confetti.
It rained for much of yesterday and today, but this afternoon the sun finally shines – the clouds are benign – puffs and strokes across the vivid blue sky. The air is sweet with summer smells. In the field where I dare not venture for fear of ticks, is Queen Anne’s lace, Milkweed, Black Eyed Susan all lend splashes of color to the range of greens.
Just now, a shadow crossed the table where I sit. A Great Blue Heron swept by so close – it’s legs and neck weirdly postured as it positioned to land at the pond tucked into the wood below. So magnificent and commanding! I watch the shadows watching for more movement, wanting to see it lift off, to witness that wide flap of wings again.
It’s later and my friends have all gone out to a play. I opted to stay home for some rare solitude. After cleaning up the remnants of another delicious dinner, I’ve come back to face the field. The sound of a plane fades and then there is silence – but it is only momentary – an illusion really – there is plenty of noise. I hear the cracking of sticks, the evening complaint of a Robin, another bird song, I cannot identify, perhaps a Red Wing Blackbird. A rustle of leaves, the flutter of bird wings, the vibration of insects. The sounds are subtle but certainly there. From the pond just down the hill where I still look hopefully for the Great Blue Heron, I hear the odd belch of a bullfrog.
Out by a towering Pine tree about the distance of a block away (a city reference still works best for me), a deer is feeding, gently moving through the field. I know these creatures are common – even a nuisance – but to me, they still are marvelous. She passes gracefully back and forth across the mowed pathway, mostly she keeps her head down in the brush, busy munching, only occasionally popping up to twitch her ears, a beard of foliage hanging from her cud like a beard. Her nose looks like a chunk of sweet licorice.
Later still, I faced the field – now singing with nighttime insects – and watch the night draw in. I stared ahead at the now blurring shapes of trees, bushes, grasses, stones tumbling into the wood where darkness had already settled in. As the sky turned a blue to purple, the stars emerged, even as I watched, my neck cricked back, my face to the stars.
I miss this – nature at night – not so easily available in my busy neighborhood – not on this scale. I cannot even begin to capture my excitement – as if I have discovered a secret: what really goes on when we are closed into our homes, driven in by the mosquitoes, the draw of the light, and alas, our televisions. Standing at the edge of the meadow having been with it for hours now, I recalled this feeling, watching – no: being in nature, alone, until I feel one with the pulse of a wood or a meadow.
I remember, long ago as a young girl, a nature lover stuck in the city, memorizing animal tracks, matching the leaves of the trees to those in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, gathering dandelion roots and buds. Summers our family would go to a country spot and I remember exploring dirt roads on my bicycle. Often, I would stop where no one was in sight and stand leaning over my handlebars, mesmerized by a meadow a wood, the light, the dark. I still am.
Lovely, no? The house is incredible – full of nooks and crannies and open studios, and even a greenhouse with grapefruit, lemon and fig trees (!) neatly tucked into the steep hills of Litchfield County. One-on-one and together again around tables of food and drink, we decades-long friends have been catching up. Paula and I share a room and must force ourselves to shut up and turn off the light. So many years to catch up on and so many years to remember. Between gabbing session, we eat meals like this…
Wednesday morning, Fran, who lives nearby who was also a devoted former Mike Skop student, generously ran one of his Creativity Sessions – a great launch for our week. The 2 hour session included a bit of Zazen, Yoga, IChing and Notan collaging. I particularly enjoyed the meditation session – something I’ve wanted to start doing but have recently felt challenged by. What should I DO? Fran offered a very simple technique of simply counting your breath – 10 to inhale, 10 to exhale. Just that focus helped to quiet my mind. The silence, the peace, made it easy to find that space of serenity – surrounded by dear friends of like minds and intention all breathing together.
That seems to be the theme – this shared vocabulary we have, an understanding of something intangible that in our day-to-day existence, gets easily muddled. The word PORTAL keeps coming up in our conversations together – an image, a sense of what this time together, reflecting and creating — that seems perfect. And we laugh a lot.
Today is strangely cool and since it was sweltering when we packed our bags the other day, we are mostly underdressed, borrowing socks, layering sweaters. But now I will venture out cautiously (Lyme tick country) between the fields and through the woods for a good fix of nature while I’m at it. I’ve been marveling at the bounty of flowers and veggies that thrive un-assaulted by critters even though the gate is not fenced in – easy access for rabbits, ground hogs and other short guys. So much bounty around here, they can’t be bothered? I’m envious.
This morning’s walk with Tetley after yesterday’s monsoon-like storm, everything felt charged. Green stuff erupted everywhere – certainly the bittersweet that threatens to topple the trees along this wooded stretch of ignored land seems to have grown by feet overnight. The blue sky through the green canopy promises a lovely day.
A few years ago, I threw a few strawberry plants in the sloping patch beside the driveway just to get them out of my vegetable patch. Here they thrive and continue to multiply and after this storm, so did ripe strawberries. I had to bring Tet inside so I could use both hands to pick the good ones.
In harvest-mode, I wandered around to the back of the house to see what else might have erupted into ripeness. Before yesterday’s soaker storm there had been days of sunshine and heat – just what a garden loves. Looks like a little salad might be possible. Certainly there’s arugala-a-plenty as you’ll see in the next image.
Plenty of horseradish and a tomato plant holding it’s own between them. And mint hovers in the background ready to strangle everything.
Unfortunately, my beloved Peonies took a beating yesterday and I’m not sure I’ll even be able to salvage another bouquet. Is it ridiculous to say that the incredible bank of Peonies is one of my favorite things about this little patch of property? They’ve been here forever and were also beloved by the old woman who I bought the house from in 1997. Their heady perfume evokes all that is sweet about summer as well as the melancholy of passing too quickly. Ah well. Seize the day … and the flowers, while they blossom.
The weekend weather report looks good for planting – if I could only decide where to set these Zinnia and Cleomes so they don’t get eaten by the ravenous groundhogs. I guess the not-yet-eaten lettuce patch bodes well, I may tuck them in there.
The Roses blossomed over night and after the storm, have taken a dramatically desperate pose, don’t you think? I really like Roses although they are a bit prissy. Give me a giant, scratchy Sunflower any day over these posies. But then again, I appreciate their hidden toughness – they are deceptive with those treacherous thorns! And I love their scent. I do make it a point to always stop and smell the roses – much to my daughter’s embarrassment. In any case, these need to be tied up. (!)
Around the side of the house I check on the Blueberries. This is the first year I’ve seen so many berries. These bushes are smack under a Mulberry tree that grows like a weed. The birds will be swarming in a few more weeks, to get the fruit of the tree and maybe they’ll miss these little guys waiting to ripen. Bird netting is on the to-do list.
As is mowing the lawn, weeding, weeding, weeding. And the hedge is crazy-high again.
And, looking at this photo, plenty of cleaning up to do. Time to clean up the furniture and get ready for outdoor feasting. In the pots, I confess, I thought I was planting Dahlia bulbs I’d carefully saved from last autumn — but I think they’re Gladiolus. Again, not my favorite flower — rather funereal, don’t you think? I’m thinking I’d rather not be wasting those pots on them – better to pick up a few herbs or plant some of the Zinnias in there … work, work, work!
Yesterday morning I shuffled out of the house to walk Tetley, simultaneously grouchy about and awestruck by the beauty of the snow that had fallen overnight. My neighborhood looked like a black-and-white movie
Twenty-four little hours later, I pulled into the driveway after work and caught a glimpse of color in the corner of the garden. I stepped across the now soggy brown lawn and found these. A promise of spring.
That’s March, isn’t it? A crazy month of winds, rains, dramatic light changes, time changes. The calendar tells us it’s Spring even as we still shiver and our breath lingers like a cloud in the frosty air. Still, we made it through winter – the proof is in the brave croci. We are in for wonderful changes – right? Notice, I hesitate. That’s the way I’ve been recently.
Lately, my old enemy – anxiety – has been lurking around ready to pounce on me at anytime, grabbing my throat and giving me a gut punch. My daughter is a senior in high school and we are waiting for college decisions, financial aid offers. Where will she be accepted? What will I be able to afford? You get the picture.
The uncertainty of major changes, so much being up in the air like this, makes me hold my breath, my chest gets tight. Like any parent, I want my daughter’s life to be perfect – for her to get what she wants – or at the very least, what she needs. And in this case, there is very little I can do to control that. So I have become a worrying, anxious mess. I hate myself like this and my daughter, the picture of calm and acceptance, thinks I’m crazy.
These 24 hours in nature (as always, my favorite teacher) reminds me how fast things can change and how most of the time, there’s not a damn thing you can do about any of it. Depending on how you look at it, this fact can be a comfort or, if you are me, a terror. That’s the key: it’s how you look at it. Any of us who have lived on the planet for any time certainly have experienced both the joys and sorrows of change and how fast things can happen.
Within 24 hours you may meet – or lose – the love of your life, win the lottery – (I’m waiting…) or lose your fortune, be diagnosed with cancer or given the all-clear. Shit happens and much of it is beyond our control. Better to not get in a tizzy, right? Better to wait and see what life will bring and meanwhile, try to live in the present. Seize the joy of a blossom or just relax and delight in the peace of a snowy morning as sick as I may be, of winter. Breathing is so much easier without the vice-grip of anxiety around my throat. And besides, this morning, it smells like spring.
The snow brought a lovely quiet and a rare state of ‘not-doing’ to my home. Life always seems a constant of ‘must-do’s’. You know, the endless lists: laundry, cook, clean, groceries, pay-bills, exercise squeezed in around a 40 hour job. Even things I enjoy and some I love — have an element of ‘must’ to them – or at least a feeling of ‘should’ – socialize, write, walk, even read. Do, do, do!
But this weekend, blanketed by record snows, we were told by the authorities (!) to stay home. Stay home. You must stay home! How sweet. Obediently, I didn’t budge. I did a few things from my enjoyable ‘must’ list like reading and cooking and a little writing – but for a few hours of being home-bound, I did nothing. Except, look.
In winter, I get up to go to work in the dark. Dressing by the light of the closet so as not to disturb still sleeping R, I often choose colors or socks that are just a tad mismatched. By the time I lumber upstairs again at the end of the day to change out of work clothes, it’s dark again. I rarely see the light in my sweet bedroom. So on one of these frozen days, stuck at home by snow drifts and howling winds, I sat on my bed and watched the light and the views from my bedroom window.
I reveled in the sweet angles of golden warmth and shadows I rarely glimpse. Like a cat, I curled up in the slowly shifting patches of warmth and did not leave until the light was gone and the sky had faded to a chilly pink.
Yesterday, although bitterly cold, was so bright and fresh, I wanted to be outside. I gathered twigs and branches as kindling for the fireplace. We’ve had a fire every night recently – a beautiful, antidote to the cold night – even if it’s mostly aesthetic. Then I decided to prune back the butterfly bushes. I’d intentionally left them an explosion of woody branches until now, to provide a perch for the birds and perhaps, seed still hidden in the dried-out flower heads. Yesterday, I lobbed them off. While I was at it, I tackled the roses. I know: you real gardeners out there are probably flinching. What was I thinking? Somewhere in my memory banks I recalled that roses should be cut before spring. Only today I read it’s best to do so when at least the forsythia is in bloom. Uh-oh. But look, I took this photo yesterday — proof that spring is on its way.
In any case, that wasn’t what I was going to tell you about. While out cutting back the Budelia bush, Nuthatches started to swoop around on their way to the feeder beside me. Iphone in my shaky hand, I tried to get a photo or two. Standing there in the cold, very still, the birds tweeting about me, I flashed back to being a young girl. I was up in the woods behind the house my parents owned in Canaan, NY, our weekend get-away from NYC. I loved it there. A city kid by birth, I longed to be a nature-girl, living in the woods, eating off the land and while there, I pretended I was. AStalking the Wild Asparagusdevotee – I even dug up dandelions from Van Cortlandt park and cooked up the little flower buds for my 5th grade classmates at PS 95. (hint: butter makes anything yummy)
Wandering alone ‘up the hill’ into the woods behind the house was heaven for me. Stepping gingerly, trying to be quiet enough I might catch sight of a deer. In early summer, I searched for wild strawberries and blueberries in the hidden field on the other side of the wood. I dozed in that abandoned meadow, absorbing bird and insect sounds but mostly silence. Sometimes, in the winter, I stood for what seemed forever in the snow, my arm still as a lamp post, bird seed in my cupped hand, hoping a fearless Nuthatch might land on me to steal a snack. They came so close, chirping in my ear, inching upside down along the branches very near to me, yet never touched my icy hand.
Yesterday, standing by the feeder, that girl again, I recalled the joy I found in my walks, in those frozen moments of watching and hoping for contact. And this time, trying at least for a good photo. As you can see, not much success – but still, it was precious, being still, watching, waiting. A kind of meditation and a sweet reminder to me of what decades later, remains a way to peace.
In another 8 months, my daughter will be off to her new life as a college student. This imminent change for both of us has cooked up a veritable soup of emotions but also, a sense of possibility about what adventures might also be awaiting me. My dreaming was inspired by this list of “best places to retire” article on this morning’s Yahoo page. I can never resist reading through their choices, imagining myself in any of those places. Forbes’ list launched me into a full-fledged fantasy about what I might do, of course, (since this is fantasy) if I could indeed retire. Once an expat, the itch never quite goes away. Here’s my plan:
Call me a scrooge, but still reeling from 15 years of holiday retail, I’d give all the Merry Christmas business a miss and disappear to Japan where December 25th is basically a day to eat クリスマスケーキ pronounced “krisumas-cayki”. After ringing in the New Year in lovely Kyoto, traditionally a time of cleaning and contemplation and ringing a big old bell at a neighborhood temple (details here) it’s off to find the warmth of the sun.
Definitely time I went back to Bali. (thanks Yukiko for the great photo) Creativity is everywhere in the hill villages of that tiny Hindu island in Indonesia. (please note: I was a pre-Elizabeth Gilbert visitor) I imagine a month of writing, eating, walking, while reveling in the sound of gamelans, the rice paddies, waterfalls and the brilliant smiles of the warmest people I’ve ever met. And the food is good.
Next, all the way to the bottom tip of Australia.
Tasmania is where Jenny, one of my most missed and dearest friends in the world lives. We are friends from Kyoto days – and I have never laughed so hard and so often with anyone in my life and that alone makes this a trip to take. Bonus that it will be summer there and Tasmania looks incredible with wild beaches and incredible bush.
After exploring around the South Pacific, (Fiji? Papua New Guinea maybe?) it will be time to make my way back towards spring in the Northern Hemisphere. First stopping for some good eats and the crazy energy of Hong Kong and a little exploration of South East Asia. (Laos?)
Spring comes early to the incredible coast of Croatia and Montenegro. I long to marvel once again at the Adriatic light, the most remarkable spectrum of sea colors. Ideally, there will be a sweet house (or this incredible place looks fine!) looking out at that rugged landscape where I will write and maybe even paint for a month or so. I imagine the scent of eucalyptus, the light, the soft breeze through the cypress and the crystalline water lapping over the rocks. I’ll sit here and read, stare, swim, doze…
Next, a visit to Greece. I haven’t been since becoming entranced at 18 when I landed on the island of Paros and could explore no further. There is an art school there so even in November, although the tourists were gone, I discovered a dynamic arts community. It was as if I had been drugged by the sweet lavender air – the days drifted into one another – exploring the rocky hills, the restaurants, the retsina? What was it about that place? I’d like to see if I’d feel it again. And – to eat the food! To, as I did a lifetime ago, wake to the fisherman slapping octopus against the rocks.
Italy always calls to me. Perhaps I can make that visit with Molly – a pilgrimage to her birthplace in Puglia, to the hospital in Brindisi and if we can find them, meet up with the doctors who saved her life. Then, up north to a villa – in Tuscany or here less saturated Abruzzo. I’d invite my Studio 70 sisters for one of our creative retreats. This would do nicely, don’t you think, gals?
I imagine our days overlooking the hills, dinners of incredible food and endless red wine. Still, we’ll wake early and find our solitary corners to drink too many cups of coffee and feel inspired. Bliss.
By then it’s time to return to Connecticut to plant my garden at my sweet house and catch up with loved friends. Of course the groundhogs will still eat most of what I plant but I won’t mind as much. As I’m retired, there will be no excuses not to host all the dinner parties I always imagine – set at our lovely table out back. The sunflowers (these past years, eaten as seeds, every one) will be bountiful.
Lots of kayaking out to the islands and long overdue trips into the city to museums and restaurants and visits with missed friends and family.
As summer wanes, it’s time to hit the road again — into the groovy AirStream of my dreams for a leisurely trip across the States. I know it’s terribly muggy in Kentucky at this time of year but that just makes everyone move slower – savoring the sweaty nights of catching up with more missed friends from Studio 70 days. We’ll sit along the muddy banks of the meandering Ohio River as if no time has passed but rather just been an endless current of connection unbroken by time or space. And of course, like the old days, we’ll discuss time, space, art.
Then, meandering across the US – (the northern route this time) – popping in to National Parks (check out the webcam of Old Faithful!) A few weeks of luxuriously visiting friends, making new ones, browsing bookstores and thrift shops, farmer’s markets.
Now it’s autumn — a good time to tootle along the Pacific Coast — hikes through the (to me) exotic landscape and perhaps landing in an idyllic spot overlooking the ocean — to contemplate, walk, write — somewhere temperate – Monterey area maybe? I remember a summer spent in San Francisco – and again, the light and sweet air smells.
And as we roll into December it will be time to head back to Kyoto again – to get ready to ring in another year of itchy-foot plans. India? Definitely Morrocco…
A full moon still glowed in early morning sky as I stepped into the cold to take Tetley out for his walk. Something about the quality of the light or the air or the moment, brought me back to a scene from more than twenty years ago.
The man I loved had married another. Heartbroken, I retreated from my life in NYC for a weekend at a yoga ashram in upstate New York. After a few days of solitude and meditation, surrounded by winter fields and more sky than NYC allows, my every pore seemed to vibrate. On a frigid early morning with a moon still on the horizon, I walked out into the surrounding fields of the ashram. I felt as if I had been cracked open, I imagined my sadness might flood the frozen pastures.
Yet, I felt a healing. With every breath, I consciously sent the wrenching pain squeezing my heart off with the disappearing clouds of my exhalations. The moon seemed to speak to me as did the frozen grass crunching underfoot, each step, now a comfort. Even as I felt like I might die of a silent hemorrhage of the heart, I felt completely and beautifully alive. My pain brought me there – a pain that now, I perceive as exquisite. Certainly, it is the twenty years time that allows me to remember it so, rather than be swept away again into the desperate sadness that at the time I feared might drown me.
The thought of anguish as a road to spiritual understanding – as something exquisite – sticks with me, inspired by this random memory of a wintry morning. Pain of the heart and spirit is certainly on any map we choose to follow in life. There is no alternative route, no way around it. I still dread those turns in the road. But today I am reminded of the incredible clarity and beauty, almost a kind of spiritual trance that can lead us, if not away from our pain, to a place of peace. Like that morning so many years ago: the crystalline threads of my breath disappearing into the cold morning air, held the promise that all things must pass.