Forcing Spring and Myself

Peach blossoms

I hibernate. From reassuring texts and emails exchanged with friends who are also in a kind of dormancy, I know that it’s not just me and the groundhogs lying low. We are all tired and inclined to burrow deep into our own nests as dark closes in too early these winter months. I certainly am. At the end of the day or on a weekend, after a full work week, I want to light my wood stove, pull the curtains closed, crawl beneath the blankets with a book or the remote and talk to no one.

It doesn’t help that I have a job requiring I be outgoing, seek out strangers to try and convince them to buy lots of books. I like my company, love what I sell, am interested in other people and am socially adept – but like many book people, it’s not my natural inclination. As an introvert in an extrovert job, I definitely crave solitude after beating the bushes.

But it’s a fine line. Sometimes I feel like I have gone too far down the alone rabbit hole. Especially during winter, I tend to hide out in my own world, almost forgetting the pleasure of connection. It’s easier to stay in. But statistics show and I believe, that we humans need each other to thrive. I don’t mean through social networks – I want contact — to laugh, feel the comfort of a hug, hear a story, share a drink, a meal.

I’m so grateful to the many dear ones who make social overtures to me and accept mine. We take care of each other that way. Getting out with others can be more of an issue for us single people – particularly when you were once part of a couple. Venturing out requires more energy, motivation and confidence when you’re alone, particularly at first. It’s a skill worth honing because… well, you know. I certainly wish the men I once believed I’d be spending my life with were still here with me. I miss that. (To say ‘men’ rather than ‘man’ sounds weird – but there are two loved ghosts in my life.) Still, I enjoy my own company and have become quite content in my solitude. But the danger is how much easier it is to burrow down deeper, venturing out less. And I believe that for my health and well being, I need to resist the inclination to retreat. Do you know what I mean?

As always, I find my best life cues in nature. Last week I pruned my peach and pear trees, putting a few branches in water. And blossoms are already emerging — a reminder to the reclusive me, of the beauty that may come from forcing things along.

In Praise of Rivers and Walking (Dogs)

We were dog-less for at least a year after beloved Tetley died. Without a dog, I rarely wandered around the neighborhood, particularly not in winter when I’m inclined to be a slug. Now we have Rufus. We think he’s a chihuahua-scottie, pretty darling and an easy, sweet dog. While sometimes I complain, I’m grateful he gets me outside even during a recent cold snap. Walking behind his jaunty strut, him pulling a little too much on his leash, it’s hard not to smile.

Molly and I have worked out an informal labor sharing system. I do morning, she does night walks. Either one of us tries to get a good long one in during the afternoon. The morning one is a quickie to just take care of business. I throw a big coat over my pajamas and let him sniff around the street while I yawn and wake up, thinking about my dreams, clearing sleep from my lungs with deep breaths. These days, the sun is just about rising and the morning planets hanging around on the Eastern horizon give me their last twinkle before fading into the day sky.

The good long walk is when I get home from work, if it’s still light enough. I need it as much as Rufus does. My favorite walk is along the river because there are no cars and because – river! I love rivers – the sense of always coming from and going somewhere. As I write, my cheeks are cold because I just got back from a jaunt on this sparkling, bracing winter day. The long way takes about 40 minutes if you factor in Rufus’s pit stops and smell checks. Today I took pictures.

The mouth of the river leading into the Long Island Sound is not very far, so high and low tides are quite noticeable. The tide was out when I got down to water and I thought about hanging around to hear what I suspect might be some nice cracking sounds as the incoming tide shifts the ice around. One very cold winter,  I lived a block off of Riverside Drive in Manhattan and heard, from blocks away, the ice cracking on the Hudson River. Strange and alarming, almost like little bombs going off, and then exciting to be reminded of the force of nature even in that metropolis. Today I settled for the crack and crunch of a little frozen puddle beneath my shoe.

I like this walk as much for the industrial stretches as the glimpses of bird life, rose bushes and a well placed bench. It’s real like this diverse city. The Norwalk river is a working one and there are even a few barges. Not like the monsters that travel the Ohio River – another river I once lived near and am fond of. There are stone lots and an asphalt plant, stretches of the river are blocked by huge piles of dirt and machinery. Some people think all this is ugly and I guess it kind of is, but I think it more interesting than an endless view of condos even as I enjoy the benefits of their lovely open walkways. I like the grittiness. And I’m not alone. I don’t know if this huge machine works but Osprey come return here every year. See the glimpse of last year’s nest where the antenna is?

There’s also a rowing club along this stretch. I’m sometimes tempted to try this. I like the way sculls move through the water, swifter and more elegantly than my little sea kayak. In the warmer weather this stretch is often filled with rowing kids – white and wealthy judging by their private school swag and the fancy cars waiting to pick them up. It seems a shame that the neighborhood children who live by and pass over this river daily don’t get to do this stuff. To see their city from the water, sometimes making that exit into the salty mouth to the sea. What a great way to ignite imagination and a sense of possibility. Too bad it’s mostly a rich-kid sport. I think about this when I pass the big boat tent and docks. Today I didn’t see a soul.

Up river there isn’t much ice. I’m not sure why. Deeper water? The tides are not as apparent as down river. The pathway stops here so Rufus and I leave the riverbank, cutting up through the grounds of an historical museum. One day I’ll go inside but it’s never open when I pass. There’s a well maintained herb garden in and a very old cemetery. I like to read the fantastic early American names. Here it turns pretty and feels like New England. I salute these old souls as we pass through. I think about time and the land and the river. They were digging up the road nearby here not too long ago, revealing cobblestones and trolley lines. From my car I never would have seen these details, this glimpse of the past.

Back to the streets we cross the busy one to the quieter roads of the neighborhood. Sidewalks disappear when we get off the main drag so I have to stay alert. But that’s the thing about walking: I pay attention to everything. The weather, the seasons, the neighborhood. I chat with people who have other dogs or want to meet Rufus – he is very friendly. Like the tides, a great ice-breaker.

Most of all the Light

The light of Spring thrills me as does the scent of hyacinth, the jolly daffodils and softening fractals of  tree branches in bud. But this morning, propped up against my pillows not yet ready to get out of bed, I basked in the abundance of morning sun and decided that most of all – it’s the light I love. The sky is clear of clouds so my bedroom will be bright all day right up until 12 hours from now when it will shift to the other windows in golden angles before slipping into night.

My garden is slowly waking up. From beneath the brown of leaves and winter detritus are leeks I planted last year – through the winter they stood skinny green spears enveloped by snow- now thickening enough that I might get a soup or two out of them. There are two perfect, bright little bouquets of parsley. Grape hyacinth area scattered across the lawn. My peach trees are positively pregnant with buds and for the first time in years it looks like I’ll have an abundance of lilacs – judging from what look like teeny bunches of grapes at the tips of the branches.

Spring brings such possibility, doesn’t it? I’ll plant a garden again this year – although last year I barely harvested a tomato, the chard never appeared, nor sunflowers. But I’ll still try again because I like that there’s a chance. With nature, there’s always a chance. She is my guide and comfort. Hang in there through darkness and we’ll get to the light.  Enjoy the warmth.

More on Burning Wood

This winter, I’ve been heating my house primarily by my new wood stove. My oil furnace is so ancient, it was a finalist (alas – not the winner!) in an ‘oldest furnace’ contest run by a local oil company. First prize was free installation of a new furnace. Mine is as old as I am but still was beat out by an even more impressive monster in someone’s basement.

While inefficient, my oil furnace is reliable and a new one would cost more than I want to go into debt for. Instead I spent half as much on a wood stove and feel good relying a little less on the fuel-oil roller coaster.

I have a friend who lets me have wood for free so every few weeks, I load up my Subaru. I like the exercise of carrying and stacking. Nights, I savor the gulp of frigid air when stepping out onto the porch to retrieve another log then back into the warmth to stoke the flames. The gentle lapping sounds and flickering glow make for sweet company. The rising warmth slowly sweeps upstairs so even my bedroom is toasty by time I climb between the sheets to sleep. The sheets I dry on my clothesline also featured in the photo above. Just call me pioneer woman.

Building a Fire

I start with newspaper – usually the sports section although these days I can hardly bear to read any of it. Twisting the pages tight so they don’t spring apart, I line them up on yesterday’s ash. On top of this newsprint bed, I place a piece of beautiful fat-wood. At the start of the season a box of it mysteriously appeared at my door with no note and for days I quizzed people who might have sent it before finally tracking down the giver as my thoughtful, generous friend Laura. Right now I have cedar shingles as a bonus from the friend who has been giving me wood this season. They make for easy kindling, nice and dry and cracking easily into smaller pieces under my heel. Next I’ll teepee a few of the smaller logs from my woodpile. Making sure the damper is pushed all they way in, I strike a wooden match and set it to the paper. Leaving the door slightly ajar I wait, squatting in front of it to watch (and hope) it catches. Sometimes it’s slow going and doesn’t and I have to scrunch up more newspaper, shove another shingle bit in. I’ve figured out that it’s mostly about air, isn’t it? You have to have just enough to tease out the flames but not so much it blows the sparks out. Like life, isn’t it?

Dark Season

Just a week ago we set the clocks back an hour. I’m not crazy about this time switching. Sometimes I pass  all my hours in a windowless office with barely a glimpse of nature’s light. Those are sad days. The beat of my heart is connected to the sight of clouds, birds, the changing light. I need to see the sun, to feel even the wannest of warmth from winter rays on my face. I don’t do well in the dark.

But I will learn to function in the new reality of this season, to embrace this chance to shift inward, to reflect. I’ll make it work. When necessary, I will rage against the night, plan for the future. Spring will come. I will gather what I need to enrich the soil in my garden. I’ll gather friends and fill my house with laughter, ply them with good food and drink to sustain us through these dark days and take comfort and strength in our solidarity. And tonight – there’s a promise of an extraordinary moon to light the way through the dark. I’ll take that as an offering of hope.

A Winter Walk at the Beach

beach benchI sit a lot, don’t you? And now, with winter cold and my aging dog, I move even less. For 14 years, Tetley has enthusiastically forced me up and out a few times a day. Alas, he is fading. The days of him pulling me the long route up hills for a real work-out, are over. Now I can barely cajole him half a block. I anticipate heartbreak ahead…

Tet

But enough of that – it’s just that Tetley is content to sleep and last Sunday, I too could have lolled on the couch with the newspapers all day.

But I needed a good walk – to move my bones and get my heart pumping —  hours of sitting at work, at home, in the car, makes my hips ache. Although I love moving through the world by foot, on a wintery day when I don’t have to do anything, I’m often content to never step over the threshold. But look…

beach sandTen minutes drive from my house, I get to walk here!

Unlike this frigid weekend, last Sunday was balmy for February, the light squinting-bright. I walked alone, breathing and thinking and enjoying the crunch of snow, sand and the squish of mud underfoot. I walked down to the shoreline so I could hear the lapping waves. I passed fewer than 20 other walkers. We greeted each other with bright smiles as if we’d landed in Charlie’s Chocolate Factory together – a shared glee at being here on a February day.

sunny viewFilling my lungs with the cold sea air and the light, oh the changing light! Why am I not up at 5:30 every morning to walk briskly around this sweet course, breathing deeply, absorbing the beauty and peace in this city where I landed by accident, 20 years ago? Or at least at 5:30 PM when I’m done with work and catch a sunset while I’m at it. I should do that.

trees beachSometimes I think about venturing back out into the wide-world again, to find a warmer, less expensive life maybe? Maybe. Then I recall that when I wandered the globe I longed for a place. On this Sunday walk, with a surge of joy, a breath of cold winter air, an earful of seagull screams, I recognize – I am here. And for now, it sure will do.

Where do you walk?

The Challenges and Pleasures of Paying Attention

10:00 AM Thawing! Yes, the end of winter is in sight. And sounds! Can you hear the birds’ new songs?

I have tried to avoid chiming in on winter complaints and not just because whining about the snow and cold has become such tedious conversation but because, I have been trying to embrace winter, to seize even the snowiest, most frigid day rather than hurry the passage of time. Is this a challenge for you? It is for me, no matter the season.

Today is Sunday and I already anticipate Monday with a falling heart. Back to work. Although I enjoy my job, I bemoan the end of time to myself – whole blissful days to make choices based more on desire than need, time to be at home. Similarly, by Wednesday, I think, “almost there – another weekend!” And thus goes the days, the weeks, the months… you get the idea.

This is not how I want my life to pass. I like my work, full of creativity, interactions with people who I feel kin spirit with, focusing mostly around books, books, books! Still, I can’t resist looking forward. I look forward to time to myself, I look forward to warm days, to spending time with those I love, to sitting on the porch, getting my hands dirty in the garden – yes, like all of us here in the Northeast: I look forward to Spring!

Yet I love to be really in the present, to live in the moment, relishing the time I have, keenly aware, we cannot know how much we get.

window

I am looking out at the old Oak tree twisting, craggy branches almost touching the house. My window covered in clear plastic sheeting holds back the winds but allows the light to shimmer through onto the grey wall beside the writing desk I rescued from the street on a summer’s night many years ago.

desk

Sweet, isn’t it? Sometimes the radiator under the window bangs with the promise of a warmth that is never delivered. Luckily, this room is little more than a closet in size so I’m easily warmed by an electric heater and blankets around my shoulders and knees. Tetley sleeps on the futon folded beside me. Why would I hurry this moment?

Tet

Hunger distracts me. I begin to think about eating, and that becomes what I might cook and that may lead to what I need to buy. And there I am, drawn away from the ‘now’ by my growling stomach.

2:00 PM I’m back to this spot again after doing laundry, drinking coffee and eating a clementine. Consciously, I focus on bringing myself back from distractions back to this NOW. The light’s changed a little since I left the room, clouds are greying the day. It’s warm  today – almost 40 – a veritable heat wave! My friend and I have plans to walk. A demand I admit feels mostly tedious to me: exercise! I wonder what time we will do this or even if we really will push ourselves to leave our cozy homes to tromp besides the melting snow banks lining the streets, blocking the sidewalks. See? Again, I am away from ‘now’ wondering about the future.

Why is being present so difficult? As long as I’m not in the dentist chair or enduring some other misery, it feels good. It gives me joy to pay attention to the moment’s light, sound, taste, breath. Breathing is the anchor in meditation – to focus, pay attention to each breath – I try to remember this throughout my day.

Attention. “Pay attention” teachers tell their students. As if that is easy for any of us. And yet, for me it’s one of the most beautiful things to observe in others. To watch someone really, really, paying attention gives me an almost peculiar pleasure. I first realized this at my desk in Second Grade when one of my classmates stood on a chair next to the gigantic windows of Saint Gabriel’s Elementary school, watering the plants lined up along the sill. I can’t remember who, whether a boy or a girl, only the palpable, dreamy pleasure I felt as I watched them do this task with care and concentration. I remember shivers starting from the back of my head and spreading over my shoulders to my spine.

Apparently, this is a thing  called Autonomous Sensory Meridian response. There are even YouTube videos created to trigger these tingles, mostly of whispering women with Eastern European accents touching their hair. They don’t work for me. The whispering thing is weird. Now if you wanted to come sweep my floor or dust my house, I’d probably get tingly watching you. (and boy does my house need cleaning) Sounds kinky, doesn’t it? It’s really pretty benign almost primitive, the pleasure compared in the Wikipedia description to being like that of primates grooming each other. ASMR effect is “…related to the perception of non-threat and altruistic attention.” I didn’t realize until describing this to some friends, that not everyone experiences this. Do you or do you think it’s weird?

Woefully, I can’t remember the last time I felt these tingles because I rarely observe anyone paying complete, devoted “altruistic” attention to anything. We have become such chronic multi-taskers. Even driving doesn’t get our full attention. If we’re not talking on a telephone, or worse – texting, chances are we’re listening to music or the news. I’ve become acutely aware of how distracting the radio is and must turn it off when the weather makes driving dicey or maneuvering through a crowded parking lot.

4:00 PM  The earlier grey has lifted and the sky is blue. I did the laundry and walked around the neighborhood with my dear friend. We talked and walked and turned our faces to the much-missed sun and now I’m back in my spot by the window, trying to look neither back nor forward. But I think about dinner and the evening. I’ll likely end up in my usual spot at the end of the couch with a book. My phone will be beside me in case my daughter calls or texts me. Now that Downton Abby is over, I may not bother to turn the television on. Good. More time to make my way through the tower of books waiting to be read. I’ll do that until my eyelids droop impossibly.

Tomorrow morning will come and this day, (a good one) will be in the past. But now, now the sun is on the other side of the house from my East facing window. Instead of dancing light, there are encroaching shadows on the gray walls. Sunday afternoon is becoming evening and despite all my efforts, I think about Monday and what needs to be done at work.

But stop!  I again reel my monkey-mind in by paying attention to the shifting light of this late winter day, the squirrel scampering through the branches now gently swaying with a warmer wind than we’re used to. Doing this, paying attention to the light, my breath, even to my back – achey from sitting in this damn chair too long today – all feels good. And now, that is enough.

Still in Recovery

bird feeder

Remember winter? My Hydrangea do – and remind me constantly of what a long, bitter one we endured. A few years ago I decided Hydrangea, would be my fool-proof shrub — blues and pink blossoms lasting well into autumn, stunning even as they fade to a papery brown. They are tough, even after shriveling a bit from thirst, reviving beautifully after watering. Every year my bushes produce bowl-sized blooms that are the center piece of the flower bouquets I cut for the mantelpiece – lasting long past when the Gladiolas and Black-eyed Susan are spent. Not this year. Look!

photo-49

Not a bloom in sight. No, I didn’t cut them back — I learned the hard way that flowers grow from old wood and am careful not to prune until well into Spring. Just like my sparse showing of Peonies, the Hydrangea blooms are a casualty of last Winter’s heavy snow and frigid temperatures. So much for fool-proof. There is no such thing, is there? We are all destined to be fooled, to sometimes be fools. This is life. My garden, currently neglected, always feels chock-full of metaphors.

SAM_0921

I mourn there are no Hydrangea blues to brighten the overgrown mess… I mean, otherwise lush bounty, of this year’s garden. There are times in life when there is nothing to do but let time pass and hope for better. I’ve done that before – by days, weeks, months, years. Things will improve. So far in my life, I have never lost that hope. And I’ve pushed myself to go beyond enduring, to always find something to sustain, nurture, perhaps inspire me, within the darkness of disappointment, heartbreak and loss.

SAM_0750

Of course at the height of any pain, I just want to get through it, for it to stop. Sometimes numb is all we can hope for. I marvel at this defense system us humans have – the way shock and pain can make everything slow down, launching a sense of not being entirely there, that nothing is real. This was my state of being after my husband’s death when I needed to carry on and take care of my daughter. I turned inward and slowed, moving through the world with a simultaneous heightened sensitivity yet detachment. Slowly, oh so slowly through more than one change of seasons, I allowed myself to actually feel my loss and grief — to feel anything. And now, I no longer take much of anything for granted.

I take the dearth of Hydrangea flowers in stride. After all, my beloved shrubs are alive – they are in a recovery mode I recognize. Next year, perhaps they will bloom. Meanwhile, remembering winter makes me better savor this remarkable summer.

Over the Hill

My birthday is this week. Again. Since I slipped over to the downward slope, everything goes so much faster. Once again, it’s time to celebrate. But didn’t we just do this?

March 9

I’ve never been particularly coy about my age, but this year’s number does sound a little shocking when I say it. I’m how old?! It’s hard to believe. And I cannot ignore how our society perceives this number. I am increasingly less employable with every year. My age group has the most difficult time getting hired and most of us, still need to work. Retirement? Ha! So I better hang on to my job. And how many years left there? In a bookstore? While I still feel confident in my company’s ability to survive the Amazon storm, I’m also not stupid. And as my bones become brittle, will I really be able to hauling boxes of books to schools? Oh yeah! Students are, or will be soon, using tablets so I won’t have to, right? So much to keep up with! If only I could get paid just to keep reading. I’m so good at it.

Red Leaf

And then there’s the memoir I’m writing that I hope to sell to a publisher. Yes, I’m still working on it and it’s becoming a better book — really. But have you looked at the back flap on any book jackets lately? New authors are (attractive) youngsters. Who wants to read about the adventures, the romance, struggle and resiliency of a geezer? (Okay, I know I’m not quite a geezer – I just like that word.) But publishing, like much in the world, is the realm of the young. First time fifty-something author? Not so many of us.

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And I can’t ignore the physical dimensions of aging. I know there are things that I can do to look younger for my author shot – like color my hair. But since I suck at maintenance I’d soon end up with one of those skunky-stripes across the top of my head – right up there with crazy-clown lipstick as a bad look for an older woman. See, it’s not that I lack vanity, I’m just realistic. Besides the fact that coloring my hair is not what I want to spend my time or money on, better to look like a sea-hag from behind. When I turn around I can get the reaction “oh, she looks good for her age” rather than have the hair of a sixteen year old and a face of a, well, 55 year old. I’d rather hang onto my silver strands than risk that cringe factor.

snow tree

At this point, as long as nothing major fails in the body department I’d like another 3o years or so. Preferably with the ones I love. I know that’s a tall order – the people we love don’t always stick around and that’s heartbreaking.  I won’t even go there (for a change!).

I don’t mean to be depressing. I am not depressed, rather, I’m contemplative. We humans are a marvel of nature and in nature, everything has a season and all that. I’m glad to be here to keep marking the seasons.  I’m not horrified at the prospect of aging. I embrace it and intend to do it as well as possible. Like the New Year, I think of my birthday as time to take stock. Where and what do I want to be doing in X number of years from now?

crocus

Oh, never mind all that. Better to savor the moment, seize the day. Pay attention. That I can do. Cheers and happy birthday to me. And while we’re at it, happy birthday to you too – it will be here before you know it!