Tuesday, December 28, 2010

tranquility to-do list

Reverb 10 Prompt of the Day: Achieve. What’s the thing you most want to achieve next year? How do you imagine you’ll feel when you get it? Free? Happy? Complete? Blissful? Write that feeling down. Then, brainstorm 10 things you can do, or 10 new thoughts you can think, in order to experience that feeling today.(Author: Tara Sophia Mohr)

Serenity. I don’t pretend to believe that I will achieve the sort of tranquility one finds in the expressions of, say, the woman sitting cross-legged on the cover of Yoga magazine. But I do want to achieve the serenity that comes from having achieved some of the other goals I’ve discussed in recent blogs: community; organization; self-assuredness; inspiration and discipline in my work.

I don’t expect that achieving a state of psychological quietude will mean that I will be serenely self-possessed no matter what the situation. But I do believe that it’s possible to achieve an inner balance that allows that serenity to radiate even in the most chaotic moments—what my friend Lori and I like to call our fits of “Kabuki Joan,” after the famous “coat hanger” scene in “Mommie Dearest.”

So, 10 things/thoughts with an eye toward achievable serenity:

1. Pause at about 4:30 in the afternoon to check out the sky.
2. Play music.
3. Yawp (figuratively, I mean). Let kids yawp.
4. Stop looking at the dust on the mantle.
5. Peppermint tea.
6. Come up with a Laundry Plan. One load a day?
7. Prioritize sleep.
8. Eat fresh snow with maple syrup.
9. Stop talking and listen: to the kids, to other people’s stories. To the quiet.
10. Slow down the post-dinner, pre-bedtime blitz.

These are random and in no particular order. I have a whole year to w

Monday, December 27, 2010

ordinary joy

Reberb writing prompt of the day: Ordinary Joy. Our most profound joy is often experienced during ordinary moments. What was one of your most joyful ordinary moments this year? (Author: Brené Brown)

I find this expression—“ordinary joy”—to be an apt summary of my life in 2010. I need look no further than this month’s collection of blog posts to see that I am more at peace with myself, with my situation, and with my setting than I have been in recent years. Not quite accepting, definitely not resigned, but able to find joy in the ordinary: a Tuesday trail run, an autumn afternoon at the park, an impromptu mountain bike ride.

I’m not sure that one moment stands out as the most ordinarily joyful (or joyfully ordinary), but here are a few highlights:

 Watching the kids “mountain bike” for the first time, and witnessing their unabashed elation as they negotiated rocks and roots on tiny tires.

 Pictionary Death Match with Bryan, Mom, Kaytie, and Alex. Laughing until my throat hurt and my eyes burned at the discovery, after 35 years, that when my uncle called his sisters “fey,” he was not implying that they were whimsical or fairlylike, but was actually a comparing them to a neighbor—“Faye”—who was, to use an Eastern Massachusetts term, “retahded.”

 Drinking tea with Bryan in the Adirondack chairs while the kids swung on the new tree swing.

 Doing the Tuesday crossword in the glow of the first woodstove fire of the season.

Essayist Susan Griffin writes that “the ordinary is of course never ordinary.” What a dazzling array of images lies behind these words. We tend to think of the ordinary as something to be met with dread, and our avoidance of the ordinary is linked, I believe, to our inability, or unwillingness, to slow down—something of which I have always been guilty.

Thanks, Brene Brown, for the gentle reminder that “ordinary” is not always colored in grey. Often, it appears in subtle but exquisite shades of saffron, or lavender, everyday Connecticut blue.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

the name game

Reverb question of the day by Becca Wilcott:

Prompt: New name. Let's meet again, for the first time. If you could introduce yourself to strangers by another name for just one day, what would it be and why?

I have never been in love with my name. I am generally partial to female names that end in “a” (Juliana, Amelia, et cetera), but “Patricia” just sounds a little too militant for my taste. And though I go by “Tricia,” doctors, dentists and telemarketers invariably reduce my name to “Pat,” a handle that made me cringe even before the woefully androgynous Saturday Night Live character had been invented.

If Becca had asked this question when I was in fourth grade, I would have said “Jill Jackson.” I was in love with alliterative names then (I grew up in the era of duos like Captain and Tenille, and thought Toni Tenille was very, very groovy), and Jill Jackson was the moniker I had given to both my imaginary persona and the main character in my first book. I imagined her to look something like Kristy McNichol circa 1980: medium brown shoulder-length hair with carefree but well-tamed feathers; coffee-colored eyes that were both innocent and savvy; self-sufficient and assured, but touchingly vulnerable underneath. Sometimes, she smoked cigarettes (like McNichols’ character in “Little Darlings”) and wore a denim jacket; at other times, she was athletic—a distance runner, or the only girl pitcher in her Little League. She was also gifted with animals (bunnies and squirrels and chipmunks, not just your average house pets) and was something of a loner—by choice, of course.

And “Jill” seemed to me the quintessential 80’s teenager: she was pretty, but not beautiful. She wore mini-skirts and leggings and lip gloss and adorable ankle-length boots. She liked the Rolling Stones, but also enjoyed the theater. In fact, she was based in part on my childhood mentor, a real-life Jill who studied journalism at Brandeis University and introduced me to David Bowie and the women’s cross-country team.

In fifth grade, I discovered Greek and Roman mythology. My friend (and doppelganger) Wendy Delfino and I found old curtains in the attic of my house and wrapped them around ourselves, imagining them to look like the long white robes worn by Aphrodite and Demeter in the books we took out of the library. Around that time, I liked to pretend that my name was Diana: Goddess of the Hunt (loved her bow and arrow), or Athena: Goddess of War and Truth. Both were lean, dark-haired, and buff—but not so muscular as to appear unfeminine. Diana lived in the woods and hunted wild boars. Athena had sprung from the head of Zeus like a lightning bolt.

In high school, I continued to write fiction, and as my characters became more complex, so did their names. Alliteration and Hellenophilia (that’s a love of Greek culture, folks) were ever present: the heroine of my interconnected short stories was Ariana Alexandros (her father was a Greek artist named Ajax. Hey, I was in high school). A few years later, I took a Russian Lit class and fell in love with the stories, and the name, of Tatyana Tolstaya. I had always loved Russian names, especially female ones: such a rich, sonorous blend of the guttural and the mellifluous. Anna Akhmatova. Katja. And the charming nicknames: Dmitri became Dimka. Mikhail was Mischa. Katerina was Kitty (or so she becomes in the English translation of Anna Karenina).

The Greek and Russian influence is evident in the name I would give myself if we were to meet again for the first time: Alexandra Bettencourt (for though I chose not to take my husband’s last name in real life, I do love its aristocratic sound). But you can call me Alex. Strength, beauty, and infallible sense.

The name I would choose for myself is the name I have bestowed upon my daughter—and, in another form, my dog. Alexa is an abbreviated version of my imagined appellation, and Sasha is the nickname by which many American “Alexandras” have chosen to go (in Russia, “Sasha” is usually a male nickname, for Alexander, or Aleksandr). Alexa was not my first choice, nor was it my second, but it’s a name I would gladly have taken myself. “Classy,” said the nurse in the Birthplace, where our daughter was born, when I told her the name on which we had settled.

Like most kids, Alexa will probably grow to dislike her name (she has already declared, on at least one occasion, that she would like us to call her “Sage”), but if she complains, I’ll let her know how much worse it would have been for her had she been born when her mother was reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy. “Alexa Bettencourt” will sound much more pleasing to her, I believe, than “Arwen” or “Galadriel” Bettencourt. And at least no one will ever call her Pat (though they may refer to her as “Al”).

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

over the rainbow

Reverb 10 daily writing prompt: Travel. How did you travel in 2010? How and/or where would you like to travel next year? (thanks, Tara Hunt)

Nothing quite brings me back to myself like a road trip. When I was in college, my boyfriend and I would frequently embark on camping and climbing trips conceived only hours before. We spent Christmas in Steamboat Springs, spring break in Moab, Utah. When school ended, we drove out to Seattle and then up the Alaska Highway. Once, early on in our relationship, he called me at work around 9:30 pm. “What time do you get off?” he asked.


“Any interest in driving down to the Sangre de Cristos and climbing Crestone Peak? It’s about a four hour drive. We could leave when you get off work, sleep in the truck, and start at sunrise tomorrow.”

I paused, considering the level of my fatigue. I was working 30 hour weeks in addition to the five classes I was taking. Then I imagined waking with the sun at the base of a 14,000 foot peak. “Sure,” I said, reaching for the coffee pot. “See you at 11.”

When Bryan and I got engaged, we were already in the midst planning a summer on the road. We decided we’d make our wedding part of the journey, and exchanged vows on Flattop Mountain in Anchorage, Alaska.

Air travel is no less thrilling for me. Four months before Dylan was born, I managed to squeeze in a quick trip to England for a Jane Austen conference. I suspected, but did not fully acknowledge, that this would likely be my last trip to Europe for a while. It never occurred to me, however, that I would not get on a plane again for at least seven years (still waiting for that next flight).

While road trips of the impromptu variety have, for obvious reasons, been a bit of a challenge to execute of late, Bryan and I have managed to cultivate a healthy wanderlust in our kids. In 2010, we camped our way out to Colorado and back, making miles in a 1982 Volkswagen Westfalia. When I began to envision our trip to the Rockies, we were, in my imagination, always seated comfortably on a jet—an air conditioned jet—watching movies and looking at the clouds. So, when Bryan suggested that we consider doing the trip the way we had always done it in the past, I laughed. A camper van with two small kids? But when we shopped—online—for a van like the one in which we’d spent our honeymoon, nostalgia crept in and warmed me to the idea.

I have already written about the vast differences between “kamping” (KOA-style, that is) and camping. The stars in a glorified parking lot are somewhat less magical than the stars above a primitive campground in Arches National Park. But still, we were on a road trip! And each time we crossed the border into another state, the kids would whoop and cheer, and Dylan would write the name of the state in his journal.

Our trip last summer was a far cry from the road trips of my twenties, and if I could have hit the fast-forward button through the flatter sections of Pennsylvania, and through Kansas, I would gladly have done so (no offense to the residents of those fine states). But even on the sweatiest of cornfield days, I remained in the throes of road fever (okay, there was that one campsite in Illinois that caused me to question whether we were truly in possession of our mental faculties, but otherwise, road fever prevailed).

But while van camping allowed me to reconnect with my inner crunchy-granola, it also made me think about the trips I haven’t taken, the trips sane folks take. You know, cruises and beach vacations in the Caribbean. Trips that aren’t so labor-intensive. Lately, it’s Mexico I hear calling, mostly by way of the monthly AAA newsletter that comes in our mail. And with our youngest child entering kindergarten next year, we won’t have to pay that preschool tuition check. Which means we might actually be able to travel beyond Vermont more than once every eight years.

I don’t know how far we will travel in 2011, but I do plan to put some of this “extra” money into an adventure fund. And maybe this time I will find myself reclining instead of ascending. At the moment, sitting across from a mountain of unfolded laundry, I think I might be ready for a vacation where my toes are tickling each other in soft sand, instead of sweating in Smartwool and hiking boots.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

sore labour's bath

Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care
Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course,
Chief nourisher in life's feast
~William Shakespeare, Macbeth

Today's Writing Prompt: Future self. Imagine yourself five years from now. What advice would you give your current self for the year ahead? (Bonus: Write a note to yourself 10 years ago. What would you tell your younger self?) (Thanks, Jenny Blake)

Dear Trixie:

What are you doing up at 12:30 again? Tomorrow morning, you will stick your face up close to the mirror and lament those circles and creases, and you will yawn and tell your puppy, who is running in circles and dropping her tennis ball at your feet, that you absolutely MUST get more sleep. The pup will yelp and you will dig through your cosmetics bag for the concealer (which, younger self, only highlights the circles, anyway. Try sleep instead).

Oh, and self? You know that baby you want to have “in the future”? I know this is going to sound crazy, you being only 29, but you might want to consider motherhood as a less distant possibility. As it turns out, no amount of running, ginseng, or green tea can preserve the kind of energy and vitality that is an absolute requirement of the job.

Also, it’s clear that Dad is eager to become a grandfather, and, well, you might come to appreciate giving him this gift a little earlier than you had originally planned. I know we’ve never quite considered Dad as “tender,” but you will be surprised and touched at the transformation that grandfatherhood brings.

But to get back to my original point: get some sleep, self. I could give you advice about finances, or friends, or parenting choices. But without proper rest, you will act impulsively (and often regretfully) in spite of any suggestions I make. And you will buy expensive eye cream from Origins and convince yourself that dabbing it along the dark and puffy spots under your peepers will compensate for years of sacrificing beauty sleep so that you could send one more email, or watch Jon Stewart (DVR, Self. Trust me), or search Ebay for that plum-colored hooded dress you haven’t seen but know exists, and in your size.

I’m telling you this, Self, because I am slumped over my laptop, unable to produce a single exciting sentence, because last night I gave sleep the bird yet again, and then got up with the dawn so that I could trip and stumble through my morning run.

Self, I have so much to tell you. If I can just get some sleep tonight, I’ll remember just what that is.

P.S. This is another Reverb post. Click here for more info.

Monday, December 20, 2010

in defense of nothing

Note: this post is part of a daily writing project called Reverb 10: Reflect on the year, manifest what’s next.

Prompt: Beyond avoidance. What should you have done this year but didn't because you were too scared, worried, unsure, busy or otherwise deterred from doing? (Bonus: Will you do it?) (Thanks, Jake Nickell)

Doing nothing can be a waste of time, or it can be an art form. --Blogger at zenhabits.com

This past year, I mentally rearranged my priority list at least seventy-three times. Sometimes, this rearrangement would happen as I was right in the middle of a task: I’d be cleaning out the Tupperware cupboard and think, “That dining room could really use some dusting.” Or I would think of an idea for a lesson plan, and then decide that my electronic documents needed filing. Or sometimes I would only stop organizing Tupperware long enough to add to The List.

Like many people I know, I often find that my life is ruled by “shoulds.” If I’m reading the paper, I should be reading student essays. If I’m vacuuming, I should be playing with my kids. If I’m playing with my kids, I should be working on my lesson plan. If I’m folding laundry, I should be. . .well. . . folding laundry.

I’m aware that my issue is far from unique.

This year, though, I plan to put “nothing” at the top of the priority list. When you think about it, how much time do we spend burrowing our way through our chores so that we can have some “free time”? And yet, when the floors are shiny and the books alphabetized on their shelves and the dishes back in their cubbies, what do we do? We notice a nick in the wall next to the fridge and then get out the spackle. Or, if we are wise enough sit back on the sofa and enjoy a few minutes of “30 Rock” or “Charlie Brown’s Christmas,” we are still conscious of The List, which is never far from hand.

I’m not suggesting that there is personal satisfaction to be found in being a couch potato. But I do believe in the restorative power of doing nothing, even a few minutes of nothing, on a regular basis. Last winter, I was drinking a cup of tea in the living room when I heard something hit the window behind me. I turned around. I saw neither crack nor culprit, but I was momentarily blown away by the late afternoon sky, which glowed pink against the snow, reminding me of the alpenglow I had witnessed with awe while camping in Alaska in the early spring. I knelt into the back of the couch and just stared, sipping at my tea, until the sun had set and the whiny sounds of hunger could be heard from the toy room.

I have often complained about the over-scheduling of kids that is so prevalent in our culture at the moment. Why, I have wondered, is it so difficult for parents (and teachers) to recognize the value of down time? We have a pathological fear of the idle moment, the white space that allows for self-reflection. Of silence. And yet, in a world where we are perpetually assaulted with pop-up advertisements, text messages, calls from tele-researchers collecting data about how many electronics we have or who we will support in the coming election, and toys that babble and coo like gremlins, we need a few precious moments of nothingness. And we crave it, and fantasize about it, and avoid it like fruitcake.

So, back to Jake Nickell’s “bonus” question, “will you do it?” Yes, absolutely, I will do nothing in 2011. As soon as I finish cleaning the bathroom.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

rock star therapy

Here's my Reverb for today. Barely made the deadline.

Prompt: Healing. What healed you this year? Was it sudden, or a drip-by-drip evolution? How would you like to be healed in 2011? (Thanks, Leoni Allan).

This year, I will be healed by the awesome power of karaoke. No, I’m not joking. Well, not totally joking.

This morning began with an emotional, accusatory email from a student who was unhappy with her final grade. Though the complaint was expected, it was no less upsetting. It seems that, while I have become progressively more insightful and intuitive in my teaching practice, eleven years of dealing with students has done very little to increase the thickness of my skin.

Often, when I’m feeling stressed or anxious, I go for the M&Ms. If I have none on hand, I settle for the nearest chocolate remedy.

Today, after replying to said email, I headed for my mom’s kitchen, where a bowl of holiday candy (M&Ms included) waited on the counter. I took a handful and then did the grown-up equivalent of crying on mom’s shoulder: I unleashed my tirade of frustration while Mom listened patiently, nodded, shook her head, or said, “That’s ridiculous,” depending on which response was most appropriate.

Meanwhile, Bryan and Dylan were singing a duet—“Here Comes the Sun”—on the karaoke machine my mom bought the kids for Christmas. When the song ended, Bryan handed me his mike. “Dylan,” he said, “I think it’s mom’s turn. She needs a little music.”

The machine played the first few rockin’ notes of “Sgt. Pepper’s.” I put the M&M’s down and reached for the mike. It was twenty years ago today that Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play. . . .

I was Paul McCartney, circa 1968. I shouted and shrugged. Dylan, inspired, moved in closer and leaned against my shoulder, Keith Richards style, while he stumbled through the words (that screen can be so distracting).

And then I was myself. I could almost see the negative energy conjured up by the email riding out on the lyrics. Bryan joined in on his guitar. Mom looked on in amusement.

Someone who derives as much pleasure from singing as I do should really have been blessed with a better voice. But, hey, Bob Dylan proved to the world that carrying a tune doesn’t have to be a requirement of the job. And with a little adjustment of the “echo” knob, I could make it sound like I was nearly on-key.

But karaoke isn’t about making something beautiful. It isn’t about perfecting a craft. It’s about letting go. It’s about giving yourself permission to be ridiculous for a few minutes. It’s about tapping yourself on the shoulder and saying, hey, self, you’re taking yourself a bit seriously at the moment. Here’s a microphone and a campy reproduction of a popular song—you can go ahead and unclench your fists.

It’s rock star therapy. Once you have gotten in touch with your inner Mick Jagger, you can wag your finger at the world, preen a little bit, and say, “Uh huh. Shedoobie.”

Saturday, December 18, 2010

compartments, continued

Prompt: Try. What do you want to try next year? Is there something you wanted to try in 2010? What happened when you did / didn't go for it? (Thanks, Kaileen Elise)

Note: This post is part of Reverb 10: Reflect on the year, manifest what’s next. Go to www.reverb10.com for more info.

( Due to time constraints (I'm at mom's), I’m setting my watch for 5 minutes, which I assume will make this post less “polished” than some of the others.)

Several years ago, I started writing a novel. The novel grew out of a selection of short stories that revolved around a similar theme, and took place in the same location. The stories were unfinished, mostly because the ideas behind them seemed too expansive for short fiction.

The novel is nowhere close to completion.

So, in 2011, I would like to finish a project. It doesn’t have to be the novel; I’m quite certain finishing that will take years. But I have a strong desire to complete something: to renovate a room, to revise a piece until it’s publication-ready; to organize my closets (there are only about four of them in the house, so that shouldn’t be an overwhelming task).

I’m thinking “compartment” approach (see previous post, “Stacking Sartre’s Shelves”) might be a good place to start. Since going back to work, 18 months after Dylan was born, I insisted I could not possibly find time to write every day. The time simply did not exist. And yet I've been at my laptop, diligently reverbing, for the last two and a half weeks. It seems to me that if I can manage steal five minutes a day to clean out a drawer, or edit a paragraph, I might just reach December 2011 with a feeling of subtle satisfaction.

The five minutes is up. On to the next compartment.

Friday, December 17, 2010

lesson learned. again.

Still re-verbing: Reflect on the year, manifest what's next. See www.reverb10.com for more details.

Prompt: Lesson learned. What was the best thing you learned about yourself this past year? And how will you apply that lesson going forward? (Thanks, Tara Weaver)

As I am writing in the midst of final exam week, I can say that I have learned the same lesson this semester that I learn every semester: I need to be more of a hard-ass in my teaching. I need to worry less about encouraging and cultivating the precious voices and egos of my students. In part, this is what makes me a good teacher, but each year, I find that I still have not quite tailored my comments so that the geniality is balanced with blunt honesty.

One of the challenges of teaching this course is that we use a portfolio system, one which allows us to look at students’ progress holistically. For this reason, the students are not graded on individual essays and journals; rather, they receive a provisional grade at the midterm, and a grade at the final. So, their sense of where they stand in the class is based entirely on my comments. And in my comments, I try to use language that is unambiguous, encouraging, and activity-related. In other words, rather than saying, “poor analysis here,” I might say, “What other questions might you ask? Look at the word you missed in your close reading; what do you think the author is getting at here?” So, the commentary is a combination of dialogue with the student, assessment of student’s progress, and suggestions for future assignments.

But sometimes I forget that, in their anxiety about passing the course, they often have tunnel vision when interpreting my words. So if I say, “Here you have done a skillful job of incorporating passages from the text, but you have completely disregarded the assignment question,” they will highlight “skillful job” and pat themselves on the back. Their problem, or mine? Usually, it’s both. They think they’ve earned an A, and I have to point them back to the second part of the sentence.

In college, I took a course with an intimidating old-school professor who had perfected the art of bluntness. On the first two essays, I earned an A, and began to believe that I had the formula. I sat down and wrote my third paper in about ninety minutes. It was cool, neat, and probably about five paragraphs long (the book was Fielding’s Tom Jones, which is about five hundred pages long). “It’s almost too easy,” I thought, and handed in the paper the following morning with complete confidence in my ability to impress Dr. L.

His written comments: “Very straightforward, Tricia. And dull.” Emotionless. Straight to the point. And very, very effective. A much-needed kick in the ego, one that still resonates when I think a piece of writing is “finished.” No comment in my college career motivated me as quickly and as deeply as that one. (Side note: Dr. L became my advisor, and we still keep in touch from time to time.)

Of course, I could never get away with such comments in my work (though I did work with a teacher once, in another school, who told one of his students, with a chuckle, that her essay was “utter shit.” I think his British accent made it sound almost like a compliment). But when I look at the work my students produced this semester, and when I read, in their self-assessments, their expectations regarding grades, I’m stunned by the disconnect between what they have written and what they think they have earned.

So, this winter break, I’ll be developing and practicing my “portfolio language.” Yeah, it’s great to read that you are “sweet” and “helpful” and “always willing to meet with students” on your course evaluations, but it’s even more rewarding to read student work that reflects the actual objectives of the course. Some serious re-vamping is in order. I’ll be studying the art of being blunt. Watch out, world.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

on friendship (or, how i learned to stop whining and love connecticut. ish)

Note: this post is part of a daily writing project called Reverb 10: reflect on the year, manifest what's next. Click here for more info.

Prompt: Friendship. How has a friend changed you or your perspective on the world this year? Was this change gradual, or a sudden burst?

Funny you should ask, Martha Mihalick, because I was just thinking about this topic yesterday (in fact, I was so busy thinking that it seems I forgot to reverb. Oops).

It’s not so much a friend, but friendship itself, that has brought a surprising perspective on a subject that has troubled me since I moved here in 2000: location. What I think about when I think about “home.” I have whined about the absence of tall mountains, the lack of community in this bedroom town where I live, about conflicting values (mine and the Joneses) ad nauseum.

But while I was whining, I was also actively seeking out potential members of the community I hoped to create. Adventurous and whimsical folks who aren’t afraid to get dirty. Or cold. Or tipsy. Or sweaty. Or out of bed on dark winter mornings. Mothers who agree that kids should be outside in every season, and that opting out of scheduled activities once in a while isn’t going to socially and emotionally cripple them. People who aren’t afraid to say the “f” word once in a while. Who don’t worship at the Church of the Converted Consumer.

And slowly this community has begun to materialize. Some of its members have left for other states, but they continue to make their presence felt in the friends they’ve left in their trail, friends who have made their way into the village, too, bringing their food, their politics, their running shoes. Their children. Their stories. And in some cases, their chickens and bees (you know who you are).

The change in perspective was not a “sudden burst,” but the realization of it came at a moment I can pinpoint: I was enjoying a veggie burger, fries, and a Pale Ale at the Northampton Brewery after a group hike on the Seven Sisters trail in Holyoke, MA.

Once (as I have mentioned once or twice on this blog), someone asked me to summarize my life in one word, and I replied, “periphery.” I have spent a lot of time hovering on the verge of community. This can be attributed in part to my timidity, which I have spent much of my life confronting and overcoming. And then there is my commitment-phobia (which might have something to do with the shyness). But I’m pretty sure that my restlessness, which drove me from the northeast to the west to the northwest and back to the northeast, has prevented me from forming the kind of meaningful friendships and alliances that comprise a rich community.

Driving home from Northampton that day, I started to wonder, and have continued to wonder, whether I would, given the opportunity, be willing to sacrifice the village we’ve patched together. It seems unlikely that, if a job opportunity in, say, Burlington, Vermont jumped into my lap, I would shake my head and go about my bread-baking. But I would definitely pause. This isn’t the village I imagined (and it isn’t even close to being finished). But if I stretch my imagination far enough, I can almost see myself sticking around for a while..

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


Note: this post part of Reverb 10: reflect on 2010, manifest what's next. Click here for more info.

Prompt: Appreciate. What's the one thing you have come to appreciate most in the past year? How do you express gratitude for it? (Thanks, Victoria Klein)

Over the summer, when it looked as if our long-awaited road trip was going to fall through, my friend Lori suggested that I pull out a picture of the Rockies, put it on a table in a quiet place, and meditate. Visualize yourself in Colorado, she said.

I’m not sure if following her advice had anything to do with our change of fortune, but meditating did remind me of how much I missed quiet. And I don’t mean dead silence, because when you are quiet, when you find a way to separate yourself from the noise—physical and psychological—of the washing machine, the kids bickering, the sirens on Route 10, then other, more natural, more welcome noises make their way in. In the summer, the crickets and the frogs (whose noise became somewhat unwelcome, I have to admit, after they started reproducing in our kiddie pool) provided the background music for my evening meditation.

Now that it’s cold, it’s the noises of the house that permeate, and these, after a certain hour, are no less pleasing: Sasha snoring; Bryan playing guitar; “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy” playing in Lexi’s room.

Sometimes, I sit at my “meditation table” for only two or three minutes, but it’s enough. Last Christmas, Bryan gave me a chime, and when I hit it lightly with the mallot, the effect is Pavlovian. My shoulders release their tension, my breath comes more slowly, my muscles relax.

The picture of the Rockies remains, along with rocks collected on our trip. Sitting or kneeling at my little table has become a nightly ritual, and I will show gratitude for my evening moments of quiet by continuing the practice in 2011.

Monday, December 13, 2010

finding your sweaty-toothed madman

(Note: this post is part of a project called Reverb 10, where, for each day in December, writers reflect on 2010 and "manifest what's next." Click here for more info.)

Prompt: Action. When it comes to aspirations, it’s not about ideas. It's about making ideas happen. What's your next step? Thanks, Scott Belsky.

When I was in college, my advisor, SueEllen Campbell, gave a talk on her recently published book, Bringing the Mountain Home. She was an avid hiker and naturalist, and she said that the idea for the book had come when she was flipping through her journals and was struck by how, every time she ascended a peak or discovered a new wildflower, she would look to the words of another writer—Thoreau, or Annie Dillard or Wordsworth—to express her sense of awe. This led her to question the authenticity of her feelings. Was she, in fact, experiencing a moment of “being in dreams awake,” or could she strip away these remembered—and therefore suspect—emotions in order to find her own words? In part, her book was her way of discovering and creating a new language, one that relied not on adages and commonplaces, but on molding her own experience into words.

When I read Scott’s prompt, I was impressed not only by the word “action,” but by the sense of action in the question itself. The sense of control. Making ideas happen. Like Campbell, I have often flipped through books of poetry or essays to find that perfect quotation, rather than relying on my own id. When I am trying to get my students to find their authentic voice, I sometimes show the scene from Dead Poets’ Society in which Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) pulls Ethan Hawke’s mealy-mouthed character from his seat, puts his hand over the boy’s eyes, and implores him to describe Walt Whitman, whose portrait hangs on the wall. “A m-madman,” Hawke stutters. Keating wants more. “A sweaty-toothed madman!” Hawke declares, frightened by his own poetic sensibility. Every time I watch that scene, I feel like standing on my chair and yelling, “Oh Captain, my Captain!”

See what I mean? I respond to Hawke’s momentous breakthrough by echoing a tired old phrase by the madman himself.

As a teacher of writing, I find the most nerve-grinding freshman writer-ism to be the reliance on what the writers Graff and Birkenstein call “closest cliché syndrome:”

in which what gets summarized is not the view the author in question has actually expressed, but a familiar cliché that the writer mistakes for the author's view (sometimes because the writer believes it and mistakenly assumes the author must too). So, for example Martin Luther King Jr.'s passionate defense of civil disobedience in ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ gets summarized not as the defense of political protest that it actually is, but as a plea for everyone to "just get along." (Graff and Birkenstein, “The Art of Summarizing”)

This syndrome not only prevents a reader/writer from giving a difficult text a fair reading, it also discourages the writer from believing he or she has anything new to add to the discussion. It’s also a way of avoiding difficulty.

This practice is usually common in writers who are less secure in their language. And I concede that it’s possible I’m so bothered by this idiosyncrasy because I have too often relied on established forms and conventions even as I rail against them. Too often—much more often now than when I fell in love with writing thirty-something years ago—I define my writing by what other writers are doing, and then I crumple my paper into a ball (or I do the electronic equivalent of this) and toss it into the trash. Or into a file that disappears beneath other files.

I have an “ideas for stories and essays” folder, and it’s bursting. I scribble in it often. But what happens far less often is the transformation of those ideas into action (hmmm.. . somewhere in that line I hear the voice of Audre Lorde).

The next step is happening now. Thanks to Reverb, I’m producing. One could argue that much of what I’m producing is “merely” ideas. But I would reply that the action comes in putting the ideas on paper.

SueEllen Campbell needn’t have worried about her tendency to sound her borrowed “yawp” from the top of Long’s Peak; by the time she wrote the aforementioned book, she was already an established ecofeminist and writer. And yet she sensed that her yawp could be a little more barbaric, a little more authentic, and she put that thought into action and produced. My next step will be to keep the reverb reverberating through December and into a new year.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


(Note: this post is part of a project called Reverb 10, where, for each day in December, writers reflect on 2010 and "manifest what's next." Click here for more info.)

Prompt: Body integration. This year, when did you feel the most integrated with your body? Did you have a moment where there wasn't mind and body, but simply a cohesive YOU, alive and present? (Thanks, Patrick Reynolds.)

When I opened my laptop, I was going to lie and say that it was the moment I nailed that perfect swan dive in my yoga class. That would have prevented me from writing yet another blog post about trail running.

But it wasn’t the swan dive. It was, in fact, a trail run. Trail runs, to be more precise.

Patrick’s prompt eloquently summarizes what trail running is for me. The moment of cohesiveness in 2010 was not an isolated event, as there have been many such moments. Each season brings a new awareness of the connection between mind, body, and earth. I prefer trail running in the fall, when the ground is a quilted carpet of orange, red and yellow. Yesterday morning, the purple trail at Sleeping Giant was covered, lightly but beautifully, in mostly untracked snow. In May, if we’ve had a blessed rainy season, the stream at Brooksvale Park becomes a roaring river, and on occasion, we have used a fallen tree as a bridge, straddling the trunk and scooting across to the other side. In summer, the Robins have re-established themselves in the oaks and maples. The ferns open up to showcase their lush, verdant leaves.

And there is the adrenaline. And the exertion. And the sound of sneakers crunching in the frozen mud. Trail running is physical, spiritual. Occasionally emotional. But always, mind and body are awake and aware.

The trail is, among many other things, my temple.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

11 things

Note: This post is part of a writing project called Reverb 10, in which writers are asked to reflect on 2010 and manifest what's next. Click here for more info!

Prompt: Prompt: 11 Things. What are 11 things your life doesn't need in 2011? How will you go about eliminating them? How will getting rid of these 11 things change your life? (Thanks, Sam Davidson.)

1. Suburban syndrome (see previous blog entry, “Living with Suburban Syndrome”). I’m happy to say that I’ve found a remedy that has been beneficial: actively seeking out, and surrounding myself with, folks who practice—and therefore validate—the notion that a house doesn’t need to be spotless to be charming; that it’s okay for kids to fall and get hurt sometimes; and that taking your kids hiking when it is below forty degrees does not constitute child abuse.

2. Wheat. Just for a little while. Previous attempts to eliminate wheat from my diet have not been successful (have you ever tried those gluten-free breads?), but as the aches (joint and stomach) have been intensifying of late, I think it might be time to get radical.

3. Folding laundry. What a colossal waste of time. Creases add character. Wrinkles are whimsical. (Thanks, Stacey, for the inspiration!)

4. Clutter. Enough said.

5. Letters. I have a handful of gems in a Doc Martens shoebox, but the rest of them will be tossed into the kindling pile. A wise woman once said, “You want remember, so just remember.”*

6. Self-doubt. It’s the reason stories go unfinished, friendships go un-nurtured.

7. Trying to read Salman Rushdie’s novels. Seriously, is this some kind of joke?

8. Drooling over the greener grass on the other side. Really, I’m pretty freakin’ blessed.

9. Cheap dog food (many thanks to my flatulent dog for the gentle reminder).

10. Toe-clips. Yes, the toe clips on my mountain bike did actually save my life when I went down in Moab, but it’s time to move on to clipless pedals (and you call yourself a cyclist?)

11. Drinking wine before re-verbing. No need to explain.

(*Rena, the Russian-American foster "mom" in Janet Fitch's White Oleander)

Friday, December 10, 2010

stacking sartre's shelves

(Note: this post is part of Reverb 10, an online writing project that asks writers to reflect on 2010 and "manifest what's next." Click here for more info.)

December 10 – Wisdom Wisdom. What was the wisest decision you made this year, and how did it play out? (Author: Susannah Conway)

When we first moved in together, Bryan used to insist, when a pen or a gadget or a book was missing, “I have a system for everything.” This was his way of implying that: a. He was not responsible for having misplaced said item, given that he had a system (a system which, in his view, had yet to break down); and b. That I should get my act together and come up with a system. This, he argued, somewhat logically, would prevent such common occurrences as the frenzied search for car keys; the disappearing lesson plan; the forgotten doctor’s appointment; or the unreturned phone call. If I just had a system, I wouldn’t spend a lot of precious energy and time cleaning up the messes left by my disorganization.

Well, duh. The flaw in this logic, I often pointed out, was that in order to have a system, you have to be system-oriented. Otherwise the system, if it is ever implemented, invariably breaks down. I mean, It wasn’t as if disorganization was a quality I embraced. Nor did I shun the notion of becoming more organized. In fact, I had a Dayrunner, and in it I would record all of my appointments for the month, the week, and the day.

And then I would leave it on the dining room table. Or in a bag. Or somewhere (if I had a system, I’d know where).

So when the planner failed to bring me the organization I needed to function in the world like a normal person, I bought a wall calendar as well. Then I bought some brightly colored markers. It worked, a little. But then came motherhood, and with it a new level of scatterbrainedness. How is it possible to effectively keep track of dates, library books, appointments, pencils, when I’m keeping track of them for three (and sometimes four) people?

Other people, I would notice with a sigh, seemed to do this with grace and precision. But I am genetically predisposed to absent-mindedness. Stories abound about my grandmother, who, long before she entered old age, would do things like fry a banana, not realizing until she went to take a bite that it wasn’t a sausage. Or she would lose things: a key, a mug from which she had been drinking only minutes before; a jar of mayonnaise she had just taken out in order to make a tuna sandwich.

What hope could I possibly have?

I found the solution to my problem in an unlikely source. Last year, I was reading a book about the complicated relationship of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Most people who know of these two writers also know that their common-law “marriage” was of an open nature (in certain cases, the two even became involved with the same woman). What I had not realized was that Sartre, though he felt justified in being romantically involved with several women at once, was not open with his lovers about his polygamy (an ethical violation he himself would have termed “bad faith”). Even Beauvoir, who by her own account agreed with their open arrangement, was left in the dark when it came to certain affairs.

How did Sartre manage this? “Compartments,” he said. Each woman in his life occupied a compartment. These were labeled, with names, dates, and times. Compartment A, “Olga,” he might open on Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 10-12 a.m. Under special agreement, he might be persuaded to open a particular compartment at another time as well, but for the most part, this was his system. And it worked. At least for a while.

Where is this going, you ask. Don’t worry; it has nothing to do with polygamy (or, more appropriately, infidelity).

I’m aware that any number of self-help books and magazines sing the praises of compartmentalizing (not just in the form of stacking shelves from IKEA) when it comes to organizing “clutter”, and you are probably wondering how I could have been struck by such a simple concept. It’s not that I hadn’t yet come across the idea; it was more that I hadn’t given myself permission to put the various obligations and activities that make up my life into definite and concrete time slots. I have often complained that, when school is in session, I am perpetually preoccupied. Even as I’m reading a story to the kids, I’m thinking about the stack of essays that waits in my bag, or about how I am going to fill up a two-hour class. It’s maddening, and frustrating, I’m sure, for Dylan and Alexa. Last year, Dylan brought a math game home from school, a game he was supposed to play with his parents, keep for one or two nights, and then return. Between Bryan, who was on another high-stress project at work, and me, who was wading through a quagmire of midterm portfolios, we forgot about the game. When I realized, with dismay, the game was still sitting in the living room, Dylan said, “Don’t worry. I told my teacher that mommy and daddy are too busy, and she said I could keep it for one more night.”

Ugh. Time to implement a system. I have always resisted schedules, weekly commitments, rubrics. But in this case, I had to agree with Bryan: it was time to implement a system—le Systeme de Sartre.

Being an adjunct at a university means having my contract renewed every semester. This, I’m sure, has led to my (in retrospect, irrational) tendency to put work first, even at home. There's a certain amount of anxiety that comes with knowing your job might, at any time, be given to a teacher with more time, better qualifications, or a willingness to take on more classes.

How many people had to tell me “Enjoy this time, it passes so quickly” before I was wise enough to put the papers aside? I mean really, did it matter if the essays were returned a day later? Even a week later? If my lesson plan wasn't as detailed as it could be?

I haven't been able to fully escape the preoccupation, but I do have a compartment labelled "schoolwork". Sometimes the drawer is overstuffed, and I can see the papers’ edges sticking out, but for the most part, I slam it shut when Lexi gets home from school. It comes out again for an hour or so in the afternoon, then I close it until after bedtime stories (at least on most nights).

And in reorganizing, I have been forced to be realistic about the size and number of my shelves. I run most mornings. Do I really need to find a space for the gym, too? I can get essentially the same workout at home (for free), in between putting the chicken in the oven and stirring the rice. The kitchen chair makes a great bench for dips. Hand weights can be used while watching Thursday night TV.

Ditching the gym has a secondary benefit: more time for writing.

Some of the compartments—like the ones for Facebook and Youtube—take up a little too much space. That’s something I’ll work on for 2011.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

madame bovary's masquerade ball

Prompt: Party. What social gathering rocked your socks off in 2010? Describe the people, music, food, drink, clothes, shenanigans. (Thanks, Shauna Reid)

So, I’m still participating in Reverb 10, a writing project in which authors reflect on the past year, and consider how to mindfully enter 2011.

And this prompt has left me sadly mindful of this fact: I attended NO rockin’ party in 2010, and I can’t think of one I attended in 2009, either.

It did not take a writing prompt for me to come to this conclusion. This past October, as the kids were deciding on costumes, I thought, “Why doesn’t anyone around here throw grown-up Halloween parties? Why don’t I?” Hell, most of my memorable Halloweens took place after I turned 18. It’s a holiday I still associate with merry Bacchanalian revelry (if only in my memory), and yet, for the past six or so years, it has really been all about the kids. About the candy. About Star Wars and Disney princesses.

On November 1, I opened up Facebook and was greeted with a photo of pointy-boob-era Madonna, decked out in gold and holding a drink. She was striking a pose amidst three or four other Madonnas (a sampling from the Immaculate Collection): Material Girl, Holiday, Papa Don’t Preach, and Truth or Dare. When I enlarged the picture, I saw that Pointy Boob was my sister, Kaytie. I hit “slideshow,” and watched the Madonnas get into the groove. Damn, I thought. And started making plans for the fabulous costume party I’m going to throw next year.

Not that I don’t get out and tear it up. My beer drinking buddies, with whom I occasionally run, can be pretty raucous when we get together for our monthly “meetings” at the Half Moon café, or at our ruthless holiday Yankee Swaps, where we battle for the most powerful headlamp, the tastiest homebrew, or the coolest running log (I know, pretty wild, right?).

But I can’t say that any party has really “rocked my socks off” since my brother’s wedding in 2006.

So, here is the party I will throw next October (hope you can make it):

You are cordially invited to Madame Bovary’s Masquerade Ball! Please come dressed as your favorite sexy, scandalous, or salacious literary figure (no Jane Austens, please). See what happens when Anais Nin seduces Heathcliff, or Lady Chatterly hooks up with Humbert Humbert. Come for the Prologue, stay for the Denouement!

Music provided by Shakespear’s Sister.

Open bar will include Uncle Fezziwig’s Ale.

Parlor games will include Hunt the Slipper, Charades, and Squeak, Piggy, Squeak.

Mark your calendars, everyone, because this wild woman is gearing up for one Titillating Toussaint! See you there.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


(*Note: this post is part of a writing project by Reverb 10. Reverb 10 is an annual event and online initiative to reflect on your year and manifest what’s next. Use the end of your year as an opportunity to reflect on what's happened, and to send out reverberations for the year ahead.)

Prompt: Beautifully Different. Think about what makes you different and what you do that lights people up. Reflect on all the things that make you different – you’ll find they’re what make you beautiful. (Author: Karen Walrond)

I have a scar on my right hand: a tiny grayish tattoo, courtesy of a troubled six-year-old who bit me in a fit of rage while I was on duty as a Psychiatric Treatment Counselor in Anchorage, Alaska.

My “wedding dress” was a pair of white shorts and a white polyester hiking shirt. I walked down the aisle on Flattop Mountain.

I trained as a doula and had the privilege of attending two amazing women as they labored and gave birth, aided by nothing but the strength of their will.

I used to regularly wake up outside, in a sleeping bag, with icicles in my hair.

I am adamant about throwing "green" birthday parties. (This has sometimes backfired, as guests, baffled by the basket of cloth napkins, will resort to using tissues.)

At any given moment, I might bust out a tune from “West Side Story,” “Cabaret,” “Hedwig,” “Annie,” “The Sound of Music,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” or “A Chorus Line,” to name a few. (If I’m alone in my car, it might be Pearl Jam’s “Rearview Mirror.” If I’m baking cookies with my sister, it might be a stunning acapella rendition of “Closer to Fine” by the Indigo Girls.)

Six a.m. often finds me on a trail, exchanging barbs and gossip with three or four other runners, all of sporting headlamps.

My college career spanned four states and, ahem, “several” years.

As a kid, I ached to play ice hockey, like my brothers. Playing on the pond with Dylan allows me to retroactively live the dream.

I find that exercise--strenuous or otherwise--is best concluded with hearty food and good beer.

I have an uncanny ability to find running and hiking partners who share this philosophy.

One of my favorite decompression activities is stacking wood ( I usually do this wearing Dad’s old flannel jacket).

I have driven the Trans-Canada and Alaska Highways twice: once with the man I thought I wanted to marry (who, soon afterward, left me for a remote Alaskan village), and once with the man I married (who seems to want to stick around).

All I want for Christmas is a new mountain bike.

I stay up way, way too late. In my post-dinner, post-bedtime story, post-lunch making exhaustion, I occasionally find that the words and images just won’t come.

Which reminds me: I am quite often overly self-critical.

And lastly, I know when it’s time to sign off and enjoy a glass of wine with my husband.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

in the land of nod

This blog post is one of a series of responses to writing prompts provided by the authors at Reverb 10, a daily writing project that asks writers to reflect on the year. Get on the bus! Just click here.

Prompt: Community. Where have you discovered community, online or otherwise, in 2010? What community would you like to join, create or more deeply connect with in 2011? (Writing prompt courtesy of Cali Harris.)

Since about the late 90’s, I have been prone to spiritual wanderlust. I was raised Catholic, and until about age fourteen or fifteen, Catholicism had a reasonably important place in my life: I said ten minutes of prayers before getting into bed every night, because I was afraid that, if I neglected to pay heed to God, Jesus, Mary, and even Joseph, my soul was fair game for Satan. This pretty much summarizes my pre-adolescent piety: I prayed, I went to confession, I made communion and confirmation, because I was terrified of the consequences of not fulfilling these sacraments. I could practically feel the flames at the foot of my bed, just waiting for me to give voice to my latent doubt.

A college obsession with existentialist philosophy cultivated the seeds of skepticism that had begun to sprout in my late teenage years. In retrospect, I probably found atheism intriguing because it absolved me of any kind of responsibility. I am a recovering commitment-phobe, and so a religion that required me to attend church every week OR ELSE was one that would surely lead to my spiritual demise.

From what I have been told, one’s experience with a religion like Catholicism depends so much on one’s particular church, and on the minister’s ability to deliver a homily that is engaging and relevant beyond the walls of the sanctuary. We had no such minister at St. Mary’s. The upshot was that, when I left home, I also left the church. After ten years of CCD, I knew little more about the disciples, the life of Jesus, or the Bible than my friends who had not attended Religious Education classes. It was only in graduate school, when I took a course on Milton’s Paradise Lost and was required to read three or four exciting theological texts, that I began to understand what I had missed, at least in terms of the stories behind the faith. Progressive Catholics like my friend Lori have introduced me to a vibrant, intelligent, and rich Catholicism I never knew existed (I can’t help but think how much more I could have taken from The Red Tent had I been exposed to the verses behind the fiction). And though Catholicism is not likely to ever become my (re)chosen faith, I have a much deeper understanding of why it continues to appeal to so many.

For most of my adult life, I have been without a religion. I have found holiness and metaphysical beauty in nature, in certain people, in special moments. And for a long time, I believed that this was enough. But when Dad died two and a half years ago, and I tried to explain death to Dylan, I found that I could not do this without referring to God, or heaven. And Dylan was understandably perplexed. Later, he asked Bryan, “Is Nod going to take you and Daddy, too?”

“Nod?” Bryan asked.

“Yeah, Nod. He took Grampy. Is he going to take you?”

It struck me that I could not expect Dylan to grasp this concept, inasmuch as any of us can grasp it, when he (God) only appeared in our lives as some ominous force who randomly plucks people from our lives. Those prayers I said as a child—those rote recitations—did provide comfort, even as they nurtured my fear of eternal damnation. I needed something for my children that was devoid of dogma, but that would provide them with a sense of spirituality—and preferably a spiritual community. And this was something I also needed for myself. I have been, for a long time, a solo practitioner of a quasi-faith that blends Buddhism, Protestantism, and some loose translation of Native American spirituality. And Catholic guilt. I haven’t lost my fear of Satan, though I might call him by a different name (or names).

The autumn after Dad died, I did some “church research,” and I found a spiritual house that looked promising: the Unitarian Universalist Society of New Haven. I had been interested in Unitarianism for years—since the time of that Milton class I mentioned. My professor—an extraordinarily spiritual and engaging man by the name of Andrew Barnaby—was a Unitarian, and had found, it seemed to me, a sensible way to reconcile the differences (and similarities) between major world religions. He told me not to “shun Catholicism,” but to think of it as a “fulfilling mythology.”

I don’t mean to make heretical waves (I’m aware of the seeming heresy in that last statement about mythology!) ,or to dismiss anyone’s faith. And this is what I have come to love about USNH: more than any other faith I have tried to embrace, it has taught me tolerance and humility. It has taught me that spirituality, for me, lies not in the primary text, or even in the sermons (though the sermons at USNH are quite amazing), but in action—in social responsibility and awareness. In the lived version of whatever our faith may be. Though the Catholic part of me (I think there is a part of me, however small, that will always be Catholic) struggles with the somewhat abstract nature of the faith itself (try explaining this to a kid: well, Jewish people believe x, and Catholics believe y, and Muslims believe z, and so forth—and we just borrow from all of them, and maybe throw in a little Bruce Springsteen, too), I feel blessed to have found a place of worship that is in near-perfect harmony with my spiritual needs. I don’t know that I will ever label myself a Unitarian—or put myself squarely in any religious category—but I will call USNH my spiritual home.

Monday, December 6, 2010

love cakes and messy music

Make. What was the last thing you made? What materials did you use? Is there something you want to make, but you need to clear some time for it? (Writing prompt courtesy of Gretchen Rubin.)

Apple cupcakes. Flour, sugar, butter, eggs, cinnamon, nutmeg, and four shredded McIntosh apples, picked from Norton Brothers family orchard.

End-of-semester stress almost tempted me to purchase *gulp* a box of cake mix. I was even ambling up and down that aisle in the grocery store, pausing every few steps to consider (“delicious cupcakes in just minutes!”), and then re-consider, and then consider again. But I have been making these apple cupcakes for Lexi’s birthday every year for the last four years, and in the end I refused to deprive myself (and, of course, my daughter) of the heavenly aroma of late autumn that is the smell of fresh-baked apple cupcakes.

For someone who doesn’t often venture far beyond the Toll House classic when it comes to baking, this recipe—a Martha Stewart gem!—is somewhat labor intensive. Peeling and shredding the apples takes a bit more effort than adding eggs and oil to a mix. But it wasn’t so much the labor that made the end result so satisfying (though of course this was a contributing factor). The real satisfaction was in the niche: in having carved out an hour in which to create something for someone (in this case, a very special someone). It was the time spent in choosing the right cupcake: the right seasonal fruit; the right blend of spices; the right treat for the occasion. So often time constraints (and my inherent lack of organization) force me to be haphazard in my approach to completing a task. Mixing the apple into the batter was like a zen exercise. I think now understand why baking bread is, for my friend Kristen, something of a religious practice. She has talked about the catharsis that comes from kneading the dough: the motion of the fingers, the smell of the yeast, the pleasure in watching the bread take form afterward. I don’t plan to pack up my bread machine, but I did see her point as I mixed.

Once, after my friend Teresa had given birth to her second child, I sent her a batch of cookies. She responded gleefully that it was “like getting a package of love from [my] kitchen.” I am hardly Martha Stewart, or even Betty Crocker for that matter, but I did feel the love as I mixed the batter (by hand—because I bake cakes so infrequently that I don’t even own an electric mixer. Note to self: electric mixer before next December 2 rolls around).

And in case you were wondering: no, I don’t plan to become a Buddhist Baker, nor will I be writing blog posts about finding nirvana in scrubbing dishes. In fact, to segue into the second part of the writing prompt, if I could clear more time, I wouldn’t spend it in the kitchen. That would be like spending summer vacation in a classroom.

No, if I had the time, I would make music.

Once upon a time I could play keyboards. Not well, but I played. I had a few Beatles songs committed to memory. Some Bach for Beginners. A Bon Jovi song or two (hey, it was the eighties. And if you must know, I can still play “Home Sweet Home” by some 80’s hair band—maybe the one with Brett Michaels?).

Every evening, around 9:30, Bryan reaches over and grabs his guitar from its perch beside the sofa, and he makes music. Sometimes it’s the same Bob Dylan song for fifteen weeks (can you say “Tangled Up in Blue”?), but he plays that guitar every night, without fail. When we travel, the guitar travels too (in miniature form). There is always room: in the car, in the backpack (yes, the pack guitar, may it rest in peace, saw many mountain tops). In Bryan’s evening.

A couple of years ago, Bryan bought me a guitar—an electric guitar, because it’s allegedly easier to play (don’t have to stretch those little fingers so far, or strum so hard on the strings). I was half-excited, half dubious. I’ve always thought it would be cool to learn guitar (not only because female guitarists epitomize cool, but also because playing music with Bryan would be a much more exciting way to spend an evening than doing the crossword puzzle while he learns a new tune. And he has let me know on more than one occasion that he craves musical accompaniment).

I devoted a couple of weeks to learning the scale, and to playing an open F and a few chords I’ve since forgotten, but the truth was, I really wasn’t in a place to start learning an instrument from scratch. I was just starting to write fiction again, and there was also this crazy desire to read something (a novel? Some poetry?) for pleasure. At the risk of sounding like a 6-year-old, I just didn’t feel like learning anything when I finally had time to sit down at 9:30 or 10:00.

When I signed Dylan up for piano lessons a few weeks ago, I secretly hoped that his playing would rekindle my own desire to play, and to learn (and re-learn). And so far, this has been the case. The Yamaha has been relocated from its corner across from our bed (where it often served as a shelf for laundry) to a place of honor in the front room. Dylan and his sister play “duets” (yesterday morning I woke to Lexi playing random keys while Dylan sang “Hey Jude”), and I hack away at “Let it Be” (a song that will likely be my very own “Tangled Up in Blue”). It’s not pretty, but the kids don’t really know that.

So, if I can clear some time, you know where to find me. Just listen for the three chords. There are only three in that song, right?

This post is part of a daily writing project called Reverb 10.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

letting go of longing

Let Go. What (or whom) did you let go of this year? Why? (Writing prompt courtesy of Alice Bradley)

I don’t know that I have ever completely let go of anything. There are boxes of old letters, cards, stories, books, and clothes in the barn that serve as a testament to my sentimentalism. But I am happy to say that I am in recovery, and my rehabilitation involves not only getting rid of yellowed letters from boyfriends who never really meant that much to me, anyway; it also involves letting go in the spiritual sense. This year, I attempted to let go of longing.

I have spoken (and written) often of my desire to be elsewhere, to live elsewhere—more specifically, in Vermont, or New Hampshire, or in some state where the mountains are higher than 2,000 feet. When Bryan and I first got together, this was our plan: we would save some money, look for work, and relocate in some cool town out west, at the foot of say, Mount Hood, or Mount Rainier, or Mount Shasta. I would take Flattop Mountain in Anchorage, but that’s too radical for my Connecticut-born-and-bred hubby.

It didn’t work out that way. Obviously. And location, or relocation, has been the subject of more than a few heated discussions. I can’t be my fully realized self here, I would insist. Sense of place is everything to me. I’m withering. Yeah, I can be pretty dramatic when I get going. And it’s not purely for the sake of drama: I really believe that I was meant to be in the mountains, as corny as it sounds.

But how can I spend too much time brooding when I left the mountains to be here? I could argue that I’m here because Bryan is here. I left Vermont to be here. But there are many folks for whom sense of place is so strong that no person could ever detract from their dreams of being in Alaska, or Seattle, or wherever they happen to be. So really, I’m here because I chose to be here, and though I can’t deny that I would rather be somewhere else, longing is a dangerous and destructive activity.

Instead of longing, I’m hoping, planning, acting. I’m cleaning up the clutter and working on my resume. I’m encouraging Bryan (who swears he really does want to move) to do the same. I’m putting the word out, and friends are responding with job prospects. In short, I’m trying to get us in a position to move (our barn is filled to the brim with cars, car parts, furniture, boxes of memorabilia, and probably mice), rather than lamenting the fact that my friends are disappearing to Utah and New Hampshire and even Brooklyn (which is a very cool borough, though not a place I would choose to live).

And in letting go of longing, I’m discovering a tremendous amount of beauty right here in the Shire. I’m a mile from trails in almost every direction. I’m a short drive from the shore. In the fall, I can look out my window and see a myriad of reds, golds, and oranges. The mountains are smallish, but the trails are rocky and deliciously challenging on a mountain bike. Guess it ain’t so bad.

Brooding is boring. Longing is lame. I’m moving so I can move on.

This post is part of a daily writing project. For more information, click here.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

fluttering and dancing in the breeze*

Wonder. How did you cultivate a sense of wonder in your life this year? (Writing prompt courtesy of Jeffrey Davis)

Will anyone be surprised if this post is about the trail?

I was talking with a friend recently who was extolling the benefits of a personal trainer. Her trainer, she told me, had taught her to maximize her time at the gym: by doing a combination of squats, push-ups, cardio, and the like, she could achieve the desired result—toned arms and legs—in the minimum amount of time. “You don’t really need to do that much cardio,” she assured me.

To be honest, I, too, can be somewhat obsessive about maintaining a certain level of fitness, and can occasionally be seen doing dips on the kitchen chair while my kids are playing in the next room, or on the floor doing crunches while watching “The Office.”

But running, for me, is not about the fulfillment of a fitness quota. It’s not about the minimum amount of cardio for the maximum benefit. It’s the call of the trail that beckons me from my slumber at 5:15 on a Tuesday morning. Negotiating the rocks and roots at Sleeping Giant in the pre-sunrise mist is exhilarating—a test of mental and physical agility.

This morning, Mount Sanford was aglow as we approached. My leap across the stream fell short, and I emerged with a soaked right foot. On the next ascent, a red-tailed hawk soared overhead. Last week, it was a Great Blue Heron, in almost the very same spot. Once, in Anchorage, it was a moose, who charged and then veered off again, leaving me in a trembling heap in the brush, dumbstruck by my slim escape .

You can set your program to “cross country skiing” on the elliptical; you can flip through a nature magazine on the treadmill in your living room, but you won’t see a red fox, or a snow-covered spruce, or a crunchy carpet of red and gold leaves, at your local gym.

And the pleasure increases tenfold when I see a rainbow or a fiery sunset through the eyes of my kids. Last spring, we met up with three other families at Gouveia Vineyards in Wallingford, and had a dinner picnic on their gorgeous lawn, adjacent to the expansive fields of grapes. For a few precious seconds, as the grown-ups finished dessert and sipped red wine, the kids—all eight of them—were rapt, standing or sitting in silence as the orange-red sun set over the hills. It was holy. After the spell had been broken, we jokingly imagined their conversation: “Hey, man, we don’t need toys, eh?” “No way, dude. This is it. Right here.”

A fantasy, yes. And yet, a summer evening at the vineyard, or a late afternoon at Brooksvale Park, brings Dylan and Lexi much more joy than the thrill of acing the slolem course on Wii ski. The wonder is in their laughter, and in the sound of their deep breathing after a long dirty day of play. And I cultivate this wonder—in my kids, and also in myself—when I come home on a Saturday morning with my legs caked in mud and my eyes and soul radiant from an hour in the woods. Yeah, this is it. Right here.

*William Wordsworth

This post is part of a daily writing project called Reverb 10. For more information, click here: www.reverb10.com

Friday, December 3, 2010

race to the clouds

Prompt: Pick one moment during which you felt most alive this year. Describe it in vivid detail (texture, smells, voices, noises, colors). (Writing prompt courtesy of Ali Edwards.)

One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
Eyes full of sweat, lungs burning, arms
Taut muscles flexed hands against stone
Alive in the struggle
Exuberant in that brief teetering
Moment on top of the world.

So presumptuous to think of Sisyphus now.
This punishment was decreed by no god
(Or was it?)
And yet I do think Sisyphus must have beheld,
Even as his body moaned,
Fields of phosphorescent snow in summer.
Must have smiled as his breath
Tasted frost and ice: a whisper
Hinting at his journey’s end.

Sisyphus happy in the absurd agony
Of groaning calves, wailing quads.
Suffering is the origin of consciousness.
We choose our boulder with open eyes.

This post is part of a daily writing project called Reverb 10. For more information, click here: www.reverb10.com

Thursday, December 2, 2010

the one thing

Writing. What do you do each day that doesn’t contribute to your writing — and can you eliminate it?

What do I do each day that doesn’t contribute to my writing? Laundry, cooking, stacking wood, letting the effing dog in and out about seventeen times an hour. I look longingly at the laptop as I pass it by on my way to put away yet another pile of clothes (meanwhile, the washing machine drones on), and I think about the characters in my story-in-progress, two of whom have been suspended in mid-conversation, in a drafty living room, for over two weeks.

The “thing” I do each day that doesn’t contribute to my writing is the inadvertent avoidance of writing. The privileging of the mundane over the creative. And this is so often unsatisfying, and on so many levels. Rarely, if ever, do I put the last item of clothing away with the self-satisfied smile of a job well-done. Once in a while I will admire my freshly vacuumed carpets, but this only adds to my irritation at the dog, who sees a clean carpet as an invitation to leave snippets of black fur (or worse).

Today, when I happened upon this Re-verb challenge (a creative prompt and a promise to write a blog entry every day for the month of December—thanks, Elizabeth Howard), I was excited, thinking, “This is just the kick in the tush I need.” And then I spent a good portion of my evening (after the lasagna had been eaten and the dishes put away) checking in on Facebook to see what kinds of exciting endeavors my creative friends were embarking upon. “Cool,” I would think. “Wish I had the time for that.”

This post is part of a daily writing project called #reverb10. Find out more & join in this creative exercise at http://www.reverb10.com/.

Friday, October 15, 2010

birthday poem

October 14 (for Michael)

O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
Robert Frost

Beyond the window the maples shiver.
Bony arms reach up in prayer:
A benediction for the mottled and wind weary
Lying lifeless among the needles.

Has it been only days since
Red and gold hands reached out to the sun,
A promise for the beholders
Gazing hopefully in spite of the season.

In the gloaming, a single leaf
Coils its brittle veins, and waits
For the last breath of autumn.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

living with suburban syndrome

Please excuse the mess. I don’t have much time to clean during the semester, and you know, well, with me working part-time, we haven’t really had much money to do cosmetic repairs. And our house is so tiny that it feels cluttered. But please, come on over, just don’t judge me.

This is the usual disclaimer I give when I invite someone over, especially someone who hasn’t known me very long. Even as the words are tumbling from my mouth, I feel their insincerity, and I am immediately disgusted with myself for feeling as though I need to provide an explanation for the state of my carpets, or kitchen, or self, for that matter. No one has imposed this on me, mind you; it’s just that, despite my outward denouncement of “Mr. and Mrs. Jones,” I somehow find myself feeling, on occasion, that instead of refusing to keep up with them, that I have somehow failed to keep up with them, and this invariably leads me down a path into what I have often termed “Suburb Syndrome.” The symptoms include: feeling as though you are the Mistress of Mediocrity; seeing blemishes and disrepair in every room; diagnosing your child with every disorder known to the DSM. And so on. Suburb Syndrome is actually a more advanced form of Grass is Always Greener Syndrome, and often with consequences more dire.

Last week, I reconnected with my friend Elizabeth Howard, writer of my favorite blog, “Letters from a Small State.” We talked about getting our kids together for some playtime (I’m boycotting the use of the word “playdate”), and she suggested, at first, bringing her “brood” over to meet “my brood.” I said sure. This, of course, was immediately followed by the above disclaimer.

As it turned out, Elizabeth had to be home that morning, and so we were invited to her home instead. In her email, she said, “You are going to love our house. We have a tire swing in the backyard.”

I was immediately struck by this comment. I am surrounded by so many Sufferers of Suburb Syndrome, and so this celebration of Elizabeth’s own home took me by surprise. And at the risk of sounding sappy, it cheered my soul. To be quite honest, I love my house. And though I might provide endless excuses as to why it’s a mess, the truth is, I hate cleaning. If I have failed at anything, I don’t think it’s at being a parent or a “housekeeper” (ugh!); I’ve failed to look in between the piles of clutter, where Dylan has constructed a space ship out of Legos, or Alexa’s fairies are on a quest to find their giant friends in Middle-Earth. Where forts are being constructed out of chairs and blankets, and Hot Wheels cars are lined up in elaborate patterns. Yeah, there’s a stain on the carpet, and the tile in the kitchen (which Bryan and I have dubbed “shitoleum”) is peeling in the corners, but living in a Provincial Palace would mean sacrificing so many of the hobbies and activities that keep me sane.

And the truth is, my house really isn’t all that messy. And it really isn’t all that neat, either. But it’s bright and open, and in the yard is a barn that Bryan built with his own hands. Just across from the tree swing are two Adirondack chairs, with a table in between for your tea. Come on over; you’ll love it.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

housecamping in colorado

In planning this trip to Colorado, my first visit in 8 years, my visions usually involved waking up on a peak somewhere in one of the national forests, a steaming cup of camp coffee in my gloved hands, my breath coming out in icy wisps. The kids curled up in their sleeping bags, awestruck at the view of the continental divide just outside their tent.

So I’m almost embarrassed to say that we have been in Colorado a week now and have spent every night in a bed, with access to showers, stoves, Legos, trampolines, a swimming pool, and even television. Haven’t had a cup of camp coffee since last Saturday. Funny how my Colorado has changed now that I have kids in tow. After dragging them across the country for five days, all they really want at the end of the journey is to play, preferably with other kids. So, while I’m really missing the backcountry, I am so grateful for the hospitality of our friends, the Lentzes and the Nevins, who have basically provided us with a home base while we’ve been here.

And housecamping has a secondary benefit: it allows me to pretend, for a little while, that I’m a Coloradoan again.

Despite the luxury accommodations, we’ve done plenty of playing in the mountains: we’ve hiked in Boulder and in Golden Gate Canyon State Park; we’ve biked up the canyon on the creek path; we’ve pushed the Westfalia up mountain roads that taxed her poor old engine. But we’ve also had days by the pool, days where the kids rode bikes around the neighborhood while we chatted with friends. It’s not the rugged Colorado of my daydreams, but even this family-friendly version has been splendid for my soul. I’ve missed this place, and in many ways, it still feels like home.

And we’re going camping tomorrow.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Scribbles from the Road, Volume I

(typed in haste, with many distractions, from a hotel just outside Denver. . . .)

Day 1: Tuesday, August 3
Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, W. Virginia, Virginia

An automotive glitch set us back two days. Bryan, who had been eager to get on the road as quickly as possible, ended up spending the weekend under the van. We also had to wait for a part that was not going to arrive until Monday. We were both sullen and anxious. The kids, fortunately, were oblivious, and were surprisingly patient when we told them we wouldn’t be leaving just yet.

I tried not to dwell on the bad luck that seems to have surrounded our last few summer vacations. An uplifting call from my friend Lori, who advised me to take control of the situation by visualizing the destination (the Rockies) and cleansing my soul of negative energy, definitely galvanized me out of the doldrums and provided me with a renewed sense of empowerment. We’re going to Colorado. That’s it.

So, finally, on Tuesday morning, we piled into the van (we said goodbye to Sasha the night before; she’ll be staying at Bryan’s mom’s while we’re on the road. She’s done the cross-country trek and doesn’t need to do it again). Dylan and Lexi were much better passengers than we could ever have hoped for, amusing themselves with activity books, coloring, singing, and listening to my Ipod (a novelty for Dylan, who couldn’t get enough of being in control of the music). Before the trip, I downloaded several books on CD, and “Magic Tree House: the Musical” kept them occupied for at least two hours.

We had lunch on the campus of Penn State—Hazleton, which looked as if it had probably been an estate once upon a time. The kids played Nerf basketball and ran off some road energy.

In planning our trip, Bryan expressed a desire to take the Blue Ridge Parkway. Anxious to be in Colorado for as many days as possible, I put up some resistance. Driving through the Shendandoah Valley later on Tuesday evening, however, I had to admit that it was an excellent idea, even if it meant more days on the road. It was raining, but still the views opened up each time we passed a vista. A long, twisty road took us to Matthews Arm Campground in Shenandoah National Park. We arrived just after 7pm, road-weary but happy to have made it to the first destination on our TripTik. Bryan had thought to bring the kids’ scooters, and these provided a much-needed outlet. The campground, which was wooded, rustic, and quiet, was a lovely spot, and the kids were able to do several laps before dinner. We passed several deer who were so habituated that they barely looked up as we passed by. We could have reached out and touched them. I hoped the bears weren’t quite so friendly.

Day 2: Wednesday, August/4
Virginia, West Virginia
Long day of driving. Left our campsite in Shenandoah at 6:30 a.m. Had breakfast at the park’s Visitor’s Center, which offered up a brief panoramic view of the Blue Ridge Mountains before the clouds closed in. I’m happy to report that the Big Sky coffee press mugs Bryan and I bought for our trip to Utah in 2001 still make the best cups of camp coffee around. Nothing like a few grounds in your joe to make you feel burly.

The westy huffed and puffed over the hills (we hit a low of 30mph on the highway at one point), but she came through it all okay. We took a detour for lunch, one we came to regret. We were led to believe, perhaps by our own optimism, that Lake Moomaw/Gathright Dam was a short drive from the exit. As it turned out, we spent almost an hour getting there, down country roads and up a canyon. A wizened old cowboy pointed us in the right direction, and when we finally arrived at the lake, it was pretty but eerie. Completely deserted. The attendant in the Visitor’s Center seemed unused to company, especially a bunch of Yankees in a VW van, and so he stood and watched us awkwardly for a few minutes before asking us where we were headed. We had lunch at the lake, as well as a brief swim (when we arrived, we were the only people there, which I took to be a bad sign), then were back on the road for a long afternoon.

The kids, especially Alexa, looked roughed up. Somehow we imagined they’d sleep during the day and play at night, like desert animals. But Dylan can battle sleep like the best of warriors, and he’s very adept at keeping his sister awake, too. I finally gave in and let them watch “Toy Story” on my laptop, which had just enough juice to through the DVD.

Big storm rolled in as we were looking for a grocery store. Ducked out of the van and into a mall for shelter.

Storm passed quickly. Pulled into a KOA in Milton, W. Virginia, around 6:45 pm. When Bryan and I did our cross-country wedding trip eight years ago, I never would have dreamed of staying in a family campground, but as much as I prefer primitive camping, I have to admit that such places have made all the difference on this trip. The promise of a playground and a swim at the end of a long ride has definitely made the miles bearable for the little ones (and, consequently, for us).

Day 3: Thursday, August 5 .
W. Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois
Churches, adult superstores, churches, crosses, adult superstores. Wal-Mart. Home Depot. Welcome to Middle America! Uneventful day. Driving. Kids a little more restless. Had lunch in Louisville, Kentucky.

The air conditioning gave out, which changed the dynamic of the trip. The kids, amazingly, stayed positive. I have been devising scavenger hunts for them, and so they spend at least part of their days looking for various license plates, billboards, colors, restaurants, etc.

Pulled into an odd little family campground in Illinois around 6pm. The requisite playground occupied the kids while Bryan cooked dinner (scrambled eggs and homemade bread) and I went for a short run. Hot. Buggy. Saw an owl in the nearby nature preserve; he swooped down over a field, then perched in a tree, watching me.

After dinner, Dylan and I had a pleasant walk by the light of our headlamps. The campground is on a lake, and we walked down a path behind the tent sites and saw, under the moonlight, a small canoe with two men fishing. Dylan definitely shares my love for road trips, and we talked about doing a backpacking trip in the fall. He made many observations ( the boy can talk, just ask anyone who knows him) about the people in the campground, the different types of RVs, the lake, the cabins, the bats swooping over our heads, the trip. Whoo! No wonder he fights sleep so tenaciously. So much to think about.

Hot night; did not sleep well. Planned to leave early in the a.m. to beat St. Louis traffic.

More later. Kids harrassing me to get moving, already!