Thursday, December 25, 2008


As I was cutting up bread for stuffing today I had a very vivid memory of the church ladies all those years ago at the Dutch Reformed Church in Netherwood, New Jersey cutting up bread for communion. There was a lot about church then that terrified me. The dark, mahogany paneled sanctuary, the Crucifixion depicted in the bright triangles of stained glass, the slightly funereal scent of candles, flowers and wax, the suddenly serious aspect of adults with whom I had joked or by whom I had been teased only minutes before the service. But I loved the church kitchen, where the communion bread that seemed so mysterious and so eerily sacred during the service came from big white bags with the Arnold Bread trademark and was cut up by apron-wearing grandmothers using the old blunt church kitchen knives.

There was a homeliness and comfort in that routine - I realize now, it was "religion" brought back to "faith" - the faith of those hard-working grandmas that somehow Arnold bread could become the body of Christ.

I've always been attracted to the homely rather than to the pomp and it was always the "irreligious" circumstances in church that brought the whole meaning of why I was there back to me. The poignancy of my uncle making his way down the aisle as a beturbaned wise argyle socks; the over-enthusiastic use of incense by a friend in 8th grade that nearly made the church uninhabitable - yet we all stayed in our pews. The itchiness of the tinsel halos we wore in junior choir. The way the littlest angel in the Christmas tableau wrapped "Mary's" cloak around her and fell asleep. Maybe all the candlelight and evergreen and solemnity and music and vestments and flowers was too much for me - and at home, maybe the big tree in the cold living room held too much veiled possibility (and possible disappointment). At home at Christmas I was happier making gravy, folding the snowy napkins just so, or arranging the spring-green lengths of celery on the platter topped with a snowy mound of creamed cheese than trying to rise to the expectations of amazement at the array of gifts I was offered. After a morning of unwrapping presents, I was very content to lie, forgotten, on my back under the Christmas tree and watch the play of light through the branches, squinting my eyes to turn each bright glass bulb into a star.

Simplicity is having a comeback and in spite of the economic pain, it's a relief. We're top heavy with stuff, we are burdened with expectations. Not being able to afford it all provides a kind of respite from it all. It's not about the singing or the stuff or the food or the trimmings - the things we have created a religion around. Of course we know that in our heart of hearts, down deep where something better than what we show the world every day lives. Perhaps now in the quiet and the calm and the bright we can remember that simplicity - we can remember again what faith means, whether in Saint Nicholas, or an even higher power, or ourselves.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


On the weather map a purple fist trailing white entangled isobars hovered over New England. Memories of the epic icestorm of 1998 were revived. I filled big pots of water and put them on the stove, made sure we had candles and firewood. We hunkered down and listened for the blast which was supposed to arrive here late morning.

There was a restlessness in the house similar to what I have felt before fierce thunderstorms in the summer. The animals were pacing and so was I. From the windows that look out over the Reach, I saw a skiff on the eerily calm water by the island and thought what in the world? An impossible day to be out on the water in a small boat...the sky was a pall of gray, crows bawled from the trees on the island and all around the house branches and grass were crackling and creaking with ice. Then I heard the report of a gun and saw the upward rush of hunters. I watched the small boat as it turned and maneuvered around the little bay, watched the water wrinkle with the first gust of wind, watched the boat swerve and head for shore in a frill of spray.

Soon the weather was upon us, hurling gusts at the house. I went to the door, opening it to let in a sodden dog, and was surprised by the sudden strength of the wind and the warmth! I looked at the thermometer on the kitchen window - 58 degrees. The warmth saved us. Soon I heard the plash of melting from every corner of the roof. The grass sprang upward spraying moisture, the fir trees lost their polish of frost and chickadees swung down to the feeder.

All day the wind blew and whistled. We lost our phone service briefly; briefly the lights flickered and dimmed, but we came out of the tempest intact.

Catching up with neighbors after dinner I learned that one had lost an elderly father and another had just heard that her son, about whom she had been worrying on his drive back to Boston, had arrived safely. Departures and arrivals - I connected with our faraway children and the world clicked back into balance.

Later, I threw apples out for the deer and nearly took a header down the back steps. Frozen again. A glance at the temperature confirmed that we were back in winter...22 and, probably, falling.

Today is bright and sunny - and cold. The snowless garden looks bereft, but soon the flakes will fall, the ice will form crystal daggers along the eaves and we will move cautiously into winter. There will be more weather-related alarms and we'll go to stations as usual. And then the spring will come.

Monday, December 8, 2008


This time of year it's too early for seasmoke to appear, but this morning we woke to a steaming ocean, frost flowers on the window panes and clouds rising from the kettle on the woodstove. We are enveloped in clouds - inside and out.

Across the water, the islands of Mt. Desert appear blue and hazy as summer but the intervening water is a shield of white and ice glazes the granite blocks along the causeway. After weeks of mild weather, we are plunged into an arctic world of blowing snow, blue shadows in the horse pasture, chimneys enveloped in cottony vapor and the ankle-twisting skim of frost on doorsteps.

On the buffet in the kitchen are two small paper houses frosted with glitter; painted icicles dangle from their frilled roofs. One sits on a doily of snowflake, the other is enclosed in a paper picket fence. From the outside, our house looks like a paper cutout in such a winter scene; inside, it's tropical with rosemary trees, amaryllis and Christmas cactus.

This will be a pared-down Christmas for many. Separation from loved ones will make ours melancholy, but an enduring image remains: wintry outside, warm inside. Tonight, yellow light,
as rich and warm as melted butter, will stream from the windows of each house along our road. Inside we'll nestle and thank our lucky stars. So much to be grateful for, even in times of trouble.

Thursday, December 4, 2008


A good day was winding down when an unexpected commotion called me to the top of the stairs. Dick was yelling something about calling the fire department and then rushing out the door. Behind our house, about 700 feet from our back door, dinner plate-sized flakes of ash were flying up into the air. Along the road on the other side of the brook someone's house was engulfed in flames. In about 15 minutes, before the local fire department and mutual aid could arrive and unleash water, it was beyond saving. I stood in the backyard watching the flowering smoke and tinsel-like sparks; listening to the roar and pop. In the cold, clear night voices of the firefighters carried distinctly over the trees and then I heard the crying - first a woman's voice calling for her dog and then her wails as she realized he was gone. I turned around. There in the yellow light of my own warm house stood my own dog, watching. Later, after the flames were out and the firetrucks had left, I stood looking out my back door. The red glow was gone from the horizon - there was not even a hint of smoke in the air. Above the fir by the back door the sky was full of stars. An ordinary winter night.

This morning we left early on errands and drove past the wreck of the burnt out trailer back off the road. I never knew that people lived there. Or that a dog lived there too. Here we were, only steps away from each others' doors. I probably passed those people on the road, stood in back of them on line at the grocery store, heard their voices through the screens on summer nights, heard their dog bark and my dog answer. Last night, unable to sleep, I woke Dick up and asked him if he thought those people had a place to stay for the night. He said he had thought of that too but there had been a lot of people there with them. "The poor lady," he said, "was crying". Someone took them in for the night, I'm sure. And as I lay awake at 10 and 11 and 12, I imagined my unknown neighbor also laying awake in a strange bed or on someone's couch, staring into the darkness.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


I should know better than to doubt downeast wisdom. Last night, after two weeks worrying myself sick over a lost package from my mother containing some very important papers and financial information, I said a fervent prayer, just before I went to sleep, that today the package would arrive. We went for a walk this morning...the grass was crisp with frost and rosy with the early sun, bare branches webbed the hedgerows speckled here and there with bright red winterberries. When we got home there was a message on the answering machine...Linda, the postmistress at our tiny post office said she thought that the package had finally come. We jumped into the car and off we went trailing exhaust and road dust. Sure enough the package was there. Relief. Linda was as relieved as I; I had been badgering her for days and days regarding the whereabouts of the package. I told her that last night, "I gave up and said a prayer that it would be here today." Her response? "You shoulda tried that SOONAH."

I love Maine.