Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Late fall, and silence drops down over the landscape like a silver net, light and beautiful. Different from the crystalline hush that precedes and follows the snowfalls of winter this silence is moving - like waves on the deep ocean, like the fish beneath the surface - and alive.

Birds dip and soar, paddle and stride; leaves crisp down in the stillness of the afternoon; cabbage moths in pas de deux dot the air over the un-rippled water of the Reach; beneath the sand water seeps silently back as the tide ebbs. In the house sunlight melts like butter down the walls of quiet rooms; outside the windows clouds drift and cross.

This is a lullaby of quiet, a symphony of silence that only happens now in the uncluttered, generous pause between the jogger pace of summer and the magisterial progress of winter. It's a rambling time - a time to walk slowly on moss-muffled paths, to breathe grape-and-smoke-scented air, to feel the thinning sun in every pore and to lift the face to the sky.

By day the woods are awash in color: red and gold, ochre, purple, crimson, orange and magenta - nothing held back. The confettied quiet honors the beauty of a single leaf swinging slowly down on the breeze, the clutch of snowy mushrooms where the wire fence ends in a tangle and one bright aster along the road. At night the fingernail moon tips toward Jupiter, the horse roams his star-lit field, leaves drip and the sea hushes along the shore.

The silence is reverential like that of a church or a museum. It's a silence in which sudden sounds don't startle so much as intrude - a silence that, for a time, allows the hum of activity and strife to settle like leaves onto moss: comfortable, companionable, demanding nothing, dispensing grace.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


I am having trouble keeping up with the vegetable garden this year. After almost 20 years of gardening in Maine, I have become used to the appearance of one red, ripe tomato long about August, but this year I will have bushels. I have been picking beans since the middle of July - unheard of - and have been deluged by cucumbers, chard, potatoes, eggplant and peppers. I am ignoring the zucchini baseball bats that lurk up against the deer fence and skip out of the way as I pass the burgeoning foliage that waves above the bed of turnips. Sweet potato vines are blooming, sunflowers fountain like fireworks behind the pole beans and the pungency of marigolds drifts up to me from the weeded paths. Everything is scrambling to germinate, leaf out and fruit.

It's happening everywhere. Hard to believe that the woods in April barely showed a haze of leaves above the dun of last year's fallen. Suddenly perspectives disappeared in emerald, kelly, forest, sea, fern, and olive greens. Now, berries - black, red, green and purple - tumble over themselves in the thickets along the road; rose hips glow like little lamps from the depths of thorny hedge roses. Wild lilies and orchis lift plump seed pods aloft in the shady places and the perennials in my garden frill out, the heads of the flowers heavy with seed.

There is more of everything this summer. Even along the shore the shiny seaweed and rockweed spread out higher and thicker than I can ever remember and sea lavender and wild sweet peas bloom in lush bunches - fat brush strokes of color against the gray shingle of the beach. The New England asters bloom, drift-like, in the fields. Purple asters are in bud and ready to burst out brilliantly against the goldenrod. Black-eyed susans and butterfly bush are swarmed with fluttering Monarchs and Fritillaries, heavy with bees and little birds.

It's almost embarrassing - this amazing bounty. These are days of grace, I know, before the nosedive into winter, and I am savoring every one, even as the shadows lengthen on the grass and the sun sets earlier and the evenings cool. At night in the clear, windless dark, it even seems to me that there are more stars, so bright and dense the stream of icy light that flows over our house in the great sweep of the Milky Way.

On the most beautiful days, in the flower garden or stumbling back from the vegetable patch burdened with more food than two of us can possibly consume, I think of the people a world away and closer who are homeless, hungry, hopeless, lost, angry, and in despair. I have given up trying to understand the why of it all and do my best to share, appreciate and be grateful. Is that enough in this crazy world? I have told myself it is - I suspect it is not.

It's tempting to think we deserved this summer - after last summmer's cold and damp and previous summers' brevity we're entitled to this glorious sweep of sun and warmth. But doesn't everyone deserve to be warm, safe, fed, loved? I hope, since it seems to be our turn at the moment to be lucky, that our salvation lies in recognizing the inequities, attempting to correct them and in accepting our blessings with humility and grace.

Sunday, June 6, 2010


No, folks. That was not really a life-threatening domestic disturbance you heard yesterday afternoon - just me and my husband screaming at each other over the planting of the vegetable garden - a yearly ritual that has taken place ever since I can remember us having a vegetable garden.

We have different visions, he and I. I think that, on some level, every year I am trying to reproduce the vegetable garden my Pop-Pop laid out every spring, webbing white string across the soil with surveyor-like precision; carefully planting the seeds along each string; gently covering the seeds with soil that was as soft and fluffy as cocoa powder. There were tomato plants staked in hopeful, marching band rows and corn that was always "knee high by the 4th of July". I can't help it - it's the garden I grew up with that pops into my head every February when I begin to think about buying plants and seeds - a garden as much artistic expression as it is practical and food-based. Ironic, because Pop-Pop's garden was there to feed a family of eight and provide a little income when the excess was sold. I always have to remind myself that he also had five kids, 13 acres and a tractor.

I don't know exactly what the dream garden in my husband's head looks like, but I imagine it's somewhat different. For all I know the vegetable garden of his childhood was a row of lettuce and a couple of tomato plants in pots languishing in the back of his parents' suburban quarter acre. I do know that, for him, it's all about experimentation. Cantaloupes? Sweet potatoes? Artichokes? Asparagus? It's more about getting a strange and intriguing assortment of stuff into the ground than about aesthetics.

We both love gardening, so this would seem to be a not mutually exclusive pairing, in spite of technique, so where does the conflict come into it?

Well, we get tired right off. I mean it's not as if we were farmers, exactly, though we both come from "farming stock". And there is the black-fly element which has driven even the most avid gardeners to shoving each other out of the way as they run for cover. And the witch grass. The witch grass certainly doesn't help. Mostly, I guess, it's just a matter of our competing visions - his for tastiness and variety (practical) and mine for display (ever my problem in this and many other things). Hence, the arguments every year.

Now that the yelling is done for this season, we'll go along through the summer, not unlike two old, yoked farm horses: one pulling ahead, the other lagging and keeping an eye out for a mouthful of clover in the furrow. Zigzagging our way across the field together we'll both arrive, more or less at the same time, at the same place.

Monday, April 12, 2010


The first day of spring arrives in a haze of bright strong sunlight and fire. The earth seems newly awake and on the move. On our drive back from a weekend trip to New Hampshire sunlight dazzles through bare branches, strikes off granite promentories and tinsels the ice cascades along mountain passes. Blueberry fields, brush piles and meadows are burning and the combined smoke casts a Vesuvian scrim over the baby blue sky.

I am always startled by the intensity of heat in the spring. With no leaves to provide shade the sun strikes down as pale and dangerous as a blade into the dry leaves in the wood, needing only a burning glass to set the forest floor on fire. Everything seems brittle and stark; crows exult from the tops of the trees and deep in the mold, red fists of skunk cabbage thrust upward toward the warmth.

In the confusion of the sky cirrus and cumulus sail past each other and through them the pale light flattens out the perspective and shadows disappear. In yards as we drive past people lean on their rakes and turn their faces up to the sun.

Ritual burning has a distinctly pagan feel. As one old Mainer friend put it, "we burned up all that mess on the knoll". How tempting to believe that this burning harks back to the strange and scary cleansing rituals of our wilder ancestors. How nice if we could clean up the mess of our socio-political pathology so easily - a little virtual conflagration to help us start off clean.

Soon the rain will come to soften the sharp edge of this pleat that separates winter from spring. The grass will green up, crocus and daffodils will bloom and our world will rock gently to the kinder rhythms of breezes not wind; rain not snow; mud not ice; blue not gray. Through the blackened stubble lupine will emerge in elegant spires, blueberry barrens will turn copper-green, in the vernal pools frogs will commence their rock 'n roll din. And once more we'll have come through the ice and the fire into a new and gentler world.

Thursday, January 21, 2010


I am nine and sitting in Mrs. Hussey's hot, dusty classroom. The floor is scuffed from the shuffling of 30 pair of brown oxfords and their correspondingly rubber-booted "going home" feet to a soft buff. I look at the floor a lot, trying to avoid eye-contact with Mrs. Hussey, and find this impression of softness comforting. The desks are wood, one piece, with a writing surface grooved bumpy with dozens of names and initials of previous occupants and connected to the seat by an iron arm. Beneath the seat is a wooden drawer, always too small for what it is expected to contain: textbooks, black-and-white speckle-covered exercise books and papers that are to be taken home but rarely are.

The radiators hiss and vibrate; the incandescent ceiling lights glow down on bent heads. In the cloakroom damp garments steam and outdoors the sky is the color of slate behind black branches lathered with new snow. In the corner of the room a faded American flag stirs gently in the heat.

Mrs. Hussey's back is to the classroom. Her wool sweater is ornamented with a string of yellowish pearls above which her red-brown hair curls in a militant ruff around her head. Her plaid skirt reaches to her calves; the heel of her left pump is worn slightly inward. I notice all these things because I can't get my mind wrapped around what she is saying. The chalk squeaks.

Oh, no! She has whipped around to face the class - is she looking at me?

"If a train leaves the station at one o'clock and another train leaves a station 60 miles away in the opposite direction, at what time will they pass each other if each train travels at the rate of..."

No, no! What is she talking about? When will I ever need to know the answer to this question?

I am sitting on the train waiting for it to leave the station in Albany when this scene flashes through my mind. I know how long it will take the train to get to's a long time: 16 hours. If there is a train traveling at the same rate of speed from Chicago, I know that we will pass each other at some point but I couldn't care less where. Right now my mind is focused with pleasant anticipation on the journey ahead.

I love trains, even though some of my experiences on them have been less than wonderful. There was the time we took the train to Florida when Lizzy was a baby. Awful. We broke down four times, and each time we were all told to de-train and stand along the side of the tracks, presumably for fear that another train would come upon us (at God knows what rate of speed from the same direction) and pancake us all into oblivion. There was the 20-hour trek from Chicago to Albany where we sat for 45 minutes looking at the station from 50 feet away, but we couldn't pull in because there wasn't a track available. To my mind, however, these were minor discomforts, compared to airline snafus - glitches in an otherwise pleasant history of riding the rails.

In Europe the trains were sparkling clean and fast. There was wine and fruit and cheese and the seats were large and inviting. On the Erie Lackewanna in New Jersey I took my very first train ride from Millington to Lyons Station (15 minutes of rushing woods, fields, horses, farms, a river and a trestle) where my Uncle Allen picked me and my grandmother up and drove us home. I rode the Erie Lackewanna many times after that when I was working in Manhattan - an hour and a half in and back. The seats were wicker and my stockings suffered, but I loved the old fashioned cars, the ironwork overhead luggage racks, the testy conductors, the sturdy-looking emergency pull cords, the scent of coal and oil and the way the engineer waved at departing passengers.

And in spite of time it takes to get there, I love the trip from Albany to Chicago and back again. A fellow passenger once remarked that the train is called the Lake Shore Limited because it travels along the lake shore of Erie and Michigan and the speed of it's forward motion is extremely limited. And sometimes this is true. So on the train I enter a state of suspended animation. I can't go anywhere except to the dining car. I can't concentrate much on the reading material I bring because of the fear of motion sickness. I am left with the options of napping or gazing out the window, watching the backyards of America blur by. I find a strange comfort in this moving forward without moving. Friends who fly cannot fathom my love affair with the train. But these days it takes a whole day flying or waiting in airports to get anywhere anyway.

Once, trying to articulate my reasons for taking the train, as I fumbled for an explanation my daughter said, "I think you just enjoy the journey." Bingo. Part of the enjoyment of travel for me is getting there, appreciating just how far it is to where I am going, the time changes, the people I meet, the sense of temporary community among the passengers.

Because of the length of the trip from Albany to Chicago we have to sleep on the train. I always go to sleep immediately in the oddly comfortable fold-down bed with the thin but warm blanket and the surprisingly plump pillow. But I often wake several times during the night, usually at a station stop. It's an odd experience at 1 or two in the morning to look out on a railroad platform (where are we?) and see travelers boarding or de-training in the dark. The early hour and the sense of not quite knowing where we are lend an aura of mystery to their behavior which would seem utterly ordinary in daylight. As the train pulls slowly out of the station I watch as the lights of whatever city recede. Along the way, no matter what the hour, there is always some car or truck waiting at a crossing, some light on in some lonely farmhouse, some watchman walking around a warehouse yard - some human activity to defy the night.

In the morning in the dining car we're seated with strangers and over eggs and bacon, cereal and juice, we soon begin to exchange information that finds common ground. Often, we become so engrossed in the urgency of learning as much as possible and sharing as much as possible of each other's lives that we have to be asked by the attendant to leave so someone else can sit in our place. This does not, I have observed, happen in airports, but it always happens to us on the train.

As we near our destination there is a purposeful bustle in all the cars, incoherent announcements over crackly intercoms, and a sense of departure that is at once more and less exciting than when we left our original destination. Here we part ways and go on to home or work or loved ones, to problems or joys unimagined or deferred. My heart always gives a little bounce at the end of the outward trip as I anticipate seeing my family and at the end of the homeward trek when I think about seeing Dick, if he is not traveling with me, waiting in the terminal for me to arrive.

There is a scary element, of course. At night the engineer may try to make up time lost during the day and I will awake to wild rocking and bumping and wonder briefly about infrastructure. And there are the moments when a passing freight or passenger train seems so close that I could touch it as it rushes by at some unimaginable speed - traveling in the opposite direction. Then these little alarms pass and I settle back and enjoy the ride.