Water’s Edge
 

Bath


I soak in the tub with a homemade bath bomb given to me for Christmas. There are flecks of things:  petals of lavender, sweet birch, and calendula, floating around, oily and nourishing. These bits and the hair I have just shaved off my legs cling to the sides of the tub like high tide line at the beach. 


I go to scrub my feet with pumice stone, something I rarely take the time for but is needed. They are dry with a crust of dead skin, starting to crack in one spot.  As I start in, one big toe looks so pink and happy to finally get some loving care and attention. This makes me smile, a big deal on a day like today. Next I delight in my big brown bush, gently laced with gray, a soft cushiony triangle swaying in the cloudy water.   It’s a generous thing.  stalwart, proud, and loyal. A friend. I remember my mother cautioning me in a conversation about pubic hair. “Enjoy it while you have it” she said in a tone of disappointment tinged with resentment. It will leave me too someday, but we’ll always share fond memories. 


Lastly I examine my belly where the flesh is loosening. Grabbing small handfuls, pushing and pulling it this way and that. Today I contemplate a development there, a pasture of new growth. Little red dots and small light brown bumps with rough tops:  cherry hemangiomas and seborrheic keratoses. Tiny for now, these will deepen in color and size as time goes on. I find it unattractive. I don’t want to say goodbye to smooth skin. But two out of three ain’t bad. I will have to come back to the pasture on another day. Maybe with a picnic basket and blanket, I will consider the landscape again with a kinder view. 



Back on the Mountain


First day skiing in 35 years.


I know how to do this, muscles contracting and releasing, shifting weight to caress and cut my way through the snow in sinuous curves, responding to the thrill of quickening speed, brought under control with shifting pelvis, leaning, turning, following the mountain’s contours-I am powerful, gracefully sweeping along, dancing with rapidity and finesse. I can let myself go, just let myself go. The others I am with are working hard to learn the skills, while I have this and do it without thinking. I command the mountain. 

Second day of skiing, the following week.


Today the mountain commanded me. At 60 I realize I don’t have a whole lot of time left to enjoy this old friend of a sport. I set out with my brand new equipment to give it go and see how it performed. For starters, it took me half an hour to get the boots on in the muddy parking lot. I remember when boots were black leather and tied closed with elastic laces. But now they are enormous, unsexy heavy structures, going half way up your lower leg, all metal buckles and hard plastic, weighing 5 lbs a piece, with very narrow openings and a silly fake fur lining. I had to ask for help from a younger man, who gratefully was willing and able to help with various suggestions. He shared that some people put their feet in a plastic shopping bag so they will slide in more easily. All this technology and it’s this hard to put on a boots that cost $400? What a bargain. The plastic bag method wouldn’t work for me anyway, my feet would sweat and be cold in about five minutes. After much wrestling, grunting, cursing, and pulling diagonally outward on the collars of the boots just so, I was successful. It felt frustratingly difficult, and I easily could have pulled a muscle just trying to get my feet in those damn boots.


Once I got all my gear on, I set out to ski alone, warming up on some blue square/moderate trails, like War Dance and my favorite, Mohawk. The new skis felt like the boots: a bit heavy, clunky, and awkward. They were not under my body and not under my control. The conditions proved to be unfriendly as well, just starting to develop ice, though ice wasn’t the issue. I was new to the curves of these parabolic shaped skis, having grown up on straight edged skis, and didn’t understand how they worked.  Everyone said they made skiing easier, but so far that was not happening.


Next I skied Upper Competition, wanting to prove I could still handle a black diamond/difficult trail. Then I headed down Lower Competition, an easier blue square/moderate trail. I was skiing fast but not beyond my comfort level when I took a stunning fall. WHAM, on the ground in a flash, one binding released, my neck and upper back slammed to the snowy ground, twisted and wrenched. As I lay there, reminded of the potential for doing real damage practicing this risky sport, I worried how long it was going to take me to recover. I assumed there would be muscle spasm, limited range of motion, and pain for days, if not weeks. Another dose of the incapacity that arrives more easily as I age. But I was pissed. I was there to feel capable and free. Instead I felt like a vulnerable older person, out of touch with the latest technology, making a fool of myself trying to be the skier I was when I was 14. 


A couple who witnessed my crash stopped to check on me and their offer to help was appreciated. But the mountain had something to say. No more fairytale falling in love again:  the honeymoon was over. The mountain required a different kind of relationship. Knowing I needed to get back on the horse, I was grateful I could ski a few more trails.  The worse pain would likely come later. Paying closer attention now, I noticed my tendency to cross the fronts of my skis. This was due to old muscle memory trying to hold straight skis close together. But the tendency persisted and I was shaken.


Was I too old for this? Too weak for this? Were my wonky hip joints going to spoil the party? Were these skis just not right for my body type and level of fitness? The following day I headed back to the ski shop for a consult. They were welcoming and promised to make good on the skis if I didn’t like them.  We considered other possibilities. It was good to be listened to and taken seriously, which was something I needed after having my ego slapped upside the head.  They softened my edges a bit, to prevent them from catching as easily. And we agreed a lesson was in order before I changed anything.


     Third day out, a few days later.

     Much to my surprise, the injury was not as bad as anticipated, so I skied in the afternoon with a friend. I signed up for a lesson and full day pass, taking my time to get up there – some computer work, walking the dogs, making a phone call, not leaving in a rush to hit the slopes as I had previously. Once I got up there, I managed three runs before the lesson to warm up. Already the skis felt better. It was warm and sunny, snow softer and forgiving, though the patches of ice had grown larger. 


     The private instructor did her job, describing how to ski on this new shape of ski. How to take a wider hip stance, eliminate extraneous movement, and work my edges to my advantage. It started to come together and I was much relieved.  I happily skied many more trails with my friend. At the end of the day, we basked in the warmth of the setting sun sitting underneath an outdoor propane heater, drinking beer as satisfied skiers love to do after a day on the slopes.


Yesterday I made friends with my skis just as this winter is coming to an end.  The polar vortex is bringing warmer air over New England, with the March forecast for 40s and 50s and rain in a few days. The mountain and I have made friends too. Having tested each other and come to terms, we are in relationship complete with gruff edges as well as places of luxurious ease. I call that love. Next year, we’ll carry on. For now I say goodbye and put away my equipment with gratitude and a warm smile. 


Alice’s Gutter


It’s a 52 degree sunny day in November and after catching up a bit on the phone, Alice and I pounce on the opportunity to be outdoors together. We decide to go hiking on the land behind her house. My friend Alice is beautiful, slight, gray, and surefooted enough to do this at 90, though she stumbles once at the beginning and my heart stumbles too, thinking uh oh, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. We became close when I helped care for her declining, then dying, husband a number of years ago. It was an honor to witness the peaceful and loving end of their relationship, one that had been troubled and divided at times during a long marriage. I am “one of her people” now, as she puts it, our plan always having been that I will help care for her, too, when the time comes.


Alice is at ease in the out-of-doors though at times unsure she remembers which path we want to be on. Her blue gray eyes are bright beneath her dark blue, hand knit hat. We walk through crunchy brown leaves, step over branches and fallen trees, and squelch along in some mud. We make our way along a narrow trail, then a woods road, stopping frequently to chat 6 feet apart. We share what we and those we know are up to, and how we are making sense of our lives during uncertain times. She’s raked the leaves off her gardens three times over, and joints are complaining at a new level of discomfort and disability.  She tells me of her frustration losing memory and orientation. She misses her car, no longer trusted to drive after an accident that totaled the vehicle. She talks about living with her granddaughter Annie and Annie’s boyfriend, who live in her basement in a recently constructed efficiency apartment. They are new to her situation, there to provide support and keep an eye on her. They perturb her with leaving the lights on and sleeping during the day, otherwise raising the level of household activity and disrupting her routines. But she knows there isn’t another choice at the moment.


Alice listens attentively to my latest news and as usual, is interested, positive and joyful. We have some laughs, and I bask in our friendship. We decide to swing up by her daughter’s house, which I’ve never been to. Liz just happens to be outside. Alice sits on a porch step, I sit on the bottom of a children’s slide, and while Liz hangs laundry in the sun, we converse in the manner of three like-minded women.


Later, when we arrive back at Alice’s driveway, she looks at her house and refines her plan for an outdoor project. She plans to climb a small ladder to clean a section of gutter, a topic she touched on a few times during our hike. “I just had a brilliant idea. I will lay a drop cloth to catch the leaves”, she says, “that way I don’t have to do any more raking”. I wince at the risk, offering to do the job with her then and there.  It is a small task that wouldn’t take long. But she’ll have none of it. This is her life, her way, her being in the world. It could be her last time to perform this fall ritual solo. What right do I have to interrupt the satisfaction of independence and a job well done? Yet if she were to fall and injure herself, it could bring her life to an ungraceful and painful closure. When I get home after our visit, I wrestle with wanting to protect her and honor her privacy, impulses that feel incompatible.  Finally, I send Alice an email reiterating my concern and offer to help and text Liz the same.  Then, let the leaves fall where they may. 



Arriving


I saw her going

And ran to get my brothers.

We stood and watched, heartstruck in our loss

in her high ceilinged bedroom

with its elegant pink flowered wall paper, plush pale carpet, and

sliding glass doors opening to the ocean’s view

she slipped away forever.

A few hours earlier the nurse had laid her hand on her forearm arm and said, “Rona, you’re doing just fine”.

Like you would to a woman in labor

Reassuring her the way was open, and she was welcome.




The Ugly Iris


There is a neglected shade garden on the northern side of my house, full of crowded day lilies, bunches of iris, and a few stunted, light deprived peonies. I am planning to give it a makeover along with much of the rest of my outdoor space.  Like many of us living in the time of Covid19, I am focused on beautifying my yard and home.  

In the shade garden, I will thin out the tenacious day lilies. The peonies will be moved, very carefully, to an area with more sun. I will rearrange the Siberian iris, extroverted bolts of flashy purple that I have always loved and admired. There is also another variety of iris growing there that I have decidedly not loved. It has muted maroon and pale yellow shades that look dirty or dusty to me. In fact, I used to call them the Ugly Iris. My ex-husband and I would argue about this variety when we shared a yard where he reigned as self-taught master gardener. Now that I am head gardener, I had planned to dig them out and toss them on the burn pile. Off-with-their-heads! was my attitude. 


This year I waited for the ugly iris to bloom to remind me where they are planted. I had the mistaken belief that cutting blossoms weakens the plant, but figuring they would soon be gone that didn’t matter. I might as well enjoy a vase of flowers even if their colors didn’t thrill me. The moment I placed them on my table, however, our relationship changed. I got to view them separate from their flashy neighbors and study their subtle colorings. Three pale mauve petals on each flower reached upward together in a triad, as if standing around having a conversation or holding hands in a circle dance. The delicate pollen fuzz of yellow signals folded downward between the petals, an invitational carpet for insects seeking nectar to land on. Understated gradations of plum and magenta flowed in veins traveling down the foils. I watched the first set of flowers wither and die, while another set pushed up into fresh bloom. I contemplated the cycles of birth and death we move in. They also conjured Victorian parlors with velvet cushions, lace curtains and quiet cups of tea. Their subtle beauty gave me joy. And their soft, introverted nature calmed me during this time of turmoil and unrest. At last I understood the iris for what they are, not what they are not. 


What is this lack of patience that caused me to want to exterminate an entire patch of iris? I noted a hardness within me where the spirit of curiosity and exploration couldn’t take root. Thank goodness for the gift of gardening that slowed me down enough to find right relationship. The “ugly” iris belongs in my garden now, in a spot with complimentary colors and light. It will remind me of the opportunity for friendship and understanding where at first there was none.



OCEANS RISING


Plastic containers everywhere for single serving sized pieces of pie, sesame noodles, and nuts, you name it. You can have it all in a plastic box. Single serving, single use, single insult to the planet. No one wants to talk about it. I am not innocent. We may feel healthy and righteous buying organic while ignoring the planetary cost of packaging. Gleaming transparent containers scream at me the cost to the oceans, the impact of factories that make them, and the deteriorating health of the planet under our feet.


Their contents lure me. A moist, delicious piece of tiramisu, a handy portion of tamari roasted almonds, an elegant row of sushi packaged with individual portions of wasabi, tamari, pickled ginger, and a set of chopsticks. What could be easier?  Beware the ease of ease. It makes one soft in all the wrong places. 


It dawned on me that bulk food departments might disappear in the near future. Tall stacks of sexy, expensive, specialty items sit right next to the humble and whole unprocessed foods waiting in plexiglass bulk bins at Whole Foods. In another aisle, prepackaged grab and go beckons the harried shopper, take me! Take me! You don’t need to let go of your cart, make a decision about how much to buy, or search for a pen to write down the PLU. We will feed your need for efficiency.


I want to slap a large photo of sea trash on the sliding front doors of Whole Foods. I want to gather all the containers from my neighborhood’s recycling bins. I would spill them in supermarket parking lots, let them come flying out my windows, tumbling out of my trunk, until people are walking through them chest deep, the noisy scrape of plastic containers filling the air. Oceans rising. I’d do it at food coops too, for even stores touting environmental awareness have joined the plastic container explosion. I want to hand out reusable containers and levy a deposit of a dollar or two, or maybe even ten (because interest has been accumulating). Let’s include plastic water bottles and K-cups, relative newcomers to the trash stream we are drowning in. 100% recycled or 100% recyclable - don’t be fooled. We’re living on a free lunch.



Burying Roger


When I think of Roger, I think of his shoes. Practical brown leather walking shoes with laces. They were blown out on the sides, but he kept wearing them in the fashion of Quakers who intend to live simple lives and avoid the seeds of war.  At times, I thought this was simply taking things a bit too far. Feet vulnerable to ice, water, and snow in our New England climate. Something about the shoes accented Roger’s gnome-like persona. He was of small stature, with frizzled gray hair and beard, and wore clean but old and sometimes threadbare clothing. He had a ready twinkle in his eye and mischievous grin. His shoes were still functional enough, however, and I understood Roger’s refusal to add them to our pile of human garbage on the planet.


When we buried Roger, it was a beautiful and very warm June day, just shy of uncomfortably hot. Twenty or so of us gathered at the burial ground where his grave had been dug the day before. Our many shovels leaned against the Meetinghouse nearby. Ice tea and water, lemonade and cookies were set up on a table in the shade of a tree, along with a bench and some folding chairs. His wife, Shirley, wore a long dress with a wide brimmed hat in her simple and elegant style. She carried a basket of flowers cut from their yard. At the appointed hour, an unmarked mini van from the funeral home backed up to the burial ground, nothing indicating it was a hearse.


When the appointed hour came, Roger’s son and daughter, along with Roger’s men’s group, gathered at the van’s open rear door. Wrapped in a shroud and lying on a quilt from his home, the body of their beloved father and dear friend emerged from the van. Grasping the sides of the quilt, they carried him to his grave lined on the bottom with fresh pine boughs. They squatted awkwardly as they negotiated how to lower him gently down. I worried for a moment that they might all tumble in after Roger. But it was only love I saw pouring into Roger’s grave, a lifetime of family, friendships and community. Love pouring into the earth right next to the Quaker Meetinghouse on land where he had worshipped for decades. Where he shouldered myriad tasks supporting the “life of the Meeting” and attended countless meetings and events.  Where he sang, played, laughed, cried, listened, and argued.  Where he ardently advocated for the things he believed in.


Annie Patterson, who shared many years of singing, music and friendship with Roger and his wife, sang Thea Gilmore’s soulful song “When I’m gone.” She sang it clearly and sadly, allowing the music to carry us. The song reminded us to do what we can while we can, just as Roger demonstrated with his life. We cried and loved Roger some more. We each took a flower from Shirley’s basket and dropped it on top of his shrouded body now resting in the ground. Then the burial began. About 12 people participated, forming a circle that rotated by Roger’s grave. One shovelful at a time we filled the hole with dirt, and for a bit we sang some work songs as people labored. 45 minutes later Roger was fully buried, including replanting the top of his grave with great hunks of sod. We watered the mound and lay more flowers. Relaxed and friendly conversation continued under the tree as we replenished our energy with cool drinks and cookies. 


There is great grief and sadness, but also hallowed satisfaction in burying a dear Friend. Like his shoes, Roger’s body served good purpose right up until the end. Now his body would disintegrate and become food for the earth that he cared about passionately. His life force had left his body along with the spark behind his twinkling eye. Gone where? I haven’t figured that out. But I felt a deep sense of completion as we folded his body into the earth beside us. Roger was gone, while at the same time, close at hand and heart forever.  


Nicola Metcalf 9/14/19



Walmart Universe


It was getting to be late afternoon and we hadn’t found a campground for the night.  We were on a 10-day road trip in a small, let me underscore small, Ford Transit Connect van.  It was our maiden voyage.  For months my partner David had been tricking it out with the basics we needed for life on the road:  a platform bed, storage bins, curtains, two large lithium ion batteries, a battery to battery connection, 30 amp solar charge controller, a solar panel, and a 3000 watt inverter.  If you know what all that means, good for you!  This electrical headquarters was stored in a repurposed wooden box, right behind the driver and passenger seats, that David had spent hours and hours configuring.


It was early in our trip, and we were setting a pattern – late in the day, campground office hours were closed or didn’t process reservations by phone.  We discovered many campgrounds catered exclusively to RVs.  I scrambled on my iphone trying to locate possibilities. My partner and I were tired, hungry and testy, arguing over how to make a decision. He accused me of being too particular.  I bumped up against his resistance to making plans ahead of time.  We knew Walmart parking lots were an easy solution, and this seemed like the right time to try one.  But first we needed dinner.


Even though I had planned and packed plenty of home-cooked food that only required reheating, we had eaten out at restaurants for our first few meals.  This was because our cook-top blew the fuses on the first try, casting a blanket of disappointment and doubt over David’s handiwork.  He had been stressed gauging which size fuses were needed and where to find them, a process that took place over a day or so.  At this point, I wanted to be eating the perishable food waiting to spoil in the coolers.  David heard my concern and led the way, pulling us off a road leading to a construction site near a motel.  There I peed behind a dumpster and we fixed our dinner roadside.  We ate baked beans with sauteed hot dog slices heated on our newly working cooktop, thanks to new 60 amp fuses.  We played at being vagabonds. 


As it became dark, we headed to the nearby Walmart Supercenter.  We had been there earlier in the afternoon looking for a small and simple non-electric coffee maker since we’d left ours at home.  The place was quiet and cavernous with very few shoppers, and once again I marveled at American Capitalism.  Not surprisingly, Walmart had nothing small and simple in the category of coffee makers, only bulky Keurigs and complicated 12 cup machines.  There was a French Press, but it was too large to allow it valuable storage space in the van. 

Since we had forgotten to pack our hats as well, I asked where hats were located from an employee standing at one of the registers.  A tall woman in her 60s with an ambiguous shade of blonde hair, she held a spray bottle and cleaning cloth and was half-heartedly wiping down the register and its barcode reading wand.  The teller next to her was engaged helping customers make their purchases.  The woman gave me instructions in a southern accent I had trouble understanding.  She waved in the direction I was to go in, but was clearly was not about leave her station.  I couldn’t find them.  Another employee, one with a smile, graciously walked me where I wanted to go.


It was dark when we returned to Walmart for the night.  Shutting off the ignition, I looked out across the large and largely empty parking lot, sparsely dotted with trees.  Sure enough, just as we had heard about, six or seven other small vans, and one gigantic RV, were quietly posed for the night. Most rigs were parked beside one of several trees scattered across the lot, as if the tree marked a campsite, offering a gesture of camouflage and natural beauty.  People had parked evenly spaced from one another, and there was no sign of life behind tightly drawn, light-blocking curtains. I looked over at the van closest to us and spotted a woman slipping into the front cab from the rear, then quickly withdraw. We had quietly joined an underground community.  There we shared a common sense of purpose to gather somewhere free and relatively safe, outside the demands of a market economy. One could say we were isolated from one another.  But we enjoyed peaceful presence and shared space, rare and precious commodities in our frantic and fearful world.  Who knew this would happen in a Walmart parking lot.


The next morning, I peed on all fours in a wide mouth plastic jar inside the van, and managed to get dressed with 27 inches of headroom. Most of our neighboring campers had already departed.  I took my toothbrush and washcloth and headed to the restroom, wondering how obvious it was that I had just rolled out of bed. I felt noticeably more American having just slept peacefully in a Walmart parking lot, despite having been a U.S. citizen my entire life.  I was surprised by the sign stating Walmart’s hours:  open 24 hrs a day, 7 days a week.

As I walked into the store, I saw the same ambiguously blonde woman standing at the same register, with her spray bottle and cleaning cloth, going through the same actions.  I blinked, shaking off déjà vu.  Was I in the Twilight Zone, captive in some Walmart Universe, never to emerge again?  Had she been there all night, perhaps working a double shift, or gone home in between and slept?  Maybe she slept near us in her vehicle.  I’ll never know. But I did know it was time to hit the road again.  So I brushed my teeth, washed my face, and we drove away.



Two Knives


1986. It was a bright and fresh Saturday morning. The mild weather of early spring beckoned. I headed out for a macrobiotic cooking class in lower Manhattan from my apartment in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, right on the edge of Red Hook. I lived in a 4-story apartment building made of concrete block walls where I shared an apartment with two other 20-somethings. Our space was large and light filled by NYC standards, with high ceilings and large windows.


I packed my Japanese Nakiri knife in its box, and placed it in my leather shoulder bag with the foldover top. I was in a good mood, given the weather and relaxation of a weekend after working 9-5 as a temp in midtown Manhattan. Mid morning, I walked the block and a half to the subway stop, anticipating the pleasure of learning more about macrobiotic cooking. I bought my token at the booth, and entered the dank smelly stairwell leading to the elevated train platform. A busy train had just emptied as I made my way, walking against a flood of people hurrying down to street level.


After climbing 2 stairways, I reached the final, long and very steep escalator. As I approached the bottom of the escalator, the last few riders stepped off. The coast was clear. Slowly the escalator carried me up, up towards the platform and fresher air.  When I reached the top, a man stepped out from the wall to my right, holding a large knife. No one else was in sight. My first impression was he was a scarecrow, so thin and gaunt, tattered, stuffing falling out of him. High hollow cheekbones, sunken eyes, with sallow brown skin he waited for me, a wasted human being. Stunned and terrified as the truth penetrated, I turned before the escalator brought me to him. I ran and leapt down the upward moving stairs three, four, five at a time, frantic heart racing to catch up with the release of adrenalin. As I turned, my bag fell off my shoulder. I didn’t even notice. Once down at the token booth, I told the attendant what had happened. He called the police as the man smoothly exited the station in front of us.

After giving a report to a policeman, he told me the man would be caught as he had acted without caution. We also found out from another passenger that he had unsuccessfully tried to mug others coming off that train. No one had warned me what I was walking into. I told the cop I wanted to press charges and was willing to identify him if he was caught. By the time I returned to my apartment, there was a message on the answering machine from someone who found my bag. Everything was returned except for the small amount of cash I had been carrying, maybe $30.


Sure enough, I received a call within a month. I went to the station house to pick him out of a lineup. It was not like in the movies, the victim safely behind one-way glass in a sound-proof room viewing a row of suspects. Instead it was a locker room, with a small eye hole cut in piece of cardboard taped over an open section of the door. A line of 6 or 7 male suspects sat on a bench in front of gray metal lockers. I carefully looked at each person, finally recognizing the man who had threatened me. He stared back at me menacingly, deliberately making eye contact.


Later on I met with someone at the courthouse who tried his best to persuade me to drop the case. It was a minor offense and my belongings had been returned. But I was indignant and vengeful, determined to see justice done. Born into the class and race that rules a large part of the world, I thought he was a problem. His life was shit, he was looking for his next dose of crack. How black, poor and drug addicted of him. I was making a really big deal out of something that was not. How white, rich and privileged of me. But what if I had willingly helped him? What if I had said, “I am happy to give you some money for your troubles, sir”? What if it wasn’t my role to judge his race, poverty or addiction? What if I had acknowledged his pain instead? That would have been an act of love. 



Ruminations on Kale


I am thinking about the Millstone Market. I am thinking about kale. I am thinking about love. 

The Millstone Market, across the street from my house, is under new ownership. It is a friendly, family-run business, quirky and rough around the edges with its tattered floors, patchwork carpentry and old windows.  A small neighborhood convenience/general store, it sells the basics and also boasts a quality meat counter.


Something for everyone, you can buy hearty, locally baked artisanal bread, or a soft loaf of Friehofer’s. Mapleline milk, milked from cows in the next town over, is available in glass bottles, or Hood milk in plastic. Fresh asparagus, strawberries, and corn grown across the street at Warner’s Farm when in season, or a package of Oreo cookies. No lottery tickets, cigarettes or beer, thank you. One of the cashiers, Weesie (as it is spelled on her vanity plates) is a grandmother who moved here from Miami. She won’t hesitate to tell you just how much she detests New England winters. But even her complaints are delivered with joie de vivre.  She is only person on this planet who can call me “Baby Cakes” and get away with it, her loving spirit far larger than the concern for political correctness that is common in our valley. 


This week, I picked up a survey there asking customers what they like about the Millstone and what they would like to see change. While I often buy their fresh local salad greens, I wrote that I would like to see more green leafy vegetables like kale. As I fixed my dinner tonight, steaming some kale to go with salad and a bit of left over sirloin tips from the Millstone, I pondered my personal history with this venerable vegetable.


A mile and half away I once shared the rent in a house with four other people. One of them was an excellent gardener. He later became my husband for 18 years and the father of our one and only child. We conceived that child in the house right next to his garden on New Year’s Day morning, after a fight the night before when I wanted to leave a party before he did. And I gave birth to her on the living room futon couch in our next home, ¼ mile down the road. But I digress. 


My future husband’s garden grew many things, including kale. This was back before kale was cool and most of us knew of it only as a lowly garnish for the buffet table. He and my housemates didn’t know what to do with it-so most of it went unpicked and uneaten. Thanks to a brief foray into macrobiotics, I was familiar with kale and introduced them to its virtues. How it sweetens after the first frost. How its hardiness carries us well into winter and snow. How its dense green curls brighten a soup or form a holy trinity when combined with potatoes and sausage in an iron skillet.  During a summer visit to my former husband’s hometown in Idaho, we were introduced to Kale Slaw at the Moscow Food Coop. We obtained their tasty and popular recipe and brought it back to the east coast to many compliments. I have just started growing kale in my own small kitchen garden. If I am buried when I die, it will be a green burial, and you can plant kale on top of me.


I am cherishing and celebrating the presence of kale in my life. And the fact my daughter was bred and born on the same street, just around the corner from the Millstone. I now live in another house I love in the heart of our town. When I cook, I can throw on my garden clogs and run across the road in my apron to pick up a missing ingredient from The Millstone. I might chat up the local farmer there and buy his produce in the same visit. Or have a good smile and laugh with Weesie over just about anything. This is some of sweetness of my life, cultivated over 25 years of living in a small New England town. So take a look at what’s growing in your garden.  Maybe you’ll find some kale, too. 




Morning on the Mountain


I live near the Connecticut River, alongside fields of strawberries, corn, and a cemetery. Mt. Sugarloaf, a small mountain, stands across the river in the background of my backyard.  Cliffs facing the river expose gray rock that is 210 million years old.  For the last several years, I have risen early with my two dogs to meet a group of 1-5 women at its base, 2 miles away. We hike a steep paved road that leads to the 652 ft. summit with a grand view of the Ct. Valley.


Many other individuals and groups climb the mountain, though most adjourn for the season when temperatures drop and snow accumulates. We are familiar with the pattern of people and dogs who hike the mountain every day. Serious athletes running or biking sometimes join the morning parade. Once we passed a young woman in a manual wheel chair inching herself upward. We mere pedestrians are all drawn to the quick and relatively easy work out the mountain provides, free of charge, and the camaraderie of hiking in good company.

 

Conversation is the fuel that carries us up the steep road. We talk as we walk about everything from world news, local politics, our families and food, to husbands and pets. We discuss some of the tight corners of marriage, help each other navigate medical crises and advise each other on raising teenagers. We witness job changes, divorce, death of friends and family, renovation projects, graduations. We share the joy of a good shopping experience or debrief after an important town meeting.  Our skill sets include law, design, medicine, publishing, and accounting so chances are one of us has a knowledgeable opinion. Or at least we pretend to in the shadow of pre-dawn light. All in all, it is a chant of life that ushers our steps to the top.


When we reach the summit, we pause briefly to take in the view, feed the dogs a treat, and maybe take a photo. We can almost always make out the easy curves of the Connecticut River stretching out to the southeast, bordered by trees and flanked by farmland. There might be a striking sunrise of brilliant pink or orange, a solid blanket of fog, or lights of the town and car headlights twinkling below. Morning commuter traffic builds up on a big blue bridge crossing the river below us. After our momentary rest, we begin to descend the north side of the mountain.


Liz is our longest standing member and the alpha of our pack.  She has been organizing our group for approximately 20 years. A stalwart who hikes in any kind of weather – rain, snow, ice, wind, negative temperatures - she starts her day with the “no bad weather, only bad gear” attitude necessary to practice this hike 5 days a week year round.  With retirement and two small dogs that can’t handle the snow and cold, I have softened into a fair weather hiker.  Liz, Lorin, and Clare, however, almost never miss a hike due to bad weather. It is a point of pride and honest New England character to show up for whatever the mountain gives.


I discovered our group several years ago. I was grateful to find way to share the chore of dog walking with other people. A chance encounter with a neighbor led to an invitation, even though she had never met me. So it was I showed up one morning at 5am (our old starting time).  It was fall and we were in complete darkness.  An unknown group of women welcomed me in the parking lot, and off we went, slipping into friendly conversation. It was a couple of months later when I came face to face with Liz at our local convenience store. After a moment of recognition, we laughed to see what we actually looked like in broad daylight. Similar to the phenomenon of online dating, we had shared a lot about ourselves long before meeting face to face.


Our mountain is host to all manner of human activity. A Hollywood movie with Harrison Ford was once filmed at the top, closing the mountain to the public for a week. Once a woman had a heart attack and her companion performed CPR, saving her life.  Occasionally we encounter teenagers who have gone up there to party and watch the sunrise. For many years, when we hiked at 5am, we would encounter a lone woman on the road, yelling and screaming in an angry rant. She always pulled her act together by the time we passed her, pretending to talk on a cell phone. While disconcerting to hear her terrible pain and turmoil, I thank the mountain for being a safe haven for the angst of mental illness.


In India last winter, I hiked around the base of a sacred mountain, Arunachala. This mountain, thought to embody the spirit of Shiva, is a revered place of worship and devotion. It was 6am as we started out in silence from the dark belly of the smelly, noisy city of Tiruvinamalai. I thought back to my mountain in New England. Sugarloaf hikers have a different circumstance, but we worship our mountain too.  We are grateful its ancient rock receives us every morning as we are.  We have woven a net of community on Sugarloaf that nourishes and sustains us before setting out to face the day.




Italian Impressions


Recently I took a trip to Italy, a place I have always wanted to go. I went with my partner, neither one of us a seasoned traveler. We visited Rome, Cinque Terre, Florence, and then Tuscany. There was everything one would expect from a European vacation:  jaw dropping art, architecture, food, wine, scenery and endless shopping. I tasted the beauty of Italian culture, let it rub against and inform my own cultural orientation. The vastness of European history lay before me in a tangible way. In Tuscany, I was immersed in the magic of the land and its agriculture. All of this was delightful. At the same time, by the end of our trip I felt done with being a tourist, complete. I was tired of crowds and the sea of selfie sticks. I felt an emptiness from exploring another culture as a consumer. The most meaningful experiences turned out to be a few simple observations.  They have risen to the surface, above the great art and memorable bottles of wine, like 3 matzoh balls rising to the surface in a pot of matzoh ball soup.


My partner and I sat on a bench in a small, uncrowded piazza in Siena. I remember choosing to sit in the sun, because it was a cool autumn day. We were waiting for our group to finish up sightseeing and gather to go back to the van. A young boy, maybe 4 or 5 years old, was with his dad. While dad stood at a distance, the boy came over to us, inquisitive and excited as he climbed on the bench and sat beside me. We acknowledged each other with eye contact and a brief smile. His father, at ease and with love, gently watched his son explore. Yet I found myself withholding from the boy, beyond our lack of a common language. I noticed I was carrying the message of my culture that strangers are a clear and present danger and it is not okay to interact in a familiar way with children. I felt a little awkward, but let the moment be.  Everything was okay as we shared the bench, and the sun warmed us. After a brief time, the boy he slid off the bench and happily wound his way back to his father.

 

In Florence we stayed at a 6 room bed and breakfast, La Fiorentina. It was run by an older Italian man named Bruno. Though he did not speak much English, Bruno was friendly and hospitable and did his darned best to be helpful to his guests. While the rooms were tiny by American standards, it had a very large and gracious kitchen and living area. One night, after dinner, we returned to our room. We had spent another hour getting lost while walking the streets, by then a familiar routine. I changed into my Garnet Hill pajamas, loose cotton long sleeved top and full length pants with a Japanese flair. My hair was unbrushed and in its unruly frizz of gray. I was tired, full of wine, and ready for sleep. Going to check my email, I discovered the wifi was not working. So I padded out to the living room in bare feet looking for assistance. Bruno sat in the dark watching TV. Seeing me approach, he rose and walked toward me through the darkness and into the light. He spread his arms and hands open, saying, “You look beautiful.” I said thank you, slightly embarrassed, wondering if I had been too casual entering the public space in my nightclothes. Perhaps so.  I explained the problem I was having and he tried, unsuccessfully, to fix the wifi.


This moment of being called beautiful felt very Italian to me. I have been lucky enough to be called beautiful before, though the word can make me wary. But this was different. Bruno had no expectations of me. He was not trying to seduce me or win advantage. He was simply saying what he saw. Freely. The Italian eye for beauty that I had been absorbing all around me had just made contact. Appreciation for sensuality was permissible and respectful. I considered the #metoo movement and our current struggle for men and women to be honest and fair with each other. Like so many things in the U.S., the relationship between men and women is distorted. We stumble around without much of a clue, when with Bruno it was simple and easy.


The last leg of our trip was a week-long yoga retreat held at a 800 year old villa in Tuscany. It was an active farm with animals, vegetable gardens, olive trees, grape vines, and wild pigs running in the forests. Hiking trails lain with age-old rocky pathways and overarched with tree branches beckoned into the woods as if in a fairytale. It was magical! Our accommodations were comfortable with rustic, thoughtful attention to detail. We ate wholesome vegetarian meals, practiced yoga, sat for meditation, and did more sightseeing.


My partner and I were particularly drawn to the animals on the farm. Horses, donkeys, cats, geese, ducks, and white doves were easy to be around whenever we encountered them. A family of 3 Bernese Mountain dogs slept outside our door, guarding the homestead. Similar to the boy and his father in the piazza, they all appeared well cared for, exuding an ease and lack of neurosis somewhat unfamiliar to me. Back home, I had my own two high strung dogs with bad habits, and I’ve been around neglected farm animals. These animals all knew their place, and they knew they belonged.


The land was very rocky. Stonewalls were everywhere, built of volcanic pock marked chunks of stone with sharp contours. Hillside terraces, a common feature of the landscape, were built to create space for growing crops. I marveled at how difficult it must have been, and still was, to work land that seemed inhospitable to agriculture. Inhospitable, that is, compared to the rockless fertile riverbed near my home in Massachusetts. Man had worked out a relationship with this craggy land over a very long time, finding ways for it to bear fruit and sustain life without destroying it. Now, for economic reasons, Tuscan farms were showplaces for tourists. I hoped their respect for the nature and spirit of the land could continue. It inspired me to keep looking for how to find right relationship to what is in my own life.

 

I came away from Italy a disenchanted tourist, tired of being part of the crowds of experience seekers looking for a good time. I was nevertheless touched by its culture in meaningful ways. Last winter I visited India and proved to myself I can endure a long distance trip. Both have prepared me to go to Africa next year on a service trip, something I have been working up to for years. All of this deepened my resolve to trust presence, beauty and relationship, wherever I may be.



A Touch is All it Takes


As I sit on the deck writing, with a comforting cup of tea in front of me, the clutching feeling in my chest begins to soften. My daughter’s departure for college has finally happened. It has been another childbirth, one with a long, long labor. During senior year, we lived through the college application process and attended final concerts, events and productions. All of it culminated in a joyous high school graduation.  Throughout, we arm-wrestled over who got to use the car and what time she would be home. Summer came and was filled with babysitting jobs, hosting a delightful French exchange student, and many fun, short trips around New England. Difficult conversations about our relationship and my recent divorce from her father challenged us. I swung from wanting her to leave right away, to dreading the inevitable. Finally, the days of packing and preparations to leave were upon us. Now I am home, exhausted after the 11 hour road trip to Oberlin.


My daughter has left. My heart is bereft…feeling like a cleaving of some part of my soul. I wonder how anyone ever manages to lose a child who has died. This clearly is not that. But loss is what I feel most intensely the first 48 hours after returning home. It surrounds and saturates me as I walk through the house like an open wound with no place to go, sobbing, “My baby’s gone, my baby’s gone!”


“My baby” is a strongly independent soul, who at 18 months began choosing her own clothes to wear in the morning. While learning to climb the stairs, Fiona would say, “Thelf!  Thelf!” meaning “Self?  Self!” I’m doing it on my own. When learning to count, she started off, 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. “What happened to 5?” we would ask.  “I don’t do it that way,” she answered. Interesting to note that she did become a top math student. Just a few weeks ago, I tried to help apply sunscreen to her back. She refused, saying, “I need to be self-sufficient”. I have called Fiona my “just add water and mix” child, as it was easy to raise a do-it-yourselfer, especially one with her easy, cheerful joy and natural confidence. 


During our journey as we talked about the impending separation, I explained to her one way I have felt our bond. When she was an infant I would go out for a walk in the neighborhood and feel an energetic umbilical cord stretching around the block the entire mile. She scoffed and was quick to state the umbilical cord had been cut at birth, “MOM.” Right now it is another cutting of the cord that we both feel in different ways. She eagerly moves into the beginning of adulthood, freedom and independence, while I reckon with mortality, facing the steepening slope of losses ahead of me.


At last I feel some relief. A few texts asking about forgotten items and what kind of bike lock to use and I start to emerge from the incapacitating nature of grief. They remind me of the years of family bed when even as an infant, she wanted just a little bit of touch at all times – an elbow, a toe, the back of her hand against me, as if needing to complete the current. Our contact will be less as her life grows ever fuller and more separate from my own. My investigation of life will change and deepen as well.  But I sense that her request to find her missing favorite bras and mail them to her was more than forgotten clothes.  She was reaching out to touch…to know I am here.  And that will never change.




Maine morning


I walk the dogs back from Nickerkane Island, across the bridge, in the early morning. I have had coffee but nothing else, face unwashed, just getting the dogs out for their business. It is overcast and recently rained hard in the earlier hours while we were still in bed. A man has backed his truck up to the shed with all the lobsters pots hanging on it, next to the old tub with several colors of painting peeling off it in a lively mosaic. He is looking across the inlet thinking, and considering his options. As I start to ascend the hill, he surprises me by suddenly saying, without looking at me, “You’ve convinced me that it’s not going to rain today.” I reply, “really?” (as I’m not yet convinced), and he says,  “Yes.” He starts to unload lobsters pots off the back of his truck. Nothing more said.


Image: “Island School by Penny Markley” 



In Light of Pee


As a Quaker, we talk a lot about seeking “the light”, usually from within.  That can be within oneself or another person. When I went to India, my noticed my perception of light changing.  What I became aware of (in addition to dark poverty, dirt and garbage) was the light without.  When landing in Dubai en route to Chennai (not India but getting close) the lights sparkled with more brilliance than other airports I have visited.  I sat in the Matrimandir Temple in Auroville with its single beam of sunlight penetrating the space as a reminder to concentrate.   Warm inviting sunshine embraced me while swimming in the Bay of Bengal.  I delighted in the eye catching colors of saried women riding scooters sidesaddle.   We ogled necklaces layered thick in glittering gold in an upscale jewelry store.  The indian love of bright reflective things was in the atmosphere all around me.  One day stands out in this experience in particular.


It had been a long day of sightseeing in Tiravunamalai, southern India.  We had risen at 4:30 am to circumambulate 8 miles around the base of Aranuchala Mountain, visiting 8 small temples along the way.  We were tired and dusty with one more outing before dinner:  to visit the Annamalai temple.  Annamalai is a conglomeration of 9 temples in an enclosed area, some of them as large as tall city buildings.  It is a sort of city within a city, housing the Hall of a thousand Pillars, a large reservoir/reflecting pool of water, and big courtyards connecting everything. 


The approaching street was full of vendors selling souvenirs and more bustle of life in India.  There were scooters, cycles, people on foot, rickshaw, dogs, cows, dung, trash, voices, odor.  We had just checked our footwear in with the shoe minder on the street so we could go through security lines to enter the temple area.  I turned around and suddenly a cow right in front of me raised her tail and peed a large waterfall of absolutely clear, sunlit, pale gold urine, gushing onto the street with a splash.  An Indian woman, in sari and gold earrings, immediately and urgently thrust both of her hands into the flow washing them together, then splashed the urine with both hands in the direction of what may have been her daughters tending a souvenir table. I think she may even have grabbed a container to catch some of it.  The young women protested, and my trip companion and I were startled into the moment as we felt the spray of urine on us.  Liz admonished the woman with a, “Hey!  What are you doing?”.  I was stunned trying to gauge the woman’s intentions:  Aggression?  A prank?  Just plain crazy?   What was going on? 


Jolted by something deemed unclean and taboo by western standards, it slowly dawned on me that to Indians, cow urine is as sacred as the cow it comes from.  I was being pushed out of my cultural stance into understanding an aspect of the devotion that permeates India. In learning to live with minimal water while traveling compared to my western habit of excess, I reflected that if I had limited access to clean water, then I would wash my hands in the clear, bright fluid as well.  But the woman’s motivation was far bigger than hygiene and she understood something I did not.  Though cows are not a primary focus of the sacred in my life, what I will always remember is the light that shone from the cow’s pee – pure, shining and radiant, a gift of god.   And that is sacred, wherever you find it.

 

Water’s
Edge

Nicola Metcalf 

Nicola Metcalf writes when the spirit leads her. She grew up in Jamaica, Vermont where she first developed a strong sense of place. A dancer, mover and yoga practitioner, she loves people, her pets, and laughter most of all. She writes when the spirit leads her. Writing is like an old and trusted friend, always ready to sit down and talk about things.