Water’s Edge

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.



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.