Monday, October 20, 2008

Carrot Cake

Carrot Cake

I made it with joy. Shredded carrots, wrinkly raisins, knobby walnuts.
and sugar, which I don’t eat a lot of, and eggs, which I don’t eat at all,
flour and vanilla and applesauce. It smelled wonderful baking, and with anticipation
I drew it from the oven to share with two of my three favorite men on my birthday.

Two phones calls that morning; death had come knocking, and my day had turned.
From one, I could not share it as we had planned, they were burying their
beloved cat; from the other, Judy had drawn her last breath – late last
night…. carrot cake a favorite of hers and her son’s I knew.

Death trumped life today, and I gladly transferred the sweet and earthy
cake from my car to theirs, hoping it would say the words I could not say.
Please take it. For Judy’s sake. I love you, I loved her…
Today is not the day to celebrate; but a day to console, and death and life just don’t mix.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Flying "Birds"

Mom and I stand still with our heads bent all the way back, searching for the forms of long-winged geese flying overhead. We have heard them talking to each other in that noisy, disorganized honk-talk of theirs, and we've longed to see the group of them strung out in a wavering V. One of us spots them and our arm goes out, "There they are....", our voice falling off. It is such a beautiful sight, and yet they are leaving us. High aloft, they are excited and busy with their own lives, following their inner guidance, and here we are, feet planted on this old gravel road, beside the swamp with the goats grazing the last great grass of the year. We are not going anywhere really, only a half mile back to our little yellow house, where the season will pass and the next one will come, and then the next one, and then perhaps we will hear them again.

This year it is all the more poignant, as my son will be one of those flying birds soon enough. Even now, he's preparing his airplaine, N3538F, and the restlessness and excitement of the journey ahead is building. He will lift off, following his Inner Guidance, to go south to Bolivia, and he will be with a little group of other "birds." Their lives will not be composed of resting and feeding and waiting for a new nesting season, however. Their hands and minds will be occupied and they will feel the ache of tiredness.

I stand here, quietly looking up into the sky, watching the call of nature on the wild geese, watching the wobbling of their wings and listening to their conversations. "Come back again," I cry from inside, "My son, come back next year....."

Friday, October 3, 2008


October. The flurry of summer is over, the first frost has come and reduced our gardens. We've taken our last swim in 60 degree waters on the last weekend of September with the trees flaming orange and red all around us. The purple asters are the last flowers standing, and pumpkins, squash, and apples are the fruit of the season. Leaves are tumbling down in the autumn rains. Summer birds are hushed, and ducks gathered on the little ponds put up a nervous racket when we pass them in the dusky morning hours. No doubt we'll see our first snowflakes here in Vermont in just a few days.
We've come to a time of rest in the natural world, and the transition is breath-takingly beautiful when seen from a distance. Stunning reds, oranges and yellows in beautiful shading on individual trees and leaves. Fabulous and spectacular, whole hillsides are a-fire, and it takes our breath away. Up close, standing beneath a tree, or walking through the leaf litter, or raking them up, we see it for what it is: it's death. The sun is leaving us for great stretches at a time, and there is not enough to sustain life and growth. The leaves are dying, falling and withering. They will become part of the soil in a short time, and the trees will hibernate waiting for enough sun to come again and pull life from within them.
I feel the lack of daylight already, and have become quieter and more sober. October marks 49 years for me, and I become more aware of my place in time. There is within me a seeking for the light, every ray now, and a gutteral desire for more of the Light of my Life, more of my God who is my sunshine and warmth and who gives me growth and fruitfulness. "Do not leave me," I cry from within. Perhaps to His eyes, I am burning red right now, or full and sweet, ready to be picked. I am glad that He is God and I am not; He knows all, and makes all things beautiful in His time. Here I am, O Lord, take me.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Boy I Watched Being Born Is A Married Man

Taking Care of Each Other

My Uncle Joe Bryer is sixty-three, and I almost never see him. When he and his new wife, Judy came north from Kentucky to visit his surviving siblings in early September this year, I took my mother down the hill to her sisters’ house to visit him with the collection of them – Uncle Joe, Uncle Doug, their spouses, and Aunt Alice. I really had not intended to stay, rather to go and come back to retrieve my mother, but they are my aunts and uncles after all, and this was a unique opportunity to “tune in” to how my mother’s family works and to hear stories that may be lost soon enough. So I stayed and listened and asked questions out of mere curiosity, and oh my -- was I surprised. You might say my world was rocked. As a result of just one phrase from my Uncle Joes’ mouth, I am finding myself reevaluating how I live and thinking new thoughts about how I might want to live.

At the end of one conversation, Uncle Joe said about he and his wife, “We take care of each other.” I asked him if something was wrong – I was thinking of there might be physical ailment that one of them suffered from, or perhaps they both had physical ailments than needed attention. “No,” he said puzzled. “What do you mean by ‘we take care of each other,’ ” I asked, just as puzzled. A slight touch of frustration came across his face, and the only concrete thing that came to his mind was the body massages that he gives to Judy every day. I listened more and deduced that taking care of each other means to them being in touch with what each other is thinking and feeling, each others’ wants and wishes, and not only caring about them, but also adjusting to make life gentle and pleasant for each other. The picture I got was of two people connected and attentive to one another, moving through life gently, and waiting for each other – an emotional aspect that I hadn’t witnessed much.

This, from a Bryer. Stories that I have heard from my mother all my life and my own observations of life in the Bryer clan are all about hard work, struggle, striving and surviving. A lot of it has been around survival, but not all. Aunt Alice, at 82+ goes at a pace that make most of us pant. She volunteers at the library, the welcome center, the used book store, walks with the neighbor and her dog, teaches kids at church, works for Mrs. Impey, and on and on. It’s hard to find her home; it’s hard to get an appointment to see her for more than ten minutes at a time. My own mother worked hard all her life. Other than a few picnics on a rock by the river, I have precious-few memories of my mother relaxing and enjoying life, or of being “taken care of.” She did a lot of taking care of other people, physically at least – everybody it seemed – but odd how it did not come back to her as a give-n-take. And I can’t remember anything between my parents that resembled the “taking care of each other” that Joe and Judy Bryer are becoming accustomed to, and that seems to be agreeing with them very well.

Patterns of behavior get imprinted into us as we grow up I believe, and it takes exposure to other ways of being and doing to undo what we have learned. I learned how to work, which is good, and I enjoy all kinds of work regardless of what category they fall in. The only kind of work that I can think of that I don’t enjoy is cleaning. But I like hanging around when we have to take the washing machine apart, and I like helping my cousin sort out our old knob and tube wiring, and I like roofing and cutting firewood, cooking and sewing. People tell me that I am independent, cheap-to-keep, and even needless and wantless. This is not all true. I don’t think of myself as independent at all. I am working mostly in my home, supporting my husband and his mission in life, taking care of my memory-challenged 80 year old mother, completely dependent financially. Emotionally I am interdependent with my husband, needing his love and needing to give him mine, and inwardly I revel in the relationships I have that are warm and deep, feeling more like a marshmallow inside rather than a strong, reliable tool. I have a need for love, touch, and attention. And there are some things that I want. What are people seeing? Is it that I change the oil on our vehicles when necessary or replace the head on our string trimmer? I like doing all that stuff. And why I am so shocked to hear a man in my family openly declare that he and his wife take care of each other?

I talk with my sister about all this. “Do you feel taken care of?” I open with. “This is not the day to ask,” she responds. The answer was “no,” and I knew it before I asked her. I questioned her to begin a discussion with her that will help me figure out why we are the way we are. She has been canning tomatoes for her son and for me, and digging potatoes now, even though she prefers to wait. Her timing on the potatoes is to accommodate her husband. She works and does and goes, often until she’s ready to drop. It’s been like this for years, and today she is tired. I can hear it in her voice. I am tired too. Why do we do this? Why do we extend ourselves beyond what is good for us, and why do we ask for so little help or support.

One of my prime examples would be helping my husband, last fall and this fall, take thirteen students into the wilderness for three days. We haul boats and gear and water and food, and cooking utensils a quarter of a mile in, set up tents, cook over an open fire and propane stoves, paddle, swim, and repeat the hauling of gear and boats back up and out, then drive four hours home to unload and unpack wet tents and put away coolers, water jugs and leftover food, and wash dishes that only got minimal attention in the woods. Halfway into the drive home, David and I in separate vehicles each carrying a load of boats on our roofs, I am exhausted to tears. More than my body is weary. Although we have been working together for four days, we have not had one single conversation about ourselves, and have not shared a hug or kiss. We have “been there” for the 13 kids and the two adults, but not for each other and I am depleted emotionally as well as physically.

This is not so unusual for me either; my sister and I are cut out of the same fabric. It is the family fabric, but this year I tell my husband that we will have to reevaluate for next year. I’m ready to change something I realize; I want to take better care of myself and my relationships, and I want to be better taken care of. I realize it has to start right here with me in my own thoughts. I notice that in order to get what you need or want, a person has to learn to ask for it and expect that it will come. God does open his hand and satisfy our desires, but mostly He wants us to ask Him for them. I have a hard time asking for things from God and from people.

On the positive side, I can honestly say that I love life. There are so many interesting things to do and to learn about, and I like doing and learning. I don’t want to miss out on anything. I wouldn’t trade away all the stuff I have learned how to do. I can also honestly say that I am learning to love people, and that means I will extend myself for them, because I like to see them happy, or to know that I have made their lives easier or better. I can also honestly say that I like the feeling of working my body, of feeling it work, feeling it moderately tired, and feeling how good the contrast is when I get rested from exertion. And quite honestly, there is a lot of work to do to maintain a “simple” lifestyle, a lifestyle where we eat food we’ve grown, and I’m willing to work to be healthy and to not have a lot of needs that have to be satisfied by shopping at stores. I enjoy seeing results; I like to look at a box of potatoes I’ve just dug or pile of firewood, or jars of freshly canned applesauce on the counter. But I also like to and need to rest, read, write, think and pray. Unfortunately I often feel guilty when I do these things for “too long”, and I will often sacrifice them for the more physical kinds of work. Why? It’s not simply a matter of balance, though that does play into it. I have trouble admitting that something is too much for me or asking for help.

I have to follow the thread of my life back to try and understand what are the underpinnings for my working too hard or too much. Our family values good, hard, honest work and there’s nothing wrong with that, nor would I want to change it. Somewhere along the line something got added, something like: the more you work the better you are, more important you are, or more valued you are. Value got attached to doing versus being, and has grown to such an extent that my brother Len will not stop to go to the hospital after he has taken a tumble in the middle of a 100 mile bike ride and his shoulder is hurting. He will “tough it out” until the end and then find out that he has ridden on a broken collar bone. And it has passed to the next generation as well. Both my sister and I have daughters that will run, ride, or climb through pain, ignoring their body’s normal warning signals.

I don’t know what drives these others, but for me, my identity has become hooked to some kind of accomplishment be it ever so small in the grand scheme of life, and I long to have that erased, to be loved and valued for who I am regardless of how much work I do or don’t do. In reality I am! And it is wonderful, but this message hasn’t yet reached every cell of my mind. It’s almost like I can’t really believe it, or don’t really believe it. I think if I could marinate in this kind of love for a few years it would make a difference to me; it would pervade and permeate even the toughest places to reach. These are subconscious things that are being pulled into the consciousness, and they don’t really want to be exposed. There are habits too, that need to be altered. So I have to be concrete and intentional for a while at least to help myself get the message, and be patient with myself when I fall back into my habits of overwork, of working for the wrong reasons, or of ignoring emotional, relational and spiritual needs.

I am praying about all this, knowing I need some help, knowing I need some part of my inside world reconfigured. I know God does the major part, but I’d like to do my part too. If I could remember Jesus’ words, “Mary has chosen the best things (listening, learning, and worshiping over working) and they won’t be taken from her” and Plato’s adage, “The unexamined life isn’t worth living” it would help me a lot. I believe these things, and want to live them much better. I’d like to take myself to a quiet place three times a day to sit quietly and pray for ten minutes each time. That’s only a half hour in total, but it could help me to collect myself, listen, learn from the previous section of the day, and get guidance for the next part. I could ask myself, “Why are you doing this?” in an attempt to separate the work that is self-esteem driven. I can learn to ask for what I need and want.

My sadness and frustration is that I don’t do well hearing and responding to the indirect emotional needs of those around me, or at knowing and sharing my own emotional needs. There is so much more to love and to share in life that I am missing. I am charmed when I see couples being gentle and attentive to one another. My theory is the better I become at taking care of my whole being, the better I will be at taking care of the whole being of others. This will mean being in touch with what others are thinking and feeling, their wants and wishes, and not only caring for the entire being of us all, but also being able to adjust to make life gentle and pleasant for one another. The picture I want to have in my mind and want to live out is people connected and caring, moving through life at peace. My goal is come to a place where I can say about the people I love, “We take care of each other.”

Monday, September 8, 2008

Potato Digging

It is September, and light twinkles through the trees, coming in at a lower angle every day. The maple leaves are beginning to turn orange and red on selected branches, and in a sweeping glance at hillsides, one sees a tinge of yellow and orange. The green is fading. Serious gardeners have reaped most of the benefits of the spring seeding and summer weeding, and are starting to pull out all the fading and wizzled vines in an effort to bring some order back to the gone-crazy-August garden. My kitchen and pasture gardens are reduced to broccoli, carrots, beets, turnip, swiss chard, pole beans, parsely, kale, collard, zucchini, nasturtiums, and a few tomatoes. Cucumbers are still multiplying by the bucketful, pole beans are hanging in there, but the beets and swiss chard are fighting a nightly battle of survival as neighborhood deer drop by for a visit. My sister and I ask each other on the phone, “How are you?” sensing something in the other one’s tone of voice. When one of us admits that we’re a little tired, the other one readily agrees. There’s been a lot of canning and freezing to keep up with, even though it is less then at the height of our family life.

I have another garden that both exhausts me and elates me, and it is about a mile away. Our neighbor, Brud owns a big farm, at the elbow of Swett Road, off Crow Hill Road. His belted galloways, goats, sheep and chickens roam free -- at least they seem free to look at them grazing in the brilliant green grass that seems to touch the sky. We have developed a help-each-other-out-wherever-we-can relationship that started just after he moved in with his golden retriever who would not stay home, and as a result introduced Brud to all his neighbors. Over the past two years Brud spent many evenings around our table, sharing a meal, sharing ideas, sharing the long lonely nights together because a real estate agreement went bad and he was left holding two properties concurrently, his wife and boys holding down one, and he, the other.

Deep winter is a great time to dream about gardens, and some time along the way we hatched a plan of sharing a garden at his place. It was a very loose agreement whereby he would prepare the ground, and provide a good share of the seed, and we would tend the crop, harvest the crop, and divide the crop in half between us. The crop? Potatoes! Plans hatched in winter are often part dream, but this one worked itself into reality bit by bit. Brud stopped by one day to announce that the ground was plowed. Weeks went by, then he stopped by again to announce that he had the seed – but I was to remember that he wanted to add soil amendments to each row – he would show me how. We agreed on a day when we could both be there, and as God smiled on me that day, his hired boy and my best potato-planting daughter were available. We made time digging the trenches and sprinkling the minerals, cutting the seed and then covering. Eventually Brud and his boy went off to cut some hay and Emily and I continued. We continued until she had to go, then I continued until every bit of seed was planted, which makes perfect sense to me, but the next morning I was quite sore and Brud called almost shouting into the phone, “You are a potato-planting FOOL!” “Am I?” I asked innocently. Ten rows, fifty feet in length.

David helped me hill them – twice, and I spent wonderful hours in amongst the rows, picking potato beetles and popping them into soapy water in a jar, the quiet of the afternoons broken by crows calling and cows bawling. When my mother came to live with us late in June, she would walk down into that garden behind the barn and help me pick the soft pink bugs as long as her back could stand the bending over, then wait for me in her chair on the side of the garden.

In August the potatoes in our cellar began to run out. The potato patch called out to me. I couldn’t keep my hands out of the hills much longer, there was an itch to see what was underground, an inner excitement building. When I had one meal of potatoes left, I felt justified to do it. I could not tell anyone I was going. This was my time by myself, and besides I would like to avoid my husbands I-can’t-believe-you-can’t-control-yourself look. I dug one hill, four red potatoes. It is the end hill, what will be in the next one, I wondered. I dug into it, five red potatoes. Maybe there is more in the next one….

I really have a hard time stopping myself from digging. I have to admit it. David laughs at me and reminds me that in 1844 folks left their potatoes in the field till after October 22nd , thinking Jesus was coming, and those potatoes fared better than the ones dug in September. I know this is true, and I know that there is no big hurry. But, even when I go up to that garden to innocently check on the broccoli that we planted between the rows, I stand and look at the rows of potatoes left to dig, and it is hard to walk away.

Last week I dug four rows of potatoes. My mother was my witness at the end of the rows. It was hard work, there is dirt underneath my fingernails still, and my back on Friday night was complaining, but I sat on mounds of dirt and opened little windows into the potato houses and pulled out families of seven, ten, and eleven. There were big, fat, golden Yukons, odd shaped King Harry’s in pale skin, and scarlet reds rolling out of the soil. Dirt goes down my boots but who cares. My pants are filthy but so what. On I go, like a mole, digging hill after hill. I love to have my hands there in the earth, searching and finding the hidden treasure, humble though it is. I am sometimes surprised.

In four rows of potato digging, I have come across three mouse nests inside the hills. It is a place of leaves in a loose ball, that provides space and softness to furry bodies. Two of these mouse nests have been occupied and I have squeaked as the mother mouse has jumped quickly and nimbly between my hands and scurried off. Squealing babies are not near as fast and one batch could not yet see. I hate myself for ruining a home and orphaning those young, and come warily back the next morning to see the fate of them. Their little fawn colored backs are still squirming around, now in a hollow. How have they made it through the night? Has the mother been back to feed them? Will she make another nest and carry them to it? I can only hope. It would ease my conscience.

On Friday I walk down to the potato patch to look things over. I am not there to dig potatoes, I am too tired. I am there to pick some corn for supper. Only seven ears, I tell myself, seven will be enough. I look at the wilted potato tops. They have done so well this year, grown so tall, and so far have produced so well, and their time of growth is over. So soon it seems. Where has the summer gone? I count six and a half more rows to go, and four varieties: Yukons, Green Mountains, Superiors, and Russets. I want to see each potato as it emerges into the light. Not now, I tell myself. You have to go home, your mother is waiting for you.

I stand alone for a few minutes and it seems so good to be here. The wind ruffles the corn stalks and tassles, the baby mice are gone. How can there be so much joy and hard work all in one place? It is the story of my life and I wonder, when my hill is dug by the Master, what my lifes' summer will have yielded? What will roll into His hands? I hope He will be as pleased as I am right now. We too have such a short growing season after all. I pick nine ears of corn, turn my back on the potato patch, and remind myself that they will still be here when I can come back to them.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Blue Eyes, Blue Sky, Blueberries

September 7th is late in the season to pick blueberries, and for my mother who is 80, it is a long way down the hill to get to the blueberry bushes, and an even longer way up the hill to get back to the house where she can rest. They don't add up fast on these days when we are just harvesting one at a time, for the joy of being outside under the blue sky, with blue jays scolding their disapproval from nearby trees, and chickadees calling out perpetual encouragement.

It is all joy for me to have my mother with me, wispy white hair blowing in the wind, and slightly discouraged at how little she has in her bucket. Though I know she is tired from the sighs, she does not really want to leave, and yet she must. We take slow steps together and I cherish each one, and each blueberry too.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

My Daughter and Rock Walls

On August 17th, my daughter Rachel took a fall and hit her head on a rock. There was more to it than that actually. She was rock climbing near Fort Collins, Colorado with some rock-climbing buddies, apparently leading the route up the rock, when her attempt to place a piece in the rock failed, and she fell the six feet she had reached to and the additional six feet below her last placement. Her head struck the rock wall at the end of the fall, but she did not suffer amnesia, and finished the route despite a raging headache. She was not wearing a helmet. The week before she had taken a twenty foot fall, banging her back against the rock wall as swung back and forth. She was wearing a helmet that time.

The voice message on my cell phone said, “Mom, I don’t want to scare you but….”
Her voice was thick and low and pain- filled. My stomach tightens and I am filled with fear of what the next sentence will bring. My mind races and I realize that she is well enough to call, and I listen poised and tense, yet already knowing that she will be alright. Someday, I half expect, I will be caring for her, or grieving for her. Someday, she will fall over the edge that she lives on and there may not be a thin rope to catch her.

I really do love the concept of climbing up rock walls. Like a little child putting his hands all over his father’s face – fingers exploring his mouth, searching the crevices of his ears and the holes in his nose, feeling the contours of his face in a joyful intimacy – is a person on a rock face. So small compared with the looming height; so fragile compared to the solid mass.

Having a relationship with the natural world means experiencing its’ beauty, strength and grandeur; being out there and in it, like swimming in the rain. One becomes part of the water around them and one with the water that falls from the sky. Typically humans retreat to warm dry places when it rains, but there is a joyous connection that happens when we join nature on nature’s terms and sacrifice our comforts. Many people sweat and endure sore muscles to climb a mountain peak, not only for the view from the top, but for the challenge and experience of joining the mountain in its’ day, seeing it’s hidden parts, walking on its’ shoulders. Rock climbers take the challenge and thrill one step further to places that seem forbidden places, the same loves driving them perhaps.

“David and I are responsible, “ I think to myself with a rye smile. We set this kid on this path, and just never dreamed that she would run so far and fast on it. We started her hiking and backpacking and wilderness camping at a young age; we planted in her that wild love of natural things, that natural love of wild things. I would not change all that. We watched her fly from rope swings into lake water or river water with great glee when she was still young. However this element of danger is increasingly present and I wonder about what drives it and how it will end. I really don’t know.

In my most instructive book, God likens Himself to a rock, I suppose because rocks are solid and immoveable, and yet I find several places where God is moved by humans. I read, “Fall upon the rock and be broken,” and I hear Jesus’ words as an invitation to let our hard hearts to broken apart on His chest. He is safe to bleed on; He can bear it all because He is strong and solid as well as compassionate. This picture that I have of my daughter dangling on the end of a rope, smashing herself against a Colorado rock, I have to combine with my picture of Jesus being the Rock there in Colorado that she is smashing herself against. I have to picture Him holding her, broken and hurting. It is not only my imagination, it is my prayer. It’s the only way I can get through these fears that she will destroy herself.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Finding Mom

Finding Mom

It’s been a month since Mom came to live with us here on Crow Hill. It’s been a good month, and I have no regrets. We have been companions, doing household chores and garden work together. She makes sure that my kitchen is cleaned up after every meal. We’ve enjoyed early summer strawberry picking, high summer time at the lake, late summer raspberrying. She’s shopped with me, and enjoyed rides through the town she was born in, she’s pointed out her high school and other important landmarks. We’ve visited the cemetery where her husband, brother, and parents are buried, and the Pumpkin Hill school house where she attended elementary school. She is willing, and cheerful and helpful. But her memory - or lack thereof - is the reason why she is here, and an obstacle that keeps getting in the way, getting in the way of finding my Mom.


When you cannot remember what happened in your past, it is an awkward time when old friends, come for a visit and want to play ‘remember when.’ What is one to do? What is one to say? “Really?” or how about, “”I didn’t know that, “ or “I don’t remember.” Mostly one learns to listen patiently. Even relatives might run out of things to say if the past is what forms the structure of the relationship and everybody wants you to remember who they are and be able to say their names but names don’t always make themselves accessible, unless they are used every day. When your mind has to work hard to try to understand and follow what is happening, conversations are a lot of work. Words fly by too fast, and you can’t keep up. It doesn’t take people long to figure out that you have no idea what they are talking about, give up, and wander away. You are not clever, nor interesting and have little to offer a conversation. You are just there and often you are alone with yourself.

When you cannot remember, time is misty. You don’t know where it goes, and it all begins to run together. Every day is just a new day to be lived just as it is. Of course you just took a shower and put on fresh clothes, even though it was three days ago. You cannot remember that it rained this morning. That was a long time ago now, or the weather didn’t reach your conscience mind. And yet, you have your watch, and you know when it is time for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and bedtime. It is a relief to be able to read your watch and know what time of day it is.

When you cannot remember, how to get to places becomes a big problem. And figuring out how far away places are from each other is impossible. You have to trust someone to take you out. You hope you can trust them. And how to get back home….and where is home? No place is home but home, and you know you are not living in your home. Everyone tries to tell you that this is home, but it is not. “When will you every get back home?” you wonder. They tell you that you cannot go back home again. You want to got back home very much. It is familiar and your things are there.

Why does it always feel like you are forgetting something or missing something? What is it that is lost? Should you take your pocket book with you? Why is it not here? Have you left it somewhere? Isn’t there something you should take upstairs? Is everything in order before you go to bed? Or is there something you forgot to do. You’ll brush your teeth again, just in case that was what you forgot. You’ll take this magazine up to bed with you, maybe that’s what you wanted to remember. You’re sure you had more socks in you drawer. Why does she have to take them away every night? Is she bringing them back?


I am trying to understand what it is like for my Mom on the inside. One night we sat on her bed for a few minutes before turning in. I was quiet and unhurried. “I’ve been thinking about Albert,” she said, “Where is he?” “ I put my hand on her leg and looked into her eyes. “Albert died seven years ago in September,” I said softly and then paused. “Do you want to see the program from the memorial service? “ I went to my file and brought out the folder. She poured over the program for a long time while I read to myself the words my brother had spoken about my father. Finally she asked, “ Do you have an extra one of these? Can I have this one?” I nodded and watched her think where to put something so important. She could not think where, and I pulled the drawer of her nightstand out as a suggestion. She found a pack of pictures and slid the program in with them.

The next day was Sabbath and we were together, just us, so I decided to take her to the cemetery where my father’s ashes were and show her the stone. It was there with her sister’s next to it, and her parents’ next in line. She walked around each stone looking at both front and back, reading aloud each of her children’s names on the back of her stone, reading her parents’ names on their stone and commenting that she didn’t know her sister had her stone already. She did it again, making the same comments as she had before. Five times she walked around the three stones in a line, each time seeing them for the first time. Eventually she was ready to leave. We walked up the hill to her brother Leon’s stone and I showed her the dates on the stone, pointing out that he had died in November. It was all news to her. This is not like my mother, for whom the Danville cemetery and the family markers set there, were “touch stones” for her life, a place from which she would “rise to meet the Lord in the air,“ a place to go to remember family. Now she can not remember at all.

Another Sabbath after church and dinner, we picked up Mom’s sister Alice, and traveled three quarters of an hour to her nephew Dennis’ camp on Lake Eligo. We sat on the porch swing and talked and watched the lake, then looked at pictures of the family reunion on David’s computer. It was an afternoon where she missed her usual nap, and as we were sharing a light supper together, she asked where the boys were. “You know, our relatives.” There was silence. No boys had been there. I imagined that she was thinking of people in the reunion pictures, and tried to explain it to her. She remained unconvinced I could tell, and I realized too late that the day had been too much for her and people and places and time were all cooking in a big stew in her mind. It was past time to go home and get some rest.

Where is my mother? I am trying to find her. Where is the woman who would search the trees in the yard for the bird that was singing that song, and go find the vernal flowers away down on the island through patches of poison ivy, and sew my 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th grade dresses for me even at the expense of her own sleep? Where is the woman who would play her accordion and sing with conviction, and make temperance talks up front in church, and berry for hours on end, and hold babies with such complete satisfaction? Where is the woman who bustled around doing laundry and peeling potatoes or making rolls, pies or cookies for a big meal? And where is the woman who swam in the Cold River enjoying the chilly water?

I watch her carefully and I try to keep her safe and loved all the time, hoping to see glimpses of the mother I knew. I am learning patience.

Mom no longer enjoys cold water, or being wet. Being warm and dry is a high priority. So we steam up the bathroom before Mom has her shower. We wash as quickly as possible and use a blow dryer to hasten the drying and quicken the warmth. A bathrobe is always necessary, and then we go to the couch and sing together. She picks the songs, and it is always the old ones I remember from my childhood. Singing helps her forget that her hair is still damp and brings her back to me. Swimming is out of the question though.

We walk together every day the same piece of flat gravel road that passes through a working farm. There are dogs and goats and sheep and chickens and cows, and she usually counts how many of each she can see. She does not recognize the new equipment used for haying, but she loves to see when hay is down and comments every day on the beauty of the fields are that have been cut and are greening again. The roadside flowers get her attention and she comments on the colors, some days remembering the names, some days not. I smile. She is still here. Many days she says she feels lame, and occasionally I have to run for the car and pick her up - she just cannot go on.

On days when I pick peas or beans from the garden, there is work to do, podding or ending, and Mom will do it all. Slowly and methodically she sees to each one, and she does not quit until it is done. It is the same with cutting mounds of strawberries up. She works slowly and thoroughly and finishes the job. On days when I pick potato bugs off the ten rows of potatoes we share with our neighbor, she will help, crying out in disgust, “Look at these,” until her back drives her to her chair which we have carried up and put in the shade. She does not like to be driven to her chair by her weak body, and always asks me, “Are you sure?” when I say she should sit down now, but once sitting she contents herself with patting the dogs or watching the cows until I am finished. She never complains.

Against my better judgment, I took Mom to pick raspberries with me up in the unmown field on a side hill. David had found a hornet’s nest underground and marked it, so I guided Mom to the lower section of berries, far away from the hornet nest. I went to the top of the patch to work toward her. After a bit, I looked up and she was closing in on the region of danger. I cautioned her to move away and kept on picking. I looked up again, and she was in the danger zone. I went to her and took her arm urgently, explaining again about the possibility of getting stung. “Don’t pull me,” she said, “There are still good berries in there.” When it was time to go, she lamented that she had not been able to fill her bucket, but she did not get stung and made it to the car without spilling her berries which she made sure to point out to me. I mentally noted that I can find Mom when we go berrying, focused and persistent.

I can find her too when we go to a concert on the court green - she moves her hands softly in time with the music and I know she is pleased. She loves to be told that this quilt was the quilt that she helped me sew when I was twelve and that all those fabric pieces are from scraps of dresses she sewed for me when I was a little girl.

Yesterday was a banner day. On our walk she came out with a phrase that I had not heard her use in years. “Heavenly days!” she exclaimed. I smiled. Later I saw her looking at the old secretary in the entry way. “This is old,” she said, “I remember it from my childhood.” She was right. It is the only piece I have of sentimental value, and she recognized it. Today however, she can’t remember whose home this is she is living in, is tired all the time, and finding the simple task of cutting up peppers too much to figure out. I take her shoes off and help her to rest on the couch while I write. I am never upset with her; how hard it must be for her and yet there is no anger, there is not grief on her part, only a tranquil acceptance of her lot. She smiles when I tell her I love her, she hugs me and tells me thank you for all I do for her. I tell her thank you for all her help. “What help?” she says incredulously “I didn’t do anything today.” Then I get to tell her that she helped me end the beans and pod the peas and set the table and wiped the dishes three times; that she restocked my flour bins and measured ingredients for granola. She always looks surprised and pleased. That is my mother and I love her. I find her every night when I tuck her in bed. Every day there is some glimpse of the mother I knew, though it is dim and distant, and can see her and hear her if I pay attention.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

No Regrets

Hiking Adventure

Mountains raise my blood pressure – in a good way. The night before I often can’t sleep on account of excitement, and this one lived up to all expectations. We started talking about Katahdin before the family reunion -- no, back in 1999 when hiked up the Abol trail and looked longingly down the Knife Edge trail, then turned to descend down the trail we had come up on. “Some day I want to hike that trail,” I muttered. July 15, 2008 that hope was realized – a kind of celebration of my father’s birthday – he would have been 84 the day before.

At the LaClair family reunion on the 13th of July, we found out my cousin John and his companion, Cindy had hiked it days before, and we found out my second cousin, Teresa Bradburn and her husband Kevin Wright were planning on hiking it. We all talked Katahdin, what to wear, which directions to take on what trails, how long it would take, etc., etc. David did some research on the internet and noted the comments posted. But it all came down to us four who were hiking it together on the 15th. Teresa has had four knee surgeries. David protects a weak knee also. It would be their call, but I weighed in with, “take the most aggressive hike up, and the knife edge down.” In the end it was decided to take Chimney Pond to Cathedral up and Knife Edge to Helon Taylor down, roughly 10 miles round trip, not really very long, but rigorous.

Pictures will attest that when we finally got to the Cathedral Trail we went up, boulder to boulder, hand over hand. It was fun; the steeper, the better, and we had the trail mostly to ourselves. Clouds played along the top edges of the ridges, and so we didn’t hurry. We hoped our 6:30 AM start would not be too early -- that we would have some open views when we reached the summit. About 11:30 we checked the time. Folks in offices were not yet on their lunch breaks, and we were at the top of the world (in Maine). My silent prayer for safety was half realized. Time to sit and look off and consider the strength and majesty of this giant tumble of rocks and the fragility of us little people crawling around on its’ shoulders. It would be here for years uncompromising to the seasons passing; some of us would not.

The great aspect of this hike was that there was to be no let down in the descent. There was still the knife edge trail – ragged, rugged, and narrow, dropping off on both sides precipitously, and then the ridge down. We went slowly – there was no other way to go. The Canadian women ahead of us were keeping all four on the rocks, and there was no passing lane. It was good- all good, and when we reached Panola, the last peak on the knife edge, there was deep satisfaction. The rest of the way was “a walk in the park” in comparison. I relaxed. Never do that. Two and a half miles from the parking lot, I slipped on some loose gravel and broke my fall with my left wrist. When I picked my hand up, my wrist was is an odd position, and pain was rushing into it as it swelled before my eyes. “Oh, no,” was all I could say. I sat for a few minutes, sinking deep within myself, and waiting for some “solution” to emerge from among the four of us. I could hear Kevin’s clear voice, “….That needs an x-ray…I broke both my wrists at the same time…ibuprophen and ice.” I had ibuprophen in my pack and Kevin got it out for me. I heard David’s voice talking about a splint, then settling on a sling. I knew time was ticking away, and I needed to get up and move off. There was no solution but to walk down the mountain. Kevin took my pack, Teresa took his, David made the sling, offered to go in front and to lend a pole, but I needed my full concentration and to see the ground.

It’s interesting to watch the thoughts go through your head in a situation like that. All was quiet behind me. The hike’s euphoria had dissipated quickly. We were each in our own thoughts. My went like this, “ Maybe it is not so bad…but if it is broken, the pain could get pretty bad….Father, will you help to keep the pain manageable and help me to not do any further damage?...Hmmm, I asked for your protection, what happened? I know you have permitted this…. help me to bear this well….no swimming….this is the height of summer…one more step….easy now, just go easy…I hope this doesn’t ruin the hike for Teresa and Kevin…what if this had of happened on the knife edge…I need to get my arm in cold water, how far is that brook…” And then there was just grim silence and step after step. I wonder what the others were thinking. Teresa was dealing with her own pain I’m sure, and I became her sister in the last mile of the hike.

The pain did not become unmanageable until the dead of night, well after the emergency nurse practitioner at Millinocket Regional Hospital had looked at the x-ray, announced a fracture in both the ulner and radius, and splinted me up. It was not really unmanageable, just too much for regular doses of Advil to keep up with.

When something like this happens, there can be all kinds of second guessing. No so for me. I have no regrets. I read in my little books that our afflictions do not “spring out of the ground” and if received in faith, good learning is possible. I’m going for that. This next few weeks will be another kind of challenge, but not so different really from the trail on the knife edge.

LaClair Family Reunion

Thursday, July 10, 2008

A Missing Piece

I don’t know how others see life, but for me it is a bit of a puzzle, in more ways than one. Growing up, one has to figure out what part they play in their family; they have to figure out what the “rules” are, spoken and unspoken and eventually they have to figure out if they agree with the family rules. They have figure out who they are and what they value, what they believe, what they are going to do with their life and how they want to live. There are pieces to put in place as to who to love, who is trustworthy, and how much to give in each relationship.

By thirty or forty, many of the pieces of the puzzle of life have fit into place, and some kind of picture emerges. Here I am at forty eight and my life puzzle has come together in a way that leaves me largely satisfied. Sometimes though, there are some missing pieces. It has happened this way for me.

Out of a family of seven people, three were women – my mother, my sister and myself; four were men – my father and three brothers. I have strong bonds with my sister and my mother. My father, on the other hand, I wanted something with him that I never could have, and I have failed to develop any relationship with any of my brothers that was both healthy and lasting. Both of my grandfathers died before I had any real connection with them and both grandmothers were important figures in my life. I had many aunts and uncles – the aunts usually standing out as strong and individualistic; uncles fading into the distance with the exception of one or two. Out of many cousins, I’ve stayed in contact with a couple of the female cousins.

Over the years, it has become apparent to me that I have this huge longing and yearning for a strong, respectful, deep and affectionate relationship with a male family member. As a little girl, it is her father she wants to adore her and protect her. That cross-gender relationship sets the stage for the future. It tells a girl she is worthy of love that will someday come from her husband. My understanding is that it works the same way for a boy. A strong connection with his mother creates a sense of confidence and security. Failing that, a cross-gender sibling might do. Failing that, one has to learn with no modeling. Good luck, you’re on your own.

I’ve been on my own, and have flailed around a good bit. My good husband has been patient with me as I struggled to believe myself worthy of his love, and to step into my place beside him and not behind him. He’s waited as I moved through anger and depression trying to “get there.” I hated myself for many dark years, but Light comes to dark places and it feels so good to step into the daylight finally and decide to believe the overwhelming evidence that no matter what, each person is worthy of love and has a purpose to live out. Just being here is enough. What a relief. I did not need my father or brothers or husband to supply that piece that was missing; I turned my back on needing anything further from them in that regard. I would take it straight from God and nature. The end. Right?

Well no. Like a tooth that had been pulled, there was a vacant place, a missing piece, an empty hole in my life. It was okay I decided –people adjust to all kinds of deformities and deficiencies and live beautiful lives still. On I’d go. I cannot tell the exact moments of any big realization in my life; they have come on me as the dawn. I accepted the notion that every individual’s presence in the world is enough to qualify them for being loved, learning to love, and living an abundant life. Once the belief was installed in my heart, I began to live it, and life has gotten better and richer and fuller. I have felt free and have gone on from one new learning to another. Bounding over fences, drinking from new streams, sniffing flower after flower, admiring the color and taste of purple that breaks forth in nature and is my color and taste --symbolic of the rich wine of life I’m now living.

But here now, what is this? I pick up this puzzle piece and look it over. It is a small piece, but look at the shape….and the coloring is just right….could it be it is the missing piece? Where did it come from? Where has it been? It’s been lost somewhere, no matter, it’s been found!

What is it about my cousin Dennis that convinces me he is a missing piece to my life puzzle? Being first cousins, our genetics are similar. The first thing to notice is that we both have gray hair and neither of us have decided to alter it chemically. Underlying that one decision is a set of values that run parallel to each other. When I first talked with him on the phone, we had no idea what each other looked like, having not seen each other for decades. “I have gray hair,” I blurted out. Though I have gray hair, I do not think of myself as old, just naturally gray. I want my eyes to smile and tell the story of wisdom and contentment gained over the years.

Dennis has an athlete’s form, and while I do not, my whole food, plant diet and active lifestyle have trimmed me down without any effort on my part. So what? Well, this means we have the physical ability to work together and play together side by side. Now we’re talking about companionship which is of high value to me. We’ve snow shoed in the winter, wired lights in the spring, kayaked and roofed in the summer, and there is water skiing, biking and swimming to look forward to. We both like to be active and we both like to work. Too much relaxing, and I feel useless, restless, heavy and flat spirited. I like to work, to learn to things, to accomplish something – it helps my mind and temperament. So does Dennis, and he beats me at it.

Dennis is a quiet guy who does his job with faithfulness. He pays his bills, lives by his word and can be counted on. He does not like shows and crowds of people. These are qualities we both value.

Tenderness. We both have soft spots inside us, lots of feelings, lots of untapped family-style love floating around that has been distilling for years. We say words we wished we would have heard years ago from our fathers or mothers, brothers or sisters. They sound so good. Those who have always had an “I love you” from family can never know the sweetness of those words when heard at last for those who have not. Once you have it, you don’t ever want to lose it. It means so much; more precious than gold.

We both have wanted for acceptance inside our families. Dennis’ family doesn’t know him, much of mine doesn’t know me. We don’t really know each other, but there has been awakened a desire to know and a desire to be that acceptance and love to each other that we never realized at the beginning of our lives, and now is the time we’ve been given. Somehow we are drawn together like two magnets. It is not about sexual attraction, as the world would like to snicker and gossip about. It is not about obsession either. It is about deep holes in our lives that are being filled up slowly day by day. It is about an unbelievable moment in time when two missing pieces were found and fit together into the puzzles of our lives.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Roads to Happiness

I read with interest in my little book that there are seven roads to happiness that are never closed. I really like being happy, but life does not always hand us up unlimited and all pervasive happiness, so these seven secrets have turned out to be useful. I'm finding that the more I can work these into my life, the happier I am. The hardest one is song. I know that humming and singing and good music lifts the spirits --I know because my daughter Emily has done just that since she was very little, and she is perhaps the happiest of us all. But singing doesn't bubble up from within me. I would describe my inner self as a large place with tall trees and fresh breezes. It is quiet there and I like it that way, so I don't sing alot, I walk among the trees. I do know, however, that when the dark voices are crowding into my head, I need to sing.

Gratitude and thanksgiving are supposedly separate, but they seem pretty close to me. There is much to be thankful for. There was a song in my youth that went, "Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got till it's gone..." and how true it is. When I twist my ankle, I realize how wonderful it is to walk unhindered. When my tooth was in constant pain a few weeks back, I wondered at the miracle of chewing and drinking cold water under normal conditions. When the 9th grade Biology class dissected a cow's eye in January, I was amazed at the beauty and complexity, and grateful for my precious sight. Most recently, my mother has come to live with me. She has forgotten many things, and people too-- past and present-- and it has reminded me that I truly cherish the memories that I have of March 25, 1979 when David asked me to marry him and February 23, 2008 when I met my cousin Dennis and many moments, hours and days in between.
It is important for me to remember that faithfulness in little things brings happiness. It's easy for me pass over the little things and hop on to the "big" things. Mother Theresa agrees that doing little things with great love is where it's at. Tonight I gave my mother a foot massage. Last night I did too. The goal is to heal her feet which were flaking off skin when she came on Thursday. This is a little thing. I am not commanding a submarine or teaching a classroom and managing a state's sewage issues. I'm rubbing my mother's feet. How shall I do this? As one more task to cross off my list? Or as an opportunity to communicate love, to give her some pleasure, some security, some warm touch. It is a moment between us, and taking time to put love into it brings me great happiness.
Thoughtfulness in the home is one I have had to consciously learn. This one's hard for me because I love to accomplish things. I like my lists, and moving from one item to the next can be very satisfying. For me. For the rest of the people who live with me, it can be an aching burden. They would rather have my thoughtfulness. I missed my sister's birthday last Tuesday, because I was busy. It did not make me happy when the bank teller said to her on Friday as we set up a checking account together, "Happy Birthday, Linda," and I'm sure it did not make her happy to have no warm phone call, or thoughtful message come to her mailbox. My daughter Rachel has written this point painfully on my heart: "Write me a message when you send me something!" Take the time to think what means something to someone else, I have to remind myself, it brings them happiness, which comes back to you.
It get easier now. Having a low emotional pain threshold, I value contentment. I can be happy with very little. I don't need expensive anything. I don't need big gifts - a jar of rock is very fine. I'm satisfied with a few clothes I can find at the thrift store, a few good books, and a couple excellent friends, my husband being one of them. I'm satisfied to learn something new and be useful in some way every day. Having my hands in the soil, making a meal that I can share with someone, sewing a quilt from old flannel shirts is enough for me. Contentment is most definately a road to happiness that is never closed.
Ahhh. Now I have arrived at my favorite: the beauties of nature. Nature offers up unending subjects for happiness. The loons are back from the ocean for such a brief time in the summer and they treat us to music so hauntingly beautiful that I cannot get enough. Their mating plummage is elegant, and their habits fascinating. Great joy. One day last week I did my morning walk alone, and was startled by a loon calling high up. Could it be? Where was he? I searched the sky and found him coming from some unknown location, also alone, and on his way to some body of water. I wanted to go with him. I wanted to lift off Lawrence Hill and be pulled along in his wake. "Take me with you," I cried after him.
But this spring the aromas of the flowers has captured my heart. First the spring beauties, those tiny pink striped flowers that bloom in the woods in May. Put your nose down to them, and this beautiful aroma comes to greet you. "Lord, I want to smell good like them, make my life a wonderful aroma" I prayed. After the spring beauties came the lilacs and the lily of the valleys. Then the honeysuckle and wild roses, and now the peonies and milkweed. It is absolutely captivating. Not everything in nature smells good, but some are given a special grace that is so pleasing. I'm trying to gather all these things up, and I find there are too many to hold, so many opportunities for happiness, that I wonder, today, that I can ever be fearful, or frustrated, or frantic. Those moments will come again, I'm sure, but now I know that there are seven fern-strewn roads to happiness that are always open.

Monday, June 23, 2008


Just try and analyze why something “grabs” you; it’s hard to do, and harder to put into words. A friend of mine said something about being protective of her ferns several months ago, long before the unfurling of the ostrich fern, and it spun me off into a reverie on ferns. She didn’t explain her thoughts or feelings, but it hit something within nevertheless. I began to really take in what to me is much more than background filler in the woods.

David and I have a whole bank of ostrich ferns that live just down the road from us, and we watch eagerly for the emergence of the fiddleheads in the spring. It’s not about snipping them as the first spring tonic; it’s about an elegant arrival. I worry, in fact, when I am picking them for supper, that I will take too many and the bank will not be filled with green praise as it should be, and it will be my fault. I snap my hand basket as full as I dare and take it home in glee and half regret, wondering if I have done harm. Two weeks later they have all come up, unfurled and the bank is full again. My place among them has been completely hidden, and I am amazed -so many, so full of living green, so fine and handsome and feather-like, covering the body of the bird of spring. Vivaldi must have been written his best season with these in mind.

At camp, in the hills of northwestern Massachusetts live the prettiest stand of cinnamon ferns I know of. Cinnamon ferns grow in a circle around a central spire of seed that resembles a cinnamon stick. And, the fern bunches often grown in a circle as well, so it is a community of family groups of ferns each dancing around it’s own beautiful offspring. The order and design and what it seems to point toward charms me.

Ferns are shade lovers, and as we walk up the valley on a Sabbath afternoon, we gasp at the delicacy of the maiden hair fern. They hang like waterfalls off their semi-circle stalk and bounce in the slightest breeze. Touch them and they barely feel like anything – hardly there and yet, oh, so beautiful. And green.

My friend who is so protective of her ferns, enjoys the color green the most. I would not think to say that green is my favorite color. But I know that green is necessary to my soul; it is the color of life and of growth. I feed on green, drinking it in like wine, especially when the sun shines through it.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Twenty Eight Years in Learning How to Love

This morning first thing, David rolled over in bed and whispered “Happy Anniversary.” I had been awake already and thinking about it. “Thinking about it” conjures up images of accuracy and rationality and that’s not how it is. The thoughts I’m talking about that slog slowly through my head just after waking are half mixed with sleep, and yet there is clarity and trueness that comes then and evaporates like morning mist when I move to a vertical position and walk about. So I prefer to lay still for as long as I can, finding out the most important things in my heart and trying to stiffen them up and put them into a firmer setting that will stick tight when I get up. David was there this morning when this was in process and I’m glad. “What did I say first thing this morning?” I ask him as he takes a shower at noon. In the intervening time we’ve had a morning walk, pancakes from the griddle, and Emily has packed up and left for the summer. Important thoughts are gone, I’ve forgotten again.

It was something about marriage, what I’ve learned, what I’m sorry about, and it was important. He does not remember it all, but in the talking about it, something is jogged. A ha. Yesterday we walked along the bike trail that sidles up beside the Pemigewasset River down to the Basin in the White Mountains to enjoy the light dancing in the clear moving water above a granite river bed. There was a group of us walking at various speeds and along the way in conversation we learned that a couple we know is having trouble in their marriage. It could have been us a few years ago. How well I remember the excruciating and nearly hopeless pain of a failing relationship. But I love David--always have, always will--and thankfully he loves me too, and we were not willing to give up. Together, we prayed and worked and a way opened for us that led up and out.

What I’ve learned has come it bits and pieces that require assembly without a diagram to help out. This morning’s revelation was about how marriage is designed around the pattern of the Godhead – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Jesus loves and honors the Father, the Holy Spirit loves and brings honor to Jesus and there is this abundant circle of love and honor, all built around self-giving. Maybe that is what the wedding band is supposed to mean. Love and life bubbles out of these Three unbidden and unborrowed, and They work in a unity of purpose – right now, to rescue humanity. How slowly I have come to self-giving love, and to honoring. How slowly I have come to an acceptance that our marriage needs the focus of one purpose, stubbornly setting in my heels to the idea. I was certain that it would lead to my demise as an individual. But I have found the opposite; I’ve grown more as an individual when I gave up on maintaining my individuality with militancy. And here’s where I come to regrets and apologies, because I can clearly see that as our union has come to resemble this original pattern, there has been rich peace and a harmony of action and love that has grown up thickly and flowed over and into the margins like a happy vine. The blessing has overtaken and filled in the hole made from the ripping out of the old ways. I look back with sorrow on my self-centeredness that dominated and damaged our love and our life.

Yesterday David and Emily and I sang for church. “Here is love, vast as the ocean/Lovingkindness as the flood/when the Prince of Life, our Ransom/Shed for us His precious blood….On the mount of crucifixion/Fountains opened deep and wide/through the floodgates of God’s mercy/Flowed a vast and gracious tide…” I found a book by John Bunyon on the same topic as these word, and first heard this song within about a week. The message was that there is a lot of love out there available. I wanted to tap into it. I wanted it in me. I’ve been on a search for love for years, not following a straight line either. One would think, “You have God, you have your husband, you got it all.” But it’s not so simple as that, even if it is very close to true. It has not been so much about them, as about me – my capacity to receive love, my capacity to believe myself lovable, my capacity to know what love is. And how are these capacities developed if they do not exist innately? Shall I dig a bigger hole in my heart? All I can think to do is ask, and so I ask to understand more and have my capacity enlarged. The answer is not long in coming, demonstrated to me in a person brought closer. My heart is enlarging, my mind is exercised on the lessons to be learned.

So David, twenty eight years into our living lesson on learning to love, we are still on the path and growing stronger, better, and more peaceful as we go. Our children are grown and mostly gone with all of our relationships remaining in tact. You have taught school for 30 years, we have a small house and a small plot of land and are out of debt. These are our accomplishments. We have come full circle again, back to when we met, and we have each other exclusively again. All the things I fell in love with about you, are still active and I am still in love with you. I am happy and content. My only wish is to learn to love you better. We’ve got time, I hope.

Long Goodbyes

I sit here this morning anticipating good-byes. This is the way I seem to do it – try to get through the difficult part of separation ahead of time, before it happens, and privately too so that when the time comes, I can handle the emotion of it and not embarrass myself by crying.
In the family that I grew up in, you said goodbye, shut the door and drove off -all within a minute or less. Emotions were not acknowledged or shared, and there was no weeping, no outward sign of anything but the ordinary. Holding one another in a long embrace was unthinkable. I don’t believe that we were a hard- hearted bunch -- afraid of emotion maybe, certainly unaccustomed to outward expressions of love. I had to find my own path and somewhere along the way I developed this other way - of anticipating the loss, and privately letting my heart do its work ahead of time. But still, when the moment of goodbye arrives, the old habit of shutting down often takes over -my voice disappears and I retreat inside myself shutting the door behind me, peering out my inner windows as they drive away.
Today, June 6, 2008 is one of those days. An empty barn and pasture await us in just a few hours. The fencing will hold in only memories of a long legged girl cantering a flea-bitten gray Arab up the road bare-back; then Sunday our long legged girl herself, drives off and leaves behind a bedroom and home empty of her sunny spirit and helpful hands. And the house will be quiet again.

I generally like quiet, but the empty-quiet left in the wake of separation is painful and it takes a few days to adjust. You would think that I’d be used to it by now. It has been a long series of goodbyes, this business of kids flapping out of the nest. They have come back and gone again, and come and gone, and come and gone. But then, one time everything tells you that they are gone and will be mostly visitors from now on, taking their lives beyond you. The familiarity of living together is over.
When the kids were young and I was home with them, David would sometimes have to leave on a trip. I dreaded the being left behind -the screen door banging on the door jam, then silence, or the car engine noise fading. “What if he never comes back?” was my inner terror. I could imagine no more hideous happening, and was swallowed up by nightmares of car accidents and funerals. Before a trip, I would distance myself from him, hoping to reduce the pain. It didn’t work, and it took a long time to reconnect emotionally when he got back. There was a lot of childish thinking rooted in a big insecurity inside my head. What brought the most relief was to forgive him for leaving me, which sounds silly also. David has stayed, thankfully for twenty eight years now and somewhere along the way, I learned to trust both him and that I would be alright no matter what happened, no matter what loss I would sustain, no matter who left me. I gradually learned to accept feelings as a natural part of my inner being and believe that it’s not the end of the world if others see me cry even though I would prefer that they don’t.

There is more. The learning is not over. My cousin Dennis is teaching me another thing or two. He specializes in long good-byes. It might go something like this. The work or the meal, or the event is over, and we stand and talk, and the conversation comes slower and slower. There is something else on our minds. It is about leaving, separation, the driving away, and it is dreaded. Somehow we want to say something else, something that might not fit. It’s something about “next time” and “soon” and something about the love between us. Intruding into the center is a need to affirm that the bond, the love, will not be broken with the parting.

David’s folks also specialize in long goodbyes, and I believe that all these things are happening within as well, but they are tender heart things, and there is a risk of a tear or a quavering voice, of looking weak, and that might break our image of controlled togetherness. Somehow we just never step over the line. There is the polite hug, the appropriate words that poke at it, but never fully embrace the reality: we love each other, we need each other’s love. And we drift into this semi-painful, stifling and unreal goodbye that stretches out endlessly. Until Dennis, I could never really picture what it would be like to let out what is longing to get out, nor could I imagine how it would turn out or if it would bring relief or not. I’ve had a chance to find out.
Into this unknown zone, Dennis comes, ignoring all the warning signs. To my utter shock he says what’s on his mind. If he needs to get back out of his car to do it, he does. He gives the long embrace, he speaks those powerful words. He does it, and I stand frozen in the moment. He is direct and honest and I think, brave. I am slightly surprised that I do not self destruct. Nor do I melt down to nothing and disappear. When he finally does drive off, the air is clear, and the silence left behind is warm, the emptiness has a slight glow. I find I am his understudy in these matters.

What would my family look like if I would have learned to do this years ago? Why not, for pity’s sake, speak words of love and affection? Why not? I am becoming convinced that love cannot be broken by time and space. Why am I surprised? After all, the scriptures say, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God….” Finally I’m beginning to grasp this, and I am glad it’s not too late. This time Emily will leave and I will stay with it. I will tell her that I love her and that I’ll miss her. I will hug her tightly for as long as she wants. Tears may fall, but so be it. And we will take as long as it takes.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Building a Transition

It is the end of an era. Ten years ago we were the ones preparing a place suitable for a horse. Deconstructing the barn down the road, moving it in pieces, and reconstructing it on our property consumed a chunk of the summer. This past week, the deconstructing and reconstructing process has taken place in someone else's barn, for my daughter's horse, who will inspect his new living arrangements on Friday of this week. We were moving a partition and building a transition in our lives, mine much less then hers, and yet for us both, parenting is over. We worked together as adults, doing what has to be done in order to continue on the path being revealed. For her, Friday will be the day. For me, Sunday will be the day - and our emotions will be in sympathy. Pray for us. We need strength.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

A Mother's Day

May 3, 2008 was my mother's day. My mother, Madeline Bryer LaClair turned 80. I was in Berrien Springs, Michigan attending my son's graduation. It was his mother's day, as much because I love this kid and am grateful for God's goodness to him. Jodi, DJ's girlfriend, came back from a year in Honduras and joined us there - another added blessing.
Happy Birthday Mom! Though you were not here, you share in this milestone, nonetheless, having so much influence in all our lives. In 32 years, 5 months, and 15 days, I will turn 80. I hope I will have demonstrated the goodness of your values to the next generation in such a convincing way as you have.

This Old House and the Love In It

We have an old house - 1900's vintage. It has been untouched since the 70's when Louis Barnet, a relative on my mother's side of the family who own the house prior to us, finished his set of fixins' which included among other things, a couple of grounded outlets in the kitchen. Today Dennis Bryer, a cousin from my mother's side of the family helped us wire an overhead light to the upstairs room that will become my mother's room in a little over a month. For a bonus, we wired a light to the small closet. I use "helped us" and "we" loosely.

Dennis brought everything needed in the back of his car, except the light itself, and did the work. David and I were appreciative and admiring gofers. He's good - a head that knows the process and deft hands. He makes things easy. And when something unexpected turns up, a thoughtful pause and then, "Let's try this." We were up and down the ladder, and in and out of the attic with drill, and spade bit, Romex, and tape measure. Gray and pink insulation was moved aside gently and abandoned knob and tube wiring fixtures were pried loose. Plaster and lathe gave way in the ceiling, and on the wall we were surprised by sheet rock.

And the ladder. The ladder we had been using was just tall enough to allow us to peer into attic at shoulder level. It was rickety to boot. Dennis brought us a ladder tall enough to make our gymnastic ability dispensable. He is not all practicality though. The handmade sign is a soft signature of an emotional connection we have.

A long lost cousin. We were nothing to each other in childhood. Seven years older than I, what would we have in common? Years rolled by. David and I move to Vermont. Nothing. My uncle, his father gets sick and is in the hospital with appendicitis. Some family gathers when he does not pull out quickly. I can feel something missing. Through our common connection, our Aunt Alice, I find out that it is Dennis that is missing. We hear each other's voices only. The telephone is as close as we get. Somehow I know I love him. Three months later Aunt Alice has a heart attack. Again we hear each other's voices, this time around Aunt Alice. His father has died. "Will she?" is the unasked question we both have on our minds. Someday I am sure Dennis and I will meet. He only lives a few miles away, yet the distance to his heart seems very far.

Aunt Alice tells me as much as she can about Dennis and his wife, Donna. He can do anything, I'm told. Also, they keep to themselves. There is a strength of attachment between Dennis and Alice and one day she tells me he will be at her house. I stop by after church hoping to catch them still there, but I've missed him. Aunt Alice mentions that he will be back next Saturday she thinks. "Keep him here if you can," I tell her "until I can get here - somewhere around 2pm."

Dennis tells me today that it was February 23rd that we finally met each other. I had lost track. Neither of us can explain the instantaneous bond of affection that happened right then. Perhaps better not to try. Perhaps better just to accept it and rejoice quietly that a missing piece has been found for us; faraway hearts have been brought closer, and the man and his wife that keep to themselves have opened their arms to us. This old house is better for it too.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Just Another Day

When his birthday came around every year, my father would say, “It’s just another day,” and it would pass quietly with no seeming distinction. I wondered about that, as for us kids, our birthdays were marked with a special cake and song at least, and maybe a small gift or two. My mother obviously did not entirely subscribe to my fathers’ Yankee stoicism, and did her part to make our lives welcome in this world.

I have often wondered about what it was like for my father to grow up one of twelve in a itty bitty house on the North Danville Road. As another child came along, the oldest needed to leave to make room for them. My father was a middle child, yet at 14 it was time to go, and he was sent down the road to milk the cows and do the chores for another family in exchange for his room and board. His childhood was behind him, and now it was time to assume the responsibilities of adulthood: “take care of yourself”, to put it bluntly. What were birthdays then? Just another day. The cows needed milking, the manure needed shoveling, and who remembered that today marked the day of his entrance into the world? Whose eyes rested on him with affection and pride? Who was there to bake a special cake? The fields needed haying in July, and who had time to pause for that?

Under the influence of my fathers’ patient acceptance of life, I grew up wondering about birthdays. If my father didn’t celebrate his, why should I mine? I looked around and found that “my day” was just another day. The day after my 10th or 11th or 12th birthday was roughly the same as the day before it. The leaves continued to drop from the trees and the morning was about as crisp and cool. I came to accept my father’s truth, and settled into the view of life that day follows day, and there is work to do in order to live. I forsook my childhood wish to be in the center of the universe and to be special, even if for but one day, and to only a couple people.
And then my daughter was born. I will never forget that day as long as I live, nor the day my son was born, nor the day my third child was born. That day and the hours that surround it are written into my body. I am not just talking about the pain of childbirth, I am talking about love. She was not the most beautiful perhaps, all red and wrinkly and misshapen, but she was ours, and I could not stop myself from looking at her and touching her. I was not prepared for the strength of the attachment that came wrapped up in her. She was special, by God, and it was not just another day.

Who would she become? What would she grow up to be like? It was a wonderful mystery to be unfolded as faithfully as the mornings and evenings. She was the center of our universe for a time, and it was natural to mark the day each year and look back in amazement at how much had happened in just one year. We loved her.

The example set by my father for himself was not lost on me however, and though I felt my children deserved to be remembered on their birthdays, there was awkwardness about my own. Awkwardness turned into uncomfortable ness and outright pain somewhere along the way as I rebelled against the unrelenting work that seemed to be all there was of life. The nice way to say it is that I lacked my father’s grace. The truth was that I was miserable, and spread misery about me around the time of my birthday for years, not being able to accept the expressions of love that were offered. Not loving myself and having poor manners combined for a devastating effect. After a while, those that loved me were uncertain and perplexed. I developed a reputation as being difficult and touchy around October 18. I now realize that the modeling my father had given me, flawed to begin with, was taken a step or two lower in front of the eyes of my family, and many things precious were spoiled. I had reached the bottom of my pit, and there would be steady work for years to find the handholds and footholds to climb up out.

Who am I? and why am I here? were the first questions I needed to answer. I watched my mother carefully for clues and examined the pathway of her life subconsciously. Was she anything but a work horse? After all she had done, where was the reward? Where was the respect and deference and honor due her? I didn’t see much more than a yellow corsage on mother’s day. Where was her husband? He paid her no mind, which is the worst insult of all. Where were her friends? She served them. Where was her family? They did not seem to care about her. What about us, her children? We owed her everyhing, but we often ignored her or laughed at her behind her back. And then she became the object of someone or other’s control needs, as we grew “smarter” than she was. That was all I could see. Was that where my life was leading?

I am filled with grief for my mother, and long to make it up to her somehow. She who loved and worked for us against insurmountable difficulties, we treated despitefully. It took it’s toll on her I know, and she began to face more inwardly, and closed some doors on us. We had proved unreliable. This year she turns 80. Is her birthday just another day? Well, yes. May’s days will unwrap flower blossoms before the 3rd and after it too. The robins will begin building nests and the phoebe will sing their saucy song each day of May. The world will not stop for her. She is not at the center of the universe. But no, it is not just another day. My mother is one unique individual in the swarming sea of humanity. She is someone. She is my mother, I have no other. Her life cannot be duplicated or erased. She is a creation of the God of the universe and He has spoken. The word is, “She will live. She is mine.” And she has done her work, which is almost completed. Her one last job is to come and live with me, and teach me how to live the last days of life in contentedness and peace. Then maybe she will be done and God will let her rest.

I have come to believe in the sanctity of all life. Mine and yours and hers and everyone else’s. Each life is special to someone. Let’s tell each other. The coldness creeps in without any effort. It takes the warmth of love to keep it away. Do not tell me that your birthday or mine is just another day. We are here. We belong to each other. I hope I can remember that and not forget.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Ladders Are For Climbing

I grew up in a big old house. When my mother brought me home from the hospital, it was to this big old house, built like a cracker box, and when I went away to school, I left that big old house behind. But sometime in there, I developed this love for climbing ladders. Inside the house, the rooms were big and there was a long staircase that would get you to the upstairs bedrooms.
My bedroom was the smallest and it was at the top of the stairs. I loved running up the stairs as fast as I could and I loved my east facing room which I shared with my sister until she left home. The sunshine came in all morning and the breeze from outside made the thin white curtains flutter. Often I was in a hurry and I would leave my room, put both hands out to touch the wall and run down the stairs as fast as I could. My father, if he were home, would stop me or catch and remind me firmly that he didn’t want me to run down the stairs because I might fall. He was right, of course, and his instructions stuck in my mind.

A couple of times a year, my father would get out a big long ladder and set in up against the house in preparation for cleaning the chimney. I knew he dreaded this task. He was a man of few words seldom complaining, but when he got the ladder out, he went about his work grimly. He would climb the ladder holding his equipment in one hand, the other hand gripping the side of the ladder so tightly his knuckles would turn white. I would stand at the base of the ladder head all the way back, wishing so very much, I could go up with him. Up, up, he would go so slowly, finally reaching the edge of the eves. Ever so carefully he would maneuver his body and feet so that he could stand up on the roof. I would be down below cheering him on, and waiting the long wait until he would creep back down the ladder with the same carefulness that he had gone up with. He was afraid and I knew it, and he never did let me go up with him. He was right about that though because I was much too careless a child for quite some time.

There was another ladder in the house though, that I also loved, and I did get to climb it. Beside my bedroom was a door that led a closet. On the walls of the closet were two ladders and the ceiling in the closet was actually a hatch door that would open via a pulley, if you pulled on a rope that was attached to the back of it. One had to pull really hard until the door reached the tipping point, then hold back so that it wouldn't slam down too hard. It was a big door, and heavy, but it opened into the attic, which was a large space, full of so many interesting things, as attics often are. My mother went up there every so often to look for something, or to get something that she needed like metal berry buckets, and I longed to follow her up there. I would tag along behind her into the closet and watch her as she tugged on the rope, hoisting the door up and around so that it lay on the floor of the attic, and then she would climb effortlessly up, using a separate ladder for each foot, and disappear from my sight up there. As soon as I could, I learned to climb behind her using only one vertical ladder. At first she had someone stand below me to catch me if I fell. When I got to the last rung she would reach out her hand to help me make the last step without falling backwards. What a victorious sensation – to have climbed high, and now be in this different place with all sorts of trunks and boxes and furniture and books to delight my curiosity.

I found other ladders to climb as well – the barn had a ladder too that went to its’ attic, and that was free game. Once up there, I could swing open a large square door and look out over the yard. There was lumber stored up there and boxes of tiny little wooden furniture made by a family friend that had died long before. I remembered him as a strange fellow, but marveled at the patience and attendance to detail his work revealed. My brothers had tacked small pieces of wood horizontally onto the large trunk of an ancient apple tree in the field, making a ladder of sorts that would take me up to the sprawling crotch. If I could make it up without falling, I could view my kingdom from there and decide which limb I’d like to climb out on, or I could read a book, or listen to the birds or spy on the movements of my family, whatever they happened to be that day.

Well, I did grow up,moved away, got married, and had children of my own. David and I built our own house, and joy of joys, the day came when we were ready to put on the roof and then shingle it. That was the best few days of the whole project. I got to climb ladders all day and be up high. Often, when we were living in that house, the snow would fall deep and build up on the roof, and if the roof needed to be clean off, I was always eager to do it, climbing the ladder joyfully.
I’ve gotten a lot older now, but the love for ladder climbing has not diminished. I still love climbing the spruce pole ladder to the loft at camp. I’ve discovered there are sometimes ladders built to help hikers negotiate difficult mountain trails. Canon Mountain in the White Mountains has one, as does Moosilauke. And in the Adirondacks there are some near Avalanche Lake. Yes, ladders are for climbing. There is a charm about going up, each rung a pleasure not to be skipped over. Up, up, up you go, excited to reach the top. Who know what you will find above you? Who knows what views you will have.

The Bible talks about a ladder stretching from heaven to earth in Genesis 28, referring to Jesus. It's an interesting analogy that holds as much pleasure, charm and excitement as those that captivated me in my childhood.