Two un-a-peelin’


We don’t get many trick-or-treaters out here. But if we did, Tom and I weren’t worried about giving out much candy this year. Our zombie impressions would have scared the kids right off the porch. And we weren’t even wearing masks.

“Do I look any better today?”I asked on Halloween morning.

Like any good husband who’s been married forever, Tom tried to put positive words around what I’d just seen in the mirror. “Ah…well…a little bit of pink, smooth skin is better than bright red and scabby, right?” He closed his eyes and gave me a feather soft good morning kiss, careful not to rub his sore spots on my sore spots.

“I guess,” I said. It was hard to believe I’d stop looking like Blotchy Bemis Boogeywoman anytime soon. And how much longer before this Creature from the Black Lagoon would turn back into the handsome man who normally shared my lakeside bliss?

Any day now, supposedly. That’s what we bargained on when we carefully blocked out enough time for our once-in-a-lifetime “his and hers” facials. “Apply twice a day for two weeks to exfoliate sun-damaged skin,” the directions read on the tube of innocuous-looking white cream. We knew we wouldn’t look our best but, after all, what was a few weeks of paying the price for decades of fun in the sun? Once a fair-skinned blondie, I was a “sun worshiper”—faithfully lying prone and lifting my face to its rays from May till September. “You’re nice and tan now,” my dad said when I was a teen, “but you keep laying out there like that and you’re gonna look like an old hag when you’re my age!” Tom, on the other hand, happened to be a red-headed fish worshiper and, therefore, bowed his bare face toward sun-drenched trout pools for hours on end.

“Got good color on my face today,” I’d often say to myself in the mirror. Not too pale, not too red. And no shriveled old hag yet either. Heck, how could I be a hag when I barely ever got a zit, when (according to my girlfriends) I didn’t have my rightful share of crows feet, frown lines, or lip puckers? But what I did have, underneath the good color and plump tone, was really, really dry skin. And, although I could feel it more than see it—flaking off my forehead and parched around my lips—I was pretty sure that, under the right light, I looked like the Sahara.

When I finally went in to get a professional opinion, the dermatologist agreed. “I’m glad you enjoy such a healthy, outdoor lifestyle,” he said. “And I’m really glad you’re wearing sunscreen.” He was a ray of sunshine himself, glad about pretty much everything, which came as a big relief. Not that I usually go to grumpy doctors. But in my limited experience with dermatologists, I found them to be dour and callous. “How long have you been digging at that?” they’d ask before dispensing whatever salve I wanted badly enough to subject myself to their scorn.

My new skin doc was compassionate, funny, and totally cool with the fact that I had just come from Florida and was rounding out my Rangeley wind-blown winter with a trip to Hawaii. “Not to worry. This didn’t happen overnight,” he said, pointing to my forehead. “Lots of people your age get this kind of sun damage. I’ll give you a cream that bonds to the damaged cells so your immune system attacks and kills them before they turn into something worse.” Eventually, after the dead skin sloughed off, I’d have baby soft skin again, he promised. But the Pac-Man on my face application phase…that could be rough.

That’s when he showed me a picture of an actual patient. The poor sucker was two weeks into his treatment and calling him a “pizza face” would have been merciful. He looked like an extra pepperoni pizza that got run over by the Domino’s delivery van. But much better, I reminded myself, than the examples of “something worse” the doctor had toward the back of his picture book.

Tom, who was waiting in the other exam room, got the same diagnosis and prescription for the blotchiness on his temples just below the shade of his fishing cap. “No huge hurry,” the dermatologist said. “You can share a tube of cream whenever it makes sense to stay close to home for awhile.” So we filled the prescription and stashed it in the medicine cupboard till after summer but before holidays and traveling—a good time, we figured, to “get this one done.”

By the week before Halloween, we were looking pretty scary. The “good color” on my forehead had gone from a neutral desert beige to red, scorched sandstone after a relentless drought. Neglected bits of cheek epidermis were now an inverse road map of half-assed sunscreen application. And I had a serious red wine mustache. From a rare Scabernet vintage.

“Someone set our faces on fire and stomped ’em out with football cleats,” I moaned. “Yeah,” Tom agreed, “we’ve been charred up good and stabbed with a fork.”

I was glad I’d seen the in-progress picture in the doctor’s office so I wasn’t shocked stupid. Tom was grateful he didn’t see the picture, and solemnly declined my offer to Google one up for reference. “Next time I go to town I’ll have to wear a baklava,” I whimpered.

“You mean a balaclava, a ski mask,” he said. “Baklava is a flaky pastry.”

That, too. After the longest stretch of “PJ days” in my adult life, the front of my pajama top reminded me of when I was a kid and I’d upend the last of the bag of potato chips toward my mouth and cover myself with crumbs. Mesquite barbecue chips. Crumbling off my face. Perfect timing, though. I was exfoliating right along with my favorite white birches. And by the time I heard my neighbor rev up his leaf blower, I wanted to run over and borrow it. Not for my yard, though. There’s a reason why the universal symbol for fall is leaves swirling every which way in the wind. A leaf blower is just high-powered artillery for waging a futile lawn battle against nature. But I suddenly wanted  one—for my face—to blow the fallen remnants of my red and brown visage into oblivion.

We were closer to hideous than healing when someone knocked on the back door. Not ready to show myself yet, I made Tom answer it. Jehovah’s Witnesses had come to call, making their rounds way past where trick-or-treaters bothered to venture. “Are you religious?” they asked Tom. “No, but I’m spiritual,” he said. “Do you believe in a Divine Creator?” they asked. “Sure,” he said, gesturing to his surroundings in the Church of the Great Outdoors. After eyeing the raging scourge on his face, they bowed heads and offered a prayer—blessing the Bemis castaway.

“Did you tell them all that stuff on your face was penance for trout worshiping?” I said. We had to laugh. And except for stretching all the boo-boos around my mouth, it felt really good.

Advertisements
Posted in Mindfulness, health and healing | Tagged | 3 Comments

Back where it all began


Heading north toward Rockwood, Tom slowed the Subaru to a crawl. I’d been peering out into the steady rain since way before Greenville, picking faded memories out of old landmarks, retracing my way through the steely blues and mottled greens of a Moosehead spring storm.

Then, at long last, there it was. Mount Kineo towering up out of the lake, its craggy cliff face dominating the fir-lined peninsula on the opposite shore. My rock. My childhood center of gravity, back in focus again for real! And, even though I knew it was silly to think it somehow would not have stayed put since the last time I laid eyes on it, I was giddy. The old mountain was still there for me.

Turning toward the dog, I said what I’d been longing to ever since our daughter convinced us that a handsome, rugged beagle pup deserved a legendary name. “Look Kineo…there’s KINEO!”

He wagged his tail, no doubt wondering why we were calling him more than once when he’d been perched right between us the whole ride up from Rangeley. Woods, water,  more woods—kinda like home, but not. Probably smelled really good, too, if only he could venture from the back seat, stop teetering his front paws on the console, and just get out and GO.

Pretty much my feelings, too. But instead of an instinctive need to scour and sniff every inch of this legendary terrain, mine were a mixture of dogged resolve and calm reclamation. After four decades, I could hardly wait to be back on my old stomping ground, to seek out what had changed, immerse myself in what never would.

“Almost there,” I said. Almost to the bridge over the Moose River, to the road into The Birches. Almost all the way back. From that part of the lake, Mount Kineo would show a different side, morphing from a barren, imposing rock wall to the forested gentle giant that stood front and center in my earliest memories.

Long before I heard the term “happy place” or ever had a need to return there in my mind, I had The Birches shoreline of Moosehead Lake and Mount Kineo. From the time I was six, my parents let me wander alone out to the dock without a life jacket or any concern that I was not being watched. I’d hop out of my sleeping bag before the lake got too riled up, fling a line as far out toward the mountain as my little casting arm was worth, and sit on an Army surplus canvas stool with one eye on my bobber for hours on end. Even then, I knew that my fishing pole was more or less something to do with my hands while I gazed across the water. “Looks like a giant, tree-coated woolly mammoth laid down beside the lake and decided to stay forever,” I remember thinking. And, despite being afraid of the boogeyman, the dark, and you name it, I felt as calm as the early morning lake, protected.

Life hadn’t begun to happen yet. I didn’t have anything to escape from, to overcome, no hurts that couldn’t be healed with a hug or a laugh. Yet something wise in my soul turned my time out on the dock into a teaching moment, instilled a promise in my six-year-old head. No matter what, lake plus mountains equals good. I was just learning to add and spell, to put thoughts and then words to the pictures my teacher flashed in front of me. But I already knew everything I really needed from the simple shapes and basic elements I learned to love that first summer. Go down by the water. Watch it pool around the rocks and ripple, as far as you can see, to the rolling hills and distant blue peaks. Stay. Rest. You belong here.

So began the indelible need to return, if only in my mind, to Moosehead and later, to Mooselookmeguntic. There, as life became sad or too serious, I could be six years old again. I could be whole, innocent, perfect. I could stare at the lake when I wanted to think—and when I couldn’t bear to think. I could stop myself from getting caught up in what I was supposed to be or do, and just be. I could remember my first pair of sneakers, of how proud I was to see them stretched out on the dock underneath me. They weren’t fancy, just plain old Keds. But compared to my “special” shoes (and the brace I’d be wearing by the following summer), those sneakers felt beyond average. They were magical. Never mind just looking at Kineo, I swore I could run all the way to the top!

“Kineo, I present to thee Kineo the wonder dog!” I said. We’d arrived at The Birches Resort long enough to throw our stuff into our cabin and turn around and gawk. Never having seen Roots, the dog was not moved by my Kunta Kinte impression. So I didn’t try to lift him over my head in ceremonial triumph and just let him plant his nose and all fours into the turf. Back inside, I marveled at how the little log housekeeping cabin had not changed much since the last time we stayed there in the ’70s. With its original field stone fireplace and log walls chinked with horse hair, the “Catch a Falling Star” cabin was only a few modern conveniences away from when it was built in the 1930s. Still “rustic with a view” as promised. And I was in heaven.

Not that Tom and I had gone without rustic with a view. Hardly. Thirty years ago, after selling our cabin way the heck up on the Seboomook end of Moosehead, our search for our next (and final) camp building lot brought us to Rangeley, to Mooselookmeguntic. We found the perfect spot, a gentle slope through the white birches down to a clear, cold, uncrowded lake. It reminded Tom of spending summers on Great East Lake, and me of my long, serene sojourns on my fishing stool. I couldn’t see Mount Kineo, of course. But I was surrounded by mountains in every direction. And I could definitely see us building a new legacy right here, tucked in the woods off the beaten track, but close enough to the picture postcard town of Rangeley.

Going back to Moosehead some day still surfaced in conversation from time to time. But how could we ever justify driving up there to stay in an old log cabin when we had our own good-as-new cabin on another big, moosey lake? The answer came in a serendipitous invitation from our friends in town. The same friends who remodeled our original Rangeley cabin into our dream home were building just up the road from The Birches. Would we like to come up and see their new lot? On my birthday weekend?

So there I was, Memorial Day weekend, sitting on a picnic table outside Catch a Falling Star, paying tribute, and realizing that booking a cabin as a birthday present to myself was a very smart move. Otherwise, once I saw that view, I’d have surely stayed right there anyways, immobilized, wonder struck. Had the image I kept in my mind’s eye really morphed from a crumpled Polaroid print—into the digital desktop wallpaper I found as inspiring as it was distracting—to materialize right in front of me?

On the morning of my birthday, I was still pondering. But in order to give myself the ultimate gift, I knew I had to step away from the picnic table and go a ways up the shore. Not way the heck up to Seboomook, but to a tiny log cabin just up the lake from where I sat. Back where it all began. To HOJET.

“Daddy, why’s the cabin called HOJET?” I asked, using my best Dick and Jane reading voice to sound out the wooden block letters that hung over the cabin door. It was 1962, my first trip to Moosehead, the first of many voyages down the Moose River and out across from Kineo onto the lake to dock in front of the two-room cabin. “Water-access-only” meant nothing to me yet, and wouldn’t for many years. Roads didn’t bring you to camp, not all the way. A 12-foot boat did, one crammed so full with boxes of canned food and the block of ice we had to buy in Rockwood to load into the ice box there was barely room for the four of us to bounce across the waves.

“HOJET,” my Dad said, “is the first letters of each person’s name in the family who owns this cabin.” Wow, I remember thinking. They built their own cabin here and claimed it forever with that carved sign. Way better than writing out “Joy’s Fort” (if I knew how to print that well) and hanging it above my special hiding place in the back yard. Everyone else, myself included, was a lucky visitor to HOJET, to this magical cabin with the made up name in the land of Bullwinkle and the beached mammoth mountain.

But who were they, this HOJET family? Some really nice people who let us stay there when they weren’t was all I knew. When and how money changed hands, I didn’t care. And did we need a key to get in? Or could we just pull on the curved branch of a handle, open the thick wooden front door and make ourselves at home? Who knew? All that mattered was it was ours. Mine.

For Memorial Day weekend and another glorious week after school got out, everything in and around the cabin became my place, my movie reel of the simply wonderful things that could happen just because it was summer, we had that spot, and we had each other. “Bare running through the woods!” my parents hollered each time my sister and I finally stripped off our wet bathing suits and scampered naked toward our PJs. Remembering the bears we saw at the Rockwood dump, we’d shriek with laughter, until the night one of them came to visit. Wondering what the commotion was on the front porch, Dad peered out through the diamond-shaped pane of glass in the front door and saw the neck fur of a really tall, fully upright black bear. They all figured I ‘d have nightmares, but they were wrong. I still loved to sleep in my bunk under the front window right next to the door. I’d snuggle in my sleeping bag, suspended on a log frame crisscrossed with rope, listening to my sister whispering from the opposite window bunk. “Don’t those loons sound like lake ghosts?” she’d ask. “Sssh! They’re just singing,” I’d tell her, and hunker down deep till the sun came back up.

“That was a looong time ago, honey,” Tom said. “A lot’s changed, especially with this road connecting the camps. Lots of people have torn down the really old cabins, built new ones. And, by now, even those new cabins are getting old.” Probably, I thought, as I followed him and Kineo up the road past The Birches. But possibly, some relics remained. And maybe, if I conjured up enough old birthday girl juju, I’d find what I was looking for.

“I’ve gone too far,” I said about an hour later when I walked down a driveway and looked across at Farm Island. Apparently the little girl steps I used to take in and around the string of cabins between The Birches and Black Point didn’t match the determined march of a woman in nostalgic overdrive. And my original path—through the Indian paintbrushes, around the spruce tree that Dad swore hid a nesting partridge I could never find again, past the front of the creepy “Boo Radley” camp—wasn’t easily translated to road miles. Maybe after we got the boat in the water I could re-calibrate, get my bearings. But that was doubtful, too. I’d found the Boo Radley cabin, its grayish-blue shingle siding and cobwebbed front porch no less creepy after another half century of disuse. Aside from that, though, I was lost in the Moosehead episode of HGTV Log Cabin Living. Tom’s advice to look for authentic, old-style—or added-on-to old-style construction—wasn’t workin’ for me.

So I did what I’d learned to do at times such as this. I called on my Spirit buddies, my Mom and Dad in Heaven. “Hey, guys, I know you know I’m here and it’s my birthday, and I’m hoping you can help me out a little, give me a sign. Wished I’d asked more questions years ago while you were still around. But if you could tell me now, that’d be great.” I’d turned around and was retracing my steps, noticing the “new” road signs at the top of some driveways that looked like they were from Anywhere Lake, Maine. Moose, loons, a black bear or two, cutesy plays on words about life on a lake with moose and….

I stopped, took a deep breath, and a long, hard look at a driftwood-shaped sign of a loon floating beneath vertical capital letters. From way back in my memory banks, a name surfaced to echo what I was seeing. THE DUNNS. I’ve got to get in touch with the Dunns and ask if we can use the cabin. My Dad’s words reverberated through me as I headed down the driveway, hoping I was right. Was the honey-colored natural log exterior now stained a chocolate-brown with an L-extension built off to the side? Could that small back stoop outside the kitchen window be the same one the bear tracked past as he ambled out of the woods? The location seemed right, the view across the lake to Kineo spot on, the pitch down to the lake the same.

And there it was—a front porch leading up to a weathered front door on a small original cabin. Above the curved branch of a door handle and the diamond-shaped window hung a block-lettered sign made of ancient wood: HOJET.

I froze. My body didn’t want to budge from where I stood bolted in place. And yet, I felt myself moving. Every cell—all that I was and ever would be—rushing, pushing, reaching out in larger and larger circles of distant memories that rocketed back to my very core. I was six again, running up the path from the dock in my magic Keds, dangling a breakfast-sized brook trout from my pole. “What a nice treat for your Daddy’s birthday!” I could hear my mother chirp, her smile so broad she always looked like the sun was full on her face. I could smell the fish frying with a side of eggs, could count the playful slaps I gave my Dad on his rump as he stood in the kitchen. “Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen. But you said you’re thirty-three years old today,” I giggled. “If I give you that many birthday spanks, my hand will fall off!”

“I found HOJET!” I cried out to Tom.

“What the heck is a HOJET?” I imagined him saying. He’d forgotten that part of the story and, I guess, never sat around Great East with his family stringing together initials for potential Clough camp signs like my family did after our reading material ran out. He brought the dog around front so they could see for themselves, while I cried happy tears, mumbled gibberish, and watched Kineo across from Kineo, exploring every inch of my beloved landscape.

I never did meet the Dunns, not that trip. But when I do, I’ll thank them. For my best birthday present ever. For their new and old signs that pointed me home. For giving me the foundation to “move up to camp for good,” to a home that still has the old, original cabin where my girls spent summers laughing and playing at its center. And then I’ll ask if I can look around some more. Hopefully, as kids and grand kids of the first Dunns of HOJET, they’ll understand why I need to anchor myself there now and again—to let my past flow from me like waves, soothing the rough spots, leaving me awash in pure peace. They’ll know, as I do, that you can’t really go back. But you can stand in a spot that has spoken to your soul forever and, just for a moment, feel the years vanish.

DSCF4080

Posted in Creatures great and small, Family and friends, Mindfulness, health and healing | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Olympic inspiration


Once again, recliner-deep into the 2016 Olympics, it hit me. I’m way more comfortable being a sedentary spectator during the winter Olympics than I am during the summer games. Never having had skates or skis successfully strapped to my feet for a significant lapse of time, I watch the downhill and ice competitors with the same awe as I watch birds in flight. They are graceful, powerful, fast—but fly too far out of the realm of possibility for me.

Somehow I can’t distance myself as far from the summer events. I do, after all, own Nikes. And even though they aren’t parakeet yellow, which seems to be the official color of the 31st Olympiad, I do put quite a few miles on my pair. I got pretty close to record speed in them once, too, when I had the wind—and a four-foot garter snake—at my back. I also own a pair of spiffy Spandex bike shorts, and a swimsuit styled for function more than form. Sometimes, when I reach peak performance, I even wear all my all-terrain gear for different events on the same day.

“Not bad for someone who had a Mark Spitz poster in high school,” I told myself back in July. No marathon sessions in the sand chair for this girl! When I’m not out finding new ways to get vertical, I’m pedaling cross-country in my signature sport: mountain triking. Returning indoors to full-sized mirrors, I’m seeing a better, more robust version of myself in my sixties emerging. “What a treat it will be to settle back and catch up on the Olympics,” I said. “I’m out there every day, too, giving it my best shot.” Then I saw Simone Biles, Kerri Walsh Jennings, Mo Farah, and Michael Phelps, Micheal Phelps, Michael Phelps. “Another four years,” I said, “and I’m still a sluff.”

I am, however, a totally inspired, romantically patriotic sluff. I find the fifth NBC replay just as thrilling as the live gold-medal clincher. And by the time the Star Spangled Banner plays, my lips are quivering.

Never the most agile, athletically gifted girl in the arena, I’m cursed with the kind of ego that thrives—and destroys itself at the same time—on comparison. So while I find the Olympic performances breathtaking and uplifting, I do tend to regain my equilibrium with a staggering, deflated sigh. A near waste of skin, I sit back and watch with the same mixture of aloofness and utter fascination I adopted in grade school. Sidelined on my sofa like I’m back on those bleachers, I escape to the safety of where I’m most active: my head. I start pondering things like: What differentiates Olympic potential from average, all-around ability? What, exactly, separates Mary Beth who could prance across the balance beam in seventh grade, flipping her perfect pony tail without flopping onto the gym floor, and Mary Lou Retton? Not the coaching and the hours of trial and failure, the everlasting will to succeed and a body to back it up—I mean before that. Are you born a swimmer or diver or hurdler, knowing that someday—if you put your mind and heart into each attempt—you’ll be the best in the world? Or is it more of a gradual awakening? You dare yourself to jump across the creek without falling in, then try half the length of your lawn and, eventually you’re long-jumping the equivalent of a school bus?

Whatever the discovery process, it’s apparently what the athletes put behind their God-given potential that places them so far ahead of the pack. Years of strain and sweat. A desire to reach their inner limit and the guts to convince themselves, day after day, that they still have a micro-second or a millimeter left to go. I’ve been puzzling over this “right stuff” question since the ’92 summer Olympics, when I remember studying Lynn Jenning’s face after she crossed the finish line of the women’s 10,000 meters. Everything she had went into those last laps, bringing her into third place. The bronze medal was hers! She looked ecstatic, relieved, fulfilled. “That’s it!” I said. “I’d be outta there. Job well done, time to kick back.” I was wrong, of course. She came back for more in ’96. And so did Carl Lewis, even though the NBC broadcasters kept referring to his “last Olympic appearance” four years earlier. “You don’t get the kind of gleam Carl has in his eyes unless you’ve got a fire burning deep down that isn’t ready to die out yet,”they said.

Twenty years later, that fire-burning analogy was still haunting me. Way back when I first heard it, I remember thinking: “If I start right this very moment applying Olympic determination to the gifts the good Lord granted me, I’d probably be the next Nora Ephron. Keep toughing it out in my one-room office, never waylaid by writer’s block or a sluggish economy and, another four years from now, I’ll be a best seller.”

The 2016 torch was barely lit and, there I was, making bizarre mental comparisons, wondering when I let my fire get snuffed, imagining the stellar view from first-class I could have had on a ship that sailed long ago. But why?  Why, in this game I play with myself, do I elevate my mental prowess, my writing gift, to the top of the medal stands, while the rest of my anatomy stays securely slumped in my typing chair? And why the heck do I revert to seventh grade, focusing on Mary Beth on the balance beam instead of Debbie in the wheelchair? Wouldn’t it be better to regress to a time when I let the Olympics inspire me without self-deprecation? Like the 1976 Summer Olympics. All I had a mind to do back then was concentrate on Bruce Jenner. Not his times or his distances in the decathlon…just Bruce Jenner. Woah, never mind, can’t go there either, I decided. Best file that one away as a really interesting story for my future grandchildren!

Part way through the women’s gymnastics events, I realized if my inner critic had a face, it would look like Martha Karolyi, the US women’s team coordinator who’s always glowering in the stands. Did she ever smile, do a victory dance, a righteous fist pump? Not from what the cameras showed. Pan up into the stands and, there she was again, scowling and shaking her head for each tenth-of-a-point the women fell short of absolute perfection. How did they keep giving her their all, I wondered, when she just kept giving them the stink eye?

Simone Biles, Martha’s golden girl, helped set me straight. “I’m not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps,” she said. “I’m the first Simone Biles.” Amen, sister! Be your personal all-around best. Put your own yardstick ahead of the media’s. Embrace the judging and the scoring and the infinitesimal comparisons between almost-the-best and the best in the world without letting it suffocate who you really are!

Competition is good, I realized. Without it, there’d be no sports, no Red Sox championships, no Olympics, no Mark Spitz posters. Life would be as bland as store-brand vanilla ice cream, as tedious as a roomful of those New Age Moms who want every kid to get a prize just for showing up to the party and not biting anybody. Except I wouldn’t even have the relativity to be annoyed, to want different flavors. The challenge is how to incorporate healthy comparison into my own journey to the finish line, to take away pointers from others pursuing their dreams in ways that push me to be the very best first and last Joy Clough.

During the second half of the summer Olympics, I shifted my focus to my own A-game, on the thrill of victory more than the agony of defeat. I cheered the times I managed to pull out of a disastrous double full twisting front flip to stick a perfect, upright landing on my walking path. I honored Bald Mountain as my Olympic pinnacle, paid tribute to my record-breaking snorkel strokes, looked forward to perfecting my stadium sprints to the front of the next U2 concert. And, as I saw Martha Karolyi finally smile and shed a happy tear, I did too—mind, body, and soul.


 

For more inspiration, see:
Just like riding a bike….not!
Working out…and up…and all over
Homebody building

 

 

 

Posted in Mindfulness, health and healing | 2 Comments

Permanently de-pressed


“What’s that?” I had to ask Helen recently. I was staying in her guest room where, to my untrained eye, something resembling a coat rack stood in the corner atop a super sleek upright vacuum. Her initial response was probably mild shock. How is this woman my mother? And how the heck did she get through life this far and really not know the answer herself? But she hid it well. “It’s a garment steamer,” she said.

“Oooh,” I said, “That’s cool. You put your dress or whatever on the hanger and you don’t have to iron!” Helen quickly left the room before I could ask her to “bring it up” next time she came to visit. I already saved sewing for her, tossing any mending more challenging then a loose button into a “Helen pile” I’d sheepishly meter out over her trips back home. And she knew I hadn’t bought a new iron since the first Bush administration. Nope, her state-of-the art garment steamer was staying put.

The last time I gave that much thought to ironing, Helen was six years old and wanted to be a golden princess angel for Halloween. I’d done my best to customize a Simplicity pattern, and was pressing out the seams so she didn’t end up looking like a giant Dorito with wings, when a TV ad caught my fancy.

“Take the wrinkles out of ironing!” it promised. On the screen, the latest and greatest in steam irons practically propelled itself over an unraveling blouse while the woman waiting to wear it chatted on the phone. She was barely lifting a finger toward the miracle appliance. Commercial dramatization scrolled across the bottom of the screen.

“Shucks,” I said. “I always wanted a turbo-glide iron.” The regular kind, the kind I needed to push, I could barely justify. I already had one of those and, aside from dragging it across golden princess angel satin and other must-have garments, it had really low mileage on it.

If I can’t totally ignore it, I leave ironing at rock bottom on my to-do list. Even the lowest home maintenance tasks, those involving rubber gloves, mildew repellent, and Goo Gone, get tackled while I let the clothing in my ironing basket go in and out of fashion. These days, my lifestyle forgives such procrastination. I am far removed from professional circles that frown upon showing up looking like a Wheatie. Gone are the years when forging ahead on the career front ironically shackled me to my ironing board and domestic slavery at its worst.

Iron willed. Iron clad. No wonder a word meaning heavy-handed still describes the chore, even though the implement used has advanced beyond the triangular slab of metal for which it was originally named. My great grandmothers, who propelled their irons with elbow grease, would have rejoiced over today’s plug-in models. And they would have burst their buttons over the technological breakthrough that automated repetitive ironing motions to the tolerable level we modern women enjoy. The best advancement, in my opinion, had nothing to do with steam vents or fabric thermostats, and more to do with RCA than General Electric. Because it was actually the television that truly liberated us from the drudgery of pressing out wrinkles.

Growing up, I always thought taking on responsibility for my own wrinkles would be no big deal. How difficult could a job be that moms accomplished without taking their eyes off General Hospital? “There’s one chore that’s not even worth bothering to observe for future reference,” I decided. As a result, I soon had to come up with my own ironing solutions. Sprinting to the dryer to extract crinkly clothes mid-spin and, when that failed, consulting the garment care instructions for a second opinion. (In my book, a tag that said “cool iron if needed,” meant don’t bother, whereas “warm iron,” left room for dispute, and “iron, steam setting,” meant the shirt was out of circulation for at least a month.) For occasions when I absolutely could not dodge my ironing board, I kept a few handy helpers close by: steel wool for scraping molten materials off the back of the iron, rust remover for whatever the forsaken apparatus decided to unleash and, most importantly, the TV Guide. On good days, I managed to look somewhere between what my mother would call “put together” and what my Nana would classify as “something the cat dragged in.”

Fabric trends were forever complicating the job, too. Pure cotton, for instance, became popular when the high fashion gurus decided polyester was out and, full steam ahead, turned their attention to natural clothing fiber. It’s versatile, they said. It’s comfortable but crisp. It’s the fabric of our lives. What they should have also said is it crumples! One washing and it turns from easy breezy into something that crawled out of the back of a gym locker. If I’d written it, the tag on that stuff would read: “Machine wash, warm. Tumble dry. Beat down with a baseball bat, as needed, while ironing.”

I thought I caught a break when garment manufacturers introduced “crinkle cloth”—a puckered up material that looked like you slept in it and was supposed to stay that way. Trouble was, permanently unpressed fashions made from it were never properly labeled and I was left to wonder: Am I wearing “new wave” wrinkles with confidence or just in denial, wearing my distaste for ironing on my shirt sleeves?

Luckily, now that I live in Rangeley and telecommute from the woods, my wardrobe is perfectly “put together” for my lifestyle. Except for extraordinarily special events (and requests made far in advance) my iron stays shelved, my attitude Zen-like. If a shirt gets wrinkled and no one is around to see it, does it make any impression? And if someone happens to get hot under her crisp little collar because the loon on my tee shirt isn’t swimming on smooth, placid water, or my tie-dye looks more grooved than groovy, what am I gonna do about it? Nothing that involves turning away from the lake to slam pressurized steam into my camp duds, that’s for sure.

On occasion, the subject still does come up in conversation. Some friends talk about their ironing pile—how long it took them to forge through it, etc., etc. A few even mention travel irons. Not wanting to dis an apparent source of gratification and fulfillment, I smile, nod, and try not to look like I’m watching paint dry. To me, travel and iron is a complete oxymoron. The last time I touched an ironing board while on vacation, I was on my way out of my condo heading for the beach. My favorite sundress looked scrunched, even to my standards. So I propped the folded up ironing board next to the lanai and hung my dress over the end. By the time I needed to put myself together for dinner, the wrinkles had magically disappeared in the moist, tropical breeze. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d stumbled across garment steaming at its finest.


For more fashion fun, see:
•  Real Rangeley bathing suit support
•  Fashionably late

 

 

Posted in Home working and house making | Tagged | Leave a comment

The signature of summer in Rangeley


“Write something that captures this,” Tom urged, taking a deep cleansing breath and waving his palms skyward. It was that turning point last year in May when we were pretty sure winter was gone, when the breeze lifting the last of the snow melt through the balsams held just a hint of balmy. As soon as the glacial sink hole burying our fire pit receded, we’d dragged our Adirondack chairs back into their sacred circle to sit in joyful contemplation.

Putting the this of it all into words was no small task. Ever since I became Rooted In Rangeley year-round I’d been trying. And still, there I was, seven spring thaws later, with the loons and the sparrows and even the squirrels doing a better job than I at voicing the essence, the wonder, the intricate promise of summer taking hold again here.

Tom’s coaxing was soon seconded by a request from the Rangeley Highlander. Did I have something to contribute to the annual Summer Guide, something that folks coming back up (and those already here and waiting) could relate to about sharing the greatness of our outdoors? Any quintessential reflections on “what is it about this place that makes it so special?” No, not yet I didn’t, at least nothing worthy of sitting on the coffee/picnic table and next to every cash register in town till September. It is a really good question—one I’ve answered in moments of blinding truth and in quiet reflection—but always to myself.

What, exactly, is the this-ness of summer returning to Rangeley—the advent we celebrate with chipper greetings, broadening smiles and wide open doors? How would I explain to someone from say, Tallahassee, who’d never experienced such a thing, what it does for us?

Summer in Rangeley is a kaleidoscope of vivid, elusory moments bursting with new potential. It’s a season of song and color—of fire and water and sun and wind and all the basic elements that enchant my inner child and bring my grown-up mind full-circle. It heightens my senses and stretches my patience, keeps me poised to drop everything and just get out there but mindful that, when I do, I must stay and soak it all in. And, now that I’m “upta camp” year-round, summer in Rangeley is teaching me to take my cues more from nature than the calendar.

“Well hello there, Mr. Chippie!” I hollered. “Is it warm enough to come out and play?” The “winter that wasn’t” had turned into a spring that bounced back and forth between full bloom and frosty, and I was on my way down to the lake to see if ice-out in April was too good to be true. Mr. Chippie looked up and stopped filling his chipmunk cheeks just long enough for the stiff breeze to flatten his fur, then turned tail and scampered back to his hidey hole under the porch. “Guess not,” I said, and returned to half hibernation mode myself.

“That’s OK, though,” I told myself, taking heart from the two daffodils that stood in bright defiance among last year’s leaves. “I’ve got fleece. Got firewood. And I’ve got the best spot in the world to watch and wait.”

When the subtle shift began, I felt it first. Then smelled. A warmer, gentler breeze tickled my face with just enough summer in it that, had I whiskers, they surely  would’ve twitched. The balsam-laden, wood smoke-infused scent with undertones of sawdust and boat gas I’ve always found more tantalizing than perfume or potpourri filled my nose. “Aaah,” I sighed. “This is what I’m talking about.” With each deep breath, the recesses of my brain that registered contentment since back before aroma therapy was ever a thing fired on all cylinders. Then a loon call drifted across the water and I knew once again why I have no need for fancy spas and soothing music.

The view, especially this time of year, doesn’t suck either. The look of Rangeley in the summer is the stuff that sells calendars and lends stock footage for “great State of Maine” TV shows. It even seals real estate deals, ours included. “If you buy the land right down there, this will be your neighborhood,” Shelton Noyes said with great flourish when he cinched his “slice of paradise” sales pitch by bringing us up to the Height of Land. It was this time of year 29 years ago, and I remember squinting hard at the huge panorama of lake and mountains to find the little spot of shoreline we’d just fallen in love with. A few summers later, I knew exactly where my little cabin sat. “See that strip of sand right there?” I’d tell first-time visitors as we drove by. “You can’t really see it from way up here, but just down from that beach, hidden in the trees, is our place.”

After the slow, bumpy haul up Route 17, our overlooks do make a lasting impression.  “Breathtaking!” everyone says. A few can’t fathom why there’s no Dunkin Donuts or Walgreens as far as the eye can see. For them, the beauty is overshadowed by isolation, by the limits of being a dot on such a vast landscape. They might never come back, not even in the summer. But the rest of us who can’t get the picture out of our minds—we come back. We come seeking our own pinpoint of land, our little strip of rock-strewn sand or mossy clearing, and find a way to pin ourselves here for good. We build our nests—for a few weeks or forever—where we can appreciate the real wonder that lies beneath the bird’s eye view shown in the tourist books.

Down in thick of it in my microcosm on the Big Lake, I celebrated with more joy than ever as this summer started “greenin’ up nice.” Right on cue on Memorial Day weekend, and right in time for my 60th birthday, the ferns unfurled, the trilliums blossomed, and the yard birds decided they hadn’t flown north too early after all. I wasn’t sure what 60 was supposed to feel like. But watching the hummingbirds return to the feeder I’d dusted off and refilled just in the nick of time, I felt myself hovering, too, vibrating with anticipation. I couldn’t take my eyes off the flowers Tom was planting either. The geraniums in the window box were the brightest red I’d ever seen. And the petunias hanging in the basket off the shed glowed like a hot pink homing beacon.

“Bring it on!” I demanded. I  was more than ready to extract all the summer sweetness  nature saw fit to dish out. S’mores so yummy I wouldn’t notice the black flies eating me while I feasted on ooey gooey goodness. The clear, calm mornings when the lake sparkles prettier than anything the jewelry commercials said I was supposed to want for Mother’s Day or my birthday. Boat rides into the bright blues of July and August when it feels like, if I just keep going, I’ll find where the water meets the sky. The “quick dips” I call swimming and how they make me glad I’ve left the flannel sheets on the bed. Lupines, lupines everywhere. The rain that ends in rainbows and gives the sunsets character. Sharing a glass of wine and a fine meal in a landmark restaurant so rich with history it flavors the food. Gathering with friends and neighbors who don’t just have “a cabin to go to” but a strong, resilient community. Appreciating how we’ve also come to have the same light in our eyes and spring in our step because we know for sure that it just doesn’t get much better than summer in Rangeley. And, God and Mother Nature willing, we’ll be right here to welcome it again and again.


 

 

Posted in Community, Family and friends, Mindfulness, health and healing, Seasonal celebrations and observations | Tagged | 1 Comment

Talking about Toby


I knew this time would come.

I knew it a few months ago when I taped Christmas bows on Toby’s crate and made him Facebook famous for recovering from surgery “at the Bemis Mountain Home for Aged Beagles.” I knew it a few years ago when I dubbed him The Beagle Loser and celebrated how he’d lost enough weight to sprint rather than waddle. I knew it way back when I first bought him a leash and a shiny new bowl to replace the ones I’d just thrown away because I was done with dogs. With every new nickname that was a different twist on calling him a silly old dog with issues, I knew. Someday, sooner then I could bear, I’d be talking about Toby in the past tense.

He was my wish list beagle.

Before Toby, I swore I didn’t  want to talk about another dog ever again. Couldn’t handle it. We’d just put down Jasper, our second dog, who’d performed his duties as the girls’ growing up companion like a trooper. “Raising kids without a dog is just wrong,” I decreed after a brief spell of doglessness in the early ’90s. So we found a good dog, gave him a good ole boy name, and brought him home to fill the spot at the center of our family that Spunky, our “house warming beagle,” had left vacant. And there Jasper stayed, from kindergarten till college, faithfully watching for the school bus to bring his girls back to him. Then, just when his job was done, Jasper’s old beagle body just gave out.

I promptly tossed all the treats and the chew toys and had our carpet cleaning guy power-enzyme the whole house. “Now we won’t have to bother anymore,” I told Tom. “We can just take off whenever we want for as long as we want. It’ll be nice.”

Of course it wasn’t. While not having a dog might have been freer, cleaner and easier in ways that appealed to my rational side, my heart—my soul—couldn’t endure that kind of tidy, unfettered, unruffled nice. I started hanging out at the SPCA, became the local Reiki dog healer, just to get my dog fix and try to heal myself. When that didn’t work, I secretly let owning another dog creep into my thoughts. (What would Tom do? He’d said no more dogs before, too, and they kept coming anyways. Could he make room for one more?)

Then I dreamt of Jasper. He was young, healthy and not in pain, sitting atop his dog house like the old days. He thanked me, for his wonderful life, for making him safe, loved and comfortable till the very end. “You’re not done with dogs,” he told me. “You’ve got too much yet to give. There will be another. And his name will be Toby.”

That was all the permission I needed and then some! I began talking about Toby in the near-future tense, making a list. And it wasn’t long before I shared it with Tom. I’m pretty sure he hadn’t been telepathically inspired by a Spirit beagle, but he had been silently allowing new dog thoughts to creep in, too.

“I want him to be past the puppy stage,” I recited. “No endless nights whining because he feels insecure in a crate. He has to like being outdoors without barking too much when we’re away at work, but want to stay close when we’re around. Not too fat, medium-sized, so he doesn’t pull too hard on his leash, and smart enough to not run into traffic.”

“That’s quite the list,” Tom said. “And it sure doesn’t sound like any beagle in the known universe.” (If you haven’t already guessed, dog is synonymous with beagle in our house. Always has been. That’s because we don’t merely have a preference for one breed over another. We have a love crazed blindness that obliterates anything from sight except black, brown and white, floppy-eared, barrel-chested, braying babies with hearts and noses as big as the North Woods and brains the size of a pea.)

“Oh, yeah, and we have to call him Toby,” I said. “Jasper told me in a dream. I looked up the name and it means God Is Good.”

Well alrighty then, Tom must have thought. But I saw him start mouthing the name, imagining how it would sound if he hollered it repeatedly in the middle of the woods. And a few weeks later, he found Toby.

His first name was Boo Boo, bestowed upon him by our friends, Butch and Sandy, his owners since birth. He came from the best beagle stock, and could out-run and out-sniff the finest rabbit hounds in the land. But other than that, he was timid, afraid of his own shadow. “He’ll hunt like hell,” Butch said. “But then he just wants to come find you ’cause he needs people, doesn’t like to stay out on his own too long.”

Perfect, we said. When I petted him for the first time, he made a soft, snorty, purring sound we soon came to recognize as his signature “happy snuffle.” He snuffled all the way home, wagging and sniffing at his comfy crate and his repurposed dog house, then Velcroed himself to Tom’s side wherever he went.

“Are you really sure you want to be tied down to a dog for another ten or eleven years?” my mother-in-law asked when she first saw me holding Toby in my lap like no other beagle had ever allowed.

“Yes, yes I do,” I thought. “I want to tie myself to this dog, with my chin resting on his warm, snuffling head for a long, long time. And please use industrial grade, steel-core rope, double-knotted right through my heart strings.”

292633_3367999795029_656751184_nDuring our first summer together, Toby and I stayed tethered like that for hours on the porch. He could sit in my lap, watching the lake and the squirrels through the ripped screen door that used to be an escape route for beagles who wanted to get out, not get smothered. “But my Toby wants to stay with his Mumma,” I whispered, “and not be sick, or hurt or grow old too fast.” He always snuffled agreement and did his best to live up to my wishes, even when he started having seizures and other issues that weren’t on the original list. It was all good though. Toby was right where he needed to be, my “almost empty nest” beagle, a fairy tale with a few caveats. Over the years, Toby convinced me that raising kids without a dog was definitely wrong, and I was a giant eight-year-old. He even helped Tom and me feel like we were still young, trusting and foolish enough to bring yet another dog into our lives. Coaxed by Toby’s gentle ways, we opened our hearts just wide enough to let the math going flying out of our heads. Two dogs plus another decade or so added onto our beagle legacy? We could do that! So we welcomed Kineo into the family. Bred by Butch and Sandy from the same stock as Toby, we named him after a rugged mountain in Maine, the backdrop to my childhood happy place. And there we were, blissfully roped and knotted tighter than ever, our two beagles romping out ahead of us toward our new life past middle age.

Our beagle boys were like book ends, a tri-colored, two-headed bundle of brotherly devotion. On good days, they both had boundless energy, too. But slowly, try as Toby might to stick with the program of staying forever young, it became more and more obvious he couldn’t physically cooperate. Ever so gradually, like when a part of my own body is not really in synch but I refuse to rest, I could feel Toby unraveling.

Even before his last invasive procedure, Toby was really lagging behind. We’d kept his seizures medically controlled for 10 years, had him neutered in an attempt to shrink his prolapsed prostate, had half his chronically bad teeth yanked, and pumped him full of doggie glucosamine. Then, at age 12-and-a-half, the vet opened him up and found enough stones in his bladder to plug every culvert between here and Route 17. Plus, on top of all that, his heart murmur measured a level four on a scale that stopped at six.

“It’s OK, Toby, we’ll take good care of you at the Bemis Home for Aged Beagles,” I said as he lay snuffling in his crate post-surgery. He recovered valiantly and, for a few glorious weeks in January, could pee like a young stud dog. But then even the simplest pleasures a dog should have while surrounded by miles of pucker brush, plenty of food, and a loving family, started slipping away. And by late February, I uttered a new set of promises to Toby. “We’ll take good care of Kineo,” I told him. “And we’ll save you a spot out on the dock this summer.” He snuffled, held out his paw, and thanked me.

On a dreary March day, with a veil of late winter mist hanging heavy over the melting snow and the first hints of spring, Toby took his last whiff of the damp forest smells he loved so much and laid down forever. “We tried our best, Toby, and so did you,” I told him, stroking his soft, soft ears. Then we held him close as he went from struggling to be good and strong and always there for us to having done his job till the very end.

I’ve spent weeks now wondering how the hell I was going to tell Toby’s story, to write about him in the past tense while just the other day he was right here under my desk, sitting full weight on my toes till I’d finally get up for the fifteenth time in an hour and let him try to go pee. At first, I just had to let the grief of having him gone roll on over me like a freight train. And slowly, as I’ve begun to smile more than cry when I picture his old white face, I know what story to tell. Toby’s tale is about more than floppy ears and all the warm, steady things that made him my best friend. And it’s certainly about more than the long chronology of ailments that were at the center of our conversations for so long.

As much as I hated to admit it, Toby taught me impermanence, to live fully and freely, grounded in the knowledge that all things, however good, must pass. When he could barely toddle down to Indian Cove, he taught me to lead, to stay strong with a soft heart. Together with his brother, he showed the true meaning of “down to earth,” the natural balance of being as close to the land as his little barrel of a body could keep him, ever joyful along the journey. In his honor, I can dare to keep loving the nine-year-old beagle he left behind every moment of every new day. Thanks to Toby, I can hope to know when enough is enough, to be at peace when abundance eventually swings back toward scarcity and suffering. That’s what Toby was all about. And, ultimately, he left me knowing how noble it is to hold a blessed being, gently but firmly, across love’s final threshold.
Toby
Yes, my sweet, loyal Toby. God is good.

 

 

 

Posted in Creatures great and small, Family and friends, health and healing | Tagged | 5 Comments

Codifying my blessings


Codify (verb): To organize or collect together (laws, rules, procedures, etc.) into a system or code.
Used in a sentence: “Sometime after the age of 50, Joy learned to count and codify her blessings.”

When it comes to writing stuff down, not only am I believer, I’m an evangelist. Want something to appear in your life? Write it down! Want to remember what makes your life work? Write it down, make it your mantra! From the time my girls were old enough to share hopes and dreams bigger than toasting their own Pop Tarts, that’s what I kept telling them. At first, they just followed along. I’d find little slips of paper with all manner of colored marker memos and affirmations tucked here and there. Then somewhere along the way, like all things in our family worth repeating, our habit of making lists took a little twist. We didn’t just write things down, we acronymed them. While everybody else was LOLing with their BFFs, we were taking the key letters of our must-know or must-have items, and flipping them into off-the-wall sayings we couldn’t forget if we tried.

“What’s MRC?” Tom asked, pointing to the sticky note we’d stuck by the family computer.

“Modem, Router, Computer,” I replied. “When the Internet goes down, that’s the exact order we have to stop and start our connections if we don’t want to be stuck in login limbo for hours. MRC.”

“Many Red Crustaceans,” Helen said. “That’s how we really remember.” She and Becky made my list into an acronym and then turned the letters back into a hokey string of code words none of us could ever erase from memory. “When all else fails, remember Many Red Crustaceans, and you’re back in business.”

Last time I saw it, the sticky note was affixed to some important business paperwork I was cramming in a Staples box for my Big Move to Rangeley. I chuckled. At the time, the thought of requiring any sort of complex strategy for keeping my 50-foot phone cord connected to dial-up was almost as funny as Many Red Crustaceans. But now that faster-than-a-crawl networking has found its way across the Big Lake, sustaining my wireless tether to the Verizon tower atop Bald Mountain does necessitate power cycling my cabin-office devices. “Ooops, gotta MRC again,” I say as I drop to my knees and reach for the first plug. But I am so grateful, so happy as hell to have my woods-wired version of an M and an R and a C, that I don’t mind reenacting the sequence. It’s my lifeline to the kind of challenging, rewarding work that used to tie me to a cubicle chair at the end of a long commute. It’s my connection to you, my readers, to family, friends, to all that I think I need to know from social media and Google, and think I must have delivered right to my doorstep on those special days when our UPS guy or gal is feeling adventuresome. So, hey, if I gotta get down with the dust bunnies once in awhile to keep my Verizon Home Fusion fused, it’s a winning combination.

While I’ll never take for granted the godsend of connecting to “the cloud” out here, I don’t need the code letters right in front of me anymore to remember how. I’ve internalized them. But I haven’t stopped codifying my blessings and putting them forth on paper.

“JPRB…what’s that stand for?” Becky wanted to know when she saw it scribbled in the corner of my desk calendar. “Juicy Plump Red Berries? Just Purchase Roast Beef? Jolly Puppies Ride Bicycles? And what’s this little symbol you put next to it?”

“Joy. Prosperity. Rediscovery. Balance.” I answered. “My mission statement distilled down to four letters, my basic formula for a life well-lived. And the symbol is Sanskrit for the power of good intentions raining blessings down upon the fertile universe.”

“Kinda looks like a boob shooting out some lightening bolts into a cereal bowl,” she teased. “But, hey, whatever works, Mom.”

I’m pretty sure it does. At the very least, it keeps me reflective—focused on giving the gifts I hope to receive. And sometimes, if I’m really blessed, I get all four letters at once and I have a moment like I did on Thanksgiving.

Like I told Becky, my little Sanskrit scribble is just a reminder to “put it out there” to the universe, a signal that sparks my side of a two-way conversation with Spirit. When I attract and cherish moments of joy, prosperity, rediscovery and balance, then I am blessed in kind. And my blessings are often synchronized with what I’ve come to recognize as special “here ‘ya go” hellos from heaven. A perfect rose. The number 42 over and over again. A song on the car radio during the few hours a year I bother to turn it on.

“When I put it out there the right way, I get all kinds of signs,” I told Becky. “It’s like Spirit telling me I’m on the right track—through personal, intuitive soul symbols. Do you have a personal, intuitive soul symbol, something really special and memorable?  I bet you’d be surprised at what shows up if you know how to ask, and what to look for as blessings in-the-making.”

“Hmmm…Personal Intuitive Soul Symbol,” she repeated. “You do know if I made that into a code, it would be PISS for short. Doesn’t sound very enlightened, but at least I can remember it.”

“Whatever works, honey,” I said.

Posted in Mindfulness, health and healing | Tagged | 2 Comments