My college to COVID(eo) composite

“Don’t forget, be here this Thursday afternoon for composites!” one of my sorority sisters would announce over dinner each spring. First time I heard it, I had a Hill Street Blues moment, wondering why we needed an appointment with a police sketch artist. There’d been a particularly rough night that weekend when one of the girls allegedly went missing in the alley between the Keg Room and the house. But, far as I knew, all sisters were currently present and accounted for.

In sorority lingo, composites meant composite photos, and no one could afford to be MIA for that. It was our chance to get gussied up and have our glam shot featured in the official University of New Hampshire Phi Mu lineup of ladies that year. The wall-sized composite would be framed and hung near the front entrance, making us the newest, brightest faces in a legacy of women that, at the time, seemed like it began in the dark ages. “For all posterity,” as my mother-in-law used to say when she’d sit for the camera. I didn’t think much about posterity back then. Or about needing to leave my mark on much. But I jotted a reminder in my calendar and yellow-highlighted it. Because I certainly didn’t want to be the hole in the tapestry—the weird “picture not available” girl with a name and white space instead of a face.

My composite pic, 1977

“Why didn’t I try harder to not look hungover or otherwise sleep deprived?” the girls and I wondered when we first saw ourselves in the finished composite. And I kicked myself for assuming that clear lip gloss and a touch of mascara was enough to make myself up for a portrait. Ah, well, good enough for black and white film, though, I thought. With our dark turtleneck sweaters and classic regal poses, we all seemed to fit right in—sisters from different mothers—captured in silver-toned sophistication for another year.

“It wasn’t that kind of sorority,” I tell people when they find out I was in one and start studying me from a new angle. How hard did she try to look like Farrah Fawcett? Did she wear mostly pink? Have PJ parties with Buffy and Mitzy? Nope, nope, and definitely not. We weren’t your typical stuck up/rich girl sorority. We were the party sorority. The one girls were comfortable calling their home after Alpha Xi Delta and Chi Omega didn’t invite them back. The one the frat guys came to looking for a fun date. We signed notes to each other LIOB for “Love In Our Bond” and sang Ramblin’ Woman, our theme song, every time more than a few of us got together and had a few too many. Still do.

And yet, surrounded by all that wild, kooky, unconditional love, I was alone. A solitary young woman bordered off from the composite whole. Oh, I had Tom, my then-fiancee, some dorm girlfriends, and family back home. But I kept myself freeze framed, under glass. On record, I was the fifth row from the top on the right-hand side of the Class of ’77. But in my heart, I wasn’t anyone’s girlfriend. Especially not my own. And I really didn’t like seeing myself smiling into the camera as if nothing was wrong.

My mother, 1973

It wasn’t so much being in front of the camera that bothered me. I was photogenic, so I was told, a poster girl for good orthodontia and clear skin. My mother used to call me her Ivory Soap Girl after the naturally pure-looking faces that sold soap back in her day. “Show me that smile,” she crooned each time I posed for a snapshot. For holidays, for prom, for first dates, for graduation. And then she was gone. The summer between high school and college, just weeks before I was heading off to UNH, she died so suddenly I went from “spreading my wings” to never wanting to lift myself off the ground. For years, I couldn’t put a picture of her out on display or look at a “happy” one of me for very long, couldn’t bear to see myself grinning into a camera without her in the picture. Her smile reminded me of my smile, the one she easily prompted in my pre-liftoff days when we’d sit around and chat about decorating my dorm room, about Tom, and all that girl-talk stuff I’d never be able to take for granted again.

I wouldn’t realize for decades that it was normal to want to isolate myself from other women, to feel awkward about sharing recipes, clothes, or hair styles. It was just me, I thought, arrested in development. I didn’t want to be motherless at barely 18. Didn’t want to admit it, discuss it, to be that much different from the other girls figuring out womanhood. So I faked it. I joined Phi Mu in my junior year and, although I deemed myself “not good girlfriend material,” they didn’t seem to notice. Immersing me, whether I accepted it or not, in the feminine energy of my new tribe, they kept me from shutting down, kept me partying and singing and playing along, until I was ready to open myself up again.

“Woah, would ya just look at how young and hot we were?” That was the general consensus when, forty-some years later, one of the sisters unearthed her copy of our composite and brought it to our summer reunion at Robin’s cabin. “Why didn’t I appreciate being that skinny while I was that skinny?” one of us asked as we all craned our chicken necks, adjusted our bifocals as needed, and peered at our respective pictures. Yup…or appreciate my smooth, symmetrical face, my naturally white teeth, my good hair day, and my miraculous contact lenses, I wondered as I honed in on my 20-year-old self. Because even though, relatively speaking, I stayed young and slim and evenly proportioned for a long time, I could not tarry in that moment, could not just be that Joy back then. I wanted to hurry up and graduate, marry my sweetheart, and get on with life. Meanwhile, I’d bury my grief, conquer my insecurities, trying to be even thinner, smarter, all-around better.

“Oh, how I regret not having worn a bikini for the entire year I was twenty-six,” I told the girls later that afternoon, reciting my favorite Nora Ephron quote. “If anyone young is reading this, go, right this minute, put on a bikini, and don’t take it off until you’re thirty-four!” We’d stashed the composite and were splashing around in the lake—admiring how each other’s bathing attire covered without overly constricting our Nana-bods. We all laughed and reminisced about our skimpy two-piece suit days, pleased that each of us, along with our drink holder-sized margarita sippy cups, fit so well in our floating rafts without spilling over.

We laughed even louder when the whole bevy of us donned goofy tropical sunglasses for our official Phi Mu girls of summer group photo shoot. “It only took us 40 years, but we finally put some color into our composite!” I said, with a grin almost as bright as my heart-shaped flamingo shades. Forever “the writing major,” I dubbed us the “PHI a-MU-sing Besties” and offered to create a Facebook group. A special private one, we agreed, so we could tag posts of ourselves letting it all hang out without other friends and family members creeping on us. That way, even in the middle of winter, we could log on and relive all our fun and games. Except for the Cards Against Humanity game we played on Saturday night. Any mention of that, and all the definitions we had to learn from the Urban Dictionary, would stay officially off the record!

“Ya know, we really shouldn’t be so shy about strutting our stuff,” Deb said from behind her toucan glasses. “For a bunch of sixty-somethings, we’ve got it goin’ on!” Yes, time had been good to us, mentally and physically. We were healthy, active, engaged in our communities. We felt good about our jobs as mothers, as wives, as nurses, educators, scientists, program directors, as caregivers to parents passed and those still in need. We’d weathered life’s storms relatively unscathed. And, by gosh, we all had really nice hair and only a few well-earned wrinkles. “We’re having even more fun now than we did in college,” Linda declared, her bright blue eyes shaded by ice cream cone lenses. “But other than that, we haven’t changed.”

Yes and no, I thought. In the mirror, if I stood back far enough, I could still see vestiges of the fifth row from the top girl on the right-hand side of the Class of ’77 composite. But I had changed. On the inside, in my mind and in my heart. After years of convincing myself that Christmas cards and social media was enough—of asking why the heck I needed to drive all the way to Robin’s lake when I lived on my own—I was there. Really there. So much so, I wouldn’t need a picture to remind me. But when I saw one, all the colors and sensations of the moment would come bursting back to life. With me in it. Surrounded by beautiful, funny, talented, like-minded soul sisters, I’d recognize myself—not merely captured while wanting to be someone or somewhere else. Candidly caught in the act of living.

I call it there-ness. Being mindful in real time so photos don’t leave me vaguely bewildered, trying to recall being part of something that, apparently, I posed for. Being open so I don’t miss out on possibilities just outside my comfort zone. Showing up so I can be shown love and acceptance. After two Phi Mu reunions in a row, I knew I was finally getting the hang of the whole there-ness thing, of being one of the girls. I’d slowed down long enough, come to just the right place, to find my old college chums waiting, ready for me to catch up. When I did, I started becoming better girlfriend material all over the place. With my grown daughters, my “sistins” (sister+cousins), my sister-in-law (and love), and my almost long-lost biological sister. With the awesome Rangeley women who welcomed me to my forever home. And, especially, with my mother, my original best friend. She’s always in the periphery now, casting light.

Our next Phi Mu summer reunion would be even better, we decided as we left Robin’s. Maybe at Kate’s new house, or Donna’s. Until then, we’d meet up at Lynn’s, go see a show, go out to dinner. We wouldn’t wait for months on end to keep “the summer fun” alive.

But that was last summer’s fun. Before COVID-19 made it not such a good idea to cram into someone’s cabin to share every available inch of sleeping and eating space with women from five or six different states. Suddenly, connecting online seemed like a lackluster substitute for real face time. Until the Ramblin’ Women zoomed into cyberspace!

“Well hello ladies! Looks like we got our composite back, and it’s the Phi Mu version of Hollywood Squares!” I said, doing my best Paul Lynde impression. We were on our first of many Zoom chats, and I was thrilled to see how a shared giggle could simultaneously highlight so many side-by-side screen profiles. Fifteen of us had logged on, and were queued up beaming into our devices from living rooms as far away as Alaska and Australia. “Hiiiiii!” we’d holler, or “There she is!”—shouting out each other’s names like a bunch of laughing gulls flocking up after a long winter. For the next hour or so—one by one or all at once—we gave our coping with Corona reports. So far, we were all well and accounted for, taking it day by day, joking when we wanted to scream. Crying when we couldn’t help ourselves. I peered round and round the chat room at each lovely face, mine included, until the edges of my laptop screen disappeared and we were all back at Robin’s, socially not distancing in our usual style.

“Wow…so many friends in one Zoom meeting! How did you deal with the constant interruptions, or figure out who should be talking when?” I got asked recently. Easy, I said. Like we always did, with a lot of yelling over each other. You can’t live in close quarters with a big bunch of boisterous women and not know how to jockey for air time. And what about Zoom fatigue? Don’t I get exhausted having to work so hard interpreting nonverbal cues and mirroring facial expressions through my video monitor rather than in person?

Not yet, thank goodness. Matter of fact, my “composite” chats make me feel the exact opposite. They energize me. With girl power and gratitude and hope and new perspective. And each time I sign off, blowing virtual kisses into my web cam as the online visits end, I feel like I’m in the last scene of Love Actually. While the Beach Boys sing “God only knows what I’d be without you,” the lens pans out. From each face, each pair of friends reuniting, zooming out to infinity, until I see how perfectly I fit in the mosaic of all things worth holding onto for a lifetime. Love, actually, is all around me. And it’s held together with lots of girlfriend material—soft, stretchy, super comfy, really good girlfriend material.

Me (front row, second from the left) with my Phi Mu girlfriends, Summer 2019

For more Corona bright spots, see:

Pandemic proclamations

“Today, I ate a sandwich.”

Not exactly an earth-shattering proclamation. Or is it? Really depends on the context.

My step-mom, Prudy, once had a friend say that exact sentence to her, and it was the biggest deal either of them could imagine. It was back before Facebook, so they were face-to-face friends. Roommates, actually, who spent most afternoons gabbing about health concerns, families, or nothing much in particular. Except for one auspicious afternoon when Prudy’s friend turned toward her, her face radiant in the sun as she sat by the window, and said in a reverent whisper: “Today, I ate a sandwich.”

They couldn’t post, IM, text, or tweet their news. But they did want to shout it from the rooftop, Prudy told me. And, knowing her and her like-minded old lady friends, I believe they would’ve tried. If they hadn’t been stuck at Maine Medical. In the oncology ward. So they used all the energy they could muster boasting to the nurses and anyone else within earshot. After months of chemo, Prudy’s bedside bestie had finally eaten real food. A whole sandwich! The best darn sandwich of her life. And even though Prudy herself was still weeks away from being weaned off IV liquids, she could almost taste that sandwich each time she told the story.

Been thinking a lot about the Sandwich Lady lately. I never got to meet her or even know her real name. But I’ll never forget her, especially now that I really need to channel her life-affirming spunk, her finesse at making the ordinary extraordinary. More than ever, her story reminds me to see silver linings, to tune out idle chatter amid inspiration.

I talk a lot like the Sandwich Lady. Have been for years. Deep into retirement, and living pretty darn deep in the woods, my monologue usually goes something like: Today, I watched the lake thaw. Today, I washed windows. And on real noteworthy days, I include others, add cool modifiers, and switch to first-person plural: Today, we had a Zoom call with Helen and Becky. Today, we did the big town loop, and hit the PO, IGA, and the dump!

Most days, though, I didn’t really sound like the Sandwich Lady. Or act like her and Prudy. “Yeah, today you…whatever,” I’d mutter to my Facebook feed. “And we’re all sharing without really caring about this…why?” I’d chuck most “I’m doing blah blah blah and then I’m gonna yada yada yada” posts into my Whoop-Dee-Do bin and keep scrolling—paging down past the “here is today’s lunch” pics, the afternoon Starbucks “yum!” pics, and the yoga mat in the living room pics. I’d post something ho-hum just to fill the nagging “What’s on your mind, Joy?” space at the top of my timeline, and go about life as usual. Sleep walking in the virtual cloud, shuffling through my normal routine.

But that was all BC. Before COVID-19. Before “life as usual” got blown outta the water like the fireworks finale over Town Cove Park. Before the new normal routine shoved aside the old normal routine like a loaded logging truck barrel-assin’ toward the mill.

No more sitting around asking “So what?” to updates I used to deem useless. I’m too darn busy wondering “So…what the heck?” and “So…how…????” Weeks into “sheltering in place” there is nothing simple anymore about simple announcements, no such thing for me as social media overload. I drink in every drop, reading and reporting posts to my husband, my dog and, especially, myself because I suddenly find the sound of my own voice so reassuring. And whether news comes from a Rangeley friend whose naked face I still recall, or some Facebook “friend” from Australia who I’ll likely never see, doesn’t matter. We are all Corona comrades now and, together, our words make major headlines. Bright lights flashing again on Broadway type news!

“Today, I saw a robin!” I said reverently, my face radiant in the sun as I sat by my office/TV room window. It was the 84th day of April, and I was on day whatever of sporting the indoor Corona-wear I had to trade for the outdoors in the tropical sun drinking Corona and/or rum drinks beach-side wear I’d typically be struttin’ in April. My indoor Corona-wear is an ancient “camp” sweatshirt paired with baggy drawstring pants. I call ’em yoga pants, but that’s more of a stretch than the pants themselves. Because, lately, the only pose I’m doing with any discipline is “seated warrior,” in which I slump lower and lower in my computer chair and hold it as long as I can. That and sun salutations in front of the refrigerator.

It’s all good, though. Because, today, I started a really good book. I sat on my porch in the sun. And, tomorrow, God willing, I’ll get back on my bike. These days, those are pivotal proclamations, ones I shout to the rafters in true Sandwich Lady style. Actually, I’ve probably kicked her style up a few notches and decibels. I’ve acquired a manner of speaking which, like my everyday outfit, is my default mode. It’s not my inside voice or my outside voice because it only has one volume setting. Loud. I call it my anytime voice. Amped up by shouting out the truck window or off the porch from a safe social distance, it lends the proper oomph to my vital pronouncements.

They all seem so vital now, too, all the little thoughts I used to keep to myself, write on a to-do list, or put in a draft that might never get published. Maybe it’s because, thank God, I can’t really see the danger that’s supposedly all around me. But I know it’s there. So I keep trying to drown out the silent approaching threat by repeatedly squawking. About silly stuff that could turn serious. Fidgeting and chirping like a human version of a yard raven. And when there’s nothing specific to broadcast, my outbursts are more primal than ever. “Oh!” I say repeatedly. Or just “OK!” or “There!” No verbs, nouns, or extra syllables. Just me self-soothing with my own echo.

Tom calls it verbal processing. It’s a nice way of saying I could talk the ears off of a jackrabbit. Him, not so much. He’s never been a talker, never much felt the need chime in over my steady drone. Until COVID-19. Something about all this uncertainty and tension has been pressing hard on his TALK button, too. On the phone, online, or on our bicycles yelling to neighbors, Tom’s become a man of more and more words. We’re just a couple of old stereo speakers now, sitting side-by-side in our own private chat room each night—spewing, spinning, and otherwise verbally processing our thoughts.

“Well, today, I read a new virus report,” is usually how the couch dialogue opens. It continues for longer than we’d like in that vein, till we’ve tossed around all our hypothesis about what we think we know and what we hope to be able to do about it. We throw all our fears, our rants and pandemic postulations into our imaginary COVID Cuisinart and process away. And then, in honor of a rule we made on or about the 97th day of April, we stop churning negativity and balance out the awful-izing. Each one of us must express at least three things we are grateful for that day.

There’s quite a bit of duplication between the two of us and from day to day. But that’s OK. Repetition is nice. Especially when we both put just being together at the top of our lists. Tom says he wouldn’t want to be trapped in a cabin in the midst of a global pandemic with anyone but me, and I say likewise. That and our health. Now the weightiest and most incredibly complex object of all our thoughts and deeds, health is right up there in the blessings count. We sure are glad to have that for another day. And we’re thankful that, as far as we know, our family and friends are surviving with their sanity and optimism intact, too.

“Today, I’m grateful we got groceries again!” I said the other night. Not so long ago, talking like that would’ve sounded like I was reading a third grader’s diary. But now it’s far from simple. After seeing snippets of what social distancing food shopping entailed in bigger cities closer to supply hubs and fancy logistics, I wondered what kind of results I’d get way up here in Rangeley. My answer is: phenomenal. Let me tell you, some of those frenzied, bull horn blasted people packing the stores down country could learn a thing or two from the hard-working, inventive, adaptable folks at our tiny local grocery stores! If anyone ever told me I’d be emailing in my food order, calling on my cell from the parking lot for pickup—all the while trusting that my list would be filled without being able to actually see and/or touch each item—I would have laughed and fondly shook my head. But now I’m smiling with pride and admiration! Thanks to my community—to the folks keeping the “social” behind social media and the lifeline that turns online requests into curbside delivery—our pantry, our stomachs, and our hearts are full. We can crawl back into our hidey-hole for a fortnight, if needed, between each virtual forage run.

“Tomorrow, we can go on a picnic,” I said as Tom nodded. “I’m grateful for that.” Like most everything lately, going on a picnic has a brave new connotation. We drive up to the Height of Land, overlooking our sheltering place and the connecting hamlets of friends waiting to hug and high-five us in better times. And we slowly savor every bite of the take-out sandwiches we picked up in town. Because they are the best sandwiches we ever ate.


Thank you to all the people working tirelessly behind the scenes to help us pull through! Stay safe everyone. And repeat after me: Rangeley rises!

For more Corona bright spots, see:

Two flu inside the cuckoo’s nest

Most days, playing the “How far are you from…?” game is kinda fun.

“How far are you guys from the doctor’s and the drug store?” people from away want to know.

“About 35 minutes from the healthcare center. Another hour if we have to get a prescription filled.” We tend to answer in increments of time spent on the road, not miles traveled. Because we’re not talking about highway miles or the kind of miles connecting the Redi-Care clinics and the super-mega pharmacies down in the flat lands. Further questions tend to stop there. The out loud ones, anyways. Are we crazy? In denial? Or both? Plenty of folks wonder, we imagine, but keep it to themselves.

“It’s all good,” we insist. “We’re good.” We might not have 24-hour walk-in care, but we try to avoid needing it with walks in the woods and good choices. And if and when we do need prescriptions, we’re happy trading Walgreens on every corner with the walls of green lining our route down to getting ’em filled.

Sassy and sure of ourselves, we are. Regular rock hard, year-round Rangeley toughies. Until we were heading down Pucker Pass the day after a huge snow storm, hightailing it to Hannaford to get our Tamiflu prescription, Influenza Type A = 2, Tom and Joy = zero.

A few days before, Tom figured he’d come down with the Rangeley Crud—the holistic, pragmatic diagnosis we locals give to pretty much anything that ails us from the time the first log goes into the wood stove until we stop getting our feet soaked in frozen slush in the spring. Symptoms include a cough, crud coming from any or all cranial orifices, and a drop in energy that makes putting on your “yard slippers” to take the dog out a wicked chore. I concurred with the diagnosis, especially when the crud crept my way. “Just a cough and a few aches,” we said. Nothing that a few days of downtime and some homemade “cough syrup” couldn’t cure.

Then Tom started sounding like a deranged werewolf caught in a Conibear trap coughing up a giant fur ball. And I was somewhere between a sputtering old two-horse motor and a sump pump trying to work the sludge out of the basement. When we finally dug the digital thermometer out of the bathroom “drugstore drawer”—our under-the-counter solution to convenient self-care—we knew we needed a third, more professional opinion.

And then, there we were, bundled up like Kenny from South Park, trying to keep the Tacoma between snow banks on the way to pick up our pills (and enough ready-to-eat chicken noodle soup for a fortnight). Diagnosis in hand, we’d progressed from being a bit under the weather and off the grid to tiny pinpoints of infection in the Western Maine corner of the the official National CDC 2019 Influenza Outbreak Map.

“How did this happen?” I muttered into my coat collar. I was too fogged over to come to any comforting conclusions, but my feverish little monkey mind wanted answers anyway. “Whelp, we finally lost the germ lottery,” mumbled Tom. Always level-headed and even-tempered, he could still weigh the laws of probability and register 101.8 degrees Fahrenheit. “But when? Why this year? Who or what did we touch? And where?” I persisted, the journalist in me hell bent on writing the story of how we went from low-risk, drug-free independents to ailing losers packed full of pills.

“Stop asking questions!” Tom groaned from deep into the couch the next day. Apparently, the flu was keeping my body down, but not my need to know. “Do you want more tea? How ’bout more soup? Did you take your pills? Wanna watch another movie? Taking a nap? Think I should check your temp again? Are you warm enough? Too cold? Still coughing? Anything yucky coming out?” The Curious George in me had suddenly turned into howler monkey from Hell. So I kept my inquiries quiet, quarantining myself to inner speculation. Were the darn Tamiflu pills actually doing anything worth the amount of money I paid for them, half-price coupon and all? Or was the ogre guy in the Tamiflu commercial, who grew bigger and more beastly the longer he waited to get on the $300 pills, just a big pharma scare tactic? Where were my slippers? Could I make it upstairs to bed? Whatever happened to those Beatles cards my Mum bought me when I had to stay home with the flu in 1964? Would they be worth anything now if I hadn’t stained the Paul card with chocolate ice cream kisses?

More than anything, I wondered if we could beat the odds—maybe feel like getting out of our snarf chamber, or at least out of our jammies sooner than the predicted two weeks of downtime. Until Tom asked me something for a change. He opened one eye and, in a little boy voice, told me he wanted a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. And I knew we were screwed. I’ve watched my husband eat at least one sandwich a day for more than 40 years, and never have I ever seen him mow down a PB&J. I don’t even think he’d eaten one since he was 12. Something to do with his mother buying government sized cans of peanut butter and having to stir it with a ginormous spoon. I guess even luncheon loaf was better.

The farther we got into cabin confinement, the more questions the dog seemed to have, too. “Why are they barking so much? How come they never used to eat in front of the TV and now they’re slurping supper watching Survivor? Will I ever go for a walk again? Since when does going out mean going five feet off the back steps?”

Since dog whispering was obviously not one of those six sense things that sharpens when your other senses fade, I just didn’t have all the answers. But I did manage to figure out a few other things.

  • Cabin fever is way different than a cabin fever. Cabin fever is when you want to get out, but the weather is preventing you from moving your able body off the back porch. Having a cabin fever means your body is so snowed under on its own that you can barely get out of your own way as you shuffle back and forth from the bathroom. And you’re grateful you don’t live in Publishers Clearinghouse territory because there’s no way you could run outside to claim the check when the people with the flowers and balloons showed up.

  • Regular “indoor day” camp games are not fun anymore. You need to leave Monopoly to the gifted and talented and Yahtzee to the calculus nerds. And the silly things you used to entertain yourself with when you got bored with cards and board games? Don’t even bother. I thought lying in bed in the middle of the day was a perfect time to play Find the Shapes in the Knotty Pine, a game my daughter Becky and I invented during a long rainy afternoon. We found a dragonfly, several prehistoric fish, a dog turd flying through the air on a boomerang, and a harbor seal. But I tried for hours and got nothing. So I switched to Staring At Drifting Snowflakes for a few more hours. Then I went back downstairs and played a little Stack the Soup Cans and Yogurt Cup Jenga. Fun times.

  • When your cabin mate is just as sick as you are, it’s a good thing. That way, he’s not in your face acting like Superman just because he can put on pants and sit up at the table to eat. And you’re not up in his business either, wondering how many more episodes of Gunsmoke he can watch or when his hair is gonna look normal again. You’re on the same slow rolling wavelength, able to carry on whole conversations with a few mono-syllables, snorts and grunts.

Now that Tom and I are “out of the woods” health-wise and into our normal backwoods routine with sounder minds and seemingly superhuman bodies, I’ve been able to put the Influenza Type A 2019 episode into context with our otherwise fit and unfettered lifestyle. Hindsight, I know, is not 20/20. But it sure becomes a heck of a lot clearer when you get your groove back! And thanks to the perspective that only loosing and regaining your status-quo can bring, I know a few things better than ever. Flu happens. Crud creeps in. And if you’re lucky to live long enough, you’re likely gonna come down with it a few times after you put away your Beatles cards and stop eating peanut butter out of a huge can. Accepting that inevitability with humor and trust is part of showing up, weighing the odds, of not being afraid of what might happen when you pack up your life of convenience and move to your cabin for good. It’s about seeing the glass as half full and, when it’s not, figuring out what you’re going to do to level it off again. Immunity is wonderful. But being cooped up with your cuddle buddy ain’t that bad, either. Especially when you can’t wait to get back out there and do the Rangeley weekly post office/IGA/restaurant loop. Hugging folks. Touching menus and all sorts of sketchy surfaces. Opening mail from the far reaches of the CDC outbreak map. Enjoying crazy, high-risk in-town stuff with our peeps. And, of course, washing the winter “bugs” off our old, weathered hands when we’re done and ready to settle back in.

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.


 

 

Transcendentristry

Normally, my mind wanders for no special reason whatsoever. My favorite roller coaster ride. The perfect way to fix a sentence. What’s on sale at the Rangeley IGA. The next U2 concert tour. Hawaii. What’s not on sale at the IGA that I need anyway.

This thought process is not particularly constructive, especially when someone thinks they’re having a conversation with me and I’m really thinking about synonyms, sunsets, or who’s going to win this season of Survivor.  Still, there is a certain time when such detachment and cerebral cross wiring comes in handy, a place where I’m grateful I’ve elevated day dreaming to an art form. The dentist’s office. I begin dissociation strategies in the waiting room, occupying my mind with any and all images except those connected to the sound of a drill squealing its way through enamel. Over the years, I’ve learned to let my thoughts flee in whatever direction they will.

Used to be that mentally retreating to the late 19th century dentistry exhibit I saw at the Boston Museum of Science made me feel better about what awaited me in the next room. Singing along to the Muzak helped some, too—until songs like “Hurt So Bad” and “You Take My Breath Away” wafted through the waiting room speakers, filling me with fears that not even Barry Manilow could soothe.

“What came before dentist office music?” I’d wonder to bide some time. “What in the heck lulled patients into submission back before FM radio?” Lots of good, old-fashioned ether, I guessed. Then I’d get summoned into the big reclining chair of dread where I’d work out a week’s worth of menus and TV selections, determine the sequential order of the tile pattern on the examining room wall, and draft four or five new writing projects. It got me through a couple decades of exams—until the day the dentist announced my next visit would entail more than routine cleaning. Suddenly, my search for distractions took on a whole new urgency. After reaching my mid-thirties without a flaw, I’d have to be drilled and filled!

“That’s what can happen if you don’t brush your teeth enough,” came a warning from my cavity-prone years, back when a poster of a molar with black streaks shooting into its roots hung above the dessert counter in the school cafeteria. I came to find out, though, that this trouble spot happened because I did brush my teeth—with great deliberation—until I pushed the gum away from the top of my incisor.

“You mean it hurts when you drink hot or cold liquids?” asked the dentist when I brought the sensitive area to his attention.

“No, I mean if you poke right there with your little silver pick it’ll jolt me five feet out of the chair and I might slap you,” I wanted to say. However, “nuumph” was the only response I could muster.

“I won’t have to really drill,” he said. “I’ll just rough it up a little so I can bond some white filling to the small cleft where the gum’s receded.” But the words didn’t relieve me as intended because, as far as I was concerned, “little” and “small” would lose all relevance once high-speed steel made contact with his work surface. Only a major diversion—like a plot for my first best-seller—could see me through.

“Ten o’clock tomorrow?” I repeated as the receptionist checked the appointment book. “No I can’t come back then unless I get a baby sitter.” A legitimate excuse and, depending on how hard I tried to make arrangements, one that could buy me a lot of time.

“Why baby sitting?” she asked.

“Well, ’cause I have a three-year-old, Becky, who does furniture aerobics for exercise, who flew into a rage last time she saw a doctor come after me with hypodermic half the size of the one you’re planning to use for Novocaine.”

“Oh, she’ll be fine,” she reassured. “We have toys for her to play with. Besides, this would be a good way to introduce her to what happens at the dentist.” I agreed, reluctantly. Given my tendency to shiver and sweat profusely, I wasn’t sure I’d provide a proper first impression.

But taking Becky to my dentist appointment actually worked out well. Diverting myself from the discomfort was easier than ever, especially once Becky decided to watch from a stool on wheels about a foot away from the procedure. “You can sit there, honey, as long as you’re careful of the doctor’s feet and you watch out for the special buttons at the bottom of Mommy’s chair,” said the dental hygienist.

The unpleasantness of the immediate situation escaped me as I pondered the functions of those “special buttons” and what the doctor was likely to do with his hands if his feet were suddenly trampled. I hardly felt a thing.

It is possible, too, that advancements in equipment and technology since the last time I needed to have a cavity filled in the ’60’s had rendered the once excruciating process agony-free. And childbirth had, no doubt, redefined “discomfort” for me in the meantime. Plus when did banana flavored topical anesthetic for numbing the site of the big shot come on the scene?

“Aw, cmon, I don’t get the exam room with the really great view?” I asked upon meeting my new dental hygienist for the first time. Deciding to become year-round residents in our summer “camp” in Rangeley, Maine, my husband Tom and I told ourselves we’d have the best dental visits possible when we could look out over the lake and wooded fields surrounding Rangeley Family Dentistry. Drilling and poking just had to feel better if you could watch deer and geese rather than staring at whatever office park print hung lifelessly on the wall within your peripheral vision. “No,” answered my new hygienist as she led me to a chair overlooking the logging trucks on rural Route 4. “But you’d rather be in here anyways. You only sit in the room with a view if Dr. Dave is doing a procedure on you.”

Yup, my new dentist is Dr. Dave. His waiting room doesn’t need Muzak ’cause it has a fish tank, a selection of my friend’s local wildlife art, and a display of early 20th century dental relics up in the rafters that would make me want to disassociate from my surroundings—if I didn’t love the six-foot stuffed moose doll wearing a surgical mask that’s waiting nearby to check out someone’s chippers.

Thanks to many more years of unreformed power brushing, I didn’t have to wait long to sit in Dr. Dave’s procedure room. And shortly after that, I was back in the chair with a view, trying to levitate my way through my first root canal. Actually, it wasn’t nearly as terrible as legend had led me to believe. Dr. Dave is a drill master/micro-surgeon extraordinaire. That plus peeking out at the panorama and amusing myself imagining these very blog sentences really helped. “Rooted In Rangeley getting uprooted! I can have some fun with that…” And viola, Dr. Dave was done.

Turned out, though, that was only a trial run for the next procedure I’d need—one that would send me down the mountain to the “big city” of Auburn to a dentist reserved for one out of twenty root canal-ees like myself requiring special attention. “You need an apicoectomy,” Dr. Dave said after examining the bump on my gum not healed by spiced rum or other home remedies. Sounds exotic, I thought, until you get to the ectomy part. Like an up-sell drink off of a chain restaurant menu. (“Would you like that made with our top-shelf Apico vodka?”)

Who knew Lamaze breathing would come right back to my rescue? Two minutes into the apicoectomy chair and I was huffing and blowing like a trooper. I soon calmed down, though, deciding once again that the reality wasn’t nearly as bad as thinking about what was actually going on as Dr. Michelle, my new special dentist, peeled away a piece of gum flap to grab and excise my infected rogue root. She worked miracles with grace and humor, fixing me up so painlessly that by the time I noticed my view was of the back of a Home Depot, she was done. “A week from now you can go back to Dr. Dave to get your stitches out,” she said.

Cool, I thought, running my tongue across what felt like a Chinese string puzzle on my upper gum. I could heal up back home in Rangeley, transcending out over the lake and hills, dreaming up the perfect blog post.

Reaching out for Robin

This is the story that almost wasn’t.

How could I possibly write about Robin? Whatever could I say that someone else hadn’t already said in a better, wiser, more enduring way? Not much, I decided. Not much at all.

Then she gave me a talking to.

“Open your heart to everybody you know and those you don’t,” she told me.

Well actually, she gave us all a talking to. We were gathered at the Church of the Good Shepherd to celebrate Robin’s life when, there she was, filling the video screen in the fellowship hall, giving us her parting wishes in that soft, no-nonsense tone we all knew so well. Say what you need to say. Reserve judgement. Spread kindness and joy. Accept. Cherish. Smiling straight into the camera, she let us see that, although cancer had weakened and withered her body, her face still radiated inner life. “There are so many messages!” she said. But she managed to share the ones closest to her heart, segueing into a slide show compiled by two of her best friends. Vivid glimpses of how she laughed and loved, how she lived her own philosophy, rolled across the screen. Casual snapshots merged into Zen moments. Friends and family members grew older with Robin, surrounding her in sickness and good health, and then returned back to childhood together. Seasons came and went, a perpetual backdrop of woods and water in all the places she called home. Let It Be and Oh Very Young played as memories faded in and out in perfect randomness.

Oh very young
What will you leave us this time?
You’re only dancing on this earth for a short while.
And though your dreams may toss and turn you now
They will vanish away like your daddy’s best jeans
Denim blue fading up to the sky.
And though you want him to last forever
You know he never will
You know he never will
And the patches make the goodbye harder still.

Oh very young
What will you leave us this time?
There’ll never be a better chance to change your mind.
And if you want this world to see a better day
Will you carry the words of love with you?
Will you ride the great white bird into heaven?
And though you want to last forever
You know you never will
You know you never will
And the goodbye makes the journey harder still.

Watching through tears, I felt myself growing young again along with Robin, too. I remembered how cool those Cat Stevens lyrics were the first time I heard them as a teenager, the fringe on my suede jacket swaying as I danced a little hippie dance. The tune was magical, I thought, the words soothing and sort of vague—like a nursery rhyme. I was going to last forever, of course, everyone was. So I just kept singing along, smiling and swaying to the music.

Not anymore. As Robin’s legacy flashed before me, the words were suddenly all too real, as close to me as the other mourners I was shoulder-to-shoulder with in the fellowship hall. Oh very young what will you leave us this time? Softly singing along with Robin’s and my not-so-very-young friends, I wondered if they were unsure of their final answer, too.

“I know I’m not there, but it doesn’t matter ’cause I’m here, wherever here is,” Robin chuckled into the camera, leaving us with one final wish. “Just be kind and, most of all, spread the love. That’s my message: Spread the love and the joy.” One more time, her photos spanned from blonde, robust Robin, to bald but still beaming Robin, ending with Robin in a group “selfie” surrounded by friends in her hospice bed, her face shining from the center of theirs as they all drew close and focused upward for one last portrait.

“I want that,” I said silently. Not the that of cancer and chemo, God willing, but the circling of friends, the guts to thumb my nose at death while, at the same time, the grace to face its inevitability with a smile. I want to start taking all the candid snapshots of my day-to-day life very seriously. In each moment—whether I choose to be floating on the lake, lining up for a wedding, getting goofy with my girls, posing next to something I first saw in a guide book, or standing around partying with a red Solo cup—I want to be there, front and center. And from that vantage point, I want to reach out more, to do what Robin hoped, to spread myself beyond my comfortable corner in the woods.

“OK, Robin, I’ll give it my best shot,” I promised. First and foremost, that meant writing, sitting down at my laptop to meld her story with my own, translating her wishes into words I’d be proud to share with our neighborhood—around the lakes, into town, and out to the far reaches of my worldwide web signal atop Bald Mountain. But after a few days of staring at my blank “new post” page about Robin, it didn’t feel right. It felt inadequate and hollow—different than the self-doubt tinged with the promise of redemption I’ve come to know as my creative process. Was I a good enough friend? Did I get to know Robin too late, or just in time? My fingers stayed idle and, except for Cat Stevens singing as Robin’s kaleidoscope of pictures played over and over, my mind was blank. Then it hit me. A picture of me writing, crouched over my laptop in my own little world, would not even show my face! And while writing is my reflexive way of reaching out—how I most often do my spreading, my opening up and sharing, and all those vital ing things Robin asked of me—it’s not engaging material for my own someday slideshow. I needed to back away from my desk, start using my typing fingers for picking up the phone more often and my words for conversation. To truly honor Robin’s friendship and give her life meaning within the context of mine, I needed to get out there, drop in on people, initiate instead of just participate, be the best girlfriend material I could be. Heck, maybe I even needed to go shopping—the old fashioned, offline kind that usually involves walking around with other women, consulting on clothes, going for coffee!

I didn’t have to wait long to put my thoughts into practice. Another thing Robin really wanted was for her childhood friends from the coast to come up and meet her Rangeley friends. They planned a girls’ weekend this summer, and vowed to be here even if Robin “couldn’t make it till then.” She couldn’t, but they all gathered as promised, and I joined them for an afternoon of shopping and plenty of good ol’ girl talk focusing on Robin. The reminiscing resumed a few days later when I asked another mutual acquaintance to meet me in town for lunch. I sensed we might have more in common than just Rangeley and Robin, and I was right. We now have the start of a new friendship.

When I finally did get back to my laptop to write, I was just getting in the flow when…WHAM…a thumping against my office window screen made me jump out of my chair. Looking out, I saw a bird, bobbing around on the lawn, getting its bearings after getting my attention. It was a robin. “Nice one, Robin,” I said. And as I watched it fly to a nearby tree and then on to each shed roof on its way to join another bird up the driveway, I didn’t have to wonder if I’d received a sign from Spirit or if I was silly to take its symbolism literally. I knew. Robin is no longer on this earth, but she’s dancin’ close by, helping me, helping us all, spread joy.

Goin’ to town: A Rangeley winter primer

“Goin’ to town. Need anything?”

On any given day, the question elicits a mild adrenaline rush. Even if I’m just back from doing the whole loop, with provisions stacked up like cord wood, the doubts still surface. Gee…what’s left in the freezer? Is company coming? Got milk? Then it’s winter again and I go from backwoods practical to Pavlovian.

Used to be, planning my shopping meant figuring out if I had to hit Market Basket on the way home from work or could wait 24 hours, picking a Rite Aid based on ease of traffic flow, and avoiding both on the day of the month when folks got their Social Security checks. Now, after my Big Move to the outskirts of Rangeley 13 to 20 miles from goods and services, my strategies are no longer about a store, but the store—and how I’m going to get to it and back while still accomplishing enough in-town necessities to make my own Subaru commercial along the way.

“Probably gonna go to town this afternoon,” Tom said the other day. I waited till my heart rate leveled back out and my brain synapses stopped rapid firing, and made a quick assessment. “You can’t!” I insisted. “It’s Monday!” And, being the year-round Rangeley life partner that he is, instead of shaking his head like I’d gone woods queer, he took a moment to rethink his decision. “Jeez, you’re right,” he said. “Let’s wait till Wednesday.”

Part way through our fourth winter up here, we’ve super honed our skills at a mind game I call “information mapping Rangeley-style.” To play, I combine my investigative reporting and technical writing skills, enabling me to gather information no matter how complex, and make it somehow make sense. Then, Tom throws in his industrial logistics guru-turned-science-teacher expertise and, bingo! Mention going to town, and we instantly do a mental decision circuit that, if put to paper, would make my days documenting major product launches for HP and other high tech giants look like child’s play. The thought process (and rationale behind it) goes something like this:

Goal: To get groceries.

Start: Approximately 20 miles from goal destination.
From Point A, getting groceries (AKA “going to the IGA”) is rarely a singular task, a goal in itself. Until we end up with more gas money than we know what to do with, getting groceries without just getting groceries is crucial. Same thing is true for any Point-A-to-Point-B round trips, unless someone else is driving and they don’t want to stop. Also, if Tom or I ever do go to town without going to the IGA, we need a good explanation for why the hell not when we get back home. Example: “Bob was driving and he didn’t want to stop.”

Key objectives/tasks: These are weather and time/date dependent, so we select as many as possible from the following list and aim for the best outcome.
A–Rangeley Plantation Transfer Station (AKA the dump)
BOquossoc Post Office
Clunch
Dhair cuts
Ebuilding supply store
Fbank
Ggas station
Hoptional additional tasks as stamina/time/date/weather permits

The following is a sample Rangeley wintertime information mapping exercise with determining factors.
Mission statement: I want to go to the IGA without just going to the IGA.
<Decision 1> Is it a weekday?
If yes: Skip the dump and proceed to the next decision.
If no: Proceed to the dump, but only if it’s not after 1 p.m. on Sunday. Skip the PO, bank and, if it’s not Saturday, hair cuts and the building supply, and then proceed to the next decision.*
<Decision 2> Is it a Monday?
If yes
: Skip the dump and the hair cuts and probably lunch (see “Additional tips for optimal success” below), and then proceed to the next decision.*
If no: Proceed directly to the next decision.
<Decision 3> Is it a weekday between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.?
If yes: Proceed to the post office only if you don’t need to pick up any packages and it is     before 4 p.m., then proceed to the next decision.
If no: Proceed to the post office, to all other available objectives, then on to the next decision.
*
 Footnote: In these scenarios, if remaining tasks are not critical, reconsider aborting mission and restarting on a different day.

Additional tips for optimal success: 

  • A–transfer station (AKA the dump): If it’s a Saturday or Sunday morning and you live in Rangeley Plantation, never under any circumstances leave your house this time of year without your garbage and recyclables. If it’s any other day and you happen to go by the dump and the gate is somehow miraculously open, slap yourself upside the head for not having your garbage and recyclables, or consider going back and getting them.
  • BOquossoc Post Office: Consider having the new, limited “full service” hours tattooed on your arm so you don’t get all the way there and end up with your important packages on the wrong side of the closed window. If this is not feasible, pause for an extended moment of gratitude that you still have a post office in Oquossoc (and hope that it will take just long enough for the window to open back up.)
  • C–lunch: To proceed with confidence in going “out to lunch”—the ultimate prize in all goin’ to town missions—first verify that: a) an OPEN flag is displayed outside your selected eating establishment; and b) there are obvious signs of life inside the allegedly OPEN restaurant.
  • Dhair cuts: Honor these appointments and give them precedence this time of year. If not, you could risk getting kidnapped by one of those “emergency makeover” shows next time you do make it down the mountain. However, in the event that you must cancel an appointment due to hazardous driving conditions, take heart. Your loss is someone closer to town’s gain. My stylist assures me her chair never stays empty for long, even in a blizzard. All her in-town customers wait for days when folks can’t risk coming in from the plantations and rush in to fill our slots (while we get woollier waiting for the weather to clear.)
  • Ebuilding supply store: Regardless of other priorities, consider making this stop mandatory. Study all aisles with care, ensuring your ability to find and purchase that one gadget you won’t remember needing till tomorrow—when you’re back home in the pucker brush—shit outta luck.

So there you have it, information mapping Rangeley-style (winter version). Depending on your dietary requirements, and where you place yourself on the spectrum between making do and “gotta go get it now,” your results may vary. The game’s not for everyone, especially some friends from away. “I’m a half a mile from Petco and the Home Depot, and I think I have at least three grocery stores within a mile radius,” our friend tells us every year on the second day of his visit. (His calculations start then because, on the first day, he’s too glad to be back in his favorite fishing retreat to be feeling like he has to justify where he chooses to call home.) Closeness to “stuff” used to be a consolation for us, too, I tell him. Each time I had to leave here to return to Market Basket country, I remember saying “At least I can go get groceries without planning my every move.” That was little comfort, though, when our real home, our ideal situation, was back on a big lake on the outskirts of Rangeley.

As year-round residents, we’ve now become highly motivated to win the goin’ to town game, even though some days we don’t get very far past GO before returning to home base to regroup. “Thank God we have enough boxed wine and powdered milk to last awhile,” Tom remarked after the worst of the recent ice storms. We’d just barely loaded up and headed off towards town when the Subaru started to skid out of control, and we figured we’d look better cancelling our hair cutting appointments then smashed into a tree. If flow charted, it could have ended in a “Dude, you’re screwed” dead end, leaving us longing for the IGA and, perhaps, even our old lifestyle. But, luckily, Tom already factored in the ultimate decision triangle back when the Big Move was first taking shape. Got a pantry? Yes, we sure do, and it’s a game changer! Plus, the fact that he saw fit to give me enough square footage to stock with provisions from as far away as Farmington seems to be earning me bonus point around here. 

The first time my friends lay eyes on it, they do a Rangeley version of the “He went to Jared” commercial. “He gave her a pantry!” I hear them marvel. Yup, he did—so he only has to take me to the IGA if it’s Wednesday, and the road’s sanded, and all the restaurant flags are flying.

A friend called Coco

Christmas Day 2012
Christmas Day 2012

I squinted across the parking lot and sighed, letting the humid breeze blow away the last traces of airplane air. There was no rush, really, no need to dash around, check my watch or even wait closer to Tom so we didn’t lose track of each other in the shuffle while he got the luggage. Because, I reminded myself, down here there was no shuffle, no tight schedules, no worries. There was one runway, an outdoor luggage cart with ours in plain sight ready to grab, and a long, lazy month in a beach house just down the road.

I already knew what to get at the small market on the way to the house, which drawers I’d use to stash my stuff before shoving my suitcase under the bed, how I’d lay my mask and fins out on the porch till morning and my swimsuit in the little wicker chair by the deck. I’d sit in the cabana with my daughter, Becky, on her days off from teaching at the Island School, just exactly as I’d done when I’d stayed there over Christmas. It felt so good to be back, to be waiting outside the airport repeating it all in my mind with calm certainty that nothing had changed a bit. While I’d gone home to three months of Maine freezing and thawing, Rock Sound, Eleuthera, Bahamas, stayed exactly as I’d left it.

When it comes to being on island time, I’m usually there before the plane even lands. I feel the change coming over me like a deep cleansing breath and, as soon as I can swap my L.L. Bean boots for Tevas, I’m back in the groove. But today was different. Today was April 16, 2013, the morning after the Boston Marathon bombings—and by the time I made it through the sentinel of security at Logan Airport, past the “what’s going on in the rest of the world” news coverage in the Nassau departure lounge and, finally, to the remote end of this out island—I felt like I’d escaped much more than mud season in Maine.

Hauling his huge rolling duffel packed with more snorkeling and fishing gear than clothing across the parking lot, my husband, Tom, seemed to agree. He looked up at the palm trees with a weary, but expectant smile that told me he’d reached the leg of the journey when horsing stuff around was no longer a hassle. The exertion was now earning him rum drinks.

“Luggage is all here,” he announced, and I nodded. Despite sharing an adventuresome streak that lands us far and wide, we still find comfort in stating and acknowledging the obvious along the way. I, especially, have a need to repeat things out loud to myself—our flight numbers and gate numbers, our departure and arrival times—re-reading them from the itinerary I keep in a giant paper clip in my carry on, reciting them off the airport monitors, again when we get to each gate and, finally, hopping up and echoing the boarding announcements as they come over the PA system. Fidgeting over the reservations, the little details, then freewheeling how they actually come to pass is, after all, how we manage to venture so far off the Carnival cruise line. Once again, a fine-tuned balance of focus and faith carried us from the JetBlue Airbus 320s, through the bowels of the “domestic” terminal, and on board an island hopper turbo prop, leaving the dolphin encounter brochure families back in Nassau.

We also left behind Comfort Inn, McDonald’s, Verizon wireless, and Hertz Rental Car. I did make arrangements for a car, supposedly, the same one we’d driven back December. But I had no rental contracts, no formal agreements, no guarantees. “This is where the paperwork ends and the trust kicks back in,” I reminded myself. The more I scanned the parking lot for the ancient RAV4 that wasn’t right there waiting for us when we landed, though, the more I wished I could rifle through my clip full of printouts for some verification, something with today’s date on it, something official. Visions of the armed guards and bomb sniffing dogs that surrounded me in Boston crept back to mind, and I couldn’t help voicing how vulnerable I felt standing so far from home, waiting for one man to fulfill his promise: “Where is Coco?” I demanded.

You just couldn’t be in Rock Sound for more than five minutes without seeing Avian Morley, AKA “Coco.” Besides being the go-to guy for transportation, his restaurant/bar/conch stand was the most happening place in town. Heck, even Martha Stewart and her camera crew managed to find him, lured from afar to taste his legendary conch salad. Plus, to me, he was the face of Rock Sound, the essence of what it took to thrive on the sleepy end of this out island. The minute I met him back in December, “gotta see Coco” stopped having much to do with practicality and logistics, and became all about wanting to just be around him. Yup, I told myself, if there was one thing I was pretty sure I could count on in Rock Sound, Eleuthera, on the morning after the Boston bombings, it was finding Coco again.

“Hey, hello and welcome back, dahlin’!” he greeted, coming across the parking lot with car keys and a big bear hug. I was struck again by how much he reminded me of someone I couldn’t quite place. It didn’t matter, though, ’cause I’d found Coco again. And the way his huge, easy smile felt the same as looking out through the clouds from the puddle jumper plane to spot my first glimpse of turquoise water, so vivid but tranquil over the long stretches of white sand, was all I needed to know for now.

“Coco! So good to see you again!” I said. “Hope you didn’t wait here too long. And, oh, we do want the car for four weeks, but our bank back home has a maximum per-day ATM withdrawal, so we’re going to have to pay you cash in several chunks so you don’t get hit with a MasterCard or check cashing fee.” He nodded, smiled, and walked us over to the familiar grey RAV4. “No problem, no problem,” he said.

Classic Coco, I thought, climbing back into the banged up SUV. It was hard to tell if the odometer had moved in the last three months since it was still hovering around 200,000, and we were still too hesitant to do the kilometers-to-miles conversion. “You sure this thing has enough ground clearance to get us down the remote beach roads?” I’d asked the first time we saw the RAV4. According to the Eleuthera travel guides, venturing off the Queen’s Highway to explore could be as risky as it was rewarding, and I found myself remembering how a gorgeous tropical view hadn’t helped Tom Hanks much in Castaway.

“No problem, no problem,” Coco said. “Drive slow.”

Hadn’t I heard that tons of times in my travels! No problem, mon. Usually it came across as the island way of saying there really was a problem, but we want you to calm down, chill out, have another rum drink so you don’t notice. That’s what you tourists expect us to say…pay us to say. When the boat captain on my first trip to the Bahamas told me: “No problem, dahlin’ we go snorkeling today,” it meant even though it was hailing and blowing a gale, I just needed to have another Goombay Smash and get on the boat. Even back home at a local concert hall, I heard the manager for Bob Marley’s sons’ reggae tour say “No problem, we’re on island time,” to the volunteer usher ladies (who seemed all the more perplexed by dreadlocks). I’m pretty sure it meant the musicians chillin’ out in their tour van (right next to the police station) an hour after the concert was supposed to start were not experiencing any hassle.

When Coco said no problem, it was different. His way was like a mantra, half lullaby, half chant, a personal affirmation that “every little ting gonna be alright.” Hearing him repeat it over and over, I could believe and make it my own truth—whether I was bouncing down a jagged road in a rental jalopy, or trusting that he could just shut down his entire restaurant on Christmas Day to invite us and a small gathering of other “locals” to dinner. “No problem, no problem,” he said when Tom got his wallet out and tried to pay for the bottle of wine we drank with our turkey with all the trimmings and fresh banana cream pie. “You’re family now.”

Other vacationers told me they came to Eleuthera for the people, by-passing islands with more amenities, but less soul. That Christmas night, as I watched the annual Junkanoo festival, I understood. The residents from Rock Sound, Tarpum Bay, Governor’s Harbor, and the other communities linked together on their skinny strip of limestone between the Atlantic and the Caribbean were family, parading by in one big celebration of life and tenacity, and I was mesmerized from my eyes down to my swaying torso. The costumes drew me in, colorful and gaudy as the tinsel-covered Christmas trees I’d gawked at as a child. Somehow, too, the drum beat and the rhythm of their age-old dance of joyful defiance filled me reverence, the kind I’d get gazing up at stained glass windows in a candlelit church. The brass section tooted by, keeping it upbeat, and I was whisked out of church, back to the roadside revelry. Had I ever been able to leave that moment in time, rooted there near Rock Sound with my family, I actually could have dreamed I was just a bit off Broadway. Then along came Coco, king of his community’s Junkanoo band, dressed like a Bahamian police constable, dancing with all his might and clowning around for the crowd.

It wasn’t until I got back to Eleuthera in April, and I was sitting in Coco’s restaurant watching his Junkanoo video, that it finally hit me. Big Papi! He was the David Ortiz of Rock Sound, Big Papi without the beard, or the bat, or the big baseball salary. Plus, while he didn’t have the same bling as the Boston Red Sox MVP, he lit up that parade route like a shimmer of diamonds. “Can you please make me a copy of this DVD?” I asked Coco.

“No problem, no problem,” he said. But I never saw it, or Coco, again. Coco died in a motorcycle crash in September, just up the road from his last, jubilant march. I heard the awful news as the fall colors were fading back home in Rangeley, Maine, and the air was taking on a chill that made me dream of dancing barefoot in the Bahamas. I’m no stranger to grief, both the kind that stabs me swiftly in the heart, or drains me slowly like a wound that can’t heal. Still, the loss of Coco stunned me to my core. How could I miss someone so profoundly I was pretty sure I was never going to see again? Now that Becky had finished teaching down there and moved to Boulder, I should have been better soothed by happy memories of time spent with a great guy on a laid-back island. People come and go, after all. And sometimes I’d end up wondering things like “whatever happened to that guy who used to work here….he was nice.” I’d find out he’s not coming back, observe a moment of silence, shrug and move on. Not so with Coco. Not even close.

The night Becky called and told us, Tom and I looked out over our lake and toasted Coco, drinking the special Rangeley Red Juice liqueur Tom made from raspberries we picked in the warm August sun. We wished more than anything that Coco could taste it with us, beaming his approval. We drank to living life in the moment—and to the mixed blessing of having a friend like Coco, now gone, who left a legacy of how we’d treat ourselves and others in his memory.

I cried a lot over Coco. And with Christmas coming around again, I’m sure I’m nowhere near done. I am finding comfort, though, in a picture I keep near my desk. It’s Coco, in his element down by the clear, blue water, palms up and arms spread wide, grabbing all life has to give. He sort of reminds me of the the giant portraits that, as a kid in church, I thought only Christ could pull off. Striking a “come to Jesus pose,” He’d conjure up a powerful spirit vibe I figured must be reserved for the Son of God Himself. As an adult, I now believe the spark comes closer to earth. It moves through people like Coco, who show us how to carry Heaven with us, day by day, in our attitudes. Each time I see his picture, I now also know that it’s my bittersweet burden to always remember, to always radiate how he made me feel—instantly special, a forever friend.

No problem, Coco. No problem.

Photo courtesy of Perry Joseph
Photo courtesy of Perry Joseph

 

Staying past September

“Dock’s out,” Tom announced. “Boat’s out, too.”

“Yup, I know,” I said, even though I was pretty sure he knew I knew ’cause he saw me watching the whole process from my “office” window.

Out here, stating the obvious is expected. It’s a rite of passage, our way of keeping in touch with our surroundings and in synch with the seasons while keeping our vocal chords limbered up. And the longer we live here year-round, the more necessary it becomes.

“Wind’s come up,” one of us will report at least once a day, usually right after a stiff breeze has nearly blown both our hats off. “Yup,” the other will agree. “Lake’s gettin’ choppy.”

Casual listeners (if we had any besides the beagles) might say we sound like we should live closer to town or, heaven forbid, like retired folks. But I’m glad to be right here, watching ourselves move past summer and into another fall, sharing eye-witness reports.

Not too long ago, what went on “up here” this time of year was a hypothesis, a big grey question mark. We crammed as much Rangeley life as possible between Mother’s Day and Labor Day and, most years, even squeezed in Columbus Day. But try as we might to prolong every moment, the days between having summer sprawled before us like an open-ended promise and heading back home were like a screen door on a short, tight spring. I’d barely be unpacked, just about settling in, when zing… BAM! Suddenly it was time to stuff all my canned goods into an ancient Seagram’s box and lug it back down the mountain for the winter. We’d be away then until ice-out, home but not really home, pondering how things were surviving without us “up to camp.”

“Jeez, I bet it’s pretty barren up there right about now!” I’d muse from my other kitchen sometime mid-November. Munching on limp, sawdust-flavored graham crackers pulled from my Seagram’s box of “camp stuff,” I’d be dreaming of s’mores in July. With no year-round Rangeley relativity, my off-season imagination was filled with such conjecture, and enough cold-weather adjectives to convince myself I wasn’t missing much. Part of me knew the leaves fell, the loons left and came back, and the land critters tromped through the snow until April. But, without being right there to watch, it was all just a big theory.

Each year, when the calendar pages of our other life finally wound back around to May, we switched into “going back up” gear. “You start putting stuff away, while I turn the electricity on, get the water going. Then, I’ll go down front, check the lake level, see if there’s any trees down. Maybe tomorrow, we can get over to the building supply, get those parts to fix the dock so we can put that back in.” We’d pile out of the Subaru and scatter like squirrels, a flurry of divergent activities fueled by the common purpose of getting going with summer. Our agenda was long-winded and multi-directional—pulling us around, under, over and through—allowing us to pause for a couple tranquil breaths before driving away until the next time.

Now that we stay put, our sentences are shorter, our movements slower, taking us just a few steps off center. No more hypotheses. No more figuring that whatever goes on past September, it must be dark and pretty dreary just to console ourselves. Truth is, the loons take their sweet time about leaving the lake, gathering in long, farewell dances on the cooling water until they’re ready for their journey. And yes, the leaves do fall off the trees, sometimes one by one. Before they do the birches hold on a long while against the blue of the bare mountains, their last flashes of gold no less gorgeous than the first wild flowers blooming along banks of just-melted snow. Then, there’s a pre-winter pause when the naked branches stand in contrast to the evergreens, mottling the hillsides with warm magenta and pewter. Who knew? Now I do. Being here, with Tom as my co-anchor, I know colors change and weather patterns come and go, not necessary on schedule with calendar days or vacation allowances. I’m now at leisure to flow with it, my rhythm no longer set from knowing “time is wasting,” or my “time off” is short, but by knowing it’s time. Time for stopping, for starting up again, for pausing along the way.

“Outdoor chairs are back in the garage,” Tom announced the other day.

“Yup,” I acknowledged, even though I knew he saw me watching him trudge by. Bearing witness to the Adirondack chairs’ departure from our waterfront till May, I was glad to see it looked like a natural migration rather than a funeral march as in years past. I waved and smiled, knowing that, moments earlier, I’d been sitting in one of those summer chairs, watching the last leaves fall and the loons gather, long past September.

Roping in readers

Woah…hard to believe it’s been two whole years since I gave birth! Not to a baby—at least not the kind that squeals and squirms and grows up to need braces, a room in the house you avoid at all costs, and a college fund. Two years ago today, I began this blog.

In looking back over how my little creation went from wet behind the ears to toddling around getting into trouble, I figured I’d acknowledge its 4,000-plus viewers-to-date by sharing some of my favorite ways it’s been visited this year.

Unlikely links to An Unbroken Bond: Proof of my premise that much of what’s good and true in my life is somehow, someway rooted in Rangeley, I’m honored to report that the largest percentage of searchers landing on my blog were looking for my friend, Edie Lutnick’s book, An Unbroken Bond. So how does a blog rambling about life in the woods by a big, quiet lake end up promoting an award-winning biography about an event that rocked the world from our nation’s core? Just how does an author like myself—who marks the seasons turning with passages like “Out Like a Lamb-eating Yeti”—help another author reveal what it was really like surviving the aftermath of 9/11, what it really means to never forget 10 years later? Very serendipitously. That’s the short answer. For the long answer, see my tenth anniversary tribute. Then please click on the book graphic (to the right of this post) to read Edie’s story, share it, and join the bond that winds its way from the mountains of Maine back to the heart of Manhattan and beyond.

Taking my serious cap back off, I will now pay tribute to my random blog viewers. By random, I mean these folks are not my regular acquaintances, or those who log on because I wrote the URL on a cocktail napkin they stuffed in their purse, or even those who get curious because they heard about the “Rangeley blog lady” from a friend of a friend. I’m paying tribute here to those Googlers who most likely were looking for something entirely different when they happened upon my back woods website.

So here’s to the best of this year’s Rooted In Rangeley search terms and the wayward surfers who found their way to my corner of the lake:

Rooted where? My search engine database is still logging plenty of “rootedinrangeley” attempts and a wide variety of spelling variations on my name and my location. Turns out, I am “routed” here and, some would say “rotted,” but usually just “joy’s blog in Rangeley.” Once I was even found at “My Fork in the Road, Maine.” (On occasion, I do confess to Googling my own self, just because I can. My blog publisher claims it doesn’t add to my reader tally, but it’s still fun to play cyber boomerang with myself now and then.)

Trip advisor (not!): Some people seem to have stumbled across me in their eagerness to discover all there is in to do in here in God’s country, and then some. They might come up in person, but only if they can figure out when the “worst mosquito months in Rangeley” are, what time it actually gets dark here, when will the lake freeze over, will the “Purple Onion” still be serving and, especially, will the transfer station (aka dump) stay open despite everything.

Quirky seasonal celebrations: I’m not the least bit surprised that this search term found me. Even when Santa has to rely on his hazard lights to land at the Wilhelm Reich Museum for his annual breakfast with the local kiddies, and the Easter bunny can barely hop down our muddy trails, Rangeley is a popular holiday destination. One potential visitor, however, seemed bent on “making myself into Santa” and becoming “Santa’s special helper” up here. He’d have to read and distill all my blogs to get the right answer: Move here year-round. Don’t shave or cut your hair from hunting season till ice out. Join the guide’s and sportsman’s club so you can fill out your flannel at their legendary potluck suppers. And keep your cheeks red and yourself jolly with regular summit-to-pub runs up on Saddleback. Oh and, to whoever read Quirky Turkey and A Moving Feast and wanted to know the “best kind of wine to serve with a seafood stuffed turducken,” the right answer is homemade apple—made from whatever Tom could put through the press before the deer nibbled ’em off the trees.

Woodsy Wikipedia: The 2012 award in this category goes to whoever was trying to locate the “tallest tree in Rangeley.” Can’t imagine what sort of research she’s doing, but I think she should ask CMP, M & H Logging, the Rangeley Lakes Heritage Trust, and the local float plane pilots. They’ll tell her the exact coordinates, how close it is to a power line, how much cord wood it would yield if it doesn’t survive the next wind storm, if an eagle calls it home, and how much it would cost to buzz over it.

Haphazard how-to advice: Since I offer cooking tips one week, then blab about my fashion blunders and my novel approach to home decorating the next, it only makes sense that I could attract folks wondering about “how to decorate my old snowshoes” along with those looking for “Tomlette recipes” (evidence there is another Tom out there making signature omelets or, at least, someone who wants to learn from him). I don’t know if, given the chance, I’d invite them off my virtual doorstep and in for coffee, except maybe those sisters still searching for “bathing suits that support real outdoor women.”

Top prize for 2012 search terms in this category is a toss up. I can’t for the life of me decide if the winning query should be “how to get squirrels in my wall to stop making flapping noises” or what to do when a “dead mouse in the wall smells like PMS.” Even though those researchers were misdirected to my take on The Other PMS (Persistent Male Snoring) and Creatures Stirring, I think they need to look way beyond the Web for the help they really need.

Boom chicka wah….what?: Whoever Googled “hot chicks in Rangeley” probably wasn’t looking for a blog featuring me in my fishing hat riding around in the canoe with a couple beagles, but I guess it depends on his definition of hot. And I’m pretty sure the mystery surfer who typed in “tales of Indian wives getting rooted by somebody besides their husbands” was not curious about my descriptions of life (alone with Tom) in the pucker brush. While I do hope to one day be accepted as a “native” around here, I will continue to keep myself “rooted” in a different context!

Seriously, thanks to my readers—those from away who wish they were here and those from here who aren’t scared off…yet. And thanks to my real kids who haven’t stopped speaking to me…yet. If not for all of you, I wouldn’t be Rooted In Rangeley, but trapped in the meandering tumbleweed of my own twisted mind.