Black gloves, silver lining

It’s August and I really wish I knew where the heck my gloves are.

Yup, you read that right. I’m smack dab in the middle of real Rangeley summer, those few precious days when I can confidently expose both my lower and upper extremities. At the same time. Outdoors. For more than a half hour. And I can do so while immersing myself in my favorite thing this side of the lake: logging endless miles on my mountain trike as long and as fast as I can before darker days descend again. Still, here I am, peddling into the glorious wild blue and green yonder, thinking about my goddamn gloves.

As in hand-warming, protection against snow and ice gloves, not the gardening gloves or fall cleaning gloves I should be thinking about this time of year. And not Prada or some other pricey mail order label that ceases to be “the thing to wear next season” the minute it arrives at my log cabin post office in Oquossoc. I’m obsessing over a plain, black pair of gloves. The ones I bought at Reny’s for $14.99. The ones I’ve been missing all summer.

Last time I remembered seeing them was back in May. As in “May I please put away my gloves, and everything fleece, especially that headband that makes my regular ball cap hat head look like a good hair day?” They were in my bike sack which, by Memorial Day, looked like the sale bin at L.L. Cote. (You know, the one that’s right inside the entryway that you try to walk around but can’t resist pawing through the huge cluster snarl of chartreuse neck warmers and last season’s triple extra-large t-shirts people didn’t even want to buy to wear doing yard chores?) If I dug deep, I could unearth my black gloves to keep my fingers from freezing to my handle bars when not-quite-spring tried to turn into maybe-summer. Then I’d move ’em with me because they weren’t just for biking. These were my utilitarian, almost-all-weather pair—my go-to gloves for wherever I went. Lightweight, portable and nearly waterproof, I could carry them in the front pouch of my ancient windbreaker like a Mooselook marsupial, or pocket them in one of my fleeces, padding my pre-bike season flab with little glove love handles.

But, just as I dared to think I might not have to keep them “on hand” in all my travels, the gloves went missing. I set out to shift them to one of my other winter waiting spots and poof…the gloves just weren’t there to transport. Not in my bike sack, or my pockets. Not anywhere anymore.

“It’s OK,” I said. “You don’t need them, not right now, anyways. And by the time you do, they’ll turn up.” It was June, the first day of full-blown Rangeley summer. Not seems-like-summer or June-uary or “I have more goose bumps than common sense for putting on shorts this morning.” It was biking weather worthy of all my winter daydreams. Temps in the high seventies all day. Bluebird skies. Balmy breezes. So why was I laser focused on not having gloves in my bike sack “just in case” rather than on the lupine-lined road ahead?

Because I’m called Fidget for good reason. As in “Fidget: To make small movements, especially of the hands and feet, through nervousness or impatience.” Tom bestowed the nickname somewhat affectionately when we first met and he decided to make the verb into a proper noun just for me. Fidget is all about business—her’s and everyone else’s. She frets over schedules, dust particles, paperwork, whether or not she can drink all the milk in the gallon before the “best used by” date, and cheap gloves. If I let her, she’d take over my whole program. But, thanks to the Big Move to Rangeley and wanting to do more with my retirement than fiddle about the house, another side of my self has emerged to keep Fidget in line. She’s an easy-going, free wheeling, tie-dyed Zen Momma I like to call Joyride.

Joyride doesn’t sweat the small stuff. To her, cheap gloves and fidgety crap like that is all small stuff. She’s too busy flying around on mega-coasters or easin’ on down the road to care or listen. She held her own pretty good, too, for most of July, basking in each glove-less moment, looking lovingly at my naked hands on the handle bars and appreciating how daily exposure was transforming their “Nana skin” from winter crepey white to sun-toasted marshmallow gold.

Try as I might, though, my pedaling meditation was still being hijacked. The thought of gloves magically reappearing kept buzzing around my brain like a pesky house fly that just wouldn’t leave the room. Should I look in my bike sack again? How ’bout Tom’s? In my pockets? In the vast vortex of irretrievable items under the Subaru seats? In that dank creepy space above the basement steps or the cold weather baskets I kept pawing through like a frantic squirrel? Had they flipped off my lap in a parking lot, or unintentionally been dropped into the recycling bin where they’d soon be found at the “Rangeley Plantation Walmart” by some lucky Flatlander? Was one of my girls really desperate for gloves the last time she visited?

While my Joyride side soaked up every drop of July sunshine, the Fidget in me knew that, at any moment, July in Rangeley could turn into “but Ju-LIE.” As in when visitors say, “You told me I wouldn’t need warm socks up here this time of year, but Ju-LIE!”

Without my precious gloves, I feared that even August could become “but Ah guessed” overnight. As in “Ah guessed it would stay summery in Rangeley by now, but Ah-guessed wrong.” Then, mid-trail one day, it hit me. I was ONLY worrying about gloves! Both sides of my brain did some sort of harmonic convergence and drummed that into my psyche louder than the grouse I’d just flushed into the woods. I was having the best summer of my life with nothing better to fidget over than a stupid pair of gloves! No work deadlines or unmet milestones pulling me back inside till I was good and ready. No health issues or house projects from hell. No family drama or maternal misery. Both my daughters were doing OK. Better than OK, actually. They were thriving. At the same time. And my husband? Well he was all that a a girl named Fidget could ever hope for in an adventure buddy/camp compadre and then some.

Whoever said that our greatest blessings are also our greatest curses probably wasn’t talking about gloves. But, in my case, it fits. Now when my silly gloves come to mind, I don’t get mad. I’m glad they went missing. And as long as they come out of gestation or I get to Reny’s for a new pair by Septem-BRRRR, I’m good.


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.

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 big stone 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.


For more “Rooted In Moosehead, too” stories, see:

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




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.



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.

For more “Camp Connectivity,” see:

Having my moments

Somewhere between the shrimp cassoulet, the lobster mac ‘n cheese, and the “perfect pairing” wine, it  happened. I had a moment. I stopped, looked up from the mounds of “I can have turkey any day” stuff I’d loaded onto my plate, and saw Helen and Tom—really saw them—sitting there with me. And I was overcome, enraptured. It only lasted a second, of course, as moments like that do. But the feeling of how completely thunderstruck I was lingered.

We’d been planning our Old Port Thanksgiving for weeks. With Helen working retail in Boston, it would be fun to meet halfway and have a special holiday dinner in Portland. We’d spend Christmas together at home in Rangeley, we decided. But for Thanksgiving, we’d be doin’ it up down country.

“Got reservations at the Portland Harbor Hotel!” I messaged Helen. “Here’s a link to the menu. If we start fasting and prioritizing our food groups now, we might be able to do that five-course buffet  justice!”

When Thanksgiving arrived, sunny and unseasonably warm, I eagerly donned a dressy V-neck and a pair of swanky but stretchy black pants. I was feeling festive already, with my favorite pendant unburied from my  everyday fleeces to bejewel my bare throat. I even made it into the city without a speck of muddy car crust on the back of my slacks disclosing my point of origin! By the time I cozied into the ambiance at the historic hotel, I was pumped for the food, the memories, and the magic. I was primed for my Thanksgiving moment.

It didn’t happen, not like I imagined when I made the reservation, memorized the menu, and picked out my holiday clothes. And when it did, it wasn’t really a Thanksgiving moment, but more a moment of thanks giving and receiving, of gratitude for living out my own sweetest dreams.

“More of the same, thank you Spirit,” I said back in January. “Let’s keep it comin’.” Another year of finding balance in all things. Of rediscovering who I am, what I came here to be, and the crazy, wonderful people who help keep my feet on the ground and my head in the clouds along the way. Of being prosperous and healthy enough to travel, to splurge now and again, to wander without fear. Of having the supreme good fortune to always come home to simple abundance, to Rangeley. Of proving my mother right that, despite my doubts, most days I do live up to my name. That’s what I’d hoped for, what I intended for myself, what I’d sought and found. How it came to pass was not always pretty, and certainly not as I would have planned, but it was all good. And how blessed I was to have come full circle and then some! The grace, the gift of being exactly where I wanted to be hit me in one glorious second, mid-forkful, on Thanksgiving.

“I’m thankful to be here with you guys,” I blubbered, “and for all we’ve done this year as a family. This is wonderful.” In my head, voicing my gratitude sounded like a beautiful halleluiah chorus. What actually came out of my mouth, however, was a second-glass-of-wine sentimental slur my daughters call “the Mom voice.”

“Awww, me, too,” Helen replied. We all smiled, nodded, and shared a look like we had the best kept secret—better than any wine talkin’ could express. Right then and right there, together, was perfect.

Now that Christmas is coming and another New Year, I’ve been thinking a lot about what made my  moment of thanksgiving perfect. What is the difference between a real heart swelling moment of grace and those holiday moments I imagine having because I’m in the right place with my special someones eating perfectly roasted foods in my once-a-year outfit?  Here’s what I believe.

While the visions I stage in my mind might be picture perfect, the genuine ones don’t care if my camera is ready. They don’t come on cue because the calendar, a costume, or even a rite of passage says it’s time. The truly perfect moments sneak up when I stop trying so hard. They catch me with my mouth full, tinsel in my hair, and my traveling pants all wrinkled. They leave me awestruck, wondering what just happened, wanting more. Of course, the rational, calculating side of me wants to rewind and repeat, to figure out a formula for guaranteeing I keep getting those real moments of grace. But that’s also the side that thinks I should be in a Currier and Ives print this time of year, or staging my version of It’s a Wonderful Life. If she had her way, she’d altogether spoil my chances for serendipity, for divine surprises. I gotta put her in the back seat, so to speak, and let my intuition drive. I do know I need to plan, give myself a course of action. Because I definitely can’t get what I don’t put out there, don’t even dare to ask for. But I also know I can’t make room for those “everything coming true” moments unless I’m willing to let my best laid plans fly out the window and go on faith. Then, when I’m moving forward in “focused surrender”—when synchronicity can take over structure—amazing stuff happens.

“Our anniversary’s coming up soon. How do you want to celebrate?” Tom asked awhile back as we sat together in our favorite spot this time of year. The furniture store called it a loveseat, but we call it the only couch that could fit facing the woodstove in our remodeled Rangeley living room. A bunch of anniversary moments flashed through my mind as I pondered my answer. Like the time we went to The Keys for our 25th and I rented a silver, Mustang convertible as a special surprise. I had it all planned, saw exactly how everything would go down. My husband would see the car sitting in the airport lot, gleaming in the Florida sun. Somewhere in a nearby palm tree, a bird would sing its little lungs out as I wished him a happy anniversary and admitted that yes, I had up-scaled our usual “crap box” car rental. As it turned out, we didn’t get the video footage I had playing in my head. But we did get a spot on the Boston news channel as two of the stranded travelers trying to make it out of Logan during the post-Christmas blizzard. Besides, it was too dark by the time we finally found the Mustang in the parking lot half a day late—and we were too busy trying to figure out how to cram our luggage in it without throwing out Tom’s back.

Then there was the time just before our Big Move to Rangeley we’d planned to spend a romantic anniversary “at home” in our cabin. We’d sit in our cute little living room, watching the snow flakes flutter past the white birches. Nice, right? Well, we got up here just in time for the toothache Tom had been nursing for a week to erupt into a golf ball sized abscess. When I turned the Subaru around and headed back down the mountain, I knew we wouldn’t be the “spend your holidays in Rangeley” brochure couple that year. It was all good, though. We’d have our moments. They’d come out of nowhere, maybe as we were cruising down the Overseas Highway with the warm breeze whipping through our hair and Even Better Than the Real Thing blasting on the radio. Or maybe we’d be holding hands and drinking homemade wine, hanging out with the beagles in our Rangeley flannels.

“Should we travel, stay home, maybe get a dinner reservation in town?” Tom asked. I gazed away from the fire with a smile and we shared a look like we had the best kept secret.

“We’ll see,” I said.

Directionless TV

New Year’s Day 2014: “To read more in my free time.”
New Year’s Day 2015: “To watch less TV, giving myself infinitely more free time.” (See last year).

Watching New Year’s Rockin’ Eve two years in a row, while what my body really wanted was bed, must have been the final straw. I stopped being a resolution recluse and boldly proclaimed my change of direction: “Start picking up a book more often than the blasted TV remote, you lazy, half-witted slouch!”

So far, it’s working for me. Not perfectly well, but I’d say distinctly better. I’m doing more page turning than channel surfing. I’ve gone Wild and vicariously hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, and become engulfed in an Inferno of mystery and intrigue. I’ve left the Sister Wives and the Little Couple in favor of some quality time with Mike Bowditch, my favorite fictional game warden. And if I stay strong in my resolve, I fully intend to be Daring Greatly by March.

It’s still a hard-fought battle, a nightly dilemma. Will I open a book and forge new mental pathways or once more kid myself that The Learning Channel somehow deserves its name? Will great authors spark my imagination, or hoarders, bridezillas and gypsies totally snuff it into the couch cushions?

Not too long ago, there was no such choice to make, when TV and “camp” were not mutually possible, when the only big screen I had was the one keeping mosquitoes from swarming as I watched my own National Geographic episodes live from the porch. I could get a few different channels if I stared at the fire in the wood stove long enough. But aside from that—and being entertained by the pantry mice—paperbacks, cards, board games, and a retro radio tuned into “The Mountain of Pure Rock” atop Sugarloaf was as exciting as things got inside the cabin after sundown. Company from away didn’t always understand, especially after they got water logged and the thrill of going to the Pine Tree Frosty had worn off.

“But what else do you do up here?” one of Helen’s middle school friends, who reportedly had Nintendo and her own TV/ VCR in her bedroom, asked.

“We play Yahtzee and Monopoly and eat s’mores and read,” she said. “We read a lot.”

“Like chapter books?” the girl said. By Sunday morning, her attention span was shot. And that was in the summer.

“I s’pose this will be kinda nice in the winter,” Tom said just after we made the Big Move to Rangeley full time. He was kicked back in his new double recliner watching our first ever upta camp TV, which also happened to be our first ever flat screen, hi-def, bigger than a breadbox TV. It was a huge buying decision, solely mine to make, while Tom had been away working out his teaching contract till the weekend. Did we really need to bring a boob tube into our “dream” log cabin? Was it time to ditch the tiny Discount Warehouse set we bought back in the ’90s, even though it still had some life left to it? “Yes!” I decided in a moment of early spring slump. I closed my second novel of the week and called DirecTV.

But I still couldn’t imagine how in the heck we could pick up satellite reception out here amid the towering trees. “Don’t worry,” friends told me. “Norm will set you up. I’ve seen him put a DirecTV dish out on an island. He even put one on an outhouse once.”

They were right. A few days, a really tall ladder and some serious roof hook-ups later, Norm clicked through the remote, and presto chango. I could see glaciers calving into the Gulf of Alaska, the real shades of The Color Purple, and every single palm frond and bug bite on Survivor. I had more than a hundred channels and, soon, a renewed addiction.

I fell deep and hard into “reality” TV—my obsession of choice, convincing myself I could turn it off any time I wanted. After all, I said, I didn’t get sucked into the sports/movie super-mega-bundle dish package. I didn’t have a bedroom TV and a kitchen TV and a loft TV. I had one TV in a small corner formerly known as “the beagle room.” And thanks to steadfastly refusing a DVR hook-up, I had to be strong. Who knew when I’d have to go to the bathroom and miss some vital twist, some witty comment or, heaven forbid, seeing who got Chopped or wasn’t The Biggest Loser? I had high standards for when and how I indulged.  Amazing Race, Undercover Boss and, if no one was around, an occasional Say Yes to the Dress, were my allowable choices. And North Woods Law—a vital local broadcast—was a non-decision, my civic duty. I deliberately black balled Amish kids binge drinking, and couples wanting to “embrace” life in Alaska while not wanting to haul wood, poop outside, or butt up against bears.

And then it hit me. I was sad. Not the kind  of sad that kept me from walking the dogs, showing up at the dinner table, or opening the curtains. Too much mindless TV had given me a case of what Psychology Today calls “infinite sadness,” a seeping, low grade feeling that I was turning into a total waste of skin. While it hadn’t suffocated me yet, a door was closing, slowly crushing my psyche, show by stupid show.

I began to wonder: If my mind was a bookshelf, what would it be lined with after hours and hours of reality TV? Wilting roses from the Bachelor? The Travelocity gnome sitting atop a stack of Amazing Race clues? Would it have any of the rich permanence of a grand old library, or the vacant stillness of an empty warehouse? Or worse, maybe the regions of my brain had become a row of closed cubby-holes—and the only thoughts waiting to pop out were silly, vacuous, Laugh In-like one-liners!

I took a hard look at how I defined “surviving” the long winter evenings out here. Was it letting the dim glow of an idiot box keep me going till ice out, or spending long evenings becoming truly enlightened by the books that were piling up like cord wood? I sure did miss Mike Bowditch and whatever new adventure Paul Doiron had for me to read! And I kept promising myself I’d finish The Promise of Energy Psychology, a second-hand paperback all the more inspiring because it was earmarked, highlighted and annotated by its previous owner. “This book is a New Age textbook,” I decided when I read the first half. “It’s helped someone be the best she could be!” The only thing the Learning Channel and Discovery Channel were teaching me was how much back-to-back crap I could gaze at, slack jawed and inert in my recliner, till I shuffled off to bed. I did learn to be glad I wasn’t a third sister wife, or compulsively eating dryer sheets, or cheap enough to dumpster dive out back of Parkside and Main. “At least I’m not dating my car!” I’d mutter to myself when I finally clicked the off button. “Plus, lucky me, I’m way past the threat of suddenly squeezing out a baby in the Coos Canyon rest area because whoops….I was more than just fat.”

So I backed away from the TV and got back to my books. Real books. I don’t do Kindle ’cause yup, you guessed it, I don’t own one. Tracking words across a tiny screen is what I do for a living. So when it comes to reading for pleasure, I prefer the tactile enjoyment of holding a real book, the thrill of unearthing a good Rangeley “dump” book, or the social amity of visiting my friends who own the bookstore in town.

It’s over a month into the New Year and I’m happy to say I’ve gone whole days immersed in Paul Doiron, Dan Brown and Colleen McCollough. No more gypsy wedding brawls or folks long-jumping through hoards of junk to get to their front door. I’ve limited my consumption to select comedies, North Woods Law, and a few upbeat reality shows. I’ve only slid off the book wagon once but, hey, that was a special occasion. It was free HBO, Cinemax, Starz and Showtime weekend. And now that I fork over almost as much for satellite TV as I used to for a car payment, free trumps everything. “My books will be there next weekend,” I decided, “Fifty new channels won’t!” Except for when I have to run to the bathroom and chance missing something really cool, home entertainment doesn’t get much better than that in my cabin in the woods in February.

For more “Camp Connectivity,” see:

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


Just like riding a bike…not!

“It’s just like riding a bike!” With a quick nod and a dismissive hand gesture, this is society’s way of telling us we are “good to go,” that whatever we might be struggling with is doable. And almost everybody hears the breezy little saying the same way.

“Oh, OK then, I got this!” Easy peasy. Piece o’ cake. Not to worry.

Not me. While I have come to understand the gist of the sentiment, I’ve never been able to make a simple translation. I’ve always added my own mental side note: “Easy for almost everybody. A bit of extra work—and maybe some blood, sweat and tears—for me.”

I got my first tricycle when I was five. It was a rugged red and chrome beauty nothing like the plastic Power Wheels of today. My dad brought it home one afternoon, plopped it in the driveway, and said, “There ya go! Have fun.” And, boy, was I planning to…just like Billy next door, and Cindy who lived down by the school and got to race around on the pavement to her heart’s content. I hopped on, ready to ride, but didn’t budge. Unable to push the pedals a full revolution, I just sat there, a coiled ball of “big girl” determination, hoping and grunting, and going nowhere.

The trike went back to the hardware store the next day, and that’s the first time I think it dawned on me I really wasn’t like almost everybody. Oh, I’m sure I knew, deep down, long before. But having no real relativity, no Billys or Cindys in my field of vision yet, I naively went along at my own pace. As a baby, how could I know that dragging orthopedic gear behind me wasn’t the developmental benchmark kind of crawling Dr. Spock had my mother anticipating? And what yardstick could have told me the long expanse between the sofa and my next handhold on the bookshelf was something most toddlers had already walked with brazen confidence?

I was born with a mild case of cerebral palsy. Just a touch. Not enough, thank God, to leave me in a wheelchair or visibly crippled as the diagnosis often implies. But enough to leave me unsteady on my feet, better on one leg than the other, and longing for Keds instead of “special” shoes. In the days before mainstreaming, it was enough to sideline me on every track and field day, to leave me in the bleachers where no one needed to wait for me to catch up, or tell me my two-foot flailing leap across the dirt didn’t qualify as a long jump.

I remember feeling like I’d never take off under my own steam, ditch the training wheels and the worrisome looks, and just fly like the wind. Eventually, though, not so long after my stationary trike trauma, off I went speeding across the school yard on just two wheels, my grandpa doing the “no hands” wave behind me. To this day, with many miles of victory and defeat at my back, the Olympic moment when the pavement rushed beneath me—of seeing my orange tiger handlebar streamers fluttering with every determined push of my pedals—still stands out as my personal best.

“Ramblin’ Rose to Papa Bear. Come in Papa Bear!” Many years later, I was calling from the Oquossoc Grocery, so pleased with myself I used our walkie talkie “handles” to report back home to Tom. I couldn’t use my walkie talkie, I told him, since I was way out of range. I’d just biked 13 miles into town and, after a sandwich and the satisfaction of watching cars go by as I sat at a picnic table drying my sweat-soaked bike helmet hair in the summer sun, I’d make the return trip.

So began my Ramblin’ Rose years when, in my late thirties, I finally figured out ways to use “favorite” and “exercise” in the same sentence. I had two: snorkeling and mountain biking. The first felt so free and graceful I wanted to grow a mermaid tail, but required a plane ticket to the tropics. The second felt gnarly and gritty, never floaty, but was right in my back yard. So, most days, biking was a no-brainer. Using the legs God gave me to propel myself through the mountain biking mecca of western Maine was a matter of natural selection more than natural ability. And, most days, it was better for my body than other choices such as aerobics, especially my metatarsals and menisci, which barely survived my attempts to join the Jane Fonda craze. It certainly was better for my ego, safety, and sanity than skiing. And running? Well that, or my form of it, was something I rarely attempted—reserved primarily for snake sightings and general admission into a U2 concert.

Hard as I tried, though, practice never made biking smooth going. It wasn’t something I returned to effortlessly 20 years after parking the old Schwinn five-speed I used as a teenager when I couldn’t get a ride somewhere. Getting back on the seat took guts, gumption, and overcoming the agony of letting my daughters see that, for their mom, the old “just like riding a bike” saying wasn’t true. Any sort of fluidity in motion required a finely tweaked head start and attention to detail en-route: 1) Carefully swing my “bad” leg up (and especially over) the bike frame and hop on. 2 ) Get my “good” foot cranking. 3) Throw my other one onto the opposite pedal. 4) Hang on, pedal like crazy, and enjoy the ride. 4) When done, dismount without keeling over (See step 1). Thankfully, my mastery was rewarded with many, many family bike trips, even more solo excursions, and surprisingly few dumps or crashes. I celebrated turning 40 with a 40-mile round trip ride to Rangeley and back with Helen, then 13, proudly setting the pace. And, by age 45, I even managed to look my personal best in the black Spandex bike shorts and red rose emblazoned jacket Tom bought for that birthday.

Not long into my 50s though, things changed. I let my bike gather more garage dust than road dirt. I traded my daily rides for walks, and took my biking indoors to the gym. I began to suffer more and more from what a healing friend compassionately called “gravitational insecurity.” Age, loss of flexibility, and being thrown off center by life’s hazards left me more finicky than ever about how I chose to “get out there” without getting hurt. I stayed in shape, wearing out more than a few pair of sneakers and, occasionally, strapping on snow shoes. But I longed for the freedom of the open road, the exhilaration of pushing myself past my own backyard.

“Trust me. I got you and I’m not letting go till you feel safe again,” Tom promised many summers ago. I was on my bike again for the first time in so long I needed him to hold onto my seat and follow me up the driveway like my grandpa did 50 years ago. Eventually I did let him let go. And I did get the hang of the whole pedaling and balancing thing enough for us to take a short ride together. But I was shaking when I got back home, so unsteady that I found the excursion more terrifying than invigorating. “Yeah, right…just like riding a bicycle,” I muttered and hobbled off, leaving it in the driveway. At 57, I was learning the difference between blindly attempting what I should be able to do with my slight disability, and how far I could safely push myself toward what I genuinely wanted to do. Still, retreating to my Adirondack chair for the rest of the afternoon, I felt my limitations closing in on me.

I went back to walking and waiting for my next snorkel vacation. I told myself I’d just have to be OK with enjoying life in prime biking country on foot. And then, just as August gave way to the clear, crisp perfection of September in Maine, I had a knowing so strong it woke me from my trance. “But I want to ride a bike!” I said. “I really, really do!” I wanted to claim the trail on my own terms, and I wasn’t ready to pack it in and park myself on an ATV like so many of my rural neighbors. But what, exactly, did that look like? How could I regain the joy of grinding up the gravel, of gliding past woods and water, while nurturing myself and my needs? I Googled “adult mountain bike training wheels” without much success. I scrolled through online pictures of three-wheelers more suited to retirement communities than God’s country. Then I decided to swallow my pride over “giving up on myself” and ask Tom what he thought.

He didn’t laugh or even smirk and, in the blink of an eye, had me looking at the answer. It was a recumbent tricycle, a TerraTrike Rover to be exact, and he knew this because his traditional bike was bothering his lower back and straining his wrists and he wanted one too! The trikes would take a little getting used to, pedaling from a different angle and all, but they couldn’t fall over and would keep our legs and core in great shape while we laid back and enjoyed the scenery. A few weeks and a trip down the mountain later, and our twin TerraTrike Rover recumbent trikes waited side-by-side in the driveway.

“Sweet ride,” Becky said. She’d been my other biking buddy since way back, and was glad to see me ready to roll again. And I was ready, or so I thought, as I sat down and attempted to take off. But I only made it a couple tire spins up the driveway before the reptilian part of my brain stopped me short. “Woah….definitely not just like riding a bike,” I realized, attempting to regain my old center of gravity and gain some ground with my new age set of wheels. “I can’t!” I said, trying not to notice the disappointment on Tom’s face as he sat watching. Even though flipping the trike was technically nearly impossible, every fiber in my being swore I was going to fall over and never get up!

But Becky, bless her, wasn’t about to let me slump back to my Adirondack chair in defeat. An Outward Bound instructor, she is gifted with helping others dig deep, push through pain, and discover their core strengths. “You’re not going to fall over, Mom, you can’t!” she yelled in her tough love voice, hip-checking my handle bars and fender over and over till she convinced me. Then she helped me practice how to pedal, how to turn, how to stop and start. And, finally, I was off, leaving her in a puff of road dust, squinting behind me.

As it turned out, learning to ride my second tricycle was no more second nature for me than trying to ride my first. But as I heard my daughter’s victory whoop fading in the distance and sped off to catch up with my Papa Bear, I knew it was worth every ounce of extra effort. No, I certainly was not like almost everybody, rambling along at my own pace on my new TerraTrike Rover, the road wide open in front of me.