Channeling my inner beagle

All I really need to know about retirement I’m learning from my beagle.

It’s not that I lack two-legged role models. My husband Tom, who should be a poster boy for AARP, is a shining example, as are many friends and family who have crossed this bridge before me. But when it comes to learning from the best, old Kineo dog is my Zen Master.

I always thought leaving the world of work-for-pay behind would feel more eagle-like than beagle-like. I’d soar up, up and away from earth-bound limits and weighty commitments, honing my sights back down on what I really wanted and needed. But then my path toward retirement became as roundabout as a rabbit trail through the pucker brush. And when I finally made it to the finish line, I was channeling b + eagle energy.

Sleep. Eat. Romp around. Repeat. Become enraptured by a leaf. Let the wind tickle your nose and flap your ears back. Drop when you’re weary but scamper while you can. Kineo’s teachings are as simple as they are profound. He’s never read the Tao Te Ching and can’t begin to explain how he walks his path with so much delight and gratitude. And he certainly doesn’t know that “freedom from attachment” is a thing. Still, he shows me “The Way” way better than my shelves full of New Age books and hours of fireside philosophizing.

“Watch and learn from the Beagle Buddha,” I remind myself whenever Tom and I take Kineo off road far enough to unleash him. We’ll be half way up the hill behind our house and Tom will reach down and unhook him from the tether that’s so often necessary for the traits of his breed—a nose and heart as big as the North Woods and a brain the size of a pea. “Good boy. Go on now you’re FREE!” I holler. Then I stand back and watch a live demonstration of the power of letting go.

It doesn’t happen all at once. So bent is he on sniffing every possible leaf and hummock that, at first, he can’t feel the loss of pull-back from his master, can’t shift his own weight into forward momentum. Then, like a lightening bolt, his new reality hits home. He stops, looks up, and a pinpoint of awareness flashes through the dimness of his primal dome. ZING! He’s on his own! His tail wags double time and I swear he smiles. Then, in a nanosecond, he throws himself into overdrive so fast his hind legs almost outrun his head. Woooosh! Suddenly a floppy-eared Taz/Wile E. Coyote shape-shifter, Kineo beats feet off trail. He’ll circle back eventually. But not until he’s celebrated every square inch of his independence.

“Ever wonder where you’d end up if you took your dog for a walk and never once pulled back on the leash?”

I started pondering that quote by author Robert Brault about the same time I started pondering retirement. “Hmmm…I’d end up somewhere deep in God’s Country where I wouldn’t turn around till my legs gave out, or my heart or my belly called me back home,” I thought. I wouldn’t really know for sure, though, until I went from kinda retired to full-on retired. And I was kinda retired, or at least I told myself that, for a long time.

As I said, mine was not a direct route, a threshold I just crossed over one day and then…boom…I was done working. Already a veteran technical writer before my Big Move to Rangeley, I’d been laid off and rehired, had quit and switched jobs so many times I was worn out enough to just fade away and not look back. Then, when Tom retired from teaching and I settled into a new home office steps from the Big Lake—and many miles from anyone needing the “propeller head” networking guides that used to be my claim to fame and a nice paycheck—I was ready to follow him out to pasture for good. Until I got a “remote” writing contract doing the exact same challenging but cool stuff that used to require commuting all over the place. Wonderful manager, terrific customers, most of whom were on the West Coast and didn’t need me at my desk till late morning. Good pay, flexible hours, great projects using the latest in high-tech publishing tools.

“But I feel like I’m retired,” I’d tell folks who wondered when I’d match my husband’s occupational status. “I travel. I make my own hours. I get tons of fresh air and exercise whenever I want. And I get paid.” Best job I ever had.

Until it wasn’t. Six years later, the fulcrum started to shift. Updated tools sent digital book making back to the Dark Ages. “Challenging” lost its cool factor. And customers got really cranky. For awhile, I kept pushing forward in “it’s OK as long as I can travel, take boat rides, and ride my bike” mode—sucking all the goodness I could out of life in a rural retirement community while telling myself I wasn’t getting sucked in the wrong direction when I’d turn my back on the lake and return to my desk. Gradually, though, I began to feel the pull-back—of meetings and deadlines and the never-ending cycle of rewording the same old stuff—more than my freedom. It might be long and really pliable, but I was on a leash, nonetheless. A retractable one. And my collar was beginning to chafe.

Finally, I cut myself loose last May. I got on early Social Security, bought myself a brand new laptop cleared of any company-sanctioned templates or Skype for Business appointments. I was free! Free to write whatever and whenever the “right” side of my brain wanted while relegating its nerdy left side to crossword puzzles in the Mountain Messenger. Free to watch the lake and the open road without watching my watch.

But none of that happened all at once. At first, I just couldn’t let it. I’d been a good, loyal professional too long, was too conditioned to pats on the back from my managers and the sweet treat of a bi-monthly paycheck. Could I actually shift into autonomy, embrace freedom? Or would my ego convince me I needed to fill up my calendar with some sort of busy work that kept me tethered to reward and recognition?

As with most life altering questions, it didn’t take long for full immersion into Rangeley summer to grant me an answer. And, as usual, when the answer hit I was on my bike heading off into the wild blue and green yonder. Suddenly, mid-pedal, I knew in my core that I didn’t really need my watch or my odometer or most of my old habits. A pinpoint of new awareness flashed through my self-induced fog. I was FREE, and I honestly and truly felt free. I’d turn around when I was damn well good and ready, beckoned home by a warm bowl of food, family, and all the comforts that really mattered.

Somewhere back on my New Age self-help shelf I remembered a passage that likened the power of detachment—of letting go with “focused surrender”—to shooting an arrow from a bow. Authentic freedom, it said, isn’t attained simply by releasing the arrow to fly, straight and true, toward its target. The act of pulling back the bow, of grounding yourself and shifting your sights on what you’re aiming for before you actually let go, that’s where the real magic happens. Kineo already knew that. Fortunately, it didn’t take me a dog’s age to catch on. No reading or over thinking required. ZING! Woooosh! Reality aligned with everything I was shooting for when I came to this retirement community in God’s Country. And like my beloved beagle mentor, I began to master the art of moving meditation, to honor the wisdom of returning to stillness.

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Mother’s Day anniversaries

For more than 20 years, Mother’s Day meant time to go back “upta camp” to rake the leaves, dust off the cobwebs, and watch the lake warm up before declaring it summer-ready and heading back to New Hampshire. Time for my girls to bestow their annual, handmade Pine Tree Frosty gift coupon/card and whatever trinket their allowances allowed, even though I told them to save their money.

“Mumma doesn’t need things,” I’d insist. Being with my family, happy and healthy, and back in Rangeley, was the best possible gift. As my pile of un-cashed ice cream vouchers grew, so did my memories of this fleeting weekend in early May when the promise of warm days by the lake stretched ahead like a mirage. Inevitably school, work, and my maternal duties in my “regular” house crept back into focus so that, by mid-summer, I’d be grounded in truth: I was a split-personality mother leading a seasonal dual existence. My family’s residence—a house with more space but a lot less charm—was three and a half hours away from our true home, our real base camp in Rangeley.

On Mother’s Day 2010, I made a colossal liar out of myself. Sitting in my Adirondack chair watching the lake “turn over” from another winter, I wasn’t the least bit remorseful, though. I’d come to find out there was an even better best possible gift for Mumma. Being right here with my family, happy and healthy, and staying here was all I ever needed and then some. Beginning with that one monumental weekend, I did not need to pack and head for “home” as soon as I got settled in. I was home—for good—a bona fide year-round Rangeley resident! Faith, family, determination, and a touch of insanity bought me my fairy tale. My life was consolidated, my pared-down possessions tucked snugly in my now-just-big-enough cabin. With home base and its newly-added upper stories peeking out of the birch boughs behind me, I faced the lake and let my head align with my heart. I could stay put now way past “camp closing” time, to see the big lake ice over again, to be there still for the next spring turning. “Priceless,” I said, and gave myself a big motherly hug.

This Mother’s Day weekend marks four years since my Big Move. Just before I pulled the plug on my old life (and my higher-speed Internet connection) and left New Hampshire for the last time, I posted the following thank-you note on Facebook:

I will be celebrating Mother’s Day in my “new” home by the lake, sending love to everyone who made the dream possible. To my three mothers….Mum, who gave me life and who shows me every day how love lives on in Spirit; to Prudy, my step-Mom, who helped me love myself as a grown woman while seeing the wonder in all things; and to Ruth, my Mother-in-Law, who taught me just in time, the healing power of unconditional love. To my beautiful, strong, funny, amazing daughters, Helen and Becky, who mother me back, but keep me young at heart and always eager for adventure. (Thank you for chosing me in this lifetime!) And, of course, to Tom, my husband and forever friend. Thank you for the courage to take this free fall, for the wisdom and common sense to bring our “craziness” into the realm of possibility, for keeping my feet on the ground and my head in the clouds, for laughing with me and loving me all ways, and for always  just being with me by our big, beautiful lake.

I’m still saying thanks every day since I wrote that. I thank my three mothers in Heaven for bringing me, collectively and in their own separate ways, to where I am today. I thank my daughters—for knowing I don’t need things because letting me scream like a 10-year-old with them on a mega-coaster or a whitewater raft is better than any trinket. I thank Tom, my best friend, for building this life around me and still wanting to share it with me, even through the long, cold Rangeley winters. I thank my girl friends, my soul sisters, who nurture me like mothers, and love me unconditionally for who I really am. I thank my work family, for enabling me continue my financial security out here in the woods, for helping me prove to myself and the rest of the traditional business world that earning money is just as much of a blessing as having the freedom and the enthusiasm to enjoy spending it. And, more than ever on this Mother’s Day, I thank myself, for just plain being—here and now—hugging myself in my camp chair, at peace with all that I have and have lost.

Forty years ago, I thought my joyful Mother’s Days were over. I’d proudly bought my mother a set of stoneware salt and pepper shakers with some of my $1.80-an-hour paycheck, even though she’d told me to save my money. “As long as you’re happy, I don’t really need things,” she said. “But thanks honey, they’re lovely.” Grinning, she set them in the dining room hutch for “special company.” Fortunately (and unfortunately) I had no way of knowing that was to be our last Mother’s Day. I was 17, madly in love with Tom, getting ready to graduate high school and head into my “best summer ever.” Mum died suddenly a couple months later, leaving me to stare angrily at the salt and pepper shakers and all the nick-knack gifts I’d given her that seemed so hollow. Happy? If happiness was what she really wanted for me, from me, how come she’d just taken all hope of it away with her forever?

But neither did I know then that mother-daughter chats wouldn’t stop, that the wisdom and support would come to find a different, more powerful, communication channel. I didn’t know then that, today, I’d be so relaxed in my camp chair, a mother of two grown women myself, surrounded by what I choose to bring into focus, nurtured by laughter and love that never dies. Happy. Blessed. Rooted in Rangeley—with a huge stack of coupons to the Pine Tree Frosty yet to be cashed.

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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.

Season of passage

(Author’s Note: The following was first published in my column in the Rochester (NH) Courier on April 21, 1987. I’m reposting it 25 years later in honor of my late father-in-law, Lee Clough. Thank you, Lee, for getting the dream off the ground and showing us that it was possible—and only a little bit crazy—to own a place on a big lake way the heck up in Maine.)

Ice out. You won’t find those words on any calendar but, for our house, the event marks the beginning of vacation season. Now that there is open water in Alton Bay, we will be making regular outings to Winnipesaukee. In May and early June, when the sun has thawed more northern waters, we’ll be spending time in the Rangely Lakes region clearing brush on our special spot of the shoreline so our new camp can be built. And, naturally, we’ll be fishing a bit while we’re at it.

But no matter how big the fish or how spectacular the sunsets, our minds are sure to wander even further north to a handsome little A-frame on Moosehead Lake that we won’t be visiting this year.

“That’s camp,” Helen has said, pointing to the picture on the refrigerator, from the first moment she was able to put a name to the home-away-from-home where Daddy doesn’t have to leave for work every morning and life is one continuous picnic.

We have been going “up to camp,” three or four times a year since she was a newborn and we laid her in the handmade log playpen. The place was brand new then, too, just a big open room with a roof over it that Tom, his father, Lee and I had built ourselves the year before.

The photo that Helen likes to keep permanently displayed shows the final results of four summers of family labor. “Rustic simplicity at its finest,” I always imagined a real estate ad would say about the hideaway we had finished with sliding glass doors along the whole front and a large sleeping loft facing a custom designed pyramid of windows that stretched all the way to the 21-foot peak in the roof. From the loft, we could watch the sun rising over the lake before we got out of bed or just lay back and watch the tree tops billowing in the breeze.

Tom and I were sitting up there on the floor one evening last year, our legs dangling into the livingroom area below, when we first admitted out loud that “camp”—at least not this particular one—might not always fit in with our plans as a family. We hadn’t said a word for about half an hour and, normally, that would have been OK. We were used to just relishing the silence that descended there with the darkness and letting our thoughts go still. But this night was different. Our minds were churning enough to drown out the faint sputtering of the gas lamps and, when we finally spoke, we were quietly defensive.

“You know, once I’m up here I love it, I’m totally happy and relaxed, but it sure would be nice to not have to spend a whole day driving and loading everything in and out of the boat to be able to enjoy that feeling. It takes me a day just to wind down from the trip,” Tom said. He was looking into the blackness beyond the windows, arguing not with me, but with each of the timbers around him he could remember pounding into place.                  ‘

“Well, you certainly know how I feel about this old lake and how I hate saying goodbye to it,” I said,” but maybe we could find a place closer, one we could get to by car, that we could work on off and on and still have time to fish and everything. We always feel like we have to accomplish X amount of work putting up paneling or cleaning up the lot so it will be better for next year. And the next year comes along and we can only make it up here two, maybe three times.”

“Too bad it’s so damn far away,” I finally blurted out and Tom nodded slowly, still staring into the night.

“You know, Dad would understand. He was thinking of selling for the same reasons,” he said. Now he was looking up at the great A-shaped rafters they had erected with ropes and pulleys and a good deal of sweat. His dad hadn’t lived long enough after that to fully enjoy what they had made. But he was a practical man, one who soon realized that a lot of money and effort was going into a camp that sat empty for 50 weeks out of the year.

Tom and I and Helen won’t be at “camp” for ice out this year, but another family will—a family bought the place because they loved its rustic simplicity and they lived near enough to take advantage of it regularly. They plan to generate electricity and do all the little odd jobs we never had time for. Maybe they’ll even have running water before long.

And this year will be the first time in a while that the Cloughs won’t have a camp to go to. We’ll have a beautiful lot though, on a large, quiet lake three hours from Rochester. We’ll have plenty of plans, too, for a new camp with indoor plumbing, electrical appliances and a nearby road accessible during all four seasons.

Best of all, we will have full knowledge that it’s not those amenities that make our vacations memorable. Our happiest times—moments we haven’t been able to recreate in luxurious motels or posh restaurants—have surprised us when we’re 20 miles from a telephone and badly in need of a shower. I’m sure we won’t have trouble reminding ourselves of that as we watch Helen—and her soon-to-be-born sister or brother—swimming, catching trout and having fun “up to camp” in years to come.

(Author’s Note: We figured out later that Lee most likely looked at our Rangeley lot before buying the one on the northern end of Moosehead. My girls, now 28 and 24, still call the year-round home we built out of the tiny original cabin “camp.” And, I am delighted to report they have spent every moment possible here with us—trading card games by the wood stove for Nintendo and long bike rides for hanging out at the mall—never once telling us there was any other place they’d rather be.)


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Settling back in

I wasn’t in my usual hurry to put up my Christmas decorations. Most years, I’d be eager to add some sparkle to my little brown cabin in the now-brown woods, to say farewell to November and let DecemBear make my knotty pine a bit nicer before winter closed in around me. This year, though, I didn’t feel the same post-Thanksgiving, pre-holiday-party push. I’d just come back from “away,” and my little house on the lake didn’t need any extra cheer whatsoever to welcome me home.

“I’m baaaaack!” I called as I burst through the door a couple days after Thanksgiving. No one was inside, and Tom was still schlepping our luggage out of the Subaru. But, as usual, the house answered. It hugged me.

How does a house hug? Well, it’s a subtle and very subjective thing. I can only speak from what I’ve felt here, in this one home, but I imagine house hugs are like human hugs—each one good but different—minus the squeezing part. By the time I made it back up the mountain, down the Bemis track, up the winding camp trail and down my driveway, surrounding myself with my favorite stuff again felt pretty darn good.

I do love to travel, to explore new places, meet new people, and revisit old favorites. Especially in the colder months, I take any opportunity I can to “get out and around.” And, if I’m really lucky, I end up where I can exchange my snowshoes for Tevas. Although I didn’t get that far south this trip, I did enjoy a 70-degree November beach day in NH with my sister-in-law. Then I headed cross-country to meet up with Tom and my girls and spend Thanksgiving with the rest of our western family in Couer d’Alene, Idaho. The food was awesome. The east-west family reunion was even better. (And yes, Jon’s Big Green Egg did produce one hell of a tasty Quirky Turkey.) I was gone for a little over two weeks, but it felt longer. And when I finally came across the threshold again, I knew I’d traveled about as far away from Rangeley as possible in the continental U.S.

“Wow, by the time I get back home, I’ll need to hang up DecemBear!” I said to Helen. We were in the Las Vegas airport, waiting to change planes for the last leg of our outbound trip. The airport was abuzz with LEDs, electronic melodies and the jingle-jangle of slot machines folks had to throw their money into before and after they hit the Strip. I wondered what their deal was, imagining they needed way more holiday glitz than the kiddie advent calendar I’d hang on my cellar door and the string of lights around my three-stooled bar by the wood stove.

“Maybe we really are crazy,” I said to Tom as we finally turned onto our road. (It’s a common joke between us, one that somehow gets repeated just at that point in the journey when most folks, even those from around here, start to question how level-headed we are to have put so many miles of dirt road between us and town.) But then the beagles began stirring with anticipation in the back seat and we could all feel our special spot drawing us down the home stretch. One last turn, the soft crunch of tires on early snow, and…phew…there was our cabin in the headlights, waiting just as we’d left it. (After more than 20 years of coming back up here, the phew feeling never really stops. Even though we don’t drive away from October through April anymore, the relief at seeing the place still standing, surviving wind and fire and other acts of God and man, is hard-wired.)

Did my house smell this nice when I left? I didn’t think so as I opened the door to remnants of Rangeley Balsam room spray still clinging in the air, mingling with the vanilla potpourri in the L.L Bean kettle atop my wood stove. “It’s my own Bemis spa treatment,” I declared back in October when I dumped aromatherapy drops into the old blue kettle of water that would keep me warm, soothe my dry skin and rejuvenate my senses.) And I swore my knotty pine woodwork had mellowed since before I left. These walls felt homey compared to what I’d surveyed and said needed a boost—maybe some new paintings or a couple more cute moose and loon nicknacks for a splash of visual variety during the long months ahead.

“If this is crazy, I’ll take it any day,” I declared to no one in particular the next morning. I was sitting in my own chair, drinking my own coffee, admiring my very own slice of beautiful, wild lake. What great memories I’d made spending premium quality family time in two beautiful homes on both ends of the country! But after five different beds, four climate changes, three hotel rooms, two airports and one major case of jet lag, I was content to kick back and let the quiet of being back off the beaten track settle over me. I was grateful to be entering my second December of year-round Rangeley living, and to have the fresh perspective of traveling away now and again. And I sure was glad to be on the far side of saying: “To heck with all that home for the holidays crap, let’s go to Vegas.” Yup, with Black Friday avoided and December ushered in, all was calm and bright in my world as far as I could see…and would remain so, as long as I moved a tiny Christmas bear around a door hanging.

“Oh, jeez, DecemBear…!” I remembered. Guzzling the rest of my coffee, I sprang from the glider rocker to go hunt down the little critter.

Everything…and the kitchen sink

I do a lot of reminiscing this time of year. And, like any good cabin wife, I do a lot of it right where I should: standing behind my kitchen sink. From there I can look out the window and up the driveway, keeping track of any comings or goings, observing Nature’s ebb and flow while washing and rinsing. It’s my other water view—the one that lets me gawk and ponder the passing of the seasons while being way more useful than when I’m swiveled toward the front yard just staring at the lake.

“Vacation is just another sink,” a friend of mine used to gripe at the end of every summer. She was a mother of six grown children, two of them twins, and our office secretary back before we had to call her an administrator for political correctness. Mostly, though, she was a grumble puss, a glass-half-empty person looking for opportunities to bemoan what she saw as her fixed station in life.

At the time I wondered if she’d ever found herself standing doing dishes in some of the primo spots I knew and appreciated. Had she heard loons calling over her shoulder while Rangeley balsam wafted over her soapy hands? Was there ever a beagle beside her circling for crumbs, softening her heart more than her two-legged beggars? Did she ever vacation where she had to do dishes without a sink and swear if, by some act of grace she got a sink, she’d never complain again?

Back when I first heard the vacation-sink observation, I thought having a camp by the lake–plus having a working sink in the camp by the lake—would be the vacation of my dreams. I had the camp part, a rustic A-frame on the northern tip of Moosehead. I sort of had the sink part, too. I’d recently graduated from perching a large Rubbermaid Roughneck dish tub on my kitchen counter to an actual sink installed in the counter. Except for the drip bucket under the drain pipe that often became a cenote for sacrificial mice, the arrangement was a much better alternative for holding water. But, when it came to running water, the mechanics of getting it into the sink by way of the faucet, my first camp setup left a little to be desired. The only running water I had was the kind I got (or hoped my husband would get) by running down to the lake with a bucket.

Fast forward a few years to my newly-built but still rough Rangeley cabin. So thrilled was I by the promise of indoor plumbing, I didn’t really mind reverting back to the old Roughneck tub for a bit. It was way before the time the girls would want to live in the shower, so they didn’t care that I swabbed Spaghetti-Os off them with giant wads of  Wet Wipes. I, however, was psyched beyond belief. Water, warm wet flowing water over my hands and my crusty dishes, was looming closer and closer like an oasis.

“You’re getting hot running water at camp?” my mother-in-law asked in astonishment. “All those years on Great East Lake, I only had cold water coming out in the kitchen sink. Had to heat it on the stove.”

Yup, back in 1988, I was as spoiled as I thought a remote cabin wife could be. Not only did I have lakefront property, I was going to have the luxury of bringing some of that lake water into my basement, heating it up, and gushing it into my brand new sink on demand! Seems like just yesterday I stood by the Sears “almost-the-best” stainless steel sink sitting inside my plywood pre-countertop next to the Coleman stove that was about to be put into hibernation. I was holding my breath, praying for water to pour forth. Thanks to my husband and the wizardry of hydraulics he was overseeing outside–where a hundred feet of hose came up out of the lake, through the cellar window and into the pump tank–we were ready and waiting. Finally, on his third try priming the pump, the spigot let forth all its pent up air and whoooosh sent a glorious torrent splashing and sputtering inside the sink.

That was more than 20 summers ago. But I still feel the same inner release, the same
liberated feeling over knowing it is possible for me to listen to loons or watch hummingbirds hover inches away white I’m rinsing crusty pots clean down to the
shine. My vacation sink is now my everyday sink, the one I’m glad to come home to, even after taking hiatuses now and again to some pretty sweet condo sinks in the Caribbean.

“All done up there?” I can still hear Tom hollering from his plumbing control center in
the basement. “Can I shut it down?”

It would be this time of year, time to shut down the water, close up camp and head down the mountain till May. “Yeah,” I’d yell back, taking one last swipe at the counter with my sponge. “Done with the water. You can shut ‘er down.” I’d look out at the hummingbird feeder dangling in the wind and hope none would come by first thing in the spring before I’d have a chance to fill it up again.

Now I’m happy to stay put, standing at my newer, shinier sink that fills with well water. I can look for as long as I like—through the yellowing birch branches to where I used to haul a “camp stuff” box out to the car, interrupting the flow of my best possible life for the cold months ahead. ‘Course, what’s not to be happy about, now that I’m living my best possible year-round life in Rangeley AD (After Dishwasher)? I grin each time I grab the box of dishwasher detergent out of the old Roughneck tub in the cupboard and know that, even if I wanted to roam far and wide, I couldn’t find a better place to hang my towel.

Letting myself stay

The first time I remember being concerned about how much older really old folks were, I must have been about four. “How old is Nana?” I asked my parents.

Their answer was way, way out of my arithimetic comfort zone. “Fifty-eight.”

At first, I just frowned and tried to comprehend that number. I knew I had six marbles in my little drawstring pouch and that each Sky Bar came in four sections. Anything beyond that was as bewildering as adding up all the stars in space. Then I got scared and burst out crying. If my grandparents had been around for whatever that forever-sounding number was, I knew they must be ready to die any minute.

Fortunately, I was too busy being a kid to worry myself for very long. After all, my parents weren’t upset that their parents had one foot already in Heaven. And Nana was always smiling. Plus, she had soft, crinkly, Nana skin on her hands and arms that I found oddly comforting. It wasn’t until early grade school had broadened my mathematical reach that I questioned old-age relativity again.

“How many birthdays have you had, Mommy?” I asked.

“Thirty-four,” she answered.

This time I didn’t cry. But I was still pretty darn scared. “Gee,” I said, “that’s even more than the number of days I have to wait between Thanksgiving and Christmas!” Of course, I desperately wanted to be older myself. Not as old as she was or, Heaven help me, my grandparents—just a year or so wiser, taller and worldly enough to hang with the “big” kids.

During middle school, when the desire to age myself out of braces and away from bullies had become a constant daydream, I overheard a conversation that made me ponder the wisdom of wishing away time. “Tammy’s got a tummy!” my mom announced moments after we were driving away from visiting family friends. Not a caddy woman by nature, Mum was delighted to discover that her once skinny college pal now had a mid-life paunch, especially since she could make the observation into a taunting little rhyme. “Yup,” my dad concurred from behind the wheel. “She let herself go.”

“Go where?” I remember wondering from the back seat. Not to the mall or the beach, it didn’t sound like. And with emphasis as much on the letting part as on the going part of his statement, I knew there was a great deal of loss of control implied. “She let herself go,” he said again with authority. Suddenly that other mother went from a cool mom with a great backyard who bought the good kind of chips to Mrs. Tammy Tummy.

“Could she have hung on?” I began to ask myself as a teen when I’d hear my dad make the remark. “And why is it always a she?” I drew a mental picture of a poor woman teetering on the brink of 40, hanging onto a wimpy branch for dear life while nature’s relentless pull raged just beneath her like a waterfall. One moment of weakness, one lapse in concentration and…woosh…away she’d go to the point of no return. I started checking out my mother with a whole different eye. Blessed by genes from the tall, lanky side of the family, she was still a bean pole, but for how long? Would I get some sort of a warning that she was slipping so I could somehow give her a heads up? Or, would Dad just pronounce her gone when she was too far downstream for help? And, when I got to be her age, would I instinctively know how to muckle onto the branch where she let go?

In hindsight, I think it’s a good thing women in my mother’s generation didn’t know what we know now. They hit 40 back before coed gyms, body mass calculators, and good carbs versus bad carbs. Back then, if anybody’s mom said she was “working out,” she meant in the garden, not spotting you on the weight bench. So, they could let gravity and lower metabolism take over without the added torment of Dr. Oz or Dr. Atkins telling them they had only themselves to blame. Healthy eating meant ordering a Fillet o’ Fish with small fries and no shake. There wasn’t Biggest Loser Bob showing you how to take charge of your own proactive lifestyle, how to get up off the couch, elevate your cardio and steel your abs. There was Jack LaLanne doing a few jumping jacks with you in front of the TV. And, if that didn’t do the trick, you couldn’t turn on an infomercial and know that a Spanx body shaper would answer all your prayers. You were just incredibly grateful panty hose had been invented so you didn’t have to squeeze your shape into a real girdle like your mother did.

“Joy’s keeping herself up real nice,” I overheard my dad telling one of his fishing buddies  when I was almost 40. By then, the remark should have gotten him slapped, sued, or both, but I took it as a supreme compliment. I was forever bemoaning my slant toward the short, stocky side of the family and beginning to wonder if the dryer was shrinking my jeans. Suddenly everyone, including me, was jumping around the gym in their Reeboks and ripping the skin off their baked chicken. Still, it seemed harder and harder to not get sucked under, into the flow of middle-aged complacency. But then I’d think about Mum and lift my real self above those troubles. As it turned out, she didn’t let herself go. Before she had time, she got swept away by an undetected “defect” she’d been born with and would have been powerless to hold in check. She never suffered, though, and left with a smile, a teeny pot belly on her lanky frame, and the very beginnings of Nana skin. Nana herself, on the other hand, ended up living way longer than I originally predicted. While in her seventies, she’d waged war with her short, stockiness and shrunk herself about five dress sizes by eating little but plain yogurt and Melba toast. Even if she had let herself go, though, or had stayed gone, it didn’t matter. Soon after, she forgot where she was completely, how she’d gotten there, who was with her, or what she’d had for breakfast before leaving.

Dad who, ironically, was the patriarch of stockiness (or, as he called it, barrel chestedness)—became a gym rat later in life. When he wasn’t out fishing, he was horsing around weights at the health club, keeping an eye on whether or not the women in Spandex were letting themselves go. He’d puff out his chest, flex his biceps and say, “Not bad for almost 70!” But his coronary arteries did not agree. Eventually, all his pre-Dr. Oz years of letting himself eat whatever he wanted took him down at 68.

Dad watches me, though, I can feel it. And, hopefully, he still brags. Mum was with me, too, as always, when I celebrated a landmark birthday the other day. I’ve now lived ten years longer than she did, as much by hanging on as by letting myself stay in the moment. I remember them when I turn down chocolate in favor of carrot sticks. But I think of them just as vividly when I decide to say yes to a pair of “just because” earrings or to savoring every last bite of cherry cheesecake. They’re my hiking buddies, now that I’ve traded my gym membership for long walks along the lake they brought me back to. “We’re doing just fine,” I tell them as my heart gets pumping and I take deep breaths of Rangeley balsam.

My daughters concur. They’re keeping an eye on me for any signs of slippage and they swear I don’t need pleated pants or a swimsuit skirt. They tell me I “don’t even look scary yet” in my underwear. And, if I promise to not start wearing bright pink lipstick, they promise to warn me when it’s time to give up the hair dye and let myself go grey with dignity. Plus, best of all, they’ve taken the opportunity to keep me young and run wild with it like I never could with my mother. I’ve decided, with their help, that the Nana skin on my hands looks just as wonderful gripping a fishing rod against a West Kennebago sunset as it does wrapped around a roller coaster handle bar at Six Flags, screaming like a 12-year-old, and hanging on for dear life.

Finding community

Isolation, we’re figuring out, is more a state of mind than a geographical predicament.

It is a valid concern, though, voiced regularly by those closer to bigger lights and brighter cities. “What do you expect to do all by yourselves way out there?” That’s what they wonder out loud, anyway. And even though we rattle off our list of comings and goings and the lakeside decathlon of events we engage in on any given day, silently they seem doubtful. What they’re really saying behind their raised eyebrows and nervous giggles is: “Yeah, but summer’s not going to last forever. Then what?”

Sure, it’s only September still, but as fall begins and we enter into the “then what” phase of this wonderous experiment called early retirement, we don’t feel loneliness encroaching. Call us naive, totally in denial, or just plain stupid, but we don’t expect to be lonely, either. Right from the early planning stages of deciding to live in Rangeley permanently, building a new sense of community has been just as important to us as building a newer house. So far, we’re finding what we came looking for.

When we moved, we went from being two of the 30,000+ residents of the City of Rochester, NH, to becoming new additions number 154 and 155 in Rangeley Plantation. (Technically, you see, we live in a “suburb” of the Town of Rangeley given the Maine-unique distinction of a “plantation.” I always thought the name stood for a place with tons more trees than people. But, according to Wikipedia, in colonial times when Maine belonged to Massachusetts, this term described a “minor civil division.” As far as I can tell, when Maine split off on its own, places like Rangeley Plantation kept the name and a lot of summer folks, but dropped all other Massachusetts correlations.)

Soon after settling in, we went from numbers 154 and 155, to Joy and Tom, or just “the new folks living on the old Upper Dam Road all winter.” And in the four months since, we have mingled, been entertained, reciprocated, and basically hung out with people more frequently and more intensely than we did in the 35+ years we spent packed closer together with them in Rochester. Why? Well if you’re a Rochester reader and are about to stop because you’re feeling this is a Rochester vs. Rangeley “the grass is greener and the people sure are swell” comparison, please don’t. I love you and want you to still spend gas money to come see us because you were included in the friendship intensity I just mentioned. And, if you’re a Rangeley reader, please don’t stop because you think I’m saying you aren’t above and beyond what neighbors should be. You are. You see, I don’t think there’s such a thing as a geographical cure for loneliness. I believe you get what you look for in people, no matter where you go, if you choose to look. I believe people are giving, open and nice to be around unless and until proven otherwise, and I trust them to believe in me the same way. Whether I’m talking to the clerk at the DMV or someone I meet out walking, that’s what I put out there and, in large part, what I get back. So, the difference – the reason Tom and I are more closely knit with friends even though we moved “away” has not been so much a change in attitude or a change in population. It’s been a sharpening of focus, a recommitment to building relationships and the luxury of time to make it possible.

“Having the time” to stop in for coffee, to check in on our nearest neighbors, to participate in town and township events, has really been nice. ‘Course we had the time all those years we were commuting to jobs and busy with kids and any number of other things that put friends further down the list, but we didn’t take the time. Now that we have more time, taking advantage of it is a top priority. We’ve joined clubs. We’ve been to three festivals named after fruit harvests, and are reaching the limits of my “friends over for dinner” menus. One new friend has even invited me to join her group of bikers who pedal to the Oquossoc Grocery for muffins and coffee each morning! As the farthest away, with a 13-mile one-way trip on dirt roads to get there by 7 a.m., I can’t imagine what she’d ask me to do if she didn’t like me. (Just kidding. I love my new friend and am sure I’ll accept her invitation sometime between now and July 2012.)

So, while building a sense of community isn’t as cut and dried as building a year-round house, we are just as glad to be surrounded by friends this winter as we are to have R30 insulation in our new walls. We are glad to be finding what we’re looking for – friends new and old to keep us company, to call us by name and ask what’s up as we come out of the IGA or the bank. And when we look over their shoulders while chatting with them and see the gorgeous Rangeley lakes and mountains that are now our back yard, we’ll know we are doubly blessed.

My fork in the road

Oprah would call it my “Aha!” moment — that pivotal point in life where I had to choose one course of action over another and forge ahead. Living in logging country, I now know to ponder a fork in the road, hypothetical or otherwise, much more seriously. Both directions may look passable, but not too far off, one turns into a gnarly spur road taking you way, way off course. Five years ago, though, when I stood at my crossroads with my “smart thing to do” blinders on, I walked right into danger and almost lost my bearings for good. “Aha!” would have been too poetic. My change of direction, when I finally let my heart lead the way, was more like a “Holy crap, what did you almost just do, you idiot?” moment.

Direction “A” was the common sense thing to do, the “right” choice according to our bank book and, no doubt, all those level-headed, man on the street-type people I imagined grouping themselves on the side of reason. It first came into focus as a hot tub conversation. It was fall, near closing up camp for the season time, when it was necessary for Tom and I to adopt an all-business, end of summer attitude so we could forget that we really didn’t want to leave Rangeley, didn’t want to go back to school/work, didn’t want it to be September already. Practicality went way beyond talking about packing up and shutting down, though. On this night, it watered down the wine, drowned out the loons calling, and pretty much counteracted the whole purpose of a hot tub soak. Topic of discussion was our tiny, four-room cabin which, after 20 years of use and sharing it with the critters, needed a roof and other major improvements. Sneaking up on early retirement, would we be able to add enough living space to relocate comfortably and affordably? Not according to the Land Use Regulatory (LURC) guidelines, or so we first imagined. LURC said our setback from the water, originally 85 feet when we built the place, would now need to be 100, minimum. We couldn’t add rooms to each side, either, without infringing on our neighbors’ property lines. So, even though we loved our waterfront property, our discussion kept coming around to how it just wouldn’t work to keep it, to sink more money into it to live there, only to have our dreams of a fulltime residence constrained by LURC and other logistics. And, more than anything else, our thread of conversation kept winding its way back to one huge positive in the midst of all the negatives: Our tiny cabin on its beautiful spot of shoreline, even needing some repair, had appreciated in value four times more than our investment. Our real estate in Rangeley could fetch double the selling price of our four season home near the bright lights and bigger cities.

Sell it, we decided. With the profit, we could build from scratch “exactly what we wanted” in any of those just as nice towns like Farmington. We wouldn’t have to be right on the water. We’d have college-town culture, brand spanking new everything and money….money to travel wherever and whenever we wanted. Course we probably wouldn’t come back to this lake, to Rangeley. That would be too sad. But we would go to Alaska, to Jackson Hole, to Yosemite, to all those other lakes Maine was famous for. Wow, we’d even start exploring islands we’d earmarked in Caribbean Travel and Life. Our girls were grown up now, they’d understand how we couldn’t keep camp, given our exciting new agenda!

Oprah says you can navigate your way through an “Aha!” moment to your best possible course of action by quietly posing the alternatives to your inner self. Does one make you feel more “open” and light-hearted, while imagining the other drags you down? Does one make your gut clench while the other expands your solar plexus? YES a small voice was saying. But still I hauled myself and my sinking innards into the realtor’s office that Columbus Day afternoon and signed a contract to put my camp on the market.

Looking back on it, I don’t so much remember it as a gut clenching moment. It was more like a hole opened in the floor of the realtor’s office and swallowed me whole, pen in hand, along with the sinking realization that the dollar signs in my head would never buy my way back to solid ground. I did manage to get out of the real estate office, and the quaint streets of Rangeley framed in fall foliage blurred as I got in the car and cried all the way back to Rochester, NH. I cried past all the property for sale signs just outside of Rangeley, where Tom said we might be able to build a cute house by the river. Through Farmington and south to the turnpike, not able to pick my head up to look out the window or even for a Subway sandwich, I cried. Not crying tears you dab with a Kleenex, but two-year-old bawling, gooey, hiccuping sobs.

Luckily, the universe didn’t allow me to ignore instinct for much longer. Waiting for us in our driveway back in Rochester was Becky, one of our grown up girls who needed to hear our news and would, reluctantly, agree and understand. Even more rooted in Rangeley than us, Becky had found her calling working as a counselor for the Rangeley Lakes Heritage Trust environmental camp. And now, what a coincidence that she chose to make her first trip home from college (where she was learning to be an outdoor educator) on the night we agreed to sell the source of her inspiration!

“We’ll be able to go to such cool places,” Tom said after he dropped the bomb. But Becky didn’t hear anything about Jackson Hole or meeting up in any of her future home bases. “No, no, no!” she said as she stomped off to her room and slammed the door. “We are not having this conversation! Not now. Not ever!”

Fast forward a few years to August. Tom and I have slept in the garage loft above all the stuff from our camp we’ve shoved into storage when the old roof was torn off to rebuild two stories higher. I am standing in sawdust looking out at my new view from what is shaping up to be the best bedroom I could ever imagine. Thanks to Becky serendipitously slapping us upside the head, plus umpteen different remodeling plans to fit enough square footage on our tiny footprint, a realtor grateful we would be staying to support the Rangeley economy, and a builder who worked miracles, I was enjoying my second-story panorama. I now know without a doubt that we couldn’t have gone through with selling what was rooted in our souls. My “Aha!” moment, the poetic one, came after I got a timely shove down the road less traveled. And looking through my white birches, across the lake to Bald Mountain and Saddleback in the distance, gratefully breathing in the new cabin smell, my heart soared and still does.

You can get here from there

So how does an out of work writer and her recently retired teacher husband “leave it all behind” to move permanently to their cabin in Maine? What’s it really like living ten miles from the nearest stop sign and 37 miles from the nearest traffic light on a big lake with a long name that, in Abnaki, means “moose feeding place?” 

Good questions. In the three months since my big transition north, I’m starting to come up with some answers, which I’ll share in the following posts. As they come, I’ll also share answers to things I’m still pondering, sometimes in the middle of the night, and sometimes after embarking on a chore I used to take for granted that now involves bug spray, a change of clothes, a water bottle, an ice pack and an itinerary posted on the refrigerator so loved ones can come find me. I’ll share how I came to uproot myself after living in the same house in the same city for all of my adult life to move year-round to what had previously been my summer camp. I’ll share how I got here and how I intend to stay.

For now, I do know for sure, that my transition from Flatlander to Rangeley transplant would never have grown past a whim without a few prerequisites. To take this leap of faith and begin to make it work, I needed:

  • Enough money and enough faith to believe that enough will be enough
  • A  vision for a new lifestyle with the guts to follow through when opportunity allowed and the grace to back pedal or change course if it didn’t
  • A sense of adventure
  • A sense of humor
  • A logistical, up-to-the minute project plan that would impress even the most detail oriented spreadsheet gurus from my office working days
  • A soul mate who instigated and inspired and, more often than not, just plain took charge of all of the above necessities, and still thinks he wants to pull up his Adirondack chair next to mine when it’s all said and done

Some folks say we’re crazy. Some say we’re “too young” to retire, to which we say we’re “just young enough.” Some say we’re taking a huge risk leaving the malls, the curbside garbage pickup, and ambulances that can reach the emergency room fast enough to resuscitate us.  Even one friend says we’re way to far from a wine and liquor outlet to make this lifestyle feasible. It’s a bit too early to say they’re wrong. The jury’s still out…at least until next April or May when we can, hopefully, still claim victory with whatever  the winter thaw leaves in working order. And if we can’t, and we truly are crazy, let’s hope it’s sweet old Nana who could marvel at the same birch tree over and over like she’d never seen it before kind of crazy. Let’s hope it’s not standing out in the driveway with a shotgun and a tin foil hat kind of crazy.

Meanwhile, I also know for sure I already have the most crucial element in this whole leap of faith, and have possessed copious quantities of it for the past 23 years. I love Rangeley. I love this place, its people, my new-old house here that holds all my treasures. I love the way I feel when I walk down to my waterfront and can still see my daughters as toddlers running ahead of me eager, as I was, to jump in. I am rooted in this land of lakes and mountains. Always will be. With that grounding force, along with the previously mentioned keys to survival, plus lots of blankets, dried beans, homemade wine and stacks and stacks of reading material, the saga begins!