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.

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.

Out like a lamb-eating Yeti

Good thing nobody said it, at least not within earshot and, in particular, not while I was looking outside on the first full day of spring. Watching fresh snow pile up on the glaciers not yet receded from my yard, I knew that somewhere somebody was saying it: “Gee, looks like March isn’t going out like a lamb this year!”

“Looks like! Not unless it’s a lamb to the slaughter,” I imagined myself having to reply with a fake giggle. Luckily, I didn’t have to respond or come up with any new twists on restating the obvious. Alone in my kitchen with the Weather Channel on mute and my cupboards full from my last trip to town, I had no need to socialize and no risk of rehearing the same, lame, lamb-to-lion analogy I’ve heard every March since 1956. So I just stood there, staring at the latest blizzard. And, except for a couple feeble, lion roar sighs, I kept quiet as a lamb.

It’s human nature, I know, to lighten our Man versus Nature defenselessness by making trite fauna and flora seasonal correlations. We find the rote repetition of habitual phrases soothing—especially this year in these parts. Way back when, somebody worth listening to must have looked to the heavens and made a proclamation, right? “In like a lion…out like a lamb!” he announced and probably etched out some pictographs to record the whole story. Some years, he must have been right. Most years, his clan must have pointed to the faded drawings and retold the tale while hunkered down in whatever could shelter them from the unpredictable March weather. And the saying stuck.

I’m not sure what sort of creature this March is, but I know my daughters would have fun drawing it. Back when they were the only kids in the universe not allowed Game Boys, they used to occupy themselves during long car rides to Rangeley by challenging each other to morph as many animals as they could think of into one sketch. “This time, draw a moose-leopard-eagle-rhinoceros,” one or the other would declare, and the car would stay quiet from South Paris nearly to Rumford. I found one of the resulting animorph masterpieces shoved in an old dresser yesterday. Not really in full spring cleaning mode, but feeling like I should start taking baby steps in that direction, I was sorting through some 20-year-old camp stuff. Folded up next to a dog chewed Barbie, I came upon a pencil drawn creature with a long alligator tail, and both bird talons and moose hooves to balance his lion-like head on his camel-humped body. It was enough to snap me out of any sour weather doldrums I’d let myself slip into.

“Just keep laughing,” I told myself. “It’s all good. Spring has been finding its way up here every year without you around to fidget over it, so keep the faith.” For an extra boost, I dug out my brightest spring green sweater and put it on. Over coffee, I changed my Elmer Fudd-like Facebook picture to a profile of me enjoying warm weather and a bright blue shoreline. But when those strategies failed to do the trick, I knew it was time to shift into full-throttle attitude adjustment mode—to rely on my tried and true home remedy for keeping my chin up and my thoughts prosperous: Put the right gear on my feet, point them away from the cabin, and just get out there!

The right footwear part of my plan is crucial to its effectiveness, I’ve learned. Choose wrong, and a brisk walk to gain fresh air and a new perspective can easily turn into a death march. In January, in Ice Road Tracker, you might remember me professing my love for Yaktrax which, back then, were just the thing for keeping me safe and vertical during my daily walks. Well, I’m much worldlier now, and my needs have matured. Once my road surfaces got really serious from repeated thawing and refreezing, I had to ditch my Yaktrax like a middle-school crush. Lately, I’ve been going out with real studs—metal ones strapped to my boots so I don’t cripple myself six ways to Sunday taking a walk. And, when I want a real fling, I can still strap on my snowshoes and get way out there.

“I guess we’ll still be walkin’ on the wild side a few more weeks,” I concluded as I reacquainted myself with my snowshoes. My gear of choice the other day, they helped me negotiate my luge track of a driveway till I was once again trekking up my favorite hillside across the road. As usual, it wasn’t long before my attitude fell in step as I made my way up the path that always brings me back to center. No matter what kind of footwear and how much resolve it took, I’d walked this path—in summer, through winter, and back into the promise of spring. And, along the way, I’d eaten raspberries sweet as the August sun, watched lupines bloom and hibernate, and a moose leading her yearling to browse. On a snowy day not so different from this, I’d brought my first Rangeley Christmas tree down off the hill with me. Once again reaching the top on the first blustery day of spring, I paused to appreciate my place overlooking the lake and mountains, and the reasons why I was there came back into focus. As I pointed my feet homeward, I could feel the sun gaining strength and hear the gurgle of melting run-off finding its way down Bemis  beneath the snow. Spring was under there somewhere, I could feel it.

By the time I reached home, my Elmer Fudd hat was crusted over with new snow again. But even though I had to inch down the driveway like a drunken penguin, my smile didn’t fade. Not much can stop me from strapping on gear and getting out there, I’ve determined. I have given up, though, on trying to decide exactly what kind of creature the month of March is. He’s a gnarly one, I figure, with thick fur and long, ice gripping talons on the end of his paws—a beast that eats little lambs for breakfast. Whatever he looks like, I sure hope he lets spring come to Rangeley sometime before April showers bring May flowers.

Lasting memories

“What if it was the last time you’d ever see the lake and your camp, would you want to know?”

Our neighbor and longtime friend, Ed, used to pose this question annually. It would be “closing up” time, and we’d be sitting around a stick fire, toasting the end of another great summer season with one or more adult beverages. His favorite movie, “On Golden Pond,” made him raise this question each time he watched it, which he did every winter when he began to get homesick for his place in Rangeley. He always came to the conclusion that, no, he wouldn’t want to know, and Tom and I would agree. Even if we got as old as Norman Thayer in the movie and, heaven forbid, fell ill right on our front porches, we would still want to think there would be one more summer on the lake.

Ed died suddenly one May, just as he was getting ready for his first trip back up here for the season. In his late fifties, active, and in seemingly good health, I don’t imagine he knew as he stood on his dock the previous October that he’d never make it back. Not consciously, anyway.

In years past, come Columbus Day, I’d look down the lake one last time and remember Ed. The Subaru would be packed with canned goods, dogs and dirty laundry to take “home,” and I’d walk as slowly as possible back up the path to start my trip down the mountain until May. I’d say a final goodbye out loud to my camp like it lived and breathed, already looking forward to the day, seven months later, when I’d fling the door open and yell: “I’m baaack!”

Things are different this year now that I’m a full-timer. I won’t have that going away feeling, wondering how my cabin will make it through without me, and I without it. I won’t get that silly conflicted sensation when I speak of “home” and know that, half of the year, my soul is rooted somewhere other than where my physical body must reside. Still, with the leaves turned and the summer folks gone, I find myself thinking back to Ed, to cycles, to seasons come and gone, to wondering: Is this the last day I’ll go outside without a jacket? Is this the last morning my mums will still be yellow when I wake up?

It’s a natural turning, I remind myself, to be reflective and a tad melancholy. As my landmark first-time year of permanency stretches past summer, it’s OK to look back on all my last-time journeys, too. And, I believe, it’s healthy and healing to not forget Ed’s big question. Not to deliberate and brood, mind you, but simply to honor it and not let it float out of my stream of consciousness.

In this season of closing up, of settling in and hunkering down, I’m allowing myself to ponder beginnings and endings. Like many people, I have a legacy of lasts, of losing loved ones, my livelihood, and sometimes even my sense of humor. I have spent repeated “last” Christmases and birthdays with terminally sick relatives, while missing just as many last celebrations with others taken in the wink of an eye. Would knowing – somehow being able to determine exactly – my last times with them changed how I spent those precious final moments? No. My answer, I’m thankful to say, is no. I would have laughed, cried, hugged and loved just the same.

But what has changed through these experiences is my certainty that, as the universe  moves in mysterious ways on its eternal timetable, I am left with choices. I can ebb and flow with it, or try to resist. I can assume “life sucks and then you die” or I can declare each new day a possibility. My choice – bolstered, I think, by my choice of lifestyle and surroundings – is to run headlong into life like an overgrown 8-year-old. My answer is to learn from my beagles, who don’t go on first and last walks, but barrel through the woods whenever and wherever we take them like it is the only time they are running free, the only time the ground smells so sweet.

Figure every time might be the last, that’s my strategy. And it’s a strategy that’s working wonders for grabbing the gusto out of everything from food to friendships, from adventures to everyday encounters. Take snorkeling, for example. I loved it so much when I first tried it in Cancun, I cried. “I finally found a water sport I love to do for hours, and it’s in the Caribbean ocean! This is the last time I’ll ever get to go!” That was 18 years, and 15 trips to seven different islands ago, and I still hover, transfixed for hours, figuring each colorful fish is the last one I’ll ever see.

When Big Mike, another longtime friend, came up to visit recently, we had a hard  time remembering the last time we saw him. It was sometime, we guessed, before we got grey hair and eating healthy became a worthy topic of conversation. No matter, though, we just took up right where we left off in college. Tom took him fishing for the last days of the season at Upper Dam. We told the same old jokes and laughed like we’d never heard them before. And the lobster we brought back to the cabin after showing off the peak foliage was the best any of us had ever had.

Going inside…outside

I’ve never needed much prompting to go to my “peaceful, happy place.”

When I first started going, I wasn’t much more than seven years old. I’d just tumble out of my camp bunk before anyone else and go sit there for hours, at peace with the water lapping against the dock, mesmerized by the mountains mirrored in the calm lake. It was a real location, my peaceful place, one I could occupy by myself with no more than a tiny canvas chair, back when mothers could let their daughters figure out how to keep themselves safe outdoors. I was content to watch the sun dance through the trees and along the green dappled rocks near shore. It was good for me, I’m sure, to just sit there with my hair still bed messy, not worrying or wondering about much. But at that age, there was no context for needing fresh air, for relaxation, for reconnecting with anything. If you’d asked me about healing, I would have shown you a Band Aid on my knee. Was I worried about being balanced? Oh, yeah, I’d admit. If the gym teacher made me try to walk across that scary, skinny little beam, I’d always fall off till she just let me go sit on the bleachers.

Much later, after losing a lot of that innocence and idle time, and losing the parents who used to share my peaceful places, I had to settle more often for returning there in my mind. And sometimes I’d need just a little coaxing from a guided meditation coach or CD to head me in the right direction. “Close your eyes. Breathe deeply, and with each breath, picture yourself in a beautiful, tranquil place where you are totally relaxed, totally at peace….” I’d close my eyes, be a couple breaths in, and poof, I’d be walking down a moss-covered path toward the sound of waves and out to my little canvas chair. I was seven years old again in my special spot. Once there, I felt soothed that life could flow as effortlessly as the lake beneath the dock, that my world could be as secure as the unmoving mountains. For a few precious moments, my mommy could be inside the cabin at the end of the path, cooking breakfast for me and my daddy, who was waiting to take me fishing.

Over the years, I got really skilled at traveling to my peaceful place in my mind. When the physical destination was not possible, I could escape to that oasis in the space of a quiet moment and a couple breaths. This was a very good thing because, while my life hasn’t been what I consider unbearably stressful, or traumatic enough to land me a guest spot on Dr. Phil, I’ve had my share of stuff along the way. And, if I ever get close to running out of stuff, I wouldn’t have to look further than the latest magazines or TV ads to find new reasons to de-stress and detoxify. Who knows, maybe that super stressed out woman in the scented candle commercial has been  sharing the same shoreline with me. She’s kicking off her high heals and transporting herself there, only to run into the “Calgon take me away!” lady who’s been out there since the 1960s trying to drown out her screaming kids and demanding husband. Maybe my metaphysical dock is actually pretty crowded.

I do know that, with more and more people needing to escape society’s pressures every day, teaching my daughters to literally take “out” their feelings with as few props as possible was a parenting priority. I helped them transcend anger, sadness and adolescent frustrations even when a real dock wasn’t available. But, while my intentions came from love, my methods weren’t always yogi-like.

“Go outside now and don’t come back in this house until you’ve figured out how to calm yourself down!” I’d yell if either one had an explosive moment of teenage angst. And they would, even in January, and even when the only sanctuary they could find was beneath a fir tree at the edge of the backyard in Rochester. Becky got so good at it that she stays outside now, as an Outward Bound instructor, teaching others how to center themselves in nature. It probably didn’t fit anywhere on the job application, but she’s told me since that her timeouts in the backyard gave her a solid foundation for promoting the benefits of wilderness therapy.

“Don’t ever haul that old tree away that’s laying down next to the brush pile,” Helen, now 27, told me during a recent visit. The cedar had been a favorite hiding spot for her and Becky to play “wilderness Barbies,” dressing up their dolls in fern and leaf costumes. In between checking the minnow trap, swimming, and building sand castles, they’d go there to dry off in their special thicket, not needing too many other props, and not caring that somewhere else, kids were playing Nintendo.

No, the tree’s not going away and the dock’s staying put too. And, now that our special spot in the woods and by the water is also home base year-round, we all need even less coaxing to surround ourselves in peace and quiet each day. Sitting there, I can still hear my little girls giggling and splashing, or shutting out the rest of the world as they wait for a fish to pull their bobber under. I know when they join me in person, they let the setting bring them back, too. And I know a big reason why we have sought out this space together is because we’ve never really left.

I won’t ever be seven years old again, at least not physically. And I won’t really be able to share my waterfront with my mother or other loved ones passed. But when I breathe deeply and listen to the waves, she is there. My dad is right there, too, being uncharacteristically quiet as he appreciates the morning air. My wonderful step-mom is sipping coffee and smiling, looking down the lake to where the water meets the sky. My mother-in-law, the last to leave, is admiring the new paint job she applied to the 20-year-old bench that now sits proudly facing the best view. If the light is just right, I think I can even make out the “Reserved Seating” sign.