FALL COMES in slow motion on the Vineyard, especially to our little acre, where the landscape is all oaks and evergreens, some of nature’s most stalwart resisters of changing seasons.
Every morning acorns plink and plonk on our back deck, falling randomly from a canopy of oak branches, heavy and drooping with an exceptional crop of nuts this year. I’m hoping the abundance will keep the deer happy over the winter. They won’t get all of the acorns, of course. Other critters will gather them and stash them in odd spots — in the wood pile, inside a stack of terracotta pots, underneath the steps, in a mulchy bed of perennials – so that in the spring we have a sea of pinwheel-shaped mini-oak trees germinating all over the place.
When the acorns land, the noise is startling; too many at once and Farmer heads for cover. Give him a minute though, and he’s back in his sunny spot, stretched out to soak up as much solar power as he can.
We’re doing the same, maximizing our back-deck time, enjoying the whir of the steady fall breeze and stockpiling sunlight before the days arrive when darkness comes early and we enter the long stretch of dormancy known as the Vineyard winter.
We have time, though. October on an Island buffered by summer-warmed seas is a gift of suspension, sort of like overtime in the football game of seasons.
The gift of extra time in the cycle of birth, growth, flowering, senescence, and death has the effect of being surreal, in the David Byrne “how did I get here?” kind of way. Surreal in part because it is hard to delineate with logic or structure, but surreal, too, because it invokes an overwhelming sense of gratitude that is nearly impossible to quantify.
I feel this way about time with my Dad, who has outlived all of his brothers, my mother, and many of his friends. The seemingly “extra” time he’s gotten has given my sister and me a new friend, someone who has been a star in the sky all of our lives, but because of a planetary shift, has moved closer to our orbit and is now a constantly luminous presence.
Last weekend, we stood on the beach in Lewes, Delaware, on a beautiful warm evening, to witness the wedding ceremony of my second cousin Gregory. My father was the oldest guest and the oldest member of the family present. Gregory’s 10-month-old son was the youngest.
Four generations of our family (or at least some of us) gathered, along with other wedding guests, in a spot on the shore where many, many generations of our family have pushed boats off, dipped a crab net, dug for clams, thrown a fishing line, waded out to a sandbar, hunted for remnants of shipwrecks.
Later in the evening, one of my cousins got Dad out on the dance floor. His glee was contagious — and his resilience impressive when he took a stumble and the younger generation of doctors in the room ran to his side. He was perfectly fine, he said. “I’m pretty good at falling,” he said. “I used to play soccer.”
And with that comes a small clue, perhaps, as to one of the possible reasons time has stretched out for Dad. In all those millions of moments in life when we are thrown a curveball and the impulse to shut down, sit down, give up or give in comes over us, we also have the opportunity to stand up, go forward, keep at it, and make the most of it.
I apologize for the clichés, but time (when it isn’t suspended) is flying, and I want to make the most of it. Fortunately, I’ve got a good example to follow.
THE LOOP AROUND Nat’s Farm field dips down through a scrubby glade along Old County Road before it takes a roughly 90-degree turn and begins to rise again. If you’re walking the trail, as we were this weekend, you’ll hardly notice the gentle incline passing under your feet as you make your way from shade to light, swinging left, then right, to skirt an evergreen bowing the path.
There’s a point, though, when your eyes – at least on a brilliant September day – will likely send a message back to mission control to put the brakes on your forward motion.
Before you, at the crest of the path, is a vast swath of blue sky painted across the horizon, a brilliant counterpoint to the rich golds and greens of the wildflowers and grasses in the pasture beneath it. It is such an open and expansive view that you could be out West, not on Martha’s Vineyard.
That sky, that color! To me it is Carolina blue and always will be. It’s a deeply nostalgic color, the color of childhood and the happiest of warm summer days. The field is glorious and nurturing, too. As we keep walking, I bend down to catalogue the latest declension of wildflowers signaling summer’s end. Tiny star-shaped purple asters, random Black Eyed Susans, and clutches of scarlet Sumac berries have replaced the Queen Anne’s lace and flowering vetch from a few weeks back. And everywhere, knitting sky to field, those yellow fronds of goldenrod.
Looking down on a walk is routine. Looking up is different. It requires stopping.
I have been looking up at the September sky a lot lately. Not just on our walks, but in the garden, too, where nearly everything that is still alive and thriving towers over me.
I have to turn my camera up to photograph the tithonia, the dahlias, the zinnias, the pole beans, the return of the cherry tomatoes, the sweet peas, the sunflowers, and the cosmos.
Once my eye is trained up there, I can’t help but linger on the brilliance of the sky. Some mornings I just stand in the garden, close my eyes, tilt my chin to the sun and bask a minute. Maybe say a little prayer.
Looking up, after all, is a form of reverence. I remember being astonished when I saw my dying mother-in-law, a deeply religious woman completely at peace with moving on, reach up from her bed with her frail arms several times during her last hours, as if she was greeting someone on the other side.
It’s not been lost on me as September 11th has neared how blue the sky was on that day 20 years ago. We woke up that morning and looked up at that cheery sky, naïve and grateful for the sunshine, only to watch with horror as it turned gray a few hours later.
As I was reading my colleague Paul Schneider’s poignant essay in the Vineyard Gazette yesterday, Waves of Grief Roll in Twenty Years Later, all of my own memories of that day flowed back to me. Strangely that blue sky is in most every vignette I recall.
The scenes are vivid, starting with my sunglassed drive up through the Connecticut hills to my office. But of the many frames from the September 11 reel in my head, one stands out most.
By midmorning, our office in Newtown had closed, and when I returned home, driving down eerily empty roads to the coast, it was just me and my 85-year-old father-in-law to huddle together. We decided to walk down the street to a small park on a point jutting out into Long Island Sound. We stood together looking over the water at lower Manhattan, and there against that azure sky was a plume of grey smoke, visible from so far away. We wondered aloud about all the commuters from our town who were likely right there. Some of them friends. Would they be on the train coming home that night? We didn’t know then that the trains weren’t even running.
The last frames in my film memories are all grey, of course. Everyone’s are. The smoke erased the blue sky at Ground Zero, and it would be a long time before it would reappear.
This morning I wanted to post a photo of a distinctly tower-esque 12-foot helianthus salicifolius (perennial willow sunflower) on Instagram for #day70 in my #100daysofflowersandveggies series. This crazy plant was a gift from Polly Hill Arboretum director Tim Boland, and I had no idea it would get so tall and branch so much. It is covered with hundreds of green buds, and we have been waiting for the flowers to bloom for weeks. This morning the first bud turned to bloom and many more showed hints of yellow – against a deep blue sky.
I took my photos and came inside to crop the images. To my surprise, in every frame a looming daddy long legs was smothering the top bloom. Not that I can blame the daddy long legs, but it was a little creepy. The things you don’t see with your naked eye!
You just never know.
Look up, look down, look all around today. Grab the moments of beauty and hold on to them.
USUALLY my partner wakes up before I do. He pulls on his slippers quietly, grabs his book and heads downstairs to turn the coffee on. When I finally open my eyes, sit up, and swing my feet to the floor, I lean over to the windowsill and peer outside, sometimes pressing my head against the screen so that I can see the back deck below better.
There he is, moccasin-slippered feet crossed and poking out from plaid flannel pajama pants, that grey tattered zip-up sweater hanging loosely over the mustard-yellow West Tisbury tee shirt. He fills the Adirondack chair like he means it, left arm draped over the ample chair rail, hand clutching his coffee mug, book on his knee. The tousled bed-head of silver Christopher Lloyd-ish hair belies gravity.
This is comforting to me. Not only that he is there, but that he is allowing himself this time of peace and quiet outdoors before the day begins (and before I start a nonstop stream of chatter).
The very next thing I do is putter around the bed and into the bathroom, where another set of windows along the back side of the second story of our house offers a different view. From this vantage point, I can see the perennial beds along the walkway below, the mounds of catmint and lamb’s ears and sedum and Russian sage bunched together just as I drew them on paper two winters ago. Better still, I can look up the hill to the fenced vegetable and flower garden.
The garden faces east, and since it sits up on a rise, it draws the early morning sun like a magnet. Right now, the garden is almost completely enveloped in bean vines, with the occasional sunflower or cosmos poking out here and there. I planted the Rattlesnake pole bean and sunflower seeds halfway through the summer all along the bottom of the semi-circle of fence on the east side and all across the back of the west side, where the peas were in June and July.
I always forget that the vines race up the six or seven feet of fence in a few short weeks. After that, in an effort to keep growing, they travel sideways, up, down, and around each other, twining themselves into a massive heavy canopy that bends the top of the wiggly deer fence in on itself. The effect is dramatic, essentially creating an outdoor room within, almost like a secret garden.
Inside, the zinnias and cosmos are pushing six feet tall, reaching up for the midday sun now that the vines throw so much shade at sunrise. In the shadowy paths between the beds, bits and pieces of light that manage to filter through the vines dapple on bouncy nasturtium leaves and flowers, picking an occasional chocolate lace flower or snapdragon to spotlight. A few winter squash vines have taken off in the oldest bed on the north end of the garden, forming a horizontal canopy that matches the vertical bean vines in mystery and abandon.
This morning when I looked down on the back deck, my partner was not in his chair. Moving to the bathroom window, I looked out to see him padding down from the veg garden.
He paused, a broad smile bridging his face.
“I’ve been in the garden,” he said slowly and deliberately, looking up at me, the smile widening. “It’s lovely in there. Did you know the zinnia blossoms have these little tiny yellow star-shaped mini flowers in them? And that Tithonia — it’s magnificent.”
He went on to say that he thought of me up there, and understood why I like to visit the garden and linger inside it every morning. It is serene and beautiful and magical, he admitted. But something you have to appreciate alone. (Usually his visits to the garden – since spearheading the construction of it and occasionally venturing in for infrastructure repairs – are on my urging when I’m busting to show him a new dahlia or a heavy branch of ripening tomatoes. It’s fun to share my enthusiasm, but not the same as enjoying the serenity the place brings in solitude.)
A hummingbird has been visiting me frequently in the garden. It’s almost as if it wants to communicate, hovering as it does three feet from my face until I hear the distinctive thrumming of its wings and look up to greet it.
Yesterday afternoon the hummingbird appeared on the back deck and visited my partner, choosing to greet him first, hovering to say hello before spinning off to poke around some salvia along the walkway. My partner loves hummingbirds and was thrilled at this gesture — a tiny messenger from the land of serenity reminding him not to forget what he gleaned that morning. An acknowledgment of what comes into focus if you stop to observe. And a sheer delight, if nothing else.
Odd as I am sure it will appear to some, I can think of no better form of personal involvement in the cure of the environment than that of gardening. A person who is growing a garden, if he is growing it organically, is improving a piece of the world. He is producing something to eat, which makes him somewhat independent of the grocery business, but his is also enlarging, for himself, the meaning of food and the pleasure of eating.
The care of the earth is our most ancient and most worthy and, after all, our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it, and to foster its renewal, is our only legitimate hope.
This is because outdoors we are confronted everywhere with wonders; we see that the miraculous is not extraordinary but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread.
THERE IS NOTHING BETTER than being inside your cozy home on a stormy day. If that day is a Sunday and you have a good book or a pile of magazines, a comfortable chair, a dog at your feet, coffee or tea brewing, even better.
Perhaps the window is cracked and the breeze is on the back of your neck. You listen as the wind swoops through the trees, humming and whistling as it builds to a soft crescendo. Looking out, you see limbs of leaves bouncing wildly in and out of your view, tall grasses and random flowers flattened against themselves like a cotton skirt wrapped around your legs.
You might venture out with the dog from time to time to inspect the gentle carnage, leaves and lichen plastered to the floor of the wooden deck, acorns and twigs and branches morphing into mossy tableaus under the oaks. A pole bean vine or two dangling from a fence post.
There is a litter of pink cosmos petals across the maroon marigolds and a single cosmos heading sideways. No sign of the two baby bunnies you’re been keeping an eye on, but they are probably safely under the deck in a nest of pine needles.
Later you might drive up-Island to see the storm surf, to watch the waves roll in, cresting and crashing on the slick rocks and rutted sand.
You’ll catch the early evening light turning the clouds a rosy pink and the water an inky denim blue with frayed shadows.
Swaths of goldenrod and phragmites might sway under the causeway as you walk back to the car, hand-in-hand with the person you love.
You would miss all this of course if you jumped on a plane and left the Island the night before as many people did. The constant drone of jet engines gave them away. Staying the course was not for them.
The thought of this exodus might make you a little sad if you were the nostalgic type, wishing for that time, not so long ago, when a storm meant staying put, battening down, stocking up, dragging the boats up to the dunes, taking down the clotheslines, staking up the garden plants, harvesting all the veggies and flowers, moving the outdoor furniture, filling pots with water for flushing the toilets, making sure your neighbor doesn’t need anything.
Not heading for the nearest exit.
It seems that moving around or away from discomfort instead of through it is the modern way. Which of course means missing all the beauty that hides in the dark spots. (Says she who is prone to assigning metaphors to everything!)
No matter. If you were here as the storm passed to the west, leaving a branch or two down here and there, you had a good day. And you remembered why you live on an Island, why you stick close to the sea, how beautiful the light is after the storm passes.
P.S. Even though the storm did not turn out to be a big deal, the gusts were aggressive enough to flatten some zinnias and sunflowers I hadn’t tied up properly (I knew I’d missed something!). But for the most part, they’re fine. I just stood them back up and lassoed them to a stake or two. And some things looked even happier after a bit of rain!
BOOK RECS THIS WEEK
I know I mentioned the novel Cutting For Stone last week, but in the interim I finished reading it, and I believe it is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I don’t know how I missed it when it was published in 2009, but I’m grateful to have discovered it now. I put it down thinking about the arc of life, about how the little (and big) actions we take (and don’t take) have deep repercussions. I learned a little about the country of Ethiopia. I learned much about the job of a surgeon. And I was challenged to remember that people show their love in different ways. And that bonds of family are never truly severed, even if they seem broken.
PLUCKED OUTof my normal routine and my familiar landscape and plopped into the middle of a family reunion (of family other than my own) in coastal Georgia, I am finding my equilibrium in the trees.
Not that I’m climbing them or anything (way too tall for that), but walking among the live oaks, with their gauzy curtains of Spanish moss, and under the towering pines that punctuate the blue (sometimes thunderstorm-black) sky is both soothing and awe-inspiring.
Crepe myrtles and evergreen magnolias are instant reminders that I’m not in New England anymore.
Miles of majestic marshland define these Georgia islands. Though much grander than the marshy coastline of Delaware where my family is from, this, too, is comforting and calming.
Also, just sayin’ – I’m not really an air-conditioning person and it is eternally chilly indoors. The thick, sticky humidity seems somehow more tangible to me, and definitely familiar, a part of my childhood DNA never to be erased. Along with the high heat index, I feel like I’m in a sauna sweating out the long Vineyard winter.
But the trees are something else. Some are hundreds of years old: Quercus virginiana, the southern live oak, can live for 500 years; Pinus palustris, longleaf pine, almost as many (or so I read!). Many are over a hundred feet tall or wide, with lateral roots extending even farther. They are older, bigger, and I think wiser than us, with survival instincts and subtle communication systems we will never know.
My fascination with trees is partly just a new interest (I’m going to ask for The Tree Book by Michael A. Dirr and Keith S. Warren for my birthday!). But also it’s not lost on me why I’m focused on them here, where I’m experiencing a (gentle) growth spurt in my role as a new limb on an old family tree, a tree that has lost the last of a generation.
We are here to celebrate the life of my partner’s mother (she was the youngest of 11 children), but just as importantly to acknowledge the strength and connection of the remaining branches – the four siblings, the grandchildren, and the people they love and call family.
Branches (like people) grow in different directions, depending on their environment – some get twisted and then straighten out, some spring out ahead of the others, only to get knocked back in a hurricane, some stay safely low and close to the trunk. But all are part of the same tree, with roots going deep and wide.
Occasionally an old branch grows a new limb, which leafs out and gathers sunlight and food for the tree, signaling it to send down new roots to bring water back to sustain the new growth – and the old. Trees are pretty smart, aren’t they?
FARMER AND PIGGY and I spent the afternoon in the garden yesterday. It was lovely. Piggy has a habit of moving around when I am not looking and today I found him hiding in the lamb’s ears and later peeking out of a forest of bee balm. By late afternoon he was over by the rose trellis sniffing the hardy geranium that’s about to bloom. Honestly, Piggy.
Farmer loves gardening. He lies in the grass, baking in the sun until his black fur is as warm as beach sand on a hot July day. Then and only then does he move into the shade. Occasionally he gets up and wanders over to a mossy patch under the oaks where he immediately dives on to his back and does a roly-poly, squirming with glee as he scratches his back.
He’s a big help.
Today’s project was planting up containers and pots with annuals and herbs. It was a total immersion in dirt. The driveway was a disheveled disaster zone, pots upturned everywhere, bags of potting soil spilling in the gravel, various plants in various stages of undress waiting for new homes. Whenever I am covered in dirt, I think back (way back) to making mudpies with my best friend Eliza. This makes me happy. Dirt makes me happy.
My joy at being outside with Farmer and Piggy (yes, I realize that one of these two is an inanimate object) was coupled with relief, having powered through practically nonstop from Sunday midday to Thursday evening on a series of deadlines.
I was so tired Thursday night that I couldn’t even read. I settled myself in my comfy chair, surrounded by stacks of books and magazines, thinking I’d be dipping in and out of any number of things.
Sadly, I was exhausted. Disappointed, I yawned and thought to make tracks for bed. But I hesitated, looking at the book on the top of the pile and thinking I had just enough energy to page through it. Again. It’s a book so charming as to make you weepy with gratitude.
The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and The Horse, by Charlie Mackesy, arrived earlier in the week, a gift unbidden from a friend, a kind and thoughtful friend who also happens to be a sober friend. She shared the book with me in part because it is so darn beautiful and sweet (and we already know that receiving wisdom from animals is actually my preferred wisdom-delivery form) but also because it is an affirmation of all the self-knowledge we’ve gained in recovery, the painful scraping away of the superfluous junk to arrive at the truth of who we are and what really matters in this life.
Wisdom delivery is a very tricky thing. No one really wants it thrown at them in a neat little package. But what is it about young children (in this case a boy), animals that talk, and a mythical land, that turns a story into a fable and creates a safe place to have honest thoughts and to express love?
In the book (which Mackesy hand-wrote in pen and ink and illustrated with sketches of the four unlikely friends on a journey through the wild to what may or may not be home), there is a moment when the boy — who was lonely before he met the mole, and they met the fox, and they all ran into the horse — is looking at his reflection in a pond.
“Isn’t it odd? We can only see our outsides, but nearly everything happens on the inside.”
So true. One of the first things I learned in early sobriety was to look past the outsides of people and to imagine a person as a struggling, yearning, vulnerable soul, someone just like me. (In the world I grew up in, appearances were valued above all else, so I had to unlearn this. In the book, the boy asks, “I wonder if there is a school of unlearning?” Don’t we wish!)
A wise person taught me to practice stripping away a person’s trappings and circumstances and to try to feel compassion. Not saying I’ve mastered this, but forced humility (in the form of realizing you are an addict who is unable to recover on her own) helped. And I clearly remember a moment when being judgmental suddenly felt less comfortable as a prop. I was listening to a woman talk who had recently been released from prison. Mind you, this was early on and I was still in a fog. I immediately began to judge her … until I began to truly hear her story. She had gone to prison for killing an elderly couple in a car accident by driving through an intersection while in a blackout. While I wasn’t prone to blackouts, there were certainly many nights when I had to drive with one eye closed to keep the yellow line in focus. But for the grace of God, there go I.
Later on in The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and The Horse, the mole asks the boy, “Is your glass half-empty or half-full?” And the boy replies, “I think I’m just happy to have a glass.”
I love that! I know I sure am happy to have a glass, and even though some days it is three-quarters empty, it is still sturdy enough to hold the few tablespoons of (non-alcoholic!) hydration I need to get through the day.
And if it is truly drained dry, I know (now) what to do. It’s something the boy learns from the horse, who is the most wise of all the creatures.
“What is the bravest thing you’ve ever said?” the boy asks the horse.
“Help,” said the horse.
It gives me goosebumps to think about how life-changing that plea can be. I know that I can pinpoint the exact moment my life began to change course – and it happened the day I said out loud, “I can’t do this myself.”
If you know someone who needs help but is afraid to ask, perhaps a gift of this book might provide an opening. I also highly recommend at least one furry creature (real or imagined, live or inanimate) to talk to.
The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse grew from the response British illustrator Charlie Mackesy got when posting his thoughtful drawings on Instagram. The book was published in October 2019 by HarperCollins and has become an international bestseller. Read a bit about that here. And be sure to visit his website and follow him @charliemackesy on Instagram. All illustrations pictured here are Mackesy’s, of course!
I HAVE NEVERbeen to Ireland, but on days like today, my little corner of the Vineyard looks much like the Irish countryside — or so I imagine. The pale pewter sky hangs low over emerald fields. The mists tarry, skulking along the hedgerows, conjugating droplets of water on thorny brambles and tangled branches, limbs just leafing out, cheeky in chartreuse. I suspect there are faeries living in the hollows of rotted tree trunks, dancing a jig around the robin’s nest under a canopy of wild rose. An oak sapling for a May pole, ribbons sewn of timothy grass.
The cloak of fog is easy to slip into. I can hide away in this enchanted day, the hint of leprechaun mischief coaxing me through the opening in the hedgerow, delivering me to la-la land.
It may not be Ireland. (I am longing to go there, to follow the Butler in Susan Butler Evans Middleton back to Kilkenny. For now I am living vicariously through Tana French mysteries, though I do not aspire to be a detective.)
But la-la land, defined by Merriam-Webster as “a euphoric, dreamlike mental state detached from the harsher realities of life” may be just as nice.
In truth I think my state of mind has less to do with the weather on Martha’s Vineyard, an ancient longing for Ireland, or a fascination with faerie houses, and more to do with my reluctance to engage with my pre-vacation energy level, driven by deadlines. For some reason, I am not feeling the hounds nipping at my heels.
I think I will just let them lie there for now, and tiptoe around la-la land for a bit longer.
“Faeries, come take me out of this dull world, For I would ride with you upon the wind, Run on the top of the dishevelled tide, And dance upon the mountains like a flame.”
Early evidence of animal-talking propensity. Photo by Katie Hutchison, 2008.
THERE IS A HORSE in my neighborhood I am trying to get to know. I talk to him. So far, unlike Mr. Ed, he has not talked back.
I talk to Farmer a lot. He rolls over and looks at me with those big brown eyes, as if to say, “Oh, mommy, stop babbling. Just rub my tummy.”
Lately I’ve been talking to the plants in the garden. They are just coming around after a long hard winter, so it is very important to give them a pep talk. I coach the tiny rhubarb leaves and the hellebore flowers every day, give the shaggy carpet of young chives a pat, and cheer on the arugula that hunkered down and shivered through the winter under two layers of row cover. I tell the tiny sedum buds how fetching they are.
I always talk to myself out loud when I am cooking dinner, even when there are others present. This is partly because I am multitasking (who isn’t when they’re cooking dinner?) and I’m afraid I’ll forget something. Make the salad dressing. Flip the sweet potatoes. Turn the flame down. Spin the lettuce. Grate the Parmigiano. Set the table. Get out the matches. Rotate the chicken. Pour the Pellegrino. Warm the plates. Wipe up those bread crumbs. Don’t forget the nuts in the oven. I smell something burning. NUTS! Refill sea salt. All out of sea salt. Open chile crisp. Stir the shallots.
At night I talk to God. This doesn’t always go so well, because I am tired and my brain is like a Slinky flopping over itself down the stairs, tumbling from one subject to the next. But I try.
I also talk to my friend Judy, who isn’t around anymore. She died four years ago. Sometimes it is hard to remember when someone died, but I know for sure it was the winter of 2017, because one of the last things my friends and I did was gather around her hospice bed (which was set up in her living room), so that she could give me my 10-year sobriety coin (my anniversary having been Christmas Day of 2016, the day I found out Judy’s cancer had spread).
Judy meant the world to me. And to my friends who were there with me that day. And many others. She was the kind of person who made everyone feel special. I could talk with her about anything when she was alive. Lately I have been reminiscing about a picnic lunch we took at Polly Hill Arboretum, about a drive we took around the Island, about sharing her favorite chocolate cake at the Black Dog. Talking all the time, about good stuff and the difficult stuff.
So I just keep right on talking to her.
For years I talked to my grandmother Honey after she died. I still do sometimes.
I don’t know if you do the same thing – talk to dead people – but it can be quite cathartic. It’s also rather interesting to think about who you choose to talk to. For me it is the people I think understood me best. And people I loved for their joie de vivre, for the way they lived their life knowing the best part was right there and then.
I have no idea whether they are listening. I am always conjuring visions of the cartoonish ghosts portrayed in George Saunders’ novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. (The novel is fiction, but the fact is that President Lincoln did visit his son Willie’s grave frequently after he died, staying well into the night, presumably talking to him at length.) In the book, the ghosts in Oak Hill cemetery are those folks who, for one reason or another, are stuck in the Bardo, the in-between place between life and death. They are a motley but caring crew, and when Willie joins them, they become concerned when Lincoln’s visits seem to be keeping Willie stuck in the Bardo, when really the young child should be moving on to a better place. And they set out to do something about it.
And I have just finished re-reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved, where the ghost of a child who never moved on (from a particularly hideous in-between) manifests in the lives of her family so profoundly that she is physically present. Yikes.
I’m not sure how I got from the subject of one-way conversations (whether with an animal, a plant, a pot on the stove, or a missing person) to the subject of ghosts. It’s just that I began to wonder the other day why I do all this talking (other than my obvious verbose nature, which I am so stuck with that I’m sure I will be bringing it with me into the Bardo). Why all the talking when there’s (presumably) no one to answer?
You probably guessed already that a lot of it is a nervous habit, a way (yet another way – you can’t say I haven’t started a great list for you!) of soothing anxiety. But I think there are other reasons. There’s an urge to connect – certainly with a horse or the dog, the hope is that it isn’t really a one-way conversation but an introduction of intentions, a way to express affection. With the plants I’m growing or the dinner I’m making, again I think I want to be connected to the process in an intentional and joyful way. I want to notice what miracles are going on, what alchemy is happening, how the puzzle of getting dinner on the table can be solved in a given time frame.
With people who are no longer around, the desire for connection of course intensifies. Not only do I wish those people were still here, but I like to pretend that they actually are and that engaging with them is still possible.
Honey, Uncle Doug, and Uncle Rodney are no longer around. But Dad (in plaid) is.
But I have the great good fortune of still having someone very important to me (and very old!) alive. My father.
And the way I connect with him is by talking. On the surface of things, I talk with him because he lives hundreds of miles away, alone, and I worry he might be lonely. But I also talk with him because I enjoy talking with him. He is smart and thoughtful. I learn from him. He’s always brimming with some new bits of information — a plant he’s fallen in love with, a Julia Child recipe he’s made, a story about our family. I talk with him because I love him. And I talk with him because I can’t bear the thought of the day when the conversation will only be one way.
BAD days happen. We all have them. I had one this week.
The circumstances weren’t so very terrible; just uncomfortable enough that I wanted to crawl back in my Cancer-the-Crab shell where it would be safe. It’s a tactic I’ve turned to since childhood. You know the drill.
My reaction bothered me more than anything. The problem was I was angry (rest assured, NOT with my beloved). I haven’t been really angry in years, and I’d forgotten what it feels like. My whole body overheated and my stomach turned on me, as if I had asked it to perform in front of a thousand people, naked. (My stomach has been known to portray my stage fright.)
And then anger turned to hurt. Nothing like hurt feelings to reduce one to the emotional stability of a tired toddler. My eyes watered. Tears! Imagine!
Worse, I soon realized I was on the down escalator heading for self-recrimination. Classic – turning the anger inward. This was not good!
Fatigue, the heavy kind that comes when circuits are overloaded, crept up on me. But it was a busy work day so I powered forward on deadline, through a Zoom and on to the finish line.
One silver lining to a job like mine is that you learn to write, edit, and package content quickly to get it out the door. You have to focus.
At the end of the day, Farmer was waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs. Having had his supper, he was ready to go – not just for a walk, but for The Walk, an adventure we discovered during the pandemic thanks to Google maps. It’s a backwoods route that takes us from our house to the water a couple miles away, to the shoreline of Tisbury Great Pond, one of the two largest ponds on the south shore of Martha’s Vineyard. It bumps up against the Atlantic Ocean with only a small barrier beach (sometimes breached) between.
I stepped out the back door and hurried to follow the blur of Farmer’s wagging black tail as he dashed through the woods behind our house.
We made our way across a dirt road, through a shallow wood, onto another dirt road and down a horse path, Farmer dragging his leash along, sidestepping like a Lipizzaner as he skipped along from sniff to sniff.
We threaded an ancient way between more scrub oaks and pine seedlings, along the southern edge of a large hay field freshly spread with horse manure, picked up the path again, and finally reached the Short Cove trailhead, the start of a Land Bank trail that hugs the hedgerows, the hayfields, and wood lots of Flat Point Farm.
The wind whipped up on the stretch along the big field, Farmer’s nose to the wind sniffing wildly from target to target, landing on the prize of a slowly petrifying dead turkey. Geese honked, lifting off in unison. The farm’s sheep baa-baaed, perhaps in warning, from the barn far across the field where the hazy fuse of sunset blinked orange through the bare limbed oaks.
Up and down and up again we went, the trail rising into a pine grove high above the first glimpse of the cove, a thick swath of golden grasses nearly obscuring the inky blue below. The soft bed of pine needles beneath us made treading lighter, softer on our feet and paws.
Into view came the summer shack, surrounded by decades old blueberry bushes and a stately old rhododendron; the shack’s screen door knocking about, the windows long gone.
And then at last a long deep gulp of water view. A heron. Two swans. And a brilliant study of evening light bouncing off the thick brush on the eastern shore.
As we covered that last bit of trail, space opened wide all around us, the low grassy plains of the Flat Point peninsula blending into the dark of the disappearing sun.
Farmer and I found the boardwalk path leading down to the lapping shore, stood and sniffed the rocky beach strewn with spent oyster shells. The roar of the ocean far across the water beyond the cut brought the sea humming back to us.
It was time to turn back, but suddenly everything was very still. And I was very still. I felt completely present and unfettered in that moment, like I had everything I would ever need. I was overwhelmed by a feeling of gratitude.
It was the kind of gratitude that spiritual writer Cynthia Bourgeault calls a “healing force.” This is not your Hallmark-card gratitude or the stuff on your gratitude list. It doesn’t get its power from tangible things. This gratitude comes from a place inside you. It comes at strange and necessary times, but only in stillness, quiet — here, the gloaming.
Farmer and I made our way home in the cool March twilight, a chill rising from the ground now.
Once home, I reread Cynthia Bourgeault’s words that have been with me for fourteen years, at first in my little notebook, later on the fridge when I lived alone, now on the bulletin board behind my computer.
“Yes, it’s easy to be grateful when something good has been done for you. But have you ever thought about gratitude not as a response but as a force in its own right; an initiating and healing energy that is not dependent on external circumstances but is rather an innate power of the human soul? When understood and wielded in this fashion, it has the power to liberate us from our self-imposed prisons of self-pity and envy and to actually change the energy fields (and hence, the outcome) of our circumstances.
In plain words, we can actually change our reality by being grateful first; not as a response but as an innate way of being.
…Gradually you will come to see that gratitude is not a response; it is a river that is always flowing through you, and that you can learn to flow with. Wherever your external circumstances may appear to be heading, it will always be carrying you inwardly toward fullness and love.”
Work in progress here.
P.S. I saw a meme on Facebook that pictured pets – cats and dogs – with the label “antidepressants” in front of them. I love that, and it reminded me of something else I keep tacked to my bulletin board.
Rules to Learn From Your Dog
Never pass up the opportunity for a joy ride.
Allow the experience of fresh air and wind to be pure ecstasy. When loved ones come home, always run to greet them.
When it’s in your best interest, practice obedience.
Let others know when they have invaded your territory.
Take naps and stretch when rising.
Run, romp, and play daily.
Eat with gusto and enthusiasm.
Never pretend to be something you’re not.
If what you want lies buried, dig until you find it.
When someone is having a bad day, be silent, sit close by and nuzzle them gently.
Avoid biting when a single growl will do.
Delight in the simple joy of a long walk.
When you are happy, dance around and wag your whole body.
No matter how often you’re scolded, don’t buy into the guilt thing and pout. Run right back and make friends.
That February was cold and clear, a month of little snow and many blue-sky days. The year was 2008; I was thirteen months sober. I had taken the last ferry on the last Friday in January from the mainland to the Island in an act of bravery or insanity or cruelty, depending on what story I tell myself now.
Officially I needed a rest; unofficially I needed a month or two away from my husband — space and time and water between us. But there was nothing official or unofficial about the way I felt: sad, scared, and completely confused about who Susie was. Early sobriety had made one thing clear: I wasn’t who I thought I was. But who was I?
The crossing was a bit rough that Friday night. The boat lumbered through the swells, rolling slowly from side to side while I holed up in my red Honda, packed to the gills with books and whatnots and a Raggedy Ann, crying my eyes out, wondering what I had done.
From the ferry landing in Vineyard Haven, I made my way to Oak Bluffs along dark roads I’d never driven to a rental I’d never seen, but for a small photo on the internet. I was to let myself in; there would be no key. Once there, inside the cozy cottage furnished with comfortable old furniture, I was relieved. I unpacked. I tucked myself into a strange bed up the loft stairs under the eaves, and wondered, now what?
In the morning, I drove to Lambert’s Cove beach, where I’d once been taken by friends on a visit to Martha’s Vineyard years before. I remembered the name, and fumbled with my folding map to find it. There I found a sandy path strewn with pine needles leading up and over an impressive range of dunes and down to a pretty shoreline stretching this way and that, the sparkle of sunlight on the water forcing me to squint for focus.
Without warning I began to cry again. There was nothing I could do but walk and walk, stooping for shells and rocks, tracing the trail of foam left behind by spent waves returning to wherever they came from. Water. Walking. Brilliant sunshine. I felt better.
The next day I ventured further “up” Island thanks to my crumpled map. I parked at the trailhead of Menemsha Hills Reservation and began walking through the woods. This was not the beach, nor was it familiar terrain. I was leery of this strange world of twisted trees, bare-limbed and wallpapered with lichen. It seemed as if they were in an active battle with the elements and that they might come alive to skirmish at any minute.
I followed the path, at times a staircase of thick knobby tree roots, at times a black ribbon of dirt composted from ages of decay, uphill, left and right, right and left, finally taking a short spur to a clearing and a lookout, where Vineyard Sound lay blazing blue below me, the ellipses of the Elizabeth Islands punctuating the horizon.
Back on the path, I found myself descending through thicker, mossier, messier growth, over the occasional crumbling stone wall and certainly, I thought, on a journey to the bottom of the world. Or at least Middle Earth. The path got steeper and sandier and harder to navigate. When would I get to the end? How much further did I have to go? When would the water come back into view? This was scary. Very scary. Yet also very beautiful. And very quiet. I thought to turn back but I pushed on. At last, my reward was a rocky beach at the bottom of a rickety wooden staircase. If one wanted to be alone with oneself, this was, without doubt, the place to do it.
The walking went on like this for days, over wind-scraped dunes pricked with bayberry and beach plum, along rocky, sandy paths pocked by deer hooves and rabbit paws, into the deepest part of the thickest woods. I rubbed up against my fear, exposed my vulnerability, stripped down the layers of veneer that had built up between me and the natural world during too many years in an office, in the suburbs, in somebody else’s shoes.
In the woods, where I feared the wild things were, I discovered that the fear was inside me all along. I felt self-conscious and uncomfortable at first, but it was almost as if a powerful spirit surrounded me when I was completely exposed to the wind and the sun and the whispers in the woods. It was like becoming a part of something bigger while becoming smaller at the same time, and feeling good about that.
I am still walking, thirteen years later. Still on this Island. Still heading out every day during this pandemic to expose myself to the healing power of nature. It is a lifesaver.
“The sudden passionate happiness which the natural world can occasionally trigger in us may well be the most serious business of all.”
Among other illuminations, he cites an idea that comes from a field of study called evolutionary psychology which posits that we have a deep affinity for the wild held over from our ancient selves:
“The core perception of evolutionary psychology is that the 50,000 generations that preceded us in the Pleistocene, which is the age of the Ice Ages, when we became what we are as part of the natural world — when we were wildlife, if you like — that those generations are more important for our psyches, even now, than the 500 generations of civilization which have followed the invention of farming about 12,000 years ago. So that there is a legacy deep within us, a legacy of instinct, a legacy of inherited feelings, which may lie very deep in the tissues — it may lie underneath all the parts of civilization which we are so familiar with on a daily basis, but it has not gone; that we might have left the natural world, most of us, but the natural world has not left us.”
McCarthy goes on to suggest that, “the natural world is a part of us, and that if we lose it, we cannot be fully who we are.”
That’s a good place to stop and offer you further inspiration for finding joy (and perhaps a part of yourself) in nature:
P.S. Thank you to all of you who continue to email and comment on the blog since the reboot! So nice to be reconnected. If you feel comfortable, I encourage you to post your thoughts in the comments section under this blog post, so that we can share conversations with each other.