Friday, October 24, 2014

Day Trip Diary: High Falls and New Paltz, New York

"Older people are always searching for treasure, but she thinks they look in the wrong places. If they knew about her herb garden, the roses in bloom, and Maman's horse, Beth is certain people would value all these things. They would love them like she does when she sits behind her house, breathing, dreaming." - From J.J. Brown's Brindle 24, set in New York state.
I went treasure hunting this autumn with my husband Steve and our infant daughter Grace. With a seven-month-old and only one income since I am a stay-at-home mom, we decided to take day trips instead of an extended vacation to save money and make it as comfortable as we could for ourselves and baby. I am capturing these memories in a diary series, with storytellers to entertain and inspire with their words. My treasures I seek are rarely things of large monetary value. The treasures we found in High Falls and New Paltz, New York: apples, peace and quiet in orchards, walks in a nature preserve, vegetarian food, and quality time spent together.
When I was researching apple orchards to go for picking this year, I had two requirements: a low-key, no frills farm without crowds and one that avoided or didn't use chemicals. I am in detox mode from my harried days commuting from New Jersey into New York City, seeking to avoid masses of people whenever I can.
Mommy Poppins gave a listing of options for low-spray and sustainable practice farms, since they say our climate isn't friendly for straight organics, which led us to the nearly-organic Mr. Apples.  When walking the dogs I see those signs from landscapers warning "Pesticide-treated area" and a green thumb. I always thought a skull and crossbones would be a more fitting symbol for pesticides. Right next to one of these "green" lawns is the drain to a local reservoir. A clean environment is a part of my American dream. Why isn't it part of everyone's?
Giving Grace as much organic food as possible will be a priority for us. From Alicia Silverstone's The Kind Mama, "Nasty chemicals used to grow conventional produce are up to 10 times more toxic to children's growing bodies than they are to adults. According to the EPA's Guidelines for Carcinogen Risk Assessment, children are exposed to 50 percent of their lifetime cancer risks in their first 2 years of life, and research done by both the FDA and eight of the leading baby food companies has led the CDC to single out as one of the main sources, not exposure to industrial pollutants or hazardous waste, but our food. Blood samples taken from children ages 2 to 4 showed that the concentrations of these pesticide residues are six times higher in children eating conventionally farmed fruits and veggies than in those whose parents gave them organics.
The Environmental Working Group found that 99 percent of apple samples tested positive for at least one pesticide residue, putting it on its "Dirty Dozen" list of fruits laden with pesticides, according to CBS News.
"No farmer's his own boss. He takes his orders from the sun and the snow and the wind and the rain." Daisy on Downton Abbey.
Honey, apple butter and red raspberry jam. There were a few other things for sale, like vinegars, but that was about it.
Old farm equipment repurposed for displays. No tractor ride needed, just stroll out into the orchard.
We were here on a Monday and there were just two others in the orchard. Heaven.
My heart happily remembers this moment, Grace in my arms, Steve reaching for the apples.


Our bounty, one peck of apples, $14.

In addition to apples for snacking, I've savored these on blustery fall mornings in apple cinnamon oatmeal and a warm apple crisp my chef husband Steve made. All the more enjoyable on two of my most favorite, comforting things in our kitchen: red-checked placemats (from a garage sale) and inviting dishes, here a blue and white plate that reminds me of my grandparents (from a charity resale shop). I like to reduce my impact by acquiring items second hand as often as possible, and to eat off of pretty dishes.
"Mother took the pie out of the oven and it hissed fragrant apple, maple, cinnamon steam through the knife cuts in the top crust. She was making her world beautiful. She was making her world delicious. It could be done, and if anyone could do it, she could." Death and the Dream, J.J. Brown
We just stopped for a beverage here, but I was so impressed by the vegan offerings at The Last Bite.

My lavender latte with soy milk.

A sign here recalls Helen Morgan, a torch singer of years past who lived in High Falls. So many shining stars of their day are largely forgotten now. My favorite old Hollywood stars are Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler. Whose star now will shine through decades from now, I wonder?
We read about the water being harnessed from the falls here for two centuries, powering cotton and woolen factories, flour, corn and plaster mills, a saw mill, cement factories, electrical generators, dyeing works, a leather tannery and a cooperage. Also too were signs about hydroelectric power which supplies thousands of homes. I considered how everything we do has an impact, good or bad, sometimes both.

I was observing the leaves on ground, fleeting works of art from nature each fall, and I spotted a spider, which is visible to me in the upper right corner over a twig since I know it's there. I was mindful not to tread on it. I think often of the life above us when I see the birds fly, and deer, chipmunks and other animals walking by, but not often enough about the world below our feet. I vow to tread lightly for their sake, both in my walk and in my journey.

A sign on a lawn here called to ban hydrofacking, the process to extract natural gas. Flashback to my post "Poison in the Well" for why I oppose fracking. The reasons are many, but the threat to the water supply from the chemicals used to frack and all of the wastewater it creates are on the top of the list of concerns. I see commercials regularly from oil companies, particularly during the nightly news, trying to convince the public about why natural gas is so wonderful, but ponder why they are trying to sell the masses on this? It's a bit like the ads Purdue runs with cartoon images of their farms and chickens. Can you imagine if their actual farms with thousands of chickens and slaughterhouses were shown?
I kept thinking about the idyllic scenery here, and as I flipped through a guide to the region, I saw how much of the upstate New York economy is tied to agriculture. Our breadbasket should not be polluted by these oil companies, nor the water supplies of these residents.
At a fracking protest where the singer Natalie Merchant, an upstate New York native and resident, sang, "New York was made to be frack-free" instead of "This land was made for you and me," a protester held a sign that said, "If we make the Earth sick we will never know health. Clean air and clean water are the only true wealth."
"Some believe that the shale holds an endless fortune - gas mined by the energy company.  Not everyone needs more money, she says. I don't. My family doesn't. You might not realize it, but we have our riches here, and we have our peace. We have the forest, the wildflowers. They're not weighted the same way your treasures are, not bought and sold. So you don't recognize the value in them." - J.J. Brown's Brindle 24, a cautionary tale on fracking.
Pope Francis revealed his top 10 secrets to happiness, which included respect and care of nature, reported the Catholic News Service. Environmental degradation "is one of the biggest challenges we have," he said. "I think a question that we're not asking ourselves is: Isn't humanity committing suicide with this indiscriminate and tyrannical use of nature."
When discussing the song "America" off of her "Unrepentant Geraldines" album, singer/composer Tori Amos talked about America running through her veins wherever she goes in the world, maybe because her mother's people (eastern Cherokee) have been singing songs there and the song lines are there and it's in her DNA deep for thousands of years. She was interested in talking about not an America that Europe, Russia or elsewhere in the world sees but, "The other America that holds nature very close, Mother Earth very close. That doesn't see the earth as something to be used as a product. Not just consumerism."
"Clearly we as Americans have to think of our land and how it's being used. Native Americans would talk about seven generations, that you look ahead to seven generations, not just consuming for the next generation...and that type of thinking which was an ancient way of thinking is something we desperately need."
"Why did they all lay down
to sleep through the now
and if they all lay down
I'll be waiting for them
at the river bed
once they wake from their rest." - Tori Amos, America
We came upon this display of Redwood driftwood, reminding us of the logging of the old virgin forests.

Looking at the image of the driftwood refashioned as an art display, I had a flashback of being in Barcelona, Spain, in Antonio Gaudí's Sagrada Família. Rick Steves' Spain 2007 guidebook reveals, "Part of Gaudí's religious vision was a love for nature.  He said, "Nothing is invented; it's written in nature." His columns blossom with life, and little windows let light filter in like the canopy of a rain forest." Wherever I travel, in a nation across the sea or a sleepy town an hour away, I am always drawn to and reconnect with nature in small and grand scales. Nature is my religious experience.
We were off to Mohonk Nature Preserve. I hope to plant the seed of environmental stewardship in Grace. Nature books will definitely be in our bedtime routine, and I plan to use the library often.
Also making the happiness list for Pope Francis: "A healthy sense of leisure." He said the pleasures of art, literature and playing together with children have been lost. "Consumerism has brought us anxiety" and stress, causing people to lose a "healthy culture of leisure." Their time is "swallowed up" so people cannot share it with anyone. 
An area to read and play at the nature preserve. An employee here talked about bringing his children here and being reminded of the magic of it all seen through their eyes. Grace loves to look at the sky and the trees. I do too.
Tori Amos, when talking about her song Oysters, spoke of being physically fed but feeling starved in a relationship of love. This can too include feeling starved in your job she says, something I personally felt at two different jobs in cubicles. I took pride in my work, but felt unsatisfied for years and yearned to do more with my life. I know so many in the same position. As Amos says, "You can feel starved in your career path. You go there everyday, you get your check, you're able to pay your bills but you're starving." After hearing one woman's story of feeling starved, she said, "I started thinking of an old Native American saying about "chop wood, carry water" and how when you feel starved you have to get back to nature, whereby nature starts to give you what you need. It's not that you need to go to Barney's or Selfridges or Topshop. You might that that's going to fill you, or food or escapism, but that's not what you need."
"I throw back my head, and, feeling free as the wind, breathe in the fresh mountain air. Although I am heavy-hearted, my spirits are rising. To walk in nature is always good medicine." - Jean Craighead George's On the Far Side of the Mountain.          
 "We're close to where the nature preserve starts now, Charlotte says to Henry. The magic begins here. Can you feel it? She suspects he probably can't. She walks here daily, looking for something, peace mostly. The forest gives her more than she comes looking for, every time." - J.J. Brown, Brindle 24

Native American words are so often in the place we inhabit, of mountains, rivers and below, a mountain ridge. A sign here talks about Shawangunk being renamed Shogum by the Dutch settlers, and that Shawangunk may mean, "in the smoky air," a reference to the burning of a Lenape village by the Dutch.  "Both names represent a mountain that provides habitat for plants and animals, and scenic and recreational opportunities for people."
When I read Jean Craighead George's My Side of the Mountain upon the recommendation by Bill Skees of the Well Read book shop  in Hawthorne, New Jersey, the fictional story of a young boy living off of the land in upstate New York,  I thought this transplant from New York City was just living as the Native Americans did. It was no surprise the author penned Native American tales too, like The Talking Earth, about a young girl and her spiritual search in the Florida Everglades after doubting the wisdom of the elders. I'm drawn to the Native American culture very much for their respect of both the earth we inhabit and the animals and plants here too.

 "Charlie Wind once told me we must keep the animals on Earth, for they know everything: how to keep warm, predict the storms, live in darkness or blazing sun, how to navigate the skies, to organize societies, how to make chemicals and fireproof skins. The animals know the Earth as we do not." - The Talking Earth 
Humans so often think they are the superior species, or have some sense of entitlement to how we treat, or mistreat, animals for food, entertainment and other uses as we see fit. I have nothing but awe for the animal kingdom.
"We humans will never know how meadows or mountains smell, but deer and horses and pigs do. Bando sniffs deeply and shakes his head. We were left out when it comes to smelling things, he says. I would love to be able to smell a mountain and follow my nose to it." - Jean Craighead George's On the Far Side of the Mountain
With the temperatures getting brisk and in need for a casual eatery with the baby, we stopped by the Karma Road Organic Café for their vegetarian fare. My husband is not a vegetarian but eats veggie food often (and almost exclusively at home since I don't eat meat). As a chef, he'll tell you he thinks people eat far too much meat and in too large quantities. My reuben (baked tempeh, Russian dressing, sauerkraut and lettuce) and an herbal chai tea.

Steve's kale salad with tenderized avocado, olive oil and lemon, topped with cashews, raisins, carrots and onions.

I feel a connection to upstate New York with the slower pace of life, less congestion, and gardens at so many homes. I wonder if maybe we'll live here one day or someplace like it, and lead a quieter life away from crowded, expensive northern New Jersey. Do you picture another place for yourself one day?  

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Celebrating Traditions at the Ramapough Powwow

"Nokomis took her bean seeds from the little pouch she had carried across Minnesota. Even when most of their things had been stolen, she'd saved a few seeds. She loved to make gardens, and had a nose for whom to ask for seeds. She'd added to those few seeds with others that she traded from the people of Garden Island, in Lake of the Woods. All around that great and complicated lake, there had been women who planted corn, gourds, beans." - From the chapter, "Makoons," Louise Erdrich's Chickadee

Nokomis is the wise grandmother to Omakayas, part of Louise Erdrich's four part "Birchbark House" children's series of a fictional Native American tribe displaced by the white settlers in the 1800s.

I think of the wisdom of Nokomis and the fiery Old Tallow in Erdrich's stories. In our information age, I wonder about how we are obtaining and retaining knowledge from the older generations.

Did you, or do you, gather knowledge from your grandparents? Mine lived an ocean away in Switzerland, my paternal grandfather dying before I was born, and I only spent time with my grandparents on summer visits in my youth. Even then we were separated by language barriers. How I wish I could have spent more time with them to gather those seeds. My parents are speaking in their Swiss-German dialect to my infant daughter Grace, hoping to plant the gift of language within her, something I, quite regrettably, resisted as a child myself.

I attended the Powwow of the Ramapough Lunaape (also Lenape) tribe held in Ringwood, New Jersey, where many members live. Ringwood is a town you might mention and people will talk about how beautiful it is, with the hiking trails, lake and all its natural beauty, but it holds a dark understory. Toxic paint sludge from a Ford Motor Company plant was dumped here in the 1960s and 70s, and local residents, including the tribe, fight decades later for its complete removal. Ramapough Lenape Chief Dwaine Perry estimates in Ringwood the tribe has lost 30 percent of the elders, "the corporations, namely Ford at this point has robbed us of our elders, which in essence is robbing us of our culture, because if you have no one to share it with it dies out."

I'm grateful for traditions like the Powwow are kept alive, to celebrate this beautiful, too often repressed, culture.

A storyteller here tells children of catching fireflies in the summertime and wanting to capture the magic they held, and how children's imaginations are so magical.

I recently saw a commercial, I believe for Samsung, that enables parents to control the content on their handheld devices so it is kid-friendly. The parent hands the very young child their phone and off they are in the car. Shoving these gadgets in front of the youth of America horrifies me. I believe these corporations are targeting children as consumers-in-training and I can't understand why this is so common. I think children, as do adults, need to let their minds run free and wander instead of constant distraction. In an article in on the New Jersey Storytelling festival, Carol Titus, co-coordinator of the event says, "I think people are kind of wising up to the idea that imagination is being stifled by our looking at somebody else's images and not really coming up with their own. Teachers tell me that kids don't know how to pretend anymore. We have our own stories. We don't need other people's stories to tell us who we are. We need to tell our own stories to remember who we are." A storyteller Bernie Libster reflected, "In the electronic age, things are so impersonal. To me, there's nothing personal about Facebook, or the social media. Storytelling is human contact, without a screen."
While there's so many wonderful things about technology, on the flip side, do you worry about it stifling imaginations of both young and old? I do.

I pondered all this as I waited in the long line of Many Sisters for nourishment.

Most people were getting the "Indian tacos" (fry bread with meat or vegetarian chili, cheese and onions). I nearly got a vegetarian one in a nostalgic mood for my trip to the Southwest. A reader enlightened me in my travel diary to the Four Corners and Utah about this not being an authentic Native American food.

Blueberries are a local berry for New Jersey and corn is in abundance, so I gravitated toward the corn cakes with blueberries, four sisters soup (white bean, corn, peppers, potatoes with onions, celery and spices) and fresh mint iced tea, all heavenly.

"Out back, the seeds that Nokomis had saved so carefully were now sprouting. The corn leaves were sturdy and fresh. The dark potato leaves curled down from their mounds of earth. Tendrils of squash and bean vines had begun their searching climb up the poles Nokomis sank near each plant." - From the chapter, "Touching Earth" - Chickadee

There was such good energy here. The smell of sage burning in the air. The artisans selling their products. The dancing, storytelling, music and proud display of outfits.

I wonder how our United States history would have looked if we would have integrated the culture of the native people who were already here and co-existed peacefully, instead of the tragedy of segregation, displacement and often murder and death by disease.

I cannot wait to one day share Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books with Grace, but I too will read Erdrich's wonderful tales. Like Laura, young Omakayas enjoys the delights of the seasons, like maple sugaring, and the nights of storytelling, especially in the cold, stark days of winter.  I imagine a world in which Laura and Omakayas could have been friends.

"Nokomis and Omakayas arranged the food they'd brought. There were packets of split, dried fish, a makuk of special powdered fish, moose meat, a little manomin traded for with deer meat, smoke fish, and a bag of dried pumpkin flowers to thicken soups."
"Neshkey," said Nokomis, happy they had so much. "We'll have a good feast."...
For two days they prepared, knowing that the sap was just about to start running. There was a feeling to that time before the sap began, a quietness that had the going-out taste of winter. All that happened in the snow and cold, the storytelling and the sadness, too, was left behind. Omakayas opened herself to the warming wind. Before them, the sweetness of the maple waited, the warmth of the sun." - From the chapter, "Maple Sugaring Time," Louise Edrich's The Birchback House.

""Here, Laura and Mary," Pa said, and he gave them each a little round package out of his pocket. They took off the paper wrappings, and each had a little, hard, brown cake, with beautifully crinkled edges.
"Bite it," said Pa, and his blue eyes twinkled.
Each bit off one little crinkle, and it was sweet. It crumbled in their mouths. It was better even than their Christmas candy.
"Maple sugar," said Pa.
Supper was ready, and Laura and Mary laid the little maple sugar cakes beside their plates, while they ate the maple syrup on their bread.
After supper, Pa took them on his knees as he sat before the fire, and told them about his day at Grandpa's, and the sugar snow." - From the chapter "Sugar Snow," Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Storyteller Spotlight: Stuart Little and Tuck Everlasting

It all started with a seed planted in a dream, when our imaginations do what our souls may not get enough of during the day: exploration and travel to places with no boundaries, encountering characters that we couldn't conceive of in the waking hours. We are but passengers along for the ride. Author E.B. White dreamt of his classic children's book character Stuart Little in 1926 while sleeping on a train on his way back from the Shenandoah Valley to New York, according to Wikipedia, which also noted biographer Michael Sims wrote that Stuart "arrived in [White's] mind in a direct shipment from the subconscious."

Childhood is like the dream world too in a way, full of new discoveries, adventure and mystery. So much of this period of my life as a new parent feels like a dream. I'm reading aloud to my audience of one, our nearly seven month old daughter, Grace. I've been told of the importance of reading to babies but was prodded even more by American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines encouraging reading from infancy. In  a CNN article on the recommendations, a parent left this comment:

"Our bedtime ritual always included having my daughter pick out a book, then we'd sit together in a rocking chair while I read her a story. I used to think it was such an exhausting daily chore as a sleep-deprived parent after a full day at work. Now she's going off to college and dear god I wish I could go back and relive every single one of those moments so I could treasure them in a way I didn't when it was happening."

I'm trying to take almost every parent's advice to us about cherishing these fleeting times. So much of right now is about savoring life with baby, and then making imprints in my brain and remembering. Travel is like this too for me. I love seeking out new places that move my soul and stay with me even if I'm just there for a few days, hours or minutes. My heart happily returns to these places, but I rarely physically visit them again, with too many other places left to see. Travel in that sense is very dreamlike for me too. With my second wedding anniversary approaching, I'm daydreaming about our California honeymoon journey.

Childhood, travel, reading a book: all absorbing and momentary. I enjoy photography when I travel to later bring the details to life for me. When reading, I love the feeling when a favorite passage moves me, and I wish not to forget the words, just as I long not to forget the places I visit. I am recording them for my own memory, and sharing them with you too readers, and I hope they spirit you away like they did for me. Here are two storytellers, Stuart Little and Natalie Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting.

I share Stuart's eagerness for the day. I too am up early, and the waking hours of the morning are my favorite of the day filled with such quiet pleasures: seeing Grace's smile, hearing and saying "I love you" to my husband Steve, the taste and aroma of a cup of coffee, reading the morning paper, walks outside with the dogs, no matter what the weather, listening to birdsong, and time in the garden.

"Stuart was an early riser: he was almost always the first person up in the morning. He liked the feeling of being the first person stirring; he enjoyed the quiet rooms with the books standing still on the shelves, the pale light coming in through the windows, and the fresh smell of the day."

Favorite books on my bookshelf bring back memories like times spent with dear friends...

while others hold grand adventures that await.

Stuart experiences love with Margalo, a bird that takes refuge in the Little's fern, and he seeks her out in the late hours, telling her...

"Sleep dwell upon thine eyes, peace in thy breast," he whispered, repeating a speech he heard in the movies."

These words, from Romeo and Juliet. How I was intimated by Shakespeare in youth, and perhaps still am a little.

Life takes unexpected turns, and Stuart is a substitute teacher for the day. He and the students reflect on the simple things,

"Summertime is important. It's like a shaft of sunlight...or a note in music....or the way the back of a baby's neck smells if its mother keeps it tidy....Stuart sighed. Never forget your summertimes my dears."

Remembering my summertime trip to Lake George.

When Stuart ventures out to find his beloved bird who has gone missing, he meets a telephone repairman who tells him,

"There's something about north, he said," something that sets it apart from all other directions. A person who is heading north is not making any mistake, in my opinion."

In New Hampshire last autumn. We live in the East (in New Jersey), and when planning domestic vacations, look so often to the West or North. The landscape of the Southwest still haunts me most. What direction pulls at your soul?

The repairman continues,

"Following a broken telephone line north, I have come upon some wonderful places....Swamps where cedars grow and turtles wait on logs but not for anything in particular; fields bordered by crooked fences broken by years of standing still; orchards so old they have forgotten where the farmhouse is. In the north I have eaten my lunch in pastures rank with ferns and junipers, all under fair skies with a wind blowing.

My business has taken me into spruce woods on winter nights where the snow lay deep and soft, a perfect place for a carnival of rabbits. I have sat at peace on the freight platforms of railroad junctions in the north, in the warm hours with the warm smells. I know fresh lakes in the north, undisturbed by the Telephone Company, which has to follow its nose. I know all these places well. They are a long way from here--don't forget that. And a person who is looking for something doesn't travel very fast."

At Apple Hill Farm in New Paltz, New York

I cannot recall how I got my copy of Stuart Little, but I'm so glad it had a place in baby's library. Tuck Everlasting found me in the most unexpected of places, a book swap at my town's recycling center. It is a tale of a girl, Winnie, in New York state who encounters the Tuck family, who long ago drank from a magical spring in the deep woods that gives them eternal life on earth.

I think about water and how it gives us life. With people leasing out their land to oil companies to drill for natural gas in a process known as hydraulic fracturing (fracking), I reflected on this passage,

"The ownership of land is an odd thing when you come to think of it. How deep, after all, can it go? If a person owns a piece of land, does he own it all the way down, in ever narrowing dimensions, till it meets all other pieces at the center of the earth? Or does ownership consist only of a thin crust under which the friendly worms have never heard of trespassing?"

My scientist author friend J.J. Brown penned Brindle 24, a cautionary tale about the effects of fracking on our precious water supplies, among other environmental issues. Below, in Phoenicia, New York. I hope fracking doesn't come to New York State and elsewhere.

"All wheels must have a hub. A Ferris wheel has one, as the sun is the hub of the wheeling calendar."

A Ferris wheel in Seattle, Washington, in between the life sustaining trees.

"The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning."

The weeks that come before are only a climb from the balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn, but the first week of August is motionless, and hot. It is curiously silent, too, with blank white dawns and glaring noons, and sunsets smeared with too much color. Often at night there is lightening, but it quivers all alone. There is no thunder, no relieving rain. These are strange and breathless days, the dog days..."

Babbitt  recalled, "My mother, an amateur landscape and portrait painter, gave me art lessons. She always made sure I had enough paper, paint, pencils, and encouragement. I grew up wanting only to be an illustrator." Reading parts of Tuck Everlasting, I recalled what Picasso once said, "Often while reading a book one feels that the author would have preferred to paint rather than write; one can sense the pleasure he derives from describing a landscape or a person, as if he were painting what he is saying, because deep in his heart he would have preferred to use brushes and color."

Winnie ventures out of her overprotected house into the nearby woods, wondering why when she spends time there that she never did before....

"For the wood was full of light, entirely different from the light she was used to. It was green and amber and alive, quivering in splotches on the padded ground, fanning into sturdy stripes between the tree trunks. There were little flowers she did not recognize, white and the palest blue; and endless, tangled vines; and here and there a fallen log, half rooted by soft with patches of sweet green-velvet moss.
And there were creatures everywhere. The air fairly hummed with their daybreak activity: beetles, and birds and squirrels and ants, and countless other things unseen, all gentle and self-absorbed and not in the least alarming."

At Muir Woods in California.
"It had been different when they were out-of-doors, where the world belonged to everyone and no one."

A raven at the Grand Canyon. I'm so glad we have national parks, which to belong to everyone and no one.

"Outside, in the ring of trees around the pond, the birds were celebrating, giving the new day a brass band's worth of a greeting. "

Birds at Lands End in California. At nighttime when we have a fire, we hear the insect world performing their choruses. I think of all the life that surrounds us everywhere.

The day Grace was born, an acquaintance of my husband's passed away. I thought about life passing and new life coming into the world, and when I deadhead flowers in the garden I think too about this cycle of life. Our garden looks similar, but is so different each day.

"The rowboat slowed and began to drift gently to the farthest end of the pond. It was so quiet that Winnie almost jumped when the bullfrog spoke again. And then, from the tall pines and birches that ringed the pond, a wood thrush caroled. The silver notes were pure and clear and lovely."
"Know what that is, all around us, Winnie?" said Tuck, his voice low. "Life. Moving, growing, changing, never the same two minutes together. This water, you look at it every morning, and it looks the same, but it ain't. All night long it's been moving, coming in through the stream back there to the west, slipping out through the stream down east here, always quiet, always new, moving on. You can't hardly see the current, can you? And sometimes the wind makes it look like it's going the other way. But it's always there, the water's always moving on, and someday, after a long while, it comes to the ocean."
"Know what happens?" said Tuck? "To the water? The sun sucks some of it up right out of the ocean and carries it back in clouds, and then it rains, and the rain falls into the stream, and the stream keeps moving on, taking it all back again. It's a wheel, Winnie. Everything's a wheel, turning and turning, never stopping. The frogs is part of it, and the bugs, and the fish, and the wood thrush, too. And people. But never the same ones. Always coming in new, always growing and changing."

Tuck tells her that "dying's part of the wheel, right there next to being born. You can't pick out the pieces you like and leave the rest. Being part of the whole thing, that's the blessing."

The sun peeks through the trees in Christ Church Cemetery in Philadelphia. Flashback to my visit there, and my pursuit of happiness and betterment. Whatever may come, feeling very blessed to be part of the wheel of life.


Saturday, August 23, 2014

A Love Affair with Books and Words: My Afternoons with Margueritte

Elegant, elderly ladies in one of the tree-lined, serene streets of Barcelona, Spain. 

One of the imprints in my mind from my trip to Barcelona several years ago is the older women and gentlemen out mingling about, or lingering on benches with their dogs or their newspapers, all to be part of the grand beauty of ordinary life. Many were smartly dressed. We live in such a dressed down society, even going out for fine meals or to the theater are casual affairs. Will we still have a posh elder generation in the future? I hope so. I remember my paternal grandmother, whose engagement ring I wear, always dressed so elegantly with her pearls, scarves and handbags, even into her nineties. Maybe I'll be a polished lady donning pearls and a purse in my old age. I have a few of her handbags which I cherish, from a time when they weren't made so cheaply and their generation didn't value excess the way ours seems to. I doubt many bags made today will last decades.

When I sat down one afternoon with a cup of Harney and Sons Paris tea while baby Grace Ann (our little Gracie) was napping, I didn't know what a treat I was in store for when I watched the French gem of a film, My Afternoons with Margueritte. Germain, in his forties who sells his garden's bounty at markets, meets Margueritte, 95 years young, in the park. Neither are looking down at handheld devices for distraction. I saw a cartoon recently where a young girl inquires, "Grandpa, What was personal communication like before social media?" to which the grandfather (holding a newspaper with a headline "Facebook Profits" and a skyrocketing arrow below it) replied, "Just like this." Another cartoon depicts a woman telling another, "I had to get off of Facebook to get a life." I love that social media can bring people together, but I'm hungering for more of these personal interactions, with the lost art of rich conversation. But back to the film...

Margueritte tells Germain on their second meeting in the park she thought of him when reading The Plague by Albert Camus. She says,

"You know, when you sort through books, you always flip through one or two at random. I happened to come across a sentence."

The paragraph she reads to him:

"How can one conjure up, for example, a city without pigeons, without trees and gardens, no encounters with flapping wings, no rustling leaves, a neutral place. When all is said and done, changing seasons are read only in the sky. Spring's arrival is announced by the air quality, or baskets of flowers brought from the outskirts by diminutive vendors, a spring only sold in markets."

Remembering a market in Barcelona.

Germain is plagued by memories of taunts from classmates and even his teacher for his poor reading aloud skills. He has a dysfunctional relationship with his mother. Yet, he only needed a nurturing soul. Germain's girlfriend wants to have a child together, but insecure Germain is filled with fear and doubt. He asks, "What kind of father could I be? I can't even put three words together. I'm a loser. What could I give a child?" To which she gave the wisest answer of all, "Love."  Margueritte provides motherly love to Germain and gives him the gift that keeps on giving - a passion for books and love of words.

Margueritte tells him,

"You're an excellent reader. Reading is listening. Look at children. When you teach them to read, you read aloud to them. If you read well, if they listen well, they want more, and then they need it."

At the Ramapough Powwow in New Jersey, a Native American storyteller, who tells the children she hopes there will be some future storytellers here. So many great authors were avid readers too as children.

We received many generous gifts for Gracie following her birth. In a way, a lot of gifts reflected much about the giver. My ecologically minded friend sent a basket of organic cotton clothing and natural products from Burt's Bees. A friend who I know would love to curl up with a blanket and a book or knitting on a rainy day gave Gracie a cozy swaddle blanket. Another who loves ladybugs as I do (a favorite character is ladybug Terfle in Michael Hoeye's Hermux Tantamoq adventure series books) presented an adorable ladybug towel. Leave it to my friend who is an avid reader and bookstore enthusiast to send a book, so appreciated, Robert Louis Stevenson's "A Child's Garden of Verses."

When you have a daughter, I was told many people will give you clothes, even when we've tried our best to communicate we have more than we need coming from other mothers passing them on, since it's a joy for people to play "dress up." I have Gracie almost always in comfortable cotton onesies.  I'm more interested in building a bookshelf for her than filling a closet of clothes she'll quickly outgrow (never mind where all those clothes are manufactured, although disappointingly so many children's books are made in China).  I went to a reading by Elizabeth Gilbert for the paperback release of The Signature of All Things, and asked her to sign my copy for Grace to put in her library (we have mother-daughter copies, with my signed hardcover on my bookshelf). I loved in her talk when she spoke about her fondest childhood memories revolving around reading and quipped about cutting school to finish, "For Whom the Bell Tolls."  Can I start a movement to buy our girls books, not clothes, or to ask for gifts for college funds? As soon as we get any monetary gifts it goes straight into college savings. Let's play dress up with their minds.

Some of the books on Gracie's bookshelf.  "A parent is inexcusable who does not personally teach her child to think." - The Signature of All Things.

Gracie is now six months old, and my happiest memories are such simple ones, like quiet time spent in our garden and reading to her. I'm reading anything and everything: a Basho poetry book I received as a wedding gift, my Muir Woods, Yosemite and Lands End meditations books, and such. Anything so that she will hear the language. I love pulling up my raspberry colored rocking chair to her crib and reading. I'm now a stay-at-home mother, such a change from my harried commute from New Jersey into New York City five days a week. My commute did provide one good thing: structured downtime to read for myself. Lately, I keep starting and quickly stopping books, but I feel deprived at the end of the day, like I didn't do something good for my spirit. If I watch too much mindless television or waste time surfing online, which on many days as a tired new mom I am guilty of despite my intentions not to, I feel like I've consumed fast food for the soul, feeling completely unfulfilled and guilt-ridden when I know better. I need to carve out my own personal reading time too.

I so loved reading aloud Johanna Spyri's classic Swiss story Heidi to Gracie. Motherhood has me reconnecting with my own personal history which includes a Swiss heritage with Swiss born parents. I think of the light brought into the life of the blind grandmother when Heidi read aloud to her. Heidi and William Tell re-enactors entertain youngsters at a Swiss Independence Day celebration in New York City a few years ago. Story time is so magical for children. We need to rekindle this as adults too sometimes.

I enjoy recommending and sharing favorite books, or even just favorite passages when I think of someone in mind when reading them. My mother is now reading my copy of Willa Cather's "My Antonia," a novel enthusiastically recommended to me by a former colleague. Margueritte tells Germain, "On this earth we are but couriers. I'm giving you a book."

Margueritte reads aloud The Plague and Romain Gary's Promise at Dawn to Germain and she asks what he would enjoy next, perhaps an adventure story or detective novel? A tale of Amazon Indians he says, as he read cartoons of them in his childhood. Margueritte declares she has just the thing in her library. When he visits her for tea (served elegantly on charming china, what else) she presents him with Sepulveda, a Chilean author, and his work, The Old Man Who Read Love Stories. It made me long to broaden my horizons and explore more international authors.

A statue in Seville, Spain, surrounded by books.  "Her head is fill with shelves. On the shelves are books, books, and books." - Germain

If it's possible to have "word fatigue," I would include "hashtag" and "selfie" on my list, and also the chopping up of our language (LOL, OMG, and such). We have all this information at our fingertips and so many ways to communicate, but I worry about the excess of useless information, like all of the celebrity gossip that dominates the news, and the beauty of language being lost. A dictionary may seem unneeded when we can look up a word so easily online, but I adore when Margueritte gives Germain a cherished old dictionary, she reflects,
"With a dictionary, you travel from one word to the next. You get lost in a maze. You pause, you dream."

To the left, a fairy pausing and dreaming at Old Hook Farm in Emerson, New Jersey.

The film ends with this poignant passage from Germain, which I leave you with:

"It's not a typical love affair, but "love" and "tenderness," both are there. Named after a daisy, she lived amongst words, surrounded by adjectives, in green fields of verbs. Some force you yield to, but she with soft art passed through my hard shield and into my heart. Not always are love stories just made of love. Sometimes, love is not named. But it's love just the same. This is not a typical love affair. I met her on a bench in my local square. She made a little stir, tiny like a bird with her gentle feathers. She was surrounded by words, some as common as myself. She gave me books, two or three. Their pages have come alive for me. Don't die now. You've still got time. Just wait. It's not the hour, my little flower. Give me some more of you, more of the life in you. Wait. Not always are stories just made of love. Sometimes love is not named. But it's love just the same."