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 NorthJersey.com 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."

Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Letter on Parenthood and Precious Time

Dear Readers,

Our destinies reveal themselves in layers to us in a lifetime. We are all born someone's son or daughter. I was also destined to be a sister, a wife, a friend, and now a mother. It is hard to believe more than a month has gone by since the arrival of our daughter, Grace Ann. I think of a line from Rachel Field's poem, "Equestrienne,"

"Nothing that moves on land or sea,
will seem so beautiful to me."

Field's poem appears on Natalie Merchant's Leave Your Sleep, a double album of 18th and 19th century American and British poems put to songs that I have been playing for Grace. Natalie said of the project she was inspired to create for her daughter, "I tried to show her that her speech could be the most delightful toy in her possession and that her mother tongue is rich with musical rhythms and rhymes."I figure it's never too early to expose Grace to strong, positive female forces. Our media sadly isn't filled with those influences. Thankfully, she's blissfully unaware of all that now.  One of the favorite poems on Leave Your Sleep is Robert Louis Stevenson's The Land of NodIt speaks to the journey into the dream world, but it also represents to me what we all must face as individuals, Grace just starting on her adventure,

"All by myself I have to go,
With none to tell me what to do--
All alone beside the streams
And up the mountain-sides of dreams."

One cannot study history without being appreciative of advances in medical care (Grace's and my medical care I'm so grateful for), and I thought too of author Neil Gaiman's advice when life gives you adversity of any kind, "Make great art."  Merchant notes in the liner notes that Stevenson, born in 1850 as the only child of a wealthy Scottish lighthouse builder, survived "scarlet fever, chickenpox, whopping cough, gastric fever, and pneumonia before the age of nine and fought a lifelong battle with consumption. The bedridden isolation that dominated his childhood led him to play elaborate games of fantasy to escape his confinement." He penned his poetry volume, "A Child's Garden of Verses," Merchant says, "while confined to bed in a darkened rented room in the south of France. His body shrunk to only 109 pounds...He wrote through fever and night sweats with his right arm strapped to his body after a particularly horrible lung hemorrhage. While he coughed and struggled for breath, he invoked his childhood and composed a treasured collection of poems with those memories. "The Land of Nod" is one of the most beautiful of these verses. Both dreams and childhood are elusive and fleeting; Stevenson understood how impossible it is to return to either once we have awakened or grown up."

I've been thinking a lot about that passage. There's no time machine that allows us to relive our own childhood, but parenthood is the closest thing to a return to it. I cannot wait to see Grace experience the joys of this magical age. I've been wondering too about what Grace dreams about. As my writer friend J.J. Brown writes in her upcoming work, The Doctor's Dreams,  "The dream is the exclusive property of the dreamer" and  "The dream world is the last wilderness, vast and unknowable." I can never know what Grace dreams about.

It's springtime, at long last, and I think about what I most look forward to in spring. Simple pleasures, mostly: milder weather, asparagus, strawberries, pansies, daffodils and tulips, visits to a local farm reopening for the season, enjoying lunches on the picnic benches there. In the PBS project Frontier House made several years ago about three families in Montana recreating life in 1883 preparing for the winter, and it was noted springtime in frontier times was known as the starvation time when winter reserves were running low. In the film Lincoln, Preston Blair laments, "It'll be spring in two months, the roads will be passable, the Spring slaughter commences. Four bloody Springs." I'm so thankful our times are filled with such abundant food baskets and we know no wartime on our lands, although I think of those serving abroad. I realized if Grace will be blessed to live a long life, she will witness the next century. What great changes will she see in her lifetime?

I'm wondering about technology too. Steve Harvey had a segment on his show about a family whose children from one year's of age to teenagers were all addicted to their devices. The mother bemoaned her one-year old even had his own laptop and his dependence on it. The family was transported back to the technology of the 1980s when the mother grew up (born in 1975, these were my childhood years too). The father said he feared what would happen during the experiment when the children ran out of "distractions." I fear a world whose society feels the need to be distracted. I want Grace to be think, engage, dream, imagine, and interact - not seek distractions. The mother talked about how "privileged" and "lucky" children are today. I disagree. I don't think being on electronic devices so often is good for the mind or body, and am saddened how children are being treated as consumers-in-training in the disguise of "progress" or "technology." Even in commercials children of all ages are being portrayed as glaring at a device. My husband says this has been made socially acceptable. We agree no baby laptops for Grace. Nature time will be more valued than screen time.

I've written too about wanting less screen time for myself, and now that I'm a mom, I want to be a role model for my daughter too, everything from taking better care of myself to not looking at a screen so often. There are parts of my day that make my spirit contented - playing with the dogs, reading a book (only print books for me), savoring a cup of tea, observing the birds happily eating at the bird feeder or sunning themselves, going out of doors and taking in the beauty of the trees, flowers, sun and sky. Spending too much time in front of my computer or mindlessly watching an excess of television never leaves with me with a good feeling. I'm going to continue with my blog but in a reduced capacity. Grace reminds me about the preciousness of time. I try and take in moments each day, simple ones like our dogs warmly waking up to the world each morning, or Grace sleeping, recounting the mantra, "Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life," by Omar Kayyam.

I have a new awe at the miracle of life that all humans and animals experience. I recently finished Willa Cather's masterpiece, My Antonia, set on the frontier of Nebraska. As in O Pioneers! where a character shuns hunting, Cather's Antonia tells Jim Burden, "I'm afraid to look at a gun now. Ever since I've had children, I don't like to kill anything. It makes me kind of faint to wring an old goose's neck. Isn't that strange, Jim?

"I don't know. The young Queen of Italy said the same thing once, to a friend of mine. She used to be a great huntswoman, but now she feels as you do, and only shoots clay pigeons."

"Then I'm sure she's a good mother," Antonia said warmly."

The conservationist John Muir said, "Leave your legacy for the earth." A large part of my American dream I've written about here is being kinder to the planet and to the animals. I want Grace and her generation and those who come after to inherit a clean planet. Grace is part of my legacy too.

One of my favorite contemporary authors is Michael Hoeye, whose wonderful series starting with "Time Stops for No Mouse" follows the adventures of watchmaker mouse Hermux Tantamoq. It is the best commentary I've read on the ridiculousness of our celebrity and beauty obsessed society, and also features charming gratitude letters Hermux writes. In Hoeye's spirit, I'm ending my letter with a gratitude note of my own.

"Thank you for Grace, and for my husband Steve and our doggies Nikki and Jet. I must have done something really good in my last life to deserve these four spirits. Thank you for the Spring. Thank you for the beauty of words, and birdsong and tea. Thank you for nourishing sleep and for dreams, both those in the sleep world and the waking one where dreams comes true."


Saturday, February 15, 2014

A Seed Planted, Waiting for our New Addition

A "Blue Enchantment" morning glory seed packet, one variety of flower seeds Steve and I handed out to our guests after our garden themed wedding reception in our backyard in late September of 2012.

We have morning glory in our backyard, which came beautifully landscaped when we moved into our two family home. I snapped this photo the day after our wedding. I felt as "zen" as my garden fairy statue, and as snug as the two lovebirds. It was a very long road to get to our marriage and find our home. Everything in it's due time, I've learned as I've gotten older, and I appreciate my blessings so much more. It's tempting in life to focus on what we don't and didn't have instead of all that we do or did. It wasn't a sunny day like pictured here, but overcast with just a few moments of drizzling, but I'm grateful it didn't rain as it did the entire week leading up to the day. Without the rain, the garden wouldn't be so green.

I'm so glad we saved money not having a big wedding (we had about 30 guests) and held a party after the church at our home, saving for future security instead.

Gardens were a part of my world to follow - I think so warmly of our honeymoon in northern California: the Japanese gardens in San Francisco, lavender rosemary tea from Chinatown, the bounty of the California harvest and wine country, and our later trip to Washington state: blackberries everything, wildflowers on the road, lavender fields just starting to bloom. Even the red geraniums at the Wilder Homestead in Malone, New York, or the apples of autumn in Vermont. I'm so glad we took those times to travel when we could spend the time alone together, just us and the open road.

Over the summer Steve and I were planting some of the leftover seed packets. I'm humbled to admit it, but truthfully I'd never planted anything from seed before. It felt symbolic in a way since we were in the process of planting our own seed for the future.

I'm thrilled to tell you we are expecting our first child in just a few weeks time. I'll be a mom at 38. I'm so excited to be welcoming our new addition not long before the arrival of spring after this very long, harsh winter afflicting much of the nation. I can't even get to my birdfeeder on my patio since several feet of snow block the way. I cherish the four seasons, but even winter-loving me has had enough and is ready to greet the first robins and daffodils with a more happy heart than ever. Spring is when so much new life comes into the world, and rebirth is occurring everywhere.

We're having a girl. I still remember when we found out the baby's gender. We were just leaving Malone on our Northeast road trip. I've taken to reading more children's books the past few years. A bookstore owner asked me if I was a teacher when I expressed my interest in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books and Louise Erdrich's Birchbark House series. I hope to be a teacher at least to our daughter of many things, and can't wait to share story time with her, and for her to discover all the world has to offer. Frances Degen Horowitz, President of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, interviewing Barbara Goldsmith about her book "Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Madame Curie," said she believes "the only purely genetic moment in our life journeys is the moment of conception. Past conception, everything is an interaction."

As you can imagine, it's been an exciting time of anticipation, but also dealing with a slew of  appointments, determinations about tests (since I'm over 35, I've been broad-brushed into an "at risk" category), and asking the question often, "is this covered by insurance?" While I'm a history lover and enjoy time traveling into the past and don't love everything about modern life (no baby laptops for our daughter), I appreciate most today the advances in medical care. I've also been on disability for a few weeks. My harried days of commuting from New Jersey into New York City were put to an abrupt end by my doctor as my body and baby demanded rest before her arrival. So thankful for my books and some fun diversions like Downton Abbey and When Calls the Heart, more napping than I've ever done in my life, and the company of my two doggies Nikki and Jet (who are equally well rested and ready for spring). I've been telling them a new pack member will be joining our family soon, and no jealousy, as there's enough love for everyone.

I still remember when we took Nikki in - not long after, she had all those pups - witnessing the miracle of life with her maternal instincts kicking in (no reading up on What to Expect When Expecting for her), and how Jet was this young pup and now is a 20 pound happy girl and hopefully Nikki's other puppies are thriving in their forever homes. Isn't nature amazing? I keep telling myself if Nikki can give birth to eight puppies (and have to nurse and care for them all!), I can give birth once!

I'll let you know when she's here and her name when she arrives. I've never been so excited to meet someone in my life. I may or may not be doing some writing, depending on when she comes and how I feel. I have all this free time but my soul is anxious about the great change about to take place.  Like many of you may have, cabin fever is here.

I was looking at photos from our garden party, and came across this rosemary plant with the sign, "Love Grows Here." I want more than anything to provide a loving home to our daughter. We should all give thanks if we grew up in a household where love grew, and if we did or not (I think those of us who did might take it for granted), we should all strive to sow the seed of love in our families, friends and animals for current and future generations. We all need more love in this world.


Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Girl Blew West Diary: Seattle, and Lessons from the Garden

Stopping by a post office, gardens even seemed to be finding me on postage stamps.
There's so many lessons to learn from the garden, and visitors to our garden. A card I came across said, "If nothing ever changed, there would be no butterflies." - Author Unknown. Change is part of life, so much of it scary when it involves the unknown. So much of it welcome, like the four seasons: winter (for slowing down and rest), spring (for new life and rebirth), summer (for her bountiful fruits and vegetables), autumn (for harvest time).

Our last leg of our Seattle journey, we stayed at Jodi's "Urban Farmlette," our favorite of our Airbnb.com stays. We had such a richer experience here than we would have if we stayed at a hotel.
She does it all: beekeeping, raising animals, cultivating flowers, fruits and vegetables, composting.

Lining up for worms in the compost pile.


If I ever travel to Austin, Texas, I would love to visit the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Lady Bird Johnson used the word "joy" most often touring the gardens there. Steve and I signed up for a family membership at the New York Botanical Garden and other words I feel going there and spending time in gardens in general in addition to joy: awe, peace, happiness, and contentment.

I love this image from a Michael Pollan book and the saying, "A desk is not a table." I have been a repeat offender of this in my cubicle in New York City.
 Reflecting on her time as an exchange student in Paris, Jennifer L. Scott writes in her charming book: Lessons from Madame Chic: 20 Stylish Secrets I Learned While Living in Paris. "Attitude is extremely important if you are to enjoy your food and nourish your body. Famille Chic had a very healthy and positive attitude toward food. In the morning, Madame Chic would eagerly ask me which of her homemade jams I would prefer, "Fraise? Ou marmalade d'orange?" In the evening we would sit together a la table, we would often discuss the merits of the food we were eating. Did you know this wine came from this region? The key to this sauce is the heavy cream! Or, the apricots on this tart are very succulent; yes, we must have this tart again soon...
In America, people would groan when a decadent meal is served before them. "This must have a lot of cream in it! I'll have to hit the gym tomorrow!" or "How many calories do you think this has?" During the dinners I had in France with different people (not just Famille Chic), I never heard any references to calorie counting or thighs expanding."
My personal theory is that if people should feel guilty, we should feel guilty about issues like the appalling inhumane factory farm conditions animals are raised in or all the pesticides on much of our foods before we worry about our vanity concerns like our thighs. But marketers have worked hard to instill those values. I'm far from perfect, an unachievable standard. I don't eat organic everything, or get my teas and coffee fair trade, and while I don't eat meat I have animal byproducts in my diet. It's not about perfection, it's about awareness and doing the best you can as often as possible.
Back to the Urban Farmlette. Jodi leaves hot cereal in a crockpot overnight, and there's coffee and a French press, teas and fruit in the fridge and some pantry items available.

 Our DYI breakfast of banana pancakes.

A wise magnet on Jodi's refrigerator. I'm not sure I understand the obsession on home improvement shows with stainless steel appliances, especially after learning many can't hold magnets. Our refrigerator is white and was given to us for free by a colleague who didn't need it. Anthology Professor Anthony Graesch says, "The refrigerator space communicates a lot about what is important to the family." What's on your refrigerator? We have a lot of magnets and cards with uplifting sayings, like Omar Khayyam's "Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life" and a Sierra Club sticker of founder John Muir that simply says, "Hike."

A raspberry colored reusable tote.  A hallmark of a foodie is they see food everywhere, even when discussing colors! Jodi is striving to live a plastic free lifestyle as much as possible and reduce her waste. Kudos, Jodi! This topic is near and dear to my heart too, and I wrote this post: Disposable Nation: A Cautionary Essay on Waste.

My favorite character in Willa Cather's 1913 novel, O Pioneers!, set in Nebraska at the turn of the 20th century, is Ivar, seen as eccentric by many, but who embraced so much of the old ways, and had so much wisdom. I think of this passage when I see what people put on the curbside instead of bringing to a charity thrift shop, or how some treat our roads like personal landfills. "Ivar found contentment in the solitude he had sought out for himself. He disliked the litter of human dwellings: the broken food, the bits of broken china, the old wash-boilers and tea-kettles thrown into the sunflower patch. He preferred the cleanness and tidiness of the wild sod. He always said that the badgers had cleaner houses than people, and that when he took a housekeeper her name would be Mrs. Badger."

A New York Times article on the role of the First Lady in France talked about projects supported over the years by U.S. First Ladies. For Jacqueline Kennedy it was culture in form of music, photography, and the arts, showcasing American works and exposing people to foreign culture. Lady Bird Johnson beautified public spaces, including highways. Nancy Reagan fought against drug abuse and Barbara Bush aimed to eliminate illiteracy.

From this PBS page on Lady Bird Johnson, sharing her sentiments:

"Ugliness is so grim.  A little beauty, something that is lovely, I think, can help create harmony which will lessen tensions."

"Getting on the subject of beautification is like picking up a tangled skein of wool," she wrote in her diary on January 27, 1965. "All the threads are interwoven -- recreation and pollution and mental health, and the crime rate, and rapid transit, and highway beautification, and the war on poverty, and parks -- national, state and local. It is hard to hitch the conversation into one straight line, because everything leads to something else."

Before we went out to dinner, I wanted to seek out the Secret Garden book shop, since I love visiting indie book stores. Which cover of The Secret Garden do you prefer? I love the older one on the right. My favorite garden book for children (and children at heart) is Julie Andrews Edwards' Mandy. It's just one of my favorite books, period.

Barbara Bush founded the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, whose vision is 100 percent literacy in America and helps families understand: "the child's first school is the home; the parent is the child's first teacher; the child's first subject is reading." Pay a visit to their inspirational Facebook page. Mrs. Bush says,

"The American Dream is about equal opportunity for everyone who works hard. If we don't give everyone the ability to simply read and write, then we aren't giving everyone an equal chance to succeed."

Wisdom to be found in Jodi's collection of books on farming.

We loved Jodi's recommendation for dinner: Local 360, where food comes from farms within a 360 mile radius. Farro, an ancient grain, with cheese and hazelnut pesto and a glass of rose. I haven't eaten beef, chicken or pork in over two decades and haven't missed it since. The garden's bounty is plentiful and satisfying.

Berry rhubarb bread pudding with strawberry ice cream and candied thyme.

Seed packets in Jodi's living room. I may have to steal this idea. Notes below from grateful guests. We should all have gratitude in our daily lives.

Renee's Garden seeds which all have a saying by Renee Shepherd. This one, "Flowers are treasures for the eye and heart." We handed out seed packets as a wedding favor for our intimate garden themed party. My mom planted hers, but I'm not sure if any of our guests did. I hope at least a few did. There's something about witnessing the elements transform seeds and the miracle of life itself.
One of my favorite initiatives of First Lady Michelle Obama is the garden she planted at the White House. During this extremely frigid January, spring is in my heart as I thumb through her book I picked up from the library, American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America. Seeds from Monticello were planted here. Thomas Jefferson asked his ambassadors to bring seeds back from other nations. I love the quote from him shared in this video, "the failure of one thing repaired by the success of another; and instead of one harvest, a continued one throughout the year."

The world learned this week of folk singer Pete Seeger's passing. He was a great champion of many causes, including fighting for our waterways. One of his songs I hold near and dear is "If I Had a Hammer," covered here by one of my favorites: Peter, Paul and Mary.

I love Mary Travers (and Peter and Paul of course), better role models than much of the pop culture fare today. Like the cook Mrs. Patmore on Downton Abbey, I don't feel like a futurist in many ways when viewing certain things (for her it was the introduction of electric devices into her kitchen). Looking at today's celebrities who dominate the headlines, I wish they'd issue a memo that transitioning from youth to adulthood has nothing to do with embarrassing rites of passage involving substance abuse or shedding your clothes, and everyone would have more class. Can anyone rely on talent anymore and not shock value? Shocking to me is how we treat our planet, animals, and our precious time here on Earth.
I think we all need to be hammers for change in our pockets of the world where we live. My blog is part of my hammer, and how I try to live my life.
I think of the First Ladies (all classy in my book for their initiatives) and the legacies they sought to leave for current and future generations. What do you want your legacy to be? I end my Washington state travel diary here, having felt a better person for the trip than if I hadn't taken it, for travel is not just about leisure time but about broadening my perspective and better figuring out my path. Even if it's armchair traveling through books, blogs, films or other means, let the adventure of this life continue, embracing each season in our own gardens to come.