Archive for the ‘vacation’ Category

About ten days ago, Ben and I returned from a stay at our last best place in the world, Star Island.  Pretty much we’ve been going there since before we can remember, and so it’s been part of our individual and combined family traditions forever.  I first arrived there at the age of eighteen months;  Ben was conceived there, and we are pretty sure we met there when we were four years old.  Our older child, Emily, went when she was a preschooler for the first time — thus securing the same kind of memory that we both held in our heads — and Abby’s first trip came when she was about nine months old, for an open up weekend in May.

My father-in-law helped build many of the buildings on the island and had a huge (now, forgotten by many) role in reopening Star Island after the second world war.  My mother-in-law came along with the kids, helping wherever she could, and making sure that her children had a great experience on this rocky, remote (and, in the 1950s) very rustic island with few services, drinking water imported by boat from Portsmouth, and one ship-to-shore radio telephone.

Over the years, generations of our family have had the same experience, and have gone to Star Island to spend a summer or an extended period of time working on what we call The Rock.  You really can’t go unless you can deal with seagulls, a couple of showers a week only, no cars, no televisions or media save what you might get from the wireless networks that can be up or down, and boat service that is sometimes subject to weather and engine failure.

And yet, we all pretty much remember it as the best time of our lives.  Where else can you spend the summer with just under 100 other young adults in a naturally pristine setting, feeling completely away from the rest of the world, working hard, playing hard, and drinking in the salt air and the starlight?  The shooting stars are better seen from the grass in front of the Star Island summerhouse or near the summer house; the swimming’s better in Smuttynose cove; the lime rickeys taste like nowhere else when they come from the Star Island Snack Bar.  It’s just the way it is.

And now, Abby.  Our second child is in the middle of that unparalleled experience and she is having the summer she, and we, always dreamed of.  She’s the fourteenth member of our family to spend a summer this way, and from all reports, it’s as magical as it ever was, as amazing as we dreamed it would be.  She’s sailing, trying out new jobs and helping out her friends, sun tanning and swimming, spending long days both working hard and celebrating summer in the perfect New Hampshire sea air.  And how bad can life be if you get up in the morning, gaze out the window, and see a sunrise and sailboats that look like a Childe Hassam painting every day?  Hassam, along with John Greenleaf Whittier and many of the top writers and artists of their day, flocked to the Isles of Shoals in the summer.  And we are fortunate enough to know why.

Photo of Abby on Star Island

A life like no other: Abby on Star Island, 2013

Before she went to Star this summer, Abby worried (as she has a tendency to do).  About whether she would have friends.  About whether she would like it. About (I think) whether she would disappoint us if she didn’t, given her family pedigree with the place.  About six hours after she left the dock in Portsmouth, bound for Star, I got a text:  “Made friends :>) ” And that was the start of this magical summer…the same one we’ve had, the same one our older daughter, Emily, had, and the same one we hope for the next generation of Soule…my nephew, Gabriel, now five months old.

With ongoing care and love, Star Island has endured, with its fishing cottages — dating to the early nineteenth century — and the grand hotel, built in the mid-1800s, preserved and still open for business.  The harbor’s the same, the scarlett pimpernel still blooms in the rocks.  The stars are still gorgeous at night, the water clear and pure, and the air brisk and clean.  Life is still very, very good on Star Island, thank heaven and earth.

And Number Fourteen’s on The Rock, working hard and having the summer of her life.  These gifts — given and received again — keeps bringing us blessings to celebrate, and to share.

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Last night, we arrived home from our road trip that took us to New Orleans and back – a trip of nearly 3,500 miles — traveled over twelve intense days.  We did the trip in our 2006 Toyota Prius, which now has an odometer nearing 100,000 miles, with a car top box on top (and, for half the trip, a bicycle lashed to the roof as well).

I’m  old enough to remember the ads that ran when I was a child, featuring Dinah Shore singing, in a convertible, “See the USA in your Chevrolet!”  It seemed so exciting – everyone wanted to get out on the open road and visit different states, with the wind blowing through their hair, with spouse and kids in tow (probably a dog as well), cigarette in hand.

I took such a trip when I was sixteen, traveling from my home in Connecticut to Vail, Colorado with my parents, and then on to California, with a return across the South and up the Northeast.  It was a nearly four week journey, as I recall, and even though my parents criticized me for reading movie magazines in the back seat and sleeping much of the time, it’s remarkable how much I remember from the trip.  I remember how remarkably flat Kansas was…those miles of farmland were impressive – and the awe I felt as we approached the Rocky Mountains.  I had altitude sickness in Denver, but that passed soon enough, and Vail – which was a new development at the time – seemed like an Alpine village.  It was there that I tasted fondue for the first time, rode on a cable car up a mountain, and hiked through that lovely mountain resort.

I had a summer snowball fight with my father at a picnic lunch stop at Yosemite National Park, snuck into a gambling casino and played at a slot machine until I was discovered by a security guard, and saw a young Liza Minelli perform in Las Vegas.  I also went to a topless club in San Francisco (I was snuck into the club, with a fake ID, along with my parents and several social workers), tasted authentic Chinese Food for the first time in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and, as we neared home, got my first sense of the South when we stopped in Louisville, Kentucky.  I also was struck by the poverty of Appalachia (just after the time that Robert Coles had published his landmark book, “Death at an Early Age,”) as we traveled through West Virginia en route to the nation’s capitol.  I climbed to the top of the Washington Monument with my Dad in sweltering August heat, felt awe as I visited the Lincoln Memorial, and celebrated the fact that – while in Los Angeles – I had finally made it to Disneyland.  It was a pretty great summer trip.

So as we set out this time, I realized how many years it had been since I’d last taken a really big road trip. Ben, too, had been on extended road trips, but it had been forty years since the last one (for him, the route had taken him to Rocky Mountain National Park and then down through New Mexico and Texas to New Orleans, and through Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky on the way home).

We were driving Abby to Tulane in New Orleans, and we were really excited to be doing this trip – partly because we wanted Abby to have the chance to see part of the country that she had never visited before.  Our first night took us to Chambersburg, PA, home of Ben’s maternal grandmother.  He’d visited there when he was a small boy;  he’d returned two years ago while on a service trip to West Virginia.  But Abby and I had never been there, so we were excited to see this town that had been burned by the Confederate Army; the town where Ben had had adventures in his grandmother’s rather grand (now, non-existent) home.

Abby and Ben in front of historical marker

Abby and Ben in Chambersburg in front of historical marker

We went on to visit friends in Rutledge, Tennessee – thirty miles or so from Knoxville, and near very little in the way of commercial services…but their house, located on a pristine lake, was in a terrific location…and they had five boats to ‘play’ on.  We took a ride on the lake in their pontoon boat as the sun set, and went out fishing again early the next morning as the sun rose. As we drove away, we saw more little Baptist churches than we could count, and listened to Dolly Parton singing about life in Tennessee and thought, “this is beautiful and uncomplicated and hidden away from society – a great life.”

We stayed in Birmingham, AL next.  We had the best dinner of our trip, at a Greek restaurant in Homewood, AL (who would have thought that there would be a Mediterranean enclave there?) and in the morning, visited the 16th Street Baptist Church where Martin Luther King had preached, and walked the civil rights walk through the downtown area.  We were dismayed to learn that the church had been broken into the night before, the glass doors smashed.

And then, the Jazz City:  still hurting in many neighborhoods, but not broken:  full of music, unique Cajun and Acadian and African American culture.  There was an afternoon monsoon – not uncommon for the hot, humid summers of New Orleans – and our car got flooded on the street near Tulane.  After bailing it out and wet-vac’ing the rugs three times, it was reasonably functional.  We observed – and I rely on New Orleanians to tell me their truth – that this city’s culture is more authentically multi-racial and multi-cultural than that one might encounter almost anywhere else in the US…people seem more at home with one another, more willing to engage with people who might be different than they are.  We loved this sense.

Deb and Abby in front of the bakery

Deb and Abby in front of the Buttermilk Drop Bakery

Along the way, we visited Dwight Henry’s Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Café in the Seventh Ward – he, one of the stars of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” owns a place filled with friendly staff who make the most amazingly, sinfully delicious doughnuts we’d ever had.  Go there if you can – you will be glad you did.  We also managed to get into the French Quarter to enjoy Café du Monde late one night, scarfing down the beignets, café au lait, and of course, loving the attendant people watching.

A highlight was our trip to Plaquemines Parish, to visit our friends, Tyronne and Gail Edwards.  I have written elsewhere on this visit so I won’t repeat myself here.  Suffice it to say, for now, that this trip was a blessing and a joy, Gail’s cooking delicious, and it was a thrill to see all that had been accomplished in Tyronne and Gail’s town of Phoenix in the seven years since Katrina.

We ate brunch with Abby at a café near the Garden District called Atchafalya while listening to a jazz combo; then, we were gone – we watched Abby walk away, wave to us, and disappear around the corner of her dorm.  We headed down the coast into Mississippi, observing the gorgeous beaches and the stairs leading to nothing – washed away in the last storm.  We decided to go into the Beau Rivage Casino to take a look, spend $5 in the slots, and eat a hot dog for lunch.  It’s opulent and a stark contrast to the poverty we knew existed in Biloxi just a few blocks away.

As we drove away, we saw battalions of bucket trucks headed in the other direction – staging for hurricane cleanup, we were sure.  The storm was still two days away, but there was an ominous air on the Gulf Coast, as people gritted their teeth and prepared to hunker down for a storm they hoped would veer away at the last moment.

We spent the night in a tiny ‘microtel’ in Montgomery, AL.  I was verbally pinned by the owner of the hotel, who wanted to know (while I was at the breakfast buffet) who I liked in the upcoming election.  I tried to give non-committal answers, not wanting to get into such conversations while traveling, but finally acknowledged my strong preference for the President.  An Indian who had come to the country forty-two years ago (he said), he barraged me with reasons why the opponent was a better choice.  I finally managed to excuse myself and mutter to Ben, “Let’s get out of here.”  We visited the Civil Rights Museum in Montgomery that is run by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and saw the fountain and monument that commemorates civil rights struggles since the late 1940’s.

Marker at Civil Rights Museum

The Civil Rights Monument and Museum in Montgomery, AL

In Atlanta we were impressed with the kudzu overwhelming the trees.  We chowed down on authentic southern cuisine at Mary Mac’s Tearoom.  And we had absolutely terrific help at a Car Spa from two young men who, in random acts of kindness, not only extracted water from the floor of our car but cleaned it from top to bottom – for no additional fee.

As we headed north toward Durham (with a nice stop in Greenvile, SC) and then on to Alexandria, we had the sense that we were leaving the country as we’d been experiencing it in the South.  Headed out of Washington, DC, we ran into huge amounts of traffic, aggressive and often jerky drivers, many more billboards, and really ugly highways through New Jersey and New York.  The drive up from Washington through Connecticut was a bear, and it stood in stark contrast to the open spaces we’d seen in the south.  We talked about how smart Canadians are to ban billboards and wondered why the US had taken another path.

And we wondered why we hadn’t done trips like this before.  On this trip we saw evidence of the Civil War, and of the Civil Rights movement:  signs for sites, sometimes juxtaposed, named after people who had led each of these struggles.  Where have we come from since the Civil War was fought on this land?  How far  have we come from since the struggles of Birmingham and Montgomery?  And, we wondered as we caught snippets of a political convention and news of poor coastal communities struggling again to survive devastating natural disasters — where will we go in the future?

What role will we, fellow travelers, play in the next chapter?  You never know what you can find out until you get behind the wheel of the car and visit some place that you’ve never been before.

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After months of feeling verklempt beyond words, we packed up our Prius and, nine days ago, began the long drive from Massachusetts to Louisiana.  This was wonderful and scary; sickening and invigorating.  Abby was finally starting at Tulane University, and after all the months of celebrating a series of lasts, we were about to start what will be a series of firsts.

We had a relatively stress-free trip down, stopping in Chambersburg, PA (home of Ben’s maternal grandmother), visiting friends in Rutledge TN on a beautiful lake – complete with an early morning fishing trip, a stop in Birmingham, AL where we took the civil rights walk in the downtown area and visited the 16th Street Baptist Church.  Finally, we rolled into the Big Easy on a Thursday afternoon, and had a delightful dinner with my sister-in-law’s niece, who is completing her graduate studies at Tulane.

The next day was errand day – but it also opened a window into what life in New Orleans is like.  For one thing, it rained like crazy for much of the afternoon.  This is not surprising, given the heat and humidity that build up in the summer in this part of the country…but I was not expecting Ben’s phone call after he went to get the car from its parking spot on St. Charles Avenue:  “The good news is: the car started.  The bad news is:  it’s flooded.”  Sure enough, the moisture that has no place to go, with the water level so high, had caused water to back up to about ten inches in the streets.  As Abby and I bailed the car, we realized that, as Dorothy said, we weren’t in Kansas anymore.

More than the flood, we were watching the weather, as tropical storm Isaac churned its way through the Atlantic.  That night we drove out to Plaquemines Parish to have dinner with our friends, Tyronne and Gail Edwards, and listened to Tyronne reassure folks about the storm.  We hoped he was right — that the levees wouldn’t be overtopped, that the new buildings that had been erected since Katrina would hold strong and secure.  We made sure that Abby had her emergency contact information in place, and hoped she wouldn’t have to use it.

Move in day came and went, and on Sunday, before Ben and I left town on Sunday morning, we took Abby out for brunch, tried to resist giving too much parental advice, and enjoyed our last few hours together.  We made a stop at the Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Cafe in the 7th Ward, which is owned by one of the stars of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” and enjoyed the guilty pleasure of those absolutely delicious buttermilk doughnuts.  We talked about the influence of art and culture in New Orleans, about how important the Treme district is to the city’s identity…  and then, with tears all around, it was over.  Abby walked off toward her dorm, waving goodbye to us once more, and Ben and I burst into tears and sobbed in the car as we watched her go.

The pain was intense, but we knew it was time, and so, sniffling, we slowly made our way out of the city toward the Gulf Coast of Mississippi.  I enjoyed narrating the tour as we drove through Pass Christian, Gulfport, and Biloxi…I had been there six years ago and was moved both by the rebuilding that had taken place, and the many empty lots that remain part of the landscape.  The beaches along the Gulf Coast are absolutely gorgeous, with white sand and beautiful water.  But we were also seeing people nailing plywood to their windows, and we knew that Tropical Storm Isaac was projected to have an impact on the Gulf Coast.

Abby, at our family’s overnight stop in Tennessee, as our family made our way to New Orleans (August, 2012)

This is different:  worrying about storms, storm surges, flooding, power outages is a part of life for people who live in this part of the country.  Will the levees hold?  Will the power stay on?  Will my house be there tomorrow?  All those questions are on the line.  This is stuff not everyone has to think about, but for us, it’s gotten personal:  our youngest child is now part of this landscape.  And tonight, she is locked down in her dorm, trying to sleep in the inside hallway of her building with thirty other young women next to her, with University Police nearby and emergency provisions in place.

Tomorrow, Ben and I will once again fight the urge in our guts to turn the car around and drive back to New Orleans.  Instead, we’ll continue our journey north, toward our home — just the two of us, this time.

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We drove to New Hampshire this weekend, looking forward to our “fourth annual pajama party” with two couples who are among our very closest friends.  We have known them for more years than I can easily count up, having met on Star Island, and through the years we have grown closer, sharing ups and downs of children, careers, our mutual celebrations – the mundane and glorious stuff of life.

This weekend was different, though. One of my friends is about to undergo a bilateral radical mastectomy – a surgery designed to not only take away the primary and secondary lesion found in her right breast, but to hopefully erase the possibility of cancer being found, in time, in her other breast.  She faces a preliminary surgery this week and the mastectomy will come the week after.

She is gutsy, my friend.  She set the table for dinner with place cards that carried this statement (author anonymous):  “Courage is looking fear right in the eye and saying, ‘Get the hell out of my way.  I’ve got things to do.'”  She has researched her procedure, she has planned her after-care, she has done everything she can to make this lousy turn of fortune go as well as it might.  Still, it sucks.

My other friend and I got together and planned a gift bag to present during the visit, filled with things that we hoped would help, at least a little – a special shirt for mastectomy patients that holds drains and tubes and velcros on and off; trashy magazines, a book on CD, chocolate, a picture frame for the hospital, and much more.  And of course, we brought food for the freezer and fridge, so that no one would have to worry about whether there’s some good soup or a meatloaf or pasta casserole available – it will be there.  We love each other like we were born from the same mother, I keep thinking, wanting to be there, support each other, help to take away some of the pain — even though we know that isn’t possible.

And the spouses — the amazing, supportive spouse of this woman, who has loved her for more than forty years, since they were teens — and the other two husbands…they talk as well.  My friend’s husband loves her not for her breasts but for her loving and generous spirit, her warmth and unflinching devotion to home and family. Sitting together the men ask questions about the procedure; they worry, and inside, they think, I am sure, “there but for the Grace of God…”. What else can you do, but (as Bob Franke wrote) ‘work and hope’…and believe that all will be well?

Last night at dinner, we drank a toast to the riches we shared, to the blessings of friendship.  We are so fortunate, all of us, to be in such good company, to know that we will continue to be there for one another.  As we talked the night away, ate amazing food, went from reflecting on the upcoming surgery to thinking about spring flowers and then on to politics, faith, our kids, and our upcoming vacation together, I kept looking around the room.  “How did I get so lucky?”, I kept wondering.  I can not imagine my life without these people, can not remember what it was like before I knew them.  They are part of our chosen family, not the people who share our blood – but they share our passion, our love, our values, and our commitment to one another.

On Wednesday my heart and head and spirit, and my prayers too, will be up north, in the operating room as my sister of the heart is wheeled in.  And I will also be sitting, in my mind’s eye, with her husband in that waiting room, hoping for the best possible news as nodes are analyzed and initial procedures done, knowing that there is so much more to this life that needs to be explored, celebrated, relished – for them, for all of us.

Yes, we’ve got things to do and much to celebrate.  And these people are more precious than gold, worth caring for and treasuring beyond all else.

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It was a perfect day, I remember.  I got up, sent Abby off to second grade that morning, kissed Ben goodbye, and went to work.  I kept looking at the sky as I commuted on Storrow Drive with my car pool buddies.  It was gorgeous, sunny, warm, skies clear.  Folks were out on the Esplanade along the Charles, and summer was hanging on and holding us in her embrace.  I was determined to take a walk at lunch time across the Common, at least, just to drink in the richness of the moment.

Then, it all happened.  All the tragedy, the unspeakable disaster, the terror of ten years ago.  Perfection, and innocence, vanished in moments.  We were told to go home, be with our families, be safe, get away from the State House and Beacon Hill.  And as I drove back home to Lexington, I kept wondering how such a beautiful day had turned into such a hideous catastrophe.  More than that, I really did wonder if, as T.S. Eliot suggested, the world were ending, “Not with a bang but with a whimper.”

My mother called, wanting to take us out to dinner at a really nice restaurant.  “If we’re going to blow up, we might as well have a good meal first,” she proclaimed.  Sure enough, I remember ordering Duck a l’orange for my entree, with escargots for a first course.  “What the hell,” I thought, my dad was right:  “When you’re on the Titanic, go first class.”  As we left the restaurant, we could hear the military planes taking off and landing from Hanscom Field nearby.

When we got home and had tucked Abby into bed and talked to our older daughter, Emily, at college, we went outside and stood on the steps and looked up at the night sky.  It was so…eerily…quiet.  No other aircraft, of course, just military planes circling Boston and other major cities, trying to protect us from a danger no one really knew.  We went to bed, held each other, cried, and hoped, for our children’s sake, we’d all live to see the next day.

I remember asking Ben whether we should try to get to Star Island.  Star, a place we had both grown up spending summers on, is only seven miles from Rye, New Hampshire.  Yet it feels like a million miles…like safety…like a refuge.  It’s an illusion, of course.  If major catastrophic damage struck the East Coast, it would almost assuredly hit the Isles of Shoals too.  But the feeling of being away from the madness was so strong, and my need to find somewhere safe to be was so palpable, that I was seriously thinking about running away with everyone to hide on Star.

All these thoughts came sweeping back into my mind because we were, last weekend, on Star Island on another beautiful, perfect day.  Ten years later, we were blessed to have both our daughters with us.  The sun shone, it was warm and the sky was deep blue.  I officiated at a Service of Remembrance for those who have helped to shape Star Island into the iconic and magical conference and retreat center that it has become.  Standing in the new Memorial Courtyard, leading worship as memorial stones were laid to honor our ‘ancestors,’ I could hear the waves crashing on the rocks, the cry of the gulls, feel the breezes, smell the salt tang in the air.

Later our family members helped Ben run an amazing treasure/trivia/scavenger hunt for our friends – an activity fun and fascinating.  We drank Lime Rickeys on the old hotel porch, Ben and Abby painted, Emily napped, I caught up with people I’ve known since childhood.  We ate lobster together, sang songs we learned when we were in college and working on Star, played board games with our niece and nephew.  And we posed for pictures which a dear friend (and professional photographer) offered to take of us.  All of us there, together, on an absolutely beautiful day.

Ben and I remarked that night at how fortunate we were, to have been blessed with that day, to have had our children and loved ones with us, to have been on Star, our own best place on earth.  Another beautiful day, ten years later than one that had begun so similarly and ended so differently.

May there be more beautiful days, more simplicity, more opportunities for all of us to revel in the ordinary beauty that comes from appreciating the gifts life holds and the family we so cherish.

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I just heard about a new show that’s debuting on the Food Network called “Pioneer Woman.”  In it, an Oklahoma home schooler and rancher shows you how to make chicken fried steak with white gravy and mashed potatoes with cream cheese and butter, while herding kids and cows.

It should have been me on the screen.  For years, Ben has jokingly referred to me as Pioneer Woman, particularly while we go camping.  I love to go hunting for stuff that’s edible in the area where we camp, and frequently come back with treasures:  wild blueberries, raspberries, wild garlic, and more (we will not mention the time that I found poison ivy berries and thought them a delicious edible, and chastened, was sent to the stream to scrub my hands with sand!).

There’s something just restorative about being in a raspberry field (from which I just returned, with nearly two pounds of gorgeous, organic raspberries).  Later today, these berries will be turned into jam, which we – and my catering clients – will feast on all fall and winter and spring.  Tomorrow I’ll probably be back in the field for more, which I’ll turn into a crisp, or mix with gooseberries, currants, and blueberries to make four-berry preserves.

Doing all this reminds me of the years when we walked my grandparents’ farm, picking wild strawberries or potatoes, as we ran after the horse-drawn plow…or days spent near Glacier Park with my friend, Connie, harvesting huckleberries or picking cherries from trees growing on the Flathead Reservation.  It’s an incomparable delight – the combination of being in nature, harvesting the goodness that the sun, wind, rain, and soil provide, and knowing that we can provide for ourselves and our families with what we harvest.

And my pioneering adventures in campgrounds have brought other memories to mind.  I like to jokingly say that I won my husband’s heart on a camping trip.  It was our first together, and I was not about to settle for beans and franks (although we like them) or something out of a can.  I produced appetizers, chicken with a peach-sauternes sauce, rice pilaf, a hot veg, salad, and some dessert I can’t recall.  Ben, and our daughter Emily, were snowed.  On another trip I made a complete lobster dinner at the camp site, and then followed it the next morning by providing blueberry pancakes (picked in Acadia Park) and sausage to the family, all during a driving rainstorm.  And I loved doing it.

I travel with a camping kit that I wish was stored in a chuck-box…but I make do with a couple of stackable totes, and bring a complete array of spices in small containers, olive oil, worcestershire, and all the condiments you’d need to produce really good camping food.  And it all comes out hot at the same time – four or five dishes.

I know all this started when I was a tiny girl visiting my mother’s Uncle Arthur and Aunt Laura, on their farm.  The low blueberry bushes kept me busy and fishing for sunfish and catfish in the pond did as well.  So even though my mother would have none of camping (“too low class,” she sniffed), I come by this yearning for the preparation of food in an outdoor setting honestly.

Yep, I’m the real Pioneer Woman, at least in our family.  And as for that new TV show — well, it should have been me.

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Last night we drove in from nearly a week on the Ile d’Orleans, a lovely island in the St. Lawrence River opposite Quebec City.  This was the fourth time we had been on the island, the last time four years ago when – very suddenly — we found ourselves not going to Star Island and determined to spend a week somewhere that would be interesting, relaxing, and in sight of water.  Last time, we stayed in an apartment rented by a lovely Quebec couple, Lyse and Gus Droin, but the other times we’ve come, we’ve camped, and we love it.

So we made another camping reservation with Camping Orleans, acquired roof racks for the Prius to save on gas, pulled out our gas lantern and cooking stove, and packed off.  We knew that it was likely to be the last big family vacation with Abby before she graduates from high school next year, and we wanted to make it a good one.

It was.  My family laughs at me for turning rhapsodic after we cross the Canadian border and locate ourselves in some charming area – usually, either Quebec or the Maritimes.  I love the absence of obnoxious billboards, the politeness, the signs in French first and then English (or only French), the charming villages, and — on Ile d’Orleans — the simply remarkable produce that is there for the asking. My foodie friends will start nodding their heads and perhaps, drooling, as I continue.

Ile d’Orleans is known as the garden of Quebec, for good reason.  The island’s rich soil and temperate climate support farming on most of the island.  Here, strawberries aren’t just around for a few weeks, nor do they have hollow white cores.  They grow, sweet and delicious and juicy, all summer long, joined by blueberries and raspberries and currants.  So literally, every 50 yards or so, another stand has the signs up:  “Fraises.”  “Framboises.”  “Bleuets.”  Our objective is to buy early and often, and eat these goodies all the time, accompanied in the evening by chocolate from the St. Petronille township’s Choclaterie de l’Isle d’Orleans,which is also terrific.  We found potatoes, squash, tomatoes, corn, beans, lettuce, garlic, leeks, onions, kale, all along the roadside at small stands, all over the island.  And we delighted in these goodies.

But there was more:  fabulous homemade breads and pastries, freshly butchered lamb and duck and foie gras and bacon, really fresh eggs, pates, and of course, maple syrup.  We also enjoyed Charlevoix cheese — a kind of cross between camembert and brie — and another — the first cheese made in North America — from Les Fromages de l’Isle d’Orleans, which you could wash down, if you wished, with biere d’epinette (spruce beer, and no thanks, I passed on that one).  We also returned home with samples of the other alcoholic beverages made on the island:  award-winning rose wine, along with Kir (an aperitif), ice cider, and ice wine from the Vignoble Isle de Bacchus, one of many vineyards and orchards on the island.

Lest you think we came home having gained tons of weight on the trip, we did not.  There are beautiful paths for bicycling and walking, swimming to enjoy, and walks to Montmorency Falls and through the Centre-Ville of Quebec, not far away.  For those who treasure locally-sourced food and want to see local farming endure and prosper, Ile d’Orleans is worth a visit.  For those who are fans of North American history and want to visit the site where battles on the Plains of Abraham were planned from across the St. Lawrence, this is your island.  If you love to paint or draw and want beautiful sights to inspire you, from nearly any direction, come to this place and be inspired. And for those who wish they were in France but just can’t make it but want the charm and the language close at hand, drive north for a day, and it’s yours.

I love coming home, but there are so many reasons to fall in love with our neighbor country to the north.  Life is slower there, and hard, but — I dearly hope — rewarding.  While we love using our high school and college French — and you really do need it on the Ile d’Orleans, along with a French-English dictionary — for the most part, people are very patient as you work to explain, en francais, what it is you’re wanting to do or buy.

I’ve just come home again, but long to return.  And, as the official Quebec motto says, “Je me souviens.”

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On Tuesday night, Abby — who we often refer to as “Slim Sunny” for her nearly 5’10” stature and her cheery disposition — returned from two amazing weeks in New Orleans.  She had come up with the idea of taking this trip, participating in the Rustic Pathways program.  She had earned some of the money needed to make the trip, and worked to come up with rest of the financing for it.  She so wanted an experience that was different from what she viewed as her routine life in a small New England town.

And she got it. Her time was filled with work cleaning a building that’s being re-opened as a charter school and insulating homes that are being restored post-Katrina.  And in doing this work, she got a peek at the trauma some of NOLA’s residents — survivors, really — have experienced.  She found that one resident, who has been waiting for a very long time for help with restoring her home, became intensely frustrated and angry when the youthful workers in her house weren’t behaving the way she wanted.  She ordered them out of her house.  That night, as the kids debriefed, they met with St. Bernard project coordinators who explained that one of the unfortunate side-effects of the trauma from the storm is anxiety and depression that sometimes gets focused on the folks who are trying to help.  It was an important lesson for these high school students, although a difficult one.  Several days later, however, the kids were back at it in another house, insulating once again, and the home owners came by, thrilled at the work being done.  They wanted to bring the teens cold drinks (and did), wanted to cook for them (alas, no time for that).  But the two experiences helped Abby see some of the challenges that New Orleanians are continuing to experience, even five years after the storm.

There was more.  They watched parts of Spike Lee’s excellent documentaries on the storm (When the Levees Broke, If God is Willing and da Creek don’t Rise), had a sobering tour of the Lower 9th (how, Abby wondered, could there be these concrete steps to nowhere, and why were there all these empty spaces where homes used to be and now, nothing?)  She saw houses with the marks on the front that showed the visits from safety personnel in the weeks and months following the storm, spray painted on the outside.  Including one that said “1 person, 1 dog” – presumably, dead inside.

She heard jazz at Preservation Hall and in the French Quarter, ate beignets and red beans and rice (on Mondays, of course), visited Tulane (she might be interested), learned sissy-bounce dancing, and even saw a Mardi Gras Indian.  She made wonderful friends from around the country – and now is mourning separation from them — and has said, over and over, “I’m so glad I did this.  I miss New Orleans so much.”

It was one of those life-changing experiences that gets under your skin, I think to myself.  Similar to the one I had during the summer between my junior and senior years in college, when I lived with a family in Greece.  I remember thinking, after that summer, “I’ll never view the world the same way again,” and in fact, that remains true.  Immersion in another culture, even for a relatively brief time, can open your eyes to a different way of being in the world.  That’s happened to my girl, I think, and it’s a blessing.

Slim Sunny is glad to see her Lexington friends, it’s true.  She has reunited with her cats, her comfy bed, my cooking, and sleeping late in the morning.  Yet she yearns to go back to the sweltering, humid heat of the Jazz City and its survivors and dreamers, who have captured her imagination and her heart.

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She longs for adventure, my younger child.  She yearned for a chance to do something really different, to go somewhere she had never been, to help others, to explore at least a little piece of the world.  Money is tight:  I’m still seeking a full time job, eighteen months after my last one ended.  We – like so many – have had to cut back, do without or with less, and hope like crazy that the economy and our fortunes will improve.  So such explorations didn’t seem a likely bet this summer.

But our exploring child wouldn’t let go of the dream.  She worked like crazy at her job (at the fabulous Rancatore’s Ice Cream), she asked her grandparents for exploring money.  And an anonymous donor appeared to give Abby a grant to travel to parts yet unseen, showing her (and us) what the kindness of friends, if not strangers, is about.  It was enough to make it all possible.

So today, we put Abby on a plane for the Jazz City, headed for two weeks – in the hottest part of the summer in that very steamy part of the country — to work on Hurricane Katrina restoration with the St. Bernard Project, and then to work on Gulf Coast oil spill recovery in an estuary.  She’ll meet other teens, learn about the amazing culture that makes New Orleans such a remarkable stew of music, the Mardi Gras Indians, creole language, fabulous cajun food.  She’ll sweat and get dirty, meet people whose lives are very different from her own, and – we dearly hope – grow in ways that she, and we, didn’t expect.

We took her to the airport this morning to begin the journey.  She was nervous, but she was pumped.  We were unsettled and already missing her.  Yet we know it’s the right thing, coming at the right time.  The right way to enter her final year of high school, the right way to learn more about the America she lives in.  She’ll always be our baby, but as she disappeared into the security line at the airport this morning and then emerged in the distance, waving goodbye, we realized she’s launched on the first of what we hope will be many, many adventures that help her expand her view of herself and her world.

The kindness off friends and family made this adventure possible – and all our hearts are deeply grateful.

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In 1993, the Christmas card design Ben created showed a Celtic knotted circle of life.  At one end of it was a baby, and at the other end, an old man.  It was a traditional design in that the circle, the Celtic knot, the image of the old year giving rise to the new, are all elements that existed long before funny hats and the ball drop at Times Square started being the image folks have of the end of one year and the beginning of another.

For us, the card symbolized the birth — on October 5, 1993 — of our daughter Abigail, and the death — on November 1, 1993 — of my father, Oscar.  These two huge events, one so fondly longed for and the other so dreaded, marked the turning of our year, the turning of the wheel.  Buddhists follow a wheel of life, and this metaphor for the constant change we experience is powerful for me.

In recent weeks I have been moved, over and over, by the turning of the wheel.  In May, a marvelous friend died of bile duct cancer at the age of 73.  The death, not a surprise, still knocked the wind out of our sails as we realized that one of the wise voices of our life — a person Ben and I regarded as a true Elder Statesman – had been silenced.

In June, we prepared for the wedding of our niece, Bethany.  Bethany — a woman who knows what she wants, and who had been planning her wedding, in some senses, since she was four — married a wonderful young man, Mitch, on Cape Cod, with her grandparents, family, and friends looking on.  It was a lovely weekend of celebration, complete with the presence of the bride’s 91- and 93-year-old grandparents.  And yet, at the same time, we recognized and felt the intense pain and sorrow other dear friends were experiencing, as they grappled with the terrible and sudden death of their 28-year-old daughter…a young woman with everything in life ahead of her, robbed of it in the instant it took for a car accident to mortally injure her.  Then another friend, a man who had fought bravely against a disease he acquired in New York as the attacks of September 11, 2001, occurred, lost his battle with a crippling illness, at the age of 49.

One of the songs we sing in our faith says, “We laugh, we cry, we live, we die, we dance, we sing our songs.  We need to feel there’s something here to which we can belong.  …But most of all we need close friends we can call our very own.”  As the wheel of life turns, I find myself seeking, yearning, for the connections that can be made with friends and loved ones.  I need my family — biological or intentional — to help me understand how such terrible things can happen to very good people, and to help me hold on to a belief that there is still a force that is good and loving in the world.

And so, once again, I will go to Star Island, the place of solace, refuge, inspiration, and hope that has carried me on its breezes and waves since I was a baby.  I will sit on the rocks, lie in the grass, doze in a rocking chair, talk with old friends, and — I dearly hope — find the way back toward brightness and promise that the world still has to offer.

I will joined there by other such seekers, including those who have suffered such losses and experienced such joys.  I will climb the path to the stone chapel, built in 1800, lit by candle light, and look out toward the White Island Light that casts its steadfast beam across the water.  I’ll hold babies who are just beginning their lives, full of innocence and wonder.  I will re-connect with those I trust and respect and love.

I know that the wheel turns, always…may it turn, in the coming days, toward healing for us all.

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