Archive for the ‘vacation’ Category

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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Some of us who are a certain age remember the Eddie Albert/Eva Gabor sitcom which aired from 1965 to 1971, called “Green Acres.”  In it, a New York City couple decide to run off to the country and take up life on a farm.  Hilarity ensued as they tried to figure out how to run a tractor, cook, and breathe in that clean country air.

For a few days, a tiny part of that country life is mine, for I’ve run away to northern Vermont …to the lovely home of our friends, Rod and Sally, that has no TV, some patchy internet access, iffy cellular service, and a view out the front window that can take your breath away.

Although I have lived most of my life in suburban or urban areas and for a long time have resided just west of Boston, I love life in a setting that takes me this far away.  True, I can’t jump on the “T” to go to a Red Sox game or go shopping at a large mall (not that I really like that).  But here I can go to the Vermont Lake Monsters Class A baseball game, as I did last night, and get a reserved seat for $8.00.  For no extra fee, Champ the Lake Monster mascot, dances on top of the dugout with the kids and between innings, children dressed as ketchup and mustard bottles run around the bases to see who gets to the hot dog the fastest.  It is small town America at its best.

Here there are winding country roads with poplars, evergreens, and birches waving in the breeze.  And while there’s no TV, I’ve had a pretty good show out those windows:  wild turkeys walking around in the yard, two pre-adolescent white-tail deer and rabbits playing in the field, monarch butterflies and a hummingbird, all fluttering around.  At night, standing on the steps of the house, I look out to Lake Champlain and later, in the dark, I can stand in the front yard and see the Milky Way with definition that you just don’t get in an urban area.

Pretty damn nice.  Farmers set up stands along the roads, and when there’s an offer of “fresh chicken – 24 hours notice,” you know it’s because the chicken you buy will really be fresh and local, just like the eggs and the squash and corn.  The water comes from the lake, the neighbors are far away, the grocery store takes 1/2 hour to get to, and time moves more slowly than at home.

The feeling I get when I come here is similar to the one I had as a child, visiting my grandparents in New York state.  Life allows me a chance, here, to slow down and savor what I see and hear, to appreciate the sights, sounds, and smells (organic as they may be, with a farm every 1/2 mile or so).  It is a good life here, marked by the simple pleasures of a Maple Creamee (maple soft-serve ice cream) bought from the local orchard and farm store, or a canoe rented from the Sand Bar State Park that also offers swimming and kayaking at a discount.

Last night I fell asleep listening to the peepers in the pond in the back yard, and I awakened to the sun streaming in the window and illuminating the fields that stretch down, past a stand of trees, to the lake.  I love these Green Acres, and bless the ways in which they offer me, and my family, a chance to pause from the life we usually lead, and just breathe.

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It’s hot-hot-hot in Lexington, Massachusetts, and my mind has been wandering, as I think of other places where I’ve spent hot summer days in a pleasurable way.  The place where my head keeps going is my grandparents’ farm, in Cuddebackville, New York.  When I was a kid, we’d get in the DeSoto, with a pillow in the back seat for me, and off we’d go to the farm.  When we lived in Ohio the trip took a really long time – I can’t remember us staying overnight on the way, but I remember being cooped up in the car for hours – and it was always great to be freed at our final destination.

We’d drive down Route 209, the last part of the trip, and I’d smell the manure on the fields and watch the lightning bugs flying as the day died.  When we finally drove down the bumpy gravel driveway, I’d look for my grandmother, coming out of the house to greet us.  She always had a clean but plain housedress on, with her corset underneath, stockings rolled up at the thighs, and orthopedic shoes, hair freshly done for our arrival.  My grandfather would be sitting inside, in his overstuffed chair with the antimacassars on the arms and back, reading the paper or watching Walter Cronkite.  The cats, Taffy and Fluffy, would be hanging around, waiting for us as well.

We’d have a farm dinner (almost always including a huge plate of corn on the cob, boiled red potatoes, fried green tomatoes), plus homemade rolls, sliced red tomatoes, and a chicken my grandfather had dispatched earlier in the day.  There was unpasteurized fresh milk to drink with the cream floating on top — from the cows in the barn – and fresh strawberries or blueberries on vanilla ice cream.  Later on, there might be sitting in the living room while the grown-ups watched Lawrence Welk and I played with the dollhouse and dolls that were kept in the attic for my visits, or we’d get to see my cousins, Linda and Brenda, and their parents, my Aunt Edith and Uncle Fred.

Life was simple and good.  The next morning I’d get out of my rollaway cot with the quilt on it that Gram had made, and go to the kitchen where Gram was making a first breakfast for Gramp before he went out to milk the cows.  Second breakfast came when my parents were up, after the milking was done…and that was followed by Gramp’s retreat to “his” sitting area, in the cellar, near the coal furnace, where an old sofa was.  In the summer, Gram would sometimes go into the cellar to make jam, using the summer kitchen where it was cooler, to work her magic on peaches, strawberries, cherries, cucumbers for pickles, or to crank out her fantastic chili sauce or corn relish.  This is where I first got interested in cooking, and I paid a lot of attention to what she was doing.

My cousins and I would pick wild berries, walk down to the kill and sit with a fishing pole (I never remember us catching anything, but the cold water of the kill was wonderful on a hot day), or play in the corn crib up on a rise.  Later in the day we’d go to the old bus where Gramp weighed the eggs he collected from the chicken coop, or run alongside Gramp, his hired man, and Barney the dog, to bring the cows out to the night pasture near the end of the property.

I wanted nothing more than to explore the farm with my cousins or spend time with my grandfather.  Life was not fancy in this part of the world, and as I grew older, I got pretty bored with life on the farm.  It wasn’t till much later that I began to realize what a gift I had received from my grandparents and the rest of my family.  I really wanted to garden, and I started to seek out spaces where I could dig in the dirt and plant scallions or potatoes or carrots.  I realized that, when I was selecting corn on the cob, I had learned how fresh corn smells — and that smell is the only way I know to find the really good stuff.  I made jars and jars of jams, relish, pickles, and they were my Gram’s recipes.  One of the recipes even was featured in Yankee Magazine, when they ran their “Recipe With a History” feature.

When I think of home on hot summer days, my mind goes to the farm.  My cousin Linda lives there still, and the corn crib, though rickety, is still there, along with the barn.  When Judy Collins wrote the song, “Secret Gardens of the Heart,” she must have had such a memory in her head:

“…I still see the ghosts
Of the people I knew long ago
Inside the old kitchen
They bend and sigh
My life passed them up
And the world passed them by

Secret Gardens of the heart
Where the old stay young forever
I see you shining through the night
In the ice and snow of winter…”
(Words and Music by Judy Collins. Universal Music Corp. (ASCAP)/ Rocky Mountain National Park Music, Inc. (ASCAP)

I see the farm shining in the sun and in my memory I’m eight again.  Tomorrow, on  another hot day, I’ll remember my grandmother’s iced tea (loose tea, fresh lemons, sugar, mint), the breeze that came from sitting under the catalpa trees, and my heart will once more travel home.

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During the past week, there were times when I said to Ben, “I think my head is going to come off.”  There was so much music, so much commentary and discussion and hands-on experience focused on music and rhythm and sound and the intersection of African influences and world music, I just had to go off for a little while and be quiet.

Star Island offers lots of sounds before anyone says a word out loud, and those sounds provided the underlying rhythm and pulse for all that went on during the week of music, music, music.  If I’m paying attention, I can hear the seagulls – both adults and the tiny, thin cry of insistent babies — as well as sandpipers, swallows, and other small birds.  There’s the bell buoy in Gosport Harbor, with its persistent yet comforting clanging, day and night.  There’s the fog horn on White Island Light.  The waves crash against the breakwater that runs between Cedar and Star Islands. There are sounds of kids at play and of swings going back and forth.  Occasional work vehicles move on the truck trestle roads hauling food deliveries and luggage to or from a boat. The wind whips the flag on the pole that sits on the front lawn.  The feet of the night crew can be heard as they make their rounds from 11 to 6, and there’s the sound of water as they pour pitchers of hot washing water for people to use at 7 as they rise.  Lots of ambient sounds.

Then, layer on the remarkable musical discussions offered by our All Star 1 theme speakers, all on the subject of “Ears Wide Open:  A Musical Odyssey.”  There’s Robert Levin, a drumming master of West African music, who took us on a journey into a Ghanaian village, showing us drumming and dancing and lifting up their influences on world music. And there’s David Garland, host of WNYC’s “Spinning on Air,” a composer/musician/musicologist who introduced us to avant garde music and the ways in which sounds have been combined, processed, and packaged to create music through different cultures and periods. Stir in a healthy dose of conference co-chair Carl Sturken, a songwriter and music producer who’s worked with Christina Aguilera and Rhianna, among others, and who is a walking encyclopedia of creative energy on music, its history and influences.

Add to that the constant presence of the All Star 1 “house band,” which includes a powerhouse of pro and semi-pro players who regularly blow our minds:  Theo Griffin (bass guitar), Kemp Harris (keyboards and vocals), Adrian Sicam (keyboards and vocals), Adam Osgood (harmonica and vocals).  On top of that add drumming wizard Ellen Clegg, keyboard master Ray Castoldi, Carl Sturken and John Robbins on lead guitar, plus several saxes, a clarinet, a french horn, a trombone, and (at another gig) Appalachian fiddle playing, guitar and banjo and spoons, and you’ve got a boatload of music.  And, oh yes, there are top-flight vocalists running around, too.  And a West Ghanian drumming and dancing class with Levin, every day.  Plus a performance by Victor Koblavi Dogah, a West Ghanaian drumming and dancing phenom who now studies at Berklee School of Music.  And did I mention the mini-concerts, and then, just for fun, a “Stump the Band” event in which the house band comes armed with the Billboard Top Ten list for the last sixty or so years, and folks pick a week to try and catch the musicians on a song that they can’t quite fake their way through.  That doesn’t happen very much – the house band is amazing.

There was so much music and rhythm, all set on Star Island with its own underlying beat…so much to consider about how music is made, what role it plays in different societies, and how sounds from one culture have become an integral part of another.

The intersections are truly mind-blowing:  not only is the music and rhythm and culture of West Ghana present in the jazz and second lines and Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans, the same rhythms influence the Bossa Nova of Rio and the Latin music we hear today from many world artists…and of course those beats and chord progressions also appear in popular music of the United States as well.

Carl Sturken ended this amazing musical odyssey with a long excerpt from the award-winning film, “Black Orpheus,” released in 1959 and featuring the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim.  He said, “two years ago, when I was imagining this week, this is how I saw it ending — because this film sums up everything that we have been talking about.”  As we watched the clips that sewed together the elements of juju — magic or voodoo — with West African beats, bossa nova rhythms, a classical story drawn from the legend of Orpheus and Euridyce, dialogue in French, the poverty and celebrations of Rio at Carnival time, the interconnections of the sound stew we’d been tasting all week came home.  And what a trip!  Please, sirs, may I have some more?


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As readers of this blog know, I’ve been away for the last week, vacationing off the New England coast on Star Island, a part of the Isles of Shoals. Star Island is incorporated as a religious and educational conference center and has existed as such since the late 1800’s, although its written history extends back to the early 1600’s.  For about 3 months during each summer, week-long (or multi-day) conferences gather, held by the stark beauty of Star Island, and then go away for another year.

A dear friend spoke of the experience of our Star Island conference being like “Brigadoon,” the Lerner and Loewe musical set in the misty hills of Scotland, where a town disappears in the mist of time, only to reappear for one day a year.  All the residents must stay in the town or the magical spell that keeps them alive will be broken.  And so, for that one day a year, life resumes as it has for centuries, and then the town ‘goes to sleep’ again for a year.

The week-long conference I’ve been part of since I was a toddler is called All Star I.  This gathering, attended by nearly 280 adults, youth, and children, is one where the attendees aspire toward beloved community.  And like the musical, annually the community gathers and reunions are held, the same routines observed, and then, like Brigadoon, everyone disperses, with only memories to hold them till the same reunion is observed one year later.

Of course it’s not really just like Brigadoon:  during the ‘off-season’ time, children grow up, have their own families and lives, people die, tragedies do occur, and no one’s life is frozen in time.  But the gathering of the clan brings catching up for those who haven’t seen each other during the year or stayed in touch on email or Facebook, a time for the extended family to mourn passages and celebrate milestones together.

People also try to engage in the activities they’ve held on to for all the years they’ve been part of Star Island, just to renew the memory or share it with someone they love. For me, that starts with looking at the flagpole and the walkway up to the old 19th-century Oceanic hotel, where the flowers bloom.  When I was a child, there were petunias planted along that path, and now, it’s nicotia…but … close enough.  The fisherman’s cottages that once housed the Newton, Randall, and Caswell families in the early to mid-1800’s are still there and now house us in minimalist comfort.  The view from the long piazza that runs along the hotel out to Gosport Harbor is the same year after year, offering views of the neighboring islands of Smuttynose, Cedar, Malaga, Appledore and beyond them, Duck; off to the left, Lunging, Seavey’s, and White – with the historic White Island Light — provide a sense of continuing reassurance to my eyes. If I walk toward Doctor’s Cottage, I’ll find a huge bush where the island blueberries grow — a sweet treat that I’ve sought out since I was a kid.  And out toward the old Ice House (now the Art Barn) are the rocks with the best view of the pounding surf and small clots of scarlet pimpernel tucked in, operating as the “poor man’s weatherglass”.  All this, and more, are burned indelibly into my mind.

Newcomers arrive each year into this extended family, and some of the family does not come back – separated by schedule conflicts, family crises, or the economics that have challenged most of us.  And conflicts do occur:  despite our wish for harmony, it’s not all Kumbaya here, and sometimes we bump up against each other, differing perspectives and values, and it gets dicey.  And a week on Star is no longer a cheap vacation, although it is not an extravagant one, either.

But for me and our family, it remains priceless:  where else can you find a history of pirates, famous painters and poets, the clearest waters off New England, and a community of amazing people, all wrapped up in one package, along with three showers a week?

It’s glorious, though it’s not Brigadoon, of course.  During the coming year I know that several in our community will likely pass away.  Some new babies will be born.  Children will leave for college or new adventures.  Several people will lose their jobs, and others will find new ones.  And who knows what will have happened in the world in a year?  Yet we will gather again.  I believe, with the same assurance that makes me trust the sun to rise each day, that this extended community will gather in the old stone chapel built in 1800, where the candle lanterns now used to light services at night once burned in the windows to guide fishermen home.  The blueberries and wild strawberries will still grow, along with the rock roses and the wild cat mint and mustard.  The energetic and friendly island staff of college-age youth, of which I was once a part, will be there to cheer arriving boats that emerge out of the fog of the mainland, welcoming us once again to our island home.

So in this year we will connect, and pull apart.  And next year I will see the same people that I played with when I was five years old, there with their families and the stories that the passing year has written.  It is a place where lifetime commitments are carved out and held.  Out of the mist we appear, and into the mist we depart.  It is the stuff of which dreams, and legends, are made.


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