WE’VE BEEN CLEANING up, clearing out, readying for a change we’ve known for a while was coming. We’re empty nesters now, you see, and we simply don’t need the space. I love our home, our pretty yard, I love the vast collection of things which have come to reside with us over the course of our lives. And so I’m finding the process daunting. It’s overwhelming, really, and highly emotional. Every WHAT DO I DO WITH THIS choice feels as if it carries with it the weight of generations.
They are just things, I remind myself over and over, a thought which should bring clarity and comfort. But next comes a quick yeah, right, things my great-grandmother saved, and my grandmother saved, and my mother saved. Things which are now entrusted to me.
FOR HER PART, my daughter has little interest.
It is a truth of her generation, I think, how they place value on “having less” and “doing more.” Their lives are fuller, more flexible. They are more mobile, better able to take advantage of opportunities and experiences as they come along.
I believe it to be a good, healthy thing.
AND SO I OPEN another box. This one is filled with things that came from my mother’s house, part of a large haul we loaded up and brought here in the busy days, years ago, of emptying her home. I lift out an old high school–or is it college?–yearbook, 1951-1952, and I see tucked below a collection of letters addressed in my hand. I must have sent these to my parents, yes here’s one from camp, a few from college, several from my earliest days as a working girl living three states away. I had not remembered writing even one, and I certainly had no idea Mom was keeping the silly things, the news inside amounting to not one thing of significance. (I would have guessed I was much more profound in those days, but sadly, the letters prove otherwise.) Still I wipe away a tear, I pull them close against my chest and look to the heavens and tell my mother how much it means to me that all these years, she kept them. And in that moment I know they have done what they needed to do. They have reminded me that their existence mattered, and they have released me to now let them go.
I toss the letters to the side, and I reach into the box to discover what comes next.
WHEN I WAS A LITTLE GIRL, I learned to fish on my great-grandaddy’s boat. Every vacation we traveled from our home in Virginia to his retirement home in Florida, and my fondest memories are of being with him on the Lady Catherine (the name still makes me smile), motoring along the intracoastal waterway, bottom fishing for Drum.
I’d drop my line and let it sink. I’d hold the rod tip high, just like he taught me. I’d try to be patient. To this day I can hear him fishing behind me, his voice already holding the gravelly tenor of an old man: Come to Papa. Come to Papa. Eventually I’d get a nibble, then like I’d been taught I’d wait, watch, hoping for a greater tug on the line. When I was sure the fish was sure (or I was too excited to wait anymore) I’d set the hook–not jerking, exactly, but pulling hard, with determination and intention. Grandaddy would make his way from stern to bow and watch with great delight as the fight of that fish bent my rod toward the water. “Wind him, Cathy, wind him,” he’d say over and over, an anthem, and I would do my best to will my little girl hands to hold that rod steady, high, to turn and turn the reel’s handle, to get that fish close enough to the boat to be scooped up in his net.
THEN A FEW YEARS AGO my sweet husband and I decided it would be fun to get each other fly rods for our anniversary. I’d never fly fished–but I did love the poetry-in-motion art of it which I had experienced from afar in two ways: 1) A River Runs Through It, and 2) My neighbor Bruce, whom I see floating around Bickley’s Pond in his kayak many, many days after work, and who–let’s just put it this way–knows his way around a fly rod. We exchanged the gifts, which Tim promptly put to use and which I put in a closet somewhere, waiting for that magical day when “I had time.”
Months passed. Years passed. Then we started talking about the possibility of a grand trip to the Canadian Rockies with the Quiggs, the dear friends who introduced us back in 2000, dear friends who happen to be experienced, avid, and exceptionally proficient fly fishermen.
“I’m in!” I exclaimed, as I am always willing to go just about anywhere just about anytime. And the planning commenced.
I SHOULD SAY this. I have a great deal of interest in exploring and traveling and very little interest in planning for any of it. Luckily Tim does, so while my attention is focused elsewhere, he is the detail man.
And so it came as a bit of a shock to me when the trip approached and I realized in no time I would be in one of the most revered fly fishing locations in the world with one of the most experienced fly fishing guides in the world. And I would have absolutely no idea what I was doing.
(WHO DOES THIS??? And also: The night before our first float Vickie kindly taught me how to at least put my fly rod together. She also showed me a collection of flies and all the things a person an angler uses that, for the most part, seem to hang from a vest, which I don’t own, and which were so odd and foreign that, although she was wild with excitement, I felt my own eyes glaze over.)
Then early, early the next morning, there I was in a boat, my assembled fly rod in my hands, and an Australian fishing guide paddling us out onto Canada’s Elk River.
GREG, THE GUIDE, could not have been more kind. Or more patient, or more encouraging. Tim was the same, and the experience turned out to be one of the greatest gifts of my life. It is terrifying to try something new at this age; it is particularly difficult to try something new that is so public. I mean, casting a fly rod is a very big, very visible, very intimidating thing. There is not much you can do that is more physical or takes up more space, that also requires such refined artistry. FLY CASTING WELL IS HARD. And then there are the 10,000 other things you have to remember to do and not do that make fly fishing a mental challenge, as well.
And the biggest surprise of all–nearly all of these fly fishing ways are in stark contrast to the bottom fishing methodology (basic as it was) that I learned as a girl. Needless to say the casting, itself, is completely different. But also you don’t hold the rod tip up, but down. You watch the fly. You present and mend and mend and mend and when you get a strike–you SET, by god, you ACT rather than waiting, confirming, deciding. Decades and decades (and decades) have passed since the last time I fished, and still the old muscle memory held strong. I had to fight my instincts with every motion.
THERE IS ALSO THIS, which still brings me to tears. Tim had fished like a pro, oddly not landing a fish. The guides were a little dumbfounded (although it did not stop us from teasing Tim mercilessly). At lunch on Day 2 he decided to change his jacket and therefore, change his luck.
“I’m putting on Kent’s vest,” he announced.
This made me smile, knowing how much my Daddy loved to fish, knowing how pleased he would be that Tim was remembering him, honoring him, knowing how happy he would be that we were here, doing this together. And off we went in our separate boats, this time the girls together in one, the boys together in the other. When the day was done and we gathered for drinks and fish stories, Jim pulled out his phone to show me a photo of Tim’s first catch that afternoon, which–of course–was one of many, many that followed.
We all stood quiet a moment, once we got a look.
Can you think of a more perfect exclamation point for this most perfect day? Can you think of a sweeter endorsement?
And lordy we had fun. We laughed and ate and delighted in each other’s company. We knew in every moment that we four had been gifted something very special in this adventure, that this remarkable vacation was one for the ages–a genuine trip of a lifetime.
EVERYTHING ON THIS MOUNTAIN is unpredictable, which is one of the things that makes a stay here fascinating. I’ve gone on and on about the weather–you simply do not know one minute to the next what is going to happen. Last month, for instance, we were enjoying a sunny day when an angry bolt of lightning came from nowhere and striking in the meadow, sent a ground current up through the house’s foundation and into the long-handled roller Tim held as he painted the lower porch. The energy arced as it traveled, and he saw it jump wall to roller but thankfully did not feel anything but for immense surprise and awe.
And great relief, praise hands.
Nevertheless the bizarre occurrence certainly got our attention.
And here we are now, another strange something afoot.
It is late August, which means the season of azalea, rhododendron, and wild mountain blueberries has come and gone. Our time here has been sporadic, and yet it is worthy of mention that we have not seen a single black bear since early June. Or was it May? Friends on the mountain tell us their bear sightings, too, have been infrequent, centering on one shy, lone fella who moves about with no consistent pattern. He has appeared on our wildlife cameras over these months but only two or three times.
It is an odd, dramatic change.
It is a change that feels unsettling.
ALL OF THIS is to say we move about differently up here without the stay-on-high-alert THERE MIGHT BE A BEAR status of prior Augusts. For instance, just yesterday friends joined us for an overnight and we took a leisurely hike down the old OM Trail, winding through the deep woods of Narnia, then back up through the tall grasses of our steep meadow.
I found plenty to photograph, as always. But the hardly-have-to-worry stroll served as a powerful reminder of how short the season is here, how when you are down in it and amongst it you become aware of just how quickly nature takes over. It has a mind of its own, that meadow, and as we’ve let it go with very little trimming this summer it has been very happy to remind us just WHO’S BOSS.
It insisted to me, as well, that summer, here, has passed.
That it has gone so quickly!
That seasons change so fast.
THERE ARE MOMENTS, like right now, when I feel this and can hardly catch my breath.
There are times (like this morning) when I have awakened long before the sun, and I have lain there, quiet in the dark, certain I can feel it, certain I can hear it: Time moving on.
I’VE WRITTEN MANY TIMES referencing the teachings of Fr. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan Priest and a globally recognized ecumenical teacher who “bears witness to the universal awakening within Christian mysticism and the Perennial Tradition. ” (If you are not familiar, do click the link and read the very short description. I am no expert, but my heart glows when I read it.) The night we returned from our trip to Maine I flipped open my laptop to see the load of email I had not sifted while on vacation. There was this Rohr meditation, delivered that very day.
The Perennial Tradition constantly recognizes that we are part of somethingmore thanwe are observing something.
How does that feel to you? Rohr continues.
It feels like Maine, is what I thought. It feels like a walk through the woods on Big Cranberry Island; a quiet Acadia moment, the breeze in your hair. It feels like every view of Jordan Pond. It feels like sunset from the top of Cadillac Mountain, and the lobster boats and the rocky coast and the lighthouses and the deep dense fog.
It feels like sea glass.
Because you don’t observe Maine, is what I had already realized. You become part of it.
You are absorbed by it.
Rohr goes on.
The foundational spiritual question is this: Does one’s life give any evidence of an encounter with God? When we’ve experienced union and intimacy with the divine, what is our response? Does the encounter bring about what Paul described as the “fruits” of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness, and self-control” ?
There are important questions–particularly in a dualistic culture–about becoming what you are surrounded by. Those we will debate another day.
But for now, I am content to soak in my memories of Maine, to (best as I can) hold on to the part of my soul that was moved and soothed and enriched by that beautiful, welcoming, earthly place.
To remember that every glorious moment of grace is born of open, full and humble connection to all that is divine.
It’s a once-in-a-lifetime summer for me, one filled with #lifegoals travel and life enhancing experiences. This is partly due to my approaching 60th birthday–what a fantastic excuse to use for all sorts of wonderful things–but also due to our great and unwavering commitment to making the most of every life opportunity. Our children are grown, our parents are gone, and what we are left with, in this in-between space, is time. The great consolation of time. Even more significant for us, I believe, is the immense blessing of our good health. Tim and I have the physical ability to goanddo, and so we go and do. In fact that is exactly what we do.
This is key to every aspect of our lives. We are in The Golden Time (as articulated by our friend, David LaFuria) and we began planning for it long ago, just after Tim’s dad began suffering the cruel impact of Alzheimers, an horrific journey on which, I am sad to say, my own sweet Daddy recently followed.
(We do not take much for granted anymore, my husband and I.)
Still for me, with all the wonder and joy and grace my beautiful life holds, it is this summer, I believe, that will serve as the pinnacle. There has been a week at Music and Worship (choir camp!) in gorgeous, holy Montreat, North Carolina; there has been a week at the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop in Hindman, Kentucky; we are headed shortly to northern Virginia for a long weekend visit with dear, dear friends; we have, upcoming, the We-Cannot-Believe-This-Is-Happening trip, discussed for years, out west fly fishing with the dear souls who years ago, introduced us.
AND NOW WE ARE IN MAINE. We are in Maine in our rented house on the rocky coast above Bar Harbor, where we’ve come with our treasured friends, the Rojeks, in theoretical celebration of Tim’s 60th. It’s the first make-good of our promise to each other some years ago to take four such trips as these big birthdays just so happen to occur over four successive years. We’re not exactly on schedule, but that doesn’t matter. We’re here together now, and waking up this morning to an early, early coastal Maine sunrise filled my heart with so much joy it’s a wonder it didn’t burst.
I’ve dreamed of Maine for so long.
And finally, here I am.
WE EXPECT OUR WEEK will be spent hiking, biking, touring around. Yesterday we experienced gorgeous Bar Harbor (I have never seen such luscious flowers, anywhere) and today we may head for Acadia.
Or maybe not, who knows, as the planners downstairs–the three of them–are at this moment considering every option. I only know for sure this day will hold, for me, Lobster Roll #1 of the hundred I plan to eat over the course of these next six days.
Every window in this house is open, did I tell you that?
The air is cool, and fresh.
It feels like Maine. It smells like Maine.
It is Maine, the Maine of my dreams, and it has come to life.
I SPEND A GOOD BIT of time alone these days, but for the characters in the novel I am working to finish. It’s good work, solitary work, work that takes focus. And so I have routines that ground me.
I am committed to an early start;
I have a Yeti mug of coffee (prepared by my husband) just the way I like it: 2/3 Starbucks French Roast & 1/3 Eight O’Clock Coffee Hazelnut, skim milk heated and frothed;
Quiet. And if there is not quiet, a noise machine to cancel extraneous sounds;
Essential oils in the diffuser, typically Wild Orange or Tangerine for energy and optimism;
Standing desk for ergonomic accuracy, better posture and less back pain (I am a believer);
Desk and laptop positioned for maximum positive energy flow in my feng shui-ed mountain studio.
Seems awfully fussy, now that I write it. But it’s every bit true.
SO ON THIS PARTICULAR day my head is down and I’m well into it (and going at a pretty good pace) when I hear, just outside the studio door, peck peck peck, peck peck, peck peck. A bird, of course, a woodpecker, I imagine. But this is a metal sound, not wood, so a woodpecker pecking on what? The roof? The gutter?
This is certainly curious.
I step away from the edit. I pick up my camera, slide open the studio’s glass doors, and move onto the deck to investigate.
Sure enough he flies. But he doesn’t go far–just to the tree–the one right there, closest to me.
I raise the lens, snap a shot.
And here he comes, headed straight for me and the deck! I jump, it surprises me so, and right there on the deck’s railing he lands.
He is not three feet away! Might be two! And he is as curious as I.
We regard each other in wonder. I snap another photo, he tilts his head.
I snap one more, he looks on.
I take a step toward him and he does the same–move away he does not!–he is far too interested, apparently, in what I am doing to take off in flight.
We stay like that a good while, the baby woodpecker and I, until finally I say out loud, as much for my benefit as for his:
I do believe you are my muse. Or maybe you are my spirit animal. Yes, you are important to me little bird, and I thank you for showing up.
This he seems to acknowledge. Then he lifts off and heads back to the tree where he lands, turning once again to look at me, then takes flight.
And I slide open the glass door, step back inside. I smile, and I get myself back to work.
IT IS QUIET on this mountain, something that won’t surprise given that our gate is locked, our roads aren’t paved, and the nearest neighbor, of which there are only a handful, is acres and acres away. Add to this the fact we never turn on the television (but for football or evening binging) and you probably are getting the picture.
It is a gift, this silence, a mighty force that holds my introverted, introspective heart in balance.
WHY JUST LAST WEEK we arose to a particularly gentle day. It had rained during the night and the sun, still hidden by clouds and fog, created a beautiful, serene surround. The birds were singing, yes, but the meadow glistened like it had been perfectly cast to create a soft, atmospheric glow. Or not a glow, exactly, more like a wash that left it new, positively glistening.
I walked up the steps to my studio as I do each day we are here, and I got right to work. Throughout the morning I trekked those stairs down and up what must have been a thousand times. I needed my laptop; I’d forgotten my camera; where was that charger, as the dang Ipad on which I was proofing a manuscript will not hold power. On and on it went, up and down, more coffee, a scrambled egg, a cold drink of water.
Long about eleven I ran into Tim who was busy busy scraping and cleaning all manner of wood as he is spending his summer painting this house and its endless decks. You see all those spider webs? he said. This surprised me as, relatively speaking, we see fewer spiders up here than you might well suppose.
No, I said. Where?
Everywhere, he said. They are everywhere.
And sure enough, they were.
He pointed out one strung between deck railings, and then another, one railing down.
Then two more.
Up, look up, Tim said.
In the trees.
And I saw in the tall fir there were three, maybe more, no ten, no fifteen webs. Maybe twenty! On and on they went, as if the great force that had come in the night that had so perfectly adorned the meadow as a bonus had added these.
A quiet collection,
a convocation, if you will, of delicate, intricate,
breathtaking works of art.
It was something to behold, something I almost missed.
JULY 2011. Our sweet, sweet next door neighbors, the Copes, had just put in a pool. This thrilled their tiny children (who are nearly grown—how does this happen) to no end and still the joy of those kids hardly compared to the joy of their dog. Sully swam lap after lap every morning, perfecting the corner turn and ultimately shedding 15 pounds!
We lost precious Sully on Monday.
His swimming days may have been long past, but the happy he brought to all of us who loved him never wavered.
IT IS TRUE LIFE IS DIFFERENT high on this mountain. Neighbors are few and the primary consideration is not traffic or the news or even the Jeopardy champ (although that is discussed) but is, instead, the weather. We check the forecast before we go to bed at night; we check it again immediately upon rising. I suspect this is how it is for those who live a farming life, who depend on rain and soil condition and air temperature for their livelihoods as well as their daily activities. And although we don’t have so much as a vegetable garden (we go and come too much for proper maintenance) I believe what we share with them is a deep, deep connection with the land.
Part of it, for us, is simply our positioning. The sun rises each morning over the Black Mountains to our left and our bed and bedroom window face east. We leave the blind up with the great intention of waking at first light and properly greeting the day. This time of year it is a very early rising and without fail, we face it with the joy and anticipation of eager children. This is our fourth summer on this mountain and I swear to you every single sunrise is different.
Often there is rain, or clouds, or we are completely “socked in” like the peaks you see in romantic photographs. Even those days are fascinating. Every moment offers the chance for change: wind blows or fog rises and for a moment the meadow below or the ridges beyond show through. Cover will come again, or not, and still we watch with ever-present oohs and aahs.
THEN THE DAY comes. While we neither farm nor head to the city for work, we are busy. Tim, for instance, always has a big project or two over which he is fully committed. He hustles to maintain a semblance of order on the property–good heavens you simply drive into Asheville for dinner and by the time you return nature has taken over, every living green thing gaining height and girth and insistent wildness.
This summer he is also painting the house, the studio/workshop, and all 3500 square feet of decking.
It is a massive job.
I write. I take my coffee across the deck and up the steps to my newly feng shui-ed studio (thank you, Mary!) where I stand in the filtered morning light and spend the next eight hours immersed in the world of my second novel. I marvel that this lifestyle allows me to be three hours in by the time I typically would have just made it to the office. I know, now, I am at my best the earlier I start (thank you, Maria!) and so I forgo every other responsibility or diversion until I have taken care of this one. I do not eat first. I do not exercise first. I do not even shower first–no one cares, so why waste my personal prime time on something that can be done later? Or not at all?
What a gigantic gift that is.
DAY PASSES, OF COURSE, the sun moving high in the sky and traveling across the ridges where it casts changing light that illumines and shadows the mountain faces. It, too, is an ever-changing show and a constant visual (and visceral) reminder that time moves on. Evening comes. It is late this time of year, soft, a slow release from the work of the day. We don’t see the orb of the sun as it sinks in the west but we do benefit greatly from the magnificent light it casts, the colors always a surprise, the hues shifting, deepening, then fading to dark.
WE ARE GREATLY BLESSED to have this place, this time, this remarkable vantage point. And it’s something about which we are keenly aware every single minute. We give thanks and rejoice in the gift, in our having the youth (relatively speaking!) and the strength and the health and the stamina to make the most of all this change in geography and lifestyle offers. We never take any of that for granted. And still when the time comes to pack up and leave and we return to our regular lives–when we drive down the mountain and head for home and all it has waiting for us: work and mail and meetings and bills and decisions and appointments and Things That Must Be Dealt With–we somehow cannot seem to carry with us the beautiful awareness of the great passing of days. We are delighted to be home, of course; we love and are grateful for our equally blessed, beautiful flatlander lives. Still when we are there we once again rise with a pre-set alarm. We complain about traffic. Tim manicures the overgrown lawn and I buy things at Target.
We do not watch the sun rise or set; we rarely take time to sit together, outside, watching, waiting, listening.
THERE IS A DIFFERENT RHYTHM on this mountain, I suppose that is my point. It is one established not by us but by the earth, the sun, the moon. The critters large and small who move through our meadow.
The tall, wild grasses that grow and swing and sway in the summer breezes, the winds that pass over this rugged, ancient land.
The sun gets up early this time of year, peaking over our mountains just after 6 a.m. So if you want to catch the prettiest light, you best be standing on the deck, coffee in hand, 5:40, 5:45 at the latest. It’s well worth the early rise for me; the show is magnificent most days, and very shortly thereafter I can be settled into the studio, happily writing the morning away.
It is my favorite time of day.
As it is for this sweet friend,
who meets me there rain or shine, nearly every morning
each time heralding the glory of the new day
Joyful, unbridled song!
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