Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez

Nerissa and Katryna at Transperformance 09: LookStock. Photos by Andrea Raphael, my dear friend from high school. Joni's dress c/o my mother-in-law, Mary Duffy. Joan's dress c/o our mother, Gail Nields. Not visible: Elle who insisted on coming on stage with us.

Monday, August 24, 2009

George Harrison Update

The good news is: George used to eat his poop.

The bad news is: today there was a pile of it on my favorite oriental carpet, the one my grandmother gave me as a wedding gift.

The good news is: camels probably gave birth on that carpet and it seems to be none the worse for the wear.

The bad news is: maybe George has been pooping on the carpet for months now and I only know about it today because the spice Tom's been putting in his food makes him not like the taste of his poop anymore.

This is not the first time George has proved less than the perfectly behaved $20,000-worth-of-training-therapy dog we inherited last March. He eats anything and everything not locked in or on top of the refrigerator. Last week, while shopping at our co-op with my two kids, I realized that I had left the frozen catfish to thaw on the counter and that Tom's colleague was dropping George off as I shopped. I thought, "Should I just go ahead and buy more catfish now? Nah. He won't eat it. It's frozen." I came home to a litter of white fish-wrapping paper on the kitchen floor.

Elle went exploring and came running back. "Mama, see what George did on the music room!" she shouted.

There, on that same oriental, was the catfish. Not even eaten, just kind of massaged by George's gums and left in the 90 degree heat. I was so mad, not because he'd deprived us of our dinner but because HE HADN'T EVEN LIKED IT!! Ingrate.

So I'm trying to find the lesson in George's annoying behavior. I firmly believe that bad things can lead to good things. To wit: last spring I had such nagging awful back pain that I posted about it here. A wonderful reader suggested I watch Esther Gokhale, so I did. Then I bought her book and began using my hunched shoulders as a bell of mindfulness to get into my body and improve my alignment. This lead me to finally pursue a lifelong dream of taking yoga teacher training. This had lead to massive joy, newly discovered physical strength, a dear new friend in my teacher, spiritual insights, befriending my body in a new and deeper way, and not least, no more pain in my shoulders.

Not bad. All from chronic pain.

So I don't know what will come of the George situation. Something good, I am sure. I just ordered the Dog Whisperer series on Netflix. And no more than an hour after I woke up, he'd redeemed himself. Elle and Jay and I were cuddling at the bottom of the stairs, along with Elle's favorite blanket, pillowface and about a thousand of her stuffed animals. After ten minutes of heavenly cuddling, I looked at my watch and said, "Sweetie, I have to go for my run now."

"Noooo!!!!" she cried.

So we snuggled some more. Then she popped her head up and said, "Oh, I'm going to go cuddle with George Harrison now. You can go, Mama." And she and Jay both crawled over to the dog, who was lying on his side, and proceeded to climb him like a mountain, rolling all over him, Elle covering him with her blanket. George Harrison lolled his head back and exposed his big silly belly to my children's hands. He'd definitely earned his keep for the day.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Happy Birthday, One-Year-Old!

Jay turned one today. He is figuring out how to walk, slowly and deliberately, taking a few steps and losing his balance, tumbling down and then getting up and trying again. Every day he gets a little better at it. He is so different from his sister, who took three steps, took 6 weeks off, and then suddenly found her feet in Winnipeg and never crawled again.

Each year on Elle's birthday, I write her a letter which I seal and mark "Do not open until...." with a date eighteen years in the future. My friend Joan Wise's father did this for her, so that starting on her eighteenth birthday she had a communication from her dad from almost two decades earlier. I want to do this for Jay too. I feel an urgency about making things "fair" between my two kids, though so far it's impossible to treat them the same. They're not the same. My love for them is certainly equal in that both loves are infinite and boundless, but they are different people at different stages of their lives. For instance, my parents called today to find out how Jay's party was last night. "Did he like it?" my mother asked.

"Yes, I guess so," I said. Jay likes everything pretty much. "But really the night was about Elle and her cousin W. They spent the entire evening shouting joyfully. W wanted to talk about the Beatles and Elle wanted to hold his hand. Also they wanted to find as many ways as they could to talk about poop without losing their dessert privileges." They blew out Jay's candles and played with his toys. Of course he didn't seem to mind.

At church today, the service was all about Arnold. It turned into a Quaker memorial, with people standing up and sharing stories. My friend MF told me a story that Elle's babysitter had shared with her. Last week, on Tuesday, Elle said to the babysitter, "Our friend Arnold died."
"I know," said the babysitter. "He was my friend too. Are you sad, Elle?"
"Why not?"
"Because," Elle said. "When I close my eyes, I can still see him." And she scrunched up her face. "You try it."
The babysitter obliged. "You're right, Elle. I can still see him!"
"See?" said Elle. "It works. He isn't gone."

Baby boy, may you always be fearless. May you always laugh the way you do when your sister says, "poop!" May you always holler when you need more attention and then make sweet contented sounds when we rightly turn your way. And may you always know just how hugely you are loved.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Church of 80% Sincerity

Note: During this period of time while I write our forthcoming book All Together Singing in the Kitchen: How to Create Family Harmony, while I intend to update this blog with current posts, I also will from time to time post old pieces. This one is from the 2007 Life Composition Creative Day Planner series.

Via David Roche and Anne Lamott:
David Roche is a monologist whose face was badly disfigured in a childhood radiation treatment. He has created a wonderful program in which he shares his unique and inspiring take on the world. Read more about him at or read the chapter about him in Anne Lamott’s wonderful Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith.

"We in the Church of 80 Percent Sincerity do not believe in miracles," says David. "But we do believe that you have to stay alert, because good things happen. When God opens the door, you've got to put your foot in it.

"Look, 80 percent sincerity is about as good as it's going to get. So is 80 percent compassion. Eighty percent celibacy. So 20 percent of the time, you just get to be yourself.

“God, it's such subversive material, so contrary to everything society leads us to believe -- that if you look good, you'll be happy, and have it all together, and then you'll be successful and nothing will go wrong and you won't have to die, and the rot can't get in.”

Anne Lamott writes: “In the Church of 80 Percent Sincerity, you definitely don't have to look good, but you are supposed to meditate. Following David's instructions, you sit quietly with your eyes closed and follow your breath in and out of your body, gently watching your mind. Your mantra should go like this: ‘Why am I doing this? This is such a waste! I have so much to do! My butt itches ...’ And if you stick to it, he promised, from time to time calmness and peace of mind will intrude. After some practice with this basic meditation, you will be able to graduate to panic meditations, and then sex fantasy meditations. And meditations on what you will do when you win the Lotto.”

So for this week, I invite you to meditate like this. Also, to journal about some areas in your life where we might be liberated if we could just accept 80%.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Arnold Westwood

Be yourself; no base imitator of another, but your best self. There is something which you can do better than another. Listen to the inward voice and bravely obey that.
-- RW Emerson Series I. Self-Reliance

Arnold died on Sunday night. He was wrapped in the healing quilt Annie Kner made for the church, a gorgeous tapestry of reds, blues, greens, in a black window-pane design.

He asked to be taken off his ventilator/life support so he could talk to his four children who were around his bedside. He asked for a flashlight and was holding it, lit, when he died.

He was 88. I know he lived such a good, rich, full life, and still I am greedy for more. I can only imagine how his family feels. I am so grateful we knew him. I am so grateful we let each other know how much we loved each other while he was still alive.

Arnold invited himself to our wedding. We'd only known him a few months and we were not yet the good friends we became. It was so like Arnold to invite himself. He came up to us the Sunday before we got married and said, "I'm coming to your wedding. The rule is, if the wedding's in our church, you can't turn away a member. Did you know that?" Then he chuckled slowly and shuffled off in his Arnold way.

Whenever Tom or I preached on a lay Sunday, he would embrace us afterward and tell us we should be Unitarian Universalist ministers, which is what he was up until he retired, some twenty odd years ago. I believe he encouraged every lay minister in this way, and it was so affirming; kind of the highest compliment you could get from an ex-minister after you put yourself out there like that.

He came to our post-election party last November and moved everyone to tears with a story about how he had voted for the first time for FDR. He had been a very early Barack Obama supporter, with a big O poster in his front window at his house way off in the hill towns. In January '08 we went to his house for a church potluck and he told me, with that same chuckle, "I love the man. I give him money whenever I can."

Yesterday, when I got the news via a voice mail message, I felt all my own energy drain out of my body. It was midday, and I was home alone with Jay. I had a huge list of things to do, and I abandoned it to sit on the couch and just hold Jay, stare out the window, cry, sit, remember, feel sad, laugh when Jay laughed. Arnold had been the youngest in his family, and he told me on several occasions that he was well-loved as a baby, and that his mother's unconditional love carried him through his whole life. So that's something I can do: love my own son as hugely as Arnold was loved.

I wish we were Jewish. I think sitting shiva is one of the greatest ideas of all time. All I want to do is get together with other people who loved Arnold and cry with them and sit still and be quiet. And when someone has a story to share about Arnold, she shares it.

After a few hours, I connected with Tom and we cried together on the phone. Then I called my dad who knew Arnold just from occasional visits to the church. Toward the end of the conversation, someone beeped in, and I told my father I needed to take it, thinking it might be news of a memorial service. Instead, it was someone calling about the president's health care initiative wanting a contribution. Ordinarily I would have declined since I don't really know anything about the initiative other than that the Republicans are making up a bunch of scary death stories. Honestly, I have been one of those Obama supporters who, though well-meaning and intending to serve my country, has kind of put her head in the sand post-election. I'm not proud of this, but it's the truth. So without letting the guy get through his schpiel, I said, "How much do you want?"
"Well, a hundred would be great."
"I can do fifty."
"Oh, thank you!" he exclaimed. He asked for some information, including my profession.
"Musician," I said.
"Huh," he said. "You're the third musician to contribute today. And believe me, that's saying a lot. People are not exactly forthcoming these days."
"Yeah, I can imagine," I said. "We musicians are self-employed types, and we really get that there needs to be change." Then I said, "Can you put this contribution in the name of Arnold Westwood? And make it a hundred after all." Because he loved the man.

I posted about Arnold here a few months ago after he preached. He was delighted to have his words on the internet at that time, so I am taking the liberty to post more of that sermon. Here it is:

...Now, generally, when one receives a great gift, you want to give something back in return. Perhaps you are expecting me to share some wisdom. I find it hard to fit into the mold of the wise old man. After all, there is nothing so special these days about being 88 – the number of keys there are on a piano – still at 88 most of the people my age are already dead. The rest of us are struggling to keep up with the pace of you who are so much younger than we.

Moreover, I don’t feel so very wise. Actually, a lot of the time now I feel like a kid – sometimes like a teen-ager. Nonetheless, please let me share a few thoughts.

I was talking with a group of friends the other day about aging, telling them that I had lost my fear of death. My dad certainly had prepared me. One day when I was quite little, when bandaging my finger, with the usual twinkle in his eye, he declared, “You know, you’re going to die after this.” We laughed. He made it easy.

Since then I have had, of course, many encounters with death – at a roadside after an accident – at a hospital beside – quite a few precious times in the last days at a parishioner’s bedside preparing for the funeral, picking out music, readings and hymns and what needs to be said – finally, of course, being with Carolyn as she slipped out of consciousness in the midst of a conversation – never to return.

It is mostly we, the living who endure so much of the pain and the loss.

Aging is an altogether different matter. Since the beginning of April I’ve been trying three days a week to work in the fitness room at the Dalton Recreation Center. In addition, I’m getting weekly coaching from a Pilates teacher. Neglect exercise at your peril! Believe me, even after a few weeks of not moving enough, at 88 you start to waste away. And drop off for a year or more and you really have your work cut out for you!

What else can I share with you?

You’d better understand your own temperament.

I need people. I’m not a very good alone. Solitude doesn’t work for me. When I was active in the ministry my life was full of people. Afterwards, in those 17 years that Carolyn and I had the Bed & Breakfast business – those years between my retiring in ’84 and just before her death -- we had all the people we wanted around us.

When you’re elderly and widowed, or younger and divorced, the world does not come to you. If you want company it’s up to you to find your own friends. Emerson tells you how to go about it in his incredible essay – his thesis – “The only way to have a friend is to be one.” – The essay tells us very well how to go about it.

The hard part is loving...

I pose as no expert on how to be a good lover, though I sense I am a loving person and am sometimes perceived as such.

Emerson’s rule, I believe, also applies. The only way to become loving is by being loved.

I was certainly loved as a child. My mother’s only child, I was born when she was 43 years old. And she loved me totally, unconditionally, almost, if possible, too much. My dad loved me, too. My older brother and two sisters loved me. [Brief explanation: Dad’s first wife tragically drowned. My mom was her first cousin and available as dad’s second wife.] So, little Arnold grew up in a home surrounded by the attention and affection of 5 loving older ones, cuddled yet, unfortunately, over-protected.

First Grade was a different matter. Entering the world of neighborhood kids, wearing glasses, not knowing how to throw a ball or hit one with a bat – always the last one picked when choosing up sides – a good student yet devoid of the social skills ordinary kids gained through peer experience – so elementary school bordered on devastation.

Then, for 6th and 7th grades, dad & mom went on the road and had to place me in a boarding school. There I experienced the whole bit of an abusive housemother and sexual molestation.

Redemption slowly began in California where I rejoined my parents. High School was OK; college was great; graduate school was terrific; meeting Carolyn was bliss.

Now, don’t get the idea that all my adulthood was easy. Whose is? I have no need to recite its ups and downs. You’ve had or are having your own. During the last year of my therapy was not so much about losing Carolyn as about my childhood and my father. Simply put, I now feel myself still bathed by my mother’s love.

But, believe me, I have still more to do.

The really, really hard part for me is to truly begin to love myself. I’m discovering for me it all has to begin there. It’s sort of like being retooled. The amount of being loved by family and friends doesn’t do as much as what you have to keep on loving yourself – and it runs all the way from accepting all the complications and embarrassments that come with an overactive bladder to my no longer needing to call attention to my petty virtues and several accomplishments. I know I’ve done a lot. I just don’t need to tell other all the time. My chorus to myself is: “Westwood, leave it alone, you’re OK.”

So, at 88, I still wrestling with my ego needs and expect I will be until I die. And as death approaches I hope they will pretty much disappear. That will be heaven.

In conclusion, I suspect unconditional love must be akin to what so many others experience as the love of God. Love to draw upon when it’s the only love there is.

So now, I use my days and what energy I have doing what I am able. May I give back something of what has been so abundantly given to me – by this incredible church, by my loving family, by the five congregations I’ve been chosen to serve, and above all, by my multitude friends.

And when I’m stupid enough to get discouraged or feel neglected and sorry for myself, I always have the starry nights we are blessed with here up in these quiet hills and I look up at the heavens and all their shining brilliance and know a joy that passeth all understanding.

Friends, All these eruptions are supposed to strike a familiar chord with you. If they do, God bless you. In any case, God bless us all.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Missions and Day Planning

Sometimes when I go to the movies, I completely lose myself in the story, like in that great Woody Allen movie, Purple Rose Of Cairo, where the hero falls in love with a woman in the movie theatre and comes down off the screen to seduce her. I can get so caught up in the plot, in the characters, in the premise, in the hair-dos. At other times, I am annoyingly aware of the guy sitting behind me chomping on popcorn, or the dust motes in the space between the film projector and the screen. But in the best of all movie experiences, I am both delightfully caught up in the action on screen, and thoroughly conscious of the act of watching a movie, This happy balance between awareness and participation is, I think, the key to living a happy life.

We are given a set of circumstances––stage directions, if you will––when we show up here on planet earth. And after that, we are actors, translators, interpreters. To some extent we are directors, but never completely so, because Life is a lot bigger and bossier than we are. But we do get to participate in composing our lives, and it is in this participation that the cool stuff happens. We have the power to define our own character, for example, to choose whether he or she is going to swashbuckle his/her way to glory or collapse in a heap of self-pity. But we don’t get to decide whether or not he or she is going to become ill or have war waged on his/her country or win the lottery or be built like a supermodel. We just get to decide how he or she is going to react to these circumstances.

We also, to some extent get to plan our day. All we have is the next 24 hours (and even that isn’t a guarantee). How will we use our precious day? How will we sculpt it and script it and write it and act it and draw it and draw from it, and take direction and hear the voice of the editor and the clicking of the metronome? To me, the truest artist is the one who takes the raw clay of the next 24 hours and transforms it into a thing of beauty, one that is full of integrity, creativity, friendliness, humor, service, whimsy, and good old fashioned hard work.

My mission as a mother, wife, life coach, as a musician, as a writer and as a member of the human race is to remember that all the goodies––all the joy, love, affirmation, success, abundance––we need are right here in our own hearts. That opening up to the joy, opening up to the God within, that unique voice which we will soon recognize as our own (if we are paying attention) will give us all we need. To touch that self-love with music, with kindness, with enthusiasm is to touch God. And to touch that true love makes a person yearn for––need to––share that love in community: the communion of a folk festival, the communion of family, the communion of true lovers locked in embrace.

And the other part of my mission is to free all, especially myself, from the bondage of our own resentments, anxieties, and depressions by taking up the tools to live that beautiful serenity prayer of Reinhold Niebuhr’s: to accept what can’t be changed, to courageously change what can, and to do the painstaking work of figuring out the difference. And to do this, we must confront our deepest fears, wounds, addictions and delusions. But we don’t have to do it alone.

Thursday, August 13, 2009


Recipe for Happiness

1. When in doubt, breathe. Your body is always right and it never hurts to notice that you are still alive. Breathing calms the whole self: body, mind, spirit. Breathe deeply for 4-10 breaths. Don't skimp. Just be with the breathing. Ask your higher self/God/Truth/Krishna/Jesus, etc for alignment.

2. Move your body with love, kindness and mindfulness.

3. Eat whole unprocessed foods from an address as close to home as possible.

4. Do something creative and helpful every day, for your livelihood and for fun.

5. Be yourself in all your relationships. Be the best version of you that you can be, and be kind to yourself when the version you happen to be today isn't as fun as the version you were yesterday.

6. Let everyone you encounter be themselves. Don't bother trying to change them. Bless everyone and recognize everything that happens to you as an opportunity to grow and learn.

7. Drink as much water as you can. You are 70% water, and if you don't freshen the tank...well, just look over at a vaseful of flowers that hasn't been changed in a few days. Enough said. Drink as much water as you can.

8. Catch yourself when you find yourself trying to create problems. (And laugh.)

9. When you feel love, express it! In words, in deeds and with a big smile.

10. On occasion, act As If.

11. Make peace with the past, practice gratitude today, and dream big.

12. Life is hard, pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.

13. Live the serenity prayer: ask to be granted the serenity to accept the things you cannot change, the courage to change the things you can and the wisdom to know the difference.

14. Give away what you don't need. Notice how you feel as the clutter disappears. Notice how you feel when you practice generosity.

15. Go outside and touch trees, feel your feet on the bare earth, dip your toes in a body of water as often as possible.

16. Laugh.

17. Laugh at yourself.

18. Slow down.

19. Sleep as much as you can.

20 Step away from the computer.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Postcard from Lunenburg, Nova Scotia

Katryna and I are in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia with my mother, Elle and Jay. Right this moment, Jay is taking a nap, Elle is watching Winnie the Pooh on VHS, Katryna and my mother are going for a walk, and I am wondering how to condense all our adventures into a post I can write in a half hour. Also, Jay just woke up. So I will punch the highlights.

We arrived at my mother-in-law's house in Wellesley on Thursday evening for a lovely dinner. She told me that my sister-in-law Mary had just gone to see Paul McCartney at Fenway the night before. I am so out of touch that I didn't even know Sir P was on tour. I have never seen him. If there is one famous person I want to meet, it's Paul. I just love love love the man. So I made Mary give me a blow by blow, and she even sent me a video and some photos which I wanted to post, but I can't figure out how, so here's a pic of Paul just to remind you what he looks like at the age of 66.

No one slept that night; it was hot and Elle was freaked out by being in a strange trundle bed, so I ended up "sleeping" with her until 5am when we jumped out of bed and headed for Logan. We ran into a friend of a friend headed for Newfoundland and she and Katryna cleaned up the Americano Jay knocked out of my hands (the nice barrista gave me another one for free, along with a vanilla milk for Elle.)

The flight was mercifully quick, and during the last 20 minutes, Jay fell asleep after wailing previously. But as we were descending into Halifax, Elle said, "Mama, I'm just going to get my recorder," and slithered out of her seatbelt and began scrambling around the plane. I was holding the finally sleeping Jay in his front pack and trying not to wake him with my urgent whispering of "NO, Elle! Get back here!" which she ignored. So I pressed the call button. Kevin the hip steward came to the back of the plane. "Hi," I whispered pointing at both kids (Elle was currently under the seat in front of her). "Could you please tell her to get back in her seat?"

Of course he was kind and quite effective, and after the plane landed and we were exiting, he let Elle sit in the pilot's seat.

We were last in line to go through Canadian customs. By now, Jay was awake again, but not delighted in any way. I gave him a small toy which he proceeded to hurl to the ground. The man in front of us kept picking it up and handing it back.

"Got a little one just abou' this age, myself," he said in a London accent.
"How old?" I asked.
"Seventeen months," he said. He was a large guy, closely cropped hair, barrel-chested. I looked down and noticed he was carrying a black backpack with Paul McCartney's signature stitched in red thread.

"Are you with Paul?" I said, almost gasping.

"I am," he said. "Security. Five years now."

"Were you just at Fenway?" I was practically squeaking.

"You there too?"

"No! I wish!" and then started babbling about how much I love the Beatles, brandishing him my Beatles pocketbook as proof.

When we got to the front of the line, he gallantly let us go first. I thought,"We should give him a CD. Too bad they're all packed in our luggage." We found out his name was Adie and his seventeen-month-old was Grace. We met up with him again at Immigration, and then again when we were collecting our bags. This time, I screwed up my courage. "Do you want a CD? One for you and one for Grace?"

"Oh, sure, yes!" he said. "And I'll play it in the bus for the boss. He loves this kind of thing!"

My knees went weak, and Katryna handed him a Sister Holler and a Rock All Day/Rock All Night.

"Cheers!" he said, waving the CDs and turning the corner.

I don't really care what Paul thinks of our music. Just the idea that he would hear it, even as far-off background music made my inner ten-year-old so giddy with joy that I am still high off it.

We stayed in the most beautiful craftsman house. My mother babysat the kids. The hosts brought up a gigantic bassinette full of stuffed animals.

We played at the Main Stage Friday night. It's atop the biggest hill in the town, and the stage is under this huge beautiful tent.

During the show, I asked for advice about where to get some good veggies. Lunenburg is known for its fine lobster (which we partook of on Saturday night) but not so much for its organic vegetables. Ellen Agger brought me the most beautiful salad on Saturday at lunchtime. It was full of edible flowers: borage, nasturtium and bee balm. Also, a variety of greens, green beans and cucumber, all of which she grew herself. Here's a picture of Ellen. I should have photographed the salad, but I was hungry and Katryna and I ate it in about five minutes.

On Saturday, Katryna and I lead a workshop for kids as part of the Lunenburg Festival offerings. We worked for two hours with twelve kids ranging from 4 to 13 (mostly 9 year olds, though) We taught them "Mango Walk," "Wimoweh" and let them choose a final song. They picked "With A Little Help From my Friends." I actually hadn't played that song since I was about fourteen, hunched over my "Beatles for Easy Guitar" book. So as Katryna was scribbling down the words for the kids, I found the tune on my iPod and did a quick review. There's a movement from the vi chord to a surprise II in the bridge under "Do you need anybody?" which just knocks my socks off. This is part of why I love the Beatles: their quirky little changes, usually a play with majors and minors that throw you briefly out of the key. I loved every time we got to that part.

The kids were amazing.
The Once in a Blue Lunenburg Singers!

After we learned the songs, we broke for lunch and then we performed with them at the gazebo in the middle of Lunenburg.

We did a workshop called "Old Songs" and were joined by Lotus Wight who invented this bass harmonica.

We managed to survive our first night's sleep deficit by frequenting the Laughing Whale and drinking Canadianas: dark roast coffee with two shots of espresso. Yum!

On the last day, Elle's dream came true and we took a tour of the town in a horse drawn carriage.

Thank you, Lunenburg, you beautiful town! We hope to see you again!

Postscript: When we arrived at customs this morning to leave Canada, the flight attendant made me sign a waiver for my guitar, which I checked. I joked, "So this is so if United Breaks My Guitar I can't sue you."

"Interesting you should bring that up," she said drily. "I was the attendant who took that guitar from the guy who wrote that song. And it was in a soft case, not a hard one like yours here."

Her name was Sybil. She declined to be photographed for this report. But I did learn that Dave Carroll is from Halifax. In preparation for this trip, I called my friends at Taylor guitars and let them know that my guitar cases were in pretty bad shape. They promptly sent me new ones.


Sunday, August 02, 2009


It's raining again. I don't mind the rain so much; in terms of my own comfort level, I actually prefer this gentle weather to 95 degrees with high humidity. But I recognize that the wet is responsible for the blight that's affected tomatoes and potatoes and all sorts of crops all over the North East, and our local farmers have pinned it on climate change. So I am routing for sun and a drier spell.

My kids are both taking a nap right now. My husband is biking, rain or no. I have been tidying the house, cleaning out the nasty drawer next to my bed which contains twenty five different kinds of lotion, a disorganized mass of sewing materials (mostly threads), some dental floss, ear-plugs in various stages of use, barrettes, bookmarks, emery boards and loose band-aids separated from their boxes. Before their nap, my children were both in Elle's room on her "new" big girl bed: a plastic pink toddler bed with a teddy bear's head as the backboard and a crib mattress. We put her other crib mattress under the bed and then pulled it out so it looks sort of like a trundle bed, which, if you are three, is almost a bunk bed, which is the grandest, most excellent sleeping situation imaginable. The bed is completely covered with stuffed animals and pillows and blankets, as Elle like to make a big nest for herself, which she crawls into for sleeping. Jay thought this was the most exciting thing ever, and squealed with delight as he hurled himself onto the top of the pile and then fell over backwards onto the lower "trundle." This made him laugh even harder: huge chortles of pure glee. I sat next to them and just watched and listened. What could be better than your own two kids squealing and snuggling like a litter of puppies? So far, nothing.

Elle is three, and to date, I like three better than two. Either that or I have changed. I look back on last year, the year of Jay's arrival, and I feel like I've come over a tight mountain pass and am now on a smooth level path. Maybe it's the yoga; maybe it's the meditation and journaling. Maybe it's the knitting. I think it's just plain grace. Or mabye it's that three really is easier than two. I'll find out when Jay hits that marker in August 2010.

Speaking of mountain passes, we did a lot of hiking in the Adirondacks last week. All the members of my family are 46rs, which means that we've climbed all 46 peaks over 4000 feet in New York State. This really means that we have a father who is an avid hiker (though his season is extremely limited to one week every summer, and he climbs wearing tennis shoes, eschewing walking sticks and crampons) who thought it was fun to drag his whiny wife and daughters up tall mountains every summer. Eventually we all stopped whining and caught the Fever which compels one to hike in 45 degree rain and cloud cover that erases any kind of view. In 1986 my father figured out that my mother, the most reluctant climber of all time––albeit extremely athletic––was within 15 peaks of 46. My mother, always the historian, also figured out that she would be able to bag these peaks before her 47th birthday, and so agreed to what can only be called a campaign. For the next three years, and then continuing on for our own 46r goals for another three, we Nieldses hiked the most obscure, trail-less, bramble-filled, viewless mountains in the Adirondacks. We were cursed with cold wet weather, but blessed with no injuries, victory, and best of all, the gifts one gets only by climbing mountains.

What are these? Well, for me, this strange thing happens when I hike. I am a middling kind of athlete. I am not fast nor particularly skillful, and I am definitely not strong, but after the initial shock to my body that it's being asked to do something other than play guitar or write, it really is a good sport. It's sort of like my dog George Harrison: it goes along with the program. And after about 45 minutes of slogging, when my heart is pumping nicely and my muscles are working in harmony, my mind lets go of its regular tangle of plans and fears and instead gets creative. It also gets seriously involved with the present moment. This is especially true when it's carrying its son on its back. Paying attention carries a lot more value when to fail to do so would mean slipping on a wet mossy rock and tumbling several yards down with an eleven-month old in tow.

Jay loved hiking. The first day, we felt a little guilty: he's just learning how to walk, and he's so excited about what his own little body can do that he barely wants to sleep. Would you want to sleep if you suddenly figured out that your body could fly? But riding on mama's back is apparently evolutionarily charged with positive associations; after all, for millenia, moms have been carting their tots around in slings and on backs, over the Andes and the Pyrannes and Kilimanjaro and the Himalayas. Babes are used to it. Jay slept peacefully for a few hours, then woke up, singing and drumming lightly on my shoulders. Tom mostly carried him on the way down when I feared that my spaghetti legs would fail. He liked dad's back as much as mom's.

There comes a moment on every hike when I hate it. Usually about an hour before the summit. It's my mind rather than my body that freaks out. "I can't do this for another hour!" my mind protests. "What is the point?" On our last day in the high peaks, my family gave Tom and me the gift of hiking by ourselves with just Jay. Elle was happily playing with her cousins and getting a tennis lesson. (She is definitely my daughter. When my mother, a professional-level player, tried to teach her how to hold her racket, Elle grabbed it from her and said, "No, I'm going to show you how I do this," and proceeded to take the racket and bang it on the court.) Anyway, Tom and I had a fabulous time. We hiked Wright Peak, which is next to my favorite mountain in the world, Algonquin. The two peaks share a trail for most of the trip, and then the trail to Wright veers off to the left and hikers ascend open rock face for about a half hour to 45 minutes. It was a beautiful day, but the wind was blowing at the top. My legs were tired and my boots were wet. I was more afraid than I have ever been in my entire life. I had visions of being swept off the summit, or falling backwards and landing on my baby. At one point, I thought, "This is so stupid. I am risking my son's life. For what?"

I thought about camping out and waiting for Tom to bag the peak. That wouldn't be so bad. But Jay wasn't scared. And I thought of all those mothers who have climbed before me, the mothers of the Andes and Himalayas. I prayed to their spirits, and saw the summit. When I finally arrived, Jay's hair flying around his little head like a halo, I said, "We are at the top of the world." He said, "Nah nah," and clapped his hands. Tom found us a place behind a big rock where we could eat our lunch and gaze at Algonquin, and I remembered that it's not until we walk through our fears that we overcome them. My father carried me up these mountains when I was Jay's age. We risk our children's lives in a much more (statistically) dangerous way when we strap them into their car seats and drive across town. What I gave to my son that day was the model of courage. Not the kind of courage that shrugs at danger, but one who feels it and goes up anyway.