I spent a few days on Sutton Island this past week, after an intensive stretch of non-stop activity. You know the kind. My first two days I was alone, a rare situation for me on the island. On the first day I decided to take a walk around the east end loop without my phone.
The number of times I reached for that darn slab of plastic and metal was embarrassing.
How far have I walked? What time is it? Oh, that's beautiful; where's my camera? Has anyone texted me? Have I done Wordle today?
Sutton reminds me to sit still, put my phone away, and immerse in the light and shadow of fall. Watch the gulls, eagles, osprey, heron, cormorants, loons, songbirds, and seals - all going about their lives, busy working, eating, interacting - without a thought for what's happening in some electronic other-world. The physical world is a good one, and we miss too much of it. It's our home. You'll remember it, if you give it your attention.
Take a deep breath, Robin. Slow down. Immerse in the air of autumn. Can you find a time to turn off the electricity and simply be present with the natural world? I aspire to do it, but often fail. I wish you all the balm of "disconnection" too, which really means, the balm of reconnecting to the physical world.
To dog or not to dog?
That was the question.
Just now I looked back at the dates and saw that our dogless existence – after thirty-nine years of dogfulness – began almost exactly a year ago. Doglessness is a seductive condition. We slipped into its hypnosis for a long time, but then…
This August Jonathan and I will celebrate forty years of marriage. Forty years ago, on our way home from an 8-day honeymoon in New Brunswick, we found a starving puppy on the side of the road. After an hour or so of sleuthing in the neighborhood, we learned he was abandoned. In an exuberance of love and protectiveness, we impulsively decided to smuggle him over the border (I hope the statute of limitations on penalties has passed).
Brunswick lived to be sixteen. By the time he died, we’d long since adopted Ella, who was joined by Meg, then Guster, Kate, and Clara. When Clara died last June, our last dog, we had four new grandbabies on the horizon. “Let’s just wait a little bit,” we thought.
In a dogless life, you can be spontaneous. You don’t have to get up on Saturday morning to walk anybody. No tumbleweeds of dog hair under the couch. No noisy interruptions. No one pestering you to pay attention, get up, go out, rub my belly. You are free to remain lost in thought, in moodiness, in yourself. Hmm. We began to see the problem.
Daisy hasn’t been with us for a week yet, and we are tired, and we are happy. She is comic relief, a torrent of wriggly, twirly affection, demanding. Oh yes, she demands – that we not sink into a fog of brooding, that we pay attention, that we laugh and play and celebrate. We celebrate wonders like moths and tennis balls, tall grass and windows, sunbasking and dinnertime. We didn’t know what a hole we’d slipped into until she arrived and dragged us out on a leash.
Welcome, Daisy. And thank you.
One of the gifts of small children is a reminder that we each house a full array of emotions in the crowded space of our brain, and that’s okay. Honor your emotions. Children give free rein to them all – elation, grief, frustration, fear, anger, determination, silliness, hysteria, serenity. They might get bogged down by emotional overloads (a three-year-old’s ferocity in the throes of perceived injustice is legion), but their ability to recover is wondrous. Many of us lose that ability as we grow. Maybe that’s because we try so hard to shut the door on negative emotions, a strategy that commonly backfires.
I recently returned from a beautiful, heart wrenching, hopeful weekend. Two years after the tragic accidental death of Brigit Feeney, a friend’s 33-year-old daughter, her family gathered to dedicate a memorial garden. The serene, circular plot in Manchester, New Hampshire’s Livingston Park celebrates the good work of Brigit’s life. The garden honors her memory and provides a public space of beauty, solace, and healing to the entire community.
Brigit worked as a victim and witness advocate, an underappreciated job that provides support for victims of violent crime at their most fragile. She was an exquisitely compassionate advocate, and a fierce ally to those in need. Brigit’s life calling was to provide hope and healing, and the foundation created in her name will work towards that goal.
I marvel at this family’s response to devastating grief – to look outside of themselves, to provide comfort to others as a way of softening the pain. Laughter and tears came both in full measure in the garden that day. Adults can do this thing too, this fluid movement between emotions, this embracing of love and hope, even in the midst of anguish. Suffering in life is inevitable, but denying it, smothering it, shaming it, is counterproductive. If we open our hearts to the pain it can wash through us and leave us cleansed.
I cannot help turning to my grandchildren - those dazzling, emerging beings – when I need instruction. The world of emotions is their playground, their schoolground. Little Martin, our fifth grandchild, was born in April, and already he displays tantalizing facial mobility, as though he’s experimenting with the emotional spectrum – a smile, a smirk, a frown, a brow knitted in sadness or consternation – all in his sleep. Good job, Martin. Keep practicing.
To all of you, young and old, I wish you good fortune, but I also wish you the essential skill of navigating the bad when it arrives. Let the raggedy feelings come, let them move on, then bring your goodness back into the light.
The Brigit A. Feeney Foundation for Hope and Healing will continue Brigit’s legacy by supporting the advocate community she cared so much about. The garden is open to the public.
For more information about Brigit and the Foundation named for her, visit: https://www.brigitsfoundation.org/
Back in the day, when I sat waiting to see a pink line on a little dipstick, I was hopeful. Am I pregnant? Yes? Joy! Love!
Since 2020, we sit hoping fervently that no line appears. Up until last weekend we had three years of good luck - no line. But maybe the dreaded pink line is everyone's eventual fate. In a way it feels good to have the years of worrying and evasive maneuvers behind us, at least for a little while.
Well, not quite behind us. For now we are commiserating - sharing aches and fatigue, sharing chores, side-by-side paxlovid prescriptions, comparing notes on our various symptoms and side effects ---
"Do you have an awful metallic taste in your mouth?"
"Yes! What is that?"
Apparently "paxlovid mouth" is a thing. We share, with the unlucky minority, this particular side effect of ritonavir, part of the paxlovid cocktail.
However, we are hardly unlucky. Here's a few reasons why:
We're going to be okay. Thanks everyone!*
*(researchers, pharmacists, the medical community, friends, family, birds...).
My first real job was as a salesperson at a local outdoor outfitters called Kreeger and Sons. At 17 I’d done lots of backpacking – their specialty – and I was a downhill skier, but I knew next to nothing about cross-country skiing. That didn’t stop them from assigning me the task of teaching a cross-country workshop one bright, snowy weekend at Pound Ridge Reservation. I arrived an hour early with a couple of my co-workers, so they could teach me how to ski before I became an “expert” instructor. Who knows if I fooled anyone later that morning. I wobbled a lot, but I dutifully aped the instructions that had just been thrown at me. I felt like I'd pulled off something brilliant.
Later that winter, my senior year, a classmate friend and photographer asked me to meet her at the school fields after a snowfall. She used photographs of me on Nordic skis for an art project, using the silhouette of a skier in full extension against the pure white backdrop of winter. She edited out the shots of me flailing, poles and skis creating awkward and precarious geometric shapes.
Forty-five years later, I still wobble. Cross-country has never been my metier, but those early introductions stuck with me, associating the activity forever with a sense of competence and beauty, even if faked. Nothing gives me quite the same joy as skiing across a sparkling landscape of new fallen snow, leaving first tracks, gliding in smooth rhythm, sweeping down hills with a teenager’s smile on my face, undimmed even after the flail and crash.
Time is a trickster. It acts unshakable, yet it bends and hovers and does loop-de-loops, curling back on itself. As a rule, I try to savor the present and look forward to the future in a logical, timely, sequential way. Sometimes, though, the past surges over me and bogs me down.
Jonathan and I have been frantically battling 20 years of accumulated clutter (Marie Kondo – help!) before all 14 of our beloved family (all those babies!) fill the already-crowded spaces of our home. You’re probably familiar with that pressure to create holiday magic? to make the season bright? Between that and work and bills and emails and broken things that need fixing and the phone call that took over an hour and meal prep and that thing you said you’d do before tomorrow…it’s terribly easy to feel like a hamster on a wheel, sprinting and getting nowhere near a season bright, just the same old cloudy routine.
As years accumulate behind me, another obstacle deters my progress towards the happy holidays. Icons of the season are weighted with associations, and I slip away into Christmases past – my children, like little electrons, bouncing off the walls in anticipation, the all-nighters with Jonathan as we stuff stockings and finalize the dazzle of Santa’s touch around the Christmas tree. Then I go further back to my own child self at Christmastime – scanning the TV Guide to make sure we won’t miss The Grinch, Mom’s Brunswick stew on Christmas Eve, Grandpa’s eyebrow-raising rendition of the We Three Kings Balthazar verse (sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying!), stockings overflowing on Christmas morning, Dad’s pancakes for breakfast, the TREE twinkling up to the ceiling, and Christmas music as a constant soundtrack. Memories fill the heart with happiness...but sometimes not.
I was only subliminally aware of the potpourri of the past dancing in my head when Jonathan streamed some Christmas classics on our Bluetooth speaker last night. Nat King Cole crooned Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…and I was transported back decades, in front of my parents’ fireplace, Georgia fatwood crackling under the logs, Dad sipping a hot buttered rum, Mom bustling in the kitchen. I am carefree, comfort-drenched, at home. All of a sudden I was sobbing at my current day kitchen counter, missing them, missing home, missing all the days gone by.
It’s no wonder people get sad this time of year. Not only are we submerged in darkness for lengthy periods of time, we are submerged in memories and expectations as we try to cultivate that lightness, to share it, or just hold on to it for ourselves. Holiday preambles are a perfect stew of complex emotions – joy, nostalgia, elation, grief, gratitude, regret.
Time is a relentless life companion, never stops, never slows; no calamitous or triumphant moment causes even a hiccup in time’s stride, though that doesn’t stop it from using our emotions as a playground. But we can’t live without time, and who would want to be robbed of times past? Perhaps there is comfort in time’s dependable, intrepid march forward. So I take a deep breath, make myself a cup of tea, let sorrow wash over me and recede. I will be grateful for the rich memories time has given to me, and hopeful for what time still has in store, so many things I can’t even dream of yet.
Wishing you warmth and comfort this holiday season, and may time's tricks be good ones.
My writing life has been relegated to the wings in recent weeks as another new baby takes center stage. Welcome Arlo Robin (I wept when they revealed his name)!
In one of Rachel Field’s novels, Time Out of Mind, her protagonist, Kate, often finds herself inundated with the work of running her employer’s household and caring for its troubled inhabitants. One of my favorite reviews of Field’s novel was written by Eleanor Roosevelt in her “My Day” column:
“The description of the times when [Kate] tried to be just hands and feet, a mechanical automaton that moved and yet was numb, is very poignant. For one reason or another, many of us can remember times like that in our lives…”
The passage brings to mind my current surroundings, 1000 miles from home. My oldest daughter and son-in-law are submerged in their first week of parenthood, sleep deprived, unable to think beyond the one task of nourishing a tiny human every two hours, keeping him safe, and learning to cope with this new, overwhelming sense of love and responsibility. Future plans only go as far as the next feed.
Parenthood, at least during intense stretches like this one, supersedes all other thoughts and duties, consuming brain and body. This is how I remember my mothering days, and a part of me was grateful for that full immersion. My ever-scattered young adult mind was given rest, ironically, when I was buried in babies. There were no decisions to be made about how to prioritize each day’s activities. I had to get those four children dressed, fed, and if possible, enriched every day. Some days, I skipped the enrichment part, too exhausted to do more than simply love them. Even when I felt like a numb, mechanical automaton, all hands and feet, I tried to remind my weary arms and heart to let those children know they were loved.
Now I’m observing from the sidelines, part of a ready and willing backup squad. Even that can be exhausting at 62, though the break from daily decision-making hasn’t lost its comforts. I will be fully present for my child and her family. Nothing more. Of course that can’t last long. Already, one week into my grandson’s life, his parents are coming out of their fog, re-expanding their horizons, finding more independence. Soon I will return to my life at my weathered end of this parent spectrum, the grand end! My sideline role will bear witness from a greater distance. I will miss inhabiting their home sphere, touching and holding them, but I will sleep more. And for a long time to come, I’ll be fueled by images of two new parents – stumbling, learning, laughing, weeping, gazing in wonder, and falling more deeply in love every day with a tiny boy with a furrowed brow and wise eyes. Three sets of hands and feet and loving arms, all entangling as a new family comes into being.
The other night I said my goodbyes to Zoe while Sam and Tess, my son and daughter-in-law, had a micro-date-night downstairs. While they enjoyed some alone time, zoning out and watching an episode of the Sopranos, I sat in a swivel chair by an upstairs window, watching the diminishing, soft gray light of day fade from Zoe’s tiny, beautiful face.
This new family of three, together for not quite two weeks so far, has been through the fires of transformation together: 28 hours of labor, latching troubles, breast pumping marathons, bilirubin concerns, and days of limited, broken sleep for Mom and Dad. It’s no wonder new parents live under a thin veil of emotional stability. Baby Zoe wasn’t the only family member to cry in those first few days. Quiet tears streamed down Tess’s face when I went to say goodnight on the first night. But she and Sam sat side by side, buoying each other up. I hugged them before heading back to my Air B&B and wished them a manageable night.
The next morning, Sam made the mistake of asking me to remind him of the lyrics to a Peter, Paul, and Mary song called “The Cruel War,” a standard from his own childhood days of family song. When I got to the last verse of the hauntingly tragic ballad, I heard sobbing from the kitchen. My dear, grown son was overcome in the midst of spreading avocado on a piece of toast. I walked in and rubbed his back, strangely proud of this young man who has the strength and self-assurance to give in to tears, cathartic, cleansing tears.
I finally gave in to tears on my last night. I sat with Zoe for a transcendent hour, staring at my newest grandchild’s face. Her mouth puckers and opens, her brow lifts and wrinkles, a crumpled grimace then a crooked smile flits across her features and settles to peace again – I was mesmerized. Our homes are 600 miles apart, and I grieved at the thought of leaving, unsure when I will next hold that therapeutic weight of Zoe’s life in my arms.
I thought of the scene in Sleeping Beauty when fairies bestow blessings on the newborn Princess. In a makeshift mashup of storybook magic and prayer, I laid my blessings upon Zoe – good health, a bright mind, a strong body, curiosity, lots of laughter, and showers of love from all around. Oh, and a lifetime friendship with her Grammy, who fell permanently, hopelessly in love with her sitting by the window that evening, in the fading light of her eleventh day in the world.
I spent yesterday evening snugly crowded amongst the white-painted bookshelves of Seal Harbor, Maine’s impossibly charming, 130-year-old Public Library. There was just enough room in the tiny white colonial to tuck in an odd collection of about eighteen chairs, two of which made a grand pair of tufted thrones in the back sunroom, where I sat to sign books after the event.
The audience buoyed me up with their enthusiasm, their smiles and nods, a phenomenon I have missed through the Zoom days of book touring. I was struck once again with the miracle that is me giving talks to appreciative readers about a book that I actually wrote and published. Sometimes that fact daunts me, or makes me feel like an imposter. But this group with their open-eyed interest and probing curiosity affirmed a truth that stops me in my tracks. Holy smokes. This is really happening.
But it was two bigger miracles that fed the depths of my elation last night. It was all I could do to put my phone away for the talk, since my son and daughter-in-law were already well into their sixteenth hour of labor, waiting for their first child to emerge into this world as I greeted my audience. Only nine days earlier, we added another new member to our family clan, another granddaughter to join my daughter and son-in-law and their 2 ¾ year-old sister.
Overflowing with the joy of everything on this perfect summer evening, wrapped in a temperature that foregoes jacket or air conditioning, I drove away from the talk, windows open, below a ceiling of corduroy clouds, underlit in pink and gold by the setting sun. I couldn't stop smiling.
Sometimes it’s easier to sustain joy in solitude. My smile stuck for miles, uninterrupted by distractions. It was almost tiring, but I decided to hold on to it beneath the last flickers of evening light at a roadside lobster and Bar-B-Q stand on the side of the road. I ordered a pulled pork sandwich and side of slaw with chunks of fresh pineapple, and I sat at an outdoor picnic table to eat. I had my pick. I was the only customer there, which suited me just fine. I savored the meal, but was more thoroughly fueled by the buzz of elation that proved to have tenacious staying power.
Were you feeling something like this, Robert Browning , when you wrote these lines?
God’s in His heaven,
All’s right with the world.
And my daughter’s family is enriched by a new sister, and my son will be a Dad, and the world is a beautiful place, and life has given me treasures beyond reason. So I wanted to relish the sensation, because of course those moments dwindle and fade like the afterglow, after the sun dips down and the air cools and another rotation of the Earth moves us along in time. But I must hold on to this moment and remember.
**Zoe Frances was born in the wee hours of August 11, to join her cousin Fiona and almost twin cousin Lucy. Happy Birth Day, Zoe! Everyone is doing well.
not too bright,
dear, gentle soul.
Dec. 2, 2007-June 17, 2022
Clara was the third dog on the scene when she joined our family in 2009. She was gangly and bouncy - could spring higher than my head until her knees blew out at age 7 or 8. She was a shameless crotch sniffer and loved to give what my daughter fondly calls "tooth hugs," charming to some, disconcerting to the uninitiated. She was fully comfortable in her own body, and somehow presented a daunting alpha presence to all other dogs without even raising a lip. She won all doggie tugs of war without even tugging. They'd just look at her and let go.
We often found her sprawled, spread eagle fashion, on the carpet, wriggling to scratch her back or just lying there, lips flopping back over her teeth, not an insecure bone in her body. I'm glad she was at ease with us; she certainly put me at ease.
When I was grieving or scattered or feeling lost, I'd kneel onto the floor beside her, lay my head against her warm, furry neck, slide my fingers over her velvety ears, and she'd lift her paw up onto my shoulder, another version of the Clara hug. Just thinking about it pulls a deep sigh from me. She put me at peace.
Now she is at peace, our last dog in a long, continuous crowd of them since 1983. No more painful heavings off the floor, no more stumbling outdoors to go pee. Her long stare told us it was time. How long will we last, dogless? That remains to be seen. For now, I will sit with my menagerie of dear old friends out by the pond, one grave newly dug. Their bodies fertilize the earth as their lives have fertilized our souls, and we will continue to feel the comfort of their simple, indomitable love.
Robin Clifford Wood is an award-winning author, poet, and writing teacher. She lives in central Maine with her husband, loves to be outdoors, and enjoys ever-expanding horizons through her children, grandchildren, and granddogs.