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.
A deluge of joy - savored
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.
This week I enjoyed what is arguably one of the great moments of my writing life. At the annual Maine Literary Awards ceremony a few days ago, The Field House won the non-fiction award and was a co-winner of the John N. Cole Award for Maine-based non-fiction. What an affirmation of all those years of work, what a rush of adrenaline when they read off my name – twice! So why did I feel so unsettled and uncomfortable in the days following this great triumph? Why was I not floating on a cloud of happiness all week?
One obvious reason is the violent murder of 19 children and two adults that I read about the day following the awards ceremony. How can our little paper certificates mean anything next to that horror, or the fact that it was distressingly less shocking than it should have been? But that can’t be the whole story of my disconcerting unease. Nothing felt good or right in the face of that news. Those of us at a distance must find a way to acknowledge and absorb such horrors, bear witness, act to change what is wrong, but then we must somehow continue muddling our way through the business of life, joys and sorrows, disappointments and triumphs.
I tried to untangle my complicated response to winning. There’s imposter syndrome – they must have made a mistake. I’ll never be able to write anything good again; it was a fluke. There’s success phobia, the pressure to satisfy newly heightened expectations. Better not try at all, they’ll be disappointed; too much attention.
But that one confused me. Since my book came out a year ago, I have basked in the success of the book, which came in the form of attention from enthusiastic readers. That feedback has been wonderful. It is unfailingly gratifying to learn that my writing has moved someone, made them happy, sparked new thoughts, inspired them with the life story of Rachel Field. Clearly it’s not attention that bothers me. It is, I think, the aftermath of “winning.” As much as I wished and hoped to win the award, I hadn’t anticipated the feeling of…remorse? My win meant someone else’s disappointment. That sucks. That does not feel happy at all.
Please don’t get me wrong. I am thrilled and elated by the recognition that the Maine Literary Awards gave me and my book. It is what I have dreamed and wished for! I feel fortunate, validated, supported, and buoyed up to carry on with my scribblings. I am also, however, prone to sometimes tiresome cerebrations over the complexities of living in this world. Most wonderful things have baggage to go with them. I can’t help hefting the baggage along for a little ways, to see how it feels.
Here’s what I think I’ve learned this week. Those things we imagine will provide happiness don’t always measure up. They’re complicated. Here's what made me uncomplicatedly happy this week: My granddaughter’s smile, a snake crossing a bridge, a palette of spring green seen from a mountaintop, a walk with a friend, a turtle in the grass, old Clara walking all the way out to the back of the field, still going at 14 ½, taking life quietly, one day at a time.
I wish all of you a generous dose of uncomplicated happiness. May it lead you all the way across the field, across the bridge, through the weeds, to a place of peace.
I had one of those epic, solo car drives today on the threshold of Mother’s Day, my mind awash, all cylinders firing, confused and overwhelmed by a flood of BIG, contradictory feelings. The miles flew by unnoticed. Sound familiar? I’m not sure if this phenomenon comes exclusively with age, but it feels dependent on a lifetime stockpile of memory and experience. On occasion, everything rushes to the surface, demanding attention all at once.
Here’s the backdrop: I’ve just spent 24 hours with my pregnant daughter and 2 ½ year-old granddaughter, a couple of hours’ drive from my home. During my visit, little Fiona spent a half-hour performing a close examination of my face while I pretended to sleep, hoping she’d take the hint and settle for her nap. She pushed at my eyelids, stretched my mouth into smiles and frowns, examined the gray hair at my temples, all the while whispering indecipherable stories to her stuffed animals. It was kind of like having a baby raccoon explore your physiognomy with its little padded fingers. At last, draped over me, her breathing slowed and she went quiet. I didn’t dare move for several minutes, but eventually slid myself out from under her little round arms and watched her sleep. Heaven.
Later that night, Nellie marched into the room with a tray full of goodies – flowers, a Mother’s Day card, chocolate-covered almonds, and her cell phone with a live Zoom feed featuring all my other children (two of them expecting babies). Surprise! Happy Mother’s Day Mama! There were those four, dear faces, sending love. I’ll be out of the country on Sunday, unable to receive calls, so their timing moved me and my heart swelled with gratitude. How can anyone be so lucky?
And yet…what’s up with that other cascade of emotion that surged forth as I pulled away from Portland this morning after leaving Fiona at daycare? It felt a lot like grief. What the heck?
Well, maybe it’s all about the passage of time. The last time I got to be with my own siblings and our wonderful mom on Mother’s Day was 2013. My children haven’t lived with me since 2011; they are all starting families of their own. Fiona is no longer a tiny packet of softness that sleeps quietly on my chest; she is a small person with a mind exploding with daily discoveries, becoming herself, gaining independence. Time is skipping along, leaving my past steadily further behind. The miles hurtling away behind me seemed to represent all the years gone by, emphasizing the distance growing between me and what used to be.
Oh yes, I celebrate life’s tenacity! Oh the wonder of it – how it goes on blossoming, evolving, changing! But at the same time, my own life experiences are receding in the rearview mirror along with my husband’s hairline. We’ll do our best to keep up, but our obsolescence is inevitable, one of the few certainties in a world of unknowns.
How do we navigate this world so teeming with rapture and grief, becoming and fading away? We embrace it all, I suppose. We make room for the new and carry our histories along for the ride, as long as little fingers continue to explore, as long as our hearts continue to beat.
At 5:55 this morning I found myself between the rising sun and the setting moon, nearly full. Old Clara the dog didn’t seem to notice, but the moment caused me to stop and stare, east to west, west to east. This conjunction of events doesn’t happen often, and I stumbled upon it entirely by accident. Even if I weren’t a poet, I’d have to recognize the obvious metaphor, particularly fitting given my current prospects.
In the next six months, we will welcome three new babies into our family fold – count em! Three! New life abounds. My children are growing new people, taking a leap into the unknown, manifesting hope for uncharted future lives. What a gift – an affirmation of intention – fully living in these fraught times of an unsettled world.
In the next six months, I will begin my work as a new hospice volunteer. My hope is to provide support for dying people and their families as they navigate this shift, take this leap into the unknown, learn how to live fully through this uncharted chapter of life.
Here I stand in my back fields, simultaneously witnessing an opening and a closing, an arrival and a departure, a beginning and an ending.
Or maybe not. In truth, what I am witnessing is neither start nor finish. Two glorious orbs of light meet here, where I stand, at this intersection between night and day, merely marking a transition, one in an infinite series of changes, part of a timeless continuum. Even as we say goodbye to the descending moon, its light fading as the sun heaves itself up from the horizon, we know the moon continues its luminary passage elsewhere, beyond our sight. Even as we welcome the sun’s brilliant arrival, it leaves another place to darkness, or to the light of the rising moon.
Birth and death are our two orbs of light. Each one illuminates in its own distinct way the beauties and challenges of our cycle of life, here on our little planet. Transition and change are constants. Our task, while we’re here, is to celebrate each transition, cultivate wisdom, meaning, love, wherever we can, as we rise, as we fall.
photo courtesy of Vassar College Library special collections
Does Rachel’s award-winning Hitty from 1930 still stand up in 2022? Yes and no.
Over the last year the American Library Association has been celebrating 100 years of the Newbery Award, which began its run in 1922. In 1930, Rachel Field was the first woman to receive the award with her charming book about a tiny wooden doll’s century of adventures, Hitty: Her First Hundred Years. I’m sharing here some fabulous photos of Rachel and Hitty – who was a real doll that Rachel and her illustrator bought in New York City – on their historic cross-country flight to California where Rachel would receive the Newbery. But is this book too dated to be read by today’s children?
Fans of Hitty – both book and doll – were an essential part of my 9-year journey to rediscover the life of Rachel Field, whose abandoned island home became mine in 1994. As I near the one-year anniversary of my own book about Rachel’s life story, The Field House, I’m moved to honor these two centennials – Hitty’s 100 years, which still entertains readers today, and 100 years of the Newbery Award. Both histories have snags. Some of the older Newbery winners are deemed inappropriate or offensive for contemporary readers. The ALA hosted a recent webinar about this very topic. What do we do with award-winning books from history that no longer meet our standards of social justice? How can the Newbery Award selection process repair its history of bias and exclusion? What about Hitty?
Re-reading Hitty’s story for the first time in a decade, I do find myself cringing at some of Rachel Field’s vocabulary and her treatments of non-white, non-privileged, or otherwise unfamiliar populations. Like many books of her time, Rachel’s Hitty caters to the predominantly white Christian populace who were her presumed readers.
On the other hand, during Hitty’s exciting adventures around world history from the early 1800s to 1930, the narration suggests an inclination towards tolerance. It helps that the book’s narrator is the doll, Hitty, whom we might forgive more easily than a human narrator for her ignorance. Hitty may be elitist and judgmental, but she bends towards open-heartedness. She grows. I can’t help liking her. Hitty finds the good in all manner of people and situations, and I like to think that if her next hundred years were recounted we’d see Hitty grow in depth and perspective, regretting the narrow-mindedness of her early years.
Hitty’s story can be instructive in many ways, in addition to being entertaining. There is a wealth of vivid description: the state of Maine, whaling ships, the evolution of fashion, transportation, and domestic life; and the timeless struggles of children navigating the pull between obedience and desire. In conjunction with education and discussion about the subtle and overt systems of racism and exclusion in literature, I believe we still have something to gain in reading Hitty’s story.
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.