What I Learned from the Mass Walking Tour

There’s a group of individuals who call themselves the “Massachusetts Walking Tour.” They’re both musicians and hikers. Touring the state of Massachusetts on foot, they perform free concerts in the communities in which they walk.

For 4 consecutive days, I had the privilege of hiking with them. Little did I know I would learn more from them in 4 days than I have in 4 months of soul searching. It took about a day after I finished hiking to realize that I had been a part of something really special. Trail withdrawal set in—re-acclimating to life out of the woods—and so did another kind of pining, only it was for more than just pine trees.

Here’s my homage to Momma Duck, Mandy, Crusher, Spanky, Whippersnapper and Bubbles (their trail names.) May you keep on oozing cool simply because you couldn’t care less about cool.

Patience is more than a virtue. It’s a very deliberate practice.

We were told we’d be walking 10 miles but walked 13 instead. On our “8-mile day” we walked 11. Did the MWT kids complain? Ask to rest every couple of hours? I never heard it. Carrying 50 pounds on their backs (oh yeah, they were camping out every night too), they didn’t seem to feel the weight.  At one point I asked Spanky if he ever got tired of the whole thing. “We don’t like to complain,” he said. “We don’t want the Mass Walking Tour to get a reputation for being grumblers and difficult to work with.”

Placed strategically on our route from Walden Pond to Wachusett Mountain were “people of interest” – individuals commissioned to give short vignettes on the local history. These alfresco lessons often lasted 20 or 30 minutes. Standing tall with their 50-lb packs, the MWT kids didn’t fret. They listened intently. They swallowed the aches they were feeling in their necks and backs and feet and gave their undivided attention to whoever was talking. Up until meeting the MWT, I hadn’t seen people giving such resolute attention to anything in years, thanks to a handheld menace called a cell phone.

People don’t really need a whole lot.


In 4 days, I don’t think I saw the MWT kids eat anything more than homemade trail mix, power bars and jerky. If one of them snuck a bite of a sandwich, I didn’t see it. They shared a lot and helped put things back in each other’s packs.

They drank a lot of water from their awesome-looking intergalactic backpack tubular water “bladders”—my plastic Nalgene water bottle looking like a cheesepuff in comparison—and when my Nalgene ran low, they offered me some of their own water from Momma Duck’s reserve stash.

They wore the same clothes every day. Smelly? Maybe a little. But we were all smelly. I learned BO doesn’t really matter on the trail. A lot of things don’t really matter on the trail—small talk, shampoo… I learned Crusher did just fine by rubbing a little baking soda in her head.

As it turns out, life in the woods, and maybe life period, can be whittled down to a few basic needs: 1) Faith 2) Food 3) Water 4) Where to squat 5) People 6)? I’m having trouble even coming up with a #6.

We walked through poison ivy, stinging nettles, knee-high brambles, neck-high tick grass (lots of ticks) and a deforested wasteland. We forded swamps, climbed peaks and weed-wacked. We fought off mosquitoes, stepped on snakes and kept on walking. We had meaningful conversations about marriage, health care and student loans.

Among our company was a man named James who came all the way from NYC to hike with us. He spouted affirmations and jubilations from dawn to dusk, never showing fatigue or losing hope. “Look at that sky! Isn’t that wonderful?! What do I have to be upset about when I can look at that sky?!” When one of the historians described something improbable, James yelled, “Shut the front door!” Then he’d laugh a laugh that made everyone want to laugh.

The first night brought torrential downpours, lightening and hail. I asked the MWT kids if they wanted to sleep on the floor of our living room instead of camping outside and they agreed. During their short stay, they asked for nothing, thanked us for everything, and when I asked how they faired on the hard floor, crammed-in like sardines, with nothing but inflatable pillows underhead, they answered “Great!” I think they meant it.

Even quiet Whippersnapper, in his own unassuming way, radiated tenacity and a deep loyalty. He pressed on each day without so much as a groan, saying more in his few words than the chattiest cathy.

So how do they stay so positive? I have been trying to cultivate this same positivity for months now, years. I strive for it each morning, read about it, pray for it, and only seem to achieve it once in a blue moon and with tremendous effort.

Love is everything.

Have you ever felt really cared about? Like someone is looking out for you, concerned for your wellbeing? I’ve felt it from a couple of people—my husband being one, God when I’m centered, a couple of NY buddies— but I would say this sensation is not a societal default. Friends disappoint. Family tries.

The MWT was different. They seemed to genuinely care about the people walking with them. They checked-in, asked questions, paid attention. Perhaps this is what happens when you spend enough time reflecting inward: You get oriented outward, becoming more of a giver than a taker.

When the young girl who was photographing our journey found herself on our day’s hike without any food packed, the MWT banded together and gave her contributions from their own limited rations.

When my boot filled with swamp water, a kindhearted radio disc jockey named Nick Noble handed me a pair of dry socks before I had time to get uncomfortable. Bubbles contributed a plastic baggy (“Newspaper bags work the best!” she explained), and I miraculously had dry feet for the remainder of the trip.

At least once a day Mandy asked me how I was doing, as if I was the one who needed encouragement (which I did.) I wasn’t the one carrying 50 pounds on my back who hadn’t showered in days and who had slept on the ground the night before. Yet here was pensive Mandy asking me how I was holding up.

Most days we had what is known as a trail “sweep”—a person who walks last in the group to make sure no one gets left behind. Let’s pause for a minute to think about this: A person (sacrificially, voluntarily)—who walks last (humility, selflessness, risking self)—to ensure that no one gets left behind. That’s called love, baby. And it made me think it an analogy to the great Sweep we have in real life.

I felt the love. These people barely knew me and yet they somehow cared. They inspired me to be a better person. They’re tuned in without being plugged in. They’re authentic.

I left my journey with treasures galore: A Massachusetts Walking Tour CD (it’s amazing; get it), a signed copy of Robert M. Young’s book Walking to Wachusett: A Re-Enactment of Henry David Thoreau’s ‘A Walk to Wachusett.’” I was lucky enough to get to walk alongside Mr. Young on my last day. And rumor has it, I may soon be in possession of my very own AMC sticker which I have been coveting for at least a decade now, maybe longer. Thank you, Bubbles.

In short:

Maybe someday I’ll be fortunate enough to get to walk with them again. Until then, I’m savoring the memories, looking forward to the footage, and trying to put into practice the mammoth life lessons I learned from these hiker musician friends who really have a handle on what’s important in life.

At trailsend,

Iris

 

MassWalkingTour.org

MarkAndRaianne.com

HootAndHollerMusic.com

Robert Young’s book can be ordered from: ShopAtWaldenPond.org

Nick Noble’s folk music revival radio: WICN.org

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Getting Hairy

I sent my sisters a message today that said, “Guys, this is the time of year when things start to get hairy.” I was hoping they’d suggest some fun activities. Instead, my sister Lucy replied, “Y U no shave?” which is funny to me because even though that isn’t what I meant (I meant hairy as inalarming and difficult”), it’s true that I shave less in winter for insulation purposes. 

I was lamenting that we’ve gotten to that unfortunate time of the year when the high holidays are over and a massive expanse of winter still lies ahead. The ground is white, the sky is white, the trees are naked and buckling. It’s a long way to Memorial Day, with little in the way of celebrations to get us through– unless you count Valentine’s Day. However, that seems to come and go in a mere shiver. 

It’s the time of year when you start seeing Sandals commercials for tropical destinations like Turks and Caicos and Mexico, Florida even, showing people splashing in turquoise waters and getting massages under cabanas next to their pina coladas. There’s a reason they save these seductive visuals for January, February and March. The marketing masterminds know we’re at our most vulnerable and that we’re ridiculously likely to hop online and book ourselves out of here. I came dangerously close to hightailing it to the Dominican Republic last March on a too-good-to-be-true Groupon. I later came to find out one of the mothers in Violet’s preschool class did book that same trip and loved every minute of it. Who knew that at $299 all-inclusive (that’s flight, hotel, all meals) everything would be copacetic?!

Here in the Northcountry, I don’t bother looking at my weather app from now until April, because there’s only one thing it can say. Two words: damn cold. DC for short. Is it sunny? Cloudy? Snowing? Doesn’t matter because whatever it is, it will be DC. I don’t need a daily reminder that my extremities will be crying and my hands cracking. No matter what I do to my skin, I’m going to look like a corpse, thanks to Vitamin D deficiency (sunlamp time?) and general malaise (Seasonal Affective Disorder?) In fact, I have my weather app programmed to one locale and that’s Patagonia. Every day January through March, Patagonia will read a balmy 75 degrees. It makes me feel better to look at it. Sometimes there are torrential downpours and that’s always peachy, but mostly it’s just a summer paradise. I can practically smell the greenery through my screen…

A wise friend said it helps to make a list of “Things I’m Looking Forward To.” I need to do that. First on my list will be setting up camp in an enchanting little wonderland called The Butterfly Place, self-described as “Regional & tropical butterflies, birds & koi fish housed in an indoor garden with a walking path.” Aka a manufactured summer. Aka heaven. It’s about 105 degrees in there, a sweltering greenhouse, and that’s where you can find me come February when it opens. If you see a dubious mass in the corner, with a little cot set up and several eco-loving water bottles, that’s me. 

What’s soil & sand?

Iris

Rain, Rain, Stay Why Don’t You?

Today it rained from dawn until dusk. It was a cozy sound and gave excuse to stay in and have some much-needed rest. The rain was very welcome, as far as I was concerned, and here’s why:

  1. The alternative (something whiter that isn’t outside of the realm of possibility for a January day in the North) is much more of a nuisance.
  2. Violet thoroughly enjoyed herself playing outside in it. She donned her rainsuit, a glorious invention, and spent the better part of an hour out there. When she came back in, she exclaimed, “I loved it!” and instructed me to make her some tea.
  3. I got to finish Bill Bryson’s book A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail– one of my favorite Christmas presents. Thank you, Inlaws.
  4. Jonathan cleaned out a huge clutterfest that was our closet. At day’s end, he had bags for goodwill and other bags for the recyling bins. Go minimalism.
  5. We watched a slideshow from our summer. I love you, summer.
  6. I painted Violet’s nails violet and she then painted my toenails 3 different colors. They look amazing and it makes me happy to look at them.
  7. At one point, Violet looked out the window and said, “The sun did not shine, it was too wet to play…” which is a quote from Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat, which means, blessedly, that all that reading to her has mattered.
  8. I had several cups of vanilla sleepytime tea. Any day that I’m able to have tea tends to feel indulgent. It’s a stopping-to-smell-the-roses sensibility and feels really good. The English are on to something.

Soggy sand and soil drinking it all up, 

Iris

Chicken Blog

As it turns out, fall will come whether it’s wanted or not. Despite best efforts, there’s no way to immobilize summer, and the leisure it represents, cling onto your baby so tightly that she can’t get on that school bus, or glare at the phone long enough that you will it into ringing with your dream job offer. You can, however, embrace autumn (see below), smile into your baby’s eyes and wave as she gets on the bus so that she, too, smiles, waves back and feels an enormous thrill within herself that she carries into the world. And eventually, after exhaustive measures, by way of divine intervention, you see the fruits of your labors manifested, at long last, as that job offer phone call.

Autumn can feel like a slap in the face. (e.g. Relinquishing your toasty bed at 6:00am for sunless, sub-freezing temperatures.) Or, it can be a splash of cold water that jolts you into hyper-awareness, productivity and incredulity.

When I was little, I looked forward to my November birthday, but still felt the coming changes acutely. September brought new-but-the-same schoolwork, more responsibility, some possibility, often disappointments, and always, the cold—The kind of cold that defies layers and transcends time, seeps into your very core, up your spine, neck, scalp.

Somehow, in 20 years of New England life, I never once went apple picking. Last week, Jonathan, Violet and I set off for truly Northern North Country. It so closely resembled the backwoods of Vermont, that we nearly forgot ourselves. Jonathan found an orchard 20 minutes away that was uninhabited. We walked way out to the back of the orchard, where it abutted thick forest, and there we found the most flawless, flavorful, Snow-White-Minus-The-Poison apples we’ve ever tasted, not a brown spot to be found, no human voices, other than our own. It was Violet’s idea—her grandparents took her last year and she had been hearing each of her classmates, in turn, say they had gone apple picking over their weekends. The orchard smelled of everything you’d want autumn to smell like. It was, for an hour, an escape. Inside the farm shop, we got apple cider donuts and I found some hand-painted botanical note cards that I bought for each sister.

So this is autumn in New England.

What happens if you take unforgiving fall, turn it right side up, and go inside it?

6 Ways I Crawled Out of the Gray, Into the Inside of Fall:

1) I went apple picking. I won’t tell you the orchard we went to because I wouldn’t want it getting marred by people. However, there are many such places to be found. Epiphany: The further off the beaten path, the greater the joy.

2) I went walking. A dear friend pulled me out of darkness by first sending me encouraging text messages, then leaving me a voicemail that said, “I know you aren’t up for talking right now, but know that I am here” which meant more than I can express. She walked with me, in and around fall, inside fall, talked to me, listened, transformed fall into something less foreboding. This walk has since morphed into a Women’s Walking Group, a weekly avenue to get inside of fall. This friend even took time out of her busy life to proofread a cover letter I was working on, offering me valuable editing suggestions and encouragement. I will be forever grateful to her for pulling me out of the gray, for not leaving me when I felt most lost.

3) I picked up a book. On the library’s “Recommended by Staff and Patrons” table, I found Out of the Woods: A Memoir of Wayfinding by Lynn Darling. It is about a woman who drops her only daughter at college and must navigate the wilderness (literal and metaphysical) alone in the woods of Vermont. This book’s therapy was two-fold; it gave me a parallel story—some company really—during a time of transition. And, it delineated a lonelier, lost-er scenario than my own, in essence furnishing some much needed perspective. (i.e. Violet may be gone for 29 hours/ week, but at least she hasn’t left for college.)

4) I got a call saying, “We’d like to offer you the job.” I think God may have read my last blog entry. I was plucked up from rock bottom—an unforgiving place that I believe Mr. Lewis Carroll is well acquainted:

“’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.”

–Jabberwocky

What are these toves and borogoves Carroll speaks of? You will not likely find them in the dictionary. I reckon they conspire in the murk, beneath the rocks in that aforementioned bottom place.

While on the subject of toves and borogoves, and with Halloween a day away, my 5th way of crawling out from the undergrowth:

5) I identified the 3 “witching hours” of my days: a) Approx. 7:00am, the moment of entry into wakefulness when my heart goes haywire and I feel panic about the day. b) Between approx. 4-5:00pm AKA no-man’s-land-time when Violet gets home, it’s not quite dinner time, fatigue sets in, there is not enough time to go anywhere or do anything of substance, but there is still this period of vacancy that can quickly spiral downward. c) Approx. 10pm, bedtime, a strange time of lying in bed awaiting the arrival of a great mystery called Unconsciousness, whilst holding onto a hyper-conscious rundown of my day (why the defeats more than victories? Why full recounts of conversations?) This is when things become larger-than-life. My unpleasant chore of the next day becomes impassable and impossible. “Tomorrow” takes on a life of its own, assumes gargantuan proportions and becomes unrecognizable… until the next morning when I complete said chore and discover that worrying about it the previous night was 100x worse than actually doing it.

In identifying the above trifecta, I have found I can’t really eliminate them. Rather, I concede they are trouble spots and am trying to exercise caution.

And lastly,

6) I turned off Nirvana.

“I feel stupid and contagious…”
“No I don’t have a gun…”
“Go to a lake of fire and fry..”
“I’m so ugly, that’s okay ’cause so are you…”

Yeah, that’ll do it. Why every radio station was playing Nirvana through all of September and October, I’ll never know.
~~~
I asked my mom—perhaps the Greatest Fan of Fall That Ever Was (she leads her grandchildren on a wild goose chase for “signs of fall” in about early August)—what she likes most about fall. Her answer was something about colors and candlelit dinners, the woodstove and family. She had trouble narrowing it down, which led me to wonder if perhaps fall is more of a sensation– that a person either has it or they don’t. She called back a few hours later to say, “No humidity! THAT’S what I love about fall! Ever since your father got us air conditioning…”

I asked Violet what she loved most about fall and she replied, “The leaves!” I think because she thought that was the answer she was supposed to say. As soon as she found out my motive, she said, “No more answers for your chicken blog!” and left the room. Violet may be right that I’m not revealing any radical solutions in this here chicken blog, but maybe I’ll take a cue from the ‘90’s band Oasis and “start a revolution from my bed.”
-“Don’t Look Back In Anger” from (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?

Soil and sand returning,

Iris

In The Gray

When I first started this blog, I resolved to keep it light, comedic, honest. I’ve gone a month now without writing, because I have been in a low place and felt it best to wait until I was on the upswing again. Several weeks have passed and I do not seem to be feeling any more positive, so I made the decision to tell the truth and post a piece anyway.

For over a month now, I have been swimming in darkness. I have not felt well physically—I battled pneumonia for 3 weeks and now have a sinus infection that is sucking the life out of me. Mentally, I feel defeated, purposeless, lost. I have been searching for meaningful part-time work, every day thinking up new places to send a resume, draft a cover letter. I have resorted to reaching out to local businesses with a personalized, typed letter, asking if they need help. There is little else in this modern world as depleting, as time-consuming as sending out applications, entering specific dates of past 5 jobs, bosses titles, emails and phone numbers, remembering elaborate job descriptions… It’s just about the most disheartening, torturous enterprise I can inflict on myself. If I take a few days off from it, I feel guilty, like I have not done enough. It torments by days, haunts my nights.

We have to work to live, or we die. In order to get work, we work and work and work…

Violet has gone off to Kindergarten, so for 29 hours a week, I am trying to engage in gainful employment, always rushing back to meet her bus at odd and varying times of the day. Any mother who has ever tried to find work between the hours of 9 and 2, or 9 and 12, surely can sympathize. Add to this the challenge of your child, on occasion, not feeling well, needing to stay home for a sick day, and you, consequently, needing to find a job that permits you to arrive late, call in absent, leave early… without penalty.

I have found little comfort during this darkness, little able to pull me out of the murk, with the exception of one book: Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation by Parker Palmer. Palmer describes the darkness I am feeling with such a clarity and such a hope, that I return to his words time and again. He has a chapter called “All The Way Down” where he describes a time in his life where he could not speak or respond to anyone, he had withdrawn into such a lowness.

Amidst the job hunting, various illnesses and blunt transition time, our family also lost a loved one last week; my youngest sister Silvia’s father-in-law, who was too young to go and left children far too young to lose their father. It brought me further down, to feel the sorrow of those near me, and to feel their pain as they suffered something they should not have suffered. So many seem to be hurting right now… yet another school shooting… it’s just too much.

The impending winter casts dark shadows over everything by shortened days, a biting coldness and a gray film over everything. It is a struggle to wake up and face the grayness. Life seems an endless assembly line of chores. Where do we feel light and airy? What is joy? Dying brown leaves only add to the internal decay and down, down they/we fall.

Little soil, and no sand,

Iris

The 5-Layer 5-Hour Cake

Tomorrow is my sister Lucy’s 25th birthday. M&D are hosting a family party for her and I’ve agreed to bring (make) the cake. For 5 hours this morning, Jonathan and Violet and I ran around town like chickens collecting all of Ina Garten’s elusive ingredients for her 5-Layer Mocha Chocolate Icebox Cake.

When Violet and I first saw this segment on The Barefoot Contessa, our minds were blown. Ina says at least twice, “It’s really delicious” and even goes so far as to say that it’s her favorite dessert. How could we not try Ina Garten’s favorite dessert?

Of course, it’s never a good idea to make a recipe for the first time for company, however I’ve discounted my family as company for the purposes of this cause.

Earlier in the week, Jonathan was kind enough to track down an 8-inch springform pan, which, believe it or not, was the easiest of all the players. Mascarpone cheese, coffee liqueur and semi-sweet chocolate took some telepathic searching and multiple stops in 4 different towns. (We’re not in Kansas, er– NYC anymore; there isn’t a specialty food store on every corner. Ina lives in the Hamptons and is personal friends with every specialty foodshop owner/chef, hence why she asks “How hard can that be?” repeatedly on her show.)

As it turned out, expresso powder was the toughest ingredient to find. Different from expresso and coffee extract, expresso powder is a very finely ground and—I learned after thorough research—very concentrated substance, used specifically in baking to enhance the flavor of chocolate. It took several phone calls and about 20 miles of treasure hunting to procure this delicacy.

Ina suggests crunchy chocolate chip cookies for the layering, however as a throwback to NY (and because they’re amazing), I’ve decided to instead use Montauks, a soft milk chocolate, chocolate chip cookie. Pepperidge Farm isn’t exactly generous on proportions so I had to buy 6 packages of these bad boys.

Violet complained for the bulk of the morning’s excursions, hurling threats and ultimatums from the back seat. “If you go to one more store, I’m going to scrape this car into little bits!” And “Go home right now or I’ll never clean the lint out of the dryer again!” When she gets mad, Violet resembles Rumpelstiltskin self-combusting after the miller’s daughter guesses his name. She furrows her brow, clenches her fists and tries to think up the most horrible punishments imaginable.

Amidst writing this, I had to take a nap (exhausted from the morning!) and rush out for a second trip to the kitchen store before it closed for the long weekend. Stores here in the North Country tend to close at 5pm, unlike the City That Never Sleeps (think Barnes & Noble, any block NYC, open until 10pm), and sometimes even close on weekends.

Lucy’s birthday surprise is two-fold. What she doesn’t know is that she will get to keep the glass cake dome housing the cake. I haven’t even started on the actual baking yet, but it is clear that this cake has taken on a life of its own. More than that, it has become an obsession.

Endearingly, it is an obsession that Violet shares. “Let’s make the cake NOW Mommy!” she has been saying all day.

“We can’t make it until the day before Auntie Lucy’s party or it won’t be fresh!”
“I can’t wait any more! We have to make it NOW!”
“It will taste like the fridge if we make it too far in advance.”
“I like the fridge taste!”
“Then we’ll have to make a whole new one and we only have enough ingredients to make one.”
“We can get more ingredients!” Violet begs.
“Honey, it took us 5 hours to find the ingredients for this one.”

At this point Jonathan chimes in that he wouldn’t mind having a trial run of the cake to “test” ahead of time.

Violet, of course, thinks this is an inspired idea.

How will it all turn out? If the title of my next post is “The 5-Layer Flop” you’ll know what happened.

Sand & soil & expresso powder,

Iris

Sister Reunion & Mysterioso Family Potluck

My sisters and I have planned a Sisters Reunion for this coming week, so I’ve picked out a few books to bring them.

Silvia’s I found first: Pretty Little Liars by Sara Shepard. A while back, Silvia mentioned that she liked the tv series, so hopefully she hasn’t grown out of it by now and won’t get insulted because she’s a married woman now and wonders how I could possibly think she’d still be into such a thing. We haven’t seen Silvia since her wedding in June so we’re excited to hear all about her honeymoon, impressions of her wedding, and everything else she’s been up to these past 2 months.

For Lucy, I found Coastal New England: Fall Harvest Cooking by Sherri Eldridge. Lucy likes trying new recipes and posting them on her blog TheHandyMan’sWife.com, akin to Ree Drummond’s The Pioneer Woman.com, only with expert party planning ideas. In Coastal New England, there are recipes for “Singing Beach Lobster Stew”, native of Manchester-By-The-Sea, MA and “Machias’ Best Blueberry Jam” fresh out of Machias, Maine.

Adelaide will be getting The Minds of Boys by Michael Gurian. She gave birth to the best little sugar loaf Jack back in March, the first boy in our family in 4 generations on my mom’s side, and one of the happiest celebrations of our whole family. We can’t even really believe Jack is here most days. Rumor has it, I get to babysit for him on Monday. As such, I’ll be vamping up my vocal chords so that I can sing Moon River, his favorite, ad nauseam.

We’ll also be seeing my parents on Sunday for a family potluck. We thought we’d give M&D the day off, since typically they do all the cooking, so Adelaide, Lucy, Silvia and I are getting things underway for that too. (Plus, my mom hinted at needing a cooking reprieve when she asked, “Are you girls going to be bringing something?”) For some reason, for this particular get together—and I’m still trying to pinpoint why—my mom didn’t seem as enthused to see us as usual.

“Do you even want us?!” I asked.

“You’re always welcome,” my mom responded, which, while lovely, didn’t really answer the question. I plan to get to the bottom of it, by george…

Sand & soil,

Iris

The Writing Process

Yesterday I took the day off from writing to visit a friend and her new apartment. While taking a breather to gain perspective is never a bad thing, I did miss my morning of writing. It’s been grounding me and gives me a sense of purpose. I’ve grown accustomed to writing in the mornings, even though I feel that initial morning slump I described a few segments ago. If I have a productive morning of writing, or at least make my best attempt, I feel at liberty to enjoy the rest of my day less studiously (i.e. Taking a walk into town with Violet, tinkering in the garden, watching The Barefoot Contessa.) Especially where it’s summer, I put a premium on being able to run to the beach quickly and often.

This room, the quiet strangers sitting in this room working too, the hum of the air vents creating a pleasing white noise, have become my AM companions. There are paintings on the walls, depicting backcountry pastimes like duck hunting, ice fishing and construction of the North Bridge. There’s one directly across from me showing a man in a rocking chair and a woman in an armchair sitting by candlelight in Colonial times. The scene doesn’t look unlike my mom’s Colonial living room with its armchairs and rocking chairs (and I don’t think she’d mind living by candlelight if she could.)

There’s a history in this room, and an energy. It houses the literary works of thousands of great minds, most notably Louisa May Alcott, Henry David Thoreau (whose portrait hangs to my right), Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson. They devoted years of their lives to the cause, and it’s those toils that are felt heavily in this space. More recent authors, like Sarah Payne Stuart (Perfectly Miserable) have also made a mark on this community. With the weighty precedent of all of them on my shoulders, I feel humbled and—blessedly—sanctioned. I sit here next to their manuscripts, portraits and busts (Thoreau’s, again, behind me to the left), sensing their expectation.

It’s the same sensation I had when I read Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project and got to the chapter where she challenges herself to write an entire novel in a month (and succeeds), or when I read the resplendently fresh novel Swamplandia, written by 29 year-old, award-winning authoress Karen Russell. And it’s every time I close one of the classics… Wharton’s The House of Mirth or Dickens’ Great Expectations.

So what, then, prevents me, prevents anyone, from thinking It’s all been done before? What is there to say, here in this blog and in the world at large, that is uniquely my voice? What would be interesting to people? What is interesting to me?

Soil & sand,

Iris

Going Visiting: 12 Differences Between a New England and New York Social Call

1) IN NE: You exchange the phrase, “We should get together” at least 5 times—can be as many as 10 times—before you make concrete plans with somebody.

IN NY: If you hit it off with somebody, you whip out your business card, she whips out hers (even if you’re a stay-at-home parent in NY, you have a card), and you pull out your e-planners to see when in 5 weeks you might have a 2-hour block free.

2) IN NE: If you’re invited to someone’s house, you offer, “Can I bring something?” The host says “No, just bring your lovely self.” You’ll bring something anyway and your host knows you’ll bring something anyway.

IN NY: If you offer to bring something, the host usually says, “Sure.” That’s it—host tends not to ask any more questions (and has already hung up and is talking to somebody else.)

3) IN NE: You bring a platter of, let’s say, coffee cake. The host doesn’t put it out, because that would be gauche. She does, however, transfer your coffee cake onto one of her own plates and hands you back your platter, having washed and dried it immediately. (Same is true of flowers. If you bring flowers, the host will say “How nice! Thank you!” and immediately put them into a vase with water, but will put them to the side, never on the display table. Again, gauche. She has her own bouquet of flowers already.

IN NY: Your coffee cake not only gets put out, it will likely stay in its original container. Even if you purchased the cake (likely in NY), it will be put out in the bakery box.

4) IN NE: Potlucks are common.

IN NY: Potlucks are rare, unless the host recently moved from somewhere up North or somewhere down South and hasn’t yet learned that nobody knows what potluck means here.

5) IN NE: When you think of a catered event, you think Wedding.

IN NY: Everything from children’s birthday parties to BBQs are catered.

6) IN NE: The host spends a good 3 days preparing for a dinner, cleaning, cooking, and preparing everything from scratch (i.e. No brownies-from-a-mix; brownies are made with real ingredients like cocoa.)

IN NY: Host may just be coming back from a run or a tennis game or a weekend in the Hamptons when you get there, so she excuses herself to go shower while you sit and admire the botanical prints. Host’s house may be in disarray but this is all part of the blasé NY scene. It’s not uncommon for host to run out “to grab a couple things” after you’ve already arrived.

7) IN NE: If host has help, the help has usually been dismissed long before anybody’s arrived.

IN NY: Host typically has help before, during and after event. Help is likely to open the door for you. (Even a sitter is more apt to respond to the doorbell than a host). I once went on a playdate where there was an au pair, babysitter, housecleaner and handyman hanging curtains, all at the same time.

8) IN NE: Visits typically last no more than 1 ½ hours.

IN NY: Time with a person can last entire days, depending on the situation. Sometimes you’ll chat with your friend at Starbucks that morning, meet them at noon for lunch with another mutual friend, then see that friend, the mutual friend and 10 other people at bookclub that night.

9) IN NE: You always end the visit by saying, “Thanks so much for having us, we had the best time,” even if you had the worst time.

IN NY: You sometimes don’t know if a visit has ended or whether the host got some pressing business in another room somewhere. (Exception is children’s birthday parties that typically don’t last more than 1 ½ hours. NY kids have things to do.) Sometimes the host’s next guests arrive but you’re not sure whether those guests are part of your event and just a couple hours late, or whether they’re here for a different event entirely.

10) IN NE: When a friend has a baby, moves into a new house, is sick, suffered a loss, or has some other tragedy going on, people set up a meal train.

IN NY: Like potlucks, nobody knows what a meal train is. I once set up a meal train for a co-worker going through chemo. My officemates, though eager to help, asked questions like, “You’ll be giving me a recipe for the day I signed up for?” and “What restaurants does Suze like so I can pickup some takeout?”

11) IN NE: Sitter gets the afternoon off during a playdate.

IN NY: Sitter accompanies to the playdate. Awkward as it may seem to have a mute stranger lurking in the corner listening in on your every word, you get used to it, like so many things in the great Empire State.

12) IN NE: Topic that’s off limits = money.

IN NY: Topic most frequently discussed = money.

Student Loans

Last night I had to pay my student loan bill, a monthly misfortune that always makes me reflective. Despite the sorry reality that I owe money to schools I attended 12-15 years ago, I actually enjoy the process of bill paying. I like writing the check out, filling out the little coupon ticket that matches the month and sending it on its way. It must be a control thing. I like following protocol, staving off delinquency, chiseling away at a giant.

…Until I really think about it, for real. When I signed that Promissory Note back in 2000, I must’ve glossed over the line Final Payment June 2025 with a semi-cocky shudder. Yeah right, like I’m gonna be paying this until 2025. I’ll be 44 years old in 2025! No way, that bad boy’ll be paid off long before then…

Well here it is 10 years shy of 2025 and I’ve just started up with payments again after a 5-year hiatus while Violet was being born/ Violet-being-center-of-the-universe-days-which-is-still- going-on-and-will-be-into-perpetuity. Back in rosy 2000, 2025 could have been apocalyptic times for all I knew. We’ll be 20 car rows wide, stopped dead along Interstate 95 trying to drive toward higher ground with a big comet and little comet pummeling at lighting speeds toward the earth… (!!!!)

(The movie Deep Impact always did seem so feasible.)

No, but I did think: I’ll be a doctor, making big bucks, sitting on my patio drinking champagne coolies…

I didn’t become a doctor. I decided to have a Violet instead. The better choice of the two, hands down. She does like to doctor me though. Yesterday when she got home from camp, I let her poke and prod and scrape me for a good hour, while I lied on her floor with a doll blanket over my head and a barrette on my ear. She said I had big problems and needed surgery immediately.

Sounds about right.

While Violet dug some legos into my back, I thought about my friend Marko who moved back home with his parents so he could pay off his student loans: $50,000 in 4 years.

“You didn’t mind living with your parents?” I asked.
“Oh I did,” he said. “I just couldn’t relax with that hanging over me.”
“And you could relax at your parents’?” I pressed further.
“I watched a lot of zombie slasher movies.”

Then there’s my friend Jessica who graduated from law school in 2008 with a quarter of a million dollars in student loan debt and no job. She ended up working as paralegal for 18 months because the NYC/Fairfield CT economy was so saturated with attorneys.

What they should tell you during that Planning For Your Future seminar when you sign the blessed Promissory Note is that your spouse will end up in shackles too. Decisions about where you live, what you live in, what you drive (whether you even get to have something to drive), children (if any)… all deep impacted.

Jonathan was kind enough to spot me the money last night. He’s cognizant of the fact that my latest venture, this blog, doesn’t exactly pay well. So off he went, into the room he affectionately refers to as his “hovel”—the small, windowless office closet where he pays the bills—and transferred some money for me.

I asked my friend Josh, a cop, why he took so many detail assignments. He works the formidable night shift and almost every time I talk to him he’s either working a double, or working a detail, or both. He survives on the least amount of sleep than anyone I know. “Gotta pay Erin’s and my student loans,” he said.

My surgery complete, I peel myself off the floor, lift Violetcakes into my arms and ask, “Can the Doctor give any snuggles now?”

“Only 2 snuggles, that’s it. I need to talk to Daddy in his hovel.”

 

Sand & soil,

Iris