A Morning Walk

I took a long walk in the woods yesterday. It was early, just after sunrise, and I’d brought Tessie along with me to pick Justin up after his night-shift at the hospital. On our way home, Justin dropped Tessie and me off at one of the entrances to the town forest so that we could walk home through the woods in the morning light.

For those of you who have never witnessed our dog walk, let’s just say that if Tessie walked any slower, she would go backwards. Seriously. She ambles and pauses and occasionally simply lays down and refuses to get up. The less-than-two-mile walk home was not going to be a “fitness walk” to say the least. But that was fine with me. I feel as though I’ve been hurrying a lot lately. Rushing about hither thither for reasons that escape me as I sit here now to write. Perhaps it’s the holiday season, all bustle and preparation. Perhaps it’s living in a household of four adults running on schedules that vary wildly, rarely a moment when someone isn’t making their way to or from. Perhaps it’s the sense I often get in December as the final days of this calendar year seem to be barreling toward me and I look with panic at the unchecked boxes on my year’s to-do list. Whatever the reason, there has just been too much rushing and we all know by now that “busy” and “productive” are not the same thing. We all know that we rarely put our best selves forward when we act from a place of urgency instead of a place of calm decision.

So I decided to take a long walk in the woods at Tessie’s pace. I let her lead as we moseyed along in the morning chill. There was just the slightest frost on the fallen leaves lining the wide bridle path trail and every now and again, one of the long, bony, fingers of light cast by the sun as it rose low on the horizon would catch one of the frosted leaf edges and set it alight and sparkling. It’s been an unseasonably warm fall here and there are still patches of green ferns dotting the forest floor as well as soft moss carpeting the tumbling rocks of the piled fieldstone walls that meander through the trees. I love those walls, so ubiquitous in New England. They are beautiful, of course, but they also make me pause to wonder about the farmers who worked so tirelessly to wrest this land from the forest, and the trees who simply would not yield their ground indefinitely. The white pines and eastern hemlocks and paper birch fill in those old cleared fields alongside sugar maples and red oaks and balsam firs. Moss and lichens cover the stones and gravity conspires with time to pull them out of their pile and return them to the ground. 

The only wildlife we spotted, despite the early hour and our slow and watchful pace, were squirrels and chipmunks. No foxes or deer or the coyotes I suspect call this forest home. But I love the little rodents despite their mischief, and I often feel downright inspired by how earnestly and unapologetically industrious they are as they scurry to and fro, always preparing for the lean times ahead. I also love their fondness for pausing in their labors to chatter a lecture at me about sloth, yelling at me for my leisurely pace, reminding me that the days grow ever shorter. They are certainly the worker bees of the woods and yet, somehow, they never manage to let their labors interfere with their curiosity. I imagine a sophisticated rodent communication pipeline where everything that happens in their forest is sent out for report.

I wandered along at Tessie’s lolling pace, tarrying with her when she stopped to sniff a twig or turn her head to the breeze so that the fur around her ears could flutter while her eyes half-closed in contentment. I breathed in the chill air and felt it in my lungs, watched its fleeting cloud as I exhaled. I listened to sounds that sing life in a forest, branches rubbing and creaking, small creatures hopping along in the papery dry leaves, the winter birds and their intermittent songs. I felt the tension that rushing brings with it begin to melt away. I gave my attention to the lectures of squirrels and the lessons of tumbling down rock walls and recalled the balance that must be struck between pursuing our labors, earnestly putting our greatest efforts forth, and keeping our curiosity and humility, lest we mistake those labors for important in the grand scheme of time. 

Mostly, I just reveled in the sublime joy of taking a minute to enjoy the fresh air and lovely trees and the pause. It took us nearly two hours to make it home and having made the choice to embrace it, to let it simply take as long as it takes, I felt released from the constant push of faster, faster, faster, more, more, more. Which was amazing. It’s not rocket science or some kind of major revelation. It was just a walk in the woods. Afterwards I poured another cup of coffee and sat down at my desk to begin what ended up being a long workday at my computer. But I didn’t mind the long workday as much as I sometimes do, and I spent a little less time than usual staring longingly out the window at the swaying trees. 

Sometimes that’s all we need to reset. Just a simple walk in the woods. Just a simple refusal to rush. That’s it. That’s all. May you find the space to do just that today. 

Happy Wednesday, y’all.

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I promise a whole slew of photos next week, but in the meantime, here's a favorite from a different walk one sweet evening in Yellowstone...

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Traditions

Green eggs and ham. 

The eggs were scrambled, enough food coloring added to complete the transition from yellow to a sort of chartreuse. Ham leftover from yesterday’s big Christmas dinner was fried in a big skillet before being piled onto a platter in the center of the kitchen table. Still in our pajamas and buzzing with the excitement of recently unwrapped gifts, Mat, Karissa, and I would pour red ketchup over green eggs, and devour one of our family’s most notable traditions- green eggs and ham for Christmas breakfast.

This wasn’t our only tradition. My dad is a talented guitarist and our family always kicked off the holiday season with friends and neighbors and a motley assortment of young sailors from the Navy base all gathered at our home late on Thanksgiving for pie and singing Christmas carols. We closed the holiday season the same way, those same neighbors returning Christmas night, the smell of fresh-brewed coffee and the ringing of off-key voices filling our home. There were the usual customs, of course, cookies and stockings and decorations that become iconic over the years, the putting up of the tree and whose turn it is to place the star atop the (in our case, artificial) branches. There was midnight mass and new pajamas on Christmas Eve, and the family- my grandmother and uncle- who I can’t recall ever being absent from a childhood Christmas, no matter where the Navy sent us.

Looking back now, I can see other “traditions” at play. The late nights that my mom stayed up cleaning and fixing up the second-hand toys she’d spent Saturdays yard-saling for so that Santa could visit our home regardless of the salary the Navy paid its enlisted sailors. The careful planning, the saving of wrapping paper, the making of homemade decorations with popcorn and salt dough. How my mom, especially, had a talent for infusing the season with ritual and celebration as she went about the tasks of daily life singing along to old Statler Brothers and Kenny Rogers and Amy Grant Christmas records. 

We get older and often the holiday season begins to lose its magic. We get caught up in complaining that the decorations go up in stores earlier than we think is appropriate, or that the mall parking lots are full, or that our kids' wish lists are full of expensive technology that they disappear behind. We say to each other that the holidays just aren’t the same as when we were kids, that things just don’t sparkle like they once did. We can forget that, quite often, it was the combination of someone else’s hard work (thanks, Mom!) and our wide-eyed openness to the magic of the season that made our childhood holidays so special. When was the last time you heard an 8-year-old complain about carols playing at the grocery store in November? You don’t. They simply grin and sing along to words that fill them with excitement. 

As adults, we have to do our own hard work. We have to pull out the decorations on a Saturday morning instead of sitting on the couch continuing to scroll through our phones. We have to set aside our snarky eye-rolling and sing along to Jingle Bells for the eleven-thousandth time in our lives. We need to go to that tree-lighting and bake those cookies and watch Elf yet again and do whatever things allow us to open up to the very best parts of the season. Even better, we have the opportunity to smile at the sparkling lights and festive cheer, and then reach out further, to extend forgiveness where we once gave anger, to share our love and our compassion where we once held back, to renew our resolve to carry that love and forgiveness and compassion into the new year with us as we work to be kinder and more empathic in this world that can sometimes feel so full of pain.

For years, I put all of this off. I didn’t take any kind of active stand against the holidays, I simply didn’t put any effort in, didn’t go out of my way at all. I assumed that someday I would have kids and then I would pick up where my childhood left off, complete with Statler Brothers and Amy Grant and maybe even a little Dolly Parton thrown in for good measure. The first holiday season after I knew for certain that I would never have children, I was shocked at the waves of grief that would hit each time I realized that this would not be the case, that the images I’d carried for as long as I could remember of turning eggs a bizarre shade of green on Christmas morning to the delight of my kids would never actually take place. 

The holidays have a way of bringing our losses home to us. The absence of my grandmother and my uncle on Christmas morning reminds me every year how very much I still miss them. The shimmering ghosts of the children I thought I would raise, the mother I thought I would be, often dance at the edges of the kitchen as I bake cookies or put the star at the top of the tree. But those losses and ghosts and the bittersweet nostalgia of holidays past only lend more texture to this time of year, I find. These things allow me to see some of the scaffolding under the celebrating, erected of love and duty and hope and grief. As a child, my wonder could extend only to the magic and the gifts and the delicious food. As an adult, I can see the great depths of love and the sacrifice that provided those things for me, and my wonder can now more fully embrace true gratitude as well as the deep joy of reciprocity, of contributing and giving of my own heart and hands. 

We can continue to complain about mall crowds or consumerism. We can take offense at which words the cashier at the grocery store uses to wish us well during this season. We can sink into sadness over who is missing from our tables or how time has changed our dreams. 

Or...

We can take responsibility for our holiday season ourselves. Grief and sadness are not mutually exclusive with joy and gratitude, after all. Sometimes I think they are all more powerful when paired, actually, and to take responsibility for our holiday seasons means that we embrace the tough parts too. That we acknowledge our own pain and that of those around us so that we can add sparkle to not only our own lives, but take the opportunity to sprinkle it around for others as well. We can put up trees and string popcorn and bake delicious things that have too much sugar and butter involved. We can beam at the photos on the holiday cards that arrive in the mail and leave them up way past the season just because they make us smile. We can pay for a stranger’s coffee or leave a toy under a tree for an unknown child or stop by to sit and play checkers at a nursing home. We can choose to wait patiently in long lines and still smile and be kind to our fellow shoppers as well as the exhausted and abused clerk behind the register. We can hug the people that are at our tables and tell them an extra time or two just how much they mean to us. We can look with love at the ghosts of other lives we may have led and then turn with real and genuine gratitude at the many gifts in the lives we are actually leading. 

As for me, I think I’ll go with belting out some Statler Brothers off-key, baking up a storm, holding Justin’s hand tight, telling my family and friends how much I love them, saying thank you to anyone and everyone, and maybe even seeing if I can find organic green food coloring for my Christmas morning eggs.

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In Our Own Backyards

Earlier this week, I was shooting up by the Pemaquid Light and the fog rolling in off the North Atlantic at sunset just reached in and squeezed my heart…the beauty in our own backyards, in our own everyday, can be every bit as exotic and intoxicating as that which we find far from home. 

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Have a lovely weekend, y'all! Get out there and do some exploring, whether it be new veggies at your farmer's market, a mountain pass, or the wilds of a foreign land. 

Stay curious, friends.