Sunday, August 30, 2015

The great gift of being alive

Sometimes I recognize myself in those hardy souls who board watercraft at the beach, because like them, I feel the need for speed.

When I was a young girl, I raced my bike down the steep hill where we lived, and in the wintertime, sled with equal velocity.
I remember the first time I flew on a plane and the adrenaline rush I felt when I hurled through space and ascended into the heavens. “Houston, we have ignition.”

After driving sensible, nondescript, used cars for most of my life, I bought a new blue Crossfire, a sports car with a powerful German engine. My friends and colleagues were amazed with my choice of a muscle car. I told them simply that this was the real me.

While I never break the sound barrier or the posted speed limit, I have no reservations about accelerating from zero to sixty in a heartbeat, then clicking on cruise control. I also enjoy hugging the curves in the road.

Consequently, I identify with my counterparts at Fogland who crave recreational life in the fast lane. They crank up their outboard motors and careen over open waters with a look of sheer delight on their faces. They fly like the wind into the wild blue yonder, hanging onto their sailboats and catamarans for dear life. They windsurf at breakneck speed.

While walking toward the salt marsh, I watched two men in wet suits approach the cove on their jet ski. Carrying equipment to shore, they prepared the chute for parasail waterskiing.

Returning to their jet ski, they sped to the center of the bay, pulling the airborne balloon behind them.

Then, one of the adventurers drove while the other waterskied. Back and forth they zigzagged across the Sakonnet River with the chute mapping their coordinates.

My heart was racing along with theirs.

Sitting on a stone at the shore, I also noticed a herring gull hovering overhead. New England’s most common seagull, the white bird with its silver back and wings floated gracefully, buoyed by its four-feet-ten-inch wingspan, then suddenly it dived headlong through the air and into the water.

It got me thinking.

While I spend time in prayer and meditation barely moving a muscle, I have an alter ego that yearns to propel me out of my comfort zone.  And when I acknowledge it, I feel the heart-pumping excitement of the great gift of being alive.

I like the phrase “contemplative in action.” The Rev. James Martin writes in “The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life” that St. Ignatius, the founder of the Society of Jesus, counseled his followers that they were always to carve out time for prayer but were expected to live active lives as well.

“Most of us lead busy lives with little time for prayer and meditation. But by being aware of the world around us – in the midst of our activity – we can allow a contemplative stance to inform our actions,” writes Father Martin. “Instead of seeing the spiritual life as one that can exist only if it is enclosed by the walls of a monastery, Ignatius asks you to see the world as your monastery.”

The way to jump-start that awareness is to seek God in all things, even when you’re travelling at hyper speed.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The sounds of silence

This week I did the unthinkable. I unplugged from technology for five days.

During my last vacation, I found myself answering emails, making calls, looking for story ideas, scheduling appointments and writing. I knew that the only way to distance myself from my work would be to disconnect altogether. This vacation would be different.

My laptop lay lifeless on my desk, a shiny, black, unopened box, along with the cell phone silenced nearby.

With no email, Google, Facebook, Twitter and text messages at my fingertips, I literally dropped off the planet. I was unreachable.

Unable to respond to the stream of summons that sought me every minute of the day, I discovered a new kind of freedom.

“The noise of the world is preventing us from hearing the gentle voice within that always counsels us,” writes Matthew Kelly in “The Rhythm of Life.” “We will begin to hear this voice again only when we make a habit of withdrawing from the noise of the world and immersing ourselves in silence.”

The first thing I noticed was the absence of the sound of my own voice. There was no need to carry on ordinary conversation or to respond to something I didn’t want to think about.

Consequently, my thoughts turned inward; and my senses sharpened. I marveled at the sound of my own breath, the beat of my own heart.

One of my favorite biblical passages is when God told the prophet Elijah to go outside and stand on the mountain because He would be passing by. (1 Kings 19:11-12):

“A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the Lord – but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake – but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was fire – but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire, there was a still small voice.”

Like Elijah, I listen, longing to recognize the presence of the Divine.

With a heightened sense of awareness, I walked the seashore. The wind urged me forward over the uneven, rounded stones that littered the beach at high tide, insisting that it had something to show me.

For a long time, I sat on a boulder and listened to the gentle lapping of the blue-grey sea as it rhythmically raked over the pebbles.

But the Lord was not in the waves.

I meandered through the salt marsh straining to hear the whisper of the sea grass yielding to the wind.

But the Lord was not in the breeze.

Outboard engines groaned in the bay, and a small plane puttered overhead.

But the Lord was not in the din.

A fisherman cast his line into the water, and the spinning reel whirred.

But the Lord was not in the cranking sound.

Trudging through the wet sand, I heard the crunch of broken shells underfoot.

But the Lord was not in the tinkling patter.

The cries of crows and gulls continued to interrupt my thoughts, and I grew tired of their squawking.

“Lord, where are you?” I asked in my silent prayer.

“Plug in,” said a still small voice.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Along came a spider...

Beach roses grow along the seashore near our summer house.

Sometimes I can time travel.

Whenever I sit under my favorite tree at the summer place, I am a child again.

Growing up, I spent a lot of time here, mostly reading, thinking and dreaming.

Consequently, I still yearn for solitude on weekend mornings, when I can give my imagination free rein.

So today when I pulled up a chair under that tree, I let my mind wander, expecting to revisit happy summer days. But instead of conjuring up fanciful things, I am fixated on the ugly wound just over my ankle on the inside of my left leg.

I love nature, and I write about God's handiwork in all its manifestations. I even have a healthy respect for insects. Whenever I find a bug inside my house or at work in my office, I carry it outside and give it a second chance.

Lately I have been rescuing lots of gypsy moths. My kids joke that I brake for ants.

A musician, I have performed with a 30-piece concert band for most of my adult life; and a month ago we played in an open grassy field at a beautiful complex.

It was the perfect venue: the sun was shining, a slight breeze blowing and an appreciative audience clapping.

However, midway through one piece, I felt something bite me near my ankle. I am a professional and kept right on playing, even though I am sure I winced.

When the number was over, I quickly changed music and continued with the performance like nothing happened. Frankly, I chalked it up to just another mosquito bite.

Fast forward a day later in the middle of night. I felt feverish, and the two puncture wounds burned and itched. All day I tried to put the sensation out of my mind, but my leg began to swell and the skin was red and on fire.

By the next morning the wound was gigantic and filled with fluid. I took a photo and texted it to my daughter, an eye doctor.

“U need to go to urgent care… that is severe inflammation,” she texted back. “U don’t want that stuff to get into ur body… People get paralyzed from spider venom.”


At urgent care, the doctor did a double take. He said the spider bite was rare and took out a syringe, draining the fluid and sending it to the lab to be tested for black widow and brown recluse.

I went home with a huge bandage wrapped around my leg; instructions for treating cellulitis, an infection of the skin and tissue beneath it; a healthy dose of antibiotic; and a warning to report to the Emergency Room if the conditioned worsened.

A week later I returned to my primary care doctor for a follow-up. “It will take months to heal,” she said.

So today I praise God for the warm sunshine, the gentle lapping of the waves in the distance, the seagulls circling overhead and the birds nesting in nearby branches – but not for the spider. 

Sunday, March 8, 2015

New England seaside snowscapes in March: A Photo Essay

John Ruskin said, "There is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather. A Saturday morning ride to the summer house revealed a different kind of good New England weather in March, while the temperature hovered at 20 degrees.

Forget the flip flops, you'll need four-wheel drive to traverse this beach.

Our Boston whaler navigates a perfect storm, a sea of snow.

Fogland State Ramp is closed for boaters but open for skiers.

Horses at a nearby farm are home on the tundra.

Garlands of snow decorate Christmas trees in March.

Picnic, anyone?

The Creator's handiwork is etched in ice at the Sapowet Nature Preserve.

Monday, February 16, 2015

While the snow falls...

A view of our barn from the bedroom window.

How many times did I lament that I was just too busy?

Well, God was listening.

For the fourth day in two weeks, we were snowed in...

“It takes an open mind and a ready heart to appreciate winter in New England,” said Gladys Taber, who wrote from her seventeenth-century farmhouse in Connecticut. “The wind blows, the snow piles deep, the car gets stuck, and pipes freeze.”

The first snow day I carried on like I was still at the office. There were so many important tasks to tick off the list. I called staff, joined a webinar, studied a new website and researched my next writing assignment.

Switching gears, I spent the second snow day as the cleaning lady. I vacuumed, dusted, reorganized the linen closet, made a pot of Boston baked beans, rearranged drawers and cleaned out the refrigerator.

The third snow day I vacuumed and vacillated, logged into another webinar and dusted the house again, did our taxes and scrubbed the bathroom floor.

“Actually we need winter, even February, which can be the worst month of all in New England,” said Taber. “We need to tighten our belts and shovel the paths, thaw the pipes…, pile the logs on the fire. Subconsciously, I think we need the discipline of the long dark cold.”

But the fourth snow day I stopped in my tracks.

Gazing out the window, I watched snow sift down like flour, painting every surface sparkling white.

“There is a strangeness about a winter morning when the temperature is zero or below,” said Taber. “Day begins with a pale glimmer along the horizon beyond the lacings of the dark branches.”

I watched a wren tucked into our rhododendron bush, where she sought shelter from the snowfall. She looked straight at me, and our eyes locked.

“It’s okay to wait out the storm and just enjoy your surroundings,” she seemed to say.

I unplugged from my cell phone and laptop… I sat in silence for a long time with our little dog cuddled in my lap…  I heard a gaggle of wild turkeys in the woods... I put a pot roast in a cast iron pot and let it simmer... I listened to music... I began knitting a prayer shawl … I read “Sacred Fire” by Ron Rolheiser for hours…

It can stop snowing, Lord.  I finally got it.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Season's turning...

As of yet, the violet morning glories still cling to the front porch lattice and to summer, although we have come officially to the end of the season.

The weather has been unseasonably warm at the summer house for late October, but we know as native New Englanders that a sudden frost and freezing temperatures are imminent.

During the past few weeks we have winterized the summer house.

First we emptied the kitchen and laundry room cabinets, filling the trunk with enough groceries to suspend trips to the supermarket for a while.

Then I vacuumed all the rooms, sucking out a pail of sand hidden within carpet fibers.

Next I lifted the window screens and dropped in all the storm windows.

Finally, we emptied the refrigerator – a  freezer-full of hamburgers, hot dogs, sausages, steaks, and tubs of ice cream, as well as half-filled bottles of mustard, relish, ketchup, salad dressings, barbecue sauce, mayonnaise and pickles.

Looking around, the place was clean and neat and sad.

What is a summer house without friends and family sprawled on the sofa, sleeping dogs curled at your feet, the sounds of football and baseball games blaring on the TV, the smells of clamboils bubbling on the stove and smoky barbecues wafting through the windows?

All that will remain is for my husband and his friend to drain the pipes. Unable to emit heat or light, the summer house will sit in cold and darkness, waiting in silence for our return next spring.

One of my favorite short stories is “The Country of the Pointed Firs” by Sarah Orne Jewett, who tells the tale of a lone woman visitor to a small coastal town in nineteenth-century Maine, where she bonds with the inhabitants and leaves regrettably at the end of the season.

Every year I feel her pain and sense of loss as we lock the door behind us.

“When I went in again, the little house had suddenly grown lonely, and my room looked empty as it had the day I came,” wrote Jewett. “I and all my belongings had died out of it … So we die before our own eyes; so we see some chapters of our lives come to their natural end.

“As I came away on the little coastwise steamer, there was an old sea running which made the surf leap high on all the rocky shores… Presently the wind began to blow, and we struck out… and when I looked back again, the islands and the headland had run together… and all its coasts were lost to sight.”

Friday, October 10, 2014

The rhythm of life

Living by the sea, we can always expect a constant influx of family and friends at the summer house. So it is rare when I walk this stretch of beach alone.

A simply beautiful day in early October with brilliant blue skies overhead and gentle sea breezes, this day was made for a romp along the seashore.

It is low tide, and I am captivated by the frothy surf sliding toward me. But then I watch it change its mind, heading back to sea and unveiling a treasure trove of jewels: iridescent shells, rounded stones and sea glass gleaming in the sunshine.

“I like to spend my sacred hour sitting on a quiet beach, listening to the waves roll in and out,” writes Matthew Kelly in “The Rhythm of Life.” “The rhythm of the waves has a calming, soothing quality. There is a sacred connection between God and nature.”

I stop at the giant boulders that form a natural barrier, marking the midpoint of my journey. Seagulls congregate nearby, floating gracefully on calm seas.

After sitting a spell, I feel pulled in another direction. Sinking in deep sand, I climb the small incline into the Fogland Nature Preserve, a field of sea grasses bending in the wind, bunches of bushes of beach roses, and a new fall addition, clumps of bright yellow goldenrod.

Beyond lies the salt marsh where the magic happens: freshwater transforms to brackish water to saltwater, the perfect chemistry that produces an abundance of life.

Scanning the panorama before me, I see patches of farmland on rolling hills, and the blue waters of the estuary reflecting the sky.

I spent so much of my childhood at the mouth of this estuary, fishing, clamming and crabbing alongside my brother, as well as looking for wildlife in the preserve. Today a fisherman wades through the salt marsh continuously casting his line in the pulsating current and hoping for a nibble.

Whenever I am here, I ache to return to my younger self – on my hands and knees, digging with a quahog shell, searching for the prize, the plumpest clams I have seen anywhere. A few could make a pot of chowder; a half pail would provide the makings of a clam boil for family and guests.

Back in the present, I try to retrace my steps; but time has erased them as the tide sends the surf up the beach face and forces me to seek another trail.