Friday, September 23, 2016

'Summer's lease hath all too short a date'

Sanderlings congregate at the water's edge.

There is a change in the air at the summer house. The sky is an intense blue, the sun warm on my shoulders, and the cool breeze oh so pleasant; but they signal the approach to the end of the season and prelude to winter.

“Summer’s lease hath all too short a date,” wrote William Shakespeare in Sonnet 18. My sentiments exactly.

Gladys Taber chronicled the passing of the season from the perch of her pre-Colonial farmhouse in rural Connecticut.

“I know fall is here, although the world is still green with summer,” she said. “And I feel an urgency to gather in all the loveliness of the past blazing days and star-cool nights and keep them forever.”

We grill hamburgers and eat them inside at the dining room table. They taste even better, if possible, than the ones we’ve enjoyed all season long because we know these simple feasts are numbered. My father is cold, and he shuts all the windows.

After lunch, my mother and I sit in the sun dappled by the old tree in the backyard. We chat and begin reading magazines, but before long we have goose bumps on our arms and return to the warmth of the house.

A short time later, however, we grow restless spending such a lovely day inside. We slip into our sweatshirts and head to the beach, but it no longer resembles the summer seashore. There is a new stone pathway that leads down to the water. Where there was sand, there is now a sea of stones stretching across the entire beach.

We sit on a flat-topped boulder and watch sanderlings in parties of ten to twelve run ahead of oncoming waves. These small, eight-inch members of the sandpiper family have a white head and underbelly and gray upper parts. Their bill is short, their back heavily spotted and the bend of their wing is black. They cluster together and move in tandem.

As I approach, I startle them; and they take to the air in unison landing farther down the beach. Then once again, on spindly legs they race in nature’s dance dodging the waves.

Sandpipers are such interesting creatures. Their mysterious comings and goings seem to me “much ado about nothing”, as they hop, lunge and fly about with nervous energy.

Yet I think that sometimes we long for the security of a sandpiper’s life, congregating together in groups, following the leader, choosing a seemingly happy, carefree existence.

“Most of us spend a lot of time seeking happiness and always feel that we shall achieve it magically,” wrote Taber. “If we are fortunate, we realize at some point in our search that we are taking the wrong path. Happiness is, in the end, an attitude of mind. It involves acceptance of reality and a warm appreciation of such simple things as a friend looking happy when we meet unexpectedly or the way the first star comes out at twilight.”

The day is waning, and the cool sea breeze biting. Yet I linger. I am content to watch the sanderlings in their habitat, weaving their magical dance.

Their stay is short. By October, they will be gone. It is rare to see them here in winter.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

September 11 – The day that changed everything

NOTE FROM BLOGGER: In remembrance of the 15th Anniversary of 9/11, I am reprinting the post I wrote five years ago. Tragically, terrorism has escalated around the world since that fateful day.

I remember in surreal detail that Tuesday morning (fifteen) years ago.

While driving to my job at a daily newspaper, I listened to the breaking news story on the radio: Two commercial passenger jets hijacked from Logan had just struck the World Trade Center.

America was under attack.

When I arrived in the Newsroom, the reporters were gathered around the televisions, and I joined them.

We saw Manhattan burning, the Twin Towers reduced to rubble, thousands of people running through smoke-filled streets. A third jet hit the Pentagon, and a fourth plane heading for Washington crashed in a Pennsylvania field.

We would later learn that President Bush was aboard Air Force One heading to Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, home of the Strategic Command, which controls the United States’ nuclear weapons.

My assignment that Tuesday was to edit a special supplement, but I abandoned the project and filed into the conference room with my colleagues.

“What the (expletive) is going on?” said the executive editor, as he tried to wrap his head around what was happening. There were a lot of veteran reporters in the room, and there was dead silence.

But it was our job to inform the public, and our reflexes kicked in. The editor started to assign stories. He told me to connect the dots, to tie this rampage with the first attack on American soil at Pearl Harbor 60 years earlier.

We went back to our cubicles and started making calls.

I found a former Army Air Corps mechanic, a Purple Heart recipient who was stationed at Hickam Field near Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed the airfield. He had been on duty all night and was going to bed at the time of the early morning raid. He told me that he ran to get a rifle in the hangar, and it was hit three times. He said that 200 men died there, and the planes, barracks and hangar were heavily damaged. He also saw the Arizona being bombed. More than 2,000 servicemen would lose their lives in the harbor. Yet he pointed out that Pearl Harbor was a military target and an act of war, but the World Trade Center victims were civilians.

I also spoke to a widow, whose husband was an aviation machinist mate first class aboard the Helena on the “Day of Infamy.” She said that he was just getting out of bed, putting on his shoes and planning to go to church when a bomb hit amidships. She told me that he ran up to the deck, and bullets from a Japanese plane flew over his head and killed two men. She said that what her husband most remembered about that day was the confusion and disbelief at the surprise attack.

I wrote the story and turned it in on deadline.

The following weekend I returned to the summer house in Fogland. September is a beautiful time of year, and everything was the same – the Sakonnet still lapped the shore, children played on the beach and the sounds of laughter were everywhere. But everything had changed. I no longer felt safe.

(Ten) years ago, I was on a fellowship for religion journalists at Brandeis University in Waltham. One of the guest speakers was a journalist whose beat was Homeland Security. After the lectures, the college hosted a reception, and I had the opportunity to speak to him.

“Do you think we are safe from future terrorist attacks?” I asked him.

“Let me put it this way,” he said. “We have stopped every terrorist attack since 9-11. But the odds are that we can’t be right 100 percent of the time.”

It is a sobering thought.


Monday, August 29, 2016

Tropical Storm Irene and the tale of two towns

Sitting in the sand near the gently lapping surf on this sunny Sunday afternoon, it is hard to imagine what it was like here five years ago when Tropical Storm Irene slammed into our coastline.

Most of all, I remember the sounds and the silence…

After listening to the hurricane warnings, my husband and I had anchored our boat to the summer house and secured all my parents’ belongings. They had been there the day before, and my mother had left in tears.

Some of our neighbors had boarded up their windows, and most of the residents had already evacuated. When we drove away, we understood the very real possibility that upon our return, everything might be gone: the summer house destroyed and our yard underwater.

Back at our Massachusetts’ home in the deep woods, we had other worries. Our house sits across the street from a pond and is surrounded by 100-foot pine trees.

When we bought our home, we were amazed that our house was wired to an ancient-looking gasoline-powered generator that sat in the garage. But as soon as we moved in, we realized that it was a necessity. We lost power in good weather, as well as in bad, including once for five days after a snowstorm and after the onslaught of Hurricanes Gloria and Bob.

But then the electric company upgraded our area, and the generator sat unused in the corner of the garage for more than a decade and atrophied, no longer able to generate a spark.

When we finally decided to invest in a new generator, we hired an electrician to bring all the wiring up to code. And there it sat for two years, never tested, and we wondered whether our money would have been better spent on other upgrades around the house.

With the approach of the hurricane, everything changed. The generator was a godsend. We wheeled it out of the garage onto the driveway and filled it with gasoline.

My husband and I awakened early that Sunday morning of the storm and went to the early service. As the wind whistled around the country church and the rain splattered the stained-glass windows, I read the words of the Prophet Jeremiah:

“I say to myself, I will not mention Him, / I will speak his name no more. / But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, / imprisoned in my bones; / I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it.”

Tropical Storm Irene was barreling up our coastline. God help us.

Back at home, we heard the sounds of the wind ripping through the woods, felling limbs and tossing them everywhere. The power kept blinking on and off, but after a half hour in the darkness, my husband pulled the cord on the generator and switched the electrical box over to emergency power. The refrigerator started to hum and the lights flickered.

It wasn’t long before we learned that a tree had fallen on our next-door neighbor’s home. A short way up the street, a massive tree had toppled taking with it all the power, cable and telephone lines.

I called my parents. The apple tree that had graced their front yard ever since they bought the property in 1947 had just split in half.

As soon as the tropical storm passed, my son drove to Fogland. Unbelievably, the summer house had survived intact, and all the trees were still standing.

In the evening we unplugged. The windows were open, and we heard sporadic gusts of wind; but without the buzz of household appliances, it was eerily quiet. I lit three candles and placed them around the room.

For my birthday, my family had bought me a new e-reader. Long into the night, I read the battery-powered Nook, the LED screen the only beacon of light in a world of darkness.

As I drifted off to sleep that night five years ago, I thought about how vulnerable we all are. But I knew then, as I know now, that whenever we speak His name, we are never alone. We always have back-up. 

Sunday, July 10, 2016


Walking along the beach, I came upon a most unusual find. A gnarled tree trunk intertwined with roots had drifted in with the tide, the largest piece of driftwood that I have ever seen along this coastline.

Driftwood is perfectly named. Propelled by winds, waves and tides, it is wood that drifts in the currents and washes up on the beach. Sometimes it provides shelter for birds and plants or becomes the foundation for sand dunes.

For me, the driftwood became a metaphor for a mid-July state of mind.

The start of summer brought with it a frenzy of activities. But by the middle of summer, like the driftwood, many of us yearn for unstructured time to just float along with no sense of direction. We crave escape, to hide from humanity for just a little while.

I identify these feelings when my creativity starts to wane. The words jumble together in my mind, and I have to push and pull them into meaning. I know I’m burning out, and I have to get away.

For our vacation, my husband and I head to New Hampshire and the sanctuary of the White Mountains. Like the sea, the mountains are a very spiritual place.

The pilgrimage reminds me of the biblical passage when Jesus withdraws from the crowds. In Luke 9:28, the evangelist tells us that “He … went up onto a mountain to pray.”

St. Augustine wrote that “the thought of You (God) stirs us so deeply ... our hearts find no peace until they rest in You.”

It is this peace my soul seeks.

I never tire of gazing at the mountains and listening to the surge of ice-cold streams tumbling down the cliffs.

I know this particular part of New Hampshire so well that I am no longer a tourist. Every turn in the road is familiar, and the wind in the pines a wordless prayer.

Reading in this idyllic spot, I find harbor in other seekers’ words; but for one week I resist the urge to string my own words together. My mind will lie fallow in order to replenish itself.

By the end of the week, however, my thoughts turn toward home. I feel that familiar ache for Fogland and the rush and rhythm of the waves.

“Men go abroad to wonder at the heights of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motions of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering,” wrote St. Augustine. 

We are spiritual seekers on a quest filled with wonder. The place to begin the journey is within. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

'It's so good to be back'

Tightly furled leaves long to burst.

Every summer I reread “The Country of the Pointed Firs” by Sarah Orne Jewett. The first chapter, “The Return,” best explains what it means to return to a much-loved place after an absence. She writes:

“There was something about the coast town … which made it seem more attractive than other maritime villages … Perhaps it was the simple fact of acquaintance with that neighborhood which made it so attaching, and gave such interest to the rocky shore … and the few houses which seemed to be securely wedged and tree-nailed in among the ledges… These houses made the most of the seaward view … the small-paned high windows in the peaks of their steep gables were like knowing eyes that watched the harbor and the far sea-line beyond, or looked northward all along the shore … When one really knows a village like this and its surroundings, it is like becoming acquainted with a single person. The process of falling in love at first sight is as final as it is swift in such a case, but the growth of true friendship may be a lifelong affair.”

It is the beginning of the long-awaited season at Fogland; and like other summer residents, my pulse quickens as I come home again. The shimmering Sakonnet, the well-kept cottages, and the sleeping summer house – all welcome us. Over and over again, we say to each other, “It’s so good to be back.”

Yet, there is much work to do. The summer house has been in a state of hibernation for nearly six months, and it is time for it to be reawakened.

We call in the plumber who climbs inside the well house and installs a new pump, and like the rhythmic beating of a heart circulating blood through veins, it sends the water coursing through the pipes. One frigid year the pipes burst, and the rooms were flooded. Consequently, we hold our breath until we learn that the old piping has survived another year.

Throughout the winter, we worried about the roof. We remembered what had happened some years ago when the ceiling had fallen into the living room, and we had to hire a carpenter to fix the roof, as well as put up a new ceiling. But this year, outside of some cobwebs, the summer house is intact.

Inside the sticking front door, it feels cold and lifeless. We pull up the shades and open the windows, and let the clean sea breeze stir the dead air. Sunlight bounces off the walls and illuminates the dust. We turn on the hot water and plug in the fridge.

My mother puts fresh linens on the beds, while my father carries in a trunk-full of food.

Outside, my husband mows the knee-high lawn, which always grows fast in this fertile, coastal soil.

Before long the summer house will be filled with shrieks of laughter.

“It’s so good to be back.”

Monday, April 18, 2016

Misadventures -- The stuff our vacations were made of

I come from a family of adventurers. Before we bought our summer place in Fogland, we spent our summer vacations discovering America like other average American families. But unfortunately, there was never anything typical about our trips.

My father is a true pioneer, and each summer I would shudder to think what he had planned for us. He loved camping in the wilds and exploring terrain where no man had gone before. He considered pit toilets an amenity.

We blazed our own trail up Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire in the company of millions of ferocious mosquitoes, and in the heart of the Florida Everglades, we shared a campsite with poisonous snakes and swam with a crocodile, although we were unaware of its presence until we got out of the water.

Perhaps our most memorable vacation was a trip to Montreal, Canada. Many families spent that summer at the World’s Fair. We made reservations at a Canadian campground called “Camping Robert,” packed the tent into the van and headed north.

When we finally arrived, we paid the fee for a week’s stay and were told to proceed to Site No. 15, which would be clearly posted on a tree. The van bounced as my father drove down the heavily-gutted dirt road. After passing over a tiny bridge, we spotted our site, which indeed was clearly marked. The only problem was that a little river ran through it.

My father cautiously backed up, but the bridge’s pitched slope made it nearly impossible to maneuver. Consequently, our van was leaning against one of the posts of the bridge. He immediately got out of the truck to assess the situation. If he attempted to move the van, he took a chance of damaging the vehicle, or even worse, rolling over into the brook below.

A man from a nearby campsite, chattering profusely in French, arrived with an axe. After a few thrusts, the post was in the river; and we were free. My father thanked the Good Samaritan, and we headed back to the office.

This time they assigned us Site No. 20, and the campsite was as nice as a piece of ground in the center of a huge city during a worldwide exposition could be. We were finally settled.

My father and little brother began to erect the tent, while my mother and I climbed the steep hill to the restroom.

Opening the door marked “Les Femme,” we were unprepared for what we saw next. Women were showering “au naturel” without a stitch of shower curtain anywhere.

As we made our way down the hill, we were not sure we were in Canada anymore. It seemed more like Yellowstone Park because there was a geyser in the middle of the campground. The amazing thing was that the water was spouting from Site No. 20.

Then we spotted my father, who was dripping wet with a very incriminating hammer in one hand and a very incriminating tent stake in the other.

Later, we learned that they used rubber water pipes buried only a few inches in the ground in these makeshift campgrounds. With my father’s good sense of direction, he had pinpointed the location of the rubber hosing; and the wall of water had erupted.

So, this was the stuff our vacations were made of…

Finally, after years of cross-country adventures, my parents decided to set down some roots in Tiverton. We pitched our tent in its turf, and the only thing my father hit with the stake was a rock. The mosquitoes at twilight were just as ravenous as their mountain counterparts so we also erected a screened tent. Thankfully, there were no holes in the ground harboring poisonous snakes, just the occasional garter. However, we traded crocs for sharks.

Now, we look forward to the new season at the summer house and wonder what new adventures it will bring. Having survived my childhood, I’m game. I just hope that pesky skunk that took up residence under the shed is gone…

Monday, April 4, 2016

Sea change

Early April, a month before we open the summer house for the season, and three to four inches of snow are expected with winds gusting to 33 miles per hour, according to the National Weather Service.

No matter the season, folks who live by the sea, respect the river in fair and rough weather.

We know better.

I knew an elderly gentleman, an officer in the Coast Guard Auxiliary, who assisted on weekend patrols in Mount Hope Bay and the Sakonnet River.

In the 1930s his family converted a small fisherman’s shack along Sakonnet Point into a summer cottage.

Coming of age there, he often sailed around the lighthouse or paddled his canoe up and down the coast, edging his way around the many boats in the fishing fleet.

He worked at The Fo’c’s’le, a popular seaside tourist spot, opening quahogs, shelling lobsters and peeling potatoes.

Then the 1938 hurricane struck without warning.

“We lost the house, and I almost lost my father,” he told me. “He was washed out to sea from Sakonnet Point all the way down to Taylor’s Lane. He watched five people drown, and he couldn’t save them. He had cracked ribs and was bruised all over, but he came out alive.”

Fifty homes in his Sakonnet Point neighborhood were destroyed.

It is the start of another season at Fogland, and I spy new construction dotting the lush green landscape that hugs the coastline. These homes are ideally situated and offer spectacular views, but many are at risk.

Scripture warns about the foolish man who built his house on sandy ground.

“The rains fell, the torrents came, the winds blew and lashed against his house. It collapsed under all this and was completely ruined.”

When my parents bought their Fogland parcel of land in the winter of 1969, they learned that their neighbor’s cottage had been beachfront property. Fifteen years earlier, Hurricane Carol had dragged it to its current site, three streets from the water’s edge.

In 1991, Hurricane Bob made landfall over Newport. When the water receded, one of the rental cottages along our beach had been torn from its foundation and set down in the middle of the salt marsh.

These days I marvel at the incredible beachfront homes that are constructed along the Sakonnet. With their multi-million-dollar price tags, they are indeed lovely to behold. Flood insurance protects the property and its contents, and in the event of a catastrophic hurricane, the house can be rebuilt and furnishings replaced.

Yet those who live by the sea have the deepest respect for their fickle neighbor. They cherish the calm demeanor and tranquility of their fair-weather friend, but they also know when it is agitated, slamming surf and kicking up sand, it’s time to get to higher ground.