Saturday, December 29, 2012

See the sacred that surrounds us

A snow-covered beach, the Sakonnet surf gently lapping the shore
In my work as a religion writer, I recently had the good fortune to interview author Devin Brown and write a review about his new book “The Christian World of The Hobbit” – all in anticipation of the December release of the “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.”

Speaking from his Lexington, Ky., home, the J.R.R. Tolkien expert and Asbury University English professor introduced me to what he calls the “sacramental ordinary.”

He writes that Bilbo has found something of greater value than gold in “The Hobbit,” something that might be labeled the "sacramental ordinary."

“The elves sing that the stars are brighter than gems, that the moon is whiter than silver, and that the fire on the hearth shines more than gold,” said Brown. “They declare that after swords, thrones, crowns, strength in arms, and wealth are all rusted, withered, or gone, the growing grass, the fluttering leaves, the flowing water, and even the elves’ singing itself will still remain.”

Brown added that growing grass, fluttering leaves, flowing water, singing, green meadows, favorite trees, familiar hills – these ordinary things Tolkien suggests, have something extraordinary about them.

As spring returns to the Shire in the final chapter of “The Return of the King,” Brown points out one of Tolkien’s most definitive portraits of the sacramental ordinary and one of his most moving.

Tolkien wrote: “Not only was there wonderful sunshine and delicious rain, in due times and perfect measure, but there seemed something more: an air of richness and growth, and a gleam of a beauty beyond that of mortal summers that flicker and pass upon this Middle-earth.”

“The reading helps us look at our world with a new perspective, new wonder, and new appreciation – and see the sacramental ordinary that surrounds us,” Brown said.

In a letter written in 1958, Tolkien wrote his now famous statement: “I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size).”

(He) “then goes on to list the many simple enjoyments that both he and hobbits love, among them gardens, trees, unmechanized farmlands, good plain food, ornamental waistcoats, mushrooms, and a simple sense of humor,” said Brown. “Through his fiction, Tolkien helps us learn to love these things as well, and in these ordinary things to see something we may not be seeing, something ordinary.”

As we begin a New Year, may we be aware that the ordinary is in fact the extraordinary. The sacred is all around us.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Good King

Looking out at Fogland's winter fields of green, instead of white, on this December morning.
Yesterday I received a package in the mail, a Christmas gift from some dear friends out West. Inside was tucked a beautifully illustrated book entitled “Good King Wenceslas.”

Frankly, I have always loved the melody of this English Christmas carol; but beyond the first few lines, I never learned the rest. Reading the words, which relate a lovely medieval tale, I now understand why. The cadence and old English dialect sound confusing, making the story difficult to grasp.

So here is my retelling of the allegorical tale.

“Good King Wenceslas looked out / On the feast of Stephen, / When the snow lay round about. / Deep and crisp and even;”

The king peers out from the parapet of his castle on St. Stephen’s Day, December 26, which overlooks his snow-covered kingdom. The feast day of the saint is known as Boxing Day in Britain, and historically, provisions are provided as gifts to the poor.

“Brightly shone the moon that night, / Though the frost was cruel, / When a poor man came in sight, / Gathering winter fuel.”

The king notices a man in the distance weathering the elements to gather firewood.

“Hither, page, and stand by me, / If thou know’st it, telling, / Yonder peasant, who is he? / Where and what his dwelling?”

He asks his young servant about the man and where he lives.

“Bring me flesh and fruit so fine, / Bring me pine logs hither, / Thou and I will see him dine, / When we bear them thither.”

The king orders the page to collect foodstuffs and firewood that they will deliver to the poor man and his family.

“Page and monarch forth they went, / Forth they went together, / Through the rude wind’s wild lament / And the bitter weather.”

As monarch, he can command an envoy to carry out his wishes; yet he and the boy set out alone in the storm.

“Sire, the night is darker now / And the wind grows stronger; / Fails my heart I know not how; / I can go no longer.”

The young servant falters, unable to complete his task.

“Mark my footsteps good, my page; / Tread thou in them boldly; / Thou shalt find the winter’s rage / Freeze thy blood less coldly.”

The king orders him to follow in his footsteps.

“In his master’s steps he trod / Where the snow lay dinted; / Heat was in the very sod / Which the saint had printed.”

His feet miraculously warm with each step.

Therefore Christians, all be sure, / Wealth or rank possessing, / Ye who now will bless the poor, / Shall yourselves find blessing.”

God (the king) is always with us, accompanying us on life’s journey. He rewards our kindness to others by showering us with His blessings.

Happy Christmas to all!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

God save the children

I had a rare Friday afternoon off yesterday, and I had a long list of things I planned to do. The Christmas tree was still waiting patiently on the deck.

All the way home from work, I sang along with the Christmas carols playing on the radio and looked forward to the fun I would have decorating the house. Christmas brings out the child in everyone.

My husband was waiting at home for me, and I heard the TV as I climbed the front stairs. He pointed to the screen, and I watched with horror the news on CNN.

Just like everyone else, I began to cry as I learned that 20 young children had been gunned down at a school in Connecticut and questioned how something like this could happen.

Every Tuesday I bring my three-year-old grandson to preschool at an elementary school in a nearby town. It’s hard to contain his excitement as we drive to school. I hold his tiny hand tightly as he skips and jumps all the way through the parking lot.

I push the buzzer, identify ourselves and wait for clearance. Then we climb the stairs and wait outside the classroom, joining all the other mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles and other caretakers holding hands with their little ones.

When the teacher walks down the corridor, the children scream with delight: “Miss Amy! Miss Amy!” And this very special teacher smiles and welcomes each one of them with open arms.

But now in the aftermath of this senseless tragedy, will teachers, parents and children ever feel safe again?  

I abandoned my well laid-out plans, and my husband and I drove to Fogland Beach.

The tide was at its lowest point exposing rocks that rarely surface during the course of the year. More exposed beaches like this one tend to have steeper slopes and coarser sediments because the waves come in at an angle and are not parallel to the shore when they break. Consequently, the water and its sediment follow a zigzag path down the beach, which is called the littoral drift.

Looking at the indiscriminant piles of sand dotting the beach and deep gullies, I felt exposed like those rocks, drifting in a sea of confusion.

Oh, God, I prayed. Deliver us from evil.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Enlightened women

The ivy-covered walls of Wellesley College
“You can’t go home again,” warned Thomas Wolfe.

I spent four years at Wellesley College, my home away from home; and I’ve always wanted to go back.

Alums can audit any course for free, but there was never space enough in my life to squeeze one in.

But at summer’s end, the opportunity presented itself. I checked the course catalog, and there was a philosophy class being offered at a time that I could fit into my flexible work schedule.

So after a long absence, I became a college student again.

Arriving on campus for the first class, I drove into the new parking garage and headed to the Campus Police Department to purchase a parking permit. It cost a whopping $50. This course isn’t free at all, I thought to myself.

The garage abutted the new Lulu Chow Wang Campus Center, which I explored before walking to the Margaret Clapp Library. Climbing to the fourth floor, I found the carrel, where I spent most of my time writing my thesis, “Fogland: A Collection of Nonfiction Essays.”

Unused to walking miles around campus, I was winded as I trudged up the three flights of stairs to the Philosophy Library, where the class was held.

The last student to arrive, I slipped in quietly and took in my surroundings. The young male professor sat at the head of the long table, and there were five young women taking the class.

The course entitled “Women of the Enlightenment” intrigued me. An English and Medieval-Renaissance Studies double major, my education stopped at the seventeenth century – a gap that I was attempting to fill.

A few minutes into the lecture, and it was as comfortable as college has always been for me. I took lots of notes and listened intently as auditors are apt to do.

During the break, however, the professor invited me to participate vocally in class and to do the homework, if I so desired.

On my way home I stopped at Barnes & Noble and picked up the book “A History of Modern Philosophy: From Descartes to Leibniz.” The book covered the canon: the philosophy of Descartes, Pascal, Malebranche, Spinoza and Leibniz – but there was not a woman among them.

Throughout the next 13 weeks, I studied the philosophies of the little known women of this period who had contributed to modern thought: Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, Margaret Cavendish, Anne Conway, Damaris Cudworth, Mary Astell, Mary Shepherd, Gabrielle Suchon, Emilie du Chatelet and Mary Wollstonecraft.

Last Wednesday the course ended, and six smarter women exited the Philosophy Library.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The buzz about winter

During the wintertime our summer house hibernates.

This year the warm fall weather had delayed the inevitable end-of-season task of draining pipes, but finally, last weekend my husband and his plumber/friend headed to Tiverton.

Winterizing the house entails climbing into the hatch of the well house, disconnecting the water line that feeds the house from the well pump, and connecting it to an electric pump that pushes an antifreeze solution throughout the system.

Upon arrival at the summer place late Friday afternoon, my husband went into the house and started opening faucets. Simultaneously, his friend lifted the hatch of the well house, lowered in the electric pump and dropped in his tools.

And that’s when my husband heard the screams. Rushing outside, he saw his friend running away from a cloud of angry bees.

Sometime this fall, the squatters had discovered a crack in the foundation of the well house and moved right in. The hive, which was now the size of a basketball, rested comfortably in the corner of the structure. Solar-heated, the rubber roof of the well house absorbed the sun’s rays.

Protecting the hive, hundreds of yellow jackets surrounded the building. They chased my husband too, and he felt the searing sting from one of the sentinels at the back of his head.

When it was safe, they replaced the hatch and drove away.

Stopping at Home Depot on Saturday morning, my husband bought three self-dispersing canisters of insecticide. His friend activated them and carefully lowered them into the well house.

Following directions, they returned after four hours; but when they opened the hatch, the bees emerged.

The spectacle attracted our neighbors who were amazed at the size of the hive and its occupants. They advised them to stay out of the well house.

Very early Sunday morning, my husband and his friend headed to summer house for the third time in as many days. Just as the meteorologist had predicted, it was frigid with temperatures hovering around 30 degrees.

Now there was the possibility that it was already too late. The pipes might be frozen.

Opening the hatch, they noticed no activity near the hive. His friend climbed in the well house and with a shovel carefully removed the hive intact and handed it to my husband, who gingerly carried it into the woods behind the summer house.

Less than an hour later, the summer house was winterized.

“No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees / No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds – November!” wrote British poet and playwright Thomas Hood.

No bees?

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Christmas shopping now and then

I did the unthinkable yesterday.

For the first time in my life, I went shopping on Black Friday.

Frankly, it has never been an option. I’ve always worked on the day after Thanksgiving, but I never thought I was missing anything – getting up at the crack of dawn, waiting in the dark in sub-freezing temperatures, shopping in standing-room-only stores and inching forward for hours in long checkout lines.

But this year was different. I was on vacation.

Scanning the newspaper flyers, I noticed that none of the early-bird specials were on my Christmas list this year. So I arrived at the Silver City Galleria in Taunton, Mass., at a respectable 7 a.m.

Driving into the mall lot, I pulled into a parking space right in front of the door of Dick’s Sporting Goods. I walked to the Food Court, where I had arranged to meet my daughter and son’s girlfriend.

I sat in one of the plastic chairs near Dunkin’ Donuts, and then the most amazing thing happened. I watched the happy faces of the shoppers pass by. I marveled at the sparkling lights and decorations that lit up the space between floors in the center of the mall. I listened to Christmas carols.

And I was a child again …

Holding my mother’s hand, I walk into McWhirr’s in Downtown Fall River, and I know just where all the toys are. My mother waits patiently while I search for the perfect doll before sitting on Santa’s lap. We eat at the lunch counter, my favorite tuna roll and coffee "cab". From furniture to stationery, McWhirr’s has it all; and the kind elevator operators take us up and down until we’ve covered every inch of the five floors. The place is magical with mysterious cylinders that vanish into tubes, carrying money to some unknown place and miraculously returning with the correct change. By the end of the day, I am so tired but happy. We leave with as many bags as we can carry …

Back in the present, I spot my shopping buddies; and I order a tea and donut. Sitting near the twinkling Christmas tree in the Food Court, we take out our lists.

Slowly working our way through two levels from Sears to Macy’s, we wait in short lines, hand over coupons and swipe cards. We catch our breath at Bertucci’s, where we stop for salad and pizza.
My accomplices, who started at dawn, have to leave; but I take my time. I smile as I watch Santa listening to children’s wishes.
At 4 p.m. I walk outside into the waning sunshine. Tired but happy, I leave with as many bags as my trunk can carry.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims

In 1621, Pilgrim Edward Winslow wrote to a friend in England. His letter records the only eyewitness account of the first Thanksgiving feast:

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. The four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

Personally, I once had the good fortune to meet a Pilgrim.

Working as the food editor for Hometown magazine, I received an assignment to interview an impersonator.

A self-taught historian and gifted cook, the lady had applied for a position at Plimoth Plantation.

“I picked Plimoth Plantation for no good reason,” she told me. “What kind of skills do you need to be a Pilgrim?”

She portrayed Julia Kempton, the older sister of Governor Carver’s wife.

A 40-year-old widow with three children, Julia was marrying a 21-year-old.

“I’d always say that he was marrying me because of my great cooking,” she quipped.

Julia Kempton shared a homestead with her nephew.

“My ‘housemate’ was a trained chef, who was between jobs,” she said. “At Plimoth Plantation we were expected to do the actual cooking, but it was important that everything we prepared was cooked authentically. It got so that the head of the Cooking Department there would give us the very best ingredients, and we’d have a feast at our house.”

The Pilgrims ate lobster sometimes out of necessity.

“They didn’t enjoy it, but we sure did,” she told me.

Next Thursday, we, New Englanders, will recreate our forebears' harvest feast, with turkey, native to these parts, and all the trimmings.

By the goodness of God, I pray that you are so far from want and partakers of plenty on this Thanksgiving Day.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

A mid-November reprieve

Two weeks after Hurricane Sandy and a few days after a nor’easter, my husband and I sit on the picnic table at Fogland State Beach.

“Most of us have inner barometers; certainly I do,” wrote New England author Gladys Taber in “Country Chronicle.” “During an autumn storm mine is very low. My movements slow, and I have a tendency to sit by the fire and just wait for the rain to stop even if what I had planned to do, does not involve going outdoors. I listen to the wind, and I think melancholy thoughts. A three-day nor’easter induces me to disbelieve in the blue of the sky above the black clouds.”

Bundled in a wool coat and boots, I am comfortable in the bright sunshine, light wind and forty-something temperatures. The Sakonnet has gotten over its temper tantrum and now at low tide is as tranquil as a freshwater pond rippling gently in the breeze.

It is so peaceful here.

Looking back over these last few weeks, I think we are all in need of a well-deserved break.

Along with the wild weather, we had to weather the presidential election, which wore us out.

 “I just wish our elections had more dignity,” wrote Taber in her 1967 book “Stillmeadow Calendar.” After all, it isn’t the party with the most balloons and buttons, the loudest cheering sections and biggest signs at conventions that may provide responsible government. I think we should educate children from the first grade on to have more interest in political affairs. And our whole system of electing a president should be studied and changed, if necessary, so that elections can take place in a practical, economical manner.”

Forty-five years later, the American voter has been bombarded with over $6 billion worth of robocalls, Super PAC TV ads, and political cards stuffed in mailboxes, and we are exhausted.

No matter whether our candidates won or not, we breathe a collective sigh of relief that it is over.

We drive along Neck Road and Seapowet Avenue, stopping every once and a while to watch animals grazing: horses wrapped in blankets, wooly sheep wearing winter coats and a lone burro in his pen.

A flock of Canada geese congregate in a sheltered duck pond. Common residents of southern New England, the pale gray geese have long black necks and a large white chinstrap. Most often sighted overhead flying in a V-pattern and making a honking sound, the waterfowl are content to drift soundlessly on secluded waters.

Over the past few weeks, these stately and majestic birds have battled hurricane-force winds, heavy rains and freezing temperatures just like us. But today they rest.

We should too.







Saturday, November 3, 2012

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy

Five days after Hurricane Sandy, we drive to the Tiverton summer house. The sky is robin’s-egg blue, and it as warm as a day in June.

Incredibly, the blue hydrangeas on the side of the house are blooming again, and the purple morning glories creep up the porch as if they haven’t a clue it’s November.

Outside of twigs scattered throughout the yard, the property is just as we left it last Saturday: the aluminum boat overturned and belted to its trailer, the redwood picnic table upside down, our powerboat hugging the back of the house where it is anchored.

Last Tuesday, the day after the storm, my husband was here; and the salt marsh had transformed into a river that crested 20 feet from our neighbor’s back door. But today, it lies dormant, taking a rest from its exertion this past week.

Reflecting the sky and mirroring the sun, the Sakonnet sparkles like blue diamonds and barely ripples in the light wind. Yet, here along the beach Sandy left its tracks.

All along the waterfront are huge rocks, carried on the high surf and deposited in the road and on our neighbors’ front lawns. It looks more like the terrain on the moon than a sandy beach.

A picnic table situated on the flat curve of horseshoe-shaped Fogland State Beach looks like it has been set down in the middle of a desert, surrounded by hills of sand.

Yet, despite these signs and the lack of electric power for days, the swipe Sandy made on our coastline left no scars; and we thank God for the close escape.

Before the hurricane, the Weather Channel was background noise in our house; and after the onslaught, CNN took its place.

Images of Sandy’s wrath on Staten Island and all the other seaside towns in New York and New Jersey flash across the screen. The vision brings tears to my eyes, as the death toll of over a hundred continues to rise.

Most of the stories tell of the bravery of countless souls: the N.Y. firemen fighting a conflagration in hurricane winds, neighbors helping neighbors, strangers helping anyone in need.

Yet there are also those of people behaving badly: homeowners who are afraid to leave their battered houses because thieves wait in the wings ready to loot, or The Bad Samaritan, who refused to open his door to a women begging for refuge for her two little boys, who ultimately drowned in the storm.

Today in Tiverton we pick up tree limbs and armloads of rocks. We move on unscathed but aware that if the trajectory of the storm had veered a little to the right …


Saturday, October 27, 2012

The calm before the storm

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 is time to get to higher ground.

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

In the 1930s, his family converted a small fisherman’s shack near Sakonnet Point in Little Compton 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.

When my parents bought land near Fogland Beach in Tiverton 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.

Last year, on the day before the arrival of Hurricane Irene, we secured the summer house and boat the best we could and flipped the picnic table. 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.

Here we go again.

This morning under sunny skies, with no wind and unseasonable warmth just a few days before November, my husband and I repeated the drill.  

An unprecedented fluke of nature, Hurricane Sandy, a Category 1 hurricane embedded in a nor’easter, is barreling up the coastline.
God help us.  

Saturday, October 20, 2012

An October ride

Sometimes I wonder what lures me from bed on a Saturday morning, especially on a day like this.

Light rain splatters against the windows and a heavy mist envelops the house; yet in the darkness I happily slip into my jeans and sneakers, instead of suit and heels.

No matter the weather, Saturday offers an escape.

Outside, I hear the idling car, where my husband awaits. I grab my raincoat and camera, and I’m off.

Today we head from Massachusetts to the Tiverton summer house by a different route, taking the back roads through Westport and Little Compton.

The fall colors are muted in the rain, splotches of yellows and oranges stand out amidst a predominance of greenery.

No one is about as we slowly make our way along the winding, hilly roads. I admire the well-kept houses. Pumpkins and chrysanthemums sit on front steps, and fallen leaves carpet yards.

Today’s trek reminds me of the short story “An October Ride” written more than a hundred years ago by New England author Sarah Orne Jewett.

Remembering these lines, I smile as I compare her ride to ours:

“After I was once on the high road, it was not long before I found myself in another part of the town altogether,” she wrote. “It is great fun to ride about the country; one rouses a great deal of interest; there seems to be something exciting in the sight of a girl on horseback, and people who pass you in wagons turn to look after you, though they never would take the trouble if you were only walking.”

Our sleek red sports car turns onto Pond Bridge Road, and we drive into a blanket of heavy fog.

Before us are bright orange shapes hovering in the mist. Thousands of pumpkins await harvest.

Parking on the side of the road, I open the window; and like a phantom, the wet, dense air fills the space.

I can hear the Sakonnet, the loud crash of waves in the distance. Although I cannot see them, I know the rows of pumpkins point the way.   

“I wonder what I am; there is a strange self-consciousness, but I am only a part of one great existence which is called nature,” wrote Jewett. “The life in me is a bit of all life, and where I am happiest is where I find that which is next of kin to me, in friends, or trees, or hills, or seas.”

Whether on horseback or in a Corvette, it’s always worth the trip.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Harvest home

One potato, two potato, three potato, four …

Driving from the summer house this morning, we passed some fields near Seapowet and spotted a dump truck filled with potatoes – thousands of them.

These Tiverton potatoes will be coming to a supermarket near you.

Our local harvest reminds us of our connection to this land, something I learned at a very young age.

My mother worked part-time, and my babysitters, Tony and Molly, were farmers. They worked the family farm alongside Molly’s relatives in a nearby town.

Their daughter, Kathleen, is two years my senior; and I have always looked up to her. She taught me about the natural world.

Tony drove a blue, beat-up, flatbed truck; and we, farm kids, rode in the back with our feet dangling over the edge – something my mother never would have permitted so I never told her.

I remember running through fields of corn, hiding and chasing the other kids in the maze with blue sky overhead and endless rows of stalks pointing the way.

During harvest time, the farmers brought in a huge crop of butternut squash, which they prepared for market. My five-year-old self remembers the stacks of countless crates of winter squash; the underside of a huge table where they peeled, cut and packaged the orangey vegetable; and the musty, earthy smell in the old farmhouse basement where they worked. To this day, I have an aversion to the stuff.

But my most vivid memory is of acres of green beans. The farmers picked their produce by hand, working down the long rows and dropping the beans into bushel baskets.

Most of the time, Kathy and I played while they worked, roaming the fields, picking wildflowers and looking for birds and insects, especially fuzzy caterpillars.

But when Kathy turned eight, Tony decided that she was old enough to pick beans; and consequently, Molly gave me a basket and put me to work nearby, where she could watch me.

For hours I bent over the bushes yanking string beans from their hiding places; but by the end of the workday, the basket was only half full. That’s when Molly wandered over and started tossing beans in my basket filling it to the brim.

Tony loaded the baskets onto the flatbed, and when he came to mine, he took a dollar out of his pocket and handed it to me. I still remember the feeling of the crumpled bill in my six-year-old hands, the first money I ever earned, with a little help from a friend.
I learned two important things that day: Money doesn’t grow on trees – you have to earn it; and beans don’t come from supermarkets – they hide under bushes.



Saturday, October 6, 2012

A dog's life

I remember the day my husband brought the little dog home. He was a full-bred Jack Russell terrier, but he came with baggage.

Born on a farm, he had been adopted by a family; but they brought him back because he was vicious.

Before long, the terrier attacked the largest farm dog; and the farmer knew he had to find him another home – and fast.

My husband was the sap. He loves dogs, and the cute and expensive terrier was free.

Arriving home, my husband called me over to meet our new pet. I took one look at the animal and told my husband to bring him back.

The terrier had a large gash on his head that he sustained in the dogfight, and it looked infected. I was sure he would die.

Coming to reason, my husband reluctantly agreed. He chased the dog around the yard but couldn’t get him into the truck. When the terrier ran into the kennel, my husband shut the gate; and the dog moved into his new digs for good.

My son named him Wishbone, after the PBS character, a canine sleuth that reenacted the classics. But they were never close. Actually our three children were afraid of him.

Wishbone was territorial and seemingly unlovable. He growled and flashed his pointed teeth at any man or beast that came within a hundred feet of the kennel.

We bought Wishbone an adorable red doghouse with green shutters, and he loved it. In the winter we filled it with straw, and he snuggled inside with just his head poking out.

If a mouse made the mistake of stepping on his turf, Wishbone trapped it under the doghouse, burrowing a tunnel until he caught the squatter. Opossums tried to dine on his kibble, but their nighttime visits were always their last. We never had to remove the carcasses because he ate them.   

Despite his quirks, Wishbone endeared himself to us. My husband liked to carry him around in the crook of his arm, and the dog followed him as he did his chores in the barn.

Every morning I would give him a large piece of rawhide, which he would tear and consume in minutes. He let me pet him and scratch under his chin whenever I gave him a snack, a biscuit for extra-large dogs.

Just like other folks, the vet was afraid of Wishbone. While most animals were greeted sweetly and stroked by the staff, our dog was fitted with a muzzle as soon as he came through the door.

We dreaded the annual rabies shot at the fire station. My son had to accompany my husband because it took two grown men to accomplish the feat.

First of all, they had to stand in line, and Wishbone let the German shepherds and Alaskan huskies know who was boss.

One time he got loose, and my husband had to grab him in a headlock to protect both animals and humans.

And after the shot, he always left a present behind.

But the years passed, and Wishbone aged. He developed cataracts and lost his appetite. He stopped growling at strangers. We knew his days were numbered.

Last Wednesday he breathed his last, and my husband and I are grief stricken.

If dogs go to Heaven, we know that St. Peter was waiting by the gate with a muzzle.


Saturday, September 29, 2012

Rainy day lament

It’s the beginning of the end.

Despite the drizzle, my husband and I climb into our Dodge Ram and make the 45-minute drive to the summer house.

We order a hearty breakfast at Four Corners Grille, and looking outside the windows brimming with boxes of fuchsia flowers, I notice the town coming to life. Farmers set up tents at the Saturday market, proprietors of the tiny shops prepare for the start of weekend business, and soon the flag will appear outside the Tiverton Union Public Library, the perfect place to while away a rainy afternoon.

We watch a horse grazing in the pasture on Neck Road. The grass is still green, but the leaves are already beginning to change.

Descending into a tangible veil of mist on Fogland Road, we take the bumpy dirt path to the beach, slowly navigating a huge hole filled with rainwater.

We park on the deserted beach. The Sakonnet is gray reflecting cloudy skies, and light winds cause ripples instead of waves.

It is high tide, but there are no boats at the ramp on this late September day. In the distance there are two pleasure boats anchored to their moorings.

We drive up High Hill Road and weave up and down the tiny streets of our neighborhood. There are quite a few cottages for sale, but it is natural at the seaside to have turnover.

Renters come and renters go, and homes change hands especially at season’s end. Just like the changeable sea, the population is in flux. But next spring, God willing, we can count on a mix of new and familiar faces, folks who will enjoy their brief sojourn here as much as we do.

The summer house looks forlorn on this dreary day. The maple has lost half its foliage, and brown crinkled leaves carpet the front yard.

I button my raincoat, slip the hood on and sink into the spongy lawn. Checking the kitchen garden behind the shed, I find three green tomatoes still clinging to the leafless plants, which I will leave for another day. But I snap off a small green pepper and slip it into my pocket.

Reluctantly, we leave the summer house, passing through a wet world glistening in the haze.

October beckons.

On this misty fall morning, the season’s end is in sight.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Let's talk turkey

Well, it’s official. Today is the first day of autumn.

Looking out the window of my Massachusetts home, I spot a bevy of wild turkeys under the clothesline in my neighbor’s yard. I run for the camera, quietly lift the screen and shoot, just before they scamper out of view.

A common sight in my neck of the woods, wild turkeys forage in our yards and in the nearby pine, maple and oak woods. They sometimes even visit the bird feeder. At night, they roost in our trees.

The four-foot male is dark brown, but the feathers look an iridescent coppery green at close range. His flight feathers are black with a band of white. His bare head is red and sometimes blue, while a black “beard” hangs from his chest. His legs are red.

Similar to the male, the female is about three-feet tall with a smaller head.

Wild turkeys once were abundant in these parts, but they were wiped out as forests were cleared. With the return of forests, they were reintroduced successfully.

Around here, we brake for turkeys. Why did the turkey cross the street? Because he’s back.

While I write this, I glance out the window and catch some turkeys pecking near another neighbor’s woodpile.

It is wonderful to have a window into their world, but at the same time I know it is hunting season; and Thanksgiving is just two months away. I always breathe a sigh of relief when they round up the little ones and return into the deep woods. The naked eye cannot follow their progress for long. Nature has equipped them with a coat of many colors that blends into their surroundings.

I spot another kind of forager at Seapowet, upriver from our summer house near Fogland Beach. Two women fill a plastic bag with their pickings, which look like periwinkles. Some men in waders are in the water digging for quahogs.

Interestingly, the beach is one place where we revert to our inner animal. We look for food, head down, scanning our habitat. We leave with pails of foodstuffs, pockets bulging, hands full.

Back at Fogland, I sit on the beach next to some seagulls. We have a bird’s-eye view of the gently soughing Sakonnet. We’re looking for the splash of smaller prey fleeing bluefish.

Birds of a feather flock together.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

September song

A rainy Saturday morning during the last week of summer offers ample time to ponder.

September is one of the loveliest months of the year at our Fogland summer house by the sea, but it heralds a time of radical change.

Nineteenth-century New England poet Thomas Bailey Aldrich wrote:

“The summer comes and the summer goes; / Wild-flowers are fringing the dusty lanes, / The swallows go darting through fragrant rains, / Then, all of a sudden – it snows.”

The light is crystal clear most September mornings, instead of muted by August’s early morning haze and blankets of fog. The wind is still warm, but there is a nip in the air.

I walk the beach in late afternoon wearing a sweatshirt and jeans. There are occasional swimmers and sunbathers, but most folks are content to just sightsee or search for sea glass at low tide.

Sailboats and powerboats dot the Sakonnet, skimming the waters and dodging windsurfers, buoys and lobster pots. A fleet of fishing boats is anchored in the bay.

This is my husband’s favorite fishing season. There is a plentiful supply of scup waiting to bite on clam necks, sandworms and squid; and bluefish race up and down the coast, chasing schools of prey. No bait required – casting or trolling with a lure will hook this silvery fish that can range up to 40 inches in length and weigh up to 20 pounds.

Dashing wildly within the schools of prey, the bluefish bite, cripple and kill the small fish that do not get eaten. Charting the course from above, flocks of seagulls follow the trail and splurge on leftovers.

From my perch on a boulder, I watch the fishermen in their powerboats crank up their engines in hot pursuit of the blues; while on shore, the anglers run up and down the beach following the path of screeching gulls and jumping fish.

Back at the summer place, I no longer seek shelter from the hot sun under the shade of the maple tree. I sit in the sunshine until it becomes too cold and uncomfortable, then I reluctantly go inside.   

I know that from now on the days are numbered.

“As summer wanes, we cherish every mild dreamy day,” wrote Gladys Taber, who chronicled her days from Still Cove on Cape Cod. “I love the soft blue haze, I know summer still walks the lanes, but the frosty slipper of autumn is just behind.”

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Me and the Mormons

Lifting the front of her brown peasant-style skirt, Gaye began filling it with stones, rounded by rolling to and fro in the constant ebb and flow of tides. Wedged between brown, gray and white stones, bits of sea glass sparkled in the sun.

As I watched her collect her treasures, my mind flew back to the first time we met a decade ago.

I was the new religion editor at the newspaper, and I received a call from Mormon missionaries requesting an interview. In college I had learned all about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “The Book of Mormon” and the Prophet Joseph Smith, but I had never spoken to a Mormon face to face.

When I was a little girl, I had a brief encounter with Mormon missionaries. I remember my mother’s anguish as she told me and my brother that there were two men in suits knocking on the doors of our neighbors’ homes. She told us that if we were very quiet, they would go away. The men came to the door, then turned around and left before even ringing the bell; and my mother was astounded. She later noticed the sign in the window I had written in large, childish scrawl that said: “WE ARE NOT HOME.”

Needless to say, it was with some trepidation that I anticipated the interview. I asked a minister about Mormonism, and she told me that it was a cult. I had grown up watching Donnie and Marie Osmond and they seemed so nice, I responded.

A few minutes into the interview, I threw out every misconception I held about Mormons. Senior missionaries Max and Gaye would become the dearest of friends.

Eighteen months later, I met with them for what I thought would be the last time. There were tears in our eyes as we hugged goodbye. They were returning to Utah, but we vowed to stay in touch.

In 2006, I went to the Religion Newswriters Association Conference in Salt Lake City, and I spent four days with Max and Gaye. I visited Temple Square with them, and they accompanied me to the nearby cathedral.

Two years ago, they informed me that they were going on a second mission. While they longed to return to the Boston area, their placement was uncertain.

In the spring of 2011, they were reassigned here. In my professional capacity, I continued to write their faith stories; but on Christmas and Easter, they sat around our table.

Last weekend I invited Max and Gaye for our annual Labor Day bash at the Tiverton summer house, and Fogland was at its best. Sunshine streamed through the clouds bathing the seashore in an ethereal light.

Many years ago Gaye send me a prayer card that read: “As a lighthouse sends its sure, steady beam to guide the ships at sea, the Lord gives His light to guide you … There is no fog too dense, no mariner too lost to feel His love and light. He loves you.”

For my landlocked Utah friends, the beach was a whole new world. They were enthralled by its beauty.

“I am a pioneer,” Gaye said laughing, as she placed shells and stones in her uplifted skirt.

Her ancestors crossed this country in covered wagons, while mine sailed the seas.

We couldn’t be more different and more alike.
Gaye and Max