Very soon, my dear writing compatriot and beloved friend, Sue Cummings, will be publishing a memoir about how she became a writer; specifically, how she became a writer through the magic of the July Women’s Writing Retreats up at Pyramid Life Center in Paradox, New York. I have attended retreats there since 2014, and met Sue in 2015 on a sun dappled path near the lake.
This July, several of us had hoped to attend in person (for the first time since 2019) but the B variants of Covid-19 struck many in our online writing community and struck hard, with serious health implications for everyone who contracted it. We decided caution was best.
Four of us met remotely and wrote and wrote in the intense July heat of our respective homes (New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey and Maryland). We came to understand that the experience of Adirondack summer writing camp had been planted deep within us. We brought forward those memories of the loons and owls and osprey–along with the serious intent of our fellow women writers from over the years–and created new memories and new writing.
Here is the poem that came to me, almost whole, one Wednesday morning before our group met for lunch on Zoom.
Unlock the door
Enter the heat warily
Sniff the air for dead mice
Listen for wasp intruders
Smell only warm old wood.
Gaze on zinnias
crazy-haired, crisp curled petals
not lush pink, not glowing gold
Swirly whirly on their way to done
on their way to death--
brown-gray leaks from the leaves.
Two days before
eight zinnias gleamed green-stalked
wrapped in brown paper
cut ends dripped
on the quick walk back
from the farmers market
(that bustle of unmasked throngs)
While white-snouted I
won't let go
they have let go
to splash open faced to sunshine,
dogs, tamales, tubs of lemonade
thick lemon slices that float in sugar ice.
Sue wants to include this poem in her book, and as soon as her memoir is available, I will post the details here in the blog.
Hurray for the support of fellow writers, and our communities far and wide. That week of writing and reading with others has rejuvenated me; therefore, I will say–“More to follow, from me as well!”
First, on the ninth anniversary of this blog, a photo: classic mid-June sunrise in York, Maine, Nubble Lighthouse barely visible at the distant tip of land, with a solo surfer in the waves. In pre-dawn gray, the surfer had grinned uncontrollably as he pulled on a wetsuit next to his parked jeep. I grinned back and waved from the beach, both of us delighted to be pursuing our individual joys.
The glowing golden-orange light made the sand look molten. Wide rolls of dark blue water reminded me the ocean temperature was in the 50s. Wind kicked up as the sky lightened and my sandaled feet numbed; after an hour of photography I scurried back to my room to savor hot tea and blankets on my toes, so happy to have ventured out.
Second, thanks to all who have purchased our book, who have perused or plunged into it, who shared joy about how it affected you and your relationship to walking or a friendship or nature—oh my goodness, thank you!
A final photo below: the first walk on Long Sands Beach three days before, when storms were rolling in.
We could have been upset about wet weather “ruining” one of the few days we had on the ocean. However, mist ventured onto the beach and combined with roiling clouds to confuse the eye. Surf blended into sky; waves became almost irrelevant.
It was beautiful. We laughed when the rain beat down hard on us as we ran for our room after dinner. The fingers of mist continued over the days to reach for land in the morning and refract sunlight in unusual ways.
In its changing, the weather makes you adapt to what’s right here, right now.
Changing weather also reminds me that opportunities for joy will present themselves regularly, even in the midst of the uncontrollable, the chaos and sadness, shifts and unpredictability and opportunities, of this summer just arrived.
Yes, you can buy our book at the link below, as well as at independent bookstores and online retailers.
Relief. Oh my gosh, the relief. Along with growing excitement.
An actual book. It’s here. Giggle, wiggle and woo hoo!
For long time readers at this site, some of the essays and photos will be familiar. The growth of the nature essays into meditations on friendship will be new, along with the poems and photos by my co-author and delightful hiking partner Carole Fults.
It has been months and months (I hate to say but yes, years) of striving to finish edits, hire a formatter and choose publication routes, stumble along, play avoid-don’t avoid, and return repeatedly to this very challenging work of creating and putting out a book.
I pet the silky cover of the locally printed copies from The Troy Book Makers.
I touch the glossy cover of the print-on-demand version.
I take in the saturated color of the photographs.
It is a sensual experience, this physical book, in a time when I have mostly been reading ebooks from the library on a tablet. Blue-lit screens during the day and brown-lit screens at night (so as not to disturb my sleep), thoughts of battery usage and news articles too easily accessed often distract me from the act of reading.
Words on a page, I have heard, are more memorable than on a screen. I agree.
Of course, A Walking Friendship: The First 500 Miles is available to view and preorder as an ebook as well as a softcover (love that descriptor!), at the national online stores here and here and independent bookstores (several here and here, or even for my dear friends in Chicago here but really at all of them!), and on our author page at Book Baby, where our print on demand and ebook versions originate. Every view, every pre-order, every Goodreads mention and Wish List addition, every request for a library to purchase, helps our book.
However our audience prefers to purchase, we want it to get out there. The release is June 11.
All these informational phrases are starting to flow trippingly off my tongue, as I earnestly learn “the elevator speech” to describe our book in a single sentence, and as I let go of Ego and self judgment based on what people might think of the project.
I am better with perfectionism these days and recognize it more quickly. The weight of almost a year of mandated day-job overtime and completely different work duties added an extra layer to the challenge. I am just glad I can fall finally back in love with this manuscript—now book—all over again.
For right now I am doing the Happy Dance as I print promotional postcards and plan Zoom readings and interviews.
Go! Fly! Be Free! (More giggles.)
This book is imperfectly perfect. It is a creation that is done being created. It has taken flight, out into the world. What it will grow into, we will see.
Mostly my coauthor and I wish for the richness we found walking in the woods to be experienced by as many people as possible, since it was such a gift to us.
Thanks to everyone who has helped and encouraged us, chided and applauded and assisted us–and most of all, took our work as seriously as we do.
Sometimes, in the midst of chaos, uncertainty, sadness, frustration, stupefaction and anger (much of what this country has been experiencing for quite some time and especially recently) or sometimes in the middle of life stretching out so dull and repetitive and without reprieve (which we have also endured)—something that feels miraculous shows up. What have I learned to do with it?
Take it in fully, knowing there’s plenty more chaos out there and we’ve got to see everything that we have, not just what is difficult.
Examine it carefully and lovingly, appreciate it from all angles, marvel over it with others.
Appreciate all the ways it could have been missed and also—wow, there it was.
“It” was a hike up Coney Mountain in the Horseshoe Lake Wild Forest north of Long Lake, New York. The rest of my week off from the day job had been catch-up from the holidays (finally making gifts), work on the book (still not available online yet but we’re close), and learning once again to take joy in household projects.
This hike made “time off” a vacation.
According to local folks we chatted with briefly on the trail, it had snowed a week prior and then a more delicate snow dusted the trees on two other days. Unusually, they’d had no wind the whole week, while the sky stayed full of gray clouds. These specific meteorological conditions (once in a decade? once in a lifetime for an intermittent mountain hiker like me?) combined to create what we found.
Because that day, the sun came out.
Therefore, the snow that clung thickly to every millimeter of the branches, stems and twigs was lit from above. The dry frostiness at fifteen degrees Fahrenheit created jewels of every flake, with flashes and glints of rainbow: literal scintillation. On the hike up, shades of blue-white light filled the deeper woods while frosted glacial erratics (boulders dropped from the movement of ancient ice sheets) slumbered between hemlocks and birches. A red squirrel dashed across our path.
The sky above curved a flat cornflower blue. We mistook the white in the sky as clouds beyond the canopy when in fact there were no clouds on that side of the mountain. The puffs were full heads of glistening tree hair, crowns of snow in filigree as well as stubby clubs of silver.
What we found at the end of the trail, up at 2,265 feet, was not only the expected 360 degree view of the Adirondack High Peaks we’d experienced in the autumn, but a frosted world that left us wordless and laughing.
I have been trying for days to describe what made it so moving and joyful. Does it help to say it was one of the top ten hikes of my life?
The bright at the top couldn’t be viewed without sunglasses. As we turned in astonished circles, we discerned flowing blankets of white becoming darker in the distance. The most pure white appeared in the close-in trees and bushes, then below us the tops of full grown evergreens arose white-beige; further away the mountain tops full of trees flashed a shade darker of brown-white. Finally between two evergreens, the restful dark blue of Tupper Lake came into view, with its own islands of brown dotted with miniature Christmas trees.
A forest of saguaro cactus snow shapes surrounded us. The heavy buildup of frozen crystals looked like hoarfrost—layer after layer of hoarfrost, fat like a corndog. It wasn’t icy either, just weightless and fluffy and when I touched it with my finger it crumbled away.
If there had been any wind of note during the previous week, this spectacle would have disintegrated into blobs of snow on the ground, and we would never have known what we missed.
As I snapped image after image, I was afraid of distorting what I was seeing—I had on polarized lenses, could I see through the camera what I was seeing in my eyes, what was really there in front of me? Were the photos all going to be shaky because of the huff-and-puff of the climb and/or because I was so excited about what we saw?
We stayed up top for a half hour, devouring chicken sandwiches with leaf lettuce that startled in its glowing greenness. As we happily headed down, the woods dimmed and shadowed around us; we had taken in all the light we could.
I keep returning to what we saw, how we felt. I can’t get it out of my mind.
The world was so bright up there, so fiercely, sweetly bright. Snow sparkled silently, blindingly, rainbows and diamonds in every direction.
It surprised us but was natural and beautiful even if unexpected, was somehow delicate and yet enduring.
Water swirls. Do we get pulled into it, or do we observe from a place of strength, like the yellow coltsfoot flowers on the left? Mariaville Lake, NY, April 2020.
In this pandemic at-home time, I don’t want to lose track of my days and experiences. To get to the absolutely vital, I need some sort of accountability, some kind of checklist that comes out of these questions:
How do I organize my days?
How do I take care of myself?
Gosh—What is most important?
How do I live this time kindly and gently?
Very importantly—How do I manage my day job at home (often with overtime) without over-doing it or under-doing it?
I am a list maker.
Even as a young teenager, I mimicked my mother’s “Jot it down—you don’t want to forget; mark it off, isn’t that satisfying?”
As a college student with a heavy course load, I organized my days in two hour blocks of time. They ran from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. six or seven days a week, in order to get all of the studies and papers completed with revisions and any technical glitches—which at the time involved a portable typewriter and carbon paper—and short breaks for meals.
My desk sized calendar was covered with tiny smeary black pencil scritches of lists, time periods, what was left to do. Complete with panicked exclamation points!!!! and underscores for emphasis (and more exclamation points!). My body ached for movement and relaxation and something other than school. The lists kept score and I persevered.
Looking back now—the lists were brutal and effective. But not sustainable.
Lists can often scream at you only about what you have not accomplished, until out of desperation you write down things like Get Up, Make Bed, Eat Breakfast. Some days that is all you can do, for various reasons.
Especially right now.
Six weeks ago, I created a list. Called it A Check List. Then A Care for Self Checklist. Finally, I had to mention the Pandemic—that there is an overarching shift in the world that has to be acknowledged as I take on this Care for Self.
Pandemic Care for Self Checklist.
Bold type, 17 point font on my paper. These are big things, for big challenging times.
JOURNAL. YOGA. WALK. CREATIVELY WRITE & PHOTOGRAPH. JOYFUL HOUSEHOLD. CONNECTION. COOK. READ. RUB A BODY PART. DAY JOB HOURS WITH GENTLENESS. INDULGE/RELAX.
I use the back to jot down those “gotta remember” things, as well as exciting meal ideas from what I have here at home, future Zoom meetings, and projects I intend to tackle in small bites. However, those are not requirements with a due date necessarily; they are written to relieve the heaviness in my mind, loosen it for other things, like letting go of the list.
I spend time crying and laughing. I do completely unexpected things.
Stickers can make things so much more fun! The spots on the list are reflections from the window as morning sun pours in.
There’s a lot to write about this list. It has grown and shifted over the weeks.
But for now, I toggle between these various actions that feed me. I don’t expect to get every one of them done every day. I note and delight in any accomplishments—and there are quite a few, especially ones that wouldn’t normally make it onto a list.
What is on your Pandemic Care for Self Checklist?
This sunset photo was part of WALK, CREATIVELY PHOTOGRAPH, CONNECTION (with a friend, six feet plus apart, both of us masked) and INDULGE.
Yes, we do get snow in April! Along the Vlomankill at Five Rivers Environmental Education Center, a few weeks ago.
I chose this photo because poetry is about reflections.
Many of us are doing quite a bit of reflecting these days–when not gnashing our teeth or crying or taking care of the loved people and/or creatures in our living space or learning new skills or finally, finally doing long-put-off projects–or for essential workers, spending exhausted hours doing what we need to do.
Today I have a poem up on the Rensselaerville NY Public Library Poem-A-Day page. In spite of its topical nature, the poem was written under different circumstances and because of other challenges in my life back then; funny how it speaks to Right Now.
Then again, that’s poetry.
You can find the poem here (and comment there if you like) and information about the Rensselaerville Library and the history of their Poetry Month celebration here .
More photos to come soon, as I figure out how to juggle the day job overtime hours and the things that feed me best.
Trees overlooking the Mohawk River along the Erie Canal, Amsterdam NY, April 2020
In this time of hunker down and keep to ourselves, I was wondering what I could possibly do to use my skillset for the community. Pretty immediately, I was surprised by a phone call.
Last September, I led a forest therapy walk for the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy at Strawberry Fields Preserve in Amsterdam, NY. (I will write about this experience—and soon—I promise!)
Carrie, my contact at MHLC, asked: Could you lead a virtual hike, and what might that look like?
In response I created two short meditations modeled on the invitations we offer in forest therapy. One is for folks who cannot go outside and one is for when you go out for your daily healthy walk for fresh spring air and long leg movements—or whatever suits you and your body. Kids can use them, too.
You can play the recordings on your device inside or outside.
I am an optimist. A belt-and-suspenders, prepare for the worst and be glad when it’s not optimist, raised by people only half a generation out from the Great Depression–but nonetheless, an optimist. I look for signs of hope while I choose not to downplay the suffering and unfairness that exist intertwined with that hope. I acknowledge the immensity of so many good things I’ve received, earned or not.
That’s been helpful during these days of up and down realities and feelings, the strange watchfulness and anxiety—what my fellow writer E.P. Beaumont has described to me as “Big Crisis combined with No Big Motion.”
All the motion I can do is walk.
Sky over Sage College, Troy NY, March 2020
Six days ago, I set out for the Sage College campus under a rain-brooding sky. I found my first spring flowers–popped up in a corner bed:crocuses, so perky and open. Some of them relaxed back, complete with raindrop sparkles (like those too-artful portraits with a single tear on the cheek).
Picture perfect spring crocus
A few nights later it snowed long and steady here in the Hudson Valley. Six inches or so of moist snow sounded like styrofoam squeaking as I shuffled through it. An umbrella protected from the plops and blops, let go from overloaded trees in the dark.
I thought of my crocuses and found them, as expected, buried and flattened under the snow.
Such a sadness. Did it portend or just reflect the horrors we are facing?
I noted what I found, felt it, and went on to tromp through the snow some more; I wondered at the thick white frosting on spring budded trees and even smiled at the usual landmarks softened in golden streetlight glow.
Other spring bulbs weighted by the snow
In daylight, the weather warmed and the snow melted away almost entirely. I went back, concerned at what I might or might not find.
There they were: beaten, torn, down in the mud. MY crocuses; it hurt to see them damaged, some flowers not coming back.
Flattened and bruised.
However, the mud, often disparaged, is for growing. I found another bunch of bulbs that had sprung back with vigor.
Some of the flowers will not return. Some will come back next year. Some are already OK.
I hear the message:appreciate what you can while you can. Feel what you feel, move your body, hold both the optimism and the bad news.
And dammit, take the precautions, be belt-and-suspenders! Do not weary of what will keep ALL of us vulnerable humans (those tender purple petals, every precious last one!) safe and able to blossom again.
We’re in the middle of the storm. Keep the lamp on for each other.