The two of us sit at opposite ends of a long table in the dining room of a flat-roofed house that juts out from the steep slope at the southern end of Skaneateles Lake. Aside from the gentle lapping of the waves, an occasional acorn dropping on the roof, or the crunch of one of our cats eating, it is silent.
The glass that wraps around the front and sides of the building gives us a 180-degree view of the Finger Lake we spend a week living beside every fall. When we pause in our work we take a moment to look out at the iridescent blue-green water before returning to our respective laptops where I am writing a memoir and my husband is composing music.
He sits across from me wearing a headset and listening to a piece he is arranging for a mixed quintet of classical and jazz musicians. He nods in time to music I can not hear, mutters to himself when things aren’t going right, smiles when he likes what he hears.
On the other side of the table, I sit with a clipboard of notes on random scraps of paper, the raw material I collect for new pieces when I don’t have time to sit down and write. In the past year, I’ve been successful at feeding my writing practice in this way because it allows me to play with an idea before I decide to make it into a project I have to work on and complete. In other words, I ease in.
We are exactly were we want be and doing what we want to do.
This is the season for pulling ornaments out of the attic, shopping for gifts in crowded malls, making the family’s favorite treats and big holiday meals, all the rituals that mark the end of one year and the beginning of another.
As I reflect on my own Christmas customs, I can see how easy I have made them for myself.
I’ve pared down my decorations to a small collection of things that are dear to me because they have a long history or are connected to someone who has died.
I’ve eliminated the stress of shopping by knitting sweaters, hats, scarves, fingerless gloves and boot warmers for my grandchildren and friends all year, picking up fun gifts for my husband’s Christmas stocking as I see them, and buying gift certificates for everyone else.
Likewise, as a grandmother who goes to where her family is instead of the other way around, I don’t do much cooking. This year I’m making a dish of macaroni and cheese to take with me to my daughter’s and a big batch of dough to bake cookies with my grandchildren.
So how will I honor the season, if I’m not decorating, shopping and baking? Something that happened the other day in the grocery store offers a clue.
Easy question for Halloween—if you see a broom with a crooked handle resting against a wall what immediately comes to mind?
Back in August I saw a row of beautifully crafted ones, all suitable transportation for Elvira Gulch, at a local craft fair, but having just been to an exhibit honoring the Shakers my first thought wasn't of the Wicked Witch of the West. What got my attention was how these handmade products stood out in our mass produced, made-in-China world.
The woman manning the booth had left a corporate position in sales and marketing to become a partner in a broom making business because it enabled her to combine her business skills with the crafts she had learned growing up in rural Vermont.
Just before sunset at low tide, the flats at Skaket Beach seemed to stretch all the way to the horizon and the sand and sky enfolded me in a soothing blanket of light.
The young parents and their sand-covered toddlers, the older couples in lawn chairs, the other solitary walkers like me were swaddled in a lavender hue in surroundings so spacious and calm that we moved slowly and kept our voices low to savor it.
In light like that you see things differently and as I ambled up the beach from the water’s edge I began to look at the day’s collection of sand castles that dotted the hard packed sand with new eyes.
Some were walled kingdoms with roads and moats, others were laid out geometrically with structures meticulously shaped using round or square molds, one featured a sea grass tower and another a beach pebble walkway. But the majority were spontaneous creations, shaped with no plan by tiny fingers for the pure delight of playing in wet sand, or by the bigger hands of adults who remembered how much fun it could be to make something for no other reason than the pleasure you get from doing it.
All would be flattened by the incoming tide, which started me wondering—which of the two types of castle-builders, the one who worked at constructing a masterpiece, or the one who had little interest in the final product, had a better day at the beach?
An often cited rule in business claims that the three secrets of success are location, location, location. But there are places which are not ideally situated and which are yet able to beat the odds.
Belfast, Maine, for example.
Belfast’s stately homes and brick buildings were constructed in the 19th century with wealth from shipbuilding and maritime commerce. When these industries faded in the 20th century, the town survived by turning its waterfront into a home for poultry, sardine, and potato processing plants. Then, with the decline of manufacturing, it turned to tourism, until in 1962 Route 1, Maine’s coastal highway, was rerouted west of downtown.
It felt like a death blow, but Belfast was once again able to reinvent itself. It understood that the bypass actually had the benefit of preserving the city’s historic character and relaxed, small-town feel, and since the 1980s this hidden gem near the top of Penobscot Bay has enjoyed a rebirth as an arts and cultural center, attracting visitors (like me) who are willing to go a little out of their way to experience its authenticity.
This summer something wonderful happened—a one-ton dumpster arrived in my driveway empty at the beginning of June and was taken away full two weeks later.
I hailed its arrival because it offered a solution to a problem that had eluded me for years—how to get rid of debris I hadn’t been able to take to the town dump because it wouldn’t fit in the car—an insect-eaten picnic table, a pile of scrap lumber from a defunct tree house, the remnants of a bathroom vanity we'd replaced last year.
My husband doubted there was enough of this unwanted stuff to make it worth the expense of a dumpster, but I didn’t care. I was tired of looking at things that no longer served a purpose in our lives. They were blocking the view, not only of what my environment might look like, but of how I wanted to live in it. Clearing had to happen before something new could be created.
Every few years or so, I engage in some form of creative exercise to refresh and renew my business (and myself in it).
I knew it was time to redo my website when I didn't feel comfortable sending potential clients to it because it looked out-of-date and cluttered.
The idea of getting started on a new site was exciting to me, so I was surprised that it led to a sleepless night of thrashing and telling myself I was crazy to be reshaping my business identity at an age when most people have already retired.
This sudden attack of self-inflicted ageism was particularly disconcerting because most of the time I like my age (I'll be 70 in November). I rarely hear myself saying, "I'm too old for ..." (except in-line skating, which I ruled out after I was diagnosed with osteoporosis).
My daughter and her boyfriend were devastated at the thought of no more music from The Grateful Dead after Jerry Garcia died (August 9, 1995) and so they not only breathed a sigh of relief when they heard that the remaining members of the band were to perform with the San Francisco Symphony—they loaded up and headed out.
The trip from the East Coast was a particularly grueling one. They took the southern route across Texas and Arizona and when they reached the California coast they discovered that El Niño had washed portions of it out to sea, forcing them to detour inland.
They found relief from the long days of driving and nights of primitive camping by seeking out some affluent California town much like the one they came from (Ridgefield, Connecticut) with a gym for bathing and an upscale coffee shop where they could plug into a homelike environment and talk to the locals.
I like words, discovering new ones and looking up their meanings, yet I’ve always had an aversion to any piece of writing that starts off with something like, “The word x is defined as....” It’s always felt like a weak beginning and I’ve vowed never to do it.
But sooner or later we end up breaking our hard and fast rules, so I’m going to start this column with a definition for the word "responsible" which you won’t find in any dictionary: being responsible means changing the toilet paper roll when the old one is empty.
It’s a simple practice but it’s not as easy as you might think, especially for someone as mechanically challenged as I am. I’ve often had to collect the two sections and center spring of the spindle from the floor multiple times before finally getting it back on the holder, or have spent an extra ten minutes in a public stall trying to figure out how to reload one of those multi-roll contraptions.
What's important about this exercise is that I took the time to attend to the task in front of me, without an audience, or accountability, or the expectation of any reward beyond the boost it gave to my own self-esteem.