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.
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.
I finally did it—started strength training. In 2009 my doctor said that my worsening T-scores (bone density results marking the progression of osteoporosis) indicated that I either had to take action or go on medication, but I only got as far as checking out, and rejecting, membership in a local gym—if I didn’t enjoy being there for the five minutes it took for the receptionist to show me around, it was highly unlikely I would have gone three times a week.
For five years I discarded one idea after another—a treadmill in the basement, exercise videos, a personal trainer who thought that anyone over 40 had entered old age. I did take longer walks and tried to follow the exercise program, albeit haphazardly, in a book on how to build strong bones, but I knew I wasn’t challenging myself enough and felt like I was copping out.
What was missing was the right resource.
The antebellum architecture of the South Carolina Low County around Beaufort ranges from the mansions of dignitaries and wealthy merchants to the three remaining praise houses of the Gullah people.
As much as I enjoyed looking at the former, it was my visit to a small white cabin, no bigger than a farm stand on the side of highway, that impressed me the most. Intended as places for slaves to worship, praise houses were intentionally kept small by plantation owners who feared the slaves might organize if allowed to congregate in large numbers.
There, as many as could fit on the benches of a 10x15 room would do the only thing they could do without asking permission, sing praises to a Christian God, while they beat out the rhythms of their West African homes with their hands, feet, walking sticks and dried gourds and created a unique culture by singing, stomping and shouting their own identity.
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.
The first half dozen pages of the November issue of Real Simple were just the kind of thing you’d expect from a glossy magazine—double page ads for makeup, cashmere sweaters, and a sonic foot care system.
It was the next couple of pages that brought me up short.
On the left, beneath the word “Thoughts” there was a striking photograph of an island with a grove of birch trees whose russet leaves covered the ground and a boardwalk inviting the reader to stroll over a patch of slate blue water lined with the afternoon shadows of the trees to the solitude and peace of the island.
Near the bottom of the page there was a quote from Henry David Thoreau: "I am grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual. It is surprising how contented one can be with nothing definite—only a sense of existence.
On the right there was a full page ad dominated by an enormous image of a bottle of facial lotion floating inside a water balloon (presumably to highlight its moisturizing qualities).
It was such a strange juxtaposition. I couldn’t help but wonder what Thoreau would have to say about it.
This summer I’ve been studying the Alexander Technique, an educational process developed by New Zealander F. M. Alexander in the early 1900's that teaches you how to release tension by sending messages to your body to undo unnecessary patterns of holding.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised to discover that Alexander’s idea of achieving greater freedom and ease of movement works also with more than just muscles, nerves and bones.
Looking for places in my body where I habitually store stress, it didn’t take long for me to discover what felt like a sizzling mass of hot wires in the back of my neck and left shoulder blade that appeared whenever I was provoked by an unpleasant sensation, e.g. sitting for a long period of time in summer traffic.
But it took a while to figure out where I stashed my emotional patterns of holding. When I heard myself sharing a painful situation in my life exactly the way I’d shared it for the last two years, I knew I’d hit paydirt.