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.
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.
On outer Cape Cod where I live there is the summer tourist season, when every business has more than they can handle, the fall “tour-bus” season, which some businesses stay open to accommodate, and the off-season when any discussion of where to go starts with, “What’s open?”
I’ve grown used to the limitations that go with living year round in a summer vacation destination, but I didn’t expect to find the same problem on a recent visit to Washington DC which happened to coincide with the first day of the government shutdown.
All the places I’d hoped to visit—the National Gallery, the World War II Memorial, the Holocaust Museum, the National Arboretum—were closed, so I said to myself, I need to do what I do all winter—direct my attention to what’s open.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever spent a lot of money on a textbook for a class you really didn’t want to take.
I have a vivid memory of waiting in line in a college bookstore to buy an 800-page statistics manual for a quantitative methods course in an MBA program. I was recently divorced, in my mid-forties, re-entering the work world, and this was the prescribed credential.
But as I inched closer to the checkout area, I happened to pass the Art History section and my heart beat faster as book cover images of Gothic cathedrals, Old Masters and Impressionist landscapes caught my eye. A powerful urge to abandon multivariate data analysis for Degas’ ballerinas came over me, but I dutifully held on to the textbook, even as it grew heavier in my arms.
As you read this, I am on my annual rest-read-write retreat at Skaneateles Lake, so I am offering this column about a past trip in 2010. Of course, I don’t yet know what will come from the creative space of this year's visit, but I promise to let you know in a future column.
My time at the lake this year was about being in the here and now. I try to do this at home, but being away frames it differently.
There's the packing and the unpacking, the seven hour trip there and back, the joy of arriving and the sadness of leaving. Going to the same place every year has sharpened my awareness of these dichotomies, and I know the alternating rhythm well enough that sway with it immediately.
It was the beginning of rush hour, and the Green Line train was almost full, forcing us to stand. As soon as we boarded I grabbed the bar on the back of the seat nearest me and adjusted my stance to absorb the jerk which I knew would follow as soon as we started.
I noticed a man sitting in the aisle seat a few rows back, and two things about him immediately grabbed my attention. One, he was sitting with his back ramrod straight, and two, he was ex-military, wearing a black corduroy baseball cap embroidered in red and yellow letters that said "Marine Veteran" and a badge that read "Vietnam Veteran" above the pocket of his denim jacket.
His self-assurance was fascinating, yet I also found his eyes-front posture intimidating because of the oversize aviator sunglasses that hid half of his handsome face, making it impossible to read his expression. I aimed my gaze over his head and out the window and wondered what he'd experienced in that war that was more humiliating to those who fought in it than any other in America's history, and how it had shaped him.