December 28, 2014

Waterfall walk with Biker Boy

For the last couple of weeks, my home has been filled with family and friends. But there’s one person I hadn’t yet seen over the holidays — Little Biker Boy. This morning, I drove out to the town where he lives so we could spend some time together.

Biker Boy is not little any more, although he still does love to ride a bicycle. He’s taller than me now, and in a dark hoodie and shorts (yes, shorts even in the winter!), he looks like the teenager he is. But despite his height and facial hair, he is still the same affectionate, good-natured kid. After I picked him up, we ate pizza at a local pizza place, as is our tradition. Then we drove to the nearest park, a place with rock cliffs and a waterfall surging with snowmelt, to take a walk.

It’s been almost two years since Biker Boy moved in with his adoptive parents, and it’s just incredible to see what a difference a loving, stable home can make. We talked about school and girls and snowmobiles and video games, and the whole conversation was wonderfully normal and low-key. All the anger that used to simmer below the surface has dissipated, leaving just all the good characteristics that were there all along.

We walked along a trail that gave us a good view of the waterfall. Biker Boy took my phone and began snapping pictures, and then he started teasing me by saying he was going to climb over the fence. “I should KNOW better than to take a teenage boy anywhere near a waterfall,” I said to him. “My sons always did the same thing.”

“I’m so much like your kids,” he said, dropping back to walk next to me, pretending to push me off the path.

“You are,” I said. “I’ve always told you that.”

December 24, 2014

Christmas Eve, this time with robots

Building the robots

We're ready for Christmas. The tree is decorated. Family members have arrived, the younger ones bringing sleeping bags since we don't have enough beds for all. The refrigerator is so filled that I've resorted to stacking food on a table in our conveniently cold garage. We'll be using all four burners on the stove, plus several crockpots on the counter. I've carried in enough firewood to keep the fire going. Twenty-six family members will gather at my house for Christmas Eve, and most of us will be here again for Christmas dinner.

Traditionally, we each buy only one gift. It was With-a-Why's turn to be Secret Santa this year. He declared himself the King of the North, and he matched up family members, sending us each an email telling us who to buy for. Great secrecy surrounds the Secret Santa gift exchange, and I haven't guessed yet who has me. Most of us wrap our gifts quite simply, sometimes even just stapling together the store bag, but it's a tradition for Boy-in-Black to wrap his gift in the most ridiculous way possible, using every empty box piled in the garage and every bit of leftover wrapping paper. His project this year was an eight-foot robot that is taller than the Christmas tree. His name is GMO, and he's standing in the corner, ready to greet family members as they arrive.

Ready for Christmas

November 26, 2014

On the Eve of Thanksgiving

Snow for Thanksgiving

The snow came this afternoon — fluffy wet snow that stuck to branches and tree trunks and eyelashes, covering my woods with a relentless beauty that was impossible to ignore. It’s winter here, the day before Thanksgiving, just two weeks since my sister’s funeral. I’ve been eating hot soup all day, lentil soup made with rice that a close friend dropped off yesterday. “I know that soup is your comfort food,” she said.

Tonight, we are gathered inside by the fire. With-a-Why, Boy-in-Black, and my husband are on the couch, watching something on With-a-Why’s laptop. My daughter is at the table, drinking tea and grading papers. Shy Smile sits next to her, laptop open. Sailor Boy is stretched out in the chair by the fire. The house has been full of family every weekend this semester, as we’ve coped with first my sister’s illness and then her death.

My son Shaggy Hair Boy and his fiancĂ© Smiley Girl spent today driving. They left when it was still dark to drive to Big Midwestern City to spend the holiday with Drama Niece – and her boyfriend, who is still so new to the family that he doesn’t yet have pseudonym. I am happy that Drama Niece, who has flown here twice in the last month, won’t be alone for the holiday. When I get the text that they’ve arrived safely, I call my Mom to tell her the news and I hear her call out to my father. He’s been busy getting out the extra folding chairs while she bakes pies for tomorrow’s dinner.

My brother and sister-in-law will arrive in the morning. They usually aren’t here for Thanksgiving, but they’re changing up the tradition this year. My out-of-town sisters won’t be here: we’ll see them at Christmas. Blond Brother-in-law will come, of course, and he’ll carve the turkey, like he always does. We’ll see his three daughters, of course. Blonde Niece will sit by Boy-in-Black, Red-haired Niece will bring her boyfriend and possibly her dog, and Schoolteacher Niece will come with her husband and her six-month-old baby, who has red hair and chubby legs and the cutest smile.

When I talked to my mother earlier, we went over the plans for Thanksgiving dinner — who was coming this year, how many chairs she needed — and we talked about plans for Christmas Eve and for Christmas dinner too. We always do that, counting up family members, making sure we know where everyone is and who is eating where and how much food we need. We didn’t have to say aloud what we were both feeling because we both knew. So we talked about whether or not we should have peas in addition to green beans, and I told her that we had to include green peas because Boy-in-Black and Red-haired Niece both love them, and once we’d adjusted the menu to suit every family member who will come tomorrow, I put my phone back in my pocket and walked outside in the snow to see what sympathy cards the mailbox held today.

November 16, 2014

My oldest sister

Blonde Sister has always lived within ten miles of me. Just two years older, she is part of every childhood memory I have.

On the first day of kindergarten, Blonde Sister walked me to my classroom and delivered me, scared and shy, to the teacher. The summer after eighth grade, she went with me to my first dance. The night before I began high school, she drew me a map of the school and said, “So long as you remember where the auditorium is, you can’t get lost.” Almost everything I've ever done, she did first, and that has made my life so much easier.

One of my earliest memories involves an Easter egg hunt at a neighbor’s house down the road. The older kids were running around, finding eggs. I kept chasing after them and looking in the same spots, which was not at all effective. I said to Blonde Sister, in despair, “I can’t find an egg.” She was five years old at the time. She took a bright green egg from her basket, walked a few feet, and set it on a wooden railing. I ran over, grabbed it happily, and then ran to brag to everyone that I’d found an egg.

We fought sometimes as kids because that's what kids do. The year she turned ten years old, she would say smugly “I’m double figures,” just because it made us younger siblings mad. And when she played Monopoly, she just HAD to put hotels on those light blue properties. Every. Single. Time. When we played the game Twenty Questions around the campfire and the rest of us were methodically asking questions to narrow down the search, she’d shout out things like, “Is it the Statue of Liberty?” in hopes of winning the game with one guess.

Blonde Sister was an eternal optimist. On our vacations at camp, we’d all be standing around gloomily on a dark rainy day, and she’d point across the river and say, “I see a patch of blue sky coming this way.” She was very artistic – whether we were painting the picture windows for Christmas or making travel kits for our annual trip to visit my grandmother and Aunt Seashell – her colorful drawings made my stick figures look a bit pathetic. I still have the colorful mural she painted for my daughter when she was a baby.

For many years, I saw my sister every day. I’d drop my kids off at her house on my way to work and I’ll pick them up on my way home. That’s why my four kids were so close to her. She helped raise them. In the summer, she’d call and say, “Let’s do a Kid Switch.” I’d drop Shaggy Hair Boy at her house to play with Blonde Niece, and take her older two daughters home to play with my kids. The seven kids, mine and hers, have always seemed more like siblings than cousins: they still hang out together, all the time.

My oldest sister was a private person who never liked the spotlight. Three months ago, when she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, I respected her privacy, as well as the privacy of her husband and three daughters, and I didn’t write anything about her struggles on this blog. I didn't write about her weeks in the hospital or what it must be like for my parents, who are in their 80s, to see their oldest child so ill.

Blonde Sister died last Sunday. She was 55.

I still can’t believe she’s gone. I keep wanting to pick up the phone to call her. All week, the family has been gathering at my house, to talk and grieve and eat food, and I keep expecting her to walk through the door. I am still in shock. It’s taken me a week to write this blog post. Writing is what makes things real to me. And this is something I don’t want to be real.

Hiding behind the newspaper

This photo of Blonde Sister taken in the early years of my blog. She and my son Shaggy Hair Boy were joking about how I never show faces on my blog, so they were hiding behind the newspaper and saying, "Go ahead! Take a photo for the blog!"

October 28, 2014

Naked as a tree trunk


“You get to pick your own pseudonym,” I tell women who pose naked for me. Or, at least, I try to remember that. Sometimes I’ve already flown home from a conference, photos in my camera, before I remember that rule. And sometimes it’s too late. Quilt Artist, for example, had appeared on my blog as Quilt Artist long before she ever posed for me. The pseudonym isn’t very original — but then again, she’s the only quilt artist in my circle of friends — so at least I always remember her name. 

The day I took Soulbent’s photo, the sun had disappeared behind the clouds, and the air was chilly, but she willingly stripped off her clothes anyway. “With this light, you will mostly be a silhouette,” I said.

She looked around thoughtfully, and then pointed to a tree that near the lake edge. “I’ll pose with the tree.” She walked carefully through the leaves and twigs, then stood with her barefeet on the smooth trunk of the bent tree trunk, moving her body to be in harmony with the other trunks, becoming part of the scene of water, tree, sky, and mountain.

When we rejoined the rest of our friends, who were sitting inside the warm lodge, we plunged immediately into a discussion of body image. Soulbent has lived in other parts of the world, and she thinks the American phenomenon of the push-up bra is a bit bizarre. “I’ve lived in cultures where women are more comfortable with the natural shape of the breast,” she said. “They don’t feel the need to push their breasts up like that.”

“Cleavage doesn’t exist in nature,” chimed in another woman. “It’s created by restrictive garments.”

“So often with the fashion industry, the female body is just a hanger for clothing,” said Soulbent. “The body becomes just another commodity.”

 “And in this culture, the naked body is almost always sexualized,” I said. “That drives me crazy."

While we were talking, my friend gave some thought to her pseudonym. She explained that in Sufi practices, you use names to call on qualities you want. That makes sense to me: I imagine that is how names like Faith and Joy came into being. So, since she is a woman who tries to live and breathe and act from her soul, from the essence of her being, she chose the pseudonym Soulbent.

 Read more about the history of the naked blogging project and check out the gallery of photos.

October 22, 2014

What's my number?

Last weekend, two photographers and a film guy descended upon my house to interview me for a documentary called By the Numbers: Perceptions in Beauty, a project about women’s body images that involves taking photos of naked women. In their words, they want “to help people, especially women, be freed from the pressures of the media and society to fit into certain norms of beauty, sometimes expressed in the numbers about one’s body – weight, age, size….” It’s a project designed to encourage body love, rather than body hate. They’d heard about my naked blog photo project and they’d come to talk to me about it. They lugged in all kinds of camera equipment, rearranged my furniture, and asked me a whole bunch of questions. It was fun. In fact, the conversation was so stimulating that I forgot to ask any of them to pose naked for my blog. Clearly, I'd forgotten my manners.

Towards the end of the interview, Friendly Woman Photographer asked me what numbers have affected my body image or self-esteem. Put on the spot, I couldn’t really come up with a good answer. I don’t usually know how much I weigh: the only time I weigh myself is when I’m at a doctor’s office, and that’s hardly ever. I’ve never felt like I was too fat or too thin. I’m not self-conscious about my age. I like all the silver in my hair, and I’m quick to tell people that I’m 53. I’m happy with my bra size, my shoe size, and my clothing size — although I do fervently wish that some fashion designer out there would make bathing suits for women who have breasts and hips and other standard female body parts.

But today, I thought about my body image when I was younger — and I remembered how I HATED wearing glasses. So I think I’d have to say the number that affected my self-esteem was 20/20 — the ideal vision that I didn’t have. Glasses made me feel ugly. When I was a teenager and got a job, the very first thing I saved money for was contact lenses. For me, the five-minute process of taking off my glasses and putting in my contact lenses was a beauty ritual that utterly transformed me from shy nerd to attractive, confident woman. It was, in fact, the only beauty ritual I ever needed. I don't wear make-up, worry about my clothes, or do anything with my hair: it's all about removing the glasses.

I think that at an impressionable age I was exposed to way too many of those romantic movies and novels where main character is this nerdy, asexual woman with her hair in a bun and glasses on — and then at the end of the story, she takes off the glasses, lets down her hair, and is suddenly beautiful. It's possible that I internalized the cliche. I hate wearing glasses and I have always had long hair. Perhaps I’m more influenced by the dominant culture than I thought.

October 16, 2014

Getting naked in the mountains: it's a tradition

My friends were gathered in the lodge with bowls of soup, eating in front of a crackling fire and happily talking about our weekend plans, when I gestured toward my camera. “Who’s going to get naked for me?”

This question no longer comes as a surprise. My friends know all about my naked photo project. The flow of conversation didn’t even stop, but I could see several of the women pausing to consider the factors involved: How warm is it outside? How many boaters will there be on the lake? Did I shave my legs?

“Someone needs to pose,” said Denim Woman. “Our reputation is at stake.”

Years ago, we earned the name Wild Women after one of the husbands heard about a skinny dipping adventure in a cold mountain lake. But we hadn’t done much lately to keep up that reputation. The most spicy thing we’d done so far that weekend was to make soup.

“So what were you thinking?” asked Dancing Woman. “A photo out by the lake?” She asked the question casually, but by now I've learned to recognize that tone of voice: she was in.

So the next day, after we'd returned from a hike that took us through trees bursting gold in afternoon sun, I nudged her. “Hey, the light is perfect. Let’s take a photo.”

When it comes to these naked photos, I'm not really a photographer. I'm really more like a tripod, who happens to be pushing the button on the camera, the mechanism for women to take their own pictures. Dancing Woman chose the spot — stone steps by the lake with a handrail that looks like a branch. It's in a fairly public place, but she stripped off her clothes with a fine disregard for passing boaters.

Dancing Woman held her hands up to the sky in a gesture of release. “This is me,” she said, “letting go.” Sunlight flickered through a tree on the shore, casting a pattern of light and dark on her back and legs.

I yelled some helpful ideas for poses, but she yelled back, “I can’t really hear you. Not with the waves.” Balancing on the stone steps, she turned to smile at me and then stepped toward the lake, looking out across the water as if the lake had something to tell her.

Dancing Woman at the Lake

You can find the gallery of naked photos here.

October 14, 2014

Weekend at Silver Bay

Silver Bay

When I woke up Saturday morning, the sun was just coming over the mountains, lighting the lake with glints of silver. I unzipped my sleeping bag and pulled on some clothes. My women friends were still sleeping, scattered throughout the bedrooms of the lodge where we were gathered for our annual fall retreat. I always sleep on the floor in front of big stone fireplace, which means I get the best room to myself. I fall asleep in a room filled with moonlight and the soft glow that comes from red hot coals, and wake up to the dawn light shining through floor-to-ceiling glass windows.

I grabbed my camera and slipped out of the lodge for an early walk. The camps along the lake are mostly empty by October, the summer season long over. The wind pushed bright leaves about on little sandy beaches, and pine needles spread orange-brown across the tarps tied over boats and lawn furniture. Despite the sun, the wind was cold: I shoved my hands into the pocket of my hoodie and wished I had mittens.

A brisk walk in a cool wind was just what I needed. By the time I got back to the lodge, I was ready to make a cup of hot tea, build a fire, write in my journal, and start the day. My friends were waking up by then, wandering about sleepily with mugs of tea or plates of food. We've been friends long enough to tease each other about who snores and who needs a shower. I don't think I even combed my hair all weekend so I'm sure my hair was the wildest.

We fit as much as we could into the gorgeous fall day. We hiked a trail that followed the lake north. We ate bowls of hot soup. We walked down the YMCA property that has an outdoor labyrinth. And mostly, we talked. Sometimes in groups, sometimes in pairs, we talked and talked and talked, until by evening, we felt caught up on each other’s lives. The blues in the sky deepened into purple, and we gathered in the big room with the stone fireplace, relaxed in the way friends are when they have bared their souls to each other. LovesAnimals had set up her loom right in the midst of our circle of chairs, and we took turns at the loom, weaving yarns together while the fire crackled in the background.


October 09, 2014



My kids are mostly all grown up now, but they all still live in the area, so my husband and I have begun the tradition of Sunday brunch, with the idea that we can lure them home with food. It seems to be working.

That's my daughter in the hammock, talking with Drama Niece, who was here for the weekend, and Blonde Niece, who lives close enough that we've long considered her part of the household.

October 06, 2014

"Shall be forever kept as wild forest lands"

Driving in the mountains

Last weekend, I drove with my parents to the mountains to admire the fall foliage and visit the area where my father worked as a young musician in the early 1950s. Almost every stop included a lake: the mountains are filled with beautiful little lakes. We stayed at an old mountain inn built more than 100 years ago and ended the day sitting comfortably in front of a fire talking to the innkeeper, just as if we were characters in a 1930s movie.

We take this trip every year, and we’re always alert to any changes in the landscape. My father will point out resorts that have closed during the last 60 years. And he’ll shake his head at the size of the summer cottages that private owners build. But of course, since so much of the land is protected under the state constitution, much of the land stays the same. On hiking trails, the tall pines tower above us, the pine needles underfoot release a heady aroma when you walk on them, the ferns crowd the paths, and the hardwoods fill the sky with red, yellow, and orange on a fall day.

“Yeah, it’s still the same,” my father said. “I love that.”

Big Moose Lake

September 15, 2014

September weekend at the monastery

Monastery in September

Saturday morning, it rained. I sat in the little guesthouse at the monastery, watching the water slide down past the big glass window, listening to the drops thumping on the roof. I opened a brand new journal, thrilling at the sight of all those blank pages, and began writing. I drank hot tea, I stared out the window, and I wrote page after page. When finally, I ran out of words, I put on my red raincoat and ran over to the chapel, climbing down the stairs into the crypt lit by dozens of votive candles.

Eventually, the rain stopped. I began the walk I always take, rambling though the barnyard and sheep pastures. The monks had been busy preparing for winter. Tall stacks of hay stood in a row, high up on the hills. The sheep were busy eating the green grasses, fattening themselves up for the long winter ahead. The guard donkey, whose function is to keep the coyotes away from the sheep, wandered over towards the fence. The sun came out long enough to make me take off my rainjacket, the warmth didn't last long. When the rain began again, I walked over to the bookstore, where I knew I'd find Brother Beekeeper. The rain was keeping him from his usual chores on the farm, so we settled down for a long chat.

Guard donkey

September 02, 2014

Labor Day at camp

Goose Bay in August Monday morning, I woke to the birds of the marsh singing outside of my tent. I made my way down to the dock and climbed into my little red kayak, wedging the dry bag that held my camera into a spot between my feet. The water level had dropped as it always does with the approach of all, and the lily pads stood high, curling and flapping in the wind. The great blue heron that nests right at the edge of the cattails flew off as I approached. The kayak glided easily over the weeds and lily pads as I paddled along the edge of the marsh, up to the little creek. I expected to see carp, but the even the pools of water between the big masses of weeds were still. The only person I saw was my father, rowing his little sailboat out past the weeds so that he could take a morning sail on the river.

August 24, 2014

Living in our garage

On the woodpile

Keeping the woodpile in the garage means that even in the most miserable weather, I have only to go a few feet to grab dry logs that will burn nicely. But it also means that on an August day, when I wandered out into the garage barefoot to begin cleaning the backshelves, I was not alone. All along the woodpile, little heads turned toward me, woken by the vibration of my footsteps or perhaps my scent carried across the warm air.

Snakes love a woodpile.

A few years ago, when I asked my students what I should do about the snakes in my garage, they acted like my question was silly. “Why would you want to get rid of the snakes?” a young man said. “They'll eat the mice. And unlike mice, snakes don’t carry diseases.”

As I was cleaning the garage, I tried to remember my students’ words. One snake stretched atop a log like a sunbather on the first day of summer. Another, clearly the shy younger sibling, curled in the corner, almost out of sight. “At least they keep the mice away,” I told myself. I kept up that line of reasoning even when I began sweeping underneath the shelves and came up with a dustpan of mouse droppings.

I found myself tensing up just a bit as I sorted through stuff, even though I was pretty sure that snakes wouldn't climb the metal shelves. When I opened a box of snowboarding boots, I didn’t see any snakes, but it was filled with shredded paper that just might be a mouse’s nest. I carried the box in, set it on the table, and promptly forgot about it. That turned out to be a mistake as I discovered several hours later. With-a-Why, sitting at the couch with his computer, noticed it first. “I think I just saw a mouse run across the room,” he said.

“How could that be?” my husband asked. “We have FIVE cats.” Three of the cats, in fact, were in the room, stretched out comfortably on the carpet. Then I noticed some movement on the kitchen table. A baby mouse ran to the edge of the table, looked down, then ran the other way. Another mouse peeked out of the cardboard box. Another little mouse had reached a wooden chair and was heading to the floor. I yelled for my family to help as I began scooping baby mice up and tossing them out the back door.

The five cats in the house and numerous garter snakes in the garage? They did nothing.

August 03, 2014

Turn left at the castle

Castle at first light

With my body still on east coast time, I woke up at dawn. The sun hadn’t yet appeared over the mountains, so the long beach outside my window was in deep shade. I pulled on some clothes, grabbed my camera, and went out for a walk. It was colder than I had expected. The soft sand I stepped into felt more like snow. It looked like snow, too, the way it was sculpted into shapes by the wind. Waves rolled in, the white foamy crests striking in the early morning light.

I turned north to walk up towards the big rocks that make an arch. I had the whole beach to myself. I didn’t see another person although I did find a sand castle built yesterday and evidence of an evening bonfire. I wandered up the beach, happily taking photos, sometimes wandering in the water to get just the right shot. I didn’t really have enough light yet for good photos, but I didn’t really care. Having a camera in hand just makes me notice how beautiful everything is.

I was glad, as I walked, that I was wearing a warm fleece, and I began to regret the decision to go barefoot. The sensations in my feet were painful at first, and then they began to go numb, so that it was as if I was dragging along these heavy blocks of ice. “As soon as the sun comes across the bluffs, the sand will get warm,” I told myself. I kept looking hopefully over to the string of beach houses to the east. I turned back towards my motel, wondering how far I’d gone. I’d been out for at least an hour.

I knew it was getting later because I saw another person on the sand, a woman walking a dog. I looked enviously at the sneakers and thick socks she was wearing. By then, I was feeling eager to get back to my warm room. Just one problem. None of the buildings along the shore looked familiar. I remembered that the motel was built of weathered grey wood, but that described almost every building I saw. In my wanderings, I’d been so focused on the ocean that I hadn’t looked towards the shore, and nothing I was passing looked familiar. Maybe I’d already passed the motel. My feet were so cold that I probably looked drunk as I stumbled along the cold sand.

Just then, the sun finally crept past over the tallest bluff, sending rays of light across the sand. I saw a sand castle in front of me — the same one I had noticed earlier! That meant I was right near my motel. With relief I stepped onto the sunlit sand. Already, it felt warmer. I sat down in the sand to take a photo of the castle and absorb the sun as it spread across the beach.

August 01, 2014

Rocky beach in afternoon light

Second Beach

My husband and I are traveling slowly down the west coast, taking the time to explore beaches, stop at lighthouses, hike rocky trails, and stay a couple nights in each beautiful place we find. Last summer, we cancelled our vacation when his mother went into the hospital, so this year we decided we deserved two weeks instead of one. Besides, our 30 year wedding anniversary is this month, and we figured a relaxing vacation would be the best way to celebrate.

July 29, 2014

Here comes the bride


Whenever I send my parents beach photos, my mother asks, “Did you go swimming?” She spent childhood summers on the Jersey shore, where she and her sister spent hours in the water every day. Here in the Pacific Northwest, where the surf is rough, the water icy cold, and rocks jut out from the sand, no one seems to swim. The beaches we’ve been going to are mostly empty of humans, except for a few who are walking, or making forts from driftwood, or sitting in a sheltered place to enjoy the sun.

To get to our favourite beach this morning, my husband and I hiked through a lush forest of tall hemlocks and spruce, with ferns that were waist high. We saw only a few other people. They were young people who reminded me of my college students: dressed in hiking boots and warm fleeces, they carried packs and we could see their tents set up near the piles of bleached trees that edged the beach. 

We explored four different beaches, each with a different personality. One beach was rocky and windy, with huge piles of driftwood. Another was sandy and sheltered, a calm place where we could sit and talk for hours. We saw no lifeguards and no one in bathing suits. Mostly, we saw seagulls and the occasional hiker. Late in the afternoon, though, we came to a secluded beach at the bottom of a steep trail and found, to our surprise, a young woman in a wedding dress, posing with her groom.

Here comes the bride

Atcha Ta Aye


I woke up this morning in a little fishing village in the Pacific Northwest, on land where the Quileute people have lived since the beginning of time. Ocean waves swept across the beach outside my window, leaving smooth wet sand. It was only 5:30 am, but my body was still on east coast time, so I slipped out of bed, pulled on some clothes, and went outside to explore.

Mine were the only footprints on the beach. Seagulls screeched over the rhythm of the waves. Huge bleached logs — whole trees some of them — lined the edge of the beach, creating lovely seats and shelters and forts for kids to play in. Across the water, out beyond the breaking waves, tall rock islands stood like guardians to this cove. They are sacred islands, where ancestors are buried and spirits roam.

I wandered along the beach and over to the marina, where some of the fishing boats were just leaving for the day. A thick fog clung to the shore. On the far side of the harbor, I saw some harbor seals, ducking in and out of the grey water. When a slight breeze came out, the rigging of the boats clinked and chimed. I passed a man about my father’s age, wearing a heavy coat and carrying a bucket. He nodded and smiled at me as I went past with my camera. Near the Coast Guard dock, two young men in uniform were walking out, just about to start their shift. By the time I walked back, cutting through the little village, the single yellow school bus was weaving its way down the street.


July 24, 2014

Always visit the lighthouse

Montauk Point Lighthouse

That’s my travel tip. I don’t know how many lighthouses I’ve visited in my lifetime, but I haven’t regretted a single one.

Lighthouses are built in interesting places — usually at the top of a cliff that juts out into the ocean, with gorgeous views. The little museums attached to them are filled with history: black-and-white photos of the original site, sketches of shipwrecks, and often some narrative about the lighthouse keepers and their families. In an old journal, you can get a glimpse of the man who spent years living on the edge of a cliff, gardening or reading, polishing the lenses and carrying fuel, responsible for the beacon that just might save someone’s life.

  Journal of a lighthouse keeper

July 20, 2014

Salt water

My parents and my youngest sister

Thursday morning, I traveled with my parents to visit Urban Sophisticate Sister and her husband, Tall Architect. We were eager to see their new home, far out on the long island that lies beyond City Like No Other. Their home is lovely, with tall windows that bring in sunlight, a backyard filled with purple azaleas, and a friendly cat who apparently came with the house. But the best part? They are just a short drive from the ocean. The first thing we did Friday morning was drive to the beach and take a walk with our feet in the waves.

July 12, 2014

Under canvas again

Under canvas again

A couple of summers ago my eighty-something father gave up the wooden sailboat he had designed and built himself. A wooden sailboat takes a lot of upkeep — work that very few people can do even when they aren’t in their eighties — and it had gotten to be too much for him. The wooden hull was pretty damaged, so my father cut it up, putting pieces into the marsh for animals to use. He gave me the forward hatch cover and the wooden strip from the bow that held the registration numbers: I have both pieces in my home office.

My father spent last year exploring the river in just a little aluminum motorboat, even designing a seat that would give him back support, but he missed sailing – the peaceful feeling you get when your boat is powered by nothing more than wind hitting canvas.

So over the winter, my father turned that little aluminum motorboat into a sailboat. He made a mast from PVC pipe and used wire for the rigging. Since the metal boat has no keel or centerboard, he built wooden leeboards that can be raised and lowered from either side of the boat. He worked the calculations out on paper, then built every piece he needed, painting the new wooden parts blue to indicate the transformation the boat was undergoing. The last thing he did was to take an old cotton that he used on his first sailboat, spread it out on the floor, and cut and sew until he had new sail for his boat.

So last week when I was up at camp, we waited for an afternoon with a light wind and I went sailing with my father.

July 08, 2014

Amidst the cattails


I’ve been living in a tent for the last ten days — the annual July vacation at my parents’ camp, a peninsula of oak trees that juts out into a marsh on the river. My parents have a little cabin that they built before the 1972 wetlands legislation went into effect, and the rest of us (that is, my siblings and our families) bring tents. We’re a family that keeps getting bigger all the time, and I counted 11 tents this year. The age range spanned 83 years – from my father, who is the oldest, to my niece’s baby, who just turned six weeks.

People often ask, “So what do you do all week?”

We do spend a lot of time sitting around in the shade of the oak trees, talking and joking and playing games. But we also swim, and paddle canoes or kayaks, and build campfires, and cook meals on the grill, and drive to town for ice cream, and go sailing, and play bocce or cards or that game where you toss cornbags through a hole in a board. When the whole family is up, there’s always something going on. And anyone who wants a break from the noisy crowd at the firepit can take an inner tube and float quietly in the marsh.

That’s Dandelion Niece in the photo.

June 28, 2014

Project Naked: the Mermaid


The conference I went to last week was pretty small — only 75 people and two days of sessons. Technically, it wasn’t a conference at all. It was an unconference, an event during which participants plan the sessions. And I didn’t have a roommate. But still, I felt I needed to do a naked photo shoot. After all, it’s a tradition.

That first morning of the conference, when I woke up hours before the conference began, the beachside town was hidden by a thick layer of fog. When I walked on the beach, I couldn’t see the boardwalk, the casinos, the hotels, or a single other person. Perfect, I thought, for a lovely naked photo. I liked outdoor shots the best. I just needed to find a willing participant.

It was the during the meet-and-greet session that I noticed Mermaid Woman. She had the kind of personality that turns a sleepy breakfast into a party, and she seemed comfortable with her body, ready to jump into a feminist discussion about body image at a moment’s notice. About five sentences into our conversation, I asked her to pose. She laughed, and I knew that meant yes.

Even though my hotel room had lovely natural light, I really wanted a shot on the beach. “I can do a yoga pose,” said Mermaid Woman. I promised her that if we met early for a walk on the beach the next day that we’d the privacy she might want. All my naked photo shoots are top secret, I assured her.

So the next day, Mermaid Woman obligingly met me on the boardwalk, bright and early, and we walked out onto the beach, where ocean water was surging up across the wet sand. As I squinted into the sun, I could see the steel pier, the boardwalk, the tall hotels — and various people walking along the water’s edge. No fog at all.

“Um, this might be less private than I thought,” I said to Mermaid Woman as we stepped off the boardwalk onto the sand. Nearest to us were a couple snuggled under blankets, near the edge of the boardwalk.

“Looks like they spent the night here,” Mermaid Woman said. She shrugged at their presence. No one who sleeps on the beach is going to be offended by a little nudity. We both agreed with that logic.

A fully-clothed man was walking up and down the beach with a metal detector, moving his instrument back and forth methodically. “He’s not even looking this way,” I said. “He’s busy.” In the distance, I could see other figures: a woman running, a man with a dog. Up on the boardwalk, I could see an old couple sitting on a bench and a teenager on a bicycle. Oh, and a police car cruising by, on an early morning round. Yes, a whole heavy police car right on the boardwalk: that seemed more shocking to me than any display of human flesh. And wrong. I decided to ignore the cop, who probably was too busy trying not to run over pedestrians to even glance at the beach.

“They’re all pretty far away,” I assured Mermaid Woman. “And it’s not illegal to take a photo, right?” 

She’d come prepared: she pulled a long scarf out of her bag. “I can sit on this,” she said, tossing it to the ground as she quickly stripped off her clothes. Naked, she quickly assumed a yoga pose — and then began to improvise, stretching her arms towards the sun.

I don’t know whether or not my voice reached the other people on the beach or whether it was lost in the wind as I called out to her, “Oh, do that again – the thing with your arm! Perfect! Beautiful!”

Casinos usually don’t have windows, so all the customers inside the buildings, who had stayed up all night gambling were completely unaware that beautiful Mermaid Woman was posing on the beach, just a hundred yards away, stretching her naked body out in the morning sun.

Read more about the history of the naked blogging project and check out the gallery of photos.

June 26, 2014


Local strawberries

Every Tuesday, I stop at our local CSA farm and pick up two bins over flowing with good food: big bunches of Swiss chard and lettuce, crispy red radishes, long green zucchini, cucumbers, tomatoes -- and best of all, freshly picked strawberries. I usually can't wait until I get home to begin eating the strawberries: I start testing them before I've even pulled out of the dirt driveway of the farm.

June 23, 2014

The end of the game

Evening at the monastery

The game Twitter vs Zombies is almost over. The game began with humans pitted against zombies, but thanks to the collaborative nature of the emerging rules, a third choice has come into being: the chorus. These are players who no longer wish to take sides, but who want to stay in the game as narrators, commenters, and poets. They are still adding to the unfolding narrative of the apocalpyse, but they aren't fighting any more.

The way to become a member of the chorus is to pull together lines of poetry tweeted by other players. I've been tweeting lines of poetry in the game ever since that rule got released. Writing poetry is like crack to me: I know I've tweeted more lines than anyone else.

But I don't want to become a member of the chorus. I picture them as spirits, ghosts perhaps, who roam the landscape, drifting across fields and cemeteries, into barnyards, lingering over ponds and baseball stadiums and any place still filled with human memories.

I want to remain human. I don't want to give up my human community or all that comes with being human. I want to take action the injustices in the world, caused by humans or zombies. I want to continue eating human food -- garden fresh vegetables, homemade pie, chocolate cake. So I'm gathering the remaining human players so we can hide out in this barn.

June 22, 2014

Hiding in the rose garden

Thornden Park Rose Garden

As anyone who follows me on twitter knows by now, I’ve spent the last couple of days dodging virtual zombies. Yes, another game of Twitter vs. Zombies. Or what we are now just calling #TvsZ.

The first time I played, my youngest sister noticed all my odd #TvsZ tweets and sent me a text asking, “Are you okay? Has your account been hacked?” When I explained, she said something like, “You are the last person on earth I’d expect to be playing a game like that.”

In many ways, she’s right. I don’t play computer games. I’m not into the zombie culture — too much violence for me. So playing a game on twitter that involves zombies biting humans doesn’t seem, on the surface, something that would appeal to me.

But this game is different than the typical computer game. The first time I played, it taught me how to use twitter: believe me, you learn fast how to upload a photo and attach it to a tweet when you are running from zombies. And it’s a game that builds community. I’ve met a bunch of people during the game, colleagues scattered all over the world, and I like being part of that geeky community. Hey, it’s sometimes nice to have tech support beyond my own kids.

The best part of the game, though, is that it’s a long collaborative narrative. To stay human in the game, I’ve been helping to create and jump into #safezones. Friday night, I huddled with other humans on a farm, hiding from the zombies and enjoying some kind of home brew. Last night, I spend an hour rummaging through a yarn shop, trying to figure out whether or not knitting needles would be a good defense against zombies. Once that yarn shop became overrun with zombies, I escaped to the home of a charming and outspoken old grandmother, who has a plan to use cows to stomp on zombies.

It’s unusual, really, for me to spend so much time on a computer, especially on a summer weekend. I’ve always been an advocate for balance, for unplugging on weekends. So yesterday, when my husband suggesting we go out for a bit, I left the computer and smartphone home. I stepped out of the game into a gorgeous summer afternoon.

We went to the rose garden in Snowstorm City. It’s a city park, filled with small square gardens and tall, rounded trellises, all filled with roses of every type. Pink, red, yellow, white – flowers bloomed all around us as we walked through the sunshine. A wedding party had just arrived, and a young couple stood in front of deep red roses to get their photo taken. In another corner of the garden, a young couple with a baby were posing in front of yellow roses. We found a bench in the rose-scented shade where we could sit until the shadows grew long. Then it was time to go to the movie theater for a fun movie about dragons before another night of fighting zombies.

(You can find out more about the game here.)

June 20, 2014

The difference salt water makes


The conference I went to this week was an unconference, actually. That means that instead of experts coming and giving formal talks, the participants themselves shaped the conference with sessions that involved everyone talking, learning, and sharing. It was amazing and stimulating, but still, like most conferences, it was held inside a building, with chairs and walls and air conditioning.

But here’s the wonderful part. When sessions ended, and we participants stumbled outside, saturated with ideas and conversation, we came out to the boardwalk, filled with tourists in summer clothes strolling about, and beyond that, miles of sand and ocean.

My mother always says that ocean water can cure anything, and when I’m strolling along the beach up to my knees in the surging salty water, I believe her. Each morning of the conference, I woke up at 6 am to spend at least an hour walking along the beach. The first morning, the fog was so thick that I never saw another person. Every evening ended with drinks and food on the boardwalk, the warm salty air rushing across our skin as we talked and made plans to collaborate on future projects. When the conference came to an end, I convinced three of my friends we needed to walk in the surf. The waves rolled in and foamed up around our bare legs as we talked over the highlights of the conference.

Every conference should include an ocean.

June 14, 2014

A box of paints

The first house that my husband and I bought, shortly after our first child was born, was an old Cape Cod that needed lots of work. Our twelve years in that house included many home improvement projects. I spent hours stripping off old flowered wallpaper and painting trim. My husband and I worked together — with the help of friends and family members — to turn the attic into a third bedroom. By the time we moved out of that house, we had added three more children and some carpentry skills.

It was a relief, fifteen years ago, to move into a brand new house. Nothing needed to be painted! Nothing needed to be repaired! We could shove all our tools into a corner of the garage and forget about them. “Everything is new. We don’t need to do any work!” That was my mantra.

Over the last fifteen years, our home has been the place where kids skateboard indoors, cats scratch at the molding when they want to get out, and teenagers practice frisbee throws in the living room. Perhaps it’s a testament to the power of the human brain I could live in that home and still have this illusion that it was the pristine house we’d moved into.

Then a few weeks ago, I came home from a trip out of town. I walked into the house, looked around, and thought to myself, “We’ve trashed this place.” Suddenly, I saw my home for what it really looks like: a frat house at the end of party season.

For the first time in years, I’m getting out the tools and buying gallons of paint. And I admit, I'm enjoying it. I’m finding it’s way easier to do home improvement projects this time around. The most obvious difference is that I don't have to keep stopping to nurse a baby or pull a toddler out of a paint bucket. But also I’ve gained something valuable in the intervening years. No, not patience or wisdom or anything like that. I’ve got the internet. Fifteen minutes of googling, “how to patch a hole in the ceiling” and I’m practically an expert. Youtube makes home improvement projects a hundred times easier.

Yesterday, I felt nostalgic as I added a coat of paint to the living wall and noticed the many tiny holes near the top of each window. They were tack marks, from the days when the kids used to hang up blankets for an extra-dark game of Monster. The dents in the hallway, where Boy-in-Black sometimes hid by bracing his body against the ceiling, are still there despite the new coat of paint. Of course, I wouldn’t want to get rid of all these marks. They’re family history.

June 07, 2014

Secret Project 2014

picnic tables

This year’s secret project at camp seemed simple on the surface: we decided it was time to replace the two long picnic tables where we gather to eat under the oak trees. Since we use those picnic tables three times each day every day, it was a project that everyone would benefit from. 

Last fall Blond Brother-in-law emailed me plans for building picnic tables. “They should be pretty easy to build,” he said. But by the time spring came, he’d gone through four rounds of chemotherapy. And thanks to the chemotherapy, he still hasn’t healed from the surgery he had last summer, which means he can’t use his right leg.

“Maybe we ought to buy picnic tables instead,” I texted him. You would think it would be easy to buy picnic tables. But I knew we had to adhere to the high standards of my family’s camp. Yes, we have standards. The benches have to be detached from the table, so that we can use them around the fire at night — and so that the tables are light enough to be moved by two people in their eighties. They have to be made of wood, not plastic. And it can’t be pressure-treated wood: no one wants toxins near the food.

Blond Brother-in-law searched the internet, made some phone calls, and talked to local people who build picnic tables. And this week, he equipped his truck with a device that allows him to drive with his left leg instead of his right. “How about Friday?” he texted me. “Let’s go buy those picnic tables.” 

The secret plan went smoothly after that. The roads were dry, and the weather was sunny and cool. We drove past red barns and newly planted farmers’ fields until we got to the small town where a talkative old man was selling the tables. He’d just finished the second table yesterday. He helped us pile them into the trailer hitched to Blond Brother-in-law’s truck.

“I don’t know when we can bring these up to camp,” Blond Brother-in-law said. “I’ve got chemo again on Wednesday.” I looked out the window at the trees that had just filled with green leaves and the sun glinting off soil just turned over by tractors. “We’re already on the highway. Let’s just drive up to camp now.”

Blond Brother-in-law grinned. “All we need are some snacks.”

We stopped at a gas station, I ran into buy some drinks and munchies, and soon we were heading north. One hundred miles later, we were at my parents’ camp, unloading the picnic tables. Wooden picnic tables aren’t that heavy, and gravity was on our side. I took a photo so that we could post it to facebook and surprise the family. Mission accomplished!

June 03, 2014

The youngest one in curls

Pond at the end of May

Last week, I tossed a bag of clothes into the car and drove east to visit one of my favorite families: the Scribblers! Phantom Scribbler and I met through our blogs nine years ago, and we keep in touch online, but I’ve long since figured out that a real life visit is worth a 1000 emails.

Lucky for me, Phantom Scribbler is a big respectful of traditions. As I walked into the house, I was greeted with the smell of vegan chocolate cupcakes. I think she’s made them every single time I visited, mostly because I remind her of the tradition in every email I send ahead of time. Within minutes, I was sitting at her kitchen table, drinking tea and eating a cupcake, while her kids chatted to me about their homework, by which I mean that I mocked the worksheets that their teachers had given them.

The next morning, when the kids left for school and her husband left for work, we did what we do best — we sat and talked. It was a rainy day, chilly for the end of May, but we didn’t let that bother us. Phantom made delicious lentil soup, and I ate bowl after bowl along with homemade bread and more chocolate cupcakes. The next day, the sun came out, and it finally felt like summer. We took a long walk around a pond and through a cemetery, talking the whole time of course. I didn’t carry my camera, but I snapped a picture with my phone.

One of my traditions with the Scribbler family is to watch an episode of the Brady Brunch each evening. This year, we made an exciting discovery: two of the episodes offered the option of “commentary” from the grown-up actors who played Cindy, Peter, and Greg. What was especially wonderful is that the actors were even snarkier than we were, commenting on Mrs. Brady’s wig and mocking some of the most ridiculous scenes, much the way my own kids mock the family videos made when they were young.

It was a lovely visit. Phantom’s kids are still young enough to be kids, even if they are some of the smartest and adult-like kids I’ve ever met. They entertained me while Phantom Scribbler kept cooking more delicious food, and I kept threatening just to stay and live with them. Eventually, though, I ate the last chocolate cupcake, finished the last bowl of soup, and got in the car to drive home.

May 26, 2014

Memorial Day weekend at camp

Spring evening at camp

For Memorial Day weekend we gathered, like we always do, at my parents' camp on the river. My parents went up first, of course. My mother is eighty now, but she still likes to do all the work at camp herself: before we even showed up, she had mowed the whole huge lawn, which serves as parking lot, Frisbee field and campsite for all of our tents. Shaggy Hair Boy and Smiley Girl brought their new puppy, plus the dog they’re taking care of for the summer. With-a-Why packed his bag, as usual, with games instead of clothes: his favorite thing at camp is a good game of chess or Go in the shade of the oak trees.

Red-haired Niece, her boyfriend, and Boy-in-Black went up a day early to work on a secret project: they ripped out the seats of Blond Brother-in-law’s boat, rebuilt them, and painted them. Normally, this is the kind of work Blond Brother-in-law would do himself, but he’s had a tough year: he just went through his fifth round of chemo. He made it up to camp, though, and was able to admire their handiwork, and he was even feeling strong enough today to take back his usual job of grilling our food for lunch.

On a spring weekend at camp, we spend most of our time just sitting around and talking, with occasional games of bocce. This year, we had something exciting to talk about: Schoolteacher Niece and her husband have a baby daughter! She was born on Friday, and she has a pseudonym already: Little Ray of Sunshine. It’s a nickname that readers of the Betsy-Tacy books will recognize. Her grandmother and aunts spent Sunday showing us the baby pictures on their phones. We're all thrilled to have a new baby in the family, and we fully expect that she'll be joining us at camp in July.

May 23, 2014

Back yard visitors

Visitors in the back yard

I love the wildflowers in our back lawn in spring, and the way the deer come through to graze. But I think we've hit the point where we really need to mow the grass.

May 22, 2014

Naked beneath the storm clouds

Storm clouds coming

All my friends know that sooner or later, they are going to have to pose naked for my blog. It’s just a question of when. I’ve learned to snap the photo as soon as a woman is ready, as soon as that window of opportunity opens. So when a longtime friend said to me the other day, “I think I’m ready to pose for you,” I grabbed my camera immediately. And then thought to myself, “Okay, this is going to be a challenge.”

We were at a monastery. It was Sunday morning, which meant the usually quiet grounds were filled with townspeople who had driven up for Sunday Mass. Townspeople and monks milled about in the bookstore, enjoying the after-Mass coffee hour. Children and parents wandered outdoors along the fences to look at the baby sheep. After a long day of rain, the sun kept appearing briefly, and most of the retreatants wanted to be outside, to enjoy that bit of summer.

“Here?” I asked my friend. “You want me to take the photo here?”

She nodded. “Yeah, I thought it would be cool to have the chapel steeple in the photo. Or maybe the barn. Or some sheep.”

We’d just spent the weekend talking about big life changes so I knew why this was the right moment. And I knew, too, that the monastery — this place of sanctuary and healing — was an important part of her spiritual journey journey. So her impulse seemed right. We just had to figure out how to take the photo without sending a bunch of elderly monks into shock.

“I could bring a book as a prop,” my friend said helpfully. That seemed right — she’s always reading — but I didn’t think the simple presence of a book would be enough to make stripping naked by the chapel a socially acceptable thing to do.

Eventually, we climbed a path to a high pasture, where we could look down at the barn and the chapel. “I don’t think they turn the electricity on very often,” Reading Woman said as she slid her body through the wires of the fence. Nothing sizzled as she went through, so I followed, saying a prayer that this wouldn’t be the moment when Brother Tractor chose to throw the switch.

We wanted sheep in the photo, but the sight of a naked woman doing yoga made them run the other way. The sun didn’t cooperate either: it hid behind a cloud. Reading Woman sat down patiently in the pasture, avoiding the patches of sheep manure, and picked up her book. When the sun finally came out, she looked up at the sky, at the storm clouds retreating, and I snapped the photo.

Read more about the history of the naked blogging project and check out the gallery of photos.

May 19, 2014

Baby sheep and sunshine

Baby of the flock

The Benedictine monastery is high in the hills, surrounded by farmland and woods that roll down into a valley, above a sleepy river edged with piles of stone. Usually my friends and I go on retreat during April, during lambing season, but this year, our schedules didn't coincide and we arrived in mid-May.

The baby sheep have already grown plump and woolly. They're out in the pastures with their mothers, running and playing and bleating loudly every time they get too far from Mom. One little lamb kept leaping onto her mother's back whenever I walked near. The trees and bushes on the monastery property have flowered. We gathered lilacs to bring with us into the old stone farmhouse where we were staying.

The first day of our retreat, we stayed inside to talk, drink tea, and listen to the rain that drummed against the glass. But by that evening, the sun had appeared to dry the grasses and muddy paths. We ate dinner up at the Women's Guesthouse at the top of the hill and as we walked back down, we had a view of a brilliant blue sky, with sun warming the sheep pastures and clouds sweeping across the sky.

May 15, 2014

They keep growing up

Last weekend, two more members of the family graduated from college: Drama Niece (who really should be called Journalist Niece now since she doesn’t perform on stage as often as she used to) and Smiley Girl, who is engaged to my son Shaggy Hair Boy. That meant a party on Saturday, and a party on Sunday. Taekwondo Nephew and Dandelion Niece drove in to help celebrate, and that meant the whole gang gathered here Friday and Saturday night. We ate food, played the game Scattergories, and mostly, just sat around and talked. That’s pretty much what my family does.

Last night Quick, who is here for a week from his grad school in the south, stopped by, and Film Guy was home for the weekend as well. It’s still hard for me to believe that like my kids, most of my extras are grown up now as well, working on PhDs or holding down jobs. When they’re all here — playing a game around the table, cracking jokes and teasing each other as they play — it feels like they never left.

May 08, 2014

Newest member of the family

My son Shaggy Hair Boy and his fiancee Smiley Girl have decided to start their family. No, not a human baby. They've adopted a very cute Wheaten Terrier puppy named Omi.

Smiley Girl graduates from college this Saturday, and Shaggy Hair Boy finishes his Master's degree this summer. They've got an apartment, a puppy, and a piano. All the essentials of life.

May 06, 2014

At my fingertips

So, yep. It’s finally happened. I have a smartphone. 

Announcing this to my friends was pretty anti-climatic. About half of them said things like, “What? You didn’t already have one? But you’re on twitter all the time!” And the other half said, “What? Why would you need one?”

I’ve been thinking about getting a smartphone for years. It was a student who finally convinced me that I should.

We were having a class discussion about whether or not smartphones were affecting teenagers’ ability to learn social skills and that grew into a broader discussion about the pros and cons of smartphones. I asked my students to write a few paragraphs about the topic. I gave them a bunch of prompts and then at the end, I said, kind of jokingly, “The important question, though is this -- should I get a smartphone?”

My students took the question seriously and wrote thoughtful responses. Several said that I didn’t need to worry about the smartphone hurting the development of my social skills since I was already a grown-up who knew how to talk to people. Several said they had confidence in my ability to put limits on my own technology use. Others pointed out that I would love the convenience of the smartphone when I’m traveling.

One student wrote, “Your students all have smartphones. And it’s important to you that you understand what’s going on with us – and what our generation is doing. So you need to get one too.” I decided he was right.

April 29, 2014

A bit of summer

It's been a cold spring up north, so when my husband travelled south for a conference and suggested I join him for the weekend, I was happy to pack my bathing suit and shorts. Nothing beats the feel of sunshine on bare skin.

April 22, 2014

Fancy napkins

Easter comes at a difficult time of the semester, just as my classes are finishing up and I'm facing all kinds of deadlines. "It's not actually a holiday," a colleague pointed out. "We don't get any time off." 

It's true. Whereas we get an entire month off for Christmas, Easter is just part of a normal weekend. That means I don't have any extra time for little niceties like cleaning the house. My husband's April work schedule is even worse than mine, and all of our kids are on the same academic schedule that I am. So on Saturday, when I counted up the family members who would be coming to Easter dinner -- somewhere between 20 and 24, I figured -- and calculated how much time I would be spending making food, the harsh reality hit me: there was no way we could clean the house in time.

"We should have started cleaning last weekend," I announced to my husband.

He shrugged. "Let's just see what we can get done now."

But I had a better plan. I sent him off to the grocery store with a list. And by the time he returned, I was deep into my secret plan. He came into the house, carrying bags of food, and looked at me in disbelief.

"You're ironing cloth napkins?" he asked.

"Yep," I said. It was a foolproof plan. Thanks to youtube, even someone like me can become an expert on folding cloth napkins into fancy shapes. At Christmas time, Boy-in-Black found a way to fold our red napkins into Christmas tree shapes, and my extended family was so impressed with them that they talked of nothing else. All I had to do was fold some napkins into pretty shapes, and my family members would never notice the rest of the house. They are easily distracted.

And yes, the plan worked. My husband set up the folding tables, we covered them with white tablecloths, and I added the fancy napkins. I made a bunch of food, other family members brought food, and everyone exclaimed how festive the house was. Fancy napkins. It's all you need.

April 15, 2014

Lilac buds in the snow

Yesterday felt like summer. On campus, students wore sandals and shorts with their tie-dye shirts. It was the first day of Earth Week —a whole series of events leading up to Earth Day — and our small quad was filled with students, milling about and enjoying the sunshine. When I got home, I opened all the windows in the house to let in the warm air. The spring peepers are singing at long last, and by the end of the day, the lilac bushes near by back door were covered with green buds.

But then today, I drove home in a snowstorm.

April 08, 2014

April weekend

I’ve been traveling so much this semester that it felt good to stay home for a weekend. On Friday night, I went out to the movies with my husband, all of our kids, plus a bunch of extras – thirteen in all. I didn’t even know until I got to the theater what movie we were seeing: I just like to be part of the gang. I ate popcorn, listened to the whispered comments of my family members, laughed at the funny lines, and held my husband's hand. Afterwards, we stood in the theater and talked about the movie before heading out into the cold night.

Saturday afternoon, I picked up my daughter and then my mother, and we drove to Red-haired Niece’s house, high in the hills above Snowstorm City. Blonde-haired Sister and Blonde Niece greeted us as we came in. Family and friends were already filling up the kitchen, talking and laughing over plates of food, while the living room was filling up with baby shower gifts. Schoolteacher Niece will be having a baby in May, the first of the great grandchildren in the family.

The shower invitations had asked everyone to bring a children’s book instead of a card, and it was fun to see what everyone had chosen. While Schoolteacher Niece opened gift after gift, I sat on the floor and read through all the books. It’s funny how baby shower gifts come in and out of style: I didn’t even recognize some of the gifts she opened. Looking at all the baby clothes made the upcoming baby seem suddenly real. I’m going to be a great aunt.

Saturday evening my husband and I headed over to the castle, the ironic name for the little house where our oldest two kids live. We knew that Shaggy Hair Boy and Smiley Girl would be arriving to share their big news: they announced their engagement! Of course, we’ve all known they’d be getting married: we’ve all known it since practically the first day they met. But it’s nice that it’s official now. 

“No, there wasn’t a sexist proposal,” Shaggy Hair said. “It was a mutual agreement.” He finishes his Master’s degree this summer, and Smiley Girl graduates from college next month. The wedding will be next summer.

“It’ll be outdoors somewhere,” Smiley Girl said. “That’s all we’ve planned so far.”

On Sunday, I worked on a journal article I’m writing. But then I noticed that the sun was shining. When my friend Makes Bread called to see if I wanted to take a walk along the canal, I agreed right away. It was still cold enough for winter coats, but at least the snow had melted. The afternoon light through the bare trees was lovely, and the sun on my face felt warm. We walked briskly, and soon I was warm enough to unzip my coat. We passed a few families, several people on bikes, and a man walking his dog. Everyone, it seems, was eager to get out into the sunshine.

After the walk, we met some friends at a restaurant, where we enjoyed platters of Middle Eastern food. “We can actually plan these get-togethers again,” said Long Beautiful Hair. “The roads are dry. It’s spring!”

April 02, 2014


Just a few days ago, my parents and I drove out to the lake for lunch. It’s a tradition, this time of year. We go to the same restaurant we’ve always gone to. It’s right on the water, with a banquet room where my husband and I had our wedding reception thirty years ago and a big lawn where Red-haired Sister and Tie-dye Brother-in-law said their vows more than twenty years ago. The sun stayed hidden behind clouds, but the air was so warm that I left my mittens in the car. We took our usual booth by the window.

“It’s been a long winter,” my mother said as the waitress came over with menus.

The lawn that stretched down to the lake was covered in snow and ice, but enough had melted so that we could see whole bare patches of grass and earth. The lake was frozen still, but shallow pools of water shimmered on the ice, and all was quiet. The snowmobilers have put away their machines: their season is over.

It’s almost time to take the snow tires off my car. Spring is on the way.

March 29, 2014

Waterfall Child

Waterfall in springtime

You can tell a whole lot about a kid’s parents by the way a kid talks. That’s how I know Biker Boy’s adoptive parents even without spending much time with them. (Long-time readers will know that Biker Boy used to live on my street: I’ve known him since he was seven years old.)

The adoption didn’t become final until last November, but it’s been a whole year since Biker Boy moved into his new home. And it’s wonderful to see the changes in him. Gone are the angry outbursts. Instead, he says things like, “Let me know if you help with that. I’d be glad to give you a hand.” Phrases like that make him sound so adult that it makes me smile. And it’s pretty clear that he’s saying something he’s heard his adoptive father say to friends.

Last Sunday, I picked Biker Boy up mid-morning, and we drove to a park which has a spectacular waterfall. That’s our usual routine: I take him someplace outdoors and then we get pizza. We had planned to hike down to the bottom of the falls, but it soon became clear that we were way too early in the season for that. Even the steps down to the covered pavilion were so icy that we ended up going through a drift of snow instead. The waterfall itself was half-frozen, like a dramatic white sculpture, but water still came roaring down, spraying the rocks and cascading down into the stream below.

Biker Boy and I tramped through the snow until we got as close as we could to the top of the waterfall, the icy cold water spraying onto our coats. We stood there in the snow and talked — about his struggles at school, about the work he’s doing with a therapist, about the hamster his parents are going to get him.

Then we left to find a warm pizza place, where we could sit and eat hot slices while our feet warmed up. “I wish I could have been adopted a long time ago,” Biker Boy said to me. I knew what he meant. He’s got a whole lot of baggage to work through. But I have no doubt he’ll make it through.

We’ll go back to the waterfall again sometime after the rest of the snow and ice melt.

March 24, 2014

Writing retreat


Every day during my writing retreat, I took a walk outside. Most of the time, I wore jeans and a t-shirt. No coat! No mittens! I'd wake up early, eat breakfast, and then take a walk outside. I'd write furiously for a couple of hours, and then go outside to sit in the sunshine for awhile. Then I'd eat lunch, write for a couple of more hours, and then go for another walk in the sunshine. I think I could get used to that kind of life. It's lovely.

 I'm back home now, where it is most certainly not spring. We've still got snowbanks along the driveway, and solid patches of ice. I brushed snow off my car before I drove to work today. And I'm still wearing mittens, a scarf, and winter boots. That lovely week in the sunshine seems really long ago.

March 18, 2014



All week in Southern City, I kept noticing flowers. They were blooming everywhere. Trees with white blossoms outside of grocery stories, bunches of yellow daffodils along trails at the retreat center, flowers planted in window boxes and gardens, purple-blue flowers under pine trees. This blossom had already fallen to the ground, so I carried it back to my room, where I could admire it some more.

March 13, 2014

Naked contemplation

I’m on a writing retreat this week in a southern city, staying at a Jesuit retreat center where silence is observed. Flowers are blooming here, and it’s warm enough to feel sunshine on my bare arms. I love seeing photos of the snowstorm back home while I’m walking trails along the river and taking pictures of daffodils. I’ve been tempted to keep posting sunny photos to facebook so I can gloat to my friends, but I’ve resisted. Even though I can access the wireless here, I’m trying to stay unplugged because I’m working on a manuscript, revising furiously to meet a self-imposed deadline.

But still, I have an obligation to my blog readers, and so I offer you a naked photo.

No, this isn’t one of the Jesuits. Yeah, they’re pretty liberal but they’re not THAT liberal. And no, it’s not one of the other retreatants. They keep silence here! I have no way of offering any of them the opportunity to pose. I’m pretty good at communicating with hand signals — just yesterday I silently asked another guest where we were supposed to put our cloth napkins after the noonday meal. But to explain Project Naked without words might be more of a challenge than I’m up to this week.

This photo is one I took at the big creative writing conference I attended recently. I’ve known Kestrel for a couple of years now. I love that he chose the name of a bird for his pseudonym (that’s the perk of posing naked for me — you get to choose your own pseudonym) because his poetry is filled with references to birds and an awareness of the natural world. It’s also appropriate that I post his photo while I’m on a writing retreat that includes spiritual reflection, because he’s a guy who thinks thoughtfully and sensitively about spirituality. I like to think that if he were on this retreat with me, he’d be doing just what he’s doing in the photo: staring out the window after reading some poetry, lost in thought. Except, yeah, he’d probably have some clothes on.


Read more about the history of the naked blogging project and check out the gallery of photos.

March 07, 2014

Woman in motion

The second day of the conference, my roommate went running early and then came back to take a shower. I could tell from the clothes she’d laid out on the bed that she had something important going on: an interview, a meeting, something that required her to dress formally. But still, the morning light that shone in the window was lovely, just right for a photograph, so when she emerged naked from the bathroom, I said to her, “Could you just climb up on the window ledge for a moment?”

She looked at the camera in my hand and laughed. “I only have a few minutes,” she said. I took that as a yes, and began moving furniture, yanking a lamp out of the way. Maine Writer climbed, obligingly, up onto the window sill.

“Try a yoga pose,” I called out.

“Like bridge?” she asked, leaning back to flex her back into an arch, “This ledge is kind of narrow, but maybe I could — aah!”

Maybe there’s a reason that yoga studios have a wide flat floor instead of a bunch of narrow ledges. My naked roommate tumbling to the floor wasn’t exactly the shot I had in mind for my blog. After all, posing naked is supposed to be empowering. I figured if she ended up in a cast, that would undermine the whole project. Plus, make her late for her interview. We didn't want that.

“Um, maybe this time you should brace yourself with your hands,” I said helpfully. “Take up the whole window.”

Maine Writer is a strong woman, who was not at all daunted by the fall. Brushing the carpet lint off her bare skin, she climbed back into the window and flexed her muscles, like a deity holding up the world.


Read more about the history of the naked blogging project and check out the gallery of photos.

March 02, 2014

Sunshine on the west coast

Sunny in Seattle

I've spent the last five days in a lovely West Coast city, where the blue skies made me keep humming an old Bobby Sherman song. Most of my time was spent in the conference rooms and bookfair of a large hotel, but I did sneak out with some friends for a walk. We couldn't resist the sunshine glinting off the old buildings and calm waters. We went down to a waterside market where vendors had filled stalls with slabs of pink salmon and brightly colored fruits.

"Look, kumquats!" a friend exclaimed. I had never eaten a kumquat so she bought some and insisted I try one. Following her instructions, I popped the little fruit into my mouth and began to chew. The explosion of sour juice surprised me at first, but as I chewed, the taste became sweeter. We wandered about, tasting nuts and bits of fruit.

When we walked down to find the chocolate shop, we discovered a wall decorated with all kinds of colorful (and already chewed) gum. Yeah, that sounds disgusting, but it was really quite beautiful. And the scent, as we walked by, was unmistakably sweet. We found a cafe above the water, where we lingered over lunch, talking and catching up on our lives before walking back through the sunshine to the frantic busyness of the conference.

February 23, 2014

Naked in the snow

Naked in the snow

I’m always telling my friends that the naked body looks best in “natural light.” And that’s true. Artificial light casts weird shadows and turns flesh odd colours. Flash photography will make skin look really white. That’s great if you’re trying for a zombie, walking-dead look, but most people prefer photos that don’t make them look like corpses. The best naked photos are taken outside. Really.

When I arrived with my friends at the cabin in the mountains last weekend, the first thing I asked was: “Who is going to pose for my blog?” They all turned to look out the window at the pine trees covered with snow, the deck piled with snow, and the frozen lake. Dancing Woman was the first to speak up. “It might be a little cold,” she said. I took that as a yes.

What we should have done was take the photo on the first day we arrived, when temperatures were warm enough that I could actually take my mittens off for a moment to take a photo. Sadly, we didn’t take advantage of the balmy temperatures that hovered somewhere around freezing. By the time we woke up on Saturday, the cheerful guy on the local radio station was announcing a wind chill advisory: “Temperatures are dangerously low.” It’s true that wind off the lake was chilly. When I went for my morning walk, I took my hands out of my mittens a couple of times to take photos, and even though I was fast, my fingers felt painful when I got back to the house and thawed them out.

“Don’t worry,” I told Dancing Woman. “We’ll take the photo close to the house, so you can dash back in.” I didn’t mention that my plan was to take the photo from inside the warm house, fully dressed. One of my rules for Project Naked is that if a subject asks me to strip for the photo, just so that the photographer is as vulnerable as the person posing, I will. On this frigid day, I decided not to mention the rule.

We thought it best to wait until Makes Bread and her twelve-year-old son had left for a walk. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from raising a houseful of boys, it’s that twelve-year-old boys don’t want to see their mother’s middle-aged friends naked.

Despite the icy wind that whipped across the lake, Dancing Woman was surprisingly cheerful about stripping off her clothes: the outer layers, the long underwear, the multiple pairs of socks. Too lazy to shovel off the deck, I found a frozen welcome mat for her to stand on. “It might be a little cold,” I said apologetically.

What amazes me is that Dancing Woman didn’t scream at all as she stepped, naked, out into the frigid winter wind. She moved gracefully, lifting her arms above her head, her hair whipped around by the wind. When I called out, finally, that I was done, she didn’t race inside, but just wrapped her arms against her chest, looked out across the lake, and then down at the mounds of snow that balanced on the deck railing like stone cairns. And so I took one more shot, which is the one she liked the best.

Read more about the history of the naked blogging project and check out the gallery of photos.

February 19, 2014


We've had lots of snow this winter — and some pretty cold weather too. It's been February for about 60 days now. So last weekend, a bunch of my women friends and I decided there was only one logical thing to do. We drove north into the mountains.

Thankfully, the roads were plowed, even the gravel road that winds through the woods until it reaches the shore of the lake. Well, we think it was a gravel road: we were driving on hard-packed snow that looked so clean and white that we knew we were the first car to drive down in that day. That whole weekend, we saw no one else, except snow mobiles on the other side of the lake, all traveling along what seemed to be one straight path, and white-tailed deer, who paused to look at us curiously as we went by.

We stayed in a lovely lakeside house lent to us by a friend's sister. I kept the fire going in the big stone fireplace while my friends got busy in the kitchen and made more food than seven people could possibly eat. We filled ourselves with lentil soup, slices of fresh fruit, fresh garlic bread with hot tomato sauce, an elaborate salad, and vegan Key Lime pie. After a lazy lunch by the fire, we bundled up to go out into the snowy world, walking through the winding trails and eventually out onto the frozen lake. 

It's a wonderful way to spend a weekend in February: talking with close friends, hiking in the most beautiful woods, playing silly games, and making food together.

February 16, 2014

Early morning on a mountain lake

I'm in the mountains for the weekend with a bunch of my women friends, staying in a lovely lodge at the edge of a lake. Last night, we stayed in by the fire, playing a silly game of Apples to Apples, and eating bowls of hot lentil soup. When I peered out the dark window, I could see the lights of snow mobiles zooming down the lake. This morning, I woke up to blue light spilling over the snow. Grabbing my winter coat and mittens, I headed out into the frosty air for a morning walk.

February 10, 2014

Sunshine, boats, and poetry

Even though I was in Coastal City for less than 48 hours, it was a welcome break from the February weather of Snowstorm Region. The temperatures may have been chilly, but the sun shone brightly both days, and I could see the ground. “It feels like spring,” I kept saying to everyone.

In the harbor, we saw boats still in the water, sails still furled tightly to booms. Some were decorated with Christmas lights. A bunch of teenagers were skateboarding on the pier, doing fancy jumps and turns. We wandered around the town, looking at the cute little houses and buildings from centuries past. The streets were fairly empty without the usual summer tourists, although the ice cream shop was still open for business despite the cold.

A couple of friends joined us for lunch in a café that served a spicy tea that smelled like mulled cider. We ate a leisurely meal while we talked about book projects and children, and soon it was time to go back to the college auditorium for my reading. The college I was visiting was a model for what the community college experience should be: the young people I met were excited and engaged, the man in the very front row was 89 years old.

That evening, my friend Ocean Breeze and I went to a Thai restaurant, where we ate crispy squares of tofu with sweet and sour sauce, and vegetables with garlic sauce over rice. Trying to squeeze every moment out of my short visit, we made plans to visit at least one museum in Nation’s Capital the next day before I got back on my plane and headed home.