Tag Archives: nature

First and Lasts

So it’s Tuesday, the day after I usually post, and I will tell you that this is the first time I forgot to post. I thought of it over the weekend, perused my usual half-baked ideas, and then it all fell out of my head as Monday came and went. But I will cut myself some slack; I’ve been experiencing a lot of “lasts,” what with the kid heading out to college in 9 days. I’m determined not to get all hand-wringing and empty-nest mopey on you — that’s not my style, but I have been surprised by the little things that have hit me. Grocery shopping and realizing I don’t have to buy those specific apple/grape juice 6 packs anymore. Or at least not for a few months. Which is great, because half the time the store is out of them anyway. 

All that is cluttering up my noggin, which, let’s face it, has never been a bastion of reliable memory preservation. Add in North Korea and Cheeto flea having a toddler screaming match, where the toddlers have access to nuclear weapons, and hate groups assembling under the guise of free speech, and I’m pretty much toast over here. I actually had the thought last week that this might be it, but North Korea is standing down for now, so I live to forget another day. 

But I refuse to give in to despair. For one thing, my grandparents and dad had a pretty frightening, shitty time of it in Holland during WWII, and my other grandfather, when he had food at all in his childhood, ate primarily salt pork and beans and lived well into his 80s; it’s in my genes to keep going. For another, there’s plenty of positive things going on. People are working to make things better and there are countless acts of kindness going on all around us all the time. Yesterday, I was canoeing on a quiet river, and the beavers and birds I saw going about their bird and beaver business reminded me there is a balance. That, and life on a quiet sleepy, river might be a good plan B. 

So, once the kid is launched, I will take a deep breath and continue to contribute the best I can. In the meantime, I’ll keep forgetting things, but I promise to do it with peace and hope. 

First Snow

I woke up this morning in a funk that carried over from last night–kind of from the whole weekend, actually. I’d had an OK weekend, really, so it wasn’t obvious where the funk was coming from. As I was trying to pin down what it was so I could kid myself that I could wrestle it to the ground, I looked outside and saw it was snowing. Great. I usually get excited for the first snow of the season, but all I could think of was having to brush off the car and slogging in it.

I walked along to the train, hood up, shoulders hunched as if it were blizzarding; if I’d been a cartoon character, I’d have had one of those storm clouds hovering over my head. My brain was busy reviewing all the things that could be causing the funk–every new Trump pick for an important office tears the day-old scab off a wound that hasn’t even begun to heal, I have friends and family members who are struggling with various difficult personal situations, and I ran around during the weekend, but didn’t get as much done as I would have liked. On and on the brain whirred, feeling very useful and important.

And then I finally saw it. I looked down at a little patch of grass and saw how the snow was covering it just enough to be pretty, but not enough to impede me. The sidewalk was wet, not snowy. And then I remembered how I had the exact same thought just a month ago while on a hike in the White Mountains. Snow, heck even cold, can be a dangerous thing in the Whites. Just because they aren’t 10,000 feet high doesn’t mean they can’t kill you. I was hiking through a forest around a pond that could have been the location for Lord of the Rings, and it started to snow lightly. I was warm enough and could see it wasn’t accumulating on the trail, so I was able to open up to the magic that any moment a hobbit could appear on the trail.

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I smiled at the memory, and then the whole world opened up. The city, in its gritty little concentrated way can be just as beautiful. And so I started taking pictures:

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The beautiful strength of sweet peas still blooming from the unseasonably warm fall, and now holding court in an abandoned patch of land.

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While this picture may not conjure up a hobbit poking his head out, a garden gnome certainly could.

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Yes, Virginia, even sidewalk weeds can get a little magic from the first snow.

 

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And, of course, there’s always cool man-made structures that can be made better with nature’s help.

Noticing the immediate world around me and taking the photos shut Busy Brain down, and I remembered that meditating on the train would be a good thing. Oh, Busy Brain put up a bit of fuss, “Hey what about our funk? We have to figure this out. You can’t just do nothing about this funk!” But by the end of the train ride, the funk was back where it belonged as a type of music to dance to. Brain was off pouting, and I walked the rest of the way to work feeling gratitude in the gentle little snow and keeping a sharp eye out for gnomes and hobbits.

 

 

My Family Was Catholic Until the Almighty Got a Hold of Us

Ever wonder how all the different religions came about? Well, wonder no more, because I have a highly sophisticated theory. I think entire families stand in a long line before they are born, and a deity hands out religion like an ice cream truck guy hands out SpongeBob SquarePants bars, strawberry shortcakes, and fudgsicles. How do I know this? It’s the only way to explain my family.

I can see a long line of families snaking off into the distant puffy clouds. I imagine even an omnipotent being could get bored doling out religion all day, passing out Christianity, Judaism, Muslim, Hinduism, Buddhism and all the other isms. And maybe it gets monotonous and s/he wants to mix it up. But s/he’s omnipotent, s/he knows not to get too crazy—these things must be done delicately. S/he’s feeling cheeky when s/he spies my family in the line—some even-keeled French Canadians on one side and some tolerant Dutch on the other. All are headed for the US, and the American generation will be born in the late 1950s and early 1960s. S/he smiles mischievously. With a wave of her/his celestial hand, s/he respectfully hands the older generation Catholicism. Over the American-born generation, however, the wave is different. Spirituality falls like jimmies over us and we gaze up radiant and expectant. Then s/he moves us along. No religion is given. “See what you make of that!” s/he chuckles.

Cut to life on Earth: The French Canadians make their way from Lac Noir, Quebec through New Hampshire and Vermont, and they land in Bristol, Connecticut. As predicted, that generation and the next are hard-core Catholics. As a teen, my grandmother recovered from a serious illness by believing in Mary, (aka the mother of Jesus, and no I didn’t just swear). When my m other was a teen, she entered the convent. The conditions in the late 1940s—working long hours in a hot laundry, washing priests’ vestments, and eating meals that would make Oliver Twist seem gluttonous—wore her down. She got sick enough to be sent home to recover. Twice. Mother Superior believed it was a message from God that this is not her path. My mother was crushed, but maybe dealing with that blow helped her through what her kids were going to put her through.

My mother met my father, a Dutch-born Catholic, and they married in 1957. The babies came in 1958, 1960, 1962 and 1965, and for a while things were looking pretty good. Our family of six attended Mass every Sunday morning and every holy day. We kids went to Catechism and the sacraments were all distributed like clockwork: baptism, communion, confession, confirmation.

Then came the 70s. I imagine the omnipotent being was chuckling.

My father jumped ship first, having had more years to contemplate spiritual matters than us kids and becoming disillusioned with organized religion in general. He began to study the many facets of Eastern philosophy and was soon talking about the universality of life and the idea that the separation of man and god were human constructs. A favorite theme of his: we are the watcher and the watched.

And then there were five.

Once my Dad opened the door, I think maybe we all started consciously or unconsciously to hear the Catholic Church rap differently. The faith of my grandmother and mom transcends the words of the church. While the words can be lyrical, they can also be contradictory and absolute. My siblings and I were born to be people who listened to the words and thought too much about them. We also asked a lot of questions—not really traits the Catholic Church was looking for at that time.

When my oldest sister, Julie, left home about a year after high school, she found a religion that not only invited questions, but could provide answers, with footnotes. And so she became a Jehovah’s Witness. At first it was hard for the rest of us to understand—we were a little afraid it was a cult. But over time we could see that it made sense to her. Except for missing holiday gatherings (they don’t celebrate any holidays except wedding anniversaries), she was still pretty much the same person. The weirdest part was that all the Jehovah Witnesses she introduced us too were always super nice. Being close-to-the-vest New Englanders, we had a hard time with that, but we got used to it.

And then there were four.

A year after Julie left home, Sharon went off to college. By her fourth year, she met a nice Jewish boy and decided to marry him. Although many interfaith marriages work, Sharon felt the pull of the Jewish faith. She liked the Jewish emphasis on family and being a good person (as opposed to say, burning in hell for transgressions). The final piece was the idea that children must be born to a Jewish mother be considered Jewish, so she converted. It was toughest on my mom. Julie’s religious departure was still based in Christianity, but for my mom, Sharon had left the fold entirely. As for my brother and me, we were now getting pretty experienced in this religion switching thing; my greatest concern was figuring out the Jewish holidays. It also helped that Marty, my brother-in-law, had no problem celebrating Christmas and Easter.

And then there were three.

By now, my brother Mark and I were teenagers, and we picked religion as our rebellion. Mark pulled the age-16 card, “If I’m old enough to drive, I’m old enough to make my own decisions.” He stopped going to church and finds his spirituality in the cool wind of a mountain peak after a long hand-over-hand climb and in the stillness of a snowy wood on a crisp January day. We accept that it works for him, but the rest of us still prefer a little heat with our holy moments.

And then there were two.

Around this time, my mother became a lector, which is a layperson who reads the scriptures during the Mass. She sat on the stage up front, while I sat alone and stewed and sulked by myself in the folding chairs. Yes, we had Mass in folding chairs, in the Catholic school gym because the congregation had outgrown the church. Being in an actual church wouldn’t have made a real difference—I think it just hastened the end. Sitting in my hard metal chair, I had plenty of time to review the all the things I didn’t like, starting with my fourth grade Catechism teacher—did I mention I can hold a grudge?

“You have a choice,” she said, one day. And I perked up, because I liked choices. “You can be good,” OK. Not very compelling, but not a deal-breaker either. “Or, you can go to hell.” Well, even a fourth grader knows that’s no choice. For me it was downhill from there, so when I turned 16, I also declared my independence. My poor mother tried to dissuade me, but she knew she was on thin ice. She let me go. I have since become an agnostic, with Eastern leanings, who is more comfortable considering celestial questions than finding answers.

And then there was one Catholic left.

The Catholic Church is still a major part of my mom’s life, and it has given her the grace and generosity to accept us all. And we’ve accepted each other. Oh, sure, I may have glossed over some of the hand wringing, regrets, and recriminations we’ve had with each other over the years, but heck we would have had those even without being the religious United Nations.

Earlier this year, my mother accepted an award for her many years of volunteering at her parish. The event was held at the Hartford Cathedral and honored parishioners from all over the diocese. The Jehovah Witness wished she could have made it, and the rest of us were there—the Eastern philosopher, the questioner, the Jew, and the cold nature guy. Because, you know, that’s how we roll. It was a testament to our love, respect, and acceptance of our religious diversity. That, and we had taken bets on whether we would burst into flames. Obviously we didn’t, otherwise I would have written about that. I do believe, however, I could hear a deity stifling a giggle. Well played, my friend. Well played.

Photo credit: My own photo of the ice cream truck near the Public Gardens in Boston.