Backpacking after 50.

The alarm went off at o-dark-thirty so we could get an early start and beat the heat, only the night had been so hot, the temperature hovering in the eighties, that we’d slept with the fan on and I didn’t hear the alarm until my eyes popped open with the arrival of the sun behind the curtains. Well at least I was going to start this adventure feeling rested and refreshed, I thought to myself.

It had been a good fifteen years since I’d carried a heavy pack into the woods for an overnight with my husband and even though part of me really wanted to do this again, another part of me had been gripping the edge of the metaphorical roller coaster and looking away from the plunge ahead of me. Bracing myself against the “what ifs” of the situation. What if I’m so slow I drive my husband batty waiting for me? What if something happens to him and I have to find my way out when I didn’t actually pay attention on the way in? What if we encounter a bear? Or a cougar? And the big one, the one that kept sidling around from wherever it was lurking to plaster itself over the front of my eyes—what if I can’t heft a backpack anymore?

But I did want to do this. I honestly did want to do it. Especially given the excitement I could see in my husband’s eyes at the prospect. He’d got the packs out three days before our planned departure and carefully loaded them with everything we’d need for one night in the woods. I didn’t pay attention to what he put in mine nor did I try to pick it up; better that I not know and power through when the time came, I told myself. After all, if it had been fifteen years since I’d gone backpacking into the woods that meant, coincidentally, that I was also fifteen years older and, let’s be honest, probably fifteen pounds heavier than the last time. So I didn’t want to do anything that could talk me out of going before I was ready to talk myself into it.

When the time did come to lift my backpack we were at the end point of a logging road, at an elevation of 2800 feet, standing outside our vehicle opposite the trailhead.
2800ft up 2
I swung the pack onto my shoulders, clipped it over my hips and thought—not bad. Not bad at all. It was eight forty-five a.m. and the day was still teetering on tepid this far up the mountain. I nodded at my husband—I’m ready.

We stepped across the trickling tributaries of Otter Creek on the uphill side of the logging road and started up the moss-covered boulders that formed part of the trail.
Mossy boulders on creek
We were headed for Enjar Lake, above Slide Lake in the Glacier Peak Wilderness, and this first part of the trail was pretty easy. Not too steep, shaded from the elements by a magical old growth forest of Doug firs and cedar trees, and very much a known quantity for me. It was the first place my husband took me on a date thirty years ago, and I’d won his heart by jumping into the icy water of Slide Lake to retrieve one of his fishing lures. This much I could do with a backpack on, I was sure.

I glanced at my watch when Slide Lake came into view between the trees and realized we’d done this section of the hike fifteen minutes quicker than the last time we’d hiked it. Very encouraging. I knew we still had the tough part to come though. The hike from Slide Lake to Enjar is a fisherman’s trail, flagged periodically by blaze on a downed log or a length of ribbon in a tree, and it’s seriously uphill all the way.

I knew this because we’d day-hiked this trail once before, two summers ago, and it had taken us three and a half hours of slogging to get to the lake. Three and a half hours with lots of pauses for me to catch my breath even though I wasn’t carrying a pack that time, and one major interruption about five minutes from the lake, when I stopped altogether and whined like a two year old in need of a nap, “Are you sure you know where this lake is?” Now I was going to have to make that hike with a full backpack. Was I up for it? Apparently I was.

Fortunately I knew what was at the end of that uphill pull; a lake so clear, so clean, it’s a magical shade of jade green from the reflection of the trees around it on its pristine surface. Plus it has a picture perfect view of Snowking Mountain.
Jade Green Water Enjar
Enjar & view of Snowking
I wanted to see that water again, to be in that place of inspiration and serenity. We followed the start of the trail alongside Slide Lake to its far end, a gentle uphill gradient with a view to our right of the water peeking in and out of the trees.
Slide Lake
Then we started climbing. Hundreds of years ago boulders and trees slid down from the top of this mountain ridge forming a natural dam over Otter Creek to create Slide Lake, so in addition to the steepness of the hike into Enjar, the trail involves a lot of climbing over, around or under downed trees and rocks. With a pack on. And then there are what my husband calls “slide chutes”—long, sheer stretches where the ground is unstable, sometimes full of talus still sliding very slowly downhill, where trees cannot root long enough to grow. Instead salmonberry, blueberry and huckleberry bushes, as well as ferns and other low growing brush, take advantage of the available space, covering the dirt and rocks so it’s impossible to see where to put your feet.
Disappearing trail

I plowed ahead, sweat dripping off my forehead in tiny beads, using the expandable ski pole my husband bought me for this adventure to ensure that I didn’t lose my footing. Yes, my brain may tell me I can still hike with the agility of a twenty-five year old but my body, at more than twice that age, is not persuaded. The ski pole seemed like a wise idea. I was lagging but undeterred, buoyed by the trilling of the songbirds and the tinkling percussion of the creek somewhere to our right. And in the stretches of trail that were wide and mossy, still uphill but not as savagely, I reveled in nature’s aromatherapy; the wild, cilantro-like aroma emanating from the warm foliage and the cheerful reminder of Christmas in the resin from the silver fir trees.
Uphill

I had promised myself that I would eat more snacks on the way up this time, to give myself longer breaks as well as sustenance, but the air around us was thick with the rising heat of the day and not conducive to appetite. The sweat beads coming down from my forehead quickly developed into a light shower and my hair began to stick to the back of my neck. At three hours in, after we’d just bulldozed our way up what my husband announced as chute two of the four chutes on the trail, “or maybe there are six,” he amended—something I would have been just as happy not knowing—I tried to eat a protein bar. One bite and I could feel it sticking like sand to the inside of my mouth. I pushed it back into my fanny pack and sluiced my mouth with water. Then pushed on.

The first half dozen water breaks I limited myself to a mouthful, rolling the cherished liquid around on my tongue, not wanting to get waterlogged. But after the third, grueling chute I chugged it down. The air was no longer just thick, it was sticky. Syrupy even. My hair was plastered to the back of my neck like a wet towel, and the only thing keeping me cool at times was the feel of my sweat saturated t-shirt against my ribs. I was at that place mentally where I kept reminding myself that the only alternative to going up was to have to go all the way back down again and I certainly didn’t want to do that. Not even when the trail turned into a steep slope of barren dirt with no footholds, no overhanging branches to grab a hold of, no rocks. Just up. My husband was already at the top of it and I remember looking up thinking that the only thing between me and him was will power. So up I went.

Steep slope

Not that my body was always in agreement with my mind. We were well into hour four of the uphill slog when I came to yet another downed log that I had to straddle to get over with my pack. The log was up to my chest in height and I propped my left arm on its smooth, barkless surface, laid my head down in the crook of my elbow and thought—take me now. A bear, a cougar, I don’t care. Just take me now while I’m still juicy and not some dried up prune of my former self. It was one of those “you can take the actress away from the stage but you can’t take the stage away from the actress” moments and after I’d got my fill of melodrama, I lifted my head, sucked in a big breath, and climbed up onto that fucking log.

It was almost one-thirty p.m. when I knew we should break for lunch. We’d left the house at seven-thirty in the morning, had been hiking since eight forty-five, it was time to replenish what little fuel I’d put into my stomach before we’d left. But I also knew how close we were to the lake. We thought we could see the top of the ridge (although we knew that could be deceptive) and we were approaching hour five of the hike in. We had to be close. On hindsight, I know it wasn’t a good idea to ignore our bodies’ food needs because, as our daughter’s pediatrician told me twenty three years ago, the first part of the body to get fed is the brain. And maybe if we’d fed our brains what ended up happening wouldn’t have happened.

But we were hearing the siren call of the lake, thinking how we could take off our packs, and our clothes, and slide down into the cool, jade-tinted water in blissful privacy. Plus we’d arrived at a place where the creek opened up into a much wider stream, the water frothing and gushing over boulders large enough to stand on. Another sign of how close we were to the lake. My husband filled our water bottle twice and we drank freely of the heavenly nectar. I poured some into my hand and splashed it across my face then cooled off by pouring it over the pulse points on my wrists. The dogs climbed into the creek and drank with alacrity.
Foaming and gushing

Even my Molly Moon, who will usually crane her neck forward to avoid getting her feet wet despite being part Lab, splashed out onto the rocks and let herself cool down. And she deserved it. For every step I took on the trail she must have taken a dozen, leading the way up through the chutes only to come back down to check on me, and fanning out regularly to secure the perimeter from squirrels. We lingered at that wide spot in the creek, never setting our packs down, and my belly got satiated with water and my spirit felt ready to tackle the last of our climb.

It was when we crossed the creek, following the ribbons from one side to the other, that our problems started. On the other side we met a wide scree of satiny white rocks devoid of any indication as to which way to go. Up yes; but straight up? at an angle up? across to the trees up? I heard the rocks knocking against each other as my husband clambered over them, his movements speeded up, his head turning this way and that in search of the trail. I perched against a downed log, staring uphill in the direction I knew intuitively we must go, and saw a very faded, pink ribbon hanging from a small fir tree. “It’s this way,” I called out, pointing. But when we both moved towards the ribbon, it disappeared. Did I imagine it or could I just not see it now that I’d changed angle? If I’d had my wits about me I would have walked right back to the place where I was perched and tried to see it again. But apparently my wits were on hiatus, a protest against lack of nourishment, so that’s not what happened. Instead, we crossed the scree at a ninety-degree angle to the creek, trying to find sign of the trail. “You wait here,” my husband said once we were on the other side of the talus and standing in a shady nook between two big cedar trees arching gravely out of the rocks like boomerangs that wanted to go back. I leaned my backpack into the curve of the downhill tree, folding my knee to prop one foot on the bowed base, and waited as he and the dogs disappeared out of sight and sound in the thicket of towering greens to my right.

At first I just appreciated the extra time to rest but as the minutes ticked by, stretched like toffee by the unbroken stillness of the wilderness around me, the fanfare of what ifs came back to visit me. This time I greeted them more calmly, my mind in that place of Zen peace that comes after extended exertion, and I told myself that we were geared up to spend the night anywhere and that’s what we’d do if it came down to it. At fifteen minutes of aloneness—I knew because I’d glanced at my watch—I told myself that I was pretty sure I could find the way out if I had to and besides, I’d texted the kids before we left. They’d come and find us if I got turned around.

About twenty minutes after my husband disappeared in search of the trail I heard something crash above me. The sound exploded out into the canyon below me and I wondered if a tree had fallen or if the vast emptiness of sound was just playing magnification tricks with a small branch? I waited, thinking if I stayed really still, whatever had caused it might just pass to my left without noticing me. Then I heard his whistle; that two-tone family call that he’s used to let me know where he is our entire married life. I stepped out from between the trees and saw Molly Moon rushing down the rocks to fetch me.
“I can’t find the trail,” he said when we were face to face again.
I looked at the wide patch of blood on his left sleeve. “What did you do?” I asked, concern evident in my tone.
He shrugged. “It’s nothing. Just a small scratch. It bled a lot is all. What should we do?”
“I think we should go over to the creek again and eat our lunch, then hike back down to Slide Lake and spend the night.”
He nodded. “I second that.”
Stephen and Molly & log

And so what I had been will-powering myself up the trail against, I ended up having to do. We went all the way back down the more arduous part of the trail, back through the chutes and over, under and around the downed logs until we emerged, somewhat battered and certainly tired at Slide Lake.
Slide Lake eveningNicola & dogs at Slide Lake

Amazingly though we were both still smiling and the reason for that, in my case at least, was the realization that I had hiked for seven and a half hours, with one fifteen minute pause for lunch, and my backpack hadn’t bothered me at all. Oh it had undoubtedly contributed to my fatigue and overheatedness, but it had never created that burn across my shoulder blades that I had been fearing, had never felt too heavy, or made my lower back plead for relief.

I wondered about this as I set the pack down against some rocks, in the spot next to the lake where we decided to camp for the night. Maybe the pack had never bothered me because the extra pounds on my figure helped shoulder the load. Or maybe the yoga stretches and push-ups that I did in the weeks leading up to the hike really did prep my body for this activity. I didn’t know for sure.

I thought about it again later, when I was sipping hot apple cider laced with rum that my husband gave me while he fried the two fish he’d caught to go with our freeze dried dinner of rice and veggies. Unless my backpack was really light, which given the contents I was pretty sure it wasn’t, I had no idea how I’d managed to carry it for so long. All I knew for sure was that I was ready to do it again. I was really ready. But maybe, I thought, the smell of the fish drifting towards me on the gentle breeze from the lake, maybe with a full break for lunch next time.
All 4 of us backpacking

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It Takes a Knowledge Part II

When our children were little, a neighbor gave us a round, blue, hard plastic, watering trough for them to splash around in over the summer. The trough was about eight feet in diameter and maybe two and a half feet high and the only thing my husband didn’t like about it was that we would empty the water out of it to no avail. It held a considerable amount of water and since we didn’t use any additives, it needed emptying quite regularly. We would take the plug out of the valve on the side and the water would gush out onto the grass at the side of our house and then run down the driveway till it soaked in wherever it soaked in. Our water is free, coming as it does from the creek that crosses our land, but still; my husband felt that it should go to a nobler use than just watering the lawn and the driveway.

So the second summer we used this watering trough, he decided to set it up at the top of our garden instead of at the side of our house. That way, when it needed to be emptied, the run off could irrigate the plants growing there. But in order for this to be effective, little ditches needed to be dug between the raised beds, to direct the water coming out of the pool, so that all the vegetables got a taste of the wet stuff. My husband enlisted our five-year old son’s help with this project and I remember looking out the window and seeing them both bent over, assiduously making tidy grooves in the dirt with the points of their trowels. It seemed like they were out there for hours, never complaining, sometimes conferring on where the ditches should meet up and then, eventually, releasing the water and watching with pleasure as it ran in both directions the width of the garden and continued on down the rows, like marbles in a marble maze. And I remember we had the biggest squash that season, not only in the garden but growing over the fence so everyone walking by could see the magnificent orange and deep, dark green gourds that sprang from the swimming pool water.
Gardening
Gardening 2

What impressed me most, however, about this homemade irrigation project was our son’s willingness to work on it. And it impressed me because I was never that kid. I remember hating to garden, although I can’t really remember why. But whatever the reason, it led me to tell my husband, early on in our relationship, not to expect me to help in the garden. He didn’t, and I remained steadfast in my lack of inclination until….he fed me some of the things he’d grown. Fresh lettuce, spinach, kale, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, carrots, beans… it was heaven on a plate, and lured me into wanting to protect the early stages of the produce from strangulation by weeds. Thus I relented and found myself bent over rows, allowing my fingers to get fully immersed in leafy greens and dirt.

Apparently I had to make that connection between gardening and eating in order to be part of the process. I grew up in the city in England and only remember my parents gardening for the first few years of my life so maybe that connection got lost in the time spent without a garden. My children, on the other hand, grew up picking fresh vegetables out of the garden every summer and if the way they browsed on the tomatoes (even the unripe ones) was anything to go by, they made that connection early and strong.

Fortunately there are now ways to make sure that all children can make that connection, even if they don’t have a garden at home. Farm-to-table programs are sprouting up in schools all over the country, and then there are some beautiful books on gardening that both children and adults can enjoy. One of my favorites is The Children’s Garden; Growing Food in the City by Carole Lexa Schaefer, a story about a community garden in Seattle that was originally published in 1994. Now, to celebrate its 25th anniversary, The Children’s Garden is being reissued (Little Bigfoot) with beautiful new illustrations by Pierr Morgan. Those of you who enjoyed reading my blog post It Takes a Knowledge, will really love savoring every page of The Children’s Garden with your favorite young person (people). Here’s a taste; a short description of the book from Secret Garden Books in Seattle, where the book will launch on May 2nd at 7pm, and two of the special illustrations by Pierr Morgan.
RootToes-pierrmorgan-2017

Down the road from Woodlawn Avenue, on a street called Sunnyside, there’s a garden patch grown by children who live in the neighborhood. A sign on the garden’s gate says: Children’s Garden, WELCOME That means: Come in, please. Listen, see, smell, touch–even taste.
“In rich prose and lush illustrations, this charming picture book shows children as urban farmers, exploring the sights, smells, sensations, and tastes of growing their own food in a community garden. The story invites young readers to enjoy summer’s bounty and the hands-on experience of tending and harvesting it, while the colorful illustrations depict a multicultural community of children learning about and enjoying a sustainable, local food system.”
SeedPackets-pierrmorgan-2017

The View from the Sauna Porch

I’ve been thinking a lot about trees recently, specifically all the trees in the little mountain dell where I’m lucky enough to live. And when I say all the trees, I mean I can’t look out of any window in my house without seeing a tree or two. Or three. Or more. Douglas fir trees, cedars, maples, alders, hemlocks, silver firs, cherry, apple, two types of walnut, a Japanese white pine, a few sequoias – these are just some of the species that grow on our five acres. And as I’ve watched them grow, I’ve found myself reflecting on them as a metaphor for life.

I was extremely skittish when I first met my husband, and had no intention of setting roots. But one of the things he offered me was stability. My mind shied away from that offer, encouraging me to keep running from my past, something I made central to my first novel, but apparently my heart found it appealing. So I stayed. And discovered that setting roots actually suited me. Helped me grow. Thrive.

So of course, every time I look out my kitchen window, and see these majestic life forms manifesting the power of stability, I can’t help but want to put them in my writing. But at the same time, I feel like the natural world around me touches me on so many sensory levels, I’m not sure I can squeeze all that into just a few sentences. I love trying, because it makes me feel like I’m out in the woods, with the trees, but I hesitate to share because what if I’m not getting it right? I was discussing this dilemma with my friend, Lisa, in Seattle last weekend. She looked at me, with her big, beautiful eyes, and said, “Oh but please keep trying. Because some of us don’t live with trees around us, and the closest we can come is to read about them.”

It was a wonderful, gentle reminder that the reason I write is not just for me, but for those who might read what I write. And it encouraged me to want to share a couple of short pieces inspired by the trees around me. For Lisa, or for anyone who doesn’t get to live in the woods.

The first is a short passage from my new novel, describing the view from our sauna porch after a big rain.

“The storm was over and Joe and Lucy sat wrapped in towels, on the porch of the sauna, zoning on the moisture-laden trees in front of them. It was cold, and steam from their bodies wafted up past the flickering lights of the candle lanterns hanging from the log beam above their heads. The dogs sat on either side of them, their noses occasionally bumping the air above them in the interminable quest for passing scents. Lucy was lost in the drip, drip, dripping of accumulated rainwater coming from a thick patch of spongy moss on the trunk of a burly maple tree, while Joe was focused on the sporadic splashes from saturated lichen on a leaning length of vine maple. It wasn’t that they were seeing what they were staring at in the candlelit dusk of the evening, so much as hearing it. And in their post sauna, meditative states, it sounded like a rainforest rhapsody, with the creek to their right creating a constant bass, and the pop of firewood burning in the sauna stove adding occasional percussion.”

sauna-porch-2

Moss on the big burly maple tree

sauna-porch-1

A leaning length of vine maple

stock-tank

The creek

The second piece is a short poem.

Co-Dependency
Nicola Pearson

Her arms twine tight around you
Like the blackb’ries on my tree
‘Sinuating, thorny vines
That latch tenaciously

I want to snip and yank and tear
To rid you of her brambles
Knowing you will flourish more
When thus you’re unentangled

But when I freed the silver fir
From that which stole its luster
It drooped and paled and fought for life
With all that it could muster

And so I learned relationships
Like berries on my tree
Are not always ‘bout strength and love
But co-dependency


I shared this with my writers’ group and some of them wanted to know what happened to the tree? I’ve only recently gone back to playing with poetry so I can’t profess to know if this is finished or not, but it was an interesting question. I knew the tree had survived, because I see it everyday in my front yard. But until this question I hadn’t really considered that while it’s not as tall as the two other silver firs planted at the same time, it is nevertheless lush, darkly verdant and very healthy-looking. It’s thriving.

silver-firs

A trio of silver fir trees

silver-fir

The littlest tree

It Takes a Knowledge

It’s early when I turn into the well-rutted driveway that should lead me to the hoop house where Anne grows her tomatoes, but the sun is already fully involved in all the lush greens around the property. I can’t see her old, red and black pick-up truck to tell me I’m in the right place, but I can see the trailer that my husband helped Lois, who owns this property, acquire from one of our neighbors. And Anne grows her tomatoes on Lois’s property so I’m pretty certain I’m in the right place. For all the traveling I’ve done over the years, I remain directionally challenged so I often second-guess myself on things that seem familiar.

The dirt driveway leads past a field on my left, sheltered by a row of short trees, and straight on towards Lois’s house and the trailer. As I get closer to the end I notice I can follow the ruts around to the left and when I do, the large hoop house appears. I bump along, energized by being in the right place, and come to a stop directly in front of the hoop house. Outside the entrance there is a knee-high stack of produce boxes, labeled Organic Tomatoes, Grown by Blue Heron Farm; the morning pick. Anne told me she and her crew would be here, but I don’t see anyone around as I climb out of my vehicle and step toward the boxes. The tomatoes inside them are orbs of perfection; smooth skinned, baseball-sized spheres of cherry red with that dip at the top making them somewhat heart-like. Love apples. Pommes d’amour.

Glorious orbs

Orbs of perfection

Love apple

Pomme d’amour

I wonder if I can take a box and pay Anne for it later but these might be for her CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) customers or for the Food Co-ops she supplies. So I step inside the hoop house, in search of a human being. What I find instead is an exquisite land of warm vines that intimates years of knowledge to me. Row upon tidy row of vines, both sides of a central walkway, painstakingly trained upright on orange twine between homegrown bamboo poles, so the tomatoes are exposed in heavy clusters to ripen naturally. I’m enchanted as I move down the center, my eyes widening at the number of tomatoes blushing to perfection. I tread gently, not wanting to disturb the tranquility of this long plastic dome, where the only noise comes from the fans whirring up by the peak, and I marvel at the experience that has gone into growing tomatoes to this degree of success. Especially in the sun deprived, rain rich, Upper Skagit Valley. We need the passion and bullheadedness of youth, I think to myself, because it encourages innovation and drives us forward; but we also need the perspective of our elders, who have tried and failed – then tried again. I’m sure Anne Schwartz has had her share of disappointments over the years as an organic farmer, but boy, she’s certainly proven that persistence pays off. She and her crew of women, who bring such uncomplicated, chemical-free – not the mention delicious – sustenance to our table.

Tomatoes ripening

Tomatoes ripening

Slicing tomatoes

In clusters

Row Upon Tidy Row

Row upon tidy row

I’m still lost in that gentle musky smell that comes from tomatoes on the vine when I step forward and get an incredible hit of tangy fresh peppers. I look down to see long, curly green fingers hiding in the leaves throughout the rest of the hoop house. The smell is so mouth-watering I want to stand there and browse, like a deer at an apple tree, but I know if I start, I might not stop. So instead I linger a moment, torturing my salivary glands, then head back out of the hoop house before my growling stomach interferes with the peaceful growing that’s going on here.

Green peppers

Long, curly, green peppers

I get back into my car and decide I’ll catch Anne later to buy tomatoes and maybe some of those yummy smelling peppers. I do a three-point turn in the dirt and head back down the driveway, this time glimpsing a gap in the windbreak of green growth alongside the field I passed. Again my eyes widen at the sight of onions, planted in such a way that suggests someone really knew what they were doing. Why can’t I get my onions to look like that, I think. I can’t resist pulling over to snap a photo, and I’m glad I do because I get treated not only to the orderly onions, but also to the sight of crew members picking green beans and kale under the backdrop of Sauk Mountain. It takes a knowledge, I think.

Teri picking beans

Teri picking beans

Rows of Onions

Rows of Onions

Onions

Such tidy planting

Anne Schwartz 2

Anne Schwartz

Under Sauk

Under the backdrop of Sauk Mountain

And in case you didn’t catch the links in the text, here they are again for more information about Anne Schwartz and Blue Heron Farm:
http://tilthproducers.org/author/BlueHeron/

The Happy Heart

After an evening of performance back in December, I came down from the stage and was greeted by Wizard, our local Peace Crier. He doesn’t ring a bell and call out, “Oyez! Oyez!” but he does walk up and down the highway around here, carrying a sign that reads, PEACE. “How are you, Wizard?” I asked after he told me how much he enjoyed the show. He graced me with his usual, beatific smile, and declared, “I’m happier than I’ve ever been.” And just like that, I suddenly felt happier too.

It was such an uplifting thing to hear that I immediately found myself wanting to share it with others, to give them the same kind of feel-good sense that Wizard had given me. But I couldn’t quite let go of the words, fearing that somehow, they implied that I haven’t been as happy at other times in my life. And yet I have. But I’m also very happy now. So which is greater – those past joys or today’s contentment? I couldn’t decide, so I let the words sit on my tongue while I reflected on them, as if Wizard had given me a piece of candy, a sugared almond, that I was rolling around in my mouth, sucking on its sweetness, waiting for the kernel of truth at the center to emerge.

As I did so, I happened upon an article entitled “Forty Portraits in Forty Years” in the New York Times Magazine. It’s a piece about a photographer who took a photograph of four sisters in Rhode Island back in 1975 and then went on to take their photograph in a similar pose every year for forty years. I find this kind of thing fascinating, not because I’m so interested in the physical changes in a person but I am interested in the changes I can see in their eyes, their smiles, their body language. Age takes from all of us physically but, if we’re lucky, while it’s taking from the strength of our outer core, it’s nourishing our hearts, growing a garden of colorful, sweet smelling memories deep inside us. And as time goes by, those memories begin to reveal themselves through our eyes, presenting us with flowers that we can share with the people around us. This is what I saw in the four sisters over time; bouquets of deep-rooted, well-tended flowers held out to be enjoyed by all.

Coincidentally, a friend came to dinner at our house just after I read this article and snapped a photograph of me in our kitchen. I looked at it and remembered a similar shot of me in a kitchen in NYC, 30 years ago. I dug that photo out and studied it, wondering if I could spy the same changes in myself that I saw in the four sisters. I was still savoring the sweetness of Wizard’s statement and looked for the telltale signs of past and present happiness in myself.

Nicola '85, NYC

NYC, 1985.

Nicola

Sauk Mountain, 2015

Could I see, for example, in the older me, the sweet bliss I felt when I held my newborn babies in my arms? The sense of euphoria I got when I figured out how to restructure one of my plays to make it more compelling? And the big one – the huge one – the incredible, overwhelming contentment I experienced when I forgave my dad? I went around for months after that one, feeling warmth radiating through every ounce of my being, as if someone had planted a ray of sunshine in the pit of my stomach. I always thought that forgiveness had to do with letting the other person off the hook, but I was wrong. It had to do with me. And, dang, did it feel good! I wasn’t sure exactly why it felt so good. I thought, in my case, it had something to do with the fact that it was unexpected. I wasn’t looking to forgive my dad nor did I even know I had to – I just stumbled into it through my writing. And like the card says over my desk, given to me by a friend on my 25th wedding anniversary, “Often when we make an effort to find the bigger, grander things in life, we are wonderfully surprised by the discovery of other, equally significant things along the way.” But Wizard’s statement caused me reflect on the why all over again and I came to the conclusion that forgiving someone you think has wronged you, sets your soul free. You are you and nobody else. And like a mother feeling the quickening of her baby inside her, you feel your soul swimming unfettered and exultant inside you. And it feels incredible.

But then how could I ever beat that feeling by making a definitive statement about my level of happiness today? I pondered this as I looked at the photos of the sisters again, then the photos of me in the two kitchens, and the last of the sweetness coating Wizard’s statement dissolved, allowing me bite down on the truth. The flowers in my heart are perennials, not annuals. Which means that my happiness today is the accumulation of all the moments of happiness from my past and something that I should not be shy to share openly, freely with others.

So yes, I’m older, heavier, my hair is turning grey and my fingers don’t always work as easily in the mornings as they used to, but…..I’m happier than I’ve ever been.

Wizard

Wizard

Four Funerals and a Wedding.

I’m a happy ending kind of person. I can’t help it, that’s just who I am. So it was fitting that after having to don my black dress for no fewer than four funerals in the last six months, I got to slip on my dance shoes and attend a wedding. And in the space of a car journey (actually in our case, multiple plane journeys and then a car journey), the revolving door of life transported me from the solemnity of letting go to the promise of a future. And it did it in Downton Abbey!

Down Hall Country Hotel

Down Hall Country Hotel

Okay so it wasn’t really Downton Abbey, of course, but it certainly looked like it. Long, wide, carpeted corridors,
Corridors
chandeliered reception areas,
Reception
family portraiture and tapestries adorning the walls
Family portraiture
Tapestries
and hotel staff dressed to look like footmen.
Footmen
Even the name was similar – Down Hall – but instead of being the residence of a peer of the realm, it was a country hotel and plebs like me could stay there without having to cook puff pastry or help someone get dressed for our keep.

I roamed the corridors, amazed that I could actually be in such a place, while imagining all the changes this country manor had witnessed since it was built in 1550. And it wasn’t just the writer in me, picturing scenarios, that made me think about these things; it was the family member who had just come away from a funeral and couldn’t help but wonder what would happen to our lives now that this participant in our story was gone.

Because the Buddhists believe our karma is connected to that of our family. Or families if we tie the knot. Which is mind boggling when you consider that we don’t all share the same interest in improving our karmic standing. Or just improving ourselves. Add to that the fact that most of us seem to stumble into personal growth rather than being able to will it, and family turns into something akin to a Broadway dance number before the choreographer gets a hold of it. People moving in every which direction, tapping the wrong rhythm, spinning the wrong way. And just when we’re beginning to get a sense of how to move together, someone goes and dies leaving us with the possibility that we may never get it right.

But maybe the beauty in life is in our not getting it right and our job, instead of trying to correct imperfections, is to embrace them. One of my favorite stories is from The Unknown Craftsman by Sóetsu Yanagi. The author is talking about Japanese tea bowls and how they’re not supposed to be perfect because that teaches us we have something to learn. He goes on to tell the story of a visit he made to a Korean wood turning studio, where he watched an artisan make a bowl out of a block of wet pine. “The pine block was so fresh that turning made a wet spray, which gave off a scent of resin.” Yanagi was shocked that the wood turner would use such wood, knowing the bowl would crack as it dried. But, when asked, the artisan just smiled and said he would “mend the crack.” And when he did, the mended bowl was even more beautiful than the original.

The hole left in a family by death may not be so easily mended of course but the way certain family members step into the place vacated by the deceased and fill it with their own special gifts can be quite beautiful. What worried me, however, as I wandered up and down the corridors of Down Hall was how do we mend the cracks in a family left around that hole? Because cracks in families tend to linger, and settle, unless they’re filled with forgiveness and not everybody is into forgiveness. So to come back to the question of karma, if we’re all connected and we don’t help each other understand how to fill those cracks, then where does that leave us?

Fortunately the wedding started before I could get lost in this interminable loop and as I watched the bride and groom look tenderly on one another I realized that the happy part of our family dance was the introduction of new partners. New partners with moves that might soften even the crustiest of hearts among us and set us on a path to filling those cracks. But then, like I said before, I’m a sucker for a happy ending.
James and Samantha