Winter Consolation

People ask me sometimes, “How do you stand the cold?” or “Aren’t the winters long?” They look at me askance, wondering how I manage Maine winters. Or why I do.

To be honest, the hardest part of winter isn’t the cold, it’s the dark. In December twilight comes quickly. Walking the students out to the buses, the sky is already low on the horizon. Days seem to end before they begin. Later, you start wondering if it’s time for bed, since it’s been dark for hours, but then you realize it’s only 6:30 pm. And that’s if you’re lucky.

On the other hand, winter in Maine offers unique and meaningful consolation prizes for those willing and able to bundle up and get outside. Or simply when looking out the window.

In winter the beach has an entirely different feel. It’s vast, open and beautiful. There are typically a few hardy folk wandering and one or two joyous dogs, but mostly it’s a place removed. Somewhere to get away and lose yourself in broad swaths of sand and sky.

Or if you’re so inclined, you can visit the marshes where familiar grasses and serpentine waters are transformed into an alien world.

Winter sunrise brushes warm colors over a chilled landscape. It skates along the ice and highlights the shadows of leaf-bare tree limbs. Throw in the distant thread of a calling owl and there’s clearly magic in the air.

Keep an eye out, for winter is also the time when majestic snowy owls swoop in to visit from northern climes. These owls, used to long stretches of light in their northern homes, are often out and about in daylight hours. Ruffled elegance on a rooftop.

Bitter cold offers more enchantment. When the temperatures hover around zero, it’s time to visit the shore in search of sea smoke. Frigid air moves over warmer ocean water, forming tendrils of fog. If the winds are calm, the fog gathers, drifts, and swirls. Mesmerizing.

Winter ice storms glaze the world in ice. Summer’s left-overs become winter’s wonders.

Closer to home, on those bitterly cold days, blow bubbles and watch frost unfurl, transforming liquid bubbles to enchanted orbs.

Or check your windows, where cold kisses window panes and frost blossoms again into intricate patterns.

When the frost clears, look out the windows. With trees free of their autumn leaves, there’s so much more you can see. Birds gather, deer wander by and squirrels entertain with their endless antics.

Keep your eyes open.

Winter brings rich consolation prizes.

Think Before You Speak

I’ve been in a bit of a funk lately, sort of slogging around through a toxic sludge of negativity, not super pleased with being in my own headspace. (Probably not thrilling those around me either, for that matter.) Overall, I’ve just felt primed to go dark. Here’s a small example: On the Teacher’s Room bulletin board, someone wrote, “What are you looking forward to in 2022?” Others had already responded, writing things like, “To thrive, not just survive” or “My son’s wedding” etc. My immediate knee-jerk response (internal thankfully, since the filter held this time and I didn’t say or write it) was “June 15th”. That just happens to be the last day of school. So, you get the picture.

Anyway, last week, I was walking down the hallway at school, stewing in my own negativity, when I happened to look up and see this bulletin board.

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I’ve seen it before, but this time, I stopped and read through it, line by line.

As I read, I thought about the things that have been coming out of my mouth lately: Complaints. Snarky comments. Pessimism. (Just to be clear, the audience to all of this is primarily adults–friends, family and colleagues (sorry, everyone!)– not students. But still.)

So I stood in front of the bulletin board and considered.

Think Before You Speak

is it True? Well, yes, what I say is generally true (though perhaps I’ve been catastrophizing a bit.)

is it Helpful? Um…maybe not so much

is it Inspiring? Oh. No question there. Definitely not.

is it Necessary? Probably not.

is it Kind? Well, it’s not un-kind …

Oh.

Hmmm….

I bumped into two colleagues a little while later and mentioned thinking about the sign.

“Oh, that’s a great bulletin board,” one of them said.

“Yeah,” I said, “I used to have it in my classroom. After reading and thinking about it today, I realized I find the poster and put it back up. I also realized that, in the meantime, I mostly just need to stop talking.”

They laughed.

But I wasn’t totally joking.

The next day, out of the blue, a text arrived with a photo from a distant friend (who courtesy of that distance honestly hasn’t been forced to listen to my negativity).

Clearly the universe is sending me a message.

I’ll look for the poster tomorrow.

Beginnings and Endings

Last week, Ruth Ayres invited others to write along to the prompt “Beginnings.” There was a time when I would have kept what I’ve written in my notebook. Safe from other’s eyes. Private.

Times have changed.

With my father’s death fresh in my mind, I’ve noticed that every beginning is marked by an ending. Or is it that the endings herald beginnings? Or do beginnings presage endings?

All I know is that right now, my father’s absence colors each threshold. This new year marks the first time in my life that a year won’t have him in it. On my upcoming birthday, there won’t be a card. Or a call. Updates and daily news shrivel unspoken on my lips.

I’ve always hated crying, but I’ve gotten used to it now. I’ve stopped fighting the prickling onset of tears. The slight wobble in my chin. The quiver in my lips. I accept them as part of each day. Not something to lean into. Not something to lean away from. Just something that is.

Tears will flow. Sometimes they brim and overflow, sometimes they pool and tremble, then recede. Sadness reabsorbed. Perhaps they are a beginning of sorts. First steps on a journey?

Some beginnings are haunted by endings.

SOL: A New Superstition

Birding Without Borders: An Obsession, a Quest, and the Biggest Year in the World by [Noah K. Strycker, Kenn Kaufman]

This year for Christmas I was given a book called, “Birding without Borders: An Obsession, a Quest and the Biggest Year in the World.” Intrigued, I immediately flipped it open to read the first sentence. “On New Year’s Day, superstitious birdwatchers like to say, the very first bird you see is an omen for the future.”

Ooooooh.

As someone who tries to say “Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit” each month and wishes on stars and pie corners and loves birds, I loved this idea. However, I was slightly wary. The future has been unrolling some mighty unpleasant things these days. I’ve also never dared go to a fortune teller or palm reader. The idea of doing so sends shivers down my spine. I’m not sure exactly what I think will happen, but I’m pretty convinced I’ll walk in, they’ll look into the ball, or into my hand, and either scream, faint, or back away in terror. So, did I really want a sneak peek? Even through a bird intermediary?

New Year’s Day 2022 dawned.

I had an odd start to the day–first I woke at 1:30 am (at which time I whispered “Rabbit Rabbit Rabbit” and nudged my husband to tell him to do the same, since you can never have too much luck), then I fell back asleep only to wake up fully at 3 am. I got up, putzed around til about 5:30, fell asleep on the couch for another hour, then woke again. Later, I was settled in, writing, when I suddenly realized I hadn’t noticed the daylight steadily increasing outside. No doubt the birds were already in full swing at the feeders. I couldn’t really avoid seeing birds all day long, so I guess my decision was made. I was going to look.

What kind of bird would I see when I looked? What kind of year would I have?

Our typical feathered visitors are chickadees, goldfinch, tufted titmice, nuthatches, blue jays, cardinals and a variety of woodpeckers. Most of those seemed like they’d have a positive interpretation, so I felt like the odds must be in my favor.

Deliberately, I raised my eyes from my notebook. The first thing I noticed were three mourning doves perched in the birch tree. Not one. Not two. But three of them. (I guess that was in case I didn’t notice the first one. Or the second one.) So, we do have mourning doves around sometimes, but they definitely aren’t daily visitors. The symbolism felt obvious even without a google search and even though I knew this wasn’t a real omen, more of a fun game, I felt my spirits sink. 2021 had plenty of mourning in it and the thought of a year marked by more of it was discouraging, to say the least.

I half-heartedly googled “mourning dove symbolism” and found that a mourning dove is “a symbol of sorrow and mourning”. No surprise there. Then I read further: “The mourning dove is, above all other symbolism, a spiritual messenger of peace, love, and faith.” Peace. Love. Faith. A year marked with those would surely be a positive one, right?

Here’s hoping.

Kindness

Last week I wrote about the kindness of a stranger at Target (here). This past Friday I received in the mail a note from friends who also follow my blog. They wrote because they were moved by that post about the woman who had bought a game for my classroom. They wanted me to know that, and they also enclosed a check to use “the next time you go to Target for games” for your students. Again, I was deeply touched. I realized how easy it can be to forget how many kind people there are in this world–people who actively try to spread kindness in small but oh-so-meaningful ways.

Then, on Saturday a bulky envelope arrived in my mailbox. Within was a beautifully hand-crafted book created by my writing group, the Inklings. They had filled the pages with bookmarks, stationary, and poems to comfort me as I grieve the loss of my father. I was left teary-eyed and speechless by their creativity and thoughtfulness. As I wrote them in thanks, “…just when life sends you reeling with a blow, hands reach out to hold you up.” Again, such kindness.

In her poem, Kindness, Naomi Shihab Nye writes,
“Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.”

In these days as I traverse a raw grief, I feel all my prior losses reverberating in tune with this newest sadness. It can be easy to listen only to those somber notes, to sink into sorrow.

Nye’s poem goes on to say,

“Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.”

Kindness matters. From the examples above, to the outpouring of thoughtful words and gestures from oh-so-many. Though some of my days are filtered darkly through a screen of grief, kindness has clearly raised its head. I feel its presence beside me and it comforts me, alters the shape of my grief, lightens its load. Ultimately, it allows me to feel blessed as well as bereft.

Thank you, my friends.

Thankful for Trouble

Early Saturday morning, I strolled listlessly through the aisles of Target, carefully checking my written list as I went. In the back of the store, there was a display overflowing with games, many of them familiar from my childhood. I glanced over as I passed. Sorry. Yahtzee. Chutes and Ladders. Wait…Trouble!? Oh. I’d loved Trouble! I picked up the box and looked fondly at that curved plastic center dome peeking through the center of the cardboard. I could still remember the feel of pushing it down and the click-popping sound it made as it rolled the die within. That would be a great game for indoor recess, I thought. I looked around in vain for a price tag. Well, I’ll just ask when I check out, I decided. If it’s less than $10, I’ll buy it.

When I got up front, there was only one cashier working. I settled into line with my few items, already beginning to feel the sharp stress nibbles of unfinished grading and incomplete report cards. Soon, a woman, masked as I was, got into line behind me.

“Wow, only one line open,” she commented, “but at least it’s not too busy.

We commiserated and chatted about this and that–the weird state of the world, how many people weren’t masked, Covid, etc.

“I have cancer,” she commented, “but I really wear my mask to protect others. I do love our governor, but I wish she’d mandate masks.”

I noted the dark circles under her eyes, her pallor and her thin frame. My heart squeezed a bit. Trying to manage a grave illness and navigate this Covid-altered world must be incredibly stressful.

The line moved forward and I started to unload my cart onto the belt.

“Oh, that’s a fun game!” she said, pointing at Trouble.

“I know!” I replied. “I remember loving this game as a kid. I’m a teacher and I thought my students would, too. I’m not sure how much it is though, so I haven’t decided if I’m getting it or not.”

We talked a bit about schools and how they’ve been managing these days, until finally, it was my turn at the register.

“How much is this?” I asked the cashier, holding up the game.

She scanned it. “Thirteen forty-nine.”

I hesitated, remembering my $10 mental limit, designed to stop me from overspending on my classroom.

“Never mind,” I said firmly. “I’m not going to get it.”

She tucked the rejected game under the counter and began to ring up my other purchases. A few minutes later, I paid and gathered up my bags. As I turned to leave, I heard the woman behind me say, “Oh, I’ll take that,” and saw her point to the Trouble game.

Then she turned to me, “Could you wait just a minute?” She quickly slid her card through the machine, then grabbed the game from the cashier and handed it to me.

“I’d like you to have it,” she said, “For your classroom. For the children.”

“Oh,” I stammered, “Wait. What? Oh. You don’t need to do that.”

“I want to,” she smiled, pushing the game into my hands.

I held onto it tightly, stumbling over my words. “But that’s so kind of you! Wow! The kids will love it. Thank you so much! “

“No,” she replied, “Thank you for all you’re doing.”

I thanked her again, and tears burning in my eyes, turned away, deeply touched by the kindess of a stranger.

Fleeting

I heard the geese before I saw them, and the sound drew me across the room to the french doors. I looked into the sky over the pond and spotted them immediately. They flew low, a disorganized cluster, their calls loud and mournful. My mind reached for lines from a favorite poem, pulling up only a few of them.

“Something told the wild geese
it was time to fly.
Summer sun was on their wings,
Winter in their cry.”

As I watched, to my delight, the geese wheeled and turned, and then headed back toward the pond. Feet first, wings spread wide, they touched down in the water with great splashes. About a dozen of them paddled to shore and clambered up onto the snow-covered grass. I leaned against the cool glass, watching them. Every so often one of them would rise up and flap its wings, then settle back down. They ambled about socially. I wondered if they were cold. How long had they been traveling? Where were they bound? I thought idly that I could simply watch them all day long. Their presence soothed me.

I thought about my visit here three or four weeks ago. Then temperatures had been in the high 70s and low 80s and I’d been picking late-blooming flowers in my father’s garden. The geese had visited during that time as well, only a few, but still I’d enjoyed watching them until they flew away, their calls so evocative– Time is passing. Winter is coming.

So much had changed since then.

As I watched from the window, a neighbor from across the pond strode down the lawn, newspaper in hand, gesticulating at the birds.

Oh, no.

I straightened at the door, aware there really wasn’t anything I could do. I was a visitor in this neighborhood and her message was loud and clear. She flapped her arms vigorously and the geese heeded the warning. In a flutter of feathers and scrambling feet, they scrabbled into the pond. Within moments they had taken flight and moved out of sight. So quickly were they all gone, leaving only ripples of disturbance which quickly ebbed as the pond settled back into stillness.

I watched the neighbor trudge back up to her house, wondering what she felt she had accomplished. Sometimes I really don’t understand people. Geese are easier.

I remained by the window for a while, hoping the geese might return. Of course, they didn’t, but soon enough the sun shone through low clouds and lit the remaining foliage, dazzling my eyes. Within moments clouds prevailed again.

But oh, how beautiful the moment was while it lasted.

Something Told the Wild Geese
by Rachel Field

Something told the wild geese
It was time to go.
Though the fields lay golden
Something whispered,—‘Snow.’
Leaves were green and stirring,
Berries, luster-glossed,
But beneath warm feathers
Something cautioned,—‘Frost.’
All the sagging orchards
Steamed with amber spice,
But each wild breast stiffened
At remembered ice.
Something told the wild geese
It was time to fly,—
Summer sun was on their wings,
Winter in their cry.

What do you remember about watercolor water?

I still remember swishing my brush in the water, and watching the swirls of color leave the bristles in curling ribbons and gradually infuse the water. How the water turned a beautiful shade of blue or purple or maybe red. Sometimes instead of focusing on the paper and my watercolor creation, I’d turn my attention fully to the water. I’d dip my brush into those dented colored ovals and add a bit more of this hue or that, then watch the change. Inevitably, I’d end up with a murky glass of water and no matter what bright color I added next, the end result was…murky water.

I’ve been feeling like my life is a bit that way lately. No matter how much I try to focus on the joyful moments, of which there are many, I can’t change the overall tone. I’ve begun to start my day with a gratitude list, to push myself to stop and really enjoy moments of this blissful autumn weather, to notice and celebrate small successes, etc. But, it’s like adding yellow into that pigment-laden jam jar of watercolor water. The overall tone remains unchanged. Dark.

Then, this morning I read a post in a new-to-me blog that was referenced in Austin Kleon’s newsletter. The blog is called Affirmation Chickens. Kleon’s endorsement and the blog name drew me in. One thing the author included in that post was a section titled “Here’s What I Loved This Week.” I loved that title and the idea and it made me think. What did I love during this past week? As soon as I asked myself that question, I knew the answer.

Here’s What I Loved This Week

Sunday, on yet another gorgeous fall day, Kurt, Lydia and I walked along a trail to the Presumpscot River. Despite the date on the calendar, there were still quite a few amber and russet leaves clinging to the trees. They cast dappled shadows on the tree trunks and the path. Those that had fallen rustled and crunched beneath our feet. We talked idly of this and that, greeted other hikers as we walked, and admired the scenery. Then, as we rounded a corner, off to the side was a split pumpkin, and sitting neatly inside was a little red squirrel.

“Oh My Gosh! Stop! Look!” I said. The squirrel darted away briefly as we came to a sudden stop. It halted by a nearby tree, eying us. “Oh, no!”

“It’ll come back,” Kurt said confidently, and within mere seconds it had done so. It darted right back into the pumpkin and thrust its hands into the pulp. Red squirrels are nothing if not bold! Soon it was gobbling pumpkin to its heart’s content, ignoring the three of us.

“I wonder who put the pumpkin out here.”
“It looks like it’s eating spaghetti!”
“Oh, it’s so cute!”

We stood for several minutes and watched it eating, making all the appropriate admiring comments, laughing as it grabbed and ate more and more pumpkin. It was such a delightful, unexpected moment.

Eventually we moved on toward the rest of the trail and the waterfall. But that moment was something I truly loved about the past week. So many things had to come together for it to happen–the timing of our walk, our choice of destination, the squirrel’s lunch hour, and above all, someone’s decision to share a pumpkin with the wildlife. So often I find myself aghast and stymied by the choices that humans make on a daily basis. There was an inherent generosity to the placement of the pumpkin, and I felt connected to that beneficent donor, whoever it might have been. It was so comforting to know that there are some people out there who are doing random, kind things in the world.

Remembering that moment makes me feel just a bit lighter.

Now, thinking back to that watercolor water jar, I remember another thing I learned long ago. One way to change that dark color is to empty the jam jar and start with fresh water. Then, be careful not to insert too many dark tones. The squirrel moment is a nice bright beginning. I’m hoping to work with it.

When interrupted sleep is a gift…

Something disturbed my slumber. I stirred and heard a layered cacophony– a rich, raucous nighttime noise drifting in through our window, along with the chilly autumn air. What is that? I wondered blearily. Beneath my nest of blankets, I turned toward Kurt, sensing he, too, was awake.

“What’s that?” I murmured.

“Coyotes, I think,” he whispered. “Did you hear the owl, too?”

Oh, I thought, in surprise. I did.

With Kurt’s words, the sounds had shifted in my memory. I had heard the owl, but hadn’t quite realized it. It was like one of those moments when you don’t quite hear what someone says, and you ask,”What?”, and then, right as they answer, you realize you actually did hear their words, but it just took a second for them to come together in your mind. The owl’s call, closer to the house, had floated on the wave of coyote revelry. I knew it was there, or knew something was there, like a flavor or scent I couldn’t quite identify. Altering the whole experience, subtle but significant. Now it all fell into place.

We laid still and listened intently. Captivated. The ruckus didn’t last long. The coyotes carried their revelry further afield or simply quieted. The night slipped back into silence.

Then the owl called again. One long, low “hooooooot.”

Clear and true. A gift or a farewell.

Or perhaps both.

Slowly, contentedly, I closed my eyes and fell back asleep.

Delighting in Dahlias

Recently this image appeared in our town’s Facebook group, along with an open invitation for anyone in town to stop by and gather up some dahlias.

I have to admit, I’ve never considered growing dahlias and don’t know much about them. Classified as tender perennials, they have to be dug up each winter and replanted in the fall. I know myself well enough to avoid that situation! No, thanks! But…free dahlias? Sure!

I took note of the address, jumped in my car and headed out. As I neared, I slowed down, looking carefully for the address. Would I be able to find it?

I needn’t have worried. The wagon of blossoms was like a beacon at the end of the driveway. I pulled over and got out. The blooms were even more glorious in person. I may have audibly oohed and aahed a bit.

I turned to see a woman emerging from behind the house, clippers in hand.

“These are gorgeous,” I said, wandering over. “It’s so kind of you to share them with everyone!”

“Well,” she said, “I just love dahlias. I keep buying them and I don’t want them to go to waste. If I didn’t give them away, I’d have to compost them. I’d hate to do that!”

“Don’t you have to store them inside in the winter?” I asked.

“Oh, yes,” she said. “We have a ridiculously large bathroom that stays pretty cool, so I put them in there.” She looked around at the beds bursting with dahlia blossoms. “I’m not sure if they’re going all fit this year,” she admitted and laughed, “but I just can’t resist them!”

We chatted about gardens, dahlias, managing tender perennials, etc. As we spoke, several more cars pulled over to the side of the road. People were laughing and peering into the wagon, comparing and selecting blossoms. Word was clearly out.

I moved back toward the wagon to choose my flowers and the woman accompanied me. As I gazed at all the choices, I was wowed by the variety and the subtle gradients of color.

“These are stunning!” I said.

She nodded, smiling, and as I selected blossoms, she added a few choices of her own with some commentary.

“Oh, you have to have this one!”

“Take this one, too. It’s one of my favorites! It’s just like a watercolor, isn’t it!?”

Finally, I had a lovely bouquet gathered. After thanking her again, I headed home to organize my flowers.

A short while later, I was definitely rethinking dahlias. Some relationships are clearly worth a little extra effort!

Update: This week’s selection!