Novelist | Singer
Today, amid the busyness that is a normal job in a normal life, I escaped from my head long enough to remind
myself how really good life is, and how we are given guardians and friends when we most need them.
It is January, and the time of year that I most think of my friend Atolobako Vukoyo of Nagero, Zaire.
How old would he be now? 52? 53? I try to imagine him at that age, but can only conjure the young face he had when I was living in Africa. He was my assistant in Garamba National Park in 1993 and 1995 when I was doing my Master’s field work. That was before the military coup, before the civil war that left the already crippled country in tatters. A time when Zaire existed in relative peace.
Garamba was established in 1938 for the protection of the northern white rhinoceros and along with it, many other African megafauna. Atolobako and others who guard protected animals take that responsibility much the same way as soldiers who go to war. They carry AK-47s and patrol in the brutal African sun through twelve foot grass, at any time potentially stumbling onto water buffalo, elephants or even a pride of lions. Worse yet, they could encounter a camp of poachers also armed with AK-47s, or any hand-made firearm they can concoct from discarded pipe and wire. Poachers are often friends or neighbors, complicating an already dire political and economic situation. A dead poacher is also worth a ten dollar bonus; equivalent to a month’s salary (in the mid-90s).
Atolobako was a very special man. We met on an excursion into the park to retrieve a rhinoceros collar that had been rubbed off in a mud hole. Rhinos were collared for research and protection measures. His first words to me were a warning of crocodiles in the Dungu River that forms the southern border of Garamba. It was almost dusk and we were summoning the buck, a little home-made ferry that had to be pulled by hand across the river. An old junk truck wheel and a hunk of metal hung askew on a decapitated tree nearby. They served as the calling card for the buck. No matter what time of day or night, the clanging of the wheel brought people to the other side, where they would wait until enough gathered to pull the buck across the river to our side. As this took a while, I had jumped from the truck bed and was walking toward the river bank.
I don’t remember in what language he spoke, but I’m certain it wasn’t English. It might have been a mix of French and Lingala, but I knew exactly what he was saying, and I listened. Atolobako didn’t speak English when I met him. We never really shared a language, but communicated perfectly. Already at our first encounter, he was looking out for me.
That was September of 1993. I was a volunteer at the park, setting up a project for my Master’s study. Over the next several months, we became acquainted, and as I began my field research, he was suddenly my assistant, almost without being assigned. He started speaking English without any encouragement, picking up the sounds that he heard mostly from me. Everyone there spoke either French or Lingala, or a strange mixture of both. I spoke what I could of both languages, but being proficient in neither, I defaulted to English for lack of any other words. Atolobako remembered and repeated, without a book or lessons, and within weeks, was speaking passible English. It was amazing.
We spent a lot of time together, 6 days a week, 6 or 7 hours a day. It didn’t occur to me until much later that although he was there as a liaison between the farmers and me, he accompanied me primarily as my protector. While we were usually near some habitation and not deep in the bush, there was always the chance of running into any kind of animal, even during the day. He generally did not carry a weapon, but at times when we went far afield, he packed his AK-47. It became quite natural to walk through the African bush with this black camo-clad man bearing an assault rifle. We talked a lot in our rounds through the farms and adjacent bush bordering Garamba. Farms planted and harvested by hand; large fields of millet, rice and cassava which by necessity were guarded day and night by subsistence farmers from marauding wildlife. Elephants, monkeys, duikers and hippos mowed down the farmers’ hard-earned yields in a few midnight snacks that could devastate whole properties in the course of one night. Those who had been forced to move far away from the river forming the border of the park were in better shape than the ones who dared to stay within a mile. Everyone suffered from the destruction of the charismatic megafauna protected by conservation.
Atolobako was always helpful, always there for me. He was a good worker and never complained. Every morning he joined the daily run with the guards to the intersection with the main road and back, a distance of several miles, dressed in boots and fatigues. We always heard the cadence penetrating the foggy tropical air before we saw the runners, complete with intricate rhythms and harmonies and sung in that musical language of Lingala.
I was lucky enough to accompany the crew of four men including Atolobako into Garamba to complete vegetation transects, part of the field study for the rhino project. I had a rip-stop nylon tent and polyester sleeping bag, among my other western camping gear. The boys had blankets and canvas pup tents that were right out of Beetle Bailey, with the open ends, vertical poles to the peak, and guy lines to peg them tight. One night we stayed near water that supported a population of hippos. After dinner as we sat by the fire, the hippos would approach the yellow circle of light, their massive eyes shining like two dinner plates out of the black night. It was scary, to say the least. Every once in a while, one of the boys would jump up and yell to scare off the hippos, who would bolt away to howls of laughter. There’s really no fun like spooking hippos on a Friday night. The men’s teeth shown like beacons in the firelight, but the rest of their faces were masked from view. I must’ve looked like a ghost to their eyes.
One full-moon night I brought out my binoculars. Nights in Africa were incredibly dark. We were hundreds of miles away from any source of artificial light. Atolobako and I sat side by side near the fire and shared the glasses. He gasped as he viewed the moon for the first time “close-up.” I will never forget that night.
Another vivid memory involved the breakdown of the dirt bike we were riding at the far reaches of the village. We took turns kicking and kicking the starter, and in the waning twilight, finally abandoned the bike and started walking the 4 four kilometers back home. The baritone woofs of lions were often heard in the moist stillness of the bush, and I was plenty nervous without a flashlight or any kind of weapon – not that it would’ve done much good. Maybe Atolobako felt my nervousness. Maybe he was simply done with work for the day. He started teaching me the song, “Biso to uti na Nagero.” It was a local song that tells of someone returning to Nagero after a long absence. Atolo had a beautiful voice, a baritone resonance that would be the envy of any singer. When my husband and I got married there in the village on December 3, 1995, he led a group of guards in a lively Lingala song to honor our union. Those and many, many more memories remain from my time in Africa, and the most present are of Atolobako Vukoyo, my friend who gave his life for the wildlife in his world.
Atolobako was captured by Sudanese rebels on January 16, 2009. His body was found three days later.
I know he had a wife and children. The community is strong and will help them because they have to. They are accustomed to hard living. In Nagero, there is no other choice.
I think of him often, of the impact he had on my life; the safety he provided, the songs he taught me, the example he set for his people. But particularly at this time of year, he lives in my thoughts, and I am reminded of how good our lives are in these United States.
My dear friend Jeni Mitchell had this posted on Facebook a while back, and I just discovered it hiding in my files. All great words of wisdom that she certainly lives by. Thank you for this Jeni!
Live beneath your means. Return everything you borrow. Stop blaming other people. Admit it when you make a mistake. Give clothes not worn to charity. Do something nice and try not to get caught. Listen more; talk less. Every day take a 30-minute walk. Strive for excellence, not perfection. Be on time. Don’t make excuses. Don’t argue. Get organized. Be kind to people. Be kind to unkind people. Let someone cut ahead of you in line. Take time to be alone. Cultivate good manners. Be humble. Realize and accept that life isn’t fair. Know when to keep your mouth shut. Go an entire day without criticizing anyone. Learn from the past. Plan for the future. Live in the present. Don’t sweat the small stuff. It’s all small stuff.
Here we are at Winter’s Door once again. Little surprises like an extreme temperature plunge are certainties. The earth itself has cooled, having slowly given up its summer radiant heat through long chilly nights. The ocean surrounding our Gloucester island home is chilling as well, though it’s still acting as a blanket to insulate us from the more frigid temps.
Grey envelopes our skies, our excursions to the outdoors, our thoughts and even our dreams in winter. The magical angle of the winter sun brings a golden haze, casting long skinny shadows even at noon. The sunshine is hot in the lee from the perpetual north wind, but this is still the season of the blues. No wonder we have holidays and celebrations sprinkled throughout the dive toward winter. This cooling down period allows us the perfect environment for self-reflection and examination. We begin to reminisce about the year even though we are not yet at its end. Holidays loom ahead with their own brand of built-in stress. Thank goodness for the internet, which rescues me from crowded stores that make me want to flee for the exits. Though “winter” won’t arrive yet until after the New Year with the snow and icy wind, the long slide through fall into the holiday season provides plenty of prep time to adjust to the big chill of our island.
Among the holiday celebrations we cram into our calendars, one of the most significant is the Winter Solstice. In our modern “connected” existence, we are sheltered from the harsh reality that terrified northern residents years ago, when light, warmth and its benevolent growing season dictated their very lives. Several years ago, I started a program to celebrate the solstice and its ancient significance at Harold Parker State Forest in North Andover, MA. Though this is done in my role as the coordinator of programming for Massachusetts State Parks, it primarily fills a primordial desire for the return of warm weather, green plants and life-giving sunshine. At this stage in our human evolution on Planet Earth, winter is a mere inconvenience for many northern residents. For those living at a subsistence level hundreds of years ago, winter was a frightening time, and warm weather and a growing season was paramount to their survival. One failed crop season could mean the end of their existence. Winter was dark, cold and barren.
Even thousands of years ago, the winter solstice was certainly well known as the shortest day of the year, and became a major celebration in northern climes. Following is a list of some of them, though undoubtedly, there are many more:
In acknowledgement of the sun’s return, the men carted large logs home. These became known as Yule logs. One end of these logs was set afire, and people would feast until the log burned out, sometimes taking as many as 12 days.
Impressive monuments have been erected principally for the sunrise or sunset on the winter solstice, among them Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland, colossal structures requiring exacting measurements and years of work.
Amazing that all these myriad festivals, celebrations and landmarks arose independently around our earth, all in recognition of the same day. Some believe that the timing of Christmas actually began with the celebration of the winter solstice. So where does that leave us in our modern technologically-driven existence, replete with central heat, supermarkets bursting with food, water at the turn of a handle, cars with heated seats and electric lights operated by voice-activated Alexa?
Perhaps with an empty feeling. What a missed opportunity for our own spirituality. Some people are not conscious of the solstice passing, though it is announced by The Weather Channel, news and radio stations. We don’t greet each other with “Happy Solstice” like we do Christmas, New Year’s and even St. Patty’s Day.
Certainly, the solstice does not mark the sudden return of anything. Rather, we are just heading into the worst part of winter, awaiting bone-chilling wind and snow storms for the next two months. Though each day brings increasing daylight, it is barely noticeable until about the middle of January, at which time we are buried in full-on winter weather, and full days with no sun at all. Day length near the solstice increases by mere seconds, hence the meaning of the word “solstice” – or, the sun stands still. By March, day length increases by almost 3 minutes, a very noticeable difference. So is there really any cause for celebration on December 21 after all?
I think so. Ritual celebration is sadly absent from our society in general.
Our ancestors recognized the significance of the winter solstice as far back as 10,000 B.C., in the Neolithic period (the new stone age, when farming first originated), making the Winter Solstice celebration one of the oldest on Earth. Unfamiliarity with the solstice’s significance is fairly recent in human history. Despite our conveniences and protection from winter, we still owe our survival to the ability to grow plants which in turn feed every organism on earth.
This writer will celebrate the winter solstice and the return of life-giving light every year. It is the humble recognition of our vulnerability to the elements, the honor of our resilient ancestors, out-lasting winter in less fortunate living conditions, and certainly owning the awareness of what truly sustains our existence.
It is a celebratory, happy day. It is the recognition of the return of life-sustaining light. It is the end of our plunge into increasing darkness. Ancient peoples devoted entire days and even weeks to its significance. In 2017, it deserves at least one day.
Barbara Buls Boudreau will be hosting a public Winter Solstice Celebration on December 21 from 3:00 – 5:00 p.m. at the CCC pavilion located on Middleton Rd. in Harold Parker State Forest, North Andover, MA. Come share the fire, drink a cup of hot chocolate, and share the mystery of one of our oldest celebrations on Earth.
Her eyes are the first thing I see as I pad out from the bedroom in the morning. The frosted lenses follo
w me, so I know she sees something, but I’m never sure how much. Cataracts have overtaken the brown of her retinas – leaving shadowy gray discs. Sometimes I can even get all the way into the kitchen before my movement wakens her. She sleeps much more deeply than before, which was not deep at all. In those days, she could go from snoring to running and barking in a split second. She is my good girl.
Her ears perk as I make the coffee and tuck the cups from last night into the dishwasher. As usual, she has placed herself right in the middle of my path, so I have to coax her to move out of the way before dad wakes up and roars at her. It’s funny – she doesn’t mind it a bit, just drops those ears a hair, does what he says, and then it’s over. I move her mostly so I don’t have to hear it. But I caught him talking gently to her on regular occasions. We both know that she is getting old.
Now her timer is running. If I don’t feed her within a couple of minutes, I’ll hear it. She is accustomed to being a priority and will remind me if I forget or neglect any step of our morning routine. Sometimes she starts soft, yet urgently – a bark that can be heard from the living room into the kitchen. If she is in a feisty mood, however, she’ll skip the intro and commence with a full-on bark – that sharp penetrating Aussie yap that makes sheep sit up and notice. That bark can be heard from the other side of town. It will wake Al up, and I don’t want the morning to go that way, so I give into the demands of the oldest member of our family, my 14-year-old Aussie shepherd Lila.
I grab a fistful of kibble from the canister with the leopard spots and drop it into her bowl. She loves that sound. Now she is up and standing at the entrance to the galley kitchen, the stub of her tail sending vibrations throughout her entire body. Her nose angles higher and just the black rubberish end twitches. How is it possible that she can actually smell the brown, non-descript tablets of chow? They don’t smell much like anything even if I put my nose right above the bowl. Nothing I’d like to eat anyway. She does her 30 second slurp of breakfast and lies down to lick her chops. Now she’ll be fine for the next twenty minutes or so until she decides it’s time for her pills. Two glucosamine chondroitin for her arthritic joints, one Rimydyl for the pain, and one fish oil for general health and a shiny coat. She eats them all with zeal. She started eating the glucosamine when I was gone last winter and she was staying with a friend. Jennifer thought maybe it was her way of protecting HER pills from the other dog in the house. It’s so much easier than the messy peanut butter routine.
After her pills, she’ll hobble to the slider where she awaits release for her morning stroll. For twelve years, she has made the trip down those twenty seven stairs, taken her solo neighborhood expedition, then back up the twenty seven to bark at the screen door for admittance. I’ve always been a bit nervous about her daily neighborhood route, but unable to put a stop to it.
What if she gets hits by a car? What if she runs into some wild animal? What if she gets hold of something nasty, or something poisonous? Over 4,000 times she has made the trip without incident, so odds are in her favor.
Those excursions occupied a wider circle when she was young. Twice she cost me beers at Pratty’s when she found her way down there looking for the hotdogs Cousin Tony used to give her late at night when we stopped in after gigs. “Do you have a dog named Lila?” is a heart-stopping opening from an unknown caller. Perhaps I was negligent. But she has enjoyed a freedom most pets do not, and she deserves freedom, after her punishing first two years inside a crate. That was before she came to us.
I know it’s not over yet, but Lila is nearing the end of her life. Every day becomes a reminder that she is indeed still vital; barking, pooping, sniffing—everything a dog does when she is still full of life. But before she goes outside I find myself helping her more every day as I dress her in her new vest with a handle for boosting, and I can feel that the grieving process (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) has already begun. Unfortunately for me, I seem to be caught in the depression stage. There are many days when one look at her will bring tears to my eyes.
What is she thinking? Does she know she is getting old? Does she wonder? Can she feel herself failing? Does she question her fate—why was I able to run before and now I can barely walk?
Dread fills at least a spot of every day as I witness yet another symptom of her advanced years, the hitch in the step, the labored attempts to stand, the increase in water intake. I am not ready to lose her, and wonder if I will be when that time comes. Possibly, I am anticipating the weight of responsibility for being the one responsible for ending her life. How many times have you heard, “Why can’t we do that for people?”
What??? How could we ever bear that responsibility, although with our advanced language skills don’t we make detailed wishes heard? We can ask for the end as a dog cannot. What will I base it on? Certainly pain will drive my actions. I won’t be able to bear seeing her in pain. She is my good girl.
There are things a dog fulfills that I have never experienced from another human being. There is a look unique to a dog, and one that wrenches my heart from my chest. Oh, yes, we look into the eyes of our lovers, spouses, children and even best friends, but the look that a dog delivers is somehow deeper, more meaningful and more trusting. That one look says,
“Do you know my life is dedicated to your safety, that I would gladly give mine for yours?”
“Do you know that I put myself in the way to ensure I will wake and be vigilant whenever you make a move?”
“Do you know that life has no meaning for me without you in it?”
“Do you know I love you more than anything in the world?”
The look is profound and endless. She stares right into my eyes with an all-knowing power of connectivity. There is no embarrassment, no hesitation. It is complete, unfathomable and soul-filling. It is the sweet meat next to the bone. It is the meaning of life itself.
In the past, I think maybe she was not aware of the impact of her gaze. At those times, she smiled and did her frenzied tail dance, butt tucked in, bumping into my leg intentionally. Maybe she is just joking about the gaze. “That’s OK Mom, just blanked out for a second – sorry I was staring at you.”
But now that she is old, the gaze is prolonged and intent, and happens more often. It is clear that she is conveying thoughts; telling me her story. And we both know her story. Where she was born, what she endured in a crate for two years with a shock collar cinched around her neck.
I can hear her saying, “I am here, you are here. Everything is just fine.”
She is not worried. She is my good girl, and though her faculties are impaired, her spirit remains vigilant. And so must I.
In our time remaining, I will find a way to embrace her old age; to ignore the “old” in her and focus on wisdom, trust and steadfastness. I will talk to her and also listen; to her words and her glances until her cloudy eyes no longer see. The ego that often dictates human action cannot derail the remainder of our journey together. And however it goes, we have had a great run.
I was recently in the Bahamas to escape at least part of the winter. I don’t mind winter, just the length of it, so even a bit of away is a bonus. We sail and fish, and I spend a great deal of time just sitting and looking and pondering the amazing world in which we live. During this trip, the incredible mangrove caught my attention.
Mangrove forest is both tough and tender – strong enough to survive hurricane winds, yet gentle enough to nurture the babies who feed the world.
They are some spooky snorkeling, and not much to see until you slow down and really look. Millions of silver baby fish wiggle by in orderly schools, not a bit scared; just looking. The ghostly roots and branches provided excellent cover as their algae–draped limbs snake down through the shallow water to anchor deeply into the mucky substrate—deep enough to endure wind over 100 miles per hour and the waves driven by such wind. It is little wonder that the mangrove has been chosen by nature to guard its most vulnerable young ones.
Another testament to its toughness is its mindboggling ability to live in salt water, a deadly environment for most life. Mangroves put up more carbon than their inland forest counterparts. Their soils are constantly waterlogged, they filter salt out with their miraculous roots, just sipping less than a third of their temperate counterparts.
The picture is equally as impressive as trees that grow on high, frosty mountain slopes or rugged, hot wind-swept plains. The resilience of our fringe environment vegetation puts the vulnerability of Homo sapiens to shame. We northern hemisphere residents are even unable to drink water from natural sources without boiling and filtering first. Oh, boy, are we in for trouble when the lights go out. Mother Nature is by far the most selective force on the planet, and she occasionally puts on a demonstration just to show who’s boss. Do we listen? Some do.
Those living in close contact with nature generally step back and let Mother do her thing. Others regret their ill-conceived decisions: driving in a blizzard (on round wheels, no less!), chasing tornadoes or hanging around for the hurricane party. Meteorologists talk about the wind speeds, which are a substantial force. More powerful yet is the water driven by the wind; storm surge, terrifying waves, with power enough to destroy bridges, concrete foundations and transport tons of sand out to sea. But not our humble mangroves standing guard over the babies. Their waxy leaves may be stripped temporarily, but these are by design expendable and will grow back after a storm. The hundreds of twisted roots anchored deeply into earth and their beautiful above-ground counterparts hold fast through tempest and blasting heat waves, eventually releasing their fishy guardians to the world as a reliable seemingly never-ending food supply.
And yet, when coastal development takes place, those are the first plants to go – those ugly mangroves. With one fell swoop of a heavy machine, not only is all the future food supply gone, but the wind and wave protection as well.
Wahhhhhh????? In their place, we import plants that won’t survive unless we water them – never mind when the sky turns black and the water rises. The story doesn’t end there. Many human decisions are ego-centrically (though not intentionally) opposed to nature and financially lucrative for the inventor.
Chemical solutions for everything from high blood pressure to bugs on vegetative monoculture we call “food,” these things that will eventually poison us. The whole myth of “low-fat” and manufactured foods being better for us than butter and animal products. Bottle-feeding rather than nursing our own babies are just a couple of examples of how far astray we allow ourselves to be taken. Homo sapiens; the strangest creature on earth in defiance of Mother Nature. Few comedies are cleverer.
Thankfully, certain factions among our kind have the wisdom and foresight to preserve the very things that save us from the destructive power of nature. We have protected marsh and forest. We’re getting better at seeing where we have gone wrong. Among these discoveries, The Everglades in Florida is now up front and center in recent news. And though much of the Everglades is grassland, the entire western edge of it is—guess what—mangroves. The nursery and guardian of our baby fish and shoreline.
There are loads of sources on-line that tell the natural history and ecological story of the mangrove. Like our northern marshes, mangroves are the glue that holds the southern environment together. It’s worth a read.
Upon our return from the winter get-away, what a greeting I discovered in our mail pile. An a bubble-wrapped copy of “Garamba – Conservation in Peace & War,” a coffee-table book from Dr. Kes Hillman-Smith, the woman who acted as my “boss?” “advisor?” when I was doing my Master’s field work in Zaire in ’93 and ’95. After I left Africa, Kes contacted me about writing a chapter for the Garamba book on the research focus of my Master’s thesis, and of course, I said yes. It’s been a long time coming – more than 15 years, I think, and now I have the book in my hands. It is much more book than I expected! They are $187.00 on Amazon!
I am so fortunate as a contributing author to have been sent a copy. I realize that this is not something that people would just click and purchase because they are loyal friends, but wanted to add it to my network anyway. You should see the book. It is GORGEOUS. Considering the fact that conservation projects in places like Africa are always starving for funding, I hope they sell thousands of them. Whatever the case, it is a product worthy of the fantastic story of Garamba National Park and all of those who gave their talents and some much more for the preservation of fabulous wild land and irreplaceable creatures. Africa always sounds so exotic and fabulous (which it is), but living there, particularly for the native people is exhausting and labor-intensive. In many places, water must be carried home every day from one well. That is just one example of the difficulty of everyday life.
Though I have been published on other platforms (newspapers, magazines and journals), this is perhaps the one which makes me most proud. This is due in part to its dedication to my African assistant, Atolobako Vukoyo who gave his life to protect the wildlife in his world. Kes also added a beautiful photo of Atolobako (pictured) from those days, a handsome young park guard who served as my guide and protector in the African bush. We endured many blistering hot days together in the hand-planted agricultural fields of Nagero Park headquarters, struggling with a creative mix of English, French and Lingala, but were always able to communicate the most abstract of ideas. He hovered over me when I got too close to the banks of the Dungu River and its 15 foot crocodiles. He looked after me as if it were his sole responsibility to make sure I made it out of Africa in one piece, and perhaps it was.
I wish I could show you all the book (which echoes the stunning cover) – it represents the culmination of a very worthy project that ended prematurely due to political unrest. I often think about Garamba and all the people still living there, the constant failures of conservation as poaching rides on the coattails of political unrest. All of it can be overwhelming. It is heart-warming to see such a beautiful product of story interpretation arise from all the struggle.
When I checked the last blog I wrote, the date on the file was two months ago. Good Lord, how could this happen? I’m a writer.
It’s not that I haven’t been writing. I’ve been doing LOTS of writing; emails, emails, emails and emails. They do count, don’t they? I’m also sure to make appropriate edits and spell checks. And I have an exhibit project in motion at one of my major parks, which means intricate writing—slow, meticulous “no word but the right word” kind of writing.
No wonder I’ve been so jumpy. I’m testy and tired and bumping into walls – literally. The straw that broke the llama’s back (I prefer them to camels—they’re not quite so cliché) was Sunday morning. I yearned for my T’ai Chi like a dog pants for water. When I arrived, the class was in full swing and serenely parting the horse’s mane. What? What had happened? Turns out that I had indeed been sent an email about the time change to a half hour earlier. I had read it, and weighed in – yes, that would work for me as well. I had no recollection of that email until I walked through the door.
The tardiness at T’ai Chi was just that particular final straw. T’ai Chi is my anchor; the practice that keeps me tethered to Earth. I finished up the abbreviated class and jumped in my car, tears fat on my bottom lids. At home, I broke down and sobbed on my husband’s shoulder. He was perplexed. I wasn’t one to cry about something so minor – in fact, I hardly ever cry except in the case of major crisis or a particularly poignant movie. But things had come to a head. Life was just too busy and I had lost control.
Most of the rest of that day was a little dreary and slow, but being a problem solver, I had to erase my pout.
I set about exploring what had brought this on. My active curiosity tends to push me over the edge on a runaway train of constant busyness, along with the expectation of heaven resulting from doing the right thing and serving a fellow human-being. We learned that as little kids in Sunday school.
It has been a rough summer at work. I supervise eleven seasonal interpreters who present natural, cultural and historic programs for the public, and it can get intense. If I had to choose a tough season, I would say summer every time. Not only are the days mercifully long and warm, but there’s just oh so much to do and experience. I have to live in the north just so I won’t burn myself out. I’d last about two years in a warm place, and would eventually be discovered face-down in the lapping waves on the beach.
Clearly, if this is happening to me, I’m either causing it or allowing it to happen. Self-reflection includes swallowing some interesting admissions. And it’s so difficult to let go. Life has so many choices – too many for me. I’m lucky that regular TV doesn’t appeal to me or I would explode from overstimulation. It can make for some pretty embarrassing conversation. I’ll bet I’m the only person in the country who hasn’t seen Game of Thrones.
As I calmed my racing mind, I stood for a bit in the middle of the living room, frozen in space – unable to make a move for fear it might be the wrong one. There were a million things to do – things that I had on my many lists and had left undone. Things that plagued me with guilt. Things that I know realistically would remain undone because I don’t like doing them.
I took a deep breath, released the T’ai Chi interruptus and began to visualize what I would most prefer to do at this point in time. Writing would be a great idea, except in this frame of mind, I would write myself into circles, and I didn’t want to have to straighten it out at some future date. Visualize and breathe. Visualize and breathe.
Make something. Creation with the hands. Tactile stimulation that is logical but requires very little thinking beyond modest geometry and entailing no measurements. Something simple, and square.
Once I glommed onto it, my spirit peeked around my ego; I caught my breath and straightened my spine. Down in the bottom of a drawer, I found three beautiful pieces of material that I had had for a couple of years, planning eventually to make pillow shams. Boring? A little, but this was good material of three different patterns. And, a square pattern. Perfect.
I dedicated the remainder of the day to creating my pillow shams. As I gently smoothed the cloth with my hands, measured, cut and inserted pins, I could feel the quietude of creative invention envelope my consciousness and calm my mind. By the time I had broken the last of my sewing machine needles (gotta get that Kenmore serviced), I was in much better spirits. My new outlook felt like a warm Snuggie and actually allowed me to think.
Full engagement in life is a true blessing. Being run by life’s chores is not. Especially now, with social media and digital everything, having access to your entire network at any moment can be overwhelming for a small town girl raised in simpler, slower times. I will always be busy because there are so many options in our world today; compelling adventures, interesting pursuits, great books and fun projects. But you know what they say, “You can’t do it all.”
The answer? To learn to say no and let a few go. That’s hard—especially when you believe in what you are doing every day.
Another solution is to tap into the healing power of creativity. The spirit feeds off creativity. Turns out there is a connection between the size of dopamine-rich regions of the brain and creativity. No wonder it worked so well on my truncated T’ai Chi day.
Life will never become slow and sedentary under my roof. I will always have a to-do list of uncompleted tasks and loads of percolating ideas that may or may not take root. But life is good, and I enjoy my incredibly busy job. It also allows for creativity. Let’s face it—creativity is the essence of life.
Richard Louv spoke at Brookwood School in Manchester-by-the-Sea the other day. His new book Vitamin N follows on the heels of his other two ground-breaking works Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle. Last Child was a wake-up call to our nation to recognize the necessity of outdoor creative play for children to develop into sound, complete adults. Nature Principle is targeted more toward adults and the restorative period we are now entering, the most creative period in history. Vitamin N contains 500 suggestions about how to incorporate nature and outside time into our kids’ lives. Nature provides peace, essential microbes, fresh air, exercise. Though we live in houses, nature is essentially our “home,” and knowledge of surroundings increases our safety and enhances our life experience.
I have followed Louv’s writings since Last Child. As an Interpretive Coordinator for Massachusetts State Parks, I have experienced fear and hesitation from parents of small children about being outdoors, but more than anything, unfamiliarity. Of course we want to infuse our children with nature, the natural order, sunshine, and clean air. But in order to succeed, we need the parents.
Anytime is a good time to start. Parents sometimes feel inadequate about teaching their kids about nature, but lucky for you, there are materials everywhere. And the season for ease of identification of plants and trees is hot upon us.
The magic has begun. The natural changes in autumn provide parents with a brilliant opportunity to teach children – a virtual science project surrounding us on all sides, the sensory delight of color, technical lessons of chemical reactions, all contained in a spiritually magical setting – the fall colors emerge.
The process is complex; terms like anthocyanin and carotenoid, chlorophyll of every persuasion, biological processes that can blow the mind, all manifested in a gorgeous display of nature’s best. The best part is – you don’t have to know all the scientific details to introduce your kids to natural species.
And for the nature lover – a chance to easily put names to key species. Every plant has its own composition and as a result, its own unique color and window of change.
At this writing, the red maples are at peak, and are concentrated in wet environments, stream beds, and low-lying areas. These are the reds that drive the fall leaf peeping schedule. The change of colors continues for weeks, yet as different species of trees attain their hues, we experience several peaks of color.
Early in the autumnal change, nature spotlights one of the more ubiquitous species in New England – poison ivy. Right now, poison ivy is visible from hundreds of yards, particularly the tree and telephone climbing individuals. It is bright red and surrounds the trunk sometimes as high as 15 or 20 feet, a spectacular and successful species that also provides plenty of berries for wildlife winter repast. Now is the time to teach children about this noxious plant. Once they can identify it, they can avoid it, unlike yours truly, who suffered from horrible episodes every summer of childhood. Look closely at the leaves and learn them now. Your kids (and you!) will remember what they look like.
Blueberry bushes turn their gorgeous red-purple, Virginia creeper scarlet (both anthocyanins), and invasives become show pieces. Just drive on any highway at this time of year. The oriental bittersweet becomes bright yellow and lays in virtual sheets over trees on the side of the road. This time of year, you can see how pervasive this introduced plant has become.
Following the red maples with their brilliant scarlet, the sugar maples bloom in orange and yellow combinations that will make your heart sing. They are unique beacons in the less brilliant surrounding palette. Identifying the sugars now will allow you to collect sap in the spring with your kids, providing yet another opportunity to teach the amazing lessons of nature, and consume its products. When a child eats something they have harvested themselves, it takes on a whole new meaning and can make them feel more secure in nature. We have gotten so far from the circle of life in recent history that food appears to originate from a store, rather than from natural foodstuffs in the world. If children see themselves as part of nature rather than separate from it, the fear of outdoors melts away and becomes a stage for creative exploration.
Take your time. Pick up a couple of field guides and page through them. Learn and then teach one or two basics. Feel the texture of the bark, of the leaves. Press some colorful leaves (but not poison ivy!) to laminate later. They make cute refrigerator magnets; a taste of New England you can send in a Christmas card. Your kids’ knowledge will impress their friends and draw them closer to the natural world.
And remember to have fun. Exploring nature is enjoyable as well as educational, and has the added benefits of fresh air and exercise. Find your local parks and make friends with the trees, now shutting themselves down for the winter and giving us the true magic of autumn colors.
Yeah, it’s STILL winter. It’s April 4th today and it snowed. And they’re saying there will be more. I have started to look for reasons to be happy about being here, and decided that there are some delightful aspects of winter here in Gloucester, although m
aybe not as numerous as in summer. Here’s a big one. Everyone knows how to drive these narrow roads.
I believe after living here for 20 years, it’s because of a clever maneuver that I have coined The Gloucester Pull Out. Some people from the outside think it’s rude, but I’ve never been able to figure out why. In taking a left turn from a driveway or side street, we wait for three or four cars, which is reasonable in the winter, and then pull slowly into the coming lane. Eventually, and most times, immediately, cars in the other lane will stop and motion us into the flow of traffic. We’ve all done this thousands of times, and I’m wondering if Gloucester residents realize how brilliant it is. Nobody gets angry, nobody is inconvenienced and often, you receive a smile or a wave. And, the traffic moves like magic.
We need to teach all of our summer visitors this one technique, and perhaps the love and generosity would spread. I know the traffic would move better. Even at my age, I’m still hopeful.
I’ve lived in lots of places before coming to Gloucester (I’ll never leave by the way, except in the winter for as long as possible), and I’ve never seen this used so consistently. Go even a couple of towns away. They don’t do that. You have to wait and wait and wait and then screech your tires and lay rubber just to jump into the far lane without getting side-swiped. Your heart is pounding, horns are blaring, and your day is less pleasant for a short time. Not in Gloucester. We’re cool.
Why does this one phenomenon exist here and nowhere else? I watched the drivers carefully when they motion me ahead or flash their lights. Friendly faces, smiles, waves. You don’t even see that in the Midwest. And Midwesterners smile a lot. I know. I’m from there.
The answer is pretty simple. Gloucester is a community.
Even if you’re not a socialite, you see someone you know every time you leave the house. I love that. It’s small town stuff. It’s community.
Sure, Gloucester is beautiful and all that, has lots of interesting people and many things to do year-round, live music almost every night, art and artists, politics, culture, the harbor, etc., but I think our greatest asset is the strong sense of community. Everyone just takes care of each other. That’s the way life is supposed to be.
Oh, we have our fights. We have our naysayers. There are people who complain about living here. That’s okay. It’s still the best town in the world.
So what do you think? Shall we teach everyone who visits The Gloucester Pull Out? What a world this would be if we actually lived by the words, “After you.”
I felt like I had never been to a funeral. I am 55 years old and have at least several dozen funerals under the soles of my feet. Still, I stood at the casket trying desperately to see her through that drawn, plastic expression creased with makeup she would never have worn. The hint of a smile curled from the corners of her mouth—a smile I had never before seen. Her natural smile was bright and toothy, or full and sunken after she couldn’t keep her upper plate in any longer.
They were delaying the funeral for me. The funeral director stood to the side next to Pastor Cage, handsome and strong in his vestments, his expression a mix of pure sympathy, godliness and professionalism. All pastors know how to do that. They must offer Countenance Classes at Seminary. The church was solemnly hushed. And still they waited . . .
I had intended to stand straight with a resolute mask of appreciation for the handful who had come to see my mother off to heaven. That was where she had gone. I had intended to remain dry-eyed, and foolishly applied the makeup I almost never wear, thinking about people I hadn’t seen in years, letting vanity guide my decisions. Already the mascara was burning my eyes.
Mom’s hair looked better than it had in years. Maybe they had cut it. During my bimonthly visits from the East Coast, I had cut her hair despite her gentle protests, but she would let me do anything I wanted. Though her hair had been short ever since I could remember, she had come to prefer long hair because she thought it made her look younger. Long hair gave her a wild, crazy old lady look. She had slept a lot this past year, and the aides didn’t have time to comb it every time she woke. I would ask them to keep it short, but she wouldn’t let them, not like she let me.
I had painted her nails pale pink the week before. I wish I had chosen shocking red. Before she went to the Memory Care unit, she had broken, peeling nails that would never grow. It was odd, what happened to her these last two years. Her mind had retreated, but her nails grew long and hard, and the aides often painted them, even bright hues of red. It made her feel young.
She was a little girl on her first visit to the beauty parlor. It was fun. We sat face to face, her hands delicately laid on top of a pair of Depends to keep the wet polish off her bedclothes. After the first coat, I lifted her tiny sculptured hands so reminiscent of baby bird feet, and blew gently on the shiny surface of the polish. One coat barely revealed color. The second, a bit more of the color emerged. On top of the pale fingernails, I appliquéd little flowers and butterflies. I was determined that the nails be well-polished because I knew this would be the last time. Damn all the lasts we suffer during the final lap of someone’s life. The last haircut, the last meal, the last breath. She didn’t think that way. To her, it was just one more day in a long, long line of days that blossomed into one lifetime. Last week I took her outside for the last time. I thought about that, too. She had lifted her face to the warm November sun, her last November, her last Thanksgiving, her last poinsettia dyed orange to match the season. “It’s so nice to be outside,” she said in barely a whisper.
Standing there at the casket, I knew they all were waiting for me, but somehow, I didn’t mind making them wait. Mom’s left hand lay on the Luther’s Catechism she had received at her confirmation. “Marjorie Mann” was written in beautiful cursive on the inside front cover warped by time. That one book was 77 years old. Alongside the bound cover of dark red lay my favorite photo of our family, circa 1965. My younger brother told me at the visitation the night before that it was her favorite photo of our family. I hadn’t known that. It was my favorite photo, too.
Mom was so snazzy in her black jacket with orange, blue and green embroidery. I had pulled it from her closet just three days before. It was beautiful, but I was quite sure it wasn’t hers. It had appeared in her closet following her two-month stay at Ashton Creek Rehab after she fell and broke the bone that held her left titanium femoral head. Perhaps someone who had died left those clothes behind, and they happened to be the right size. Whoever it was had very nice clothes. There was also a yellow sweater, pale yellow, one of Mom’s best colors. I wasn’t sure, but I had left them there because I didn’t have the heart to eliminate anything just yet. I had already chosen another blouse on my September visit, but changed my mind in favor of the jacket. It had more body than the blouse, and would fill out her skeletal frame for the viewing. Later Aunt Norma would tell me that she had the same jacket, and the coincidence both puzzled me and made me very happy.
When I hugged her last week, I could feel her bones through skin that hung limp like a silk scarf on her frame. She had always been small, but her condition scared me. She needed nutrition and calories, but near the end she was simply unable to eat. I couldn’t blame her, because all of her food looked like gray, orange or green spackle. She had been put on pureed foods months ago, and anything they prepared came out in one of those three colors.
She also suffered from choking response, and it was frightening to watch her eat. The choking and coughing would start and go on for what seemed like ten minutes. I would sit helplessly and look into her eyes, wishing I could slap her back or something, anything to make it stop. Then it would slowly dissipate, and she would forget immediately that it had happened. I would scoop another small spoonful of the pureed stuff, hold it up for her, and pray.
At the coffin side, I placed my hand on hers, the one holding the photo. It didn’t feel like flesh. It was cold, of course; a temperature I had prepared myself to feel, but which still took me by surprise. My brothers stood behind me, impatient for my signal, that now we could finally get this thing behind us. I didn’t want it to end, not just yet. In seconds, the funeral director would close the heavy dark brown wood cover, hiding that ceramic face for the last time.
I wanted to kiss her forehead or her cheek like I had hundreds of times in the last three years when I put her to bed, or when I tore myself away from her bedside to catch yet another plane back to my own life in the East. She had had such beautiful skin, almost wrinkle and blemish –free. How had she accomplished that? She had loved the sun and getting a tan. She had loved dawn and dusk, fierce winter storms and sultry summer nights. Actually, she had loved everything, all of life.
I saw her cry only two or three times in my life. One was when Dad died, and that was over the phone in September, 18 years ago. She reserved her grief for private times, one of the valuable lessons I learned from her. “No one wants to be with a Gloomy Gus,” she told me. Where did she come up with those expressions? “For crying out loud,” “What the Sam Hill?” —some things I never heard from another human being—just her. She didn’t cry when we took her to Harbour Assisted that first day, during her surgeries or rehabs, or any of the times I left her to return home, or at the end. She wasn’t afraid to die, not at all. She told me that.
Just an hour before the funeral, we had gathered in the Founder’s Room to pray with the pastor. He prayed, and we bowed our heads and folded our hands as we had thousands of times before in church. I wished I had a recorder so I could save those spiritual words for comfort in the days ahead—the days when life returned to “normal,” and no one could see the pain that I held deep inside because my mother was gone.
She was gone. For good. The person she had been was not lying in the wooden box with the red rose flower spray draping its cover. I had no idea who that person was. It could’ve been a mannequin. That was not my mother.
Still, I couldn’t leave. There was something else to do, but what was it? I pictured her floating above me, sorry that I was sad, urging me quietly to hurry on with the others and leave this lifeless body, absent its spirit. I couldn’t kiss the stiff cold cheek. It was too creepy. I had kissed it for the last time on Thanksgiving Day.
Wispy elongated notes floated out of the nave as the organist set the stage for the sparsely attended funeral. The ushers had seated all of the guests on the right side of the aisle. They were attempting to make the crowd feel cozier; close together so they felt free to sing with Lutheran gusto. It had the look of a shotgun wedding to me. Everyone who was coming was already here. The clock had made its way past 1:00 p.m. There were around 30 people in attendance, some of them former neighbors, some of them Dad’s co-workers, some of them my high school friends, very few relatives and some I had never before seen. Where were all the people who had known her? This cavernous church should be packed to the vaulted ceilings with those who knew her while she was still alive. They must’ve known what a beautiful, generous lady she had been, and still, they hadn’t come. But, she was 91. How many of those people were left?
She had chosen three hymns: For All the Saints; I’m But a Stranger Here; and Lord, Keep us Steadfast in Your Word. We had sung the same ones for Dad’s funeral. It would be quiet and morbid and sad, so unlike her. She could’ve chosen When the Saints Come Marchin’ In. Oh, how the Lutherans would’ve shuddered.
The organist played on, finding ways to incorporate phrases from the service’s hymns into his beckoning intro, reminding everyone that, yes, the service was now starting. Lutherans are funny. They are never pushy. They nudge gently to remind you to stay on track, color within the lines, but never forcibly. Living out East, I had become accustomed to a more directive demeanor. In a twisted moment of grief, the imp inside me wondered how long they would continue to allow me to stand here with my Mom before leading me away to the front pew. Five, ten minutes? It would never be enough, and I knew this was the last time I would ever see her face—the real face, not just a photo. The real face that was hers but not hers.
From now on, everything would be in the past tense; my speech, my writing, anything that concerned her. She was gone.
I leaned my body against the side of the casket to steady myself. Her image blurred with tears that forced their way without permission out of my eyes. I was embarrassed for the others to see. Crying in public is not my thing. I placed my right hand on her chest and bent over, touching my head gently to hers. The skull was cold and hard, and the tears came in force now. She was gone. For good.
She and I, forehead to forehead like school girls in a playground. I spoke to her. “Mom,” I sniffed and caught my breath in a gasp. I could feel her presence strongly close at hand. “Mom, I love you. Everything’s okay now. I’ll make sure that everything’s okay. We’ll be fine.”
I touched her hand for the last time; the hand that held our photo when everyone was happy and safe and living in Kansas. My husband tucked his hand through my elbow in a gentle reminder. We have to do this now, honey. Let’s get on with it.
I turned from the casket so I wouldn’t see them close the weighty lid that would trap her body forever inside. The massive pipe organ issued the first breathy notes of I’m But a Stranger Here; Heaven is My Home.