trail magic

Yesterday’s after school activity was to accompany my pal Mia and her stepson Oakley on a jaunt up Robert Frost Mountain. They were on a mission to deliver what is known in the hiking world as Trail Magic to the cabin at Skylight Pond off the Long Trail. The idea here is that we folks who spent the previous night in our warm beds and had a hot shower and were able to brush our teeth with running water this morning get ourselves deep into the woods and then leave delicious goodies for tired, grubby, gaunt, and hangry hikers who’ve been on the trail for 3 weeks (or in this case a group of middle schoolers who’ve been on the trail for about half a day, but still.)  It’s like doing a few extra pushups or crunches for your karma a not too painful fun little workout that you get to feel good about later. It’s like paying the toll for the guy in the car behind you who you will never see again. For those of us who tend to think and re-think and chew on and overanalyze, stumbling upon opportunities for random acts of kindness is like a way to rub out a few of the black marks on the soul. It's possible I'm being dramatic. I probably don’t really have black marks on my soul. I’ve never murdered anyone or beaten a child or committed a felony. I suppose I probably just have a few brown spots like when I have a mean thought about someone I figure that leaves a maybe raisin or date-sized nugget I need to do a few good deeds to remove.


I tend to think it’s at this point if you are still reading you are cleanly standing in one of two camps: some of you are thinking whoa, she’s bat shit bonkers and needs to calm the fuck down about stuff and probably do more therapy while those of you in the other camp are thinking yep, inner karmic tally sheets tracking every almost not nice thing I almost did once totally get it.


So up the mountain we went, traipsing through trout lilies and trillium and what Mia called “spring beauties” which I’m pretty sure she made up the name for on the spot. It’s spring. They’re beautiful. I buy it. Mia and Oakley carried packs full of chocolate bars and bottles of wine and fresh bread and other goodies. I showed up empty-handed. Not exactly a great start to my karmic workout. But, I was full of good cheer and ready for a good run. Because they were carrying packs and I wasn’t, I found myself pulling ahead and was soon alone with my thoughts, preoccupied with figuring out where to put my feet and noticing how the trail was gradually changing from dry to damp to wet to soggy to slushy to snowy as we climbed. Oakley worked a conservative pace from the back playing it safe and, in his words, making sure not to “fall and hurt myself.”  If you know Oakley, you can appreciate the hilarity of this comment because for the past couple of decades, Oakley has been basically hurling himself off cliffs for a living. (Google or youtube him and see for yourself: Oakley White Allen. Yes, do it right now. You’re welcome.)

Years ago Mia and I did this same hike as an overnight with our pre-teen daughters. It’s cushy camping in a primitive well-built lodge so no need to carry a tent or tarp or other stuff. It’s practically car camping. Just whatever you’re willing to carry up a mountain for a couple of miles on your back: sleeping bags and pads and decks of cards and headlamps and good snacks. But it’s also off the Long Trail, so you have to assume you’re going to share the cabin with through hikers. Mia was prepared. We got ourselves settled with headlamps and started dealing cards. Who knows whatever the hell I brought. None of us will ever remember because Mia had fresh strawberries and whipped cream the real, homemade kind which survived the hike just fine. A few feet away were a couple of through hikers who hadn’t seen running water or a fresh vegetable in a few weeks. Mia and I were passing a bottle of wine back and forth and offered to share. Their eyes lit up. Mia reached in her bag and pulled out chocolate. Their eyes grew very wide and they practically wept. Wine and fresh fruit and chocolate. Simple treats anywhere else, but miles from home in the woods it is good, simple, karma building Trail Magic.


One of my side jobs is house-sitting. Yes, I have a meaningful full-time job filing papers and making photocopies in an elementary school, but I also have a kid in college and expensive taste in beer so I pick up part time work on the side. Things like house-sitting and cleaning houses and landscaping and selling cards —  all the secret income FAFSA never gets to know about. If you had to google FAFSA just now, then you live in a completely different world and very little I say is likely to resonate with you, so probably you should just click on the cards for sale part of my website, place your big order, and get back to whatever it was you went on the internet to do in the first place.


This week (April break) Vermonters with kids in school often say To hell with this long drawn out winter and mud season — we’re heading to the beach!, and then they leave me in charge of their homes and pets. I love house-sitting, which might sound strange because I am actually very happily married and miss my husband when we’re not together. But it might also be the ticket to our happy marriage —  voluntary temporary separation. The truth is, it gives him a break from me to live like a bachelor for a few days. Dirty plates in the sink, piles of newspapers, napping on the couch with his hand down his pants, doing whatever the hell it is he does with guns and tools in the basement, and me, quietly absent and conspicuously not nagging. Plus, then I have cash to buy quality beer which makes us both happy.


Finch is a Labradoodle I’m taking care of this week. He has more energy than a squirrel on amphetamines. He is cream-colored and loves, more than anything, finding mud. And for some reason I haven’t been able to read a single thought in his head. This is unusual. I can usually assign a voice to a dog and have a full-on narrative going within a few minutes.  But Finch is silent. Completely mute. No voice, no narrative, just… wind in the trees. It’s fine, I have enough confusing internal dialogue going on in the swirling chaos between my ears that I’m glad for the respite from additional noise in my head.


House-sitting is fun, especially when dogs are involved. I get to swoop in as the merry, thrill-seeking aunt who takes them on wild adventures and makes them fall in love with me, forgetting all about their regular boring family. But Finch. I may have met my match with Finch. I start the day with a run. Depending on where we go, he is leashed (on the road) or not (on the trails). Leashed means he does all the work and pulls me along and I pound out something more like a 7 or 8 minute mile as opposed to my usual pokey 10 or 11.  Unleashed means I watch him cover four times my distance as he simply sprints wherever his nose tells him to, dog-smiling at me as he passes.


After an hour or two of this, I stagger back to the house with him, chug a couple liters of water, and try to catch my breath. He looks at me wondering what’s next. He is not even panting. I find a tennis ball and initiate a game of fetch. He does the equivalent of about 20 hill sprints and then tires of the game —  not physically, mind you, just mentally or emotionally or something —  and goes off to smell things in the woods and find sticks to chew. Eventually he comes over and thoughtfully sits on top of me so I can more easily pet him. This lasts about 20 seconds and then he is off again.


The other day we had just started on a run when I came upon an inviting old logging road with a gate (not for me, of course) which Finch and I were able to easily go under. So up the “road” we went. It soon became a tangled mess of abandoned logging roads / river beds / swampy pricker bush swaths.  In case you don’t know, when you take a section of woods and log the hell out of it, it makes a horrible fucking mess. Even if you do it well. Because loggers aren’t trail runners and they aren’t thinking about leaving it nice for the next guy. They’re thinking about getting the dang trees on the truck and the money in the bank. (That makes it sound like a don’t like loggers — not true. I like the ones I’ve met. They’re outdoorsy and chiseled and hard-working and they smell like cut wood which is one of my favorite smells.)  Messy or not, I was committed to this adventure. I couldn’t stomach turning around and putting Finch back on the leash and running on the road. So on we went, slogging through the muddy schizophrenic network of old logging roads until the last one just… ended. But, Finch and I were almost to the top of an inviting ridge with lots of tumble-down rocks that beckoned:  climb us… see what’s on the other side of us…  


Years ago, Tom and I invented what has become our hiking motto and a (probably foolhardy) philosophy of life to which we sort of aspire: when in doubt, plunge headlong into the woods. I looked at Finch for his thoughts. He stared at me silently. Clearly I was in charge of this adventure and if he had an opinion he was keeping it to himself. Hell. It’s vacation week. I don’t have anywhere else I have to be for the next few hours. I forgot water (again) and no one knows where we are, but when in doubt …  Let’s go Finch.

Several hours later we came out on a road, I leashed Finch and then muddy, scraped, bleeding, and thirsty as hell, we ran the last few miles home. Surely by now I’ve worn out this dog. I figured I did a hell of a good job today. We got home, I cleaned him up (did I mention this off-white dog's affinity for mud?) and stood back, crossing my arms with satisfaction of a job well done, picturing how cute he will look when he stretches out and falls asleep. It's looking like I may never find out.

untying the knot

Tom and I are empty nesters now, so Saturdays typically mean some sort of epic all day adventure in the woods. Sometimes it means literally walking out our front door and into the Green Mountain National Forest and returning many hours later. Other times it means getting in the car and driving to some other part of the state or over to the Adirondacks to explore something a little bit outside of our fire district.


Yesterday we made yet another attempt at bagging Mt. Mansfield. Two hours after leaving the house we were still, maddeningly, in the car. Damn google maps. The original plan to ascend the western slope from the trailhead on Stevensville Rd in Underhill was scrapped as we found ourselves passing Bolton Valley and well on our way to Waterbury. There is a country store in Waterbury that has a wall full of maps outside on the porch. Free. We now own a map of Vermont. In case you are a millennial or younger, I’ll explain:  a map is a large piece of paper marked with roads and towns and other useful information. It folds handily into a pocket or glove compartment. It’s something people of my generation would — twenty years ago — occasionally use to figure out how to get from point A to point B. Smart phones and Siri had not yet been invented. And some of us are hold-outs. (My flip phone cost me $9 and I use it to make an occasional phone call. Tom does not have a cell phone.) You could argue that this is idiotic. We spent half a day needlessly making wrong turns Siri could have saved us from. Then again, getting lost can make things more interesting if you keep your sense of humor about it. For example, we never would have seen the person in the Easter Bunny suit dancing and waving to us if we had gone the way we intended. But I digress. I haven’t even mentioned the knot in my stomach yet, so here’s that part.


As we were just about to walk out the door, the phone rang. Normally I’d dodge the call and just close the door behind me, not wanting anything to delay our adventure. But this time I answered. It was Hannah, telling me she was on her way home to visit for the weekend. I explained we were heading out and would be gone all day. She was disappointed but not adequately prepared to meet us for the hike, so we agreed she’d just delay coming home and we’d see her tonight. Sounds benign and friendly enough, yes? But if you’re me, this exchange sits in the pit of the stomach, leaking guilt and self-doubt. Did I really just selfishly stick to the plan of hiking all day instead of spending the day with my kid who I only see once a month or so? Yes. I did.


The acorn sized knot of guilt spent the next 2 hours (thanks to us getting lost because of my bad directions) growing to the size of a softball while I sit in the passenger seat and count the myriad ways I have already fallen short today. At one point I ask Tom, what’s it like not to be riddled with guilt about everything all the time?  Because I’ve now added to the list that not only did I pick exercise over seeing my kid, I have also done exactly zero things to prepare for Easter which admittedly is a holiday that means nothing to me except dying eggs and hunting for them as a child, and then continuing that tradition with our own kids when they were little. But now that they are out of the house I think I am done with that and didn’t purchase a single chocolate anything or even think about having things to hide or baskets to give to my grandchildren. It seems absolutely without a doubt clear to me that this is someone else’s responsibility now, not mine. Until we get within 24 hours of the holiday and now I am filled with regret and self-doubt. Tom says Well, people like you a lot more than they like me. Which is a sweet and clever response, is probably not even remotely true, and only just makes me wish I could just decide one way or the other — I either do the holidays, or I don’t. Pick one, commit to it, and get on with things. Sometimes being me is kind of a train wreck. Tom describes me as “complicated.”


It is 66 degrees and sunny as we stand at the tailgate of the truck and prepare to head out. Almost 1:00 and we’re departing on a hike of unknown duration, a two-hour drive from home. The guy emerging from the woods is wearing shorts and we can see that his legs are covered in bloody scrapes. He's drenched in sweat. We nod hello. He glances at the snowshoes in our hands and comments that we'll be glad we have those. All the way up the mountain we see where he's postholed knee and sometimes hip deep. 


I am determined to make the most of the adventure in spite of that sizable knot in my belly which has been tightening with each passing wrong turn and unnecessary traveled mile. I hate inefficiency. I abhor being stuck inside on a beautiful day. I can’t stand the feeling of letting anyone down.  But I put these things behind me because we are packed up and trudging up the road toward the Long Trail. We have our snowshoes. We have snacks. The sun is shining. Things are looking up. 


The route we’ve chosen as our Plan B is shorter but my oh my, is it steep. Described as a 40% grade for about a mile and a half, it’s like hiking just the very steepest part of Mt. Abe for a couple of hours. Straight up the side of the mountain, on top of so much pack that sometimes the white blazes are just a few inches above the snow. And I am noticing that when the legs get pumping and the heart starts beating harder and the blood is flowing all of these things work together to begin untying the knot. My focus shifts to feeling that I’m not the world’s worst mom and Nonie (my grandkids’ name for me) and that everything is going to be okay.


As we climb up and out of the tree line we can look down on the village of Stowe, the surrounding peaks, over to Lake Champlain and beyond to the towering Adirondacks and acres and acres of uninhabited forests over the three states and two countries we can see from this spot. Zooming in on the closer view, the exposed rock on Mt. Mansfield’s Adam’s apple and Chin are covered with startlingly beautiful alpine lichen which, incredibly, has been growing for hundreds (thousands? millions?) of years at the rate of a couple of millimeters a year. The knot loosens some more.

To complete the task of fully untying the knot, I find myself in a position requiring 100% of my focus for the task at hand: not sliding off the alarmingly narrow spiny ascent of The Chin. Hand over hand, jamming the toe of my snowshoe into the snow, inch by terrifying inch. Out of the corner of my left eye I see the tops of tiny alpine trees peeking out of the snow and an impossibly long open slope. Out of the corner of my right eye just a few feet of snow and then the edge. I almost made it, but raw mortal fear and a desire to live for one more day won out. On my hands and knees, I tagged a lichen-covered boulder just 50 yards from the summit with my heart clanging so hard in my chest I thought I might cry. Some other day maybe.


Exactly one year ago, I was getting my bags packed in preparation for a two-week adventure out west. Now that I think about it, that's probably not true. Knowing me, I'd been mostly packed for a week already. It's more likely that I was already packed and was quietly freaking out about the fact that I was about to get on airplanes. Traveling agitates me. Determined to travel light I was bringing just the essentials. Jeans. A couple of t-shirts. Running sneakers. A warm layer. Art supplies. A camera. An empty journal.

The journey began on April 7th, 2016 when I flew from Burlington to Phoenix. Actually, the journey began when my daughter Hannah went to Tucson two years prior to do an internship with Kate and Ted at the Land with No Name ( But that's her story to tell. 

What I can tell you is that being in Arizona and surrounded by the art and beauty of the place inspired Hannah to reach out to many of my friends and relatives and ask them secretly to help send me on this amazing western adventure. She presented me with the trip on my birthday, and for 8 months I looked forward to it, imagined it, planned for it, dreamed of it. One year ago tonight, I was about to launch.

In Sedona I hiked on my own through stunning beauty from sun-up to sun-down for two days. Rusty red sand and rock formations that don't make sense. The huge sky. Endless trails. The occasional worry of running into a mountain lion. The bigger worry of not having time to fit it all in. Take a New Englander and send her west in April and you begin to understand the delicious draw of a western sun and the thirsty pale skin which can barely handle it. It was all I could do to not hike naked.

In the fascinating city of Tucson I met up with Kate and Ted the coolest, most charming and intriguing artists and best tour guides this rural Vermonter could hope for.  They are working hard to piece together a life that is rich with artistic pursuits and interesting human connections. Southwest desert flowers were just budding when I arrived and in full bloom on the day I left. I saw rattlesnake, horned toad, saguaro, prickly pear, ocotillo, and The Dusty Chaps quite possibly the most eclectic collection of musicians and storytellers all on stage at one time. I was fortunate enough to stay in Kate's studio on Convent Ave., surrounded by inspiring art, architecture, and history. The neighborhood is quiet, sweet and beautiful a humbly renovated Mexican community that has kept all the best parts of its original culture, architecture, and aesthetics.

In Colorado I had a mixture of snowy and sunny adventures with EB & Grace, Jenny, and my fabulous hiking companion Ruby the Dog. This time of year the bark of a ponderosa smells exactly like a butterscotch candy, and crickets a sound I associate with August in Vermont were everywhere. I was reminded that April in Colorado can mean 2 feet of snow followed by sun so strong it burns your skin in an hour. A 24-hour period in Colorado requires gallons of water. Boulder is the athletic capital of the world hikers, runners, bikers, triathletes, endurance and mountain runners, and champion micro beer drinkers. Pure inspiration and humility from the minute the sun breaks through the steam rising from my coffee cup until many hours later when having sucked every morsel from the day, I watch it dip below the horizon through the bottom of my pint glass. Living in Boulder is living. Reconnecting with friends and with my fun, happy, positive self filled me with gratitude.

A typical day looked something like this: Wake up. Drink damn good coffee. Go for a run. Plan a hike. Pack up and head out. Photograph everything. Make some art.  Go for another hike. Make some more art.  Eat really good Mexican food. Taste local beer.  Sleep.  Repeat. In short, I spent 17 days squeezing every drop out of the day and living the wise words of my dear old dad: You're never too old for a happy childhood. 


When I was 29, I lost my husband to cancer. Months later, I remember being in the locker room at the gym and listening to women complain endlessly about how their husbands didn’t ever remember to do this fill in the blank thing or were forever doing this other fill in the blank annoyance no matter how many times they were nagged to do and not do the things. I wanted to yell at them. I wanted to grab them by the shoulders and shake them. Their men were driving them crazy, yes, but they were ALIVE. On the planet. Right now. These women were lucky and they didn’t realize it. I vowed never to be that person —  the wife in the locker room who complained about her husband not putting his dishes in the dishwasher or leaving his socks on the living room floor. I have since remarried, and I’m sorry to report that I am, indeed, that heinous whiny person in the locker room. I do complain. And what’s worse, I know better.


My husband is on a quest to be a better man (his words, not mine). Obviously I am enthusiastically in favor of this. To be fair, he is already a good man. The basic non-negotiables can be checked off: doesn’t smoke, worships the ground I walk on, makes me laugh. Check, check, and check. But  I definitely do more stuff like keeping the animals and children alive, preventing the house from collapsing under dust bunnies and clutter, waging war against the garden weeds, these kinds of things. Tom will do anything I ask, but I do have to ask. He suffers from a certain kind of blindness when it comes to piles of newspapers, dirty rugs, and clutter.  


Even though our relationship is not equal in terms of sharing the burden sometimes, I’m pretty sure I still get the better end of most things. For example, early in our relationship we agreed that when we set down our beers on the kitchen counter, become distracted, and then lose track of whose is whose, whichever one is more full is always mine. If he suggests something and I’m not for it, we generally don’t do it. If I suggest something and he’d kind of rather not, we still are probably going to do it. When we hit bumps in the relationship, he generally takes the blame and works hard to make things right. I am free to call him on his shortcomings and complain about them to him. He tells me I am perfect and that I have no faults. So you see, not so equal.


This morning I decided to maybe not be such a horrid nag for once, and maybe I would just do something else instead. What if instead of being bitter and irritated by the stuff he wasn’t doing, I brought my attention to the things he was doing? What if I decided each thing was an act of love, a kindness toward me, or a contribution to our household or family. Here’s what I noticed today:

Shared his breakfast with me

Fed the chickens

Sharpened a hatchet and made some kindling

Made a fire in the wood stove

Turned off the light in the kitchen

I will try not to dwell on the fact that I do exponentially more stuff considerably more consistently and rarely get acknowledgement or a thank you for it. (Note: I did not say “never.”) I am resisting the urge to compare our lists. (Filled, ran, and emptied the dishwasher, cleaned up the kitchen, started a meal in the crock pot, brought in wood, did a load of laundry, swept, tidied up.) A good friend once told me comparisons are odious. I haven’t read Lydgate’s Debate between a horse, a goose, and a sheep — arguably the original source of the saying — but I think I get the gist. Comparing Tom’s list to mine takes the focus off the thing that matters more and places it on the thing that matters less. It’s not a competition — if it was I would be seriously kicking his ass. The important thing is not that I am winning. (I’m winning!) The important thing is that when I focus on his list of things and think of them as acts of love I like him more. I feel better about things. And the bumps don’t feel so, well, bumpy.



I spend a lot of time tromping about in the woods by myself. It's not that I don't have good playmates. I do. But going alone holds a strong appeal. I like solitude. It suits me. I have noticed that some people are startled by the notion of my choosing to go solo. Sometimes I’m out there for 4 or 5 hours at a stretch, which can get you pretty deep into the woods around here. They are nervous about my safety: What if something happens out there? Aren’t you afraid? The answer for me is generally No. And also, Yes. A healthy fear and respect for the wild is a good thing. We've all heard enough true stories with very sad endings to remember that the difference between everything being fine and dandy and everything going horribly wrong can actually just be one wrong step. Literally placing your foot on the ground in the wrong way. One moment of imperfect judgment. One bad decision. Taking a wrong turn. Not bringing enough water. Forgetting an extra layer of clothing. Out there things can get mightily fucked up in an instant. Mostly you pack up and go and it’s all just fine, but yes, it’s risky. Then again, so is getting in the car and driving to the grocery store. Statistically I’m much more likely to be incapacitated or wiped out completely behind the wheel of my car than to meet with my final unknown surrounded by swaying pines on a spiny ridge in the Green Mountain National Forest. What was it Bilbo or Frodo or Gandalf said? Going out your door is dangerous business.


There is just about always a moment in any outing when my heart skips a beat or two and I feel the fear. Sometimes it’s when I round a corner and spot a large dark shape in the woods and it takes me a moment to realize it’s only a harmless stump or boulder or shadow. A few days ago I was descending from the Skylight Pond trail when in my peripheral vision I saw a dark undulating movement about 75 yards away. I froze, my heart clanging around in my rib cage. I instantly thought: fisher cat. About the right size, about the right shape, about the right color, moving in about the right way. Whatever it was, it disappeared quickly and I took a breath to remind myself that critters out there — even potentially dangerous ones —have no interest in running into me either. Many years ago, hiking in Glacier National Park with my brother, we came upon a still steaming pile of grizzly poo, right in the middle of the trail. Vermont black bears are one thing, but a Montana grizzly is something else entirely. We simultaneously desperately wanted and desperately didn’t want to see one.


Sometimes fear just slips into your back pocket, unnoticed at first. Just this past week, breaking trail on a snowy section of the Long Trail, I found myself in a place I didn’t recognize. It took me quite awhile to find the white blazes again. This happened a few times that day. I have a reliable sense of direction, enough grains of common sense, and decent problem-solving skills, so it usually doesn’t take me too long to find the trail again if I lose it. But there is a very specific length of time within which I need to find my way, or concern turns to agitation which brings on the pin pricks of panic. A certain amount of fear can keep you safe, but crossing the line into panic is not only counter-productive, it can be dangerous. I knew I needed to keep that shit in check. I think when fear first begins to speak, it needs to get just a little bit of air time. Let it be heard, for just a moment, but don’t let it take center stage and run the show. I was more than halfway through a 4 hour hike, so the idea of turning around and following my tracks out, while off-putting, was still certainly an option. I wasn’t really facing peril. The chirps of panic were quieted for the moment.


One day in July my husband and I set out for a long trail run. Three quarters of an hour into it we stopped and looked at each other quizzically. What the hell? What sounded like a dump truck speeding down a nearby dirt road turned out to be a violent hail storm coming right at us. It came on so quickly we barely had time to react. Trees were toppling around us as we sprinted up the trail. I was terrified. Tom (who — in case you don’t know him — is kind of a lunatic) had this huge grin on his face as he yelled and maniacally egged-on the storm. There is a thing that happens in the body when faced with danger. A biological imperative which served us well in our cave-man days of hunting and being hunted. It’s the fight or flight response. Adrenaline is pumped through our bodies to give us a prodigious infusion of extra strength and energy. Suddenly we are able to do things we didn’t know we could do. The same chemistry that helped early Neanderthals outrun or fend off a sabre-tooth tiger 10,000 years ago helped Tom and me maneuver ourselves to relative safety through a swath of falling trees in that violent summer storm. I guess you could also argue it’s the same stuff that makes me have an anxiety attack at a flea market. Not so useful in that case.


Here’s the thing though. The body has to deal with all that extra adrenaline after the danger has passed. It has done its job and it is now time for it to vacate the premises. And in case this has never happened to you, I’ll tell you: the leftover adrenaline in your body does not go away politely. It does not just quietly get re-absorbed by the body while you catch your breath or tie your shoe or move on to whatever is next. When you’re done with that massive adrenaline dump, your body wants it out of you. Now. I found this out that day near the top of Moosalamoo, and every few miles the whole way home. Have you ever wondered where certain sayings come from? Like, Whoa that scared the shit out of me! Well, wonder no more.

I think the trick is in making the distinction between fear which is useful versus fear which is not. Useless fear engenders restless bed tossing and fretting about death, taxes, climate change, the next Supreme Court appointment. Important things to care about, yes. But fear can take a dry matchstick of worry and ignite it into a middle of the night inferno of distress. (Which, p.s., can render us entirely useless the next day, so now we are not only worried but too exhausted to do anything helpful.) Useful fear, on the other hand, keeps us mortal sacks of skin intact and here on the planet to do our good work as long as possible. Useful fear helps us to put on a helmet, buckle our seatbelt, cross that river with care, stay focused when descending an icy peak. It is said that courage is not the absence of fear, but the willingness to proceed in fear’s presence. No matter what scares us (flea markets, hiking alone, politics, jumping out of a plane), we all need courage to put one foot in front of the other, do it anyway, fight our fights, right our wrongs, and every day keep answering Mary Oliver’s question: What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?


Yesterday I spent the day at a flea market. I did not go into it thinking the purpose was to survive a social experiment. I thought the point was to rent a table and fill it with handmade cards in a venue where hundreds of people walk by. I thought it would be a relatively painless maybe even fun way to showcase my stuff and see what might happen. Hopefully I’d earn back the rent on the table, and maybe even make a little gas money. If I did really well, it would cover my art supplies. Humble aspirations. I admit, at one point I allowed myself a secret fantasy: I would sell it all. Every last piece. Evenings for the past few months have been filled with card-making. I was armed with a healthy inventory.


It took me exactly two trips to unload my baskets and things. Stepping carefully around the queue of 16 passenger vans stuffed to the ceiling, I was set up and ready for my first customer in less than 10 minutes. I had thoughtfully selected attractive coverings for the 7 x 3 table and borrowed one of those cool spinning display pieces to complement the wooden bowls and baskets that were filled with cards. I walked around the table, stepped back and checked out my work.  It looked good. Simple, clean, professional. I had been to the bank the day before to change out some 20s for singles so I could make change. My pocket bulged with a fat roll of $1 bills. I was ready.


Across from me was Moe. Every inch of his table was filled. He had plastic toy motorcycles, knives, lunch boxes, an M&M dispenser, plastic swords, cameras, kitchenware, and mountains of boxes under his table that hadn’t been unpacked yet. Hundreds of other “Moe”s were unpacking their stuff and preparing their tables. The room reeked of musty basement thrift shop yard sale. Cast iron parts to wood stoves. Equine hardware. Baskets. Tea cups. Leopard printed tops. Baseball cards. Neon nylon handmade bracelets. Framed pictures. Posters of Tom Cruise. Cheap replica not quite retro action figures. Trolls.


I was definitely getting that we’re not in Kansas anymore feeling. I undoubtedly had too much coffee on an empty stomach and could feel my heart beginning to race. What the hell was I doing here? What made me think I could be trapped inside a building, smiling and making pleasantries with several hundred people all day long? It was getting more and more difficult to take a deep breath. I did not have any Rescue Remedy with me my go-to (perhaps placebo but who cares because it works) solution to an impending panic attack. I had to fight this one off with sheer will. I was about 15 steps from an exit. I knew I could abandon ship and just walk out and get some deep breaths of fresh air if I had to.  The doors opened and the already full room became sardine can packed within a matter of minutes. Somehow I powered through.


People ambled by, mostly not looking at me or my table. I got a few nice compliments, but no sales. One guy furrowed his brow and asked me what this stuff was. I told him cards. He stared blankly at me for a moment, and asked what’s it for? I told him for writing notes and sending to people. He shook his head and grunted. I watched a dozen people glance at my stuff, then quickly turn their attention to Moe’s table. He sold an entire box of plastic trolls to a family who barely even wanted to buy one troll in the first place. Moe knew what he was doing. I watched his folded over wad of cash grow and grow. I was in trouble. No way could my sweet little hand-made cards compete with the plastic Tasmanian Devil lunchbox. People had NO. IDEA. what to make of me or my art. It was going to be a long day.


Standing there with a weird fake smile pasted on my face, I listened to the endless back and forth going on in my head: This is so embarrassing. What am I doing here. No one wants my stuff. What the hell was I thinking. I am a loser. No you’re not! You’re putting yourself out there! You took a risk! Your stuff is cool! You got this! My inner cheerleader is annoying, but you’ve got to hand it to her she really hangs in there.


Three hours and ten minutes later, my first and as it would turn out, my only buyer approached my table. She passed by the $1 and $2 items and went straight for the $4 cards. She picked through the basket, spun the spinny thing, picked out two cards, gave me her $8 and was gone in less than a minute having said exactly no words. What the hell had just happened? I did a small victory dance in my head and my fake smile became a little more real.


At the end of the day, one could make a strong case for the outing having been a complete and utter disastrous failure. It was a colossal waste of time. I stood around inside on a gorgeous sunny day, getting nothing done. I spent more money than I made, by a long shot. Got zero exercise. And yet, surprisingly, as I was packing up and heading home I was actually feeling pretty good. You know that feeling when you’re walking down the street and you’re having a good day, feeling some confidence, maybe just a hint of swagger in your step? I had that. I had fought off a panic attack. I got rejected all day long. I talked to strangers a lot of them. I tried a thing and it did not really go very well and I survived it. The day was actually not a full face plant. My inner cheerleader is giving herself a big old high-five now.


Without throwing him too far under the bus or betraying marital privacy, I will tell you that I found out recently that my husband did something quite stupid. Not on purpose of course no one sets out to be a moron. He just made an unfortunate decision which ended up hurting me. My response? Quiet rage. Well, not so quiet at first, actually. Initially I hurled some biting words and angry questions his way. Then, wounded, I retreated to silently seethe. I was really stinking mad for most of the morning. He handled it in stride, promptly confessing to being an ass, asking what he could do to fix things. It was all very adult. I spent a few hours stewing, distantly and soundlessly chewing on my anger, processing what happened, assessing the damage, wondering about my next move. Occasionally I would say something or ask a question. He would calmly answer. He demonstrated appropriate remorse. I vacillated wildly. The voice on one shoulder told me I was absolutely right to be utterly and supremely pissed. The other voice told me I was being dramatic and to get over it.

I asked him if he wanted to join me on my morning run. It may have been an olive branch of sorts. Even when I’m mad at him I still want his company. Or, perhaps more likely, I just didn’t want to run alone and I knew he wouldn’t say no, especially given his current station in some moderately deep shit. We headed out into the frigid winter morning and hit the icy trails. He stayed quiet, maintaining a safe distance behind me. I spent a lot of energy working out my emotions and being mad. For me it was a productive and healthy way to deal, but it definitely sucked the fun out of the run. What a lot of effort I was expending being pissed off and not noticing the light in the sky and the clouds and trees and animal tracks. About 50 minutes in, a thought occurred to me: what if I decide to just not be mad anymore? How about if I decide it’s not a big deal. What if I decide not to be wounded by his idiocy and that no real harm was done and instead to notice the sky and the air and the bark on the trees.  

I think this is what forgiveness looks like. It doesn’t happen all at once. It happens bit by bit. You don’t just decide to forgive someone and then it’s done. You exhale the tiniest bit. You ever so slightly relax the stubborn grip of anger. And then something happens: an impossibly small space opens up through which the tiniest particle of absolution can pass. Bit by bit, grain by grain. This is how we forgive. It reminded me of something: yes, there are a great many things in life that happen and that impact us over which we have no control. But, we do get to decide how we answer. What’s that saying about life? It’s 10% what happens to us and 90% how we respond.

Later, back at the house and warming up in front of the wood stove I turned to him and told him that I wasn’t sure how it would go, but I wanted to try an experiment. He raised his eyebrows and braced for what might come next. I said I want to try just being done with it and deciding not to care about the stupid thing. I don’t want to expend any more energy being angry. It’s over. Let’s just get on with things. His expression showed mild surprise but he didn’t utter a word. I  reserve the right to revisit this if the experiment fails, but for now, I think we are both more than a little relieved.

hope (ish)

Fifteen years ago we made a trip to the local humane society and there we met Hope. She was a petite, trembling blonde sharing a cage with an enormous furry black-haired standard issue Heinz 57 shelter dog. Heinz was much more our style mammoth enough to usurp more than 50% of the couch and hairy enough to keep our dust bunny population thriving. Alas, it was Hope who chose us. We brought her home and promptly changed her name to Pepper. Hope was a name for some other dog her personality was spicy as hell and she needed a name to match. For more than a decade Pepper charged around the woods with us, leading the other dogs on myriad adventures in pursuit of poor innocent wildlife. She turned our other two dogs into poorly behaved minions as she bent the will of her pack to accommodate her every whim. Stop here and dig until you find the chipmunk! Not that way, this way! Follow me! Let's go! The other two did just that, often straight into harm’s way. They brought home snouts full of porcupine quills more than once, and found many disgusting things to roll in over the years. All misadventures had Pepper at the helm. Years later, one by one, in heartbreaking fashion, the other two pups met with their final destinies and Pepper found herself as ruler of a kingdom inhabited by only two legged uprights.

She was still in charge. Mostly. Until Owen came along. This small two legged presence was confusing. The very first thing he did was give Pepper another new name. She was now Depper. (D's are easier than P's when you are just learning to talk, I suppose.) She learned patience and tolerance as all dogs who live in homes with small children must learn. Pudgy, sticky hands found her eye sockets and ears and pulled her tail and sat too close and upended her food dish. In these moments, Depper revealed the sweet counterbalance to the ass-kicking spicy that had been the dominant quality of her personality for the past decade. “Depper” lasted about 6 months, until Owen began calling her Tepper. She remained Tepper for the rest of her days.

Even into her teen years Tepper was game for winter hikes up Mt. Abe and long trail runs in the spring, summer, and fall, likely covering twice our distance with her off-trail forays. She only just began to slow down a few months before her 17th birthday. Long runs were not fun for her anymore, so we only brought her on the 2-3 miles ones, and even then she stuck right with us, no longer venturing more than a few feet from our heels. She was just about completely deaf and her vision wasn’t too great. She began to experience “sundowners” on a daily basis the generalized anxiety which manifested in pacing and panting as the day transitions to night.

This week I came home on a Wednesday and Tepper was listing to one side, walking crooked, and then, in circles. By Thursday morning she could no longer get up or stand up on her own. I carried her outside and, using a towel as a sling, held her up so she could pee. I fed her small bits of chicken, and gave her water from a syringe. By Friday afternoon we reluctantly, tearfully, came to our resolve: it was time to let her go. Her suffering was not overtly apparent, but she was not a happy creature. This ass-kicking dog was not leading an ass-kicking life anymore. This was not Tepper.

So we did that thing that we all know we’re potentially signing up for when we become pet owners: we took her to the vet to kindly, gently, deliberately end her life. Curled up in blankets in my arms, she had little fight left and was gone in a matter of seconds. We brought her home and drank and remembered her and cried.

The next day was a damp, foggy January day. We suited up for a trek up into the mountains with Tepper. Wrapped up carefully in the backpack, she traveled with us into the woods one last time. We hiked mostly silently, focusing on where to place our feet, noticing the clever way that ice crystals formed on the undersides of tree branches. The wind blew and water dripped down the backs of our necks. We pulled our hoods up tight. On top of the snowpack, bunny footprints were everywhere Tepper would have loved that. A woodpecker considered us from a nearby branch. We climbed.

It took us awhile to find the just right spot for Tepper’s final resting place. We decided that while we weren’t sure if we got it 100% right, we felt okay enough about it. I think it’s just hard to feel good about such a thing. We left her there on the mountain facing east and thinking about how the morning sunlight would look from that spot.

Being a shelter dog, we don’t know much of anything about the first couple of years of her life. But I think it’s safe to say Hope /Pepper /Depper /Tepper had 15 excellent years with us. 15 great years and 3 rough days not a bad ratio.


why cards

Why do I make cards? My friend Mia brought back around to me the art and love of note-writing. I’m of a generation that grew up writing thank you notes to relatives for Christmas and birthday presents. When I was 9 my family moved across the country and I wrote letters to my best friend, Jenny, whom I had left behind. Letter writing was a thing you did to keep in touch with people. Along came computers and email and the internet, and letter writing began to slowly fade from regular practice. Like any good parent, I forced my kids to write thank you notes after Christmas for a few years, but pretty soon they answered with “I already sent Grammy an email” and I found unstable ground beneath my previously stubborn feet. Thanks to social media, our kids were communicating with their grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins with far more regularity than I ever did. It wasn’t immediately clear to me why I was arguing the value of sending a hand-written letter over an email. It would take ten times as long to write and a million times longer to travel around the country. It took time and resources. I began to let go of the slow cumbersome practice of letter writing myself. Email was immediate. I could share thoughts instantly and know that they would be received at like speed. If not for a few hold-out relatives who have not yet embraced the electronic world, I would have forgotten about letter writing entirely.  


Enter Mia. When our daughters were babies, my friendship with Mia began. We swapped childcare and we and our daughters instantly bonded. As our girls grew up we had more time for adventures in the woods together. We share a love for the outdoors and exercise, and so we have logged a lot of time together on the trails around our mountain town. I noticed that early in our friendship, I would find the occasional wee envelope in the mail from Mia. Inside would be a sweet card with a brief note expressing her gratitude for the fun adventure we had just shared. I’d likely see her the next day or the day after, so the note was not a necessary means for staying in touch. But what a treat to pull it out of the mailbox. To slice open the paper envelope. To hold the little card in my hands, savor the enticing sketch or watercolor on the front, and to read her reflections. The thought and time Mia took to do this small but thoughtful thing brought immeasurable depth to our relationship. I felt valued. And inspired. I began to increase my practice of note writing, too. I noticed that people were delighted and surprised to get a message in the mail. It had become such an unexpected thing.


Awhile back, Mia and I made a date with our now adult daughters. We sat around the woodstove and chatted and had dinner and shared wine. Mia and I are both caring for aging parents, and both engaged in the process of going through their things as they downsize to smaller spaces. We made promises to our daughters that we would spare them the horrid process of someday having to go through so much of our stuff. We also discovered that we had both been rewarded in this cumbersome task of going through decades of acquired belongings: the unexpected stack of cherished and beautiful letters written by, and to, our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. Ink on paper, in careful cursive, revealing that day’s or that week’s challenges and delights. A summons to contest was put forth around the woodstove and emptying wine glasses that evening: the four of us put our names in a hat, and then drew one out. We were to write a letter, by hand, to the person whose name we drew. Our girls, busy with college courses and adult life, rolled their eyes at us a little, but they agreed. By coincidence, Mia and I both secretly decided we’d write letters to not just the person whose name we picked, but the folks whose names we didn’t pick as well, knowing that in a few days or weeks, mailbox surprises would be revealed.

It’s the charm and aesthetic of hand-written ink on paper. The quiet thrill of pulling that envelope out of the mailbox. The way it slows everything down as you stand there with your letter while the rest of the world swirls at break-neck pace around you. A short-lived thing, perhaps, as these days a card or hand-written letter will most likely end up in the woodstove or recycling bin. But there is also a chance that it could survive long enough to become a found treasure by some future, as yet unborn, three generations out, relative sharing an evening with her friends and daughters. This is why we write letters. This is why I make cards.