Monday, December 27, 2010

Winter Wonderland

The yardstick reads 24 1/2 inches.

The Laughing Buddha is buried beneath it. Jim and I are buried, too--waiting for the plows to spring us from our wintry prison.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

First Snow

Today we were supposed to drive to my brother and sister-in-law's in south Jersey for Christmas Part 2--when the extended Gould family gathers to celebrate the holiday.

But Nature had other ideas. Predictions of over a foot of snow and blizzard-like conditions led to a decision to reschedule. By 9:00am Jim and I were in that funky void between having something--then suddenly nothing--to do.

I'm not always able to shift gears in these situations, especially when there's a degree of disappointment involved. But this wasn't one of those times. A cup of coffee later we had a new plan: go see a movie (True Grit), then eat toasted ham and cheese sandwiches (from last night's leftovers) and watch the Jets game (they lost to the Bears.)

All that relaxing has sent Jim off to take a nap, creating a small window of opportunity for me to write. It's so quiet I can hear the cat snoring softly on the couch beside me. Outside the window the wind gusts whip the lacy curtains of snow in three directions simultaneously.

I was totally looking forward to spending the afternoon with my family. But things tend to work out the way they are meant to. So I'm happy to be hunkered down in my house, appreciating the beauty and ferocity of this--the first storm of the winter--from within the warmth and safety of its walls.

Friday, December 24, 2010

‘Tis the Season: Finale

Christmas Eve is the best night of the year. The prep work is done and it’s time to sit back and take it all in. The way the presents are arranged under the tree (Mariah clearly approves.) The way the house smells. The anticipation. The shiny-and- bright-ness of it all.

I’m really feeling the season this year. Yep, it’s one of “those” years. I’m genuinely joyful. And grateful to be sharing some holiday cheer (and some really good food) with people I love. I even baked two batches of cookies from recipes I’ve never tried before (and probably won’t try again.)

When Jim asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I said to spend an afternoon with him in Milford, PA. It’s one of those towns along the Delaware River that were once prosperous—but now you can’t quite figure out why anyone goes there. We more or less tripped over it last year on our way back from Narrowsburg, and had one of those spontaneously great experiences that I wanted to repeat (always a chancy proposition, I know.)

We drove out on Saturday and did what there was to do: stroll the streets, browse in a few shops and galleries, enjoy the simply chic holiday decorations, and end up sipping a glass of wine at Bar Louis. It’s a subterranean bistro in the Hotel Fauchere, with a nice vibe and friendly staff. This time we had dinner there—something we didn’t do last year. And we spent some time chatting with a cross-dresser named Bridget—also an experience we hadn’t had before. We headed back to our car in the glow of thousands of fairy lights strung through the trees. The experience embodied what Christmas means to me. Moments cherished and relationships acknowledged for their true value.

Tonight we’ll have dinner with Maryanne and Tom—a gathering that began three years ago and has quickly become one of my favorite holiday traditions. Tomorrow will be a whirlwind of exchanging presents, visits with our kids, and consuming way too much sugar. But today is about the slow build. The wonder. And the wishing, and hoping, that Santa brings you exactly what you want.

Merry Christmas, indeed...

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

'Tis the Season: Part 2

Jake said, “The fake tree was a good investment, Mom.”

Wednesday we decorated the Christmas tree at my house, and yes—it’s a fabulously fake white one. The fact that it’s fake—and white—means it’s as far from my family’s holiday tree tradition as you can get.

That tradition—which I’ve failed to carry on—is one of my absolute favorite childhood memories. My dad would wrestle a fragrant Frazer Fir into a stand and string it with lights. When I was in my teens, I was allowed to help him arrange the fat colored bulbs, backed with cookie-cutter shaped aluminum reflectors, so that the colors were perfectly balanced.

When we went to bed Christmas Eve, that’s all that was on the tree. Next morning we awoke to find it transformed by Santa and his elves. It’s branches hung with ornaments, sugar cookies and candy canes, then layered with a shimmering veil of carefully placed tinsel. It set the tone for many a magical morning.

I married a Jewish man who was anti-holiday to boot, so until Jake was born I dared do no more than put up a tiny tabletop tree. Until I reached my parents’ house on Christmas day and sat in the glow of their big tree with the fat colored bulbs, I never felt that the holiday was really complete.

Jake’s arrival changed that. We became fast friends with a couple that made annual excursions to Pennsylvania to cut down their tree with a saw. And we tagged along. Our trees were never taller than what our golden retriever could knock over with a strong swipe of her tail. But I loved stringing the lights, hanging the ornaments and tossing the tinsel.

Divorce put an end to the tree-cutting, but Jake and I created a new tradition of venturing to the same nursery each year, picking out a tree, and decorating it together. One year his stepsister Carly, who only celebrates Hanukkah, asked to help. She brought Jake an ornament to hang on the tree—and a new tradition was born. Then came the December when, overcome with the desire to knock tradition for a loop, I bought the white tree during a post-Christmas 50% off sale. And began collecting blue, white and silver ornaments to decorate it with.

Which led to Wednesday night and Jake’s blessing. Funny that he came out with it in a year when I’ve found myself missing the smell of evergreen. And second-guessing my impulsive purchase. But after Jake and Carly had gone home, and I sat in the glow of the white lights admiring their handiwork, I realized that it’s not the tree that symbolizes Christmas to me. It’s the ritual of decorating it. Jake and Carly are my elves...making holiday magic.

Friday, December 10, 2010

'Tis the Season

Traditions. The holidays wouldn’t be “The Holidays” without them. Rituals that range from digging out boxes of carefully preserved ornaments to lighting candles in a certain in order. From using handed-down recipes to taking daylong excursions to cut down the perfect tree—complete with snowflakes and hot chocolate.

I’m big on traditions—by which I mean that I love doing things, going places, and sharing experiences with the same people—again and again. I enjoy what I call “experiential” gifts far more than materials ones. And I’m pretty sure I’ve always been this way. My parents certainly set the stage. After 60 years of marriage, they still celebrate Christmas the same way they always have—by staying home all day, opening gifts at a leisurely pace, and eating a rib roast dinner. The only difference is that all of their kids are not there with them.

Like them, I’m resistant to altering the traditions I love. For instance, Jim is itching to spend Christmas snowbound in a remote cabin—while I can’t imagine not being with my family. That said, I’m discovering that it can be fun to switch things up a little. This year’s Thanksgiving dinner was hosted by my sister Deborah and her husband Mark in Elkton, Maryland. Jim and I arrived earlier than expected and he suggested stopping at one of Elkton’s clams to fame: The Howard House. It’s known as a crab place but we go for the legendary Bloody Mary’s. And because we’d decided to book a hotel room for the night to avoid the long and exhausting round-trip drive (another break from tradition), I said yes. Alcohol on Thanksgiving—what a treat!

I called our hosts to invite them to join us (they live within walking distance), and wasn’t surprised when Mark declined. But I was shocked when, 10 minutes later, my sister walked into the bar. Hot on her heels came my son Jake, who drove down on his own instead of with me (another first.) We shared some laughs and some stories and—best of all—the excitement of doing something new and different. A feeling that stayed with me all day. When we got back to the house, my brother and sister-in-law were disappointed to have arrived a little too late to join the party. By the time we said goodbye, we all agreed that a new family tradition had been established.

This week my friend Marla and I engaged in our annual holiday "experience." Like total tourists, we meet at dusk at the tree in Rockefeller Center. Take a few pictures. Then wander along Fifth Avenue, check out the displays, and end up grabbing a healthy bite to eat. Lately we’ve chosen days so bitter cold that we're forced to slip into Saks, Bendel’s or Bergdorf’s to warm up. This year we decided to go see the windows at Barneys and made a pit stop at the Plaza. Next thing we knew, we were sipping festive red drinks in the balcony bar—a fun new twist on the "let's stop in here to get toasty" tradition!

Traditions aren’t just about nostalgia or being old-fashioned. They ground us in a time and place. They create a sense of order and belonging. Like a compass, they help point us in a familiar direction and steer us toward a friendly destination. And they sure come in handy when our lives seem to be spinning out of control. Maybe that’s what the “tidings of comfort and joy” business is all about?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Breathing is So Underrated

Today I called my friend Maryanne to wish her a happy birthday. We bemoaned the craziness of our schedules and frustration at not being able to see each other as often as we'd like. She asked how I was feeling. "Today's the first day in weeks that I've had a chance to breathe," I said. "Breathing is so underrated."

We laughed. Then she said, "You should blog that. A one-line blog post."

So here it is: Breathing is so underrated!

Happy birthday, Maryanne!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Listening to the Leaves

"Listen," said Jim.

We were an hour into a hike in Norvin Green State Forest. One we'd never done before. The trail's incessant downward slope had just begun to ease, and the dense woods opened on either side. The forest floor was blanketed in gold, fallen leaves covering every surface as far as we could see.

We stopped walking. In the quiet, I heard a stream gurgling off to the right. Nothing more.

"Let's see if we can hear the leaves falling," said Jim. We looked around. In the wide expanse, a dozen or so papery-brown oak leaves drifted down from high up in the almost-bare branches. Lazily at first, then gaining a sense of urgency as they got closer to the ground. As if eager to join their predecessors.

At first I heard nothing. Then, just off to our left, a golden maple leaf landed. With a sound tough to put into words. Like the whisper of snowflakes falling in the dark. Or the hush of the first raindrops that herald a summer storm. Or a breath, exhaled so softly it can only be heard in a silent room.

A breeze swept through the treetops and sent several dozen leaves showering down. The air filled with the faint rustle of their journey to earth. As they came to rest, barely disturbing their brothers and sisters and cousins, they became invisible. Stitched instantly by hidden hands into autumn's colorful quilt. Richly cushioning our boots as we resumed our walk.

Monday, November 8, 2010


Three weeks ago I took a giant leap out of my comfort zone. Completely dissatisfied with the way age is affecting my face, I decided to embark on a skin treatment program that would involve several months of sticking with an exacting, twice-a-day regimen. As an added bonus, the first three to six weeks would be characterized by extreme redness, itching, peeling and burning.

Sounds like fun, doesn't it? I mean, who wouldn't jump at the chance to walk around looking like a burn victim for a month or two? Especially a woman like me, whose job involves seeing people--lots of people--every day. But I'm a graduate of the no-pain-no-gain school of life. So after some sweet-talking by my favorite cosmetic surgeon, I plunked down my credit card, took home my bag of bottles and tubes, and plunged in.

Four days later, I woke up, looked in the mirror, and started to cry. What the hell had I been thinking? Thankfully, the doctor's office surprised me with a support call, and I was relieved to hear that what was happening was normal.

Ten days later, I looked ten times worse. My face was red, sore, burning, itching. Yawning hurt. Smiling too often induced unsightly peeling. I pretty much kept my mouth shut about the discomfort. After all, I'd brought it on myself, hadn't I? A second support call (this time from my doctor's wife!) and a pep talk from my friend Maryanne (who had encouraged me to do this after experiencing positive results herself) lifted my spirits.

Wednesday was my first office visit. I arrived feeling confident that things were progressing nicely and sensing a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. After announcing his pleasure at the degree of my redness, he gleefully announced, "Let's speed up the process!" and told me to double the dosage. What could I expect next? "More peeling, but you'll get through this phase faster." I could hardly contain my excitement.

And what timing! Saturday I was co-hosting a party celebrating my parents' 80th birthdays and 60th wedding anniversary. How could I face a roomful of people--three-quarters of whom I hadn't seen in at least 10 years--with this face? Emboldened by panic, I asked, "Can the speeding-up part wait a few days?" After explaining my dilemma, he smiled kindly and said, "Sounds like it's time for an escape!"

Escape? What a concept. Turns out that if you stop using the treatment products for three days and slather on a blend of moisturizer and cortizone cream instead--voila! Your skin returns to normal. Without reversing the progress you've made. No one at the party noticed a thing. And I could smile without my skin cracking!

Last night I got back on the wagon with mixed emotions. I dread the return of the peeling. But this little break revealed positive changes in my skin. And now I'm convinced that putting up with the next few weeks will be well worth the trouble. Isn't that what "escape" is all about? Getting away from an experience that feels overwhelming so you can regain your perspective. If only it was always as simple as dabbing on some cream.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Love Offering

This time last Saturday, I was sitting beside my sister Deborah in a church in Newark, NJ.

I can’t remember the last time we were in a church together (probably for a wedding or a funeral.) And we’ve never been to Newark together—much less to visit a church. But there we were, attending the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. Sitting in the Trinity & St. Philip’s Cathedral. And listening to Kay Ryan, the 2010 U.S. Poet Laureate, talk about her craft.

It was a pivotal moment in a long weekend of pivotal moments. The festival lasted three and a half days, and we made it through two before agreeing we were on overload. But what an amazing experience it turned out to be—one I wasn't really prepared for.

I went because it’s something Deborah has wanted to do for a long time. I don’t write poetry or read much of it, so I knew pretty much nothing about the myriad of “stars” that would be there. But I love my sister and we don’t spend near enough time together. So when she discovered that the festival had been relocated from Sussex County to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, I didn't think twice about springing for the four-day pass.

The event kicked off with a group reading featuring 24 of the poets in attendance—a perfect preview of what was to come. She and I took notes and later that night mapped out our strategy for the days ahead. The workshops and readings were many and the choices tough, but by the time we said, “Uncle!” on Saturday night, our creative “wells” were brimming. So much so that only now am I able to begin to sift through the thoughts and ideas that bombarded my brain. And the emotions that stirred my heart.

If I had thought about it in advance, I might have realized it had the potential to be overwhelming. I mean seriously—when you bring together dozens of the best poets in the country and give them the chance to share their love of language with thousands of adoring fans, how could the outcome be less than stellar? Each reading—whether it featured two people or ten—was a pyrotechnic display of the power and glory of words. Funny, insightful, delicious, rhythmic, sweet, obtuse, touching, exquisite, fierce. Driving home at the end of each day, my mind whirled with one-line inspirations (“Learn to be susceptible to distractions”; “Strike while the iron is iron.") And my heart ached from being put so thoroughly through its paces.

Instead, I'd focused solely on the gift of spending three wonderful days with my sister with no one else around. And we made the most of it. She summed it up beautifully in an email: “…every time together is a snapshot of where we are in our lives—our worries, our triumphs, our struggles and our joys –and talking helps me ‘hear’ where I am…” Several times during the weekend I felt blessed to have this special bond with her. Once, sitting in the grand main hall at NJPAC, I turned to look at her and tears welled in my eyes. I told her how grateful I was to be asked to share in the experience. But what I was really thinking was thank god we survived the miseries of childhood with our spirits intact. And have the courage to be living authentic lives.

Late last Saturday afternoon, we went to a second church to listen in on a slightly off-kilter conversation between poets Sharon Olds (heartfelt and loopy) and Billy Collins (ironic and brilliant). The sanctuary was a funky blend of grooved wood, stained glass and Gothic-inspired pewter chandeliers that lent a medieval air to the proceedings. In the back of the pew in front of us, a folded envelope was stuffed into a small wooden slot. I pulled it out and read the words printed in elegant script: “Love Offering.” Instantly I thought, “That’s what I’ve given Deborah by being here.” In the next moment I realized that was what she’d given me. Amen.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Mission Accomplished

Today is Monday. It’s the official end of my summer “staycation”—and the end of my Personal Blogging Challenge.

Last Monday I made a commitment to post every day for a week. When I started this blog a year ago (hard to believe!), posting daily was something I thought would be easy to do. Man, have I learned a thing or two!

And now that I’ve accomplished last week’s mission, here are a few more things I've learned:

1) Blogging every day feels like a job. I spend a good part of each workday writing. Blogging is something I do for fun—and I want to keep it that way.
2) My posts were more spontaneous. I confess that most of my entries have been mapped out in Word and well-edited before I click “Publish Post.” The writer in me longs to create short stories. But lack of time (and not having loaded Microsoft Office on my new computer) forced me to speed things up. I kinda liked it!
3) I took my camera everywhere. I’m hooked on using pictures as illustrations, which means almost any occasion can turn into a photo op.
4) Blogging more meant journaling less. I’m not interested in spilling my guts in public—that’s what my journal is for. But it was tough to make time to do both, and I was on vacation all week! Since I’m a lifelong journal junkie, this could be the deal-breaker.
5) There was no shortage of stuff to write about. Discovering this made the project worthwhile. This entire blog is about moments of joy and amazement. And judging by the endless string of ideas that ran through my mind, my days are filled with them.

As I was writing point #4, I spent a few minutes Googling the definition of a blog. Is it possible I'm doing it all wrong? That I should toss my journal because sharing intensely personal stuff is what separates real bloggers from pretenders? I panicked when Webster’s called it “an online personal journal." But then I came across this from Jeff Jarvis, a veteran print journalist and prominent blogger: “A blog is merely a tool that lets you do anything from change the world to share your shopping list. People will use it however they wish. And it is way too soon in the invention of uses for this tool to limit it with a set definition.”

Whew! Tomorrow it’s back to pen & paper.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Dining Alfresco

Outdoor dining: love it or hate it?

It's something about which most people I know have a strong opinion, and I happen to love it. Whether it's coffee out on my deck or a romantic dinner in a secluded garden strung with twinkling lights, nothing says "summer" more than enjoying a meal outside.

But there's outdoor dining and then there's its ugly step-sister: urban outdoor dining. If you live in Bergen County, NJ, it's highly likely that alfresco is nothing more than a few tables crammed together on a busy sidewalk situated along an even busier street. The roar of motorcycles and aroma of bus exhaust hardly creates a desirable atmosphere, and yet that's what most local restaurants have to offer. Which is why I understand when any dining companion chooses to sit indoors instead.

This week I've been fortunate to experience the upside of eating outside. In one 48-hour stretch, I ate lunch on a cliff high above the Wanaque Reservoir; sipped a beer on a patio at one end of Greenwood Lake; had dinner on my deck overlooking a small creek; enjoyed breakfast on an outdoor deck on Lake Hopatcong (where it was so chilly they had the overhead heaters on); and stopped for a late lunch in Frenchtown at a cafe beside the Delaware River. The only time noise was a factor was in Frenchtown, where the cafe is at the foot of the bridge that leads in and out of town. But even then we could have chosen to sit in the screened-in porch, far removed from the bustling road.

I savored every minute of every meal. Being in the open air always creates an illusion of space, even when you're within spitting distance of the next table. There sure was plenty to look at--from hawks swooping overhead to sailboats glinting in the sun. I relished the cool breezes. Succumbed to the water's hypnotic powers. Was soothed by the sounds of birds and crickets. And the food? Well, somehow it just tasted better! The colors were more vibrant. The flavors more distinct. I chewed more slowly. Appreciated each bite.

If only this sort of experience could be replicated by restaurants closer to home. Where the best tables offered a fresh perspective--and a view worth seeing.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Heart Stones

"We tend to find what we're looking for," Jim said. In a rare moment of synchronicity, I said I couldn't agree more. (Actually, my standard phrase for this is, "Perception is all there is." Meaning things are as we chose to see them. Not exactly the same thing, but close enough.)

He said this yesterday as we were well into a steady uphill climb on a new hiking trail in Norvin Green State Park. (I'd quickly dubbed it the Fried Egg Trail in honor of the yellow-on-white Mine Trail marker pictured here.) I'd spent most of the previous 20 minutes with my eyes glued to the ground, carefully navigating the rocky ascent. And I'd noticed what seemed like dozens of stones shaped like hearts.

I have my friend Shelley to thank for this. A few years ago we were strolling the beach together in Point Pleasant and I was talking about my obsession with shell collecting. I've got so many I should be ashamed to even look at another, yet I can't seem to help myself. She suggested switching to pebbles, and I confessed to having pocketed more than a few of those as well. I consider them souvenirs--even though, with few exceptions (like the large river stones from Montana and the smooth gray rocks from the Maine coastline) I've no idea where they all came from.

Then she told me that a friend of hers collected stones shaped like hearts. This opened a whole new world to me, one that required keener powers of observation and a bit of imagination. Some of the stones I have only look like hearts to me--and that was Jim's point. If I want to see hearts, I will. And yesterday I saw so many that I decided it was a sign. Maybe I needed to open my heart more? I've been feeling pretty self-centered lately, focused more on what I want and need than on the people around me. So was this nature's way of telling me to pay more attention? To share more love? Connect more deeply with those I care about?

I held this feeling in my consciousness as we moved through the day. Jim and I seemed more in sync than usual, and we both commented on how present we felt. Everything about the hike seemed more intense, and the sights were like a Reader's Digest condensed version of what we love best. These pictures capture a few of them: strenuous climbs, spectacular views, a black-and-blue butterfly perched on my leg, several abandoned mines, a cascading brook hidden from view, even a real bat cave!

The piece de resistance was a wacky house nestled in the trees along the road out of the parking lot. Part tent, part domed sheet metal, it was painted a vibrant shade of pink--as was everything else in sight. From the iron front gate to the lawn chair cushions, the mailbox to the old Volvo in the driveway. Pink. The color of love. The shade of the heart.

Could it be another sign? The way we choose to see things is the way they are.

Friday, August 27, 2010


Yesterday was an unexpected gift. Jim had work to do so I had a day to myself. The sun finally broke through, the damp and the gray blew away, and the temptation to drive to the beach was strong. But my goal this week is to relax. As I drank my morning coffee and watched the cat stretch in a warm shaft of light, I decided to bring the beach experience to my backyard.

It’s amazing how little it takes: a canvas chair, some suntan lotion, a tall glass of iced tea, and a big fat book (our book club pick is Penny Vincenzi’s The Best of Times—perfectly mindless reading.) I threw in a long afternoon walk and homemade tuna niçoise for good measure—and guess what? I hardly missed the sound of the waves. The bonus: no sand in my shoes!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

My Son the Sex Symbol

There is a picture of my son Jake in the May 27th issue of Time Out New York. It doesn't quite do him justice, but the short profile next to it manages to capture a bit of his personality. At least the things that might be important to someone interested in dating him.

That's right. My baby, my only child, was featured in the magazine's "Sexy Summer Singles" issue.

Not long afterward, my friend Robynn suggested this might be something to blog about. As in, "How does it feel to be the mother of a sex symbol?" I actually sat down to write about it, but my mind went blank. Were there no words to describe my feelings? Hardly likely. Did I have no feelings? Doubt that, too. Maybe I just needed time to process the whole thing?

Flash forward to last night, when Jake and I met up at Micro Center. I needed to buy a new computer, and he'd offered to provide technical support in exchange for a free dinner. I'd already done my research, and was convinced I was taking him up on the offer just to spend time with him. He's 27 and has a very full life, so hanging out with his mom isn't a priority. And rightly so. But we do have shared interests and he's not embarrassed to be seen in public with me. So I'm thrilled to get together with him whenever the occasion presents itself.

I got there first and was perusing the MacBooks when he walked in. For a split second I saw him, not as my son, but as a guy walking into an electronics store. And it didn't seem possible that the boy I'd raised had become this tall, good-looking young man. In my mind he's forever four years old, sweet and inquisitive and independent. Racing through the house in his footy pajamas with mischief in his eyes and an infectious giggle. But the Jake strolling towards me, the one giving me a peck on the cheek and saving me $400 by telling me I don't need the most powerful laptop Apple makes--this Jake was the man profiled in the pages of TONY.

He's the guy with his own apartment and a great job, who loves sports and music and cooking and travel. Who writes songs and makes his own beer and is spending the summer attending the weddings of half a dozen close friends. He's the guy who has dinner with his grandparents most Thursday nights and has sat through virtually all of his step-sister's dance recitals. Who has taken his mom to Pearl Jam concerts and Red Bulls games. Most miraculous of all, he's the strong yet sensitive son who still struggles to makes sense of his father's death from cancer 10 years ago. And chooses to live life on his own terms as a result.

If all of these attributes combine to make him an eligible bachelor, who am I to argue? Just don't ask me to think about it for too long. I prefer to see him as the walking definition of a Renaissance Man. I believe that he's a "catch". That the girl he finally settles down with will be lucky that he's chosen her. And that it would behoove her to realize this fact. Do I also believe that I'm unabashedly biased? You bet. And why not? I'm the mother of a sex symbol.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Being Open

It's been many (many) years since I attended the U.S. Open Tennis tournament, and I've never actually purchased tickets to go. Not because I don't like tennis (I do) or didn't enjoy watching it live (I did.) But given the choice as to which sport I'd willingly spend hours sitting in the stands to watch, I'd go with baseball.

That said, I fancy myself as someone who is open to new experiences. I also love Jim. And Jim loves tennis. So yesterday I found myself walking through Flushing Meadows in a steady drizzle to the USTA National Tennis Center. No, the U.S. Open doesn't start until August 30th. But there is plenty of tennis being played there this week--and you don't need tickets to enjoy it.

Jim has been talking about doing this for several summers, ever since a guy who he met on his local tennis courts told him he's been taking his kids for years. The deal is that there are dozens of qualifying matches as well as practice courts full of pros working out. And the public is invited to watch for free! As luck would have it, the timing coincides with the last of our week-long summer "staycations." So we decided to take our chances with the incessantly miserable weather and cruise on out to Queens.

We were richly rewarded. Okay, so we missed seeing Rafa Nadal practice by about an hour. And we waited at least that long for the puddle-spotted courts to be dried and readied for play. But there was plenty of action on the dozen or so practice courts, where you could get within yards of the grunting and groaning players. Many of the concession stands were open, so we had our fill of high-end junk food. And I was amazed at how many spectators, staff and tennis groupies were milling about.

But what made it all worthwhile was seeing the look of pure joy on Jim's face as he pronounced himself happier than if he'd been watching the final match in Arthur Ashe Stadium. Being open to a new experience? Zero dollars. Experiencing it with someone you love? Priceless.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Narrowsburg. The name alone sounds small, doesn’t it? Described by New York Magazine as a “liberal-leaning burg on New York’s Pennsylvania border…shaping up to be the Woodstock of Sullivan County” (April 6, 2009), it nonetheless sounded like a destination well worth the two-hour haul. Yesterday Jim and I visited Narrowsburg for the third time—and I’m still trying to decide if that’s true.

The drive is absolutely gorgeous: equal parts Hudson Valley farmland and majestic views of the Delaware River. And as you approach the town from Route 52 you get a glimpse of its unique location—perched on a bend at the deepest part of the river where a large eddy spreads out like a lake. The first time we went we almost missed the turn onto Main Street—and even now I marvel at how tiny it is. I grew up in a small town, so trust me when I say this town is barely there. The street has a “wild west” vibe and you can see from one end to the other. It’s also possible to count the businesses on your fingers: two restaurants, a few galleries, the requisite coffee place, and a post office.

On our first visit we were steered to the Main Street Café by a gallery owner—and readers of this blog won’t be surprised to know that food is probably what lures us back (that, and the chic home store, Nest.) As Jim said yesterday, we’ll go anywhere for a good meal. And so, as the rain pelted down and dashed our hopes for a beach day, we agreed that it was perfect weather for the café’s signature sloppy roast beef sandwich (one good reason for not going 100% vegetarian!)

We set off, stomachs growling in anticipation. Low and behold, it’s not on the summer lunch menu! Alas, we had no choice but to assuage our broken hearts with 1) a slice of the best chocolate cake this chocoholic has ever tasted and 2) homemade apple pie. Desperate to stretch our legs before getting back in the car for the long drive back, we grabbed an umbrella and took a short stroll to the observation deck for a view of the eddy.

A pleasant-looking woman joined us and said she hoped the awful weather wasn’t ruining some sort of vacation plans. As if! I chuckled to myself, remembering that the last time I stood on this spot and took a picture, the river was frozen and the sidewalks snow-covered. Ten minutes later we headed back to our car, clutching a brochure promoting a “tent and breakfast” lodging option that our new friend Jane had recently launched.

Serendipity? You bet. First of all, we’ve been talking for weeks about spending a weekend hiking in the area, and this would be a perfect place to stay. Best of all, Jim and I often ask ourselves if we could move to a place like this, and Jane couldn't contain her enthusiasm for the decision she and her husband had made to retire to Narrowsburg (from Long Island) three years ago. “There’s plenty to do here if you don’t need to work,” she said. For one brief moment I sighed and thought, “Ah, yes—the upside of downsizing."

Monday, August 23, 2010

What's in a Name?

Jim and I hike so much that we’ve started forgetting which trail is which. I’ve promised to put together a log book that includes space for notes to help us remember. And I’ve gotten as far as buying the binder. In the meantime, during a summer in which we’ve made good on our decision to try more new hikes, we struggle to keep them straight.

One of our tricks is to bestow names on some of our favorites: the Rhododendron Hike, the Mount Tammany Hike, the Reservoir Hike. And the one Jim longingly refers to as the Blueberry Hike. There’s no real logic to the names. Some are destinations (the Milford Village Hike.) Some refer to landmarks (the June Cemetery Hike.) But two of our most beloved trails are named for the seasonal natural wonders we encounter along the way. If we’re lucky.

I say that because one of the things we forget is exactly what time of year we need to hike these trails in order to actually see them—literally—in full flower. The Rhododendron Hike, which ranks as one of my top three trails to date, is so named because of the dense groves of wild rhododendrons that form lush canopies over large sections of the trail. They bloom for a few short weeks in the spring, and Jim has done plenty of research (including polling many a hiker whose paths we’ve crossed) to try to determine the ideal time to catch them at their peak. Only once have we hit it just right—and it was truly breathtaking. So you’d think we’d have written it down somewhere, right? Beats me where that might be.

The Blueberry Hike poses a similar challenge. Wild blueberry bushes dot many of the trail systems in northern NJ and southern NY, but nowhere have we found a more dazzling display than on this trail, which winds up and over Seven Lakes Drive near Lake Tiorati. The small, dark berries are far sweeter than their big brothers, and we believe they ripen in late summer—although we can never remember precisely when. So we target the window between late June and early July and hope for the best.

Last Sunday was August 15th and we figured we’d missed the boat. Still, we headed out with visions of scraping together a few handfuls that might have survived this sweltering summer. But how much did it really matter? Not a heck of a lot. Because the reality is that there are endless joys to be found along these trails—surprises and delights that no name can capture. That day’s trek included a surprise deer sighting, a trip through the infamous Lemon Squeeze rock formation. And intermittent rain showers that played a staccato on the leafy tree tops. Yesterday we were just looking for an easy “walk in the woods” on a damp drizzly day—and discovered an amazing well-preserved stone wall, more than a century old, that rivaled anything Andy Goldsworthy has recently engineered.

And yet—calling it The Great Wall Hike will do it such a disservice. Because “what’s in a name?” is never the whole story. “Successful.” “Strange.” “Friend.” “Musician.” “Happy.” “Vegetarian.” “Blogger.” Sure, these labels help us remember. And create a semblance of order in our minds. Maybe even our lives. But oh, how limiting they are! How inadequate. Just like this handful words I’ve scraped together.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Vegging Out

I reorganized my recipe file on Monday. No, it wasn’t on my list of things to do during my vacation week. But on Sunday, when the mess of culinary clippings crammed in a kitchen cabinet made an ordeal out of extracting a bowl for Jim’s potato salad, it suddenly took precedence over re-potting my lavender and trimming the cat’s claws.

I’m not going to go on about how this project took far longer than anticipated. Or about the perfect file box I found at the Container Store (disguised as a greeting card file—something I didn’t know existed and probably also need!) But sifting through the recipes and deciding what to keep—and what to toss—took on an unexpected significance.

It was like looking through a photo album of my life, one that dated from when I got married (in 1977) to the present. Who was that woman who whipped up all those wok wonders? And casseroles with ground beef, noodles and Campbell’s soup as the main ingredients? Was there really an era when I made beef stroganoff and chicken cacciatore? Or when compiling ways to make mac & cheese and potato salad was my sole mission in life?

My pile of cast-offs grew—and so did my realization that the way I eat has changed dramatically over the past 30-plus years. As I labeled the tabs of my colorful new file and filled it with favorites and promising possibilities, several things became clear:

1. I’ve always eaten more poultry than beef or pork.
2. I’ve lived by the adage that eating fish in restaurants is preferable to living with the smell at home.
3. Pasta and any dish featuring beans or lentils is a mainstay.
4. Looking for new ways to prepare sweet potatoes or Brussels sprouts? Give me a shout.

Which leads me (more or less) to the point. At the start of the process, the biggest stack of recipes involved chicken. By the time I was done, it was vegetables. That’s because I chose to reorg my recipes at a time when I’m as close as I’ve ever been to becoming a vegetarian. I feel instant disappointment at not being able to write, “Because I am a vegetarian.” But that would be a bold-faced lie—considering the fact that at my son’s birthday dinner last night I had the signature dish at 5 Napkin Burger.

However, reading my friend Diane’s recent blog post about vegetarianism made me realize that, while I admire those who just wake up one day and—voila!—stop eating animals, I don’t need to apologize for that fact that, for me, it’s a process that’s been going on for several years. Lately I’ve been doing lots of reading and experimenting and talking with my friend Stacey, who is sort of in the same boat. I’ve been looking at the issue through a variety of lenses: from the health benefits and animal rights abuses to the impact on the environment.

To be honest, I don’t have one good reason to continue eating meat. In fact, going totally vegan would suit me best from a health perspective. Sure, it’s inconvenient: all that searching for weird ingredients and cooking—what a drag! And although I happen to like most non-animal sources of protein, far be it from me to try to convince Diane (or Jim) that tofu tastes as good as last night’s thick, juicy burger.

That said, I just finished Jonathan Froer’s book, Eating Animals, and can no longer stomach the thought of consuming chicken or pork. Even fish is making me nauseous. So I’m enjoying leafing through vegan and Ayurvedic cookbooks. Exploring local farmer’s markets. And searching for stores that sell quinoa and adzuki beans in bulk. A few weeks ago I stumped a clerk at Whole Foods when I asked what aisle the mirin was in (imagine that!) And I’m still searching for umeboshi vinegar—although I’m not exactly sure why.
And yet—I avoid crossing the line completely. Oh, to wake up one morning and just know! In the meantime, I’ll continue this process of elimination and try to be okay with it—which is no easy task. As Jake drove us home from 5 Napkin Burger, I said, “This might have been my last real burger experience. I’m thinking about not eating meat anymore.” Without missing a beat, he replied “Again?” Ouch.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Whole Lot of Nothin’ Real Important

I haven’t posted in quite a while. Okay –since June 20th, to be exact. I’ve got plenty of good reasons (or excuses, take your pick.) I was unfocused/journaling instead/reading instead/cooking instead/swamped with work/bored/tired/happier hanging with friends/unmotivated/lazy. Eventually it became the kind of thing where, the more time passed, the guiltier I felt. And the more it felt like an obligation. And you know how that goes. I felt exactly like I do when I haven’t called my parents for three weeks.

It’s not like there hasn’t been anything to write about. My journal is, in fact, filled with notes about things amazing, surprising and delightful. Like a weekend checking out wineries on the North Fork. A vision book workshop in NYC. A raft of new hikes. My son featured as one of summer’s sexiest singles in Time Out NY (more on that later.) But it wasn’t until Jim and I spent a four-day weekend in Vermont that I finally felt the weight of not blogging. And—simultaneously—asked myself why it matters so much.

It was a wonderful trip, a classic Donna-and-Jim adventure that included a rainy drive along Route 100, a visit with Janet at Tao of Health, and two gorgeous days of hiking (and eating too much) in Killington. Seeing Janet and introducing Jim to the retreat center was a high point, for sure. And the reason we planned the trip in the first place. She’s selling lots of stuff in preparation for moving, and it turns out she was willing to let go of that happy little Buddha that came to symbolize my experiences there. So I went to pick him up—and Jim came to do the heavy lifting. The other high point (literally) was the hiking. Our trek up Killington Mountain was one for the books. We’d intended to take the gondola up and hike down, but the young guy selling tickets shamed us into the reverse order (he had me at, “It’s easier on the knees.”) The views were breathtaking, the climb strenuous—and I’d be lying if I said we didn’t curse that dude. More than once. But the hike to Deer Leap the day before was the one that got me thinking about the blogging thing. We crossed paths with Billy, a bearded through-hiker (that’s trail-speak for people hiking the length of the Appalachian Trail) who was either desperate for company or annoyingly long-winded. About an hour later we passed a guy who had also encountered Billy on the trail. “He seemed harmless enough,” the guy offered. When we alluded to the chattiness, he smiled and shrugged. “Well he did like to talk, but mostly about a whole lot of nothin’ real important.”

I rolled that phrase over and over in my mind, and by the time we got back to our car I’d come to this conclusion: That’s what blogging is. Going on and on about a whole lot of nothin’ real important.

Yet here I am. Climbing back in the saddle with renewed intention. Why? Because, like long-winded Billy, I just enjoy the process. Because it’s a creative medium that works for me sometimes, and sometimes not so much. I sure don’t want to feel obligated to do it—or guilty when I don’t. I just want the freedom to explore it. And I love knowing that people I care about are along for the ride.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Every Hike is a Good Hike

After more than a year of battling uncooperative weather and Jim's even more uncooperative body, we're finally getting into a good hiking groove. We’ve been able get out on a trail more or less once a weekend since the last of the snow fell. Which makes me a happy girl.

Deciding where we’ll go is one of the high points of the weekend—we talk about it over morning coffee like other couples talk about dropping off the dry cleaning. There are plenty of favorite destinations to choose from—mostly in Ramapo, Harriman and out at the Gap—and we're also branching out to unexplored territory. (At this point we’ve accumulated so many possibilities that I’ve committed to replacing my bulging manilla folder with a well-organized binder, complete with notes to help us remember where we've been.)

The trail choice dictates the food choice: more than 6 miles requires a sandwich (preferably from Panera); less than that it’s apples, cheese, and nuts or energy bars. We throw on a few layers and fill our packs (Jim’s is the one with the necessities, although for some reason I’ve got the toilet paper), then we’re out the door—poles, boots and hats stay permanently in the trunk of the car.

I love hiking enough to consider it a bit of an addiction. For several years running I’d have withdrawal if more than a week passed without an outdoor jaunt. So it’s sort of funny that I haven’t asked myself why. Maybe it has something to do with the amaze-surprise-delight thing, since there is something about every hike that falls into at least one of these categories. Trails in New York and New Jersey traverse an incredibly diverse countryside with an awe-inspiring variety of trees and vegetation. Then there are the ponds and lakes, some hidden deep in the forests, sparkling like jewels. The streams and rivers that trickle, babble, and roar through the peaks and valleys. And the birds, deer, chipmunks, snakes, frogs, and yes—even a bear or two that keep us company.Most intriguing are the remains of things we come across in the middle of nowhere. Everything from rusted adding machines, motorcycles and bathtubs to deserted mansions, ancient cemeteries, ruined summer resorts, and—in the case of Doodletown—an entire ghost town.
Lately I’ve been taking my camera, snapping away with the intention of sharing some of these weird treasures here. Taking the time to record them forces me to slow me down, even to stop (unusual in that I hike as much for the exercise as the esoteric delights.) This has led to some connect-the-dots moments: connecting with my childhood, when the most blissful hours were spent playing in the woods, often with my sister Deborah; and connecting with familiar sites, sounds and smells. The inkberry plants that she and I actually squeezed into ink and used sticks to write with. Umbrella plants we used to shade houses in the little villages we built. Murky ponds sheltering fat bullfrogs. Tadpoles wriggling in gurgling streams. Stately pine groves. Rusted farm machinery. Violets and daisies and Queen Anne’s lace. Crumbling stone walls we used as barricades against imaginary enemies—or unofficial trail markers to guide us home.Back then, the woods was a place to escape from the anger that seeped through our house. It serves the same purpose today: only now I’m escaping the stress of my own life to a place that offers breathing room and accessible grandeur. Then again, maybe I’m making this more complicated than it has to be. Last weekend we drove out towards Chester and met two women setting out on a trail that the four of us were hiking for the first time. We headed in different directions, but literally crossed paths about halfway through. One of them asked what we thought of the hike, and Jim and I concurred that it was one we’d like to do again. “Yeah, it’s a good hike,” she agreed. “But then, every hike’s a good hike. You get to be outside and get some exercise. What could be bad?”

Yeah. Maybe it’s just that simple.

Friday, May 28, 2010

It's Just a Wall

You know those places you never get tired of visiting? The ones that offer an experience that never grows old: that inspiring vista, that perfect cup of coffee, that uninterrupted horizon, or that pasta dish you can’t replicate?

For me, Storm King Art Center is one of those places. It’s been more than 25 years since my first visit—I was married, Jake was a baby, and our friends Bill and Sheryl invited us along for a picnic. And it’s been less than a week since my most recent visit. In between I’ve made countless trips to the Hudson Valley to stroll its acres of hills, woods and fields, and dragged pretty much everyone I know to see the 100 or so sculptures that dot its landscape. It remains a place that is consistently inspiring in its scope and calming in its quiet grandeur.

Jim and I made a fairly spontaneous trip there last Sunday. Because we’ve been there so often, we noticed immediately that there were some new sculptures scattered through the fields. But not until we’d climbed up to the main office and Jim began chatting with one of the docents did we discover that the park is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a new exhibition.

It’s important that I come clean here. Jim loves to talk with total strangers, and he does this often—sometimes at great length. The fact that he’s an inquisitive guy is something I love about him. But the chatting often gets on my nerves, especially when I’m in the mood to experience something rather than talk to someone about how best to have the experience. There are times when I’d just rather do my own thing—and when the urge strikes, I walk away and allow Jim to do his.

I did just that on Sunday—and in the process learned that I need to rethink my impatience. First of all, the docent’s explanation gave me a “new perspective” on what we were seeing that day. Secondly, she taught us a trick for keeping at bay the ridiculously annoying May Flies that swarmed the place. And finally, she told us about a new work by an artist I love, one I would have missed seeing otherwise.

The new sculpture is by Andy Goldsworthy, an environmental artist who my old friend Karen de Mauro turned me on to back in 1998, when he and a group of “wallers” from his native UK erected what has become known as the Storm King Wall. It gracefully meanders in a serpentine way around trees and rocks, enters a pond and emerges at the other side. (If you’re looking, you can see the tail end of it from the NY Thruway as you travel north between exits 16 and 17.) According to the docent, Goldsworthy just finished a new wall in a part of the park that is literally off the beaten path, invisible from any of the designated walkways. Aptly calling it “5 Men, 17 Days, 15 Boulders, 1 Wall,” he’s refurbished a dilapidated wall (using stones found on the property) that now winds around boulders along a grove of trees and sort of tumbles into ruin at either end.

There is something about these walls that I find evocative. Goldsworthy has this way of using found materials, placing them in a natural setting, and magnifying their beauty in ways that force me to pay attention. His works are of nature yet not natural, and I find this mesmerizing. So imagine how jarring it was when, while murmuring my admiration to Jim, I heard a fellow visitor say, “I don’t get it. It’s just a wall.”

To his credit, Jim instantly had the proper perspective and whispered something along the lines of “everyone’s entitled to their own opinion.” To my credit, I didn’t throttle the young woman. Later, journaling it out, I found it impossible to accept. There are just so many kinds of walls, literally and figuratively. Ones that keep things out, keep things in. Keep things safe. There are sturdy castle walls that surround, crumbling stone walls that divide. There’s the Great Wall. The old Berlin Wall. The Wailing Wall.

I thought about how I wall off people when I’ve had enough. And wall in my heart after decades of disappointment. In my change group we’re talking about how our thoughts limit our forward movement—yet another kind of wall. Maybe my belief that there is no such thing as “just a wall” is—well—just a wall. If so, I’d like to think of it as a lovely Goldsworthy wall—designed to work with the landscape of my life, not against it.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Lovely and Amazing

I’ve stolen this title from a 2001 movie about a mother and three daughters who are self-absorbed, neurotic, confused, and weirdly endearing. Two of my all-time favorite actresses, Catherine Keener and Brenda Blethyn, are the leaders of this far-from-merry band, each of whom is struggling (in a highly exaggerated, this-could-only-happen-in-a-movie sort of way) with the kind of self-esteem and insecurity issues that plague—well—most of the women I know.

The title popped into my head as I was drying my hair and contemplating writing this post. It didn’t really seem appropriate, so I tried to dismiss it. But it's not going away. As I write that sentence, it dawns on me that maybe that’s exactly why it’s perfect. Because I’m writing about something that may not be appropriate but definitely isn’t going away: racism.

Back story: I work for the YWCA, whose mission is “Eliminating Racism and Empowering Women.” When I took the job three years ago, I was all about empowering women and eager to work for an organization that was dedicated to making that happen. But in the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t really think the racism thing had anything to do with me. I wasn’t a racist. Never had been. And I didn’t spend much—okay, any—time thinking about the state of racism in America today. Fast-forward to this week and I can say two things without hesitation: I am a racist, and the issue of eliminating racism is definitely part of my consciousness.

I wondered if writing about this was fitting for a blog dedicated to all things amazing, surprising and/or delightful. Here’s what then popped into my brain:

1. Bloggers aren’t supposed to worry about what people will think.
2. None of the characters in the movie censored themselves—and I loved that!
3. Racism involves censorship of all kinds.

So here goes. This week I participated in a two-day “eliminating racism” training that was surprising and amazing. For those who feel the urge to check out as they read this, not to worry. I’m not going to go on about my newfound self-awareness or how uncomfortable it is to look my biases square in the eye. I won’t try to explain the guilt and shame I felt sitting in a circle with people of color and listening as they spoke about how they live racism every day, while I can choose not to think about it anytime I want. Together we created a list of stereotypes about white people and POC, then read it aloud. Many of the words I used to describe the movie could be applied to that experience: self-absorbed, highly exaggerated, this-could-only-happen-in-a-movie, confused. I’ll add surprised, angry, sad, and daunting to the list.

I also feel hope, powered by the realization that it’s imperative to question everything. Not to accept what I'm told at face value. I’ve been lazy about some things in my life that require focus, energy, and hard work. I’ve been afraid to speak up and challenge assumptions because I didn’t have facts to back me up. But I feel lucky to have reached a point in my life where I’m willing to dig deeper. And I’ve learned that it’s not necessary to have all of the facts in order to take action.

One of the facilitators used the metaphor that racism is like the “people movers” we see in airports: we don’t have to do anything to make it happen. As white people in America, we inherit it. She explained that the first step towards change is to turn around on the people mover and face the other way.

Despite my rule-follower reputation, I’ve made the choice to turn around. I’ll admit it was easy to do while sitting in a room with 30 other people who felt equally inspired. And right now, sitting here alone in the comfort of my studio, it feels both lovely and amazing. But I’m no fool. Just like the women in the movie, I’ve got a boatload of insecurities, confusion and fear—and standing up against racism brings them all to the surface. That’s the cool thing about enlightenment, though: there ain’t no “Off” switch.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Next Act

Friday night. Central Park Boathouse. A surprise party to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the launch of my friend Marla’s image consulting business. It was a gorgeous evening and the noisy, elegant dinner, preceded by cocktails and mingling, befitted the occasion. In fact, except for the shortage of while lilies, it was exactly the kind of party Marla herself would have thrown.

Our host for the evening, her beau Barry, spoke of what an achievement it was for anyone to be so successful for so long. Especially in New York—and a woman at that. While I agree completely with the first two-thirds of that statement, I think that being a woman actually stacks the deck in her favor.

I remember having lunch with Marla when she hatched the idea and thinking that, if anyone could pull it off it, it would be her. She’s smart, organized, has a great head for business, and had been very successful working in both the buying and selling sides of the fashion business. She had reached a point where she was tired of working for other people, and after careful thought had come up with a logical next step in her career.

Exactly the sort of thing women do all the time!

That’s right. We’re the masters of reinvention. Whether it’s shifting gears from full-time career woman to full-time mom, from unemployed to self-employed, from single to married to single again, women are in the business of creating and recreating their lives. As one woman at Marla’s party put it, we are the flexible sex. The ones who can turn on a dime. We can be racing to meet a deadline at work, stop to take a call from our daughter or best friend, help with a math problem or dating crisis, and return to that work project with barely a "Where was I?"

Women are the ones who manage. We make do. We make ends meet. We make lemonade from lemons. And we’re successful because we refuse to give up. Every woman in my change management group is in the process of transitioning from focusing on others to taking better care of herself. Half of the women I met at the Vermont retreat were in the process of changing jobs, changing locations, or figuring out how to turn something they're good at into a moneymaking venture. What we all share is resourcefulness. Inventiveness. And the unwavering belief that there is more where that came from.

Just because we can do it doesn’t mean that transformation is easy. Like the humans in the movie “Avatar” who traveled from one world to the next, we struggle to adjust, often wrestling with a laundry list of issues: from fear to loneliness, from lack of financial resources to lack of confidence. But we never lack the support of good friends. Or the camaraderie of other women who are either in the same boat—or have recently paddled down the same river.

Three of the smartest and most talented women I know are in search of new employment. Two of them were laid off in the past month, and the third shuttered her business. None of them is entirely sure what they want to do, but they are fully dedicated to figuring out their “next act” (as one of the three—my friend Robynn—put it.)

I was in exactly the same place three years ago, about to lose my job and sure only of what I did not want in my future. With help from two wise women and an assist from my son Jake (who convinced me to take the leap to, I achieved my goal of leaving a Manhattan commute behind and landing a great job a stone’s throw from my house. This change began a process that, at the moment, seems never-ending. As if I tipped the first domino and sent dozens of others toppling in a line that snakes into my future. Each one that slaps the floor is another chance to move forward. To dream, to learn, to grow. To lead a more genuine life.

To do what women do so well: discover, realize—or create—our next act.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Spring Cleaning

Two summers ago, I met a woman named Janet Dunn at a hiking spa in Vermont that my friend Robynn discovered. Janet did a cooking demo one afternoon, and her gentle, nurturing persona was as memorable as the yummy protein salad she taught us to make.

It turned out that she ran her own retreat center of sorts (Tao of Health VT) and I put myself on her email list. Last October I made a solo trip for a weekend of “detoxing” with a small group of like-minded women. Janet had this innate ability to conjure up an atmosphere of safety, support, and lighthearted camaraderie that I found irresistible. So when the invitation arrived in my Inbox for a “darkness into light detox” in May, I signed myself up for a return trip to her rambling, sun-washed house, perched atop a hill near the end of a long dirt road. And I invited my friend Maryanne to come along.The last time Maryanne and I shared a “health spa” experience, things didn’t go so well. She is a lover of abundance—so the concept of being restricted does not sit easily with her. (No coffee? No bread? No sugar? No way!) So I knew it was risky to ask her to spend 48 hours in the wilds of Vermont, cleansing her liver, avoiding caffeine, and consuming a strictly vegetarian diet. Instead of creating expectations, I decided to think of it as an opportunity to spend time with her. And maybe let go of a little stress.

Arriving late Friday night, we discovered there was a full house of 20-plus guests. But we were lucky to have been assigned to the “blue room,” one of the nicest in the house. We set the alarm for 7 a.m., fell into bed, and before we knew it found ourselves in the roomy kitchen with a bunch of yawning women. Everyone lined up dutifully for fresh-squeezed juice and Janet’s deliberate dispensing of the morning’s detox regimen: a customized combo of herbs, tinctures and essential oils designed to help our bodies rid themselves of the crap we shoveled into them all winter.
Instructed to drink plenty of water and specially brewed tea (we’re talking burdock root, not Spiced Chai!), we moved slowly into a day dedicated to relaxation, reflection and release. The hours unfolded like flower petals, each yoga session, massage and mindfulness exercise building on its predecessor. Each of us chose our own path, participating (or not) in activities that encouraged us to look inward and focus on refreshing our minds and spirits.

Maryanne replaced the walking mediation with a nap. One guest spent the afternoon in her room, laid low by caffeine withdrawal (a plight that plagued at least half of us.) Others shared goals, fears, laughter and tears in that amazing way women have of entrusting virtual strangers with their deepest secrets. I dove in with typical rule-follower enthusiasm (the Thai massage guru, Einat, dubbed it my “good girl” energy, much to Maryanne’s delight!) By sundown, the herbs, fresh air, massage, and dinner (spicy adzuki beans and kale) had rendered me comatose. I passed on meditation and went to bed.We slept with the windows open and awoke Sunday to the sound of wind chimes ringing like church bells. After breakfast, we did some stretching. As she had the day before, Janet asked us to think of an intention to hold in our hearts. Muddled thoughts swirled in my foggy brain. Then a lovely woman named Monica arrived to give the group an acupuncture treatment, placing needles in our ears and whispering something about “spring cleaning.”

Maybe it was because I expected nothing. Or maybe it was the culmination of Janet’s weekend master plan. Whatever the reason, I sank into a state of utter calm unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. My body was infused with warmth. My pulse slowed. I inhaled one long breath, belly to lungs to collarbones, then slowly exhaled. Suddenly, the intention that I realized had been forming all weekend bloomed fully into my consciousness: Make Space for Self-Expression.
This simple sentence encapsulates all of the work I’ve done on myself for the past seven months. When I mentioned it later to Janet, she said "Make space where? And I replied, "In the day? In my life?" She looked at me with her crystal blue eyes and said, "In your heart." And there it was. The real reason I needed to be at this retreat. In this moment. And Maryanne was there with me so that I could let go of my typical nervousness about going anywhere alone, and immerse myself completely in the experience.

Right before we said our goodbyes, Janet announced that this was her last retreat. She’s selling the house and planning to “take her show on the road.” She gave each of us the candle we’d lit to celebrate our bond as women in search of more fulfilling lives. It sits on my desk as I write this, a reminder of the enlightenment that took place in that magical house on the hill. And I light it, selfishly, with the hope that I’ll cross paths again with this incredibly giving woman.