Monday, November 30, 2009

The Pioneer Valley at 1500 feet

The Quabbin Resevoir, or part of it. It's massive.

This is Fitzgerald Lake, about a mile through conservation land from our home, which is right under the plane.

The flight crew -- David Cohen -- with the three of us, and his wonderful little plane, after the journey.

So Lily had a birthday in November and our wonderful neighbors gave her -- and me and Dave -- a ride in their plane. Well, just David, as there are just four seats. We planned on the Sunday after Thanksgiving and hoped the weather would cooperate. Indeed! It was clear, sunny, and the 25-mile-an-hour winds of the day before had totally died down. We were on!

David picked us up at 8:30 yesterday morning and we drove a couple of miles to the tiny Northampton airport. One of the things I loved right away was how by the book and safety conscious he is about flying. Being 2,000 feet give or take 500 above the surface of the earth is unsettling at best, at least for me.

I have to back up. David and Doris had dropped off an official-looking manila envelope a few weeks ago, complete with an award letter -- good for whoever is celebrating their 11th birthday on Marian Street! -- bar codes and a boarding pass. I casually handed it over to Lily when I picked it up that day, saying, this came for you, and she opened it and her eyes got really big. She said, with wonderment, Mama, I think I won something!

She was thrilled. She said, if David is flying do you think I can go into the cockpit? And when we drove up the the airport yesterday she said, I hope we get on the plane from the outside! It took Dave and David a second to realize what she meant, and then someone said, oh, you mean instead of the ramp? yes, we get on from the outside.

We pulled up in front of a long building with doors on it that looked like a metal warehouse. David parked and said, we're leaving from Gate 27B. And we found Door 27 and went inside. And there was a plane! A cute little yellow and white Bonanza, apparently the Lexus of its time. He flipped a switch and the entire door opened like a gigantic garage, and there we were, ready to head out.

Well, not quite. First he had an extensive check-list of things to go over, headsets to install, cushions to position. He checked the flaps and the gas in both wings and who knows what else, although he told us all about it as he made his way. He's recently retired as a professor and you can see he must have been a great one. Man loves his plane.

Eventually he hooked up a gizmo that pulled the plane out of the garage and we all got in. We spent some time adjusting seats and seatbelts and getting comfy. Then he taxied to the edge of the single runway and again, checked out all kinds of things.

Then it was time. He let us know in a kind way that we couldn't talk until we were at cruising speed, about 1500 feet. Then, we were off!

And it was so simple and free and also unbelievable. Dave and I were in the back seat and we kept looking at each other and miming elation, and "oh my god!" and "Wahoo!" Then we could talk, and we tried to enthuse and emote so he knew we were thrilled.

We flew from 1500 to 2500 feet, first over Northampton and our house, then across to UMass and the Quabbin, then south over Westover AFB and Springfield. We made our back up west of the Holyoke Range, and I could really see so much more of that curvaceous spine of mountains. Back over Northampton and we were landing and home, overjoyed, a bit nauseous the three of us, and speaking for myself, eager to go again. I think Dave should get his pilot's license, although David said, why not you? Not sure I'm up for it, but I sure am up for being a pilot's wife.

Small town Northampton hit us again when we saw our neighbor Alan as we filled up the gas tanks. That will never cease to amaze us, I think. We were home by 10:30, and somehow starving and thirsty. What a trip!

And how can I describe it? David said a couple of times, we live in a three-dimensional world, and at first I didn't get it -- don't I know that already? -- and then I did in a way I can't explain. I can only imagine what the astronauts feel, but being just 2500 feet above the earth gave me a perspective, a sense of the vastness of our Valley that hadn't registered before. We were so much higher than the mountains! A thousand feet-plus higher than Skinner and Tom. We could see forever, and there was something in me that wanted to go even further.

And yet, it was enough. I didn't have to see more--I didn't want to. Maybe because my stomach was churning and I was a bit anxious, despite how safe David had made me feel. Maybe because I felt too small, too insignificant, in a disturbing way. It certainly was disorienting and it felt great to be back on solid land.

I am now in love with the river, as well as the mountains. I thought, now I need to find someone with a boat to take us on the Connecticut River! I've seen maps and videos but still had no idea how much the river twists and turns, how much it bends. If I remember high school geology correctly that means it's a very old river. It has many islands and lots of peninsulas, including vast fields in Hadley that stick way out into the water. I had no idea.

Overall it was wonderful and a bit overwhelming and really an incredible experience. We're really lucky over here on Marian Street!

Friday, November 27, 2009

The mountains versus the ocean

Just gonna need to this: Facebook is killing my blogging but I am again resolved not to let that happen.

I'm really noticing the changing of the seasons here, in a distinct, sharp way that I didn't notice in Brooklyn. All fall the song "When Fall Comes to New England," by Cheryl Wheeler, kept coming into my brain. I felt it getting colder, grayer, the leaves turning, my gratitude rising -- I'm so happy for the trees, but not just any trees, the glorious red of maples, and the deep yellow of what, beech? The Japanese maple outside our front door was incredible in its vibrant, almost glowing red. The air, the colors, the texture, the sky, the clouds, it all makes me feel more connected, more alive, more grounded.

Now fall is ending and we are moving into winter. The CSA is done, the leaves have all fallen, and been raked. (I really noticed them lining the sides of our street this year, ankle deep, for several weeks. We kept raking them but the leaves kept falling. We wondered when our neighbors were going to rake them up. Finally about 10 days ago the leaf blowers were out in force in the yards and street in front of their houses. Within two days they were all gone, forcing me to get out there too and finishing the last of ours. Aha, I thought, raking leaves isn't like snow, you don't have to get out there and start raking the minute it stops. The leaves will stop falling eventually, and that's when you rake. On the other hand, there's so many leaves it's very hard to do by hand if you are doing it all at once.)

Now my world looks much more like winter, with naked trees and everything brown and fading. The temperatures are in the forties and fifties, though, which makes me feel slightly uncomfortable: Shouldn't it be colder by now? Will this be another warm winter? Winter without the mercury dropping to at least the teens and twenties for much of the time doesn't seem like winter. I mean, the snow, being able to snowshoe and ski and just enjoy it is what makes the winter bearable. Still, I have removed all the screens from the windows, in anticipation of colder weather (keeps the house warmer) and brought out the bird feeder and hung it outside our bedroom window, well out of reach, I trust, from any errant bears.

It's funny, I don't see raking leaves or stacking wood or even shoveling snow as chores any more. It's not like vacuuming -- or worse, dusting -- relentless and dull. It's more like, I like to live here because I get to rake and stack and shovel. Granted, Dave does a lot more of all that then I do. Still, I wouldn't give those rituals up for anything -- and I do all the vacuuming, so maybe we're even.

I am continually struck by how much I notice nature here. I've said this before, but it still hits me that I moved here with some vague idea of being closer to "nature" and how the idea of that has changed and deepened and strengthened. A book I know says that every human has the notion of finding God within herself, an urge to find God, whatever that word means to her. I suspect I can add "nature" to that; I have a hunch that we all crave connection with the earth, trees, sky, water. It's taken me some time, and I've had to learn how to do that, how to get close to nature, whatever that is. But I can feel it happening.

Along those lines, a friend said recently, "I think people are drawn to either the ocean or the mountains. I love the mountains," she said, "but I can't live without the ocean." I knew what she meant and as she spoke, realized I am a mountain person. I love love love the ocean, especially the sounds of the waves and the rich odors of the salty air and sea life. But it's too big for me, too open, too massive. I find the ocean unapproachable, in some sense; I can't immerse myself in it, I can only dip my toe into it, walk along its edges, enjoy it from a distance or with the help of others, like last summer when Kim and family took Lily and I on their boat to Fire Island. I'm a strong swimmer and I used to be a good sailor, but I feel like at this point in my life the stakes are too high for me to be on or in the ocean more than I do. Maybe I'd feel differently if I lived near it.

Now the mountains, on the other hand, are much more accessible to me. I see the ocean and I don't think Atlantic, I think, 70 percent of the earth. I see Mount Sugarloaf or Skinner or Tom or even the hills to the northwest of here, the foothills of the Berkshires and the Greens, whose names I don't know that just roll one after the other, rather than stand up showing off like the first three, and I don't think, Appalachian range (I'm a bit embarrassed about my ignorance but until someone told me this summer I had no idea that the Appalachian mountain range stretched from Alabama to Canada). I think, I want to go there!

I long to get to the top and look out. I need to be among those trees and smell the leaves and muck and occasional skunk or fox. I like the closeness of the forest, the way the trees grow, each one different, different shapes, positions, in different stages of life, all except the dead and dying growing toward the light, although even those have little green shoots of life sprouting out toward the sun. Everything wants to live. Everything wants light. Walking in the woods makes me feel alive and like I could live forever, and with my little sprout, I will. Being in the woods makes me feel closer to God.

We had two Thanksgivings this year, one last weekend, with Dave's sweet family on Long Island, and one yesterday with my friend Blair and family. Blair's my oldest, dearest friend from high school and it's a trip -- and an honor -- to sharing in this life journey with her. Our kids were pouring over our high school year book yesterday afternoon, looking for pictures of us. Never in my wildest dreams . . .

Yesterday, while the free-range local turkey roasted, the adults snatched a couple of hours and walked to the bird blind and the lake and even over to the pasture, and that on top of another long walk earlier and five hours of sleep the night before really wore me out. And we still had dinner to make and eat and clean up after and pies to cook and dessert to serve and games to play. (Our friends Peggy and Mary and their families came over for dessert and made it feel like a real party and even more festive.)

But Blair and David have such good energy and such good spirits, that by the end of the evening I felt like I had reclaimed the holiday, in a sense. I could enjoy the day with good food and conversation and even though I was exhausted, I wasn't stressed. It just happened, seamlessly, and with great joy. Sometimes I get so caught up in the family stuff I can't see the forest for the trees, if you will. So yesterday I was reminded that we are all just growing toward the light, each in our own way. I've a lot to be thankful for this day.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Three years this weekend

We moved here three years ago Thanksgiving. The movers came the Saturday before, we drove up to Amherst on Sunday and met them there. Then we drove back to Brooklyn that night and spent the Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday tying up loose ends. Lily went to school, her final three days at PS 261 (that thought still breaks my heart; I have never loved a school the way I loved PS 261), and her class threw her a goodbye party. Dave had a dentist appointment and I did, who knows what. Visited friends, had a dentist appointment also, I think.

That Wednesday night Lily and I drove out to Dave's mom's on Long Island and we had Thanksgiving, just like always. Then on Saturday night we packed our bags, said our goodbyes, and drove to our new home in Amherst, Massachusetts.

It's incredibly momentous, this kind of move. I don't think I fully understood that at the time. I can't imagine what my grandparents went through when they went from Budapest to Germany to the States in just four years.

My changes weren't instigated by World War II, but this was life-changing nonetheless, life-changing the way my wedding was life-changing, or giving birth was. I remember thinking, okay, now I am doing this, I am actually here at my wedding day, getting married, and walking through this time, and a similar experience with having Lily.

And here, to move from the place where just a few years earlier I swore I would never leave, to this utterly new land, new people, no job, no community and, for Lily and I, no friends. She likes living here, she says now, but at the time she said, I don't want to move, not one bit. And I know we broke her heart that day.

Everything is different, and in a way, nothing has changed. I am still me, which is oddly reassuring. Perhaps I thought I wouldn't be the same person if I left New York. In fact, I am still me, no matter what.

I just came back from picking up a poinsettia from a parent at Lily's school who was selling them for a fundraiser. Lily rode shotgun, giving me directions off the GPS. It took 20 minutes to go five miles and back, and we got gas on the way back. When we came home I parked at the mailbox and Lily got the mail. Then I put the car in the garage and before coming in picked up an armful of smaller sticks to use as kindling tomorrow when I restart the woodstove. All mundane, and none of it anything I would have done in Brooklyn, except maybe stop at the mailbox on the way into our apartment building.

We have company coming tonight, my friend Blair from high school and her family, and I spent the last couple of days dusting and vacuuming and mopping and straightening. I went to the grocery store and food coop four times, literally, in about 15 hours. Kept forgetting stuff. Ran into people I knew, chatted with, hung out a bit. Felt like I had enough time, that I could get it all done, that it would be okay.

And now my house smells good, like the cranberry pecan bread I also just baked, and a tinge of the incense that I burned to get rid of the smell of the bleach I used to clean the Japanese soaking tub, and the turkey stock I made today for the stuffing, and very faintly, Murphy's Oil Soap. I made toffee tonight, first time in a couple of years, and couldn't decide if I should put it in the big freezer in the laundry room in the basement, which is kinda full, or in my unheated studio. Dave opted for the studio, saying, it'll be 40 tonight, it'll be fine. So there it is.

Early this evening, as I was talking to Dave, I looked behind him out the window toward the street, and the trees had that stark, winter, empty, skeletal look, a row of them, oaks and maples, spread out against this incredible sky, this wintery, gray, kind of glowing white sky. It took my breath away.

Life is like that here. I still catch my breath at the natural beauty. Nothing is the same here, and nothing has changed. Or maybe what's not changed is that I still have Dave and Lily, and even deeper than before, perhaps; we've all been through something profound by moving here. When we drove away from Brooklyn that last time I played Dan Zanes's song Wonder Wheel and sobbed. Just sobbed. David Fischer had sent us a link to Iris Dement playing her song Our Town, along with Emmy Lou Harris, and we'd all three of us gathered around the computer and broke down over that one.

How can I say this. They can still make me teary, those songs. I love riding the Wonder Wheel, and I remember being up there one gorgeous night the summer before we moved, and how I could see the world extending to the horizon and beyond. Our Town says, "just like they say, nothing good ever lasts." Nope, it doesn't. But what I know now is, that's okay. I am okay.

It's good tears. It's okay tears, a sadness for what has been, for my life there of nearly 20 years, the friends, the light, the buildings, the tremendous life changes and the mundane daily nonsense that made up my days. The people, the people, the people. God, I love New York. But it was just time to go, and I'm glad we had the financial ability and the intestinal fortitude to make such a big change.

[I will say, it's also a sadness for what Lily lost, for the opportunity she missed by growing up in Brooklyn. I so wanted that for her. She would have had a great teenaged life there, I think, some great friends, some extraordinary experiences. But I also felt and feel strongly that a) if her parents are happier, she'll be happier, and we were going to be happier in western Massachusetts, and b) she needs this time here, in the country, where the rhythm is slower, the sky bigger, the silences longer. She can always have New York. She will certainly always have a life.]

Change isn't painful, it's the resistance to it that hurts, a friend said to me recently, and she's right. I didn't fight this change, and it didn't hurt. Saying goodbye hurt, but the change didn't hurt, if that makes sense. It was powerful. But it wasn't hard, it was wonderful.

And now, three years later, I can say this unequivocally: I don't want to move back. I wouldn't mind seeing my NYC friends more, or eating some fresh mozzarella and real bagels, to hear more languages, and see more skin colors. But I don't want to move back. I wouldn't move back.