I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple. – Mary Oliver, “Upstream”
I am here another week in the Green Mountains. I came to restore my body. I have stayed to restore my spirit. In the valley surrounded by the mountains, I feel safe and secure. I can explore here. I can look up in wonder and find birds and butterflies, pink clouds at sunset, and fields of wildflowers in the morning light.
Vermont gives space for thinking and dreaming. I am not confined here. There is nothing needing my attention. I can truly breathe deeply and feel my body finally relax. And as my body relaxes, my mind sets off wandering. My pain has lessened some, and I can concentrate on reading and writing.
In addition to mountains, rivers, streams, and stones, Vermont has a wide variety of independent bookstores. Many of the Indy bookstores in my home state of New Jersey have gone out of business but in Vermont small bookstores thrive. This week, I walked into Bear Pond Books and found three treasures: The Summer of June by Jamie Sumner, Upstream by Mary Oliver, and The House Without Windows by Barbara Newhall Follett. The Summer of June is an uplifting middle-grade novel about a girl with an anxiety disorder. When I learned that poetry, petite fours, and gardening were the keys to her cure, I knew that I had to get busy reading.
Mary Oliver is one of my favorite poets. I did not know that she wrote essays and was ecstatic when I found Upstream. I am reading, rereading, and underlining with abandon. Every word, every idea is precious. As I read Oliver, I wish I was younger. I have so much to learn from her. Her thoughts are so much akin to mine. I read, and I am gleeful. I have found a friend.
The House Without Windows will be my last book in this Bear Pond Books trilogy. I found it in the children’s section. When I read the front cover blurb: “A lost classic, a free-spirit adventure, a long song to the wilderness,” I thought it would make a perfect companion to Oliver’s essays. I can’t wait to see if I’m correct. It was written by a twelve-year-old girl, Barbara Newhall Follett, who was born in 1914. She wrote another book, The Voyage of the Norman D., when she was thirteen. In 1939, at the age of twenty-five, Barbara disappeared from her home one evening. She was never seen or heard from again. Her disappearance remains a mystery. I cannot wait to read her first book, which is about a young girl who seeks adventure in the wild. This book jumped out at me from the shelf, and I know there is a good reason. I know I will find treasure and meaning in it.
And what better place to read about nature than in Vermont. Looking up and seeing the solemn silhouette of dark mountains, I cannot help but think of things divine. In these painful weeks, I have reminded myself of the power of faith. I am grateful to be able to spend time in this beautiful place. I have faith that I am being set on the right course. I am certain in the middle of my sixth decade that I have more to learn. And I am ready.
I have taken some time off to be in Vermont. It is a place my husband and I have gone for the last thirty years. I need this time to relax, heal, and ease my pain. I am so grateful for this place. As soon as I see the Green Mountains in the distance, I breathe deeply and feel something release inside of me. This may be due to the wide expanse of greenery, the clouds sitting gently on the mountain tops, or the roadside laced with an assortment of wildflowers. There are acres and acres of distance between neighbors and people still put their wash up on clotheslines. This is a slow and peaceful place. My eyes tell my body that I am safe; I can rest now.
I have been reading about a Japanese practice called Shinrin-yoku, or Forest Bathing. The idea is the connect with nature by walking in the woods. By bringing all your senses to that place and being mindful, your body begins to heal itself and you feel restored. I am practicing forest bathing every day while in Vermont. My body is beginning to ache a little less and my mind is certainly in a better place. I so needed this respite, and I am grateful that there is such a beautiful place nestled in the mountains.
These past three weeks, I have had to put my life on pause a bit to deal with pulled muscles in my lower back. Needless to say, I am trying to develop a better relationship with pain. My first reaction is panic, which only tightens the muscles more. So, I breathe deeply, think of beautiful places, and try to compose poetry out of the pain.
I have needed to talk short, slow walks throughout the day to keep the muscles happy. The more I walked, the better I felt. Of course, I had to recognize my own limitations and not walk too long, otherwise I would be back in the pain place, and panic would set in once again.
Nature is always good medicine, and I seek to be among trees and flowers as much as I can. Nature makes me more mindful of the short time we have to enjoy this miraculous earth. It makes me grateful to be among the flowers. It makes me feel like I am part of something much bigger than myself.
I have what I call the “Emily Dickinson Syndrome.” I have a habit of writing lines, stanzas, or whole poems on scraps of paper, napkins, old journal pages, or whatever is at hand. Then I forget about them and find them at a later date, often surprised by my own thinking. I found a stanza today in a 2018 calendar in the June 25th space. It was like my previous self was sending me a message she did not want me to forget.
The pale ,yellow tulips
On your bedside table
Bow their buttery heads,
Delicate and fragile,
Their blooms fleeting.
My thoughts turn to flowers. They help me recover and create a more positive approach to pain. Poetry allows me to recall times when flowers have given me momentary joy. This settling of spirit is welcome and necessary.
I have been traveling in southern Maine this past week. While photographing this beautiful landscape, I was struck by how the style of the homes, shops, and public spaces keep a focus on nature. The seaside and its accompanying flora and fauna become part of a peaceful natural decor. The colors: ocean blue, dune grass green, picket fence white, daisy yellow, azalea pink, and cardinal red are repeated in pleasing patterns so restful to the eye and spirit.
I realize that much of the way I design my home and office is with this same emphasis on nature. I often look for ways to bring the outside indoors. I have collections of seashells, sea glass, and beach stones. I bring in wildflowers and make arrangements in jam jars and earthenware vases. In the fall, I will collect pinecones, acorns, and the spiky balls of the Sweet Gum tree and place them in wooden bowls, pottery and baskets. I find comfort in staying connected to my surroundings whether it be ocean, mountains, or forest. I have always found these places a source of relaxation and restoration.
The Maine coast holds a special place in my heart, however. Something about the wide expanse of sand and sea and sky, gives me permission to pause, to breathe in the salty brine, and breathe out all my worries. At the ocean my shoulders relax, and I feel truly at ease. I want to take that feeling with me. I want to create the same mood indoors and keep it all year long. I can bring my seaside escape with me and make it truly part of my surroundings, part of how I feel and who I am.
This past Friday was my last day of school and my first day of vacation. I decided to celebrate by meeting my friend, Karen, at a local gardening shop aptly named, The Farm at Green Village. It has a pond, acres of trails and foliage, an enormous greenhouse, and even a resident peacock. I am not a gardener, but I love going to The Farm. It is my Zen place, my place to unwind and breathe; my place to meet a friend and laugh.
When I arrived, Karen was already picking out plants. She is the gardener. Her home is surrounded by flowers. I love visiting her; sitting out on her back deck surveying her flowers, watching bees and hummingbirds pause by the blossoms, and scolding her cat, Pepe, as he tries to catch butterflies in his claws. It’s like a wonderful summer ballet.
We walked the aisles looking for the right flowers and hanging baskets for Karen’s home. We marveled at the colors and types of flowers. Karen knows many more flower names than I do. I would love to be more garden-knowledgeable. I love reading the names off the garden tags: salvia, hydrangea, echinacea, begonia, petunia, impatience, zinnia. Lots of lovely rolling syllables. Lots of bright and cheerful colors. We filled up two carts with flowers for Karen’s garden and planters. I felt my body relax as I roamed the aisles of flowers, taking in their fragrance. It was like spending a morning in Eden with a friend. It made me so happy. What better way to start the summer.
My new favorite flowers were the Lantana. I have admired them but didn’t know their name. They have delicate little flowers that grow in little bunches in a variety of complementary colors. I especially loved the Sunburst Lantana. They just make me happy when I look at them. They remind me of flowers you would arrange for a summer tea party for the fairies or a wedding for garden gnomes.
After a couple of hours, we sat among the flowers and chatted, soaking in the morning sun. Then we headed inside to look for houseplants and planters. This is another happy place for me. While Karen, selected two small houseplants, I went hunting for colorful pots with my camera. I don’t have room to collect such things, but I collect them with my camera, and that means I can keep them forever and never worry that they may break.
I roamed among all the beautiful things, clicking away in wonder of each little object: pots, statuettes, vases, mirrors, and baskets in an array of colors. If I had a grand mansion, I would fill one wing like this full of plants and light and love. Instead, I choose two small ceramic objects: a bunny and a turtle. The bunny will grace my desk, and the turtle will be a present for my husband. He loves turtles because they remind him to slow down and concentrate on what’s truly important.
I am glad I slowed down today. I am grateful for this time with Karen, for this day among the flowers. I cannot wait until our next trek, but for now the flowers are enough.
It’s June. I live in New Jersey. It’s time to “go down the shore,” as we Garden State residents say. It’s beach time! The last three weeks, I have trekked to the Atlantic, which is only an hour and. Half away. The past two weeks have been crowded: throngs of people in the water, on the beach, on the boardwalks, and lining up at restaurants. That was not the beach escape I was craving. I am in much need of ocean meeting sky, of a blue expanse, and a summer of possibilities.
I have been fortunate in my life to have had a career that allowed me to have my summers free. Of course, I do not count the twenty or so summers that I taught remedial English or directed summer camp. Instead, I count the twenty summers that I had the whole twelve weeks free to explore, gather, and breathe. I traveled, read, wrote, and met with friends. The twenty summers seem like a bright blue blur. I’m not sure I will get the gift of twenty more summers. This summer, I want to remember keenly: what I am thinking, what I am reading, and what changes I made happen. I know this sixty-sixth summer is important for me.
This weekend, I came to the beach on an overcast day. The sand was wet with recent rain. Just stalwarts were laying out on bright blankets. But there was the sea and quiet and a space for thinking. I just finished reading Katherine May’s memoir about walking Britain’s southeast coast path, The Electricity of Every Living Thing: A Women’s Walk in the Wild to Find Her Way Home. I love her writing. Much of what she expresses, I feel so deeply. She wrote about the “value of being in places you love and knowing them and coming back to them.” I have always loved the Atlantic coast (on the American side). I have lived close by all my life. This place I know well. Some of the surroundings have changed but the sea remains the same: the salty smell, the sounds of the waves, the glint of light on the ocean. The Atlantic is where I feel most at home. It is comforting and makes me feel connected to something larger than myself.
Alone by the Sea It is my turn to walk alone Along the boardwalk. I am here to collect images, To put together My life story. The day is quiet and clear. After a recent rain, The sand is dark and wet. Some beach goers remain On their bright blankets. Lifeguards jog together, Racing and playing tag with the waves. I slow my steps, Pay careful attention. A redwing blackbird perches above the beach roses And sings loudly. I bid him good-day And continue on, Past the reed-covered dunes, Past the mother and young daughter Sharing a picnic together, Feet dangling over the boardwalk, Holding triangles of pizza in their hands As it drips with cheese Into their happy mouths. I remember moments like these. My mother, sister, and I at our beach bungalow - Sand, sun, surf. Sinatra playing in the background Mingled with the laughter of children. Sailboats gliding across the bay, Fresh laundry flapping on the line, Lazy summer days, Spread ahead of us And we took them in, Soaked them up, Were grateful for them, Knew they were precious. I look out to the Atlantic Try to see to the end, Where ocean meets the sky. The horizon is dotted with clouds. Below, there is a thin azure line. I imagine heaven to be in this precise place, Somewhere out there, Just beyond reach for now And I am content, Truly content. All I need is sand, sky, sea And an overcast day In serene solitude.
My husband reveres turtles. He has a collection of stone, marble, and ceramic ones. He keeps a silver one on a long chain he wears around his neck. This practice started ten years ago when I was misdiagnosed with pancreatic cancer. We had quite a scare for ten days waiting for more test results. That’s when my husband bought a small silver turtle and used it to help him stay calm and focused. Turtles are known to symbolize long life, so it also acted as a good luck charm and miraculously it was. Since that time all types of turtles are welcome in our house, and we seek them out when traveling too. For me, they are a reminder to slow down and remember what is most important. They remind me to keep my face towards the sun and savor the sunshine.
Turtle Meditation Almost unnoticed they silently swim, Camouflaged through murky water and twisting pond fronds, Floating, dark like shadows. A bale of turtles Gradually emerge with slow, Careful, ponderous steps, Lumbering towards the grassy shore, Traversing pebble and blade, Oh, so slow grace, Basking on their own time. The ornate waxed surface Of their moss-colored shells, A parquetry of inlaid squares Shine in the afternoon light. Their noble heads Rise towards the sun, Still so still… motionless, Soaking in wisdom From the sun above And the grass below, Hiss… hum… groan… They croak a Chelonian chant Carrying the weight of the world On their ancient backs, And then… and then… they Slowly let it go.
This week as part of my spring break celebration, I was able to escape to the beach for a few days. Unwinding was so necessary – more this year than any other. Working at an elementary school, while incredibly rewarding, is also very stressful at times. COVID has compounded the stress. It is evident in the teachers and the students. Although we try to handle and manage our stress, we were losing the battle just before spring break. We all needed some space to relax, renew, and revive our low spirits. I definitely needed a time out, a time to sit on the sidelines preferably in the warm sunshine.
I was fortunate to be able to grab a few days in South Carolina. The sun and seventy-degree weather immediately boosted my mood. Blue skies, ocean breeze, southern hospitality all helped cure my stress-filled mind. I sat in the sun by the pool and let my mind drift. I forced myself not to take use technology until night time, and then only for short while. I gradually left the world behind.
One day at the beach, I walked along peacefully intent on taking photographs of shells and other bits of nature that the ocean tide delivered on the sand. I sought out colorful shapes: golden yellow, pale pink, deep purple, and luminous blue. I was deep in thought, in the flow of the moment. I felt truly happy. Then all of a sudden a woman approached me, her blond hair whipping around her face. She said excitedly, “There are sand dollars on the shoreline. There’s lots of them along the ocean edge, if you want to take photos.” I looked up at her, a little stunned trying to gather in what she was telling me. “Thank you, I’ll go and look,” I said, heading down towards the waves. I walked intently along the shoreline, head down and camera ready. I found pearly white clam shells, rippled scallop shells, and a piece of a horseshoe crab. Then I spied something round and sand-colored half submerged in the water. I kept walking and quickly came upon sand dollar after sand dollar. They were about three inches in diameter but all in a variety of shades from deep tan, to light green, pink, and purple. I didn’t know they could be so many colors. I had never seen a live sand dollar. As a child, I found a few pieces of white sand dollar, which means that they are not alive. Only the test remains which is like a brittle white shell. But these Carolina creatures were alive and there was a tribe of thirty or more. I clicked away, trying to capture their beauty with my camera. I sloshed at the water’s edge, not caring that my sneakers were getting soaked. I came to a rocky jetty that was encrusted with oyster shells. People were bending over the tide pools between the stones picking up spider crabs, snails, cowrie shells, and a couple of huge conch shells. The cowrie and conch had snail inside. What a wonder! The ocean was alive, and I was able to witness these small wonders. I didn’t want to leave the beach. I could have stayed all afternoon. This day reminded me of summer days in my youth when I would be on the beach for the entire day: swimming, digging in the sand, building sand castles, and walking along the shoreline collecting all manner of sea treasures.
I am so blessed to have found this sanctuary. I was amazed, later that night, to find out that the sand dollar is a symbol of luck, and I had made the acquaintance of thirty of them! Lucky indeed. I read the legend of the sand dollar and how it reflects the life of Christ. The top of the sand dollar has five slits, which represent Jesus’s wounds when he was on the cross. The star on the sand dollar represents the star of Bethlehem. On the underside of the sand dollar, there is an outline of what looks like a poinsettia, which is often called the Christmas flower. Indeed, I am so lucky that I came across a stranger who pointed me in the right direction. The day proved to be the sanctuary I needed so desperately. Nature’s beauty does so much to restore the soul.