Seeds

Uncle vanya

“Tara, I hear a baby!” cried the curly-haired toddler sitting on the church lawn. Her neck stretched as she searched a far section of the audience. I  turned my head, trying follow her intent gaze to its destination on our left.  Then I saw it.  I’d seen it earlier, dressed in a unisex-colored onesie and trying to crawl over it’s mother’s knee, then wobbling like a Weebil  on a too-small picnic blanket.  I had spent a few smiling moments trying to guess if the baby was a boy or a girl, but one thing was clear.  The infant was barely old enough to sit up without help, but his or her delighted squeaks were telling on of my stories. 

A few short years ago, I was the mother lying on a picnic blanket with an alternately curious and hungry infant.  A few years ago, it was my baby who crawled over his mother and brother and father as the sun began to set behind the mountains that provided much of the backdrop for the annual play put on by the Mettawee River Theatre Company.  He was the one squeaking with delight as the players in primitive masks emerged from behind the papier mache rocks and giant puppets appeared above them.  He was the one who settled into nurse for a few minutes, glancing occasionally back at the scene unfolding in front of him.

It happens at the same time every summer. This tiny company of players and producers bring their puppets and props to this sleepy Vermont village, and on the field in front of the mountains, they bring Euripides and Aristophanes, Shakespeare and the tales of poets long forgotten to life.  They touch on serious themes unlikely to entertain small children, but every summer they do even more than that.  They enthrall them.  They plant seeds of curiosity and creativity because for all the things that were seen and forgotten in my babies’ first years, these were the few moments they would take into the next.

Now their summers are littered with these moments.  We’ve found a host of free outdoor productions that introduce our kids to new thoughts and new thoughts about their parents.  Tonight, sitting with both my babies (one now bigger than I) in lawn chairs around our picnic basket, I can’t help but smile as I see another seed being planted near by. 

 

 

Magic Reclaimed

boysathubbardhall

About a year ago – almost exactly a year ago – I wrote a piece about a very special place not far from our house.

Hubbard Hall, a community theatre and art center in the one-traffic light town of Cambridge, NY, had been on our radar for a number of years. My husband became involved with their theatre company and returns at least twice a year. Then I got pulled in by a writing workshop/group that is moving into its second year. My sons are the most recent members of the flock, and it was their experience at summer theatre workshops that prompted my piece last year.

Jack, my oldest, was already navigating the self-conciousness that comes with early teen years and thought he had no interest in being in a play.  Thing2, my six-year-old, never had much of a shell, but, like a lot of kids his age, he sometimes takes a few minutes to get used to a new classroom before letting go of my hand. In the presence of the Hubbard Hall Magic, however, Jack came out of his shell, and Thing2 discovered new worlds.  Both kids came away from their camps with new friends and new outlooks, and every subsequent workshop begins with Thing2 exclaiming, “Oh I LOVE this place.”

Over the spring we got a little disconnected from this magical place. I’m still at the Ministry of Encouragement hosted by author Jon Katz, but our little group has been going in different directions for a few weeks. It’s been temporary, but disconnection can morph into discouragement if left to fester.

So now, a year after I first wrote about this magical place, I’m sitting under the same oak tree on the same rotting picnic bench watching the same kids emerging from the murderously hot buildings as they scamper from rehearsal to craft projects. Thing2 and two of his friends become involved in a very sophisticated game of make-believe, laughing and waving their arms and looking like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Parents go in and out of the nearby Battenkill Books, seeking company and relief from the heat.

The scene is completely ordinary and completely magical, and in that moment I’m reminded of the things that inspired me last summer when I couldn’t stop writing. I’m still a big believer in the Ministry of Encouragement, but this is the perfect way to be reminded that I found it at the Church of Possibility here at Hubbard Hall.

The End of a Year, Beginning of an Era

 

Closing piece for reading

A little over a year ago I stumbled into a writing workshop at Hubbard Hall, our local community theater and arts center.  The Hubbard Hall Writer’s Project was led by celebrated author Jon Katz, and, as with almost every other class or event our family has experienced at Hubbard Hall, it was life-changing event for me  – and for every member of the group.  

There was an application process for the workshop, and getting that acceptance letter felt like winning the lottery.  I hadn’t shown my work to anyone outside my family and had only been prepared for rejection.  That letter was a thousand times more valuable than any lottery ticket.  

Jon, our guru, later told us that he wanted to find a group that not only wanted to write but that would work well together.  He chose wisely.  Over the last year our group has become a family of sorts.  We’ve become sounding boards and safe havens for each other, and everyone in the group has flourished.  What began as an artistic exploration of rural life became a search for authenticity in our creative and personal lives.  Jon encouraged us all, and, recognizing our strengths, we began to grow and to encourage others. 

Last Friday night, we met to celebrate the impact of the last year.  The unseasonably steamy evening started with a reception which allowed all of us to display our work and continued with readings by each of the writers.  The evening was warm and encouraging – just as the year has been.  

I like public speaking about as much as I like shopping for a new swimsuit.  I wasn’t nervous when it was my turn to read, however.  Working with the video portion of the presentation kept me busy much of the day and evening, and I didn’t have time to feel nervous – at least not about the reading.  

The crowd dispersed quickly after the presentation, and the writers returned to the reception room to clean up their displays.  We all milled around a bit, even after our families had left, and I think I wasn’t the only one who didn’t want it to end.  Even though the group is going into its second year, when we started our goodbyes, I began to feel nervous.  

I’ve been working on a collection of short stories that should have been done last month.  Dealing with some mental health issues has slowed down progress, but there’s been a part of me that feels this project is part of my workshop experience.  I know I’ve been a little afraid that when it’s done, so is the workshop.  I felt a little of that on Friday night as I climbed into my car. 

When I got home I made sure the kids were in bed and then turned on the computer and checked messages, intending to sign off quickly and visit with my visiting sister-in-law.  Unconsciously, I clicked on the link to  our group’s Facebook page.  There, like a beacon in the soupy heat of the evening, were celebratory posts from one, then two and then a third writer.  A post from our guru suggesting a get-together appeared.  I didn’t know what to post that could add to the conversation, and I closed my computer. 

The next few days I didn’t go near my computer much.  We had a guest and baseball and garden to occupy us, and I like getting away from the screen.  For the rest of the weekend, however I took with me the knowledge that while the year of writing un-dangerously may be ending, it’s okay because it’s really part of an era that’s just begun.

I’ve posted and reposted links to the blogs of most of our members below (one author is currently keeping her blog private).  They are growing, breathing proof that some of the best work comes from an atmosphere of encouragement.  

Pugs and Pics by Kim Gifford, Vermont writer, photographer, artist and pug lover.  Whether she’s writing about her beloved pugs or her distinctive photographs, Kim’s work is humorous, heartwarming, and sometimes heartrending.

http://www.pugsandpics.com/

 

 A real life milkman-turned-writer and poet, John Greenwood’s blog Raining Iguanas is a journey of discovery and nurturing of his own talents as a writer and artist and of his native Upstate New York.  It combines the best of pleasurable escape and motivating inspiration.

http://rainingiguanas.blogspot.com/

 

Bedlam Farm by the venerable and always affable Jon Katz, was the inspiration and benchmark for each of our blogs.  Honest and fearless, Jon’s blog is living, breathing proof that the most important thing in life is to never stop growing.

http://www.bedlamfarm.com/

 Merganser’s Crossing by Diane Fiore, follows her journeys with her father and his dementia at the end of his life.  Diane’s blog is intensely personal and incredibly relevant at the same time.  Hopefully she will give us a book out of this, but, for now, it’s worth not only visiting, but going to the very beginning and reading it straight through.

 http://merganserscrossing.wordpress.com

 

Coordinated Mayhem by Rebecca Fedler. A recent college graduate and a poet, Rebecca is prolific and powerful.  Sometimes funny and always intriguing, her poetry is as insightful as it is entertaining.

 http://coordinatedmayhem.wordpress.com

 

The Helpers

the helpers

I was on the way to the gas station driving down our hill when I saw the smoke rising over the trees.  There was too much smoke to be coming from a barbecue, and I felt my stomach sink.  We’d just been talking about this subject at Saturday morning T-ball practice.  There was too little snow over the winter, even less rain this spring, and the trees were still mostly naked.  It’s the perfect recipe for wild fires.

As I drove along the Battenkill River toward the gas station in the center of Arlington, I discovered the source of the smoke, and my fear was confirmed.  Across the road from the river and up a very dry hill a brush fire had already consumed over an acre of fuel. A makeshift fire crew composed of the family and employees of a nearby farm stand owner was trying to control the blaze while waiting for the bulk of the town’s fire department to arrive.  A members of the department were already scaling the rocky hill and establishing traffic control.

I waited for the person controlling traffic to waive me through, trying not to dwell on my worst fears or on any anger with the faceless firestarter.  I was anxious, but it was not from impatience.  It was worry for the people living near by the fire, but it was also concern for the people – all acquaintances and some friends – who were now arriving en masse to put out the fire that was still growing.

Our local fire department, like many in rural areas, is made up entirely of volunteers who execute their responsibilities with as much gravity and professionalism as any paid firefighters.  As I inched along the two-lane road, using as much caution as I could, the bottom of the hill next to the road was smoldering, and larger flames could be seen higher up.  Firefighters had already reached the worst of the blaze, dragging fire hoses and shovels with them and working with rapid calm to contain it.  They were still there working when I returned home later using the road on the other side of the river.  Long after the flames appeared to be extinguished, members of the crew remained, keeping vigil for any sparks that might have escaped their notice in the camouflaging day light.

Later in the day I had learned that some careless individuals had caused the fire while setting off fireworks from a boat on the river.  That kind of selfishness always annoys me, but lately, when confronted with news of disasters or near-disasters in our own neighborhood, I’ve been following the advice of the late Fred Rogers.  I’ve been looking for the helpers, and it’s helped me see yet another layer of our town.

Neighbors and friends from every walk of life had flocked to the fire this afternoon, and because of their love for their community, I went to bed that night, I secure in the knowledge that if an errant spark rekindled that fire, those same people would be there again.  It’s not the first time I’ve felt lucky to live where we do, and it won’t be the last.  But Saturday night was a solid reminder that something bigger than a few spectacular mountain vistas inspires that feeling.

Something Wicked

Photo

I am not a theatre critic, but I am a fan of live theatre. I am particularly a fan of community theatre and it’s not just because I’m married to a guy with skin in the game. By its very nature, live theatre is intimate, but something about the smaller venue, the often inventive sets born of small budgets, and the casts comprised of commingled amateur and professional actors, intensifies that intimacy for me. For our family, this has been especially true at Hubbard Hall, a theatre company making its home in a small Victorian opera house in the ‘one-traffic light town’ of Cambridge, New York. This small venue with its eclectic, talented cast was the perfect place to introduce my twelve-year-old son to something truly wicked and wonderful – William Shakespeare’s MacBeth.

My date for the evening was not a willing victim, despite the numerous performances he has attended and enjoyed at Hubbard Hall (another Shakespeare play among them). It wasn’t terribly late for a school night, but he was happily ensconced on the sofa watching TV with his dad and brother. Knowing I couldn’t bring the Big Guy – our midweek babysitter lineup is non-existent, and MacBeth is not six-year-old friendly – I opted for the Because-I-Said-So card (rather than the pricking of his thumbs) and forced him into a clean shirt before ushering him out the door. He was offering to do homework as we got into the car.

He was still quietly protesting the interruption to his studies (me thinks he protested a bit too much) when we sat down.

Then the first of a trio of mischievous witches entered. Knowing the cast at Hubbard Hall also acts as stage crew, we watched as she toiled and troubled over a basket. We soon realized, however, that she and her sisters were setting the mood, and, as they scurried about the minimalist and starkly lit set, I watched them reset my son’s mood. The silent reproach became reluctant attentiveness and then intense focus. His focus would not change for the next hour and a half, and neither would mine.

We have been wowed by most of these actors in other performances, so even on the ‘Pay What You Will’ night, I pay full price, knowing it will be worth the price of admission. Thursday night was no exception. It is no small tribute that this talented, eclectic ensemble was able to communicate not just the gist, but the intensity of this story of betrayal and recrimination to an initially disinterested twelve-year-old.

An extra slot in my schedule senior year combined with my mom’s firm ideas about how school hours should be spent, resulted in my picking up a Shakespeare class for a semester. It had its moments, but for the most part, its main attraction was that it wasn’t a math or science class. And, while I was ultimately glad circumstance had me forced into a working knowledge of the bard’s works, I was hardly an aficionado. It wasn’t until years later when I caught an impromptu performance of As You Like It that I was able to get past the language and into the essence of the story. Remembering that these plays had been written for the benefit of penny-a-cushion illiterates (and philistines like me), I began making it a point to catch performances of Shakespeare’s works whenever I could find the modern equivalent of a penny-priced cushion. In the end, it wasn’t just the play that was the thing – it was the playing of it wherein the imagination became king.

So, I did hesitate a moment before dragging said twelve-year-old out on a snowy school night. And, even though biology and sleep forced us away too early (I will go back for another performance), when the hurly-burly was done, I knew something had been won. The close quarters stage combined with the cast’s intimacy with their parts and the poetry of the play may not have created a full-blown convert, but when my first-born walked out into the snow MacBeth wasn’t just some play written by a dead guy 500 years ago. It was a really cool show about murder and betrayal and guilt. It was the ultimate reality show. It was, as my eldest put it, wicked good.

The semi-biased facts about the show:

MacBeth is playing at Hubbard Hall in Cambridge, NY from March 8-24 (full schedule is on their site). Directed by John Hadden, it is performed by the incredibly entertaining Colleen Lovett, Catherine Seeley Keister, Myka Plunkett, Christine Decker, Renzo Scott Renzoni, Robert Francis Forgett, Doug Ryan, Betsy Holt, Gino Costabile, and Reilly Hadden and (fact) should not be missed.

Keepin’ the Small Town Faith

Thing1 and the Big Guy had just headed off to Hubbard Hall, our local community theater and art center, to take part in a Holiday and Christmas reading.  Thing2 and I were headed to the library in Arlington Vermont for a visit with Santa.

We had missed seeing Santa at our town’s Christmas party (it’s a village of about 300 that is sort of a bedroom community next to the bustling metropolis of Arlington, VT), and I knew Thing2  really wanted to see him this year.

 

He is six. He asks questions all the time about everything, and Santa lore is uppermost in his mind this week, as it is with every child under the age of 12 (believers and non-believers alike).  As I guided the car down the dark muddy road, he asked how did Santa’s sled fly. I knew the tried and true answer of “magic” would not suffice. He had already begun hypothesizing. Would it have jet boosters?  Did the reindeer have some sort of special feed? Then he began asking who St. Nicholas was.  Were he and Santa the same person? Where did Santa come from?  I knew what the next question was.

I’ve been down this same road with these same questions before.  It seems like only yesterday that Thing1 was asking them.  Thing1 is a born skeptic.  However, Thing2 is more than willing to look for the magic in everyday items and events, so I thought we would keep the magic of Santa going a few more years before logic and skepticism threatened it. But as I drove I wondered if this would be our last year.

Thing1 has been well aware of the fact of the myth for many years, but he was willing to play along – after all it’s in his best interest.  As he’s grown older, he has enjoyed playing Santa along with us, helping us keep the story going for Thing2 by advising us to use special wrapping paper and even what should go in the stocking.  But I am not ready to surrender Santa on behalf of Thing2 just yet. Part of me knows that with the end of that bit of make-believe goes a special part of his childhood, as well as this magical phase of our parenthood.

The questions grew increasingly challenging, and I was relieved when we pulled into the parking lot at the library. The parking lot was crowded, the library was hosting Santa story hour, along with a Christmas basket lottery.

We climbed steps, and Thing2 asked, “Who’s playing Santa is here”.

“Santa, of course,”  I answered.

“No it’s not mom.”  Thing2 appeared very knowledgeable suddenly. All the Santa lore he had cleaned from years of Christmas specials on TV  briefly came to bear now as he authoritatively told me, “Santa sends his helpers.”  I didn’t know how to combat this so I listened to his theories until we got to the door and went in.

We were slightly late, and I was glad.  Santa had already arrived (no need to explain the lack of arriving reindeer – they were parked in back according to Thing2) and was getting ready to read The Night before Christmas.

Suddenly Thing2’s air of authority dissolved.  He clutched my hand pulling me closer to the front of the crowd to get a better look but was unwilling to go with his best friend to sit on the floor to hear Santa up close and personal.  Thing2 was silent through the story, his arms wrapping around my waist occasionally.  The story ended, and Santa invited the children to come sit on his lap and tell him their hearts’ desire for Christmas. Thing2 and I got in line, and he waited politely, his grip on my hand tightening as we got closer and his doubts shrinking with the line.

But this Santa was about to banish every last shred of doubt from his mind.

Thing2 watched his best friend climb on Santa’s lap. Then his little brother and little sister climbed on. Thing2 began to dance nervously.  A few more seconds and the last child in front of him was  finished attesting to their own good behavior for the year. Now it was Thing2’s turn.

Santa called Thing2 by name as he lifted him on to his lap. My first-grader appeared only mildly surprised. Then Santa told him he was sorry he hadn’t seen him at the Christmas party last weekend, and Thing2 was silent.

He stared at Santa, his list forgotten. Somewhere in his mind the acknowledgment was forming that Santa might actually see him when he’s sleeping and knows when he’s awake. Santa asked him if he been good this year.  Thing2 thought about that carefully for a moment and opened his mouth, but nothing came out.  He closed his mouth and looked at me for confirmation for the answer he wanted to give.  “He’s been very good this year,” I said.

Santa called him by his name again and said, “Well that’s wonderful to hear.   And has your brother, Thing1 been good too?”

Thing2 nodded solemnly and said,  “We’ve both been very good.”   Santa laughed, and Thing2 finally screwed up his courage and told Santa his wish list.  Then he wished Santa a Merry Christmas and hopped down.

We drove home talking about his visit and the Christmas basket we’d won for Grandma.  We talked about the kids he’d played with until we stopped to pick up some vittles at the Country store.

Thing2 bounced through the door of the establishment and immediately fixated on a toy the store’s owner had put out on one of the counters for display.  He played while I waited for the food and paid.  I picked up our bag and called to him to move along.

“I’m playing,” he responded with a mischievous smile.  Normally I would answer this type of insurrection with military efficiency and discipline (which, for some reason they don’t always take seriously), but tonight I reached into my arsenal for a new weapon.

“Remember,”  I said, “Santa’s watching.”  Thing2 instantly straightened up and walked calmly to the door, and I reminded myself to feel ashamed of my ploy once I had him buckled in.

“Is he really watching?”  Thing2 asked as we pulled out of the parking lot.

“He is in this town,” I answered.  And that was the end of the questions as we drove out of sight.

Tuning in and Acting Out

 

I often say that my two acts of faith are my garden and my kids.  Each is evidence of my somewhat unfounded belief in the likelihood of a better future.  One future begins anew each spring; the other is an ongoing, developing promise in the keeping.  Once I found any act of faith on my part completely out of sync with my very secular outlook on life, but one Christmas Eve, a few months after I became a mother, all that changed.

We were living in Germany at the time, celebrating the holidays with relatives and my visiting parents.

The Christmas season in Germany is an event to be experienced. It is not just one day; it is an entire month.  Instead of the orgy of shopping that defines much of the Advent season in the United States, however, many Germans begin the Christmas celebration early in December with Nicholas Tag (St. Nicholas Day).  This is the day that St. Nick visits children (and employees) bearing gifts, and it is the kick-off of a month-long celebration in almost every town square.  Almost every town and city has a Christmas market filled with delectable goodies and crafts. Walking through booths covered with Sherenschnitte-inspired gingerbread treats and ornaments is like stepping into winter fairytale land.  Most businesses in Frankfurt were closed on Sundays (not just at Christmas), and, even though our German family is pretty secular too, they do enjoy the traditions of the season as much as we do.  They introduced us to a wonderful one of their own  – each Sunday in Advent we met at their house to light one of the 4 candles and enjoy quiet conversation and tea and baked goodies with each week.  It was warm and cozy, and it was the perfect prelude to the most powerful spiritual experience I had ever known.

On 23 December the Christmas Markets came down, and the center of Frankfurt was briefly quiet.  Most (not all) stores were closed on Christmas Eve, and some even closed early on the 23rd.  This was not my first Christmas in Germany, but it was the first time we had gone into the city for the celebration on the twenty-fourth, and it was not until we came out of the train station that I realized why commerce was brought to a halt that day.

We had boarded the train at our usual stop – the empty end of the line at 4PM.  It was almost dark already, but there had been a surprisingly big crowd in our car.  Each stop closer to the city had added a bigger crowd, and by the time we rolled into the center of town, we had become a throng on wheels.  It was nothing compared to what awaited.  On the platform, trains from other parts of town and suburbs were arriving, spilling out their contents until a sea of humanity washed around us.

At first I was very nervous; I was holding my 4-month-old in his snugly, and I was terrified he would be crushed in the crowd.  The crowd, however, was happy but not overly boisterous.  Perfect strangers smiled at us as we all scaled the stairs up to the street.  On the street, surrounded by the massive and festively-decorated but closed retail establishments, the crowd in the subway station suddenly seemed like a small gathering.  There were tens of thousands of people flowing towards the old part of the city and to the bridges.  Frankfurt is a very cosmopolitan city, but for some reason I was still surprised to see people in muslim skullcaps and yarmulke’s,  hijabs and jeans making their way toward the ancient Domkirche (The Roman-built Dome Church) at the center of the Altstadt.

There were a few stands selling hot spiced Glühwein and potato pancakes with sour cream and applesauce, and my Dad treated us all to a warm snack as we milled around with this mass of people.  A few people bumped us as they moved from one part of the square to the other, but without exception people were smiling.  They smiled at the baby, at each other, at their ceramic cups filled with hot spiced wine.

And then it began.

From the Domkirche came first the softest peal of a bell.  It grew louder, and the crowd around us began to quiet.  Conversations began to cease, and the Domkirche rewarded us with a louder song and more bells.  Then, across the river, another church added its voice to the growing chorus.  My aunt had explained ahead of time that each of the churches coordinated the timing of their songs so that the different rings never became dissonant, but nothing prepared me for their effect.

Within a few minutes, churches all around us were letting their bells ring, and it wasn’t dissonant, it was hypnotic.  Standing in a sea of people off all faiths and no faith, German-born and immigrants, all of whom were almost completely silent and sharing, if only for a few minutes, peace on our little piece of Earth and goodwill towards all.  It didn’t matter what path we took to get to that place.  It didn’t matter what prism we used to channel that peace, it only mattered that we felt it and felt it together.

I think of that moment every Christmas.  For me, the reason for the season is that feeling of peace and goodwill and it is a feeling I search for throughout the year.  The events of this last year have made it harder to find, and the event in Newtown, CT made me wonder if it would appear anytime soon again.  I even began to wonder if some part of humanity was trying to fulfill part the prophesied Mayan apocalypse.

But then someone mentioned that the apocalypse wasn’t really an apocalypse.  According to this person, the Mayans foretold that the world would not end, but would restart.  It would be like pressing a giant reset button. I wasn’t sure if this person (possibly on the radio) was an authority on Mayan Apocalypse Gospel, but the idea of resetting seemed appealing, and I began planning my own reset.

A few years ago, when we were scrambling for food and fuel, an anonymous friend stuffed a trio of gift cards in our mailbox, and I decided my reset would be to pay that forward.  As I was making my own plan, I stumbled across a similar, grander idea authored by Ann Curry on NBC.

Ms. Curry had tweeted a very simple idea.  Do one act of kindness for each person killed at the Newtown school.  Everyone.  Do twenty-six random acts of kindness.

To me, this missive was like the first peal of that bell from the Domkirche.   Even if we don’t get to all 26 (or if we do 27 or 28 not just a memorial but an antidote to despair), each act is another ring of a bell, a joining of another sea of humanity.  Each random act of kindness represents a small act of faith that the better nature that that exists within us will triumph. I cling to it as the hope that people of all faiths and no faith will use these deeds to weave a stronger common thread to bind us together.  To work for this, I think, is a supreme act of faith, and, while it is founded primarily on hope this morning, it is one I am more willing to adopt.

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