“Hope is the thing…”

Yesterday was another cold, rainy November day. A day for the couch and repeated naps. But there I was, out and about, wearing my bright blue raincoat. First stop Starbucks where I sat in the caffeinated warmth, tapping away on my laptop, putting thoughts on screen. Then on to meet a friend for lunch. She was reluctant to go out but succumbed to my assertion that soup and baked goods would do us both good. Unfortunately, the cafe was out of soup.IMG_0168

“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul”—that line sang in my brain as I drove the rainy streets. Hope has been knocking on my door recently, let me in, let me in. I open the door warily and keep the chain on.

Over the past few days, I’ve been getting tweets from a conference for elementary and middle school educators–the theme of the conference is “hope.” One tweet quoted John Dewey: “Hope arouses in us the energy to change our circumstances, not to simply be optimistic or have wishful thinking that they will get better on their own…” Hmm….I need to sit with that one. Hope arouses energy—but don’t we need energy to hope?

I often use “hope” the same way I might use “wish” or “pray”—I look at tall trees swaying in strong wind at the back of the garden and say I hope they don’t get blown down and fall on my house or I write to a friend who’s been ill, I hope you get better soon. “Hope” in those statements has no agency—it’s a plea, an incantation set free.

But “hope arouses in us the energy…” asks me to think of hope as a muscle that needs exercise; an intention that requires action. Hope is not just a thing with feathers; it’s a thing with strong beating wings and heart.

Another tweet: In hopeless times, how do we foster hope in ourselves?

I think of myself as basically optimistic—and as I key that in, I immediately think “privilege,” I think “white,” “middle class,” I think back on a long history of things generally working out for me, of my sense of agency. But as I age, that optimism and belief in my ability to control and shape the future is tempered and challenged.

Where does hope fit in? What do I hope for? In hopeless times, how do we foster hope? What can I—we—do to counter hopelessness?

I’m tempted to end this with some wise or insightful statement, something forward looking. Instead, I sit with the questions. All I can offer is a circle back to the opening scene—on a dark, chilly wet day, we put on bright colors, step out the door, and connect—with our thoughts, our friends, the world around us. 

Listen and let go

I seem to be blessed with the earworms I need to hear. “Today is a bright new day,” sung in tight three-part harmony, circled round and round in my brain as I woke this morning. It took me a minute to remember the song and the singers, then I placed it as a YouTube video I watched a few days ago. With the refrain softly circling in the background, I lingered in bed, cat snuggled under my chin, until I heard the coffee pot click on.

Coffee in hand, I moved to the couch where I looked out the front window at cloudy sky, green bushes and trees, a splash of pink crabapple blossom in the distance. Birds darted through the inkberry bushes, landing briefly on the feeder that I will soon take down.

Today is a bright new day.

The lawn is getting shaggy, spotted with dandelions—I need to mow. I don’t aspire to a weedless expanse of emerald green. My lawn is a mix of various grasses and weeds, including the dandelions that are springing up in their glorious yellow. When I first moved into my house I dutifully dug up the dandelions, just as my then next door neighbor did. I would see her crouched in her yard, digging out the long taproots and flinging the plants into a bucket. But I soon gave up on dandelion eradication and chose to welcome them as a sign of spring.

Gray skies have now turned to rainy skies. Lawn mowing will wait. I’m not an exacting or precise mower. I mow around the violets blooming in the side yard and the clumps of forget-me-nots that have seeded mid lawn. One summer I left a big patch of clover that the bees were feasting on. I take different paths around the yard each time I mow. Sometimes I take a freeform approach, circling and weaving, spiraling inward until I can stand in one place and push back and forth a few times and be done. Other times I revel in straight vertical or horizontal lines. No matter what pattern emerges on a particular day I always use the mowing as a time to check out what’s happening in the garden, pausing periodically to pull up a tall weed or simply admire the flowering quince or smell the budding lilacs as I brush under them.IMG_1001


Today is a bright new day.

In recent weeks, as the world feels increasingly perilous, as people close to me struggle with illness and depression, and as I edge toward a major change in my own life, I’ve alternated between bopping along on an even keel and then, bam, sliding down into sadness and anxiety. One day, driving home after work, I found myself inhabiting a fearful, pain-filled fantasy that my active imagination elaborated and embroidered, before I caught myself and shifted my focus outward: there’s the sycamore tree that has stood in that spot for hundreds of years, there’s a bank of tulips, a crabapple in full bloom, a dogwood.

My mood lightened and I resisted the pull back into the depths. Later, I keyed up a Tara Brach meditation which focuses on sounds. Guided by her calm voice, I listened to the here and now sounds, the overhead fan on the porch, the family talking next door, a dog barking, my cat meowing, the rumble of my tummy, the tight, sore muscle in my back, the worry that tugged at me. I listened but didn’t linger, and slowly my perspective shifted. I remembered to take things one step at a time, moment after moment, to stay anchored in the present. To listen and let go.

Today is a bright new day.


Holding on–letting go

IMG_0226Early in the morning. I’m sitting on the couch. Raven, the cat, is prowling around, hoping for space in my lap. She’s an old girl—she was 10 when I adopted her from the shelter in January 2011. So far she’s been healthy but recent bloodwork indicates her kidneys are starting to deteriorate. She’s lost some weight, seems to be drinking more water. Other than that, she’s her usual self.

But I know what might be coming—I’ve been here before with other cats, most recently my cat Sam who died in 2009. When the vet called to tell me the results of Raven’s blood tests, I told her about my experience with Sam—the nine month passage from mildly elevated blood values to a very sick cat and euthanasia. She reassured me that not all cats go that route; some live comfortable lives with chronic disease. Perhaps.

This is the bargain we make when we adopt these animals—that we will love them, care for them—and usher them through their last days, leaving us with holes in our lives.

Raven has been sitting on the dining table, gazing out at the backyard, which is slowly getting light on this next-to-last day of daylight savings time. She now makes the leap from the table to the arm of the couch and bulldozes her way onto my lap—I’m typing now at a slant with the laptop off to one side. Ergonomics be damned when a cat wants to rent space in your lap.

Bringing animals into our lives, opening our hearts to them, forces us to confront the duality of loving well and letting go. We rehearse this over and over, with each furry death. I know I’ll have difficult decisions ahead—when to treat and to what extent, whether to administer sub Q fluids, when to end it. Cats are stoic creatures; by the time they let us see their pain, they’re usually suffering.

In 2009-2010 I had to make that decision for 3 cats. Albert was first—acute kidney failure and a trip to the emergency vet hospital that resulted in his euthanasia. Then a few months later, I had Sam put to sleep after his chronic kidney disease grew severe. Indigo, the oldest of the three, lived for another year of declining abilities, aching joints, and a wonky heart. Each death taught me something about what to look for, when to treat, when to let go, how to keep the animal’s needs foremost, put their welfare above my own need to hold on.

Raven has abandoned my lap—this is often the routine, she nestles in for a time and then leaves for more important feline business—a daily ritual of attachment and letting go. The sky is light now. and I need to start my day. 

New Harbor and Pemaquid

 My sister and I spent the week of September 12 – 19 at Thompson Cottages in New Harbor, Maine. When we turned off Route 1 and drove down the hill into Damariscotta and then headed down the peninsula to New Harbor, I felt like I was coming home. This is a bit odd since this was a vacation destination for my family rather than a permanent home but it’s a place with many layers of connection and history for me as it was for my parents. My mother’s faimagemily spent summers near Boothbay, at the end of a neighboring peninsula, and she and her siblings came regularly to Pemaquid. I have pictures of her with her brother and later with my dad and friends picnicking and playing on the rocks.

Every time I make this trip, memories ride along—my first visit with my parents after a long drive east from Ohio when I was 9 or 10, subsequent visits with parents in my late teens and throughout my 20s when they owned a cottage for a few years and then came for extended summer/fall stays in various rentals and I’d come for regular weekend visits from my Massachusetts home. In more recent years, I’ve come up every few years, sometimes alone; sometimes with friends or, as in this vacation, with my sister.

My sister and I rented one of the Thompson’s Back Cove cottages, which was wonderfully private and quiet, especially at this low season time. One of the best features of the cottage, which was overall a comfortable home away from home, was the screened porch that overlooked the cove.

I got up early every morning, made the coffee, then wandered out to thIMG_0410e porch, where I read, watched the birds, wrote a bit in a journal. Later in the day, B and I sat there together, after whatever adventures the day had taken us on. We’d watch the light glow on the trees across the cove and then slowly diminish. Unidentified birds swooped and chittered, crows called loudly, a blue heron waded by daily. (We wished we’d brought binoculars and a bird book!)

Five miles further along, down at the end of the peninsula, is Pemaquid Point, a big pile of rocks spilling into the sea, a lighthouse, a small cafe.

Pemaquid has long had power for me. I remember sitting for long stretches huddled against a sheltering pile of rocks, shutting out the sounds of other visitors and letting myself sink into the crash of imagewaves and the smell of salt and seaweed. I came there one evening when I was in my 20s and caught up in some sort of tumult—there was a full moon and a high tide—magic, an easing of spirit. I came again the spring that my dad died and 10 years later, the summer my mom died, needing the touchstone of a place that has echoes back in family history, remembering childhood picnics on the rocks and imagining my parents there in their younger, newly married days

And I still gravitate there. If I’m in Maine, I make sure to stop at Pemaquid even if it’s not my primary destination.On this trip I made daily pilgrimages to the point, trying to reconnect with that power. And it was beautiful and the waves crashed and the air smelled of brine but the power was diminished. I suspect it’s partly because I’m more cautious than I used to be about clambering around on the rocks and so I felt more distant, a viewer from afar.

But I think it also says something about being in a calmer, more reflective time of life. What held power for me on this trip was the cove. The stillness, the light, the heron wading, the light. That’s the stillness I look for when I meditate, when I sit to write, when I sit with morning coffee looking out at the garden, not thinking, just being.

Monkey mind dancing

Azalea, anemone, andromeda. The garden is much on my mind. Lee and Tom were at my place earlier this week. We began talking about downsizing. The first step is taken. Lee pruned. I’ve been raking. Much of my drive time this week has been filled with garden thoughts. Maybe I’ll buy pansies this weekend.


I just signed up for an online course. I get an email newsletter, a marketing thing left over from a conference I attended on learning and the brain. The email newsletter is out of Berkeley and is about the science of happiness. I skim it and sometimes something catches my eye. (I haven’t unsubscribed.) What caught my eye in this most recent issue is this online course–self guided–free–about happiness–research, strategies. I’m skeptical but curious. I wonder about happiness as a goal. Is this a good thing, a desirable goal? my cynical side asks.


My mind feels cluttered–the book I’m working on for my job, the garden plans, house repairs that need to be done, changes I might make to my diet to get through allergy season, summer plans with friends, ways I could budget both time and money better. I sit to meditate and my mind spins and leaps and jumps–monkey mind leaping and jiving, monkey mind on steroids. Soon I decide enough and push stop on the timer even though only 10 minutes have passed.


I heard coyotes last night as I snuggled into bed, thankful the cat likes to be an indoor cat and was snuggled next to me. Last winter I heard a great horned owl several nights–or maybe two of them calling to each other. Wild suburbia.

March in New England

“…So how does this dialogue of green begin?”

-From “Looking for Spring” by Jean Connors

I have felt bound, boundaried, all winter. Now it’s late afternoon, late March–Skies have turned grey and it’s spitting rain, wind is whipping tree branches around, temperature hovers in the low 40s. The snow recedes slowly.

The rhododendrons have suffered winter damage, many leaves are brown and curled. Hopefully the buds are OK and bloom will be good. It’s hard to imagine May will come with its brightly blooming flowers.

A few crocuses are up and blooming IMG_0224along the front of the house. The hellebore is still covered with snow but the epimedium is uncovered–I will rake away the old foliage so the flower stalks can come up unimpeded. The boxwood near the front door is still partially buried but I can see many broken branches–it might need a radical pruning.

This afternoon after work, I swept sand off the front walk and bird seed hulls off the porch. The hungry birds have dotted the front porch with poop–the railing and porch will need painting this year. The rose bush at the front of the driveway is still covered with a big pile of snow–I suspect it will need pruning down to the ground as will the spirea in the back, also buried under big snow piles.

I want to stride across the yard but the mounds of snow deter me. Instead I pick my way along the icy path to the backyard bird feeder–I wonder if the squirrels have finally found a way in to the feeders since they’re emptying really quickly these days. This is the second time I’ve filled feeders this week.

I went for a short walk before the rain came. My next door neighbors built a snowman during Saturday’s snowfall and it’s now two large snow balls sprawled in the yard with mittens attached to the smaller ball. Down the street I spot the remains of a snow tunnel built by an enterprising child. Snow can be fun, I remind myself.

This is March in New England after a long hard winter. Bird song is changing, I’ve seen and heard mourning doves, willow trees are turning yellow, I see buds on the maple, sap is flowing–these are small hopeful signs, the beginning of a dialogue with green, but spring still seems remote–a promise, a perhaps. Be in the present I whisper to myself, find the kernel of beauty in this moment.

Morning musing

I’m not a morning person. I don’t leap out of bed greeting the glorious morn. I savor the warmth of duvet and pillows pulled close, the slow drift in and out of sleep, the edge of light sneaking past the window shades when I open my eyes and then darkness again, the strange half dreams that happen at dawn.

 My cat has other ideas. At my first stirring she tunes up her complaints about an empty bowl. Sometimes I open my eyes to see her sitting at the end of the bed silently staring—I close my eyes again and soon feel the mattress shift slightly as she pads up the side of the bed to stand over me sniffing my breath. “Is she still alive?” I imagine her wondering (if she could wonder such things).

 And I have a job with a mandated arrival time so between imploring cat and job I have to act like a morning person. I slowly sit up, stretch, stand, and shuffle down the hall to the bathroom and then invite the yowling and purring cat to go outside so that I can have peace while I cope with the kitchen.

 I get the coffee started, pop toast in toaster, spoon cat food into cat’s dish, and then let the cat back inside. She races to her dish, meowing, and starts to eat. I take my coffee and toast and sit at the dining table, which is placed in front of a picture window winter2with a view of the birdfeeders, gardens, and trees. Right now the view is snow, snow, and more snow.

 I’m not a morning person but I’ve come to relish these few moments when I can sit by this window and drink coffee, munch on toast, watch the birds peck and nibble and squirrels chase each other. Except for the bird and squirrel activity it’s a static world in winter. On occasion I’ve seen an owl in the branches of one of the trees–every morning I look but rarely spot it. I know if I ventured out and looked closely I’d see an array of tracks but from the warmth of the house, viewed through glass, nothing moves. This is a pause, a time to breathe slowly. I sit forward on the edge of the chair so the cat can jump up behind me, her warm body pressed against my back. I sit some more, mind still on pause, before standing to begin the get-ready-for-work routine.

 What do you look forward to in your mornings?