The Passing Years, and How to Count Them


My family is enormously lucky because we live in a place that is green, and beautiful. Our house is surrounded by trees.

We’ve been in this house for 30 years. That seems so hard to believe. My husband Paul and I raised our three kids here. We’ve had two cats and five dogs at different times in this house.

Parts of the yard have been, at various times over the years, a baseball diamond, a hockey rink, a vegetable garden, a flower bed, a strawberry patch and a place to put the swings.

Now the kids are all grown up and on their own, and it’s time for us to start looking forward. In another ten or so years, we plan to sell this house and move someplace with less upkeep. It’s time.

With that thought in mind, we’re hiring someone to help clean up this huge yard and make things look neater and less overgrown. I have mixed feelings about it, isn’t that weird?

I walk around and I look at what is now a big rock buried in raspberry and blackberry vines. I remember thirty years ago, when that was the site of my first little garden. I planted “hens and chicks” and other succulents, thinking it would be a rock garden. I didn’t anticipate the encroachment of the woods. It didn’t occur to me that Mother Nature had her own plans.

The arborist is going to take down a tall, slender oak tree near our driveway. It is competing with other trees for sunlight and is now leaning toward our deck. It shades an entire section of lawn. Everything will look more open, more sunny, when it is gone.

But I remember one warm summer morning when that oak was about my height. I laid on the grass with our new puppy in my arms and looked at the sky through its leaves. That puppy is long gone now, crossed over the rainbow bridge in his old age. I look at that oak tree, and I remember his soft ears and his puppy smell. I don’t really want the tree to go. But it’s time.

There is a little grove of baby white pines that need to be taken out, too. They stand together, like a little family that has silently stepped out of the forest and into our yard. They silently watch the grass where my kids used to play “desert land.” They need to come down, but I will miss them.

I can count the passage of our family’s years by looking at the tree stumps that now stand in the yard. There’s the stump of a tree that once held a toddler’s swing. There is the stump of a pine that used to guard a squirrel nest.

Time passes, and we know we are aging. My mirror and my bones tell me that!

But I forget sometimes that this house and this yard are aging, too. It will be good to have it cleaned up, and to have the woods retreat back to where they belong.

Still, there is a little piece of me that wishes for something else. Perhaps it would be magic, I think, if we simply moved away and let the forest gently and slowly enfold the house where our children grew up. Let her cover it up and keep it safe, like a tender memory that can only be revisited in dreams.

Image: “Pine Tree and others” by scottc320 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Nature of Aging


I am now in my 6th decade of life. My hair is almost entirely silver. My jowls have arrived, and the wrinkles around my eyes will show you my general mood.

I’m a happy old wrinkly grandmother.

I know that I’m chubby, I know that I’m gray. I get it. I’ve earned these marks. They show that I have lived.

For the most part, I am happy to observe time moving along merrily. I know that nothing is permanent, and that time can’t be slowed, or stopped, or forced to run backwards.

My life is in its early Fall season, I’d guess. The beautiful pressures of summer are over. Now it’s time to settle in a bit, make some stock to hold us through the long winter, to think about which good books we’d like to keep us company as it snows.

I don’t think about time passing as much as you might think. I try, really, really hard to keep my focus on the moment in front of me.

But sometimes old Mother Nature reaches in to give me a poke.

This evening she did exactly that.

I was standing on my deck, in the back of the house where Paul and I have lived for 29 years. I was resting my chin on my hand, and gazing out into our woods. My eyes weren’t really focused. I was just sort of looking into the distance.

But then I saw the little golden leaves in front of me. Slowly unfurling into the warm sun. Little oak leaves.

I pulled my focus back and looked at the tree that was reaching out, offering me those tender leaves.

And there stood a strong, young, vibrant oak, bursting into life on the edge of our woods. It’s branches were leaning toward the deck. Toward me.

My head swam. Time went whooooshing past me, leaving me reeling with vertigo.

When we moved into this house (last year? last month? three decades ago?) there was a tall, strong white pine standing behind our deck, just on the edge of the woods. It had thick, lustrous branches and a tall, straight trunk. One branch leaned in so close to our deck that I was once able to coax a chickadee from it’s tip to my palm.

I loved that tree.

For years, I watched it age and wither and become brittle. A few years ago we knew that it was finished, and we had the guardian pine taken down.

The sun came shining down. Little saplings sprang up in the place where the old tree once stood.

And while I wasn’t looking, an oak sapling raced toward the skies. It opened it’s arms, reached for the sun, and grew.

Today I stood looking at the woods. One confident, cocky oak tree seemed to have taken center stage. I had a sense of it grinning at me as it passed me by.

I closed my eyes and saw the old white pine that used to be the star of our particular stage. I could imagine her spirit smiling at the exuberance of the teen aged oak.

I felt time racing by.

I am surely getting older. If I somehow forget that fact, I have no doubt that Mother Nature will remind me.

Choosing a lens


When I teach kids to write, I teach them to focus in, to choose a point of view, to pull back for a “wider view”


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or to use the “macro” lens for a narrower view.

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I have to do the same thing when I take photos, of course. What is it that I want to hold in my view? Do I want to see the entire beautiful Atlantic ocean beach, or do I want to keep my eyes on the little shells that have washed up overnight?

This week I have been finding it hard to find my perfect lens. The big wide world has become a bit too scary for me. Terrorism, war, drought, famine, sickness.  I want to pull my lens in a bit: I can’t lie awake at night and worry about Salafi Jihadists.  Maybe I should, but I can’t do it.

And as I pull in closer, to the world of my job, sometimes the pressures and stresses there are too much for me, too. The realization that my district hired a motivational speaker who came in to tell us that the way we are teaching writing is completely wrong, and that what we have been forced to give up in the past five years is exactly what we should have held onto.  I sat in the lecture hall with tears streaming down my cheeks.  I tried! I wanted to shout to him.  I tried to let the kids write about their passions! I tried to let them choose their own topics!

But I wasn’t allowed to do it.  And now I feel like a failure.

I needed to pull my lens in closer.  But my family has been struggling this week, too. The events and emotions of the past ten days are too intense and too overwhelming for me.  I’m pulling in even more.

And so this evening I was out in my hot tub (of course I was!).  I was looking at the trees and thinking of how sad it is that they are so completely bare and barren. They look dead.

But there is one big maple tree behind my house.  It’s branches reach way beyond my roof.  When the sun is setting, and I am in my lovely tub, I can look up into its branches and see how the golden light strikes the very tips of its tiniest twigs.

And so as I looked at the brown and empty branches of the ash and birch and beech and oak, I saw that the maple branches held the tiniest little promises of buds on the very ends of each branch.  I don’t think I’d be able to see them in the full light of day, but with the warm buttery light of sunset hitting them from below, I could just make out the tiny swellings of life that they hold.

What a positive promise!  What a sweet and easy reminder that spring will most definitely come.  The days will get longer, the sun will shine brighter, the ice will melt.

And the pressures and fears of today will melt away as life takes a happier turn.

Why I think I’m an elf.


I first read “The Hobbit” in the fifth grade, and “The Lord of the Rings” when I was in the seventh.  I fell in love with the characters, and I wanted to be a hobbit for a long time. Like a hobbit, I love comfort, I’m always ready to eat or take a nap, and I have thick wavy hair. I love to grow flowers, and I’m a good cook.  All I needed, I thought for many years, was a house with a little round door.

But now that I am older, and have owned my own home and yard for many years, I can see that I was wrong. Now I’m pretty sure that I am an elf.

Oh, I know. I’m not tall, blonde or graceful, and I sure can’t shoot an arrow. But I most definitely feel an affinity for the trees.

This beautiful sugar maple stands just off my deck, at the spot where our yard meets the woods. I have watched its leaves open for 22 years, have enjoyed its shade every summer, have admired its golden orange foliage every October.  Paul and the boys used to tap it in February to make maple syrup.  It’s like a beautiful guardian of our property. Like a lovely old friend.

Yesterday I was home alone, because the kids and Paul were hiking for the weekend.  It was early evening, and I was on the deck, grilling my dinner.  As I stood there in the silence, with the sun setting behind me, I looked out into my woods.  I was struck by how the sugar maple had grown.  When we moved in here, it was a medium sized tree, and I could look over its head into the sky above the forest.  Now it fills that area of sky, spreading its branches over what used to be part of our lawn.

I looked around the yard, thinking of how the trees have changed in the time that we have lived here.  They grew up with my children.  And some have gone just as the children have.

I remember when this pine was taken down, after we realized that it was too old and too unsound to remain where it might fall on the roof.  I remember how sad I have been each time we have had to bring a tree down.  The loss that I felt as each of our sentinels crashed down to earth in a shower of broken limbs.

We have lost branches to ice storms, wind storms and even a hurricane or two.  Like an elf, I suffered the pain of each break, feeling it deep in my own heart. Each snapped branch has felt to me like a broken arm, but one I can’t soothe or cast or ease in any way.

Like one of Tolkien’s elves, I also celebrate the new growth of my trees.  Yesterday, as I walked around the yard, I was aware of how steadily the woods are growing into the yard. There is a beautiful stand of hemlock on the edge of the woods in a spot that used to be all grass. There is a group of new young white pines, clustered together like the children of the trees we have lost.And everywhere I look, I see new saplings rising.  Maple saplings grow on the stumps of old pines.  Hemlock, pine and even a spruce or two pop up in every sunny break in the woods.  There is such a feeling of “life goes on”, of renewal, of hope in the future.  The trees keep coming, keep growing, keep filling in the spaces.

Like Legolas Greenleaf of Middle Earth, I am happy to see each baby tree. I greet each one with a smile and some words of encouragement.  And I let them grow, even when they are in the middle of my daylillies.