Friday, May 27, 2016

Spring Cacophony

Spring is such a raucous season. Unfolding from winter’s relative quiet, spring opens with the musical call of peepers from just-thawed ponds and the varied songs of birds returning, the noise building to an impressive crescendo that ebbs and grows throughout each day.

Last weekend I escaped to the front porch for a few stolen moments of solitary peace. Only they weren’t solitary – or peaceful, really. All around me there was noise and movement. A catbird meow-called from the highbush cranberry in the front yard. The whir of wings revealed a hummingbird was exploring the flowers in the planters on the upstairs porch railing. The piercing screech of a hawk drew my eyes upward, where two raptors spun circles far, far above. They seemed too high to be hunting; just playing on the breeze.  

On short evening rambles with the dog, as most birdsong quiets with the approach of darkness, we hear the beautifully melancholic trilling of the hermit thrush from the woods. The peepers are just warming up then, testing out their voices for another night of singing for love – or at least reproductive prospects. By the time I am in bed, with the windows open to the welcome warmth of the spring night, the singing of these tiny frogs is a boisterous, chiming cacophony, one of the wonders of nature that amazes me no matter how many times I hear it.

The robins lead the chorus that awakens me on spring mornings with their rambling, cheery singing. A varied choir of other birds joins in: the question-and-answer of the red-eyed vireo, the ovenbird’s somewhat screechy “teacher-teacher-teacher,” and the white-throated sparrow singing, “Old Sam Peabody-Peabody-Peabody.” There are song sparrows and goldfinches, phoebes and slate juncos – and the chickadees and nuthatches who’ve stayed with us all year. It seems impossible that one yard contains such a variety of birds – and birdsong – and I’m sure I’ll never learn them all. That kind of noise is nice, anyway, whether or not I know – or see – who’s making it.

Not all the twittering happens from tree branches or the pond, of course. Tom turkeys gobble as they make their way along the paths through the back field. A gang of crows yell their caw-caws at a red fox as he meanders through the yard in the early morning, patrolling the invisible borders of his territory before trotting off to some quieter spot.

Amid all of this noisy nature, we humans contribute to the sounds of spring, too. The drone of lawnmowers returns to yards everywhere. Bicyclists call to each other as they ride past in spandex-clad pairs. The hum of sporadic traffic drifts through open windows. And if there is a baseball game at the school two miles down the road, the cheers drift into our yard, and I pause to silently root for the home team.

Even the appearance of spring, once the season really gets going, is a bit noisy. The grass, finally, turns a bright, lush green. Leaves unfurl on trees. New vegetation pushes through last year’s dieback in the field, and lupine leaves grow higher and fuller, moving toward the plants’ burst of color – coming soon. The apples trees are blooming now, all white and pink, and the buds on the lilacs are opening into a cascade of purple and the sweet scent of almost-summer.

These pastel hues will build toward summer’s audacity of color, when a cacophony of blooms bursts forth from the gardens and fields. By then, the peepers will have quieted and the birdsong will have started its slow fade, as birds move from attracting mates and establishing territories to hatching and feeding broods of chicks. (Who has time to sing when the kids are demanding food all day long?)

But now, in these days of approaching summer, when winter has really and truly faded into a cold and provisional memory, the sounds of spring rouse me from sleep in the welcome brightness of early morning. All the noise and color draw me into this season, growing from the last, rolling into the next. 

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the May 27, 2016 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Home Work

The other day an elephant watched me as I worked, its fuzzy gray trunk resting atop the table, its unblinking eyes gazing vaguely in my direction while I typed. Last week an inanely smiling purple cow sat in the elephant’s place, seemingly laughing at me – a reminder, perhaps, to not take myself too seriously. Some days there is a Lego brigade of emergency vehicles – fire trucks and police cars and rescue vans – lined up at some cordoned-off crash scene across the room.

These are things a person who absconds to a more traditional office will likely never encounter while settling into a work day. Sometimes they are a hindrance to my work, a reminder that I will have to pester the kids when they come home to pick up yesterday’s mess, or this morning’s, let alone whatever clutter develops today. But these things are also a reminder of why I am here, working at the dining room table of my home rather than at a desk in an office somewhere else. I’m pretty sure there’s no place else I’d rather be.

My life changed in many ways when I became a parent. One of those was that I replaced the unpredictable schedule of a small town reporter with the equally hectic, but very different, world of caring for two newborns. For a while I was almost completely lost in mothering twins, then another baby two years later. There are chunks of time during those first years I simply do not remember. But amid the relative chaos I started to seek – and slowly find – work as a freelance writer.

At first, it was the occasional article for a special section of the newspaper, then press releases and other copy-writing for area businesses, and eventually a book and some sporadic magazine work. By the time my youngest was born, I was busy enough to be working at the keyboard while she slept in a sling wrapped around my torso. Not ideal for physical comfort, but being able to do work beyond changing diapers and feed small children – while still being around to change diapers and feed children – was important to me. It was essential to holding on to that part of myself that exists beyond the Mom Realm.

Once upon a time, I was the kid who needed absolute quiet to do her homework; if my brother’s music in the next room was barely audible, I couldn’t concentrate. In college, I kept my tiny dorm room tidy to bolster my focus. Any semblance of neat-freakness I once had, however, disintegrated with the arrival of children in my life. Keeping track of myself is one thing, managing three other beings – and all their stuff – is a whole different animal.

These days I typically set up shop at the dining room table, smack dab in the center of my family’s bustling activity. I try to make sure the breakfast dishes are put away and the table-cum-desk brushed of crumbs before I bring the kids to school so that I can get right to work as soon as I return. I’ve become pretty good at tuning out the hum of the dishwasher and the snoring of the dog. The dust bunnies don’t bother me if I focus on the notes in front of me.

Still, it is sometimes hard to fully concentrate on the task at hand when that task is surrounded by a home full of other tasks to do. It’s also not ideal – for any of us – to have my books and piles of notes scattered across the table, the kitchen counter, the dining room chairs.

A couple of years ago I spent a good bit of time and effort organizing my neglected home office. And for a while I worked there, where the biggest distractions were the view of the sun peaking over Mt. Washington in the quiet early morning hours and the fact that my coffee maker was two stories down.

Gradually, I stopped going to the third-floor office, for a few reasons. It’s hot up there in summer and really cold in winter. And the old dog won’t climb the stairs with me anymore. I’ve become accustomed to her company, even if that company is mostly sighing snores as she naps nearby. She also has a knack for interrupting me with a beseeching take-me-for-a-walk look at the very moment I need such an interruption.

Alas, I am preparing to return to the upstairs office, relocated now to the side of the house without a mountain view, to a space that has served during our time here as a cluttered and rarely used guest room, storage of extraneous stuff, and the kids’ playroom. Now it is a place where I can spread out notes and not have to gather them into a pile and hide them away before dinner.

I like the idea of the office as a place I can be focused and serious when I need to be. The call of household chores will be quieter in this space, tucked away in the top corner of the house. There will be no silly purple cow laughing at me from the next chair over. But it’s good to know the dining room table will be here, with its familiar grooves and divots, its skim of crumbs leftover from breakfast, surrounded by reminders of both work and home – and all the ways they are intertwined.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the May 13, 2016 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, April 22, 2016

City Fix

If you asked my son his favorite part of being in Boston last week, he’d tell you it was looking out on the city from the top of a tall, tall building. That, or the 14 firetrucks surrounding our hotel, lights flashing, as we stood outside in our pajamas with other guests while firefighters extinguished a small fire on our floor.

These are things that just don’t happen in Franconia, and we filled our three days in Boston with experiences we’re unlikely to have at home. What I have always loved about traveling – whether to a nearby city or a foreign land – and what my children are learning, is that visiting other places bridges the divide between the familiar and the exotic. Both – familiar and exotic – are, of course, relative perspectives, altered by time and knowledge and new experiences.

My children think nothing of being able to run out the door into lots of space for playing and exploring, or of gazing at a gazillion stars in a night sky unhindered by light pollution, or of riding their bikes down the middle of our sparsely traveled road. But to these small-town kids – and their mom – everything about the city seems exotic: the tall buildings, the subway, the stoplights and constant buzz of traffic, the people moving everywhere.

The first time we took the kids to Boston they were preschoolers. They stood in the window of our hotel room with palms and noses pressed against the glass, peering down at the busy streets and sidewalks several stories below. We were only a couple of hours from home, but for all the wonder of country kids in a big city, we may as well have been on the moon.

Now that we’ve been to Boston together a few times, there are favorite city places my kids like to revisit. This trip we hit the Aquarium and meandered through Boston Common to the Public Garden to see the Make Way for Ducklings statues. We rode the T, an underground adventure complete with escalators and weird subway smells. We wandered the crowded food stalls of Quincy Market, searching for lunch, and marveled at all the offerings: pizza, sushi, chimichangas, chowder, lo mein, nan, lobster rolls, gelato – a virtual world tour of tastes in one building.

We ventured on new explorations, too, walking the length of Newbury Street (so many shops!) from the Public Garden to the Prudential Tower, where we took the elevator to the 50th floor. From our bird’s eye view, we studied the city laid out far below: the Common where we’d just been, the Charles River, Fenway Park, the blue and yellow finish line of the Boston Marathon painted across Boylston Street and awaiting the runners who would cross it in a few days.

Even from that height it was easy to see the history woven into the city’s concrete cloth. The past is everywhere, of course, but in Boston it is on plain display, tucked conspicuously into nooks and corners throughout the city. Our first night in town we walked by the Old State House, a 300-year-old brick structure surrounded now by towering glass buildings. From its balcony, the Declaration of Independence was read two weeks after its signing in 1776. The narrow brick pathway of the Freedom Trail ran along the sidewalk by our hotel, on either side passing ancient cemeteries containing the remains of such historic giants as Paul Revere, John Hancock, and Sam Adams. There are statues rising from squares and plazas all around the city, and historic interpreters dressed in Colonial garb regaling onlookers with tales from Boston’s Revolutionary past.

Around all of it, the modern city buzzes with activity and myriad new experiences there for the having. During this city fix, the kids took their first taxi ride, complete with the sudden stop-and-go of city driving. And they saw their first big show – The Wizard of Oz (a journey of a different sort) – in a real theater.

After three days packed with sights and sounds, tastes and smells, new experiences and lots of pavement walking, we returned home, tired and filled with thoughts of all the things we’d seen and done. We settled back into our familiar space, the sounds of cheery robins and spring peepers replacing the steady, noisy hum of traffic, the view now of clouds drifting across craggy mountains rather than tall buildings.

The kids were both sad to leave Boston and happy to be home. By the end of our visit, the city had become a bit more familiar, and there were more things we wanted to do. That’s a conundrum I’ve often had when visiting other places: the more I learn and see, the more there is I want to explore. Still, at the end of each journey, I know where I want to be. As Dorothy discovered in The Wizard of Oz, “There’s no place like home.”

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the April 22, 2016 edition of the Littleton Record.