Thursday, January 9, 2020

Shifting Normal

I have a confession to make: I don’t always know what to write about.

I consider this space, which I’ve filled twice a month for the past nine years, to be a place of mostly happy, occasionally bittersweet, musings. I’ve written about gardening and hiking, skiing and stargazing, loving pets and raising kids. These are the things, often, that fill my time.

But there are weeks when I come up blank. Maybe, if you’re a regular reader here, you’ve noticed some columns – the weeks when I struggle to find relevant subject matter – are a bit less zippy than others. Then again, the columns I consider mundane are often the ones people seem to like best. I guess there is value in the everyday.

I often dismiss the ideas that come to mind for various reasons. The kids don’t always want the details of their day-to-day lives shared, and I have to respect that. I don’t like to write about anything political, because there are other places for that – and, quite frankly, I’ve never been all that great at persuasive writing. There are things that happen in my world that I sometimes want to write about, but can’t figure out how – or that I figure no one really wants to read about anyway.

And there are weeks like this, where anything I’d care to share seems, well, just plain trivial.

Australia is on fire and has been for weeks. Closer to home, the weather is all sorts of out-of-whack in what feels like a new normal – until it changes again. It’s snowing as I write this, but we’ve only had a few very cold days this season, and Saturday’s temps are forecasted to top 50 degrees. There’s no longer any such thing as a January thaw, because we’re in a repeating freeze-thaw cycle.

There is political discontent everywhere you turn. It’s exhausting on so many levels – and we haven’t even made it to the First In The Nation Primary yet. 

The kicker is that my children have asked me several times this week if we are on the brink of World War III. For all you grownups out there who think kids aren’t paying attention – well, they are. They hear more than we think they do, and they understand more than we adults often give them credit for. And this is the stuff, sometimes, of playground conversations.

This week, it just feels like writing about the snowy woods or the busy holiday break just passed or the joys and struggles of raising almost-teenagers is a bit like ignoring the many elephants in the room. And yet it is that ordinariness – getting the kids up and out of the house in the mornings, meeting work deadlines, driving the Mom Uber – that keeps us moving forward.

Somedays the weight of the world is heavy, no matter how little of it each of us is charged with carrying. It is hard, on those days, to know what to do or say or even feel.

And so I carry on, as people have forever, with the day-to-day. I go into those snowy woods with the dog. I ski and write and watch the kids play in the snow. I help with homework (when I can) and figure out what to make for dinner. I snuggle with the animals and love the kids and keep looking up at that starry sky. And all the while, Normal keeps shifting. 

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 January 10, 2020 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Winter Wonders

Early this week, my youngest child and I walked home together through the sparkling darkness of the first night of winter. It’s not a long walk from my folks’ house, where we’d been to a Christmas party. Maybe a quarter of a mile, a journey of 10 minutes or so. Short though it was, that was the best part of my day.

At first, my daughter wanted to use the flashlight of my phone to see, but I convinced her to turn that off, said our eyes would get used to the darkness – that we could find our way by starlight. “The stars give off so little light,” she said, though she acquiesced.

Off went the phone light, and we set out to navigate through the dark, with only the glint of stars above us and the glimmer of snow below. Vague outlines of tree branches reached inward and upward from the sides of the road as we stepped toward home. No cars drove by, no dogs barked, and we heard no voices but our own, talking about this and that.

We walked slowly through a wide tunnel of trees, descended the little hill near home, and turned onto our own driveway. As we reached the openness of our field, our view of the stars expanded, and I picked out the few constellations I could and pointed them out to my daughter. The Seven Sisters, Cassiopeia, Orion with his distinctive belt. We searched for the Little Dipper and speculated where others might be, shifted now from their summer locations.

With our heads turned upward, we exclaimed quietly together when we identified a recognizable form in the sky and marveled at the vastness of so many stars twinkling overhead. They may give off little light, those stars, but that does not diminish their magic when you’re gazing at them from Earth, as a tiny human amid a vast universe.

We both agreed we had made a good decision in choosing to walk home, rather than drive.

This type of quiet, one-on-one time with any of my children is rare. And as they approach teenagehood – with two of them arriving there in mere weeks – we are all often busy with various activities and responsibilities. And our mother-child discussions are, well, not always so relaxed and agreeable.

As I held my daughter’s hand and listened to her sweet voice, I breathed it all in – the cold December air, the twinkle of stars and snow sparkle, the serenity of this moment under the winter sky.

I’ll tuck it away with other winter wonders. The richly layered colors of sunrise, late though it comes these winter mornings, and the alpenglow lighting the peaks in the evening. The sparkle of snow on trees. Rosy cheeks and warm socks. Hot cocoa and a blaze in the fireplace. A soft blanket to wrap up in.

The quiet of darkness. Stars shining in the cold night sky. My child’s hand to hold, as long as she’ll let me.

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 December 27, 2019 issue of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Mountain Living

It took going to college in the rolling hills of central New York state for me to realize I am, at heart, a mountain girl. Although I’d spent countless hours of my childhood hiking up mountains in the summer and skiing down them through the winter, I’d always taken those mountains for granted. So when I landed in a mountainless landscape, it didn’t take long to realize there was something critical missing from my life.

There are lessons to be learned in the mountains. Patience. Perseverance. A deep love of beautiful things – and the rugged power that is often hidden by that beauty. And the lesson of taking the good – good snow, good weather, good times with loved ones or alone – when you can get it.

I spend lots of time in winter on the mountains, namely on one: Cannon Mountain. It is the one with which I am most familiar. The one where I have spent the most time. It is not the only mountain I have loved, but it is the one that most feels like home.

Last weekend I took a few solo ski runs, after fulfilling my coaching duties for the day and before I had to return to the tasks that awaited me at home. At one point I paused, between chairlift ride and skiing descent, to watch four ravens play on the wind. They floated up, drifting this way, then that, just gliding above the trees and the humans sliding below them on the snow.

The wind was from the south, which rarely means good things for the skiing at Cannon. But the ravens didn’t seem to care. They take whatever wind they find, I guess.

That south wind was part of the reason I’d decided to stick around for a few more runs Sunday. Winds howling through Franconia Notch from the south in December typically bring warm, wet weather. The skiing was fabulous Sunday, had been great for the first few weeks of the season, and I wanted a few more laps on the all-natural stuff before whatever that south wind carried watered it all down.

In the mountains, the lines between seasons are not so definitive as they are in lower realms. I have been buffeted by icy summer winds at the top of Mount Jefferson, when the sun shone calmly at the trailhead. I’ve been knocked around by tremendous gusts and pelted by freezing rain in August on Mount Adams. I’ve hiked through October snow to reach Lonesome Lake.

I’ve watched an impossibly long sunset linger across distant peaks from just below the summit of Mount Washington (only hours – and many miles – after being caught in that Mount Adams cloud). I’ve seen a magical show of sun halos and pillars and glittering diamond dust in the December sky above Cannon. And I’ve skied mid-April powder on the mountain while crocus shoots push through the dirt in my yard not far away.

Last weekend the snow and ice were so thick and white on the stunted evergreens near the summit of Cannon that the kids I coach decided the forest looked like an army of yetis. To me it seemed like some fantastical wonderland. That is how I often feel in and on the mountains – as if it’s too astoundingly beautiful to be real. Mountains can be breathtakingly beautiful from afar, but nothing compares to standing on a high summit as the world goes on below.

I’ve had some challenging moments in the mountains, and some that have scared me, too. But it’s the magical ones that bring me back again and again, whether it’s toiling for hours to reach a summit by foot or riding a chairlift for the easy thrill of gliding back down. 

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 December 13, 2019 issue of the Littleton Record.