Friday, June 26, 2015

Summer's Full Bloom

My children have taken lately to gathering small bouquets of flowers from the garden and the wilder realm beyond. They carry their colorful collections inside, placing them into a diverse assortment of vessels and filling our house with happy little bursts of summer.

This morning the dining room table sports a jar spilling over with sprays of lady’s mantle, purple clover, sunset-orange hawkweed, and a stalky yellow flower I cannot name. The mantel over the hearth holds a tall vase with a single winding shoot of baptisia, long and purple and complemented by three wide hosta leaves. A stunningly fuscia peony blossom, large as my outspread hand and rescued the other day from a deluge of rain, rises from an antique milk bottle in the living room window.

We rarely have cut flowers in the house during the cold months, only in the brief season we can pick them ourselves. So summer seems an extravagance of living colors and vibrant life, inside the house and out.

It all starts with the apple blossoms in May, when cold and snow are barely a memory. Not long after the leaves have unfolded, we watch the small flower buds swell, compact clusters full of promise, some pure white, others tinged in pink. One day, when the conditions are just right – warm enough, but not too warm, sunny, but not too dry – the old orchard is suddenly abloom, filling the back field with puffy, tree-born clouds of flowers. White as snow, abuzz with busy bees, heavy with the sweetly intoxicating scent of spring.

The lilacs are next, their emergence overlapping briefly with the apple blossoms’, their fragrance taking up the mantle from the apple trees, their purple bursts the first big color of spring. By lilac time, of course, the crocuses and daffodils are also blooming. These smaller flowers, the year’s earliest, are lovely and welcome, but not so big as the lilacs, not so fragrant as the apple blossoms, not so ostentatious in their opening. They’re more a cheerful whisper of the coming season than the actual bursting forth of summer.

The hues become bolder as spring pushes bravely ahead to summer. To black flies and mosquitoes, muggy afternoons, the magic of fireflies blinking through nighttime fields, and a billowing swell of color and fragrance. Now, just past solstice, seems the biggest, brightest show of the season around our home.

The lupines have been prolific this year, turning the fields into a sea of purples, undulating in waves of various shades toward the mountains. Lovely as they are, the lupines’ subtly musty scent sends me into fits of sneezing. Their many-flowered stalks are just starting to go to seed now, as the garden is bursting into its height of color.

A few flag irises linger along the wall at the back of the perennial bed, bright indigo against the gray stones. The Stella D’Oro lilies are opening in myriad pops of sunshine yellow. The feathery spikes of astilbe are just starting to show pale pink along the garden’s front edge. A host of tall, orange lilies, transplanted two years ago, rises along the west wall of the house, their long flower buds ready to open just outside the windows.

And the roses are blooming. The roses are my favorite, always have been. The house where I grew up had a long row of rose bushes at one edge of the yard. From my bedroom window I could see them and smell their heady aroma. They were true roses in various hues, not like the ones we have now, which are of a wilder variety. I cannot pass a cluster of roses without stopping to smell them. Such intoxicating perfume.

When we bought this house, there was an unruly swath of rosa rugosa – known commonly as beach roses, although we are more than a hundred miles from the nearest ocean – growing along the driveway and around the back of the perennial garden. We uprooted the bushes behind the garden as we transformed the untamed field beyond into what now passes for a lawn, and the family soccer field.

But we kept a thick row of not-too-wild roses along the curve of the driveway. The bushes are nearly as tall as I am and probably five feet across. Song birds flit in and out of their dense, thorny tangle throughout the year, and we sometimes find nests within when the foliage has gone in the fall.

The roses have been blooming the last few weeks, hot pink with golden centers. Their scent is like summer embodied: both sweet and spicy, like warmth and sugar, delicate strength and powerful beauty wrapped up together in a perfect, vibrant package. That scent wafts through the summer air, greeting us as we approach home, finding us as we work and play in the yard, floating up to my bedroom window just as the aroma of those other, more cultivated roses did when I was a girl, embracing me in summer’s full bloom.

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 June 26, 2015 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Wonderfully Exhausting

As soon as we turned our bikes from pavement onto the dirt single track, the littlest one let out a petulant, disbelieving groan. Somehow, in the excited discussion about going for a family bike ride, she hadn’t expected THIS: bumpy dirt, knobby roots to maneuver, long grass scratching against bare legs. Through the course of the ride – a mere two miles or so – we went from frustrated to joyful, back and forth, a dozen times.

“A mixture of wonderful experiences and parental exhaustion,” is how another mother – with two children younger than mine – recently described her family’s vacation. I feel as if that is a pretty accurate description of nearly every family outing. And, many days, of raising kids, no matter how old they are.

Growing is hard work. Learning new skills is hard work. Figuring out all the different ways the world operates is hard work. It is sometimes exhausting for the kids and the parents. It is sometimes exhilarating. Often, it is both of these – exhausting and exhilarating – nearly simultaneously.

Soon after the mini meltdown over the bike ride’s turn into the woods, we came to the biggest beaver dam I have ever seen. The kids hopped off their bikes and scampered over to check out the long, pointy-ended logs the beavers had felled. They examined how the sticks went together to create the dam and the section that had been breached, allowing water to flow through. We found a wildflower we didn’t know and snapped a picture of it to remind us to look it up later. (Bunchberry, it turns out.)

Riding over the roots was challenging. The complaining about said roots – and working to keep my parental composure as a meltdown ensued – was slightly exhausting. Discovering the beaver dam and checking it out was a pretty wonderful experience, and hopefully one my kids will remember – and want to relive on some future bike ride along the same trail.

I remember being on family hikes as a kid and feeling as if they would never end, whether we were on a short jaunt or a hut-to-hut overnight trek. But once we reached the top, the reward was great: a sense of personal accomplishment, and amazing views of the lowlands from which we had ascended, stretched out now far below.

What I remember most from those adventures are the stories we’ve told over and over: playing cribbage with other hikers, eating weird green pasta in one of the huts, the thick clouds atop Mt. Lafayette that obscured the rest of the world, the weight of my little brother’s backpack after a day of collecting rocks along the trail.

From those outings (which I imagine included a good dose of my own folks’ parental exhaustion) I gained a lasting appreciation of the outdoors and exploring it, the realization that hard work often pays big dividends, and the knowledge that the view from a mountaintop, from a height attained by your own will and power, offers a vastly different perspective than the one you had pre-climb.

After we left the beaver dam last weekend, the rest of the ride included an ascent along a bumpy trail and a bit more complaining. But also the downhill on the other side of the hill, time spent drawing with sticks in the sand along the edge of a brook, scampering across the water over logs, and stopping to look at swallowtail butterflies. On the final stretch of single track, my youngest child slammed on her brakes and reached down to pick up the large empty cocoon of a cecropia moth: a tangible treasure to take away from the ride.

We emerged from the woods about a mile from where we’d parked the car, and the mostly-downhill paved return was smooth sailing. There was one final challenge at the end of the ride: a super-steep climb to reach the car. My older daughter was in the lead and pedaled her way to the top, then came back to cheer the others on. All three made it, pedal strokes gradually slowing with the exertion as they neared the top, arriving tired but happy.

I hope they remember – as I do – the happy more than the tired, that they take from these adventures more of the wonderful than the exhausting. I hope these experiences provide my children the awareness that often at the far side of a challenge is a big view, a thrilling rush of adrenaline, lessons learned, and memories to hold through many more adventures. 

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 June 12, 2015 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Letting Go

She pedals confidently now, blond ponytail flapping from beneath her bike helmet, little legs pumping furiously to keep up with the bigger kids as she makes her way up the driveway, down the road, through the woods.

It wasn’t always this way, of course. As my youngest daughter learned to ride her big girl bike last year, she was a little shaky and a bit timid. While I ran up and down our long driveway alongside her and eventually watched her pedal away on her own, I pondered the obvious parallels between the evolution from trike to training wheels to two-wheeler and the process of parenting children as they grow up and figure out the world around them, gradually expanding their horizons beyond our own view.

We parents are forced to let go, a little at a time. First our children roll, then they crawl, then they walk, then they run. Before we know it they’re ditching the training wheels and popping wheelies, skiing fast down steep trails, reaching new heights in the classroom, on the field, the playground and beyond.

At first, she’d wanted nothing to do with pedaling. She preferred her pink, wooden balance bike – a two-wheeled set-up without pedals – which allowed her to always be touching the ground with a foot or two. Taking both feet off the ground was too unnerving, even for a girl who has spent her earliest years determinedly matching the pace and challenge of her older brother and sister. If they dare to tell her they can do something faster or better, she quietly sets out to prove them wrong.

One morning last spring, with the snow gone from even the shadiest corners of the yard, she decided that she was ready, at last, to pedal. She was unsteady in her first attempts. And so I ran alongside her, bent over and grasping her seat with one hand and her handlebars with the other, as she found her balance and gained confidence.

Soon she needed me only to hold the seat, helping to control her speed, correcting the line if she veered too sharply off course. After several trips up and down the bumpy dirt driveway, she was ready for me to let go and run next to her, close enough to reach out and steady the occasional wobble. Within an hour, she was off and pedaling on her own. When her brother and sister returned from school that afternoon, they were excited to coach their little sister at the childhood skill of pedaling really fast, then slamming on the brakes to make skid marks in the driveway.

We hold onto our children tightly only so long before they demand their freedom, pedaling away solo with nary a backward glance to see if we are still watching, waiting, ready to lend a steady hand in case they stumble. That’s as true of growing up in general as it is of the specifics of learning to ride a bike.

As my daughter has figured out how to balance steering and pedaling, how to make long, wiggly skid marks in the dirt and pace herself on the hills, she has, I hope, learned a few larger lessons as well – even if she may not recognize them just yet.

Sometimes you hit bumps and pot holes you didn’t see coming. Some of these you can cruise right through, regaining your balance quickly; others make you fall down. When the bicycle of life throws you in the dirt, it’s OK to cry a little bit, but eventually you have to get back up, dust yourself off, and keep going. Climbing hills can be exhausting, but the reward of flying downhill on the other side is usually worth the effort. There’s a great big world out there to explore, but you have to be brave enough to move beyond your comfort zone to get there.

Not long after the pedaling breakthrough, we were embarking on family outings through the woods, the kids’ first mountain biking adventures. The littlest biker, the only one without gears to shift, pedaled ferociously to keep up, bouncing jarringly over rocks and roots, but keeping her balance.

This spring, she got a new bike, one with gears and hand brakes. It is purple, and bigger than she was used to, and she is still figuring out how and when to shift. Still finding her balance on the steepest and bumpiest parts of the trail, where she is sometimes momentarily – and frustratingly – paralyzed by nerves. Still determined not to be left behind.

And I am still walking that unending parenting line of trying to help, holding on when she needs me to (and will let me) and encouraging her to figure it out on her own, to overcome her fears and meet a challenge I know she can handle, even if she’s not yet sure she can.

Last year, when she was still learning to pedal, my daughter insisted she needed me to hold her seat as she descended the big hill into our driveway. The steep pitch, combined with a sharp turn at the end, seemed a bit too scary to tackle on her own. I knew she could do it, but I grasped her seat with one hand until she told me to let go, knowing that soon enough she wouldn’t ask me to hold on. That I’ll have to keep letting go, a little at a time, and watch as she makes her own way down the driveway through the woods, into the world. 

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 22, 2015 edition of the Littleton Record.