Friday, February 27, 2015

Extra Baggage

Traveling to new places, whether down the road or a long airplane ride away, is something I have always loved. Packing is another (not so loved) story. In my 20s I perfected the art of traveling light – a summer of backpacking in Europe, impromptu camping trips out west, and a 6-month stint in Ireland with only one (very large) suitcase.

These days I don’t wander so far or so often, nor do I travel so lightly. My excursions now tend to include an entourage of three children and all of their – and my – stuff. I wonder what my minimalist 20-something self would think of all the bags we carry.

One summer, while I was in college, I spent three weeks living out of a backpack. That was a glorious three weeks during which I visited Paris, Nice, Rome, Florence, Salzburg, and Innsbruck. I went to art museums and cathedrals, tossed foreign coins into famous fountains, ate perfect croissants and creamy gelato, and climbed mountains in two different countries – all in the same four t-shirts, three pairs of shorts, and one wool sweater.

I thought I was pretty suave to be traveling so light. But throughout my backpacking journey, I met seriously light travelers: people – mostly Australians and New Zealanders – who had been backpacking around Europe and beyond for months, sometimes longer than a year, each with only one worn pack.

Just after turning 27 I packed my bags – one very large suitcase and a much smaller carry-on – and headed from the Colorado mountains to the west of Ireland for six months. The suitcase was temporarily lost somewhere between Denver International Airport and Shannon, Ireland, so I lived for four days with the clothes I had on and one partial extra set I’d thrown into the carry-on.

Contrast that to our first family vacation, which was a mere week at a lake in the wilds of Wayne, Maine. My youngest was a baby that summer, and the older two still in diapers. The back row of seats in the minivan was folded flat, and we filled that space to brimming with Tonka dump trucks, water toys, sleeping bags, floaty tubes for the lake. And enough diapers for three kids to last a week

We’ve since moved the summer vacation to Cape Cod. Luckily my parents go with us, because we need two vehicles to transport all that stuff: sand toys and books and favorite stuffed animals and a week’s worth of food staples and snacks. But no diapers, thank goodness. Last summer we also went to visit friends on the coast of Maine for a quick overnight, and I swear we packed nearly the same amount as we would have for a week away.

Last week we embarked on our first family expedition involving airplane travel – a whole new adventure in going places. Yes, this winter-loving family flew south for a week, lamenting leaving the all that great snow to other skiers, but relishing the chance to feel some summer-like warmth during an exceedingly cold winter.

In true mom fashion, I had the kids’ warm weather clothing pulled from winter storage and packed neatly into their new suitcases several days before our trip. My own bag, on the other hand, I grabbed the morning of departure and filled helter-skelter with wrinkled shorts and a couple of sundresses, flip-flops and bathing suits, and my youngest child’s purple stuffed unicorn, which took up a good quarter of my large bag and without which, she claims, she cannot sleep.

Maybe this change in my packing savvy has something to do with having children. Or with being out of practice. Or with there being too much space in the suitcase. Whatever the reason, I’m pretty sure the traveling, and the experiences we have along the way, are more important than the bags we carry.

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 February 27, 2015 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Winter Hardy

I’ve brushed a new layer of fluff off the windshield just about every morning for the past two weeks. My husband has taken to dropping the plow nearly each trip into or out of the driveway, scraping away the snow that has fallen since the truck’s last passage. I’ve lost track of the number of days that have started off with temperatures well below zero and barely warmed.

It’s Winter, all right, and it looks like she’s settled in, which is just fine by me.

It takes a good dose of New England hardiness to survive a winter like this. At least to survive it with some sense of good cheer. There is shoveling and roof clearing and endless plowing and firewood carrying. If you’re lucky (and smart) there is also skiing and snowshoeing and ice skating and sledding and snow fort building. My kids (and I, too) lamented the December rain and the loss of white from our landscape. Cold and brown is no good for a winter-loving soul. Cold and snow is an entirely different, and much happier, thing.

It seems while we head into the white looking for fun, many animals – the hardiest of New Englanders – have hunkered down since the deep snowfall. A few weeks ago our fields were laced with deer tracks and the hopping marks of red squirrels and the canine paw prints of coyotes, along with fox and the elusive bobcat. Lately, however, when I strap on the cross-country skis for a mind-clearing trek through the field and woods, I see far fewer tracks. A solitary deer trail emerging from the trees here, a snowshoe hare track bounding across the path there. The garden compost heap, which had been visited regularly by a bold doe, has been left alone for days, except by the crows.

On the coldest days, even the ever-cheery chickadees wait until well after I’ve had my own breakfast to visit the feeder. A pair of blue jays often sit puffed against the chill on bare branches nearby, their brightness almost startling against a backdrop of white. The other day a barred owl perched atop a dead birch tree in the field, head turning methodically in search of a meal, feathers ruffled by the wind. Eventually the owl gave up and flew away; there were no small rodents moving through the deep snow below.

The only animal who seems unbothered by the cold and deepening snow is the porcupine, whose trough-like trail through the woods crosses the human-made path of snowshoes and skis just where it has the past few winters. Scraping teeth marks appear like brush strokes across several smallish yellow birch trees along the trail, revealing where the porcupines ate the inner bark, a favorite winter meal.

I know there are plenty of people who hunker down, too, closed up in their warm houses waiting for spring through the long northern winter. And there are others whose children have had far too many snow days (while here we’ve had zero snow days and still plenty of snow), wreaking havoc on the already complicated logistics of family schedules. In Boston and other cities, they are running out of places to put all the snow; commuting is an ongoing nightmare, and this winter is a multifaceted headache there.

Here, it is just winter, to be endured or enjoyed, depending on your perspective. Sure, plowing and shoveling become tiresome when they are daily chores, but all that pushed-up snow makes a great foundation for a snow fort. Frigid temperatures can certainly wear a person down after a while, but that cold makes the cocoa all the better. Driving through snow is not much fun, but skiing in it is pure, invigorating bliss.

In mid-February, the days are noticeably longer than a few weeks ago. To some, that means spring is coming. To the rest of us, it means more daylight for basking in Winter’s white glow.

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 February 13, 2015 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, January 23, 2015

A Girl's Best Friend

The first time we met Lily it was clear she was the rowdiest pup in her litter of four. She bounced around the other puppies, constantly nagging them to wrestle and smiling an ebulliently happy golden retriever grin as she pinned them, then rolled in the dirt, then beseeched them to play some more.

It’s been eleven years – and countless life changes – since we brought Lily home. While our golden girl’s muzzle has whitened and her step is not quite so spry as it was a decade ago, Lily maintains the lovable feistiness she radiated as a puppy.

Wanna play?
When she was tiny and newly ours and we’d take her on walks up the dirt driveway, Lily would sprint as fast as her clumsy puppy feet would allow before flopping down superman style, front legs stretched out before her, back legs flattened behind, and a look of sheer disbelief that she still had so far to travel. After a brief pause, she’d be up again and running with wild abandon for a few more yards.

Lily’s curiosity and zest for a good time landed her in some tight spots when she was a pup. She once crawled into the culvert under our driveway and was briefly – but alarmingly – stuck. Somehow we managed to coax her through to the far side, since she couldn’t back up and we couldn’t get in to reach her. She still looks longingly into culverts, although she soon grew too big to explore them.

Lily has accompanied us through all the changes that passing time brings. When we first brought her home, she had to learn to live with two cats – and found out the hard way that cats have sharp claws and short tempers. Before she was quite full grown, we moved to a different house, with lots of new scents, new things to chew, and fish to catch from a garden pond – which, inspired by Lily’s fishing adventures, we soon filled in to make a patio.

She donned a pretty purple collar one hot, late August day and stood with us – and our family and friends – in the field between the house and the mountains as we were married. And when she was not quite three years old, we came home one day with two tiny, wiggly bundles of unfamiliar smells and noises. We were entirely preoccupied with these mysterious creatures, often too tired to give belly rubs. 

Regardless, in typical golden fashion, Lily set out to love these new members of the pack. For the first week or so, whenever one of them would fuss or start to cry, Lily would come closer to investigate, offering her help (but obviously unsure what to do). Turns out two babies can make a lot of noise for a surprisingly large part of the day and night, and soon poor Lil simply retreated from the crying in search of a quiet spot to rest. How often during those exhausting days I wished I could go with her, curl up, fall asleep and dream the day away.

Before long there was another baby, and as kids and dogs are wont to do, they have all become buddies, although the old dog still retreats sometimes from the clamor. But Lily knows the children now measure the food into her bowl twice a day and feed her sandwich crusts after lunch. They rub her ears and her belly. They take her for walks through the woods and throw sticks into the cool brook for her to retrieve. Many mornings she comes with me to see the children off to school.

It is a sad reality that our canine companions age so much more quickly than we do. When we brought Lily home, I was barely 30 and she was barely weaned. Now I am in the nebulous realm of middle age, while she is something like 70 in golden retriever years. As the children have grown more independent in recent years and my work has evolved into a mostly home-based venture, Lily and I have settled increasingly into a rhythm of togetherness.

She will no longer climb the stairs to the third-floor office, and so I find space at the dining room table to work, preferring both the warmth of downstairs and the easy company of the dog. When I sit down to write, she lies nearby and is soon breathing the soft, sighing snore of an old dog. Now and then she places her head on my lap and stares at me from deep brown eyes, now enveloped in a mask of white, beseeching me to stop typing and pet her or take her for a walk.

Usually, eventually, I give in and we head into the woods together, she sniffing a dog’s treasure trove of delightful forest smells and I appreciating the a mind-clearing break and the quiet companionship of a good dog.

There was a time, not so distant, when Lily walked patiently up the hills by my side as I struggled to jog while pushing a double baby stroller, but she won’t run with me anymore. I am not a far nor a fast runner, but I’m too fast and too far-running for Lily. Normally she is up and wiggling with anticipation when she sees her people preparing to go out the door – to school or for a hike or a drive to the post office or anywhere. But when she sees me lacing up my running shoes, she sighs and gives me a look that seems to say, “Please don’t ask me to come with you.”

And so I alter my pace when I can, as Lily once did for me, so that we can go together. Sometimes we just head out into the yard for a few minutes or take a short loop around the field. This she can do alone – and often does, barking out toward the woods to let the wild things know this is her territory. But she seems to like the human company – and the possibility of a longer adventure.

On our walks, whether brief or ambling, Lily will sometimes lag behind, investigating a particularly interesting scent. When I turn to call her, she comes bounding my way, ears back, eyes laughing, tongue hanging sideways from a smiling mouth. In that happy stride she still looks like the puppy we brought home one spring day a lifetime ago: a little bit wild, infectiously joyful, and always ready to play.

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 23, 2015 edition of the Littleton Record.