Friday, April 11, 2014

Waxing poetic

My daughter, who is 7 years old, has started writing poetry. This new interest seems to have grown from a poetry project in her first grade class, in honor of April being National Poetry Month and in preparation for the school’s upcoming Poetry Night.

There is a history of poetry here, of course. The White Mountains, and the forests and fields and villages around them, have inspired countless writers and poets, including Robert Frost, who lived for a time down the road from where I live now. My daughter’s recent poetry, not surprisingly, is inspired simply by the happy thoughts of a 7-year-old.

So far, she has waxed poetic about rabbits, dogs, cats, and the month of April. In one poem, she combined all of those things: April rabbits/April dogs/April cats/I love them all. Sometimes she writes her poems into big hearts she’s drawn on the page. She likes to use her new sparkly pen and write in her new sparkly notebook. She is a girl who loves to throw a little sparkle into everything she does.

Before my daughter wrote poems, she wrote books. These tended to center around seasonal themes – the bats and ghosts and witches of Halloween, the sand and seashells of a summer trip to the ocean. When she feels like writing, she sits down within the lively din that is nearly constant in our house, touches the end of her pencil (or pen) to the side of her mouth, opens to a new page, and just starts writing.

I love that my daughter writes. In this, she is like me. I have loved to put words on paper since I was old enough to climb the tall pine tree in the backyard of my childhood home and sit there with my notebook, surveying my world, thinking thoughts, writing some of them down.

In many other things, my daughter is quite different from me. She has, for instance, this confident sense of style that allows her to pair patterns and colors and textures that seem outlandish, but somehow work for her. While she struts like a fashion diva, I walk like a tomboy. Where she manages to always be fashionable – even on the soccer field or in the sand box – I can’t even manage to be fashionably late, preferring instead to be a few unfashionable minutes early to everything.

For the first two summers after my children were born, I worked as a docent at The Frost Place, that house just down the road where the great poet and his family lived nearly a century ago. It was there that I realized how powerful, and how meditative, poetry can be. I spent many a quiet afternoon reading Frost’s poems, his words strung together in timeless lines and stanzas. I already knew “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by heart and “The Road Not Taken” nearly as well.

In those summers, I discovered other Frost poems – “Revelation” and “Reluctance” among them – and other poets. One night, there was a reading with three contemporary poetry greats: Maxine Kumin, Galway Kinnell, and Donald Hall. I don’t remember which poems they read that summer evening, but I left Robert Frost’s old barn feeling both contemplative and euphoric. That is the power of poetry.  It is in song lyrics and music, in really well-written prose, in nursery rhymes and children’s books. It can be soulful or silly, graceful or gritty, straightforward or nuanced with hidden meaning.

The first lines I ever memorized came not from a poem, but from a famous passage in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” which I was required to learn for a high school English class. I remember the lines all these years later because they seem relevant now as they were when I was a teenager: “This above all: to thine own self be true,/And it must follow, as the night the day,/Thou canst not then be false to any man.” (There is a lot of other good stuff in that speech by Polonius, but I didn’t have to memorize all of it.)

Be who you are, and the rest falls into place. Those are good words to live by, I think, words I’d like my children to heed as they find their way in the world. I don’t know if my daughter will continue to write poetry, or if this is a fleeting interest. But I hope she’ll stay true to her sparkly, fashionable, confident self. And I hope she’ll always find a bit of poetry in her life.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings from a full life. This essay appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the April 11, 2014 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, March 28, 2014

What's cooking on Facebook?

I was a social media skeptic for a long time. I figured I was in touch with everyone I need to be in touch with, and I didn’t have time for more Internet distraction.

Alas, I eventually caved and created a Facebook account. Along with finding plenty of old friends there, and several people I hadn’t even realized I missed, I’ve also made new connections that are sometimes purely social and sometimes work-related. Yes, I actually conduct work through Facebook, from posting links to copy I’ve written for various businesses to tracking down people I’d like to interview for stories I’m writing.
As anyone who spends even a smidgen of time navigating social media knows, Facebook and Pinterest and the rest can be one great big time suck. It’s so easy to be distracted by videos of cute puppies, or decorating ideas, or the latest political baloney those certain friends can’t help but share – without actually fact-checking the source first.

But social media has its benefits, too. For me, as a writer, the great big world of social media allows me to share my work with a larger – or at least different – audience than it otherwise might attract. It’s also a place to build my network of sources, which is especially helpful when my subject matter ranges from luna moths and hiking to Christmas trees, chamber music, and staying sane while raising kids.

A few weeks back I used Facebook to track down someone I wanted to interview for a story I’m writing for a ski magazine. We’d never met, but I had his name and a few basic bits of information, and he was easy to find on Facebook. Sent a message, got a response, and set up the interview with a few key strokes. Beautiful.

Turns out my interview subject and I had a few shared connections, or connections-once-removed. He used to ski race with a guy I used to coach with, and he’s also friends with the son of my former boss. Small (virtual) world. I used Facebook to set up two other interviews with strangers for that story, too. So, along with the given distractions of the social media world, I also got some work done that day, via Facebook.

Earlier this week, while sitting home with a sick child and grappling with the new realization that I’d be without a stove and oven for an entire week, I put a post on Facebook about my dilemma. Within minutes I had meal ideas ranging from pancakes or quesadillas on the electric griddle to crock pot chicken and pizza on the grill. One friend offered the loan of a toaster oven, another said I was welcome to use her kitchen, and my sister-in-law invited us for dinner.

The most entertaining suggestion came from a former local town official, with whom I used to speak just about every day when I worked as a newspaper reporter. I haven’t seen or spoken with him in years, other than on Facebook. He shared a link to an NPR piece titled “Coffee Maker Cooking: Brew Up Your Next Dinner.” (Check out the article here.) I don’t think I could bring myself to place a piece of salmon with ginger and garlic into my coffee pot, while steaming broccoli and cauliflower in the basket. But it was an interesting read.

So, beyond pure distracted amusement and work-related contacts, social media this week provided me with useful information, along with the whimsical meal musings of friends. Where else can you get dinner ideas from people from your past and present, down the road and across the country, new friends and childhood buddies, work colleagues and fellow preschool moms, even the local police chief? That is the wild and wacky web social media weaves.

One of the responders to my post, a woman I went to high school with half a lifetime ago, suggested I check out Pinterest for more ideas. I’m still holding out on that one. I don’t Tweet either (at least not yet), so you won’t find any hashtags in my posts. But if you’re reading this (or any of my other stuff) online and want to pass it along, by all means, click the share button!

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 March 28, 2014 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Signs of Spring

I ordered my first batch of seeds for the vegetable garden this week, reminding myself that even as March snowfall blankets the ground in a clean layer of white, spring is – eventually – coming. March is notoriously fickle around here, changing from cold and snowy to warm and sunshiny, then back again. All of spring, really, is like that; last year a Memorial Day snowstorm had my flip-flop-wearing kids scrambling to find warm coats and mittens as they ran outside to build a snowman.

This year's buds, last year's leaves, and new snow.
Last week, as the season’s persistent subzero temperatures met us each morning, even my winter-loving children had had enough. “I just want it to be spring,” moaned my daughter, as her siblings agreed. When I reminded my skiing-sledding-shoveling-snow-angel-making kids that they loved winter, my son replied, “But, Mama, I like winter better when it snows.”

Lucky kid got his wish, waking up to a thin layer of snow Tuesday morning, followed by a major storm midweek. He rushed through breakfast and headed outside to shovel before going to school. As I approach the deadline for submitting this column, it’s snowing hard, with a foot or more predicted. That translates to three happy little skiers and a happy ski mom.

Of course, by mid-March, many folks are winter weary and ready for spring. Often, these are the same folks who don’t like winter in any month, and I find their choice of living in New England odd. But I admit there are days, as March stretches toward April, when I, too, long for warmer days and fewer layers of clothing.

This yearning happens to me at the waning of each season. Near the end of summer, I crave the crisp coolness and color of fall. As that color fades to stark brown and grey, I wish for the sparkle of winter’s snow and ice to brighten the landscape – and my psyche. After months of cold and winter white, I happily anticipate the return of color to the landscape.

The animals are ready for spring after a long winter of cold, too. In our field, the deer have returned lately to the old apple orchard, traversing our ski- and snowshoe-packed tracks and scratching through the crust to reach the cold, hard apples that fell last fall. More birds are arriving at the feeder, which during the coldest months is frequented mainly by chickadees and a pair of blue jays. I’m hesitant to refill the feeder now, as I’m sure the bears, too, will emerge from their winter hideouts soon.

Spring here can be a season of strange juxtaposition. Snowbanks piled high from a March storm stand adjacent to mushy mud puddles in the driveway. Leaf buds swell on the tips of tree branches even as icicles drip from the eaves of the house. Snow boots and winter hats mingle with mud boots and ball caps in the front hall. My children these days are likely to ski in the morning, then come home and haul their bicycles out of the garage in the afternoon.

I like to think of these seasonal contrasts as holding the potential for the best of both worlds. Ski in the morning, bike in the afternoon. Roll up sleeves and uncover faces to soak in the first warm sunlight of the year, then tuck into a favorite chair by the fire as the warmth of afternoon fades to the chill of evening. Watch the snow fall, then melt, then fall some more, as we plant the first seeds of spring into pots by the window.

No matter what the weather is outside, these little seeds will sprout and grow, reminding us that spring is – eventually – coming. In the meantime, we’re heading out to play in the snow.

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 March 14, 2014 edition of the Littleton Record.