Thursday, April 2, 2020

Day by day

A while back, after I mentioned feeling overwhelmed by deadlines and other duties, my friend Amy loaned me an Anne Lamott book titled “Bird by Bird.” Lamott’s title is a nod to a childhood memory and a reminder to writers – to all of us, really – to tackle projects one step at a time: bird by bird. To not get overwhelmed by the whole, big picture, but to focus on each detail along the way.

I think a lot of people right now are feeling the crush of many things piling up, many unfamiliar responsibilities taken on necessarily and sometimes reluctantly, and the vastness of the unknown. While I am grateful that my now-schooling-at-home children are old enough to do much of their work without constant guidance from me, and that I have a job that allows me to work remotely, and a house large enough that we can spread out to our own work spaces – well, it’s still a lot to adjust to.

My mantra has become not bird by bird, but day by day. One day at a time. Because none of us knows how long we will remain in this weird limbo of staying mostly at home, trying to help teachers teach kids who are no longer allowed into the classroom, learning how to meet virtually with colleagues to carry on working, missing friends we won’t be able to gather with for who-knows-how-long.

I’ve taken to going for a walk every day with the dog and whichever of the kids wants to tag along. I go through our woods (another thing for which I am thankful, especially now) or along the backroads near home.

Sometimes my parents will come, too, and we’ll walk along together, a safe distance apart from each other. Sometimes my son brings a football to toss back and forth along the way. During a walk last week, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in a while. Instead of exchanging a hug as we normally would have, we stood several feet apart and talked for a few minutes.

It was odd. Lots of things are odd now. The weirdness of nearly everything these days can be unsettling. In fact, I feel more unsettled than settled most days. I know I am not the only one.

We rarely leave the house other than by foot (or, occasionally, bike) these days, and it feels strange when we are in the car. A trip to the post office to collect the mail involves holding my breath before I step through the door, and quick hellos or distant waves rather than the normal catching up with neighbors. Grocery shopping, not my favorite task even before social distancing, is both awkward and worrying. We shoppers move along quickly and try to leave room, but there is only so much space for all of us to occupy.

And if someone accidentally sneezes in social distancing public, you can see everyone become immediately more tense.

My kids miss school and their friends and teachers – and the comfort of a familiar routine. Even with the extraordinary care and effort their teachers have put into it, having to all of a sudden do school remotely is stressful and confusing. Each of my children has had moments these last few weeks when they have become overwhelmed by the tasks at hand and by the strangeness of now.

All I can tell them is to tackle one task at a time, then move on to the next one. It’s what I’m telling myself, too. One thing at a time. One step at a time. Deep breaths as needed. All we can do is make our way through this day by day. 

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's April 3, 2020 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record. 

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Spring Swing

It’s that time of year when I turn the defroster on in the car in the morning and shift to the AC in the afternoon. The snowpack is receding to reveal green shoots of crocuses and daffodils pushing through half-frozen dirt. And the chickadees are singing longer and louder, with other birds adding their voices to the soundscape outside.

Ah, springtime. Just a friendly reminder, though, that we’re likely in for more winter before spring really sets in.

It’s a rare – maybe nonexistent – occurrence that one New England season simple ends and the next slides smoothly into place. I’m guessing there will be some more give and take between winter and spring – more cold wind, more blowing snow, more bundling up into layers – before the warmer, greener season really takes hold. But the transformation has begun.

Last week, the Connecticut River, where I cross over it from Thetford into Lyme on my way to the office, was a wide, smooth swath of silver-white. This week it’s melted out to a sleek ribbon of cold slate. Where snow covered the perennial bed just a few days ago, now the newly-exposed leaves are greening in the March sunshine, a first step toward summer blooms. Sap buckets hang from sugar maples, and the dog has taken her first dip of the year in an ice-free Bowen Brook.

The kids and I spent all of last weekend at ski races, where the spectators basked in the warm temperatures, and freckles sprouted on noses and cheeks. After school early this week, the kids changed into shorts and headed into the yard with a soccer ball. And so we find ourselves, again, in an in-between place, where mud and snow mingle in the yard, and ski boots and snow pants share space with flipflops and cleats near the front door.

This transitionary time is not always pretty. Tired snowbanks are melting away to reveal a winter’s worth of detritus. (And each year, I wonder who on earth drinks so many cans of bad beer before tossing the empties out the window.) Frost heaves mar the backroads I travel. People and pup track mud everywhere. Without a blanket of white, and before the pastel hues of spring paint the landscape, the most common color there could be considered “blah brown.”

But there is a hopeful sweetness to this shifting of seasons, too. I’m anticipating more days of sweet spring skiing peppering the earliest weeks of soccer practice. I’m starting to think about the garden and which vegetables to grow (or try to, at least) this year. And I wholeheartedly welcome the light of lengthening days.

There is still some snow to come, I’m sure, and cold. At some point, probably soon, I’ll have to don the extra layers again, at least for a while. But these sunny March days are a reminder that spring is on its way, meandering though it may be.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay was published in the Littleton Record as Meghan's Close to Home column on March 13, 2020.

Birthday Books

On a bookshelf in our family room, there are several photo albums wedged together. Some of these comprise photos I printed out (from film) and placed between the pages myself. There’s one from high school, a couple from my college years, and more from my post-college adventures in Colorado and Ireland.

The other albums are collections of childhood photos my mother gave me years ago. She was a master photo album-maker throughout the years of my childhood, keeping visual records of every trip we took, various childhood milestones, birthday parties and ski races, soccer camps and hiking trips – all compiled by year and labeled neatly. And then, several years ago, she took these apart, reassembled them by child, and gifted books to my brothers and me.

I once had great aspirations of keeping similar photo albums – thus, the college and immediately post-college years represented on my shelf. But then life got busier – and digital photos came into being. While I love the ease of taking and sharing images now, I rarely have them printed out anymore, let alone put neatly into albums with each event carefully labeled.

My husband and I were married 15 years ago, right around the time digital was really pushing film photography out of the way. In our bedroom, I have a box of wedding photos – something like 600 hundred of them – along with a lovely album that may someday contain those photos. And, while my older two children have a lovely baby book, my youngest has envelopes of photos somewhere that I may someday locate and organize into a book.

But – every year, each kid gets a book for his or her birthday. The photos are not individually printed and carefully placed between sticky-backed paperboard and clingy plastic cover, nor are they tucked by those little corner tabs onto pages. Rather, I download my photos onto a website, compile them there onto virtual pages, and then, through some photo site magic, they are printed directly onto pages, bound into a personalized book, and shipped to my doorstep.

This is not quite the same as the old photo albums, of course. The kids won’t be able, decades from now, to pull out a photo and turn it over to see if there are names or a date penciled carefully onto the back. But they serve as a record, nonetheless, and they have become a beloved birthday tradition – for both the receivers and the giver.

The kids like to turn the pages – quickly on the first look, then more slowly – to remember what they’ve done over the past 12 months, where they’ve been, and with whom. Like the photos from my childhood, these images show soccer games and skiing buddies, treks through the mountains, family trips and gatherings, sleepovers and time spent with friends. There are often sighs of happy contentment and a few giggles as the kids turn through the year just passed.

Making the books is time-consuming, and it is often agonizing to whittle the hundreds of digital photos I’ve taken over the course of a year down to a much smaller number that will fit within a book. But I love to go through those photos and remember, too. It’s a reminder to take a deep breath and enjoy these moments, even as they seem to fly by.

Often, on their birthdays, or after the birthday chaos has quieted some, the kids will go into the other room, pull out the collection of books from earlier birthdays, and flip through those as well. I think they like to remember how little they once were – to them it seems like forever ago, to me just the other day – to see traditions unfold across the years and new adventures mixed in.

Sometimes, one of my children will mention a place I’ve been to or a person I’ve shared stories with, and I’m able to pull a dusty album off the shelf and find a photo of that time, place, or personality. I hope these birthday books stand the test of time and go with my children wherever they wander. Then, someday, they can pull a book off a shelf, remember and share the stories held within.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay was published in the Littleton Record as Meghan's Close to Home column on February 14, 2020.

Friday, January 24, 2020

New Gig, New Digs

I started a new job last week. Since my twins were born – 13 years ago – I’ve worked primarily as a freelance writer. This has allowed me to (mostly) work around the kids’ schedules, from pre-preschool through elementary school, soccer practices through sick days from school, toddling to as-tall-as-I-am. It’s also meant that most days I have worked from the home office – and sometimes the dining room table.

The new gig allows some work-from-home time, which is great. It also involves two days in an actual, not-at-home, office, which is also great. But it’s a transition. I haven’t had to commute regularly, at least not beyond the two flights of stairs from the main floor to the upstairs office, for 13 years. I’ve gone to work in my slippers, or flipflops, depending on the season, for more than a decade.

Last Monday, I climbed into the car in work clothes and real shoes, full travel coffee cup in hand, and headed along the backroads between New Hampshire and Vermont to a new (to me) office in an unfamiliar town. Along the way from home to work I drive through a handful of other small towns, past houses older than our republic, along fields mowed for generations and rivers older than time.

And then I arrive in a quaint New England village not unlike myriad other quaint New England villages dotting the landscape from the northern mountains to the eastern seashore. There is a tall, white-clapboarded church standing next to a small green, with a general store just across the road from the old house where my office sits. Mine is a room upstairs, on the right, with two green-shuttered windows looking toward the neighboring house, a placement very similar to my childhood bedroom in the 1720s house where I grew up (in another small town in a different state).

My second day at the office, I headed out for a fresh air fix. My colleague suggested I explore the short trail through conserved land just behind the office. So I walked a little ways down a quiet road, then turned into the woods and continued on a path that followed a river (I don’t know, yet, the river’s name) and traversed tall trees and giant glacial erratics.

I was happy to learn of this path so close to the office, and I expect I’ll walk there many times as the seasons shift. Eventually I popped back out onto Route 10, walking past the elementary school and the post office, then stopping into the general store to peruse the offerings.

The driver of the first car to pass me when I returned to the road waved as if I were an old friend. Perhaps she thought I was someone else. But I like to think it’s a small town thing that – like the school and the general store, the church and the common – translates from one place to another. Whatever the reason behind the wave, it contributed to the feeling of welcome I felt in this unfamiliar-familiar landscape, a bit further from home than I’m used to being. 

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 24, 2020 issue of the Littleton Record.

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.