Friday, August 22, 2014

Sorting Memories

Over the past few months, I have been picking away at the colossal project of organizing my office. As I’ve taken to working on my laptop in more convenient (and less messy) locations, this third-floor room has lately become a dumping ground for various stuff. Old camping gear and mismatched picture frames were chucked haphazardly into one of the small closets. Files and writing clips and photographs for unassembled albums were stacked in every corner. To hide the clutter, I would simple close the door and pretend it didn’t exist.

But this summer I have finally taken it on. I’ve cleaned out many years’ worth of junk from the closets. I’ve sorted my children’s art work and other keepsakes neatly by year into individual storage containers. I’ve recycled hundreds of gift boxes, which I’m not sure why I saved in the first place, since I’m a lazy present wrapper who generally skips the box and goes straight for the paper.

Amid the muddled mess were several boxes of personal items returned to me when my parents moved into a smaller house. For four years, these have been sitting in a disheveled heap in the corner of the office farthest from my desk. Occasionally I’ve peaked into a box to find an old journal or photograph. Inevitably, I’d end up sitting on the floor, flipping pages and digging through memories until one of the kids called for me or I remembered there was something on the stove or an appointment to keep.

The boxes contained my high school and college diplomas, VHS tapes of school performances, college reports, old ski passes, and faded sepia photographs of my great-grandparents (which will someday be hung in the hallway, if I ever get around to painting it). Some of these relics from the past have been easily sorted into the throw away pile, others reorganized and packed away more neatly.

Then there are the letters.

Over the past several days I have sorted through thousands of letters filed into shoeboxes and Christmas cards bundled by brittle rubber bands. The correspondence stretches back a bit longer than 20 years – before e-mail, certainly before abbreviated text messages. Some of the letters came from friends, a few from people I don’t now remember, and many from my parents, who were loyal correspondents of the news from home during the decade I spent elsewhere.

There are graduation cards and wedding cards, 20 years of Christmas greetings and birthday wishes, dozens of congratulatory notes from when my children were born, thank yous from kids I coached or people whose stories I shared in newspaper articles. The majority of these letters and notes have found their way to the recycling bin. But before I toss them away, I’m reading each one, gaining glimpses into different periods of my life, difficult to recall as I make my way through the now.

The biggest collection of letters arrived in my college mailbox during my first year away from home. These letters from my childhood friends are filled with all the insecurities and anxiety of being away from home – and from each other – for the first time in our lives. Amid hastily scrawled lines of uncertainty are stories from college, of classes and parties, new classmates and potential romances.

Most of the news contained within these letters is irrelevant now, more than two decades later. But I have enjoyed reading them, trying to remember the girl I was then – one who had great friends, was crazy about soccer, and had some kind of cow fetish. (So many soccer books and magazines. So many cards featuring cows!) One hockey-crazed friend wrote the names of Boston Bruins players in the return address instead of his own. Another sent me 15 handmade birthday cards one year. Many called me by nicknames I’d long ago forgotten.

As we all grew more comfortable in our worlds away from home, the letters evolved from college angst to news of new friends, anticipation of graduation, then the beyond-college adventures of 20-somethings moving to cities or out west, tackling grad school or med school or new jobs.

By then, e-mail was becoming prevalent, and long letters became increasingly rare. (One exception was the blue air mail envelopes containing pages-long letters filled with the left-handed-slanting scrawl of my former soccer coach in England and all the news of what was happening across the ocean, along with newspaper clippings with the scores and standings of English soccer leagues.) But occasional brief notes and stacks of Christmas cards each December still arrived in the mailbox. Eventually the notes and cards contained word of impending weddings, professional achievements, the arrival of children.

In my parents’ letters, their excitement and joy at my accomplishments and adventures is practically palpable, as is their shared disappointment and worry during challenging or indecisive times. My mother caught me up on what my brothers were doing, which friends of mine she’d run into recently around town, and other day-to-day happenings. My dad’s letters are a bit shorter and generally a little goofy. These contained soccer advice, notes on my finances, and reminders to get the oil changed in the truck.

I’m nearly through the boxes now. The journals will be filed by date and tucked into one of the cleaned-out closets along with a few photographs I’ll save. The school reports have, for the most part, been discarded. Most of the letters that filled three good-sized boxes have been recycled, and those saved now fit into one much smaller box.

Sorting through so many memories has made me feel a bit older, sometimes melancholy, often contently nostalgic, and relatively stationary. For a decade after leaving the only town I’d ever called home, I moved – beyond the region, across the country, abroad. The items contained in those boxes documented each new phase: the college freshman thrilled at making the soccer team, the graduate heading to the mountains of Colorado, the traveler moving to the west of Ireland, and – eventually – the New England girl coming home, getting married, starting a family.

Now, I’ve lived in the same house for nearly 10 years – longer than I’ve lived anywhere other than my childhood home. My parents are around the corner. New friends have come into my life and others faded away, although I’m still in touch with many of those who wrote me letters a long time ago, before we turned to shorter e-mail messages, fleeting texts, and notes passed through Facebook.  

I’m not sure what compelled me to save all those cards and letters, or why I am content now to let most of them go. Perhaps I was afraid of losing track of where I’d been or who I was. Probably it was just easier to move the boxes than to unpack them. Either way, it’s been good to sort through the memories while cleaning house – to hold on and let go all at once.

Original content by Meghan McCarthyMcPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. A version of this essay also appears in the August 22, 2014 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Picking Berries

"Can I eat them all?” my 5-year-old asked, staring at a large bowl of wild blueberries we’d plucked from low bushes along the side of a local road. When it comes to berries, this little girl is insatiable, and I
can’t blame her. After all, wild berries picked fresh from the vine or the bush are one of the great joys of summer.

Over the past few years, my family has a built a respectable list of secret and not-so-secret berry stashes: a thick patch of blueberries hidden amid the tangled brush of the southeast field, swaths of thorny blackberry bushes growing through the old apple orchard, and clusters of wild raspberries woven along the tumbledown, fern-ensconced stone wall at the far edge of the front yard.

If one berry spot is lacking, we move on hopefully to the next – the roadside pick where we found the blueberries my youngest was ready to devour last week, or the patch of raspberry bushes at the corner of our road, or the blackberry brambles at the edge of the woods in the front field. So far, our best crop this summer has been the raspberries growing through the thick hedge of rosa rugosa along the curve of our driveway.

“Berries!” called the littlest one (again) as we drove out one morning. I brushed off her claim at first, figuring she must have seen the rusty swell of rosehips within the prickly foliage. But she was persistent (as she often is), so I threw the minivan into reverse to check it out. Sure enough, the first pinky-red raspberries of the summer hung there amid the thorny rosebushes like tiny treasures. I picked the few I could reach and divvied them up between us.

That was weeks ago, and my daughter continues to visit that spot several times each day, reaching through the double thorns of  rose bushes and raspberry canes for each sweet prize, and beseeching the taller members of the family to pluck the berries that hang tantalizingly just beyond her reach.

I spent many a girlhood afternoon myself, once upon a time, scrambling through brambles to reach the berries that grew along the road near home. The scratches along bare arms and legs were a small price for the simple pleasure of wild berries eaten on the spot or saved for breakfast the next morning.

During college, I spent a summer in Ireland, studying history and literature and traveling around. While musing and wandering one day along a quiet lane just outside the village that had been home to my great-grandparents, I made the happy discovery of big, juicy blackberries growing in the roadside hedge. Their sun-warmed sweetness and the casual waves of passing strangers reminded me of home.

This summer, too, we have managed to find wild berries in our travels. During a visit with friends in Maine, we picked our way through some of that state’s famous wild blueberry bushes, located conveniently off the back porch. What the littlest one did not eat by the handful, we saved for breakfast the next morning. On our annual trek to Cape Cod, we discovered a small patch of blackberries just down the road from where we were staying. My children exclaimed at the find and spent 10 happy minutes plucking a colander full of plump berries, enough to last the week.

Closer to home, my children and husband and I keep watch on the berries each summer, looking first for the blossoms, then the bumpy green of unripe berries, and finally the succulence of the tiny, tasty treasures we’ve waited for. Then we set to picking.

While the kids prefer to grab blackberries and raspberries on the fly, before moving on to one of summer’s other distractions, my favorite to pick are the blueberries, tiny and low to the ground – and thornless. It is something like meditative therapy to crouch down in a quiet field and mindlessly plop small berries into a pail until it is full.

Each summer we bake our cache of wild berries into crumbles and muffins, blend them into smoothies, condense them into jam, pour them over pancakes, and package the leftovers neatly into the freezer for later. By far the best way to eat a wild berry, though, is fresh off the bush or the vine, juicy with sunshine, brimming with the sweetness of summer and good memories of past berry picking adventures.

Original content by Meghan McCarthyMcPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears in the August 8, 2014 edition of the Littleton Record.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Shaw-Doran Mt. Wash climb

Paralympian and all-around bad ass athlete Tyler Walker (and teammate Laurie Stephens) climbed the Mt. Washington Auto Road in wheelchairs yesterday as part of the Adaptive Sports Partners of the North Country's annual Sunrise Ascent fundraiser. In honor of the event, here's a story of the first wheelchair ascent, from the August 13, 2005 Caledonian-Record.


Staff Writer
Cam Shaw-Doran climbs hills mainly for the pure thrill of a speedy descent.
When he pushed to the top of the northeast’s highest peak last week, however, it was not for the glory of the downhill ride, but to become the first person in a wheelchair ever to summit 6,288-foot Mount Washington.
“We didn’t train at all. We just went over and did it,” Shaw-Doran said of the hike suggested by his friend Geoff Krill, who is also in a wheelchair.
The two set off up the Mount Washington Auto Road early Aug. 1 with a few friends and a video camera to document the trek. While Krill, exhausted, gave up the effort around the six mile mark – the road is 7.6 miles long – Shaw-Doran pushed on, reaching the summit at dusk.
Natives of the North Country, Krill and Shaw-Doran were both avid athletes and adventure-seekers prior to being paralyzed by separate accidents in the 1990s. Their Mount Washington hike is just one in a string of activities both men continue to pursue.
“Geoff totally lied to me,” Shaw-Doran, 26, said of the Washington climb. “He said, ‘Oh, yeah, the first mile’s the worst part.’ It just kind of got steeper and steeper.”
The feat took about 14 and a half hours and included pushing through some serious pain, as well as a hearty dose of the mountain’s infamous weather – chilling fog, squalling winds, and a succession of rain storms.
“I never felt like I wanted to stop, but I felt like I might not make it,” Shaw-Doran said this week, recalling severe muscle cramps and debilitating pain in his elbow. “Everything hurt.”
The climb was especially rough on his hands, which eventually became numb. To keep them from slipping off his rain-slicked, mountain bike-style tires, Shaw-Doran wedged his hands between spokes to turn the wheels of his chair.
The toughest stretch was a two-mile section of gravel. While Shaw-Doran pushed with all of his might on his chair’s large back wheels, the smaller front wheels would sink and spin. For much of the climb, his torso was pressed flat against his legs as he struggled to continue moving upwards without slipping back, especially near the end of the climb, where the grade is 22 percent – about a 45 degree angle.
“It’s brutal on your body,” Krill said. “It’s a great experience, but it’s not something that you’d want to do all the time.”
Krill, who has climbed other mountains on hiking trails in what he described as a team effort, said Washington was not on his peak-bagging to-do list, mainly because much of the route is paved. The motivation for the climb came at the end of June with a newspaper report that a man from Pennsylvania had tried unsuccessfully to reach the top of the mountain in a wheelchair.
When he realized no one in a wheelchair had ever summited Washington, Krill asked Shaw-Doran if he was up to the challenge.
“It’s our home state, and that’s the kind of thing we do around here,” Krill said. “It just made sense.”
While Krill did not reach the summit last week – he was bogged down by a 45-pound chair he said sapped his strength – he encouraged Shaw-Doran to keep pushing to get there.
“One of us had to make it up there,” Krill said. “You don’t go through this much effort and not make it.”

Against the grain
Shaw-Doran lives in Easton with world ski champion and lifelong friend Bode Miller in a house tucked behind the Tamarack Tennis Camp run by Miller’s family. The house has been dubbed “Cam-Bode-a” (pronounced: Cambodia) by some friends.
Before the car accident seven years ago that left Shaw-Doran’s legs paralyzed, he was an avid snowboarder. While the accident robbed Shaw-Doran of the use of his lower limbs, however, it has done little to diminish his playfully rebellious side.
In the first big air snowboarding contest Shaw-Doran entered as a kid, he was disqualified for doing a backwards inversion. Despite the disqualification, his jump – which he said he landed cleanly – was a big hit with spectators.
Shaw-Doran said it took him a year after the accident – six months of which were spent in the hospital – to be able to get around on his own. Gradually, he started hand-cycling, then skiing with a mono-ski – a bucket chair that rides on a single ski.
Now, he said, he can rip turns on any mountain in the winter and puts in 1,000 miles or more on his bike every summer. He’s a common sight along Easton Valley Road, arms pumping, chest heaving, as he works to spin the wheels and propel his bike along the pavement.
He’s also a student at Plymouth State University, where he’s working toward a degree in business.
Krill, who taught him how to ski with the mono-ski, said it took a little while to convince Shaw-Doran to get active again. Now the two spend a lot of time skiing and biking together.
“Life’s pretty cool in a wheelchair, and he’s figured that out,” said Krill, who was paralyzed in a snowmobile accident 10 years ago.
Krill is now the winter sports coordinator at the Loon Mountain adaptive ski program, where he teaches others who are wheelchair-bound that there’s plenty of fun to be had in the arena of the White Mountains.
Krill is also the first person to mono-ski Mount Washington’s legendary Tuckerman Ravine, a feat he accomplished this March.
Shaw-Doran has also figured out how to get going really fast on his bike. That love of speed – and his tendency to go confidently a little bit against the grain – is something he shares with Miller, who may be the fastest guy on the mountain on any given day, but is unlikely to show too much semblance of traditional form.
Shaw-Doran said the fastest he’s ever gone on his bike – about 60 miles-per-hour – was coming down Three Mile Hill in Franconia.
“I was kind of cheating,” he admitted. “Because I was drafting Bode in his Porsche.”

Inspiring others
Krill and Shaw-Doran both said they don’t have much desire to climb Mount Washington again. Krill would rather hike in his modified mountain chair, which has two long poles at the front – instead of the standard small front wheels – in what he described as a rickshaw style that allows other hikers to help pull him through river crossings and over boulders.
“There’s a lot of other things I would do before [hiking Washington],” Krill said. “I would rather go to places that are a little bit more pristine – I guess paths less traveled.”
Shaw-Doran would rather be out on the road with his hand-cycle or on a snowy mountain with his ski.
“I think I’ll bike across the United States,” Shaw-Doran said when asked what his next adventure would be. “That’s just an idea. I’ve always wanted to do it.”
Krill is game, and the two may embark on that long journey next summer, he said, if they can find the time and the sponsorship money to do it.
If they go, Krill said, he’d like the expedition to include visiting rehabilitation hospitals along the way. He hopes to carry a variety of sports gear to demonstrate to others in wheelchairs the vast possibilities for athletic and recreational activities.
“They just don’t realize what’s out there,” he said. “They need to see people doing it, who are active in it, to understand.”
While Krill said he and Shaw-Doran didn’t want any media attention prior to the Washington hike, because it would have taken away from their enjoyment of it, he said rousing others into action was one of his prime motivating factors.
“It’s great for the attention afterwards, because maybe it’ll inspire someone else in a chair,” Krill said.
Inspiration seems to be all in a day’s work – or a day’s play – for Krill.
“I would have never, ever gone or tried or made it without Geoff. I wish he could have been there with me,” Shaw-Doran said of his successful summit of the mountain. Then, with a grin, Shaw-Doran remembered that Krill has already achieved his own first on Washington: the mono-ski run down Tuck’s.
“He owns the other side of the mountain,” Shaw-Doran said.