Friday, December 23, 2016

Christmas Crazies

The kids are wild with excitement this week. They’ve come home from school bouncing around from couch to window seat and room to room until finally – five minutes after walking through the door – I send them outside. They are entwined in an ongoing, animated conversation about Christmas and presents and Santa. They giggle hysterically through dinner and into bedtime. What they dream of when they finally sleep, I don’t know, but my guess would be it’s some version of maniacally-twirling sugar plums.

Yes, the Christmas crazies are running rampant in my house.

I remember when the kids were preschoolers – not that long ago – and this holiday-frenzied excitement manifested itself, often, in bad behavior. As Christmas got closer, the kids’ naughtiness seemed to escalate. Shouldn’t it get better, I thought, with the looming threat of Santa passing them by on Christmas Eve?

Back then, I think the acting out was a combination of overwhelming excitement they had no idea how to handle and tiredness from the extra festivities, late nights, and too many sugar cookies.

Maneuvering through Christmas has become both easier and more complicated as my children have grown. Bedtimes are looser these days, and the kids are relatively self-sufficient, which makes many things simpler. But presents have to be more discreetly and expertly hidden. There are additional family and work obligations. And long gone is the era of wrapping gifts during the children’s naptime.

The holidays come at a time already busy for me and for my family. And sometimes, like most everybody, I am enveloped by my own version of the Christmas crazies. Sometimes I lose my patience. Sometimes I feel an acute sadness for the people in places far beyond the peace and happiness we treasure during this season, people where the world around them is, quite literally, crashing down. Then I feel guilty for being stressed out about whether I have enough stocking stuffers to fill an inordinately large sock.

Amid the frenzied sending of cards and wrapping of presents, of holiday parties mingling with work deadlines, I remind myself that behind the chaos of the season, the underlying purpose is joy and kindness and love. I remind myself to pause and focus on the important things, to savor these moments of Christmas craziness.

The craziness, after all, comes from a combination of stress and joy. The trick is focusing on the latter – on the giggling and wonder, the events that offer an opportunity to reconnect with friends and community, to reflect on both the passing of time and the spirit of the season.

Last week, during the school concert, I remembered when my kids were the littlest ones, the kindergarteners doing the Penguin Polka as the audience smiled and clapped and laughed delightedly at the sky-high cuteness factor. This year, mine were among the bigger kids, excited to take the stage after weeks of rehearsing. They were in the band, playing Tchaikovsky and Pachelbel, and in the chorus, singing Hava Nagila – which, if you’re wondering, translates to “Let us rejoice!”

My children are in that space between. No longer little kids, but not yet grown up. Aware of much of the reality around them, but still innocent in their hold on magic and wonder. Hoping hard that Santa will deliver the things they’ve asked for, but also excited to give the gifts they carefully selected at the school’s annual Recycle Sale – and others they were inspired to find or create at home after the sale.

There will come a time, likely very soon, when Christmas is not quite as magical as it is in these days of Santa and reindeer and resident elves. So I savor the joyfulness of my children – despite the Christmas crazies. I watch the lights twinkling on the tree, like stars in the cold winter sky. I delight in the sweetness of sugar cookies, kid-decorated with far too many sprinkles. I breathe in the kids’ excitement and happy innocence during this busy, but magical, time.

Tomorrow night, as we have done every year since they were babies, my children and I will snuggle together to read The Night Before Christmas. My mind will likely swirl with all there is to do after they are in bed, all there is to do the next day. But I will push those thoughts aside and tuck the kids in tight, watch the joy dancing in their eyes as I leave them to their Christmas Eve visions of presents and sparkling snow and magic.

Let us rejoice, indeed; Hava Nagila. And Merry Christmas to all.

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 December 23, 2016 edition of the Littleton Record.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Holding on to the Magic of Christmas

I wrote this last year for an online publication. Yesterday my older daughter asked me how old I was when Santa stopped bringing me presents. And my son wondered why Santa hadn't emailed the kids' video messages yet. Seems the magic is still alive...

It all started with a loose tooth. Well, maybe that wasn’t the only factor in my efforts to make this Christmas the most magical one yet for my children, but it was the deciding one.

A few weeks ago, my youngest daughter, on the tail end of six years old, had a wiggly tooth. This led to a discussion of the Tooth Fairy, during which my nearly nine-year-old girl said, quite matter-of-factly, “I don’t know about the Tooth Fairy. What does she do with all those teeth, anyway? And the Easter Bunny. Bunnies are wild forest animals. Why would they leave eggs for kids? I think it’s really people. I think the parents do it.”

This came not half an hour after she’d happily been drafting her annual letter to Santa Claus, filled with questions about the well-being of his reindeer and polite requests for items on her wish list. I tried not to panic.

“Please just give me one more year of magic at Christmastime,” I wished silently. “One more year of full-fledged, whole-hearted belief in flying reindeer and a busy North Pole workshop staffed by pointy-eared elves and a jolly, bearded, present-bearing man who eats the cookies we leave out on Christmas Eve.”

I know my children won’t believe forever. And I know that when they stop believing, some of the enduring enchantment of the season will disappear like a poof of smoke in a magic show. So I’m walking that line of building up the magic as much as I can and trying to keep it real enough that they don’t start doubting. Finding that line is tough. If Santa can get around the globe in one night in a flying sleigh that holds presents for all the world’s children and is powered by reindeer—well, what isn’t believable?

I find myself second-guessing many things. If Santa brings one child something slightly different from what she requested, will it be good enough? Are the individualized Portable North Pole videos still plausible to kids who are developing a more mature sense of reasoning? And if they watch those videos too many times, will they notice subtle similarities and differences between each that make them wonder? How am I supposed to answer the question, “Is that the real Santa?” when we go to the town Christmas party? And will the children recognize that Santa is a local high school teacher we often see around town? If I forget to move the Elf, does it mean the magic gig is up?

Ah, yes, the Elf. I was an Elf on the Shelf holdout for a long time. The thought of having to remember and plan one more thing during the frenzied holiday season did not appeal to me in the least. For years, I have resisted the Elf trend. But the Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny discussion inspired a panicked Elf purchase. Even as I placed him in his first hiding spot, I wondered if the kids would question the timing of the Elf’s arrival, well past December 1st, when the one at their Grandmother’s house had appeared. Or if they’d think it strange that an Elf showed up even though they hadn’t asked Santa to send one.

“Santa must have read my mind!” my son exclaimed, when the Elf was discovered. The girls jumped excitedly around the living room, eyes fixed on the red-and-white, unblinking, perpetually smiling Elf perched precariously on a stocking holder. “He knew I wanted one even though I didn’t say so in my letter!”

They named him Jingle, and every morning since his magical arrival the children have hurried downstairs, still bleary-eyed, heads pivoting from side to side, looking in the tree, on the mantle, at the dining room shelves, searching until Jingle is gleefully spotted. They have written him letters, drawn him pictures, composed Elf-y haikus for this strange little toy. Jingle, it seems, has injected a bit more magic into this most magical time.

I know my children will still love Christmas even when they learn the truth about Santa (will they think me a great liar then?) and discover that Jingle is moved by the same humans who hide treasure-filled plastic eggs on Easter. But some of the sparkle will be gone then, no matter how twinkly the Christmas tree lights, how glittery the snow outside, how tantalizing the promise of presents.

We fill the holidays with magic that is, supposedly, for the children. But along the way, we grown-ups get swept up in the magic, too. In the memories of our own childhoods, the happy anticipation of a loved one opening a special gift, the comfort of a season of kindness and cookies and gathering with family and friends. As with so many things, it’s the children’s enthusiasm that inspires the level of joy.

I’m holding on to this abundance of Christmas magic for as long as I can. Jingle the Elf is helping, I think. “Mama, I love Jingle,” my littlest one tells me. And all three, daily, say, “I’m so happy we have an Elf.”

On Christmas Eve—our last day with Jingle until next December—we’ll hang our stockings by the fireplace and leave a few cookies on a plate by the tree for Santa. Then, as we do every year, we’ll snuggle up to read “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” And my children will drift off to sleep with visions of sugar plums, Santa Claus and flying reindeer dancing through their minds. Like magic.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Snow Globe World

It is snowing as I sit at my desk. Fat flakes sifting down outside the window. The evergreens along the driveway are, suddenly, adorned in winter white. The red splash of a December-blooming geranium on the inside of the glass contrasts with the snow globe scene beyond.

After last winter’s dismal snowlessness and too-warm temperatures, I’m almost afraid to hope the snow will stay this year, hesitant to picture the brown of the field buried in a blanket of cold white. But somebody is shaking the snow globe hard today. I hope it keeps coming.

In this busiest of busy months – with presents to select and wrap, decorating to do, cookies to bake, Christmas cards to write, parties to attend, school concerts – it is easy to feel overwhelmed. I love Christmas – the magic and festivity and excited anticipation – but in these busy December days I sometimes feel far behind, stressed out, overbooked.

Snow makes it better.

It also makes it harder to concentrate. I want to get outside, back on my skis, back on the mountain. We had one measly excuse for a powder day last year. Maybe, I think, this will be my only chance. But there is too much to do today. Too many deadlines. There is no time for a long outing to the mountain, booting up, riding chairlifts, floating through new snow.

Instead, I’ll dig out the old cross-country skis I never used last winter. Find the faux leather boots that are cracking at the edges. Glide through the field, whose stubbly vegetation, cut roughly by the bush hog, catches my skis now and then.

Into the woods with the puppy.

She’s just a few months old, still learning about the world around her. A world transformed now by white. At first, she bites at the tapered tips of my skis, pouncing as they move. But she’s a quick learner, and a few glides into the trek, the pup is running alongside me. Fast, excited, wondering what this new adventure is.

She pushes her nose into the cold snow when we pause, comes up with a faceful of white.

The snow keeps falling. White fluff floating onto the wide hemlock boughs that stretch over the trail. My old skis glide across this first winter layer, skimming over the brittle, barely-frozen leaves that fell in autumn and are not yet fully covered.

The puppy runs ahead, whimpering softly now and then. She’s never been this far into the woods and is happy when we reach the yard again, relieved at the familiarity of home.

Tomorrow, as they do every morning in December, counting backwards from 25, my children will remind me exactly how many days are left until Christmas. I’ll inhale, fighting anxiety over all there is still to do. Exhale. It is snowing. I’m dreaming of a white Christmas – and more ski treks through quiet of snowy woods.

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 December 9, 2016 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Skiing Through Black Friday

The idea of joining throngs of hyped up shoppers the day after Thanksgiving has never appealed to me. I’m not much of a shopper to start – I can barely stand grocery shopping – and I don’t do well in crowds. For all my adult life, I have lived in places where it is easier to get into the mountains than it is to find a mall; this is one of the many things for which I am thankful – on Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and all the other days.
Far from the madding crowds: scoping out a new season.

While the hoards of Black Friday shoppers rise early to stand in line, my family, if all goes well, will be making our way to the mountain for opening day of ski season. When there is snow on Thanksgiving weekend, I ski. That has been true since my immediate post-college years when I lived in Crested Butte, Colorado.

During those ski town days, I usually spent Thanksgiving working, then joined friends – and friends of friends – gathered in someone’s living room for a hodgepodge of holiday dishes and traditions around a makeshift collection of card tables and mismatched chairs. Most of us were far from home and family, working odd holiday hours in a town where shops, restaurants, and ski lifts were open on Turkey Day.

People showed up when they could, after or between shifts, coming together in the comfort of good food, friendly company, and talk about the fresh ski season. Back then I was thankful for being in the mountains, living in a beautiful place with other people who embraced that beauty and loved exploring the wide-open spaces around us. I was happy to have a job that included daily ski breaks, a decent place to live, and people to gather with on this holiday of giving thanks, even if they weren’t quite family.

I’m not sure I even knew about Black Friday until I moved back East. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention before. Or maybe this national day of shopping has morphed in the past couple of decades into the consumeristic beast it is now. In the modern era of constant connectivity, you don’t even have to leave the house to buy presents, and online shopping has its own special holiday in Cyber Monday.

Well before Thanksgiving, I started receiving texts and emails touting Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales, sometimes from stores where I’ve never even shopped. They can send all the advertisements they want, I still won’t be buying today, and probably not Monday either. My holiday shopping tends to be on the small scale (even with three kids) and as local as I can make it.

During the Black Fridays I worked as a reporter, I spent a good portion of the day after Thanksgiving popping into those local shops in the post-parade crowd of Main Street Littleton, talking with local business owners and shoppers. The resulting story was generally a combination of fluff (what were the “hot” items this season) and substance (how important were Black Friday sales to these small shop owners).

Surrounded by hustle and bustle, and jotting soundbites into my reporter’s notebook, I longed for the steady hum of the chairlift’s bullwheel, the sensation of skis slicing through snow, the comfort of not being corralled into small spaces with so many people. (My claustrophobic exception is the tram car, where the end result of a top-to-bottom run absolutely justifies the sometimes crowded means of transport).

Lots of things have changed since those early post-college years, geographically and otherwise. My Thanksgivings have returned to a more traditional scene – a day off from schedules, gathering with family, eating too much. These days, I spend my winter weekends coaching 6- and 7-year-old aspiring ski racers. We kick off the season the day after Thanksgiving.

It turns out I am thankful now for some of the same things I was thankful for 20 years ago when I lived in the mountains of Colorado: work that allows me to ski quite a bit, a pretty nice place to live with the beauty of the mountains surrounding me, and the closeness of family. Plus, I get to spend Black Friday on skis.

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 November 25, 2016 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, November 11, 2016

November Weekends

November and I have a touchy relationship. I could do with a bit more light and a lot more color than this month has to offer – or a quick switch to cold and snow, without the in-between damp chill and bare trees. It is my least favorite month. But there is one thing about November I like: the weekends.

Getting things done, November style.
My September and October weekends were chockfull of soccer games and Saturday meetings and short road trips to visit out-of-town relatives. Every weekend seemed to have some lengthy commitment – whether fun or purely obligatory. And a few weeks from now, my family will dive into our weekend ski routine. If you’ve read this column before, you know I love skiing. But winter is a long-haul season of full days in the cold, coaching on weekends, and getting kids up and out early seven days a week.

While I am looking forward to the start of ski season, I am also appreciating this relative weekend downtime for the short while it lasts. On November weekends, there is wiggle room. Time to go for a meandering morning run or meet up with friends or linger at the table with a second (or third) cup of coffee and some reading. The kids can do as they please – stay in bed with a good book, scout out potential new bike trails in the woods, run around the yard with the puppy.

These November weekends give us time to catch up and regroup. Last weekend, as I was hauling the winter clothing out to determine which kids (all of them) have outgrown which gear (most of it), I also – finally – put the leftover summer stuff into winter storage. We haven’t been swimming in ages, but in that slow shift from summer days to fall, there seemed a lingering chance we’d see one more hot afternoon and head for a dip in the river. By the time the seasons had fully transitioned, I was too deep in the thick of back-to-school, homework, and soccer chaos to notice the bag of beach towels and swim goggles still hanging in the mudroom.

Winter, of course, has infinitely more gear than summer. Instead of flip-flops and bathing suits, there are heavy fleece layers, hats and mittens, wet snow boots, and bulky coats – not to mention skis and ski boots and helmets and goggles. Each November I have to figure out again how to make it all fit into the designated space. Each year, as the kids grow, it seems that space takes over more of the house.

It takes all of November’s weekends to make the transition from the last season to the next. We spend time cleaning out the gardens, picking up the yard, finishing up any warmer-weather projects that have loitered through the summer and fall. But the chores are fit into space with comparatively fewer time constraints than we had a few weeks ago and will have again by the end of the month.

Come the day after Thanksgiving, we’re on the slopes. Then comes the rush and full-bore excitement of Christmas, followed closely by our family’s two straight months of birthdays to celebrate. Winter weekends are fun, but very full. And they’ll be here soon enough. For now, I am stuck in November, a month that will probably never be my favorite. I could easily skip its Mondays-thru-Fridays. But I’ll take what I can in the freedom of November weekends. 

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 November 11, 2016 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Soccer Love

At the end of the day we were cold, sopping wet, and exhausted. The 3rd and 4th grade soccer team I coach had played five games over the course of 10 hours. They’d experienced soccer firsts – three penalty kick shootouts, one last second (literally) goal, and a sudden death overtime – which is a lot to throw at 8- and 9-year-old kids. They handled it all like champs, and I bet this is a day they remember for a long while.

I love soccer, have loved it for as long as I can remember. The game has been an integral part of my life from childhood onward. Soccer led me to friendships in high school and focus in college. It introduced me to places and people I wouldn’t know without it – in Europe during a brief high school tour, in Colorado when I moved there after college, and in Connemara where soccer became a comfortable connection to a place far from home.

I started coaching when my kids were in kindergarten because I wanted to introduce them to the sport. Over the last five falls, I’ve had the privilege of introducing their friends and teammates to soccer, too. Coaching is a labor of love – and of balancing various skill and interest levels, kid-sized attention spans, and parental expectations.

Sport can be transformative, and as a coach of young kids, I get to witness that transformation up close – both in my own children and in their teammates. I am fully aware that the kid who is a complete goofball in 2nd grade may morph into one of the strongest players in 5th grade, and that the one who is the biggest and most coordinated in 1st grade won’t necessarily be the strongest in 6th grade. I know that the 4th grader who has never touched a soccer ball before, but who comes to practice all season and pays attention and works really hard is going to make steady improvements.

Through soccer I get to watch my older daughter, who loves fashion and embraces femininity, transform into this tough girl who will dribble through opponents and fight for 50-50 balls against kids much bigger than she is. It is no wonder that her soccer idol is Alex Morgan, who somehow always looks as if she’s just stepped out of the beauty parlor, even as she’s burning her soccer opponents and scoring goals.

I watch my son tackle the sport with a completely different mindset, steady in the backline, confident now in taking command of a defense. Where my daughter is all bursts of speed and changing pace, my son is methodical, thoughtful, steadfast. Never one to be left behind, their little sister, whose soccer season ended two weeks ago, practices push passes against her dresser when she is supposed to be getting ready for bed. I know I could just take the ball out of her room, but I kind of love that she wants to play soccer all the time.

I have watched their friends grow through the sport, too, seen them transition from clumsy kids with too-big shin guards to soccer players who pass the ball with confidence, make moves, support each other. Saturday I got to see one group of kids overcome nerves and bad weather to play together as a team. Three times I watched five of these children step up to the penalty kick spot and take their best shots. I got to share in their relieved exaltation when they scored, and I knew their frustrated disappointment when they missed. Fifteen times, I watched our young goal keeper of the day stand, sometimes on the verge of tears, and face PK shooters from other teams.

Soccer can be a tough sport, and coaching is not always easy. It makes for sometimes hectic family life, frenzied dinners thrown together between practice and bedtime, and a week’s worth of homework crammed into non-soccer days. I spend more time thinking about the teams I coach and their young players than I probably should. And each year, somewhere about two-thirds of the way through the season, I wonder why I do this to myself. I think, sometimes, how much simpler it would be to just drop the kids off at the start of practice and pick them up at the end.

But I don’t think I could do that. I love the game too much. I love seeing the kids, my own included, develop a love of soccer and an understanding of how to play it. I love when a 1st grader tells me she’s done her soccer homework, and when a 3rd grader proudly shows off his new goalie gloves, and the smile from the kid who always says thanks at the end of practice.

Saturday, our team lost in the finals of the annual Halloween Cup on our home field. We were cold and wet and bone-tired. But I think the kids felt a sense of accomplishment at making it so far. As I watched these young soccer players disperse into the pouring rain of a darkening night, huddling under umbrellas held by their faithful fans and climbing into warm cars, I felt proud of their growth over the season and their perseverance through a long day. And I felt lucky to be their coach.

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 October 28, 2016 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Hope is a Puppy

If Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul (as Ms. Dickinson claimed), I think Joy must be the thing that clings to Hope’s wings when it rises into flight.

I’ve been thinking lots about hope and joy – and sadness, too – as we prepare to bring a new dog into our home. It’s been two months since we lost Lily, our beloved dog for more than a dozen years, and I still find myself looking for her in the regular places several times a day, anticipating her greeting when I return home from someplace else, then feeling my heart sink when I realize – again – that she’s not here.

For weeks after Lily died, my son would ask daily when we could get another dog. Nearly as soon as the question was out of his mouth, he’d say tearfully, “I miss Lily.” That conflict of simultaneously missing Lily and longing for a new pup is something we’ve all felt: when (after countless hours of searching and contemplating and – yes – crying) I told the kids we were going to get a puppy, my older daughter’s eyes brimmed with happy, relieved tears; and a few hours later, my littlest one began sobbing at the dinner table, too distraught over Lily’s persistent absence to eat.

Nothing feels quite right without a dog in the house. And while Lily was a one-of-a-kind girl, a dog we know we’ll never replace, the idea of a puppy has been comforting to all of us. It has allowed us to transition beyond our sadness, moved us from looking back to looking forward.

Just a couple of weeks ago, my solo walks in the woods – a place I’d wandered for years with Lily’s companionship – were excruciatingly lonely. Now, I think of Lil in all her favorite places and remember how she loved these walks. But I think, too, of days in the not-too-distant future when there will again be a dog wandering with me, an easy and content companion.

I felt a somewhat desperate mingling of happy and sad when I first contemplated bringing a puppy into our home, a feeling bordering on guilt. Guilt because getting another dog seemed like an attempt at replacing the irreplaceable. And guilt because this hope – for love and loyalty and lifelong companionship – seems a lot to place on a tiny puppy, who will be following in the paw prints of a pretty amazing dog.

For my husband and me, Lily was the first dog we had as adults, the first important responsibility we assumed together. For my children, Lily was the only dog they’ve known as part of our family. Lily knew them – and loved them – all of their young lives. But they didn’t know Lily all of hers, only arriving when Lil was already grown. This puppy, this little bundle of fur and hope, they’ll know for her whole life, from puppyhood to those calm (we hope) middle years to old age.

This will be the dog they grow up with, the one they’ll remember best. They’ll mature together and play together and, I hope, become steadfast pals.

There is work, of course, that comes with raising a puppy: house training and no-chewing-the-furniture training and lessons about not jumping and no biting. For years (I hope) there will be endless fur to vacuum and smelly things rolled in and other puppy shenanigans.  

It’s all a small price to pay for the love of a good dog.

“Next year we can bring our puppy on this hike, right, Mama?” one of the kids asked me the other day during a short uphill jaunt – the hike that was the children’s first, and Lily’s too. Yes, next year we can bring the puppy with us – on hikes and car rides and contemplative walks through the woods. Next month she’ll be here. Soon, there will be a wagging tail to welcome us home again.

We haven’t yet decided on a name for our puppy, and I won’t be surprised if we five humans are still debating the right moniker right up to the day we bring her home. Maybe we’ll call her Hope. Only this Hope will be a thing with fur that romps happily about, ready to share our home and family adventures. Puppies don’t sing, but they smile and they yip and they wag their tails; they are just as persistent in their joy as Emily Dickinson’s thing with feathers.

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 October 14, 2016 edition of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Mountain Views

I have seen the moon rise over Mount Lafayette many times, watching as its glow first reveals the mountain’s silhouette, then ascends beyond the ridge to illuminate the whole night sky. But Friday was the first time I stood at an elevation of 4,200 feet, nearly to the top of Lafayette, to watch the moon climb from behind that sprawling mountain. From that perspective, on the deck of the Greenleaf Hut with my children, it seemed almost as if we could reach out and touch the full Harvest Moon.

If I close my eyes and imagine a mountain, it is always Lafayette I see: broad and craggy and tall against the ever-changing sky, its wide expanse seeming to reach out and envelop the world in a stony embrace. This mountain is a focal point for town, the view from my living room window, and the namesake of the elementary school from which a friend and I sprang our kids early Friday to embark on one more summer adventure in the mountains.

Up we trekked from the paved parking lot, along the Old Bridal Path, the kids chattering happily along until we reached the ledge where we could look out over the ridge – Lafayette to Lincoln to Little Haystack – we would hike the next day. Munching trail mix, we studied the mountains, so familiar from below, but slightly foreign from this vantage. Then it was up and over “the Agonies” and onward to the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Greenleaf Hut.

“This has been my dream for so long, and now I’m here,” my son told me when we had reached the hut and tossed our packs onto bunks. He said this with the look of happy wonder and slight awe that makes my heart full of happy when I see it in my children’s faces. He said this when our adventure had really just begun.

To be in the mountains is a gift. I have felt this way since I was old enough to know that not everybody experiences this gift – really since I went to college in upstate New York, in a town tucked among hills and lakes, with nary a tall peak in sight. As if to make up for that deficit, I moved to Colorado right after graduation, to a town nestled firmly in the embrace of the Rockies, where alpenglow lit the peaks each early evening of the winter, summer days were so blindingly beautiful they seemed unreal, and the aspen leaves turned the landscape golden in fall.

After five years in Colorado I came circuitously home to the mountains of my childhood. When I was a kid, I took these mountains for granted. Now, even after 15 years of this daily view, its wild beauty often stops me, literally, in my tracks – Lafayette’s craggy mass and Cannon’s familiar contours, the distinctive shapes of North Kinsman and Garfield, the majestic height of the Presidentials.

Some days it is not enough simply to look upon the mountains. Some days I long to be on the summits, to see the world from the peaks rather than the valley. Everything looks different from there; perspective shifts in a way that stays with me even after I return to a lower elevation.

This summer I hiked more than I have in years, and I introduced my children to that altered perspective that comes with climbing toward the clouds. We spent many hours together on trails leading up and over tall mountains. There is power in standing on a summit, in knowing you can arrive there of your own free will and effort. And there is humility, too, in looking out on the world from so high and realizing it is larger than we can comprehend.

Spending the season’s final weekend hiking the rugged landscape we see from home and school and town, and all winter from our skis atop Cannon Mountain, was the perfect cap to our summer of hiking. It was a glorious day to be on Franconia Ridge, with blue skies and views forever and beyond.

What an amazing experience to walk along the sprawling mountains and ridgeline so familiar when viewed from below, yet completely novel from this height. How high and lovely Lonesome Lake looks, and how tiny Mt. Baldy. How small even Cannon seems, and how vast the Pemi Wilderness – all trees and endless peaks, rising and falling in static waves toward the lofty Presidentials. Walker Ravine seems exceedingly precipitous when you’re perched above it. Shining Rock is just as dazzling up close as when viewed from several miles away – and a few thousand feet lower.

My daughter sing-songingly declared the adventure “absolutely, positively awesome” as she trekked along the ridge. Every few minutes one of our young, intrepid adventurers would blurt out, “This is so cool!”

It was also long and hard. There was some whining and a few brief tears. There were sore knees and shoulders. And there was joy and excitement and so much wonder and confidence building (the kids’) and overwhelming gratitude (mine) to live in this place and share this experience with my children. Even as I huffed and puffed with the effort, even as the hiking aches set in, my heart sang to be on the mountains on this day and with my children. Mountains, I think, are good for the soul.

What will my children remember from this mountain adventure? I don’t know. But days after we’d left the mountain tops, after we’d made the long descent and emptied our packs and put away our hiking gear, we were all still glowing from the hike. I hope my children will always remember the mixture of elation and accomplished exhaustion that comes with climbing mountains. I hope we’ll climb many more together, adjusting our perspective in a way only possible from the heights of tall peaks. I hope they’ll remember that time they had a front row seat to watch the Harvest Moon rise over Lafayette and see the mountains illuminated. 

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 September 23, 2016 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Saving Summer

In these early September days, as summer meanders toward autumn, I am savoring the passing season. After a short first week of school, the kids had a long weekend, with perfectly summery weather, and we packed in as much more summer fun as we could: hiking with friends, afternoons on the water, campfires and roasted marshmallows. With the mornings and evenings dropping toward downright chilly, and the colors of fall steadily overtaking the more boisterous hues of summer, spending the days in shorts and t-shirts feels like sweet, borrowed time.

A handful of summer goodness
That’s how I feel about the summer treasures of berries and veggies I am packing into the freezer at this junction of seasons, like I am scoring some bonus bounty that will show up during darker days to feed both belly and soul.

In the basement of my childhood home, tucked around the corner from the washing machine, there was a chest freezer. By the end of each summer, this was filled with gifts from the garden: Ziploc bags of yellow and green beans, broccoli florets, and garden peas. For months after the garden was put to bed, my mother would send one of us down to the cellar to pluck a bit of summer from the freezer to add to dinner.

We don’t have a large freezer dedicated to garden overflow now, and beyond the occasional inspired foray into canning – one year it was dilly beans, another apple pie filling – I am unlikely to stock the pantry shelves with home-grown, painstakingly preserved food. Mine is not a Yankee farmer’s pantry containing enough canned sauces and vegetables to make it through the apocalypse, but rather a small space filled with modern conveniences: store-bought, kid-friendly staples like peanut butter and crackers and granola bars. And without a root cellar, I plant only enough carrots and potatoes to feed us during the growing season.

But I always try to stash a bit of summer’s flavor into our refrigerator freezer, small batches of goodness to be savored some later time.

Each year there seems to be a different overabundance. A few years ago it was green beans, another summer shell peas. One year we had a freezer drawer filled with wild berries and basil pesto. Sometimes the summer bounty stored in the freezer is gone by the time we reach Halloween, but some years I can still find a bag of blueberries hidden in the back corner the following spring, months after we crouched in a hot summer field to gather them.

This year, it is the tomatoes that have flourished to abundance. I don’t know if it was the hot, dry summer we had, or the new compost-manure mixture I added to the garden, or the combination of heirloom tomato seedlings I planted, but even as the lanky stalks have grown wilted and tired-looking, they hang heavy with ripening fruit. Through the summer, the tomato plants have produced small green orbs that swell – sometimes so large they split near the stems – and ripen through the colors of a sunrise: pale yellow to subdued orange to bright, look-at-me red.

While my youngest child will eat cherry tomatoes by the handful, popping them into her mouth sun-warmed and straight from the vine, I am the only one who eats the fresh, full-sized tomatoes. The others prefer theirs in the form of pasta sauce or ketchup. So I have gathered the excess, plopped the whole tomatoes into a quick boiling bath so the skins slide off, sliced them and pushed out the slimy seeds, and frozen them in chunks.

What will they become? Perhaps soup. Possibly pizza topping, Probably sauce. For now, the tomatoes share freezer space with shredded zucchini and plump blackberries. If I’m lucky, I’ll forget they are there, at least for a while. Then on some dark, cold afternoon, when the garden is blanketed in icy white and I’ve forgotten (again) what the landscape looks like when it is filled with lush green, I’ll peer into the freezer, wondering what to make for dinner. And I’ll find a bit of summer there, just waiting to add a flash of color – and perhaps a memory or two – to a winter day. 

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 September 9, 2016 edition of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, August 25, 2016


Mornings are the hardest, I think, when I come downstairs and there is no tail thumping softly against the floor to greet me. Or maybe it’s bedtime, when I head toward the door to let the dog in before remembering. Or the countless moments in between: when the kids drop Goldfish crackers on the floor and there is no eager pup to lick them up, or when we head out and there is no happy, giant ball of fur pleading to come with us, or when I reach my hand down mindlessly from the couch to rub a belly and meet empty space instead.

One of Lil's favorite activities: going for a ride.
We said goodbye to the best dog ever last week, and there seem to be lots of empty spaces in our home now, a home that before last Thursday always included Lily. We are getting used to the sad fact that our girl is gone, and most of the time we are, at least outwardly, OK. But the reminders of her are everywhere; often the sadness hits all over again, and one person’s tears lead to general sniffling all around.

Baby Lil
Lily was intertwined in everything we did. We brought her home when she was a puppy, all fluff and energy and hopeful joy. That was before we were married, and I knew when David suggested we get a dog, he was serious about me. She was there a year later when he popped the question, and stood witness with our family and friends the following summer when we said our vows. She was there to welcome our children home with curious sniffs and gentle licks, to love them unconditionally and to play with them as they grew – at first enduring their climbing all over and around her, later tagging along happily on hikes, forays around the yard and woods, and drives to school drop-off in the mornings.
Welcoming the littlest one, a few years ago.

Lily was there for more than 12 years. Always ready for an adventure. Greeting us happily when we came home, whether we’d been gone all day or only a few minutes. Wagging her tail sleepily in the mornings. Begging for her bedtime biscuits at night. Following the kids into the kitchen when they cleared their dishes after meals, always hoping there was a crust of toast or a bit of leftover hamburger that might end up in her dish. Bounding out to roll in the snow. Swimming in the river. Smiling her golden smile all the time.

She had been my nearly-constant companion these years since the human children arrived. She accompanied me to take the kids to school, then we returned together to a quiet house. Now and then, always just at the point where I needed a distraction, she’d plod over to where I sat typing and put her head in my lap, gazing at me beseechingly until I got up from the keyboard and took her on a walk through the woods. She was always good company on those walks, leaving me to my thoughts as she trotted along sniffing the myriad smells of the forest.

Everybody's buddy
Just over a year ago Lily and I headed out together for a favorite hike, and she struggled the whole way. I knew then, sadly, that it would be our last long hike together. Gradually she went from jaunting around the field to moving more slowly through the yard. By the end, she could barely get to the garden without stumbling, her legs simply giving out. Often, she could not get up without help. Finally, she needed to be carried more often than she could make it outside herself.

While Lily’s legs failed her, her spirit never faltered. She still smiled at us and stretched out as much as she could for belly rubs. But we knew she was hurting more than we could fathom. We knew it was time to say goodbye, to let her go.

Two happy girls in the woods.
I’m still getting used to her not being here. Yes, the mornings are the hardest: that quiet time before anyone else is awake, when it used to be just me and Lil blinking the sleepiness away while the coffee percolated. Once the kids are up, the house becomes a bustling distraction of breakfast and playing and planning out our final fun-filled summer days. But underneath all that activity, I miss my dog. We all do.

Next week, the kids return to school. I will be doubly lonely then, driving home without Lily in the backseat, her head pushed blissfully out the window. There will be no kid-fueled distractions at home, just me and my work. I’m not quite sure how I’ll manage. Lily has always been here with me. I imagine I’ll find myself getting up often to let the dog out. I may well fall into melancholy when I spot a tuft of Lily fur lingering in some corner of the house. I’ll miss her well-timed interruptions, that take-me-for-a-walk look. I’m dreading that first solo trek through the woods. 

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 August 26, 2016 edition of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Top Notch

If you ever need to feel appreciated, volunteer to work the last water station on the last leg of a mountain triathlon. That’s what the kids and I did Saturday, spending the morning about two-thirds of the way up Cannon Mountain, just below the final, grueling climb of the Top Notch Triathlon. By the greetings we received from many racers, you would have thought we were handing out rare treasure rather than small paper cups of cool water.

Ready and waiting for thirsty racers.
When I mentioned the idea of volunteering for the Top Notch – locally known simply as “The Triathlon” – the kids were immediately eager. The Triathlon is more than a challenging athletic contest; it is a community gathering, a day where friends and neighbors come together to support an event that benefits the local recreation department. My kids cheered me on as I completed the final leg of the race four years ago, and after volunteering last weekend, they’ve caught the Triathlon bug.

Now in its third decade, the Triathlon attracts racers from local towns and as far away as Alaska. We saw serious, hard core competitors on the mountain last weekend, as well as youngsters accompanied by parents, the local elementary school principal, and the town’s police chief. The results show competitors ranging in age from 11 to 77, and finish times from just over an hour to well over three.

Our Triathlon day started with an early morning ride up the Cannon Mountain Tramway, with the kids remarking several times how strange it seemed to be on the Tram during the summer, rather than when the mountains are blanketed with snow and we are dressed in ski boots and warm layers. With us in the tram car was Jean McKenna, who has served for the past several years as the official finish line greeter on Triathlon day.

Bubbly and welcoming (even first thing in the morning), Jean spends hours handing out bottles of water and words of encouragement for those last few yards of the race. Even when you think your legs will give out and your lungs burst with the effort of making it to the top of the mountain and across the finish, you keep going, if for no other reason than Jean says you can. She ran the race for 13 years before retiring to her finish line post, and there’s no better person for the job.

Saturday morning, we left Jean to her task and hiked to our station, descending a trail the kids had only ever skied. We all agreed the pitch seems steeper when you’re wearing sneakers and walking through wildflowers than when there are skis strapped to your feet and the downward schuss is effortless.

We spotted the first competitor about an hour after the race started, and a few more speedy racers passed within the next few minutes. Some of these took water without slowing their pace, steady and strong. Soon enough there was a stream of climbers, and gradually the intensity of the racers lessened. There were more smiles, pauses to drink the water or refill bottles, brief snippets of conversation. Many racers thanked us for being there. Several made joyful, though tired, exclamations upon seeing us over the rise. Some asked how much further there was to go, and we told them to listen for the cheers from the finish line, which I know inspire tired legs to keep trucking on that final steep stretch.

Several friends passed our station in the crowded middle of the pack, some doing the Triathlon for the first time, others annual repeaters. Many racers were sporting shirts from past Top Notch Triathlons, indicating they’d been here before. One man near the end told us he’ll turn 70 next year. He’s done the race as part of the team in past years, but this year was competing as an individual. He wants to do the same next year, figuring if he simply finishes, he’ll be in the top three of the 70-plus category.

I’m not sure my children realized the uniqueness of an event that encompasses the community, not sure they see the value in living in a place where kids not much older than they are willingly push themselves through the course, or where their school principal climbs mountains, or where the chief of police comes smiling through, well ahead of the sergeant, who pauses to catch his breath and tell us that completing the Triathlon is a goal he’s wanted to accomplish for three years.

Long before the last racers came through, though, the kids asked if we could repeat the experience next year, participate in the day once again as volunteers. But they’re also talking with each other and with friends about putting together Triathlon teams someday, joining the cadre of bikers, swimmers, and mountain climbers toiling through the natural playground in our backyard.

Maybe they don’t yet realize how lucky they are to be growing up here, but they know Triathlon Day is special.  

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 August 12, 2016 edition of the Littleton Record.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Sweet Summer

Summer is my favorite season. I say that about every season in its prime, so don’t mind me in a few months, when the leaves are ablaze in the colors of autumn and the air is perfectly crisp and I claim fall is my favorite, or when winter arrives all white and frosty and magical and I announce it is my preferred season, then months later embrace the reawakening of spring as the best. Right now, my love affair is with summer.

At some point, several years into adulthood, it struck me that although I no longer had that last-day-of school excitement, with summer’s carefree days stretching infinitely into the hazy heat of the season, I still thrilled at the arrival of summer. So ingrained was that feeling of summer freedom that I felt it as the days lengthened and warmed as clearly as I had as a kid, even though my schedule of work and responsibility was the same now in July as it was in November or March.

Maybe that lingering sense of summer freedom is because I have always lived in places where summer – with its warmth and color and long days – is fleeting. Or maybe it’s that I have so many good memories of the season from my childhood – hiking with my family, lazy afternoons of reading in the backyard hammock, time in the garden with my mother, catching fireflies just after dusk, sparklers on the 4th of July by the backyard campfire, countless hours spent kicking a soccer ball, and one epic cross-country journey with my parents and brothers and a pop-up camper. 

Whatever the reason, now that I have kids who fully embrace the joys of summer – kids old enough to put on their own sunscreen and carry their own backpacks, but still a few years away from summer jobs and the dreaded teenage years of being too hip to hang with Mom – summer has regained that sense of freedom and insouciance.

Here are some of the things I love about summer:

·         Jumping into cool water on a hot day.

·         Reading by the big window in our living room – or on the front porch – after the kids are tucked in, as twilight slowly engulfs the mountains, passing through an impossible array of subtle hues on its way to full dark.

·         The smell of roses: heady and heavenly.

·         The sparkle of a thousand fireflies twinkling across the field, as close to magic as anything I’ve seen.

·         Family soccer games in the front yard.

·         Watching my children fall into books and get lost there for chunks of time – bed time, after breakfast time, by the pool or river time.

·         Clean sheets dried on the clothesline and smelling of sunshine.

·         Color. So much color.

·         Flowers picked from the field and the garden and placed in a simple glass jar on the dining room table.

·         Birdsong, even the annoyingly redundant call of the catbird at dawn.

·         Vegetables gathered from the garden: the succulent result of the tilling and planting and weeding and watering.

·         Trips to the ocean.

·         Bike rides through the woods.

·         Outings with friends and our combined gaggle of children.

·         (Mostly) unrushed mornings – and not having to pack lunches every single day.

·         Thunder echoing through the mountains and the cooling rain which often follows.

·         The games my children imagine together, whether they are pretending to be wild animals (sometimes not much of a stretch) or building a fort in the woods by the river.

·         Running in the quiet and relative coolness of early morning.

·         Fresh, wild berries, found unexpectedly and consumed on the spot – or gathered purposefully and tucked into the freezer for less bountiful days to come.

·         Flip-flops. Or, even better, going barefoot.

·         Campfires and s’mores and late-night laughter.

·         Standing atop a tall mountain with my children, who are still discovering how much they can do, how far they can climb – and who still want me along for the adventure.

There are hitches in all this summer freedom, of course. Often the garden goes unweeded, becoming jungle-like while we are off hiking and splashing in the river. All those house projects I swore I’d tackle this season get pushed, once again, to next season’s to-do list. And my work hours are severely diminished in these weeks when the kids are with me nearly all the time.

When I ask my children, though, what they love most about summer, all three place “spending more time with my family” at the top of the list. Perhaps this will not always be their favorite part of summer; certainly they will outgrow this self-sufficient-yet-still-ingenuous phase, as they have outgrown other childhood phases.

So I am taking advantage of these days when they want to do things, go places, explore and adventure together. Someday, I hope, when they have moved beyond the enchanting freedom of their childhood summers, they will still thrill at the season’s arrival, still embrace the simple joys of summer, still remember all the sweet summer fun we had together. 

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 July 22, 2016 edition of the Littleton Record.

Friday, July 8, 2016

The Library

Tucked among a collection of family photos in our living room is a picture of my friend Liz and me when we were little girls. We’re standing outside our hometown library on a rainy summer day, knobby knees sticking out from shorts, raincoats buttoned up against the weather. She’s holding an umbrella under which we’re cozied up, peering at the pages of an open book.  

Liz lived close to the center of our town, and we rode our bikes all over together – to the store that sold penny candy, to meet up with other friends, and, as the photo evidence shows, to the Westborough Public Library. I still remember this library of my childhood hometown. There were bright, wide steps just within the side entrance – modern stairs of linoleum leading down to the children’s section, others up to the main floor, which back then was a couple decades shy of its centennial.

When I picture the inside of that library, the memory includes that comforting, musty aroma of old books and polished wood common to libraries everywhere. A sense of calm, intermingled with expansive curiosity, settled over me each time I arrived at this place full of books. It’s a sensation I still get when I pass through the heavy doors of a library and breath in that bookish scent: what stories will I discover today, what exotic places, what new information?

Thank goodness (and good teachers) my children love books as much as I do. Their yen for new reading material is well satiated by the school library from September through May. But come summer, the kids ask often to go to our town’s Abbie Greenleaf Library. There, they know, they will find shelf upon shelf of books: stories about cats and horses, volumes on tropical rainforests and science experiments, tales of wizards and orphans and epic adventures.

Last year the kids got their own library cards, carefully signing their names, then tucking the small laminated rectangles into their wallets. They took to carrying these wallets – my son’s a black, faux leather zip case, my daughter’s a pink canvas tri-fold bedecked in white hearts – with them whenever we went out, just in case we swung by the library.

We made several trips to Abbie Greenleaf last year and have been a few times already this summer, the kids perusing the shelves of the children’s section for just the right book. They have learned to look up titles in the library’s online catalog – or, even better, to ask the librarians’ advice on the next good read. Often they are lost in the just-checked-out pages before we have pulled out of the parking lot.

Now that all three of my children willingly read on their own, they are content to sit for a while in the kid-sized chairs and couches of the children’s section while I wander to the farther reaches of the library, searching the long, high shelves for my next reading adventure, running fingers along spines to find a book that feels right, seeking an interesting title or a favorite author, peeking at first sentences in search of one that seizes me by the imagination and sucks me in.

Libraries are more than just books, of course. They are centers of community and learning and research. I have spent many hours in the Littleton Library spinning through the microfiche files of old newspapers, while other patrons read today’s news in the next room. This week I attended a poetry reading at the Abbie Greenleaf Library, a small-town welcome to Rose McLarney, this year’s Poet in Residence at The Frost Place just down the road.

I wonder if Robert Frost visited the library when he lived in Franconia a century ago, if he brought his children here when the building was still new. The collection would have been quite different then, of course. Probably there was no children’s section, and perhaps the rooms did not yet carry the aroma of well-worn pages. Still, it’s nice to think of the poet meandering along the shelves, running his fingers along the rows of books, while his children nestled into a quiet corner to read on a rainy summer day. 

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 July 8, 2016 edition of the Littleton Record.