Black Tower

Old friends and old wine are best. —German Proverb

I’ve been fortunate to have many good friends throughout my life. Memories of wild parties, road trips, quiet conversations, long hikes in the woods, and afternoon barbecues that lasted into the night help me cope when life gets difficult. Friends have steadied the ladders I’ve had to climb in order to grow and evolve as a person. They’ve made me laugh when I thought nothing in the world was funny, and have sometimes been the mirror I needed in order to see my true self.

Most of the time, I don’t think about the innumerable ways my life is interconnected with the lives of my friends. Like most people who have careers and families, much of my time is spent trying to keep up with my work schedule and make sure the bills get paid. All too often, there’s little time left in the day for my husband or myself, never mind anyone else.

An old friend of mine died recently. Annette’s death was sudden and unexpected, an immeasurable loss that no one who knew her was prepared to face. She was one of the most giving, selfless people I’ve had the pleasure to know, who never failed to offer words of encouragement to anyone who needed them. She was never afraid to stand up for herself or give someone an honest opinion, even if she knew they wouldn’t like it.

Mainstream media outlets have published several articles recently offering tips, and even step-by-step instructions, on how to make friends. People hire friendship coaches to help them figure out how to start conversations at social gatherings. If you type “making friends” into the search bar on YouTube you get several hundred results.

You can also download free friend-making apps to your phone. Applications like Bumble, Friended, and Wink help users meet likeminded people, and guide them through potentially awkward social situations.

Maybe the reason all this is necessary has something to do with COVID-19. Or perhaps it’s because most people younger than 40 grew up interacting with other human beings online rather than in person. It could also be due to the fact that contemporary American culture values individualism so strongly, effectively causing many of us to compartmentalize our lives whether we mean to or not.

Annette and I met at a party when we were in our mid-twenties. She had recently started dating a college friend of my soon-to-be-husband’s and mine. On a warm spring afternoon a few weeks later, we invited them to our apartment.

Annette and I dragged a pair of plastic lounge chairs onto the lawn of our building. We polished off an economy-size bottle of Black Tower riesling, got terrible sunburns, dished up dirt, and laughed all afternoon. It’s a day that stands out in my memory as one of the best. Even though it was decades ago, it seems like it could have been yesterday.

Our children grew up together. I never thought twice about digging through the drawers in Annette’s kitchen to look for a spatula or a Ziplock bag. Although we saw each other less often as we got older and busier, our families always got together around the holidays. One Christmas several years ago, Annette gave me an ornament made from a Black Tower wine label. It still makes me smile every year when I hang it on our tree.

In the days that followed Annette’s passing, I texted or called several of our mutual friends, many of them people I hadn’t seen or talked to in years. Although the reason I got in touch was to let them know what had happened, over the course of our conversations we updated one another about our lives, made lunch plans, and swapped photographs of our kids, pets, and vegetable gardens.

My husband and I stayed up half the night thumbing through old photo albums, looking for pictures to post on Annette’s memorial website. Looking at photographs of our younger selves, together with our friends, made me realize that a hole had opened up in our lives, one that used to be full the hugs, laughter, and steadfast support of people we loved. Over time, we’d become so wrapped up in our everyday existence that we had let that well run dry.

The first tip given by an article on WikiHow titled Easy Ways to Make Friends is, “Make yourself available. If you want to make friends, you first need to put yourself out there.”

Annette’s memorial service was on a Saturday. In order to attend, my husband and I had to cancel a weekend trip we’d planned to celebrate our wedding anniversary. It was disappointing, and heartbreakingly sad. But as soon as we entered the funeral home, our old friends greeted us with open arms.

In May 1918, President Woodrow Wilson gave a speech in New York City in support of the Red Cross. It was less than a year after the U.S. had entered World War I and at the onset of the Spanish flu pandemic. In it he said, “Friendship is the only cement that will ever hold the world together.”

True friendship has the power to heal. Whether we make friends at parties, on Facebook, or with the help of an app, more than a hundred years later Wilson’s words hold true, perhaps now more than ever.

ENP

Curveballs

Like most responsible adults, my husband and work all week, pay our bills on time, and strive to take good take care of our family, pets, car, and house. Although we’re often busy, we’re lucky to have a good life (knock on wood). I’m grateful for everything we have and for all the things we’ve accomplished.

I’m not the type of person who usually complains, but the past couple of months have felt like one long workweek. It’s been nearly impossible for us to get a break from our responsibilities, even on weekends.

Dating back to the middle of February, every time my husband and I made plans to do something we wanted to do, something else would come up, giving us no choice but to cancel and deal with whatever issue had reared its head.

It started with our bathroom renovation. Our contractors wanted to work on weekends in order to get the job done faster. This isn’t a bad thing, but it wasn’t something we’d anticipated. In order to be home we had to cancel hiking trips we had planned two weeks in a row.

Soon after that, our adult daughter, who is in her early 20s, came home one afternoon and announced that she’d just bought a condo. We were very happy for her, and proud that she’d done it all on her own. Instead of cross country skiing, we spent the following weekend helping her pack up her belongings. The weekend after that, we had planned to snowshoe in the White Mountains. We traded our snowshoes for a rented van and helped her move everything into to her new place.

The weekend after our daughter moved, we had to do our taxes. Because I’m a self-employed writer, this is always an arduous, stressful chore, even with the help of expensive software. Happily, we discovered that we were getting a refund.

We booked a weekend getaway for early April to celebrate our wedding anniversary.

A few days before our trip, a close friend of ours died unexpectedly. Her funeral was planned for the following Saturday. I called the hotel where we had made reservations and asked if we could move our stay up a week. The person I spoke to said we could, but the nightly rate would be more than triple the amount we had originally booked due to it being school vacation week. I cancelled the reservation.

With the exception of 2020, we’ve hosted Easter dinner at our house every year for nearly two decades. We spent the Friday and Saturday before Easter shopping, cleaning the house, planting flowers, coloring eggs, cooking, and driving around to various stores looking for sidewalk chalk to entertain our boredom-prone younger guests.

The day after Easter, I cleaned the house again in between replying to work emails and running errands I didn’t get to on the weekend.

Beginning this Thursday, we have a reservation at a condominium in the Berkshires for four nights. We plan to hike Mount Greylock and the Ice Glen. Maybe we’ll go out for dinner, and cook brunch one day after sleeping in. We might wander around Stockbridge, or visit one of the area’s great museums. And if someone calls, I won’t be answering my phone.

ENP

Moving Mountains


Women who are strong and brave enough to challenge convention have always fascinated me. Whatever their motivation in refusing to adhere to the status quo, women like Marie Curie, Susan B. Anthony, Amelia Earhart, Julia Child and Dr. Jane Cooke Wright, an African American physician who was among the scientists to pioneer chemotherapy as a treatment for cancer, all helped change the world and the way the world views women.

In honor of March being Women’s History Month and because I love hiking and mountains I wanted to write a post about one of my favorite female pioneers, Miriam O’Brien Underhill.

A New England native, Miriam was born in Lisbon, New Hampshire, in July 1898 and grew up in Dedham, Massachusetts, just south of Boston. At a time when few women attended college, she earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania in 1920. She completed graduate work in physics at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland in 1925. After leaving Johns Hopkins, Miriam began a career in medical research at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in Boston.

As impressive as this is, it’s not what Miriam is known for. Although she died in 1976, Miriam O’Brien Underhill is still considered by many to be one of the most gifted mountaineers of all time.

Most of Miriam’s early climbs were in the Alps, where she was among the first group of people to climb several challenging peaks beginning in 1926. These include the 11,184-foot Aiguille de Roc in Chamonix, France, and the triple-peaked Torre Grande in the Italian Dolomites, where the route she climbed is named Via Miriam in her honor. She is perhaps best known, though, for being the first woman to climb mountains “manless.”

After several years of climbing with male friends and guides, Miriam decided that in order to truly develop her skills as a climber and leader she would have to undertake some difficult ascents without any men present. She did this beginning in 1929, when she traversed the double peaks of the Aiguille du Grepon in Chamonix with French climber and friend Alice Damesme. Miriam’s other female-only climbs would include the Monch and Jungfrau in the Swiss Alps in 1931, and the 14,692 ft. Matterhorn in the Swiss and Italian Alps in 1932.

In 1933, Miriam married fellow mountaineer and Harvard University professor Robert L.M. Underhill, who became her climbing partner for the rest of her life. They raised two sons, Robert and Brian, born in 1936 and 1939, and made several more first ascents, this time of mountains in the American West, including peaks in Idaho’s Sawtooth Range and Montana’s Mission, Beartooth and Swan ranges. Most of these climbs were made without the aid of cut trails, maps, or guides, as there were none.

In addition to climbing, Miriam was also a prolific writer and talented photographer, contributing several articles to National Geographic magazine and serving as editor of Appalachia, the journal of the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), for six years. Her autobiography, Give Me the Hills, was published in London in 1956 by Methuen & Co. Publishing, and was released in the U.S. by The Chatham Press in 1971.

A scientist by training, Miriam never lost her curiosity. During her climbs, she discovered numerous new species of alpine wildflowers. Several of her photographs illustrate the AMC Field Guide to Mountain Flowers of New England, published by the AMC in 1964.

When Robert Underhill retired, he and Miriam moved to Randolph, New Hampshire, where they were among the first people to climb all of the White Mountains’ 4,000-footers (46 of them were known at the time). They helped establish the AMC’s Four Thousand Footer Club after reading a 1931 Appalachia article by Dartmouth College librarian Nathaniel Goodrich, who described a similar practice by European climbers in the Alps.

When Robert was in his early 70s and Miriam in her early 60s, they became the first people to climb all of New Hampshire’s 4,000-footers during the winter, an undertaking that Miriam felt was more “sporting” than climbing them in the summertime due to freezing temperatures and deep snow.

During the late 1950s, when they were making their winter climbs, few roads in the White Mountains were plowed, adding many additional miles to their hikes and often requiring the couple to camp overnight. The Underhills completed the winter 4,000-footers on Mount Jefferson on Dec. 31, 1960. The temperature was minus 18 F and the wind speed was 72 mph.

The next time you’re out on the trail, raise your water bottle in a toast to Miriam.

ENP

Note: A version of this essay appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Merrimack Valley Magazine.

Just Do It

I’ve always been a procrastinator when it comes to getting certain things done. Without going into my bad habit of putting off writing assignments (this could be a post in itself), a lot of the things I tend to push off until “later” are things I actually want done, and that I know will improve my quality of life once they are completed.

Take our upstairs bathroom, for example. It desperately needed an overhaul when we moved into our house a little more than nine years ago. The bathtub didn’t drain they way it was supposed to, resulting in our having to shower in ankle-deep water. The heater didn’t work, and the toilet was so old that we had to teach guests a “technique” for flushing it. At some point in the 1990s, the previous homeowner had installed a cheap vanity with a plastic sink that over time had become horribly stained and was impossible to clean. The porcelain finish had mostly worn off of the cast iron bathtub, which made it look dirty all the time too.

But la pièce de résistance was that fact that the mixing valve that controlled the water temperature in the shower was slowly dying. Sometimes, if we were lucky, we got hot water. Occasionally, it was kind of warm. But more often that not, the water would turn ice cold after a few minutes and stay that way.

Incredibly enough, I put up with this for more than nine years. We had the money to hire someone to renovate the bathroom, but it took me until last month to actually do it.

All week, I’ve been sitting in my office listening to contractors banging and sawing, which has motivated me to think about why I put things off.

I’ve always had issues with change. I like the things in my life to be consistent. (Besides my husband, I’m the only person I know who insists on using the same pen until it runs out of ink.) It seems irrational, but the very thought of not having a usable bathroom for a few weeks and dealing with the mess, noise, and strangers traipsing in and out of the house gave me so much anxiety that taking cold showers felt like a better alternative.

Now that the work is actually being done, I’ve been trying to focus on how great it will be to have a shiny new bathroom with working fixtures and functional plumbing, but it’s still hard. I’ve been on edge since they removed the first ugly beige tile.

Believe it or not, though, I’ve come to the conclusion that it would have been better if I’d taken care of the bathroom a lot sooner. Like ripping off a Band-Aid, the painful part would be over, not to mention that it would have saved all of us a lot of aggravation.

With that in mind, I’ve resolved to take care of a whole list of other things that need to be done as soon as I can. Our house needs to be painted. Our passports expire next month, the cats need their vaccinations, and there are still boxes of God-knows-what sitting in our basement that I’ve been meaning to go through since we moved in.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the satisfying feeling I’ll have when I’ve gotten these things done will motivate me to stop putting things off in the future, but I think that might be a long shot. In any case, wish me luck.

ENP

Every Idle Hour

My mother took every opportunity she could to complain about winter. She hated the cold, snow, and the short days we experience here in New England so much that her negativity spilled over into autumn. She could never understand why anyone would get excited about the foliage changing from green to red or would look forward to a crackling fire on a fall evening when these things meant ice and darkness were lurking around the corner.

I’ve always liked winter, though. During the rest of the year, I often long for the stillness the season brings. I love staring out the picture window in our living room when it snows, watching the swirling white flakes pile up and form drifts in the wind.

I never learned how to ski and I’m a subpar ice skater, but my husband and I hike frequently in the wintertime. The first time I remember experiencing complete silence was a few years ago, on a trail coming off of Hedgehog Mountain in New Hampshire. We paused to look at some animal tracks and when the crunching of our snowshoes stopped, we heard nothing but the sound of our own breathing: no cars, no airplanes, no people, no wind. It was one of the best moments of my life.

Nothing makes me feel more alive than the cold air on my face while I’m walking among the bare bones of the trees. I love cuddling up to my husband between our fluffy flannel sheets, cozy and warm as the temperature drops below zero outside. Rarely do I feel more privileged than when I’m the first being to make tracks across a snow-covered landscape. I like wearing sweaters and knit hats and wool long underwear. Few things are more spectacular than the pink-and-orange glow of a winter sunset.

Winter allows me the space and time to think, work, rest, and recharge. As the snow falls, I’m working to finish two book manuscripts that have been sitting on my hard drive since before the COVID-19 pandemic started, when concentrating on anything became nearly impossible.

If you’re anything like my mother, don’t let the cold get you down. If you let it, this enchanted season can warm your heart and bones.

ENP

NOTE: If you were a fan of my Living Madly column in Merrimack Valley Magazine, which ceased publication as of December 2021, you’ll be happy to know that I’ll still be writing the column. Beginning on January 20, 2022, Living Madly will be published the third Thursday of each month on RichardHowe.com.

Let There Be Light

By the time December rolls around in New England, where I live, the days are just a scant nine hours long. Although I’ve lived here my entire life, the prolonged hours of darkness are always hard to get used to. Dawn doesn’t break until 7 a.m. The shadow of the yew tree outside my office window starts growing long around 3:15, with the sun setting completely by 4.

I often have trouble getting out of bed in the morning. And even though we live in an era when we can shine light anywhere we want at any time, the shortened days make it difficult for me to get work done. I’ve barely digested my lunch by the time dusk begins to fall but the gathering darkness always makes me lose my motivation.

This time of year, I sometimes think about another December day, many years ago when I was 17. I was driving down a residential street in the Boston suburb where I grew up. It was late afternoon. The sun had begun to set, and the holiday lights strewn around people’s shrubs and trees were flickering to life.

At that moment, for the first time in my life, I understood why the lights were there. They had nothing to do with Christmas or Hanukah or any other early winter holiday, not really. People spent hours stringing colored lights around their homes and yards, willingly jacking up their electric bills, to ward off the darkness.

Our ongoing quest to illuminate December’s long nights is ancient and universal. More than anything else, we are creatures of the light.

People around the world have celebrated the returning of the sun on the winter solstice for millennia. Stone circles in Ireland, Wales, Britain, and Scotland are aligned to capture the first of the sun’s rays on the northern hemisphere’s shortest day.

On the solstice, the ancient Romans celebrated Saturn, the god of agriculture, with the feast of Saturnalia, a term that even today remains synonymous with debauched partying.

These days, our winter solstice celebrations live on in often unexpected ways. On December 13, people in northern Europe celebrate Saint Lucia Day. Marking the beginning of the Christmas season, processions of young women wear wreaths of candles on their heads, lighting the way through winter’s darkness.

The Dongzhi Festival, celebrated on the winter solstice in China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, marks the return of proper balance to the world along with the sun’s yang energy.

I’m also anticipating the return of the light. Luckily, I’ll only have to wait a few more weeks. In the meantime, I’ll end my workdays early and enjoy my family by the glow of our Christmas tree and the electric candles brightening the windows in our old house.

Happy solstice and blessed holidays.

ENP

Kill Your Bucket List

American jazz musician and composer, Miles Davis, once said, “Time isn’t the main thing. It’s the only thing.” In a world where many people can’t afford to feed their kids, statements like this used to make my eyes roll. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to agree with him.

Over the past couple of months, two close friends of mine from college have been diagnosed with cancer. Neither of their prognoses are good. Because the three of us are the same age, I’ve been thinking a lot about the things I still want to accomplish in my life, as well as about the ways in which I spend my time.

Like many people, for most of my adult life I’ve had a “bucket list” mentality. That is the tendency to divide the things I need or want to do into two categories: “things I have to get done now” and “things I plan to do at some later time.” The former category usually includes tasks like writing magazine articles, grocery shopping, and folding the laundry, while the second encompasses activities like hiking in Scotland, reading the stack of novels on my bedside table, visiting old friends, and finally finishing the three book manuscripts currently living on my hard drive.

I never saw a problem with this until recently. When, after all, is “later?” And what would I have to show for myself, and my life, if I were suddenly diagnosed with a terminal illness, unable to walk or talk or write another word? The answer, of course, is not the one I want.

The good news is that I still have time (knock on wood). I’m in the process of trying to figure out what work I can afford to turn down, and what household chores I can put off or delegate in order to make my bucket list my to-do list.

I don’t think it will be easy. It’s difficult to break old habits. And it’s even harder to ignore the voice in my head that tells me I’m being irresponsible if I choose to hike up a mountain instead of mowing the lawn.

Miles Davis died suddenly at the age of 65. It’s something that happens all the time. On an intellectual level, we know we are finite. But ours is a culture that eschews talking or even thinking about death. I think we need to start, though. Admitting to ourselves that we won’t be here forever, on a daily basis if necessary, is the best way I can think of to get the really important stuff done.

ENP

Upcoming Author Reading and Q&A

I’ll be reading excerpts from The Blue Bottle and chatting with readers on Oct. 9 at 4 p.m. at the Lowell Book Company, located in Mill No. 5 in Lowell, Massachusetts. Register for the event on the store’s website and you’ll be entered to win a signed copy of the book. Admission is free.

I’m looking forward to seeing you!

ENP

Brick & Mortar

Like most people, I haven’t gotten out much over the past 18 months. Most of the things I’ve needed or wanted to buy I’ve purchased online. At first, this was because the stores where we live were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but even after they reopened it was often difficult to find what I was looking for.

Last weekend, my husband and I hiked Mount Equinox in Manchester, Vermont. While we were in town we visited the Northshire Bookstore. It had been a long time since I’d been in an actual bookstore, especially a well stocked and curated independent one. There are few brick and mortar bookstores around these days. Even big chains like Barnes & Noble have closed many of their shops.

Northshire is an amazing place. They have thousands of books on dozens of subjects, not to mention novels, poetry, biographies, short story collections, memoirs, coffee table books, travel guides, art and photography books, children’s picture books, rare first editions, and cookbooks. We ended up being in there for couple of hours.

As I was wandering around the store, I remembered why I love bookstores so much: Just being there, around people who also enjoy reading and learning, gave me a sense of belonging that I hadn’t felt in a long time. Although the other customers and the store employees were strangers, we all had something essential in common. It’s the same feeling I’ve always gotten in bookstores, but I’d completely forgotten what it was like.

The other amazing thing was that being in the store actually helped me think. Ever since COVID-19 took hold, my thoughts have been jumbled. I’ve had a lot of trouble concentrating on my writing, and most other things, too. Even reading for more than a few minutes has been challenging at times. At Northshire, though, I found myself actually coming up with ideas for novels, stories, and articles. Subjects I’d never considered reading about piqued my interest.

Maybe it was from being around all those printed words, but I was also reminded that everything we do or make begins as an idea. After nearly two years of feeling like my brain was in low gear, the possibilities suddenly seem endless.

Two independent bookstores have recently opened in the city where we live, Lala Books and Lowell Book Company. I haven’t been to either of them yet, but I think I’m going to visit both of them soon.

ENP

Note: My book, The Blue Bottle, is available at Lowell Book Company. I’ll be doing an author signing at the store on Oct. 9. Check back for more details.

Everyday Magic

Back in the early summer, my husband and I went for a hike at the state forest near our house. We’ve been there many times, during every season, and know the woodland pretty well. Along our regular route, there’s a side trail that leads to a ledge overlooking a pond. We don’t always visit the ledge, but this day we did. The first thing I noticed was a pile of what looked like white balloon skins. After looking more closely, I discovered a few more piles, all of them beside shallow holes dug into the sandy soil. Then it dawned on me: turtles! We had come across a nursery where mother turtles had laid their eggs in the spring. The baby turtles had recently hatched, leaving their egg casings behind.

It was amazing to me that we’d been to that exact spot so many times and had never noticed how alive it was.

Magic is everywhere if you’re open to seeing it. Sometimes it’s in the way the sun reflects off our birdbath, creating a dancing globe of light on the tree behind it. It’s in the miniature green bees that visit my garden, the pollinating insects almost too small for me to see without my glasses. There’s magic in a toddler’s smile, and in the look of delight on their face when you smile back.

A couple of weeks before we discovered the turtle hatchery, we were at the same state forest by the same pond, but in a different spot. My husband pointed to an oak limb stretching out over the water. “Look at that bird,” he said. “It’s huge.” An adult barred owl was perched on the branch, its eyes trained on the pond. As we stood and watched, the owl swooped down and grabbed something just below the surface with its talons and flew up into the canopy, never making a sound.

Just yesterday, Rob and I were on the porch at Mount Holyoke’s Summit House, a 19th century hotel in Hadley, Massachusetts, that is today a museum and visitors center. Looking down at a flower bed below where we were standing, I spotted a tiny iridescent green bird bouncing from blossom to blossom. The hummingbird made several trips to the flowers, stopping occasionally to rest on top of a nearby fence. Several people walked right past the little jewel, most of them much closer to the bird than I was, but they were all too preoccupied to notice him. On the hummer’s final trip between the flowerbed and the fence, he flew up to the spot where I was standing and landed briefly on the railing beside me. It was as if he knew I’d been watching him.

If you’re quiet and pay close attention to your surroundings, there’s almost no limit to the magical things you can find. I used to think I needed to travel the world to find inspiring, wonderful things to help mitigate life’s hardships and disappointments, and help me come up with ideas for my writing, but that’s not the case at all. Everything I need is wherever I happen to be.

ENP