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.

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

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

Summertime

I swapped out my flannel sheets for the regular cotton kind this morning, which means that warm weather is here to stay, at least for a few months. Being a New Englander and avid year-round hiker, I don’t really mind winter or the cold. In fact, I’m not really at my best when the temperature outside gets above 80. This year, though, I’m really looking forward to summer.

I’m sure I don’t need to go into all the ways that 2020 was a complete drag. It was for just about everyone, except maybe for Jeff Bezos. But there were some lowlights: My mom died. My daughter’s college graduation was canceled. The U.S./Canadian border was closed. I was furloughed from my editing job for six months, and I found myself unable to concentrate on just about anything. Even though I had plenty of free time, I didn’t write a word that didn’t have a hard deadline attached to it, including updates for this website.

But summer is on its way. Flowers are blooming. My family and I are fully vaccinated, and I feel hopeful about the future for the first time almost 18 months.

Thanks for hanging on with me. I hope this summer brings you nothing but sunshine and happiness. Stay tuned for more in the near future.

ENP