It’s cold up here. Sure, it’s technically spring but after the winter we’ve had I finally reached my breaking point. The season needed a kick-start. On Sunday I packed up the kids and headed south in search of spring temperatures. Highs into the 60s sounded as good as any sunny vacation destination. Plattsburgh might not see those numbers on the thermometer until the next season change so we left the winter coats behind and headed for Saratoga.
School this week was spent exploring parks and trails spongy with spring thaw. Soft cool mud, sharp green shoots showing eager in the soil, flowing water filling every downward crevice. It is almost criminal for a child to spend early spring stuck behind a desk in a classroom when there is a world waking up outside the window. Even in the early darkness of the day there is a promise of warmth on the air.
Mornings we were roused by the clear, bright calls of birds. The girls scavenged the woods for boats of bark, vines and feathers to sail along the Kayaderosseras. The stream in early spring is rough and fast, drinking greedily of winter melting along its banks. A rainy day was spent indulging in the Saratoga Springs library collection. I imagine my feeling walking through the aisles in the children’s section is akin to what some women must feel walking through shoe stores or peering into jewelry cases. On any given subject there are stacks of titles.
After the girls went to bed I had a few nights to catch up with modern culture and old friends. I went on my own to see The Grand Budapest Hotel. I like going to the movies alone and a late night showing on a Monday meant I had the entire theater to myself, which in and of itself felt like a scene out of a Wes Anderson film. Equally as enjoyable was the drive through town that night, streets gleaming black with rain and Smiths on the radio. But I wasn’t a total loner. Another evening I caught up with a friend over a $20 cheese plate (her treat). We were both in need of a good conversation. And aged cheddar.
And though my sister is 30 weeks pregnant we got in one late night hangout. Over cups of Honey Lavender tea I tried to convince her of the brooding grunge and cynicism of 90s music. She countered with the mix of emo and hardcore that saw her through her teen years. In the end we both remained loyal to our generation. Perhaps that is inevitable. For my sister and I it is compounded by the fact that we have nearly a decade between us. We weren’t peers until adulthood, so we’ve had to catch up. Turns out playground swings are fun at any age.
The trip north at the end of the week was sunny, the girls peaceful and quiet the entire drive. The earth is emerging from its cocoon of cold and snow, however gradual in the heart of the Adirondacks. Even the stoic blue walls of ice on the mountainsides are beginning to trickle. We returned to the North Country refreshed after a week of sun and rest and relaxation. Vitamin D and laughter were just what we needed to release the remnants of a long, dark winter.
View from the top of Kaaterskill Falls (260 ft. cascade) overlooking the Catskills
The name Thomas Cole has been circulating around our house for the past four years. He is regarded as the founder of the Hudson River School of Art. My husband Dan and I had taken an interest in Cole’s work and decided to learn more about his method and what inspired him. Our first impression was that Cole’s life read like a novel or a script. We were also excited to discover themes from his experience that have remarkable modern relevancy. Beginning this spring I am collaborating with Dan, a film and television producer, on the development of a documentary about the life and work of Cole.
Aside from Cole’s renowned American landscapes, I’m drawn to his allegorical, literary, mythological and religious landscapes. His painting Expulsion from the Garden of Eden made a significant impression on me. He managed to take a story so interwoven throughout culture and the human psyche and present it in an entirely different manner. I would venture that most people read and contemplate the Fall from the perspective of man. I see the doubt and rebellion through my own eyes. It is immediate, intimate. Cole magnifies the scope of the experience. Man is an unassuming brushstroke on the canvas and not the focal point. Cole provides a sweeping glimpse of this world-changing moment, of paradise lost; a haunting juxtaposition of light and dark.
As much as I came to admire Cole’s art, I found myself even more interested in his story. I read biographies and Cole’s own writings; his poems and letters and journals. His writing tracks the development of his philosophies on life, art and nature. From his childhood in England to his new life in America, his poetic sensibilities drew him to the natural world and the arts. Despite vast differences in skill and direction, I find strong parallels between Cole and myself in terms of the influence of nature on art; the allure and inspiration and challenge it provides. And it’s circular: nature provides me with creative material and the more I create from it, the more I want to experience it.
A few years ago our family visited the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York where we viewed one of Cole’s Last of the Mohicans. We were in the middle of a long day trip to the Farmer’s Museum across the road with little girls who wanted to visit farm animals not watch their parents ogle an enormous canvas. I paused as long as I could, taking in the scene of Cora kneeling before Tamenund, or rather the infinite landscape thick with dread. I knew I had to see more. We moved to the heart of the Adirondacks in 2012 and started hiking a lot more. We planned another day trip but this time it was a hike in the Catskills. This was our first time exploring a site Thomas Cole had painted. Unlike our quick peek at the painting in Cooperstown, we spent an entire afternoon immersed in Cole’s world. And that is the biggest draw for me in this pursuit. I can literally walk the trails and view the sights Cole captured nearly 200 years ago. It was a very powerful experience visiting Kaaterskill Falls, one I still regularly recall and contemplate.
Over the course of the project I will post regular progress updates on Upstately. We’re currently working on research and the development of a treatment and grant proposal. I am super excited about blogging my hands-on experiences. I’m filling up our spring and summer schedule with hikes throughout the New York landscapes Cole painted as well as trips to other historic sites and special events. I will be writing more about the fascinating life of Thomas Cole and our ideas for the film. We want this to be a fresh, fun take on the historical documentary and look forward to sharing the process with everyone.
Looking out the window into the night I see snow shaken out like white bedclothes.
I recall from childhood a friend telling me how inherit the wind sounded like a beautiful promise.
Across the yard the baby swing is lifted high and higher until it twists on its tether;
midflight it is wrenched to the side,
smashed hard against the wood frame from which it was once suspended,
now suspended by tortuous gales.
It is late and late winter and I know the baby swing is empty,
yet in the blackness of a shrinking moon it is difficult to distinguish the vacancy.
Every month I wait for this waning moon.
When the moon is full I cannot sleep, unable to close my eyes on its wavelength.
Alice blue spilling across snowy sleeping crops;
the light pries at the edge of the window shade and creeps under the closed door
and permeates my eyelids.
But it is powerless against its own recession.
This is the time for banishing spells and releasing prayers.
My daughter had a thought this week, posed to me as a question:
are killing and killing in war different? Which is a sin?
She is looking for ethical differences,
trying to determine if there can be purity in violence.
In her child mind simple ideas draw lines thick and waxy like a crayon.
Right and wrong, good and bad.
The greatest struggle arises from these categories.
We constantly try.
To be right. To be good.
Faith is never enough, we seek certain salvation
in works, in cleanliness, in who we know and who we vote for.
And our goodness necessitates wickedness and war.
Glorification is dependent on a gutted scapegoat whose entrails serve as a reminder
of the shining perfection that awaits us.
We hide behind phrases like collateral damage and end times prophecy.
We draw battle lines on maps to show where the earth must groan.
Sea and sand swallow our sacrifices;
we have grown deaf to our brother’s blood calling from the depths.
The wind howls through the hollow places it finds
and I cannot hear the baby swing crashing.
The slack of the ropes is tightened in the fight;
knotted, its arching and flying ceases,
the wind’s menacing turns to deliberate sharp jerking.
Murder is the whisper
behind every selfish choice
behind every act of war.
We see it in the destruction of the wind
and in the devastation of our words.
I will tell my daughter that we have no authority
over right and wrong, good and bad,
that we only imagine there are two sides.
Above all there is God,
who does not lead us to war but to worship.
who does not see the lines we draw but commands,
take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.
Preschoolers are always ready to party. As the parent, you’re the one who’s gotta make it happen. Sometimes that’s easier said than done. Anytime I hear someone say they “can’t wait” for their kid to grow up I’m like, oh, you can wait. Because it all comes back with a vengeance in about a decade. Preschoolers are practice for teenagers. I know because I’ve had three preschoolers. I haven’t had a teenager yet but, whatever, I lived it.
Young children are full of energy and enthusiasm. Give them something to do with it. Time spent in nature and one-on-one nurturing are ideal but not always possible. Homeschooling, working from home, stay-at-home parenting, siblings and other responsibilities require a parent to divide their attention. Little ones need to be able to occupy themselves.
One of the reasons I like hanging out with preschoolers more than teenagers is because they have better taste in music. My 4-year-old and I share a love of Talking Heads, the inspiration behind this list of ideas to help you and your preschooler enjoy the early years:
This Must Be the Place
Make use of place. Having toys and activities broken up into zones throughout the house can be fun. Alphabet letters on the refrigerator. Bicycles in the basement on cold or rainy days. Musical instruments in the office. We have shelves and baskets of books set up with rugs and pillows in different parts of the house, creating multiple secluded quiet spots. Siblings sometimes need space! Continue reading
I remember my Kindergarten classroom feeling like a visit to grandma’s house. Music and art and nature. And more than anything ample opportunity for imaginative play. There were dolls and ride-on toys and a little kitchen. We even had a schoolyard with real pavement that scraped our knees. Kindergarten was first established as a nurturing environment for children of working mothers, orphans and immigrants. What was a children’s garden is quickly becoming a drill and kill zone. Skills and knowledge once learned in Kindergarten are now expected to be mastered before Kindergarten. Should we really be setting up 4, 5 and 6 year old children to struggle and fail? That’s quite the head trip for a child who only yesterday was napping and cuddling and using a sippy cup. Continue reading
Story by story builds
a tower conjuring confusion
a touch to burst sky blue tension
cloud drift visualizes collapse between covers
where verses fermented caramel coolly splash sheets and
want carves in cuneiform favorite words like a cut in the mouth
typeset on the page rages silent rattles its tail against the heat of drought
Just as a flood withheld becomes the curse plans change and change everything
We spent an overnight on the Saint Lawrence Seaway last weekend for a Pete Seeger tribute jam hosted by TAUNY, a non-profit dedicated to the folk traditions and local culture, past and present, of the North Country. We really wanted our girls to experience something of Pete beyond their favorite songs on a speaker. It was their first time at a community singalong but they blended right in. But I suppose it was not unlike singing at church. Different ages and types brought together in song and in heart. The girls alternated between dancing in the back of the crowded room and taking front row seats with Dutch windmill cookies and lemonade punch in hand. Aside from Pete’s untouchable body of work and his impact on society, he knew how to engage his audience. Half the joy in listening to his music is his rapport with the crowd during live shows. His pleasure in singing with the people is palpable. The songs are for them. Continue reading
At the beginning of the week I came across my two older girls poring over a comic book-style illustrated book, reading aloud, grinning and giggling. They were propped up on elbows over a (much) abridged children’s book of William Shakespeare plays we found at the library (along with 50+ other books for this month’s topics). We are spending a few weeks studying Will’s work in-depth. Yesterday the girls spent most of the day creating paper bag puppets and staging scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A set of watercolor pencils, a spool of twine and a handy familiarity with Greek pronunciations and they were good to go. Continue reading
We made it out of the Dark Ages. I can breathe again. For a year and a half, the gloom of the Middle Ages hung over our history readings like low gray clouds. The loss of life, culture, intellect. I am astonished anew as I teach my girls about the printing press. I break away from our texts, moved, emphatically explaining this shift in world history. The goldsmith’s miracle of tin, lead and antimony molded into letters then into pages, slick with oily ink, fitted into an old wine-press. The magnitude of mass production and translation. Books no longer chained to pulpits or kept on the high shelves of the wealthy, privileged few. The holiness of literacy. Continue reading
Driving the girls to riding lessons is one of my favorite parts of the week. Tuesdays late afternoon with the sky in the midst of its color shift. In December I had to walk them to and from the barn with a flashlight. It was dark and we had to remember the two electric fences and the old oak tree. The tree lost a big limb at the end of autumn and we had to walk around that for a time, too. The days are still cold but the light does not cut out like it had. We drive 55 or 65 and make the turn onto the road that leads to the state park. It opens up, straight, lined by dormant farm land and bare trees. The trees are immaculately stripped, unwilling to sacrifice life for green fleeting beauty. I remember as a child feeling intrigued by the line she was a handsome woman, as read in a book. It spoke of a dignified strength. Nice bone structure and sturdy limbs. Pretty might not be unflappable; sexy was not necessarily respectable. Handsome was steady and clean like a winter tree. Curves in the road bypass familiar peninsulas. Driving past the marina it is difficult to mind the speed zone and back off acceleration. Here where the lanes stretch out like abandoned front row seats to delayed sunset; beams of light filtered through snowy atmosphere miles away. Winter waning, daylight lingering and I am seeking pristine branches against sky. Driving away from bleak boxes and blankets and lamplight. Shedding panic like a scarf too warm and tight. Fifteen years ago I wore the weight of a borrowed camera around my neck and walked these same weeks. Walked on the packed clay of a drained pond where the dock hovered over no mystery. Looked for glyphs in birch bark. Climbed an embankment below a highway to spy a mountain peak. For a time the trees’ arms and my own found solidarity in nudity. Between final snow fall and first budding. I now sling my own camera across my back; take pictures through the window of the car in the surfacing dirt of the roadside. While the older girls ride in the barn, between pulling out books and toys from a bag to entertain my youngest daughter, I scribble ideas in a notebook against the car steering wheel. The girls finish their lessons, climb back in the car, their hair and clothes saturated with the odor of horses kept inside all winter. We take the drive home slower, not wanting to take for granted these hours growing brighter by the day.
If you live in Upstate New York, or even the Eastern U.S., you’ve probably had just about enough of the season which shall not be named. The ceaseless cold and ice lingers over the long, dark weeks like a specter. Like Old Man Winter in that creepy Jack Frost cartoon or, if you want to really traumatize your children, like this snowman cartoon from hell. I just want Jack Frost to come paint all the icicles into candy canes we can lick away. Continue reading