I’m speaking at the Shelburne-Charlotte Rotary this Wednesday morning at 8 am. Not sure my brain will be firing on all at that hour, but join us for a cup of coffee anyway. I’ve got a few things to say. I’ll try to remember to wash my hair.

Trinity Episcopal Church, 5171 Shelburne Road, Shelburne, Vermont. Meeting starts at 7:30.

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Stanley Kunitz once wrote: “I dream of an art so transparent you can look through it and see the world.” And that’s what I wanted. I wanted to take pictures without my thumb showing, without obscuring the lens. I didn’t want anyone to think I was taking the picture.

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Birthday Letter to a Teenage Daughter

Dearest Helen,

Fourteen years ago, very early this morning, I was hoping that the doctor and all the other medical strangers in the room with us would figure out a way to get you out of me, and fast(er). You had gotten stuck on your way into this world, rounding the Cape Horn of my innards. And, like most women in any kind of prolonged labor, I had had enough.

Now, of course, I play my cards and plead my case and watch as you deliquesce further and further away from me and into the world around us. Most days I would give anything to have you nestled up close the way you did when you were a newborn. Today you are going skiing with your friend, Dicey, and though we had planned to spend the day together, I know that I have to release you to be with your people. Of course you want to go skiing on the day after a snow storm; that was all I wanted to do at your age, too.

My love. I have watched you with such tremendous joy and curiosity and awe all these years. I have watched you watch your brothers and seek to be like them—an excellent choice as they are truly good men.  I have watched you be done with your mooky and binker (milk and blanket, for the rest of the world) and latch on to other things (I could embarrass you here but I won’t). I have seen you slurp an oyster, catch a fish, write a song (who can ever forget Mississippi Mall? ), discipline ornery toddlers and cook dinner for 35 people. If we could reclaim all the rings and necklaces and bracelets you’ve either lost or broken we could conceivably open a jewelry shop. A pop-up one, at least. I have watched you go from trundling along using the dogs to hold you up to running full speed with the dogs through the fields.

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I watched you the other night, on the basketball court. I was startled, quite frankly, by your grit, your tenacity, your speed, your unrelenting pursuit of the ball and your fearless attempts to put it in the basket.

It was a metaphor, in many ways, for all I have witnessed in your life up to now. When you set your sights on something you pursue it with intention and guts and grace. I saw this when you trained for and won a slot on a competitive cooking show on TV. And the whole world watched you that day as you risked your opportunity to win by helping your fellow competitor.

That’s the other thing about you: you are one of the kindest people I have ever met.

I have watched you navigate other countries, skiing the hills of Canada and attempting to speak the language in Sweden. I have watched you learn to ride a bike, a horse, a wave. I have seen you grow your hair long and cut it very short. I have watched with utter fascination and glee as you’ve gone from a wee vintage aficionado fashionista, wearing the most outlandish outfits to a strong and powerful, Patagonia-clad young woman. Truly, the world has no idea what it’s in for once you have a driver’s license and a high school diploma in your clutches.

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This is that very tricky place for the mom of a girl, as you wind down your middle school days and prepare to head to the next thing. I want to protect you from the jerks and heartache and disappointments I know await and I want to see you take the whole thing on and show ‘em how it’s done. I have no doubt whatsoever that you will. I have seen you organize rallies and speak to large crowds. I know you are a gifted writer. I know you have a heart of gold. I have seen you walk across a room. I know you mean business.

It is snowing so perfectly beautifully today: gentle and slow, the whole world is white. I remember watching the new day arrive, from my bed in the hospital the morning you were born—the sun rising over Burlington. You are such a Vermonter: strong and resourceful and talented and kind and funny. You are so freaking funny and you get funnier all the time. Which may be the most important coping skill that humans have now—a willingness to see the world as it is: sublime and ridiculous at the same time. You’ve got it. Also, you have great taste in music eighty percent of the time, which are super good odds for a teenage girl, trust me.

There are so many things I look forward to doing with you, my love. Traveling, most especially. There is no one in the world more fun to be with on the road than you (and Sam and Nate). But today we’ll take today and revel in the story of you. Ski fast, take risks. Happy birthday, Helen Cooper Hood Eyre.

Mamma loves Coco.

P.S. I have always loved that auto correct turns your name into xoxo.

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“At any rate, that is happiness, to be dissolved into something complete and great.”
Willa Cather, My Ántonia

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Up

Finally. There was snow this morning when I woke up.

I learned that my friend, Tom, died on Monday. It was coming, he had cancer. He worked hard for a long time to stay alive longer. I hate that language around cancer: she fought a valiant fight. In the end we all die, it’s just that we go at different paces, for different reasons and at different stages of life. All of life is, in one way or another, a struggle to stay alive, isn’t it?

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The interesting thing is is that I’m staying at the home of some friends for a while and on the shelf near where I sit in the kitchen is one of those funny gizmo-y spaceship salt shaker things that Tom used to make in his shop in Charlotte, when he was making stuff down the hall from where I was working on the newspaper. Only I’m a hundred miles from Charlotte and there is no sensible reason why this thing would be sitting here staring me in the face this morning.

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Except of course as a reminder that now Tom is everywhere and we can visit here, all these miles away from where we used to work together, have tea, share stories. I didn’t expect that Tom would be dead so early in the game, but that’s how it goes, doesn’t it?

I decided it would be a good morning to revisit one of my childhood favorites for breakfast: Cream of Wheat with raisins, milk and maple syrup. I should be going skiing after a breakfast like this, but not today. Nate heads to Idaho (for a few days of skiing) today, before he returns to his life in Montana. I will take him to the airport soon.

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We had a great time together, capped off by a visit to New York City. Nate hadn’t been there in many years, so it was great fun to go with him. He’s still got that terrific sense of curiosity and awe for this world that makes for excellent traveling companionship.

We went to two of the Look up! places in New York, as I call them: Grand Central Station and the Guggenheim. We stood for quite a while and just watched people coming into the museum, take a few steps and then look up. Certainly at the Guggenheim the line between art and humanity becomes blurred: the people are the art is the people.

I think that’s how it was with Tom’s life, too. He was one of those people who really elevated the story of life, by choosing to shine his light in every direction. He was one of the good ones who vibrate on a higher plane. And, equally as important, he took Nate and me sledding the two miles down Mt. Philo once with his super fast Hammerhead sleds. He kept an extra one in the car … just in case. He was that kind of guy.

The night before the museum visit we were treated to a terrific concert at the Bowery Ballroom: The Lone Bellow. Before the show Nate and I got to go into the secret upstairs room where the band members gnaw on their nervousness before a show. There we all circled up and held hands and I gave a blessing. It was a really great moment for me and a reminder that church happens in so many ways and in so many places in our lives; Sunday morning is just one of them. “There are lots of pilgrims out there who have come tonight to hear you preach,” I told the band. “fill their hearts and this space, tonight, with your warmth and song and sweetness.” Amen.








Always Leaving

There are many, many things that I want to say on the eve of the eve of a new year. I can’t say them all, there isn’t enough time or space here and you would grow weary before too long if I tried.

I don’t really much like the whole year recap thing. A year is a beautiful, organic, crazy enterprise and to live one takes a lot of courage and stamina because so many days are so hard.

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I am making some changes moving into 2019 and I don’t know yet if they’re good ones but I think they are. I have my leaping shoes on and I’ve filled up my knapsack with faith, which has become as indispensable as air to me. Honestly, given all of the weirdness and madness and sickness in this world, I have no idea how anyone lives without it.

The thing that tells me I’m doing the right thing is that it’s a little bit terrifying. That several times a day I stop and look around and think, “What on earth am I doing?” That’s how I know I’m on the right track, that my schemes for the new year are good ones and worthy of my bravery: I’m feeling both terror and excitement.

I have a lot to be grateful for. My kids are good people, my parents are alive. I have the finest, most beautiful friends and most of them know what I want done when I die. My brothers and sister and their kids are so great; I am loved and I know it.

We are going to New York today, Nate and I, to smell everything and see some stuff before he heads back to school in Montana. To hear some music and eat some food and be together. Not for the ball drop or any of that craziness, we’ll be on a train out of the city before that gets underway. We’re going to see The Lone Bellow who sing a great song called Time’s Always Leaving. That seems a good way to acknowledge the ending of one year and our movement into another.

My two youngest nephews, who were just here for a few days from California, call me Woo Hoo. I’m always afraid that they’ll figure out that it’s not my real name and start calling me plain old Melissa. It’ll happen eventually but I hope that they’ll always hold that memory—that in the early days my name was synonymous with an expression of glee.

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I have in my head tonight the words of a 14th century mystic/hermit/lover of music called Richard Rolle who said something along that lines of … to love God involves three things: warmth, song and sweetness.

So I guess that those are the things I wish for us in this new year: more of all of that stuff: the courage to do terrifying things, glee and warmth and song and sweetness. Welcome 2019.

Amen.

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Woven Into The Plot

Christmas Eve morning and all is, indeed, calm.

There was a light on in the hall when I came downstairs that I am 99% sure was not on when I went to bed last night. It’s a very bright light and I remember taking stock of the darkness when I went up the stairs to read and sleep. The kids are with their dads, as is the custom in our family on Christmas Eve and so no child came in late and left a light on.

I take it as a lovely sign. Of what, I’m not entirely sure, but I have made my tea and given Daisy the ultimate old Coonhound gift this morning: a warmed blanket for her last hour or so of bed snuggle, so let me take a stab at this …

I told the pinecone story in church yesterday morning. Of the wee one who interrupted my personal tree-getting/holiday over-thinking/over-doing/misdirected energy by reaching into her pocket one morning, extending her hand to me and unfurling her fingers to reveal a perfect tiny pinecone. “Treasure,” was all she said.

Treasure, indeed. I told the story because the birth of a person named Jesus should hold a similar place in our hearts, as treasure in a world gone mad on so many levels.

You can either discount the story of the birth of Jesus as a bunch of hokum; a wayward Grimm’s Fairy Tale, or you can take a closer look, mull it over, see how precious it is and believe it to be treasure. There may be a million gajillion other babies or pinecones on the planet, but if we deem this one special then it most certainly becomes important to us.

It could be true that this pinecone, like snowflakes, has a structure unlike any other. Perhaps if we investigated further we would discover subtle nuances, differences in curvature. Maybe it has a slightly different scent than other pinecones. Pinecones are probably a lot like humans: no two alike (minus all the emotional trauma and drama, those lucky little seedlings.)

Treasure. A kid would know.

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As for Jesus, was he a savior, the manifestation of God in this world? I don’t know; I wasn’t there, but there are many recorded accounts of the things he did when he grew up that indicate that he was someone very special, not your average human.

He spent his days of ministry in direct contact with those in the world who needed him most: the sick, the lame, the hungry and homeless, women and children, the impoverished, the weary. He was a social activist long before it became cool, before it was about looking good on social media. He was all action, very little talk, and I’d give anything to see more of that these days.

He lived his life in service to those who needed his help, no questions asked, no pretending they weren’t there, no passing them by assuming someone else would clean up the mess. That’s enough for me; there have been so few role models in this department over the years. I’ll take the Jesus story if only as a reminder of who and what we are truly supposed to be.

Later in the day, yesterday, Marion, my former mother-in-law and very good friend, called to tell me that when she got out of her car and was headed into her studio, after church, she looked down by the door and saw a little pinecone. “And there is no pine tree anywhere nearby,” she said, “no reason for there to be a pinecone right there.”

Number One, I was delighted that someone had listened to my sermon, and Number Two, I responded with “what a lovely sign.”

“Of what?”she asked.

“I think that some people are more tuned-in to the workings of the spirit world,” I told Marion. “You’re one of those people. Your heart was open and your eyes more aware. You live your life that way, and so someone or something sent you a playful little sign, a greeting, to remind you you are loved.”

Marion was satisfied with that explanation and so we ended our conversation with “see you tomorrow night.”

Four years ago on Christmas Eve there was tension among us because it was my first Christmas service as a pastor and I really wanted my kids there and their dad’s family, Marion’s family, does their big thing on Christmas Eve. There was a lot of back and forth, tempers flared a bit, some jostling for who or what was more important. The hour came and they had not arrived. The service began and still no McChesneys. And then I looked up and saw them, not just my boys, but all of them, walking into the sanctuary. They had suspended their celebration for the hour of church and come, all together, thirteen of them. I will never forget it as long as I live. It was a seminal moment in the history books of grace, forgiveness, love and everything, everything that this season is about. I floated three inches off the ground the entire service.

Since then my former parents-in-law and my former siblings-in-law have become regular church-goers and participants in our faith community and the entire family comes to our candlelight service every year on Christmas Eve, without question.

What does it mean? A light mysteriously turned on in the night? A pinecone where there should be none? A child reminding me of how beautiful and important the tiniest things in this world are? If I trolled the stories of the 364 days since last Christmas I’m sure I would find dozens of similar accounts, including people showing up just when I needed them, opportunities that presented just when I wasn’t sure where I was headed, rainbows and snow, like glitter, falling from the sky. Some things were lost this year, as per; some things came back and brand new, shiny things turned up, too. Endings and beginnings are woven into the plot.

A baby born in a barn is not unlike any other baby born anywhere else, in some ways. Just another baby, just another pinecone, just another bleary-eyed, middle-aged woman trying to remember if she turned that light off last night.

Or. Maybe. Not.

Merry Christmas dear friends and readers. May the magic of the season reach in and touch the very heart of your deepest and truest heart. Amen.

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Thus All

I have no idea why I’m compelled to write about this now, but it keeps popping into my head: Not long ago I was looking at Coco’s photos on her phone and she had a screenshot of this line:“Thus all romaine is suspect.”

The line itself is hysterical, with the implication that romaine lettuce was no longer to be trusted (after the recent recall/E.Coli outbreak). The fact that Coco saw the humor in it and saved the sentence brings me infinite glee. I’m so grateful that my kid has a sense of what’s funny because in a world where romaine lettuce has become dangerous, we all need as great a sense of humor as we can muster. Right?

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The kids worked hard this evening on our mostly-annual Yule Log. I love it when this happens, the way they divide and conquer in the kitchen; the way they’re all completely competent and always game. I loved watching them make their funny little creatures out of marzipan and I loved seeing their delight in the finished product. None of them have lost that thing, that combination of awe and curiosity and enthusiasm for discovery. The cake this year was not the sturdiest we’ve ever concocted, but I’m certain it will taste delicious with a glass of cold milk, which we plan to do after church on Sunday. I can just see myself up there at the pulpit now, talking about peace and a little baby and Mary and daydreaming of a thick slice of Christmas Yule Log, chocolate with vanilla buttercream and a whole lotta kid love. Ah! The wonders of the season. It all happens so quickly, we open the little windows of the Advent calendar and in the blink of an eye we’re on day 23.

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Speaking of logs: I have the proper tools this year to chop and split my firewood. Because I have a good good friend who knows how to properly split wood and he supplied me with the know-how and the implements: maul, wedge and hatchet. I cannot tell you how much satisfaction this has brought me. The hauling, stacking, chopping, splitting, mesmerizing, warming business of using wood to heat up winter in Vermont is particularly enjoyable this year.

Although, of course, it is only December.

Peace on Earth, my dear friends. Goodwill, warm fires and charming Yule Logs to all and stick to locally-grown microgreens whenever possible.


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Especially if there’s a Big Bad Wolf! Good words for a new year.


Of Each Other

Good morning friends.

There is a thunderstorm going on outside this morning, which I always find to be kind of cool, when that occurs in the winter. The rumble of thunder and flashes of light seem somehow to be appropriate right now. In the church season we’re in a time of anticipation, of course, of a certain birth, a certain kind of magic that has nothing to do with wrapping paper or peanut brittle or the mall.

Whether it happened the way we think it happened doesn’t really matter; it’s a terrific story, about hope and hardship, about a starry night being the only form of guidance, about a slow and plodding trek toward something new, about love and the birth of a baby.

I’m intrigued by all the different modes of celebration. How some fill their homes with lots of decorations, how the old ornaments might hold great meaning. For some it’s a lot of parties, drinking and eating. Some kind of bury their head and hope the whole thing will pass soon. I see many suffering this time of year, it’s all too much —an economic hardship, the expectations are too high.

The story of the Christmas baby is, I’d like to think, a good centering place, something to keep coming back to to remind ourselves what matters.

That and all the being together.

Coco and I went to Emma Willard School the other night to see their performance of Christmas Revels. The senior girls have been putting on this magnificent pageant for 104 years and it’s filled with mirth and magic, surprises, incredible costuming and timely messages. I ran into several of my old colleagues from when I was teaching at the Children’s School there in the early 90s. A couple of my former students who are now, cough cough, in their mid-30s were there, too. And let me tell you, there’s nothing more jarring than seeing someone you haven’t seen since they were about 8, now as an adult, married, with kids of their own and a job. That 25-year leap, especially accompanied by all the Revels excitement and drama, unmoored me for a short time.

Nowell sing we clear!

Nowell sing we clear!

But it was so much fun to return to a place from my past, a place I loved, the gorgeous campus and people I cared very much about and haven’t seen in decades. It was a nice portal to the season.

After the performance, a quick trip to the airport to collect our Nate and here we go: eating and more eating, who wants or needs what, who’s coming home when? Popcorn and Charlie Brown: “Gee — do they still make wooden Christmas trees?” Everything tastes better when the kids are home.

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We’ve got a baby on the way here in our family—soon I will be a Great Aunt! Dad turns 80 just after Christmas and Kristin 51 a few days later. Impossible. And also very real, the sands of time …

I don’t wish any of it away, this week-long, church, eating, wrapping, will it snow? birthdays, unexpected surprises in the mail, lights, bells and tiny Santas. But there is a lot to look forward to in the new year, I must say. The continued building of our church, that has been steadily growing these past years, a journey to Israel in February, the beginning of my time as a photographer and writer in disaster response work, collaborating with some very talented folks at State14. I’ll be finishing up at Fordham in the spring and working with some incredibly dedicated people to continually move our beloved Charlotte News into the future.

Also … placing into the world my own writing and photography enterprise: please subscribe if you are so inclined. Because … why the heck not?

Travel and stories and photographs and love. A deep and abiding love of this world and a bottomless well of curiosity about the people in it: 2019 coming right up.

There is a great deal of gratitude I must convey: for those who have shown up and continue to show up in church each week; for those who support me in my adventures, for steady and sturdy friends. My folks, who take care of Daisy for me when I’m gone, which seems like all the time these days. Gratitude for people like Polly, who sent me a beautiful owl pendant the other day, made by Kate Taylor and all I could think was …. my gosh, James Taylor was my first musical crush and 40 years later I’m wearing a necklace made by his sister. Life’s a pretty funny thing.

I’m thankful for everyone who has supported the Faith on Foot mission of helping our neighbors with hospitality and basic supplies: “If you have two coats, give one away.” I was deeply grateful when I left our church board meeting the other night and found, outside the door, piles of food donated by a neighbor for the community food cupboard. “Someone helped me today,” he said, “so I thought I’d return the favor.”

I am grateful to those of you who have jumped with me, again, in support of my own publication, especially Caryn, who is a beacon of light, always. And Kimberly, whose humor, grace and realness inspire me to be a better writer (and person). I am grateful for all those who listen when I try to sort out all this madness, and for those who allow me into their sacred spaces when the world feels upside down with grief or worry or pain. I’m thankful for the people who walk with me through these days, the people who help me stay sober and present, on our way to whatever stable or version of home we are seeking, slowly, plodding, hand-in-hand, with love in our hearts and the light of the world to show us the way. Amen.

Please, my friends, take good care of each other. M.