scene change

20120318-084231.jpgA change of scenery in the presence of good company is a sure pick-me-up. My personal favorite is seaside: sun, surf, sand with someone I love. As winter in the North Country winds down, we are overdue. Last week my sister and her husband further improved upon a sweet sail.

Sometimes our scenery was expansive. A long stretch of turquoise deepened to azure and cyan and finally cobalt, extending into forever. Then we were reminded of our place on this planet; mere specks, dangling precariously from a moment in time.

Often, the scene was set more closely, on a lovely face recounting a dramatic sea-life encounter, savoring juicy fruit not long from the tree, or relaxing fully into the sun’s embrace. Her eyes and her laugh were warm and familiar, her presence comforting. Sisters are solid footing as the world spins madly on.

We explored some scenes step by step, feeling our way along. We need not submerge to learn of the seabed, laid bare like an offering at our feet. Pebbles and coral, worn round by the surf were tossed upon shore for a sun-baked finish. Sharpish fragments of reef, shells and sea debris were pounded into submission; quick-dried in the midday heat, they stuck stubbornly to our feet. Beautiful in black, pink, gold, or white, the most exquisite beach was flecked with grains of each.

But the best was a beach broad and deep, a swath of silky smooth sand sparkling bright in warm sunlight. We walked ankle-deep, gentle waves caressing each easy step around the perimeter of paradise. Generously ringed by mangroves and palms, it was a respite, a place to lay quiet and listen. Waves washed in and out, timed to our deep breathing of sea-salty air and fragrant fronds blessed by sunbeams.

Elemental; really, nothing much. And yet, it was enough.

~René Morley

P.S. My sister and I could play double for the other,
if it were only about matching laughs … or feet.

sister time

20120310-180017.jpgEarly this morning we set out. It was a sloppy and slow drive to the airport but the inconveniences of life are of no great consequence when you are in the right frame of mind. We were happy to be on the road, heading south into the sunshine and leaving the snow behind.

The Hubs and I have come to count on a March migration to tropical ports of call to restore the fabric of a relationship worn a bit thin over the course of a year. Work is hard; life is stressful. It has come to feel like a necessity, this one week afloat. However, this trip is sweeter still because my sister and her husband will join us for their first cruise. We are celebrating her fiftieth birthday and their thirtieth anniversary — milestones well worth marking. Did I mention she is my older sister? Sometimes that does come in handy.

The last vacation I remember together was in high school. We stayed a week or two at a small cottage on Cranberry Lake with gritty linoleum floors, lumpy mattresses and a faint smell of mildew. My family thought it was paradise and delighted in learning the secrets of the lake and exploring the surrounding woodlands. Breathing deeply in the balsam and pine, catching sunfish, learning to waterski, life was good. Yet I don’t recall a single event of that vacation specific to my sister.

I admired and respected my sister. She was three years older, much smarter and effortlessly successful, or so it seemed. As the eldest, she shouldered a lot of responsibility and hardly flinched. Still, we didn’t exactly get on. We pursued shared interests separately, if not competitively. We seldom shared clothes, or friends, or secrets. We did share a bedroom but drew a line down the middle of the bright orange carpet to keep the peace. Somehow she knew if I even breathed on her side. I was surprised that I cried when she left home after high school, but I did, I sobbed. I didn’t know when she’d come back, if she’d come back, and suddenly felt so alone.

She never really came back and our lives quickly moved on, consumed with the challenges young marriage and childrearing bring. But eventually our time did come, as it should for all sisters. Newfound freedoms and fresh perspectives of our forties ushered us into our complicated “middle place“, coalescing into precious opportunities to grow closer. Incompatibilities of decades past are now celebrated distinctions, just more reasons to be proud of her.

We’ve made up for a lot of lost time, my sister and I. And now, we’re buying time: a whole week together on vacation! We’ll laugh until our sides hurt, talk until we’re hoarse, and make great memories to last a lifetime, this time. Our cabana boys have promised to keep the frosty drinks flowing and sunscreen slathered on thick. What more could we ask?

So here we sit, the Hubs and I, enjoying a glass of vino and a cold brew, waiting for our people. Yay! There’s my sister!

~René Morley

P.S. Terri Hendrix gets it just right with her sweet Sister’s Song. Listen in…

ode to oatmeal

Odd, the things that will spark a memory. Like oatmeal, for example.

Growing up, our house was not so big that kitchen clatter went unnoticed, especially in my bedroom directly above. On cold mornings, my mother often prepared a warm breakfast. The clang of pots and pans and clash of cutlery was my alarm clock, signaling time to get ready for school. It was a gracious start to the day, devoid of electronic beep or buzz. I still prefer a non-alarming awakening, thank you very much.

Mom’s breakfast of choice was Cream of Wheat. I found it grainy and bland, nearly tasteless. I used the sugar bowl liberally to ease passage, white dissolving into white. Sometimes, Mom prepared oatmeal. Whether quick or whole oats the outcome was the same — a glutinous, mushy mash. A generous helping of brown sugar topped off with milk made it more palatable.

Later, there were individualized servings in packets of instant oatmeal. (Microwaves were slow appearing on the scene but we knew how to boil water!) The outcome was not much improved except that there were tidbits of fruit or spices to trick our taste buds. I liked apple cinnamon the best.

My sisters and I didn’t complain but I don’t know that I ever thanked my mother for her early morning duties. I should have. Anyone who makes an extra effort to fill another belly with warm food is to be commended. It’s not my mother’s fault that I didn’t care for warm cereal. At least, as a kid, I didn’t think I did.

As an adult, I was surprised to discover differently when a dear friend introduced me to steel-cut oats, otherwise known as Irish oats. They looked more like a grain I might have fed my pony than something I should eat myself. (The 1970s effect lingers, even now.) They also took considerably longer to cook. However, served “Alaskan style” the overall impact was spectacular. These oats have a satisfying nutty texture. Topped off with crunchy pecans, berries bursting with flavor, a dollop of maple syrup and a dab of cream, it is a yummy-licous start to the day. And most definitively, not my mother’s oatmeal.

~René Morley


I love orange! Let me tell you the ways …

I love when an orange sunrise peeks over the horizon to wake me up, gently parting the curtains on my bedroom window. And then, POW! A blazing orb bursts on the scene, spilling golden-yellow rays through each east-facing window. What a kickstart.

I love the orange in an orange and the healthy boost it provides. As January rolls around and then February sneaks in, my outlook becomes bleak. The old adage proves true: As the days get longer, the cold gets stronger. I am besieged, pasty-pale, suddenly desperate for citrus. I buy bags of orange and yellow-orange and pink-orange and red-orange fruits, filling bins in the fridge and bowls on the tables to overflowing. We can’t possibly eat them all (although we try) but they make me happy just by being there, in all of their orange-ness.

I love that orange enhances every season of this wonderful old world. It is generously invested in the fruits of fall and winter — plump pumpkins, hardy squash, sweet potatoes, even ‘Indian’ corn, with its calico flair. Beta-carotene in abundance! It resurfaces in the spring and lingers well into summer in the sweetness of apricots, nectarines, peaches and tea roses. Wildflowers, like the brown-eyed Susan, ‘Indian’ paint brushes, sunflowers, and sassy lilies, provide a POP! to the landscape and sustain us until the next harvest. I think orange is God’s way of saying, “Well, hello again. So glad you noticed. I just love to see you smile.”

I love that a perfect ending to a day is also orange. I wait for a pristine sunset like most people wait for Christmas. Our home is positioned so that they are easy to miss but most days, I am paying attention, hoping orange will show up to say good-night. It’s a satisfying end cap: relaxing in an Adirondack chair scooted up next to the fire pit, a glass of wine in hand as a deep orange-rosy-red glow skims the hedgerow and stretches out across the back forty. Sweet.

Not all orange is created equal, of course. Although I have empathy for the homeowner on a budget, bright orange wall-to-wall is risky. (To say the least.) Cafeteria-orange is seldom on the savvy decorator’s color palette. (I discovered this the hard way.) Pylon orange is never to be used on clothing. (A co-worker’s epic fail.) Burnt orange works best organically. (Stay away from crushed velvet.) In fact, we should take a tip from the Creator: orange is an accent color. Save yourself! Buy an orange handbag! (Or shoes! or a belt!) They’re so in right now. And for once, I’m ahead of the game.

~René Morley


I had occasion to consider the lesson of the doll again more recently, when another cruise took us to Dominica*. Our cabin was port-side and we enjoyed a long view of the place as the ship glided slowly to anchor. First impressions of harbor and port city are usually telling and Roseau was no exception. Rusty industrial infrastructure gave way to yards of blue plastic tarp, providing shelter for merchants setting up their displays. A string of drab low-rise buildings, faded and worn, extended inland.

Cute cafes, quaint shops and beachfront umbrellas were notably missing from the picture. In fact, there was no beach in sight. “Ut-oh,” I thought, “We should have booked a tour.” Winging it suddenly seemed rather foolish. My Mister scooted off to the excursion desk to sign us up for something, anything; there wouldn’t be much left to choose from.

Dominica is an island of steep hills swathed in innumerable shades of green and thick vegetation obscuring three active volcanoes. Crumbling, narrow roads climb almost straight uphill (or down) and switchback alarmingly, at least to the uninitiated. I was sure the gears were going to give out on Father, the driver navigating a worn out mini-van to Trafalgar Falls. Somehow, he managed and our guide, Georgi, didn’t seem the least bit concerned.

Georgi was eager to share her knowledge as our small group tripped along a winding, root-studded trail. Every turn elicited enthusiastic insights to native flora and fauna, local history sprinkled in throughout. It wasn’t long before we reached the platform overlooking the falls. This is where most of the group realized we were not going to immerse in the falls. Big sighs ensued but we late-comers could hardly complain.

A few moments later we were on our way to the next stop. The entire venture replicated our first thirty minutes: up, down, around and … we’re off again! Sulfur springs, boiling out of the ground and stinking to high heaven. Botanical gardens, of a sparse sort. Cemetery, of a curiously dilapidated sort. (“Dead center the city,” Georgi giggled at her own joke.) We stopped at a small collection of roadside stands selling coconut products, sulfur soaps, and other local goods purportedly beneficial to your health.

Along the way we heard about thirteen varieties of bananas (two of which are exported). “A banana a day keeps the doctor away!” Georgi exclaimed. She proudly noted the recent passing of a 128-year-old native as proof that Dominicans enjoy impressive longevity, largely due to a diet based upon coconuts, she assured us. (Life span seems actually on par with neighboring countries.) Finally, we tumbled out at an overlook of the capital city and harbor; the grand finale was a photo op.

Initially, I was just so relieved that the end of our tour was in sight, the Serenade of the Seas now in clear view. But something else was niggling at me as we stood there, looking down from on high at Morne Bruce. That is when I remembered the lesson of the doll.

It might have been a disappointment — a long, hot drive amounting to … not much but distant views and limited access. But it wasn’t. There was nothing but good will and generosity in this exchange. Our hosts had offered us their best, extending a warm and proud welcome to Dominica. Georgi shared a mountain of knowledge, hardly taking a breath. Father managed steep, washed-out roads safely and an aging gearshift with skill. We got exactly what we paid for. (Reading between the lines of a tour description is a refined art.) And we experienced something of a place, on a personal level, that we could describe as no less than gracious. What more could we ask? Not much.

Except, maybe next time, the Champagne reef. Dominica is billed as “the nature island” for a reason.

~René Morley

*Not to be confused with the Dominican Republic.

lesson of the doll

Day two of the Big Storm. It’s not so big, really, but we’ve had so few this winter that it seems extra nasty. So although I’m cozy by a glowing fire, my thoughts have turned to warmer climes and spring vacation, just ahead. Oh, how we love the Caribbean! Which reminds me of a story … and a lesson that really stuck.

We celebrated our tenth anniversary with our first Caribbean cruise. Everything about that trip was a grand adventure — from our first flights together, trans-Atlantic to exotic Aruba and then exploring a bit of six southern tropical gems, until then known only in our dreams. Aruba to Bonaire, Curacao, Grenada, Barbados, Martinique and back. Each day we disembarked on a small island surrounded by translucent azure seas, met by people as warm and friendly as the sunshine.

One day we enjoyed a private tour with Brian, a gracious man who took great pride in his homeland and loved Americans, the 1983 invasion still fresh (and fortunately, favorable) in his memory. Brian was quick to point out lingering pro-American graffiti as we zipped through downtown St. Georges, friendly honk-honk-honks governing every turn. We left the bustle behind and found our way to the lush countryside, admiring the falls and swimming in the sea and purchasing bright green baskets woven of fresh fronds by the beach. We stopped at a roadside stand for rich, dark vanilla — no two bottles alike and each adorned with handmade labels. We purchased whole brown nutmegs laced over with ruby-red mace and bottles of finely ground cloves, as deeply tinted as our soil on the farm. By late afternoon we felt full to the brim of life.

Returning to the pier, we strolled by a number of small shops with vendors selling their wares. I was down to my last bit of cash but hoping to find a small doll. I walked back and forth as merchant ladies called out, “Hello, my friend. What you looking for? Come here, friend,” drawing me in, eager to sell. They had plenty to offer within my meager budget but nothing appealed to me. Their dolls seemed cheaply made, not worth my purchase. I turned up my nose and returned to the ship, cash firmly in hand.

And soon enough, but yet too late, I recognized my mistake. A few bucks wouldn’t last long and didn’t buy much in my world. But there, they meant something. Any one of those proud women would have been pleased to exchange what she had for what I could give. And it would have been more than a fair trade. I was quickly ashamed at my disdain.

The lesson of the doll is to value what she has to offer, whoever she is and whatever it may be. Twenty years later, it is still with me.

~René Morley

fresh like snow

Well, hello! Welcome to my fresh start. It feels great to be writing again.

I said good-bye to Facebook three weeks ago and haven’t looked back. No offense intended, but it was a lot easier than I thought it might be to ditch a few hundred “friends”. Some have asked me why I deactivated. It’s complicated. I was conflicted. And I thought about it a long time. (Months, in fact.)

Although I’ve loved reconnecting with long-lost friends and keeping up-to-date with my family and their family, quitting was relatively easy when I stopped to consider the cost. It came down to three things:

  1. Increasing irritation. Facebook has become massively mundane. As memoirist Marion Roach-Smith reminds us, “Just because it happened to you doesn’t make it interesting.” Indeed. Yet Facebook illuminates and even encourages the self-absorbed. This drives me to the point of distraction. Worse, I fear I am becoming one of them?
  2. Continual exasperation. Facebook is built upon an economy of likes and shares that create dysfunctional dynamics. I’ve never cared much about being liked so, why now? And try as I might to post thoughtfully and add value, it seems I’m a mere drop in an ocean of meaningless. Meanwhile, I’m dismayed that I sometimes slip into snarky or fall to flip. That’s not the me I want to be, especially so publicly.
  3. Most importantly, resentfulness. Facebook is infamous for disregarding data privacy. Big data is a big deal — in this case, a $5b IPO.* Astounding. We clearly don’t understand the value of our data. And I am increasingly uneasy about the implications. No, it is not just Facebook. But I’m also not going to be Zuck’s chump.

So in the balance, my Facebook scales tipped the wrong way: too much to-do about nothing. Life is too short and I’d rather be writing!

It’s winter in the North Country and we’re socked in with a storm, a bit unexpectedly. A heavy blanket of snow has softened the stark landscape, brown and barren now cleanly covered in beautiful blue-gray-white. When the sun returns it will be glorious! Cheers to new beginnings, in any season.

~René Morley