chicago

This morning I’m off to Chicago. If the Hubs were with me it would be a perfect trip but even so, I’m expecting it to be great. I’m relatively late to join the Second City fan club but trying to make up for lost time. This is my third trip inside of eighteen months. Once I sunk my teeth into deep dish, it was all over. Chicago is a great foodie and amazing arts scene surrounded by interesting architecture, upscale shopping and miles of shoreline — what more could a girl ask for? It may be windy but it will be worth it.

~René Morley

they call me dad

Tony fit into our plans perfectly that Thursday morning, as Phillipsburg was still shuttered and we were eager to make tracks for Marigot, Saint Martin. We were looking for straw market bargains, and something tasty at la Sucriere, perhaps also some café au lait. And we were determined to return to l’Escale des îles for more of Dona Bryhiel’s Simple Life. Tony loaded us into his sparkling clean van and off we went.

Drivers are a dime a dozen but Tony was a storyteller. He recounted tales of growing up on the island, playing ball in narrowly cobbled streets devoid of traffic and fishing — whenever he wasn’t in school. He pointed out his birthplace as we sailed around one corner, allowing a brief glimpse of a modest two story structure painted aqua-green.

Tony didn’t seem overly discouraged that what his uncle sold for a few thousand dollars is now valued in the millions. As we drove on he pointed out several other examples of property value gone wild in paradise. His good humor about the local economic impact was impressive. I can only dream of owning property here; to lose it at such a loss seems worse, by far.

Tony pulled over briefly along the way to engage a sharply dressed young man walking to work. As we resumed our journey, he told us the story. A few years ago, this fellow was among many who regularly congregated at his home, hanging out with his own kids. “They all call me Dad,” he said. He was justifiably proud of his mentoring within the community and noted that he spends a lot of time teaching tennis, even raising up a championship team. But this particular fellow was headed down the wrong path, using drugs and abusing alcohol, and Tony had banned him from the premises. This was tough love and a necessary measure of protection, for his own.

Visiting the local prison, he was surprised to find so many familiar faces, children of promise now incarcerated. Although dismayed by the impact of drugs and alcohol on this generation and his community, Tony seemed indefatigable. He’d retired early from a successful career only to take up driving cab to put his children through college. He hadn’t anticipated such a large family but education was the priority. He held his kids and their friends closely accountable. “If you can’t tell Dad, then it’s wrong.” Simple and effective, it was his only rule.

The fellow on the street in Phillipsburg needed an extra year to complete school but was back on track, entering a telecommunications career. What joy Tony expressed in the redemption of one of those who call him Dad! He was every bit as proud as he was of his own six children, all successful students and young professionals in careers ranging from surgeon to engineer. What a gift, this man Tony, an anchor on spit of land 32 miles square in the middle of nowhere.

Tony’s story has lingered in my mind since we departed Sint Maarten. Sometimes one person makes a lot of difference, and often quietly. Tony had embraced the opportunities that unfolded in front of him to become a loving father figure to God-only-knows how many, impacted for good. This set me to wondering about my own opportunities, perhaps yet unrecognized. What will be my legacy, locally? What will be my lasting impact on the community? What will I do now, knowing Tony?

~René Morley

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

orange!

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

dom-in-EEK-a

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.