2021 Goals & One Little Word

At the end of last year, I saw a meme on Facebook (or Instagram?) reading something to the effect of: “No one is to declare that 2021 is ‘their year.’ Walk in very quietly. DON’T. TOUCH. ANYTHING.” Sounds about right, doesn’t it? At the beginning of 2020, I was filled with hope. We had plans to move, and I was looking forward to saving both rent and school tuition. And I was chasing a professional goal. (The move happened, the professional goal did not pan out but is still on my life agenda.) I had high expectations for the year. Clearly, we know how that went.

Looking ahead to this year, I am hesitant to make any grand declarations or set big goals. That’s true for most of us, probably. While I am tiptoeing around hopes for a vaccine and hugs from family members and maybe even a summer vacation, I don’t want to say any of that too loudly. Still, I can’t face another year of hunkering down and just getting by. So I am setting some intentions for the year. Not huge ones. Achievable ones. Intentions that I can work on regardless of COVID (I think/hope). But intentions that, if I keep them in my sights, will help me to live a better and fuller and happier 2021 no matter the state of the world.

Well-being goals. One of the things I felt that I did well in 2020 was focusing on my own personal well-being. Mom is always going to take care of the family, but Mom needs to take care of Mom, too. I figured the healthier I was – physically, mentally, etc. – the better chance I would avoid getting sick with COVID. So I scrupulously followed hygiene recommendations, but I also rediscovered my love for running and for cooking fresh, healthy, vegetable-focused meals. Not only have I not gotten COVID (cross fingers, knock all the wood around) but I ended 2020 healthier than I started it. Now I want to build on that.

  • Finish another Whole30 (I’m partway through already!) and then continue cooking and eating mostly whole foods.
  • Keep up my routine of running at least three times per week, and mixing it up with different fun workouts on most other days.
  • Spend 1,000 hours outside – even my own backyard counts.
  • Spend as much time as possible on and around the water.

Family goals. To be perfectly honest, it has been hard these past few months. Juggling a full-time (and very demanding/stressful) job with virtual school and parenting two kids who are constantly knocking around the house – and with no consistent child-care help – has taken a lot out of me. If there’s an end in sight, it’s still months away – I’m just crossing all of my fingers and toes that the kids can return to school in September, but that doesn’t get me relief for another eight months and the whole idea of eight more months of this is disheartening. I don’t know how I’ll get through – taking one day at a time, I suppose – but man is the thought of it exhausting.

  • Revisit my financial goals and plans. Last year we made some big decisions – like moving, and transitioning to public school – to help us reach our goals more quickly. Now I want to check in with my investments and make sure they are still serving the family.
  • Practice patience every day.
  • Cultivate new, simple family traditions and rituals. (Saturday morning pancakes? Family game night?)

Personal goals. Sometimes it can be very easy to get swept up in being a mom and wife and employee, and I lose sight of who I want to be as a person and what I want to do in that limited time I have to just be me. Running helps, but I could do more.

  • Keep building my photography skills. It’s the creative practice that brings me the most joy and personal satisfaction.
  • Wear earrings every day – or at least almost every day. I got out of the habit when I stopped going to the office regularly in the early days of the pandemic, but I need to have earrings in more regularly. I’m tired of re-piercing my own ears every time I want to look nice.
  • Paddle regularly – kayak and SUP – both with my family and blissfully alone.

Word of the Year. I don’t think I settled on a word for 2020, which in retrospect is probably a good thing. If I had, it surely wouldn’t have gone to plan, because what did go to plan last year? But I did want to choose a word to follow this year. 2021 will be our first full year in the exurbs and in the community where we’d like to plant roots and stay at least until our kids graduate from high school. The hope, also, is – of course – for a light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, and I hope that we will be able to get out exploring more. We moved here mostly for the schools, but also partly for the attractions of living in a small town with a rural feel – summer movies on the village green, holiday parades, neighbors you know at the local coffee shop – and we haven’t gotten to experience those joys yet because of the pandemic. I want to embrace everything our new community has to offer, and to venture further afield too.

When I think about what I want the end of 2021 to look like – dangerous thinking, I know – it looks like a more balanced existence than what I have now. Kids back in school; nights and weekends less consumed by work; less clutter in the house and in my mind and heart. As I mused on words that speak to that vision, balance came up a lot; so did be, peace, calm and rooted. Ultimately, though, I settled on breathe.

I would like 2021 to be the year I finally claim breathing space. The story of the last few years has been overwhelm, more and more of it. A to-do list that is constantly growing; piles of kid clutter; energy vampires stealing my peace; and never enough time or energy or rest. In 2021 I plan to chase fresh air – physically; emotionally; professionally; maybe even spiritually (we’ll see, not getting too ambitious here). I’m not entirely sure what that will look like, but at the end of the year I’d like to be breathing easier.

What are your goals for 2021?

2020 Goals: Recap and Lament

All right. Before I can turn my attention to 2021, I always feel compelled to look back on the previous year’s goals, take stock, and see how it all shook out. See where things went well; see where things went unexpectedly (which is pretty much everything in 2020, right?). What worked; what didn’t. All that jazz.

In looking back over my 2020 goals, it was a bit of a mixed bag. Some goals were upended by the pandemic, of course. Others were not impacted at all. Here’s the final result:

  • Get back on the running trails, and rediscover my love for my old sport. Done! The way 2020 shook out, there was very little that I could do to chase adventure and achievement – other than running. But run I did. Between two virtual race series put on by Another Mother Runner, and a number of other virtual races hosted by local running stores in my area, I kept myself busy on the roads and the trails. I definitely feel more inspired and energized about running than I have in a long while, and I am mulling over some more goals (pandemic permitting, of course) for 2021.
  • Buy nothing new for three months.  This doesn’t include food, toiletries, other consumables, gifts or things for the kiddos – but as for myself, I’d like to be a more conscious member of the circular economy. Done! From January through March, I bought nothing for myself that wasn’t strictly necessary – so other than food and toiletries, nothing at all. It was a really interesting and rewarding experience, and one that I would like to repeat sooner than later. I’m not really a big shopper – other than for books, heh – but I think it’s so helpful to take a step back periodically, and be more mindful about consumption.
  • Go up in a hot air balloon. Done! This was one of the few adventure-type plans I made for 2020 that actually came to fruition. It was such a cool experience and I’d definitely like to do it again.
  • Hydrate, eat the rainbow, move, and generally stop putting everyone else’s well-being before my own. Done – I think. This one has been hard. When I wrote the goal I couldn’t possibly have imagined that by the end of the year I’d be juggling my regular full-time job with being tech and emotional support for a five-year-old doing his kindergarten year on the computer. My resolve to care for myself has definitely been tested this year; I think that’s been a common experience as 2020 has placed demands on working parents (and especially mothers) that we never saw coming, and that we still don’t fully have a handle on. But I have been great about hydrating (I’ve always been a big water person, so that’s not exactly a heavy lift) and I am very vegetable-forward in my eating habits, which helps. And I have made a superhuman effort to claim exercise time for myself no matter what else has been going on. I’m a work in progress, as always.
  • Continue to build my bread-baking skills, and experiment with new bread recipes. Done! Who knew that bread-baking would explode in popularity this year? I’ve mostly worked on perfecting my sourdough sandwich bread – but later in the year I did branch out to trying new recipes, like this pane bianco. I have had great luck with the recipes from King Arthur Baking, and thanks to The Great British Bake-Off I now know what a well-kneaded, well-risen dough should actually look like. All of which compounds success and makes me want to keep at it.
  • Do another twelve months’ hiking project on the blog. Can I call this one partially done? I did start off well, but then fell off the wagon when it came to writing and posting recaps. But we hiked consistently all year; it was one of the few weekend activities left to us during the pandemic.
  • Finally finish that purge of all the junk we have been moving from house to house for the last decade.  I’m over it. Calling this done! Over the summer, Steve hired a dumpster and we filled it to the brim and then some. Look at us go! I still have some items in storage and a few things I need to find homes for in the new house, but we have majorly minimized and it feels wonderful.
  • Related: give away, donate, or discard 2,020 items, and pick up 2,020 pieces of trash in my neighborhood. Half done. Thanks in large part to our moving-related purge, I managed to jettison 2,810 individual items. (And actually, the total was probably higher; Steve and I worked together on the purge project and I know he tossed things like boxes of DVDs or knick-knacks before I was able to get an accurate count – so I just estimated and I think I almost always low-balled.) I did not complete the trash pick-up; I was doing great and on track to exceed my goal, but then COVID hit and I decided I wasn’t comfortable picking up people’s discarded cups and cigarette butts – even with gloves on, which I always wear for trash-picking – and that I was going to lay off my trash-picking until after the pandemic.
  • Read what I want to read, and not feel pressured to keep up with buzzy new releases. Definitely done! I wrote here about making the decision to hold off (for now, not forever) on getting a library card in my new town. Instead, I’ve been enjoying cozy nights reading books from my own shelves. It turns out that I really like my own taste in books! 🙂
  • Finish a big family memory-keeping project I’ve been planning for years, in time for Christmas 2020. Well… I did actually finish a major memory-keeping project, just not the one I had in mind. I have been meaning to create a family cookbook using my grandmother’s recipes – but I’m way behind on that project. What I did do was finally finish creating Shutterfly yearbooks going back to Steve’s and my wedding in 2005. That was a huge and very time-consuming project, and it is so satisfying to see them all stacked neatly on my shelf, and to flip through them and reminisce.
  • Travel, have adventures, push boundaries, and get outside my comfort zone regularly.  (How’s that for specific?) Well. I was really hoping for more… obviously. My thinking behind this totally vague goal was: the kids are getting older, no one naps in my house anymore, and we can start to do more adventurous things – both in our local area and further afield. We did get up to some adventures. I went up in a hot air balloon, as you know. We got in some cool hikes in Shenandoah National Park. And we did a lot of kayaking, including (unintentionally) in some Class 1-2 rapids. That was definitely outside my comfort zone, although kayaking generally occupies pretty much the very center of my comfort zone. But the travel and the farther-flung adventures didn’t happen, obviously. I would like to say that I’m hoping for a better year in 2021, but if 2020 has taught me anything it’s to have zero expectations.

So, there we have it – actually not a bad tally considering how badly off the rails this year went. I’m struggling a bit to come up with goals for 2021; more to come on that, soon.

If you set goals for 2020, how’d they go?

Hello, 2021!

Good morning, world! Good morning, 2021. To be perfectly frank, I wasn’t sure you were actually going to get here.

What do you have in store for us? A COVID-19 vaccine? A peaceful transition of power? A hug from my grandmother? A return to in-person school? Travel?

Friends, I hope that you had a wonderful New Year’s Eve, celebrating with your bubble. If you’re a drinker, I hope it included some really excellent champagne or cocktails or champagne cocktails or whatever your preferred concoction. I hope you are able to take some time this weekend to rest and recharge for what lies ahead. And I hope that whatever it is, 2021 is filled with joy, prosperity, and health for us all.

Cheers to hoping, cheers to all of you!

2020: A Look Back (Braces Self)

I almost didn’t write this post. Because do I really want to look back on this year that has felt like a decade, and not in a good way? To be honest, I’m not totally sure I do. But I always do this post, and while this year didn’t go to plan for anybody, I do want to pause to reflect on the unexpected sources of joy and growth that we drew upon to get through this year.

January. We rang in the new year on a hopeful note. Spent New Year’s Day hiking in Old Chatham, New York, then warming up at my high school BFF’s house. Home in Virginia, we also squeezed in a hike at Great Falls – one of our favorite parks. The falls were roaring that day! Later in the month, I spent a week in New Orleans at a litigation training conference. Didn’t get much time to explore – the conference kept us busy – but I did make it out to the French Quarter with a new friend, and had beignets twice. Unbeknownst to me, this was basically the only travel I’d do in 2020.

February. Work kept me super busy in February. I was preparing for a federal jury trial that was scheduled for mid-March, and was logging 14+ hour days, staying in the office until 11:00 p.m. most nights, and working through the weekends, to get through all of the pretrial work. Not many highlights that month – no hikes, no weekend fun at all – but I did get to celebrate with friends at my work wife Connie’s baby shower.

March. Forever known as “the month the world shut down.” Or, our world, anyway. My trial was indefinitely postponed, Nugget’s birthday party (scheduled for the end of the month) was cancelled, and we all headed home to sit and wait out the uncertainty. (Which we are still waiting out.) The kids got an “extended spring break” while their school figured out what to do (basically nothing – one Zoom session a week and a bag of worksheets; tuition dollars vey well spent). We all wondered what this new life boded for the summer and beyond.

April. As our time at home stretched on, new routines started to take shape. The kids and I began each morning with a long walk, often to a middle school soccer field where they could run around, then muddled through my amateur efforts at homeschooling them until lunchtime. Steve took over in the afternoons and I hopped on my work computer and fielded client questions about how to manage their workforces in these weird times. I grasped a bit of sanity via my running shoes and signed up for a training and virtual racing program from Another Mother Runner.

May. More of the same. Still home, still basically locked down. We walked the neighborhood. We homeschooled. We hiked on the weekends – when we could. It seemed like everyone and their mom had suddenly discovered our favorite hobby, and the trails were alarmingly crowded, but we found a few hidden gems. We also started gradually moving things over to our new house, one county over, in preparation for a June move.

June. This month was all about packing and moving. Our truck rolled out of Alexandria mid-month and we prepared to start a new chapter out in the exurbs. The move was bittersweet – away from so many of our favorite places and people. No more walking to the library and the farmers’ market; no more back patio hangout sessions with the best neighbors ever. But a lot of good things in our new town, and we looked forward to learning them all.

July. Steve and I got a long break this month, because the kids went up to New York to spend a month with my parents. We missed them, but it was also really needed – on all sides. We needed a break from the kids and they needed a break from us, and my parents really missed them. Steve and I spent our time “off” from parenting pretty much the way we always do – hiking and kayaking – but without breaking up fights or doling out snacks. Refreshing! And we also did a massive purge of a bunch of stuff we’d been moving from house to house and never using – Steve rented a dumpster and we filled it to the brim. The kind of project we could never do with the kids around.

August. As the calendar turned to August, Steve and I drove up to my parents’ house to pick up the kids. From there, we were supposed to go on to Cape Cod for a summer vacation, but had to cancel last-minute because of COVID-19 travel advisories. So instead, we quarantined in my parents’ house for a week, then drove back home to Virginia, disappointed and disheartened, but glad to be reunited with the kiddos. We tried to make a staycation work, but the weather was crummy and I ended up just working the whole time – and with that, our vacation hopes for 2020 evaporated. I tried to look on the bright side – we were (and remain) healthy, our families are healthy, and we kept our jobs despite the imploding economy – but I wasn’t in the best place. Just very frustrated that irresponsible government and willful blindness and intransigence by half the population had stolen half the year from us, with no end in sight. We were responsible and careful and rearranged our lives to stay home and keep our communities safe, and we felt like we were being punished; it felt very unfair.

September. The year from hell continued into September, as we stared down the barrel of a very different school year. The kids headed “back” to school – to second grade and kindergarten, respectively – but not in the usual sense. We elected virtual schooling for them as the best of all the bad options, and the whole family transitioned, again, into a new routine for our days – Nugget on his computer next to me, Peanut working side-by-side with Steve. Running kept me sane, and I banged out a few virtual 5K races and a trail 10K.

October. Feeling more and more frustrated with having put our lives on hold for so many months and given up so much to subsidize others’ bad behavior, I decided that I was not going to have my favorite month taken away from me. I finally booked that hot air balloon ride – a Valentine’s Day gift from Steve, right before the world went to hell – and we hit the pumpkin patch and took a walk around Old Town to check out the Halloween decorations. It wasn’t much, but it was something. The kids had fun contactless trick-or-treating in the neighborhood, dressed as Batgirl and the Mandalorian, respectively.

November. It was a low-key month; I swallowed my disappointment at not traveling for Thanksgiving and we threw ourselves into local fun. Met up with friends for a hike in Rock Creek Park; ran several virtual races – including Nugget’s first kids’ mile – and celebrated Thanksgiving with a prepared foods feast at home after our dishwasher spontaneously combusted. Good times.

December. The end of an absurd year, but I can’t bring myself to join the voices shouting “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out, 2020!” To be honest, I’m too afraid of what 2021 might have in store. We finished out the year the same as we’ve been living since March. Another month of muddling through distance learning, tramping along the trails at Riverbend Park, watching the birds from the kitchen and sunroom windows, and collapsing on the couch at the end of the days. There was one snow, which was fun; the rugrats pulled out the sled and went screaming down the backyard hill with the neighbor kid. I continued to drive the struggle bus. We celebrated a quiet Christmas at home with our little bubble, and looked ahead to hopefully better things down the road.

And so ends the WORST YEAR EVER. I do hope 2021 holds better things in store, although at this rate I’m not especially optimistic. But here we go: New Year’s is just around the corner. Bring on the cocktails.

2020 Wasn’t ALL Bad

It’s such a 2020 trope that this year was a dumpster fire, that it’s almost trite to say it, but let’s all just acknowledge one more time: WORST. YEAR. EVER. Seriously, from pretty much off the block, things have just sucked. It would have been a rotten year no matter what, but malicious ineptitude in the place of leadership made everything worse.

That said, there were some good things that happened this year. Not many, I’ll grant you. But some! On a personal level, I moved to the exurbs and got a promotion at work, we did a ton of kayaking and hiking, and my dear friends Connie and Vanessa each welcomed a sweet baby boy to their respective families (I’m contenting myself with photos until I can hug them and kiss their chubby baby cheeks). Aside from my own personal joys, there were actually some “good news” stories in the world writ large. Here are a few:

Hamilton on Disney+ amirite? Felt like the most 2020 of miracles that for $7/month we could sing along to Yorktown in the Living Room Where It Happened.

Two new J-pod babies! It felt especially joyous to welcome J-57 Phoenix, after following along with mom J-35 Tahlequah’s sad journey in 2018. But then there was J-58 Crescent following right after! And the 2019 J-pod and L-pod babies are still healthy and thriving, and may they continue that way.

(Pssst – busted; those are transient orcas from Steve’s and my trip to the San Juan Islands in 2019. But, orcas!)

While we’re on the subject of baby animals, here in D.C. we also welcomed baby Xiao Chi-ji to the Panda Pavilion at the National Zoo! (That’s a pic of mom Mei Xiang that I snapped a few years ago.) His name means “little miracle,” which is exactly what he is. A baby panda feels like a miracle no matter what, but in a year in which there was precious little to celebrate, baby Xiao has brought so much joy to all of us here in the nation’s capital. It’s panda-monium. (I’m not sorry.)

Speaking of the nation’s capital – we’re a little lighter of hearts as we head toward January 20, 2021. Joe! Kamala! Melania even phoned in the Christmas decorations this year, so they were just regular style decorations, not terrifying giant handmaids or anything. It’s almost overrrrrrrr

A world away from Washington, D.C., the Buffalo Bills are AFC East Champions! I am told this is a very big deal. Yeah! Go Buffalo! (Here’s a picture from the finish line of the Fifty Yard Finish Half Marathon in 2014, inside Ralph Wilson Stadium.)

There were not very many “good news” stories this year, but there were some. Some is more than none. And I’m cautiously holding out hope for 2021. With a vaccine on the way, and grown-ups back in the White House, maybe we’ll even get the luxury of some conventional sources of joy next year. I’d dearly like to hug my grandmother. And if there’s some travel in the offing, so much the better. More baby whales would be great, too.

What “good news” stories brought a smile to your face this year?

Tales from the Exurbs, Vol. III: Patent Pending

Y’all, the mosquitos here are no joke.  Why didn’t someone warn me that moving to the exurbs would mean shacking up with all sorts of wildlife of the biting and stinging kind?  The frog pond in our backyard is a major culprit (but maybe not for long; Steve just added a mosquito dunk, stay tuned) and I am just wondering if at some point they will go into hibernation for the winter?  No?

Fortunately, Nugget has a plan.  The other day, this conversation took place:

N: Mom, I think we need to start wearing bugspray to go to the bathroom.

Me: Oh, is there a bug in there?

N: A mosquito, what do you expect?

Me: Good point, I don’t know what I expect.  It’s the exurbs.

N: Can we get a mosquito net for the door that people can go right through but mosquitos can’t?

Me: That’s a good idea, buddy.  You should invent that.  We’ll patent it and you can make a million bazillion dollars.

N: Well, it’s only three dollars.  So can I have that?

Me: I don’t think I have that.

N: You don’t have three dollars?

Me: I have three dollars.  I don’t have that mosquito net.  You have to make it.

N: But I’m just a kid!

Get to work, buddy!  Side note: when I dreamed up this blog series I was expecting it to be broader in scope than just a chronicling of critter encounters in the neighborhood.  I promise I’ll think of something else exurby to write soon, but for now this abundance of wildlife is still a novelty.  Old Town wasn’t much for wildlife, unless you count house sparrows, European starlings, and people’s dogs.

Would you buy a mosquito net that people can walk right through but mosquitos can’t, if it was only three dollars?

Three Chocolate Day

(Image Source: I Love NY)

The summer after my freshman year of college, I interned for a New York State Senator from Brooklyn, New York.  A family friend helped me get the job – in the Senator’s Albany, New York legislative office (not the much bigger, busier district office in Brooklyn).  Our office in Albany was all women – the Senator herself, who split her time between Albany and New York City; Susie, the Chief of Staff; Kelly, the legislative aide; and me.

My responsibilities as the office intern were light, even by internship standards.  I spent most of my time making media packets for the Senator – which in the low-tech days of 2000 meant reading multiple newspapers, clipping articles that were relevant to either Brooklyn or one of the Senator’s policy interests, and then photocopying the articles onto 8×11 paper and stapling them into neat bundles.  When I wasn’t making media packets, I was on the Senate floor, sitting with the other Dem staffers on the benches that lined the walls, always poised to leap up and rush off to the Members’ lounge to summon my boss for votes.

That summer was twenty years ago now (hard to believe!) and most of my memories are fuzzy.  I remember one of the pages having a crush on Kelly; she was kind and patient, but it was never going to happen – she was married and expecting a baby.  (Related: I remember delighting with her in her pregnancy, and laughing with her and with Susie, at her weirdly specific cravings – Whopper Jr., anyone?)  I remember snacking on candy that one of the Democrat Senators used to pass out to the staffers on our bench during the long waits between votes.  I remember walking what must have been miles and miles – over the course of the summer – in the underground concourse.

And one thing that stuck with me long after I left the Senator’s office and went back to campus for my sophomore year: Three Chocolate Days.  The Chief of Staff used to keep a box of fancy chocolate truffles in the supply closet (because where else?) and we would drift over for an afternoon pick-me-up.  We had a sophisticated system for rating the days: One Chocolate (regular); Two Chocolate (a little stressful) and Three Chocolate (OMG get us out of here) Days.  If Kelly was overwhelmed with legislative tasks, or Susie was slammed with constituent issues, or I… had a newsprint papercut?… Susie would announce: “It’s a Three Chocolate Day.”  And the three of us would get up from our desks, make our way to the supply closet, and carefully count out three chocolates apiece.

There weren’t many Three Chocolate Days that summer – at least, not for me.  My memories of those days are hazy, but good.  Reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire on breaks.  An elderly security guard outside the Senate Chamber who told me that I looked like Veronica Lake (I had to search online to find out who he was talking about; that summer I had long bangs that swept to one side and flopped into my eye – the guard called me “Veronica” all summer).  The excitement that only an eighteen-year-old political junkie can feel when she’s sitting on the Dem staffer bench as the Hate Crimes Act of 2000 is passed.  I don’t remember it ever raining, although it must have occasionally.

I was stressed out the other day.  (And every day, thanks ‘Rona.)  As I stood at the pantry, carefully counting out three chocolate-covered Chukar Cherries, summer 2000 came floating back into view – hazy and warm – with all the vague connections that were part of my days.  Susie and Kelly and the page who loved Kelly and Veronica Lake Security Guard and the staffers sitting shoulder to shoulder on the benches and the mysterious, mesmerizing Senators, and my mom idling in the car outside the Legislative Office Building as I ran down the steps every afternoon.

Small Comforts: Fall 2020 Edition

Well here we are, well into the fall season now, and I’m thinking about all of the little things – luxuries and everyday delights – that have brought me joy, peace, or just comfort lately.  We are adjusting to yet another new normal, overseeing distance learning – for the entire school year, yikes – and trying to cope with what feels like a never-ending pandemic.  (Seriously, WTH.)  While this fall has stripped away many of the big joys – watching the kids trot off to a new classroom; organizing and reliving memories from summer vacations; looking ahead with joyful anticipation to holiday travel – there are small things that are bringing light to the everyday, and I am clinging to those.

  • My “reading nook” in the living room, as Steve calls it.  I have set up and arranged my white bookshelves, and they are colorful and enticing.  Most evenings lately, I wander over to the slipcovered couch, light a candle, and sink into a novel or memoir – a happy change from spring and summer, when I struggled through a pandemic-induced reading slump.
  • Related: candles.  I love the warmly dancing flame on my coffee or dinner table.  I’ve even been lighting them in the mornings lately, since it’s a bit darker these days.
  • Also related: backyard campfires.  All summer, “get a fire pit and build a fire in the backyard” had been on my to-do list.  I didn’t get around to it until Labor Day weekend, but I’ve kept it going into the cooler weather and it’s bringing back memories of chilly fall afternoons at my parents’ camp, standing around a bonfire that my mom kept going with sticks cleared from around the property.  There’s nothing like the smell of a campfire in the fall.
  • Vanilla and almond black tea from The Republic of Tea – a recently re-discovered cool weather favorite!  Steve is the coffee-brewer in our house (I can make coffee, but I generally don’t, unless he’s out of town) but I am usually the first of the two of us to get up… and I can’t face the morning of mediating disagreements over cartoons and breaking up fistfights without a hot beverage.
  • Smartwool socks.  I don’t know what’s going on, but the design team at Smartwool is killing it this year; so many cute options for hiking and running.  I can’t resist an ombre look, and there are a bunch.  I was due to replenish my sock drawer, so I ordered a couple of pairs, and they’re keeping my toes warm and happy.
  • The return of glorious fall running weather!  It’s no secret that summer running in Virginia isn’t the most fun.  And while I like that accomplished dripping-with-sweat feeling as much as the next girl, there’s nothing like a crisp autumn morning for hitting the road – or the trails.  I’ve been pulling out my Merrell x Dogfish Head trail running shoes more often lately (including in a grueling trail 10K earlier this month) and remembering how much I enjoy trail running.  There’s a small park right in my neighborhood; no one is going to be running a marathon on those trails, but for a quick breather they do the trick just fine.
  • Amy’s minestrone soup.  I’ve long been a fan of minestrone, but the kids just discovered that they like it – Amy’s brand, specifically; they won’t accept Wegmans Organic.  In these long days of juggling work and virtual school, it’s nice to have another quick lunch (or dinner) option for them.  Sometimes I just can’t face even microwave mac ‘n cheese.

 

  • My bird feeders.  So pandemic predictable, I know.  But we are all still getting such joy out of our daily bird observation time.  Now that the goldfinches have taken on their winter plumage, it’s not quite as vibrant of a show – but it’s just as engaging as ever.  The whole family has been drawn into the little dramas and comedies at and around the bird feeding stations in the front and back gardens.
  • The return of The Great British Bake-Off.  (Because I refuse to say “Baking Show.”)  Life always feels cozier when there are new episodes of Bake-Off waiting to be devoured.  Of course, Bake-Off has the side effect of causing me to crave more baking time, which is more problematic now that we no longer live next door to our dear Robert and Zoya and I’m not regularly going to the office.  I’ll have to make friends with the neighbors here, so that I have someone to pawn baked goods off on.

What little things are improving your life lately?

In Which I Am Emphatically Pro-Geotagging

The Great Range, snapped from a viewpoint on Big Slide Mountain, Keene Valley, New York

Warning: soapbox deployed, lengthy diatribe ahead!

I’m a member of a few different paddling interest groups on Facebook.  Kayak Mamas, Women Who Paddle, and Paddling in the Adirondacks.  I love the Paddling in the Adirondacks group for the beautiful pictures the members post, which give me an ADK fix when I’m not able to be in the region.  But lately, the group has been really annoying me.

There’s a subset of members of several of the outdoor groups I follow – Paddling in the Adirondacks being just one of them – who have been clutching their pearls especially tightly of late.  There was already a debate raging in the outdoor community about proper use.  And to a large extent, I’m sympathetic to the pearl-clutchers.  I get as angry as anyone when I see litter, graffiti, or initials carved into trees.  Enjoying an outdoor space in a way that mars it for others, or harms the environment, is selfish and irresponsible.  And as someone who lives in a tourist-heavy region, I understand the frustrations of traffic-clogged roads and out-of-towners behaving cluelessly.  (In D.C., there’s a special scorn reserved for people who stand on the left side of a Metro escalator.)

Kayaks on the beach at Jones Island State Park, Washington

But the pearl-clutching gets overdone in certain areas.  My Paddling in the Adirondacks group has a couple of bugaboos: closeup wildlife shots (don’t post a picture of a loon unless you’re prepared to include in the caption a breathless disclaimer about your long-range zoom lens); people who leave their gear scattered all over the previous night’s campsite (I agree: disgraceful; although I’m not sure it’s always downstaters or out-of-staters, ADK folx); and geotagging.

Mather Gorge, Great Falls Park, McLean, Virginia

So what exactly is geotagging?  Simply put: it’s the practice of including a location on your outdoor social media posts.  (Instagram, Facebook, and I assume other social media outlets – those are the only two I bother with – have location tagging as an option.)  Geotagging has been vilified for a few years now, but the pandemic really threw the debate into sharp relief.  As options for indoor entertainment fell away and more people hit the trails, the rivers, the mountains and the beaches, those who were “here first” (<–LOL, you were not) were incensed at the waves of newcomers, and convinced that the new people are ruining their favorite fresh air sports.

I’ll be the first to admit that I have been frustrated by people not social distancing on trails, and not wearing masks in crowded areas – even outdoors; I care enough about you (perfect stranger) to endure the mild discomfort of wearing a mask, and you should do the same for me.  But at the same time, I am on record as saying that I like to see other people on the trails – it makes me happy to see others experiencing joy in the outdoors, and I am disillusioned enough about politicians to believe that they won’t be motivated to protect a wild space unless they see it is being used and loved by their constituents.

Sunrise over Mirror Lake, Lake Placid, New York

So why chime in now?  I’m at my tipping point after one too many annoying social media posts.  Recently, scrolling Facebook, I was stopped in my tracks by a lovely picture of fall foliage over a serene Adirondack lake.  Enjoying the picture, my smile fell away when I read the smug caption: “If you know where this place is, please keep it a secret!”

I don’t know where that place is.  And I guess I never will, since the author – who I will call Smug Paddler – doesn’t want me or any other unwelcome out-of-staters sullying up his secret paddling spot.  (Another group member offered a guess and Smug Paddler, still smug, responded: “Nope – but I might check that spot out, so thanks!”  So, basically, gatekeeping is for other people.)

And that’s my main issue with the no-geotagging movement: it’s a form of gatekeeping and purity testing, and gatekeeping is inherently elitist and exclusionary.  Oh, and more than that?  It’s racist.

Bears Den Overlook, Bluemont, Virginia

At its most basic: the no-geotag gatekeeping movement is nothing more than a bunch of tone-deaf white people, blind to their own privilege, other-ing “urban” hikers and people of color to keep them from enjoying the same recreation opportunities.  It’s keeping the so-called “wrong sort” of hikers out, so that the “right sort” can have the outdoors all to themselves.  It’s the promotion of the idea that certain people are inherently less deserving of fresh air, a beautiful view, or space on the trail.  And that’s just wrong.

Melanin Base Camp says it much more eloquently than I could:

The #nogeotag movement is a form of gatekeeping, or elitism. It involves individuals—usually those unaffected by structural racism and privileged to have grown up hiking and camping—asserting their self proclaimed authority over who should and shouldn’t be allowed into certain outdoor spaces.

Most of the articles begin with a white writer reminiscing over a much beloved hot spring, a treasured swimming hole or a rustic hiking trail from childhood that has now been “ruined” by a sudden influx of selfie-taking hikers.

They never stop to consider that their childhood was privileged with outdoor experiences not available to the majority of working-class families in the United States. They never stop to consider that this is a privilege many people in the U.S. would like to experience if given the chance. Their lack of self-awareness is pretty stunning.

(By the way, give Melanin Base Camp a follow.  Their Instagram feed is stunning, inspiring, and inclusive.)  The article, which I highly recommend reading in its entirety, lays out all of the problems – and there are many – with gatekeeping and excluding “urban” hikers (read: Black and brown folx), working class families, and people who are new to the outdoors.  It’s a must-read.

In fact, there’s no proof that geotagging social media posts has any effect on overuse of outdoor spaces.  As a like-minded soul helpfully posted in the comments to the obnoxious Facebook post that put me over the edge, the REI blog’s article “Is Photography Ruining the Outdoors?” debunked that notion pretty heartily.  (Using data collected by the Adirondack Council, in a bit of poetic justice for Smug Paddler.)  There’s no evidence supporting that photography (yes, including selfies) and social media sharing are responsible for overuse or improper use of public lands.

The only persuasive argument I’ve seen made against geotagging relates to safety concerns: it’s not wise to broadcast your location to the entire internet, especially when you’re in the backwoods.  I agree.  If we’re friends on social, you’ll notice I don’t geotag all of my posts.  There are certain posts I never tag with a location: my kids’ school and summer camps, for instance.  I do geotag my hikes and paddles, but I don’t post the pictures – or tag the locations – until I’m already back home (or at least in the car, on my way home).  If I’ve posted a picture of an outdoor adventure and tagged the location – especially if it’s wilderness – I’ve already left.  That practice, and keeping my Instagram account private (meaning I have to approve anyone who wants to follow me) is how I address those appropriate concerns about safety, and I’m comfortable with the personal decisions I’ve made in that respect.

Big Meadows, Shenandoah National Park, Luray, Virginia

There are plenty of ways to address overuse and improper use of public lands.  The good and smart folx at Melanin Base Camp suggest several.  More funding for the National Park Service, for instance, and more funding in general for education and outreach.  (Don’t like the way new outdoor adventurers are using public lands?  Educate – politely and respectfully – don’t gatekeep or hector people.  Those of us who choose to eat plant-based can explain how you inspire people to make better choices for the planet, without being a total @$$hole about it.)

While we’re funding NPS, maybe politicians can stop using government shutdowns as a political football, so that parks don’t end up unstaffed and abused.  Those images of Joshua trees cut down and overflowing trash cans at Yosemite were awful.  Keeping people of color out of public lands isn’t going to fix that problem, though.  You know what would?  Responsible government.

Other solutions: education, outreach, permit requirements, promoting alternatives (like state, regional, and local parks, or national forests and recreation areas that don’t get as much attention as the legacy parks).  Working with stakeholders.  Including indigenous groups and First Nations communities, and respecting their cultural and spiritual connections to these places.  (The myth of wildness, which Melanin Base Camp also eloquently debunks, is extremely harmful.  Public lands have not been “wild” for millennia.  They’ve been cultivated and stewarded by indigenous communities and that history deserves recognition.)

Widewater State Park, Widewater, Virginia

Golly.  Can you tell I have some feelings about this?  Clearly that Facebook post touched a nerve.  But honestly?  I’m sick and tired of exclusionary tactics and elitism in the outdoor community.  Of course we should be responsible.  But what gives Smug Paddler the right to declare anyone unwelcome on a public lake?  People protect what they love; that’s well-known.  Doesn’t it serve everyone – and the public lands we claim to care about – if more people love the outdoors and want to protect it from the ravages of climate change?

So I’ll keep geotagging my posts and sharing my outdoor adventure finds.  And if someone finds a new favorite hiking or paddling spot because of me, I’ll be pleased – not incensed.

Where do you fall on the geotagging debate?  Debate welcome, but respectful comments only, please.

When the Book You Need Swims Up to You at the Exact Right Time

‘I know that if I made myself sit with the panic and look at spiders again – you know, like, faced my fear – eventually I’d feel fine.  But that process, well. . . It’s just so horrible.  I really don’t want to.  And it’s fine most of the time anyway.  I mean, it’s an issue in September, when they come into the house.  And I know I could never visit Australia because there are spiders everywhere.  But apart from that it’s bearable.  I can live with it.

‘You need a decent motivation to stick with fighting a phobia,’ says Mandi.  ‘I just don’t have it.  Do you?’

Most of my friends know that I have a huge, irrational, overwhelming phobia of butterflies.  Chat with me long enough and it will eventually come up.  The very thought of them fills me with revulsion and horror.  Their bodies, their wings, the flapping, the erratic movements – ugh.  I just can’t with them.  It’s a fear that dates back to a bad experience one summer when I was about Peanut’s age; I’ve hated them ever since.  At this point, I’ve accepted that this is a thing about me and it’s never going to change, and I’ve decided that I’m pretty much good with it.  I’ve gotten much better about managing it; these days, I don’t even yelp and run anymore when I spot a butterfly on a hike.  (I do walk a little faster, and sometimes I shout “GO AWAY, UGLY BUG.”)

A less well-known fact: I also have a moderate thing about fish and other marine life.  Specifically, I cannot abide the idea of them touching me.  I know what you might be thinking: But don’t you visit aquariums on the regular, when it’s not a pandemic?  And watch “Blue Planet” religiously?  Didn’t you spend five days sea kayaking just last summer?  Yes, yes to all of these things.  But I don’t touch the critters.

For a couple of years now, I’ve been thinking that this thing I have about fish – which I don’t think extends to marine mammals or sea turtles – I’d like to get over it.  I’ve basically accepted that I am always going to be repulsed by butterflies and I’m fine with that.  But I love the ocean, and I want to experience it more fully and with less fear.  Specifically, I’ve been toying with the idea of becoming scuba-certified.

English author Georgie Codd had the same idea.  She too struggled with a fear of fish; hers, far more intense than my moderate squidginess, was full-on ichthyophobia.  In Georgie’s mind, the shadows in her dining room were sharks.  The London buildings she walked past on her way to work were entwined by the tentacles of colossal squid.  Georgie had lived with her intense fear since childhood, and she did not want it to dominate her life.  So she decided to do just the very thing that I’ve been considering doing: she decided to cure herself of her fear by learning to scuba dive.  But Georgie wanted to take it one step further: not content to just dive with any fish, she set her sights on the biggest fish of all – the massive, mighty, elusive whale shark.

The truth I need to face up to is that fish do not exist to scare land mammals like myself.  For millions of years, before humans even existed, before even the existence of trees, they have sat at the top of the ocean food chain, weeding out unhealthy marine life and sustaining the overall balance of eco-systems.  Without sharks, smaller herbivore-eaters flourish, the herbivores themselves decline in number and algae growth is left unchecked, meaning less space and fewer resources for life-giving reefs.  The effect of shark intimidation in grassy areas also stops ocean herbivores overgrazing.  In turn, this prevents the collapse of habitats.  And helps the sea do what it has done for aeons: regulate the carbon dioxide released into our atmosphere.

Georgie’s journey to learn diving and to track down her leviathan takes her from the fishy metropolis of Thailand’s Richelieu Rock, to underwater caves in Mexico, to chilly Scottish waters, an island off of western Africa, and beyond.  Along the way, she meets and talks to diving experts and psychologists, learning simultaneously about diving history and culture, and the science of overcoming fears.  Many of the divers she interviews encourage her to learn as much as possible, pounding home variations on the same refrain: knowledge dispels fear.  Through her journey, Georgie discovers that this is precisely what she needs to do in order to manage her ichthyophobia and stop it from taking over her life.  Preparing for a dive on which she hopes to finally meet a whale shark, Georgie travels to Scotland to attempt to swim with the second-biggest shark, the basking shark, and has the following epiphany:

When the lecture is over I feel like I know basking sharks better than ever.  I feel like this knowledge will get me through.  Help me stay calm in the water.  I also feel horribly culpable.  The violations Luke described seem to form compelling evidence of what can happen when something living (a human, a fish, a shark) is reduced to no more than a concept (a source of income, a pest).  And isn’t that what I’ve been doing?  For years now I’ve been turning fish into something abstract and other: fear, danger, death, the unknown.  What I still haven’t done is accepted what they are.  Accepted that they are different.  Accepted that their difference is not intrinsically negative.

I’m not going to spoil the book by telling you whether Georgie succeeds in swimming with a whale shark.  And this isn’t a book review, either (although if it was, I’d be raving about it; as it is I suspect I am going to be buying multiple copies to give as gifts this holiday season).  What I want to talk about is the way that sometimes the exact book you need to read finds you, at the exact right time.

Like I said, I’ve been thinking for awhile now that this thing I have with fish, I want to get over it.  I’m not afraid of them.  I know the little ones can’t hurt me even if they wanted to, and most of the big ones won’t.  I know the statistical likelihood of an unprovoked attack by a marine animal – any marine animal – is extremely low.  So I am really not afraid.  What I am is intensely creeped out by the idea of a fish touching my bare skin.  But what if… I had no bare skin to touch?

My BFF is in the process of getting scuba-certified.  She’s completed the coursework, but was prevented from doing her final open water dive by hurricane season descending on Florida.  She plans to finish her certification this year, and she and her husband have a big trip booked for next year – to Australia, to dive the Great Barrier Reef in celebration of her fortieth birthday and their ten-year relationship.  My brother and sister-in-law also dive, and I have not even tried to swallow my jealousy while watching my sister-in-law’s serene videos of diving in a kelp forest off the Channel Islands.  I’m not a follower; I won’t do something just because someone else is doing it.  But these are people I know and love who have strapped on air tanks and jumped into the water, and I want to do it too.

I had already been thinking that scuba was something I wanted to try.  I worked out that my issue with fish is related to the idea of them brushing against my skin (shudder).  But if I was encased in a long-sleeved, long-legged wetsuit, with every possible inch of my body covered and protected against fishy affection, I think… I could be okay?

Enter COVID.  I had already been turning the idea of diving over in my mind when the pandemic hit.  As we all adjusted to, ugh, the “new normal,” I mostly stopped thinking about it.  There were too many other things to focus on – figuring out a new schedule for working from home and educating my kids, staying safe at the grocery store, you know.  But it’s stretched on for more than seven months now, and while I am still not seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, I’ve started to think about what I want post-COVID life to look like.

I’ve never been a big one for sitting on the couch at home.  I like to be out, having experiences, making memories.  The pandemic has forced me to slow down and wait, and I’ve mostly avoided thinking about what we’re all missing out on right now.  But as I consider what will happen when we all emerge from our shells, the life I want is taking shape before me.  I want to travel more, be more open to new experiences.  (As the kids are getting older, I believe this is possible.)  I don’t want to be controlled by fear.

I noticed We Swim to the Shark while scrolling through a list of recommendations from a book blogger I follow, and it immediately grabbed my attention – I focused first on the absolutely stunning book jacket, before being stopped in my tracks by the subtitle: Overcoming Fear One Fish at a Time.  I clicked over to Amazon to read the description and knew immediately that I had to read it.  And right away.  It was odd; here was this idea I’d been turning over in my head for some time – overcoming my moderate fear-ish-thing about fish by learning scuba – sharpened and made urgent by pandemic-induced life musings, and here was a book about THAT EXACT THING.  Does that ever happen to you?  The exact book that I needed to read, showing up on my computer screen at the exact time that I needed to read it.  It felt like a message: do the thing.  Go live.

This time in the water, I reassure myself that the present moment is all that matters.  That and the gauge.  The breaths.  The line.  I accept that I am going into darkness.  Shining a light towards the unknown.  And while the thought of this unknown may be appalling, at least it’s a direction I can aim for.

Have you ever gotten an unmistakeable message from a book showing up, unexpectedly, just when you needed it most?