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Archive for the ‘Common Life’ Category

“What are you looking forward to this year?”

That’s a darn good question, actually.

I remember when my family and I moved much closer to my parents, after a period of some eight years’ distance from them, and how horrified I was at my mother’s insular outlook.  For instance, even though she loved to read, she didn’t have a library card.  She rarely drove more than twenty miles from home, and that always by main roads; she had no idea of alternate routes, and was so impressed that I did.  She was utterly amazed that I could find my way with relative ease around the nearest “big city” (Portsmouth), which isn’t actually much bigger than anyplace nearby.

Fast-forward 25 years.  I’m now in the place where she was, mid-sixties, and I see my own world shrinking.  I haven’t been to downtown Portsmouth in many years.  I have a library card, but rarely use it, preferring to buy my books.  We go to bed at an hour when, decades earlier, we’d just be leaving for a night on the town.  Sad but true:  You do slow down as you get older, and it doesn’t matter how fit you keep yourself:  My husband, who runs eight miles a day (except in howling blizzards, like today), is just as whacked-out as I am at 9:00 p.m.

Other people my age look forward to travel, to having the leisure to investigate “places with strange-sounding names,” as the old song went, and I wouldn’t mind doing that myself, except for one minor matter:  I hate to fly.  The TSA hasn’t helped my opinion of flying at all, nor has my husband, who has flown a great deal more than I have (business trips), and also hates flying.  As I’ve said more than once, check back with me if Russia ever gets around to putting in that rail line across the Bering Sea.

Nor am I particularly interested in seeing anyplace in particular in the USA, although if I could persuade my husband to visit the Pacific NorthWest, I’d be interested to see that — also San Francisco, where the relics of St. John of San Francisco reside, and the Hermitage of the Holy Cross in Wayne, WV, where one of my very favorite former priests lives (former only because he was elevated to Bishop some years ago, thus depriving a lot of people of just over-the-top spiritual counsel).

I would look forward to the Summer School of Liturgical Music a whole lot more if every visit there, of late, hadn’t resulted in my breaking bones or putting muscles out of whack or other completely off-the-wall health-related issues that don’t affect anybody younger than I am.

So, rather than titling this post “Looking Forward,” I called it “Looking Around” — forward, backward, up, down, and all around.  Because now that I’m well on the way to downright Old, what I look forward to most is living quietly and observing the world around me:

How the winter sunrise so closely resembles the winter sky in Surikov’s painting, Boyarina Morozova.

How birds build their nests and find food.

How the Common downtown will look tomorrow, now that we finally have a decent snowfall.

And always, I look forward to worship at my little church, St. Xenia of St. Petersburg in Methuen, Massachusetts, and a lot of very wonderful people — it truly is a taste of heaven on earth.  Not a bad thing to look forward to at all.

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Common Folk

When you walk the Common, as I have now for three months, certain people keep cropping up, and you  get to know a bit about those you walk with.

One man, it turns out, is my “neighbor,” in that he comes from the same part of town as I do — my husband, who jogs through the neighborhood, has seen his car parked in a driveway about half a mile away.  The two older ladies I see walking with their cowboy gentleman — it turns out that he is the husband of one of them — one of them belongs to a Methodist church the other side of town, and they are both members of TOPS (Take Off Pounds Sensibly).  (And you can see their progress, which is always nice to talk about!)  And it turns out that the man who looks so much like my priest — is an atheist.  Takes all kinds.

There are people who are a bit less forthcoming about themselves, and people whose sole purpose is exercise, so they don’t talk to anybody — but it’s fun to watch them in action.  There’s a young girl who shows up from time to time and uses the Common for her morning jog.  To my unpracticed eye, her  form looks about perfect:  straight back, loose arms and wrists, steady pace, not striding but not just ambling.  I can’t help wondering if she is as efficient in life as she is in her running, helpful and pleasant but gets the job done with a minimum of fuss.

There’s a middle-aged lady whom I feel profoundly sorry for, not because there’s anything wrong with her but because she’s Here To Work Out, Dammit!  She uses that race-walker technique with the straight legs and the heel hammering the cinder pavement of the walkway, earphones glued to her head, and some kind of monitor strapped to her arm — heart-rate monitor, pedometer, I can’t really tell, but I always feel like saying, “Lady, the birds are singing, the air is cool and fresh [at that hour of the day, it had better be!], just slow down and relax and enjoy what you’re doing?”  This just doesn’t look like fun for her at all.

Now that school is back in session, Sister Maximilian and her hardy crew of runners are out at 6:30 in the morning — may God bless this woman’s dedication! — jogging through the neighborhood.  They stay away from the Common; I’m not sure if they’ve had run-ins with child molesters or if they’re just trying to stay out from under other people’s feet, or maybe just give the kids a glimpse of life in a normal neighborhood, where screaming and hitting are not the usual order of things.  (These kids have all been removed from their homes by child-welfare services of one kind and another.)  At any rate, it’s an experience to see eight or ten kids of all ages, all with their little day-glo jackets on, running through the streets, accompanied by a nun in very traditional garb, wearing her day-glo jacket!  Incidentally, today the Children’s Home is holding a 5-K fundraising run, in which my husband is participating.  I’m not in the 5-K category, yet.

There are, of course, occasional folk who show up, people who are just looking for a quick stroll while they’re killing time on their way to somewhere else, or people who have clearly decided to give it a try and decide, after a week or so, that it’s just too much.  I feel for those folk; I was among them, at one time, and I hope they continue to give it a try because who knows, one of these times it may stick.

But my favorites among this group are the distant relatives of Flower Children, young adults who are there to Just Be.  I mean, you expect to see children using the playground equipment, the slides and swings and little play house, and they are there in full force all day long with their patient moms, or babysitters, supplying the fire power for the swings.  Now that school is back in session, the midday crowd is considerably younger than it was over the summer.  But the new generation of Flower Children, as I think of them, can be there at any time of day, including the early morning; they show up and head for the swings, park themselves on a swing and just drift back and forth, sorting out whatever brought them there in the first place, or just enjoying the early-morning peace of the Common in contrast to the workaday traffic immediately outside its perimeter.  I have to admire someone who still has the playfulness, in adulthood, to swing — and, more importantly, not to care what anybody else thinks of them.

Then there are people who drive up in their cars and stay in their cars, reading.  I have to wonder about these folks:  Why is it not possible for them to read in their own homes?  Are their spouses dedicated to the morning news?  Is the house so empty and lonely that they have to get out of it at the earliest opportunity?  Do they just want to be able to sit and read in a quiet, natural environment?  Who knows?  But they come with their Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and morning paper, or book, and just sit in the car and read.

Then there’s that lunatic who shows up, crawls around the Common at a snail’s pace for two or three laps (depending on the level of humidity in the air), then gets back in her car and reads her book, making multiple signs of the Cross — “backwards” — while reading.  That’d be me, doing my prayer rule.  I’m not sure what I’m going to do once winter hits, but while the weather is decent, saying prayers on the Common is better than trying to compete with the morning news.  (In this very French Catholic town, there is only one way to make the sign of the Cross, and the Orthodox way isn’t it.)  Lately I can count on this runner showing up near the end of my prayers; he always lopes up to the car and stands around, dripping sweat while he engages me in conversation.  That’d be my husband, who by this time has had (a) his breakfast, (b) his morning news fix, (c) his coffee, and (d) sufficient time to let everything work through his system so that he can focus on his main task of the morning:  running eight miles.  He doesn’t run eight miles around the Common, but by showing up every morning, he’s become part of the Common Folk, too.

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5:30 a.m. on a rainy morning in late August is a very different proposition from 5:30 a.m. on a sunny morning in early July.

On Wednesdays my sister and I meet for breakfast.  We catch up with news about each other’s families, and my sister, who is the maven of the family, brings me up to date on news of various cousins and the few remaining aunts.  We used to meet at 7:00 a.m. on her day off, which was Wednesday, but since she was elected to the office of Town Clerk in her town, my sister doesn’t have days off, and has to be into work by 8:00.  And she lives ten miles away.

So we meet at 6:00 a.m. on Wednesdays, and my Common Life takes place, on Wednesdays, according to when I wake up.  For the past several weeks, I haven’t been waking up before 5:30, which leaves me just enough time to thrown on some clothes and make it to the breakfast-and-lunch place where we meet; and I do my Common thing after breakfast.

But on Tuesday night, I slept badly.  I’m not sure why, but I was wide awake at 3:00 a.m., and by 4:00 I decided just to go ahead and start the day.  Normally the sound of falling rain is a surefire soporific, but I can’t afford soporifics on Wednesdays; so it made more sense to get up, get dressed, and get out the door.

By  5:00 a.m. I had gotten my cup of coffee at Dunkin’s, and decided to park under a street light to see if it was adequate for reading my prayer book.  It wasn’t.  I ended up saying my prayer rope for 40 minutes, which isn’t a bad way at all to pass time, with the rain pouring all around me, which was a good thing; I would have felt awkward about not getting out for a walk if it had been dry, but after the experience on August 6, there’s no way I’m getting onto the Common before sunrise, not without two or three other idiots hardy souls to keep me company.

What struck me about this experience was that even in the dark, even in the rain, there’s a Common Life.  I couldn’t believe the volume of traffic at that hour of the morning.  Due to its structure, the Common is not in any sense a secondary road; cars have to go around it to get onto even a tertiary road, one that feeds into a secondary road.  But about six cars passed by my parked car as I sat there, on my side of the Common, and I lost count of the cars going by on the other side.  The main street, too, was a steady stream of both cars and trucks, some of them 18-wheelers.

At around 5:15, the lights of the orphanage kitchen came on, and you could see the nuns and their helpers gearing up for another day.  I was reminded of the little nun I had seen on a couple of occasions, between 4:30 and 5:00 a.m. at high summer, who would stroll around the grounds reading her breviary; I felt a certain kinship with her because it was so obvious that the only way she could face the day before her was to fortify herself with prayer.  I wonder what she does when it rains, or when the snows fall; is she allowed to stay in her room to say her prayers?  And come to think of it, why should she have to perform this exercise by herself?  Don’t the other nuns also have breviaries to read?  Or does she just need to get out and move while she reads, while the others are able to stand in one place for their prayers?

All part of Common life….

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An ugly reminder that not all Common Life is benign and friendly.

On Sunday, August 8, the hubster and I had to attend the wedding of a friend in a local Protestant church.  This presented problems in attending our own services, since the very local church we could normally attend is closed every other weekend (and this weekend was one of those), and the other churches we normally attend are 40 and 50 miles away from our home; so getting to church at one of these, then making it back for a 2:00 p.m. wedding, presented logistical problems.  The solution was to attend Friday services for the Feast of the Transfiguration at the church 40 miles away, and not to worry about Sunday attendance.  Piece of cake.

Except that this meant I would either have to forgo my walk around the Common, or get there literally at the crack of dawn.  I opted for the latter, and was on the Common by 5:30 a.m.  Not another soul was around.

The Common has two long sides, and two short sides.  I park my car along one of the long sides, since that’s actually the only place with parking spaces, and walk two or three laps until I can barely make another step.  On this particular day, I had just made it to the top of the Common, along the long side, when I heard sounds of an argument on the cross street.  Great, I thought, and just kept walking; it wasn’t like I could go anywhere else to get away from it.

I walked along the short leg on the south end, then headed east along the second long leg, and to my dismay, the sounds of that argument were sounding awfully close.  One of the few advantages to having grown up in New York is that you learn, early on, to ignore a lot of Very Curious Behavior, so I was able to keep walking, at rather a brisker pace than normal, the sounds of that argument clearly having spilled onto the Common, on the other side.  Where my car was parked.

As I approached the north leg, something told me to get off the Common altogether — it’s fenced in — and onto the main street, and I did this, continuing my walk and reviewing my options:  Keep walking to Dunkin’ Donuts?  Walk past Dunkin’s to the police station?  With that, out of the corner of my eye I saw somebody a lot bigger than I am sprinting across the Common towards the gazebo — which wasn’t too far away from me.

I walked towards the police station.  I was almost there when a cruiser came down the street.  I flagged him down, explained what had happened, and thus got my First Ride in a Police Cruiser Ever — in the front seat.  That was when I learned that cruisers have hard plastic back seats.  I can’t imagine being handcuffed and trying to maintain your balance on a hard plastic seat as it zips around corners.

The cop pointed out that I should take my walks later in the day, and I was obliged to note that I had to be 40 miles distant by 8:30 a.m.   But, I added, I had no intention of showing up on the Common too much before sunrise, in future, and he agreed that that was probably a Good Plan.

It’s an ugly world out there.  And a shame that it has to be made even uglier.

But the looks on the faces of my fellow Common Walkers, when they  saw the cruiser pull up and woolly little me alight, made the experience almost worthwhile.

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Got up a bit later than usual, so was not out the door until after 7:30 a.m., and walking by 8:00.  The crowd, naturally, is different, but not more numerous.  It’s interesting to me that both times of the day seem to be peopled by retirees; you’d think that earlier in the day would draw a working crowd, but the only person there I can say definitively is a worker, is a fellow in his 30s who plods around the track hooked up to an i-pod (as so many others are) — he arrives in a plumbing truck, and this is obviously his trade.  I don’t know how many laps he walks, but he’s usually still at it when I leave.

Other 5:30 a.m. walkers are a pair of women Of A Certain Age — maybe 50s — who go round and round at a good clip, talking nonstop the whole way, and a couple of men who have a look about them that I can only describe as “ministerial” — also 50s, maybe early 60s, tall, thin with just the hint of a paunch, but their faces are so peaceful.  They look, not as if they are Communing With Nature, but just as if they are in fellowship with everyone else on the Common.  Maybe they are.

Then there is The Trio.  This consists of two women and a man.  I know for sure that one of the women is 76, because she made a point of telling the immediate world about it when it was her birthday, and I take my hat off to her:  She’s even heavier than I am, and she waddles around the Common, but darned if she doesn’t waddle faster than I do!  Her companions are another woman who may be a friend or a younger sister — I wouldn’t go so far as to consider her a daughter — but the real “character” of the bunch is the man.  Every day, he shows up in jeans and a long-sleeved denim shirt, cowboy boots, and a cowboy hat.  He walks behind the women, holding onto his coffee mug, almost never saying anything, and I’m not sure if he’s protecting them or guarding them — someday I expect them to show up on a leash — or just what his function is, but he’s there Monday through Friday without fail.  (But not, curiously, on Saturday or Sunday, when the two come by themselves.)

At 8:00 a.m. there is a different pair of women walking, housewifey types, also talking nineteen to the dozen but not race-walking like the 5:30 pair.  There is also a couple walking, a man and a woman — I won’t say they’re married, because nowadays, who knows — but both are overweight and clearly walking for health.  A couple of older gentlemen, probably in their 70s, clearly following Doctor’s Orders.   The children are out playing on the playground across the street at the Children’s Home, and every morning, right around this time, a little knot of them appears, five or six, with little orange vests — and a nun, in full habit, also with her orange vest and sneakers, and a baby stroller.  They go for a run every morning, all over town.  This particular nun has been written up in the local paper as having begun this running program as a way for the children to burn off the negative energy they’ve built up from years of abuse.  Apparently she’s on to something; all the kids look happy and healthy.

And there’s my favorite, a tall, thin man in a t-shirt and jeans who just ambles around the Common at a steady lope — for four miles.  He always has a friendly word for nearly everyone he passes, but the thing that gets me about him is that gosh, he looks like my priest!  The same facial and body structure, the same grey ponytail and shortish beard and mustache, even the same crinkly-eyed smile and sense of humor.  What isn’t the same is that Father Michael doesn’t have a broad New England accent, even though he’s from New England (Connecticut).

And that’s one of the most enjoyable aspects of walking on the Common:  Listening to people talking to one another.  It’s a comfort to know that regional accents haven’t fallen off the face of the earth, despite television’s best efforts.

I have taken a few snapshots of the Common at various times of the day, and will update the blog with them once I get around to downloading them off my phone.

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Nobody is on the Common at 5:30 a.m. besides me.  I can hear you saying, “You seriously thought there would be?!” but when I began walking, back at the end of May, there actually were other walkers at that hour.  Not many, true, but they were there.  Now they show up just as I’m finishing my walk, at 6:00 a.m.  I don’t know how this will all pan out in another month, but it’s been an interesting evolution.

The temperature this morning was a most welcome 60°F (around 17°C).  For the past several days, we’ve had positively Floridian weather, and we aren’t used to that kind of thing around here.  One walker showed up one morning with a wet T-shirt, something I’m not inclined to do, myself:  Somehow, I don’t think that the judges of Wet T-Shirt contests are looking for the Little Mother Russia type.  I was able to get in 2½ laps, which isn’t even a mile (one lap is a third of a mile); but then, I’ve only been doing this for nine weeks, after having been almost totally sedentary since 2006 (see blog entries around that time for the reason why.  It takes a long time to recover from abdominal surgery!).

Not that I haven’t tried.  Taking Russian classes since 2001 involved a considerable bit of walking around a college campus, in the truest sense of the word “campus” — the University’s buildings, by and large, can only be reached by hiking across fields, up and down hills, and through sylvan paths.  Very lovely and idyllic, but it’s a workout and no mistake.  Why it didn’t work out in terms of fitness is a mystery to me; I can only think that perhaps it was because those hills were so steep that I had to stop often to catch my breath, whereas the Common is level, so I can walk at a steadier pace.  Whatever.  It seems to be working, at least in terms of toning muscles and losing belly fat.

However, I must confess that Walking For Health And Fitness was not remotely on my radar screen when I began, nor did I start trotting out to the Common at oh-dark-thirty for a Morning Constitutional.  No; the entire reason for my Common forays was — my prayers.

For about the past ten years (a little more, actually), I’ve been praying Matins and Vespers, offices of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.  Priests tell us that lay people shouldn’t actually do these prayers, but at the time, I didn’t know that; all I really knew was that I’ve loved the idea of having fixed times of day to devote exclusively to worship ever since I first learned of the idea, somewhere around, I don’t know, second grade?  Certainly no later than fourth grade.  I used to be able to say my morning prayers in peace and quiet any time between 4:30 and 7:00 a.m., since my husband left for work around 4:15 a.m.  After attending a music school over four summers at a monastery in Upstate New York, I learned the music needed for singing these offices, and I tell myself (and my priest) that I need to be able to keep my hand in by singing Matins and Vespers regularly.  Well, that’s partly true; in reality, I just love the prayers.

This worked very well until last October, when the hubster retired.  That wasn’t the catastrophe I had feared; he’s had too much to do with getting his father’s house ready to sell, and now that it’s summer, he spends a very great deal of time out of doors.  But early in the morning, he likes to watch television news.  And in a house that measures less than a thousand square feet, there isn’t a lot of room to get away from each other.  Even the back bedroom is uncomfortably close to the living room.

I tried various solutions, but nothing seemed to work until I hit on the idea of taking myself off to the Common, really early, and taking my prayer book with me.  That lasted all of a day, by itself, before the hubster came up with the brilliant idea:  Wouldn’t you like a Nice Little Walk Around the Common? Well, actually, no.  I’m there to attend to my spiritual life, not my physical well-being.  But the next day it occurred to me that I could actually get in a walk if I took into account the rest of my prayer life:  my “rosary.”  Orthodox Christians use a string of beads that looks like a Catholic rosary, but functions quite differently:  By saying the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on…”), you can achieve a great degree of flexibility in terms of whom you pray for.  I’ve used mine for years to pray for my husband, our children, various friends, my spiritual father, a whole raft of people.  And it dawned on me:  Orthodox monastics walk while saying their prayer ropes.  I can do that too!

So I do.  I head out the door within about 15 minutes of waking up, grab a cup of coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts because without warm liquid, my voice would put a frog to shame at that hour of the day, and walk.  Twice around the Common is worth six turns on my prayer rope.  Once the weather cools off sufficiently for me to walk in the afternoon, too, I will add another 2/3 of a mile around the Common, and six more people.  If I ever get to a point where I can walk a full mile around the Common without feeling as if I’ve run a marathon, well, I have more people I can add to the prayer rope.  Keeps everybody happy, including, I hope, our Lord.

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Since it was pouring when I woke up at 4:30 a.m., I decided to forgo my morning walk.  So today is as good a day as any to introduce the Common.

Most New England towns and cities have a Common, a place where townspeople could graze their one or two family cows and a few family sheep without having to use good planting soil for pastureland.  After all, so many of our towns and cities go back to at least the eighteenth century, and a few, like the city to our south, back to the seventeenth century (1623, in that case).

They served that purpose until the Industrial Revolution, and then, many were converted to city parks, places where Victorians could stroll and picnic and listen to Sunday-afternoon concerts; so, many commons have a gazebo for the brass band (ours does), and some have really beautiful plantings and garden spaces (ours doesn’t).  Some boast monuments; ours has a Civil-War monument, and the names around its base are ancestors of people who still live in this city.

When we moved here, in the mid-1980s, the Common had been allowed to fall into disrepair.  I remember thinking wistfully what a great place it would have been for our son, then 7, to run around and play, but the grass was scruffy and unkempt, there was no play equipment whatsoever, no place to sit with one’s knitting or a book, no trees — nothing but scrub grass, and a field for pick-up sports games.  That all changed around 1988, when the City finally realized it was sitting on what could be a good recreational asset.  Now we have stone benches set around the walking path on the perimeter, nifty play equipment, picnic tables, plenty of trash receptacles, a defined sports area (used mostly for baseball in the summer, and flooded to make an ice-skating pond in the winter); and the gazebo, now cleaned up and freshly painted every couple of years, hosts summer-evening concerts that are free.  (I hasten to add that I have never gone; I love concerts, but the thought of spending a hot evening slapping at mosquitoes doesn’t appeal.)

The Common was originally much larger than it is now, but portions of it were sold off for development.  Now it’s about a third of a mile circumference, with a wide variety of activities on its four sides:  on the north side is a large mansion that now serves as a home for children who have had to be removed from their families.  The Children’s Home, as it is called, is staffed by an order of nuns that still wears a traditional habit.  The east side of the Common is the main route into and out of town; across this road is a wide variety of businesses (real estate agent, accountant, U-Haul depot, to name a few).  The south side of the Common consists of private homes in various states of repair; some are very lovingly cared for, and some are clearly just roofs over someone’s head.  It irritates me daily that of this latter, two are classic Craftsman homes, which are currently in great demand in this area — but these two are not for sale.  And the west side of the Common is the road that angles, gradually, to join with the southern route out of the state.

So why the fuss about the Common?  Because, for the last nine weeks, I’ve been walking it on an almost daily basis, and it occurred to me that the place has a life of its own:  times of its own, seasons of its own, denizens of its own — of which I have most recently become one — and I thought it might be fun to describe all of those.  How I came to be a Common Walker — well, that’s another tale.

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