In with the new…

The family — that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape, nor, in our inmost hearts, ever quite wish to. ~Dodie Smith

It is the week for taking personal inventory, isn’t it?

We are the only creatures who do this. Dogs live in the here and now, and while cats appear to hold more grudges, I doubt that they spend a lot of time beating themselves up about it. Only humans make mental checklists of their successes and failures as one year ends and a new one begins.  It’s kind of our thing. I read this week about a festival in Peru called Takanakuy, which translated, means “when the blood is boiling.”  It is an annual ritual that allows residents of the community to solve differences by beating the holy hell out of each other once a year on December 25th.

I read this and was fascinated. You can’t make this stuff up. Well. You could, but I didn’t. Google “takanakuy” if you don’t believe me.

On the day of the festival, men, women, and children gather in bullrings and engage in bare knuckle fist fighting refereed by local officials.  It is an indigenous tradition intended to really clear the air with family and friends before the new year begins.  There are only two important rules. You don’t kick an opponent when he or she is down. And once you’ve fought, you forgive and forget.  You hug it out and move on.

I guess that’s one way to settle scores. I can’t see it catching on here, but you never know.I suppose it depends on how many people you’ve had around at your house for the past week using your towels and eating all of your food and watching football and just generally being in your business.

They will all go home soon.  I promise.  And then, you will miss them. You will.  If you have young adults home visiting, they will have to go back to work. If you have college students, a new semester will begin. If you have kids home on Christmas break, they will eventually go back to school, too. And if you have grandchildren, you will clean up the mess their parents let them make in your house and be sad a week from now that there are no more sticky fingerprints to wipe off of anything.  You will take down the tree and pack Christmas away for another year. Then, you’ll collapse with a cup of tea or something stronger, proud that you didn’t punch anyone for anything.

So take a deep breath this week and count to ten. Or twenty. Or a hundred, if you must.  Count your blessings and love your dear ones.  Step away from the bullring.  You’ll be glad you did when a new year dawns, fresh and bright and full of promise.

Happy New Year!







It seemed like a simple enough question.

If you could only have ONE type of pie for Thanksgiving, what kind would you want? 

In asking it,  I hoped to reach a  pie consensus.  Instead, I got the following requests:

Pecan….no wait!   Pecan Fudge!!

Blueberry! Strawberry Rhubarb!

Pumpkin…no wait!  Jameson Pumpkin!

Frozen Peanut Butter! Cherry! Raspberry!

Pumpkin Cheesecake!!


I am hosting Thanksgiving dinner for twelve people.  I am pretty sure that if they had it their way, there would be twelve pies cooling in my back porch right now.

Clearly, we are pie zealots.   In fact,  if there was an organized religion we could all  join that had pie as one of its central guiding principles, we’d never miss a Sunday.  Our patron saint would be in an apron holding a rolling-pin.  There would be a smudgy spot of flour right in the middle of his forehead.  On Thanksgiving, we would light a pumpkin spice scented candle in his honor.

Okay, so maybe I’m overstating it.  But I do think that the world would be a kinder, gentler place if people baked more pies.

Cookies are a ridiculous waste of time.   Spending all that time dropping spoonfuls of dough onto cookie sheets and then waiting for each dozen to bake isn’t my idea of how to spend my life. Besides, about fifty percent of the cookies I bake are either too hard or too soft. And cakes are just kind of dumb and fluffy. How hard is it to open a box,  crack a couple of eggs, add oil and water and bake?  If I had a monkey, which I don’t, I could teach IT how to bake a cake.

But pies? From scratch?  Now pies take time, and effort, and creativity.  Every slice of pie is a flaky little fruit-filled wedge of love.

Last summer, I spent one glorious August afternoon picking wild blueberries with a dear friend. She was the perfect picking partner, and we spent hours squatting in an enormous bog picking some of the most beautiful berries I’ve ever seen.  I will remember that day for the rest of my life.  I froze a couple of bags of the berries, and this week when I made my blueberry pies, I thought of her and that day in the bog with the sunshine on our necks and was thankful for her friendship, the memory, and those berries.

On Thursday, once the dinner dishes are cleared, I will sit at the table that first belonged to my great-grandmother with most of  the most important people in my life eating my pies and be thankful for the noise and the laughter and those everyone-talking-at-once-between-bites moments  that never come often enough in any family.

Other Thanksgivings will come to mind, too.  The ones when there was always a custard pie for my grandfather, baked by my grandmother.  Holidays when it was me coming home,  not my grown kids.   I’ll look at the faces around my table and remember the babies that the set of young adult cousins there used to be.  And for another year,  I will be grateful that all five of them are happy, healthy, and whole.

The faces at my table will remind me that time passes.  That chairs left empty by the passing of one generation in a family are filled by the next, and then the next.  That life is a circle.  Like a pie.

It takes some effort to bake a pie, raise a kid, make a marriage last.  When one has been blessed with the gifts of family and health and enough of what’s important in life, it is easy to take all of it for granted.  My prayer today is that I never do.

Some day, hopefully a long time from now, someone will write my eulogy. I hope when the time comes, that I will be remembered for more good things, than bad. But if they can’t think of anything else to say, this would be enough:

“She was grateful for her many blessings.  Oh,  and that woman could bake one helluva pie.”

Happy Thanksgiving!

What we feed

Teachers know. That’s why they keep food in their desks.

Years ago, when one of my children was in elementary school, one of her classmates was caught stealing food from another student. This happened in the Red River Valley in a neighborhood school where most of the children walked to school down tree-lined streets where the houses on either side had full refrigerators and pantries. A place where the last thing you would ever imagine was a child who was hungry enough, at the age of eight, to steal a sandwich “for later” so she’d have something once she got home from school. When you’re hungry, the time between one school lunch and another is a really long time.

I’ve been thinking about that little girl from long ago a lot lately as I listen to politicians talk about cuts to educational spending that include free and reduced lunches and remembering what lunchtime meant back when I was a kid. Do you remember school lunches?

Lining up along the hallway? Going past the office lady who checked for your name on a list or punched a ticket? Taking a flat plastic tray and silverware and having the items placed in just the rights spots? Do you remember the turkey gravy and mashed potatoes? The spaghetti with meat sauce? The large slabs of cheese pizza? Homemade hotdog buns and dinner rolls? The pieces of fresh fruit and cartons of milk? The lunch ladies were some of the best cooks in town.  Of course, as we got older and had Open Lunch and a little extra cash in our pockets, sometimes no matter how good the lunch at school was, all we wanted to do was run uptown and buy pop and taco chips. There wasn’t much anyone could do about our life choices as teenagers. The point was that nutritious food was there, in school, if we chose to eat it. Throughout our growing up years, most of us did whether our parents could afford it or not.

Food was the great equalizer. You were hungry and got in line with your peers. You got fed and went back to class. Maybe you took it for granted, like the fact that when you got home in the afternoon and wanted an after school snack, that there would be something to eat. Or maybe that hot lunch was the only hot meal you were going to get for the day and so you never once took it for granted.

All I know is this.

Teachers keep food in their desks. In elementary schools and middle schools, in high schools, and yes, in colleges. In communities that are poor and in ones that are affluent, too. If you ask ten politicians why this happens, you’ll get ten different answers.

If you ask a teacher, you’ll get just one.

You can’t fill a mind when a stomach is empty.  It’s elementary.





Cradle and all

The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.

William Ross Wallace

The wind blew hard last week.

Minnesota might be the only state in the country where it is possible, in March, to have a tornado touch down one day and a full-on blizzard the next. Last Sunday, it was 64 degrees when I left the Cities. By Tuesday, the snow was blowing sideways past my window and the wind chill temps were below zero. Come ON, Minnesota. Get it together.

Last week, thousands of women all over the country went on strike for a day, but their demonstration wasn’t tied to any particular profession or labor union. I joined a union back in the early 1980’s when it was essential, as a student teacher, to have that million dollars of liability insurance that was required before any student teacher was allowed to set foot in a classroom full of middle school students with undeveloped regions of their brains.

Thankfully, I came through my student teaching experience never needing that insurance policy and as a union member, I have never had to strike. Actually, the only strike I was ever a part of was self-imposed. It happened when my own kids were in middle school. They probably don’t remember The Week Mom Stopped Doing Everything.  I don’t remember what drove me to it.  Like most moms of teenagers, it probably had a lot to do with the fact that I was feeling unappreciated by the snotty adolescents I lived with. All I know is that I took a stand and made my demands known. Every mom of teens has her limits; I must have reached mine.

For a week, I fed only myself. I cleaned up only after myself. I did only my own laundry. Each morning, I went to my paying job where people actually appreciated me. Each evening, I came home and relaxed. I pleasantly answered direct questions posed of me like “What’s for dinner?” with a shrug and a gently reminder that I was on strike. Once my demand that everyone get a freaking clue had been met, I went back to work. There was once again food in the fridge and peace in the kingdom. At least, that’s how I remember it.

My family may remember this differently. For one thing, I probably yelled a lot more than I think I did. There may, or may not have been, tears involved. Maybe I gave up after a a couple of days because I couldn’t stand the mess. Who knows? Life gets blurry sometimes.

This month is set aside as Women’s History Month. Women throughout the country are making their own voices heard loudly and clearly. In March, strong winds get noticed. Tornado warnings have a way of getting people to duck and cover. Roads get ice-y darn fast in a storm.

Women do, too.

And then, sometimes they strike or even march.  In March.


Names and faces

Bill’s Lunch is for rent. Have you noticed? I did, last week, as I drove past. As teens, we crowded into booths on Fridays before home games to consume our weight in french fries there. Bahr’s Furniture has a new name and a new look, both inside and out. In the other direction, the buildings from Dederick’s all the way to the First National Bank are still there, but the aromas of after shave from Ken Hill’s barbershop and stale beer from Daley’s pool hall are gone. Anderson’s jewelry store is gone, too. Shaw’s law office and the newspaper are both still where they were back then, but the theater hasn’t shown a movie since I don’t know when.

Neville’s Hardware sells consignment clothing now. I wonder what Mr. Neville would think about that. The Sportsman’s Cafe still has counter seating and pie. The Jerdon Shop hasn’t been the other clothing store in town for a long time. Ott Drug is now Ott Pharmacy. The comic book racks might not be where they used to be, but the place still smells like perfume and chocolates. Next door, Sherman Motors hasn’t smelled like car exhaust and axle grease in decades.

Miller’s Red Owl has a brand new look that Melba would, no doubt, have approved of because it’s pretty darn fancy. Across the street, there are no mini-skirted girls with guns in holsters at the Wagon Wheel. The hotel on the corner painted with polka dots has been replaced by the credit union. The small souvenir shops on both sides of Highway 2 no longer beckon to city kids riding in the back seats of cars who begging parents to stop “just to look” on their way to the resort. Vienna’s Cafe is gone, but Jurvelin’s Hardware is still on the corner. If Jurvelin’s doesn’t have it, you don’t need it. Am I right?

This was the “uptown” of our childhoods. A place where business owners greeted us by name. They were the people who helped us to open our first bank accounts and measured our feet for new school shoes every year. Small business owners who gave us after-school jobs and let us pay for school clothes on “layaway”with our babysitting money. They taught us how to work for what we wanted before the big world ended up stuck with us. Too soon, we moved to bigger places with malls and shopping centers. Sometimes, we’d come back to visit. The fact that we were back where people knew our names, more than any other fact, told us we were home.

Sometimes, when I close my eyes, I can see them as they were back then. The women changing displays in sparkling front windows, and the men opening awnings and sweeping sidewalks to prepare for another day of business in a small town. The buildings are still there. New owners and new businesses have replaced the ones so many of us remember with such fondness. When I walk past those buildings, I still see the friendly gray ghosts of people who made up a town in the 1960’s and 70’s.  A community that helped raise a generation of kids.

A generation that the big world would have ended up with one way or another. One that was maybe a little more frugal and hardworking and polite because our names were known in a small town.

One that remembers their names and faces now.

‘Til the end of time

I’m not one of those people who blithely makes an airline reservation, packs, goes to the airport, and boards a plane without getting right with God first. I blame my grandmother for this. She flatly refused to get on an airplane for most of her life.

She knew that terrible things could happen when human beings tempted the laws of gravity and tried to be geese. Until my grandfather passed away, she adamantly refused to ever be a goose. And so, each winter well into their seventh decade, the two of them kissed their seven grandchildren goodbye and migrated to Florida by car instead. My grandfather, who hoped to get to Hawaii once before he died, never got to hear Don Ho sing “Tiny Bubbles” in Honolulu. He’d married a Swede and then lived with her long enough to know that he might as well save his breath when it came to air travel. Ultimately, he put his dreams of an island vacation away, settling for the sugar sand at Panama City Beach and a good cigar smoked in peace by the pool.

But once he was gone, she threw all caution to the wind and began to fly places. Alone. By this time, she was nearly eighty years old and becoming more frail. None of us could figure it out. Maybe she’d finally made peace with her own mortality, or maybe she needed the winter warmth more than she needed to be afraid of flying. Who knows? At any rate, she flew places cheerfully and willingly for several years before her own passing. A passing that just incidentally had nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that she had, as an old woman, finally become a goose. So, there you go.

I think of her every time I’m on a plane rolling down the runway for take off. There’s a three-step process I go through that keeps me in my seat. First, I try to breathe. Breathing is critical. Next, I pray that the pilot isn’t mad at anyone or drunk. Finally, I ask the good Lord to summon the guardian angels of every passenger on board to the underside of the plane. I visualize the angels with their hands raised up over their heads, wings flapping and robes fluttering. A veritable army of angels working together to get the plane up in the air. Since I have no control over whether the plane rises or not, I let the angels be in charge. It’s the only way I don’t become a screaming, writhing, mess as the plane leaves the ground.

I’ve read all the statistics about air travel and the odds of being in a crash. I know that my trip to the airport is statistically more dangerous than careening through space in an airplane thousands of feet above the ground. I know that turbulence is just an air “road” filled with pot holes. Most of our fears are irrational. I get that. I do.

Despite the logic of it all, I’m going to stick with my angels under the airplane theory as to how planes get off the ground. So far, the angels haven’t let me down. Besides, I’m pretty sure my own personal angel still has a full head of snow-white hair. He smells of Old Spice and cigars. He’s wearing a wool Pendleton shirt with slits cut into the back for his wings.

And every time I fly, if I concentrate really hard over the roar of the engines, I’m pretty sure I can hear him humming the last few  bars of “Tiny Bubbles” as he helps to hoist a plane filled with silly geese high into the sky.







Sea creatures

“I really don’t know why it is that all of us are so committed to the sea, except I think it’s because in addition to the fact that the sea changes, and the light changes, and ships change, it’s because we all came from the sea. And it is an interesting biological fact that all of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea – whether it is to sail or to watch it – we are going back from whence we came.”-John F. Kennedy

On the first day of our trip to Florida, I told my dear sister that I didn’t care what else we did for four days as long as I saw the sun set once over the ocean.We could travel or stay put. We could eat peanut butter sandwiches or dine in fine restaurants. We could share a bed (we have lots of practice at that) or have two beds. None of it mattered in the slightest to me. She’d rented the car and I was just along for the ride, I told her. I meant every word.

And so, in addition to walking the beach and eating both peanut butter sandwiches and some really great seafood, we also drank a little too much wine one night and text pranked a grown child (who shall remain nameless) giggling much too loudly while a waitress gave us the stink eye.We cussed out Siri when she was too slow telling us when to turn. In quieter, more reflective moments, we spent time unpacking both our burdens and our blessings as sisters are known to do. But mostly, we traveled wherever the road took us, two not-so-young-anymore sisters in the sunshine, completely unencumbered. It was glorious.

We watched the sun set with other two-legged land creatures who’d gathered on the same beach. Some sat in lawn chairs and others stood facing the horizon.The two of us sat on a bench and waited, too. As the enormous sun began to move toward the place where the sea meets the sky, land creatures who had just moments ago been laughing and visiting with one another began to grow more still. All eyes faced west, toward the setting sun. The only sound to be heard up and down the shore was the crashing of waves. In a final flash, the sun disappeared. The land creatures began to clap. Some even cheered.

It was a holy moment.

I’m home now. The handful of small shells I picked up are in a bowl on my desk and my rapidly fading four-day suntan is covered by a wool sweater. But I keep thinking about that moment. All of us strangers to one another, waiting for, and then celebrating the same sunset. The same miracle. There were no races or religions or political leanings in that moment. We were just a community of creatures standing on the shore of our shared ancestral home.We need to watch less cable news and more sunsets, my friends. One thing we all seem to be able to agree on is sunsets over an ocean.

As often as humanly possible, one should stand near another former sea creature, face home, and applaud a miracle.

Innies and Outies…

In between watching the coverage of the inauguration and that of thousands of women in pink hats marching, life got a little too Life-y for me and so, to escape, I took an online quiz. Lately, there has been one floating around on social media that is supposed to tell you what kind of personality type you are simply by having a look at which of your fingers on either side of the middle one is the longest. Call me crazy, but this doesn’t seem like a very valid measurement of much of anything but fingers. According to the test, I am not an extrovert. Really, Internet? My fingers told you that? Uff.

However, this news did get me thinking about all the marriages in our family and how with just a couple of exceptions, it seems that the Innies of the family found other Innies to marry and the Outies married other Outies. Now, you might think that those unions would logically create more of the same. That the introverts would create other introverts and that the extroverts would pair up and create a bunch of really outgoing babies. Well, this is not always the case, based upon our own extended family. Certain Outie pairings have produced at least one somber-eyed baby who hangs back and quietly sizes up situations while some of the Innies have ended up with babies who seem to spring forth from the womb tap dancing and singing show tunes.

And so, my personal  Innie/Outie hypothesis appears to be a false one.  The need for further study is clearly indicated.

In other news, my dear sister, who happens to be an extrovert, and I are taking a short trip to Florida this week. Here’s how I know she is an Outie. She can do superhuman things like actually SING in front of people, for starters. She also throws big holiday parties every year that she invites me to and I never attend because, well, there are people there I might not know that I might actually have to speak to. My poor sister. I don’t know how she puts up with her Innie sister’s penchant for avoiding large gatherings of people, but I’m awfully glad she does. It will nice to sit in the sunshine with Sister.

But let’s be real. I think we both know who’ll be chatting up strangers on the beach, now, don’t we?



Living the dream

No person has the right to rain on your dreams.

Rev.Martin Luther King Jr.

His is a family of eleven people.He works full-time and takes one class per semester in pursuit of his dream of one day teaching English. His wife has her own dreams; she is studying to be a nurse. They share nine children ranging from kindergarten to college age with nine dreams of their own, no doubt. The day he and I speak on the phone, it is -13. He tells me that the weather is better in Mogadishu where he was raised, but that the people in Minnesota are nice. I smile at my end of the line when he says this. Yep. We might be freezing to death, but we are nice.

She emails me to tell me her assignment will be late because of an emergency with one of her foster children the night before. I have been at this teaching gig long enough to be able to discern which students try to set an imaginary dead grandmother before me like a cat with a mouse to get an extension and which ones don’t. The fact that she is a foster-mother tells me pretty much everything I need to know about her strength of character.

I mention in my own introduction to one class that I am an adoptive mother of children from South Korea and discover that I have two students in one class who were adopted by white parents, too. And then, there are the students from the south side of Chicago and White Earth who tell their classmates that they are the first in their families to go to college. Other first generation students reply in discussion threads, “Me, too! It’s scary. We’ve got this!”

There are the young, single mothers. The recently widowed or divorced, starting over at mid-life. There are the physically impaired and the ones who’ve survived domestic abuse. There are the young veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Students of every race, color, and religion with a singular goal. For me, it never gets old, this learning of names. This bearing witness to stories and dreams. At times when I feel hopeless, their stories give me hope for us all.

Because these are Americans with the most American of stories.

Each one cradling their own American dream.