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!

Three mouse nights

We buttoned up the cabin this past weekend.

The pipes are drained and the towels and bed linens are put in heavy duty plastic bags and bins. All the food has been removed from every shelf and the fridge is empty. I took all the paper toweling and TP back home, too, in the hope that come spring, I won’t walk into a paper product Mouseocalypse.

We trapped three of the nasty little suckers over the weekend. They were scouts sent by the Head Mouse to see what the winter food situation was looking like in our place by the river. They must have been some of the more experienced scouts in the tribe because they managed to lick all the peanut butter off the traps twice before we finally outsmarted them.

Death by mousetrap isn’t pretty, but it is effective. When you have a cabin, there are always winners and losers. This weekend, the humans prevailed. Next April? We’ll see how well I mouse-proofed the cabin.

Saturday, we gathered with family for a bonfire at Big Sand as the bright yellow Hunter’s Moon rose high over the lake. It was the perfect evening for a fire. We joked and drank and inhaled the sweetness that is October in northern Minnesota. And as the sparks rose and the flames illuminated the faces of people I love, my heart was full even though I was missing my grandmother, who loved a good rip-roaring fire more than anyone else in the family. She would have loved seeing those faces around that fire, too.

We are a typically messy, extended family of middle-aged siblings and cousins who inherited places on bodies of water and then, because we weren’t quite complicated enough already, added to the messiness by bringing spouses and another generation of human children into the fold.  But for all of our messiness, we know we are blessed, too.  With good health and decent jobs and grown or nearly grown kids who find us all somewhat odd but lovable, most of the time. Some day, those in my generation will all be a mile up the road from where we were on Saturday night, at a cemetery in the pines, resting eternally beneath the moss. The cabins we fuss and fret and even fight over will belong to our kids. I’m guessing they’ll fight their own battles with each other and the mice, too.

But on perfect October nights, like the one last Saturday, my hope is that they, too, will stop long enough to gather around the warmth of a fire and bask in the warmth that is family.

And know its worth.


“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Maryanne Williamson

She wanted me in the room.

Not to advise, or speak for her, or do anything but just be there while she did a very hard thing. Something that far too few young women in college do when they find themselves standing at the gritty intersection between remaining silent and speaking the truth.  After nearly two decades of working with college freshmen and sophomores, there’s one gray hair for each student whose dangerous choices I’ve agonized over through the years. Some have been academic. Others have been brutally painful and personal.

And so, it is hard to shock me at this point. My students know this. The current environment in which sexual violence toward women is normalized and excused in entertainment and popular media, and the ways this permeates the culture on college campuses, is why.

Maybe that’s why she wanted me there. After all, it’s always good to have someone in the room who isn’t going to freak out when you speak your truth to paunchy, middle aged, men in suits and ties in a conference room or police station. Things you haven’t even told your roommate. She did a hard thing that day. She was brave. So brave.

Tales of courage get around on a college campus. That’s how it works. Because she was brave enough, others will be stronger and braver, too, when it is time to speak their own truths. I have seen this happen, time and again. It is how healing begins.

The toughest thing about being young is that while you are, the things that happen to you seem enormous and all-encompassing. One advantage of growing older is that you gain a whole lot of perspective about both the good and the bad things that happen to you.In time, my young friend will see this. Her hope, in the telling, is that another young woman faced with the same decision, will find her voice, too. To muster up enough courage to do the hard things. To be brave and state calmly, firmly, “this happened to me.”

My hope, in the telling, is that if you happen to be her friend, her teacher, her pastor or family member, you will come into the room if she asks you. You won’t need to say a word. She’ll do that herself.

You just need to show up.

At dawn

The chances of each of us coming into existence are infinitesimally small, and even though we shall all die some day, we should count ourselves fantastically lucky to get our decades in the sun. -Richard Dawkins


I watched the Sun rise this morning.

At first, there was a sliver of light through the trees. Then, more light. The small, sleepy, dog at my side sat staring solemnly toward the east, too, making me wonder whether it was instinct or simple curiosity that kept her attention for so long.

Suddenly, the light on the horizon changed to a deep rose. Then, a second or two later the entire eastern sky looked to be engulfed in flame. And then, finally, it was daylight.

One more day.  I got one, and so did you.

The sun rose today, just as it has every day of my nearly fifty-seven years of living. It rose over mud huts and marble mansions.  It rose over gleaming skyscrapers in large cities and dusty cabins full of sleepy grouse hunters. It rose over the children of Aleppo and frantic mothers on the south side of Chicago weeping over sons who did not make it home this morning.

One more day. Aren’t we lucky? Do you feel it?

It rose over a critically ill young father of two waiting for a new set of lungs and an organ donor climbing into a car who took the long view concerning both life and death. It rose over a grieving mother who, in less than a year, was tasked with planning both a wedding and memorial service for the same daughter before breast cancer took her child from her.  It rose over spouses waiting for their partners to finish chemo, praying they’ll grow old watching their grandchildren grow up.

In the space between the sun’s rising and setting today, babies all over the world will take their first, gulping, grateful, breaths. The ill or elderly will shudder and sigh as they breathe their last. Seasons will change, as seasons do, and the planet will continue to spin on its axis paying no mind to the pundits, politicians,or pollsters.  It will simply keep doing what it does. It’ll turn.

So much depends on whether or not we are paying any attention at all, doesn’t it?

Especially at dawn.



Of mice and mom

Gladys of ’97 is currently in the garage. She is waiting to be hauled away to the old computer graveyard at the dump, or landfill, or solid waste transfer site, or whatever we’re calling the place this week.

She was nearly twenty years old.  Her Windows 97 logo gave her age away every time I tried to coax her into waking up. First, a light would flicker. Then, an unholy sound like two rabid mice kickboxing would commence in the bowels of her bulky gray tower. While I waited for that madness to end, I’d do other things like check emails on my work laptop or walk the dog. Gladys and I had an understanding. She couldn’t be rushed. Neither could the mice.

Once she was awake, I’d use a mouse of a different kind to urge Gladys into performing a task. My “nudges” mainly consisted of clicking the mouse and waiting for something, anything, to happen on the screen. I’d  also speak gently to her, which intrigued the dog enough to sit and watch. Some days, the old gal showed up for work. Other days, she’d just groan loudly and go back to sleep. I tried not to take it personally. After all, In her youth, she’d been a good computer.  She knew how to do stuff and she never once complained if I left her on overnight.

The kids were not as understanding where Gladys and her declining health were concerned. They are young, impatient, humans accustomed to high-speed everything. Whenever they come home and need to print something, for example, all I hear is, “OMG, MOM! This  (blankety-blank) computer is taking FOREVER!!  How can you stand it? WHY DON’T YOU GUYS GET A DIFFERENT COMPUTER??? WHY?” To which, I’d shrug and say, “what do I have to do that is so important that I can’t wait a few minutes for a computer to wake up from a nap? She’s old and tired. Give her time. She’ll get around to it eventually.”

My son finally decided that my relationship with Gladys and my unwillingness to replace her had to end and he drove up from the Cities with his old computer for me. Looking at this strange new device, I was reminded once again that when it comes to technology and twenty-somethings,”old” is a relative term. Unfortunately, he was missing some high tech-y cable to get it running. Did you know that when you get a computer now that you need a different kind of cord than the ones from twenty years ago? I didn’t! The Boy went back to his high-speed life before it arrived by mail this week, and I was left to figure out what went where without him. Considering that there were about fifty different ports of different sizes on the back of the sleek, black, tower, this was no small feat. Then, I had to remember how to set up the wireless mouse and the wireless printer which you would THINK would be simple since there were no wires to plug into any holes, wouldn’t you? You would be wrong.

Finally, when I thought it was all systems go, I took a deep breath and turned everything on. Lights blinked and a choir of geeky angels sang. No mice could be heard kicking the daylights out of each other. The mouse in my hand worked and the printer spat out a test page. This is HUGE, I tell you! HUGE. I know how to do stuff! I do!

I texted my son to gloat. I may or may not have even referred to myself as a “technological Beast” in my text. His reply? Not “Good job, Mom!” Only this:

Keep telling yourself that so I don’t have to come home and fix the computer.  

Okay, kid. Whatever.

I’ll bask in my greatness alone right after I give Gladys a proper burial.


On the street where we lived

“But why had he always felt so strongly the magnetic pull of home, why had he thought so much about it and remembered it with such blazing accuracy, if it did not matter, and if this little town, and the immortal hills around it, was not the only home he had on earth? He did not know. All that he knew was that the years flow by like water, and that one day men come home again.”

You Can’t Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe

We lived on the Dead-End when I was growing up.  At least that’s what we always called it.

When the town on the edge of a swamp was settled and eventually paved, there must have been some reason for ending a street the way the one we grew up on did. I guess you could say we lived on a strange little cul-de-sac before cul-de-sacs were cool. We never questioned why the other kids in town lived on streets that intersected with other streets or highways while ours ended with a basketball hoop attached to a light pole and two flat-roofed garages where there was  just enough space for a skinny kid to take a short cut.  All we knew was that our street was a central gathering place for anyone on the North End wanting to ride bikes or play hide and seek until the mosquitoes drove them indoors.  Thinking back, it was an awesome way to grow up. It really was.

If I close my eyes, I can conjure up memories of the people who woke up every morning in the houses that lined the Dead End.  The Wilhelms, Wolfes, our own family, and Otts made up one side of the street while Koziseks, Dedericks, Mrs. Peck, Lyons, Barbers and Swishers made up the other.  Each house was neat as a pin on the outside, with flower gardens and large, lovely, evergreens in many of the yards.

The young have tunnel vision where their own childhoods are concerned. Childhood, after all, is neither as carefree nor as complicated as we remember it. Time takes old neighbors. Sometimes it takes young ones, too. We learned that on the dead-end. Too soon, the rest of us outgrew the street where we scraped knees playing tag and rested, spent, on the hill in our front yard under an inky-black sky, wishing on stars.

Why should it matter that decades ago, families I knew lived in those modest homes on both sides of a dead-end street? Why do I long for the way the pretty brick home I was raised in looked growing up and Mrs. Wolfe’s perennials and asparagus in her neatly tended gardens? Why does it grieve me, especially, to think about the trees?  Mrs. Peck’s spruce in her front yard? The Ott family’s towering pine? The gangly evergreen that a blond boy in dark horn-rimmed glasses planted one day in front of my aunt’s kitchen window before the neighborhood lost the boy. Then, there was just the tree. Lance’s tree. 

In a world with so much else to care about, why does any of this matter? Why do I care about a street where kids laughed and played so long ago? About trees that strong summer winds blew down?

Maybe, no matter how old we are, once in awhile, we just want to be able to go home again. To the streets and people. To the homes and shady places we knew as kids.

Perhaps childhood is about more than childish things, after all.


Here we are again, in the middle of sweet, soft, September.

Back in May, I had high hopes that this would be the summer I’d stop working long enough to actually bait a hook and catch a fish. Then, in late June when the wild strawberries were ripe, I hoped to get out one afternoon to walk the fields full of daisies and gather enough for at least one tiny jar of jam. In July, I picked a few wild raspberries off the bushes on the side of the yard to eat with my morning yogurt.  And don’t even get me started about the wild blueberry situation. The closest I got to picking a single blueberry was the day I watered planters up at the cemetery and looked down at a blueberry bush in the forest with a few hard, green, berries on it. Then, POOF! August arrived and with it, meetings and traveling and lesson planning.

We checked quite a few of our things off the infernal Cabin To-Do list, though, so that’s good. The little brown house next to the river is standing up a little straighter and prouder than it was last spring. There was one weekend with highs in the 70’s and low humidity and not a bug to be found where I spent hours basking in sunshine on our new deck.  I think back to that one perfect weekend as the highlight of my summer. I’ll take that memory out again come February. It will keep me warm.

Lilly the Beagle has adjusted to life with two humans who aren’t kids any more, but who do their best to understand the needs of a dog who, at age two, still is. She doesn’t mind being an only child in the slightest. Our grown kids think we’re pretty dopey about this small dog and let us know at every opportunity how “spoiled” she is.  They chide us for giving her too many treats and roll their eyes at us because we let her get away with too much nonsense.  Then they pack their cars and take their strong opinions about beagle-rearing home with them to the Cities, leaving the three of us here in the woods in peace.

Here and there, maples are beginning to change colors.  In a month, the woods will be ablaze with crimson and orange leaves.  The days are getting shorter. The nights cooler. Before too long, we’ll button up the cabin for its long winter’s nap. Turn the key in the lock and hunker down where the roads get plowed better.

But before that happens, there is still September.

Sweet, soft, September.

Kinder, gentler

“When I was a boy and would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

-Fred Rogers

He could still walk in elementary school.

To be honest, I don’t remember exactly when he went from being a boy who walked to one who came to school in a wheelchair.  My friend Criss, who has the best memory, will know. She remembers such things.What I do remember with certainty is that even when he could still walk, it looked like a tremendous amount of work. There are tiny snapshots on the shelves of my mind of the sandy-haired boy with the arched back. How he took small, careful, steps. How his legs seemed to operate separate from his torso and how he swung his arms to help him keep his balance. The rest of us were careful around him, not wanting to knock him down accidentally as we ran and played on the playground at recess. He made us more gentle. More aware.

This was in the early 1970’s, decades before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed and public spaces like schools had to be handicapped accessible. Years before elevators were the norm in public elementary and high schools. I remember the big study hall on the top floor of the old high school with the concrete spiral staircase the led from the top floor to the ground floor down the hall. How other boys in our class picked up that boy and his wheelchair daily to move him from the top of the school to the bottom down that staircase. This would never happen today. There would be numerous meetings and discussions about “liability” and “safety concerns” and “compliance” instead of discussions about who would pick the boy in the wheelchair up and help him. It usually took two or three boys to move the boy and his chair.  Strong boys who spent their time outside of school on the football field and basketball court and climbing deer stands. If there was a rush between classes and they were on the spiral stairs, the rest of us waited, out of the way. He made us more patient. More tolerant.

We all graduated from high school. Said our goodbyes and went our separate ways into the world to places that had stoplights. He passed away some years later. While he was fighting for his life, the rest of us were busy learning and growing and trying to make ends meet. We were falling in and out of love and reaching milestones that lucky young adults meet. His life, and premature death, made us appreciate what we had just a little more.

I think of him now and then.  How he was just one of us in a class of less than a hundred kids in a tiny town without a single stop light. A town that others passed through on their way to some place else. I wonder who he’d be today, had he lived.

I wonder who the rest of us would be today, had he not been a part of our lives.