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!

Summers off

From 2017

Oh, middle of August, you’ve arrived too soon again.  You do this to me every stinkin’ year.

Last Spring, when I posted my grades, you seemed so far away that I had a hard time imagining you’d ever come back around. That’s how it is every year for teachers, I suppose. Even ones like me who really, really, like teaching.You finish one academic year and have this span of time that feels like it will last and last so you diddle around for at LEAST the first month reading dumb stuff you don’t read the rest of the year and staying up much too late and sitting in the sun when you could be getting ready for the next semester. Besides, you have all these people in your life who keep telling you that you are lucky because you have summers “off” so how can you NOT take a little Vacay, right? Can I get an Amen, Teachers?

And you have PLENTY of time to get ready, you assure yourself. After all, you’ve just finished grading about a million essays and your mind needs to rest. So you take a little break from thinking about anything even remotely related to the teaching of other human beings for at least the first month. Then, before you know it, the 4th of July has come and gone. And again, you say to yourself (only this time, with a little less conviction) that there’s still time to do All the Things you need to do before a shiny new semester begins. You aren’t quite as sure as you were in June, though. So you get a little jumpy and start prepping and rearranging and re-tooling what you’ve done in the past. You plan where you want your students to go in the sixteen weeks you have to meet course objectives. If you’re smart, you have your ducks in a row before August ever arrives.

At least this is how it is supposed to work.  And most years, it does, for most teachers. Because teachers know, without a doubt, that this sweet last month of summer that looks long on the calendar, this month of warm days and cool nights so perfect for sleeping, is over in a snap. A snap, I tell you. So a teacher had  better make sure her ducks are lined up nice and straight by the second week of August when workshops and Inservices start for most teachers.

My ducks are looking pretty good for the most part considering that this is my nineteenth year teaching college freshmen who incidentally, just happen to be the most interesting humans in the world. A lot has changed in those nineteen years, and a lot hasn’t. One of the very best things about teaching is the fresh start every fall semester. New names and faces make the same classes and curriculum come alive for me each year. This is true even after nearly two decades of teaching some of the classes. I wonder what it will be like when I retire and no longer measure time in terms of sixteen week semesters.

Luckily, that’s still a few years off. This year, I will learn their names and come to know their strengths and work with them to learn how to write with purpose and skill. This August,  I still believe that teaching is a calling. That it is holy, sacred work. If an August ever arrives that I don’t feel that way, I’ll know it will be time to leave. Stay at the lake a few weeks longer into the fall. Maybe hire myself out to paint a kitchen or something. Who knows? Time will tell.

But not this August. Nope. This August, I still believe it with all my heart.

Zinnia envy

It’s the first week of August, and my tomato plants are pretty much toast.

The three sad, green, ping-pong balls masquerading as tomatoes attached to the four plants in my raised beds have holes. Yes. You read that correctly.  Four different plants. Three ping-pong balls. One of the plants has tipped over despite my best attempts to keep it upright.  The other three plants are getting yellow. They’ve had more than enough rain, but the sunshine is spotty where the box is.

My zinnias, on the other hand, are glorious.  They thrive on neglect. You just plant them and forget about them. If I could eat zinnias, I’d be canning them right now. Alas, zinnias are only good for enjoying as bright pops of color against the garage or in a vase on the dining room table. Zinnias make me happier than tomatoes do, anyway. Every spring, I tell myself that I need to buy more zinnia plants and then I get cheap and don’t. Now, when I pass by homes and a particular garden store with rows of the things just begging to be picked, I get an overwhelming urge to stop and pick All The Zinnias.

So far, I have restrained myself. I do not want my life partner to have to explain to our adult children that their mother was arrested for picking zinnias she didn’t plant herself.  They might take off work and rush to the jail where they would whisper in hushed, worried, tones outside of my cell. I would hear “Mom’s losing it” more than I’m comfortable with, no doubt.

And so, to avoid this, I keep driving.

To the farmer’s market for a couple of tomatoes for dinner.

Okay, and maybe all the zinnias, too.

The layover

I think human beings must have faith or must look for faith, otherwise life is empty, empty. To live and not know why the cranes fly, why children are born, why there are stars in the sky. You must know why you are alive, or else everything is nonsense, just blowing in the wind. -Anton Chekhov

There are stretches of road that always seem to take forever.

At least, that is true for this traveler.

The road between Hill City and Aitkin, for example. It is my least favorite part of the journey between home and the Twin Cities.  I think it has something to do with the fields on both sides of the highway. Give me trees over fields any day. The two-lane road is generally pretty straight and flat, but I’ve had more close calls with fools passing on that stretch than I’ve ever had on the freeways farther south.

On Saturday, as I traveled south along that highway, a few miles north of Aitkin I noticed hundreds of brown cranes in the lush, green fields dancing, strutting, and having a feast on their way to somewhere else. It looked like they were celebrating a perfect July day. There is a legend in Asian literature that human souls are carried to Heaven on the wings of cranes. Since I’d just attended a memorial service for the husband of a dear friend that morning, matters of life and death were weighing more heavily on my mind than usual. I thought about that legend as I passed, and smiled.

Signs and symbols. They are everywhere. Even along roads we wish we didn’t have to travel. We simply have to pay attention.

Maybe, in the end, this is what Faith looks like.

At dawn

Each time dawn appears, the mystery is there in its entirety.

-Rene Daumal

A large family of geese was having a party on the river this morning.  I heard their wild shouts and splashing sounds right before the rosy glow illuminating the bedroom burst into sunlight. The bedroom windows were open and the intoxicating, familiar, river smells  outside kept me where I was, inhaling deeply and remembering.

After a warm, stuffy, night at the other end of the cabin, I’d moved to a different spot to finish the night with better air circulation.  It is the room I slept in a lot growing up. Just big enough for two double beds, two blue-eyed sisters, and doting grandparents whispering good nights in the dark as frogs croaked and turtles clucked and loons called out to one another.  It was the best way to sleep. The best.

Scent memory is the most amazing gift we’re given. How can it be that decades can pass and a particular scent places a person right back where they were decades before? And so, this evening after thinking about it all day, I’m wondering if it was not the geese but a scent memory instead. Delivered by an old ghost stopping by for a visit with his graying granddaughter. Checking in, as he sometimes does, in quiet moments when she stops working at the cabin long enough to feel his presence. Nudging her to breathe deeply and be grateful for the sights and sounds and smells outside her window.

At dawn.


City geese, country geese

At dusk, they congregate in the field across the river close enough to the shore to make a quick get-away if a fox comes around. At dawn, they make their way back to the water  and swim in long, straight lines, one parent in front and the other taking up the rear. In mid-July, the goslings are nearly as large as their parents.  It has been a good summer to raise goose children on the Bowstring river. The kids are strong swimmers with large, healthy bodies and long necks. Most of the day, the families parade back and forth in front of the dock, pecking at vegetation beneath the surface.

A decade ago, we lived in an old house that fronted a small lake right in the center of a town on the prairie. In the summer, we’d walk around the lake and see families of geese there, too. Most of the geese who bred there had lousy attitudes. They honked and squawked and chased small children. If a dog on a leash got too close, they’d lose their minds. By late summer, every blade of grass on the shore had been eaten and the ground was bare. Some of the geese appeared to have either broken or deformed wings.  They fought with each other and left their droppings in yards. By autumn, we were glad to see them leave with all their relations.

I was thinking about those geese this morning while I picked wild blueberries on a ridge where there was just enough breeze to keep the deer flies away. It’s a good year for berries, thanks to all the heat and rain we’ve had. I love to pick. Mostly, I like the solitude and repetitive nature of picking. Walk, stoop, gather. Walk some more, stoop again, gather some more. I like the sounds the birds make when they don’t know a human is around and the smell of ripe blueberries in an ice cream pail. I don’t think I’d enjoy picking blueberries at a farm the way some people do. Too easy. Too many people walking where they shouldn’t crushing perfectly good berries would make me crabby. Give me a Sunday morning on a ridge alone with my thoughts and the deer flies any day.

There are blueberries, and then, there are blueberries.

There are geese, and then, there are geese, too.


Lost and found

There are not many absolutes in this world.  In fact, there are really only three.  We are born.  We live our lives.

And then, we die.

Oh, wait. There’s one more.

If you are the last woman to leave a pot luck dinner, you always bring the orphaned crock pots and spoons home with you to wash and reunite with their rightful owners. That’s what women do.  We can’t help ourselves. We’d want someone else to do it for us.

That’s what I am doing this week. Eventually, my counters will be cleared of the items that don’t belong in my drawers and cupboards. As a class, we’ll figure it out together. We always have.

The other thing I’m doing this week is looking through all the photos that were taken during our fortieth class reunion last weekend at the golf course. My smile muscles are sore as I scroll through them on our Facebook group page.  Each face holds memories of when we were young. Who we were then.  By your fortieth, that is all that matters when you gather. Those memories. Not what you “do” for a living, or where you live, or who you voted for. Thank goodness.

Those memories are more precious than gold.

For the reunion, we made a list of the ones we’ve lost. We placed flowers and candles. This is risky. First, you always worry that you’ve missed someone. And then you joke that you hope nobody on this list shows up and says, “what am I doing on this list?” That would be awkward, to say the least.

Well, here’s some good news.  He didn’t show up, but Fred’s not dead.

Thank goodness.

Crock pots, after all, are easily replaced.

Old friends? Not so much.


Civic duty

Back when the high school had a lawn and a canopy of large trees instead of a parking lot, we’d walk there and wait for the big yellow school bus to arrive, swatting at deer flies and each other with beach towels. Ours was the generation whose mothers never asked whether we wanted to participate in an activity. We just got signed up if they thought it would be good for us. Like it was their civic duty, or something. Every summer, that meant swimming lessons.

Summer vacation is always longer for moms than it is for kids. All the stinky tennis shoes at the door and the grape soda rings on the kitchen counters sent them over the edge. By the middle of July, our moms were seriously over it and just wanted some peace. Handing us a towel and pointing toward the bus gave them a few blessed hours without any whining or doors slamming. Swimming lessons were a win-win. Moms got their houses back and kids learned how not to drown. And so, from every house in the neighborhood, off we were sent to freeze our behinds in Deer Lake and learn to swim.

Next weekend, in my home town, families will gather. Friends will, too. There will be music and dancing, jingle dresses and drumming. Beer will be spilled. Bingo will be called. Fleas will be marketed. Carnival rides will squeak. The church ladies will serve lovely, comforting foods like turkey, wild rice hot dish, and homemade pie in church basements. There will be a parade, rain or shine. Fireworks will explode in the night sky. The Wild Rice Festival exists only because of careful planning and whole lot of hard work. Money raised by the Lions during the three-day festival goes directly back into the community for projects like the swimming program. It was true when I was a kid riding the bus to lessons; it’s still true today.

And so, if you are one of those kids from long ago who also didn’t drown, thank a Lion for that. Then, buy a button because you might just win some cash. Eat more than one burger. Play Bingo. Throw caution to the wind and go a little nuts. It’s the Rice Festival, after all!

Do it for the moms who are ready for school to start already. The ones scrubbing purple rings off their counter tops and muttering as they trip over shoes in the hall. Really. Just do it. So their kids don’t drown. I think it’s your civic duty. Or something.

It’s a win-win no matter how you cut it.