More cowbell.

There we were, driving down Highway 2 on hazardous roads when it hit me like a bolt of lightening during a Thunder Snowstorm.

An epiphany.  One of those a-ha! moments that suddenly makes everything crystal clear.

We were headed toward Hayward, Wisconsin for the American Birkebeiner ( hours after the Mother of all Snowstorms, and it was ugly. Real. Ugly.  The car alternated between sliding into icy ruts and thumping along a washboard all the way to the Wisconsin border.  It was a completely lousy day to be on the road.

The person in the driver’s seat was determined to make it to Hayward for his 21st year as a participant of the Birkie.  As we made our way (slowly) toward Wisconsin, I thought about the other twenty times we’ve loaded up the car and headed to Hayward.  Some years we’d traveled bare roads during weird, unseasonably warm February days while he worried that the trails would be bare by race time. One year it actually happened, and the race was canceled an hour after we arrived at the hotel.  And then there were all of those other years when we drove through blizzard-like conditions, rain, or sleet to make it to Hayward.

We were young and child-free the first year he skied the Birkie.  Between that year and the next, we jumped through all the hoops  social workers in two different countries could set up and were waiting for a son.  Two years, and two races later, it was a daughter we were waiting to meet.   From that point on, preparing for our annual Birkie Weekend Getaway meant a whole lot of planning for me as I lined up babysitters to stay with the babies who became the toddlers who became the children that became the teenagers  who are now the adults who call us Mom and Dad.   These days, the only one who needs a nanny is our senior citizen of a dog who tends to get mopey without us.  Maybe, by next year, it will mean simply turning the key in the lock and driving away without worrying about anyone but us.  Maybe not.

As a Master Pain Avoider, I do not understand why anyone would willingly ski 34 miles unless they were being chased by ravenous wolves or a homicidal maniac wielding a machete. Seriously.  This is the truth.  Squeezing into  a Lycra jumpsuit, going out in subzero temps, skiing up hills and falling down at the bottom of every one? Not my idea of how to spend a Saturday, thanks.  Over the past two decades as a spectator, I have watched more than one skier cross the finish line on Main street in Hayward only to do an icy face plant in front of the volunteers after  struggling to complete a race that  they knew they didn’t have a snowball’s chance in You-Know-Where of  actually winning.  I am awed by the level of dedication it takes to train for something like the Birkebeiner.  And yet, thousands of people do, every year, returning to Hayward, year after year. They do it in  good snow years, and poor snow years, and all the years in between, starting in Cable, racing toward Hayward. Cheered on by spectators ringing brass cowbells.

The man behind the wheel last Friday who was driving on roads that, on any other February day and for any other reason, he would have avoided is one of those guys.   But here’s the deal.  You see, he caught the a bug two decades ago and it makes him a little wacky every February.  It’s called Birkie Fever.

That’s what they call it.  Birkie Fever.

It took me 21 years, but I finally know why.


The stars have been amazing lately, haven’t they?

In February, the full moon nights that bathe the snow in the woods lavender make each single point of light in the heavens seem to shine even more brightly. The dog senses this.  Last night, when I let her out one last time before bed, I watched from inside as she stood in the snow, nose up, staring into the sky high above her.

Unlike old dogs, most humans do not spend nearly enough time looking up.  We should work on this.  Maybe if we did,  many of the petty annoyances and small worries we accumulate during the daylight hours would vanish into the blackness since there’s nothing like a night sky in the middle of winter to help one gain perspective about their place in the Big Picture.  After all,  we are so small.  The universe is vast and wide and deep.  Maybe mothers,  most of all, need to be reminded of this since we believe with our whole hearts and minds that without us, Chaos would reign.  Okay…it probably would, but let’s face it.  They’d figure their own stuff out eventually.

Not long ago, as I was worrying out loud about something kid-related, a wise friend stopped me and told me that I needed to get a life.  At first, I was a little insulted.  What the heck did she mean?  I HAVE a life! I thought.  But I know what she meant and have to agree.  Once the heavy lifting of mothering is over,  it is essential to plan the future we want for ourselves.  Older mothers need verbal shoulder shakes like this more often. A little tough love doesn’t hurt. She also told me that while I am certainly important to my family,  that I am most certainly not the atmosphere. The people I love know how to breathe just fine without me.   As wives and mothers, daughters and sisters,  maybe we just need to be reminded of this from time to time.  As women, we should all be asking ourselves what it is that we want this one life we’ve been given to look like, and then decide what it is we want to be when we grow up once our kids have.

And so, keeping this in mind,  I’ve been looking upward into the heavens during this seemingly endless lavender month of snow and stars, asking that question.  I’m searching in earnest for my guide star, trusting that it will point me in the direction I’m destined to go from here.

The Village

“Home is that place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

Robert Frost

I left. And then I came home.

In between, I lived a lot of other places.  First, a college dormitory and then a couple of apartments.  After that, it was a one hundred year old house built high on the Mississippi River bluffs near downtown St. Paul where I unpacked wedding gifts.  Next, there was the house in Wisconsin where we started as a family of two and left as a family of four. There was a little house on the prairie where First Day of School pictures were taken on the front step. Then, another move…another house….and another… Decades of the same four Christmas stockings hung at each stop along the way.

Sometimes at night, when I can’t sleep, instead of counting sheep, I take mental, midnight tours back to these homes. I walk through them again, room by room, remembering why I loved each one.  When I close my eyes, I can recall with perfect clarity each staircase, hallway, and closet. The rooms that held us,  like a hug.  I am a nest builder.  Give me a place with four walls, any structure, and I will turn it into a home.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the rest of our lives were as easily spruced up as a blank wall is by paint?

When I was growing up,  to be some place else and then go “home” meant the neighborhood where I lived, the one on the dead-end street with a basketball hoop on a light pole at the end of it. The street flanked by rows of well-kept houses and neatly manicured lawns.  It was my cousins and an aunt and uncle in the house on the other side of the row of lilac bushes that separated our yards. On frigid February nights, it was the sound of pucks hitting the wooden sides at the hockey rink while skating under a canopy of  Northern Lights. It was neighbor moms who sewed prom dresses and hugged us and neighbor dads who taught snowmobile safety and yelled at us.   It was touch football games and babysitting gigs and parents standing in doorways, calling kids home for supper.

But more than that, “home” was also the men and women who owned the businesses uptown and the teachers, doctors, and policemen who mentored and modeled and invested in all of us.  They were the people who gave us our first jobs, first F’s, and first traffic tickets. Important life lessons.  It was basketball and football games, teen dances in the old Arena, church youth groups and “going to the show” in a tiny movie theater called The Lyceum.  Home was summer marching band and driving out to Deer Lake to plunge into the clear, cold water after parades on warm summer evenings.  It was softball tournaments, wedding dances, and Rice Festival.

Home was that combination of people and  experiences that only someone growing up in a small town can really appreciate or understand. Because in a small town, your parents do not raise you-the Village does.  And while kids who grow up in large cities also become part of neighborhoods with caring adults they aren’t related to living in the houses on the block, I believe it is different, less intimate, and probably has less of an impact in who children in the suburbs become.  Some of the best lessons taken away from the village where I was raised did not come from anyone I was directly related to.

My own two kids will have their memories of growing up in the different places where we lived.  But when they think of “home” they will probably define it by the houses in the communities where they lived with their father and me and a handful of friends and their parents.  Maybe they are not unusual in this.

I hope this will be enough for them.  It never would have been enough for me.

Searching for keys…

I was in a dressing room in the Gap when I heard what sounded like a cat being disemboweled near the flannel shirts. It started small, with whimpering.   By the time I left the dressing room,  the sound had increased exponentially.

It was an enraged boy.  For a minute, I wondered if maybe he had lost the adult he’d come into the store with but then noticed the woman paying for her items turn around and make eye contact with the boy before she went back to what she was doing.  An older child stood with her back to him a few feet away from where he was standing.  She seemed to be in a trance as she stood staring through the plate-glass windows at the front of the store.  It was clear that she’d seen this show before.

I have no idea what had set off the explosion, but I left the store thinking about that purple-faced, bawling boy and the river of rage that overflowed its banks and flooded a store.  The image of him, out of control and ignored, stayed with me the rest of the day.

The next afternoon, my daughter and I were catching a quick lunch together in a restaurant in downtown Minneapolis and were nearly ready to leave the restaurant when a middle-aged man in the booth next to ours began, loudly, to berate the server who he believed had overcharged him for the lunch he and his family had just eaten.  As the young waitress patiently went through the receipt, he became more and more loud, belligerent, and unreasonable as his wife and young son sat in the booth, waiting for  the out of control storm to pass, looking unsurprised by his outburst.

Two families.  Two tantrums.  Two storms.  In two days.

In the first 19 days of January, there were 11 shooting-related incidents in high schools or colleges in the U.S.  And in every instance, the shooters were young men.   Lock-down drills to protect children from other children are as common as fire drills used to be in our educational institutions.

Meanwhile, we argue about the tools used to inflict the  harm instead discussing and trying to understand why the rage is there in the first place, why the potential to inflict harm exists in some of our boys.

As a mother of a son and as an educator, I have thought about all of this until my head hurts.  Sadly, I  have more questions than I do answers.  The only thing I know for sure is that the inability to handle frustration in constructive, rather than destructive, ways has to be part of the answer and that this is a skill that can and should be taught.

And I know, without a shadow of doubt, that when we start locking our children into classrooms to keep them safe instead of addressing the reasons why we need to,  that we have failed the ones we are locking in as well as the ones we are locking out.

January was a rough month in more ways than one.