Peter, Peter….

I met him the first time a few days after he was born.  And it was love at first sight.

It wasn’t just because he was small and cute and smelled good.  Or because he had hair, since hairy babies are kind of a given in this family. His uncle called him Buddy Hackett because he thought he looked a lot like the comedian with the same name who always looked a little goofy and lopsided.  Nope. I loved him because to me, still childless, he looked familiar and unbreakable. He’s had a lot of different names through the years…Peter, Pete, PJ, Pedro, Big Head, and Pete Skeet, just to name a few.  I’m glad Buddy Hackett never stuck.  I’m sure he is, too.

He was a boy’s boy, proving to his parents more than once his level of unbreakable-ness.  His arrival on the scene gave the rest of us faith that any babies in the family who came after would be unbreakable, too. And to the one, they were sturdy children. Pete was the test baby.  The prototype.

It’s the strangest thing.  Time passes, but doesn’t, in a family. The babies grow up, but stay small in our hearts.  All it takes to be transported back to those early years of parenting small ones is a photo.  Yesterday, on my way to looking for someone else, I found a faded photo of this dear nephew of mine.   In the picture, he is three and standing in the yard at the lake in a life jacket with the old bridge in the background. It is summertime. He has a perch no bigger than a goldfish on the end of a fishing line and he is beaming from ear to ear. Looking into the camera like he is the greatest fisherman of all time. Like he’d just caught a muskie or whale or something.  Full of joy. Joy filled. This is how I remember him. This is how I see him, even today.

It is his birthday today. He’s 26. Fully grown and fully employed with all of his appendages.  In love with a dark haired woman who thinks he’s quite a catch. I have to agree.

Happy Birthday, Dear Peter. Oh, happy, happy day.

Love, Auntie.

City mouse, country mouse…

Recently, my daughter asked me to go on an adventure with her.  Let’s go to Chicago! You will love it! she said. I’ll admit that I was more than a bit skeptical. Large crowds of people, traffic, and noise aren’t generally my idea of the perfect vacation getaway spot. Give me a beach any day.  It’ll be great, Mom! The museums are amazing and the pizza is wonderful!  she said. We can walk almost everywhere! And it only takes an hour and fifteen minutes flying time to get there! she said.  The Chicago Board of Tourism should seriously consider hiring this girl. She’s THAT good.

And so, I started packing.

Chicago is a big, blustery city of stark contrasts.  Sparkling Lake Michigan laps at the shore only blocks from the grit and sirens along Michigan Avenue. It reminded me of a really big, flatter, version of Duluth. We walked along the breakwater after visiting the dinosaurs at the Field museum the second day we were there, and I caught myself looking back toward the impressive skyline more than once.  From the shore, Chicago looks like a city of gray Legos. It is only when you actually walk downtown that you grasp the variations and intricacies in the architecture that the city is widely known for.  There are lush city parks with beautifully tended rose gardens where tourists stroll, but the iconic “Bean” in Millennium Park fails to reflect the sobering reality of so many of the city’s homeless at street corners only blocks away.  In this way, Chicago is no better or worse than most big metropolitan areas, I suppose.

Even so, my city mouse girl loves Chicago.  As we walked along the Magnificent Mile, stopping in shops along the way, she talked about how she’d like to live there one day.  The Mom part of me who is proud of her utter fearlessness and independence agreed that living there would be quite an adventure.  The someday-there-will-be-grandchildren-and-Chicago-is-too-far-away  Mom part was less enthusiastic. It is clear we are at completely different stages of life.  For now, it is just one of the many dreams she has for where life will take her. No need to panic at my end. But as she talked, I was reminded of a dear friend of mine who admitted once that when her future son-in-law came to ask for her daughter’s hand in marriage, she’d made him promise (I think he even had to sign something) that he would not move her daughter more than six hours away from her for the rest of their lives. And she wasn’t kidding. Not even a little bit.

To my friend, I say this.  I get it now. I totally get it.

Fortunately, my daughter forgives me for my neurotic country mouse mom ways, even when I whine about not being able to visit my imaginary grandchildren.  As I struggled to keep up with the 5 foot tall young woman weaving effortlessly through crowds, I marveled at her confidence in navigating a city the size of Chicago.  How nice to know that she is capable of venturing out into the world more brave than I was at her age.  How nice, at this stage of motherhood, to be more wanted, than needed.  To know she will be just fine wherever she is.

We visited the Art Institute and spent most of the time admiring the Impressionists. We rode an elevator to the 96th floor of a building and had wine as we watched the sun set over the city. We went to the opera and walked miles and ate deep dish pizza which really IS as good as they say it is.  We giggled over stupid stuff and agreed that most of the clothes in most of the stores were much too expensive and not even very pretty. And during lunch, I  raised a toast to the two of us and the wonderful stages of life we are each in.

Each of us, looking forward to new adventures, new roads.


I am so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.

“Anne of Green Gables” by L.M. Montgomery

The sugar maples on our five acres are ablaze this week. Finally.

Our unseasonably warm September here in the Northland  made me wonder, more than once, if the show would go on this year.  For weeks, I’ve waited for the crimsons, coppers, and salmon pinks to bloom in the woods I love.  Finally, in mid-October we are, as we like to say around here, “at peak” and it is clear that Mother Nature has outdone herself, once again.  This morning, as I write from my perch in the porch, I can see leaves wafting down and feel that sad twinge with each one that does, knowing that in a week, the limbs will be bare.  But today, October is perfect in the way that so little is in life.

I took one of those goofy, online, “Color Tests” this morning on Facebook where you are presented five blocks of color with one that is almost imperceptibly different in shade and you have to identify which it is.  I got an A+ on the test. This means nothing except that my eyes are better at discerning hue than they are at reading this computer screen.  I have one pair of bifocals that were made solely for the purpose of actually seeing my computer without looking like an old bobblehead.  I have decided that I spend more time switching pairs of glasses per day than any human being on earth.  Too many years of too many essays to grade, I guess.  Or maybe just old eyes.

This week, I’ve been invited to speak to the Women of the Woods.  They are a group of sassy women who gather at the Sand Lake Hall monthly to do things like listen to people like me talk about writing.  At least, I think that is their mission.  I guess I’ll find out more about the WOWs tomorrow when I meet them.  Since they want to talk about writing, and they invited me (me, of all people) to talk about writing with them, I have decided that I already like them a lot.  This is probably because most of my conversations about writing, most of the time, focus more on how to magically turn a C paper into an A+ one.  Most of my students are young; as such, they do not yet fully grasp that writing is more about the seeing and feeling than the act of writing.  That in order to write about anything, one must first feel.

Now, I may be wrong, but I don’t think this will be a problem with the Women of the Woods.  I’m guessing that they, like me, feel the same joy on October mornings as they stand waiting for their coffee to brew and look out their kitchen windows into the woods they love, and think, there is no place better than this, right here. This moment. They feel the same twinges I feel when a leaf falls. I just know it.

Because most of them are in the third act of life, like me.  They’ve seen enough Octobers to know how precious each one is. They are already A students when it comes to this seeing and feeling stuff.  They see the same colors I do.

And so, we will talk, and laugh, and remember the Octobers of our lives tomorrow, together.  Isn’t that what women of a certain age do when they gather?

And then, we will write like our lives depend on it.

At least, that’s my plan.

Before it happens the next time…

This time it was a community college in Oregon. Once again, someone’s son decided that the answer to whatever disappointment, isolation, or rage he was experiencing was to shoot up a school full of innocent people. This time, it was people like my students. This time, it was people like me.

With that introduction, those four lines of simple prose, I’m keenly aware that I’ve already lost part of my audience. This is because I know that some who read those words will write me off as just another blasphemous anti-gun Wack-a-Doodle. I’m even related to some who’ll call me that, trust me.

But, see, here’s the thing…

This week, I will be back on a campus that looks a lot like the one in Oregon.  My day will start with office hours, meetings, and really bad coffee from the cafeteria down the hall.  And despite the coffee and meetings, I will still find myself, at some point in the day, reminding myself  that I have one of the best jobs in the world. This is because each day with college students is different, and lovely, and full of fine people searching for answers to big questions. This week, as I stand lecturing in a classroom with one entrance and nothing to hide behind,  I’ll also be thinking of the English instructor murdered last week in Oregon. He was nearing retirement, like me. I wonder if the poetry of Dylan Thomas touched his heart in the same ways it touches mine.

This week, in other classrooms throughout the state, four other members of my extended family will be teaching, too.  Two of our young adults will be starting their days in college classrooms.  All the youngsters in the family will be learning all the things youngsters learn in their  elementary, middle, and high school classrooms.  In all, fourteen really important members of my family will be in school buildings somewhere.  Do your own head count. Imagine life without just one of the tallest or smallest of your own tribe coming home from school safe and sound next week. See how fast it gets personal for you, too.

I have this pink sheet taped to the wall of my office cube. At the top it says Lock Down Procedure.  Its presence there is supposed to give me a feeling of empowerment and control. I’m tired of talking about guns. Let’s talk about this sheet.  I want to talk about how telling me to duck and cover will actually help keep me or my students safe on a campus with multiple buildings, multiple entrances, and a single security guard, armed or not.  I want someone to tell me how the sheets in the classrooms where my all my people spend the bulk of their days teaching or learning will keep them safe, too.

I’d really like more real conversations about why so many young people are not being taught skills to cope with the inevitable trials and disappointments that all human beings face, too. Oh, and some honest dialogue about cutting funding for school counselors at every level of education. That would be awesome.  I want brutally frank discussions about the fine balance between data privacy and the potential merits of identifying which students are most at risk of becoming weapons of mass destruction before they actually are.

And finally, I want to talk about what has changed in our culture, because as an educator for over twenty years, I truly believe that something has.  I want to know whether or not graphically violent video games and films passed off as  “entertainment”  warp the minds of the most fragile among our youth and why so many young men are so very, very angry.  I want to talk about the lonely ones and the bullied ones and the invisible ones.  Bring those conversations from behind closed office doors and into the light. Because we know these kids exist.  They are sick and lost, smoldering and soul-less.  And I really, really want to know why.  And then, I want to know what to do about this. This.

I want to know for my students and colleagues.  For my family members and yours, too.

Because we know that when they snap, these young men don’t go gently into that good night alone.

Forty five of them have already proven that this year.