Fly away home

For Angie

The one little hummingbird we’ve had at the backyard feeder this summer hovered and chirped at me from the other side of the porch screen yesterday. It is late August and the feeder is empty.  I need to take it down so the tiny, nagging bird moves along. I told him the bar was closed and he glared and made a final squeak before shooting off over the fence and into the woods.  Endings are hard.

Moms of college freshmen this week know this better than anyone. They are lugging bins up staircases and trying to make themselves useful in dorm rooms with less square footage than some closets they’ve seen in the suburbs. Cement block buildings where their dear ones will sleep and study and magically turn into young adults by Thanksgiving.

As a mom of adult children myself, there are days from their childhoods I would give anything to re-live. The days they each took their first steps and said their first words. The year my son was Four. Brushing my daughter’s long, black, hair and putting it up in a bun for Ballet. All the Boy bear hugs from behind and Girly secrets shared through the years. The moments that pass in a flash that we take for granted.

Moving my children into their new lives was not one of those days.  Everyone who’d done it before me said that I should be happy that they were ready (I was) and that they’d be just fine (they were) and that life would go on (it did) and that the loss I was feeling was normal. It was.

But that doesn’t mean that it didn’t still hurt. Their leaving me. My leaving them.

And so, if you are one of those moms (or dads) who are feeling a little empty today, take heart. You’re normal. I have been in the business of educating college freshmen for twenty years and here’s what I know. They are feeling a little empty, too. And scared. And unsure. This is true even if yours gave you the bum’s rush out the door or glanced around nervously as you swooped in for one last hug.  If you helped them unpack, this is the neatest their dorm room will look until next June when you come to move them out. They may not call you as often as you’d like them to, especially at first. This does not mean you have failed. This does not mean they don’t love you. They think that texts count. They will tell you this when you ask why they don’t call more often.  In Freshman English, when they are asked to write about themselves, they will write about their homes, and siblings, and the dog. When I ask them to write about the people who have had the most influence on them, more often than not, they will write about you.

So moms (and dads) here’s some advice.  Be a little sad for yourselves today. Resist the urge to turn the car around and see if you can move into the dorm room down the hall from where your Dear One will sleep tonight. Go home and pet the dog. Eat ice cream. Cry if you must. Hug the rest of your tribe hard.

It gets better. You’ll get better at this. I promise.

Endings are hard. In the time it takes for a hummingbird to flap its wings, they fly away.

If we’ve done our jobs, our children do, too.


Summers off

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.

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.


Board by board

Board by board.  That’s my system.

I have been staining at the cabin for the past month. You have to be a little nuts to undertake a task like staining a cabin when you are past middle age. I am sure that some of the family members and friends who’ve stopped to admire the facelift taking place would say that I have the “nuts” thing covered pretty well at this point, paint splattered bib overalls or not. When the month began, I knew I had to stain some siding on the river side that were replaced last summer. It had been years since the last time the cabin was fully stained and I knew I’d never be able to find a color that wouldn’t make the back of the cabin look like a patchwork quilt. So instead, I went with a completely different color armed only with a paint brush and a level of optimism/denial that only comes from one’s gross over-estimation of one’s ability to still do things like climb a stepladder a bazillion times in one month.

My people said they’d help me. In fact, some of them asked numerous times. I shrugged and smiled and fibbed. I was only going to “do a little bit” I’d say. Then, as soon as I was left to my own devices, I’d begin where I’d left off. I broke a toe and thought I would have to make good on my promises to stop or at least, take people up on their offers to help. Nope. I wrapped that sore little bugger and kept staining. Board by board. Up the ladder and down the ladder. A woman with a bum toe on a mission. One friend, who worries that I will work myself to death out of sheer, stubborn, stupidity refused to take no for an answer and simply showed up and started staining alongside me. Board by board, we stained. Everyone needs a friend like that. Ones who just show up. She is mine.

I have never been a competitive athlete and couldn’t give a rip about running a marathon, it’s true. What do you have to show for all that sweat, after all?  A medal and t-shirt. Big whoop. And winter sports are, well, in the winter. Even so, I understand people my age who keep pushing their minds and bodies to do such things. Maybe we are all more alike than I thought and not so nuts at all.

Maybe, in the end, we all choose to do hard things for the same reason. Because we still can. Step by step, inch by inch, mile by mile.

And sometimes, board by board.


My feet hurt. The aroma of frying onions and cotton candy won’t be enticing again for at least a year. I have the five songs, fake train whistles, and sirens that played on a continuous loop at top volume somewhere on the Midway embedded in my brain. I am hoping this is temporary. As I cleaned the grill after a shift in the hamburger stand on Friday night, I was reminded once again why every teenager should work in a restaurant at least one summer.  You just never know when you’re going to need the skill set you acquire doing that kind of work.

The Dweebs were, once again, a huge hit. Years ago, there was a teen dance on Friday nights and an adult one on Saturday nights in the old arena. Remember? The queen contest and talent show are no longer part of the festivities either, but somehow Deer River always finds new ways to make sure that everyone still has fun. Church dinners, a flea market, a bike rodeo. The list goes on. It all comes together even when road construction makes getting around town a little sketchy. Deer River adjusts, just like it always has.

Some families have reunions every summer.  Ours maybe manages to get its act together for a true reunion once a decade like high school graduating classes do.

Luckily, the Rice Festival brings our crew us together every summer. To volunteer and play. To see dear old friends. To eat way too much and drink more than a little beer. To laugh a lot and be a little stupid on warm summer evenings. In families, it is good to stop mowing and fixing and fussing long enough to do this. It is maybe essential, actually.

Thanks, Deer River. See you next year.



Night sounds

“Deep in the forest a call was sounding, and as often as he heard this call, mysteriously thrilling and luring, he felt compelled to turn his back upon the fire and the beaten earth around it, and to plunge into the forest, and on and on, he knew not where or why; nor did he wonder where or why, the call sounding imperiously, deep in the forest.”

-Jack London, The Call of the Wild

Wolves were domesticated 12,000 to 15,000 years ago.The earliest ancestors of the breed of dog known as Beagles today are thought to have been used as hunting dogs in Greece as early as the 5th century B.C. Beagles were imported to the United States from Europe in the early 1870’s.

Lilly, our miniature beagle, spends the bulk of her life doing one of three things. Sleeping, begging for treats, or staring out into the woods from the safety of her fenced yard at home. Often, as she gazes longingly out into the woods beyond the fence, I notice a far-away look in her eyes as if she is remembering on some cellular level the ancestors from which she came.

You could say that Lilly is highly domesticated. In fact, she is about as far removed from being a wolf as a dog can be. She is a spoiled, noisy, floppy-eared baby who is afraid of things like wood ticks and hates being wet or cold. Which is why, on Monday night at dusk when she took off into the woods up at the lake, my sister and I were more than a little concerned. Lilly spent the night out in the woods. By morning, her happy Roo! Roo! had been replaced by an urgent Help! Help! and so, we walked for miles through thick woods trying to find her. By afternoon, she had stopped making any noises at all and we worried that she had gotten herself into something she couldn’t get out of.  Like a trap. Or a bear’s mouth. We worried that perhaps she’d become the main course for a litter of hungry wolf pups. One’s imagination runs wild when a beagle near a swamp gets too quiet.

She must have just been taking an afternoon nap because by evening, she was once again sending out her beagle S.O.S. She’s lucky she ended up with humans who know how to follow their instincts when it comes to being in the woods. Humans who pay attention to where the sun is in the sky before they go into the woods and know how to use a compass. Ones who actually know what poison ivy looks like. The next morning, those humans listened and walked. Then listened and walked some more. An hour later, Lilly was rescued. In the thirty-six hours she was gone, the only things that had dined on her were a few wood ticks and a very hungry army of gnats.

She’s home now. In the evening, as she dreams, she whimpers and runs from whatever scary things she seems to be remembering. Things like wood ticks, gnats, and the night sounds in the woods her ancestors, the wolves, understood. She would have made a lousy wolf. I am beginning to wonder if she’s even very good at being a beagle, frankly.

Luckily for Lilly, her very human pack has some pretty good instincts, too.







Eyes with which to see

It takes a long time to grow an old friend.

-John Leonard

We offer one another our “cheaters” to read menus these days.  After nearly fifty years of friendship from elementary school through emptied nests, it has finally come to this for all of us.  We are no longer girls, but moles. Or maybe we are bats.

Well, at least I am. I cannot wear my newest pair of bifocals to work on my laptop unless I want to rest my laptop on my chest.  My old pair of bifocals allows me put the computer on my lap where it belongs. Although I can see most other things more clearly with the new pair, I’m constantly searching for the older pair when it comes to working or writing. It gets worse. In order to drive in sunshine, I need to switch to a pair of old glasses I had tinted with lenses that are only supposed to darken in sunlight. The darn things don’t go back to clear until it is nearly time to go back outside which pretty much defeats the purpose of lenses that darken automatically if you ask me. I have to close one eye to read the time on the clock radio by the bed. Don’t ask me why that works. Without my bifocals, I can’t see a darn thing up close, but I can still see a turtle in the road a quarter of a mile ahead of me and pass the eye exam without any glasses when I get my license renewed. Go figure. All I know is that I took my eyes for granted until they went to pot.

I’m glad my old friends’ eyes aren’t any better than mine.  It allows us all to see each other and ourselves more gently than we ever did as girls or younger women. We take better care of each other now. Our scars and the laugh lines around our eyes tell our stories for us. The memories of who we were as girls are precious. Much of what we thought we knew for sure then has blurred with time. This is good. We were too sure for our own good anyway. That’s what we tell each other over dinner and glasses of wine.

It is good, at this age, to squint at menus and giggle like the school girls we were so long ago. To pass the cheaters across the table. To order more wine and linger over it just because we can. To be glad to share time with old friends.

Grateful, in the fifth decade of our lives, for the softened edges of our friendship.