Friday, October 19, 2018


You can add “change” to that old truism that death and taxes are the only certainties in this life.

I got an unexpected lesson in that just this past weekend, when I attended the artists' reception for an art show titled “CHANGE: A Photo Exhibition on the Impermanence of Life” at The Arts Mill in Grafton, Wisconsin. I was one of the artists featured, and it was a juried show, and so this was big deal for me on several levels. For one thing, that I got anything into the competitive show at all, much less two of my three submissions. And for another, that I was exhibiting anything, anywhere, at all.
CHANGE: The Exhibit
2018 has been a “lost year” for me in many ways. Despite retiring from my job as a prosecuting attorney a few weeks ago with great fanfare to ostensibly focus more on writing and photography and things that are by nature creative and fun, I’ve spent virtually the entire year responding to an ongoing, grueling family medical emergency. Shit happens. Plans change. Writing fell to the wayside immediately. Photography fell by the wayside as well. Creativity and self-indulgence and any semblance of self-care fell by the wayside. What’s left of me can be very un-pretty on some days.

And yet, when I saw the call for art for the “CHANGE” show several months ago, I was intrigued and inspired. And finally I forced myself to set aside my other worries and sit at my computer long enough to pull some images from my archives and my memory and formally enter them in the art show competition.

Two of the three images were chosen by the judge for inclusion. One, “Impermanence,” is a photograph of shadows cast by a group of sightseers against a giant outcropping of rock on the edge of the Grand Canyon. I think I’m one of the shadows, in fact. There is nothing subtle or nuanced about their image. They look like a kinder, gentler version of the shadows left by the nuclear bomb at Hiroshima. Evidence of our being on this Earth looks quite starkly ephemeral when compared with the thousands of years that the rock has endured wind and weather, driving snow and scorching heat.

 The other, “End of the Line,” features a gloriously colorful old passenger train car far past formal retirement, decaying into rust amid weeds and rails and other hulking ruins. As an object lesson in how shiny functional things still can’t beat the onslaught of time, it works pretty well.

End of the Line
And so I ordered prints of the photos and framed them and dropped them off at the gallery weeks before the show opened, and marked the date for the “artist reception” on my calendar. I don’t have much time or energy for a social life these days, but for this I’d make an exception!

It’s always delightful to go to an art show and see what inspires other folks, and talk with them about where their ideas come from. Synergy is a wonderful thing! But as I chatted about my own photos, I gave voice to just what “changes” these particular images marked for me in a very personal way. This was nothing that I had had in mind when I chose them to enter in the art show, and nothing that I was even vaguely pondering as I dropped them off.

But seeing them hanging on the gallery wall presented me with a view of “change” in my life that was profoundly deeper. I love photography for its ability to freeze the “instant.” An athlete’s moment of triumph or failure; the curl of a wave; a forest drenched in fog; a butterfly’s wing illuminated by a shaft of sunlight like stained glass. These two photographs, I realized, were not just instants to be preserved, but markers of some very long personal journeys.

I had taken the “Impermanence” photo twelve years before. At that moment in time, I was on a vacation out west with my older son, who had just turned nineteen and was leaving for college in just a few weeks. The dissolution of our nuclear family had been formalized less than a year before with the divorce. The “mom and me” trip was a ritual that I indulged in for all four of my children. This adventure was third in the lineup, but the first occurring since family contours had changed. We drove. We hiked up and down rocky trails. We watched the Perseid meteor shower from the rim of the canyon in the middle of the night. Another evening passed as we sat on rocks at the edge of the canyon, waiting for the sun to set, and talked about both the past and the future.

In the twelve years that have followed, he has grown from an incredible young man with a passion for justice to an amazing adult realizing his heart’s desires for making the world a better, kinder, richer place every day in his life’s work. In the twelve years that have followed, I’ve grown as well. I’ve adjusted to my once-full nest finally growing empty, experienced romance and heartbreak, found wells of resilience and reinvention that I could not have imagined. Neither of our paths to the present have been without stumbles or pain, but we are still standing, and still push forward, with our faces to the sun.

I took the “End of the Line” photo a few years later during a road trip I had taken with the man who shared my life for several years. Our formal destination was Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, which was the site of an annual “carriage horse” competition, replete with gorgeous period costumes and gleaming, fancy wagons. But before we got as far as the carriage horses and the grounds of the Victorian mansion that was hosting the show, we spied some decrepit railroad cars looking abandoned and derelict near an old grain elevator that was no longer in use. We couldn’t resist getting out of the car and looking around, both of us snapping away with our cameras.

The weekend itself was a happy snapshot, freezing lovely moments such as watching the sun set from a quiet boat dock on the Mississippi, in a relationship that experienced major ups and downs before it finally fell apart. When it began, I had never been so radiantly happy. When it crashed, well…no breakups exist that don’t leave scars. But I know that I have changed along the way, both by being with this man who introduced me to gardening, power tools, and the view from the back of his motorcycle, and then by learning to live without him. I’ve become…and had to become…stronger, more self-reliant, more accepting of my own flaws and strengths.

And so, without further fanfare or explanation…a salut to CHANGE! Because without it, we’re not remotely alive.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Thelma & Louise on Spring Break

One state west, in Missouri, the weather system we were traveling through had turned absolutely deadly as we blithely drove south, favorite CDs playing on the stereo system and a can of Diet Coke apiece.  More than a dozen people had died due to the storms we drove through that day in Missouri, Kentucky and southern Illinois.  But at the time, all we knew was that the windshield wipers wouldn’t lose their annoying “bumpety, bumpety, bumpety” sound every time they dragged across the glass for nine hours straight, the rental car’s steering had a definite “float” to it, especially in the wind, and the water in the drainage channels beside the two-lane road in southern Illinois seemed to be getting a wee bit high.

Oh, and the Dairy Queen sign next to a highway exit looked like it was going to be under water soon.   Raindrops broke the surface of the gleaming black pool surrounding it, lights from a nearby gas station shimmering off the rising water.  At the rate we were going, we were never going to make it to our motel in Montgomery, Alabama before three a.m.  We settled on a cheap room in Birmingham, found a double on our third try after midnight

Huh.  Welcome to spring break.

The first day of vacation had started off with not much more to recommend it.  Thick, cottony fog had cloaked most of the first leg of the trip from Wisconsin to Peoria, Illinois, where Kristin and I had arranged to meet to carpool for the rest of our impromptu adventure.  The fog had slowed me by about an hour, and the fact that I didn’t take five extra minutes to MapQuest the Peoria airport before leaving added another.  In my haste to get moving, I relied on the kind of blind optimism that propelled our forefathers into disasters like Custer’s Last Stand and the scenic trip through Donner Pass. 

Really, how hard could it be to find an airport in Peoria!!  For that matter, how big could Peoria really be??  Well, as it turned out, a lot bigger than I thought…and the kindness of strangers is no substitute for an actual plan.

No matter, Kristin and I were on a road trip for the history books, and we weren’t going to be deterred.  Sanity and good sense had nothing to do with it.  We were fed up with winter, pure and simple, and we were goin’ south. 

The winter had been long and ghastly in our neck of the woods, which roughly sketched would be a swath across Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin.  Snowstorm after snowstorm.  School cancellation after school cancellation.  Temperatures below zero.  Days that I dutifully drove the fifty miles to work only to wish, halfway there and fishtailing on snow-covered roads that hadn’t been plowed, that I’d stayed safely home in bed. 

And the winds and the grey skies just kept coming.  It felt, deep down and for the first time that I could remember, like I would never see spring or green grass again.  Like I was living in the ice cap of the Arctic Circle, and flowers were something to be seen and admired only in catalogs, grown by happy gardeners in tropical warm, sunny places thousands of miles south.  Like I said, sanity had nothing to do with it…but by early March something in me had snapped and I became a desperate woman.  Apparently it was catchy, because we charged off our respective blocks only four days after Kristin—a friend from law school living a good six hours away in Iowa—sold her husband on the idea that she really needed a winter break too, and that he and their two daughters could spare her for a few days. 

The plan was simple—drive straight south until we hit the Gulf of Mexico, and stop at the first beach we saw.  And aside from the first day and a half of driving through steady rain, it actually worked.  About the time we got maybe sixty miles from Gulf Shores, Alabama, the skies finally parted, the sun came out, and we saw blue skies above.  And sure enough, when we finally ran out of highway, the road ended in a large paved public parking lot at the edge of a pure, white sand beach, with enormous breakers kicking up spray a few hundred feet out.  We locked the car, rolled up our pants, and happily waded in.

The trip was especially sweet when I thought back to my early years in college and realized I’d never properly been on “spring break” before.  Somehow multiple instances of herding four kids and a spouse and six pieces of luggage and a half suitcase full of Easter chocolate and bunny bags and plastic Easter grass  hidden under socks and a nightgown for a family vacation in a condo on the Georgia coast didn’t quite qualify.

The words “spring break” just had a connotation of more carefree abandon, of caution to the wind, of randomness and adventure and opportunity and the Great Unknown.  Of course, they also conjure up popular visions of “Girls Gone Wild” and drunken revelry and bikini-ready hardbodies oiled up and ready for Mai Tais and short-lived romance.  But hey, we had to start somewhere. 

There are advantages to doing some things when you’re over…thirty.  Sometimes it’s simply that you know, starting out, that your friendship is strong enough to survive a cramped, muscle-screaming drive of twelve hundred miles in two days in a compact car.  In our case, the catching up we did during the drive was half the adventure.  We’d weathered law school together, with all its exams and anxiety and pressure and competition and chocolate cravings.  Since then she and her family had moved twice, I’d gotten divorced and adjusted to all that that big change brings, and between the two of us, a full fifty percent of our children had weathered serious health crises resulting in major surgery.  Not to take anything away from the courage and grace and resilience of our kids in dealing with these horribly inequitable turns of chance…but that kind of misfortune gives two mothers a lot to talk about as the miles slide by.

Another advantage to being…over twenty-one…is that you don’t feel you’ve got to reinvent the wheel and discover everything for yourself to make the memories last.  I’d picked Gulf Shores as a destination because a clerk at the courthouse suggested off the cuff that it would be a nice place to visit, and two minutes on the internet later that night had me sold.  After arriving at the beach that first day, we struck up a conversation with a local and asked him where a good restaurant serving seafood might be found.  He pointed us up the street to a place with a full parking lot and a dolphin statue outside, and boy, was he right!

The next morning, with a full day of beach-going to make the most of, I wound up having breakfast with an elderly gentleman from Illinois who shanghaied me in the parking lot while Kristin—never a “morning person”—slept in, and directed me to the tourist welcome center I’d blindly driven past twice the night before.  Asked for the best, quietest beach around, the clerk at the welcome center pointed us to Cotton Bayou beach a few miles down the coast, her personal favorite.  Just to say we did, we drove past it by a few miles and into Florida looking for something better…and came right back.  Took her advice on a seafood restaurant near the beach for dinner too, wolfing down plate after plate of seafood appetizers, selfishly foregoing entirely the niceties of a full dinner (rolls, salad, potatos, veggies) in favor of crabmeat and shrimp from start to finish.  And after dinner, as we walked along the shore and watched the rising full moon shimmer over the shore, we never regretted not wasting our time looking for something better.

And the beach alone was worth it. Pure white “sugar sand” underfoot, the rise and fall of waves rushing in, the chorus of black-faced laughing gulls behind us, sounding like a bunch of raucous monkeys in a tree.  As I walked along the water’s edge, stopping to pick up the occasional small, perfect shell, I felt very much like the little girl I used to be, bent over and searching with single purpose for tiny shells along the edge of the Montrose Avenue beach in Chicago.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh had it exactly right in her book of heartfelt essays, “Gift from the Sea,” when she wrote that “the beach is not the place to work; to read, write or think.”  I have forgotten that many times over the years, bringing notebooks and pens to the shore as she once had, expecting to find the inspiration to write, only to find myself mesmerized by the sound of the waves and the wind, like listening to the world breathe.  Even this time, I had efficiently packed both a book and a magazine in my tote bag—“Angels and Demons” by Dan Brown and the latest Oprah magazine, you couldn’t ask for better, less demanding beach reading than that—and still found myself hypnotized by my surroundings.  The book and the magazine remained untouched as I stretched out full-length and dug my fingers into the warm, perfect sand beside me.

Instead of “accomplishing” anything, we shopped a little.  And stretched out on the shore a lot, waking long only enough to turn over and broil our other sides.  Lounging like lizards in the sun, we felt the energy of the universe permeate our frozen bone marrow and imprint our shivering psyches with memories of warmth that would have to last the rest of the winter.  With two blankets and plenty of sunblock, there was nothing that we lacked.  We lunched, and breakfasted, and otherwise snacked throughout the day on seafood dip on crackers brought in a picnic cooler that also held hummus, and cheese, and grapes, and fancy chocolates, and plenty of drinks.  Wine for her, Smirnoff Ice for me. 

While the signs posted at the edge of the beach all warned that alcoholic beverages were verboten, well, we were females over the age of thirty in bathing suits on a public beach, while college kids with better bodies in skimpier suits played Frisbee and volleyball nearby.  In other words, we were absolutely invisible.  A votre sant√©!  Having left our only bottle opener (my Swiss Army knife) back in the hotel room, Kristin laughingly drew on what she called her “sketchy past” and illustrated how to open a beer bottle with a house key.  Hey, it’s never too late to learn a new social skill.

Two days at the shore passed far too quickly by any measure.  We skipped a trip to a nearby outlet mall—surely a first for us—in favor of spending the last few hours on the beach.  Packed up and left straight from the shore, sand still in our shoes and the sound of the waves behind us.  The drive back was dry this time, but at two days, still far too long for anything like comfort.  We split again at the Peoria airport, with a shuffle of baggage and a quick hug before resuming our last sprints back toward reality.  In my case, reality involved serving Easter dinner for eight at my house the next day…after making a mad dash to the supermarket for something to cook. 

But I brought a piece of the shore back.  Not just in memory, but in a few handfuls of white sand and a half dozen shells in colors of grey and white and tangerine.  Encased now in a glass jar and wrapped with a ribbon the color of seafoam, a miniature version of the Gulf of Mexico sits on my desk at work, the swirls of the seashells drawing my hypnotically back to the rhythm of the shore, and reminding me daily of the value of acting on impulse once in a while.

Before I pick up another magazine or finish “Angels and Demons”…I feel like  re-reading “Gift from the Sea” once more.     


Friday, December 15, 2017

Empty Nest

My official notice that my nest was finally going to be really and truly empty for the first time in 36 years came, without warning, in the mail. After a thoroughly lovely, sunny morning spent at an art museum with a friend, I had returned home and then checked the mailbox by the front door. I leafed casually through the assortment of bills and catalogs and other junk, and then there it was. 
A perky, colorful notice from the postal service verifying that my younger daughter was officially changing her mailing address to a city across the country.
This wasn’t actually “news” in the strictest sense. She’d been gone for several months, and this new location was something she’d been working at putting roots down in for a long time. It was a very good thing for my daughter, in fact, by any measure at all. She had had something of a love-hate relationship with that particular city for a number of years and had come and gone from there on more than one occasion, but this time the place just felt “right” for all the right reasons.
But all of that cool mature rationality didn’t stop me from standing at the kitchen sink and bursting into tears. Go figure.
Since my first child was born (the “training baby” that paved the way for the next three) I’ve tended a nest in one form or another. For most of that time it was a nest in the country that grew to have five bedrooms and was surrounded by acres of fields and woods, hawks and foxes and deer and birds of all feathers. And while my fledglings were young, there was plenty of hiking and cookie-baking and story-reading and minivan-driving that utterly and joyfully consumed my life and identity. I didn’t skip a beat at keeping that nest in place even after I went to law school and then the marriage collapsed after twenty five years. With teenagers still in high school, I kept trimming the Christmas tree and cooking dinner and baking cookies and keeping the spare bedrooms primed and ready for the older ones to use when they came home from college.
Then, at last, I sold that large place and moved to much smaller digs a couple of years ago. Now if I want to visit the forest primeval, I actually have to get in my car and drive there, though the drive is quite short. And yet…it still has a spare bedroom and that is very important to me.
For the past several years, my younger daughter has still called my location “home” as she has come and gone at various times to other parts of the country for professional or personal reasons. She is an artist who practices in a physically demanding art form, and she has a severe chronic illness, and she is the bravest person I know. And somehow the fact that I could still keep a safe landing pad for her kept me on an even keel despite the wrenching emotional upheaval of moving from the only stable home I’d known in my own life.
I’m pretty sure one could draw a direct line from my own life experience to the importance I place on having that “nest.”
The simplest way to describe my family’s functioning would be to say that my mother was in charge. Nothing of importance happened without her approval, and often times at her initiative. I remember that no matter where she was, she always wanted to be elsewhere. She is now 94 and widowed and has been crippled for decades. She lives in a very nice apartment with a good view of a river and a majestic historic building that she loves to see as the sun sets, and friends and excellent amenities for wheelchair accessibility, and she is still striving for one more move.
This did not generally lend itself to a feeling of tremendous permanence as I was growing up. But a particularly disastrous initiative had us leave my native Chicago when I was sixteen in order to move to an abandoned farm in northern Wisconsin with no plumbing except a kitchen sink. The nearest town had 143 people and that was two miles away.
In order to continue my education at a Catholic high school, I was sent off to a small city forty miles away and I boarded there, at least for the first few months, with a family recommended by the high school principal. It didn’t go well. I came back to the farm every weekend, and there was literally no room there for me. There were only two bedrooms in the unfinished farmhouse. My parents slept in one; my younger brother slept in the other one, which had just enough room for a twin bed nestled against one wall and a dresser tight up against the other. I remember having to sleep in a hammock in the living room when I came home for the weekends. And things only went downhill from there.
In short, any illusion of having firm ground beneath my feet vanished when I was sixteen, replaced by a yawning, inarticulate terror of abandonment and isolation that has haunted me through the rest of my life. It drove making some of my biggest life decisions, and blinded or paralyzed me from making others. My parents and brother moved back to Chicago four years after leaving it for the farm and picked up at the same address they had left off. It was too late for me not to have been utterly broken.
Fast forward to college, marriage and motherhood. As one, then two, then three, and finally four children arrived, I found an incredible source of fulfillment and happiness in making a stable home for them. With every bedtime story, every Halloween costume sewn, every batch of cookies baked, every Christmas stocking hung by the fireplace, I could feel something heal inside myself.
As they grew older, of course, their needs changed. Instead of fresh diapers, a corsage for the prom. Instead of lunch in a brown paper bag, money for gas. Instead of help preparing for a science quiz, reassurance that a major life decision was a good one. And so it went, through the college years and beyond.
Bringing me, inevitably, to the arrival of the change-of-address noticed that sent me, at least for the rest of that day, into a bruised and weepy tailspin. If there had been a pint of Hagen Daz ice cream in the freezer, I would have eaten it out of the carton.
I have dried my tears since then, put my chin up, and claimed the entire bathroom counter for myself since I no longer have to share. And with the approaching Christmas holiday doings, I haven’t had much time or inclination to brood.
But there is a new year about to start in just another couple of weeks. The turn of the calendar from one year to the next is always a time for reflection on the past and optimism for the future. Sometimes I make resolutions, and sometimes I don’t.
This time around I hope I’ll make some adjustments in my thinking. I’m already known for relentless optimism as a coping mechanism, but let’s take the glass-half-full analogy a step farther and say that when all is said and done, my nest isn’t quite empty yet. None of my kids may be getting their mail sent to my house anymore, but I’m still here, along with the four-footed pets. And so I might as well start picturing and investing in my current surroundings as a warm, comforting nest for myself.
Because you know, after all these years, I have damn well earned it.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Pelican Lessons

Everybody's got "the story."
For some folks--most famously Oprah these days--it's the "aha moment," that wonderful instant in the cosmos when a vital, incredibly important, life-changing realization strikes and the heavens part and the world divides into "before" and "after" and the path ahead becomes suddenly clear.
Before the "aha moment" entered the modern lexicon, it was the "Eureka moment," inextricably linked to Archimedes jumping out of his bathtub a couple of millenia ago and running naked down the street with excitement at the recognition of the concept of water displacement, which was a very big deal.
Well, "aha" and "Eureka" moments are great and all, but there's something beatific and divine and let's face it, bland and rather undramatic about them in the long run. I think "aha" and I think celestial energy and light flowing down from the heavens to shed enlightenment without irritation or effort or sweat or rueful discovery.
The story I'm sure everyone has lurking in their past and marking another important fork in the road has a bit more of an edge and a definite learning curve to it.
I think of it as the "I knew it!!" moment. It's that flash of genius when you realize that you've been listening to the wrong voices (sometimes your own), ignoring your own insight and intuition, turning a blind eye to the truth. It's that moment when a wife's discovered her husband was in fact cheating and the lipstick on his collar really wasn't hers; the good advice of friends wasn't nearly as good as it seemed; and that little old lady who lived down the lane really was running the drug ring you suspected but just couldn't put your finger on why, or get past the smell of her gingerbread cookies wafting into the street as you passed.
The "I knew it!!" moment sometimes come with a tinge of regret, often comes with a "once bitten, twice shy" moral, and always comes with the conviction that listening to your inner voice is the most important counsel you'll keep from now on. It can appear while you're laughing out loud, crying with disappointment, or having coffee with a tart-tongued buddy. And despite our best intentions, if we're slow learners, we can even get more than just one.
In my own case, I'll admit to being denser than a gourmet cheesecake at times and I have several of these road markers along the way. The most portentious, serious, highest stakes incident involved ignoring that "inner voice" in favor of taking one more run at a wood fence on a tall horse against my better judgment, and ended up with an ambulance, lights and sirens, a backboard, a whole lotta pain, and the words "you have a broken back" to ponder for the following three months in a body cast.
But I'd rather not use that reference point most of the way, when all I really need to think of are...pelicans.

The road to revelation was a two-lane ribbon of asphalt that ran through the Horicon Marsh. I was passing through on a long drive from the courthouse where I work to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where my daughter was receiving an award of some sort that came with a very nice dinner. With no time to spare, no binoculars or field guide in the car, and no hiking clothes either, I still stole ten whole minutes to explore a three mile driving loop through the marsh that caught my attention as I drove the scenic route recommended by a cop I work with. So I'd rather watch birds than people. Sue me!
I drove deep into the marsh and far from passing traffic, and parked the car by a boardwalk that ran directly into the marsh. I stepped into a world of water and nature and trilling sounds and wonder. As the late afternoon sun shimmered on the water and illuminated the tall vegetation beyond, there were myriad takeoffs and landings occurring around me, splashings and wingbeats and fluttering sounds. Something white caught my eye, and I stared in wonder as three huge white birds soared in from the periphery and came in for a landing past where the glimmering plane of water was interrupted by rushes and cattails and an air of mystery.
I stood, transfixed and mesmerized until they disappeared. The golden sunlight shown on gleaming white feathers with wingtips tipped in inky black. From my far-off vantage point, there was a joy and and an ease and a lilt to their flight as they circled and floated and finally landed gracefully in the reeds, well protected from prying eyes. These birds were huge. They seemed the size of hang-gliders, easily the biggest birds I'd ever seen.
And there was a flash of something familiar to them. For just an instant, I thought "pelicans!!" And then reason and rationality set in and I shut that thought down. "Nah," I thought. "Couldn't be." Too big by far, entirely wrong in color, a thousand miles from the Georgia shoreline where I was used to seeing them skimming the waves and the palm trees overhead like prehistoric throwbacks before alighting by the dozens on a sandbar in the Atlantic.
I got back in the car, drove the rest of the way to the awards dinner, and wondered all night and for days after what exactly I had seen. Could they possibly be whooping cranes? I knew that a few of these rare birds had been sighted recently somewhere in the marsh, and that seeing them was like finding the birdwatcher's Holy Grail. Could I have been among the chosen few?
I pondered the mystery for the next few weeks. Called a Department of Natural Resources warden I worked with on occasion and asked his advice. Where had I seen this trio, he asked. We weren't entirely sure that the area of vegetation was a customary place for whooping cranes to nest. Had I thought about the possibilities of trumpeter swans, he wondered. What about herons?
I stewed over the puzzle for weeks, reaching out to other birdwatchers with little satisfaction. The optimist in me really hoped that I'd seen a trio of whooping cranes. What an accomplishment!! What bragging rights!! But as I thumbed through my well-worn bird guides, I realized that this couldn't be the answer. Whooping cranes would have the same silhouette in flight as the slightly smaller sandhill cranes I could identify in my sleep--a vaguely alien form, as though you took a goose and added an element of elastic to it, neck strangely thin and elongated, long legs trailing out behind like twigs. I'd caught just a fragmentary glimpse, but there was an elegance of movement that could not be denied. Just like a few bars of Beethoven's Fur Elise can be mistaken for nothing else.
Likewise for herons--the size was off by a lot. What I'd seen was enormous. And the more I looked at the descriptions and listing for trumpeter swans, the more I recognized that the flight pattern was wrong. The birds I'd seen soared and glided and flew with a playfulness that swans and geese, I knew, just didn't have. If you've ever paid attention to a goose in flight, you know that it's a big-ass bird. There's a lot of meat to haul from one point to the next, and there's no room in that equation for burning fuel to have fun. A goose reminds me of a C-130 transport plane--it moves a lot of weight, and flies in a no-frills straight line.
I had reached a dead end. The mystery was still alive and well, but I was all out of leads. I tried to push it out of my mind.
A few weeks later, though, I was back at the marsh, this time for a leisurely morning of hiking and bird watching, a sanity break in a busy life, a battery recharge at the font of nature. Sneakers on and binoculars looped around my neck, I walked, and I sat, and I kept an eye out for another glimpse of those white visitors. No luck. As I finally heading home I took a different route, one that ran past the wildlife refuge's main visitor center. I stopped in, looked around, stepped out on the deck and looked out at the marsh spread out before me. A ranger was working in the office, and I put the puzzle to her. Explained the inspiring thrill of the sighting, the inquiries, the ponderings, the frustration.
"I'll bet they're white pelicans," she said.
Unbeknownst to my local expert fifty miles away, the Horicon Marsh is a summer breeding ground for thousands of white pelicans. I hadn't even known they existed. I'd simply asked the wrong person for advice. The ranger showed me a postcard in the gift shop. Sure 'nuf, they looked right. I ripped through my bird guides to the section on pelicans I'd never thought to open, and there it was, in black and white and full color. With a wingspread of nine feet, no wonder I'd thought they were the biggest damn birds I'd ever seen.
And with that, I smiled, even laughed a little. "I knew it!!" I thought in triumph.
And now as I blunder through every day since then full of judgment calls and leaps of faith and decisions big and small, if I need a little validation for the idea of trusting my gut, I just look back at a warm spring afternoon on a Wisconsin marsh, and think...

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Love in the Time of Cupcakes

February being the month where symbols of love like red hearts and satin are everywhere in anticipation of Valentine's Day, it seemed a perfect time to bring this out of the archives. Love has so many forms! This essay was a finalist in the 2010 Royal Palm Literary Awards for "creative non-fiction"!!

The last of the "tennis ball" cupcakes set sail this morning, a small but telling harbinger of the fact that I'm going to be facing an empty nest in the fall. Twenty seven years of "hands on" mothering symbolically reduced to two dozen clumps of devil's food cake in little foil baskets. They swooshed out the door with my youngest son, for what would turn out to be his last tennis meet of high school. He graduates in another couple of weeks, heading for college in the fall and instantly turning any use of the words "high school" into the past tense.

I've been making cupcakes decorated like tennis balls--light yellow frosting with the slightest tinge of green, arced with curves and swoops of white icing--for fourteen years now, ever since my oldest daughter signed up for high school freshman girls tennis before the school year even started. Call me OCD, I don't mind! I consider it a badge of honor.

There are fundamental differences between "girls tennis" and "boys tennis" and only some of them have to do with testosterone levels. Girls tennis season starts in late summer and continues barely to early fall, guaranteeing splendid and warm afternoons and entire weekend days watching budding young ladies flit around on the court in bouncing pony tails and miniskirts, suntanned legs flying. Girls tennis, from my experience on the sidelines, has involved matching hair doo-dads with color coordinated ribbons, team posters, lots of conversation, and a great appreciation for cute snacks. Hence the tennis ball cupcakes, a big hit for both my daughters and their teams for a bunch of years.

Boys tennis, on the other hand, starts just on the cusp of very early spring, when winter hangs on for dear life. And here in the upper Midwest, winter's claws are deep. More than one tennis season for my sons has started its first practice as snow flakes were falling. The weather leans more toward rain, and cold, and wind, and if there's coffee involved for blanket-wrapped spectators under grey, stormy skies, it's been hot, not iced. Very few boys sported pony tails, and nobody wore matching barettes. The guys still appreciated the cupcakes...but I don't know that they even noticed the decorative flair right before they inhaled them.

And still, despite the fact that for years my cupcakes have been nearly vaporized in haste (and without a single squeal of how "cute" they were) by their entirely masculine patrons, I clung to tradition. At least once a season I needed to send those sweet, fluffy treats along to a meet, even if, as the years went by and my job schedule got less flexible, another tennis mom would actually have to deliver them for me. Call me crazy, it's been done before.

While the tennis ball cupcakes stretch back fourteen years, the cupcake thing has actually been a fixture for something more like twenty four. Long ago enough that my oldest daughter would have needed to bring a birthday treat for kindergarten. Or preschool. So through the next two and a half decades, the miniature confections were a constant and a comfort amid the multi-tasking, crisis-response mentality that goes into raising four kids with a minimum number of trips to the emergency room. There were cupcakes with sprinkles for birthdays, cupcakes with candy dots for art shows, cupcakes decorated like little ghosts and jack-o-lanterns for Halloween.
This last tradition--the Halloween cupcakes--nearly drove me into the ground once. I had three kids in the same grade school at the same time. The youngest wanted Halloween cupcakes for his second grade class party. I signed on for two dozen, half of them orange and half of them white, with little ghost outlines and pumpkin smiles drawn on with melted chocolate, eyes made from chocolate chips. Then the fifth grader chimed in. I signed on for another two dozen. And then as I started the baking, when I thought of my daughter's class in eighth grade going without my cupcakes on this festive day, I threw caution to the wind. Halfway through decorating seventy two little ghosts and jack-o-lanterns with dribbley chocolate I rethought my enthusiasm...but it was too late to turn back.

I was planning to dress up for the second graders' party, and I tweaked my daughter with the thought of showing up in costume to deliver the goods. She's got a dark, sultry beauty to her, and she warned me off. "Mom, don't you dare!!" she said ominously, her eyes flashing like the fiery gypsy in Carmen. I filed that thought in the "hmmm..." pile. Made some soothing mention about bringing a change of clothes.

The next day I dutifully and precariously loaded six dozen cupcakes into the minivan, and set off for school. Fifth grade cupcakes were dropped off and put out of mind. The second grade Halloween party was so cute it could make your back fillings hurt. I think that was the one where I'd made my son a little royal blue cape with fake ermine collar, for his part as the "king" in a teeny tiny little play.

And then the lunch bell rang. I grabbed the last two dozen cupcakes from the van and walked them down the length of the school to my daughter's eighth grade classroom. As I stood in the doorway, her back was to me. A friend she was chatting with looked up, and announced slyly, "Sarah, your mom is here." Slowly she turned... and there I stood, a shallow cardboard box filled with treats utterly overshadowed by my appearance in a Pocahontas style beige fringed tunic with red embroidered trim, black leggings, and a feather in my hair. I bit back a grin, but it was really hard.

My daughter flashed daggers at me with those dark brown eyes. If looks could have killed, I'd be writing this from the great beyond. But at the same time, despite her fourteen year old peer-reviewed fury, I could see the corners of her mouth start to turn up in a smile in spite of herself, at the sheer perversity of my guest appearance. I delivered the goods and quickly exited stage left, fighting back a laugh.

Eight years later we were chatting on the phone as I drove to drop off yet another batch of tennis ball cupcakes for her younger brother's meet the next day. I was going to have to miss this contest too, and so once again the cupcakes were going to stand in for me, making me feel like I was still sharing a part of the adventure. We shared a good laugh about the day I showed up looking like Pocahontas at her eighth grade classroom. At the age of twenty-two, you develop a lot more perspective and forgiveness for antics like that.

I bemoaned the fact that with her in college, I didn't have the opportunity to bring festive or seasonal or downright ridiculous treat to her classes anymore. "Mom, you can bring cupcakes to my class any time!" she assured me. "We'll eat 'em!" I could resist pushing the envelope. If it was around Halloween, could I wear the Pocahontas costume again? There was just an instant of hestitation, then..."okay!" I could just imagine her eyes rolling across the miles between us. Maturity comes in many forms, and learning to humor a mother during a fleeting moment of insanity is a remarkable milestone for a daughter of any age.

I never did drive eighty miles to a college classroom after that to bring a sugary treat to a bunch of accomplished and sophisticated college students. Life just got a little too busy, it seems, though in hindsight I wish I'd grabbed the opportunity. But I still remember laughing at the memory with her, and the beautiful thread of give-and-take the offer and acceptance held, binding us tightly and preciously with love and affection despite the distance.

They were just cupcakes. And then some.

Saturday, June 4, 2016


My first children's chapter book, "Finnigan the Circus Cat," is now out there in the world on Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions. The story--and this is just the first of several to come--revolves around a tiny rescue kitten who finds a home in a small town circus museum, and the two mice that befriend him and become his closest companions. I was inspired to write it by the convergence of three things--my son and his wife brought home the REAL Finnigan as a tiny rescue kitten; my daughter became a circus aerialist; and I became a Grandma! 

Here's the description from the back of the book, which is already picking up some very nice reviews.  And for more on the story of just how I came around to drawing the pictures inside the book, here's the post I wrote for Growing Bolder about this very new chapter in my life

"Maximillian and Leroy are two circus mice cousins who think they’ve got it made in the shade at the old, shuttered Farnsworth Circus Museum. There are no dogs around, there’s a safe path to the full pantry in the old house, and the barn is full of dry hay and old circus wagons to hang out in.

But when a new generation of Farnsworths move in, things start to shake up. And when eight-year-old Lucy Farnsworth brings home a tiny rescue kitten and hides him in the barn because her dad is allergic to cats, Max and Leroy need to think fast if they’re going to be able to stay.

With the help of Boomer—the strangely silent family dog—Max and Leroy take the new kitten under their wing and show him the ins and outs of living at the museum, and flying “under the radar.” Along the way, they all come to realize that the family that you make can be just as important as the one you came from. And when Leroy finds himself in deadly peril, it is Finnigan the Circus Cat who saves the day!

Inspired by a “real life” rescue kitten and illustrated by the author, this book will delight, in the traditional call of the circus ringmaster, “Ladies, Gentlemen, and Children of All Ages!”"

*** Request a PDF REVIEW COPY to look over for your classroom or library!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Birch magic

It can be really hard for me to pick a favorite tree most of the year. I cherish my walks in the nearby forests, even though these days I no longer have the woods at my front door.

There are the maples, of course, especially in the fall, all gaudy and showy and blazing like torches with golds and crimsons and flaming orange as seasons change and small animals make winter preparations.
There are the oaks, gnarled and magnificent when standing alone in a field, tall and steadfast side by side in the forest, surrounded by fallen acorns and a multitude of deer footprints in the grass and dirt. I’ve come late to the realization of just how many varieties there are, some with leaves as dark shiny green as vinyl and with points sharp like holly, others with leathery red leaves, yet others with green lobes like spatulate fingers on an ogre’s hand.
And how could I not favor weeping willows, with long tendrils of slender leaves breaking the surface of a nearby pond, graceful curtains of green taking me back to my childhood walks at Chicago’s Humboldt Park lagoon and gardens with my father.
But then it turns to winter, and as I walk along snowy paths in leafless woods, it is the birch trees that take the title.

In the grey, dismal landscape, when all but the evergreens have lost their color, they stand out, tall and stark and white against the diminished forest. In spring and summer and fall, their grace is obscured by the riot of leaves and branches and flowers that make up the tapestry of the woods.
But in winter, they stand apart, and their quirky beauty is on full display.
This morning, with a winter storm bearing down later in the day, I took to the woods for a little fresh air and a change of scenery from the living room and my computer desk.
The path through the fields and into the woods was a mess of slush and ice, and I moved carefully at the pace of a toddler despite my lug-soled boots. The sky was overcast, and the forests were a drab combination of greys and browns above the watery snow. As I picked my way from one foothold to another, I wondered whether the possible inspiration or rejuvenation from such a dispiriting scene was even worth the time and effort I had spent layering up against the cold.
And then the birches made their appearance, some singly, others in groups. Sentinels of winter like tall white candles against the dark. I found myself wading into stands of broken branches and thorn bushes to look more closely at the shredded bark on their trunks.

Some looked almost feathered, like the fringe on an expensive silk scarf.
Another tree sported curls that looked like leftover ribbon from New Years Eve party favors.

And yet another showed patches of freshly peeled bark to the weather, exposing surfaces as smooth and unblemished as a new baby’s cheek. I touched its cold, smooth surface with my bare fingers, absolutely spellbound.

Eventually tiring of the precarious balancing act that simply walking around on the watery snow and ice entailed, I turned away from the woods and went slip-sliding my way back to the car and man-made warmth. As I left the trees behind, the wind picked up around me and the thought of getting indoors and warm got better and better.

But as I picked my way over puddles and slush, my creative neurons were firing again, and images and descriptions of nature were flooding my imagination. The magic of those birch trees still lingers.