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. 

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Old Washington County Courthouse

It appears to have taken me moving out of West Bend to finally get in the door of the Old Washington County Courthouse during daylight, with a camera, to just have some fun.
The old courthouse--how a historical museum, along with the former jail next door--is a stunner. Its creamy brick walls glow a soft yellow in the sunlight, set off by red roof tiles and white gingerbread trim.
Inside, the first floor is devoted to rooms filled with historical collections--displays devoted to Native American life, European immigration, food production, and the military service of local residents, among them. In the "Heroes Remembered" room about the military, one item on display is a ladies' blouse made from camouflage parachute silk. It's a long and interesting story that accompanies it, and author Ernest Hemingway even has a part! 

The second floor also houses some smaller rooms with various and sometimes changeable exhibits, but the centerpiece of the old courthouse is the single courtroom that was used for "circuit court" twice a year (in spring and fall) from 1890 when it was built until 1962 when a newer, "modern" (and much, much homelier) courthouse was built in West Bend. The old courtroom--dating back to when judges seemed to uniformly be old white guys with deep scowls and muttonchop sideburns--features 24-foot ceilings, stained glass windows, and a judicial bench that's quite imposing.

So enjoy! And find out more at the Washington County Historical Society.


Friday, August 14, 2015

A writer "retreats"

The writer in me was craving some peace and quiet, some long-term sitting time, some mental room in which to grow and nurture a thought plucked from thin air.
The rest of my daily life was having absolutely none of that idea!  The last few years have gone by with the speed and fury of a cyclone, carved up by job, commute, new grandbaby, elderly relatives in decline, funerals, household chores, writers’ conferences, wrestling with nature rather than ceding the field of battle over my ten little flower beds, and…of late…the addition of two “spare” cats to the household while their owners (my children) went temporarily overseas.
It seemed that I could hold no train of thought for longer than five minutes, and I was wilting from the lack. A dear friend of mine who I had first met at an idyllic writers’ retreat led by the late poet Norbert Blei was headed back to the idyll earlier this summer for a glorious full week away from reality.
I knew full well the value of that environment, and that recharging of the soul. I had experienced it for myself three times in the past decade, driving north along the western shore of Lake Michigan to “The Clearing” in Door County, a collection of log cabins and larger gathering places and campfire pits set on the shore of Green Bay, augmented by three hearty meals a day with the plates whisked away by the staff so that “the writers” could get back to work…or not. Another year, when my checking account permitted but my work schedule forbade my going up to The Clearing  I rented a tiny cottage on the lake and repaired there for a week of replenishing solitude. I hiked shaded trails, lived mostly like a hermit, and wrote…and napped…a lot.
Oh, this year as my friend prepared to launch into her writer’s Eden, I was so jealous! But a combination of scheduling problems and finances conspired to keep me from going with this time. A week away from home at a place like The Clearing is never cheap. Add to it the post-divorce costs associated with parking the dog in a kennel for a week and paying someone to drive over to feed the cats and make them feel validated, and the idea of a week-long getaway rapidly rose to the level of “pipe dream.”
Still…I knew I needed to recharge. Badly. And so I improvised.
I co-opted my youngest son and his wife, newly returned from a semester abroad “across the pond” in Ireland, to move in to the house while I’d be gone and play zookeepers to Lucky the dog and the four felines who had kept me in conversation, kitty litter and carpet shampoo for a number of months. One of the cats was theirs, and while I had grown incredibly fond of little Finnigan over the course of seven months, there was payback to be reaped. Knowing that the cats would not be “home alone” and full of mischief was a HUGE weight off my shoulders.
Then I got on line and started looking for a cheap motel room for an entire TWO DAYS that my other commitments didn’t cut into.  And lo and behold, I found a lovely place just two miles from Kohler Andrae state park, site of what I consider the loveliest beach in the state of Wisconsin. SOLD!! I booked the room and started to pack.
My needs, when you got right down to it, were very simple: a bed and a bathroom, breakfast, free WiFi, and above all, peace and quiet. Armed with my laptop computer, a picnic basket full of “gluten free” snacks and fruits, and several cans of Diet Coke, I set out to recharge my batteries.
It didn’t take long. I could feel both life and creativity flooding into me before I even stepped on to the sandy path leading from the parking lot to the beach. I felt my state of eternal vigilance and rapid responsiveness—dog, cats, elderly mother, kids, work, laundry, boyfriend, and the occasional raccoon in the garage—relax, and new trains of thought start to grow and evolve. I felt the daily realities and timetables and litter box maintenance fly right out of my head on the breeze, to be replaced by whimsy, and mischievousness, and, dare I say it, imagination.
Leaving the motel for the first time to head toward the beach, I drove past the ruins of an older motel, in full swing of being reclaimed by nature. It gave off the disturbing feel of the Bates Motel…about twenty years after abandonment when Norman Bates got locked up at the end of “Psycho.” It was desolate…and atmospheric…and I stopped to snap a lot of photos. A place that creepy has just got to find a spot in a story some day!
An early morning trip to the shore revealed that I was indeed the first person there, and I walked into sand shrouded in mist rising from the rains of the night before. The sand between the grass in the dunes was still pockmarked by raindrops, and I set my little blanket a few hundred feet from a gathering of seagulls at the water’s edge. While I am a rabid fan of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s book “Gift From the Sea,” I admit I broke her cardinal rule that the shore is no place to work, but a place to replenish. And so I wrote.
I was writing “old school,” of course. I had left my iPhone in the car’s glove compartment, and the laptop back at the motel room. I was equipped with those most antiquated forms of writing accoutrements—a pen and a pad of paper.  But sitting there, surrounded by wind and waves and footprints in the sand, the thoughts and images just kept coming as though Pandora’s box had been opened. And every piece of dialogue that I jotted down, every shred of character development or backstory that emerged, invariably led to more. It would have been criminal NOT to write it all down! Nefariousness, clues, atmospherics, troubled families, emotional scars, observations of modern society—they all would have flared and then disappeared on the wind like leaves in autumn, gone for good if not pinned to the paper.
There were breaks in my action, of course. I can’t sit by the shore and not be lulled by the sight of rolling whitecaps. Or stretch out full-length and watch clouds pass by…or even just close my eyes and listen to the sounds of the wind and water. This is truly my favorite beach, reminiscent in size and endless, unbroken horizon of the shore at the edge of the ocean. While you may not spy any dolphins playing in the surf at daybreak, I personally find that the dearth of sharks and jellyfish is more than a fair trade-off.
And so it went. A trip to the beach followed by the trek back to the motel to read and research and type, after a quick shower to remove sand and sunblock. Write, rinse and repeat.
I will drive back toward reality and routine in a few hours, but not before I return to the beach one more time with pen and paper in hand. As I chatted the day before with the motel manager, he offered up the location of yet another “inspirational” place for a writer to visit, known to the locals yet off the beaten path. If I had another day or two to spare, I’m sure I’d find my way there, drawn by the promise of broken foundations and ruined buildings, grown-over gardens, and cliffs at the shore.  I’m keeping the exact location of that one to myself.

Because I just know there has to be a “next time.”