Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The Last "Intake Monday"

This essay about retiring first appeared on my "Growing Bolder" blog last August. But it just won FIRST PLACE in its blogging category in the Illinois Woman's Press Association's annual communications contest!  

After eighteen years of spending all of my “working” Mondays in the intake branch of Wisconsin’s criminal court system, I had my last pedal-to-the-metal “intake Monday” yesterday. Retirement, complete with punch and cake and goodbye hugs, is just hours away. I would be lying if I didn’t say I felt quite…unmoored. It has been quite the amazing journey. Rather than having an "empty nest" at my own home, I suddenly feel like I am leaving a sheltering nest of my own. What a cosmic turnaround!

To mark the occasion, I wore one of my stalwart pairs of stiletto heels, pumps with a grey and white faux snakeskin pattern and an equally fake illusion of having more expensive “stacked” heels. After ten years, the shoes had become a little wobbly, and one of them occasionally squeaked as I walked. But they were like old friends, and a familiar sight in court.

The other thing I made sure to wear was the ornate carved silver bracelet that my godmother had given me at my law school graduation. She envisioned it as my “signature” piece of jewelry, something that would catch the light as I made theatrical hand gestures in court. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that my wrists and hands were so tiny that if I made such a flourish, the bracelet would likely fly off my arm and clock someone on the side of the head. But for the last day, I wore it to honor her. She had been a trailblazing, world-traveling high school teacher, and had served as the inspiration for many, including myself.

This becoming-a-lawyer thing was my second career…or my third, if you count the “soccer mom” years where I multi-tasked by writing magazine and newspaper articles while my youngest children were napping.

I was forty when I started law school as a part-time student, with four kids ranging from kindergarten to high school under the familial roof, and a life-long, bone-deep fear of public speaking. Only a year before I had spent several months in a body cast, the result of a horseback riding accident that left me with a broken back and a wake-up call to start heeding my “inner voice.”

Three and a half years later, I was getting sworn in as a newly minted attorney and soon found my dream job as a state prosecutor, working part-time handling everything from speeding tickets to appeals before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. I worked in an incredibly beautiful Art Deco courthouse on the shore of Lake Michigan, and always felt like I was working on the side of the angels, blessed to be charged with a job whose professional ethics literally required us to seek justice rather than just to win at any cost. Talk about being part of a real-life “Justice League”!

As the part-time prosecutor, I had few cases of my own that I followed from start to finish. Rather, I provided backup for the other full-time prosecutors, who were called to be in two places at once on a regular basis. Mondays in particular were top-heavy with cases as the attorney “on intake” spent the morning reviewing police reports and dictating criminal complaints for people who had committed felonies over the preceding weekend, and I furiously worked to get up to speed on a combination of pending cases and new “initial appearances” for folks who had been given misdemeanor citations and told to come back to face the music and their formal charges several weeks later. I describe it as “catch and release.”

And over time, I overcame the challenges of public speaking…and picked up the challenge of mastering life in high heels. I was a late bloomer when it came to this, way past the age of 40 when in a moment of weakness and curiosity and urged on by my younger daughter, I bought a pair of sling-back faux alligator brown stilettos. And then bright pink stilettos. And then plaid stilettos with little bows.  And then…you get the picture. I figure that after tomorrow, unless I’m giving a speech somewhere, I’ll be in flats for the rest of my life. No more the echoing snap of spike heels on a polished stone floor, announcing that trouble is just around the corner…and closing fast.

But that was just a bonus. More than the challenging and personally rewarding work, and the steadfast and wonderful people I worked with and the friendships that bloomed, and the closeness to the Lake Michigan shoreline that drew me to the water on so many lunch hours…the past eighteen years have also provided a solid anchor during tremendous personal storms.

My tenure at the job has seen me through the end of my marriage; the divorce; several serious health crises involving my kids; my own health setbacks; endless 240 miles loops of crisis management and medical response involving relatives in my home town of Chicago; the decline and deaths of my father and godmother; the wrenching move from my “empty nest” home of 32 years in the country to a place in the city close to my job; the whole “empty nest” thing at all; the passing of several beloved pets including the two horses I had loved and cared for since I was a teenager; and just this year the typhoon of chaos revolving around my 94 year old mother suffering a broken hip. Whether up or down, feeling depressed, exhausted, elated, triumphant, happy or some combination of all, I could count on the fact that every single Monday I had a seat in a courtroom and a job to do, frequently starting with the words “The State appears by…” It provided me with a routine, and a structure, and a set of familiar duties, and a specific place in the universe. And now, in less than a day, I will be casting off from this solid, secure dock and setting sail on unknown seas to a new stage of life and adventure.

It feels more than a little scary!

Perhaps I shouldn’t be quite as dramatic as all that. I still have the same children, the same friends, the same hobbies, the same inquisitive nature. Perhaps instead of looking back at the past eighteen years as a prosecutor with such a sense of wistfulness, I ought to look back at a few years before that, when I threw myself off the familiar path of journalism and with a “carpe diem” sense of destiny, took the plunge into law school.

Perhaps. All I know is, when I was starting to take things down from my office bulletin board this week, I not only uncovered photos of some treasured moments, I also found a pin that a friend had given me when I graduated from law school nearly twenty years earlier. I laughed when I studied it closely before packing it to bring home.  Right now, I can’t think of a better message to begin this new journey with!

Monday, December 31, 2018

Christmas Cookie Magic

I haven’t been in the most effusive of holiday sentiments over the past several Christmases, ever since I sold my empty nest with the two living rooms and the five bedrooms and the fireplace and downsized to a space that’s got room for two people in the kitchen and four in the living room…if they’re all standing up.

I haven’t been in Ebeneezer Scrooge territory…quite. But sharing this small space with the large dog and two cats has made for an easy excuse to not put up any traditional Christmas decorations for the past three years.

This was quite a departure from the former life, I’ll have you know, which featured colorful needlepointed stockings hung by the chimney with care and stuffed with chocolate and little gifts, and a nine foot “real” fir tree festooned with glass ornaments and colorful lights and strands of wooden “cranberries” and a plethora of small critters such as birds and raccoons. I don’t know if I could locate those Christmas stockings in a hurry now. I’m pretty sure they’re SOMEWHERE down in the basement, along with all the garland and the ribbons and the big plastic Santa that lights up and the Christmas ornaments I actually embroidered once in an earlier life oh, about a quarter century ago.

No, going into Christmas this year felt pretty much like going into the season every Christmas since I moved. Low key, with a touch of humbug.

And yet…I still was in the chute to bake Christmas cookies. Not because I had anyone else in the house to eat them with (although Lucky, the dog, would need not a second’s thought to wolfing them down if they fell to the floor). But because I knew I would be seeing two of my four grown-up children and the grandkids over the holiday, and wanted to share that link to a more festive, less complicated past. And also, even more, because the other two kids were living half a country away, and I obstinately wanted to give them that taste of the past as well, courtesy of the U.S. Postal Service.

And so a week before my “got to get it in the mail today” deadline, I pulled out my little mixer and my favorite recipes (usually undisturbed since I literally almost never cook anymore), and began to conjure up the Spirit of Christmas Past.

I began with the easiest recipe, for toffee bars, which is the batch that just needs one bowl, one baking pan and no cookie sheets, and got that out of the way. One batch down, two to go I thought as I snuck toffee bar after toffee bar out of the pan and scarfed down the rich, chocolate, buttery flavor. (I would eventually have to make a second “replacement” pan…)

A couple of days later, the traditional butterballs were on the list. Midway up the line in complexity and the capacity to fill the kitchen counter with powdered sugar, I efficiently lined them up on baking parchment, watched them through the oven window until the tops began to crack, and then quickly dredged them one by one through a bowl of sifted powdered sugar before they stopped steaming.

And then, finally, the cut-out butter cookies beckoned. The ones with the cookie cutters. And the icing. And the rolling pin. And the sprinkles and candies. The ones that my children decorated like little bloody Christmas Axes during the first Christmas after the divorce.

Now, a word about baking in my life, and baking cookies in particular. It has been something of a “through line” in my life since childhood, harkening back to when I was a little girl and would bake cakes with my Aunt Patsy. Through ups and downs, over years and traumas and stress, the action of pushing ingredients around in a bowl with a hand mixer to create sweet tasting magic has been a touchstone for me. (Read my essay “Cookie Therapy,” it explains A LOT!!)

Baking with my children over the years—making cakes, pies, chocolate chip cookies by the millions, Christmas cookies with sprinkles and sugar—always brought me a quiet sort of rapturous joy. And for them, self-expression in myriad ways. I recall one cookie making adventure that ended in a “flour fight” as the kitchen rang with their laughter. Then, of course, there is the tale of the iconic “Christmas Axe” cookies, which took on a creative life of its own, as the kitchen rang afterward with MY laughter.

And so into the home stretch I trod bravely, following familiar steps of creaming the butter and the sugar, adding the vanilla and almond extract, beating in the egg and then the flour to create a familiar magic. And what magic it WAS. Because as I flitted between counter and refrigerator and table and recipe box, I realized that I was SINGING, and I was DANCING. In my kitchen. All alone but for the dog who stared up at me from his comfy pad beneath the table as if I’d lost my mind but he still loved me.

Granted, I wasn’t singing to a Christmas carol but to the peppy beat of “Hard Candy” by Counting Crows, but still. The nearest thing to it was the scene in “Love, Actually” where Hugh Grant, playing the new British Prime Minister, finds himself suddenly boogeying through No. 10 Downing Street to the strains of the Pointer Sisters. It was nuts. It was thoroughly unexpected. It was GREAT!!

Eventually I quit dancing long enough to roll out the cookie dough and fashion some traditional snowman and gingerbread man shaped cookies and a few T-Rex and turkey cut-outs as well. As I boxed them up and got them ready to mail, I felt like I was putting a piece of my heart in there along with all the sugar and a pair of chocolate Santas.

The mixer and bowls and recipe box and cookie sheets have all been put away by now, but I still marvel at whatever alchemy caused such a spark of exuberance and joy in my heart on that day. I think it was pretty much the cookies, and the synapses they fired linking back to joys of motherhood and Christmas past.

I’m still smiling about it. I’m already thinking that maybe, just maybe, next December I may spring for a very small Christmas tree and break out a few of the old ornaments. And of course, I’ve now got a year to find that one particular cookie cutter that makes Christmas Axes.

Cookie Therapy

I actually wrote this essay nearly ten years ago, and it's included in a couple of my books. The teenager in the story has become "all grown up" and life, as it always does, has brought many changes! But this has always been one of my favorites, and so I'm sharing it here again. Go make some cookies!

From a distance, I didn’t have much to complain about.  I was stretched out on one end of a comfy recliner sofa, cat curled up behind me on the bay window sill, new car in the garage, tummy full from dinner, good job, good friends, solid roof over my head, you know the drill.  And then, despite the doors and windows and tight screens…the past crept in.  

My youngest son sat on the far edge of the recliner, the golden glow of the floor lamp falling on him as he read.  The television was on, and he was surrounded by books and folders, pens and papers.  He nestled in, intently digging in to the first semester of his junior year.  The biggest change for him this year is that now he’s driving himself to school.

They say—whoever “they” are—that your past often comes back to haunt you when your children turn the same age that you were when life sideswiped you and left you careening down a different path than the one you knew the week before.

This was my “caboose” baby, the last of the lot, sitting here studying, blissfully unaware at the age of sixteen of his mother’s sudden and melancholy trip down memory lane.  When his siblings were older and hit that milestone, I was too busy to notice.  One, then another, then another turned sixteen, and I kept the plates spinning in the air with little time for reflection.  Soccer games, tennis meets, football helmets, potluck dinners, practices, homework, ear infections, summer camps, tests, prom dress shopping, family vacations at the shore.  Introspection…who had the time?

I did now. 

Whatever had passed for “normal” as I was growing up in Chicago—traffic noise, Catholic school uniforms in various plaids, city bus schedules, homework, science fairs, French club, knowing that  the bed you went to sleep in would still be there a month later—went out the window when I was sixteen.  I came home from a six-week study trip to Europe with my high school history teacher and a busload of classmates between sophomore and junior year to find that my parents had gone off the reservation and moved to an abandoned farm in northern Wisconsin,  property they had bought a few years earlier “as an investment.”   I don’t remember moving, I don’t remember leaving the city, I don’t remember arriving at the farm.  But somehow, I was just there.

The nearest town was two miles away, with a population of 146.  I remember a feed mill, a tiny post office, a softball field, a church.  It probably had a bar or two, but we didn’t mingle much.  The red brick house was missing a front porch and had no indoor plumbing except for a kitchen sink.  The place hadn’t been lived in for years, and it appeared that the window on the north side of the kitchen had once served as a garbage chute into the yard.  They bought two calves and a pony before we built fences.  We spent a lot of time chasing this trio back to the barn. 

They ordered a couple of dozen chicks from the feed mill, and we raised a flock of  Leghorn hens and a pair of roosters.  In summer, two of the hens—never say these birds weren’t smart—casually loitered like delinquents near the kitchen door and dashed in when it opened to steal food from the dog’s dish.  Occasionally they made it as far as the butter dish on the kitchen table before they were scooped up and unceremoniously tossed back outside, fluffing their feathers in indignation.  When the weather turned colder, the chickens moved from the coop into the barn with the cow and the horses.  When it got really cold and the points of their red combs started to turn black with frostbite, the chickens moved into the basement. 

With a hundred untilled acres at our disposal and a father who grew up in a small farming village, we cut hay with a scythe and turned it over with a pitchfork.  I put a flat tire on the three-quarter ton pickup when I inartfully tried to back it up the ramp to the top of the barn and steered a little too close to the edge.  The wheel rim cut into the soft rubber, and the tire went flat.  We finally started buying hay in bales. 

When the water pipes froze in the barn in winter, watering the animals started with filling five gallon pails of water in the basement of the house, then navigating the slippery, snow-covered slope downward from the house, trying not to slosh.  The menagerie grew in fits and starts—geese, ducks, a pig, a horse, a Guernsey cow named “Queenie.”  She had long, curvy horns that scared me to death.  We bought a calf at an auction and brought her home in the back seat of the 1973 yellow Matador.  We called her “Daisy.”  She didn’t live all that long.  I learned to milk the cow by hand the day she arrived, bucket between my knees.  We strained the milk through cheesecloth right into glass grape juice bottles and then into the fridge. 

I managed to finish another year of high school through all the chaos, and then graduated at the end of my junior year.  Stayed on the farm for another year, working occasionally, shoveling mountains of manure, and baking a lot.  Pound cakes, layer cakes, white bread, wheat bread, chocolate chip cookies, cinnamon loaves with creamy white frosting.  I kneaded the yeast dough to satiny, elastic balls on the wooden kitchen table, the ebb and flow of the rhythm soothing in the midst of all other hardships.  I tried my hand at making raised donuts, frying them in hot goose grease (yes, those geese) and then rolling them in sugar.   They didn’t taste bad.

Time passed.  I eventually made my way to college, got a degree, got married, started a family.  And kept on baking.  I’m from that generation that remembers all those Poppin’ Fresh Pillsbury Dough Boy commercials and can still sing the jingle, “Nothin’ says lovin’ like something from the oven, and Pillsbury says it best!”  And I still thoroughly believe that a little home bakery can make just about anything better. 

As the kids grew, I put this mantra into practice often.  Left with an hour before the school bus dropped them off, I would survey the clutter and weigh my options.  I could straighten up the living room before they walked in, sure that any superficial neatness would begin to naturally unravel as soon as the front door opened, or I could reach for the chocolate chips.  It was a no brainer.  Nothing could compare to the sound of the front door opening, a footfall or two and the “thunk” of a school bag hitting the floor, then a tiny pause followed by the rapturous exclamation, “Oooooooh, you made COOKIES!!

Back in the present, after a few days of brooding, I knew it was definitely cookie time.  I got out the hand mixer, the chocolate chips, the butter, the vanilla, the eggs.  Someone gave me an expensive, heavy KitchenAid Mixmaster once, a standing appliance that could perfectly blend all the ingredients for me while I saved time elsewhere in the kitchen.  I used it twice, then moved it permanently to the basement.  I find a primitive, tactile joy in pushing the ingredients around in the bowl, watching the raw materials blend and swirl and transform in stages into the finished product, texture and color changing as each egg or square of melted chocolate or cup of sugar is factored in and combined into the whole.  Not unlike building a sand castle, or driving a bulldozer on a construction site, measuring your progress by the way the mound of dirt you’re pushing around changes shape.  If you could operate it by remote control, well, where’s the fun in that?

I mixed, I scraped, I cheated and ate the dough raw from the bowl.  I dropped spoonfuls of chocolate-chip-laden dough on cookie sheets and watched them zealously as they baked, whisking them out of the oven precisely when their edges turned light brown and their crowns started to look slightly crisp.  My son cruised through the kitchen, and began to graze while they were still warm.   I divided up the rest into plastic storage containers—some for us, the rest for the older two I was planning to see the next day. 

I picked up the college kids, took them out to lunch, visited, caught up on school and life, went shopping.  Brought out the home-baked offerings, love sealed in a square  Ziploc container.  Again, that familiar moment of recognition, that happy “Oooooooh, you made COOKIES!!

I feel better already.

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...