11 November

That wind came barreling down from the Northwest, over the hill into Grand Marais, and out to Lake Superior. At the uphill edge of town, a gust takes your breath. You walk three steps in place against it and turn away, staggering, to blink at the place where steel gray water meets paler sky. Beyond the horizon that wind piles water into mountains and overwhelms the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Grand Marais is a town with its face to a vast drinkable sea, cold enough to kill you almost any day of the year. The ghosts of colossal sturgeon claim its depths and wait, wait for the next of us to fall into torpor on the metallic surface and join them.

It’s a town with its back to a dark forest, too quiet to hide in.

In the worst of winter, cold steals into a cabin, snapping minds like twigs. A rifle repeats 5 times, and the wife, the kids, the head of household, lose their heat in dark pools, while outside, dogs whimper on heavy chains, waiting to be fed.

Should you survive, you’ll come out from under winter’s weight just in time for the descent of biting flies.

Why would anyone want to live here?

Perhaps because in the violent indifference of the place you also find beauty, and you sense the holy necessity of everything, down to the wriggling white grub, the bacteria digesting the fir needle, the chickadee’s insistent cheerfulness, the half-blind hulk of moose, even the mosquito’s whine.

And you want to know it, every part. You want to disappear into the heart of it.

This wanting can go several ways. It can die into hardness, the lack of gratitude for your own existence, and the need to battle against the suchness of the place. It can turn you into an expert on mushrooms. It can sing in your DNA, so that when you’re striding down an unpaved road, you’re blasted with an inkling of who you are. It can call you out, over and over, to the edge in the middle of hypothermia, where you let go, let everything go.

Like the inconsolable dawn, leaking into the coldest hour of night, a knowing seeps into your dark horizon. You are seen, embraced, loved. Every cell. Every clumsy thought. The place knows you.

It’s then that you realize: every day of your life will be spent in prayer. Every crunching footstep. Every stone tossed into the breathing water. Every sigh turning to frost in your hair.

For Barb L.

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All Hallow’s Eve

Today’s weather prediction proved spot on. Air temperature barely crested freezing. The shrugging mountains pulled down clouds like knitted caps, although for warmth or anonymity I couldn’t say. Their obscure motive kept all moisture hesitating, ultimately staying put aloft. The flat corner lot maintained a muted witness.

Today marks eight full years living on the northwest quadrant of this intersection. The house was built a year before I was born, a time of stubborn cheerfulness in the face of A-bombs and communists, and the new expression of patriotism, which was prosperity. In sixty-five years, it has shifted, following the subtle moves of the powerful soil on which it stands. I’ve shifted, too.

The quiet of living alone inside the house no longer startles. No longer embarrassing, the ubiquity of dandelions are cherished for their reliable and well-timed nourishment to bees of every stripe. I no longer resent the intrepid soil, respecting instead its awesome ability to expand and contract, accepting with gratitude all it allows to grow.

I’ve lived here long enough to hear the soil’s memories. The successful rooted penetration of prairie grasses holding everything in place through cloudbursts and rough spring wind. The thunder of bison hooves, their snorts, bellows, and rolling. The burrowing of prairie dogs, ferrets, owls, and snakes. The scamper of rabbits and pronghorns. The dancing songs of meadowlarks. Then, the bellicose rumbling of earthmoving machines.

I’ve learned to cook for one and always have enough for company. And friends have come. They’ve walked over from down the block. They’ve journeyed here from the past, trekked here from Wisconsin and Iowa and Minnesota, from Adliswil and Manchester and Wakkerstroom.

Now, the day before All Hallow’s Eve, I also remember the souls who visited and have made even longer journeys home. Having known them here and knowing they will never be here, again, adds to the sacredness of this experience, of having been changed by a place even as I have endeavored to make this place my own.

8years

Who?

autumn joy

Herbstfreud. Sedum “Autumn Joy”

Cloudy equals cool, and I had energy.

Out I went. Took up the hose and showered the containers and drier spots on the flat corner lot. While I drenched the grapevine, a woman with shoulder-length grey hair strolled by. She stopped and chatted over the chain-link fence about the weather. How strangely cool it is, how quickly it can change in Colorado. Although, in her tidy black pants and pastel striped shirt, she wasn’t exactly familiar, it’s the sort of exchange I’m used to in a neighborhood of wide sidewalks and pedestrians. With a look of purpose and a contented smile, she strolled on.

By the time I made it down to the Sambucus, she was striding up the other side of the street. “Must be visiting one of the neighbors,” I thought as she stopped some 15 feet before the intersection and crossed toward me, again. She stepped up the curb with a little difficulty and seemed to get tangled as she walked through the tansy, coneflowers, and asters. Fearing she might stumble, I asked her if she needed a hand. “No,” she said, “if I can just make it through these weeds.”

Again, not so unusual. Natural equates wild equates weeds for lots of folks. Trying to sound firm and gentle, I said, “Those aren’t weeds. I actually work pretty hard to take care of that garden.” She stepped out onto the safety of the sidewalk. “Oh,” she said looking a little guilty. She regained her stride in her original direction.

As I finished up, she walked up the other side of the street, this time crossing the intersection. I thought, “Good for her, getting in such a nice walk.”

In I went, poked down something from the fridge for supper, and turned on the computer. Just as I opened an email, there was a knock at the door.

There she stood. Lost. Really lost.

“I was on my way home from work,” she said, “and my car stopped working. Then, I think it was my nephew who came and got it. Now, I don’t know where my car is.”

“Oh!” I said. “Would you like to come in?”

“I don’t want to bother you,” she said.

“Not at all,” I said. “Please, come in.”

“Thank you!”

“Here, sit wherever you’d like.” She perched on the love seat, her feet in tiny white walking shoes, snuggled next to each other. “Are you thirsty? May I get you a glass of water?”

She insisted she was fine.

I recapped her dilemma. “So, your car stopped working on your way home from work and your nephew came for it…”

“Or maybe it was my Dad…”

I notice she is empty-handed. “Someone you knew took your car with your purse and keys, and now you don’t know where it is.”

Though she looks not a day younger than 65, she nods like a school girl.

“Do you know where you are?”

“I think I’m somewhere between work and home.”

“Oh! Where do you live?”

She lights up. “Somewhere near downtown.”

“Do you know your address?”

“I think it’s 515.” Her air is at once satisfied and evasive. Five years ago, I had conversations like this with my dad. His dodging and deceits infuriated and frightened me. Suddenly, in the middle of my gut, I understood them more generously.

“Oh! Nice! Your house number is 515. And what street do you live on?”

“I. I don’t know.”

“Oh, I see!” I’m feeling tender and charmed. “Is there someone who might know where you live?”

She said her sister would know. But, if we called her, it would take a long time for her sister to get here. She tells me the name of the town where her sister lives. Had I heard of it? No, but if you tell me your sister’s name, maybe we can find her.

Over the next little while, I learn her name, her sister’s and brother-in-law’s names, her dad’s name. I try to locate them all via the internet on my phone. I find a number for her sister. It rings and rings. Every other line of inquiry leads us in circles. Her dad should be home from work by now, she’s certain. He always comes and gets her. He works at the hardware store. Did I know which one?

She worries, over and over, that she’s interrupting my supper. Are you hungry, I ask? Oh, no. My mom always has bowls of snacks set out for us when I get home from school.

I try her sister’s number again.

“What do we do now?” she asks.

“I know. How about if I call the police and see if anyone is looking for you?”

“OK! Maybe they’ll know where my dad is.”

“Or your car!”

“Right!”

So, I dial 911. All the while I describe her to the operator, she looks at those tiny white shoes, her hands folded in her lap. “Is she cooperative?” they ask. “Call, again, immediately, if she leaves.”

My new friend is going nowhere, if I have anything to say about it.

“What do we do now?” she asks.

“We’re going to wait for someone to come and take you home.”

“I don’t want to interrupt your supper.”

“Oh!” I laugh. “I’ve already eaten. Are you sure you’re not hungry?”

“No, no. I’m fine. My mom always has bowls of things out for me when I get home from school. I like your house. This is a nice house.”

“Thank you! How do you feel?”

“Oh, you know, it’s a little hard when you can’t remember things.”

“Ah. You’re a little anxious?”

“No, no, no. I’m comfortable here. This is a nice house.”

“I’m so glad.”

“But I’m taking up all your time. I should go.”

“Not at all! I’m enjoying your company.”

We talk in loops and tendrils until a young officer comes to the door. “And your name is?”

“Chris.”

“Chris, this is my friend, Karen. Karen, this is Chris. He’s come to give you a ride home.”

“Do you know where I live?” Her soft voice is full of wonder and relief. She stands as he tells her the address.

The evening is just fading as they walk out the gate.

“Thank you for coming!”

Absorbed in her conversation with Chris, she doesn’t turn.

I wave, anyway.

No High Ground

There is no high ground on the flat corner lot.

That is, unless you count the moral high ground to which I sometimes flee.

For a long while, now, there have been all kinds of people, all along the political spectrum and in every walk of life, feeling threatened, dismissed, put-out. Me included. It’s easy to tell: our fear turns to outrage, and our outrage into  epithets and diatribes.

This election cycle, as the rants  reach a fevered pitch, I’m so tempted to sharpen my tongue. Oh, to cleverly spout off and take refuge in my superior outrage! Ah-ha! To brandish my rapier wit and slash the buttons off some neatly jacketed stupidity. The problem is, it’s rarely as satisfying as I think it will be. After silently composing my repartee, I’m wound up and exhausted. Ultimately, I only prove to myself, that I’m a wanna-be intellectual bully. Yuck.

I needed to calm my nerves. So, for a week, I took a retreat of a different nature. I stayed away from news feeds.

As the mental replays of all the arguments, opinions, and speculations quieted, I gained a tiny bit of perspective.

When the presidential election is finally behind us, guess what? The vast majority of us will still need to live together, do business, share the highways, walk the grocery aisles, go to school, worship.

We live in a democratic republic. We are not governed from on high. We govern ourselves. After we’ve cast our ballots, after we’ve sent people off to legislate and administrate, how will we govern ourselves?

We all have to decide how to behave. Since I want to live peacefully and be treated with civility, I came up with a list of tenets by which I hope to go forward.

  • Whatever has my attention gets bigger. So, I’ll focus my thoughts and actions in ways that lift my spirits and give me a positive direction.
  • There’s a huge difference between staying informed and feeding an addiction to fury. Staying informed is a satiable appetite. Consume enough and digest.
  • Reason will not budge hysteria. Don’t try.
  • Violence in thought, word, or deed only begets more violence. If I’m feeling angry, that’s a signal I need to take care of myself.
  • A case of differing opinions, does not require me to win. Let go of having the last word.
  • Closely related: A well turned, emotionally and intellectually engaging argument may make me feel great, but it doesn’t make me right. There are plenty of other ways to exercise my wit.
  • When we hear each other, we can have a conversation. When we have a conversation, we can grow, plan, heal. I’ll put the tongue sharpener away, and listen.

Well, alright, then. Maybe there’s no high ground on the flat corner lot, but there are a few raised beds. They’re far more productive.

You Know You’re a Gardener When… (take three)

The instant recognition of an old flame startles you awake.

Before you even hear that the crickets have stopped singing, you put a name to the face, and the memories erupt. The summer between high school and college. Intense conversations under cicada-droning trees. Riding the Greyhound through endless cornfields to meet his parents. The last time you saw him. Minneapolis. December, 1974. He agreed to watch your dog while you went back to Iowa. One night, he let her out, and she didn’t come back.

Of course, you look him up on the internet. The first eight links are to or about his work, now a photographer with a studio in a Vermont barn and a business that takes him around the world. Words fly at you from the screen. Led the pack, numerous awards, accolades, MoMA, teaching in the graduate school, and Chinese Government. Personal hints, too. Wife, kids, coach, soccer, beekeeper.

Holy catfish.

It was a silly thing to do, especially on a Monday morning with no billable hours posted on your calendar.

All through coffee and dressing and breakfast, a cascade of useless thoughts sends a wash of agitation through your system. How long you think you can keep up this house? How soon you going to lose that 30 pounds, dagnabbit? You can’t even get someone to flirt with you on a dating site! They flip like an antique TV screen gone haywire. They repeat like two bars of a stupid song. They swarm you like mosquitoes. You go running from the house.

You try cleaning the car, wiping all the non-porous surfaces with the foamy stuff you got from the guy wearing a pink cancer awareness ribbon under the canopy of the filling station. It works great, the foam that is. It cleans like nothing you’ve used before. It works until you get to thinking, “I’ll bet he never has to detail his own car, unless it’s an antique Porsche living in his Vermont barn, and he doesn’t let anyone else touch it.”

Enough. You abandon the 10-year-old Scion (forgetting it’s paid for, by the way).

To the shed.

You grab the digging fork (Vermont castings, circa 1985, mint condition) and work over the bed where the garlic flourished and the rose Finn potatoes made an attempt. You dolly heavy bags of compost and spread the contents — evenly, mind you — across the bed’s surface. Again, the fork. Worms, all sizes, wave at you from the soil. There were none when you first converted this sodded wasteland. With gloved hands, you break up the larger clumps. You, in your sixties, have built this habitat for earthworms, all by yourself.

When did the morning air become such a caress?

You spring up the back stoop to retrieve the shoebox full of seeds stored in the studio closet. From it you pull envelopes of potential. Wild arugula, red Russian kale, heirloom dwarf gray peas with bi-colored blossoms, and mâche. You line them up for a portrait.

Peas. One inch deep, four inches apart on either side of magenta-glazed wire supports, which look beautiful against the weathered cedar fence built for you by a dear someone who calls you his best friend. Kale. Two feet away, one-quarter-inch deep, eighteen inches apart. There are just enough weeks left to taste the earthy sweetness of these purple leaves. Arugula and mâche. Two shallow bands. Scatter. Pungent emerald sprouts should be ready about the time the blue spuds tumble out of the next bed over. Corn salad, the most cold tolerant of them all. You think it may get a sheath of frost-cloth later. Her nutty flavor finds its way forward to a November plate.

All in, you find enough pine needles to cover the lot.

Stepping back to admire, you can’t stop smiling. You know you’re a gardener when…

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My Daily Hero

His helmet bears a row of short spikes menacing from front to back, right down the middle.

Released from his domicile every evening after supper, he rides. Always on the sidewalk. Someone must tell him to stay there, place parameters of safety on his pedal-pushed freedom. Nevertheless, eyes straight ahead, he goes.

I wonder where he imagines himself. Off into the Jurassic jungle. Rushing to a clash of Vikings. Destined to an encounter with Dragons. Is he always flying solo? Or does his wheeled escape speed him into the company of other valiant protectors of decency?

I hope he has no idea that this old woman, nor any other, watches. Known gazes tether, pull such a child off course into response. I want for him to answer only to himself, to make impeccable use of the discharge granted him each evening after supper on his brisk steed, in his clean clothes, his ferocious helmet.