Thoughts from the Road

It’s a very big country.  Especially in the west, there are a lot of miles to travel between place to place. We’ve already put on 3,800 miles, and we’re still far from home. We’ve meandered on sidetrips and rarely pushed ourselves to long driving days, so our pace has been pleasant and not grueling. But, man, these distances are huge, and this land is vast.

Much of this western land is arid and desolate, nearly uninhabitable.The few people who live here seem rugged, independent, and in many cases, poor.

The fact that some of the worst land is also Native American Reservation land is no accidental coincidence. Anyone who thinks that there was justice in how those boundaries were drawn needs to think again.  But history aside, this dry, desolate land makes me realize that water is an extravagant luxury. I’m used to trees, to woods, to verdant green with fertile land and cherry orchards.   But here, in the west, there have been mile after mile and acre after acre of desolation.

The value of our National Parks cannot be overstated. We’ve spent time in five of them and each has been uniquely wonderful. Canyons with walls 3,000 feet high.  IMG_2687 Hoodoos carved by erosion over millions of years. IMG_2629Red rocks that rise out of the desert. Lava fields and geological striations that are as interesting as they are beautiful. IMG_2748 Preserved historical ruins from 800 years ago in mesa cliffs. IMG_2906Though the temps are a little chilly at this time of year, we happily did not contend with crowds. We walked trails, watched unfamiliar birds, and learned from the rangers who patiently answer the same questions day after day. The stars were remarkably bright at the Grand Canyon. In addition to the sky being enormously full of bright lights, many of those stars were falling.  We left our warm bed to venture out at 4 in the morning for the Geminids meteor showers and were glad that we did.

When I despair over our current administration’s misplaced priorities, I’m glad we have national parks, underfunded though they are.  They are places of  rare and spectacular beauty that need to be preserved and spared from development.  It is one thing that our country has done wonderfully right.IMG_2761

Travel is great, but it comes at a social cost.  We have left home for six weeks, and that means we have left our weekly church meeting, our non-profit volunteer involvements, our exercise classes, book clubs, walking and writing groups.  We aren’t having impromptu games nights with our neighbors or seeing acquaintances at the local post office or nearby cafe.   I miss the interactions with these people who have become our friends.

There are lots of retired people in this part of the country who are doing the same thing we are doing: looking for sunshine and mild temperatures as a contrast to the dark and damp of northern winters. Those who are wealthy buy second homes and figure out how to live divided lives- half in one place and half in another. Others buy RVs and move themselves for a few months to campgrounds that are little more than parking lots. Or they travel and stay a few weeks here, a few weeks there. In each of these scenarios it seems to me that deep relationships suffer. Mobility and travel cannot help but take their toll on human connections.

This is the first time ever that I have not decorated a house for Christmas. I find myself nostalgic for the little details that have become our yearly habits: certain cookies, specific ornaments, white lights on a fresh cut Christmas tree.  But beyond that, I find I am celebrating less than in other years the God who came to earth. I am thinking less of the advent miracle.  And then I chide myself; is my faith so dependent on Christmas carols and candles that I cannot celebrate advent in my car, on the road? As Christmas Day nears, I will be glad to be out of hotels and into the homes of friends and family where we might talk of the Christ child, read the gospel accounts together, listen to carols, pray.

 Perhaps I can tie these unrelated thoughts together with this: I have felt small on this trip. The vast spaces we have driven through, the heights of canyon walls, the centuries-old ruins of ancient civilizations, the multitude of stars that fill a night sky: all are proof of my smallness. 

I have also recognized my need for connectedness, for meaningful relationships that must be nurtured.  As we come close to Christmas, I see there are answers for both of these plights in the advent story. Despite our smallness, we matter to God.  In his immense-ness, He also became small and human, and now there is proof that our lives have value. Incomprehensibly, scripture says He did this because of love, because He wanted to interact with us. In this love, He affirms that relationships matter.

So as we begin to  head home, grateful for so much beauty in our travels, I am also grateful today for deep truths. I pray you each find ways to celebrate and be glad for the good messages to us at Christmas.



Photos of Fall

We’ve had snow this week. And cold. There is already ice on our paths. After a walk, wads of snow freeze inside my dog’s pads that must thaw before he’s allowed back in the house ( he waits rather impatiently in the mud room.)

Winter came suddenly, before I had a chance to share my favorite pictures of fall. But I’m going to do so here belatedly and anyway.

As always, autumn here was beautiful.

IMG_2312Election season was hard on all of us. As I find myself mourning not only the divisions in our country but also the slide towards bigotry and xenophobia and mean-ness, I find solace in the beauty of a world that is good and the God who made it so.

IMG_2109The fury of the lake in October storms as well as the colors of sunrise were memorable.

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Even running errands is a delight- beauty waits on every road of the peninsula.

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A New Beginning/A Happy Ending

Sometimes there are happy endings in this world.

David and I have left Wisconsin for this week to attend a wedding. I’m not a particularly mushy person, but watching joy for most of the two-day event made me constantly teary.

After we became friends with Kathy several years ago when she was in law school, she had some horrific years: she was tragically and suddenly widowed after a short but happy first marriage. She survived and plodded along, but more than that, she emerged from those years with a remarkable lack of bitterness or anger. She has a wonderful laugh. She is cheerful. She is generous. Oh, that we could all watch and learn how to live in such grace.

A few years ago she met Kurt, a very smart mathematician who is mild mannered, not flashy, and very kind. Here are two people in their late forties who would have been relatively fine on their own, but instead they have found a companion with whom to live life. They now have each other to have and hold.

The light streamed into the sunlit church, Scriptures spoke of love. The adorable niece and nephews in the bridal party who were barely more than toddlers proved to us, as children often do, that starting over, starting again, is a good thing. The pastor reminded us that there is hope in the love of God. A magnificent organ played, a simple worship song moved us.

All weddings are happy, but this one just felt like grace poured out.

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Because I don’t want to shift the focus from the wedding to me, I am a bit reticent to add this next part, but a few people asked, so here is the poem that I wrote for the couple and then read at their wedding. I was so glad to be a part of this new beginning, happy ending for Kathy.

 
River Song

Your minds surge
but your hearts are quiet
 
Like stones by a river
            you have lain still on the banks     alone
 
Currents of sorrow
and eddies of waiting
            have worn your rough edges smooth
 
but now there is rain. Sweet summer rain.
The river rises and the river is warm and the river invites you in
 
Now your hearts are no longer heavy like stones
but light.
Now they are ripples
 
Now they are songs that you sing to each other
in the dancing green
in all the tomorrows that are yours

A Monarch Moon

I live a few miles from a poetry trail. ( First off, how cool is that?)

IMG_2069In Newport State Park, a ½ mile walk winds first through a gorgeous stand of deciduous forest and then meanders through a prairie.. Twelve stanchions invite walkers and hikers to pause for a few minutes along their way to read beautifully crafted words.

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Every few months the displays change, so there are periodic calls for poets to write.

The plan was two-part: meet at the park to write poems as we’d watch the full moon rise out of Lake Michigan. Two weeks later we’d return to walk the trail and read our recently installed poems about the moon.

Things didn’t go quite as planned.  Skies were overcast as my eager car-full of poets drove to the park. It began to rain as we pulled up to the beach parking lot where we had planned to watch a full moon rising. So we went inside to the nature center and dug down deep to write about the moon we weren’t watching.

Newport State Park is designated as a Dark Sky Park, so the nature center has telescopes and star charts and astronomical things.   But it’s also a park full of monarch butterflies, and I was drawn to a display where nearly a hundred of them were readying themselves for flight, for migration. This poem is for them.

 

A Monarch Moon

The moon will rise
whether we see it or not
Carefully plotted charts
assert tonight’s rising will be at 8:01

but there is rain.
Clouds cover the beach.
We go inside to sit on tiled floor
where taxidermed animals ask us
to pretend      to imagine the white globe
lifting itself into beauty

I am struck instead
by the hundred hanging chrysalis
and the scent of metamorphosis.

They need only the moony milkweed
to rise up, to resurrect
to fly

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No First Day Back

I believe in education. And even though schools aren’t perfect in this country, the fact that every child can go to school for free is one of the best privileges of our democracy. It is the right thing to do- to gather our children together to teach them history and math and science and geography and reading, to give them knowledge so they can articulate their ideas; skills so they can invent and create.

All around me this week, kids and teachers are returning to their schools.  However, I’m retired from school teaching, so this is now what other people do.  It took a while to adjust, but I am no longer sad that I’m not in that throng of kids and teachers starting back.

August in Door County is too nice to go inside. The flowers blaze with color.

 

The water is warm and swimmable.

IMG_1683Lake Michigan has been particularly clear this year.

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The gardens are full of vegetables; the eating is good. And all around me I see beauty in the small things like the patterns on water

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and the color of water

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and cranes in a field.

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I loved teaching, and it felt good to do something  valuable with my days. But it was hard work, as it called for relentless sacrifice for the kids in my care. So, thank you to all the teachers who will spend their waking moments of this year helping the children in their classrooms.  I’m grateful you do what you do.

Someday, you too, might retire and live in a beautiful place.IMG_1872

 

All Feast

I attended an author talk this morning and was delighted. Faith Sullivan, author of nine books (which you really should read) charmed us with an excerpt from an upcoming book, and then spent time answering questions about the writing life, about characters that she misses when she finishes telling their story, about the inspiration that a place like Door County can give to artists. I wish everyone I knew had been there.

But here’s a problem: we have an abundance of choices right now of good places to be. Musicians come from all over the country to play concerts in homes, in auditoriums, in city parks. I’ve been to three plays in July, including Shakespeare and a world premiere—all as good as you could find anywhere. The galleries are full of art, and on top of that, the Plein Air art festival is happening right now- so we can watch artists work as they stand on the side of a road to paint a barn, to sketch the harbor…

The water beckons: warm, blue, perfect. Do we go to the beach for a swim? SUP? Kayak? Fish?

summerMy meadow is full of wildflowers.

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My raspberries are coming on..

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The farm markets offer bounty of every kind. Even the tomatoes are in – the garden ones that make all of the greenhouse ones ashamed to claim the same name.

Fishermen are catching fish. Boats fill the harbors.

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The cherries are thick on the trees.

It is a crowd of good things.

 And just like any deluge, it feels a bit overwhelming right now. Part of me feels like screaming into this throng: Wait! Take your turn! Not all at once! Spread out!

Because of course, it will be January before long. The crowds will be gone, and the days will be short and the concerts will be a bit rare. I’ll have to pretend that a greenhouse tomato satisfies.

Every place has its tradeoffs: to live here means to live with these contrasts, with this feast-of-summer-wonder and famine-of-winter sparsity.

Like all other bounties, like all other feasts, how wrong of me to complain. So today, I’ll forget about winter and be grateful.

Thanks be to God for the many gifts of summer.

 

Cousins. Conversation.

One lovely advantage of a family summer cabin is the nearly guaranteed yearly reunion with favorite people. In my childhood, the extended family settled into a pattern: the cousins from New York came in July, we drove up from Kansas to overlap for a week before staying on in August. A third and fourth set of cousins came less regularly, but there was nothing better than their arrival at the beach and the days of endless play with cousins who are people in a special category:  like friends except better;  like siblings without the familial conflict.

Some relatives we saw more than others, but as they came and went, the constant we could count on was conversation with someone who liked us.

My niece and her family are here this week, she for her 36th time. As we “caught up” on the year’s events, the value of such conversations became clear to me. Socrates said “the unexamined life is not worth living. “ Those once yearly conversations, I see now, are  a great way to examine our lives. Throughout the year we live our lives in separate places, and we might hear about the broad strokes of a relative’s life like surgery or loss of job or backpacking trip. But when we have the luxury of time to chat, it gives us the chance to really evaluate, and then articulate. “Yes I do like my job, but my boss is a challenge. I’m not sure whether I should stay… My daughter is having trouble making friends, and I don’t know what to do about it…We’re having money issues, and we’re in a bit of trouble…. I’ve met somebody really wonderful….

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 As my cousins and I grew out of sandcastles or silly games on the beach, we never stopped being glad of the reunions. Over board games and card games we’d recount the ups and downs of our year. We asked each other questions; we’d self reflect and then speak honestly about what was good in our life, what was not.

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The grandparents and aunts and uncles welcomed us in; they were interested; they cared. And now we watch our nieces and the younger relatives grow into adulthood, and they watch us age. And each time there is the coming back to people who have seen the ebb and flow of our lives and are eager to hear the year’s news.

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Twelve years ago one of my favorite cousins died suddenly at age 48. I don’t think of him much throughout the year anymore, but when I am sitting on the beach and the sky is all glory with the milky way, I can find myself stabbed with a terrible pain of missing him- even now, all these years later. I miss the chats about life we had when we were ten, and then eleven, and then fourteen and then twenty. I remember the nights we sat together with our spouses sharing stories of our joys and challenges.  Later, we sat together with our children on our laps, talking as we helped them count the meteors that fell into an August sky.

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Everybody should be so blessed to have people ask “how was your year?” and then expect an honest and comprehensive answer. In this summer place we watch each other grow, age, change. At this place of sand and water, trees and sky, the questions we ask and the words we say are perhaps the best gifts of all.

 

The gorgeous star picture is courtesy of Tory Lynn Photography.  She was a recent guest and took this picture from the beach. Check out her remarkable photography at www.torylynnphoto.com