The snow is deep and the cold continues. It’s hard to get outside much. Every single day for the past month I have walked our dog with snow shoes on because it’s too hard to walk across the snow without them. Even so, more than once I have sunk in deep, as much as three feet into drifts and snow banks. Louie, too, tires of sinking deep, and often just walks behind me in my tracks.
But our house is very snug- well insulated and without drafts. We have wished at times for an authentic wood fireplace, but our electric one suffices for ambiance and warmth, and we are just as happy to not be carrying in wood, sweeping up wood scraps, carrying out ash.
So I have sat inside by our fireplace and done quite a bit of reading. Here are a few I can recommend from the last few months.
Oh, and by the way: JOIN a BOOKCLUB. I would never have chosen some of these books on my own. I get stuck in my favorite genres or authors, but a book club obligates me to read something else, something other. And that’s a good thing.
Caramelo, by Sandra Cisneros. I am impressed by the way she advances a plot by the mere use of brief snapshots. Her descriptions of place are wonderful- her words paint vivid pictures of whatever or whomever she’s describing.
The Last Days of Night, by Graham Moore. Based on the true story of the rivalry between Thomas Edison and John Westinghouse. Who among us stops to think about those days in America before electrification? Or of the people who were foresighted enough to know their inventions could change everything?
Prairie Fires, by Caroline Fraser. If you grew up loving the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, I’m not sure I recommend this. It’s a look at the harsh and brutal conditions of the REAL Ingalls, moving from place to place because of poverty. In the Little House series, we knew the Ingalls lived simply, but there seemed to be optimism, laughter, song, love. In this well-researched biography, she portrays the true Ingalls’ lives as more hardscrabble with less cheer and light. I guess I am glad to read the truth, but it also makes me a little sad.
Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter by Jean Pendziwol and Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund. I read these almost back to back, so truthfully they are a little muddled in my mind. But both are written beautifully and took me to a time in history and place other than here- and I love when books have that kind of power.
During our first winter in Wisconsin, I distinctly remember taking a walk under a blue sky in a snow-covered field with my neighbor. I was bundled up in several layers and was shivering. The temperature was in the mid 20’s. “This is my favorite kind of weather,” she said. Then she added,” maybe even more favorite than summer.”
I think at that point I told her she was crazy. I remember thinking, who could ever like a day like this?
Now, three winters later, I have grown to like some winter days. I can almost agree that a 20-degree, blue-sky day is pretty wonderful. When the temperature is 30 or even 40 in the winter, it is notoriously overcast. Skies and fields are grey. Life seems dismal and drab, and because of the ever present Great Lake in our backyard, damp. But temps in the 20’s mean blue skies. Especially if there is no wind, it’s pretty great to tromp in the snow among evergreens.
Animal tracks are visible, and we can see who shares our land.
Birds chirp. And as long as I am wearing the right socks and warm mittens, and as long as I have a few layers and a warm coat, I am truly not cold. I can walk for miles in nearby fields and in the woods or at the water’s edge and revel in the quiet beauty of winter.
I am also learning to appreciate the different kinds of snow. Tiny flaked or big flaked.
Wet and heavy, or powdery like fine sugar. There is snow that drifts and makes patterns reminiscent of sand dunes or eroded rock.
There is snow that glistens and flashes like a million shards of light in the sun. Occasionally, the footprints from the day before seem to glow with an ethereal light as the afternoon light fades and it grows dusky.
So, until the polar vortex hit us a few days ago, I thought perhaps I was adjusting to Wisconsin winters. And then, two things happened. First, along with most of the upper Midwest, we have been housebound with the extreme cold and wind chills that are between -35 and -50. Even locals are staying in and admitting it’s cold.
Secondly, my neighbor ( the same one) told me with a little touch of sadness and nostalgia there were snows in her childhood when the snow piled as high as the telephone poles. “Those were good years,” she said, and once again, I felt like telling her she was crazy. I still have a ways to go, apparently, in adjusting to Wisconsin winters.
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. Hoodoos carved by erosion over millions of years. Red rocks that rise out of the desert. Lava fields and geological striations that are as interesting as they are beautiful. Preserved historical ruins from 800 years ago in mesa cliffs. Though 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.
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.
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.
Election 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.
The fury of the lake in October storms as well as the colors of sunrise were memorable.
Even running errands is a delight- beauty waits on every road of the peninsula.
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.
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.
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
I live a few miles from a poetry trail. ( First off, how cool is that?)
In 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.
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
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.
Lake Michigan has been particularly clear this year.
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
and the color of water
and cranes in a field.
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.