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

 

 

 

 

Thanks, Grandma.

My beautiful picture

My grandmother was a formal woman.   I loved her, and I knew she loved me, but when we visited her each summer in her backwoods cabin on the shores of Lake Michigan, we would have an appointed time to visit her for games of cribbage. Even then, we needed to knock before entering her room. In an act of formality which seems ludicrous now, there were nights when she asked us to “dress for dinner.” This meant my brother and father would pack dinner jackets and ties next to their swimming suits and sandals and vacation clothes. In the evening, I would need to wear a “Sunday dress” even though all day long on the beach we’d be cavorting in two piece swimsuits, traipsing about the cabin with sandy, bare feet, and sitting on folding chairs with dripping suits through lunch.

On the occasional hot sunny day, even Grandma Olive would put on a swimsuit and bob around a bit in the lake before retreating back into the cabin where she would put back on her linen dress and string of silver beads.

When I spend time pondering it, the fact that she gifted her children and grandchildren and great grandchildren with this glorious family cabin on our sand Lake Michigan beach seems improbable and incongruous for the kind of woman I remember.  She  grew up in Minneapolis with moderate wealth, graduated college  in a time not many women could do so (Oberlin, 1913) and married a scientist/professor with some renown.   But for the first few years after they acquired this land (in the Depression, for a song,) they camped on the property. It took two years before there were solid structures with roofs over their heads to sleep in and cook in. There was a hand pump to bring in water and an outhouse several hundred feet from the house. My father helped them install electricity twenty years after the cabin was built, about ten years after he joined the family.

Grandma has been gone over thirty years. I wish I had asked her why she did it- went along with the acquisition of this place that means so much to all of her progeny- when such a thing would have been so outside her comfort zone. But I didn’t ask, so I conjecture three possibilities:

She was an artist. And this place is full of beauty. So maybe the colors of the water that are always changing, and the light in the quaking leaves of the birch on the land, and the moon rising out of the lake to shine a path were compensation enough for her.

Wildflowers. She loved them, and Door County is full of many kinds of them in the spring. She and a group of her like-minded friends came up for a house party every spring and wandered the county looking for them.

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She wrote up their lists which are still hanging on the walls in her old bedroom. I imagine it was hard for her to play hostess in such rustic surroundings, but she did it anyway, year after year- far into her eighties. (They called themselves the Wild Women.)

 

Marriage. She and my grandfather were a pretty great pair. My grandfather had hay fever allergies, and this was a good place to escape them. He loved the woods, and camping, and the natural world. He built himself a little study just off of the cabin and wrote a significant number of his scientific papers there. So maybe she swallowed up her own preferences and figured it was a good thing watching him be happy.

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Whatever the reason, I’m sure glad she did it. And just like I wish I had learned all the names of the wildflowers when she tried to teach them to me, I wish I had thanked her more often for giving us this place to love in Door County.

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This pic is circa 1964. Left to right: my sister Jane, Mom and me, my brother Jon, and Grandma Olive in front of her Door County cabin.

Spring- Finally

Spring took forever to arrive this year. ( As in 30 inches of snow in April, as in the buds are just now on the trees…)

But here’s a poem to celebrate spring:

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Kneeling in Thin Places

Just an hour after I called to say
I had seen the first trillium of spring
I saw her outside my window
in genuflection
sun streaming onto her hair
like a medieval-painted Mary kneeling
at holy beauty

In pews
stained-glass
light
covers
those who bend

I knelt today in my garden
planting seeds
It will be prayer
to eat
the first tomato

 

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Oh, Europe.

We have returned to our small peninsula after being in Europe for just over two weeks. Oh, Europe.

Flowers. They are everywhere. In shop windows and apartment windows, on every table in every café, in planters on every street.

There are flower stands in every market, and in the Netherlands, especially, there are tulips. Glorious fields of tulips.

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It’s hard not to love a culture that loves flowers.

The age of things. The streets are old, and the doors are old, and the buildings are old.

Old in this case does not mean dingy or dilapidated; somehow these Europeans make even more classy those structures that have stood already for hundreds of years.

The hotels where we slept and the cafes where we ate and the cathedrals and the castles all told silent stories of the multitudes of people that have breathed within their walls. I walked the same city fortress and climbed the city tower where people who lived in ­­­­­­1386 also walked and climbed.

We ate in a café where people have chatted and eaten since 1572.

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In Cologne, we saw a gorgeous mosaic floor that had been installed by the Romans. (Probably 1st century)

In the face of history like that, what is there left to be except humble?

Small Spaces. We Americans love our large spaces. Europeans seem to be content without large homes and large yards and the amassing of material possessions that must inevitably fill up our large houses and large yards. Even among the wealthy, living quarters were small- a flat of 900 square feet was normal. Yards were uncommon.

And the ramifications of that? More leisure time.   Instead of spending time to maintain large homes and yards, they meet friends in cafes, they gather in parks or along river banks.   And they linger for hours. The pace of life seems less hurried.

Water. Their public drinking fountains are better than our public drinking fountains.

The cathedrals. So impressive. I think the next post might be devoted to them.

The kindness of strangers. As much as we loved the river cruise, we also loved the days where we were away from the organized tour and able to explore on our own. The flip side meant we were left to make our own mistakes- like the time we got on the wrong train, or the afternoon when we ended up somewhere different than we intended.

“Come with us,” a couple said, when we asked for a little help. “You will love our little town, and if you walk with us, just this way, we will show you the best cafe… ”

Travel is always about learning, about growing, about seeing things from new perspectives. The contrasts between the places we know and the new ones we experience are intriguing, and for someone like me who has wanderlust, beguiling.

There is more pondering for me to do as I continue to reflect on our time away. But I’ll finish for now with  just a few of my favorite pictures from a place that felt wonderful, that felt good.

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A Poem for Palm Sunday

In this week of marches and protests, I’ve been thinking about activists. Why does it feel scary to join in? In contrast to so many other times in history and places around the world, we are free in this country to gather, to protest, to march.  The worst that could happen to us is an arrest; in other regimes we could be tortured or killed if we gathered to walk the streets with signs or if we shouted slogans and asked for change.

These words from Luke 19 about Palm Sunday seem particularly fitting today.

 “…they threw their coats on the colt and put Jesus on it. As He was going, they were spreading their coats on the road.  As soon as He was approaching, near the descent of the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the miracles which they had seen, shouting: “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord; Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Him, “Teacher, rebuke Your disciples.”  But Jesus answered, “I tell you, if these become silent, the stones will cry out!” 

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I imagine a woman in that crowd, I try to put myself in her shoes. She was likely illiterate; her culture would not have valued her; it was a time of oppression and fear. Hailing allegiance to Jesus would have been a defiant, brave act.

Even Stones Cry Out

As I walked they thrust palms in my hand
so close I could touch Him
and the mangy ass.
For once I did
a brave thing, too
shouted Hosanna 
called out King
I had never heard the sound of my voice so lifted, loud.

I took off my coat, put it down.
Scared as shit, I
joined the throng
We moved through streets
crowds growing
all of us caught up in
laughter
in possibility

Caesar’s guards watched
blood hungry, spears ready

This is no place for risk
I live in confines
I breathe under the weight of ugly rules.
When I go back for my coat will they take me?

Strange how this Jesus
gives me what I cannot give myself
how He makes me more than I am

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Photos courtesy of Karen Heyse

A Study in Contrasts

We’re spending a little time in Port Aransas, Texas. After three years of Wisconsin winters, we‘ve learned that winter lingers there into March (and April, to be honest.) As much as the snow is spectacularly beautiful in Door County, we weren’t eager to see more of it nor continue to dread walking the dog in the 10 degree morning air with the possibility of slipping on ice, so we searched the internet for places we could go with great birding spots (Dave), a beach to walk on (me) and a rental with a view of the water (both of us.)

In other words, we were ready to see a little less of this:

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and a little more of this.IMG_0653

It’s a long drive to southern Texas, but we stopped along the way to see a few attractions (Crystal Bridges in Arkansas) and cousins in Austin who were great tour guides.  Both of those visits were pretty great.

We’ve been in this little beach town for nearly a week. But we live in a beach town,too, so it’s a little hard not to draw contrasts.   Here’s a few of the most obvious differences:

1. Snakes. We’d never see this sign on our beach.IMG_0650

Yikes! If it weren’t about 50 degrees warmer here than at home, I might have been tempted to turn around and head back to Wisconsin. But the good news? We’ve been here a week, and haven’t seen one snake.

2. We have this lovely view from our condo balcony.IMG_0615

But guess what’s between this sand dune and the water? A beach with sand that is driveable, so there’s a beach road, with cars that drive back and forth all day long.IMG_06433. And not only do these cars come to drive, they come to park. They stay for the day, and sometimes they stay for several days and nights. Here, there’s great public access to the water. But it’s taking a little getting used to for me to share my beach space with thousands of strangers.IMG_0648

4. I have to say, though, that the wide, wide beaches here are a plus. They go on for miles and miles. I love to walk at the water’s edge, and I can do that for a long way. I think I could walk 18 miles here if I wanted to (which I don’t.) In contrast, Door County’s beaches are lovely, but they can be rocky in spots, sandy in others, turn to bluff along the water’s edge, or are just too overgrown with vegetation to walk. So despite the fact that there are more people than I’m used to, the walking here is pretty nice. (Especially in the morning, before the crowds come in.)

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5. Both places have ships. Port Aransas sits at the mouth of the canal where large freighters come and go to Corpus Christi. So we’ve been watching huge freighters, just like we do in Door County. IMG_0614The ships in both places are huge, and somehow it doesn’t get old for either of us to watch them up close. But on this score, Door County wins. Our canal is prettier than their canal. No oil rigs like these ruin the views in Door County..IMG_0622

6. Salt water. (yuck)  Give me the fresh clean water of Lake Michigan any day.

7. Hurricanes. This one’s just sad.  Natural disasters can happen anywhere, but I can’t imagine anything destroying Door County in the way this town was destroyed last August by Hurricane Harvey. Many stores and businesses were completely ruined, and many but certainly not all have reopened after months of heartache and hard work.   We’re not particularly big spenders, but every cup of coffee and trip to the grocery store or dinner out helps each business owner just a bit, and we’re glad to do it.

In this little study of contrasts, I’ve tried to be objective, to see the good in both places. But I’m afraid Door County has spoiled me for other places, as it is just too close to perfect. Its only problem is that it’s perfect for only part of the year.  For example, it snowed 7 inches this week in Baileys Harbor.  Unlike Texas, it’s going to be months before I can sit out on my beloved Wisconsin beach to get some color on my legs. So for now, I’ll be happy to be near water, to walk a beach, and to wear one layer of clothing instead of three or four. For the next week while we’re here, I’ll likely continue contrasting the two beach towns. And most certainly,  Door County will keep winning.

Sometimes getting away from home only makes me like home more.

Walking on (Frozen) Water

It’s been a cold winter.  I’ve complained about the long stretches of single digit temps and the brutal winds that blow across the lake and the bay.  But here’s one advantage: the harbors and bays and inland lakes are frozen in. There are icefishing shanties and snowmobilers out on the ice, and it is apparently safe to walk across the frozen water where in the same place we boat and swim in summer.

I’m grateful to the ladies who invited me along for a walk yesterday, this week taking to frozen water. The setting was spectacular, but the sun on our faces as we basked on the ice? Here’s a poem to celebrate the morning.

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Walking on 24 Inches of Ice

Snowshoes latched
we intended to walk
to the island

but talk of currents underneath
made us stay close
cracks possible
and the mention of Johnny D
who went down, went under

instead of across
we followed the shoreline
chattered
while winds bullied
remembering
summer water open and blue

out around the point
we reached the warmth of the sun
lay down in the light, faces up
backs cold in the snow

saying
here I am

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