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.

Home for Christmas

We’ve had a delightful holiday. Our sons and wife and girlfriend came from far away so we could all be together at Christmas. On the day after, nieces and their families arrived, making us a perpetual party of 19.  For most of the summers of my sons’ lives, their cousins came to visit here in Door County, so it seemed right to gather again in this place, even if the water was not swimmable and the leaves  were not green.

We had been together in the summer, but like so many places in this country this week, the temperatures outside were subzero.  We had to scrap the plans for roasting s’mores in the firepit or even of building snowmen.  We did take one fairly long hike of over an hour,

and we ventured out to the local tubing hill on another day.

Three of our heartiest went fat tire biking. On our last day together we walked to our favorite lighthouse across an icy causeway that was beautiful but soooo cold.

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And so we spent most of our time inside. We played games and ate, played more games, and ate some more. We put together a puzzle, did a few crafts. Our adult children stayed up late with their cousins, just like they have done for most of their childhoods and teen years together, only this time the parents among them had to get up early.  These people I loved as children have grown into adults that I admire.

New people have been added to our family: spouses, girlfriends, children.IMG_0242

IMG_0111As I watched our family interacting, I realized that one of the best things a family can do is let more people in.  The women in my sons’ lives have made them better. My nieces’ children make us all happier.  Among the 19 of us, there were the occasional irritations, differences of opinion, some tears. ( Really, isn’t that to be expected?) Yet even those, I’m convinced, can save us from the curse of being too fixed, too set in our ways.

We did some looking back- remembering old times, holidays past. But the better part was the new and continuing interactions, the realization that we can be different today than we were in the past and still be loved.

People change us, if we let them. New people change us more than old ones, perhaps because there are no well-worn patterns in which to fall, perhaps because doing things the way “we’ve always done it” isn’t a good reason for doing anything.

My children, et al, are back to their own lives in their own states, far from here.  I’ve spent the day since they left soaking up the quiet and reading a book from start to finish.

I am grateful for the time we had together as a smaller family and then a bigger, extended one. Traditions are well and good, but nothing stays the same, and today, I’m very glad that’s true.

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Filling up October

It’s been a month since I’ve last written here. Nothing particularly eventful happened in our lives here, so I was a little short on ideas to write about.  A few years ago, I wondered if retired life would feel boring and unsatisfying. But no, it never feels boring. Our month was plenty full, and we are content.

Here are a few of the “ordinary” happenings that filled up October.

I’ve said it before here, and I’m sure I am not finished repeating it: living in a pretty place is constant entertainment, a perpetual gift.   We take walks in the changing woods, exclaim at the colors.

 

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We drive out of our way when we run errands to see if the water is choppy or calm in the harbor, if it is still or wavy on the bay.

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It is pretty driving to the grocery store or library.

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The sunsets and sunrises make us get out; often when we see the clouds full of color, we stop what we are doing to go outside to watch. The beauty all around us makes us pause, makes us linger, and in so doing we remind ourselves of what’s good and lovely and true and wonderful in this world.

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IMG_9897Land to table    We live two miles from an apple orchard. We love their honeycrisps, and when they were selling a bushel of their Cortland “seconds” for only $9, it seemed right to buy them and make applesauce from scratch. But that was an all day project.

Books. I’m in two book clubs. Here are my top three favorite books from the past few months.

            The Sparrow. This book has haunted me. I’m not a particular fan of science fiction, but when a team of Jesuits befriends creatures on a new planet and are martyred as a result, well, it’s just sad. Within a few days of finishing the book, I watched “Silence,” a recent (and moving) film about Christians who are persecuted in 17th century Japan. As a person of faith myself, both of these made me think a lot about the ways we share our beliefs with others and  what sacrifices I would make to hold on to faith.

       A Gentleman in Moscow. Much lighter than the previous book, this fictional account follows the life of a Russian count who loses his freedom and his way of life in the Russian revolution. I knew very little about this time and place in history, and it was a good way to find out about it.

            Gilead. This was my third time reading this one. Ten times more would not be too many. Marilynne Robinson makes ordinary lives beautiful. She helps us see that loving the people we know well is about the best possible thing we can do in this life.

Closing up the cabin. There’s a lot to do to shut down a place for eight months. When lots of people have cooked and eaten, played, bathed, and slept in a place, there are signs of their fun. And though we are good about cleaning as we go, the cupboards and the oven had crumbs by the end of the summer that needed attention. Despite the continual vacuuming, there was still sand just about everywhere. The refrigerator door was full of condiments, kindly left for the “next” person, but it’s time to dispose of them. The winter curtains need to replace the summer ones. We’ve already carried up the kayaks and the beach umbrella and the deck chairs. Today we brought in the lawn mower and trash cans; we put away hoses.  I’ll be sad to close it down for the winter, but October was full of cabin chores.

Writing. I’ve finally joined a novel critique group. We meet every other week and send things for review the alternate weeks, so, guess what? I actually have a reason to make myself get over the obstacles and just get working on this novel of mine that’s been in process for about ten years. Yes, I’ve got to rewrite parts. Yes, I need to work out some plot inconsistencies. I’ve even had to change my main character. What I liked eight years ago I don’t like as much now. But meeting with four other authors who are also in process with their novels means I’ve committed to at least making progress. Although that’s a bit scary, it’s also a very important thing I did this October.

The Usual. There’s a lot more: church once a week, a Bible study once a week. Several meetings throughout the month with my favorite non-profit, Write On, Door County. Exercise. A friend needs some help learning to use her new laptop. A dinner out here or there. The demands of a dog who needs way more attention and exercise than we usually want to give. ( It’s a good thing he’s adorable.) Working a little bit in my little consulting/publishing company called Sand Beach Press.   The list of little daily events could go on.

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We are heading into our third winter in Wisconsin, and besides the people that we left in St. Louis, there’s very little that we miss about our old life.   Yes, our lives are slower-paced here, compared to when we worked at jobs and lived in a city. A little less busy, perhaps, but certainly not empty.

All in all, October was a pretty great month.

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Road Trip Report (#2)

Most of us fall comfortably into routines. We like drinking our morning coffee in the same chair, or having a particular salad dressing for our lettuce, or stacking the plates in a specific direction when loading our dishwashers.   Some more than others of us are prone to repeating these routines; we like things done in a particular way. And pretty soon, we get “set in our ways. ” The danger of this is that we insist on our preferences to the point where we become  rigid, unbendable, unlikable. But travel works against these tendencies.

Travel makes us ask what’s important. When we’re out of our routines and away from the places where we have control over the details of life, we are forced to be flexible, to care less about trivialities and more about what really matters. No, the hotel coffee isn’t as good as our own. The rental cabin’s kitchen is lacking a good knife. The heater is hard to regulate, so we are alternately hot, then cold at night.

But really, how much do those things matter? In Jackson, Wyoming, our hotel wasn’t fancy, but we were right across from acres and acres of a wildlife refuge for elk. We watched herds graze. There were moose!

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The mountains across the valley turned purple at dusk. And in the morning we drove just seven miles into Grand Teton National Park to watch the sun rise on the mountains, turning the white snow on the peaks into silver.

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Things go wrong; how will we react? Not all travel experiences are beautiful. We had a flat tire. This forced us to spend a morning at a tire shop in Lincoln, Nebraska getting four new tires.

I had altitude sickness. I did not want to be sick, but I was. How rude of me to decline a lovely meal that our friends in Colorado prepared for us; how sad to miss such great conversation over the meal while I slept off my nausea.

After driving for hours through desolate landscape, we were more than ready to stop for the day in Casper, Wyoming. However, at the first place we stopped, we learned there were no hotel rooms left in town. ( An Elton John concert. We had not thought to plan for this. Really? It was a weekday in the middle of March.)

But the problems? We got through them. We waited for our car to be fixed and we drank coffee, together. I adjusted to the altitude and we had fun strolling through the streets of Salida the next day. And together, we left Casper behind us and got through another long, difficult 100 miles of Wyoming before finding a hotel.

Like every other disagreeable event in life, problems test a relationship. Will we choose cheer over anger? Will we turn away from blame? Will we be kind to the other in adversity and walk through to the other side of this problem together? If we (or you) can answer  yes  both in travel and in marriage, these are the ways to survive, to flourish, to love.

Decisions, decisions. Meals, lodging, activities: multiple options confront at every turn. This hotel or that one? What do you feel like eating? Which café?  Should we turn off here? Drive that far,  see this site? Are you up for the sunset? Is this a good spot for a picnic?  Again, the way we handle all these little travel decisions is a metaphor for the way to handle life together.

Here’s what we’ve learned after years of practice: we voice our preferences, and then we gauge the degree to which these things matter to the other. Sometimes he or I feels strongly. If it matters to him, we do what he wants; if it matters to me, we do what I want. ( If it matters to neither of us, well, we plunge in and take our chances….)

The southern entrances to Yellowstone National Park were closed, still buried under the winters’ snows. Dave had it in his mind to drive the 32 miles to where the road was closed- to get as close as possible to the park. I thought the plan was foolish, but it was important to him, and really, why not? To get to a sign that said ROAD CLOSED,

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we drove through gorgeous forests on empty roads with lovely mountain views.

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Sometimes I like to wander into book stores or galleries in little towns. Not interested, Dave waits outside, preferably in the sun.

Like all good friendships, honesty matters. And so does a little bit of sacrifice.

So as I report on our trip, it seems I have also reported on marriage. I’m glad I’m taking trips with my husband, David. Travel makes it clear that who we travel with, whether on road trip or in life is a pretty big deal.

 

Road Trip, Part One

My husband and I returned last night from a little road trip. Well, not a little road trip. In fact, we drove 4,900 miles.

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Please wait a while before asking me to get back in my car.

Now that I’m back, I am doing some reflecting. Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” so I’m spending some time thinking about what I’ve just experienced. Writing about it helps in that process.

Here are a few observations:

Getting away can be helpful. We were starting to be too preoccupied with a few of our problems. The grey and gloom of winter, combined with a few months of some medical s**t had made us start to see things in a negative light. Getting away changed our focus. We thought about people other than ourselves. We saw blue sky and felt warm temperature, and we remembered that we’d someday have those again. We saw spectacularly beautiful sights – beauty is always solace and grace for a soul.

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We saw some rather plain sights, too, which made us remember that where we live is pretty wonderful.

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It would have been lonely to just sightsee.  We loved that we had some days to ourselves to explore, but spending a few nights with people  was pretty great, too. There’s something good about being on the receiving end, not being in charge, learning to be flexible. We had good conversation, comfortable beds, nice tours of local sites. And we connected differently with the people that we stayed with because we were on their turf instead of ours. Friends, family? These relationships are great gifts worth nurturing, cultivating, holding on to. I love to travel to sightsee, but I’m glad we could spend time with good people, too.

There were pleasant surprises when we slowed down. It’s easy to be destination-focused when you look at a map and just want to get to point B from point A.   On our third day we weren’t in a huge hurry, so when we started seeing flocks of hundreds of birds overhead, we realized we might be somewhere important  (in the bird world) and in the middle of something good. So we stopped, chatted with locals, and learned we were witnessing the great Sand Hill Crane Migration. We made a phone call to the local Audubon center to find out just where we could drive for a good view of the nearly 140,000 birds that were in the area that day. 80% of the world’s Sand Hill Cranes (about 650,000 birds) will migrate through the Nebraska flyway this spring. And we were there to see part of the aggregation.  If you are a regular reader, you might know that I am enchanted by cranes, as we have a pair that hangs out in the land behind our house.  So to watch cranes  ( and snow geese) congregate was pretty wonderful.  Yes, we made horrible driving distance that day, but taking that little sidetrip was one of our highlights. Watch 18 seconds here

One other example: thankfully we were driving slowly on a road without traffic when this guy flew down from a nearby tree. We were able to stop and watch him, long enough to take this picture.

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 We didn’t need half the stuff we brought. It’s always hard to know what to bring. We knew we’d need stuff for a variety of activities and a variety of temperatures. But truly, we overpacked. Did I really need six pairs of shoes? ( uhh… no.) Dave pretty much wore the same three sets of clothes the entire time. There are washers and dryers in people’s houses, in hotels. We brought about 30 lbs of dogfood, but our dog was adjusting to new places every night or two so he didn’t feel like eating. ( As if we’d forgotten there are grocery stores?) We spent more time re-arranging the excess items in our car than actually using them.

And here’s a revelation: we lived just fine for three weeks with half of the items that fit in about three suitcases and a few extra containers and bags in our car. So why , really, do we need all the stuff that we own?

I’ll stop here but add more  in the next few days, as there is too much for one post. I’ll write about our national parks, because they are wonderful. And another post, perhaps, about traveling companions, as in my husband, who is great. And maybe another about spending time with one’s grown children. Until then, here are a few pictures from our trip.

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350

350. Three hundred and fifty.

That’s the number of not-for-profit, charitable organizations in Door County. With a population of less than 30,000 people, that’s pretty good. There are people here who are passionate about the arts, about the preservation of bird sanctuaries, about literacy, about feeding the hungry. I’m glad to be in a place where people are philanthropic, where people give their time and their expertise and their money in order to enrich the lives of others in the community.

Last weekend was a clear example of this.

On Saturday we became familiar with the efforts of Friends of Plum and Pilot Island, or FOPPI.

Just off the tip of the peninsula there’s a beautiful island that’s been pretty much off- limits to the public. However, because of the concerted efforts of a few very dedicated people, this might be changing.

A special tour boat delivered us to Plum Island where for several hours we met the volunteers who have begun to raise awareness of the island’s value.plum island10. plmisland7They are working to clear paths and build benches and inventory the birds and flowers. They are scraping paint on the structures and repairing the dock. They are making plans to restore the incredibly valuable historical buildings on the island: the lighthouse that for over a hundred years housed two families of lighthouse keepers, and the life saving station that at one time housed twenty men and their families. There’s also a boat house, a tall range light, and a huge shed that housed the loudest foghorn on the Great Lakes.

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The volunteers were great. They love the place, and it’s easy to see why: the history, the beauty, the lighthouses. We were even allowed to climb the winding, narrow stairs for a view from the top of the channel light.

After a day on the island, it was tempting to want to join in on these efforts. The buildings have been abandoned for years; there is a lot to be done. We could help, we thought. We, too, could scrape paint, count wildflowers, haul rocks,  write flyers,  give money. (And in fact, we still may.) At the very least we will admire and praise those volunteers and tell everyone we know that Plum Island is wonderful.

But then, of course, there was Sunday.

Sunday was Write on Door County’s Open House. I love this organization. I believe in its goal to nurture writers of all ages and all levels. So over the past year I’ve plunged in pretty deep.  I’ve taught and taken classes,  written text for catalogs, cleaned the lodging where writers can come and stay in order to write. I’m on the board, and we spend hours discussing  ideas and making plans to help this organization grow.  So on Sunday, I roped Dave in, and we spent most of the day there, carrying tables, setting up tents, arranging displays, talking to authors, reading to children. I love the people of this organization, and the goals are goals I believe in. It was time well spent, but it was still time spent.

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The list goes on, of course. There are 348 more organizations that are doing worthy things. Part of settling in is figuring out where to put our energies, to give our time.

One fear I had about retirement was how easily retired life could degenerate into self indulgence. But here, there are good role models. There are hundreds of good people working for good causes who are happy to have our help.  So we’ll watch and we’ll learn and we’ll make decisions.  And we’ll take boat trips to islands and read books to children in fields full of daisies and be glad.

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One Year

We’ve lived in Door County for one year. Have we changed?
Yes. In no particular order, here are a few ways that come to mind.

1) We aren’t working as hard.  One day last week I was late to a meeting with a friend. I couldn’t find my purse; I had forgotten to print something out that I had wanted to show her. I arrived at her house flustered, feeling discombobulated. And then it struck me: I used to feel this way all. the. time.

Teaching’s main job description is multitasking: planning lessons, managing the needs of scores of children, reading their essays and giving meaningful feedback, calling parents, fulfilling committee obligations, gathering supplies, making sure my co-teachers and I were on the same page with curriculum, and then re-reading the book, for example, so I could teach it well the next day . And that was just teaching. Add that to the demands of a marriage and maintaining a house and spending time with friends.

Yes, I prefer this pace over my former one.

And the delight of seeing Dave no longer juggling the restoration of an old home with the hours he spent at his job? He’s a man who likes to stay busy, and it’s so nice to see him busy with things he likes to do and not be pulled in opposite directions.

2) We aren’t as social.  We live down a very long driveway. Our closest neighbors are ½ mile away, and we have learned that Door Countians, as a whole, keep to themselves. Our neighbors are fine people, but they are not likely to be the ones initiating a conversation or inviting us over. On days that we stay in, we don’t see anyone else. We like people and were pretty engaged with lots of them in our former lives. This has been a big adjustment.

3) We’ve become less engaged with social activism. I’m sad about this one. For right or wrong, I’ve been pretty fired up about injustices of various kinds over my years. It’s why I lived more than once in an urban, poor neighborhood. And tried to be intentional about finding friends of different races or ethnicities. I made my students learn about refugees. I traveled to Uganda to help kids whose lives had been destroyed by war. On the other hand, Door County is a pretty safe place. (See my July post here about the lack of diversity.) There are lots of do-good organizations in this county, and most people’s needs here are being attended to. So I’m still figuring out if this part of me has changed forever or only until the time I find a new role to play.

4) We love beauty more. Ok, to be fair, this isn’t a change. But, I was very afraid that living around beauty all the time would desensitize me to beauty and that I would become ho-hum about it. I’m happy to report that didn’t happen.

It is weighty, how clouds change color

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or how even cracking ice can be beautiful. Lake Michigan in all its moods and variations still takes my breath away.

The cardinal who comes close all winter is always striking against white snow day after day after day.

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I never tire of our night sky when it is full of stars. And even when the white and grey of winter lingered on, we chased a snowy owl one day. On another, the sun hit the snow in such a way that it glistened like a field of diamonds.

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5) We read more. I write more. We reflect more.  The pace of our lives is slower, gentler. I wish I could report that we are better musicians as a result of our extra time. I wish I could say that my novel is finished or that Dave has taken up woodcarving as he once hoped. Instead, we are learning to be content with a life not based on productivity. Dave has learned, more quickly than I, to feel no guilt about an hour spent on the porch with a cigar and a book. We no longer feel driven. The lack of deadlines and schedules is delightful.

6) We dress differently. First off, there’s the weather. Why would anyone wear a dress or a skirt to anything when it’s 10 degrees out? Secondly, it’s vacation land. Nobody dresses up for anything. There just aren’t formal events here. So I’m in yoga pants and jeans a lot. Dave rotates between his many flannel shirts. I can imagine that I’ll be dreadfully out of style in a few years. Please friends, tell me if I become too frumpy.

7) We’re closer to the land.  We spent a lot of time this year with the trees and the rocks and the dirt on our land. We cleared brush, pulled junipers. We planted a garden and delighted in the lavish gifts it gave us. dh

 

The apples from trees just off of our driveway gave us the applesauce we’ve been eating all winter. A spruce tree on my walking path was brought inside and hung with lights and ornaments at Christmas. Our local grocer butchers his own beef, from cows that feed on grasses just four miles away. We have our own “egg guy” whose chickens provide us our weekly eggs.

When we stand on this land, walk on it, kneel on it, it feels right. It feels human. It feels holy.

8) Our bodies have acclimated.  When it was 46 this morning, we celebrated. It’s warm, we declared! As I write this, I am basking in the sun, thrilled to be sitting outside in just one layer of clothes. But it is only 63. A year ago, I think I would have been wearing a jacket.

We aren’t finished changing, I hope. There’s still more settling to do, more fitting in.

There are things we miss about our old life, our old selves. But for the most part, we’re grateful. It’s been a good year.