An (Arctic) Blast from the Past
As I write this, we’re on the brink of a widespread winter storm warning. Here in St. Paul, the temperature today has ranged from -5 to -13, and the wind is expected to pick up, creating blizzard conditions and dangerously low windchills. Across the country, weather forecasters have been calling this the coldest Christmas in roughly 40 years.
Down and Through
I’d last used the cutter with laminated vocabulary words and other visuals when I was working as a preschool tutor for Reading Corps several years ago. I remember feeling a delightful sense of teacherly industriousness as I prepared my lessons. I adored the inexpensive laminator I’d picked up at Aldi’s; I loved watching as my flimsy printouts turned stiff and shiny. And the paper cutter never failed me. Slice. Slice. Slice.
My dad passed away shortly after my service with Reading Corps ended. This time, when I brought out the paper cutter, my thoughts went back to my own childhood: my dad in the basement, the paper cutter on top of our small pool table, and that distinctive metallic sound as the blade came down and through, down and through. What did he need to cut? He directed the choir and served on the music committee at church, so most likely it had something to do with music. I knew I wasn’t to touch the paper cutter myself. I might hurt myself. It was dangerous. When I watched him make cut after cut, I was awestruck. My dad could do dangerous things. He was precise, deliberate, as he was in all he did—the careful upkeep of the farm equipment, the expertly trimmed trees in the grove, the ledger books that didn’t miss a single transaction.
My rectangles piled up. How I wished I could have shared the journey of The Everybody Club with my dad. He would have embraced the message wholeheartedly. He would have been proud of me—not just for making the book, but for helping my friend find a way to celebrate her daughter’s life. For a little while, the paper cutter brought me back to him, and him to me, and we stood there at my kitchen counter, cutting those rectangles together.
Carissa's Everybody Club
pin, motto, club colors, flag, membership card, and oath
club song, badges, and awards
Todd's attendance records
My first thought was that it was unfortunate I had not found these things earlier, but I quickly realized it was all good. In fact, it seemed like a sign from Carissa to keep going. And Nancy was happy and relieved that the book aligned so well with Carissa’s ideas.
We hope that the guidelines Carissa made for her own club so long ago will provide inspiration for lots of future Everybody Clubs!
Mother’s Day 1999
This week I came across a short Mother’s Day piece I wrote 22 years ago,
when my kids were four and two. What I would give to relive this day!
The day was beautiful: blue skies, warm but breezy—a delight after nearly a week of cold, rainy weather. Bill hadn’t slept well the night before, so in the afternoon I took the kids out so he could nap. We went to the neighborhood park. Helena was unusually serene and content. Maybe sensing his opportunity, Louis was even more talkative than usual. When other kids approached, he introduced himself with lots of additional commentary:
I’m a big boy.
If a bad guy comes, I’ll punch him in the belly button.
Do you know, do you know I really love Godzilla. And I like the Rugrats too.
God’s got the whole world in his hands, right Mama?
“Do you always chatter so much?” one of the moms asked him.
Louis seems to think that the coincidence of being at a playground at the same time somehow forms a commitment between the participants. When it was time for us to leave, he said to the kids who just happened to be near him, “Well, bye, we’re coming right back, we’re going to the Dairy Queen and then we’re coming right back.” As if these other kids care. It almost breaks my heart, he can be so earnest.
Anyway, we did go to the Dairy Queen, then off to a different playground. Louis found a live worm and gently played with it. He wanted to take it home, but contented himself with giving it rides on the swing.
“I’m going to watch its antics,” he announced.
A father on a nearby bench smirked. Meanwhile Helena just swung happily.
Truthfully, I’ve never cared much for Mother’s Day. There’s something that rubs me the wrong way about being told whom to appreciate and when, and that I should expect appreciation myself. But on this day, I celebrated being a mother in my own way: blue skies, warm sand on bare toes, a little girl’s red hair blowing in the breeze, and a little boy digging a home for his new friend, the worm.
"God Keeps My Damaged Heart Beating"
Years ago, after my elderly mother-in-law passed away and we were sorting her things, I came across this Christmas card. I couldn’t throw it away. I didn’t know who Joan was or how she knew my mother-in-law, but what I did know was that this woman had a story.
HOW ARE YOU? THIS IS LATE, SORRY. I HAVE HAD A LOT OF SICKNESS THIS LAST YEAR OR SO. I LIVE ALONE, SO IT'S HARD, BUT GOD KEEPS MY DAMAGED HEART BEATING. I WASN'T MYSELF UNTIL I LEFT BEN, NOW IT'S EASY TO KNOW WHO UNDERSTANDS WHAT LOVE IS.
This short note has affected me as much as anything I have ever read. I’ve often thought that I should write about it, gently tug meaning out of it and piece together my reflections. But I’ve decided that there’s not anything to add. Joan was writing straight from her heart in a way few of us ever manage to do.
This holiday season, may God keep all our damaged hearts beating, may we truly be ourselves, and may we find others who understand what love is.
I have been irritable much of the day. I don’t enjoy the work I’m doing, and there is nothing to look forward to. It’s Good Friday, but there will be no family dinner on Easter Sunday, no dyed eggs or coconut cookies topped with jellybeans to resemble bird nests. Instead we’ll be trying our luck at our first-ever family video call. We are still in the early days of the pandemic, still groping our way through this miserable low-hanging fog that never burns off.
Around five o’clock, I sleep my computer and head out for a walk, listening to the Cowboy Junkies on my phone. Almost exactly a year ago, I sat 15 feet away from the Cowboy Junkies at a show at the Dakota in downtown Minneapolis. I look back at that night with a sense of disbelief: people crowded together, drinking and laughing and eating, nodding and tapping their toes to live music, with no reason to give any of it a second thought. On this bleak day, it’s like remembering a jewel: a flash of sapphire, the glow of ruby.
I haven’t lived in this area of St. Paul very long and am still getting to know the neighborhoods. To the south is Summit Avenue, lined with well-tended Victorian mansions. To the east is the Cathedral of Saint Paul, a behemoth of faith risen from the hills. Today I head north. Older two- and three-story homes give way to ramblers. Later I will learn that this is the old Rondo neighborhood—a thriving black community that was torn apart in the 1960s when government officials decided to route I-94 right through the middle of it.
The music in my ears does little to improve my mood. There are few walkers and even fewer cars. The absence of activity takes on a heavy presence of its own.
I come to Carty Park, which covers an entire square block. The last time I was here, maybe two weeks ago, a half dozen teenagers were hanging out in the usual way—voices loud, no masks, no six-foot spaces between them. But the hard truths of the pandemic have been sinking in. Today the park is entirely empty, except for one man who is walking his dog. He angles by me, stepping off the path to avoid getting too close. He won’t even make eye contact. I feel rebuked, unclean.
The path curves toward the swings, and it occurs to me that I could sit there for a bit. I’m not tired, but for some reason the idea of sitting on a swing is appealing. I will sit and sway and check my email.
As soon as my hips settle into the black rubber U, I feel it—the urge to swing. Swaying won’t do. Forget email. I will swing.
After a few pumps of my legs, Margo Timmins’s voice pours into my head:
Sing me a song about life in America
Sing me a song of love
I smile at the aptness of the lyrics even as tears come to my eyes. A love of country wells through me unlike any I’ve ever experienced. What will become of us?
Sing me a song about life in your neighborhood
Sing me a song of love
I pump harder, higher. Before me are unbudded trees and silent houses. But I am swinging. I am a 55-year-old woman swinging in the middle of an empty park during a pandemic.
Tell me a tale about those who are dear
Sing me a song of joy
I’m swinging as high as I can go now. My ears are cold and I feel dizzy, queasy. But never mind.
I know what will become of us.
We will swing.
Our apps have a life of their own, don't they? Recently Google Pictures began sending me notifications: X number of years ago on this day...
I was a bit startled to see this picture come up on my phone, out of the blue:
Creepy! But let me explain.
Five years ago my parents moved off their farm to a house in town (Mountain Lake). They moved in March, but the folks who would be renting the homestead weren't going to be arriving until August. So every week or two that summer, I drove from the Twin Cities to spend a few days helping them clean out the house and some of the outbuildings. It was a hot, dry, Sisyphean summer: Would we ever, ever reach the end of things to be packed or sorted or discarded? Would it ever, ever rain again?
The dolls in the above picture had been stored for years, maybe decades, in what we called the "chicken barn" (even though no chickens had lived there in my lifetime). Those dolls were my well-loved and well-worn childhood friends. My mom made clothes for them out of fabric left over from the clothes she made for me—in fact, the orange dress on the doll to the right came from the dress I wore on my first day of kindergarten.
The day we tackled the chicken barn was supposed to be very hot, so we got to work especially early. And when I discovered my long-lost dolls, I set them out to catch the sun's first rays. After being shut away in the darkness for so many years, they deserved a little time in the golden glow of a July sunrise.
Among those in my age group (early 50s), helping parents move is a common scenario--exhausting yet brimming with memories. So I won't stop with the dolls. Here are more photos from the summer of 2012. Maybe some of you will relate.
I'm pretty sure this cowboy-themed toy bin helped me learn my letters and numbers. And then there's KerPlunk, a canister of Tinker Toys, and a leather-stenciling kit that belonged to my brother.
Also in the chicken barn: the remains of my brother's purple-ribbon 4-H bug box. I think he went to the state fair with it. At one point it held a prized luna moth as well as a cecropia moth—true victories in the world of 4-H entomology.
Now for something pretty! This intricate tissue-paper flower was made by my grandmother, along with several others. I wish I knew the occasion.
These pictures are imbedded in my brain. The mountain one hung over the organ in the living room. The fruit one was in the dining room—but the troubling thing is, I had to really think to remember where it had been. And it's only been five years.
More pictures that had been around as long as I could remember. But by 2012 they'd been relegated to the basement, where my dad had made room for a computer desk.
This work of "art" was my doing. I put this puzzle together during all the snow days we had when I was in seventh or eighth grade. That was the era of my maroon body suit. (For some reason that's what comes to mind when I think of working on this puzzle.)
A weed missed by the mower seized its chance to really show off.
Even a key can be a sensory memory...its smoothness and weight...
and the way you had to feel for just the right place to turn.
I remember spending the better part of a day packing up the pantry.
But what good old-fashioned farm pantry it was!
During one visit I worked into the night and then took a few pictures.
The lattice work cast an intricate shadow, and the picnic table seemed to float in midair.
The view from inside the breezeway, facing the yard light and granary.
A mama cat named Babe was happy for some company.
Headlights on corn...one of the eeriest images there'll ever be.
Hard to believe now, but as a kid I did undertake sewing projects now and then, mostly for 4-H (and always under the watchful eye of my mom). The tennis dress and the skirt I made from these patterns both ended up in my daughter's dress-up basket.
The dust of a summer's work covered my Sorento.
A few sparse raindrops turned it into a canvas.
My daughter, then 15, came out with me sometimes and amused herself by taking pictures. This is one of my favorites. It's how I like to remember the farm: both dreamy and substantial, and always inviting you to get up off your feet.
Maybe You're Wrong
Near the end of the summer, I saw this sign at a coffee shop in St. Paul:
Wow. Talk about unexpected. These words aren’t cheerful. They’re not intellectual. They’re not even cool or quirky. But I find myself still thinking about them weeks later.
MAYBE YOU'RE WRONG.
This isn’t a finger-wagging, confidence-destroying YOU’RE WRONG. And it’s not a timidly asked question we can easily dismiss. It’s a simple statement of fact that applies to virtually everything we think and do.
Maybe you’re wrong.
Usually we receive the opposite message. We’re told to stand up for ourselves, believe in ourselves, celebrate ourselves! Snap judgments and arrogance are OK. Uncertainty is not. We don’t try to fully understand people or issues; instead we look for proof that we’re right and stop the search a few inches in front of our noses. We dig in our heels. (Anyone thinking of Congress now?)
Consider this article by Marty Kaplan, “The Most Depressing Discovery about the Brain, Ever.” Here’s the gist:
In Kahan’s experiment, some people were asked to interpret a table of numbers about whether a skin cream reduced rashes, and some people were asked to interpret a different table – containing the same numbers – about whether a law banning private citizens from carrying concealed handguns reduced crime. Kahan found that when the numbers in the table conflicted with people’s positions on gun control, they couldn’t do the math right, though they could when the subject was skin cream. The bleakest finding was that the more advanced that people’s math skills were, the more likely it was that their political views, whether liberal or conservative, made them less able to solve the math problem.
Yup. Totally depressing.
Of course it’s important to have convictions, and to live by them. And we can’t constantly be reevaluating our beliefs. We’d never get anywhere that way.
What we can do is make a conscious choice to leave the window open a crack–whether that means double-checking an address, taking more time to listen, or allowing ourselves to have a more nuanced approach to important social issues.
Maybe You’re Wrong isn’t catchy or cute. We’ll never see it on a T-shirt or cross-stitched onto a sofa pillow.
But it wouldn’t hurt to paint it on our walls.
Presenting to schools as a visiting author means keeping track of a LOT of stuff. For a series of school visits I did in April in rural Minnesota, this meant: a laptop; projector; flash drives; power cords; books to sell or give away in drawings; bookmarks and postcards to hand out; directions, schedules, and contact information–plus all the usual things like a comb, cell phone charger, and reading glasses. (I think my next pair will be bright red, so I can keep track of them.)
That’s not even counting the suitcase with practically all the business-casual clothes I own. Minnesota in April? Could be 30 degrees. Could be 80.
Since I’m one of those people who can’t talk and do much of anything else at the same time, I knew it would be hard for me to be simultaneously friendly and organized. To make things a little easier, I made up a comprehensive list. Every item was assigned a location (backpack, tote, etc.) and a number. I would simply go down the list–everything would be in its place and I wouldn’t have to tax my brain too strenuously.
My system worked great…until the day I completely dropped the ball. Or rather, I left behind the elephant.
I’d had a fun time of it in Minneota. Because of testing schedules at the school, all four of my presentations were in the wrestling gym—floor-to-floor mats that required all of us to take off our shoes. I enjoyed that, actually. It was relaxing to pad about in front of the kids, instead of clicking about on low heels as I normally would. One of the kids pointed at my feet (I was wearing black nylon knee-highs) and asked, “Why are your feet that color?”
And Nancy Dilley, assistant to the media specialist, was a very pleasant guide as she took me about. At noon she brought me to the nearby senior center, where lunch was a fundraiser potluck. I might have been back in my hometown church basement–my favorite potluck foods from childhood were all there.
When my last presentation was over, Nancy offered to help me bring my things to the school library. I put my orange tote on her cart and off we went. One of the kindergarten teachers had bought the Scholastic version of The LAST Day of Kindergarten for her entire class, and I signed each copy. Then I just had to look at the art projects that were on display. The 5th and 6th graders had been given the best assignment ever: to make a diorama for a favorite book, using Peeps. No art museum could have made me happier!
When it was time to go, I casually glanced through my things and didn’t bother to get out my checklist. I drove off to my hotel in Granite Falls, about 40 minutes away. As I was unloading my car, it hit me: My orange tote was back on Nancy’s cart in the Minneota school library.
The most important things in the tote were some very old books and a homemade stuffed pink elephant. In my presentations, I’d been sharing my experience of helping my parents move off the farm a couple of years ago. I explained how I’d discovered a stash of books and toys that I remembered very well even though it had been more than 40 years since I’d looked at them. “The books you read when you’re kids,” I told them, “become a part of you, especially the books you read over and over. They live inside you, whether you’re aware of it or not.”
At the end, when it was time for Q & A, I brought out the pink elephant that my mom made for me. The kids tossed the elephant around the room, and whoever caught it got to ask a question and then toss it to someone else. I always warned them that if things got too crazy, we’d do questions the usual way. But the elephant worked just fine and it was fun to see it flying about the room.
I had four presentations in Granite Falls the next day. I really, really wanted those books and that elephant!
I called the school, but it was after 5 by now and no one answered at the main office. I debated driving back anyway, because the school would probably be open for sports activities. But would the library be open? Not likely. Would a custodian be available? Maybe…but I would be driving an hour and a half to take that chance.
So I called Nancy Dilley on her cell. She was in a meeting in Marshall, but even so, bless her, she offered to pick up the tote and drive it all the way to my hotel. I told her that I would be happy to do the driving if she could just access the tote. We decided to meet roughly halfway, at Hanley Falls.
I was totally embarrassed by the whole episode, of course. But after a while I was able to put aside my mistake and simply enjoy being on the road. The sky! Great thunderheads were churning above the prairie. I marveled at the colors–the blues and golds shimmering and shifting as if being twirled about on a painter’s brush. Soon I was driving alongside one of the biggest rainbows I’d ever seen.
And then a second rainbow appeared.
I reached our meeting spot and gazed at both rainbows until they faded from the sky.
Nancy arrived with my orange tote; she, too, had seen the drama in the sky.
I thanked her, impulsively hugged her, and we both went on our way.
Like the well-remembered books from my childhood (and the pink elephant), I’m pretty sure these rainbows have become a part of me, too.
A Kind Neighbor, a Beaded Tree
Carpe diem. Seize the day. I don’t normally care for this expression—to me it’s always seemed either idealistic or scolding. Lately, though, a couple of incidents have made me realize that to seize the day might just mean to bear witness to someone else’s best moments.
Earlier this summer, my mom had been mowing the lawn—zipping along on the garden tractor as if she were still on the farm. My dad, who has Alzheimer’s, was on the deck. The peonies were poking through the deck rails and he was picking them off, thinking they didn’t belong there.
Mom finished the mowing, parked the lawn mower in the garage, and checked on Dad. He wasn’t on the deck anymore, but she figured he was close by. Crumpled peonies littered the kitchen floor.
Dad wasn’t close by. He’d wandered down to the end of the street, and man named Vern Hooge had seen him and gone outside to see if he could help. Vern was in his mid-80s, and even though he lived fairly close to my parents, they’d never met. Dad could tell Vern his name, but not where he lived. So Vern contacted the police, found out where Dad belonged, and brought him home just as Mom realized that Dad really was missing.
Mom thanked Vern profusely, called him an angel, and asked him to come over for coffee sometime.
A couple of weeks went by. Mom’s days as a caregiver were full and tiring. But she kept thinking about her invitation to Vern, and one day she made herself ignore the dusting and sweeping and she picked up the phone and called him. And what an enthusiastic response she got: “I’ll be right over!” said Vern.
In a few minutes they were chatting over cake and fresh raspberries. Vern offered to come over and watch Dad once in a while if my mom needed to go out. By the time Vern left, Mom’s burden seemed a little lighter. A neighbor was becoming a friend.
Less than two weeks later, Vern died unexpectedly from complications of surgery. And my mom was so thankful that she’d made that call—and so glad that Vern had accepted her invitation so readily. A relationship had started and ended in that one afternoon. One pleasant, neighborly, hopeful afternoon.
Now for the next story. Last April, I was getting ready to drive to southwestern Minnesota for nearly a week of author visits at elementary schools. It was a gorgeous day and I debated whether I had time to take my dog, Dorie, for a walk. I was tired and stressed and I didn’t want to end up driving in the dark, but I decided to go for it. I knew I’d feel better about leaving Dorie if we’d had a nice outing. And like I said, the day was gorgeous. Bright and blue and warm. In Minnesota, bright and blue and warm is the thread that tugs us through winter.
I had moved to St. Louis Park just a few weeks earlier, so every dog walk yielded new discoveries. That afternoon, I ended up on a path between some tennis courts and an apartment building. In the distance I noticed a tree that seemed to be sparkling. When I got closer, I found that the tree was covered in garlands of beads. It was bedecked, festooned. It was gorgeous.
Who had decorated the tree? And why? I took out my phone and took a few pictures. I wanted to remember this.
That night, at my hotel, I added a picture of the tree to my PowerPoint. It was a perfect example of something I wanted to share with the kids: that stories are everywhere. (And that you should always take the time to walk your dog on a beautiful spring day, no matter what.)
The kids liked the beaded tree. But I never got the chance to tell them this: A couple of weeks later, Dorie and I walked that same route. And the tree was gone.
At first I thought I had gotten the location wrong—that it was behind a different apartment building. I walked this way and that, hoping a glisten would catch my eye. When I got home, I checked the background of my photo. The tree was indeed gone.
I still don’t know who decorated the tree. But I have a pretty good idea of why.
This picture has been the log-in screen on my computer for months. I see it nearly every day. Now, though, the beaded tree makes me think of my parents’ neighbor. A gift of kindness shimmering in the sunlight…then gone.
But oh, the joy in having seen it.
is a children's book author, editor, tutor, mom of two adult children and one feisty cat, and collector of weird things.
My Reading Corps Service
Letters for Kids
A Blue Ribbon Day
A Kind Neighbor, a Beaded Tree