Driving in the Slow Lane

Earlier today, I got a good dose of winter driving as I went to meet a friend for morning coffee. Big fat snowflakes fell on roads already a little slick while cars crept along below the speed limit to avoid skidding into someone else. It wasn’t all that bad, really – better than last week when it dropped 40 degrees overnight and everything iced over. Instead, this morning was beautiful as the flakes drifted down on morning commuters who, on the road I traveled, seemed to be in pretty good spirits for a Monday morning.

Perhaps that has do to with staying off the freeways on mornings like this. As someone who grew up here the Twin Cities, I have a lot of back routes tucked in my memory. When my Google calendar popped up with a suggestion that it would take me over 40 minutes to get where I needed to be, the calculation was based on the assumption I would take the Interstate. But I didn’t, and my commute was about 25 minutes. This got me thinking about how many people out there unquestioningly follow route suggestions based on algorithms designed by someone who lives in California. Or some other place far away from here.

Don’t get me wrong – I appreciate those calendar reminders that tell me it’s time to go out the door, especially on days when I’ve forgotten I have anything on my calendar. I appreciate the little map that pops up on my phone screen. What I am thinking about here is human tendencies, suggestibility, habit. I have a habit of double-checking directions I get from anyone – whether it’s my best friend or Google. I also have a habit of thinking about which route I’ll enjoy driving on the most, because I like driving. If someone suggests a route to me, there’s probably a 50-50 chance that I’ll follow it. During rush hour, I’m unlikely to go on the route most-traveled. What kind of algorithm suggests routes for people like me?

And maybe I’ve just stumbled over the reasons why I like maps. On paper. I love to look at a route, see how it moves through an area, note the curves in the road or the rivers or the forests or the mountains, and to see that all at once instead of blindly following my GPS. I like having that picture in my head when I start out, the whole journey splayed out.

Only it isn’t really the whole picture. Whether using GPS or Google or a paper map, the only way to really know a route is to travel it. To notice how the left lane disappears when taking Lexington across Grand even though the sign indicates it’s the right lane that will end. To see kids waiting for the bus on County Road B. To stop for the dog that got out of the yard near the playground, grateful that I have dog treats in my car and could help. To wait for the sanding truck that has to swing out around the car stalled at the curb. And to see the holiday lights on the coffeehouses and stores between here and my friend’s house. These slower roads I have a fondness for offer a closer look at those who live around me, at the way my city is put together, and how well this all works most of the time.

Those big fat flakes of snow are just a little bit of loveliness begging us to slow down and take it all in.

Enjoy your Monday.

 

 

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Give in to the Season

No matter how you feel about the winter holidays, Christmas stuff surrounds us right now. Ready or now, Christmas carols are blaring, lights are twinkling, and retailers are competing in a death match for our attention. Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and the Winter Solstice are getting almost no attention at the moment. It’s the Christmas rush that rules in the US.

I come from a family who celebrates Christmas.  Today, I’m ready to give in and enjoy it. With so much stressful news competing for attention and so many things we could be worried about, a little Christmas sounds pretty good right now.

The holidays do make me wistful. Nostalgic. Wishing for more time with family and friends. And a little more time free of to-do lists and social obligations. Quiet time, phone off, fireplace on. Shared dinners, feel-good evenings without emails to answer.

A little holiday respite that I’d love to stretch out from here until the New Year.

Nice daydream. I’ll keep it going with some time every day next to our Christmas tree, that wonderful-smelling embodiment of the Christmas season.

How will you keep your holiday spirit going this month?

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An ornament my mom made when I was a kid. One piece of nostalgia.

 

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An ornament one of my nephews made when he was little; he’s now a senior in high school. Another piece of nostalgia.

Happy Monday, everyone.

 

 

Still Thankful

After ignoring my computer for the entirety of the long Thanksgiving weekend, I am feeling refreshed. And incredibly grateful.

Many of us make lists of what we are thankful for in honor of Thanksgiving. The day before Thanksgiving, Mick and I went to our regular Wednesday night yoga class. The class ended with a walking meditation during which we were instructed to think of something we were grateful for with each step we took. After the first few steps, it was like floodgates opened: the list of what I am grateful for is enormous. It includes the usual – family, friends, pets, food, warmth, shelter –  as well as things I don’t usually think about, like a washing machine in my house, a car that starts in the cold, soap that smells good, a shower that gets good and hot, coffee cups that feel good in my hands, a view of the sunset from my living room, squirrels that flick their tails on our deck, chickadees that know when we fill our bird feeders, a newspaper subscription, a toaster, a coffeemaker, a front door that locks. For everything that popped into my head, there was something logical that followed it and then branched off into other areas of my life. Big things, little things, intangible things. Scrambled eggs. Safety. Warm socks. Love. By the end of class, I felt not only relaxed and restored, but joyous. So much came to mind during that meditation that I’m still thinking about it all now, days later.

For this holiday season, I’m committed to taking a little time every day for this kind of meditation on gratitude. Oh, did I say for the holiday season? Wait. I mean from now on.

Simple as that.

Thank you for reading.

 

Turkey Season

Four wild turkeys – a tom and three hens – have been hanging around our neighborhood the past couple of weeks. The first time I saw them, they were strutting in a perfect line between our house and our neighbor’s house to the south. I was at the mailbox, my mini-dachshund on a leash at my side, when I saw them all looking at me. And the dog. Normally, Truffles (who is only mine because she couldn’t go to college with my daughter) would have barked at these creatures so much that her feet would have left the ground.

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wild turkeys crossing street

But she did not see them. Rather than question how that happened, I grabbed my mail and turned Truffles back toward our door. Her nose never left the ground; something delectable was down there. Those turkeys kept their eyes on us the whole time.

After that, the turkeys appeared often. They strutted across our front yard, paused at the street, then crossed with a deliberateness that would challenge any vehicle headed their way. They looked both ways as they crossed, their big feet placed just so as proof they own this street. They meandered through our back yard, scratched at the dirt, pecked at seeds and whatever else looked good to them. They raised their wings, gave a few flutters, shook off some dust. They took over our driveway twice – once when my daughter Abby was leaving for work and once when my partner Mick and I returned from the store.

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wild turkey 3

Never did they scramble to get out of our way. To be fair, we approached them with respect and caution. We – well, Mick and I – love these creatures. Abby doesn’t. She thinks they’re mean.

If they are mean, I don’t mind. I’m amused by their giant birdiness, their surprisingly pretty feathers, their obvious intelligence. These are not domesticated turkeys whose wiliness has been bred right out of them; they know enough to close their beaks and get out of the rain. These birds are the bad boys – and girls – who can take care of themselves, know when to hit the road. They own it.

Benjamin Franklin thought the wild turkey was an appropriate national bird. (You can read about that here.) I could see that. Turkeys may not soar high in the sky like eagles, but they are nevertheless proud. They don’t look down on us from above. They meet us, face-to-face, in our own back yards.

I like that.

wild turkeys resting

 

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wild turkey 2

HAPPY THANKSGIVING! How about a nice salad?

Live from St. Paul – A Writer’s Life

Monday morning writing sometimes happens far away from computer keyboards, for which my eyes always thank me. Today it’s happening at a marble-topped table in a booth at Quixotic Coffee in St. Paul, Minnesota. A quiet place on Cleveland Avenue in a quiet-ish neighborhood – at least, Monday mornings at 8:30 are quiet. Given the movie theater across the street and the strip mall around the corner, I would guess this is just a lull. It’s my first time in this coffeehouse and the coffee is fabulous. I love this large latte with four shots to jolt me awake. And I love this booth that envelopes my table with high sides of warmly-stained wood.

I’m waiting for a friend to arrive. While I wait, I think about why I don’t write at places like this much anymore. I used to, back when I thought I could figure out my own writing rhythm better somewhere not at home. Home had all the distractions I loved: my kids, my partner, my dogs, my music, my books, my garden, a landline on which friends called, snacks in the cupboard, the television. Even though I carved out a home office space, it wasn’t working for me. In my office, I always felt like the kid who was sent away to do homework while everyone else was having fun. It took me years to shed that idea.

Now, the writing does happen at home. My office that has been shaped to better hold my writer-self. The walls are painted deep orange, there are shelves of books on poetry, more poetry, creative nonfiction, fiction, and a little photography. There are notebooks full of rough drafts, NaNoWriMo pages, schedules for submissions, stuff for the journal I co-edit. My camera equipment is stashed in a black Crumpler bag, pictures of my family are scattered all over. I get excited about work in that space. Houseguests don’t get to spend the night in there unless we are out of room everywhere else. My office is sacred ground.

But there is something to be said about writing somewhere else, out in the world. It used to be pretty trendy to go write in coffeehouses, let the world know creative work was going on all around. I was always fairly self-conscious about that, preferring to find the least-conspicuous spot to sit if I were going to be writing in a public space. Once I did finally figure out how to be productive at home, I realized that was a much better fit anyway. And it occurs to me now, while I wait for my friend, that maybe the hard separation of what I do, what many writers do, from the rest of life is an unnecessary line. Writing things down, processing what I think through my keyboard or a pen, is the backbone of who I am. Sentences and lines of poems get structured in my head while I walk my dog, shower, drive, wait. This way of arranging words is never not with me.

Writing can happen anywhere. My office remains sacred and is important as the place where the final edits are done, but these coffeehouses, the park, the airport, a bar – they all hold the words and images just waiting to be used. Writers make use no matter where they are.

Make use. Happy Monday.

 

Turning Inward

November is one of my favorite months. Wait, I think I may have said that about October, too. But I’m going to allow myself more than one favorite, even if that defies the definition of the word. You see, what I like about this month in Minnesota is the very stuff that many people hate: the early darkness, the cold, the snow that will likely come to stay, the looming of the winter holidays. I like the gradual appearance of holiday lights on neighborhood houses, the way we scramble to make sure we have the hoses stowed in the garage and the outside water turned off, how we begin to think of gift lists for family and menus for dinners with friends. I like how we stand at the end of the driveway and talk with our neighbors, shovels in hand, after the first big snowfall of the season.

What I really like is the way we hunker down together at home in November. And it seems that hunkering down at home is exactly what the whole country might need right now. Yesterday’s horrific news of yet another shooting (this is never going to end, is it?), another group of people who thought they were simply going to a place they expected to be safe, ratchets up our national anxiety level another notch. And our anxiety is already at an all-time high, right along with our divisive perceptions of who we are, who our neighbors and friends are, who our enemies are.

And so today, I am at work in a silent house. No television, no radio offering up special news reports in the background. I’m avoiding a lot of social media, too.  Drawing inward and thinking about the next kind thing to do is more productive than feeling as if we are all in a constant state of alarm.

November, for all its bad weather and darkness, might just be the perfect time to open our doors, embrace some fresh air, offer a bit of love.

 

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Happy Halloween from One Minnesota Writer

I love Halloween! I love carving pumpkins, roasting seeds, passing out candy, being outside in the dark. And I hope I never outgrow this love of Halloween and spooky fun.

Last year, I was in New York just before Halloween and found this at the Chelsea Market:

Pumpkins in Chelsea Market

And this:

Pumpkin in Chelsea Market 2016

And this:

Scary figure - Halloween at Chelsea Market 2016

I loved everything about the Chelsea Market decorations, even their occasional gory displays. The Edgar Allen Poe pumpkin was one of my favorites. At our house, we are just a tad less spooky and a lot more simplistic in our pumpkin carving, but even our dog, Truffles, gets into the act:

If you are in Roseville, you just might see me with my partner Mick tending the fire in our driveway and passing out candy from our cauldron.

Happy Halloween! May you find your favorite treats instead of tricks. See you in November.

 

 

Tilting Toward the Dark

Ingredients for a Spanish-style stew

Ingredients for a Spanish-style stew

Yesterday, I was in full-blown have-to-cook mode. I get like that in the fall, when the weather cools, darkness comes earlier, and I spend more time indoors. I’m not quite sure when I turned into someone who must cook, who feels compelled to blend spices and sauté chicken and chop onions, peppers, garlic. Someone who then feeds whatever dish comes together to whomever happens to be at home.

Maybe it was when I was little, watching my mother try to cook as little as possible. This was a big way I could differentiate from her. She saw cooking as duty, as drudgery, as some sort of preordained task that was not a choice. I don’t think she thought it was fair. There were things she cooked that I loved, like her mild version of chili, or noodles Romanoff, which was simply some kind of boxed noodles mixed with hamburger. There were things I imagined she took out her dislike of cooking on, like steak which was always, to me, overdone, or frozen pizza, which she left in the oven a little too long. And there were Christmas cookies, which seemed magical and maybe she enjoyed. Whatever her issues around cooking, she did it and shooed me out of the kitchen most of the time because she didn’t want to clean up more than she had to.

Or maybe this desire to cook erupted when I was a young adult going through a divorce while parenting a young child. There had to be something that would comfort, soothe and sustain me and my son during those days, especially since I was trying to finish college and hang on to my clerical job. Cooking in the student housing apartment where we lived made everything feel normal; I could provide something other families provided to their kids. I could cook. I could create a warm and nourishing place for my son regardless of the chaos that swirled around us.

Or maybe it was even later when this cooking thing fully formed, after my daughter came along and was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, and her father and I had to rethink everything we fed her. Cooking is a skill that opens up to accommodate all kinds of diets, all kinds of likes and dislikes. Of course it could open up to embrace what we were learning about diabetes, about blood sugar and carbohydrates and metabolism. Of course it could provide comfort again.

Spanish wine

What the cook drank while working

Or maybe this has simply been a life-long process. It could just be a love of the creativity that can be part of finding and offering sustenance. It could be the way turning on the stove provides warmth in these unstable days when the world feels cold, mean, and ready to implode.

Whatever the reasons, as the year tilts toward its dark end, I am ready to chop, stew, braise, and sauté my way forward.

Recipe for Chicken, Shrimp, and Sausage Stew that I found on Epicurious.com. It turned out very tasty.

On My Mother’s 100th Birthday

No, my mother Mary (Bovee) Cassen will not be celebrated in person today. She has been gone since December 5, 2000. But I think of her nevertheless, particularly now that my own young adult daughter is back home for a short time while she and her friends search for an apartment that suits the four of them.

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My mother and my daughter once upon a time.

What would my mother and I talk about now? Now that I am no longer a headstrong girl,  a snarky teenager, a so-sure-I’m-right-about-everything young adult? I think about these never-to-be-shared conversations often lately, know that we might have found some common ground we didn’t recognize earlier. I’m pretty sure we would share an opinion of our current president. And I’m pretty sure she would watch “This is Us” with me on Tuesday nights, be happy when my daughter Abby is around for dinner, enjoy seeing my son Shawn’s artwork, and laugh with my granddaughter Camille’s stories about first grade.

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My mom, my dad, and me. The youngest of my family, I was a bit of a surprise. I wonder what my mom’s first words were when she found out I was on the way?

My mom was a woman who was hard to convince. Once she formed an opinion about anything, that was that. Sometimes I suppose that served her well, kept her on what she thought was the right path. Examples might be her Roman Catholic faith, her marriage vows, her ability to toss out material goods when the closets became too full. She never liked my first husband, which eventually proved to be a prescient warning when his growing alcoholism forced me to toss him out of our home. She knew which buttons of mine to push so that I would stubbornly succeed at whatever she doubted was possible.

She saw farther ahead than I gave her credit for. And we both had wills of steel. Steel upon steel doesn’t always make the best sound, but put two pieces of steel together, and you might get a magnificently strong structure.

What I’ve really come to understand is that I miss her.

Happy Birthday, Mom.

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Laughter. This is what I want to remember.

 

 

 

Federal Holiday Today? Not at My House.

The thing about being a freelance writer and editor, especially one who co-edits a lit mag where submissions may arrive anytime during the reading period, is that I don’t pay a lot of attention to federal holidays. That is until I go outside to get the mail and find an empty mailbox. And then I think, hey, I should go downtown for something because the parking meters won’t be enforced. But I usually turn around and go back to my computer. My partner is also at work today – the University of Minnesota is doing business as usual. And I have friends – people in healthcare – who are also working away.

Not that I typically observe Columbus Day anyway. Here’s a great article about its history that supports my non-observance: http://www.businessinsider.com/columbus-day-history-2017-10

When I was a kid, I loved Columbus Day and the associated day off of school. I loved the stories about sailing across the ocean and finding the so-called New World. I had no concept that it wasn’t new to the people already living here and the new arrivals weren’t the nicest of people. Now, I think about how our entire country isn’t the nicest of places, with violence and divisiveness shattering daily life everywhere. Seems like a direct thread, doesn’t it?

st paul at end of dayBut arguments about Columbus Day aside, what I’m trying to focus on this fall is poetry. First, Gyroscope Review‘s fall issue is now available and it’s gorgeous. It is available in print from CreateSpace or Amazon. And guess what? The very first Kindle Edition of Gyroscope Review is now available, too. And, as always, there is a free PDF at the Gyroscope Review website. Enjoy some good poetry as an antidote to the daily news.

By the way, if you are a poet looking for a home for some of your work, Gyroscope Review‘s winter issue reading period is open now through December 15. Please read the guidelines carefully before submitting. Of particular interest for this reading period are poems with a wintery theme, current events, and explorations of the underground (be broad in your interpretation here).

Second, my own work is in need of attention. That means a stricter writing schedule for myself. Writing schedules ebb and flow over the course of the seasons; they flex to absorb vacations and holidays and kids who move back home. But fall brings with it the season of hunkering down, pulling out the sweaters and making the coffee and getting down to it as a poet. This is the time of year when I feel most excited about my work, when early evenings feel like a gift and the chill in the air invigorates. Any writers out there who want to chime in on this topic, I welcome your comments.

Happy Monday, whatever you’re doing.