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.

 

 

On the Eve of the Winter Solstice

Yes, my blog this week is a day late. And there is one very important reason for that.

Yesterday, we had to say goodbye to our old friend Ruby. Ruby was our 14-year-old Irish terrier who spent her life in our house, watched our kids grow into amazing adults, stood by us when we each lost our fathers, welcomed our granddaughter, took our second dog Truffles under her wing, and paced the floor around 5:30 every morning in her old age.

It was a bittersweet day, as any pet owner will know. Ruby told us she was done by refusing to eat and drink over the weekend. She was tired. She had lived long enough.

And so we did what we needed to do: took her to our vet, whom she loved, and helped her leave us.

Ruby the Irish terrier

Ruby

Even though I had to get a box of Kleenex to keep in my office yesterday, today I am thinking about how Ruby made us better people by forcing us to slow down once in a while. She had a way of backing up to us wherever we were sitting so that we could pause and pet her. She was good at being insistent. Pay attention, she seemed to say.

Dogs are good at that.

As we move on to the Winter Solstice, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and the New Year, taking a moment to pay attention to whatever is there in front of us might be a really nice idea. Turn off the news, put away the screens, and pause.

Happy Holidays, everyone. One Minnesota Writer will return in January 2017.

happy holidays from one minnesota writer

Winter Visions

snow filled evergreen

It’s looking like Christmas out there. After a snowy weekend, the trees are laden with white. The air is crisp. The landscape looks clean. And thoughts turn to holidays, cozy nights, blue stars far away in the night sky. Enjoy your week.

WINTER TREES

 

All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.

poem courtesy of The Poetry Foundation, poetryfoundation.org
photo by KCMickelson 2016

Of Poetry and Fudge

I spent much of the weekend reading slush for Gyroscope Review and thinking about our winter issue, which will be available on January 1. Being an editor means I have to be both hard-nosed and generous. This role is where I am constantly challenged to put myself in someone else’s shoes as I try to appreciate the poems in front of me. It is a role that requires me to know what’s going on in the world, to recognize a variety of references across different perspectives, and to see when a poem just needs a little tweak to be great or when I have to say no.

In short, it’s a lot of work. It’s just as much work as the writing itself; it just happens to come on the other end of the creative process. And this is my editorial plug for anyone who is submitting work to one of the number of publications who have open calls for submissions: no editor does this work to make your life miserable. Editors do this work to offer the best possible assembly of words to readers.

And, in the spirit of offering good poetry, I am pleased to share Gyroscope Review‘s list of Pushcart Prize nominees here. My co-editor Constance Brewer and I work hard to get Gyroscope Review‘s contributing authors’ names out into the world and the Pushcart Prize nominations are an excellent opportunity to do that. Please check out the list of nominees and then swing by our Issues page to see those poems and many more.

Perhaps reading some poetry while December tightens its cold-weather grip will be just the thing to counteract this post-election funk many of us feel. But if that doesn’t help, then maybe this will….I give you the fudge recipe I use every year around this time. Fudge makes everything better, don’t you think?

I’ve used the same fudge recipe since I found it on the back of a jar of Kraft marshmallow creme when I was first learning to cook back in the early 1980s. The recipe doesn’t look quite the same on today’s jars and I never add the nuts. I always make plain, unadulterated chocolate fudge. And I use butter. Pure butter.

Here you go:

Fantasy Fudge (old school recipe)

3 C sugar

3/4 C margarine (I use butter!)

2/3 C evaporated milk (this is about equal to the little 5 oz can in the grocery store)

12 oz package semi-sweet chocolate chips (don’t use “chocolate flavored”!)

7 oz jar marshmallow creme

(1 C chopped nuts is part of the original recipe – I leave these out)

1 tsp vanilla (use real vanilla!)

Combine sugar, margarine (butter), and milk in heavy 2 1/2 quart saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a full rolling boil, stirring constantly. Continue boiling 5 minutes over medium heat, stirring constantly to prevent scorching.

Remove from heat. Stir in chocolate until melted. Add marshmallow creme, (nuts), vanilla. Beat until blended well. (I use a big old wooden spoon.) Pour into a greased (or foil-lined) 13 X 9 inch pan. Cool at room temp.

Cut into squares. Makes about 3 pounds of fudge.

Fantasy Fudge recipe card

You can see this recipe card has been well-used. And the recipe box was my mom’s.

homemade fudge

The slab left from our annual Thanksgiving Eve fudge-making.

homemade fudge pieces

Irresistible!

 

Winter, Old Dogs, Motherhood

The line leapt at me: “The art of the drought is to reduce all things to their outlines.”¹ Yes, I thought as I read a lovely micro-essay about drought and life, that’s what winter does, too. The cold reduces everything to its essence, the essential structure that generates heat, life. Bare trees, milkweed pods with mouths frozen open and silk stripped away, ice probing cracks in the bird bath basin.

My mind went further.  Drought. Cold. And aging. The winter of our lives. Things left to dry up, lose warmth, die. Chapped hands and lips. Neglected houseplants, relationships, dreams. Absence as artist, sketches that are crisp, blunt, unmistakeable. Revelation of inner structures.

I think about nourishment. Sustenance. Care. Skeletons hold up the living flesh, the mass that teems with warmth, blood, heart. When all is stripped from a skeleton, bones rattle and clank against each other.

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Our old dog Ruby, clearly in the winter of her life, is slowly losing her mass. I feel her bones beneath my hands on her haunches, notice how much more pronounced they are of late. She still prances like a puppy when there is new snow and the temperature hovers in the upper 20s. The rest of the time, she drags herself along, so slow to move around our block that we have cut back the length of her daily walks. She tries to sniff nearly everything, sometimes refuses to step into the garage as if we were trying to shove her off a cliff. She growls at things that aren’t there, hears ghosts. She has begun sleeping by our bed now for the first time in 13 years. With our kids gone to their own apartments, Ruby has no one else to shepherd except for Truffles, our eight-year-old dachshund. Truffles usually obliges, barks when Ruby barks, whines when we take Ruby to the vet, looks for her at bedtime.

As I write this, soft, fluffy, end-of-the-day snowflakes fall and make me long for dinner guests, a pot of good stew, a fireplace. Ruby waits at the top of the stairs near the front door, Truffles right next to her. Mick will be home soon, and we will cook dinner. A cornish hen thaws in water in the sink. One hen will feed both of us and I cannot get used to cooking such small meals. I miss my kids terribly at this time of day; feel like this house holds a skeleton of a family without them here. I did not know that I would be incomplete without my children when I had them, but know it now that they are grown and my mother-self has lost part of its substance.

Ruby seems to understand that. She finds me every morning as I think about the day’s work. She puts her paws in my lap, looks at me with her cloudy old-dog eyes, and insists I pay attention. As I scratch behind her ears and notice how pronounced her skull has become beneath her fur, I mourn how time speeds up. I have so much to do before my skeleton is laid bare. Ruby is right to insist I pay attention. She sits nearby while I write things that make me cry, contemplate droughts, miss my kids, try to find the beauty in winter’s icy art.

 

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¹”The Art of the Drought” by Catherine Jankovic. RiverTeeth Journal’s Beautiful Things blog, January 25, 2016.

Post-Thanksgiving Delights

One of the greatest things about my Thanksgiving holiday was time offline. There was so much to do with family and friends who visited, food that we cooked together, conversation, games, and walks with our dogs that I shut down my computer for a couple of days. It was glorious.

Today, of course, things are back up and running. And there’s new snow covering the Twin Cities which both challenged everyone who had to go anywhere this morning (it was very icy beneath the new snow) and made everything look festive. The snow is the kind that is wet enough to stick to every branch, every twig, every fencepost.

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Path at Como Park, St. Paul, Minnesota

In spite of the overcast sky and slippery roads, I met my son for breakfast in Minneapolis. Later, I took my camera outside to take a few photos. Nevermind that I take photos of nearly every snowfall that outlines everything in white; it’s always beautiful and it always gets my attention. And I am reminded that my practice of looking for beauty keeps me from griping about the slick roads and the need to shovel. It keeps me looking at everything around me with wonder as winter drops its cloth over us.

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Coneflowers in my garden

As we finish up the Thanksgiving leftovers and think about the next holidays that are looming, a little wonder and a little awe can work magic.

I’m going to work hard at that magic by making a December practice of shutting off my computer before dinner each day. I’m bringing out more of my offline life, running away from evenings spent on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or email.

Anyone care to join me? It’s going to be awesome.

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Goatsbeard in my garden

The Contemplative Days of November

The day after Halloween, All Saints Day, has long been one of my favorite days for being quiet, turning inward. Even when I was a kid, the day after Halloween felt like a turning point, different somehow, as autumn receded in the face of winter. And November 2, All Souls Day, keeps that feeling going as we are asked to remember all the dead, saints and not-saints. That puts me in a thoughtful mood indeed.

There is no snow on the ground yet, but death is all around. The garden is now a gathering of crackly plants in various shades of yellow and brown, seeds spilled, leaves withered. The leaves have mostly fallen from the trees; bare tree limbs reign. Are trees the only beings to shed their clothing as the air turns colder?

Inside, I turn on the heat, build a fire, cook. And sometimes, like Sunday afternoon, there is a thump that turns my head, keeps me thinking about this cycle of life and death.

I was standing in the kitchen, heating up some cold coffee, when I heard the distinct thump of a bird hitting our living room window. We have a large picture window that faces west; birds hit it every once in a while but seldom seem to fall to the ground and stay. This time, a goldfinch hit the glass so hard that little gray feathers stuck to the glass. I ran to the window to look below and saw it on the ground in the ferns. Then I ran outside, down the stairs of our deck, and picked up the warm little body, so light in my palm. It had broken its neck, I think; its head lolled to one side as I scooped it up as gently as possible. Its eyes closed as I held it and I could see it was asleep for good.

My eyes filled with tears and I knew this was our fault. Our fault for having this window with no screen over it to prevent birds from running into it. Our fault for having a bird feeder too close to the window. I went to find my husband Mick, who was outside trimming away dead garden plants and scattering seeds to winter over until next year.

He buried the goldfinch beneath our lilac bush. And we moved the bird feeder to another spot far away from any reflective surfaces.

Some people might say, good grief, it’s just a bird. Happens all the time. But that is precisely what I think we shouldn’t do when faced with some injury to man or animal that we realize might be prevented. Why not think more deeply about these sorts of things, own up to what we do that injures other beings, and extrapolate from there to, oh, I don’t know, texting while driving? Driving after drinking? Allowing part of our population to die because they can’t afford medical treatment?

Yes, my thoughts completely ran away with me flying behind. And that is what these days with their promise of looming cold and snow do to me. Make me take stock. Make me bury what needs to be buried and change what needs to be changed.

Perhaps that is something for which to be grateful.

Fallen Leaves by KCMickelson

Fallen Leaves by KCMickelson