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Onward!

November 6, 2021

The time is ripe for an announcement, folks. I will not be blogging on a regular basis this winter (here’s where you pretend along with me that I’ve been blogging regularly up to this point). Instead, I’m going to direct my energies into a book. Or rather, the book — the one that has slowly but steadily taken shape in my head over the last nine years.

If I see this project through, you can expect to pick up a copy at your local coffee shop someday. If I start but then decide my time is better spent elsewhere, I will still end up with a healthy writing “muscle” and be prepared to take on the next project. Either way, I’ll be better for it.

I’m hesitant to share any details; I’d prefer to work them out on the (proverbial) page first. And I could be speaking too soon about this blog, which now has its 50th post. There may be a place for it in the grand scheme of things. Just know that I haven’t given up, and I’m beyond grateful to you out there for reading these words.

-G

Connection Redux

October 25, 2021

As a customer service worker who also enjoys eating and sightseeing, I’ve been exposed to both sides of our nationwide staff shortage. I can report that the situation is uncomfortable for all involved. It’s hard for me not to feel guilty for wanting service, just as it can be frustrating when the lines grow at work.

One of the most common customer interactions at my job surrounds the lack of cell reception. For better or worse, we who inhabit the Driftless are used to this kind of thing. Dead zones and spotty wi-fi are threads in the tapestry of our lives. I’m not saying this is how it should be (and we’re not off the grid by any means: the recent outage of a certain social media site was felt as deeply here as elsewhere). But it’s clear that for some of our city-dwelling visitors, this is a new experience.

In some cases, a lack of technology can make traveling more enjoyable. Mostly, though, our guests are disappointed that we can’t provide the services they need. Their exasperation often ends up directed at me. I consider myself an ambassador of this area both in title and in bent, so it’s not exactly fun to tell folks there’s nothing I can do.

Nothing lasting, anyway. What I can do is offer to look up directions to their hotel, or the hours of a local restaurant — the right information at the time it’s needed. It could be a while before the Driftless gets world-class infrastructure and migrates to “the cloud.” In the meantime, I’ll keep forging connections with my fellow human beings here on the ground.

Current Events

September 1, 2021

I may have been living in the moment a little too much this summer (see previous post). I didn’t write as much as I should have. Not recording them for posterity feels like a betrayal of the wonderful experiences I’ve had lately. But it’s also true that writing can feel forced if it’s, well, forced. Instead of trying to record these things right as they happen, I’ll see what kind of writing they help generate over time.

What experiences do I mean? I love my communities, both those based on physical location and those based on interest. There are a handful of events happening within them each week during the summer. However, most of these have come and gone without my attending.

It’s not that I don’t like the offerings. Certainly, I like knowing that I could attend if I wanted to. But it seems that the pandemic has redefined what it means to have a good time. (Or maybe I’m just developing my own brand of introversion.)

Before 2020, an “event” was something created by an organization, scheduled ahead of time, and held away from home with a group of strangers. This was the kind of event I missed during the pandemic, and which it felt so sweet to return to this year. 

I can still appreciate these, but I’m leaving more blank spots on my calendar these days. A spontaneous dinner at a friend’s house, or morning coffee on my balcony, is “event” enough to keep my social brain happy. And if I choose to spend the day alone, I no longer feel like I’ve missed out. I have become less dependent on organizations to plan my day, choosing to rely on myself and the people close to me. This gives me more time to pursue inward-focused activities like reading, music practice, and — yes — writing.

Maybe I’ll get to record my experiences after all.

At This Very Moment

July 29, 2021

I once heard a wedding DJ tell his client that “people don’t dance to songs, they dance to moments”. Global pandemic notwithstanding, I have enjoyed some wonderful moments in the last few months. And although I didn’t dance, I think I’ve gotten better at enjoying them — especially when the next wonderful moment isn’t a guarantee.

As you can probably tell from the pictures on my blog, I’m even less of a photographer than I am a dancer. Making a fuss about getting the perfect photo is a classic way to ruin “the moment”. I try to avoid doing so for the sake of everyone involved. But I also love having something tangible to look back on, so I don’t always stick to this in practice.

While checking my calendar the other day, I caught myself wondering how I would look back on a certain event once it was over. The event hadn’t even happened yet. Worse, I’d given zero thought to how much fun it might be while it was happening. In the same way, my mind sometimes strays into the future even when truly great things are happening in the present. This is another way to ruin the moment (then feel guilty for ruining it, and feel guilty for feeling guilty, and so on).

It can happen to anyone. But I’m trying to remind myself that the best way to enjoy the moment is to be fully present in it. Every moment has the potential to become abundant — but only if you honor it by focusing on just that one. And as the motivational poster has been insisting for years, “Today is a gift – that’s why it’s called the present.”

Magic in the Air

July 12, 2021 

On the last day in June, the space outside my front door was invaded by magical creatures. I had to do a double take when I left the house, rubbing my eyes to make sure they weren’t being deceived. Hundreds of fluffy white something-or-others were drifting past my face and bobbing gently in an air current.

These were not your friendly neighborhood cottonwood fluff. They had solid, dark heads, like upside-down dandelion seeds. They were clearly animals, but they made no sound and I couldn’t tell if they were in control of their motions. As I arrived at my car, I still wasn’t sure I hadn’t just gone crazy from lack of sleep.

Over the next week, I coexisted with the “fairy bugs”. I avoided inhaling any or letting any into the house. I also avoided asking about them, because I had no words to describe what I was seeing in a rational way. Later, without having to ask, I learned that this magic show is an annual event. And the critters have a name: woolly aphids.

For me, giving them a name didn’t detract from their beauty. Would we ever say that fireflies are less magical because we know what they’re called?

The point of this story is not the clichéd “there’s magic in the little things”. It’s that my town is so magical that, at least for a minute, I believed these creatures were not of this world. I hope you all get the chance to feel this way about your own home places. These stories are worth a thousand facts.

Something Happens

June 30, 2021

My mind inevitably goes blank when someone asks me what I did yesterday (or over the weekend, or on Tuesday — wait, isn’t today Tuesday?!). Lately, though, that response has been close to the truth of what I’ve been doing: nothing. At least, nothing that strikes me as worth talking about.

Don’t get me wrong; I’ve been working, volunteering, and doing all of the little projects that make up a Grace’s life. I’ve visited and been visited by people I love after a winter of isolation. It just all feels too normal compared to the events of last year. While none of them are boring, these things that seemed worth chatting about in 2019 now have to compete with tales from a global pandemic.

Neither am I reducing the pandemic to a conversation starter. But for the conversationally challenged among us, it was helpful to have a shared experience to refer to. How are you coping? Where are you spending your quarantine (to misuse the word)? Or, a bit later: What’s the first thing you’re going to do when this is all over? It’s hard for me to feel like I’m contributing something of interest when I talk about my daily life. COVID changed that — for a while.

The feeling is different now, at least in my corner of the Driftless. For the first time, we have enough relief from pandemic woes to see the end of the tunnel. We’re not to the end, of course, and we don’t know how much light awaits us there. But I never thought I’d be so glad to report that nothing is happening.

Father’s Day

June 17, 2021

Being a creative type, I spend a lot of time thinking about the next project I’d like to spend a lot of time thinking about. I was doing this recently when my thoughts turned to Dad’s musical.

It’s not quite correct to refer to “Caffeine Dreams” this way. My father had at least two other musicals in the works when we lost him to cancer in 2019. But it was the only one to be brought onstage, with real people speaking his words and singing his melodies. I’ll never be comfortable with the fact that I was taking college exams while the world premiere played in Sun Prairie. However, I did make it home in time for the final performance and a tear-jerking company bow.

(Note: if you look up “Caffeine Dreams”, please DO NOT visit the official website. We weren’t vigilant enough about changing Dad’s login information, and the site has since been hacked.)

It’s one of my own caffeine-powered dreams to have this show put on again. Reading the script isn’t as fun as seeing it produced by local people who’ve been to the places mentioned therein. Dad’s story has a lot to offer, and it would be appreciated during this time of a cautious return to socializing.

I wish I were writing to say that you can go see “Caffeine Dreams” at the Gopher Prairie Community Theater this weekend for $10 general admission. But this is not the case. For now, we’ll all have to be satisfied with this short video from Wisconsin Life. In the months leading up to the world premiere, a friend of Dad’s who worked for what was then Wisconsin Public Television followed him through the process of directing his magnum opus.

This was a hard one to rewatch. I’ve seen Dad on video in the last two years, but those were videos of songs I’ve watched him perform hundreds of times. This is an organic, mostly true portrayal of who he was at an incredible moment in his life. Those who knew Joe Snare will notice that he can barely contain his smile, or his tears. I hope you’ll be inspired to use your own voice to make the world a little better.

Connection

June 9, 2021

Last week, I attended the practice run of a webinar hosted by a group I volunteer with. I was invited because I didn’t know anything, which in this case isn’t an insult: my professional expertise is in translating scientific stories for a lay audience.

For reasons I won’t go into, I had to visit the local library to access wi-fi for this event. My town is still in the process of cautiously reopening, which meant I couldn’t sit inside. But the librarians have kindly placed their router near the parking lot. The weather was more clement back then, so I drove up in my “mobile office”, rolled the windows down, and was able to get a decent signal. (To their credit, the others on the call didn’t find this the least bit unusual.)

It was downhill from there. I hadn’t charged my laptop before leaving the house, so I had to politely turn off my camera and go to sit by an outdoor plug. This lasted exactly two minutes before the group of people a few feet away started talking loudly. They had every right to do so, and I had every right to march back to my car (the battery wasn’t as low as I’d worried).

Next came a train, which rendered me deaf as it moved through town. A few minutes later, a lawn mower started up — seemingly just to annoy me, as the grass seemed well trimmed already. By the end of the talk, I was flushed with shame at being subject to these vagaries of town life. Why couldn’t I just be normal and have my own working router?

After the webinar, I retreated to a cafe that typically has great wi-fi but happened to be having issues at the time. This was a minor annoyance compared to the earlier ones. I accepted my fate and found other work to do, eventually closing my computer so I could enjoy a perfect June morning. But the man sitting one table over was not so calm.

He was polite but annoyed as he asked me what was going on. Written on his face was disbelief at the idea that one could lose access to the Internet for a single minute. He made a comment about my town and what he saw as its backwardness. He didn’t know or care that I choose to live here; neither would he understand if I tried to explain why.

I’m happy to say that I now see my morning at the library in a new light. Not only can I adapt to less-than-ideal situations, but I can accept them with no real change to my blood pressure. And I don’t need a computer to forge meaningful connections with the people and the place around me.

Seeing Double

June 2, 2021

I just made a short visit to a place three degrees of latitude farther north. That’s not much for seasoned travelers, but it served to remind me that my home is only halfway to the equator. The farther north you go, the more the spring season is compressed into a few fleeting days. (We had our share of frosty weather last month, but at least we don’t have a Great Lake messing with our temperature.)

This place was two weeks behind schedule, relatively speaking. Mom and I found we could watch certain spring phenomena unfolding again. Lilacs that would be brown and tattered back home were in their fullest bloom outside of our hotel. Some friends announced that they were going on a “smelling walk” to enjoy a perfect Saturday with four senses. I felt their joy, knowing how long they must have waited for warmth to return.

I was a resident of this northern place a few short years ago. (Most of those years were winter.) On this trip, if I ignored the signs of a global pandemic, I could almost participate in a second form of time travel and step back into that role. Other times, though, change was harder to overcome. I asked for a favorite item at the local bakery and was told, “We haven’t made that in YEARS!”. After that, I felt more like my current self — but I pictured the Grace from back then walking alongside me.

There’s no question that said place is sacred to my life. I hope I can always make return visits. The endless lapping of waves on the shore of Gichigami helps me focus when I have significant decisions to make.

However: I’m glad to live in the south, where the gratification of spring isn’t quite so delayed.

P.S. My recent poem, “Regionalism”, is in this month’s edition of Voice of the River Valley along with a picture of some kind of wood nymph. Click here to read.

May-be

May 22, 2021

It might finally be time to put away my winter clothes. I’ve been dutifully folding and packing them, then taking some out again, since early March. Back then, 50 degrees was a heat wave. But each successive cycle saw me getting less tolerant of the cold (until I heard the inevitable “You’re wearing gloves?!?” from a well-meaning neighbor).

We Midwesterners love to envision all the fun we’ll have when the weather turns warm and sunny. When it rains, or when frost threatens, the image doesn’t match reality and we feel a raw disappointment. We curse the weatherman for not telling us sooner how disappointed we’d be.

These summery visions are an integral part of my concept of home. Somehow I feel the most relaxed and at-home in warm weather. And when I imagine what it would be like to live somewhere else, I’m picturing a summer scene. I plan to write about this in depth at some point, but suffice it to say that places are powerful. Just like relationships with people, relationships with places can be life-altering.

A cursory look at my journals shows that I’ve been feeling the power of this place for years. It’s often at this very time (I always think April is my favorite month, until May arrives). There’s also continuity in the people I encounter here. I’ve been following a pattern, though it may not have felt that way at the time.

I recently got to hear some other concepts of home shared at a virtual roundtable discussion. One speaker, who grew up in Sauk County but settled on the West Coast, talked about the “complicated, wistful feeling” he has when he returns to Wisconsin. I know this feeling well. When I visit places that once felt like home, or could still feel like home, I’m troubled by the thought of all the opportunities I might have missed.

But I won’t spend too much time asking “what if.” Rain or shine — the three-dimensional place outside my window is more beautiful than any mental image.