With Green Returning

April 14, 2021

Growing up here in the Midwest, I learned the old adage that corn should be planted when the oak leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ear. I can’t say if that still holds true. The oak by my window is boasting new miniature leaves, but I just haven’t looked at enough squirrel ears to gauge their size.

The rhythms of farming have never been a part of my life. But there are plenty of traditions governing life here in town. I can tell time by the arrival and departure of certain cars on my street, and by the raising and lowering of various “open” signs. Having a post office box has also given me a daily ritual (and an excuse to go out for a short walk).

Both farmers and townsfolk are sharing in the rhythm of spring. The sun has been making itself scarce, as is common this time of year. April showers and all that. I don’t know a single person who didn’t have a difficult day in the past week, and I believe the two phenomena are related. They certainly are for me. While I’ve never been diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder, my mood often reflects the mood outside. You can accurately guess how I’m feeling by looking out a window.

It helps to know that we’re all on this journey to summer together. I’m starting to recognize the people I meet on my way to and from the post office. Some have recognized me back and introduced themselves. I love living in a place where I can expect to see the same people over and over. I like that we can smile freely at each other, greet each other by name, and comment on the weather — even if that weather is less than ideal.

From the Archives III

Many thanks to the folks who donated to “the Driftless Grace fund” (see previous post)!

April 6, 2021

I’m still settling into my new home, but rest assured that inspiration is seeping in from all sides. For now, I thought I’d bring to light this piece that Dad wrote in 1978. It’s every bit as relevant now as it was then — although I do my dishes by hand, thank you very much.

I saw something on State Street the other day that caught my eye. It was a man walking. He wasn’t nervously checking his watch, or running in front of cars. In fact, he didn’t seem to be in a hurry at all. He was just walking. Now, if that doesn’t strike you as a little strange, you are obviously behind the times. Walking, you see, is out of style.

Oh, it used to be socially acceptable. Back in the days when people still baked bread and read books and washed the dishes by hand, it was not uncommon, or so I am told, to walk from one place to another. One might walk, say, down the block or across the street to buy a newspaper or a candy bar. I can vaguely remember, as a child, walking to a friend’s house once. And, on some weekend afternoons, people would even walk just for the sake of walking.

Now, of course, those labored days are far behind us. Thanks to supersonic jets and instamatic cameras, we have learned at last that the purpose of doing anything is to get it over with. F-A-S-T. The purpose of getting up in the morning is that we can slurp down our freeze-dried breakfast in time to beat the morning traffic, so that we can get to work and watch the clock for eight hours, and race home to cook the instant dinners before Prime Time begins. Then, after the evening news, because we’re in a hurry to get to sleep, we have a drink or a pill or a smoke or a toke so that we’re well rested for the next day.

The mere convenience of this life makes one wonder where we would be without modernization. Imagine, for instance, cooking and fussing over a simple chocolate cake: sifting the flour and cracking the eggs, checking the recipe, stirring the batter by hand, poking it with a toothpick to see if it is done — a real mess! Or, how about getting your money from a bank where real people work? The long wait in line, the small talk with the girl behind the counter — unheard of!

Can you imagine a time when people actually did these things? Can you imagine walking?

Outlook

March 30, 2021

My new apartment is somewhat treehouse-like. I’m on a level with a few dozen local squirrels, nuthatches, robins, and mourning doves. Twice now, a determined creature trying to climb or land outside my window has been startled by my giant face peering out.

The same window looks onto the comings and goings of my new community. This is exactly what I was hoping for when I moved here — not so I could spy on anyone, but so I could be surrounded by sound and color and movement beyond what’s generated in my building. There are even tourists around, which for me is a welcome addition to the scene.

Although I’ve lived here for just two weeks, one pattern has already emerged. I’ve observed many people parking their cars and then just sitting there. There are stores nearby, but these folks don’t head right in. I’ll glance out again and see them still in their seats. More than likely, they’re scrolling on their phones or waiting to meet up with friends. But part of me hopes they’re taking time to look at the place where they find themselves.

This town has fascinated me for 15 years. What started as a family day trip destination grew to hold an almost spiritual significance for me, representing pure calm and beauty. For a few years, I called it my favorite place on the planet. Now it’s home to some dear friends, and to me!

In a time when so little is certain, I count myself extremely fortunate. I live in this wonderful place. Not only did I keep my job during a global pandemic; I ended up with a more stable one. My blog is still going strong (I think) and has been featured in local free publications, including this one last week.

This next request might sound contradictory, then. But while April 1st is just two days away, I’m completely serious. Not “trouble” serious, just “putting on my writer’s hat” serious.

It takes time and money to get written work out into the world. I value my time, like everyone should. I also pay a fee to have my domain name and keep pesky ads out of your reading experience.

Make no mistake: you’re already helping me just by continuing to read my words. I’ll only ask this once on here, and I won’t pursue it in other venues. My writer’s hat is staying on my head and not getting passed around. But if you’re like me and you’ve realized the bounty you have even in difficult times, then perhaps you’d share a small corner of that with me.

Paypal is the place to go, or mail to PO Box 771, Spring Green, WI 53588.

Tapadh leibh.

I hope I can see each one of you in person as that kind of thing becomes safe again.

Booking It

March 21, 2021 (One year since I embarked on this “blogxperiment” — what a ride it’s been.)

Ironically, the move (see last post) that I hoped would lift me out of my winter loneliness was temporarily halted by an icestorm. I know, I know: that’s to be expected in March. All is well now from where I stand on this second day of spring.

In moving to my new community, I’m leaving behind a small volunteer project. A few months into last year’s lockdown, I decided to become the unofficial steward of a Little Free Library two blocks from my apartment. Several factors contributed to this. I wanted to help others, yes, but I was also walking by the place at least twice a day and feeling offended by the poorly curated selection.

In all the places I’ve lived, anyway, uncared-for Little Free Libraries get so stuffed full that they either won’t open or won’t close. Instead of using them to share books that others might want, many of my fellow citizens use them to get rid of what no one wants. Tragedy of the commons, indeed.

Most of my volunteer duties involve some form of reshuffling. I set upright books that were shoved in at odd angles; I group genres together. I monitor the Library so that when someone gets into a fit of cleaning and drops off a houseful of junky books, I know within a day or two. While I never throw books away, I have given them to thrift stores when one genre became too dominant. I’ve also added my fair share to the Library’s circulation.

The books inside are mostly what you’d expect. But this Library has the distinction of standing next to a building dedicated to the free exchange of ideas. Occasionally, some real gems show up. Someone else must be watching the place too, because those aren’t around for long.

I think of this work as going totally unnoticed. But I do wonder if anyone quarantined at home has seen me meddling in the Library over the past year. I also wonder if anyone will take up the mantle and care for a piece of the community after I leave. It bears noting that this town is lovely and filled with lovely people. I wasn’t trying to escape it by moving away — I’ve simply moved to a place that’s better for me.

Let me know by email, text, or carrier chickadee if you want my new address. May you get to visit the places that inspire you this week.

Forward!

March 6, 2021

The riverwalk is crowded again, but I can’t blame my fellow walkers and cyclists. For those of us who didn’t book a spring break trip, these sunny days in the 40s are still a welcome break from the depths of winter.

Working my way down the slush-covered trail, I passed a useless fence that attempts to keep visitors off the riverbank. A woman was looking intently over the barrier, down into the water. I asked if she saw anything good. She told me she was studying the erosion along the bank.

“That’s not good,” I quipped.

“Well, you need to look at it before you can fix it,” the woman replied.

I immediately felt the relevance of this sentence to my current situation.

Last week, I took part in a discussion about how much we should acknowledge hard times before we move on and try to be grateful for what we have. Longtime readers of this blog (I think a year, especially 2020, counts as a long time) know that I give a lot of thought to the latter. I try not to complain, preferring to use humor and –yes — gratitude to understand life.

That’s my outward appearance, but inside I’m a bit different. It’s no secret that this winter was hard for me. In addition to missing friends and community activities, I also longed for some favorite places that were separated from me by icy backroads. The result was a lot of time spent dejected and in front of a screen.

Now that spring’s here, I’m more free to acknowledge these problems (look at them) and take steps in the other direction (fix them). So I’m moving somewhere that’s closer to my favorite places and more central to my various communities. Even though I’m a card-carrying introvert, I’m still a member of a social species. Having these people and places nearby should help me immensely. It’s my hope that when the next winter or (heaven forbid) next pandemic comes around, I’ll have the resources to live a more fulfilling life.

Sorry I won’t be around to fix the erosion.

Spring’s Eternal

February 22, 2021

“The cold and gray just wears me down.” -Hot Rize

I should say in regards to my last post that I take no issue with winter. I’m happy to live in a place that has a healthy four seasons. But when winter offers up its first snowstorm on Halloween (two years in a row!), it’s my right to feel ready for something new around MLK Day.

Also, the transitional time of spring is important to me spiritually. I’ve been trying to put this into words for another writing project, and it’s reminding me how much I love a damp spring breeze and a wool jacket. (Chalk it up to my Scots-Irish heritage.) I love all of Wisconsin’s seasons, but spring is the height of my power. If only it got its fair share of the calendar year.

This is my last chance to write for a little while, as I’m tackling some major projects at work. I was recently upgraded to a full-time coordinator position. So far it’s been easy to get my hours in while the weather and the virus keep me inside. But when spring arrives, my mind will turn outward to spring things. As a compromise, I plan to spend lots of time working on coffee shop patios.

One of my tasks at work is to publish Facebook posts about the natural happenings in our region this time of year. Already there are signs of spring everywhere, if you know where to look. In some ways, noticing these subtle signs is more rewarding than being blasted in the face with sunshine and watching the river double in size. There is beauty in all times of the year. Even, I’ll admit, in last night’s snow.

Twelve Months

February 8, 2021

We haven’t reached the one-year mark for CoViD lockdown yet, but it could be said that my own virus saga started last February. At the beginning of that month, I came down with one of the worst chest colds I’ve ever had. I lost my senses of smell and taste (as I do every time I get sick) as well as my voice and a good deal of my hearing. I spent the next few days staring straight ahead on the couch, waiting for the fever to break.

Was it the Dreaded Virus? I won’t know until I take the antibody test. But it was certainly an opening act for the strangeness that followed. Things have changed so fast since then that I’ve barely been able to catch my (figurative) breath. So I hope you’ll humor me when I say that it has officially been one year.

Not only that, it has been one crazy year. Disregarding the changes in my personal life, these last twelve months have completely shifted my baseline concept of normal. Seeing myself in a mask feels normal now. Sitting indoors with a large group listening to someone sing, something I did hundreds of times in the first 26 years of my life, does not. I’m not sure if “going back to normal” would even feel normal anymore.

I should note that a lot hasn’t changed. For example, I still don’t get outside as much as I should during the winter (the daily walks ground to a halt once the temperature became lower than my shoe size). I guarantee you that this time last year, I was the same way — illness or no illness. It seems that things can be both normal and not normal at once.

But the difference is this: last year, I thought I had a whole summer of attending concerts and working in tourism and volunteering ahead of me. I could spare a few nights indoors during the coldest part of the year; in fact, I relished the alone time. I can’t make the same prediction for this summer. It feels like I’ve just lived through a whole year of winter , and I’d gladly give up some of that alone time for time spent in my various communities.

I am waiting for spring.

En Marchant

January 23, 2021

I’ve had a lot to reflect on lately, and find I need to be as active physically as I am mentally. My daily walks give me time to think and have the effect of wearing my worries away. Because of this need, my walks have continued apace despite the Wisconsin winter pressing in on all sides.

I walk the same path every day, south to north, before angling back southwest towards home. I cross the same intersections in the same way, as if following a scent trail. The snow is soft enough and my boots unique enough that I can make out the steps I took a day or two before. By the time I return home, I’m ready for the next thing — be it a work meeting or a nap.  And no matter how cold and treacherous the walk, my apartment is always just the right temperature when I step back inside.

With a daily route come daily traditions.  I know which parts of the trail have been plowed (not many) and which are still covered; I have a good idea of where I’ll encounter other walkers. At a section of the trail patrolled by a large, fearsome dog, I’ve learned to look ahead for canine shapes and re-route myself accordingly.

As I complete the first half of my loop, I always think back to past walks.  When you visit the same place almost every day for ten months, during a global pandemic to boot, that place tends to build up memories.  But there’s always a change as I leave the riverbank to start the last leg of my journey. Heading west into the setting sun, I inevitably start to think about what lies ahead.  The memories are still there, but it’s as if I left my emotions by the water and am emerging into a new day.

I can’t say I’ve learned much about my town from these walks (except how many cars just drive into the city park and then leave for some reason).  I have discovered plenty of phenomena related to snow, like the fact that heel prints are the first areas to melt on a well-trodden path.  But mostly I’ve learned about myself and my figurative path.  There’s enough novelty on each walk to keep me interested, but enough stays the same so that I’m comfortable thinking deeply.

I hope you can all get outside safely and find your path. Just be careful on the ice.

Great Expectations?

(If by chance you’re reading this blog for the first time after following the link in Voice of the River Valley, welcome! This is about all there is to it.)

January 10, 2021

A few days ago, I was trying to describe my thoughts about the first week of 2021.  Without thinking, I said that “it isn’t what I expected” — which, in truth, isn’t true at all.  I didn’t have specific expectations for the new year. I figured it would be as full of surprises (both good and awful) as 2020, 2019, and so forth.  When you study natural resources, you learn that the change in calendar year is irrelevant to every species except ours.

I do have plans for 2021, but I don’t expect them to come to fruition in the exact way I hoped.  We all find some of our plans shifting or being replaced as the year progresses.  This fact doesn’t change when we flip to a new page in the calendar.

I don’t mean that we shouldn’t be bothered when our plans change.  It’s a shame, especially when other humans who should know better are responsible.  In certain cases, we should even be outraged.

Nevertheless, my goal for this new year is to not see it as a year at all.  In the hours, days, and weeks to come, I hope to take things one step at a time.  If I can make myself and others feel better in the moment, it will guard me against the feeling that 2021 has been “all good” or “all bad”. In other words, I won’t try to achieve my goals by following a plan to the letter but by seeing what I can do today to make them happen.

Of course, that could change.