One of my favorite summer rituals, which I’ve mentioned before on this blog, is watching chimney swifts gather at their roost sites. I’m grateful to the friend who introduced me to these little guys – and pleased that I correctly guessed where they would be in my new town. It was a joy to arrive at this building shortly before nightfall and find it encircled by hundreds of birds.
These “cigars with wings”, barely visible against the deep blue, chase after a few last mosquitoes before letting themselves drop into the chimney. As they circle and make false dives, they remind me of children who don’t want to go to bed. Eventually, though, they all disappear. I can hear them chirping inside the chimney as I pack up to leave.
Summer and the swifts always return, even if the legacy of a hard winter stays with us. It’s much the same as our current situation. This world-altering pandemic isn’t “over”, as many grieving families will tell you. But it will keep entering new and strange phases. Some of these may feel somewhat normal, even if others decidedly do not.
Case in point: over the weekend, my community held a music festival. It was the first of its kind since 2019 – and it felt more normal than abnormal. I wasn’t there for long, but I got to watch a sea of familiar faces enjoying good music and good food. Attending a concert with friends is something many of us haven’t done in three years. It’s heartening to take part in some of the old summer rituals. We are coming home to roost.
The other day, I went into a store and was immediately helped by three considerate employees. These folks knew exactly what I wanted and where to find it. They talked me through my options and I left promptly, glad I had made the trip.
There’s no way to tell this story without making it sound like a complaint: about “kids these days” and their “work ethic”, or the very real nationwide staffing shortage. The fact that I remember this day at all could be seen as a testament to deteriorating standards. But I don’t see it that way. My experience was noteworthy, COVID or no COVID.
It has always been the case that someone who’s new to a job needs time to learn how to do it well. And being part of a skeleton crew can be counterproductive. This is especially true in times of stress for both the employee and the business (read: a global pandemic).
It is also true, and always has been, that employees who get poor training or poor support are prevented from doing their job well. Their managers may be stretched thin or new to the work themselves. From my experience in foodservice and retail, I can say that poor training is the root cause of most problems that get passed on to customers. If an employee can’t magically overcome this obstacle, it is a reflection on the obstacle and not on the trainee.
Imagine you’ve just started a job and no one is explaining what to do – or you get conflicting instructions. If you try to make it through by using common sense, you might fail. Common sense isn’t always a factor when these environments are set up. Then add the pressure of customers who (rightly) want to be helped and managers who want to look like they’re in control, and you will always be stuck in the crossfire.
Okay, maybe this is a complaint. But my intention was to praise some people for exceeding my expectations, which were not low. I thought these human beings would be a little uncertain about what I needed because I, a human being, was also uncertain. I expected that we would work through it together. Had I chosen to go online, I would have flailed around miserably for an hour before giving up. Instead, I took a chance on the human route. Not only did I not regret it, but I was rewarded for it.
People who know such things have told me that the average date of last frost in our Driftless region is April 15. That means spring is almost here (to say nothing of tax refunds). As tortured as our weather seems right now, the temperature is guaranteed to get steadily warmer.
Meanwhile, life in my town is almost back to pre-COVID levels of activity. I recently got to perform in a local theater production. It was my first acting role outside of school, and I hope it was the first of many. What a joy to make friends within my community, work with them to bring a story to life, and then share that story with other friends both old and new.
And to top it all off, I almost wrote a book over the winter. If you’re following along, I had hoped to finish a draft by March 31. That became impossible once I realized that the kind of book I was picturing didn’t excite me. The emotional landscape of this winter was also fraught in ways both related and unrelated to writing. But I’m okay: I’ve made huge strides in both areas, as a writer and as a Grace. I know what kind of story I want to tell and one day share.
This is more than I had before, and I think it’s enough to help me keep writing. Whatever might be “almost” over for you, I hope that you can emerge into a good place.
No cats harmed in the making of this photo. Only couches.
February 6, 2022
I used to think that I hated February, but then I moved 300 miles north and encountered March. A short month of predictable cold, I learned, beats a month of expecting warmth and continually getting my hopes crushed.
This year, though, I find myself already anticipating spring. The longer days and greater frequency of bird songs are clear signs of change to me. While I’d like to say I’ve grown more attuned to nature, I’ve really just been spending more time looking out the window. The result is the same.
It’s no secret that I hold prejudices against certain months, on this blog and elsewhere. But I also have the capacity to hope. There’s at least one instance in my journals from those years up north when I headlined a January entry with, “Spring!”. And even now, the plastic comes off of my windows on the first day of March – no exceptions.
Of course, it’s all about what you value in a situation. I often equate cold weather with isolation and an inability to enjoy the outdoors. But from another vantage, the cold means I can get comfortable indoors while not having many demands on my time. People who love snow sports might even prefer the winter months (the horror!). I resolve to start appreciating each month for what it is — for the joy it brings — and not for how much closer it gets me to another month I think I’ll like better.
I recently walked into a local restaurant and was greeted by five employees shouting my name. Cheers jokes aside, it felt wonderful to be both recognized and welcomed. I know how much effort it takes to process the hundreds of faces encountered in customer service, especially during busy hours – let alone develop a rapport with any of them. And their kindness was the real deal, not tied to my status as a customer. I felt like I belonged there.
This is the kind of familiarity I’ve been striving for since I moved to my town earlier this year. While it’s not the deepest of connections, it feels good to visit a place so often that folks know my name (and what I drink and eat). It says something about the town and the people in it that such things happen at all.
Perhaps the most striking, yet understated, example of this is our post office. After months of getting my mail there, I realized that the clerks now know me by name and my box number by heart. (Again, I don’t see myself being this thoughtful in their position.) What’s more, it turns out that one employee remembers the first time I stopped in to set up my mailbox – before I was even an official community member.
True, it’s partly a function of size and the fact that many people who live in this community also work here. But I don’t think my case is unusual. We make an effort to know one another here, whether or not it’s our goal to become known. I feel welcomed, and welcome.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.