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.

Pause and Reflect

December 22, 2020

The other day, in a fit of boredom (okay, let’s be honest: procrastination), I made a mental list of the things I wished I could be doing at that moment.  In no particular order, they were: 1) sit in a coffee shop and people-watch; 2) get a big group of volunteers together to collect prairie seed; and 3) attend a concert, play, or lecture out of town.

Bummer.

It has been a trying year for me — and that’s saying something.  Any depression or isolation I suffered this summer and fall were just a preview of what hit me about a week ago.  It’s a dark time in more ways than one, although the solstice has passed now and Christmas is on its way.

This is not to complain.  The events of this year weren’t all bad by any stretch.  I celebrated some pretty big personal victories, which were all the more meaningful in not-so-victorious times.  Still, there isn’t a single aspect of my life that wasn’t altered in some way in 2020.  My blog serves as a record of some of those changes.

But as the speaker at a solstice celebration said over Zoom this week, we need to “frame” the things that are missing in our lives in terms of what we do have.  I think this is sound advice (despite having once heard a communications professor assert that “framing is dead”). And the longer I think about what I have, the less and less the above paragraphs seem to actually describe my life. I recommend you start your own list as we head into true winter.

Depression and isolation certainly contributed to a lack of focus for me this fall. At one point, I accidentally used my stovetop coffee maker without any water in it and destroyed the thing. I was mortified, and put a tally mark in the column of bad things about 2020, but I now have multiple replacements sent by a kind friend. I also have a park by the river where I can walk any time I choose, sometimes literally following in my own footsteps. You get the idea.

Who can say what I’ll have and not have in 2021? I look forward to finding out. With coffee in hand.

Deck Them Halls and Ho Ho Ho

[Merry Christmas to me! Driftless Grace now has a shiny new domain name, driftlessgrace.com.]

December 12, 2020

I moved to my apartment building in December of 2017. (If you’re a longtime reader of this blog and feeling confused, I’m now onto my second unit in the same building.) Those first weeks were magical. I loved the feeling of being somewhere totally new, where I had been hoping to put down roots. Grad school and my job as a TA hadn’t yet started, but the semester was so close that it didn’t make sense to go out and find a different job. I spent that month wearing a track in the snow to and from my local library. Because of these and other associations, snow in mid-December always improves my mood. Today was no different.

As I stepped out for a short walk around the neighborhood, the bracing air instantly reminded me of being in college “up north”. I used to dash across the space between my dorm and the campus store to buy dinner, flinching from the cold but secretly enjoying every second of it.

And then there’s Christmas — of course. The neighbors snowblowing next to their inflatable Santas were in a jovial mood, and I suspect they were thinking of Christmas. I know I was. Having grown up here in the Midwest, I never feel ready for the holiday unless snow has fallen and stuck. Today not only satisfied that requirement, but the sight of snow banished my November megrims (a 2020 word) almost completely. Plus it was a treat to see all the decorated houses in their varying degrees of subtlety.

This place has provided my window on the world for three years now, except for when I lived with Mom in the months after we lost Dad. Little did I know that our family’s tragedy was only Act I of a time of immense changes for myself and the world. As I neared the end of my walk, I still couldn’t quite explain what I was feeling. Then I realized: this snow is the first thing in… well, forever that happened the way it was supposed to happen. The way we all hope it happens. Or at least the way it happened when I was a kid, which is plenty for me.

Higher Calling

November 21, 2020

In case you don’t think 2020 has been a bizarre year, I call your attention to Exhibit A: last week, my mom’s cat turned down food for the first time in his 10-year life.

My fawning over Ash the cat, to continue a theme from my last post, is one of those ties to the outside world that keep me sane and make hard times more bearable. More than ever, I’m grateful that I live just a few miles away from Mom and my adopted feline brother. It would be difficult if I were unable to visit and tune into their lives when the going got lonely. (I can’t speak for Ash on this point.)

Although I’m lucky in some regards, I still pine for the days of hanging out with an unregulated number of people in a coffee shop for an unlimited time. At least I know that everyone else is in the same boat. Creativity will be the name of the game as we work to maintain our relationships this winter. I don’t mean seeing how many people we can fit in a Zoom meeting; I already attend meetings at work and have a thing or two to say about it (so do others, apparently). I mean real, emergent creativity. And good timing.

As I set out for another solo walk this afternoon, my phone rang with a call from a friend I haven’t seen in ages. I’m not a “phone person”, but very little time had passed before I was chatting away. When we both felt ready, we hung up. Knowing there had been a real person and friend on the other end of the line made me confident that something is waiting on the other end of this tough year.