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.


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 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.


All is (not quite) right.

May 11, 2021

I said I was busy last month, but most of that was one-on-one activities with friends (or events with a defined endpoint where I couldn’t linger). Last weekend, though, I had the pleasure of going to a real live Event. It came complete with kids running across the lawn, adults from outside my “bubble”, delightful vintage items for sale, and lunch served by a local business. It was my new community in miniature, and the energy was infectious.

Thankfully, my masked and vaccinated fellow-citizens weren’t. It seems the people in my community not only care about sustainability and local food, but also the well-being of others. Whatever the future might hold, I can be thankful for this.

As we ate at tables spaced six feet apart, I couldn’t decide if I was looking at a futuristic scene or a blast from the past. Perhaps mask-wearing and social distancing have become so commonplace that they will remain a part of daily life. Or perhaps they’re a last vestige of 2020 as we nudge closer to the way things used to be. Both are valid interpretations of our present moment.

Even if COVID is here to stay, I hope to stop writing about it at some point. There’s just so much more to the place where I live, even after two months of exploration. The virus is already playing less of a role in my decisions — even as I wipe down the vintage goods I bought on Saturday, just in case.

I’m not prepared to say there’s a “silver lining” to the pandemic, as many journalists have proclaimed. But it did give rise to some good habits that I can continue to practice. Writing is one of them (if you haven’t heard about “The Driftless Grace Fund”, take a look here). It also gave rise to genuine gratitude for the things I’ve missed. May you share in the energy (and not the infection) during this time of renewal.

Full Circle

May 2, 2021

It feels like I just made the switch to a 2021 calendar, and suddenly I’m turning the page from April to May.

The April that just ended couldn’t have been more different than the earlier one chronicled on this blog. I had much more of a social life and went to many more events (it’s not hard to be more than zero). Although we’re not out of the woods, it was the closest yet to anything resembling normal around here. The lessening of worries is almost tangible.

All the same, COVID precautions are second nature for me. I remember putting on my first mask about a year ago and staring in the mirror at my half-visible face. I was just getting used to this new reality the last time the crabapples bloomed, the last time I went looking for pasque flowers, the last time I planted a garden. Now, as the seasons turn again, masks are a part of my everyday life — and my overloaded coat rack.

I’ve been thinking back to that time and realizing there was a strange stability to it all. Although no one knew how long the lockdowns would last, we basically knew what to do and not do. Our collective task was just to knuckle down and get through it. For those of us not employed as essential workers (or at all), the special circumstances gave some relief from guilt about not getting enough done.

Now that things are closer to the way they were, the old timetables have asserted themselves again. And yet, not one person on Earth knows what’s going to happen next. That comforting dullness is gone.

Neither do I have the answers. But I vow to enjoy the things I’ve missed twice as much (and twice as safely) as I did before I missed them.

Regionalism (something a little different…)

April 20, 2021

Geologists will call this place “Driftless”,

But it defies term, time, and space, Driftless.

A death below the ice hath no sting here,

Yet all around we find its trace: Driftless.

Knotted oak holding court upon the bluff,

Trout stream free of any millrace: Driftless.

Deep spirituality of nations

Carved into the soft sandstone face: Driftless.

Now, agricultural centers decline,

But we cultivate an art-based Driftless.

Here, we are living the examined life;

No better word for this pace than “Driftless.”

(Spring has arrived for good this time, we think,

But we’ll split more wood just in case, Driftless.)

The city dwellers drive quixotically

Westward in their Audis to chase Driftless.

Meanwhile, I’m knee-deep in the river.

With my whole being, I embrace Driftless.

Living here, I become one with all things.

I am not myself: I am Grace, Driftless.

©2021 Grace J. Vosen

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?