Left-handed Lives Matter

My guy and I got into an argument at the breakfast table early one morning. I had asked the four-year-old at the table to please use her fork. She scrunched up her nose at me, picked the fork up with her un-practiced left hand and accidentally flipped scrambled eggs everywhere. “Sweetie, try using your other hand,” I suggested.

Since birth, she’s shown predominantly right-handed tendencies. I’m left-handed, and while it would have tickled my lefty-bone for her to have been also, I’m quite happy that she won’t have to deal with being left-handed in a right-handed world.

“Life is just easier if you’re right-handed,” I said nonchalantly while cleaning up scrambled eggs. I honestly believed the entire human species, or at least the people at the breakfast table, would concur disinterestedly.

Surprise. No.

My normally agreeable, right-handed partner became immediately defensive, and we had a heated volley with a little blonde referee interjecting as she could:

“Mama, don’t be mean to my papa.

“Papa, don’t yell at my mama.

“We’re not supposed to be loud at the dinner table.”

I had to stop and smile at that one; she still messes up the names of meals.

It wasn’t an ugly fight, more of a passionate debate. I was stunned to the point of silence that a right-hander would try to tell me what it was like to be a left-hander. (“Right-splaining?”) He doesn’t believe there’s any real difference or hardships, and as proof, he knows other left-handers who have never complained. In essence, he was calling me a whiner, a pessimist, and overly-dramatic. He assumed it must simply be my negativity and propensity to play the victim while blaming others that made me believe life was so much harder for lefties.

Of course, I hadn’t said that life was “so much harder”, but when I suggested righties might have it easier, that is what he heard.

Right-handed privilege may seem paltry, but it is in fact real. Lefties deal with uncomfortable school desks, unavailable or more expensive sporting equipment, our dominant hands being “unclean” in certain cultures, not to mention the countless everyday items built specifically for right-handers that often cause accidents and even death for lefties attempting to adapt. Lefties don’t live as long for this exact reason. Approximately one in ten people is left-handed; we are not a mass market. But our lives still matter, don’t they?

After the exchange ended, I felt slyly excited about what I had just witnessed. This was a cut and dry case of a societal privilege so ingrained that it had become invisible to someone who benefited from said privilege. And when it was called out, the privileged one basically exploded in defensiveness, blaming the minority who doesn’t benefit from said privilege for any discrimination they might face. My character, my beliefs and whole way of being were called into question simply because I dared to suggest he might have it a little bit easier.

See where I’m going with this?

We’re hearing a lot more about “privilege” these days…male privilege, white privilege, Christian privilege, heterosexual privilege, cisgender privilege, and so on. None of these ideas are new, of course; it’s just that people of all walks of life are finally finding their voices and a more equitable platform on which to be heard.

But in large part, the comfortable majorities don’t like to talk about these kinds of topics. I get it. Hearing that others think we come from privilege makes us feel uncomfortable. We love our cozy bubbles and if we’re forced to look at those who aren’t so cozy, then darn it, we don’t feel as good about our cozy bubble anymore. We’re quick to pipe up about our tough lives while discounting the hardships of others. We all want the disadvantages we face to be recognized.

In truth, everyone falls somewhere along the broad spectrum of privilege, and frankly, it’s time to listen with compassion to those who don’t benefit where we do. On all fronts.

Acknowledging that I benefit from white privilege makes me feel, well, white. I haven’t had to “feel” my skin color before, and that’s exactly what privilege is. Simply being aware helps me see that there are a million examples throughout daily life where someone with a different skin tone would very much feel “not white”, not to mention be faced with pure discrimination. Especially now in the “get out of my country” Trump-era.

Speaking of male privilege, I am not male. Every single day I feel, in some minor or major way, the disadvantages of being female. This is not self-pity; I absolutely love being a woman. An unbroken woman has the fire and fight of a roaring lioness, beautiful in her power and cunning. Yet, undomesticated women are often vilified in their freedom, in their audacity to lead. They are torn down with a level of hate and vitriol male leaders simply don’t experience. (By the by, did you know that some research shows it is actually the alpha female who is the true leader of wolf packs observed in the wild?)

Women are turned into objects, possessions, and domestic role-fillers. We are diminished, discounted, and passed-over in ways that men will never have to worry about. We are abused, assaulted and killed by those closest to us in numbers men will never match.

The patriarchy is very real and often overwhelming in both its overt and invisible oppressiveness.

If you’re dismissive of this idea right away, slow down and ask yourself why you might be resistant. If it’s true for some, does that make it generally true or generally false? Remember the Women’s March earlier this year? My Facebook feed was full of derogatory comments from both men and women who were mistaking benevolent sexism for gender equality. Putting a positive yet patronizing spin on how women are treated as compared to men still points to privilege.

The idea of Christian privilege is sure to set some of us off like errant bottle rockets in a dry field. Mind you, I’m not saying you don’t have it rough, but faith-based persecution does not disprove Christian privilege. Your religion gets away with making laws out of your beliefs while other religions do not have that luxury. You get your religious holidays off, while Jews, Muslims and basically all other religions don’t. Your places of worship (except black churches) don’t get bombed, set on fire, surrounded by people openly carrying guns, and many other forms of targeted hate. Your religion isn’t seen as radical or inferior by school teachers who often openly normalize and subtly preach their own. You aren’t viewed by the general public as needing to be saved.

Before you fire off another Letter to the Editor cancelling your subscription because some woman dared to have an opinion, please know that I’m not saying it is wrong or bad to have privilege. All I’m saying is that life would be easier if you’re a right-handed straight white male who calls himself a Christian. Wouldn’t we live in a better world if we recognized our privilege and helped make it easier for those who don’t benefit where we do?

Perhaps you could let yourself sit in your discomfort for a little bit. Pray, maybe. At least just feel it. Hopefully own it. The unprivileged have to. Every day of their lives.

Or, you can bash about angrily, displaying your fragility for all to see, railing against the inevitable tides of positive change all these types of conversations point to. We all have a choice.

As for my family and me, we’re uncomfortable a lot. And that’s perfect; we want to grow in love and compassion. Even though it’s still a right-handed house, in doing research for this column, I learned that female cats are largely left-handed and since we have two, lefties are now the majority. Take that.

(Published in the April 2nd issue of the Warroad Pioneer. 120th Year, Issue 34)

Conditions at NW Angle School worsen; state reps, district 690 take note

On any given weekday throughout our long Minnesota winter, ten young elementary school students ranging from kindergarten through sixth grade take their spelling tests, work on math problems and eat their lunches all while wearing their winter jackets. During power outages, which are regular occurrences in this area of the state, they bring out the blankets and keep on learning.

During the spring rains, the students make a game of filling cups with the water that runs through the window frames and into their classroom. The many mold spots on the ceiling and in the stained fluorescent light fixtures don’t drip water; they pour water like a spigot. Buckets sitting beside desks and a constant mildew smell are barely blinked at.

When the weather is finally warm enough, the boys go to the bathroom outside to save on flushing. When the plumbing isn’t working at all, they use a portable toilet – the kind you might see on a big boat. Their teacher then carts the waste home to empty it into her own septic system.

Yes, over the last many years an unacceptable new normal has taken root at the quaint and often-lauded Angle Inlet School, Minnesota’s last one-room public school house.

Teacher Linda LaMie, who has been devoted to the school for thirty-odd years, and her students, and paraprofessional teacher’s assistant, Mrs. Samantha Shoen, have learned to adapt.

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Teacher’s Aid Samantha Shoen routinely works in her jacket and with a blanket.

“Living at The Angle is more challenging in a lot of ways than most other places in Minnesota,” said Mrs. LaMie. “We’re not complainers. We’ve adapted and learned to put up with a lot, but now that I see more and more how the building’s condition is impacting the kids’ ability to learn and do what kids need to do every day, well, it’s time to make some noise.”

For Mrs. LaMie, it has become normal to squeeze around the rows of plastic storage bins stacked seven-high beside her desk due to lack of closet space for materials and supplies.

It doesn’t faze anyone except visitors when an errant dodgeball during indoor Phy. Ed. knocks over stacks of books, scatters the in-process art projects or sends the spare boxes of tissues flying. The students adore their time to move and play, as all kids do, and in this small space, they’ve become as nimble as billy goats. No one has crashed into the piano. No one has hit their head on one of the aging desks. No one has been seriously injured tripping over the loose and wrinkled threadbare carpet.

Yet.

On Monday, April 10, State Representatives Dan Fabian and Matt Grossell made the long trek north to the top of Minnesota’s “chimney” to visit the small school. Co-authors of HF 1089, a bond bill that may finally provide funds for repairs and updates, legislative veteran Fabian and newly elected Grossell crossed the Canadian border and wound along the final 20 miles of bumpy gravel roads, all with the goal of touring the functioning-but-rundown school, meeting the students and talking to the community they’ve vowed to fight for.

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Rep. Grossell speaks to the children about his job while Rep. Fabian and Mrs. LaMie look on.

Remote and often overlooked, the Northwest Angle is on the map as a fishing destination. According to the Lake of the Woods Tourism Bureau, the area brings in excess of $10M in economic impact to the state. And the community is growing. From 2014 to 2015, lodging expenditures rose 15%. And for the second year in a row, attendance at the small Angle school has measured in the double-digits.

The growth is highly significant in the life of Mrs. LaMie. She teaches all subjects to seven different grade levels, which is over 70 lesson plans each day. Last year, the school district (Warroad 690) brought on a part-time teacher’s assistant to help out with the workload. Mrs. Shoen, who graduated from UND with a double major in English and History is working towards her education degree and was once a student at The Angle School herself. The extra help came none too soon, especially considering that for years Mrs. LaMie’s job has also included responsibilities that teachers in nearby Baudette, Warroad, or Roseau, not to mention in the metropolitan areas south of here, would never be asked to complete.

She shovels snow and throws salt. She pulls weeds and trims the trees. She rolls out the septic blanket in the fall and puts it away in the spring. She maintains the water softener, adding salt and making minor repairs as needed. She functions in an IT roll, trouble-shooting the printer, fax machine, copier and student computers. She is a front desk receptionist, answering the school phone and all the correspondence received by visitors inquiring about the unique history of the area. She is the school nurse, the music instructor, art teacher, Phy. Ed. coach and so much more.

When it comes to building maintenance, often, if she doesn’t do these chores, they simply don’t get done. We all know that teachers across the country use their own resources to ensure their classrooms are fully stocked, which, in its broad acceptability, clearly speaks to the broken education system in our country. But, in Mrs. LaMie’s case at the Angle School, it’s reached an unacceptable standard far beyond what is experienced elsewhere.

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There are many visible damage spots to the school; however, it is the decay and damage that can’t be seen that is the real concern.

Representative Fabian has been visiting The Angle for over thirty years, but this recent trip was the first time he’d been inside the school building. Warroad Public Schools, which encompasses The Angle, fall within his district. Representative Grossell held a campaign goal of visiting The Angle, and after he received letters from each of the students, he set a date.  Entering the school together for the first time, both had no difficulty seeing and smelling what all the current concerns stem from. The air exchanger hasn’t worked for years. The roof recently had tarpaulins nailed to it in several places. The bathrooms smell of must and mold. The classroom, while bright and bustling, is cramped and cluttered.

School health is traditionally an indicator of community health but not in this case, and perhaps that’s why the thriving Angle community has begun to stand-up as a group to get their message across. The condition of the building has been steadily deteriorating for years, and with the growth of the student body the extra use adds to the current strain on an already appalling facility.

State representatives have visited in the past, but this is the first time the community jumped into full-fledged action. They organized a full agenda, starting with a traditional Angle shore-lunch. The reps then spent time with the students and Mrs. LaMie, touring the school and noting building conditions. Later in the afternoon, the community gathered in St. Luke’s Church, the only other public building open during ice-out, and heard a brief legislative update from both reps as well participated in a Q&A session about the school and other community concerns.

The goal was to leave a lasting impression with Fabian and Grossell, who returned to their capitol jobs and other more pressing issues the next day. Despite bellies full of fried walleye and wild blueberry dessert, an earful of parent concerns and the sweet and subtle pleas of a humble study body asking for help, if history is any indicator, the reps will make promises onsite, but the dilapidated school and ten determined students will quickly be forgotten.

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The Angle school students and teacher Mrs. LaMie pose for a group picture with Reps Grossell and Fabian on their April 10th visit.

But the hardworking community doesn’t seem to be willing to stand for that any longer. “We are vote-casting, tax-paying members of 690 and want to see equal representation up here,” Angle resident and parent Lisa Goulet said. “We’re looking forward to seeing real results, not just the proverbial pat on the head that we’ve been getting for so many years.”

Four members of Warroad Public School District 690 were also present on Monday’s meetings with the students and State Representatives. Bearing school supply gifts for the kids, board members Brian Hontvet and Laurie Thompson, Building Facilitator Kelly Klein and Superintendent Paula Foley spent time listening and answering questions as needed.

It was the seventh trip that Foley had made to The Angle in her 1 1/2 years with the district. In the past, concerns have been raised regarding the school district’s financial status, which Foley has been addressing since coming on board in 2015. She also committed to a better accounting in the future of how the Northwest Angle’s levied tax dollars are being spent, and the matter is on the agenda for the Warroad School Board meeting on May 15.

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Superintendent Paula Foley reads to the Angle School kids on her recent visit. (Photo by Sam Shoen.)

The NW Angle is part of Lake of the Woods County but sends its kids to the Warroad schools due to proximity. Based on NW Angle real estate tax revenue over the last five years, an average of $377,216 has been transferred from Lake of the Woods County to District 690.

“Of these years checked, NWA residents assume 15-17% of the total dollars levied by the Warroad school district each year,” Stacy Novak wrote in answer to an email enquiry. Novak is the Lake of the Woods Property Tax Administrator and Deputy Auditor/Treasurer.

What this all means is that Angle residents’ concerns about adequate tax representation are absolutely valid. The Angle doesn’t make up 15-17% of the Warroad student body, and yet 15-17% of district dollars levied come from The Angle. That said, it wouldn’t be fiscally responsible or even possible to put that much money back into the Angle School each year. The district divides by student and by need not by big houses on expensive shoreline. Also, many of The Angle 7-12 graders are bussed into town and are part of the bigger Warroad School complex and all of its many activities and programs.

Still, The Angle school needs funds now. Quick fixes aren’t working any longer. It would be a boon to the district if the state bond bill would come through, but if it doesn’t, the district needs to step up and reallocate funds to make thorough renovations.

Back to the bond bill, the visiting representatives were genuine in their promises to do all they could to push it forward. Frustration was palpable in many voices during the community meeting, but ultimately the words of Representative Grossell rang loud and clear. “This is an absolute need. I’ve promised to fight for those in need, and this, to me, is a clear one.”

While the community has advocates in Reps Grossell and Fabian, the challenge remains to convince other members of the Capitol Investment and Education & Finance committees. The Speaker of the House needs to hear voices raised in unison. Voting members of the House and Senate who represent districts hours south of here have no concept of the school’s conditions, that the boys each have their own chosen tree to use when the plumbing isn’t working, that the girls sit huddled in snow gear to keep warm, and that the unseen mold may be causing health concerns.

In the past, teacher, students and community have tolerated the deplorable condition of their school because they must, and because they know with all certainty that this unique schooling experience is helping their community churn out a completely different brand of child.  There is no sense of entitlement among these kids. Bullying doesn’t exist. Their levels of adaptability, resourcefulness and resolve, as well as negotiation skills, are well above average. Measuring this is, of course, arbitrary, but one conversation with these kids, where first-graders are chiming in right beside sixth-graders, proves the case. Constant interaction with older students builds confidence and self-esteem, while day-to-day exposure to the younger ones grows them into helpful, compassionate individuals who know how to serve.

This community grows kids who are going to be part of a problem-solving shift that desperately needs to take place in our country and beyond. Very big real-world problems stem from an education system in chaos, from under-paid and under-appreciated teachers, from standardized testing that lumps all kids into one category.

And while the Angle Inlet School adheres to all Minnesota public school policy, it is the unique environment that makes up for it. These students foster a decade-long relationship with one teacher. They learn and benefit from the contributions of community members near and far. They turn into teachers themselves, college professors, principals, assistant principals, law assistants, lawyers, physical therapists, graphic designers, nurses, members of the armed forces, fishing guides, stay-at-home moms – the ultimate teacher, and so much more.

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With aging playground equipment as the backdrop, teacher Linda LaMie speaks with State Representative Matt Grossell, school board member Laurie Thompson and Warroad Community Partners board member Cyndy Renfrow.

During that Monday town hall Q&A with the state reps, “plan B” was brought up quite quickly. Though the words weren’t spoken, Representative Fabian didn’t appear confident that the bond bill would even make it to the floor.

“I’m hopeful that we have a bonding bill this year. I really, really am,” Fabian said, before expounding for several minutes on the merits of a possible philanthropic drive to raise money for the school. “There’s some discussion about whether we will [have a bonding bill] this year or not, but I think that it’s absolutely vital that we do. People like Matt and myself have spoken up a number of times in the caucus meetings about the importance of a bonding bill especially with regards to projects like this.”

If the worst happens and the bill is tabled, it would be the second year in a row that the NW Angle school, which is asking for $700K out of an $800 million bond bill, would get the shaft. The students would suffer in silence for another long winter. The building, under the care of an over-worked, retirement-age school teacher who earns no more than other teachers of her tenure, will continue to fall-apart.

If the worst happens, the students will keep on growing into responsible contributing adults, but it won’t be because our state proved they cared for them by funding an adequate facility. It’ll be because the community then had to resort to a herculean fundraising drive. It’ll be because their teacher never gave up and always went the extra mile. It’ll be because an already -strained school district pulled together and found pennies here and there.

The community cares and is determined to make it work, but more than anything they want their elected government, from school board members up to the state reps and senators, to do this work for them. It’s why the system exists in the first place. No matter what, we fight for our kids because students who are well-provided for become adults who make a difference. And those are the adults who are going to change the world.

This isn’t just for the kids; it’s for all of us.

(Published in the April 18 issue of the Warroad Pioneer )

(A shorter version was published in the April 12th issue of Williams/Baudette Northern Light Region.)

(Featured intro photo by Sam Shoen.)

Peace vs. Prosperity

From time to time, I forget that life is about service.

I get caught up in how I want it to look, in my attachments to how this world and this life are “supposed” to behave for my benefit and pleasure. It’s especially visible when a grudge that I didn’t even realize I was holding lifts suddenly…like knowing that on a gray and rainy day the sun is still shining behind the clouds.

I’ve been holding a mini grudge against The Angle, and a bigger one against our country. Of course, the places are inanimate; they are man-made locations on a map that wouldn’t exist but for the take-and-delineate desires of humankind.

Still, I built a beef in my mind against some perceived wrong-doing I had to endure, next the people started representing the place as a whole, and then I set about suffering as if it were my lifelong ambition.

It started with dollars and cents, as it often does in our money-hungry capitalistic culture. Previously, I had always believed I was the type who put people before money. I even passionately declared as much to a group of us at a recent meeting of our non-profit snowmobile club. I was voicing dissent over a string of decisions that I thought had put dollars and cents before people, before community.

The voice that rang loud and clear in my mind after the confrontation ended was a direct quote, “Why should we pay the money if we don’t have to?”

I interpreted it as “why, if no one is going to legally force us, should we do the right thing?”

And as a result of my intense focus on that negativity, a few weeks later my family’s personal business took a financial hit from the same direction for the same reason. In the messy cluster that was my relationship over the last two years, which I’ve written about very openly in the past, here, here, and here, certain business obligations went by the wayside. As in, we failed to bill for services rendered for 2.5 years. It was a source of plenty of shame and embarrassment.

We make the often-arduous trek to town five days a week, and as a service we run errands for people and businesses across The Angle and islands. We also do a lot unbilled personal favors because it’s the right thing to do. Once life got organized (and sober), it was time to deal with what we had put off. My beautiful man, in his quiet, unselfish way, would have kept on serving, asking nothing in return. But me, well, I guess I’m more money-hungry. We had done the work, and though we were late, we finally sent a bill.

The statute of limitations for billing is six years in the state of Minnesota, but as a professional courtesy, and mostly to alleviate my shame, we gave people the option to “pay what you think is fair” for anything over one year old. Every single business but one paid in full and with kind regards. The largest check, however, the one that, as it turns out, would have bought my family two acres of land, didn’t arrive.

And the words began to ring louder in my mind’s ears: “why should we pay the money if we don’t have to”.

I gave them an “out,” and then I held it against them when they took it. I judged them, and then I became them. I had put money before people. Even this writing about it feels like a selfish venting of the perceived slight. My ego needs checking. My money-hunger is getting the better of me. And it all feels so sleazy.

It feels similar to the grudge I was holding against our country for constantly electing politicians who seem to put money before people and who spread the fear-based message that “others” are looking to disrupt our comfort. It feels like the resentment I held against my neighbors who seemed more apt to defend a billion-dollar oil corporation over a down-trodden minority protecting their only water source. Or, it is like the contempt I fostered towards those who focused, for example, on the overflowing garbage cans that the Women’s March left behind instead of the message of love, equality and empowerment it was trying to spread. I’ve been unhealthily internalizing all types of these “bad guys vs. good guys” battles, always assuming I was on the right side.

But in going to battle, in creating the battle in the first place, I can see that I alone am responsible for setting up my world in an “us against them” manner. I’m judging others and then doing the exact same thing. I’m blaming others for my discomfort and turning life into victimhood. I’m putting perceived slights above relationships, money before people, and grudges in front of my desire to serve community and country.

I don’t want to be that person.

I want to be someone who serves selflessly. I want to make the world more beautiful for having been here. I want to get back to my dreams about building a public park here at The Angle. I want to tell the survival stories of the elders and adventurers here. I want to help The Angle’s one-room school house build another room so we can better prepare our children to go out and give back. I want to be a giver not a taker.

Mother Teresa once said, “A life not lived for others is not a life.”

I want those words to ring in my head, not the ones about money. I don’t want some corporatized definition of prosperity. I want a real life, not a never-ending battle. In all regards, I just want peace.

(Published in the April 4th Warroad Pioneer)

To Everything There is a Season

The black birds were spotted in Roseau, which means they’ll have made their way to The Angle in a week’s time. In the right light, the subtle iridescence of purples, blues and greens makes them anything but black, but regardless, we lump them into one dull category and spend the warmer seasons loathing their existence. They scarf down the deer feed. They commandeer the bird feeders. They rest busily all in one tree, calling and clucking, turning our yards into a tropical-sounding aviary.

I love closing my eyes and imagining the color, heat, and humidity of the tropics; the song of the black birds takes me there. An eye-blink later, however, I’m back in my unbecoming layered-up layers and my winter boots are making my feet sweat, such is the variety and unpredictability of this many-named not-winter-not-spring season.

But, the black birds are emblematic of spring. So, I love ‘em. Roseau, point them north.

Robins are just days away too. This past Sunday I spotted their scouts a mere 20 miles south along The Angle road. We were going slowly enough to see them clearly because the road required it. To use the words of someone who drives it five days a week, “it’s bumpy.” Full stop.

I’m going to avoid labeling it good or bad. It is what it is.

Every year in the spring, for what seems like months, our ONE point of entry is best experienced vicariously. If I were in the car repair business, our road would be a boon. Since I’m not, the ride to town is gruesome. Washboards and pot holes are laid out like gaping wounds from a billy gun blast. Like an impassable mine field that takes no prisoners. Like a muddy, road-sized Wack-A-Mole game where every vehicle wins, big-time. We do our best to pick out an avoidance route, threading our way gingerly through the worst ruts and holes so as not kill ourselves by hydroplaning, I mean muddy-washboard-planing into a great white pine or the rare oncoming traffic. The slow and torturous pounding our bodies and vehicles take each mud-season is enough to make the less-hearty want to move away.

Aaah, spring.

We voyaged out onto the ice this past weekend. Dog, kid, camera in tow, we had no official business to attend to other than I simply wanted a last trip out on the ice. We mainlanders have the luxury of…how shall I put it…not risking death whenever we want to go somewhere this time of year. I suppose no matter where you live there is risk each time you walk out the front door. The black birds look on as falling coconuts in the tropics kill far more people than lake ice does. Here, the island-dwellers at The Angle have got to be ice-saavy and employ a modicum of bluster in this between-season season.

On the ice, we went close to the open-water’s edge. The ice-road, having been plowed of insulation all winter, freezes deeply and remains well-intact far after other areas open up. But for Mergen’s Point, a high-current area that is also a shallow-reef graveyard of lower units and prop blades, the ice-road would remain viable all the way to Oak Island for a while yet. The road is already nearly impassable at Mergen’s.

I wanted pictures for a story series I intend to work-on, so we drove to Minnesota Point for a view of “The Flats” and then out to (but not across) Mergen’s, where we watched a curious otter basking on the ice. Then we drove back to the open spot around Flag Island Resort’s breakwater. Current is always the serial ice-killer, but wind and rain strike one-off devastating blows in their own right when they come.

More than any other label, this is “worry season” for many Angle residents. In this little corner of the lake, there have already been four vehicles (that I know of) that have gone through the ice (and been recovered). Each instance had very specific circumstances due to location and ice-conditions, and no one was hurt. Resorts are checking ice daily weeks before now, and often they make the financially-painful decision to close-up shop early for safety’s sake. Some years, The Angle’s winter tourism season comes very quickly to a close.

Still, many locals have fish-houses yet on the lake, and while ice can never be fully knowable, locals know where to go. Locals know how to watch the ice. They know what the colors mean and how the structure and integrity can change drastically with day-time thaws and night-time freezes. Locals have a pretty good grasp on what’s a risk and what’s not.

I don’t know any of it. I don’t even know if I write about it correctly. Don’t come out and take pictures of the Mergen’s otter just because I did. I had a guide. He’s been learning the ice for over twenty years. He gets his bulky “float coat” out this time of year, just in case.

But oh, how the grandparents worry about the ice. It’s almost as if worry has its own season in all of life. The youngsters needn’t worry because the old-timers seem to do enough of it for everyone. I once heard worry described as praying for the worst possible outcome. Yes, that feels true. I worry a little about a few things, but not about the black birds eating the deer’s corn, not about the impact of potholes on car maintenance, and not about the ice when I’m with my guide.

In the grand scheme of things, I’m always with my guide. We all are. So, use caution, I suppose, but don’t be too careful. Living is risking, after all, and just like everything, there’s a season for risk.

Safety third, Angle goers.

(Published in the March 21 Warroad Pioneer)

Life after drinking

Last week I was filling out a new patient health questionnaire, giving details on my exercise level, water intake, caffeine, alcohol and tobacco use, when, for the first time ever, I marked the None box beside alcohol.

None!

I used to lie on those questionnaires, downplaying.

It’s been one year. One dramatically different, altogether quiet and peaceful year. A month into sobriety, I had a glass of wine at a fancy dinner. It seemed like the thing to do, but it didn’t taste good and I felt like a fraud, drinking only to fit in. I ended up leaving it. In hindsight, I can see that dinner was a turning point, just as checking the None box was another. They are clicks, switches, personal proofs I relish encountering from time to time to remind me that I am done.

In my 20’s, I used to say that I was suspicious of anyone who didn’t drink, as if they were lacking and abnormal.

I spent my 30’s in a whirling social life, part glamorous, part bohemian, all indulgent, with alcohol as the frosting on a crumbling cake. A friend’s words ring in my ears to this day: “We love Kellie; we just don’t love drunk Kellie.” I was the girl who was too drunk to drive home at most parties. I would reliably show up with champagne at any Saturday morning event. I could have a blast doing anything so long as cocktails were involved. And of course, they always were.

Column 53 - Champagne
Eight years ago, I was very good at opening and pouring champagne. 

Booze is so ingrained in our way of life that I’m inclined to become something of a conspiracy theorist: i.e., this great numbing of the masses is one of the many tools meant to keep us as distant as possible from our birthright – the Peace that Passeth Understanding. It should be a universal wisdom allowing our release from suffering, our enlightenment from the dark grasp of the ego, our salvation from a hell we wrought and wrangled ourselves.

Many years ago, author and spiritual teacher Wayne Dyer said something that rocked me to the core…his own teacher had helped him to understand that so long as he was drinking (he had a one-beer-a-day habit) he would not be able to reach his spiritual goals. Heaven on earth wasn’t possible. Enlightenment was out of reach. Even from just one beer a day.

Such was the power of the almighty drink. Such is our propensity to create false gods.

Drug and alcohol addiction have a nasty stigma in our culture, as well they should, being life-destroyers and all. But in terms of spirituality, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, addiction is addiction is addiction. Sugar, shopping, success, sex, social media, etc., …it’s all a paltry replacement in our sadly human attempt to fill the void left gaping and raw from denying our connection to God.

Drinking just happened to be the one I needed to address first.

I was lucky. I had a drinking partner who loved me, loved Us. We quit together, even while we were apart and drowning. Once we had rebirthed our commitment and moved back in together, it was easy to put Us first. Socially here at The Angle, there was almost nothing we did without a drink in hand or imbibing heavily beforehand. So we quit all that too.

I’ve struggled here in this isolated place having zero friends that I see consistently. But, I was a selfish friend anyway. I was a lousy employee, a mess-making daughter, a neglectful sister, a whining writer, and even a bad mom.

But as the sober weeks wore on, each one easier than the last, life started to change. It became slower, sweeter and infinitely more satisfying. I don’t fear missing out as I used to and I don’t feel left-out, though we often were in the beginning.

My intuition is back. My patience – once I got through the physical and emotional detox – has increased. My desire to create is more purposeful and much more determined.

My skin and hair are healthier. My vision is sharper. My reflexes are keen and dependable. My struggle with extra weight is ever-present, but it’s now about making Tony’s favorite pasta and Iris’ favorite granola bars, rather than about consuming a thousand calories from a bottle on a barstool.

I hadn’t known how to love, how to give, how to listen, how to be still as I do now. The emotional ups and downs still come, but they are manageable because I’m aware instead of numb. Guilt, self-hatred and death used to plague my thoughts. No longer.

The first time I reached to join hands with my little family around the dinner table, it felt terribly awkward. I didn’t know how to pray so I looked them in the eyes and said quietly, “I love my family.”

That’s what not-drinking has become for me. I love my family, I love my man, and I’m starting to love myself enough to want what God wants for me.

I know it’s important to bless my past. I even bless the booze. I’m grateful for the journey. After all, it brought me here.

Here to this place where not drinking is normal, where the love of my nuclear family is just the beginning, where Check boxes help define how far I’ve come.

Life after drinking is worth the challenge of change. Life after drinking is finally living.

 

(Column 53 – Published in the March 14 Warroad Pioneer)

Fishing for Humanity

 

This past weekend I went trout fishing. I caught a bass.

One olive green, bug-eyed small mouth who tacitly reminded me that I’ve been taking this ridiculous and beautiful game far too seriously. She said exactly that as I looked into the placid depths of her dark eyes. I drug her up from 60 feet on a barbless hook as fast as I could reel, and she forgave me instantly. The experience left her shocked, and she lolled about in the ice hole for a time before coming back to her fish senses. Silently, so as not to appear too off my rocker to those fishing with me, I said Thank You and wished her well on her journey home.

I’ve been lolling about in the ice hole too, stunned that all is not as I believed it was. That the game isn’t being played by the limited rules I had once understood. That the false-bottom my Vexilar displayed is a million times more complex than I once thought, though still false.

Life isn’t what it seems.

My bass saw it and accepted it without understanding. But bass don’t have an ego masquerading as a spiritual quest.

Sure, I can continue to write about our quaint gravel roads and the close proximity of wildlife. I can rhapsodize about the birds at the feeder or make melodies of the scampering squirrels and pine martens. I can translate as the wind pushes winter off the trees yet again, or romanticize the solitude and the seekers who find themselves here to unwind.

But what’s happening within me dictates what I see without.

And I see a tiny community in existential crisis, because I am. I see a country totally divided, because I am. I see the vocal majority picking on the quiet minority, because that’s what’s happening with me. The big ugly ego within is demonizing the still quiet voice, because one spells love, truth and the awareness of the other. And we all know it’s not the loud-mouth who’s gonna win in the end.

My fundamental notions of what life is all about have been breaking down for some time, but witnessing what’s going on in the world makes the internal escalation now feel frantic, chaotic.

Is anyone else feeling this? As if something’s gotta give and soon or it’s all just going to collapse?

This morning I awoke from a dream about a waiting room of sorts at a makeshift birth center. I sat in the middle with the organizers, and around the edges of the huge rectangular room were women of every color, creed, shape, size and social status, their pregnant bellies full and prominent. Some were alone. Some had partners. Some reclined on matts on the ground. Others curled in sleep. Some danced the slow sensual dance of creation. Some stood rigid and tight. Some women laughed and sang. Others wept silently.

My four-year old had found her way to my bed again, and as I lay awake unmoving, thinking about my dream, she said loudly in her sleep, “Yep! We are tree frogs.”

I long to be able to see the hearts of the people behind all the social constructs, beyond the religious labels, despite the political leanings. I want to see two people of different belief systems stare each other in the eyes until they can both recognize the humanity in the other. I want to see a big-bellied Muslim women next to a big-bellied Christian woman and all the fear and hatred be put aside in honor of the life they bring into the world.

It feels like that’s what everyone everywhere is fighting for. “Acknowledge my humanity. See my suffering. See me. Love me.”

We are the same, and yet we spend every ounce of our egoic energy working to define and differentiate our Selves and then even more to defend the righteousness of our differences. But, we are an idea, nothing more. The way we’ve got it all constructed, these crazy lives surrounded by meaningless crap in this crazy constructed world. It’s all just ideas, reinforced rather messily with more made-up ideas that seem as real as every dream does while we’re in it, unawake and unaware that we are dreaming. Every single one of us is screaming through our night terrors that “My ideas matter. My stuff matters. I matter.”

But we – as we see ourselves and as we want others to see us – are just ideas. And we WILL wake up, because that is the law of dreams. We can’t choose to stay in the dream because it doesn’t exist.

What we really are is those babies about to be born in that big room of creation. We are undefined and perfect. We are loved without knowing it or knowing we need it. We are the same as the baby born next to us whose skin tone is totally different. We are the same whether our grandmother prayed in a mosque or a temple or a wide-open meadow. We are the same whether it was a woman or a man who held our mother’s hand as we came into the world. We ARE the same.

Beware of those who tell you you are different. Beware of those who tell you you are better. Beware of those who tell you to defend you. They are afraid. They are lost in their night terrors and they want you to join them in hopes that they will feel less alone and less afraid.

Don’t.

Unless you are awake and can gently guide them back to here and now and help them awaken to see it was all a dream, don’t go down to meet them.

Rise up and dream of love, if you must dream at all. If they insist on falling back asleep, coax them into dreams of tree frogs and trout, I mean bass. Or better, rise up holding their hand and show them the dreams of humanity standing together. Seeing each other. Loving each other. Show them that every good thing is possible, even finding meaning in the eyes of an olive green small mouth bass that was supposed to be a lake trout.

(Published in the Feb 28 Warroad Pioneer)

Tastes of The Angle

Bone Broth for the Soul

Bone broth has become as trendy as quinoa, kale and chia seeds. Suburbanites can drive-through a broth stand for their daily dose, and New Yorkers can pick up a mug right alongside their wheat grass shots.

Here in the wild woods, we make it the good old-fashioned way: with Lake of the Woods fish carcasses or Minnesota whitetail antler and bones or from young roosters and old hens past their egg-laying prime. Continue reading “Tastes of The Angle”