Something To Do

Column 21 Published in the March 1, 2016 issue of the Warroad Pioneer

“What do you do here for fun?” he asked me from across the bar. I was serving coffee and eggs to fisherman and snowmobilers, enjoying every minute of it, and though I wanted to say, “This!” I understood he wasn’t asking about quasi enlightened joy or the bliss that can envelope a restful presence even as life dances its swirling intricacies around it.

He was legitimately concerned about what in the world people do for fun in a place where there’s seemingly not much to do other than fish and drink, as many of the visiting tourists would believe.

“I would love to live here,” he began again. Those familiar words heard by locals countless times, no doubt, are invariably followed by “but I worry that…” or “but I don’t see how this, that and the other matter would work itself out…” or any number of other fear-filled wonder.

Before they begin to form questions about the grand How of making something this big happen, I wonder if they subtly intuit that so many of us are experiencing joy in this simple lifestyle, even when we are grumpy crocodiles, as my three-year old calls it. Grumpy when bombers break down, when groomers get stuck in the slush, when the minerals in our well water continually wreck appliances and turn our hair a brittle, coated rust color, when a needy, entitled lost soul brings their unhappiness here to dump and replenish themselves as we bear the brunt of their bad mood year. (Oh wait…that was me.)

Do they see that we have the creature comforts we need and not many more, and that’s fine by us? I wonder if, as the gravel road unwinds itself (and them) all the way here, do they feel the blood pressure lower, the racing pulse slow, the kaleidoscope mind ride away on the coattails of the whirling snow devils.

A well-intentioned friend recently tried to convince me I was wasting my life living here, that I was bigger than what The Angle had to offer me, that I didn’t fit here and never will. When the initial two seconds of defensiveness wore off, I couldn’t help but feel flattered: he wanted me to be like him. How genuinely kind of him! He wanted for me that sense of self-importance that he feels from being in the game, from collecting the latest game-playing equipment, from gathering with other players of the game and recounting feats of bravado and mercilessness.

More and more I can only see it as running a race that never ends. It takes time to get a treadmill-type existence out of one’s system even after living here for years. I know because I’m still working at it. In the beginning, I often had the bizarre sensation that I was a self-appointed member of The Angle’s recruiting committee, as if we were some gated community that wants only a certain sort of neighbor. Good people, the best people, often float through The Angle for a weekend or sometimes a season at a time, and in some cases, in my “people-should-have-what-I-have” mind at that time, it seemed vitally important that I sell this place and this lifestyle to them.

That is broken thinking of course. The Angle will collect those who belong here and usher out those who don’t, all of its own accord. We third and fourth generations of gatekeepers and stewards needn’t do a thing. Anymore, I simply smile at a question such as his. If they “get it” even just a bit, they’ll see the burgeoning knowing behind that smile, welcome the subtle invitation, and hear and accept the question as to whether or not they can hack the learning curve. The Angle’s not for everyone, we like to say. And not everyone’s for The Angle.

“This and that,” was all I could truly answer, and through his sly smile in return I could tell he knew the particulate beginnings of what I’m just coming to know more in-depth.

Three nights later on a whim, after my little one is tucked in soundly with Grandma and Grandpa, I’m out riding the roads with my brother in a well-worn plow truck. We might survey his new land. We might make a shopping run through The Mall (our refuse and recycling center). We might go visiting or stop at Jerry’s for a nightcap or not. We might recruit a few friends and head out on the ice-road in an ethereal snow shroud suspended between a fresh blanket of powder and the weight of the cold air above. We might solve all the world’s problems as a wolf-mother moon rises over the frozen lake only to remember as it clears the treeline that there’s no such thing as a problem. We might stop for stargazing above fifteen feet of soft water and two feet of hard. We might stop in at the only other places shining a light. We might meet a few tourists and either befriend or befuddle them – the choice is always theirs. We might find a jukebox or a private spot to spin some vinyl and a few more yarns, talking and laughing and dancing like no one’s watching because indeed no one is.

We might have game night. We might find live music or make live music. We might drink tea and craft. We might work on a friend’s frozen septic pipes until we’re exhausted and frozen ourselves.

There is a lot to do here, too much in fact, and it’s almost as varied as anywhere else and maybe a little more worthwhile.

Whatever it is “it’s something to do,” so many of us say. And we’ve gotten really darn good at having fun doing it.

Life’s Vexilar

Column 20 – Published in the February 16 issue of the Warroad Pioneer

A comfortable settling-in happened here at The Angle just recently. Seismic shock waves of normalcy have this roller-coaster-ready girl reeling in unexpected surrender. Surely others must have felt it. Surely it’s the reason fishing is so slow.  The steady drip, the slow, evening out of life, now that I see it, seems about as dramatic a change as the world turning white with the first winters’ snow.

I usually can’t predict when a shift is about to happen because I’m mired in the blackness that precedes it. It’s as if a trip around the dark side of the moon is necessary in order to fully appreciate the beauty and the light of our blue green planet.

Full blown depression gets me good still. It has for decades. But being at the über wise medium age of 40, the means and ways I’ve learned to work through depression seem a lot more purposeful, more productive.

It isn’t until I’m on the other side of it that I can come to understand why I needed to go through it. Still, I look forward to the day when the signposts are clearly visible, and instead of slogging right on in to the middle of the slush, I can cautiously and quietly walk the edges, placing no blame on potential stuckness, holding no judgement over that which teaches me.

Dealing with depression at The Angle isn’t all that different than dealing with it elsewhere. Only here, when I need to be still, I can watch the deer instead of pedestrians. I can walk in silence for an hour before meeting anyone. I can melt into the backdrop of our white world like a painted pony in a Bev Doolittle piece. Of course, life’s chores and now parenthood keep me functioning and moving forward, but the pace simply isn’t as frantic. On a recent morning commute, I met four cars. A record high so far this winter season.

And so, this shift, this settling-in feels as refreshing as our well water tastes after a weekend away in some fluoridated, chlorinated city. I went to sleep one long night ago as a girl, and somehow, woke up as a wellspring of a woman with a voice that isn’t afraid to be heard, with hips that suddenly remember what it is to walk as a woman should, with shoulders thrown back in soft readiness, and eyes that need only wait and see.

It doesn’t feel like “settling,” not in that loaded definition of the word. It’s not a slumping into an easy chair, but rather the rightness of good posture, a lengthening of the spine until I feel a tingling in the crown of my head, as if I’ve suddenly grown up into new air. And indeed I have. How does one go through life measuring 5’2 and ¼ inches and then suddenly in my late 30’s grow nearly another inch?

The patient parent that is The Angle has been steadily, almost stealthily, nourishing me with a diet of fresh air and black earth, old sorrows that are the sweet manure of change and growth, and a surprising abundance of new and good people and experiences waiting in the ready for when my eyes could finally see them.

The challenge it puts forth now is to help me slow down even more. To not rush head long into the waiting vigor, but rather saunter with gaining confidence. I read a quote by the Persian poet Hāfez recently: “Run my dear, from anything that does not strengthen your precious budding wings.”

And I found truth in the thought of this settling-in actually representing the growth of wings. “The Angle will provide,” as we like to say, anyone with any opportunities that anywhere else can. It may not take the same form or shape, but the lesson to be learned is as sharp and useful, gentle and healing, wholesome and all-encompassing as the ones I would have learned had I chosen somewhere else to usher in this shift.

But no, I won’t run, as Hāfez counsels. Running from something has meant that I’ve had less time to understand and choose where I was running to.

No, I think I’ll walk. I think I’ll make a snow angel or two along the way. I think I’ll learn to sing. I think I’ll stop from time to time to string words together in composition celebrating that which I find beautiful, joyful. I think I’ll sway a full-hipped sway and relish being a woman in this unbalanced masculine world. I think I’ll learn to look at men differently, with gratitude and honor and respect for what they go through. I think I’ll settle-in and get to work.

But first, I think I’ll go fishing.

The Long Goodbye

Column 19 Published in the January 26, 2016 issue of the Warroad Pioneer

Is the long goodbye a Minnesota phenomenon? A product of isolation? Here at The Angle it’s seems quite natural to keep talking as you stand at the door, hand on door knob, still visiting for an hour after you’ve said you better get going. Then we’ll chat on the front porch, follow you out to the car, and visit through the car window until you finally inch away. Be sure to look back, we’ll be waving as you turn out of the driveway. Continue reading “The Long Goodbye”

Year of the Wolf

Column 18 Published in the January 12, 2016 issue of the Warroad Pioneer

Spending any amount of time in these north woods means that sooner or later you’ll encounter a wolf or wolves. I’ve watched one cross our front yard. I’ve seen them traveling across the ice or along the road. I’ve come across tracks, a kill site and have listened to their mournful calls under cold and clear skies a handful of times.

Encounters are rare but not exceedingly so, and even passing visitors may happen across such a gift.

There was a time not too long ago when the popular sentiment in this anti-progressive area was “shoot to kill” at the very sight of a wolf, even when the animal was simply being its animal self, not posing any threat to human, pet or livestock.

According to the Department of Natural Resources, wolves in the sub-boreal forests of northeastern Minnesota independently kept the wolf population alive in the lower 48 states for many years. And after a reintroduction to Yellowstone National Park in 1995, wolves are finally being understood for the ecologically important species they are, changing even the behavior of the forests and the rivers.

In Minnesota, the wolf population hovers around 2,000 wolves and in 2014 they were again listed as endangered and thus protected. Since that time, there have been more unofficial moose sightings again in this area than I can recall in recent history. That may seem counter-intuitive to some, but in truth, it’s not. Wolves are connected to everything in our natural world.

Since moving to The Angle, I’ve found wolves weaving themselves through my experiences and my writing, symbolizing for me a metaphysical return to the wild, to my intuition and the great wide open that our wilderness and our lifestyle freedoms imbue.

Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés wrote in her impactful tome “Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype” a truth that rings through my psyche even today: “Go out in the woods, go out. If you don’t go out in the woods nothing will ever happen and your life will never begin.”

I first read her book on my gloomy commute to and from the chilly halls of Microsoft when I lived in Seattle. There then came a point in my city existence when it became abundantly clear that I needed to get back to the land, back to the water, back to home.

And so I did.

Every creature on earth returns to home. Home represents protection and freedom. We as humans understand that the loss of habitat is the most disastrous event that can occur to a free creature, and so we create refuge for all sorts when it is needed. We embrace their wildness, and yet we quash our own. Just as we pushed out the wolves, we have pushed out our own wild nature, fled from our homes and denied our intuition, thereby killing our voices, our creativity, and our natural inclinations to empathy and compassion.

This returning to home and habitat for me has been a journey back to an earthy intuition and reclamation of self and soul that has made me nearly unrecognizeable to many who thought they knew me. But no matter. As I read in Women Who Run With the Wolves, “It is worse to stay where one does not belong at all than to wander about lost for a while and looking for the psychic and soulful kinship one requires”

Bringing it back to the wolves, I wanted to share a short vignette I wrote after a simple but magical encounter a few years back. May we all run with our hearts and minds gifted to the winds, to the wilds, to the wolves as this new year breaks, passes and is soon forgotten. Happy 2016 all.

***

“Wolf,” he said softly, unnecessarily, breaking the long quiet on our early commute to town. My eyes had already been following the loping animal for several moments and even from a great distance it had registered quickly that this was not a deer or fox.

The wolf changed direction and crossed our road, still at the comfortable gallop that lent it both nonchalance and regality. As it reached the tree line, my eye caught the outline of its partner sitting alert and stoic. “Two wolves!” my heart whispered.

They met then, and the running wolf stopped and turned back to watch us as we crossed its original trail. I could see the rich grays and whites of a thick winter coat, its dark eyes and wide paws.

These were healthy wolves, aware and unafraid, perhaps on the hunt or simply traveling as wolves do. Their trained eyes burned into us as we slowed just slightly, watching, meeting their gaze. When the eerie, hair-raising feelings of years-ago experiences and learned expectations didn’t arrive, I was gently and instantly flooded with warm gratitude at being in their presence, at having witnessed a moment of their journey.

They would assign no meaning to this briefest of encounters, would not recollect beyond the noises and associations with the road, the vehicle, humans. Even that, who knows.

But for me, the vibration of it rang sweetly and clearly for many miles. The grid lines of connected experience flashed visible for another instant. I felt right and true on a path that has offered small support and only minimal delineation of late.

Seeing little point in miring myself in those gray thoughts, my mind stayed with the Wolves, running on their wooded trails, crossing silent, snowy fields, following just the idea of a scent.

Joyous, without labeling it joy. Free, without defining it so or understanding its opposite.

I whispered my thanks to the trees as our vehicle sped on, trusting they would keep my message until it could be passed on to the rightful recipients.

Warroad Pioneer Assignment EOY Wrap-up for 2015

Column 17.5 Published in the Decebmer 22/29 double issue of the Warroad Pioneer

When I chose the title of this column early in 2015, or rather when it revealed itself to me, I understood very little about the concept of grace. As the events of the year unfolded and as I endured the growing pains of yet another emotional upheaval on life’s journey, grace became much more than just a concept.

Slowly at first, I started noticing all of the angels waiting in the wings for us to accept their aid. They and the aid came in many different forms, a compliment, encouragement, extra work, a shoulder, a smile or hug or phone call right when it was needed, a 2-year old’s reminder that her papa loved me too even if he wasn’t around anymore.

Angels are neighbors, family members, a purring kitten, a well-timed song, the kind owner of a grocery store, extra volunteers for Angle Days, and a hundred more and varied examples. When I paused for a moment during the pell mell rush of daily life, I saw that they were around me in abundance, and the benevolence of the universe rode on their wings like a warm swath of moonlight on the darkest night of the soul.

I’ve always believed that the universe, or God if you prefer, doesn’t give you more than you can handle. And in fact, you get exactly what you need to keep chugging along productively on your chosen path. Living in grace seems to be operating with an abiding faith that life is working For you not Against you, that God is on your side, that this is indeed a friendly universe, despite all news reports to the contrary.

Grace is not the real estate of the religious. You don’t have to live in righteous piety, though it doesn’t hurt, to experience divine flow. Grace belongs to all of us when we choose to remember. Moving to The Angle and all of the pendulum swings that have come with that choice has been yet another toll of the bells awakening me from my slumber. And with each little bit of awakening, I can see more clearly how deeply asleep we all are.

Looking back over the year in review, I realized I was always working on this or that. Here are five practices that have helped me awaken bit by tiny bit during this tumultuous year.

G-Gratitude

It’s easy to practice gratitude when things are going well, but what about finding grace in the suffering, seeing goodness in the hardships, saying Thank You for the harsh words. If I find myself complaining or if I say or hear someone else say the word “hate”, my practice is to find appreciation for that which I am judging. Instead of hating chapped lips, for example, I was able to feel gratitude for the reminder to drink more water and refill the humidifier. I’m still working on feeling grateful for Fox News, that’s been a tough one for me.

R-Reality

I don’t get a vote in what is. It happens the way it happens and I can either accept it and hopefully learn to love it, or I can suffer. That doesn’t mean I’m a doormat. It means that reality rules. Reality is king. Reality is God. My practice is to simply be aware of my feelings to the extent that they tell me when I am fighting reality. My suffering comes about when I fight what is.

A-Attachment

For a time, even the most benign interaction with my ex would leave my insides writhing in angry knots. All of the rage and self-pity at the way this part of my story turned out would then unfurl itself in an impatient mudslide of words torrential.

I had gotten attached to my plan. For many years, I truly believed that he was supposed to be a certain way and our relationship was supposed to be a certain way. But we all know what happens when we tell God our plans. I imagine she smiles, pats us on the head and amusedly says, “back to sleep now, little one.” When I experience stress, I understand I’ve gotten attached to something untrue.  This practice rolls in with nicely with the previous one. Pay attention to my stress to learn where I’m attached to something that isn’t reality.

C-Certainty

The older I get, the less certain I am about everything. Not knowing is a wonderful place to be. All possibilities are open to you. Magic is everywhere. There was definitely a time in my life when I thought I knew it all, and I’m humbled that people put up with me. Now, I can see that every time I think I’m certain about something, I’m not seeing its beautiful truth. It helps having an inquisitive toddler at my side. My practice is to try to see beyond the labels that we put on everything and everyone around us. “We call it an eagle, my love, but it is more than just its name, as is everything. It is a powerful bird of prey that fishes the quiet coves of our meandering lake or cleans the carcass of a road-killed deer. Look at its snowy white head and its wide wings. Many see it as a symbol of freedom and strength.  It would eat our new kitten for breakfast given the chance.”

E-Enough

I am enough. Even in all of my shortcomings, my ridiculous flaws, my concerted efforts that amount to not much at all, through grace, I am enough. Through grace, I will always have enough.  My practice is, again, a simple awareness exercise to notice when I am feeling lack or less than. It does take practice. Negative feelings can spiral into much bigger problems, and eventually disease, if left unchecked. I have to pay attention to how I feel throughout the day. Slowing down with some deep breaths or by looking in a mirror seem to help. I’ll use it as a mantra when I walk, repeating until the words sound almost non-sensical, “I am enough. I have enough.” It helps.

***

Thanks for wandering along this winding road with me throughout 2015. I wish you all a wonderful holiday season filled with the music of love and laughter.

 

The purpose of suffering

Column 17 Published in the December 22/29 double issue of the Warroad Pioneer

The snow has finally arrived, covering up the bleak browns and grays of our mild, shortened winter and also masking some precariously thin ice. We’ll have a picture-perfect white Christmas, but now we need a whole lot of sub-zero temperatures to counter the insulation the snow offers.

It’s definitely a winter to stay on the marked trails, which, of course, is always a good idea on this unpredictable lake. This year, let’s all go a bit further to remind and enforce responsible winter fun. Tragedy is a reality none of us want to deal with.

The Angle’s snowmobile club, the Edge Riders, plan to compile and submit trail reports to the papers and radio stations this year, an overdue first. I’ll likely be doing the writing so I hereby commit to staying on topic. Or maybe I’ll include just a little on wildlife sightings or pretty vistas or … ok, ok, just the facts, ma’am.

We Edge Riders and Angleites mourn the passing of our “Grandma” Bonnie Vickaryous. She died here at her beloved Angle on Friday, December 11. It was sudden and so very sad.  She left behind a big family and one of the hardest working men at The Angle. Known throughout the land as a restauranteur and for her amazing cooking, Bonnie’s now going to have to watch from above as Dave eats a lot more plain hamburgers with raw onions at Jerry’s.  Treat him to another round of his usual cranberry juice and give him a tight shoulder squeeze when you see him next.

Bonnie was a pillar of support for the snowmobile club and the community at large. And as a woman who had once traveled the emotional road to hell and back, as most of us ladyfolk have or will do at some point in our lifetimes, she was strength personified. I’ve lived here only four years and can’t count the number of hugs she gifted me in that short time.

I’ve been watching the logging that Manitoba Hydro has been doing along our power line route. It runs all the way from the border cut to the fields north of Sprague. Thousands upon thousands of great white pines, Douglas fir, birch, popple are brought to the ground, laid out in grandiose piles and then run straight into a monstrous wood chipper. Seeing their mighty boughs lying in silent repose fills me with sadness time and again as I drive past. I notice the doomed trees that will be cut by the time I make my return trip and unwittingly impose my suffering-for-their-sake upon them.

But the trees don’t suffer. They don’t grieve the loss of others or their inevitable death. Neither do the countless small animal, bird and insect folk that undoubtedly went through the wood chipper as well. Nature knows no death. Energy can’t be destroyed. It can only change form.  From great waving branches to an unstitched patchwork quilt that blankets the ground beneath the new snow.

Sparks of growth will happen before we can even see the carnage again come spring.

Life is like that.

Loss is so undeniably hard, but loss is also like that. A changing of form. A renewal of faith in Come What May. Acceptance and forgiveness before a deed is even carried out.

A wise woman once told me that the purpose of suffering is to push us through to the other side, to teach us how to teach ourselves to overcome.

One of Bonnie’s many hugs came at the funeral of my own grandfather, Clair Knight, just over a year ago. She offered such tenderness and kind, genuine words. She knew what it was to suffer, and now as she is all-knowing in a different capacity, she gently holds her family and friends through every word, embrace and small worldly kindness that comes their way as they mourn and heal. Even in the tough-love, may they find her smiling upon them with grace as sweet as one of her caramel rolls.

She is one of our great white pines now. Sacred. Beloved. Infinite.

We’ll miss you, Bonnie. And we’ll see you in that great patchwork quilt that warms and comforts All That Is.

Merry Christmas, everyone. Peace and joy be with you.

Falling back in love

Column 16 Published in the December 8th issue of the Warroad Pioneer

It’s not hard to get hooked on this place.

Oh, perhaps when you first start coming here you look around, vacantly, like I did, at all the great nothingness, the remote and simple lifestyle, the ever-present hardships and doing-without, the still-waters-run-deep people who are slower to let you ‘in’ than pine gum runs in winter. Perhaps you decide, like the majority, that the annual or bi-annual visit is enough. Or…perhaps you, at a near subconscious pace, start taking note of the few and far between real-estate signs, the jovial attitudes of the locals enjoying their freedoms, the wildlife, the birdsong, the beauty in a rutted gravel road.

Not too long ago, when a good gal pal and I were working through similar hardships with life and men, we’d walk the trails and the roads wondering how it came to be that we had momentarily fallen out of love with The Angle. We’d lost our eye for the mystery and romance of what we called our own Secret Garden.

Often, it would take only that walk and that bit of talking to my friend, the trees, the listening birds, to clear my head and bring me back to the beauty of it all.

Women, it seems, suffer from the chatterbox mind more than the menfolk do. Diffuse awareness, author and relationship expert Alison Armstrong calls it. In the faraway past, men would focus all physical and mental energy to bring down a four-legged beast to feed family and village. Women, on the other hand, didn’t have the luxury of a one-track mind. Out of necessity, we’ve always been multi-taskers. In the time it takes the hunters to sharpen their tools, we tend the fires that stew the old bones, cure the hides, carry the little ones and ensure the bigger ones don’t wander too close to the stream. We dig for root vegetables, gather nuts and seeds for winter stock, take mental note that the stone cherries will be ripe in a week and store away a long-term reminder to come back a couple weeks earlier next year for the blueberries in the meadow two hills over. All the while, we keep eyes and ears acutely tuned for signs of danger.

Of course, our greatest strength can also be our greatest weakness. In my case, and I’m sure that of many women, diffuse awareness in this day of easy survival is the thorn when we’d like to get out of our minds and relax back into the physical, into the now. Compartmentalizing is difficult, if not impossible. We can’t slow down, enjoy, and receive. And presently, we fall out of love with anything that we perceive as pressure.

Women need to be in love.

Marianne Williamson writes in her beautiful book A Woman’s Worth that it’s a need as real as the need to breathe. A man or partner, a job, a child, a project, a home, a friendship:

We need to be in love with anything that we can throw ourselves into and make it more beautiful for having loved it.

That is exactly how I feel about The Angle. It’s why I work so hard on a few small projects that have big potential for such a small community. It’s why I’ve torn open my soul to write truthfully about the ugliness of addiction and the scars it’s leaving on this place and these hearty people. I know something good will come of that, even if the re-lived pain is real during the writing and during the subsequent public critique. I’ve been asked to self-censor for the sake of privacy, but what good would that do anyone? I much prefer to let manure become fertilizer so that beauty may grow for all to experience. A writer writes in order to heal, to work towards self-forgiveness, self-love, and if there’s anything of worth for others along the way, that is the gift we offer.

After losing myself and all of life’s grace and beauty in a short stint of domestic despair, the worst of which will never be written about publicly, I’m falling back in love with The Angle. I’m falling back in love with myself. With the reasons I came here and chose to stay. With motherhood. With friendships and family relationships long neglected. I’m falling back in love with life.

And it won’t be long now, after that long, roaring belly-laugh that is building, building, that I realize life and all of its compartments never fell out of love with me in the first place.