Friday, April 20, 2018

The Crazy Bee in My Bonnet

I have a GIANT, angry bee in bonnet: I need to get to Ireland. Check out my gofundme page:

I’m working on a book of poems about Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries, workhouses run by the Catholic Church in Ireland from the mid-1700’s to 1996 (!), and in which girls and young women were incarcerated and used as unpaid labor in an effort to “reform” them. If you’ve never heard of the laundries, you can read more about them on my gofundme page, and more here:

Because I need to go to Ireland to do research and meet laundry survivors, and because I’m a perpetually broke teacher, I’ve started the gofundme page to help me get there. (If you feel like sharing my gofundme link on social media or email, I’d be most sincerely grateful.)

I feel sheepish about asking for help (something I’m not good at) when there is so much need out there, and it’s mostly so much greater than mine. I’m not even sure why this project is so important, so consuming for me at this time in my life, but it sure is.

·      Maybe I WAS a Magdalene (what laundry girls/women are called) in a past life.

·      Maybe it’s because I had two DNA tests done, and they both showed I’m basically Irish with a smattering of Bohunk (Czech). My family had always maintained, in spite of a passel of redheads, that we had no Irish ancestry, so this was a bit of a surprise. Maybe my Irish DNA is calling me back to the land of my peeps, and to speak out. 

·      Maybe it’s because I went to Catholic mass religiously (hahaha) as a kid—though I’m not Catholic—and I went to a Catholic girls’ school, and I have a profound love for and fascination with Catholicism’s deep traditions and mythologies, saints, rituals, art, and architecture (although like so many devout and sincere Catholics, I’m horrified by the Church’s abuses past and present).

·      Maybe it’s because I can’t get these babies out of my head… (

·      Maybe it’s because in my youth, I was the kind of girl/teen who would have ended up in a laundry if I hadn’t been blessed to grow up in America in the 1970’s, when practically every girl I knew would have been likely laundry fodder. There but for the grace

Ray looks at me like, “Uh-oh…here we go again…” and tries hard not to roll his eyes or sigh too loud. I don’t know if he’ll go with me (he’s one of those rare homebodies who doesn’t care for traveling), but he’s my biggest writing fan and supports me in all writerly things, so I know he’ll be with me either way.

Whatever my deep-seated reason is for needing to write this book, and however long it takes me, I’m going to Ireland. In my own mysterious poet-y way, I’m trusting the Universe to make it happen, and I’ll be sure to blog the trip, whenever it happens. Éirinn go Brách(less)!

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Jack Blizzard's Final Fit

It’s Sunday, the day after Snowmageddon ’18, Jack Blizzard’s Last Tantrum (, the Great April Blizzard. Tucked in our Little Town corner of South Dakota, our magic vortex protected us from the worst of it. We only got, oh, about 10”. Surrounding areas had white-out blizzard conditions and up to 18” of snow. In 24 hours. 

Northern prairie people expect blizzards. When we hear it’s coming, we stock our larders (Friday was mayhem at Hy-Vee; amid cart races and elbow jabs, bread, milk, butter, peanut butter, and beer flew off the shelves), rinse out our woolies, fill bird feeders for the hapless migrators, start new knitting projects, set our mukluks by the back door. What made this blizzard unusual is that it happened mid-April, one day after a stretch of sunny 60+-degree weather. It had been lovely for long enough that people were foolishly raking flower beds (the iris and columbine are up), climbing into garage rafters to get out patio furniture, and swapping out storm windows for screens. Ah, that persistent prairie optimism…
Pre-storm: even squirrels stock their larders.

SD rancher Bryce Teveldal snaps his brother on calf-rescue duty.
Outside our little hamlet and our “pretty spring snow,” things got a little more dicey. Long stretches of I-29 and I-90 were closed due to 40-50 mph winds and ZERO visibility. Stuck drivers had to be plucked from cars that slid into ditches. People were quite literally snowed in their houses by drifts against doors and high as windows. Parked cars were buried. Cows were lost, frozen to death by driving wind and snow-ice, or had to be rescued by determined ranchers.

It’s mostly over now, a few flakes in the air, and the shoveling out commences. The forecast is for 40’s and 50’s by the end of this week, and our memories of Snowmageddon will, as they always do, quickly melt away.


Thursday, March 15, 2018

Dear Ides of March: You Don't Scare Me.

It’s my dad’s 85th birthday today. He’s in a nursing care facility with advanced prostate cancer. He’s had it for a long time, and he’s periodically refused treatment and defied the odds. Recently, one of the cancer’s rogue tumors ended up pressing on his spine, which left him unable to walk. Surgery relieved the pressure but didn’t restore his ability to walk. He does have sensations in his legs, though, so he pushes himself to regain his mobility, doing his own PT on the sly. He is realistic but unbelievably optimistic. Dang, I hope I inherited his determination gene. Happy birthday with love & admiration, Dad.

My dad once told me he was the reincarnation of Caesar. Kidding or not, he IS kind of like Caesar who, in spite of warnings, trusted that things were gonna be a-okay. So for my dad’s birthday, and for the spring geese flying over by the thousands right now, and for the return of the robins, here’s my annual poem about warnings, winter, realism, hope, and optimism…all things South Dakotans (and my dad) have in spades…


The seer was right to warn us,
beware the ides of March.
It’s a dangerous time, peering
through iced windows at the jeweled
tease of crocus and daffodil.
We’ve weathered another season
of deep-freeze, locked up tight
in muscle and mind. We’re tired
of winter’s grey and gritty leftovers.
But this is no time to get careless,
toss a floorboard heater through
the beveled glass and go out,
where Spring flashes her flannel petticoat
embroidered in pinks and greens,
leaves us gaping, breathless,
in air still cold as a knife blade,
stripping off the down.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Zombie Ukulele

the Zager humidifier
I’m blogging about my ukulele today because I brought it back from the dead. Well really, Ray saved its life. Well really, Dennis Zager Jr. saved it. And if you have a stringed wood instrument with buzzing strings, metal frets that feel like exposed nails when you run your fingers along the side of the neck, or a flattened or concave instrument face or back, he can probably save yours, too.

I have a beautiful Luna concert tattoo (carved) uke. (ASIDE: Luna is the only stringed instrument company I know of owned by women.) I bought it two years ago, and almost never played it. I have a Lanakai bari uke I played all the time, because the chord fingerings are exactly like guitar, and I’m generally lazy, so it was a no-brainer.

But recently, I had the opportunity to take OO-KOO-LAYLAY lessons from a pro, Joseph Ahuna (, a native Hawaiian stuck in our Little Town while his wife finishes up her music degree. The lessons are FREE and once a week at our local library. How incredibly LUCKY are we?!? Anyhoo, I had to switch brain hemispheres and finally start learning uke tunings and fingerings.

Long story short-ish, out comes the Luna. Immediately, I discovered a couple things: (1) the frets felt like railroad spikes when I moved my hands up and down the sides of the neck; and (2) I couldn’t play any chords, like C7, that involved the first fret on the A string (GoodCowsEatApples); I got only a nasty buzz and no melodic sound. Too late to exchange it, I had Ray take it to a luthier in the Big City. After a few days, the luthier reported that to fix it would involve taking off and re-setting the bridge, filing down frets, and a general overhaul that would cost more than the uke was worth or had originally cost me. So home came little Luna, and Ray thought he might try filing frets, since at that point, we had nothing to lose.

In the process of Ray’s research on filing, he came across this info from Denny Zager Jr.: (ASIDE: You old people will remember that Denny Zager Sr. had a hit song back in the day called “In the Year 2525” as part of a duo, Zager & Evans. Denny and his son are now living in Lincoln NE making and modifying geetars. I have one of their modified Zager “Easy Play” guitars, which I adore.) Ray said I needed to see the website myself, so I checked it out and watched Denny Jr.’s embedded video. Holy smokes…could humidity be my problem???

So…I made a bazillion (6 really) little homemade humidifiers a la Zager, and put one in the case of each of my stringed instruments. For more intensive treatment, I put little Luna in a garbage bag, slipped a homemade humidifier under her neck, sealed up the bag, and put the whole thing in a case. One week later (no peeking!), I checked on her. The humidifier was still damp, so she hadn’t soaked up all the water. I could still feel the frets running my fingers along the sides of the neck, but NOTHING like before. And there was still a buzz on the first fret of the A string, but I COULD HEAR A NOTE! Back in the bag Luna went, sealed in for another 72 hours. I took her out yesterday, took her to uke lessons, and she played like a dream. I can barely feel the frets at the side of the neck, and the buzz is completely gone. C7 is so sweet.

As Zager explains, lack of humidity makes the wood shrink away from the metal frets, exposing more of the metal and causing buzzes. Once I re-humidified the Luna, the wood expanded back around the frets.

My last step was to go on Ebay and buy 10 little humidity monitors ($2 each). I keep one in every instrument case. I keep the humidity around 45-55%, and if it slips any lower, I put a homemade humidifier back in the case for 72 hours.

Little Luna, happy in her humid case!
Best of all, this process, which cost me a few Ziploc bags, saved me a TON of money I didn’t have, because while I was on Ebay, I came across a gorgeous Kamaka tenor uke…for only $1300. I was trying to decide how badly I really need a car…

Sunday, February 18, 2018

ohm coffee mane padme ohm...

The Traditional Moka Pot
Coffee. I drink it every day. I've written poems about it. I photograph it. I ritualize it. I cook & bake with it. I’ve blogged about it before and probably will again, because, well, it’s THE ELIXER OF LIFE. As the British Museum’s earliest known coffee ad says, “It quickens the sprit and makes the heart lightsome.” The ad goes on to say that coffee can prevent consumption, and it can CURE dropsy, gout, and scurvy. Elixer. Of. Life.
Cold-brew French Press

Cut down? Never. I say, pour ANOTHER cup or three while you read this about coffee’s health benefits:

The discovery of coffee is often attributed to Abyssinian goatherd Kaldi, around 850 AD. Kaldi discovered that after eating the berries of a particular shrub, his goats got peppy and frolicked about. He chewed a few himself and felt a sense of euphoria, so he filled his pockets with berries and took them to a local monastery to share his happiness. According to

Kaldi presented the chief Monk with the berries and related his account of their miraculous effect. "Devil’s work!" exclaimed the monk, and hurled the berries in the fire. Within minutes the monastery filled with the aroma of roasting beans, and the other monks gathered to investigate. The beans were raked from the fire and crushed to extinguish the embers. The chief Monk ordered the grains to be placed in the ewer and covered with hot water to preserve their goodness. That night the monks sat up drinking the rich fragrant brew, and vowed that they would drink it daily to keep them awake during their long, nocturnal devotions.

See? Coffee is a spiritual gift.

My grandma, who lived with us when I was a kid, drank instant Folger’s or Sanka, and I grew up loving the smell. She used to call church coffee “caramel-colored water,” so I also learned stronger is  better. Then, my own full-on, coffee-fueled nocturnal devotions developed during grad school. I spent my days chasing three kids, then pulled all-nighters writing a Master’s thesis, studying for comps, or writing papers for PhD classes. Since then, I’ve tried just about every method available for coffee preparation, and I’ve amassed an impressive collection of coffee accoutrement. Oh, oui oui, mon amie.

The Nespresso and Capresso Grinder
Travel Stanley and Drip Cone
Travel French Press and SPARE Chemex
I have several options for travel rigs (depending on available space and mode of travel), a BUNN for holidays/gatherings when I need a constant supply over a long time (if you HAVE to drink auto-drip coffee, BUNN is the best), a Nespresso one-shot pod brewer for guest treats and my evening “fun cup” of decaf espresso, and a Keurig in my office at school. I don’t have a real espresso machine yet, but believe me, it's #1 on my wish list.

As for my daily grind, after a few decades of dedicated research, I have what I believe is the perfect brewing method—the yardstick by which I measure every cup of coffee and find most lacking. It involves four components:

1) the darkest, greasiest, freshest organic beans I can find. My preference is Café Altura French Roast, which I buy in 4 lb bags, then break down into 1 lb bags, 3 of which I freeze immediately. (Yes, snotty connoisseurs, there IS a little condensation loss from freezing/thawing beans, but I can’t go to the market and buy fresh beans every dang day. Geeze!);

2) ONE POT’S worth of beans (5 heaping standard coffee scoops of beans), ground fine in a quality burr grinder (NEVER a blade grinder!);

3) filtered water, heated in my Zojirushi to 208 degrees. I set the timer the night before, so the water is ready the minute I get up. (Wow, you coffee snobs are something. Yes, many of you prefer 195 degrees, but I’ve found that 208 doesn’t burn the coffee, and my cuppa stays delightfully, drinkably hot longer.); and

4) the most important component, a CHEMEX 10-cup pour-over coffee pot, with genuine CHEMEX coffee filters, which are thicker than standard filters and made from lab-grade filter paper.


Mom and I are planning a trip to Lafayette LA in April, so she can meet great-grandchild #10. There are loads of arrangements and decisions to make, but of course the biggest is whether to pack the Aeropress, the stainless or Stanley travel French press, or the drip cone? Because trust me, NO ONE wants to spend their vacation with an undercaffeinated me.

The Daily Grind with Zojirushi

Thursday, February 8, 2018

It's my party, and I'll cry if I want to.

I’m a little sad today; more snow is on the way, a neighbor and former teacher is moving on from this life to his next adventure, and my post-stroke vocal chords aren’t working today (my friend DLB dubbed these my “Carol Channing" days). We prairie people usually stuff our feelings, especially sadness. We aren’t the only stuffers, of course, but we’re the BEST. Today, however, I’m letting sadness loose. I’ll try to explain why this isn’t just maudlin self-indulgence…

Each semester, my literature students (most of them prairie folk) ask, “Why don’t we EVER read anything happy?” This is a hard question to answer. We usually end up talking about the definition of “happy,” satisfying vs. happy, or the ways in which gross overgeneralizations like EVER distort the truth. Then I usually quote that beacon of literary sunshine & optimism, Cormac McCarthy: “The core of literature is tragedy. You don’t really learn much from the good things that happen to you.”

So maybe this is why I love sadness: It teaches us so much about ourselves and each other. I don’t mean that I wish everyone would stop smiling and suffer. I’m not itching to wear black eye shadow, write angsty poems, and take up the pipe organ. I do live with persistent depression (treated…I’m cool, thanks), and admittedly, this may color my comfort/familiarity with the non-happy side of our human emotional spectrum.

(SIDENOTE: I know that depression and sadness are not the same, believe me. Depression is wack brain chemistry, and persistent depression is NOT situational—sad things don’t make it happen. In fact, things don’t make it happen. Your brain makes it happen. You can’t “cheer up,” “get a hobby,” “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” or “think positive” to cure depression.)

Maybe this is why I love sadness: Turns out sorrow/sadness has its own peculiar language: As a writer, I find this absolutely interesting.

Maybe when I say I love sadness, what I mean is this: I have a deep and profound appreciation for it. Sadness, sorrow, grief—they’re Great Revealers. They lift the veil, cut through the noise. In times of true sorrow, a person stashes the ego, slices through the pretense, stops the show. Shit gets REAL, as the young’uns say. Maybe these are the ONLY times we get real. 

We are the most authentic, the most genuinely human, when we’re the most vulnerable. It’s all bare wires, stomach muscles, and shark brain in times of sorrow. And there’s something extraordinarily humbling about being witness to a person who, in those moments, doesn’t care what you or the rest of the world think. I believe we NEED our hearts to break open now & then in order to reconnect with compassion, to see into our core, and to remember what we’re REALLY made of.

Here’s another thing I love about sadness: Sorrow and grief are also Great Levelers. We all feel them. Let them out, stuff them if you must; they’re still there in every one of us. No amount of power, position, credentials, wealth, fame, good looks, intelligence, or single-source organic fair trade Sumatran coffee can change that.

I feel bad for stuffers, who can’t or won’t fully embrace their own sorrow for reasons of upbringing, “Stubborn Stoicism” (this should be the tagline on South Dakota license plates), fear of embarrassment, a clinging ego, a misguided need to “put on a happy face,” or the supposed propriety of finger-in-the-dam self-control. I have just enough upper Midwest Presbyterian in me to qualify as a stuffer, though I actively work at quashing my stiff upper lip.

Maybe this is the CORE, the nougaty center of why I love sadness: Sorrow gives us rare glimpses of unvarnished, raw, genuine, beautiful humanity.

On the flipside, no one wants to LIVE there, right? And this is another of sorrow’s gifts: When we face sadness, embrace it, move through it with tenderness and appreciation, we CAN move beyond it. Then, for me at least, the eventual return to wonder and joy feels a little electrified—more intense, surprising, healing, zingy—and that’s beautiful, too.

“I have been in Sorrow's kitchen and licked out all the pots. Then I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows, with a harp and sword in my hands.” –Zora Neale Hurston

Thursday, January 25, 2018

BIG ME, little me

Buddha said to wear your ego like a loose-fitting garment.  The ego, that “me” we each fabricate over a lifetime to present to and interact with the world, serves a purpose, but it's not real. Okay…it’s real, but it's not real real.

I’m in my 6th decade now, and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about ego, loss, and letting go. It’s true that we all face loss throughout our lives. Relationships end, people we know & love die, we lose jobs/houses/pets, tragedies happen. These losses are a natural part of living. And loss, especially in midlife and beyond, does something else besides make us suffer—it also chisels away at the ego by chipping away at our created identities—the things and people from which we have each built the story of ME. It was always a fiction, but I’m learning lately how comforting and safe that fiction has been for me, and how bare, how raw, it can feel to let it go, to strip it away.

The Jung Center says, “Aging means more than just staying on the physical plane while the years pile up. It includes activities like unifying the opposites...In these years we can work on individuation, as the ego experiences a host of realities that incline it to give way to the Self [my emphasis]. Submitting to the direction of the Self can foster the ‘gradual spiritualization of consciousness’” (

The layers of my garment—musician, student, mother, partner, daughter, grandmother, teacher, friend, etc.—come and go. I resist the going, because I’m human, and humans don’t like change in spite of what we say. And because our garments become familiar, protective, and cozy, we want to leave them on. Some of us even forget they’re garments at all; we don’t wear them loosely anymore—we live in them like skin.

Stripping off a layer (or having a layer unexpectedly stripped off) can be painful and confusing: You have a stroke, the stroke takes your voice, are you still a singer? The band breaks up, are you still a musician? Your kids grow up, they leave and turn into adult humans (even really cool humans), are you still a tiger mother? You lose a job, your friend commits suicide or gets hit by a car, your mother gets cancer, you graduate, you get old and infirm—are you still a bank teller, friend, daughter, student, wild woman? When the layers come off, it can feel like you’re under attack, losing yourself, coming undone, lost, invisible, no one.

It took years of meditation, inner work, waking up, a willingness to be honest about what I feel and believe, and a willingness to SEE my own misconceptions, but I’m finally getting it through my thick head that none of this was ever ME. (And, by the way, we all put on and take off layers all the time—I’m still tightly wrapped in teacher, daughter, grandma and other delightfully comfy, cozy layers—it’s knowing they’re only layers that matters.)

I believe that the spark & truth & love that is our true nature, our connectedness within all TRUTH, has never been and can never be altered, diminished, taken away, or lost. Once I figured this out (remembered it?), I could breathe a little easier through life’s inevitable chiseling away. I won’t lie and say I always smile peacefully through loss now, but it no longer completely undoes me. 

I’m not crazy about the word “annihilation,” but this quote from Jack Kornfield rings true for me: “Only to the extent that a person exposes themselves over and over again to annihilation and loss can that which is indestructible [my emphasis] be found within them.” 

That’s how it can feel—exposed—when layers come off. So now I like to think of my layers as scarves…filmy, silky, sheer, loose, beautiful scarves that at least keep the wind off my face. My scarves come and go, there are an infinite number of ways to wear them, and I never leave them on in the house (ME).