Friday, December 20, 2019

All the Beautiful Blessings

The EnLIGHTened One

The holiday factory floor (table).

Semester is finished, though not quite finished with me. The chokehold is now just a jab in the ribs every now and then, checking to see how steady I am. For the past three weeks, I’ve been juggling on a high wire, in high heels, with a Pilot Precise V5 (my favorite pen) in my teeth: final cram-everything-in lesson plans, writing and giving final exams, shopping, doctor appointments for two people, end-of-the-year meetings, grandkid Christmas programs and robotics tourneys, wrapping, decorating, baking, and always, gradinggradinggrading…

As for my “long winter break,”—we start up again January 13—once the grading’s done, it’s time to prep for next semester. No rest for the wicked, as my granny used to say.

Still, I’m incredibly blessed, and I know it. I have a good job, a wonderful home with heat and indoor plumbing, plenty to eat, my first full-length poetry book, The Book of Crooked Prayer, coming out next June, Britbox AND Acorn, and happy twinkly lights everywhere I look. But my greatest blessings are my amazing husband of 32+ years, who goes about quietly, steadfastly, doing everything he can to make my life sweet and easier; my 84-year-old mother, baking Chex Mix, making that corn and macaroni casserole, and still teaching me; and kids, grandkids, and brothers popping in, calling, or coming for visits.

And there’s impeachment, maybe the best Christmas gift of all. The House, at least, stood up to lunacy and cruelty.

So today, as South Dakota hits 34 degrees with just hints of unmelted snow here & there, as finches, doves, sparrow, juncos, woodpeckers, and squirrels come to the birdie buffet, as steam pours from pipes and smoke from chimneys, I am ignoring my grading pile for a day to pay attention to and revel in my undeserved holiday gifts. Here's granddaughter Hazel wishing you a "Beautiful Christmas," and I wish you and yours SO much joy, all the love you’re able to share, and a promising new year!

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

We're calling this "camping." Shut up.

For quite a few years (less regularly in the past few years), a bunch of us women have been taking an annual summer camping trip. We started out tent camping somewhere near a lake, then we mixed in campers, then, as we all got a bit more comfort-oriented, we moved up to cabins. We’d pack clothes for every kind of weather, enough food to last a month for a small village, books, board games, guitars, wine, and some fun activity—henna tattoos, hair dying, facials, etc. We’d hike, play music, tour, take turns planning and cooking meals, and stay for 4-7 days, unless the weather drove us home. The campout has always been a chance to reconnect with friends, kvetch in a “partner-free zone,” eat with wild disregard for our dietary restrictions, and unwind (and maybe let loose) without judgement.

Friends join us for brunch at the annual campout.

Return of Godzilla

This year, we were all feeling less inclined to rough it (at least for now), with our CPAPs, bad knees/hips/backs, and our recent or upcoming treatments/procedures/health crises. Fortunately, one of our clan won a gift certificate and was generous enough to share it with us, so our “campout” this year was one glorious night at one of Little Town’s best-kept secrets—our local winery and B&B, Valliant Vinyards.

The winery sits up on a hill overlooking the Missouri River valley, a quilt of woods and farmland. They make and sell their own wines and distilled liquors. The first floor is the winery dining room, tasting bar, and covered porch. The second floor has five B&B rooms, a conference room, a kitchen, and a gorgeous covered balcony. The basement is the heart of their winemaking, and the distillery is a separate building. They have a covered stage outside for “Winefest,” coming up August 24-25 (

We met at the winery Sunday morning for VV’s weekly “Bloody Mary Sunday.” You could call it an XTreme brunch. We had friends joining us for brunch, so we ordered three “Godzilla’s,” which is a pitcher of Bloody Mary made with the winery’s own distilled and pepper-infused vodka. Into that is added a whole roast chicken, and because it was “Perfectly Pickled” day, a plethora of speared, pickled delights—pickled asparagus wrapped in cream cheese and prosciutto, artichoke hearts and other pickled veggies, shrimp, and more.

Post-brunch Catch Phrase
After a long, leisurely brunch, our guests went home and we campers did a wine tasting to settle on wines for the afternoon and evening. We had a long afternoon of wine and games—Catchphrase, Password, Trivial Pursuit. In the evening, we headed to Spirit Mound, a local site with restored natural prairie on a hill significant to Native Americans, for a lovely short hike. Then, back to the winery, where we were lucky enough to hang out on the upstairs balcony and watch an incredible, brief thunderstorm roll in across the farmland.

Back in our room for the night, the Queen Anne Room, we got out guitars and did a little quiet playing before we all hit the hay (with our Kindles) before midnight.

The evening chip selection
The next morning, Adrienne, the winery manager, cooked us a brilliant breakfast (if she’d added a slice of grilled tomato and soda bread, it would have been the Full Irish). We all got good and coffeed up, and we headed home.

I’ll admit I miss the true camping days, and I may get back to that one day, but with Mom gone to the Bohunk Reunion for a couple more days (I’m on dog duty), and with my “travel weariness” not quite gone yet, this year’s campout (spa-cation? glampout?) was just right.  

Pre-storm hiking selfie...uh yeah...we made it to the top...yeah...

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Florence Days: the Opie-ness of my youth

Florence Days, 1971
30th Street
Station at 30th and Tucker. That's our house, the Tucker house, behind,far left.

Since I got back from Ireland, I’ve been processing—stories, sights, sounds, the meaning of witness, trauma, language, and on and on. It’s all still so fresh and percolate-y, that I have to make myself stop sometimes before processing becomes spiraling. I have to divert my still-overwhelmed and always-obsessive brain like the toddler it is, with something shiny, soothing, or sweet.

My friend Katy said something recently (Ooh! Shiny!) that brought up one of my happiest childhood memories—the arrival of an annual carnival to my little corner of the world—which got me thinking about the way I grew up, and how incredibly lucky that was.

I grew up in an area of Omaha, Nebraska, called Florence. Until it was consumed by Omaha, Florence was a small town, and it clung to its small-town atmosphere as long as it could, at least until I left home in the early 1980s. We had Zesto, our own little grocery story with oiled wood floors and a butcher, a hardware store, a variety store where we could buy socks, school supplies, fabric, etc., and a library. We had two drug stores, Rexall and Koebler, which had a soda fountain. We had a bowling alley, Kelly’s North Bowl. Like all small towns, we had a bar, the Frontier, and several churches.

Back then we had only three TV channels, no devices or technology, and hard-wired, non-mobile phones (some still with party lines). If you stayed inside, you were either put to work or bored to tears. Most North Omaha kids’ parents couldn’t afford lessons (my grandma got me piano lessons by bartering my babysitting services with the Presbyterian minister’s wife), after-school programs, pool memberships, or day camps, so sunshine or snow, we just roamed. We lived that outside-light-to-dark, glorious kidlife.

My parents both worked. I had three brothers, and when my parents divorced, we all moved in with my widowed grandmother, while Mom worked two or sometimes three jobs. Her main job was office/medical assistant for my uncle, a family doctor. She was greatly underpaid, as were most working women back then (and many still today), and she picked up bartending or waitressing jobs to make ends meet. Grandma was home, but she was busy cleaning, cooking, baking, doing laundry, mending, and more for us four kids and Mom, in a 17-room home that had been in our family for 125 years by then.

We always had what we needed—clothes, food, shelter, and Cub Scout/Brownie uniforms—and we never thought of ourselves as poor, though we certainly were. And anyway, we weren’t really poor—they lived in the trailer court.

My brothers and I pretty much ran amok, unsupervised, since Mom and Grandma were always working. Our dad was mostly MIA in our post-divorce years (that’s another story).We had a few rules—stay in the neighborhood, call if you weren’t home by dark, call if you need help, stay away from the railroad tracks and out of trouble. Our “neighborhood” included the entire north end of Omaha. We Florence girls (and the boys too) ran in tight little packs of gritty urchins, our knees skinned, our hands and faces scraped and probably dirty, spitting our nickel-a-pack sunflower seeds as we fed ducks in the cemetery, played in the park, hung out at Zesto or Kelly’s, or just wandered. We walked or rode our bikes.

And the carnival! Every year, the carnival came for Florence Days. There was a parade down 30th Street, Florence’s “downtown,” which was lined with banners, flags, and booths for the occasion. The Yo-Yo Man came to Koebler’s to do tricks for the kids (and sell yo-yos), and the carnival would set up in the park a block from our house. They were in town for several days, and for the duration, I spent dawn to dusk at the park, grilling the poor guys (there weren’t any carny women in those days) about carnie life. If I bugged them enough, they’d pay me $.25 a day to feed, water, and groom the ponies (in retrospect, I’m sure they were just desperate to keep me busy and QUIET—I could talk non-stop, almost without breathing, back then). I fancied myself an expert horsewoman and, like many kids, made plans to run away with the carnival.

I didn’t have much “stuff” growing up, but I did have a whole lot of independence. I was self-reliant and solved (mostly) my own problems. I never worried, and neither did my mom, about the possible dangers of young girls hanging out with carnies (those kinds of fears would come a short time later, but that’s another story). My mom and grandma didn’t know where I was or what I was up to for long stretches, but they knew I’d be home around dusk/dinnertime. I learned to take care of myself (which is maybe why I was able to wander around Ireland on my own?).

Times have changed, I know. I had experiences later that made me a slightly paranoid, overprotective, ever-present and intense parent with my own three kids (sorry, kids). Then last week, my daughter let my 9-year-old grandson walk by himself from my house to the library (maybe 6 blocks away in the tiny South Dakota town where I've lived since I left Nebraska). I experienced a moment of sheer panic and wanted to stealthily follow behind at a safe distance, spying from the bushes. Thankfully, I remembered my own childhood and quickly came to my senses. I want my grandkids to have that sense of adventure and self-reliance I had as a kid. I want them to explore and reach their own conclusions about the world, not to be told everything. I want them to put the devices down and go outside. So I sat on the porch (with my cell phone and binoculars) and watched him go.

Notes: All photos from
Another post about Florence:

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Are you packing or MOVING?!?

I’m heading to Ireland in 9 days. That’s 9 seconds, in OCD/Packing Anxiety/Month=Forever time. The purpose of the trip isn’t funny (I’m researching Ireland’s Magdalen laundries), but my prep for the trip is HILARIOUS.

I’m “packing light,” since we'll be on the go most of the time, schlepping whatever we take, everywhere we go in a rental car the size of a Spam can. So I’ve got it down to one 21” rolling backpack, and one carry-on tote. Easy, right?

Phase I—Essentials: Pack 3 pairs of pants, 4 shirts, an extra pair of trekking sandals, and a couple changes of underwear. Make sure clothes are multi-purpose (casual clothes double as PJ’s, casual clothes dressed up with lightweight black sweater, etc.). Add a small toiletry bag with toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, soap, travel washcloth, extra floss picks, extra AA batteries, makeup. Lay out layers and a jacket & pashmina for the plane to maximize space in the backpack. Pack a clear quart-size bag with shampoo, conditioner, Ayurvedic Pitta skin oil, lotion, cologne, mouthwash, lavender essential oil, face cleanser, hair serum.

Phase II—Stuff: Pack poetry books (gifts for our Air B&B hosts), Kindle, chargers, inflatable neck pillow, a daypack, a small purse, 4 more pairs of pants, collapsible walking stick, 2 more shirts, extra packing cubes, 6 pairs of socks, a fleece pullover.

Phase III—Regret: Unpack. Start over. Repack until the backpack will zip shut. Leave books, walking stick, fleece. Pare down to 3 pairs of pants, 4 shirts, 3 pairs of socks, some underwear. (You can do laundry in Ireland, honest.)

Phase IV—Panic: But what if it rains, and I need an umbrella? What if we go on a picnic and need a tablecloth? What about this first-aid kit? What if I finally have time to read the 20-lb Umberto Eco novel I’ve been trying to get through for 15 years? What about my cool “mountaineering” clothesline, survival tool, egg carton, compass (for when I’m lost in the mountains), and funky wool boot socks? Won’t I need a snorkel?
Can I fit a ukelele in there??

Phase V—Deep, Cleansing Breath: If you were staying home, where the weather is almost identical to the weather in Dublin right now, and maybe went to Sioux Falls for a day to visit friends, what would you wear? need? use? Yep. Take THAT. (Research shows they have STORES in Ireland.) Dump both bags out on the bed. Go downstairs to the sofa and take a nap.

Phase VI—Do-over: Pack 3 pairs of pants, 4 shirts, 3 pairs socks, an extra pair of trekking sandals, and a couple changes of underwear. Add a small toiletry bag with toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant. Pack a clear quart-size bag with shampoo, conditioner, lotion, lavender essential oil. Pack Kindle, chargers, inflatable neck pillow.

Phase VII—Done: Zip up bags and leave in hall closet, out of sight. Do NOT touch them again until you load them in the car for the airport.

Phase VIII—Panic: The night before you leave, wake about 2 a.m., retrieve bags, dump everything out on the bed, and start over. At the very last minute, remember WHY you’re going. Shove a bunch of stuff in the bags and go.