December 31, 2010

You're Welcome

Thank you, day, for this crisp air, for these wisps of sun, for hours as pristine and quiet as this. Sometimes to slow down we need no other choice, and it is later that we are grateful.

Thank you, month, for holly-berries and pine trees, for burning candles, for soprano and alto and tenor and bass voices sailing across lakes of snow, for little children in blue coats, for the scent of warm homes and family.

Thank you, winter, for coming again. In most cases, you are cold and treacherous and often unfriendly, but this is how the best of us get when we are lonely. Come on in to my house's corner. I will sidle up to the window and tell you a story. I promise, there will be snow on tongues and much laughing.

And thank you, year, for this visit, for stretching out your wide arms and twirling us into and out of your parlor. We talk about how quickly the days, months, and seasons go. We say, "Each year flies faster than the one before." And this may be true. But you are still you. One year. A collection of suns and moons and changing landscapes that are always, always, always the backdrop of our lives. Thank you for holding us up as we spin. As you spin. Thank you for holding steady even as you vibrate out, out, out. Thank you. You're welcome. You are welcome here.

December 28, 2010

Lake Susan Park

I cannot claim Lake Susan Park as a new destination. I have biked on its trails, read against its trees, studied its vegetation, and waded into its waters for several summers now. Occasionally I play tennis there, or stop by and watch a baseball game, my cheeks reddening in the sun. Always I am thankful that its 33-acres are close by, an open space that holds out its hands to the community.

Yesterday, a season later, I woke to fantastically blue skies--more true, I found, than those in summer--and a world that was frosted white. Hoar frost. The remaining goldenrod stalks stood frozen and glittering. The grove across the street resembled something out of a fantasy story, something with a name like Niffelvine or Ruumulus or Asgard. Everything seemed cast in a sleepy spell.
I went to Lake Susan with sleep still clinging to the corners of my eyes because I didn't want to miss the way the light was colliding with light. How long could something that beautiful last? How long, I wondered, can I walk about, over bridges, under the frozen arms of willow trees, up to the edges of iced-over water, marveling at a place that is still not summer? My cheeks grew rosy from the cold.

December 27, 2010

Walking Beside a Creek

Walking beside a creek
in December, the black ice
windy with leaves,
you can feel the great joy
of the trees, their coats
thrown open like drunken men,
the lifeblood thudding
in their tight, wet boots.

-- Ted Kooser
from Flying at Night

December 17, 2010

For You

"There is a privacy about [winter] which no other season gives you.... In spring, summer, and fall people sort of have an open season on each other; only in the winter, in the country, can you have longer, quiet stretches when you can savor belonging to yourself."
 -- Ruth Stout

December 12, 2010

White Out

"No," I said. "Let's stay inside, by this gas fireplace and our pot of soup and our dry woolen socks and warm blankets. That wind isn't out to make friends."

But who am I to say no to a walk, or at least convincingly so. My husband took out all our winter wear, tossed three choices of mittens on the floor, and--when I was layered-- zipped my jacket up so tight that I couldn't move my chin. Still, beyond our walls was an old fashioned Minnesota blizzard that was depositing in sum sixteen inches of snow. I glanced out our front window and could barely see across the street.

"Really. I don't know about this." I didn't. There was such howling, such icy gusts creeping through the opened door. I felt almost dread.

But I followed him. Into the cold. Into the wind. Into the flying pellets of frenzied ice that flung themselves into my once-warm cheeks and once-open eyes. "I can't see!" I cried, and was literally crying, thick tears soaking the edges of my scarf as quickly as the landed snow could find a thread of wool to melt into. But I was laughing, too, because the drifts were at some points up to my thighs and I kept falling over and I was glad I had this best friend with a mittened thumb to grab, leading me on into a time of year that I deep-down love, even if it is begrudingly so, that cold.

But in the woods there were no excuses. It became quiet, flakes still flying, but the wind less severe. We tromped up and down, through and over, until we came to a stream that was covered in white and too wide to leap. 

"Let's sit," he said. And we dropped, our bodies supported by a foot of fluff. Later we walked home, got in our small car, and braved the roads (his idea) for the promise of red licorice and red wine and good cuts of steak. But for a while we just reclined in beds of white, warmed by the limbs of trees, the last turning of yellow leaves, and an afternoon of being in the world.

December 10, 2010


Late lies the wintry sun a-bed,   
A frosty, fiery sleepy-head;   
Blinks but an hour or two; and then,   
A blood-red orange, sets again.   
Before the stars have left the skies, 
At morning in the dark I rise;   
And shivering in my nakedness,   
By the cold candle, bathe and dress.   
Close by the jolly fire I sit   
To warm my frozen bones a bit; 
Or with a reindeer-sled, explore   
The colder countries round the door.   
When to go out, my nurse doth wrap   
Me in my comforter and cap;   
The cold wind burns my face, and blows 
Its frosty pepper up my nose.   
Black are my steps on silver sod;   
Thick blows my frosty breath abroad;   
And tree and house, and hill and lake,   
Are frosted like a wedding-cake.

-- By Robert Louis Stevenson

December 8, 2010

What Color Is The Sky?

-- black
                                             -- black
                                                                                          -- black
-- purple
-- red
-- orange pink red pink orange fushia
-- pale pink
-- pale blue
-- blue
-- white
-- blue
-- white
-- bluewhitebluewhitebluewhitebluewhite
-- pale blue
-- hazy yellow, like grains of long rice
-- rose
-- rose
-- fushia orange pink red pink orange
-- fire
-- one last flash
-- embers
-- ash
-- black
                                           -- black
                                                                                           -- black

November 29, 2010

In The Lake of the Woods

I think Tim O'Brien lives in Texas now, but this author grew up first in Austin and then Worthington, Minnesota, and tends to write stories and books that connect to his homeplace. I listened to him read and talk about writing and life last spring in Chaska, and although everyone was asking him questions about The Things They Carried, he did slip in an admission that he believes his best book is his 1994 novel In The Lake of the Woods. The comment stayed with me. I wondered why. So when I was thinking of the next MN-based novel I could take in, his title came to mind. 

The Lake of the Woods. It sounds mythic, doesn't it? Something you get lost in. 

As I read the book, I came to believe that this was exactly what O'Brien intended. The themes include deception and mystery, loneliness and memory, and I was impressed by how well these inner states fit with O'Brien's description of the setting:
"The wilderness was massive. It was a place, Wade came to understand, where lost was a rule of thumb. The water here was the water there. Nothing in particular, all in general. Forests folded into forests, sky swallowed sky. The solitude bent back on itself. Everywhere was nowhere. It was perfect unity, perfect oneness, the flat mirroring waters giving off exact copies of other copies, everything in multiples, everything hypnotic and blue and meaningless, always the same. Here, Wade decided, was where the vanished go. The dropped nickels. The needles in haystacks." (239)
The book is rich in images, and I came away with stark mental pictures of what the Mai Lai Massacre in Vietnam might have been like, what PTSD can do to a man, what it can do to a relationship. But it was where John Wade did his untangling of memory--The Lake of the Woods--that seemed both the most real and far away. 
It would take me six and a half hours in a well-gassed car to get to the southern most point of the lake. And to get to Angle Inlet, where John Wade's cabin is located, I would have to take a small plane. All around me would be blue and green, even in the winter. O'Brien has painted a picture of a wildness so deep that it is almost dangerous. People get lost, he is saying. And sometimes it takes a dose of disorientation to find your way to freedom. I can relate to that. Who can't?

This book has intrigued me, made me long afresh for wilderness. I'm sure I'll say it again and again in my life: there are so many places on earth that are worth our close attention. The Lake of the Woods seems to be one of them, and I'm grateful that, through his words, Tim O'Brien has offered up a lens.

November 25, 2010

Snow Fruit

A wintery addition for your grateful-ladened table. 
Happy Thanksgiving, all!

November 22, 2010

Joyce Sutphen

Continuing on with my Thirty Before Thirty list, I've spent several hours this past week reading Minnesota poet Joyce Sutphen's 2000 collection Coming Back to the Body. The book was given to me on my 21st birthday by a fellow English major at Gustavus (thanks, Julie!), so I've read many of the poems before. I've since been told by poet friends, however, that though poems are entities unto themselves, a collection is formed intentionally, and should be read as a cohesive manuscript, cover to cover, at least once. So, this is what I've done, and upon finishing, it's clear that each of Sutphen's small creations builds on the next until the reader arrives at the last page with a clear emotional picture of a woman challenged and changed, someone who has returned to herself.

Some of my favorite poems in the collection come from the first of the five sections--not surprising, as they explore the details of rural landscapes. But I was physically stopped at the fourth section's first poem "Bookmobile."

      I spend part of my childhood waiting
      for the Stearns County Bookmobile. 
      I pace back and forth in the line,
      hungry for the fresh bread of the page,
      Because I need something that will tell me
      what I am; I want to catch a book,
      clear as a one-way ticket, to Paris,
      to London, to anywhere.                     (71)

This was me. Right down to the Stearns County address. The bookmobile had been replaced by a permanent library, of course, and I did not have to wait in line, but books were still tickets to faraway lands, locales that were the opposite of plowed fields and deep snowdrifts and everything I thought I already knew.

At the end of Coming Back to the Body in the enclosed biography, I found that Sutphen "grew up on a farm near St. Joseph, Minnesota... [And after studying literature at] the University of Minnesota... like many of the people she had read about, she set out on a long journey to find truth and beauty. As usual, the road led straight back to the beginning: home, country roads, the sun setting through the woods."

Although I still have a long way to go in discovering truth, this sounds a lot like me, too. It's a pity to think I passed the good professor in the hallways of Gustavus' Confer-Vickner building--where Sutphen teaches--without stopping to say hello, without stopping to talk of the St. Joe I recognize in her poetry, the dust coming up from the gravel at dusk, or "the land, threading through me, stitching me into place" (11).

November 17, 2010


You go to bed, the night inky black, aware that there is a field below your window full of dusty blonde grasses, dried clumps of goldenrod, scratchy patches of sepiaed clover. There is wind, so their brittle bodies rattle against each other like reluctant bones, or swish down and back up--thin, dilapidated flags of the retreating autumn. You do not consciously think of any of this. It just is, like the woods are beyond the field, hundreds of brown arms reaching into an open sky, and you rest with this image buried in your dreams.
But when you wake, you tug open your blinds, and the easy belief you held the night before of ordinary, of familiar, of something known is shocked out of your hands. No matter how many Minnesota winters you have experienced, the first snow storm of the season is always new, is always completely bewildering in its power to transform the recognizable into something other, something that is sudden, and total, and white.

You cannot believe how much snow has fallen while you slept. You cannot understand why you didn't wake up, why some sound no matter how soft did not alert you. You just stand at the window, watching the quarter-sized flakes swirl in sometimes beautiful, sometimes ferocious, circles. You go out on the deck and put your hands in the stuff, making snowballs until your flesh stings, until your husband brings you mittens, and a hat, and a coat, and a grinning shake of the head. You tell him, "I'm going on a walk, now." And he kisses your red wet nose.

And off you go, walking, the snow still flying, though a bit more slowly. You discover a landscape that did not exist twelve hours before: ground that sinks and crunches, wind that forms solid ledges where before there was only air, air that is crisper--studded with fireplace smoke. A few old friends poke up from that other, earlier world. That colored world. Today, you look ahead of you at a thick and heavy pale ocean.
You clomp along in boots instead of flippers. You think about how much more you can see, how all that was small and light has been laid flat, how most of the things that are visible now are strong and ancient: two red granite boulders, an old gnarled oak tree. You look at the crooks of branches sagging under the weight of frozen water and think of friends and family, how when it is cold we move closer together, how when there is trouble or change, it's on these people we depend. 
When you come across the berry trees, you're a bit ecstatic, because of course there is color, and of course it is small and concentrated, at the ends of wands, full of power. Each one is dripping with water, and they look more lovely than the embers of a fire. You think the snow clings to the branches for as long as it can to stay near them.
And when you walk into the woods--stepping over downed logs covered in nine inches of snow; crouching under and around branches and plants that have thistles and barbs that catch on your clothes; noticing animals tracks, bird song, snow slipping from the higher branches and thunking into the soft earth or smacking the top of your head--you think, I'm crazy for doing this. I'm such a dreamer. I've always been too much in the snow-heavy clouds. But then you look up--the branches a tangle of filigreed fingers--and down--a little leaf fallen right at your boot-toe--then within--because ever since you were small, the natural world has always been where you are truly and absolutely the most happy--and you realize the only thing that makes any sense is to keep walking.
-- Published in The Talking Stick

November 12, 2010

Bon Iver's "Flume"

It seems that when I went into my master's program, I adopted a kind of tunnel vision and took in only art news that was of the adult literary variety, because just like I was caught blinking two years ago at The Hunger Games' unveiling, so too am I finding my jaw dropping two years after the hype at the music of Bon Iver.

"Flume" or "Re: Stacks" starts to play, and--just like I did in high school--I find myself on the floor of my bedroom, eyes closed, listening, forming my lips around lyrics I want to swallow up and make a part of me.

It is November now, but still I will roll down my car windows for this. Such music is like wind; it runs well through the trees, these empty fields, into the lungs of the coming winter. 

November 7, 2010

Saving Light

I do love the light, so these Northern nights from this day until spring when darkness comes early feel strange and heavy, like a too-warm blanket pulled over my head. Where has the world gone? In the daytime now, the color is drained, but it's still at least beige or brown. At six o'clock, everything out my window is black.

But six o'clock also means dinner, and as I enter into this season, I understand why a warm November meal on the table is good for the spirit. Green beans. Yellow butter. Gold bread. Red apples. Meat that is juicy and tender and white.

And then there is this: a pumpkin pie. The orange of autumn. The orange of full fields glowing under the sun. An end-of-harvest melon that grows plump enough to feed multiple mouths, returning  to the kitchen and the evening ripe light. A gift.
With my mother, I covered my hands with flour this weekend. I mixed and pressed and crimped and measured and added and stirred and poured and smoothed. I turned on the oven. I set the flaky pastry and the golden center into heat. As it baked, spices filled the air, and confidence. And as we ate, warmth entered our bodies, and we did not notice the sinking sun.

November 3, 2010

"Solitude Late at Night in the Woods"

The body is like a November birch facing the full moon
And reaching into the cold heavens.
In these trees there is no ambition, no sodden body, no leaves,
Nothing but bare trunks climbing like cold fire!

My last walk in the trees has come. At dawn
I must return to the trapped fields,
To the obedient earth.
The trees shall be reaching all the winter.

It is a joy to walk in the bare woods.
The moonlight is not broken by the heavy leaves.
The leaves are down, and touching the soaked earth,
Giving off the odor that partridges love.

-- from Silence in the Snowy Fields
by Robert Bly

October 29, 2010

Thirty Before Thirty

I turned twenty-nine earlier this month. At risk of offending many of you, THAT SOUNDS OLD. I know, I know: there's lots of life ahead of me, but as I can't quite quiet the tick-tock-tick-tock thoughts, and as I'm one of those goal-oriented dreamers, I've constructed a list of (almost) thirty Minnesota/nature/writerly things I'd like to experience before the big 3-0.

Here are my ideas so far:
Climb on top of a hay bale and sing something
Make a pumpkin pie from scratch
Canoe and fish for sunnies on St. John's University's Lake Sagatagan
Canoe through Lake Shetek to Loon Island
Revisit the Boundary Waters Wilderness Canoe Area
Visit Minnehaha Falls
Visit the Root River Valley
Go strawberry and/or raspberry picking
Take a friend to the Carver Country Reserve
Discover a new park
Learn to name and identify at least five new plants
Learn to name and identify at least three new bird calls
Explore some new place along the North Shore
Go cross-country skiing
Make an impressive snowman
Go ice fishing
Jump into a cold lake early in the swimming season
Revisit Quarry Park
Revisit the St. Croix River National Scenic Waterway
Revisit Pipestone National Monument
Visit a Science and Natural Area
Finish writing a short story set in one of these places
Publish something in a Minnesota publication
Volunteer this summer at some outdoorsy locale
Read three books set in Minnesota
Read three books by Minnesota authors
Become less freaked out by water snakes

Thoughts? To finish the list, I need your suggestions, people! If I'm really in love with this state as much as I claim, what do I need to do/touch/see/hear/smell/ eat/appreciate? And please don't anyone mention lutefisk. 

October 26, 2010


This is a dicey night for breathing. Air moves. Rather, it rushes. Something cold and northerly pounds against my windowpanes like one-hundred shoulders—in flight or pursuit, I cannot tell which. Lightning flashes. Thunder booms. There is wind and rain and snapping tree branches, snapping trees, all the remaining leaves whirling up in a maddening gyre, spinning furiously to a music that hisses through what remains in the fields. I have my ear to the glass, my hand on the window latch. There are old superstitions about stolen breath, but I am curious, and too snug anyway.


This might be a bit of a tangent, but I've recently found myself taken in by Suzanne Collins' YA novel The Hunger Games. Perhaps this doesn't come as a shock. It's been on best-seller lists for years. It has adventure, dystopia, survival, love--all tried-and-true thematic elements that glue together a good read. But what it also has that many other books do not is a narrator who is connected to the land. 

Katniss Everdeen. She loves the woods and all things in them without ever saying so--without even thinking it (no fancy camera in her hand)--because trees and berries and topography are her way of life, like breathing. Aside from the whole "you-must-kill-other-kids" thing, and the game-makers who start forest fires, and the overall threat of starvation and imminent death, I almost envy Katniss her nights in trees. Going for walks in the day time is one thing. But to have one's limits truly tested. To lean so completely on the natural world for life. I imagine it feels heartening to find both the earth and your inner strength abundant.

Yes, as long as Katniss was out of the arena and I was not another tribute whom she was required to slay, I think we'd be good friends. We'd go on hikes, leap streams, learn the names and characteristics of all living things, and occasionally meet up with Bear Grylls when we wanted to get crazy. 

October 20, 2010


"In a world where change seems the only constant, where the past is increasingly suspect and the future ever more doubtful, it is exhilarating to be in touch with something that 'binds together all humanity--the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.'"
-- Paul Gruchow quoting Joseph Conrad
From Travels in Canoe Country

October 18, 2010

Minnesota Speaks

One of the things I've loved most about doing whatever it is that I'm doing with this blog is that it's focused my attention. Since I began this venture, I haven't gone one week without discovering another "I love Minnesota" book at the library or another great MN-based blog or one more important conservancy organization that's hard at work. I've talked a lot about walks lately, and it's been true my entire life that I'm often out in the woods by myself, gazing about me, feeling very much like I'm the only one who thinks these thoughts or is stirred just so. But I've quickly realized how ridiculous that thinking is. And now--even though I still enjoy my solitary walks--I'm aware that in spirit I'm never alone. 

Mmmm. That thought makes me feel all campfire-warm and warm-wind-rosy.

Here's a quick list of a few books and blogs that I've found worth checking out. Feel free to suggest more in the comments!
 Our Neck of the Woods  (I love DNR publications)
 Off the Beaten Path: Minnesota  (thanks, JoAnn!)
 Silence in the Snowy Fields by Robert Bly  (perfect for November)
 Ecobirder  (who knew there were so many serious birders in Minnesota?)
 Minnesota Pictures  (I'm such an amateur)
 Minnesota Reads  (because we do) 
And thanks to my new subscribers, whoever you are! I'm glad you're here.   :)

October 14, 2010

The Boundary Waters

The Boundary Waters from Alex Horner on Vimeo.

This is a beautiful video made by Alex Horner. I found it via the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness (another great organization I'll have to lend a full shout-out to soon). Thanks to all involved for sharing such inspiring work. I hope this carries you into a relaxing, rich weekend.

October 11, 2010

One Way To Stay Warm

In many ways, this has been a difficult fall for me. The health of ill family members have worsened. A cousin--a young, well-loved woman--died. Some stories that students trust me with are heartbreaking. Insecurity, in its strange high-schoolish form, keeps poking at my back. And people I love are moving away. There are so many forces pushing against each other inside of me that often when I return home from work, I feel the bruise of exhaustion in my organs. Especially my heart. It feels raw from beating.

But then I find myself on another walk, standing underneath a collection of leaves that are as red as any working muscle, and it's an improbably beautiful thing. Beautiful in its color, yes. In the way the light sweeps around it. But also in that it's this red right now. That I'm in the world on this exact axis. That I did not arrive one day earlier--because it would have looked some other way--or one day later--because perhaps tonight there will be wind or rain or the leaf just letting go. It's improbable that of all the leaves that are changing, I would be comforted by this one.
At times I find it frustrating that no matter how much I love Autumn, no matter how pathetically I might beg the leaves to linger, they won't wait. They don't pause out of sympathy. They don't even think of me (they're leaves). They just come and go, life's-a-cycle, la-la-la.

But it's important to recognize that I don't wait for them either. No matter how much I might want to in a particular moment--for the woods are peaceful and full of gentleness and such a safe place when I am feeling all this out--I always walk home. I move forward. However formidable winter might seem, this season teaches me to walk into it with the memory of light held close to my chest, for this is one way to stay warm.

October 8, 2010

The Nature Conservancy

A shout out:

If you've never heard of or checked out The Nature Conservancy, ladies and gentleman, now is the time. They're involved in important work all over the world, and if you love yourself some unspoiled places, it's likely that they've had a hand or at least a finger in either the preservation of that locale or the preservation of public opinion that such sanctuaries matter. In Minnesota alone, TNC has helped conserve more than 500,000 acres of wild habitat. That's no small field of grass. And the photography they post? Let's just say it's not ugly.

There are plenty of other strong organizations out there, too. Please leave a link in the comments if you think there's one in particular I need to know about!

October 4, 2010

Bird Song

This is one of the coolest interactive creations I've found on the web in a while, so kudos to the creator (and the DNR!). Make sure to check out the black-capped chickadee. He's my favorite.

October 1, 2010

Carver Park Reserve

My commute home from work usually takes about thirty minutes. On Wednesday, it took me three hours. And I mean that literally: the road took over. And then it was a paved path leading me. And then a gravel one. And then any number or variety of field. 

How I've never discovered the Carver Park Reserve until yesterday I have no idea, being that I've driven past signs on Highway 7 indicating its presence hundreds and hundreds of times. I am a curious person, prone to driving down unfamiliar roads, reading books in strange parks, putting myself in situations that at one point (probably still) would have made my father nervous, so I really should have sniffed this place out long ago. But the important thing is that I've found it now, and that I turned down County Road 11 again yesterday, and that I will continue to do so throughout this golden season and into the next because it's a place to get lost in on purpose hour after hour after hour. 

Carver Park Reserve is located twenty-five miles west of Minneapolis between Highways 7 and 5, and is part of the Three Rivers Park District. 

September 23, 2010

Three Walks

One was just out my back door. The sun was sinking. It seemed like summer was sinking with it, and I had an unquenchable desire to fill myselfdouse myself, evenwith an abundance of life. The first steps were easy, as there was a path, and I had been there before. I knew these bees and crickets, these rustlings below my waist. But I would not stop there, oh no. I would go deeper. And it was indeed like diving, for I was soon among golden rod higher than my head, and I was placing my feet in depths and darknesses that I could not see. I knew the earth had to rise up again, for there was a hill just beyond, but there was a moment of wondering if I would make it, if instead I might just be swallowed up, lost amid a sea of yellow. I pulled my hood around my head. Stepped. Stepped. How was it, I wondered, that in such a short season things could grow so tall and wild? Beads of sweat formed on my brow. When my eyes finally peeked again above the surfacemy clothes coated in thin golden dustthe sun had covered the earth in rays of soft fire, and every thing glowed.

Another was on my way to meet friends. I was early, and I drove down an unfamiliar road past an unfamiliar sign offering the word "park" like an outstretched hand, and seconds later I had turned my car around, had taken off my dress shoes and slipped on the flimsy flip-flops I had in my back seat. Never mind that it was fifty-five degrees. Never mind that my toes are always the first things to get cold. There was a path, and I followed it. There was a stream, and I listened. I did not drink the water, not through my mouth, but other parts of me did, because the malaise of the day, I found, had gone, my bare feet leading me next down a deer path, muddy and wet, slippery and tangled, turning and ducking between crab apple trees and bushes with black berries. Later I would have to walk into a restaurant filled with finely dressed people, and my feet would be dirty. I took a deep breath. The air against my insides, cool and invigorating, made me laugh.

I walked out a third time because of the light. Because of the colors. All week I had been looking out windows, and everywhere the earth was spilling out of itself. Not in the way of spring when everything is young and fresh, and not in the way of summer when there is constant, diligent growth. But in the way of autumn. In the way of finales: nothing held back. It is all so beautifully desperate, and perhaps because of thisbecause to such vulnerability I cannot say noI opened, unbuttoned my jacket, and allowed this new season to seep into my cheeks and run its fingers along my bones. And it became such that, when I glanced at a flush of sumac, I saw myself, the way I felt, all on-the-edge of something that was impossible to capture. I could only wait. Hope that I might be looking at the right time. That was what this walk was. Being ready. Looking. Wandering in colors that were all gems, that all belong in crowns, that hold the light like wine. Too soon the garments will be gone, but for now the world is awash in a frenzy of hues all found in our faces when we tip them up. 

September 20, 2010

Bill Holm

Hello Bill.

When I mention your name in Minnesota, there are always some folks who start to cry. And it's not because you poked fun at their habits or told the truth (often the same thing). It's because they loved you. They loved your writing, yes, but they also loved you. Who you were. As I've held your books this past year, I've turned to your picture on jacket covers and book backs, and it seems there was always a mass of hair, a deep beard, warm sweaters. Just from this, I think, had I known you I would have loved you, too.
But I didn't know you, so I must send these little claps to where they will flitter through the  grasses and occasional treetops around both Minneota, Minnesota, and Iceland, two places you loved specifically and with tender detail, two places that felt the force of your intuitive pen. 

When I went to my bookshelf of college texts and took from it The Music of Failure, I had memories of my own grumblings, of immature reluctance and bored eyes. So I was surprised to find my twenty-year-old self in the margins, speaking via my own pen, recording thoughts, marking down bits of inspired musings that I intended towhat?include in a paper, share with my class, with my professor of Ethnic American Lit? I don't remember any of that. But these years later, my intentions then don't matter. Now my scribblings read like conversations I had with you when you were still alive.
Bill: "At fifteen I could define failure fast: to die in Minneota, Minnesota. Substitute any small town in Pennsylvania, or Nebraska, or Bulgaria, and the definition held. To be an American meant to move, rise out of a mean life, make yourself new."
Me: "There is beauty in failing equal to succeeding. Both mean there was an attempt at reaching goals, no matter how fantastic."
Bill: "I left Minneota... In the meantime, I aged from twenty to forty, found myself for all practical purposes a failure, and settled almost contentedly back into the same rural town which I tried so fiercely to escape."
Me: "Roots hold you whether you pay them respect or not."
Bill: "Something succeeds if it is itself: victor and defeated, living and dead, are not separate states but a continuum, success and failure only different faces of the same thing."
Me: "Sacredness occurs if you decide your daily experience merits that holy classification."
Bill: "The heart can be filled up anywhere on earth."
Me: "Yes." 
It seems like maybe that's one thing you were after: getting all of us quiet types to open our mouths and let sound come out. Getting me to stop. To think. To consider small places, small essays, small truths thatif handled rightlyI could write about for years.

September 16, 2010

Paul Gruchow

Hello, Paul.

I've been wanting to sit down and talk with you for some time now. I opened up Worlds Within a World last summer, and then Travels in Canoe Country, and then Journal of a Prairie Year and Grass Roots. When I began The Necessity of Empty Places I already knew I'd agree with you, even though I'd find myself continually surprised by what you had to say. So it goes with kindred souls. And I don't think you'd mind that I claim that.

Other people and other places can tell your story better than me, so I'll let them. But I think it's important that I point a few other thinkers to your message. We are all so busy. It's good, before the leaves change this Autumn, to remind ourselves to slow down.
"I accept, when I am in the woods, the idea that I do not completely command my life. To venture into a wilderness is to submit to the authority of nature. This may also seem a regressionadults command, children submitbut it is actually a progression toward a higher maturity, one that realizes the conceit of the enduring human dream of dominion. Letting go of this dream, even temporarily, unstops the wilder and more creative dreams that we have not had access to since the last timeas children, perhapswhen we expected life to be an endless unfolding of surprises. It is only when we are prepared to be astonished and confounded that we are able to dream productively."
 -- Gruchow, Travels in Canoe Country

Here's to the unfolding of that dream.

September 14, 2010

Two Men I Never Met

When I was a sophomore in college, I took a course called Ethnic American Literature. Being that I was 1) an English major, 2) from an ethnically homogenous small town, and 3) desperate for "culture," I was incredulous when the reading list my professor passed out that first day had no Ralph Ellison, Leslie Marmon Silko, Maxine Hong Kingston, or Toni Morrison, but was instead full of all these, as he called them, "regional writers," a mix of poets and novelists and essayists from my home state that I'd never heard of and was sure had absolutely no relevance to my life. After all, I was going to teach, and how was I supposed to do that if I wasn't introduced to the writers who'd been anthologized?

I went to another professor and complained (and, Minnesotan that I am, this practically killed me) until she loaded up my arms with every Toni Morrison book she owned. And walking back to my dorm room, clickity clack, holding these canonical texts close to my chest, I felt fortified. Soothed. I would teach myself, then! And for the rest of the semester I gave those regional authors only bitter, cursory glances. I never took another class with that professor.
Sometimes I can't believe I'm edging up on thirty. I'm twenty-eight now, but when my husband and I are riding our bikes or when I'm climbing boulders to get a better view or when one of my seventeen-year-old students and I are talking about music or snowdays or the moon, it's impossible for me to grasp that I'm not ten years younger, that I'm not still some kid acceptably excited about the color of watermelon against a blue sky.

But when I think about who I was in that college classroomjust nineteen, maybe twenty, but so so sureI can feel the weight of years that have passed. I feel regret, something that didn't touch me then, I was in such a hurry. 

I'm glad I read Morrison and Silko. And I'm thankful for the part of me that's always been thirsty for the largeness of the world. But if I have learned anything in this first third of life, it's that understanding comes slowly. Sometimes you need to wait. And often when you are ready, you will realize too late what you have missed, and it will ache like the memory of a person you have wronged. 

My Ethnic American Literature professor introduced me to Paul Gruchow and Bill Holm, but I didn't listen to any of these menactually hear themuntil this past year, until something told me to look toward home. Then it was a flurry of books, of staring out windows, of wanting to hold not just Gruchow's and Holm's thoughts but their weathered hands, to speak and write back. So I searched out their contact informationletters already formingto learn instead of their early deaths. One in 2004, and one just this past year. 

It's a funny thing to grieve for two men whom you've never met. But as I forge ahead in my writing, I am talking with them after all in the one way I can. I write, I suppose, to say I'm sorry. And I write to say thanks. These men loved Minnesota and valued writing about home as I believe many of us should, and as I'm learning to. 

This essay was originally published in A View From The Loft on September 13th, 2010. Thanks much to editor Dara Syrkin for her kindness and support.