Feel It Fully

In 2013, my little brother died.

I remember the moment I received the news. Bad news assaults you with a comprehensive attack, painfully eroding your emotions and physical balance. Upon absorbing the news, your whole body goes numb, especially around your heart. Instantly, the entirety of your being falls into a deep tingling sensation, similar to your leg or foot slowly ‘coming to’ after being asleep. You feel heavy, sluggish. Dueling sounds embed themselves in your ear canal… the jagged reverberation of the needle scratching a record or an old television show going off the air in the middle of the night, coupled with a steady and deafening tone resultant of a gun shot or loud noise in close proximity. This is the clamor that blares out from the movie screen after everything gets blown to hell and the actors attempt to get their bearings and find cover.

And then there is the ulcer. The ulcer can by physical or emotional, or both. Your stomach launches into full gear, sloshing acid over the same spot within the first 24 hours of exposure. At the beginning, your whole being is reacquainted with the truth and severity of your circumstances every few minutes, and the ulcer provoked. Sleep is interrupted. Thought patterns derailed. Routines hijacked. Your window of reality is detonated. So you quickly strive to press together the shards of glass to reestablish normalcy, resulting only in bloodied hands and exhaustion from this exercise in futility.

And here’s the deal. This response is automatic. There is no way to time the response or control its onset, frequency or length of stay. You are held hostage by the very core of your being recoiling from the assault and trying to keep all systems operational to avoid shutdown.

I already anticipate two strong responses to what I’ve written thus far. First response: This is miserable, why are you writing about something so miserable? Second, in reaction to the uncontrolled response: But, did you pray? Did you meditate? Yoga? Smudging? Counseling? Reiki? I have a book for you. I can fix this. It will get better. It could be worse.

To the first response, I say this: Miserable things happen. We don’t talk about them. And we sure don’t talk about how to manage misery. And then we struggle through an onslaught of attacks on ourselves which looks like this. We condemn ourselves for feeling angry or sad or incapacitated. Then we condemn ourselves for NOT feeling those things. So now we have a double-decker sandwich, with the first layer of grief, shock and pain, topped with judgment toward our grief management. A dog chasing its tail. A black hole. A pain labyrinth. So, I am writing this for the people who are choking on that pill (maybe even right now, in this moment) to frame misery in the context of normalcy in which it should exist.

Fix It FelixAnd now, to the second group, the Fix-It Felix crowd. Do you remember Fix-It Felix, from the Disney Movie Wreck-it Ralph? He fixed everything with his golden hammer in a video game. Right away, right after things got broken.

At this point, I have reached the crux of my post. There is a time for fixing. And healing. And moving on. And the time for all of those things is NOT at the time of assault. What is mandated of you, at the time of assault, is not repair.

Instead, I propose an alternative. Keep in mind that this is only my personal response to pain. Because it has worked for me. And I believe it is worthy of consideration.

I propose this response to pain and tragedy: Feel It Fully. Let the sadness and absolute despair wash over you and through you. Say out loud, this hurts me and it is beyond what I can handle in this moment. Now, I will say that I believe the human spirit to be extremely resilient. Eventually, you will overcome and rise above. But in those initial moments of comprehending your loss, your disappointment, you need not “handle” anything. Your only task is to mourn with complete abandon and total honesty. Start there. Start with honesty. Admit that you are human, and love big and, as a result, have the capacity to be wounded with great severity. I contend that healing is secondary, and contingent upon, exploring that laceration first.

I got the call about my brother’s death on a Monday afternoon. That gave me a few painful hours to be awake and replay the scenario, his life, the phone call, in my head over and over again. Then I had the whole night of intermittent waking up to relive that initial blow. The ulcer growing with every realization of the present, and the sudden and permanent end of the past. And it was in that moment that I knew I could not escape this. I couldn’t jump ahead to a place of getting better or moving on. So I stayed right there. And the pain swallowed me whole. Little did I know, that was mandatory to eventually reach a place of therapeutic momentum. Resurrection Day.

Today I endured a similar blast to my psyche. No one died. But I received news that turned on the firehouse of ulcer-causing agents. I received news that changed my reality to shards of glass and will require hard work and figuring stuff out to move forward. But I don’t have to do that right now. I cannot undo what was done today. And I will embrace with honesty the fact that this news strips me down to my barest self, full of fear, uncertainty and doubt. So here I am, little and scared. Wrecked.

And tomorrow the sun will come up. Hopefully I will achieve some rest in the interim, in between the chunks of time wherein I awake in a panic and wonder if what happened really happened. At some point soon, I will embark on the path to reconfiguring these broken puzzle pieces to create a new platform on which I can exist. I’ll read about Job and Viktor Frankl and seek to use pain for growth, and build character from scars. Not right now though. I can get there, but I need to start here first.





I Don’t Have a Poncho…Yet


Do you ever meet someone, read a book, hear a song, or observe a piece of art, only to realize that now everything makes sense, or the world has shifted a bit as a result?

I stumbled upon one such experience this week. My go-to “time filler” (time waster? To be determined…) is to watch comedy routines online. Sometimes, the old stuff. Robin Williams. The Marx Brothers. Then the newer stuff. One guy I enjoy, but had not watched a full comedy routine by, is Demitri Martin. His “If I” show is a cross between a one-man act and an inspirational speaker. Or maybe he’s just an inspiration to me. As he rattled off life reflections on social awkwardness, enjoying puzzles, palindromes, and mental exercises, I could relate. This is a man who created an alternate universe in his mind to keep himself occupied. Time and again in the performance, he calls this activity useless and unproductive. I find it greatly inspirational. (I was also on the high school math team.)

When faced with the boredom of everyday institutions (meetings, school, etc.) commingled with the discomfort of social interactions, Demitri chose to engage his brain in a series of challenges using the immediate situations afforded him as fodder. And, while I appreciate these skills immensely, his life approach isn’t exactly what this blog post is about. It’s about one line he says during the whole show.

This line: “I don’t have a poncho, but if someone asks me if I have a poncho I don’t say no, I say no, not right now. Because I do have a blanket and some scissors, so I’m two minutes away from a poncho.”

While I am inspired by the way Demitri spends his time on this planet, I am way more blown away by this one quip. His sentiment about being able to create with tools and materials that he already has access to was revolutionary for me.

Already I can sense a few furrowed brows, as I’ve apparently seen the light on a very clearly inane concept.

But at this season of life, a simple truth such as this brings order to my curiosities and confusions. Armed with the knowledge that there is the possibility that something can exist tomorrow, that does not exist today, well, that’s a game changer for me.

This pearl of wisdom arrives on the heels of 2015, a year of impending change. Not actual change. Just the groanings of change. In my head, this change looks and sounds like giant rusty cogs and gears slowly churning against one another with the prospect of effecting motion in the greater machine.

At that time, at some point in 2015, my friend LD called this “a shift”. She knew she had to shift her thinking, her responses, her approach…to navigate through a new reality. Since then, my friend PF has changed her Facebook profile picture to a typewriter “Shift” key. Apparently, big rusty cogs are starting to move everywhere.

I love when the universe conspires to communicate a consistent message. (Her PR girl must be AMAZING.) For one, I’m a slow learner and need the message repeated. But I am moreso entertained by synchronized messages because of a theory held by my huband.

Whenever life parallels itself around me, my husband starts this monologue with the authority of a professor or an All State agent, “You know about the gorillas, right? Scientists that study primates discovered that all over the globe, these mammals started using sticks as tools at about the same time.”

The premise of an undercurrent of evolution all over the globe fascinates me. That is a bit off topic, however.

Back to the shift. In short, things can change. They just haven’t….yet. But that doesn’t make things impossible. Certain mindsets can ward them off for a while though.

Why? Because the devil you know is better than the one you don’t. I had never heard this phrase until CE shared it with me yesterday. I had always heard the first half, just didn’t know about that last part. Tomorrow’s devil, the unknown devil, thinks his anonymity can thwart movement and progress. And I have allowed it to do just that. I’ve grown comfortable with today’s devil. And my vision of anything new or different is clouded by what isn’t today. Until I learned the phrase not yet. But I do have some scissors…

On Writing and Not Writing

Documenting progress. Contemplating stalemates.

2015 was going to be “the year”. The year for intentional, inspirational, experiential travel. (So many “als”.) And writing. The travel would inspire the writing. Each quarter, I planned to attend a writer’s conference or spiritual retreat to advance the connection between all of the stuff floating around in my head, and the words inked on a page.

A shaky first start. That’s what I’ll call 2015. This blog was launched in late 2014 so I’ll chalk that up as a win. And I did take a few trips to let my soul steep in creativity this year, hearing artists speak in Nashville and Chicago. Finally, I did a little writing. A little.

Everyone says to just write. If you’re going to write, you need to write. Anne Lamott says it in Bird by Bird. Stephen King says it in On Writing. And Dan Vaillancourt said it plainly to my face in 2013, with his humble yet firm East Coast cadence. Dan’s a professor and runs the Walker House Inn in Mineral Point, a haven for anyone hoping to translate creativity into active beauty. Because he’s a professor, Dan can just dole out that sort of wisdom.

James Rhodes, though. He was the biggest kick in the teeth for me this year. His presentation at STORY Conference in Nashville in October resembled Mister Toad’s Wild Ride….in all the good ways. He had a loose agenda, integrated tangents and curse words like the necessary accessories they are, and never once lost my attention. Here’s what he said… If you think of great stuff but don’t do anything with it, you’re not creative, you just have a good imagination. Ouch. Noted, Sir James, noted.

What else did I pursue as an ingredient in my recipe for creation? Music.

Concerts were a mainstay over the past 12 months. Langhorne Slim. Lil Rev. Charlie Parr. Holy Sheboygan. Todd Snider. The Wood Brothers. John Prine. Tim Grimm. Horseshoes and Handgrenades. The unexpected performance by (and subsequent obsession with) Abigail Washburn.

Musical performances may seem inconsequential. And they felt more indulgent than any other activity over the course of the year. But. But Shauna Niequist put my love (and need) for live music into perspective for me.

Here’s what she said… If you are a maker of any kind, consume art like a starving person. #ShaunaNiequist

So the concerts I attended weren’t just entertainment. Music fed my creativity. Hearing the story behind the songs led me to a place of drawing up from the well the stories that were living in me.

Not only does the music kick up narrative, but the art of my fellow human beings leads me to life discoveries. One discovery in particular was quite powerful, providing direction to my aimless wandering out into writerdom.

On a brisk evening in mid November, my husband and I drove up the peninsula to see folk singer Tim Grimm perform in a little inn just off the lake. Yes, that is as great as it sounds. Twinkle lights ushered us northward and a warm breeze blew dried leaves across the pavement upon our arrival.

I’ve followed Tim’s music for over ten years. Never before had I known him to perform in Wisconsin. And now, I was sitting ten feet from him in an audience of 50, under low lights and a low ceiling. Two stories from that night brought my purpose for writing into focus. Like that metal steampunk device at the eye doctor.

In one story, Tim reflected on discovering a book of pioneer tales written by his friend. He brought the book to his songwriters group. The group was faced with the self-inflicted proposition of choosing a tale from the book and creating a song about it. From that, Tim’s song Celia Rose was born. The sordid tale of a girl whose mind didn’t work correctly. When told her parents were the limiting factor to her pursuit of the man she loved, she poisoned and killed them. Not only did this actually happen in Ohio, but someone chose to record the legend. And another artist sang about it. As a result of the songs these writers created, that book of pioneer tales was bought back into print again and a little more life was breathed into history.

Over 100 years later, Tim encountered another American tale. He connected with a fellow Indiana farmer to purchase hay. As they loaded Tim’s truck up with the bales, the older farmer unloaded his life story. Upon her retirement, the farmer’s wife had left him. Help was hard to find, so he was faced with the painful truth that the horses and land needed to be sold. All he ever knew to be right and true was dwindling to nothing in his twilight years. Tim was compelled to retell that man’s story. He captured it in the ballad So It Goes. As the folk singer told this story in Door County that night, it was evident that he couldn’t have NOT shared this man’s life. He was given a gift through the farmer’s story, and his inclination was to share it. I see this as paying homage to his elder. To the shared human experience.

In short, I have learned that this is a thing. This is my thing. This art of listening to peoples’ stories and turning oral history into written history. I can do this. I can do this because, for starters, I’m available for the telling. I am hungry for little else, save the stories of my sisters and brothers. By catching glimpses of the universe through a million other sets of eyes, I can gather a more comprehensive portrait of our world.

In addition, I believe that when people tell their stories, the sentiment can gain or lose momentum. Sometimes our stories are burdens, filled with pain and repeating their damage with each recollection. Once that story is told, out loud, to someone else, its power is depleted. Then there are the great stories that no one has yet bothered to mine. My mother’s stories of working nights in a canning factory, birthing 10 children and coming close to meeting Liberace when she escaped to Chicago as a teenager. A 75 year old now, she brushes off these stories like dust from a shelf, shrugging off their value and questioning my interest in the details. When I encounter these memoirs and draw people back in to their past, I am met with great surprise. The lot of us are completely unaware that we even have a story to tell. Because there is no story without a listener. And there are so very few listeners to serve as tellers.

So many voices echo with the need to tell and hear the stories. Utah Phillips’ lyrics from an old scratchy record my father used to play come to mind…
“Let me sing to you all those songs I know…the telling takes me home.
Come along with me to some places that I’ve been. Where people all look back and they still remember when…”

Vintage tray for my writing pens, a gift from my dear artist friend Loris

So I lift my pen to 2016 and the stories to be told and retold on this canvas. In this next year, may curiousity and wonderment reign, capturing stories untold.

Loosely Connected Thoughts on Sainthood

When the movie St. Vincent came out earlier this year and my friend Pat told me to go see it, I heeded his advice.

A little backstory here. If Pat tells me to read a book, see a movie or listen to a song, I act immediately. No Google research or Amazon reviews are needed. Pat’s recommendation is gold. Over 15 years ago, we saw Van Morrison perform in Madrid together. And his favorite book is Catcher in the Rye. I could go on and on with his resume, but suffice to say I trust his judgement. (Now, I know, thousands of miles away, he will read that sentence and humbly and sarcastically make some self-effacing comments…as well as question my own judgement.)

I will say that I have an equal appreciation for Bill Murray. From his authority-dismissing role in Stripes to his “gunga galunga” in Caddyshack, I am amazed that the guy could keep a straight face in any of his movies. What’s more, I respect loveable characters that so blatantly disregard protocol and societal expectations.

The character St. Vincent was endearing to me right off the bat with a bar scene and an Irish joke.

A women answers a knock on the door and an Irish man asks if she has any work he can do. She responds that she needs to have her porch painted. He agrees and two hours later he knocks again and tells her he’s finished. As he is leaving he says,”Lady, just so you know, that wasn’t a Porsche, it was a BMW.”

This caricature of an imperfect man navigating his way through life took me back to so many guys my dad knew when we were kids. We visited guys like this on Sunday drives, appearing at the homes of fellow paper mill workers and Army buddies. This was the “stuff” of life. Trying to make a go of it amidst financial hardship, illness, aging, and washing it all down with one too many drinks.

I fell so hard and fast for St. Vincent that I had to go see the movie again…a few days later. The second time I arrived more prepared, with a notebook in hand to capture the wisdom of this everyday saint. I’m including my favorite quotes below for two reasons. One, I need a handy place to go to reference these life lessons. Two, the crumpled up papers at the bottom of my purse that bear these words, heroically surviving despite spilled coffees and leaky pens, may not last much longer.

One last note: I want to convey my appreciation and admiration of this character without giving away any of the plot. Because you just need to go see this movie yourself.

‘It is what it is.’ Everyone’s sayin that now. You know what it means? You’re screwed and shall remain screwed.

You’re just a spoke on a wheel. I don’t want to have to tell you… (See the movie for the second half of this quote.)

[To the bartender] You serve poison to all these people all day who don’t know no better and you’re watching out for me?

I’m a Catholic, Oliver, which is the best religion because we have the most rules and the best clothes. I don’t know which is the fastest growing religion in the world.

I thought we talked about you not talking.

You can’t get nothing in this world without being heard.

[Re: Abbott & Costello] They’re dead. That’s the oldest you can be.

I don’t need to hear the whole story.

Everything has a price. You’re an adult, you should know that.

Ya waitin for a paper invitation?

[On fighting] Vincent: Who taught you how to slap? You need to unlearn that.
Oliver: If you haven’t noticed, I’m small.
Vincent: Hitler was small.
Oliver: That’s a horrible comparison.
Vincent: Indeed. But I’m making a point.

Vinny, why you always gotta do things the hard way? [Response] It’s a lot more interesting.

Finally, the best quote of the film, a reflection of grief support:

Sorry for your loss.
I never understood why people say that.
How about ‘What was she like?’, ‘Do you miss her?’, or ‘What are you gonna do now?’

I have been awake since 2:14 AM this morning thinking about this blog post, which I started writing in my head late last winter. Then my mind wandered to last weekend. And the Randolph Street Market in Chicago. And the small rack of saints’ cards and medallions one of the vendors had, with proceeds going to some Catholic nuns in the city.

I took this card, Saint Dymphna, and gave a donation. Apparently she is the patron saint for the mentally ill. She, too, was Irish and she bore the brunt of her father’s mental illness.


While I am not Catholic, I do appreciate the sentiment. I like the thought of saints, dedicated to a certain cause or ailment. Like the Henry Ford system, but for prayer. Specialized roles.

And while we’re on the topic, there’s a saint in the making that I want to mention. I had the good fortune to get a little time on her calendar last weekend. Unlike Vincent and Dymphna, she is not Irish. She has a pierced septum and within the past year she has had both dreadlocks and purple hair. What none of these possibly shocking traits will tell you is that she has a heart for social justice. What happened in Ferguson tore her up from the inside out. Her boyfriend has a different skin color than her own and she has experienced a police interrogation just for walking down the street with him, and other girls flirt with him in front of her because it is assumed they are not a couple. (A confident woman, she is sweetly entertained by this social dynamic.)


               Hannah / Chicago / 2015

This semester, she is living in an apartment in downtown Chicago, learning about urban theology and serving the people of the city. She’s one of my heroes. We need people like her, and her love for humanity, to keep our world moving forward in a good direction.

And we need the St. Vincents. The covert saints with wide open struggles, that need our help and help us in return. Little by little, saving one another.

Go on Vacation. And Stay There.

Morning Coffee 08.01.15
Morning Coffee 08.01.15

In 2006, under the influence of great naiveté and a dose of Mother Teresa-esque desire to change the world, I ran for City Council and County Board. When I lost the election that Spring, my friend Jake had an idea. Go on vacation. To Key West.

That trip was my saving grace in the midst of significant disappointment. We landed in Key West to see Meryl Streep and her daughter awaiting a flight in the modest airport. (In hindsight, I wish I would have gotten a photo with the woman whose beauty transcends time.) From there, we took a cab to the Seashell Motel and the lone hostel on the island. The hostel had been my go-to spot for many a trip to Hemingway’s former home, a refuge from life’s storms. A random smattering of international kids and homeless twenty-somethings sit on the picnic tables in the gathering area. Admittedly the distinction between the two populations is fuzzy at best.

Each day was spent wandering the streets, initiated with a burn-your-mouth-hot Café Con Leche from Sandy’s Café and scrounging meals together with grocery store snacks. I don’t remember a lot of details beyond that. Other than buying matching Cuba hats, Jake smoking a giant cigar and splurging on one fancy Italian dinner one night at Abbondanza. But I DO remember returning to northeast Wisconsin, still lost in the aura of vacation.

When I arrived home, I flipped the switch to vacation mode daily at 5 PM and on the weekends. After work, I went for a run at various parks throughout the community, ending with sprints at the nearest elementary school football field. I found a local bar on the Fox River and had a beer at sunset, listening to the Sunday night reggae band perform. Instead of working Saturdays, which I had taken to doing, I hit the Farmer’s Market to buy giant bouquets of flowers for my apartment, and dine on egg rolls, crab rangoon and sunflower sprouts for breakfast.

As far as investing in your own longevity, I imagine an apple a day is a pretty good idea. But I would argue for implementing the regular mini-vacation as well.

As I’ve said before, lessons evolve in cycles in life until the various iterations take root in my being. So although this lesson hatched in 2006, it reemerged a few years ago when I read Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. I learned about the Artist’s Date, a weekly endeavor you treat yourself to in order to experience life fully and inspire creativity.

So that is what I am doing. After this blog post, which is arguably a vacation in itself.

Vermont Fly Fishing
Vermont Fly Fishing

Anxious to leave on my next vacation in about an hour, I’ll wrap this up. My summer vacation lasted from July 10-19 this year, including a long weekend in Vermont, a week at my mom’s farm and culminating with the hilarity and merriment that is Pulaski Polka Days.

This weekend I am left to my own defenses, with my boys on their own adventures. I hemmed and hawed about the weekend’s festivities, considering cleaning the house, getting a massage or enjoying my favorite pretzel and mustard encrusted dinner from the neighborhood supper club. After a night of Netflix and a frozen pot pie last night, all of those options were deemed unsuitable.

Instead, the great north woods is calling me on a whim. A night at a divine bed and breakfast (the last bed they had) and indulging in both days of the Wabeno Art & Music Festival.

Time off goes too fast. And we lament returning to real life. Turning that mindset on its head a bit, I think I can manage squeezing my work days into an ongoing vacation.

Are you living the life you chose
Are you living the life that chose you

– Jason Isbell

July 7 Tribute to My Dad


I wrote this tribute to my dad, who would have turned 79 yesterday. I sent this piece to my siblings and other extended family, which prompted one sister to ask why this isn’t a blog post. Now it is.

Raphael R. Clark SFC
US Army Korea
Drill Sergeant
July 7, 1936- May 24, 1989

Far from perfect, our Dad provided an adventurous upbringing to say the least. I sat across the table from him at night recounting what I learned in school. He smoked cigarettes and recorded me singing my songs from music class with the tape recorder on his giant boombox. Then made me listen to shortwave radio from lands afar, Japan and Russia. Each night, he took each one of us into his bed as he fell asleep, listening to us tell him about our day. I remember his plaid flannel shirt that we wore every night.

After dinner, he dragged us all into the living room to watch the nature channel. We sat on the scratchy orange flowered L-shaped sectional couch, enduring the experience and peering down through the giant grate in the floor that showcased the wood-burning stove below.

I remember jumping off of his shoulders into Bass Lake. He seemed huge, larger than life. I snuggled up with Jake in a sleeping bag in the woods, drinking Jolly Good soda. Falling asleep on the way home, but waking up in Suring to get soft serve ice cream.


I remember Dad forgoing church, insisting we go with our mother. I saw his dog tags and they read Roman Catholic. I was mystified. I remember mom forgoing the circus, insisting Dad take us. It was the only time we drank Pepsi, endless sugary sips from the waxy cups with the Saran Wrapped lids. Dad joked with the clowns at the break, chatting with them like old friends. My dad was in the circus, I thought proudly. He manned the ropes for the performing girls above. He joined the circus after he attempted to join every branch of the military before he was of age, quitting high school before graduation. So the tale goes.

He swore. A lot. And we were banned from using such language. “Your father does not permit filth,” our mother warned.

Every day he came home from the paper mill, he brought presents. Piles of books from rummage sales. History books. Kids books. One day the “present” was an ice cream bucket of acorns. “If you plant them all, I will buy you ice cream,” he promised. I diligently shoved the acorns the appropriate depth into the ground with my thumb, as dad instructed, until my fingers bled. Jacob told me to just throw the acorns into the woods and go play, which he did. I wouldn’t dare. In the end, he did buy me ice cream. Actually, we always had ice cream. Dad ate one bowl a night, after mom’s meat and potatoes supper.

Back at that kitchen table, Dad taught me how to draw small log cabins with smoke coming out of the chimney and symmetrical rows of corn in the fields. Despite the ridges on the napkins, his graphic depictions with the black felt pen were perfect.

I remember the celebration at his Reserve unit in Green Bay. I got to shoot an M-16. Every summer, when he did his two weeks of Drill, he drove the Olds ’98 out to his destination. Mom and us kids followed on the Greyhound bus, clothes packed in paper Cubs Food bags and eating produce we brought with us. We met him at the end of his “camp,” driving back together and seeing the sites. Mount Rushmore. Cave of the Winds. The Crazy Horse Memorial. I think my dad worshipped Crazy Horse. We stopped to eat at various diners across the United States. Mom filled her purse with crackers from the salad bar to eat on the road. My sister Tracy told me there was one gold toothpick in the dispenser by the cash register and, if I found it, I’d win a prize. I turned the crank as toothpicks piled up on the carpet. My dad clapped me upside the head and told me to get my ass in the car.

One evening my mom was washing dishes. A glass broke and all of the webbing between her fingers was sliced. Dad wrapped her hand so gingerly. I can’t imagine we had medical supplies or a First Aid kit. He likely used Fort Howard napkins and packing tape. I was in awe of his gentleness toward her. And us, as he sang the folk song “Waltzing Matilda” for his children.

Regardless of his faults and flaws, I love that I have inherited his quick wit and zest for life. His sharp features and broad smile. An appreciation for hard work, and recognizing that nothing in this world is free, but comes with the cost of “busting your ass”. A bit of cynicism, a bit of sarcasm… just enough to keep the world in perspective and stay a bit guarded. But also, a heavy dose of curiosity into my fellow man, longing to hear others’ stories and tell my own. A talent inherited from my father, the storyteller.

My father’s daughter

And So It Begins…

These Are The Days

In January 2001, after completing my student teaching, and wondering what sort of career move to make mid-semester, my sister Pam encouraged me to go to Europe. As in, make no career move. Just enjoy a semester of fun. My friend Jackie was going to school in England at the time, and my friend Anne was studying in Madrid. I could visit both friends, and wander around some on my own.

Pam told me that I probably wouldn’t have as much opportunity to take such trips later in life. I didn’t believe her. I couldn’t fathom why anyone would abandon adventure at any point. Now I understand, of course, that once employers dictate the quantity of vacation days you have a year, and cajoling relatives to look after a two-year-old is not exactly like asking someone to water your jade plant, it gets tricky.

As I write this, I am about to embark on what feels like my first big endeavor since mommahood. This journey starts on Friday. I fly to New York to see my nephew in Vermont. We have a whirlwind two days of the Green River Music festival and enjoying the great outdoors before I fly home at 6 AM on Monday morning.

My nephew is an adult now. He has long hippie hair and fishes regularly, playing the part of a transient New Englander and Orvis intern for the summer before finishing his final semester of college. I was his nanny for his first summer of life and this weekend we’ll be toasting the Wood Brothers and Milk Carton Kids.

When I return from that abondanza of joy, I’ll spend the week at my childhood home. This home, nestled on over 10 acres of northeastern Wisconsin land, will serve as basecamp for my geneology project. Every day I’ll visit area cemetaries, courthouses and historical societies to learn about my Polish and Dutch roots. And I cannot wait.

My daily itinerary will include a road trip, a hot cup of coffee and, hopefully, long afternoons spent with relatives to capture the oral history of my people. All the details I need to fill in the cracks between the census documents and marriage certificates. On my own, with my own agenda, and ample folk music in the CD player of my rusty Montero to keep me going.

I did go to Europe that year after finishing college. A train strike gave me a day in a coastal French town to see a Marc Chagall exhibit. I got sunburned while fishing off the southern coast of Spain with locals. I called the ambulance in Rome when Jackie twisted her ankle emerging from the train. After a lengthy ER visit, we discovered the medical care was free, and celebrated with a fancy dinner. We stayed at the Mario & Luigi hostel there, and the Kabul hostel in Barcelona. It was divine.

And when I came back, I taught at a science museum in Milwaukee then lived at a ranch in Colorado all summer. Little did I know I’d be singing Van Morrison tunes as I reminisce about a season of nonstop travel and fun…and that I could easily resurrect that whimsy with a plane ticket and using some of those vacation days…

These are the days of the endless summer
These are the days, the time is now
There is no past, there’s only future
There’s only here, there’s only now

– Van Morrison

I Forgot What I Planted

The Tale of an Inattentive Gardener


Spring has finally arrived in our part of the country. Birds wake us up before our alarms, and the sun refuses to go to bed like an insolent toddler.

Last week I noticed the flower bed just outside of our kitchen window is thrusting up all sorts of greenery into the world. For the life of me, I cannot remember what that garden might birth. However, I vaguely recall some sort of hardware store sale wherein several bags of bulbs were purchased and wedged haphazardly throughout those beds. Probably not planted during the right time of year, nor in the correct area for the level of sun exposure needed, but oh well.

I am not a gardener per se. My husband has DNA from people that carefully architect gorgeous landscapes and flower gardens AND integrate lettuce and tomatoes from their own soil into Sunday dinners. My family planted fields of potatoes and corn so we could afford school clothes. I just assumed you were assigned whatever flowers God picked for your yard, except for the row of lilies along the clothesline that my father tended.

So when we bought our home five years ago, gardening became an adventure. Some prior owners had maintained fabulous garden beds years ago. And we continue to add random configurations of plants discovered at roadside sales and garden shops. There is also a smattering of remnants from my dear friend Loris, as she parts out her own plants and shares them in her crusade to restore our yards to native landscapes.

So there is no algorithm. No plan. No software we consult to map out our yard maintenance plans for the spring. And I really enjoy it.

A few years into our marriage, when I realized how fun it is to watch brilliant colors pop up from the dirt, my husband designed a beautiful butterfly garden for me. The best part of the garden is the path weaving through it. That same summer, a handsome old brick building was being torn down on the river to make room for condos. On an evening walk, we jumped the fence to gather as many of those bricks as we could. That piece of local history now resides among our flowers.


It’s a bit of a hodge podge set-up, I admit. But that’s pretty consistent with the rest of our life here, this home we are creating.

Last night I received a text from our neighbor. He really wanted to play guitar, but his baby was staying at the pawn shop for a time. I gladly delivered our guitar to his front porch. I love his front porch…for it is populated by a bicycle, chairs for friends, an ashtray and musical instruments. He was so grateful to be able to play. I was equally – and selfishly – grateful to fall asleep to his strumming.

All that to say, the arrival of spring, new growth and live music last night washed over me, providing a sense of peace and joy. I’ll keep you posted on what flowers arrive in our beds, and which tunes stream from the neighboring front porch.

Crossing Tomorrow River


Trips unplanned. Guided only by random Google searches, billboards and the GPS.

At 6:30 AM on a winter Friday morning, we headed north, driving over the Tomorrow River with cups of coffee in hand and the sunrise burning over the horizon of snow.

My husband had business in Washburn and we were along for the ride. Our intention was to enjoy Washburn and then visit our old favorite, Cornucopia. Of course, the day assumed its own unpredicted agenda, as our days often do when viewing the world through a windshield.

Our love affair with Cornucopia, Wisconsin started in 2011. We were, once again, headed north with great anticipation of seeing John Prine perform at Big Top Chautauqua. I was over halfway through my pregnancy and although I am generally up for adventure, I was a little nervous to learn that my husband planned to inject spontaneity into the weekend by finding a place to sleep AFTER the concert. I grabbed the local guide I had ordered online weeks prior, and started calling every place on the list. Places were literally filling up as I called…”Well, I have a couple looking at our last cabin now….oh, looks like they’re going to take it. Sorry.”

I think I found the very last spot between Bayfield and Canada in the book. Even the name “Cornucopia” sounded exotic. A cross between Swiss Family Robinson and Tuck Everlasting. It proved to be just that. We spent that weekend in a little cabin just a short walk from the beach, dining on crazy delicacies from historic Ehlers General Store. European breads, organic cheeses, greeting cards, ammunition and chewing tobacco…all displayed in gorgeous cases on the worn hardwood floors. But…that was another adventure; a story for another time.

This adventure took us no farther than Washburn, as luck would have it. During my husband’s meeting, Max and I soaked in the beautiful books, high ceilings and golden radiators surrounding us at the 100 year old Washburn Public Library.


This rich experience was followed by lunch at our favorite spot – Coco Cafe. Nothing rivals their sheets of crunchy lavosh or pastries. But the real beauty is in the people watching. Small tribes of hippies wandered in and out as we dined. Not the toothless, Key West type either. The Patagonia-wearing folks with iPads and hiking boots that cost more than a fully restored VW microbus. (Note my envy.)

Anyway, with full bellies and our child starting to wing utensils in every direction, our visit expired and we headed out. Every trip I take needs a series of small adventures and one major expedition. Small adventures, such as the library, also include antique stores, used book shops, parks, rummage sales, beaches and hole-in-the-wall taverns. The grand exhibition is always a wild card.

On this trip, we watched snowmobiles zipping around us on either side of the highway, both my husband and two year old enamored with the roaring engines and sexy speed of these machines. I voiced my disinterest for this “sport,” noting that if I am going to enjoy a beautiful winter day, I have to be able to hear it. Crunchy snow. Wind through the pines. Birds. Melting icicles.

What experience would afford us that opportunity? Clearly, a sleigh ride! A quick search revealed an affordable ride just south of us, in Brantwood.

Nothing could have prepared us for the beauty of Palmquist Farm. Max’s eyes grew wide as we snuggled together in the sleigh covered with hay and blankies. The large horses marched forward in the fresh snow, pulling all of us easily through the winding trails.

What makes or breaks any experience for me, however, is the people. At the end of our ride, we sat in a gorgeous building next to a large fireplace and I conducted the Clark inquisition* on the owner, Jim Palmquist. *The Clark inquisition is the tendency my family of ten siblings has to learn everything they can about a person, fueled by insatiable curiosity and rapid-fire questioning. We deem it quite appropriate and a means to keep one another’s stories alive. My husband, and other private folks, view it to be an assault on someone’s privacy.

Jim, a fourth generation Finnish farmer, was all too happy to share his story. In years past, their farm employed people from the surrounding countryside of Brantwood. And when there wasn’t enough work, the local men came by anyway. The farm provided them community and kinship. Jim remembers being a young boy and observing these conversations, many of them in Finnish.

I like Jim. I like his several hundred acre farm. And I cannot wait to return for a long visit. To stay in one of the gorgeous cabins on the property, enjoying the sauna, the hearty breakfast, the ice skating rink and the woods, in all of their glory and deafening silence.


We Had a Happening


Last night, I couldn’t help but thinking I have the life I’d always dreamed of. To be clear, the elements of this dream life do not include many of the things you might imagine.

We have stumbled into a life more organic. Used cars. Backyard chickens. Root cellars. Rummage sales. And plenty of good people. And you can say what you will about living an intentional life and realizing your dreams, most of which I would agree with.

But then there’s dumb luck. Happenstance. Coincidence. Serendipity. And a word I’d like to think I created (but probably didn’t)…randomivity. As I write this, I am struck by how fun those words are to SAY, let alone delight in their meaning.

Last night was a culmination of so many relationships developed over time and seasons of life… A very talented Milwaukee folk singer, Lil Rev, accompanied by his wife and five year old daughter, visited for a house concert. Rev brought, and played, a veritable buffet of instruments….guitars, ukuleles, harmonicas, shakers and a MOUNTAIN DULCIMER!

Rev plays old songs, Yiddish tunes, spirituals as well as his own material. He engages his audience – regardless of age or talent. So at 7:30 PM, when faced with a circus of 10 kids who wanted to move their little bodies and make Rev their audience, he made them an offer they couldn’t refuse and became the pied piper.

Rev’s harmonica became a train whistle, and he stood with his guitar to entrance the room with playful melodies and animated gesticulations.

That was the moment. That was the moment wherein I realized I was living a fantasy life. As I looked around our 110 year old living room, I contentedly absorbed all of the love. Childhood friends. Family. Coworkers. Neighbors. Children and babies – little ones that arrived in recent years after much prayer and excitement, including our own son.

And you know what? No one was looking at their smartphone or tablet. The only reason these devises were brought out intermittently throughout the evening was to capture a piece of the magic on film.

A house concert is intimate, if nothing else. You are squashed next to people on the couch that you’ve never met. You thank the stranger next to you for bringing the crisp white wine or the seasoned pecans. The world gets a little smaller, and a little happier. After the concert, our friend Paul even reflected on feeling younger after the whole experience.

Earlier that day, in preparing for the concert, and talking with our friend Laura, she said, “You’re having what we used to call in the 60’s a ‘happening’.”

So fun. A throwback event to community.  Interconnectedness. Music. Joy and laughter. Engaging children instead of shoving them in front of a TV in another room.

Let it be known that this music – of instruments and friendship – will always play on the adventurecraft. As will serendipity…