Thoughts and meanderings from my corner of the state
I love Grant Snider's work (Incidental Comics). He brings lightness, a sense of joy to his observations on life. This recent comic of his brought to mind a poem I wrote some time ago.
I can get too angsty when I write, too caught up in whatever my latest worries and woes are. Or I can dredge up pieces of my past (now covered in river muck) I'd rather forget. In this poem, though, I found joy. I'm grateful to be reminded me of that glorious, perfect day with my husband.
Canoeing on Saturday
I want to wear this day
raindrop rings on pale olive water
circle upon circle
spreading, joining, fading
I want to wear
fuzzy, waddling gold-brown goslings
silver trout breaking the surface
yellow warbler--an egg yolk in flight
slicked umber otter swimming
within an oar's-length
"Three yards of this fabric, please."
The clerk grasps the bolt by its clouds
water splashes against her fingers
ducks scatter before her scissors
geese honk in the crisp paper bag
I spread the lake on a table in a sunny room
pin brown tissue pattern to shoreline
run shears down grassy sleeves
roll tracing wheel along the darts that slip
between willows and snags
match front side to front, set a ⅝" seam
I sew a sheath of rain
At the party, the hostess takes my hand
"That dress is beautiful" she says
"Oh this? I smile.
"I'll have it forever"
First published in Blood, Water, Wind, and Stone, Sastrugi Press, 2016
After the weekend's epic storm, I found myself the proud owner of a ski-in, ski-out property. In resort communities, people pay top dollar to walk out their front door and clip into skis. We achieved this for the cost of a modest two-bedroom house in a mid-sized town.
The official tally in Cheyenne was 30.8" of snow in a two-day blizzard. WYDOT had to stop plowing during the storm when snowplows were going off the roads in whiteout conditions and getting stuck. On some of the webcams, once the whiteouts cleared, you couldn't tell highway from land under all the snow. Volunteers ferried doctors and nurses to the hospital on snowmobiles.
My husband spent Saturday making sure our old snowblower would run, and Sunday carving paths through knee-high snow in the backyard so we could get to the garage and the gates. His first task was to circle around the house and dig out our front door so it would open.
I was on the computer at the dining room table with the blinds open, so I expected to see him. I waited and waited a bit more until it dawned on me that he had been out of sight a long, long time. I went out into the blizzard, wind still raging, looking for the man, envisioning him face down in the snow somewhere.
Unbeknownst to me, a broken shovel handle delayed him. After repairing it, he realized he'd put the handle on backwards. Undo and repeat the process.
About the time I'm postholing through drifts in the back like some desperate woman in a tragic pioneer tale, he's at the front porch, knocking on the door and wondering where I am. He'd locked it and failed to take his keys. Fortunately, I got the idea to come inside and look through the other windows and rescued him.
Despite our comedy of errors where we lost track of each other, our experience of the storm was mild. We were safe, we were warm. The power clicked off only for a second just once, barely long enough that we had to reset the stove and microwave clocks. I spent Sunday weirdly obsessed with the weather, writing blizzard haiku.
snow falling sideways
like migrating birds, flying
south for the winter
Yesterday, after my telework was done and my husband had managed to clear the walks, we took an evening and grabbed our gear. We skied up Dey Ave., stepping gingerly across the small stretch of bare pavement where 8th Ave. had been plowed and climbed the jumbled pile to find fresh snow.
We headed west for a quick view of the distant mountains, then ducked into Frontier Park. We heard, then saw a rotary plow -- a monstrous version of our snowblower -- heading north on I-25, spraying a rooster tail of snow high into the air. Usually they use these on the mountain passes in the spring, tall poles marking the invisible edges of the roads, but drifts were so deep they were using them on the main highways.
We tooled through the rodeo grounds to Old Trail Town, where during Cheyenne Frontier Days, the vendors set up shop in fake Old West storefronts along the walk. We refer to it as Fleece 'em Gulch. Until they built it, we could walk up there on concert nights, sit on the wooden fence and get a glimpse of the show for free.
The wind had sculpted the snow into undulating drifts and whoop-de-doos -- a hoot to slide down. Pine trees lined the way. We skied along cornices and crossed over the construction zone where one of the facades had fallen during a windstorm, skis sliding over the hazard tape flush with the snow. The snow was wet, heavy and deep, and it supported our weight. I tried breaking trail here and there. Even with well-waxed skis it was exhausting, so I followed in his tracks.
We headed home, and I took a quick side trip to our alley to assess the trapped vehicle situation. The challenge in any deep snow is getting my car through the wee stretch of the alley between my garage door and the street. I rely on neighbors with better vehicles to pack it down. Not a soul had tried. The husband had cleared the concrete pad behind the doors, leaving a wall of snow somewhere between knee-height and thigh. That car is not getting out of that garage for a long, long time. When I go into the office Thursday, I'll be walking a mile and hoping more people than not have cleared their walks.
Years ago I went to a Unitarian Church where we would share blessings and concerns (or something along those lines) during the service. After a spring snow during a drought year, I shared how I felt blessed by the snow turning the grass green and giving me hope.
The next person up shared the sad news that someone died of a heart attack…shoveling snow. I have proof positive it's physically impossible to drop through the floor of the church. I decided that hiding under the pew would only make matters worse.
As a former ski bum with a garage full of gear, I make the best of the snow and enjoy it while I can. I also grasp it causes real hardship. Blizzards are dangerous creatures. I try never to forget that.
With that -- stay warm, stay well. May you have weathered the storm safely and maybe even found some joy and beauty in it.
A little over a week ago, I looked out my west window first thing in the morning and saw a near-full moon I knew I couldn't capture. I have neither the skills nor the gear to photograph the moon, although I've attempted it. Nearly every time I've been rewarded with a featureless white dot against a black background.
The moon is so much smaller than our minds see it. On a full moon night, extend your arm straight and hold up your pinkie. You can block out the entire disk with just that one finger.
I couldn't capture that moon in image, but I have words:
full moon looms, a pearl
low on twilight horizon
face cracked by branches
I might not have been able to make that moon a picture, but I knew someone who could. I texted the haiku to my artist brother, and he painted my moon on his wall and sent it to me to use with this post. I was amazed. It was perfect. It was my moon.
I've never felt as if I understood haiku, although I occasionally write one, or try to. I was taught oh-so-many years ago in grade school the 5-7-5 structure, and like all my classmates, I dutifully counted the syllables.
Even now when I know that syllable count isn't carved in stone, I find myself fearful to stray from it. At what point, I wonder, is it no longer haiku? And obviously, just getting the right number of syllables doesn't make it one.
I asked two good friends, both of whom write haiku often, for their advice. Beth Howard wrote, "For me, a poem that is much longer than 17 syllables or much shorter becomes a short poem or an experimental poem." Makes sense to me. She went on to say, "There is a LOT of discussion and disagreement on these questions within the haiku world. But, there is also a lot of freedom to use the form which works best for you…"
Art Elser sent me such a lengthy response it could be a blog post in its own right, then attached two articles from the blog he used to have. (The man has a wealth of knowledge, and he doesn't mind sharing it!) His rule for himself is he doesn't use more than 17 syllables, but beyond that it varies -- sometimes a 4-6-4, sometimes uneven, sometimes with the middle line the shortest. I'll share my favorite of the examples he sent, since we both love crows:
dozens of crows
crisscross late afternoon
Beyond lines and syllables, though, he wrote, "The most basic idea of writing a haiku is that it should represent a 'haiku moment,' some brief observation or feeling that the poet observes. It could be, for instance, the observation of the waves as the tide comes in or goes out. The observation of a child and its mother dancing in a coffee shop, exuding joy and love."
I follow the Daily Meditation Podcast, and the week I saw my moon, her challenge to listeners was to "look for the miracles in ordinary life." Maybe that's what a haiku moment is -- a miracle in ordinary life. Like a dance of crows or a perfect moon.
A life problem I never wanted to have: trying to remember which of the boxed sympathy cards I sent to someone six weeks ago so I wouldn't send them the same one.
A few weeks ago I wrote about when my Aunt MaryJane died at the beginning of January. Last week I didn't write, couldn't bring myself to write, because we had just lost my Uncle Bill, her husband.
My count now is one pandemic, six deaths in my circle of family and friends (none COVID-related) , and zero funerals. One neighbor and two dear friends were widowed last year. My husband's brother died at his home in Florida. Now, in 2021, my aunt and uncle are both gone in the space of six weeks.
This is the most inhuman part of coping with this pandemic for me -- no funerals. No gathering together to grieve and reminisce and comfort each other.
No hugs. This is particularly brutal for me, as I'm an avid hugger. The first and one of the few times I ugly cried this past year was when the friend I've known since high school lost her husband. I knew there was no way I would travel to Washington State and put my arms around her any time soon.
I've hugged exactly one human being (other than my husband) since this started, and two trees. I read the advice to hug a tree if you were missing hugs during the pandemic. It's no substitute, but it still helped somehow.
I made a firm decision early in the pandemic that I wouldn't attend any funerals. I've been fortunate there have been no hurt feelings so far. Most of the people I know are comforting each other by mail and email and text for now and holding off on gatherings until it's safer.
Uncle Bill died on February 14. My recurring thought is that he went to be with his sweetheart on Valentine's Day. Each time this comes to mind, I cry. Losing them both so close together was devastating.
Uncle Bill was a kind and quiet man, a fan of classic cars. He was so quiet I never felt as if I knew him well, but he was always a peaceful presence. After Aunt MaryJane died, he opened up more. We had a lengthy and lovely conversation before he landed in the hospital with pneumonia.
I'll take the gift of that last conversation and treasure it even more, knowing there won't be more.
Bill and MaryJane lived in Arizona, near most of that side of my convoluted family. It's warm in Phoenix. I hope the family gathers in a park on a pleasant day, to grieve together in that way humans need.
I won't be there, but maybe I can take that time to cry and remember and be with them in time, if not in space.
Eating nothing but orange kiss-me-cake for lunch was probably ill-advised. As the saying goes, I regret nothing.
What is orange kiss-me cake, you ask? (Or didn't ask… a little presumptuous on my part.) It's a lovely concoction somewhere between cake and quick bread with orange juice concentrate (and a lot of butter) in the batter. More orange concentrate drizzled on top, sprinkled with sugar, cinnamon and pecans.
My sister Cindy always used to make kiss-me cake around Christmas when I was a kid. She must have baked it at other times, but I associate it with the holidays -- the happiness of the tree and carols and family.
The cake doesn't turn out quite as intended. No recipe goes without glitches on first try, or on first try after many years of not making it. The project gave me an excuse to call her for advice -- remove the cakes from the pans before drizzling/sprinkling or not? Our conversation lasted much longer than a simple answer. Cooking or sewing advice is mere pretext for a chat. All of us grew up cooking and crafting, which still binds us together.
The imperfect cake tastes like Christmas, even though I'm living in the depths of a Wyoming February, with battering winds that make me hesitate to step outside. It tastes like Cindy canning jam with me or teaching me how to use a sewing machine. It tastes like family and love.
Below is the recipe as written. I used a bit less sugar, skipped the salt, and used butter instead of shortening, since I never have shortening on hand. Word to the wise: make sure the butter is WELL softened if you go that route (one of my oopsies this time).
Orange Kiss-Me Cake
1 6-oz. (¾ cup) frozen orange juice concentrate, thawed
2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup shortening
½ cup milk
⅓ cup chopped pecans
Set oven at 350 degrees. Combine ½ cup orange juice with all remaining ingredients except pecans in a large mixing bowl. Blend at low speed 30 seconds. Beat 3 minutes at medium speed. Stir in pecans. Pour batter into two greased bread loaf pans. Bake 40-45 minutes.
You can also bake this in a 9 x 13 cake pan instead of bread pans, but the texture will be fluffier.
⅓ cup sugar
¼ cup chopped pecans
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Combine topping ingredients in a small bowl. Drizzle remaining orange juice concentrate over the warm cake and sprinkle it with topping.
I chafe at lists of writing rules, all the nevers and don'ts that imply there is one way to tell a story. If I want to use a dialogue tag other than "said," Mr. Leonard, I will. (She opined.) Despite that, a few years ago I wrote my own list that I'm reposting this morning.
RULES FOR MY KITCHEN
Coffee first, then food.
Live dangerously. Lick the batter off the spoon.
Eat what you want. Listen to your body.
Make a mess. Clean it up.
I love you, but stay out of my kitchen when I cook.
Food is forgiving. Create recklessly.
Recipes are mere suggestions. Experiment.
You can never go wrong starting dinner with sizzling onions.
Although there are limits. Sizzling onions over ice cream? Doubtful.
On the other hand, I could be mistaken. Try onion ice cream if you want.
When in doubt, err on the side of too much butter.
Vanilla, too. Measure it over the bowl so the extra spills over.
Garlic makes life complete.
Fresh is better.
Invest in good knives. Chop with confidence.
There are no rules.
RULES FOR MY WRITING
Coffee first, then writing.
Live dangerously. Release the muse.
Write what you want. Listen to your soul.
Make a messy first draft. Clean it up.
I love you, but stay out of my room when I write.
Words are forgiving. Create recklessly.
Writing guides are mere suggestions. Experiment.
You can never go wrong finding the sizzling, red-hot core of your story.
There are no limits to that sizzling core.
I am not mistaken on this one.
When in doubt, err on the side of too much writing time.
Self-care, too. Fill yourself until you overflow.
Words make life complete.
Fresh is better.
Invest in your editing. Chop with confidence.
There are no rules.
You would think my most absurd pandemic panic purchase of nearly a year ago would have been the 24 cans of kippered herring. No, that honor goes to the pineapple.
I haven't seen the inside of a store since April, when I was grabbing frantically at the Sam's Club shelves with the scan and go app running. No one knew how bad it could get, but stories circulated that food chains might be disrupted.
One goal was to find any kind of canned fruit or veggie we would eat since we tend to live on plant matter. Sadly, there are few I can stomach, so when I spotted the giant box of pineapple, I went for it. The box went on the shelf with the French cut green beans and the beets in preparation for an apocalypse.
And stayed on the shelf... and stayed on the shelf, forgotten and forlorn. The apocalypse never descended into empty produce bins.
Even in normal times, our house is fit for seven years of famine.* Even with only two of us we're stocked to the gills with dried beans, pasta, tomato sauce, flours, nuts, and dried fruit. I don't know what we'd do without the kitchenette in the basement as a pantry (our house was once a duplex) and the full-size chest freezer. I also can't imagine what guests think when they see our stash.
The challenge is rotating stock and not forgetting what we have. I have an abhorrence of food waste that borders on irrational. All meal planning begins with "what's most likely to go bad." Every bone gets boiled down into stock. I've even scavenged leftover ham bones and turkey carcasses from (before-time) work potlucks. They'll just go to waste otherwise. I won't buy potato chips, not because I'll crave and overeat them, but because I'll feel compelled to overeat them before they go stale.
Perhaps I behave this way because my parents were raised in dire poverty during the depression. My mother's told me of resorting to eating lard gravy with biscuits. My father was the oldest of eight, and his mother cooked up dinner from every squirrel he could shoot (and he was a damn fine shot**)
So I (literally) dusted off the box of pineapple the other day, looked at the now-in-the-past sell-by date, and am now on a quest to eat as much pineapple as quickly as is humanly possible. I pulled out the cookbooks and discovered nothing involving pineapple except upside-down cake and gelatin. Cake it shall be.
I told my husband I needed to find a recipe involving pineapple, kippers, beets, and green beans. (Yum?)
You would think that at this middle-aged, well-established phase of my life that I could let a leftover ham bone or a half-bag of potato chips go without guilt, but I can't. Habits of thrift die hard.
You would think by now I would have faith that there will be enough.
We'll work our way through the backlog of kippers and beans and beets and yes, pineapple. I will make myself believe that the stores will not run out of fruits and veggies.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go make a second cup of tea from the once-used tea bag.
*Biblical reference if you're not familiar with it. I grew up very, very Catholic, so there might be a few of those on this blog.
**My father famously told my husband on first meeting, "I shot 15 squirrels with 16 rounds from a .22 rifle." We think there was some subtext there as to how he wanted his daughter to be treated.
Two parts of a Wyoming winter make my mood falter.
The first are the weeks just before Winter Solstice, when the world's at its darkest and the days are still shortening.
The second are the weeks when the wind won't let up. On Wednesday, the official high for the day in Cheyenne was 53 MPH sustained winds with 89 MPH gusts. From the west, of course. About 12 miles outside of town they recorded a 105 MPH gust. About 8:30, our lights flicked off and on a couple of times before staying off -- for five hours.
I'm grateful for our solid stone house. On moderately windy days, we rarely hear it, and the wind never rattles the entire house like it did when we lived in a little clapboard. This storm, however, just howled, even our house unable to block it out.
If you are to live in Wyoming, you must make peace with the wind on some level. I walk in 20-30 MPH sustained often and have learned to face it. I walk my neighborhood north to south instead of east to west to cut down the time I'm facing into it. I walk the west side of the streets for what little additional shelter the houses provide.
There's no making peace with 89 MPH gusts, though. This is wind that knocks down fences and rips down tree branches. It leaves me feeling agitated and trapped if I stay inside and battered if I venture outside. The storm is a thing to be endured until it passes.
The pandemic has been a stiff wind in my face all year, with gusts of civil unrest knocking me off-balance. Yesterday, the wind picked up. We had distressing news from three different family members, three different issues. Deepening dementia. Mental health crisis. Hospitalization with pneumonia (mercifully not COVID). I'm agitated and wanting to hunker down away from it all.
I can't say I'll embrace these winds, but I can face them. They're not unendurable.
I've seen enough Wyoming storms to know that some leave damage. Years of them leave cottonwoods bending, though still growing strong. But each storm passes and makes way for days of calm and sun.
I had no earthly reason not to follow in my husband's tracks. None.
We celebrated the first day of 2021 by cross-country skiing. We had blue skies with barely a cloud. Cold enough temperatures that the snow didn't stick, but not cold enough to be unpleasant.* Best yet, it was one of that rarest of Wyoming days: no wind.
The trailhead was, as usual, packed. We parked at the rest stop instead, where I slipped through one split-rail fence, hiked across a wind-scoured field, and stepped over a break in another one. We skied the ridge between the fence and Headquarters Trail, a wide expanse of uncut snow. In spots, I'd float on a hard-blown crust, then suddenly feel my foot plunge into powder.
My husband was, of course, ahead of me. He's the athlete while I'm a bit soft around the edges. I'm always the one trailing behind when we're out.
Breaking trail on cross-country skis is harder than following a set trail, or even following another skier. I could have followed behind him and gotten more glide where he'd laid down tracks. I would have known where I would sink and where I would float.
But I didn't. Fresh snow is simply too tempting. I zigzagged for no good reason and ducked around trees. Our tracks must have looked like a little kid ran back and forth. Truth be told, I felt like a kid doing it.
I am told that I "knew my own mind" from my youngest days. As I grew older, I picked my own path -- not the one of least resistance, by a long shot. I've fallen into deep snow more than once in life, but I've always gotten back up.
Breaking trail is harder, but oh so worth it.
*Although truly, bad weather is usually a function of bad clothing.
My Aunt MaryJane's death didn't feel real until the next morning. It didn't even process. My brother called, and I wanted to be supportive, but I still hadn't felt her death. It wasn't until the next morning that I cried.
Like many, I was never so glad to take one calendar off the wall and put up a new one on January 1. The year of 2020 seemed cursed. We never yelled BINGO, but we had enough unfortunate squares on our card that we were in the running.
2021 actually started out gloriously on January 1 with a long cross-country ski on that rarest of Wyoming days: no wind. The next day my mother* called to let me know Aunt MaryJane had just passed away.
MaryJane was funny. Sometimes it was without meaning to (eg. the time she set the microwave on fire), yet she laughed so easily at herself that you still ended up laughing with her and not at her. Chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia left her flattened a fair amount of time, but she used her limited stores of energy to show up for life, by God. She was loving and quirky and I enjoyed talking with her.
A few years ago, she was diagnosed with Stage 3 fallopian tube cancer. After her initial 11-hour surgery, one of my brothers** texted us with the update that she was out of surgery and recovering. Then he listed all the body parts and pieces they took out, leaving me wondering if they left anything in that woman's abdominal cavity.
She spent months in and out of the hospital, with tubes and holes in her body that meant she couldn't take a shower. We talked of how she should throw a party when she was finally allowed one. Sometimes her hopeful attitude faltered. I told her she was allowed to get discouraged. No one has to keep up a positive front all the time.
I wrote her letters then, long ones handwritten on sheets of notebook paper. I'm a writer. I can never figure out how to constrain myself to the polite proportions of a note card. Letters are all I can think of to do when someone I care about is in crisis three time zones away.
We didn't hold our annual family gathering in December in Arizona this year because of the pandemic, so I didn't see her in 2020. I assumed we'd get together in post-vaccination December 2021. Despite the fatigue and fibro, despite the cancer that was nibbling at her again, there was nothing indicating she was in imminent danger of death.
Had I known she would be gone so soon, would I have gone to see her? I don't know. There would have been too many other people I would have put at risk from my travels. I would have, however, made it a point to text and call more, to fire up my Zoom account and see her face. After the worst of the cancer situation had passed, I fell out of the habit of keeping in touch. In some ways, it was my own denial that anything was wrong, a way of convincing myself that she was fine.
I don't get a do-over. None of us do.
I do get to take the lessons from this, though. Laugh. Keep in touch. And dammit, show up for life while you've got it.
*One of four women I consider to be my mothers, actually. I have a complex family that requires a Venn Diagram.
**I started with seven brothers and still have six, in two separate families. Did I mention the Venn Diagram?