I have a curious love/hate relationship with words. My favorite tools, they also wear me out. My mind is rarely void of language. Phrases, sentences, sometimes single words only, tumble around in there until I just want them all to go away. Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve found relief when I immersed myself in the natural world. I love the sky, particularly when clouds of all sizes and shapes, cumulus, cirrus, cumulonimbus and whatever others exist, drift overhead. I don’t care whether the sky is blue or gray, pink or yellow. I find its magnitude soothing and a great help in achieving perspective, the lack of which disturbs me with its imbalance.
I also love mucking around in the dirt. Iplayed in it a lotwhile I was a child, braidingnecklaces of clover and dandelions, fiddling withcaterpillars, beetles and grasshoppers, and observing the cooperative ant societies which were always hubs of constant movement and intricate patterns. Duringhigh school andcollege, I got out to the countryside when I could, feeling my brainrelax in the wide expanse of fields and among the animals, domestic and wandering.
These days, I find the need to escape from all the twisty verbiage in my head more often than usual. The worldis fraught withproblems so complicated, so enormous and so frustratingly bogged down in effectual bureaucracies, that I’m driven crazy by my thinking. I spew the words out in my blog, in letters to my dead husband and too often, to people I sense would prefer that I zip my mouth closed. That’s when I know it’s time to head outside to look up, to look around and to look down. My garden provides months of pleasure, even in its fall and winter iterations. The sky is an ever-changing mystical delight. Loving what just silently exists has turned out to be one of my most effective coping skills. TonightI’m sharing the beauty I’ve been lucky enough to capture just by paying attention to this free form of relief and the lovely thought-dissipating visual effects. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do. For me, they’re the deep cleansing breaths that restore the weary brain.
Aah. A brief respite from the news of the day. All of that will be still be there tomorrow. For this moment, I feel quiet. And grateful. And relieved.
Looking back, it’s easy to spot a small event, a key moment that at the time, seems like no big deal but ultimately, is the seminal instant that causes a shift in a life’s trajectory. The year 1981 was big because Michael and I had welcomed our first child in late August. While all that was a big change, another less obvious game-changer had been instigated by me and my neighbor who lived across the street. When we bought our house in 1978 we thought we were in a “starter home,”a place where we’d live for a few years before moving to the next place. Our ancient home, built in 1893 and broken into three apartments since the 1930’s, closely resembled a place featured in the film “The Money Pit,” a gaping monster that would endlessly gulp down massive amounts of cash. During the next couple of years, housing costs steadily began climbing and we quickly realized we could never afford to replace the square footage of our house and its big double lot. After poking around we discovered that our little neighborhood was zoned as multi-family housing which meant that at any time, a property developer could demolish an old house and replace it with an apartment building. As we were planning on having children we knew that being surrounded by apartments would increase traffic, get noisy and be undesirable for family living. I got together with the owner of the house across the street to begin the process of appealing toour city council to downzone our neighborhood to buildings no larger than two units. Existing structures could stay as they were. We visited all our neighbors until we’d gathered the required number of signatures to make an appeal. When we appeared before the council, our own alderman, a not-too–bright good old boy announced his opposition to the plan, stating that he owned a four-unit apartment building right down our block which he intended to eventually expand. Rarely had we seen a more blatant explanation of self-interest from an elected representative. He was outvoted by the rest of the council so ultimately we were saved from overdevelopment. After a short time, we were awarded the Environmental Heritage Award from our local Preservation and Conservation Association.
Michael was furious with our alderman for putting his unabashed self-interest ahead of the desires of constituents. He decided he was going run against him in the municipal election in the spring of 1985. In one sense, the idea of Michael becoming an insider in organized politics seemed unlikely after his years as a classic outside agitator. But I was already a public official, hired by an elected one in 1978. I felt comfortable in that we were cleaning up years of sloppiness and corruption which had been long time policies in our community. Michael wanted to do the same thing. His father had been mayor and a plan commission chairperson in their hometown. The truth was that despite their political differences, public service as demonstrated by his dad almost felt like genetics rather than simply tradition.
So because we were a team, albeit one with absolutely no idea about running a political campaign, Michael became a candidate for alderman with me as his manager, squaring off with the selfish hack in the April 2nd municipal election, 1985. We talked with everyone we knew who’d had political experience, and with a dedicated crew of supporters who wanted a representative interested in their needs, instead of his/her own, headed down a new road in our lives. A new road was literally the case as every subsequent day, Michael began knocking on the door of each person who resided in our ward. He’d come home after work, pick up a stack of his newly minted campaign literature and head out for a few hours to talk to his potential constituents. On weekends he often took our daughteralong so he’d have time with her. Our lives were turned over to this effort which was exciting, exhausting, sometimes irritating and often frustrating.
In February, my daughter and I slipped away for a longweekend with my family to celebrate my niece’s Bat Mitzvah in California. I’d grown up vaguely practicing my religion with little formality but plenty of social customs, largely centered aroundmajor holidays and food. I didn’t expect to play any role in the actual event but was surprised by my sister who was missing a person to read a Torah portion as part of the proceedings. I was uncomfortable but I couldn’t disappoint her. I found myself singing at the dais in front of a congregation. Luckily, a facility with language and a good memory for what I’d heard many times at the events of my peers, allowed me to pull off my tuneful performance. You never know what life might throw in your path and truthfully, getting kicked out of your comfort zone and passing muster is good for building confidence. After that excursion, we went back home to resume life on the campaign trail.
Michael continued to march throughthe city daily, while I became a precinct committee person, organized our volunteers and counted committed voters who’d promised to vote for Michael. His slogan was “Energy and Commitment.” As his opponent was 25 years older and appeared dissipated by a lifetime of excessive alcohol consumption, we were pretty confident of a win. I still can visualize the precinct voting lists, which after a time, were seared into my brain. I knew who lived where and whether or not they said they were voting for Michael. On April 2, 1985, we woke up confident. We had printed door hangers with a reminder to vote that were hung by our crew of loyal friends, family and campaign workers. A close friend was enlisted to babysit that night so we could celebrate victory. When the polls closed, I went to the courthouse to check on the returns as soon as they were tabulated, precinct by precinct. I was in a room with the other 6 candidates for city council, along with the mayoral hopeful and a few other citywide officials. Our ward had five precincts. The results came in within a few hours. As I looked at the summaries of the last area to report, I quickly realized that Michael had lost by just two votes. Only two. I announced the result to the others in the room who were sympathetic but still engaged in the rest of the numbers. With no cell phones at that time, I gathered my papers and went flying home to tell Michael what had happened before he heard the news from anyone else. When I walked in the door our friend Linda had just gotten done putting our daughter to bed. Michael was in the shower getting ready to party. I sent her home and knocked on the bathroom door. He poked his head out, smiling, until I told him the results. Fastest disappearing smile ever.
I hated having to tellhim that terrible number. He got dressedand we huddled together, trying to figure out how we’d miscalculated. We called our families to tell them what had happened and then didn’tspeak to anyone else that night. The next day several dozen people called to apologize for nothaving voted. I remember telling several that if they wanted absolution they should get it at church because they certainly weren’t going to get it from me. We learnedthe hard lesson thatwhat was so important to us was far less important to others, even if the ultimate outcome impacted their lives. Always consideringourselves outsiders, we had nonetheless, never disenfranchised ourselves as soon as we were old enough tovote. By the end of that day, Michael was already talking about running again in four years andall thethings we’d do to drag voters to the polls. Lessonlearned.
Meanwhile life went on. Michael’s parents flew us down to Florida and we tookour daughter to Disney Worldfor the first time. Although they weren’tmy favorite companions, Michael really wanted to keep trying tostayconnected to his parents and we all appreciatedlife on the beautiful Gulf Coast.
Back home, we resumed ourregular lives. Thatspring and summerwe worked on painting our big old house and developing our yard and garden. We visited my family in Chicago andthey came to visit us.
Our daughter had her fourth birthday. She was quite a character. She loved My Little Ponies and She-Ra, The Princess of Power, sister of the superhero He-Man. Her musical tastes had expanded and included Culture Club. We took her to their concert which unfortunately included a smoke machine as part of their stage show. As soon as she saw the smoke, she insisted that we leave the theater as she’d had fire avoidance training at her day care center. At the first sign of smoke, one had to stop, drop and roll. Or better yet, leave the premises. We brought her to speak with a police officer at the venue but even that official presence wasn’t good enough to convince her to stay.
We bought her a She-Ra costume for her birthday which she wore frequently. When a traveling troupe featuring She-Ra and He-Man came to perform on roller skates, we bought second row seats, almost on the floor near the performers. The villain of the ensemble, Skeletor, threatened to steal all the children from the earth. Our fully costumed child, sword in her hand raised over head, stood up on her chair, and shouted, “I will never surrender.” We could see the smiling performers while we were doubled over with laughter. Her character was already fairly well-formed at this early age.
We had a good summer. There were play dates and parties for our little one, special events for us with an ultimately terrific show in September, the first Farm Aid Concert which took place at the football stadium in our town. We took turns attending the non-stop music, trading tickets to Michael’s employees for blocks of babysitting time so we could attend both together and separately. We’d seen lots of bands before but no festival this big had happened right down the street before. Quite a wonderful time.
In October, Michael and I left our girlwith my parents and headed to the Indiana Dunes. My brother was having lots of emotional problems at the time and was leaning heavily on me. We were also trying to get pregnant again and hoped that a change of scenery would help with both situations. We stayed at an inn near the beach which had an amazing cosmopolitan restaurant. I remember that was the first place where I’d ordered and loved a new-to-me and most delicious dish, ossobuco. We climbed the Dunes and relaxed. We were so lucky to have my willing parents allow us the time to rejuvenate our relationship.
The end of Octoberbrought another Halloween and another costume, a princess one this time. My meager sewing skills were getting a workout.
At Thanksgiving dinner that year, my parents announced their desire to move from Chicago and take up residence in our community as they’d finally realized thatneither my younger sisternor I were ever moving back to the city. My older sister was establishedin California and my brother, who still lived in a suburb nearby, had beenrecently divorced and was leading a chaotic existence. We thought their movewas a great plan as they were getting older and especially loved the idea of having our daughterbe close to her grandparents. As the year drew to its end, I was occupied with locating a place where they would be comfortable. I was certain thatupcoming 1986 wouldbe a busy year.
Back in 2015when Michael wasbending under the weight of his insidious cancer, spring arrived anyway, as we desperately cast around for any kind of new treatment. In the midst of that struggle his eyes were still on the future. What he wanted more than anything was to get his annual herbs and vegetables in the ground, a life-affirming act if there ever was one. I took the photo above as he sat in his dirt, directing our son,who was home and doing the physical labor at that time, telling him where he wanted all the new plants to go. He was too weak to do it himself. That year’s miracle was finding a targeted therapy which bought him another year in which he could do what he’d loved for decades. He planted his garden and like the food-lover he was, canned tomato sauce and salsa, made pesto which he froze in ice cube trays which he’d pop out, two cubes at a time, for pasta and pizza. Who knew how many recipes existed for cucumbers and peppers?
We both loved working in our yard. While Michael did the vegetables, herbs, berriesand lawn mowing, I was busy with flowers, shrubs and trees. I don’t know what the magic is in this big old house and its big old lot, both of which had been neglected for decades before we bought it. But reclaiming it was our shared labor of love, wresting from us a boatload of sweat equity. Both of us are in this ground in some indescribable way.
In January, 2017, Michael’s years’ long tangle with cancer took the turn we’d been dreading. Despite his unwillingness to accept the inevitable, in my despair I supported his efforts to stave off death while casting about for ways to grapple with my griefat what I knew was his impending death. Always the more realistic one in our partnership, I was looking around, trying to imagine life without him, on every possible level. While he slept more and more, I needed to work. For my whole life, when I was sad, angry, frustrated or confused, I wanted to do physical labor, to get out of my head and exhaust my body. I started thinking of how enormous our house and garden were, way too much for one aging woman. I’d never been motivated to can anything in my life so Michael’s oversized vegetable patch was a daunting prospect staring me in the face. As soon as the weather allowed, I decided to get outside to attack that ground. I wanted to convert that space from food for humans to food for pollinators. I was always paying attention to the reports of habitat loss and the decline of so many species of bees, butterflies, moths and birds. I thought that I could make a small contribution to our weary planet by creating a haven in my tiny corner of the world. So into the yard I went, digging my brains out, feeling Michael’s essence rising up in me while I cried mine into the ground. I saved his perennial herbs, his berries and his raised beds for honorary tomatoes, peppers and annual herbs. As for the rest of his garden, I planted what I thought would benefit the most insects and birds, adding what I could afford, a few more plants and seeds every year. Michael died in May, 2017. I continued to salve my aching soul out there, listening to music as I dug, weeded and planned this life-affirming sanctuary.
Unless you’re wealthy enough to hire agardener who arrives withtruckloads of established plants which will cascade from season to season, gardening requires patience. As I worked my way through my PTSD from the years of dealing with cancer and fear, while I coped with the misery of Michael’s absence, I found that I had more patience for my plants than people. That garden brought solace. I gave in to the mystery of Michael’s otherworldly, constant presence and enjoyed the flying visitors who started showing up after the first year of swapping out vegetables for flowers. I felt like I still had something left to contribute to this troubled world and the energy I drew from that was positive.
I’ve lost track of how many hours I spent out there. I felt mightily rewarded by the wide variety of visitors who were showing up. I got to watch fledglings make their clumsy way into the world under the watchful eyes of their parents. I found a monarch caterpillar which I brought inside so I could watch it evolve into its chrysalis and new life. I starting keeping lists of every bird, butterfly and moth species that made its way into my yard, also enjoying the bees, beetles, mantises and countless other surprise guests.
Overall, I’vefelt pretty comfortable with the evolution of this garden. I’ve derived peace from this place. When I’m out there I often feel like I’m inhaling Michael’s spirit which is odd, restorative and unexpected. I had no idea howI would feel or howI would manage my life after such an egregious loss. Apparently he’ll never be lost to me and somehow our shared 45 years live on and empowerme moving forward. Generally an even-dispositioned person, notsomeone who experiences emotional extremesoften, I mostly feel okay. I no longer expect joy – I think Michael was the steady font for joy in my universe. But being okay is fine. However, life has a way of abruptly delivering abrupt curves. That’s what’s been happening to me for the past three days. My surprise has been an unexpected bit of joy.
I don’t know about everyone else but having passed age 70, I’ve been givinglots of thought to what my life has meant on many levels. As a woman, a life partner, a daughter, sister, mother and grandmother, a friend, a coworker anda professional, haveI accomplished my goals? Am I a good person? HaveI made a contribution to my society? Have I made a contribution to the world? I think about this stuff regularly. While my engine is still humming, I know that ultimately I’m on the short end of my life. Feeling that I will leave something of value to mark the timeI’ve spent on this planet is definitely a thing for me. So imagine how I felt when somehow, in this fourth year after I started my pollinators’ garden to do my bit for the beleaguered earth, my spot got in the pathway of the valiant monarchs on their challenging journey to Mexico. In the company of more bees than I can fathom, hundreds and hundreds of monarchs have descended on my little dirt patch for the past three days.
I think the word “awesome” is over-used and abused but truly, I think it’s the most appropriate one to describe what it’s like to stand in the midst of so many butterflies, whose delicate wings flapping in synchronicity make a whirring sound loud enough to hear. I never thought I’d experience anything like that in my own backyard. The only camera I have is in my telephone and I’m far from a professional videographer. As I twirled in circles, trying to documentthe rapid movements of so many fliers, I realized that my jerky movements were more likely to nauseate people rather than inspire them. So I settled for a few videos and way too many still photos to share. I also made sure to just stand still in the midst of this wonder, to soak it into myself and feel the experience instead of just recording it. There’s a world of difference between those two approaches. I think what is the biggest takeaway from these magic few days is that I was able to feel that spark of utter happiness that I thought was lost to me forever. I created the opportunity for magic and it unfolded right in front of me. All this way into my life, I made an impact on something of value to me. The natural world. A gift in and of itself. Enjoy a little look.
Friday morning I boarded the packed shuttle busfor an 8 hourtrip back from Yellowstone to Salt Lake City, where I was scheduled to catch my train east at the miserable departure time of 3:30 a.m. I don’t know whose idea that was, but in truth, I guess it was mine because that dreadful hour was the only one available. I arrived in downtown Salt Lake where I was deposited at a street corner, from where a Lyft driver picked me up and drove me to my hotel for a brief sojourn before boarding the California Zephyr which would get me to Chicago. I was actually looking forward to getting back on a mode of transportation where people enforced the mask mandates that were ignored on all the others, me in the tiny minority of people wearing one. Hanging around with strangers in close quarters, with no clue who might have what virus, was pretty stressful. I was glad to leave all that behind me.
I made a beeline for theoutdoor section of the hotel restaurant and settled in for a slow-food nutritious meal after eating on the fly for the previous few days. Fresh vegetables, fish and potatoes were a comforting alternative to trail mix and peanut butter. I retired to my room, wrote awhile and slept a few fitful hours, nervous that I wouldn’t wake up at the right time to catch a ride to the train station by 2:45 a.m., enough lead time in case the train was early. The station was in a marginally unsafe area but there were plenty of passengers around. By 3:50 I was boarded, ensconced in my little sleeper roomette and passing out from a combination of utter fatigue and relief at feeling relatively safe from Covid. Sleep came fast but was unfortunately interrupted at 6 a.m. when the call for breakfast in the dining car was announced. You don’t skip your meals on the train which are included in your ticket purchase price. So I got up to eat, resigning myself to being tired and having hours ahead to stare out the window at the topography zipping by, so different from my midwestern home views.
I was deep in thought on my ride east. The power of what I saw in Yellowstone elicited the sameideas and sensations I’ve experienced at every natural wonder I’ve been lucky enough to visit. I think the most dominanttheme in my mind is the essential perspective shift from the self and its incumbent center-of-the-universe focus we all share, to the bigger picture, impossible to ignore when standing in the shadows of ancient mountainsand old forests. We are so small, so transient relative to the soaring peaks and tumbling waterfalls in these marvelous conformations. The striations of color in the layered and jagged rocks are silent witnesses to thousands of years of variation and change. Before themI am a tiny speck and that is a good way to feel after being caught up in the drama of my daily life. The energy and power of majestic places which have stood through the comings and goings of an impossible conglomeration of living creatures is a reminder that human life is just a brief passage through a physical universe much bigger than our minds can absorb. These are places of wonder, antidotes for our bruised psyches caught up in the minutiae of life. Cosmic thoughts, I suppose, but a relief from the daily grind. I kept my face and my phone camera pointed out the window as the train passed through tunnels and followed the Colorado river north of the tracks. I crossed over and under the Continental Divide, the place where rivers change the direction in which they flow. People fished, rode the rapids in their rafts and paddled their water boards as I passed by. They live in the shadows of the mountains, along with their families, their cattle and horses, and even their alpacas. They waved at the train as we zipped along. Trees and wildflowers, seeded by birds and wind and maybe climbing animals, poked out from slivers in the rocksthat stretched high into the sky. Dreamscapes and back country. Following are my photos from Utah through Colorado, Nebraska and Iowa into Illinois.
After the last mountain, the Mississippi River appeared and the terrain flattened. I am back on my familiar Midwestern turf.
The big risk trip draws to a close as I look out the window at the familiar Chicago skyline of my youth. I am exhausted with a few more hours of travel ahead before I will collapse into my own bed. I am healthy. I’m a bit more than I was when I started this journey. I don’t know what’s next but I’m already thinking about it.
Looking back almost four decades is rather like peering through a spyglass, the small end pressed to your eye, the broad end exposing a suddenly wide field of memories, visual, visceral, intellectual and emotional. A time travel machine would be the most ideal mechanism for these journeys but as those remain a fantasy, I rely on my memory and my photos. I suppose it wasn’t a surprise that our toddler had early on developed a strong interest in music, as from birth we’d placed her little portable bed right beneath our stereo speakers, hoping to ensure that we’d be able to continue keeping up the volume which was part of daily life for the previous decade before she showed up. She started with one-hit wonders, particularly those that had catchy hookslike Mickey by Toni Basil, Come On Eileen by Dexys Midnight Runners, Whirly Girl by Oxo and My Sharona by The Knack. I think Michael made her first Greatest Hits cassette when she was just a little thing. More sophisticated tastes would evolve over time.
We’d heard all about the terrible two’s when the adorable little baby whose every move was precious suddenly turned into a contrarian, a toddling dictator who challenged authority from morning untilnight. Certainly our girl tested the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable behavior, but for the most part, as older parents, we were rarely undone by her flexing her burgeoning skills and powers. She was attending a new day care center closer to home, a comfortable facility whose policies reflected our childrearing philosophy. Even at this early age, certain character traits which would remain consistent as she grew, began to manifest themselves in this setting. Her teachers told us that though she appeared to be happy, she often seemed separate from her classmates, frequently an observer rather than a participant. She was generous but also a bit remote. She was an irrepressible flirt who alternated between adoring her three favorite boys, Ira, Cody and Jason. She was an early talker who was verbally challenging, loaded with questions and very curious. Michael and I found her company endlessly entertaining. Her frequent ear infections caused high fevers which rarely made her grumpy, instead stimulating endless delirious chatter as she sat burning on our bed.
She liked reading and was physically active. Generally we felt she was an easy little kid. She could entertain herself andwas quite specific about what she likedto do. Her favorite toys were little plastic Fisher Price people who had holesin their centers, perfect places for small fingers. She’d slide them onto every one but her thumbs which we’d then arrange for her. She’d walkthrough the house, clacking them all together until she decided to line them in neat rows on the window sills. When she built towers they were always taller than she was, straight up with few levels involved. Kind of like her orderly, straightforward practical approach to life.
We took her with us everywhere. We went to Chicago to visit my family and to Florida to visit Michael’s parents. An unfussy traveler in cars or on airplanes, we were comfortable hauling her around to petting zoos, pumpkin farms and swimming pools. She was under two years old when she took her first train trip with my sister and me. Her two year birthday took place in her room in her day care center. By three, we were hosting all her classmates at home. I still remember using two old doors as outdoor tables so the kids could sit on the grass while they ate. I also remember doubling the recipe for a giant chocolate sheet cake which I dropped on the kitchen floor where it immediately cracked in half. I picked it up and piled layers of frosting on the seam to hold it together, adding an M&M border around the edges and the middle to disguise the break. Miraculously no one got sick after eating their slices.
Perhaps almost as interesting as E’s personalgrowth was ours, both as peopleand as parents. Those first few years with our baby had drawn Michael and me all in as dad and mom. We still made sure that we had regular date nights together so we could nurture us. The ability to do that was mostly thanks to the young employees from his music store, who were eager to be in a house instead of a student apartment in addition to making some extra cash. But we wanted to spend plenty of time with our kid since we were apart from her during the work week. We also wanted her to be surrounded by family and friends. My youngersister and her husband lived in our community which was a wonderful gift. Our friends embraced our daughter which provided the bonus of having interested adults who read to her, played with her and poured affection on her.
But as we built our family unit, our relationshipswith our families of origin shifted. For the most part, my parents were wonderfulto all of us. They were generous with both their time and withhelping us if we had hard times financially. Theprimary issueI had with them was their overarching fearful approach to life. They were nervous and superstitious, traits that had powerfully affected me as I grew up. I was constantly waging an internal battle against their admonitions, tryingto overcometheir warnings about the perceived dangers lurking around every corner. Always a person who thought carefully about my choices, in their eyes I seemed reckless, simply for doing what so many people would deem normal. I was determined to not infect my kid with these irrational ideas. So I often found myself pushing back on their opinions in a more assertive way than I’d done prior to being a parent. I still remember my mom saying, “what happened to you – you used to be so sweet?” I wanted my daughter to be free of all those mental and emotional fetters. As for Michael, he got along well with my parents, sharing genuine affection for them and they with him. The good news was that we were in agreement about most of life’s big questions.
Despite those residual reservations about “the fear factor,” when I finally decided I could stand to be away fromourlittle girlovernightwhen she was just over three years old, we left her with my parents in Chicago while we took off for a long weekendinthe quaint historic town of Galena, Illinois. When I anxiously checked in to see how shewasdoing shewas too busy enjoying herself to speak with me. I felt lucky to have people I trusted watch our kid while we took a break.
The relationship between us and Michael’s parents was far more complicated. Frankly, I have no idea how he emerged from his household. He diverged from them in virtually every way, emotionally, intellectually and politically. He was a mystery to them, a person whodefied their expectations of who their son should be. His analysis was that they were so busy trying to moldhis older sister into theirimage of her that by the timethey turned their attention toward him, hewas already beyondtheir reach. When we met early on in Michael’s and my relationship, I knew immediately that we had virtually nothing in common but him. I also learned about the complexities of the parent/child dynamic. As much as they annoyed and disappointed Michael, hecouldn’t fathom abandoning his efforts to be family with them. As the years passed before we had ourown child, I was able to let their irritating behavior and social attitudesroll off my back. But when we had our daughterall thatchanged. From the beginning, what was clear was their desire to mold her in the samewaythey’d tried and failed to mold their own children. I loved Michael andwas willing to try making things work but not at the expense of my principles and certainly not at the expenseof my child. And so began adelicate balancing act of coping with these deeply irritating people. I distinctly remember the first shots over the psychological bow when my mother-in-law insisted that our girl needed a Cabbage Patch doll because they were the rage and all little girls had one. We requested that they not buy it but they showed up with one anyway. A small thing, to be sure, but one which foreshadowed future conflicts and an ultimate breach in the family. But that’s a later story.
In the meantime, aside from those issues we were leading a happy life. Michaeland I put our kid to bed and spent eveningsathome with friends, playing cards with friendsat our dining room table.
We enjoyed our summers, spending time in our yard and at local parks.
We took E and her buddy Ira to the county fair in the summerwhere they rode kiddie cars and ate cotton candy.
I became a Halloween costume maker, a butterfly one for age two and a ballerina one for age three. Those were fun things to do which went a long way in comforting me during those times when I felt sad at being away at work so often. Time moved so quickly.
Michael was an attentive, engaged dad, not always 50/50, but a good 40/60. The whole growing a family thing was settling in well with all of us.
The year 1984 ended with the annualholiday party at E’s day carecenter. She and her oldest friend whom she’d met when she was eight months and he was ten months old, played the parts of Mrs. and Mr. Claus in the staged performance by all the kids. Next up – 1985 and age four.
The next morning I rose early, ate a protein-packed breakfast and was the first person on the shuttle headed toward the southern loop in Yellowstone.I knew the parkwas too big to see everything but this route wasgoing to take me to the well-known geothermal features like Old Faithful, the geyser whicherupts about 20 timesper day since people began keeping records back in 1872. To date, more than one million eruptions have been noted.
I think the only other geographical location in which I’ve ever felt I was on another planet in this country is The Badlands which have a feel like another planet. The sulphur smells, the boiling ground, the steam, the rivulets of colored water, the popping mud in craters in Yellowstone is truly astonishing. I found myself pondering what time means over and over. The scale of the geology, its duration, its changes and its incredible beauty is hard to assimilate in just a day. Each feature is more amazing than the last. I felt smaller than an atom in this remarkable landscape. I think that everyone can do with a perspective that reduces our issues to virtually nothing every once in a while. I’m lucky enough to have seen the Grand Canyon. But the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is magnificent in its own right. Some years ago, as I dove into a study of artists, I came across a painter named Thomas Moran who became enamored of the park when he visited in the 1870’s. His 7’ by 12’ painting entitled Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is a marvelous depiction of the site’s grandeur.
Despite my extensive vocabulary and a tendency toward excess verbiage, the fact is, that in this moment of searching for theright words to define what I saw, I fail. When I attempt to select an appropriate description, I feel inadequate and phony. I think thatnature speaks better than anythingI can string together. So I’m going to share my photos and videos in the hope that they convey at least part of the awe I experienced on my somewhat nerve-wracking, definitely exhausting, breakneck excursion through this natural wonder. We humans have to find the way to protect this planet which has already been so damaged by our thoughtless ways. I wish everyone could make this journey and step away more conscious that we need to nurture our home.
Farewell glorious Yellowstone. I’m glad I saw you before I leave this earth. I hope youreaders enjoyed a small slice of this fascinating place. May you get there some day. Now what’s left to me is the long haul toward home.
Mytrain rolled into Salt Lake City close to midnight on Sunday. I was pretty exhausted after a restless night’s sleep in my jouncing roomette. Fortunately, a taxi was readily available. I got to my hotel quickly and fell into bed fast, knowing I had an early wake-up and a long bus ride ahead. My ultimate destination? Yellowstone National Park. My route west was circuitous and tiring but at this point in time, I felt like I’dmade the right choice, traveling in uncertain times. I needed to wake up early in the morning, grab some breakfast and call some driving service to get me to my truly odd pickup spot – the street corner in front of the Church of Latter Day Saints in downtown Salt Lake. I snapped a photo of the flowers outside my hotel before heading out early Monday.
Themorning air was chilly, somewhat brisk, but the cold water feeling that washed over me happened when the shuttle bus driver climbed out of his vehicle, maskless. After loading suitcases, he urged us aboard and announced that despite federal mask mandates, he was only going to inform us of them as they were unenforceable. Wearing them was optional and he chose not to wear his. So there I was, one of a few people masked, goggled and settled in for a full day with a lot of people in close quarters who paid no heed to the concept of pandemic, Delta variant or anything Covid-related. I’d been worried about traveling but supposed that some attempt at following rules on public transportation would be followed. I was wrong. I had to rely on my waning vaccinations, my positive antibody test and good luck to get me through this longed-for trip to a dream destination.
Onthat seemingly endless road trip which made multiple stops, I spent a lot of time counting every cough and sneeze I heard as we rolledthroughUtah, Idaho and Montana. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t stop thinking about the current status of each state regarding vaccinations, masks and hospitals loaded with unvaccinated Covid patients. Try as I may, I’ll never understand the people whose personal choices have caused so much death. And I know they’ll never understand me. I made some verbal protests to the driver but I’m willing to admit I was nervous that someone might become physically violent toward me. Lots of miserable stories like that have been going around since mandates were instituted. To distract myself from my anxiety, I photographed the scenery through the bus window while rolling through Utah, Idaho and Montana, eventually observing the snowy peaks of the Grand Tetons coming into view.
After an 8 and a half hour drive, which included a swap from a full sized city bus to a smaller van, I arrived at West Yellowstone, Montana, a small townat the west gateway into Yellowstone just across the state line from Wyoming. I was drained and eagerto check into my hotel, eat a quick dinner and collapseinto my bed to rest before a 9 hour dayfocused on the north loop of the park. I dumped my suitcase and my backpack into my comfortable room and headed to the restaurant attached to the hotel. As it was packed with unmasked diners, I wasn’t thrilled to eat there but desperate fatigue propelled me to the bar for a fast meal. I ate quickly, with an excellent old school music playlist in the background which provided a small level of comfort, as I tried to stop imagining those little spiky Covid molecules floating through the air. After dinner I headed to bed to prepare myself for the long days ahead. I intended to hit the highlights of this miraculous park which had been on my wish list for so long. The next morning, I hopped on a shuttle for the journey through the north side of Yellowstone which included Mammoth Springs – magnificent travertine terraces, Roaring Mountain, the Lamar Valley, Canary Hot Springs, Obsidian Mountain and old Fort Yellowstone. I saw countless fumaroles, or steam vents, reminders of how living on earth is basically like riding a fireball, along with notable and impressive waterfalls and rivers. Getting accustomed to bison, elk, coyotes, pronghorns and black bears wandering freely never happened as each animal or herd sighted was always a thrill. I loved all the lodge pole pines, soaring straight up to the sky, periodically punctuated by aspens going golden in the last September chill. I hope you enjoy the photos of my first day in this priceless treasure.
I’m not sure I ever had any real notion of what I would be doing when I got older, past my working years, when days wouldlose the structure thatdefined them for decades. A part of me has always held back on planning for the distant futurebecause even when I wasyoung, unexpected events altered thetrajectory of my life. My household was crowded with volatile people. As the third child with many years between me and my older siblings, I got to observe lots of teenaged drama coupled with its ramifications for my parents, who were quite like kids themselves. I developed a positive sunny exterior which shielded a guarded, watchful interior. I learned to protect myself from the emotional swings that were so unnerving. None of that for me, thanks. Most of my adult imagining of the future centered around aging with Michael, my partner since I was twenty, figuring we’d sort outour plans as we went along. That one seemingly solid bet I’dmade, that he’dprobably outlive me, based on the longevity in his family and our genetichistories, blew up when I’d barely transitioned from my formal career, into becoming the caregiver for my eldest grandson whenI was almost sixty-one. I wasn’t a youngster, but still well below what was considered retirement age in my country. The unexpected lethal cancers, one of which tagged Michael at sixty-two, have a way of upending expectations. A year and a half later, what was a bad diagnosis became a dreadful one. My grandson headed to day care at age three and Michael’s declining health situation precluded me from caring for the next grandkid. I transitioned from helping grow a baby to a toddler, into a full-time advocate for Michael, who spent the next three and a half years going in and out of remission. I was also caring for my elderly mother. She died first in July, 2015 while Michael survived until May, 2017, a few days after my 66th birthday. My full retirement age. So the “golden years” had arrived with the one constant I thought I’d have gone. I’m now four and a half years out from that unimaginable time. I’ve invented a semblance of a life for myself, absent what was once the center of my world. I try to balance being constantly occupied with time off to be slow and reflective. The off days usually revolve around immersing myself in being outside, appreciating nature. Unfortunately being unscheduled doesn’t stop my brain from clicking along at its usual rapid pace. Today, I ate breakfast, I swam, I shopped for groceries, prepared a dinner and spent some time with my oldest grandson. In between all that, I drove around town, soaking in the brilliant autumncolors and reflecting on the past. When you live in the same community for 53 years, almost any place evokes one memory or another. I remember all the iterations of myself and ponder the parts of my behavior still so current and those so gone.
As I drove around town today, snapping photos of the gorgeous colors, I passed by many of the places I used to call home. Some of them look essentially the same as they did decades ago. Others have been demolished, with my memories buried under slick modern structures. While parts of my town are unrecognizable, I can still recall what I did in certain spots. I remember a date I had in September of 1969 with a guy I’d met in class. It was my first date since breaking up with my high school boyfriend. We went to see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and we walked home after the movie. I had a strong visceral dislike develop quickly for this person and was verbally brutalto him on our stroll back to the dorm. To my astonishment, he called me the next day to tell me he thought I was refreshing and that he’d like to see me again. I thought he was a masochist and never spent another minute with him. On another attempt to branch out, I went to a film with a person I knew casually, at a theater in a campus building. As we sat watching the movie, I had another powerful negative visceral response to his presence. I told him I had to use the restroom and instead, ran out of the building and hid myself in a crowded, noisy street dance because I just knew he’d come looking for me. And he did, but I was cagey. He never found me. What wretched behavior. I was distant and untrusting. I don’t think that was totally unwarranted but I feel rotten that I turned my feelings into weapons. The truth is, despite seeming socially normal, I think I’ve been antisocial most of my life. I’m also an unforgiving grudge holder with a long memory. I’m mad almost every day as well as vengeful. You wouldn’t think that gazing at beautiful trees would elicit these harsh thoughts but when I’m deep in self-reflection, what comes out is what comes out.
I remember that whenI got involved with Michael, a sweetvulnerable person, our mutual friends warned me away from him, not to protect me but to ensurehe survived my not very secret harsh side. However, we were a good match. I made him tougher and he made mesofter. Of course, our relationship was more complicated than that, but generally I think we succeeded because we helped each other develop. Both of us had felt like we didn’t really fit anywhere but magically, we fit with each other. In retrospect, I’m not sureeither of us wound up fundamentallydifferent than how we were at ourbeginning. We suited each other but my harsher naturewas always apparent as was his gentler one. He always said I appeared so approachablebut that I had a steelycenter while he seemed remote but was just noodles inside. While he was alive, I accommodated his tenderness which frequently required me to tolerate people I didn’t really like and who often disappointed him. I thought that was a waste of time but he bent more easily and hated conflict. As these years without him havepassed, I’ve reverted to the self I was before I toned down for him. I guess the best way to describe me now is someone with virtuallyno patience for small talk. If there’s little substance I’m not interested. I’d rather just be with myself. I don’t want to squander any time during what I know is the short end of my life. I don’t want to hang out with people whose politics I can’t abide or who indulge themselves in behavior I find annoying. So my list of friends has been trimmed back significantly. In the end I think we all wind up being truly close to just a small handful of people. I’ll admit that I’ve expressed love to people when it wasn’t really there. I just didn’t know that at the time. I’m much more careful about what I say these days.
When I started writing this, I thought I’d be sharing more tantalizing confessions. I havemore than a few interesting stories. I’m ashamed that I had a guy who really loved mebetween my first love Al and Michael, a wonderful person I thought of as “filler.” When he was hospitalized for a procedure during a time in which I was apart from Al, we agreed that when he was released he’d come to stay with me so I could takecareof him. But the night before he got out, I reconciled with Al. When thepoor filler used his crutches to walk up myfront stairs, I had to confess that he’d been replaced and send him home to heal by himself. That was a terrible thing I did, young and foolish or not. Then there were all the romantic escapades in which all caution was thrown to the proverbial wind as I indulged myself in the madness of young love. As my historian nature still is my primary operating system, I’ll admit that I have a list of those daring moments when nothing mattered but that primal urgency to risk anything, regardless of consequences, to drown in passionate adventures. But the fact is, despite my moments when I’m starved for the intimacy I shared with Michael, and the knowledge that a significant and beloved part of what was my daily life has ended, what is the more basic and essential true confession of me is that I have stripped myself down to simpler, faster version of myself. I’m more like the younger model of me, with fewer social filters and less tolerance for people who wind up on my wrong side, for whatever reason. I don’t miss my more obliging self. This me cuts to the chase and gets things done fast, which suits me at this point in time. Maybe when I’m looking at the beautiful autumn leaves, aware that soon they’ll dry up and blow away, I’m reminded that somewhere down the line, they will be me or rather I will be them. No time to waste on life’s social frills as if life goes on forever. It doesn’t. Enjoy the moments without wasting any just to fill your calendar with events.
This trip is my third train ride since Michaeldied. Somehow I’ve turnedour dream of taking a long rail triptogether into my favorite way to travel. I still love road trips but I can’t quite fathom driving thousands of miles on my own. Too many potentially unpleasant possibilities to consider. What’s most surprising about these trips is that I thought I’d get a lot of reading and writing accomplished as I rattled along. Instead, my head is turned to the window, looking outside until it’s too dark to see anything. You simply don’t get exposed to the same slices of life from the car as you do from the train. Just over 40 years ago, Michael and I did a long road trip to Colorado which combined camping, national parks and rustic towns. I remember virtually everything about that shared experience. In the fall of 2016, we flew to Denver, rented a car and drove through the state to get to Utah, with the goal of seeing all five of its remarkable national parks. We saw some incredible scenery. That was the last of our lengthy excursions together. I treasure them. These adventures on my own are different. I delve into myself in a way that’s quite different from the sharing type of vacation. I’m thinking all the time. On the train you slice through huge swaths of the hidden parts of this vast country. Wealth and squalor. Sprawling empty spaces where you see nothing but cattle and horses. No hotels or chain restaurants. I wonder why so many people are squished together in the urban areas when there’s all this beautiful land out here. I’m not naive. I understand the principles of capitalism, private property and ownership. Understanding doesn’t mean you have to like it. The vast chasms in wealth are reflected in what I’m rolling past. If I was in charge of everything, I’d fix this. But unfortunately I don’t have any power.
Sliding by the remarkable mountains is a wholeother issue. There are points on this route when you could literally touch the dazzling geological formations if you could get your hand out the window. I stopped counting the number of tunnels carved out of the towering peaks on either side of the train tracks. Some places are strung with metal supports to allay what are certainly potential rock slides that could happen at any moment. I am continually amazed at the colorful striations ribboning their way through the jagged walls. I think about glaciers and earthquakes and storms that formed what surrounds me. I think about all the people who died as they worked to build these convenient rails that are somewhat bedraggled, in need of the money which could or could not be freed up by the infrastructure bill oozing through Congress. And of course I think about all the indigenous people and the indigenous animals slaughtered along the way to what is now. As I mentioned, while I’m appreciating what I see, my mind is consumed by what’s already happened in this part of the country. I try not to go too far forward in my imagining because frankly, I fear the future. Always mindful of dry ground, low waterways, skinny animals. I have to remind myself that I’m supposed to be on vacation. I’m not terrific at turning off those information andprocessing spigots in my head.
Bear in mind that this lengthy part of my trip had the lowest risk. Masks were required and dining was socially distanced. My little room was a safe zone. Now I will share some of the photos I took through the train windowas we traversed the state of Colorado.
Opportunistic plants and trees extrude from crags and slivers of dirt. Of course there are my adored rocks which I wanted to pile into my suitcase.
So there you have it. A sampling of my photos of the Colorado Rockies, up close and personal from the train. The next piece of my trip is the part in which my risk gets elevated as I step off the train, into the states that are among the ten worst in the country for vaccines and mask wearing. A stunning difference between my regular world and elsewhere. My ultimate destination takes me through four of them. Stay tuned…
Back in March, I had what turned out to be a false sense of optimism aboutthis country getting ready to turn the corner on the pandemic. I was fully vaccinated. Cases were dropping. I felt that with caution, I could get back to at least part of the life I was leadingbefore COVID arrived. Alas. While a certain percentage of the population decided to make a stand for their own personal ideas about freedom, government and their woefully inadequate ideas about both our Constitution and science, the coronavirus did what viruses have always done: mutated and spread. And so, we’ve had the Delta variant and Mu and who knows how many others, which have made herd immunity a far away and perhaps never achievable goal. What a tragic summer. So much death. So much confusion. So much rancor. I don’t think I’ll ever understand such selfishness, lack of empathy and compassion and mostly, lack of responsibility to community, to public health. But here we are. With me, having paid for a late September trip when things would be better, or so I’d thought. I’m not convinced that I’ve ever vacillated so much about something in my life. I usually reflect and then get decisive quickly. Quick is my normal pace. But not this time. I’m not reckless. I try to be thoughtful and considerate. I have vulnerable grandchildren. Should I go somewhere and risk not merely my own health, but possibly theirs? And others? Risk versus reward. That’s what life is often about, whether we’re aware of the choices or not. After thinking things through, having my antibodies checked and talking with my family, I decided to go on my trip. My life has been remarkably stagnant, along with so many people’s lives. But I’m seventy. I live alone. I’ve spent a third of the time since Michael’s death dealing with COVID. Staying home, doing not much, has been getting harder for me. I had goals for my “golden years” which I’ve set aside. I needed to move. So I decided to take a risk and proceed with a challenging adventure, knowing that anything can happen and coping with the ambivalence of everything. Last Sunday, donning double masks, goggles and with fingers crossed, I boarded a train in Chicago and headed for parts west, to knock a few more states off my list and to visit one of my dream destinations. Here are some views from my train window on day one.
Masks are requiredon the train becauseof federal mandates. Mostly there was compliance. Some people were kicked off because of belligerent defiance and of course there are those who simply can’t manage to cover their noses and mouths at the same time. But mostly, I felt pretty safe. I was in a berth which meant I could be maskless in my own space. I settled back to enjoy the views through Illinois and Iowa. I always love clouds, countryside and crossing the mighty Mississippi.
The sunfinally set. I cozied up in my roomette and read, watched a little Netflix on my phone and listened to music. I saw tiny bits of Nebraska zipping by in the darkness before trying to settle myself on the stiff hard pallet made from the two folded down seats which make a bed on a train. As we rattled and creaked along the tracks, I tossed around, trying to find a comfortable position, glad I’d remembered to bring one of those round neck pillows people often take on planes. I admit that passing out easily doesn’t work for me these days. Chalk it up to the little aches and pains that come with aging and to missing the comfort of my own bed and all the maneuvering I’ve grown accustomed tosince being on my own. Sometimes I think back with longing to those times I’d just say goodnight, roll over and sleep until morning. I think that was way before kids entered my life. In any case, I knew I would wake to Colorado at sunrise. The train would bring me closer to the majesty I’d experienced before in that beautiful state, but much closer to parts off the paths taken by hikers.