Autumn Resolutions

There’s a chill in the air and a list coming on!

There’s a chill in the air and a list coming on!

Sitting on my back porch, there is that familiar chill just barely in the air. Fall is coming, and while it signals an ending – leaves will fall and soon thereafter, so will snow -- it always feels like a new start. A do over. A time to begin again with clean, empty notebooks and new ideas. It’s like January, but with better weather. 

Passing earnest parents and eager children with shiny new backpacks at bus stops all over town, I feel the need to make lists, set goals, buy new desk supplies for myself and label them all with Sharpie pens. I instinctively look at the calendar and mark dates for the new school year, even though my “students” are now 21 and 24 years old. What will I do when they are both out of school next year? Maybe I’ll just make note of the bulk garbage pickup days for the coming year.

A few weeks ago, I brought my last child to college; it was the end of an era for that ritual of packing up the car, heading far, far away, (each of my kids chose colleges out of state), nesting her up, ordering pizza and eating it on the floor or the bed or, in this last case, the pretty decent Walmart dining room table. We spend a couple of days talking about goals for the year, classes chosen, how to roast a chicken and turn it into 3 meals for the week, and figure out when will she come home next. Releasing, letting go. Again. “Love you forever … bye! Make good choices! Don’t shame the family!”

Down on the farm, the fall ritual is very much the same. Yearling horses which were weaned last fall have spent the past twelve months frolicking, living, running, fighting and playing in single-sex fenced-in paddocks with simple “run-in barns” available for them to retreat from the sun or the cold and eat some hay, boys on one side, girls on the other, like Catholic high schools. Now, after learning the ropes of living without their mothers, these young adults are brought inside the big barns for the first time. Unlike the run-in barns, these barns have individual stalls with doors, something that none of these youngins are used to. Walking into the barn a few weeks ago, the stalls were teeming with noisy young horses, unsettled with excitement, fear, agitation and bewilderment. These young fillies and colts went from nursing from their mothers last summer to living together in a wild herd over the past year. Now they are getting ready to go to the big yearling horse sales and they have to learn their manners, learn how to be led, wear a halter, learn how to be alone in a stall, to eat out of a feed bowl, and act civilized. Once they are sold to new owners, most will then be taught how to be race horses, trotters. It’s like horses going to college, without the pizza.

Another ritual of my autumn is my annual Slugfest reunion with my college pals. When it began, some thirty-three years ago, it was a summer affair where we sat on the dock lakeside in upper Minnesota, drank cheap beer and talked and laughed all weekend long. Once we started having children, our schedules became full of swim meets, little league games and family vacations and so our reunions moved to the autumn. Somewhere along the line, at the end of the weekend, we began to make Slug resolutions, or as we like to say, “un-goal goals.” Being good friends and not wanting to burden each other with guilt or pressure, we soft peddled our expectations.  Each year, any one of us will say, “By this time next year, if I feel like it, I will entertain the idea of possibly thinking about accomplishing _____ … maybe.” These un-goal goals range from lofty (getting an MBA, moving to a new city, changing jobs, getting yoga certified or training for a marathon) to the mundane (cleaning out the basement, organizing family photos, learning how to play the ukulele, or writing a blog). 

Each autumn the yearling horses come into the barn and learn their manners.

Each autumn the yearling horses come into the barn and learn their manners.

 I’ve got a long list of things that I haven’t gotten around to accomplishing yet, that roll over from one year to the next: learn conversational German and Italian, organize my photos (that’s thirty years’ running now), clean out my basement (just about as long), lose ten pounds.  And my bar keeps getting lower; getting a good night’s sleep at least once a week and not suffering fools for one second are at the top of this year’s list. But also write more, travel more, seize every mother grabbing day. And on the Zen side: do more yoga, meditate more, be present because Life changes quickly. I am throwing a new one on the heap that feels a little lofty: think about thinking about possibly learning about podcasting. We’ll see …

By the time I finish my Slugfest reunion, I will come home rested, rejuvenated and inspired … just in time for Halloween, then it’s November, Thanksgiving, Christmas and yes, the new year. Perhaps I will have checked off a few of my “to do’s” by then? 

I can tell you right now, probably not. 

That’s what New Year’s Resolutions are for.

To Everything There Is A Season

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven” Ecclesiastes 3

It is finally, officially Spring … and not a moment too soon. I’ve been living in a season of sadness lately … a season of funerals. Sometimes, it feels kind of Biblical, Jobian, like I’ve been “walking through the valley of death.” Just when it feels like it’s lifting, another crushing loss comes around.

Years ago, a friend of mine said to me, “I feel like you are always going to baby showers and funerals.” She’s right. The gifts — and challenges — of being part of a big, rambling family is that there is always a lot of a lot. Births, baptisms, First Communions, illness, hospitalizations, funerals, burials. Successes, failures, worries, joys. Like shark teeth, it all just keeps coming and coming and coming.

Living through these funerals recently, it struck me that planning a funeral is like planning a sad wedding in about three days. The flurry of funeral arrangements, preparing for imminent death, worrying about the widow, the widower, the grieving family, family dynamics at play, worries, fears, facing your own mortality, your siblings/parents/friends’ mortality. Feeding people, crying, laughing, gallows humor, crying some more. Keeping the vigil … “Love you … See you on the other side.” Trippy, strange dreams, sleepless nights. Raging against a church that feels cold, difficult. More trippy dreams, loving remembrances, weepy conversations, staring at the ceiling, staring out the window, talking to the dog, rolling this way and that in bed at night. Comfort food, more comfort food, finding sensible shoes for the marathon of an Irish wake, an Irish funeral, finding clothes that fit. And are clean. 

Buying control top pantyhose so that the dress does fit, after eating all that comfort food.

Worrying about the widow, the widower and the grieving family members, who are falling ill from stress and lack of sleep. Getting the antibiotics, calling the doctor, getting the widow to the doctor. “Is she confused from a UTI? Stress?” Keeping the welcome mat open for family members to come, hide, talk, cry, smoke, drink. Keeping the peace. Assembling family photos of the deceased, making sure all families are represented there, figuring out the technical aspects of sharing those photos with guests, making sure the story of the deceased is told well, appropriately, thoroughly, enough. Bringing family home from out of town, home from Europe, leaving time for the relatives from far and wide to come in, to pay respects, to say good bye … The rambling, out-of-body conversations with well-meaning folks. Meeting people that the deceased not only knew, but impacted profoundly. “How is that I’ve never met this person whose life was changed?” Consoling the folks who are there to console you, knowing it’s ok, you’re cried out anyway. For now. Until that one person shows up and starts up the water works again. Worrying that well-meaning folks are tiring at the wake, that we’re taking too long to chat, to greet, to move through the hundreds of people standing for hours. 

Finding the prayers. Sharing The Funeral File for inspiration and ideas from funerals you’ve liked, or planned, before. Organizing the reservations for dinner. Where do we go after the wake? How many people will come? So many out-of-towners. Trying to keep the crowd manageable. Worrying about … everyone. Choosing the casket. Choosing the days, the church, the priests. Tell the nuns, the friends, the neighbors. Write the obit, find the photo for it. Choose an outfit for the burial. Hating that chore, but realizing how important it is. 

Tears, anger, relief, various and different kinds of grief, crying, exasperation, inspiration. Miracles. Cardinals. Meals shared, dropped off, stories of support, love, tenderness, notes, flowers, letters, chocolates. More love. More support. More miracles. More food.

Worrying about robbers and bad guys who prey on houses emptied for funerals and wakes and hoping there is a special place in Hell for them. Worrying about scammers and predators who prey on grieving spouses and families, tricking them into giving donations, gifts, money. Hoping for good weather, knowing that is completely out of your control. Buying the boots, just in case.

Funeral day. Walking the center aisle. Cue the music. The dark suits, the clutched hands and tear stained cheeks, familiar faces in the congregation, the casket, the shroud over top, unfolded with care. The cross placed gently on top, facing the altar. Painstakingly chosen music, readings, readers, eulogies. Blessings, incense. Praying for those giving the eulogies … they nail it. Good job. It all triggers recall of previous funerals, previous tears, Mom, Dad, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends. The circle getting smaller, tighter, death getting closer. Of course there will be more. Always more funerals. Huddling under the tent at the grave site. Exhaustion.

Finally, the reception, more food. Hell yes, a Bloody Mary. And another. There is laughter, let down, heels kicked off, feet put up on cushioned chairs. It is finished.

And then, a baby toddles by, blissfully unaware of it all. New life. Hope. It will be okay. You will be okay. To everything there is a season.

Rest in peace. We are okay.


Escaping the Storms

I shared an essay recently on the wonder and beauty of snow days … and was called out by a good friend. “I call foul! You cannot blog about snow if you are not in it!!”

Ok, that’s fair. I will come clean. 

It’s true. I launched that essay from the warmth of sunny Florida. There. I said it.

Getting off a plane from Cleveland and stepping out into the warmth and greenery of Florida is like Dorothy opening the door from black and white Kansas to colorful Oz. It’s like being in a different reality, a different planet. "How could I have been in a heavy winter coat this morning and a bathing suit this afternoon?” I thought as I stared blankly at the ocean.

My first trip to Florida was when I was in middle school and my dad had a business trip to Disney World. Rather than leave a twelve year old behind with four teenage brothers, they (wisely) chose to bring me with them. Big Jack was on the board of Geauga Lake Amusement Park in Greater Cleveland and he and his colleague, Dale and his wife, Bonnie were going to learn from Disney World how to make Geauga Lake better. 

So there we were, Marge, Jack, Dale, Bonnie … and twelve year old me at Disney World. While Jack admired the gorgeous landscaping and efficiencies of the park, Dale, Bonnie and I tackled Space Mountain together. (Marge would sooner stand on her head than get on a roller coaster). I only remember the screaming. Of course I had to scream on the roller coaster, but It felt so strange to do so with complete adult strangers. It felt awkward and creepy. (Not as creepy as “It’s a Small World After All,” but still.)

While Jack loved the sun, the flowers and the fresh fish in Florida, Marge didn’t like it much. “Florida is full of old people,” she would say, herself an old person at the time. “And all they ever talk about is the weather, what they just ate, and when they’re eating again.” I have to say, she was right about all of that.

While I do, indeed, enjoy a good warm weather escape, I have a complicated relationship with the beach, Florida, the sun. After all, I’m an Irish gal, so, you know … the sun and I don’t really get along. I love her warmth, I love the ocean … but the idea of laying oneself down in a back yard in Ohio in the middle of a humid summer day to bake in the sun? No, that never appealed to me. Not even in my youth, but that was mostly because if my father ever saw me outside in the yard, he’d give me a chore to do out there. “Mary! Weed that back acre while you’re out there! And go ahead and plant those begonias. And water them, too!” Anyway, just laying there? Sweating? Burning? Getting more … and more … and more freckles, and weak from dehydration. No thank you.

It is a full time job for an Irish gal on the beach. Constantly moving the umbrella, shifting the towels, reapplying factor 100 after swimming, sweating, breathing. I learned my lesson years ago about the importance of reapplying sunscreen. I burned the living snot out of my entire body because I was having such a gosh darned good time playing in the waves for hours. That night, I was up all night with chills and vomiting. It was ugly.

Never again. 

So consequently, for the rest of my adult life I have looked like either a toddler or a paranoid senior citizen on the beach, with my rash guard, SPF shirt, wide brimmed hat and all. Every year I am amazed at the power of sunscreen. Unfailingly, somewhere on my body there is a bright red, blazing sign of the patch of pasty white skin that I missed: a shoulder, the top of a foot, the small of the back. Sometimes it’s a fetching imprint of a hand or finger somewhere on my body that I didn’t quite rub in well enough. Secret scarlet Memento-like messages emblazoned all over my body. This year, the missed real estate was the back of my thighs, right under my butt cheeks. A special look, indeed.

I was never going to be that sexy girl on the beach. After all, when I lived in Spain for a while, my nickname was “La Blanca Muerta” (the dead white girl). When I first started going to Miami with my husband and in-laws, I was in awe of the beach babes there. Bronzed to a fair thee well, scantily clad. I was mesmerized by the cavalier manner in which they just … hung out on the beach. No frantic, fearful cowering from the sun. Only the occasional spritzing of themselves with water, sipping some diet soda or whatever, casually brushing their pert fannies free from sand. While I’m forever picking my wedgie, pulling my suit down to cover my ass, tugging my top to keep myself decent, and picking my own hair out of my mouth, these dames are … just sitting there. They turn their faces turned TOWARDS the sun, hair gently tickling their face and shoulders. I would stand there, staring, thinking, “It’s like we are completely different animals. Like a cat and a dog. Or a gazelle and a turtle.” Then a little old woman would come rushing up to me and say, “Honey! You’ve gotta be careful out here! This sun is very strong you know … I’m just sayin …”

“Yep, I know …”

A few years ago I was invited to a fancy schmancy event and decided I would try a spray tan. Timid, I went for the lightest tint they had available. “I just want my legs to not look like cadavers,” I told the technician as I stood before her naked, but for a paper doily covering my crotch area. Sadly, I ended up looking like I had a liver condition. “Oh the hell with it,” I thought to myself after the soiree. I am what I am.

I’m back in The Great White North now, the swaying palm trees and the roaring ocean just a distant memory. While it is still frigid on the North Coast, it is relaxing on a different level to be back in my element, to let my guard down. No sunscreen sprays, no hiding from the sun, no doing hourly skin checks for signs of burning.

Lord knows, I won’t see the sun in these parts until about June.  

Good thing I’ve got leftover sunscreen.

A quick walk out from under the beach umbrella. No worries! That’s SPF 100 on my legs.

A quick walk out from under the beach umbrella. No worries! That’s SPF 100 on my legs.

Snow Days

The sweaty brows, the high pitched voices, the pacing back and forth, the pointing at colorful, dynamic, diagrams, maps and radars. Is this the scene of a war room? A police drama? A lunatic asylum?

This, my friends, is The Modern Weather Forecaster in a full lather, sporting The Weather Woody. He is so excited to be noticed, valued, appreciated. No longer just a sidekick, an extra cast member kicking around mindless banter, he is center stage, deadly serious and in command.  

This winter was looking like The Winter that Wasn’t, until … finally … 

“Folks, it’s crazy, I know. But it looks like we’re getting snow. In January. In Cleveland. Can you believe it? And it’s cold. In January. Stay tuned right here for more details.”

Goodness gracious.

I hate to sound officially like an Old Person, with the  “back in my days,” but … back in my day, heavy snow and cold weather was expected in winter. In January. In Cleveland. Hell, it was expected from November all the way until June. I recall plenty of Easters spent with a bulky winter coat donned over my frilly Easter dress, and white wicker hat, my open toed white sandals slipping around in the slush . 

I do love a good snow storm… as long as I’m not driving on the highway in one (not many things more nerve-racking than a white out). Lying in bed the other night, I listened for the dull scraping noise of the snow plows going down the street, finally hearing it in the wee hours of early morning. It’s always barely perceptible, muffled by the thick snowy air. Hearing it reminded me of being a kid, staying up late to watch the news for weather updates (before they were available 24/7), praying for my school to be announced as closed. “Not yet, honey. Better get to bed,” my mom would say as I groaned my way up the stairs.

If a Snow Day was called for overnight, there would be an uncharacteristic quiet in the house the next morning. My older brothers would be roused out of bed to hit the driveway and start hauling the white stuff out of the way. It wasn’t too much of a burden though, because there were dozens of other kids doing the same and soon thereafter, forts and snowballs were being made, strategies of attack planned, snowballs to my face by at least one of my brothers. We would finally come in for warmth, cheeks chapped, mittens soggy, bread bags sticking out of our snow boots (that made them easier to slide on, especially with hand-me-down boots that were a little too small). After sledding and building forts and shoveling, it was time to sit down and catch up on the basics: Dinah Shore, Merv Griffin, Phil Donahue (“You know, he’s from Lakewood, went to St. Ed’s), and The Price is Right with Monty Hall.

In later years, Snow Days became more social affairs. I graduated from the quiet, wimpy swale in our back yard to the titillating teen scene in my friend, Mary Beth’s back yard. The pitch of the sledding hill had to be near 90 degrees, full of a slalom course of trees, and a little creek at the bottom of the hill that completely freaked me out (“I could wipe out in that creek and drown!”). We spent hours careening down that terrifying hill; I can’t believe none of us died back there.

There was never a snow like the infamous Blizzard of 1978, which happened 41 years ago this week. I was 14 years old. It started as I was walking home from high school. Per usual, I was wearing my uniform skirt with bare legs because no one ever wore tights or, God help me, pants in high school. Half-way through the one mile walk home, I had to take refuge in a local Methodist church to use their phone to call home. “I cannot take one more step. I can’t feel my legs. I can’t even see to walk. Can someone come get me?” I pleaded. There was eye rolling and heavy sighing on the other end, as my next older brother got in the car to come retrieve me. 

Back at home, we all hunkered down and watched the storm rage. And rage it did. The snow just. Kept. Coming. And the temperatures kept dropping. And dropping. Wind chills were something like 50 below zero or more. One of my older brothers stood looking out the backyard window up at an enormous elm tree that was being whipped to and fro by the 100 mile an hour winds. “That tree is going to come down, ma,” he said as he turned away from the window. No sooner had he entered the kitchen than that tree thundered down, schlumping onto the backyard patio and sending an enormous limb through the ceiling where he had been standing. The patio furniture was instantly dwarfed by the enormity of that tree, making the chairs and table look like dollhouse furniture in comparison. I was fascinated by the instant transformation in perspective.

The hurricane force winds found the hole in the ceiling and sent arctic blasts through the house. We all retreated to the far end of the house as someone — probably that same brother — stapled up plastic sheathing to try to keep the winds out of the house.

Now THAT was a snowstorm, my friends. The snow piles and drifts that Blizzard of 1978 left were epic. Veritable mountain ranges lined the parking lots, driveways and streets all over town and stayed there until summer, I think.

On of my favorite Snow Day stories is when my naughty nephews were little, they spent their Snow Day outside in the snow, as would be expected. But they chose to sneak over to their next door neighbor’s house, who was a constant, complaining pain with no sense of humor. Those killjoy neighbors were out of town and the boys were inspired to build an anatomically correct snow man and snow woman. Of course, the snow balls were put in appropriate locations, as were the clumps of grass pulled up from under the snow. The grassy patches had an uncanny likeness to, um … hair, placed onto the snow body. In strategic places. My sister, their mom, could not stop laughing long enough to reprimand them. I just love that image of those X-Rated snow people, staring glassy eyed out at the quiet suburban street, naked as jay birds, like snowy pervs.

Our first snow storm out at the farm happened on the the odd weekend that my husband and I were there alone, with no kids, no guests. Just the two of us, the dog, the fireplace, and some music. My sister had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease earlier that week, which was, unbelievably, just 6 years ago, and I was in mourning. About a year earlier, we had buried my mom, who had suffered from Alzheimer’s for over ten years. That same year that Mom died, my mother-in-law was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. As the snow fell hard outside and piled up, I stretched out in front of the raging fireplace, doing yoga, praying, weeping, pleading for a cure, for some answers, for a miracle. “I hate this disease,” I yelled at God, at the snowdrifts, the fireplace, at no one. 

The next day, the snow sparkled in the winter sun. I was emotionally exhausted from the previous day’s tears and worry. Walking out in the crisp, cold air, trudging through the snow, I thought about those snow days of my youth, of my silly nephews, of my suffering loved ones. “What will we do? What can I do? What will happen?” I ruminated as I trudged on, still weeping. And there it was in front of me … or rather behind me. My deep footsteps in the newly fallen snow. One in front of the other.

“One. Step. At. A. Time.” 

Barn Music

Music is the universal language. It excites, inspires, calms, and motivates. It soothes the savage beast. And evidently, horses love their tunes, too. The barns on our farm are filled with the sounds of music 24/7. Country music, specifically. The horses don’t know the words to the songs (that’s why they just hum along), but are soothed and inspired, nonetheless, by the rhythms and beats. Studies have actually been done on the effects of certain kinds of music on horses’ mood and behavior. Horses in equine science clinical trials were exposed to various genres of music, to different effects. Rap music made them antsy and anxious, resulting in erratic eating habits and pacing. Rock music made them uneasy as well. But, interestingly, both classical and country music had similar effects. Both genres calmed, soothed and encouraged eating, while at the same time, masking the sounds of tractors and other farm equipment outside the barns that may agitate the horses.

I love the idea of playing music to calm and encourage eating, resting, chilling, maturation and growth. If I could go back in time, I would use that philosophy while raising my three daughters years ago. While I didn’t have music playing 24/7 (but almost) I did try to be mindful of the messages my music choices were sending to them. The stakes were high to influence them to be smart, strong, capable, empathetic women.

Looking back now, if I were curating a list of music to be raised by, it might include the following:

Linda Ronstadt: I love, love, loved Linda when I was an adolescent. My sister always said Linda sang “music to kill yourself by,” but I’m a sucker for a good torch song, a tearjerker. More to the point, Linda was a beautiful young woman with a huge voice who could sing any old damn thing she wanted: operetta (“Pirates of Penzance”), big band swing (“What’s New,” “For Sentimental Reasons”), Mexican, (“Canciones de me Padre”), country, and of course, rock. Some of my favorites were: “Simple Dreams,” “Blue Bayou,” “It’s So Easy,” “Tracks of My Tears.” Linda would teach how to reach, stretch, explore, not be pigeon holed, and sing out loud.

Dolly Parton: Years ago, my husband and I simultaneously heard Dolly interviewed on NPR about her then new album, Little Sparrow. We both walked in the door that evening, breathlessly saying, “We’ve got to get that album.” And we did. We played it a lot on daytime family road trips. It was full of lessons for young women: beware the stranger, (“Little Sparrow,” “Mountain Angel,” “Down from Dover”) the joys of love found, (“I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby,” “I Get a Kick Out of You”). Dolly’s voice is so sincere, sweet, pained and also joyful and playful. Dolly would show that you live through the hard stuff, and sometimes make beauty out of it.

Dixie Chicks:  My country music-loving sister-in-law introduced me to one their music at a concert on their Wide Open Spaces tour. I was blown away and quickly introduced them to my girls. That album became our road trip soundtrack for many years. And the song  “I’ll Take Care of You” was my own personal love story to each of my daughters during the trials and tribulations of middle school. The song “Wide Open Spaces” taught my girls that the world was theirs. It’s an anthem to girl power, growing up and staking your claim on life. I loved it then, but as they actually do just that, grow up and move far away, it’s bitter sweet. I want to say to them now, “Don’t forget about me when I have chin hairs, need help clipping my toenails and fluffing that patch of hair on the back of my head!” Is there a song for that? Dixie Chicks would share the virtues of being a girl group: we are stronger together and have way more fun that way.

Taylor Swift: Yes, T Swizzle. I love her and I don’t care who knows it. She was and is a role model for young women making it on their own terms, turning personal pain into art and outing douchebag boyfriends. She’s a so-so singer, but a great lyricist and she taught my girls important lessons. Haters gonna hate (“Shake It Off”), you can live through bad choices (“I Knew You Were Trouble”), revel in romance (“Love Story”) and, my personal favorite, which my youngest daughter sang in her senior year choral concert and dedicated to me, “Best Day” (I cannot make it through that song without snot crying). Taylor Swift would show how to keep learning and evolving, keep trying, and stay classy.

 India Arie: The song “Video.” I love her for making that song. “I’m not the kind of girl from a video. My worth is not determined by the price of my clothes … My teeth, my eyes, my lips, my thighs. I’m loving what I see.” Amen. God doesn’t make mistakes. I played that song for my girls a lot when they were in middle school, subliminally telling them, “You are a beautiful creature and my treasured girl. Be nice to yourself.” India Arie would send messages about positive body image and celebrating oneself.

Bonnie Riatt: Another gal who can really wring out a good torch song: “Too Soon to Tell,” “Ain’t Gonna Let You Break My Heart Again.” But, she also sings joyously and rocks, as in “The Road is My Middle Name.” Bonnie would show how a woman can age gracefully, but also kick ass.

Joni Mitchell: Ah, Joni. My girls and I love her. She’s full of wisdom, naiveté, heartache, and beauty. Yes, I would play the entire Court & Spark album on repeat. Joni would model how to sing through the laughter and the tears of life. 

Barbara Streisand: Old school, Babs, not the screamy stuff from the late 80’s. Again, she was amazing with the torch songs, jazz standards and quirky forgotten melodies: “My Man,” “Why Did I Choose You,” “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” Babs always rocked her non-movie star nose with pride (I’m sure its size help create the gorgeous resonance of her tone). And those nails … like butta. Babs would demonstrate how to not only sing out loud and proud but also, to be comfortable with one’s imperfections.  

My child rearing playlist wouldn’t all be mushy songs, though. It would include the entire Jagged Little Pill album by Alannis Morrisette because she’s a survivor. The entire M!sunduzstood album by Pink because she lives with self doubt, but still succeeds (granted, I did have to turn down the music at just the right second in order to bleep bad words in both those albums). I love a dance song that gets me moving, setting off endorphins, so I would include: “I Like Big Butts” by Sir Mixalot ; “Use Me Up,”by Bill Withers and “Superstition”by Stevie Wonder because strong bass funk is grounding for the soul; “Stronger” by Kanye West, because, “that that don’t kill me makes me stronger”; “Straight Up” by Paula Abdul because it’s a great beat and also is a good message of “Don’t waste my time. Shit or get off the pot”; “Faith” by George Michael, because it discourages sex without love. And recently, “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” by Justin Timberlake (or any of his dance music) for the unbridled joy of dancing like no one is watching. Oh, and “Twisting by the Pool” by the Dire Straits.

I could go on and on. I haven’t even touched on the importance of show tunes from, among others, HamiltonWest Side StoryThe Drowsy ChaperoneThe Lion KingAladdin, and Legally Blonde…. Stage and movie musicals on my playlist would feed the imagination, transport listeners to anywhere in the world, and tell them it’s okay to be quirky, screwy and not too cool.

With all of Life’s outside noise these days – politics, news, disasters, politics, politics, politics – I am more and more inclined to follow the lead of our equine friends, turn off the talk radio and crank up the music, if only for while. Who doesn’t need a little help soothing the soul, encouraging relaxation, eating and digestion? I know I do.

Find these songs and more on Spotify, here:

Ugh, Christmas Tree ...

Driving to and from our mid-Ohio farm, I pass a few Christmas tree farms. This is obviously their big time of year. While cutting down one’s own tree always sounded romantic and enchanted on paper, I never actually went to a tree farm to cut down a tree. I never got why that was supposed to be so fun. You bundle your kids up, trounce out into the cold, find a tree and … what? Chop it down yourself? What am I, Paul Bunyan? A Christmastime Lizzie Borden, whacking away at a tree, just to drag its lifeless body back to my home? The kids would be too cold, I would be too impatient. All this, while there is a perfectly fine garden center five minutes from my house that has done all that work for me? No, thank you. 

Our first year of marriage, I was a wide-eyed young bride with an environmentalist’s heart. I insisted on getting a live Christmas tree, complete with a root ball so that we could plant it in our new back yard after Christmas. Trouble is, live trees are expensive, so we ended up only being able to afford a fat little midget tree that, with its root ball, weighed about 500 pounds. Our elfin, 4-foot high tree looked out of place in our living room, like a landscaper left it there by mistake. But I loved her and decorated her with care. After Christmas, we discovered that the earth was too frozen to plant her in the back yard. So she sat on our back porch, neglected and dropping needles until spring, at which time she was deader than a doornail and sat, lifeless, in our back yard for another year until we pulled her to the curb. It was pathetic; she had lived a sad, short, misspent life.

In the ensuing years, we bought a real tree from the local garden center each year and I reveled in the bright scent of pine that filled my home. The swath of pine needles and dirt on my carpet, not so much. But it was Christmas tradition, dammit. What’s a little stain on the carpet? This tradition came to a screeching halt a few years ago when we brought The Devil Tree into our home.

My daughters, husband and I had made our annual trek to the local garden center to pick out our Christmas tree. It was a terribly cold night, so we were in a hurry. “That one looks good,” my husband said. “Let’s wrap it up and bring it home.” Back home, unpacking the tree and dragging it inside, we discovered that the tree’s trunk was too fat to fit into our tree stand. So, we borrowed a saw, carved around the trunk and shoved it into the stand. That’s when we found that the tree was about one foot too tall for the room (this is not the first time this has happened in our Christmas tree history). So, we whacked off the top of the tree and shoved it into its usual place in the front window. The donning of the lights, garland, and ornaments followed until she was all dressed up for the holidays.

Later that night, as we sat down to dinner, we heard an odd schlumping sound from the living room. The tree had fallen down (not the first time this has happened). No worries … just adjust the tilt of the tree, reapply the ornaments, and off you go, little Tannenbaum.

The next morning, I came down the stairs to a spray of ornaments in the front hallway and the tree, once again, prostrate on the floor. “Oh, for Christmas sake,” I muttered to myself, wrestling the tree back into position. 

That night at dinner, there was the same schlumping sound, along with a tinkle-tinkle-tinkle of ornaments rolling down the hallway. As we wrested the tree back into place, I took a step back. “This tree has scoliosis,” I said. One look at its trunk revealed a dramatic S curve mid way that, in a human, would surely require surgery.

This ridiculous cycle repeated itself for the next few days. We’d wake each morning to what looked like evidence of a real yuletide rager: tree water spilled, pine needles and ornaments strewn everywhere, broken glass. It was a mess. Meanwhile, my husband, The Big Elf, who is quite an allergic fellow, started sneezing and wheezing more and more each day. One day, about ten days after bringing The Devil Tree into our home, The Big Elf, gasping for air, choked out, “I think I’m allergic to the Christmas tree.” “Nah,” I replied. “You always get sick at Christmastime. It’s the stress.”

 As the next few days went by, the tree continued its cycle of falling, and The Big Elf became more and more ill. It was clear. Something was rotten in Toyland. I stripped the tree of its ornaments (those that were left unbroken), left the lights on it and dragged The Devil Tree into the back yard, plugging him into the outlet outside our family room window. To keep him from falling over into the snow, I had to lean him against the window, giving him the look of a drunken relative put in an outdoor “time out,” peering in at the festivities through the window. Like the “little match girl.” Like a peeping Tom. The tree look embarrassed and forlorn, as if to say, “Sorry about all the falling, guys. And the wheezing. Really. Can I come back in now?”

 Off I went, three days before Christmas, to purchase a fine, pre-lit, fake Christmas tree. I brought her home, plugged her in, dressed her up with the ornaments that were strewn about the room and hung something called “Scentsicles” on her boughs to provide that “real pine scent.” And it was fine. Really, she was a beauty.

It turns out, in retrospect, for the first 25 years of our marriage, my husband was not sick from the stress of the holidays (not solely, anyway). He was sick from the blasted Christmas trees. Each year, I was bringing poison into our home and the poor guy suffered each year. I think the good Lord sent us The Devil Tree that year as a blatant sign: GET A FAKE TREE, YOU IDIOTS. I look back on that tree and feel bad for it. I think the tree was maybe not tumbling down as much as trying to run away all those times. It didn’t want to be, you know, the fall guy.

This Christmas season has been a little busier than most, so I was thankful that all I had to do was drag our fake Christmas tree out of storage and plug it in. As of Christmas Eve, it is still not decorated (there’s still time!). But it has not fallen over and looks swell in our front window. It stands straight and true, just like a Nutcracker soldier. And, my husband can breath, which is also nice. 

Pumpkins, Costumes, and Demons

It’s Halloween season! Festivals, hayrides and autumn-themed outings abound out in the country and around town. After a brief attempt to grow pumpkins in our farm garden, I am back to buying them from people who know what they’re doing. Pumpkins need a lot of room to ramble, it turns out. And somehow, the pumpkins we grew a few years ago looked malformed and sad. I’m done trying to grow pumpkins.

I never thought I would say it, but I’m done carving pumpkins, too. I used to love it, getting my hands all slippery sticky with pumpkin guts and devising just the right smirk or scowl for my pumpkin’s personality. But, with no little people in the house, I’m just not feeling it any more. I am officially that older person with ceramic pumpkins on her front porch. Real candles, though. I mean, come on. There has to be some authenticity left.

When I was little and would go trick-or-treating, people like me would make me sad. “Aww,” I would say to myself, all dressed up as Harpo Marx. “Those pitiful people don’t have the Halloween spirit. I hope they’re not passing out pennies or toothbrushes instead of candy.” (For the record, I’m not that lame.)

I do love Halloween, though. And my mother loved Halloween. When I was little, Marge let me have a Halloween party for several years in a row. Every year a dozen or so girls would come all decked out in their best costumes for a mini rager. We would have a drawing contest, which Patty Connelly always won, and a costume contest, which Patty Connelly also always won (that overachieving little cuss). We would have games, bob for apples, and have a gross-out blindfolded feeling contest in which pumpkin innards were human intestines and peeled grapes were eyeballs. Of course, we would also have a séance in which a circle of us were amazed that, using only our fingertips, we were able to elevate a tiny wisp of a girl up above our heads. (Supernatural powers!) It was all good, wholesome fun with just a little bit of gross and spooky.

I remember the year the much-ballyhooed Patty Connelly came dressed as a Tareyton smoker. In the 60’s, this cigarette brand advertised “Us Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch.” The actors in that campaign depicted people from all walks of life that had painted-on black eyes. Picture a darling little eight-year-old girl in blond pigtails with a black eye and cigarettes rolled up in her sleeve. (Ahhh, the years before the PC culture.) It was pretty clever.

My Halloween parties came to an abrupt end my freshman year in high school when Patty Mullen and her boyfriend came dressed as a priest and a pregnant nun. My ultra religious, super Catholic dad did not find that funny. But, at least it wasn’t gross and bloody.

Somewhere along the line, Halloween has become straight up demonic. What the hell happened? In my mind, it is a holiday to gently spook each other, not terrorize the snot out of children (and me). I just don’t understand the concept of these gruesome haunted houses. Seven Floors of Hell? No thank you. Haunted Forest? I’ll pass. Bloody chain saws? Why? Haunted Maze? I don’t need a maze to be haunted as well as confounding. And don’t even get me started on slasher films. First of all, the victims are always dim-minded, perky breasted, scantily clad adolescent women making bad choices that end up dead. Sorry, that’s not entertainment, that’s misogyny. Secondly, why so gruesome? Can’t they just suggest that someone is getting whacked without spraying the screen with her blood? Take a lesson from Alfred Hitchcock (a misogynist in his own right, but, hey, at least he wasn’t violent). Have a scream with a close up on the eyeball, fade to black. Use your imagination a little.

There is a house around the corner from our real home in the suburbs that is artfully decorated every Halloween, complete with dry ice, music, and shadowy lighting. It’s spooky with witches and skeletons and such, without being gruesome. All the kids in the neighborhood work up the courage to go there and come away thrilled, but not terrorized. I’m fine with that. But I passed a different house the other day that was completely covered with a façade to make it look like a bloody butchery. Fake blood oozed out the windows, chainsaws and body parts were hanging from the trees. I mean, how do you help your kids with homework, cook dinner and live a normal life with a fake, bloody corpse swinging from the tree outside your window? I just don’t get it.

And why is Halloween so sexualized? To quote the movie, Mean Girls, “Halloween is the one night a year when girls can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it.” True for adult and even teenage girls. But, parents, have you tried to find a costume for your middle school daughter lately? The trickle down of sexy Halloween costumes is drowning our little girls. When my one of my daughters was in middle school she wanted to be Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. Lacking any sewing skills myself, we set off for the Halloween stores in search of a costume. Well, there were plenty of options if I wanted her to look like a little stripper: Vampy Vampire, Nasty Witch, and Slutty Angel, for heaven’s sake. And, of course, Trampy Dorothy with a deep cut top and a veritable doily as a skirt. We bought the blasted costume and I used my meager sewing skills to add about five inches of fabric to the hem and another swath to close up the gap where a blouse should have been. It was maddening, frustrating and sad. “Why can’t my eleven year girl old just dress up, bob for apples, have a séance with friends and not look like a hooker?” I thought.

The world can already be a violent, scary place. Our culture hyper sexualizes everything, including violence. Why do we need to celebrate that?

Frankly, I’d rather switch than fight … or fright, for that matter.





Spiders, Man!

My husband, Mr. Outdoors, loves spiders. All throughout our marriage and raising our kids he forbade any of us from killing house spiders. “They’re good luck,” he’d say. “They kill bugs. Leave them be.” And for the most part, we have complied. I don’t really mind spiders. Those that make webs are really impressive. Spider webs are beautiful, fascinating works of art, really. The way they appear out of nowhere in the morning, the dew glistening on them in the sunlight is downright magical.

In our Home home, we live very close to Lake Erie where there are large lake spiders. But, again, they hang out on webs and are very busy catching mosquitos and midges. They are needed and appreciated.

The spiders that really creep me out are those that roam around, the “hunters.” 

A few weeks ago, on a warm autumn day, my daughter Fauna and I got to the farm and excitedly got our swimsuits on for a dip in the pool. We retracted the pool cover and prepared to jump in. But wait … what was that around the edges of the pool? “Holy crap, they’re spiders!” Fauna screamed. “Ewwwww!”  

There, lining the sides of the pool and – I am not lying here – walking ON TOP OF the water and SWIMMING in the water, were about a dozen huge, muzzy black spiders. I immediately called The Sherriff for help. He knows everything about everything and is afraid of nothing. Or so I thought. “Yeah,” he replied to my pleas for help. “I don’t do spiders. They creep me out.” (What?!) “I’ll send someone over to help.” It made me think of that scene from Indiana Jones when Harrison Ford says, “Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?” We all, it seems, have our week spots.

As Fauna and I cowered in the corner, The Sherriff’s strapping young son came over and patiently scooped up the spiders and squished them with his big cowboy boots. “Yeah, we get these time of year,” he explained. “They come up from the fields looking for the warmth of the pool at night.” That image grossed me out even more. I pictured legions of spiders marching towards our house, invading at night while we naively slept inside. “Thanks for the sleepless nights ahead,” I scoffed. 

Soon, all the arachnids were gone, and Fauna and I jumped in and enjoyed our swim.  The next morning, some spiders were back, so I went and put on my big girl underpants, swallowed hard and channeled The Junior Sherriff, scooping and squashing those bastards like it was my job. I was quite proud of myself. “I mean, I’m a sometimey farm girl,” I told myself. “I got this.”

The following week, I came to the farm alone on another hot, Indian Summer day. “I can’t wait to jump in that pool,” I said to the dog as we drove in. I didn’t give the spiders from the previous week a second thought. First I had to clear off the pool deck, so I grabbed the leaf blower and started cleaning leaves and debris off the pool cover and around the patio. “Oh darn, it looks like we left the pool rafts out from last week,” I said, still chatting with the dog. I turned the leaf blower towards the stack of rafts and pool noodles in the corner. What happened next was like a scene from a horror movie. 

The spiders were back. And they had multiplied … big time. Dozens and dozens of black, muzzy, humongous spiders skittered all. Over. The pool deck. It was like special effects from Stephen King movie, like they were CGI animation. They seemed to just. Keep. Coming. Everywhere. An otherworldly scream came out of my mouth that I don’t remember ever hearing before. The dog took off, clearly creeped out by the spiders, too. Or my screaming. Or both.

“Oh God! Oh Lord! Arghhhhh! Eeeeep!” I tried to squash some of them, but they outnumbered me so much, I just couldn’t keep up. “Go away! Stop! Ewwwwww!” I was totally losing it, becoming more and more unglued by the second.

Pretty soon Mr. Outdoors showed up. He’d been walking the property and heard my screams in spite of his ear buds. “What the hell is going on?” he yelled as he approached, eyeing the dog that was still cowering around the corner of the house. “There are spiders EVERYWHERE. Do something!” I screamed tearfully. “And don’t even start with that ‘they’re good luck’ bullshit.”

I retreated to the water. As I tread water and monitored as Mr. Outdoors dutifully killed the intruding army of arachnids, I realized that Mr. Outdoors and I have a history with big ass spiders. He and I visited Belize years ago and came across an enormous spider web that had been built outside our room while we were out for dinner. As I gazed up at it in shock and awe, he called my attention to another impressive sight. “You think that’s big, check this out,” he chuckled. There, just next to my foot was an agitated tarantula the size of my hand that, when my husband leaned down to pet it (yes, PET IT), reared back on its hind legs and hissed at him. Hissed. At him. Like an angry cat. Another time, way back on our honeymoon, a crazy Australian tour guide pointed out a very, very large spider on its web in the rain forest. “This spidah is so beeg, it eats birds,” he explained. “Wow, Igor (yes, that was his actual name), what’s the name of that spider?” I asked. “Well, mate, that’d be a bird eatin’ spidah.” I chuckled, thinking, “Well, of course that’s not its real name, but that’s pretty funny, mate.” Turns out, old Igor wasn’t bullshitting. That was the spider’s actual name. A bird-eating spider.

Which brings me back to our farm spiders. After a little research, I discovered that our pool spiders are field wolf spiders. They do, indeed, travel in from the fields at the end of the summer to warm themselves in in the pool water at night. And God bless them, it is a nice pool with warm, soothing water. So, perhaps I should get a sense of humor about them. Instead of annihilating them on sight, next time someone sees a field wolf spider in our pool and says, “What is that spider doing in your pool?!” I will re-use that old joke about a fly in the soup, take a deep breath and blithely reply, “Why, he’s doing the backstroke, silly.”

But still … ewe. 

Just when you thought it was safe to go in the water …

Just when you thought it was safe to go in the water …

Got no problem with web spiders.

Got no problem with web spiders.

The Long and Winding Road

This summer, Farmer Brown and I had the mile long gravel road on our farm blacktopped. After looking at the costs involved in repeatedly replacing and spreading the gravel several times a year, coupled with the enormous amount of The Sheriff’s time and energy to do so, it was decided that blacktopping the road was a worthwhile investment.

I have to admit, it’s a beauty. The new road weaves its way from the front gate of the farm, past two barns, two homes (those of The Sheriff and The Mayor), a garage and several fields of bucolic pastureland full of happy, contented horses.  Walking on our gleaming, new, blacktop road I think of the distinctly American penchant for road trips, taking off in a car, heading west or south or wherever to clear one’s mind, roll down the windows, crank up the tunes and find oneself. It’s the stuff car commercials, movies, and novels are made of. 

While I, too, have romantic notions of road tripping, I have a bad history of leaving a little too much of myself behind on trips. All throughout my youth I would get motion sickness and end up puking on car trips. I puked on the way to and from West Virginia every summer. I puked on the way home from Cedar Point every summer (thank you, Tilt-a-Whirl, or rather, Tilt-a-Hurl). I puked in the back of the tour bus on Big Sur in California and my two older brothers had to clean it up (sorry, boys … and everyone at the back of that bus). I puked in my mother’s purse on a bus during a family trip to Ireland (giving new meaning to “the wearing of the green”). Even now, when I am traveling by bus or car, I insist on sitting up front, popping Dramamine, so that I can keep an eye on the horizon.

My dad used to co-own a motorhome when I was little and he would take my brothers on excellent adventures out west to see the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, and The Grand Canyon. I was so envious of their great stories of camping, getting lost, and seeing amazing sights. Funny, I never got invited. I guess between my hurling and my bedwetting, I wasn’t a desirable travel companion. I would love to have seen my father, a sensible man who lived in wing tip shoes, “roughing it” with a bunch of knucklehead young men in close quarters, and squeezing his 6’4” frame into that motorhome’s Lilliputian sized bathroom. 

When I was a stay-at-home mom years ago, I would occasionally get an irrational urge to just hit the road. Those were challenging years: three little girls who had various issues (eating disorders, learning disabilities, dietary allergies, anxiety, power struggles, math homework, mean girl drama), an entrepreneur husband with crazy long work hours, and a mother slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s. Out running errands, alone on I-90, with nothing but road in front of me … I would fantasize about blowing past my exit and heading west to California to … I don’t know. Reinvent myself? Become a soap opera actress? Take up surfing? Get some sleep? “See ya, suckas!” I would say in my imagination, flipping my finger through the car’s moon roof.

Of course, that never happened. Thank God. The road of life eventually got smoother, for a while. Mom’s suffering finally ended, the kids grew up and conquered their challenges, and I got some sleep … for a while.

Last summer I took a road trip with my daughters to bring our youngest back to school in Maine. It’s a fourteen-hour drive, so we decided to break it up into two days. The first day we stopped at a kooky little place in New York State called Lilydale. It is kind of a mystic version of Chautauqua (a cultural retreat also in New York State). We had heard that every year since 1879, droves of people descend upon this little village that reportedly is in a vortex of some kind, to commune with spirits, contact dead relatives, have revelations. So we were all in. Turns out, after spending a fortune on parking and lunch, we didn’t get much. We went to a group “reading” in the woods where a panel of mystics read the crowd for free … and we got what we paid for … a whole lot of vague generalities. 

 “I’m getting something for an Ann. Is there an Ann in the crowd?” Silence. “No … not Ann … Mary. Is there a Mary here?” (Well, hell, of course there’s a Mary or an Ann in the crowd full of women aged 50+ . Doesn’t take a fortuneteller to figure that out.) My favorite “reading” was when one of the mystics asked if a woman had any connection to Bob Seger. When she shook her head, “no,” the mystic pressed on. “Did your person ride a motor cycle?” No. “Is his name Bob? Robert?” No. “Did he wear a leather jacket?” No. “Are you sure his name isn’t Bob?” No. “Well, I’m still getting Bob Seger,” she insisted as she moved on, as if this poor woman was either lying or slow. She must have the Night Moves CD playing on repeat in her car or something.

The rest of that trip was great, though. We had two cars, so I took turns with different combinations of daughters, singing songs from Hamilton, The Drowsy Chaperone, Feist, Billy Joel, listening to podcasts, talking about plans for the future, and telling stories, recounting our ridiculous Lilydale visit. Is there anything better than being a little punchy from a road trip and laughing at something stupid until you cry? Especially with my now adult daughters. It was worth the sore back and frozen hips I got by the end of fourteen hours in the car to have extended time with my girls who are now scattered to the wind, traveling their own roads, finding their own adventures.

These days, I keep thinking of that great Pretenders song, Middle of the Road. Chrissie Hynde says, “I’m standing in the middle of life, with my plans behind me.” I feel you, Chrissie. Except she wrote that song when she was 33 (“I'm not the cat I used to be. I got a kid, I'm thirty-three.”) and I’m in my 50’s. Even still, the gift of being in my 50’s is that, increasingly, I could give a flying fart what people think of me. With Alzheimer’s Disease back in my life ravaging my mother-in-law and sister, I’m all about finding joy, hitting the road, or, my new mantra, “Seize the day, mothafucka!” I have to fight back an uncharacteristically manic drive to DO IT ALL NOW, though, as if I’m racing against time. I do love travel and going on actual road trips, but I also know that part of “seizing the day” is simply relishing walking on a newly paved blacktop road through a gorgeous stand of tall trees, listening to the wind through the leaves, and counting the blessings that got me to the middle of this road. Because, life is about the journey, right?

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Walking in the Woods

My husband, The Woodsman, has dragged me on walks in the woods a few times since we acquired this farm property. The first was a few years ago. We went trudging through the woods throughout our property, looking for … I’m not quite sure what. At one point we were visited by a pileated woodpecker, which was dramatic. These birds look straight up tropical and otherworldly with their bright red and blue coloring. They are about the size of an adult forearm and have that distinct cackle, reminiscent of the old Woody Woodpecker cartoons. So, that was cool.

On we trudged that day, this time in the woods behind our house. There, deep in the woods, we came across an ancient garbage dump where we unearthed some random tin boxes and old glass bottles that looked like a traveling salesman of yore had sold someone some elixirs or potions. Who were those people that lived here? What were their maladies? Indigestion? Snoring? Gas? Lactose intolerance? Who knows … those bottles are now vases for my kitchen windowsill and I think of their original owners whenever I fill them with wildflowers.

Another walk in the woods was in the early springtime. The Woodsman was set on finding morel mushrooms. I know exactly nothing about foraging and frankly, the whole thing scares me. I’m terrified of finding what I think are benign mushrooms only to find myself tripping for days or, you know, dead. So, we wisely enlisted the help of our farm neighbor, Johnny Cash, to keep us from danger. (Johnny knows everything about darned near everything about the great outdoors). We pecked and poked our way through the woods that spring day. I was getting more and more exasperated and bored until I noticed the beauty of the woods in springtime. Ferns and mosses pushed optimistically through the warming earth and the ground was coming alive with vernal energy. Johnny instructed us to keep an eye out for morels at the base of trees. “They look like a dog’s pecker,” he shouted through the stillness of the trees. “Oh, God,” I muttered to myself. “What the hell am I doing? I don’t want to find these infernal mushrooms now.” 

“I think what we need is a good rain and then they’ll poke up,” he advised. Unfortunate wording.

We never did find morels that day, but a few days later, after a good soaking rain, Johnny reported that the morels did, you know, poke up out of the ground. He sent us a photo of some. They are oddly beautiful … if you push that dog wiener image out of your mind.

A morel mushroom poking through the forest floor

A morel mushroom poking through the forest floor

Ginseng plant, berries and all.

Ginseng plant, berries and all.

Recently, The Woodsman was hell-bent on going on a ginseng hunt. It seems ginseng season in Ohio starts on September 1st and goes until December 1st. I was vaguely aware that ginseng has some health benefits. A quick Google search revealed that it is believed to boost energy, lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels, reduce stress, promote relaxation, treat diabetes, and manage sexual dysfunction in men. And, it’s quite valuable, too. A pound of dried ginseng goes for about $500 to $600. “Ok, you’ve got my attention,” I thought. “Let’s find some ginseng.”

So, off we went, The Woodsman, our daughter, Fauna, home for a break from graduate school and me. “We’re looking for a low plant with five leaves that has a little cluster of red berries in the center,” The Woodsman instructed. Trouble is, that describes a lot of plants on the forest floor, except for those telltale berries. We trounced into the woods, stopping every now and then to survey the ground, arms akimbo, when all of the sudden, about five minutes into our hunt, Fauna turns around and says, “Oh, isn’t this one right here?” There it was, the elusive ginseng plant, exactly matching its description. “Well, this is going to be easier than I thought!” I exclaimed. 

We promptly dug around the perimeter of the plant and gently unearthed it, per our googled instructions, plucking and replanting the red berries into the soil. “Onward!” I shouted. “Let’s find that ginseng. Mama needs a new pair of shoes!”

We trudged on for about an hour, poking and searching … finding nothing. We relocated to another section of the woods and, just like she was born to do this, Fauna found another patch. “She’s the ginseng genius! That grad school is already paying for itself!” I shouted as we gently dug those roots up, too. But by then, the oppressive heat of the day started to get to us, and the intermittent rewards were just not enough to keep us going. “It’s hotter than the Devil’s balls,” I said, quoting our esteemed farm worker and aspiring poet, Wonder Woman. (What is it about the woods that evokes off-color metaphors?)

All in all, we netted four meager ginseng roots. I think that will pay for maybe one cheap shoe for mama. But it was instructive and, when Fauna found the prizes, thrilling for a short while. 

As I write, The Woodsman is receiving two shiny new tree stands to install in the woods for the upcoming deer hunting season. Unlike the pedestrian tree stands he has now, which look like old-fashioned ski lifts, these babies look like tiny houses in the air, featuring a roof, a door, and some windows. I fear The Woodsman may take up permanent residence in one. But, given his tendency for snoring, it might not be all bad. He, his ginseng and morel mushrooms might be very happy together out there.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep

But I have morels and ginseng to seek

And miles to trudge in the stifling heat

For other random stuff to eat

(With apologies to Robert Frost)

Ginseng root, found!

Ginseng root, found!

Zen and the Art of Mowing

As anyone who has driven on an interstate highway knows, Ohio has a lot of corn. While some find it monotonous, I have fallen in love with the sight of vast fields of corn, waves of corn, undulating in the hot summer breeze in a beautiful, bucolic ballet. Driving down country roads, I am always reminded of the line “amber waves of grain” from the song, America the Beautiful. Except, these are “emerald waves of corn.” Yes, those fields of corn can get a little old on a long drive to anywhere in the Midwest. But there’s beauty there.

Little known fact: corn is a relative of grass. Looking out from the deck of our farmhouse, we see a vast field of corn and also its cousin, grass. A lot of grass. The horses grazing on it are in heaven this time of year, enjoying its sweet, juicy nutrients. The Sherriff, The Mayor and now Wonder Woman are meticulous keepers of the grass. If they were in the suburbs, they’d be one of those families who win the Lawn Olympics on their cul de sac. But out here, they’re not out to impress anyone. They just have impeccable standards, a beautiful aesthetic. And they love to cut grass.

Farm work is unending; every day there are dozens of things to get done before noon, not the least of which is keeping many animals alive each day. One of The Sherriff’s favorite escapes is hopping on a riding mower and setting out to cut the acres and acres of grass. He straps on the goggles and ear protectors with built-in speakers for music, fires up the machine and off he goes … steadily riding up and over the hills, occasionally doing a nifty twirl around a tree or a rock. It is a sight to behold. The Sherriff is a Zen Master, painstakingly going over the grass as if it is a sand Zen garden, creating neat, green stripes on the hillsides. It must be very satisfying. Unlike waiting over ten months for a horse to foal, this offers immediate gratification. When he’s finished, the hills stand as a testament to a job well done.

I see all those acres of grass and remember my dad surveying his acre of suburban paradise. I can still smell that freshly cut grass and hear the quiet hiss and click, click, click of the sprinkler. He loved pushing his power mower back and forth for much the same reasons, I imagine: an escape from kids, clients, everything. It was like meditation for him, a prayer. He never got a riding mower, though salespeople over the years tried to convince him. He liked the exercise that pushing a mower gave him. As he grew older, he would sit on his green string chaise lounge and admire his sons and then grandsons pushing his mower for him. He had passed the grass-cutting baton to them, but reluctantly. Nothing pleased him more than cutting the grass, then reclining to admire his work as he sipped hot tea on a sweltering summer afternoon and watched the sprinkler baptize his lawn. 

I never got to cut the grass. As I’ve written before, I was in charge of weeding the grass … and the flowerbeds … and anything else with roots. When my husband, Farmer Brown and I got married and bought our first house, it came with a lawnmower. Farmer Brown handled the lawn mowing for a hot second, but quickly grew tired of it. Watching the jungle grow in front of my house, I took the reins one day. “How hard could this be?” I asked myself, lathering up with sunscreen. 

Back and forth I went on our little plot of suburban land. Easy enough. But when I finished, I looked back and noticed there were little Mohawk tufts of grass between my newly cut rows. “What the?” It seems I didn’t line up the lawnmower correctly in my back and forth march across the yard. So I started to re-cut the grass, slicing down the Mohawk tufts. But now the grass was uneven, so I would dart from spot to spot, slicing down any irregular parts. Pretty soon, I found myself in the middle of the front yard, moving the lawnmower back and forth outward like it was a vacuum. I formed a weird kind of sunflower pattern on the lawn. “This is harder than I thought,” I muttered to myself, sweat dripping from my chins. “How did I lose control like this?”

Just then, a grandmother and her baby grandchild in a stroller walked down from the corner and stopped in front of my house. “We’ve been watching you from down the street and just had to come closer. This is the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. Please go on.”

“Glad to amuse you, ma’am!” I hollered over the lawnmower’s buzz. What an exasperating exercise. That’s the last time I mowed a lawn.

The grass around that house was often too long. Farmer Brown would occasionally try to tackle it in the little free time he had as a young entrepreneur. More often than not, he would recruit a willing teenager in the neighborhood to do it for us.

When we bought our forever house several years later, it had twice the size yard. When packing up to move, Farmer Brown gave the mower away. “I’m done with that crap,” he said. “I’m paying someone else to do it.”

Now we have farm property with acres and acres of grassy land. And, we have The Mother of All Riding Mowers. The Sherriff won’t allow Farmer Brown to ride it yet, though. With all those hills and fancy swivel gears on the machine, it’s a bit more complicated than pushing a mower back and forth. And for anyone who doesn’t know what he’s doing (say, us) it could be downright dangerous. Large farm equipment, sexy as it is, is not to be trifled with.

“I’m going to ride that thing someday,” he vows, gazing longingly at the Zen Master riding up and down the hillsides. I chuckle to myself every time he says it, amused by the irony. Funny how life works. I guess he was just waiting for the right kind of grass and the right kind of mower. Timing is everything.

You bet your grass there's a lot of mowing down on the farm.

You bet your grass there's a lot of mowing down on the farm.

Ode to the Firefly

One of the great pleasures of summer comes in a tiny, fiery package. Behold, the firefly. 

At the end of a long, hot, sticky day down on the farm recently, Farmer Brown and I kicked back with a glass of wine and sat down to The Night Show outside. At first, it was hard to tell what we were looking at. There, dotting the thick, inky air on the hillside below us were dozens, at first, then slowly, hundreds, then thousands of fireflies punctuating the darkness.

Sparkling, like shiny confetti…. reflections of the stars above…. stars themselves on Earth. It was as if I had just hit my head really hard, like in the cartoons. 

It reminded me of a time, some twenty-five years ago, when my husband and I were on a sailing trip in the Caribbean with his college buddy and had dropped anchor in a calm bay for the night. All of the sudden, tiny, glowing beings appeared in the water around us: glow worms emitting bioluminescence.  It is a natural phenomenon in which microscopic worms literally glow in the water and it took my breath away. These farm fireflies were like that: profuse and magical.

From our farm deck, the firefly display was impressive enough, but riding the four-wheeler down to the bottom of the hill, we were immersed in them, swimming in them, the inky black darkness around us forming a perfect canvas for their light show.

I was overwhelmed with gratitude. What an amazing, simple pleasure. As I reveled in their nighttime glow, I wrote a mental thank you note.

Thank you, fireflies, for being an added bonus of summertime. Thank you for giving children one more game – catching fireflies – at the end of long summer evenings when moms and dads are exhausted and need to sit and sip something cold and look on, remembering their own firefly hunts. Thank you for letting me catch you, put you in a jar and stare at you for hours, fogging up the glass with my grubby breath and boogery nose.  Sorry about squishing you, stepping on you and smearing your iridescence to make a glowing, gorgeous streak on the sidewalk as a kid. I did that only a few times because I couldn’t live with the guilt  of destroying something so beautiful and harmless.

Thank you for being one of the coolest insects ever. To my knowledge, you don’t bite, you delight. Why are you here? Are you just a whimsical gift from God? Did He think, “You know what? Fireflies … why not?” You don’t sting, you don’t buzz. Do you even pollinate?

Thank you for being the much cooler cousin to the beetle and, by the way, thank you for not eating my garden. Picking lettuce in our farm garden the other day, I discovered where you sleep during the day: under the wet lettuce leaves. But you didn’t eat the lettuce. What do you eat? Do you simply survive on the joy of children? Do you only need handclaps and laughter as your food, like Tinkerbelle?

Thank you for being so understated. You’re not much to look at by day, wearing your simple black suit with a smart orange strip down the middle. Very low key. Your big reveal comes when the sun goes down. 

I’ve read that your butt lights are all about attracting mates. That’s downright charming, romantic. Does a glass of rosé come with that candlelight? If I was an insect, I would be so envious that I hadn’t evolved to have luminescence. Well done, you. I hear that you speed up or slow down your blinking pattern: steady glow, flashing blinking, depending on whom you are seducing. Sexy stuff, Firefly. And with a life span of two months, you have no time to waste. Carpe candeo – seize the glow! I think that is my new motto. At least for summertime.

Thank you for choosing Ohio and the Midwest as one of the relatively few places in the country you hang out. You love humidity and we’ve got plenty of that in the summer. The coasts have the oceans, the west has the mountains, we have you. Thank you for summering on our farm. We are so glad to have you.

I guess I took you for granted in my youth, Firefly. You were always there in my dad’s backyard, dotting the thick air back by the pine trees and the railroad tracks. I would catch you, cup you gently in my chubby fist and slowly open my hand up, like a clamshell. There you would be, burning brightly inside my hand cave. Then, up you would rise, silently, effortlessly, lighting on my fingertip as if to check me out as I inspected you. And then, you were off, beaming up into the night sky. I would crane my head back and watch you rise as the enormous oak and elm tree branches would frame you and your shiny friends. 

Bye bye, Firefly! Thanks for the visit! Thanks for the memories! Carpe candeo!

Photo by Mindstyle/iStock / Getty Images  For other amazing photos of fireflies/lightening bugs, check out this website!

Photo by Mindstyle/iStock / Getty Images

For other amazing photos of fireflies/lightening bugs, check out this website!

Game Rooms

“I’m setting up the basement of the farmhouse as a game room,” I said. “Great idea!” my husband replied. “That’s going to be so cool.”

Hmm. I never thought of him as being all that enthusiastic about board games. But I proceeded to bring all the games down to the basement: Scrabble, Bananagrams, Boggle, Uno, Chutes and Ladders (God help me), playing cards and even a ping-pong table. “It will be nice to have rainy day group activities for folks who come down to visit,” I thought.  

Shortly after that, my family and I traveled to the Montreal Jazz Festival in Canada. My husband and I had attended the festival a few times before and wanted to share it with our girls. It is a nonstop musical celebration with incredible musicians from all over the world. And Montreal is an amazing city; it feels like you’re in Europe, without the jet lag. We were all very excited to explore the city when my husband went rogue, as is his wont. “I’ve booked a date with Musky Mike. I’m going musky fishing,” he declared. “Anyone want to join me?”

Silence. We had come all this way to one of the great cities of North America, full of beautiful architecture, great food and of course, world renown music at the jazz festival … No, no one was interested in hanging out with Musky Mike on a cold river when we could be drinking café au lait or wine in the city. Duh.

The girls and I dawdled around Montreal, touring churches, galleries, and local restaurants. When we met up with The Musky Hunter later that day, he was ebullient. “You should see this fish! We were in about 3 feet of water and Musky Mike told me just what to do. It took me about a half hour to get him in, but I landed a huge musky.” And he did. The fish weighed about 35 pounds and stretched about 52 inches. The Musky Hunter could not stop looking at the photo of his epic catch, showing it to friends and strangers alike. This went on literally for years. Still does, actually. Sometimes, even today, I will find him gazing lovingly at the image on his phone.

“I’m going to have a replica made and hang it in the game room at the farm,” he gushed. 

“Well … we’ll see,” I cautioned. 

“But that’s what a game room is for … for showing off your kills. This musky is just the beginning.”

It dawned on me that for the past year we were each talking about different “game.” Me, Parcheesi; him, dead animals.

You see, The Musky Hunter has long had game room envy. Our farm neighbors, Johnny and June Cash have an epic game room, or more appropriately, a trophy room. Some might call it a room of death. Johnny is an avid, accomplished hunter and has traveled all over the world hunting bear, antelope, gnus, wildebeest, crocodiles and of course, good old Ohio deer. And each of these kills has a place in his game room. It’s quite fascinating, really. He has complete reverence for each of his conquests and thrilling stories of how he got them. June is much more quiet about it all, almost apologetic about the still life display of once animated subjects. “I should be named Wife of the Year, honestly,” she says as she gently picks dust fuzzies from the bear. 

So, we now have a very realistic Musky hanging in our game room, all by itself over by the pool towels. I’m hoping he doesn’t get company any time soon, but The Musky Hunter is threatening to hang a big deer head down there when he lands one. Now, I’ve got nothing against hunters, really. Our farm is located in gun country. I get it that hunting animals is a tradition that has been passed down through generations. Johnny Cash has schooled me plenty on how hunting is actually good for animals: it controls the animal population (which, hello, is much needed here with Ohio deer.) And in African villages, it offers jobs and local income for guides, permits, vehicles, etc. as well as literally feeding the locals. It also discourages poaching, which is a completely heinous, immoral act. I get it, I really do.

But I sincerely don’t want to be met with an animal head hanging on my wall. I was afraid of my parents’ painting of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, for goodness sake. As a child, Jesus’ eyes followed me all over the room. I can only imagine how Mr. Bambi will freak me out. “You spineless, heartless wench. How could you?” he would whisper under his breath to me.

But I know I’m going to lose this fight. The Musky Hunter will eventually be The Deer Slayer one of these days. He says he’s waiting for “the big one” with a giant rack.

Sigh … maybe I can hang my pool towels on its antlers?

A man and his musky

A man and his musky

Wild Turkeys

We are officially at the beginning of turkey hunting season and my husband, The Turkey Slayer was super excited. He’d never been turkey hunting and our farm neighbor, Johnny Cash was stoked to show him the ropes. Turkey Slayer was eager because, besides the new challenge of shooting a wild turkey, he would get to wear as much camo as he wanted. It seems that, unlike deer, who are a bit dim and don’t really take notice of hunters in their bright orange gear, wild turkeys are pretty wily, have great eyesight and are hard to fool. So, turkey hunters get all dressed up like Viet Cong and stalk down the enemy: Tom Turkey.

Wild turkeys used to be an interesting novelty. When our daughters were little, Turkey Slayer would take the girls on hikes in the woods or in the country. On one of those hikes, they all came across a flock of wild turkeys. “Girls look, those are wild turkeys,” he whispered to them. Our youngest, Meriwether, was about three years old and was fascinated by these strange, dark, prehistoric looking creatures. On the car ride home later, she took a swig from her sippy cup and whispered, “Dad … those turkeys were wild!” as if to say they were crazy, off the hook, unhinged.

In the years since I’ve been noticing turkeys all over the suburbs: walking past strip malls, hanging out in backyards, outside the doctor’s office. Much like suburban deer, wild turkeys are very incongruous in civilization and frankly, they’re a bit surly. Out in the country, they nibble their way across cornfields and woodlands. They stick close to the ground. They have wings but don’t use them much, kind of like tonsils or apendix. They do jump/fly up into trees to roost at night and over fences when need be, but mostly they just grouse around, hunting and pecking for food on the ground.

I was invited to go along on the turkey hunt this week but sadly could not make it. Besides, I’ve got no beef with turkeys. The closest I’ve come to one is, like most of America, on Thanksgiving Day. I’ll never forget my first turkey roasting experience. I was a young mother, about to host roughly 50 family members for Thanksgiving Dinner. The fact that I’d never roasted a turkey didn’t dissuade me. How hard could it be, right?

That day, I was up early, had already set the tables and was ready to tackle the bird. I washed him in the kitchen sink, like a chubby, slippery newborn baby, and then dried him thoroughly. My sister-in-law down the street was doing the same thing for her family and we kept calling each other for reassurance on what the hell we were doing.

“Ok, I’ve washed him and dried him. Now … where are the damned giblets?” I asked her. 

“I don’t know. I’ve been looking for them too,” she said.

“Wait … I think I found them,” I cried. “They’re in the cavity. Just reach in and grab them.”

“Ewe ... Ok, got ‘em,” she said with victory in her voice. 

“Wait … I thought there were more. This is just his neck,” I said, confused. “I guess maybe they just throw that other stuff away.”

“Yeah, that’s probably right. They’re gross anyways,” she said. “Gotta go.”

We each proceeded merrily along, basting, rubbing, stuffing and roasting our respective birds. All of the sudden, about two hours into the process, there was a commotion in my mudroom hallway.

“Stop!” someone screamed. I turned around to see my sister-in-law and her sister, falling down, laughing hysterically. “We found them!”

“What the …?”

“The giblets! They’re in the butt!” they screamed.

I gingerly opened the oven, pulled the big tom out and checked my turkey. Sure enough, there they were, giblets steaming in a paper bag shoved up his arse. I quickly extracted them and threw them in with the neck parts I had simmering on the stove and then returned my turkey to the oven.

“Good Lord,” I thought. “What a humiliation for Mr. Turkey.” This was a bird that Benjamin Franklin lobbied to make our national bird, so impressed was he by the turkey’s intelligence and stature (take that, Bald Eagle). Now, the poor species have been domesticated and humiliated with his kibbles and bits shoved up his downside. Quite a fall from grace, I would say.

But he is tasty.

The Turkey Slayer sadly returned from his hunt empty-handed. “I got close to a couple of hens. We kept calling back and forth to a tom, but … nothing …” he sighed, plopping down on the couch. “Turns out the darned guy was toying with us all along, strutting around in a field of horses the whole time. Bastard …”

“Too bad, sweetie,” I said, rubbing his head. “But, you’re a mild-mannered guy. I don't think you stood a chance against them. You know … those turkeys are wild.”

He could have been our national bird, but he was too wild.

He could have been our national bird, but he was too wild.

Blue Bird, Red Bird

I saw my first bluebird of the season the other day on our farm. Not a blue jay, which is kind of a tyrant in the bird kingdom, a bluebird. Blue jays are pretty enough but have an ugly squawk and an even uglier disposition. But bluebirds are another story. They, too, are beautiful, but in that wholesome, girl-next-door kind of way, busily living their best lives, swooping over open fields, popping from one fence post to the next, singing their quizzical, melodious songs. When a bluebird takes flight and the sun catches its wings, its iridescent blue color is dazzling. One can’t help but gasp aloud with joy, “Oh! It’s a bluebird!”

Seeing a bluebird at the end of February is a good omen that spring is nigh. That, and all of the sudden, I am hearing the cardinals sing again, from the tippity tops of the barren trees. Cardinals always remind me of my parents, especially when I see them in the late winter and early spring because that’s when each of my folks went to heaven, 13 years apart. My dad loved nature and after he died, it seemed we were always seeing cardinals at just the right times. It’s as if his angel was a cardinal and would make surprise visits to give us encouragement or just say hello (though I’m not sure Big Jack would ascribe to this pantheistic viewpoint). Once, when we were having a heavy family meeting after my dad died, my mom, siblings and I were all over at the homestead, huddled in Mom’s back room, deep in weepy, emotional discussion. All of the sudden, there was a pecking at the window on the large, sliding glass doors looking out onto my dad’s backyard. We stopped talking and looked up to see a fat, red cardinal, hovering in the air like a hummingbird, frantically tapping at the window. “Let me in! I have something important to say!” It was the darndest thing.

But none of the bird/angel visits was more dramatic than when my mother was in the long, painful process of dying. It was a cold, blustery late winter day. An old family priest friend stopped in to give Mom her last rights. The group of us huddled around her, tearfully getting ready to say good-bye, praying The Hail Mary and Psalm 23: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” The psalm doesn’t mention a cardinal, but in this case, it should have.

Mom’s bed was directly in front of a window on the second floor of the facility where she was staying. All of the sudden, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye and instinctively looked out the window. There, just above Mom’s head was a bright red cardinal on a tree branch, looking right into the window. A calm came over the dimly lit room. I felt the presence of God and of my dad, beckoning my poor, suffering mother, “It’s ok, Marge, let’s go.” Just as I was focusing on that beautiful, bright red male cardinal, in swooped a female cardinal, who lighted right next to him on the branch. I signaled to my siblings what was happening right outside the window and we all continued praying, holding hands and laugh/crying at our little avian miracle. The cardinal couple stayed there until we were finished with our prayer and then silently flew away. Our priest friend was amused but didn’t seem too surprised. I got the impression he’d been witness to all sorts of quirky visitations and miracles.

Since Mom left to join Dad, I now see both male and female cardinals at opportune times: when I’m in despair or troubled especially. I had a health scare a few years back and was praying in the car as I drove. All of the sudden, there they were, cardinals swooping on the road in front of my car, just letting me know Mom and Dad are near, God hears you, all will be well.

I’ve discovered that I am not alone, that the cardinal is widely known as a sign from loved ones who have passed on, a symbol of God’s love, an angel visiting. The backyard of our home is often filled with cardinals, nesting in our arborvitae, singing one of their distinctive, piercing melodies from the treetops. That song is so optimistic, so beautiful and self-assured. And it is said that cardinals mate for life, which makes their sightings all the sweeter.

I will keep looking for bluebirds on our farm and will delight in their rare, precious beauty. But I will never get tired of seeing cardinals anywhere, any time. How could I? When the going gets tough, as it inevitably does, I look for my cardinals.

Hi Mom and Dad!

Hi Mom and Dad!

On Walking

I’ve always been a walker. I guess I got it from my dad. He loved to go for a walk after dinner and I would often accompany him when I was little, my shorter legs taking four steps for every one of his long, six-foot-four inch tall strides. I often say I would sooner walk from here to the moon than run from here to the corner. My body just doesn’t like running. For me, walking is exercise, meditation, prayer and therapy all rolled into one.

Part of our routine on the farm is to take long walks there, through the woods, up one hill, down another, passing cornfields, yearling horses, mooing cows, babbling creeks. Winter, spring, summer, fall … it’s a gorgeous gift to be able to take in the air, walk, think, pray. The wife of The Mayor, former owner of the property, was an avid walker like me. I’d see her making her daily seven-mile loop as I would drive in. I could tell she found the same therapy in it that I do. She left us too soon, a little over a year ago. I guess God wanted to show her even better trails, but I think of her every time I walk the property with her sunny smile and friendly wave.

Just after we acquired the farm property I had a chance to take an epic walk of a lifetime: El Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain. I had heard of this centuries old pilgrimage – The Way of St. James – years ago from my college roommate. The entire Camino is some 400 miles and stretches from the southern border of France, over the Pyrenees Mountains and across the top of Spain to Santiago, the supposed burial site of St. James. I love a long walk, so I was intrigued.

Then came a little movie called The Way about The Camino, starring Martin Sheen. The day after I saw the movie, I was in the parking lot of my local grocery store, looking up details on The Camino: Where is it? How long does it take? How can I do this? But I was in a hurry, so I put my phone away and ran into the store, right into my friend, Gidget. “Hey, long time no see! Listen,” she said to me over the cantaloupes. “Do you know what the Camino is?” Me: “Um, yeah, I literally was just in my car…” Her: “Do you want to go on it with me? I’m putting together a group.” Me: “Um, yeah. I’m in.”

Fast-forward four years. I have now been on three different versions of the Camino with a group of women who also love to walk … and drink wine, eat cheese, and most importantly, laugh, laugh, laugh. I could literally write pages on each journey. Suffice it to say that real pilgrims carry all that they need for the month-long journey on their back and sleep in humble alburges or roadside hostels with dozens of other pilgrims along the way. Well, our Camino is a bit more Camino Light and we are The Housewives of the Camino. The first Camino was four years ago and was a journey of the last 100 miles of the Camino. It was amazing beyond belief. I found myself smiling all day every day, in spite of aching feet and tired legs each night. Some of my favorite times were when I was walking alone across the countryside, my Camino sisters either ahead or behind me, and just listening to the breeze through the trees and the sound of a lonesome cowbell. I even had a little miracle when, after a day of silently praying and chatting with my deceased mother and asking her for a sign that all is well, I came across her name, MARGE, scrawled across a bridge I was walking under. It took my breath away, making me laugh and cry at the same time because it was so my mom: not subtle at all. It was awesome.

Camino II was Camino del Norte, a 90 mile walk through Basque Country in northern Spain, ending in the tony village of San Sebastian, home of the most Michelin rated restaurants per capita than anywhere else in the world. You’re damned straight we visited one of those restaurants (feeling very, very underdressed in our Eddie Bauer travel dresses).  I have a fistful of toothbrushes from the fancy bathroom there to prove we were there (Stay classy, me.) That trip included an impromptu private mass in the home of St. Ignatius of Loyola, just outside of San Sebastian. A couple of Camino Sisters and I went rogue one day and did a side trip to Loyola, arriving at Ignatius’ home about a half hour before closing. We did a quick trip up one, two, three flights and stumbled upon a chapel on the third floor, just as the priest, Gaston, was setting up mass. After we finished singing “No one prays like Gaston, no one stays like Gaston, my what a guy … Gaston!” we settled in for mass, ended up being moved to tears at how lovely, holy and special the occasion was …  and then, at his suggestion, taking selfies in the chapel with Gaston and almost getting locked into the basilica in Loyola.

I just got back from Camino III, El Camino Portugués, a 90-mile seaside hike up the west coast of Portugal and Galicia, Spain. Once again, it was perfection. Miles and miles of breathtaking scenery were enjoyed on roads, walking paths and from my perch in the front of our little bus alongside an equally nauseous Camino Sister (we cannot handle the motion in the back of the bus). The eleven us definitely boosted the wine, cheese and tile economy while there (You’re welcome, Portugal and Spain.)  This walk included walking between, into and through many, many wineries. Our favorite had to be the one in Argo, Spain, where we met The Most Interesting Man in Spain. This guy loves his job, his country, his wine … and definitely loves the ladies. So, he was thrilled to have eleven middle-aged American women for wine Show and Tell. He poured his wine liberally, told us obscenity-laced stories of his father, the founder and gave us plenty of cheese, ham, olives and bread. As we left, we each got a big hug and a kiss from The Most Interesting Man in Spain. I'm pretty sure he slipped some of us his tongue and grabbed some ass. That night was marked by a much-anticipated (and feared) dinner of local eel back at our 17th Century manor. Not enough wine was consumed all day or at dinner to make that eel palatable, but I could see that the cook was offended by our pinched faces, so I choked that sucker back as best I could. I swear, I’m still burping up eel today, two weeks later. Not the souvenir I had planned to bring back with me.

And so, I’m back in my Real Life now. It’s good to go away. It’s good to come home, visions of long walks, tapas and wine dancing in my head. While I was gone, two cousins and a good friend passed away, and there was a cousin wedding and a nephew wedding. Life and Death keep coming. Joys and sorrows continue. All of it only reinforces in me the importance of cherishing my walks, be they around the neighborhood, at the farm, or on far-flung paths. When I’m faced with the inevitable obstacles to happiness, fulfillment and peace, I keep visualizing those walks in my mind and I walk on, searching for my own faith, meaning, inspiration, hope, sanity. All will be well. One step at a time. As they say on the pilgrimage, ¡Buen Camino! Enjoy the journey. 

A message from my mom on Camino I, September 2013.

A message from my mom on Camino I, September 2013.

Walk on ...


Joan Crawford, Dennis and Mr. Wilson

One of my favorite past times on our farm is observing the animals there. In so doing, I have learned that, while we humans can idealize animals as being kinder and more decent than the human race, that is not always the case. Sometimes animals can be just as loathsome as we humans.

Our farm is actually a racehorse breeding business where owners bring their female horses to our farm to be inseminated, gestate and give birth under the knowing hand of The Sheriff, his father The Mayor and their right hand gal, Wonder Woman. About a year into our farm adventure, a mare came onto the property already pregnant. She gave birth according to plan and her little colt began nursing and thriving. Then the horseshit hit the fan. Mrs. Horse was clearly not right. Out of nowhere one day, she began beating up on her little colt. The foal, a colt they named Dennis, had scrapes and cuts inflicted by his nutty mom. It was emotional for the whole staff of the farm to witness. But the Sheriff and his team knew that colt needed mother’s milk as long as possible in order to thrive, so they hesitantly left him with her a few more days … until it became obvious that the mare, we’ll call her Joan Crawford, was a Mommy Dearest nightmare and had taken to trying to rip the hide off her colt. They finally separated them, sending Dennis to the animal hospital at The Ohio State University to recover from his wounds before he returned to the farm.

Enter The Companion Goat. I’ve learned that occasionally this kind of thing can happen in horses, that the mother is just a bad seed and needs to be separated from her foal. While the foal can be supplemented with formula or granular milk, he still needs companionship to thrive, so horse farms will routinely bring in a “companion goat.” They will also do this if a mother horse dies in childbirth. The little goat’s job is just to be a buddy, a wingman, a roommate. So, walking through the barns one would pass the stalls and see mama horse and filly, a mama horse and colt, a baby horse and … goat. It’s an unusual sight.

Dennis and the goat got along famously. They would nuzzle each other, run together out in the paddock or, like old friends in a coffee shop, just munch their food silently next to one another. It was really sweet.

The staff grew to love that silly goat and named him Mr. Wilson as a nod to the character in the “Dennis the Menace” comic strip. Mr. Wilson acted like a playful dog, scampering around the barn, chasing the cats, peaking around the corners. He even figured out how to open his and Dennis’ stall door, the little scamp.

But eventually, things took a dark turn. One misty morning, the Sherriff entered the barn to start the day’s chores and witnessed a disturbing thing. Dennis was abusing Mr. Wilson, just as his own mother had abused him. Again, it was shocking, and heartbreaking. The Sherriff and his staff had worked so hard to nurse that colt back to health and make him feel loved and nurtured. And poor Mr. Wilson. He must have been equally disillusioned. “Dude, I’m on your side,” he must have thought. “What the farm?”

And so, to the sadness of all, Mr. Wilson went back to his original owner and Dennis lived alone in his stall, growing bigger and more combative every day. When all the other foals were eventually weaned from their own mothers, all the colts were put in the same paddock. Dennis was by far the biggest and meanest of them all. The other colts instinctively knew something was off with Dennis and took turns going at him, kicking him, and generally bullying him. It was like a very rough schoolyard scene and it helped make Dennis a badass, a thug. It was sad really. Dennis didn’t have a chance.

Joan Crawford wasn’t popular in the fields after the separation. The other mama horses kept her at bay on the outskirts of their circles. They new she wasn’t right either. Eventually, Joan’s owner sold her at an auction, with the caveat that she never be bred again because clearly girlfriend couldn’t be trusted as a mom. The day she was sent to auction, her paperwork was out of order and she had to return to the farm for a few days. When she was put back into the field with the other mares, there was a tense scene. One by one, each of the five or six mares in that field charged up to Joan, kicking and braying, as if to say, “Aw, hell no, Joan Crawford! You hurt your baby and we all know it, you crazy bitch. You are not welcome here.” That display continued for a couple of days until Joan Crawford finally left the farm for good and calm returned.

I’m sure Dennis went on to be a successful racehorse, big and mean as he was. And hopefully Joan Crawford is living a peaceful existence pulling an Amish plow somewhere, thinking about the error of her ways. Was Joan abused as a foal? Did she have a genetic screw loose somewhere? Was Dennis abusing Mr. Wilson because of an equally loose genetic screw or did he learn that behavior? Perhaps some combination of both? Who knows, but the whole cycle of abuse and nature vs. nurture was as distressing as it was interesting.

Life has gone on at the farm with dozens of foals being born and raised without incident each year since Dennis and Joan Crawford left. Watching the good, normal moms devotedly tend to their young each season is a beautiful sight and often makes me think of my own mom, of being a mom myself and how blessed I have been to have an excellent mother, good role models, a safe upbringing and good genes. In life and on horse farms, that should never be taken for granted.

Mr. Wilson and Dennis, in happier days.

Mr. Wilson and Dennis, in happier days.

Oh. Deer.

I have always loved nature and animals. I spent most of the summers in my youth outdoors either weeding for my father or trying to avoid doing so by hiding from him in the woods behind our house. In all those formative years, I rarely, if ever saw a deer in our neighborhood, in the woods behind our house, in the Metroparks, which I would frequent as a teenager, or even on road trips to the West Virginia resort my family would visit every year. The closest I ever came to a deer was watching Bambi on the Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday nights after a bath.

Today, it is a different story. As anyone who lives in the suburbs – or even urban neighborhoods – will tell you, deer are omnipresent. They are as commonplace as squirrels and way, way more obnoxious. When I’m working in the garden in my suburban back yard, I will often scare one up, waking her from her comfortable nap in my hostas. She will slowly get up and stroll away, muttering obscenities to me under her breath. She and her deer buddies in our neighborhood are like a marauding gang, roaming around with impunity, thuggish and ballsy. They just don’t give a what. When they cross a street, they seem to purposely take their time doing so.

“Yeah, I’m strolling across this major thoroughfare, stopping traffic both ways. And you’re just going to sit there in your minivan and take it, lady.”

And they’re a randy bunch, procreating with abandon. Every time I turn around there’s another newborn fawn all curled up and cozy in someone’s front yard. Mrs. Deer, you really need to take up another hobby. Sure, those babies are precious … until they’re eating my landscaping.

When I’m cooking on the grill in my suburban back yard, a deer will stand there, chewing and staring at me blankly. “Um, Mar,” he seems to say. “Those burgers seem to be overdone. And while we’re talking about food … you really need to plant more pansies in the front yard. I started nibbling on them this morning and before I knew it, I had eaten the whole bed.  They are like potato chips … you can’t have just one. Anyway, you’re going to want to plant more pansies, Mar.”

I hate urban deer. And I hate the silly fools who feed them.

Last week on our annual family vacation in West Virginia I witnessed a flock of these fools (I am referring to people here) hand feeding a veritable herd of deer. It was like a Disney World character autograph scrum.

“Here, Bambi! Have some Cap’n Crunch.”

“Why, thank you kind, simple tourist. And for your troubles, I will in turn give you some ticks with Lyme disease.” Lyme Disease is real and not something to trifle with, people. That stuff will mess you up.

The sad truth is that these suburban deer are eating everything in their path because they’re starving. The combination of urban sprawl and deer’s propensity to reproduce faster than post war Catholics is giving us deer that are too skinny and unhealthy. Those deer on the resort hilltop were like ghostly apparitions. Honestly, there are just too damned many deer for urban environments to sustain. Or West Virginia resorts, for that matter.

Out in the country around our farm, however, deer are deer. They are muscular and majestic because they are fit and living like wild animals, not pathetic circus sideshow acts. They are beautiful, really, just like The Great Prince of the Forest, Bambi’s father.  They are appropriately skittish and mostly keep away from humans because they have gotten the message that humans out there in the country are often packing heat and they and their deer friends just might end up on someone’s wall or dinner plate. But the result is that the deer population is under control, they are not overrunning the area and there is enough vegetation for them to live healthy, happy lives. Out there, I don’t hate deer.

My husband, The Deer Hunter, loves deer. In fact, he went so far as to plant apple trees on our farm so that they could treat themselves as they pass through our property. “Oh, that’s so sweet!” I exclaimed.  “What a nice thing to do for them.”

“Yeah,” he nodded.  “It’s going to make for a great deer hunting season.”

Wait. What? He is planning on getting them fat and happy only to shoot them some time in the future? It made me sad.

But then I thought of those ghostly deer on the hilltop or the Sharks and Jets deer gangs in our neighborhood back home.  I’m no hunter, have no interest personally in killing deer and am not fond of venison. But seeing firsthand the difference between healthy deer and sickly deer, I’ve come to the realization that hunting deer is a necessary part of keeping nature natural and the deer population as a whole healthy.  I know Bambi’s mother was taken out by a deer hunter (don’t all Disney mothers find tragic, untimely ends?), and that broke my little heart. But isn’t it also heartbreaking to see a once majestic beast reduced to eating boxed cereal or anything out of a human's hand?

Please stop the madness!  Postscript: THE HOUR I posted this blog, my dog was attacked by a deer on the back steps of our suburban home. They are not cute, people! 

Please stop the madness!

Postscript: THE HOUR I posted this blog, my dog was attacked by a deer on the back steps of our suburban home. They are not cute, people! 

Paul Bunyan and Rogue Babies

One of my husband, The Land Baron’s, favorite activities on the farm is driving a four-wheeler around the property, breathing in the country air, master of his domain. Invariably, this includes a drive along the creek that separates our farm from our neighbor’s cattle farm. We “poser farmers” enjoy watching the cows as they munch their way across the landscape, occasionally mooing their disapproval as we whisk by. Recently, on one such tour, we came across our neighbor, the owner of said cattle farm, out stomping along the creek bed. This fellow is a massive man, burly and strong with a round, kind, face. He reminds me of Paul Bunyan because he’s as big as a, well, a big blue ox. He was poking along the fence line with a long stick, seemingly searching for something.

Howdy!” the Land Baron called out. “You lose something?

It seems one Paul Bunyan’s newborn calves had gone missing and Paul was set on finding him. It was a scorching hot day and the calf, born just the day before, could be in real danger in the heat. The mama cow mooed her concern as she followed Paul Bunyan along the fence line and he nonchalantly chatted with us, all the while poking in the grass along the creek bed. “Yeah, they do this sometimes,” he drawled. “Just get curious about the world and wander off.”

I had learned that to be true the previous summer when I was fascinated by one such wandering calf. This rogue calf, on a daily basis, insisted on sneaking under the hot wire electric fence on Paul Bunyan’s property to wander over onto our property to graze. There she was, every day, a few times a day, putzing around on our hillside, munching and enjoying the view. It made me giggle every time I saw her: defiant, independent, her own gal. Every day, a few times a day, Paul Bunyan would have to wrangle her back to the fold. What was a pain in the rear and a lot of work for him was pure entertainment for me (which is kind of a theme for my sometime-pseudo-farm life). Our little rogue gal eventually grew too big to sneak under the fence without getting zapped and her wandering stopped.

So here was Paul Bunyan, a year later, searching for yet-another rogue calf.  The Land Baron and Paul exchanged chatter about animal breeding and horse foals vs. cow calves and such. “Is it a male or a female?” I asked, trying lamely to contribute to a conversation about which I knew very little. “Oh, it’s a male” he said. “Males can be that way. The young males can be kind of big and stupid.

Just like human males,” I replied. "They can be big and stupid, too.” My gaze lifted to take in Paul Bunyan’s massive form. Gulp. Our eyes met for an instant and I realized I had just stepped in it.

Paul Bunyan let out a hearty laugh. “I guess I left myself open for that one!” he chortled as he walked on through the brush.

I let out a breath and laughed too. What a moron I am.

Paul Bunyan strolled on a bit and we rode alongside until he found his rogue calf. There was Little Guy, in the heat of the day, lolling in the creek bed, cool water trickling past his little form. “Oh my!” I gasped. “Is he ok?

Oh, he’s fine,” Paul said. “He’s just cooling off.” The water must have felt fantastic on Little Guy, because when Paul went to grab him, he didn’t even rustle. He just lay there like a nonviolent peace protestor (“Hell no, I won’t go!”). Paul scooped him up with one massive arm, like the calf was a bundle of twigs, not a one hundred pound animal, palming the calf under his soft, wet belly, and carrying him up the creek bed. When he tried to set him down, Little Guy’s legs were like puppet legs, lightly dangling on the ground under him. So, Paul tucked Little Guy gingerly under the hot wire fence and gently scooched him towards his mother. Mrs. Cow still watched the whole thing along the fence line, mooing her approval to Paul and, I would guess, chastising Little Guy for wandering so far and giving her such a fright.

Once on the other side of the fence, Little Guy, finally found his legs and scampered up the hill, Mrs. Cow nudging him from behind. We drove away, waving goodbye to Paul Bunyan as he lumbered up the hill. And there they were, Mrs. Cow and Little Guy, reunited. Little Guy was hungrily nursing. All was forgiven.

Years ago, I had a toddler that was forever going rogue, only it involved her streaking down the street naked after bath time, more times than I can count. I sympathized with that mommy cow’s exasperation, anger and then relief and comfort. Mrs. Cow and I met eyes and kind of nodded to each other. “Kids ….” I said out loud to her, shaking my head. We continued on as they nursed and nuzzled, enjoying their reunion.

Stay close, baby.

Stay close, baby.

Ink in the Clink

Right about this time last summer, my husband, Captain Fun, had the idea for us to go visit a local music festival at The Ohio State Reformatory. I had just spent the weekend cooking and feeding a house full of people and was ready to be off duty. “Sure!” I thought. “I’d rather go to prison than cook or clean one more thing.” Perfect.

The Ohio State Reformatory, not too far from our farm, is where the film The Shawshank Redemption was shot some 23 years ago. I loved that movie and was interested to see the building, a gothic inspired kind of castle whose exterior beauty, I would find out, belies the sorrow within.

A music festival out in the country …” I mused. “Hmm … what to wear?” Well, I wanted to fit in out here, so of course I donned my cowgirl hat. And it was a hot summer day, so my flouncy white skirt and a light pink shirt were just the thing. “I wonder if there will be square dancing?” 

Well, the “music festival” was titled Ink in the Clink.Hmm … that’s funny,” I thought. “Ink? Like a writing festival?” Nope. It was a tattoo festival. “Oh, ok, cool,” I thought. Tattoos are so mainstream now. My daughter, Flora, has a darling one on her foot. My hairdresser, a beautiful young woman whom I adore, rocks them all over her body and she is precious. Tattoos are as ubiquitous as freckles these days. I’m not getting one, mind you, but I have no problem with them on others. "Let’s check it out."

At first, it felt like any other festival: corn dogs, elephant ears, fried cheese curds, freshly made lemonade … all the usual suspects. But things took a dark turn fast when I turned the corner to the vendors’ section and I knew I wasn’t in Kansas any more. First of all, I could not have felt more suburban, lily-white, middle aged, square and un-tatted. Everyone – and I mean everyone – was dressed in all black, Goth attire, most with dyed black hair and sleeveless t-shirts (why have an arm tattoo if you’re not going to show it, right?). Nary a cowboy hat in sight. My flouncy white peasant skirt was like a beacon in a sea of darkness. I felt like a prison spotlight was following me throughout the festival, screaming “Hey! I’m a big square, a poser and don’t belong here! I’m not even a real farmer!”  

I ventured in and swished over to check out the vendors. I noticed something swaying in the hot breeze ahead. “Oh, look! Is that some sort of wind chime?” Nope, that was an anatomically correct replica of an upside down human being, skinned and hanging from a pole, swaying back and forth. “Nope, I don’t need one of those, thanks.

Onward. “Let’s check out this toy booth. Looks like they have some cute little teddy bears …. Oh no! Good God in heaven, what in the …?” There, before me, sat a disemboweled teddy bear. For sale. Apparently there is a market for devil faced teddy bears with their guts spilling out. They came in all sizes, too: large ones to put on grandma’s rocking chair, medium sized ones to give to the Munster kids, and tiny little ones to carry in one’s purse, I guess. I backed away, trying not to show my revulsion and swished over to check out the S&M whip and handcuff vendor next door.

Babe, you want a beer?” Captain Fun asked. “Oh hell, yeah.” I’m not big on day drinking, but yes, I will have a very large can of beer, thank you. Must get the image of the tortured teddy out of my mind. “Let’s go listen to the band,” I said, guzzling my Natty Light.

Ah, music. It soothes the soul. I was expecting some good country music. Wrong again. The featured band, Saliva, was just starting. “Hmm. I’m not familiar with them,” I thought, wiping beer from my mouth. Now, I hate to sound as suburban, lily-white, middle aged, square and un-tatted as I am but, well, let’s just say that Saliva was not my cup of drool. I just don’t get screamo bands. I have no idea what the “singer” was saying, but I think he was very angry about something. Maybe he was scared of that devil teddy.

We downed the cold beers and went inside the Reformatory to check out the “ink” portion of the festival. The interior of the Ohio State Reformatory is rather interesting and historical but oppressively sad. One can just feel the misery. It permeates the walls. Oh, and it’s definitely haunted. (They have regular ghost hunting events and I am 100% sure they bump into plenty.) We perused the exhibits a bit then wandered into the old infirmary of the prison, where the inking was taking place. It was such a surreal scene: rows and rows of gurneys were lined up with customers laying down receiving their customized tattoos in the hushed, semi-light. It felt like that scene in Gone With the Wind when the camera pans out to the rows upon rows of soldiers being treated for gruesome injuries. But these people were quite cheerful, paying good money to be here and seemed completely at ease in this haunted prison. And the art being made was quite beautiful, really.

To complete the scene, for some reason there was a little display in the corner of the room with jars of potions as well as preserved newts, bats and God knows what else with a very serious sign in front of them: “No photographs please.” No photos needed, thanks. These images will haunt my dreams.

After a quick tour of the prison cells, stacked one on top of the other like sad shoeboxes, paint peeling, as if the wall themselves were weeping, it was time to go.

Ink in the Clink was definitely an experience. The visuals were something else. But the most surprising thing was that, to a person, every single individual I encountered was completely lovely, polite and welcoming. Even the tortured teddy vendor. Go figure. Maybe they just were coveting my pasty Irish flesh as a canvas for their art. Maybe they were high on eye of newt or something. Or maybe you just can’t judge a tattooed book by its cover. 

Why?  Postscript: Dear reader, you're in luck because  Ink in the Clink  is happening the weekend of this writing, July 14-16, 2017!


Postscript: Dear reader, you're in luck because Ink in the Clink is happening the weekend of this writing, July 14-16, 2017!