All right, chums, here’s the conclusion of stories about my grandma, Mildred, and her brother, Lowell, as they grew up in small-town South Dakota in the early 1900s.
During this past year, I’ve periodically done “episodes” on Instagram Stories in which I draw from the diaries of my great-great-grandmother, Minerva Baker Haddock. While some have told me telling extended stories on a platform called Stories isn’t the done thing,
once a punk, always a punk.
You tell me not to do a thing? Heh.
Last week, I posted a couple new episodes. Here’s the first half of a story about my grandma and her brother, Lowell. I’ll post the second half tomorrow.
I know they say you can’t go home again. I just had to come back one last time.
– Miranda Lambert, artist – Allen Shamblin, Tom Douglas songwriters
More than anything, “The Ranch” is the story of my family. The ranch, the place, and The Ranch, the story. So many impressions of both are imprinted in my brain and body. My father bought the ranch in the early 1960s before I was born, but its origins are unclear. Some say he bought the ranch as a way to reduce estate taxes when his first wife, Margaret, died. Some say he bought for their three children in her memory. What is indisputable is that it was a living trust, his while he was alive, passing to his and Margaret’s three children immediately upon his death. The most recent story I heard was Margaret made him create the living will born of knowledge of his sweeping spending habits. All are most likely true.
It’s probably best to take care of this right out of the gate. I am one of seven siblings. We all have the same father, but there were three different mothers. He had three children with his first wife, Margaret, who died when she was 29 when the children were seven, five, and three. He married my mother, Virginia, and they had me and my younger sister, and divorced when I was three. He had two more children with his third wife, Susan, and they were married for 35 years before he died. The age range is 62-35. We are much closer than this description – you will notice I did not call them my step-siblings. We look enough alike that my father liked to say, “a good bull leaves its mark.”
My father, at age 17, inherited millions of dollars in 1949 when his father died. The exact figure is unknown, but even one million dollars in 1949 is fantastical to imagine. Some of the money went to buying and outfitting the over 2,000 acre ranch, about an hour outside of Houston, on the banks of the Brazos River. Known as Riverbank Ranch, it was a working cattle ranch with the main ranch house and nearby hay barn for our family and the light blue foreman’s house within sight of ours with its hen house, garden, barns for horses and tractors, and cattle pens for branding. My mother created the Riverbank Ranch brand – two parallel stretched out “S”s to look like a river. The Riverbank Ranch brand was found everywhere – in thick wrought-iron curtain rod ends in the ranch house, and on playing cards, cups, notepads, and napkins. My father loved the ranch and the brand so much he had cufflinks made of the brand, and they were an honored gift to those who married into the family.
Any time I smell hay, no matter where I am, it immediately brings back the ranch. It smells as it looks, kind of green and kind of yellow, dusty, musty, and fresh at the same time, a little scratchy. My older siblings grew up at the ranch, baling hale, working and branding cattle on the weekends. My father thought it was a good way to keep them out of trouble as teenagers. During the week they were at an old Houston private school and during the weekends, they were at the ranch. The foreman, Martin Sampson, and his children were unofficial surrogate father and siblings and taught them how to do everything on a working ranch. More the “overseeing land baron,” my father bought cattle and rode around the ranch in his Suburban, not horseback. My siblings were excellent riders and also a little reckless as they were under no direct supervision when not working cattle. According to Martin’s daughter, referring to them, “They were so wild they thought nothing of racing horses bareback at night when the horses could have stumbled into holes or thrown them in the middle of nowhere.”
My earliest memories of the ranch are of wandering among the cows and “swimming” with my father holding me in the cow troughs and of the windmill winding above in the usually bright blue sky on blindingly hot Texas days. My younger sister and I “rode” Present and “Upico” – who knows what that horse’s real name was, but that’s what we called him. Present was a gentle pale brown mare with a dark brown mane and tail. Upico was a big white gelding with flecks of grey, a horse the adults clearly felt comfortable enough letting little kids ride. To this day I love horses in a deep part of my being. I’m not a good rider, but I love being around horses. My mother was washing a horse when her water broke, signaling my sister was about to be born. That’s the earliest theory as to why that baby grew up to become a veterinarian.
After she married my father, my mother took us to the ranch where she mainly cooked and entertained guests with my father. My father was genuinely funny and used to having a good time, and my mother was a good partner for that. They hosted friends and spouses who liked to hunt deer and duck and cooked big vats of award-winning chili, grilled quail wrapped with bacon, and served venison sausage with jalapeno cornbread. The “big house” was not that big and was quite rustic. In the early 60’s I suppose it was luxurious as a ranch house. Daddy special ordered the huge, carved wooden front door from Spain so the entrance was commanding. I can still feel the heft and click of that door. The entire house felt appropriately like a hunting lodge – wooden and tile floors, heavy dark wood paneling, a formal dining room with a long wide wooden table that looked like something out Henry the VIII might have eaten on, big wooden chairs, and a large fireplace. Beheaded and taxidermied deer, elk, sheep, and a full bear skin were pinned to the walls. The massive wooden furniture filling the house was also from Spain.
The master bedroom was not that big but had a tiered shower and tub in tiny blue tile that my father based on his time in Japan. It opened to the back yard to shower outside if desired. Bunk beds with brown and red flannel blankets on them were in one room and a king-sized bed in the other. Those rooms shared a bathroom and a spacious shower with a high, powerful, rainfall shower head before that was a thing.
The kitchen was as tiny and cramped as the main room where all the action took place was big. A five-foot fireplace flanked by rough stone and built-in bookcases was the natural focal point and gathering place. A comfy couch faced it and the mantle with a big photograph of a full-sized Texas cowboy looking down with his hat tipped, legs and boots crossed, and the sun fading behind him with cattle in the background. I always secretly thought it was Martin. The pictures from those days show lots of laughing couples in jeans and flannel shirts, groups of men in the middle of telling stories and silly antics, and even my patrician grandmother smiling and kneeling above the seven ducks she killed.
“Dreams are the touchstones of our characters.”
– Henry David Thoreau
Dreams while sleeping can be vivid or veiled, joyful or terrifying, and include memories, feelings, and thoughts. Scientists agree that we dream, and it has been determined to occur during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, not just any time we sleep. What remains unclear is why we dream. In Kendra Cherry’s September 28, 2019, article “7 Reasons Why We Dream” posted on Verywell Mind, readers learn from Scientific American that “..a possible (though certainly not proven) function of a dream [is] to be weaving new material into the memory system in a way that both reduces emotional arousal and is adaptive in helping us cope with further trauma or stressful events.”
Freud, of course, is the first person many people think of when considering dreams. Freud famously believed dreams to be “…disguised fulfillments of repressed wishes.” Patients in psychoanalysis are encouraged to try to make connections between dreams and thoughts in safe environment to explore what may be difficult or taboo subjects. Although many devoted Freudians remain, his dream interpretation hypothesis has been challenged. Cherry’s article details several other theories.
• Activation-synthesis model of dreaming (J. Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley in 1977). In this theory, brain circuits responsible for emotions, sensations, and memories are activated during REM sleep. The resultant dreaming is the brain searching for meaning in the signals. Cherry quotes Hobson as saying that dreaming is “…our most creative conscious state, one in which the chaotic, spontaneous recombination of cognitive elements produces novel configurations of information: new ideas. While many or even most of these ideas may be nonsensical, if even a few of its fanciful products are truly useful, our dream time will not have been wasted.”
• Information processing is very similar to the activation-synthesis. This theory rests on the fact that sleep allows us to process the information accumulated during the day and dreaming may be a way of the brain creating narratives to go with all the incoming information.
• External stimuli are a way for the brain to incorporate actions outside of the person in REM sleep by having a radio on in the dream if it the dreamer actually hears one somewhere.
• Computer metaphor is the idea that dreams are like a computer cleaning up and organizing before shutting down, removing the clutter to be ready for the next day.
There is a lot of overlap in these theories. I agree with the contemporary consensus: the dreamer’s emotions guide the weak connections between thoughts and ideas generated by the brain during REM sleep.
The ranch had slave quarters on it: three brick buildings close together without a floor. I didn’t know what they were at first, then they became a fascination, then the history hit. I wanted to preserve them for history, but that suggestion was dismissed as a stupid idea, and they were rarely discussed outside of a destination or location. None of the people who worked at the ranch were African- American but an African-American community, Sunnyside, was right next to it. Martin, the Riverbank foreman, was also the county constable, and we heard his radio cracking all the time.
My parents divorced when I was three and my sister Laurence two. We were too young to understand much beyond the fact that we lived somewhere else now. My mother says my father later told her he filed for divorce to “teach her a lesson.” Apparently she was being a less than adoring wife to a man who left her an hour after I was born to go hunting out at the ranch. She believed him when he said he filed, and she filed too. We lived two blocks from each other and saw him regularly – for dinner and ice cream at least once a week. My siblings came over regularly too. And we still went to the ranch with him – where Martin and his family could watch us. The older siblings were 10, 9, and 7 years older than me, so they were largely gone in college or with high school friends so we were with Martin and his family.
We did not work cattle – we had our horses saddled for us and rode with weathered and – even though they were young – wrinkled, ranch hands who I’m sure thought highly of that duty. I think I will always see and smell that horse barn. One of my favorite places in the world. I loved the horses but was wary of being kicked – the others walked among them with ease. I remember tall, skinny, smiling Ricky; short, scowling, smirking, glasses- wearing Wally, saddling the horses and helping us up to ride. Laurence and I were so excited each time.
I now understand watching Martin, his children, and the other ranch hands work was a privilege. The partnership between cowboy and horse makes it particularly painful to look back and think what those ranch hands must have been thinking as they saddled horses for these young entitled kids who did not need to work for a living. To say it was like a rodeo, or scenes from Lonesome Dove does the work a disservice. The cowboys’ horses ran flat out stopped and wheeled around on on a dime as the cowboys corralled the cattle, roping, cutting them off, or reuniting them with the pack as appropriate. They worked together like a well rehearsed symphony each doing their assigned part, well-timed “whoooaas” and “yipeees” replacing the strings, and solos performed by cowboys jumping on and off their horses. The cowboys branded or inoculated terrified and angry bawling cattle – they put the herd one by one into a tight chute, branded or gave the medicine and then let them go back into the herd. In many ways, the story of The Ranch is the dissolution of many different ways of life.
Laurence and I mostly rode around in the truck, trying hard to not be noticed. We opened and closed a lot of gates. In the evenings we were covered in coats and stuck in the back seat of the car as Martin and others went hunting. To this day, I’m not even sure for what. They said raccoons, but I find that hard to believe. We stayed very quiet with our eyes and ears wide open and did.not.move. Or talk. We saw and heard the guns.
We also heard him and others use the n____ word with regularity. With Martin, it was a swear. From my father, it was him trying to be “big.” He was on the board of Texas Southern University, one of the largest Historically Black Universities in the country. I don’t believe he was on the board out of the goodness of his heart. He was an elected judge, so the more likely explanation was that it was political. He used the n_____ word mostly near the end of his life when I’m sure it was to make himself feel better about how far he had fallen financially, to better distance himself from people who were “truly poor and ignorant” (his beliefs, not mine). We asked and told him not to, and then I think he did it just to bother us. It ended phone calls.
I am 100 percent sure Martin ran that county with impunity and terrorized the Sunnyside community. If he terrified us, who he, in some ways, worked for, he absolutely terrorized the people he considered were breaking the law. I try to hold in my head a person I loved as a father and who was an important person in my family’s lives, who adopted a lot of kids, who provided for many others and was a community stalwart along with the reality of a person who committed atrocities (none specific that I know of but, still, am sure of) on communities of color. I can hear him say the n____ word clear as a bell.
The slave quarters stood because there was a Texas Historical Marker outside the entrance to the ranch. We only knew and told our guests to turn in to our driveway when they saw that marker. The plaque noted that Norris Wright Cuney had been born there and that he was the first black postmaster general in the nation. That was the extent of what we knew. And we didn’t look further. Turns out we didn’t even have that right.
My father married a third time, when I was nine, and his wife, Susan, updated the ranch. She installed Laura Ashley bedding, replaced the bunk beds with a queen, hung pretty white curtains, bought big leather furniture, and used pottery and plates from Mexico to brighten up the original hunting lodge. She didn’t hunt, but Daddy and Susan spent extended amounts of time at the ranch, living there not just on weekends and she had book clubs, and they had a wine club. She had a watercolor painting made of the slave quarters and hung it in the house. When Daddy married Susan, Laurence and I stayed with them and did not spend as much time with Martin. We still rode but spent more time playing games and cooking. Susan and Daddy were both good cooks and loved to cook together. She was a very good cook a la Martha Stewart and everything was perfect. They had my two youngest siblings, and a woman named Esperanza helped Susan with her two little children and everything else, including cooking.
My whole life, with two exceptions I can think of, we all gathered at the ranch for Thanksgiving. It was the only time all seven siblings were together, and due to the 27 year age range, after a while the older siblings were married. Thanksgiving was my father’s and our favorite holiday, in no small part because his birthday was November 28, and we celebrated both every year. Our group, about 25 with the spouses, some (grand)children, and some of Susan’s family, outgrew the ranch house. Susan added two trailers to increase bedrooms and kitchens. Even with that extra space, a sister always rented an RV to house her six-person family. They stationed it near the lake so the kids had space to run around and stay away from the Big House. They hosted a dinner one night to relieve the cooking burden on Susan.
Susan always made things perfect and lovely. She even cooked one turkey ahead of time so it could be the centerpiece while we ate the other one and so she could make gravy. She insisted on crystal wine glasses and china plates and made everyone tense – we would have been fine with pizza as long as we were together. My father said the formality was unnecessary but to be nice to Susan because she was working so hard. Susan said “your father” wants the crystal and china. Daddy would wink and tell me when Susan couldn’t hear that my mother entertained easily. He said he could invite friends home for dinner on the spur of the moment and made a point of saying she was fine with paper plates.
We all loved Thanksgiving, despite the crystal and china crisis, and it was nice to fit around the big table with an expanding kids’ table and just be together. We played endless backgammon, gin, dominoes, and we raced Labradors (mine won). Sometimes we played games like Pictionary but found that some of us were too competitive for that, namely our father. The men hunted ducks and deer in cold, wet, grey weather that didn’t make me the slightest bit jealous not to go. There was no TV in the house – we watched the “South Texas TV”: stars or the fire. Evenings, we gathered by the huge fireplace in the family room and entertained ourselves with dumb puns and lots of leftovers and “”Pilgrim Sandwiches” – turkey, dressing, cranberry, bacon, tomato, Durkees sauce (essential), on toasted bread. Thanksgiving gave way to Daddy’s birthday the next day, so we had to eat the pumpkin pie for breakfast.
I credit Thanksgiving for creating a strong bond among the seven children, which was unusual given the three different mothers and age range. Unfortunately, it was at a Thanksgiving 25 years ago that the family schism occurred.
The activation-synthesis theory of dreaming put forth by J. Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley believes in five dream characteristics which make sense to me: illogical content; acceptance of strangeness; intense emotions; odd sensory experiences; and difficulty remembering content. In her online article “What is the Activation-Synthesis Model of Dreaming?” in Verywell Mind November 3, 2019, Kendra Cherry quotes Hobson, noting, “The brain is so inexorably bent upon the quest for meaning that it attributes and even creates meaning when there is little or none in the data it is asked to process.” Newer models are trying to update the activation-synthesis model by better understanding consciousness changes through waking, non-waking, REM, and non-REM sleep.
A study by Matthew Walker in 20102 reported results showing that dreaming allowed the brain to process emotional content in a “safe” place. That emotional processing may give people some distance to view the issues and enable coping strategies. REM sleep was also critical to this theory, which concluded that people with PTSD and depression may not be getting the REM sleep necessary to help them identify coping mechanisms to help alleviate their symptoms.
Other overview information about dreams comes from Kendra Cherry in Verywell Mind’s “10 Interesting Things about Dreams” published on November 5, 2019. I have experienced all of these.
• Everyone dreams about two hours a night, babies and adults, even those that claim not to. Most people have several dreams each night, lasting between five and twenty minutes.
• Everyone forgets most of their dreams. Brain scans of sleeping individuals have shown the area in the brain responsible for memory formation is inactive during REM sleep which is when the dreams occur.
• Not all dreams are in color. Some report dreaming in black and white and most people select pastels when asked by researchers to describe their dreams shortly on waking.
• Men and women dream differently. Men’s dreams are aggressive and involve physical contact; women dream longer and have more characters and conversation. It will be interesting to see what studies of dreams by non-binary people reveal.
• You are paralyzed during dreams. REM sleep is characterized by paralysis of the voluntary muscles and prevents acting out dreams while you’re asleep.
• It’s possible to control your dreams. It happens when you are aware you are dreaming while you are asleep. These lucid dreams are a combination of REM sleep and consciousness and all you to direct your dream.
• Negative emotions like anxiety and fear are most common, based on a study of over 40 years and 50,000 dreams.
• Blind people may dream visually. Blind people have less eye movement during REM sleep but some report dreams with the same characteristics as sighted people.
• Animals probably dream.
• Many dreams are universal as certain dreams are common across cultures. People from all over the world dream about being chased, being attacked, or falling, feeling frozen and unable to move, arriving late, flying, and being naked in public.
Riverbank Ranch was “part of the historic Sunnyside Plantation” according to the realtor’s information prepared when the ranch was sold in 2015. Sunnyside Plantation was founded in 1842 by Philip Cuney, a migrant from Louisiana. He was said to be the largest slaveholder in Texas with 105 slaves tending his 1,800 acres. Norris Wright Cuney (NWC) was the child of the slaveowner and a slave. Phillip Cuney emancipated the eight slaves he fathered. From a 2015 book by Karl Rove, The Triumph of William McKinley and Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters, I learned NWC was Texas’ leading black Republican: “For nearly thirty years, the attractive, wealthy, and well-spoken Cuney had been a major power in the state and national GOP. He kept the Texas GOP a biracial party, having not only the backing of the state’s black Republicans but also the support of many of the white Republicans. Named customs inspector by Grant and Galveston port collector by Harrison, he had attended every national convention since 1872” (page 169).
The African-Americans who live in the area known as Sunnyside adjacent to Riverbank are very poor, and I rarely saw them in my 46 years at the ranch. Many asked my father to fish, pick pecans, or hunt on Riverbank land, and to the best of my knowledge, my father always said yes. In later years when the hunting and fishing died out due to climate change, my youngest brother, who lives to hunt, would kill huge feral hogs with a cross bow and then take the dead animal to Sunnyside for people to eat.
After years of happy Thanksgivings, my father (and Susan) created a schism in the family. My father had somehow lost millions of dollars and several houses. At the end of one Thanksgiving, he took his oldest three children for a ride around the ranch. Just them. Usually we all piled in. He wanted them to dissolve the living will trust, sell the ranch, and split it four ways: they would each have an equal part to do with it what they wanted – sell, build, separate, unite. They said no, it was given to them by their mother (this is why the origins are important), and they wouldn’t sell it. If they had agreed, it would have given him liquidity to have money to spend. His wealth was really now in the ranch but it wasn’t his to sell – which meant he didn’t have much money any more. Somehow he had spent an enormous sum of money that to this day we, or I, don’t know how. Maybe those doors from Spain.
I am in the middle, with three older siblings from my father’s first wife, three younger from the wives who came later. I was the only one who had good relationships with each of them. Although I wished the oldest three could work it out with Daddy, I understood why they didn’t support him. Legions of reasons. He had an apartment to himself while they were teenagers, leaving them alone to walk to school while a cook and maid took care of them at home (which is why they visited my mother and me and my sister two blocks away). He forgot to pick them up from camp – and sent someone from work when he realized he forgot. As one sister was literally putting on her wedding dress, he asked her to sign a paper enabling him to sell some ranch land. He asked for a piece of ranch land that Susan and he could live on, and when they agreed to give it to him, he turned around and sold it. Many, many more reasons to not trust him. Both parties were generous to me – my older siblings never talked badly about him to me, and he never talked badly about them (Susan did). I figured I got a father — so what if they got the ranch? I always knew I wasn’t part of it – it was a living will in their names and my mother made sure Laurence and I understood we were not part of it.
After that ride around the ranch with him, the older siblings didn’t return to the ranch for 20 years. I still spent holidays with my father and Susan, but as lovely and Martha/Susan Stewart as they were, we were always looking around, expecting a bigger crowd; the absence of the oldest three siblings and their families made the holidays hollow. The ranch declined without any maintenance since my father had no money. By the end, Susan was putting out buckets in the house when it rained.
Still angry that they hadn’t sold the ranch to help him when he was struggling, Daddy disinherited the older three and all their descendants in his will. Faced with his decision in black and white typography, I could finally understand the pain of all those Edith Wharton books. His choice was mean and hurtful and unnecessary. Susan and her two children were left what remained of his estate, a house in Kerrville, and life insurance. I can’t imagine it was much, but I do know my youngest sister moved out of state and works part time so she can raft-guide, and my younger brother got married and quit his job, however temporarily. Susan bought a house in Houston and a condo in Oregon where her daughter lives. Laurence, my only full sibling, and I got nothing. The older three sold Riverbank Ranch for 15 million dollars in 2016 and generously gave me and Laurence each $200,000.
I dream about the ranch. We had a Goodbye to the Ranch party when the older three sold it after Daddy died. That’s where most of my dreams start. Fleeting images, bright colors faded to gentle pastels, smells of hay, dusty dirt and leather saddles in the barns, coarse horse hair bristles that I rubbed my face in. Goading the horses to cross a river and swimming with them, worrying about water moccasins, hiding under a bridge during a thunderstorm with panicked horses, swimming in the cattle troughs, the five siblings and our father, drinking coffee milk with Martin and his family. Wide open spaces always make me tip my imaginary hat, take a deep breath happy to be a Texan, and hope to inhale the ranch smell. Although the scientists don’t know why we dream, I think I dream to make the ranch come alive and relive my memories of childhood and safety in what I now know is complicated chaos. I’m safe in dreaming and reviving those senses and smells and connectedness when consciously trying to understand the losses is painful. The dreams are welcome and peaceful.
I thought if I could touch this place or feel it,
This brokenness inside me might start healing.
Out here it’s like I’m someone else,
I thought that maybe I could find myself
If I could just come in I swear I’ll leave.
Won’t take nothing but a memory
From the house that built me.
– Miranda Lambert, artist; Allen Shamblin, Tom Douglas songwriters
Thank you to the student who allowed me to share her work (from our Creative Nonfiction class) in this space.
They tell you that you’ll stamp your yellowing time card every day, in and out, in the coatroom. What they don’t tell you is that when the powers that be decide the university needs a grand reading room and totally renovate the space without care for the function of the library itself, the area of this coatroom will be expanded and replaced by a locker room and three bathrooms. The bathrooms will all be down this hallway, and when the toilets are flushed the timing almost always works out such that the door opens for the entire gallery space and reader services desk to get an earful of the toilets. They don’t tell you that the librarian on duty one day will send you to flush the toilet when the people in charge of the project come through so that they might understand how their quiet but echoing gallery space is often overwhelmed by these sounds. You will giggle and run off to oblige. The hand dryers that sound like airplanes taking off will be removed, but the toilets cannot be muffled and the layout has already been decided. Perhaps someday that hallway will get a door.
They tell you that the library houses a multitude of collections, that the RANDOM category of call numbers could mean anything. There is a human skull in a glass bell-jar beside the occult section that flickers under the buzzing green fluorescent lights and is unfortunately in the vicinity of a humidifier that sounds like human breathing. You will learn that humming as you page something in these rows makes the experience a little less frightening. Just a little. You will reprise the song you sang as a child when ducking past the bee’s nest by your back door. They won’t tell you that the antechamber to the magic collection room is pitch black and that the light switch is around the long file cabinets and across the room from the elevator. You will learn to always have your phone flashlight on when you leave the elevator on this floor, but you will still run to the switch to turn it on before the elevator doors close. You will feel a little silly when you call the elevator back and run to the switch to turn it off when the elevator opens. Well, you will feel silly only when the doors open and another person is in the elevator, wondering why you are still across the room from them. “It gets so dark in here,” you’ll mutter through a nervous laugh.
They will tell you that you will find some incredible works in the stacks, particularly as one of the few with card access to this closed-stack library. They won’t be able to capture in words the awe you will feel holding pamphlets from the time of the Stamp Act, a first manuscript page of “O Captain, My Captain,” or fifteenth century publications of Dante’s Divine Comedy. They don’t tell you that you’ll touch these pieces, works that people cannot even ask to be paged and read in the reading room, as you are asked to take down a display or as a librarian pulls you aside to look. They’ll know you well enough to make sure to include you in the moment when something particularly fascinating passes over the desk. They’ll show you the Audubon, double elephant-sized pages with their vibrant and precise paintings of the birds of America spread out nearly as long as you are tall, but they won’t be able to tell you how you’ll feel a special connection to each book you read that mentions Audubons from then on. They don’t tell you the architect will decide there’s no room for the glass case in the lobby anymore and that the book will be locked away.
They tell you that you’ll probably get lost in the stacks. To call the front desk if you ever get stuck between doors. That is, if your phone is still getting a signal. They will joke about giving you a ball of twine for your first few weeks. They will be serious when they say someone will come looking for you if you’ve been gone in the stacks a little too long. They don’t tell you that you’ll spend your last year and a half searching those stacks for the memories you shared with your coworker, giggling and complaining about the patron who seemed to want to page the entirety of the poetry collection in one go. This will be your strongest image of her, alternating between squinting to read out the call numbers in the half-light of the sub-levels and dramatically rolling around on the cement and clouded glass floors. They don’t tell you that this young woman you start working with when the two of you are first years will not be there with you at the end of it all. They don’t tell you that the library is the first place you’ll run when you get the school-wide email in your introduction to international politics lecture. That you’ll key down to the copy room-slash-office and stand, stunned, in front of the only librarian down there at the time. His wife died the year before and you visited his cubicle before and after to talk, left him a card when you heard. You will speak briefly, share a moment of human bewilderment, hug, and leave again, aimless and lightheaded. They don’t tell you that you’ll be the one the librarians ask what happened to her, that you’ll be the bearer of bad news, that you’ll cry with the head of reader services at the small circle gathering the campus chaplain holds. How could they? They don’t know yet either.
What they don’t tell you is that the staff will become your community. The reprieve from the overwhelming 18- to 22-year-old energy of the rest of campus. That the prickly and bitingly sarcastic archivist will take a liking to you. The head of reader services will tell you this archivist is always happy when he’s on desk duty with you. They don’t tell you that you’ll need to step in a couple times when he is about to verbally disembowel the student who invariably comes in asking where he should put his hoverboard, if we can watch his electronic skateboard, if he can order food to the library. It’s a different person every time, but the look on the archivist’s face is the same. You’ll step in to politely manage the situation and hurry the student out of hearing distance before returning to the archivist. “What the fuck,” he’ll say, aghast, and the two of you will roll your eyes and laugh. Conversely, they don’t tell you that the gentle and quiet librarian who folds origami on his breaks and has a soft spot for strays will stand up for you fiercely when a pushy academic man with a white moustache and an overblown ego starts ordering you around. This librarian will tell you afterwards that you don’t have to put up with that sort of behavior, that it isn’t yours or anyone’s job to do so.
They don’t tell you how much you’ll laugh, that the librarians will always swear more than the college students, proper and composed at their first job. You will graduate and a year later have lunch with the librarian you were closest to. Over burrito bowls she will slip you a graduation card to open later. You will realize that the connections you developed there mean something, that, even though they couldn’t possibly have told you this at the beginning, you would consider this experience to have given you some of your warmest memories from these four years. You will know that it’s no coincidence you have been drawn back to libraries time and again during your life, and you will start to believe that there might yet be a path for you in this work.
Well at least, that is, they didn’t tell me.
They’ll usually mention the beautiful places that you’ll see. The foggy forests, and seas of sand. The feeling of jumping out of a semi cab blocks away from the ocean, running straight there, pulling your clothes off and diving into a wave, feeling the freedom of infinite possibility.
They’ll tell about the kindness of strangers. The kinship with other travelers. How every day is new.
But they’ll skim past the times when the driver “can’t take ya any further,” and drops you on the freeway in the pouring rain. They certainly won’t mention that you’ll stand on the side of that freeway underneath your tarp trying to catch a ride for 5 hours until you decide to sleep under an overpass on a ledge coated with pigeon grime. They won’t tell you about the way your head warbles well into the next day because of the deafening sound of cars screaming by at 80 MPH.
You’ll hear about the fascinating characters.
The way that some people will spill themselves to you, simply because you’re a stranger who they’ll be in close quarters with for 10 hours and then never see again. You’ll hear about the folks with eye patches who tell you about the time they hitchhiked to Panama, or the ones who had mothers who never turned down a hitchhiker, would even take them home and set a place for them at the family dinner, and how they now carry out their mother’s tradition.
You’ll hear about the chicken salad that those sons feed you.
You’ll even hear about the ones who lift the center console so that you know they have a gun.
What you won’t hear about, are the people who for reasons you could never describe, chill you to the bones.
The ones who make you want to be in your mom’s arms.
Who you would lie to about where you’re going to get out the ride if you hadn’t just waited on the exit of a casino for 10 hours in a blizzard.
The ones that make you glad to be a male.
They’ll make sure that you know there were tough times-
but fear that if they tell you the full extent of it, you’ll know that it wasn’t a grand adventure at all-
that they were just running away from themselves.
They won’t mention how exhausting it is to never sleep for than two hours at a time, often wet and cold on concrete somewhere unsafe and uncertain.
They might tell you the funny story about the time they couldn’t find anywhere to sleep in LA so they climbed a tree on the sidewalk, pitched a hammock in the crown, and accidentally dropped a bottle of pee on a passing pedestrian.
They won’t tell you what it is like to be woken up by the police every other night.
The way all police officers drop the same one liner, “you sure get around,” when they run your ID and see that it has been run every other night for 3 weeks.
They won’t tell you about how you shake, half from hypothermia, half from the scene that plays repeatedly in your head after watching your friend jump off a train, losing a tooth, splitting her head open, and breaking three bones.
They won’t tell you about the ache of loneliness when you’re sitting under your sleeping bag on a sidewalk and everyone speeds up and looks away as they pass you.
They won’t tell you about the hate that you receive for being dirty.
They won’t tell you how the grime is inescapable. How it makes you feel like a different person.
Or how much it hurts when you realized how much you took showers, and warm beds, and mothers for granted.
They don’t tell you about the fear you get when the broken, zombified homeless men see you and reminisce on their days of traveling. How all at once you’ll want to go home and clean up and never travel again.
They don’t tell you how boring it is, waiting for a ride.
How exhausting it is, reading faces of disdain all day, and trying to wear a smile, especially when you’re prone to melancholy and don’t smile for the sake of smiling.
Or how hard it is to talk to a stranger you don’t click with for 12 hours.
How much you want to open your eyes because you know the sun is rising over a beautiful mountainous panorama, but the guy driving will keep blabbering if you don’t pretend to sleep.
They don’t tell you about the track marks and rib cages.
That they’re all just too afraid to go back home. Or don’t have a home.
This piece was written by Adison Smith when he was a student in my Creative Nonfiction course during the fall of 2019. He also performed this piece at Duluth’s monthly community storyshare event, Gag Me with a Spoon. I so appreciate his willingness to let me share his talent. Thanks, Adison.
Ukraine. Wanting to use the remaining allowed “out of country” days during the last weeks of my Fulbright term, I rang in 2019 in Kyiv, visiting on January 1st the incredibly moving Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), wandering the city’s churches, snagging a taxi to a folk park, and taking a painting lesson in the decorative Petrykivka style — before hopping a train to the lovely city of Lviv for another handful of days. What I saw of Ukraine during those days of solo travel made me want more time there; it’s a scrappy, corrupt, charming, complicated place. We recognized in each other some mutual traits.
Belarusian women. As the clock ticked down on my time in Belarus, I was reminded again and again how welcoming and kind the people of Polotsk are. From the day arrived to the day I left, the women (English teachers, university staff, students far and wide, exercise buddies) embraced me — “You can call any time!” “Let me know how I can help you!” “We are so lucky to have you here!” — in a way I haven’t always experienced in the States. The five months in Belarus provided a fundamental internal reset that I’m trying to carry forward.
Belarusian street fashion. Picture whiny blondes in plaid pajama pants pushing carts at Walmart, and feel the shame. Belarusians understand the impression imparted by and self-esteem that comes from making an effort with appearance. (HI DO I SOUND LIKE A BOOMER I THINK I MIGHT SOUND LIKE A BOOMER) All I know is my neck got sore from the head swiveling as I ogled coats and boots.
The wooden houses in Polotsk. Yes, I know you’ve seen them. I know you’re over my Belarus time already. But, jeezus Colton, could you relax for a half-sec, raise your head from your joy stick, and let your soul smile at the picturesque?
Everyone who’s been to Eastern Europe now wants to ask knowledgeably, “Is that a Lada?”
The dramatic farewell enacted by the mural on my Polotsk apartment ceiling. The mural was sad, see. ‘CAUSE SAD ANGEL.
A singular relationship
Leaving something behind. The lending library so many of my U.S. friends and family helped to start in the Language Center at Polotsk State University moves heart to throat every time I think of English language learners having a heap of books to choose from.
More books have been sent since. And more books can still be sent. *cough cough*
Coming home. Belarus was intense. I was broken up about leaving the lovely people yet so glad to be home. For about five weeks, I dipped my head over jigsaw puzzles and stayed in the house, exhausted from So Much, but then, slowly: I rejoined the world.
My pal Christa. I’d never met her before 2019. But a mutual friend connected us online when I was in Belarus, so the friendship germinated through messages; we’d been going to the same yoga class for years but never spoken. It was only this year I found out her nickname for me and Byron in the class has long been “puppies under the blanket.” Tip to toes, Christa is a peach. She feels like a friend I’ve loved for decades. We read the same books, we do exercise classes together, we message constantly, and few sounds are sweeter than her big, dumb laugh. As life goes on, it gets harder and harder to find new Friends of the Heart, but Christa effortlessly became one.
Salon joy. Getting my hair cut has never been my favorite thing — egad, can I please just read this magazine and not have to make small talk? can we please just get this over with? do you actually feel good about sending me home looking like this? Ah, but then I started going to Adeline a few years ago, and since then, visits to her charming salon make me feel like I’m a character in a Netflix series named Shags — during Season One, Adeline dances wildly to Lizzo, hosts pop-up events, organizes community action, masters razor cuts, and mentors up-and-coming stylists, all while her trusty assistant, Kristina, keeps a lid on the place while wearing fierce earrings.
Statement earrings made by creatives. A side benefit of Adeline’s salon is the earring bar conveniently located on a glass case by the check out. The wild and joyous earrings I saw there introduced a slew of local and regional artists who are pushing back against the dull mindlessness of mass fabrication every time they cut-pound-squeeze an idea onto a stud or a loop. And now I’m on a constant hunt for jocund jewelry.
Working a Pledge Drive. This is my seventh year on the Board of Directors for the public tv station in Duluth, the year when they looked at me and thought, much as they would of war, “Jocelyn, huh, good god, y’all. What is she good for?” The answer to this question involved a screen test followed by a bunch of hours in which I asked for money in exchange for cookbooks. I was super nervous. And, as is usually the case when I do the thing I’m nervous about, it was super fun. Sidenote: teleprompters aren’t for the faint of heart. WHAT’S THE NEXT WORD I CAN’T SEE THE NEXT WORD IS IT DONATE MAYBE IT’S GALLIVANT
Had I been stationed on the kitchen set while on air, I’da made you a Julia Child omelet for a one-time five-dollar donation
Instagram Stories. While my favorite multi-segment video Stories of the year revolved around the diaries of my great-great-grandmother, Minerva, and those of her eldest daughter, Ella, there’s also good fun in recreating the dynamics of a Spin class. Especially if there are oranges in the house.
That’s me, the ginger in the egg cup hiding in the back row
Minverva Baker Haddock gave birth to ten children, eight of whom lived to adulthood. Her diaries are mostly about “doing the work up fine”
Gin’s ashes. Virginia Claire Larsen died in May of 2018, and when her ashes were returned some months later to her widow, Kirsten invited me to accompany her to Europe to scatter bits of our beloved in certain spots Gin had treasured. Beyond that, we also tossed her hither and thither — in the corner of a hundreds-of-years-old pub, in the cellar of a monastery, off the side of a bridge. With the bulk of her well interred or swirling in the wind, we finished The Distribution of Virginia in the ancient Jewish cemetery in Prague, a place that seemed fitting, given her interest in learning Yiddish (she took classes) and the deeply important relationship she had throughout her life with a Jewish couple who’d escaped death during WWII.
The afternoon light was soft when we dribbled Gin from a Ziploc onto a gravestone, dumped a bit of her in the dirt, poured the dust of her onto a fountain shelf. When the bag was empty, the world around us muffled, and up she floated, bits of her becoming circling motes in a patch of sunlight. Lazily, hanging over the cemetery, she drifted toward the sky.
Speaking to crowds. I know it seems odd, given that I’m in my 29th year as a teacher, but I do not enjoy talking in front of an assembled group. The prospect of it makes me cold-handed and anxious, even sick. Yet opportunities for public speaking keep cropping up, and I keep saying yes, so on some level, I guess I get something from the process of worrying, planning, and presenting. Even more, I feel the like an important part of aging well is continuing to tackle challenges, which is part of why I say yes when my brain is screaming no.
I’m very glad I said yes to Adeline one day when she was making magic with my hair; she’d asked me to participate in her monthly community storyshare event, Gag Me with a Spoon. Before the year was over, I’d gotten on that stage three times, once in a dual performance with pal Christa (We told menstruation stories, and I’m still haunted by the image of a well-used tampon as a dead mouse, so thanks for that, Lawler), feeling more confident each time. I also was asked to be on a panel about “Life’s Curveballs” at my college reunion to talk about the Belarus experience; then a month later, I sat on another panel, this one in front of hundreds of outgoing Fulbrighters at their pre-departure orientation in Kansas, to speak about health and wellness while abroad (“Pack some taco seasoning packets for a special dinner on the dark days,” I counseled).
Each time I’ve hoisted my shaking frame in front of all those eyes, I’ve had to dig deep, square my shoulders, and remind myself: You got this, Jocey. The worst thing that can happen is you act a fool or they hate you. And, girl, you’ve already felt both those things in life and managed to carry on. So open your mouth and let something come out. It might surprise you.
Students. This fall, there were these two firefighting students in my night class, one guy always bringing his rope and giving impromptu lessons in knot-tying to the other. At one point, the knotty guy pulled a classmate across the floor in a demonstration of how a body can be removed from a crisis scene. That, my friends, is a good freshman comp class.
In the same class, a mother of two told me she had to miss one evening to attend a holiday gala at a fancy mansion. I told her she’d be forgiven if she sent me pictures of herself all gussied up. She obliged. Except she forgot to send a photo of the shoes she wore. We came to an agreement: if she wore the shoes during the final exam, all would be well. That, my friends, is a good freshman comp student.
Then there’s the fact that a brand-new class I’d prepared, Creative Nonfiction Writing, had low enrollment and was in danger of cancellation. In a last-ditch effort, I posted a plea for students on Facebook. After more than 100 comments, some realities shook out: ten people, not community college students but, rather, friends from my college years, co-workers of those friends, a former Belarus Fulbrighter, a friend from Byron’s years at Wolf Ridge, and even parents of friends, signed up for the course. The numbers were good enough to save the class. That in itself made my heart swoop. But then the actual class happened.
Week after week, the mix of ages and backgrounds created a dynamic like I’d never seen before. For the standard, degree-seeking community college students in the class, there may have been a few weeks of “What the hell?” as they looked at the writing and work habits of those a bit more — ahem — advanced in life. I venture to say their learning experience was boosted as they realized a world exists where the instructions “write 100 words minimum” simultaneously means “you can write 3,000 words if you want.” The mash-up of people in the class yielded something rare and special in terms of the trust and safety we all felt with each other. As the writers mined their life experiences, I was inspired. In one case, after reading the story of a 77-year-old student’s childhood in International Falls, Minnesota, and how she regularly walked across the border into Canada for all sorts of goods and services not available in her own town, I decided I wanted to do that, too. So, one brisk November evening while in International Falls for other work-related business, I did it. I walked across an international border. And on the way back, I carried a box of Tim Horton’s doughnuts for several miles, declaring them at the border as I re-entered the U.S.
One particular student registered for the class a few days before the start of the semester after I’d happened upon him, a worker in the campus’ new greenhouse, when out for a walk with a colleague. This worker and I talked for a few minutes about the college’s Eco-Entrepreneurship Program before he asked me about my teaching. In no time, I was giving him a hard sell on the Creative Nonfiction class. By the end of that day, he’d dropped a course he needed for his major and enrolled in the CNF class. This young man, Adison, is an extraordinary person and an equally fine writer (in future weeks, I’ll be featuring some of his and his classmates’ writing on this blog!). When, part way through the semester, I messaged him to ask if he’d ever consider sharing something he’d written for class at Gag Me with a Spoon, he was open to the idea.
The night when he stepped onto the stage and read his piece “What They Don’t Tell You about Hitchhiking” was special in a lot of ways. Most of all, for me, it was a crowning moment from The Little Class That Could — the class that could survive cancellation, pull together a diverse group of randoms, and ask them to commit to the process of putting their lives into words. That class was the best teaching experience of my career.
Fluevogs. When you wear great shoes, you gotta get the photo. There in the tub, I “did the work up fine.”
Relatedly, a student blew my heart open when she wrote — in her comparison/contrast essay about her English teacher versus Ms. Frizzle from the Magic School Bus series! — “Jocelyn’s clothes are a perfect yin yang balance of tweed style mixed with surrealism.”
Books. I read ’em. I love ’em. Very rarely, though, do I give out 4- or 5-star ratings on my Goodreads. Here are some that made that cut this year.
The lake. My feelings about Duluth and Lake Superior are ripening with each year we live here. Every single time I clap eyes on that massive expanse of water edging the city, I have to stop for a second and breathe in the g.d. majesty of it.
Byron and I had a great time walking home from downtown on the frozen lake
In the summer, I chase Himself around while he swims
THIS IS MY CAFTAN AND IT DESERVES A GREAT BACKDROP
Hey, Slick. Didn’t see ya lounging there
When I picked Paco up at 11 p.m. after a McDonald’s shift, he asked if we could drive down to the beach to look at the moon. No, you can’t have him
90-Day Fiance. It’s a regular thing for me to become addicted to crap, but the fact that Byron is, inexplicably, all in on the nonsense of this tv franchise has been a huge delight in recent months. Now, when I exclaim things like “The shitshow that is today reminds me of when Darcey arrived in Amsterdam and got her Louboutin heel stuck in the escalator at the airport,” Byron understands the reference. A show about idiots desperate for ill-advised marriage has brought a greater level of percipience to my own.
Reunion. How to convey the lasting effects of the best choice I’ve ever made? (…save for ending up with the aforementioned 90-Day Fiance watcher — and that didn’t feel like a choice so much as an easy trust fall into yes.) Let’s try this: Starting in my junior year of high school, all these colleges kept mailing flyers and brochures, somehow having discerned that they were the places I should want to be once I graduated from high school. Because it felt wrong to toss potential into the garbage, I kept all those mailings, shoving them into a shoe box that I kept in the basement by the tv that brought me Sting singing “King of Pain.” At the same time the shoe box was getting heavy, I was obsessed with Lisa Birnbach’s The Preppy Handbook and thus strongly favoring college applications to East Coast colleges where I might learn to wear headbands and plaid like a native. Alternately, I toyed with the idea of a West Coast college, where I could try “smoking grass” amongst ferns and loaves of sourdough bread. But then, as a kind of compromise, a third option gained traction: what if I applied to this one college that was still far enough away — roughly a thousand miles — yet somehow close enough? What if I sent in an Early Decision application to “the Harvard of the Midwest”?
And so I did. The rest would wrongly be dismissed as history — since the experience of that place exhales a daily, very alive, breath even yet. The way that I think, the values I hold, the people I treasure — all came from a semi-random decision to attend Carleton College.
My class had its 30th Reunion this summer, and as we all put feet on those grounds that absorbed our stomps toward adulthood, I felt more myself than I do anywhere else in life.
Plus, I got to follow my daughter around for a bit while she, a student worker, someone who applied Early Decision to a place that felt like Home, counted heads on an architecture tour.
This painting. Out of nowhere, it showed up in the mail one day. It was from my friend Tim, who also happens to be my favorite artist. What the…??? I was tipsy with excitement, flattered to my follicles. Later, Tim explained that he’d been thinking about our college reunion and the various people who’ve populated that place. Although much attention is given to the “big names” who graduated or taught there, he decided it would be more meaningful to celebrate someone who’s a mother and a teacher and a smiler — someone lesser known who still embodies plenty of admirable traits.
Hey, you guys? I love Tim.
Hi, my name is Joceypants. But you can call me Ms. Frizzle
Puzzles. There’s that thing about challenging the aging brain. There’s also a thing about how working on a puzzle transforms head space into a calm, abstracted place of focus. When I am working on a puzzle, I am engaged in a deep, intimate relationship with shapes and images — a necessary break from words and people.
The Tommie Twilight 5K. In high school, our girl didn’t particularly like track. She’s a cross-country runner at heart. But now, in college, she’s enjoying track more. Last spring, she had a really good race one week, setting a new personal record for herself. And then. The next week, she raced the 5K again — and whittled almost a minute off her time from the previous week. When a quiet person beams, it’s like a shout. After the race, her face was shouting. Even more, I’m so glad my friend Mary Beth came to watch the race with me that night; she saved me from crying on a stranger’s shoulder when Our Fierce Leggy rocketed over the finish line.
Y peeps. There’s a place I go lots of days, and it’s a place that keeps me steady and sane. There are regulars, and there are drop-ins, and through it all, there is something like community, in this place where we’re all just after being our best selves, a place where we never have to go to meetings or worry about whispers in the hall. That place is the YMCA, and I’m ever so glad I’m a Young Christian Man.
Internet. Thank you, Al Gore. Your invention makes me laugh on the daily.
Teens in the kitchen. They are smart, quick, funny, and kind. I love teens. I love them better when they’re in our kitchen.
Sis and her brownie spoon will Tell. You. About. It.
Not a nubbin of pasta left after the crew of, uhhhh, seven boys finished the dinner they’d made
There’s only Bisquick in our house when an animated flipper brings it over
Live music. Concert attendance took a hit when the kids were little, but Byron and I are gradually re-entering the world known as “going places and doing things.” Fortunately, we both love standing shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow fans, ears blasted by noise and energy and a reminder that notes flying through the air belong to everybody. They equalize and unite.
Try on this description from Fifth Element about the roots of Dem Atlas’ music, for example:
Growing up in a dysfunctional home in Minneapolis, there were two things Joshua Turner turned to for comfort when his parents fought: the records he’d listen to on a loop to drown out their conflict and the atlas he’d pore over to pretend he was anywhere else. Turner’s all grown up now, but his sources of childhood refuge continue to play an integral role in his life. In his spare time he draws maps for fun, and, under the name deM atlaS, he’s composing his emotionally complex hip-hop records aimed at listeners who are in need of some sonic solace of their own.
Even more, I had a great time in the bathroom at the Bad Bad Hats show, counseling a drunk college student about why her new boyfriend couldn’t possibly have pangs for his ex. As a rule, I do some of my best work with drunks in bathrooms. Just ask my students.
Teens at the potluck. The challenge for our annual potluck this summer was to make a dish that, as of the reading of the invitation, the attendee had never before heard of. For Byron and me, that sounded like great fun, but the reality was that some folks struggled with the “make something you don’t know exists” angle. You know who rep-re-sent-ed, though? Paco’s crew (See: teens in the kitchen). To a one, those teenagers came up with delicious, inspired entries. Paco’s buddy Trenton is interested in a career in the food world; he brought gnocchi with Gorgonzola sauce, and I was delighted to teach him how to pronounce the main ingredients in his dish as he sat at the registration table, riddling out the spellings and accompanying story. Then there’s Mason, a kid who’d never heard of beignets before but made them and made them WELL.
So, y’know, kudos to the adults who entered excellent dishes. But YEEEEEEET to the teens.
The Anthropecene Reviewed. This podcast’s tagline reads “John Green reviews facets of the human-centered planet on a five-star scale,” and while that’s exactly what the show is about, it’s eversomuch more, too. Listen, I’ve never read any of John Green’s books, nor do I particularly want to, but, glory, he does some gorgeous writing for this program as he reviews everything from the QWERTY keyboard to the breakfast menu at Taco Bell to the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. His review of Sycamore trees took me to tears.
What I hope to do in the future is echo Green’s example from this podcast — his mixture of history, analysis, heart — by constructing a sort of “review” assignment for my freshman composition classes. I’m not sure I can take another ten years of teaching a standard comparison/contrast essay — but I surely can stand to read students’ assessments, on a five-star scale, of things like Rock, Paper, Scissors and penalty shootouts.
Here, please enjoy the closing paragraphs of John Green’s review of sunsets.
My dog died last year, but one of my great memories of him is playing in the front yard of our first house at dusk.
He was a puppy then, and in the early evenings he would always come down with a case of the zoomies. He’d run in delighted circles around us, yipping and jumping at nothing in particular, and then after a while, he’d get tired, and he’d run over to me, and he’d lie down. And then he would do something absolutely extraordinary—he would roll over onto his back, and present his soft belly. I always marveled at the courage of that, his ability to be so absolutely vulnerable to us, to offer us the place that ribs don’t protect, and trust that we weren’t going to bite or stab him. It’s hard to trust the world like that, to show it your belly.
I don’t know exactly how to describe this, but there’s something deep within me, something intensely fragile, that is terrified of turning itself to the world. Maybe it feels like loving the beauty that surrounds us somehow disrespects the many horrors that also surround us. Or maybe I’m just scared that if I show the world my belly, it will devour me. And so I wear the armor of cynicism, and hide behind the great walls of irony, and only glimpse beauty with my back turned to it, through the Claude Glass.
But I want to be earnest, even if it’s embarrassing. The photographer Alec Soth has said, “To me, the most beautiful thing is vulnerability,” and I would go a step further and argue that you cannot see the beauty which is enough unless you make yourself vulnerable to it.
And so I try to turn toward that scattered light, belly out, and I tell myself: This doesn’t look like a picture. And it doesn’t look like a God. It is a sunset, and it is wildly beautiful, and this whole thing you’ve been doing where almost nothing gets five stars because almost nothing is perfect? That’s b.s. So much is perfect. Starting with this.
I give sunsets five stars.
These ones. No matter the year, they are my favorites and my best.
About ten years ago, my mom sent an email, kvetching that the city where she lived was spending four million dollars to redo all the street corners.
Just so people in wheelchairs could roll up and down curbs.
FOUR MILLION DOLLARS for a few people, she groused.
Even without the smell of smoke jumping six inches off his body, his brown teeth revealed the habit. His stringy, shoulder-length hair — just turning to gray — brushed the shoulders of a snowmobile jacket. No one had seen him before, but the library tends to see new people on snowy days.
Needing help to get on the wi-fi, a flood of words parting the air before him, the guy steered himself toward the workers at the circulation desk. “Hey, yeah, so my phone doesn’t work right now, and I need to make some calls over the internet because I have some things to arrange – like, I gotta meet my landlord.” No problem, a worker assured him, bending his head over the guy’s phone. As he pointed to the screen, leading the patron from click to click, the patron’s deluge of words continued to wash over bystanders.
Eventually, in a kooky end stop to his tale of phones and landlords, the guy blurted to his wi-fi helper, “You ever heard of Pinterest?”
Sure he had. As media support to the masses, library workers tend to know the platforms. Curious as to where the question was headed, wi-fi helper nodded and asked: “Are you on Pinterest?”
Oh hell yeah, the smoky patron was more than just “on Pinterest.” In fact, he puffed proudly to the library worker, “I’ve got something on Pinterest that’s had over a million downloads.”
Unflinchingly supportive, the worker raised his eyebrows to convey awe. “Wow, that’s pretty amazing,” he said. “You should try to figure out how to make some money off that!”
The patron agreed: “Yeah, yeah, I should make some money off it, ‘cause then I could be in the Bahamas, sitting on a beach, drinking a beer with Jimmy Buffet. But I can’t figure out how to make a cent off this stuff. I’ve got Mark Zuckerberg calling me, Jeff Besos, too; they’re all gettin’ in contact with me, and still I can’t make any money off my thing.”
Realizing his phone was successfully connected to the wi-fi, he waved it in the air with a flourish as he headed outside to do business.
Popular rightwing meme on Pinterest
Less than five minutes later, he was back. “Hey, you guys got a phone I can use? Mine isn’t working. I can’t make my calls.”
“Sure,” said a different library worker — the one who bike commutes year-round — “we can do that for you. Just tell me the number, and I’ll dial it.” In short order, the smoky patron was holding the receiver, making arrangements to meet up with a buddy. “Much appreciated,” he called over his shoulder a minute later to the library workers, his hand already cupping the pack of cigarettes in his pocket in anticipation of air without rules.
In December of 2019, a thread on Facebook disintegrated from complaining about how slow the city of Duluth was to plow residential streets after a massive snowstorm into mocking the funding and space devoted to bike lanes in some well-trafficked areas. One wit dismissed: “We live in a climate where 10% can only use [them] 35-40% of the year . . . there is no sense to it. It’s for tourists.”
Five minutes later — the length of time it takes to finish a deeply inhaled smoke — the patron was back. “So, a while back I checked out a bunch of movies from the public library in a different city, and now they’re really late, at least a month, and I was wondering if you guys can do something about that?”
Unfortunately, the worker had only this counsel: “Because they are located in different systems, our library doesn’t ‘talk’ to that other library, so you’d have to directly contact the library you checked them out from.”
The smoky patron didn’t get this far in life without some moxie. “But I was thinking you could call them for me?”
The library worker didn’t get this far in his day without some patience. “Sure, I can do that. Let me look up the number, and I’ll dial it for you.”
Within moments, the patron again held the receiver, again negotiating a plan. “Yeah, I’ve got movies I checked out from you, and they’re really late. Can you help me out? I couldn’t return them because I was down in Brooklyn Center, kind of stuck down there.” He paused. Then, elaborating, he cryptically added, “Man, that was a dark trip.”
In a different location but a sharing a common mission, the library worker on the other end of the phone line created a plan for the movies’ return.
Wrapping up the call, the smoky patron nodded. “Okay, I’ll bring them in Monday.” Handing over the receiver, he again thanked his team. “I’m glad you guys helped me call them ’cause you saved me a lot of money there.”
With that, the patron, well satisfied, exited the building.
A crony of the Koch Brothers, Randal O’Toole asserted in 2016:
Whatever the service levels, [public] transit just isn’t that relevant anymore to anyone . . . more than 95 percent of American workers live in a household with at least one car, and of the 4.5 percent who don’t, less than half take transit to work, suggesting that transit isn’t even relevant to most people who don’t have cars.
The patron’s next cigarette went quickly. Four minutes later, he ambled up to the circulation desk once more.
“I need to call the animal hospital and check on my cats. Can you dial that number for me?”
The bike-commuting library worker obliged. It’s what they do.
Plus, there was the spectacle of it all. This time, the handset recognizing his grip by now, the smoky patron opened negotiations with disconcerting directness, asking the unsuspecting employee at the animal hospital:
“You got Wiggles’ ashes?”
Clawing toward comprehension, the recipient of the question strangled out something akin to “May I ask who’s calling?”
“Yeah, my cat, he died there. You cremated him and put him in an urn, right? And you drew his name WIGGLES on the urn, right?” From this line of inquiry, the smoky patron obtained the information he needed. Shifting topics, he announced, “Okay, now I gotta talk about my other cat. I think I need him tested for worms. How much is it going to cost to get a full test for worms? I need to know the exact amount, ‘cause I got $100 in my pocket, and I gotta take a taxi about ten miles, so I need to know exactly how much it’s gonna cost to be sure I have enough. I have his poop with me, so you can test it for the worms, ‘cause I’m pretty sure he’s got worms. He gave me a look today. I had another Coon cat once, and when he gave me that look, it was after someone had died in my house. Once the cat had seen death, he gave me that look.”
Knowing, from hours, days, years of experience that the storyteller was gaining steam, the library worker moved closer, signaling wrap it up. Not one to abuse privileges, the patron accepted it might be time for another smoke. “Oh, yeah, okay. I’m in the library. I gotta go. I’ll bring the poop. But before I get there, can you find my Wiggles?”
In 2017, New York Observer writer André Walker tweeted: “Nobody goes to libraries anymore. Close the public ones and put the books in schools.”
Business handled, the smoky patron — a “one-time” drop-in on a snowy day — headed again toward the exit doors, out to the busy street where a bus stopped every five minutes,
waiting as dedicated riders, challenged by limitations of terrain or road access, tossed their bikes into the rack on the front;
depositing the retiree who’d chosen not to own a car but who felt less alone when she attended the library’s Social Knitting for Seniors;
idling while the wheelchair ramp lowered for the regular with cerebral palsy, a young man who liked to roll down a few blocks to Starbucks for a treat;
dropping off the frazzled single mom with two kids who liked to play games in the big building with all the books;
picking up the downtown office worker who’d have liked to make more than $12/hour one day so she could start paying down those credit cards;
providing a blast of warmth to the crew of rough twenty-year-olds who fought, loved, and used loudly and publicly;
transporting a rainbow of people from the west end, the east side, up over the hill — those hundreds of individuals who relied on kind hearts and public services to get through their days;
pulling away from the shelter with a blast of exhaust in the frigid air;
leaving behind a pony-tailed man — head bent as he lit a cigarette — who was waiting for his taxi, a jumpy talker of a guy who called out to a passing acquaintance, “Hey, you need a ride? I’m about to go over the bridge to pick up my Wiggles.”
Neighbors I Never Really Knew:
1. In the fall of 1987, I did a semester in Dublin with my two best friends from college, Colleen and Guppie; we rented a flat together in the Sandymount suburb of the city. We had the downstairs, and above us lived two Asian tenants, a male and a female, whom we called The Chinese Acrobats due to their penchant for continuous thumping, clomping, and whamming. We never spoke to these housemates — their flat being up a staircase, beyond a closed door — unless they opened the door to call down “Telephone!” Thus, even though their faces are smudges in my memory, they will always remind me of an era when a ringing phone was was actually answered
2. The year after we graduated from college, Colleen, a friend named Dan, and I rented half of a duplex on Harriet Avenue in Minneapolis’ Uptown neighborhood. On the main floor of the house lived a few “older” guys (maybe, like, 28?) whom we never got to know past quick hellos as we passed each other. Colleen remembers these housemates as “beer-soaked” before noting, “…then again we were pretty beer-soaked, too.” I remember one of them, slight of build, a thin blonde mullet topping his ubiquitous denim jacket, because he was kind enough to respond to my frantic knocking the time I saw a mouse in our apartment. Sloshing a little as he walked, he climbed the stairs to our place and did a requisite look through all the closets, scanning the counters and baseboards. We found neither mouse nor lasting friendship
3. My first year of graduate school at the University of Idaho, I lived in the Alumni Residence Center, a concrete leviathan that housed males on one floor, females on another. While I became good friends with several of the women at my end of the hall, I never connected much with the other, hmmm, 40 females on that floor, not even during hundreds of trips to the shared bathroom. Over winter break, everyone cleared out except for one young woman, a meaty menace if ever I’d seen one, a flat-faced snarker named Cheyenne. When I returned to my room after break, my television was gone. Stolen. The theft was never solved EVEN THOUGH IT CLEARLY WAS CHEYENNE WHO TOOK IT. Not one to be daunted by loss of a small television set, I drove directly to the store and used money I didn’t have to buy a bigger, newer set that weighed 274 pounds. Getting it up the stairs to my room had me dripping with sweat, one lung partially collapsed, but victory was mine: there was no way the concrete leviathan that was Cheyenne could pick up that brute and make off with it when I went to Colorado for Spring Break. She might try, but the effort would bust her ribcage
4. After finishing graduate school, I landed a job teaching composition at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs. Since a full-time job teaching comp in 1993 paid $17,000/year, with no benefits, I would need to live on a tight budget, which is not easily achieved in most parts of Colorado. Fortunately, there was a cottage for rent behind a bigger house on Tejon Street, and it was going for $300/month. I snapped up that cottage and, despite living there for more than a year, never did speak to the scary looking guys — both of them with complicated facial hair, sleeves of tattoos, and massive belt buckles — who lived in the Big House up front. With some justification, I called them The Drug Dealers, but our interactions were non-existent outside of my saying “Hi” or asking them about the going rate for a kilo of coke
5. When we moved to the village of Ortahisar in the Cappadocia region of Turkey in 2010, we rented a 400-year-old Greek house not far from the center of town. Just across the narrow, dusty street lived an older couple who insisted we call them “komsu,” the Turkish word for “neighbor.” The fact that we never really got to know them had nothing to do with lack of effort, as they asked us in for tea many times, tried to plop the kids onto their donkey, and helped us set up our coal-burning soba stoves in the winter. Rather, it was the lack of common language that thwarted a friendship — that, and the fact that they were grasping, almost mercenary, in their desire to see the insides of our wallets. On the first day we met them, the wife went into her bedroom, took a headscarf out of a drawer, wrapped it around my head, and said, “Bes lira” (five lira). Then she started feeding us, pricing each item as we chewed. Turns out a jar of pekmez would also be “Bes lira!” The language barrier proved helpful, for we couldn’t afford the cost of their friendship**
(**with the Turkish words used here, the “s” should have a little tail hanging from it, but this blog won’t support such characters)
Deanna showed up as a student in one of my online classes five years ago. After that, she became a mentor embedded into my courses; she drafted me to be the faculty advisor of our campus chapter of Phi Theta Kappa; and recently she achieved her Bachelor’s degree at the age of 52. ENJOY HER:
- If I could remove one thing from my life is not a thing, but rather a person. Although there is nothing that I can do to affect this, there is a person in my son’s life who is cruel and abusive to him. I see the changes her influence has had on him, their son, and the rest of the family and it breaks my heart.
- The best trip of my life was our trip to South East Asia, particularly to Thailand. It was romantic, relaxing and I loved the people as well as the landscape.
- The hardest decision of my life was a recent one where I had to ask my son and his girlfriend to move out of my house. It was the right decision as it will force him to finally stand on his own two feet.
- My college degree is what I’ve worked for the hardest. I fought for years for the right/permission to go and at 45 made my dream come true. Working full time while going to college full time was particularly difficult, but well worth it.
- The best museum I have ever been to was The Louvre because it is willed with not only works of art that I had only seen in books, but there is a sense of palpable history. I believe one could have repeated visits and continue to be surprised each time.
- My idea of a perfect day is sleeping in just a little, having breakfast with Shawn (my fiancé’) and then spending the rest of the day hiking or kayaking – something outside.
- When I was a young girl, I was given two piano lessons for free. I wish that I had been able to continue those lessons so that I could read and play from sheet music today.
- My favorite word – that’s a tough one. I would have to say love for what it means when it is true and deep.
- My favorite place to swim is the swimming hole that I swam in as a child in the Ozarks of Arkansas. We spent summers there, as a child visiting grandparents and my grandpa would take us in his old red truck.
- I just completed my undergraduate in English at the College of St. Scholastica. The best part was my professors and how they made the curriculum and books come alive. My advice for those going to college is to fully submerse yourself in everything that is signed. Get to know your professors and join groups!
Jessica is one of my favorite people I’ve never met. Her writing is a DREAM, so I’m particularly glad that she started teaching it last year at the college level. Lucky, lucky students.
- I would remove my chronic migraines. I thought about saying I’d remove fear or anxiety, but sometimes my fear and anxiety are a product of the migraines. So much of my life revolves around avoiding pain and treating pain. I want to know what it’s like to wake up each day and feel healthy, to not take bushels of pills that make me feel half-present, to be able to play full-throttle with my 4-year-old son. That kind of thing.
- The best trip of my life was my honeymoon to Costa Rica. The country is endlessly beautiful, the people were welcoming and kind and impossibly happy, and we ate like kings. But a big part of my enjoyment was spending time with my husband while NOT planning a wedding. He was a self-described “groomzilla,” and I threatened him with a “pre-divorce” several times during the lead up to the wedding. Being on the honeymoon put us back into sync.
- The hardest decision of my life was to not have another child. Every day I question whether it was the right decision.
- I’ve worked hardest to have confidence in myself. It’s taken me four decades to believe that I have talent and value. Hell yes, it was worth all of the work.
- The best museum I’ve ever been to was the chocolate museum in Brussels, Belgium. It was full of stupid mannequins and grainy videos about cocoa bean production. Utterly boring. BUT, when you exit the museum, the folk that work there hand you a plain tea biscuit. You take that tea biscuit and hold it under an open faucet of warm, creamy Belgian chocolate. I visited that museum with my sisters, who don’t give a damn about art. All three of us felt that we had reached a kind of common ground, and that ground was made of chocolate. Very bonding. We paid for two tours in a row.
- My perfect day goes something like this: Wake by 7:30. It’s autumn. Drink coffee alone. Read a good book. Eat breakfast. Write for two hours. Take a walk. Magically be transported back to my hometown of Baltimore (about 90 minutes away from where I am in Alexandria) and have lunch at Mastelone’s Italian deli. Eat all the meats and cheeses and bread. Magically remember that I have a 4-year-old child who has magically been staying with family or something, I guess. Magically remember that I also have a husband, who has been at work, I guess. Magically be transported home. The three of us go on a family constitutional. My son fights off imaginary neighborhood polar bears and wolves with a stick, shouting, “Don’t eat us. That’s rude! Go order a pizza!” (I really love his absurd heroism.) Have dinner with good friends. Drink wine. Read my son a bedtime story and tuck him in. Sit outside with my husband and just talk and make each other laugh. Drink some wine. Smooch some. Go to bed in a cool room. Sleep deeply.
- This is a toss-up: I wish I’d learned to speak another language. But I also wish I’d learned to be more comfortable with failure. They are related. I didn’t kill it in the language learning department, so I just quit. Sad trombone noise.
- Oh, this is tough. The first word that comes to mind is “sussurus.” It’s beautiful and ridiculous and a bit onomatopoeic. But I also like “hematopoietic,” because it sounds like “blood poetry.” (I worked for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Lots of good lingo.)
- The best place I’ve ever gone swimming is in the Cayman Islands, specifically Grand Cayman. I saw fish and coral and a moray eel and a shark. Thanks to the shark, I got to hear what I sound like screaming underwater!
- I attended the College of Notre Dame of Maryland. It is an all-women’s Catholic school. Yes, its acronym was C.O.N.D.O.M., which may be why it’s now Notre Dame of Maryland University. I LOVED that school. It was (and still is) very small, but because of that, I never felt lonely or like a faceless member of the student body. I couldn’t afford to live on campus, so I had to commute an hour each way. That said, I participated in a lot of organizations. I was on campus so often that several faculty and staff members were surprised to find that I didn’t live at school. My advice is to go with your gut. Notre Dame wasn’t a big or prestigious school, but when I toured, I knew right away that I felt at home. Because I felt at home, I was able to really throw myself into what I loved (literature and writing). I became president of clubs and assistants to my favorite professors and all that nerdy crap. It was fantastic. Being a big fish in a small pond is pretty rad, actually. Those years were critical to my sense of myself and my priorities. I made lifelong friends at that school. I still talk to the English Department faculty. Thanks to that school, I got into a great MFA program, and now I get to be the one teaching literature and writing. So, again, follow your gut — find a school that makes you feel like you not only belong, but that, at that school, you will be at your best.
Back in the mid-aughts, when blogging was fresh and new, it seemed like everyone had a blog. Those of us writing recipes, rants, and random raves could toss out a post–and within 24 hours, there might be 40 comments. The blogosphere was jumping.
During the heyday of personal blogs, it was common practice for bloggers to pass out awards to each other and to tag fellow bloggers with memes and challenges. For me, whenever these things happened, I smiled at the compliment of it and then generally ignored the challenge. Every now and then, in search of material or a friend, I would respond to the meme and do a post where I typed out the endings to fifteen sentence starters. Generally, I adopted a long-suffering attitude as I completed each meme.
I’ve never been much of a joiner.
Then, you know. Time passed. Many folks’ enthusiasm for blogging waned. One by one, the formerly brightly lit blog spaces went dark. I would visit favorite blogs, hoping to catch up and leave a comment…only to be greeted with a post from three months earlier. If I visit those blogs now, that same final post still hangs there, sad and alone, now four years old, wishing for a tricycle.
On the other hand, even as parts of Bloglandia have been shuttered, other, new blogs have lit up. I do love the dynamism of this new kind of writing space; participants come and go–and sometimes come back again–depending on their needs, life circumstances, and reasons for blogging. Thus, even though most of the bloggers I connected with eight years ago have dropped out of sight, fresh friends have come along and reshaped the blogging experience by adding their voices to the mix.
One such friend is Alexandra from Good Day Regular People. This blogging phenom has taught me much in recent months about new possibilities for bloggers and our stories. She also decided, a few weeks back, to toss out an old-school style meme challenge to a few of us. The task is easy: write a post that explains “Five Random Things About Me.”
After letting the challenge sit for, um, a month, as was my way back in The Old Days, I am now ready to address it. Never let it be said I failed at Random.
1. I have a queer passion for books about arctic exploration. If there’s an image of a half-broken ship frozen in jags of ice featured on the cover, I will grab that book and stay up until 3 a.m., riveted by those poor sailors’ dire circumstances. Listen, it’s only a matter of time before the hard tack runs out, and then the crazed boatswain is going to roast the cabin boy for January’s rations. That’s just good readin’.
I guess this item on my list is actually aimed at letting you all know that if we all ever go on an arctic adventure together, and then our ship gets frozen in the ice for two years, and I die of the scurvy, I would like you to start with my tender ear lobes when you eat me. They’ll be like hors d’oeuvres, and, as your humanity falls away from you with each increasingly dark day, your sanity will need the faint memory of civilization that comes from a tasty hors d’oeuvre. So eat me, chums, but start with the best bits.
Caveat: if I died because you found some vials of arsenic in the ship doctor’s quarters and slowly poisoned me, then you not only may NOT have my ear lobes, you may NOT benefit from my tasty belly fat, either. Step away from the belly, You Soulless Murderer.
2. I also have a queer passion for drum lines. Not only does my jaw drop in the face of such coordination and synchronization, the inside of my brain often sounds like this:
If I ever was lucky enough to attend a drum line competition, I would buy the t-shirt.
Even if it’s, like, $20.
3. So long as we’re entertaining ideas of “random” and “ear lobes,” this is as good a place as any to announce that when I put my head down on my pillow at night, I take a quick second to be sure my downward-facing ear lobe is lying flat. There will be no furling on my watch.
4. Because the hours during weekends sometimes are sludge-like in their passage for our 11-year-old (“What should I do?”), we tend to make a lot of crafts. Projects. Experiments. Recently, he wanted to melt some beeswax so he could dip in his hands and make casts of them. As one does.
Then he wanted to dip other stuff. He nixed my suggestions of “your toothbrush” and “your butt.” He even vetoed my legitimate idea of making mini-acorns out of balls of wax and then topping them with real acorn caps. The kid is not an easy sell.
However, he was willing to help me gather leaves from the yard and give them a good dipping. Turns out beeswaxed leaves make a lovely fall centerpiece last lasts for weeks. We’ve got some serious Life By Pinterest going on over here.
5. I like to go to DSW–a huge shoe warehouse kind of store–and make my 14-year-old try on insane stilettos and boots that she would never wear in real life. The girl knows fun when she hears her mom request it; she is game. Thus, if you ever see a serious-looking teenager in a hoodie and sweatpants tottering around in six-inch leopard-print heels, come say hi. That’s just me, helping my careful, cautious, organized kid loosen up.
6. My last random fact is that I hate following rules and chafe when someone tells me what to do, so I’m not going to do a list of Five Random Things. I’m doing a list of Six Random Things. ‘Cause I want to.
So here: even though many people like to roll their eyes at comedian/commentator Russell Brand, saying he’s obnoxious, crazy, off-base, I quite like him. I am made glad when his quicksilver intelligence and verbal abilities unleash. I am extremely happy that his voice is in the mix. He may be a sex addict, he may be wild-eyed, he may have broken Katy Perry’s heart, he may not always hit the mark, but GAD am I ready for people with intelligence to have a platform.
The other part of this challenge is that I’m supposed to tag others and have them respond to the task on their blogs.
I’m not going to.
Do what you want.
Just don’t eat my ear lobes if you poisoned me with arsenic.