Traveling and Home

Tangier from the sea

Tangier from the sea

I love to travel. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s a car trip to another Minnesota town or flying halfway around the globe, there’s something about exploring new landscapes, new geographies, and geometries of cities in the distance and close up.

Part of that love of travel is embedded in the knowledge that at some point, we will come home again. Returning home to the old familiar is as wonderful as the going away with its new adventure.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that dichotomy this month as the nation goes through its back to school/back to work season. In this country and a few others, this is the time of year when we get organized, go back to the grindstone, focus on professional goals, and buy new pens. More than January 1st, this is the time of year when I sit back and reflect on where I am and where I’m going.

The same happens when we travel. We always know where we’re going to board the plane and where the plane is scheduled to land. Now that we’re beyond the backpacking phase of our lives, we also have hotel rooms locked down and an itinerary in place when we fly off. Our suitcases have been packed, repacked, and pared down to carry-on status and we have a definite idea of what we are planning to do and see.

And then we land and the experience of it all takes over. The itinerary – the plan – becomes a mere outline to what circumstance and the weather determines is preferable. Sometimes the heat of a day will drive us into a cool museum or shady café with iced beverages when we thought a good hike was the plan. Sometimes a day by the pool wins out over seeing the Kasbah once more - just because.

The best part of travel is in the foreground of all those landscapes and geographies. It’s the people. There’s the friendly face that brings our morning café au lait in the hotel, the smiling and eager merchants on the street, and the head chef at the most popular restaurant in town.

Our waiter laughs with us as we try out Spanish, French, and a bit of Arabic while his English can easily handle our basic requests. But we keep trying to improve our meager language skills. We all know it’s good for us as our brains age – either that or we need to learn a new musical instrument.

There was the driver in Gibraltar who made a tour of the Rock doable in our available afternoon. His skill at vertical driving along switch backs combined with stories of serving in the tunnels of the rock during his service in the Gib national guard kept us all on edge – pun fully intended.

I always find the adventure of the new and unexplored so exciting because it’s a reminder that no matter where we go in this world full of the exotic, there are people who are eager to share with us – to share their perspective, their pride of place, their food or customs.

Then it’s time to come home – back to the lives we’ve created in the place we love. Unpacking, reengaging, reflecting on all we experienced in the places we explored.

It’s the final step of the itinerary of travel – the reflection part where we realize we’ve been changed by the experience of travel - that we’ve grown and learned by our interaction with those in other places. We recognize once again that the world is full of kind, engaging people who are interesting because of their differences.

The same is true here at home.

Even though we’re launching a very regular back to school year in the midst of a very irregular and divisive political campaign, this country remains full of kind, engaging people who are interesting precisely because they’re so different. I’ll try to hold on to all I learned from our travels as we move through this fall. 

An Ode to the Lovely Luscious Ladies of Linden Hills

Moms in muumuus at the lake, missing a few more discreet madams - Sheree, Val, and Becky.

Moms in muumuus at the lake, missing a few more discreet madams - Sheree, Val, and Becky.

Years ago, a wise not-so-old Rabbi told a group of us that as life sped up, as the pace of change increased its velocity based on our hyper-connected, mega-mall society of choices, we should seek out safe and sacred communities of people to hold on to and nurture for our health.

At the time I asked, “Is this a ploy to get us to be active in our synagogue?” to which he replied, “This has nothing to do with religion. It has to do with being human.”

Today I have come to appreciate deeply the wisdom of his advice.

On Saturday, at the end of a(nother) long week of dismay, outrage, and overwhelming emotion, I gathered with one of my favorite safe and sacred communities – the Lovely Luscious Ladies of Linden Hills.

This group of women began based on shared geography alone. We didn’t go to the same schools, or work in the same industries, or even worship in the same manner. We raised our children together, living side by side and across the street in one of the loveliest neighborhoods in America. Yes, our differences were slight – we had different professional pursuits – an artist, a nurse, an extraordinary volunteer and homemaker, a consultant – and we were Catholic, Jewish, agnostic, and protestant. But what we shared proved important – a strong sense of fun, optimistic outlooks on life, and a desire to get outside during the glorious summers of Minnesota. That was it.

It started simply enough one summer Friday afternoon -- the youngest of the children were in the wading pool with older siblings showing off new bikes, trikes, and other devices with wheels. The older kids down the block joined in, showing deferential care for the youngest and appropriate goading to the older kids. And one of us parental types noted there were boxes of macaroni and cheese in the cupboard that would feed the collection of kids.

Another of the moms noted that the weather was just right for a G&T, and wouldn’t that be fun. In no time, Friday afternoons became a time to toast the end of another summer week and the continued health of our kids. It was a low threshold entry, wholly supportive and nurturing for the mothers and an opportunity to feed a collection of kids with one pot of cooking.

When we planned this year’s gathering six weeks ago, all we knew for certain is that we missed getting together with this group of women who no longer lived in the same neighborhood, and we thought it would be fun to spend a day together as we had when our children were young. We planned to walk to the city lake two blocks away, go for a swim to the diving dock, and return for an afternoon with the Tula Spa ladies who would provide massages and facials to a few at a time while the rest noshed, laughed, and shared deep thoughts on the porch. It was planned lusciousness.

It also turned out to be a blood pressure dropping exhale for all of us and a deeply therapeutic gathering for The Ladies.

When we met, we were so much younger, which means we all had more energy. And we had yet to taste the pains and hurts that human living can bring to the best of us. There was no hint of divorces, illness, addictions, or injuries much less surgeries to replace parts - and we were far from being the oldest generation in our families – parents were still visiting and making us feel that life was a very long journey.

Now we know better. Twenty-five years have passed since that first summer of gatherings. We now know that being human can be painful, that aging isn’t for wimps, and that life is fleeting and fast.

In the span of a lifetime, we humans tend to cluster with people who are just like us. It’s a tendency that is proving to be deadly and disastrous for our democracy. We tend to have little understanding and therefore tolerance for those who are different - with different perspectives, different experiences, different religions or cultures, and then we fail to see that we are all fundamentally human.

That’s why our recent Saturday together was so special. We know we’re all humans who don’t see each other often enough any more. We got busy with the doing, the raising, the coping, the ambitions, and the details of 21st Century lives. But the love and fondness and core optimism in the face of all evidence to the contrary remains.

It turns out that this group of women is exactly the sort of safe and sacred community the Rabbi was talking about. We’ve learned that there is little we can say or do when we’re together that won’t be ultimately accepted and supported – the burden shared and thereby lessoned – and we continue to love the women behind the eyes we see with our bifocal lenses.

Beyond Parenting

The kids in grade school....

The kids in grade school....

Parenting is the toughest job I’ve ever loved that simply never ends.

Until it does.

By that I mean the twenty-four hour intense always-present part of parenting that involves stocking favorite foods and keeping the back door unlocked even after going to bed. The parts where you have a sense of where they are at all times and are intimately involved in anticipating their moods and needs.

I’m watching dear friends celebrate high school graduations for their youngest or their only and remember vividly that sense of excitement, pride, and deep grief that accompanies that rite of passage. We raise our children to be independent thinkers who will go into the world to contribute their special gifts and find purpose and meaning along the journey. And then they do. And then we realize that that part of our lives is over.

Sure we hope that by sending them off as happy healthy humans, they will return for holidays and vacations – and at some point, with grandchildren…

But it’s a different kind of parenting that happens when the kids leave home. And for moms, it can be a really difficult transition. It may be for fathers as well, but I hear about the deep sense of loss mostly from my women friends.

It’s visceral and bone deep. One of my dear friends clearly is experiencing the happy grief of having raised two handsome and caring young men who are off accomplishing meaningful things in the world. And they’re gone, no longer leaving laundry and shoes by the door. It’s hard to explain why fewer shoes by the door bring such a sense of loss – but it does.

Last week, I stood at the counter of our neighborhood coffee shop when a young mom came in with her two grade-school-aged kids, and my heart moved to my throat as my eyes filled. Oh, what I would give for one more week with my kids in grade school. I miss hearing that breathy excitement about a new skilled learned or an upcoming assignment - when they actually enjoyed tackling a new project.

Now I understand why women of a certain age get busy with community projects outside of work. Either that or we learn that we really enjoy a glass of wine – or two – in the evenings. It helps distract or mask the hard part of moving beyond the intense parenting years.

There must be a better way of handling the happy grief that comes with the independence that is part of life after the kids leave.  Purposeful work helps. So do great friends who also like to learn and grow. That, and planning trips that include the wonderful adult humans our kids have become.

Anyone else have ideas?

Politics, the Art

It starts with conversation...

It starts with conversation...

I’ve tried to stay away from the topic. I really have. Yes, this presidential selection and election circus has been screaming for comment, but there are plenty who are weighing in with strongly worded positions, so I’ve held back. But, darn it! The circus is infecting otherwise rational reasonable humans.

Even the Minnesota legislature managed to adjourn this week without accomplishing the primary goals of this year’s meeting – to provide bonding for needed public works projects in the state. Lest you forget, this is the state that famously had a huge bridge that collapsed during rush hour. You would think our legislators would understand through experience that keeping bridges and roads in good repair is a smart investment in prevention. And it wasn’t about money, really, since there is a surplus in Minnesota’s budget.

It’s an embarrassment that would be seen as an epic fail in any other venue, yet is somehow waved away as “just politics” in our current environment.  And there’s the core of the issue.

“Politics” has become a dirty word.  It’s right up there with the “F” word and the “S” word.

We shouldn’t be surprised as so many public figures vilify the word whenever given the opportunity. Politics, sex and religion are the three topics polite people are taught to avoid in conversation and my mother raised me to be polite, too.

“Mary Margaret,” she said more than once. “These are things we just don’t speak of in public. It’s just not done.”

Of course, she was talking about partisan politics – the private clubs and organizations that determine who the rest of us get to vote for in public elections.

In fact, she was quite political in the way of small “p” politics, which was, to her, the art of getting things done for the public good, as she saw it. She wrote letters to the local newspaper decrying various public policies she saw as holding back progress or infringing on individual enterprise.

She agitated at neighborhood gatherings about wayward dogs, unkempt lawns, or loud households. And she always had a solution ready because that’s how she believed things got done in a community. To her, it was about people of good intention working together, even arguing over different solutions, to end up in a better place. And she was quick to recognize that her viewpoint didn’t always win over others – but she taught us that not engaging was not an option.

So I’m engaging to bring back the importance and value of engaging in politics as the art of accomplishing good. In our messy experiment of a democracy, it’s important that people of good intent practice the art of engaging in difficult discussions with underlying respect for the value of disagreement. Disagreeing on important issues doesn’t mean one side is evil and the other all good. It means we each bring different experiences, perspectives, and perhaps values, to the table. But the discussion itself is where we learn to navigate, negotiate, yes, influence, but ultimately come to somewhat imperfect but workable agreements.

We need public investment in Minnesota roads and bridges. Everyone in this northern state of temperature extremes agrees on that. So engaging in the difficult discussion of how to accomplish that investment should have been possible in the legislative session that is now adjourned.

I propose training sessions in the art of politics, or the art of discussion, disagreement, and then resolution that takes place far from the glare of media where yelling and extremes sell advertising. I think I’ll start on our porch this summer. It’s a small venue, but one where we can practice before moving into this fall’s election. 

Tilting at Change

Koppel china out from the dusty closet and ready for dining once more.

Koppel china out from the dusty closet and ready for dining once more.

It started a few weeks ago when I realized that the sun was hitting my eyes as I read the morning paper.

“Hey, that’s new,” I think.

After checking to see if I’m up later or earlier than usual and realizing, no, this is the same time, same place, I recognize it’s the sun that’s moved. It does that as our globe zooms through its orbit, tilting and shifting along an axis we take for granted.

I’m noticing change like that more than I used to. For the decades of my life experience, I recognize that seasons have come and gone with great regularity – particularly on this north coast. But they have been little more than a reminder that it’s time to shift closets from long to short sleeves and vice versa.

Now – maybe it’s age, maybe it’s experience, or maybe it’s the allergies that have emerged in recent years when moldy spring and fall air overloads my sinuses – I notice the shift and change that accompanies the tilt of the earth. And that shift of change comes with reflection of times past, requiring extra effort to move forward with the seasons.

With spring, I find I’m assaulted with a kaleidoscope of images and memories that comes with, as we say in Minnesota. I remember the parties we planned for the kids on their last day of school – complete with an overload of sugar that led to a sweet coma of excitement.

I remember the intense logistical plans that went into summer activities – “If you can pick up on Tuesdays, I can drop off at the Science Museum for that cool camp. And how will we negotiate the Farm Camp on the U’s campus?” It was a little excessive programming for two kids who may have enjoyed a carefree summer at home.

I find I think of those things now when the time for worrying about that is long gone. The kids are now more than kids, and living on the left coast – far from the summer camps and activities of their youth. It’s time to move on and reflect forward.

Today, I’m setting our table with china we found in the top cupboard of my dear departed mother-in-law’s apartment. It’s beautiful and has made the journey from Madrid to Rotterdam, through the Panama Canal to Los Angeles, and now is living in Minneapolis. The family has no memory of its use in more than 40 years, so cleaning off the dust of disuse reminds me not to dwell in what was for too long. Holding on to things that never see the light of day is really kind of sad, no?

So why do I hold on to those summer memories of the porch door slamming shut followed by the plaintive, “Mahhh-mm!” echoing through the house? Ah well – the “kids” will be home for the weekend, so maybe I’ll hear that once again.

New Normals

Rome, Italy

Rome, Italy

We’re going to Rome next week and I couldn’t be more excited by the trip. The Vatican right after Easter and during a Jubilee year – how gorgeous that will be. And the coliseum and forum with the always-curious Jacques? How fun.

Our friends think we’re crazy. “But, Brussels…!” they say.

Yes – European capitals are on high alert and Rome with an open-door Pope and the world’s Catholics in attendance could be the target of more terror-minded young men. But numbers don’t lie and statistics tell us the most dangerous part of the trip will be the drive to the airport from our home.

Some have said that we should all just stay home and focus locally on curing our planet of anger and hate. Practice peace by planting a garden. Recycle and walk more. Be kind to our neighbors. No argument that these are good things to practice in our own hometowns.

But this is a small planet we inhabit and I believe our ability to understand and practice tolerance requires interaction. Face time with real people speaking a language of compassion and interest that transcends mother tongues. I simply don’t know how we can survive if we don’t recognize that all humans share this planet – its oceans, its ever-shifting continents, and the skies. Sharing those resources means we really can’t ignore each other, nor should we.  

I heard an impassioned speech by a sprightly work colleague arguing why Americans should stay out of the rest of the world. That every time we get involved – even when it’s with the best of intentions, we make things worse. 

In his opinion, all our do-gooder stuff just creates problems. We go into Africa with public health programs and agricultural training to feed the population and now people in Africa are living longer and we’re stressing the planet’s ability to feed all the humans. And that competition for increasingly scarce resources causes more war and strife and hatred. We should just stay out and let them fend for themselves.

How can that be right?

I know that our frame of reference as Americans shifted forever following September 11th. It was clear that the way we thought, the way we approached our work and life was going to change, but in the middle of it all we just chanted “new normal” to describe life in America after the knowledge that we were not immune to terrorist rages.

The change that happened in 2001 was profound, sudden, and surprising. But it shouldn’t have been. It was not the first time this country had experienced seemingly senseless attacks. The difference was that the events of the 1980s and 1990s were led by homegrown attackers and somehow didn’t create such a sense of vulnerability. Events like Ruby Ridge and Waco, the Oklahoma City bombing, followed by Columbine and then a list of shootings in schools, churches, and synagogues were carried out by disaffected young men who were identifiably Americans. Somehow we discounted those attacks while elevating attacks by those we see as “others”. Just last year, the attack in San Bernadino was seen as more threatening than the one that took place a month earlier at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College.

Why is that? Is it that we discount the impact of disaffected young American men while we elevate the effect of disconnected young Arab men? Aren’t they all somehow similar – living with such skewed values that killing innocents – mothers, children, men going home – is believed to be a worthwhile goal?  I struggle with the idea that it’s ok to call for a war on Islam, while seeking mental health counseling for young Americans.

There is evil in the world and we’re seeing its face all too often now. But there is also goodness in the world and that is what I seek through travel and engagement. Good hearts and souls are alive and well in Europe, in Brussels, and in Rome.

I’ll never forget that period of quiet living right after 9/11 in the otherwise busy flight path of MSP airport. It was the absence of what we took for granted on outside evenings on the porch – the coming and going of planes representing travel to other parts and places. It felt so isolating to realize that our access to the world was cut off by hatred. I don’t ever want to feel that sense of separation again. 


I have never had a charm bracelet, but I always wanted one. I thought that the idea of a piece of jewelry that changed over time with the addition of gold and silver memories was just so cool. A trip to the zoo could provide an animal charm that marked the shocking first glimpse of a live lion. I loved charms that were detailed and unique and had tiny moving hinges.

But it always seemed that charm bracelets were a family thing, handed down from generation to generation as memories hewn in metal were passed from mother to daughter. And in our house, that wasn’t something that would have occurred to my mom.

The idea of collecting charms and adding them to a simple metal chain until it chimed when the wind blew would have been a very foreign concept for her. That’s probably because she was a piano teacher whose hands flew across keyboards and the idea of anything jangling on those flying wrists was a wild distraction.

The subject of charm bracelets came up once again because the first novel of my writing mentor/friend Wade Rouse is coming out this month – and wow – it is a powerful tribute to the intergenerational connections of mothers to daughters and granddaughters. Perhaps not surprisingly, the book is entitled “The Charm Bracelet” and he’s written in the name of his grandmother, Viola Shipman.

It’s one of those beautiful novels that makes you want to read as fast as possible to keep up with the women whose stories come alive on the page, and at the same time, you want to slowly savor each scene and phrase so that the characters can stay in your life a little longer.

This creating-imaginary-worlds-in-a-novel is all new for Wade. He is an extraordinary memoirist with books that cover his childhood in the Ozarks, his career as a Mommy handler at a tony private school, and his decision to pack in his “real” job for the writing life in rural Michigan.  In turns hilarious, biting, and poignant, Wade’s memoirs reveal the smart, funny man that he is. What you can’t really know until you meet him is that he’s one of those unique types of humans – a gracious creative.

Although I’m sure he struggles with the angst and anxiety that is part of life for all writers, artists and musicians, he also graciously shares what he knows and has learned with wannabe-writers in workshops and retreats hosted with his husband Gary Edwards. Together they demonstrate such a generosity of spirit that their fans span the country, and we’re all excited for his summer book tour that will land in independent book stores wherever people gather to read.

This novel is coming out by the end of the month, but is available for pre-order now. Here’s his website so you can follow his summer travels and watch for an opportunity to hear him read - and get the book.

And now I’m running out to get a charm bracelet for my daughter. Never too late to start!


One Forgets

Winter version of Lake Harriett Bandshell .

Winter version of Lake Harriett Bandshell.

Four winters in Southern California and suddenly all is new again with the Minnesota version of this season.

That crinkly sensation from frozen nose hairs? Ah yes – there it is.

Duck stepping along the yet-to-be-shoveled back walk? Treads become a necessary feature of all footwear.

The shock of temperatures on the negative teens side of the scale? Layers, layers, layers, and don’t forget the gloves.

Hand cream, and lots of it, is always in my bag and face cream is not optional for those of us who are of a certain age. It’s remarkable how drying a deep cold can be.

I expected it to be dry in the desert Southwest. But I forgot that the desert has nothing over a walk on a frozen lake at 15 below zero. Your body screams for moisture when back inside – well, moisture and heat.

I remember my mom and her cold cream – Pond’s Cold Cream. She was very disciplined about her nightly ritual that involved a healthy slather on her face and neck. And now that I’m older than she ever experienced, I’m finding that her discipline was something I should have picked up a decade or so ago. Ah well – we start where we are.

There are other things I forgot about winter in Minnesota.

I forgot the deep urge to gather friends around a table laden with steaming soup to share stories and argue politics in the safety of the progressive predictability of this state.

I forgot how comfortable a crackling fire could be with a wind blown sound track taking place safely outside of the house

I forgot about the different types of snow that keep it interesting, ranging from micro, fluttery snow flakes to those big massive flakes that hit like a cold wet kiss on your check.

I forgot about “stupid cold weather tricks” that include this year’s phenomenon of posing frozen pants in the yard. We haven’t gotten around to flinging pans of boiling water into freezing air to hear the crackle and pop as it crystalizes. Nor have we blown soap bubbles to watch them freeze and shatter as they hit the ground. Yet.

And I forgot about the deep clear blue of a Minnesota sky that can light up the snow, making the world sparkle for the day.

Yes, my California friends, it’s still good to be home despite the 80-degree difference in temperature. Once you’ve experienced 15 below, the rest is balmy.