One could go on and on forever talking about anything, but I'll just touch on it here.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Letters from Gale

Letters from Gale

At 92 he had the right to say goodnight and take leave of this turbulent world. Those final weeks had stolen so much, I didn’t even recognize him when I went to say goodbye. He couldn’t even acknowledge my presence. Stepfather to my uncle; “Gramps,” to my cousins; I called him Gale because I saw him as a friend. In print, he addressed me sometimes as “Little One,” “Dear Migrant Poet,” and once, because he tired of “the same old salutation,” he called me “Annie, Baby.” That makes me laugh, because his beautiful wife had teased him that he was writing to his girlfriend.

Most of our relationship had been through letters, though our correspondence had dwindled to the yearly Christmas card. Declining health and a broken heart in the years after his wife’s passing had left him struggling to keep in touch. I felt guilty for not writing more often, even knowing I wouldn’t get a reply. He said he just had to take a little time, accepting that 

“Slowly, ever slowly, my life is returning to some semblance of normalcy.” 

His new normal, all alone, was not a life he wanted but he lived it fully, for as long as he could.

Gale appeared throughout my childhood at family gatherings such as holidays and graduations, sharing his wit and artistic talents, but I didn’t really know him until that first letter in the late 90s. Away at college, I suffered a little homesickness and confusion about my life goals. My mystified advisor saw me switch my major from Biology to English as I dropped my dream of becoming a veterinarian. My struggles to stay afloat in science classes baffled me. Being a good student just wasn’t enough to claim the poster promise that I could do anything I wanted to in life. The only path to carry me was words: stories, essays, and poetry. Words had dared me to dream in the first place. When Gale wrote to me, I saw a new hope. 

“I was sitting here reading a little poetry . . . and thought of you, a lonely English major . . . and I decided to write. We sensitive people . . . must stick together.” 

Perhaps he missed the role of teacher, desiring to mentor and encourage me to go into that “noble profession,” but when the letters started coming, I was enchanted to reply.

I supposed he imagined quiet little me daydreaming, my days lost in verse. That Anne-of-Green-Gables romantic view of the world. Well, I hovered there, sometimes content to sit for hours and draw while my mind wandered. For Gale and I to know each other in letters, I could be that girl. The starving artist huddled in a cramped room, no heat, pages and pages lying at her feet. No food but words. 

Gale drew back the curtain on windows of his life sometimes, mentioning his teaching career but mostly focusing on his current pursuits of gardening, reading, and caring for his dog, Buddy Boy. He didn’t let me glimpse his Navy service during WWII, his split family, or any other trials of his past. I knew the best of him—a faithful volunteer and avid reader who pursued truth and beauty in the news and literature. Perhaps he hid behind his letters, too. 

Finding a letter or card from Gale in my mailbox buoyed my heart and kept the fairytale going. No one else I knew had such a unique friendship through the mail. We tried email, but he wrote of his relationship with the computer: 

“I suppose in time I will expand my use of the “ever-loving” (sometimes I use less genteel language) machine, but I would have to give up something else that occupies my time. I don’t know what that would be right now.” 

Even though his handwriting—so elegant and every way the ideal script for a letter—was a challenge for me to decipher, I much preferred the intimate connection it gave that computer fonts cannot capture. When I think of him I picture his words more than his face. That distinctive handwriting, like the fingerprints of his thoughts, was his voice in ink I could hear with my eyes.

Flipping through cards and letters from family and friends, I could recognize Gale's even before I saw his writing. He once referred to his eclectic letterhead by saying, 

“What you are looking at is old stationery with the address covered by stickers provided by charitable organizations, to which I send money. Which proves what I have always supposed about myself: Not only am I cheap, I’m eccentric. I’d worry about such traits if they didn’t make me feel so good.” 

I can’t help but smile every time I receive blank notecards in the mail from organizations such as he would support. In that way, the post keeps his memory alive.

I feel the loss of what we shared when I sort through the mail now, tossing most of it into the recycle bin. There exists a near demise of my letter writing. Text messages and email fill the space. I see Gale shaking his head, sad that I’ve reduced my communications to such pithy notes as I can instantly trigger on my smartphone. Yet packed away in my garage is a box of letters reminding me of bygone snail-mail. Those in crayon harbour memories from grade-school friends; many more are cards from my mom. Lots are from my paternal grandmother and my best friends. I’ve considered throwing some out to make space, to try to minimize the disorder of my past keeping company in my present, but I won’t discard them all. I hoard the paper and ink to remember who they were and who I was and that we mattered to each other.

Gale also wrote to my grandmother, which found him even dearer in my heart. I thanked him, but he told me not to, adding that 

“one has to be terribly insensitive to not appreciate what she has been through in a very brief time: loss of life-long companion; loss of home . . . and loneliness as a bookmark for whatever time is left. . . . I hope that you, too, will write to her.” 

Grandma had been my first pen pal. She wrote to me from my childhood through my college years. I had usually answered her letters as the obligatory thing to do, just as my mother had taught me to write thank-you notes. I never liked to talk to anyone on the phone, so writing letters was less painful. Just coming into adulthood I was starting to really appreciate the letters from Grandma. And when my grandpa died, I realized she needed to reach out to family all the more. Writing to her was no longer an obligation, but too late I saw how I could have had a real relationship with her. 

Grandma died just after I returned from a year abroad, and with her gone the letters from Gale became all the more special. I was out of school, working and on my own and realizing I still needed guidance as I navigated the next stage of life. I was suddenly more able to appreciate what an older generation could teach me. In one of Gale’s letters, he tells me he should be writing more, working on his book, especially “considering Andrew Marvell’s admonition: ‘at my back I always hear Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near’ ” (“To His Coy Mistress”). The chariot that carried away my grandma, and then Gale, will come for me. The chariot waits for everyone. 

Gale chose to write to me, though he didn’t have to. A letter from Gale was a knock on my door even when I studied thousands of miles away in France. He “visited” me in and out of country, through work and grad school, in the ups and downs of teaching teenagers. Unable to attend my wedding, he celebrated with me from afar. He penned his warmest congratulations when I had a baby. I cherished the face-to-face time we did have, but since it was rare, I relished his letters all the more. 

Thinking about the current state of our world, I have an idea of what his letters would say to me were he still around to share his thoughts. Oh what he would write indeed! But these feelings and opinions I imagine him to advise me on are his and not mine to reveal. So I’ll smile, and sigh and think how much I’d love his counsel; yet, how glad I am that he doesn’t have to witness such upheaval. He would, of course, not sit idle if he could help it, and he would give and give and give because that is who he was. 

Though he is gone, the poetry of his life still sends me daydreaming once-in-awhile. In my mind I see him sitting at a desk by the window, the light fading, a feather quill (because it must be) in hand, a yellowed page before him. With flourish and care his hand moves along, pausing to dip the quill in ink, forming passages from Keats to share with that lonely writer far away. A bon mot, a little lift to give her as she toils away in piles of books. When the letter is done, he signs it, folds it and seals it in wax (naturally), and stands up and puts on his hat. He must walk into town, down the dusty road, to mail the letter, where it will travel by coach, many days to reach the girl. And there he goes, fading into the distance, carrying the letter in his coat pocket.

Saturday, December 26, 2020


Christmas is over. Maybe that's a relief to you. Maybe it's a sharp pain in your heart to think about a long winter ahead behind closed doors. Maybe Christmas was the one day this year you felt joy. Maybe it was the day this year that hurt the most. 

It's a literal dark day here, this day after, with the sky covered over and rain and snow taking turns falling down. In my little corner of the world, Christmas was bright. I have the luck of family and a child who, though he doesn't believe in Santa Claus, believes in magical moments that really do stand out during the holidays. The beautiful day that was Christmas is still sparkling today even though the world outside is grey. 

I wish to share some sparks with you, to help you hold on, to let you know that you can fire them into the void if you need help, and to ask you to believe that they will be seen. You will be heard. But how? We lead up to Christmas with outpourings of kind acts, goodwill gestures, messages of hope. What happens after? If you were hungry before, hurting before, lonely before, chances are you will be still. What sparks of hope can I offer? Anything that comes to mind dies before it touches my lips because it's just words. What good are words?

Sometimes the real prayers are the wordless ones. So here I sit, typing words but feeling silent prayers. I don't have a quote for you, a Bible text, a greeting card, that can make everything right. I open my hands and see emptiness. My heart is full but I am at a loss.  

The funny thing about the time after Christmas is that it is also the time before Christmas. What we waited for is over but coming again. A happy thought for me, a dreadful thought perhaps for you. But, if this time is also the time before, then it should still be the time of giving. There should never be an off season for generosity. 

We look to January, every year, as the new start that can be better. I have no idea what will happen this time around, of course I didn't know last time either, but my only goal is to keep praying those wordless prayers so that I can be quiet to listen and open to giving.   


Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Election Day: A How-to Poem for America


Enjoy the little moments like the last glow of the moon in the morning, the sip of hot cocoa or coffee to start your day, the breath you take, in and out.


Laugh with someone, a friend or a stranger on the street, as you smile at a loose puppy running to greet you or a small child jumping in the leaves.


Exercise, even just a little, do some stretches, take a walk, take a break from the screen or the dishes or the duties that must be done.


Choose compassion. We all need an extra dose.


Try to see the good in others


Ignore the impulse to judge someone whose life you know little about.


Open your ears and listen; sometimes that's the best way to be compassionate.


Neglect the news as much as you can so that all the above may be possible on this day. 


Dance like no one is watching.


Allow hope to guide you.


Yes, we will make it through.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Woolly Bears and Flying Tigers

"There's an all black one just down the trail. You know, they say that these caterpillars can predict if we are going to have a bad winter." 

The kind woman continued on her way as Geddy and I watched a fuzzy caterpillar crawl through the dead grass on the side of the pavement. He had just assisted this one to safety, not willing to see it die by squashing as many bicycle tires zoomed past. It curled onto a stick after gentle coaxing, and then released its grip, moving without hesitation or any apparent fear, as if children with sticks were a natural mode of transportation. 

We mounted our bikes again, using our "I Spy" eyes to spot several more daredevil multipeds as we pedaled through the autumn day, unexpected rescuers of these tiny meteorologists. Geddy was pleased to take on the role, though we spied many who had no chance of recovery. 

I'd seen these traveling critters before and forgotten their name, so when we reached our destination for rest and a treat, I Googled them on my phone. Woollybears. Yes, that sounded familiar. Then I saw that they transform into a type of moth. "Hey, bud," I called over to Geddy, who was hopping about on some giant rocks and snacking on his chocolate chip cookie. "These bears turn into tigers." 

How can something so small carry the weight of such ferocious names? It's all about the coats and colors they wear. The burnt orange band in the midst of a black body of fuzz foreshadows the orange wings to come, with black markings very tiger like. And, like bears, the caterpillars are supposed to hibernate through the cold weather, so perhaps, though they should be awake mostly at night, they are out in droves storing up calories for the long winter coming. I tried to decipher the message in their colored bands. Were they narrow stripes or broad? Wide means a mild winter and narrow means look out! Snow's coming. But we saw a variety, including the all-black one, so I guess we can't rely on these weather forecasters to give us any certainty.

That's a shame, because I'd like to know something about the near future. I don't want all the answers, but it'd be nice to plan a little. I'd like to be prepared for something, instead of how I've been going each day over these last seven months wondering when the other shoe will drop, and will it be a heavy steel-toed boot or a light flip-flop? I'd plan to duck and dodge one and let the other glance off my shoulder, no big deal. Instead, it's like being a caterpillar. We go across the path not knowing if we'll get smashed or if someone will carry us to the other side. 

Here's what I really wonder: Do the woollybears know that they will get wings? 

There's a beautiful story called Hope for the Flowers, by Trina Paulus, about a dissatisfied little caterpillar named Stripe, who got stuck in the hunt for "more" and forgot who he was and who he was meant to be. He ends up doing what he sees every other caterpillar doing, because they seem to have forgotten as well who they are and they climb caterpillar pillars, stepping on one another as they try to reach the top, but getting nowhere. They want meaning, they want more, but their actions day in and day out are meaningless. What makes the story beautiful is that Stripe, thanks to his friend, Yellow, finally gets it, and leaves the pillar to become a butterfly. 

What would Stripe have done with his days as a caterpillar, had he realized all along that soon he would transform into another creature and fly? Would he have lived in fear, because it's kind of a big deal to go through such a change? Would he have waited impatiently, longing to reach his "better" self? Would he have actually been more content? 

I don't know what will happen next. I see no sign of wings where my shoulder blades are. So much really is meaningless. Maybe that shoe will drop and hit us and hurt. Maybe I don't want to know. I can't live for the "what might" any more than I can for the "what was." I guess I'll just be here, crawling along, trying to see what's right in front of me and reaching out to hold it close. 

Thursday, September 17, 2020

The Apple Seed

 The Apple Seed

He pinches the apple seed,

rescued from the core.

Pokes it into the soil of the flower box,

pats it down with confidence.

No more trips to WinCo for apples,

he assures me.

“I’ll climb our apple tree and pick them.”

This faith, that if he plants it, they will grow.

Squirrels ignore this seed in its shallow nest.

It sprouts and thrives on sunlight, 

a boy’s hope.

He passes dreams to this new life:

Soon, surely this year, you’ll be mighty.

It rises 

a foot above the box,

a promise grows 

to feed our family for life.

Soon, surely this year, apples 

will weigh down its branches.

As tall as my child,

the leafy sapling fills out,

soon surpassing the height of his daddy. 

The boy creates a sign:

“Water my tallest plant Monday Wednesday Friday.”

I think he forgets all about it. 

But no. 

The boy sees; he knows.

Soon, surely this year, he’ll be climbing.

And I worry. 

Will it die? 

Where will we place an apple tree,

when our yard crowds with maples?

I plant it in a bigger pot.

We wait.

I wonder with my boy.

Soon, surely next summer, apples. 

Add Photo by Kristina Paukshtite from Pexels

Monday, August 24, 2020

In Training

 I'm a serious soul. Chit chat drains me. Hot days sour me. Below the tip-of-the-iceberg is where I like to dwell in thought and conversation. I'm drawn to the darker days with a cool breeze because they brighten my mood. The book or movie that turns me into a rain cloud of tears moves me because I feel deeply. (But don't label this English major as a fan of Wuthering Heights. No. Just no.)

Still, I often entertain ideas of being a stand-up comedian. I like a dry joke that brings just a twitch to the corners of my mouth. Those parent tweets of the week? They crack me up. And in my house there's a certain small person who knows how to make me giggle. For whatever reason, however, I'm too often somber and mired in a muddy trench thinking about THE BIG PICTURE. It isn't just age that has brought me here. Five-year-old me thought frequently about the woes of the world. It's just a little much, you know?

Perhaps that's why Geddy, my perceptive son, has made it his mission in life to have Mommy smile and laugh. If he stumbles onto something that gets my eyes twinkling, he knows he's struck gold and he keeps it up. It's a rare treat. Whether it's pulling faces, dancing around the room, or saying hilarious quotes, he'll do what he can to center my smile in the moment. 

The latest tactic involves a much more physical participation from me. Geddy calls it "training." We each grab a pillow, he gets the biggest, and face off near our giant bean bag. Then we run at each other. I usually twist to the side and smash him into the bean bag, but he's gotten some new moves where he circles around and sometimes, sometimes he catches me off guard and down I go. Down I go laughing. That's really what it's all about. I know he loves the action, the jumping, the bouncing, but he told me we were in training for the laughter. Mommy laughter.    

It's so good for me. For us. This smokey, hazy, dreary, sickly everything surrounding us right now is definitely not bringing me joy. The busy season has begun with school, work, and the ever-present chores, but we'll be taking training breaks around here. And telling jokes. And pulling faces. And remembering that the big picture is made up of all these little colorful pixels of life. 

Monday, August 17, 2020

First Grade in Our One-Room Schoolhouse

Geddy started first grade today, and it was both strangely familiar to my first day of school in the 80s and wildly different at the same time. Let me elaborate.

When Geddy entered kindergarten, it was a whole new world for all of us. Kindergarten for me had been learning at home from my parents and sister, without a formal curriculum but with lots of books. We had computers, don't think that we didn't, and I remember playing memory games on the Texas Instruments. But I wasn't really "going to school" that year. I spent a lot of time watching old shows on our tiny black and white TV and running errands with my mom. For Luke, he attended a part-time kindergarten taught by his grandmother. There were a few other students included, but even though it was a little more school-like than my experience, it still wasn't formal. Geddy going to kindergarten meant a big public school with a non-relative for a teacher and multiple "specials" classes taught by more adults he'd never met before. It was every day, with bells ringing, lines for entering and leaving the school, and announcements over the intercom. The sort of business I had only witnessed on TV or read about in books when I was a kid. 

This year was supposed to be the same, only he would spend all day at school, and even ride the bus once a week! I bought him a lunch box and wondered if he needed a new backpack. I wondered how he would do away from home for so long. I wondered how I would do. I guess I'll keep wondering. 

Today, we started school at home, in the basement, in the former guestroom that we converted into a classroom.

In many ways it felt like "playing school" when I was little. We had all his supplies ready, just in case. A notebook, pencils, crayons, glue sticks. We stared at the map of the United States we had tacked to the wall. The globe on the little table sat ready to be spun, though it doesn't light up like mine from my childhood. During the day he read to me and I read to him. We had recess in the backyard, shooting hoops. He even did some learning activities on his computer. Of course we connected to the internet instead of clicking a cartridge into a slot above the keyboard. The only parts missing were watching black and white TV and going to the store. 

Oh, but did I mention he and 25 other students signed into their computers to meet their teacher in a virtual environment? No bells, no lines, no cafeteria, no playground hijinks. No need to pack a lunch or a backpack. No fear of heading out the door too late. Instead of putting on shoes he put on a headset. And if any student talked out of turn, all the teacher had to do was press the mute button. Online school is not new, but it is not what we planned.

Though strange, it's kind of cool to look around our little one-room schoolhouse and realize that I get some more time with my son at home. I'm excited, too, that I can be present in his classroom every day (sorry, teacher!) and know what he's being taught. Some might wonder why I don't just homeschool Geddy, but we want to keep him connected to our local district so that he can more easily transition back when it is safe to do so. He's a social guy that needs other kids and grownups to interact with and learn from. For now, school at home is homeschool, just with an extra grownup. The only drawback to this semester is that no matter how much snow we get, there will be no snow day.