Category Archives: Self-Improvment

Open Loops

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“Each man should frame life

so that at some future hour fact and his dreaming meet.”

~ Victor Hugo

In my on-going, continual effort to (1) organize my life, time, space and daily activities and (2) make actual change to foster personal and creative growth, I came upon the “Open Loops” concept.

According to the book, Getting Things Done by David Allen, “open loops” are any tasks, projects and commitments you’ve started and not finished. “Started” can even mean “had a random thought about doing.” Open loops are not regular tasks that you do automatically. They are not “favorite things.” They are not chores.

Open loops are things that you’ve invited into your brain by starting them, or by acknowledging that you want to start them, or that you should start them. They are physical things, these thoughts and ideas that represent a task or project to be completed. They take up space.

Our brains can only hold so much information in active memory. If you’re holding everything you want or need to do in active memory, you are inviting anxiety. You’ll feel overwhelmed at the number of tasks vying for your attention, and anxious that you’ll forget something.

Open loops foster procrastination, by constantly presenting several optional activities to any job-at-hand. They all feel pressing. They are like promises to yourself. Promises feel urgent, so they end up taking precedence over dreams. No matter how insignificant the open loops. No matter how important the dreams.

Allen’s advice for dealing with open loops? Write them down! Listing all of the onerous little “to-do”s will prevent them from sabotaging legitimate efforts toward progress. Once they are on paper, they no longer need to play constantly at the edges of your thoughts. No need to worry that they’ll be overlooked or forgotten. They have a place.

Now that they are all written down, it becomes obvious that some are trivial, and that others are truly important. Amazing, that they all seemed to carry equal weight when pulling at your attention! You can rank them, now, in order of urgency or significance. There may be some that can simply be crossed off the list. Some can be easily knocked-off by a letter or a phone call. Others will need to be planned for, and scheduled in. On paper, dealing with open loops becomes a real but not insurmountable goal.

My own list, which easily covered two full journal pages, included “thank-you”s and other letters owed, subscriptions to cancel, and phone calls to make. It also had several big projects (move the snowball bush; re-hang the bookshelves), and a few dreaded activities (last year’s taxes, for one). I was able to check many items off in the first week. Others, I continue to plug away at.

Unfortunately, I continue to come across new or forgotten items to add to my list. I may never have a blank page! Still, I find it is helpful to have all of my open loops down on paper, rather than playing constantly around the edges of my mind.

Loose Ends

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I’m a pretty careful writer, but I’m especially good, if I take the time, at editing. I don’t always do it, though. Sometimes it’s a friend that points out that I’ve used the same descriptive word (often something like “large” or “extremely,” mundane and uninteresting enough if used only once) thirteen times in a single essay. Sometimes I notice a problem (that “friend” showed up as “fried” when I missed the N, for instance) weeks after publishing, leaving me wanting to send each reader an amended copy, with an apology.

In re-reading the story I wrote last week, about being lost in the woods, I came upon a few problems. In one of the first paragraphs, I noted that this incident happened more than twenty years ago, that I worked, then, as the morning server at the Shamrock Bar & Restaurant, and that I did not have dogs at that time. None of these bits of information had anything to do with the story as I wrote it. Why did I even put them in?

Well, actually, I should have also mentioned that my Aunt Katie was still alive, and living here on Beaver Island, and that my walking routine rarely varied at all. Two more loose ends to be sewn up!

The dogs deserved a mention because in the years since then, when I’ve gotten turned around or momentarily disoriented while out berry-picking or searching for morels, the dogs are quite good at finding their way. If I’d had dogs with me, I certainly would not have traversed that wide, watery bog. Thinking of the burs they’d pick up in their fur, I likely would have turned back as soon as the trail narrowed. And maybe they could have led me out when I couldn’t find my way. That’s why I brought up the dogs; I just forgot to bring them to any conclusion.

I mentioned my job at the Shamrock, and my morning coffee drinkers because, as I was wandering through the woods in the middle of the night, I was thinking, “No one knows I’m out here. No one will miss me.” Until, of course, I wasn’t at the restaurant to serve coffee in the morning. Then the coffee drinking group would wonder. They might call my house. Maybe, they’d send out a search party to see if my car was broken down on the side of the road. If they made it all the way to my house, they’d see the dirty dishes I’d left in the sink. Dread!

Finally, they would call my Aunt Katie, to see what was going on. “Her car is in the driveway,” they’d tell her. They’d speculate, together, about various possibilities. Maybe they’d make a call or two, to make sure I wasn’t asleep on the sofa at Emma Jean’s, or out on a boodle with Diane. If they wondered that I got turned around while on a walk, my aunt would be quick to assure them, “Cindy always walks along the road.” So, there would be no way to know that I was back in the trees and bog behind Fox Lake, lost in the woods.

As I wandered that night, and in the years since this happened, these considerations have all seemed an important part of the story. I just presented them, then left them hanging there. It took another entire essay just to sew up the loose ends!

Lost

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A customer came into the hardware store this week, wanting to purchase a compass. We didn’t have one, but his query reminded me that I have several. Or, at least, I did. After I got lost in the woods, it seemed like I was receiving compasses right and left, from anyone that heard the story. Over the years, I have given away most of them, to grandchildren and others, and probably misplaced a few, too. If I had to, I don’t know if I could put my hands on a single compass in this house today. I hope I don’t have to; I’m pretty careful not to get lost, these days.

Have I told this story here? I can’t remember. I’ll tell it again.

It happened a little more than twenty years ago. I was working as the daytime server at the Shamrock Bar & Restaurant, opening at 7 AM for customers who gathered for conversation with their morning coffee. Then, as now, I was in the habit of taking a daily walk. I did not have dogs, then, so I generally walked alone. That year, I’d set a goal to walk one thousand miles from January to December, so I’d increased my daily distance.

Instead of trekking from my house north to the end of Fox Lake Road and back home, which was two miles, I was going south, to the other end of Fox Lake Road where it meets the West Side Drive, and back again. That was three miles. I’m a steady walker, but not particularly fast. Twenty minutes per mile is my speed, unless I deliberately speed up or slow down. I’d usually set out from home at about five o’clock. Three miles, and I’d be home by six.

One day in late October, I got an early start. It was a beautiful, warm and sunny fall day, and I left my house at four o’clock. One mile south, Hannigan Road bumps up to the Fox Lake Road. On a whim, I turned left onto Hannigan Road, then right onto Middie Perron’s Trail, which starts out parallel to the Fox Lake Road. I’d never walked the whole length of the trail, but I’d encountered it from the other end, where it met the Camp #3 Trail.

So, rather than my usual route down the Fox Lake Road and back again, which suddenly seemed so dull, my plan was to take Middie Perron’s Trail to the Camp #3 Trail, which would then take me out to the end of Fox Lake Road, where it met the West Side Drive. I’d see more of the beautiful fall foliage, and have a different than usual view. If it turned into a longer walk, it was no problem, because I’d gotten an early start.

Now, I should mention that, at that time, we’d had three nights in a row so dark that neither the moon or a single star was visible in the sky. That played a part in the decisions I made. The other thing was my dislike for retracing my steps. When lost, I’d rather go forward and find my way than turn around. It has gotten me in trouble while driving, and it caused me some trouble when out walking that evening.

Middie Perron’s Trail curved and zig-zagged. It narrowed from a rustic, leaf-covered two-track down to a skinny trail barely wide enough to squeeze through. Blackberry brambles grew up on either side, and arched overhead. The sun sat low over the treetops to the west. If the sun went down, and I was left in a night as dark as the last three had been, would I be able to find my way forward on this path? Could I find my way back, if I turned around?

In a moment that seemed like a flash of courageous genius, and quickly proved itself to be otherwise, I made a decision. I turned off the trail and walked directly, through tall grass, small trees and towering, thorny brambles, toward the setting sun. West, just a short trek through the wilderness, to the Fox Lake Road. Some things I forgot, didn’t know, or didn’t factor in, when choosing that course:

  • Just because Middie Perron’s Trail starts out parallel to the Fox Lake Road, it does not remain so;
  • Neither Fox Lake Road nor Middie Perron’s Trail run exactly north/south because of all the twists and turns they both have;
  • The sun does not set exactly to the west all year, and in the late fall of the year it is decidedly off course;
  • Fox Lake bog, which makes much of the land in the vicinity of Fox Lake very swampy, especially in the spring and fall;
  • Fox Lake. Yes, the entire lake stood between me, on Middie Perron’s Trail, and the Fox Lake Road, that was, in my foolish estimation, “just a short way to the west.”

I walked away from the trail. I pushed through thorn bushes and sharp grasses until I was far enough from where I’d started, I knew I couldn’t find my way back. That’s when I came upon a huge wet area. I looked back, considering. I looked ahead. Clumps of tall reeds grew from bits of earth rising up out of the shallow water. I went forward. I propelled myself from one bit of land to the next, clinging to low branches and reeds, and now and then sinking in up to my knees in cold water.

Many times, as I maneuvered through the muck, I thought I was making a big mistake. The way back, though, seemed just as scary and treacherous as the way forward. When, at last, I was through the boggy area and on dry land, there was no choice but to continue forward; I was not going to tackle that watery obstacle course again! Some things worked in my favor:

  • Though it was late in October, the weather was good. It was warm enough so that I was comfortable in a light jacket. It wasn’t windy or rainy. I wasn’t cold, even when wet;
  • The moon came up full and bright that night;
  • I knew, from observation, that the moon rose in the east and set in the west, so I could prevent myself from walking in circles by using it as a guide;
  • I was accustomed to walking, and in pretty good shape.

Once the earth under my feet was solid rather than liquid, and the moon was out, I started methodically trying to find my way. Keeping the moon behind me, I walked until I reached water. I carefully walked into the water until I was sure it was not just a puddle, then back-tracked. I did the same thing with the moon on my right side, then left, then straight in front of me. I seemed to be surrounded by water.

I continued in this way for several hours, changing the angle slightly each time. As the moon rose higher in the sky, I had better visibility. One body of water was a creek. Great! Any river or creek will lead to a lake. At that point, I didn’t care if that would be Fox Lake, or Lake Michigan; either would give me access, eventually, to a road.

I followed the creek until it spilled out shallowly over a large area of wet land, with no clear edges to follow. I turned and followed it in the other direction. When it appeared to turn into a large body of water, I tried to follow that around the perimeter. Every lake has an access road, after all. That, too became impossible to follow, spreading out into watery swamp filled with willow-like branches.

In this way, I continued on, through the night. Once, I tried calling out for help; not appearing to be anywhere near human habitation, that seemed like a waste of energy. I never panicked, but grew increasingly frustrated. At one point, I cried. I was tired, but never considered stopping, even just for a rest.

Eventually, I came upon a pile of cut logs in a clearing. They were dark, and moss-covered, indicating that they’d been there for quite a while, but I could still see the slashes of red paint on their ends that the loggers marked them with. There would be a road, leading to this spot! I scrambled over cut logs and through piles of brush until I found it. It was a narrow two-track; the deep tire ruts were filled with muddy water. Still, it was a grand sight to me!

I stayed on that path, sloshing through the mud when I had to but never considering changing course, until it came out onto West Side Drive. I got my bearings there, and walked north until West Side Drive met the Fox Lake Road. And that road took me home.

I walked into my house, and looked at the clock. It was just after two in the morning. I’d been walking pretty steadily for about ten hours! I peeled off wet clothes, brushed pickers and twigs from my hair, and stood for a long time in a hot shower, relieved to have finally found my way out of the woods. That’s my story of being lost.

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Stepping In

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In years now long past, I went swimming in Lake Michigan early in June. By mid-summer, I was accustomed to the bracing water; by August the big lake seemed almost welcoming. I was used to it. That’s not the way it is any more. Nowadays, I rarely go to the beach, and I almost never swim. When I do get to the shore, as I did when my sisters were here on vacation, it takes quite a bit of self-talk before I even dip my toes in the cold water. It’s much harder these days. A lot of things are like that.

August 11th marked the passage of another year since my mother died. She has, almost unbelievably, been gone from this earth for nine years now. Because memories attach themselves to momentous events, whether happy or sad, that also reminds me that my little dogs are nine years old, as they were born in February of that same year. It gives me an idea of how long my brother has been living in the family home, and how long my sisters and I have been gathering for vacations together. Because I started this blog as a reaction to my mother’s death, I know, too, that I’ve been doing this for close to nine years.

Nine years! I’ve published a blog at least once or twice a week pretty regularly. I spent one year writing every single day, and I usually participate in the “April A ~ Z Challenge,” which involves writing every day except Sundays, through the month of April. Judging by my record with commitments, this blog has been a major success! Until this summer.

What happened? I’m not sure. A few “off” days; difficulty finding a relatable topic; a sick dog; not enough of a schedule in my days, switching quickly to too many obligations in any given day; justifications and excuses…and just like that, a habit fell apart. Not just any habit, but one that I was confidant was so firmly ingrained in my weekly routine that I didn’t have to worry about it, like brushing my teeth, or reading before bed.

I should know better. Over the years, I’ve watched other good habits fall by the wayside. One bad winter and a decade-long walking routine falls apart; a few days of giving in to exhaustion, and a cleaning/tidying habit goes out the window as clutter piles up around me. This I know: it’s easier to maintain a habit, even through hard seasons, than it is to resuscitate a habit that has been allowed to die.

In trying to honor the habits that make up my routine, my rule is, “don’t break the chain.” I like the rows of X’s that mark things completed, day after day. When that’s impossible, I tell myself, “don’t miss twice.” That way, one bad day doesn’t destroy all the diligence that has gotten me to that point. The behavior is still intact. When that fails, the habit is at risk. And that’s the point I’m afraid I’ve come to with this blog.

So, here I am, dipping my toes in the water. I don’t have much of interest to say. If I stand here long enough, I’ll get accustomed to the cold. I’ll warm up to topics that I can elaborate on. If I keep returning to it, it will start to feel welcoming again. For now, I’m just here.

 

Can I Ever Catch Up?

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Two weeks ago, I was on top of things. At least that’s how it seems, looking back from my present situation, which is polar opposite of “on top of things.” Today, it seems like I’m on the bottom of a very large pile of things, scrambling to get my footing. What happened?

It was just about two weeks ago when my sisters started arriving for their week-long Beaver Island vacation. I’d had a good summer up to that point, both relaxing and productive. My garden was doing well, the house was in order, and work was progressing nicely in the studio. I was working a few days a week, but was looking forward to more time than usual with my family.

Cheryl arrived on Saturday. I stopped at the family farmhouse after work to say hello. We made plans to meet later for dinner and a trip to the cemetery to plant flowers, and I went home to take care of my dogs. They met me at the kitchen door. I gave them a good greeting, and we went for a long walk. I wandered through the garden to pull a few weeds and pick what was ripe. Inside, I packaged up my contribution to dinner, and started to fill the dog’s dishes for their evening meal.

It was only then that I glanced into the front room. What in the world?!

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My bookshelves had given way, spilling their contents all over the room. My little television was dangling by its electrical cord. The stereo was face down on the floor. Books were strewn over every surface. Baskets, once filled with yarn, cassette tapes, CDs, DVDs and assorted on-going projects, had been relieved of their contents, too. I was thankful that the dogs, often sleeping right in the path of all of the destruction, had not been hurt. I assessed the damage, made a few necessary adjustments, fed the dogs, and went out the door to keep my plans.

So, it was several hours later when I sifted through the mess to make some sense of it, and cleared enough of a path through the room to make it usable. Cheryl had offered several times to come and help me, but I declined. The room is small, and the mess was huge. Even alone, I often had difficulty finding a place to step; there was no room for a second person.

Books had to be picked from the shelves before the shelves could be moved. Sometimes, removing the books caused a shelf to slide away in an unexpected direction. It was a long, tedious process. By the time I went to bed, I had a huge pile of books in a corner, and a stack of shelves against one wall. The supports were in a mound on the dining room floor, and the TV was on the table. And, my back was out.

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And, two weeks later, that’s exactly where everything still is. Because, the next day, I worked eight hours. And my back was still causing problems. And, three more sisters arrived, along with husbands, friends and one niece. My brother-in-law, Keith, brought up my shelves more than once; if I’d asked, I’m sure he would have helped me tackle the project. I didn’t ask. One week is a short time to visit with loved ones that I see only a few times in an entire year. That was my priority.

Meals together; game nights; beach time; catching up on family happenings, mutual acquaintances, general news and health updates after months apart: that was most important to me. That’s how my time was best spent, and I don’t regret it a bit. I took time away from work last Sunday to – sadly – see the last of my family off on the ferry boat.

Monday, I went back to work at the hardware store, after a four-month hiatus. Many of the summer workers my boss had hired are going back to college, so my job was available again. Continuing to honor commitments I took on in the meantime, I am now suddenly working six days a week. And, boy, am I out of practice! This is exhausting! In addition, over the course of the last two weeks, weeds have taken over my garden and the grass needs to be mowed.

Today is my only day off. The electric screwdriver is on the charger; if it charges, I’ll be able to tackle the bookshelves. I bought gas for the lawnmower. Bed linens are in the washer; I plan to hang them on the line to dry. I’m going to take all the rugs outside to shake them, and sweep through the house. I intend to make some salads to carry for my lunches this week. Big plans…if I ever find the energy to get out of this chair!

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a sunset shared with my sisters

Conversations

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I mentioned recently how I regretted missed opportunities to talk with my mother when she was alive. I could have picked up the phone to call her. Then, as now, I generally avoided telephone conversations. Or all conversations. It’s not that I have nothing to say, but that verbal exchanges are not easy for me. That may be why writing appeals to me.

There are a very few people who I – without angst or trepidation – will readily pick up the telephone to call, and I tense up every single time the telephone rings. The tension seeps away when I recognize the voice at the other end; it’s replaced with joy when it’s the voice of one of my children. They, one friend and a couple sisters are easy for me to talk to. Beyond those few people, I dread telephone conversations. That is also true of in-person conversations.

I’m not very good at the verbal back and forth. I have a tremendous, unreasonable fear of silence within a conversation. I know where it comes from. I was painfully shy as a child. When friends or relatives came to visit, and spoke to me, I couldn’t force myself to speak, no matter how badly I wanted to. My silence put all attention on me, which just made the situation worse. This came up later, when I’d be called on to speak in class: that horrible feeling of everyone waiting for words that I could not form.

That causes me, now that I’m able to form words, to dominate just about every conversation. I start talking, and just don’t stop. Sometimes I repeat myself, just to avoid an uncomfortable pause. Especially when chatting with my sister, Brenda, who is a good and patient listener, I often feel like, other than the occasional, “hmmm…” or “really” (which just encourages me!), I have done all the talking.

I’ve tried to improve my listening skills, display more empathy, to ask better questions, to show more interest. Most of the time, though, whether speaking on the telephone or over a lunch table, I feel like I’ve commandeered the conversation, and it has all been about me. And it has worn me out! Though I appear to be out-going to the point of near  obnoxiousness, inside, I still feel like a shy little girl. Jabbering on, non-stop, is tiring!

When, as a young adult, I started working as a server, I would go home absolutely exhausted. There was the running around with large trays of food, sure, Mostly, though, it was the long hours of interacting with people. Smiling, reciting the specials, answering questions and making small-talk can be a lot of hard work!

I’ve now worked in some form of customer service for nearly forty years. I’ve done some teaching, too. Certainly, over the years, I’ve managed to have quite a few conversations. Still, I’m best at getting my thoughts out into the world by writing them. That way, I have total control of the conversation!

Monday, Monday…

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We are awfully close to halfway through summer. In some ways, it seems to be flying by. In others, this has been the summer of my dreams, and distant memories. I’ve probably already mentioned that I haven’t had a summer off, on Beaver Island, since I first moved here in 1978, until now. I always worked hard, too: busy days; long hours. Summers are the busiest season here.

This year, though, Covid-19 has wreaked havoc everywhere. Though this island remains, at this time, free of the virus, we still have all the usual misgivings about how to stay safe. We need the business, but it’s scary to think of crowds of people coming here from areas where the virus is prevalent. Fortunately or not, many usual summer visitors have not come. The Corona Virus has taken a big bite out of our tourist industry, and left me temporarily out of work.

I watch with sadness and horror as other communities deal with overwhelming sickness and death. I’m very aware that my age puts in in a “high risk” group. There is still some trepidation whenever I have to be in public. I cancelled a planned trip to attend my grandson’s high school graduation party downstate, due to fears about being exposed. And I’m still second guessing myself over that decision. I don’t want to be ruled by fear, but I absolutely want to be safe.

Beyond all that, though, I’m having a wonderful time! I am kind of a loner, and definitely an introvert. I have house, garden and studio to keep me busy, dogs to keep me entertained, and a regular routine to provide some structure to my days. I have a little one-day-a-week volunteer position, and a new part-time job on the week-ends. I get a little Social Security check each month, and a little unemployment to supplement that. This is a lovely summer!

Mondays, though! When I worked at the hardware store, and before that when I worked at the Shamrock Restaurant and Pub, I almost always worked Saturday and Sunday. My “week-end” is Monday and Tuesday. So, even now when I mostly don’t work, I wake up on Monday with a sense of urgency, a feeling of near panic, at all the things I need to do. Today was no different.

I got up early and got going right away. First my morning routine: meditate; write; draw; yoga.  Then I spent about an hour studying. I am working my way through an embarrassingly large collection of self-help books, with topics ranging from art techniques to exercise to how to stop procrastinating or become a better listener, writer, cook or general human being. If nothing else comes of this time off, I will have at the very least made every effort to better myself!

I took a shower and dressed, then took the dogs on their first walk of the day. Garden, next, to water and weed. Then on to one of the flower beds It’s hot out there, though! Especially in that flower bed, against the south wall of my house. There was no breeze, and the heat was magnified by the white siding. When I was driven inside, I’d start a load of wash, dust a surface, or sweep something. Then back at it. When I cleaned up for lunch, I made a pot of chicken soup. Always, with the idea that I’d better keep busy. No time to waste. Lots of things to get done.

As I was working at filling the wheelbarrow with crab grass and bladder wort that has taken over among the day lilies, my mind was racing ahead to the next thing to do. The rugs need to be shaken out and washed. I have two paintings underway in the studio. Windows show patterns of dog nose and dog paw. Before long, the yard will need to be mowed again.

After my third long bout of weeding, while wiping the sweat from my brow, it occurred to me: what I don’t get done today, I can do tomorrow. Or the next day,Or the day after that! I broke into a big grin. I love this summer! Mondays do not have to be filled to the brim with urgent tasks. Mondays can be just another normal day. As long as I remember!

This Summer

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I’m sure that every single childhood summer day was not as perfect as those that live on in my memory. I know there must have been times when the heat seemed too much, or the days seemed too long. I have vague memories of begging to come inside out of the heat, of complaining that there was nothing to do, and of anxiously wishing for school to start back up. Mostly, though, the impressions that I hold are of long, lazy, sunshiny days, with fields to explore and the ever-present shade of the big willow tree.

Summer was playing in the sprinkler and wandering barefoot around the yard. It was reading for hours with my feet in the sand. Walks to the store for ice cream, and to the beach for the cool water. It was green fruit from the orchard, fresh peas from the garden, and bunches of grapes plucked from the vines. It was vacations on Beaver Island and all the perfect white-sand-blue-sky-warm-days-cool-nights magic it offered. In my memory, summer lives on as a perfect time.

Those memories – faulty though they may be – are what fuel all of my present-day hopes for summer, in the same way that anticipation for Christmas is fed by an impression of that perfect holiday, that may not have ever truly existed. Because of my high hopes, summers are often a bit of a disappointment.

I take care of my own yard and garden. That has managed, most years, to take up much of my spare time while still constantly frustrating me. The garden was always lacking something; I was constantly behind schedule, whether for planting or harvesting; the grass was always overgrown; the weeds continually got the better of me. Housework, studio time, and other projects had to be squeezed in around other obligations.

This is the busiest time of year here on Beaver Island; it’s when I work the hardest, and the longest hours at my job, whatever that job is. It’s also the time when  family and friends come here. Of course, I want to find time to see them! Many summers, the only time I get to the beach, to the shore to watch a sunset, or visit any of the wonderful sites that Beaver Island has to offer, is when I go with visitors.

Not this year! Because I was stuck (most pleasantly, but still…) on vacation due to travel restrictions caused by the pandemic, then had two weeks of mandatory self-quarantine before I could go back to work…I was replaced in my job. I should be concerned, but I’m not. I’m too busy, frankly, enjoying myself. For the first time since I moved to Beaver Island (in 1978!), I am not working this summer!

I wake up every morning to the rooster crowing with a smile on my face, knowing I have this time. I’m doing a little volunteer work. I’m making art. I have a whole routine of meditation, gratitude, reading, drawing, writing and yoga that I enjoy immensely. I’m growing my garden. I’m mowing my lawn before the grass is knee high. I take the dogs for walks morning and evening. Today, I’m contemplating a drive with them down to Fox Lake. I’ll bring my book. I had an ice cream cone for lunch. This is the summer I’ve been dreaming of!

Finally, the Garden

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the west (back) edge of the garden, with freshly planted tomatoes inside, and a healthy border of rhubarb outside the fence

Yes, it’s that time of year again: garden time! Actually, I’m late. I could have planted peas a month ago, and most of the greens would have appreciated a cooler start. Here it is, June already. And a very warm June, too. Even here in northern Michigan, where nighttime frosts are a danger well into the late spring, I should have had my seeds in the ground before this.

Spring – once again – got away from me. First it was cold. Cold enough for the furnace and, when I stubbornly decided I would not continue to use propane well into May and turned off the gas, cold enough that I had to bring the portable heater downstairs. Sixty degrees should not be too much to ask for! A month ago, I still had snow along the fringes of my yard.

Next came the rain, which washed out the last of the snow, freshened everything up, and caused the grass to grow. Oh, yes, and the mosquitoes hatched. So, first, in order to be able to work outside without being carried away by blood-thirsty insects, I had to mow the lawn. So the garden waited.

In hindsight, I always think I could have sped up the process, stuck to it longer each day, pushed myself harder, but at the time, it feels like I’m doing all that I can. With my little 18″ push mower, and whole swaths of long, tough quack grass, it took me four days to complete the job.

Finally, the garden. Which has taken a week. Though each evening I told myself I’d be able to finish up the next day, it hasn’t worked out that way. Mornings have been damp and chilly. Mosquitoes are voracious. By mid-day, the sun is beating down mercilessly. The dogs peek out with pathetic expressions from their bits of shade, pleading for a walk or a ride to the lake.

So, every day, I carry outside:

  • a tote of garden tools
  • my garden plan, sketched in pencil on graph paper
  • the book, Carrots Love Tomatoes, on companion planting, which I use to plot out my planting arrangement, but also refer to when I’m squeezing something in
  • sun screen
  • mosquito repellent
  • my full-body, hooded, polyester net, hotter-than-hell-but-effective anti-insect suit, for when mosquito repellent is not enough

And I give it my best. And every evening, I carry it all back inside.

It’s coming along. I have planted thirteen tomato plants, all generous gifts from family and friends, and sixteen basil plants started by my cousin Bob. I have double-dug, spaded and raked nine garden beds, each roughly 36″ wide and twelve feet long. I’ve planted peas, bush beans, summer squash, winter squash, and cucumbers.

Yesterday, on my afternoon walk with the dogs, I gathered long branches that had fallen over the winter, and carried them home. Today, I’ll use them to make my pole bean tepees, and plant those seeds around the perimeter. Because I have run out of space, I’ll plant Swiss chard around and inside of those tepees, and hope for the best. The kale seeds are going in the asparagus bed, along the north wall of the garden, and the salad greens will be planted in my last canvas tub. That’s it! Finally, the garden will be done!

 

 

Bumping Along

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“Today I’m flying low and I’m not saying a word. I’m letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep. The world goes on as it must, the bees in the garden rumbling a little, the fish leaping, the gnats getting eaten. And so forth. But I’m taking the day off. Quiet as a feather. I hardly move though really I’m traveling a terrific distance. Stillness. One of the doors into the temple.”

~Mary Oliver

I was doing fine, really. Covid-19 entered our world, our consciousness, our news cycles, and we were all affected. Sadness, loss and fear became a daily, always escalating theme. Through all this craziness, that seems to have thrown the whole world into a tailspin, I was okay.

In February, when the virus was just beginning to make the news, my sisters and I took a planned trip to Florida. In March, when it was making bigger news, my daughter Jen and I, after thoughtful discussion and much weighing of options, decided to push forward with our plans to visit my daughter Kate in Hawaii. We listened to warnings and advice, took added precautions, and warily made the trip.

By the end of our first week there, the virus had taken off, closing down travel and businesses throughout the state, and the country. We kept a close watch on the numbers in all of the states. Just like everyone else, we were horrified at the mounting death toll, and fearful of the future. As one scheduled flight after another was delayed, then cancelled, we kept in touch with family members, work associates, and the lovely people who were taking care of my dogs.

Still, I more than once said, “If we have to be stuck, what a wonderful situation to be stranded in: surrounded by family…in Hawaii!” With my normal routine disrupted by the enforced, extended vacation, I expanded the time I spent writing and drawing. I continued my little exercise routines. I read a lot.

Time spent at the house was lovely. Mornings, Jen and I sat on the porch, drinking coffee, chatting and reading books. Chickens were always close by, and three little Kona pigs often stopped in. One of my daughters or grandchildren would sometimes accompany me on my walks.

Excursions were extra special for their scarcity. One morning Kate, Jen and I walked on the lava cliffs at the shoreline. One night, my son-in-law, Jeremy, took me up into the foothills to look at the stars. On our last day there, we gathered lava rocks and bits of coral from a beautiful, deserted beach while watching the waves crash against the shore.

Getting home was scary, with stops in Los Angeles and Detroit. Again, we were thoughtful and careful, taking every precaution throughout the trip. The trip from Lansing to my home on Beaver Island was a new adventure, too. I have become hyper-aware of every encounter, whether with humans or door handles. A simple pause at a rest stop was a mask-wearing, disinfecting-wipe-wielding, hand-sanitizer-using challenge!

Finally home, I had two weeks of self-isolation that I spent loving on my dogs and re-acclimating myself to the not-so-perfect weather. I think leaving Hawaii’s near perfect climate would always require adjustment…but snow?! Really! Still, I kept my good habits, and enjoyed my time alone.

After that time, I did not go back to work. Though my position in the hardware store is considered “essential,” I am of an age that falls into a high-risk group. In addition, my boss had to keep the store staffed while I was stuck on vacation, so hired new employees. Business has been slow. While I was away, several things broke down, and it sounds like for some reason I am considered at fault for not letting the boss know (I know, right?).

In any case, at least for the time being, I don’t appear to have a job. Worrisome, yes, but unemployment benefits will keep me going for a while. I have on-going projects in the studio, and many others in the planning stages. It’s spring, so there is plenty to keep me busy in the yard and garden. I called to offer my volunteer services at local non-profit. I still have my daily “meditate-write-study-draw-yoga-walk-read” routine to give substance to my days.

So, I was doing fine. Until, with no warning at all, I wasn’t. I lost a filling, and getting in to see a dentist has proved challenging. My ex-husband’s aunt died. I broke the handle that turns on the water to my shower. The replacement I bought for it was missing a set screw. I learned that an old friend, my age, has been put into hospice care. My tomato plants didn’t come. Big things and small, they all played on my emotions.

After having just explained to a friend how I had conquered my insomnia by getting up at a set – early – time each day, I spent an entire night tossing and turning. That was the final straw. Yesterday, I woke up discouraged and depressed.

I was fearful of the future, worried about finances, and troubled about my work situation. I was distressed by the bitterness and animosity that is running rampant on social media, disheartened by a thoughtless comment made by a political candidate (does he not realize how important this is??), and sad for the state of the whole world.

I let myself be miserable. I not only allowed it, I wallowed in it. I skipped over or abbreviated every element of my morning routine. I ignored my to-do list. I took a long afternoon nap. I watched mindless shows on Netflix. I went to bed early.

Today, I’m better. It turns out it wasn’t the early signs of a big down-turn It’s not a path I’m staying on. It was just a few bumps in the road.