Wednesday, June 25, 2014

From Floods to Drought

I could not see for the spray the big semi sent up as I passed it going 85 miles per hour. The wipers slapped frantically back and forth. I just had to trust that I would hold the line and my lane. The slight hydro-plane did not do much for my confidence.

Northern Minnesota has had more than its share of rain this spring. Fields that are normally rich with corn, hay, soy, and other crops are under water. Friends say that they will have to sell their dairy cows because they can't afford feed.

I drive for hours in a rain that doesn't let up. It rained yesterday too, and the day before that. This is strange for me, the desert dweller. I don't know how to navigate the standing water of the freeway.

I wish I could send just a few of these storms to Arizona and New Mexico. We are parched down there. The records for lack of rain match the records for the abundance of rain in Minnesota.

There is dust in the wind rather than raindrops.

As I pass Sauk Centre, Alexandria, and then Saint Cloud, I look ahead to my trip south. Tomorrow I will drive from Minneapolis to Madison. Then we will fly to Dallas, if the weather permits. From Madison we will fly to Albuquerque. After about 23 hours of travel, we will arrive in El Morro, New Mexico, where we are building a house, building a late mid-life adventure in the Desert Southwest.

The ponderosa pines along the rock face to the south of the house are dying for lack of water. Dust blows in the windows and under the doors.

As I drive toward Minneapolis in the rental car, on my way to catch a plane, and then pick up an old truck in the Park-n-Save at the Albuquerque Airport, I know that it is me and my kind who are the cause of climate change.

The question now is who will begin to accept responsibility for these changes. What will we do? How shall we respond?

The Mississippi is running high and brown by the time I get to Minneapolis. I keep my thoughts to myself as we get together for food and drink, soil and water, sun and wind.

Monday, June 16, 2014


He needed work so he left his home in Maplewood, Minnesota and traveled to North Dakota, where the wheat needed threshing. Under the sun, he cut and bundled the wheat like his ancestors had done. Then he loaded the bundles into the new machine, the thresher.

A flywheel on a steam tractor drove the thresher via a huge belt. The machine made short work out the bundles. It was hungry and needed feeding.

The young man had to move fast to keep up.

As he loaded bundles for the thresher, he heard the low growl of fighter planes approaching from the south. The roar of the planes grew deafening as they passed overhead. Their engines drowned out the thresher, and the young man gaped, open-mouthed, in wonder at the power and gleaming grace of them.

Their aluminum skins shone under the sun.

The young man said to himself I will fly one of those some day.

It was 1942, and the young man was my father.

As he tells me this story, rain falls taps at the window of the motel dining room. He has aged in the last couple of years. His Parkinson's has slowed his speech, but his eyes and mind are still clear. That day back in North Dakota is still sharp in his memory.

We are here for a memorial service, and there is water everywhere. More keeps falling. The lakes are high, and the Otter Tail River is flooding.

It doesn't feel like June, and the wind carries storm after storm out of the west.

Even the old-timers are impressed. The presence of water is only exceeded by the green. Grasses and trees are flourishing where they are not drowning.

He fulfilled his dream of becoming a pilot, but being a pilot required that he fly in wars. Those years weigh heavy on him. His eyes betray the price he paid to fulfill his dream.

His brothers have gathered, and they, too, have stories to tell.

They talk about dreams fulfilled or deferred.

A cemetery surrounds surrounds the church on three sides. We gather as the rain falls again. It drums on the roof as brothers remember their deceased sister.

The waters that accumulate here run down to the streams. The streams run to the rivers. The rivers feed a thirsty nation. The waters carry lessons from the source as they move downstream.

The day after the memorial service, I drive out of the rain and into a warm and sunny Father's Day.

It would be easy to forget what I have heard from my father and his brothers. This busy life can drown out the lonely, dimmed memories of where I have come from.

That young man bundling wheat in North Dakota took a chance on a dream. Against what some might consider impossible odds, he succeeded.

His life was not easy, nor was it perfect. But it fanned an ember, a living spark of a dream.

That is what lingers as the bodies fade into darkness, into mist.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Angels, Otter, and Egrets

The traffic did not permit my crossing lanes to make the on ramp of the freeway I needed.

I was already lost, so this latest indignity only fueled the already high anxiety.

The sleek, black rental car and I made our way along the tree-lined boulevard somewhere in Minneapolis. There was no place to turn around; the GPS wasn't working; I don't use a smart phone; and my eyes are too bad to navigate with a map.

Then I get stuck behind a stalled car as traffic whizzes past, daring me to try and merge. Yes, I think, I am screwed, and, of course, because today, after all, is big-time bad-luck day. Friday the 13th. I'm all alone in a strange city behind schedule and it's about to cloud up and rain.

My roads are no where in sight and no one is answering the phone or coming to my rescue.

One could get a bit out of whack in moments like this, and I have a bad habit of damning it all in such situations. But, the mind is a wonderful thing in that it can learn new ways of responding, develop a rational basis that sees that all of this is just a situation, a situation that does not have to affect mood.

So, after a few good God-damn-it-alls, I switch channels and put on my blinker. Time to change lanes.

Soon, I am whipping along at 80 miles per hour, traveling west to meet extended family for a memorial service. The car hums, the light is soft on the blue lakes, and time seems to go on into distance as clearly as the rolling freeway.

I still don't know where I am, but I am humming and listening and reveling in the moment. I decide to put on my IPS, my Intuitive Positioning System, and just aim at where I want to go. I will get somewhere, and that somewhere might have something to teach me.

I exit where it feels right and just point the car along some kind of invisible trail.

It goes straight to Adams Park in Fergus Falls. I pull into an open parking area that is a memorial park for children who died too young. There are statues of angels around stone monuments with names of children and wishes for them. So much surrender here, so much grief.

Behind the monuments stands a large, concrete otter.

Yup. An otter.

Otters are a totem of mine. They are about play and running water. They come to me in dreams. They model and teach. I call myself Otter when I wander away from the rent world and into archetypal territory.

Then I saw an egret, a white egret. It flew to a tree on an island that was full of egrets.

Yup. Egrets. In Minnesota.

You may not see them, but this tree is full of nesting egrets.

Angels, otter, and egrets.

As I waited for an egret to photograph, my phone rang, and a voice roused me, gave me directions to the gathering. My sister Maggie felt called to call me from the Lake House.

"We are waiting for you," she said.

I got lost twice on the way there, but kept pushing the rental's nose into the wind. I had somewhere to be.

There would be food there, and stories. Lots of stories. The old men and women had gathered to tell us their stories.

Their sister had died. There was so little time, and so much had been lost that the stories, and the webs they wove, needed telling.

I was brought here to listen.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014


It sat there in the back, behind the mower and broken compressor -- dusty, faded, tire sidewalls threadbare and split. It looked abandoned, if not downright abused. The years had not been kind to my old bike, the pink and green Stump Jumper that I left in Wisconsin so that I could have a bike when I got a chance to visit.

With the help of brother Gus, we extracted the dusty steed from years of loneliness. I thought I heard a whimper of gratitude as its tires touched the earth and rolled, flat and dry-rotted.

I had to apologize. I asked for forgiveness, undeserved though it might be.

Good bikes like the Stumpy will always forgive. Their loyalty is unconditional.

Now, though, I had to earn some of that forgiveness.

I bought a tire, new tube, and began the long process of dusting the outrageous paint scheme with a chamois. I took a breath, focused my attention, and took care to connect and give some thanks for this opportunity to patch things up.

Some soap, wax, elbow grease and TLC went a long way to transform the dusty mess into a gleaming classic.

True, it has gotten old, like I have. The paint has lost some of its sheen, its audacity. And there are chips, dents, and plenty of imperfections. It has been beat-up some by life. That makes it more loveable, more needing of love.

Stumpy, you are long in the tooth.

That's OK. Nothing is perfect.

Stumpy has character. Stumpy has heart. Stumpy is a rolling role model. 

After some adjustments and amends, we found some of the old magic. I massaged the sow's ear until some of the silk purse began to emerge. The healing that is possible after years of estrangement pulsed through my veins. It felt like coming home. Sweet, aching, opening, release.

Thank you Stumpy for your willingness to share together these few days we have to live on this green, wet, wonderful world.

You are an example for me, a teacher.

I wish I could be so good.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Doing With Less

The Zuni Pueblo in northern New Mexico sits at the base of a red mesa. We are driving in from the west and see the mesa lit by the sun setting behind us. The town looks bucolic from here, but as we get closer it becomes more and more exotic, different.

Dome shaped adobe ovens sit outside red stone houses. Streets are dusty, winding, confusing to outsiders.

Kids ride bikes or skateboards. Men in cowboy hats drive ancient pick-up trucks as they go about their work. Dogs loiter at the gas station, wagging lugubrious tails and begging for handouts.

I feel out of place, a foreigner, aware of my whiteness.

I don't see anyone on a cell phone, but notice that people buy newspapers. There is a pay phone, the first I have seen in a long while, outside the convenience store.

Women cluck at each other in a strange tongue before addressing me in English that carries a clipped accent. They are friendly, quiet, amused, polite.

I buy gas and ask how to find the elementary school named Dowa Y- Alani, pronounced like "Don't yell at me."

We drive to the school and drop off Megan's teaching materials. I call her Miss Many Boxes for all her stuff. She doesn't think it funny, and goes off to find the principal while I wait like a delinquent outside the office.

I hear drums and men singing and chanting. It goes on for the half hour or so that I wait. Children, teachers, custodian all pass me as they steal glances at the weird white guy waiting outside the principal's office.

After dropping off Megan's stuff, we continue on to El Morro, our new home.

I will be working on the house all summer while Megan begins her new teaching job. We will live in a tiny portable building without plumbing. We do have an extension cord from the electrical service stub to power a hot plate and some lights.

We don't have phone service or wifi.

We do have stars, wind, sun, and animals that growl in the dark. It is a long drive to Home Depot, a big deal to check email.

Space is tight. I have to watch how I move so I don't bump into the edges of things.

Outside, the sun is intense. Nights are cool, sometimes forty degrees or so, while the afternoons get hot, almost ninety today. Fifty degree temperature swings are not uncommon. 

We eat simply. Tonight, I heat some corn tortillas and melt cheese on them. I add some salsa, tomatoes, and beans on the side. We sit on the porch as the sun sets and discuss building plans.

A mocking bird sings outside the window, all night, under the moon.

It is so quiet I can hear my heart beat.

I am sore from the work that I am not used to, out of breath from the altitude, shocked by the simplicity, the silence.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Got to Keep Moving

My mind sits paralyzed by the log jam of tasks that need attention today. The list is long and varied. Each task is a strand of wire that pulls me away from my center, like the cords that held Gulliver to the beach on the first island of his travels. The Lilliputians have won. I try, but can't move. 

I can't seem to sort it out, but I have to.

We are moving in two days.

I will return at the end of summer, but Megan will stay in New Mexico and her new teaching job in Zuni.

Today the cars need work; I need to pack tools for major construction (plumbing, wiring, insulating, sheet-rocking, messing around with fixtures, and on and on) at the New Mexico house; I will visit Wisconsin and dip into family drama; I need to make arrangements for the Tucson house sitter; my bank account is no match for upcoming expenses; babies are being born; friends are dying; I am disappointing everyone with my excessive busyness.

The brain just stalls when confronted with the array of tasks, the chaos.

This is not what I want, not how I want to live, how I want to spend my summer.

Can't think that way. It only makes things worse. 

I step back and freeze. I don't feel able to engage.

Get up, a voice says. Make a list and get going. Even one thing done is better than nothing.

Keep moving. Movement is life.

I just hope the brain will catch up.