Locations in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, known for their huge amount of snowfall every winter, have over 300 inches of snow. The snow seems bent on never releasing its wintry grip on the landscape. Even in Northern Michigan’s lower peninsula where I live, people have built snow-lined labyrinths in their yards as a way to escape their houses. Mangled mailboxes, many with their doors bent open, poke upwards through roadside drifts along our main road as if waiting to be fed. The journey from our home by the lake requires some climbing skills when we venture up our own personal ski hill. After about a 150-foot trek up our twisted driveway, we can catch sight of the main road at the top of the hill. Once there, we begin a fairly easy descent of about 300 feet towards the main road through a maze of maples, oaks, and pine trees. If I had actually understood geometry in high school and college, I would be able to figure out the icy slope of the line.
Despite slippery roads and bone-chilling cold weather, winter in Northern Michigan continues to create one of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen. Although the cycle of plowing, shoveling, salting, and waiting to see what Mother Nature has in mind for the ten-day forecast can be a bit tedious, I am always fascinated by the daily changes. Recently, I power-walked four miles on the road knowing that yet another storm was headed our way. Bomb cyclone, anyone? Peaceful in my solitude, I admired the woods and the secrets the trees held close, the crows seemingly warning me to watch my step as I dodged icy areas on my journey, and the occasional presence of a vehicle approaching me reminded me that I was not alone in the world. Despite seeing others, I did not wish for conversation. A simple wave of acknowledgement was sufficient.
As I return home after my walks, the birds seem to welcome me before I step inside the house. If I do not replenish the feeders with seed or suet fast enough, the birds become gangs of gangly children squibbling (a new word I accidentally came up with), letting me know I need to get my act in gear. Pileated, red-headed, red-bellied, downy, and hairy woodpeckers all move to their own beat, so to speak. Chickadees, nuthatches, finches, sparrows, blue jays, and mourning doves all join in on the festivities with their various coos, chipper calls, and beautiful whistles. A cardinal couple shows up almost daily, and I always try to sneak a shot of them with my camera. Sometimes I am stealthy enough, and I capture a shot, but I do not want to disturb them when they are dining. My husband and I call out to each other when we spot the cardinals in the woods. Our affection for this couple seems to grow every year. Each morning before sunrise, I make my way outside to shoot sunrise photographs, and I listen carefully for a cheery greeting from a chickadee or blue jay.
Since December 31st, 2017, I have taken a photograph of the sunrise no matter where I am or what the weather conditions are like. Probably about 85% of my sunrise shots have been taken at Higgins Lake. Each one of them is different. Although some of my favorite sunrise shots have been taken in places such as Whitefish Point, Marquette, or the mountains in Colorado, there is something quite magical about my mornings at Higgins Lake. The landscape provides a vista for introspection or meditation. To borrow from Dorothy and her oft-quoted line, there truly is no place like home.
One morning recently the moon and stars lit up the pre-sunrise sky. The day before I had put on my knee-high winter boots and waded through about six new inches of snow in our yard so that I could head out onto the solidly frozen Higgins Lake. I held onto the branches of a huge pine tree growing near the shoreline and stepped down over the ridges of ice and layers of snow. Once again, I created a large heart-shaped path in the snow along the shoreline. I am working on my third one since January. I am rather proud of my work of art on the lake. Creating this heart makes me feel like a kid again. Although my landscape in Michigan is quite different than where I grew up along the Arkansas River in Dodge City, Kansas, the connection for me is still the same: nature and my desire to explore the world on my own. I suppose this stems from being an only child, and my parents allowing me to figure things out on my own. My late mother was a talented artist, a jokester, and someone who loved me despite my terrible teenage years. She would have loved seeing this enormous heart on the lake. Knowing her and her sense of humor, she would have asked to be photographed while standing in the middle of the heart with a red-feather boa wrapped around her winter coat.
My mother passed away on March 22nd in 2008 after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. She was born in 1918, and she lived an imaginative and very creative life. My father died in August of 2012 at the age of 92. He loved my mother’s decorated eggs, artwork, whimsical designs (she even decorated Quaker Oats containers in order to fill them with gifts), and he tolerated my guitar playing. He dedicated himself to hard work as he ran both a restaurant and our small farm. In retrospect, it seems as if my mother was always indoors creating artwork somewhere in the house, and my father was always outside working somewhere in the yard or the field or tending to the various livestock we had. If I had completed my chores, I was allowed to explore whenever I wanted to. I realize that the sense of wonderment I felt as a child is even stronger now that I am older. I wish my parents were still alive, and I could have a conversation with them about what I have learned as I embrace these moments of solitude.
This quiet time for reflection will change as spring moves us forward and people begin to return to Higgins Lake. Warmer temperatures will allow to the lake to thaw, and it will reward us with its groans and cracks as it begins to shake loose the layers of ice. Fishermen will head out towards their favorite fishing spots as they catch the sunlight in the wakes of their small boats. Early morning water skiers will glide through the smooth water and create small waves that roll towards the shore. Robins will call as they forage the lawn for insects. I will edge closer to the water, careful to protect my camera from harm, so that I can try and capture the sun’s reflection upon the water. Perhaps this will be yet another slope of the line I do not fully understand how to calculate, but it won’t matter. My moments of solitude will be all I need.
I grew up in a family of storytellers. On a typical Sunday, my grandmother would show up at our house after attending the Presbyterian Church in Dodge City, Kansas, and during Sunday’s meal of roast beef, mashed potatoes, gravy, and corn, my mother and grandmother would sharpen their wordsmithing skills as they told their favorite stories. One of my grandmother’s favorite stories involved a relative crashing through an outhouse as he sat for his morning constitutional. My mother enjoyed telling stories about her artwork. Drawings, decorated eggs, and handmade jewelry were so much more than the materials they were made from. Although my mother tried to teach me how to decorate eggs and draw pictures of people and places, I found my creative side through storytelling. From a very young age, I began writing poems and songs to play on my guitar. I learned from the best—and not just from my mother and grandmother. I recently attended the Bear River Writers’ Conference at Walloon Lake in Northern Michigan. Wordsmithing and listening to each other’s stories were the featured attractions.
Once again, I was excited to be in a workshop run by The Living Great Lakes author Jerry Dennis. I first attended the Bear River Writers’ Conference when it was in its infancy at Camp Daggett in 2001. My friend Darcy Czarnik Laurin and I attended our writing workshops, had a memorable canoe ride along the swollen Bear River, and survived with the help of a preacher who guided us out of our very precarious situation. Paddling is difficult when your canoe is stuck on a log in a fast-moving river. Darcy also tried to kill me with a paddle, but she still claims she was trying to whack a spider crawling on my back. But that’s another story.
Workshops are interesting beasts. As a freshman comp, literature, and creative writing teacher at SVSU, now retired, I understood that writing was difficult for many students, and providing honest feedback on their work was essential in order for them to improve their skills. Just because a student’s mother liked his or her poem, did not mean it worked. I never quite knew what to say to a tearful student demanding I change my opinion.
As writers and readers, we have a responsibility to dive deep into what another person has written, explore its meaning, and give constructive feedback. Personally, I prefer feedback on my writing to be brutally honest, as does my long-time friend poet Chris Giroux, a professor at SVSU. We exchange our writing with each other in order to make it better. Honest criticism always works for me. Bring it on.
I have gone to the Bear River Writers’ Conference nine times since 2001, and I have attended Space, In Chains author Laura Kasischke’s workshops four times during a span of sixteen years. One year I opted for The Art of the Personal Essay author Phillip Lopate’s workshop, and it was truly memorable. My fourth time in one of Jerry Dennis’s workshops would allow me another chance to practice my skills as a writer. The feedback on my writing from each of these authors over the years has been instrumental to my growth as a writer.
I was very concerned about attending Bear River this year after the crazy leg surgery I had done on April 7th. Since I have a very long recovery, I wondered how I would get around the grounds of Camp Michigania, and how I would be able to sit for long periods of time both in workshops and listening to authors read. Not to worry! When I showed up on registration day, the Key Administrator, Jessica Greer, handed me a key to a golf cart so that I could get around easily. She had also placed me in the nearest cabin to the Education Center so that I wouldn’t have as far to go around campus. Life in the slow lane wasn’t so bad after all.
In workshop, I was offered plenty of opportunities to stand up and stretch, and people were very kind in making sure I was comfortable. Although it is always intimidating to be in the company of so many good writers, there was a feeling of kindness and empathy as we worked our way through revisions. Nature, grief, longing, memories, history, and the need to understand how the world works were some of the themes present in our stories. We listened carefully as each person read. We offered feedback to make the pieces stronger. Yes, it was a very good workshop.
Baseball batters often have a walk-up song played before they step up to the plate. As one man in our class was about to read, I wondered what his song might be. He did not share his song with us if he had one. My song has been “Texas Flood” by Stevie Ray Vaughan since 1983 when it came out. My son was a year old, and life was wonderful. I don’t play baseball, and my short-lived attempt at playing softball when I was barely pregnant with Matt was disastrous. I was that grown up out in right field messing with my hair as a fly ball headed my way and dropped dead in the grass a foot in front of me. I did, however, become a runner, and for the past thirty years, I have run road races all over the state of Michigan. Since I injured my leg in October 2015, and especially since my surgery for an acetabular labral tear, I am on the disabled list. My physical therapist said that I should not even attempt to run until next April. In everyday life there has to be a theme song or a song that seems to get your heart pumping and your blood moving. From the first moment I heard “Texas Flood,” the guitar licks and the words have somehow mattered to me. That song is always on my playlist.
I hope that if you are reading this, you have a walk-up song that pumps you up before you step up to the task of being an empathetic and kind person in this world today. Listen to people’s stories when they tell them to you. Read what thoughtful writers are concerned about. In an essay for Ploughshares titled “Poetry, Science, Politics, and Birds” by writer Bianca Lech, she says that “a world with more lovers of books is worth striving for.” In addition, she suggests that a world with more birders would indeed connect us to nature in ways that would bring us joy. As a birder myself, I agree wholeheartedly. Isn’t that what we should strive for at the start of each day? A little walk-up song as we head out the door, a willingness to listen to each other as we tell our stories, and, at the end of the day, a book to read to learn something new about the world and to connect us to others? As we watch the sun go down and eventually go to sleep, our dreams will prepare us for tomorrow and the chance to do something that matters.
“Fly away through the midnight air / as we head across the sea / and at last we will be free. You’re a bluebird.” –Paul and Linda McCartney
Oh, to be that bluebird. Or an eagle flying overhead, alone in its solitude of majestic beauty. Or a tiny hummingbird, wings propelling it forward towards nectar from a pot of flowering calibrachoa. Via migration, birds return to their homes, year after year, sometimes wintering thousands of miles away. The older I get and especially now that my parents are deceased, the more I have the desire to return to the place I grew up in order to breathe in the air, soak in the glorious Kansas sunshine, and wade deeply into the river of memories. Right now, my body is going through some intense physical healing after surgery on my right leg, and this has made me appreciate even more those moments in my life when my family and friends have joined me in another one of my migrations towards the house I grew up in.
About a year and a half ago, I took an awkward step off of a friend’s porch. Since then, I’ve put my body through every kind of treatment available to try and fix my injury. I repeatedly told physical therapists and doctors that something still wasn’t right even after all of the treatments. I was not healing. I would walk or run one day and be completely unable to walk the next day. I certainly did not help myself by attempting to run or power walk road races when my leg felt strong. Once I cycled into the insurance-driven loop of procedures (x-rays, physical therapy, steroid shots, waiting for appointments, etc.), it would take over a year before I finally received approval for an MRI.
Even then, the initial doctor who read my MRI said that he didn’t see a problem; plus the hospital where I had the MRI done could not figure out how to send the results to my doctor in Traverse City and into the Munson system. I ended up taking a copy of the CD I had received on the day of my MRI with my results to Traverse City. Luckily for me, my new orthopedic surgeon, Dr. O’Hagen, disagreed with the initial findings, and he agreed that something needed to be done. As someone who had been getting up every morning for the past thirty years to run before I did anything else for the day, and then falling into this routine of barely being able to go outside and take photographs of my beloved eagles, loons, pileated woodpeckers, chickadees, sunrises, well, anything to do with Higgins Lake, I was going stir crazy. My daily pain level hovered between an eight and nine (out of ten). I was one pissed-off chick.
On April 7th, I had arthroscopic surgery in Traverse City, and the “no problem” that one doctor found was fixed by Dr. O’Hagen. He repaired my acetabular labral tear, cleaned up all of the surfaces of my hip joint, stretched the socket out to make sure it went back in right, and he used two anchors and sutures to repair the tear. He cut my illiotibial band in three places, removed all of the painful bursitis, and stitched me back up. The bruise on my right leg and hip is the size of Texas, but it is a most lovely shade of purple.
I have a long road to recovery, and my goal now is to walk and hike without pain. Running, something I love like dark chocolate, is in the distant future. I do believe that my age played a part in some of the comments I received in my treatment last year at a different facility. “You are older, so you are going to have pain” is the clear favorite, told to me by a male PT and runner. This is despite the fact that my x-rays, and eventually my MRI, showed great bones and very little arthritis. No, the reason I had pain was because I had an acetabular labral tear. When I told my new PT (Josh) in Traverse City what I had been told last year, he laughed and said that “It would make [his] job easy if [he] could say things like that.” Physically, I will continue to heal and will end up doing the things I want to do again. If the body can heal itself over time with proper care, how do we heal emotionally when our mind and bodies ache from missing someone? I think of my daughter and my parents every day, and I miss them beyond words.
It was for this reason, in part, that I flew to Denver, Colorado, to spend time with my cousins, their families, and some friends for a few days in late January. While in the Denver area, my cousin Julie took us to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge where we saw eagles, bison, deer, and hawks among many species roaming the area. Do not miss going to this beautiful wildlife area. My cousins also took me to the Coors plant in Golden, Colorado, and, on another day, I took a trip up into Poudre Canyon with my friend Susan, and we saw bighorn sheep, birds, and slackliners. We stopped to watch one particular slackliner as he found his inner strength, walking across a tightrope high above the ground. I can’t imagine what kind of endorphin rush he was hypnotized by, but I think I understood his desire to be a part of the air we breathe.
Before leaving Denver on a Sunday, Audrey and I viewed the expanse of the Rocky Mountains from the roof of her daughter Lauren’s apartment building. Once we hit the road, we began the slow descent out of the mountains towards Kansas. With about 70 miles to go before we hit the Kansas state line, we stopped at the Queens State Wildlife Area near Eads, Colorado. On a cool and windy day, we parked at the end of a road and stared in amazement at the reservoir exploding with snow geese. There were so many birds that I could not capture them all in a single frame. The water seemed like an endless beach of white sand, only this sand was on the move and making noise. Audrey and I were spellbound. It was difficult to leave such a beautiful area.
We continued our drive, telling family stories to each other, marveling at all of the hawks we were seeing, and the murmurations of starlings popping up into the brilliant blue sky. It was as if birds were guiding us to our destination wherever we went. After a long day, we arrived in Dodge City and checked into our hotel. After dinner and a few adult beverages, available in the casino next to our hotel, we went to our separate rooms for the night.
While in Dodge City, we visited old friends, and made new ones as we learned more about the town we grew up in. I hadn’t seen Dena, a friend I grew up with, in over 40 years. Sam, the reference librarian at the Dodge City Library, was extremely helpful with information as it pertained to Wilroads Gardens, a community east of Dodge City along the Arkansas River, where I grew up. Audrey and I had lunch with friends of my parents one day, and it felt so good to talk about my parents and hear stories of the past. We drove past houses and places that had meant something to us when we were younger. We went to Wilroads Gardens and drove to the house I grew up in. Liz, a friend who had grown up two doors east of me, had forewarned the new owner. We met Don, and he was kind and gracious. He allowed us to cut through his field so I could go stand down by the dam near what used to be the Arkansas River, a place that was extremely important to me growing up. As I worked my way past tangled vines and tumbleweeds towards the now abandoned dam, I heard a meadowlark somewhere near me, welcoming me home.
That night, I slept well in my hotel room, but in the morning, I was awakened by someone whispering: “Melissa.” I sat up in my bed, expecting that Audrey had somehow found her way into my room. Although my room was empty, I could not shake the feeling that someone had been there. Despite an initial feeling of eeriness, I felt calm and peaceful. Jennifer Ackerman, in The Genius of Birds, says that birds have the “ability to do something we can’t do: modulate their deep sleep by opening one eye” (51). If only I had been able to do this, I might have seen who was responsible for the voice bringing me comfort and healing. It was as if the spirits of my parents and grandparents were telling me that I would always find peace in the town I grew up in, and I could return to Michigan, now soothed with some emotional healing, through the sharing of memories, landscape, and stories.
Back in in Michigan, I watch eagles, hawks, pileated woodpeckers, loons, and chickadees on almost a daily basis. Since I am hobbling around on crutches for a while, I am limited as far as taking pictures. I am frustrated, but I can also sit back and imagine the life of these birds. Where have they been? What can I learn from them? They can travel places I cannot. If only I could fly and soar at a moment’s notice to the place where I grew up, breathe in the air, and find the younger version of me. I would explain to her that she would one day return again and again to this spot to understand how it held her steady for all of those years, but also gave her wings to fly.
We are not a rock band, but we could be. Collectively, we are four women who love taking photographs. Sandi Beaudoin, Jeannie Dow, Jo Przygocki, and I have all taken photography classes from Jerry Meier of Meier Camera in Midland, Michigan, so that we can improve as photographers. After six years of asking, Jo finally convinced Jerry to take a class on the road to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Our first stop was Mackinaw City, where we lined up along the shore, set up our tripods, and began shooting pictures. From the challenge of photographing a lit-up Mackinac Bridge while a freighter slid magnificently underneath, to the gentle morning fog and mist percolating above the Upper Tahquamenon Falls, we were focused. I, however, felt like my camera and I were on two different planets. Suddenly, it was exam time, and my brain decided to take a vacation.
Besides my brain being on a separate vacation than my body, I was in pain. I had received two steroid shots the day before, one in my leg and one in my groin, for a nagging injury that is now celebrating its one-year anniversary. I only have myself to blame. Trying to run through an injury is a very bad idea. Since I haven’t been able to run a road race for months now, or even run on the road, my endorphins are at an all-time low. Somehow this lack of a natural high has also affected just about everything else I do. While I stood on the beach with four fabulous photographers attempting to take a shot of the freighter American Integrity going under the bridge as the sky began to darken, I had a case of brain freeze and fumble fingers. Shutter speed? Aperture? Manual? Program? Define those terms! Use in a sentence! By the time I figured out what I should do, the sky was dark, and the freighter was halfway to Gary, Indiana. We packed up our gear and moved on.
Our next stop was the Headlands International Dark Sky Park. After a short four-mile drive, we parked, loaded up our gear, and walked a mile along a spacious path to the shoreline along Lake Michigan. We quickly learned that we should not leave a lantern on, because a voice from the dark will shout “turn your light off.” We also discovered that setting up our tripods while it was still light out would have been very advantageous, because the dark sky park is really, really, dark, and you can use only the tiny red lights on your headlamp. Later, Jeannie said that “learning the relationship between the shutter speed, ISO, and aperture in order to achieve the star trails” from Jerry was crucial in being able to get the shot she wanted. Once again, I learned that I tend to panic when under pressure. The clouds moved in, we packed up our gear, and walked back to the van. It was time to take off our Troll hats (people living south of the Mackinac Bridge) and journey to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and join the Yoopers.
Jo drove us through the night as we made our way towards Paradise, and we began to wonder if “Almost Paradise” was more than just a song. We made our turn and headed to Tahquamenon Falls. We arrived shortly after midnight and settled into the cabin Jo had rented for us near the Upper Falls. With no television or Wi-Fi, we enjoyed the sound of our own laughter and stories.
The next morning, we headed towards Munising for our first attempt at shooting waterfalls. Although all of us had taken photos of waterfalls, Jerry was with us, and we would be able to ask questions and make the necessary adjustments to our camera settings on the spot. Since it was a Saturday, the Munising Falls area was filled with photographers and sightseers. After deciding we had the shots we wanted, we headed to the parking area. Park Ranger Cheryl Debelak provided us with some wonderful suggestions as to where we might want to go next. We explained that I was injured, and so long hikes were out of the question. After brief stops at Miners Falls, Miners Castle Overlook, and Chapel Falls, we worked our way to the Log Slide Overlook, one of my favorite places in Michigan’s UP.
The Pictured Rocks area along Lake Superior is difficult to describe because it is so beautiful, and depending on where you stand, hike, sit, or camp, the terrain can be spectacularly different. At the small overlook above Lake Superior, you can see Au Sable Point and its lighthouse off to your left, and the Grand Sable Banks to your right. At one spot along the trail, the dunes seem to drop off right into Lake Superior. Hiking down to Lake Superior at this point is not for the faint of heart.
As we headed away from the Log Slide, and off towards Grand Marais along H-58, we continued our discussion of what worked and what didn’t work for our photos, referenced songs we liked, and told stories. At some point during our adventure, Jeannie had referred to us as “Jerry and the F-Stops,” and the name fit us like a lens cap. After taking a few shots of the lighthouse in Grand Marais, and, once again, me listening to a complete stranger telling me what I should be doing (How do I attract these people?), we headed to the Lake Superior Brewing Company for dinner and drinks.
Although the place was packed and out of whitefish (WHAT?), we had a great meal and adult beverage of our choice. We also wrote our names on the bathroom door, all with the assistance of our waitress who provided us with a Sharpie. I have never seen a bathroom and its door covered in so many names! If you are ever at the restaurant, look for our names. We are famous now. We went to the gas station across the street where the attendant seemed unaware of the old adage that one should never smoke a cigarette next to someone gassing up a vehicle. Apparently he hasn’t blown anyone up yet. We drove back to our cabin at Taquamenon Falls and relaxed. We had an early photo shoot planned for the morning.
Our last morning in the UP proved to be cloudy and misty. We headed to the falls. We were the first vehicle in the parking lot, and as we walked along the path, we began to hear the sweet sounding roar of the falls. I set up my tripod from above the falls while the rest of the group headed down about 100 stairs to shoot closer to the falls. I was jealous. I cursed my leg, my stupidity, and my stubbornness, and then I attempted to photograph the falls.
While alone, the more pictures I tried to shoot, the more frustrated I became. I got out my notes, and I tried to get my brain to work. When the group came up from the falls, I complained that I absolutely could not get a good shot. Jerry immediately looked at my camera settings and explained what I needed to do. I breathed a sigh of relief, and we headed to another part of the falls.
While the group, once again, climbed down to another vantage point below the falls, I focused my camera from an overlook facing the top of the falls. This time I got the shot I wanted. Although I have yet to get one of those dreamy waterfall pictures that Jeannie, Jo, and Sandi are so good at taking, I know that I will get one eventually. As Sandi said during one of our discussions on the trip, learning to “take my time and do the math,” is essential to taking a good shot. Clearly this is something that I need to work on.
We stopped briefly at Whitefish Point and shot a few photos before beginning our drive home. Our conversations in the car were also instructive as we reflected on what we learned. We also pondered non-photographic knowledge such as the amazing number of songs that have the words “sunshine” or “rain” in them, the five things men and women should never say to each other, and we discussed our plans for the immediate future after our weekend.
There is something to be said for taking the show on the road, and the benefit of having the teacher along to guide you on your way. Being with friends I happened to meet along my journey into photography was the best part of all. This made me think of the creative writing classes I used to teach at Saginaw Valley State University, and the connection between nature and writing. I tried to take my classes outside at least once a semester, and I wish I had done this more. The similarities to taking photographs are quite apparent. For me, the creative process works best, despite repeated failures in taking photographs or receiving rejections on poems or essays I have submitted for publication, when I am living and breathing my subject matter. When Jerry taught our classes in Midland, we did not spend all of our time in the classroom and talk about pictures. Instead, we were out in the field shooting pictures of a full moon rising, car lights, sunsets, people, and buildings with unique architecture. What is it about the interaction between nature and humans that subconsciously forces us to get our creative juices flowing?
I imagine most of us have pored over photographs remembering the people in the photos, reminiscing about the landscape, and telling stories about the time someone did something memorable enough to warrant bringing out the camera to shoot a picture. What if you are in the photograph? How does that alter your perception of the moment? Do your memories instantly trigger at the moment of recognition? What if you were not in the photo, but, instead, were the photographer? How will your memory store the moment? After three days of shooting photographs with this group of photographers, not only do I have photographic evidence of my trip, but I also have a new appreciation for the art of photography. Sandi said it best: “The more you learn, the more you realize what you don’t know.” My learning curve has been as steep as a Sleeping Bear Dunes Climb.
Ten years from now, I can only imagine what my memories will be of this particular moment, or the stories I will tell about my weekend with Jerry and the F-Stops. In the song “Photograph,” by Ringo Starr, he suggests that “all I’ve got is this photograph.” Sometimes that can be a beautiful thing. Freeze Frame.
I can’t believe it has been eight years since my mother died from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. Because Alzheimer’s strips away memory and function at such a slow rate, it seems as if my mother died long before her body took its last breath. It’s as if one day she was kissing my cheek, and the next day, she entered into a long sleep as her body started to shut down. With every labored breath she took, I tried to remember everything my mother had taught me about facing the tough times. We had a joke we would say to each other when we needed to get to the point, but there were hundreds of side stories that would try and jump into the mix. Instead of saying that’s another story, one of us would say, “That’s a whole nother story,” Our language. Our stories.
I still feel my mother’s presence every day, especially when something wonderfully unexpected happens: A red cardinal at the bird feeder when I’m preparing to submit writing to a literary journal. A burst of sunshine through the clouds when I am feeling sad. A handwritten card from someone. I still have all the cards and letters my mother wrote to me after I moved away from home.
A whole nother thing I learned about myself after my mother died was that I would often ask myself what my mother would do in a particularly stressful situation. She constantly told me to “kill” someone “with kindness” if someone happened to be causing me pain. That can be a very difficult thing to do. I have not always been successful. I am working on not reacting negatively when someone does something unkind to me, and I am focusing more on the good things that happen to me and cherishing the moment. These good things seem to be happening more often now, and when I least expect it.
After six weeks of painful physical therapy, I decided it was time to test my body in a road race. Because my son was signed up to run the St. Patrick’s Day road race in Bay City, Michigan, I decided I would attempt the 5k walk. I hadn’t run since January 23rd, so I promised my physical therapist that I would walk slowly. My husband and son both doubted that I knew what “slow” meant. They were right.
I felt good at the starting line. I was surrounded by people anxious to get going in the thirty degree temperature. I put my earbuds in and started my playlist. I waited for the race to begin and the crush of bodies to move forward. As soon as I could, I passed a bunch of people and began walking. I tried to go slow, but my body seemed to be dictating my pace.
With a little over a mile to go, I felt a tap on my left shoulder. Becky, as I would soon find out, indicated that she liked my pace, and she wanted to walk with me. I knew I was going at a pretty good clip, and I had just strategically passed through a group of walkers blocking my route, so I didn’t have to slow down. I was in the groove.
As Becky and I continued at our fast pace, we began to chat a bit. I pulled out my left earbud, so I could hear her better, and we really cranked up our pace. I explained that I had recently finished PT, so I wasn’t sure how I would do. Becky was a great motivator. It was one of those moments where I felt as if my mother was keeping watch over me, and somehow picked Becky out of the crowd to cheer me on.
We ended up finishing the race fairly close together. Becky had a better kick at the end and finished just ahead of me. We were passing quite a lot of people as we headed towards the finish line, and I felt pretty good about that. Becky and I chatted briefly after the race, and I headed off to find my son.
Matt had run a good race at a sub-seven minute mile. He was 11th in his very competitive age group. As Matt drove back to Midland, I checked the results on my phone. I was shocked. I was second in my age group. Although the fastest walker in my age group had a 12:11 pace, my 13:31 pace was a keeper. Becky also finished second in her much younger age group. Despite my husband’s reminder that I had promised to walk slow, I told him that once Becky showed up, I felt as if I was meant to walk at that pace for the race. Some things are just meant to happen.
On the day before the anniversary of my mother’s death, my friend Darcy sent me a link to a poem about a woman dealing with her father’s Alzheimer’s. Beth Copeland’s poem is about erasure, and I thought of my own mother’s memories being slowly erased as we moved through her illness. I missed her laugh and her moments of “whole nother stories” that we would no longer share. I wish I had written more of those stories down. They seem lost somewhere in my own memories, but sometimes one of those stories will find its way into an unexpected moment.
I thought about the moment during the road race when Becky and I were nearing the finish line. I could hear Becky saying “we’ve got this” in my left ear, but the earbud in my right ear suddenly seemed to ring out louder. Chris Stapleton’s “Parachute” blasted through the sounds of the race, well-wishers, and music playing somewhere nearby. “Baby, I will be your parachute,” seemed to take on even more meaning. As I marched my way towards the finish line, I looked up into the beautiful blue sky, and I thought that if only my mother was still alive, I would have lots of stories to tell her. The one about my promise to walk slowly. The one about a stranger showing kindness to me. The one about drinking a beer with my son at lunch after the race. Or the one about my long drive home and the fact that I could not wipe the smile off of my face. But that’s a whole nother story.
Linda Ronstadt’s version of Warren Zevon’s “Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me” popped into my head the minute I figured out that I was no longer able to heal myself. In October of 2015, I made the mistake of stepping awkwardly off of a friend’s porch as I turned to wave goodbye. The minute my right foot hit the ground, I knew I had injured my body. I didn’t fall. Perhaps I should have. Despite the obvious pain in my leg, hip, thigh, quad, hamstring, screaming muscles, and pride, I figured I would rest a few days, stretch more, and get over it. For the next few months, I alternated walking and running. I knew my gait was wrong. Occasionally on hills, my right leg collapsed. I was in running denial. After a fairly decent four-mile run on January 23rd, my body suddenly seized up like a broken corkscrew. After a series of x-rays showed that my spine was fine, my doctor informed me that I would have to have physical therapy. I headed home and sang to myself: “Poor, poor, pitiful me.”
This wouldn’t be my first dance with physical therapy. About twelve years ago, I hurt my back shoveling snow and had to go to PT for six weeks and attend back school. During the first week of intense pain caused by a bulging disc, I was in a Vicodin-induced euphoric stage. I liked it a little too much. After being stretched out on a rack-like bed, learning exercises that would help me get stronger, and finding out ways to rake leaves and shovel snow without hurting my back, I finally recovered. I no longer wanted to sleep on the floor. I could drive a stick shift again without wincing as I changed gears. Spring came. Birds sang. I could run again. And then one day I found out I could not float through the air. Hadn’t my mother always warned me to watch where I was going? Although I didn’t fall, the minute my right foot hit the ground, I knew I was in trouble. Ouch.
In early February, my doctor listened to me recite my excuses for not coming in four months earlier. She didn’t even roll her eyes at me. After listening to me whine for a few minutes, she gave me a prescription for Cyclobenzaprine and Naproxen to help with the pain. I took the Naproxen for four days, before I decided to quit. All I could think about was drinking Pepto Bismol straight from the bottle. I didn’t even try the other drug. I wanted to embrace my pain. The following week I headed to my PT assessment, and I was told me that I would run again, but I had four weeks of PT to look forward to. My iliotibial band was a mess. Let the exercises begin.
As part of my daily routine, I work out twice-daily to strengthen my core, hips, hamstrings, quads, and thighs. I work out the elliptical trainer. I walk slowly. After almost four weeks of physical therapy at a facility in Houghton Lake, I have developed a love-hate relationship with my physical therapist. When I told her I was going to write about her for my blog, I asked her if I should use an alias for her name since she obviously was the Sweeney Todd of the PT world. She laughed and said I could call her Debbie.
Debbie, despite being a wonderful PT, introduced me to the world of the Graston Technique®. This particular use of stainless steel instruments used to break up scar tissue is guaranteed to locate your sore spots and make you sit up, see stars, and wish you had been smarter a long time ago. With apologies to Bryan Adams, “it cuts like a knife.” My Graston tool looks like a very large knife. The tool leaves bruises. Debbie promises me that she is breaking down the knots in my iliotibial band. These unwanted knots formed in my muscles while I was stupidly trying to heal myself. They are nasty. They hurt. They are the three stooges of my nightmares, and I can feel them when I try and massage them on a regular routine. I think of beer. I think of chocolate. I think of swimming in the ocean with sharks. Poor, poor pitiful me.
A few days after I started PT and was firmly entrenched in my pitiful mood, I went to the Winterläufe race in Frankenmuth with my son. I had signed up for the race, but since I had zero chance of running or walking the 8k race, I decided to go along and cheer on my son and take pictures. This was a new experience for me. I am not used to the sidelines during road races. Matt placed third in his age group and won a cowbell. I have never wanted a cowbell so much in my life. I now stare at people running on the roads with envy and despair.
On March 1st, the folks at PT will assess my body to see if I need more PT, or if I can work out on my own. Last week, I asked Debbie if I could at least walk the Bay City St. Patrick’s Day race, and she, in turn, asked me if I could walk without being competitive. Umm, sure, I said. I can teach my body to stroll. I told her I had walked 2.5 miles on the road recently and had walked fifteen-minute miles, and it seemed really slow. I even made a playlist that has more mellow songs on it. Debbie didn’t seem convinced that I could participate in a race and take it easy.
I guess my stubbornness and my inability to be patient got the better of me this time. I miss swearing at inattentive drivers on the road. I miss the endorphin rush that kicks in when I run. Instead, I work out inside and dream about the day I can run again. I do my exercise routine while I listen to the blues. I think about what that first run is going to be like when I get the go ahead. I will pretend that Debbie is chasing me with the Graston tool.
Perhaps the hot summer sun festered an old love-sick sore in his mouth. He leaned against his seal coating squeegee as if it were an extension of his self-esteem. He grinned at me as he smoothed out the driveway he worked on, the smell of seal coating oozing through the humid air like burning tires. “Good morning. Beautiful weather.” I agreed and smiled as I continued on my morning run. As the road curved to the right, I glanced towards the left. “I fancy doing me some of that,” he said as he pointed towards me. His face morphed into a venomous leer, and his inference was quite clear. His young coworker looked horrified and quickly lowered his head. Mr. Fancy That seemed quite pleased with himself as if this line had worked somewhere for him before. His smiled reeked of delusionary charm.” I quickened my pace as I ran the last mile home. The theme song from Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone started playing in my head like an unwanted earworm.
Cue the music. Hasn’t everyone had a Twilight Zone moment? Imagine Rod Serling’s serious voice delivering the unwelcome news. Over the years, I have heard plenty of strange comments while out running or during random conversations with people. Really? Did that person mean to insult me with that compliment? Did you mean to suggest that I am older than dirt? When someone tells me I look good for my age, should I say thank you? A student in one of my creative writing classes one year had described a character as “old” in her one of her short stories. I made the mistake of asking how old the character was in front of the class. The student pointed at me and said, “Your age.” Well, thank you so much. It was certainly a TZM (twilight zone moment) for me, but I think the rest of the students in the class thought it was the most hilarious thing they had ever heard. Running the roads or teaching classes aren’t the only places I have experienced a TZM.
A woman I barely know came up to me at the end of church one Sunday and said she wanted me to “sing a duet with [her] much-younger boyfriend.” She asked me if I was married, and I quickly flashed some major sparkle at her. She said she needed to check, because she didn’t want me to steal her man away from her. This woman is 86 years old. She said her boyfriend had a really long beard as if I might find him to be irresistible. I’m thinking: ZZ Top? Would he be “A Sharp Dressed Man”? Chris Stapleton? Would he be my “Parachute”? I knocked that vision out of my head and thought about my husband: He reminds me of a young Sam Elliot, mustache and all. I fancy that.
I wondered about this sudden sexual power I had. Okay, so it was only twice in the past six months, but I still wondered what sort of message I was sending. I sweat when I run, and my running clothes are actually pretty boring. When I go to church, I wear jeans and a nice sweater or shirt. Being prematurely accused of stealing someone else’s man before I had even met him seemed a verifiable TZM. I thought of Mickey Gilley’s song “Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time?” This Baker Knight penned song was a number one hit in 1976. In 2016, the lyrics took on a whole new meaning.
Suppose closing time is really just a metaphor for aging. Epiphany! I must be getting more desirable the older I get. I was on board with this notion. I now had a reason to live. I now had something to look forward to. I wasn’t getting older; I was getting prettier.
For most of my life, I was referred to as cute. Not beautiful. Not gorgeous. Not pretty. Cute and funny. These are just the words a teenage girl wants to hear as she watches all of her friends get selected for homecoming court or prom queen. At church camp one year, I had the misfortune of being referred to as a cute puppy. Imagine the hit my self-esteem took on that one. I was thirteen at the time. Luckily the puppy stage was short-lived, and in high school, my nickname was Missy. When I moved to California, I informed everyone that I wanted to be called Melissa. After all, it is my name.
I don’t really consider myself cute anymore. I’m too old for that. I’m tolerable. I don’t break mirrors when I look into them. I try not to look horrible in public. I try not to scare my husband in the morning. According to most of the women’s magazines I occasionally read, I don’t even really exist. It seems that once women reach their fifties, well, the advice columns drop right off. I have no idea what to wear anymore without Glamour magazine telling me what’s a “do” or a “don’t.” I do know that women past thirty should never, never, ever, ever wear a skirt that hits above the knees. Apparently, thirty is when “Ugly Knees Syndrome (UKS)” kicks in. I bet each one of you out there has been offended by a woman’s ugly knees at some point. I have also been reading articles about “crepey” skin. When I first saw the word, I thought it was a typo for creepy, but, no, crepey means basically old skin. Cher does not have crepey skin despite being almost 70 years old. Apparently there are ways around this unfortunate development with our skin as we age, but I have decided to stick with the face I was born with. And I am not going to go hide in a coffin until I die.
I am basically happy with myself right now, and my husband seems content with me even if I haven’t washed my hair for three days, put on makeup for a week straight, or bothered to put on a shirt that doesn’t have the name of a road race on it. And for me, he is my sharp dressed man even in his blue jeans and t-shirt. He’s been my parachute for a long, long time.
I guess when those occasional Twilight Zone Moments happen, I will remind myself that I am obviously getting prettier at closing time and that my puppy dog days are over. However, as I slip closer and closer to the twilight years, I plan on singing songs, running or walking, and showing off my ugly knees, crepey skin, and all of the other things that will happen to my body right before closing time.