Sunday, March 31, 2013

journeying back and back again

For the past 40 years, since March 27, 1973, I’ve kept a journal. The second entry, on March 28, relates “a big day” of getting the news that the back brace I had been wearing for the past year and a half to correct a curvature of the spine had been doing its job (at 25 degrees the curve was acceptable) and, just as importantly, I had stopped growing (topping out at five-six and three-quarters). The doctor said I could cut back on wearing the brace to 12 hours a day. A few months earlier, I had cut down to 14 hours, which had freed me from wearing the contraption at school. So everything was moving in the right direction, and soon I would
“be finished with that damned brace! That’s what I’ve been living for for over two years now!”
Two weeks ago I was in California to spend time with my mother. On the second day of my visit we were sitting in her apartment when she turned to me and asked, “Did you wear a back brace?” When I mentioned this to my sister, who lives near my mother, she told me that Mom often talks about “poor Leslie” and that back brace. So when I woke up the next day and got my tea and settled in with pen and notebook, this is what I wrote, slightly edited.
Thursday, March 14
7 a.m.
I have learned that I need to thank my mother for the back brace that I wore when 13, 14, and 15 years old. It was called a Milwaukee brace, and I wore it to correct a curvature of the spine and to prevent further curvature. The condition is called scoliosis.

The summer before eighth grade my mother noticed that my right shoulder blade stuck out more than my left. It’s one of those things that you wish, at age 12-going-on-13, that your mother would not notice, and when she does, that she would then quit bugging you about it. But my mother noticed and my mother bugged me about it—“stand up straight, “let me see,” “does it hurt?” blah blah blah—and soon my mother took me to a doctor.

The brace consisted of a molded plaster corset that snugged my waist from pelvic bone to rib cage, flattening my stomach, wrapping around my hips and buttocks. There was a gap in the back so I could slip out of it to take showers. (At first, that was the only time I took the brace off.) A metal shaft secured to the front of the corset went up to a metal ring that made a wide berth around my neck. Two metal rods went from the back of the corset, one on each side, to the neck ring. On the neck ring, one piece of hard plastic made a chin rest, and in the back two pieces made what I guess could be called head bumpers. The shaft and rods were adjustable
via screws and a series of holes, so they could lengthen as I grew. The brace was secured in back with a webbed nylon sash, and the neck ring must have opened and closed somehow, but I don’t remember. I do remember hating the brace and never once forgetting it was between me and the rest of the world.

The brace kept me ramrod straight from hips to head and two attachments worked on correcting the curves in my spine. One was a bumper on the left back rod that pushed into my lower back, and the other was a slightly curved pad on a sash that was attached to the front metal shaft and then hooked onto a back rod. It applied pressure to that right shoulder blade that was sticking out, a pressure that I could adjust. Adjusting the pressure of the lower pad, however, required a trip to the “brace place.” Both pads were rigid, covered in leather.

I learned to put the brace on and to take it off without help. Underneath, I wore a T-shirt.

I had regular visits to the doctor for x-rays and regular trips to the “brace place” for adjustments to the hardware. The doctor was a wonderful man in a nice office not far from home; the “brace place” was in a bleak warehouse-type building in a bleak warehouse-type neighborhood way down in the city. It was like going to the auto mechanic. Cold and metallic. My mother went with me to the doctor and to the warehouse, picking me up from school, staying with me, driving me back to school or home. I don’t remember that we talked much during these trips, but I do know we felt the same way about those starkly different places.

No doubt I have been ungraceful in my life, but this time with the brace was perhaps the first and one of the most profound. In the brace I moved like a hardwood board and stood and sat—perhaps “perched” is a better word—like I had a stick up  my ass. And I was not grateful that my mother cared enough about me to notice that there was a problem with my back and that it would be best to do something about it rather than to let it ruin my life
which a growing 36-degree spinal curve might very well have done. Instead, I sat stiffly in that car on those trips and behaved stiffly, being peevish and feeling put upon and probably blaming my mother for this monstrosity I was suffering. Felt I was suffering.

I guess it is difficult to remember just how bad my attitude might have been—I was, after all, just 13, 14, 15. I suppose I tried to keep most of it inside. But we all know how well that works, how leaky we are.

As difficult as that time was for me, it was as difficult, if not more, for my mother, in ways I can only imagine. At the time, she would have been in her early 50s, just a few years younger than I am now. That I might have added to her difficulty by never thanking her for all of it—for every concern, for every doctor visit, for every trip to the “mechanic,” for those few years in that damned, uncomfortable brace—has only just occurred to me. I view my life and tell my stories from such a narrow place.
Journals, then and now.

I had a few more days with my mom, so I thanked her for the brace, for making sure I grew up somewhat straight and tall, but I don’t know that it matters much at this point. Most likely she forgot my words soon after they were spoken. All I can do is hope that she knew all along.

Read last week’s post about hitchhiking and yoopers, or listen to an entry from the daily journal.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

hitchin’ a ride with yoopers

Better than “A Prairie Home Companion,” the stories I heard Tuesday on an impromptu drive from Chicago to Hancock, Michigan, made me forget the weariness of my travels. I had arrived at O’Hare International Airport about 5 a.m., on the red-eye from San Francisco. The flight to Hancock, scheduled to depart at 11, was canceled just about the time we were to be boarding, due to a winter storm. As we queued up in front of United’s customer service desk to find out what would happen next, I overhead a trim, grey-haired man on a cell phone talking about a rental car. I turned to him and said, “I’ll go with you. If you rent a car, I’ll go with you.”

While in Santa Barbara, I visited the farmers market.

I’ve had some hitchhiking adventures in my time, but that was many years ago, in the late seventies. There was a trip from San Francisco to Olympia, Washington, with my friend Isobel, and my solo venture from Appleton, Wisconsin, to Chicago. Both were ill-advised and unnecessary; both were wildly fun and memorable.

The night before Isobel and I hit the road with thumbs out, we drank whiskey and made a list of all the things we would not do. As we slowly made our way through California, Oregon, and into Washington, we found ourselves crossing all those do-not-do things off the list one by one, and sometimes two by one. We got in a pick-up truck; in the back window was a gun rack and rifle. We got in a car with a bunch of guys, Isobel in front, me in back. (I shudder to think about that ride, the stupidity of it, and the luck of it. The guys were obnoxious and they stank of onions. Luckily, that’s the worst I can say of them.) We got in a semi-truck, an 18-wheeler. That turned out to be our best ride. The trucker had stories to tell, fed us at a truck stop, and took us most of the way, all the way through Washington, if I recall correctly.

When I hitched from Appleton to Chicago, leaving on a cold, January night, I was picked up by a brakeman on his way to the train yard. He snuck me onto the freight train, and I rode the rails with him and the engineer all the way to the roundhouse in Schaumburg, where I was able to catch some sleep before heading on.

So I’ve had some interesting rides with strangers.

Those were the days.

But Tuesday’s ride with a band of yoopers tops the list. As we stood in the customer service line with our various rolling bags and totes and books and jackets and purses, cell phones began to jingle; the news was that the earliest flight being booked was Thursday morning, two days away. This was the second flight to Hancock to be canceled, and my guy on the cell phone looking for a rental car had intended to be home on the previous flight. It seemed to me that despite the obvious trouble he was having with getting information on a rental—particularly information to his liking—that if anybody were going to get to Hancock before Thursday, it would this fellow and his wife. Now, I didn’t have to get home, but I really wanted to get home, so without hesitation I threw in my lot with these two, who I will now call Mr. and Mrs. M.

I waited for Mr. M to take action, and he did. Come on, let’s go. We broke free of the line, started following the airport’s “Rental Car” signs, but, oh no!, Mrs. M has stopped to talk to someone!

Let’s go!

And we’re off.

The funny thing about following the rental car signs at O’Hare is this—they lead you outside to a row of shuttle buses, one for each rental company, but unless you have a car reserved with that company, you can’t get on the bus. There is no desk at which to make a reservation; there is no person to help you with a reservation. As the shuttle bus driver for National/Alamo explained this to us, Mr. M got back on his phone, called the rental car folks up at the Hancock airport, asked them if they could get us a reservation, they could, so we were on our way. (Also, it turned out that the bus driver had been to the U.P., and he loves it up here … )

We finally arrived at the outlying hut for National Car Rental and got ourselves a four-wheel-drive Ford Flex with plenty of room. Mrs. M called N and J, whom she’d been talking to back in line at the airport, and we waited for them to join us. By noon we were pulling away from the National lot. It was sunny and cold with a stiff west wind, a wind that would be with us, buffeting the Flex, the entire trip. Mr. M got us on 294, heading north, and soon I conked out, sleeping through Milwaukee. Figuring this would happen (instead of sleeping on the red-eye flight, I’d watched a surf movie), I had opted for the rear seat. When I woke up, I heard the quiet chatter of the three women, who, it turned out, had grown up together in Hancock, two in the same neighborhood, one in another close by. It was still sunny, the road clear except for occasional patches of snow and slush. Here and there, a car in the ditch. Mr. M drove steady, as he would the whole trip.

Just south of Green Bay, we stopped at McDonald’s, and I don’t know if it was inhaling that fuel or what—maybe I just started paying attention—but soon thereafter the meat of the trip took hold. It started with J remembering how Mrs. M’s mother would give her candy every week when paying J for delivering the newspaper, and this led to Mrs. M remembering something about six-packs of beer and the garbage man, and this led to another memory, and then another, and yet another. One person would start, another would pick it up, details would emerge, memories would sketch themselves out full-bodied. There was laughter. Oi! So much laughter!

I don’t want to repeat the stories: I just want to tell you that listening to the stories was a rare and wonderful treat. I can picture now, as I pictured then, this crazy growing up in the middle of the 20th century in a northern mining town with steep hills and deep snow, where the kids of a neighborhood played together, outside, played with each other, whoever you were, sledding and skating down icy streets, slamming, on occasion, into a garage, paying the price, doing it all over again. The people described were big and small, drunk and sober, Italian and Finn, and they filled that rental car with vividness and laughter. Each was as welcome as the next. After all, what do kids know? They didn’t know. To hear these women tell it, they just had fun.

The weather didn’t turn south until we hit Michigan, somewhere near Covington, the snow falling, blowing on that western gale, but nothing much slowed us down except for the occasional pokey in front of us, and Mr. M would pass that obstacle as soon as he was able. We arrived at the Hancock airport at 7:30 p.m., the 400-some-mile trip having taken six and a half hours. Along the way, J had been on her cell phone with her husband. He had gone to the airport to make sure it was plowed and to dig out our cars. Unfortunately, there are a lot of dark blue vans out there, and one dark blue van two spots down from mine was nice and clean. Mine was not, but thanks to the wind, the west side was snow-free and I was able to get out my coat. (Since Chicago, I had been wearing five shirts to stay warm). Putting on my coat was another matter. The wind blew it this way and that, and apparently it was so funny it deserved a picture.

Me and my coat and my van at CMX.

I wrote a check to Mr. M to cover my portion of the rental and gas, and I pushed the snow away from the driver’s side of the van and got going on the final 30 miles home. It took me an hour. Darkness fell, the snow came down in blinding sheets, the road drifted over. I held a steady course, plowed up my drive, and from the carport to the door waded through knee-deep snow. The house—abandoned and unheated for the past week—was cold. But, having hitched a ride with yoopers*, I was home. I called Mrs. M to let her know I was safe.

* Technically, the term “yooper” is reserved for those born in the U.P., so, technically, not all those in the Ford Flex were yoopers. But, you could have fooled me.

Read last week’s post, or listen to it.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

wild turkey

From the lookout point by Fisherman’s Island I watch a wild turkey make his way slowly along the opposite bank of the river. The steep incline of the bank is dark and scrubby with sand and dirt and dead wildflowers. The top of the bank, where the turkey is, is light with snow.

I had been scanning the floor of the woods on the opposite bank, about 50 yards away, paying particular attention to the openings between the trees, the spaces between the maple and beech and occasional cedar, and as my gaze traveled right to left it arrested on a spot directly across from me. There was no discernible reason for this—all I saw was a dark blob against a grey tree—but being in no hurry I waited. Perhaps it was just a dark spot on the lower part of a tree, or maybe a tree stump. But, was that a bit of red? Is that what caught my eye? Yes, there it was; then it wasn’t. A slight movement? The red reappeared. The wattle of a turkey? The red disappeared.

It was very quiet and quite still, though I did hear faint sounds off to the east: the voices and laughter of children and the bark of a dog. Otherwise, just the sough of a light wind from the northeast. I stared at the blob across the river. If it was a turkey, he was big and probably facing away from me. A few days earlier I had seen a turkey in the same spot, first noticing its odd sound, a soft plonk … plonk, and then noticing movement between the trees as the turkey, stepping gingerly, moving slowly, bobbing his head, pecked at the ground.

Ten years or so ago, as I began spending time in quiet and uncrowded places like the woods of the Upper Peninsula, I began to wonder how growing up and continuing to live in noisy and crowded places like Chicago and its suburbs had effected my senses, specifically my ability to see, hear, and smell. In the city, I felt as if I shut down to a certain extent, blocking things out as a defense against overload. At any given moment on a city street there can be so much to see, so many people of so many types and styles moving in so many directions with so many intentions and moods; there are bicycles and cars and buses and motorcycles and trucks and ambulances and shop windows and shop doors and people coming and going and standing still. In front of you are traffic lights and neon lights and blinking lights. On the ground are pigeons and pigeon shit and dogs and dog shit and scraps of paper and tissue and plastic cups and paper cups and straws and burger boxes and curbs and cracks and potholes. You’re in an envelope of sound that echoes with people chattering and laughing and yelling and cars roaring and honking and beeping and tires squealing and alarms blaring and feet scuffling and shuffling and high heels clickity-clacking. Overhead trains screech and clack and underground trains rumble and whoosh. Smells of gas and exhaust and coffee and grease and barbecue and popcorn and urine and liquor seep in through every pore. Is it possible to navigate without the senses filtering, blocking, and protecting? How else to keep from stopping dead in your tracks, breathing your last words, saying “Whoa. This is too much.” And the more troubling thought: In a quieter, less crowded place, do the senses, not knowing any better, continue to filter and block? Would I be prevented from seeing and hearing all there was to see and hear in the woods? All there was to smell?

I came up with the theory that if there were less to see and hear and smell that my ability to see and hear and smell would recover, open up, sharpen, and that I would actually see and hear and smell more. Away from the city the blocking mechanisms would still be in place, at first, but with time, recovery.

The dark blob separated from the tree, became a turkey, and the turkey turned, took a step, then another. For a while he made his way slowly along the snow line at the top of the bank. I could no longer hear the children playing or the dog barking. The sough of the wind continued and, off to the south, crows began to caw.

Read last week’s post.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

a pea picklin’ diary: March 9 to 4

Saturday, March 9
6:45 a.m.

Delivered candles to the co-op yesterday, got chocolate at Donckers, picked up my new glasses in the old frames—now everything is too clear—and stopped at the gallery. Went back to the antique mall in Ishpeming to get that wooden ironing board and ended up browsing. Last week, I missed the second floor. Up there, a whole stash of teapots. I was looking for a two-cupper, and even though I found what I was looking for, I insisted on buying something else—a ceramic chicken labeled a “vase.” It might be a creamer. I am trying it out as a teapot. That just proved ridiculous, because it doesn’t even hold a whole cup. I was hoping for at least a cup and a half. And to think, I’ve been tested as having good spatial perception.

It was sunny, and by the time I got back home temps were in the low 40s. Soft snow underfoot, melted snow drizzling off the porch roof. At the gallery, Ryan was working and we got to talking about how it’s maple syrup season—time to tap the trees—and since he actually does that, he was remembering that stretch of hot weather last year that wreaked havoc with the sap flow and hence, syrup production. Now that I think of it, I am a lot like sap. I prefer days with temps above freezing and nights below. This time of year, anyway.

Thursday, March 7
7:15 a.m.

Two small candle orders are ready to mail, and seven of the twelve Buddhas are done for Olive 54, the store in New Jersey. Still need to make the Buddhas’ peace necklaces. Also, the co-op order is complete. A good week in the candle business.

Cold, grey days continue. I should make more lip balm. 

Wednesday, March 6
7 a.m.

I was bringing in wood yesterday after lunch when Julie walked up the drive. O, solitude busted! It being a cold, grey day, I closed the door behind me as I carried in the last of the wood, and when Julie reached the porch she stayed out there, so I went out, and I asked her how she was. She said, “Not so good,” and began fumbling with a tattered red notebook she was carrying, trying to open it at a specific spot. I did not know what to expect; she was so visibly upset.

There was a newspaper clipping tucked in the notebook and once she got the book open I could see the clipping and recognized it as one of those ads of available dogs at the shelter, though it also struck me as an obituary. Anyway, I kind of understood her dog had died, and then, with her face crumpling, she said, “My dog died.” She kind of hugged me and I hugged her. Julie’s head comes just about to my shoulder and her body is so slight it felt for a moment as if I were holding a child.

I told her to come in and we had tea and she told me about it and we talked of other things, too. When I was telling her about the day Buster died, Elliott jumped into my lap and stayed there a while, purring. Eventually I gave Julie a ride home, as I was heading to the post office, and she was talking about going to the shelter for a new dog, one to swim with, one who’d be okay with cats, one who wouldn’t chase chickens or be afraid of cows. The dog who died, who was nine years old and didn’t have a name—Julie explained it once: she knows who I mean—was all that and a jolly sort, too, a big, grinning, white and black-spotted girl.

Not so cold this morning, but a light snow falling. Rather than being upstairs with me as I drifted awake, Elliott was downstairs scratching at the chair, digging in his nails and ripping, loudly. Also, meowing, so I had to get up and let him out. A serious sign of spring.

Tuesday, March 5
7 a.m.

Smelling a skunk this morning. Another sign of spring.

Cleaned a bucketful of ash from the wood stove and now a quick, hot fire to help us warm up.

Last night as I closed the curtains, Orion in the southern sky.

On the porch again late yesterday afternoon, in the sun, without the wine, thinking of the number of days now without seeing another person—three. Sometimes I have to think about it, because I lose track of time. I start out the day knowing it’s Monday, or Tuesday, or Wednesday, but at any given moment during the day I may be unsure. I had to think about which day it was that I had last seen anyone—Friday—which day it was now—Monday—and then count. As I counted, a blissful feeling, in the sun, on the porch, listening to icicles drip.

This morning I snuggle back into that feeling. I have so craved solitude in my life, and yet been so afraid of it, so wary; always in the back of my mind my mother saying: You don’t want to end up old and alone.

No, I don’t want to end up old and alone. Being alone, we are told, is oh so bad, in oh so many ways. And, as human beings, we are just not cut out for it. We read about it in every book, see it in every show, hear it in every song. Every study of every academic discipline tells us that we are social beings. I have been told that I am “anti-social,” and I have taken it to heart, and I have wondered: Am I an aberration? But I have come to believe that trying to fit in, trying not to be alone, has taken me down many wrong paths.

Somewhere along the way I must have found support for solitude and for being alone, found inspiration, found someone—some human—who helped me to understand that maybe, for some of us, being alone is okay, is natural and fine and good; surely there have been those who have helped me to believe that if I sought solitude I would not be walking off a cliff, falling into a canyon of misery and insanity, wishing fervently that I had not taken that last step. I think of the man in the documentary “Alone in theWilderness,” whose name I don’t remember, who at some age like 52 dropped down in the wilds of Alaska to build himself a home, filmed it, kept a journal, did not, as far as I know, go crazy.

So many things I’ve been told about this “loner” business. Mostly by those who have no experience with it. Maybe part of the bliss of it all, this feeling I have of wanting now to snuggle into my solitude and enjoy it, is the realization that over the past few days I have forgotten how it feels to be lonely.

Monday, March 4
6:45 a.m.

Such cold mornings we’re having—clear and cold. Five below zero today and yesterday, though yesterday afternoon’s temps rose to 35 and with the March sun came warmth. But this morning, rime bristles on every branch of every tree. The struggle for spring has begun, and I begin to realize that one should not judge this northern spring by its southern counterpart.

Late in the afternoon I sat on the porch enjoying the last glass from the second bottle of wine I bought after Buster was gone. That part of the grieving is now over. The landscape was so very still and bright! Icicles were falling—their crashing freaked out Elliott, sent him scurrying inside. Water dripped from those desperate holes Jill and I made in the gutter two Junes ago, when I believed the gutters were holding water and incubating mosquitoes, and there was a pleasant plunk and plinkity plink as the drops hit the puddles carved into the snow.

Read last week’s post, or listen to it.

Monday, March 4, 2013

in a cinnamon haze of well being

Cold, clear morning; moonshine. A night of deep sleep. Earlier in the week, not so. Restless, sleepless, I pulled a notebook from the chest of journals and began to read. The summer of 2007. Can’t put it down. What happens next? Because I’m thinking what happens next in the summer of 2007 is going to happen next in the spring of 2013. Our lives are so loopy, emotions and reactions constantly recycling. If you think you haven’t felt this way before, I bet you have. If you think you’ll never feel this way again, I bet you do. But what I find most interesting is that we forget this; we forget that life repeats itself. I will forget it until I go back and read my own words, reminding myself that I’ve felt this way and reacted this way and written about it this way before. And then … recovered and moved on. And then … like the ending to The Slithery Dee, my favorite bit by the Smothers Brothers: crogkeracrogkerargggggg …

I searched the Internet yesterday for information on spirulina, specifically if it could be burned (someone had given me this idea of adding spirulina to the candles for green color), and all I learned was that spirulina burns fat. Then, I realized I did not know the consequences of burning cinnamon—could it possibly be toxic? I've been adding cinnamon to the candles for a while now, so I investigated and found some great marketing material. From an article by Bea Heller on
Some believe that burning cinnamon in incense will promote high spirituality and aid in healing. Some people also believe it can stimulate the passions of a male.
And from
Magical Uses: Burned in incense, cinnamon will promote high spirituality and psychic ability. It is also used to stimulate the passions of the male.
Ah, repetition. Does repetition make it so? There is more good stuff about burning cinnamon in Heller’s article (including how “cinnamon’s scent boosts brain function”) and in an article at

It is just like me to be making a product like cinnamon-infused beeswax candles without realizing what I am doing, without realizing the greatness of it all and the marketing potential. I have been oblivious to this candle’s power. Just think, between the beeswax and the cinnamon you get:
  • negative ions cleaning the air
  • a surge in creativity
  • heightened passion (male passion!)
  • increased spirituality
  • the potential for healing
  • psychic ability
  • a boost in serotonin: you feel good
  • your brain works better
  • your memory improves
  • you are relieved of tension

This is what they say, anyway, and I am blown away. This is one powerful candle, be it in the shape of a little bear, or a moose, or a wolf, or an egg, or a swirly fern ball.

Now, how do I back up these claims, other than to say: I saw it on the Internet. Well, I offer you this. Yesterday I made cinnamon beeswax egg candles, one after the other, all day long, and yesterday I made lip balm, one tube after another, all day long, and by the end of the day I felt pretty damn good. For both, I melted the wax on the wood stove and added the cinnamon at the kitchen table, stirring in the cinnamon powder for the eggs and the cinnamon oil for the lip balm. As I stirred, I gazed out the kitchen window through the dripping icicles marveling at the snow cover, a solid crust, bright in the sun. And the warmer it got, the faster the icicles dripped and the longer they grew, dripping and growing steadily in the bright sun, melting away, growing bigger, melting away, growing bigger ... I was aware of all the contrasts. I was aware of all the lines, all the shapes, all the rhythms, all the incongruities and blessed congruities. I soon went out and took a closer look. I realized icicles are a sign of spring. I realized a crusty snow cover is a sign of spring. I realized an increase in rodent activity is a sign of spring. I realized Elliott going outside is a sign of spring. I realized making lip balm is a sign of spring because I only make lip balm on the wood stove and I always procrastinate. I realized making three dozen cinnamon beeswax eggs is a sign of spring because they are being made for Easter. And I realized that chickadees in barren, leafless trees is a sign of spring.

Now, let’s go back to our list. After spending a day with cinnamon, did I experience all those good things that I read about on the Internet? You bet. Well, mostly. We’ll skip over that one about male passion, and I’m not so sure about the psychic ability, but I did feel damn good. The evidence, I know, is purely anecdotal, just my story, but my story, after all, is all I got.

Not familiar with The Slithery Dee? Enjoy.

Read last week’s post, or listen to it.