The Small Surprises in Everyday Life

It was -7F/-22C, not including the wind chill factor yesterday. It took me half the day to convince myself to go for a walk. With the family home for a couple of weeks and driving made less desirable due to ice and subzero temps, I was feeling antsy.

canstockphoto8126296You’d think, after living in Minnesota for the last 19 years, I’d have special cold gear. There would be outfits ritually unpacked each winter – thermal underwear, snow pants and jacket, accessories all matching in color.

Apparently when it comes to fashion, I like free-styling it. So I put on some compression shorts, long underwear pants, sweatpants, two pairs of socks, a long sleeve shirt, a short sleeve shirt, a hooded sweatshirt, a fleece-lined raincoat (to break the wind), mismatched hat and gloves and scarf. I slathered on some lotion and lip balm to cut down on the wind burn.

The first leg of my usual 3.5 mile walk headed west, straight into the wind. I felt the chill down to my bones. I kept having a conversation with myself. You can always go back if it’s too much. I wonder just how stupid I am being. My cheeks are always the first to feel the burn. I pull up my scarf, already covered with the crystals of my exhalations.

My tracks from two days ago are still the only ones on this stretch, crisscrossed by rabbit and squirrel tracks. I found myself stepping the same way, habitual and careful. Slipping in these temps can have a deadly outcome. It brings an element of meditation – each step is the only step you have to worry about.

canstockphoto34212394A large flock of mallards flies overhead. Their conversation fades and I’m left with the sound of snow crunching beneath my hikers. Human beings are scarce and when I pass them, they are assessed quickly.

The dog people are easiest – hastily dressed people shivering, bouncing on their feet as their dog sniffs and putters. At any other time of the year, this would be a relaxing jaunt for them and to the dog, it still is.

I pass an older man. He is carrying a plastic drugstore bag and not dressed for the weather – in lightweight khakis and stiff leather dress shoes. I smile and say “hi”, but he keeps his head down. All I can think is that his legs must burn now, if they have any feeling left at all.

canstockphoto13217575I pass by the empty outdoor skating rinks, the school lot where one vehicle sits, music thumping, exhaust sending up smoke signals. It’s an odd place to make out or sell drugs or do surveillance. More likely, and less of  interest, they’re lost. Streets here are often interrupted by cul-de-sacs and sports fields only to be continued on the other side.

I’m in the last half mile of my walk. While I’m surprisingly warm everywhere else, my cheeks no longer have feeling and I know it’s time to get inside.

I pass by the church where I was married. It’s why I still have my maiden name. I am not a believer, but my husband is, so I said yes we can marry in a church, but…Occasionally he makes a pointed comment and I just shrug. I like my last name better than his.

A woman comes toward me carrying a cloth bag and a backpack, glasses iced up from the cold.

“Excuse me, but is there any place close, like a business, where I can get warm?”

She is in her twenties and has a Slavic accent. She was meeting some friends at the church and she got dropped off early, but the church was locked. She’d been out there for nearly an hour and sounded desperate.

I offered to walk her in the direction of a grocery store I knew a shortcut to, but it was still a six-block hike. I looked at her boots – fashion boots that I so often see women in Northern climates wearing and cannot comprehend. Thin black leather boots with a heel and no tread at all on the bottom.

She smiled uncertainly. I can be helpful when I’m in the mood and I felt rather sorry for her. So we began walking to the grocery store. I asked where she was from.

canstockphoto10144086“Moscow. And it’s not as cold there as it is here!”

“Да, это очень холодно.”

I was delighted to practice a bit of Russian with her. She was an exchange student in a program in South Dakota, learning English to be a translator and visiting friends in the Twin Cities. We had a nice conversation, but I could tell she was concerned when I started to lead her across a wide field.

We finally reached the bottom of a small hill and I pointed her in the direction of the store. She smiled and thanked me profusely, likely out of relief that I was neither going to rob her nor try to bring her home to my serial predator boyfriend. I smiled the rest of the way home thinking up all the bizarre options that could result from following a stranger.

I woke up this morning uncharacteristically optimistic.

Over the last week, I’d been feeling some anxiety, noticing how much my body and face were aging. Thinking about how quickly time is passing by. Surprise heartburn two nights ago had me looking up heart attack symptoms in women on my phone in the middle of the night. My daughter just got her notification for high school open house and several relatives are in the last stretch of their lives. Time and mortality and fear were weighing on me heavily.

The unexpected encounter on my walk reminded me about what a fantastic world I live in. That I could be out on this routine walk in my little suburb and run into a Muscovite, have a conversation in Russian, and then be on my way home. Unexpected and surprising, which is what life really is, if you’re paying attention.

Wishing you a Year Full of Little Surprises & Big Meaning!


The Things We Carry (and Must Learn to Leave Behind)

canstockphoto20086498In 1993, I dropped out of grad school after one miserable year. I was a failure, barely surviving academically, juggling three jobs, in over my head in so many ways. I make jokes about it, but when I pitched a nonfiction proposal to an agent last week, she asked about my education. I was truthful and while she was interested in my proposal, I could tell that I did not have a good “platform”.

For nonfiction proposals, agents and publishers want someone with a platform. A platform is the writer’s expertise, background, and being a known entity and expert in their field. I was a little proud that I could pitch an idea on the fly, except that it really wasn’t that spontaneous. And it was never my first intention.

While in grad school, I came across the published journal of a Russian woman who had disguised herself as a man and fought in the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s. She was the first known female officer in the Russian military. She had a difficult upbringing. Her mother hated her and at one point, had tossed her out of a moving carriage. She survived, but from that point on, her mother had no part in her care.

The story appealed to me not only as a veteran, but also as someone who was engaged in an ongoing battle with her own mother. It found me at the right time and stayed with me. For nearly 25 years, I’ve kept notebooks, collected research materials, and always planned to write a historical novel someday. The agent pitch I did at the conference brought clarity to me. I didn’t have the chops or the credentials for writing nonfiction history.

I went to the library last night to work on a writing plan to follow up with various agents. While I’m still working on a novel, I thought I’d take a look online to see if there were any other research materials available for a fictional work on Nadezhda Durova. I sat back, stunned. An American writer had written and published a historical novel about her just six months ago.

Dreams, delusions, disenchantment. I’m quite adept at spinning my own story. A story I’ve carried with me all these years – of failure and struggle and the possibility of writing my way to redemption – a story of rationalizations and justifications. Of never fully feeling the pain of the moment in which I am told or learn, once again, that I’m not good enough. All these years, I’ve been disappointed in myself, maybe even a little ashamed. But I had a good idea and maybe that would redeem me.

canstockphoto9159128bI am always reminded of that line by The Talking Heads “How did I get here?” The tale of my academic life is one of happenstance. When I joined the Army at 17, being clueless and uninformed, I wanted to be a French linguist. I had four years of high school French and being a linguist sounded more enjoyable than company clerk or truck driver. The demand for French linguists in military intelligence was, of course, not particularly high. They needed Russian linguists. Okay then.

After spending a year in intensive Russian language training at the Defense Language Institute, I moved onto more training, a permanent duty station in Germany and when my four years was up, I gladly left. The shortest way to a degree meant taking Russian, because I was able to transfer a lot of Army credits. So there I was, on track for a degree in Russian studies. As far from parlez-ing as I could be. Even further from writing.

I finished a four year degree in a subject that had never been part of my “when I grow up…” narrative. With no clue as to next steps, I applied to grad school. In the English department. The admissions rate was about 7% at the time. Applying to a program tied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop was like spitting in the wind. I didn’t get in, but I did get accepted into the Russian Department.

It took me a year to realize that I hated my life, hated school, hated getting up at 3:30am to do a janitor job, go to classes, put in my hours as a research and translation intern, and then head to my job at Target.

The final straw was after I had to do a presentation on Russian morphology. In Russian. canstockphoto8727525The professor pulled me aside at the end of class and said that he was going to do me a favor by giving me a B-, instead of the C that is considered failure in grad school. I was going through complete misery just to scrape by on someone’s favor. And paying thousands of dollars for the honor. Time to quit academia and start working fulltime.

The years that followed were progressive administrative jobs, still carrying my notebooks and research materials from Iowa to Minnesota, into a home I share now with my daughter and husband. Since focusing on writing the last few years, the possibility of writing that historical novel seemed closer than ever. Until last night and seeing that Linda Lafferty had written The Girl Who Fought Napoleon.

I didn’t feel crushed or disappointed. In some ways, it was liberating. Carrying that novel idea was more than just a writing project. It was justification for all that education in Russian language and history. It was redemption for having failed. It was a reason for having wasted so much time and money doing something for which I had little passion. Even the kernel of complicated mother-daughter relationships has dissolved in the face of relative peace I’ve made with my own mother over the years.

canstockphoto10806366Last night, I dreamed of getting divorced from someone other than my husband. I woke up feeling sad and disappointed and bemused. The person didn’t have a face that I recognized, but this morning I surmised his name was Failure. 25 years is a long time to carry shame and I think I’m ready to put it down. There are other stories to tell.