Pie Hole Shutting Time at The Green Study

The Green Study will return on July 1, 2018.

I’ve been writing my ass off the last few weeks, both here and offline. It’s time to take a breather from everything. I have a stack of books, my bird-watching binoculars, and a false sense of limitless time. Perfect for a vacation of sorts.

canstockphoto24883850This is when I go off the rails. And wow, is it exciting. I drink caffeinated drinks, eat a lot of cheese, stay up past 8, and think about how I should probably move in order to get rid of the numbness in my lower limbs. And then don’t, because I want to read one more chapter.

I’ve been writing pretty intensely about civic participation, the current state of politics, and mental health issues. Which means I’ve been writing whichever way the news blows. And boy, does it blow.

The volunteer gigs seem to be pausing for a bit. The Minnesota legislative session ended with a whimper, with anything progressive shot down when they tried to shove everything into a last minute omnibus bill. Honestly, they seem like writers sometimes, or at least this writer, waiting until the last minute to get work done.

canstockphoto19562I sat last night in a coffee shop listening to a live string quartet and felt my eyes well up when they played Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. For all my stalwart conversation, a part of me feels like having a good blubber a lot of the time. It’s usually an indicator that I need to take a break, re-group, and get back to my personal mission. Which is not, I hope, to turn into a humorless git.

It’s easy to do – to forget how to laugh. To forget that there is love and joy and justice in the world. To forget those who took nonviolent action and succeeded. It’s easy to lose that full spectrum way of seeing the world, because you’re so focused on fixing what’s wrong.

As an introvert, with an out-sized, narcissistic sense of firstborn responsibility, I have to force myself to sit down, shut up, and to stop raising my hand every time someone asks for help. I’ll schlep into a meeting, find a seat near the exit, and hope I can stay awake. An hour later I’m heading a committee, writing a newsletter, adopting children, and rescuing house pets with social anxiety disorders. If I stay long enough, I’ll have donated a kidney – both of them. This would be some lovely virtue signalling if it weren’t so pathological.

Eventually, I feel hollowed out and detached from my life and start disappearing, making excuses, oh, I must have missed that email, sorry, my phone died (as if my phone is a metaphor for ambition), because it feels like I cannot breathe. I’m trying to learn to sit on my hands, stay quiet, and pace myself.

Sometimes taking a break means shutting up. When my internal monologue starts snapping back at me, shut up already. Criminy. Give it a rest, I know it’s time to go dark, stick my nose in a book, and let things marinate. Right now, my brain is shouting shut yer pie hole!

In the interest of pie holes and maybe pie, I’m going to take a break and leave you with some unwanted thoughts.


Havana, sung by Camilo Cabello, is plaguing my brain. The video is even goofier. Try saying “banana” after listening to this song – it will likely have several extra syllables.

I caught the song Chainsmoking by Jacob Banks being piped in somewhere and desperately tried to remember phrases to Google later. He’s got one of those voices that reaches down into your soul and sets off a dirge of melancholy.

I want to read all the books

32508266I h36479876ave three ridiculously high stacks of books that I’m working through. For my break, though, I’m indulging myself with The Virago Book of Women Gardeners edited by Deborah Kellaway and Betwixt and Between: Essays on the Writing Life by Jenny Boully.

Lately I’ve been doing so much reading for research and knowledge, that I’d just like to sink into something that doesn’t require a lot of me, except to turn the page.

The voice of the rising tide

When your mind is liberated your heart floods with compassion: compassion for yourself, for having undergone countless sufferings because you were not yet able to relieve yourself of false views, hatred, ignorance, and anger; and compassion for others because they do not yet see and so are still imprisoned by false views, hatred, and ignorance and continue to create suffering for themselves and others.

The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh

And I leave you with a song for the weary:

Have a lovely week!

The Eye (or Camera) of the Beholder

canstockphoto35817083A few weeks ago we visited the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum that had a night art installation by Bruce Munro – lots of light, a little weird music, and a great deal of walking. Throw in the S’more kits being sold around a fire and it was a lovely evening. We walked along dark pathways from sight to sight, under a clear, starry sky.

Light pollution often obscures the sky in our neighborhood, so I took the opportunity to point out some constellations to my daughter. We had to keep finding dark areas to stand in because beyond the actual Munro installations, people were walking around with their phones out, taking pictures of the art.

It’s in my nature to push back against cultural trends and this one, of taking pictures in a “Kilroy was here” sort of way sends my brain off into incoherent, spluttering rants. We noticed this as we traveled the west coast last year. We’d be standing in front of some sight, an animal at a zoo, a zen garden, a perfect view of the ocean and someone would walk up, take a picture , and walk away. I wanted to yell “Have the #$%@ experience – put your phone down!”

canstockphoto19466486Part of this is my particular way of taking in an experience. I can stand for an hour in one spot just watching waves, reading informational plaques and observing people coming and going. My family moves a little faster, so I’ve gotten in the habit of breaking off on my own, finding a bench or a space where no one else is and becoming a rock. Museums are a challenge. I find some work I like and I just want to sit there for a long while, so when I go, it’s more likely to be alone.

I have friends and family who seem nearly maniacal in their picture-taking. One relative has forever earned my enmity for snapping photos of me in the hospital after I had my daughter. I was in for a long stay due to a complicated delivery and having bad reactions to pain meds. After vomiting most of the day and being poked with needles (apparently I only have one workable, ever-elusive vein). Click. Click. My husband had to keep me from ripping out the tubes and strangling her.

A friend explained to me that taking photos was how she processed experiences. As a writer, this is an approach that I can understand. The world makes more sense to me through words than any other way. But there is a compulsiveness with cameras and I see it around me every time I go out in public.

It would seem that the primary purpose of taking a picture is to capture a memory, or at least the shadow of one, so that at a later point in time, one can be reminded of an experience. What if you didn’t actually have the experience? You were there, but not present. You saw something, but you really didn’t pay any attention to it. Then the picture becomes about something else entirely. Bragging rights, a need for validation (look at me, I do stuff and have been places) and the possibility of likes.

There is also the aspect of skill. Very few of my photos are particularly good. When we travel now, I buy postcards, appreciating that someone with more skill and better equipment has already gotten the job done.

canstockphoto40253681Standing on the hotel balcony in Fort Bragg, California looking out at the Pacific Ocean, I pulled out my binoculars and scanned the horizon. Spouts of water! I looked again – more spouting and then I started to see them, dark figures coming out of the water and then retreating. An unusual time of year, but we had lucked upon a pod of whales.

If I had taken pictures, they’d be little more than vague shots of a horizon. But at the very least I would look at them and remember the excitement of yelling for my husband and daughter to come and look. I would remember the chill air and the sound of the waves. I would remember watching until the sun went down and then early in the morning, searching the horizon and finding the pod again, only a little farther north. The thrill of discovery and the awe of nature.

Many years ago we made a 13 state road trip out to the Grand Canyon and back. We saw and did a lot. While staying in Flagstaff, we drove out to Sunset Crater and did some hiking. It was a beautiful day and we hiked through the remains of craters, on paths of hardened lava, passing by a cornucopia of wildflowers and plant life. It was a really good day. I have a couple of pictures, but I have even better memories.

A day later we took a bus tour to the Grand Canyon, since we didn’t have much time before we had to head back to Mcanstockphoto3482788innesota. It ended up being a stop, take photos, get back on a bus. I have some photos and very few memories. Absolute worst way to see anything. My daughter, who was seven at the time, remembers Sunset Crater and getting to eat sugary cereal at the hotel. No memory of the Grand Canyon whatsoever.

To me, it says a little about how our brains work. When we integrate and absorb and move in the places we visit, pictures are just tickler files for memories. But it’s gotten to the point where the act of taking the picture is the memory and has nothing to do with content or context.

canstockphoto10299946I know there is no point in railing against this cultural idiosyncrasy. It’s here to stay. I just wonder how it impacts our ability to process the fully dimensional world and what that means for the human brain. My experience tells me that nothing conveys a moment better than a memory absorbed and breathed and lived.

Reality Never Left

The summer is almost over. School starts again. We’ve returned from vacation and I’ve returned to writing. And to paraphrase Sergeant Schultz, I’ve learned nothing. I really thought I’d learn something; that I’d be awash in epiphanies and personal revelation. I thought I’d be more fit, more well read and in the end, happier than my current moroseness belies. The first title I chose for this post was “I’m Still Me. Damn It.”

I celebrated my 49th birthday in Monterey earlier this week. 31 years ago, I was 18, fresh out of basic training, attending the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio of Monterey to learn Russian. As I ate dinner with my husband and daughter, overlooking Monterey Bay, I felt old. Everything was at the same time alien and familiar. The bark of the sea lions, that fishy smell so common on wharves – those things were familiar.

canstockphoto30275996Cannery Row was unrecognizable. The little bar where my underage drinking buddies and I could score KB Lagers was a sandwich shop. We’d go to Kalisa’s to drink and listen to singers, standup comics, to watch belly dancers and then stagger loudly and drunkenly up a long hill to our barracks. The next morning, PT and hours of language classes. Rinse and repeat.

I was blessedly young and stupid. I still thought I might be a spy or a roving journalist or a novelist. I still believed my value was in what I’d do, not who I was or who I’d become to someone else. I thought I’d be sophisticated and witty. I wore skirts and heels and looked at myself in the mirror a lot. I thought sex was a precursor to love and that male attention was to be coveted.

Some bad things happened that year, too. Things that made me stop drinking as much. Things that made me more solemn. I was lonely much of the time, even in groups of friends. I realized that I was not a good sidekick, team player or party girl. I was adept at being a chameleon. I could read the room, but that skill didn’t ameliorate the intense sense of isolation. I hadn’t yet had therapy or confronted my family history or learned that loyalty, my loyalty, should be earned.

I smoked a lot, sitting on benches on the shore. I wandered through bookstores and libraries. These were only slivers of time between classes and military obligations and barracks living. They are the few slivers that I remember with clarity.

canstockphoto1856187A German linguist, training for reserve duty, befriended me. We listened to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings while driving along Big Sur. It was one of my happiest moments that year. I talked to her last month. She laughs big and is kind. I still wonder at and feel gratitude for our friendship.

I met my father while I was in Monterey. I hadn’t seen him or spoken with him since I was 5 years old. I knew he lived in San Francisco, so I opened a phone book, found his name and called him. In person, he was small and hesitant. Not the smiling tall 19 year-old I’d seen in photos, with me on his shoulders. He brought his second wife with him. His second wife was all Californian – bleached and tanned and bedecked with bracelets and earrings that distracted me every time she moved.

I was polite but rigid. I resented his polite conversation, seething inside. He abandoned me to a stepfather who hated me. I thought of how poor we’d been and how my mother struggled to support us. I looked at my father and his spangly wife and decided one meeting was enough. When he called to meet again, I told him I hadn’t had a father for 13 years and I didn’t need one now. How unforgiving we can be when we’re young.

Four months later, he sat in the car in his garage, hose from pipe to window and killed himself. Unbeknownst to me, his wife was leaving him and he’d sustained a back injury that made him unemployable. But I had been cruel and dismissive and that is my indelible shame. I learned much that year – the shame of wanting love and pushing it away. The shame of believing in people too soon or too late. Lessons all.

I’ve never been a fan of nostalgia. Perhaps it is because I feel the lessons and memories of my youth so acutely. I always think that the best time of my life is right now. For some people, this might be called optimism, but being who I am, I realize it is more an acceptance that this is it. If I want it to be better, I have to do something. Sometimes inertia is okay, but at other times it seems intolerable.

Still, there’s groceries to get and a lawn to mow. I write my to-do list and prepare for a day of chores. A gull from one of the lakes flies overhead squawking and I am reminded of the gulls along the Pacific shore. I am reminded that I took a vacation, that I took a summer off from writing. It feels as if I were never away.

Stories from the Road: The Search for Narrative

After a vacation in Montana, I’ve returned home, a head full of unorganized thoughts and a vague sense that I’m on the right path again. For months, I’ve been languishing in a purgatory of writer impotence and flailing about for some sense of purpose.

canstockphoto4003992We took the Amtrak train from St. Paul to Glacier National Park, staying in a century-old lodge with few amenities and scant Wi-fi. We paid for a view and a convenient walk from the train station. Following our arrival, we spent our days hiking and horseback riding and our evenings playing board games.

The Glacier Park Lodge is an attempt to hold onto and faintly mimic a complicated history of land and people. Displays of old photos, both in the lodge and at the railway station reflect a pride in that history. They didn’t tell the whole story.

Sometimes I get told that I have a negative perspective, but I have learned to deflect this purported insult. It intends to shut me up, but nearly always fails. This trip reminded me of one the reasons I’m a writer. I always have questions and I’m always in search of a true narrative.

I couldn’t look at photos of railway executives and Blackfoot Indians and not wonder about the dynamics of those relationships. There were pictures of Indians performing ceremonies on the lodge’s lawn for upper-middle class white families in the 1920s. Not a half century earlier, the US Army, led by a drunken major, killed 173 Blackfoot women, children and elderly men in the worst Indian massacre in Montana history, about 70 miles away.

This idea that we should just embrace the positive rankles me. It seems endemic to the contemptuous schooling of conquering nations. Human history is populated by millions of stories and many of them are not happy ones. It is sometimes said, to pompously quote Churchill, that “History is written by the victors.” I grew up with those magical history books of American history and was disappointed to see in my daughter’s lessons, that not much has changed, except a sprinkling in of a few minority figures.

While on vacation, I finished reading Weep Not, Child by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, a Kenyan writer. The novel is about a Kikuyu family decimated by the attempts to overthrow Britain’s colonial rule and regain native lands in the 1960s. The hope we humans cling to, sometimes blinds us to the reality, both as victims and perpetrators of atrocity. I was struck by these sentences from the book: “He would reduce everything to his will. That was the settler’s way.”

It isn’t white guilt or a need to revel in misery that appeals. It is painting a whole picture. It is avoiding simplistic thinking of good and evil. It’s recognizing the immense suffering expansionism, colonialism and war can cause. It’s understanding that human relations are complex, mired in personal ambition, revenge, fear, greed, as well as noble intention and bravery.

In the railway station, a native American man bent down looking at the photos on display. I watched him, this giant covered in tattoos. Part of me expected him to rise up, angry and disgusted. Instead, he said quietly to the older woman next to him, “They took down his picture. See? They put that one up instead.” Oh, how I wanted to ask him so many questions, but the softness and sadness in his voice prevented me from intruding. The story began writing itself.

As I watched the North Dakota and Montana plains roll by from the train window, I was reminded of my own story. I remember traveling as a kid, watching the endless miles slide by from the backseat of a Buick. My eyes would follow the power lines as they rose and fell. I’d rest my head against the window, drifting off to sleep with the comforting thump-thump of the road beneath us.

I was a born observer. And every observation is only a few minutes from a surrounding narrative, my mind filling in the details. I often go to sleep in the middle of a story, which may explain why the ending of my novel eludes me.

Being an observer means that the natural world is a feast. Initially, I was disappointed at Glacier. It’s early in the season, the lake waters are cold, flowers aren’t in full bloom and the animal youngsters have yet to be born. I felt this hunger, getting up at the crack of dawn with my binoculars, searching for birds or deer, anything to fill the landscape’s narrative.

canstockphoto25706984I waited and I searched. Bear spottings are down this year, one of the guides told us. Another swore he’d seen several on the bank of Two Medicine Lake. Instead, we were discovered by very insistent and entertaining Columbian ground squirrels at a picnic table by the lake. They knew their audience.

canstockphoto15014062On the second day of early morning watching, I was rewarded with a couple of Black-billed Magpies who, despite being members of the crow family, were not happy with the crows that came near their nest. I got a version of an aerial show, magpies v. crows. I’m happy to say the magpies won and I watched for them each morning.

I looked everywhere for stories and I found them. So often we get mired in the day-to-day that we forget our nature. Mine is that of an observer and storyteller. It’s a lovely thing to go away on vacation and to come back to one’s self.

Stories from the Road: There’s Something About Larry…

canstockphoto0438807After a two week road trip around the Great Lakes, I’m making a quiet re-entry into the blogging world – homeward bound in more ways than one.

My family and I take different vacations together. I’m often up at the crack of dawn hitting the hotel fitness room or fumbling about in the dark making coffee or off on a walkabout. They sleep in unscheduled bliss. I love them and I love my mornings alone.

In Mackinaw City, Michigan, I wandered down the street near our hotel on Lake Huron, finding a locally sourced, organic coffee shop (I jest – it was a Starbucks). After ordering a luxurious, high maintenance coffee, I headed down to the pier. The concrete promenade was empty, save for the gulls swooping and diving along the shore and the occasional blare from a boat horn.

The footsteps behind me were soft and unhurried. Quiet morning, isn’t it? he said. My jaw tightened in anticipation of unwanted conversation. Or worse, some other intrusive maneuver that might require a ninja smack down. I needed coffee first.

I turned to see an elderly man wearing a Navy cap with veterans’ pins attached to it. He smiled pleasantly and I exhaled. I have a soft spot for old men, especially when they remind me of my grandpa. More often than not, they have stories and have never lost the art of conversation. We joked about being early birds. He commented that he rarely saw “young people” out at this hour.

His wife died five years back and he had been ‘adopted’ by family friends. They took him on trips and outings. It’d been nearly 30 years since he’d visited Mackinaw City. He was a retired machinist, after 38 years of working for General Motors in Flint, Michigan. Like me, he joined the military right out of high school because he didn’t have a plan. He loved to take things apart and tinker with them, which led to a job and eventual career working for GM.

He pointed to the Mackinac Bridge, remembering aloud when his parents crossed by ferry in the late 1940s, having waited for hours in their vehicle. With awe in his voice, he said “It’s really a wondrous thing.” We had driven it the day before, during high wind warnings and thought it was wondrous we had survived.

He talked about his strange career path and interest in learning more. In his 40s, GM decided to send him to a engine manufacturing plant in Australia for a couple of weeks. “Who would have ever thought that something like that could happen to a guy like me?” He shook his head in wonder.

At the age of 83, he took community college courses and chuckled about what a challenge it was, but he said he wanted to keep learning new things to fend off dementia. It seemed to have been working pretty well so far – he was a little sharper than I at that hour.

By the way, my name is Larry. We shook hands, as I introduced myself. As we strolled along the railed walk, we talked about curiosity and learning and how it makes all the difference in a person’s life. He laughed and said “You know, I look at this old mug in the mirror every morning and I wonder how I became him. I feel the same as I always have.”

I joked about my impending birthday and how every day some new ailment seemed to crop up. I told him how my husband and I were just talking about this very thing – how the road out of this life is made up of moments in between aches and pains. He nodded in agreement. “It’s the moments that count.”

We parted ways with good wishes for the rest of our journeys. At night, I slept through forgettable dreams, waking with a sense of loss. I missed my grandfather all over again. He was a man who understood that life was about the moments and the stories and the chance encounters with fellow travelers.

The Dog Days of Blogging


The Green Study is on hiatus until September.

As the smell of tar drifts in through open windows and the cicadas drone on, I wrestle with decisions and consequences. Anyone who has read this blog for any amount of time, knows this is a constant state for me – the wrangling of life out loud, never settled, never quite comfortable.

I started writing for this blog in January of 2012. The intent was to get in the practice of writing out loud. I went quietly about my business, writing about things that were of interest to me in the moment. I gained a small readership and began to enjoy the interactive facet of blogging.

In August and November, I went through the Freshly Pressed brouhaha. Fantastic and brutal, complimentary and misleading all at once. There were numerous missteps on the part of my ego and the numbers started to matter. The writing veered off course, I started to repeat myself and subjects. I wrote a lot of posts about blogging. To change things up a bit, I ran a couple of contests in December 2012 and February of this year. Fun, but a great deal of work.

This blog has never had a real focus. On occasion, I’ll get fired up about a subject and try to really cover it, but even I get bored with it after a few posts. My series seem to drop off. I haven’t yet gotten my fiction site up and running.  I’ve written many more drafts than posts – there were a lot of nonstarters.

In November 2012, I participated in the National Novel Writing Month, which I learned about only through reading other people’s blogs. This led to quite a few posts about writing a novel and the consequences that followed. One of the consequences was an eye condition that has put some speed bumps in my blogging path.

A small fear has been planted that my vision may permanently be affected. I am a reader and writer and impaired vision (beyond my lifelong nearsightedness), at the age of 45, scares me. My body has begun to feel the wear and tear of intense workouts and Taekwondo. My brain is starting to drift mid-sentence and I am constantly struggling to focus.

It is not just the dog days of blogging – it’s the dog days of my life. I am restless and edgy. The clear vision I had for myself less than a year ago, has, like my sight, eroded. This is not a dramatic moment or a major epiphany – merely a need for course correction.

I’ve tried to take breaks along the way, to get my mojo back or put some spring back into my step. I will forever be a writer and I hope to blog for the long haul, but I’m at a turning point. I hear “blah, blah, blah” in my head every time I write. The navel-gazing has put a crick in my neck and a circle in my thought process.

canstockphoto6534612Writing. I’m taking the month of August off from online blogging to give my eyes a chance to heal. The next step for me is surgery and I need to do everything I can to avoid that. Until then, I will continue to write off line in the hopes of developing stronger material. I must acquaint myself with some old school utensils, as well as remembering why writing left-handed with gel ink is a bad idea (smears galore!).


Traveling. I am also getting out and about – visiting Niagara Falls, the Chicago Jazz Festival, a trip traveling to wildlife sanctuaries, conservation centers and botanical gardens. The trip has the hallmarks of getting perspective, clearing up my vision, giving my brain a rest.

canstockphoto0615677Reading. I am midway through The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers and overwhelmed by the beauty and strength and intensity of his storytelling. It makes me hungry to push myself as a writer. I’ve been too timid, too afraid. I have fierce opinions, but in writing I feel compelled to be reasonable. I don’t think reasonable is going to get me where I want to go. And I won’t know where I want to go until I write without a leash.

canstockphoto11858226Resting. I’m off for a few weeks from Taekwondo and am focusing on some haphazard yoga, long walks and plenty of sleep. It has gotten more complicated with this eye condition, sleeping with bandage contacts, ointments, eye mask and humidifier. I’ve got a serious case of The Princess and the Pea going on, having to have so many things just right to get some rest.

canstockphoto9552766Family. We’ve all been taken over by work or lessons or extended family obligations. I realized the other day, with a shock, that my daughter has grown nearly as high as my shoulder. I want to capture some of the time before there are Cat’s in the Cradle -like regrets. That’s my mantra these days: Do it now, no regrets later.

canstockphoto13602210Gratitude. But here’s what I’d like to say most: Thank you.  You’re one of the reasons I keep coming back. Thank you for reading and/or commenting. Our conversations have been encouraging and thought-provoking and I value the connections I’ve made here.

I wish you a wonderful month ahead

and look forward to returning in September!