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Leaf tornado

I took Friday afternoon off work but I could not muster the will to leave my home office. "You picked a gorgeous day for it!" a colleague replied to my PTO notification. I told myself I'd go for a walk but I was so tired.


The dream I had before waking that morning had left me sad and exhausted. I was lost in Manhattan, determined to show up for my first day at a job as a nurse at a hospital. Only, I wasn't trained as a nurse, just didn't want to let anyone down. In the dull logic of dreams, pretending to be a nurse was a hero's journey. But in the dream it was getting dark and I was walking in circles, alone. Not knowing where I worked, not knowing where I lived.


Maybe that's why I was reluctant to take a walk, even though in real life I live in a leafy midwestern suburb and my walk is to and around a nature center, barely a mile away.


After Friday's malaise, Saturday morning dawned warm and sunny.  I told myself to get out for a walk sooner rather than later. Plus my friend Cindie, coping with her own grief amid Covid, had posted an inspiring idea: "Name the superhero you already are. Then forge your bond."


I was feeling lost and sad and not at all like a superhero, so this idea seemed like a start.


These days, when I'm grasping for something to love about myself, I think of The Cookie Garden—all the joy it's brought to people. To me, the most meaningful thing about being a children's book author is knowing I helped create moments with children and their parents or grandparents or teachers. I hadn't anticipated the enduring gratification of hearing from a friend or a stranger that it's one of their child's favorite books.


With this thought as encouragement, I left for my walk. A few houses down the road, I saw a family, a little boy and his father walking ahead, with a mother and another child walking a few feet behind. The boy was talking and laughing, rushing ahead to check out a stick. I smiled and said hello. But in my mind I yelled out, "I wrote a children's book!" and wished I'd tucked a couple copies under my arm, to give away to families such as this one, a balm to help in these troubling times.


It became a game, me mentally telling people who I was. Near the school playground I passed three girls who were a few years past The Cookie Garden, greeting me with smiles and hellos. On the pathway to the nature center a woman wearing a LOVE PRIDE t-shirt rode by, towing a toddler in a wagon with another child on his own bike, every one of them wearing helmets. God, I loved this family but they are too cool for me and my little book.


By then I was feeling a little less needy, starting to think about my superhero name. Maybe Zelda something or Dorothy as in Dorothy Parker or from The Wizard of Oz.


When I reached the crosswalk into the park, there were three young men, each on his cell phone, standing in the way of me crossing while maintaining social distancing. The place wasn't crowded so I crossed a few feet farther up. To the left on the lawn, two moms sat on opposite sides of a large blanket while their kids romped around. To the right was a parking lot, and a swirl of detritus caught my eye, dead leaves rising up.


"Look, kids, it's a leaf tornado," one of the moms said. I stopped in its path as it approached and looked up into the pure blue sky with cotton-ball clouds as the leaf bits whirled around me, one small piece literally catching my eye.


If I had taken the walk the day before, I might not have taken it that morning. If I hadn't allowed myself my sadness and fatigue, I would have still felt sad and fatigued. If those boys hadn't blocked my socially distant path, I might have missed this baptism.


Leaf tornados are new to me. Just last week Keith pointed one out in the rearview mirror, as we picked up takeout in our now-quiet little town. The opening of space has allowed this natural phenomenon the room to play out, the last dance of the dead before it settles back into the earth for regrowth into something else.


Maybe my superhero name is Dorothy Leaf Tornado.

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Coming up short

In last night's dream I was asked to present a talk at a design expo. The topic was "being short." In real life, I used to edit an interior design magazine and the publisher held an annual expo in Baltimore or Tampa or Atlanta.


In the dream, she and I only talked briefly about me presenting. Maybe we ran into each other at the farmers market or around town and she said, "I'd love to have you give a talk. It could be on anything. You could even make it about being short."


Now I wondered, what about being short? Short in the context of building a career? How to dress professionally as a short woman? Or was it supposed to be more like a comedy bit?


Now the big event was upon us and I was wholly unprepared. To wit: I had not created a PowerPoint for my presentation. Fifteen years ago, when I was editor in chief for this organization, I was asked to present at the expo. Among the sessions on the ins and outs of fashioning window treatments and running a small business, I was asked to present on how to get design work into our esteemed magazine. I'd taught writing classes at the Loft Literary Center, so I thought I had this. Never occurred to me to create a PowerPoint to accompany my talk.


Early in my presentation, I was interrupted by the colleague in charge of putting together the program. "Where's your PowerPoint?" she hollered, like a heckler from the back, the audience nodding along.


"I don't need no stinking PowerPoint," I said. "I have handouts."


Looking back, I was TED Talk before there was TED Talk. But the lack of preparation weighed on me in my dream. I knew they were expecting a PowerPoint and some meaningful words from me as a short person.


What can I say about being short that will mean anything? Lots of us are short. Why magnify shortness over any other quality? We fall short. We take shortcuts. We shortchange each other. We have our shortcomings. We're short on supplies.


I've always been one to buy mega rolls of toilet paper in packages of a dozen. I shouldn't say always. In college I would buy one roll of Scott at a time. But maybe that's why I buy the good stuff in bulk now.


Now I am in charge of gathering provisions for two households: mine and my mother's, who lives alone across town. I've lined her counter with individual heat-and-serve oatmeal, stocked her fridge with yogurt and heat-up meals. She has Ensure and coffee and some household items she needs are somewhere in Pennsylvania, supposed to arrive sometime next week, having been delayed due to, well… everything is delayed these days.


I'm coming up short even though I'm doing the best I can. We had a little birthday party for her on Thursday. She turned 85. Normally on such an occasion, my sister would fly in from New York and my brother and his family would come too and we'd take her to a nice restaurant. This year I picked up a bakery cake and takeout and it was just my husband and me and her toasting at her dining room table.


It was a lace-covered tablecloth. And the baker remembered to put a comma between "Happy birthday" and "Mom" which is important to a retired English teacher. And her phone kept ringing with calls from well wishers and the nurse who checks in with her regularly.


Coming up short of previous expectations is not always a bad thing. Sometimes it's expansive, generous in its enoughness.


In the first days of being advised to gather what we needed to stay home for two weeks, like a lot of people who could afford to, I tried to stock up. I didn't hoard. I might have I over-gathered.


I took the liquor store up on their offer on free delivery—and then felt weird when the guy drove up to our house in his Mercedes with a box of boxed cabernet and industrial-size bottles of pinot grigio (they looked regular size online, I swear).


We have enough, me and mine. Yet I feel short. I am short, in stature. As I said, I forgot to ask my former publisher, back there at the farmers market or wherever we came up with this idea, what, exactly I was supposed to be speaking to on the subject of short.


My shortcomings? Here's the main one: Lack of courage to be on the frontline as a nurse or a doctor or other healthcare worker. Even caring for my mom's physical needs is something I came to reluctantly. I didn't believe I could hoist her wheelchair in and out of the trunk. The oxygen apparatus scared me. I would take her to get mani-pedis to avoid taking care of her toenails myself. I do more of that for her now, but I think of the people who make this kind of care their life's work and I fall short. I do fall short.


What then, having acknowledged it? I do what I can. My current employer doesn't ask me to design PowerPoints. I write and edit the words that go into them, then hand it over to the design professionals.


Likewise, in my dream I shifted to what I know, what I can do well. I went to the magazine office to look over materials that other presenters had prepared. Fortunately, my colleague Jenny was in the office too. Of course she was. Jenny has been a part of my work life for at least fifteen years, through no effort on either of our parts. We worked together at the magazine back in the day, took different jobs, then wound up at our present place of employment for the last dozen years. We are editorial soul sisters.


We saw trouble in the first sentence of a handout, a quote that ended in an asterisk with the corresponding footnote: *Free. The citation should have been for a magazine article that was available online and thus free. My God, will these people never learn?


Jenny and I looked up the full reference and inserted it. But the thing was chock full of poorly sourced citations. It would take us all night to get this piece into shape, to get the facts right, to fix its shortcomings. A tall order. Thank goodness I had help.

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Me too.

It’s not that I think my experiences with sexual harassment and assault are unique. I am sharing this litany because I am a 55-year-old white woman who is in a safe place, in my home and in my work. I say, “me too” for the many women who can’t.

Before #MeToo,  Read More 
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The girl on the lawn

That's me, sitting on the lawn, second from the right, summer of '78.
Forgive my departure from whimsy and turtle adventures, but like a lot of us, I’m alarmed.

For the last year and a half, the orange man has been a constant media presence. When he first started running for president, I couldn’t imagine how much of the air he would suck out of the world, with his bottomless greed, hateful rhetoric, and galling need for attention. Read More 
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Post-traumatic strength disorder

Today, the Republican candidate said this: “When you talk about the mental health problems…when people come back from war and combat and they see things what maybe a lot of the folks in the room have seen many times over and you’re strong and you can handle it, but a lot of  Read More 
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Lessons from writing out loud, Part 2

On my first day using voice recognition software, I wrote: “I’m so self-conscious about my word choice, and I’m thinking about my writing in a way that seems very foreign. When my hands are typing on a keyboard, are my thoughts so choppy?”

Of course I barely read the instructions before starting to use the software. So I was two and a half weeks into it before I noticed this bit of advice at the top of a pop-up box:

“Place the cursor where dictation should go. Think of your whole sentence.”  Read More 
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Lessons from writing out loud, Part 1

About a week after I had tendon transfer surgery in my hand, the voice in my head woke me at 4 a.m. Apparently, it was time for a pop quiz regarding my goals in having the procedure. “What’s goal number one?” the voice asked. Though I was half asleep, I dutifully answered: “To not be in pain.”  Read More 
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Casting about

Witches cast spells. Cynics cast aspersions. Knitters cast on. Directors cast movies. A fisherman casts his line. The die is cast. “Cast” is a busy little word.

 Read More 
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Letting go of my hand

My husband tells people I have no self-pity. That’s not true. I just like to keep it to myself.

Here’s the situation: As the result of nerve damage in my right hand from a car accident 22 years ago, my left hand does all the work, even though I’m right handed. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the keyboard, where on the left all four fingers work together in a spirit of community, while on the right only the pointer finger even bothers to try.  Read More 
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The worst place in Minnesota (to build pipelines)

The author, center, with brother and sister on the left, and cousins on the right, circa 1970, Headwaters of the Mississippi.
During summers at my grandparents’ resort in north-central Minnesota, one of my favorite things to do was visit Itasca, the Headwaters of the Mississippi, for the simple thrill of walking across the narrow stream, bare feet on slippery rocks, at the place where the river begins. I’m still amazed this is the same river as the one back home in St. Paul, flowing north from its source and meandering a bit, like a summer tourist in no particular hurry, gaining energy and strength for whatever lies ahead. Read More 
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