Archive for December, 2012

Country Roads

Thursday, December 27th, 2012


The thing I miss most about living in the country is the very thing I eventually came to hate about it: the long snake of black tar between one place and another, the empty distances, the endless driving. Oh, my God, how I miss the driving.

I miss going for days and days without leaving the house in winter, little babies, creaky floors, nowhere to go, no one to see. Four walls, big window, bare branches, frozen lake.

I miss stuffing those babies into snowsuits and then stuffing those snowsuits into car seats, clicking them in, and going, going, nowhere, for hours. Sleeping children, warm car, barren county roads. I can’t remember anymore the times it didn’t work. The times the baby boy screamed instead of slept, the times the spirited girl, that untamed horse, pulled his hair or bit him. The one time we skidded on black ice right into the ditch as a storm kicked up on the last afternoon of December. I don’t care about those times anymore now that we’ve survived and nobody kept screaming forever, or biting forever. They stopped those things, and it all turned out okay, and now I miss the driving the way I remember it.

The car I hated the most is the one I now recall so fondly. (more…)


Elephant Rock Summer Solstice Retreat for Writing and Yoga

Thursday, December 27th, 2012

Breathe ~ Create ~ Transform

Elephant Rock Summer Solstice Retreat for Writing and Yoga

June 16 – June 21, 2013
Beautiful and Secluded Stout’s Island Lodge, Wisconsin

Be ignited by summer’s fiery muse. Be challenged and inspired … and laugh – a lot! – while becoming a fertile ground for creativity as you tap into the energy of the summer solstice.

Writing workshops guided by Jeannine Ouellette
Yoga and meditation guided by Maria Toso

ALL are welcome, regardless of previous experience with writing or yoga!

“Summer is a festival of this inner fire/power, the power that makes abundance and nourishment grow from tiny seeds. The power that brings things to fulfillment, and expands and brightens our lives….” ~ Cait Johnson and Maura D. Shaw, Celebrating the Great Mother

Elephant Rock Retreats for Writing and Yoga are transformative, designed specifically to help you leap over that edge of doubt, where new things come from. The retreats combine two powerful heart-opening activities in innovative ways and in beautiful, inspiring natural settings. Whether you are striving to finish a manuscript, deepen your yoga and meditative practice, overcome writer’s block, or feed your starving inner artist, Elephant Rock retreats are for you. Beginners will find a safe haven in which to experiment, and advanced devotees of either or both art forms will discover a refreshingly challenging environment in which to push through blocks and reach new levels of insight.


Brilliant, non-linear, inspiring: Jeannine Ouellette is a masterful teacher and her workshop was the most fun and creatively liberating writing class I’ve ever experienced. And who could pass up writing and yoga in a beautiful, secluded setting. Sign me up!

–Eric Utne, publisher, educator, author, and social entrepreneur; founder of Utne Reader and founding publisher and editor of the New Age Journal, past workshop participant



The Night Shift (In Which I Earn Money, Part Four)

Thursday, December 13th, 2012

Age 17 Night Shift in the Nursing Home I almost forgot! I’m a certified nursing assistant. Maybe you wonder how I could forget earning my certificate as a nursing assistant, and working as one, too—and here’s the thing: I wonder that, too. Because the experience was actually quite intense.

I was seventeen and in foster care when I enrolled in the certified nursing assistant program. Classes were held at night, in a large building on the edge of downtown St. Paul, not far from the cathedral. It may or may not have been a community college. My friend and fellow foster teen—her name was, ironically it feels now, Joy—and I rode the bus together from our foster house near Lake Phalen.

It was a quirky and questionable kind of foster care arrangement for responsible, high-functioning teens whose families for whatever reason weren’t stable. It was called an Independent Living Situation. (You can’t make this shit up.) In this “situation,” the “parents” lived with their real children downstairs, while the “independent” foster teens (you had to be at least 16 to live there) lived upstairs—boys on one side of the apartment, girls on the other. The girls’ bedroom overlooked the lake; the boys’ room overlooked the driveway. Each of us received a city bus pass and a weekly food credit to be used at a small, independently owned grocery store within walking distance. Our entrance was located at the end of a long driveway, in the back of the house, through a door that led up a steep staircase. A buzzer alerted the “parents” to our comings and goings. Curfew was strict. If you arrived late, the door to the stairway was locked—and the police were called. No exceptions.



In Which I Earn Money (Part 3)

Monday, December 3rd, 2012

Age 15  Arby’s Minion Dear Arby’s, now that so much time has passed, I feel it’s safe to admit I ate a lot—a whole lot—of chocolate chip cookies in the back room while I worked for you. A staggering number of chocolate chip cookies. An obscene quantity.  I’d rather not discuss the details. I will say that they were genuinely delicious and I’m kind of glad in a perverse way that I was not, at age 15, remotely concerned about sugar, trans fats, carbs, or gluten.  I’m also glad I don’t work at Arby’s anymore. But I’m thankful that you gave me a job when I needed one. I learned a lot about suggestive selling, addition and subtraction between one and one hundred, and looking busy every second of every shift. I learned that grease never really washes out of brown polyester. Ever.  And that a minimum wage of $3.35 an hour adds up slowly. I learned a lot about human nature, too, from customers, especially during rushes. I learned that ordering your fast food breakfast croissant sandwich in a grossly over-enunciated French accent (one ham and swiss kw-cough-ssant, please) is a definite no-no. I learned that people can be kind when you burn yourself badly on the fryer (again) and it’s blistering and there’s a line a mile long at and your eyes sting but you’re not crying and the man whose turn it is saw it happen and says to you, “Go put some ice on that right now, because it’s bad and you need ice to stop the burning or it will continue to burn for the next minute. I’m a doctor. Now go.” And only then, when you turn and go for the ice, do the tears spill down your cheeks.


In Which I Earn Money (Part Two)

Saturday, December 1st, 2012

Note: I am afraid I overlooked the most prestigious paid position I have ever held, as well as the least recommended, and I must therefore, regrettably, track backward out of order on this curriculum vitae of gainful engagements.

Age 10 Poet You’ve heard about the concept of hot-housing kids, right? Whereby parents and/or the culture at large applies pressure in such a way as to bring them to bloom too early, leading to burnout and despair later? Well, I’m afraid—through no fault at all of my parents or the Wyoming Public Schools—I somehow inadvertently hot-housed myself, so that by the tender age of ten, I was already accomplishing something that others reach toward in vain for their entire lives: earning income and public acclaim as a genuine poet! I worked within the dark confines of a Poetry Machine that my friends and I invented and created from an old washing machine box (which we dragged home from the appliance store and painted and outfitted ourselves, I might add). Our collaboration was joyful and inspired, but at the end of the day, I alone was the poet. I alone crawled into the dark box with a flashlight, and operated the tape-recorded simulation of “machinery” (we clanged metal spoons on pots and pans) to indicate that poetry was in process. I alone faced the pressure of churning out three, five, or ten meaningfully rhymed lines on whatever topic the buyer commanded when he or she slipped her coins and request into separate slots on the Poetry Machine’s face. (Have you ever written a ten-line poem about a motorcycle under pressure?) I earned anywhere from a nickel to a quarter for each and every poem. And that change really added up, thanks to our wonderful fifth-grade teacher Ms. Routson, who allowed us to bring the Poetry Machine to Park Elementary and then invited all the kids from our classroom and all of the other fifth grade classrooms to file through one by one, along with the reporters from the Casper Star (reviews were glowing!). It was glorious, until it ended, which I am sad to say was abruptly. Alas, I have never again been paid to write a poem.

Age 10 Money Finder This position, I do not recommend, however serendipitous and easy it may sound. No, I strongly warn against it. Not that I wasn’t enamored at first myself, when I looked down at the slushy floor of Woolworth’s that early December afternoon when I was plunking down my childhood silver dollars to purchase eggs and whipping cream in order to try my hand at baking cream puffs. I wish I could tell you how or why I came to be so desperate to bake cream puffs that I would trade in my entire life savings of special coins for some dairy products, but I can only say that the urgency was as real as my elbow or my foot or my pounding heart as I reached to the floor and picked up that soggy twenty-dollar bill. It was more money than I had ever held at one time in my entire life.

I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I imagined—but only for the most fleeting of moments!—sticking it into the pocket of my hideous blue down jacket (two important caveats: 1) a discount down jacket should not be washed and left to air dry lest the down separate and settle into cyst-like lumps surrounded by pockets of thin air between the nylon, and 2) a lumpy blue down jacket does not coordinate well with a too-small orange and yellow calico homemade Holly Hobby dress, no matter how much you love that dress, and now matter how much you cannot bear to admit that it is too small, and no matter how much you resent your sister, who is right, insisting that you are altogether too old to be wearing it).

But I did not stick the bill into my lumpy pocket. Instead, I handed it to the confused woman working the cash register. “I found this on the floor,” I said.

“Is it yours?”

“No, I found it.”

Confused silence.

“I’m turning it in,” I said. “It was on the floor.”

“Well, that’s very good of you,” she said. “I’m going to hold it here in case the person who dropped it comes back for it.” Then she looked at me in the softest possible way, as if I were a baby kitten that she was about to scoop onto her lap. “But if no one comes back by tomorrow,” she said, “you can have this money for yourself.”

The way she looked at me made a warm feeling spread like syrup through my whole chest. My head was light on my neck, like a balloon. I think I said thank you, but I might have been speechless. I couldn’t dare get my hopes up about the money, because after all chances were someone would come back for it. Wouldn’t you, if you dropped twenty dollars?

I trudged home in the dirty Wyoming slush, my hair whipping against my face in the hard wind, distracted now by the dual excitement of the impending cream puffs (which I was astonished to find puffed up flawlessly and tasted like heaven) and the possibility of that twenty dollars becoming mine. It was hard to stop myself from spending it in advance, what with Christmas coming.

It was all I could do to wait until the next day after school. I half ran from our house on Wolcott Street to Woolworth’s downtown. I bee-lined to the checkout where I’d purchased my eggs and cream the day before, only to find a different person. “Hi,” I said. “I’m wondering about the twenty dollars.”

“Huh?” said the young man now behind the cash register.

“The twenty dollars that I turned in yesterday? I’m wondering if anyone came back for it.”

“What twenty dollars?” he said.

Bile rose in my stomach and most of me wanted to say, “Never mind.” This wasn’t as simple as I’d hoped and my hands were starting to sweat as if I were about to get in trouble, except I wasn’t doing anything wrong. Yet, as much as I wanted to escape, I wanted that twenty dollars more. I took a deep breath, or maybe I didn’t, but I probably should have.

“Yesterday, I found twenty dollars on the floor,” I said. “And I turned it in instead of keeping it.” I said the last words slowly, instead of keeping it, to make sure my extra goodness—the baby kitten goodness I saw reflected in the soft look from the lady cashier the day before—was as clear as possible.

Eventually, the cashier fetched the manager, and after several more rounds of explanation, I left the store twenty dollars richer, but empty. The warm syrup feeling was gone. My head was a regular old head, not a light, buoyant balloon. Was I still good? I wasn’t sure. (And now I had no eggs or cream for baking creampuffs.) Still, I had twenty dollars.

A few nights later, Mom took Laurie and me to Woolco (not Woolworth’s downtown, but the big store near the foothills, in the stripmall by Casper College). Sometimes Mom liked to do this, drop us off at Woolco while she went to night class, to keep us busy. We were glad to go this time, since we had presents to think about. We were both excited about my twenty dollars, because we’d be visiting Daddy in Minneapolis after Christmas, and he had two new kids now, so that was a lot of presents.

Part of that evening Laurie agreed to wander the aisles together, since I had agreed reluctantly not to wear my Holly Hobby dress. As soon as I had come down the stairs at home, Laurie had said, “I will not be seen with her in that. Mom, make her change!” It was actually Laurie’s old dress that Mom sewed, not in the yellow house or the house before that, but the one in Douglas. At first I thought Mom’s feelings were hurt by what Laurie said about the dress, but then she said, “Grab my cigarettes from my nightstand when you go up, will you?” So I changed into my corduroy pants, and now Laurie was willing to be seen with me at Woolco.

We could put both our names on some of the presents to make the money go further. For Daddy, we picked out an incredible soap on a rope, with a rope that was softer than silk, softer than anything I had ever felt. I picked a regular soap with no rope for our stepdad, Mafia. For Mom, perfume. For Daddy’s new kids, Jeremy and Jenny, a plastic horn and a plastic xylophone. It was amazing how far twenty dollars could go. For Laurie, a gigantic chocolate kiss. By the time I was through the checkout with my bulging plastic sack, I felt like a veritable Santa Claus! It was relaxing now, with all those presents under my belt, to simply wander through the fluorescent haze of the store until it was time to wait outside for Mom. I wasn’t expecting that security guard to come up and tap me on the shoulder. I was stunned when took me by the hand and led me firmly into the backroom. Laurie watched helplessly as I disappeared through the double doors, her eyes wide with fear.

“Where is your receipt for these things?” the guard asked. Now my hands really were sweating, a lot. My throat swelled up but I didn’t cry.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I must have dropped it.” I had already dug through the bag twice.

“You stole these things, didn’t you?”

“No!” I was scared, but my eyes flashed anger.

“You did.”

“I didn’t.”

“Did you know you can go to jail for stealing?”

“I didn’t steal!” All the while, I kept rummaging through the thin plastic Woolco sack, removing the soap on a rope (the silky white rope soiled now from my sweaty palms), the horn, the perfume, the kiss. And then, as if by magic, there it was, that coiled strip of paper with line after line of faded purple ink. “Here it is!” I exclaimed righteously. “I found it!”

The security officer eyed the receipt like something dirty before reluctantly taking it from my hand. He combed over it for several minutes, painstakingly itemizing each gift I’d so carefully selected to the blessed receipt that proved I’d paid for each and every one.

Finally, he handed the receipt back to me and placed his hands palms down on his tan polyester slacks and stared at me. I waited for the apology I knew was coming.

Instead, he said slowly, “So, I’d like to know where you got the money to buy these things?”

This was going too far. I’d show him I was not a thief, but to the contrary, I was more good than average.

“I found it!” I snapped, shaking with indignation at the bemused sneer that crept across his face as he claimed the last word.

“Sure you did, kid,” he said. “You found it, all right. Now get out of here and don’t come back.”


In Which I Earn Money

Saturday, December 1st, 2012

Age 8  Paper Girl. Delivering unread, unwanted shoppers to the residents of the cardboard and particleboard housing development of Meadowlark Hills at the base of the foothills of Casper Mountain. I endured a lot of wind and dog poop in this position. I resigned ungracefully (by dragging and dumping the Hefty sack of yet-to-be delivered shoppers behind our six-foot cedar fence to rot amid the sagebrush and tumbleweeds). In retrospect, I suspect this was not a particularly useful formative employment experience.

Age 9  Babysitter. Well, sort of. These gigs among the residents of Meadowlark Hills were hard to get because of the direct competition from my sister Laurie, who was two years older, way smarter (according to her), and had much longer, prettier hair. Nonetheless there was that one harrowingly awful (scarring, actually), sweat-soaked time where the newborn baby screamed the entire several hours.

Age 10  Laundress. Washed, dried, and ironed shirts for my mom’s boyfriend Spider (legally known as—but never referred to by us as—Dennis) and his brother Mike Smith (we always called Mike Smith by both names, never just Mike). I only once remember burning a shirt with the iron, that acrid smell of scorched cotton, followed by my frantic and unsuccessful attempts to repair by re-laundering. Mike Smith never said anything. Neither did Spider. I guess I never knew whose shirt was whose, or why I was ironing them at all. I earned a whopping quarter a shirt (less overhead to Mom for water and electricity for the use of the washer, dryer, and iron). I have not ironed a shirt since.

Age 11-14  Babysitter.  Now we’re talking! Have you ever in your life seen so many bags of potato chips and containers of ice cream? But really, I was a wonderful babysitter. I liked to draw and direct plays. I liked to play, period. I had these regular, nearly full-time gigs in the summers through junior high and the first part of high school, when my mom lived in the University of Minnesota’s Commonwealth Terrace family student housing on Como Avenue (where, incidentally, there was plenty of common but no wealth. I do not miss you, dear skittery-in-the-night cockroaches!).

Everyone in the Terrace needed a babysitter.

I met some of the nicest parents and kids in the world there, like Eve Walker (hi, Eve and Keely and Lannie, who are all now my Facebook friends these many years later!), and Leslie, a single mom a few doors down with two little kids, Eric and Sarah. Leslie had short, wavy blonde hair and a dimpled smile. Her husband had left her, and she was brokenhearted but striving to overcome. She reminded me of Jessica Lange, and this of course was in the era of Tootsie. I loved babysitting for Leslie because after her dates she’d confide in me like a real friend, even though I was just getting started on the whole idea of boyfriends and life. I liked being in her light-filled, brightly decorated apartment, with its framed posters and cheerful rugs and lamps, and sometimes, I must admit, I relished in snooping through her intriguing, irresistible things.

Then, of course, there was the harried nurse who worked nights. Like Leslie, she also had a little boy and a little girl, and was single, but she never had dates. Her apartment was dark and glum, and every night for dinner I made the kids hotdogs, as per direct orders. The little girl had chronic impetigo, which I was on the one hand determined to soothe with multiple applications of medicine and on the other afraid of catching. Sometimes, out of sheer desperation, because I could not bear the weight of the sadness, I cleaned the apartment from top to bottom. I even cleaned the children’s pressboard dresser drawers, engaging their semi-cheerful assistance to sort and fold every faded T-shirt and pair of pilled jammies. I swept and mopped the worn square tile floors (not linoleum, but rather something grayer that predated it) and I scrubbed the un-scrubbable counters and that decrepit stove where I boiled all those hotdogs until I panted with exertion. Sometimes, I used a toothpick to clean out the crevices between the countertop and its edging. I could not be stopped.

After the kids were asleep, I played Air Supply and sang along (despite being unable to sing properly on key with Air Supply) with heartbreaking sincerity while lamenting the boy who did not love me, whose face and name I have truly long forgotten, though many who came after I will admit I recall vividly. I did this for as long as it took for depression to  drive me to the scratchy plaid sofa where I’d sleep fitfully until the mom came home and awoke me. Then, in a daze of half sleep, I’d walk the few steps from her apartment door to my mom’s. And the next afternoon, I’d walk back, and somehow, no matter how much I had cleaned, the mess would be back again. And the mom—whose name I cannot recall for the life of me—never said a thing about the cleaning, the scrubbing, the drawers, the sweat. The fear. But then, how would she know, when she always came home in the dark?