It’s hard to believe almost three years have gone by since I posted my reflections about past north-country winters. I still have my Sorel boots after 27 years (pictured below), although they are now beyond repair. The rubber is cracked and not even gator tape will stick to keep out melting snow. The smooth-worn soles are covered by yak trax, metal springs threaded over elastic bands that keep the boots from slipping on ice. Perhaps this will be their final winter.
New Year’s Day, 2015. I know there’s much work ahead of me as I embark on the serious business of finishing books I began last year. But today, I remembered past winters while I took time to refurbish my old Sorel boots with oil and new liners for yet another winter. My boots date back to 1990, the first winter I spent in the northwoods of Wisconsin. I had accepted a position as deputy director of health and human services for an inter-tribal agency, but the clothes I brought with me were meant for a different climate. I needed more practical, warmer, clothes.
My first winter was spent in a tiny hotel room above a bar that often had live performers belting out off-tune country and western songs until the wee hours of the morning. I could walk the two blocks to my office in downtown Lac du Flambeau, but the days I had to drive were challenging. My old car, with 190,000 plus miles, didn’t like to start or keep moving in the winter cold when I first started out. The pack of stray dogs that called the downtown their home loved to chase cars, but they quickly learned that chasing me was not a contest worthy of their time and effort. As my car sputtered and bucked and stalled down the road, they grew bored. Eventually, they didn’t even look up when I chugged by. But that car, like my boots, lasted many more years. I was sad when I was finally forced to replace my car, but my boots lasted despite the many miles they’ve seen and the many places they’ve traveled.
But of all the places we’ve traveled together, these boots and I, there is one place that remains golden in my memories. It’s the cabin I moved to after that first winter above the bar. Before the winter even began, I knew that I couldn’t live there forever, so I decided to see if I could find somewhere to move that was affordable. You’d think that would be easy in the northwoods, but that’s not so. Long ago, it became a favorite spot for wealthy urbanites who were able to buy up the lakefront properties that were lost to the Ojibwe people despite a series of treaties that guaranteed tribal ownership of land within reservation boundaries in exchange for ceding the northern third of Wisconsin to the federal government.
I was fortunate to find a local realtor who knew how to find the best deals and we spent many fall days exploring such interesting fixer-uppers. We became friends. One day in mid-November, she called me at work and asked if I could take some time off in the afternoon to see another property. I said, “Sure.” (It was interesting to see so many houses in need of loving care.) She picked me up and we drove, first down the highway, then down a narrow winding country road through a national forest, and then on a dirt road. We turned about a mile later onto what I can only call a rough rutted path that could just accommodate a car, again, winding down a little hill and into a forest. When we emerged in a clearing, I saw the small brown cabin, but what caught my eye and made my heart sing was a vista of the lake and wetlands glowing in the afternoon sunlight. I knew I was home. I had no idea how I would be able to afford it, and I had no idea what it meant to live without electricity, or heat with wood. I had no idea how I would be able to get in and out during the winter, especially with my car, but I did have my boots (and later, snowshoes to attach to them.)
Living down a series of country roads, some of which were unpaved, presented both benefits and challenges. I had an opportunity to witness nature up close – the bear, deer, beaver, otters, rabbits and porcupine. I heard the powerful rhythmic pounding of eagles’ wings as they flew just over my head, the hauntingly lovely song of the loon echoing over still waters, and the howls of coyotes in the quiet winter night. Winter was my favorite time, even though it was often cold and snowy, and even though it meant a mile hike to my car when I had to make the trip to some distant city to go to work, attend class or travel for a speaking engagement or consulting job. The hike was easier in the winter. The path through the snow was easy to follow, even at night, and the mosquitoes, sand flies, deer flies, horse flies and ticks were nowhere to be seen as they bided their time for the spring thaw. Spring – mud season – also meant hiking. But I was younger then and used to the grueling physical labor living in the woods required.
Of course, living in the woods meant warm clothing in the winter, and a bug suit during most other seasons if you wanted to do serious work outdoors. I don’t have a picture of the bug suit my daughter gave me as a gift, although given the ubiquitous northwoods’ mosquitoes and sand files, I often wish I still had it. I still have the coat in the picture below. It’s the only thing I ever purchased from Victoria’s Secrets – it was incredibly cheap in their annual clearance sale. (I don’t think it’s any mystery why it hadn’t sold for full price.) The coat is a few year’s newer than my boots, but it got me through the polar vortex last year and with new loops for the buttons in lieu of the zipper that finally gave out, it will continue for many winters more.
As I unclutter, some things will remain because they are still useful. Who needs the latest fashions when old things were built to last and carry such rich memories? These old clothes remind me of quiet, starry winter nights, of the sanctuary where my grandson spent many of his childhood days.
They were simpler days of hiking, hauling wood, and clearing the beaver-culled trees from the road. Living in an urban neighborhood now, watching the plumes of toxic exhaust from the factories that block the sunlight on the few winter days without clouds, I feel the loss of times past. Not just my past, but the past of my ancestors. Strange though it may sound, as deep as the grief of those lost times often is for me to face, it’s what motivates me to do what I can to touch people’s hearts for the sake of this wondrous earth and future generations. And now, my boots and I are ready for the challenges ahead.
Funny how attached I grow to tools that have served me well. Once upon a time, my boots were strapped to snow shoes as we walked through the winter woods where my ancestors lived for so many generations. Now they help give me traction on the icy sidewalks of my home in a little northern city.
I try to conserve useful resources like my boots for as long as possible. I shall miss these boots. They slip on easily and fit comfortably. Their replacements are stiff, like my aging body, and take more work to put on.
And speaking of work, I have still not finished editing and revising the manuscript I wrote about my experiences as a researcher studying Ojibwe child welfare. I have had to put it aside to teach college classes. Life has blessed me with teaching work to do, and given the austerity years ahead, I know I will need to keep working as long as I can.
Hopefully I will have time to return to my manuscript in the all too brief northern summers. In future winter weather, I will need to rely on my newer boots for my journeys.
This poem was inspired by my granddaughter who is always eager to measure how much she has grown. But sometimes, she is actually shorter. That happens to me, too, so we came up with a logical explanation and tested it on Thanksgiving night. She grew this time and I shrunk, although there was no way we could confirm the cause…
For more information about “Little People ,” you might want to check out the following links:
When my daughter was born,
my view of the world forever changed.
“To have a child is to decide to have your heart forever walk around outside your body.” (anonymous)
Life was no longer something I peered at
from a safe distance
I felt it deeply – glowing in my heart
Powerful, shifting emotions
forced me to realize how precious
and precarious life can be
Holding each of my grandchildren for the first time
intensified my sensitivity and commitment
to do all in my power to be a loving presence
Watching them as they grow
amplifies both joy and pain
celebrating their accomplishments
suffering when they encounter challenges
Sometimes all I can do is
to simply try to be a loving presence
In times such as these it’s not easy
to believe the future holds bright possibilities
Let our hearts awaken and glow
with celebratory joy
Do you ever awaken from a dream where you’re singing a song? That’s what happened to me this morning. It was a song that I see as a little silly in the context of what’s going on in the world today. But it’s a catchy tune that captures some of the troubles that produce such angst in our teens. Those years are long gone for me but not for my grandchildren who remind me what it’s like to be young.
Here Comes My Baby – Yusuf/Cat Stevens
Thankfully, finding the song on YouTube led to me to another song that echoes the yearning of my spirit in the unrelenting cold of this mini-repeat of the polar vortex we’ve been experiencing. It awakens hope by reminding me that even on a cold winter’s day, it’s a new morning filled with possibilities. Spring will come. There’s a different kind of beauty to the winter dawn.
Morning has broken – Yusuf/Cat Stevens
Wishing you all a blessed morning wherever you are.
On your eighteenth birthday, dear grandson, you’re in my thoughts
It’s a time to celebrate that miracle you are
not a time for dos and don’ts, shoulds and oughts
I just want you to know that you’ll always be my shining star
Gentle and strong, wiser than you’re often willing to show I love you.
It’s such a precious gift to watch you grow.
On this first day many celebrate as a new year, I find myself compelled to speak as honestly as I can. It’s true that my life has not been as easy or privileged as some would imagine. It’s also true that my life has been blessed in too many ways to count. Many may think me crazy or delusional for what I am about to share. Ancestors have appeared to me during waking times to protect and guide me through rough patches. Wise beings have visited me with messages in dreams. And strong intuitions have warned me of dangers and opportunities as well.
I’m deeply grateful for the presence of the ancestors and wise beings in my life. I’m not sure I would have survived without them. Of course, being willful and independent, I didn’t always listen. And of course there was always a hefty price to pay.
I also wish to acknowledge my gratitude for the old and new blogging friends who have enriched my life in so many ways. Thank you.
Recent events have made me remember why I began blogging. There were stories and insights I felt compelled to share. You know, those messages that sometimes seem to flow through you and demand to be given voice. And then, as it happens, that purpose was compromised along the way. The appeal of attracting followers, writing posts that were “liked,” sometimes attenuated or muted my voice. But a funny thing happened when this blog achieved something I never envisioned in 2016, almost three years after it began. More than 1,000 followers, and almost 3,000 views one day. It was empty without meaningful dialogue and a sense of genuine connection.
Let me be honest and risk making people angry. A sizable number of my newer followers appear to only be interested in posting selfies to sell clothing and makeup and never like a post or leave a comment, thoughtful or otherwise. Or they’re new bloggers who seem to follow this blog, any blog, just to build their own following, again with no attempt to connect. Perhaps it’s foolish, but I do often follow them back because I honor their right to perspectives that differ from mine. I do learn a bit about worldviews that I might not encounter elsewhere. And the 3,000 views? Almost all were from Facebook, empty visits that, quite frankly, merely felt voyeuristic from a social medium that I am avoiding these days except to connect with my grandson.
As I responded to a comment from a dear friend yesterday,
“Thank you so much, ***. I don’t have the words to tell you how much your kind and thoughtful comments mean to me. I am weary at the moment and feel powerless to change the world my grandchildren will inherit. They’re lovely gentle souls and like all people everywhere, they have a right to live in peace and be treated with kindness and dignity. I will continue to do what I can anyway because I love them and I care about the earth. But it’s hard to keep hope alive sometimes.”
“Your kindness has given me a good reason to keep chipping away, ***. I’m deeply grateful. I had been contemplating whether to continue blogging or give it up. Posts and comments from friends like you make it well worth the effort.”
Weary or not, there’s work to do. After trying to clear ice from my car and driveway, I spent time playing a game with my soon-to-be-ten-year-old granddaughter, tell me a story(by eeboo corporation).
“Let’s play a game, Ava,” Ahma said.
“Okay, but I don’t know the rules,” Ava replied.
“Well, let’s read the directions.”
“ Hmm,” Ahma said after she skimmed the directions. “They don’t say much, so let’s make up our own. How about if I just deal out cards to each of us?”
“Yeah, that would work.”
“ How many do you think we should each get? Four? Five? Seven?”
“Five would be good.”
“Five it is, then Ava.”
And so we began weaving stories from the five picture cards before us, writing down each other’s stories as we went. First it was Ava’s turn to tell a story, and then, mine. (English is a hard language to learn how to spell!)
“Ahma, You’re a better storyteller.”
“It’s what I do, Ava. I’m a storyteller. I’ve had practice. I learned how to do it from others a long time ago. It’s something we learn how to do from someone else and this is my chance to help you learn how to tell your own stories.”
Just before Mom came, we packed the game away and created a special folder to hold our stories. We’ll keep adding new ones each time my granddaughter’s here. It’s such a small thing. But it’s something very special my granddaughter and i could do together on this first day of a new year to help build a better future.
As we embark on the journey of a new year, however we mark the beginning, I have a special wish. May we all breathe kinder stories into being for the next generations. Even when we’re weary.
A welcoming space for resistance to the forces of oppression and hegemony.