Writing into the void

These days, I can count on getting three letters a month. Real letters, not those abbreviated, pretend things that arrive electronically. (My sisters don’t count. They write nice, newsy emails every other day or so.)

My mother writes faithfully once a week, my aunt writes faithfully once a month, and my death-row correspondent always answers whenever I write to him, which is about once a month.

Considering the fact that my mom is 91 and my aunt 80, my three-a-month days are probably numbered–and if they ever, God forbid, do something to take poor Jeff out of the 20-year limbo he’s been in, I may lose even that letter-writer.

Lest you think I’m lucky to be getting even three in a day when people just don’t write any more, let me add that I write 12 letters a month to eight different people. I’m doing my part but the percentage of returns isn’t too impressive.

This isn’t a complaint, though. No, this is just a rueful commentary on the state of communication in today’s world.  It’s about what people are missing.

At this very moment, two of my mother’s letters are ForLetterBloglying on the end table next to me. Her familiar handwriting is scrawled across the envelopes, and four pages of news are folded up inside each one. I slit them open as soon as I got them and read them right away. Later, I reread them to George, who sits back as if waiting for the next installment of “This is My Life.” We chuckle that each letter includes date, time and temperature. I don’t chuckle too loudly, though, because my letters are headed the same way.

I can reread Mom’s letters any time I want. I can put them in my purse, or stash the “good” ones in a folder as keepsakes. Long after others’ emails are gone and forgotten, I’ll have at least some of my mom’s letters, infused with her personality in a way an email never can be. I can do the same with anyone’s letters I deem special enough to preserve.

Although few people send real mail these days, everyone likes getting it. When the mailman drops a fistful of envelopes through the mail slot, when a person trudges out to the box at the end of the drive, when a mail truck drives by rumbling with possibilities, there’s a delightful feeling of expectancy that’s nothing like opening an inbox on the computer. And no one can deny that finding a personal envelope that’s not an ad, not a bill, is just plain fun. However, since most people don’t write letters, they’re not likely to get them, either.  I’m one of the few people around, I think, who doesn’t mind writing into a void.

I used to think that’s because I’m a professional writer. But that doesn’t explain my mother, who has written hundreds, probably thousands, of letters over the years strictly as an avocation.  Maybe Mom and my aunt are conscious of the need for someone to help chronicle a family’s life and keep the connections going. When I write to my son, I tell him what the rest of the family is doing. When I hear from my aunt, I learn about cousins I haven’t seen in far, far too many years. Maybe it helps that our family is sprawled across the entire continent and even the world. Big family news-sharing and social gatherings just can’t happen for us.

Maybe. For me, it wouldn’t matter. If I had lots of family around, I’d find someone else to write to. Heck, I even leave notes around for George now and then. It’s an inherent part of my nature. It once was a part of the life of other people. Most have substituted emails or those god-awful phone texts and don’t seem to realize that something in our society is dying. If the electricity ever goes out for good, or if technology should leap and bound ahead of itself, families will have no written records. There will be no love letters left behind, tied with faded blue ribbons; no diaries with private thoughts for descendants to savor. They will all have disappeared with the pressing of a delete key, or the crashing of a hard drive.

People fight to save the whales, bats and spotted owls. I hope at least a few will add personal letters to that list.

Posted in Human behavior, Lifestyle, Social commentary | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Fake whistles and real memories

I hear the whistle, and feel a stirring within–sort of like an old racehorse who hears the starting bell and begins to trot in place.

In my mind’s eye, I see an engine with a string of ore cars behind it, chugging into town with a load of taconite. I see the billows of steam from a steam engine, pulling passenger cars on the Scenic Railway line. I tamp down the urge to grab my camera and head out for the perfect shot.

The whistle I hear is a fake. It’s a signal that the huge gantry crane at the shipbuilding plant is on the move, straddling the ore boat in the big dry dock and carrying supplies to the place of repair. It’s not a train whistle, and never will be, because there are no trains in Door County.

I’m told there once was. The Ahnapee and Western railroad ran 34.5 miles from a

Ready to roll. Photo by Monica Sawyn

Ready to roll. Photo by Monica Sawyn


connection with the Kewaunee, Green Bay and Western Railroad at Casco Junction to the lakeshore terminals of Algoma in Kewaunee County and Sturgeon Bay here in Door County, Wis. Ahnapee used to be Algoma’s name.
On the east side of the waters of Sturgeon Bay sits the old depot, now converted into an entertainment venue–a good move, rescuing a historic building from the vacant doldrums into which it had been sinking.

The railroad swing bridge that spanned the bay was condemned back in the 1960s, and as part of the rails-to-trails move that turned the old line into a biking/hiking trail, is now a way for walkers to venture into the waters of Sturgeon Bay without getting their feet wet.

Photo by Monica Sawyn

Photo by Monica Sawyn

Tracks were never laid any farther north. The farms and orchards and fishing villages never echoed to the siren sounds of the whistles. Kids never raced trains on their bikes, cows never raised placid heads to watch them slide by on shiny rails. No one born and raised here knows the thrill of a train chase.

But I do, and I miss it. Maybe not the diesel engines so much, but definitely the romance of those chugging steam engines. I loved seeing them snake through the countryside during the summer tourist season, hugging the Lake Superior shore, leaving steam billows behind like tracks in the snow. Housewives once hated all that belching that could ruin a week’s worth of wash hanging on the lines. Now, with most people drying inside in machines, that smoke has become nostalgia in the wind.

Whistles at every little junction and road; clackity-clacks over the

Photo by Monica Sawyn

Photo by Monica Sawyn

old wooden trestles and river bridges, happy tourists’ arms out the windows waving proudly at everyone watching along the way. And once in town, the once-over by the railroad crew, the whistle before departing again a few hours later, steam escaping from valves near the wheels, the smells, the sounds,  the milling amateur photographers hoping to capture the perfect piece of history.
It was always my intent to find new places to watch and to shoot. I’d head out with my fellow train-nut friend Todd, or jump on my motorcycle and anticipate when the train would hit the trestle, or the bridge, or some other vantage point. No matter how many photos I’d taken, or how busy I was when the train was due in, the whistle always got to me, and I’d have to drop everything just one more time.

It’s been five years since I’ve been anywhere near a steam train. It’s been four years since I’ve lived where there was any kind of train at all. So, for me, the fake whistle at the shipyard is a tantalizing tease. Whenever it blows, every single time, I see steam, and hear wheels on rails, and remember…

Check here for some video I shot in Two Harbors, Minn., with the old DM&IR depot in the background.

Posted in Memories, Photography, trains | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Here’s a hair-raiser

This is truly a hair-raising tale.

When I was born, my hair was dark and straight. I was oblivious, of course, concerned mostly with the sudden draft of cold air and where my first meal was coming from.

By the time I was 2 or 3, I was curly-headed and blond, too young to realize that was license to have more fun. I just naturally had the fun without that special permission.

When I started school at age 5, my hair was dark and straight again. I don’t remember that being at all an issue. The only specific things I recall from that kindergarten year is the rug I used for naps, and the little boy who kissed me. (Still having fun, apparently.)

In the sixth grade, my hair started to curl. Nothing riotous, just waves with minds of their own. A memory from that year is picture day, when an eighth-grade expert decided to take control of the rebel waves and restyle my hair for the camera. My mother still hasn’t recovered.

Throughout high school, my hair got curlier and even frizzed in the humidity. I kept it short when the style was long and stick-straight, and I complained daily to my mother.

“I hate this hair! I don’t know what to do with it!”

My mother, whose hair has always been stick-straight, was no help at all, although she did attempt to comfort me.

“Someday, when you have your own kids and you’re busy, you’ll be glad you don’t have to fuss with your hair,” she said. You can imagine what I thought of that advice.

In college I decided to grow it anyway, having discovered the magical

Via Bing Images

Via Bing Images

properties of humongous-sized rollers. I invested in lots of them, as well as a floor-standing hair dryer, and “doing my hair” started taking up great portions of my day. I majored in journalism and minored in hair.

A few years later, I did what all teenagers think they’ll never do: I proved my mother right. I had my kids, my days were long and full, and I cut my hair short again. Wash it, comb it back, let it curl however it wanted, never another thought. My peers were jealous. Now I was the one with the bragging rights.

With my history, I should have known things wouldn’t stay that way. I am now old enough to collect government funds, and my hair has changed yet again. This time it’s gray–and gray it will stay because I have no intention of coloring it to that same shade of reddish brown that’s the telltale sign of doctored locks. (I wondered, in my 50s, why all my friends’ hair was the same color. Silly me.) If gray hair makes men “distinguished” and not old, that should apply to women, too.

But, worse than the gray, my hair is straightening again.

Hat-and-hood hair--the best I can do these days.

Hat-and-hood hair–the best I can do these days.

I can still coax a curl out of it here and there, and it looks especially good when styled and rearranged by a winter hat and hood after a long walk with the dog. That is far from a reliable route to chic.

I think it’s time for another heart-to-heart with Mom. I know just what I’m going to say.

“I hate this hair! I don’t know what to do with it!”

I already know part of the answer, though. If I live long enough, it’s sure to change again.

Posted in Human behavior, Humor, Memories | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

Winter casualties: courtesy and brains

I recently had to attend the funeral of a teenager who died unexpectedly. As is usually the case when young people are involved, the place was jammed.

This isn’t about the funeral, it’s about the parking lot. And it raises a question I’m sure others have asked: why do people seem to lose their brains and their manners when winter arrives?

On this day, everyone knew parking was going to be at a premium. That’s why so many people showed up early. But because the lot was snow-covered, and parking space lines were obscured, people parked wherever they felt like it, most of them managing to take up 1-1/2 or even 2 spaces.

Occasionally, I see people do this intentionally because they think their car is very special and that everyone else will aim for it. But when it snows, the majority of people seem to do it out of pure thoughtlessness.Winter parking Grocery stores, sports and school events, church services–it’s always the same: Huge gaps between cars so that parking lots lose half their available spaces because people are just too rude to park normally.

That takes care of the courtesy vacuum generated by winter. The other is brains, which I guess are freeze-dried as soon as people take to the streets. Texting, phoning, tailgating, sudden stops (or the attempt, anyway), the insistence on driving at the speed limit no matter what the conditions are…What part of driving-for-conditions do these idiots not  understand?

I remember doing a story about a man who had operated a towing service for many years. During the conversation, he shook his head in disgust.

“They won’t slow down,” he said. “They won’t change their driving style to suit the conditions. And they never learn.”

It’s good business for him, of course. All those cars in the ditch where the drivers’ stupidity put them are going to cost plenty to be hauled out. Wouldn’t you think people could figure that out for themselves?

The next time you pull into a parking space–imagine the invisible lines. The next time you pull out into traffic, think about what the lack of traction is going to do to your timing. And the next time you just have to make a phone call while you’re in the car–pull over. I promise, I’ll do the same.

Posted in Dealing with winter, Human behavior | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Hearing Santa’s bells

As a kid, I was nothing if not imaginative. I believed in all sorts of mystical, magical things because I wanted to, and if I’d had the ability to live among faeries and elves, I would have.

So, it was no stretch for me, on Christmas Eve, to hear Santa coming.

I remember standing at the window in our living room, the one right next to the door and the stairway leading up to our second-floor bedrooms. Gauzy curtains hung before the glass, and I pushed them aside to gaze up into the night sky. It was past bedtime, but my two younger sisters and I were pushing it. We were too excited to sleep.

They were standing with me, the younger barely able to see over the window sill. Snow drifts were piled along the street and mounded along the walk to the front door. Icicles hung from the roof, their tips sparkling in the streetlights. Those things we barely noticed. Our eyes were heavenward, and I’d like to say we were praying, but we weren’t. We were tempting fate by hoping for a glimpse–oh please, just a tiny little peek–at reindeer and a sleigh and that wonderful, white-bearded man named Santa.santa

“If you’re up when he comes, he’ll leave and you won’t get any presents,” my mother warned. My poor mother, who had worked all day and now had presents to wrap and get under the tree, and stockings to fill, and three little kids who wouldn’t leave the room.

Even knowing we were jeopardizing our Christmas-morning surprises, we held our ground, sure that the vision would appear, that we would find ourselves suddenly able to peer into Santa’s magical world of faerie.

And then I heard the bells. Sleigh bells, without a doubt. I heard them, faint, as if from a distance–but coming closer. It was Santa and his reindeer, and we were up, and suddenly the possibility of seeing him was almost scary, and there were all those presents at risk…

“I hear bells!” I shrieked, my wide-eyes sisters darting glances everywhere and then nodding in beguiled agreement. Three little girls abandoned the window in a flash, dashed up the stairs, and threw themselves into bed, feigning sleep and hoping all-wise Santa wouldn’t notice.

Now, today, it’s Christmas Eve again. I’ll be up late as before, singing for the Midnight Mass that has somehow, over the years, gotten moved forward to 10 o’clock. I’ll hear the sounds of the piano, and my husband’s guitar, and all those choir voices, including my own, that have practiced so hard and so long. I’ll bow my head as the words of consecration are sung, and I’ll welcome Jesus, not just into the Bethlehem stable, but into my heart. M&J

“Merry Christmas!” cries will ring in the church when the Mass is over. We will wend our way home through drifts and falling snow, loving our Christmas Eve togethter.

And I’ll hear bells. I’m still the little girl who stood at the window, and I still believe in the magic of Christmas.

Posted in Holidays, Humor, Memories | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

A sweater’s-eye view

I’m trying to decide what to do with this old, white sweater.

It was new once. I bought it to go with a navy, short-sleeved top and a longish, blue striped skirt–a whole outfit that I hadn’t sewed myself. That was 20 years ago.

At first, it was a special occasion outfit, and I kept all three pieces together. Mostly I wore it to church, which was just about the only special occasion I had when my kids were young and money was tight. Eventually I wore the sweater with jeans or pants, and I paired something else with the skirt. The sweater was white, and I always lived in fear that I’d stain it with something permanent.

I posed for pictures in the complete outfit twice that I remember: once sitting on the back steps for a photo to send to a friend, and once with my black lab Magnum.

Magnum was the first to break up the set. An old dog when I got the outfit, he died a year or two later. After a few years, the skirt disappeared, probably outgrown, I’m sorry to say. The navy top lasted much longer, fading a bit more year after year until finally it became something to wear while working in the garden, and was eventually tossed out during a seasonal clothes switch.

The sweater has remained, although the thin shoulder pads it once sported were discarded long ago. It became the topper for other skirts and pants, and then something I wore only around the house. As the years passed, its pristine whiteness grayed, and somewhere along the line it picked up a coffee stain on one cuff, and a splotch of something unidentifiable near one of the pewter buttons.

Those buttons themselves are a marvel in that they stayed put.Old sweater Good thing, because I never would have found anything to match them, and would have had to replace them all if I’d lost one. At one time, I thought I’d cut the buttons off and save them if I ever tossed the sweater.  Now, though, they’ve lost their smooth finish, their polished appeal. The edges are rough and uneven, nibbled on by time and wear as children nibble cookies.

Three years ago, it was that once-white sweater I grabbed to wear over a t-shirt when I started a mailroom job, twice a week, at the local paper. It was November, and here in the north, a t-shirt under a coat is chilly. I wasn’t worried about that sweater any more. The sleeves turned gray as newsprint rubbed off week after week, refusing to totally rejuvenate despite weekly washings. I tossed it without a thought onto dingy tables and into dusty corners as my work pace dictated I shed a layer.

On Wednesdays after work, the sweater back on, George and I headed for the grocery store. Where once I was proud to wear that sweater, now I worried that someone would wonder where I got the grungy old thing, and why I always had it on.

Last month, we resigned our mail room job. The physical labor was beginning to take a toll on my body. It had long ago taken its toll on my old white sweater.

So now it hangs, washed and on a hanger, in my closet. Its future looks bleak. Something to wear in the garden, perhaps? The sweater, having been around as long it has, knows that’s the last stop for aging clothing.

That sweater has accompanied me on moves to two more states and through several life changes. It has weathered the culling that went with all of that. It has served me well. Tossing it would be like tossing out memories.  Maybe I’ll just retire it to pasture, so to speak, like an aging but well-loved race horse.

It’s a slim, worn old sweater. It won’t take up much room in the closet.

Posted in Lifestyle, Memories, Reflection | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

A creature of the light

I’m a creature of the light.

Not that I don’t appreciate beautiful velvet nights, when the sequin-scattered sky stretches into a forever that humbles my finite mortal existence. All that immensity. I think if I asked God why, he’d say “just because.” Looking up at that sky, it’s a good-enough answer for me.

I miss things by not being out in the night. I’ve missed more northern lights than I’ve seen, and although I have good intentions, I usually miss those nighttime eclipses, too. I have a writer friend who prowls the nocturnal woods that surround his home, who watches the creatures who scurry about their hidden business, who uses that reflective, quiet time to cultivate the thoughts that burst into prose blooms later in the day. It’s probably a good system. Won’t work for me. Once I go to bed, I’m down for eight hours. No sporadic forays into the dark.

Daytime is when I have the most energy. Like a hibernating animal, my whole body revs up when the light slips through the bedroom window, and begins to shut down as soon as the sun sets–a problematic scenario when it’s winter and days are short. I get out of bed making a mental list of all the things I can accomplish that day. By the time the sun is setting, I’m revising what’s left of the list to what I can put off until tomorrow.

This is probably why I prefer sunrise to sunset. Stars in my eyesMy body is ready to leave the nest. It’s quiet out there like it never is at sunset. There’s no wind, no cars, no people talking on the streets, just the birds and I.

Sometimes it feels like the natural world is holding its breath at this time of morning, waiting for the sun to reappear. Seconds after it crests the horizon, nature expels that breath as a quickening breeze that riffles leaves or tiny branches and flutters across my face. Almost without exception, when I’m near the water, the geese begin to fly. Day has begun. Time to get moving.

I love the light that slips through the living room blinds, and the sounds of the crows demanding, and then relishing, the peanuts we throw out. I love watching the other birds and squirrels come flying and scampering toward the feeders, making our place a first stop for the day. Doing dishes is no chore when I can watch them dining outside.

Sometimes just the shape of a cloud, leisurely moving across the sky, sends my heart soaring with gratitude–and then I ask myself why, and don’t really know the answer. Snow lying gently on a branch, footprints of critters who came during the night, springtime tulips nodding in the breeze, the smell of freshly mown grass in the summer, sunlight glinting through color-soaked leaves in autumn, birds winging across the sky–it all fills me with a sense of well-being, and with energy.

Maybe, to me, light signifies promise. It slowly unveils, then reveals, the world as the day progresses. Possibilities seem endless. Night is simply a time to rest and regroup for the next day’s surprises.

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Pigging out vicariously

Remember that old “Northern Exposure” episode where everyone in town was trying to outdo each other with the number of calories they could consume in one meal? AND bragging about how much weight they’d GAINED as winter set in?

I watched that episode with disbelief and–yes–a trace of envy. Or maybe a lot of envy. Eat what you want, as much as you want, gain weight, and you’re the winner? Not in my world.

Still, none of us should feel guilty about that sudden urge for comfort food that attacks us this time of year even if, with our lethargic lifestyles, we shouldn’t respond. Nature wants us to bulk up for what used to be the lean months of the year, when food was scarce, and frigid temps made calorie loading important.

PeanutsIt may not apply to us any more, but it still applies to the critters out there. Some handle it by hibernating, some–like those pesky squirrels in my bird feeder–chunk up every fall and emerge thin and scruffy in the spring–and some head for warmer climes.

Some of the birds, though, stick around, and they’re the ones for whom comfort food is still vitally important. That’s why, at our house, we don’t stop feeding in the winter, and we add suet to the menu.

Last year, I got tired of paying relatively high prices for that suet, especially remembering the days when grocery stores gave it away. And I was never sure about the content of the store-bought suet balls. Then, I found a great recipe for homemade suet recommended by someone who works at Wild Birds Unlimited, who said bird suet should be filled with fat rather than sugars and grains. Her solution is simple and not expensive and I’ve been doing it ever since:

2 cups shelled, unsalted peanuts
1/2 cup raisins
2 to 3 tablespoons cornmeal

Process the peanuts in a food processor until they look like peanut butter, add the raisins and process for another minute, then add the cornmeal and process a bit more. SuetPress the results into a mold. I use those square, sandwich-sized Zip-Loc boxes. Pop them in the freezer, and when they’re solid, they fit perfectly into one of those small, square, wire suet feeders you can buy just about anywhere. I make two the first time, and then I always have one ready to go when the feeder empties. And it does, regularly.

Have at it, little birds. If I can’t, I’m glad you can, and you’re fun to watch.

Posted in Food, Human behavior | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Mozart–and pancakes–for breakfast

I’m glad Mozart wrote music to eat pancakes by.

I know he did, because that’s what George usually puts on when I have peppered bacon warming in the oven and pancakes crisping in the pan. It’s our once-a-week treat. The food, that is. I admit that Mozart finds his way to our table fairly often.

On this day, the sun hadn’t been up long enough to hike the temps much beyond 30 degrees. The wind kicked up a fuss, tossing fallen leaves in little swirling storms across our lawn. Crows and bluejays screeched in the trees, hurrying up the peanut handouts they get each day.

The beagle was hovering underfoot, ever hopeful, IMG_5348even though she never gets tidbits while I’m cooking. I mixed some Bisquick, a handful of old-fashioned oats, and a generous sprinkling of ground flax seed, along with milk, an egg, a little lemon flavoring and sliced strawberries, frozen from last spring’s crop. The mixture is thick and so are the pancakes.

A European friend once discussed pancakes with me.

“Ours aren’t those thick things Americans eat,” she said. She should see mine.

George poured the orange juice, then set the table while I cooked, adding real butter and locally produced maple syrup.  Mozart continued to flow through the house as we slid into our chairs, said grace, and dug in.

A warm, hearty breakfast seems to go with the crisping days of autumn and the frigid days of winter that will follow. They speak of comfort, as do the thick soups, the fireplace fires, fleece-lined slippers and handmade afghans tucked around knees in the evenings.

Mozart, of course, is good for any season.

Posted in Dealing with winter, Food | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

All Souls Day

I have an annual tradition that some people think is a little morbid: I visit a cemetery on the feast of All Souls, march up and down the rows, read the inscriptions, and pray for those who lie there as well as my own loved ones who beat me to heaven.

It’s actually a pretty Benedictine thing to do, and since I’m a Benedictine oblate, that matters to me. Benedict told us to “keep death daily before our eyes.” I can’t think of a better place to do it than a cemetery, nor a better day.Cemetery tree

In recent years, with my move to Sturgeon Bay, I’ve taken my walk in the Catholic cemetery, since I’m more apt to recognize names there than at any of the other ones. But in my former Minnesota town, the Catholic section was part of the general cemetery, so I could read the epitaphs of fellow church members as well as those from other churches or no churches at all. I liked the idea that some of those might be getting prayers for the dead for the first time, if they came from a faith tradition that doesn’t believe in that sort of thing. I like to think that they know better now, and are grateful.

It nearly always rains on this day–or, in Minnesota, snows–for some reason that probably has to do with the season, but which still seems spiritually appropriate. And yet, a sunny day wouldn’t seem amiss, either, since this is a day about hope, about the communion of saints, about not letting death keep us from looking out for each other. It’s about the mercy of God, and the camaraderie of those who belong to him. It’s about joy.

Standing there in the midst of those silent graves, reading namesGrave leaves and dates both ancient and recent, I feel the joy. They have, hopefully, gone home, have finished the journey, have been reunited with those who went before, and with the God who has been waiting. Sounds like a reason to celebrate to me.

While St. Benedict advised us to keep death before our eyes as a reminder that this world isn’t all there is and that we’re not the center of it, another Benedict, Pope Benedict XVI, said something pretty inspiring about cemeteries that I read just yesterday:

“The cemetery, the site of mourning and transience, has become a place of hope. Whoever has himself buried here thereby says: I believe you, Christ, who rose from the dead. I hold fast to you.  I do not come alone in the mortal loneliness of those who cannot love. I come in the communion of saints, who even in death do not leave me…

“So the message of the cemetery is manifold. It reminds us of death and of eternal life. But it speaks to us, also, precisely of our present, everyday life. It encourages us to think of what passes and what abides. It invites us not to lose sight of standards and the goal. It is not what we have that counts but rather what we are for God and for man. The cemetery invites us to live in such a way that we do not leave the communion of saints. It invites us to seek and to be in life what can live on in death and in eternity.”

That’s what I love about this feast, and that’s not morbid at all.

Posted in Faith-filled living, Reflection, Traditions and customs | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments