Grandma

I moved away from Minnesota when I was 18 and haven’t always been the best at communicating with family members back home. This is especially irksome to my mom’s mom, who happens to be a prolific letter-writer. Once, when I returned for my parent’s 25th wedding anniversary, Grandma asked me, “Have your hands healed?”

“Nothing’s wrong with my hands. Why do you ask?”

“Well, you never write! I assumed they were broken!”

Point taken, Grandma.

I have not been a good letter writer for some reason, which is weird because I actually enjoy writing. It’s just easier for me to pick up the phone and call. I like hearing her voice on the other end of the line, the Minnesota accent that thickens with age and the Scandinavian colloquialisms that make me quietly chuckle.

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Grandma on her 90th birthday with my mom, sister, and niece (I’m always the photographer, never the photographed)

So, to kickoff my “40 Days to 40” project yesterday, I called my now 92-year-old grandma. I wanted to ask her if she remembered turning 40. I figured she would because this woman forgets nothing. Especially birthdays (I get a card every March 26 with $2 or $3 tucked inside). But, to my surprise, she did not actually remember! She reasoned this is because she was chasing after a 2-year-old at the time, and turning 40 just “wasn’t a big deal.” The extended family probably would have come to the house, and there would have been a cake, but the details are all lost, blurred together with her 91 other birthdays and milestones. “It’s only a big deal if you make it a big deal,” she said.

That’s probably true, but since I don’t have 5 kids–including a 2-year-old–to run after, I suppose I have a lot of free time to make a big deal out of things.

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I can only hope to look this good at 90!

My Grandma has spent most of her 92 years taking care of other people, mostly children. In fact, she still babysits! I think that’s one of the secrets to longevity – always having a purpose, knowing that waking up every morning will make someone else’s life a little better. Also, I imagine she has one heck of an immune system after caring for 3 generations of children with all their mutant flu and cold viruses. I’m rooting for her to be the first centenarian in the family, although she laughed when I told her this. “As long as I’m not stuck in no wheelchair!” Truth be told, I think she’s far too stubborn to get stuck in a wheelchair. If her legs stopped working, she’d will herself to move them and walk home. That’s the kind of person she is.

While children have dominated the landscape of Grandma’s life, there were other interests that speckled it with color. Back in 1943, “Pageant of Poetry” published one of her poems.  She showed it to me after her 90th birthday party.  I had known about the anthology for a few years but had assumed she’d never be able to find it. Surely, it was buried under 70 years of memories. Not so! She simply walked into a room and proudly emerged with it a minute later.

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I was thrilled to hold that book in my hands, knowing that Grandma was the first woman (that I know of) in my family to be published.  It meant that my desire to write and be published came from somewhere.

“Do you wish you’d have written more?” asked my mom, who also happened to be there at the time. I had been wondering that myself, but there’s something in Mom that also loves to put pen to paper.

“Oh ja,” she’d said. “But you know it cost money to send things in and there were always kids to take care of…” There may have been a hint of sadness in that statement, but I could be projecting.  _dsc8898

As she talked, I thumbed through the book, and something caught my eye. Inside the front cover were a few, crisp sheets of paper. I pulled them out to take a closer look. They were the birth certificates of each of her 5 children! Again, I could be projecting, but I can’t help but think that’s significant.

I remembered this as I spoke with Grandma yesterday, contemplating existential anxieties and what it means to turn 40. And suddenly, something clicked for me.  For a while, I thought that Grandma put her writing on hold to put her duties as a parent and grandparent first. But, that’s not true–Grandma never gave up writing. She adapted her writing to fit her life. She expressed herself in the hundreds of letters she’d sent to me over the years.

It makes me think I should try a lot harder to write back. And, I should finish all of those writing projects that I’ve started.  I think I can make a big deal out of that.

40 Days

My mom turned 40 at Kramer’s Supper Club in Evansville, Minnesota, a no-stoplight town in the West Central farmlands. It was a surprise party. I was 17-years-old at the time and the only one of my 4 siblings to snag an invite because I had a car and agreed to sneak in the cake ahead of time. The room was decorated in prerequisite black and white graveyard-inspired decor because turning 40 means you’re about to die, and that’s obviously something you should joke about. My friend Missy came along, and we sat by ourselves when things got started, plotting to steal a taste of someone’s unattended beer. We got our chance when all the adults cleared out after dinner. No one noticed us hanging back, taking swigs of Miller High Life from half-empty bottles. That night defined for me what a 40th birthday was supposed to look like. I assumed it would take a lot longer to get there myself.

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I recently polled my Facebook friends to see how they spent their 40th birthdays, and here were some of their experiences:

  • Had a hysterectomy
  • Took a two week trip to the UK
  • Had too much sushi and wine
  • Cut off very long hair for Locks of Love
  • Enjoyed a farm to table dinner
  • Took a long weekend on the Olympic Peninsula
  • Forgot because brain dumped out pre-divorce memories
  • Had tea and played with kittens
  • Went to Disney World and then went on a rafting trip to see Grizzly bears
  • Turned 40 in a Chicago hotel room
  • Started a random tradition of spending every birthday somewhere I’ve never been before, doing something I have never done before
  • Disneyland!
  • Husband planned a surprise party
  • Went off to an island alone and considered how I wanted to live the next 40 years
  • My wife left me
  • Saw Queen Latifah
  • Cooked dinner for a few closer friends
  • Parents took me to Italy

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Now it’s my turn to summit that infamous “hill” and start the gradual decent into old age. I’ll be 40 at the end of March, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how I want to celebrate it. I don’t have any scheming daughters to sneak sips of my wine (Miller High Life was something I never tried again), and my life hasn’t followed a traditional path with a husband, kids, and whatever else we attach to the American Dream, so I don’t really feel 40. Maybe no one ever really feels 40. Is it even really that significant anymore?

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It must mean something—the number 40. It’s the number of weeks human beings gestate before birth. And then we grow up listening to American Top 40 before settling into 40 hour work weeks after college. In the Bible, people were always spending 40 days wandering around or getting tempted or rained on.  40 must mean something.

Today marks 40 days to my 40th birthday. And while I don’t know how I’d like to celebrate the actual day yet, I’d like to take that time to meditate on what I’ve accomplished so far and to think about what I’d like the next half (or so) of my life to mean. Over the next 40 days, I’m going to seek out new experiences, make new connections, strengthen existing connections, and hopefully finish a few projects that I started in my 30’s. This was inspired by my friend, Renata, who had one long, continuous celebration. And why not? If we’ve made it this far, shouldn’t we take some time to celebrate ourselves?

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I’ve come up with about 20 things to do so far, so I’m in need of some ideas! Big or small. Feel free to comment with suggestions or simply share what turning 40 means to you.

Capturing Iceland

This is my Iceland Writers Retreat writing competition submission. While I didn’t win this year, I was one of the finalists. I’m including the photos I took during the 2014 layover that inspired this piece.

The rules:
Iceland – Regard the Moon! Many authors have drawn parallels between Iceland and the moon. Write a max 500-word essay, story or poem on this theme.

Capturing Iceland

Stop One.
I’m completely alone. While evidence of human life surrounds me in the form of a lighthouse, a shipwreck, and a church of carved stone, I haven’t actually seen anyone in miles. The wind sandblasts my face raw as I step away from my rental car, and I wish for a scarf or a thicker jacket than what I’ve chosen to wear during my layover in Iceland. But this is okay. I’m on an exploratory mission, and thoughts of what I might find eclipse the desire for warmer outerwear.

Pictures are what I’m after. As a travel photographer, sitting in Keflavik International Airport and waiting six long hours for the next flight to Seattle isn’t an option. I never reject an opportunity to experience new places, and this layover affords me just enough time to circle the Reykjanes Peninsula with my camera. So I challenge the April winds, pushing ahead for the sake of art. A few clicks of the shutter later and I’m off again with a piece of Iceland safe in my memory card.

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A strip of faded asphalt cuts through a lunar plain. Down that road, the Eurasian and North American plates diverge in a tectonic rift. On a footbridge that crosses between the two sides, tourists have fastened padlocks to the chain links of the handrails. The love locks are red, purple, and gold—inscribed with names like Katja and Eros, couples who hope to stay together, even as the continents slowly drift apart. I raise my camera. Click._DSC8508-Recovered_DSC8526_DSC8522_DSC8519
Stop Three.
Beneath my feet, subterranean sea waters encounter cooling magma, and steam curls skyward from the earth’s crust—a thousand souls rising from sulfurous graves. A part of me thinks I should be afraid. This mysterious land could open up and cast me into its molten core. But, the explorer in me sees the beauty in it, recognizes her own insignificance and feels nothing but awe. Click._DSC8599
Stop Four.
I follow a sign that points to the Blue Lagoon. It’s a rapturous blue heart in the middle of a lava field in which—ah-ha!—every Reykjanes visitor has congregated! I want to stay, commune with fellow travelers. Dozens of heads bob up and down in the geothermal spa, and I envy them their cotton bathrobes and more time than myself. But, the layover hours have ticked away, and I must return to Keflavik. I aim my lens at the lagoon before departing. Click._DSC8543_DSC8551_DSC8545
Stop Five.
Reluctantly, I surrender my keys to the rental car company and pack up my camera. As I do, a thought strikes me—I have captured nothing. Iceland, in all of her tumultuous splendor, has captured me instead! How can I leave when there’s still so much left to see, things that don’t fit on a square inch of digital memory? As I head towards my gate, face thawing and hair a tangled mane, I’m already planning a solo mission to explore the rest.

Return to Venice

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Okay, I’m not actually in Venice, Italy right now (physically, anyway). But, with falling temperatures and snow in the Pacific Northwest forecast, it’s tempting to look back on warmer days.

I snapped these pictures last year from the balcony of a cruise ship. My friend Julia and I had just returned from a week on the Mediterranean, exploring places like Croatia, Greece, and Montenegro. Places where the sun always seems to shine. They are more forgotten treasures I’m finding as I sit inside on these cold, dark nights, searching for things to do that don’t involve Netflix.

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Missing Kerry

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Rossbeigh Beach
Near the village of Glenbeigh on the Ring of Kerry, Ireland

I have never counted all the pictures I took while living in Ireland. There are probably thousands. I keep them in folders labeled by County and by month, and whenever I need to visit Ireland, I just open Kerry or Clare or Galway and rediscover what made my summer there so special. This shot of Rossbeigh Beach caught my eye the other day. With all of my thousands of photos of Ireland, I’d missed it and never edited it. I hope that keeps happening – that some previously undiscovered image will randomly capture my attention on a day when I need it the most.

American Refugee: 5 Reasons to Visit Inishturk, Ireland

Last summer I read an article about a tiny Irish island that would welcome American refugees if Donald Trump is elected President of the United States. It was a joke, of course, probably meant to drum up some tourism.

During every election season stretching as far back as I can remember, Americans threaten to leave the country if their candidate loses. And on the Wednesday morning following every election night, those same people get ready for work and carry on as usual. However, this being an especially contentious election, I thought some voters might finally make good on those threats. Would that tiny Irish island be a good place for American “refugees”? I thought it might be prudent to check it out and report back. (Or, more truthfully, I was just looking for another excuse to return to Ireland…)

Anyway, two weeks after reading the article I was standing on Roonagh Pier, waiting to catch a passenger-only ferry to Inishturk, an island 14 km off the coast of County Mayo. The wind had sliced my eye with a loose strand of hair, and it watered profusely as I listened to stories about a storm that had blown through two days earlier. The ferry operators warned that the waters were still a little choppy, so we should all be careful and hold on. I have never been seasick but worried about the hour-long journey nonetheless.

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Loading supplies

A dozen passengers and a few crew members boarded the ferry. Some stayed inside the cabin. I chose to stand on deck and keep my eyes on the horizon. The waves were a little rough at first, but by the time we arrived on Inishturk, the waters were much smoother.

And you know what? I’m glad (kind of, not really) Donald Trump ran for President because if not, I’d have never heard of Inishturk! I don’t know that I’d ever live there (it’s very remote), but I’d definitely go back for a week just to disconnect from all the daily noise that can make life so exhausting sometimes.

If you’re planning a trip to Ireland, whether to escape politics or just for fun, there are several great reasons to choose Inishturk island.

Reason 1: Peace and Quiet
Approximately 58 residents live on Inishturk. You could probably meet each one in an afternoon on your 5 km walk around the island. And forget theaters, fancy eateries, and shopping centers. There is a beautiful community center that functions as a restaurant, pub, and library and there are only a few B&B’s from which to choose.  It’s the simple life at its best. Writers, photographers, and artists will love a visit.

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Greeting Committee

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The pier at sunset

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Old buildings I’d love to renovate and move into

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Reason 2: The People
I stayed at Tranaun Beach House, strategically located next to the community center/restaurant/pub. It’s a bit of a hike from the pier, so my host, Phylomena Heaney, drove down to pick me up.

The aroma of freshly baked bread greeted me at the front door of the B&B. Phylomena ushered me into the dining room, serving me tea and scones as I enjoyed a view of the Ireland’s west coast. She was so hospitable and kind – like everyone else I met during my stay. Islanders and other tourists simply wanted to stop and chat, and even though I’d traveled there alone, I never once felt lonely.

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The long road home

Reason 3: Sheep!
I met Farmer Heaney (Phylomena’s brother-in-law, I believe) on my walk around the island. He’d herded his sheep into a pen because some of them needed a fresh coat of paint. Farmers spray paint sheep with their mark as a means of identification. I’d never seen this done before, so he let me observe and take some pictures.

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For weeks, Chris the Sheep evaded the farmer’s mark, but today his number was up.

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Hey, maybe we can sneak away when Farmer Heaney isn’t looking…

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The first time I’d ever witnessed a sheep getting painted! I am probably a little too excited about this.

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Nowhere to run!


Reason 4: The Scenery
Fresh air and a decent view. I couldn’t ask for much more…

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On the road from Phylomena’s B&B to the pier

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One of the island’s swimming holes

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I think the sheep appreciate the views too…

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The view from Phylomena’s front door in the morning, facing County Galway

Reason 5: Hiking
As I’ve mentioned, it’s a 5 km walk around the island. The first part is all uphill from the pier, and it’s a great workout after spending so much time in airplanes, rental cars, and ferries to get there.

During my hike, I witnessed the islanders setting up for a festival that would expand their population from 58 to 150 over the weekend. I was tempted to stay on for that, but, as you can imagine, all of the B&B’s were booked and tents filled.

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BONUS Reason:  On my way back to the mainland the next morning, several dolphins swam towards the ferry! They stayed alongside us for a few moments before diving below the surface and disappearing. Even the seasoned ferry captain was excited to see them! (Unfortunately, it happened so fast that I wasn’t able to get a picture of it.)

Some tips before you go:

  • Ask your hosts if they need anything from the mainland. It’s expensive and time-consuming to go off-island. They’ll appreciate the offer.
  • Bring your Wellies! This goes for Ireland in general, but it’s especially helpful here. Your hike around the island will take you off road and through some soggy hillsides. Totally worth it for the view, though!

Slainte! And don’t forget to vote!!

The Beaches of Inishbofin

Inishbofin is a small island off the coast of County Galway, Ireland. With a population of 170 and accessible only by ferry, it’s a quiet retreat away from the mainland. My favorite part about visiting was renting a bicycle and exploring the beaches…and having them all to myself! _dsc8453_dsc8502_dsc8462_dsc8584_dsc8472_dsc8603_dsc8635_dsc8505_dsc8623