Consider the Hydrangea

This was going to be “the year” for my garden. Spring clean-up revealed that the perennials I have planted over the years now occupy virtually all of the space. I showed great restraint at my trip to a garden center and purchased only one plant at the Farmer’s Market. Not because I didn’t see things I liked, but because I simply didn’t have room. And with more arthritis in my hands, I wasn’t eager to do a lot of planting. I’ve also found vicarious enjoyment in my neighbor’s garden, which is a sweep of color from annuals and dramatic arrangements in pots. No need for both of us to be on hands and knees!

Five years ago, I bought an annabelle hydrangea. I planted it in a northeast corner, against the house, to cover up the water meter and fill in a dark space. Too dark, as it turned out. The plant needed more sun than it got, and, because it was tucked away, I often forgot to water it. The hydrangea didn’t die, but it also seemed never to do anything.

Two years later, I found a new home for the hydrangea, at the south end of the yard, where, in the midst of a larger garden, it would receive plenty of sun and attention. I was eager for its white blooms to complement the yellows and lavenders nearby.

The first year, I didn’t expect it to flower while settling in, and it didn’t. The second year, now well established and doubled in size, the hydrangea still did nothing. Had I pruned it back when I shouldn’t have, or left it alone when I should have given it a hard trim? I couldn’t remember.

This year, it continues to grow, full and green. But while hydrangeas in other yards are already in bloom, mine has nothing but heart-shaped leaves, not the mound of white flowers that would last well into the summer.

When I complained to my neighbor—the one with the beautiful garden—she was unequivocal. “Take it out. There must be something wrong with it.”

The growing season in Minnesota is short. Gardeners are like capitalists, wanting the biggest bang for their greenhouse buck. As one who daily depends on mercy, I’m reluctant to dig it up. For now, the hydrangea fills a large space in the garden. It provides shade for animals. It is shapely in its green robe. Its glory may be still to come.

No Foolin’

It’s a good year to inject some humor into our lives.

After his half birthday, April Fool’s was my husband Chris’s favorite day of the year. With a birthday wedged between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, he had given up on a celebration that didn’t look like the holidays or feel like an afterthought.

Somewhere along the way, he learned of half birthdays and seized on the idea. For a numbers guy who spent his days on spreadsheets, he was surprisingly good at promoting his “other” birthday. He’d mention in January and February that June 29 was coming up. He’d mention in March and April that June 29 was just around the corner. He’d drop hints in May of a special meal, an activity, that we should begin planning.

But June 29 was a long way off. What better diversion than to zero in on April 1. As with half-birthday plans, he began thinking about his own plans for April Fool’s Day well in advance. Often we collaborated to pull a prank on the kids.

One year he took all of Anna’s underwear (she was in junior high) and hung it in the bare branches of a tree outside. She didn’t find it funny. The next year, she retaliated by putting rubber bands in his underwear, which he claimed to keep finding for months afterwards. He did think it funny.

Another year I put jelly beans in the split pea soup and pennies in the cornbread.

Once he put cellophane across the toilet bowl, salt in the orange juice (it’s disgusting), glue in the soap dispenser (even worse).

But his best April Fool’s prank he played on his coworkers. He was invariably the first one into the office, so it was easy to set up. He made 100 photocopies of his face, then placed these sheets in the paper tray. When anyone used the copy machine, there was Chris’s face looming up from a letter, a budget, or a meeting agenda.

As with his half birthday, Chris loved the idea of fooling others for fun. Both gave him a chance to tease. Both gave him license to be a bit outrageous, even naughty.

Chris gave as much as he took. A miscast snagged his lure in his cap.

After telling my mother of Chris’s prank one year, she admitted that she used to put rubber bands in her brother’s sandwiches. Then, in response to a text this morning reminding my children of the photocopy trick Chris played at work, my son replied, “I definitely used that trick as a teacher!”

Fun may not fall far from the tree. I can’t think of a better year to inject some humor into our lives. Or a better day (except June 29) to remember him.

The Problem with ‘Everything’

We’ve been crushed by the burden of everything. It’s been a year when everything has become our new normal. It’s been a year of living in perpetual crisis, at an intensity we’ve felt helpless to ease.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman stood on the stage of an auditorium on the campus of the University of St. Thomas about four years ago. The former mayor and other city officials were giving the first public presentation of a plan to develop the old Ford site, two miles south of my home. They took turns offering rationales for the single biggest development project in the city’s history.

One of Coleman’s comments has stayed with me. He described the project as “our everything.” Development of the site would increase affordable housing stock. It would expand businesses and jobs. It would transform the 125-acre manufacturing site into a vibrant asset. It would add green space and manage runoff to Hidden Falls. And—ding ding ding—it would generate $2 million in tax revenue a year.

For as locked down, restricted, and abnormal as life has been this past year, I keep coming back to Coleman’s words. Our everything. Haven’t we been crushed by the burden of everything? The mounting deaths. The long-simmering racism that came to a full boil last May, when George Floyd died at the hands of the Minneapolis police. The California fires. Our warming planet. An election challenged by lies and a bloated ego. Our democracy tested by those who wave the American flag but had never been inside the U.S. Capitol until January 6. The frantic pursuit to secure appointments for vaccinations.

As William Wordsworth famously wrote, “The world is too much with us.”

The pandemic turned Coleman’s mantra into our meme. It’s been a year when ‘everything,’ while too much, also became our new normal. It’s been a year of living in perpetual crisis or near-crisis mode, at an intensity we’ve felt helpless to ease. I stopped writing. I couldn’t concentrate on what a few months earlier had given me great satisfaction, not to mention structure to my day. Instead restlessness overcame me and sent me down a rabbit hole.

I started house projects that I’d long considered but had always found reasons to delay. Now, they were my obsession. I had the floors refinished. I had work done on my fireplace. I ordered new furnishings.

I was desperate to beat the world’s ‘everything’ with my own. I tried to convince myself that I hadn’t lost all perspective. I’d laugh off the changes when describing them to others, blaming it on COVID and being stuck at home with nothing better to do. Heck, everyone else was doing the same thing. I’ve done my part in hosing up the global supply chain.

As a former project manager, I’m a kind of everything person. I like nothing better than to seize a task and bird-dog it to completion. Such a singular focus on a task is annoyingly satisfying. But it can also blind me. Having nearly exhausted myself from considering what throw pillows will look good in my living room, I finally acknowledged what’s behind this everything way of thinking.


Remodeling has given me temporary relief but did little to address the deeper diagnosis that it’s simply been hard to function, especially for those of us who live alone. All these changes to my environment have amounted to what King Lear called “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

On March 11, 2021, one year to the day the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic, I received my first shot of the vaccine. Unlucky at lotteries, I waited, finally showing up for the appointment I’d made a month earlier. Unexpectedly, I felt a sense of relief, relief I can only attribute to having survived everything this past year.

When it’s safe for us to gather, come on over. Feel free to comment on the changes in my house, admire them or shake your head, but let’s not dwell on them. More than anything I want to see you in the flesh, read the smile play across your face, hear your words fill up the empty corners of the room, share heartaches and joys, give you a hug.

Anything to remind me that being connected is our everything.

The sound of victory

I landed in Philadelphia at 4:29 p.m. Saturday, 5 hours after the AP called the election for Joe Biden. Celebrations had been going on all day, and our route back to Andrew and Kendall’s place in Fishtown included a stop in Center City, where the mood was ecstatic. It didn’t hurt that the temperature lingered at 74 degrees even as the sun set.

Car horns blared as pedestrians waved and shouted. Live music—from a solo trumpeter playing “America the Beautiful” to an Irish band seated outside of a pub. At a peaceful gathering, those who hoisted Biden-Harris signs outshouted a much smaller group waving the sign “Blue Lives Matter.” News and National Guard helicopters droned overhead. A group danced the wobble in front of City Hall. The police had a presence but seemed to be enjoying the festivities as much as the citizens of the city that helped deliver a Biden win.

It’s all music to my ears. I haven’t heard such joy in a good long while. Frankly, there hasn’t been much to celebrate. Covid is reaching new peaks of infection rates. The economy is reeling. Working families are navigating the rough waters of doing their job from home and trying to provideUnemployment numbers remain high. Our favorite restaurants have closed. Netflix and other online options have replaced going out to a movie. Orchestras have switched to concerts online, even as many of us dread yet another Zoom/YouTube experience in a day already full of them.

The best sound was the collective sigh of relief heard around the country when Biden, in his acceptance speech, promoted the very values that have been censored for the past 4 years: unity, civility, and, finally, hope. When Harris spoke to women, especially Black women, about how dreams can come true.

How is it that we went so long not being heard? So long being drowned out instead by harsh, damaging rhetoric So long being muffled by fear-mongering and threats. So long being silenced because one man decided our voices mean nothing.

On August 28, 1963, standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a dream” speech, building to this crescendo:

And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California . . . Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

The people have spoken.

Home Anew

Home is a small but mighty word.

Call me old-fashioned—or just old—but I have kept my American Heritage Dictionary, all 2,140 pages, on my bookshelf. It feels good to flip through the tissue-thin pages as I look up a word rather than ask Google’s fingers to do the walking. Either way, the noun ‘home’ has multiple definitions. My dictionary lists 11.

A place where one lives. The physical structure within which one lives. A dwelling place together with the family or social unit that occupies it. An environment offering security and happiness. The place, such as a country or town, where one was born or has lived for a long period. Native habitat. A source. A headquarters. Home plate. An institution where people are cared for. The starting position of the cursor on a computer screen.

During this peripatetic Fall, when a cabin up north, my sister and brother-in-law’s townhouse in Illinois, and soon my son and daughter-in-law’s Philadelphia row house have been a temporary landing place for me, I’ve fallen for the cliche. “Home is where the heart is,” the Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder said some 2,000 years ago.

I’m not as attached to my house as I once thought. Or, having spent more time in mine during Covid has made any time away welcome.

In describing my wanderings the last few months, I’ve joked that I’ve been homeless, but that’s not funny or right. I’ve always had a roof overhead and a warm bed to sleep in each night. I’ve never missed a meal or experienced discomfort.

If anything, I’ve felt more connected—to the world, family, nature, and myself. No matter my location, I’ve continued my volunteer work related to immigration issues, feeling an even greater commitment to those who are forced to leave their home and seek a new one. I’ve been blessed to have more time with my sister and brother-in-law, my children and grandchildren. While up north, each day I spent as many hours as possible outdoors, taking in the spectacular colors, the Paul Bunyan trail, area parks, and the ever-changing lake.

I also felt the absolute freedom of being alone, something our busy lives don’t often afford and our world doesn’t often condone. While the pandemic has caused isolation and loneliness for many, I’ve also found joy in my own company. The 5 weeks I was at the cabin was the longest stretch I’d been by myself. No friends to walk or bike with. No meals to share. I wasn’t sure how I’d do.

Perhaps because I’m used to living alone, I was fine. And when I missed a person’s voice, I called. When I needed to feel “home,” there was always someone with whom I could connect.

I wrote more. I read more. I hiked amidst the aspen and oaks, pines and maples. I did very little cooking. I stared at the lake for hours.

The Saturday before I left I caught a large bass from a kayak while the loons provided the soundtrack. The day I drove back to St. Paul from visiting my sister, she texted me that she missed me and that I was always welcome there.

Once home, I appreciate even more the fact that my daughter and her family are staying with me. So what if there’s more laundry and dirty dishes (okay, a LOT more). So what if the quietest hour for reading is 5 to 6 a.m.? As much as home is a physical space, it’s also a place in the heart where all that matters belongs.


Detaching from the chaos

After a long weekend at home, I’ve returned to the cabin up north for the second half of my stay/exile/retreat/quarantine. It was good to be back in St. Paul. I voted (have you?), saw family and friends, did laundry, and readied the gardens for winter.

I arrived at the cabin yesterday, just ahead of an on-again, off-again rain. Everything inside the cabin was as I’d left it. But outside, things had changed. The loons have been replaced, it seems, by a flock of geese, honking as they fly low across the water. The ash outside my window, whose leaves were yellow when I left, is stripped bare. The Paul Bunyan Trail is paved with pine needles, acorns, and splashes of aspen, maple, and oak leaves.

Even the lake seems different. The reed bed where I caught bass last week has dulled and begun to die. The surface of the water is restless. And the sky is bruised and heavy.

We live in dark, apocalyptic times. We know how much things have changed.

Before Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s family could absorb her death, there were those who were eager to announce her replacement—as if that were even possible.

For those of us who felt gut-punched by the outcome of the 2016 election, we recognize that same feeling inside, bracing ourselves for the awful possibility that we might be hit again.

More than six months have passed since America was caught up in a pandemic and still there is no mandate or collective will that would tame the virus.

Some days it’s all too much. We can’t stop talking about the chaos around us but then are spent by our own words.

I read about the Desert Mothers and Desert Fathers this morning in Richard Rohr’s daily meditation []. This group of ascetics arose when Christianity became the established religion of the Roman Empire. Thomas Merton describes their movement:

“Society—which meant pagan society, limited by the horizons and prospects of life in this world—was regarded by [these desert people] as a shipwreck from which each single individual had to swim for their life . . . These were people who believed that to let oneself drift along, passively accepting the tenets and values of what they knew as society, was purely and simply a disaster.”

Sound familiar?

Only outside the mainstream did desert people search for wholeness. They called this process of moving toward inner freedom detachment.

I’m not an ascetic (though I’m getting by on only three pair of shoes), but I’m grateful to be here again, detaching. I recognize my need to abandon, even for a little while, the shipwreck our country feels like, before I myself am ruined.

My vote is cast, the interlude is over; let the second act begin.

To the Lake

This week I headed north for a month, and I have Covid to thank. My daughter and her family are living in my house while they finish renovating theirs. With the grandkids back to school and day care, my daughter and I agreed it was best if we weren’t under the same roof.

I imagined my time away variously—exile, vacation, retreat, adventure. In any of those scenarios, I had plans. Plans to start another writing project. Plans to catch fish. Plans to read a lot and bike on the Paul Bunyan Trail. Plans to try my hand at water color, thanks to a friend who supplied me with all the materials and a link to an online class. Plans to cook all my meals. No wonder my car was full.

Finally, I turned off the highway, 3 miles to go. As we used to do for our retriever Indie, I opened the windows and breathed in the pine-scented air. He knew when we were close. The old excitement was there, along with the anticipation for all that this place holds.

This is the lake Chris and I vacation on for some 20 years. We discovered it one summer while at Gull Lake. Lake Hubert was more our size, and fishing was good. It became our lake, and cabin 3 our cabin.

When I called to see if I could come for a month, the resort owner told me he’d just sold the place as individual cabins. He referred me to the resort owner next door, who had a cabin I could rent for as long as I needed.

Morning, the first day

And so here I am, with a slightly off-centered view of the lake from the table where I write this. Still, a view I never tire of. In a different cabin, but no less cozy. A cold front has sent the fish deep, made them lethargic, so no fishing for awhile. The stack of books and magazines remains a stack. I don’t quite know  where to start.

Evening, the first day

Old routines become, eventually, old. At first I tried to transition as if I were here for one precious week. I wanted every minute to count. But my mind resisted. I slept long and hard, then napped. I stared out the window. I let the memories of past trips surface, feeling both tender and melancholy. Finally, I gave in to the pull of this place. I would need to learn how to fall in love with Lake Hubert all over again.

It’s been 7 years since I’ve been here, and that was to scatter Chris’s ashes. It’s been 10 years since Chris and I made our last trip here together. One evening we sat at the end of the dock with our gin and tonics and he predicted he would live to age 70. I believed him.

This year he would have turned 70. So when I go to the lake, he will be there. He’ll be in the gleam of a boat caught in last light against the far shore. He’ll be in the panoramic eye of the eagle as it drafts overhead. He’ll be in the call of the loons. He’ll be in the water, where his ashes have added layer to the earth.

This lake is our wild and sacred place, reminding me of the importance of loving where we are and who we’re with.

Wait. Don’t Wait.

Death is a wise teacher, if we attend

Waiting. Isn’t that what we’ve been doing since March? Waiting for Covid to go away. Waiting to rebook flights and take vacations we’ve had to postpone. Waiting for a vaccine. Waiting for a functioning adult to lead us.

Some days it feels like waiting for Godot.

A friend in California whose husband died recently recommended a book: The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us about Living Fully, by Frank Ostaseski, cofounder of the Zen Hospice Project.

Perfect, I thought, as I kept walking by the book on the table. It will speak to the loss of a beloved, something she and I now share. Finally, with the library due date looming, I picked up the book and opened it. It’s organized into 5 sections, which correspond to the 5 invitations. They urge us to a meaningful life, especially in light of the fact that we will all die someday. Together, they are a kind of carpe diem reminder.

The first invitation is simple: don’t wait.

“Death is not waiting for us at the end of a long road,” Ostaseski writes. “Death is always with us, in the marrow of every passing moment. She is the secret teacher hiding in plain sight. She helps us to discover what matters most.”


Covid has brought us closer to death on a grand scale than we thought possible. Most of us know the number of daily deaths by state and country. Yet death by other causes has been undeterred by the pandemic. Friends have lost parents and children and spouses. Deaths at the hands of police continue. The number of homicides is rising.

I admit, the waiting I’ve been practicing has almost dulled me. I tell myself I just need to be patient. I need to keep busy with projects necessary and invented. I’ve tried to put a positive spin on this waiting thing, when really, Covid is an invitation not to wait.

It’s reminded me what matters most. Family, of course, and friends. Zoom calls with them and small gatherings on my patio. But also the pressing issues of the day—racial justice, immigration reform, equal opportunity. Covid has reminded me to live.

A few days before John Lewis died, he wrote in a beautiful essay, “I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe.”

SignDon’t wait, he was saying—fully aware that Covid has us in a chokehold—to redeem the soul of America. Don’t let death come before you make a difference.

“Walk with the wind, brothers and sisters,” Lewis went on. “Let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”

We think we need to be patient and wait. But once again, death proves the wiser teacher. George Floyd’s brutal, unnecessary death is a call not to put off the change that needs to happen. His death invites us to do what matters most.

Building Racial Stamina

Everything worth doing involves effort.

Last summer, during an equally hot stretch, I visited my son and daughter-in-law in Philadelphia. Because of triple-digit temperatures, we had to modify our plans. A hike became a visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Another hike became a day at the Jersey shore. On the third day, we were determined to hike, as I was in training for my upcoming trip to the Canadian Rockies.

Hike.jpgDuring our drive to Hawk Mountain a few hours north of the city, Andrew talked about the professional development session on race he was getting ready to lead with the teachers he coaches. Most of the teachers are white; virtually all of their students are kids of color.

He planned to start by asking them to write their racial autobiography, a reflection on personal experiences, memories, and learnings about race. “If I’m going to ask teachers to write theirs, I realized I needed to write my own,” he said.

Intrigued by the idea, I asked him to send me the template he was using. That fall and into winter and the pandemic, I began working on my racial autobiography.

Then George Floyd was murdered.

Suddenly race and racism competed with Covid-19 as the hot topic. In editorials and essays, letters and stories, there was a collective call for white people to look at our attitudes and name the privilege we’ve not just enjoyed but taken for granted, beginning with the color of our skin.

I urge you to write your own racial autobiography. A few things I’ve learned along the way may help:

Keep it personal. You’re writing this not for an audience or publication. You’re writing it to document your life experiences that have shaped your attitudes about race.

Take your time. There is no deadline or end point to writing your racial autobiography. In fact, it’s a fluid document that will evolve as your understanding does. The idea is not to get it done as much as it is to get it right, as in accurate. I recently reread a section in my racial autobiography about my childhood and realized I’d left out a significant memory. In the summer after church, my family would drive down to Maxwell Street on the south side of Chicago. On weekends the street became a kind of flea market, and we were often the only white people, the vendors predominantly Black people. We could have just as easily gone to the lakefront or a park. If only my parents were around to ask them why they chose Maxwell Street.

• Be honest. Writing your racial autobiography isn’t an exercise to fill up time—something Covid has given us plenty of. It’s an opportunity to reflect deeply, perhaps for the first time, on how racism plays out in our daily lives. My mother gave me a Black baby doll when I was five years old. I loved that doll more than my favorite stuffed animals. The doll slept in the crook of my arm every night. Looking back, I realized that my love for her was shadowed by sympathy because she was different. Even then, I sensed that difference meant disadvantage, laying the groundwork for whiteness being the norm, the standard for how I saw the world.

• Share what you discover. I know I said a racial autobiography is a personal exploration. But if you feel safe with a person or group, tell them what you learned along the way, the questions that you’re wrestling with. The conversations that follow can only help build our capacity for greater understanding—and less racism.


Four months into the pandemic, house projects are mostly done. Netflix will always be there. We’ve made enough cookies and breads to tip the scale. Gardens have no weeds, or are only weeds. No matter. What better time than now for white people—all of us—to reflect on how we came to this moment in our nation’s history, to see ourselves in racial terms (our whiteness, in other words), and to reckon with our past.

As Robin Diangelo, author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, writes, we need to “practice building our stamina for the critical examination of white identity.”

Stamina, like training for a hiking trip, is not just helpful but necessary, because the path ahead is long and steep.


Sometimes there are no words, and there shouldn’t be.

George Floyd is trying to tell us something. His first message was clear, urgent: he couldn’t breathe because of the pressure Derek Chauvin applied to his neck for more than eight minutes before Mr. Floyd died of asphyxiation.

But as I sit with the events of the past week, feeling a deep gnawing because we still seem so far from equality and justice, I’m hearing another message, equally urgent. Know what it’s like to be breathless. Stop talking and listen.

Sarah Bellamy, artistic director of the Penumbra Theatre, said following Mr. Floyd’s murder:

“As a black institution that has carried the water of racial equity work in Minnesota for decades, . . . we must be permitted the space to grieve right now. . . . Give us a moment while we practice deep self-love. Give us a moment while we gather our strength. ”

George Floyd

Listen while we mourn.

“For white folks who want to help the black community right now, if you have the energy to act: step into the space and put your comfort at risk.  Stand with us. Stand next to us. Be kinder. Be even more compassionate. Listen better. Dig deeper. Move past fear. Don’t wait for us to tell you what to do but be ready to listen when we offer constructive criticism or advice. We can’t do this alone and we need everyone, everyone, in this fight.”


George Floyd’s is one voice among many that has been trying to tell us for a very long time, We can’t breathe.

Today I visited the site where Mr. Floyd died. At the scene of the crime that has rocked the world and broken too many hearts, a boy no more than 7 offered me water. Free.