I pushed the button for the 14th floor, the tower suite. I got off the elevator and looked down at my feet. I was barefoot. This seemed crazy to me although I often go barefoot, not to meetings, though, never before had I been barefoot at a meeting. 

I considered leaving but decided that no one would notice my bare feet. Later, during my meeting with the very powerful 14th floor dwellers, I realized I was wearing my pajamas. They were my up-north flannel pajamas, pajamas that had already served time in the big city and had been relegated to cabin wear. They were reversible, tan on one side with brown stripes on the other, and the stripes had somehow bled through to create a curious abstract design on the tan side. They were also snug, which I thought gave me a tailored look, the bottoms fell right at the ankle.

No one seemed to notice that I was wearing pajamas so I decided to shrug it off. In a heart-stopping moment, it came to me that I’d neither washed my face nor brushed my teeth, my mother’s admonition to always be neat and clean blanketing me with shame, but I nodded politely when the 14th floor dwellers asked me to sample their new prosciutto. It was then I realized their business must include meat.

I drove my convertible to my next stop. There, the new adoptive parents of six children greeted me at the door and ushered me into their many kids’ bedroom which was filled floor to ceiling with bunk beds. It made my heart sing that all six children were barefoot and pajama-clad and I was flooded by a sense of belonging rare for a social worker. Next the parents showed me to a second bedroom, also crammed with bunk beds. “You have too many beds,” I advised them. “It will lead to excessive sleeping.” But they had already nodded off and weren’t listening.


I pulled back the blue curtain above our bed and saw the stars collecting in the southern sky. We had gone to bed early, having drunk too much beer and then rum, following the news from Texas that my brother’s lung disease was rapidly worsening and that he may not have long to live. It was so urgent, my niece messaged, that I should call him, but the device I need to use to make phone calls wasn’t charged so we decided that I should send a Facebook message which my nephew would read to him.

All this transpired while my husband and I sat in a local bar waiting for a pizza. I tried to put into words what my brother had meant to me as a child, our having grown apart in the so many years since, but everything I wrote sounded used and glossy so I erased the words, over and over again. I wanted to thank him for taking care of me as a little girl, the baby of the family, while my father worked all day at Sears and then played in dance bands at night for extra money and my mother spent her days ironing and privately nursing her bottomless depression. My father’s absence and my mother’s preoccupation bonded me to my brother who was nine years older and always vigilant about them and me, watchful for when he needed to step in, when he should swoop me off the backyard swing and put me on the bar of his bike, saying “Hold on to the handlebars, Red!” Off we’d go with his friends, sailing down the hills of our town to the Fish Hatchery. He never explained why his five-year old sister was coming along and his friends never asked. I was safe and happy with my brother.

I tried to say that to my brother. I tried to thank him for those rides and all the times he made me feel special and loved but I just said, “Thank you for saving me. I love you.”

In the dark, I reached for the phone off the high night stand. There was no message from my niece. My brother must still be alive, I thought. Unless my niece had fallen asleep and decided to wait until morning to tell me. There was no way of knowing. He was across the country, further away if you count the years we hadn’t seen each other. I blamed the situation for my vivid dream, my wandering around office buildings and people’s homes barefoot and in pajamas. I took it to mean I was nearly naked and unprepared for everything that was happening and I rolled over then to stare at my husband’s back.


Tonight, there were messages back in forth between me and my niece. I sent an essay I’d written about my brother years ago describing how, when I was about 6 or 7, he convinced me there were elves who had parties every night under the bush in our front yard. He’d take me by the hand, tell me to be quiet so as not to scare away the elves, and then point to the tiny footprints where the elves had all been gathered seconds before. “Oh Red! We scared them away!” he’d say and then we’d go looking again the next night and the next. It was years before I realized the footprints were the impressions made by his fingers in the soft earth. He always called me Red or Short Pants. That was how I signed the message I sent him the night before. Short Pants.

I didn’t ask my niece if she had read the elves essay to my brother. It wasn’t my place to decide what he should hear and what he shouldn’t. It was her decision, so maybe she read it to him, maybe she didn’t. It is a little late to try to be close to your brother, I told myself. You’ve had years for that and you let the years pass by. But then it hit me that we were still close, despite the time and the distance, because we’d grown up together, he had raised me in so many ways. He carried me on his shoulders when I was a little girl, not just for fun, but to keep me safe from deep water. That is what we had connecting us – his valor and my trust – and that was golden. Then and now. Golden.

Sweetness in the Telling

They laughed. Last night, at ComedySportz in Milwaukee when I read my essay, “Crop Tending,” they laughed.

Later, my husband said it was because I paused like Jack Benny, letting the expectation of laughter hang in the air, like I wouldn’t keep reading unless they laughed. He was right. I knew enough to wait for it. I don’t know how I knew, but I did.

It wasn’t scary, reading in front of people. Not for a single second. The reason was that the audience was full of Red Oak Writing folks so it felt like reading at my writing group with all the safety and gentleness I’ve become accustomed to there. Writers are so kind, I’d posted earlier in the day on Facebook, and it’s true. They would love me for trying, for putting one word in front of the other.

Nonetheless, my husband worried when I ordered the second beer when person #3 was reading. “You’re not going to drink that before your turn?” He never says anything about my drinking, never comments in any way on what I’m doing or wearing or thinking, so it seemed funny that he would worry that a second beer would somehow scotch my performance, so to speak. Then it occurred to me that maybe he was nervous on my behalf and, of course, I loved him for it. You have to love people worrying about you even if it’s unnecessary.

The evening was rich with acceptance and appreciation for people’s stories. Every writer should have that. If you don’t, go find it. Find people who will love you for trying, who will find in what you write something precious, who will treat your spilled words like pearls cut loose from a broken necklace, and tell you always to keep the pen in your hand. Find those people. They’re out there. I know it.

Go Figure

Unless I was protesting some great injustice, someone would have to ask me to sit down only once and I would do it.

Today at the Packers game, a Panthers fan sitting next to me stood up to watch every single play – when her team had the ball and when the Packers had the ball. Didn’t matter, she was on her feet and screaming.

She was the only one standing.

I figured she’d soon see that she was the only one leaping up but she didn’t. She stood long after the play was completed so the people behind and around her had to watch the replay on the Jumbotron.

I think the protocol at sporting events is thus: Stay in your seat unless the crowd is standing up, you know, for the National Anthem or the last out or to cheer some fabulous accomplishment like a touchdown or an interception. And even then, look to make sure the people behind you are standing up, are able to stand up, and that you won’t be blocking their view.

So my husband spoke to her, more than once but she continued to stand, oblivious to his complaint or that of the man behind us. It felt like defiance to me, like one of my kids asked to take the garbage out but continuing to stare at the TV.

After another request, she became offended and dispatched her boyfriend to a duel. Said boyfriend was wearing Carhartt overalls and an animal fur hat with a face and long fur tendrils. He started out belligerent, saying he was going to stand up the rest of the game just to block our view, but quieted as Howard explained the increasing phenomenon in the NFL of fans standing up at inappropriate times, citing some news article as evidence. He told the man his girlfriend’s standing up was inappropriate and then said, “There’s no reason we can’t be civil about this,” and then reached out to shake the fur hat man’s hand and, probably without thinking, the fur hat man shook his hand. And then he retreated to his girlfriend’s side and never stood up again unless we were all standing, which we were at the end, terrified the Panthers would make a touchdown in the final 30 seconds of the game.

So that’s my story from today. Amazement that someone would be so curiously rude and more amazement that my husband could get a mad man in a fur hat with a face to shake his hand and go sit down.

Hygge Friday Round-Up

Hygge (hue-guh) is the art of wintering gracefully. It’s about making the ordinary lovely and warm but in small everyday ways, intentional but undetectable. It’s a Danish thing. I have a Danish friend whose name is Marcia. She takes hygge with her wherever she goes in that she is always warm and unhurried, glad for the company she has, so everyone around her feels like they’re special and glowing. I want my house to be like that this winter. So that is what this girl remembers about being here.

This week I feel like I have a protest sign tattooed on my forehead. Everywhere I go, I’m pissed off about something and I feel myself slipping into one of those old crank types that attends every public meeting taking furious notes with a chewed-up pencil and yelling “Point of order!” all the time. I was a guest speaker in a graduate class on nonprofits this week talking about activism and community organizing and I told the students that you can’t have everyone hating you at the same time. I might have come close this week.

Our next dog’s name is Punchy. I think we are punchy for getting another dog. It’s ridiculous and an overreach but much like our entire lives have been so we are oddly comfortable with the idea. Punchy is a 10-year old Alaskan Husky, a sled dog currently living at Nature’s Kennel, Swirl’s old hometown. Like Swirl, he probably doesn’t have a clue about living inside, going up and down stairs or walking on a leash, but we know he will be sweet and simple and stoic, also like Swirl. Two retired sled dogs – what on earth could possibly be better?

I love winter. I love weather and snow and cold. But I say this before winter starts its terrible habit of beating the shit out of me, before I’m breathless from shoveling, or picking myself up off the ice after falling. Right now, I love winter. I walked through Lake Park near our house this morning, alone, just me and Swirl, and felt as lucky to be alive as I have ever felt. It might be fleeting but it is true, as true as life can be.

I am all about being an honest elder. I am unabashedly old. I don’t deny, pretend, shrug off. I’m this. I wear my age like Joseph’s coat of many colors, it keeps me warm and glorious. And increasingly I realize that I am protected by the fact that I have nothing to lose. Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose. Precious and sweet and powerful it is, this being old.

Gummed Up

The most important thing about going to the dentist is underwear selection. I thought of that today after the x-rays but before the cleaning with the little screaming air drill started. I thought of how much worse it would all be if my underwear bunched up and I had to readjust myself, as men say, I love that, I need to readjust myself, just when some vital scraping is occurring.

You can’t just hold up a finger and mouth ‘wait a minute’ at the hygienist and then tug at your jeans. It’s not befitting as people used to say, not befitting someone of my station. I’m not nine. Sit still, I tell myself. Stop fidgeting. Stop thinking about your underwear. Don’t second guess yourself.

They make me wear sunglasses at the dentist. The first time I joked that they made me feel like Ray Charles and their big ‘oh dear we shouldn’t say such things’ looks were searing. Ray Charles wore sunglasses, okay? It’s not some huge racist thing to say I felt like Ray Charles when I was wearing sunglasses. Jesus, I wanted to say. Don’t you know who I am? I’m way ahead of you on this being on the right side of everything.

I was supposed to get a crown replaced today in addition to the cleaning but they screwed up on time and I got to reschedule. It was an enormous gift that made me happy the entire day, my escape from all the whirring and little sucking up hoses. Laying there during the cleaning, I remembered dear Dr. Potter, my dentist from long ago when I was divorced and making $5 an hour. He sang to me. She broke her tooth on a gummy bear and now she knows life’s not fair.….and he let me pay off the $250 charge for a crown over the course of a year. He retired and I stopped going to the dentist for a long time which was a mistake but one that got lost in a forest of mistakes.

Today I asked my current dentist, the one with a butch cut and 3 day beard, if anyone liked coming to the dentist. He said, “A few people do but it seems weird to me.” He should try singing.

Little Wisdoms

Everyone would sleep better if they opened the windows.

Obligation is a toothless tiger.

Rationed compliments and thank yous are resented more than appreciated.

A dog will keep a person in their prime past their prime.

If you are sad, buy a cup of coffee and a donut.

Being physically tired because of having done physical work is just desserts and very sweet.

As long as you have good gear, the weather doesn’t matter.

Cooking dinner will keep you alive and well.

Whether you are 20 or 70, the best look is jeans and boots.

Plenty of great people have died already but you’re still here.

A Hard Fall

A lot of people dying. That’s what’s happening.

Death is happening. The word “hospice” seems to be on everybody’s lips. “She’s in hospice.” “He’s in hospice.” This is code for it won’t be long. It’s a signal, the yellow light shining before it turns red and everything stops. The rocket ship is on the launch pad, my friends, and the countdown is about to begin.

What do you do when someone is in hospice? Do you make amends? Do you say, “Hey, I heard you are in hospice. Can we talk about our relationship? That seems peculiar since one person in the dyad is in hospice and not likely to be pondering relationship issues, the other is just struggling to get off the hook before the hook disappears.

It has been a week of unpleasant reckoning.

It would be easier if there wasn’t this rush to the exit that seems to be happening with people I know. It would be easier to handle if it was just one person and then several months or years later another, but it hasn’t been like that. There seems to be a bit of a pile up.

I want to go to the dog park with my dog. That is my answer to all this hospice business. I want it to be cold and maybe a little rainy. I want the sky to be gray and thick. I want to wear boots and thick socks, pull my hood up over my head. I want to smile at other people and dogs but not speak. I want to be outside.

Yesterday I was at a funeral that was a combination of Unitarian and Buddhist ritual. It was purposeful and serene. I watched the people in the pews in front of me relax their shoulders, seeming to fall into the pool of tranquility and patience offered, and so I tried to let go of the things keeping me from serenity so I could be like them. But all I could think about was finding my friend who was the widow of the man who had died (who had been in hospice) and letting her know I had come. Representation is so important to me, showing up, being present, so that was my priority. I couldn’t sink into serenity like the others. It wasn’t possible.

After the funeral, at dinner with friends, I learned that someone else was in hospice. This made three for the week. This was someone I had known well for a long time, who had been a close friend of mine, but whom I had not seen in years. Yes, she was in hospice now. So there was that. I carried that small, burning fact out of the restaurant in my pocket.

We went from dinner to the symphony where we sat in the back row listening to music I can’t name but which involved four French horns playing parts that sounded like husbands mourning their wives. On the way out, we shuffled behind a thousand old people, readying themselves for the rain outside, and I wanted to sprint past them, push my way through the revolving door, and walk arm in arm with my husband, our paces matching all the way back to our car.