Coffee Shop Quest

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Historically, many authors were cafe habituates. Think Paris. Think Sartre, Fitzgerald, de Beauvoir, Baldwin. Today, writers and coffee shops are similarly symbiotic. The same can be said for many readers. While most book aficionados are not writers, I defy you to find a serious writer who is not a serious reader. (For my recent favs, see below.) Go to any coffee shop and observe latte sipping writers hunched over laptops or notebooks, readers lost in a book, be it hardcover, paperback, or ebook, seated amongst duos sharing stories of breakups or exotic travel destinations.

Unless you are reading aloud to someone, or tandem writing in person, writing and reading are solitary endeavors. For those of you who are far along on the introvert scale, days spent alone toiling away on the evolving masterpiece or latest great novel must sound like unmitigated bliss. For those (including me) who swing more to the extrovert side, spending day after day in one’s own company is a recipe for derangement. The LONG commitment of writing a book with no assurance of publication is scary enough, without the additional stress of too much alone time.

Solution? Find a harmonious coffee shop.

I have three favorites, all in NE Minneapolis. They are: 1) Mojo Coffee Gallery, 2) Diamonds Coffee Shoppe, and 3) Anelace Coffee. Both Diamonds and Mojo have yummy baked goods. Mojo has good brunch/lunch food and the consistently best coffee of the three. Anelace is aesthetically pleasant, with coffee of varying quality, and non-appealing treats (to me). But Anelace offers free sparkling water. Both Mojo and Diamonds rank high on the retro-artsy scale, with Mojo displaying engaging artworks and pottery. Diamonds is just plain old funky fun. Anelace has the best restroom.

Coffee shop people–where do you hang out? Why? What are you reading?

My recently read and highly recommended fiction: Virgil Wander by Leif Enger, The Idiot by Elif Batumen, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, Olga Tovarczuk

Until next time, be of good courage.

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The cover of my journal.

Really, How Are You Doing?

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Fine.

Actually, not fine.* I write this on the second day of non-stop rain (flash flood warning!). Morning headlines informed us that the administration will finalize the rollback of clean water protections. Gun violence continues, including a murder-suicide a block from my home. Having chosen to leave my professional career to pursue a dream of actually completing a novel, I stand one disaster away from taking a deep dive into my modest retirement savings.  My ankle still hurts eleven weeks after a ligament-tearing incident. My normally dependable ability to sleep soundly has devolved into lying awake at 3 in the morning.

So how are you doing today? Are the problems in our society getting to you? How’s your personal life? How’s your health? Your work? You’re finances? Your mental  health?

During the long course of yet another sleepless night, this phrase came into my mind: To triumph over darkness, give light. Not get light. Give light.

After choosing an early retirement to pursue writing, I took a part-time job at my local Target in women’s apparel. It gets me out amongst people, provides a little extra cash, and ticks about 5 miles on the FitBit each time I work. Yesterday an older woman, let’s call her Bernice, came in shopping for some new clothes. She and a helper from her nursing home were trying to find a suitable pair of black pants.

“I haven’t been shopping for a year!” Bernice said. Her manner was anxious but open, her conversation a little confused but enthusiastic.

After helping her to explore various options in black pants, we found a pair that suited her needs–black, with stretchy fabric, durable, washable, and classy looking.

She pointed to my required-by-Target red shirt. “I sure would like to get a new red top. It’s my favorite color.”

The attendant looked worried. “Remember, Bernice, you have only $40.00 to spend. And you also want to get those cough drops.”

Earlier in the day a red top on the clearance rack caught my eye. “If you can wait a moment, I have an idea. No promises, but we might have just the thing.”

There it was. In her size. A loose-fitting red top with lace trim on the sleeves.

“What do you think of this?”

“It’s so beautiful!”

The attendant pulled out her calculator.  The pants, top, and cough drops came to just over $39.00.

Bernice looked up and held out her arms to me. I leaned down for a hug.

“I love you,” she said.

As of that moment, I was doing fine. Thanks, Bernice.

FYI, I am not depressed or despairing. Just speaking truth about life.

 

 

 

 

Do No Harm – Jainism

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My personal discovery of Jainism came while teaching world religions at Oakton College in suburban Chicago. This non-theistic (no “god” per se) religion arose in India around 500 BCE, based on the insights of the spiritual teacher Mahavira. While I am not a Jain, the teachings have a positive impact on my life.

The symbol shown above presents the main tenets of Jainism. The word in the center, ahimsa, literally means “stop”, referring to cycles of reincarnation as represented by the  wheel. The answer to how this cycle of birth and death may be stopped or transcended comes in the practice of ahimsa, which can provide the basis for a renewal of the world, through the healing of a single life.

The Jain teaching of ahimsa asserts that by doing no harm to any living thing, we heal ourselves and create healing energy that moves beyond us.  We are counseled to also avoid angry thoughts and actions. According to Gandhi, a Hindu who valued Jain teachings, ahimsa additionally precludes evil thoughts and hatred, and unkind behavior such as harsh words, dishonesty, and lying, all of which he saw as manifestations of violence.

No violence, no harm, no unkindness. What a world we could create while seeking to renew and free ourselves!

A few years ago I was invited to teach a series of classes on religious traditions at a synagogue in suburban Minneapolis. For those unable to attend, a friend recorded a video of each session and posted them to YouTube. Amazingly, the video on Jainism has received more than 15,000 views.

Here’s a link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BPoJPd9z6mo&t=594s

 

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Steve’s Gift

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En route to a show at First Avenue in downtown Minneapolis, a friend and I decide to park halfway and then take a bus.

“Easier than parking downtown!” say I.

Then again, maybe not.

Waiting for our bus, we chat with a man named Steve. One leg artificial, the other wrapped in an Ace Bandage, Steve has the appearance of a too-young-for-VietNam vet. Friendly and talkative, he continues to engage with us on the trip downtown.

Getting off the bus on Nicollet and 7th, I manage to trip, ending up sprawled on the sidewalk. My friend helps me up and to a nearby bench, as my left ankle rapidly puffs to double its normal size.

Having gotten off at the same stop, Steve walks over.

“Wow, that looks bad. You need to head to the emergency room,” he says.

We had reached the same conclusion.

As we arrange for a Lyft driver, Steve unwinds the Ace bandage from his leg. Handing it to me he says, “Don’t worry, it’s clean. You need this more than I do.”

Rather than a concert at First Avenue, I spend the evening at the Abbott-Northwestern ER. My ungraceful fall results in ligament tears on both sides of the ankle, as well as in the ligament connecting tibia to fibula in the calf.

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Twelve weeks recovery,” says the orthopedic doc.

But the residual glow of Steve’s open-hearted generosity continues to defeat the shadows of temporary discomfort and inconvenience.

May he receive a thousand times over the goodness he shared.

 

 

WARNING: TRUTH WILL BE TOLD

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If I were to draw a picture of my childhood home, it would show a single-family house, clean to the point of pain, silent in what is left unsaid, false in what is shown to those who dwell beyond the four walls, rising in the midst of a fastidious yard, on a quiet street in a small town dominated by self-contained Scandinavians.

My brother Rick died recently. Properly my half-brother, he was a little guy when his birth dad died in a car accident. Ten years older than me, he left home for college when I was only seven. My dad, his step-dad, adopted him and our older sister Sylvia after he married our mom. Dad could be sarcastic to my brother, and Rick felt that I was the favored child. Which, in some ways, I was. I wish it could have been easier for him growing up. And then he served two tours in Viet Nam. But with humor, a loving wife, great sons, and many friends, he appeared to do very well in his life.

Yet we never fully know the secret complexities of another’s life. Upon others, we may pronounce judgment and dismiss them. We also judge ourselves, as we do our best to cope. And that coping may lead us into the darkness of disfunction and shame until we stop accepting responsibility for circumstances over which we had no control.

As I only learned many years later, our high school counselor, Mr. Woods, suggested to my parents that I see a psychologist, so apparent was my emotional disarray. They declined without telling me. In those days, I carried a well of sorrow that flooded into tears at the slightest provocation. My anxiety was constant. At age 13, I began stealing liquor from my parents in an attempt to ease my distress. After high school, I floated in and out of college and relationships, in and out of jobs and apartments. Then in my mid-twenties, I changed my college major to forest management. The study of solid subjects like calculus and botany and meteorology and surveying began to balance and rectify my soul.

And I wrote.

Now I am older, calmer, kinder to myself, immersed in the beauty of life, family, friends, nature, and my own true beloved. We are composite creatures. Bodies which function autonomically, souls which guide us if we listen. We are the result of myriad generations of successful reproduction and survival. We are born and we will die. What comes after is a supposition.

Today, we are.

Beyond the basics of survival, which none of us should ever take for granted, does it matter how much stuff we have? Are we concerned about the judgment of others, when all anyone else can know is the teeniest corner of someone else’s life? Do we dwell in regret and shame about a past that has brought to where we are today?

No. No more. And the relief is beyond words to express. My story is my own and I turn it into healing words.

Peace be with you. May we each find our way.

Commonalities, Part 1

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Geranium

I am more intrigued by commonalities than by differences. Walk around a neighborhood anywhere in the world and you will see green plants, intentional and unintentional. Some plants arrive wind or animal-borne. These we often call weeds, but what is a weed besides a perception of desirability? Other plants we intentionally introduce to our yards and homes as sources of beauty or nutrition.

Yesterday my mom and I visited Bergeson’s Nursery in rural Norman County, Minnesota, where we always purchase our plants. Now an urbanite, each spring I make a pilgrimage to Bergeson’s. They sell vibrant stock and offer free homemade donuts of  the highest quality. Both body and soul receive a  treat.

A home without intentional outdoor greenery causes me to imagine trouble indoors. Can one equate enjoyment of plants with health? You may say that there are people who are physically unable to garden. Fair enough. On a walk this afternoon, an unscientific survey of 60 nearby homes showed that 90% have outdoor plantings.

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Rooney admiring tulips on our afternoon walk.

The pleasure I take in gardening feels deep and old. I remember being out in the vegetable garden with my step-grandpa. I tasted my first radish and the burning taste made me cry.  I remember the lush pink peonies grown by one grandma, and the fragrant sweet peas grown by the other. I remember my mom and dad planting a vegetable garden in the spring and each year adding new plants to the backyard flower garden. Both of my grown children enjoy gardening, and my 2-1/2 year old granddaughter has her own set of garden tools and pair of gardening gloves.

There can also be great pleasure found in observing the plants which happen to grow in a patch of bare soil. Leave a corner of your garden unplanted and “unweeded”. Over the course of a season see what appears. Explore an empty lot and note the variety of life inhabiting the space. Or go rogue! Plow up your lawn and let it grow wild. Your neighbors may come after you with hoes and pitchforks, but you will doing doing a favor to creatures of many sorts.

People can be bound together by hatred or love, by ugliness or beauty, by death or life. In an increasingly dark world, let’s acknowledge and celebrate the universal  healing power of plants.

Go forth and grow!

Historical Inquiry/Historical Iniquity

While reading “The Relentless Business of Treaties: How Indigenous Land Became U.S. Property” by historian Martin Case (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2018), I began thinking about the homesteads of my maternal great-grandparents, the Blixes and the Johnsons. On both sides, they settled on rocky, inhospitable tracts in Nora Township, south of Bagley, Minnesota.

The western edge of Nora Township lay only a few miles from the White Earth Reservation eastern boundary. On the Blix side, Albert and Anna arrived in 1901. Did they have interactions with residents of White Earth? Having themselves come from far-northern Norway, and being of probable Sami extraction, did they feel a kinship with the indigenous people of the area?

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Undated post card sent to Arthur Blix by his future wife, Nora Township neighbor Mathilda Johnson.

Much of the White Earth land was sold to timber companies, land development companies, and individuals who had the money to invest. The injustice of the treaty system rankles and questions remain. My ancestors lived on land transformed from hunting and fishing grounds, formerly inhabited by people for whom land as “private property” was unthinkable. The future of the Ojibway people of White would be challenging.

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From Clearwater County Atlas, 1912, showing 160 acres solely owned by by Anna Blix.

Not that life was easy for the homesteaders. After the Blix family settled in Nora Township, husband and father Albert was committed to the Minnesota Hospital for the Insane in St. Peter, where he died in 1915. Meanwhile, Anna Blix raised sons Arthur, James, and Erven (spelling varies), managed a farm, and served as postmistress and secretary to the school board.

My mother remembers Anna, her grandmother, as small and stern. She raised her sons strictly, punishing Arthur for chasing a rabbit on Sunday. She was a Christian of the stoic variety, interesting, since organized religion came late to northern Norway, where they followed their own spiritual traditions well after the rest of Europe succumbed to the missionaries.

Great-uncle Erven died early in World War I, a radio operator who went down with the ship. My grandfather Arthur died at the Crookston tuberculosis sanatorium at age 49. Great-uncle James never married, remained in the small homestead house built by his parents, and was found lying dead on the kitchen floor in his mid-sixties.

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Undated photo of Albert Martin Blix, who died at the Minnesota Hospital for the Insane in 1915.

Political institutions, religious hierarchies, financial institutions, and corporate entities tend to obscure their real goals behind a mask of caring for the needs of those they supposedly serve. As “The Relentless Business of Treaties” make clear, there is nothing new under the sun, nor in the penumbra of disguised motives.