Who is that masked man?


Repurposed sleep mask

         Never in my writer’s wildest dream did I imagine I would wear a mask to the grocery store. Or that people would brag on Facebook about the design of their latest facial accessory.
            Back in February — seems like a century ago doesn’t it? — I attended the Conference on World Affairs in St. Petersburg, Fl. It’s a free event with panels of experts on various topics so hundreds of us packed the ballrooms at the University of South Florida Student Center. There wasn’t an empty seat and late arrivals stood along the walls or sat on the floor. I remember one young man sitting on the floor wearing a plain white mask over his mouth and nose. I wondered at the time: Is he sick or is he afraid someone here might be sick? What are masks for, to protect the public or the wearer?
            Two months later masks have become so ubiquitous that the question doesn’t matter: protecting the public is protecting the wearer.
            By mid-March, with events being canceled and quarantine discussed,  a quilter friend delved into her scrap bag and stitched a mask for me as well as everyone in her extended family.  When that one is in the laundry, I can fall back on an airline-handout sleep mask that works just as well to cover the mouth instead of the eyes. And some folks simply resort to a basic  “stick-em-up” bandana.
             A friend joked the other day that before long someone will start selling masks with political slogans. In 2020 the mask is more visible than a bumper sticker.

Watch for the dolphins


   I looked up from the kitchen sink just in time to see a dark cloud moving quickly across the surf just beyond my window. The shadow was headed toward shore and suddenly the dark mass split into six distinct pieces.
         “Dolphins,” I yelled to Steve as I wiped my hands on a dish towel and headed for the balcony.
         There they were frolicking in the shallow water between the shore and the line of buoys that keep boats away from swimmers. Rythmically coming up for air, sometimes just a fin, sometimes a full face, and once in a great while a jump out of the water and splash.
          It’s a hypnotic display and I usually forget to pull myself away to take a picture. When I do try to snap one I seldom catch more than the splash,  so I have little evidence that the miracle dance of the dolphins really happens. Not every day. Sometimes we have gone weeks without seeing them. And then suddenly when you least expect it, looking up from the computer screen or talking on the phone and there they are: the graceful, playful showmen of the sea.
          Their visits are extra special now because our four-month winter on the beach is coming to an end. The past two weeks have been the strangest of all as we have been “stuck” in this beautiful spot afraid to get too far from our balcony for fear we might get closer than six feet to another mortal in this surreal Twilight Zone of international quarantines.
          I find myself watching for dolphins a little closer now, needing that moment of magic to convince me that maybe everything will be okay.

Who me? Elderly?


The most irritating part of the current virus scare is that I have suddenly been labeled part of the “at risk” population.
           Granted I am a “senior citizen,” a title that bestows a hint of respect for longevity.  But lately the respect has turned into patronizing.
            It’s bad enough that “boomer” has become a derogatory label meaning old-fashioned or unable to grasp today’s high tech world. But now our children are calling to check if we have managed to survive another day without catching a bug that will most surely kill us.Don’t they realize that we fought off measles and mumps and chicken pox for them long before vaccinations were available?
            Radio announcers insist that we stay indoors, away from friends and church and the volunteer work that adds spice to later years. “This is not a joke. This is serious.”
            Okay, we get it. This “novel” virus is a serial killer and the mortality rate doubles if you are over 60. But give us a little credit. We’re the ones who taught you how to wash your hands. We used to sterilize your bottles. We know how to clean the house. Social distancing? We discovered that when our kids became teens and no longer wanted to admit they knew us. Soon we were echoing in three-bedroom empty nests.We KNOW about social distancing.
             We may have a few aches and pains, but many of us lead active lives hiking, biking, kayaking, skiing. Just because my birthday cake has enough candles to set off a smoke alarm doesn’t mean I am a helpless little ol’ lady.

What do you see?

             In Traverse City, Michigan, they say “A view of the bay is half your pay.”
            But it is cold in Michigan so I’ve taken to spending winters in Florida where I can usually manage to find a water view. This year Steve and I have outdone ourselves. Our sixth-floor condo is right on the gulf. From our balcony we can hear the surf, look down at the ribbon of beach stretching as far as we can see.We can even watch dolphins play.
            It’s not just the balcony that has a great view. From the breakfast table I can sigh over sun dancing on the ripples.  I can enjoy a sunset from the living room sofa. I can even see a wide expanse of surf  from my bed when I first open my eyes in the morning. I know. It is almost too perfect.
            But my favorite view is that little kitchen window over the sink. Whether I am fixing dinner or cleaning up afterwards, I can look out and there’s all the glory of the seashore. It makes every routine task extraordinary.
            That little window reminds me that it’s not the work we must do in this life, it’s seeing the world beyond.

Crossing the finish line


This calico clucker has been roosting in my sewing box for 40 years.
       When I began the project I was living in Toledo, a stay-at-home mom caring for my toddler son. Sewing projects were my creative outlet. Remember those crocheted dolls that used to disguise a spare roll of paper on the back of the toilet? Well this homespun hen is from the same genre: kitchy coverings with a useful purpose. This quilted fabric chicken is designed to perch atop the bread basket to keep fresh-from-the-oven biscuits and buns nice and warm. To get a bun, just lift a wing and reach into the basket.
        Unfortunately, over the years I have started many more projects than I finished. This crumpled hen, lacking only a few finishing touches,  was under a stack of fabric scraps with several other unfinished embroidery and needlepoint. I’m embarrassed to admit I have hauled that box of sewing stuff to six homes in four states, through my divorce and journalism career and into 10 years of retirement.
        Last summer I opened the box searching for a piece of fabric. I realized, reluctantly, that I should pitch all those unfinished projects. But I just couldn’t. Each piece I picked up rekindled that spark of interest that had inspired me in the first place.
     The de-clutter edict says to get rid of anything that doesn’t give you joy. To my surprise, since opening that box I have found enormous joy remembering simpler times, solving the conundrums that caused the projects to be set aside, and completing pieces that joyfully add to the clutter of my couch and kitchen.

Where ya headed?


If you are getting tired of all the anger on Facebook, Twitter and the nightly news, turn it off and go on a trip.
      It doesn’t really matter where you go, just some place different where you’re surrounded by people you don’t know. Strangers. I took a day trip on an Amtrak train from Grand Rapids to Chicago this week to enjoy a play at the Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier. It’s a long and grueling day –18 hours from start to finish. Yet the trip reminded me over and over how nice and friendly strangers are.
       I’m pretty familiar with the Windy City but I still need to consult a map now and then or read a street sign. Whenever I would do so, some friendly soul — unbidden — would smile and say “Where ya headed?” People are eager to be helpful.
        “Oh, you can’t walk all the way to Navy Pier, ” said a woman on Michigan Avenue. “That must be five miles. You want to take a bus, right over there. Get the 124.”
          She didn’t know how much the fare was since she uses a bus pass, but another guy overheard our conversation and interjected “It’s $2.50. Correct change.”
        Helpful strangers don’t limit themselves to directions. They will show you how to work those complex train seats. Suggest a favorite place to eat. Even stop what they are doing to offer to take your picture when the selfie isn’t working out too well.
          When we took the bus back to Union Station after the play, the stop wasn’t the part of the terminal we were expecting.
        “Just take this walkway about two blocks,” said a commuter in a business suit rushing for the stairs.
          Looking around the terminal I saw a cross section of America, every age, race and religion. There were a couple little boys chasing a pigeon. There was a large group of Amish in black, including a man with a beard so long and wild it looked like a cheap Halloween costume beard he had tied on. A dark-skinned man in a turban was quietly reading a book. A mother and daughter from Texas were struggling with half a dozen suitcases enroute to a wedding in Grand Haven.
            No one was talking about Impeachment or Syria or Mar-a-Lago. I don’t know or care about each person’s political party or who they voted for in the last election. We’re just people, waiting our turn, helping each other if we can, smiling and sharing small talk.
             No matter what social media says, this is the real America.



“Choose the path of most persistence.”
      I’m not one to plaster political bumper stickers all over my car, but that one from the Elizabeth Warren campaign made it to my bumper. It’s not just because I support the candidate but I also identify with the sentiment.
        I thought of that today as I unloaded a folding table, stool and giant book bag for a local author event at an area bookstore. Selling books is about as frustrating and time consuming as a political campaign. And it takes a lot of persistence. Authors need a double dose of ambition to stick to their guns and get that book written in the first place. But that’s just the beginning. Then you have to find the buyers. And that can be slow going.
        So why do we do it? For that one reader who says my story was too scary to read alone at night. Or the one who said she could imagine it being a television series. Or that Italian reader who claimed my characters’ response to a serial killer was “so American.”
         We write because these characters talk to us. The only way to silence the voices in my head is to write them down. As a mystery writer I HAVE to figure it out. How did the criminal do it? Why did he/she do it? And how will my protagonist solve it?
          We write because we chose the path of most persistence. As Robert Frost would say, “that has made all the difference.”

Thoughts on prayer


           I can’t read the news without praying. I pray for a family in Minnesota that is struggling to keep a farm that has been in the family since 1888. I pray for a black couple in a Philadelphia suburb who were hassled by a new cop for driving in the upscale neighborhood where they live. And all those people who were shot in El Paso and Dayton! OMG!
         Then there are the emails. Two wonderful ladies from my church are in hospice. And the Facebook posts about illness and depression and the death of a younger brother.
         With all these new requests popping up daily I try to remember the general prayers for the hungry and the persecuted.
          And of course prayers for the powerful. I pray for Mr. Trump every day because I believe in God’s ability to transform anyone. I don’t agree with most of Trump’s policies and certainly can’t approve of his behavior, but when I pray for him I find my heart softened a little. It calms my anger and kindles my compassion. Even for Donald Trump.
          All too often, however, I forget the purpose of prayer.
          A Hindu friend — yes, Hindus pray too — told me once that too often we treat prayer like a trip to the mall. Gimme, gimme, gimme. Heal this one, change that one, comfort another. We skip praising our amazing God. Slide past thank yous for all our blessings. And ignore the real communication: confessing our failures, opening up about our fears and listening for his guidance.
          To paraphrase Kennedy’s famous line: Ask not what God can do for you, ask what you can do with God.

Waves of wonder


Living by the ocean makes everything else seem small.
         I  have only been in Panama City Beach for less than a month, but I’ve already observed a few of the ocean’s many moods. From roaring storms to mirror-like mornings, diamond-studded afternoons and sumptuous sunsets. The power and enormity of the ocean drowns out hateful headlines and Facebook furor.
          Shutdown? Neither President Trump nor Nancy Pelosi have the power to interrupt our country the way wind and water can. We had an example just a few months ago with hurricane Michael. Panama City Beach survived with only a few scars, but across the bridge in Panama City whole neighborhoods were flattened. Huge churches and restaurants and stores are crumbled heaps of bricks and beams and twisted metal. Makes a border wall seem pretty insignificant.
          When I arrived on New Year’s Day a rivulet wound its way through the famous sugar-sand beach behind my 20-story highrise. One of the residents told me it was a drain from a wetlands on the other side of the road that had to make its way to the sea. The flowing water had dug its own mini-grand canyon through the beach creating walls kids would climb and seniors would curse.
            One day, in a sand box fantasy, a bulldozer arrived and smoothed away any evidence of the curvy canyon, replacing it with a simple straight ditch. It seemed so logical and orderly, but before 24 hours had passed I noticed that wind and waves were already changing the course of the man-made ditch into a slight curve. Within a few days the curvy canyon was back and getting a little deeper each day. Seemed like the persistent rivulet had won.
          Then today a strong wind erased the walls and blew the sand smooth again faster than any bulldozer. The rivulet will have to start carving again tomorrow.
           I know mankind has been mean to the ocean. Discarded plastic straws, bottles and bags are piling up and creating islands of trash in the sea. Emissions from our cars and smokestacks have created a greenhouse effect that is causing the oceans to get warmer, melting the polar ice and bleaching the coral. These problems are not small by any measure.
             But as I watch the mighty ocean adapting to every weather whim, I am confident  she will survive any onslaught we devise.  Mankind, on the other hand, may not.

Winter Re-boot


Several years ago I bought some snow boots at the Tent Sale at the Wolverine shoe company in Rockford. They were smart-looking and drastically reduced. Best of all, they were my favorite brand…with a familiar name… Merrells.
           Never mind that I’ve been spending winters in Florida for almost a decade and hadn’t seen measurable snow in almost as long. These boots were a bargain!
           And perhaps someday they would come in handy.
           I stashed them away in the guest closet, kicking myself for buying something I would probably never use.
           Well, this has been the year to reboot my winter wardrobe. Last April after we returned from Florida I had to leave my car in the shop overnight. And wouldn’t you know it, the next morning when it was time to walk a mile to the shop to pick up my car there was enough snow on the sidewalk that the boots were a necessity.
            Now it isn’t even Thanksgiving yet, more than a week before we leave for Florida, and I had to pull the boots out again to finish the winter yard clean-up and bring in the hose.
            There’s a lesson there somewhere: Never pass up a bargain.