Harnessing the Power of Decision

This morning’s meditation in the Calm App was on Distraction. I can’t tell you a lot about it because I was so distracted for most of it, but the narrator said that our brains are extraordinary machines. The one exception is that they are so sensitive to interruptions. ‘How interesting‘, I thought. But then I immediately started worrying that I didn’t have enough muesli for breakfast.

That’s meditation. Many people don’t meditate because they can’t stop their thinking. That’s actually the point. You can’t stop your thinking. That’s what the mind does. It thinks. And when it finds a wide open timeframe when you are are sitting there doing nothing, it thinks even more. Meditation practice is not about stopping your thinking. It’s about stopping yourself from going down the rabbit hole. It’s a practice that encourages a looser relationship to our thoughts.

We are so entertained by our own thoughts. I believe it’s our greatest addiction, and it leads to all other addictions. After all, do you ever grab that brownie – or drink or caffeine or engage in a hookup – without thinking you want it or that you need it to distract you from something else you’d rather not think about? I’ve spent a large portion of my life following my fickle thoughts down whatever rabbit hole they have opened. How much sleep have I wasted racing through the vast tunnels of my mind? And to what end?

Thoughts come and go and are often contradictory or nonsensical. It’s as if my brain is lobbing ideas to see which ones stick. I have to decipher what is grounded in reality and what are just random thoughts. A yoga teacher once said, “The brain that is calling you a fat pig because you ate that piece of apple pie is the same brain that told you 15 minutes ago that you deserved a treat.” Our job is to decide which of those thoughts are meaningful input and which are just distractions. The power is in the deciding.

In the grasp of my anxious mind, I listen to too many suggestions and judgments thrown at me by my brain. Rarely are any of these informative. When I get serious about dealing with my anxiety, I increase my meditation practice. My meditation practice develops my concentration muscle so I am NOT reacting to my churning thoughts. I have the power to decide if the input is meaningful or just junk. That can be the difference between a good night’s sleep and a restless one or a wasted life and a meaningful one.

Lessons From the Trail: Off-Trail Adventures

My hiking buddy Liz and I decided to go hiking at Muskegon State Park yesterday. The sun was out and, for a Michigan January day, the temps were mild. I just met Liz in a Hikerbabes community on Facebook. She has recently moved to the Grand Rapids area, and I’m still in the friend-making zone in Southwest Michigan. It’s been fun exploring a new friendship and having someone to hike with who is dog-friendly and eager to get outdoors in Michigan.

We parked at Snug Harbor and decided to hike around Muskegon Lake and end up on the Ridge Trail to catch some glorious views. There was snow on the ground, and it was fun to catch glimpses of the ice fisherman on the lake. The lake wasn’t frozen through. In fact, at the edge near our start, there was open water. We couldn’t believe people would actually hike out on that ice and fish when it seemed likely some of it was not frozen. But those concerns came from a Southern girl and a Midwestern city girl with no ice fishing knowledge. Maybe we just didn’t get it.

Our hiking conversation turned to binge-watching Sex and the City, the travesties and adventures of online dating and the challenges and joys of being footloose and fancy-free during a pandemic. Ashok patiently hiked along with us enjoying the shoreline ice and grateful when we stopped to take in a view. The sun was warming, and the snow was deep enough to be pretty but not deep enough to cause us issues.

As we left the shoreline, we opted to hike across the dunes off-trail. To be honest, we spent our time trying to avoid steep climbs rather than following the trail, and we were doing pretty well. We finally meandered to the top of the dunes. The views were amazing. Muskegon Lake was clearly visible, and to our right Lake Michigan glimmered in the sun. We ran into a few other groups and started to head back on the easy trail.

I reached to grab my phone for a picture, and it was not there. I tried every pocket. It was not there. I even tried pockets I would have never used hoping for some dumb reason I had stashed it there. Somewhere among the dating stories and the worry about the ice fisherman, I had dropped my iPhone. And a quick run back a few yards told me it wasn’t close by.

I was so embarrassed. I thought back to how we hiked across the dunes sans trail. The piles of snow and sand behind us stretched for what seemed like miles. Images of trekking across the Sahara desert flashed through my mind. They were quickly overtaken by estimates of how much it would cost to replace my phone and a search of my memory of whether or not I’d bought the insurance.

Liz asked if I had had “Find my iPhone” turned on, and I did. We tried to sign me in, but it kept asking for the verification code they just texted me. Well, if I had my phone to get a text I wouldn’t be trying to find it. Somehow security has gotten so ridiculous that it doesn’t even make sense anymore. Somewhere in the sand and snow a text landed on my phone with a code that I needed. We tried calling my phone in the hopes it was nearby and could be heard. It wasn’t.

We ended up calling Apple. It took about 30 minutes to get through as we walked across the sand trying to catch a glimpse the tracks of a pair of humans and one dog. The agent across the world sent us back to the webpage, but we got the same result. He did something on his end, and we were finally able to get through. So now we had a visual of my phone, and it appeared it was back in the car. That really would have been embarrassing, but I knew I had my phone when I took pictures earlier. Nothing seemed to be working out. We decided the best thing to do was to at least go back to the shoreline and hope I dropped it back there.

Lake Michigan sand dunes are challenging to climb. They are towering piles of sand that are not incremental in their rise. You can go in between the dunes to some extent, but you have to climb. When you climb these steep piles of sand, it shifts beneath your feet. And when you descend, you slide. At one point we both fell down trying to get up one of the dunes. And I slid down one on my butt. By the time we were out of the dunes, our legs and our glutes were toast. We finally made it back to the place where I took the last picture but found no phone. In fact, we never even found our trail. It was disheartening.

I had accepted the fact that I would not find my phone. I was just going to have to cough up the money and get a new phone. I knew if I got bent out of shape about it, it wouldn’t help. Then Liz realized my phone was not located back at the car. Once we got to the lake, the GPS shifted and it looked totally different. Or maybe we were looking at it wrong. Whatever the case, we had a lock on the location now. It was back in the dunes, and we were on the way back to the car. But with a location and what looked like a road that got us close to it, we had a glimmer of hope.

We got back to the car and drove over to this road. I offered to come back today. I didn’t want to make her hunt for it, and I felt bad about all of this drama. But she said she was determined to find this phone, and we were going to do it. We both decided it was an adventure, and it was going to have a happy ending. Even if I ended up buying a shiny new phone, we were going to have fun doing it.

So we spent the next hour navigating through the forest and over the dunes trying to find that little dot in the middle of the sand dunes. If we could find our trail, we surely could find that phone. Up and down dunes, around and through grass and trees we searched. We laughed about talking with that agent on the other side of the planet while we were standing in the wilderness. We shared stories of things lost and found. And we despaired and we searched. Sometimes the GPS freaked out and put us in the middle of Lake Michigan. Then it would straighten itself out. And our little GPS dot kept getting closer to the iPhone dot. Finally we were really close. We climbed over the top of a dune, and I spotted our trail. There were dog prints and at least two sets of people prints. Liz went one way, and I went the other. Not 100 yards away, I saw my trusty iPhone lying facedown in the snow.

It WAS an adventure. Our feet hurt and our muscles were starting to get sore. We were both starving and had long drives back home. But we were both so happy to have utilized our technology and our wits to find that phone. We even thought about calling our helper in India and telling him we found it.

Driving home I reflected on my day and what I could learn from this little adventure. I thought of my current job search. The number of options I have feels a bit like a lost iPhone in miles of sand dunes. I literally could make a hundred different choices and none of them would be wrong. Much like we traversed the dunes, I’ve opted to go off trail this time. I’ve used technology, my friends and other resources to help me navigate. I often question my decisions and wonder whether or not I will find my way. I’m getting closer to that dot of where I will land, but I also know that if I don’t get there – wherever there is – I will be okay. I may have to spend more money, and I may have to try something new, but, whatever happens, it will be an adventure. And, whatever happens, I will handle it.

Splurging A Little

I’m working through The Artist’s Way with a group of friends, and we are discussing the chapter that begs the question “Why don’t you treat yourself to some creative luxuries?” I had to ask myself why I haven’t ever even purchased a nice writing pen. I am a writer! I haven’t purchased a writing software. I’ve only taken one writing class. And forget other creative materials. I have none. Well, I did buy some wooden wick candle-making supplies last year but only because I got tired of paying for candles. It was hardly a creative splurge.

This morning I was writing my Morning Pages, and my cheap ass pen ran out of ink again. I like these gel pens, but I buy the disposable ones that run out of ink after about three days of writing. I hate the waste and the plastic that ends up in the landfill. I’ve always thought buying a nice pen would be wildly expensive, and I’d probably lose it anyway. But after the discussion this week about my not investing in my creativity, I got to thinking that I should buy a nice pen.

I was a bit shocked when I saw a $950 pen. Whoa! Now that would be an extravagance.

It was beautiful but since I don’t even know what kind of pen I like, I thought I might start a little smaller. Cross has a 55% discount on their already sale-priced outlet pens so I decided on a 2019 Year of the Pig Townsend Rollerball pen. My birthday is in the Year of the Ox as is 2021. So it’s not on sale right now. If I really like this pen maybe I’ll splurge at some point and get the Ox model. And, hey, I got a $300 pen for $100. Yes, it’s a luxury when I could buy 24 for $7.99 at Staples, but it hardly will break the bank.

So, now when I write my Morning Pages, I’ll have a nice pen that feels good in my hand. Maybe I’ll want to write more. If I start writing more, I’ll need to be more comfortable. That could lead me to setting up a real desk somewhere in my home. If I set up a desk, I’ll need a writing software such as Scrivener to organize my thoughts. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll take some writing courses. Right now, I think I’ll be happy with myself for splurging on a nice pen. It could literally lead me anywhere, one word at a time.

Reflections in Luminosity

I have three Christmas trees. One is a beautiful Balsam Fir I purchased from Balsam Hill. It was a treat I gave myself since I’ve enjoyed my tree so much the last couple of years. It’s perfect although Michael says I’m not fluffing it enough. (But he’s a bit compulsive about fluffing and maybe a few other things.) The other two trees are reflections of the first. And while they may not actually be additional trees, they give off as much light as an evergreen threesome. Reflections of light multiply luminosity. I don’t even need a lamp in my living room.

Oddly enough with all of this luminescence in my living room, the light doesn’t illuminate my face in Zoom calls. I had the idea the other night that I’d turn off the lamp because it was so bright in here, and I love the candlelight effect on my aging skin. But I looked like I was sitting in the dark. I was perplexed.

I researched reflection and refraction of light to see why this phenomena is occurring but I couldn’t really figure it out. And then I got bored because I’m actually more interested in Christmas trees than the science of reflection. I decorated my very first Christmas tree as an adult when I lived in Monroeville, Pennsylvania. I was married. It was our first Christmas, and I went to K-Mart or some such big box store and bought a small plastic-like Christmas tree and some ornaments with a Little Drummer Boy theme. In comparison to my beautiful tree today it wasn’t much, but it was my first.

The next decade was a Southern Living Christmas decorating extravaganza featuring live greenery spray-painted silver and gold, fresh-cut trees and gaudy Christmas sweaters. Christmas became an event to plan for, decorate, share with others in lavish parties and then laboriously unravel after New Year’s. After we divorced, I continued to get live trees when I wasn’t traveling for the holidays. My second husband hated Christmas, so putting up trees during that marriage felt like yet another unbearable struggle, and I lost interest. It just wasn’t worth the effort.

Michael helped me with my first tree after my second divorce. I bought a live one at a little Midtown tree lot, and we dragged it up my stairs to my small apartment in Memphis. I call it The Crying Tree because I spent that Christmas bathing in its light while grieving the loss of my marriages and fearing I would never be happy. Ironically, it is the tree that I remember the most. I spent so much time with it. The ornaments were gathered over decades of my life and each represented a memory of a person, a place or a significant event. While many of them reminded me of loss, their prominence on that tree helped me grieve and let go of the past.

I wouldn’t have another tree until a couple of years ago. Those ornaments from The Crying Tree are gathering dust in a box that I can’t bring myself to open. Photos of my long-ago stepchildren who I no longer see, pets that are deceased and gifts from people no longer in my life remind me of what I’ve lost and not what I’ve gained. I’ll go through them one day…. or not. But loss is not what I want to see reflected in my window. I want sparkly beauty that multiplies into explosions of light. I want the gentle caress of candlelight that illuminates the present and has the potential to light up my future. I chose classic glass ornaments for their lovely reflective properties. I love my Memphis tree for what it gave me, and I love all of my trees for what they represented. But, for this moment, I love my three Michigan Christmas trees the best. And, even though they don’t illuminate my face, they light up my heart.

Releasing Relentless Expectations: 2021

One of the best things about writing a blog is that I can return to posts to see what I was thinking or struggling with a year ago or five years ago. I started writing Midlife Moments in 2012, and it was interesting to go back tonight and see what I was doing each New Year’s Eve during those 8 years. In some Decembers I was obviously struggling with depression. In 2012, my life and goals were all about running. One year I was on a backpacking trip on the Wild Azalea Trail in Louisiana but still managed to post a blog. And last year all I wanted to do was to commit to 30 days of yoga to see what would come up for me. Well…..

On the winter solstice, I attended a Soul Care group with my coach and a group of women whom I have never met in person but who are becoming a solid piece of my support network. Barb led us in a meditation where we reviewed 2020 month-by-month and reflected on what had happened to us during that time.

It’s odd to even think of January and February of this year with its normalcy of work and hugs and breathing all over each other without a care in the world. What we were thinking? Early March came around, and all hell broke loose at work with a big test to see if we could run that contact center from home. Within 24 hours of a successful test we packed up our belongings and went home for three weeks which turned into three months and then forever for a whole bunch of us.

Camping this summer.

On a positive note, I have spent a lot of time outdoors this year. I’m sure it’s been good for my spirit. I know this year has been good for Ashok. I got a new kitten after losing my sweet Buster Kitty. Luna has brought a lot of life to my home to the dismay of my other pets. But I’ve certainly enjoyed his playfulness and energy. I have been given the gift of precious time to sort out my next step career-wise. I am supported financially and have the security to explore my options. I have also stayed healthy, both mentally and physically. I do not want Covid-19. No thank you. I don’t need it. I don’t wan’t it. Stay away from me, you dastardly disease.

My new kitten Luna.

I’ve learned a lot about myself. With the unrelenting solitude of my current situation due to covid and being unemployed, I have a lot of time to reflect. I’m in a bubble surrounded by all of my pretty baubles and shiny things, and I have time to look at each one to decide if I really want to keep it. I also have time to feel the loss of things that are missing and to discover new pleasures. I have been given the gift of choosing what works for me and what doesn’t. And I’m learning some surprising things.

This week I discovered that I’ve largely structured my life with a lot of self-imposed “shoulds” that don’t really make me happy. For instance, I’ve beat myself up for years because I’m not reading as much as I “should”. I make goals and resolutions to read more. I joined a book club so that I would be encouraged to read more. I have two e-readers full of books that I have half-read. I used to read all the time. It was my default hobby. If I wasn’t doing something else I was reading. I loved it. In my mind, I believed I “should” get back to that because obviously it was good for me. Yoga was the same way. It literally changed my life at one time. But I’m resisting doing it now. Yes, I read on occasion. And, yes, I do yoga on occasion. But I have a relentless expectation that these activities need to be a part of my daily schedule.

Grand Mere State Park a week ago.

I’m taking a class online, and the teacher talked about our relentless expectations. She said we set ourselves up for disappointment. We have an expectation of ourselves, and we don’t meet it. In our mind we failed. The expectation becomes even more urgent. Before long, we are pounding ourselves about this particular expectation so much that we destroy any chance of acceptance of ourselves. I immediately recognized my expectation about reading as one of these relentless expectations. Why am I beating myself up over this? I obviously enjoy podcasts more now. I enjoy hiking. My free time is spent baking and talking on the phone to friends and even writing. But instead of enjoying the hobbies I love, I’m relentlessly expecting myself to read and disappointing myself every day.

Ludington State Park last Saturday.

Hmmmm…. What other relentless expectations do I have that I want to release? All of a sudden I feel like I can reinvent my life. I would prefer to meditate every day instead of having a daily yoga practice so I can let that go. Just because it was life-changing 15 years ago doesn’t mean it is today. And meditation may be the thing I let go of next year. I don’t actually want to do strength-training 3 days a week and run on the days in between. I don’t even like running anymore. I’d like to be more fluid about my workouts and do what I feel like doing that day. To hell with a schedule. And with all of this free time I’m opening up, I want to get involved with a community theater and maybe do some acting! Who knows what I really like to do for fun?

I am not in a place to know what I want to do in 2021. I don’t have a focus. I don’t even have a job. But I know what I don’t want to do. I don’t want to follow a script that was not written by me. There is a saying that expectations are premeditated resentments. I have been setting myself up to resent myself. And I’m tired of resenting myself for not following through on these relentless expectations. I want 2021 to be a kindler, gentler year for me. I want to give myself time to explore my interests and pursue some of them, even if they seem indulgent or silly. I have time. In fact, I have until the end of my time on this earth to figure me out. The only expectation I want to have is to love myself and all that I bring to this party.

Our beautiful little bluff in St. Joe last week at sunset.

2021, I have no resolutions this year. I have no expectations. And I’ll bet by the end of the year, I won’t be disappointed. And, with any luck, I’ll love how I spend my time by December 2021.

Moving Into the Unknown

“The Big Chill” was my anthem in my early twenties. The movie about the coming of age of a bunch of college graduates struck a nerve in my own navigation of becoming a woman and a wife. I watched it over and over again. Friends watched it with me, and we sighed with understanding of the journey we were taking and its inevitable losses and gains. The writers saw me, moved me and showed me the way. I relished every second of its embrace.

It’s been almost 6 months since I left my job. I’ve spent some time traveling, been obsessed with a transformative election and fretted about my future. There is movement in this transition much like the movement afoot during my early twenties. I am navigating a new phase of my life, a possible reinvention of my career while at the same time grieving the losses of my life before. Excitement quickly morphs into fear. Loss is overshadowed by hope. Youth is transformed by the marching of time. And, this time, the culture is moving with me. There is so much changing right now, and I suspect much more change is ahead of us.

Sam Cook’s A Change is Gonna Come Official Lyric Video

“The West Wing” has been my salve and solace. A friend of mine nailed me on my obsession with “The West Wing.” “Josh Lyman is your kind of guy,” she said. His combination of sarcasm, wit, energy and intelligence has me wishing for my own Josh live-in. But there’s much more to my obsession with this show than my romantic female fantasies. The show epitomizes the destabilizing movement of time. The actors age and evolve. The issues of more than a decade ago still play out in the news. Time goes very quickly but change is very slow.

I’m on my second watch of the series, and I’m fast-forwarding because of its removal from Netflix on December 24. I’m also listening to “The West Wing Weekly“, a superb rehash of every episode complete with interviews and guest appearances of the actors, writers and producers on the show as well as political experts of the topics in question. I am seeped in this world, and it is seeping into me. I dream about it at night and wake up listening to the podcast each morning.

Last night I watched “A Change is Gonna Come”. It’s the second time I’ve seen it, but I’m in a different place now. I don’t even remember it from the first time, but I was so transfixed this time that I woke up this morning wanting to watch it again. Six months into this journey, I’m ready for a change. With a vaccine available, our world is ready for a change. With so many uncomfortable truths unearthed during this pandemic, our country is ready for a change. We are on a precipice.

James Taylor’s Rendition of A Change is Gonna Come

This episode features James Taylor singing a rendition of Sam Cook’s song of the same name. It comes at a time when the President is starting to experience some troubling physical changes, the next election is coming up which will bring enormous change, and changes are happening for all of my beloved characters. We know that the world as they know it will no longer exist. The moving lyrics of this lovely ballad dubbed over the faces of my beloved cast of characters moved me. And the movement toward the unknown felt very familiar.

This morning I have an appointment with a recruiter about a nonprofit job. Immediately following I have a meeting with my coach. By noon I may have an inkling about my immediate future, or I may be back in the dark. Either way I will continue to stare into the unknown. There will be no answers today. My only hope is to become comfortable with not knowing, to embrace the void. Oddly enough, when I watch “The Big Chill” now it seems completely stupid. I can’t imagine ever relating to those characters or that plot. Anthems are forged at the intersection of life and feeling. We are in a collective moment of change. We don’t know what life will look like six months from now. But we can all be sure that “a change is gonna come”. I hope it sounds as beautiful as this.

The Joy of Naked Simplicity

How many Christmas seasons have been way too busy? How many have cost more than expected because I felt I had to travel? How many nights did I have way too many parties to attend than I had hours in the evening? How many times have I wished for “less” during the holidays? How many times did I wish I could opt out of all of the expectations? How about the time I did not want to attend my ex-spouse’s Christmas party because I was exhausted from working all day? How many times have I wished that the holidays could be less exhausting? Less expensive? Less draining?

I’ve always loved camping because it makes me slow way down. It takes away all of the extraneous effort of life and leaves me with the necessities and the wonder of nature. 2020’s Christmas season is offering us that most wonderful of gifts. And, just like camping, it may not feel all that pleasant at the moment. But it will make me appreciate the next holiday season even more. It not only forces me to slow down and appreciate the simple things this year, it helps me remember more fondly the holidays of the past. And, honestly, I’m really, really lucky with the cards I pulled this year.

Imagine the holiday season next year. Worn out from work all day (as I’ll be working again), I’ll have to put on dress clothes, rush to bake cookies or make dip to attend that stupid Christmas party for the neighbor I don’t really like. I’ll stay up to late and be exhausted at work the next day. I’ll be dying to have a day of rest to just take a nap. I’ll need to plop down money I don’t even have to buy plane tickets for travel and burn my precious vacation days sitting in an airport. I’ll gain the extra 10 pounds that I don’t need because I am so out of rhythm that I don’t eat right. And it’ll be with me for at least another 3-6 months as a reminder. I’ll get to visit friends for sure, but there will be so little time with each one that I’ll end up longing for more… more ... more of everything.

I’ll be running out the door to the next thing wishing I could take a minute to sit by my tree and listen to holiday music with my kitten at my feet. Instead of shopping, I’ll be wishing I could take a long hike at Grand Mere State Park with my dog. I’ll stop at a traffic light in a holiday traffic jam and remember the magical Christmas of 2020 when expectations were few, relaxation was all there was to do and people viscerally understood the incredible gift of being alive.

This Christmas hundreds of thousands of people will be without loved ones because of this virus. Many others will be without work and no hope of finding any soon. Others will be homeless or facing imminent foreclosure or eviction in the cold of winter. For them, the holidays have been stripped down to the most basic level. Who would not give up all of the trimmings and festivities for one more year of life for a loved one? Who wouldn’t do without gifts for the promise of a job that is safe and lucrative enough to pay the bills? In 2020, the spirit of Christmas is truly naked in its simplicity. Spirituality, kindness and ritual do not require money or travel. They are the most sacred of things that are available to all of us. It may just be the best thing that happened this year.

I Sneaked Out! #Chicago

I’ve had my fill of chai tea.

I’ve had my fill of reading.

I’ve had my fill of muesli, baked apples and avocado toast.

I’ve had my fill of looking out my front window and seeing my neighbor’s front porch.

I’ve even had my fill of The West Wing.

This morning I could not sit for one more minute on my couch. I thought of hiking trails, but I was sort of sick of that, too. All I could think about was Christmas lights, holiday shopping and the Hotel Monaco. Chicago…. ChicagoCHICAGO began to beat in my brain. MmmmmmInternational Foods… Thai food from the Star of Siam sounded good. A cappuccino from Eataly had me salivating. And then I became obsessed with cannoli and an Eggplant Parmigiana sub from Damato’s Bakery. But, wait! A day trip was certainly doable.

I put on something besides sweatpants, grabbed Ashok, and we headed across the lake. On the way I listened to the audiobook, The Great Influenza. I’m at the point in the book where the pandemic has started, and, by the way, they think it started in Haskell County, Kansas not Spain. I guess the Kansas Flu just didn’t catch on. Pun intended. And it seems we were as woefully unprepared that time as we are now.

I arrived at Damato’s with my list in mind. I would order an Eggplant Parmigiana sub, get a cannoli to go, and pick up something prepared for dinner – either pizza or lasagna or something. They are cash only. Luckily, they have an ATM right outside for anybody that is unprepared, and I always am. The place is pretty small and everybody was moving around trying to keep ourselves 6 feet apart in the small area between pastry counters. We managed, but I remember the last time I was there. I sat at the counter to eat my sandwich, and I was practically sitting in the laps of a couple from Seattle. It definitely would be too close for comfort today. I ended up getting a slice of lasagna and a slice of eggplant parmigiana for dinner this week. I can’t wait.

I decided to drive downtown just to see what it looked like. Ashok was so excited, and I knew she’d never forgive me if we didn’t walk around. I walked past the House of Blues, stopped on the bridge over the Chicago River and then walked to the Hotel Monaco. None of the bellmen were outside, so I walked in and said hi to the manager at the front desk. I asked about Connor and Mrs. Gwen, and he said none of the regulars were working anymore. They only had about 40-50 guests at a time, and it was just the managers now. There was no tree in the lobby, nor any treats for my girl.

We walked down Michigan Avenue, and it seemed really somber. Michigan Avenue would be typically jamming two weekends before Christmas. There was no skating rink nor Christmas tree in Millennium Park. A few people milled about, but I’ve never seen Michigan Avenue so quiet except in the wee hours of the morning. Stores were open but almost completely devoid of patrons, some of the windows were boarded up and empty buildings had signs up “for lease”. The city put up some decorations, but it was definitely not the holiday Chicago I’ve come to know and love.

The city’s heartbeat beat less vibrantly. Sadness was palpable. I felt like I was visiting an old friend who is wounded but not yet down for the count. The Chicago Tribune building, Marina Towers, and the Wrigley Building were still magnificent. The Chicago River continues to weave the city together like a beautiful ribbon. Tents and heaters for outdoor diners lined the streets in a defiant fist to the pandemic. JoJo’s ShakeBar featured a Winter Wonderland theme that made me smile and wish I drank. The bones of the city are waiting for the healing to begin. Chicago is still alive. It was good to see you, old friend.

A Magical Bog: Cowles’ Bog Trail

I was reminded by a friend this week about the Cowle’s Bog Trail in the Indiana Dunes National Park. I hiked this trail many years ago with my brother. He’s a wetland biologist, and when he came to visit, this was on his list of “must do” hikes. I have to admit I didn’t know of Dr. Henry Chandler Cowles, the namesake of the trail. But he is apparently one of our early botanists who happened to teach at the University of Chicago and completed much of his field study in this area of Indiana Dunes. He began work in 1899 to get this particular plot of land designated as a National Park, and it finally got designated last year when it was snuck in a legislative package to give the Orange Man his funding for that stupid border wall. I guess there are silver linings to everything.

I didn’t remember much of this trail from my previous visit mainly because my memory doesn’t last that long. So this morning when I was picking a hike for Ashok and I, I chose this one.. It’s very exciting that I’m literally less than an hour away from a National Park. We arrived around 9 AM Indiana time, and the sky was overcast. The temps were comfortably in the 40s, and oddly enough there is no snow anywhere in December.

The first thing I noticed was how close this trail was to Interstate-94 and the train tracks for the Southshore Line and Amtrak.The traffic noise was distractingly loud at first. But eventually the loud unison calls of the Sandhill Cranes caught my attention. I tried to capture the sound for you, but every time I turned on the recorder they stopped. I’ll share the below video so you can hear what they sound like. Their calls are unmistakeable once you know them.

In the winter, the green of the forest fades to the muted colors of decaying leaves, tree trunks and brown and withering grasses. It may sound like it’s dull, but I find the textures and the coordinated earthy hues gorgeous. Tree trunks’ gnarly variations take center stage, and grasses swirl in oceans of silvery fronds. The occasional red berries pop in comparison.

We walked through the bog (which I read was really a fen) and then into the forest. With the leaves gone, we were able to see wetlands surrounding us everywhere. There were lots of birds and a few squirrels running around. Eventually the forest turned into sand dunes, and we hiked up and down some really steep dunes before ending up on the beach. The water was so still today. It was warm by the lake, and I took off my coat while Ashok took a dip. A group of conservationists chatted with us, and we turned to circle back to the trailhead.

At one point in the forest, we came upon an area with cattails stretching for as far as I could see. I stopped to take it in. A gentle breeze wafted through the cattails, causing just the slightest movement. I lifted my chin while the breeze tickled my face. Helloooooo…. We are here, I felt my ancestors say. I imagined the weight of centuries of transformation. The bog is a shock absorber for the storms off Lake Michigan, providing shelter and safety for fragile wildlife. To my right a drying swamp sucked in water and nutrients. It lies ready for the winter storms to come in the next few months. Trees, naked and dormant, stand ready for the onslaught. There is nothing new here. I breathed in the remnants of millions of years of life. These places transform and change exponentially. If only humans could learn and evolve like that.

We walked back to the trailhead, and the Sandhill Cranes bugled their good-byes. On the drive out, a family of Canada geese marched through the bog. “Oh I wish I’d seen the cranes,” I whispered to Ashok.

Stollen My Heart: Christmas Stollen

When I was in my thirties, I was an avid bread baker. I bought all of the tools and became a King Arthur Flour groupie. I subscribed to their quarterly publication, The Baking Sheet. I anxiously waited for every issue to hit my mailbox. I’d highlight the recipes I wanted to try and buy the ingredients to make them. It was a wonderful way to learn to bake and to appreciate the long history of bread baking. Alongside each recipe, The Baking Sheet told the story and history of the recipe. I loved following centuries-old traditions and was swept away with nostalgia as I baked and ate my creations. Sadly, The Baking Sheet no longer exists, and I long ago tossed my collection because I got too busy to bake bread. I have tossed a lot of things in my life, and that’s my biggest regret. I’d love to go back to those butter-stained sheets and pick out some new delicacies to bake.

The Story of Stollen from Bit of Swiss Bakery

When I moved back up here, I rediscovered the Bit of Swiss Bakery. They are the pastry and bread supplier of my beloved Caffe Tosi, but they also have their own bakery tucked behind Tosi’s Restaurant. My first Christmas I stopped by to check out the showroom, and I bought a Christmas Stollen. It was delicious on its own, but I found myself awash in nostalgia once again. Centuries of bakers have toasted almonds, candied fruit and sprinkled powdered sugar on these beautiful loaves that swaddle a center of almond paste or marzipan. I am obsessed with these loaves and have purchased them in Chicago at the Christkindl Market and Bennison’s Bakery just to see who makes it best.

The dense buttery bread is itself not too sweet, but the additions of candied fruit and powdered sugar and the center of almond paste or marzipan will blow the mind of any sugar-loving soul. It will keep frozen for a very long time, and it keeps for a couple of weeks on the counter. My German friend, Claudia, said her family makes stollen more like a dense fruitcake, and it takes 3-4 weeks to age for serving on Christmas.

I have a lot more time on my hands this holiday season, so I decided to try my hand at making Stollen. Of course, I went back to my favorite bread-baking source, King Arthur, and chose one of their recipes. It seemed very similar to the one I buy at Bit of Swiss. I kept forgetting to soak the fruit, but I finally did this week and made my Stollen on Tuesday. I’m not sure if it’s because I made it, but, man, this stuff is like crack. It is delicious, and the recipe made three loaves. The almond paste in the center is addictive. I like it toasted and buttered with a nice cup of Early Grey tea, or it’s pretty good sneaked on a fork right out of the bread box.

If you’d like to try Stollen, King Arthur has several recipes, and I’m curious about this whole-grain version with raisins. If you are looking for a new holiday tradition, this could be a fun one to try.

Have you ever tried Stollen? Do you have a favorite recipe?

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