I’ll Take Grace Too

You can have the other words – chance, luck, coincidence, serendipity. I’ll take grace, I don’t know what it is exactly, but I’ll take it.” -Mary Oliver

  • I am reading Amy Tan Where the Past Begins and a writing friend suggests I look into Katrina Kenison’s Magical Journey: An Apprenticeship in Contentment.  “You would be friends,” she said. I can see why, I read her blog and it is like talking to someone I know. And while searching for the book, I find a collection of short stories edited by who else? Amy Tan and Katrina Kenison.
  • Elizabeth Gilbert writes in Big Magic if you don’t act on an inspiration or idea, it is yours only for a while.  If you let it pass you by, it’s up for grabs in the universe, and no longer yours to keep.  Gilbert and her friend Ann Patchett attest to this very thing. When Patchett had an idea to write about a Minnesota biologist who goes to South America to study bio pharmacology, that became the book State of Wonder Gilbert swears she had the same plot idea but never wrote the book.  Use it or lose it, pretty much was true for her.
  • I look at my phone.  There is a recent call from my mother-in-law logged in recent calls. It is 9:30 on a Saturday night, not our normal time to connect.  I call her back, wanting to make sure everything is okay.  She said she was praying the Rosary, and was thinking of me.  Hmmmm. She says she never dialed my number. 
  • I stay in an Air BnB in Chicago, an artist’s loft in the neighborhood near my daughter.  I recognize the space as familiar, the richly upholstered velvet furnishings, and murals on the ceiling a setting I have experienced in a dream. And there propped against a wall is the Empty Frame I describe in my post from April 2018.   
  • Phil and I drive to Hawk Ridge outside Duluth on our way to the cabin, to mourn the loss of our beloved Lab, Phoebe.  We see a sign at the end of the road.  For Sale AKC Lab Puppies. An invitation.  In this case not taken.  But I often wonder what we would have found in that litter of pups. 
  • I visit Helsingor, Denmark, a scene I knew as a child, from a castle on a postcard passed down from one hand to another. I am filled with tears as I fly over the crazy quilt of fields in gentle folds knowing it belongs to me.  This homeland a part of my DNA, now confirmed by a test. It is my history and destiny, the past and present. I feed chickens for the first time because Bende, my Air BnB host asks.   

Call it serendipity, karma, destiny, synchronicity, kismit. This is what can happen when I  am open to the day, the opportunity, to act on an inkling.

“I have been expecting you, ” says the lake, sending sparkles as an invitation to linger.  I buy four handmade plates glazed in my favorite colors-birch, cobalt blue, with what could be a pussy willow, a bursting bud, a rose hip, or a blueberry. A Trader Joe’s employee crosses out the price of a bouquet in my cart. “I am buying your flowers today,” days after Louis was born, right after my Mother’s death. How did he know?

Is this because our brains are perked up at something new, the novelty of a subject, a word we haven’t paid attention to before? Does meaning illuminate for us the fact, the concept, the experience, etching it in to our memory?

These connections are happening over and over. Yes, it must be grace. Writing is like this. Travel is like this. Being alive is like this.  Take the chance. Try something new.  Be open. Get up close, and look. Grab the idea before it gets away. 


January. The month for getting organized, eating right, hitting the gym and starting something new.

I thought I was ready to skip the paper and rely on my iphone to keep my important dates, even send little reminders and be in electronic sync with others.  I also read about “bullet journals” a hybrid between a to-do list, planner and diary that is good for people who would really like to keep a journal/diary but are having trouble sticking with the habit. I didn’t want to be locked in to someone else’s system, having relied on pocket sized Cavallini or Moleskin planners in the past few years.  

I came across my mother’s 1958 calendar, the year I turned two and dad built the house. 

Her neat penciled entries tucked inside the confines of one day. She didn’t use it to mark appointments or track social commitments. These events were recorded after the fact. In her case she didn’t use it as a planner, more of a diary.

The unusual weather events, “February 26. It got up to 59 degrees today. Wendy and Debbie wore their in-betweeners.” The progress on the house “Dick started putting on the rain gutters this evening.” The birth weight of babies born to friends,  “Michael Thomas, 9 pounds, 1 oz.”  Excursions “Went to Dayton’s Daisy sale with Pat. I was on the Randy Merriman TV show! Won a pair of shoes.”

This daily diary became the start of a 60 year habit for Mom, of capturing the large and small events. They were not expansive or reflective in the way we think of “journaling” now, but they created an account of what happened-a record of her life.  I haven’t looked through her whole collection of journals, or diaries, as she called them. It’s not that I think it would be a violation of her privacy, I just haven’t. I see them when I pull into the garage, stored in a clear plastic bin labeled “Journals.” A stack of bins I promised Phil I will sort through–soon.

As a girl, I wrote sporadically in a diary with a latch that locked, wanting to keep out any snoops.

But really there wasn’t anything THAT juicy in my grade school life, instead mostly sweet things- the day our dog died “My baby puppy Daffy was killed by a car at 6:00 pm.” My loopy cursive punctuated with dog hair plucked from the bedspread. There is a pencil drawing of Daffy wearing a collar she never had. A list of boyfriends, my certificate of membership to  the Girl Scouts of America, and a very dry, brittle pressed carnation from my confirmation. 

I graduated to a speckled composition book in college when I started asking more complicated questions of myself and opened myself to new adventures. Seeing the sunrise over the Atlantic from Fort Lauderdale beach. Impressions of new friends on campus.

Now as I read the entry of December 31, 1979 flying into Gatwick it lets me feel my excitement. The me of an earlier time.

 I don’t think we need to guard and hide our words from others.  Unless you are a famous figure, the journals we keep will languish in a chest without anyone knowing their contents. Unless we crack them open. 

I continued Mom’s practice of keeping a diary-a Hallmark pocket calendar, an illustrated travelogue covering my impressions of Europe as a first timer,  a red book chronicling the progress of home improvement projects on our first home, and then journals of motherhood for each of our children.  Later I moved on to longer entries in various styles of notebooks that became less diary and more journal. It provided an invitation to capture ideas, recount stories, solve problems and act as an incubator for subjects to write about later.  All in one place. I find I use my paper calendar as a way to do this too. Little doodles, illustrations, quotations, clips and bits of ephemera tucked in to the pages.

I WANT to keep a paper calendar to capture these things, to share what I have discovered about  myself and others. What about you? What inspires you to keep a record of your life, whether it is calendar, diary or journal?  Or what might keep you from it?

What to Wear?

“The Woman who is chic is always a little different.  Not different in being behind fashion, but always slightly apart from it.” Emily Post

Galena Illinois, Spring Break 2006.  I am binge watching Stacy and Clinton with my daughter, Marie. It is late on a Saturday night, during her junior year of college, and the family has rented a house for spring break.  It is hardly spring, and everyone else is sleeping.  We allow ourselves to sit in front of the big screen TV. Makeovers make for wonderful viewing.

Within the space of one 45 minute episode on “What Not To Wear,” we couldn’t recognize the mousy woman we first met in a baggy sweatshirt who was now a confident beauty in a fitted skirt and smart sweater–stunning her family and friends who keep holding hands to their faces and screaming in disbelief. Ugly duckling to swan.   Cinderella goes to the ball.

It was so satisfying to watch these changes right before our eyes and shop in New York boutiques with Stacy,  imagining if it were us starting over with our own wardrobes. Our closets would contain only the right pieces, that in a matter of minutes could be combined in to perfectly coordinated outfits to fit our bodies and our  lifestyle.  They would flatter our strongest features and tame the not-so-good ones.

The part I didn’t like so much was spying on the person’s fashion don’ts around town, while being secretly followed and videotaped in their unflattering pieces. And Stacy’s insistence that each article in their current closet be thrown into an oversized trash can!  You had to promise to get rid of all of your clothes in exchange for a $5000 wardrobe IF they followed the rules Stacy and Clinton laid out for them while shopping. Fitted jackets only for an hourglass figure. Flared jeans need to be paired with heels not flats. V-necks are a better choice for a large bust.

I don’t need this kind of help, fun as it is to watch the before and after.  A wardrobe I can handle, and no way would I get rid of all of my clothes to get new ones.  I like the pieces I have, and it has taken me a while to “curate” the mix.  I like making my own rules now.


Wow, there have been a lot of theories about what to wear!  At this point in my life, I know what works for me, and what I should avoid on the sale rack.  It wasn’t always this way.  In 1975 John Malloy’s Dress for Success made brown garments the kiss of death. His landmark book used scientific evidence to calculate the hazards and benefits of wearing particular colors and styles in the world of business.  As a result we all had a navy suit in our closet. It became the uniform of flight attendants, school principals, sales executives, politicians. In fact I wore one on the first day of my first job at a utility company. The JH Collectible suit was made of hop sacking fabric and the mid calf skirt had a slit up the front for comfortable walking, but not too far up to invite suggestion at the office. I paired it with navy Famolare platform shoes and a peter pan collared shirt under a semi-fitted jacket. This was before the small ties became popular for women, which we can also thank John Malloy for, in the pages of his sequel–Women Dress for Success.  Pretty much the same message but for she and he. Luckily we have wised up and wear what we want to work.

business suit

The other big influence on fashion choices was Color Me Beautiful–a color themed concept, named for the four seasons, that established an individual’s color palette that  would be most becoming. The process was like going to a Tupperware party to “get your colors done.” The consultant would hold swatches of fabric up to your face to determine which season and its associated color palette most flattered your skin, eyes and hair. Winters could wear cool, bold, brilliant shades. Springs like me should choose warm tones in softer shades of peach aqua, and lavender. Color theory alone would not hold much weight now, but has stuck with me all these years– enough so that it steers me clear of some shades and attracts me to others.

Women want fewer rules about what to wear.


Some days it takes me way too long to get ready for work, sliding the hangers along the rod in my closet to look through the hanging blouses, the neutral shades of slacks and skirts as Sabri Ben-Achour is talking stock futures on Morning Marketplace. That means it is almost 8:30 and I should be at work by now.  Instead I am still trying to decide what to wear.

At the food coop, a woman stops her cart where I am studying a display of goat’s milk products. “I have to tell you, you look so smart in your outfit, so snappy in fact.”  She is about my age and I feel a little embarrassed.  I am wearing a favorite black skirt that flares out, black leggings, a green motorcycle style jacket, a print scarf, black shoes with a strap around the ankle.

I thank her for her kind compliment and tell her she made my day.  I think to myself, I feel good in these clothes.  They are comfortable and soft and on the edge of “maybe I am too old for this.” It sounds vain I know, not something I should be focusing on. I will never stop loving clothes, getting dressed for my day. Feeling in tune with both the outside and inside of me makes me feel better.  Some of it is tactile, how it feels on my body, and some of it is how it looks in the mirror. The soft drape of a favorite dirndl skirt, the flattering lines of princess seams, the familiar threadbare flannel of my red plaid robe. Who doesn’t want to be wrapped in puffy down, soft woolens and fleece to be warm? Cool linen and soft silk on a hot day?

I am trying to say I am still me by what I wear.  The me who feels good when I take care of myself, wear the clothing I like, some pieces decades old.  My floral Laura Ashley pants that qualify for vintage, my white smocked night gown of organic cotton, the gray cashmere sweater and camel coat I have had in my closet since Becka was a baby. And of course my winter uniform, a short black down-filled wrap skirt.


I will continue to say goodbye to  the things that no longer serve me well.  My friend Jean gave away the blouses that revealed too much of the parts she didn’t want exposed, shoes that pinched her feet to put her off balance.  Walking safely is more important.

Our appearance, and how we present ourselves to the world is just another challenge to an already changing image of ourselves.  So little of it is within our control. I want to think of it in a broader way –the relationship between attire and how we feel.  Dawnn Karen, a brand consultant at the Fashion Institute of Technology examines how color, image, style and beauty affects human behavior.  Why do we choose what we wear? What am I trying to say about myself by my clothing and appearance? Karen suggests that styles shape attitudes. Fashion Psychology Success.

It’s also a way of self-expression, a personal brand, a style that stays with me, no matter how old I am.  Paying attention to what my body needs for cover, but “not letting myself go.”

Lauren Shields, former seminary student  and blogger chronicled her year of living modestly, in her article for Salon called “My Year of Modesty.”  She didn’t wear tight fitting skirts and heels or invest in time-sapping beauty routines like hair coloring and makeup. She refers to the package as the “beauty suit.” She traded makeup, short skirts, and heels for loose fitting skirts and jeans and a head wrap.  She was surprised at the blowback for this choice. Her readers argued that Shields had merely replaced old rules with new ones for herself about acceptable public dress. That her objective, to free herself from the conventional western beauty ideal was a criticism of those who did fuss with their clothes, hair and makeup.  She went on to write a book called “The Beauty Suit: How my Year of Religious Modesty Made Me a Better Feminist.”

Shields was asked if her experiment and research position has permanently changed the way she dresses.  She wears jeans and graphic t-shirts most days, no head wrap, not unlike her contemporaries. She said at 35 you start to see aging happen and that making yourself (sexually) attractive becomes harder to do in to your 40s and 50s.  And you begin to ask yourself “Who am I?” Your appearance changes, yes. But she admits some days she misses “the suit.” But it just doesn’t function for her the way it used to. She just wants to get on with her day without thinking too much about what to wear.


I just learned that there is actually a look that defines the style I am talking about. Menocore. Clothes favored by menopausal or post menopausal women.    Think loose garments you might wear to the farmer’s market or to dinner with friends, made of natural fibers, i.e. Eileen Fisher.  The term menocore was coined by Harling Ross a fashion writer, who put a name to this style aesthetic we didn’t know would be a thing! Especially not for young women.  Fashion has long been about youth and sexualized culture.  But women are saying with their clothing choices we no longer need to be reflected in this mirror held up for us. We are finally comfortable dressing ourselves in a way that satisfies us and expresses how we want to be in this world.

What do you think about this? How has life experience changed the way you present yourself? What makes you feel the best? And how comfortable are you standing out in the crowd with your choices, even if that means wearing your well-worn jeans and favorite sweater, or the sparkly evening dress you have been saving for just the right moment?

Why Travel?

“The life you have led doesn’t need to be the only one you have.” Anna Quindlen


The world clock on my phone has more time zones than one family should have. In the last month I have added Chang Mai, Lisbon, Geneva, Shanghai, Minneapolis and Osaka. Phil and I in Portugal, our youngest daughter connecting through Shanghai en route to visit her brother in Chang Mai, even our little grandson took his first transatlantic flight to Geneva with his parents. He took his first real steps without us, got slivers in his feet and legs at a chalet in the French Alps, touched his tiny hand to the door of a hot stove, get locked in his bedroom at the AirBnB, and crossed the French Alps via “Cime de la Bonette” (the top of the bonnet) in a rented car, driven by his father on foggy, icy roads without guard rails.
Cime de la Bonette

I am happy to report the three of them arrived home safely with this tragic-comedy to tell.  Our youngest daughter returned to Chicago last week, back from her adventures.  Our son, having moved on to Kyoto is ready to welcome his girlfriend for a visit.


I have to admit, being on different continents as a family is a little unsettling.  We connect via What’s App and FaceTime, texts and emails, but now that I am home, I want everyone else home too.  I will have to wait until Christmas when our son completes his travels with Remote Year ,  a work abroad program for adults. He is in Asia traveling to  Viet Nam, Thailand, Japan and Malaysia. I try not to be the worried mother, but some nights around 2:00 am, my thoughts spin on the gerbil wheel of imagined misfortune. Could the stray dogs in Hanoi have rabies? Is the tummy trouble and fever something more serious than just a traveler’s nuisance that will pass? What can I do to help when I am thousands of miles away?

th8DV42KIGAll things considered, what makes us want to travel?  To leave the comfort of our cozy homes, our comfortable routines to make this shift. Perhaps we do it to see places very different from our own part of world.  Take the road less traveled, or get off the road altogether. It is a privilege to have travel experiences that expose us to new vistas, cuisine, and cultural history.   It surely has to be  more than simply checking off another item on our bucket list. Why do you travel?

I like the idea of experiencing new biomes, distinct biological communities of plants and animals that live together. They can be found across the world in a shared physical climate, their names familiar to us like tundra, taiga, and chaparral. And we have our own microbiome to protect and diversify to stay healthy, that diverse mix of flora and fauna that reside in our gut that can be changed by exposure to new organisms–through travel. Our biome is what makes us who we are–both inside and out.


Continue reading “Why Travel?”

Always There



Labor Day weekend is always a time of goodbyes–to beach swimming, enthusiasm for tending the garden, and white pants.  I said goodbye to my son last Saturday as he set off on a four month trip to Asia. My husband’s dear Uncle Roy went off to heaven at age 96. And our grandson said goodbye to infancy as he celebrated his first birthday, ready to take his first steps.

The first anniversary of my Mom’s death was just a bit ago, marking a whole revolution through the seasons and holidays, special days that measure a year.  I can’t say I felt relieved or glad to pass this mark, as if the grief over losing her should now be some other stage or feeling. I told a friend who asked about it that it felt like a bruise healing, turning from black and blue, then fading to green and yellow and disappearing altogether– but remaining tender.  I don’t want to yet probe that tender spot too much.  It still hurts, especially when I think of mom in the most ordinary of moments.

My mother-in-law suggested I read The Summer of the Great Grandmother by Madeleine L’Engle.  You all know her as the author of A Wrinkle in Time, but I am also a fan of the Crosswicks Journals she wrote in the 1970s, especially A Circle of Quiet about balancing a writing life with family life.  It was my first introduction to this type of memoir, written about  “ordinary life.” Granted she lived a very different life from mine, note * French Boarding school, and a husband who played a doctor in a daytime soap opera, but I found a connection to what she explored through her writing. And I found a shared experience in The Summer of the Great Grandmother in her description of the last months with her aged mother, who like my mother died within the short season–of one summer. MLE’s mother died at 90 of atherosclerosis, or what she calls “senility.” My mom died of pancreatic cancer just after her 81st birthday, within only eight weeks after we learned about it.

She says, “The most ordinary of deaths is the death of a parent, so what I experienced last summer is something I share with many other people. And I feel the need to reach out and say, this is how it is for me. How is it for you?”

These are MLE’s words but could be my own.  Yes, expected, but the loss is something entirely individual.  MLE and I tried to help our dying parent have a “good death” and saw to it that they had care at home.  There would be time to reflect on mom’s life’s purpose, what kind of parent they were. Did they love us, did we do enough for them in their last months and days? The hesitancy to leave them at all, momentarily or forever.

She talks about Ousia, what she calls the essence of being. We all have it. And that is the part of loss that we mourn, and cannot quite fully comprehend, but feel most acutely.

“To the ancient Hebrew the ultimate hell is being forgotten, erased from memory by family tribe and from the memory of God.  If God forgets you, it’s though you have never existed. Your life, your being, is of no value whatsoever.  This is the cold fear of death, that this person who we love will be forgotten. Each day passes we feel their presence less and less, their image and impact on your life fades.”

Yep, that is what I most fear, feeling her presence less and less.  But I will never forget my mother.  It’s just that remembering her is still hard, because her presence is something I can’t have.

Continue reading “Always There”

The Reluctant “Day Waster”

The Reluctant “Day Waster”


Patricia Hampl in The Art of the Wasted Day invites us to consider leisure, as a way of being. Turn away from the “to do” list, electronic gadgets and simply daydream, think, provide space for not accomplishing anything. The chuta life is what she calls it (the cottage life) of weekends tending a garden, lying low, sketching the bird you see while sitting on a bench. Patricia seems to be inviting us to waste time, live this simpler life in the throes of our modern ones.

Waste is a loaded word for me. I don’t want to waste a thing. The thought of wasting a day seems like the opposite of what I am trying to do. I want to use them carefully.

But Patricia maintains that in regard to time, it will be fruitful for the creative life to give up our “to do lists” in favor of leisure, getting lost in thought. She wrote Baby Boomers Reach the End of Their To-Do List, an opinion piece for the New York Times that irritated a lot of us baby boomers who defend our lists.

I have the opportunity for this chuta life at our cabin in northern Wisconsin– a small interior space attached to a much large exterior of lawn, forest, and water. I just spent 10 days up there with my husband. No Internet, spotty cell reception.  I felt restless and panicky that I was leaving  behind too much of what I needed to do, that depended on  electronic connection, access to the communication, news and information that seems to be a basic requirement for living.  The emails will go unanswered, the newspapers unread in the driveway, the Facebook posts unliked, entire news cycles muted. Is it FOMO, (fear of missing out)?

My son and his girlfriend and our daughter from Chicago joined us for a few days and on their way spent the day at a coffee shop in Duluth with Wifi. It had to be dog friendly too, because K has a dog.  Granted, they had to work, but I couldn’t help but feel if only we had internet at the cabin they could have been here. Why not plug in, give over to that flashy fiber optic cable that lies waiting for connection just beyond our driveway that could make this magic happen?

I want it. But Patricia says no. Husband Phil says no. It is good to unplug, allow the mind to be free and open to fresh air, away from screens and to do lists. 

In her book, Patricia introduces us to this dreamy life through two Edwardian ladies who run away together to the wilds of Wales in pursuit of self-improvement. And they weren’t lollygagging, they were quite regimented. The ladies pursued the rural life by gardening, learning Italian and Spanish, drawing, writing letters, transcribing admired texts.  Patricia recounts a visit to her aunt who lived behind the “Iron Curtain.” Its restrictions allowed focus and mastery of the small pieces of daily life. They used expanses of time not to blunt oneself to simply endure limitations, but focused on the bounty of what is there. Apricots for perfecting a pastry, an afternoon for drinking wine under the trees, the fragrance of sitting in the grass at a picnic. She calls it the littleness of the moment. These little things blossomed into a beautiful life, a personal freedom available to each person.

That sounds good to me. But it isn’t easy to achieve in small snatches of time.

The trip to the cabin is 3 1/2 hours from home. We might stop at Duluth Grill for a late breakfast or early lunch, at the President’s service station to fill the gas can with non-oxygenated gasoline while I get a sandwich from the sub shop across the street, to share in the car. “Is it clear on the right?” Phil asks as we take the off ramp to the quieter route of Highway 13.   We watch out for hawks, Sandhill Cranes, wild turkeys in the flat farmish stretch. There are deer, cows, sometimes fox. I locate my favorite cabin, a red one that sits on a stretch of beach with only sand, sky and water. A place reminiscent of the seaside cottage Anne Morrow Lindbergh writes about in Gift from the Sea.

Continue reading “The Reluctant “Day Waster””

Tending a Garden

Tending a Garden


flowers and garden

This spring I am feeling overwhelmed with home chores–whether it is trading winter clothes for summer in my closet or cleaning off the patio furniture.  Especially the yard and gardens on our acre lot.

I start with “Ugh.”

Everywhere I look there are signs of neglect. The asters have overtaken the rock garden, a river of oak leaves overflows its bank, and bury the hosta garden under a tarp of brown. It messes up the spring palette of soft green and delicate pink of the bleeding heart.

All reminders of why I didn’t get to it. The loss of Mom last August.

This is what grief is like, a sense that there is too much to do, to even begin. An untidy collection of chores, that even if completed, give not even a brief pat on the back.

Each chore piling on to an already groaning load.  I have become “chore-lish.” Feeling sorry for myself that I have this hard work ahead. Complaining constantly to my husband.

The truth is he does most of the yard work, the raking, and mowing. But I consider myself the gardener, one who especially likes the planning and the harvest. The middle part, the actual work of propagating, watering, and weeding– not so much.

“Deb,” he says. “A little each day, and it will get done.”

After a quick survey of our yard, we agree on a plan. Cut back on annuals. Stick to one hanging basket on the deck.  No more Boston ferns in front. Limit watering

Friday when Phil and I went to the garden center, he pulled the wagon and I paced the greenhouse aisles wondering how I could possibly choose from this endless assortment.

It helps that I have an overriding need for coordinating a garden ensemble and have kept a journal of successes and failures over the years. To limit the size of my wants to the diameter of three pots, two window boxes and the hose’s reach is impossible. Do I have to say no to the Gerbera daisies who will never again crane their long necks to bloom for me? And give up on New Guinea impatiens to shrivel and languish? Even though today, the blue eyes of the lobelia are dancing with the promise to stay during the hot dry days of July.



I was here less than a  year ago with my sisters and Mom to choose plants for her new patio and surrounding garden.

“Mom, remember, why you moved? Less maintenance.  The association will mow and blow, but they won’t be weeding and watering.”

“I know that,” as she pushed her cart that held eight packs of dusty miller and marigolds, geraniums, ageratum, bacopa.

“Those rabbits have eaten my delphinium to a nub,” she complained. Asked the nursery helper about a good variety  that might replace the tall pine that was guilty of dropping needles all over the new patio.

“That tree is going. I got a bid to take it down.”

My sisters and I sighed and fussed.  “Are you sure? No privacy.  Too sunny. A mistake.”

Continue reading “Tending a Garden”