Seasons

It’s officially fall. The air smells like a new season, the sun sets earlier, and our bedroom is a shade darker each morning  when our alarm clock goes off. I love this time of year, but I’m scared of this particular fall. With the cooler nights and the darker mornings, a tinge of malaise has settled over me. We all have pandemic fatigue. We were promised at the beginning that this would pass–that the strict lockdown in March and April would curb the spread, allowing for a normal summer. Then summer passed, its golden glow creeping further away into the horizon, leaving me here.

I felt like I was able to carve out a semblance of a summer despite the pandemic, mostly because so many of my typical summer plans involve getting away from people. We went camping, sleeping in thick forests swarming with more mosquitos than mammals, and kayaked on lazy rolling rivers. Thanks to some coordinated covid testing and a lot of planning flexibility, we were able to spend part of our usual annual week at the lake house with my family. The lake house is one of my favorite annual traditions, and though Kurt and I only got to stay there for 3 nights instead of the usual 7 due to the testing waiting period, it was well worth it. We  sat by campfires, cracking open cold beers while gazing over the flames at the sun setting over the lake, and I felt a semblance of peace. I can get through this year, as long as these moments can still exist, whenever I can make them happen. I hold them close, savoring their fleeting sense of beautiful normalcy, like capturing fireflies in mason jars and watching them glow before setting them free.

Fall has an uncanny ability to make me feel wistfully lonely. Maybe it’s the muscle memory of returning to school, all of those awkward adolescent years when I craved a John Hughes vision of what high school was supposed to look like while forever feeling outside of it all. Maybe it’s the sense memory of my recovery from knee surgery 8 years ago, when I went through one of the deepest depressions of my adult life, spending every day and night on the same corner of the couch while watching the leaves fall outside, grieving my temporary ‘new normal.’ That was the season we adopted River, who became my buddy in anxiety and isolation. She would curl her furry little body around my knee brace, tucked between me and the CPM machine (my daily therapeutic torture device) on the couch. The sight of changing leaves immediately brings back the memory of the CPM machine as it flexed my knee for me, its creaky pneumatic wheeze creeping into the background soundtrack of my Twin Peaks rewatch. 

This winter is going to be hard. We’re going to feel isolated, and alone, and anxious. It will end, at some point. The days will grow long again; the sun will return. The changing of the seasons will cycle through, as they always do, marking time in a physical, visible, immersive way that feels so familiar and vital. 

This fall, we have a second dog. It’s funny how it happened this way–we adopted Winnie in mid-August, one day after River’s 8th adoption anniversary. Winnie is floppy and goofy, somewhere between 8 months to 1.5 years old, mostly pit bull but has a snore that sounds like a manatee. We drove home with her on a late summer evening, Kurt at the wheel while I sat in the backseat holding Winnie, because we didn’t know if she’d try to climb over the seat or not. I’d forgotten what it’s like to have a puppy in the house, the need to constantly watch her, the mystery of not knowing how she’ll react to all her firsts–the first visitor at the door, the first car trip, the first run-in with another leashed dog. I worried about how River and our cat Esteban would react as the days went by. I worried that I had blown up our peaceful routine, introducing 44 pounds of chaos in an adorably cute, velvet-furred package. Quickly, we had to restructure our lives into a schedule that involved obedience training, solo walks for River, playtime for Winnie, crate training, socialization, puppy-level exercise. I had some meltdowns. At times, I feared it wouldn’t work out. Days passed, and it got a little easier. A little bit better. Summer melted into fall.

I’ve been so focused on my little corner of chaos, so much of what is going on the world has faded into the background. But once I leave my house, I emerge into an altered reality. The other pedestrians wear masks, and we make wide circles as we pass each other. Businesses have boards over their windows. More and more homes in our neighborhood display Black Lives Matter signs in their windows, many of them homemade. And these early days of October have already been so jam-packed with major news events, this post will be outdated within minutes of me clicking Publish. I can only imagine that the coming months will continue to be some of the wildest, most unpredictable times we’ve ever witnessed. And eventually, the season will change again. 

 

photo by Kurt Matsen

Midwestern Autumnal Realness

Autumn is my favorite season. Much of the reason for this is my undying love of Halloween, but I also embrace the crisp weather and watching the leaves change color. This time of year makes me crave walks in the woods, campfires, and red wine. At home, I light candles on the window sills and curl up under wool blankets and watch movies all day. I am ready to hunker down and enjoy the harvest season. Pretty much since early October and on, I’ve been crafting costumes, listening to Bon Iver, burning forest-scented candles, and rewatching that one Harry Potter movie that’s two hours of our heroes camping while being tortured by existential dread. I’ve been compiling slow cooker recipes and even signed up for a weaving class so I could learn how to use a loom for maximum hygge skills. Autumn is basically prep time for hibernation season a.k.a. winter and I am 1000% here for it.

I do well in the cold. Maybe it’s my quarter-Swedish blood, or my Midwestern roots, but I like to think I approach winter with the stoic attitude of a Viking warrior. Like Lyra Belacqua or Jon Snow, I’m drawn to the North. I prefer camping in the crisp, quiet serenity of fall over the sweaty, sunburnt heat of summer. As the temperature drops, I simply add more layers–wool socks, wool leggings, stocking cap. Wool is magical, and I like anything that allows me to keep staying outside, watching the moon disappear and reappear from behind wispy November clouds. I love the smells of autumn–pine needles, fresh snowfall, campfire, whisky–all enjoyed while wallowing in cozy knit sweaters like I’m damn Felicity. Currently, I’m reading a book set in Kamchatka and reveling in the descriptions of desolate, icy tundra. Earlier today,  I shoveled snow from our sidewalk and wore my favorite winter boots that make me look like a 70’s-era Star Wars extra.

I think what it all boils down to is my love of the changing seasons. I can’t imagine living in a place where the weather doesn’t drastically change every several months. Seasons create rituals, and I fully lean into them. I make playlists for every time of year (currently queueing up “Cozy Winter Cabin” on Spotify to accompany Chicago’s current snowfall). For the next several months, I’ll embrace my favorite knit caps, pumpkin bourbon-scented candles, fluffy slippers, and Pendleton blanket. I’ll enjoy the sound of ice crunching beneath my boots and watching my dog frolic in powdery snow. I’ll go to hot yoga class for that Swedish sauna moment. I’ll spend decadent Saturdays watching an entire season of a television show while drinking a lot of pinot noir.

But most of all, cold weather gives me the gift of time to work on projects. It’s usually when I do the most writing, and when I most enjoy losing myself in an engrossing novel. I’ve said before that winter pushes hibernation upon me and forces me to give up the non-stop social and travel schedule I keep during the spring and summer. I’ve got my cozy home office prepped and ready to go, with plenty of candles waiting for me on the window sill.

 

Lake Michigan Circle Tour

How amazing is it, to leave work on a Wednesday night in a van full of your stuff and your dog, and live on the road for a week? I love our van-centric vacations because everything is simple and flexible. We explore all day, finding a new spot to sleep each night.

On our trip to upper peninsula Michigan, we were joined by some friends and their dogs, creating a van/camper caravan. The first night, we camped out on the banks of Green Bay at Wells State Park in Cedar River. It was warm enough outside that I didn’t need more than a hoodie while sitting by the campfire. From there, we drove through Escanaba (stopping for a pasty breakfast) and then wove along the scenic roads of Hiawatha National Forest.

a white chevy astrovan with its sliding door open to reveal a large stack of firewood inside

For the next few nights, we holed up on Indian Lake in Manistique. Parked next to the lake, we could see the stretch of bordering forest. In Fayette Historic State Park, we walked through the abandoned and preserved buildings of an 1800’s industrial town, then hiked through a forest bursting with fall colors.

partial brick wall of an abandoned building, with three open windows facing Big Bay De Noc

The weather turned on us on Saturday night, freezing winds blowing over the lake pummeling us at our campsite. The first snow flurries of the season blew in sideways. Using one of the vans behind our backs as a windbreak, we made dinner–camping stew, smoked salmon, chicken wings. The dogs alternated between begging to stay in the vehicles, then wanting to come back outside as their FOMO kicked in. We layered up in our warmest clothes, drank hot toddies, and had a fantastic night.

On Sunday morning, we said goodbye to our friends who were headed back home or further south. Kurt and I had additional days off, and we decided to turn our trip into a Circle Tour of Lake Michigan. Over the next few days, we visited Tahquamenon Falls, Hiawatha, Mackinaw City, Traverse City, and Manistee National Forest. We drove over the (5-mile long!!) Mackinac Bridge, visited microbreweries, hiked by waterfalls, and drank wine by campfires. But there’s one moment in particular that really stands out for me.

a white dog wearing a red coat stands among trees whose leaves have turned gold

We were searching for a camping spot in the northern part of Manistee after the sun had gone down. As Kurt drove down a secluded road in the darkness, I watched the yellow stripes race by in our headlights, like the credits to a David Lynch film. Following a downloaded forestry service map, Kurt turned onto a dirt road into the thick of the forest. We found a driveway that traveled into the woods another 20 yards or so into a designated rustic camping spot. The site sat atop a semi-steep bank, and the Upper Manistee River gleamed in the moonlight, just beyond the treeline. After turning off the engine, the night fell silent around us–at least until coyotes began howling in the distance.

While I set up the sleeping bags in the van, Kurt explored the site. I could hear him and River’s footsteps crunching in the leaves along the river bank. “You’ve gotta check this out!” he called me, then told me there was a trail down the river bank, straight to the water’s edge.

“I’m not walking down a steep dirt trail above a river in the dark!” I told him. Using his headlight, he showed me where I could find footing, and promised that after the initial steep part, the path began to level out. Hesitantly, I followed Kurt down the path using his voice and our headlamps as my only guide. River moved ahead confidently, sniffing her way down. Just before reaching the water level, the trail opened up into a small sandy beach. We sat on the beach and turned off our headlamps.

The wide river stretched beyond in both directions, its surface velvety midnight blue, reflecting the sky. Wispy white clouds drifted around the waxing Gibbous moon. We sat in silence, in the moment. River settled quietly in the sand, her ears pricked as the sounds of coyote song traveled across the water. I didn’t feel cold, or nervous. Instead, a sense of serenity around us like a warm blanket, three little mammals in a big forest, simply being. I wanted to stay there forever.

I was so grateful for our trip, during a time when I very much needed to get away and escape stress and anxiety. In these recent months, whenever I look into the eyes of my friends, all of the other women in my life, I see exhaustion, fear, and uncertainty reflected back at me. What a time to exist in this world, when it feels like an arduous task to get through every day with what feels like a non-stop assault of horrific news stories and events.  I’m beyond lucky to have the life that I have, which allows me a week here and there when I can escape to the woods, to get away and move freely through wild spaces, where the only thing I fear is losing my footing and falling into a river. I am grateful to have had that moment, and to now have that memory to retreat to whenever I need to find some semblance of serenity.

Get out there and vote. And do something good to help other people, no matter how big or small. This world is too damn beautiful to give up the fight.

Fall in

IMG_3755Where did the last month go? Between moving into a new house and a super busy period at work, I blinked and it was suddenly October. September came and went without a blog post, and we have barely begun our to-do list of projects around the house. I’m a person who loves to revel in the moment; apparently, reading Our Town in grade school really got through to me.

Autumn is my absolute fave season, which I realize sounds like shit girls say. I love the cooler weather, the transition into sweaters and boots, the excuse to stay home and cuddle on the couch watching graphically violent horror movies I’m not usually interested in during the rest of the year. I love Halloween and decorative gourds, cider and pumpkin pie, the changing of the leaves and daydrinking while watching football.

Autumn is such a fleeting season, often squeezed out by Indian summers and/or early snowfalls, so I want to enjoy every minute of it this year. I want to go to a haunted house and spend $20 to be chased by a community theater actor with a chainsaw. I want to eat pumpkin flavored products until I look like the Great Pumpkin from Charlie Brown. I want to drink hot apple cider while wrapped up in a Pendleton blanket while Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” plays softly in the background. I want to watch Sleepy Hollow, a moderately entertaining television show that I’m amazed exists considering its ridiculous premise of Ichabod Crane solving supernatural mysteries in the present day. Or Hocus Pocus, a Bette Midler vehicle that benefits heavily from my generation’s nostalgia for movies from our childhood that are actually not that great.

This year has been flying by at an astonishing speed, with more Major Life Events in one 12-month period than I’ve ever experienced before. I want to grab onto Time like the reins on a runaway horse, dig my heels into the ground, and make everything slow down. I want to wrap it in my Pendleton blanket, cuddle it, and just make it relax for a second. I don’t want to miss anything.