Arctic Scenes

A couple of years ago I read a line from Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Big Magic, that said “Only boring people are bored.” Or something like that. Then Betty Draper said it to her son after suggesting he go bang his head against a wall. Why would she say that? He said he was bored. I’m not sure I totally believe that only boring people are bored, but the saying has certainly stuck with me.

During one of my worst bouts of unexplained jaw pain, I found myself increasingly unable to concentrate on reading. That’s my favorite thing to do – read. I read everything. Magazines. Novels. Essays. Short stories. Historical accounts. Nonfiction tomes. Cookbooks. Shampoo bottles. Brochures for outlet malls. Everything. But it’s difficult to pay attention when your mouth, your jaws, are in constant pain. I had to find an activity to do, something that required much more concentration and a lot less just sitting there. Unable to read, unprepared to bake, unwilling to clean, I became bored.

So I picked up a paintbrush. After my first painting I realized I hadn’t even acknowledged the pain in my jaws. For hours. HOURS. I did it again. It worked again. It worked in the way that I was either able to focus on something other than my misery or I was actually able to relax a bit. It turns out my jaw joints are completely void of any cushioning. My inability to deal with stress and anxiety have taken their toll, but it seems I’ve found a temporary solution in painting.

As a kid, my mother tried to teach me how to crochet. But we are opposite-handed and our teacher-learner dynamic is explosive, at times, so my little kid self probably threw a tantrum at not being able to do it the way I wanted to and promptly refused to try again. (I have since tried again and still find it utterly confusing.) Drawing, sculpting, jewelry-making are all free forms of creativity, all things I preferred to do. Just like painting. Painting without rules keeps me from being in pain and, according to Liz Gilbert and Betty Draper, it also keeps me from being bored, and, subsequently, from being boring.

I used only watercolors up until the beginning of October. That’s when I splurged on a $5 acrylic painter starter kit at Michaels. Aside from being consistently anxious, I’m also consistently frugal. When I agree to dip my toes into the waters of NEW THINGS, I rarely invest a lot of money. Therefore I had to actually talk myself into it. And now I can undoubtedly say I much prefer acrylic painting and I’m considering buying individual tubes of paint (that will very likely cost more than $5 each). A cheap investment that paid off, in my book.

Since early October, I’ve painted three outdoor scenes with acrylics. I’ll happily show you two of them (that third one will never see the light of day…eek!). There is an obvious connection between the two, both of them being arctic in nature. When I painted the Northern lights, I was just learning how to read weather alerts regarding solar storms. Just before this, I had even convinced my husband to drive to the shores of Lake Erie with me to see if the lights would appear on our north coast horizon. Sadly, they didn’t. We had a fun night anyway, and got to experience some Great Lakes nightwatching complete with stars, incoming clouds, and far-off lighthouse beacons.

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And last night, I found myself watching Alaska: The Last Frontier and so was inspired again to try another Arctic scene: this time Baffin Island. A photographer I follow (through her blog and on Instagram) posts some of the most beautiful images on Earth from her polar expeditions. Between her photo of Sunneshine Fjord and the Kilcher’s up-close encounter with a calving glacier, I find myself looking forward to a possible trip far outside of my usual latitudes.

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I’m quite pleased with them both.

So as I finish up my master’s thesis, I will probably be relying on these acrylics to help me come down from the muscle-tensing work that is writing. Hunched over, jaws clenched, writing, thinking, working, trying to find the right order of things with which to please a team of anonymous expert readers who have no idea who I am. This isn’t even a case of “writing for your audience.” They’re complete strangers, which just adds to the anxiety.

Soon, though, it will all be over. By then, winter will be fully upon us here in Cleveland. The lake effect snow, the La Nina weather pattern that threatens our forecast with deeper chills and heavier snow, our fireplace in all its blazing glory. I’m still waiting for those Lake Erie icebergs. I’m still waiting for a solar storm powerful enough to drive the Northern lights down to me. Until then, I will read and paint. Read and paint. Read and paint. And I won’t be bored.

 

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My Summer of Disease

This summer I was mostly focused on disease. Not that I had one, nor did anyone else I know. At least, nothing outside of the norm. Allergies came and went, then came back again. A pestilence struck down two members of the family, one of whom was visiting while on vacation (sorry). The last rounds of that stomach virus left the house before anyone else was infected. My hands nearly bled from all the washing; I didn’t eat very well for days. I am emetephobic, yet I spend my free time learning about plagues.

Before we drove to Buffalo and Niagara Falls in July, we visited the James Garfield Monument at Lake View cemetery in Cleveland. He is entombed inside, with his wife, and the cremated remains of his daughter and her husband are next to them. A private organization raised the money needed to build the monument, which speaks volumes to the legacy he left behind after his presidency was cut short by an assassin’s bullet.

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That’s not really true, though. Garfield could have, and most likely would have, survived the shooting, had American doctors not probed his bullet wound with their filthy hands. Sterilization and cleanliness of tools and hands – anti-sepsis – were mere suggestions in those days. What actually killed Garfield was the infection that raged through his body for months. Sepsis. His was a miserable, painful, torturous death caused by an imbecile of a doctor (who’s actual first name was Doctor, but was not highly respected by other doctors) who refused to believe in the recent European work on germ theory.

Needless to say, I fell in love with Garfield the moment I heard this story. Not only because of his suffering, but also because he was a president who aimed to ease the suffering of others. He even out-Lincolned Lincoln. If you know anything about him, I think you would agree that his voice in this era of failing leadership is exactly what we could use. He was the anti-sepsis. In a way, he still is.

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Throughout the summer, I focused on my upcoming thesis, my final requirement before I graduate with my Masters in American History early next year. I made myself familiar again with the miseries of smallpox, cholera, and the influenza outbreak of 1918 that killed millions around the world. Eventually, I decided to commit my research to yellow fever. Always a believer in the threads that connect one event to another (history has just as many examples of cause and effect as science), I began to look around me for closer sources.

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Had yellow fever ever struck Cleveland? The answer is no. But Cleveland had suffered an outbreak of smallpox back in 1902. I learned this one morning when I dropped my daughter off at her new high school’s orientation and, with three hours to kill, walked over to the Dittrick Medical History Center inside Case Western Reserve University’s Allen Memorial Medical Library. The museum is small, but ever since I’d heard about it from a friend in Oklahoma City, I knew I had to go. Where else could one spot this gem of a antique plate? “But my friend, this enema is fine for a horse but not for a gentleman.” 

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Fancy some disease reading? Here’s my recommendations:

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard (the story of Garfield’s life and death)

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (the Bubonic plague, fictionalized)

On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss (essays on disease and vaccinations)

Sick From Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction by Jim Downs (an investigation into how Reconstruction failed and created America’s greatest biological crisis)

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic and How it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson (cholera, freakin’ terrifying)

Yellow Fever narratives:

Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson

An American Plague by Jim Murphy

Bring Out Your Dead: The Great Plague of Yellow Fever in Philadelphia in 1793 by J.M. Powell

Fever Season: The Epidemic of 1878 That Almost Destroyed Memphis, and the People Who Saved It by Jeanette Keith

Smallpox narratives:

The Fever of 1721: The Epidemic That Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics by Stephen Coss

Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82 by Elizabeth Fenn

Home(s)

It was a little more than a year ago when I touched Lake Erie for the first time. The next day we returned to Oklahoma with a handful of lake rocks (I grew up near Lake Superior calling them dinosaur eggs) and a sense that I was getting excited about something that might never happen. I wasn’t sure I would ever have the chance to visit Lake Erie again, so I made a big deal about seeing it while we were in Cleveland for Matt’s job interview. There was some sentimentality to that – Lake Erie would be my fourth Great Lake! How could I go back to Oklahoma, and wherever the job hunt landed us from there, having been so close to Erie and doing nothing about it? So I did something about it. I insisted we see Lake Erie, so we did.

Shortly after we moved here, I started thinking to myself: Why not visit them all? I was only one lake away from completing a HOMES checklist. Lake Huron was my first, as a toddler; Lake Michigan came next as we ferried back and forth to visit family in Milwaukee; then Lake Superior, practically an inland ocean; and, finally, Lake Erie. I had to find a way to make it to Lake Ontario.

(Some people are unfamiliar with the HOMES acronym. Each letter represents one of the Great Lakes, making it easier to name them all. Because of my childhood in Upper Michigan, I have always been familiar with HOMES, even when the maps in our social studies class didn’t even include Michigan’s upper peninsula and, therefore, erased Lake Superior’s existence altogether. I always look for this mistake on every map I encounter. Did they forget the UP again? Why is half of Michigan missing from the map? It’s practically a habit by now, forged by years of being part of a population ignored by mapmakers.)

I like it here in Northeast Ohio. No, no, no. I take that back. I love it here. There was a sense of homecoming for me, of returning to a place I’ve been before but not really. I can’t quite give this feeling over to hiraeth, seeing as I never longed for this place. Perhaps there is a different word out there, formed and better understood by a different culture, but this feeling, for me, is more like finding home in a place I never knew I wanted to be. I’ve spent so much of my life in Michigan and Wisconsin, surrounded by these Great Lakes, that it was like returning from a thirty-year trip across the country. These lakes are all connected to each other. Being here is familiar. Being here is like being home.

So when Matt and I began our drive on I-90 to Buffalo, across Pennsylvania and New York, I never felt like we’d really left home. Lake Erie was never far away. In fact, during some stretches of highway, like in Erie, Pennsylvania, or across the New York state line, Lake Erie was right next to us, showing off her shades of blue during the breaks in the rain. We rented a gorgeous historic rowhouse apartment in downtown Buffalo for two nights, and our only plans involved eating authentic Buffalo wings, seeing Niagara Falls, and touching Lake Ontario. Again, I couldn’t stand being so close to my fifth, and final, Great Lake and doing nothing about it. So I did something about it. I insisted we see Lake Ontario, so we did.

At this point you’re probably expecting photographs of Niagara Falls, but no. Niagara Falls was gorgeous. It literally took my breath away. But I am still blown away by the fact that every single Great Lake finds its way into the Niagara River, churning and swirling and frothing before plunging down 170 feet on its way to Lake Ontario.

And here she is…

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I think back on my years in Oklahoma, when I was grasping at anything familiar to make it feel like home. I begged that it be temporary, and it was. But even those short four years were made to feel longer by my need to feel at home. I might not have known where exactly I belonged, but I knew then, as I know now, that I didn’t belong there.

This is where I belong…for now. Back in the Great Lakes. Back where my earliest memories were formed. Collecting dinosaur eggs on the beach, staring out at the endless horizon, waiting for icebergs to flow by, crossing my fingers for an aurora sighting, and catching a glimpse of the giant container ships as they maneuver their way from one inland ocean to another. From Lake Ontario to the most northern reaches of Lake Superior.

This is familiar. This is home.

 

Garden Progress: Week of May 28

There’s not much new to report on my bucket garden, except I pulled everything out of the buckets. A friend of mine recently mentioned her concerns about edible plants being grown in used buckets. If you know what the bucket has previously been used for, then it’s probably not a problem. You wouldn’t grow tomatoes in a bucket that once hauled paint or cleaning solution or any other combination of chemicals, right? The moment I realized I planted my edibles in used buckets not ever once used by me, I got nervous. What had been in those buckets the previous owner had left us? Carpet cleaner? Wood floor refinisher?

So I spent part of my weekend re-gardening.

After an already busy day in downtown Cleveland visiting a number of festivals and food spots, I ran to the store to buy new containers and two more 80-pound bags of organic soil. It probably took me close to 4 hours to reorganize all the tomatoes, cucumbers, peas, and beans. The buckets are now the very unattractive homes to marigolds and sweet peas. It all worked out in the end, especially since my friend and coworker gifted me with some giant aster and phlox that was recently pulled from her mother-in-law’s Pennsylvania garden. Coincidentally, my entire body is in so much pain, but my front yard is going to explode in color by the end of the month. Also, I won’t soon be dying of some freaky chemical-via-snap-pea ingestion. Hooray! Thanks for the tip, Kristi!

I’ll share a few photos here of the re-garden, but I thought I’d take the opportunity to share more of what’s happening in other parts of my yard. Though I can’t be certain, I do think the previous homeowners took the time to landscape the property with trees and flowers that bloom throughout the seasons. (This surprises me, seeing as they did not take the time to clear out the garage of any of their old crap.) Currently, my rhododendrons are starting to conk out, but the mock orange that surrounds them are starting to bloom. And just as the lily-of-the-valley and the Solomon’s seal are beginning to go bust, the coral bells are beginning to boom.

As I was digging holes in my front yard beds for the newly-acquired Pennsylvania flowers, I came across this stone – again, left behind by the old owners. It’s in the shape of Ohio. And it’s pretty perfect for a our walkway.

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The re-gardened tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, and peas are in these new pots (hey, it’s a special appearance by Teddy!). Now I have to find the time to stake our new trellises into the ground…

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The coral bells and Solomon’s seal (among so many other plants) are in the side yard which gets little practical use. It’s a great spot to put things that are fairly self-sufficient. This area gets the most sun, but it isn’t inside the fence. And deer…well, I’m pretty sure they were nibbling on my cucumbers when I had them prepped in the corner to climb the fence. So, nothing of importance gets put in the side yard.

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The begonias that started it all…

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Another mystery plant. I almost pulled it a few months ago because I thought it was hideous. It’s amazing what a little bit of color can do. Those little pink clusters saved your life, plant…whatever you are.

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Here is my favorite corner for the moment. That’s a begonia, hanging down so beautifully. Beneath it is one of the Pennsylvania transplants. Phlox, I believe. I had never heard of phlox that grow that tall! I’m only aware of creeping phlox. If all goes well, she’ll be blooming bright purple flowers in late June.

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As you can see, the rhodie flowers to the right are starting to wither out. Alas, mock orange blossoms come to the rescue! It’s the perfect convergence, really.

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Back in March, I picked up three seed packets from Monticello: snap peas, nasturtium, and alpine strawberries. The alpine strawberries aren’t doing a darn thing, and today I headed up to the local fruit farm to buy a pint of fresh-picked strawberries off of them. But my Jefferson snap peas and nasturtium are right on schedule. The nasturtium has especially taken off in recent weeks, and I’m hoping to see some blooms from these plants in the next month.

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This is another begonia that I have in a pot in the backyard. I never gave begonias a fair shake all these years. My three potted begonias have really made me a fan (and not to mention that gorgeous salmon-colored begonia that hangs in the front yard).

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That’s really all I have for now. Sadly, I’m still going to the grocery store for zucchini and squash, and I just hope I’ll have enough paste tomatoes this summer to make and freeze homemade pasta sauce and pizza sauce. Yet this is why we have farmer’s markets. Worry not, farmers. I have a feeling I’ll be keeping you in business for a long, loooong time.

Indie Bookstore Day 2017

Last month I rallied up the family for a literary adventure through Cleveland. I had recently heard about Independent Bookstore Day, which is celebrated annually on the last Saturday of April, and I thought it would be a fun way for us to see some of the city while we supported local businesses. Since I was finishing up a final assignment on this particular Saturday, we didn’t have a lot of time. Otherwise we would have hit up more than just the two stores we visited.

Our first stop was Loganberry Books in the Larchmere neighborhood of Cleveland. Right away I knew I was going to love this place. I mean, just take a look at the mural that’s painted on the side of their building. It pretty much gives you an idea of how seriously they take their books.

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Once inside, it’s easy to see how Loganberry Books serves as a community anchor. Not only does it extend back and feature a fair amount of new and used books of every genre, but there are other rooms off to the side for author signings and art exhibits. They even have live music events.

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And in the back room, the Lit Arts room, is a bookstore cat. His name is Otis. He really didn’t seem to care that so many people were hovering around, and why would he? He’s used to it. But the day was especially drizzly and gray, and the cat bed was warm. The cat bed was electric! (I have something similar. I have an electric heated mattress cover.) I left Loganberry with two books: Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Land by Lauret Savoy and Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold Story of Class in America.

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Our second stop was to Appletree Books in Cleveland Heights. It’s a much smaller bookshop, but it still felt very much like a bookshop. The owner seemed very excited to meet and greet everyone who came inside, and was super helpful in locating for me a copy of American War by Omar El Akkad.

The walls of Appletree are papered in book pages. And then there’s the staircase…

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After our short tour of Cleveland area bookstores, we found a soul food restaurant on Shaker Square, splurged on some shrimp po’ boy sliders and red Kool-aid (that’s how it’s listed on the menu: red or purple Kool-aid).

And then we returned home so I could finish a paper on the role smallpox played in the founding of America. I submitted it the following day and received a note from my professor urging me to consider the topic as my master’s thesis. I chose another topic, though, which I’m excited to share here on this blog once I get everything approved. And so it seems I’m committed to one final paper before I graduate, before I can finally get around to reading those three books I just bought.

Believe me, I’m looking forward to it. And I’m looking forward to Independent Bookstore Day 2018. For now, I’ll leave you with a closer look at that beautiful book mural.

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Garden Progress: Week of May 21

Just the other night we spotted a deer in the front yard. They eat everything, I hear. For the moment I have begonias hanging from baskets near the creek, and my lavender, sweet potato vine, calibrachoa, mojito mint, and nasturtium are growing quite well. Those things seem to be left untouched, every time. But I’m not from here so I have to remember the most important thing – I DO NOT KNOW WHAT I’M DOING. The encounter simply reassured me that I had made the best decision to put the garden in our backyard. Our backyard is full of mud and dog poop, but it’s fenced. That is really the only thing that qualifies it as an ideal gardening spot.

The previous owners left us a dozen of 5 gallon buckets, which we almost threw away but, because of my hoarding tendencies (which really only applies to books, dogs, and plants), we remembered how we’d only ever needed 5 gallon buckets at precisely the moment we did not actually have any. So we kept them. Good thinking! They will now be used to grow my paste and cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, zucchini, wax beans, and snap peas. And, as it turns out, I’m going to have a lot of all of those things.

A few weeks ago I questioned my yard’s exposure to full sun. Or even part sun. Truth be told, I feel like I’m living in a more affordable version of Seattle or Portland, although it is populated with far fewer Starbucks than any other metropolitan area in the world (pretty sure). But it’s always green. It’s always raining. It’s always damp. Half of my yard is moss, not grass.

I decided to try my own trusted technique called Goldfish Gardening. I just made that up yesterday. The name, not the technique. In my experience, whenever I have decided to start a goldfish aquarium, I’ll buy 10 feeder fish with the expectations that 3 will be healthy enough to thrive and survive. I treat my seeds the same way. I’ll seed 10 cucumber seeds with the expectations that 3 will start and thrive to maturity, making good producers. I do not discriminate, mostly because I also do not take the time to learn soil quality rules and watering schedules. If it lives, hooray! (For the record, I do treat surviving goldfish with much better care.)

But it turns out ALL MY SEEDS have started. Like, ALL OF THEM. I don’t have enough buckets, garden pots, bowls, what have you. I’m considering saving my milk jugs and cutting off the tops just so I’ll have a decent space to fill with garden soil and let my veggies go to town. Hmm…I just made that up, too, but it’s not a half-bad idea. My summer goal is to turn my backyard into a flowering oasis, with sweet peas and poppies, aster and dahlias, daisies and gazanias and yarrow, oh my. My climbing vegetables will happily live in their buckets/milk jugs/coke-bottles-cut-in-half and use our 6-foot tall dog fence for supports. I’m growing all the things we need for delicious summer salads and mint mojitos. We will not go hungry, that’s for sure. And with all that mint, our sobriety may be at risk.

I plan to continue updating progress on my garden-ish backyard space, so here’s the first look at what will hopefully grow to become my backyard wonderland. (And, for good measure, I planted sunflower seeds at the top of the driveway and sprinkled wildflowers seeds everywhere else. After months of winter, a summer full of flowers will be my reward, dammit.)

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Road Trip through the Dirty South

Winter in Northeast Ohio had taken its toll on me, as I knew it would. Though this winter was, in hindsight, considered mild, it still left me feeling unmotivated, closed in, and cold. Always cold. Luckily I had the forethought to plan a trip to Florida during spring break.

My daughter and I left early on a Friday morning and didn’t return until two Sundays later. In those nine days I drove through Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. And that was just one way. Coming home, we added Maryland and Pennsylvania to the list. Nine states in nine days. It was as exhausting as it sounds.

What was really great about this trip was that I had never made this particular drive before. I had never been through southern Ohio, and it was my first time in West Virginia. Every highway, every vista, every overlook was new to me, at least until we reached Charlotte, North Carolina. Then, as one would expect, I was home. Still hundreds of miles from my actual home, but home in the sense that I didn’t have to wear a coat in the middle of March, and sweet tea is a restaurant staple. I saw a palm tree. I needed nothing more.

In Charlotte, we visited with one of my best friends and her daughter, to whom I inadvertently spilled the beans that Santa isn’t real. (Shit. Sorry, D.) Another friend and his family stopped by our hotel room for a few hours. I hadn’t seen him in at least six years, and I finally met his wife and children. The little ones played in the hotel pool while we grownups snitched to hotel management on a group of reckless teenagers. (Boy, have the times changed. It feels like not too long ago that group of reckless teenagers used to be us. And then I became hotel management.)

In Jacksonville, we spent time with the entire family, including my parents, my brothers, and the dogs. There are always dogs. Nick flew in from New Hampshire. Brian drove up from Orlando. We met the girlfriend, watched Hell or High Water, reunited with friends from the neighborhood, got sunburned at the zoo, and spent a day at the beach. The water was freezing, but I didn’t mind. I only needed the sun and the sound of the waves.

In Charlottesville, I purposely booked a hotel designed after the German Tudor style. We spent the entire afternoon with one of my oldest friends and his wife touring Monticello and Jefferson’s gardens. (I purchased seed packets from the Monticello garden and, at this very moment, my nasturtium is starting to come through the soil. Minicello may be on hold, but my desire to grow Jefferson-approved flowers will not be quashed.) My intention while in Charlottesville was to visit James Madison’s house, as well, and maybe take a foot tour of University of Virginia, but by this point I was exhausted. That we stayed up sharing stories until well past our bedtimes (ahem…10pm) only made things worse. But, oh…the stories. And my daughter learned so much about me over dinner. Ha!

In Harper’s Ferry, our last stop before heading back to Cleveland, we spent the night with another of my closest friends at her parents’ home in the mountains. Again, I had every intention on visiting downtown, or at least taking in some of the historic sites around Harper’s Ferry, but I could barely muster the energy to stay awake at this point. I even had to insist we stay in to eat dinner because another minute in the car would have been the end of me! I’m so glad I made this stop, though, and I feel like my road trip would have been incomplete without seeing them. And now our kids are the same age we were when we met. What?

How does time fly so quickly? Where did it go? This trip, for me, was more about the people than the places. I know time cannot be reclaimed, but please…let’s not wait too long before we do it all over again. In new cities. In new places. Just like we always do. Just like we did. To see my family and my oldest friends –  sometimes I need nothing more.

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