On being adventurous…

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Sometimes an opportunity just falls into your lap. And sometimes it involves the perfect place, the perfect people, and, if you’re really lucky, perfect timing. This actually happened to us recently. All of this is subjective, of course, because anyone who has ever made a long-distance move knows that once the hard stuff is over, once the greatest challenges of them all have been dealt with – the long-haul drive, the home buying process, establishing a new routine -, it becomes easier to look back and say Well, that wasn’t so bad, was it?

We’re moving again. This makes the second move in as many years. It’s not so bad. Really.

It was our first date night in months, our only plans were to try a new restaurant and watch a ballgame. My husband got the call right after we got into downtown. An offer to work in one of his favorite parts of the country. I high-fived him in the parking lot. The wait was over.

We had been discussing it for a few weeks, about how surreal it would be if this actually happened, and, in all honestly, if we were doing the right thing. Careful not to get too optimistic, and careful not to mention it to anyone at all. Because what if it didn’t happen? No sense in getting our hopes up.

But there we were, minutes after learning the news, celebrating at Mabel’s BBQ, making plans to make more plans, and calling everyone who had been in on it with us since the beginning. I called my mom and dad, and he called his. We called our daughter. He called his best friend, who lives there. I called my younger brother, who also lives there.

There? New Hampshire.

Within an hour we were at a Cleveland Indians game. No, we had no idea that we’d be celebrating our big news with tens of thousands of Tribe fans, but all week I’d been hoping we would. And Andrew Miller, a closing pitcher I affectionately nicknamed Legs during the 2016 World Series, made a brief appearance on the field. We went home happy, looking forward to the summer. Cleveland is an incredible city. I’m confident we embraced Cleveland as much as Cleveland embraced us.

By the way, our house sold in five days. Forward momentum. Timing. No time to worry about this half of the story. Keep moving on to the other half. It’s there. In time it will all come together. The to-do list is wrapping up quite nicely.

Throughout my life I have never considered myself much of an adventurer. However, I’m reconsidering. This is what my childhood has prepared me for. The packing. The moving. The unknown. The newness. The leaving. The going. The arriving. The ability to do this. This thing I seem to always be doing. The adventure. My initial thought being Why not? when asked Should we move there? In most cases, it doesn’t matter where there actually is.

Next week, Matt and I will make the drive to Concord, drop a truckload of boxes into storage, and find a house. It will be my first time to New England.

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The Business of Owning Your Own Business

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As I mentioned in an earlier post, I finally started working full-time.

Late last summer my husband and I toured a local business located in the Old Brooklyn neighborhood of Cleveland. The current owner, after many years of waffling between selling it and keeping it, had finally decided to sell it – to the right people. We hoped this could be the right business and that we could be considered the right people, so it was like a two-way interview. This business was an established one, and the new owner would inherit not only the employees and the stellar reputation of the place, but also the client list and the recipes.

The recipes were imperative to the continued success of the business. The owner had spent years playing around with her own equipment in the off-hours, creating new flavors and techniques, discovering what worked and what didn’t. There would be no start-up fees and fewer risks of failing. Everything was already in place. All the hard work had been done. It just needed to be passed into a trustworthy pair of new hands. It was everyone’s hope that the transition in ownership would go so smoothly that nobody, especially the customers, some who had been involved with this business for decades, would even notice.

So what was the business? Cheesecakes. More specifically, making the cheesecakes that are served in over fifty restaurants in and around the Greater Cleveland area and beyond.

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There was a lot of money involved upfront, but all of that would likely be returned within a few years of successful upkeep. The business was so lucrative, in fact, that the owner had financed her home and the building that housed her business…plus another rental unit above the bakery for additional income. And even though her husband was a lawyer (and, sadly in failing health), it was very clear that her own European vacations to her Greek homeland and two sons’ college expenses could very easily have been financed solely by cheesecake profits.

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We passed.

It was determined that because of the amount of money we would be putting into the business upfront, my husband would still have to work at his full-time job. That left me as the sole watchman – the manager, the owner, the accountant, human resources, delivery driver, oven repairman, egg-beater mechanic, etc. I’m not a business person; I’m a people person (and still very much a cheesecake person). The full-time attention to the equipment and finances regarding a business in which I had no experience was completely overwhelming to me. In just a few months I would be finished with my master’s degree, and I didn’t want to feel financially tethered to a job, a city, or a line of work that I might not be very good at. So we passed.

Instead I accepted a full-time job at a historic inn, doing something I’m very good at. Stories from the No-Tell Motel coming soon…

Since last year…

A few days before Christmas, I submitted my final thesis. My research, in which I explored the social and economic impact yellow fever outbreaks had on blacks in America, in both slave and abolition societies, spanned the course of 100 years and followed the stain of slavery from post-Revolution Philadelphia to the Reconstruction South. It was clearly the most in-depth piece of work I have ever written and it knocked me on my ass. So I walked away from my computer for a few months. It’s been a nice reprieve, but I’m ready to write again.

***

In mid-December, I learned the Lake County Humane Society had a hamster available for adoption. My husband, not much of a rodent-lover, had always expressed his disapproval whenever I mentioned having a hamster as a pet. I had hamsters as pets when I was in high school, but we’d always justified not getting any more pets because we had so many dogs. But things had very recently changed in our house, and we, or, more likely, I, needed a distraction from those changes. Happy that I could possibly adopt a hamster who was already middle-aged and provide her with a good home for the remainder of her short life, I went to meet her. She screamed at me immediately, so we knew we had to have her.

Everyone, meet Tuna. She’s as spoiled as the dogs. Proof of that is in the bank statement that shows I just spent $30 on a fancy hamster wheel that won’t hurt her back. And now she only screams at me when I try to take her out of her hamster ball and put her back into her house. Tuna is never afraid to voice her displeasure.

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***

A month before I completed my final edits, I accepted a full-time position at a nearby historic inn. I sometimes work ten days straight before I get a day off, and my days usually start early, around 5:00 or 5:30. By the time I come home I have enough energy to tell everyone to make their own dinner before I crash into bed at 9 o’clock. Days off never seem to hold enough hours to help me recuperate before I’m back at it again.

***

Two weeks before I started my new job, we said goodbye to one of our dogs. Chimay, the matriarch of our dog pack, was almost 13-years old. She had lost most of her sight a few years earlier. Mooey, as we affectionately called her, passed away early on a Wednesday morning, at an hour when we were all home to say our goodbyes. We stroked behind her ears and whispered to her, and we held her paw as she took her last breath. And let me tell you, I am so grateful for that, that I could be there to comfort her. And in her last moments, she even tried to comfort us. It was the most beautiful and heartbreaking moment of my life thus far.

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In Two Places at Once

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For six years I have learned to live where I am and where I want to be. Where I am is where I am. Oklahoma, Ohio, and wherever the next place is that isn’t where I want to be. Where I want to be is North Florida.

I say I would like to live in coastal Maine. I say I would like to live on a marsh in Delaware, maybe Eastern Maryland, near the islands where wild horses run. I say I would like to live in the Carolina lowcountry or, even, as a compromise with my husband, near the Blue Ridge Mountains. Charlottesville. Maybe Asheville. So many places I could choose. No longer will I go to a new place with expectations. No longer will I fight the possibility of going to a new place. No longer do I fight the reality of being in a new place. Now I know that home is south and I just happen to live up north.

We have already discussed it, my family and I, that here is not permanent. Cleveland is not permanent. Ohio is not permanent. At least, it is not a permanent stake in our plans. We are not building our future for here, only from here. But our daughter is at the age when she must start looking into colleges and deciding where she wants to be after she is no longer here with us. Even she wants to go home, to Florida. Although she sometimes talks of going home, to Oklahoma. Of course, she is welcome to stay with us, to stay near us, wherever we are. I would prefer that. And maybe we’ll end up selling this house, planting some shallow taproots elsewhere in Northeastern Ohio, buying acres and acres of land so I can plant fields of lavender and he can have space and she can learn to love the Great Lakes as much as I do. Those lakes welcomed me home nearly two years ago, just as the St. Johns River and Nassau Sound welcome me home again each time I return to North Florida.

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In a few weeks, I am heading home. And after a week, I will be returning home. From here to there. From there to here. Living in two places at once. It’s easier to do that from here, in Ohio, as opposed to in Oklahoma. Maybe because I don’t have to cross time zones. I don’t have to cross a river that operates as a boundary between east and west, a swirling seaway that simply served as a reminder that, for four years, I lived that much farther from the sea than I ever would have wanted.

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Now I can live in two places at once. I’m allowed to do that. I have given myself permission to call North Florida home, even if I never live there again. Home is also wherever I live at the moment. It is a house on a plot of land. And from that house on that plot of land I pack my bags once a year, maybe twice a year, and go home. To my other home. The home where I might find coral snakes on my porch, fist-sized spiders in my hair, blue lizards in my shower that measure up to foot long. The home where swamp moccasins rain down from the oak trees, or leap into the air. Where alligators sun themselves on the riverbanks and lemon sharks navigate the knee-deep waters of the ocean, both waiting to rip me to shreds. Where right whales breach clear out of the river’s smooth surface. Where manatees lumber in the crystal clear springs, unaware of how dangerous humans really are. There, back home, are flying cockroaches and toxic eastern lubber grasshoppers. But we live in harmony. We coexist. They belong there.

So do I. I know this because I feel it.

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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.

 

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.

***

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.

***

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.