Reliving History

The year was 1985. It was our first year back in Minnesota, and with one child in tow we eagerly headed Up North for our first family vacation on Lake Wabana. We rented the same little cabin Rich had frequented as a little boy, and I instantly fell in love with it as well. It became our summer getaway for the next five years.

The cabin came with a small rowboat, and we brought our prized motor to power it – a full 1.5 hp, with a rope on top that Rich would wind around and around then pull to start the motor. It was our locomotion for the week.

That year we took our first long boat excursion. Wabana is part of a chain of lakes, and our goal was to reach the Joyce Estate on Trout Lake, two lakes and two streams away. It required starting early in the morning on a day with little wind and no chance of rain. At our speed, it was an all-day adventure.

We pulled off the trip successfully, and it became an annual pilgrimage. Even when we bought our own cabin where we had a much bigger boat and motor and a family of five, we would trailer our boat over to Wabana and repeat the trip. Still a favorite cabin activity.

Today Rich and I rise with the sun and set out to relive history. The big boat has been replaced by a grandchild friendly pontoon boat, so we hitch up our little 12’ boat and a 3 hp motor. Arriving at the boat launch on Wabana, I strain to find the lake. The lingering overnight chill is robbing the lake of its warmth, and a thick fog lies over the still water. I am bundled in three layers and a jacket and I pull up my hood to ward off the light wind. This is not how I remember setting out.

As we motor away from the landing, a tall figure materializes in the mist. A lone paddle boarder is plying the waters, ghost-like as he crosses the bay then silently disappears. We struggle to find the opening to the first stream. Not daring to lose sight of the shoreline, we cling to the water’s edge until a bright sign jumps out at us. “Slow No Wake” it warns. That wasn’t there before, but we are thankful for the gaudy entry post.

Heading for Trout Lake

Motoring up the narrow stream is easy with our tiny boat and motor. A merganser mom approaches with her brood of five chicks. Rich, ever the bird photographer pulls over and stops. Only when she is opposite us does mom see us, and she quickly prods her family into a frenzied sprint to get by. We laugh as we watch their heads wobble with the rhythm of their rapid strokes. No time to get that photo. The mental image was enough.

In the stream to Little Trout LakeLittle Trout Lake is shrouded in fog. Despite its small size, we cannot see across. But we’re not looking there yet – a mama loon with her well grown chick distract us and we follow. Just beyond, a splash reveals three otters. That mama hisses as us and leads her two young away. They dunk and reappear trying to get away. The little ones imitate mom with baby hisses. Always looking behind, swimming to safety.

Despite grousing about the fog, and how we could have had a nice sunny day if we’d waited a few hours before setting out, I had to admit these were special moments we would have missed.

Another No Wake sign leads us to the next stream and on into Trout Lake. The fog refuses to lift, and the Joyce Estate lies on the far shore – somewhere out there. Relying on distant memories and dead reckoning, Rich leaves the comfort of the barely visible coastline and strikes out across the lake. One small boat plowing through deep mist. When a small point with tall pines gradually emerges from the fog Rich exclaims, “That’s it! It’s the peninsula with the sauna!” Sure enough, it’s where we were meant to be. Finding the beach where we used to swim with the kids, we secure the boat and start down the trail. Hiking back in time.

Back in 1915 David Gage Joyce gained ownership of 4,500 acres of land, almost completely surrounding Trout Lake. He began construction of the Joyce Estate on this spot two years later – a large private family resort with an expansive lodge, a number of guest cabins, butler and maid cabins, a two-story sauna, a 9-hole golf course, seaplane hangar, boat house and other amenities surrounded by beautiful gardens. In 1973, at the end of an era, the Joyce Estate was acquired by the Nature Conservancy and transferred to the U.S. Forest Service a year later.

On our first visit in 1985, nearly all the original buildings were still standing. Some were in disrepair, others still in quite good condition. The grounds were covered in brush and raspberry bushes, and we had to bushwhack our way into the old cabins to peer inside. It felt like a secret find, our own private fantasyland to explore.

Today, the Forest Service has torn down the crumbling buildings, stabilized the lodge, one guest cabin and the sauna, cleared out all the brush and mowed the grounds. It is preserved for visitors, accessibly only by hiking trail or boat, and includes a rustic campsite.

Joyce Estate Lodge Joyce Estate Guest Cabin
Joyce Estate sauna railing

Once again, we peer into the buildings, walk gingerly inside where it looks safe and try to imagine the lifestyle of those who spent their summers here. I also see my children poking around, exclaiming over their finds, eager for a picnic on the beach. Waves of memories.

By the time we make our rounds and launch the little boat, the fog has finally lifted. As we reach the opposite shore, the clouds see fit to part and the sun comes out. It has turned into the warm sunny day that was promised. The return trip reveals all the sights we missed on the way over, and we putter along digging up visions of how it used to be 35 years ago.

Leaving Trout Lake Narrow stream to Little Trout Lake

Today, we’re back to just the two of us. And we have twice the horsepower. Times have changed. But not that much. We’re already planning to do this again next year.

A Welcome Retreat

Northstar SunsetRhythmically dipping my paddle into the water on alternate sides of my kayak, I slide away from the dock.  No need to hurry, no interest in exerting myself, I slip out only a few hundred yards, lay my paddle across the kayak and just float.  Drifting in the calm water I take a deep breath and watch the sunset play across the slight ripples from distant boats, rocking gently as they pass.  There are no clouds to generate a spectacular sunset in the sky.  Instead the show takes place on the lake, reflecting the oranges then pinks of the disappearing light.

Two nearby loons begin to call, each eerie cry echoing in the woods beyond the shore.  More loons take up the song, taking turns calling and answering.  Soon the rounds circle the lake, die out then start up again.  Mesmerizing.  Enchanting.  I drink in the scene, freeing all outside thoughts from my crowded mind, just being.

The cabinSince the beginning of the coronavirus, this has been my get-away.  My source of sanity in a world we no longer recognize.  The quiet connections with nature soothe my soul, restore peace to my heart as I focus on what hasn’t changed.  COVID-19 ceases to invade my thoughts here.  And social distancing requires no effort in our remote little cabin.  It’s life as usual up here.

We started coming in mid-May, our 30th spring opening since we bought the place.  It brought a sense of normalcy to those early days of sheltering.Cabin view of the dock Cabin old boat

We are privileged to have this little haven.  Our children grew up coming here, building family memories, escaping our busy suburban world back home, focusing on the simple joys of life and nature.  This summer “escape” has a whole different meaning.

Even before opening up, we created an online Cabin Calendar.  Each of our three children immediately signed up for one or more weeks at the cabin as well as long weekends for their families.  We sandwiched our stays on weekdays between their visits, and before we knew it the cabin was fully booked.  My heart was as full as that schedule.  The cabin has never seen so much love and activity in one season.

In contrast to my placid sunset, the laughs, squabbles and squeals of delight fill the air as our grandchildren swim, learn to kayak, plead for another boat ride and sneak another s’more when Mom’s not looking.  Our kids find time to read, ride bikes, go for hikes in the woods.  I can’t resist the urge to make extra trips up to the cabin to join them, to relish time together – another silver lining of the virus.Katie Erik Molly kayaking Carl Chelsea and kids on pontoon Kennedy kids eat smores

Part of me relishes this slowing down.  Staying local instead of taking far-flung vacations.  Squeezing into the cabin with our growing family, or hiding away up there by ourselves.  One day we will all travel again, seek adventure in new places, indulge ourselves in lavish resorts or wilderness camping.  For me right now, it’s enough to float in the middle of the lake, feeling no urgency to move.  Retreating from the world.

Sewing up the Pandemic

I had a reliable source, and the news was alarming.  I heard that Bunny and Giraffie were trying to share the same set of slipper jammies.  And it wasn’t going well.

It started with making Grammy Jammies for my grandchildren each Christmas, their numbers now climbing to six.  My oldest grandson, Ben, talked me into making jammies for his Bear.  And it took off from there.  Next was Mya’s Puppy.  Last Christmas Isabel’s Bunny joined the jammie parade, and Maren’s baby doll.

Grandkids in Grammy JammiesPuppy Bunny Bear in Grammy Jammies

“Jammies for Giraffie might be a good birthday present for Isabel,” my daughter advised.  But what better project to tackle during my coronavirus sheltering time?  The key was that both “friends” were JellyCat animals and shared the same shape – soft pear-shaped bodies, scrawny arms and big fluffy feet.  It took several tries to get it right for Bunny, but I finally perfected the pattern.  After 10 years of making slipper jammies, I had bags full of fleece scraps and I even scrounged up a few unused zippers.  I was in business.

With extra time on my hands, it felt good to pull out my sewing machine, thread it up and make something from nothing.  Sewing opens so many creative opportunities – designing the garment, choosing the fabric, picking coordinating ribbing, placing the print on each pattern piece.  As my machine hummed, so did I.

Giraffie in jammies

My thoughts turned to the book I recently finished reading.  I picked up The Murmur of Bees quite by accident in the early days of the invasion of COVID-19.  When the spread of the virus was still news, I was surprised and fascinated to find that the book was set in Mexico in 1918, in the heart of the devastation wrought by the Spanish flu.  It was history I did not know well, but it had an eerily familiar strain.

The family in the book fled from their home near town and relocated to another hacienda further away, where they rode out the worst of the pandemic. Mom couldn’t settle herself, and it was her young son who figured out why she was so distraught.  He convinced his dad to return to their home, pack up her sewing machine, material and tools and bring them to her.  She was puzzled and angry at their curious actions.  Until she threaded her machine and began sewing.  With each garment she sewed, a sliver of peace was restored.  She was grounded at last, in the productive and creative endeavor of sewing.

I felt the same way.  When Giraffie’s jammies were done, I needed another project.  I decided little brother Michael needed a stuffed animal friend.  Obsessed with the idea, I scoured the internet for a free pattern for a fleece animal.  More scraps to cut up, excess stuffing that needed a home, and a load of fun later I had a soft little puppy for Michael.  It was such a hit, that I couldn’t stop there.  Five grandchildren later, I had a whole litter of pups and kitties!

Stuffed puppies Stuffed puppies and kitties

There’s something inherently rewarding about using only what I have on hand.  Taking bits and pieces and ending up with a little critter that will delight a child.  There are many ways this pandemic has forced us to simplify life.  To do without.  To make do with what we have and forego what now feels like frivolous shopping.

Sewing returns me to my roots.  My mom taught me to sew long before I took Home Ec classes in junior high.  She made all my clothes until I took over, then sewed for my own children.  By now when I sit down in front of my machine, innate skills take over.  My hands know how to guide the fabric, my eyes gauge the seam, my foot regulates the speed. I reap the rewards of familiarity, of falling back on something soothing and rewarding.  I feel Mom’s presence as I follow in her footsteps.  I imagine she too would sew her way through this pandemic.

I hear that Bunny and Giraffie are friends again.  And my daughter’s whispers, “Michael has taken to a Jellycat puppy recently.”  I can already hear the whir of my sewing machine.

Isabel with Bunny and Giraffie

A Wake-up Call

It’s not easy being the wife of a birder.

I am snug in bed thinking about getting up but not actually doing so quite yet.  From the other room, I hear my phone ring.  At 6am it can only be one person – either that or something terrible has happened.  Sure enough, it’s Rich.

“Get dressed right away!  You have to come over here and see this!  One of the owlets is on the ground!”  Even in my groggy state I know right where he is, and exactly what he is talking about.

For the past three months, Rich has been visiting “his owls.”  It took him a dozen wintry searches for the mating Great Horned Owls, triangulating their hooting, and looking for them in the trees.  But it all paid off when he found their nest.  It is in the woods less than 10 minutes by foot from our house.  In late winter he watched Mom Owl on the nest and Dad Owl hunting for food.  When they produced three baby owlets, you’d think Rich had new grandkids!  He visited them on a regular basis, reporting back their progress and how fast they were growing.When the coronavirus hit and we took to sheltering in place, Rich’s vigil escalated.  What else was there to do?  He began checking on them multiple times a day.  Whenever things got dull, he’d head out into the woods again.  Or any time he heard a crow attack – a sure sign they were pestering the owls – he returned to the scene to make sure his owlets were still okay.  I kidded him that he spent more time with them than with me.

Learning their nocturnal habits, Rich began refining his timing.  Early morning when the owlets were being fed before sleeping, or evenings when they were becoming active again were the best time to see them.  He even lured me over one evening, and I succumbed to the cuteness factor, staying to watch the three sets of owl eyes peer down at me from their branches high in the tree.  They really were hard to resist.  I went back a few nights later.

This morning the urgency in his voice propels me out the door.  “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity!” he claims.  I’m not a birder, but I know better than to disappoint one.  Trotting over to the nesting area, I spot Rich’s red jacket in the woods.  Creeping up next to him, he points out the owlet – just 40 yards away, perched on a broken tree branch just a couple feet off the ground.  It’s one thing seeing an owl up high in a tree.  It’s another to observe it at eye level.

“I found him on the path.  He was being hassled by the crows and was vulnerable in the open space, so I flushed him into the woods.  Mom and Dad are up in the trees trying to protect him.  I’m doing the same on the ground.”  We creep a little closer, all the while being watched by those gold rimmed eyes.

This owlet is not so little any more.  He’s over a foot tall, and has already mastered short flights between trees.  Silently I peer at this fluffy white wonder, little horns already forming atop his head, signature owl eyes staring back at me.  Even lacking any affinity for birding, I can’t help but be entranced.

The owlet clearly is not in any hurry to move.  He perches motionless except for his pivoting head and blinking eyes.  Rich hunkers down for the long haul, watching, protecting, his camera shutter pulsing rapidly.  But I eventually reach my limit and turn to go.  Alarmed, the owlet puffs up and flexes his wings, in defense against this blue jacketed stranger who suddenly feels threatening.  His display reveals brown and black feathers, and he lowers his head to glare at me.  As soon as he realizes I am retreating, he resumes his stationary pose.

I certainly didn’t expect to run out of the house at 6am this morning.  Nor would I have chosen to spend my first waking minutes “birding.”  But this is one of those times when it was worth heeding that wake-up call from my resident birder.  It was a hoot.

All photos by Rich Hoeg.  More photos, videos and details can be found on his blog, 365DaysOfBirds

Toddler Distancing

The plan was to meet up at Banning State Park for a social distancing hike.  I was already out of the car when the Kennedy clan – my daughter and her family – spilled out of their minivan. The older three children clustered near the back of the van, collecting hats and gloves for the hike.  They had been well versed in the rules.  Stay six feet apart.  No hugs.  Don’t touch.

But 2-year-old Michael looked up and saw me.  That’s all it took.  He put one foot in front of the other, then began to run – right to me.  Almost.  Two feet in front of me he stopped.  Looked up and waited with that big grin of his.  It took all my self-control not to scoop him up and give him a big squeeze and bury my face in his ticklish neck.  MichaelPoor Michael, he must have wondered what was up with his Grammy.  Poor Grammy, her heart ached.

Once on the trail, things improved.  The big kids ran ahead, fascinated by the old Quarry structures and the rock formations along the river.  There were plenty of side trails to explore, walking sticks to test, river banks to climb.  Little Michael kept up as fast as his little feet could carry him.  If I couldn’t get close to the kids, being able to watch them in the outdoors was nearly as good.Kennedys at Banning State Park
Ben and Mya Banning State park
Karen and Isabel Banning State ParkWe tried hard to keep our distance.  Dancing around one another on opposite sides of the trail, as kids ran back and forth.  I did my best to imagine it was just a normal family hike in the woods.  The roar of the water flowing over rapids, discovering a lingering frozen waterfall, the carpet of pine needles and the kids’ giggles helped me hold the illusion.  Breathing deeply, I took in the spring air, kicked up dead leaves and stood on big rocks.  Grounded by nature.Kennedy family Banning State ParkThese strange times call for creative solutions.  This was far better than our last in-person encounter, which consisted of waving through the window and leaving chocolate chip cookies on the doorstep.  And it was more successful than our attempt at 4-way virtual family charades when we had a lot of laughs but couldn’t get a word in edgewise.  We will keep trying, any way we can to be “with” family.

The truth is, I don’t really want to get good at this social distancing thing.  I totally believe in the value of doing it, the necessity of these awkward practices.  And I will do my part.  But the next time little Michael reaches up for a hug, I just might not be able to hold back.Molly and Rich Banning State Park

Easter Togetherness

We were supposed to be in Milwaukee today.  We’re not.  Our grandson Crosby was going to be baptized today.  It didn’t happen.  Our whole family planned to gather for the occasion.  We didn’t.  But it still IS Easter today.  We may all be distanced by the coronavirus, but it can’t stop our religious holidays nor our own way of observing them.

It was my son, Erik, who came up with the family brunch idea.  “Since we can’t all be together,” he texted (sent only to the cooks in the family, of which he is one), “what if we each contributed a favorite recipe and we all made the same brunch?  We can all have the same meal and think of one another.”  It sold instantly.

As Easter approached, the recipe choices solidified:

  • Slow Cooker Spinach Quiche (Molly)
  • Cheesy Hashbrowns (Chelsea)
  • Bread Machine Cinnamon Swirl Bread (Erik)
  • Fruit Salad (Karen)
  • Alternate egg dish – Sausage Egg Bake (Karen)

Soon questions and hints flew between cooks.  Many of the quandaries were over substitutions.  “I can’t get bread flour – can I use all-purpose instead?”  “It’s okay to leave out the mushrooms.”  “We’re using broccoli instead of spinach in the eggs.”  Anything goes.

It was a solid morning of cooking even with advance preparation.  I prepped all my ingredients ahead of time.  Some made their cinnamon bread the night before.  As the intensity of the cooking increased, so did the flow of texts and photos as each family cook documented their progress.  We might not all be in the same kitchen, but it sure felt like it.  We were all battling the same ingredients with similar timelines.

Easter Brunch prep

We all took time out for our virtual church services, relishing the extra music and special effort that went into this highest of holy days.  I hate to admit it, but I did sneak out to put the cinnamon bread in the oven during a musical interlude.

Soon the texts quieted down.  Final pictures of families gathered at the table were posted and we all sat down to enjoy our meal.  Apart, but together.  All enjoying the same dishes, savoring the flavors and thinking of one another.  Looking at each dish and remembering who contributed it to the feast.

Easter Brunch dishes

Molly Rich Easter BrunchKennedys Easter BrunchThe Carl Hoegs EasterErik Katie Easter

Easter came in all its glory.  Family “gathered” and we celebrated “together.”  As a final touch, son Carl alerted us to Andrea Bocelli’s Easter concert in the empty Duomo in Milan, which was our brunch music.  Listening to the notes that thrilled the air invoked hope.  That we will overcome, and be reunited.  Stronger than ever.

Covid Coping

Just you and me, baby.

As the Covid-19 reins tighten on social distancing, not only is our calendar devoid of events, but our circle of personal contacts has squeezed down to two.  Rich and I better be nice to one another.  We’re all we’ve got.Molly and Rich selfie

I have no illusions that this will last a couple of weeks or so.  I’ve read enough to know it’s going to take months for us to flatten out the curve of infection.  I’m mentally preparing for the long haul.

We’ve already been practicing the sheltering concept for over a week, so I have a taste of this new normal.  This uber-togetherness thing.  And I realize we have an advantage.  It’s called retirement.

I think back on those early days when we first left our jobs.  When we no longer spent all day at work and inflicted our personalities on our coworkers.  Suddenly we were at home full-time, playing in the same sandbox.  We had to learn to jockey around one another.  How to balance time doing things together and time doing our own thing.  I couldn’t help but feel like Rich was looking over my shoulder at times, judging how I spent my time.  It reminded me of when my dad retired.  Mom said the house was never so clean – she was afraid to sit down and look idle.  I admit to my own sideways glances when Rich lounged on the couch.  If nothing else, we learned to hold our tongues.  To loosen up.

Eventually we worked our way into a routine.  We figured out how to co-exist in the same space, all day long, day in, day out.  Thankfully, we also developed our own distinct retirement hobbies – photography and writing.  Pursuits that keep us out of one another’s hair.  Now that we’re confined to the house, I feel grateful that we have that figured out.  But there’s still a hitch.

Our pattern is to exit the house by day, and reunite over dinner.  Rich roams the woods in search of birds to photograph, and I park myself at Amity Coffee pecking away at my keyboard, inching my book along.  While Rich’s outdoor wanderings are currently still a viable option, my daily perch and latte are now off-limits.  The solitude I seek among the cacophony of the busy espresso bar is no more.

Enter the home coffee shop.  With a card table installed in the Bunk Room, I can make my own coffee, pick up my laptop and “go to the coffee shop.”  I close the door and I’m off-site, in my own world, sequestered until I choose to re-emerge.  I think of it as working remotely in reverse.  And it works.

Molly home coffee shop

The final piece in our retirement puzzle is a commitment to getting outside for fresh air and exercise – each at our own time and pace, of course.  Rich calls me “obsessed.”  I don’t argue the fact.  But we’re both out there doing it.  Staying healthy and in shape.

We’re grateful that the powers that be recognize the importance of this.  We’re still out there running, biking and walking in the woods to lose the threat that looms over us, if only temporarily.  It’s enough to keep us sane.  It’s how we will cope in the weeks and months to come.  Just the two of us.

The Race that Wasn’t

It was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and we jumped at the chance to buy grandstand seats to watch the Cross-Country Ski World Cup Sprint Final races.  All winter long we looked forward to seeing these world class skiers on Minnesota snow.  It was a coup for Minneapolis and the Loppet Foundation, and a treat for those of us occupying the grandstand.

The mild winter and advancing spring posed threats to the snow and trail conditions.  Communications from the Loppet Foundation assured us they were prepared for the warmest spring ever.  Just in case.  They had surplus “whales” of snow – stockpiles that looked like their namesake.  Five PistenBully groomers stood by to move snow onto the trail.  And plan C?  Scrape up all remaining snow on the unneeded trails and move them to the race course.  They were ready.

But it wasn’t enough.  Nothing could compete with the advancing threat of the coronavirus.  First Norway pulled its skiers, a brutal blow.  Then the rapid advancement of travel restrictions and social distancing.  What spring couldn’t kill, disease could.  Among all the cancellation announcements, that was the one that hurt the most.  Not because of what I would miss, but because of the lost opportunity for Minnesota to host the first competition in two decades for the world’s finest skiers on American snow.

World Cup cowbells

In lieu of our trip to the Cities for the race, we went down for the weekend to visit family.  By Sunday, son Erik and his wife Katie – fellow disappointed ticket holders – and I decided to check out the wanna-be race course.  The mild and sunny temperature had lured numerous skiers to the venue, and despite all a sense of festivity lingered.

Erik Katie Finley at World Cup venue

Walking through the starting gate area, I couldn’t help but feel the excitement it generated. Skiers posed and shot out of the gates in private competitions.  They skated up and over the bridge past the chalet, and I wished for my own skis to join them in the warm sunshine.  We took our turns posing on the podium platform.  If we couldn’t be there to see world class skiers, we could pretend to be rubbing shoulders with them.

World Cup starting gates World Cup ski trail bridge Molly Erik Katie World Cup Podium

Gazing at the empty grandstands, I tried to imagine the event as it was meant to be.  Sandwiched into the bleacher seats, peering into the distance, watching for each skier who rounded the curve to cross the finish line.  I could feel the excitement.  Hear the roar of the crowds. Feel the home town pride of a place that could host this elite event.  Almost.

World Cup Grandstand

It felt selfish to wish for what couldn’t be.  To allow myself to feel the sense of loss.  To think about what might have been.

Instead, I soaked up the sun.  Took in the magnificence of the preparations.  Envied the skiers of all ages and abilities gliding across the warming snow.  And relished being among family.

Erik and Katie at World Cup

In a world full of uncertainty, fraught with fears, and the impossible task of navigating between hysteria and safe decisions, it felt good to just enjoy the outdoors.  Walk in the sunshine.  Smile at strangers.  Throw the ball for the dog.  Enjoy life as it is.  Even if for the moment.

Music that Moves

It was pure happenstance that I was there.  But there was no mistake about the impact that the evening had on me.

As an usher at the Norshor Theater, I was trolling the open spots when I noticed a desperate last minute plea for ushers needed for a choral program.  The date was open on my calendar, so I signed up.  It was only then that I did a little research on just what it was I was going to hear.

My first clue was discovering that the Twin Ports Choral Project, the performing choir, is entirely made up of highly trained professional musicians.  Every one of the 30 or so singers has lengthy vocal credentials.  I knew I was in for a fine choral performance.

Then I looked into the piece being performed, “Considering Matthew Shepard.”  In my ignorance, I did not know the story of Matthew Shepard, the young gay college student who was lured into the Wyoming countryside in 1998 by two men posing as gays, brutally beaten, tied to a fence and left to die.  For eighteen endless hours he remained there, alive but just barely.  He was discovered by a passing cyclist and died five days later, surrounded by his family.

A woman from Matthew’s town could not let go of the tragedy, and memorialized it in poetry.  That was later put to music, creating the oratorio that would be performed at the Norshor.  Despite now knowing the background, I was totally unprepared for the power of that evening’s performance.

Considering Matthew ShepardChoir members were simply dressed in black, there was only a wooden fence on the stage for a prop.  Three dancers in loose white clothing moved rhythmically to a few of the numbers.  A plaid flannel shirt represented Matthew, later held by the woman who sang his mother’s part.  There was no need for elaborate costumes or props.  The music and the words stood on their own.

The musicians’ perfection carried the music, at times dissonant and atonal, at others slow and hushed.  I followed the libretto printed in the program, the story unfolding.  Included were words from Matthew’s own journal.  His father’s statement at his funeral.

We were told that there would be no intermission, no applause during the concert.  We were not told that we’d be holding our breath.  That silence would reign among our seats.  That we’d be touched to the core by the raw emotion, our hearts profoundly moved.

I heartily wished I’d been there with a friend.  I wanted to relive the experience with someone else, talk about it, share the feelings it evoked.  I tried hard to convey its impact, but without being in that audience no one could truly relate to it.

That evening stayed with me.  Showed me that I need to step into uncomfortable territory.  That music is important to me.  So when another opportunity arose soon afterwards, I grasped it.

This time it was the lead-off event for the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial – commemorating 100 years since three black circus performers were lynched in Duluth.  Strangers in town, wrongly accused of raping a white woman, Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Issac McGhie were jailed.  An angry mob 10,000 strong stormed the jail, beat and tortured the men and hung them from a lampost.  In 2003, a memorial was erected on the corner of 1st Street and 2nd Avenue E, to keep the story alive.

Duluth Lynching memorial postcardAnother musical performance ensued.  It started with “Song of a New Race,” a lyrical orchestral piece that conjured up hope for the future.  That was followed by an oratorio called “…And They Lunched Him on a Tree.”  It chronicles a different lynching, but conveys the same sense of horror, of a mother’s grief, of the ordinariness of the victim, and the injustice. It finishes with a haunting truth, “And clear the shadow, the long dark shadow, That falls across your land.”

The final piece by Jean Perrault was commissioned for this event, performed by a trio of piano, cello and violin.  I heard him speak about “We Three Kings” on the radio beforehand.  He described the depths he had to reach to be able to compose the piece.  To sink into the same darkness that spawned those evil deeds.  It is not music to be enjoyed, he explained.  The music is meant to elicit emotion, to bring listeners to the place of death and back out again.  By the time the strings had stilled, I knew what he meant.

Music has power over me.  Moves me.  Changes me.  I’m so glad I was there to hear it.

Laughter, the best medicine

I’ve been here before.  I know how silly this is going to make me feel, and it’s already outside my comfort zone.  So what is this TV camera doing here?

My sister, Susie, is a certified Laughter Yoga instructor.  Sure, I attend yoga sessions fairly regularly, but what’s this about laughing?  And how could it possibly have anything to do with yoga?  When she invited me to one of her classes last year, I just had to go.  To find out what it’s all about.

Standing in a circle of adults in the basement of her church, I prepared myself to feel foolish.  Susie and her co-teacher, Jessica, had already prepared us for that.  “The body doesn’t know the difference between real laughter and fake laughter,” they said.  “It has the same beneficial effects on the body.”  Apparently I was going to fake it through this class.

To start, they laid down the guidelines.  Among them, no talking.  (Except for the instructors, of course.)  So in order to introduce ourselves to our fellow participants, we were to turn to each one, stretch out a hand, shake theirs and, well, laugh.  Okay, this seemed pretty weird.  But there was no point in being there if I wasn’t going to buy into it, so I did as I was told.  And laughed.  Then laughed again.  As long as everyone was doing it, it really wasn’t so bad.  It almost began to feel real.

The class progressed, full of good sports willing to play along, follow instructions, and laugh.  We worked our way through warm-ups, laughing, breathing, laughing, chants, laughing, singing, laughing, cheers and laughing.  And it felt good.

So when she invited me back again, I took the bait.  Only I wasn’t counting on that TV camera.  I begin to get the picture when he interviews Susie and Jessica before class starts.  I can hear them touting the health benefits of laughing.  The mental boost it provides.  The origin of Laughter Yoga in India in the 1990s, and its founder Dr. Madan Kataria.

Once we gather in our circle, I try to screen out that cameraman.  I do my best to ignore him moving around behind us, capturing our silliness from all angles.  Blot out thoughts of who might see this on tonight’s evening news.

“Children laugh an average of 400 times a day,” Jessica tells us.  “For adults, it’s 4-7 times daily.”  I believe it.  I know my day often lacks levity.  The wrinkles around my mouth turn down, not up.  I think I need this laughter injection.  Soon I’m shaking hands with my fellow students once again, and laughing.

As we work our way through the progression this time, I finally get the yoga bit.  It’s all in the breathing, the foundation of yoga.  It’s not about poses, it’s about filling our lungs with good air, expelling the old.  Feeding the body with oxygen.  Finding positive energy.

As before, I draw my cues from my fellow participants.  We’re all in this together.  If they’re willing to do this, so am I.  Studiously ignoring that camera, I focus on them instead.  Look into their eyes and find joy in their laughter.  As their laughs escalate, so do mine.  We feed off one another.

Our final exercise brings us onto the floor.  Atop a colorful Indian-looking tapestry with concentric circles, we form our own circle.  Heads in the middle, legs spreading out like spokes, we rest on our backs.  Then laugh.  Tentatively at first, then gaining momentum.  I hear others laughing, and they spur me on.  I hear Susie across the circle from me, her infectious laugh triggering mine.  Memories of her childhood laughter, our innocent youth, her happy giggles.  Me, the serious one, she the jokester.  I let go and a belly laugh ripples through my body.  Later I overhear Susie telling someone, “I was laughing, and then I could hear Molly, my sister, laughing across from me!”

This goes on for many long minutes.  Just as I think I’ve laughed my last, someone else starts up again and the cycle repeats.  By this time it all feels like the real thing.  I’m literally quite worn out by the time Jessica moves us on to the final relaxation phase.

I don’t know these people who have shared this Laughter Yoga hour with me, but we all embrace before parting. And yes, laugh.  At ourselves, at our newfound positive outlook, at life in general.

And sure enough, we’re all on the Fox21 evening news.  I’m proud of Susie, as I watch her speak eloquently in front of the camera, and lead our troupe through the paces.  I cringe only a little when I see myself.  But more importantly, I just may have reached my childhood 400 laughs that afternoon.  And indeed, it was good medicine.