Ski Medicine

It might not have been what the doctor ordered, but it was the best medicine I could take.  I was still coughing and dragging from a bout with the flu when Erik called.  “Would it be all right if I came up tomorrow night to ski the North Shore on Monday?  You’d be welcome to join me.”  Of course it was more than all right!

I tossed and turned all night long.  Was I crazy to spend a whole day skiing when I could barely get off the couch just days before?  I’ve never been one to hold back, nor necessarily listen to reason, so in the dark wee hours of the morning I rose and piled on layers of ski clothes.

As we drove the shoreline the sun rose in a cloudless sky, lifting over Lake Superior and bisecting the radiant band of orange hovering over the cold blue water.  By the time we reached the Sugarbush Trailhead above Tofte, it hung low in the sky sending long sinewy shadows across the trail but doing little to raise the zero degree temperature.  Pristine corduroy lay before my skate skis, crisp deep tracks for Erik’s classic version.  We entered the deep silence of the trail.Molly Sugarbush trails Erik Sugarbush trails

Erik had some serious skiing to do.  His goal was to complete the Picnic Loop and any other bits of trail he could find to ski 40 kilometers.  As a serious contender in the upcoming Birkie Classic race, he relished this extensive training opportunity.  So I waved him off, content to plod along at my own pace.

The cold snow squealed under my skis, glide eluding my fresh wax job, but the extra effort warmed my stiff chilled body.  I didn’t meet another sole for at least an hour and a half, skimming the snow, lost in thought.  Imperceptibly the sun gained strength, my fingers and toes rejoiced, and my skis slipped ever so slightly farther.  Weaving through the woods, uphill and down I lost track of time and distance.  Forgot my recent malady.

Through sheer luck, we finished at nearly the same time.  Flush with excitement over the fantastic conditions, Erik confirmed his 41k distance – to my 20k in the same amount of time!  Over lunch at the Coho Café we traded superlatives about our morning – the deep glistening snow in the woods, the distant lake views, the challenging but fun hills, the joy of skiing.

Erik Molly Coho Cafe

The Northwoods Ski Trail in Silver Bay gave us a leisurely afternoon ski.  Narrow single classic tracks wound through the woods, with snow laden pines slipping past our shoulders and towering overhead.  We skied together over the soft snow, sharing the views and even spotting a marten that scampered up a tree to peer down at us.  A steep uphill got our hearts pumping, and rewarded us with a long smooth downhill.  This wasn’t a workout, it was an experience.

Northwoods Ski Trails Erik Molly Northwoods Trails Molly Northwoods Trails

A full day, sharing a mutual love of skiing, chatting in the car, just being together.  One-on-one time with one of my adult children is a precious gift.  This one also delivered a hearty dose of healing.  Goodbye flu, I think I skied it out of my system.  And Erik?  He opted for another 15k on the Lester Trails when we returned, topping off his mileage above 60k.  We both got the medicine we needed.

Turning the Corner

“I’m not ready to declare victory, but I’m winning some battles.”

As rapidly as Rich declined into sightlessness, his ascent back into the world is a meteoric rise.  Thanks to modern medicine, each day brings progress.  Every venture outside breeds success.  The botox treatment that generally requires a week to take effect has been delivering mounting victories each successive day.

That magic formula is restoring a lot more than sight.

I feel like I am coming up from underground.  The past few months have been consumed by this drama, bringing isolation as well as despair.  Dealing with the realities of Rich’s condition was all consuming.  A single focus, particularly for him, but dribbling over into my existence.  Life on hold.

This week is like re-emerging in the spring and rediscovering the outside world.  As Rich begins to push his boundaries again, so do I.  He is able to go for walks in the woods.  I can return to my writing, believing he will be safe.  He takes the car keys and ventures over to Superior to spot two snowy owls with his own eyes.  I treat myself to a movie with a friend. He meets a fellow birder for a morning in the Bog.  I hunker down in the coffee shop with my laptop.  Every small step feels like liberty.

How well I remember my days in the hospital, after delivering each of our three babies.  The insulating environment of that sterile room, devoid of external influence, the absence of outside news.  All that mattered was the precious new life that lay in my arms.  The miracle that depended on me.  That slept, fed, cried and squirmed as I looked on.  The world beyond my room did not exist.

At times this fall, our house felt the same way.  Our lives – and our fears – were confined within its boundaries.

Hoeg HArbor winter

But we were never really alone.  The outpouring of support, the check-ins to see how we were doing, the offers for rides, and most of all the prayers for answers carried us through.  I am humbled by the show of love and comfort we have received.  The blessings of true friendship.  I thank each and every one of you for being there for us.

Rich may be cautious in his optimism, but the mood in that house has lifted.  In contrast to a few days ago, his spirit is soaring.  And I’m riding that high.  I just know we are turning the corner.

Life Rearranged

I’m off kilter. I’ve been thrown off balance. My norm is rapidly unwinding, and I don’t understand the new norm much less the future.

My strong, independent husband, Rich, has suddenly been robbed of his outdoor vision, and his world is dissolving with it.  He who lives for birding, photography and just tramping through the wilderness can no longer do any of this.  Driving is out of the question.  “I feel like a prisoner in my own house.”  The couch is his “happy place.”  There he can see, and feels safe.

Rich’s bird photography often takes him deep into the woods

I try to think back on the progression of this condition. It is astounding to realize that it manifested itself well over a year ago, in rapid blinking, more than normal. I didn’t see it. Rich didn’t feel it. But others noticed, and now comment on it.

Rich managed to cope with his degrading eyesight long enough for it to grow dire. Without knowing what it was or feeling (or perhaps acknowledging to himself) the progression of this condition, it continued, steadily curtailing his sight. His coping masked the advancement. Hid the impending decline. The suddenness came when nature tipped the balance. He could no longer compensate. He could no longer deny it.

Even so, it is hard to conceive of the gap in his capabilities between bicycle touring in Norway in August – which he managed, if with great difficulty – and today. The difference between being able to gut it out, and being paralyzed with fear. Shut down by sheer anxiety. Not being able to see at all.

The lightning speed of this life change is bewildering. If I am feeling ungrounded, what must Rich be experiencing? I can name many words. Depression. Frustration. Stress. Fear. Dread. Anxiety. A deep sense of loss. It is only slowly that I realize the depth of these feelings, and just how debilitating they are.

It’s just before Christmas and we walk down the block with Carl and Chelsea and their two children. A bagel walk, normally a fun outing. Rich walks ahead but seems to be faltering. I move up and grab his hand. His strong grip expresses his fear. He chokes back tears, confesses he is fighting off a panic attack. My fiercely self-reliant husband has been reduced to a dependent, sightless invalid I no longer recognize. Even though he did almost this same walk solo yesterday, today I wonder if he will make it. “It’s so much harder with people,” he says. “It shows me that I can’t interact with everyone. I have to concentrate 100% on staying on the sidewalk.” He manages the walk there and back. Says that holding my hand helped. That it enabled him to stave off the panic. On the way home, I can tell he’s reaching his limit. A simple walk does him in.

We navigate the medical world, seeking answers.  Dry eye repeatedly comes up, but doesn’t explain enough.  Finally, a specialist in the Cities nails the diagnosis: Blepharospasm.  In short, there is a neurological miscommunication between Rich’s eyelids and his brain, causing impulses that tell his eyelids to slam shut.  He cannot will them open.  It is triggered by dry eye, light sensitivity, stress, cold and other factors rampant in our Duluth winter – hence his problems outdoors.  His corrected vision is perfect.  It’s just that he can’t open his eyes.  He’s not blind, but he can’t see.  Having answers is great relief, but due to the holidays and insurance requirements, treatment is weeks away.  The wait is excruciating.

I can’t help but feel survivor’s remorse – guilt as I trot out of the house to go skiing, a passion of his.  Guilt over being able to enjoy the Christmas lights he can’t see.  Extreme guilt over wanting to be able to control my own life, which is inextricably woven into his.

There are so many ways to trip up.  I can’t find something that is in plain sight, and thoughtlessly utter, “I must be blind.”  Complaints about the car only remind him that he can’t drive.  Even mentioning the weather is a trap.  He’s stuck indoors.

Our lives are both transformed.  Our collective future is unknown.  Plans become moot, what was once routine is fuzzy.  But we’ve also grown closer.  We are far more in tune with one another, more thoughtful, more appreciative.  Yesterday’s arguments and irritations melt into frivolous trifles.  We’ve had to throw aside selfish wants for life’s realities.  Compromise becomes easier, as does putting the other person first.  We touch more often, reach out for one another readily, hungry for connection.  A burning need to feel the love.

At long last, Rich has his first treatment – Botox injections along his eyebrows to deaden the nerves and stop the spasms.  It is typically effective in over 90% of such cases.  We are told it will be seven days before it takes effect.  So the waiting resumes, but this time with hope.  That makes a huge difference.  This could rearrange our lives yet again.

Snowbound

We’re still waiting.  Two days ago at this time snow was falling in earnest.  Actually, it didn’t really fall, the wind swirled it in mad circles.  Whisking horizontally past the windows.  Sticking to the sides of the house.  Clinging to the trees.  It’s been a long time since the weather service used the word Blizzard.  This time it was accurate.  Snug inside, I enjoyed watching it rage.

Storming through the night, it finally tapered into delicate flakes as morning dawned.  Rich layered up and began the process of digging out.  Grabbing the yardstick from my sewing supplies, he took it down to the driveway.  Lest he be accused of exaggeration he had proof – 19″.  The accumulation took the life of his snowblower and required rigorous sessions of shovel, rest, repeat.  All day long.

Blizzard our houseThe news was filled with cancellations, including church services.  But no matter, we could travel no farther than the end of our cleared driveway.  Living on a remote road, we’re used to being last on the priority list for plowing.  So I donned my heavy boots and a backpack for a trip to the grocery store, grateful that it was so close.  Preparations for hunkering down.

Having covered the basics, I could hold back no longer.  This kind of snow just shouted Snowshoes!  And I answered the call.  That unplowed road was all that lay between me and forest land, crisscrossed by multi-use trails.  Not a sole trod before me, leaving deep pristine snow to explore.  Trees hung low, burdened with heavy blankets of snow, blocking my path.  Too pretty to disturb, I tried to skirt around them carefully.  The slightest bump released a mini-blizzard and sent branches flinging upwards.Blizzard snowshoeing 1Blizzard snowshoeing 2Silence reigned.  Only the plop of my snowshoes and the swish of trying to extricate them from the snowy abyss penetrated the quiet.  The sun began its gradual reappearance, signaling the real end of the storm.  Solitude worked its magic.Blizzard snowshoeing 3Day two dawned clear and cold.  The sunlight was as welcome as a rainbow after a thunderstorm.  Glistening snow.  Endless blue sky.  Warming rays of the sun.  Still the road remained clogged with snow.  There was only one sensible response.  Ski it!Blizzard XC skiing 1

Blizzard XC skiing 27 Bridges Road was rife with snowmobile tracks, boot prints and the occasional ski track.  It made for a firm if bumpy surface which beckoned me upwards, crossing bridge after bridge.  But the real payoff was at the top.  Branching off onto Hawk Ridge the walkers disappeared.  Snowmobiles had pummeled the surface into a reliable ski surface.  Lake Superior spread out to the horizon, the city of Duluth lay in grids below.  The snowbound confines of the house dropped away as civilization lay at my feet.Blizzard XC skiing 3Returning downhill, I wondered if the snowplow had come.  If I would have to find a new way home.  I’m not sure if I was relieved or disappointed to be able to ski all the way to the driveway.  Still snowbound.  Still waiting.  Time to plan tomorrow’s snowy adventure.Blizzard XC skiing 4

Breaking the Solitude

We hear it all the time. The only way to get writing done is to “put your butt in the chair.” Show up and just do it. Punch those keys, push that pen. It requires mental fortitude, commitment, a will to write. And a willingness to shut out everything else, endure the solitude.

It’s been a quiet fall. The sudden cancellation of our September travel plans left me at home with an empty slate. An abundance of empty mornings that screamed Writing Time. A lack of excuses. A productive stretch. A lot of time spent inside my own head.

Yet as I look back over the last few weeks, I can see the benefits I reap from my so-called solitary pursuit.

A chance meeting at a birding event with my husband, Rich, led to a coffee date with another nascent writer. She shared her passion for submitting stories to publications, reigniting my resolve to pursue more short pieces and send them out into the world. We swapped sources, favorite contests and writing goals all with a heavy dose of encouragement.

Through Lake Superior Writers, I have met local writers and now call many of them friends. Most are far more accomplished than I, yet generously share their knowledge, their experiences, their support. I can pour out my fears and inhibitions and they get it. They’ve been through it. Just recently, I spent several hours walking the woods of Lester Park and Hawk Ridge with two such women. With each crisp footstep and breath of Northwoods air, I relished the one-on-one connection, the common pursuit of elusive goals. No matter our skill levels.

My very first writing class was a week-long immersion in travel memoir, sequestered on beautiful Madeline Island. The twelve women in the class bonded by week’s end, sharing our writing aloud – hesitantly at first, then more eagerly as the week progressed. Last weekend, five of us gathered for dinner. We’ve managed a haphazard schedule of reunions since we first met four years ago. Of course, we all brought a piece to read. We still cheer one another on.

My own writing group met a few days ago. We’re only three in number, but we hold one another accountable. Critique each other’s works. One member has accurately dubbed it the Motivation Group. Once again, it’s the common bond of writing that unites us. Enriches our lives with this connection.

Today I just returned from the North Shore Readers and Writers Festival in Grand Marais. This bi-annual assembly of authors, instructors, book lovers and writers is the pinnacle of literary indulgence. For four days, I attended classes, listened to speakers and panels, and rubbed elbows with other writers all day long. Socializing over wine, meeting up for dinner, or just sitting in the same sessions widened my network of fellow writers and friends. But even better I could share my passion with like-minded folks. People who ground me. Reinforce my desire, and fully share the journey.

I came home exhausted but inspired. Ready to put my butt in the chair again. New ideas racing through my head. Suddenly, I don’t feel so alone anymore.

Rain and Shine

Four kids ages 1 to 9.  Two parents.  Two grandparents.  Three generations in one small retirement home.

What to do when it rains on your weekend plans?  Go out anyway!  The key is to work with the weather, not bemoan it.

Inspired by Anne Marie Gorham, of Lake Superior Beach Glass (who happens to be the daughter of my best friend in Jr and Sr High School), we headed out to Burlington Bay Beach in Two Harbors.  “The best time to find beach glass is when it’s raining,” grandson Ben informed me.  He’d seen enough of Anne’s videos in pelting rain to know.

And sure enough, he was right!  We forgot all about the raindrops while scouring the beach for those glistening shards.  It didn’t matter that most were tiny white specimens.  The mere fact that they were plentiful kept us peering, bending, picking and looking for more.  I admit to feeling giddy each time I plucked one from the rocks.  We scored some turquoise, green and one cobalt blue piece too.

Looking for beach glass 1 Looking for beach glass 2

We had visions of hiking on the North Shore in the brilliant fall foliage.  Instead, we decided to check out the raging torrents at Gooseberry Falls.  All that rainwater swelled the river beyond its banks, plummeting down to the lake with a thunderous roar.  Something tells me the kids found it more entertaining than fall colors.

Kennedys at Gooseberry Falls Ben at Gooseberry Falls

Passing the remainder of the day playing games, it was hard to imagine the rain would ever stop.  But Sunday morning dawned crisp and clear.  Seizing the moment, we started at The Deeps, where we inspected the new footbridge, then made our way to the Lester Park Playground.  There we stumbled on a Park and Rec “Pop-up” event.  The collection of lawn games and outdoor activities soon lured the kids away from the playground to try the offerings.

Mya and the Pop Up Park sign

Kennedy boys playing soccer in the Pop Up Park Mya tightrope walking in Pop Up park Mya playing Jenga in Pop Up Park

Karen was still intent on getting in that hike.  “I don’t want to go for a walk,” the kids wailed.  But as soon as we reached the COGGS Hawk Ridge Trail, the oldest two kids were off and running.  “This is so cool!”  They loved the advanced structures created for the most adventurous of mountain bikers, scrambling over the steep rock formations.  Lakeside spread out below us, a collage of yellows and greens, while leaves of every color carpeted the path.  Reining them in was impossible.  Their energy contagious.

Ben Mya on COGGS trailBen Mya on trailBen Mya overlooking cityIt’s hard to say which was better, playing in the rain or the sunshine.  I just know I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.

 

A Little Girl’s Prayer

I guess I’m not the only one moved to tears by finding Karen’s song.  It was heartwarming to know that I was able to convey the emotion of that experience well enough to invoke it in my readers.

Several of you have asked to listen to the recording.  I have added it to the original post, but here it is for your listening pleasure.  For those of you who get my posts by email, click here to listen to the recording.

Did you cry too?