I Love this Ride

As I strained against my bicycle pedals while advancing up the hill, debate raged in my head.  Rounding the corner I asked myself, should I or shouldn’t I?  Nearing the turn I pondered anew – what to do?

In my well ordered world, I would continue on with my planned early morning bike ride/workout.  I would complete my 30 miles, finish my breakfast toast slathered with peanut butter en route to the coffee shop, then perch on the front porch with a medium skim latte and write for several hours.  It’s what I do.

But possibility lurked.  It was a mild clear morning with the sun just rising, and the brilliant leaves told me they were approaching prime.  Not quite there yet, but the weather forecast promised ugly conditions for the next week.  The leaves might not outlast the ugly.

I had yet to perform my annual ritual. At least once a year I take a ride across the city of Duluth, perched on the hilltop following Skyline Drive with the harbor and lake far below.  This would be the perfect day to do so.  But it wasn’t in my plan.  And I always follow my plan.  Or do I?

I turned left.  Never mind that I had only a half full water bottle for a 40+ mile ride.  So what if my usual granola bar stash was in my other bike bag?  Forget the fact that my map of this route was in the same place.  I had to go for it.

Whizzing along in the early morning sunlight, the air alternated between hot humid blasts that fogged my glasses and the more habitual chilly air.  I felt loose and free.  The writing will wait.  The story will still get done.  I was doing something for myself, and it  felt good.

I had a good 20 mile ride through the countryside just to get to the opposite side of town.  But even that blossomed with fall colors.  They were all around me.  It’s what I had come for.

Fall colors Lavaque Road

Reaching the Information Center at Thompson Hill marked the beginning of Skyline Drive.  From there, the scenic drive snaked across the crest of the hill, weaving back and forth in a rolling ride through forests of fall colors.  My pace took a nosedive as I continually stopped to snap pictures, to gawk, to appreciate.

Skyline Drive fall colors 1 Skyline Drive fall colors 2 Skyline Drive fall colors 3 Skyline Drive fall colors 4

Normally, the appeal of Skyline is the view.  The panoramic spread of the St. Louis River, the harbor and Lake Superior is visible from multiple overlooks and is a real-life geography lesson.  But not today.  Blue smoky haze from the western wildfires hovered over the scene.  Across the water, Wisconsin was a blur.  The horizon erased.  The flat water on this calm day stretched into nothingness.  All of it was eclipsed by the vivid scenery in my immediate vicinity.

With one exception.  The quintessential Duluth experience – a thousand-foot ore boat was inching its way out of the harbor and making its final turn to pass under the Aerial Bridge.  In my “why not?” state of mind, I had all the time in the world to wait for it. Even if it resembled the scene from a faded black and white movie.

Ore boat approaching the bridge

Skyline Drive dumps out unceremoniously at the gates of UMD, and I dutifully skirted the campus.  But even that had its rewards, as I passed the flaming maples of Bagley Nature Area abutting a student parking lot.

The final stretch took me across Hawk Ridge where I bumped along the dirt road amid a gaggle of bird watchers observing the migration.  Then I twirled down Seven Bridges Road through a tunnel of gold – home territory and the terminus of my own driveway.

How glad I am that I followed my yearnings.  That I heeded the siren call and threw my plans to the wind.  And relished this last gasp of warm colorful weather.  Throughout it all, the same chorus kept repeating in my head: Oh, how I love this ride!  

Dip Dip and Swing

Our paddles keen and bright,
Flashing like silver;
Swift as the wild goose flight,
Dip, dip, and swing.

That old Girl Scout song infiltrates my brain, repeats over and over again, accompanying the strokes that propel our canoe.  I’ve been yearning for this.  There is no escape quite like launching a canoe and becoming one with the water.  Losing myself in the pristine wilderness, the tree-ringed lakes, and the silence broken only by loon calls and the swish of our paddles.

Molly Rich canoe Sawbill Lake

I’ve been lobbying for a trip to the Boundary Waters.  To camp and sit by the fire.  To look beyond at the brilliant stars.  To hope for an Aurora. To crawl out of the tent in the morning and drink my coffee while looking out at the calm water.  To set out and paddle the whole day long.  But it wasn’t in the cards.

While in Grand Marais with our son Erik and his wife, Katie, we went up the Sawbill Trail and rented two canoes for the day.  Rich and I paddled one, they shared one with their dog, Finley who rode complacently in the duffer spot.

Erik Katie paddling Sawbill Lake

It all came flooding back.  That Boundary Waters feeling, the seclusion, the lack of technology and urgency which pervades our lives.  Just us and the water.  Dip dip and swing.

We traveled the length of Sawbill Lake, surfing the rollers stirred up by a strong south wind.  All the while knowing we would have to paddle back again into that same wind.  But we forged onward regardless.  An 80 rod portage took us into Ada Creek where we found quiet backwaters to have a floating lunch.  Finley wondered why we didn’t portage more often so he could run.  It was all good.Erik Rich portaging canoes

Yes, it was a brutal return battling into the wind.  But it did the trick.  I didn’t think about COVID all day.  I didn’t worry about wearing a mask, washing my hands for 20 seconds or who was in my circle.  All I had to do was paddle.  Dip, dip and swing.

This morning Rich and I launched a canoe once again.  We are staying in a secluded lake home at Gunflint Pines Resort, which comes complete with private lakefront, a canoe, and our own fire ring on the shore.  Gunflint Lake is not quite in the Boundary Waters, but close enough.  The fog was just lifting from our end of the lake when we pushed off.

Our dock at Gunflint Pines

It was calm as we crossed the large lake in the early morning.  Our destination was Magnetic Lake, but we accidentally sidetracked into a quiet inlet instead.  I didn’t  care.  Nascent fall colors accented the forest reflected in the calm waters.  We pondered the international border that ran along our route, the US to our left, Canada on our right.  The rest of the world didn’t exist.  Dip, dip and swing.

Canoeing Gunflint LakeMolly canoeing Gunflint Lake

We couldn’t help but be attracted to the ornate golden estate that populated the opposite shore on Magnetic Lake.  It turned out to be on the island we were encouraged to encircle, and I insisted we do so.  I was intrigued with the intricate carvings on the perfectly maintained structures and flower boxes with red blooms.

Magnetic Lake

The wind came up and challenged us on our return.  It wouldn’t be a canoe trip without requiring a bit of extra effort.  The far shoreline advanced ever so slowly as we beat our way into the waves, back across the endless expanse of water.  We poured all we had into the task.  It’s all that mattered.  Just as I wanted.  Dip, dip and swing.

Loon Swimming Companions

For three years running I had a feud with the loons. We battled one another for my swimming space in front of the cabin, and invariably the loons won. With their fancy dances and alarmist yodeling, they drove me away. Away from swimming my laps. Away from their young chicks. Unseen but undoubtedly nearby in their nest.

I never did figure out where that nest was. But in loon logic it was too close for comfort. Too close to let a swimming human any closer.

By now I have been well trained. Starting each July, I scan the water for loons before pushing off from the dock. I double check the area as I near the widening in the reeds. The loon parents have radar and will speed in from the middle of the lake to fend off my advances. But not this year.

So far I have yet to encounter a single loon while swimming. Sadly, I know it means they have no chicks. Or perhaps they have moved their nest further afield. I hope it is the latter.

This morning a loon pair float into my space as I begin my swim. Hesitantly I breaststroke, keeping my head above water, my eyes trained on the loons. They remain calm. Floating, dipping their heads in the water, looking for fish. I try shouting to drive them away, but they ignore my silly cries, only giving a mild yodel to acknowledge my presence. So I swim on.Molly swimming with loons 1Molly swimming with loons 2

This is nothing like the protective threats of yore, which instilled a healthy fear and retreat. I know not to cross that line. But this feels different. I engage full lap swimming mode, crossing from one side of the reeds to the other and back again in a strong front crawl. Without the line in the bottom of a swimming pool, my laps tend to stray off course, so I steal looks now and again to make sure I am not veering closer to the loons. Still they float nonchalantly, willing to share the space.Molly swimming with loons 3

Underneath my minor victory lies a good dose of discomfort. They are still wild birds, after all, and unpredictable. I head for shore while I’m still ahead on this round. I send my loon friends a silent thanks for their company and forbearance. For letting me swim with them.

Next year the feud may resume.  I do want their chicks to survive. Just not near my swimming spot.  I would miss my loon swimming companions.Molly swimming with loons 4

All photos by Rich Hoeg, 365DaysOfBirds.com

Note: The telephoto lens makes the loons appear closer to me than they really were – they were about 5 yards away.

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.

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

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.

Vacation Dreams

For months, the word claimed ownership to weeks on our calendar. It feels like a lifetime ago that Rich and I sat down and plunked “Vacation” on three separate chunks of winter and spring. I knew the drill – if we didn’t dedicate the time early on, we’d fill up the calendar and never get away. But this time it wasn’t being busy that posed a threat.

As Rich’s eyesight issues progressed through the fall, we put our lives on hold. Ordinary outings like going for a walk, having dinner at a restaurant, attending a party all assumed an onerous significance. Could Rich manage it? The future meant later today, maybe tomorrow. Beyond that we could not see. The words languished on the calendar.

As winter’s cold, dry climate and brilliant snow reflections wreaked havoc with Rich’s eyes, we began to ponder the unthinkable. Might we have to become snowbirds? Would Rich have to give up his love of the Northwoods, his hunt for winter owls, and his passion for cross-country skiing to hibernate in a warm and humid climate that was kinder to his eyes? If that’s what it took to regain his eyesight, so be it.

Fortunately, the magic of Rich’s botox treatments turned our world around. With each stride forward, Rich regained aspects of his life he feared were lost forever, and we tenderly ventured to believe we could make plans again. So it was that I deleted late January’s “Vacation” week and replaced it with “Florida.”

Through the generosity of our friends, Arlene and Steve, we spent a glorious sunny week with them in Fort Myers. Rich and I were both there, but had distinctly different experiences.

For me, it was a week of indulging in long walks with Arlene, biking with Arlene and our friend Myra, lapping up the friendships. The constantly sunny days in the 70s salved my winter body. Ventures to Sanibel and Captiva delivered my requisite doses of beach and waves.  Dinners in the company of good friends capped each day.

Arlene and Molly at Ding Darling

Arlene and Molly at Ding Darling Myra, Arlene and Molly bikers Molly and Rich on Captiva beach Cocktail hour at Arlene and Steves Molly Steve Rich dinner outside at the club

While I reveled in the pure Florida vacation, Rich still faced a series of trials. If Rich’s eye troubles have taught us anything, it’s that nothing can be taken for granted. What the blepharospasm took away from him will take months to regain. Things that used to be second nature, now require conquering anew. His confidence is badly shaken. Even the air travel proved stressful.

On this trip, bicycling posed a major hurdle. Battling fear of failure, Rich took Steve’s bike out for a spin in the safe environs of the development. Hesitant at first, belief dawning gradually, he covered eight miles on the quiet roads. His text to declare success contained four exclamation points, five smiley faces! Over the remainder of the week he expanded his distances, braving the real world, even biking to a birding spot. It remains to be seen whether we will be able to resume our bike touring. For now we celebrate one success at a time.

Ever the birder, Rich researched wildlife preserves and stalked local birds with great success. Perusing his photos each day, I reveled in the beauty – envious of his finds, but fully aware of my lack of patience to find and watch these rarities. Photos would do. Virtually guaranteeing success, Rich lured the three of us out early one morning in search of burrowing owls. Sure enough, we found eight tiny owls perched on their burrows in the vicinity of a ball field in Cape Coral. They weren’t hard to spot – the hovels of this threatened species were cordoned off by plastic piping, their holes marked by wooden crosses. Birding for dummies, perhaps, but they were gosh darn cute.

Burrowing OwlPainted Bunting

Florida may not become our winter home after all, providing the botox keeps up its work. But our sojourn south had many healing benefits.

Merely going on vacation – something so basic, so normal – felt like our re-entry to the world. Rich started to believe again. The future began to stretch out ahead of us once more. And we renamed another Vacation segment on the calendar. Costa Rica, here we come! We might as well dream big.

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.

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.