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Home Planet

Archive for July 2010

Golden Gates

   The tall, cathedral-like arches of the Golden Gate Bridge loomed ahead as I followed the line of cars in front of me. The day was overcast and traffic was shrouded in fog, draped in the mist blowing in from the bay.

    I was a rolling island. All around me a sea of people were buckled into cars and walking on the sidewalks at the sides of the bridge, but alone in the car, behind the wheel, I was singularly solitary. And that was fine by me. 

    There is something about traveling alone that centers the psyche and opens the imagination. It is a rare pleasure.

    There are no distractions; no music, no television, no idle chatter. There is no worry about housework or making dinner or folding laundry. It is a chance to leave behind the matters that worry and distract us.

    For those of us who have spent years, happy years, at the beck and call of a busy family, the idea that we are free to board a plane or a train, that we can slip behind the wheel of a car and simply move away from it all, is exhilarating. The freedom goes to your head when you least expect it.  It’s not that we want to run away forever. It’s just that time away can be good medicine. The luxury of listening to our own minds refreshes and renews us.

    I love my family. I love my home. I like being with the people who mean the most to me. But now and then, when I can arrange it, I take off on my own. No spas. No workshops. No schedule. Just a dot on the map; a plane, train or automobile, and a place to breathe in the peace and quiet.

    On the surface, age has its cruelties. Gravity takes a toll. The years are etched into our faces. We become invisible, overshadowed by the young and beautiful. We learn to find our way without any of the tricks and trappings we relied on when we were just starting out.

    But, as one eventually discovers, time bring its own grace. We discover that on the inside we are always young. We are still who we always have been. And the fine sense of adventure that comes with any journey is evergreen.  

    Travel is the bridge between who we are, who we have been, and the person we want to be. A trip to a new place spans the the years, drawing out memories of where we’ve been and dreams of where we long to go. Each experience is, when you think about it, sweetened by the knowledge that time moves quickly and years have the stronger wings. Fly now, something inside us whispers.

   Passing over the San Francisco Bay and back onto solid ground, I looked back at the Golden Gate in my rearview mirror, at the perfect metaphor for what I was experiencing.

    I know a time will come when I’m bound to my home, or some place meant to be my home, and my wings will be clipped forever.

    Until then, for as long as possible, my life will be a road from here to there.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

Shadow Pony


     I was instantly awake when I opened my eyes to a clear, bright, Montana morning. There was no swimming through murky dreams to surface into consciousness, stretching and yawning and blinking. One minute I was asleep, the next, I wasn’t.


     Through  the open window I could see the peaks of the eastern edge of Glacier National Park in the distance. It was early, but the sunrise had already stained them, tinting the bands of stone with soft color.


    Still lying on my side, one hand beneath the pillow under my cheek, I studied the mountain range visible over the stream that rippled past the hotel and fed Saint Mary Lake. The sound of water rolling over stone washed the air.


    As I lay there, gazing at one of the tallest mountains, I noticed on its face a shadow shaped exactly like a pony in full gallop. Not in the amorphous way a cloud might resemble a leaping dolphin to you, but a steam engine to the person lying on the grass beside you. The image was stark and clear. It was as if someone had painted the silhouette of a wild, running, horse directly onto the side of the mountain.


    I blinked but it was still there when I opened my eyes. I turned away but it was there when I turned back. I got up, walked around the room for a minute and then got back into bed. The pony was still running.  Convinced I wasn’t imagining it, I surrendered and lay there watching until the sun shifted in the sky and, finally, the pony was gone.


    I’d spent a week immersed in Blackfeet tribal history and customs and I was still pondering what I had seen and heard.Young Blackfeet climbed the same mountains searching for the vision that would give them direction, on a quest to find an answer to the riddle of who they are. Some still do. It crossed my mind that the mountain might have brought the vision to me.


    The day before we had driven up to a high meadow overlooking a canyon and watched as men rode out to round-up a herd of horses. The cowboys were bringing in the herd so they could choose bucking horses for the night’s rodeo. They disappeared into the horizon but soon rode back over the ridge driving the herd down to the pens. We felt them before we saw them. The horses ran like the wind and the ground shook with the thundering of their hooves.


     They were driven into a corral and the mares and foals were separated into one pen and the rest were “spilled” into anther.


     A magnificent stallion, strong and powerfully built, as black as anthracite with a while blaze on his forehead, protested his capture. He reared and kicked, tossing his wild mane and lashing out with powerful hooves. He bullied and chased the younger stallion, butting and kicking with his back legs, biting deeply into the younger horse’s back.


    The foals whinnied, close at their mother’s sides and the mares circled protectively. Three recently neutered palomino geldings stood at the fence and watched, nickering softly.
    A tall, soft-spoken Blackfeet horseman with the unlikely name of Mouse Hall, called the shots. His crew worked fast, seemingly able to intuit what the horses would do next, calling out “Come here Mama” or “Get in there little fella.”


    When the stallion - “the crazy s.o.b” - raged at his predicament they pulled in a mare and foal to calm him, to reassure him that even penned, quivering and pawing in fear and impatience, he was still the master.


    I sat on the fence, lost in the wild beauty of it all. Finally, the horses were loaded and ready to go.


     The sound of hoofbeats was still echoing in my mind when I closed my eyes. It’s guess it’s no wonder that I opened them to see the shadow of a pony running across a tall Montana mountain.     


Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. Her audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com.

Under a Starlit Sky

     It’s been a long time since I was invited to a backyard campout. My 
children are old enough to get in the car and go to a campground with 
friends when they feel like it. Or, to take a climb into the wilderness and do 
some serious backpacking without me. So when my youngest, the only one 
left at home full-time, pitched a tent in the backyard and threw in a sleeping
 bag for me, I crawled right in.


    It’s funny how a landscape you know so well changes at night. Lying
 in the dark, looking up at the stars, the world is a very different place.


     Suddenly, ordinary neighborhood sounds become foreign and exotic.
The dogs, stretching and shuffling in their sleep in the grass beside us. The
 whispery footsteps of the cats as they prowl in the shadows, sniffing around
 the tent, chasing bugs in the hedgerow. The Amtrak train pulling into the
 downtown station, as it does in the wee hours of every morning, sounded
 closer. The hollow sound of cars on the road and solitary footsteps on the 
sidewalk in the darkness.


    My daughter and I lay there, side by side, snuggled into sleeping
 bags and cocooned in the narrow tent. The clouds scudded across the 
moon. We watched satellites track and airplanes blink as they passed.


    Occasionally, one of us would point to the place where a shooting star had just streaked, already a memory. And we talked.


    Just days away from her 15th birthday, she has a lot on her mind.
One year of high school behind her, three more ahead. She’s beginning to
 think about college and leaving home. I’m starting to think about a life with 
no more children in the house.


    Darkness is a good cover for things you need to talk about but just
 don’t get around to, or can’t find the courage to tackle when the sun is
 shining. Words whispered on pillows, indoors or out, carry great power. 
I lay there, listening, offering advice when I had it and comfort when I
 could.


    As we talked, thinking about all we were both leaving unsaid, I 
realized once again that growing up, like growing old, takes guts. Neither is
 easy to do. Either way there’s a lot to think about. And, in the right place, at
 the right time, with the right person, a lot to talk about, too.


    There were longer silences between us until finally, I heard the slow,
deep breathing that told me she was asleep.


    I lay there, dozing, lost in my own thoughts, until the birds announced the coming sunrise.


    At daybreak I crawled out of the tent and she followed a bit later. The 
thread of conversation was put away, like yarn wrapped around knitting 
needles, to be pulled out again on another night starry night.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be
heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the
author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com
  

The Last of the Firsts

I picked up my youngest daughter from camp yesterday. This year, she wasn't a camper. She was a counselor-in-training.  She spent almost two weeks away, learning to think and act like a counselor. It's a big transition with a lot of responsibility. Growing up is sometimes hard to do.

As we gathered up her things and drove home, I was reminded of the first time she went away to camp. I wrote a column about that, too. It was first published on July 4, 2005…

I just want all these firsts to last forever

Cheryl-anne Millsap
The Spokesman-Review
July 4, 2005
 

My youngest child, the little one, went away to camp for the first time this summer. It was a big milestone. There were a few tears and there was a lot of separation anxiety. For me, anyway. As far as I can tell, my daughter is doing just fine.

I don’t know why I’ve had such a hard time adjusting to her absence – the longest we’ve ever been apart – it’s not like I haven’t already sent three other children off to camp for the first time. I’ve been here before. I know she will have a wonderful experience. And I’ll survive. And we’ll both look forward to the next time.

But, you see, I can’t forget that this is my last child and that means every first is also the last.

One of the sweetest, least complicated, rewards of parenting is the pleasure of being the one who opens the door to a wide, wonderful world for a child.

Just as I did for my other children, I held my youngest child and dipped her toes in the ocean and showed her the mountains for the first time. I read the first poem and sang the first song she ever heard. I fed her ice cream, and peaches and chocolate for the first time.

She is almost 10 years old. We’ve passed first words, first steps, first birthday and first grade, forever. She’s gotten her first bicycle, and her first stitches.

I know it sounds melodramatic. I know there are still so many firsts to look forward to. She’ll move on to middle school and then high school. Then, all too soon, there will be a first date, first kiss, and the first broken heart. She’ll take that first drive, and before we know it, move away for that first day of college. She’ll get her first job, her first house or apartment and, perhaps, her first child.

She has a lifetime of firsts ahead of her, but more and more, what she will do and learn and experience won’t involve me.

Now, she is striding confidently out into the world, and I’m the one taking baby steps. I won’t be able to keep up.

She will be home in a few days. And when I pick her up I suspect we’ll both be a little more independent, a little more grown-up.

My daughter went away to camp and I cried. But it wasn’t just the thought of a long week without her that brought tears to my eyes. It was the reminder that the little girl who dropped my hand – the hand she had been clinging to – and ran off to play with her new friends, is my last child, and my last chance to get it right.

She is my last chance to see life for the first time.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

 

 

Red-winged Blackbird

     Driving across the country, watching the miles fly past, the view from my car window was constantly changing. Lush southern forests gave way to open farmland. The scarred landscape of the badlands flowed into the vast prairies. Miles of grassland rose to meet the peaks of the Rocky Mountains.


    What I was leaving faded into where I was going.


    Except for the chattering of the children in the back seat, we were quiet. Lost in our own thoughts.


    It is no small feat to pack up a family and move to the opposite end of the country. People do it all the time, but this frequency is deceiving. It is not a simple thing. Saying goodbye is never easy, especially when you are taking children from the only place they have ever known. By the time the car was loaded and we were on our way, we were automatons, machines moving to complete the task, so emotionally overwhelmed we could no longer talk about the path we were taking. The decision had been made. The truck full of boxes was already on the road. The new house was waiting.


    Open to the adventure while feeling the pain of separation, we put the children into the van, waved goodbye to those we were leaving behind, and drove away.


    I had four days to watch the world as we counted down the miles. Each change of the landscape - and there were many - quietly thrilled me. I kept this to myself, not wanting it to look as though I wasn’t sad about leaving friends and family. I was. But part of me was ready to move on.


    Gazing out the window, it eventually occurred to me that there was one constant. One familiar thing on the road with us.


    In every state, along every highway, in the marshes and wetlands and in tiny pools by the roadside, I could see from my window small black birds as they perched on reeds and cattails. Bobbing in the wind, dipping and rising with each breeze, when they flew, the flash of color under their wings gave the birds a name. They were Red-winged Blackbirds.


    Red-winged blackbirds are common across most of the United States. They thrive in reedy ponds, irrigation ditches and meadows along highways as well as urban, suburban and rural areas.


    If I were to visualize my life as a photo album, Red-winged Blackbirds would be the constant. Always in the background. Driving down the Alabama backroads of my childhood, along the highways across the continent and even now the parks and ponds of the town where I live, I can see the brilliant scarlet flash as they fly. I can hear the rusty-hinge call of the males and the sharp chatter of nesting pairs.


    Anthropomorphic, I know, but I’ve always thought that Red-winged Blackbirds are good teachers. They show, by example, how simple it should be to be content and productive, to be filled with song for no other reason that the sun is up and shining or the wind is making the tall grasses dance. Red-winged blackbirds easy to dismiss. They are only beautiful when they spread their wings. That’s when their true colors show.


    I left the south more than a decade ago. The children we pulled along with us are grown, only one teenager left at home. They remember the lives they had, but that was then. Their home is in the northwest now.


    And the same is true for me.


    It was a good move. I’ve built a career here. I don’t know if that would have happened if I had stayed in the nest we’d built.


    Taking a cue from the little blackbird, I’ve come to understand that I am the woman I have always been. It’s just that no one noticed what I could do until I spread my wings and flew away.    
 Click here to hear the song of the Red-winged blackbird.


Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

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About this blog

Cheryl-Anne Millsap's Home Planet column appears each week in the Wednesday "Pinch" supplement. Cheryl-Anne is a regular contributor to Spokane Public Radio and her essays can be heard on Public Radio stations across the country. She is the author of "Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons."

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