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Home Planet

Archive for September 2010

The First Flush of Fall

   I don’t need a calendar to tell me what’s happening, and it doesn't matter where I am. I just have to open my eyes to see the change of seasons.

    The light has, for weeks now, had a golden cast as it slopes down over the tops of the fir, pine, chestnut and oak trees in my neighborhood. The air is cool and sweet in the morning, tinged with traces of rain the night before.

      The roses in my backyard and in the park are all in bloom, one last exuberant burst of color with flowers so large and heavy they bend the thin stems that hold them to the bush.

    Everywhere I go, I am surrounded by the flush of energy and impatience that comes with autumn.

     Recently, I climbed into the saddle of a trail-savvy horse on a ranch in Montana. But the moment I put my feet in the stirrups I could feel the vibration. The horse couldn’t stand still. He pranced and danced, shaking his head at every tug of the reins. Finally, surrendering to the knowledge that I was no match for him, I turned around and headed back to the stable.
    “What gotten into him?” I asked the cowgirl who took the frisky horse from me.
    “Oh, he can feel the changes coming,” she told me as she pulled him in. “They can get like that this time of year.”

    Then, last week, standing in an Oregon meadow just as the late afternoon sun washed across the clover, I stopped to watch a pair of Flickers as they moved back and forth between trees, perching and calling before moving on to hunt more insects. Robins, young adolescents still staying close to their mothers, always ready for an easy meal, flew low overhead, swooping across the field like a chorus of dancers on stage. Every creature was busy.

   When my flight landed and pulled into my own driveway, home at last, I dropped my bags in the house and took a minute to breathe, strolling around the flower beds, settling in before catching up on work and housework.

   I stopped to admire a rose I’d transplanted in June and noticed a twig, with three curling and drying leaves, blown from a nearby tree, draped around it like roses around the neck of the derby winner. It was the last of summer and the first of fall in a race - a dead heat - to mark the change of seasons.

   No calendar page can pinpoint when it begins. But the soft, subtle, signs are everywhere I look.
    

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

If I Could Take You to Yellowstone

    If I could take you to Yellowstone National Park, I would take you there on a sweet September morning. So early in the morning, the sky above the horizon was still a deep velvet blue and stars hadn’t yet faded and the moon still hung low on the horizon.
    I would drive you into the gates of the park just as the sun rises, when the mist is rising off the shaggy backs of great buffalo as they graze the vast grasslands framed by tall mountains. When the Mergansers are diving into the deep lake in search of breakfast. When the birds are beginning to sing, calling out to one another as they danced in the limbs of the tall pine trees. When the wolves are up and on the move, loping, striding, skimming the earth as they run. When the bears - already conscious of the shorter days and cooler nights and the long winter to come - are foraging for berries and the moose are running across the river, supporting great antlers, effortlessly, nobly, breathing puffs of steam as they stop to sniff the air.
    If I could take you to Yellowstone I would keep you there for days. We would see it all together, watching an ancient and foreign landscape in every direction. Dwarfed by the sheer magnitude of everything around us.
    We would paddle the perimeter of the lake at mid-day, watching the clouds sweep across the sky, tangling on the tall peaks before they moved on. We would point to boiling pools in the bitter white soil, sulfurous steam curling into amorphous shapes.
    I would stand with you at the Yellowstone Grand Canyon, high above an osprey’s nest, and I would hold your hand as we gazed down at the giant, jagged scar of the rift.
    If I could take you to Yellowstone, we would follow the trail down to the waterfall. To the place where the tranquil river turns into wild water and rushes over the rocks, falling, tumbling throwing up rainbows as it sweeps away down stream.
    We would look out over Artist Point, at the bands of mineral-painted soil lining the sandy walls of the rift. And the wind would tease us, tossing our hair, pulling at our clothing before moving on.
    If I could take you to Yellowstone we would gather with the crowd, the way the crowd has gathered for more than 100 years, and wait for the geyser. And we would clap and cheer when Old Faithful erupted, watching until the last arc of foam had fallen.
    If I could take you to Yellowstone, we would open our eyes each morning to a place that is like no other on earth. And at night, at the end of the long day, we would fall asleep to dreams of a wild and beautiful landscape.
 
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

A Path of Desire

    I rested the side of my head on the cool glass of the small oval of the airplane window and gazed down at the ground below the wing. We were flying east, moving beyond the Cascades and toward the Rockies, covering hundreds of miles an hour.
    Patchwork squares of gold and brown and green were stitched together across the landscape, rising and falling, rippling from one edge of the horizon to the other. Roads and highways dissected the pattern, connecting farms and towns and cities.
It all reminded me of a model train display, roads at right angles and tiny trees planted along fence lines and around boxy white farmhouses with driveways and walkways leading from the house to a barn or garage.
    The plane followed a river, wide, winding and serpent-like, snaking between mountains and through canyons, twisting and turning, carving deeper into the landscape, bordered by a ribbon of green fed by the moisture.
    From 36,000 feet above, I could see the bends and turns the river made as it rushed headlong toward the sea. It was like a giant living thing crawling across the earth.
    But what interested me, was that from my view, I could see where the river had run before, before it had changed its course. Ghost canyons stretching across the grassland, no longer filled with water, often choked with homes and entire communities. There were faint scars on the crust of the earth, evidence that a river, like people, when left to its own, choses its own path. It wears away at the boundaries, carving, breaking and widening the road it wants to travel.
    Just like us.
    I thought of the river again later that week, as I rode up Montana’s Beartooth Highway, following switchback to switchback, circling up to the top. Looking back down at where we’d been, the ribbon of asphalt and concrete unfurled behind me. To my right, I could see the faint track etched into the steep hillside, made long ago, by pack animals threading their way up to the top.
    The mountains were there first. But, like the river, the earliest people chose a desire path, the term landscape designers use for the shortcuts people and animals make. They wanted to get over the mountains so they made their own way. Later, trappers and miners and explorers followed that early trail. Then came the tourists, making another kind of pilgrimage.
     In the summer of 1931, during the bleakest part of the depression, work on the ambitious project of building the Beartooth Highway began and in the span of four short years, primarily 1932 to 1936, it was done. A desire path that covers more than 60 miles and reaches a summit of more than 10,000 feet. Today, three quarters of a century later, the road still shines.
    Standing at the summit, I looked up at the tall Montana sky already heavy with snow even on a late summer day. And I gazed over the edge of the plateau to the valley below.  And, for a moment, I was filled with a fine sense of happiness.
    There are roads and rivers and even invisible navigational routes in the sky that carry us to where others have been before. But occasionally, often when we least expect it, we find the courage and the freedom to create our own path of desire.
    

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

Goodbye, Apple Charlotte

     From the first time I stepped into her kitchen, Char Zyskowski became a special friend. I was a freelancer, relatively new to the area. I’d gotten a tip about a chef who held cooking classes in her home on the South Hill. I called, we talked, and then arranged a time to meet.
    The thing I remember most about that day is the fragrance that met me at the front door. Savory. Spicy. Warm.
    Char welcomed me and invited me into the kitchen. She told me to sit down at the table and asked if I would like a bowl of the soup she’d just made. I declined, saying it was against the rules. She stopped, turned around and looked at me.
    “How can you write about what I do if you won’t eat what I make?”
    How indeed?
     I shrugged off the rules, picked up my spoon and I was lost. It was the most delicious meal I’d ever tasted.
    Over bowls of soup and a basket of crusty homemade bread, we talked. She told me about the decision, at 49, to create a new life. About how difficult it had been to be separated from her husband and children.
    I’ve never forgotten how her face glowed when she talked about her delight in having her husband there with her from time to time.
    When he came to Portland, she told me,  everything was a little better. “The lights came on,” she said with a smile.
    She was a little nervous about the story. Worried that her neighbors would complain. She’d just started teaching the classes and didn’t want traffic to be a problem. By the time our meal and the interview were finished, I was head over heels. I signed up for her cooking class. And then another. And another.
    Char knew I had no real desire to be a fantastic cook. I just simply loved being in her home, surrounded by books and pottery and flowers, listening to her laughter and watching her do what she loved to do. I sipped a glass of wine and watched the others fall under her spell. I brought my adult children with me so they could learn the basics and feed themselves as they moved out of my home.
    I trolled those cooking classes for interesting stories and met wonderful people. When I joined the staff of the paper, a controversial hire, I joined other reporters for more of her classes.
    When we sat down at the end of the class, to eat what we had prepared, we were bathed in candlelight and flushed with satisfaction. I was, at those dinners, less of the outsider. She knew that, too. In the end, I learned how to make a good pot of soup and she crosses my mind each time I chop and simmer. I learned to make peace.
    Char encouraged me, challenged me and, at times, comforted me. She asked me to help her write a cookbook.
    I was at her table, with the newspaper staff who was preparing a meal for the family of my young editor who had passed away suddenly, when Char told us that she was having surgery the next day. It was one of the most poignant moments of my life. The news wasn’t good.
    Over the next few years, as she continued to battle the thing that threatened her life, whenever I spoke to her, she showed the same strong spirit.
    “When it comes back,” she told me. “I’ll fight it.” And she did. The last time I saw her she was smiling, enjoying a day in the park with her husband.
  Several weeks ago, I was at the thrift store thumbing through books. I picked up one on setting a beautiful table. Just inside the front cover was Char’s name, signed in her own hand. Holding it I accepted that Char’s kitchen was closed forever.
    I bought the book and brought it home and put it next to the notebooks from her classes; the spattered and dog-eared recipes she’d shared.
    I was out of town when she passed away. Moving from one pocket of weak service to another as I drove through Yellowstone Park, I got emails telling me that she was gone. Staring out the window at the mountains in the distance, I said goodbye to a dear friend.
    Over the years, Char Zyskowski tutored me. She encouraged me and inspired me. She fed me in every way.   

Back to School Promises

I got a call this morning from an old friend, a woman who was there with me when our children were small. Those children are all grown up now (the “baby” is 15) but each year, at the beginning of September, we can't help but think back to the days when we had to gather books, crayons, lunches and sometimes bits of beloved “blankies” and fit it all into little backpacks. She called to ask me if I still had the “list.” I do.

I wrote the list in the 1990s but looking at it now, I think it still applies:

(Originally printed Monday, September 2, 2002)


Start the school year with promises
Cheryl-Anne Millsap - Correspondent

My children know that on the first day of school, maybe even the first weeks of school, I'll get up early to make their eggs just the way they like them. Or arrange their pancakes and bacon into smiley faces.

They also know that by mid-February, there will be mornings I'll dig through the breadbox for power bars left over from Bloomsday, so they can eat breakfast on the school bus.

I know that my children will start the school year with sharpened pencils and carefully organized backpacks, and by May their desks will be full of dangerously unwound spiral notebooks, missing assignments and dried up markers.

Going to school can be hard work. Getting children to school can be hard work, too. We all (parents and children) start each year with the best of intentions, but the real world, with its deadlines and gray skies and big misunderstandings, comes crashing in on us. The little things, like smiley face breakfasts and organized backpacks fall by the wayside.

That's why before the craziness starts, I pull out the “back to school” list and put it on the refrigerator. It isn't a list of school supplies, or a list of things that need to be taken care of before school starts. It is a list of promises; part contract and part covenant. It tells my children what they can expect of me and what I expect of them in return. I keep it on the door of the refrigerator, pinned by magnetic poetry, hidden behind artwork and band calendars, until the edges curl and summer vacation comes at last.

I wrote the list years ago, before my youngest daughter was even born. I wrote it when I was a sleep-deprived, over-committed young mother trying to find the energy to get three children up and out the door every morning. I needed to remind us all that even though I wasn't going to school with them each day, I was a partner in their education.

Over the years my friends saw the list and asked for a copy to put on their refrigerators. Sometimes, teachers asked for a copy to put in their classrooms.

 

Back to school

I'll wake you up and get you to school. You can't learn if you aren't there.

I'll put you to bed when I think you need to go, and I'll make you stay there. You can't learn if you can't stay awake.


I'll buy you clothes that fit the season and fall somewhere between totally boring and incredibly cool. You can't learn if you are thinking about what you are wearing.

I'll help you have fun after school and on weekends, but I won't let you take on too much. You can't learn if you are too tired.

I'll give you a place to do your homework and I'll give you a helping hand, but I won't do it for you. You can't learn if you don't study.

I will stand beside your teacher, and together we will show you the wonders of the world. But you have to do the hard part and put your heart into everything you do. You can't learn if you don't care.

(You can hear an audio version of the column on PRX here.)

The Universal Language

    What struck me most, on a quick trip to Vancouver, British Columbia, were the voices I heard as I explored the town. One nationality after another passed me on the street, laughing, talking in a dozen languages.
    On my last morning, I sat across the table from an elegantly-dressed business woman and we chatted as we sipped our tea and coffee.
    The conversation turned, as it so often seems to do with women, to our children. She has grandchildren and I still have a teenager in the house, but we shared a common bond. We’d both stayed home with our children as babies before making the difficult decision to go back to work.
     “It was not long enough, but then it never feels long enough,” she said with a slight shrug, her voice still carrying traces of her native Greece. I agreed. It had been hard to leave home each morning. It still is. Before flying to Vancouver I’d whispered my goodbyes into tousled hair and sleepy ears.
    Boarding the SkyTrain back to the airport, I sat down in the vacant seat next to a young man. We gazed out the windows without speaking.
    At the next stop, the doors opened and an older couple got on. The woman sat down on the first open seat and the man moved across the car to lean on the rail, their suitcases braced against his legs. The doors closed and the train moved on.
     I realized the woman was crying, mopping at her eyes. The more she tried to dry her tears, the more they fell. Soon, the tissue she held was sodden. She would regain her composure, only to have the tears fall again.
    The man - her husband - watched her. He was in his 60s, but when he looked down at her he looked like a lost little boy, not sure what to do or say.
    The woman was embarrassed and people were trying not to stare. Speaking German, she asked her husband  if he had a handkerchief. He patted his pockets and shook his head. The little-boy look again.
    I wondered if they’d come to Vancouver to visit children or grandchildren and on departure the miles were looming large.
    Suddenly, the silent man beside me zipped open his backpack and reached in pulling out a small package of tissues. He stood up, careful to move with the swaying car, and walked over to offer it to the woman. She looked up surprised but, smiling gratefully, took a tissue.
    The older man’s eyes followed the younger man back to his seat. He looked grateful, as well.
    “You were kind to do that,” I said, breaking our silence, and he looked down at his shoes.
    “Yes, well…” he said in the honeyed tones of a French accent. “It is hard.”
    Then the train pulled into the airport station, the doors opened and we all went our separate ways.
    I navigated the long lines at security and customs and the boarding gate. I took off my shoes, declared my goods and offered up my passport. But as I went through the motions, the woman from the hotel, the couple and the student were on my mind
     For all I know, the young man beside me had just said his own goodbyes to someone he loved. In a way, the woman might have been crying his tears, too.
    Goodbye is difficult in any language. But love, like a tear, or a smile or a gesture of compassion, is universal. We each speak it in our own way.

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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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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