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Posts tagged: home planet

The Upside of Jet Lag

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)  

 

    The upside of jet lag, and I suppose it takes a certain kind of optimism to even search for an upside, is that you sometimes find yourself awake and alone deep in the night. Or, at least, that’s what happens to me. For days after a trip my internal clock is upended. While everyone else is tucked in and sound asleep, I am a ghost. I tiptoe through the house making tea and toast. With the muffled whine of jet engines still ringing in my ears and a stuffy head thanks to the combined coughs and colds of hundreds of passengers packed into a 10-hour flight, I wrap myself in blankets and sit on the chaise lounge by the window in my living room with wool socks on my feet and a box of tissues by my side. I am miserable.
    

    But, I have discovered, there is a gift. When you are awake - half-awake as the case may be - in the dark and quiet world, you are free to think. Wrapped in warm blankets watching the snow fall on the other side of the glass, a comforting mug of hot tea in your hands, you can plan, imagine and dream. Who cares if you have to struggle to remember dates and names? If you’re too sluggish to do more than fall back against the pillows. Under the influence of too much travel and too little sleep, one is free to play with memory and ambition like a puzzle. The pieces can be arranged in whatever way suits you best.    
    

    Back from a December trip to Germany, cruising down the Rhine River past castles and villages and light-studded Advent markets; after navigating snowstorms, airport closures, cancelled flights and last-minute schedule changes, arriving just in time for Christmas with my family, I spent the last days of the year in just that condition. Exhausted, congested, confused and restless at night and too sleepy to function well by day, I cocooned in thick blankets. I looked back over the previous months. I measured my progress against the plans I’d made. I was too tired to run from my mistakes so there, in the darkest hours of the night, I let them catch up with me. There was, as is usually the case, plenty to answer to.
    

    I looked at the year ahead. I lay there and thought about what I really want to achieve. Maybe it is my age, my place in life, but when I really considered it, I realized the list is surprisingly short. I want less now than I’ve ever wanted before. The important things still matter: good health and happiness for myself and my family, time to daydream and write, freedom to travel and explore. But I’m no longer inclined to tilt at windmills. Let them spin. I’ve learned to choose my battles.
    

    Although it didn’t feel that way at the time, those hours by the window, awake in a dark house illuminated by the moon shining down on a snowy world, were the best gift I received. I could see where I’ve been. And where I want to go. And, perhaps this is the most important thing of all, I made peace with where I am.

 

Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes 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
       

  

Start the new year on a new note

I know you’re not really in the mood to listen to your mother, but I can’t help it. I have something to say. And, since I don’t want to chase you around, texting and calling, nagging and whining into your ear, I decided to put it down in this note. So, here goes:

December is drawing to a close. A new year is only hours away.  This calls for some kind of recognition.
I know it sounds old fashioned, but I am one of those people who believes in new beginnings. Even after all I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a lot, I continue to cling to the idea that old mistakes, old habits and old heartaches can be left behind and that each of us, without the weight of what can hold us down and hold us back, has the potential to do amazing and wonderful things.

I believe that for you, too.

So, do me a favor. Take a minute and think about how just fortunate you are. You have the luxury of having a family and a home to push against. You don’t have to worry about where your next meal will come from or whether you’ll have a warm place to sleep or what kind of disaster tomorrow might bring. You have a home base. No matter how far you wander or how many mistakes you make, you will always be welcomed back into the fold.

Try to find a minute in every day to remember those things.


You have a brand new year ahead of you. Our sunrises and sunsets are numbered. Every square on the calendar is a gift. Unwrap it carefully. See something rare and wonderful in every day. Find a new way to experience the world around you.


Feel the sunset. Taste the music. Listen to the mountains and take hold of the sky.
Read a poem, go to the symphony, see a play. Learn everything you can. Be brave. Be kind. Be available to those who love you.

Remember the good times and let the bad times go. Learn what you can from them and then toss them into the air like so much dust. Do your homework. Take your vitamins. Call your mother.
Every once in a while go through the photo albums. Watch old home movies. See those kids? The ones who had no clue what they were doing, who dressed in dorky clothes and smiled those big goofy smiles? Show a little mercy. We were young. We were in love with our babies and nothing has changed that in any way.

There, that’s all I wanted to say. The next 365 days are yours. They are a blank canvas. Go out an paint them with colors your father and I could never have imagined.



Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes 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



  

When silence falls like snow





    The dog scratched at the door, asking to go outside. For days the city had been wrapped in a front of arctic air that swept down from the north and wouldn’t leave us. It was so cold that the doorknob burned against the palm of my hand when I turned it and the first breath shocked me, making me gasp.


    The dog rushed out into the darkness, disappearing into the backyard. He rolled in the snow, happy to be out of the too-warm house - too warm if you’re wearing a fur coat - and then stood still, sniffing the air.
    I wasn’t dressed for the weather but I stepped out and closed the door behind me. It was so beautiful I was pulled out into the night.


    In the cold, pure, silence that falls with snow, we stood there, alone in the dark. The air was so cold the snowflakes were thin and sharp, like frozen shards of broken rain swirling around me. I could feel them land on my face and in my hair. The sky was filled with crystals and the hard, crusted snow glittered.
    I pulled my robe tight, tucking my hands under the collar, feeling the chill creep in through the soles of my boots.


     Every breath I took lingered, hanging in the air around me, a cloud of proof that I was there in that cold place, warm and alive.


            Looking up, the sky formed a dome over me. For a moment, I was encased in a frozen bubble. There was no sound except the white noise of snow falling and landing on the roofs of the houses on the street, collecting on the boughs of the Ponderosa pines, falling to the ground around me. I listened to the sound of my heartbeat in my ears.


    I could, in that moment, imagine that I was in a snow-globe. I was a song, a carol, a witness to a silent night filled with peace and contentment. I was cold only because I chose to be cold. And, when I chose again, I could walk back into a warm and welcoming shelter. I was reminded that so many men, women and children do not have that simple luxury.


    Through the windows I could see the rooms of my house glowing with light and warmth. The Christmas tree stood in the corner of the living room, strung with lights and ornamented with family history. The cat was asleep by the fireplace. There was the familiar clutter of books and newspapers and coffee cups. The fragrance of food still hung in the air. It was, at that moment, a place of comfort and joy.


    The dog shook the snow from his coat and brought me back from my thoughts. Together, we walked, taking our time, back through the door leaving the silent night behind.

       

Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes 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
  

Bailing out of Christmas

    Driving through town, even though it wasn’t very late, the city was quiet. It was Christmas Eve and most people were already wherever they were going to be for the night.  There was no traffic, the buildings downtown were dark. No one was out walking on the sidewalk.


    As we drove past the courthouse, we stopped at a red light at an intersection and I glanced over at an office that was brightly lit. It stood out in the dark quiet of the rest of the street.


    Through the wide front window, I could see a man sitting behind a desk, a heavyset man in his shirtsleeves, writing on a piece of paper. In front of him was a couple, a middle-aged man and a woman. They were well-dressed, wearing coats, as though they’d hurried in from the cold and forgotten to take them off. There was something about the way they sat, close together, leaning on one another for support, slightly bent, as though they were folding into themselves, that made me take a closer look.


     Their faces were composed but there was an air of sadness around them. A deep weary sadness..
    The scene looked like an Edward Hopper painting; the angular, starkly furnished office, the harsh light pouring from the windows and spilling across the sidewalk, and the people, three people with closed and shuttered faces.


     Maybe it was their age, close to my own, or the sadness that radiated from them, or the way they sat so close together, but something made me think the couple might be parents there to help a child. On a night when everyone else was celebrating, they’d gotten a call and dressed carefully before going down to post bail. On the night when in the past they might have been pulling hidden presents  down from the attic, assembling a bicycle, or building a doll house, they were downtown signing papers and writing a check.


    The light changed and we drove on, but I had a lump in my throat.
Somehow, the fact that it was Christmas Eve made everything worse.


    I don’t really know what was happening in that office, I filled in the blanks with my imagination. But each year I think of that couple and the scene I witnessed. They remind me that in the bright artificiality of the season there is always another side. In spite of the tinsel, the trees, the candles, some struggle, some grieve, some slog through the holiday burdened with real heartache. And some, like the man behind the desk, simply go about their business. Of course, that’s what we’re trying to forget this time of year. We decorate and shop and party, putting reality on hold for as long as we can. But it’s there. It’s always there. 




Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes 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 Naked Truth About Tom

 

Dear Ms. Millsap,
Several years ago you wrote an article in the Spokesman Review about your daughter and a picture of a turkey. I thought it was very funny and I gave copies to some of my friends. I even sent one to my 82 year old mother.
This year I lost that clipping and was hoping you could send me a copy.
Happy Turkey Day!
 Lois

It happens every year. Each November somebody sends me a note like the one below. So here's a copy of the piece I'm most requested to read or share. I've come to think of as the Turkey Story:

 
November 23, 2006

Let’s all give thanks for the bird – and the bees

 
 

For most people, Thanksgiving is a time to reflect on what we’ve been given, and savor the scents of crisp autumn days and pumpkin pie.

For me, it’s a little more complicated.

One November afternoon when my daughter was in kindergarten, I picked her up after school. She bobbed out to the car and crawled into the back seat.

“What did you do today?” I asked. She couldn’t wait to tell me.

“We learned that boys are different from girls,” she chirped.

Looking into the rearview mirror, I could just see the top of her head.

“My teacher told us that boys have a thing the girls don’t,” she added.

“Well, yes they do …,” I said cautiously.

I couldn’t think of anything else to say, so we were quiet for a moment. Then she piped up again. “That’s how girls know that boys are boys,” she said. “They see that thing that hangs down and they know that he is a boy.”

I mentally calculated the distance home. Our five-minute commute already felt like an hour.

“Did you know that when the boys see a girl they puff up?” My palms were beginning to sweat. “Um … well ….”

I was still searching for something new to say, to change the subject, when she asked, “Why do the girls like the boys to have those things?” Well I didn’t know what to say. I mean, what woman hasn’t asked herself that question at least once?

“Oh, well … um …,” I stammered.

She didn’t wait for my answer. She had her own. “It’s ‘cause it moves when they walk and then the girls see that and that’s when they know they are boys and that’s when they like them. Then the boy sees the girl and he puffs up, and then the girl knows he likes her, too. And then they get married. And then they get cooked.”

That last part confused me a bit, but on the whole I thought she had a pretty good grasp on things.

As soon as we got home and I pulled into the garage, she hopped out of the car, fishing something out of her school bag.

“I drew a picture,” she said. “Do you want to see?”

I wasn’t sure I did, but I looked at it anyway. I had to sit down.

There, all puffed up, so to speak, looking mighty attractive for the ladies, was a crayon drawing of a great big tom turkey. His snood, the thing that hangs down over his beak, the thing that female turkeys find so irresistible, was magnificent. His tail feathers were standing tall and proud.

She was a little offended that I laughed so hard at her drawing, and I laughed until I cried. But when I told her I loved it – and I did – she got over her pique.

That was the end of that, for her anyway. But I’m not so lucky.

Every year I remember that conversation.

And to be honest, I haven’t looked at a turkey, or a man, the same way since.

 

Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes 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 One Who Was

(photo of George Ohr courtesy Ohr-O'Keefe Museum)

 

 

    Once, over a cup of coffee, late into the evening when confidences are easily shared, a friend leaned close to me and said, “I am meant for something special. I know I am. Since I was a little girl I’ve believed I was meant to do something significant.” She stirred the coffee in her cup, silent for a moment, before adding in a frustrated whisper. “ I just wish to hell I knew what it was.”
    My friend, who spends each day trapped in middle-management purgatory, was worried that she was running out of time. That she might have missed her chance to be whatever it was she was meant to be. It is a uniquely human condition.
    Just the other day, standing in a museum on the sugar white coast of Mississippi, I remembered her words.
    I was in Biloxi for the opening of the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum. A place that will hold, among other treasures, pieces made by Biloxi’s driven and eccentric potter, George Ohr.
    Ohr, in the jargon of the South, was a character. A man who was consumed by his passion for throwing pots and creating one-of-a-kind pieces. Reading about him, I was struck by his description of what happened the first time he put his hands on clay.
    “When I found the potter’s wheel I felt it all over like a wild duck in water,” he wrote.
    It was then that I remembered what my friend had said. Like so many, she’s still looking for that kind of experience.
    Ohr’s story is compelling. Recognizing his fate the moment he touched clay, he was consumed by it. He threw himself into making difficult and unusual pieces. “I had to do lots of work and hard and heavy,” he wrote. “But all is light and easy when the will and love of it is there and when one gets really enthusiastic they will forget to get hungry.”
    Ohr recognized his gift when he held it in his hands. And, he believed in the power of what he’d made. In spite of the constant struggle for financial success, he archived much of his work it, refusing to sell his best pieces, preferring instead to keep his collection intact.  He stored 8,000 pieces, telling his family that the work was to be kept until the time when the collection “may be purchased by the nation.”
    Each of us searches, some throughout an entire lifetime, for the thing that will make us sing. For the passion that will ignite and inspire us. My friend, in her midnight confession, admitted she still longs to find the spark that will light the same kind of flame inside her.
    Reading about George Ohr, I admired his conviction that he was doing what he was meant to do. On a wall just inside the museum, next to the gift shop, there is a large photograph of Ohr. He is upside down, his feet pointed up to the ceiling. Beside the photo, is this quote.
    “This pot is here and I am the potter who was.”
    Change a word or two and it could be the message any of us hopes to leave behind. This painting is here and I am the painter who was. This book is here and I am the writer who was. This symphony. This scientific discovery. This marriage. These children. This love.
    Even Frank Gehry, the great architect who designed the museum could confess to the same desire: This building is here and I am the architect who was.
    I left the museum an admirer of a potter who is long gone, but whose work remains. 
    He was.



Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes 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 circle of friends and writers

(photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

 

    Most Monday nights we gather together
    We open the door of the small building that houses the studio of an artist friend and walk into the warmth of a room filled with the all the tools and spirit of creativity.
    There is a kind of homecoming each time we meet. Someone might bring a loaf of fresh bread. Someone else puts cheese and crackers on a plate. On a good night a bottle of wine is opened and shared.
    For the first half-hour we talk. We talk about what has happened since we last met. Catching up with marriages, work and all the other portions of our lives, we strengthen the ties that bind us together. And then, when it’s time, we get to work.
    One by one, safe in the company of kindred spirits, we read the words put down on paper since we last met.
    We are a circle of writers.  Some of us do it professionally, others are more casual. But the one thing in common is that each one of us writes because something inside us won’t rest until we do. Each of us has a story to tell and we want tell it in our own way.
    There is, deep in the center of most people, a strong desire to leave something behind. We want to leave our story. A map to who we were. A chronicle of the things we dreamed and worked for; of the loves we shared and the heartaches we survived.
    In the Monday writing studio we are in turn, survivors, lovers, mothers, wives and sisters. And what we share - besides the bread and wine - is the determination to overcome the barriers of shyness, insecurity, fractured schedules and even, occasionally, the interference of others. We want to write and we’re willing to go to great lengths to find a way to do it.
    Most Monday nights there is a reason not to go to the studio. There is  work to finish before deadline. There is housework. There are family responsibilities that pull at us. But usually, unless we’re out of town, we make it. We open the door to the writer within us. One word, one Monday, at a time.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes 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

Ready for what is to come

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

 

 

   This winter, if ominous predictions can be trusted, is going to be a big one. That’s what the forecasters say. That’s what was printed in the newspaper. That’s what I keep hearing on the radio.
    They say this winter the wind is going to blow, the temperatures are going to plunge and stay down and the snow is going to fall. And fall. And fall.
    All close friend who skis is celebrating, she’s looking forward to a season of constant powder on the slopes and endless fun on the mountaintops. But I’m chewing my lip.
    I love winter, too. I really do. It’s incredibly beautiful here in the Northwest. The way the evergreen trees catch snowflakes and hold them until their limbs are flocked and heavy is a sight that always arrests me and holds my attention. There is nothing quite as peaceful as the deep silence of a snowy night, as though a blanket of white has been thrown over our heads muffling the noise of the world.
    I love the sting of the wind on my face and the taste of icy air as I lift each snowshoe, following a quiet path in the forest. As I drive around town, I notice the way the snow fills the areas that are normally in shadow, changing the landscape, upending the way we see things on a summer day. Looking out over the valley and across to the mountain tops in the distance, my eye follows hedgerows and fence lines, roads, rivers and streams, lighting on points I never noticed when the grass was green and the leafy trees hid the view.
    I love the winter holidays and the way they make ordinary things decorative; red and green traffic lights and a string of rush-hour traffic headlights on the highway are suddenly beautiful.
    But there is that other side of winter. The icy streets, treacherous roads and unpredictable mountain passes. The slush that turns gray and dirty too quickly, soaking through the toes of my shoes and making the hem of my jeans grimy. The chaotic parking lots and the sodden boots littering the floor by the back door. There’s the worry of frozen pipes and snow load on the roof. Will they close the hill before I make it home? Do I have chains in the car?
    “Oh, that’s just a bunch of little headaches,” my friend said when I brought up the darker side of winter, sweeping away my pedestrian winter worries with a flick of her wrist. “I say let the snow fall so we can go out and play.”


Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes 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 Letter to the Candidates

 

    There. I voted. I did my part.
    I did the research, marked the little bubbles and dropped the ballot in the box. I listened to what you had to say and I told you what I want for the future. Now, go away and leave me alone for a little while.


    If you made it into office, either returning or for the first time, show some respect for all the people who put you there and get to work. No more negative words.


    If you lost, suck it up. Don’t whine. Don’t sling any more mud. Someone wins and someone has to lose.
    The election is finally over so I don’t want anymore postcards cluttering up my mailbox. I don’t want to hear what a lying, scheming, conniving crook your opponent is. I don’t want to be reminded of what a self-sacrificing saint you are. I don’t care how pretty your wife and kids are or how your husband stands behind you. I’m not interested in where you go to church or how you like to throw a Frisbee to your dog.


    I don’t want to see your signs on the corner, on the empty lot downtown or on the side of a bridge. I don’t want to hear your ads on television or the radio. I don’t want emails and venomous Facebook and Twitter posts from friends telling me how to vote.


    Don’t ring my doorbell. And don’t call me again. I won’t hesitate to hang up on you.


   This country is in a real mess. It’s no time to turn on one another. I voted because it’s the one way I can - linking arms with others who care just as deeply - make a difference. And, yes, I know I'm fortunate to have that power.
    

So, please, no more angry words. No more excuses and accusations. No more dirt. Do us all a favor and just get to work.

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 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

Wheels and Wranglers

Each of us builds a future in our own way. Some are the caretakers of an established family legacy. Others roll up their sleeves, lay new brick and create a fresh start. Today, I experienced both.

A bicycle built by two

This morning, I rode a freshly painted rehabbed biodiesel school bus, towing a trailer, up the five hairpin switchbacks of Montana's Beartooth Highway.  The driver was a petite woman just barely beginning to show with her first pregnancy. Beside her, in his signature Utilikilt, her husband looked over the back of his seat and grinned widely as he talked.

Welcome to Beartooth Bike Tours.

The couple, Doug and Suzanna Bailey, are the creative energy and enthusiasm behind the business. Their year-old enterprise carts passengers and bicycles up the winding highway to an elevation of more than 10,000 feet. After taking photos at the Wyoming state line sign (we drove right into a late-summer snow storm) and strapping on helmets and getting a few safety tips,  everyone hops on comfortable Cruiser-style bicycles and, as Doug likes to say, “It's all downhill after that.” Riders simply coast down the next 14 miles, tapping the brakes now and then. Stopping frequntly at turn-outs, there are plenty of opportunities for taking photos and asking questions.  No pedaling. No struggling in the thin mountain air. Just the feel of the wind in your face and a wide horizon filled with breathaking scenery. The business, Doug told me, was conceived as a way to stay in a place they loved. And, as he looked over at Suzanna behind the wheel, “to provide for my family.”

Maintaining a Montana Dynasty

After lunch, we pulled into the Lazy E-L Ranch in Roscoe. The 12,000-acre spread was homesteaded in 1901 by Malcom Mackay, who was just 19 at the time. Today, the ranch is still intact and now managed by great-grandaughter Jael Kampfe.

Kampfe is a pefect blend of cowgirl, business woman and hostess. She runs the summer grazing program, feeding and fattening more than 2,000 head of cattle each year, while operating a successful guest ranch. Kampfe, the first woman to head the ranch, has taken an established, successful and respected legacy and brought it into the 21st Century. Surrounded by cabins rich in Montana and Western history, she guards the old while looking for ways to stay relevant and contemporary. It is no easy task.

As we drove back to Red Lodge, in the deep Montana twilight, they were all on my mind. The young family breaking rocky soil to put down roots and the smiling, determined, woman who calls the shots at a beloved family ranch.

Going forward isn't necessarily easy. But it's still the only way to get where you want to be.

(To see photos of Doug Bailey and Jael Kampfe click Continue Reading)

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

 

Are you an EPL princess? Check your panties and Band-Aids.




    When I was a little girl I loved to read fairy tales. I spent hours with my nose buried in beautifully illustrated books and my favorites were the classic stories of strong-willed maidens and castles far, far away.  
    To overcome whatever obstacle bound them, each woman used her wits, called on magic (there was always some kind of magic) and then fell for the handsome prince who came riding into each story just in the nick of time.
    And each, by the end of the story, walked away with the keys to the castle.
    The first time I opened the pages of Eat, Pray, Love I recognized a familiar landscape.
    In it, author Elizabeth Gilbert writes about her failed marriage and combative divorce, her depression and tendency to repeat old patterns and, ultimately, her search for authentic self. That search, in case you’ve been on Mars and haven’t heard, took her to Italy for the food and language, India for spiritual solace and Bali for personal direction.  At the end of the year, thanks to the magic of good food, a guru and a medicine man, and - the most magical thing of all - a lucrative book contract to write about experiences she had not yet had, she was whole again. And, coincidentally, in love with a hunk who’d come riding in and fallen head-over-heels for her.
    That would be, by any middle-class, overworked, underpaid and under-appreciated woman’s standards, a fairy tale ending to a really bad year.
    I’m not bashing the book. I read it and enjoyed it well enough when I actually finished it. (It took me two tries.) But at no time did I ever lose my head and believe that I can do what Gilbert did. Because, as it turns out,  I am a middle-class, overworked, underpaid and occasionally under-appreciated woman. I may be able to get out of town for a week or two, when the budget and schedule allow, and if I organize things around the house and call home every night, but how on earth can I run away for a year to simply sit and think? I can’t. I have to take my peace and inspiration where I find them.
    Now there’s a movie and Julia Roberts has made Gilbert’s story even prettier. Entertainment and enlightenment in 2 hours and 13 minutes. Another fairy tale ending.
    The tourism industry is rushing to make Eat,Pray,Love packages available to women who want to retrace Gilbert’s journey. What do you want to bet well-heeled participants don’t have to scrub floors at the Asham.
    Virginia Woolfe told us we need a room of our own and a little money. Those two things on their own are often hard enough to come by. Now, we need even more money and a trip around the world?
    The thing I find most fascinating about the whole EPL phenomenon is that Gilbert, in true modern day princess fashion, has become a brand. You may not be able to book a flight away from the kids (children were a complication Gilbert didn’t have to work around) but thanks to the Home Shopping Network and Cost Plus World Market you can buy genuine Eat,Pray,Love merchandise to give your home that journey-of-personal-discovery look for less. Not to mention the jewelry, tea, candles and journals and perfume. All without a passport.
    I guess the world hasn’t changed all that much since I read old fairy tales and my daughters watched spunky Disney princesses live happily ever after.     
    Can “Eat, Pray, Love”  panties and Band-Aids be far behind?
    

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

Savor Every Bite

     Food. Books.
    Somewhere, at some time, the two became intertwined in my mind. It just didn’t seem right to do one without the other. I ate when I read and I read when I ate.
    I remember practicing sounding-out words on the back of the box of Corn Flakes when I was a first-grader.
    As a middle-schooler, I loved nothing better than to spend a weekend on the window seat which ran along the long wall of windows in the dining room, with my nose buried in a mystery, a plate of cookies or crackers by my side.
    When I got older I would make a pot of tea and pour one cup after another as I turned the pages of thick leather-bound classics. I’m pretty sure I absentmindedly ate almost an entire fruitcake when I read Jane Eyre. Even now, just thinking about Mr. Rochester brings on a curious craving for candied fruit and pecans. And I’m not a big fan.
    All this reading and chewing was fine when I was young, but now, well, it just won’t do. I finally realized that my habit of reading while I eat, or, the other way around, often means I take in far  more than I’d intended. Just one more page, turns into another chapter. One serving turns into two.
    So, I’m giving it up.
    It’s funny how things taste when you take the time to savor them. To hear the crunch of celery, taste the burst of sweetness in a slice of watermelon or consider the complex soft-yet-tough texture of a banana.
    I’m not a complete stranger to the mindfulness of paying attention to what you eat. I once attended a retreat, as the guest of a friend.  I don’t remember a single thing about that Saturday except lunch. We were served a tuna salad sandwich on whole-grain bread and we were asked not to talk during the meal. We were to focus on the food that had been prepared for us.  I can close my eyes and see that sandwich, and the dark bread. I can still taste the tuna, and even the flavor of the herbs mixed with it.
    The other morning I was up before anyone. I made myself an espresso and a plate of fruit and took it out to the patio to eat. I didn’t take the morning paper with me. I didn’t pick up a book. I left the computer inside.
    Looking down at my plate, at the sliced strawberries I’d arranged along the edge, I noticed for the first time how a thin slice of the red berry resembles the interior of seashell. The outer skin is pebbled and gives way to a lighter band of pink on the inside.   It is delicate and beautiful
    Picking up a blueberry, I bit into it and for the first time in my life, looked at the interior. I was surprised to discover that blueberries are actually green on the inside. Does everyone but me already know this?
    It’s hard to break an old habit. Especially when it is wrapped with pleasure. But, I’m trying. I’ll just have to do it one little bite at a 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

Why Worry?

   

   It wasn’t just that the voice was familiar to me, but the tone of the voice on the phone was also instantly and unpleasantly recognizable.  I would know it anywhere.
    It was, for those of you who’ve raised a family and know what I’m talking about, the annoying sound of an adult child ( or, to be more specific, a child who is almost an adult) letting me know that she wouldn’t be needing my advice at this particular moment.
    I’ve heard that tone plenty of times.
    “Mom, I’m 20 years old,” the disdainful voice on the phone said. “I know what I’m doing.”
    Oh, really? Is that a fact.
    I wanted to ask her if she had any idea how many times the words “I know what I’m doing” are served up with a really bad idea.
    I don’t know for sure, but I imagine “I know what I’m doing” is exactly what runs through the minds of squirrels, deer, possums and skunks right before they cross a six-lane highway. At rush hour.
    It seems to me George Armstrong Custer sent a similar message before riding over the hill and straight into a mighty big mess. So did Amelia Earhart as she cranked the propellers, climbed into the cockpit and flew right into an unsolved mystery. So did somebody at the White Star Line when the unsinkable Titanic rolled out of the shed and splashed into the sea. Just before it sank like a stone.
    What do you want to bet that some unlucky stiff in Chernobyl  said the same thing?  “Of course, I hear the warning bells. Relax. I know what I’m doing!”
    Want the perfect contemporary example of thinking you’re a whole lot smarter than you really are and getting us all in a lot of trouble because of it? Two words: British Petroleum. They told us they knew what they were doing, too.
      I woke up the next morning with a headache, brought on, I’m sure, by grinding my teeth all night.
    As a parent, nothing infuriates me more than having my offering of perfectly good advice and wisdom ignored.
    She ought to listen to me so I can save us both a lot of headaches. I’ve been around. I’ve done a few things. I’ve made enough mistakes for the both of us.
    I deserve a little respect. After all, for goodness sakes, I know what I’m doing.

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 Garden Secret

   The thing about the park is that there are all sorts of corners where you can hide away. Secluded benches in the space under the boughs of a tall fir tree. Leafy rooms with walls made of hedgerows and stacked stone. A vine-covered gazebo tucked beside a stone building.
    I stumbled into one of those hidden corners, walking my dogs at the end of the day.
    I wasn’t really paying attention to where I was going. I was just following a familiar path and to be honest, my head was in the clouds gathering in advance of the sunset.
    Just as I came around the curve of the path, ducking under the low-hung branch of a tree, I heard the sound of a woman crying before I saw her. She was sitting on a bench, in the corner of a little gazebo, elbows on her knees and her head in her hands. She was crying harsh, broken, wracking sobs.
    “You don’t have to do this,” she cried into her cell phone. “You know you don’t have to do this.”
    Horrified, embarrassed to have intruded on the woman’s privacy at such an obviously terrible time, I immediately turned around to escape. The trouble was that my dogs got all tangled up, catching their leads on a rock at the edge of the path and then knotting as they moved back and forth, wrapping around my legs when I tried to flee.
    We were a ridiculous sight: two panting and wagging mutts and me dancing a jig around the animals.
    The dog and clown show got her attention and she looked up at me.
    I gave a series of gestures meant to show my embarrassment and continued yanking at the dogs.
    I finally managed to tug them free and turned to leave.
    “It’s OK,” she said. “He hung up on me.”
    I said I was sorry again. I kept saying it as I turned to go. I was kicking myself for wandering down this particular path.
    But then I stopped. The woman was a mess. She looked so sad. And it crossed my mind that she might be sad enough to do something terrible.
    “I’m so sorry,’ I said again. Sounding like a broken record. “Can I do anything?”  
           “No, just an ugly divorce,” she said, standing up and dusting off the seat of her jeans. She smiled a weak, watery, smile.  “I’ll survive.”
    The woman stood up and walked over to where I was standing. She reached down and patted one of my dogs.  Then she looked back up at me and smiled again.
    I couldn’t think of anything to say. I knew if I opened my mouth I would tell her I was sorry again. So I fell into a kind of sign language. I looked in her eyes, shook my head and lifted my shoulders and hands, palms open and up.
    She did the same thing. We stood there silent, facing one another in the late evening light.
    Sometimes words aren’t necessary.
    She went in one direction and I went in the other. I’d never seen her before but I hope I’ll see her again on a happier day. This isn’t a big city. Chances are our paths will cross again.


    
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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