That sneezy time of year

Barring, y’know, Ebola or something, I really only get sick once a year, but it’s a doozy. My immune system seems to organize it like a body-wide event: “We’ll lock up every disease that attacks her this year, and then release them all on the same day.” “C’mon, it’ll be fun!” “Let’s do it again next year!”

I’m knocked off-kilter for at least 48 hours, sneezing and exhausted with a spiked fever and an earache and several symptoms I haven’t yet been able to place. My skin becomes hypersensitive; I can identify small breezes that indicate people two rooms away and one floor below have opened a closet door. It would be like a superpower if it wasn’t accompanied by the sinus system drainage and fatigue.

I usually miss some major life event, too, while I’m semi-delirious and trying to disappear into the couch. My sophomore year of high school I joined the cross country team before I realized I hated competitive running. For the entirety of the season I took my temperature before each meet, desperately hoping my annual illness would strike. It held off, of course, until New Years’ Eve, two hours before a community-wide cardboard box maze I had spent days helping to construct was about to open.

My 10th-grade mind felt so betrayed by my 10th-grade body.

This year it’s been pretty standard — I’ve gone through at least four boxes of tissues and bought the medicine that makes the cashier ask, “You’re 18, right?”

But it’s not all bad — I’ve read more “fun” stories and watched more superhero dramas in the past two days than I have in quite a while. I’ve caught up on sleep and snacked on chocolate chip cookies. And hey, staring at the same place on my wall for several limp hours has given me ideas for redecorating. Really, the annual illness is doing me a favor.

But I’m really looking forward to having energy again — being able to do basic things like, y’know, move without the thought I-hate-everything-why-am-I-not-asleep hovering in front of my consciousness. I’m counting on it being a 48-hour bug this year, because otherwise I’ll have to shop for groceries in this state, and nobody wants to see me selecting apples at the produce stand. (As a community service, if it comes to that, I solemnly swear to wear surgical gloves and one of those SARS masks, just in case.)

In the meantime, though, I’ll return to my couch — gazing incoherently at my walls until my eyes decide to shut, pondering if I have the energy to remember my Netflix password and hoping tomorrow, maybe, I’ll be back to normal, once again grateful for the glorious wonder of nature that is the high-functioning human body.

See you on the other side.

Thanksgiving split

This year I have a double Thanksgiving planned — one traditional, and one entirely new.

I’m driving north Wednesday morning to help with prep for the hordes of family that will arrive Thursday. Thanksgiving is our holiday to host, and if I know my parents, my mom has already entered “the cleaning zone” while my dad is still pondering last-minute home improvement projects he won’t actually start until an hour or so before guests start to arrive. (Only joking, Dad.) (Mostly…) The kitchen will be a mini-tornado of high stress and buttered potatoes, and my siblings and I will keep circling back to Mom for marching orders until family starts to arrive and we escape to play carpetball with the cousins or brew coffee for Grandma.

One of my favorite Thanksgiving traditions fits into the 20-second speech my dad gives just before the meal. It’s not even the prayer — my grandpa will bless the meal right after. My dad gathers everyone’s attention, announces the food is ready and invites my grandpa to pray, after which, my dad says, my mom will “do what she does best — tell us what to do.”
My mom hits his arm, everyone laughs, my grandpa prays, and then my mom actually does tell us what to do — which way the buffet line will travel around the kitchen island, which dishes are spicy, where to find the drinks. Once she says “go,” the only thing that matters is the (rapidly shrinking) distance between each of us and the pumpkin pie.

I look forward to that annual gibe-and-response every year, and I’m not really sure why. It’s a symbol of things staying the same, certainly — my dad still mocks my mom for her type-A organizational habits and then hands the reins over to her; my mom still rises to the bait and then laughs along. Maybe I respond to the community aspect of it — a personal joke made semi-public, a kind of proof that my parents trust the people filling the room, a way of loosening the instinctive stiffness between people who only see each other a few times a year. Maybe it’s just the tradition — the fact that, planned or unplanned, the same joke happens every year.

But this year I have a second Thanksgiving. On Friday, I’ll hop on a plane to California, where I’ll celebrate again with a few of my closest friends.

I’ve never been to the west coast before. (I anticipate warmer temperatures and a higher concentration of extroverts.) My California friend is in a happy planning frenzy, and we’ve left the details up to her. (I swear she even mentioned something about riding elephants, which sounds like more of a lofty dream than a reality, but I am tentatively raising my hopes … who doesn’t love an elephant?) Honestly, I’m excited simply to see my friends again — letters and texts and Skype don’t always cut it. We built these friendships over 2 a.m. cups of tea and half-successfully smothered laughter in libraries, shared weirdnesses and unintentional vulnerability. I’m eager to see them (elephants or no).

But instead of two Thanksgivings, it feels a bit like I’m splitting one, neither holiday quite adding up to a whole. A shortened weekend with my family — will there be time for guitar-playing and leftovers? And a few days with college friends is not enough to fit in all the words and silences we need to share. It seems like every time you love someone, however poorly, a tiny thread connects you to them, and having that thread stretched tight hurts. I didn’t mean for most of those threads to be tied — usually I don’t notice them until after the fact, you know? I’ve already discovered a few here in Worthington.

People don’t exist in a vacuum, and while some seem to easily balance the space/time continuum as it pertains to relationships, I’ve never been good at the act. It’s forced me to be more intentional with the places I invest my time and energy, to work harder at communication and honesty.

But I guess that’s what I’m thankful for, this year — the people I’m tied to, old and new. Despite my own limitations, they’ve stuck around and been willing to work with phone calls, 160-character limits and half-holidays, because every minute counts. I’m so excited to take part in my family’s time-honored traditions this year — and I look forward to a few new adventures, too.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Hunting opener, indoors

Last weekend I made the trek north to Bemidji for deer hunting opener.

As a kid, I took hunter’s safety, got my permit and hiked into the woods at 6 a.m. opener morning like any good northerner. In more recent years, however, I’ve chosen to stay back at my grandparents’ home, sipping hot chocolate and talking with the other non-hunters in my extended family.

I’ve got nothing against hunting; I still reap the benefits when other family members get their deer. (Right now I’ve got some nice t-bone cuts in my freezer, waiting for the perfect dish…) The decision has more to do with the fact that my dad used to sneak up on me as I perched in my tree stand, toes clenched with cold, distracted and utterly oblivious. He’d eventually abandon all pretense of secrecy, crunching leaves loudly under his boots as he got closer. Sometimes I didn’t notice until he was forty feet away and said my name — and let me tell you, hearing your name whispered aloud when you’ve been camped out in a tree for several hours, alone and utterly silent — it sounds like the voice of God.

But it was always my dad, smirking up at me, and I think the shame of letting him get so close before I noticed was what finally pushed me out of the woods and into the comfort of a living room chair on these November mornings. Besides, if I didn’t detect steel-toed boots until they were close enough to hit with a rock, how would I ever spot a deer?

In the house, those of us who aren’t hunting are warm, comfortable and a little drowsy — my sister spent a good half-hour curled on the couch under a blanket. We talk, or don’t talk; we snack on desserts and pot-luck items; we play around on the upright piano and watch whatever game’s on. We do all the things that reconnect us to people we haven’t seen in awhile — that unconscious shifting that happens when you start to recognize what’s different, and what’s the same, about the people you’ve known your whole life. When the hunters start to straggle in just after sunset, we keep track of where they park. In the driveway means no luck, but backing up to the wide garage doors means someone got their deer. Only one pickup made it to the garage doors last weekend.

And then it’s dinnertime, and my grandmother and an aunt have finished laying out the potluck dishes (and what’s left of the desserts). We’re too old for a kids’ table now, but somehow everyone under 25 still ends up in the overflow room, sitting on spare furniture and folding chairs. The hunters recount the events of the day — what they saw, what they didn’t. Just as dinner wraps up, my dad pokes his head into the room and grins at my siblings and me. We groan.

It’s deer processing time — another reason I no longer hunt (though I still get recruited to help). In the garage, today’s deer is strung up to the rafters, hide peeled off to let the blood drain. The muscle needs to be cut from the carcass, stripped of tallow, wrapped in paper and labeled. The garage is kept cold in order to keep the meat fresh; we each pick a hunting knife and go to work. In 20 minutes my fingers are freezing and caked with congealed blood. I’m thoroughly annoyed, but this is another kind of reconnection: doing necessary, if not particularly enjoyable, work with the people you love.

I had to cut my not-hunting-weekend short to make it back for work. The five-hour drive home alone had less contemplative silence and more pop music; I think I’ve accidentally memorized enough of the words to Taylor Swift’s new song to draw another smirk from my dad. But I like to think that even though he failed to convert me to the joys of hunting — though who knows, there’s still time — I still learned to love some of the more important aspects of opener weekend.

Ben Rector and performance art

This weekend, one of my sister’s favorite musicians is putting on a concert at my old college, and she and I have tickets.

Over the last three months, she has repeatedly announced, “Just wait, you have to hear this,” and then played the same song — “Making Money” by Ben Rector.

She’s thrilled to introduce me to new music. Every time.

I’m looking forward to the concert. I like Ben Rector’s music — sometimes I find myself playing his songs on repeat — but a live performance is always different from a recorded track. A recorded track allows the artist a do-over; a show is a one-shot deal. I get nervous for anyone who has to get on a stage.

I still remember the piano concerts my parents nudged me into as a kid. They were always nerve-wracking. I would stumble out to the concert piano feeling like hundreds of eyes were watching me mess up, when in reality there were probably 20 people in the audience, all parents of the other kids who had likewise been shanghaied into performance, and I was the only person who cared if I messed up.

I feel like I should say something Calvin-and-Hobbes-esque here about how piano recitals build character — I’m sure they do and I’m the better for them — but I’m still most comfortable a few removes from the audience. It’s one of the things I like about writing; I get to check my words, make sure I mean what I’m saying. Performance doesn’t offer second chances.

My second year of college, I was hired as a teaching assistant for an introductory British Literature course. Inevitably, Shakespeare was part of the program. The play we were to perform was King Lear, which — I mean, it’s Shakespeare, so it’s good, but it’s not exactly anyone’s favorite play. Even English nerds don’t sit around saying, “Anyone want to read King Lear?”

King Lear is known for a) crazy people and b) killing off almost the entire cast. (Spoiler: two people left standing.) And while it has some brilliant speeches, I have to admit that I can only stomach so many pages before I toss the book across the room. In one rather long scene, every character on stage is either insane or pretending to be. (Not a joke.)

But you can’t say that to the students you teach, so I kept walking across the room and picking it up again, trying to map out metaphors and derive hidden meanings from crazy talk. As the TA, I was required to play all the characters with few or no lines (soldiers, servants, Cordelia’s dead body) so the students could focus on the more complex roles.

We were pretty bad: me, an enthusiastic professor, and twenty-five college freshman who had one week to practice and really didn’t want to be reciting Shakespeare in a tiny classroom with humming fluorescent lights. (I nailed it as a corpse, of course, but everyone else was suffering.)

But something happens in performance, even in an awkward, less-than-ideal setting like that. Boring lines become angry, or sad, or hopeful. Mad scenes become funny. We laughed at all the right jokes; the hams in the class started to act up. Nobody interrupted the silence surrounding the last living actress, bodies slumped on the stage behind her. Even our slapdash attempt at Shakespearian tragedy caught hints of what performance does — the way the performer engages the audience, and the audience engages the performer in return.

All that to say, maybe that’s why I’m excited about the Ben Rector concert. If that concert is full of people who love his music — evangelists like my sister who share his music with passersby — it’s going to be an excellent show. And even though I’ll just be one seat on the balcony, it’s fun to feel like I’m part of encouraging an artist to make good music.

Timing

Lately I’ve been collecting the small good things that happen over the course of my day. A joke with a stranger; an email from a friend; a happy caterpillar on the cover of my notebook.

I’m not superstitious (though I am a little stitious…) but there’s something about a well-timed talk or gift or moment that makes me want to describe it in terms of “meant to be.” I walk along the lakeshore on my lunch break, sunlight glaring off the lake into my eyes, and when I turn around, yellow leaves drifting earthward are catching in scattered sunbeams. It seems so perfect, a postcard moment, and it seems to me like it means something — like if my life was a movie, the music would swell here to indicate significance.

My life isn’t a movie. (If I’m trapped in some version of The Truman Show, I’m petitioning for a better soundtrack… Priorities.) And even though I know it’s just a leaf, just a gift, just a conversation, I always seem to decide that every good thing I have collected is a clue to the larger arc of the story, that each moment means something.

But I am learning — perhaps taking longer than most to learn — that the moments don’t mean anything on their own. We can collect as many moments as we like, but it’s up to us to order them in our own narratives. My leafy lunch break can be a peek into the timeless, or an existential crisis, or a trigger for scientific brilliance (à la Newton, didn’t he have his gravity epiphany under an apple tree?) or a deep breath to steel me for a long night. Maybe it’s just an excuse to get out the rakes. It means what I make of it.

Recently I told the same anecdote three times in a row (to a forgiving audience), rehashing an awkward moment of my week. The first time it was sassy, a nobody-tell-me-what-to-do story; the second time it was sad; the third it was funny. The facts of the story never changed; I was the only variable. We shift our own narratives.

It’s a bit scary to think about. I like thinking that I’m discovering the story, not writing it. And maybe at the end of our lives we’ll look back and see that what looked like scattered moments was really a path the whole time — but if so, it’s something you can only really see in retrospect. We can guess at where we should be and how we’re supposed to join up the moments, but ultimately it’s up to us.

And that’s why I’m collecting moments these days, catches of good things that happen, because I figure the days won’t always be good. I’ll need good things to work into my narrative in a way that I can make sense out of it. (Making meaning seems to be a messy process.)

Yesterday one of my neighbors left a string of colored Christmas lights rolled up on the newspaper outside my door. (It’s amazing how Christmas lights can make any story better — and a gift from a neighbor, at that.) A good hair-and-makeup day helps; and then there’s the joke I overhear while I’m getting coffee that makes me nearly burst with the effort of trying not to laugh because then they’ll know I heard and I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, I swear. I learn my first Burmese word — va-th-na, meaning “hobby” — and I know I’m pronouncing it with a thick Minnesotan accent, but my teacher smiles so encouragingly that I keep practicing. I find a package of chocolate chip cookies from my mom in my mailbox — even after shipping they still melt in my mouth. A few friends and I get one step closer to perfecting the Anna Kendrick Cups song rhythm. Another yellow leaf hits the sidewalk in front of my feet, and it doesn’t matter that I’ve been collecting them since autumn started, I tuck it between the pages of my notebook.

The pieces, strung together, start to mean something to me.

The letter-writing guilt cycle

I suppose it was inevitable. Befriending writers, literature lovers, historians, theologians, people who assign value to written words — and then choosing to live apart from those friends when we scattered across the country after college. The choices I’ve made have led me directly to this: the envelope staring me down from my kitchen table, containing several pages of matched stationery that a friend has filled from top to bottom with thoughtful, careful handwriting.

Cursive, in fact.

I read the letter, and I loved it. I am always thrilled to receive letters, even the greeting-card kind. Letters mean thought and effort and being remembered. They remind me that I am loved, and I am always grateful.

But receiving letters is only half the equation. Each one requires a longhand reply.

No pressure.

I’ve gotten so used to the backspace button on my laptop that trying to write thoughtfully on paper seems like a daunting task. When I mess up, I can’t rewrite unless I want to start again from the top — and if I misspell a word, or use incorrect grammar, there’s no way to fix it. Scribbles and crossed out words aren’t fooling anyone.

Then there’s the moment, after I’ve finally worked up the courage to brave the risk of syntactical errors, when I look down at the white sheet of stationery in front of me and feel my mind go blank, too. What do I have to write about? What have I done since we last spoke? Come to think of it, what was I doing five minutes ago? Where do I live?

In order to squeeze the words onto the page, I feign disinterest in the product. (Sort of the way you approach shy farm animals: I’m not paying attention to you, but if you wander over here I guess we can be friends.) The unwritten letter takes on an antagonistic life of its own: as long as it knows I want to write it, it will refuse to be written.

So I ignore It. I clean my apartment, cook dinner, watch television, check email, read a page or two of my current book. I don’t care about you, I tell my empty page.

Sometimes the letter wins these stalling contests — I go to straighten the stack of bills and newspapers accumulating on my table and find a piece of paper with only “Dear ____” written across the top. The shame is overwhelming. I immediately sit down to write… and the cycle begins again.

But other times I manage to do it. I grit my teeth and spit words onto the page, letting the smalltalk portion at the beginning of each letter build momentum and carry into something meaningful or funny or snarky. And who cares if I crossed out three attempts at spelling the word “definite” before it finally looked right, or misplaced my apostrophes, or realized a paragraph too late that one of my stories was a “you had to be there” moment — I have a letter, words scrawled on a physical piece of paper in semi-legible handwriting. I am so proud.

A week later I find the letter again and remember that writing is not enough: it needs an envelope, and a stamp, and to be posted.

The guilt eats me alive.

Giggle, snicker, snort

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about laughter — what makes people laugh, how laughs differ, how sometimes laughter triggers more laughter in a self-perpetuating cycle — the whole idea that some kinds of mental dissonance cause us to explode into undignified sniggers, or guffaws, or snorts.

The irony of attempting to seriously analyze laughter is not lost on me.

So I’ve been doing a lot of, um, research. I’ve been listening to comedy on the radio, watching some of my favorite artists online and playing cheery music a little too loudly in my headphones. On a recent stop at a Barnes & Noble, I casually picked up a book by a blogger I often read … and then spent 20 minutes on a cushion in the kids’ section, trying not to frighten passersby as I chortled into my sleeve.

Some things, of course, are funny to certain people and not others. During college I once spent eight hours in a minivan with a professor and four other students on our way to a literary conference. Instead of normal driving music, our merry band of English nerds brought books on tape to share, and someone pulled out an audiobook of “Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy.”

My fellow students and I were overjoyed. It’s a Douglas Adams classic, featuring lines such as,

“He felt that his whole life was some kind of dream and he sometimes wondered whose it was and whether they were enjoying it.”

That book can always make me dissolve into laughter, even in the most socially inappropriate situations. We immediately put the audiobook on play.

Our professor lasted through one whole chapter before he intervened. The story didn’t make any sense, he said. (We were still gasping for breath in the minivan’s back seats.) The plot didn’t follow, and the characters were inconsistent and confusing. He was glad we had offered the audiobook; but it was time for something new, and would we mind terribly if he turned on a reading of Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America”?

De Tocqueville, it turns out, is a total buzzkill. You feel as if you will never laugh again after 10 minutes of de Tocqueville on tape.

I’ve been on the other side of the laughter continuum, too. In Oxford, one of my professors interrupted me midway through reading aloud my essay on C.S. Lewis’ “Screwtape Letters” to say, “No, don’t you see, it’s funny.”

A little humorous, I said; but Lewis is making a few very serious points —

“No,” my professor said. “You have to read it tongue-in-cheek. Don’t feel bad; most Americans don’t get it.”

That was the only essay he didn’t let me finish. I tried to get “Screwtape,” I really did; I enjoy the book. But I always turn the last page thinking about the dire consequences of seemingly insignificant human choices, while the British apparently giggle and toss it aside. I guess? I don’t know. It’s beyond me.

It’s also fun to listen for people’s laughs. Most of us have at least a few — a social laugh, the sort you use when your boss tells a joke that’s only slightly funny; a caught-off-guard laugh, usually accompanied by a quick grin or a sideways glance; and an out-of-control laugh, the kind you use when you’re comfortable with the people around you and something has happened that is so odd, so unusual, so completely confusing and wonderful that you cannot contain the little joy-bomb that goes off in your belly. Those are the most fun laughs, of course. Those are the kind that trigger a chain reaction.

Making people laugh, though, is probably the most fun. I’ve known people that can immediately own a room, making the outskirts smile and lean in at the slightest phrase. Listeners are primed to laugh when these people walk in, and these gifted souls always deliver.

It’s never been that easy for me. But every once in awhile I get the timing right — the right joke for the right crowd at the right moment. The comedy stars align. Some poor unsuspecting soul is hit upside the head by my punchline, and the impact scares a giggle out of him. He looks dazed; I feel accomplished; nobody else knows what just happened.

It doesn’t get better than that.

Local holiday

When I lived in Bemidji it was the Dragon Boat Festival.
Every year the whole city turns out to watch — or join — the races. The Chinese celebration only took off in Bemidji a few years ago, but it has turned into quite the event. Community teams of up to twenty members print matching T-shirts and practice synchronizing their paddling to the drummer’s beat.
On race day the teams clamber into long, thin dragon boats and pour all of their training (or at least their enthusiasm) into a three-minute paddle to the finish line. You can tell which teams are hard-line competitive and drilled for weeks, and which teams are really just there for the snacks.
I love the festival — I love that the hillside by Lake Bemidji is covered with blankets and picnic baskets and people wearing baseball caps. Everyone cheers, even if the teams are slow or a boat tips. (Especially if a boat tips…) People are there for the spectacle, the sales, the fun of it. It’s one of the times Bemidji’s diversity seems the most united.
While I was living in Oxford I got to celebrate Guy Fawkes Day, one of the most politically incorrect English holidays ever. Established on the day political radical Guy Fawkes was stopped from blowing up the British Parliament (“Remember, remember the fifth of November, the Gunpowder Treason and plot…”), the day is traditionally celebrated with fireworks and the ceremonial burning of an effigy of Fawkes. Now the day is often called simply Bonfire Night, and cities compete for the biggest or hottest or tallest bonfire.
I loved Bonfire Night, too — okay, I enjoy most community holidays. Oxford had carnival rides, some delightful fireworks and a bonfire so hot we couldn’t approach it — the kind that roasts one side of your body from 50 feet away while the other side freezes in the foggy English air. That, too, was a community celebration, and it’s one of the days I felt most connected to the community. The whole town was awake late that night.
Here in Worthington, apparently, the local holiday is Turkey Day. All I know about the celebration is what we’ve published in the Globe.
“You’ve never been to Turkey Day?” people keep telling me. “Oh, you have to see it for yourself.”
A parade, a 5/10k and a turkey race in the center of the town?
“You’ll love it,” people keep saying.
I’m guessing they’re right.

Unofficial guide to scones

Shake flour loosely into an average cereal bowl until it is about half-full.

I’ve always been a bit of a night owl. College fostered my nocturnal habits; having a full-time job as a night editor only adds to it. Night — after I’ve been in motion one way or another all day — is the time when I get creative. I read, write, catch up on my correspondence, listen to music, sing, clean, bake.

Add a pinch of salt, a smallish spoonful of baking powder and a splash of cinnamon.

During our last joint semester of college, my friends acclimate to my nocturnal schedule (of necessity, not choice). There simply aren’t enough daylight hours to complete our work in the time provided. Each week we knock back caffeine as we hunch over laptops in the library until the sun peeks through the windows. Then, hungry and slightly delirious, we stumble into the community kitchen in search of real food.

Slice butter — between a quarter and half a stick — into tiny cubes. Stir into the cereal bowl. Knead.

Strung out in various states of sleep deprivation, we band together against the post-caffeine slump and muddle up some survival foods. My contribution is always scones. Easy, messy, inexact, forgiving — the perfect baked good for the half-awake student. I carefully follow a recipe the first time I make them, but the next time — and every time after — I toss ingredients together haphazardly. Scones aren’t a science; they’re an art.

Pour milk into the bowl. Stop pouring before you think you should and stir the ingredients together until dough is evenly mixed. If you have chocolate chips, add them now.

We talk or don’t talk. A few verbal processors rehearse their presentations. Someone surveys the room and starts to crack zombie jokes; we’ve heard them before, but we laugh anyway. We compare the circles under our eyes. When the aroma of baking bread permeates the room, I pull the scones out of the oven.

Roll dough into two-inch rounds and flatten slightly. Place on a buttered pan. Dust each scone with milk and sugar, then bake at 350 degrees until golden-brown.

Someone serves up scrambled eggs; someone else offers fruit. The teakettle whistles. One of the hipsters is still grinding coffee beans. We reach for what we need, slowly coming awake. The sun beams full-force down the kitchen tables, reflecting into our eyes, warming our silverware. We trade compliments, cheer each other on. In twenty minutes the kitchen is empty. Some of us return to our laptops, re-reading or re-writing our work; others have set alarms and fallen asleep. A few with early classes have already left to turn in their work for inspection.

Serve scones while fresh and still hot. Best with jam and cream.

For the first time in sixteen years I won’t be going back to school. I’m so glad I’ve graduated — school felt like training, and I was ready to compete. But it feels wrong somehow to step into autumn without a heavy backpack on my shoulder and a working playlist cued up on my computer. I impulsively check out classics from the library; I put scones in the oven at 2 a.m. before I remember no one else is awake. I find myself researching literary theory just for fun in the wee hours of the morning and have to remind myself to sleep. I’ve lived in academia so long that I forget I’m already on the next page. I was lucky enough to find a job that incorporates my love of writing and my penchant for late nights — and let’s be real, I can fit the baking in on my free time. Study period is over; the exam has begun.

It’s going to be amazing.

Starscape

My father taught me it was called “light pollution” — the glow that surrounds Bemidji at night. You can see it for miles away. It’s a natural byproduct of cities; lampposts and neon signs, localized populations and businesses simply require more light. Bemidji’s haze is nothing compared to St. Paul’s, and Worthington may have a little glow, too.
Despite the brightness, I could always see the major constellations — Orion, Andromeda, the Big Dipper (or Great Bear) — from my backyard. As a kid I loved the constellation stories. I eagerly absorbed the Greek myths and memorized Native American legends.
Constellations felt like puzzles, scavenger hunts worked into the outer surface of our planet. We connect the dots and tell the stories, passing on some ancient tradition. It felt like being an insider, knowing a secret. I don’t think it occurred to me for quite awhile that I might not know the whole of it.
My family takes an annual camping trip to Clubhouse Lake, a trip I had to miss this year for work. The campground lacks basic amenities. We pump water and haul it to our campsite, and the only available toilets are outhouses. If you want electricity, you have to provide it yourself. We do all the normal camping things — swim, cook, fish, sing songs around a campfire. But sometimes, after campground quiet hours force us to stow the guitar, a few of us walk down to the lake.
We feel our way along the lake paths, whispering and tripping over each other. We bring flashlights but don’t turn them on. The tree canopy opens up when we reach the beach, and if there’s no moon, we can see the sky.
From my backyard, all I could see were the brightest stars, the ones able to compete with the glare of city lights. At Clubhouse, the outer rim of the Minnesota wilderness, the dimmer ones are visible. The sky is not a black curtain with scattered pinpricks, identifiable, classed into textbooks. It’s an untidy mess, stars bumping into each other, interrupting the approved constellations, overlapping, spilled carelessly upward and outward from treeline to treeline.
I remember the first time I saw the sky open up like that — the constellations I knew still recognizable, but suddenly less significant.
I’ve never felt so small.