For the lady in the pink rain bonnet

I noticed you on a sunny, fiercely windy day outside of a Caribou coffee shop. In addition to your warm coat, you wore a plastic rain bonnet, which was covered with pink chiffon and tied under your chin. Under it, your white hair looked freshly styled, and the bonnet protected your hairdo from being blown to pieces. You had to be at least 85—rain bonnets like that were popular in my mother’s era, and she would be 98 if she were still alive.

My immediate reaction was, “Aww, how sweet!” Then I thought, “Wait a minute. I’d hate it if young people looked at me indulgently and thought, “Aww, isn’t she cute with her matching jewelry and sensible shoes!” while I was going about my ordinary day being my badass, 65-year-old self. So, I decided to spare her the stereotype that diminishes and infantilizes even though it’s kindly meant. I don’t know anything about her. She’d probably a badass, too.

While I was placing my order, she came in and looked around. She seemed uncertain and quickly returned to her car, which was parked near where I sat stirring my tea and waiting for my friend.

Later she came back in and sat at a table. “Uh oh,” I thought, “I wonder if she realizes that this isn’t the kind of place there they come over and wait on you?” I could imagine my mom being confused about how Caribou works. A few minutes later, two middle-aged guys with leather-covered notebooks joined the woman.

I told my friend why I was distracted. We watched the three of them for a minute.

“I hope they’re not scamming her,” my friend said, reading my mind.

“Maybe they’re just selling her car insurance. But why two guys?” I asked.

The lady didn’t look worried or out of it. She was probably perfectly capable of making her own decisions about whatever they were selling. I turned away, thinking, “It’s none of my business. I have an overactive imagination—the downside of being a writer.”

My friend and I resumed talking about her daughter’s upcoming wedding and my Thanksgiving travel plans.

Why did this stranger capture my imagination? She brought to mind how unsure my smart, confident mother became in her final years. The woman with the pink rain bonnet also made me contemplate how vulnerable I might be when I’m in my late 80’s or early 90’s.

I wish I felt certain the lady in the pink rain bonnet was OK.

Letting Go of What No Longer Serves Me

In the fall, I often attempt to bring a flowering garden plant indoors. I can’t quite let go of the joy of abundant, bright blooms. This rarely works. Nonetheless, I brought in a small fuchsia this year. I will fuss over it—move it to a sunny spot, water and fertilize it, but in a few weeks, it will be half-dead and I’ll throw it out. Letting go of summer is hard, but this gradual goodbye makes it easier.

In similar fashion, I age my correspondence. Mail piles up unread for a few days. Or a week. Or two. Then I realize I’m really not going to donate to all of those people. My email inbox is full of emails with links to newsletters or articles that sound interesting, like something I want to read. Except . . .  not right now. After a week, I feel guilty (or is it, more realistic?) Then weeding out my mail and email is easy.

There are also the shoes I’ve stored because I might wear those flats again. Or the yoga pants that never fit but I thought I might fix.

A meditation I recently read described fall as a time of weeding out and letting go. Trees drop their leaves, fields are bare, and people turn inward as it gets colder. But to me, fall is a time of abundance, harvest, and storing up. The conflicting ideas puzzled me until I thought about how discarding is easier when I allow a little time to pass.

Then I can let go of what no longer serves me, just as the meditation suggests. That’s how I’ve reconciled the paradox of abundance and paring back.

The Kids aren’t Here

Our family includes many teachers, most in public school. Our kids have attended public schools, parochial schools, private schools, been homeschooled. Homework and talking about school happens at the kitchen table, in the car, while raking leaves.

It was a surprise that a school system where I have volunteered is struggling with absenteeism of 32 to 50 percent . And that reflects the national pattern of over 8 million U.S. students missing nearly a month of school each year. At this rural school there is poverty, students are widely disbursed, transportation options are limited. There are stories about kids needed at home to help care for siblings or other family members. Anxiety or bullying issues make attendance difficult.

In general, some parents feel schools don’t meet their kids’ needs. Some parents find the public education system to be monolithic in protecting traditional, seats in the chairs methods when other models exist. A teacher I respect told me that the process of pushing bright, unorthodox kids to adjust to rules that are necessary for control in classrooms of 28 students is sad, but ultimately prepares everyone for living in the real world.

School representatives cite anecdotal reasons for kids’ absenteeism. There may not be a ride available if a bus is missed. A doctor’s appointment can be an hour drive from school. Parents don’t feel their kids miss much if they stay home. The family needs to be away to care for relatives. A child is needed to care for younger or older relatives. The parents plan an extended vacation. Some claim to intermittently homeschool. A child is being bullied and administration is not responsive. A child suffers from mental health issues with no help during the school day. Travel for extracurricular activities eats up hours. When bad grades start, kids know they’re bound for summer school and give up.

Across the larger education sector, how does a child miss 30 days of school without prompting a remedial plan? How does a school system support learning in one-third to one-half of their enrolled students who are not present? What do students need to learn today and how is that delivered? So much money and so much policy maintain traditional archetypes when other societal archetypes are adapting or falling aside.

Schools are not unlike trains running on tracks installed a hundred years ago. There are reasons old rail beds have become hiking and biking trails. Like other social systems, the pathways to completing an education relevant now, and in the future, have changed.  School buildings, curriculum, teacher preparation systems, and teaching methods need dramatic review and overhaul. Fewer test scores, more involvement in the big world.

The question is not where are the kids, but how can we be sure there are good reasons for them to be here?

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7 Things That Surprised Me about France

My recent trip to Paris, Chartres, Bayeux (near D-Day landings), and Versailles was wonderful. A lot has changed since I visited decades ago—much of it in good ways.

Building across from cafe where I journaled one afternoon.

1Parisiennes don’t mind speaking English.

When I visited France years ago, I would attempt my poorly accented high school French, and whomever I was speaking to would wince and reply in heavily accented, rudimentary English. Some people would shake their heads and speak rapid French in a scolding tone, which didn’t improve my understanding. Consequently, I downloaded several phone apps, including one that would say phrases in perfectly accented French, before this trip.

During our recent visit, my “bonjour” was met with a smile, and the person I was speaking to would offer to speak English. Young people, who often staff hotels, restaurants, shops, and tourist sites like museums, were particularly fluent and gracious. Some wanted to practice their English and make sure they were speaking correctly. Wow. I never used my French app.

2. American fashion was widespread.

I expected to be surrounded by stylish Parisiennes who wore the height of fashion. Instead, I blended in, especially on the days I wore my skinny jeans. My clunky walking shoes were also mainstream. Most women wore comfortable shoes like sneakers on the metro. Maybe they had dressy office shoes in their bags? The guys wearing t-shirts branded Levi’s or U.S.A. were native French speakers, not Americans.

The small hotel where we first stayed was quite a distance from popular tourist areas, so the people I saw on streets and in the metro were natives, not tourists. It was a little dispiriting to realize how pervasive American fashion is.

3. The scale and craftsmanship of “neighborhood” parish churches was astonishing.

St. Sulpice, one of the “neighborhood” churches we saw

We made brief visits to several neighborhood Catholic churches (my husband loves architecture). Inside were soaring Gothic spaces filled with intricate mosaics and stained glass windows, elaborately carved pulpits and choir stalls, along with altars and candelabra trimmed with gold. Some dated from the 1400’s. Many took several hundred years to complete. Along with the gilt-edged art and stained glass were announcements about parish activities—in other words, these are parish churches, not just historical sites.

4. Order and geometry reign in many French gardens and parks.

We wanted to spendlots of time outdoors enjoying the September sunshine so we visited several gardens and parks, and a distinct French gardening philosophy emerged. Nature is meant to be tamed and organized, preferably into geometric shapes. I expected that in famous formal gardens like Jardin des Tuileries and at Versailles. There, short, narrow boxwood hedges enclose long strips of flower gardens. Gardens are laid out in severe, straight lines, contrary to what’s natural. There’s grass between flower beds, but walking on it is forbidden!

At Versailles, even the trees are squared off.

However, that philosophy was also apparent in Paris’ ordinary city parks like Jardins des Plantes and Jardin du Luxembourg. A vegetable garden displayed espaliered gourds trained over arches to form a green tunnel. Trees were trimmed into rectangular boxes! Perhaps in Provence gardens are looser and more natural looking.

Shrub tortured into vase shape at Versailles

Espaliered gourds and cucumbers at Jardin des Plantes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5. Traditional French cooking was harder to find in cafes and bistros than I expected.

When I’d visited before, every meal I ate consisted of traditional French cooking—interesting sauces, tender meat or fish, and creative sides.

This time I was surprised at how often burgers with pommes frites appeared on menus, even when we weren’t in tourist areas. Whoa, I didn’t come to Paris for a burger! Or smoked salmon on a bagel. Perhaps Parisiennes get bored with traditional cooking and want something different. We did find several classic restaurants and ate wonderful meals there. No matter where we went, the bread, pastries, coffee, wine, and cheese were excellent.

6. My high school French resurfaced.

I expected to know food words like “poulet” for chicken and “fromage” for cheese. But after a few days, I began thinking long-forgotten words and phrases: “maintenant” (now), aujourd’hui (today), dejeuner (lunch), “moi aussi” (me too). I grew comfortable smiling and saying, “Je ma-appelle Ellen” (Myname is Ellen) to waitstaff who tried to hand credit card receipts to my husband for a signature. We were using my card since it waives fees on foreign transactions. And there’s all those miles, baby!

7. Apparently, there’s no end to the number of photos of stained glass I can take.

Well, that really wasn’t a surprise. Despite my limited faith, I love churches’ stained glass windows.

Bayeux Cathedral

 

Bayeux Cathedral

Changing of Leaves

Shoulder-to-shoulder crowds walking on stinking hot asphalt is normal during first days of the Minnesota State Fair. Exhibit buildings and animal barns offer relief from a strong sun and the chance to gaze at huge dairy cows, fluffy bunnies, amazing artwork, quirky craft offerings. Plus opportunities to snack on fair food.

This year the first days felt wonderfully wrong. There were people in tank tops, shorts and flip flops, but many wore long sleeve t-shirts and jeans. With temps capped in the low seventies the great Minnesota get together drew record crowds. Weather folks hinted at a touch of fall in the air. Looking up some trees waving yellow leaves on their highest branches shared the same message.

Kids wearing big new shoes in advance of their first day of school. The state fair. Flowering plants browning as their glory days pass. Looking for predictors of what comes next, a common human habit, becomes easier. Then the Farmers’ Almanacshares its winter predictions and looking forward isn’t as much fun.

Except for the dwindling supplies of fresh vegetables and cut flowers, fall is my favorite season. Middle August’s splotches of yellow in treetops is just the start of the changing of the leaves. We have weeks and weeks of color to oooh and ahh, to bring inside, to place in books, to shuffle through during walks. Even in the city trees have their days of beauty. Trees show their true colors to everyone. Everyone.

Future generations may have less to enjoy. Years ago researching Midwest climate for my Ashwood books which end near 2050, the future of many familiar trees saddened me. Warmer temps will upset the wintering of fruit trees, some of our urban canopy trees will not tolerate the changes, pine tree forests will die.

Hug a tree. Make a promise to do what you can to keep the world green. Fill your memory with gold, red, and orange leaves waving on trees near your home. Oooh. Ahhh.IMG_5010