Beyond Peshtigo

The Great Chicago Fire began October 8, 1871. More than 100,000 residents were left homeless and 300 lost their lives. Help flowed in nationally and internationally to rebuild the city.

North of Chicago, the largest and deadliest forest fire in United States history took place the same day in Peshtigo, Wisconsin. Over 1,200,000 acres (1,875 square miles) burned. The number of people killed can only be estimated because church and government records burned in the fire. Some of the 1,500 to 2,500 men, women and children would never be identified. The fires were so intense that some victims were totally incinerated. 

Many of the Peshtigo fire victims were immigrant farmers and small-town dwellers. Belgian and German settlers bought acres of cheap land to farm only to discover thick forests covered the area. Along with the railroads and timber industry, farmers slashed through the trees and left much wood on the ground. It was not unusual to see several small fires burning. Even ships in Green Bay and Lake Michigan experienced visibility problems from smoke. In 1871 drought dried fields and wood waste. October 8 a cold front moved in and whipped flames from many small fires into a giant firestorm with temperatures of about 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

People who hid in their wells or storm cellars died. People who tried to outrun the flames in their wagons or buggies died. Some burned, some suffocated. Others drowned while seeking refuge in rivers or ponds. The flames formed a tornado of fire that tossed buildings into the air. Peshtigo was burned to the ground with only two buildings remaining. Fires burned on both side of Green Bay touching Marinette and stopping short of Sturgeon Bay.

The Belgian Heritage Center remembers the fire each October and the dramatic impact it had on its community. Thick wooded lands were transformed into barren acres. Wooden farmhouses were replaced by red brick buildings. Roadside chapels stood near many homes. 

My Belgian ancestors lived in the Peshtigo fire area. This year I find a strange comfort in the reality that awful fires are not a modern experience but have devastated parts of our country before. Instead of seeing our current wildfires as one more sign that we are heading toward doom, history is reminding me that there can be more living on the other side of disaster. Learning from the disaster to make the rebuilding smarter is the challenge.

Confessions of a Pandemic Parent

Now that this COVID pandemic is largely over—or at least we hope—this may be a safe time to make a few confessions, one parent to another. 

When the lockdown began last spring, we adjusted to working and schooling at home for what we thought would be a few weeks, at max. I thought, “Great! What an opportunity to spend more time with my kid!” I imagined a sweet vision of idyllic harmony as my tween daughter and I bonded even more as we read books, painted watercolors, went for walks in the neighborhood. I could even get more involved in her education. Ahhhh. It was going to be bliss!

It didn’t exactly turn out that way. Here’s what really happened:

I was often afraid my daughter would develop scurvy from her largely unregulated diet of carbs, salty snacks, way too much sugar, and way too few fresh fruits and vegetables. My frequent reminders to eat more fruit are met with “I’m full.”

I was frequently tempted to Google “feral children” after seeing my daughter’s hair in a mat of frizz after no one had bothered to brush it for days. We learned that grooming is overrated.

Pajamas often doubled as day wear (and vice versa), especially when we never left the house. And socks were wholly unnecessary, even on those rare occasions when we did need to go somewhere and there was snow on the ground. We learned to get by with a minimum of fuss.

Once upon a time, a very long time ago, I thought it just might be fun to homeschool. I must have been nuts. After months of distance learning mainly via Zoom, the best I could do was ask, “Aren’t you supposed to be in class now?”

More often than not, 4:00 p.m. rolled around and I found myself asking my daughter, “Did you eat lunch today?” I feared the answer would be “no” because I know I certainly didn’t make her anything. If I was lucky, she may have concocted a smoothie at some point during the day.

It’s okay for a developing child to go to bed at 11:00 p.m., right? After all, there was not much taxing her brain and body during the day. Every night as I watched the time tick closer and closer to my own bedtime, I cried out, “Why are you still up!?!”

I found myself suddenly more amenable to things that would have been hard and fast “no’s” just six months earlier. Case in point: getting a cat, to which I am allergic, and yet it was sold as a method of providing “emotional support” during these trying times. And where does said cat sleep? On my bed, since the cat has started waking up her “true owner” at 5:00 a.m. by biting toes.

After years of putting off entry into more social media, I acquiesced to creating an Instagram account, which has been appropriated by the tween and is mainly a vehicle for posting pictures of the cat and recipes for smoothies.

We quickly careened down the slippery slope of unlimited screen time. I don’t know how we got here. It seems so far from the reasonable and even idealistic standards I used to have—actual daily screen time limits of an hour or so. But this pandemic parent lost her will to enforce more limits.

While my daughter has never been a good napper and has always seem to not need that much sleep, I on the other hand, found myself growing more and more tired. I perfected the afterwork nap. Pandemic life is exhausting!

I found new delight in doing errands. All. By. Myself. Drives to the bank and post office have never been more satisfying. And even the excuse of going into my empty workplace was a welcome change.

Someone should really start a Parents Union with universally agreed upon work expectations, hours, duties, etc. The words “I am done for the day!” have slipped out of my mouth more than once—mostly at the end of what has seemed like an endless day. (See late bedtimes, above.)

I even tried going old school in the fall after we had been indoors way too much. Me: “You know, some parents just send their kid outside and say, ‘Don’t come in for an hour’.” Daughter: “Mom, you are NOT that parent.” Touché, kid.

So faced with my shortcomings, I swallowed my pride and admitted that the year knocked me for a loop. Then I mustered up some gumption to do it one more day. And then another.

Slowly, we have started leaving the house for school, for work, even to socialize with other people—in real life. As life begins to look a little more normal, we may even begin to miss each other a little (in the case of the tween) or a lot (in the case of the weepy mother). And then I will wish for all that time at home, when we rarely said “goodbye.”

Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda

Normally I look forward, eagerly anticipating what’s next: a walk with a friend, spending time with my sisters, a trip to someplace new, even the writing-related work I do for clients.

But during this past year, spent mostly at home and unplugged, even from family and friends, I’ve found myself looking back at my life, often with regret for missteps and mistakes that include not wearing sunscreen, tolerating an abusive high school boyfriend before I knew any better, hosting a 40th birthday dinner for a friend instead of going to the hospital to visit my dying dad, accidentally sharing information about a cousin’s health when I’d been asked not to, not standing up for myself when I sold my business and not getting married and moving to DC when I had the chance.

My regrets also include missed opportunities: dropping out of high school track despite being told I had potential, giving up on watercolor painting before I’d gotten the hang of it and not saying yes the first three times a friend offered me her Paris apartment for as long as I wanted to stay.

At first I thought I’d have a long list. But I don’t. At least not yet. I also thought that reviewing my regrets would make me sad. It has…but it’s also empowered me to make amends and to think more seriously about what I want from my life moving forward.

And while I haven’t yet finished reading The Midnight Library, I am journaling about what my life would be like if I, like the book’s protagonist, had made different choices. Sure, some things would be better, but I’d still have plenty of wouldas, couldas and shouldas to contend with. That’s life!

But I also know that, moving forward, I will do better…at trusting my gut, taking risks, leaping at opportunities and, most importantly, being true to myself.

Ready, Set…Disconnect

This fast, fun and friendly book, Austin Kleon’s third on creativity, kept me going this past year.

In it, he offers exactly what the subtitle promises…and exactly what I needed to hear:

  • Take one day at a time.
  • Establish a daily routine.
  • Finish each day and be done with it.

Over this past year, I took this and his other advice to heart, especially one directive that really resonated with me: “Disconnect from the world to connect with yourself.”

This phrase became my daily mantra, helping me see my COVID-induced isolation not as a punishment but as a gift.

That said, disconnecting was a challenge, especially early on. Like many others, I missed attending meetings, joining colleagues for coffee and going for walks with friends. I even missed shopping, a task I’ve never much enjoyed.

So, I was delighted when first one friend and then another invited me to Zoom with them. However, it took just two friend calls plus a handful of work-related video calls for Zoom Fatigue to set in. Even the thought of joining my beloved book club online wasn’t enough to get me to log back on.  

I stayed in touch in other ways. I called my 94-year-old aunt every odd-numbered day of the week and a friend or other family member every even-numbered day. Plus I mailed at least one letter and a handful of cards each week and sent numerous emails.

But as I embraced Kleon’s advice to disconnect, my reaching out to others fell by the wayside. So did my posting on social media. Nobody seemed to notice.

Until this week.

On Tuesday, my friend and fellow writer Diane reached out to ask if I was okay as she hadn’t received a reply to an email and realized that my last Facebook post was on April 2 and my last tweet on April 5. Today, I received a similar email from Maery, also a friend and fellow writer.

My friend Laurie also checked in, wondering how I was doing with what she referred to as “reverse pandemic whiplash.”

The answer? I’m not sure.

After a year of isolating from everyone who wasn’t family, I finally got vaccinated and ventured out to get a long overdue haircut and join my book group in person for the first time in more than a year. It was wonderful to be together, outdoors and face to face on a beautiful Saturday morning.

However, getting together made me realize I’m still not ready to return to the out-and-about life I led pre-COVID.

Instead, I am still eager to connect with myself and, as Kleon states, that means disconnecting—not because I’m afraid of the virus, but because I want to thoughtfully add back in only those people and activities that fit the person I am now, a person I don’t yet know very well.

Am I the same go-go-go person I was or have I become more of an internal seeker rather than external doer? Are all my friendships ones I want to carry with me or are there some I am ready to let go of? What about my hopes and dreams? How have they changed?

These are some of questions I’m striving to answer while I get to know myself and before I once again find myself caught up in the busyness of life.

What about you? Have you disconnected from others to connect with yourself? If so, what have you learned along the way?

Growing Older: It’s Better than the Alternative

Aging. I’ve been doing it my whole life, but it’s only since turning 60 that I’ve become mindful of it. I wish I’d started earlier.

If I had paid attention, I’d have stayed out of the sun, stuck with yoga, journaled more consistently, spent more time in therapy and consumed less alcohol. I’d also have spent more time with family and friends and worked more diligently at developing resilience.

For most of my adult life, I planned, in as much as one can, that I would live to at least 90 and die peacefully in my sleep, just the way the grandmother I adored did. (She’s pictured here just months shy of her 91st birthday.)

But then, my parents died: my dad in 1997 after a year-long battle with lung cancer, and my mom in 2000 in an instant due to a stroke. They were both only 70. I was in my early 40s.

That’s when I began to realize that I, too, could die at 70. Ever since, I’ve been reminding myself that if I do, I only have 25 … 20 … 15 … 10 … 9 … 8 … 7 … years left. And if that wasn’t bad enough, along comes the pandemic, making my thoughts of death even more omnipresent.

Even if I live longer than my parents, and I sure hope I do, life expectancy isn’t what it used to be. According to an article in the April AARP Bulletin, U.S. life expectancy “plunged” in the first half of 2020, primarily due to COVID-19. As a result, we Americans can expect to live a full year less now than we could have expected in 2019.[1]

The numbers are worse for African Americans and expected to worsen for all Americans as the number of COVID-19 deaths continues to rise.

But just because death is inevitable doesn’t mean that I (or any of us) should go gently into it.

That’s why I started reading about aging, including a book a found both enlightening and engaging: Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power of and Potential of Our Lives by Daniel Levitin.

Via it, I learned that a woman’s chances of getting Alzheimer’s disease now exceed her chances of getting breast cancer.[2] Also that two-thirds of overall risk of getting the disease is based on one’s genes, with the remaining one-third associated with environmental factors such as a history of depression or head injuries.

While Alzheimer’s doesn’t run in my family and my only head injury was when I was knocked out by a football in my early 20s, I have already undergone a Mini-Cog test during which I was I asked to remember and repeat the names of three common objects, name the president of the US and draw a clock face showing the correct time as specified by the doctor who examined me. (This was harder than I thought it would be as it’s been years since I’ve used an analog clock.)

Thankfully, my doctor had no concerns. But I do. Every time I can’t remember a person’s name or forget my coffee cup in the microwave, I wonder if it’s a sign of cognitive impairment.

I hope not. But I also realize that I might be the last to know.

Either way, the timeline of my life is getting shorter: today’s average life expectancy is 77.8 years.[3] And with the pandemic front and center, the possibility of an earlier-than-hoped-for death looms large. While I could let that depress me, instead, it’s motivating me to pay more attention to both my physical and mental health and to put family and friends ahead of work.

How about you? What, if any, changes are you making in order to enjoy the years that lie ahead and increase your own chances of aging successfully?


[1] AARP Bulletin, April 2021.

[2] Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power of and Potential of Our Lives by Daniel Levitin.

[3] AARP Bulletin, April 2021.