Remembering The Nightcrawlers

I love bad weather. I love that it knocks us off our routine, makes us uncomfortable, and bring us Minnesotans/Wisconsinites together in a collective “What the hell is up with this?” kind of way. I have to include Wisconsin in my posse now that we’re living out on the river somewhere in no man’s land between the two dairy-loving, football-crazed, lake-loving, hardy-living states. Also, I love the cheeseheads.

Two days ago, on October 20, it snowed multiple inches all over the place. (That is exactly the sentence I would say if I was hired to be a weatherwoman.)

Today, I woke up to a gray yellow sky which is a color that makes no sense. It felt otherworldly.

My neighbor texted me to watch out for an alien invasion. Allegedly, there have been multiple encounters with former residents on this island, and today looked like the set for exactly that. My mind wandered and made up stories as the eery energy eminating from the sky and off the oddly calm waters infiltrated my system. I then heard a clunk clunk against the boathouse and jumped with the flashing thought of a landing spaceship. It was just a log brushing against the barrels, and it is a noise that happens here every 3.5 hours. My imagination got the best of me.

Shortly after my stint of imaginating aliens, Michael called me. He is rained out from work. Reason #5 that I can appreciate a little bad weather: we will now have the rare day off together.

I think I like bad weather in the same way I like the dark. It heightens my senses and allows me to feel fully present. You can bet that I am paying attention to every broken branch, every print, every sound, and every motion as I walk through the woods late at night. For those five minutes on my walk home, I don’t think about what my patients are going through, about Covid and about missing many of my favorite humans, about politics, about anything outside of my present experience in these woods. It’s enlivening and so necessary. Also, when I’m most alert, the neighorhood beaver slaps it’s tail at me and makes me pee my pants, so there’s that.


If you think back on the last year, I guarantee that some of your most vivid memories include inclement weather. They do for me.

I remember bringing Hutch home from the hospital during a winter flood. The icy water was up to our knees and I yelled to Michael, “as long as it doesn’t reach my stitches!”… uffda. We stayed at our neighbor’s house that night after discovering that our heat went out.

I remember the hip deep snow at the cabin- Hutch’s first time there. It was such a challenge just to move through, and it provoked plenty of fall-related laughter.

There were the hot days that I submerged Hutch in his bathtub while I lived in just my underwear.

There was the mid-summer tornado that skirted around us. It was mighty and dark as we tracked it’s path just south of us. I remember the warm air, the whipping wind that switched directions ten times a minute, and the maternal worry that pulsed through my body as I asked Michael, “Should I put Hutch in a life jacket?”

I remember the wet and humid days walking through the island. I felt transported to a rainforest- a wild place so green and isolated.


As I walked home in the dark on Monday, I thought, “Why do I love this so much? Why do I love this dark walk that also feels both cold and wet?” I dug into that wonder until I remembered gathering nightcrawlers with my dad as a very young kid. It felt just like this night. I might have done this thirty times or maybe just once, but my body remembered the thrill.

I would have never dug up this memory had I not tried. Our minds are cluttered with so much.

The brain begins to carry only what we exercise; this is science. I see it in practice as my stroke patients must repeat actions to strengthen a neural pathway that they lost. If they repeat a thought over and over or an action over and over, that pathway will regenerate and grow stronger and more accessible with repeated input.


If we exercise gratitude over worry, our minds will land their first. If we perseverate on the flaws of a person, our minds will execute that negative thinking the next time we consider them; the same goes for positive thinking. If we start to stereotype, those connections will only grow stronger with each practiced thought until every person we meet or every experience we have gets put into it’s prescribed box.

But, if we relive the nights with the nightcrawlers, if we remember the thrill of being wet and in the dark way past bedtime and this is learned to be fun and not scary or uncomfortable, we will start to carry those kinds of feelings in the forefront of our cluttered minds. If we take time to enjoy bad weather or humorously entertain stories of aliens or perseverate on what is so good in each person we meet, the neural pathways in our minds will grow stronger toward these inclinations. We will feel enlivened.

So today, when I catalog the gray yellow sky in my memory, I will remember Hutch crawling on me at 7am and the neighbor’s dog visiting and licking both of our faces into a smile. I will remember a day off with my family with nothing planned. I will think about aliens, ya know, just for fun.

 

Board But Not Bored

In times like these, a person does one of two things to stay sane. You keep your mind busy or you keep your hands busy, and often, these coincide. My husband has the busy hands. I have the busy mind. Mine feels a lot less productive. Since the busy mind is a bit of a weird place, we’ll stick to the topic of Michael’s busy hands.

The first thing I have to say about Michael’s hands is that, thanks to my relentless but warranted nagging backed by CDC guidelines, they are usually well washed. He tends to leave the sink prior to the 20 second mark, but I’m sure to remind him.

In the last four months, a lot has happened. We finished out our boathouse. We had winter. We birthed a baby. We had a flood in the winter (strange). We finished our bathroom and finally have a working shower. The snow melted, and spring came (kinda). We fell in love with being parents. We finished out our kitchen. The pandemic came. I started work again. We had the spring floods and have to boat everywhere, a lovely or treacherous portion of my commute depending on the day. The snow came again (classic Minnesota). And most recently, we (Michael) built our deck and established entry by means of a spiral staircase. Michael’s hands have been busy. Mine help intermittently when my boobs aren’t busy but breastfeeding is truly a full time job.

I bet you wonder why I talk about floods so often. Well, we base our activity around the rise and fall of these waters. We adjust the ropes that hold our home to shore accordingly. We plan if we can walk our asses to the parking lot. If we can walk there, we debate wearing knee high boots or waders. If it’s a job for waders, perhaps we just go by boat. We park the boat in different spaces according to the river level.

We like to park at “LIPS”- Latsch Island Phone Service, where the one phone for the whole island once existed. It was the island’s central station for socializing. It still is as Neighbor Ernie greets us with a smile and stories whenever we dock, and on sunny days, multiple boathouse dwellers cross paths as we navigate our boats around each other (six feet apart of course).

The water is high enough now that we boat through “Bathtub Slough”, a cut through a cluster of boathouses tucked behind the ones that line the channel. We duck under a communication line at the entrance and greet Pirate Pat on the way. We have to raise the motor in the shallows and navigate around the cement bases that used to hold up the railroad bridge. As Neighbor Polly explained this route to us, she said, “It’s actually pretty fun.” It really is… except in the sleeting rain at midnight.

Back to the busy hands that built our deck. Knowing the flood was coming, a few days were spent schlepping boards for our top deck: 146 to be exact, some as long as 26 feet.

The twelve posts sticking out of our roof were scaled, cut level, and long boards spanned the whole way to connect them. More boards were attached to connect those boards. Finally, the top deck boards were applied. (Insert “bored” during quarantine joke here.)

As we wondered how to best access the deck, Michael consulted his trusted friend Craig. Craig has this list that Michael is very fond of. On Craig’s list is where we bought a boat, perused for fire towers, found this very boathouse (well, the former one that lived here), purchased our land up north, found the van that we outfitted into a moving apartment, and now, we found the answer to our deck access dilemma- a steel spiral staircase. Craig, you slick son of a gun, you’ve done it again.

As does everything in this lovely flood season, the staircase needed to travel by water. To make this happen, we would use our boat as a pusher and our neighbor Polly’s dock as a platform to carry the stairs. Michael strategically attached a few boards to the front of our boat to protect it and keep everything straight when pushing the 8ft x 20ft platform. Michael connected the platform with rachet straps that spanned from the boat’s two front cleats to the platform’s back two cleats.


Michael navigated this 40ft caravan through Bathtub Slough and up to shore where the spiral staircase was waiting on a flatbed trailer.

Before the 1000lb staircase was tied down to the trailer, Michael laid sheets of plywood underneath so when the dock met the trailer, he could use more rachet straps as winches to more easily slide the staircase onto the platform.

As he pushed the platform downstream toward our end of the island, Michael’s floating spiral staircase was a site to behold.

Erecting the staircase was the sketchiest part, and like many sketchy endeavors, the most fun.

 On the deck, we (Michael) used a 15 to 1 pulley system with a rock climbing belay device as brake. With the dock butted up to the downstream corner of the boathouse, we (Michael) tied the pulley system to the far end of the staircase and started pulling.

When the staircase was at 45 degrees, we were able to funnel the base in place with some strategically affixed scrap boards. After plenty of pulling and lots of lines tied off in every direction to keep the 1000lb mass from swinging side to side, the staircase was finally home.

Boathouse living is certainly made for busy hands and for busy minds too. There are always ropes to retie, barrels to replace, unexpected weather conditions to navigate, floating trees or other surprises to dislodge, off grid ideas to bring to life, or creative solutions to maximize small spaces. This 24ft x 24ft space is no barrier to busyness or joy or fulfillment or intrigue; it provokes and nurtures all of these.

At the end of the day, it is time to put busy hands and busy minds to rest. This little floating home is especially good for this. It’s 7pm as I write this. Michael is making a ruckus on the deck as he works on the railings. He’s been at it all day. A boat zoomed by and left a wake that makes me feel slightly tipsy. I admire the bold and distinguished colors that fill the feathers of the neighborhood mallards. The ducks fly west from John’s house; they make a splash as they settle on the water in front of me. The water rhythmically flows in the other direction as if to bleed off the colors of the setting sun. I let my busy mind settle down on these simple things.

Alright, it’s time to get Michael off the damn roof. Stay busy if you must but stay rested too. This is a weird time. At the end of the day, settle down on the simple things. (If you say this final paragraph twice, you’ve washed your hands for 20 seconds.)

 

Sixteen Weeks

“You’d think the plants would just adapt to give up,” Michael answers nonchalantly. It is our third wedding anniversary and nearly eight years of loving each other.

We’re celebrating with a hike up Brady Bluff in Trempeleau, WI. On our way down, we come across a patch of poison ivy taller than my legs. We reminisce on a few years ago when we were canoeing down the river and pulled over for the night to pitch our tent. It was early October and the fall colors were in their prime. We woke up itching like crazy and realized that we had pitched our tent in a field of red bushes- a poison ivy patch. We hadn’t recognized the plant in it’s bright red color, a drastic change from the waxy green color it possessed just weeks before. We had rashes up and down our legs for weeks.

Nature adapts gracefully, even amidst this world of rapid change. We Minnesotans all know the story. Our world is white and frozen for what feels like forever. Somehow, summer happens just months afterward with the return of our wild animals, prairies and forests proliferating with captivating colors and green growth, and the morning sound of a dozen birds trying to out-sing one another. We are just settling in to this paradise when we blink again and find ourselves with a shovel in hand trying to figure out the best way to dislodge our snow sunken vehicle; there are no bird sounds in this scene and no captivating colors except that the neighbor’s dog painted the fresh snow a light yellow. Nature adapts as appropriately as able. Humans adapt slowly; we’re more stubborn. All along, life keeps moving.

As we hike down this bluff, we stop to gawk at the overwhelming green that surrounds us now. “How do all these plants come back like this, so large and alive, after winters like ours that just kill them off?” I rhetorically wonder aloud. “Yeah, you’d think the plants would just adapt to give up,” Michael answers nonchalantly.

I touch my increasingly round belly. I am 16 weeks pregnant. An influx of thoughts flood my mind. “Thank God these plants have not given up. My baby will get to see these colors, these views; he’ll smell the fresh flowers and feel the living earth… Will he though? Will my child get to know this world like I have? Humans sure have treated Mother Earth like trash. It’s certainly not headed in the right direction. Have we come to the point of no return.. probably. There’s so much consumption and greed; thanks Trump. And what about overpopulation and depletion of resources? Why do we keep having babies anyway? We all die too. Why don’t we adapt to give up? The rest of nature would be better for it.” I sift through all of these thoughts in about two seconds. I take a breath, turn to Michael and audibly say, “That’s how I feel.”

I soon realize that these four spoken words made minimal if any sense and so I explain myself a little further. “I mean that we have no idea what the world will look like or if it will be here, but we’re still having a baby.”

So, if you have wondered what the heck we’ve been up to since my most recent blog three months ago, there it is. We made a baby which required a lot of hard work and long nights. Post baby making, I spent a month or two of my life trapped in what felt like the worst hangover ever: sleeping days away, puking off the side of our boat, and wondering why women all over the world don’t have more of a public outcry about the treachery of trimester one.

did still go to work and survive smelling all the enhanced smells that come from every human fluid and every human orifice (I am a nurse by the way. I think that is important knowledge here.). I also completed a job interview without puking on my prospective boss and subsequently received the job offer. Yay for us (me and my emesis-free boss). I am now out of that nausea-filled first trimester so you can bet I am no longer sending vomit down the fastest path to New Orleans. I’m sure my boat neighbors are also pleased. Michael and I are continuing to work on “The Wheel House”, our future floating home in Winona. I guess you could say that the pressure is on now that we have to put a roof over the head of a newborn with an ETA of sometime in the dead of winter. If he’s anything like me, he’ll be fashionably late and disorganized. If he’s anything like Michael, he’ll join us wide-eyed and too busy too sleep. Either way, we’re in for it.

Whether it’s Mother Nature who has been sorely mistreated by humankind or humans who have been hurt by circumstance or each other, we do not adapt to give up. We adapt to live as beautifully and hopefully as we can muster.

To the pregnant woman puking off the side of the boat or the silly couple who slept in a patch of poison ivy, there are brighter days ahead. To the father of my baby and my best friend, thank you for being the best part of my days and for feeding me Gatorade and crackers when I wouldn’t get out of bed.

To Baby Boy, you are my hope in a future that I don’t want to give up on. I’m sorry I only fed you simple carbohydrates and applesauce for the first ten weeks of your fetal life but I’m making up for it now; that was a spinach and berry smoothie we ate this morning.. with extra flax seed.

Baby Boy, live simply but boldly. Listen to the world around you; the waters and the trees have a lot to teach you. There are moments to adapt and moments to stand your ground. The trees are especially good at that one. You might not always recognize when the world needs each; just do your best.

Oh, and get to know what poison ivy looks like in all seasons. Trust me on this one; it will save you about three weeks of misery.