The world lost one of its finest yesterday. And my, will he be missed.
Our friend Al (whom I’ve introduced you to time and again here on the blog, plus countless more on Instagram), ended his battle with cancer yesterday, after a fast and fierce run.
And my, will we miss him.
Al lived more in one season than most of us do in a lifetime. He lived with passion and authenticity and humor, and shaped the world for the better during his too-brief time among us. What an inspiration he has been for my kids, for Pete, and for myself. He made us laugh, he worked hard by our sides, and he taught us so much.
I can’t help but hope that an eternity of quirky inventions, bad puns, and off-grid magic awaits him somewhere on the other side. Complete with epic prairie burns, well-equipped workshops, and endless gardens in which to tinker away forever. (With no garlic mustard or honeysuckle to distract from other pursuits.)
Travel well, dear friend. This valley won’t be the same without you.
This week we are hitting record cold temperatures here in the midwest. As I type this, the temp is approaching -30 F (-35 C) in my neighborhood. With windchill, it’s supposed to reach around -60 F or colder. I don’t even know what that means. That will break my face.
And then a friend reminded me about all the people (like her partner, a postal carrier) who still have to get out in it. Who don’t get a snow day or an ungodly-cold-day, as it were.
Last week when the cold just began inching in, Lupine and I left a Go Macro bar in our mailbox with a note that read: “For our mail carrier–stay cozy!” It felt good to us, and I’m certain it did for her, too.
Knowing that people see your work matters. Kindness matters.
And it occurred to me that the KonMari craze and this bitter cold snap might be the happiest recipe to random acts of kindness ever. Stick with me.
What about if–during this week of surreal cold–we become radical in our kindness? What if we do a mash-up of our shared obsession with the KonMari method along with the kindness that the world so desperately needs, and we spread all the joy and warmth we can?
It works like this—as you sort through your outerwear and winter gear, set aside the hats, mittens, and scarves that don’t spark joy. Throw them in a bag and keep them in your car if you’re out and about. Then keep an eye out for anyone outside with exposed skin, or looking miserable in this supremely cold weather. Then give those warm things away with a smile and a “stay cozy!” to the passing stranger in need.
Or go through your kitchen for travel cups and thermos jars that no longer get much love, and leave a serving of cocoa or hot herbal tea for your mail carrier or UPS driver along with a note thanking them for braving the elements for the sake of their work. We left a snack bar last week along with a note, but tomorrow… brownies and cocoa, I think.
Not everyone has the luxury of hunkering down for this intense stretch cold. Not everyone has the luxury of home.
So let’s each do our part to spread all the warmth and kindness that we can. What do you say?
Postscript: thankfully, the USPS has cancelled mail delivery for today in both Wisconsin and Minnesota. Small blessings! Than means you have today to prepare for tomorrow’s kindness. Stay warm, dear ones.
We have lived in this community for twelve years. And for the past nine, our little town has celebrated the return of the harvest season with a magical day of community, art, and autumn.
It’s a highlight of the year, as we all come together to laugh, march, and play.
Being in a community for this many years, you are a witness to the passage of time. Photographing this year’s event, I noticed young adults whom I first photographed as adorable costumed kids, not so many years ago.
Lupine was not yet four the first time she marched. This year she’s almost 12.
Our community comes out in force for the Harvest Parade each year, and together we celebrate autumn and the spirit of this special little town with giant puppets marching down Main Street, alongside unicycles, stilt walkers and our local marching band.
It’s one more layer of this magical place we call home.
And for a town of this size (4,600), I’d say it’s pretty fabulous.
Each year as I watch the parade go by I am reminded of why we moved here. And I smile until my teeth are dry and my cheeks are sore.
Post parade we gather in our town’s favorite park beneath the oak trees for music, conversation, fire dancing, and food.
And every year I sit back, smiling, and soak it all in. And I think to myself: this place. This place is home.
No place is perfect. Every community and every geographic location has it’s own set of drawbacks.
But this town?
It’s about as close to perfect as you can get.
A special thanks to all of the volunteers who make this annual celebration possible! Learn more about the parade (including more photos from past parades) here.
If you’d like to see past parades, I’ve written about the parade in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2017.
The neighbors called in the morning to say they had lettuce to share if we’d like some more. They had fed us generously the week before, our own lettuce crop long since bolted.
We said thank you, yes, we’d love some. We’d swing by in the afternoon.
As we trundled down their driveway after lunchtime, they were both outside (as usual): one gardening, the other sorting through treasures in the shop.
Sage rolled down his car window, smiling, and called to Alan, “I have a project to show you that you’re going to love!” Sage was holding a rolled up set of plans for an ancient Norse tagelharpa. (It’s okay. I had to Google it, too.)
Alan replied with a quick, “And I was about to call you! I have something for you that you’re going to love!” A box of gorgeous pieces of fine wood was set out beside the shop door. He place another piece in the box as we scrambled out of the car.
I felt a wash of gratitude for this unconventional friendship: the sixty-something homesteader and the not quite 16 homeschooler.
We got out of the car, and Shirley paused her work to chat with Lupine. They headed to the spring house for supplies. Emerging with baskets and bags, a knife and some scissors, they headed for the garden.
Another wash, my heart full as I followed along.
There were stories to exchange and projects to discuss and materials to find and even a very dusty vintage VW Beetle hidden away in one of the sheds to see, complete with stories of its own. (Al opened the driver door and reached inside, emerging with what looked like an oversized key for a wind-up toy. He slipped it over a fitting on the back of the car, and explained that it turns when the engine runs. Of course it does.)
Before I knew it, we had spent the afternoon chatting, laughing, finding treasures, and sharing stories.
Hours after we arrived we pulled back onto the road for home, the trunk of our Prius loaded to the roof with a lifetime’s collection of precious wood (dozens and dozens of board feet of some of the loveliest grain I have seen). This collection of potential knife handles was being passed on to Sage, the next generation of knife smiths in our valley. In Sage’s lap was a piece of an old soundboard from a piano as well, destined to sing once more in Sage’s tagelharpa.
And the backseat full as well – of lettuce and bok choy and cucumbers, plus some foraged hoary vervain and garden purslane (Lupine’s favorite, Shirley’s nemesis).
Did I expect anything different than this lovey and generous abundance? I suppose I didn’t. Because when friends get together, that’s the way of things.
And as I see my children joking and talking and learning alongside these kindred spirits so many decades their seniors, that’s just what they are: friends. And it delights me to no end.
Jokes and stores and knowledge are shared as generously and effortlessly as lettuces.
And I’m happy to be both a recipient and a witness to these abundant gifts.
This weekend Sage and a buddy loaded their (several hundred pound) wooden raft into the back of our pickup truck and we headed to the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, an 8,600 acre nature reserve here in the Driftless. The event was a Traditional Wisdom Celebration and Rustic Raft Rally, and the two homeschoolers had spent the previous weeks designing, testing, and perfecting a river raft to enter in the competition.
The challenge: to build a river-worthy raft using only natural and biodegradable materials; then navigate 2 1/2 miles of winding Kickapoo river. Crossing the finish line, teams had to be on or in their craft, with at least 1/2 of their bodies above water.
We even enticed our neighbor Alan (a traditional skills enthusiast, maker, and tinkerer extraordinaire) to come. He gave the boys most of the logs they used to construct their raft, so we dropped off a schedule of events thinking the day might be right up his alley.
We were right.
And while we drove the 45 minutes to the Reserve from our valley, Alan arrived by bicycle (of course he did)! He departed at 4 am, as one does, in order to arrive in plenty of time for the 9 am start. (Despite biking, he still managed to beat us there by nearly an hour.)
Although we went to the Reserve for the raft rally, the day offered so much more.
From wood carving to willow weaving demonstrations; flint knapping to cold forging; beekeeping to maple tapping talks; herbal remedies to a pit-cooked traditional meal, it was our sort of day in every possible way.
Best of all, this is our community. We saw lots of old friends (and made a few new ones), and whiled away the day talking, learning, and doing.
By mid-day, it was time to launch the rafts! Seven teams entered in all.
The entrants ranged from hastily lashed creations (enthusiastically thrown together at the last minute by scout troops) to gorgeous peg-and-beam constructions carefully engineered in the weeks leading up to the event.
And off we set, some by raft, some by kayak and canoe. Departure was chaos, as a few teams tested their rafts for the very first time and were surprised by the true buoyancy (or lack thereof!) of their craft, but within a few minutes things settled out and the peace of the river enveloped us.
From a functionality perspective, Sage and his friend’s raft were in the top tier. These two were among few teams who managed to ride above (rather than in) the water, standing up and poling the length of the route. Along the way were clusters of family and friends, cheering on all the teams as they passed. It was a sweet scene.
A couple of hours after putting in, Sage and his friend (and the six other teams) crossed the finish line: cold, wet, tired, and happy. Prize money was involved, keeping everyone smiling right up until the chilly finish.
Then it was time for more talks and demos, more visiting with old and new friends, and an exquisite pit-cooked meal.
At last, it was time to head home. Nearly 12 hours after we arrived at the Reserve, we dragged ourselves back to the truck: dirty, well-fed, over-sunned, and over-tired.
We headed home and collapsed into bed… some of us still smiling from the events of the day.
All this to say: it was a near perfect way to spend a Saturday.
State statisticians will tell you that Vernon County (of which Viroqua is the county seat) is "the second poorest county in Wisconsin".
But perhaps measuring richness in only dollars and cents is a misguided attempt at determining the value of people, places, or communities.
Because once your basic needs have been met, there is much more to quality life than the size of your bank account. I think often of Bhutan who, instead of measuring their country's GNP (gross national product), measure their GNH – gross national happiness instead.
Perhaps Viroqua is the Bhutan of Wisconsin.
We might not be rich in dollars, but we're undeniably rich in connection, creativity, and kindness. We have made it a priority.
Many of us moved here because we were longing for community, for kindred souls, for belonging in a small rural town. And we found it. I've written before about our welcome here some 11 years ago: a three week "meal wheel" – home-cooked dinners delivered to our door by strangers night after night when Lupine was born – only weeks after we moved in and didn't know a soul.
This was our perfect place to land.
And because community is maintained by our continued participation in it, later this week I will cook and deliver a meal to a family with a new babe as well. That's how community happens. One meal, one project, one outstretched hand at a time.
Because as backward as it may sound, at the heart community is individuals. Individuals choosing to go out of their way to build it.
A spark of community lights when someone has an idea of how they can bring art to our neighborhoods or kindness to those in need. Community begins to take form as those projects are tentatively brought into the light. And then like a magnet, these small actions draw in others who desire the same, and a community is built.
We've done that in this quirky little town, as have generations before us.
But I digress.
I guess it's hard for me to talk about this parade without first exploring what community really means. Because this is the heart of both our little town and our annual parade. And though my post today isn't as much about the goodness in these hearts so much as the creativity that dwells there, I had to touch on both.
For the eigth year in a row Viroqua has risen above your average town of 4,600 (in my heart, anyway) and pulled off an epic, beautiful Harvest Parade to welcome the autumn season in with open, loving arms. Run by volunteers on donated supplies and cash, the Harvest Parade is the highlight of autumn.
The very first parade, way back in 2010 was an absolute delight. Lupine, Sage, and I all participated, and I remember thinking at line up, "Who will be watching? Aren't we all here?!" Because, well, it's a small town.
And it felt like that again yesterday. So many familiar, friendly, sparkling faces, bedazzled and lined up to parade. So much laughter, joy, and an effervescent energy of community in the most tangible sort of way. Parents, grandparents, and individuals; babies in arms and kids on foot, unicycle, and bike; homeschoolers, public schoolers, and Waldorf; farmers and town folk; born-here and transplants.
This time Lupine marched alongside a few dear friends, and Pete, Sage and I stood aside and soaked it all in, watching our community dance by. And what a sight it was!
So what can I say, Viroqua, except: Thank you.
Thank you to the people who show up and make this kind of magic happen. To the people who pause their work and make time to create community.
Thanks to those who have the vision, the passion, the imaginations, and the dedication to pull this kind of magic off. To those who don't necessarily have the time, but who make the time. We're all so grateful that you do.
And truly, this little town is that much more magical because of it.
If I am not an artist, how can I possibly homeschool an artist?
Likewise, if I am not an engineer, how can I believe I am capable of homeschooling one? Or an inventor, or a philosopher, or a veterinarian, or any of the passions that my children may possess?
And the concept that a homeschooling parent is their child's single source of information? Well, that's a heavy burden to bear.
And so a common belief exists that in order to homeschool you need to know everything.
Math. Science. Spelling. Art. History. Grammar. Language. Technology.
And if you don't know enough math or biology; if you don't remember a thing about algebra or if your spelling is embarrassing, how can you homeschool?
And so, we reason, we cannot.
And off to school they go.
And while I personally had a positive experience in the public school system and know countless kids who are thriving there, the logic above is deeply flawed. Send your child to school if that is your best or most logical answer, yes, but not because you think you don't know enough.
When we think of learning in the linear, teacher-student-classroom paradigm then the notion of "teacher knows all" makes some sense. As a college student it was frustrating when I felt that a lab teacher didn't have a handle on the material. It limited my learning.
And if the teacher is in charge and the student is a passive participant in the learning process, simply soaking up the information before them and letting it seep into the empty space inside, then yes, I see the logic.
But when it comes to homeschooling I respectfully – yet passionately – disagree.
Because our children are not empty vessels quietly awaiting us to transfer knowledge from our minds into theirs. Their minds are not voids needing only a set of facts to be complete.
Think of them instead as gardens already rich with seeds, their passions and gifts just waiting to coaxed up into the sunshine with a bit of nurturing and encouragement.
Their minds are alive with interests of their own, rich with gifts and passions that they can pursue with abandon when their schedules are forgiving enough to allow it.
And so Sage can spend hours learning about wilderness survival, practicing fire starting techniques, and building his survival kit. Later he can research medieval armor and learn about different construction techniques, then set off to make some for himself.
And Lupine can spend hours each day exploring her art, with pencils and smudge sticks and paper in hand.
And none of that has anything to do with the knowledge that I possess.
It's not about me at all.
Indeed, Sage knows that during my Environmental Education days I wrote a winter survival curriculum and taught countless classes on the subject. Yet he rarely asks for my input, and I rarely find it valid or necessary to share. And Lupine knows that as a teenager art was my one passion, yet she often asks to teach me how to draw a portrait, a tulip, a landscape. Not the other way around.
Because I'm not their teacher after all.
Our knowledge as parents does not limit what our kids can learn.
And only when we deconstruct the notion of teacher and student does that begin to make sense.
If we are not our children's teacher, then what are we? Think instead of yourself as their liaison to a world of information and inspiration, resources and people, just waiting to join them on their journey.
And instead of pouring what we know into our children's waiting minds, I believe our job is to inspire them to fall in love with learning and nurture the seeds that are already there.
And so we watch them for their passions and gifts, then facilitate opportunities for them to connect with resources and mentors out in the world. We act as their liaison and connect them with the rich community of people who are just beyond our door.
Our work is not to teach, but rather to help them fall in love with their gifts and nurture the seeds that are already germinating in their fertile minds.
And that was how it happened that yesterday Lupine was the only child attending a morning figure drawing session at a local art gallery.
She had considered attending for weeks and was building her courage to leap when she found out that one of her favorite people in the world was the model. And that was that. We were going.
With a confidence equalled by any artist in the room, she pulled up her drawing bench and laid out her supplies. She set to work on her drawing, looking around the room on occasion to see what others were creating. The man next to her offered some gentle suggestions of whose work to look at, and I watched as she took notice of other mediums and techniques around the room.
And me? I sat in the back, observing, and knowing that I really had nothing to bring to the table except for helping create the space for her to join in.
Am I my children's teacher? No, I really don't think that I am.
But am I qualified to help her water and tend this garden of interests that is germinating in her mind?
There is a certain quality to the the morning's first light when the first snow has fallen while you were asleep. The room is illuminated with this amazing, etherial light so you know that it snowed before you even look outside.
(All of my more northern friends are nodding their heads right now, knowing just what I'm talking about.)
But normally I wake before the sun and miss the treat of opening my eyes to this magical light.
But on Saturday night we had a scare with a suddenly very sick pet. I was up until the wee hours of morning tending to him, and once he was through the worst of it I went back to bed. I woke often to check on him and so I slept late on Sunday.
So when I opened my eyes – desipte my concerns for the cat – I noticed the beautiful light streaming in through my window. As I hurried off to find him I stole a glance outside. Such beauty, just beyond these walls.
At noon I took my cat to the ER vet. (He magically acted much stronger as soon as the vet showed up, the stinker.)
With medicine and special cat food in hand we headed back home through the snow. Our route home takes us across the Kickapoo River, and since the cat was feeling better I pulled over and dashed onto the bridge for a quick few photographs, my heart full of gratitude of many sorts.
Because no matter how how challenging things are, if we choose to look up we can still find beauty and hope all around us.
I'm not technically savvy enough to figure out how to load my video here so you'll need to pop over to my Instagram for that. The video is right here and totally worth the detour in your day.
Our neighborhood is a bit of a mess right now. Yesterday morning we woke to what some estimate to be the third 500 year flood here in less than a decade.
Sit with that for a moment.
It's often difficult to tell how bad the flooding is based on what we can see from the house. So yesterday morning when we saw that the creek (normally just visible from our front porch) was a churning chocolate milk river we knew the flooding was worse than we suspected. The four of us walked to the creek to survey the damage, then tentatively explored the neighborhood, checking in on some friends, and surveying the damages.
I found myself vacillating between being a child-like curiosity about the high water mark and the chilling reality of how serious this truly was.
One neighbor temporarily lost 40 head of cattle to the rising water. Immense beef cattle swept away (along with their fences), coming aground again on a neighboring farm a couple of miles downstream. The water was that fierce and that high. A friend found themselves caught in the rising water, their car swept more than 100 feet out into a cornfield, the river raging all around them. Thanks to the help of the volunteer fire department they made it out safely, but the what-ifs keep rattling in my mind. Not far from here a house was caught in a mudslide, killing the man inside.
Both Crawford and Vernon Counties (where we live and where we work) have declared a state of emergency. With roads washed out, driveways blocked, and bridges collapsed there is a good deal of hard work – and patient waiting – that still needs be done before life can return to normal.
But the snowplows and the road crews were out yesterday, tirelessly clearing rocks, trees, and mud from the roadways. Based on what we have seen, though, it will be a long time before things return to normal around here.
As for our family we're just thankful for the distance between house and creek, that the hillside above us held fast, and that the power is on and our sump pump is keeping the basement relatively dry.
Our animals are safe, our house is standing tall, and we're mostly just grateful that it wasn't any worse. And now we all pray that no more rain falls here for many many days.
And one more thought, no matter where you call home:
Every time I see the creeks rise beyond their banks I worry about E.coli, especially with children. Please, please be safe out there and do what you can to limit contact with flood waters. I know multiple people who have fought for their lives after contracting E. coli from innocent looking flood water. Be careful. We need you.
As a highly sensitive person (and a cheapskate budget conscious mama) it's just a little hard for me.
The food! The lights! The noise! The $20 for five minutes on the bumper cars! It's all a bit much.
And a shout-out to all you parents of kids with food sensitivities. Because the fair can sometimes be a downer for them, too.
But don't revoke my Nice Mama membership card just yet. Because I did go. (And yes, managed to keep my grumbling to a minimum.) I even enjoyed our five minutes of bumper car madness as well as seeing lots of friends we don't often bump into (no pun intended).
I snapped a few photos of the fair that, looking back today, make me wonder why I hate it so much. Seeing it from the quiet of my kitchen it's honestly rather quaint.
So here you go. A day at the fair for you. (Without the poor choices about food, overstimulation of noise and lights, and yes, without the woosh of all your money in the world getting sucked out of your wallet.)
Honestly, I'm not sure what's not to love about this cute little fair.