Category Archives: Memoir

The Wild World of Wildlife Photography

I’ve never been one of those people obsessed with supermodels. Until I found out that there’s such a thing as wildlife supermodels. Meet Bruno!

And, yes, he really is this good looking in person, plus he oozes charm. I mean, what bear doesn’t?

In all seriousness, I really didn’t understand the concept of a wildlife photography model until my husband and I took part in my Christmas 2017/Valentine’s Day 2018/Anniversary 2018/Birthdays 2018/Christmas 2018 present to ourselves.

All the way back in December 2017, I was watching episode 309 of Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild. In this episode, Jack and his wife visited a ranch in Montana to photograph bears. Hmm, I thought. That would be the perfect present for my husband for Christmas, et al., since he’s a photographer and I’ve wanted to visit Montana for many years now.

I immediately Googled Triple D Game Farm and discovered that they offer photography workshops for the public. There were a whole host of options to choose from, such as horses or birds of prey.

The choice was tough. I, however, couldn’t resist a workshop featuring baby wildlife. With this option, there’d be a little something for both of us: adorable animals for me to dote over and new photography skills for my husband to master.

I was determined NOT to make the same mistake I made last year in surprising my husband with his birthday present.

One of the things I love most about my husband is his curiosity and drive to learn as much as he can about anything that interests him (which is a lot). A few years ago, he made a goal to be fluent in Spanish by December 2017. I wanted to support him, so when a Norfolk friend told us about a Spanish immersion school in which she and her daughter attended in Antigua, Guatemala, I surprised my husband with a week-long program for his birthday last year (May 2017).

Unfortunately, because I wanted the trip to be before December 2017, the only time that worked for him to travel to Guatemala was at a time when I couldn’t go with him. In hindsight, I should have said to heck with the goal date, because I missed out on my husband’s first international trip. We could have hiked a volcano together!

Lesson learned! So, hello, baby wildlife!

The workshop was lead by an incredibly talented and knowledgeable photographer, Kathleen Reeder. After observing Kathleen during the workshop, I felt a renewed sense of certainty that I made the right decision to quit my teaching job two years ago. Kathleen is a natural teacher, who thoroughly enjoyed what she was doing and enthusiastically shared her gifts with others. In other words, a model teacher who embodied many of the qualities I lost (or never had) after choosing a profession by default rather than true interest and passion.

Every day the photographers would assemble at the crack of dawn to work with different animals, which included baby foxes, wolves, coyotes, otters, pine martens, Canada Lynxes, and a juvenile mountain lion.

Perhaps I’m just naïve, or, maybe the animal lover in me is too attached to the possibility that I could be wandering around the woods and happen across Canadian lynx kittens posing in a log and get to witness the adorableness of it, but I had no idea a lot of wildlife photos are staged.

Watching the animals land on their marks during photo shoots in between romping and playing is something I will marvel over for the rest of my life.

Then, I met Bruno.  

You may be thinking that Bruno is not a baby animal, and you’d be right. I think Bruno is maybe 6 years old.

As part of the workshop, participants were offered the opportunity to photograph additional species for a fee. Talk amongst the participants who had previously attended Triple D workshops was that Bruno the Bear is a ham. He’ll pose during his photo sessions and look at the photographers to make sure they’re watching. He loves laughter and applause and applesauce and wants everyone to love him loving those things.

Of course, I suggested we participate in a Bruno the Bear photoshoot. No brainer, really. Just look at him!

Since I was only attending the workshop as a “sidekick,” I wasn’t allowed to take any photographs of the animals myself, lest I be charged the full cost of attending. So, the photos in this post are some of my husband’s cast-off photos. He said he’s saving his best ones for his own social media purposes, unless I wanted to pay him. HAHA, he’s such a funny guy. He and Bruno could be BFFs, if Bruno wasn’t, you know, a wild bear who just happened to also be a supermodel.

Work it, Bruno. Work it!

What Happens When A Life Dream Comes True

 

It finally happened! After hoping and praying for, well, my whole life to see a bear in the wild, on Tuesday morning while driving through Grand Teton National Park, my husband and I saw a mama bear with her two cubs frolicking in a pasture. I couldn’t stop smiling, and yet…

Just a few days prior, this happened when my husband and I were driving through Custer State Park in the Black Hills, South Dakota.

And the day before while driving through Badlands National Park, we saw our first bison

Which was preceded by bighorn sheep,

prong horn antelope (at least I think that’s what they are),

and the cutest prairie dogs you ever did see!

Then there are ALL THE DOGS, I’ve met so far since leaving Illinois:

Plus, Oompa Loompa!

And one of the cutest kids I’ve ever met in my whole life, who seemed in awe of my husband and his feet.

In all of these situations, I felt feelings of wonder and joy. I laughed a lot and even teared up a little at some of them, especially the bison because of how close they were to us and Lucy the dog because of how much she reminds me of Smudge, one of the dogs that we care for long-term in Norfolk, CT, during the fall and winter. Also, because she carries her blankie with her everywhere and makes the cutest rumbly noises while doing so.

Something, however, felt less than joyful with my bear sighting. Don’t get me wrong – I loved every minute of it and I even put down my phone because I wanted to stay in the moment, and I couldn’t get a good picture, anyway. So, I let myself watch those bears run, and romp, and play.

Then, we drove away and I became aware of a small sense of disappointment that was gnawing at my brain. I couldn’t understand why I had these feelings.

As a psychologist, I know about the pitfalls of having expectations and how the brain can too easily adapt to surroundings so that a novelty wears off quickly, and, in fact, I’m reading a book right now called The Happy Traveler: Unpacking the Secrets of Better Vacations, which explains how our brains can be our own worst enemies on vacation (very useful reading for a three-and-a-half-month road trip.)

Yet, none of those reasons seemed to ring true for what I was experiencing in that moment.

Then, an a-ha moment came out of nowhere! Or, in my case, it poked its head out of the woods and looked right at me as my husband drove us down the road.

“WOLF!” I cried. “HEATH, THERE’S A WOLF!”

We both saw this majestic, white creature with grey trim stare at us as we drove the stretch of road between Yellowstone and Grand Teton.

By the time we turned around, the wolf had disappeared. And, then, I knew.

I knew exactly why my bear experience had felt less spectacular than seeing all the other creatures, great and small, on our road trip so far.

As we drove into Grand Teton, I asked a ranger where to see the best wildlife. “Oh, pretty much anywhere,” she replied. “The North end of the park is especially good. We already had a bear sighting this morning.”

We drove further and further North, until finally we were greeted with a flashing sign: Proceed with caution. Bear with cubs crossing road next 6 miles.

Not three miles later we saw her. Along with maybe a hundred other people and several park rangers checking in to make sure everyone stayed safe, including the bears.

All along the way, I had been told about THIS MOMENT. Then it happened. And then it was over.

There had been no element of surprise whatsoever, no random spotting of a creature in the wild or discovery of a silly characteristic from one of my domesticated friends as I spend time with them.

One of the reasons I love adventure so much is the discovery of the unknown and pretty much everything about my first bear in the wild experience had been made known to me in advance.

But as I type this post, my feelings of disappointment are disappearing. Because, it’s hitting me again. I. Saw. A. Bear. In. The. Wild. That’s a fact, not a feeling. And, I know the difference. Looks like my PhD paid off after all!

Happy Travels, everyone.

Happy Father’s Day

Happy Father’s Day to my Dad!

I’ve been thinking a lot about my Dad, lately, and parents in general, as I see more and more news stories about immigrant children being taken from their parents while coming into the United States. These stories make me wonder how I was lucky enough to be born into my family.

My father is a retired physician; his specialty was internal medicine. When my father went to medical school, his textbooks cost more than his tuition each semester. His father, I believe, was an engineer, who traveled the world as part of his job, and his mother was a nurse.

When he was in high school, my Dad read the book Arrowhead by Sinclair Lewis. The story is about a man, Martin Arrowhead, who is from the Midwest and who becomes a doctor. This story was one of the motivating reasons my Dad wanted to go to medical school.

For many years, my Dad worked 14+ hours days, multiple days in a row. When he was on call at the hospital, our phone would ring all hours of the night. I’ve overhead phone conversations where he’s had to tell family members that a loved one has died.

Because of my Dad’s hard work, I had the privilege of attending private nursery school, private grade school, and private high school. Reading was the #1 activity of my childhood and almost any book I ever wanted at Waldenbooks was mine to be read. Stacks and stacks of books filled my bedroom and kept me company during childhood.

I spent summers going to horseback riding camp and Disney World. We traveled to Bar Harbor, Maine, and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina for vacations.

Every opportunity was afforded me as a child. I wanted for nothing. I’ve never had to know what it’s like to be hungry or wear second-hand clothing or have to worry about how a bill was going to be paid or what would happen if someone in my family became sick.

When I turned 18, I then attended college without having to take on any student debt. My summers were filled with working at a bank in downtown Harrisburg auditing mortgage loans for $6.25 an hour – this was $2.00 above minimum wage at the time.

I also got to experience international travel for the first time, as I spent not just one summer studying abroad at Oxford, but two. The programs lasted three weeks each and part of me didn’t want to come home because there was so much to see and do.

In 1999, I graduated from college with a 3.93 GPA (magna cum laude), named an outstanding senior psychology major, and earned honors in the psychology program. I had already been awarded a small research grant for my psychology honors thesis and this research had been presented at the American Psychological Association’s national conference in Boston that year.

After graduating from college, I landed a full-ride at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill to pursue a doctorate in psychology. Again, I graduated with zero student debt, a university award, and the opportunity to present my research at conferences and through publication.

I immediately landed a tenure-track position as an assistant professor of psychology at a suburban Chicago University.

I continued achieving milestone after milestone in my career – professional development grants, publications in peer-reviewed journals, and presentations at national conferences. These achievements lead to promotions and raises. The university had a 7% matching program for my retirement account. I took full advantage of it. That money got added into my already growing retirement accounts that my father started for me after my first job working at Hersheypark when I was 15.

Let’s not forget my paid sabbatical for the fall 2014-spring 2015 academic year. I know full well how lucky I am to have been given nine months of time to consider my career and the changes I wanted to make. It was during my sabbatical that I realized I wanted more in my life, to pursue the other dreams I’d had, the ones that started in childhood that never got fulfilled.

And that’s exactly what I’m doing now.

Everything about my life has been an absolute privilege because of who my Dad was and how hard he worked.

Because of his hard work and sacrifices, I am now able to lead a life that is centered on creativity, imagination, kindness, compassion, and generosity. I do not have to worry about basic security needs and I never will.

So when I read stories about parents wanting a better life for their child and coming into the United States, I understand. I will not judge them for doing something “illegal” because some laws are arbitrarily created and not rooted in equality and justice but are more based on fear and lack and limitation. If you want an excellent example of this, look no further than Jesus Christ, whose own family had to seek refuge in Egypt when he was born because living in Judea was not safe at the time.

My Dad raised me to believe the messages of Jesus Christ and Jesus was quite clear in what he considered his greatest commandment: Love one another as I have loved you.

Every child deserves the same privileges and gifts I received from my Dad’s love. My Dad gave up years of his life working so I could be taken care of. And I was.

That doesn’t make me special, though, just because of who my Dad is and how hard he worked and how much he loved me. Some Dads work just hard and love their children just as much but will never be able to achieve the same kind of security that I grew up with.

Imagine what kind of world we would have if everyone could share their gifts instead of having to worry about where their next meal is coming from. That’s the life my Dad created for me and it’s one I now want to create for others in the world.

So I’m now doing that the best way I know how, the one that brings me the most joy – taking care of animals, loving my husband, and writing stories. On face value, these choices may not seem like the most proactive in terms of working for peace and social justice. Yet, I think of Gandhi’s words of “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

I’ve written about Gandhi’s words before, but today, on Father’s Day, and on a day when some fathers and mothers are being separated from their children, these words seem much more alive to me than ever before.

Thank you, Dad, so much for everything you’ve done for me. I am trying to make the world a better place because of you and be that change I want to see. I love you!

What No One Tells You About Going on Adventures

We’re three weeks into our summer road trip. The experience so far has been a mix of emotions, mostly because I’ve grown attached to Norfolk.

I suppose it’s ridiculous to think I wouldn’t become attached since Norfolk is the type of place where you can be driving to a friend’s house and sheep cross the driveway.

Norfolk is also the type of place where you might find a peacock on a roof.

Of course, I miss being there!

I miss walking to the library, chatting with the librarians, and perusing their wonderful collection of books. They’re so supportive of my writing and my ideas. On Saturdays during April and May, they let me hold my Love Letters Writing Group at the library, whereby anyone who was interested could show up and write a thank you letter, or a thinking of you letter, or a support letter to people in the military.

The program was sparsely attended, but it didn’t matter because I used that time to write my own letters to people. As an added bonus, I became friends with an incredibly talented watercolor artist in town, Leslie Watkins, who read about my Love Letters Writing Group in the Norfolk Now town newspaper and loved the idea. Not only did she donate high quality cards to use, she also attended most every week, and gave me art lessons along the way. It was because of her great teaching skills, that I was able to make these cards:

I also miss walking to the Congregational Church every Wednesday morning to attend a Creative Writers’ Group, sharing my stories, and listening to the stories, poetry, and wisdom that my fellow writers share. The oldest person in the group is a 91-year-old spitfire of a woman who inspires me in so many ways and the youngest is a mid-30s man who has a good heart and believes in the saving power of grace. Every week when I leave the group, I have the biggest smile on my face.

One of the places that I don’t usually walk to, but I still miss nevertheless, is Botelle Elementary. I started volunteering there this past winter as a literacy and math volunteer in the kindergarten/first grade and second grade classroom.s Honestly, one of my favorite parts is hanging out with the kindergarten/first grade students during their snack time. We act quite silly and laugh a lot.

One day I happened to be sitting next to a little girl whose grandparents I know. The topic of conversation turned to fortune telling and making predictions. I announced to the table that I could read palms and I turned to the girl, picked up her palm, looked at it, and said: Your family loves you very much and you love them. Oh, and you love dogs, too.

The girl’s mouth dropped open. Before I knew it, every single student in the classroom wanted me to read their palms. This memory is one I will keep in my heart forever, and I suspect some of the students will, too, because when they threw me a surprise going away party (yes, I did tear up), several of the students made me cards that featured palms.

If you read this blog regularly, you know I’m a minimalist and it’s my goal to get all my belongings down to one backpack. But for this summer, I’m not yet ready to give up these cards and they will be making the trek with me across the country.

Since I’m already getting a little teary-eyed writing this post, I might as well go down the rabbit hole.

I miss the dogs of Norfolk SO MUCH! With humans, you can say, “I’ll see you soon,” and they understand that you’re coming back. I like to think Smudge, Faith, and Dodger could understand me the same way, but I can’t be sure.

Sometimes at night I’ll sing Somewhere Out There to Smudge. He really is the silliest, most mischievous dog I’ve ever known.

Then there’s Faith, who when I saw her standing among her three brothers in a picture posted on TrustedHousesitters.com, I told my husband she’s the cutest dog I’ve ever seen and we had to apply for that housesitting job. She really is an extra cute pupper!

I can’t forget Dodger dog. I walk him Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays in the Barbour Woods, and every single time I feel profound spiritual experiences of gratitude, love, peace, and joy.

For anyone who is feeling anxious, sad, stressed, or any other emotion that hurts their bodies, minds, or spirits, I encourage you to find a dog and let them romp around the woods in wild abandon. You will feel like a new person by the end of the walk.

For all these reasons, and more, I miss Norfolk. Yet, with leaving Norfolk behind, there are new adventures to go on, new relationships to make, and new dogs to meet.

We spent last week with the adorable Gretchen and Sebastian in Manhattan, IL:

As my husband likes to say, Manhattan, IL, is the opposite of Manhattan, NY. It’s incredibly flat, sparsely populated, and rural. The house that we sat is a typical suburban house. I love it, though, because the owners love living there and take such pride and ownership in their little piece of Manhattan heaven. The house is a typical, suburban IL house, but the little things like the raised herb garden outside, the ocean-scene tiled mosaic in the bathroom, and, the brightly-colored wood-carved picture than hangs on the front porch, make it spectacular.

And, let’s be serious here. Wiener dogs are as cute as you can get. Gretchen and Sebastian are also especially cute because they get tucked into a doggy bed at night and then greet the day first thing in the morning with exuberance.

While in Manhattan, we also got to visit a couple and their fur family who we housesat for last summer. When I first got the idea of pet/housesitting as a way to make a living after I quit teaching, it was motivated by my love of dogs, the lure of travel, and the desire to have a relaxed schedule so I could devote a lot more time to writing. Little did I know getting to know and becoming friends with the people we housesit for would be one of the best parts.

We spent a delightful evening at their house, catching up, and enjoying our time with their animals:

Triferos

Phyllos

Rafiki

Lilu

And the chickens

It’s experiences like these that give me the strength and motivation to leave Norfolk. When my husband and I embarked on our housesitting journey together, our plan all along was to keep moving. So I’m grateful that’s what we’re doing. I’m also equally grateful that we already know we’ll be back in Norfolk come September for another long-term housesit. We love it there and I miss ya’ll so much. See you soon!

An Open Letter to my Former Students

Photo by Teddy Kelley on Unsplash

Today is the third morning in a row I’ve woken up exhausted from narcolepsy. This occurrence is nothing new.

What’s different this time is that it’s the third morning in a row I’ve woken up from a dream about teaching. It’s always the same dream, though the details are different: I’m unprepared for class and make a fool of myself in front of the students.

In the dream, I feel myself losing control of the situation, the classroom, the students. My humiliation becomes deeper and deeper. I don’t know what to do. Then I wake up.

Thank God.

These types of dreams are not unique to narcolepsy. Though because of narcolepsy, my dreams will last significantly longer and be in much more vivid detail and color than a typical person’s.

I also just happen to be house-sitting in the Chicago suburbs right now, an area where I lived for 9 years as a psychology professor, except for the year I took a sabbatical. Coincidence? I’d bet not.

After my sabbatical, I handed in my resignation for a variety of reasons. At the top of the list was because I didn’t want to teach anymore. I often did not feel comfortable as a college professor and that’s something I’m still feeling the effects of today.

Part of my discomfort was because I lacked confidence. My entire time in graduate school I had undiagnosed narcolepsy. While I could handle the exhaustion and sleepiness in undergrad, I fell further and further behind in graduate school.

Yet, somehow, through the Grace of God, and perseverance on my part, I graduated with a doctoral degree. And yes, I also have dreams where I am back in graduate school and I still have to defend my dissertation.

I wake up from those dreams, too. Thank God.

A good friend of mine, who is a social worker, recently suggested to me that part of the problem was that it’s hard to take seriously the concerns of someone in a top-tier doctoral program who believes they are failing in life. By the sheer fact I had excelled enough in college to be on a full-ride in grad school, including tuition remission, stipend, and health insurance, I couldn’t be too much of a failure.

Another part of my discomfort with teaching is that being a psychology professor was never my life’s dream. It became the next best option after I listened to someone who said to me, “you can’t be a high school English teacher. Those kids will walk all over you.”

High school English teacher also had not been my life’s dream, either. It became the second-best next-best option after I listened to several people say, “you can’t get a job as an English major. You’ll never make any money and you’ll end up working at a department store.”

So, psychology professor became the goal. And I achieved it. I’m really glad I did because I met some wonderful students along the way. You know who you are. Thank you for being amazing and awesome and I hope you are doing well.

I also met some not-so-wonderful students. I didn’t get to know them in any situation other than the classroom, and that is how I judged them. That was my mistake. And, again, something I am still feeling the effects of today.

Unfortunately, these students also know who they are.  How I treated them is one of my biggest regrets with teaching.

I let these students down. They are the ones I now suspect were most like me during my time in graduate school, struggling and uncertain and maybe even feeling like they were not supposed to be in school in the first place. I was often rude to these students, allowed myself to become offended by my assumptions about them, and treated them with arrogance and condescension.

To these students: I am so sorry. I wish I had been a better teacher for you, the type of person that I needed when I was in school. I didn’t see myself in you and your struggles and for that, I am sorry.

Another of my regrets is those students I met at the end of my teaching career. After 21 years of pursuing a life that never really felt like mine, I was on the verge of making my dreams come true after handing in my resignation.

I tried not to check out, but in the end I did.

To those students: I am so sorry. I never wanted to give you a bad classroom experience or an educational experience that was less than you wanted or needed. That wasn’t fair to you and the time and effort you were putting into your studies, and for that I am sorry.

To any student who may recognize themselves in this post, please know that I think about you often and hope you are living a good life. Thank you for teaching me such valuable lessons, and I am so sorry if they came at your expense.

If there are any students out there reading this who are struggling, please know you are not alone. You have my heart and prayers. I have been one of you and in some ways I still am. Please reach out to me if you need help.

Finally, to any student who has ever been told they couldn’t or shouldn’t pursue a goal, go for it anyway. No one can predict the future.

Sincerely,

Kelly Kandra Hughes, PhD

Former Associate Professor of Psychology

 

 

 

 

 

Passport to Connecticut Libraries Part II

Forty-seven libraries in 30 days; what an experience!

In case you didn’t read my last blog post, my husband and I spent the month of April taking part in the Passport to Connecticut Libraries program. In this program, you visit as many participating libraries in CT as you can, gaining a stamp from each one on your “passport.” Being HUGE fans of libraries, we were game to hit as many libraries as we could.

We also wanted to do the program right and that meant spending time checking out (haha) each one. Only on a few occasions did we pop in and out, and for those instances it was because we tried to squeeze in one more library before their closing time.

For the sake of brevity, I won’t provide an exhaustive list of every library we visited and what is truly awesome about each one.* But make no mistake, every library was, in fact, awesome, and I continue to be blown away by all the different types of resources libraries have available, such as:

Fitbits and Binge Boxes at the Brookfield Library

Seeds at the Harwinton Library

Cake Pans at the Cyrenius H. Booth Library in Newtown

Rokus at the Minor Memorial Library in Roxbury

Fairies at the Thomaston Library

The librarians we met made this program even more worthwhile. If I ever have to get a “real” job again, librarian is definitely in the running. Everyone welcomed us into their libraries with smiles, enthusiastically stamped our passports, and told us what they loved most about their libraries with a strong sense of ownership and pride. Including, Stella from the Minor Memorial Library in Roxbury, whose additional librarian duties involved being cute, wagging her tail, and making me realize every library should have an animal librarian.

A special shout out goes to Jay, who is not technically a librarian, but who curates the Bristol History Room at the Bristol Public Library. If you want to meet someone who absolutely loves what they do, find Jay. He’ll regale you with his favorite stories about the history of Bristol, including the first yellow taxi cab, the great blizzard of 1888, and Lake Compounce, the oldest amusement park in the United States. And, if you tell him you’re writing a blog post about your library visits, he’ll let you try out the old-fashioned Bristol Library embosser and play around on their old-timey typewriter.

This program has been such a wonder and treat during our last few weeks of housesitting in Norfolk. This coming Tuesday, my husband and I will be heading out for four-months on the road and we won’t be back in Norfolk until the beginning of September. I am so incredibly grateful to the Connecticut Libraries who participated, every single librarian we met on the way, and The Library Hop for their Connecticut Libraries Map. Thank you for making this program so wonderful and we’ll see you soon!

*If anyone would like to chat more about my library experiences or ask for recommendations, please do not hesitate to contact me at genesispotentia(Replace this parenthesis with the @ sign)gmail.com. I promise to do my best to control my excitement, but WOW! I love libraries!

Happy Mother’s Day!

Happy Mother’s Day!

My Mom doesn’t like having her picture taken, so I didn’t have that many photos from which to choose. I’m also pretty sure she’s only going to be okay with having a picture posted on my blog at all, so I chose one that also features several of my family members so she can blend in better.

The above picture is maybe 18 years old and a lot has changed in that time except for one thing: My Mom continues to be a generous person.

I think my favorite example is that she took in my dogs, Limit and Jack, not once, but twice in their lifetimes.

I adopted Limit and Jack in 2002. Limit came with an age guesstimate of 7-9 years old. From the story I was told, a woman out in the country in North Carolina took in whatever stray dog wandered up to her door. When that dog turned out be Limit, he was dog #8 and so the woman said, “Enough! This dog is the limit.”

But Limit wasn’t the limit because none of the dogs were spayed or neutered. So Limit begat Jack and a sister, who unfortunately got hit by a car at some indeterminate length of time before they came to live with me (allegedly).

The woman ended up being evicted from her rental home and she abandoned her dogs; Limit and Jack had been locked in the house and were found by a kind neighbor. It looked like they had survived by drinking out of the toilets. They were both brought to me because at that time I volunteered as a foster mom for Independent Animal Rescue.

Within a few weeks I fell in love with both Limit and Jack and officially adopted them. But then, in the fall of 2006, Limit began struggling to walk up the stairs to my second-floor apartment. One day he collapsed going up the stairs and fell the whole way down.

I didn’t know what to do, so I called my Mom. She checked with my father to make sure her plan was okay and then she drove from Harrisburg, PA, to Chapel Hill, NC, to pick them up and move them to Harrisburg. Limit could live quite comfortably in their house since they had two floors.

And he did. So did Jack. They stayed with my parents until August, 2007, when I graduated from my doctoral program at UNC. We all moved together to the Chicago suburbs so I could start my tenure-track position as an assistant professor of psychology.

In 2009, we lost Limit to a tumor on his spleen. It ruptured and through the grace of God I was able to lift Limit up and put him in the back seat of my car. I got him to the vet in time so he didn’t have to suffer too much.

Jack and I stayed together until January of 2013.

He had started showing signs of dementia a few months earlier. Because I lived alone and worked long hours, Jack had become a danger to himself with the things he started eating in the house. He also started to confuse night and day and would continually wake me up in the middle of the night for walks.

As someone who has narcolepsy, this was dangerous for me. I once fell asleep walking him and when I woke up I had no idea where we walked to. It was after 3:00am.  I did not have a smart phone and honestly I didn’t know who to call with the regular old cell phone I had. What would I say? “I don’t know where I am. Come find me?”

I eventually found our way home.

Jack’s dementia got worse. Again, not knowing what to do, I called my Mom. The next day, she drove 10 hours from Harrisburg to Naperville, IL. She packed up Jack and his belongings and the next day drove back to Harrisburg. Of course, I missed him terribly; I still do, both of them. But with my Mom now taking care of Jack I knew he would be in good hands.

Jack managed to live another 14 months with my Mom, Dad, and brother in Harrisburg. He remained happy the entire time. In January, 2014, he developed Lymphoma. He lasted until March. On my spring break, I made it home just in time. We’re all pretty sure he waited for me.

Then my Mom gave me one of the greatest gifts of all. She paid to have a vet come to the house so Jack could die in my arms.

I will never be able to say thank you enough to my Mom for all she has done for me. Taking care of Limit and Jack when I couldn’t is just one example. There are hundreds more.

Thank you, Mom, for being so kind, selfless, and generous. I love you.

Passport to Connecticut Libraries

SQUEEEEEEEEEE! That sound you heard is me finding out the libraries in Connecticut have joined together for a Passport to Connecticut Libraries program for the month of April. It’s a true testament to how much my husband and I are suited for one another that he forwarded me the Norfolk Library’s Night Owl newsletter on March 23rd with a message at the top of his email that read, “Check out the passport to Connecticut Libraries.”

Here’s the description of the passport program, as printed in the Night Owl:

During the month of April, libraries all over Connecticut are participating in this exciting program to make people of all ages aware of the power of their library card.  Ask for your passport at the Norfolk Library circulation desk as well as a list of participating libraries. Then take your library card and passport to at least five libraries on the list to be eligible to win a $150 gift card for adults or a $100 gift card for children. Get your passport stamped and perhaps pick up some free gifts from libraries along the way!

This program couldn’t come at a better time because despite being April, winter in Norfolk still continues. Last Monday we had an additional six inches of snow, Friday brought 2-3 more inches, and Saturday we woke up to another dusting. At this point in April the snow pretty much melts by the end of the day, but still. It’s a little much, even for me and I love winter.

My husband and I picked up our passports from the Norfolk Library on Thursday, April 5th. Not a day goes by that I don’t feel grateful for the awesomeness of the Norfolk Library, our home base. On that Thursday we chatted with one of our favorite librarians (okay, yes, they’re all pretty much our favorite), marveled at the latest art exhibit (stunning mobiles by biologist Bradford Robinson), and checked out books and ukulele. Yes, a ukulele! How cool is that?!

On Saturday, my husband and I hit five different libraries. The sun happened to be gracing us with her presence, blue skies abounded, and even the temperatures started creeping up.

We couldn’t have asked for a better day and OH. MY. GOSH. We had fun!

We started at the Scoville Memorial Library in Salisbury, CT.

WOW! This library is stunning, inside and out. They underwent a renovation in 2016 designed by Bristow | Proffitt (formerly Poesis Design) and rightly so, they were named one of five finalists for libraries in Interior Design magazine’s international Best of Year Awards.

What I loved most about this library is their sunlit reading room, complete with comfy chairs and window seat overlooking a backyard that features a labyrinth and the Wachocastinook Creek, which happened to be babbling with excitement over the spring day, too.  I wish I had a picture to share, but my phone was acting weird at that point, and so I can only encourage you to go in person and see how wonderful the reading room is for yourself.

Next up, we hit the Douglas Library in North Canaan. Norma, the librarian we spoke with there, delighted us her enthusiasm over the program and pointed out many wonderful features of the library, such as the museum upstairs and their collection of book sale items, of which my husband and I were each allowed to select a DVD or CD as a gift for participating in the Passport Program.

Since we are heading out to Illinois and then Montana this summer (still looking for roadtrip recommendations, by the way), we opted to take CDs. My husband selected An Anthology of Big Band Swing 1930-1955 and I selected 1 2 3 con Andrés, a bilingual music cd for families, so we can practice our Spanish.

Other than Norma, the best part about the Douglas Library is learning they have Scrabble night every Monday evening from 6:15-8:00pm. If anyone is looking for me on Monday nights in the near future, you’ll know where to find me!

While at Douglas we also met Irene, a lovely woman, who already had 2.5 pages of library passport stamps! Talk about a woman on a mission. And in a fun coincidence, Irene had been to the Norfolk Library earlier on Saturday and talked with our librarian, Chaya, about starting a blog. Chaya recommended my blog to her as an example of someone who has a nice personal blog and, without knowing about this conversation, Irene and I exchanged contact information at the Douglas Library which included my blog URL.

In the afternoon, we headed south and hit four additional libraries: Goshen Public Library, Cornwall Library, Kent Memorial Library, and Torrington Library.

The Goshen Library greeted us with a gift bag of goodies, including locally produced coffee, hot chocolate, and caramels from Milk House Chocolates. We got sucked into their puzzle table, and I think we successfully places 6 pieces into the puzzle before we had to head off to the next library. But not before I discovered their children’s room where I found a service project asking for children to write letters or draw pictures for people in the army, as well as free Star Wars bookmarks promoted with a fabulous pun.

At the Cornwall Library, we found a 3-D printer, stunning artwork, and a surprise connection as we flipped through the Northwest Connecticut Community Foundation’s Community Crossroads: Northwest Connecticut report and found that the cover photo was taken by a good friend.

Also at the Cornwall Library, I discovered The Bear Who Couldn’t Sleep a picture book written by local author Caroline Nastro and illustrated by Vanya Nastanlieva. Since picture books, sleeping, and bears are three of my favorite things in this world, of course I had to read the book right there in the library.

The story is adorable, surprising, and satisfying, and the illustrations charming. When you see a little bear wandering around the forest in a Statue of Liberty foam tourist hat, you know you have a fun book in your hands.

In Kent, we took a little break. Well, my husband did. I re-enacted our first date at the Harold Washington Public Library in Chicago with a mini-puppet show in the Kent Memorial Library’s children’s room.

At that point, we only had 45 minutes to drive to the Torrington Library before they closed so we couldn’t dawdle. We arrived in Torrington with only 10 minutes to spare.

Of all the libraries we visited on Saturday, the Torrington Library looked most like a traditional library with its design and layout. The exception is their front entryway which has astounding acoustics thanks to the dome ceiling. I tried recording how it sounded, but this video does not do the acoustics justice at all.

On our drive back to Norfolk, my husband and I decided to head out for our next round of library visits on Tuesday. There are 147 libraries listed on our Passport to CT Libraries list. I suspect we’re not going to be able to visit every one in the month of April, but I am so excited to see how far we get. And, of course, I’ll keep you posted. See you at the library!

Dedicated to My Brother-in-law, Erick

In Memoriam

On February 23rd, 2018, my husband’s family lost a beloved son. Erick’s death was not surprising or unexpected; he had been born with a rare combination of two genetic illnesses – Addison’s Disease and Adrenoleukodystrophy. Doctors had been preparing my husband’s family for Erick’s death for the last 20 years. The fact that Erick made it to his 39th is astonishing. The fact that Erick’s suffering is now over is a blessing.

Erick had two memorial services: one on February 28th, in Smyrna, TN, and one on March 1st in Lawrenceburg, TN. I met my husband’s childhood friends and his extended family. I met dozens of friends and colleagues of my in-laws. Laughter was shared, and tears were shed.

I heard many stories about Erick. I didn’t get the chance to know Erick other than through his diseases. I could only imagine what he was like through the memories of his family and friends.

Erik 1

The Erick I met could not communicate in any way – he had no vocal capabilities, nor could he blink once for yes or twice for no. There was debate about what Erick could understand, if he could even understand anything at all, once the disease fully ensnared him. I know his mother and his primary nurse believed he was still in there somewhere.

Erik 2

Last summer, I got to know Erick as well as I could when my husband and I stayed at his parents’ house for a week so they could take a well-deserved vacation.

During that week, I cleaned Erick’s face in the morning and emptied his urine bag. I administered medicines through his feeding tube, which connected directly to his stomach. I put a breathing device on Erick to help him clear his lungs. Every 2.5 hours I turned him, at least until my husband woke up and took over or the nurse arrived and provided far better care than I ever could.

The state of Tennessee provided Erick with 32 hours of nursing care per week. For my husband and I, that meant we could still see each other during the day and go out and about in Nashville while we were taking care of Erick that week.

My in-laws were expected to work full-time jobs and then care for Erick full-time before and after work. As Erick needed 24-hour supervision, this provision made it impossible for my in-laws to have a typical American life. They devoted nearly every hour of their lives for the last 12 years to taking care of their son. For the last 20 years, they watched him suffer and there was nothing they could do medically do about it.

Erik 3

When I consider Annie Dillard’s profound saying, “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives,” I think about the kind of love that my husband’s parents have for Erick to spend every day in service to their dying son.

They refused to put him in a home and they refused to give up on caring for him.  They sacrificed themselves in ways I can’t even imagine. I suppose that is what you do for someone you love because what is the alternative?

Erik 4

I am not a caregiver. Yes, I care for people and animals and the beauty of creation that is God’s gift to all of us. But it is not my vocation.

My vocation is writing and playing with as many animals as I can. I say this because I’ve been thinking of how I can best memorialize Erick, a man I’ll only really know through the love of my husband and his family. I have no stories of my own about Erick while he was alive, yet his story means something to me.

While I was in Nashville with my husband’s family, the time came for my agent to submit one of my picture book manuscripts, Sundays with Pop-Pop, to publishing houses. The timing wasn’t ideal, but she had a fire inside her for getting the manuscript out and I am eager for my first book contract. In retrospect, I do feel regret for closeting myself in their office to perfect the draft while there was so much grieving around me. I will hopefully not make that mistake again.

But I now know how I will honor Erick and the love his family has for him. Sundays with Pop-Pop is a story of love and loss. It celebrates the special relationships we have in our lives, whether they are biological, a beloved family pet, or a concerned member of our community.

Erick is, and always will be loved. When Sundays with Pop-Pop is published – and I truly believe it is when, not if – I will dedicate the story to Erick. He deserves it.

Thank you for reading my blog. And if you are so inclined, please send thoughts and prayers of peace to my husband and his family.

A Minimalist Approach to Love

Fiancee

Happy Valentines’ Day! And, happy two-year anniversary to me and my husband! That’s two years of being married and two years of being together. No, I didn’t get the timing wrong. We really did get married that quickly.

On Wednesday, January 20, 2016, I sat down next to an incredibly handsome stranger at a restaurant bar.  Being in the Chicago suburbs, the stranger wanted to experience deep dish pizza.  Several of his colleagues highly recommended Lou Malnatti’s.

Lou Malnattis

Meanwhile, I had been invited to Lou Malnatti’s by a writers’ group at a local college I attended for the first time that night. They liked to socialize afterwards, starting at Lou Malnatti’s bar.

The stranger and I struck up a conversation.  Four days later he proposed.  Less than three weeks later, on February 12th, 2016, we eloped in his hometown of Nashville.

Wedding

Wedding 2

So, yes.  Four Days to Fiancée is an accurate title.  But, it’s really not as quick as it seems.  The truth is that I spent several years prior to that night figuring out what I wanted in a partner.  What gave me the insight and courage to take such a bold relationship step is the minimalist mindset I adopted over the years.

Many people will tell you minimalism is not simply removing the material clutter from your life, though that is a key component.  It’s also embracing the values that are most important in your life and then making choices to support those values.

Freedom is at the top of my list of core life values, and ironically enough, it is because I value freedom so much that I was able to agree to marry someone whom I had known less than a week.

When I met my future husband that night, I had already begun taking steps to support my personal ideas of freedom. Thanks to a sabbatical from my position as an associate professor of psychology at a suburban Chicago University, I realized that somehow, I had let my life veer off course. I felt imprisoned by my choices and I wanted out.

The first step to my freedom began with purging. By August 2014, I had given up my apartment and sold, donated, gave away, or trashed 90% of my belongings.  In doing so, I released myself from the debilitating mountain of stuff I had accumulated over the years.  When you move three times in five years and some boxes remain not just unpacked, but unopened, it’s a wake-up call you do not need that stuff anymore.

After I removed the forgotten and unnecessary items from my life, I began looking at everything I owned. Gone were clothes I never wore, but someday hoped to have a reason to wear; shoes I had purchased for special occasions and hurt my feet the one time I wore them, but I thought looked so pretty; books I bought because I wanted to learn about the history of the Olympics, the healing power of food, or the latest pop psychology research, but never seemed to have time to read; and mementos from friends, travels, and experiences that caused me to buy extra shelves and cabinets to hold these memories, and which also took away some of my precious free time because I had to dust and organize them on a regular basis.

I ended up giving away so many of my belongings, one of my colleagues jokingly asked if I had a terminal illness.

Once free from the physical clutter, I wanted even more space.  I returned from my sabbatical on August 24th, 2015 and on September 1st, 2015, I turned in my resignation, effective for the end of the academic year on May 31st, 2016.

With the knowledge of impending professional freedom, I then focused my attention on the kind of life I wanted to live and with whom I wanted to share it.  Without any physical clutter to take up my time and energy, I waded through my murky past with the help of a therapist, a disciplined meditation practice, a church that inspired me to believe there’s something more out there, and several insightful journaling exercises and self-help books.

I asked myself tough questions, such as why had I not had a successful relationship in the past, what role did I play in failed relationships, and did I even want to be in a relationship.

Once I established that, yes, I did want to be in a long-term, loving and committed relationship, and understood how I had contributed problems to my past relationships and how to be a better partner in the future, I thought about the values I desired in my husband. What sort of person would make me the very best possible version of myself? Anyone who lowered my desired caliber of life would simply not be an option.

Nearly every day for a year, I meditated on this question and what I wanted, asking the Holy Spirit for guidance. What rose to the top of my list were curiosity, empathy, honesty, and playfulness. I also wanted someone who made their own physical and mental health a priority in their life since I had taken steps to become healthy again.

I didn’t have a specific “type,” in mind for a partner, but I hoped my husband would be as good-looking on the outside as his heart was on the inside. When I would see someone attractive while out and about, I would say to myself, “Wow! That man looks a lot like my husband.” I also thanked God every day for my husband, as if we were already together. I would write in my gratitude journal statements such as, “Thank you for my incredibly handsome husband, who is kind, compassionate, loves animals, and makes me laugh more than anyone else.”

It was in January, 2016, when a thought occurred to me: What I also wanted was someone who valued the life I was creating for myself and wanted in on the adventure. I wish I knew the exact date I had that thought, but I’m not very good at keeping a daily journal for an extended period. I just remember that the thought felt so real and powerful, I knew it was right for me.

It couldn’t have been more than two weeks later, I sat down at Lou Malnatti’s next to that incredibly handsome stranger. He overhead the discussion I was having with Anne, a woman in her 70s whom I had just met that night at the writers group. She was sitting on his right-hand side. I was sitting on his left.

Behind this handsome stranger’s back, because he was still eating his pizza, I told Anne all about being a professor, my imminent resignation, and writing. I explained my plans to be a professional pet and housesitter and travel all over the country. Then, for some reason we started talking about old movies and I told her I had just been to an Elvis Tribute Spectacular on January 8th with a good friend. It would have been Elvis’ 81st birthday and thanks to my Mom, I am quite a fan of Elvis’ music.

Screenshot

Despite not being a part of our conversation at all, Anne tapped the handsome man on the chest and asked, “Do you like Elvis?”

He sang his response with a southern drawl: I’ll have a blue Christmas without you. Thank you very, much.

“You’re not from around here, are you?” I asked.

“Nashville,” came his response and my immediate thought was, I am not interested in you.

But it turned out I was interested. From the first few hours of our conversation, my future husband spoke about books he was reading and asked me about books I was reading; he told me how he wanted to attend the Olympics before he was 40 and I told him I had attended the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. He spoke about some of the challenges he faced in his life and how grateful he was to his parents for their love and support. He teared up when discussing his chocolate lab, Lana, whom he had lost not that long ago, and I told him about my beloved black and yellow labs, Jack and Limit.

We continued our discussion the next night, when we went on a proper date. My future husband and I drove into Chicago so he could take some photographs. We went to the Harold Washington public library on State Street and acted out silly scenes with puppets in the children’s room, played Mad Libs at Epic Burger, and walked around Millennium Park, all the while discussing our lives, friends, and families.

The next day, Friday, my future husband came to visit me at work before he had to fly back to Nashville. The following day, we spent 14 hours on the phone, and on Sunday we spent another 12 hours. Sunday night is when he proposed.

Marry Me

If I hadn’t known what I really wanted in a partner, I don’t think I would have been able to say yes. But through the stories we told each other, the secrets we shared, and the time we spent together, I felt I had a good enough of measure of him. The values I wanted most – I knew he had them. I didn’t need any more time to tell me what I already knew – this was a man who would build me up and support me and help me become the absolute very best version of myself.

My husband and I were overjoyed to find each other, and we didn’t want to wait. We also had no reason to, other than that “society,” would deem our marriage too quick. Neither of us had debt, we were in our 30s, and neither of us had professional or educational aspirations that would limit our future choices compared to if we stayed single.

I was, however, asking my husband to give up everything he had to come be with me on this adventure. He left behind his family and friends in Tennessee and the only home he had ever known for 33 years.

Need a ride to TN

So, of course, I would give him the highest level of commitment we both wanted. It allowed us to be free of our past lives, only we would be free together as teammates and partners.

Everything else seemed secondary. The very few people that I spoke to about our decision to get married so quickly wondered why the rush? How well could I really know him? they wanted to know.

To which I replied – how well can you really know anyone? I’ve known people who dated their fiancés for several years before getting married, only to be miserable and divorced within two years. Several people I know were married for decades before their spouses divorced them just like that! And one woman, who I admire very much, married her childhood sweetheart who was her best friend, only for him to realize a few years into the marriage that he was gay.

So, I didn’t buy into their concerns, because we can never really be certain about anyone other than ourselves. And because I took the time to really get to know myself and what I wanted, I didn’t have to waste any time figuring out whether we worked together. Our values lined up and that is all that mattered to me.

To my husband: I LOVE YOU! These past two years have been the best of my life. Thank you for asking me to marry you when you did, and thank you for being the best friend and partner I could have imagined.

Heath and Kelly