Tag Archives: bears

How Do I Love Thee? I Don’t Know Anymore!

Photo ©Kelly Kandra Hughes

Two weeks have gone by since I returned from Churchill. Nearly every day since then, I’ve had someone ask me how my trip was.

This is one of the hardest questions I’ve ever had to answer.

It was much easier for me to answer Heath’s question of “So when do you want to do this [get married]?” after only knowing him for 4 days than it is for me to sum up the experiences of living in Churchill for 49 days.

With Heath, I knew the answer. We came into each other’s life at the exact moment we both needed each other the most. He made sense in my life and it was like we’d known each other forever.

That answer was easy.

Turns out the answer to what it is like to live among polar bears is not so easy.

During my time in Churchill, I experienced what co-existing with my favorite wild animals is really like.

It’s not like being at a zoo where I watch a bear be silly, put a bucket on their head, and belly flop into a swimming pool.


I learned about polar bear biology and habitat. I learned about polar bear conservation and management. I also learned about polar bear tourism and hunting (still legal in Canada, by the way).

Polar Bear Tourism ©Kelly Kandra Hughes

Polar Bear Tourism ©Kelly Kandra Hughes

The thing is, once you know this information, you can’t not know it.

Add this information to the emotions of a lifelong dream of seeing polar bears in the wild coming true, and you have a perfect storm for an existential crisis in the making.

That’s what I’m experiencing now, and that’s why I’m finding it so difficult to talk (and write) about my time in Churchill.

If I ever really loved polar bears, how selfish was it for me to intrude on their lives so I could see them?

Not to mention the enormous carbon footprint for me to get to Churchill in the first place.

So when people ask me how Churchill was, I’ve started saying, “Life changing.”

It’s still not clear to me what’s on the other side of my existential crisis. That’s a question I’m currently living. We’ll see how it plays out in the death meditation I plan on doing in the next few weeks in anticipation of how I want to spend my time in 2019.

In the meantime, I am doing what I do best: loving Heath, playing with dogs, walking in the woods, writing, and living with as much joy as possible.


It’s a blessed life. I am grateful to be here.

A Churchill Surprise!

Can you believe my time in Churchill is nearly up? I’ve been here for 41 days and I only have six more days to go.

I’ve now seen 11 polar bears. Some from a Tundra Buggy and some peaking inside the Churchill Northern Studies Centre’s (CNSC) windows.

Tundra Buggy

Spotted while on a Tundra Buggy

Peaking at me through the window

As you can imagine, it’s been quite emotional for me to see my favorite animal in the wild. I’m still processing these emotions and how these experiences are changing my life (and, yes, they are). I’m not yet ready to write about them here.

Instead, let me tell you about something that happened in Churchill that took me by surprise. It wasn’t even on my radar for things that could happen here. Yet it happened and I couldn’t be happier.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I am now the proud owner of a sweater. Two, in fact.

Back when I was an over-worked, stressed out college professor, I owned a bunch of sweaters. I also only weighed between 97-107 pounds at that time because I was so unhealthy. I outgrew many of those sweaters once I quit my job and returned to a healthier weight.

But as a minimalist, I’ve been rather reluctant to buy any new clothing.

I’ve written before about how one of my greatest ambitions is to have all of my belongings fit into one backpack. Sweaters are bulky and take up a lot of room.

As such, I never replaced the ones I outgrew. I managed to make it through two Connecticut winters without any.

Although let’s be honest – I spent these last two winters in Connecticut feeling rather cold. I had already made up my mind to get at least one sweater for this coming winter when I returned to Norfolk, so when I was given the opportunity to buy a sweater here in Churchill, I did so with open arms (haha, get it?).

Besides, it’s cold here, too. As I’m writing this blog post, it’s currently 10 degrees Fahrenheit, feels like -7. This is not the coldest I’ve ever been, which happened over a two-week time span in 2009 when windchills in the Chicago suburbs made it feel like -60 degrees Fahrenheit. But I do feel rather chilled.

Here’s the best part about my new sweaters – I bought them at the thrift store underneath St. Paul’s Anglican Church in town. They were each $1 Canadian, which is about 76 cents US.

You know what I also bought for $1 Canadian?

This awesome Columbia Omni Heat Winter Jacket, practically in brand new condition.

Oh, and this XRoads vest. Yes, also $1 Canadian. I get so overheated when I’m bundled up walking dogs in the wintertime, I thought this vest would be better than a coat.

This thrift store has quickly become one of my favorite places in Churchill. It’s only open every other Friday evening from 7 to 9pm.

Wow! Do they have bargains.

As a minimalist, I did experience some angst that I was adding so many “new” clothes to my wardrobe. Altogether, here’s what I bought at the thrift store:

  • two sweaters
  • one winter coat
  • one winter vest
  • one fleece top
  • one bamboo zip-up sweatshirt from the British Columbia SPCA
  • Winnipeg Jets NHL long-sleeved t-shirt
  • Irish Viking Hat to wear on Halloween (which I’ll be donating back to the thrift shop)
  • Striped sweater (for my roommate Rachel who couldn’t come to the thrift shop last time)

My grand total for everything – a whopping $6 Canadian! And I didn’t even pay for all of it myself.

The first week we went to the thrift store, Sarah, one of the cooks at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, treated me to my first sweater. Canadians really are some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet!

In the spirit of full disclosure, I’m also going to admit that before I even knew about the thrift store’s existence, I had already made two clothing purchases.

First, I bought a CNSC t-shirt that was on clearance. When I packed for this trip, I only brought two short-sleeved t-shirts. Working in the kitchen is kind of messy, especially for me, and after my first week I found two t-shirts woefully inadequate. Since this shirt is Kelly green (one of my favorite colors) and features a polar bear, I thought it would be a good addition to my wardrobe.

Second, I also bought a polar Buff, which features a cool design of the Northern Lights and the CSNC’s name and logo and is much less bulky than a scarf. A scarf was always necessary at the start of all my walks with Dodger last winter, but halfway through the woods I was always unraveling it and tying it around my arm when I became overheated. It then would fall off every so often, get tangled with Dodger’s leash, or drag along the forest floor.

My new Buff will now fit in my pocket, so yay for ease and compactability.

As if I’m now on some sort of clothing bender, I’m also going to cop to buying a t-shirt at one of the souvenir shops in Churchill.

I first saw this Made in the USA polar bear t-shirt way back on Friday, October 5th. I told myself if I was still thinking about the shirt towards the end of my trip, I would buy it since one of my favorite t-shirts, a Hogwarts Alumni one that my niece gave me as a wedding present back in May 2016, is pretty much on its last threads.

I bought the t-shirt last week since I’ve thought about it every single day since.

Oh, and did I mention that the Churchill Northern Studies Centre also gave each of the volunteers their choice of CNSC sweatshirt? And my other roommate Fiona gave me another Buff-like head wrap as she no longer wanted hers?

In the last seven weeks, I’ve increased my total wardrobe by an estimated 50%. It will be interesting to see what my actual clothing counts are when I return to Norfolk and take stock of all that I have.

Not all of my clothes survived our 11,500 mile road trip this summer, like my winter coat (reminder — it was still snowing when we left Montana in July). I also know I’ve worn through some other things, like the aforementioned Hogwarts Alumni t-shirt and one of my Carolina shirts that I’ve had at least six years (I gave that shirt to Dodger so he would remember me while I’m gone).

All my acquisitions on this trip has made me question just how committed to minimalism I am.

Then this morning I read a minimalism blog post from No Side Bar on lessons learned from the death of a parent and I found these words of wisdom especially useful:

Minimalism isn’t about having nothing, it’s about finding true value in what you do have and keeping only what meets your high standards.

And you know what? I’m tired of being cold during the winter. So, hello new high standard of warmth. It’s good to welcome you back into my life again.

I am a little worried about how I’m going to get all my “new” clothes back to Norfolk. I only brought with me my backpack and one of Heath’s duffel bags.

Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be coming back from Churchill with half of a new wardrobe. Yet, here I am.

We’ll see how many layers I can wear at once while on the plane. I’m thinking one pair of long underwear, one pair of yoga pants, snow pants, t-shirt, long underwear long-sleeved t-shirt, sweater, vest, winter coat, scarf, and hat. I suspect I’ll look a little something like this:

At least I’ll be toasty warm!

See you when I get back.

 

Greetings from Churchill: The Life (So Far) of a Bear Season Volunteer

My first three weeks at Churchill have been exhausting and exhilarating! The exhausting includes the 6-hour shifts a day, 6 days a week. Shifts can start at 6:30am and some don’t end until 8:30pm. For someone with narcolepsy, the constant schedule changes can be a bit daunting and since I’m usually in bed by 9:00pm, a late night shift also has challenges.

Thankfully, the work itself isn’t hard. For example, the other day I washed dishes for about two hours and then dusted and mopped several rooms in the science center. The dusting also included the Aurora Dome, which seems to be one of the greatest challenges for us volunteers to clean. Although there are still streaks on the dome, at least it’s not dusty.

I followed up the housekeeping with 90 full minutes of peeling red potatoes. When in doubt of what to do, volunteers are always welcome to peel carrots and potatoes to help out the kitchen staff. There are currently three cooks who prepare three meals a day for all staff, volunteers, and visitors.

Peeling potatoes was a rather enjoyable experience, especially since the aroma of Oriental Glazed Chicken filled the air. The science center’s kitchen has some of the best smells on a daily basis, including, but not limited to: French Toast, Chocolate Chip Cookies, Pumpkin Pie Tarts, Cinnamon Rolls, Chocolate Cake, Banana Bread, and Berry Crumble.

The orientation packet wasn’t kidding when it stated, ”You will not lose weight while you are here.”

Another part of the exhausting is something I wasn’t prepared for at all: The Northern Lights.

Here in Churchill, the Northern Lights fill the night sky on a regular basis. They are stunning and awesome and I find myself in a constant fear of missing out when the Lights are doing. Thank goodness for cloudy days because then there’s no expectation whatsoever about seeing the lights in their full glory and I can get to bed at a decent time.

Also interesting to note, the Northern Lights are one of the greatest PR campaigns of the travel industry.

The colors that you see popping out in photographs, may or may not be visible to the naked eye. A lot of times, the greens, blues, and pinks can only be captured through a camera lens. These pictures look nothing like what we were actually viewing in the sky, which were shades of wispy white and grey, with just a light tinge of green every so often.

I have yet been able to capture any of the Northern Lights on my camera phone since a Pixel 2 doesn’t have a professional setting mode. Shout out to my fabulous roommate Rachael for sharing the above photos with me. Just for comparison purposes, here’s two of my Northern Lights photos:

Now, on to the exhilarating! Check out this sunrise.

And how about this sunset?

The town of Churchill is interesting in and of itself, and I am fascinated with how this town of about 900 people coexists with polar bears. For example, there is the 675-BEAR alert system that you call if you see a polar bear.

There are also places, like this boat, designed as safehouses for you to hide whenever you encounter a wandering bear in town.

If you’re wondering if I’ve seen any polar bears yet, the answer is YES! I’m saving that experience for my next blog post, but here’s a sneak peak in the meantime:

Now, it’s back to peeling more potatoes and dusting and mopping. Totally worth it!

End Note: Extra special shout-out of gratitude to all the people who have reached out to me in support, excitement, and encouragement over my subarctic travels. I’d especially like to thank Heath for taking on extra work with the pups and house while I’m gone. I miss everyone so much, but thank goodness for the Internet. Heath and I talk every day and he indulges me every time I ask to see what Smudge and/or Faith is doing. I love you all!

 

 

 

 

 

Another Adventure, Another Goodbye

Photo by Victor Benard on Unsplash

It’s time for another adventure!

Yes, I know we just got back a few weeks ago from our 11,500 mile road trip. But remember back in December, when I did my most recent  death meditation? One of the goals on my what-if-this-is-my-last-year-alive list was to see polar bears in the wild, so I applied to be a polar bear season volunteer at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre in Manitoba.

That was back in July 2017. And guess what? My application finally came up!

I am on my way to Churchill, Manitoba as you read this post!

First flight from Hartford to Toronto.

Here are some of my goals while I’m in Churchill:

  • See polar bears!
  • Write. A lot. I’m working on a young adult novel, so I’d love to have a decent first draft by the time I head back to Norfolk on November 18th.
  • Marvel daily at how I am 60 miles south of the Arctic Circle.
  • Send postcards. ***
  • Find a sled dog to be Faith’s long-distance Internet boyfriend.

    Isn’t she just the cutest?

Of course, there’s always a downside at the commencement of any adventure in that one must leave family and friends behind.

I certainly felt a break in my heart when we drove away from Norfolk back in May. And now that break is much deeper because I’m leaving Heath for the next 50 days.

When I asked if he wanted to come with me to Churchill Heath said heck yeah! When he found out the volunteer position is to mainly wash dishes for six hours, six days a week, he said, “Have fun! I’ll miss you, but no thank you.”

So, Heath is caring for Smudge and Faith, and I’m off to Churchill. I cried quite a bit yesterday in preparing to leave.

First, there was saying goodbye to the pups. I tried not to cry because dogs can be so intuitive and I didn’t want to upset them. Smudge, especially, knew something was up when he saw me pack a duffel bag.

Then, saying goodbye to Heath had me crying all over again. There’s going to be Wi-Fi in the science center I’m staying at, so it’s not like we won’t be able to video and phone chat.

It’s just that when you say goodbye there’s no guarantee there will be another hello.

I know that’s true regardless of whether the time apart is 50 seconds, 50 minutes, 50 hours, or 50 days. But when it is 50 days that amount of time becomes a huge neon-sign reminder of how wonderful life really is. I can’t help but appreciate how much I stand to lose by leaving in that moment.

So I said the things that needed to be said and I gave one last hug and kiss and then maybe just one or two or twelve more. Then I told myself to be brave. And I left.

I walked through the airport doors not knowing for certain what this next great adventure will bring. As if I couldn’t quite leave yet, I found myself walking directly to the windows so I could see Heath one more time as he drove off.

Of course, he was looking for me, too, and then we waved to each other as he finally drove away.

This trip is a dream come true for me. And to have a partner who has been nothing but enthusiastic and supportive is one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received.

Heath, I know you’re reading this post and I know we’ve probably already talked six times this morning, but I love you so much! Thank you for loving me in the very best ways possible. Thank you for being my best friend. And thank you for everything that you’re taking on in my absence.

You are an extraordinary man. I am so grateful to have you in my life.

***END NOTE: If you know of anyone who would love a surprise postcard from subarctic Canada, please reach out to me at genesis.potentia(Replace this parenthesis with the @ sign)gmail.com, and we’ll see what we can do 🙂

 

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!

National Park Adventures: Grand Teton and Yellowstone Edition

After lamenting in my last blog post about how my first bear-in-the-wild experience turned out to be less thrilling than I thought it would be, Mother Nature showed up for me big time. It started with an early morning drive through Grand Teton National Park.

We saw gorgeous mountain views,

breakfasting deer,

the most majestic elk I ever did meet,

and then, on the way back through the park, a black bear had the courtesy to climb on top of a tree stump and pose for me. Don’t worry – there were two rangers there keeping the humans and bears safe, so I was not in danger while taking this picture.

Add this wildlife to the dogs I met in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and you’ve got yourself one delighted animal lover.

 

I met most of these dogs while attending the People’s Market in Jackson Hole. The People’s Market is like a farmer’s market, except it’s for people who don’t necessarily identify as farmers. What’s amazingly progressive about the People’s Market is that it’s zero waste. Everything is reused or recycled.

While at the market, I bought my first non-essential clothing purchase in over 2.5 years. All the clothes I’ve purchased since December 2015 have been to replace something that has completely worn out. This time, however, I jumped the gun on replacing a t-shirt which still has a few washes left, since I wanted to support Bear Root Bitters, a locally-based company that focuses on remixing ancient herbal remedies from locally harvested and all organic ingredients.

Although I’m a fan of supporting local in general, I am especially fond of Bear Root Bitters since two of their proprietors, Katie and Henry, let us stay with them while we were visiting Jackson Hole. My husband and I know Katie and Henry as the sister and brother-in-law of Cody and Xena, the boxers we took care of a few weeks ago. They’re two chill, generous people, and I’m so glad we got the chance to hang out with them.

After a few days in Jackson Hole, we headed north to Montana by way of Yellowstone.

We didn’t see much wildlife in Yellowstone, except for a few bison here and there.

But, WOW! The geysers here are extraordinary!

I don’t do a lot of research before I visit places, mostly because I don’t want high expectations to be unmet. So I didn’t really know what to expect at Yellowstone other than Old Faithful (which did not disappoint).

As it turns out, there’s a lot more to geysers than just bubbling, gushing water. Check out these colors:

These photos are from Biscuit Basin in Yellowstone, and the only reason we stopped there in the first place is because my husband’s brother (the one who passed away in February) was nicknamed Biscuit. We now chalk up stopping there to divine intervention.

While there, we met the loveliest couple, Ron and Carolyn from Utah, while walking around Biscuit. Carolyn was so enthusiastic about how I quit my job as a college professor to pursue writing, that she insisted Ron take our picture together, so that later when I’m a published author she would be able to say she met me at Yellowstone National Park.

I’m pretty sure Carolyn is a real-life angel. I needed that boost and unwavering belief in my goals as a writer because just a few days prior, my agent and I decided to part ways. Despite liking each other very much and being fans of each other’s professional goals, we just couldn’t seem to connect in a way where we both were on the same page with my manuscripts.

A bummer and disappointment to be sure, but as someone who once sat down next to a complete stranger at a restaurant bar and then eloped with that person three weeks later, I have no doubt that what happened is for the best. I’m already looking forward to the next part of my writing journey.

In the meantime, I have more road tripping to do. Next time I post I’ll tell you all about the supermodel I met in Kalispell, MT. His name is Bruno, and, yes, he’s a bear to work with. Literally.

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.

Minimalism as a Professional Touchstone

TItle

A few days ago, I received an email from one of my incredibly talented and insightful critique partners. She had been listening to a replay of a free webinar on How Picture Books Work and someone on the webinar named Kelly made the comment, “anything with a dog in it has me interested.” She wanted to know if it was me.

OF COURSE IT WAS!

I also made a comment when discussing personal reactions to the opening scenes of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are that I could never be too frustrated with Max because kids in wolf costumes are funny.

Where the wild things are Max in wolf costume

This How Picture Books Work webinar was offered by Kids’ Book Revisions and it was taught by Harold Underdown and moderated by Eileen Robinson.

Although I have never had the pleasure of taking a workshop or seminar with Eileen, I attended one of Harold’s presentations at the Children’s Writers of the Hudson Valley summer conference last year. In addition to learning quite a bit, he also startled the bejeezus out of me at a first pages event when he declared the first 100 words of an author’s picture book manuscript were cute and thoroughly enjoyable, but … “So, what?”

“Would someone want to pay $16.95 for this book?” is the rhetorical question he asked the audience.

I felt like a million light bulbs simultaneously went off, then shattered to pieces in my head because I realized that OH. MY. GOSH. Sometimes, my stories will be good, perhaps even great, but that doesn’t mean they are desirable by industry standards.

It’s always a good day when you have a swift kick of humility straight to your head.

I’ve used Harold’s message to help inform which of my manuscripts to submit to my agent and which should simply be exercises in creativity and imagination. His message has also helped me hone in on what types of stories bring me the most joy throughout the creation process, which ultimately lead to stronger and more engaging manuscripts because I am more passionate and invested in them.

Anyone want to guess what kind of characters I feature in those manuscripts? That’s right! Dogs and bears. I suspect anyone who reads this blog on a regular basis will not be surprised.

What was surprising to me, however, was the realization that with this awareness comes a responsibility to stay true to myself. As a minimalist, I enthusiastically proclaim that I don’t want a lot of stuff, and I embrace and even revel in how awesome I find a simple life; yet, how funny that I had ignored how minimalism could improve my approach to writing projects.

Just like the millions of light bulbs going off, then shattering with the “Would someone want to pay $16.95 for this book?” I had the same sort of moment when I realized this insight means letting go of some really great ideas I have for books simply because they don’t align with my personal values that bring me the most joy.

For example, over the winter holidays when I was catching up on my Carolina Alumni Review issues (GO TAR HEELS!),

Carolina AR

I came across a feature article about Zena Cardman ’10, who is the first microbiologist astronaut for NASA and who wants to go to Mars. HOW COOL IS THAT?!?!?

I underlined the article, made margin notes, and thought to myself: this is a story that needs to be told.

Women in Science is so relevant right now to children’s literature and quite a few editors are specifically looking for stories like Zena’s.

But as a minimalist, I’ve learned that I can’t say yes to everything. Doing so makes my life feel unbalanced and anything but simple. I now understand that Zena’s story is not mine to tell. Thinking a story is cool, relevant, and timely is not enough to devote hours and hours to research, writing, and revising, or giving away pieces of my heart, which I feel is necessary for a manuscript to be considered my best work.

Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m going to forget that I ever read Zena’s story.

I have a plan for trying to connect her with a rather successful nonfiction kidlit writer who is currently looking for scientists to interview for her e-zine. Also, if you are a kidlit writer reading this blog post, who just happened to be thinking, I wish I had a cool woman in science story to write about, please reach out to me and I’ll send you a copy of Zena’s Carolina Alumni Review article. She’s an outstanding person and a wonderful role model for our future generation of scientists, and even though I will not be writing her story, I can’t wait for it to get told through a children’s book.

In the meantime, I’m going to continue working on my animal stories because that’s where my heart is. A story about this little girl is still percolating in my mind.

Lelu

And, just yesterday while getting out of the shower, I had an idea for a mashup involving two of my favorite animals. Haha, no¸ this new mashup is not about dogs and bears – I’m already working on that story, thanks to this ball of fluff I got to know in December.

Shiloh

Her name is Shiloh and I’m pretty sure she’s part bear.

This new story is inspired by Smudge and ….

Smudge!

Sorry, but that’s all I’m going to say about that. I have to leave some things left to surprise my readers.

As always, thanks for your encouragement and support. A special shout-out to my new friend Bob, UNC class of ’72, who entertained me yesterday with some fun stories about his and his wife’s life journey to minimalism. I was feeling some bloggy writer’s block earlier and as soon as I hung up the phone with him, I cranked out most of this post. YAY TAR HEELS!

Thinking About Death During the Holidays

Christmas is coming

With Christmas fast approaching and only nine days left in 2017, it’s time for my yearly reflection entitled, “Even Though It’s Christmas, People Still Die.” And yes, I totally stole this idea from the late 1990’s sitcom Friends.

Because I know many of my friends and family who read my blog sometimes worry about me based on what I write, let me clarify that thinking about death during the holidays does not mean I’m depressed. Quite the opposite.

This has been one of the happiest, most joyful years of my life.  2017 also happened to be the year I read five different books on happiness (two of them I re-read for the second time):

ANtidote

Subtle art

Happiness Project

51XWb7K-jHL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_

joy

I recently told someone about all these books and she joked, “shouldn’t you be happy by now?”  Her point is excellent, except I read these types of books as someone who has a professional interest in psychology, science, and research, more than as an I need these books to improve my life mentality.

Although, I would be lying if I said these books haven’t improved how I live. Each one of them has contributed positively to some aspect of my life, most notably The Sweet Spot because I’m now exercising on a regular basis and it’s become an actual habit.

What I find most interesting about these books is that every single one of them included a chapter on death. They all claimed that to truly experience sustained and long-term joy, you have to keep your own death a central part of your life.

Last Christmas, death ended up being forefront in my mind because one of the dogs we were caring for had been diagnosed with a mass on his spleen. He didn’t have much longer in this world and sure enough, he died within a month.

moon-cropped

I also wrote last Christmas about my 43-year-old cousin Becky, who was diagnosed with cancer in December of 2013, and succumbed to the disease in April, 2014.

Those losses are still heavy in my heart today, just like all the other people and animals I’ve lost throughout my life. But like these books suggest, I don’t allow the losses to weigh me down.

Instead, I use their heaviness as reminders which ground me to my own life; they’ve become a rock on which I can stand and look around at our wonderful and marvelous world. These losses lift me up into the here and now because all of us could be one hour, one minute, or even one second away from death and I know it.

Our time is so precious and because I still have so much of it right now (God and Kelly willing), I don’t want to waste it. This reason is why death meditations can be so useful. If I knew 2018 would be my last year on Earth, what would I do differently?

Based on what I wrote last year – spend more time with family and friends, travel with my husband and/or niece to national parks, pet as many dogs along the way as we could, finish my first novel, publish my picture books, and see a bear in the wild – I’m tearing up with happiness right now because I’ve either done what I set out to do or I took major steps towards making these dreams a reality.

In addition to spending time with my parents in Pennsylvania,

Hawk Mountain

and my husband’s parents in Tennessee,

TN Sunset

we visited with various extended family members in North Carolina,

Kelly with Choco Lab

 

 

 

 

 

 

and my husband got to meet my oldest brother who lives in San Antonio, Texas, when we all met up at my parents’ house in Harrisburg.

Hersheypark

 

 

 

 

 

We brought my niece to visit us in Connecticut for a week in May,

Jori and Smudge

and I spent a few days with her in Washington, DC, this fall. We’ve also had friends come visit us in Connecticut and we’re making plans to see some friends in Illinois again this summer.

This past August, my husband and I visited the Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio on one of our house-sitting road trips,

Cuyahoga Valley

and this coming June we’ll be in Glacier National Park as part 2 of our super secret summer plans (SURPRISE! This is how my husband is finding out about our trip to Glacier. He still doesn’t know part 1).

Anyone who reads this blog, knows I’ve wholeheartedly met my goal of petting as many dogs as I could along the way, and I even managed to befriend some cats, llamas, chickens, turkeys, a goat, and a pig.

And, although I have not yet seen a bear in the wild, this past July I applied to be a volunteer at the Churchill Northern Studies Center in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, for bear season (October and November). I had an interview a few months ago for fall 2018 and my prospects look good for being selected as a volunteer.

As for writing, not only did I finish my first novel, but I wrote another book, started two more, and outlined several more. Those don’t count the picture books I finished. I also submitted two stories to Highlights magazine (no word yet on their submission status) and I submitted a blog post to a major minimalism blog that featured the post in their weekly newsletter sent out to over 24,000 readers. Combined with getting an agent to represent my work, this has been a benchmark year for my writing.

So when I think about my life this past year, I can boil it down to one sentiment. I’m about to break a cardinal rule of writing right now (i.e., avoid clichés), but here goes: WOW! My cup runneth over.

I am so grateful to everyone who has supported me along the way, most notably God who gives me the courage to live life this way and my husband who is also my best friend.

The question still remains, though: if 2018 were my last year on Earth, what would I do differently?

My answer? Nothing. It is with delight and joy that I can say this and feel nothing but enthusiasm and hope for the coming year. I’m going to keep on keepin’ on! And maybe, just maybe, I’m finally going to see a bear in the wild.

119 portrait

Shoulds Versus Values

Zootopia Title

I spent three full days in Washington DC last week and logged nearly 37 miles of walking, which is the equivalent of 87,954 steps.  Most of those steps took me to one place – the National Zoo!

National Zoo

I know there are so many wonderful educational and cultural opportunities available in DC, yet every day I couldn’t bear not seeing the pandas (pun totally intended).  Although, I did experience some angst that first evening as I debated where I should visit the following day.

After “shoulding” on myself for about half an hour (i.e., I should go here,  I should go there), I realized I had a choice to make.  I could visit several museums or monuments that are iconic of DC and have a rich and storied history, or I could go back to the zoo, visit the pandas again and see all the other animals I didn’t get a chance to because I literally spent hours watching Bei Bei sit in a bucket that first day.

Bei Bei in bucket 2

Bei Bei Video #1

Bei Bei Video #2

The choice wasn’t really a choice at all.  I went with my heart and headed to National Zoo again on Tuesday and then Wednesday, as well.

Panda Mom

Beaver

Elephant 2

Lionesses 2

Red Panda

I know what makes me happiest, and even though I value intellectually enriching experiences, at this point learning about art and history is not a priority in my life.

As I wrote about in my blog last week, I feel some sort of shift coming in my life, especially as I relate to the natural world around me.  My few days at the zoo reaffirmed these feelings.

I know some people may think of zoos as an awful place, a jail where animals are held in captivity.  But I like to think of zoos as the proverbial Noah’s Ark of the 21 century.  Some animals will not survive without the work zoos are doing on a daily basis and many zoos are the bridge that first connects people, especially children, to these wonderful animals.  Without these connections, we stand to lose even more animals, habitat, and natural resources that are so precious and necessary for human survival.

Most zoos today are leaders in animal science and conservation. They have accrediting bodies with standards and quality of care for the animals they house and every day they devote time, money, and personnel to scientific advancement and achievement.  I celebrated these facts for three days as I marveled at the animals I observed, loving every minute of it, and smiling along with the other zoo guests.

Seriously, if you’re ever feeling depressed, head to a zoo and listen to people watching the animals.  Their laughter and joy will warm you from the inside out.  I felt nothing but gratitude and inspiration at the chance to experience such exuberant joy

Those three days in DC were a wonderful gift.  I’m so glad I know myself enough to not waste time on anything else that’s not going to fill my heart with joy.  Next time, I hope to completely skip the “shoulding” on myself and head right for those bears.  I sure do miss them.  I wonder if they miss me?

Kelly with Panda 2