I’m especially grateful to the mama bear of this baby bear!
You can watch a short video of this baby bear snacking on clovers and dandelions here.
Thank you, mama bear, for choosing our yard! And special thanks for not being grumpy at me when I finally got out of my car and ran to the front door.
At least, I think she wasn’t grumpy at me. I don’t know as I never actually saw her! Talk about a suspenseful moment of my life. After watching the baby bear for several minutes – my stomach complaining loudly the entire time that I needed to get inside and start working on my dinner – I pulled in as close to the front door as possible, put Heath on videophone just in case, and then ran to the front door and unlocked it faster than a bear licking a pot of honey.
It’s funny to think that just a few years ago my “Norfolk Bear Story,” was that I’d never seen a bear in Norfolk. It felt like everyone else had some sort of bear story. Bears showing up in their yards. Bears splashing in their ponds. Bears crossing their paths in the woods. Bears going through their garbage.
I didn’t think I was EVER going to see a bear like that, and, in fact, the first time I did see a bear in the wild it was at the Grand Tetons National Park in Wyoming in the summer of 2018. The experience wasn’t as magical as I hoped, since we saw signs warning park guests that bears were out and about, and then park rangers stood on the side of the roads controlling the crowd of onlookers. It totally lacked the wonder and awe that I crave during those sorts of natural encounters.
But here we are in May 2021 and now my Norfolk Bear Story is, “I’VE SEEN SO MANY BEARS.”
Here’s a bear outside my bedroom window!
Here’s a bear crossing in front of me while out for a walk!
Here’s a bear looking at me as I snap their picture from the safety of my car!
And, of course, the baby bear in the yard!
When I first encountered the baby bear, I called Heath on video phone so he could see the baby bear, too. He really couldn’t see it from where I was in the car. So I took plenty of video and pictures to share with him later.
Heath, who has SO MANY MORE wildlife stories than I do thanks to his job at Great Mountain Forest, shared these photos with me a few days later.
I CAN’T BELIEVE I MISSED IT!
I have since asked Heath TO STOP HAVING WILDLIFE ENCOUNTERS WITHOUT ME!
I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of bear encounters. I always feel like the luckiest person in the world when a bear graces me with their presence. It makes me wonder what else is waiting for me in my future? And it serves as a good reminder that just because something you want isn’t happening right now doesn’t mean it never will.
The best part? When it finally does happen, it may even be better than your wildest dreams!
Last week, I attended a New England Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators writer’s retreat at Whispering Pines in West Greenwich, Rhode Island. In addition to making new friends, chatting with and learning from industry professionals, and eating New Orleans French Toast for the first time in my life (YUM!), I found out about something VERY IMPORTANT:
How did I NOT know that every Tuesday social media encourages us to post pictures of animals with their tongues sticking out?
Special shout-out to my new friend, Kathy Halsey, a children’s book writer, school librarian, and dog mom to one Wiley Corgi, who first told me about #TongueOutTuesday.
Since I’ve been missing out for who knows how long, I am pleased to present you The Kelly Kandra Hughes #TongueOutTuesday Catch-Up Compilation. This is not an exhaustive list. If it were, we’d be here all night.
Cody, Naperville, IL
Phyllos and Rafiki, Joliet, IL
Lilu and Rafiki, Joliet, IL
Lukas, Jackson Hole, WY
Stella, St. Albert, Alberta
Sam, Murfreesboro, TN
Horse at the PA Farm Show
Annie and Dodger, Norfolk, CT
Chance Long Nose, Norfolk, CT
Moon, Norfolk, CT
Tobey, Norfolk, CT
Smudge, Norfolk, CT
Faith, Norfolk, CT
Bruno, picture courtesy of my husband Heath, Kalispell, MT
PS – Are there any other animal-related social media hashtags I should know about? Let me know in the comments or you can email me at genesispotentia(Replace this parenthesis with the @ sign)gmail.com.
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).
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.
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.
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:
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:
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!
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 🙂
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, KathleenReeder. 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.
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,
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Her name is Shiloh and I’m pretty sure she’s part bear.
This new story is inspired by Smudge and ….
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!