A Conversation with Poet Joanne Durham

Just in time for National Poetry Month, poet Joanne Durham’s new book, To Drink from a Wider Bowl, is a generous, life-spanning collection of work that invites readers to drink in the world. Today, I’m offering readers an interview with Joanne that I hope will shed light on the poet behind the work. Questions from One Minnesota Crone are in bold print. 

Author’s bio:

Joanne Durham is the author of To Drink from a Wider Bowl, winner of the 2021 Sinclair Poetry Prize (Evening Street Press, April 1, 2022).  Joanne is a retired educator living on the North Carolina coast. She draws on the rich experiences of seven decades of life to write poems that have been published or are forthcoming in Poetry East, Calyx, One Art, Gyroscope Review, Kosmos Quarterly, Quartet, Rise-Up Review, Juniper, and many other journals. Learn more about her background, publications, and awards at https://www.joannedurham.com/

What do you want people coming to your poetry for the first time to know about you?

First of all, how happy it makes me that they have come to my poetry! Poetry has enriched my life so much, and I want it to do the same for others. I’ve had a number of friends tell me that they never liked poetry, so they were surprised that they liked my poems. I think school ruined it for them, so I try to make up for some of that. When I was a teacher, I would never assign my kids to put, say, two metaphors in a poem. I would tell them instead, try to write a poem where you can’t quite bring out the joy or anger or sadness you felt unless you compare it to something else. I want people to know that I try, through my poetry, to bring something we need to live our lives more fully and richly – something we can’t quite express just in passing conversation.   

A lot of us had poor experiences with the way poetry was taught to us. Your example of how you taught metaphor to kids is a lovely approach, clear and concrete. And offering poetry as a way to live more fully and richly feels like a spiritual approach, drawing from the very core of who you are. Which brings me to this: To Drink from a Wider Bowl strikes me as a Zen-like title. What philosophies feed your work? 

The title is from the last two lines of the prologue poem of the book, “Old Folks”: “We are thirsty still/but drink from a wider bowl.” It’s interesting, your blog epigraph says pretty much the same thing: “Older women don’t disappear; they branch out.” Either of us could have written a long explanation, but we’re poets, so we choose to leave the reader a place to enter into the thought, to make it their own, to ponder what wasn’t said as well as what was, and to gain a deep satisfaction through metaphor and language attentive to the moment. I guess you could call that kind of Zen. 

To Drink from a Wider Bowl is a kind of memoir in poetry, although I take a lot of poetic license with the facts. The poems flow from my ancestors through childhood, adolescence, loves and losses, work, progressive activism, and winding up full of the wonders of grandkids and more concerned than ever about the world I will leave to them. There’s a prose poem early in the book called “Carpool Politics, 1966” where, as a teenager, “I think for the first time that the world is a giant jigsaw puzzle and someone has hidden the picture on the cover of the box so nobody can agree on where to put the pieces…” My book is about a lifetime of trying to fit the pieces together. 

Are you saying, then, that the philosophy that feeds your work is to invite contemplation of the larger world? Is there a little more to it? 

If there is a theme that runs throughout my book, it’s “connections.” I believe we are all fundamentally connected to each other and to the natural world. The moments when I sense those connections most intensely are the seeds of most of my poems. We live in a society that values individualism and competition over community and collaboration. So our connections are constantly obscured, and poetry is one way to rediscover and nourish them.  Reaching deeply into ourselves, connecting deeply with others, and trying together to change the circumstances that keep us in a world of conflict instead of unity – those are all connected too. 

At what point did you realize that To Drink from a Wider Bowl would take the form of poetic memoir that encompassed your entire life? Was there a particular poem from the book that tipped you toward that scope versus a tighter focus?

I’ve been writing poetry all my life, but never tried to publish anything except a few poems that came out in teaching journals. But I kept all my folders and notebooks. When I retired, I decided I was going to give poetry its due. So long before I even thought about writing a book, when I was just testing the waters to see if my poetry would interest anyone besides me, I wound up writing about all these memories I had jotted down over the years. There are a couple of poems in my book that I actually wrote 30-40 years ago. There are other poems that I totally rewrote, but the original poem allowed me to keep some of the immediacy of the experience. In “Carpool Politics,” which I referred to earlier, the quote from the men in the carpool is verbatim what they said fifty years ago! After a lot of my poems got accepted in journals, I realized that I more or less had a book that traced my life over time. It was a very satisfying feeling, to think I could make this mosaic of my experiences and there was something universal in them as well. 

The poem that glued it all together was “Old Folks.” I had been thinking about writing a poem about getting older for a while. I felt a lot of gratitude for getting older and annoyance at how old people are viewed in our society, and I wanted to celebrate cronedom! Then in a workshop I was introduced to the technique of taking 10-15 random words out of a poetry anthology and using as many of them as possible in a poem. I did that and wrote “Old Folks.” I never would have come up with “time stretches/like an accordion” or “we are thirsty still/but drink from a wider bowl” if “accordion” and “thirst” and “bowl” weren’t in my word list! But once I had written that poem, I knew it would anchor the book. I could say right up front how I felt about being older, and then travel back and trace how I got there through the sections of the book, each section titled with a phrase from that first poem. Once I had that general approach, I played around with the sections and wrote some new poems to fill out parts that seemed thin. 

What does your creative process look like? 

I usually write whatever comes into my head and come back to it days or weeks later and see if there’s a nugget of something there to turn into a poem. I keep coming back to see what else it needs, until I’ve gotten as far as I can. Then I take the poem to one or more of my critique groups to find out how it sits with other readers. I sift through their perceptive comments and almost always revise some more. A few poems were “gifts” – they rolled around in my head and came out pretty much fully formed. But that’s rare.  

What is the greatest thing about being a poet at this stage of your life?  

Time! I have time to really study craft. For years I thought you’d lose the inspiration and emotion of a poem if you tried to revise it! It was a huge moment for me when I realized the difference between writing to release something you need for yourself, which of course is totally fine, and writing to connect with readers. Craft to me is how to make that connection happen, and I can’t get enough of absorbing it from poets I admire. Another great thing is that I have a lot more experiences to write about than I did at twenty. And I’ve been able to connect with wonderful poets all over the country – some in other parts of the world. I get to be immersed in poetry, something I’ve loved all my life, but always put on the back burner. Now it’s right up front! 

Which poets or artists have been the most influential in your writing life? Do you have a favorite? 

In high school I fell in love with Walt Whitman’s poetry. I still have my hardbound copy of Leaves of Grass even though my dog ate half the cover. As a young woman I discovered the poetry of Adrienne Rich, Marge Piercy, Judy Grahn, Denise Levertov, Audrey Lorde – women poets who spoke directly to me. As a teacher I found Naomi Shihab Nye, first through her poetry for kids and then for everyone, and I always go back to her when I need to reaffirm what I find essential in poetry – a light that shines with compassion into both our inner and outer worlds. There are many contemporary poets I’ve discovered over the past few years, famous and not famous at all, whose poems continually inspire me. 

I adore Naomi Shihab Nye. I took a workshop with her in Minneapolis several years ago and have heard her read a couple of times. And there are so many poets who offer work that resonates for all kinds of reasons, it’s hard to choose a favorite. And I find that poetry is a great springboard for other kinds of art. Do you create any other forms of art besides poetry? Are there forms you’d like to try? 

I liked to draw as a kid but never pursued it and don’t think I will. I write lots of books for my grandkids, but they often turn out as poetry. I think I’m stuck with poetry. 

Lucky grandkids! Do you have any other work forthcoming? 

Yes, I have a chapbook, On Shifting Shoals, being published by Kelsay Books, probably at the end of this year. It’s about the southern beach town where I’ve lived for the past ten years. It’s part eco-poetry, part observations about the people who live at or visit the beach, part astonishment at the daily beauty of the ocean I’m so lucky to have as my backyard. I’m always writing and sending poems off to the myriad of journals, online and in print, that allow me to connect with readers and other poets all the time. 

Where can people get a copy of To Drink from a Wider Bowl

They can order it from Evening Street Press, https://eveningstreetpress.com/book-author/joanne-durham/. It’s also available through Amazon, and if people want a signed copy (and live in the US) they can contact me through my website, https://www.joannedurham.com/. Feedback and connections are always welcome too! 

Thank you so very much for sharing a bit of yourself.

Two poems from To Drink from a Wider Bowl:

Old Folks

weather things. We hold our tongues
when young women bemoan their first
gray hairs. We doze off to dream
mid-afternoons on worn, cushioned couches, 
then lie with unclosed eyes through the deep holes
of night. There's a haze that hovers above
dates, faces, places -- when was the summer
of the beach house in Ocracoke? Which snow rose
over the sills? Memory no longer chirrs
like an eager bird easing into morning wings, sipping
on rain that drips from every rafter. Time stretches
like an accordion, stores lullabies, love songs 
and funeral chords between its folds. We are
thirsty still, but drink from a wider bowl.


Every home
needs a map of the world.
Hang it by the entrance.
Bless it as you might
a cross or a mezuzah
when you come and go.
Trace your finger across continents
not your own.
Say names of countries whose sounds
tickle your throat and move your lips
differently from your own language.
Be curious about who lives there,
sharing seas and stars.
Hope to meet them,
fellow earth-dwellers,
all calling this planet

National Poetry Month is Upon Us

Do you read poetry? If so, this is the month for you. There is poetry to suit every sensibility and reading level. My preference is for contemporary work, especially that of women poets. I have a few suggestions for you.

My friends over at Gyroscope Review, a quarterly contemporary poetry journal that I co-founded with current editor Constance Brewer, released their spring issue today and I’m thrilled that one of my paintings is on the cover. Constance also used some of my photos inside the issue. Click on the cover below to see a list of the many fine poets published in this issue and to get a copy of your own.

I’m also celebrating the one-year anniversary of the publication of my chapbook, How We Learned to Shut Our Own Mouths (Gyroscope Press 2021). My son’s artwork graces its cover. The book was, in part, a response to the emotional upheaval of the pandemic. The poems are grounded in family and the Minnesota landscape, contemporary in tone and form. You can get a copy by clicking on the cover below.

Recently, I was contacted by poet Joanne Durham regarding her new book out today: To Drink from a Wider Bowl (Evening Street Press 2022). The poems encompass a lifetime of connections with family and the world, covering the phases so many of us move through with rich layers of attention and love. I’m really pleased that Joanne agreed to an interview about her work and to celebrate her publication which will appear on One Minnesota Crone on April 15. In the meantime, click on the cover below to get a copy of To Drink from a Wider Bowl.

I know there’s plenty of other work to celebrate, but we can start right here. That said, I’ll leave you with a poem that I particularly like by Naomi Shihab Nye. Her work always gets my attention for the sense of kindness that runs through all of it, so, of course, I thought I would share her poem titled, “Kindness.” The link for the poem below will take you to the American Academy of Poets website, Poets.org. Enjoy.

Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye

Room to Make Art

This week’s writing happened in my makeshift art studio. The space is a piece of our laundry room into which I’ve wheeled a stainless steel table with painting supplies on the bottom shelf and where I’ve commandeered a wide windowsill for holding drying racks and a mason jar full of paint brushes. There are two windows in this room – one facing north and one facing east – for some pretty nice natural light. There’s a massively bright shop light that I’ve screwed into the light fixture; it has three paddle-shaped LED lights that tilt to make them as efficient as possible for whatever task is at hand. I learned right after I installed it late last year that if one of the paddles is tilted so it shines out the window, anyone looking in risks getting blinded. The laundry sink is perfect for washing out silicon paint cups and stirrers and palette knives. 

I’m trying to stop calling this studio a makeshift space. It’s the space that was available, the space where I could both make a mess and clean stuff up. It beats being in the garage, where I started out two years ago. I can daydream by looking out the window, which consumed a bit of my time as I wrote this piece. I have a shop stool that is comfortable in the way a bar stool is comfortable – plop down, put my feet on the foot rail, belly up to the table. 

my art studio – a very comfortable mess

But it isn’t just the appropriation of laundry room space that nudges me to qualify how I refer to this art-making space. It’s the matter of getting used to saying out loud that I make art sometimes even though I’m not formally trained as a visual artist. It’s a matter of me not wanting to sound like I’m more than I am, yet still honoring the part of me that loves to spill paint onto surfaces and manipulate it until it delights me and maybe someone else. 

I have artists in my family. I’m keenly aware of the huge amount of hours they spent learning their skills, understanding color and light and assorted materials. It’s very similar to the amount of time writers spend honing their skills. My son is an artist. Watching him move from skateboarding teenager who doodled on any available surface to a respected co-founder of a Minneapolis art collective and high school art teacher has inspired me in all kinds of creative endeavors. We’ve had the best discussions about how creative process is alike across disciplines – writing, painting, other forms of art – which helped me decide to move beyond creative writing and into paint pouring. Yes, I picked a form of painting that would let me in without knowing how to draw. There’s that.

But there’s more to it. I’m feeling an endless urge to do something creative coupled with a growing fatigue with putting down words on a page. Maybe that’s partly due to all the angry words flung around every second that don’t make the world a better place, words that add to the drumbeat of war or the chasm between haves and have-nots. It feels like nothing I can say will make anything better right now. And I sure as hell am not one to offer a useless gesture of thoughts and prayers. Those are just more words to get us off the hook.

Pouring paint is active. Movement. Light. It doesn’t always require an explanation, a meter, word substitution. It does offer space to think about other actions while offering some beauty on a primal sort of level.

While I wish it hadn’t taken me quite this long to come to making visual art, I am clear that there is no such thing as too late. I’m learning new skills, thinking about light, looking for metaphors that I can carry out into the world. This is what art offers us. This is part of what makes it sacred.

Okay, I do have to stop saying this is a makeshift studio space. It’s become much more than that over the past two years. 

Welcome to my studio. 

What kind of wordless beauty would you like to offer the world? Where would you like to create your offerings? Chime in with a comment.

One of my paintings will be featured on the cover of the spring 2022 issue of Gyroscope Review, due out in April.

Featured images by KCMickelson 2022.

Dear Diary, You’ve Gotten Dusty

Feb. 18, 2022 – Friday – Mick’s last day as a professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Minnesota. Tomorrow, he will be known as professor emeritus. Yesterday, we cleaned out the last bits of stuff from his office. He’s been tossing out stuff for weeks, so there were only a few boxes’ worth of things to load into his car. It didn’t take long and there was no one around that we saw. In, out, gone. When I thought about how Mick and I met near the doorway to that very office, back in the 1990s when I was a University employee, single parent, and part-time college student, I got tears in my eyes. End of an era. Damn. 

At least tonight, our kids will be over and we’ll all be together. 

Feb. 19, 2022 – Saturday – Mick has his first nap by 9:30 a.m. There was much debate last night about how many naps a day Mick will take now that he’s retired. I sent a quick picture of him snoozing to my son Shawn, told him he should get credit for guessing more naps than Mick admitted to. 

Friends over for the evening. Thank god. We laughed our asses off. 

Feb. 20, 2022 – Sunday – Up at 5:30, out the door around 6:30, up north to see if we could see owls. Nope. Lots of other birds. Lots of snow. Into the ditch at one point; snowy roads, slick surfaces. Tow truck guy was very nice and the car was fine, so we continued on. Still no owls. 

Feb. 22, 2022 – 2/22/22 – Twosday – Sitting at my desk on a snowy Tuesday. First week of Mick’s retirement.

Emotional morning. Watched a video compilation from all kinds of people with whom Mick worked, supervised, mentored, collaborated. Messages poured in from all over the world. By the end, we were both choked up. While Mick continued in a Google Meet with colleagues who put the video together, I came upstairs and cried. 

The weekend was great, though. Family. Friends. A drive up north. Laughter. Love. Pie.

When did we get to be old? There’s still too much to do. Even two years ago, this moment seemed very far away. Yet here we are.

I don’t write in my private journal much anymore. There was a time when I did so nearly every day; it was what kept me sane when I had kids at home, was in grad school, trying to write, and was often unsuccessful at balancing everything. Later, I switched to a gratitude journal; this taught me to look at the world for what went right rather than what went wrong. I’m still working on that one, but the shift in my outlook is significant. Anyway, today I feel like both journals might be useful right about now as Mick and I navigate a life in which huge daily connections and responsibilities are now gone. It is Mick’s retirement from work, yes, but it flows into what is us, our conversations, our time management as a couple, our travel, happy hours, sharing of stresses. Often, we talk about the overlap of creativity and science, ways that the writing we each do – or did – is similar and how it is different. I’m a little startled at how intertwined I feel as Mick separates himself from University teaching and research. 

Having been home together most of the time since the pandemic shut everything down has made our transition very different from that of our parents or others retirees we know. We’ve already figured out how to do our own things within this space and not get in each other’s way. And maybe some of that intertwined feeling I’m having is because now we’ve seen, up close, details about how we each do our work, details that used to be contained in Mick’s office on campus while mine were done in a home office in an empty house. I’ve heard enough lab remote meeting snippets to know that Mick is a kind, caring colleague who will be missed. I like his colleagues. Having them all appear on a screen in our living room most weekday mornings has made for a comfortable virtual community.  It reminded me that I liked having my own colleagues around in other jobs I held long ago.

I’m grateful that Mick is going to attend Tuesday morning remote lab meetings for a while, keeping up on student progress, on grant progress, whatever else those meetings involve. I can’t imagine a world without these carefully tended connections, without this community of people who are doing good work. 

That said, there are other kinds of community, some we already have and some we’ve yet to discover. And the whole world is shifting as I write this, war erupting in Ukraine, forcing us to look once again beyond our own small lives. Retirement may not look anything like we thought it might even last week. These communities we’ve held close, built up, are more fragile than we usually admit. I wasn’t going to talk about the beginnings of a war here, in this space that is a refuge, but knew I couldn’t leave it unacknowledged.

My drawer of blank journals is waiting for me to open it, choose a new journal just for this moment. Another kind of refuge. Another space to imagine how I want to be in this world. Another opportunity for figuring out how to do more good than bad.

Speaking of Doing Good Work….

Recently, a woman reached out to me through the contact form at One Minnesota Crone, asking about collaborating on something to-be-determined. She shared she’ll be turning 50 soon. I was pleased to see her email, but unsure how to proceed. This was someone I’d never met, never corresponded with, so saying yes to a collaboration was not going to happen on my end just yet. After much thought, I decided interviewing her felt right. That way, both of us could get a feel for how we each work and I could promote her photography website, which I like quite a lot, at the same time. I also got clear in my own mind that I’m not interested in on-going collaborations, but one-time collaborations could work well.

How do those of you out there who collaborate choose those with whom you work? What sorts of one-time collaborations have you done that surprised you? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. 

And, if you are interested in contacting me for a potential interview about your own creative work in a future One Minnesota Crone post, please contact me HERE.

Firsts, Lasts, What-ifs

These past few months have been wistful, sometimes sad, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes a bit nerve-wracking with all the changes happening at our house. My partner Mick is retiring after 40 years at the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine, first as a post-doc, then assistant professor, then associate professor, tenure achieved, then full professor. There were grants and publications and lectures, there were grad students and lab assistants and conferences all over the world. There were the celebrations of discoveries to benefit both animals and people. 

And now Mick’s moving into a different way of being. It’s odd for me to think of him as not doing professor-ish things every day, although he’s been awarded the title of emeritus professor which will remain his forever.  Recently, as I watched him scribble a few words to say at what would be his last faculty meeting, it really hit me that so much of our lives are now behind us instead of in front of us. 

The day Mick was scribbling those words was also the day I dumped over ten years’ worth of old One Minnesota Writer posts into the trash, by which I mean digital trash and who knows where that goes exactly. But I, too, was in the process of letting go of things, saying goodbye to the old site I ran for over a decade, plucking out only 12 posts to save and offer here at One Minnesota Crone. I guess they’re some sort of proof of what I’ve been doing with my writing life besides editing other people’s poems, something I retired from during this pandemic. I firmly believe that there’s more writing to come, that I don’t have to hold onto everything I’ve ever written. Editing work, although rewarding in so many ways, takes a lot out of me and often stops me from making my own work. Sometimes a clearing of space is just the thing, including the mental space that gets stuffed with too many projects to which I’ve said yes.

Can we clear too much space? Not sure. But sometimes I do clear off my own decks with a huge sweep, perhaps creating a bit of discomfort for those who wanted me to be somewhere with them. I’m not sure where I got that undeniable urge that pops up every few years to reset everything. It happens when I start counting how many projects are going on at once and realize that I am not meant to multitask. I’d rather do one really good thing than a bunch of half-assed things.

Time does feel like it’s closing in, like we can’t waste a single day doing anything that doesn’t matter. That said, sometimes what matters is silence, quiet expansion of our own awareness, a clear look at what is here in front of us. To wit: a pandemic, angry and divided Americans, our children and their children, a climate begging us to do better by it. What a time to be retiring – which can be a great statement of anticipation if we spin it just right.

We do have things lined up: helping care for our baby granddaughter, time with people about whom we care, Mick’s saxophone playing, my painting and writing, travel when it’s safe to do so, hiking, exercise. It’s the letting go of other daily routines that feels daunting. It’s the necessity of paying enough attention that we don’t slide into days that all look the same. One of the saddest things I ever heard was an old friend who said, “We’re retired. Weekends don’t matter. All the days are the same.” Mick and I never want to be of that mindset. Ever. The possibility of awe will not disappear unless we let it. We’re not going to let it.

So, this season of lasts needs to be flipped around to a season of firsts. First weeks of a new phase. First Monday we go hiking instead of drinking coffee before Mick’s first Zoom of the day. First day we take granddaughter Maeve out in a stroller in our neighborhood. First weekday drive to an Airbnb up north just because we can. First night spent next to Lake Superior since the pandemic began. First volunteer gig we agree on.

I nearly forgot to schedule my annual mammogram amidst all the other stuff going on. After a reminder from my doctor, I scheduled an appointment at the end of the first week in February. I opted for the 3D kind based on past recommendations. All seemed to be going well, although one breast needed a second squeeze in the machine. Since it was done on a Friday, I didn’t expect to see any results in My Chart – the online medical results service – until Monday.

I got a phone call instead. That’s never a good thing. I had to schedule an ultrasound because something showed up on the mammogram. Writing about this still puts a pit in my stomach, makes my throat close a little. Other women old enough for mammograms, who’ve been called back for more, know what I mean.

I’ve been called back before. This is a common enough occurrence. But the fear this strikes in any of us who’ve experienced it is also common. The what-if thought spigot turns on full-blast and even if I succeed in turning it off, there’s still a nagging drip-drip-drip, a dribble of anger that the possibility of illness shows up right now, when life is shifting in so many other ways. And a quiet voice in my head that says, well, why not now? And why not me?  My partner’s looming retirement celebration is not a magic veil that will protect me from bad things. 

The two days between the phone call and the ultrasound felt shadowed. I didn’t tell my kids. There was nothing to tell yet, except that I was worried and Mick was worried. I breathed through morning meditation with Mick, settled into my body, asked it if there’s really something manifesting inside me that will change everything so quickly. There was only silence.

I tried to remain calm.

Life is full of what-ifs. What if I don’t wake up early enough? What if I don’t stay patient enough? What if I don’t love others enough? What if I don’t realize what I can do better before I’m no longer here to fix it?

Those are all great questions. All I – all we – can do is practice.

The morning of my ultrasound, Mick and I decided I would post his donation page at the JDRF One Walk we are participating in on April 30 and call it a retirement gift to him. He isn’t on Facebook. I opened my laptop and made the post, crossed my fingers. Since the pandemic has caused us to postpone any retirement celebrations except for having our kids over, this felt like a nice gesture.

And then it was time for me to go.

The Breast Health Center at Regions Hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota, is a revelation in how to deliver medical care to women. Soft lighting. Kind people. Gowns that are warm, like bathrobes, that snap in the front instead of the thin tie-around-you gowns at a typical mammogram appointment. The room where ultrasounds are done is also softly lit, with calm music playing in the background. The gel for the ultrasound procedure is warmed, like a little spa treatment on my breast.

When I’m told that the image from the mammogram is nothing more than a simple benign cyst, I cry. The ultrasound tech understands completely.

When I text Mick, he immediately responds with a message beginning in capital letters: OMG. Thank you.

The day I began this essay, Mick saw a great horned owl in the tree behind our house. He was silhouetted against the barest glimmer of dawn, everything below him in shadow. Mick almost always gets up earlier than I do, his inability to sleep past 6 a.m. most days legendary. He thought about waking me, then didn’t as the owl flew away within 15 seconds of Mick seeing him.

I told him to go ahead and wake me when he sees owls. Wake me when he sees something that fills him with awe, even if I don’t get there in time. I will do the same for him. We can’t know unless we try. We’re moving forward together, awake, ready for the next thing. And the thing after that. 

We don’t have time to miss any of it. 

One Minnesota Crone

Older women don't disappear. They branch out.

A Winter Morning Story: What Parents of Adult Children Think About

January is the worst time for car trouble. Cars never fail us when convenient or when the weather is nice. So, when my daughter-in-law Beka called me one recent evening to ask if I could help her get her car to the garage for repair early the next morning, I said yes without hesitation. 

Beka had dropped my granddaughter Camille off at her elementary school in Richfield that morning, no problem. She went home with baby Maeve, who is three months old, and settled in at the dining room table to work remotely. Their dog, Martin, a lab mix who can easily intimidate those who don’t know him, slept on the couch in front of the living room window. Beka’s Hyundai was resting comfortably on the street in front of the house.

Late in the day, around 5:00 p.m., Beka and Camille headed out for Camille’s Monday night swim club. Beka started up her car, startled to hear it roar to life at the decibel level of a cargo plane landing in their front yard. My son Shawn ran from the house to see what happened.

“Catalytic converter?” he asked.

Beka told me her eyes must have been very large as she looked at Shawn and nodded.

When I showed up the next morning to follow Beka to the garage, hot coffee in my travel mug at the ready, it was eleven degrees below zero. Shawn had already left for his teaching job at an alternative high school that is not doing distance learning. I took Maeve in my nice warm car and followed Beka’s rumbling, roaring Hyundai south on Nicollet Avenue to 77th Street, turned right, then left into the Honda dealership where she bought the vehicle used less than a year ago. Maeve was completely unperturbed, snug in her car seat. I almost forgot she was there.

Beka hoped that maybe it was really a broken muffler. She hoped that maybe someone didn’t steal the catalytic converter. But the mechanic quickly dismissed that idea with a peek under her car. Nope, he said, it’s gone. They got you. She handed her car keys to the mechanic, came outside and plopped into the passenger seat in my car, and said she feels like she just can’t have nice things. 

Damn thieves. 

I drove Beka and Maeve back to their house, so Beka could settle in and do some work while Maeve explored her own fingers and toes. I went on my way back to my own house carefully, aware that black ice on these subzero Minnesota winter days is a dangerous thing. The local radio station I keep on in my car gave frequent reports of spinouts and crashes littering the Twin Cities freeways as the black ice built up from rush hour car exhaust. 

While I crept home, I thought about how glad I was that I can help when something like this happens. That I’m available. That being a grandmother, mother, and mother-in-law means there are people who depend on me sometimes, just as I depend on them sometimes. We are there for one another on any given day.

When I had my first apartment without a roommate, my father would show up unannounced every chance he got. He invented assorted reasons to be there: paper towels were on sale so he figured I could use some, that coupon for tacos was going to expire and it was lunchtime, and just when was the last time I changed my oil. I was the youngest kid in the family, the one whose absence ushered in the era in which my parents lived alone. They had no one in-house to care for but themselves. 

Many parents live for that moment when they get their house to themselves and they can stop scheduling stuff around their kids. Not my dad. He genuinely missed us – me, my sisters, my brother. He loved rushing to the scene if one of our cars broke down or the furnace broke or we ran out of toilet paper and had no more money until payday. He relished using his senior discount at the nearest fast food place to buy us lunch, or a stop at the liquor store for some Blatz Cream Ale that he could share with us on a hot day. 

After my mother died, my father had the worst time staying home by himself. He wanted to be with us, or at least talk to us, daily. 

I still regret that I wasn’t the same kind of cavalry for my father that he was for me. As a parent with a teenage boy and a young daughter whose type 1 diabetes kept me from sleeping through the night for years, I often didn’t have enough to go around. Those daily phone calls sometimes made me cranky. But I did show up often enough that those fast food menus my father loved remained something I knew by heart.

My son Shawn calls me every week or so just to chat; if more than a week goes by, I’ll call him. We each pour ourselves a beer or a whiskey in our own respective kitchens and chat about nothing in particular. We pick apart politics, news, swap what we know about the rest of the family. I listen while Shawn talks about his job, how rough it is for teachers right now in this pandemic moment. He is exhausted. Camille is on the brink of her teenage years, while baby Maeve is still working on holding up her head. Shawn and Beka want to buy a house, something they’ve been waiting ten years to do while they launched careers, climbed out of debt, became parents. 

I’m so glad they have each other. 

I’m so glad Shawn talks to me. 

Shawn cares deeply about his students, his artwork (he teaches art and creates his own), his family. He cares about doing the right thing. Somehow, I have a son who sees the big picture and understands how important it is to contribute to it.

I used to chat with my dad this same way. We talked about politics, too, and my dad once told me that the University people I hung around with (my husband is a professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Minnesota) intimidated him. I couldn’t understand why; my father could hold his own with anyone. 

He didn’t agree. But I’m quite sure I was right about that. And I can see him in Shawn.

My daughter Abby is thirteen years younger than Shawn. She is married to Joe, without children, still in her twenties, still launching her career path. We don’t talk as frequently as I would like, but our last couple of conversations have been wonderfully free of the subtle tension mother-daughter conversations often contain. This is something I’ve been waiting for as Abby moves further away from her teenage years. I’m delighted that it seems to be happening.

I have been Abby’s cavalry from time to time: when her car wouldn’t start one subzero day after work, when moving into a new house felt overwhelming, when she needed a ride to the emergency room. And I’ve been there in little ways: when she wanted Christmas lights and I knew she had no extra money, when she mentioned she missed my raspberry muffins so I surprised her with a batch. I’ve been working hard to be kind, be generous, and zip it if she chooses a path I would not. I can feel deep inside myself now what Dad was doing when he showed up at my door with the paper towels: if you have a concrete reason to be there beyond your simple desire to just lay eyes on your kid, then someone has to open the door. And you do that kind of thing, being generous, bringing something thoughtful over – paper towels, muffins, a ride somewhere – until the door opens no matter what. Until you don’t need a reason other than love.

Maybe my dad didn’t need me to be his cavalry. He was teaching me to be one to my own kids. He was telling me to pay it forward before it was a fashionable thing to say.

Back to Beka. Those damn thieves. Yes, I said that earlier and I’m saying it again because they took more than a catalytic converter. They were being selfish, thoughtless, unable to see who they hurt with their crime. I’ll bet they have no one who comes to help them. Why else would stealing be part of how they survive? Those of us who have a family, a community, a support system are able to get what we need to make it through the winter. Through the pandemic. Through life.

There are those who think we can’t change the world or change other people, but I disagree. Give others a chance to change and then believe it when they do. If we can see changes in ourselves and our kids, we can see changes in others, too. It starts with just showing up. Maybe with muffins. Maybe with a warm car.  

Maybe with nothing but a full heart. 

Photo by Ann H on Pexels.com

Radio Mornings

It took five tries before I settled on a direction for today’s post. Between angst over the state of the world and boredom with what has become a daily pandemic routine for the past two years, writing does not flow. Little feels important enough to discuss here, like wasted breath. But on Thursday morning, with the house to myself, I finally found something to riff on. I have my mother to thank for it. Would she have like being called a crone in her later years? I wonder. Anyway, this post is partly her fault. 


It’s early Thursday morning. My partner Mick has gone to campus to give what will be one of his last lectures before retirement. I have the house to myself. I put on the softest lights in the kitchen, turn on the local jazz radio station (KBEM-FM aka Jazz 88), grind coffee beans, boil water. This particular way of beginning my day makes me think of my mother, her habit of getting morning coffee going and turning on WCCO 8-3-0, a Twin Cities AM radio station on the air since the 1920s. When I was a kid, it was THE radio station to tune in to for everything: weather, sports, news, really bad jokes, and music that parents listened to. It was the voice of assurance and accuracy during tornado warnings and blizzards. I still remember those morning DJs, Boone and Erickson. The sound of the radio took its place every morning alongside the sounds of coffee sloshed into waiting cups, toast popping up from the toaster, cereal hitting the bowl.

I haven’t listened to WCCO radio since the 1970s. Maybe the 1980s – I still tuned in when there was a tornado warning during my young adult years, certain that would save my life. As I wrote this piece, I checked online to see if WCCO 8-3-0 is still on the air. It is, owned now by Audacy, Inc. I have no desire to tune in to see what it’s like today. I’m happy with Jazz 88, a listener-supported FM radio station owned by the Minneapolis Public Schools. In the early mornings, the programming is full of good jazz interspersed with BBC news segments, traffic reports, and school news. Every once in a while, I hear a student announcer read a script, voice uncertain at the beginning. Most evening programming showcases different forms of music – R&B, blues, funk, old jazz standards, local musicians, the occasional school concert. The local flavor of this station makes me feel like there’s a chair for the community here in my living room. It goes with the sound of my fingers hitting my laptop keyboard.

I believe that community connection is what my mom felt every morning when she switched on our radio. There was a sense that whatever we were going through, we had company. 

I’ve been thinking about connection a lot lately. Thinking about company. In this pandemic, connection has been strained, stretched, sometimes broken. The huge rift over how to manage things isn’t healing. Settling into our third year of pandemic constraints could have showcased how well we’ve learned to mitigate virus transmission and care for each other, but that isn’t what is happening. There’s so much anger, false information, failure to communicate well. Connections everywhere have snapped, some for now and some forever. Good company is hard to come by.

Every time I chafe at pandemic constraints, I think of our three-month-old granddaughter, Maeve. The desire to protect her is urgent, undeniable. It is for her that we maintain our little community of vaccinated family and friends, for her that we must figure out how to keep the world from imploding in the face of what the pandemic has laid bare. We must nurture our human connections, community, and proven healthy practices that we’ve spent generations developing. Our care and caution right now is the very least we can do to take care of our children and ourselves. 

The jazz station has been playing this whole time I’ve been writing; I just heard the announcer talk about 50 years of KBEM. I’m so grateful for this little bit of company. In my head, I hear my mom telling me to wash my hands, come to the table, Boone and Erickson laughing on the radio in the background. I’m glad Mom passed her radio habit to me, glad I can still find these kinds of voices, music, and stories with an easy switching on of our stereo, a soundtrack that connects me to so many others in the Minneapolis area. This is one of the habits that has pulled me through this weird and awful time. Mom’s handwashing rule was a pretty good habit, too, it turns out.

Let’s hope that in another 50 years, Maeve will have the chance to talk about how she has found connection to our community, how she has found the voices that guide her wherever they may be. She won’t remember a time before COVID, but she’ll remember that her family did everything they could to offer her a healthy life even when a sizable portion of the country failed to follow the science. We even played a little music along the way. 

Thanks for the nudge, Mom.


A little something extra

A poem by David Budbill:

This Morning

Oh, this life,
the now,
this morning,

which I
can turn
into forever

by simply 
what is here,

is gone
by noon.

From Happy Life by David Budbill, Copper Canyon Press, 2011.

Happy New Year! One Minnesota Crone Begins.

Hello! Today is the beginning of One Minnesota Crone, a new blog aimed at women over 50 and anyone else who cares to come along for the ride.

I’m excited to begin posting here at One Minnesota Crone and say goodbye to One Minnesota Writer, the blog I ran for over a decade. If you’ve already read my Welcome page on this site, you know that this change was a long time coming.

And what will One Minnesota Crone offer you?

One Minnesota Crone will offer you space to celebrate the creativity that unfolds in so many of us when we are older. Having lived on this earth for a long time allows for perspective. It allows for the understanding that points of view can change, more than one path can be traveled, new trails can be blazed. Identities can shift. We can choose to have fun while still contributing to this world.

Expect to see posts once every week or two. One Minnesota Crone is a refuge when our angry and on-fire world is too much. Come here for calm. For joy. For ideas. Sometimes I’ll share photos of whatever brings me joy, like learning to pour paint and make something beautiful, poetry or novels that beg to be read, quiet places that soothe everything. Sometimes I’ll share what I’m cooking, because cooking is its own zen space in my house. Sometimes I’ll share a gorgeous hike that will make your feet itch to hit the trail. There are so many ways to find a refuge.

And I’m not the only one with things to share. If you identify as a woman over 50 and you would like to share something here – your artwork, your published work, something you think is important for this community – contact me. Let’s see what we can work out.

Which, of course, leads me to what I can share with you today. As we close out 2021, I think winter peace is the ideal thing. I love taking winter photos because the light is so lovely, so fragile in Minnesota in the winter. Sometimes photographing in snowy conditions is challenging: keeping the camera battery warm enough, keeping my fingers warm enough to grasp the camera, finding the correct shutter speed to accommodate how much light the snow reflects. But the shadows on the snow, the way the light falls through bare trees, and how little birds flit around in the slumbering garden is a draw that I find irresistible. And sun reflecting on frozen lakes can be stunning.

So, here you go. Some wintery images. Some moments of peace.

I also wouldn’t be me if I didn’t add a winter poem that seems fitting with these photos and this first post at One Minnesota Crone. Here are the words of Mary Oliver from the Poetry Foundation’s website, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/41662/white-eyes.



In winter 
    all the singing is in 
         the tops of the trees 
             where the wind-bird 

with its white eyes 
    shoves and pushes 
         among the branches. 
             Like any of us 

he wants to go to sleep, 
    but he’s restless— 
         he has an idea, 
             and slowly it unfolds 

from under his beating wings 
    as long as he stays awake. 
         But his big, round music, after all, 
             is too breathy to last. 

So, it’s over. 
    In the pine-crown 
         he makes his nest, 
             he’s done all he can. 

I don’t know the name of this bird, 
    I only imagine his glittering beak 
         tucked in a white wing 
             while the clouds— 

which he has summoned 
    from the north— 
         which he has taught 
             to be mild, and silent— 

thicken, and begin to fall 
    into the world below 
         like stars, or the feathers 
               of some unimaginable bird 

that loves us, 
    that is asleep now, and silent— 
         that has turned itself 
             into snow.

Source: Poetry (Poetry Foundation, 2002)

Welcome to One Minnesota Crone. I hope I see you here again soon and Happy New Year.

Photos taken near the Old Cedar Avenue Bridge and Long Meadow Lake, Bloomington, Minnesota, by kcmickelson, 2021.