Watching the World

When I was living in Nicaragua, I worked at a small university that was a forty-five minute bus ride away from my house.

Every day, I would shut down my computer, say goodbye to my co-workers and catch the 119 back home. If I was lucky, I would get a seat, if not, I would grab onto the handrail above me and guess which seated bus rider was most likely to vacate their seat next.

The bus dropped me off two blocks from my house, and as I walked home I said good afternoon to the man on the folding chair whose girth spilled over the sides, the woman selling drinks and chips by her doorway and the group of men on the corner that were either playing chess or watching a soccer game on a small tv high on the wall.

I lived down a little alley barely wide enough for two cars to pass. The children who lived next door played in the street as the sun set and the grandmother two houses down swept the front porch while sounds of the day’s soap opera could be heard from the living room.

I lived in a little pink house with small red flowers crawling up the left side. Every day, I would walk up to the front gate and find my host grandmother, Norma, sitting in a white rocking chair. She was nearing 85 and spoke in a soft blur of Spanish. I rarely understood what she was saying, but every evening, she would hold my hand between her soft, wrinkled ones, smile up at me and reassure me that supper was waiting for me in the kitchen.

As I walked to my room, she went back to watching the little world that played itself out in the alley every night and I would smile at the culture where homes extend to the streets and community is created on the front porch.

Yesterday, as I was driving home, I drove past an elderly couple sitting next to the steps of their house in worn folding chairs. Like Norma, life whitened their black hairs and spotted their brown hands. They weren’t talking or looking at each other, just sitting and watching the cars drive by.

If I had been walking, I would have asked them what street they used to sit on and what neighbors they used to watch. I would have asked them how far they were from home and how they have made Worthington their new home.

I imagine they used to live on a street similar to the one that I lived on and that they have spent countless nights sitting outside their home watching people pass by. When they moved to Worthington, they found a world completely different than the one they left, but in the midst of newness and confusion, they were able to find two chairs and watch the sunset and neighbors pass by like they had before.

Even if it wasn’t an intentional decision, they have maintained a habit that they started long ago — probably one that their parents and grandparents unknowingly taught them and that they carried to their new home.

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Being a Local

When I travel, I like to settle into where ever I am. Week-long vacations are fun, but its hard for me to say I know a place in such a short amount of time. I like finding a favorite coffee shop, the best place to read in the library and shortest path to the nearest farmers market. I like developing connections with the people and city where I’m living — however temporary it may be.

When I spent a month in Spain, I fell in love with the gelato and quickly made it my personal goal to find the best gelato stand among the many that lined Salamanca’s central plaza. I suspect they all had the same supplier, but I didn’t let that stand in my way.

In London, I learned to navigate the subway system — the Tube — like a native. I took advantage of all the free museums in the city and made sure I visited each one before I returned to the states.

In Santa Cruz, Bolivia, I found the best bead shop with walls lined in strings of beads and in Nicaragua, I became a loyal regular at one fruit stand when the owner threw in a couple limes after I bought a pineapple and three passionfruit.

Its been almost eight months since I moved back to Worthington and I’ve been feeling more and more like a local every day. My job helps. It gives me an easy “in” with businesses and community members and is the perfect excuse to stop into a new place to see what they have to offer.

Just this week, I visited a business that I had driven past countless times before. Located on the corner of Oxford Street and Milton, it always seemed busy with cars parked in the little driveway and lining the streets. Children often played out front while their parents stepped inside.

Even thought I was there for a story, the home-like facade of the building made it hard for me to resist the urge to knock before I opened the door.
Whatever I expected, the bright interior of La Morenita was not it. Owner Olivia Figueroa greeted me from behind the counter and then sat down with me to do a quick interview about the business she owners with her husband. A half hour later, I left with a bottle of Coke from Mexico in my hand and a new business to visit whenever I have the chance.

I’ve been talking to other business owners lately, introducing myself and learning a little bit about their stories.

And I’ve found some great new places to frequent in Worthington. Quesadillas at Mini Mart Lupita, sweetbreads at Pandaria Mi Tierra and papusa at Pupuseria & Restaurant Crystal.
Worthington may not be as sprawling as London or as exotic as Bolivia, but it is a community full of new things to try and people to meet. The more I immerse myself in the diversity that makes Worthington what it is, the more I see the richness that we have in our backyards.

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Crossing Sides

Grocery cart

At church, my family is left-siders. We always have been, and we always will be. I don’t know if it’s because our church is Lutheran, or if it’s because most of our forefathers were German, but every family has their unofficial, assigned seats. Deviating from your assigned seat is always noted — at least by me.

Even now, I could confidently make an educated guess about where various families will be sitting on Sunday morning.

Growing up, I was always tempted by the other side. Most of my friends were right-siders, and it represented a whole new arena for my imagination. Different heads in front of you, different singing voices behind you and a new view of the sanctuary before you.

Children fill in knowledge gaps with whatever makes the most sense to them. It wasn’t until I figured out that the line in the Apostles Creed is “he spake by the prophets” — not “he spanked the prophets” — that I agreed to say the creed with the rest of the congregation.

Likewise, I reasoned that if all my friends sat on the right side, it must be more fun.

The allure of the right side lasted until the morning we got to church late and there was no room on our side. My mother, who always led the rest of us into the sanctuary, paused for a moment at the entrance before continuing down the aisle and bravely settling in to a front, right pew.

It felt wrong. The whole thing was wrong. I was sure the whole church was watching us, wondering what had caused our sudden shift in loyalty. My mortification was compounded when I had to stand up and scoot to the other side of my dad so I wasn’t sitting by either of my siblings — the classic parenting technique of separating trouble before it can start.

I had a similar experience this weekend when I went to a different grocery store in town. Normally, I am faithful to the same grocery store, so much so that sometimes I forget there are other options in town — unless I’m looking for something specific like seaweed paper for sushi or Coca-Cola made with cane sugar instead of corn syrup.

But, after wandering up and down the produce aisles twice at my regular store, I couldn’t find any sign of what I was looking for. I had my heart set on making butternut squash tacos, and butternut squash is not something you can find a substitute for — especially when it’s the star of the tacos.

So, I decided to visit a different grocery store in Worthington. I had been there a couple times before, but for some reason rarely frequent it these days.

As I walked up and down the aisles, it was amazing how many people I saw there that I have never seen grocery shopping before — apparently they are all as loyal as I (usually) am. It felt a little weird, like I had crossed sides again. The food displayed was basically the same, but I would find things along the back wall instead of the third aisle or next to the coffee instead of the bread. The canned goods were not where I thought they should be, and by the time I got to the dairy, I realized I had missed half the things on my list and had to weave my way back through the store to get everything I needed.

I did, however, find one of my favorite teas that I’ve been searching for, and the butternut squash that led me there in the first place.

While my family is still left-siders, I decided I may be willing to bend on my grocery store loyalty — at least a little bit. If nothing else, it’s always nice to see who’s on the other side.

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Little Lies

Two weeks ago, I told a lie. And then, to make the first one fit, I told a couple more. They were small, little half-truths, but as everyone mother has told them — a lie is a lie, no matter how small. But, sometimes surprises require a bit of fudging the truth.

Actually, there was a lot of sneakiness in Fulda in the months leading up to the Wood Duck festival. The whole town, plus high school alumni, were planning a surprise for one person. Its a feat that sounds impossible, but when the band director of 36-years, Mike Peterson, announced he was retiring, a few community members hatched a plot to thank Mike for all he has given the community. I had already lied a little bit when Mike called me that Wednesday to see if I could play in the Big Band concert on the Thursday night of Wood Duck.

I told him I had to work but that I would love to play on Friday night’s concert in the park along with the high school if he had an extra bari sax. I didn’t tell him that I had already shifted my schedule around to make sure I could make it on Friday and thankfully he didn’t ask why I requested a bari sax when I’m usually more of a tenor girl.

Before he hung up, I spun a story about how it has been so long since I’d played my saxophone. Frankly, I wasn’t sure if I’d even remember how, I told him. Was there any chance I’d be able to practice before the concert?

Never one to discourage practice, Mike assured me the bari sax would be left for me in his basement, and even if there wasn’t anyone home, I was free to go in and grab it. Unfortunately, when I got there, the house was full of people and I had to carry the lie even farther and go on and on about how I was going to have a rough time playing that night and no, I couldn’t stick around, because my parents were waiting on me for supper.

In reality, I had a rehearsal to get to. Over 80 Fulda band alumni were gathering in St. Gabriel’s Church basement rehearse Prince of Denmark’s March, a piece commissioned in Mike’s honor. Walking through the door was like stepping into an all-school reunion. Some of the people I knew but hadn’t seen since I graduated. Others graduated before I was born.

The room was loud as people got acquainted with old classmates and instruments hadn’t been touched for years. We were a rather hodge podge group with music laying on the floor or propped on chairs, but from the moment the conductor gave the first downbeat, all the lessons Mr. Peterson taught us came back, with only a couple missed sharps and early entrances.

I don’t think anyone will forget the look on Mike’s face when he found out that the concert wasn’t over when the high school students left the stage on Friday night.

The pinnacle of the piece was, very suitably, a rendition of Trumpet Voluntary, the well-known piece played by the Fulda Matching band every summer. Many people accomplish great things in their careers and leave lasting impressions behind them, but teachers have the privilege to teach skills that last a lifetime. Reading, writing, math, music — we carry those lessons with us throughout our lives and use them so often, they are easy to take for granted.

I think many of the other musicians will agree it was a pleasure to be able to say thank you for all the music lessons we received during elementary and high school. A thousand little half-truths were told to keep the commissioned piece a surprise, but hopefully Mr. Peterson will agree that they were worth it and forgive us all.

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Greener Grass

I had always believed that growing up on a farm made me a stronger person. For as long as I can remember, helping with chores after school and on weekends was expected. Summertime meant freedom from school, but it also meant picking rock, helping with livestock, weeding the garden and mowing the lawn.

Our farm is at the end of a long driveway, and we have a sizeable yard with plenty of buildings that are bordered by grass. It is the picture of country living – unless the grass doesn’t get mowed. Then it quickly turns into an unkempt jungle.

Almost every afternoon, one of my family members would be out on the riding lawn mower doing their assigned section of the property for the week.

As we got older, we got a second tractor mower, and once a week I would mow around the hog and cattle barns and up and down the driveway, listening to my walkman and singing along to the Lion King soundtrack.

Over the years, we each spent hours upon hours driving up, down and around the property until we knew where to watch out for twine from the bails, how close we could get to the drop-off on the west of the driveway and where the biggest rocks were.

After a couple hours mowing, I would come back to the house covered in dust and grass clippings, convinced that it was a tough life living on the farm, and anyone who lived in town should be thankful their yards were smaller.

This year I had been putting off mowing the lawn at my place in Worthington. First the weather wasn’t cooperating, and then I discovered the blade had to be replaced.

On Monday afternoon, the weather was finally beautiful, and I decided to take care of the lawn before the grass started to resemble the prairie.

After I finished attaching the new blade, I figured the hardest part was behind me – oh how wrong I was.

Each little hill took all my effort to push the mower up, and I couldn’t help laughing at the scene I was making as I struggle to do what all my neighbors make look so easy.

I thought I had been working hard on the farm when I mowed the lawn, but that is nothing compared to pushing a mower. My yard isn’t big, but when I finally put the mower away again, I was ready to flop in the grass and never move again.

By the end of the summer, I may be willing to trade my little lawn for a bigger one if it would mean getting a riding lawn mower again. Or maybe I’ll get used to it and decide getting a workout while mowing the lawn is a great way to kill two birds with one stone. Either way, I have certainly learned that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.

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Almost Summer

When I was in elementary school, the end of the year was heralded by Track and Field Day, Pet Day (I’ll never forget the year someone’s sheep got loose, and all the dads had to chase it through the streets of Fulda) and a school field trip. For my eighth grade year, we took a class trip to the Twin Cities and spent a day visiting historical and cultural landmarks. It wasn’t until last weekend that I realized the superhero powers that teachers need to have to control their students on what is easily one of the most exciting days of the year.

I spent last weekend in St. Paul on a mini-vacation to see some of the touristy sights that I missed during the years that I lived in the Twin Cities.

When I think of the inner city, images of modern sky scrapers pressed against old churches and wealth and poverty passing each other on the streets come to mind. I’ve come to expect the unexpected whenever I wander through metro areas, but in spite of that, I didn’t expect to find the St. Paul sidewalks over run with children.

Everywhere I turned, some brave teacher was leading a line of students with varying degrees of success. From museums to art galleries to zoos, school field trips filled the city. The only place we didn’t run into them was at the St. Paul Library where keeping the kids’ volume at appropriate levels would test even the most seasoned teacher.

At the Science Museum, we waited next to eight-year olds for our turn to try making hydroelectricity and to see a real mummy up close. Built for curious children, the exhibits were laid out to encourage interaction and hands-on learning. I left knowing a bit more about the Mississippi River ecosystems, what the human bloodstream looks like and how tornados form. I watched a four-year old stand in front of a triceratops for the first time, his head tilted up to marvel at the ancient skeleton towering over him. I even heard a group of kids give a loud cheer for science after a demonstration with dry ice.

It’s hard to believe, but the Minnesota Historical Society was even more over run with students. 12-years olds ignored the panels of text summarizing the Civil War and went straight to a computer that translated messages they wrote into Morse code and relayed it to a telegraph that punched out the dots and dashed for the students to hear. Others used a treadmill to get a taste of what it felt like to plow a field with a pair of oxen or climbed through an imitation grain elevator to trace the journey of wheat and corn. The excitement of hundreds of students is contagious, and it wasn’t long before I found myself wishing they would move on so I could try the old fashioned register at the country store or poke my head into the 1870’s sod house.

I hadn’t anticipated sharing the weekend with so many children, but their enthusiasm at experiencing the exhibits for the first time made my time there richer. While I can’t say I hope all of my vacations are filled with as many students, it was a pleasure being able to see the world through their eyes for a few hours.

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Gardening

Three years ago, I decided to start a garden. After a job in Scotland fell through, I had no job prospects and instead entertained naive illusions of herbs, flowers and vegetables springing up at the merest touch of my green thumb and afternoons at farmers markets selling my produce to impressed buyers.

Never mind that I had very little experience gardening, I dove in with the enthusiasm inspired by an open calendar and no other plans.

I sectioned of little sections for different types of plants and especially loved the herbs that I planted — lavender, basil, rosemary and thyme.

Just as the plants started to sprout and push their way through the soil, a job appeared out of thin air. It was completely different from anything I had ever done before but I think they were as anxious to find someone as I was to start having an income.

So with little idea of what I was getting into, I accepted the job and subsequently abandoned my fledgling garden. I didn’t mean to, but with a job and other obligations, all my free time was suddenly eaten up until the neat rows disappeared under a tangle of weeds and the whole thing became a bit of an embarrassment.

That unexplained affection for gardening has stuck around, and I decided to give it another go this year. I don’t have a yard with a garden plot, but I do have a lovely little deck with lots of sunshine and plenty of space for pots overflowing with flowers and herbs.

So I started early this year, because again, I was so excited about it.

I bought little cardboard planters and filled with me soil and gently covered the seeds. For some reason, I didn’t think it was important to keep the seed packets and the moment I threw them away, I forgot which seeds were planted where, but I figured that was part of the surprise, right?

I was amazed at the progress of my little plants. By the end of the first week, they were starting to sprout and by the end of two weeks, many of them had taken of and were easily over four inches long.

It didn’t take me too long to realize that the rapid growth wasn’t a good thing and that they were probably starving from lack of sunlight. So I started moving them around my apartment throughout the day to catch the most sun possi-ble. They would sit on my bed in the morning hours and then in the afternoon I would move them under the window on the other end of the house. It helped a little, but between lack of light and neglecting to water them regularly, I’m afraid they have always looked rather sickly.

I may be one of the few people that is secretly a little relieved at Worthington’s watering ban. I’ll put out a bucket to catch rain water and hopefully manage to keep a few little plants alive through the summer, but other than that, the rest of my gardening will have to wait until we have more water.

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Community

A year ago, I was far away from home. I was living in a little room in Managua with a tin roof and a hole in the wall large enough for stray cats to leave foot prints on my bed. As part of my job, I often went to communities hidden deep in the mountains and jungles of Nicaragua. The organization I was with did theological and agricultural development throughout the country — reasoning that well trained pastors are important regardless of where you live and as stewards of the land, well trained farmers are equally important.

While I was there, we started a new project with a community, Villa Nueva, near the Honduran border. Even though we had a general idea of the improvements we wanted to help the community with (clean water and stable food sources), we held a town hall style meeting with everyone in the community, men, women and children, to learn what their resources and needs were.

The group met in the only room in Villa Nueva large enough to hold us all and while we talked, toddlers, dogs and chicks (dyed pink in preparation for Easter), wandered through the open doors. Three women worked in the outdoor kitchen making corn tortillas and rice over an open fire for lunch.

By the end of our two days there, relationships had been formed and we had a good understanding of where the community wanted to go and the areas that they needed help. The community had come together to work out a plan for their future.

I spent last weekend thinking about community while I helped on my parent’s farm north of Fulda. After losing a tug-of-war with a tractor, my dad found himself wearing a boot and under strict orders to stay off his right leg as much as possible. For a farmer, this was close to the worst news he could receive right before planting season.

Fortunately, my sister, brother-in-law and I live close and we all went to the farm on Saturday to help Mom check some of the spring chores off the list — a new fence in the pasture, clean up the fallen branches, get the garden ready and whatever else we had time for — while Dad supervised from the porch.

The day passed quickly and we only stopped for lunch and cookie breaks. By the end of the day, we had finished everything we wanted to —and then some. We never would have gotten everything done without the help of neighbors and friends that kept popping by to see if we could use a hand.

Nancy helped sort the bulls from the rest of the cattle while her young son, Jake, helped fix a bird house and later watched all the activity from the hay mound (which he called the hay mountain). Stan handed parts for the planter to his son, Kole, to get everything ready for planting and Dennis came with a whole crew of second cousins to trim limbs from the trees in the front yard. I’ve never seen so many little groups of people working on different projects on the farm before.

And that was just one day. In the past couple weeks, so many friends and neighbors have stopped to lend a hand where ever they could.

While the community I saw in Nicaragua and the one I saw on my parents farm are vastly different, their foundations are built on friendship and caring and both made me glad to be a part of that community, if only during the time I spent there. Villa Nueva and the family farm are very little dots on the map, but they both show communities that make life a little richer and a little better.

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A Minnesota Parable

More than two weeks after the snow and ice storm hit the Worthington area, things are almost back to normal and stories are starting to be passed around.

Already the storm has become come a “do you remember” event.

Years from now, when we’re all a little bit older and a little bit grayer, we’ll say over our cups of coffee, “Do you remember the April storm of 2013?”

And of course, everyone will remember. We’ll start telling stories about watching movies in cars when the rolling blackouts turned the houses dark, working on battery powered laptops near windows, struggling to keep food cold, standing in a store aisle when everything suddenly went dark and the impossible hunt for chainsaws, flashlights and oil lamps.

I will tell the story of finding myself as the anti-hero of a real life parable.

This fall when my Grandma moved out of her house in Fulda, my extended family came together to help clean out the house and condense years of possessions.

We went slowly through the process of dividing, discarding and donating everything. At the end of the day, I took home with a box of family heirlooms and odds and ends – quilts my great-grandmother made, a non-electric hand mixer, blue Bell jars, a purple feathered hat and an oil lamp that used to sit on the mantle.

I had used the oil lamp a few times before as a novelty but never as the only possible source of light — until the 17th when I came home from work to a very cold and very dark apartment.

I lit the lamp and snuggled up on the couch to read, smug in my electrical independence.

In fact, the lack of incandescent light hardly bothered me — until the flame began to fade. I turned the wick up a little higher, but it didn’t help for long.

That is when I noticed that the wick was no longer touching the oil and was burning at an alarming rate.

I quickly blew it out and sat in the dark, wondering where I could find more oil for my lamp. It was late and I was sure that none of my friends or neighbors would have any to spare. I thought about braving the storm to see if any store in town had more, but decided that at 9 p.m., it would be futile.

There I was — a young maiden who forgot to bring extra oil for her lamp.

I couldn’t believe it. After all those Sunday School lessons, I never thought I would end up as one of the foolish ones, I always assumed I would be wise enough to bring extra oil.

And yet, there I sat in the dark. I’m pretty sure if I would have looked out my window, I would have seen the bridegroom walk by on his way to the wedding feast.

I learned my lesson though. I may not know the day nor the hour when the power goes out again, but I have a two liter jug of oil in my closet ready for the next storm or a wedding feast — which ever comes first.

 

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Too Close To Possible

With our rotation of staff and guest writers, each of us in the newsroom write a blog post for the paper about every week and a half. Since my last blog was published on March 19, my turn came up again on Monday.

Aside from waking up my brother with “You’re going to be late for school!” on an April 1st that happened to fall on a Saturday, I’ve never been much for April Fools jokes and am usually content hearing about clever pranks pulled by others.

Nevertheless, when I realized that I had Monday’s blog, I figured the opportunity was too good to pass up — so I got creative.

They always say the best lies are based on a foundation a possibility — so that’s where I started.

Truth: Worthington has a lake and small communities are always looking to improve tourism.

Untruth: A New Mexico company, Water Adventures, plans to capitalize on that market.

I built the fabrication from there. Studies were cited and details given: “The University of Minnesota has outlined the potential growth of tourism around the lake,” and “the two-hour tours will start at the Chautauqua Park dock and work in a counter clockwise direction around the lake,”

The company was so confident in the Worthington market that “in 2014 they will expand to Fulda First and Second Lake, Lake Ocheda, Lime Lake and Round Lake and add a supper cruise and musical entertainment in Worthington.”

Community highlight along the shore would be pointed out during the tour cruise and the only negative feedback the City of Worthington received was “Why hasn’t anyone through of this before?”

I knew I had made my fabrication look enough like the truth that it might confuse people so in closing, I wrote “As we look forward to the new lake front enterprise, I hope you all have a delightful April Fool’s Day,” thinking that should take care of it.

I’ve always through that I’m a pretty good liar and that people are just lucky I don’t put that skill to use more often. Now I’ve got a story to back up my theory.

Unlike most mornings, I didn’t have time to look at the paper before I came into work yesterday. I was shocked and then baffled when I saw an email from the editor (who was out of the office for the day) telling me my blog had been pulled before the paper was printed and “this information shouldn’t be information buried in a blog.”

“I would like this to be a full-fledged story as soon as it can be done,” he wrote.

Now I was really stumped. It’s a tricky thing to explain to your boss that what he read was in fact not the worst reporting I had ever done —un-cited quotes and everything — like he must have thought but rather completely made up. Especially when you have to do the explaining over email.

Fortunately, he was a good sport and the rest of the office got a pretty good kick out of it too.

I have to say though, I’ve learned my lesson. From now on, I think I’ll leave the April Fools jokes to others and stick with reporting the facts.

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