I had a buddy with a fishing boat, and one afternoon towards the end of August he let me go with him and some friends for a ride on Lake Superior. We went out from the Wisconsin side of Lake Superior and when we got to deep enough water he started to set up fishing lines. Catching a Lake Superior fish was still on my bucket list and, even though I hate to admit it, there wouldn’t have been any better fisherman to know how to catch one than Jason. In fact, before he even had all of his lines set, one of the poles had a fish on!
Jason looked at me steering the boat and pointed to the rod saying, “Reel ‘er in.”
One of the other gals stood up and said, “I’ll steer! You can catch the fish!”
To my own surprise I shook my head and laughed, “Nah. You guys catch the fish.”
“Come on, this is your fish!” he encouraged while I kept shaking my head. Still pointing at the bouncing rod his tone became annoyed, “This is exactly what you wanted.''
I wanted to catch a fish, not reel in someone else’s fish. It felt like cheating, and the thought of catching his fish was even worse. So, another friend caught what turned out to be a twenty-six inch lake trout! She reeled, and when the fish got close enough to the boat he scooped it into the net. They landed ‘er on the back of the boat and we all laughed in excitement. I decided that the experience was close enough to catching a Lake Superior fish for my bucket list standards, which meant I only had one thing left to do: sailing.
Being out on the great wide endlessness of the Lake was surreal, like being inside of a painting and wondering how the artist could make it look so lifelike. Looking South I could see the familiar Wisconsin shoreline, but the trees that towered over me when we stood beside one another looked like little toys. To the North I saw the water spill out across the horizon for miles until it met the sky and I just kept thinking, “this can’t be real.” As the sun creeped closer and closer to the West, it beamed down and stretched across the top of the still water. Only a few white clouds offered an accent to the blue sky above us. It was beautiful, and I told my fishing boat mates that being out on Lake Superior would be the perfect place to watch the sunset. When you’re in Duluth, the sunsets over a hill covered by buildings and roads, and when you’re in the forest, the sun sets somewhere behind all of the trees where you can’t see. On the water, however, I imagined that we could have actually watched the sun fall entirely behind the horizon with no interruptions: a real sunset.
We boated back into the marina to clean their catch. Raising the palm of my hand to the sky I estimated there would be about an hour until sunset. Being that it was about an hour drive back home, I decided I would start driving and watch it set from the beach before settling in for the night myself.
I gathered my things and started saying my goodbyes when a man came charging down the dock and climbed onto a sailboat in the slip across from ours! The hustle and bustle of his demeanor was sporadic but purposeful and it reminded me of the Madhatter! He hurried back to his car, grabbing things quickly from the backseat and quickly carrying them back to the sailboat. He changed from day pants into cargo pants and put on a sweatshirt. Again he raced back to the vehicle for things I assume he had forgotten and then again back to the boat. He was a madman on a mission, and naturally I was curious.
“Are you going sail boating right now?” I shout to him from across the dock.
“Yeah!” He shouted back excitedly without looking up from his hurry.
With exaggerated and indirect interest I shouted back, “Oh! Wow! That’s gotta be SO much fun!”
“Yeah! Sure is!”
I went back and forth as to whether I should invite myself to go with him or just keep hoping that he’d invite me himself, which in hindsight is crazy because what stranger is going to invite another stranger to go sailing on their boat? The “what-ifs” began to accumulate, but in a moment my endless internal conflict rested, and my heart and brain and all my bones agreed that this was my chance to go sailing.
I bit my lip and shouted, “Are you going out for a few days? Or overnight? Or what?” I trailed off.
"No, just to watch the sunset!” He stopped the hurrying for a second and looked to the West briefly before getting back to work, “Did you feel the wind just pick up? It’s going to be a perfect sunset sail!” He shouted without ever stopping to really look at who he was talking to.
A perfect sunset sail? Yes, a perfect sunset sail! I grabbed my chest and looked at my friend's wide eyes before shouting back to the sailor, “You wouldn’t want any company on your sunset sail, would you?”
For the first time since this man arrived at the marina he stopped, turned around and looked at me surrounded by five other people on our buddy’s boat. I assume that he was trying to figure out how he could possibly fit six of us on his modest vessel and asked with hesitation, “You guys, erm- you want to go sailing?”
Instantly I shouted back, “No! They don’t want to go. I do! I would really like to go sail boating!”
He adjusted his hat and itched his head in thought. Then he opened his arms in a “why-not?” type of gesture and shrugged his shoulders, “Yeah, let’s go!”
I frantically gave my boatmates a round of excited hugs and ran to the sailboat. The sailor told me we had to move fast because we there wasn’t much time before sunset. He also told me to not get too excited because the weeds had grown over so thick by the dock and we might not even get out of the marina.
I stood on the dock next to the sail boat and nodded understandably before I told him with confidence, “I’m kind of a rookie sailor myself, so I can help! What can I do to help?”
Surprised, he asked, “You’ve been sailing before?”
“Erm - no, but I learn quickly!” I assured him.
He told me to untie the boat and give a “good” push off the dock to get us going, while he would get the little motor started. I untied all the ties and gave a good push off the dock, but we didn’t move. Frantically he was looking down at the weeds in the water and wondered why we weren’t moving. I walked back up the bow of the boat and found a tie that I had missed! I pulled the boat back towards the dock and untied it. I gave yet another good push and we started to move. The weeds weren’t too thick and we were going sailing!
As we drifted slowly away from the dock I took a mental inventory of what had happened over the last few minutes. I invited myself along for a sunset sail, said goodbye to the people I knew, and was floating slowly towards the largest body of freshwater in the entire world at the mercy of a complete stranger. I looked over to the people I knew who were still safe and cozy on their boat and waved an eager goodbye.
“Gonna be okay?” My ice fishing buddy asked with a cringed smile.
“Um”, I swallowed nervously and summoned a tone of confidence that I didn’t quite believe in myself, “yeah, this is great!” I shot them a double peace sign and turned to the sailor and asked, “Um, friend, w-what’s your name?”
“Paul. What’s yours?” He asked in return.
Like the barometric pressure reminding you of an old forgotten fracture, this stranger’s name reminded my heart and me that we’ve been badly wounded in this adventure of life. But his name also reminded my heart that we have a great Hope who can and continues to heal my wounds. With a lump in my throat and tears glossing my eyes, I took a long breath and told him, “Paul, that’s a really nice name. Mine is Freddie-Leigh, like Freddie Mercury and Bruce Lee, but I don’t sing and I can’t do karate. At least not well.”
Paul used the little prop motor to navigate us out of the marina, and as we got closer to the wide open water he taught me how to steer using a long stick that protruded from the floor of the stern forward to about the middle of the boat. It’s called a tiller and you swing it side to side to steer. Paul demonstrated that if I wanted to turn left, I had to push the tiller to the right, and vice versa. I took over the steering so he could unpack the sails. The mainsail is the tall, middle sail that most people draw when they draw a little stick-figure sailboat.
As he unzipped the cover and packed it away, Paul looked at me with excitement and asked amusingly, “Ready, Freddie? Ha! I bet you’ve heard that one before.” He pulled on a rope and all at once the noisy, floppy mainsail snapped to attention creating a constant hum as it cut through the air.
He also opened a second sail, which is commonly forgotten when it comes to stick-figure sailboats, called the jib. It’s slightly smaller and sits forward of the mainsail, towards the bow of the boat. It’s used for.. - Well, I’m not 100% sure what it’s used for exactly, but I do know it’s used for sailing! With both sails up, Paul walked back and shut the little prop motor off before sitting down on his side of the vessel. He pulled some ropes and held the tiller in place with his knee. The wind hummed around us and all else was still.
“We’re sail boating?” I asked in unstifled excitement.
“Yep, we’re sailing!” Paul told me with matched excitement.
I threw my open hands into the air and shouted into the endless emptiness, “Oh my gosh! We’re sailboating!”
Paul chuckled, “Well, most people just say ‘sailing’.”
“Oh, right! We’re sailing!” I corrected.
We sailed North East towards the trees of the Wisconsin shore for a bit while Paul told me about growing up on the water with his dad, and the wholesome tale of how he came to be the captain of Evening Star, the very sailboat we were sailing in. We talked about our jobs and he told me about his kids.
He offered stories about his travels as a younger man, and I told him that treating patients on the ambulance is one of the hardest and most rewarding things I've ever been able to do. I shared with him that we were sailing on the one year anniversary of my moving to Wisconsin and how unreal the whole year felt. How everything I had done after moving was so far from what I’ve always known to be reality that nothing in Wisconsin felt like real life. I told him about the adventures I had taken from cutting down a Christmas tree and going ice skating to all the summer fishing and trail hiking. It had been a wild year to say the least, and the fact that I was sailing on Lake Superior with a stranger named Paul was the cherry on top!
As we talked about the surrealness of life, I drank in the unimaginable beauty of the changing sky and gentle breeze.
He warned me that he was going turnover the jib so that we would start sailing Westward and it might feel like we were tipping, but that we weren’t going to tip. As we turned away from the shoreline towards the open water, the horizon was burning orange and we sat in silence for a few moments as the sun began to disappear. From the time the sun touches the horizon to when it’s completely hidden takes only four minutes, so we sat and enjoyed every second of each minute until it was gone. Then, we started to sail back.
By that time Paul had begun teaching me about pulling the ropes and watching the ribbons on the sails that indicated how well we were using the wind's power to thrust us forward. He explained that the wind is important, but what’s more important is having your sails adjusted properly to generate as much thrust as you can to go where you want to go. I sat in the stern of the vessel and pulled the sails in an attempt to generate thrust.
“You’re a natural! You’re sailing, Freddie.” my captain assured me.
He let me sail the boat back to the entrance of the marina before he took over parking in his slip. We made it back and I stepped onto the dock but rather than walking to my car, I swear I floated because sunset sailing with a total stranger on Lake Superior was pure magic; it was also the last thing on my bucket list.
Well, except for catching a fish, but we'll save that for next time.
As the weather got colder last fall I started to look for opportunities to go ice fishing. I didn’t know what kinds of things I would need to go ice fishing, but I did know that I did not own the things I would need. I also didn’t know anything about where to go, when to go, or how to go! I was fairly clueless, so I asked my training officer at work for tips on how to go. He didn’t think it was a good idea to show up at a frozen lake with worms and expect for some random fisherman to let me fish in his ice house. Rather, he suggested that I just ask one of our coworkers to let me go with him. I thought that asking a coworker was a second class idea to just showing up, but the coworker he suggested also happened to be super adorable, so I settled.
I’m not the most discreet human, but I tried to do that thing where you say what you want to do without directly asking.
I started with a casual, “You go ice fishing, eh?” Without pausing for him to answer because I already knew he did I continued, “Nice! Yeah, it’s one of the things that I really want to do now that I’m living up here.” Still no pause, “Do you take people with you when you go? You know, for fun and stuff?”
As I took a breath he caught a moment to answer, “Yeah.”
“‘Yeah’ you go ice fishing, or ‘yeah’ you take people with you for fun and stuff?” He smiled, and I wasn’t sure if it was because he was about to say he takes people with him, or if he thought I was crazy and was about to walk away, so I didn’t let him answer and just kept talking, “I mean if you’re going anyway, I would totally go with.”
I imagine in that moment the only thing wider than my excited eyes was my mouth hanging to the floor as I eagerly questioned, “You’d take me with?!”
Mostly expressionless, with just the slightest of slight smiles his monotone man reply was simply, “Yeah.”
Adding in arm gestures of disbelief to my wide eyes and gaped mouth I exclaimed “No way?! You’re telling the truth?! You’ll actually let me go ice fishing with you?” I gasped for air, “Oh my gosh, this is gonna be great!” Realizing that I was shouting I took a breath and made a game plan, “I’ll look at my schedule and compare the amount of homework I have with my days off. Then I’ll pick out good days for me that coincide with days you have off too. I’ll send you a list and you can let me know what works for you. Is that good? That’s a good plan, right? I think it’s good.”
The day before we went out I was panicking, as one does, because I had no idea what to expect. I google searched for pictures of ice fishing and read different articles on ice fishing etiquette, but I felt exceptionally unprepared. I figured, however, it would be a safe bet to pack snacks! A friend reported that peppered beef jerky was most appropriate for any “dignified fisherman”. I do not consider myself to be much of a dignified anything, so I also brought chocolate ice cream for!
I figured that it was going to be cold outside in general and even colder standing on a frozen lake, so I filled a backpack with extra socks, gloves, a scarf, and even an extra coat just in case I got too cold. I threw a book in there too just in case I got bored. Now, I know you’re probably thinking, “Jeez Fred, there’s no way you needed all of that”, and you’d be right!
We drove out to the lake and loaded a sled with all the things he said we needed: an auger, rods, little maggot things, a sonar machine to see fish, and scoops to clear the holes.
The first few steps onto the ice was surreal. Growing up next to the Yellowstone River I was taught never to walk on the ice because you will die, but there I was about to walk onto the ice!
“Wait, are you sure we’re not going to die?”
“Yeah, I’m perty sure we won’t die.”
“Ahhh!” I hesitated on the shore, “You go first and then.. And then I-I-I’ll go too.”
“No. See”, he jumped up and down carelessly a few time to prove that it was safe, “let’s go.” He looked at my face, which was obviously still unconvinced, and groaned playfully, “Come on! You’re gon’a be fine.” His mouth curved into a smug little grin, “I can drive the work truck out there if you don’t want to walk.”
“No!” I took a step, then subtly tip-toed another twenty feet. Eventually it settled in that the ice was not going to break and I was probably not going to die. With a tinge of spite I assured him, “See, I’m fine.”
After we walked for a bit he drilled a hole and wondered aloud, “I don’t know if it’s deep enough yet.”
“The ice or the snow?” I asked quickly.
We laughed and kept walking. We walked,and walked, and walked through snow as deep as my knees, and eventually we got to a point where whether the water was deep enough or not, we were not walking any further.
He started kicking snow to clear off a spot to set up. He drilled a hole, and then he let me drill one too! He said that it was the best hole he’s ever seen, and I don’t even care he didn’t mean it because it was definitely best hole I’d ever seen. He showed me how to scoop the slush out the hole, and as I did that he unfolded his ice house. The ice house is like the big boy equivalence of those little folding tents that children use as playhouses. He snapped it into formation and packed snow around the bottom to keep the cold air out. He climbed in and I helpfully handed him things through the zipper door before climbing in myself.
There were three holes, some rods, a cozy propane heater, and us! It was a dream. He taught me what a fish would look like on the little sonar machine and that “jigging” was our best bet at catching fish. We sat for awhile with no luck, and after a while longer I decided to bust into my chocolate ice cream. Even though it was super cold outside the playhouse, it was completely melted and looked more like chunky chocolate-milk than ice cream; but if you can’t eat ice cream while ice fishing, you might as well drink chunky chocolate-milk!
A few hours passed and we still hadn’t caught a fish, but I was hopeful. I kept watching the little sonar machine as my fishing partner pulled up pictures of fish he had caught with his brother and best friends. As we got lost telling stories, I realized that he didn’t even have his rod in the water.
“Hey! Did you give up?”
Chuckling he told me, “Well, there’s no fish here.”
In disbelief I ask, “What? You just give up?”
With raised eyebrows and a hint of pity he said, “You can fish as long as you want, but I’m giving up.”
So, we gave up. It was a valiant effort and he assured me that we would catch a fish someday. Once we went out on the ice of Lake Superior, which I thought would be the perfect time to cross "catch a fish on Lake Superior" off my bucket list, but no luck. One day we went out and it was so cold that one of my toes got a bit of frostnip. Even now, almost a year later, it still goes numb when it gets cold! It’s not so bad though, it's kind of like a forever memory of the one winter I learned how to ice fish and never actually caught a fish.
After a long winter of what seemed like endless snow and cold, the sun started to shine and the ice melted away. One of the cool things about Wisconsin is all the lakes. I probably could have fished on a different lake everyday for all of summer and still had lakes leftover for next summer. I mostly stuck to the same three or four different places, though, with the idea of catching a Lake Superior fish always in the back of my mind.
I didn’t have a boat and I wasn’t willing to pay a charter to do all the work just so I could reel whatever they caught in. (For the record, charter boats are probably a lot of fun for a lot of people, I just didn’t see it being an option that I would have enjoyed.) My chance of catching a Lake Superior fish was staggeringly low, and by the time August came around I accepted the fact that it just wasn’t going to happen. However, I hadn’t given up the idea of going sailing.
The first day I ever visited Duluth there were sailors sailing on Lake Superior and I decided right then that I wanted to go too. There’s something about sailboats that make me pause and remember how small I am. Just think, sailboats literally catch the earth’s breath and glide atop her waters. I yearned all year to experience the peaceful bliss that I imagined sailing would be. Kind of like flying, I envisioned sailing to be magical. I would talk about sailing with coworkers and people I met at church in hopes of someone knowing someway to somehow go sailing. No luck.
Sailboat charters, like fishing charters, just don’t feel right to me. They’re also expensive and I didn’t really want to sacrifice months worth of ice cream allowance on just four hours of life changing magic, you know? The morning fog started to return and I knew that nice days in the Twin Ports were limited. I was running out of time and I didn’t want to give up, so a couple of my coworkers and I picked a day and planned to go charter sailing.
When I got out here, I made a few mental notes of things unique to the Superior/Duluth area that I wanted to do over the year. The mental notes huddled together in my mind like a herd of sheep that I could count before falling asleep:
To start off, watching the sunrise seems like it wouldn’t be that hard, but it also wasn’t that easy simply because clear skies are not the norm out here. I was also usually too tired to wake up on time or too busy with work to watch it, but I still managed to catch a few over the course of the year. Thankfully so because there is just nothing that quite compares to drinking warm coffee in a hoodie while watching the sun break the horizon and beam across the great open water. I can hear the waves kiss the beach and watch the seagulls fly carelessly through the new day’s light. Sometimes you can even hear a ship honking as it leaves the harbor. I also discovered this year that holding someone’s hand while watching the sunrise is kind of like the cherry on top of a sundae; it’s a real good addition to the experience, but even without it you still have a whole bowl of ice cream to enjoy!
The best sunsets this year were the ones that I enjoyed alongside my kid cousin, Lex, who always kept things interesting. (I’ll share more about our time together with you someday!) To watch the actual sunset in the Twin Ports, you know where you can actually see the sun setting over the horizon, you have to get far away from the Duluth hillside but also not be in the middle of a bunch of trees. The best place to go is the south shore of Lake Superior! The South Shore is on the Wisconsin side of the Lake has sandy beaches with not a whole lot of people. At sunset, the sun glows across the water just before it tucks itself behind the earth. In a way it’s almost like being back in the Great Plains.
The sunrise and sunset in the Twin Ports area only last about four minutes each, which is only slightly longer than the amount of time I lasted on a pair of cross-country skis. One of my coworkers told me that she had a pair of skis and boots that I could borrow if I “really wanted to try it out”. I picked up her gear and went to the gas station to get a ski pass. A cross-country ski pass in Minnesota is kind of like a fishing license in the sense that you can get a day pass, three-day pass, or an annual pass that allows you to use the ski trails that are maintained by the state (or whoever maintains them, I don’t really now). I assumed at the time that since I love to downhill ski and had her cross-country gear at my disposal free of charge, I would probably need to purchase an annual pass.
When I got to the trail head, I realized that I didn’t even know how to attach the skis to my boots. Admitting that it was my first time out seemed like a weird thing to do, so when some guys skied by and saw me struggling, I told them that I was borrowing my friend’s gear while mine was getting fixed up. Thankfully they helped me get squared away without asking too many questions or calling my bluff. They skied off, and I waited until there was a good deal of distance between us before I decided to try to ski myself. When I finally went for it, I found out that cross-country skiing is a lot like walking through the forest with two long sticks and a pair of big, skinny shoes. Not that impressive, really. I sort of figured out how to glide, but overall it was just a lot of walking strangely. The trail even goes uphill in some places, if you can believe that! I don’t know, maybe I was doing it wrong; but nonetheless, I definitely didn’t need to buy the annual pass.
Ice skating on the other hand was a hit! I mean literally hitting the ice and getting back up only to hit the ice again. I bought a fifteen-dollar pair of ice skates at the secondhand sports store, and after brushing the dust off my childhood skating skills, I decided that I wanted to do a twirl. More specifically a jumping twirl. Thanks to YouTube videos I learned that I needed to be able to skate backwards in order to enter the jump required for a successful jumping twirl. So, I dedicated about a week to learning how to skate backwards before I let the idea of doing a jumping twirl hit the ice.
Part of the reason I gave up the idea was because I was tired of falling on my face, but even more so I had other adventures that needed pursuing! In Douglas County Wisconsin a license to kill only costs five dollars. Just as long as your intended target is a Christmas tree located on State Forest Service Land! I bought my Christmas tree permit and waited patiently for the perfect day to bring my very own wild tree home. On a particularly sunny Sunday I picked up a peppermint mocha and some peanut butter cookies to snack on as I searched. I turned up the cheesiest Christmas carols and unfolded a Forest Service map that allocated different places across the county that I could harvest a tree from. When I finally landed in an area that I’m pretty sure was Forest Service land I grabbed the hacksaw from my trunk and put the last cookie in my pocket.
I started walking through the woods looking at all the trees. If Jingle Bells hadn’t been playing so loudly, I probably could have heard the birds singing and the wind whistling, but nothing could have drowned out the deafening reality that finding a suitable Christmas tree in the wilderness was going to be a lot harder than I thought! There were plenty of trees full of thick branches, but they also tended to be a lot taller than my eight-foot ceilings would allow. There were also plenty of trees that would have fit within the constraints of my apartment, but they tended to have only a few thin branches. I kept looking.
I had planned to save my cookie until I found “the one”, but rather I stress ate it as the discouraging thought of not finding a tree settled in. I foraged through the forest for an hour and with just a few remaining sips of my mocha left, I found him! The tree of my dreams! He stood tall, but it didn’t look like he stood taller than my ceiling. He stood full, but not so full that I wouldn’t be able to carry him out of the forest. He was beautiful, and I admired the beauty while finishing the last little bit of my coffee before I tore into his trunk with my hacksaw.
I hoisted him over my shoulder and began the trek back to my car. I was then faced with another unexpected challenge: how was I going to get the tree back to my apartment? I opened my trunk, which was too small to put the tree in, and took a look at what I had to work with: sleeping bags and a blanket, tennis rackets, a tent, ice skates, and hammocks. I unpacked one of the hammocks and wrapped it around the tree like I was wrapping a mini hot-dog in bacon. I tied it together with one of the straps, and used the left over straps to secure it to my roof! I had to tie knots in the straps and close them inside the doors because I didn’t have any tie downs, but it worked!
When I got back to town, I unwrapped my treasure and carried him up to my apartment. I put the tree in a stand that I was lucky enough to snag from Walmart; it just so happened to be the very last one that they had for the season. I started screwing it into the stand with one hand while supporting the weight of the tree with my other hand. As I finished tightening the last screw I slid out from under the tree and beheld the fruit of my labor. My tree just barely, literally by millimeters, cleared the ceiling. When I had set out to cut down a Christmas tree, I really didn’t expect it to turn out well, but there I was on my living room floor in awe of what had become. It was perfect!
After adding some lights, it was as if my living room came to life! I tried to resist it, but after two days I drug my mattress from the bedroom to the living room so that I could sleep in the glow of all its glory. The tree casually stayed up through the end of March and I’m already looking forward to finding this year’s Christmas tree!
Back in March I briefly introduced you to a rather bear like gentleman who happened to be kind, handsome, and somehow patient enough to deal with me and my antics. Sometime later I was reminded of a simple truth that Dad taught us as kids: bears are just as scared of us as we are of them.
Although I, as everyone does, hoped my bear would be the exception, he was not. Conveniently though, he ended things the same week that Spring semester ended, so I had just enough free time to wallow in the rainstorm of my pathetic sorrow without falling behind on my classes! With time the storm ran out of rain, and I felt like I could wear clean clothes and eat ice cream again. (Naturally, I waited for the sadness to melt away before eating ice cream because I didn't want that frozen gold to be emotionally linked to memories of a silly boy! Priorities, right?)
Have you ever wandered outside after a rain storm passes and a strong wind gust blows leftover water off of the tree leaves? You can feel the water sprinkle on your arms or face and suddenly think, “Oh no, is it raining again?” Then, you realize that it's just the wind.
That's kind of what it felt like. A few days passed and I had thought I was all better, but then small moments kept catching me off guard and, like the wind, would blow leftover emotions off the leaves in my chest. The windy moments would make me question whether I lost trust in my heart or him. That's when I needed to remind myself that it wasn’t raining, but rather just the wind.
For example, there was an afternoon where I ran into him at the grocery store and forgot how to casually talk about the weather, so I talked about my calculator instead. I turned awkwardly to my car and cried all the way to wherever I was going because it seemed like the most appropriate thing to do. It was just the wind. The first few times I saw him on duty I had to remind myself that he was “a" colleague rather than “my" colleague, and he wasn’t going to want a hug before I left. There were days early on that I wanted to annoy him with pictures of the perfect Toy Story clouds but remembered I probably shouldn’t, which was silly to be sad about because he never appreciated the clouds like I do! These, and all the rest, were just the wind and thankfully the leaves run out of rain.
St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, "To love is to will the good of another." I suppose I came to realize that to will not only his good but also my own meant that change, although initially unwelcome, was appropriate. In the end, I still a friend I can annoy with clouds, call if something goes wrong, and even steal a hug from before leaving station.
For all the above, I’m thankful;
A conversation from my visit home last week started like this:
“Hey Fred, I hear life is treating you pretty well these days!”
“Well, it is, but it’s taking a lot of work.”
That’s the truth.
When I first moved out here Dad had to help me pay rent and I slummed around the college campuses looking for events with free food to eat. I learned that the laundromat costs a lot more than I expected, and trying to save some coins by bringing my wet clothes home to hang dry sounded like a good idea. However, living right next to a great lake just meant that the wet clothes allowed my apartment to accumulate its own layer of fresh linen dew. When I got into bed that night my covers felt like the inside of a sleeping bag while tent camping. It was cool and damp, but I guess I didn’t mind too much because it was just the rotten cherry on top of my melting sunday.
Honestly, I really didn’t like this place when I got here. There were clouds every day and the sun seemed to never shine. There was always this dense fog that hung close to the ground and after a while I let it fill my heart. The joy inside of me that, no matter what happened, could brighten my day became clouded with loneliness and homesickness. I didn’t have anyone to share the sad things with and no one to share the happy things with. So, everything, whether good or bad, seemed to magnify my solitude and made want to pack up and move back west.
Why didn’t I? I’d like to say that I persevered and overcame, but in reality, I have a yearlong contract with my job that isn’t up until September. So, whether I like it or not, Superior is my home. I have gone West a few times to visit my village, and what I’ve learned from those visits is that even though I’m not there to be a part of little league basketball games, smoked brisket dinners, bible studies, or Galentine’s Day parties, I’m still a part of their hearts and they’re still a part of mine. Just because I moved away doesn’t mean we’ve all moved on, and our relationships although different, are still strong.
Fall ended and the sun seemed to shine a little bit more, and I started to adjust to my new life. I finished my training at work and am considered to be a “status” paramedic, which mostly means that the important people above me at work think I’ve demonstrated a level of satisfactory competency. I'll take it. Being brand new made the training process a challenge and it took some deep breaths every few moments to remind myself that the field I’m in has a steep learning curve. Perhaps it’s safe to say that it's going to take a career or so to really get the hang of it.
I'll admit that work has certainly become more enjoyable and less terrifying with time. Don’t get me wrong, I still give myself mini pep-talks en route to most scenes and question just about everything I did for my patient after dropping them off at the hospital, but the doubt isn’t nearly as heavy and I'm able to let it go more quickly than I did eight months ago. I’ve even made a few friends with my colleagues, which has proved to be important for many reasons. One being that when my patient has a poor outcome, regardless of what we could’ve done for them, my colleagues are now people that can share in my sorrow. Another is that when things go well, they are quick to support me and can share in my joy! So, I’m not as alone as I once thought.
I’ve made a few, well one, friend outside of work too! She’s the gal that was always a little later to Mass than I was. I would get to Mass late and sit in the very back, but then a few minutes later she would stumble in too. I suppose we initially found community in the fact that neither of us are great at being on time. Then we figured out that we both love Jesus, eating ice cream, and have a strong affinity towards the goofier things in life. We both have a tendency to laugh a little too loud at inappropriate times and sometimes we feel like we’re a little lazier than we should be. So, we became friends. She’s been a blessing in the flesh, and I am extremely thankful.
School is also going well and I’ll be graduating in May with my Associates of Science from BSC. Being a full-time online student while working full time as a brand-new paramedic might have stretched my limits a little further than I was comfortable with, but I made it out in one piece! Now I know that taking fifteen credits is about five too many for one semester and won’t have to make that mistake again. Learning as I go, it’s all about learning as I go!
So yes, three days a week I love my job and I am still pushing through to finish my undergraduate degree. I’m making friends, however slowly that may be, and working out regularly. My plants are still alive and the fog in my heart is much less dense than it used to be. In fact, it's almost like the sun is shining and the joy that brightens my day has returned.
Life, whatever that means, is treating me pretty well these days, but it’s taking a lot of work.
I'm really hoping that most of you have gotten bored and moved on by now, but if you've read this far and wish to keep going, I'll indulge you with a tidbit of potentially exciting news. You're welcome. I have been acquainting myself with a gentleman that just so happens to be kind, handsome, and somehow patient enough to put up with me and my antics; at least for now. He's big, and gentle; and, although he won't admit it, he is uncannily similar to all the sweet bear characters in movies. His name is Jason.*
*He wasn't a fan of me introducing him as "Bear" :)
Am I sitting in the same McDonalds that I’ve been sitting in doing homework for the past six hours? Yes, but now you’re here too. Whether you’re Dad, Mark the Hitchhiker, or whoever else, I want to invite you here. I want you to sit in the booth across from me and just be with me for a few minutes. Just sit here with me and just be because I’ve lived in Wisconsin for a month now and I miss you.
Welcome to my booth! This is my booth as much as it is anyone’s booth, but I’ve staked a silent claim on it that makes it more mine in my head. It seems like a lot of things happen in my head these days. You’re the first person I’ve told that to, and you’re the first person to sit in it with me. So, now that you’re here, would you like to hear about how life has been? Okay!
Well, my first day as a Mayo Clinic employee was on September 10th. That’s wild, don’t you think? I suppose I knew it was happening, but I never really expected to make it. I didn’t think that I would actually finish paramedic school until I did, and I didn’t think I was actually going to begin a career until - well, until I did!
My booth has cushioned seats and a window to your left. If you look out of it you can see past the parking lot, apartment buildings, and the highway all the way to Lake Superior. Today is rainy, but you can look through the rain and see the swells rising and falling on themselves endlessly. Most days when I sit here I can’t see past the apartments because of the fog, so you’ve come on a good day.
That reminds me of another first! For the first time in my life I was able to experience life inside of a cloud for not one, but three consecutive days. I had always imagined how magical life would be inside of a cloud. Looking up from Dad’s front steps in Montana the clouds stir feelings of adventure and power because they are so far away, doing whatever they please, and nothing I do will ever change their behavior. If the clouds are going to storm, they will storm; and if the clouds are going to dissipate, they will dissipate. They are whimsical and mysterious, and I couldn’t imagine life inside of one being anything other than spectacular. Now, you’re not going to believe this, but experiencing the inside of a great mystery, like the clouds, is only as great as you make it. For me it was considerably exciting in the beginning and continued to be wonderful throughout the middle, but by day three I ached to say good morning to my friend in the east.
Speaking of friends, thank you again, Friend, for sitting with me. The three young men sitting at that high table to your right are wearing wet suits and recapping the waves they rode on their surf boards earlier this morning. I’m trying to eavesdrop, but their sentences keep getting cut off by laughter that boils out of them unexpectedly like forgotten pasta on the stovetop. Do you remember that time when we laughed so hard our tummy muscles pleaded for mercy? Our breathing diminished into uncoordinated gasps for life and our hearts raced. Our throats dried into deserts that begged for rain, but any attempt to quench the thirst would simply lead to more laughter! We can watch the surfer dudes walk out now, still laughing.
The funny thing about being here, is that in the mist – get it? “mist” instead of “midst” because we’re inside of a cloud 😊 – of everything new I sometimes miss the way things were before. I know that times of transition are temporary, and everything is going to be okay, but I still miss sitting together and instead of imagining the times we laughed, we would actually laugh. When sitting together meant that I could give you a “look at those surfer dudes” look and you would know exactly what I meant. I long for our conversations filled with weird faces and made up theories about things that never happened. I long for the talks about what’s hurting our hearts and how different life would be if we would have made different choices along the way. I long for silence that isn’t uncomfortable.
Don’t be mistaken. I really like my apartment, the people I’m meeting, and my job! I’m learning and growing, and it’s all been a spectacular adventure. My heart continues to be grounded in peace and I’m happy, but I that doesn’t mean I don’t miss you. My heart is filled with joy, but sometimes I’m sad.
I think it’s fair to be both because part of the joy that comes from having a friend like you is the sadness that accompanies not being together. The root of this hurt in my heart that wants so badly to laugh with you is the joy of being your friend. That’s why it’s been nice having you here, even if it’s only in my imagination.
The coffee at McDonalds is endless, but I should be getting back to work because I have tasks to be finished, hills to be climbed, and moments to be seized. - From my life in the clouds to wherever you are, goodbye Friend! I love you a lot!
I was exchanging stories of miscellaneous adventures with someone in passing last week, and as I started walking away he asked, “So what’s next?”
I laughed a little and said all that I could come up with without lying, “One never really knows the answer to that, do they?”
I couldn’t just throw a casual “I don’t know” his way because the truth is that I have a fairly good idea of what’s next. I applied for a job this spring in Duluth, MN, and now that I finished Paramedic school, I accepted that job and am going to be moving further East. Originally I planned to move to Duluth, but when Suzi and I went to look for apartments it was a little more affordable to live in Superior, WI. Don’t worry though because it’s only across the river from Minnesota! Kind of how Bismarck is to Mandan. Except right next to the river is the largest great lake, Lake Superior. Shouldn’t be hard to find an adventure.
I’ll be working for Mayo Medical Transport Services, formerly known as Gold Cross Ambulance, as a full time paramedic. Of course I’m super excited to begin the long process of mastering the skills that I put such hard work into learning, but the idea of being completely brand new to everything is a little intimidating. I remember leaving home for MSU-Billings and thinking that it would be alright because all of us were showing up with no experience. Even moving to Medora wasn’t bad because I was supposed to be temporary, and when I started school in Bismarck I was just one of twelve people learning for the first time. Along with starting a brand new career, I’ll still be taking classes full time to finish my Associates Degree, so I suppose it’s not all new.
Life has become pretty comfortable in North Dakota. I’ve been graced with a village of people to laugh at stupid things with, panic about the small things with, and figure out how to solve the big things with. We’ve learned how to celebrate the journey of life together, so knowing I’m leaving is certainly strange, but it’ll be nice to work and stretch my adaptability muscles again.
A friend of mine once told me that any circus clown knows the secret to juggling successfully is focusing on the apex of their toss rather than the individual balls, or chainsaws if that’s what you’re into. The flow is interrupted when they try to focus on just one of the objects, so they rely on their peripheral vision, muscle memory, and experience to adjust when they need to. I haven’t joined the circus yet and don’t have the bones to buy three chainsaws, but over the past months I’ve seen that life can get rather messy when I focus on what I’m tossing around rather than picking my chins up and focusing on the apex.
One of the bigger things I have in hand this year is paramedic school. My eleven classmates and I started our eleven month journey last August. Now, eight of us are less than sixty days to finishing! I knew going into the program that it was going to be an uphill battle but I figured as long as I paced myself slow and steady everything would be just fine. Turns out, however, paramedic school doesn’t do slow and steady. It does minimum requirements and chapter quizzes on top of field paperwork and essays along side of practicing on real patients. All together it puts drivers’ training sophomore year to shame.
The workload is generally broken into three different sections: classwork, skills lab, and clinical shifts. The three sections individually are fairly manageable. Classwork involves the typical reading and lectures on important content with exams. Skills lab is when we get to practice skills on manicans, raw chicken, fruit, and, on the really fun days, each other under the supervision of our instructors. Then, on top of both of those we have to report to floors all around the hospital and to the ambulance to participate in patient care on real people according to the information we learned in class and labs. Remember back in October when I compared paramedic school to sitting in a sauna with a snowsuit on while eating spicy cheetos? Well, with two semesters down and one left to go, I don’t think the sauna sounds half bad anymore! *wipes sweat from brow*
I’ll be the first to admit that school is probably not as bad as I think it is, but because everything moves so quickly, and all at once, there is an underlying whisper of failure that’s always in the back of my head. It’s like a constant thought that one wrong move and all my hard work is all over. I think back to when I was a kid and we would play in the Yellowstone River, Dad always reminded Paul and I to be careful of the undercurrent because you never knew when it would suck you under. We never could feel the undercurrent, but it seemed as if it was always there ready to drown us. The pressure of not finishing school or not passing is like that, never something tangible yet still present. I suppose it could be linked to an underlying thought that I’m not good enough in general or maybe just some extra motivation to get my work done!
Outside of school I’ve been working part time at a home for clients who struggle with both mental illness and addictions. These people have been diagnosed with mental illnesses that they have attempted to self medicate with drugs and alcohol. The program that they are going through is an individual dual-recovery, so they are not punished by house staff for using illicit substances but rather kept safe and dignified. My job is to encourage the clients to make better decisions and be someone they can talk to about their day. My shift is from 10pm to 3am, so most of my interactions are when the clients go out for smokes or are having trouble sleeping, but sometimes I still get to have some good conversations.
I’ve also been spending time with a group of high schoolers at the church. They meet Sunday afternoons for youth group and I try to be there as much as I can be to help out or just be another ear to listen. We had a fall retreat this fall and the theme was “Own it” because we wanted to share with our kids that the faith they have is theirs! My partner in crime and I assembled a team of UMary students to lead activities and give talks, and the whole experience was such an amazing opportunity to grow in our own faiths as well as getting to lead others a little deeper into their faith. We also went on a ski trip to Montana, saw some movies, loss some sleep during a Holy Thursday lock in, and most importantly have spent time getting to encourage and love one another. In the end it’s all about Jesus and through the year I can only hope that they’ve seen the love of God through me because I have certainly been overwhelmed with the joy and love that they show me.
So, as these updates usually end I like to say that there have been some failures but mostly good times, and that all is well in my neck of the woods. However, as I get closer to finishing paramedic school I can feel a breeze rustle my trees and am thinking that my juggling act may have an opportunity to move East.