Saturday, December 18, 2010

Community of the Mind


December is the holiday time of the year whether one is involved in religious observances or not.

You only have to pay attention at five in the afternoon to pinpoint one of the reasons we almost demand celebration now. At this dark season there is such a need to make merry. We feel it in our very bones.

Human bodies require light and warmth. We have the need to reach out hands and be touched by the comfort of extended friendship.

Days are chilly almost everywhere at this end time of the year. Snow or cold rain drive us in. By instinct we seek the shelter of the cozy home or the good cheer of other folks.

I look out at the quiet neighborhood as early dusk rubs out the last of another cloudy day. The December night waits for this exact moment.

When it’s just dark enough the outdoor lights twinkle on. At house after house, block after block, strings of lights come on. They unite us up and down the street.

It’s like a chain of hope. You can’t help but be soothed by the magic of the soft glow.

The lights enter deep into you as you stand before their spell. You can almost hear the night scene passing an eternal message. “Never fear. Peace is here. If not in the world, in this moment – now”

It’s as if the holiday-lit trees and shrubs, deck rails and roofs of our snow-covered houses have figured out something we still struggle to grasp.

“Look at us,” they say. “Not one of us is the same. But here we all are, dressed to the hilt, of like mind if you wish to call us that, to make festive the long December night.”

The panorama of winter lights is an excellent example of what it is to be a community of the mind.

Inanimate objects can’t function as community as community is reckoned to be. But their steadfast light, night after night through these weeks which bring us to some of the year’s best-kept holy days, can nudge us to act accordingly.

Being of like mind is easier than it would seem. Think hope and proceed with hope are a couple helpful approaches to likemindedness.

We’re a community of the mind when concentration and efforts are aimed toward the intention of living harmoniously or in good spirit as best we can with everyone else.

Community of the mind is continually formed when we work to understand each other.

Our actions come out of respect, for others as well as self-respect. Likemindedness strengthens community. It has the energy behind it to become the norm.

Zip code or address has nothing to do with shaping a community of the mind.

We can live anywhere. Our residence might be in one country. It may be in another. We can live in town, on a mountaintop, in the most remote valley.

If we place our mind on peace, and gently but insistently return to that focus when distracted from it, we live with a purpose wide enough to bring everyone in.

Living peacefully with good will to all has its greatest impact in the community we call home. But make no mistakes. The broadening effect of likemindedness touches hands across the world. The community of the mind begins with each of us.

We grapple today with all sorts of issues. So many things divide us. They divide us to the point of virulent name calling, violent dissension and even war.

We wrestle with the same old stuff which generations past to ancient times did.

Wise men and wise women from the beginning have pondered the meaning of life. They’ve mulled on it, debated it and went after it.

They searched for it with decisive belief. The drive to be our best selves, with human dignity and justice for everyone, rests at the core of our earthly existence.

This is the wisdom against which issues critical to community are weighed.

One thing is for certain and it is this. Community of the mind doesn’t come into being simply because everyone thinks the same.

If group thinking is destructive or hurtful in nature it can’t possibly be this thing we call community. Community strives for higher things.

The mind is too precious a place to harbor the self-defeating germs of anger and revenge, jealousy, greed, pride, bigotry, untruthfulness or prejudice. These germs seek to anchor in the fertile and intelligent spaces which we feed by what we take in.

These damaging seeds cannot possibly be elevated to the status of builders of community. Community makes no alliance with anything that isn’t intrinsically of a constructive nature.

When each of us sees in ourselves, and in all others, the wherewithal to create environments of love and trust we’re on the track to developing global society into a community of the mind.

It’s a place where children can learn and be safe. The elderly can leave the security but also the isolation of their homes to go out into the streets. There they will find even perfect strangers vigilant for their care.

The outside lights which shine at the holidays tell us this world is here. It can be here even more fully as we let ourselves shine as like-minded beacons of hope.

December is a month to reflect as well as to purchase gifts and to party. It’s a time to be happy and to be more than happy. Holidays ask that we fill our hearts with joy and let them not be contained or constrained.

We fill our hearts with joy and give from the fullness. In like-minded generosity we find the peace hungered for in the world.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Going Green for Green


Almost every newspaper or magazine has an article on going green. I'm behind these efforts.

The media have stepped up to educate consumers to the reality that this is exactly what we're doing - consuming. Then they show us how we can balance our consumption and even turn it around.

The green approach might, as a side, help sell green products. It is media's reason for pitching green some cynics suggest. I say hurrah to the endeavor whatever the intention that lies behind it.

There will always be marketing. If some products pitched to the public actually have gentler agents in them or appliances are engineered to require less electricity or water I say more power to the process.

Niches are continually being created for the new. Right now green is an effective niche. It plays to the need for all of us to seriously examine our right to consume without regulation even if it's only self-regulation.

Turning off lights and TV when not in use, walking or biking to cut some necessary car travel (yes, Starbucks coffee counts as necessary trips at times) and reworking and rethinking how we use energy pays back in terms of responsibly conserving.

The commitment to recycle, reuse and reinvent saves in the pocket. More importantly it adds to the global movement to treat our Earth more kindly.

In our household we work at being diligent in returning grocery bags to the store. We use the bags until they're in sad condition. Limp and thin from wear their next journey can only be to the recycling bin.

We run in streaks. Sometimes we get the bags along with us every time. Just like that. Then we go through a period of not remembering. As I tug the store's brown bags out from under to fill with groceries I try not to think of trees being cut. "Sorry," I tell the bag. "This time we forgot."

For quite awhile I've watched people bring their own totes. Many of the totes have store logos on them. They're used for shopping at that particular store. But some totes are taken all around town.

It looks crisp and very European to have a shopper tote dangling from the arm. It makes the shoppers look like thinkers and planners. I'm going shopping and I'm prepared is their mantra as they set out toting their totes.

The idea of joining the shopper tote people grew on me. The other day a dark-green tote caught my eye. It was selling at a check-out counter at the local store. It appeared durable. It had a classy look. It was a size I like, not overlarge but big enough to hold the food items I often run in for.

I turned to the fellow who was filling the nearby candy racks. "I really should buy this," I said to him.

"You really should," he answered agreeably, looking up.

"I will but not this time," I told him. I wheeled the cart to a counter that was open. Since I had to wait in line anyway I followed my original impulse. I went back for the tote.

"You convinced me to buy it," I told the man still shelving Snicker bars and other favorites which my resolve not to buy had made me feel virtuous.

"And I don't even work here," he said with a grin. He appeared happy to assist the store that gives his company business.

I was happy to finally own a shopper bag. So everybody was happy and I only had to pay $1.50 for the green save-the-world-this-is-a-start grocery tote.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Sprinkle of Memories shot with Gold

When my daughter phoned the other night I was at the computer putting down some thoughts regarding her grandpa.

We were ten days away from the second anniversary of his passing. In the last few days I had been made aware of something. Memory, as if it had its own eye on the calendar, was retrieving recollections of dad for me.

Perhaps the recollections were surfacing because of the discovery of the salt and pepper shaker set.

A year and a half into our new home and there remain a few boxes not fully emptied. Last week I was looking for a set of plates that hung on a wall in our former home.

They didn’t fit with the new place when we began filling the space. Treasured objects can look oddly out of character in a new environment.

At the time I wasn’t sure what to do with the plates. They were reboxed and then forgotten. When a spot opened for them to be displayed they suddenly were valuable again. I went in search of them.

Thankfully the plates were in the first box pulled out of storage. When we packed for our move we strived for efficiency. Boxes were marked with their contents. Along the way, however, as items got jumbled in, not everything got marked down.

You close your eyes to the confusion you’re almost surely creating for yourself. If one end of the move is to be easier than the other, you settle the matter by saying, it might as well be the portion of the move you’re currently involved in.

The box located and plates lifted out, my curiosity was piqued by the other items inside. All were swaddled in newspaper. I began unwrapping the pieces one by one wondering what each would be.

The salt and pepper shaker set, with Hawaii stamped on the pedestal, stayed cradled in my hand. Dad’s presence felt very close.

Dad brought the shakers back from Hawaii years ago. We were in our first home then, which helps me estimate the date.

My mom didn’t go on this vacation with him. It strikes me that one of the grandchildren may have been about to be born. Grandmas don’t have a desire to go junketing when there’s an imminent grandchild to welcome into the world.

Whatever the reason, dad went by himself. It had to be winter. I can see him with a twinkle in his eye at the audacity of his plan come to fruitful achievement.

The Minnesota cold was traded for the Hawaiian paradise. Dad visited the USS Arizona Memorial and must have done other things, none of which I remember he went into much telling about.

All I know is he came home tan and happy with a desire to visit Hawaii again. Perhaps as soon as the next year – at Easter I recall – he and mom went to Hawaii together. They had a great time.

They never went back to Hawaii, or anywhere as far, again. But this one really big vacation of their marriage stands out as exceedingly satisfying. The family was happy for them. We actually were rather amazed at the jet set patina our parents now possessed.

I reflected on all this as the salt and pepper set rested in my hand. Dad brought it for me on their next visit. I was touched. He had given thought to the rest of us while he was having the time of his life far away from family or responsibility or any binding ties.

“Here’s something for you from my trip,” he said. It’s the only gift I recall my dad buying for me. There might have been something else – but nothing comes to mind.

When Al and I and the kids visited home dad liked to take us out for coffee or to McDonalds or Burger King or for a noon meal out. He liked to treat. He was a generous host at a restaurant.

But he wasn’t one, ever, to whip out his wallet and pass over a crisp bill and say “Here, go shopping.” He wasn’t the shopper at Christmas or any other time, which in those days may have been considered quite normal. Many family things were for the women to take care of.

Gift giving isn’t how he operated. I don’t think he ever quite perceived the value in gifts. This pertained to the receiving end as well as in the giving.

So the salt and pepper shaker set was huge. That he shopped, selected and carried back on the plane a souvenir from Hawaii as a gift for a daughter meant a lot.

Gently I finished unwrapping the other pieces in the set and brought them all upstairs. Suddenly, along with the plates, I knew where the salt and pepper shakers would go.

In the way one idea feeds another, a second memory of dad came to me. This occurred after Saturday’s snowfall, which laid down nearly a foot of snow.

The weather turned damp and dreary. I looked for some bright color to put myself into. Color is my answer every time gray skies go on.

I tend to wear a fair amount of black. More black than I need to wear Al will say. But I like the versatility of black. Black can make you feel pulled together and professional which is therefore a marvelous color to have in your closet.

Many of us like to dress casually but still hope for some sort of fashion impact which wearing black can help give.

While there’s contention that my wardrobe is heavy on black my take is that my hangers teem with color. Sporting an array of hues my tees and sweaters aren’t exactly the neutrals which stylists recommend.

I must have been in my thirties when I realized dad had an appreciation for color worn on a person. He commented on the color of a top I had on, singling out the shade as cheerful.

It was uncharacteristic of dad to compliment us on what we wore. He disapproved when something looked sloppy and would tell the boys so as they were growing up.

He didn’t like us going barefoot in the house. He thought winter’s cold floors weren’t good for bare feet but, as importantly, bare feet were uncouth. I can’t remember now if that was his term or just the effect his disapproval gave it.

But there was little commentary for the way my sister and I dressed. He either gave it no thought or marked it as mom’s province.

Dad’s compliment on the bright-colored top sank in. Dad, like me, was lifted by color. I probably knew that in a broader sense. We all knew, for example, that he was partial to yellow (as I am).

But a daughter has other thoughts to pursue. It’s not till much later that you see a parent for what they continue to show of themselves, that you didn’t notice so long ago.

Dad commented about some of my gold jewelry too. When I say gold jewelry these are the moderate priced lines found at Kohls or Target. Both stores had opened nearby and suddenly we had amazing shopping right at home.

It was so much fun looking at and being able to afford pieces that spiffed up outfits. I was in a jewelry stage for a long while.

At a Fargo department store, in those same years, I bought a black knit cardigan. I thought it looked very classy with embossed gold buttons.

Eventually I tired of the gold buttons. The sweater probably looked dated after the gold button trend went out.

I decided it was either replace the buttons or get rid of the sweater. I was discussing this with mom on one of our visits home.

She had a button jar with every kind, color and shape of button. I was just able enough to sew on buttons. If mom had the buttons (or even if they had to be bought) I could handle the job.

“I like the sweater,” dad said from his place at the dining room table. “Why would you want to take the buttons off? They make it look nice.” That he was listening in on the conversation surprised me.

Dad had a penchant for things military. I think he saw the gold buttons as making the sweater look sharp and precise which was part of his fascination, I believe, with things military.

In respect to his opinion I left the sweater as it was. It became my knock-around sweater. It’s a stay-in cardigan, worn so much it’s not quite suitable for any place but home.

It comes along on cool evenings to the lake or is grabbed for a wrap when going out into the yard.

The warmth of the cardigan settles on me like a smile. It’s my go-anywhere black sweater even if that going-anywhere is limited by its appearance.

Even dressed down as the sweater gets to be, the gold buttons dress it up. Dad would have approved.

Ro Giencke - 2010

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Outside the Box

It’s Veteran’s Day. It’s a beautiful day. It’s all blue and gold as November isn’t generally reckoned to be around here.

I remember a lot of gray, chilly, wet November 11 dates. That’s why our mellow scene feels like an import from elsewhere.

We’ll take today with hands outstretched, as we’ve been gladly extending our hands to the windfall which has been this standout fall.

I’ve given my thoughts today to those who have served. This includes family members drafted out of family life or nascent careers or enlisting at a time of war.

One cannot sufficiently thank them for their service, which is the ultimate giving when you may be put in harm’s way that others may be safe.

Freedom is not to be taken lightly. Never should it be. Those who defend and protect rights that ensure freedom can never be fully repaid by one day of honor. A day like today focuses awareness and that’s always a good place to start.

As a result of it being a Federal holiday there is no mail delivery. Only once or twice in the past have we put out mail forgetting it’s a holiday. Take it from me. You feel sheepish when you have to go out and retrieve your piece of mail when everybody else has it figured out.

Today only one flag was up on the mailboxes. It says most of us are paying attention. Every year on the 11th of the eleventh month we honor our military men and women.

The mail put out in that one mailbox, with the red flag jauntily expecting someone to stop, will probably be trotted inside this evening. It’s someone else’s turn to realize there’ll be no pickup today.

Fortunately arriving yesterday, a day with regular mail delivery, was a card from a friend. She and Al were school classmates. They’re also cousins. Marrying him I acquired her as a friend. By now we go back a long way.

Cleaning out an old desk destined for her niece she came across many interesting items she noted.

Two enclosures inside her card were testimony to the fact. Unfolding the sheets of paper revealed them as letters I wrote to her years ago.

The letters were dated fifteen years apart and were among the findings in her desk drawer. “I thought you might get a smile out of taking a step back in time,” wrote our friend.

The youthful tone of that ancient correspondence allowed me to feel again the grasp of pen in hand as I put order to thoughts tumbling and cartwheeling around me. How exciting life is at twenty-six.

The first letter had news of Al’s promotion, a change of location and purchase of our first home. We were all of 3½ years married.

The second letter, spanning the births of the children and two subsequent career moves, is more general in content.

This time I summarize the busy present. You get an impression of an active family, kids each heading to a different school, Al picking up golf after some downtime and me as central coordinator keeping everything straight. Reading the letters was like hitting Replay on the memory reel.

The letters, in dark blue ink that still shows clearly, make me think. They could be held up as examples of a form of correspondence that has fallen by the wayside.

Letters were a customary means of staying in touch before the advent of internet and cell phones and all the technology that followed. It sounds quaint doesn’t it.

Opening my friend’s letter yesterday contrasts with the quiet at the mailboxes today. It’s not hard to imagine a time when mailboxes disappear from the curbs. Mail delivery won’t be absent for a day but abandoned altogether in lieu of something altogether new.

A quick email let my friend hear of the fun of the envelope and the enclosures. Speedy alternatives to letters (and I’m not even getting to tweet, twitter and texting) would make it appear there’s little need for snail mail, as U.S. mail is referred to by some, either affectionately or in dismay.

It’s my hope that stamped mail, expedited through the nation’s postal system, will continue to define how we stay in touch. I say this against the odds.

I want to believe handwritten correspondence can help guarantee survival of the chivalry of words, threatened by the misspellings and jumbled syntax which have begotten a new language.

Letter writing – the systematic transfer of thoughts to a sheet of paper folded, inserted into an envelope and mailed – is art like any other practiced, perfected undertaking.

Most of us who launch letters into the stream of 21st century living carry out this art form at some lower but nevertheless perfectly adequate level of execution.

Our letters don’t require fancy phrases or the quick apt bon mot. We don’t have to be clever or funny. We only have to be ourselves.

We write about what we see, feel and know. We compose from the reality of the moment. We opine our concerns. We expose our dreams. We shape experience into sharing.

Stamping, addressing and walking the envelope to post it adds the final fillip of delivering a part of ourselves along with the message.

Receiving back my letters struck me as amazingly coincidental. I had just been at the sending end of the same process.

Helping mom houseclean recently I found a bag tagged “Saved Letters.” My name was on it. I could tell it was mom’s handwriting.

I assumed the bag contained some of my weekly letters to the folks. When I opened the bag the handwriting on the envelopes was all different. It wasn’t mine.

The preserved correspondence represented a batch of letters written over a 15-year period. They were from a friend of mine.

An avid biker and traveler, this friend happens also to be a very good writer and one who likes both to send and receive mail.

Each letter was a travelog. It was full of places visited and folks met along the way. You were made to feel you met these people too.

I asked at the time if the letters could be passed on to mom. They were too interesting not to have further readership. Mom would similarly enjoy the bike jaunts, road trip commentary and postcards mailed from Mississippi River and Caribbean cruises.

Coming upon these letters now was sheer joy. I read through them again. I sorted the letters by year and gifted the collection back to my friend.

With grandkids arriving since that time, to now save the letters for, and other family members who would see the history inherent in a parent’s journey, these letters are part of a life story intact. They give my friend the opportunity to delight and inform others well after the bike time is over.

Our friend, signing her name on yesterday’s received note, ruefully ponders the foreign object clasped in her hand. We chuckled, knowing the feeling.

It’s true. None of us are familiar with a pen anymore. It’s unwieldy as we bend fingers around it. Unclenching our fists we set it down.

If the pen is unwieldy the writing paper is nearly impossible. For one thing it’s hard to find. I’ve shopped far and wide looking for simple writing paper.

“To think!” I say. At one time pen and a lined tablet or expensive stationery went together like salt and pepper. They were as mutually paired, and as on hand in the home, as the salt and pepper shakers beside the stove in the kitchen.

My theory is that we should still keep our pen nearby. Regularly write to someone. Always start the letter with the date at the top. Write our signature boldly at the bottom.

These rare and random mailings will prove that something put to paper eventually becomes more significant than something unrecorded.

Our letters and postcards, sent from Texas or Buenos Aires or the small town in the far corner of the state, don’t always go out in the next day’s trash. Some will find their way into someone’s desk or dresser drawer.

There they’ll lie, in either remembered or forgotten state, for perhaps years.Then one day they’ll be discovered. And perhaps be returned.

If they are, be assured. They come with a smile in store for you.

Ro Giencke - 2010

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Why here? Why not?

This is our first week of seriously inside weather. A historic barometric low has resulted from, as best as I can grasp it, a collision of hot and cold air.

We’re experiencing a mid-continent atmospheric eruption. A severe contrast in air temperatures created a vacuum which causes winds to blow very strong. The winds, rushing to fill the void, keep the atmosphere in equilibrium even as they shake the house with powerful gusts.

Trees thrashed and bent in yesterday’s howling winds. This morning the grill on the outside deck looked funny. It took a second to figure why. It was missing its canvas cover. It had blown off in the storm.

Fortunately it lay nearby. As we retrieved it we noticed the number of small branches on the ground.

Although lights flickered last night we kept our power. Some folks didn’t and had to wait for electricity to come back on. Additionally, we were spared the inches of snow that fell in our neighbor state North Dakota.

Pleasant fall weather, which outdid itself this October, changed outright. As rain drips through empty tree boughs, and the chilly huddle at bus stops are scenes repeated across town, the inevitable grumbles about the colder weather rise to the surface.

“I like it here but sure am beginning to dislike winter. I don’t know why I stick around,” is a common complaint heard now. Sometimes the disparaging comments are yours – thought if not said aloud.

The answer for why we stay put is, to a degree, addressed by the first part of the line. "I like it here" is a very telling statement.

“I like it here” speaks my sentiments. But I'd be gone this fast if we could snap up a beachfront unit during the six chilliest months. (What? My bags aren't packed yet?!)

Maybe real love – for a person, place or commitment undertaken – asks a loyalty with all duty taxes paid. Maybe this is why I’m still here, still around. “Why here?” I ask every year. And the next, and the next after that.

As with this weekend, sitting cozily around the noon dinner table with assorted family members, I know that family is in the mix for me in making Minnesota home.

Family keeps a lot of us rooted. We come together and are together easily and quickly. Events big and small mean more celebrated together. Can’t duplicate that. Never will.

Chosen camaraderie can focus around family but doesn’t have to. Friends, interests, organizations, work and community involvement can provide similar pull.

No matter how much another locale might offer (hello Aruba, Baja and California as I work down the places-admired roster), an often quoted saying comes to mind.

Count your blessings goes the saying. Today is a good time, with Thanksgiving coming up, to remember the truth in it.

We tally our blessings through the surrounding proofs of the good in our lives. We discover and uncover what sustains us and gives savor.

As well as where we live, the present moment is crucial to our sense of well being, purpose and contentment. Life measured by its moments can be basically satisfying wherever we are. A contented life might be considered the end-all to all dreams.

Nourishing our dreams is essential to the quest for fulfillment. Like the winds of a potent weather system we may need to fill the vacuum when parts of our creative selves collide in the ever-evolving efforts towards personal authenticity.

It remains that some dreams stay alive without wheels under them or wings to make them soar. Dreaming escape to the warmer side of yesterday’s heartland version of a hurricane, I no doubt fit in this category.

The reason so many dreams aren’t stretched and plumped into proper shape may never be fully understood. Maybe the answer is simpler than we think.

For instance, let’s look at the question of why any of us choose to live where winter conditions can complicate what’s called the quality of living.

“Why here?” leads, perhaps indirectly but clearly, to an answer we can live with if we muse over it for awhile. Maybe that’s how it is for many dreams not taken down the winding road to completion.

Those of us who'd like to put mileage between ourselves and winter can shake our fists in a futile gesture against the first snowflakes (which actually have arrived already, in the form of a light coating of snow on the deck when Al went in search of the grill cover).

One can shake a fist all you want without getting anywhere. A better response is one that succinctly reflects our Midwest philosophy.

"Why here? Why not?" we shrug, as I like to think the French do when something has its mystery.

Then we slip our hands into the warmest gloves we can find. “I like it here,” we grin. And that requires no shrug at all.

Ro Giencke - 2010

Friday, October 15, 2010

Fall on Minnesota’s North Shore

We were in canoe country which is the phrase borrowed from the travel brochures helping us with our recent visit to northern Minnesota.

Like fall leaves spinning as they catch the breeze the brochures provided color commentary for our sightseeing.

We started with Lake Superior, its cold deep waters rolling onto rocky shores. North Shore rivers tumbled and cascaded within sight of the road. State parks with camping and trails came up one after the other all the way to the Canadian border.

Minnesota doesn’t have an actual mountain range. There are compensations we will insist.

North Shore Drive, the 150-mile section of Highway 61 which follows the lakeshore from the inland seaport of Duluth, is one of the reasons many of us don’t miss the peaks. We have our own peak experiences on the North Shore.

Family vacations are popular up this way. Parents bring their children to recreate the experience of their own youthful good times. The North Shore has something for everyone. Busy as it can be there is a range of accommodations for all who make the trip.

If you time it just right in the fall you arrive in the Arrowhead, this northeasterly corner of the state, when maples flame across the ridges. Aspen and birch are equally showy, their forests even more prevalent. Their leaves ripple and turn like mirrored light.

Boughs shimmer as they sway in the currents of air. The gold leaves are bright as the sun against the blue sky. “Did you ever see such color?” you ask.

The correct answer is “Of course we have.” But every year nature rearranges its color patterns like a marketer who is a genius at increasing sales. We’re wowed anew.

Turning oaks add their burnished colors to the medleys of reds, yellows, oranges and umbers in areas where hardwoods predominate.

Elsewhere the hardwoods meet the dark green of pine and spruce. A patchwork quilt made up of blocks of brilliance and restraint warms the land.

The Indians and next the explorers and voyageurs – employees of the fur trading companies – comprise the early story of Minnesota. They noted the seasonal changes as they paddled their canoes.

Known by the French word for traveler, voyageurs were hardy and self-reliant. They were energetic and lively. They sang as they paddled their birchbark canoes, chants you can believe still echo in the lake mists of fall mornings.

Typically French or of French-Canadian descent, voyageurs retain a mystique not only because of their songs. Amazing physical stamina and their colorful garb, consisting of red wool cap, bright jacket and fringed sash, contribute to the robust and high-spirited profile they leave with us.

The voyageurs call to mind the strong early French influence on Minnesota. The state’s motto is in French as if calling attention to the fact.

“L’Etoile du Nord” – Star of the North – was adopted as the motto in 1861. It can suggest our geography – situated, as we are, in the northernmost tier of states.

I think it also honors the bravery and endurance of the first peoples, and the seekers and settlers after that, who found in the clear nighttime skies the peaceful expression of home.

The voyageurs traveled the network of rivers, lakes and streams far inland. When days grew crisp, and frosty mornings became the norm, the waterways began the turnover to ice.

Freezing temperatures lay down the first thin coat which became deep ice as the cold came on.

Lake Superior, large as it is, iced up too. Voyageurs who wintered in fur country prepared for the long season ahead.

Entering into the wilderness they embraced it. They adopted aspects of the Indian culture. They moved into it to make it their own. Above all, they kept active in the winter months building up inventories of furs to bring to Lake Superior for the summer trade.

The Heritage Center at Grand Portage National Monument is an ideal place to assimilate the fur trade saga. It’s a captivating story and has international ramifications. Al and I came away much enlightened by the informational panels, art and displays.

In 1763, in the aftermath of the French and Indian War, France ceded to England its land claims east of the Mississippi. England, the successful opponent, secured footage in the fur-rich North American interior.

English soldiers were positioned at Grand Portage during the Revolutionary War. The red coats were stationed there to protect the interests of the British run fur companies.

Grand Portage was the only spot in Minnesota with English soldiers while the thirteen American colonies, presenting a ragged, primarily united front, waged their calculated, spunky and also desperate bid for independence,

In 1784 the newly formed North West Company, determined to dominate the fur trade, established a fur depot at Grand Portage.

Grand Portage was the largest trading depot in the heart of North America during this time. The depot had a layout of sixteen wooden buildings within a palisade.

The palisade, constructed from cedar logs, was put up for protection of the wares rather than as defense against the Indians with whom friendly ties were maintained.

The great hall and kitchen are among buildings that have been reconstructed. They’re open on reduced seasonal hours. We didn’t want to wait for the next scheduled tour. With a map as guide we walked the grounds which extend to the lake.

The lookout tower gives great views of beautiful, sheltered Grand Portage Bay. A lake of a thousand moods Lake Superior was behaving impeccably this morning. It was a sheet of glass, its surface hardly ruffled in the day’s calm start.

We strolled the long fa├žade of the Great Hall. The open porch faces east and was basking, if wood can bask, in the morning light. It was warm in the sun on the porch. I slowed to let the good warmth sink in.

The mess hall, bunk beds and a private room that might have been a clerk’s office or bedroom were sections of the great hall that could be seen through the six windows that face the lake.

Missing the tour leader’s input we imagined for ourselves the activity that filled the big gathering hall.

Key as social headquarters, the great hall functioned for practicality as indicated by the room at the far end. The keeping of the ledgers, the dispensing of payments and the arrangements for supplies were core elements of the fur trading enterprise carried out here.

July was the time set for the Rendezvous. Voyageurs from the north woods departed for Lake Superior with their wealth of fur pelts.

Beaver was king. Beaver hats were the rage. The world market was insatiable. The western lands appeared to have an unlimited supply of beavers. The voyageurs canoed and portaged the beaver skins with care. It was not unlike transporting gold.

From the opposite direction, from Montreal, voyageurs paddled the thousand-mile route with supplies and trade goods in exchange for the furs.

The Rendezvous was a combination of business and celebration. The Objibwe had their village outside the walls and joined in the feasting.

Of interest, as you visit now, is Three Sisters Garden which shows the Indian style of planting. Corn, beans and squash are planted together to support and balance each other.

The garden uses carefully selected seeds original to Indian plantings. Some vegetables are endangered species because of the heirloom quality of the seeds.

The Rendezvous marked the end of one season and the start of another. At its conclusion the Montreal- based agents returned across the lake, their big canoes laden with animal skins. Voyageurs who lived in the woods headed west.

The Grand Portage was their way out as it was the trail in. For the voyageurs the portage, used by Indians for hundreds of years prior to European exploration, was their gateway to Canada’s fur country and portal for Lake Superior.

The portage around the Pigeon River, which today forms the border with Canada, allowed the voyageurs to avoid a series of impassible waterfalls and rapids.

The High Falls, also known as Pigeon Falls, is the highest waterfall in the state. At 120 feet it was among the serious obstacles to canoes on the lower Pigeon River.

This stretch was particularly forbidding when voyageurs were in transit with the furs. The furs, made up into ninety pound bales, had to be carried the entire length of the nine mile portage.

Grand Portage became a new favorite spot for us. So did Grand Marais. We got better acquainted with it this time.

Grand Marais (the word means marsh) is trailhead for the Gunflint Trail. But for me the charm in Grand Marais is its maritime and artsy flavor.

The only trail I looked for led to shopping and coffee houses. I find these commodities not at all out of place in this outdoors paradise. From the bustle on the streets and in the shops many visitors agree.

Gooseberry Falls is another don’t-miss attraction remembered from past vacations. Within Gooseberry State park are five waterfalls. Their combined drop is over one hundred feet.

Short walks from the visitor center bring you to the brink of the cascades in either direction. The hardest decision is which path to pursue first.

Next was Split Rock Lighthouse State Park. Split Rock Lighthouse is celebrating its 100th birthday this year.

During the summer we no doubt heard about Split Rock’s centennial year. The fact hadn’t stayed with us, making the blue birthday posters at the visitor center a pleasant surprise.

Minnesota celebrates the anniversary year with reason. Split Rock Lighthouse is synonymous with the North Shore. The vintage Coast Guard tower is a Minnesota icon. It symbolizes the rugged appeal of this curve of land north of Duluth.

Split Rock Lighthouse, along with Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, heads the short list of places and stories that persist as central to the Minnesota story. Through them we know and can explain ourselves.

Along with the Mayo Clinic, Duluth lift bridge, Metrodome, Iron Range and the wind turbines of the Buffalo Ridge, these landmarks, heroes and legends champion all things Minnesotan including heritage, humor and way of life.

The interpretive film at Split Rock was, as expected, nicely done. It gave a good overview. The theater was full. A bus group from the Twin Cities, giving total approval to the excellent weather on their color trip, accounted for some of the capacity attendance.

It was windy on the cliff. Fortunately the temperatures were warm, a pleasure here where the lake-cooled weather can be considerably chillier than other parts of the state.

The brute force of lake gales seems to seek out this exposed spot. Winter storms make the lighthouse lonesome country once the snow begins to fall. This is why the lighthouse station was a seasonal job (isolation plus icing of the lake kept boats off the lake until spring).

A narrow interior staircase takes you to the top of the tower. You’re up close with the 370,000 candlepower light.

The lighthouse light was vital in this area of the lake that had magnetic interference. Made in France, the light was hoisted in pieces up the cliff from the lake on a tram and reassembled.

The lighthouse, no longer needed for lake navigation, closed in 1969. It remains a useful locator point for boats on the lake. We were told the light would be ceremonially lit the next evening at sunset. The hour of sunset reminded us of how early it is dark now that it is fall.

My attention was for the views of the lake, the cove below and, landward, the three houses side by side below the lighthouse. The dignified two-story residences, which went up during construction of the lighthouse, were built for the keeper and his staff.

As we toured the keeper’s house, modern for its time, with flush toilet in the upstairs bathroom, and the front entrance painted a cheerful yellow to dispel the gloom of frequent foggy weather, it felt as though we had received the keeper’s personal invitation to come in.

The faithful keepers of the lighthouse, and the families who came to spend the summers with them, are recorded well by the physical evidence of their seasons on this rocky cliff.

I remarked to Al it’s good to travel. When you shift scenes you see and do things of memorable quality.

Standing in the keeper’s kitchen, where many a pie was whisked from the oven, or to pause in a second-floor bedroom looking through sheer curtains to the restless lake, is to pay respect to those who served here. They braved isolation for the duties stalwartly undertaken.

The flowers on the lighthouse grounds were a domestic touch the keeper and his family must have delighted in.

The plantings evened out for them the encroachment of the forest. In bloom outside the row of doors, and still untouched by frost, the flowers reminded us of the desire to create home wherever one is.

The places you see, and the folks you visit with away from home settings, are examples of local color. As such, they’re no different than the colored foliage many of us go to find.

Al and I started out to see the color of the countryside – and we did. As it happens, the turning leaves are the wallpaper to the real color.

The real color is in the stories of the traveled road. The stories can be considered all our stories as we learn from them one stop at a time.

Ro Giencke - 2010