Life is Good in Toledo

A couple months ago I mentioned that Metroparks Toledo (“Metroparks”) had recently been named the best park system in the country but I want to expand upon that little tidbit today. I just participated in a volunteer meeting on Zoom, along with about 150 other volunteers who help make our park system the gem that it is.

The volunteer coordinator staff expressed appreciation for all we do, whether it’s monitoring invasive plants or breeding raptors or dragonflies (me!), or being a trail safety monitor, or helping with the manor house at holiday time, or any of the hundreds of other things that volunteers do for Metroparks. It felt good to have our contributions acknowledged like that, and it made me proud to be part of it.

One of the many rustic trails in Oak Openings Preserve

The story of how I ended up here is long and complicated, but I’ll just say that it’s ironic that I settled down in a place that I used to scorn as I drove through it on my trips back and forth from Michigan to visit my family in southeastern Ohio. For 15 years, I drove past the city thinking it looked kind of…um…uninviting. From the highway, you see big, dirty oil refineries, and lots of other industrial stuff associated with the major shipping port activity that goes on here (cargo ships and railyards). But if you get off the freeway and look beyond that, you discover that this city has a lot to offer, even when you’re used to living in much larger cities with their ample cultural and recreational opportunities.

Grapeleaf skeletonizer moth on yarrow – Oak Openings Preserve

We’ve got a wonderful art museum with free admission, a zoo, a symphony, community theatre, the University of Toledo, the beloved Toledo Mud Hens (minor league baseball), lots of ethnic restaurants, and so much more. I’m not a sports fan or much of a zoo fan, but I absolutely adore our art museum and community theatre. But the thing that made me decide to move here was the metropark system, hands down. And seeing the park system continuing to shine as it is, well, that helps to reinforce in my mind that I made a good decision. Recently I was reading a thread on social media in which somebody claimed that Metroparks were an important factor in convincing people to move to Toledo. Somebody else mocked the idea, and I just couldn’t let that stand…so I stepped in to set him straight by telling him that I, in fact, am a person who chose this city primarily because of the fantastic park system. So there.

Pileated Woodpecker, Oak Openings Preserve

In recent years, Metroparks has been telling us they had a goal to build a park within five miles of every resident in Lucas County. At the end of last year, with the opening of Manhattan Marsh in north Toledo, they achieved that lofty goal. It’s hard to keep track, but I believe we have about 20 metroparks now. And they’re not done yet. They’re nearly finished with the first phase of a new park on the riverfront in downtown Toledo; Glass City Metropark will eventually be part of a majorly-renovated riverfront along the mighty Maumee River that should reap big economic rewards for the city. Apparently for each dollar a city invests in riverfront improvements, it can expect a return of $7-20. And already there has been construction of nearly 400 luxury loft apartments right beside the park; the builder has said that he was only able to make this investment because of our metropark system.

And as if that’s not amazing enough, Metroparks recently opened the largest treehouse lodging in the nation, with Cannaley Treehouse Village. The various accommodations there are already being booked nearly a year in advance!

I know that people have different priorities in life, and everyone doesn’t care about the parks in the way that I do. But these parks are central to my life — I spend hundreds of hours in them studying dragonflies and other insects, and walking the trails for exercise or just to give my brain a rest. (Ecotherapy, ya know?)

Flag-tailed spinyleg, Wiregrass Metropark

Metroparks also runs an award-winning nursery that grows native plants for the park system and for other restoration projects in our region. I’m so thankful for their leadership in demonstrating the importance of native plants in our community. Their Blue Creek Seed Nursery supplies many of the plants for our Wild Ones/Green Ribbon Initiative Native Plant sale that takes place each May during Blue Week. Last year we had to run the plant sale as an online event, but we still had huge demand, and are gearing up for this year’s online sale with even more plants. I’ve been spending a lot of time working on the website for the sale, and can’t wait to see how it goes this year.

I hope I’ve not bored you by gushing about Metroparks Toledo. I just wanted to express how important these parks are to my life, and do a little bit to improve the image of my city for anyone who might think of it the way I did before I moved here. My friend Sherry is an avid urban birder, and when people are surprised at the birds she finds in the city limits, she always reminds them that “birds are where you find them!” I’m borrowing her sentiment to express how I feel about Toledo — you can find happiness anywhere if you look hard enough. I’m so glad I kept looking. Thanks for reading!

(All of the photos in this post were taken in the Metroparks system– I have thousands more of them and I’ve only been here four years so far!)

The Peace of Wild Things

Blue sky and clouds at Maumee Bay State Park

Today was a gorgeous March day in the northwestern corner of Ohio, with the temperature rising to about 70F and south winds of around 15-20 mph. This is the kind of day that gets naturalists excited around here, because those south winds can usher in waves of migrating waterfowl and shorebirds.

During spring migration, as birds arrive here at the shore of Lake Erie, they take time to rest and feed before continuing their journey across that massive body of water. That gives us wonderful opportunities to see them in large numbers in fields, woodlots, marshes, and on the beach. And that’s why northern Ohio is a world-renowned migration hotspot, and explains why you can’t throw a rock around here without hitting a birder.

But birds aren’t the only migration story in town. Some of our dragonflies are migrants too, and the first green darners have finally begun to show up in the Toledo area this week. It’s no secret that I await my first dragonfly sighting each year impatiently, and this year was no different. But this week was especially difficult, as my mother went in the hospital on the same day that a good friend went into hospice. Thankfully my mom is home and doing well, but I’m mourning the passing of my sweet friend Susie, who left us this weekend after a long battle with cancer.

Today I was in dire need of some intensive nature therapy, so I headed out to the Lake Erie marshes for some healing. I hoped to see my first dragonfly of the season, but even if I didn’t, it would help me to be out there immersed in the drama of spring in the animal world.

Painted turtle crossing the road

My first encounter was this little painted turtle sitting on the road at Magee Marsh. It’s common practice around here to help a turtle or snake off the road whenever possible, so I stopped the car and walked up behind him to encourage him to continue moving. He hissed at me (thanks?) and quickly scuttled off into the grass. I got a ‘thumbs up’ sign from the car waiting behind me, and continued driving toward the beach area. I’d felt so helpless all last week, so I felt a bit of happiness that I’d been able to save the little reptile, at least.

When I met Susie four years ago, she said we should be friends so I could teach her about nature. And so that’s what I did. I took her birding at Magee during spring migration, and helped her start to learn the warblers. I introduced her to my birding friends, and showed her caterpillars on our hikes. She was a joy to be around, full of enthusiasm and optimism, and with an ever-present smile. She seemed to become instant friends with everyone she met, and I admired how she did that.

I saw three killdeer standing on the road, and remembered how we’d had lunch on the beach there, watching killdeer running around on the sand. I loved teaching her about birds that were so familiar to me. Seeing so many animals on the roads today made me think about how animals live without any awareness of death and how near it may be. I recalled the beautiful poem by Wendell Berry, and realized that I was seeking the ‘peace of wild things’ today. (You can listen to Wendell Berry read his short poem, The Peace of Wild Things, here.)

Killdeer on the road, discussing who knows what

How freeing it would be to not have any awareness that your life would end one day. The birds and turtles go about their lives, doing what they need to do and avoiding danger as best they can, but they don’t think about the inevitable end of their lives like we humans do. I envy them that.

As an immature bald eagle circled above the beach, I thought of how each day last week passed in a blur, a spiral toward…something…moving too fast and too slowly at the same time. I desperately wanted Susie’s pain to stop, but the thought of a world without her smile was hard to accept. She was like a big sister to me. I will miss her dearly, but will long remember how she modeled bravery and optimism for me.

Immature bald eagle soaring over me at the Magee Marsh beach

I’m filled with gratitude for the time she was in my life, and it’s my hope that I enriched her life as much as she did mine.

Oh, by the way, I did find my first green darner of the year today. I would show you a photo, but it was flying fast, and my pic was so blurry it could be mistaken for one of those so-called Sasquatch photos. Instead, here’s a photo of Susie and me having some fun with Sasquatch a couple years ago. Just look at her smile — I bet you can almost feel how wonderful she was.

Nothing to See Here? Ha!

This time of year exposes all the bird nests that were hidden right under our noses last spring and summer.

I think today was the warmest day we’ve had so far this year in our corner of Ohio. My car thermometer said it was 72F late this afternoon. In dire need of fresh air and a dose of Vitamin N (nature), I headed out to one of my favorite places, a Nature Conservancy property called Salamander Flats, where I often study dragonflies and butterflies in the summer. It’s a wetland that was recently restored after having been converted into farmland for many years.

Driving past it, you might think it looks like a huge ‘nothing burger,’ a big flat field of weeds. And especially at this time of year, you might think there’s nothing of interest there. No wildflowers blooming yet, no insects feeding on flowers, just a bunch of ‘dead’ brown plants. To that I say, “Ha!” Let me show you a few things.

First of all, this is my favorite time of year to enjoy the golden brown hues of the acres and acres of little bluestem. Add to that the movement caused by a brisk wind, and you’ve got yourself a lovely symphony of dancing grasses. Here’s a one-minute feast for your senses:

Did you notice a sound that wasn’t wind in that video? Yes, you sure did! Here’s another 30 seconds of zen — the songs of chorus frogs in the pond.

There were the first signs of blooms on the pussy willow:

And mosses starting to show new growth. This is a very common one in the haircap moss family:

A shrieking killdeer drew my attention as it flew over, and I was surprised that I managed to capture a pic with my macro lens. I wasn’t planning to photograph birds today.

Along with red-winged blackbirds and turkey vultures, killdeer are one of the birds that signify spring for me. Killdeer are common shorebirds that lay their eggs on the ground, often on gravel driveways. Here’s a picture of one on the beach at Lake Erie in the summer:

There were lots of teeny tiny wolf spiders crawling all over the ground. I managed a passable pic of this one:

I had a momentary thrill when a bright yellow insect flew up out of the bluestem and continued to fly just above the tops of the grasses as I watched it in my binoculars for about 20 seconds. It looked like a butterfly–it’s crazy early for them here, but I can’t imagine what else it could have been. I texted a friend who knows more about butterflies than I do, and she rushed over to help me try to relocate it. Unfortunately, the wind picked up a great deal and it got pretty cold. We never did find it, but had a good time seeing each other’s faces after a long, lonely winter.

It’s so incredibly rejuvenating to be outdoors without a coat, feeling the wind in my face, and having hope for a more normal year. Spring is best appreciated when you can see it, feel it, hear it, and touch it, all at once. Full immersion, so it gets into your heart and soul.

Longhorn beetle stowaway

And as I write this, spring is in more than my heart and soul — it’s in my house too. Something kept buzzing around my lamp near my head, and I finally caught it. This looks to be one of the longhorn beetles. I would imagine it hitched a ride home with me from Salamander Flats. When I uploaded the photo to iNaturalist, it suggested the Tanbark Borer (Phymatodes testaceus). I’ll have to wait to see if that gets confirmed by the real entomologists on iNat, but it’s a new species for me if that’s right.

Our weather is supposed to turn colder and wetter for a while now, but I’ve got enough of a taste of spring that I’m pretty sure I can make it through to the next warm spell. I hope you’re taking advantage of any chance you get to immerse yourself in the transition to this most amazing season!

Six Weeks and Counting

“Hey Miss Dragonfly I see you look at me with your beautiful eyes
You must be wondering what type of creature am I”
~ Dragonfly, by Ziggy Marley

As we move into March, I suddenly realize that in about 4-6 weeks I should start finding some green darners ! Last year I found my first of the year on April 18. This is the hardest time of year, when it’s so close and yet…so far. But since I’m dealing with major drywall damage from an ice dam, I need to redirect my attention to something positive, so let’s look at some beautiful dragonfly eyes tonight, shall we? Just a few pretties….

This post was inspired by the Ziggy Marley song referenced above. I’ll link it below the photos so you can enjoy it too.

Blue dasher
Dragonhunter
Spotted spreadwing

See, I can do a short post if I try hard, LOL. Okay, here’s Ziggy’s song — enjoy!

Let’s Get You Aired Out!

I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently. ~Lewis Carroll

Icicles on my sunroom…pretty…for a short time.

Today was the first in a welcome string of warm days that will help melt the massive amount of snow that has accumulated here over the past two weeks. In fact, the forecast predicts that our temperature will climb above freezing every day for the next two weeks. I could jump for joy!

Some people love snow. I’m not one of them. Sure, I can appreciate the beauty of a fresh snow and the purifying feeling of breathing cold winter air. But I can do that for one or two days and then I’m done for the year. Once the pristine white snow has transformed into dirty ice chunks, I’m so over it.

One of the prairies at Wildwood Metropark, under a cerulean February sky

But despite those feelings, in most winters I manage to get myself outside regularly for birding or walking in the woods. Not so much this year. I partly blame my new jigsaw puzzle obsession, but I’ve settled into a routine of keeping myself busy indoors and not even thinking about venturing outside. But that’s not good for my physical or mental health, so I’m very grateful for this warmup. Today I skipped out early on a Zoom meeting so I could get myself out into the sunshine for a much-needed walk. As an old friend told me once, “Let’s get you aired out!”

I headed a couple miles down the road to my nearest metropark, Wildwood Preserve. This popular Toledo park has many miles of hiking and biking trails. It can get crowded on nice days like today, so I headed into the woods where I knew the trails would still be snow-covered and that would discourage most walkers. And aside from an immortal 20-something who went fearlessly jogging past me in the uneven snow, there was hardly anyone out there. And I had a wonderful time. I walked slowly and stopped often to look for barred owls and pileated woodpeckers. Both of these species nest in this park, so there’s a decent chance of running into them if you spend enough time to listen and look.

I didn’t find either of them today, but I found evidence of the pileated woodpeckers. These freshly-excavated holes appear to be slightly squarish, one of the signatures of a pileated woodpecker. Just a short distance past that first tree, I found some older holes that were definitely made by this species.

Freshly-excavated woodpecker feeding holes
Older pileated woodpecker holes — note the distinctly rectangular shape

In case you’re not familiar with this bird, it’s the largest woodpecker we have in this part of the world, measuring about 16-19″ long. It’s always a treat to see them, or even to hear their distinctive calls echoing through the woods.

This photo is a good comparison of the size of a pileated woodpecker to the white-breasted nuthatch on the other side of the tree. (Taken in my yard in 2014)

Although the pileateds were elusive today, I watched this much smaller female red-bellied woodpecker foraging up and down a tree snag. She was thorough in her inspection of every branch before flying off to try another.

Female red-bellied woodpecker possibly listening to the cawing of some crows nearby

There’s one particular section of this woodland trail that I especially like. As I come around a bend in the path, there’s a nice memorial bench on the right, and a deep ravine on the left. I often sit there just to listen to the rhythms of the woods — branches squeaking as they rub up against each other, tufted titmice calling out ‘peter-peter-peter!,’ and the water gurgling through the ravine.

I do like how shadows are longer at noon in the winter.

Long shadows just after noon today, due to the low angle of the sun in winter.

I came upon this scene, which I imagined to be fluffy snow cushions on tree stump chairs–perhaps in preparation for a meeting of the Woodland Critter Council?

And then a slightly odder sight…

The aftermath of a Saturday night Blue Jay kegger?

And you know I can’t finish without mentioning my first insect sighting of the new year — winter crane flies were out and about too.

My guess is winter crane fly, perhaps genus Trichocera

I’m glad I was able to motivate myself to get outside to enjoy this day. Even though I say I don’t like winter or snow, if I just give it a chance, there’s always something out there to appreciate. If you’re like me, I encourage you to give winter a chance too! #GetOutside #FindingTheJoy

And before I go, I’ll share this video from our Toledo Naturalists’ Association program this week. In 2014 I spent a week birding in Panama, and it was such a great experience that I invited the tour company to do a program for us. I thought it would be a great way to escape the snowy Ohio winter and pretend we were in the warmth of Central America looking at beautiful birds. So we took a one-hour virtual trip to Panama. During the past year I’ve had to overcome my strong reluctance to appear on camera, but I’ve come to terms with it now and think I did just fine. I hope you enjoy it. (Just pretend you don’t notice my pandemic non-haircut, LOL.)

A Familiar Place in the Off Season

This is the time of year when I start to grow impatient with the absence of the insects that occupy my interest in warmer seasons. Sometimes in winter I go to my favorite insect-hunting places and mope around dreaming of that day in the spring when I’ll see my first insect of the year and life will be exciting again.

That’s how I ended up at Wiregrass Metropark today. You may remember that this is the place where I spend a lot of time monitoring dragonflies in the summer. (You can read more about that and see pictures of this place in summer, here.) Today it was only 30 degrees, but I wanted to get some much-needed exercise, so I did three fast laps of the 0.6-mile trail that circles the lake. Well, two fast laps and one slightly slower one with a few stops to take photos. I consider that a good enough winter exercise day, don’t you?

Branches that protrude from the water are favorite perching spots for damselflies in the summer.

The lake is almost completely frozen. I stood staring down through the ice thinking about the dragonfly nymphs that will emerge from the water a few months from now to delight children and adults alike. I can’t wait.

But in the meantime, I thought it would be fun to share some winter photos of the park. And I’ll take this opportunity to share the news that Metroparks Toledo was recently given the 2020 National Gold Medal Award for excellence in parks and recreation management, the most prestigious honor in the parks and recreation industry. When I was deciding where to move during a transitional time in my life a few years ago, the metropark system in Toledo was what convinced me that I could have a great quality of life here. And as I expected, the parks have become a central part of my life. I have to stop myself right now, because I could start going on and on about the different parks and what I love about each one of them. I want to focus on Wiregrass today.

Here’s part of the trail that loops around the lake. My ode monitoring route divides the loop trail into 4 quadrants, and I count everything flying over the lake and across the trail for 12 meters from the lake edge. This portion of the trail is bordered with wildflower meadows containing native plants like boneset, black-eyed susans, cardinal flower, liatris, goldenrods, asters, and much more.

The fluffy seed heads of tall thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana)

There are five fishing platforms built along the west edge of the lake, and a kayak launch and fishing pier on the east side near the parking lot.

This is the smallest of the five fishing platforms. The water should be up to the base of the rocks.
The kayak launch/fishing pier are on the left of this photo.

Last summer’s drought lowered the water level so much that the exposed sandy bottom seemed like a 10-foot wide beach. This made it harder for me to find some of the damselflies, because they like to rest on the vegetation that emerges from the water near the shoreline, but most of that vegetation was absent last summer. I’m really hoping for a wetter spring to bring that water level back up this year. But that larger expanse of sand was prime hunting ground for tiger beetles last summer, and I had fun watching them run-stop-run as they chased their prey.

The south end of the lake is marked with signs that prohibit shoreline access, in an attempt to preserve habitat for the wildlife and rare plants that live here. Most people respect those rules, but one day I had to chase out some teenagers who took their horses in the lake in the protected area. It was all I could do to keep my cool while I tried to educate them about the damage those hooves were doing to the lake edges. They exited the lake but I heard them mocking me as they rode away, and I found out later that these particular kids have been an ongoing problem at Wiregrass. I’m just a volunteer, but I’m very protective of this particular property and don’t hesitate to call the park rangers when I see flagrant rule violations that are damaging the trails or habitats.

This end of the lake is where I find most of the dragonflies and damselflies each summer, probably because it’s the most open part of the shoreline. The north and west sides of the lake have dense tree and shrub growth between the trail and the lake edge, so I’m limited to finding odes resting on the woody vegetation. I’ve enjoyed seeing which species tend to spend time in the different habitats and microclimates around the lake.

Virginia mountain mint seed heads in winter — they still smell great!

For such a small park, Wiregrass Metropark seems to successfully cater to a variety of user groups. In addition to the walking trail, kayak launch, and fishing platforms, there are three primitive campgrounds tucked in the woods surrounding the lake. The paths to the campgrounds are lined with beautiful trillium flowers in early spring.

A primitive campground near the lake
Interesting patterns on the lake ice

The drupes of staghorn sumac feed the birds all winter long.

It was nice to spend some time exploring this familiar place in the off season. I definitely prefer it when there are more visible signs of plant and insect life, but it was nice to not have to share the park with other humans for a change. I saw a couple other people in the distance but didn’t cross paths with anyone, so it was peaceful and quite relaxing.

I find it interesting that we sometimes feel sad that we can’t be with other people, and other times we’re glad nobody else is around. I guess it often comes down to whether or not we have a choice in the matter, right? As with many things in life, if you have control over your situation, it’s easier to accept than if it’s forced upon you. Ah, we’re quite complicated creatures, aren’t we?

Have a great week, and I hope you get out in nature for some fresh air!

Wee Folk Wednesday

Faeries, come, take me out of this dull world,
For I would ride with you upon the wind,
Run on the top of the dishevelled tide,
And dance upon the mountains like a flame!

~William Butler Yeats, “The Land of Heart’s Desire,” 1894

In my last post I wrote that I regretted that I hadn’t continued my fairy photo project, so I headed to the woods today to remedy that.

The pumpkin fairy and the gnome are old friends, so when she found him napping with his sheep on a bed of moss, she stopped by for a visit. “What,” you say, “gnomes have sheep?!” Why yes, they certainly do. At least in my enchanted forest.

The violet fairy made her first visit to the woods today too. She rescued one of the errant sheep from this mossy mountain, and soon returned him to the gnome’s herd. I would assume he’ll be grateful…when he wakes from that long nap. (It’s strange that every time I come across that guy, he’s sleeping.)

Speaking of sheep that need rescuing…these two somehow got stuck on fungus mountain. Since the fairies were busy and the gnome was, well, you know…I helped them down.

It may seem silly for a grown woman to be playing with fairies in the woods, but this little project helps take me out of my head when it’s too “grown-up” in there. And it sure does entertain passersby in the woods (“What is that crazy lady doing with those sheep?”).

I hope this brought a smile to your face today. Happy Wee Folk Wednesday!

And the Trees Hugged Me Back

I went for a walk in the woods in the late morning last Wednesday. I knew it would be a long and stressful day as we endured planned protests to the certification of the electoral votes for our new president, and I was trying to do some self-care to keep my stress level in check. Every new day seems to push me to what feels like a new limit to my endurance, and I worry about the long-term health consequences of constant high levels of cortisol and adrenaline in my body. I really miss being able to go to the gym.

On this walk, I stopped often to look skyward and enjoy the feeling of being comforted by the trees “hugging” me. Maybe they’re repaying me for all the times I’ve hugged them?

I’ve been off my photography game lately, but on this day I decided to snap some cell phone photos of mosses and lichens. At this time of year they’re a welcome pop of color in the mostly-brown-and-gray woods. I don’t know much about these organisms and can’t identify most of them, but I love looking for them.

On this walk I found lots of large trees with moss socks going up several feet from the ground. I often stopped to pet them and enjoy the tactile aspect along with the verdant feast for the eyes.

This tree is wearing a moss sock
A wood fern, another nice green surprise in the winter woods. (Maybe dryopteris genus.)

As I drove home from my walk, I turned on the radio and heard the news of the domestic terrorists invading the US Capitol. I finished my drive in a state of shock, anxious to get home and see what was on the tv news. I remembered that I had ended my last gratitude post with a statement that now seemed like a dare: “Show us what you’ve got, 2021. We’re ready.” I have to take that back now…we were not ready. At. All.

I think this is the first time I’ve photographed this particular lichen. It appears to be one of the rosette lichens in the genus Physcia. It occurs to me that this might be the reason I’ve been craving mint chocolate chip ice cream…you see it too, right?

And here we have a lichen sitting on a soft bed of moss. The moss is a plant, but the lichen is not. Lichens are a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and an alga, allowing the fungus to benefit from the photosynthesis ability of the alga, and thus retain a constant source of nourishment. (At least this is how I understand it at a very basic level.) Luckily for me, it’s not necessary to understand the science in order to enjoy them.

I need to get back on board with my fairy photo project soon. I used to carry little fairies and gnomes with me so I could pose them on big mushrooms or tucked into beds of lush moss. That project gave me a lot of pleasure, and it should be one more thing I continue to help keep my mind off of all the scary things that I have little or no control over. I hope you remember to take good care of yourselves too. I can highly recommend being hugged by trees.

Get Ready, Here Comes 2021

2020 worst year ever

It’s okay, don’t let that title scare you. You’re reading this, so you’ve already made it through one of the toughest years the human species has had to face for decades. Take a moment to acknowledge that, if you can. Breathe in, breathe out. I’ve learned how immensely important it is to get serious about mindful gratitude these days, because life can be turned on its head in an instant.

It’s easy to get so wrapped up in the day-to-day details of life that we forget to appreciate the good parts. And it’s far too easy to find things to complain about this year, so let’s not do that today. I want to mention some things that I’ve been especially grateful for recently, in the hope that this will encourage you to do the same.

Friendships

My gosh, where to start? For a couple decades of my life I lived a relatively unsocial lifestyle with few meaningful friendships. After making the scary decision to leave my former life six years ago and start over, I have felt like a new person. The change wasn’t instantaneous and it wasn’t easy, but I pushed myself to adopt new habits and new ways of interacting with the world. I dug deep and kept trying after each setback. And before I knew it, I’d built a life full of wonderful friends and meaningful relationships with colleagues in my nonprofit volunteer work. I sometimes couldn’t believe I’d been able to do it after having been trapped in the old patterns for so long. I finally felt needed and respected, and had as much social life as I could handle. Life was great.

Then the pandemic hit. After all the work I’d put in to build my new life, and when I’d realized that I really did need people, all of that important social interaction was taken from me virtually overnight. I wanted to pound my fists and scream, “No fair!” But, alas, life is what happens when you’re making other plans, right?

Wingspan game day at my house…in 2019…sigh.

Of course the friendships remain, but we can’t spend time together now.  No more game nights at my house with a kitchen full of laughter. No more meeting a friend for coffee or lunch. No more community theatre dates with my theatre buddy. I do meet a couple friends for walks occasionally, but it’s getting too cold for that to be fun anymore. I didn’t realize it was possible to feel this lonely. I’m normally so grateful that I can live alone, but some days I would give anything to have someone in my household “pandemic pod” so I could get a hug. I know things will eventually return to some kind of new normal in which we can be together again, but this forced separation has made me realize how important these people are to my life.  Some friends teach me new things, others make me laugh, and yet others share those deep conversations about life that I love to engage in. I cannot wait for the day that it’s safe to grab every one of my friends in a huge bear hug — I may never want to let go again!

Time

I’m very lucky that I don’t have to deal with a job and kids during the pandemic.  So lucky that I feel guilty about it. I try to make up for that by donating to causes that help the people who are suffering more than me with more immediate physical or financial needs. Most days I have to myself now, with very few appointments or even reasons to leave the house except for groceries or a walk in the park. Despite the loneliness, I’m incredibly grateful for the mental space I’ve been able to reclaim with all this solitude. I see the benefits I’m reaping from being able to use my time to read and write.

A few of my favorite inspirational books

The other day I finally took some time to remove all the books from my messy shelves and re-organize them. That process gave me the chance to rediscover some of them, and I’ve developed the new habit of just pulling a book from the shelf and reading a chapter at random. I’m focusing on my large collection of books about writing, mostly. I’ve long had a fascination with the processes of other writers: how they get ideas, how they organize their notes, and how they tell stories. I feel some momentum building toward my dream of writing my own book. I’m getting more confident that I have something to say that other people will be interested in reading. It’s scary, but I’ve always believed that doing the scary things is important in order to move yourself forward.

My Pets

After my cat Mickey’s traumatic death during my divorce, I was determined not to have pets again because it hurt too much to lose them. And I managed not to look at any cute kittens for more than a year…until a colleague wore me down with her constant urgings for me to get a cat. I begged her to stop telling me about stray cats she’d found or people giving them up for adoption, but she persisted relentlessly. Eventually she wore me down, and I adopted two five-year-old cats from someone who was getting married to a guy with severe cat allergies. 

That was five years ago. I’ve sometimes regretted that I allowed myself to be pushed into adopting them, especially when I had to deal with expensive pet sitting rates and when I found out that one of the cats is very demanding of my attention. But…and this is a major but…since the pandemic and the ensuing isolation, these cats have saved my sanity. I love them both and adore their little quirks. Sophie is my little brown and black tabby girl with the softest fur and loudest purr you’ve ever heard. Her legs are so short she has to try several times to get up on the bed. And the big orange one, Sam, sleeps curled up against my chest with his paw across my neck. It’s hard…really hard…to be alone in this time of such uncertainty about the future. And if I didn’t have these cats to keep me company, well, I just don’t want to imagine how much harder it would be.

And before I finish with this subject, I’ll mention the pets of my friends too. Two of my friends have graciously shared their dogs with me — isn’t it strange that dog walking is something new for me? I realized that I had never walked a dog in my life before the pandemic. And I discovered that I love it! When you can’t hug a friend, the next best thing is to hang out with their dogs. I’ve helped one friend train his rescued dogs to get socialized in the park, and the other friend has allowed her dogs to smother me with kisses and an occasional tackle.

So those are some of the things I’m especially grateful for these days. What are yours?

(Yes, I need a haircut!)

So now we move ahead into a new year. Sure, it’s just a number on a calendar, but we give it a great deal of symbolic significance. There are hopeful signs that life may get better soon: Vaccines are beginning to be administered, and the leadership of our government will be much more sane in just a few short weeks. I’m generally a cynic about New Year’s resolutions, but not this year. I resolve to hold on just a while longer. I’m so tired of wearing masks, but I’ll keep doing it a while longer. I miss my friends and family so much, but I can endure this separation just a while longer.

Show us what you’ve got, 2021. We’re ready.

Puzzled by Nature

A micro puzzle that comes in a plastic test tube…fun!

That title is an apt description of my addled mind these days, as a long pandemic winter settles down on us in northwest Ohio. Brain fog has become a familiar companion in the absence of any human contact and little structure to my days. I long for a return to my active life full of time in nature with my friends. But until that’s possible again, I’ve had to become resourceful about finding new ways to occupy myself during seemingly endless hours of solitude.

Of course I still have virtual meetings and virtual game days, but that’s the extent of my interaction with other humans these days. I do a lot of reading…and writing…and some drawing too. But I’m beginning to feel the walls closing in on me lately, and felt the need for something new in my life. So, naturally, I’ve joined the legions of devoted dissectologists, otherwise known as people who enjoy jigsaw puzzles.

The pandemic has stimulated a huge demand for puzzles reminiscent of the one that took place during the Great Depression. (Here’s a brief history of jigsaw puzzles that will clue you in to the origin of the term dissectologist.) I’ve found working jigsaw puzzles to be a rather meditative activity that helps keep my mind focused away from unproductive thoughts and worries.

Caterpillar puzzle from The Caterpillar Lab — 11″ x 14″

There’s an incredible diversity of puzzles available these days, and I discovered that I’m quite picky about the subject matter of my puzzles. It won’t surprise anyone that my favorites are nature-themed puzzles featuring insects, birds, and other animals. I’ve spent hours browsing websites, turning my nose up at puzzles with city scenes, reproductions of famous paintings, and images of colorful donuts. I also like book-themed puzzles, like the ones that have images of bookshelves overflowing with interesting titles. The photos in this post are some of my favorites from the nature puzzles I’ve done recently.

Article about the demand for puzzles

I’m particularly fond of the huge dragonfly puzzle below. Full disclosure about that dragonfly though: I didn’t finish it. I did the entire border and the dragonfly in the center, but only finished the lower half of the interior because it just felt tedious by that point. The design is exactly the same all around, and that just isn’t fun for me. I guess I’m picky about the subject matter and the level of difficulty. I’m a Goldilocks puzzler, looking for just the right amount of what I want…not too easy, not too hard.

I’ve loaned the dragonfly puzzle to a friend and I may have another go at it when she’s finished with it. I love the colors on that puzzle and may even consider framing it to hang on the wall. One day it’ll be a reminder of pandemic life, I suppose. Might as well find some beauty in these bizarre times, right?

The “Ecosystems of the World” puzzle (below) was a lot of fun because it made me curious about some of the ecosystems as I was studying the images. If a puzzle is visually pleasing, keeps my mind and hands busy, and teaches me something along the way, then it’s done its job well.

Ecosystems of the World — a very fun puzzle
Detail from “Charley Harper Tree of Life” puzzle
Detail from a puzzle of fruit label art

I often listen to podcasts and music as I work on a puzzle, taking breaks to dance with Sam whenever Fleetwood Mac pops up on my Spotify playlist. He just loves to be held on my shoulder so he can nuzzle my chin while I dance to “Second Hand News.” Seriously, he seems to have a real interest in that particular song…it’s so weird. He doesn’t seem to mind that I only know the lyrics to two lines. And yes, I know what you’re thinking — it’s possible that I’ll turn into the stereotypical cat lady spinster by the time this is all over. But come on, I can’t be the only one falling into some odd behaviors at this point, right?

Sam likes the beetle puzzle as much as I do

I realized the other day that even once it’s my turn to get the vaccine (hopefully by late spring), I still won’t know how long it protects me, so how can my life change at that point? I can’t imagine that we’ll be able to safely abandon the face masks and social distancing for quite some time. The uncertainty is so frustrating, and there’s no telling how long it will be before we can start to put the pieces of our lives back together. But it will happen at some point, for sure. In the meantime, you’ll find me in the jigsaw aisle….