Monday, August 10, 2015

The Big Fat Bohunk Family Reunion: An Illustrated Story of Life

It was a year of milestones at the Big Fat Bohunk Family Reunion 2015. I guess there are always milestones, since we only meet annually, but this year in particular seemed a reminder of the Circle of Life.

There were 47 people this year, offshoots from the three branches of the Viola/Adolph family tree, plus 11 dogs. We occupied two cabins, a small tent city, and 4 motel rooms in town. Two families in particular--our "Bohangels"--do all the prep work getting everything ready. Before we even descend on the place, clans and families volunteer to provide meals, so we had taco night, steak night, Asian night, pulled pork night, coconut French toast brunch, gyro lunch, and more--an endless supply of excellent food and delicious drink. We had actual goll-dern lattes every morning, thanks to cousin J’s grinder and espresso machine. 

Everyone helps out with dishes, camp pickup, fire starting/snuffing, wet clothes line-hanging, etc. And miraculously and spontaneously, the entire village watches over and helps keep in line the growing herd of small children, who turn feral within minutes of arriving. The frequently-yelled “theme call” this year was, “Has anyone seen my cousin?” We also decided that GF stood, interchangeably, for both girl friend and gluten free.

Among the milestones we celebrated this year are two new babies, the unwelcome passage of a potential cousin (a very early miscarriage), the 80th birthday year and end of radiation therapy for Mom, our Grand Matriarch, the continuing struggle but current good health of a young cousin with kidney disease, and a beautiful Veatles (Viking + Beatles) lakeside goodbye to cousin Britta, an amazing young woman whose energy became part of the Force this year.

We had the 5th annual Esther Williams Invitational Lake Swim, the 4th annual This Cabin Won’t Pay for Itself Auction, the 1st annual Serious-as-Sheit Beanbag Toss Tourney, Golf Day (I hear the old dawgs whipped the pups), the Old Farts Slow Cruise, the Party Boat Speed Cruise, jet skiing, paddle boating, paddle boarding (I was on my feet for at least 2-3 minutes!), floaties, fishing, sunburns, and singing. The under-12 crowd got in on the Grandpa Spot Annual Quarter Toss, where cousin Spot tosses $100 or more in quarters across the lawn, and kids armed with plastic cups and pointy elbows scrabble for the loot.

It was a glorious several days of laughing, toasting marshmallows (we all bow before Luke’s marshmallow mastery), singing, shouting, swearing, crying (mostly kids), in a watery wonderland of family love & togetherness. We come from all over this country and others, all occupations, all political, social, religious, and nonreligious leanings, various cultural and ethnic backgrounds, from 6 weeks to 80 years of age. The BFBFR was totally worth every minute of the 9-hour car ride in a compact car with two bored toddlers.

I’ve been going to the cabin in Minnesota since I was 4 or 5 (with a decade or two off in there somewhere; I still remember sneaking down to the water late at night when I was 8 or 9, to set free the frogs Grandpa Adolph hung on stringers off the dock--his catfish bait, my “friends”). That’s 50+ years of family on Long Lake, people, and it was already a tradition before I came along. There aren’t many rambling, extended families as big and diverse as ours that can or will congregate like this, and I’m grateful as heck for the little (Great Big?) miracle that is the Big Fat Bohunk Family Reunion.

Celebrating Britta with "fireflies" (sparklers)
Veatles sendoff: ashes, paper butterflies, poems.
Cousin Britta Joy: Happy journey!
Cousin Clyde learns to fish.
New Baby: Cousin Dylan
Esther Williams Invitational 2015 Participants
Cousin Hazel biffs it on the motel sidewalk.
Hazel likes to dress for the Quarter Toss.
Quarter Toss wee cousin scrounging.
This cousin paddle boards with a dog and a beer. Next year...
French toast feeding frenzy.
Auctioneer cousin talks up groovy silly hat.
Speedy young'un cousins party boat.
Over 50 cousins chillin' boat.
Mmm…steak & potato night.
The youngest cousin, Stella, & oldest cousin, Mom.

Monday, July 13, 2015

A'hermiting we'll go…a'hermiting we'll go…hi ho the merry-o...

Abbey from the hermitage path.

I turned 59 last Saturday. I was having a hard time getting excited about my birthday this year, and everyone’s lives right now seem so busy, so scattered in a million directions. So, instead of trying to schedule another dinner, another cake, another night at the Little Town Watering Hole, etc. (although I usually LOVE all of those), I decided to give myself a gift I’ve been wanting for a very long time—a weekend hermitage.
I spent a LOT of time here.

Home sweet hermitage.
Home sweet hermitage.
I spent Friday through Sunday at a hermitage cabin on the grounds of the Abbey of the Hills in Marvin, South Dakota. From its founding in 1950 through 2012, the Abbey was a Benedictine monastery, Blue Cloud Abbey, until it became unsustainable for the dwindling number of aging brothers who lived there. A nonprofit bought it and maintains it as a retreat center now.

I lit one little candle for the whole world.
There are two hermitage cabins a good hike downhill from the abbey. The cabins are simple but quite comfortable—a small bed, a writing table, a rocking chair, hotplate and microwave, dorm fridge, fan, AC if you need it. The Abbey supplies you with a basket when you arrive that includes clean sheets, a chunk of Valley Queen cheese, a chunk of summer sausage, a couple bottles of water, and half a loaf of homebaked Abbey bread. There is a tiny sink in the cabin with cold running water, and an outhouse halfway between the two cabins. The cabins have picture windows that face a small pond/lake. While you’re there, you also have access to the Abbey (which includes a shower room if you want).
Windows as art.

Reflections in marble floor.
I spent my time there writing, reading (re-reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s Miracle of Mindfulness), playing my guitar, practicing meditation, walking, and rocking while I stared into space. On Saturday, I sat in the back of the sanctuary and sang old Sufi & Shaker hymns until the echoing songs made me weepy, but I mostly kept to the cabin.
Cabin from the pond bench.

Saturday rain.
I’m not Catholic, not religious in any traditional way, but I am drawn to places, like the Abbey, that I consider sacred spaces. Also, I felt the need to UNPLUG from the constant chatter—on my phone/email/computer/TV, and in my head. I wasn’t expecting any epiphanies, but, as in all times when we slow down and pay attention, I did learn a few things about myself, which I share with you here…

Sound bounces off marble floors and walls.
- I do not need a hermitage. I need only the willingness, in ANY space or time, to pay attention to the present moment (sans the gadgets). I can “hermit” while doing laundry, washing dishes, writing a blog post, or going to the bathroom, as long as I give my complete attention to that moment.

- I am surrounded by love. (Dangit! I checked my Facebook birthday wishes Saturday night! O Facebook, thy name is Evil.)

- Typically, instead of giving our total attention to the present moment, we run future scenes in the mind, relive past events/regrets, carry on imaginary conversations, go over to-do lists, etc. Thich Nhat Hahn calls this the “dispersion” of the mind, and reining this in is the point of meditation. Not stopping it or silencing it, which is impossible, but learning to control what the mind does with it—we can notice it, let it go, and gently, constantly, come back to the present moment—the breath in meditation, the dishes, cleaning the litterbox, whatever we’re doing.

I sat back there and sang in this echo chamber.
- I have missed writing in my journals.

- Solitude forces us to face, and embrace if we can, our selves. What are we REALLY, without the costumes, the reinforcement, the pretense, the affect? What are YOU, stripped to the bone? Most people can’t take their own company, which is why we fill our time with people, going, doing, and stuff. Der weg nach innen, the “way within” (from the novel Siddhartha), makes us squirm.

- I want a fantail goldfish. I will name her Fontaine. (Clearly, I still have some work to do with that reining in thing.)

- There is no such thing as silence. I got up at 3 a.m. to listen to the world. There’s a LOT of sound at 3 a.m. We have to stop waitingwaitingwaiting for the right time to be still. We have to be still in the midst of the noise.

- Frogs really do play leapfrog.

So would I do another hermitage? Absolutely. But I think I’d go for 5 days next time. I need one day at the beginning just to slow down, to stop spinning. Then, I need a day at the other end for a slow, peaceful re-entry. And I need at least three days, maybe more, in the stop squirming.
View from the hermitage door.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Grand Cosmedy

It all starts to seem like a comedy sometimes…a hilarious, cosmic comedy…a cosmedy, if you will.

Take for instance, my mother’s ongoing tug ‘o war with western medicine. Since the beginning of this year, she’s been diagnosed with leukemia, lymphoma, and breast cancer. She’s had a lumpectomy. She’s had a lung PET scan, looking for lung cancer (dodged that one!). She’s undergoing radiation therapy right now for the breast cancer.

Then, after her recent first-ever colonoscopy, her doc had the gall to suggest she have a test (not another freaking test!) for celiac disease. If you know my mother at all, then you know how truly funny this is. She has not had stomach/digestive issues a day in her life, and she will certainly NOT give up one more bless├ęd thing, dammit. And at 79 years of age, navigating 3 cancers, with Type 2 diabetes and neuropathy, selling her home, and moving in with a daughter her doctors call “The General,” if you think she’s worried about eating a piece of wheat toast, you’d better think again.

Or, take this house-showing business (Ray and I are selling the Peacock Palace, too, so he, Mom, and I can find a place together). We have a much more sane sense of the comedy of “home staging” lately.

When the house was first listed, we were all like, “You cut flowers and polish doorknobs…I’ll bake cookies and make a crocheted coverup for the litterbox.” Now, after a couple months, we're tired of cleaning. And I figure if folks are offended by my toothbrush & deodorant, or the bra I forgot to hide, or the basket of spitty dog toys, they have no business living in the country anyway. Teehee.

Then there’s the diet business. I’m short, 5’4”, and I’m a “keeper,” as my mom likes to say. This means that women in our family eat lots of food, and we KEEP it—mostly in our chins and on our hips. Since my 30’s, when I developed—overnight—my amazing “childbearing hips,” I’ve tried every diet on the planet EXCEPT eating very little and exercising a lot, which of course, is the only diet that really works.

For the past year or so, I’ve been seriously, and then half-heartedly, doing Medifast, which is the Mayo Clinic’s medically-sound, buy-your-food-from-them diet. It’s low calorie/salt/fat/carb/glycemic index (GI)/flavor/joy. You eat five of their meal replacements a day, plus one homecooked meal of lean meat and low GI veggies. About 800-1000 calories a day. You drink enough water to drown an elephant. You eat a “meal” (seriously?!? You call that tablespoon of fake chili a “meal”?!?) every 2-3 hours to keep the blood sugar stable.

Now I’m about to begin another new “guaranteed success” diet (true of ANY reasonable diet IF you actually do it): the Profile diet by Sanford. Which is exactly like Medifast. That’s right. Exactly the same. Okay, the check-ins and weigh-ins with a Profile “coach” are more frequent, so MAYBE there’s more accountability. But really, speaking of comedy...what’s that saying about repeating the same behavior over and over and over and expecting a different outcome?

My grandma used to say, “You can either laugh or cry. Your choice.” Yes, I sometimes do the nervous laughter thing. Yes, I sometimes laugh as a cover-up. And since the stroke fried a wee bit of my brainstem, I sometimes laugh inappropriately or can’t stop once I’ve started. But I absolutely believe that a sense of humor can SAVE you, and in this intense, transitional summer in particular, I thank my lucky stars every day for (a) hilarious, positive friends; (b) anything Louis CK says, Jim Breuer's bit about the Slayer concert (, and Sinbad's spiel about middle age (; and (c)most of all, our family’s weird & wonderful humor genes.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Moving: Then & Now

Then, Option 1:

You drop everything and go to New Mexico with itinerate musicians. You’ll be back as soon as they’re famous. Your irate parents borrow a pickup and drive to a neighboring city, to which you had moved chasing a different boy. Your parents pack up and haul your natty-ass stuff back to their house, because while you're gone, your roommate calls your mom, says she's “going with God,” and leaves town. You owe a month’s rent, plus another month’s rent for not giving 30 days notice of moving, which your parents pay.

Then, Option 2:

Your friend brings his pickup over Saturday morning. You toss records, books, and aquarium supplies in boxes you got from the liquor store trash pile. You and your friend load the boxes in the truck then stop for a wine break. You pack a suitcase of your favorite clothes, then you put your wok, your autographed picture of Taj Mahal, cat toys, the bong you made in ceramics class, and your Korean mink blanket in a hamper and load the hamper and suitcase in the truck. You stop for a wine break. A really long wine break. The next afternoon, you load your guitar and your cats in the pickup cab and take off. You send four friends back to the house later that night to move the monster piano you got free from a church that threw it out. You leave everything else behind. Screw your security deposit.

Then, Option 3:

You start packing Friday night. You and your husband pack up the entire house in boxes he brings home from work. Your toddlers unpack boxes almost as fast as you pack them, so you pack until 4 a.m. to make the most of the time they’re asleep. You take frequent coffee breaks, and frequent breaks to find busywork and games for the kids. Friends come over Saturday and help you haul your stuff to the new place. You pay them in spaghetti & meatballs and beer. Repeat on Sunday. Sunday night, your friends help you move the piano (the same monster piano). You pay them in meatloaf and beer. You, your mom, and two friends go over Monday to clean the old place. You need that security deposit bad, and you have to work Tuesday.


Months before the move, you have a pod delivered to your driveway. You buy 25 Rubbermaid tubs. You begin packing non-essentials, one room at a time, labeling each tub with room/contents (with red marker on duct tape, so you can re-use the tubs). You take down and pack away anything that could hint to prospective buyers that you’re a human with a life. You stack and organize tubs in the pod. You pay more “rent” for the pod every month, waiting for your house to sell, than you paid for every house you ever rented. Meanwhile, you repair, replace, or tend to cracked windows, torn wallpaper, spots in the wood floor, loose door/drawer handles, etc. You know your friends are too old to help move the piano again, so you give it away to 20-something kids who think it’s “awesome.” You bury a statue of St. Joseph upside-down in your back yard. You tie fluttery ribbons to the “For Sale” sign. For each showing, you clean like a madwoman, buy fresh flowers, hide everything you haven’t packed and are still using for daily living, and turn on the upstairs and downstairs fresh-baked-bread-scented candle melts. Then, you take your three dogs for a long drive until the looky-loos are gone. Your car is full of dog hair and smells like a kennel. The looky-loos finally confess: They aren’t really in a position to buy—they were just curious.

You contemplate running away with itinerate musicians. You contemplate going with god, but which one? You contemplate life on the lam in a South American country. You contemplate hauling everything to the dump and living in the pod…

All the comforts of…pod.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Get Thee Behind Me, Mercury...

I always worry a bit about bad juju around the time of my July birthday. Weird planetary energy has, in some years, turned me into an irritable, irrational lump of conflicting emotions.

Mercury is in the retrograde shadow phase right now, and whatever else that might mean (I know almost nothing about astrology), it supposedly means for Cancers that we’re so busy nurturing others, we forget to nurture ourselves. This can lead to anxiety, resentment, and conflict. (See to understand how bad this can get for me.)

Times like this require a little extra self-love, which is not the same as selfishness. Selfishness means you mostly consider the importance of your own stuff, and you’re often insensitive to others’ stuff (narcissism is the extreme form of this, where you don’t even care/acknowledge that other people HAVE stuff, or you only care about how their stuff affects YOU). For me, however, self-love means that IN ADDITION to considering others’ stuff, you take tender care of your own.

Hope springs eternal when it comes to human evolution, but I think at this stage we’re mostly selfish – we’ve been acculturated into this since birth. Want proof? Facebook. Blogs. (Yep, me too.)

Want more proof? Start paying close attention to “conversations”: Most people only half-listen to another, then turn the talk back to themselves: I half-listen to you tell me about your memory/injury/accomplishment/concern (I’m really only listening for a pause where I can jump in). Then, instead of considering what you’ve said, or empathizing, or congratulating, or finding out what I can do to help you, I tell you about something of my own, which I’m sure is more relevant/worse/better/more serious than yours.

Mercury in retrograde also means communication breakdowns & failures. Go figure.

So in this Mercurial pre-birthday swirl—when we’re trying to sell two houses (which means keeping them both clean, and shuffling 1 or 3 dogs for every showing – GHA!!!), when we have a slew of birthdays and Father’s Day to prepare for, when Mom is about to start radiation 5 days/week for 6 weeks (in another town, of course – none available in Little Town), when our old dog is on her last leg and needs extra care, when the Big Bohunk Family Reunion is coming up, and when I’m pre-mourning my eventual farewell to the Row and the peacocks—I’m trying to nurture myself now and then.

For example, I’ve given myself the time and space to create. I've fine-tuned a manuscript of poems, Every Gasp a Crooked Prayer, thanks to the encouragement and feedback of the amazing Dakota Women Poets gathering, and I've sent it out into the Universe, to see if it can find a publishing home.  I’ve been writing for 40 years, and this is the first time I've sent out a manuscript; it’s both exhilarating and terrifying.

Also, I just used a gift certificate I got in 2012 and had a glorious facial. And I’m researching shirodhara ayurvedic massage—a warm oil drip on the third eye, followed by a head & shoulder massage, which I will learn to give one day. Recently, I drove to the Big City alone, and I hung out in a needlework store for a suspiciously long time, touching and smelling yarn. And most nurturing of all, I sing whenever I can (you know what James Brown says).

I’m turning 59 this year. So bring it, Mercury. Give me your best conflicted, confounded, babel-talking, backward-slinging, frantic energy. Let chaos rant and beat on the door. I will be soothed and smiling, in a bubble bath with the latest Cleo Coyle paperback…