Gratitude, Midwest, Personal Reflection, Photography

All the Beautiful Things

The nose of my kayak dipped into the dark water at five-thirty. The five mile drive to the boat launch was a friendly race with the first streaks of color. No matter how many times I watch a sunrise, I am surprised by how rapidly it passes through its succession of colors. When I launched into the lake, everything reached by the light was bathed in a pink glow.

The view as I launched into Little Elkhart Lake (Plymouth, WI).

The crisp air of the new day, the mist riding atop the warm water, and the sun’s processional march of color were a breathtaking combination. God makes beautiful places, I thought over and over again.

Little Elkhart Lake, Plymouth, WI

This lake is edged by several homes, a youth camp, and abundant forest. At that hour, it was silent on every side. I was the only person on the lake and, at least in the first stretch, hardly more than a few birds had yet to break the quiet. I paddled and drifted. Paddled and drifted. The mist was invitingly mesmerizing, but each time I moved further into it, I paused to cease even the noise of my paddle cutting in and out of the water.

Little Elkhart Lake, Plymouth, WI

The silence was magnificent.

As the pinks and oranges gave way to blue, and the sun crept nearer the tops of the tree line, the bird calls multiplied. When I sat still, I could hear the flutters of wings and creaks of branches as the trees’ residents stirred to life. Before the sun crested the trees, the shadows slid away from the top down.

Little Elkhart Lake, Plymouth, WI
Little Elkhart Lake, Plymouth, WI

Eventually, maybe an hour in, came another kayaker. When she spotted me watching something on the edge of a little island, she drew closer and I pointed out the Great Blue Heron standing among the lily pads.

Great Blue Heron, Little Elkhart Lake, Plymouth, WI

She was perhaps around 75, best guess, with a soft voice and smile. She asked how early I’d arrived and remarked on the goodness of enjoying the lake before it was busy with boats and the waves that follow them. She told me about the oldest heron nesting on the lake year after year, whom she calls Grandpa. We watched the heron on the island until it flew off with a whooshing flap of its blue-feathered wings. I wished her a good day as she moved on and I felt a vague sense of what it’d have been like to be there at that moment with my great-grandmother when she was the same age. Something in the woman’s manners had called my Grandma Walcher to mind right off.

Little Elkhart Lake, Plymouth, WI

I took my time skimming along the curves of the lake. Fish came to the top in clouds of bubbles. Turtles poked their triangle heads through the surface. The birds were musically relentless. Apart from the surfacing creatures though, the water remained flat and still. If I stopped paddling, even in the open spaces, the kayak barely drifted. Shining reflections doubled the views in every direction.

Little Elkhart Lake, Plymouth, WI
Little Elkhart Lake, Plymouth, WI

Around seven a.m., I told myself it was time to make my way back to the boat launch. I’d have time to drive home, unload the kayak, and shower before logging into work for the day. With a a bit of convincing, I pointed my boat in that direction.

From behind me, I heard a call of “Hooo! Hello!”

A soft shout coming from my co-kayaker. I turned around and we drew up beside each other.

“If you go back along the trees, there’s another heron. He’s on some dead branches almost all the way to the corner. They love to feed there.”

How am I to turn away from a tip like that one? Getting home could wait. I thanked my new friend before paddling where she directed. I wondered if asking to have tea and cookies with her later would be too odd.

Sure enough, he was exactly where she’d described. Perched, watching and waiting for more breakfast. He was beautiful.

Great Blue Heron, Little Elkhart Lake, Plymouth, WI

Amazingly, he didn’t mind me one bit as I floated closer. I stopped among the first of the lily pads and sat still once again. Birds called to each other unceasingly. A pair of cranes began making a racket from a distant section of shoreline. I wondered if he was Grandpa, here for enough years to go about his day without concern over the noisy business of others (including intrusive humans in kayaks). Perhaps he was Grandpa, because he didn’t even stir when the morning bugle song rang out from the opposite side of the lake to rouse the campers from their bunks.

Blue Heron and the Bugler

Leaving the heron to his morning meal, I did finally resolve to be on my way. That vocal pair of cranes and another heron provided more delightful distractions before I reached the boat launch.

Sandhill Cranes’ Chatting Over Breakfast
Sandhill Cranes, Little Elkhart Lake, Plymouth, WI
Heron (possibly Great Blue Heron morphing out of white phase), Little Elkhart Lake, Plymouth, WI

The bird life among the reeds and cattails seemed to double in my final minutes on the water. It was now a quarter to eight, the sun fully up and me due at my desk very soon. Even though I couldn’t stay to sit among more of those birds or watch more schools of fish pop up to the shimmering surface, my joy from the morning was overflowing. It bubbled out in a laugh as I pulled my boat out of the water. I shook my head at all the pieces of beauty I’d encountered in the last two hours. I laughed more, and thanked God again and again.

Family, Fiction, Flash Fiction, Photography, Writing

On the Pier

The old man only visited the pier at sunrise, when the lake’s surface was smooth as a bed sheet and the sky was edged in tangerine. Later, the lake would be speckled with white caps. The din of the waves would crescendo with each tide. He used to love the noise, but now his tired ears treasured silence. So, he only came at sunrise.

Barefoot, he stood squinting at the ascending sun. Another day. The fibers of the wood were cool under the leathery soles of his feet. He wrapped his fingers around the rail, pressed his stomach against it, and inhaled the stillness. He willed it to stay stored in his chest. Peace.

“Do you come every morning?”

The bird-like voice startled. He did not, at first, turn to see its bearer.

“Mamma says you do.”

“Bit early for ya’, isn’t it?”

Being his first words of the day, they rolled out full of gravel. He cleared his throat.

“Why aren’t ya’ sleepin’?”

“Because I’m awake.”

The girl’s answer was clipped with the childish annoyance at silly questions from adults who ought to know.

The old pier stood between his house and the girl’s. He gazed down at the crown of honey blonde hair, feathery and uncombed. The wisps carried him through decades to his tiny daughter hugging his leg here on the pier, midday waves licking their toes. Affection stole through his wiry limbs and he reached out to smooth her hair. He stopped himself; placed his hand back on the rail.

“It’s my birthday,” she whispered.

“Mine, too.”

Brown eyes widened.

“Ooooh,” she breathed out the sound. Her pink lips remained in a tiny O, then, “How old are you?”

He stifled a chuckle at the reverent hush of her voice. “Old.”

“But how old?”

He rubbed at the whiskers in the crevices of his weathered face.

“Eighty-four.”

“That’s old.” She bobbed her head at him. “I’m five today.”

The sky was losing its accessory colors. Blue prevailed above the still sleepy lake. Pelicans conducted an aerial parade inches above the water; six in a straight line headed north, then a turn and back south.

“Are you having a party?” he asked.

“I am!”

Her feet danced a two-second jig.

“Are you?”

“Oh, no party for me.”

The kids would call, of course, sometime before night fell. He did not begrudge them anything more. Yesterday, he’d picked up roast beef and fresh cheddar from the deli for his favorite sandwich. It was enough.

“You can share mine.”

“That’s kind of you, but I don’t need a party.”

“Every birthday deserves a party,” she said.

She pushed her hair back from her cheeks.

“That’s what my daddy says.”

He didn’t argue, hoping she’d believe it for all her years.

In the afternoon, he watched cars pull up to the neighboring house. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends; all come to celebrate the girl. Through open windows, the party carried its sounds to his home. Laughter, shouts, rumbles of conversation from the men on the back porch, and finally the traditional singing while they huddled around a lit cake. Hours later, the people returned to their vehicles after hugs in the driveway.

He sat on the red bench on his front porch, reading last Sunday’s newspaper, when the last of the revelers departed. The sun he’d watched rise was leaving too, dipping below the tree line behind them. Ribbons of pink and yellow light wrapped around from there to the horizon over the water; another day.

The neighbor’s back door creaked open and out trotted the girl. Her purple party dress swung about her knees. He lifted his hand in a wave at her parents, who watched from their kitchen window. The father waved back; the mother smiled while she continued to wipe a plate dry in her hands.

“I made them save this one,” the girl called when she reached the steps of his porch and waited there.

His hips stuck and knees creaked when he stood. He paused to let his joints settle into place, then walked.

She’d brought him a piece of cake. It was two layers of chocolate with pink frosting. The scents of cocoa and sugar filled his nostrils. His mouth watered.

“Well, you’re a sweet girl, I must say.”

There was a catch in his voice to go with the moisture in his eyes.

“Do you like chocolate?”

“It’s my favorite.”

“Mine, too.”

He accepted the plate.

“Momma says I have to get back. I have to help clean up.”

“You best go and do that.” The man nodded. “Thank you for the birthday cake. I’m sure it’s delicious.”

“You’ll eat it?”

“Of course, I will.”

“Can I watch the sun come up with you again?”

“If you’re awake, you’re welcome to join me.”

She nodded, her features drawn together in thought. He waited while she formed her question.

“And if I’m not awake tomorrow, can we watch the sun come up another day?”

“Yes,” he smiled, “another day.”

Her concern was gone. She skipped back to her house, already talking to her parents before she opened the door.

The oman walked to the pier. He leaned against the soft wood of the railing, listened to the song of low tide kissing the sand, ate his chocolate cake, and hoped for another day.

Photography, Pictures & Words Challenge, Writing, Writing Prompt

Pictures & Words Day 31: A Month of Ordinary Moments

Photo/Writing Prompt: An Ordinary Moment

I began this Pictures & Words challenge for the month of July for one simple reason: to push myself to write on this blog with a greater and more consistent frequency. As taking pictures is among my favorite activities and writing prompts have recently joined that category as well, I knew this challenge would be enjoyable enough to give me a shot at following through. With a handful of skipped days, I can happily say the challenge was a success. For that reason alone, I’m proud of this month.

What makes it truly great though is the fact that I gained so much more than fulfilling that one goal. It was inevitable. Watching, waiting, seeking out the right shot, it was impossible not to be tuned into the exquisite world that surrounds me day after day. My hand wrapped around my camera and my eyes scanning the scenes I encountered, a thousand ordinary moments became worth capturing. The details typically left in the background, overlooked as I went about my days, came to the foreground, demanding my attention. Like that butterfly on the edge of the flowering bushes lining the sidewalk: where normally I’d only have eyes for the blue views of the lake, I now desired to notice the bits of beauty in its shadows.

Then to take these captured scenes and put them into writing. Such a joy! This month kicked my imagination into high gear. Especially the days that I wrote snippets of fictional stories to accompany the photos, it was such fun to surprise myself with what arose from examining the picture. The endeavor taught me there is a story to be extracted from absolutely any fragment of life. A friend recently asked me where I get my inspiration to write and all I could say, with a laugh, was “everywhere.”

So, what do I want to say with these last lines of July 2016? Thank you. Thank you, readers, whomever you may be, for enjoying this month with me. Thank you for coming back again after your first visit to the blog. Thank you for pushing my monthly average views to the 900 to 1000 range. Thank you for taking a minute or two or five out of your day to read my creative ramblings. I can assure you that you have strengthened my belief these pursuits, no matter what comes of them professionally, are wonderfully worthwhile.

Photography, Pictures & Words Challenge, Writing Prompt

Pictures & Words Day 30: All This and More

Photo/Writing Prompt: Summer is…
Summer is sunbeams streaming down without regard for wisps of clouds trying to hold their own. Summer is heat and light. It is head tall cornfields, grass that is greener on every side, and rose perfume in the flower beds.
Summer is passion. It is fireflies behind the fire sides. It is kisses under moonlight. Summer is thunder and rain and the heavy calm that comes after.
Summer is regrowing, replanting, refreshing until all things are new. It is water soaked easiness. It is sand between toes with boats on the blue horizon.
Summer is bare shoulders burnt. It is the bittersweet build up to Fall, to relief from the warmth and hope for colors not green. It is all that you will not to end, knowing it cannot last.
Summer is all this and more.
Photography, Pictures & Words Challenge, Writing Prompt

Pictures & Words Day 28: Rain, Rain, Go Away

Photo/Writing Prompt: Weather

She could not help but hear the old children’s song in her head. Rain, rain, go away. Come again another day. There was supposed to be only sunshine. There was supposed to be warmth and calm. Instead their was rain and wind and a drop to cooler temperatures.
Nothing ever went as planned. She should just accept that by now. She tried. As she wiped away the plump, clinging droplets from the chairs and table on the patio, she reminded herself there was no use fretting over what was beyond her control. At least the night would smell lovely with that fresh, rain soaked renewal hanging in the air.
It was hard to accept though. Tonight of all nights she wanted to be perfect. It can still be so. A different sort of perfect, that’s all.¬†She smiled a little at the thought. There’s more than one way to be perfect and perhaps tonight’s way would involve a few raindrops.
Fiction, Flash Fiction, Photography, Pictures & Words Challenge, Writing Prompt

Pictures and Words Day 26: Follow Tarrow Creek

Photo/Writing Prompt: Starts With T
“Don’t worry, you’ll find it without trouble. Just follow Tarrow Creek.”
I paid for my water and protein bar and thanked the convenience store clerk. He handed me my change then went back to restocking the shelf of motor oil.

Stepping outside, I had to shade my eyes against the afternoon sun. The heat of the July day drifted over my skin like the rush of air from opening an oven. I smoothed my honey brown hair into a high ponytail, Then I tightened the straps of my backpack and headed in the direction to which the clerk had pointed. The trail head was tucked into a grove of maples off Third Street. If my information was accurate, it would lead me to Tarrow Creek and the creek would lead me to Crescent Beach.

Crescent Beach was a pristine half mile stretch of sand carved out by time, tides, and wind. Few people new of it; even fewer had visited it. It was accessible by boat and by way of the dense forest through which Tarrow Creek ran. I couldn’t remember how I first heard of Crescent Beach but when I did, it went straight onto my Places to See list.

When the hiking trail, clear cut and packed down, reached Tarrow Creek, it crossed the narrow channel of water via a haphazard bridge made of two by fours. From there it continued south but I needed to head east. I stood at the edge of the creek, one stride’s departure from the trail. I squinted my eyes in the shadows cast by the high sun filtering through the branches. No path was discernible but I refused to be deterred.

Based on my research I knew I had seven miles to go and from what I could see now, those miles would be slow going. I’d worn shorts due to the heat but wished now for pants to guard my shins from the low lying underbrush of the forest. Within the first two miles my legs looked like I’d rubbed them with a thorn bush. A few of the scrapes showed blood but it dried quickly enough to be ignored. My arms below the edges of my t-shirt sleeves weren’t in much better shape.

I swept spiders off my shirt and ticks off my ankles. I did my best to give a wide berth to a nest of garter snakes. Harmless as they were, I still had no inclination to draw nearer. I paused over a pair of does staring at me before they fled. Countless birds filled the air with their songs and movements, unseen from their hiding places in the tall trees. I tried to sear into my memory the image of two sandhill cranes walking across one of the few clearings I came upon. They lifted their spindly legs in high steps through the tall, stiff grass. One let out a call and they both took flight, their wings loud in the amphitheater of the surrounding woods.

Always I kept Tarrow Creek to my right. Sometimes my steps went along its bank, sometimes I wandered from it but not enough to lose track of its bubbly brown water. I listened to it gurgling through piles of stones and rushing around small bends in its course. I took one break, sitting upon a fallen tree on the bank. The water swirled around each branch breaking the surface of the creek.

Then finally, finally, I saw the end of the creek. I saw it reach through the last of the trees to the beach and pour down into the lake. Here the creek widened. The sun painted perfect reflections of the trees and clouds onto the flat surface. I pulled off my shoes and socks and tucked them under one arm. When I waded into the creek, the cold water startled my overheated nerves. Then I ran. I ran the yards to the beach, my legs splashing from the creek right into the lake. When I saw, as I fully expected, there was not another soul in sight, I tossed my shoes and bag up onto higher ground then added my shirt and shorts to the pile. I dove down until every inch of me was submerged then popped back up, laughing.

Intentionality, Photography, Pictures & Words Challenge, Writing Prompt

Pictures & Words Day 25: Today I Am Noticing

Photo/Writing Prompt: Pretty

Today I am noticing what is right in front of me. Every single weekday, I drive past this boat landing and the adjacent patch of park land. Rushing to the office, rushing home, I pass by this flash of prettiness. Sometimes I make sure to turn my head and glimpse the view as I drive on down the road. Other days I am distracted, focused elsewhere on this or that.

When I left home this morning, I noticed I was ahead of schedule by a few minutes. I could drive a little slower, not watching the clock with each mile to calculate whether I’d make it to work on time. The slightly slower drive, the brilliancy of the sun, and the longing to draw out the time before I stepped into my cubicle for the day all combined to heighten my awareness of the scenery along the 25 miles of countryside road. I noticed graceful cranes in the fields and a stately hawk perched atop a fence post. I noticed the horse and its foal grazing in the early sunlight. I noticed the water each time it came into view.

For once, I pulled over when I came to this spot. I didn’t fly by. I didn’t simply smile over the beauty then forget it. I parked the car, stepped out with my camera, and savored what was in front of me.

Beauty works a strange magic. It inspires an array of reactions: gratitude, joy, wonder, sadness, peace. It is always worth noticing.