Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Little Guy of Lake Harriet

This story was published in Sr. Perspective at the beginning of the month. The little girl was so adorable - and what this guy has done for years is so amazing and fun. I'm honored it was published! 

Stories often begin in the most unexpected places. In a small opening at the bottom of an oak tree growing on the edge of Lake Harriet, a tale was born. I had never noticed the tiny door with the brass door knocker and hinges – and certainly didn’t know anything about the fantasy elf who wrote letters to children on little pieces of shiny silver paper. As the years went by, a few letters grew into over a thousand a year, each personally answered and each ending with “I believe in you.”
When I first actually saw the tiny door, I was taken aback. Only about six inches tall, it opened to reveal a tall stack of letters. Around the bottom of the tree were carefully planted pink and white impatiens, a tiny sign that said “Gone Fishing,” and a small plastic doll in a toy lawn chair. As I stood and marveled at the little entrance, noticing the intricate care and detail put into it, I watched as children scurried up to the door to see if a note they had left had been answered yet.
A jogger who stopped by told me the history of the little guy. She said he had “moved in” several years ago and had become a child’s ultimate imaginary friend. She told me how a real man who lived nearby had been collecting and answering the letters since the mid 1990’s when the little door appeared. His wife had originally noticed the opening in the tree and suggested they put a door in it. What began as a fun idea for their family grew into a treat for all the families who walked the lake. With Lake Harriet’s paved walking and biking paths, canoes and sailboats, and concerts at the band shell, it is no surprise that this lake was picked to place a little elf and watch a story develop.
Addie, a nine-year-old from northern Minnesota, gave me my first opportunity to personally deliver a letter to the little guy. Children are so in touch with that magical realm that adults dismiss for reality, and she was quite taken with the little guy. In the note, she described herself and drew a colorful picture of the lake and the little guy’s house, as she saw it. Her letter - written in different colors of gel pens - contained several questions and suggestions for him:
“How do people find out about you at first? Do kids try to give you things in the winter? What did you make your door out of? Do you put a lock on your door in the winter? Do you know everything - like the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus? Do you have a family? Do you have a little town? If you do, what do you call it? Where do you go for the winter? Who planted the flowers around your house - you or someone else? You should have a little bonfire ring that is not lit up next time you decorate your house. Who decorates your house - you or someone else?” I grinned as I read the letter and carefully placed it in the growing stack inside the door.
A couple of weeks later a letter was written back to Addie on his famous silver paper carefully placed in a sealed plastic bag in case it rained before it was received:
“Dear Addie, who wrote the huge long letter in different colored inks: How nice of you to write. Sorry I missed you. Boy do you ask a lot of questions. Are you a detective? You should be when you grow up. The door is made of pine and copper. People found out about me when they saw the door. Kids give me all kinds of things. In the winter we move to our castle to the east. It has marble walls inside and a copper door. My name is Thom and I live with my wife, Martha, a great elf, and our daughter Alta Lucia, age seven. She is a princess elf. I am taller than my younger brother and shorter than my older brother. Enjoy the summer.  I believe in you.”  -  Mr. Little Guy
On a long walk around the lake a couple of weeks later, I saw a man ride his mountain bike up to the tree, collect the letters, and ride away. He had windblown gray hair and wore long khaki shorts and a white t-shirt, and was - surprisingly - just a normal-sized man. I thought of how he must visit on a regular basis, collecting the letters and touching the hearts of all those children. How he probably worked a regular job and had a regular life, yet he took the time to read and answer each letter sent to him. He was keeping a fantasy alive that everyone delighted in.
It always makes me smile when I walk by the little door in the tree now, and I always stop to take a peek behind it. Often times there are children and adults crowded around it. Usually I have my camera or journal in tow.  As I cross the little footbridge and approach the next set of stairs near Queen Avenue, I know the tree I had walked by unknowingly for so long is right there. And there is always a new treasure a child has left there, a new set of flowers, and a fresh stack of letters carefully placed behind the hinged door. In the winter, the only difference is a small sign posted on the tree telling everyone that the little guy has moved into his winter castle for the season. Notes can still be sent to a post office box.
Today was a beautiful June day in Minneapolis. As I finished my regular weekend errand running for the day, I treated myself to a leisurely walk around the lake. When I walked by the tree today there was a small plastic bag of popcorn propped up against the little door. On top of the bag sat a small scribbled note written in blue crayon that simply said, “I love you, Little Guy of Lake Harriet.” I smiled as I turned to leave, and thought how that child really spoke for everyone.
 A young girl looks in the door of the tree.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

On Getting Older...And Not Accumulating Too Many Things

In a great piece in be-bolder, Jörmundur Ingi Hansen has a great way of looking at growing older and living simply.

I've always been someone who likes living in smaller spaces in the city, collects less things, and lives pretty simply. My family has always thought I was poor, when I think the opposite is true. I'm by no means rich either, but that isn't what it's about. I always say "what's the point of money if you don't share it?" I like to help people out and travel when I can. There are some things you need, of course, like clothes...and books, but I have a tendency to give things away as fast as I buy them because it just reminds me of someone else or "it had their name on it." (I apparently say that a lot, according to friends.)

In the article, I especially love Hansen's comment on what is truly important: 
"The most important lesson I’ve learned is that you have to be content with what you have. We are too prone in modern society to collect goods and money – although I shouldn’t be advising this given that I am trying to sell people expensive suits every day! But people who think they can fulfill their lives by having more ‘stuff’ are missing the point. The best things you can collect are experiences and good memories."
As far as growing older...well that's a whole other story. In my last corporate job, I was looked down on because I was a little older than the Millenials (and not even THAT much older), even though my technical skills are very current. I have nothing against Millenials - I have some friends in that age group. It's the focus being only on them, especially in a marketing field that was supposed to reach all ages. When I was really young, I always looked up to people that were older. And when I worked in social services, I loved my elderly clients - they were interesting and I could learn so much from them. Their stories and experiences were amazing. The Native American culture, and people in other countries, respect and appreciate older people. I've always thought all ages are good - just like I have always thought all races and backgrounds are good. Isn't a mix of people more diverse and more interesting? Why not learn from each other?

In America, the focus is always too much on youth. We are all going to - hopefully - get older. Why not embrace it? Hansen lives in Iceland, so they do have a more open view on age there:
"I don’t think anyone treats me differently because of my age but maybe I just don’t notice it! Possibly young people think older people are obsolete but it’s not so bad here in Iceland, lots of people keep on working. My grandmother was still working until she was well over 90. She was a herbalist and would run up to the mountains to get ingredients. Even when I was 16 I had difficulty keeping up with her."
I myself plan to keep on working well into my nineties too, if I'm fortunate. After all, you should only get better with age, and writing is definitely a field that is more interesting as you have lived more. And I predict I will keep living my life with less and less things...and keep giving them away. 


Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Don't Fear Diversity - Embrace It!

 In her last commencement speech at City College on June 3, 2016 - and her last as First Lady - Michelle Obama talked about the power of diversity. Without mentioning him by name, she did allude to a certain person running for president who is not open to diversity - but her message was more powerful and meaningful than that.

I happen to be a white woman, but I grew up all over the country - from the South to the Northeast to the Midwest. I've had a few different accents and often been the only white person in the room. My significant other, my friends - since the time I was very small to now - come from all walks of life. It wasn't just the moving around, it was also my parents, thankfully, who taught me to have an open mind. I've also always had an interest in traveling, in learning about different cultures, in learning other languages. Why would I want everyone else to be or look like me? How boring!

A candidate in the current election continually makes racist comments and has a mind that is so narrow and so egotistical, I doubt anything could permeate it. But, it's my hope that the people who follow him will learn to see that it's so wrong and so limiting. Because, unless you are Native American (who we also don't have enough respect for), we all come from families that originally came from somewhere else. My grandfather was from England. That isn't that far back.

In an article in Elle, and from her speech, Michelle Obama said that "Every single day I wake up in a house that was built by slaves, and I watch my daughters - two beautiful, black young women - head off to school." How powerful is that? That we have come full circle from a horrible time in our history - one we should be so ashamed of - yet as far as we have come, we still have way too far to go. There is still so much hatred, racism, and uncalled for fear. It is just something I have never understood, and never want to.

The First Lady went on to say:
"But unfortunately, graduates, despite the lessons of our history and the truth of your experience here at City College, some folks out there today seem to have a very different perspective. They seem to view our diversity as a threat to be contained rather than as a resource to be tapped. They tell us to be afraid of those who are different, to be suspicious of those with whom we disagree. They act as if name-calling is an acceptable substitute for thoughtful debate, as if anger and intolerance should be our default state rather than the optimism and openness that have always been the engine of our progress.
But, graduates, I can tell you, as First Lady, I have had the privilege of traveling around the world and visiting dozens of different countries, and I have seen what happens when ideas like these take hold. I have seen how leaders who rule by intimidation – leaders who demonize and dehumanize entire groups of people–often do so because they have nothing else to offer. And I have seen how places that stifle the voices and dismiss the potential of their citizens are diminished; how they are less vital, less hopeful, less free.
Graduates, that is not who we are. That is not what this country stands for. No, here in America, we don't let our differences tear us apart. Not here.  Because we know that our greatness comes when we appreciate each other's strengths, when we learn from each other, when we lean on each other. Because in this country, it's never been each person for themselves. No, we're all in this together. We always have been.
And here in America, we don't give in to our fears. We don't build up walls to keep people out because we know that our greatness has always depended on contributions from people who were born elsewhere but sought out this country and made it their home — from innovations like Google and eBay to inventions like the artificial heart, the telephone, even blue jeans; to beloved patriotic songs like  'God Bless America,' like national landmarks like the Brooklyn Bridge and, yes, the White House–both of which were designed by architects who were immigrants." 
Isn't it time we moved beyond such fear and hatred? Isn't it time we had a natural yearning to learn from different people and grow together as a country? I saw a sign in a store today that sums it up pretty well:

"Curiosity will conquer fear more than bravery will." (James Stephens)

Be curious. Be interested. Be open. Don't play into the fear of what you don't know - try to learn and try to understand that different cultures, different people, and different experiences can make life a lot more interesting in a land full of people from somewhere else. It isn't about walling people out or keeping things's about mixing it all together. Isn't that what makes America interesting? Don't fear diversity - embrace it!  

Graphic From

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Walking & Writing

There is something about walking that fuels the writing soul. It generates ideas and helps you come to conclusions with others. Living by a city lake, and running into people and their pets, only makes it better.

When I got home today, I took a long walk to Linden Hills. It's a bit of a stretch, but it's near the lake and there are people walking their dogs everywhere - from German Shepherds to small Shih Tzus. Dogs are always so happy when they're being walked, their tails wag in a constant rhythm with their paws, and subsequently the people walking them are usually happy...and pretty proud of their pets when you mention how cute they are.

With the sun shining, and summer finally arriving, everyone was especially friendly today. There were smiles and hellos with everyone I passed. I walked to the nearest mailbox and mailed a bill payment, then I crossed the street to find more of the wonderful Little Free Library boxes which are all over the city. This one was grouped with four other boxes, the most I've ever seen in a row, by the local hardware store. I ended up having a nice chat with a lady who had also stopped to leisurely look through each box and see the books they had to offer. We talked about what a wonderful idea it was, how we had both contributed books, and taken a couple home as well. The conversation turned to me also being a writer and she was quite interested in what I liked to read and what I wrote. We chatted about mutual favorites and each made some recommendations. I wish I would have gotten her name. I will hopefully run into her again sometime.

The last thing I did before heading home was to cross the street to Dunn Brothers Coffee and grab a bottle of water. A very friendly redhead sold me the water and I mentioned that it was always nice to meet a fellow redhead. "Tell people that you're a majestic unicorn," she said. I thought, cool, I'll do that. The best was when I told her that only 2% of the population were natural redheads and asked her if she was too. "Ya," she said, "I grew it myself." With that we high-fived, and I walked back out into the sun heading back home...with a big smile and my long, red ponytail held high.

 One of the many Little Free Libraries Around Town