Mary Beth Writes

First published: August 23, 2003

I have a lot going on lately; some professional stuff about my career, some financial things I should sit down and figure out.  My oldest child is moving away to begin college next week.  My youngest starts middle school the week after.  There are several things I should be doing towards world peace and justice, plus, I can't remember if we gave the cats their flea medicine this month.  That last thing won't be trivial if we forgot.

I decided I needed to get organized.  I made a list of things to do and people to call. 

 The list was so daunting I stuffed it in my sock drawer and went to the kitchen for another cup of coffee.  Then I wandered outside with the coffee.  I told myself I'd sweep the sidewalk a few minutes to clear my mind.

Five astoundingly filthy and sweaty hours later, I had a tidy and newly designed compost pile area.  I'd dragged our decaying picnic table to the side yard where it can take up new life as an outside work table.  I cleaned, weeded, shoveled, and most amazing of all, I spent hours snapping dead branches out of old pine trees.  My arms looked as if I'd been in hand-to-hand combat with Barbed Wire Man, but the 6' by 6' pile of dead, dry pine detritus showed just who was boss around here. 

I guess.

How does this happen?  How do we organize and prioritize our lives, then suddenly find ourselves up to our eyeballs in the last thing we needed to do?  The pines have been growing for decades with no help from me.  I've personally lived next to them for eight years, and until yesterday, felt no burning need to address their scragginess.

Why do we sometimes find such passion for chores that are essentially, well, not essential?


Because my first child is moving out, my pipsqueak has become a certifiable middle schooler, and the shape of my life is changing.  Like so many of us, I need more rites of passage than our culture offers.  Baptism and confirmation, wedding and funeral aren't enough for all the places we go, the changes we make, the paths we choose, the trails life drags us down. 

Mothers about to have babies are famous for the singular burst of energy they get a few days before they give birth.  I was nine months pregnant with my second child when I suddenly became convinced the front porch floor needed to be painted.  Not a mean trick for a person who couldn't even bend over to tie her shoes.  I've never looked at a walrus the same since.

But that's when I began to get a clue.  If a good-enough ceremony doesn't exist for the ways in which our lives change, then our spirits create their own goofy and powerful rituals of transition. 

I don't think this is just about commemorating the past or celebrating the next stage of life.  Rites of passage are more than nice clothes and lovely parties. 

Rites of passage are where we let go, for a period of time, our ordinary ways of thinking and acting.  New ideas sneak into our brains; new skills trip our trite routines.  We use unfamiliar muscles battling worthy foes like cutthroat branches, unsightly compost heaps (are there any other kind?) and worn porch floors.  What we are doing, of course, is making physical and psychic space for the next thing. 

Some Native American cultures were wise enough to build rites of passage into young peoples' lives.  The youth leaves the community on a vision quest.  They search for, expect, and wait for the dream or totem that will ring true in them.  After that strong moment, the young person has a new way to organize their life.  They've internalized in image and word the direction they are going; leadership, spirituality, art, humor, hunting, defending. 

By suspending everything they knew for a few empty and powerful days, he or she has been given back a way to live in community.

The thing is - this wrestling, visioning, and regrouping keeps going all our lives.  Our children grow, our spouses change, leave us, or pass away.  Our jobs end, we retire, or we need more money to make our life work.  Our teenager goes off the deep end, a loved one becomes seriously ill, or the dog that raised us dies.

We get up in the morning and make our list of things to do that day.  Then somehow, inexplicably, we find ourselves in an improbable tango with scratchy trees. 

So be it.   It isn't easy to do all the things life expects of us.  Sometimes we need interludes of wandering or wrestling before we'll have enough clarity, courage, and humor for whatever comes next.  


Loved the article then. Find it even more meaningful now. Coffee helps still, but only before noon!
Mary Beth's picture

Sometimes I find myself doing a weird chore - and wonder what it portends! I just (like in the past hour) washed all my goblets and glasses, which are not behind doors so they are on display and get dusty. But I have no company coming - that I know of. Not even for Thanksgiving this year. Seemed important while I was doing it....

Loved it - all so true for every stage of life. We’re list makers from way back and oh man, the satisfaction of getting a job done.

I love how you are able to put into words what I often feel! What a gift!

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Car Accident & Not Buying the Farm Today

My friend Karen texted last night that she is okay but she had been in a car accident in the afternoon. A driver had not stopped at a stop sign, thus plowing into Karen’s rear driver-side door.

Her accident reminded me of one I was in with my son years ago. This is the newspaper column I wrote about the event.

Hold a good thought for Karen today, okay?  She texted this morning, rather poetically, “I feel like I’ve been dragged through a knothole.”


When History isn't in Museums

I stayed twice for several days with a Maya family in Guatemala’s altiplano. This adventure happened during my second day of my second stay with them.

Senor Jorge, the 50ish father of the family, asked if I would like to take a walk to see a Mayan antiquity. It took a minute to understand his question since my high school Spanish was a long time ago.

Yes, I would!

Genealogy, Comets, and Pedigree Collapse

 We are still able to see NEOWISE in the evening. 

More info about how to see it here: 

Len took this photo a few nights ago. The white stripes in the foreground are lightning bugs!

I wrote this column in 1997 and remembered it this morning.       



 I wrote this in 2008 when I was the coordinator of the Jail Employment Program in the Racine County Jail.


Dear Pals,

Tuesday morning the four women in my current Jail Employment Program group went out from my office, per usual, to look for work.

"Broken Days"

If you type my name into the Internet this quote pops up; "If growing up is the process of creating ideas and dreams of what life should be, maturity is letting go again."  

The line is from this essay, Broken Days, published in Mothering magazine in 1987.

Later it was published in the Utne Reader.


Hurricane Charley, 2004 "Why yes, we were there."

 I went back in my file of old writing and found these two columns I wrote in August of 2004. This was the FIRST time we had a vacation sidetracked by a hurricane…


Hurricane Charley

Part I

For our family vacation, we'd made reservations at a resort in the Florida Keys.  We thought a week to swim, read, explore a little, eat great seafood, and just generally kick back to enjoy each other -- would be wonderful. 

I still bet it would. 

We sure don't know.

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