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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A-Z M is for Aunts


Reprint of old column from 5/22/2004 

Happy Mother's Day to all the women who raised us! 

This was my all-time favorite moment from the "Friends" TV show. It's a few hours after the birth of Ross's son (not with Rachel) and all the friends are meeting the baby for the first time. Monica, Ross's sister, holds her newborn nephew tenderly, tears in her eyes with awe for this new life in her family.


This was first published May 10, 2002

A few weeks ago, my husband and I were talking with our kids about the best and worst jobs we have had. I said picking asparagus was pretty boring. My husband didn't like the day he was a taxi driver. We both love writing when it goes well, we get a lot done, people tell us what clever people we are, and we earn lots of money from it. These aspects of writing come together about once a, well … I'm sure it's right around the corner.

My daughter prodded, "Come on, Mom. What's the best job of your life?"

Dark River

The photo is the Platte River in Nebraska. This post was a newspaper column for the Racine Journal Times in 2003.


Dark River

"I think us here to wonder."  (From "The Color Purple" by Alice Walker.)

The day was one of those glorious October days when the sun blazed through gold and crimson trees; the incense of burning leaves perfumed the air. It seemed a shame to go inside simply because night was coming on.

"Let's take the canoe out on the river tonight."

Where Heritage is Found

Last week I spoke with a woman who  is working to support MayaWorks.

I sent her this writing I did back in 2006.


I stayed several days with the Sepet family, a very cash-poor Maya family that lives in the altiplano, the mountains of Guatemala.  These people were so intelligent, gracious, strong, and hospitable.  

This adventure happened during my second day with them.

Quarantine Dairy #669 A Rerun


I have a lot of projects to get through today. I wrote this in 2006 when I worked at Target for six months. I still like it.


This week I saw an inspiring sight.  I saw a little kid completely lost in his imagination. 

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.”


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