Saturday, August 28, 2010

Carry on, carry in, carry out

Right now, I'm living out of a suitcase. At home.
I landed two days ago, fresh from a trip to Vancouver, BC. Tomorrow morning, I take off for a few days in Montana, exploring the Beartooth Highway and West Yellowstone. The problem is, there just hasn't been enough time in between to unpack. I've had a full schedule of deadlines, meeting and, of course, family stuff. And now, here it is time to pack again.

Like most frequent travelers, I have things pretty organized. My travel necessities are right where I can find them. But when you have to rummage through a suitcase for a pair of shoes before you can drive up to the grocery store for a gallon of milk to have a bowl of cereal at your own kitchen table, well, that's another thing altogether.

I'll be home in a week. And this time I've got more than a few days between trips. I promise I'll get that suitcase unpacked right away.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Gulf: Parenting crisis and a national nightmare

When my children were small they came to me crying when they were afraid. Sometimes they were convinced that monsters were hiding under their beds until I chased away each shadowy creature.

In those days it was in my power to banish the scary things. When the wind blew and tornado sirens wailed, sending us scurrying down into the basement to wait out the worst, I could soothe them. I could reassure them that storms always pass. That by morning the sun would be out and life would return to normal. If I was afraid or secretly worried that our house would be swept away by a killer wind, I kept it to myself.

When they opened their eyes to a safe and familiar landscape, whatever terrifying thing that had invaded their dreams would retreat and fade. The night’s fear would be forgotten.

To a child, even the most well-adjusted child, the world with all its hazards and mysteries, can be a frightening place. Fire burns. Water drowns. Dogs bite. Monsters lurk. Lightning strikes.
As parents, we calm those fears. We soothe and caress. We hold them close and talk away the bogey man.

Lately, trying to ease my own anxiety about the terrible scenario going on in the Gulf of Mexico as millions of barrels of oil boil unchecked into a sea already taxed by our carelessness, I talk to my children about what is happening. They’re adults now. They’ve learned there are no monsters under the bed. They remember the sugar-white beaches of the Gulf of Mexico. They played in the surf as children.

Now, each is baffled by the negligence, the arrogance and audacity of those who built a weapon of destruction with no plan for protecting the innocent. Like me, they are frustrated by the slow response and shaken by the scope of the disaster.

This terrible thing, we think without having to say it aloud, is not a figment like the imaginary creatures under the bed. This is the stuff of real nightmares. An endless, gushing cloud of darkness that is slowly rising to the surface of the sea. A smothering film that stretches oily fingers onto the shore, staining everything it touches, poisoning innocent wildlife and killing the beaches while arrogant, blowhard, executives dance around the truth.

And behind that truth is the knowledge that we have abused our dominion. We allowed a wound in the earth. A hole opened with no practical way to close it. We looked the other way while entities like British Petroleum focused on greed and fed our endless need for oil. (As someone who drives for a living, I am not blind to the irony of what I am writing. We talk about that, too.)

I’m consumed by the feeling that this will be our legacy.

Like any parent, I have a tendency to look back on the days when my children were small with a certain soft-focus. But there are times, especially in this crisis, that I am glad that my son and daughters are old enough to be able to decide for themselves what is good or bad.

If they were coming to me as children, frightened by what is going on, I would be hard-pressed to find the words of comfort.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. Her audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at

I got a call from a friend the other night. One of those late-night calls women make when they have a moment to themselves.

She was alone in a quiet house full of sleeping children and a husband who was softly snoring in front of the television. She was desperately tired. After all, she’d spent the day caring for her three small children. She’d packed lunches, driven the morning carpool, played with the toddler who was still home all day, shuttled to after-school activities, made dinner, helped with homework, refereed baths, read a bed-time story, fetched one more glass of water and finally, finally, turned out the light.

Then, when she could have gone straight to bed to catch up on some much-needed sleep, she did what mothers do all the time. She got busy.

Sitting at the kitchen table, surrounded by her boxes of beads and stones and all the tools and findings she uses to make the beautiful necklaces and earrings she gives as gifts to friends and family, she let her mind wander as her fingers worked. She felt the tension slip away. For a few minutes she wasn’t Mommy. She was herself again. That’s when she picked up the phone to call me.

While we talked, I thought back to my life when my children were still small. I spent the day doing all the things stay-at-home mothers do. At night I spent hours answering a powerful creative urge.

This seems to happen to many of us when our children are born. We get crafty.
I see young mothers experiencing this all the time. Women who were once busy professionals with pressured careers now sew baby dresses or construct elaborate scrapbooks and photo albums. They revel in this new side of themselves, gathering with others who are experiencing the same delight in handcrafting.

I think it has something to do with the way we change after the babies come along. Suddenly, we are no longer the carefree women we were before. Our minds are never still. We’re listening, watching, weighing and evaluating. We fret. We forecast the future and regret the past. Mothering is all-consuming. There are few moments when our children aren’t foremost in our thoughts.

Creativity is a way to slip out of the confines of being the responsible party. It is a way to open and explore the child who still lives within us.

My days were consumed by the work and worry of four young children. Goodness knows, I had plenty to keep me busy. But every night, even when I was so tired I could barely keep my eyes open, I sat down to create. Like my friend, I went through my beading phase. I strung freshwater pears into ropes, adding antique charms and other found objects to make one-of-a-kind necklaces and earrings. I sold these to a boutique in the area and soon began to notice my work on women at the children’s schools and around town. That spurred me on to stay up later and make more.

After that, I spent long hours making hats, steaming and blocking the fabric, stitching silk roses and velvet leaves onto the felt and straw. These went to the same boutique. Again, I began to see my hats on women at the mall or at church.

Later, I polished and cut old silverware and bent the handles into earrings, rings, key rings and necklaces. These went to local gift shops and to antiques and craft shows.
I took black-and-white photographs of children and families and then delicately hand-tinted the photos, adding small touches of color to give the portraits a vintage look.

I packaged gift trays using and vintage china, silver and lace and shipped them across the country to be opened by grateful strangers.

I smocked dresses and rompers for my daughters and my son, sometimes finding myself nodding over my needle.

Most of this was done at night. When I should have been sleeping. When I should have been too tired to do anything more than close my eyes and rest up for the coming day.

But, like my friend, like so many women, I crafted into the wee hours. I made things with my hands. Letting my mind play while my fingers worked.

After a while I realized that my newfound passion for crafting was nothing new. I was just one more in a long history. Middle-class Victorian women, gifted with time by the household innovations of the industrial revolution, wove accessories from the hair of loved ones or painted delicate watercolors.

I tinted photographs and strung tiny pearls. Now, I write. I still sit down and write late into the night the way my friend works with chunky gemstones and glass beads.

Some mothers sew. They crochet or knit. They bake. They refinish furniture. The commonality, just as it always has been, is the desire to create. To construct and produce and, each in our own way, to provide proof beyond our most precious
contribution - the children that own us so completely - that we were here. That deep inside there was a spark, a gift, a source of happiness that was completely handmade.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. Her audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at

Finding Familiar Faces

If you have signed up to use Facebook, you’re probably familiar with the way the online social media format plays social matchmaker. Not in a romantic way, but by suggesting people you might want to add to your contact list. People who are friends with your friends. People who have some kind of connection to you.

Occasionally, this works. You see a familiar face, an old friend, a co-worker, a former classmate, you didn’t know had signed up and it’s nice to add them to your contact list.

At other times, you are prompted to to catch up with an old friend. People to whom you are already connected but may not interact with on a regular basis.

Sometimes this is a good thing, as well. It reminds you to check in with someone you like. Someone who is probably as busy as you are. Someone you might like to talk to more often.

But then, occasionally, an unsettling thing happens. Occasionally, a face pops up that is startling. A face you can’t reach out and touch no matter how much you might like to.

In the last year, three people I knew and liked died. They were all too young, all under 50. All three were Facebook friends.

At least once a month, when I log on I’m prompted to get back in touch with one of them.

At first, I cringed whenever one of the faces popped up on my computer screen. I was reminded again, in a most impersonal way, that they were gone forever. One more time the sad story behind each death passed through my mind.

But now, each time I see their photos, I take a minute and I reconnect with their memory. I stop and remember a time we spoke or laughed. I think about the spouses, the mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters and the children left behind. I honor them.

I’m sure this is not what Facebook intended, but after thinking about it, I decided to accept the random gift of memory. To be grateful for it.

My friends were here with us and each led a rich and productive life. They worked and played and loved. They built careers and relationships. All three battled the disease that eventually killed them with dignity and grace and amazing courage. Now, through no fault of their own, they are gone

But gone doesn’t mean forgotten.

So, when I open my computer, when I log on to Facebook to see what friends and family are up to, or to post a photo and update my own profile, I glance at the top of the page.

Sometimes I make a new friend. Sometimes I reconnect with an old friend. And once in a while I take a moment to think about a friend I will never see again.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. Her audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Decoration Day

Originally printed in The Spokesman-Review May 28, 2008

Growing up in the house where I lived with my grandparents, this day was called “Decoration Day.”

Each year, with my grandfather behind the wheel, they would drive my grandmother’s mother to a small cemetery in the little community where my family once lived.

My great-grandmother was a tiny woman, stooped and soft-spoken. She had white, tightly-permed hair and wore thick glasses to correct her poor vision.

When she could no longer live alone in her tiny apartment, with a Bible, the stack of afghans she crocheted, an album of faded photographs, three or four practical dresses and one “Sunday” dress for funerals and weddings hanging in her closet, she moved into a place on a son’s property. When he died, she moved in with my grandmother – her last living child.

Her life could have rivaled any “Oprah” book club pick. Born poor in a mining village in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, she’d been courted and won by Doc McConnell, a coal miner who was older than she. Theirs was a famous love story in that little town.

They married and seven children came along before he succumbed to black lung disease. She survived two house fires in her lifetime, losing everything twice.

Her own strength and good health didn’t pass down to her children. When she died at the age of 102, she had outlived them all and many of her grandchildren.

Neither my grandmother nor my great-grandmother could drive. So one Decoration Day, in my grandfather’s absence, the chore fell to me.

I wasn’t thrilled about it. When you’re 18 years old, you don’t want to drive two old women around a country cemetery when you could be at the mall or at a friend’s house or anywhere but on a dirt road surrounded by weathered tombstones, some so old they were crooked and tilted toward the graves they marked.

I piloted my grandfather’s station wagon through the old graveyard until we reached the McConnell family plot and parked in the shade of a massive oak tree.

My grandmother and great-grandmother pulled out of the car a big box of glass vases they’d spent the day before filling with artificial roses and carnations. I carried the box for them as we moved from grave to grave.

“Who is this?” I would ask, looking at the name carved into the stone.

They would answer as they pulled weeds and placed the flowers, propping the vases with stones so they wouldn’t fall over.

There was the sister who’d succumbed to a “fever.” The uncle who had died in an accident. The babies, guarded by gray stone angels, who’d only lived a day or a month or a few years. One by one I was introduced to my ancestors.

We came to the last grave. My great-grandfather’s grave. My great-grandmother put the flowers on the green grass and swept away the leaves that had fallen in the autumn wind and blown against the mossy stone. She been only in her 30s when he died, leaving her with nothing but children.

“Mama ‘Connell,” I asked, “Why on earth didn’t you get married again to get some help with your family?”

“Because,” she replied, turning to give me a long look, “I never loved any man but Doc.”


I looked at my great-grandmother, a true survivor who lived through more hard times than most of us will ever know; a woman who fell in love and stayed there for three-quarters of a century, as she dusted the red clay dirt off her hands and walked away.

Love. I hadn’t thought about that. It never occurred to me as we moved from grave to grave that it was love and respect and a sense of responsibility that had brought us there.

They’re all gone now. My mother, my grandparents and my great-grandparents – people my children never met but who are as real to me as the distant relatives we talked about that hot Memorial Day years ago – are all buried 2,500 miles away. All I can do on this Memorial Day is gather a bouquet of memories and bind it with love and respect.

And in that way, even those who are long gone, having lived and loved and finally faded away, are never forgotten.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at
Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap

For a girl like the girl I was, a child of the deep South, born into a world of steel mills and tidy neighborhoods of bungalows on oak and maple and pecan tree-lined streets; for a child steeped in the heady Southern perfumes of feathery mimosa trees and delicate gardenia blossoms and the unlikely grape bubblegum scent of Kudzu vine in bloom, driving into Glacier National Park, under an endless sky and surrounded by snow-capped peaks, was like suddenly discovering I had wings. That my feet were no longer tied by gravity.

The world around me never again looked the same.

I was fresh out of third-grade. My family packed up the station wagon, towing a tent trailer, and set out to see America. We set out for Glacier National Park.

As we drove across Montana and through the park, I rode with my head at the open window, curls blowing in the wind, my fingers curled over the top of the car door, my chin resting on the back of my hands, trying to take it all in.

I remember the feeling of being too small for the landscape, like an ant crossing the sidewalk. I listened to the cool, singing sound of clear mountain water rushing over beautiful green, red and lavender stones scattered like cabochon jewels on the river bed. I let the sandy soil of boulders, ground into dust by a millennium of massive glaciers, fall between my fingers. I held my breath as we made our way up a spectacular, winding, climbing, breathtaking road called “Going-to-the-Sun.”

The place left its mark on me. By the time we got home, I wasn’t the same girl I’d been when we left. I never forgot what I had seen.

Years later, when the chance to move my own family out west presented itself, I jumped at the chance. Leaving behind everything familiar, I knew I was going home.

This was all running through my head on on May 11, when I made another trip to the park. This time on the occasion of its centennial. A celebration of 100 years. Exactly 100 years ago to the day, President William Howard Taft signed a bill that established Glacier as the 10th national park.

I sat in a folding chair in a big white tent and listened to Park Superintendent, Chas Cartwright welcome the crowd. On the dais, in addition to representatives of local legislators and governmental entities, Native American leaders, in full headdress, were there to signify the complex and collaborative relationship between the National Park Service and first nation peoples.

I studied the faces in the crowd wondering what, exactly, besides the opportunity to be a part of history, had drawn them. Common wisdom states that there is something within each of us that seeks a companion. A mate. A missing piece to complete the human puzzle. I wonder if the drive to find our place, our geographic perfect-match, is just as strong. Some of us give into the siren call and get behind the wheel, or board an airplane or train. We chase the dot on the map. Others of us settle for romance from the armchair. Some, like a little girl gazing up at tall mountains with wide eyes, just know it when we see it.

After the centennial ceremony, I joined a tour of the park facilities. At each stop someone - a retired superintendent, a craftsman, a landscape specialist, an archivist - deepened our understanding of the history and structure of the park. I was proud to be a part of the unique history of the moment.

At the end of the day, carrying my souvenirs - the commemorative centennial coin, lapel button and program - I boarded the Amtrak Empire Builder, the train that would take me back home to Spokane. As we rolled out of Whitefish, Montana, I could see tall peaks in the distance.Chin-in-hand, I gazed out the window until the light faded.

The important thing to remember is that we are all as small as ants in the million-acre landscape of Glacier National Park. And it will stand long after we’re all gone. It will be there for others to discover, to fall in love with and to celebrate. Glacier National Park has, for 100 years, awed us and inspired us. I hope my children’s children will make the same pilgrimage to celebrate 100 more.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at

Sweet Dreams: The Garden Wall Inn

In love and lodging, the little things always seem to matter the most.

I was reminded of this in early May, when I traveled to Whitefish, Montana for the centennial celebration of Glacier National Park. I was lucky enough to find a rare opening at The Garden Wall Inn.

The beautiful bed and breakfast sits on a corner in a residential area just two blocks from downtown. Once the town’s finest home, thanks to the vision of owner Rhonda Fitzgerald, the lovely two-story house is now home to five of Whitefish’s most luxurious overnight guest rooms.

Located just at the top of the quaint staircase, rose wallpaper and bedding, antique furnishings and artwork as well as lace curtains at the windows, all perfectly suited to the home’s provenance, gave my room a sweet vintage charm.

Personal touches like paper-thin antique water glasses on the dresser, freshly ironed antique linen sheets and pillow cases on the bed and well-chosen accessories such as the delicate Wedgwood dish on the dresser, wrapped me in comfort and elegance.
This, I learned, is a specialty of the house.

Fitzgerald insists that whenever possible, vintage and antique items are used to decorate and accessorize the inn. This concept is carried through from the furniture, to the artwork on the walls, to the sterling silver bud vases on tea trays and bedside tables.

The white-tiled en suite bathroom, complete with a massive vintage claw-foot bathtub, is stocked with a variety of Gilchrist and Soames soaps, lotions, bath beads and plenty of big, plush, monogrammed towels. After a long hike, I couldn’t wait to slip into a fragrant bubble bath and relax. There was plenty of stretching-out room in the big old tub. It was the perfect place to unwind and think about what I’d seen and done that day.

It became clear that at Garden Wall Inn the luxury doesn’t stop with the accommodations. That’s just the beginning.

Each afternoon a glass of sherry, or wine if you prefer, is served in the living room by the fireplace. When innkeeper Chris Schustrom discovered I like to have a cup of chamomile tea before bed, he delivered a silver tea tray complete with a vintage Blue Willow cup and saucer to my room at bedtime. Taken with the homemade truffle from Whitefish’s Copperleaf Chocolat Company left on my pillow at turndown, the combination was delicious and soothing.

In the morning, half an hour before breakfast, a morning tea or coffee tray was delivered to my room, another specialty of the house. It is a most civilized way to ease into the day.

The crowning touch is the signature Garden Wall Inn breakfast. Owner Rhonda Fitzgerald is a trained chef. Her breakfasts are a culinary work of art.
I sat down to a work-of-art fruit salad decorated with a slice of star fruit and livened by a spritz of fresh lime. Freshly squeezed orange juice and hot coffee were waiting on the table.

The main dish was Montana smoked trout and served en croute, accompanied by slices of local artisanal bread and homemade huckleberry muffins.

Everything about Garden Wall Inn is perfectly appointed. From the delicious gourmet breakfast, to the chance to unwind over a glass of sherry in the afternoon, to the delictable chocolate left on the pillow at turndown, guests are pampered by one little luxury after another. And, as any travel lover knows, the little things make a big impression. I can’t wait to spend another night in the beautiful white house on the corner.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons.” Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and public radio stations across the country. She can be reached at

Friday, May 14, 2010

Train Lovers

By Cheryl-Anne Millsap
Special to The Spokesman-Review
Home Planet
May 13, 2010

The thing about going somewhere is that, if you’re lucky, you have someone to tell goodbye. Someone who is sad to see you go.

It’s the same coming home. For the fortunate, there is someone there to welcome you. Someone who missed you and is happy to see you again.

It used to be that when you sat at the gate in an airport, waiting to depart, you got to witness all kinds of goodbyes and hellos. You could see men and women rush into one another’s arms when a plane landed. You witnessed tender embraces, last kisses and that lingering brush of hands at departure, palm against palm then fingertip to fingertip, prolonging the separation until the last possible moment.

Now, as any flier - frequent or not - knows, most hellos and goodbyes are said at the curb. A wave, a quick kiss and out of the no-parking lane as fast as possible. From that point on all passengers are the same. Stressed. Suspicious. Caught in the machine that air travel has become.

But, if you travel by train, ah, well then, you see it all.

Train stations are still places of hand-holding and long goodbyes. Of people running into embraces and the loud chatter of reunion.

Sometimes, on the train, you see other stories, as well.

Sitting in the observation car of the Empire Builder, watching the Columbia river roll past, I noticed a woman sitting across the car. She was on her cell phone, talking to someone. The connection was spotty so occasionally the call was lost and she would have to punch in the numbers again. What held my attention was the tone of her voice. It was so high and cheerful I assumed she must be talking to a child. But, then I realized I was wrong.

“What did you do today,” she asked. The voice on the other end of the signal must have talked about a project of some kind.

“Well, it was sweet of you to do that,” she said. “You are a sweet man, you know. That’s why you’re my husband.”

Paying more attention, I could hear the brittle edge in her voice. She wasn’t quite as cheerful as she sounded.

They talked a minute or two more and the signal was lost again. Finally she ended the call by making a kissing sound into the phone.

I went back to my book and was immediately lost in the novel. The next time I looked up and glanced over at the woman, she was still sitting in the same place but was now snuggled up against a man. Her head rested on his chest, under the curve of his left arm and his right hand was on her knee. They were silent, staring out the window at the sunset.

For a moment, I was confused. I’d heard her talking to her husband just a few minutes before. A man who was obviously far away. And now, suddenly, he was there beside her.

But, of course, he wasn’t.

I realized that the silent couple, lost in their own thoughts, must be lovers. At least one of them, the woman, had another life. He wasn’t wearing a ring.

There was a sadness to the way they sat so close together, touching, thinking. I tried not to watch them but I was captured by the tableau. The miles passed.

After a while, when the sunlight disappeared and the only thing in the window was one’s own reflection, an uncomfortable image to stare into, they got up and walked back to their seats.

I don’t know if they stayed on the train or got off at my stop.

In the business of arrival, gathering bags and departing the train in the dark, I forgot to look for the couple. I don’t know where they went.

I can only imagine her, carrying her bags, walking away from the man on the train, palms brushing, fingertips touching, into the arms of the man on the phone.

On a plane, they wouldn’t have had the time to sit, holding one another. On a plane, I wouldn’t have noticed them at all.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. Her audio essays can be heard each week on Spokane Public Radio and are frequently picked up by public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Ties That Bind

Cheryl-Anne Millsap
Special to The Spokesman-Review
May 11, 2010

Slipping into a parking spot across the street from the high school, I turned off the engine and waited for my daughter to come out the door.

Enjoying the quiet of the car, a welcome respite from the noise of a busy day, lulled by the warm sun made even warmer by the window, I relaxed as I watched the students as they gathered outside. Some were waiting for rides others were just socializing, happy to be released.

I noticed a pair on the corner, a girl and a boy who couldn’t have been more than freshmen. They still had the fresh, slightly awkward look of of a pair of leggy, yearling colts.

They were standing close together, and I could see that they were both focusing on something in the boy’s hands. Then, I noticed the cord dangling from their ears and I realized they were sharing the earphones for the boy’s iPod. His music was hers. While she studied the screen of the music player, the boy studied her. When she glanced up, he looked away, embarrassed to be caught. Occasionally she risked a peek at him, through her lashes, quick and surreptitious. It was a dance of glances.

He kept looking out at the street, scanning the cars going by, watching for his ride. He must have seen it coming because he quickly said something to the girl and reclaimed the earphone, coiling it and stuffing it into his pocket. Then, a bit stiffly, he leaned over and wrapped his arms around the girl. She returned the embrace.

They looked like a couple stepping out onto the dance floor for a first slow dance. There was a bit of hesitation, a slight distance between their bodies that hinted of first kisses and sweaty palms. When his mother pulled up to the curb he hurried to the car and they drove away.

The girl, clutching her books to her chest in the way of schoolgirls in the movies and romance novels, turned to walk down the hill. As she hurried toward her own ride, for a moment, she forgot herself and skipped one little skipping step, like the little girl she had been not so very long ago. She got into her mother’s car and away they went.

Watching my own daughter make her way to me I thought about the scene I had just watched. About the way the pair had been tethered, sharing a single pulse of music, shoulder to shoulder sneaking peeks at one another, before joining their mothers.

I thought about the women who were even at that moment asking “How was your day?” and “What did you do today?” and getting only shrugs and noncommittal grunts in return.
I glanced over at my own child as she grunted and shrugged at my questions.

I realized then that each of us, the three women in a crowd of parents driving home with our silent, precious, adolescent cargo, on some level, still believes that the cord that bound us to our offspring is still intact. A spider’s silk umbilicus of love and worry and pride.

But what we haven’t thought about is who might be replacing us at the other end of that thread. A girl. A boy. A new love. A new song.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons.” Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and public radio stations across the country.

The Sweetest Dance

Happy Mother’s Day. Another column from the archives…

The Spokesman-Review
June 5, 2006
Life’s tender moments dance into our hearts
Cheryl-Anne Millsap
Staff writer

The dance starts before we are born.

Babies wait in the dark, moving in time to the beat of a mother’s heart and with the rhythm of her steps.

As newborns and infants, they curl, warm and safe in our arms. We hold them close and sway unconsciously from side to side, in the ancient, instinctive movement that soothes a child.

In a few months, when they find their feet, they jump and bounce, squealing with pleasure.

Of all the tender moments I have shared with my children, I think I’ll remember the dancing the most.

I loved it.

Supported by my hands around their sturdy bodies, they danced in my lap, pushing into the air. Their bright, round, full-moon faces smiled at me as they chewed on fat little fingers. Laughter bubbled up out of them.

Together, we took baby steps with lullabies and nursery rhymes.

As toddlers they reached up to me, stepped up on my toes and wrapped their arms around my knees or held tightly to my fingers as I waltzed around the room.

We giggled and wiggled with silly tunes from Sesame Street.

We boogied with pop music on the radio in the kitchen and danced jigs around the house listening to old bluegrass tunes and folk songs.

Some nights, they came to me quietly, slipped their arms around my waist, and we swayed to Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis, Etta James and Diana Krall, moving slowly around the living room. There was comfort – given and taken – in the embrace.

And love. Love set to music.

Occasionally, when we were feeling silly, we tangoed. Or we moved like Apache dancers across the room, dipping low at the finale.

We twirled and pirouetted to Tchaikovsky. We were the graceful Swans in Swan Lake.

Then, one by one, my children outgrew me.

One by one they let go of my fingers and my knees and my waist. Now my son towers over me. Even my daughters are taller than I am.

Now, only my youngest, almost 11 and almost eye-to-eye, will occasionally, absent-mindedly, step up on my feet and signal she wants to move.

I’ll twirl us around the room for a minute before she pulls away to go up to her room or outside to play.

I’m back to being a wallflower.

It’s OK. No one dances with their mother forever.

Or do they? When you think about it, it’s all a dance.

From the moment they’re conceived, we skip to the tune our children play. After they’re born, even when they’re standing on our feet, they’re really leading us.

Anyone who has raised a teenager knows how it feels to be outmatched; out of time with music you can’t even hear, trying to keep up with fancy footwork. As the years pass, as I grow old, the choreography will change but we’ll still be dancing.

Children grow up and away. That’s what life is all about. Making your way, holding on to others until you’re strong enough and steady enough, and the music comes through clear enough, to make it by yourself.

If you’re lucky, you find a partner. And it starts all over again.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons.” Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and public radio stations across the country.

Appalachian Tale

Cheryl-Anne Millsap
Special to The Spokesman-Review
Home Planet
May 7

Taking the red-eye morning flight, I watched the watery April sun rise in the sky as I left the Inland northwest and flew across the country.

My work took me east, but there was another, stronger, pull. I needed to see the mountains again. Not the jagged, new mountains of the west. But the old, old mountains of the east.

I spent two days driving though the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. And in some ways, it was two days spent driving through my own head.

Mile after mile, the familiar landmarks caught my eye. I haven’t been in the area for years but I was surprised by the instant recognition. I had no idea how deeply, and how permanently, the scenery - the mountains and rivers and coves, the tumbledown cabins and ruins of old farms and homesteads - had been etched into my mind. Passing the traditional National Park signs, reading the road signs, with their poetic names like Nantahala, Pisgah, Maggie Valley, Cades Cove and Cherokee, I was lost in the traces of other journeys.

As a child, on family road trips, in the days before seat belts, I daydreamed in the back of the family station wagon, winding along the serpentine roads, following the curves of the ancient mountains covered with dense forests. My grandfather loved the Smoky Mountains and whenever possible he drove us there. Long weekend getaways meant a midnight departure so that we could reach the park just as the sun rose. In the summer, the car was packed with the big canvas tent, Coleman stove and cooler, folding aluminum lawn chairs and a big iron skillet; all the necessary equipment for a week or two of camping by Deep Creek.

In my memory, the mountains were deep and dark and mysterious. Clouds rested in valleys between peaks and we often drove right through them as we climbed. Lush green undergrowth crowded the narrow roads and the air fell cool and moist through the open window onto my upturned face.

Later, as a new bride, married to a man who’d spent his own time exploring the Appalachian forests, I returned. Our honeymoon was a pilgrimage to the mountains and we spent the first week of our marriage hiking the trails and driving the scenic roads.

Then, a few years later, when the children came along, we carried them to the mountaintops, as if to hold them up and show the Gods what we had created.
And now, well into middle-age, with an almost empty nest and a marriage as weathered and tested as any granite face, I had to go back. I wanted to meet the mountains on my own terms.

So, I drove. And I looked out the windows at a landscape that changed has very little while I have changed so much. I leaned into familiar hairpin curves meeting my own history in the tight turns. I turned my face up to the gentle spring rain. I surrendered to the ghosts.

Flying home at the end of the week, I looked out the airplane window and thought about the impact the Smoky Mountains have had on my life. Tall and quiet and filled with tradition, they are the shadowy guardians of my sweetest memories.

Now, a continent away, I live between two different mountain ranges. To the west, the Cascades throw up their snowy peaks and sleeping volcanoes. To the east, the Rockies, a great wall of razored stone, claim the horizon. They are signposts whenever I travel around the region I now call home.

But deep inside me, in the secret place the little girl, the bride and the new mother still live, a range of rolling, hazy mountains own the landscape.

As my plane approached and the patchwork of land beneath the wing grew closer and closer until we touched down, I was glad to be back. But I was equally grateful to have had another chance to go back to the old places, the old mountains, to follow my own Appalachian Trail.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons,” and her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio as well as public radio stations across the country.

Swept Away

Cheryl-Anne Millsap
Special to The Spokesman-Review
April 14, 2010

I was busy with other things. My mind was on early spring chores like clearing away the winter clutter of boots, shovels and mate-less mittens; sweeping last year’s bitter-end-of-autumn leaves and pine needles off the patio; tidying up the garden getting it ready to plant again, to fill with new green growth.

I certainly had enough to think about.
But, suddenly, when I wasn’t paying attention, while my back was turned, a longing for the ocean swept over me in a wave of pure desire. Scraps of memory, images of other trips to the coast, distracted me and tripped me up. I lost my forward momentum. I lost my place.

I don’t know what happened. Maybe it was the basket of stones I’ve gathered on past trips that sits in a corner of the patio. They’re always there but I do forget to stop and look at them. Maybe it was the way the wind whipped at my hair and pulled at my clothes while I worked, the way it does at the shore.

All I know is that in an instant, I didn’t want to putter around the house anymore. I just wanted to get in the car and drive until I hit the edge of the continent.

Now, all I can think of is getting to the wild and rugged Pacific coast. I want to run away to a favorite cottage tucked into the hillside of a quiet little town. Just for for a few days.

I didn’t realize I was so hungry for solitude. Now, I am craving time to myself to walk on the beach with the sound of the waves in my ears and the sting of the wind against my skin. I want the luxury of sitting by the fire, my hands wrapped around my coffee cup, beside a window that overlooks a wide horizon of endless water and sky. I want time to think. To solve problems. To make resolutions. To surrender to an ancient and inescapable rhythm.

A long time ago, I fell in love with the Oregon coast. And like any true love, it never goes away for long.
I was busy when I drifted into daydreams about the sand and the waves. My hands were occupied when my mind caught the current and was pulled out to sea. For days now, as I do all the things that are expected of me, as I work and drive and put meals on the table, my mind has been miles away watching clouds scuttle across the sky and sea birds wheel and dive.

The idea of running away surprised me and wrapped its arms around me. Why should I resist? Why shouldn’t I turn around and return the kiss?
So, my calendar is open with red circles around empty squares. The number of the rental agent is on my phone.
The sea is calling me. And I could never play hard to get.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons,” and her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio as well as public radio stations across the country. She can be reached at

Sunday, April 11, 2010

A Walk in the Park

By Cheryl-Anne Millsap
Special to Spokesman-Review Pinch
April 7, 2010

When the signs are subtle but strong. When the wind shifts and the sun’s arc across the sky changes a bit. When the perfume in the air takes on another scent and something deep inside me responds to a silent signal, I take walk. Not another brisk walk with the dogs to get my heart rate up and burn off the calories, but a slow walk to quiet my racing heart and racing mind. To catch my breath. To see what is happening in the world around me.

I live near a park. An old park full of acres of trees and paths and stone buildings and secret places tucked into the nooks and crannies. We go there often, to exercise the dogs or ride our bikes, but at least once at the very beginning of each season I go deliberately alone.

I go when I want to meander, to investigate any rock or tree or bush along the way. When I need to measure time in the ancient way, by the changes in the landscape and sky. Usually, I eventually make my way to one particular spot; a wild, less manicured place tucked into the curve of one of the paths.

There are more beautiful places in the park, to be sure. Carefully tended gardens with elaborate beds and tall topiaries. Rose gardens with a sunset view and classic white arbors and pergolas. Rows of iris and a meadow of lilacs.

But time after time, I find myself heading to the quiet spot between the showier spaces.

I go there to measure the movement of time. To note the subtle shift of the seasons. To see how one small corner of the world changes, dances to Mother Nature’s tune without much help

In the winter, I stand and watch the way the snow drifts on the branches of the tall tree. In the spring I taste the fruit borne by the tree. In summer I let the leaves shade me and cool me and provide shelter from the sun.

Each season, everything in this little corner is different. The sun comes in from a different slant. The earth smells sweeter in fall, richer in summer. Flowers bloom in spring and foliage is deep green in summer. The people I encounter are different, as well. In the softer seasons the path is filled with people who talk and laugh as they go by. In the deepest part of winter I can stand there for long stretches of time without seeing anyone at all. When someone does pass they are silent and intent, lost in their own thoughts.

In some ways, it seems a shame to mark the seasons at the foot of a tree tucked into a city park when the world offers bigger views. Tall mountains. Deep canyons, dense and dark forests and wild water. And I do explore those places when I can.

But the path in the park is close to home. And in that quiet spot I can, for as long as I will let myself, stop moving so fast and let the spinning planet do all the work.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap's Home Planet column appears each week in the Wednesday "Pinch" supplement. Cheryl-Anne is a regular contributor to Spokane Public Radio and her essays can be heard on Public Radio stations across the country. She is the author of "Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons" and can be reached at

Stitching love, hope and prayer into fabric

By Cheryl-Anne Millsap
Special to Spokesman-Review Pinch
April 4, 2010

Years ago, the week before Easter Sunday, I sat beside my sister’s hospital bed watching her fever rise and listening to her struggle to breathe.

She was so sick, fighting for every breath, and I was powerless to help her in any way. The only thing I could do was be there so she could see me when she woke up. So she would know she wasn’t alone. The nights were the worst, punctuated by harsh light, the eerie, alien sounds of IV alarms and the hissing and gurgling of the oxygen.

To keep my anxiety at bay, I brought a project to the hospital with me each day. Something to quiet my mind and keep my hands busy. While my sister slept I sat in a chair beside the bed and smocked cotton Easter dresses for my daughters. Smocking, is an old, old way to decorate a garment. Fabric is pleated and then tiny stitches made with embroidery floss hold the pleating in place. The range of patterns run from simple geometrics to elaborate images.

I never really learned to sew, the finer mathmatic elements of construction eluded me, so I had a friend who always put the garments together for me. But, I could smock. I wasn’t an expert, but I could count the pleats and follow the simpler graphs. I could, building one stitch on top of another, turn an ordinary piece of cotton into a little work of art.

Like any kind of art, each dress was an investment of time and love. Each row of stitches represented an hour or two of sleep that wouldn’t be made up or housework that would still have to be done. But seeing my daughters in the delicate, old-fashioned dresses I’d made was worth it. So much of parenting is intangible. Those dresses danced.

As the days passed, I realized I wouldn’t get the dresses finished in time for Easter, but I still lowered my head over the fabric and concentrated on each stitch. I watched the design emerge from beneath my fingers. And, always, after a while, the ageless rhythm began to work its magic. The tension left my body and I didn’t feel quite as brittle. I did what women have done for centuries. I sewed far into the nights, stitching love, hope and prayer into a simple piece of fabric.

I thought, some, about the lessons the needle was teaching me. That it’s best to own up to your mistakes immediately and correct them as soon as possible. That it’s better to pull out what you’ve done and start over than to try to push on and pretend it never happened. That one stitch too many or too few can throw off everything and make it impossible to enjoy the process. That, first, no matter what else you do, you have to pick up the right thread.

Finally, on the Saturday before Easter, I was done. I folded the fabric and it away.

Early Easter morning my doorbell rang. I opened the door and my friend, a gifted seamstress, handed me a package. She’d taken the fabric and, sewing all night, finished the dresses for me. I didn’t know what to say.

My sister got better. She recovered and went home and you’d never know she’d been so ill.

The dresses were worn Easter morning and then worn and washed and ironed again and again until until the last little girl finally outgrew them and they were packed away.
I’ll bring them out again one day, I hope, perhaps for a granddaughter. And, in that way, bind yet another story to the fabric of my family.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and public radio stations across the country. She can be reached at

Parenting without a map

Last week at the bookstore, I spent an hour moving slowly along the rows and bookshelves, my head tilted to one side, reading titles.

After an hour or so of skimming titles and sampling chapters I had three books I couldn’t leave behind so I carried them to the cash register and got in line. There was a man talking to the cashier and just ahead of me a pregnant woman stood with three books of her own. Tilting my head again, I read the titles she held.

Each of them had something to do with parenting.

Ah, I thought. She’s looking for an owner’s manual. I remembered doing the same thing.

When I was pregnant, especially with my first child, I bought everything I could find on childbirth and raising children. Some I read cover-to-cover. Others were tossed aside, their contents relating in no tangible way to the life I was living.

By the time my fourth baby came along, I felt like writing a book. “Want to be the best mother you can be? Yeah, me too.”

or, “Parenting secrets: Please share.”

I still didn’t have a clue.

The man left with his books. The woman moved up to pay for her purchases.It crossed my mind that I should put out my arm and stop her.

“Hey, wait a minute,” I should have said. “I can give you a few tips for free,”

Here’s all you need to know, I should have told her: You’re scared. You have no idea what you’re doing. You’re worried that you aren’t going to get it right. Guess what? You’re going to feel that way for the rest of your life.

You’ll look at that infant, that toddler, that third-grader, that teenager, that young adult, and feel like a stranger in a foreign land. You’ll have to learn a new language every few years. You’ll read and pray and prepare. You’ll spend sleepless nights staring at the ceiling, worrying, tossing and turning and planning the best and preparing for the worst. And no matter how much homework you do, you’ll still get it wrong at least half the time.

You see, that’s the chapter that gets left out of all of those books: Parenting is like skiing in the dark. The right path is out there, you’re just too blind to see it. You have to feel your way between potential disasters. You follow a rope, feeling in the dark, moving from one knot to the next. There’s no time to cling to the place you just left because you’re constantly moving forward. And just when you’re sure you’re at the end of your rope, you move on again.

I didn’t say anything to her, of course. She bought her books and went on her way.

She’ll figure it out. Sooner or later, we all do.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons,” and can be reached at

A slice of life

My middle daughter Becca swept into the house on Friday night. Like spring, she comes into any room with a lion’s roar.

After takeout from Gordy’s, and spending some time visiting with us, she turned herself over to the little sister. They disappeared upstairs and we were left with traces of laughter and an occasional wave as they made a foray for food or some other entertainment.

Saturday morning she baked a loaf of banana bread, filling the house with wonderful activity and delicious fragrance. And, then, she flew away again.

Now, she’s off to enjoy spring break with friends, somewhere under sunny skies. We’re left with clouds and leftovers. With a quiet house and one lonely slice of banana bread.

One Yellow Bell

By Cheryl-Anne Millsap
Special to Spokesman-Review Pinch
March 22, 2010

Undressing, I slipped my hand into the pocket of my skirt and pulled out one single small flower. A forsythia bloom. A tiny yellow bell.

I’d forgotten it was there.

I have a habit of dropping things into my pocket, like an overgrown child, and often find odds and ends like buttons and stones and flowers there at the end of the day. Sometimes I hear something rattling in the washer or dryer, or discover the crumpled remains in a suitcase and remember too late.

Today, one of those gray and chilly early March days that belie the coming spring, I was hurrying headlong from one meeting to another and I almost walked by the flowering shrub without noticing it. But the bright yellow blooms stood out against the gray of the building and the dry winter soil and caught my eye. I stopped.

Do you know those black and white photographs where only one thing - a red rose, or pink heart or a child’s face- is tinted so that it grabs your eye? That’s what the forsythia looked like to me. Like I’d stepped into the frame of a monochromatic photo.

I didn’t have a lot of time so I moved on to open the door of the building. But then I didn’t. At the last minute I turned back and pinched one single bloom and dropped it into my pocket. Twice during the power point - there is always a Power Point - I pulled it out and looked at it before putting it away again.

Over the years there have been a lot of flowers.

As a child, I spent hours on hot summer days picking clover from the patch that always grew in the backyard no matter how hard they tried to get rid of it. My grandmother showed me how to make a small slit in the stem of one flower and then slip another through to be strung together in a chain and draped around my neck or twined in my hair. My sister and I would work to see who could make the longest chain. Inevitably, I would find a flower later, still caught in my curls or where it had fallen into a pocket or the cuff of my shorts.

When my children came along they often brought a flower to me. Tiny blue Vincas that bloomed in the ground cover. Dandelions that had escaped the mower. Lion-faced pansies from the flower beds or a rogue Johnny-Jump-Up that popped up at the base of the tall pine trees in the front yard. Rosebuds, small and perfect like soft seashells growing on a vine.

Victorian women spent hours pasting flowers, leaves and even seaweed into albums. They labeled each specimen with with spidery script and ink. They wanted a tangible reminder of such things. Me? I occasionally stumble onto a flower pressed between the pages of whatever book I was reading at the time, but for the most part, they are scattered in my memory. Like dandelion wings in the wind. Like a carpet of rose petals in the garden. Like a tiny yellow bell in my pocket.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons,” and can be reached at

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The view from here

Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap


Anchored at home

Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap Subject: Prague canal as seen from Charles Bridge.

March 13, 2010 Special to S-R Pinch

I am, and I have to believe it is true of most others, two people in one body. On one side, I am a contented hermit. I love nothing better than time at home surrounded by the rooms full of furniture and paintings and books that I have collected or been given, with the telephone, television and computer turned off. I love the warm tones of the paintings on the walls, the deep crimson rugs on the oak floors, the soft silk of the curtains that frame the window’s familiar view, the bright colors of the pottery and pillows.

Some of the things around me have been with me for as long as I can remember. They are, when I close my eyes and think about it, the inanimate images that come to mind when I think about the word home.

But on the other side, I am a wanderer. I am restless. I want out of the armchair. I want to go places and see new worlds and do things I haven’t done before. I read what other travelers write and I get itchy feet. I covet their freedom. I follow their blogs and turn down pages in books and magazines and long for a chance to follow in their footsteps. I want to blaze my own trail.

I tear glossy pages out of magazines and pin them to my bulletin board. I buy postcards and frame them. I keep photographs of exotic places on my cellphone and computer. I keep a list of sights I need to see and a diary of places I’ve been. And when the opportunity for travel presents itself, I hitch a ride without a backwards glance. My suitcase is always ready.

The trick, of course, is finding a way to reconcile the two halves of one heart.

Without travel, across the world or just across the state, we would never know how it feels to be truly homesick. To long for the comforting presence of those we love. To experience the sense of belonging that rushes toward us when we open a door and walk back into the place we call home.

Without a home base, travel is frightening. Like spacewalking without a tether to the mother ship. It is moving from one island to another; no bridge between.

It helps to remember that a good life is all about balance. Happiness and heartache. Light and dark. Thrilling adventure and quiet, contented moments in a chair by the window.

A life on the road with no home to return to is a sad thing. As is living without even an occasional escape to a new view.

It’s good to get away. But only when you have a place, and people, to call you back home.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and her essays can be heard each week on Spokane Public Radio. To read past Home Planet columns go to

My Bunny is Back on the Ocean

Two years ago when my son took his first job on a restored 1949 oceanographic research vessel, I wrote the column below. He was to be the boat’s new engineer. It was his first time at sea. And my first experience with sending a child out into an unknown frontier. It has been a learning experience for both of us. The boat, once host to people like Albert Einstein and Jacques Cousteau, has gone through many changes. Now, a work in progress, the skipper and his crew travel up and down the west coast from one charter to another. This month, they are heading back to Alaska to tender - in this case to take fish from the fishing boats, keeping them chillled in the huge tanks on board, and then deliver the load to the processing plants. It’s hard work. And, it’s still hard work to say goodbye.

June 23, 2008
Home Planet: Children leave home but not our hearts
Cheryl-Anne Millsap
The Spokesman-Review

The chime signaling a text message woke me out of a sound sleep. My phone, lying on the bed beside me, there in case of emergency, in case someone needed to reach me, close at hand for late night messages, glowed in the dark room.

“Just left the locks,” the message read. “And hit open water.”

It was from my son.

I typed a short reply, part message part benediction, and rolled onto my back to stare at the ceiling.

I was alone in a hotel room, on a weekend tour through the Walla Walla wine country. At the same time my 20-year-old son was on a boat cruising toward Alaska. It was the first night of his new job, and at that moment he was alone in a tiny cabin, watching land and all that was solid and secure, slip away.

I had run away for a weekend in search of respite, in search of a break from work and worry. He had signed on for a summer in search of adventure, for an opportunity to see new people and places. But for a moment, when our messages crossed in the night, we were connected.

When my children were babies we often read “The Runaway Bunny” by Margaret Wise Brown before they went to bed.

In that beloved tale a young bunny, restless and full of bravado, tells his mother all the ways he will one day escape her.

“If you run away I will run after you,” the mother replies, “for you are my little bunny.”

Her child would have none of it.

“I will become a fish in a trout stream and I will swim away,” he tells her.

“I will fish for you,” she says.

The bunny lists all the ways he will get away, and each time the mother has an answer. “I will climb to where you are,” she tells him. “I will be a gardener and I will find you.”

Each time she refuses to let him escape. “If you become a bird and fly away from me, I will be a tree that you come home to,” she tells him. “If you become a sailboat and sail away from me, I will become the wind and blow you where I want you to go.”

When the bunny says he will join the circus, his mother promises to walk across air, to walk a thin wire to reach him. When he declares that he will turn into a boy and run into a house, his mother promises to catch him and hold him in her arms.

Finally the bunny surrenders. “Shucks,” he tells her. “I might just as well stay where I am and be your little bunny.”

Of course, little boys do find a way to slip out of the grasp of their mothers. And wish as we might, mothers can’t always find a way to hold onto them. Or can we?

Still clutching my phone, ready to answer if he were to call out to me again, I thought about the book. I thought about my boy – grown into a man – and where he was headed.

True, I won’t be a tall tree on the shore. Or a rock on the cliff at the edge of the sea. I won’t be the wind that blows him back to me. And he will never again be at home in my arms.

But the fact that he typed those two little sentences even as he got his wish, even as he headed out to a life on his own, reassured me.

He couldn’t shake me. I was there in the dark starlit sky, in the sound of the waves against the boat, in the humming of the engine that pulled him out to sea. Just as he was with me in a room lit only by the light of my cell phone.

Even as he sailed away, in spite of himself, he reached out to me.

“Just left the locks,” he’d written. “And hit open water.”

But when I read it again, and read between the lines, I saw only one word.


Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at

Friday, March 5, 2010

Riding the Amtrak Empire Builder from Spokane to Portland

I'm planning another trip to Portland, Oregon. By train, of course.
The ride from Spokane to Portland is beautiful. The Empire Builder pulls out of here sometime around 2am. Most of the trip is made in the dark and that's ok. We sleep.

But just about sunrise, when it's time to get that first cup of coffee, the train rolls into some of the most beautiful scenery of the trip.
The wide Columbia River escorts you through the gorge. And sitting in the domed observation car, a cup of coffee and cinnamon roll in hand, it's a beautiful way to see the sights.

Thanks to an excellent public transportation system, we can walk or take the bus or MAX light rail to our hotel. From there everything we want to see - the Oregon Zoo, the Rose Garden and the shops downtown are easily accessed.

Of course, another benefit to walking is the chance to watch people. And, like the scenery wherever you go, people are always fascinating.

Read one of my favorite Home Planet columns (which just happens to be about Portland) here.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Where the Wild Rivers Run

Special to The Spokesman-Review Pinch
By Cheryl-Anne Millsap

Waking early in the February morning, it took a minute to get my bearings in the dark Missoula hotel room before I dressed for the day’s drive. We were crossing a swath of the wide Flathead Valley in Northwest Montana and I wanted to take advantage of the wintery sunlight. The days are short in the Northwest this time of year with precious little sunlight between the dark of morning and dark of night.

Stopping to pick up a pastry and a cup of coffee, we crossed the Clark Fork River on our way out of town. The sun was just coming up and the sky along the horizon was fading, changing from a deep indigo to violet to plum.

The river, already awake, already on the move, snaked quietly between snowy banks following the curves it had already cut, centuries before. It seems a shame to drive right over or alongside a river without slowing down for a closer look, to be so blind to the beauty. Because a river is a wild and wonderful thing.
Impulsively, I pulled over. A few more minutes wouldn’t break the day’s schedule

Standing on the riverbank, shivering in the cold morning air, I had the feeling that only moments before other eyes had taken in the same view; wild eyes that live at the whim of the weather and the rhythm of the river’s pace and come each day for water and food.

My mind traveled back to other places and other rivers: To a glimpse of the wide, muddy Mississippi - when you think about it, the country’s first super-highway - a big river of even bigger stories and legend, sweeping along. A powerful monster deceptively slow and quiet. To being a child, standing on the rim of the canyon it carved out of stone, peering down at the wild, hellbent and furious Colorado River. To the view from an Amtrak observation car riding for miles along the Columbia River - the king of the gorge - which waters a dry and thirsty land as it flows headlong into the Pacific Ocean.

I remembered the feel of the hot sun and the sound of birds and insects on the banks of the languid Cahaba, an Alabama river ornamented by rare lilies and lush undergrowth.

The Hudson in New York. The Platte in Nebraska. The Rio Grande. How many rivers have I - have any of us - crossed in a lifetime?
Even now, every day I work and go about my life crisscrossing the Spokane River again and again.

We talk about the draw of the ocean. Of the need to see the waves crash and to smell the salt air. We spend our summers at play on the lake, speeding over the glassy surface on boats and jet skis or paddling along silently on canoes and kayaks.

But too often we take for granted the working waters of the rivers that travel the land around us.

I took one more look at the Clark Fork before getting back in my car and driving away.
The water, I should mention, took no notice of me. It had already moved on.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Riding the Amtrak Empire Builder

Special to Spokesman-Review "Pinch"
By Cheryl-Anne Millsap
March 1, 2010

The lights glowed in tiny pools on the sidewalk, piercing the darkness every few yards or so, reflecting in the polished steel as I walked along the idling train.

Stepping up into the railcar, I stowed my heavy suitcase in the rack and carried my smaller bag up the narrow staircase to the upper level of the Amtrak sleeper car. I scanned the signs above the doors before coming to my compartment. The bed, as the attendant had told me when I showed him my ticket, had already been turned down.

It took me a few minutes to settle in; pulling out my computer, plugging in my phone, gathering all my tools and travel talismans around me. Finally, I was ready. I had everything I needed to work through the night.

I don’t know why I bothered.

Recognizing the gentle lurch as we began to roll out of the station, I turned off the lights and leaned back against the padded wall above the lower bunk. Silently, slowly, my city rolled by. The train going east leaves Spokane just after 1 a.m. and winds its way behind downtown buildings and along the edge of the city. The scene from my wide window is a view I seldom get. It’s funny how even the most familiar landscape changes in the darkest part of the night, in the hours before the sun comes up again. Shadows come out to play, dancing and obscuring the sharp edges of buildings and cars. Streets shimmer with wet and steam rises from otherwise invisible vents.

I’ve racked up quite a few railroad miles, primarily on the East coast and across the inland and pacific Northwest. I love to travel by train. Even if the schedule is occasionally cruel. I love the rhythm. The sounds. The room to stretch out and the freedom to get up and move.

I love the way the world, flying by as we roll along on cold steel rails, is still recognizable to me. The people and buildings in the towns, the cars on the freeways and the cows in the fields are exactly the way they would be if I were there beside them. From the air, in a plane, I look down on a patchwork planet, a God’s-eye view of a relief map of miniature mountains and gossamer rivers threading through the landscape. But from a train window everything is in scale. I am no bigger, nor smaller, than I am meant to be.

Soon, we were deep in the countryside and there were no more lights to catch my eye. No more slumbering towns to wonder about. No more windows to peer into as we moved past.

Rocking from side to side, cradled in my tiny room, I slept. And, when I awoke to the knocking on my compartment door - another civilized habit impossible to imagine in any other mode of travel, it was still dark although I knew the sun was just rising beyond the mountains to the east.

I gathered my things and stepped out into the cold Montana winter morning. And, after a moment, the train pulled forward and rolled slowly on.

You can hear this audio essay at Public Radio Exchange

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons,” and can be reached at

Glacier National Park: Going to the Sun Road in Winter

Special to Spokesman-Review "Pinch"
By Cheryl-Anne Millsap
Feb. 21, 2010

We drove into the west entrance of Glacier National Park late in the clear February morning and our tires crunched into the frozen crust of last week’s snowfall. The cold, sweet, air bit at our faces as we opened the back of the car and unloaded our gear.

Strapping snowshoes on our feet, we put on gloves and hats and slipping our hands into the straps of our poles, we set out. Our lunch of hearty sandwiches on homemade bread, each as thick as a doorstop, was stowed and ready for a picnic along the way.

The wide flat trail we followed was much more than a path meant for meandering. In the summer, which comes late to the northwest, the 60-mile Going to the Sun road in Glacier National Park is a busy throughway, carrying hundreds of thousands of tourists from one side of the 1.2 million acre park to the other. But in winter, which comes early, the road closes and becomes a place to play. The only human sounds are the scraping of snowshoes or the gliding sound of cross-country skis. Occasionally a laugh slices into the solitude.

Glacier is magnificent in summer, grand in the fall, but the 100-year-old park comes into its own in the deepest part of winter. Heavy snow settles onto the bowed branches of evergreen trees and creates soft white sculptures, like cotton candy towers and castles, and drifts over fallen logs in the forest. Animal tracks; moose, mink, wolf and rabbit criss-cross the trails. The razored edges of the mountains jut above the horizon, piercing the wreath of clouds that hang over the valley and touch their own reflection in the mirrored surface of Lake MCDonald. It is impossible to be here - to be in such a wild and majestic place - and not be moved by the power of nature.

We walked on, following the curve, arms swinging, poles stabbing into the snow. The wintery sun was by now hidden somewhere high overhead. A solitary peak, framed by the trees on either side of the road, loomed in the distance.

When it was time to eat, we moved off the trail and planted our poles in the snow to hold our caps and gloves. Out of the daypack came the sandwiches, the cold salads and fruit. We ate quietly, speaking now and then, turning to watch others moving along the snowy road, or to stare deeper into the forest. Our appetites were sharpened by the cold air and exercise. And the water tasted so good.

To be in such a wild and wonderful place, to feel the sting of the frozen air with each breath, savoring every bite of a simple meal, was a splendid feast. And, as we put back on our hats and gloves, picked up the poles and started back the way we had come, we were truly well fed.
Body and soul.

You can hear the audio essay of this piece at Public Radio Exchange.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons,” and can be reached at

Luna gazing

I had a Symphony Associates lunch meeting at Luna. It would have been easy enough to rush in, order food and get straight to the details at hand. But, to do that would have meant not taking a moment to appreciate one of the loveliest locations in Spokane. And that would have been a terrible shame. Luna begs one to slow down, take a closer look at the one-of-a-kind antiques and collectibles scattered throughout the lovely building: Antique marble-topped tables. Rich fabrics. An elegant use of color and texture and the study for tableau.
Owners William and Marcia Bond, particularly Marcia's gift for design and decor, has created a space that not only feeds the body, it feeds the soul.
It's no surprise that their home has been featured in local and national magazines.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Our Daily Bread

We only spent a day in Missoula, but while we were there we got our share of good bread. First, a quick stop at Le Petit Outre for a yummy pastry. The Bacca Florentine, about the size of a ping pong paddle, was delicious. Wish I could bake like that.

From there, we drove to the Great Harvest Bread Co. All in the name of research, of course.
I have five words for you: Honking big cheddar bread sticks.
Buy. Eat. Taste. Smile.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Oh, Wilma. You beautiful thing!

Missoula has more than its share of natural beauty. The Clark Fork River rambles through town. Mountains ring the valley. But one of the sights you need to see is entirely man-made.
The elegant Wilma Theater reigns over the pretty little town. Built in 1921, and named after Edna Wilma, the vaudeville-star wife of the builder, the elegant Louis X1V theater and concert hall is still a vibrant social hub. A steady stream of entertainers and big names appears throughout the year.

Stepping inside, you can easily imagine Missoula at its early 20th Century best. Gilded and tasseled and just this side of paradise.

Missoula, Montana

Looking for a little fun, we drove over to Missoula, Montana for the day.

We left Spokane early enough that we were able to make it to Missoula around lunch time. The drive, as always, was beautiful.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Winter in Glacier National Park

I've seen Glacier National Park in the summertime. When the sky is so blue you could swim in it and the forest is lush and green.

I've been there in the fall. When the natural world is at its busiest, preparing for the long winter to come. One September night in East Glacier a mountain lion and her two cubs crossed the road in front of us. The lioness stopped to give us a long look, her babies peeking around her, before disappearing into the trees beside the road.

In the winter, the air is sweet and clean and the blanket of snow softens the rugged landscape. There is a quiet that settles on the park and once you step into it it feeds you, like a vitamin you didn't know you needed.

I drove through West Glacier recently, skirting the shores of Lake McDonald. The mirrored surface of the lake reflected the snowy peaks of the mountains and threw back images of the blue sky breaking through the clouds. Even the bare trees, a stark reminder of the fire that swept through the park in 2003, were somehow beautiful.

I was so moved by my time in the park that I drove back to Glacier National Park the following weekend, bringing my husband and two of my daughters along.

Social scientists say one critical element of true happiness is the bond of a shared experience. Perhaps this is why I had to return. And to bring my loved ones with me. I needed to share what I'd seen and felt. To know they had a chance to experience the same wonder. And, they did.

We drove home under the spell of the ancient landscape. Permanently changed.