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