Thursday, November 5, 2015

Life as a Garden

I can feel the moisture from the damp grass seeping into the fabric of my jeans as I kneel, pulling up the sunflower seedlings that have sprouted beneath the bird feeder. I push my hair back and accidentally smear a bit of mud across my cheek. A row of house finches sits on the telephone line above my head, calling to one another as they watch me work, waiting for a chance to swoop in and scatter more seeds as they feast.  Sure enough, the moment I stand up and move away they fly in.

 It is so early that most of the neighbors are still asleep and as I work it feels as though I have the street to myself. Deadheading the roses, snipping lavender buds to dry, staking up a drooping delphinium, I am alone with my thoughts and I relish the quiet.  

 If you were to ask me if I am a gardener, I would say no. I never quite feel as though I am entitled to own the title. I don’t know enough. The evidence of my mistakes surrounds me each time I step out my back door. That phlox was planted too close to the front of the border. This rose is too shaded. That Hosta is wilting in a spot with too much sun. I am constantly planting and transplanting, adjusting to the demands of my tiny space. I do and then undo and do again. And that, I have decided, is precisely the appeal. 

The harshest lesson life teaches us is that there are few do-overs. We get one chance and then have to live with our mistakes. We make our beds and learn to lie in them. But a flower bed is another story. We make it, unmake it and then make it again. As often as we please. This, I think as I stand and survey what I have done, I can control. There is not much else in my life that I can say that about.

Another appeal of a garden is that it gives back. It returns the love we plant into the soil. A garden allows us to chart our progress. This is a rare thing in an ordinary life. Most of us work at marriages, at parenting and careers without the space and leisure to step back and take measure of what we’re doing. It’s only later, sometimes too much later, that we can see our mistakes, but by then its too late. But my garden guides me as I go. Too little water, too much sun, not enough fertilizer and I know. All I have to do is take the time to really look. And then I can make it right.

There is a spot on the patio where I can stand and trace the growth of a young tree I planted this spring , measuring its height against the back of the garage on the lot behind mine. Each day its uppermost branches stretch a but more and soon it will be as tall as the structure behind  the fence. The tree will be here long after I’m gone and it pleases me to watch it grow.

 I can’t wish away the the physical effects of the years behind me. I cannot undo the mistakes I have made in my life. But what I can do is step out the back door each morning, coffee in hand, and take a good long look at what’s in front of me. And if something isn’t right I can dig right in and start all over again.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s writes for The Spokesman-Review. This essay appeared in The Spokesman-Review's "Pinch" edition. Cheryl-Anne is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at

Doing nothing? Nothing doing.


         The plan was to do nothing. To spend a week enjoying my garden, relaxing in a quiet house and taking advantage of the solitude.
As usual, I didnt follow the plan.
For one whole week I was going to have the place to myself and I was going to enjoy my tidy little house and not lift a finger if I didnt want to. 
The problem is, I just cant sit still that long and almost immediately I was surrounded by a chaos and clutter. 
         For some reason, I cant remember what I was looking for, I went to the basement storeroom and dug around in a couple of boxes. In the process I unearthed, among other things, a package of slides that had been missing for several years and I completely lost track of time while I held paper-framed squares of film up to the light. Of course I brought the box upstairs with me and soon they were scattered across the top of the dining room table. I didnt want to put them away again until I got them marked and sorted so they're still there.
The next day I realized that this would be a good time to wash summers dust and dirt out of the slipcovers that cover the sofa and chairs in the living room. Now the room is tumbled with cushions and furniture wearing only its white muslin underwear.
The rug store called to say the old rug Id bought online and had cleaned was ready, so I picked it up and dropped the long, heavy, rolled carpet in a corner. Ill put it down after I wrestle the furniture back into the slipcovers. 
I ran a few errands one day and couldnt resist stopping by one of my favorite antiques stores. Wouldnt you know, just as I was leaving with empty hands, one of the dealers walked in with the little bedside table Id been searching for. I brought it home and put it in place, but now the old table has no place so its pushed into a corner until I can take it down to the store room. And Im afraid of what will happen if I go back down there.
I woke up one cool morning and pulled out a sweater. I decided, while I was at it, to put away all the linen and lightweight pieces and bring out the rest of my sweaters and winter clothing. It was easier to sort everything while it was all out and soon there was a big pile of giveaway items in the dining room, beside the table still littered with photographs.  
I watched a movie one night and instead of making a nest on the sofa I organized the linen closet while it played. More sorting and a stack of old towels and sheets added to the giveaway pile.
I have no one but myself to blame for this mess, but the tidy little house I was going to enjoy is now a wreck. And the book I was dying to read?  Still unopened on the (new) little table by the bed.
Why is it some of us just cant sit still? Cant leave well enough alone? I think of myself as semi-retired. Ive stopped working full time and have even cut back on my part-time writing assignments. I wanted more free time to take care of myself and the flexibility to enjoy time with my family. But for the life of me, I just cant get the knack of it. If there isnt a project, I invent one.
My solo staycation ends tomorrow. I have a dinner party coming up. And my house is a disaster.
 I have a lot of work to do, but this time I mean it. Im going to get everything straightened up, put away and organized and Im going to leave it that way. 
Right after I paint the bathroom. I hadnt noticed how drab it looks.

This essay first appeared in Spokane's "Prime" magazine and in The Spokesman-Review's "Pinch" edition. Cheryl-Anne Millsaps audio essays can be heard each week on Spokane Public Radio. She is the author of Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Put the phone down and look up at what you're missing!


Having spent so much time in airports and on airplanes the last few years, I’ve had a lot of time to watch parents and children all over the world. Sadly, the one thing they all seem to have in common, no matter where I am, no matter where they are, is distance.

The children, from preschoolers to teenagers, are almost always focused on tablets and iPads, watching a movie or playing a game. Beside them, their parents are hunched over the smartphones in their own hands scrolling through emails or Facebook posts. Occasionally one will speak to the other but for the most part they are lost in their personal entertainment. There is a brief flurry of activity as we board but once the seat belts are on everyone either goes back to their handheld toy or turns on the seat-back screen.

I find it all vaguely alarming.

I know how hard it is to control a child who is bored, miserable and trapped in some kind of adult environment. Keeping my own four happy—or at least keeping them from spinning out of control—was exhausting. I went to great lengths to be prepared. I kept storybooks and treats in my purse. I cajoled. I made threats. I held them in my lap and whispered made-up stories. I sometimes wore a necklace that had a tiny bottle of bubble solution on a silver chain and I would blow bubbles to amuse them.

When my son and daughters were small each of them participated in some kind of organized activity. Over the years there were ballet lessons, music lessons, art classes and a variety of sports. While they danced or tumbled or played the scales, I gossiped with the other mothers, flipped through a magazine or, when I didn’t have a little one in tow, read a book. But always with one eye on my child. My daughter just signed up her three-year-old daughter for a movement class and I tagged  along for the first one. We took our seat and watched her as she followed the other children and the group leaders. Looking on as she played, I was reminded of all the hours I spent watching my children.

I looked around at the parents—my daughter’s generation—seated in chairs around the room and I was dismayed to see exactly what I see in so many airports: Men and women bowed over phones, endlessly scrolling and texting. At least half of the parents who’d brought their kids were either looking at their phones or talking on them. My husband often takes her to the park and he tells me it’s the same there. Children play while parents stare at tiny screens.

Helicopter parents have been replaced by drones.

How will we ever teach our children to be present in their own lives and the lives of others if we take every opportunity to distract ourselves?

Sometimes, when my children were small and older women would see me struggling with a stormy toddler, they would smile and remind me to enjoy it. One day, they would say, I would look up and my children would be grown.

Now I am one of those older women and I find myself wanting to say the same thing every time I see a man or woman missing a moment with a child that will never come again.

One of these days, I want to say, you’ll wish you’d looked up.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is the author of Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons. She can be reached at

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Dream Season in the City of Lilacs

   In the dream I stepped up on the porch of an old house, walked across weathered and warped floorboards and, cupping my hands around my face to block the outside light, peered into one of the clouded glass panes of one of the front windows. Through the dust I could see a few pieces of furniture—a table and chair in the corner, an old bed frame—but it was obvious the house was empty and had been so for a long time.

    I wasn’t sure how I got to the house but I could tell it had once been someone’s home. As I looked around I noticed a tall lilac tree growing at the end of the porch. It was as tall as the house and its leafy branches, heavy with deep purple blooms, spilled over the rail, forming a canopy around the porch swing. The air was filled with their fragrance.
    At that point something woke me and as the dream slipped away, fading like a wisp of smoke, I opened my eyes to the sound of robins, the early birds who wake up long before the sun rises, calling “Cheer up, Cheer up” to one another.

    Through the window I watched the sky grow slowly lighter. When a light breeze blew and ruffled the curtains at the window, the fragrance of lilacs trailed through the room and I realized the perfume must have stolen into my dreams and become part of what I was imagining as I slept, the way a newborn’s cries or morning voices on the bedside radio might do. I’d caught the scent and my mind had simply written a story to go with it. Isn’t it wonderful what the human brain can do?

    I lay there as long as I could, unwilling to leave the warmth of my bed, the music of the birds and the faint perfume of the lilacs, before I slipped out of bed and into my day.

    The first lilacs in Spokane were planted almost 110 years ago, when J.J. Browne, one of the city’s founders, planted a pair at his home. Others followed and Spokane quickly adopted the fragrant flower and they were planted at homes in every neighborhood. By the 1930s we were the “Lilac City” and a section of Manito Park was planted as a lilac garden. This time of year it is filled with people who stop what they are doing and come to the park to smell the spring flowers.

    That afternoon, after my walk through the park, I went to the corner of my backyard where lilacs grow. I sat down on my grandmother’s wrought iron bench, under an umbrella of branches laden with cascading blooms, and let the day end as it had begun.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Wild Spokane


    I had a bad case of cabin fever. For days Spokane had been cloaked in a dense and heavy winter fog and I’d been buried in the details of a frustrating project that at times seemed as though it would never be wrapped up. I’d been stuck in the house for too long, with only short walks to break the monotony and I needed some kind of distraction. 

    Finally, fed up, I closed my computer, put on my raincoat and boots and clipped the leash to my puppy’s soft harness. We walked out of the front door and by habit turned at the corner in the direction of the park. Mantito Park, this 100-year-old place of gardens and meadows and meandering paths, is where I go when I need respite.  

    The fog had deepened with the twilight, turning into a soft rain that fell on my umbrella and settled onto the puppy’s thick curly coat like a jeweled net of glittering raindrops.    

    The windows of the houses we passed on our way glowed and I could see people moving in rooms as they settled in for the evening. They looked like characters in a silent play.

    The dense shrubbery around the pathway of the entrance to the formal garden was blurred by the mist, giving the place a mysterious feel. At that moment I happened to glance up into the low branches of one of the tall trees that line the property and looked right into the wide unblinking eyes of a barred owl as he sat watching me. I stopped in my tracks and for a moment we stared at one another. Then, as if to dismiss me and my silly dog, he turned away and gazed off into the distance.

    He was there watching for a meal and I was just ambling with no particular purpose. His mind was on mouse or rabbit for dinner, prey I’d probably sent scurrying away as I approached. Mine was on work deadlines and family matters and a million other things. And yet, for a moment, our worlds had intersected. 

    Manito Park, for all its groomed and carefully tended elegance, is still— at heart—a wild place. I often see owls and hawks and eagles sweeping over and around the park, their raptor eyes trained on the grassy meadows, scanning for prey. Sometimes I stumble onto a pile of torn feathers and stained snow giving evidence of a meal. I see the tracks of raccoons and the lingering scent of foraging skunks and a large flock of wild turkeys roams the place, parading across neighborhood streets and drawing onlookers as they stroll. 

    In the past there have been wilder visitors, like bears or mountain lions, and as if to prove the point, as I followed the path I noticed what I assumed was an off-leash dog—a particular pet peeve—standing beside one of the shadowy trees at the edge of the meadow. The man and woman on the path ahead of me walked right past the large leggy creature without seeing it but I pulled up, not wanting to encounter a strange animal, especially with a young puppy just learning to navigate the world on a leash. 

    I turned to take another route home and was almost there before it dawned on me that what I’d seen wasn’t a dog at all. Something that big, with legs like that, had to have been a moose. They still wander the park from time to time and sightings are not all that unusual.

    Still thinking about the owl and the moose, noticing the gauzy moon just rising in the east, I walked back to my own house--its windows bright and warm in the chilly gloom--and the puppy and I stepped in out of the cold and damp. We’d had our walk, our exercise, and our brief taste of the wild, and it was enough. The puppy went back to his basket and I went back to my work. And the moon continued its slow climb behind the curtain of the thick wet sky.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Mysterious World of Old Maps

    An old map of Paris hangs on the wall near my bed and it’s often the first thing I see in the morning. I can lie in bed in Washington State and navigate the narrow winding streets of the left bank or the Seine as it curves around the City of Light.
    In the hallway upstairs, a large 1981 map of a section of Lower Manhattan takes up most of the wall between doors and I often stop to study it as I pass, tracing my finger along avenues and cross streets, picking out familiar buildings and landmarks. I look at it and remember my first visit to the Big Apple that very same year.

    A vintage map of Italy hangs just inside my back door and on it is the port out of which my daughter sails on her marine geology assignments. Every time I go out I think of her and through the map I connect with my child who is so far away.

     I have many other old maps around the house. They are pinned to my bulletin board, tucked into drawers or slipped between the pages of my favorite books. I love to stumble onto one and stop to study it for a moment.

    In this age of GPS and voice-activated navigation, when my phone or my car can get me wherever I want to go, one clearly enunciated command at a time, I am still drawn to these printed relics and I keep bringing them home.
    Some I pick up because they are beautiful, illustrated with elaborate care and tinted by age.  Others because they remind me of places I’ve seen or they inspire me to go where I’ve never been.
    But some of the maps in my possession were chosen as much for their mystery as their beauty. Like the WWI era map of Paris and its environs with the name of a British officer of The Queen’s Regiment and the dates 1914-1920 handwritten in ink on the front.

    I found it and bought it online and when it arrived I unwrapped the package and carefully unfolded the 100-year-old paper-on-linen map. Intrigued about the man who’d owned it, I managed to find what appear to be a partial military record for the Captain Francis. The single index card states his medals—the war medals mailed to every veteran— were returned, the package marked with the words “Gone away.”

        Holding the fragile linen and paper remainder of a life I can only imagine, I’m left to wonder what became of the man who must have studied it often as he drove on roads around the city, in a country torn by such a brutal war. Where did he go after the fragile peace was restored?   

    Gone away. Such power in two words. I wonder about Captain Francis’s life after the war. Why did he label his map 1914-1920 when the war ended in 1918? Did he remain in France instead of returning to his life in England? Was he one of those who lost themselves somewhere in the shattered landscape?

    So many questions and so few answers.

    I’ll probably never the mystery of N.B. Francis. I keep looking but so many records of the First World War were destroyed by the second and there is precious little to go on. 
    A man who was a stranger to me lived and died decades ago, but I can still follow his shadow back through time and into a period of history that changed the world. He left a map.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s writes the Home Planet column for The Spokesman-Review. Her audio 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

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Cooper's Hawk


   A light snow had been falling all morning, just enough to dust the streets and tree branches, just enough to freshen the dirty crust of old snow without making the roads treacherous. 

    We were each in our favorite spots in the living room. I was in my chair, my feet on the ottoman, and he was stretched out on the sofa. We had our coffee and the Sunday papers and no particular plans for the day. 

     When my husband got up to refill our cups he stopped at the window that looks out on the tree in the front yard, the one with the bird feeders in it. All morning we’d been watching the bird show as small, hungry finches flew in and out.

    “There’s a bird out here eating one of your birds,” he said.

    I looked up from the New York Times and blinked at him, trying to make sense of what he’d said. 


    “A bird is eating another bird.”

    I chase away the neighborhood’s young cats all the time, I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d told me a cat had struck. But a bird had killed a bird?

    I walked over to the window and peered through the curtain. Sure enough, a small hawk was on the front walk that leads to my front door and he was devouring the remains of a goldfinch.

    I was surprised to see there were still a few finches and Junco’s at the feeder, but they seemed to have one eye on the feeding predator below them. I guess the death of one of the flock had just bought them all a little time. Danger was distracted for at least a few minutes.

    I looked down at the hawk again and I realized he was not a stranger to me.
    Late last summer my son spent a few days with us and as he was leaving we stood outside and said our goodbyes. Suddenly a large bird flew low, right over our heads, and landed clumsily in a small tree nearby.

    We moved closer and he peered down at us through the screen of the branches. It was a young Cooper’s hawk, still wearing his juvenile spots, and I suspected he was out doing his first solo hunting. He’d made a lot of noise for a bird that is known for moving with great bursts of silent speed. I pulled my phone out of my pocket and snapped his photo before he launched himself out of the ornamental tree and moved to one of the tall Chestnut trees on the corner. 

    As my son put the last of his things in his truck we talked about our good fortune, about feeling lucky to get such a close look at a beautiful raptor. Then, one more hug and he was on is way. Later, I sent him the photo I’d taken.

    Now, in mid-winter, I can’t prove it, but I have the feeling the proud hunter calmly devouring his catch as we watched was the same bird I’d seen all those months ago. Like most of his kind, in the winter he stakes out urban feeders hoping for an easy meal and that morning, at the feeder in my front yard, his patience had paid off.

    The hawk finished his meal—leaving nothing but feathers scattered on the fresh powder—and flew up to the high branches of one of the Ponderosa pines across the street. I stayed by the window, wondering what would happen next. After a while a few goldfinches and pine siskins returned to the feeders. They were hesitant and nervous, but the winter day was cold and raw and to survive they had to eat

    Suddenly, the hawk swept in again with a stealth and speed that shocked me. One moment the birds were alone quietly feeding and the next they were scattering in all directions, fleeing from danger. He didn’t get lucky that time but the tiny birds took the hint. They stayed away for the rest of the day.

    A few days later I watched the goldfinches gather again in the Chestnut branches at the end of the street, dozens of them watching my feeder, chattering loudly as if discussing what to do. Suddenly, as if warned by one of their number, in one smooth motion the entire flock lifted, flew in a circle over my house. Arcing gracefully, they turned toward the park, flying over chimneys and treetops, off to a safer address until the hawk moves on.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s is a columnist at Her audio 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

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Spokane in Soft Focus

The fog comes in
on little cat feet

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

    That short poem, Carl Sandburg’s classic American haiku, is the first poetry I remember learning. I must have been in the 2nd or 3rd grade, in the 1960s when rote learning was still part of the general curriculum. Our teacher wrote it across the flat black surface of the blackboard in her perfect looping script. From our desks, we read it out of the books we held in our hands and repeated it in unison, a chorus of high lilting, singsong, voices. 

    The imagery of Sandburg’s “Fog” is elemental and perfectly captures the silent, deliberate movement of fog as it takes over the landscape. That short poem has come to mind numerous times this winter, what has seemed to be an especially foggy winter in Spokane. 

    Each morning I get out of bed before light and make my way downstairs. I take my first cup of coffee and my laptop to my favorite chair next to the fireplace in the living room. The chair faces the big front window and as I write I am able to watch as the day comes to life. 

    Most mornings this winter the light has come on soft and white, shrouded in the heavy mist that sinks from the sky to meet the mist that rises from the river at the bottom of the “hill.” 

    The fog steals through the tall Ponderosa pine trees, wrapping my view in gauze, freezing as it falls onto bare branches, forming a slick sheen on the city’s and streets leaving Spokane in soft focus. Ordinary, familiar, streets and buildings become mysterious as they disappear into or loom out of the fog. Even the birds in the Hawthorn tree in front of my window are filtered, like performers on stage behind a scrim. 

    This time of year we expect snow. We expect to look out the window in January and see fat flakes drifting down and collecting. We expect to shovel the walks and driveway and curse the berms left behind by the city’s plows. But so far, with only a few exceptions, the real snow has stayed away leaving us only the tough grey crust of old snowfall. And winter has replaced it with heavy fog that doesn’t burn off until late in the day, if it burns off at all. Some days the day ends as it began, draped in moisture.

    Winter will come, I’m sure. It always does. The sky will clear and if we’re lucky it will freeze and deliver the snow that piles up on the mountains and then melts into rushing rivers and refills the aquifer that quenches the thirst of a a dry land.

    And then, like a cat that comes and goes as it pleases, the fog will lift on graceful silent haunches and move silently on.   

Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s audio 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

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Bird Watching for Beginners

      My husband handed me a large lightweight box to open on Christmas morning and for once he had me stumped. I hadn’t asked for anything in particular and I couldn’t imagine what he’d put under the tree.

When I peeled away the wrapping paper I saw it was an oversized finch feeding station, three long tubes dissected by perches for 24 birds. The big station made the individual feeders I already had hanging--each with no more than 6 perches--look ridiculously small. He helped me fill the tubes with the Nijer seed and with my son's help hung it from a branch in the tree outside the big front window of our Cape Cod cottage. They teased me about the possibility of ever seeing it full of birds. 

But the next morning, as light began to filter through the darkness, I was up and I looked out the front window. There were already a few visitors to the feeder—the proverbial early birds—and by the time the sun was completely up, what sun there was on such a cold grey winter day, there was a busy goldfinch or pine siskin on every perch with at least another dozen flitting around the tree waiting for a turn or trying to bully someone into abandoning their spot.

Snow began to fall, drifting into soft piles on the limbs, and the tree was alive with tiny, hungry, beautiful birds.

One by one as my son and daughters, home for the holiday, woke up and made their way downstairs, they walked by the window and stopped to comment on what was going on in the branches. Their delight mirrored my own.

On New Year’s Eve we discovered the small frozen body of a bird beneath the feeder. I don’t know if it succumbed to the bitter cold or was the victim of a predator, maybe it died of old age, but after a holiday season that was marked by our family’s own loss, the tableau at the feeder just outside the window was a reminder that life can be unfair, and that even when there’s enough for all, not everyone is strong enough to survive.
Now, weeks into the new year, with everyone back to work or away at school I have the house to myself and the birds, the finches, iskins and chickadees are still busy in the tree. They are good company.

Writing is a solitary occupation. Most of my work is done alone in a quiet house. The quick, determined movement of the birds as they feed is a welcome distraction when I look up from my computer. Off and on throughout the day I find myself standing in front of the wide north-facing window in my living room, a hot cup of tea in my cold hands, daydreaming as I watch the birds fly in and out of the tree.

It is not lost on me that what I am enjoying is actually their struggle to survive. The need to fuel the constant movement that keeps them warm. their constant vulnerability to cats and other predators that stalk and hunt them, mocks my search for the right word or anxiety about meeting some kind of trivial deadline.

Every day I watch the birds and they keep a wary eye on me as I stand at the window. And the fluttering on either side of the glass is really nothing more than the work of getting up and going on.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s 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

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Do You Hear What I Hear?

The Saturday after Thanksgiving, my daughters and I went to breakfast at the grand Davenport Hotel in downtown Spokane. Then, after eggs and bacon and pastries in the elegant ballroom, we walked a few short blocks to the mall. 

We do this every year. It’s how we officially kick off the holiday season. We spend a day in the city to do a little shopping, wave at Santa sitting in his big chair beneath the giant tree, and enjoy the crowd. 

By the time we made it to the toy store, I was tired. My favorite boots were pinching my feet, so I motioned toward the bench in the mall just outside the store and told my youngest daughter that’s where I would be. Her sister was in another store.

“Take your time,” I said, glad for the chance to sit for a minute. “Take as long as you want.” 

While she looked at the art supplies and the model horses, I looked at the people around me. There were busy men and women carrying shopping bags and hurrying from one stop to the next. And there were strollers who were only window-shopping, moving leisurely through the crowd. 

A group of carolers, dressed in Victorian costumes, appeared and began to sing. The songs were old and very familiar to me. I didn’t need a book to sing along, I had heard them since the day I was born. Songs I had sung and songs that had been sung to me for as long as I could remember. 

As I sat on the bench listening, I noticed a man sitting at a table nearby. He didn’t look like the other shoppers thronging the mall. His clothes were dirty and ill-fitting. His hair was too long and shaggy. His shoelaces were tied around his ankles to keep his hand-me-down shoes from slipping off his feet. 
The man was someone who had come into the mall, away from the street, to get in out of the cold. He wasn’t a shopper, he was just passing through. 

When the carolers started singing, the man looked up and then slowly rose and left the table. He moved, a bit unsteadily, in their direction. And it was the way he walked, like a sleepwalker or a toy being pulled by a string, that held my attention. I watched him as he found a place to stand and watch the performers.

The carolers sang one song after another. And the man never moved. He stood there, focused on the four young singers and the music. 

As I studied him, struck by his reaction, I wondered where the music was taking him. I wondered if the old familiar carols filled some empty place inside him. 

I suppose it’s possible he was remembering some really dreadful holidays, when hands were raised, voices were harsh and comfort was in short supply. But I don’t think he was.

When something triggers a memory like that we move away, not toward, the reminder. We duck our heads and hurry past, anxious to get out of the line of fire. But the man in the mall did everything but levitate in the direction of the singers. His face was rapt and open. He was pulled into the music, not pushed away.

My daughter called me to come into the store with her so I got up off the bench and did as she asked. When we came back out into the mall and met up with her sister, the man was gone.

I looked down at my little girl’s face and I linked arms with her sister. I thought about the man. Somewhere, some time, he’d been someone’s little boy. 

I don’t know where he went at the end of the day. I went home. But deep inside us both, we sang the same song.

This column first appeared in The Spokesman-Review in December 2006. 

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Ebenezer's Ghosts Still Carry the Spirit of Christmas

This column first ran in The Spokesman-Review in 2007 under the headline Revisiting Scrooge.
This week, losing the fight with a miserable cold, I decided to surrender and rest. I turned off my phone and crawled back under the covers with my copy of Dickens' A Christmas Carol. When I finished the book I may not have lost the cold but I was warm and comfortable and filled with the spirit of Christmas.

 I pulled the book off the shelf, plumped up the pillows on my bed and settled in for a good read. The book is old, almost 100 years old, and the pages are dog-eared and as brown and fragile as dried leaves. I’ve had it since I was a girl.

Alone in the room, a blanket over my feet, I opened it and read the first line: “Marley was dead; to begin with.”

Six little words and I am deep in a familiar landscape.

Over the years I’ve picked up my old copy of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol many times. I don’t read it every year – I should – but I do try to read it often enough to retain the feel of the piece. There’s simply nothing else like it.

This year, like every other time, I was struck by the power of the bleak and frigid scene described. By the vivid images painted by words.

You know the story … It is Christmas Eve, but that doesn’t matter to Ebenezer Scrooge. He doesn’t keep the holiday. Scrooge is a cold man, frozen by the coldness within him. He is a bitter and lonely and miserly man who has forsaken every human comfort. He eats only what he needs to live. He has no use for celebration or financial – or emotional – extravagance. He is, Dickens tells us, as self contained and solitary as an oyster.

By the time I’d finished the first chapter I was so deeply absorbed that when I looked up I realized I had burrowed down under the comforter until it covered me completely. It was even draped over my head.

When I peeked out, still under the spell of the book, thinking of the “piercing, biting, searching cold” of London streets, I half expected to see my breath hang in the air like little clouds. But the lamps were on and the room was warm and cozy.

I covered my head and went back to my book. I was swept up in the visits by the spirits. By the quiet dignity of Bob Cratchit. By the gradual softening of Scrooge’s heart.

I was interrupted and had to put the book down and I didn’t pick it up again for a few days. When I did, I fell quickly back into the story and read it to the end.

It’s a shame about Scrooge. Oh, I don’t mean what happened to him the night the spirits came to show him the error of his ways. I mean what has happened to him in the more than 160 years since he was created by Charles Dickens.

To most people, Ebenezer Scrooge is a cantankerous character from a movie or a cartoon. He is an actor dressed in stylized Victorian garb, a caricature of greed and heartlessness. He scowls and spits Bah Humbug to anyone who approaches. He is a symbol of penny pinching and stinginess. The lack of Christmas spirit.

But the real Scrooge only comes alive when you read the book. That’s when you see the deepest message in the tale. It wasn’t just his greed and lack of charity that nearly destroyed the man. It was the isolation. The lack of human closeness and comfort. His world drew in tightly around him and he learned “To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance.” He forgot how to be tender. He grew hard and flinty. He became “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner.”

That is what the spirits revealed to him. When he saw the damage done to himself and others, Scrooge begged to be allowed to make amends. And his gift – his Christmas miracle – was that the night was rewound and he was allowed a fresh start.

For the rest of his life, “Scrooge was better than his word,” Dickens tells us. “He did it all and infinitely more.”

Tonight is Christmas Eve. The night when each of us, in our own way, is visited by the ghost of Christmas present and that yet to come. And when, like poor old Ebenezer Scrooge as he clung to the ghost of Christmas past, we will be “conscious of a thousand odors floating in the air, each one connected with a thousand thoughts, and hopes, and joys and cares long, long, forgotten.”

God bless us every one.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Holiday reality isn't wrapped with ribbon and pretty paper


 This column appeared in The Spokesman-Review on December 5 2005, and is one of my most popular public radio audio essays. I think that's because it addresses something most of us learn sooner or later: Life, even when we wrap it in pretty paper and decorate it with bows and ribbon, isn't always pretty. CAM

My daughter came to me fighting back tears. She hovered at my side for a moment before drooping dramatically and bonelessly, the way girls do so well, onto the sofa beside me.

“What’s wrong,” I asked, warily because I never know what’s coming.

“I don’t know,” she said with a long sigh. “Christmas just isn’t the same anymore.”

It was my turn to heave a deep sigh. There were still Thanksgiving leftovers in the refrigerator, for goodness sake. It wasn’t even December.

I offered hugs and sympathy, and gave a little pep talk about how we see things differently as we age and it’s really up to us as individuals to make any day, not just the holidays, wonderful, but what I wanted to say was, “Oh yes it is. Christmas is exactly the same.”

The truth is the picture-perfect Christmas my child was pining for never really existed. It was the magic castle at the top of a fairytale beanstalk that I planted for her.

She was blissfully unaware of the times the checkbook wouldn’t balance or I was reduced to tears over a must-have toy that couldn’t be found anywhere in town.

She didn’t worry about the tree that died weeks before Christmas and stood in the living room like ornamented kindling.

It all looked perfect to her.

In some ways the holiday season is a beautiful but empty package. We’re driven by the belief that we can create this one perfect day, or season, and the warmth generated by it will carry us through the rest of the year. We spend, bake and shop. We decorate around worry, unhappiness and dissatisfaction pretending they aren’t there.

As my daughter rested her head on my shoulder, I recalled a conversation with a friend. We met for coffee, and she told me she was getting a divorce. “The thing is, the marriage has been over a long time” she told me, slowly stirring the lukewarm coffee in her cup. “But every year I’d make this gut-wrenching decision to leave and then I’d think about the holidays, and I just couldn’t do it.”

It was bad enough to know she was ruining her children’s lives, but the holidays, too? That was too much.

Facing the truth that the divorce would tarnish every Christmas, and every other special occasion the family would celebrate in the future, she surrendered. It was that important to her.

Year after year she put on another perfect Christmas for a family that was broken but just didn’t know it.

Finally, no amount of scotch tape and silk ribbon could keep it all together. The marriage fell apart, she left – in the summer – and the family learned how to do things, how to do everything, differently.

It wasn’t pretty or perfect, and it wasn’t easy, but it eventually worked. She told me later, after she had remarried and reconciled with the child who had struggled the most with the situation, that if she hadn’t been so focused on making perfect memories for her children she might have made better decisions about a lot of things.

As I petted and consoled my daughter I tried to tell her what we so often gloss over this time of year: the truth.

Nothing shines quite as bright in real life as it does in our memory.

Growing up is hard because it means our eyes are opened to what a gift box won’t cover. We make peace with what was and what is and, eventually, move on to caring more about making the ones we love happy.

What I wanted to tell my child, but I’m not sure I got across, is that the real gift of any season is learning to find a way to see the magic in the holidays – in every day – even when you know better.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Falling into Winter

I was standing on the walkway in front of my house, watering the climbing roses that grow along the big front window, when I began to pay attention to a particular sound. I couldn't quite place what I was hearing. It was like raindrops but the sky was big and blue, without a cloud. It was like a wave of applause, but I was alone on the street. 

Still listening,  I stopped and looked around and realized it was the sound of leaves falling. Not just a few autumn leaves, drifting lazily down to the ground. It was a shower of big, curling, gold leaves from the towering horse chestnut trees on the corner. 

There was no wind to shake them free, but one after another the leaves on the uppermost branches simply let go, dropping straight down with purpose, sometimes knocking down leaves on lower branches as they went.

I stood where I was for a moment, struck by the show. The cascade of broad papery leaves increased as more and more leaves fell to the ground.

It was as if the big trees had simply shrugged them off, like weary mothers tired of clinging leafy children

The spiked husks holding the smooth brown chestnuts had already fallen and for weeks the squirrels had been busy, running across wires overhead, holding the prize in their mouths as they hurried back to the cache with more provisions for winter. I'd watched them bury chestnuts in my flower beds and in the potted plants around the patio. We’d gathered a big bowl to put out as squirrel treats in the deepest part of winter, to make amends for the nuts I’d taken out of the pots on the patio.

All that remained of the trees' industry of spring and summer and early fall--the unfurling of soft green, the messy blooms, the abundance of chestnuts--were the golden leaves. And now, one after another they fell from the branches and collected around my feet. 

I pulled my phone from my pocket and recorded a short video, a private movie of a splendid moment. 


How often had I looked up and commented that the trees seemed to have shed their leaves overnight. One day the canopy of color was there and the next it was gone. 

I felt fortunate, as is so often the case with nature, to have been in the right place at the right time to see something beautiful. In just minutes, the branches were bare with only the most tenacious leaves left behind. All was quiet again. 

I could imagine each tree heaving a great sigh. Her work was done for the year. Now she could rest. Now she could sleep.  

The calendar might disagree but I could not argue with what the trees were telling me. Fall is over and winter is coming. 

I walked back to my own yard, back to the roses, kicking at the leaves on the ground just to see them to scatter, and I thought about the things we see and the things we miss as we go about our day.

Before long the city's sweepers will scour the street and take away the litter of leaves. One morning, any day now, the gold will be gone and we will wake to the season's first snow, to a dusting of winter white on bare black branches. 

Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the U.S. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Grounded by Love

My granddaughter walked through the door and ran up to me. 

“You’re not on a plane anymore!” she said as she wrapped her arms around me. I hugged her tightly.

“No. I’m here with you.”

She's growing and she's hungry these days. The first thing she wanted was a snack: Carrots. 
“More carrots, Nana!”

While she ate she chattered, swinging her legs, wrapping her feet around the cared legs of her old oak “youth” chair. I stood at the kitchen counter peeling carrots and cutting them into toddler-friendly slices.

After she’d eaten her fill of vegetables and hummus, she asked to take a walk. The day had been cloudy and cool and already the light was beginning to fade. We put on our jackets and she asked to take her balloon along. The shiny orange Jack-O-Lantern was a gift from one of her aunts and she wears it like jewelry.

I tied the end of the ribbon that trails from the mylar balloon around her right wrist, to keep it from floating away as we walked. She also wanted her “flower,” a plastic tie-hanger that surfaced after a closet clean-out. 

The object, white plastic ‘“spokes” that hold and separate a man’s ties, is curved at the end to fit over a closet rod. When held upside down, it looks exactly like a daisy. But you’d never know this, of course, without seeing it through a toddler’s eyes. 

So, ornamented with the pumpkin balloon, holding the plastic “flower,” we stepped out into the chilly late-afternoon air. 
She automatically turned toward the park, heading for the playground we visit most afternoons, but I knew our light jackets wouldn’t be enough as the temperature dropped. So I steered us in the opposite direction, down the street and deeper into the neighborhood.

She slipped her hand into mine and I tucked my sleeve over us like a glove. As we walked she chattered the way small children do. She stopped to look at the maple leaves collaged across the sidewalk, exclaiming at the yellows and reds. A dog barked and she stopped to look around, trying to pinpoint the “Boof.”

At the corner, intimidated by the ribbon of headlights threading up and down the hill, she stopped and pressed closer to me.

“Too many cars!” she said and tightened her grip on my hand.

We waited for a break in the home-from-work traffic and crossed the street. The next block is canopied by tall sycamore trees, a tunnel of gold this time of year, and the lawns and sidewalks are littered with fallen leaves. Some homeowners had cleared their sidewalks but others hadn’t yet caught up and in places the leaves were ankle-deep. I waded in and kicked my way through. This startled her. She stopped, again, and looked down at her feet. Then she did the same thing, pushing the leaves ahead with each step.

“We are kicking leaves!” she shouted. “We kick the leaves!”

We walked another block and then crossed to the other side of the street and turned back toward my house. Again and again we plowed through leaves when we found them and she laughed out loud each time.

We crossed the busy street again, not so threatening now that the rush was over, and, what with one interesting thing after another, it took another quarter of an hour to walk the last block home. 

 I was, I realized, in that shining second, as happy as I have ever been. I’d been given the gift of uncomplicated time with a small child, something I’ve missed since my own have grown up and away. 

 I have always been a little afraid of the secret part of me that is not unlike the balloon tied to my granddaughter's wrist. I could have floated away, drifting from one adventure to another, but my children were my ballast. In becoming a mother I chose to tie myself to them and that grounded me. And now, when I am free again, able to fly if I want to, I find myself making the same choice again.

We walked up the front steps, past the pumpkin on the stoop, and through the front door. Still holding hands we stepped into the warmth of the house. That must have triggered something in her memory because she turned to me again.

“You’re not on a plane anymore,” she said with a smile.

“No. I’m here with you,” I replied, smiling down at her. 

And of all the wonderful places I have ever been, of all the places I would like to go, none is, or could ever be, as fine as where I was at that moment.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the U.S. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at

Monday, September 8, 2014

My Life as a Superhero

    The square of purple cotton, a dinner napkin, is always out because the minute she arrives at my house--Nana’s house--she demands it. What might look like a simple piece of cloth, meant to keep the crumbs off my lap, is to her as good as a set of wings. It is the source of her power.

    When she asks, I fasten it to her collar or the back of her dress with one of those clips you use to close the potato chip bag, and she immediately starts running in a circle, looking over her shoulder to see if the fabric is billowing behind her. Satisfied her cape is functioning as it should, she turns, puts her hands on her hips and her face up to the sky and bellows  “SUPER HERO, on the way!”

    She runs and runs--“flying” and shouting--until she’s distracted by something: a butterfly, an airplane, a dog barking on the other side of the fence. 

    Really, everyone should spend time in the company of a 2-year-old. There is no creature more fierce, more determined or more charming. Most 2-year-olds walk an invisible line between reality and imagination and they’re always honest. Don’t ask a 2-year-old how your hair looks unless you really want to know.

    A 2-year-old is fast. Last week she watched me pick a spent bloom on the rose that climbs the corner of the house last week and before I could stop her she’d stripped the rest of the buds off the branch.

    A 2-year-old is unpredictable. We were tossing her big blue ball to one another when, like some kind of miniature NBA star, she whirled, rocketed the ball across the patio and bounced it off the fat belly of one of the cats who’d been sprawled on his back, sleeping away the hot afternoon.  The cat, while uninjured, was sorely aggrieved. 

    Want to see pleasure at its most basic? Watch a two-and-a-half year old eat crackers and honey.

    A 2-year-old is strong. Her hands are small but she can still manage to squeeze the nozzle of the hose with enough force to soak me the minute I turn my back.

    My 2-year-old granddaughter rations hugs and kisses and when she says no, she means it. Conversely, when she’s feeling affectionate she shows it with a spontaneous full-body hug, wrapping her arms and legs around you, patting your back.

    A 2-year-old is an inspiration. The other day I finally finished a complicated project, an assignment that had been a source of stress for weeks. I sent it on its way, closed my computer and walked out to the garden, happy to be done with something so difficult. 
Sitting in my favorite spot, watching a hummingbird dip into the petunias in a corner of the garden, I could see the baby’s “cape” where she’d left it a few hours before. 

    It made me smile. Somewhere deep within me, the little girl who lives there still did just what my 2-year-old granddaughter would do. I didn’t wear her cape, I didn’t get out of my chair and run in circles, but I did turn my face up to the sun. I stretched my arms and legs and celebrated my superpower to get the job done.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the U.S. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at