March 21, 2017

Comforting Sanctuaries

A place of my "own" is where I am sitting this minute: a building with warm colors, a glowing fireplace, music full of zen-fullness, where my mind tends to clear, thoughts are positive - I recharge. Think Cheers and you understand what I'm saying. Do you have a place to call your own? A location on the map that, no matter how you feel, cheers you up, catapults you into a realm of peace? I sure hope so. I have a few such places; and feel very blessed.

I want to share with you some of my most cherished spots - places where, if mentioned, bring up an ahhh in me. Refuges in this harsh world. No order to this list.
  • Uptown Coffee in Howell, Michigan. I can write to my heart's content, feel safe and comforted and nurtured.
  • Hawk Island in Lansing, Michigan. Walk and talk place - one and a half miles around a large pond, which use to be a gravel pit. As a child, I'd go to this area and explore the woods, water and wildlife. Being there conjures good memories from my childhood, and creates new moments of insight during long walks with friends.
  • Any of the multitude of state parks in Michigan, with a variety of terrains from very very sandy, to rocky, to uneven and leafy, soft and mushy. These are places my husband and children love to explore, take pictures, and just be. They create a sense of how small we are, and depending which state park, a sense of how vulnerable with bear, wolf and other "dangerous" creatures surrounding us, probably licking their lips in anticipation of a good bite. 
  • In the movie, Mama Mia, the steps leading down to the water while the actors sing "Dancing Queen". I can see myself there, walking down the steps, standing on the dock, jumping in the water, feeling like a queen in my children's eyes. Sigh!
  • Kerry Town in Ann Arbor, in particular, Sweetwater, a coffee shop. We can spend hours there sipping Midnight Blend as we read and talk away the minutes.
  • The Mackinac Bridge! I was born in Marquette and take frequent trips back "home" from lower Michigan. The moment the bridge is in sight, my mind is cleared of any negative thought or concern. When we were younger traveling with our parents, the first one to sight this Bridge got a quarter - they were never paid to us - but the excitement was evident. Driving across it is another matter. It typically doesn't bother me to drive but once it did and I grew faint about a third of the way across. I opened the window and the feeling passed; told my husband at the other side. From that day forward, he always asks if I want to drive over or have him. 
  • Marquette, Michigan! For those who have been up in this beautiful beautiful town, no more explanation is necessary. It is a place where I am truly at home anywhere we wander. It is family, nature, water, hills. It is comfort, history, love.
  • Old cemeteries are a wonder. I grew up loving these as my grandfather and I would walk to a local one in Okemos - he would sit supported by a tree and I would play. They were never morbid, wonderfully peaceful to walk around, and a special place to reflect on life.
I could go on as more locations come to mind, but want to encourage you to consider the places in which you feel your "best" and healthiest - a place you can also call "home" and where all there, even the inanimate, know your name.

March 15, 2017


My father had a dry sense of humor and a love of food.  One day, he decided to eat healthier so was training to be a representative for a national health-food company.  At dad's first distributor’s conference, he took a taste of a grape-flavored protein drink and fell to the ground mid-sip, instant death.

Donald C. Olsen in his dress coat
This was very sad for our family for many years, but now that time has healed the grief, and thinking in retrospect, dying in such an ironic way would have made him chuckle.  To know that he went to the other side of life by experimenting with healthy eating - I have to guess that he would be smirking. 

I almost died a real stinky death myself.  A large truck ran a red light at the exact moment I was driving through the green signal.  It could have been quite a tragic ending, as the truck had an extended bed with full porta potties - knew they were well-used as it was an extremely hot and muggy night and my windows were down.  A thick sloshing noise emanated from the truck which balanced on two wheels during a screeching turn.  Words escaped as I said oh sh..!  If indeed I was smashed by this vehicle, I certainly would have been covered in a layer of sticky poo.  A poopy end to a life well lived. 

So, walking in my father's figurative foot steps, I kind of like the idea of an eccentric end and the truck'a'poo certainly would have fit the bill.  Headlines would announce that I'd been fertilized to death, proclaiming, "She had occasionally been dumped on in life, but was now truly dumped on in death.  She went out with a smile and a chuckle."  This is a stinky blog post, but since I enjoy storytelling, and find poo good fodder for a saga.  A little spiciness in my journey.  

March 4, 2017

Why I Take Pictures

Olsen Family Reunion, Marquette, MI 2014My childhood home was located at the bottom of a hill and when it rained heavily our greatest fear was what happened in the basement. Horrified gasps and exclamations spewed when we cracked the door open to a flooded basement – at times to mid-calf. A particularly deep water flood damaged my parent’s photo-filled cedar chest. Family pictures were barely salvageable from this soaked trunk, but placing photos individually on every available flat surface around the house saved some memories. Being a self-proclaimed family historian, I want to share the 8 reasons I take pictures. From experiences of loss from floods and fires, this is what I know for sure…
    Donald Conrad Olsen
  1. A Soulful Purpose. My father took up photography in his 50s when medical issues ravaged his body, but not his spirit. He dove wholeheartedly into this new hobby - it kept him focused, with a purpose, and he plain had fun shooting. Every aspect of photography pulled him out of a very scary and dreary time. Today, we benefit from the photo-memories left behind. For me, seeing an image of what I took the time to click, process, print is fulfilling – even the “bad” photos spur me to learn more. Sharing on social media allows others to enjoy special moments and gives me tremendous satisfaction and a semblance of pride and accomplishment.
  2. Pictures of Memorable Moments. Dad insisted on taking a picture of my sibling the day after his father died – she had been crying and refused. My father was wise and told her that a photographic record of family is important and her reaction to our grandfather’s death would be part of her history. Pictures of war, poverty, plenty, disgust, trials, indicate to me that we are human and move us into action, or possibly to tears. I am constantly on the lookout for experiences (memories) deserving to be preserved. Even when not carrying my camera, my cell phone is ready to capture history, humor, a memory, an event.
  3. Videos. Sauntering, or waddling, side to side was my father’s gait. We have an 8 mm record of his unique ambulation, learned as a toddler learning to walk while being raised on a boat. A treasure which would have been lost without video-photography.
  4. Chance Photo Opportunities. A perfect photo moment brought such emotion, including tears and smiles. My mother was resting on the sofa, chatting on the phone, when my nephew climbed on her hip. Mom smoothed his very thick black hair with loving strokes. He died young …  so this photo became even more precious as a tangible way to visualize this tender memory. Take every chance you can to click away – cell phones work well, too; be sure to download and print the timely and historical ones, before the photos are deleted and lost to history.
    Tender moments Alfreda Olsen and Corey Franco
  5. Proof is in the Photo. I’m a storyteller. An “adopted” forthright and frank matriarch refused to believe my life-stories and would insist that they were not true. One in particular, was that I was selected to a special softball team to play against some local celebrities – she did not believe me and intimated that I was “pulling her leg” – which she could not abide. But, I had pictures! The proof that I indeed played softball on this select team … against Magic Johnson, Jay Vincent and Greg Kelser. My integrity was reclaimed (and my hand mortally wounded; another story) – but only after her death.
    Alfreda Olsen always ready with a smile
  6. Pictures of Emotions. Following my mother’s death, countless people shared that mom was the most positive woman they knew. Recounting memories of mom … her humor, laughter, and bursting out with a smile when company came calling … is difficult to portray if not backed up with photographs. Taking shots of her laughing are priceless and authenticate her life, even in the midst of trials and illness.
  7. Diaries and Photos. A hard-covered burgundy diary materialized in the half-flooded cedar chest in my childhood basement. Written in a leaky pen by my grandmother, Edna Olsen, from January through February, 1938, she brought us into her “cabin in the woods” of Marquette. This particular
    Alfreda and Stephen Olsen peeking out cabin door
    winter saw one of the worst blizzards in Upper Peninsula history – and she documented living through that winter, a challenging time of blizzards, illness, near starvation, hardships, and her delightful humor. 
    Pictures of family during the 30s and 40s and of those whom she wrote about are vital to the continuation of family… and to our receptiveness and acknowledgement of where we came from and our historical strength and vulnerabilities - as seen through the eyes of a written diary and a camera lens.
  8. Traveling. Travels to Russia to adopt an 11-year-old girl with her 13-year-old brother without pictures to document this tremendous adventure would
    Zhenya and Ksusha in Perm, Russia
    have been more than tragic. The meeting of our daughter with her new sister – no words can speak to this treasure. 
    These photos are the only ones our new children would have of their home country, of the orphanage they lived in, and of their friends who lived there. Visiting new places, people and attending special events should have a visual record for all generations. The photos do not have to be perfect with the right ISO or aperture or lighting – only a documentation of 
    the event, even imperfectly.
    Adelyn Geissel with new sister, Ksusha in Perm, Russia

March 3, 2017

Eating Roads in Hometown USA

In the beginning there were roads, and they were good.

As a family historian and story-sharer, if you will, eating roads had been a story etched into our lore and a fun one to share.  No one as of yet has come close to believing me, thinking I am as full of hot air as Garrison Keillor is in his elaborate tales of his beloved home in Minnesota.  As a child of a storytelling family, separating fact from fiction has been my pursuit, and, knowing how children adopt memories from stories, a thrilling search for the truth.  It is true that our family ate roads in our hometown of Marquette in the 1950's.
Marquette road in background Donald
and his sister, Janice Olsen

I have enchanting recollections of eating the road in front of our home on Baraga Avenue.  This memory includes the tarry smell, the gooey pebbly consistency as a piece was picked up and rolled in a ball, along with the rubbery warm taste in my mouth.  My older siblings and several relatives, being of a more advanced age, obviously ate more roads than I chewed up.  A relative shared her memory of roads that would bubble up in the summertime heat, picking that substance up, chewing it because it was like bubble gum with rocks.  She contacted Marquette's retired road commissioner, Johnny Depetro, asking if he knew anything about the composition of the roads in Marquette during the 1950's.

Depetro wrote back, saying, "The street and block on West Baraga Avenue you are talking about was made of a macadam material named after a Scottish engineer J.L. McAdam (1756-1836).  The material consisted of small broken stones used in making roads, especially such stones mixed with tar or asphalt.  Some of the streets paved in the late 1940's and 1950's in Marquette that have not been reconstructed still have macadam material in them and have held together for many years or far longer than expected.  But is no longer being produced, due to the expense.  So, as the older streets are reconstructed, they are repaved by a new asphalt material that is much cheaper to make, but does not have the life span that macadam had.  This is called progress.  It was not uncommon for kids seeing that warm loose gooey tar on the top of the road to make a little tar ball to chew.  Not eaten or swallowed, but usually done because of an 'I double dare you to make a tar ball' and that is how we get to remember some of the fun things we would do, as young kids."

So, as confirmed above by Johnny Depetro, in the beginning there were roads, and they were good.

What kind of materials did you find to eat in your younger days that evokes a wary eye when you talk about it?

March 1, 2017

Balm for the weary soul

We love walking in the woods. Our cares melt away, the smell of nature is healing, and it is fun to enjoy our children in the "wild".

Recently, a trip to Lansing's Fenner Nature Center with two of our girls proved to be just what the doctor ordered.  We began walking along the paved trail and veered onto the first dirt path we saw. The ground was not crunchy as in the autumn, but gave way to our tennis-shoed feet, just enough for comfort.  There is a hut located along a marshy area that our older daughter claimed was a deer blind. Lots of small openings looking out at the water were perfect for viewing wildlife. I stepped outside and to the front and saw my family standing at different openings. Reaching in I touched our oldest daughter's leg and saw the reaction of her jumping with short little bursts of surprise. We laughed so hard - she thought it was a snake touching her.

Continuing along the trail we crossed paths with some deer grazing, occasionally lifting their heads to watch us, but showing no sign of fear. It's amazing how easily they absorb into their surroundings with the coloration of spring.

Climbing a short hill, one daughter pointed and said, "duck". In unison about three seconds after this, the three of us ducked. I suppose because everything was so peaceful and entertaining to us - we cracked up at the exactness of our movement.

Further into the wooded area, we came to a crossroads with paths leading in many directions. As it was getting a little late, I said we needed to begin heading back and asked which path should we take as I'm truly directionally challenged. All three of them, in unison again, pointed in opposite directions. Another laugh.

We chose to head toward the perimeter of the park and worked our way to the parking lot where we saw a deer cross in front of us, then another, another, another. A herd of 14 peaceful, beautiful deer, slowly crossed the lot and headed into the meadows. Some stopped to look at us, but none of them seemed alarmed at our quiet presence. 

It was a beautiful ending of a simple walk in the woods. We were renewed and encourage others to get out in nature. There are many places, even around large towns, to walk - nature centers are exceptional places to visit. Just get out and enjoy - laugh.

The Hardwood Walking Stick

All through my 30s onward, I’ve walked woods from the Appalachian and Smoky Mountains, along with the mountains, hills and valleys of Michig...