Tag Archive | nature

Let it snow let it snow let it snow!

This is the winter of our discontent.   The storms that pelt against the windows, shellac the grounds with ice, and fog in the small aircraft, are mere reflections of the inner turmoil we are feeling.

Perhaps the last time you felt good about job opportunities and housing prices, the critical thinking skills our children are learning, the national budget and the cost of preventive and healing medical care is too long ago to really remember.  Or, maybe, you never felt these things.  Ever.

The absolutely astounding thing about these things is that we never stop wanting them.  Of course, it eventually becomes harder and nearly impossible to retain hope for an easier and less costly way to live the American dream of a high quality life.  You try to stay positive through months of job searching; you avert your eyes at all the foreclosure signs in the neighborhood; you refuse to watch Fox channel’s biased and unfair news or NBC’s news sound bites between unlimited commercial breaks; you try not to count the zeroes in the national debt figure (twelve); and, you pray fervently you don’t get sick and need a doctor or operation.

It’s exactly this effort that makes it virtually impossible to be content and peaceful throughout your day.

I remember being peaceful, once.

It was about a hundred years ago when I was nine years old.  My best friend was out with her folks and I was bored.  I wanted to ditch my older brother who could be such a nuisance some times and have some peace and quiet.  I felt it best not to ask permission to leave the house for a while, as I probably wouldn’t get it and would instead be put to work sweeping the kitchen floor or babysitting my baby brother.   I casually sauntered across the living room floor acting cool, and made it to the screen door without incident.  I stood there for just long enough looking uninterested, then slowly pushed open the door.  I was soon outside on the porch.  Made it!  I took off at a fast pace across the lawn, onto the sidewalk and around the corner.

It was a beautiful, sunny morning in early summer.  The birds were happily singing and hardly anyone was outside yet, which was just perfect.  I lived in a very small town where everyone knew everyone else and would tattle to my parents if they thought I was wandering too far from home and getting into trouble.

I walked the two blocks to the main part of town and took a right.  I was into my rhythm now.  Not too many people hung around the car repair shop or the farm implement store, and the tavern wasn’t open yet.  I started to skip down the sidewalk.  Right before the street ended, I stopped at Almira’s yard and picked myself a few grapes.  She was an old spinster lady who was always nice to us kids, so I knew she wouldn’t mind if I helped myself.

I kept walking past the dead end and right up to the wooden fence.  I scanned the pasture and smiled:  the cows were gone and the bull was nowhere to be seen.  I climbed over, jumping to the ground.  I steadied myself and walked purposefully across the flat grazing land, heading straight for the little creek.  I knew exactly where the spring  fed into the creek bed and helped myself to a few handfuls of fresh water.

After I had refreshed myself, I reached down and picked a few sweet purple clover buds.  A short time later I had made it to a small hill and was settling my little frame onto the grassy patch by the big bush.  I could see the entire town from here, and more importantly, if the bull decided to come by.  I wasn’t afraid of cows, I rode them on my uncle’s farm when no one was looking.  I would have preferred a horse, but I made do with what was available.  But a bull was an entirely different proposition.

I munched on the clover and then laid back for a rest, my arms up and my head on my hands.  The sky was a beautiful blue and the clouds seemed whiter and fluffier than usual.   A gentle, wispy breeze blew across my face like angel wings.  Immediately, a wave of enormous joy rolled over my little body and I felt one with everything, and everything was perfect, so I must be, too.

I thought great thoughts that day while looking up.  I just knew everything was going to turn out just perfect.  I’d have a great teacher that fall and I’d be really smart in class, maybe one of the smartest.  I wouldn’t fight with my brother nearly so much and I’d get a new dress to wear every Sunday for church.  Oh.  And a horse.  I’d definitely end up owning a horse.

When it was time to go back home, I was peaceful and content.  I got myself up, walked back across the pasture, climbed over the fence and began to walk the four blocks to home.  I waved to my neighbors as I passed them.  I was feeling pretty cocky because everything was going to be so perfect.

I often wish I was nine again, drinking fresh, clean spring water, crossing an open field of clover, thinking wonderful thoughts about my life and everything in it.  Instead, I have to be content remembering instead of being, feeling grateful that it all comes back to me so easily.  Once you know what peace truly feels like, you never stop trying to live it.  That’s a wonderful gift for a nine year old to give to the world; well…mine, any way.

Something good is going to happen next year.  I can see it in the sky.

— ( c ) St. John 2011

Sweet Good-bye and Eager Hello

I don’t understand those who mourn the end of summer.

Who could weep for the disappearing ultramarine of the sea or swimming pool when one has only to look upon the gorgeous, deep palette that is now autumn?

Bright red berries popping upon branches, burnt orange, russet red and golden yellow leaves twirling to the ground in a dance…Even the sounds have color and taste.

Crows shriek over and over, a rhythm to their speech that sweetens the memory of ripe apples, juicy grapes and plums.  The low barking of a dog knells a few times in the distance, beckoning one back home.

All of these spark a strong desire in me to put on my shoes, grab some books to carry and walk in the leaves, kicking them up as high as I can in the air, just like I used to do as a kid walking home from school.  But on closer look, there aren’t enough leaves yet so the only kicking I can do is in my brain.

Lazy, Hazy, Crazy, Hot Days of Summer

The air chokes with heat.  Not a leaf or parched blade of grass is moving.

The lone tomato plant in the pot guzzles water for its six clusters of small green orbs.  Tiny yellow flowers announce more orbs will be arriving soon.  Four days ago the peppers  were no bigger than a fat thumb.  Now they are almost as large as my palm.  How do they do that??  How does a flower or tiny thing change into a substantial, edible vegetable so quickly and wondrously?

Clearly, my plants are loving the heat, the blistering rays of the sun, the hugs of the stifling air.  Remarkable.  As a human, wilting in the early morning, I am humbled by the power of nature to win out.

My scalp beings to sweat and I have only been in my patio chair for three minutes.  It feels like someone has placed a wool blanket over my bare legs.  My skin is beginning to feel oppressed.

The grounds are so ugly now.  Little band-aids of green will soon disappear into the dry, mustard yellow brown of a scorched earth.

Cicadas are screaming, competing to be heard above the traffic, and they win.  The high pitched vibrations drown out the tire and engine noises from the nearby pavement.

A bright, beautiful red male cardinal lands on the corner of the balcony.

I swear, its eyes looked disapprovingly at me.

The cardinal flits away to a nearby branch and waits.

He has me well trained.  I place a handful of seeds on the corner of the balcony railing.   OOPS.  The “rules” here prohibit kindness to birds, but I sneak a bit of it in any way.  Some rules are just stupid.  I know of no one who can resist beauty, especially when it comes around just for you.  And he is gorgeous.

My entire body is beginning to melt.

I am going to celebrate summer today.  I will purchase a bag of lemons and squeeze all the juice out of them.  I’ll pour in some sugar — the natural, healthier, Dr. Oz kind.  I’ll get unhealthy brats, some peppers and onion, and fat hoagie buns and grill the brats in the corner of the balcony that will still be in shade at lunch time.  We’ll drink up the cold lemonade and eat the brats.  I will remember how my nine-year-old self didn’t give a hoot how hot it got in the summer.  There was no school and I was with my best friend.

Yep.  It’s time to celebrate what is; and summer…in spite of its current drought and brutal temperatures..has alot to offer.


Are you feeling uneasy in 2012?


There’s no getting around it.  2011 was a bad year upon a not-go-good year, going into an iffy year.  There is not one person who has not suffered in some way, innocently or by their own behavior and actions.

We are all in this confusion and void together.  It’s not the best way to be united as a country, as a people…I’d rather be dancing…but there is strength in standing together and facing it down.

Whether your grief has been emotional, physical, economic, or spiritual…or a combination of more than one or all of the above, the wall of pain can be walked through.  You can come out the other side not only intact, but with greater peace.  I may not have the answers to get you through it, but perhaps I can lean upon others for inspiration to help guide you.

It’s hard being in a void.  The economy…environment…government…world unrest…nuclear threats.  Who knows what the heck will happen to the world tomorrow…next week…next month.  Election year only makes the void echo insanely because it is the same ole, same ole, with few promises acted upon.  Andrew Peterson, EdD, in his book “The next ten minutes” looks at the void a bit differently though.   He absolutely agrees it is a place of uncertainty and how we human beings are not wired to like uncertainty.  But he happily goes on to say about the void, “…it’s the gap between the poles, where all things are possible.  It is, in fact, the present moment.”  He’s particularly delighted about that, because that’s what his book is all about:  being in the present moment.

All spiritual books point to this present moment.  “Be in the moment, in the now.”  But when the present moment and the now are painful, why would you ever want to go there?!  Give me a great fantasy escape any day.

But I get their point.  In spite of our humanness to avoid uncertainty, we cannot avoid the lure of beauty.  And there is beauty in the moment, even if it means just paying attention to how you breathe and how you don’t even have to think about it to stay alive.  Can you imagine how tedious it would be if you had to remind yourself every few seconds to breathe?!  If I want to be reminded to “breathe…just breathe” or to “take a deep breath,” I want it to be because I am so excited about something that if I don’t slow down my breathing, I will surely faint dead away in pure delight.  But it doesn’t have to be as common as paying attention to your breathing…whatever causes you to concentrate so heavily that you hear nothing else around you…that’s the present moment.  That’s the now.  That’s pure delight.  That’s the best escape fantasy going.

I certainly hope that Andrew Peterson is right, and that all things are possible at this moment.  Because that’s how I want my dreams to come true…when I’m not paying attention because I’m having so much fun, just being.

Next I turn to Julie Cameron, a particular favorite artist/writer of mine (The Artist’s Way, Transitions, etc.).   In an inspirational prayer book she offered this consolation:

“Sometimes people fail us in terrible ways.  We are betrayed, abandoned, cast aside.  In times of such personal trauma, we must hold to the larger picture….I realize that while people may indeed fail me and turn away, there is an underlying goodness to the Universe which brings to me new friends and new situations.  These gifts heal and soothe me.  I see the merciful hand of providence despite my pain.”

The larger picture can mean many different things to each of us.  For me, it’s the idea of goodness; that it can exist in one human being or another without ever disappearing completely.  When you can reach outside of your pain and grab on with all your might to that goodness – kindness and respect – and offer it to others, you find the friends who are connected to the higher picture and can elevate you to that higher place of healing and peace.  And, better yet…

sometimes those friends even find you.

But for me it’s Don Miguel Ruiz and his book, “The Four Agreements” that really brings things home on this idea of we humans suffering at the hands of others.  Maybe I’m quoting directly or maybe I’m paraphrasing…I’m most certainly jumping around…but he gets the credit for the following perceptions:

We all love the best we can.  We all can trust ourselves.  We all suffer.

We can’t always give what the other wants or needs.  Sometimes, someone leaving your life or disappointing you is a gift.  It hurts to be with some people.  But the hurts will heal.         When the hurt heals, you can choose what you really want, how you really want to relate to others.  You don’t need to trust others as much as you need to trust yourself to make the right choice to be with them or not.   Your sadness, anger or humiliation will disappear.  When you establish a new belief you won’t be in that hell of pain ever again.  You will become immune to disapproval, shame and harsh resentments.

As for the gossips, the hell that they create when you go your own way, don’t take it personally.  It won’t affect you.  You can stand in that hell, in serenity.  The poison of harsh words will poison the sayers of them, not you.  You are not responsible for their words, neither is your behavior responsible for their unkind actions.  You did not cause the harshness, resentment of abuse.  You can stand in the middle of this pain and still experience inner peace and happiness.

Every day you will become better at being you.  You will remain a beautiful soul and you will live up to that soul.  Accept yourself.  Do not commit the sin of self-rejection.

Regardless of how high or down you are in this challenging year of 2012, one bit of prophecy or truth, if you will, keeps popping up…kindness and respect connects you to the innate goodness of the universe to other like-minded souls.  So if all those you are connected to are neither kind nor respectful, just hang tough and don’t waiver…those who already are will be grounded in your space even more deeply.  You and the goodness of others in your space will draw to you the same.   And the best part is, that those in your life who aren’t kind or respectful and can’t/won’t become so, will suddenly find there is no room for them at your inn.

Too bad, huh.  And you didn’t have to do anything, except be your higher self and stay the course.  See?  Life can be good.

(Because chose it to be.)

— ( c ) St. John 2012

Courage Called For

Courage is demanded

to stare into the darkness of an airless tunnel of despair

where no light shines, not even at the end…

Courage is demanded

to be a door for fears and despairs to pass through,

and open you to your separateness…

Courage is demanded

in the airless tunnel of despair

that separates you from yourself…

Courage is demanded.

to become the light…

if only because otherwise there would be none.

 — (c) St. John 2012

Autumn in the Hamlet

Although I live in a large city now, autumn always takes my mind back to the small town where I grew up.

Our tiny hamlet was located in eastern Iowa, near the Wisconsin and Illinois borders.  My family was firmly ensconced in the slow pace of small town living in the 1940s through 1960s, when the world intruded very little and the quiet was relatively undisturbed by either traffic or current events.

Our house had a panoramic view of the entire town.  In sweatshirt weather, when the air would get so crisp you could almost reach out and snap it in two, I’d sit outside on the lawn to look upon the town, and to think.  Dusk would settle and the sky would get that purplish pink color it always gets around 5:30 PM on a late fall afternoon.  Slim spirals of smoke would curl up from chimneys and perfume the town with the scent of burning wood.  I wouldn’t notice it getting late until the ground turned so cool it started freezing my bottom.  Only then would I march inside to be greeted by the blast of heat from the furnace and the smell of dinner on the stove.  Only, we called it supper then.

There wasn’t much to my hometown, but what was there was pretty:  an oval park smack dab in the center, and when the sewer running through it was covered up, was downright enjoyable to walk through.  The hills were full of homes and trees that turned the entire valley into an artist’s palette of beautiful, lush summer greens and flaming bursts of oranges, reds and yellows.

Our little park always hosted and took great pride in Fourth of July celebrations.  For reasons beyond my comprehension, thousands from nearby communities would join us for our patriotic eating and drinking, bingo-playing, carnival gaming, and then the piece de’ resistance; a rip-roaring dance under the pavilion.  Wonderful memories, but it was the winters I liked the most.   The same pavilion was iced over as a rink for skating, and we were usually there until it got dark and the streetlights went on, a signal to return home.  Our noses would freeze, our toes would tingle, and our hands felt so numb you thought you’d left them somewhere back on the ice when you fell that last time.  The small, brick bandstand always held the manger scene at Christmas, and since the baby wasn’t placed on the straw until Christmas Eve, you could sit on the bales and gossip while you took off your skates and rubbed your toes.  The snow blanketed the trees and ground, softening our steps and our voices as we walked out of the park.

Past the park and down the road past Junior’s Tavern at the end of the street, was a circular gravel area.  A train once ran through the nearby pasture, and when I was little I had peeked into the abandoned depot sitting among the weeds.  It had smelled old, and I wasn’t interested in what it used to be; at least not until that night when I was seventeen and my impression of the abandoned building changed.

I had ventured to the dead end for the quiet solitude, to think.  The moon was full and cast a deep shadow across the gravel, silhouetting the stillness of the night.  I stared at the old depot for a long time, when passengers began to emerge from a fog into full view, getting off and on the train.  The steam hissed from the side of the train, the iron clanked in the distance and the smell of metal assaulted my nose.  Then it all faded away, and I was back to myself, staring at an empty building.  I was hooked on the place after that.

Years after I had grown up and left the town, a young man took it upon himself to refurbish the building.  He completely transformed it into what must surely have been its original dignity, so like what I had witnessed that night many years before.   Now the sweet little depot is a local attraction and open for tours on holidays. I cannot help but wonder if the young man who refurbished it had ever been there as a teenager at night during a full moon.

Up the steepest hill and to the left was my family’s home.  It was half a house, a cold-water flat with two rooms down and three up.  Since we didn’t have hot running water, we always had to heat water in a big kettle on the stove.

The kitchen was so small that the table and chairs had to be shoved up against a wall to make a walking space.  Everything was a bit snug when we sat down to a meal together, which was three times a day.  There was always a commentary on the menu.

“How come we hafta have pork chops again?  Can’t we ever have anything different?” we’d ask, no matter if we had pork the previous night or the previous year.

“Just be grateful you have enough to eat.  There are starving children in China who would really appreciate that,” Mom stated.  I always knew how smart she was by how many people she knew…even children in China.

The second floor’s corner room served as my bedroom.  Once a dressing room for a bedroom, it was only the width of a twin bed, with just enough space for one small dresser.  My bedroom claimed the only closet in the house.  That was okay, though.  We had very few clothes to wear so we needed little storage.

A bathroom replaced the outhouse when I was about four years old, but it didn’t have a bathtub, so on Saturdays Mom grabbed a huge vat, set it on the stove and filled it with water.  After the water was heated, she rolled the wash tub into the kitchen, locked the door against unexpected visitors, and called each of us one by one to our bath.  I got to go first, because I was the girl.  After my brothers and I outgrew the washtub, Mom took us to her mother’s, whose house had a bathtub.   She caught up on the family gossip while waiting for all of us to get clean.

When I wanted to play, I sought out my best friends, Dianne and Elaine.  They lived on my street and we were always together, running around the neighborhood or going to the park, and always wondering what it would be like to be all grown up.

We formed a new club of something or other every week, with the oldest (me) as president, then the next (Dianne) as vice president, and the youngest  (Elaine) as secretary.  We always started out the first meeting with a fresh pad of paper and a sharpened pencil, for meeting notes.  After diligently recording our every “motion” for an hour, we soon tired of the routine and went off to the park to swing, or on our bikes to explore.

The whole town had been our playground.  That was the good part.  The bad part was, I couldn’t go anywhere without someone knowing me, so I couldn’t get away with anything.  By the time I got home, Mom had heard all about my latest misbehavior or transgression from at least three different people, and was standing on the porch with a flyswatter, ready to beat the evil spirit out of me that disgraced her, her parents, their parents, and their parents’ parents.

There were two churches in the town.  One sat on the east side of the park, the other sat majestically atop the tallest hill.  It was the Catholics who built upon the hill.  No modest, unassuming structure for them, thank you kindly.  The imposing brick structure had been one of five:  the church, the rectory, the convent, the grade school, and the high school.  The brick convent, grade school and high school were torn down years after I moved away.

The non-Catholics, on the other hand, were satisfied with a little white, dignified wooden structure that was heated by a pot-bellied stove.  Growing up, my brothers and I were never allowed to fraternize with “those other folks”.  I only know about the pot-bellied stove because I peeked through a window on my brothers’ dare.  To this day, I still don’t know who those non-Catholics were, where they lived or went to school.

The hill down from the Catholic Church was always the best for sleigh riding.  The bottom would always be closed off after a good snow so we could get our sleds out and ride safely.  But I don’t think anyone really needed a sign.  The adults just knew to keep their cars away from the church hill after a snowfall or they would run over a sledder.  It was an okay ride if your sled stopped at Elaine’s grandmother’s house halfway down, a good ride if it stopped at Herrig’s garage as the street leveled, but a great ride if you coasted another half block to Manderscheid’s Tavern.

Once in a while I’d walk off alone to the south edge of town, traipsing through the old depot lot, heading to the pasture.  The cows were usually gone to other fields during the day, so I had no worries about disturbing cows, or being chased by a bull.

The pasture was full of adventure.  A small stream ran through it, fed by an underground spring.  I loved to grab a mouthful of the water to quench my thirst, or simply sit there and watch the sparkle on the drops as they flowed down the rocky bank and into the shallow stream.  Then I’d resume my hike and end up on a small hill that overlooked the town.  There, among the rough bushes and occasional tree, I’d plunk my behind down, grab a long piece of the rough grass, slip it in my mouth for chewing, and then relax by staring across the empty field and pondering the questions that seared through my brain.

Sitting there in the quiet of a summer afternoon, with the wild flowers peeking up and blooming in surprising places, the white clouds floating against a soft blue sky, and a gentle breeze caressing my cheek…it was impossible not to feel good.  I felt safe, and I had found divinity there, in nature and sunshine, and alone with my thoughts.

Autumn, winter, spring and summer…a town for all seasons.

And although it may have been a sweet, summer afternoon in which I found God…it wasn’t until autumn, dusk and a sweatshirt…that I found heaven.

n  © 2009 Karen St. John

The Woodpecker in the Tree

Sheets of dry leaves rustle in the trees above me.  The breeze spirals them to the ground, making a sound like far-away static, coding a secret out to the universe.

Lasers of sun shine through the thinned foliage, warming my shoulders. The sky is bluish milk.  No clouds visit.

The leaves continue to turn and spin showers of color

as begins a dull, rhythmic whack…vibrating the stillness… over and over.

No one else is around and I am quiet.  Who, then?

A puzzle for the mind.  But the soul is calm and wise.

It aims my eyes upward and straight, zeroing in on the creature so like itself:  open, free, expressive, natural.

The red crown of the woodpecker pierces through the golds, browns and oranges, and my mind instructs me to chill out…the sound is only a bird.

My soul has a different opinion.  It is not just a bird, it is a piece of me, too.

I sigh in happy contentment with the paradox of mind and soul struggling to be what truly matters, and the woodpecker’s fierce intensity against the wood.

I would have had a headache by now if I had been the bird entirely.

— ( c ) St. John 2009

Music to my Ears

Toting thick slices of banana bread

Slices of hard and soft cheeses

Strong black coffee

And of course…always…my notebooks.

I nestle into my chair as

Two birds, at each end of the grove of trees

Call to each other in identically pitched notes.

A female cardinal came straight at me

Perched for a few seconds

Then sprinted off to the nearest tree and began to sing.

The air is full of the soft lilts of multiple birds

The screeching of the cicadas

And then voila!

No sound but light and quick vibrations as a hummingbird hovers near my leg

Dancing its flight for me.

A passing train sirens its hello,

A shout among the lowest of rumbles.

There is a whole orchestra tuning up for the day,

And I cannot decide if

I am the conductor

Or the audience.

— ( c ) St. John 2012

Life on the Mississippi: Bellevue, Iowa

Bellevue is a clean, quaint town in eastern Iowa, comfortably nestled between two large bluffs along the bank of the Mississippi River.   It boasts a population of nearly 3,000.   If you’re coming from the tri-state area of Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin, and heading south on Highway 52, you can’t miss it.

The ride on Highway 52 is a pleasant one, winding past well-kept farms with herds of cattle grazing or horses romping in the pastures.   The scenery in the distant hills hints that the closer to Bellevue you get, the closer you are to finding out just how impressive the natural beauty of this part of Iowa can be.  When the highway starts its final descent into town about four miles out, the change is abrupt and gorgeous.  Within the blink of an eye you are offered an astounding bird’s eye view of the great Mississippi River.   Flanked by tree-lined bluffs, the river’s visibly flowing current in spring sings with promises of green landscapes and good fishing.  In summer, the river proudly hosts the local water ski club and pleasure cruisers amidst the steady traffic of barges and paddleboats that come and go.  In autumn months, the river takes a supporting role as color whips into the Midwest, causing the trees along the riverbanks and in the nearby valleys to roar with bright, red, yellow and orange enthusiasm.   It is not until the trees are stark and shorn of all foliage in the following winter season that the white, glacial carpet of ice catapults the river into the spotlight once again.

Near the bottom of the descent is a road on the left that passes a small cluster of miscellaneous businesses.  The road eventually passes by the town’s golf course and new homes mixed in with a few older homes that have been there since the anyone can remember.

After Highway 52 winds a bit and crosses a bridge, you’ll spot a farm on the right with its driveway crossing the railroad tracks and climbing up the hill to a farm house.  The thicket of trees behind the house that stretch out across the horizon are full of deer and wild turkeys.

You’ll soon arrive in town and when you do, you have to remember your manners, even behind the wheel of a car.  Oncoming drivers wave at you and expect a wave.  Doesn’t matter if they don’t know you, you’re in their town, aren’t you, and it wouldn’t do for them to ignore you.

The road takes you past Hammond’s gas station and convenience store on the right, just before the bowling alley and the power plant.  At Hammond’s you can fill your car up with gas, grab a loaf of bread, some chips, and a bucket of live worms, all at once.  That’s the local sheriff pulling in to say hello, making sure everything is okay, to grab a cup of coffee and talk over the latest town event.

As you cruise down the street into town, you’ll notice that the Mississippi is at one of its wider parts here, and that the banks along the river are well cared for by the town.  Benches aresecured here and there, next to a continuous and gently curving brick walkway.  The drive offers you a direct view of the river’s lock and dam.  If you’re lucky, you can catch a barge taking its turn going through the lock.  The town’s banners, which hang from the street poles, proudly carry the slogan, “Where eagles soar,” because they do soar here.  They swoop gracefully down to the surface of the water near the lock and dam, grabbing a fishy meal.  Often, they roost in a tree next to Riverview, the main street through town, sitting majestically on the upper branches.  The national bird is a favorite for sightseers, who come by bus to witness them in their natural environment.  Depending on the time of year, you can also spot white pelicans that stop and rest on the small island above the dam, during their migration south.

Riverview continues to stretch out lazily alongside the river, with most of Bellevue to the right of you. The street is lined with different types of small shops:  antiques, crafts, a hardware store, an ice cream parlor that’s only open during the summer, and a few bait and tackle shops. There are no stoplights, so your drive along the river is steady and uninterrupted.

The pharmacy’s just around one of the corners and down the block, halfway to the railroad tracks.  It still has a hardwood floor that creaks when you walk across it.  The folks there welcome you with a warm smile the minute you pop your head in through their door, even though you’re a stranger.  They ask if they can help, then let you browse the couple aisles of cards, small gift items, and medicinal supplies at your leisure.  Nobody’s in a hurry to have you buy anything.  It’s perfectly okay with them if you just wanted to stop in and take it easy for a bit, or chat up the pharmacist.

Across the street on the corner is a flower and gift shop.  The florist shop is the one I use when I want to order flowers.  The first time I called, I had my credit card in my hand and asked if they were ready for my number.  The nice woman on the other end seemed a bit shocked at myquestion and said, “Oh, no!  Just send us a check when you can.”   The other part of the shop that stretches to the corner of the block sells cookies and greeting cards, for when you get tired of floral products or want to nibble and browse while they box your flowers.   I caught them once just as they were pulling a fresh batch of cookies out of the oven.  Those chocolate chip creations tasted as good as they smelled, too, and they weren’t those dinky sizes you find in packages in grocery stores.  Once in a while when I’m back, I’ll stop in and order flowers for my sister, but mostly, that’s just an excuse to say hello.

The best sandwiches are the “ready-mades” at Richman’s, back on Riverview and down a few more blocks.  Ground beef browned and chopped up until it’s good and crumbly, mixed with a tad of onions and some other ingredients I can’t figure out, wrapped in slick paper.  Slap on some mustard and catsup, and down it with a handmade malted — and you’ve discovered heaven.  You can enjoy your meal at one of the metal table and chairs, or take a stool at the counter and watch ‘em fix ‘em up for right there.  Quite regularly, two sweet little girls make an appearance and plop themselves down at the counter or a nearby table with their dolls, dress up shoes and somebody’s discarded purse.  The girls are quite used to being part of the noontime crowd.  Their parents own the diner and not only the workers, but their neighbors who stop in for a bite, keep an eye on the girls, to make certain no harm comes to them in their play.  If you’re a stranger, the girls will come to your table, introduce themselves and say hello.  That’s so they can find out who you are or who you know, to figure out what you’re doing in their town.

Across from Richman’s, the bank of the river is open and free of obstructions, blessing you with an opportunity to see for yourself why the Mississippi is called mighty.  If you park the car to get a closer look, you’ll notice there are no meters here or on any other area of town.  Since you won’t have to worry about a ticket, you can walk right up to a bench and sit a spell,taking all the time you need to let your mind slow down a bit.   There isn’t much traffic, so you’ll notice it more.   You’ll turn at every car, SUV, or truck that meanders down Riverview.

A door slams down the street and a deep voice bellows, “Thanks, Jim!  I think I got the right bait now.”  You turn to look and see a fisherman heading towards his truck which has a fishing boat rigged up behind it.  The door you heard slamming was the bait shop’s front door.   A couple other fishermen and a young boy walk out behind the first man, continuing the conversation as to where there is the greatest chance the fish will be biting.  The lively discussion is friendly and animated.  The twelve-year old with them is a son to one.  He was quite adamant about being old enough to pick out his own fishing reel now, so his proud dad let him.  The boy was beaming, and carrying his reel like it was the Holy Grail itself.

“Thanks, Harriet!  I’ll check it out at the other store.”  You turn your head a bit more and see a middle-aged woman waving from her antique shop.  She’s just told her customer – and friend — friend the name of the other store that carries what she is looking for.  This bit of information was exchanged along with the news about the owner’s dad who just had surgery, and the customer’s husband, who was finally getting around to doing their yard work.

That child you hear laughing is a little girl riding her tricycle on a sidewalk a few doors down.  She just turned four and loves riding outdoors.  Her tricycle has a tiny bell on it that she is ringing, to signal people on the sidewalk that she’s coming.  But you see there is no one coming down the sidewalk, just the little girl‘s mom walking behind her.  The little girl is delightfully happy, and the mother has a peaceful look on her face.   They walk past a small home where two sets of couples are walking out.

“After church on Sunday, then?”

“Yep.  Can’t keep us away if you are offering up that apple pie of yours, Marlene!” Good-hearted chuckles float across the street to your bench.  A car horn honks briefly, and the sheriff’s deputy rides by, waving to the couples.  They wave back.

You listen to the street get quiet again, and turn back to gaze out across the river.   The surface of the water shimmers in the sunlight.   The shimmer seems to stretch out, creep up the bank and come to rest on your shoulders as a bright ray of warmth.  There is a slight breeze in the air that gently caresses your cheek.  White gulls do a flying ballet above the river and close to the sandy edges, just for you.  Eagles decide to step on stage and dive for fish directly in front of you, allowing you to see their enormous grace and wingspan.   Fishing boats sit contently in various spots on the river, offering up a sense of peace and eternal patience.

Back on land, the birds are chirping loudly and happily.  Robins are walking on the grass near the bench, pecking at the  round.  Sparrows sing from the smaller trees nearby.

Time to get moving again.  There is still more to see of this town and its area.

Only a block or so south from Richman’s is Wagoner’s gas station, where you can shoot a game or two of pool while you’re waiting for your takeout order.  Behind Wagoner’s is a large building that’s actually a construction shop, though you wouldn’t know that looking at it, as it doesn’t have any sign posted informing you what it is.   Just ask the Bellevue folks and they’ll tell you there isn’t any need for a sign on the building, everybody already knows the owner and what he does:  he builds houses, additions to your home or barns, or whatever you need built.  His contractors don’t need to know where the shop is, either, because they don’t stop there.  They just ring the owner on the phone and drive out to his house to conduct business.  Bellevue’s a friendly town and if you’re welcome in a man’s shop, you’re generally welcome in his home.

There’s a lumberyard in the next block at the end of town.  The lumberyard’s owner brought in the modern age when he made computers part of the business, and expanded his buildings.  Construction is good:  new homes are always going up.  Tourists from Illinois are deciding to buy property here, too, and build.  “Town’s going to be full of strangers some day,” the manager remarks, shaking his head.

Past the lumberyard and up the hill over a bridge is a large bluff, the top of which serves as a small state park.  There’s a orner of the bluff that juts out and gives a panoramic view of the city.  It’s a good idea to drive up there at night.  Unlike a large city, you barely see the sky for the stars.  But here above Bellevue they twinkle gaily, seeming to flirt with the lights of the town below, dancing solely for their benefit.  When you look down and to the right at the river where a moonbeam skims across the surface, you wonder if you are in some giant’s glass globe, because it sure feels like that and looks just as perfect.

Turning left from the park puts you back onto Riverview and into Bellevue.  Heading north, you’ll soon arrive at Franklin Street on the left.  Franklin pulls you along the base of a smaller bluff, and to the first of two of Bellevue’s most important features:  their school systems.

The Catholic Church and education system takes up three of the four corners of Franklin and Fifth Streets.  St. Joseph’s Elementary School (grades kindergarten through eighth) sits on the southeast corner, across from the Church.  The high school, Bellevue Marquette, home of the Mohawks basketball team, is directly across the elementary school and diagonally across the Church.  Right behind the high school building stands the Marquette Education Center (the Mohawks gym).  In 2003, Marquette High School held less than 120 students, with only thirty-two (fifteen boys and seventeen girls) in the senior class.  The two structures run the entire length of the town block. Most of the Mohawks’ parents went to school at St. Joe’s and Marquette, and even had a couple of the same teachers.  The staffs of both St. Joe’s and Marquette, including the coaches and principals, don’t commute to their job from the suburbs or anything like that, because there aren’t any burbs in Bellevue yet.  They either live in town or in another hamlet a few miles away.

The public school, Bellevue Community, is clear across town on the west side, and takes up the entire corner where Highway 61 and the road to the county fairgrounds meet.  The modern brick complex is surrounded by a paved parking lot, with  ample parking for the many school buses, and modular classrooms at the back, behind the main building.   Bellevue Marquette and Bellevue Community share classes.   The school’s neon sign at the edge of the parking lot flashes the time and temperature, and is a spectacular advertisement for the school’s athletic team, the Comets.

The people in Bellevue are social folks.   The annual Fourth of July parade is a favorite, though the day and times vary from year to year, in spite of the fact that Bellevue most certainly knows when the Fourth of July occurs on the calendar.  The scheduling of the parade is all about Bellevue being neighborly and polite to the folks in nearby La Motte, who like their Fourth of July celebration, too.  Both towns, knowing that this part of eastern Iowa enjoys its parades either as spectators or participants, want to give everybody in the area a chance to get pleasure from the parades in their own way, and figured out a perfect solution to ensure that.  The leaders from both towns get together in a friendly, good neighbor kind of way and set the schedule for their parades, guaranteeing there is no conflict of times, even if they have to schedule the parades on different days.  On those occasions when the parades are on the same day, there’s some extra time built in between to allow the parade goers to travel the thirteen miles with ease.   The towns’ leaders don’t call it “diplomacy” or “cooperation.”  They call it “the right thing to do.”

An event billed as “Iowa’s Largest Pork Roast” is sponsored by the Church and held over Labor Day weekend.  People from all around the area make the trip to enjoy the pork dishes and the polka band.  Because of the kind of music, teenagers  consider it an “old folks” event, and don’t attend unless their parents force them.

Teenagers are used to seeing their teachers hanging around as real people with their folks, so there’s no hesitation in high-fiving your science teacher in the park or the church parking lot.  The parents have some reservation, though, about making certain their children show the teachers the respect they deserved.  After any high-fiving incident, mild inquiries to said science  teacher if their child is so consistently ill-mannered warrants only a chuckle, although said teacher is tempted to say yes, but merely smiles and assures the concerned parent that all necessary respect is present and accounted for in the classroom.

Still, the parents keep a wary eye on their young, unwilling to allow them to grow up with an inappropriate sense of familiarity with authority figures, so as not to get out of hand and become disrespectful.   But the parents need not worry too much, however.  When any celebration is full of your parents, your friends’ parents, your teachers, and coaches, it’s hard to feel the anonymity that is required of a hearty prank successfully pulled off.

The community enjoys its home baseball games that take place on one of two diamonds in the community park.  Some of the homes around the park put up nets in front of their picture windows during baseball season, to catch the foul balls before they shatter the panes of glass.  The nets haven’t always worked.  When the ball does damage one of the windows, someone always has the courtesy to rush to the person’s home and let them know what happened, in case the noise didn’t alert them first.  Occasionally, though, the game has to be stopped for other reasons besides broken windows — or weather.   Like that time a few summers ago.

The game was going great.  The weather was comfortable and no one was getting overheated or too tired early into the innings.  The teams were evenly matched and the fans were thoroughly enjoying themselves.  Then without warning, someone yelled loudly from the outfield, “Hold up!  Hold up!”  Both startled and curious, all eyes turned in the direction of the yelling.  It was only a matter of seconds before everyone soon saw what had caused the disruption to the game.  Satisfied, they all settled back down onto the bench or their lawn chairs while the teams stayed quiet in their respective positions.   The possum that had caused the alert by suddenly appearing out of nowhere, meandered in its own slow, determined, possum way, across the field and the baseball diamond, undisturbed by any young team member or fan.  Once the possum had cleared the field, “Batter-r-r-r-r UP!” sounded and the game and the cheering from the fans, re-commenced.

Local news is covered in the hometown paper, the Herald-Leader, and the town’s own public access television station, which is on the other side of the newspaper.  The folks in Bellevue are pretty proud of both.  The paper covers the schools’ sports event and contributes space to both high schools for news articles.  It’s not a large paper physically, 11 x 17, but packs a wallop of information, including photos of one-year olds on their first birthdays, lots of school news on what the kids are up to, and announcements of the community breakfasts and suppers.   The paper also receives news from nearby towns that are too small to have their own publication.  The Herald-Leader will print “on this day in” paragraphs as well, dating back to 100 years.  Much hasn’t changed with the paper since then, which is simultaneously a delight and a comfort.

Bellevue’s TV channel isn’t snobbish, either.   If you have a video and send it in, they’ll show it for you.  When Austin  purchased his tractor, his excitement caused him to videotape it and the view from the driver’s seat, moving down the road.  It was broadcast a few days after it was received and ran for a week or so, to make certain everybody in the community had a chance to enjoy it.  Austin’s father sells farm implements, so if any farmer was inspired by the video to want a tractor like that for his own, he could be easily obliged.

There’s a train that runs through Bellevue once in a while during the day, or blows through about 3A.M.  But other than that, motorized traffic isn’t heavy.   Oh, sure, the high school kids will get together and drive to Wagoner’s for a video or to shoot pool for a while, to Hammond’s for a soda and back again, or to Theisen’s Car Wash to get their cars washed.   Occasionally, they’ll stop at the 2nd Street Station pizza place for a bite or to hang around outside.  That’s expected.  But so is curfew.  The kids’ parents always know where they are and why, and they expect them home on time, and they are.

People in Bellevue don’t usually lock all their doors.   I suppose once it grows beyond a certain point, they’ll have to.  But for now, the door is open to friends and neighbors who might want to leave a platter of cookies, a note to say hello or mail that was incorrectly delivered to them.  Neighbors keep an eye on each other’s homes and cars, and investigate anything that looks amiss, and will check with you to make sure you’re okay.  They will also make you take an hour to walk your dog around the block, because people sitting out on a warm summer night don’t mind a bit of friendly conversation with you at the end of their long day.   There are still sausage and egg breakfasts at the firehouse and regulars who have lunch and/or dinner (it’s called supper there) at their favorite booth or table at the Hotel.

Bellevue has never left the era of family values, going to church on Sundays, and kids minding their parents.  It is a small town of strong roots, solid values and lifelong friendships that often started in Kindergarten.

It’s life on the Mississippi, small town Iowa style.


— ( c ) St. John 2003