Update: Getting Ready for Book Fairs and Festivals!

Unfortunately, and with a heavy heart, I need to inform you that we will Not be able to attend today’s event. 💔 Sunshine and the Scientist were both vaccinated and are now both suffering the feverish, aching, fluish effects. We feel it would be irresponsible to try and attend. I cannot stress how upset I am- I am passionate about Autism Awareness, fundraising for community programs like Play4Autism, and always uplifted to meet and provide resources for neurodivergent parents and children alike.

Saying that, however, the resources we prepared will be available online soon for download and we are itching for the next event, whenever that will be.

Keep reading and keep dreaming!

Getting Ready for Book Fairs and Festivals!

Blydenburgh County Park and its Ecosystem

I’m entirely at home during my walks through Blydenburgh County Park, a 627-acre park in Smithtown, NY on the north side of Suffolk County, Long Island. The 6-mile trail, known as the Loop, which circles what is known locally as Stump Pond, is particularly enjoyable. The lake and surrounding forest breathe beautiful life lessons for my spirit to contemplate and appreciate.

On my first walk around the pond, while attending to a hunting heron, I was stopped by a neighborly man who explained that the Pond was man-made with intention. It was created when large swaths of trees were felled at a particularly low elevation. An L-shaped depression collected what seems to be an entire lake’s worth of rainwater. The stumps were left eerily behind to decay into the lakebed. They fed and housed countless species of water-dwelling creatures as they slowly broke down under the surface. 

Despite the best efforts of the Suffolk County Parks Department to name the shallow body Newmill Pond, anyone from the area would identify it as Stump. Water fowl seemed to walk on water. This heron, it would seem, had found a perfect stumped perch on which to prey. 

On the first spring-feeling day in March, I didn’t take the long loop. I choose a shorter hike around the forests lining the southeasterly shore of the pond. By holding to the trails running west and then south, beginning in the Dog Park parking lot, I was able to traverse 2 miles of terrain. The Dog Park was uncharacteristically vacant. Normally, it’s a spot for canine companions to roam and sniff freely, while their handlers discuss ground turkey cuts and chew toy preferences (I imagine.)

A short walk downhill brought me to a small, sandy lookout. Notably, there were twenty or so Mute Swans at the far side of the pond, visible from the trail near the shore. It was one of the earliest signs of spring. The swans were pairing off and beginning their seasonal mating rituals. I imagined these elegant birds in a Swan Soiree, ruffling feathers, swimming in tandem, and catching fish to impress potential mates. It was a dance, a ritual that had been done for generations, playing out for any passerby to see.

A White Mute Swan swimming in a lake with wings up and spread as though taking flight, 3 geese in the far background
(Photo from Pixabay)

It isn’t unusual to see waterfowl in and around Stump — mute swans, Canadian geese, mallards, wood-tail and puddle ducks, and the occasional Great Blue Heron. (New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation has released an excellent resource on identifying the most common Long Island waterfowl.) Binoculars come in handy on these trails, not only for the waterfowl, but also the red-winged blackbirds, catbirds, fish crows, orioles, blue jays, and other songbirds which live seasonally in and around Blydenburgh and the adjoining Caleb Smith State Park. Occasionally a red-winged hawk will even swoop into view.

Some days, the trails are burgeoning with animal life. On such a wonderfully warm and sunny day, I expected a lot of encounters, more than the far-off courting swans, and was disappointed to find the woods quiet and still, save for a handful of hikers and dogwalkers. 

The park has seen an uptick in visitors since the quarantine began. It lifted my spirits during the depth of the pandemic to see people enjoying the natural landscape, many for the first time. I don’t love when the park is teeming with people; walking shoulder brushing shoulder on narrow trails doesn’t allow the solitude or separation I walk for. As far as our communal life is concerned, however, the health benefits of regular exposure to nature are innumerable, and I’m happy to share the landscape with any and all who wish to traverse it, personal preferences aside. Occasionally, like my stumpifying educator, I even meet a fellow birder or naturalist.

On that day,, I set my mind to feeling the park at winter’s end, before the gnat clouds swarmed, before pollen rained down, and while the trees slept, visibly dormant. In recent storms, the park had lost more than a few trees, which were found in cluttering heaps on the forest floor. 

As the ground cover had not grown in yet, the loss of hundred-plus-year-old titans was in full view, many of whom were likely older than the previous four generations of my own family. It was a solemn sight. Some giants had been pulled directly from the sodden earth and their roots loomed large, 15ft in diameter. False caves of intertwining root structures. Other giants were torn away, limb from trunk, and had been scattered in pieces on the ground and in the crowns of neighboring trees. In many cases, signs of decay prior to the fall was evident in the bare branches and sickly bark. Healthy, aged trees do not go down so easily. Healthy, aged trees don’t lean on neighbors for support.

A long-fallen, dead tree with jagged branches covered in moss
(Photo by amayaeguizabal from Pixabay)

In reflection, I was forced to see the bigger picture. Fungi and bacteria were hard at work on these fallen giants, converting the singular organism back into its raw materials, to be fed back through the cycle and absorbed by other beings as nutrients. Large mushrooms and mossy greenery were budding amidst the bark. These decomposers would live and die as well, and so doing, they would turn the fallen tree to dust.

In the wake of the fallen were generations of progeny reaching into the void for minerals, water, and sunlight. It was only in the death of the elders that the young stood a chance at survival, with the help of nature’s most underappreciated janitors. The process of natural decay, not merely the colorful flowers and leafy ornamentation of spring, brought me hope.

While my human instincts were to grieve the tree and feel loss, I was forced to move forward in the line of reasoning. The death of a single tree allowed for thousands of other species to thrive — for scavengers, decomposers, and even nearby plants to feed. When a century-old oak fell, lurking pine trees gained needed canopy space after ten years dormancy, soaked more sunshine, and shot several feet taller in the following year. Other trees might fuse their root system to the fallen oaks’ roots to strengthen the underground network and above ground stability. (Research has been done to show that many forests appearing as disparate trees are actually embodied by interconnected and wide-spreading family networks.) Excess water and nutrients would fuel new growth. The fallen oak would become a home for some, building material for others, food, and temporary shelter. After the death of a single tree, the forest was made vibrant anew.

As I walked the Blydenburgh forest trails on that sunny, hopeful afternoon, I confronted the bleakest part of the life cycle with acceptance. Spring was not only about the joy of birth, mating swans, hatching eggs, and blooming flowers. It was also a time of reverence. The stumps submerged beneath the water’s surface fueled an entire lake’s ecosystem. Aged trees, felled during a severe thunderstorm, provided necessary raw materials for many plants, animals, insects, fungi and bacteria. Life and death were integral to the forest’s survival. That which was born will die, and that which died will be cherished and reapportioned to new life, and so on.

The pondside path wound back on itself to the road which led back to the Dog Park parking lot. Slow-moving cars and slower-going walkers crossed paths with subtle acknowledgements of the shared experiences, a nod here, a small wave there. I smiled at every dog I passed. Some sniffed gladly in kind. 

a view of the pond at Blydenburgh County Park with trees in the far background
(Photo from TripAdvisor.com)

For the novice hiker, Blydenburgh County Park offers several low-elevation, well-worn and tended paths. It boasts kept campgrounds, a large communal dog park, and plenty of adventuring terrain. It also offers a sense of tranquility for those seeking meaning within nature’s bounds. 

Getting Ready for Book Fairs and Festivals!

I’ve been relatively quiet on the blogosphere this week for a very cool reason – it’s festival season! I thought I’d jump on to let you know where my voice has been.

Last week, I received word that an event originally scheduled for March 2020 was being rescheduled for this coming Saturday. In light of that, I’ve had to shift gears away from my writing and toward festival prep.

This Saturday, April 24th at the Shops at Atlas Park in Richmond Hill, Queens I’ll have a table set up at…

The 3rd Annual Autism Awareness Action Day

Play4Autism is an awesome organization helping to promote social engagement and self-esteem in autistic kids. They teach skills through physical play and activity, and they are focused on creating team-building opportunities for kids to feel like part of the community. Learn more about them here.

The 3rd Annual Autism Awareness Action Day is sure to be a fun-filled day of music, games, carnival activities, food and drink, raffles, and vendors – vendors like me! The event will be held at the Shops at Atlas Park in Richmond Hill, Queens from 12-5pm.

What’s there to prepare?

Even though I had a year to prepare for festival season, there’s something about the week before that always sparks fresh ideas. The creativity soars – especially on deadline!

  1. I’m gathering up my copies of Maddie Steiner, Fashion Designer for sale at the event.

Maddie is a girl on a mission who is not afraid to get messy and make mistakes. When an invitation arrives, Maddie dreams up a new outfit to wear – but she’s never made anything like that before! Follow Maddie in this 32p. illustrated, rhyming picture book as she designs the dress of her dreams.

Based on the author’s time working with autistic girls, Maddie Steiner, Fashion Designer is really a story of persevering and accepting imperfection as part of the process. It was inspired by clothes-loving girls who worked really hard and struggled to see the value in their work if something was not quite how they imagined it. Hand-drawn illustrations by Aaron Hover, engineer, add fun and jokes that hopefully make you want to read it again and again. (Not a long read, but recommended ages 8-12. $9.99)

2. I’m creating resources, resources, resources! At the Autism Awareness Event, I’ll be giving away a sampling of worksheets designed to assist in developing basic pattern recognition, hand-eye coordination, and communication skills. After the event, all of the worksheets (and more!) will be available for sale (with free samples) on the Kid Lit Motivates TeachersPayTeachers store site.

3. I’m putting the finishing touches on some homemade Ribbon Dancers for sale at the festival as well! They’re sure to be a hit with the movers and shakers attending the festival! ($5)

All proceeds from the sale of Maddie Steiner, Fashion Designer, resource pages and ribbon dancers will be used to fund the next book in the Maddie Steiner universe: Maddie’s School Reboot (title may change.)

4. I’m preparing for our Ribbon of Reading, where festival-goers will add a unique, decorated link to the Chain of Hope, answering the question: What do you love to read about in books?

5. I’m making my signs and packing my bag! Excited to debut my spring table layout, with some finishing touches that are made to be eye-catching.

Will I See You There?

Sunshine and the Scientist will be representing Kid Lit Motivates and are excited to meet everyone who stops by. It’s been so long since we’ve been out and about – we can’t wait for this festival energy!

Who are Sunshine and Scientist?

This is an introduction to who we are, which will continue evolving each day just as we do, from the perspective of Sunshine.

The Scientist has been working at ‘doing the thing’. Therefore, Sunshine’s voice has been thus dominant on the blog. Not so forever.

Who are Sunshine and the Scientist?

Sunshine and the Scientist, at a Fall Festival

We’re a matched set, a team, partners in thought.

We’re a pair of thinkers who enjoy the written word.

We’re real people with real ideas, struggles, and abilities.

We love nature, travel, cooking/baking, gardening, carpentry, playing pool, lighting actual and metaphorical fires, and promoting kindness, truth, justice, empathy, integrity, scientific method, and education.

What do you hope to accomplish by blogging?

We aim to be a beacon of truth, practical optimism, and integrity for any who appreciate our Words.

We are always looking for collaborative partners who have similar goals.

What topics will you blog on?

  • Sunshine is a logical extremist with a penchant for emotional framing.
  • The Scientist is an emotional centrist with a penchant for structured, direct framing.
  • Together we’ll consider our thoughts.
  • We’ll address those thoughts individually, independently, contrastingly, or as a unified team.
  • We’ll place those thoughts in greater contexts concerning relationships, personal development, scientific rigor, universal truth, etc.
  • We’ll always seek to make the entries accessible and open up dialog opportunities with our readers.

Who do you think will be interested in reading?

It is hard to say who might be interested. Are you?

When we talk to people, we often find that we have more to say on any given topic than anyone is interested to hear.

Additionally, the forums and venues open to us are not always appropriate for meandering ponderings.

If you enjoy our work or feel provoked by it – there it is – our audience.

What do you hope to accomplish with your blog?

Sunshine and the Scientist have often been told that we should write books. We believe with the focus aid of an online public forum, we’ll be able to narrow down exactly which book(s) we should be writing.

Recipe: Vegetarian Black Bean Enchiladas

As a vegetarian approaching my 12th Vege-versary, I’m ecstatic about the options available to me in the restaurant and grocery world. While Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have taken the more recent popular lead on meat-adjacent protein substitutes, companies like Morningstar Farms, Lightlife, Quorn, and Amy’s Kitchen have reinvented their staple products and added to their competitive offerings. 

Photo by Ella Olsson on Pexels.com

It’s not just tofu anymore, folks. 

Not that there’s anything wrong with tofu. 

(Urban Tastebud put together a list of the biggest 16 names in the fake meat industry. The former are only a few of my personal faves.)

The health and environmental benefits of a vegetarian lifestyle are actively being researched, but the preliminary results are promising, according to a 2015 meta-analysis by Appleby and Key. And this news has been getting around, as a 2019 Gallup poll showed that 5% of Americans identified as vegetarian. Given the explosion of product availability and accessibility, it is presumed that number has increased in the interim.

When I became a vegetarian in 2009, as a dorming undergrad, I knew few cooking techniques, despite what I might have boasted at the time. My father’s cooking style was Polish-German-Italian (heavily Italian). I knew from hours of observation that there was a major difference between the Long Sauce and the Quick Sauce, and that pierogis and kielbasa were acceptable anytime fare. I’d also absorbed my grandmother’s eastern European insistence on the necessity of root vegetables in a balanced diet, that every good recipe calls for onions, and that every part of a chicken can be used, including and especially the bone marrow.

My dietary switch was motivated by a few factors — personal health, environmental impact, biological curiosity — and I jumped into veganism after reading a couple of books, put myself on a 10-day trial, and read through online public forums. The change wasn’t especially welcomed by my family, who insisted it was a passing fad. Perhaps their resistance gave me the stubborn grit to continue. Not being handy in the kitchen or well-educated on a balanced vegan diet, I ate at on-the-go burrito places, like Moes and Chipotle, and I polished off jars of peanut butter and pounds of pasta weekly. I ate a lot of unseasoned, tasteless, and arrogantly prepared black beans and I tried to force myself to enjoy — ugh — salads. (A few years later, while living in America’s heartland, I’d relent on veganism, reclaim scrambled eggs with cheddar cheese, and swallow my pride toward vegetarianism.) 

With twelve years on the journey with a full kitchen, a more active online tutorial community accessible from the palm of my hand, and practice, practice, practice, I’m a lot more savvy. I have a full spice cabinet and I’m not afraid to dip into worldly taste combinations. The cooking adage ‘If it grows together, it goes together’ has been a mental preparation refrain. I’m also more of an intuitive “what’s in the fridge? okay, incorporate it” type of cook than a “follow the strictest recipe measure” type of cook. I’ve fed many omnivores (read: meat eaters) and I have a sense that their objections to vegetarianism is more often about texture than taste or meat need. 

For those novice home cooks looking to adapt to the vegetarian lifestyle, either in perpetuity or as an option to the standard fare, I have some information that I’ve accrued over these many years. (I am NOT a nutritionist, dietician, or physician, so please consult an actual expert with dietary or nutrition concerns.) 

With this in mind, I offer the first of many recipes I feel confident to share. It takes about 45 minutes to prepare, especially if you already have some facility with kitchen tools. It has been accepted by my meat-eating critics, but stands the vegetarian test of fleshless cuisine.

Photo by Polina Kovaleva on Pexels.com

Recipe: Black Bean Enchiladas

Equipment: an oven and a stovetop burner, a cutting board and knife, preparation bowls/tubs, measuring cups and measuring spoons, a large nonstick sauté pan, a large stirring utensil, a serving spoon, a square or rectangular oven-safe baking dish, aluminum foil, a spatula for serving, plates and forks. 

Note: I prefer a Santoku knife for all of my chopping and slicing needs. Use what you feel safely comfortable and confident with.

Optional Equipment: Can strainer (a collander for bean cans), kitchen timer

Ingredients (in usage order): 2 Tbs vegetable oil, 1 medium (~1/2 c) onion (chopped), 6 mushrooms (chopped), 1/2 bunch of cilantro (~1/4 c), can of black beans (rinsed, drained), 8 oz can of tomato sauce, 1/2 c water, 1/2 tsp salt (and salt to taste), 1 Tbs oregano, 1 tsp garlic powder, 1/4 tsp cumin, 1/4 tsp paprika, pinch of nutmeg, 16oz can of mild enchilada sauce, 6 8-in flour tortillas, 2 c shredded cheese (cheddar preferred).

Substitute/Optional Ingredients: bell pepper, carrot, red beans, pinto beans etc. Any fresh vegetable or bean will taste fine. Substitute fake meat crumbles or chopped meat can be added. (For bricks of frozen faux meats, defrost ahead in the microwave with a splash of water in the bowl.) Instead of cilantro and tomato sauce, I occasionally use 4 heaping Tbs of Goya’s Recaito or Sofrito. Any preshredded cheese, cheese mix, or vegan cheese substitute works. For a spicier recipe, add 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper and a few dashes of your choice of hot sauce. 

Preparation notes: Rinse all canned beans 2x. Clean all veggies, and chop ahead of time, for cooking ease. (It’s what the pros do!) Use fresh veggies over canned or frozen veggies, if possible- they take on seasoning more easily, in my opinion. Know in your heart that there are few ways to mess this up — sauce, cheese, veggies, and beans — take a deep breath, you’ll be fine.

Vegetarian Reminder: Because there are no animal products being used, there is a lower chance of cross-contaminating with bacteria or dangerously undercooking ingredients. Plus one for nervous chefs!

Recipe Reminder: This is written for the novice. Skip ahead if you’ve got it down.

Method: 

  1. Pull out all of the tools you’ll need and measure and prepare all of the ingredients. As you get more facility in the kitchen, you’ll be able to multitask and prepare on-the-cook, but for true beginners, preparation is a friend. Chop onion, mushrooms, and optional veggies all to a similar bean-like size. Rinse and drain beans. Chop cilantro. Open the tomato sauce and enchilada sauce cans. Measure the seasonings into a small bowl.
  2. Preheat the oven to 400deg F. 
  3. Heat oil on medium heat in large sauté pan for a minute until it easily moves around and gently coats the bottom of the pan.
  4. Add the onions and sauté until translucent or semi-sheer, for about 3 minutes. Move them around with a stirring spoon every 30 sec. and sprinkle a pinch of salt over them.
  5. Add the cilantro (or Goya product) and sauté about 1 minute.
  6. Add mushrooms (and other optional veggies), beans, tomato sauce, seasonings and stir. Add some of the water. There should be enough water in the pan to keep the mixture in a dense soupy consistency. Vegetables give off water as they cook down, so feel confidently adding a small amount at a time.
  7. Bring mixture to a gentle boil and lower the heat to simmer. Stir occasionally for about 20 minutes, or until the vegetables are soft and the water has mostly cooked off. Turn off the stove.
  8. Spoon 2 Tbs of enchilada sauce in the bottom of the bakeware dish. 
  9. Holding a tortilla in your nondominant hand, use a large serving spoon in your dominant hand to spoon a palm-sized amount of mixture into the tortilla (usually two spoon fulls). Roll the tortilla into a cylinder, folding the short ‘top and bottom’ flaps over the mixture, followed by the longer ‘side’ flaps and place the folded side down. Repeat filling, and place the next enchilada as close to the first as possible, somewhat overlapping the first. Repeat until pan is full. (For most 8x8in or 9x13in baking pans, 6–8 enchiladas fill the pan.) 
  10. Cover the enchiladas with enchilada sauce, to prevent the tortillas from burning in the oven. Sauce freely as the unsauced tortilla edges may burn.
  11. Sprinkle the enchiladas with shredded cheese- to taste. I easily use 2 cups of cheese, if not more. 
  12. Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 20 minutes at 400deg F. Uncover and bake for an additional 5–7 minutes or until a crispy, cheesy coating is achieved. 
  13. Remove from oven, turn the oven off, and let sit for 5 minutes. Cut, serve, and eat! 

 I’ve made these black bean enchiladas many times, though they never come out quite the same way twice. I think the great thing about one-pot sautéing is the freedom to use ingredients at will as long as the water-salt balance is tended. Experiment by swapping out vegetables or seasonings, based on what you have in the fridge. The mixture needs to cook down before it goes into the oven, so use water sparingly at first to accommodate vegetables that will release water. 

If there’s filling left over, save it — makes for great chili over rice. 

The omnivores in my life request this meal on a weekly basis. It’s truly a household favorite. Let me know if you try it or if you have questions. I look forward to hearing from you and to sharing more of my vegetarian cooking prowess. 

What are your go-to vegetarian recipes?

What meat-based fare would you love a substitute for?

Tell us in the comments!

Mantis and Me

On a sunny day in June, I heard my mother yelping loudly from the garage. I knew this instantly as a cry for help, involving an insect or arachnid. Had a bee flown into the house? Was a colony of ants exploring a shelving unit? When I reached her, I was stunned at the sight.

In a shaded corner near the garage door, where dust and leaves had accumulated, a mantid writhed in a thick, cotton-like web. From the coloration- a leafy, uneven and camouflaging brown, and size- approximately 6 inches, I assumed it was female. (This was not necessarily true, I’d learn later.) Her forelegs were wrapped tightly together and her abdomen had been spun several times over amid the gray death trap. Her head pivoted wildly as she jerked, fruitlessly, to free herself.

My heart broke at the sight. As a naturalist, I’m ordinarily contented allowing nature to follow her course, intentionally interceding minimally. The harsh natural landscape consists of predators and prey, and our sentimental human values are infrequently doubled in nonhuman life. This mantid had fallen (or flown or walked) into a well-laid snare by an assuredly large and hungry spider. She may have been trying to eat the spider, the spider’s eggs, or the spider’s webbed victims. Human intervention aside, the mantid would likely not survive very long in this sticky and vulnerable state.

Nature, however, does not build garages, which meant human intervention was already a factor. Insects who found themselves inside this garage were also routinely subject to intervention. I’ve been known to relocate indoor spiders elsewhere out-of-doors or to release my indoor cat to playfully dismantle the errant cricket. Besides, I reasoned, there was no sense in allowing one of nature’s most incredible predators to be taken out by a lucky, mostly unwelcomed, well-placed arachnid. 

Photo by Julissa Helmuth on Pexels.com

At my childhood Long Island suburban home, a family of mantids inhabited the arborvitae directly outside my front door. I believed, was told, mantids were endangered, a common misconception caused by their general rarity and low numbers. I relished in the mantis’ ability to keep flies and other insects away from our porch, silent bug zappers, and I felt privileged whenever I saw them clinging to the railing or resting on a shaded needle. I hadn’t seen one in the 15 years since we’d moved.

To find a mantis, struggling against bindings, was so peculiar and incredibly sad to my mother and me. Her yelping was entirely understandable. I needed to save the mantis! I rushed to action.

I retrieved a few twigs and a postcard of junk mail. Bending down over the mantid, I used the twigs to slowly detach her from the wall and carefully transferred her to the card. She froze, no longer moving her head or limbs at all. Was this fear? Instinctual protection? I had no idea how sturdy or fragile her limbs were and hoped that any damage was impermanent. I moved to a nearby patch of grass and knelt down, placing her still-webbed body gently on the ground. Only her back two legs were untangled. Her face turned to mine as if sizing me up. Friend or foe? Her mantid eyes were mesmerizing and I lost a few seconds to the awe of being so close to such a magnificent, alien-looking creature.

Shaking quickly from the reverie, I began the arduous process of removing the spider silk from her body and forearms, one sticky strand or clump at a time. I spoke in soothing soft tones as I would an injured animal, not knowing what mantis hearing was like. (Later, I’d learn that mantids have a single ear in the center of their chest, which they use to help them hunt flies, cicadas, and even *gasp* bats.) During the field procedure, she meditated continually on my face, her head in a upturned angle in my direction. I expected that at any moment, once free, she would flee if her wings were still in tact. Instead, she remained, lifting each newly freed limb and flapping each wing as it became unstuck. 

With the last of the webbing removed, she turned her head away. I placed my hand near her forearms, wondering if, cinematically, she might crawl upon my arm. Sharply, she turned to look at me and rocked back and forth on her back legs. Then, she ceased swaying and gently placed her forearms around my pointer finger for three or four seconds. It was a brief handshake between humble predators. My heart swelled up and a lump caught in my throat. I’d received gratitude from a queen of the insect kingdom.

She moved her hands to the recognizable mantid prayer position and began again to sway, a common mantid hunting technique. It occurred to me that she might be incredibly hungry after her ordeal — mantids will often skip meals and then hunt for bigger and better prey to compensate — especially if she had been searching for a meal when she was ensnared. I left her to her devices, walked slowly away, and watched her from a distance, until she flew off about 20 minutes later.

I expected it would be the last I saw of her. I was wrong.

About a month later, she clung to my front door, hunting moths attracted to my porch light. I watched from inside the glass pane as her head turned, her legs bent, and she snatched an unsuspecting meal from the air. 

Not long after that, a green mantis, whom I assumed to be male, appeared on my parked car tire at the far end of my driveway, and then the next day on the deck railing. From a crouch, I watched him hunt a large horsefly from 3ft away. It was truly a sight to see. Giving him distance, I observed his prayer-like dance, his calculation of wind speed, direction, distance, and time, before he flew (more accurately, leapt) toward the fly, and the two disappeared from view underneath the deck. (I can only assume the fly was ended that day, but not alone. It is unlikely the male mantis lived much longer, either, as female mantids are known to devour the heads of their mates shortly after breeding.) 

I learned through later research that mantids will often choose to live and breed in decaying wooden structures. They are not relegated to shaded shrubbery, as I had mistakenly presumed. Unknowingly, I had been cultivating the ideal mantid habitat right outside my front door. Plenty of prey, food, and crumbling, unsealed decking had likely attracted the mantids in the first place.

It was a month after that, the first of several babies, nearly translucent and an inch long each, appeared on the front door’s frame. 

My connection with the female mantid from that fateful day forward was palpable. Even if the webbing was uninhabited, she would have surely starved in a futile effort to escape. I had only intended to save her from imminent peril, but her wide eyes trusted me, the giant in her microbiome. Did her countenance really change from fear to gratitude? I could never have expected a ‘hand’ shake, nor did I anticipate that she had chosen my home as her own.

Has my house become a stopover from the mantids of the neighborhood? A place to rest, hunt, and nest? Will this summer bring a new generation of neighborly mantids, for whom I’ll imagine wildly unrealistic personalities and magnanimous friendships? Only time will tell. The only thing I can say for certain is that the intervention was a success and my humanity errs closer to nature than I knew.

Transported in the Cold, April Rain

Stepping out to fetch the paper (really, to feed the clowder–there is no paper, nostalgia and porch-papers go hand-in-hand), I felt the cold, spring rain about to break from its accumulated mist around me. It’s happened this way before.

(I believe the cats are grateful for porches, as umbrellas for paws are late to the patent office.)

It was late afternoon in San Francisco, April, 4 years ago, as I left the Botanical Garden, when I sensed the fragile clouds.

April 2017, San Francisco

(There were fewer cats then and a great many more flowers.)

The air was cold, crisp, yet sticky with pollen.

On my solo excursion in a new city, as I am inclined, I typically avoid public transportation, traveling lightly in well-worn sneakers. I make a point of living locally, seeing the world from vacation’s sidewalks.

Feeling imminent rain, however, I jumped on a bus to take me back to my hostel, a bus which brought me a few miles in the wrong direction before I knew to dismount.

My phone was dead and my pockets bare, and so, with the threat of rain in a thick April smog, I started the arduous trek back.

The Sky Opens

After 2 miles, the fissure erupted and rain poured, and clothed in only a rainbow-dyed sweatshirt and a pair of cheap, stiff jeans, I felt the call of adventure. The drench was only beginning.

After an hour, my jeans chaffed and the rainbow dye ran down my face and wrists. Somehow I was miles from base. A true, independent sojourn, then! I’d save myself and see the city from an unexpected point of view.

I’d studied a city map before taking off, and was surprised to find myself near San Francisco State University. Truly, miles, hours, off course. The hills make foot travel more tenuous than any other scape I’d encountered. Having only my wits, my obviously unreliable sense of direction, and my appearance as a sopping circus clown, I asked directions and was turned around.

I could only chuckle at the ridiculous nature of my situation. I never have the adventure I hope for, only the one I haven’t planned for.

And turned around again when I reached the Shopping District. My feet squished in my sneakers and my body began to ache. Doormen were shielding ladies in expensive shoes from the downpour as I hustled between, through, the drops.

I nearly lost my joviality and any hope I’d find my way back. Perhaps I’d fallen through a portal and was doomed to loop through these neighborhoods in perpetuity, damp, cold, and hungry.

I had stopped to rest beneath an overpass, where a few had gathered to wait for a bus, when I first noticed the joy. San Francisco is an upbeat city, to be sure, especially in comparison to my native New York, but this… This was happiness exhaling from an entire population.

Divine Intervention

It rains so infrequently in San Francisco that for residents, a downpour is a blessing.

A woman in a blue skirt suit wheeled a cart of Bibles and pamphlets up to me. She’d been recruiting congregants at the bus stop when she must have noticed my plight.

“Can the Lord be of any service?” She asked.

Pithy, I chuckled to myself, grateful for any assistance, divine or otherwise.

I explained the unfurling of my day and she mapped out directions, being extra careful to avoid the steeper hills. I was about an hour’s walk from salvation.

I thanked her, profusely, and she offered me her umbrella. But what good is umbrella when one is already saturated? No, she would need the umbrella so as not to sully her beautiful suit. She had the Lord’s work to do, after all, giving directions to sidewalk-stuck, hostel-bound rainbow fish. It was best she maintain appearances.

I set off, emboldened by the hour remaining (less, 40 mins in stride, despite my burning hips) and the knowing it was impossible to get even more soaked than I already was.

When I was three blocks away from my hostel, the sun came out and slowly the rain tapered off.

People emerged from storefronts grinning. Rainfall is precious here. Also, check out that colorful mermaid girl, just emerged from the sea. Our city is a magical place. They were all infectious jolly. Several called out to say hello, and more than a few waved. I felt like the San Francisco rainy day mascot. I thought they might write a book about me and my follied, drenched trek through their streets.

Arriving at the hostel, avoiding the stares, I hurried to my room, peeled off the layers, wrapped myself in my warmest attire, and slept for 14 hours.

I was changed that day.

I had walked 17 miles, many of them in an unexpected direction.

I had seen the city in an unusual and excitable way.

I learned I could survive anything, that I only need put one foot in front of the other, and keep doing so, and that eventually I would find a way to rest. And that, no matter how resistant I might be, someone’s Lord would reach out to help when I needed help the most.

***

It was only 20 minutes today before the light emerged. The cats who had run for cover all repositioned in their sunning spots.

How fortunate I am to smell the rain and remember, as a woman of this world, I am as free as my feet will allow me, I need only take the first steps.

A Walk thru Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge

On a frigid Sunday in March, I set out to explore the Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge. Donning an unseasonable spring jacket under a pair of binoculars and shivering into my coffee cup, I chose the longest path to make the most of nature’s offerings. 

a tufted titmouse on a branch in winter [pixabay]

The Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge is a 2550-acre preserve, part of the 6500-acre Long Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex. The refuge is located on the south shore of Long Island and is bisected by the Carmans River, historically the Connecticut River, a 10-mile long stretch with four dams, which begins as 8 miles of freshwater and becomes more brackish as it leads into the Great South Bay. The habitat supports numerous waterfowl, box turtles, and osprey, as well as providing haven to other native Long Island species, like white-tailed deer, foxes, frogs, and fish. 

My walk began upon a wide and well-marked trail, running briefly parallel to and in shadow of the railroad. The path was easily navigable, as signs were posted at all intersections and benches were accessible throughout for the comfort of even the most amateur hikers. Near the trailhead, passing trains were cause for great excitement to several young, novice walkers, who temporarily ceased collecting sticks and kicking mulch to point and wave at the railcars.

I chose the White Oak trail, which began in the Northeastern span of the refuge, a minutes’ walk from the Long Island National Wildlife Refuge’s visitor center. The trail continued in a southwesterly direction, before looping back on itself, staying entirely to the north side of the brackish marsh. The trail provided scenic views of the wetlands as well as a fairly isolated walk through the Pine Barrens, another mainstay in the pride of Long Island naturalist.

With my unusually long stride, I quickly found myself isolated along the waterfront and able to view the estuary in full. I noted a few geese paired off, while some seagulls and mallards were going about their topside fowl duties. Soon, the signs directed me into the pine barrens, to a more forested area on a narrower, yet also well-marked, trail. I was comforted to note the excellent upkeep by park employees.

For an afternoon in early March, the forest felt desolate and abandoned. It could have been January by the look of the land. No budding groundcover or greenery could be seen along the White Oak trail, aside from the distant pine canopy and an occasional English Ivy. Were I in a more depressed mood, I would have found the forest to be equally so, its continued hibernation rife with symbolism. Fortunately, rather than letting the gloom become me, I set my senses to seek out forest dwellers— ground rodents, birds, deer— to no avail. Finding none for the greatest duration of the trip, I marveled instead at the wild logistical adaptations which pine tree trunks and limbs will maneuver to ensure the most amount of sun exposure in a crowded canopy space. Their twisting branches and steeply angled trunks were truly fascinating to behold, especially as the trail looped northeast, back toward the marshlands and the scenic overlooks. I delighted at a brown sign with its depiction of binoculars, which led me to an accommodating wooden perch.

The sea of reeds sprawled between the river and the bay expansively. From the dock, acres of long-stemmed phragmites, a non-native invasive genus, were thriving in the brackish transitional waters. With the tide low, the waving reeds freely caught the breeze. It was truly a feast for the senses. I imagined the ospreys and hawks enjoying their predatory turns above this expanse, but, disappointingly, saw none circling overhead.

Photo by Laura Meinhardt on Pexels.com

At the close of the walk, after 2 miles of observational vigilance for animal life, a solitary bird whistled into the late afternoon sun. Startled at my luck, I fumbled with binoculars as the bird jumped and resettled five times on five separate branches. I couldn’t help laughing as I realized how rusty I’d become over a cold, birdless, binocularless winter. It was a tufted titmouse, a somewhat common songbird to Long Island’s habitats, but not one I have personally seen often. His proud grey crest appeared tall and sure, and as he confidently hopped closer, he looked down on me as I looked up to him. I thought how strange or how delightful it must be for a songbird in a preserve, to have a parade of humanity pass so closely by his home regularly. After a few moments’ observation and not wanting to encroach on his territory, I moved on and made my way back to the car to head home. 

The walk was an easy, solitary one, which promised burgeoning animal and budding plant life as the weather warmed to spring. The paths were well marked with signage more readily apparent than in most places I’ve visited, and important information was posted prominently. It was a walk I would recommend for the beginning hiker or the newly curious natural adventurer, and one I will likely return to once the seasons change. If you go, be sure to bring tick spray! You might spot raptors, songbirds, or the declining black ducks, all of whom make their home at the Wertheim Refuge.

There’s Something About Lori.

There is always little doubt for most people who meet me that I am… different. Statistically and by all accounts, it’s true, I’m different. Finding out what makes me different has been a lifelong pursuit, and I finally, after 30 years, have it figured out.

There’s an insurmountable distance that exists between me and other people. I’ve known about, sensed it, felt it as far back as I can remember. I was always aware that I was set apart, different, odd, off…but as a kid I never knew what it was.

(Why do we cite our childhood knowledge as though it holds some great key to our future potential? We may have asked great questions, but we likely didn’t have many correct answers then. We likely still don’t. As a kid, I probably understood this better than I do now.)

Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

Whatever made me different was the cause of the distance.

As a studious observer of human behavior (in retrospect, that says a lot), I went through phases of understanding. I did everything I could to label my difference, alter it, address it, and hopefully, find ways to get closer to people. What made me different from everyone else?

I was unlike the others because I was…

  • tall.

I towered over my peers for a time, but at 5’9″ the height difference wasn’t really the difference. We put so much weight in height as children. Adults make such a big deal out of it. It was just my earliest understanding of the world.

  • smarter than average.
  • too pretty.

These last two were observations made by my parents when I started asking them for the answer. As neither my mom nor my dad had close friends, they didn’t seem to be the best ones to be giving advice on the matter. People like smart, pretty people, don’t they?

  • not dressing like other girls.

Oh, this had my attention for years. In an upper middle class neighborhood with working middle class parents, designer tags were coveted and, with extreme rarity, procured from second-hand shops.

I was aware of the financial difficulties of spending several hours’ pay on a sweatshirt, especially one that made you a walking billboard, but I thought wearing it might make me fit in. One Christmas, I put nothing on my list except for this very particularly chosen sweatshirt from A&F, maroon with white lettering, expecting no other gifts but this suburban peer uniform. I received a bright red Champion sweatshirt — before Champion was retro-chic — along with a ton of other gifts, and a lecture on the importance of not becoming a shill to corporate advertising. Merry Merry.

I went through a phase where I did everything I could to dress strangely, thinking it was …I don’t know, punk or something. That didn’t help either. Just ask the other cheerleaders, MY TEAMMATES, who shunned me.

It was never the clothing, despite my best childhood and teenage guesses. Even when I was able to finally adjust my wardrobe the way I wanted, spending my first two full-time working paychecks on a Brand New Me, I was left with the Same Old Feeling of Otherness.

Image by Michael Püngel from Pixabay

Maybe I was different because I was…

  • not hanging with the cool kids.

How could I be distant from my peers because I’m distant from my peers? Social invitations are like dominos. I believed if I got invited to one more party or sleepover or special event, maybe, just maybe, I’d be invited to the next one. Maybe this time, they’d make me one of the group.

It never happened. I got my hopes up countless times for nothing. There would be no Babysitter’s Club for me. I was even bullied by kids in the DRAMA CLUB, who are always portrayed to be so welcoming of every misfit and reject…except for whatever my problem was.

  • not as wealthy as those in my neighborhood.

This would stay with me through my college years. I believed I was different, in part, because I was working 3 jobs to pay for textbooks for my 18 credit semesters, so I could graduate in 4, instead of 4.5, years, so I could quickly get a job and start paying back what many of my peers were being gifted on their birthdays, holidays, and graduation days. In a capitalist society, cash is king. My busy schedule might have caused me to turn down a hangout or two, but it wasn’t my lack of funds that made me different.

I made it my mission to save up for culturally relevant things, while militantly demanding financial independence from my parents. I’d never have the kind of scratch to get into fancy clubs or go on beachside vacations-not like I’d want to-not really.) So I flipped the money script.

There were plenty of people who didn’t value wealth like that, and maybe I could fit with them. I sought out the cheapest way to get a usable phone and still pay the least for my monthly plan. I bragged about my $10 purses and the pencil case I’d been using since grade school. I scrounged and saved. I flipped the money script. I was frugal, but that wasn’t enough to fit in either.

Whatever the difference was, it had nothing to do with economics.

By Free-Photos by Pixabay

Maybe the reason I felt apart from my peers was because I was…

  • suffering greasy hair, bangs or no bangs, an inability to tan, not as skinny as a model, and had other cosmetic concerns.

It turns out you can combat greasy hair by using sulfate-free shampoo and giving yourself a week of oily misery. Bangs are a nightmare to keep shapely and to grow back out. That’s a common concern, though. As far as my inability to tan, sure, I hated looking pasty and splotchy in the sun for 5 months out of the year, but is that really a reason I couldn’t keep a friendship going? My weight fluctuated wildly but never really gave me any peace. Even while I lamented these parts of myself, I knew that whatever was putting space between me and my peers, it was bigger than physical appearance.

  • raised by tough, but loving parents.

This is something most teens go through, I think, so it couldn’t be the thing that made me different. The fact that my parents had no interest in friendship, however, keeping only distant pen-pals and work friends on their lists — that should have been a clue.

  • prone to vomiting and other nervous stomach conditions.

This one likely did set me apart, but as I’d learn later, it was only another facet of the reason I am different. One grand and sincere apology to anyone who ever sat near me or invited me to a party, and was then disgusted by the results. And let me assure one person in particular, I did not throw up on your mother’s brand new leather boots on purpose, but really, who has kids chop up onions to make their own lunch at a birthday party in a poorly ventilated room? Seems like a disaster waiting to happen, and that disaster was nausea.

The thinking continued.

For years, I consulted with peers and professionals. I started seeing therapists, who assured me I was imagining the distance between me and those I wanted to befriend. Socializing with me became a giant mysterious jack-in-the-box — turn the crank, listen to my off-key tune, and wait for the wrong thing to shoot out of my mouth and scare the person across from me.

What did the people say? I was someone who…

  • thinks too much, talks too much, expects too much, falls for anything, uses too much sarcasm, is way too passionate, is way too driven, annoys the hell out of everyone, criticizes everyone, is unpredictably attractive one minute and unattractive the next, has unreasonable expectations, and is too smart for my own good.

These are all things I was told when I asked for advice. I took Every Single Opinion to heart. I considered. I adjusted, calibrated, overcompensated and recalibrated, and still… the differences remained. The distance between myself and the people around me loomed.

I carried this weight within me. It chipped away at me. I’d think I had the answer, change something or sacrifice something, and yet, the weight of the question was with me endlessly.

Image by Laterjay Photography from Pixabay

I was definitely…

  • in possession of a pattern-loving brain that seeks out differences.

Ah ha! Wait, no, other people are pattern-seeking too. That’s not the difference.

But by this point in my self-discovery, I was starting to see a significant pattern and I was making strides at socializing…

The people I was closest with, most attracted to, able to almost bridge the divide with — they were all autistic, or had been labeled autistic by someone and had chosen to throw off that label later.

I had a special way of communicating with autistic people, who seemed to appreciate my direct language, my analysis skills, my ability to empathize and understand their stories, my odd sense of humor. So, drumroll please…. I must go to work with them! I’d specialize in being a therapist for autistic individuals. I hadn’t found a calling, and now I had! Surely, this was thing putting distance between me and everyone else.

Photo by flockine from Pixabay

I was just a late bloomer.

No again. It was at this point that perhaps anyone other than me might have realized where this was going. Not I. I held on to this, unsettled. I remained in the dark about myself and continued to struggle.

I hit wall after wall trying to connect with people, suffering friend breakups and romantic breakups on a regular basis. I had a new best friend every 6 months, a new boyfriend about once a year. There was a frightening, sickening regularity about the cycle that I couldn’t help but notice.

Instead, I threw myself into my work and convinced myself for a time that I didn’t need anyone else, that I was just likely a loner, that I was built on a Randian philosophy, and that someday I would find my mountaintop, settle down within its most elevated peak, drink tea, and read books.

Image by Stocksnap by Pixabay

Alas, my work life was no better than my personal life. I was a competent therapist working with children with disabilities and children on the spectrum, but I couldn’t communicate the simplest things to their parents, teachers, or paras. My supervisors all gave up trying to explain to me that personal boundaries were necessary for self-care — I would take every case home with me, I carried those kids with me all the time. I lost night after night of sleep designing more and more unique interventions, games, strategies and exercises for my dwindling client pool. I was even more fun at parties as I droned on about behavioral cues and how our current system didn’t really help all the kids who needed it. So many people flew under the radar that needed additional help. So many people, like me.

Eventually I quit the field, burned out way before my time, and spent the next years trying to figure out what my life was even worth. If the herd did not want me, perhaps a culling was in order. I cut myself off. The phone never rang.

Photo by Eak K from Pixabay

It was in this time of deep isolation and despair that I found the answer, MY ANSWER, while reflecting over some of the stories I’d read and some of the teenagers I’d worked with. Like a train just leaving the station, I started writing everything I could think of that made me different, all my quirks and character traits, a much, much longer list than this essay would allow. There was a single question now, a different question, a question pounding in my mind day and night, a track that kept leading me forward.

Was I … neurodivergent?

Quickly, obsessively, and with little regard for anything else, I digested as much information on females with autism as I could. At the time, what little was known was anecdotal and nonspecific, posted in the blogs of pioneer weirdos like me. In college, I’d been taught THE RESEARCH, which I never knew was incredibly gender biased. It wasn’t that only boys were autistic. It was that for a long time boys were the only ones identified. There was an entire subset of personality traits, behaviors, and feelings that had been totally disregarded.

MY PERSONALITY TRAITS. MY BEHAVIORS. MY FEELINGS.

I finally had my answer.

Free-Photos from PIxabay

I was an incredibly verbal, socially mimicking female, obsessed with being accepted by my peers. I had trouble making and keeping social connections. I was academically gifted but somehow, intangibly, lacking. I struggled with some aspects of executive function and was savant-like in others. I had many of the same physical attributes and associated maladies. I literally fit the bill.

Once I’d accepted my label, a lot of things began to make sense.

(I know that the puzzle piece symbolism is insulting to many autistic people and I understand that. We aren’t missing anything. For me, autism was the missing puzzle piece I’d been searching for, the answer to my ceaseless questioning, the reason for the divide.)

The “atypical” label made me fit, and it fit me. It brought me to find people, entire communities of people, that I could get along with, people I could understand, people who wanted to befriend me. It helped me explain why so many of my friendships and relationships had failed, why the feedback had been so variable, why I’d lived with this obsession gurgling under the surface for decades, desperate to make itself known.

Photo by Pascal Laurent from Pixabay

I always had a sense that I was different from most people. I sit at the far end of many bell curves staring out in wonder at the standard deviations. I’d tell you about how I met my partner, how I made my first best friends, and how I’ve thrived in the knowledge, but…I diverge.

Reflective Optimism Post-Quarantine

The great quarantine of 2020(1) brought a lot of changes, realizations, and confrontations for us all. Like most, my world was turned upside down, my plans were canceled, and all of my momentum screeched to a halt.

My partner and I lost our jobs fairly early in the year. We each had significant personal health crises, made harder to treat in light of distancing restrictions at doctors’ offices and hospitals. Both of our cars became unusable metal heaps, and we lost a third when my partner flipped our Subaru less than a month after we signed on the dotted line. It would take months to scrounge up another down payment using our relief checks and unemployment money to buy another Subaru, and when we did, we found out we had paid $8,000 too much for the first. It was a year of limit finding and testing, financially, medically, and emotionally.

There was also a lot of love in 2020(1). My partner proposed marriage in a fit of optimism, and we got engaged and moved in together (in a family-owned house). We began caring for an extended family of stray cats that lived on the property, when the shelter “for COVID reasons” wouldn’t perform any spaying or neutering. One stray kitten from the clowder collapsed on our doorstep, undernourished and blind from infection. We brought him to the emergency vet and chose to adopt him after he survived several surgeries, including the removal of his right eye. Suddenly, where there had only been my elder cat Kitty and me, there was now a family of four inside and seven outside to feed, clean, train, manage, support and cuddle (indoor only, outdoor cats are not cuddly). 

My partner and I developed routines around their lives and became eager cat parents, wondering how they were when we were out on a hike, checking on them in the night. For the first time in our lives, we were building a family. That meant we needed to talk about domestic responsibilities, shared financial planning, technological disputes, parenting-adjacent perspectives, and matters of privacy and space. 

We are not the only millennial couple drifting without oars or star charts across an engaging, enraging, intertwining sea. The Pew Research Center found that millennials are waiting to start families, longer than any other generation, and more than 50% are living with family members — more than any previous generation. We’re waiting to get married, waiting to have kids, waiting to cobble together a down payment for property we’re waiting to afford. 

I’ve read countless accounts of other late-20s-30-somethings aiming for adulthood, which lies presumably just over the horizon and just out of reach. True adulthood is marked by many of us as the establishment of our own family units in independently managed residences. These are things we came to value by observing generations prior and seeking to follow in their footsteps, in an increasingly impossible scape. We experienced our seminal years around the tragedy of 9/11 and subsequent shift. We graduated into the 2008 recession to a job market unresponsive to our increasingly expensive secondary educations. We witnessed the cultural change from a nostalgic, optimistic 90s to a tech-focused, ever-fleeting present.

So many of us are holding on to our plans through illness, unemployment, unforeseen and previously unimaginable stressors, and the kindness of extended family. Depression and anxiety reign in our minds. Some day, some day soon, some day down the line, maybe we’ll be able to begin getting started on trying to achieve our dreams.

My partner and I are perhaps more fortunate than some. I trained as a therapist and my partner is a scientist. Like many others, we passed the quarantine with screens — sitcoms, horrors, ebooks, game shows, reality competitions, the more fantastic the better. We traversed every available trail in our local area and befriended the wildlife, in lieu of company. We stayed glued to the news of the day. We raised a kitten, a first for us both. We are also both terribly self-aware and our communication is blessedly direct and empathic. We communicated through quarantine as well as could be expected as we developed the beginnings of our family. We debated, quarreled, rolled our eyes, ironed out arising conflicts, offered time and gave space when one or both of us felt heated. He struggled with my need to stay busy, while I wrestled with his desire to stay put. 

In the long run, I’m sure we’ll look back at these days and feel grateful that circumstance gave us the opportunity. At this writing, I have just begun work at a new place in a new field and the Scientist has a few job offers to consider as well. We’ve replaced our 2, rather 3, vehicles with a single, fuel-efficient, cargo-friendly, trekking one. We talk often about our next steps to moving up and out and on, and look hopefully to the day when some normalcy returns to us all. 

Maybe, just maybe, one of these days, after all is said and done, we’ll get to be independent adults like we’ve always imagined. Until then, we have the cats to keep us distracted and motivated, our growing family of 2 + 2.