Even at a scary time, I have so much to be grateful for.
(Listen to the radio version here.)
In the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, I’m always filled with gratitude as I think about all the wonderful people, critters, and experiences I’ve had throughout the past year. This year’s lead-up to Thanksgiving has been terrifying, and on December first, I’ll be losing parts of my body that I’m emotionally as well as literally attached to and then facing life-altering cancer treatments.
But it is Thanksgiving, and I’m trying to hold onto being myself despite my current scary circumstances. And really, I’ve been enjoying an extraordinarily happy life for many more decades than most people get.
When I was a high school senior, the mother of one of my friends told us that our time in high school and college would be the best years of our lives so we’d better enjoy them. That’s the year Russ and I started dating and, as debate partners, went undefeated the entire year. It’s the year my teachers, after trying to no avail to persuade my parents to let me go to college, got me a scholarship to the University of Illinois. Along with Karen Boksa Thompson (one of my closest friends from high school, who helped me pick out my prom dress and brought her mom along to help me buy bedding for the dorm) and two friends I met in the dorm, Kathie Bunge Levan and Bev Levan Shockey, we became the Fourple. They have been my treasured friends for lo these many years.
Despite the “Miracle Mets” destroying every Chicago Cubs fan’s hopes and dreams, 1969 was a darned good year for me.
My 20s were much better than my teens. That’s when Russ and I got married and graduated from college, in that order.
That’s the decade I started birding, with all the magical moments of delightful discovery when even chickadees were new. My 20s also included the four years of my teaching career—I still remember, with so much fondness and real love, so many of my students, some of whom I still am in contact with.
Barely a month before my 30th birthday, my firstborn Joey entered the scene, and within the next four years Katie and Tommy made their appearances. I know I spent part of their baby and toddler years in an exhausted haze, but it was a joyful haze, and having fun with them is what I most clearly remember.
I became close friends with Karen Keenan, who became a lifelong friend and is a big part of how I started producing “For the Birds.” (I wrote three scripts but was way too shy to take them anywhere, so Karen called a friend of hers at KUMD who set up an appointment for me to come in. I may be shy and reticent, but I show up when it’s on my calendar.) Not too long after starting the program, people started bringing me hurt birds, so I had to learn what to do and get state and federal licenses as a rehabber. In 1987, I came up with the idea for Jim Baker of Baker’s Blue Jay Barn, and Karen’s husband John was game to do his voice. Then Karen became the voice of Earth Angel, whose bird emporium helps you to attract upscale, trendy birds to your home.
As I turned 40, I started watching for things to head downhill, and sure enough, I was in my mid 40s when I fell and got a concussion, and then went through a weird mid-life crisis so soon afterwards that it couldn’t have been a coincidence. Those two or three years were much harder on my family than on me, but we got through it stronger than ever.
On the bright side, my 40s were the decade when I wrote my first two books, which both won awards including the National Outdoor Book Award. I was 47 when we took a trip to Florida where we all enjoyed my #600 bird, the Florida Scrub-Jay. The next year we all visited Hawaii together. I started the final year before my 50th birthday with my first exotic bird trip, to Costa Rica, and ended it with Russ in Trinidad and Tobago, where we saw my #1000 bird together—a Bearded Bellbird. Meanwhile, that same year, Russ and I took a cruise on a very small, Native-American-owned ship to Alaska’s Inside Passage. Despite the bad parts of it, my 40s were the best decade of my life.
Well, the best decade until my 50s. That was the decade I produced what I consider my magnum opus, 101 Ways to Help Birds; got the first full-time job I’d had since my 20s, writing one of the very first birding blogs in existence; and got my second full-time job, science editor at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. That’s when I wrote The Bird Watching Answer Book. Over the course of this decade, I travelled to Costa Rica two more times, and to Mexico, Guatemala, and Ecuador. And this was the decade that I started photographing birds. So my 50s were my definitely my best decade ever….
…right up until my 60s. I kept getting better and better photos and was asked to write several books, including The National Geographic Pocket Guide to Birds of North America, the American Birding Association Field Guide to Birds of Minnesota, and Into the Nest: Intimate Views of the Courting, Parenting, and Family Lives of Familiar Birds. I got invited to birding trips in Europe, Peru, and Uganda; I went to Panama and Costa Rica again with my dear friend Susan; and Russ sent me on a trip to Cuba.
The Cubs won the World Series!!!
And to top everything off, that was the decade that I became a grandma! How could I have had yet another best decade ever—much less in my 60s?
I’ve only had two years to sample my 70s so far, but WHOA! Russ and I celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary in March 2022 and went on a birding trip to Alaska that July with our dear friend Erik Bruhnke.
This March, our Fourple staged a reunion in Champaign, Illinois.
I brought my ABA Continental life list up to 700 in Florida in April, and got it to 701 when I saw an American Flamingo with Russ and Joe in October.
My book 100 Plants to Feed the Birds won the 2023 American Horticultural Society’s Book Award. I started biking again, giving me that glorious sense of freedom I'd so relished in my 20s, only now I felt even more elated. And it was when I was 70 that Walter brought together his words for chickadee and grandma to name me Dee Dee Nana—the greatest honor I’ve ever received.
So my 70s are shaping up to be the best decade of all, and that’s what I’m going to try to focus on this Thanksgiving. Whether or not the winter of my discontent is ever made into glorious summer again, I’m extraordinarily fortunate to have such a great support system with my wonderful family, friends, and even some people I’ve never met in person. I’m also lucky that many of my favorite birds live in Duluth year-round; my three favorites of all—chickadees, Blue Jays, and Pileated Woodpeckers—can be seen just about every day of the year from my own windows. And I’m especially grateful that a warm, sunny three-year-old boy can snuggle up against me to watch them.
Despite what I’m dealing with right this very minute, I can’t help but remember that there are almost 38 million minutes in 72 years, and many millions of those minutes have been extremely joyful, making me a genuine multimillionaire in the only way that really matters. And that’s a lot to be thankful for.