As 2022 closes, I'm taking stock of the columns — all 120 of them — that I've written since starting this job at the Star Tribune last fall. What an honor it's been to tell stories centering on everyday people who illuminate the range of the human experience.
"You're doing great work," a fellow Strib columnist emailed me not long ago. "Having said that, the first 250 columns are pretty easy. :-) "
I believe it. At some point I will run out of things to say. Before the gig gets too hard, let me profess my gratitude for all of you who've read this column, written me words of kindness and support, or even called to disagree. And I couldn't be more thankful for the Minnesotans who opened up their lives so I could share their deeply personal stories with you.
Some of those stories from the past year deserve an update. They show that life is full of both bitter and sweet, and that in the words of the ancient philosopher Heraclitus, it's impossible to step into the same river twice. Change is constant, sometimes cruel. But if we're lucky we can still find goodness and reason for hope.
A mother's dream
When Pakou Hang founded the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA) years ago, her mom had been the spark.
Pakou had witnessed her mother, Phoua Thao Hang, face discrimination as a grower tending vegetables as a renter on someone else's land. This fall, the association, now led by Pakou's brother, Janssen, purchased 155 acres in Dakota County ensuring that Hmong farmers will always have affordable access to land so they can grow produce and sell it at local farmers markets.
But Phoua, the matriarch, was missing from the celebration. She was killed weeks earlier in a deplorable hit-and-run crash in St. Paul. A 15-year-old in a stolen Kia SUV slammed into the vehicle Phoua and her husband were riding in as the couple were on their way back from the HAFA farm.
"People have been losing parents forever, but when it happens to you, it feels like the first time," Pakou said. "We grew up really poor and had a lot of struggles. But because she was my mother, I have never had a tragedy until she died."
The way forward still feels foggy to Pakou. But she clings to her mom's advocacy for the project and knows how proud she would have been to see the organization purchase the land. That was the last step to complete her vision.
"Families and their children, generations down, will have access to this land. They'll be able to grow apple trees — that living fruit, that living seed — for their family," Pakou said. "That's so reflective of who my mom was."
A future worth planning for
Nora Reichardt's courageous story of coming out as transgender, not only to family and friends but to the world, is continuing to ripple out in positive ways.
Months after revealing her transition on a nightly newscast, the central Iowa TV news reporter from Hanover, Minn., says "the good has still outweighed the bad." One memorable connection came through a letter from a man who said Nora changed his perspective on trans people, noting that she never seemed to stop smiling during the segment about her transition. It was a rare news depiction of trans joy.
"I'm so much happier as Nora than I was ever in the person I was before," she tells me.
She had hoped to travel to Minnesota to spend time with her family and friends for the holidays, the first time she'd return to her home state as Nora. But last week's blizzard upended those plans. Still, she said coming out to her parents was the "single best improvement for our relationship that we've had in my lifetime." They talk, text and check in with one another more than they ever did in the past.
Reichardt's rural upbringing allows her to educate viewers about the trans community in a way that middle America can understand. She localized the devastating Club Q shooting in Colorado, and as a community member, attended a vigil where she felt the strength and support of her fellow LGBTQ residents. She's been thinking about how she might continue shining a light on trans issues in 2023.
For a long time, "I didn't feel like there was a point in planning ahead for a life that I didn't feel that connected to," she says. "I'm now in the headspace where I can think about the things I'd like to do."
Remember Lisa Cotton, the downtown Minneapolis shoeshiner who hung up her brushes in February after 31 years? Her departure put a punctuation mark on downtown's new normal, one in which far fewer people worked outside of their homes, let alone wore shoes. The day after Lisa walked away from that career, she started working for a friend who opened a new eatery and catering business in St. Paul.
But six months later, Lisa lost her job. "We don't need you anymore" is how her boss put it, she recalls. "He felt bad. I honestly think he couldn't afford me anymore."
Her daughter, who graduated this year from George Washington University, suggested Lisa find a job at Life Time. Cotton is back in downtown Minneapolis, where she cleans the women's locker room at the Target Center club. It's not her dream job — she still wants to feed her entrepreneurial spirit — but it's a soft landing. And she doesn't regret leaving behind her shoeshine stand.
"I thought I would miss it, but I haven't looked back. It was time for me to go," she says, adding that she didn't want to be "like a boxer who stays in the ring too long."
As for downtown, Lisa says she hopes to one day see it thrive again.
Reconnecting with the world
The "forever" aspect of loss is settling in for Seth Snyder and his two young children. On July 4, 2021, Snyder's wife, Radhika Lal Snyder, died by suicide. She was a doctor who specialized in maternal health until she was ravaged by her own postpartum mental health crisis.
As they headed into their second Christmas and another round of birthdays without Radhika, "there's a different kind of permanence, especially for little kids, where it sinks in and their bodies allow them to have a deeper emotional reaction than they did the first time," Seth says. "It's becoming part of our reality, instead of that surreal panic that we were in a year ago."
While working through his grief, Snyder has accelerated his plans to help other physician moms beset by mental health disorders. Working with the family of Gretchen Wenner Butler of St. Paul, another doctor who died by suicide in 2021, he helped create the Dr. Mom Foundation. Part of its mission is to raise awareness of a hidden vulnerability: In the United States, between 300 and 400 doctors end their own lives every year. The foundation recently launched a website offering resources for perinatal mental health and physician well being and plans to fund programs that fight doctor burnout.
"I actually made a holiday card this year," Seth says. "It was a high point, mixed in with a 'Dammit. It's a picture of just the three of us.' "
But it gave him a sense of reconnecting with the world. He hopes to see more of this world, while deepening his friendships and coaching his daughter's youth basketball team, in 2023.
Do you have a story idea to share about someone special in your community? Email me at email@example.com.