An Artful Summer Weekend

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This is the first thing I saw after the rain on the way to Arts on the Square

I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity, not just creativity in writing, but in all aspects of life. I think exercising our creativity could mean the difference in living a happy life versus a mundane one. Plus, it has been a while since I’ve engaged in art for pure delight. I think that’s why I’ve been struggling to find a routine that allows me to get in a creative flow. Last week I checked out two books to help me tame the monkey mind and engage my artistic mind. You may have heard of them: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert and The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I’m finding out a lot about how creativity works as well as being reminded of what I knew already, which is that we must play to awaken our creativity and let our minds “romp like the mind of God.” That’s what I did this past weekend, one of the best summer weekends in Waupaca, the annual Arts on the Square weekend, which is put on by the Waupaca Community Arts Board.

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More morning glories because they make me happy.

From Shuvani Tribal Bellydancers to poured metal tiles, the 10th Annual Arts on the Square had something for everyone, and it only gets better with each passing year. This year the festival began with events every night last week and culminated in a weekend of music, art, food, and exercise. The Waupaca Triathlon and Ride Waupaca were also held over the weekend, so this area was chock full of things to do!

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Dave Sullivan on guitar.

The only problem was that, sadly, rain was forecast all weekend. I didn’t arrive at the festival until about ten in the morning because of rain. Heavy downpours had already erased the beautiful chalk drawings on the sidewalks in front of downtown businesses by the time I arrived, but they didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits. The organizers were prepared and had moved the artists who were there to display and sell their wares into the Rec Center (Waupaca Recreation Center), and musicians took shelter either in tents or nearby stores. Music echoed from the food tent, and jazz flowed from the Union Street Emporium where Erin Krebs knocked me out with her vocals! I also watched Dave Sullivan perform his smooth jazz guitar.

After soaking in the visual arts and the jazz on the square, I stopped off at the We Love Waupaca mixed media and collage workshop to make a collage. I wasn’t really sure how to do what Martha Duerr, the person in charge of that tent, wanted me to do at first. We were supposed to think of a place in or near Waupaca that we loved and try to represent it in collage form on a Waupaca map, but we were supposed to leave part of the map showing. Then we could use pastels to finish it. When I’m faced with an “assignment” like that that requires creativity, I rebel against the constraints. I know enough about artistic temperament and creativity to know that rebellion is nothing but resistance, and resistance manifests itself in fear. I was scared to let myself go, to do something someone might think was stupid. But I’m stubborn enough to realize that, because I felt resistance, I had to make a collage.

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The humidity made the tissue paper hard to handle, and the scissors were tiny kid scissors with glitter and glue stuck to them. I felt decidedly uncomfortable. I watched two little kids at the table near me working diligently on their collages and wondered if I could forget my own inhibitions like they had. I remembered what I had been reading about creativity and decided to have fun and see what happened. I thumbed through numerous copies of National Geographic Magazine and bags of pre-cut images and chose the ones that appealed to me. I didn’t know what I wanted to create, but since Bruce is a pilot, I started with an airplane. Then I found a picture of a spillway, and the idea of Hartman Creek State Park came to me, so that is what my collage is supposed to represent. Here it is above (Please excuse the awful picture). Something interesting happened while I was creating the collage. The weather had been sticky and hot for most of the day, but as the collage came together, the rain stopped, the wind picked up and the air cooled way down. The change was palpable, both the change in the weather and in my attitude and release of fear. Coincidence? I’m not so sure.

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Wisconsin Poet Laureate Kimberly Blaeser with my friend Bill after he recited his haiku “The Paperclip.”

In the poetry and storytelling tent I bought  a book by Jerry Apps to read by the fire during our long Wisconsin winter. It’s called The Quiet Season: Remembering Country Winters. In addition, the current Wisconsin Poet Laureate, Kimberly Blaeser, recited some of her moving poems.  Again in the storytelling tent, I used a manual typewriter that poet Paul Wiegel brought with him. He used them to write poems on demand for anyone who wanted one. I did my best to write a snippet using one of the more “modern” of the machines and hung it on the bulletin board with the others. Let me just say that I had forgotten how clunky and difficult manual typewriters are to use. Thank goodness for computers! In the picture below is my friend Barb on the left in the foreground writing her thoughts, and that is Paul in the hat sitting on the back left.

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The last thing I did was to witness the Waupaca Foundry operate a portable foundry onsite to pour metal tiles. That was really something! People made etchings in sand, and the skilled workers from the foundry poured molten metal into the etched molds. After they cooled, people could take their tiles home. The Waupaca Community Arts Board brought back this project for the second time after the success of the community art project, Tell Your Story in the Tiles, was installed at Waupaca’s South Park.

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This past weekend was rejuvenating and fun. I was able to reconnect with my own creativity and enjoy the talentsof so many artists and musicians and and the hard work of friends and volunteers that make Waupaca such a special place to live.  I ended it yesterday with dinner on the Waupaca Chain o’ Lakes cooked by my friend Mary.  That’s her husband in the above photo with the poet laureate. Bill and Mary own the office supply store Office Outfitters here in Waupaca. I can’t remember when I’ve been so content to call this little town home.🙂

 

The Kitchen House and Beyond

20160817_135242As most writers do, I read all the time, magazines, internet articles, newspapers, whatever is handy. But nothing is as satisfying as finding a really great book I can dive into and remain submerged in for days. I’m not picky about genre, but I prefer historical fiction over most other genres simply because I’m fascinated by history and the way people lived in times past. I’m always on the lookout for books of historical fiction, especially ones that offer a new perspective about a subject I thought I knew already. The last book like this I devoured was All the Light We Cannot See  by Anthony Doerr, which won the Pulitzer for fiction. If you haven’t read it, it is a World War II story from the perspectives of a blind French girl and a German boy. The characters will linger in your mind long after you finish. No surprise I liked that one, but  the latest book that caused me to lose sleep and do little else for a couple of days was The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom.

Not for a long while have I read a book that has so captured my imagination from page one.  And, might I add, it started with a prologue, something publishing professionals usually caution against. I found the book, which I had never heard of before, stashed in my classroom on a bookshelf, probably part of another teacher’s classroom library. I picked it up several times over the last three years but never bothered to take it home to read. When I left my job this year, however, I couldn’t leave this book behind, so I packed it with my other belongings when I left at the beginning of summer.  At home I shelved it on my bookcase with others of its genre, intending to read it “one day.”

Last week, after revising my work-in-progress in which I also use the words “kitchen house” to describe  the area where Belinda works at Haddon Hall,  I remembered it and finally sat down to read. For two days I rarely was  without this book in my hand. The story hooked me right away. Here is the first line of the prologue: “There was a strong smell of smoke, and new fear fueled me.” There is unknown conflict here, and I like the first person narrator. The novel spans about twenty years of the main character’s life. Her name is Lavinia, but at the beginning we don’t know that because she has been so traumatized that she doesn’t remember anything of her life. And she’s only a child. The reader learns she is Irish, and that her parents died on a voyage across the ocean, so in the late 1700s Lavinia becomes an indentured servant at Tall Oaks plantation to work off her passage to America. She is set to work with the slaves in the kitchen house. It’s no surprise that Lavinia becomes attached to those who look after her and call her Binia, and therein lies some of the conflict of the book because Lavinia is white and her”family” is black. Again, there are some similarities to my own book here, which is why, I  think, I was so intrigued throughout the book.

The Kitchen House opened my eyes to a new aspect of the Southern plantation era and defies the mythology that grew up around it. Kathleen Grissom does not sugarcoat the ugliness in this book, but the beauty, grace, and redemption she includes keep the story from being too dark. Here is an excerpt from Grissom’s website that gives a synopsis of the story but doesn’t capture the author’s artistry or the emotional response I think you’ll have to the characters:

“In 1790, Lavinia, a seven-year-old Irish orphan with no memory of her past, arrives on a tobacco plantation where she is put to work as an indentured servant with the kitchen house slaves. Though she becomes deeply bonded to her new family, Lavinia is also slowly accepted into the world of the big house, where the master is absent and the mistress battles opium addiction. As time passes she finds herself perilously straddling two very different worlds and when loyalties are brought into question, dangerous truths are laid bare and lives are at risk.”

Even now, three days after I finished the last chapter, I find myself thinking about the characters. I wonder about Lavinia  and Will, Belle, Beattie, Papa, and all the others. I understand why other readers wanted Kathleen Grissom to write what happens next because I wanted that also. After I finished the book, I hopped onto Amazon to see what else she had written. I was thrilled to find a sequel to this novel was released in April of this year. It’s called Glory Over Everything: Beyond the Kitchen House. Guess what my next book will be! I just reserved it at the wonderful Waupaca Public Library!

If you are looking for a really good book and don’t mind losing some sleep here in the last days of summer, I highly recommend The Kitchen House, Kathleen Grissom’s wonderful first novel. I’ll let you know if her second book about the people of Tall Oaks lives up to the first.

The photo below is completely unrelated to The Kitchen House, but I couldn’t believe my luck seeing a herd of six deer in my yard this morning, so I had to include it here. These three ladies are moving pretty quickly, but they were followed by three bucks with velvet still on their antlers. They were beautiful, but, alas, that picture was too blurry to post! I guess I was too excited to hold still!
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Tall Ships and Research

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Recently I was revising and editing a portion of my book. When I read the section where one of my characters ends up on the Outer Banks of North Carolina by way of a ship wreck, I realized the details were thin. I don’t know much about the Outer Banks, but I know someone who does.
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One of my college friends grew up sailing the Outer Banks near Manteo and Nags Head, North Carolina. I sent him a Facebook message to ask for his help for more information about that part of the country and to ask him some sailing questions. We ended up talking on the phone for awhile instead, which was so much fun, since I had not talked to him since college! He talked about sailing the inlets around the Outer Banks, how treacherous they are, and how they close periodically because of storms and tides. He told me an interesting story about residents in that part of the Outer Banks “pirating” goods from shipwrecks. I was fascinated, so I delved a bit more into that history and found some interesting information to include in my book.

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Because I was also trying to rework this section, I also spoke with my good friend and author, Kristin Oakley, about the problems in my manuscript. She helped me brainstorm some solutions and make the decision to include some interesting history of the Nag’s Head area. The idea I decided to include came from my talk with John and also from my research. When I researched the Outer Banks, specifically Nags Head, I found that the reason it bears that name is that during storms the people along the beach would tie a lantern to the neck of one of the coastal ponies. They would lead the pony along the dunes while the lantern bobbed, mimicking the motion of a boat safely anchored. Ships at sea would see the light and steer toward it believing there to be safe harbor, but, of course, they crashed into the shoals  and foundered. Subsequently, the Nag’s Head locals salvaged what they could from the ships! John told me of someone he knows who has a sterling punch bowl and cups from just such a salvaging trip as this. If you are a big fan of Poldark, as I am, you’ll recognize some similarity to what happened on Cornwall’s beaches. Perhaps this is only legend, but I did hear it from a Manteo local. I was intrigued, and so was Kristin.

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After these conversations I moved the timeline of my story to earlier in the year of 1869 so that a big storm could be expected to cause sailors trouble along that stretch of ocean, and also I decided for continuity and plausibility the story needed a scene on board the ship that Josiah, one of my main characters, is on to communicate that trouble. I want that scene to include the light bobbing on the beach that the inexperienced sailor follows rather than waking the captain of the schooner, which results in the wreck of the schooner Josiah is on.

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Since I know nothing of sailing and my knowledge of the ocean is limited to walking the beach to look for shells and sand dollars or swimming and body-surfing in water only up to my neck, I wondered how to make that scene realistic. Enter The Tall Ships Festival in Green Bay. I love how serendipitous this festival was for my research. My husband and I went to the festival on Sunday and climbed aboard several ships, two schooners and a clipper. We took lots of pictures and stayed on board as long as we could. I really would have liked a complete tour, fore and aft and below decks, but I’m not comfortable with throwing around “I’m writing a book” to get special privileges. I just hope being on the ship, walking the length of it, seeing the height of the masts and feeling the wooden decks and rope rigging were enough to lend authenticity to my scenes.

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Although my research only required going on the schooners and clippers, the stars of the festival were not the ships I boarded. The stars were the Spanish galleon El Galeon and the Viking ship, Draken Harald Harfagre . We tried to wait for the Viking ship and the Spanish galleon, but the lines were long, it was hot in the sun and very dusty, and the best brewpub in America, Titletown Brewing Company, was right behind us. Plus, and most importantly, there were only porta potties. So we packed it in early and had a delicious IPA in The Tap Room before heading home. If we could have had a beer on board one of the ships with the crew and asked questions that way, maybe that would make me rethink tossing around the “I’m writing a book” idea. No such luck this time.20160807_134018

I thought when I was in the last stages of editing for my manuscript that I was finished with research, but I’ve realized that revision brings up a host of issues that I thought I had put to rest. I actually like this part of the writing process, not as much as writing the first draft, but giving characters more depth and improving the setting and logic of the action is well worth the time I’m spending on a little more research. 20160807_130248

 

Running and The Writing Life

Each summer I run. I run to lose the winter pounds, to deal with my migraine headaches, to still my mind when life becomes hectic, but most of all I run to take care of Stella, my silver Labrador. You see, she has a problem. She’s an adrenaline junkie. She must run until she’s exhausted or she has not had a good day. The above picture is what she looks like when she wants something. Each day I see “the look” from her until I put on my hat and sunscreen and tell her it’s time. If I don’t consent, she gives me no peace.

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Thanks for the run, Mom! Love, Stella

When I write, Stella knows my routine. She knows once I settle into my loft, I write for several hours at a time. If I haven’t exercised her, she pesters me until I do something with her, ANYTHING! Normally we run or run and walk (depending on how hot it is) about five and a half miles. When she and I were both a few years younger, we each had loads of energy. Now, however, Stella who will be seven in December, needs more time to recover. So do I. Growing older together is not a bad thing.

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Peaceful Stella after our morning run.

Lately when we’ve been out, we’ve run across three Sandhill Cranes, two of them are in the picture below. They are beautiful birds that normally keep away from us, but the couple who live here have a baby crane in tow, which is still huge. I’ve run into them in our neighbors’ yard, along the highway, in our backyard, and along our street. They eye me suspiciously as I pass. These birds stand an impressive four feet tall, so they are pretty intimidating when they posture and look me dead in the eye as they have done lately. I think the only reason they don’t come after me is that Stella is with me. She regularly chases them from our yard. The same pair of cranes attacked my youngest son’s car last year when he was on his way out of our neighborhood. I don’t think those birds are terribly bright, or maybe they are just incredibly territorial.

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Cranes aren’t the only creatures we see. When we are out on our normal route, we run across deer, blue herons, Canada geese, snapping turtles occasionally, and sometimes a fox.

Another reason I run is it tends to jog (sorry, couldn’t resist!) something loose in my brain. If I’m stuck on a problem in my manuscript, I usually can work out what is wrong when I run. Occasionally, I forget the solution I came up with–still trying to figure out a good way to take a pad or paper and pen with me–but usually I come back and remember the fix to the problem once I am at my desk. Today wasn’t one of those days, but my morning went well in other ways. I had only planned to walk with Stella, but the morning was cool, and I felt rested and strong, so we covered about three miles running and about two and half walking. Stella also swam three times, at each river crossing.

With both of us physically content, I sit at my desk to begin the last section of this pass on my manuscript. My head is clear, my brain is medicated with endorphins, and my body is relaxing with a cup of Lady Grey. I am optimistic about life, about writing, about everything. Stella and I are content to spend the next few hours right here in my writing space. She’s doing her job of keeping me company, while I’m doing mine, writing the best story I can.

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In the Midsummer Garden

“A garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches entire trust.” –Gertrude Jekyll
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Summer in the Midwest is fleeting. Here it is, July 25, 2016, and though we’ve been suffering in the heat and humidity (though not as much as you Southerners!), we will soon bundle ourselves in woolen sweaters and goose down to fend off the cold. This spell of warm weather with the humidity induced mists over the fields will be but a memory. That’s why I decided to share with you some of my favorite parts of my gardens, my favorite place to be this time of year.

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When we moved into our house, we had no gardens at all, only sandy dirt and rocks. Over the course of the last ten years, Bruce and I have worked to create gardens all around our house. I cut out pictures from magazines of what I liked. With his own artistic vision and the muscles to help me realize my own, Bruce and I have nearly “finished” our landscaping. Here is the vegetable garden. Two years ago we decided to take up square foot gardening. It has been a qualified success. We don’t get quite as much produce as we once did from approximately the same area, but the garden itself looks beautiful, I think.

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The picture above shows our vegetable garden where we grow all our vegetables in raised beds, except our tomatoes. This year we’ve experimented with growing tomatoes in pots. I’m not sure I like that as well–lots of hand watering–but they have not been afflicted with the diseases they were plagued with before. We’ll see how they taste this year. My hubby is the muscles and brain behind the design of this garden. He’s a landscaping artist! In this area we are growing carrots, parsnips, collards, ground cherries, kale, peas, basil, eggplant, bell peppers, pole beans, cucumbers, mustard greens, arugula, radishes, mesclun mix, raspberries, and just out of the frame, rhubarb and some herbs.

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In the rest of the yard so many flowers are in bloom or have just finished blooming. I love all the natives and the easy growing flowers like purple cone flowers and liatris. I’ve said since I moved here that I won’t have a flower that is not tough enough to withstand a sub-zero winter. If it wants to be in my garden, it has to be tough. I can’t tell you how many plants I’ve tried out that just didn’t have what it takes to withstand the cold and less than hospitable conditions here. I think there is a metaphor in there somewhere….

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Farewell, My Son

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Our nest is empty. That reality seems so very final. I knew I would face this moment at some point, but it happened “slowly and then all at once,” as John Green says. After living with us for about a year after college, my youngest son has taken a job in the big city and moved out of our house. I miss him. I feel at once bereft and relieved, worried and proud, worn out and hopeful. You see, he’s my baby, my last baby, and I was reluctant to let him go. He was always the child who held on tight. When his brother dropped my hand and ran into the room full of kids for his first day of preschool, my youngest used to tell his dad and me he wanted to live with us forever.

I see a parallel in his time here and my oldest son’s time at home after college. I wrote of his time with me in The Gift of Time. I had each of them for about a year after college until they decided on a course of action for their lives. I’m not sad my youngest boy has started his own life; I just wish there were a way to see him more often, both of them actually. Giving up mothering has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Even though I know I’m not giving it up entirely and that they still need me, they need me differently now.

Travis and the packed car

My youngest son is not really much different from the boy he was growing up. He is still sweet, sensitive, and cautious, but he is also smart, tenacious, and determined. He goes after what he wants and rarely lets anyone or anything interfere with his goals. Over the years I saw evidence of his tenacity and determination when he played soccer. He never reached the level of play he wanted to when he was in high school, but I think that leftover hunger to reach his goals has served him well in teaching him to persevere, even in the face of obstacles.
I also see much of the same loyal and caring little boy his dad and I raised in his friendships, many of which he formed when we first moved from Florida to Wisconsin. He still is friends with the same group of boys he grew up with, but he also made some new friends in Minneapolis where he lives now, both in college and at places where he worked. Friends have always meant the world to him, even when he was three years old. Despite his affection for his friends, he is still an introvert, who needs quiet and time alone to recharge his batteries. And sleep. He needs sleep. Even when he was a little guy, he would go to his room to “have a rest.” That was code for some “me time” and, despite his assurances to the contrary back then, nap time.

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He spent his early years as a superhero, a cowboy, a fireman, and an intrepid explorer,
believing all the while in his invincibility. When our children are little, we don’t always appreciate the time when they are young, when we are their whole world and can make everything good and peaceful for them. It’s exhausting and difficult and wonderful. Often we say things like, “I can’t wait until he’s older so I won’t have to __________(Insert whatever you like here).” But really, the time they are little passes so quickly, quicker than I ever imagined. That time of mothering my babies was  an awesome responsibility but one I miss.

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At times I’ve wanted to hold on to my baby, (like I have recently). From the moment he was able to smile, he did and has been bent on happiness ever since. I miss his impish charm and lightning smile, his eyes crinkled up by dimpled cheeks, but the days when his dad and I were his whole world are over, and that’s how it should be. His world is expanding exponentially. I think one of the ways parents can know they’ve done a good job raising their babies is that their babies are ready to fly. That’s what both my boys have done. They were ready and they have flown. My youngest has big plans for his life, and I wish him everything good and wonderful and beautiful. Although the mom in me misses my little boy, I’m so proud of the man he has become.

 

 

 

 

 

Just Folks

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When I was a little girl, I lived in a small town in Georgia. Everyone who lived there knew their neighbors. Not just the ones right next door, but up and down each street. It was a homey place to grow up in, a safe place where people looked out for one another and one anothers’ kids.

My extended family has lived in the same area of Georgia for generations. We were a settled bunch with family traditions. Every Sunday while my parents were still married, we, along with cousins, went to my Grandmother’s house after church to eat Sunday dinner. We stayed a good long time, longer than I wanted to sit and talk like the adults did, so I would entertain myself as best I could since my brother and sister rarely wanted to play with their baby sister.

When I was really young, a little boy named Johnny lived just two houses down the street from my grandmother’s house. In fact, I liked him so much I named one of my kittens(one of the many) after him. The house he lived in was not like mine. It had dirt floors, and the screen door on the front entry could be lifted up so two little kids could step over the base and enter without ever opening the door. I thought that was so cool and wished my house had such a wonderful door. I’m not sure what happened to Johnny. He moved when I was still pretty young. But I do remember my mom and grandmother talking between themselves when they thought I wouldn’t hear about how letting me go play with him might not be a good idea. I didn’t understand why.

I understand now, however. When children are little, they don’t see poverty or skin color, or socioeconomic status. They only see people. I knew Johnny was fun to play with. That’s all that mattered. What his position in society was didn’t matter at all. When I taught the book To Kill a Mockingbird to my sophomores, I often remembered Johnny, especially when Scout tells Jem, “I think there’s just one kind of folks.  Folks.” Scout was still too innocent to understand why Jem thought there were different kinds of people in the world. Of course he was no longer innocent after seeing what happened to Tom Robinson, the black man wrongly accused and convicted of raping a white woman. Jem understood what Scout didn’t yet, that there was injustice in the world.

Another thing that struck me when I taught that book was the difference between how I see the world and how my students did. When we studied that book I had to explain racism and Jim Crow laws to them even when they had learned about it in history class. Often as we read about how some people treated Tom Robinson or how they treated his wife or any other unjust incident in the book, they would ask me, “How could anybody treat others that way?” My heart would break when I explained, but at the same time I rejoiced that they saw no reason to treat anyone of a different race or sex or socioeconomic status differently. I am grateful kids don’t view others the way adults do that they haven’t yet lost their faith in humanity.

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We learn prejudice in all its forms. We learn how to treat people from our elders and from those we associate with. Sometimes we treat others poorly because we bow to peer pressure. Sometimes we are afraid of what treating someone differently might say about us. Whatever the reason, we don’t live up to “the better angels of our nature.” Children are not prejudiced. Somewhere along the way they learn to be. But we don’t have to remain that way.

I am guilty of treating others poorly, of making my prejudice known. One of the biggest regrets in my life is that one of my best friends in college, who was overjoyed at marrying the love of her life, felt she couldn’t tell me about him or her marriage because she was marrying an African American man. She didn’t know how I would react. That said volumes, not about her, but about me. To this day I am embarrassed about that, but her telling me had a profound impact on my life. I woke me up to my own prejudice and made me examine the way I thought, which I’m happy about.

When I married my husband, I also married the Marine Corps, a color blind society if ever there was one. I learned to get along with people from all over the United States and all over the world: the Philippines, England, Mexico, Honduras, Haiti. Everywhere. We lived in many different states, but the one thing that united all of us was that we were living a military life. Race didn’t matter. Neither did anything else. We endured together.

When I was becoming certified to teach, I started out in the public schools in Florida and even did some practicum work at a public high school in Milledgeville, Georgia. I taught all kinds of kids, white and black and brown, from every background imaginable. I started my teaching career at the largest population school in Wisconsin and taught at a small rural school in the middle of Wisconsin. Even here I have taught white kids, black kids, Hmong kids, Hispanic kids, and kids from other countries. The one thing they all have in common is being young men and women who want to be successful and to be taken seriously by adults. Race, socioeconomic background didn’t matter. They wanted me to treat them fairly and not to abandon them when they needed someone to talk to. They wanted praise when they succeeded and help when they failed. Isn’t that what we all want?

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I have learned much in the course of my life which has humbled me. Mostly what I’ve learned is that all people, no matter where they come from, are children of God and should be treated with respect. I haven’t always done that, but I try to. I don’t have all the answers to the terrible things happening in our country right now. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to write about this topic because I feel overwhelmed and sad and confused, and I’m sure someone will not like what I’ve said. I don’t want to be part of the controversy or take away from anyone’s loss. Like everyone else struggling to understand it all, I’m just trying my best to make sense of what feels senseless and wrong and tragic.

We need to discuss so much concerning race relations, but those conversations are hard. They are hard to have even with our friends. No one wants to be called a racist, so often people don’t have the hard conversations to understand. We become defensive  rather than understanding. I’ve never even talked about race with my college friend, but I’m sure she has a lot to tell me and much I need to hear about her children and how  they’ve been treated and how her husband has been treated.

In these discussions I’m afraid we won’t hear what needs to be heard because people are so entrenched in who we think we are, the outer trappings of our identities rather than the inner workings of our hearts. About six or seven years ago I was talking to Pastor Jim, a former pastor at my church about an unrelated concern, but he told me something that has stuck with me ever since, and I often use it as a guide to figuring out what to do in difficult situations. I think it applies to this particular time and issue. He said,” If we err, shouldn’t we err on the side of love?” Indeed.

If we could get to know our neighbors, not the ones we live right next door to but the ones we ordinarily wouldn’t talk to, maybe we could make a difference. If we could see each other with the eyes of a child, maybe we would think, like Scout did, that “There’s just one kind of folks. Folks.” Our skin color doesn’t matter. How much money we make, or don’t make, doesn’t matter. Our ethnicity doesn’t matter. Those things give us character, but they aren’t who we are. Who are we without those things? Who are you? Who am I? All of us deserve dignity and respect. All of us deserve to be heard. All of us deserve to be safe.

I am challenging myself this week to do something small, something manageable that might make a difference. Many small things add up to something big if enough people do them. When you go out into the world this week, introduce yourself to someone you don’t know. Make a friend. Smile at the person next to you in line at the grocery store. Pay for someone’s coffee or food at the drive through. Be a blessing to someone in some way. We cannot allow this crisis to divide the good people of this country. Abraham Lincoln in his First Inaugural Address said this about anther moment in time that nearly destroyed our country: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.” Let’s make an effort to see each other as neighbors and take care of each other as such. Let’s also make our neighborhoods homey places again where nothing matters but being together, where folks are just folks.

Proud American Moment

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Over the last few days I’ve heard stories on the radio and on Facebook of people sharing their proud moments of being an American. Not a day goes by that I don’t experience more than one moment like that, but I wanted to share one moment worth remembering. Twenty five years ago today I was in California with a six month old baby, waiting to hear whether my husband was still alive. My husband was part of the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit that invaded Kuwait in Operation Desert Storm.

You must remember that back then, only 25 years ago, no internet and no cell phones existed. When we needed to communicate, we exchanged letters. We had never heard the term “snail mail.” It was just mail to us, and it was vitally important. I wrote to Bruce and he wrote back, often our letters were delayed or later ones arrived before the first ones did which resulted in a confusing message. But we didn’t care as long as we heard from one another. I sent pictures of our growing baby boy, and he asked all kinds of questions. We only talked on the phone when he was in port, and then only for a short time because the calls cost so  much money. Cable news had only one 24 hour news service then also, CNN, which I watched ALL the time for any news to indicate what was happening in Kuwait or even any word of where our Marines were.

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Throughout that ordeal of his being at war, the image that kept scrolling through my mind was Bruce standing on the deck of a harbor taxi in Singapore getting smaller and smaller as the boat took him back to his ship and far away from me. I clung to that memory and to our time together in Singapore, the last time we were together before the invasion of Iraq.

When word came that the Marines were landing an invasion force on the beaches of Kuwait, I knew Bruce was involved. Like the rest of the world I had no idea the plan was to lure Saddam Hussein’s forces toward the coast so the Allies could cut off their retreat to Iraq. To do that they had to make it appear  the Marines were invading via the beaches of Kuwait. Bruce flew a transport helicopter. I prayed for his safety and waited.

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Waiting is what military spouses do. We become very good at compartmentalizing our lives, in taking care of the business of living without ever forgetting our loved ones serving on the front lines or training to serve. We carry on. It’s what our lives were and still are in my case. We wait for our men to come home,and that’s just what my Marine did. In April after ten months of deployment, Bruce and the rest of the Marines finally came home. His squadron was the last to return home after the war and were nearly forgotten in the news coverage, but not in our hearts. On that day, hundreds of family members and friends gathered on the flight line to greet our Marines as they flew in from San Diego to MCAS Tustin.

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On this Independence day of 2016, I am very proud to remember a time in my life when time and freedom seemed more precious to me than at any other. We should always remember that freedom is not free, that others in this world suffer oppression  and that men like my husband, and my son, are willing to sacrifice their time and their lives to protect our freedom. Freedom is sacred. I am proud to be an American always, but today, when I remember what my husband and many more like him all over the world came together to do, to free the people of Kuwait from Saddam Hussein, I am especially proud of them and that I was even a small part of that time in history.

Gratitude

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The past seven and a half years have been both the longest and the shortest years I can remember. My husband lost his job in early February of 2009. Our lives have changed drastically over the years since then, but we had no idea the lessons we would learn over those intervening years. Off and on since then he has worked various jobs and has served in the Army Reserve to make ends meet. I’ve worked different jobs too. When I lost my teaching job in August of 2010, I was lucky enough to land one as the Writing Coach for the same school for another year, then lost that job  after the money for that position from the federal government dried up. Since then I worked at two other schools. For many reasons too numerous to mention in this post, I just left what I hope is my last job teaching high school English.

Why am I telling you all this now? With time and some perspective I’ve come to understand some important lessons in perseverance, hope, and gratitude from this very difficult time in my family’s life. If anyone else is going through hard economic times, I hope our struggle will give you hope and let you know you are not alone.

You see, our survival was a sort of “loaves and fishes” story. Honestly, when we look back at what happened to us, we marvel that we kept our home, that we managed to keep our kids in college during the recession.  They had to grow up and take on a lot more responsibility than I ever wanted them to, but I understand now that they are better for having done so. I worried and cried and wondered how we would survive, but we did. We pared down every expense we possibly could during those years and still practice austerity to a certain degree. In fact, during the 2014-2015 winter, the coldest one in years here in the Midwest, we couldn’t afford to repair our heater. I hauled wood in my pajamas, snowboots, and parka and endured the month alone, while my husband was at training in North Carolina. I woke often to temperatures in the house in the 50s, and I’m a Southerner! That was a hard winter, a metaphor really, for the whole seven years.

During our “lost decade” we decided one thing we couldn’t and didn’t want to change was the amount of money we gave to our church. We prayed about that decision and others. We prayed, and prayed some more for God to give us guidance and help, but what I found so difficult was to thank God for all that we still had. Trusting God was the hardest thing both my husband and I had to learn during these last seven years. Learning to let God take care of us when we no longer could make sense of what was  happening was difficult for us and is something we still struggle with.  When we look back at what we endured, however, the only answer to how we survived that makes any sense is God provided. Nothing else explains how we made our money last from paycheck to paycheck and how our family stayed together.

What made the blow of my husband losing his job and not being able to find another one so difficult was that we never thought we would be in that position. He was a very successful salesman, but we didn’t rely on his success. I worked too. We had done everything right. We saved the maximum for our retirement, even when I complained that we weren’t having much fun. We don’t take extravagant vacations. We saved money in an emergency fund, drove our cars forever. I don’t get manicures, pedicures, or color treatments for my hair. We wait for sales to shop. We don’t have “toys” like a boat or snowmobiles or anything like that. Like so many others who lost their jobs and livelihoods we are just average Americans trying to make a good life for our family.

Luckily, when my husband got his notice he had been “let go,” (a euphemistic term for what actually happens to someone) he also received a severance from his company, which we were extremely careful with, especially in light of the thousands of layoffs early in the first year of the recession. For two long years he searched for any job he could find.  The problem was that millions of other men and women also searched for jobs that no longer existed. Millions were scared. Millions still are. We all still bear the scars and the trauma of living with that much uncertainty for that long. We still wait for bad news because it came so often. We will never be the same, and many of us who had never been in this position before were and are too proud to explain that we don’t have the money to do  or buy what, to others, seems negligible. If you are reading this post and know someone who lost their livelihood in this recession, keep in touch with them. Let them know you care and would like to see them. That sort of connection means the world. Even though my husband is still working, and before I gave my notice this year, I was also working, we are making far less than what we once did. Reduced wages in this country are a very real problem.

My family are not the only people who went through the trauma of job loss and the anxiety that accompanies such an event. The Great Recession changed us, but it changed millions of Americans.

My hubby and I have a deep appreciation for each other, for our family, for God. We realize how little truly matters in this life, how superfluous our possessions are but how much each other and our relationships matter. What we neglected was our relationship to others simply because keeping up with others was difficult with our noses to the grindstone and our thought processes taken up by survival. Even now we no longer go out to dinner or have drinks with friends very often, mostly because we developed the habit of cooking our own food since it was far cheaper to do so. We didn’t have (and still don’t) the money to spend out on the town with friends, so we avoided going out instead of trying to explain our lack of money.  I regret that I didn’t keep my friends closer while we were so afraid. I miss them. These years have been a lonely time, but hardship brought my husband and me closer to each other. When you may lose everything but each other, that relationship becomes paramount. I hope my friends understand.

When I was thinking of how I would write this post to explain what this time in our lives was like, I realized I couldn’t. No one who hasn’t weathered that kind of storm can possibly know how it felt, and I really hope others don’t find out. What I could do, however, is share a song with you, one I first learned about through my brother. It is a song called “Gratitude” that speaks of learning to be grateful even in the midst of hardship. Quite a while ago he told me about the Christian artist, Nichole Nordeman who wrote this song. She is a wonderful songwriter, and this song comes from her album Woven and Spun. I have always loved the tune and the words, but not until my family went through The Great Recession, did I understand the words’ deeper meaning.

My hubby and I are not out of the woods yet, but we see a glimmer of light in the distance. It is now time to take a deep breath and give thanks for all we have, all God has given us, and reconnect with our friends. It has taken us nearly eight years to climb out of the hole we found ourselves in, but I think our luck is changing. “We are blessed beyond what we could ever dream in abundance or in need,” and I’m so very grateful.

Nature Feeds the Muse

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Water Lilies and Cattails in the Pond

“Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.”
Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There

My life this week has been a reawakening, a slow revelation of moments of natural beauty I have missed buried in student papers and teacher preparation as I was for so long. With my hubby’s help my neglected gardens are coming to life once more, each day showing more of “the pretty” Leopold talks about. False indigo flowering, Onondoga Viburnam and pagoda dogwood flowers, potentilla, dianthus, and roses unfolding.

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Pagoda Dogwood Blossom

This past weekend thunderstorms rolled into my area of Wisconsin and reminded me what true power looks and feels like. Raccoons, chipmunks, deer, hawks, snakes, mice, butterflies, and songbirds too varied to mention are making my backyard home. The river is full and fast, and the deer flies and horseflies are plentiful. These days I smell like a piquant combination of Coppertone Sport sunscreen and Deep Woods Off just to keep my skin from burning and the bugs from biting. Stella and I are fixtures on the roads in the morning  where we routinely walk 5 miles, and I’m sure the bugs expect a free meal.

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After the storm sunset in Wisconsin

For the first time since I left school, I finally don’t feel like I have papers to grade or the coming week to prepare for. I have had time this week to see, to notice, to experience my corner of the world without preoccupation. I have paid attention both to my surroundings but also to my writing, my art. One feeds the other. I feel inspired to write when I’m running or gardening, and those moments of introspection feed my writing. I can think when I’m engaged in a repetitive activity or one that only requires  the body to be engaged and leaves the mind to wander and romp. Through gardening I create gorgeous natural scenes, flowers and trees, frequented by birds and butterflies, hummingbirds and deer. Nature feeds the muse.

What at first drew me to writing was, in fact, the same thing that drew me to gardening, “the pretty” that Leopold talks about.  I tried to understand how to craft a beautiful turn of phrase. When I was in college, I majored in English. I read A LOT: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Thomas Hardy, Alice Walker, Faulkner, Shakespeare. These authors expanded my mind and allowed me a glimpse of what was possible with the written word.

But the book that spoke to me was Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald’s writing blew me away, so much so that I committed passages of it to memory, particularly this one: “His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.”

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Onondaga Viburnum Flowers

“The pretty” of Fitzgerald’s words and Shakespeare’s and Thomas Hardy’s and countless others initially pulled me into the world of words and communicating ideas through writing, but something happened to me when I began to appreciate what authors did. I found myself wanting to become one. Over and over I would read and try to figure out what authors I admire did to involve me in the stories they wove. Reading became a study in technique, but often I became so immersed in the stories  I lost myself there. I ended books without a clear idea of how the author crafted scenes, characters, or dialogue. Now I work to remain aloof from the story to understand before I become emotionally involved. Sometimes it is harder than others to do so. That is when I know I’m reading a masterful writer.

I don’t know if writers, the really good ones, understand what they are doing when they write. I’m still finding that out about myself and my writing.  When I feel the muse take hold. I itch to get some niggling thought out of my brain and express it. Where I believe the muse and craft of writing come into play is in the transcribing of whatever the idea is into eloquence. How do you take a raw idea, even if it is just a whiff of an idea and translate its essence into words?  That is the task, one which is utterly difficult and ultimately fulfilling.

Here is how  Wisconsin author, David Rhodes, describes the feeling of a writer–this time a songwriter–trying to express an original idea in his book Driftless (one of my favorites).  “The feeling inside her had never been expressed before, yet it longed for expression and had chosen Gail to accomplish the deed. It was jiggling out of the primal psychic strands of whatever memories and passions made her. She had been chosen, and though she couldn’t quite hear it yet, she felt the inspiration trying to make a sound through her. It wished to be born.” He pretty much captures it.

Grappling with ideas that have chosen me is what I’ve chosen to commit my life to. I will still try to express “the pretty,” (that’s the seductive, fun part) but even the ugliness of life will find expression in my prose. I want to be a faithful steward of words, to capture the ineffable yearnings of the human spirit to make them accessible to all, to transcribe the smells, sights, feelings, tastes, and sounds of my corner of the world so that through my words others can find their way into the beauty of art but also through  their own poignant struggles, recognizing those “values as yet uncaptured by language.”

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False Indigo