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.

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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

 

My Writer Birthday

 

 

Last Tuesday was my writer birthday. It was the first day of investing in myself in pursuit of a full-time writing life! Mind you, I’m still in the throes of post school year fatigue and would like to do little other than sleep, but my “sea legs” are coming back.  I’m still not fully able to get in the zone and write for hours on end as I once was, but I’m improving.

I worked this past week on my book edits, so I can send the manuscript to the agent who requested it. My goal is to send it by Friday afternoon. I don’t think I’ll ever be truly satisfied with it, (really, is a book EVER done?) but I’m giving myself this deadline and sending it along no matter how I feel. My friends have told me it is finished, but I am having a hard time letting it go into the world. As long as it is finished to the best of my ability to make it what I envision, then it is “done.” I just hope to get some good feedback from this agent.

I’m not only working on this book, however. I’ve been contemplating a number of new ideas, one of which won’t let go of me. Last year when I looked out at my patio I noticed two new birds on the trellis where the honeysuckle grows next to our garden, a pair of American Redstarts. They were only on the trellis for a moment or two, hopping about and flying quickly from one place to another, but they were new in my backyard so I took note. That’s when the idea for another book took shape. A young woman popped into my head, her name, her time period, her home (Here is Wisconsin!), the fact that she stutters but sings and whistles bird songs beautifully.  I have been bird watching again, mostly from my back windows, and noticing colors, songs, even habitat on my walks with Stella. Yesterday I found half a robin’s egg on the ground near our stream, a spot of clear blue on the brown sand. As I notice these things, I wonder what she would notice, how she would interpret them. The fermentation process has begun. Collected impressions of the natural world are percolating to the surface.  Although I haven’t devoted any time as yet to writing this story, I know the well is nearly full, and I can’t wait to begin drafting again! First things first, however.

I have a full list of writing “to dos” for the week. Really,  each week or even each day, I would like to move forward a few steps learning, writing, reading, contacting agents, and then writing again. Sometimes those steps will be concrete and measurable as a word count or pages ticked off in the editing process. Other times I may only come to a new realization or new understanding. Both are valuable. Here is this week’s list:

To Do Week of June 12:

1. By Friday finish editing  first novel for the last time before sending to round one agents.
2. Write several blog posts for editing later.
3. Work on my short story to send to Kristin Oakley for possible publication in The Write City E zine. Kristin is the editor of this publication as well as one of the founders of In Print Professional Writers Organization, and a dear friend of mine! You should check out her wonderful, award-winning novel, Carpe Diem, Illinois,  and her soon-to-be-released God on Mayhem Street.
4. Take notes on the ideas for the other books I have in my head to figure out how to get them out of my head!
5. Daily writing practice: 20 minutes each day.

I only included 5 items on my list because I think that number is doable for me. It isn’t overwhelming and will give me a sense of accomplishment when I complete an item. Since this is the first time I am sharing my goals, I’ll let you know how I do. Publishing them will, I hope, make me accountable not only to myself, but also to you!

How and when do you set goals for the work you do?

A Leap of Faith

imagesCoco Chanel said, ” A woman who cuts her hair is about to change her life.” Well, I have a new ‘do, and, I’m about to take a leap of faith. I am leaving my teaching career to pursue  writing full time. I’m scared to death I’m doing something stupid, but it won’t be the first time. Life is all about figuring out who we are and what we are meant to do. I tell my students all the time to seize their opportunities and not be afraid, but it’s a whole other kind of scary when I am following that advice. With that said, I have noticed signs everywhere that God is telling me to take the plunge, but until now I’ve been too scared to trust Him and my own instinct that I’m doing the right thing. Writing is my calling.

The Gift of a Year of Writing:

Three years ago I left a teaching job I hated (this was one of the first signs) and couldn’t find another before the school year began. Each day that school year I rose early to see my husband off to work. After I worked out and showered, I “dressed for work.” I fixed my hair,  wore makeup, and put on nice clothes, then settled in to write for the rest of the morning and often late into the afternoon. Each day after no more words would come, I set my goals for the following day. Sometimes I planned to write particular scenes, sometimes I furthered my research and wrote only minimally, but I wrote and wrote and wrote. I finished the first draft of my novel that year. I was happy. I was content.

What I loved most was finding the zone, the place where my muse was in full control. Instead of sitting in my desk chair I was inhabiting 1869 Charleston with my characters. In fact, I became those characters. They lived through me. Haddon Hall is a figment of my imagination but is as real as the computer I type on. The buttermilk biscuits in the kitchen house drip with freshly churned butter, and the grits are creamier than any I can purchase here in Wisconsin. I was in another place, another time, transcribing events and emotions that already existed in another realm. Time passed more slowly there too. Often I discovered three hours had passed when I felt only a matter of minutes had slipped by. I miss that place and that occupation. I was not myself then. But I was more myself than at any other time I can remember.

Finding my way:

Earlier in the year  when I was struggling with this difficult decision, I turned to Facebook to ask my friends what they do for a living and what they like about their jobs. In a last ditch effort not to change, I think I was searching for alternatives to leaving. Many people offered me encouragement, prayers and guidance, but one response resonated with me. Tom Poland, a fellow UGA graduate and wonderful author, said, “As James Dickey, a tremendous writer, once told me, ‘Life is too short to give others your creative essence.'” That is what I do here at school each day. I spend my creative energy in giving to others, in teaching them how to read critically, how to write clearly and passionately, how to advocate for themselves and question accepted ways of thinking. It’s hard work, which leaves me mentally drained, but it’s rewarding work.

If I’m honest, I think I had made the decision to leave teaching before I ever arrived at my job here at SPASH. After I had a taste of what the writing life was like, I never wanted anything else. Writing fills me up like nothing else ever has. I will miss my students. I will miss seeing the light of understanding fill their eyes. I will miss their stories, their sense of humor, their candid criticism, their guarded eyes at the beginning of the year turn to warm acceptance of me at the end. I’ll miss their unbridled physicality, their blue hair and tattoos, their gender-bending costumes for dodgeball games, their crazy and all too suggestive dancing, their youth and exuberance. I’ll miss it all! But I won’t forget.

The Time Is Now:

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Writers never forget anything. Somewhere along the way, one girl’s smile, a boy’s clever joke, another’s moodiness, still another’s inquisitive nature will flesh out a character in one of my books. You see, writers don’t just live in the world; they see the world, in the words of Vladimir Nabokov, ” as the potentiality of fiction.” No experience ever goes to  waste.

I have not wasted my time teaching either. I don’t think I was ready years ago to become a writer. I hadn’t learned enough about myself or about the craft of writing to make the leap. In fact, I probably still haven’t, but I know there is no other way to learn the craft than by reading and writing a lot. Teaching doesn’t allow me enough of that. I’ve also learned far more about myself, about human nature, about creativity, about writing, and about driving snow-covered winter roads in Wisconsin than I ever thought possible.

On the last days of class this year with my seniors, I asked them to channel their inner kindergartner and make a words of wisdom bulletin board for me. Their words were intended for the sophomores, but I was surprised by how much they spoke directly to me. They wrote, “Don’t forget to take risks; Take every opportunity. You never know what could happen; If you don’t go after what you want, you’ll never have it; Make sure you don’t have any regrets.

Remember those signs I was talking about? I can read them now and plan to follow them. I find myself now sitting in my classroom on the last day of finals typing this up. I have only one day left as a teacher, but I don’t feel a sense of loss. I feel complete, as though one part of my life has ended well and another exciting opportunity is about to begin. I’m giddy with anticipation over what the next chapter of my life will bring. In the past I’ve had moments when I felt things “in my bones” so to speak.  I feel in my bones that leaving teaching to become a writer is the right thing to do at the right time in my life.

 

 

Stella’s Buck

Whitetail deer buck close-up head shot.

Whitetail deer buck close-up head shot. Photo from The Hunting Broker http://www.thehuntingbroker.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/whitetail.jpg

This morning at just past 6:30 Wisconsin’s gun deer season opened. I’m not sure anyone who is not from a part of the country where people hunt could understand the excitement hunters feel this time of year. My students, both girls and boys, were heading off to the woods with their families and friends to enjoy the outdoors and the camaraderie of pitting their wits against their prey. They mostly want the bragging rights of killing a big trophy deer, but many of them put food on their families’ tables with the deer they kill. Hunting is not just an activity here in Wisconsin; it’s a tradition families share that brings them closer together without the distractions of the modern world to interfere.

My husband decided not to hunt this year, so we had the luxury of waking up late, at nearly seven o’clock. Usually during hunting season gun shots wake us up, but this year we heard none. I’m not sure why the hubby decided not to hunt. Maybe he felt bad about the deer he shot two years ago. That’s the last time he ventured out. She was a doe with a yearling, obviously hers. When he took the first shot, he missed her, but neither she nor the yearling ran away. When he took the second shot, he dropped her on the spot. The yearling only ran about a hundred yards away. Bruce couldn’t bring himself to shoot the youngster which finally ran off when Bruce went out to”process” the doe. It was kind of sad. He talked about that kill for a while but in a wistful way.

Later that year in autumn a young buck made our backyard his home. He was a big deer, tall and strong, but obviously young. We saw him often on the perimeter of our property, but he ventured closer each time he appeared, finally coming into our yard. Our Lab Stella believes it her mission to keep our property deer free. She loves seeing deer in our yard, then running full-speed to chase them off the property. For her it is great fun. One day I let her out to chase away this big, young buck I mentioned. She was appropriately fierce, but the buck stood his ground though not in a defiant way. He was curious about Stella. When she ran out barking at him, he put his head down and took a couple of steps in her direction. Unnerved, she ran a few yards away and barked again, her hackles raised. The buck stayed put. They stared each other down for a few moments before Stella lost her nerve and came inside. This same scenario repeated a few more times when this buck visited our yard. Then we didn’t see him for a long time.

This morning when I looked out the window of my bedroom, I saw a big eight point buck grazing on the grass next to the stream in our back yard. He was quite at home.

“Do you think that’s Stella’s deer?” I asked Bruce.

He got out of bed to take a look. “I doubt it. That deer is really big.”

We let Stella out the front door so she wouldn’t see the buck and he wouldn’t see her. We fed her, poured ourselves some coffee, then watched him graze and amble through the back yard only about fifty feet away from the windows. He was magnificent with a big basket of a rack, antlers nearly white in the early light.

When he had nearly reached the treeline, we pointed him out to Stella. Since not many deer have been wandering through our property of late, she had almost forgotten about them. Once we showed him to her, however, she growled and was ready to run, stamping and whining at the door. Bruce opened the sliding glass door. Stella sprinted toward the deer, clearing the steps to the backyard in one leap. She barked as she ran. The buck raised his head. He didn’t move. He didn’t startle. He looked as though he recognized her. She skidded to a stop, turned around with a glance and a token growl over her shoulder, then trotted back to the porch.

“That’s him,” said Bruce.

I watched the buck walked toward the power lines and marveled at his power and grace. I liked that this beautiful creature was still with us, still walking the property that he believes is his, still trying to make friends with a prickly creature who wants nothing to do with a deer who isn’t afraid of her. I think Bruce regretted not having a hunting license this morning, but I’m glad he didn’t. If that was Stella’s buck–and I hope it was–I hope he survives this year’s gun deer season. I would like to see him again.

Ada Lovelace: Mathematical Visionary

 

Photo courtesy of Google Images

Google’s tribute to Ada Lovelace, first computer programmer.

Technology is supposed to make our lives easier, and it does, mostly. I’m sure I’m not alone in my struggle to learn the nearly constant changes in technology I’m supposed to apply in both my work as a teacher and also my work as a writer. I must admit part of the problem is I’m reluctant, not because it intimidates me though sometimes it does, but also because I’m tired of change. Society lacks a human connection and a connection to the natural world these days, and technology is making that lack more pronounced. I resist the indoor/sedentary lifestyle that has been imposed on me to become and remain connected to the world through technology. The paradox of this dilemma is that through technology I am more connected to people and places far away from me  than I ever could have imagined 20 years ago, but that connection comes at a cost of being disconnected to physical reality. Technology is more than ever a matter of the mind in much the same way writing is.

More of my life than ever is spent at a desk or sitting with a laptop warming my thighs as I grade papers, write blog posts (though I’ve done precious little of that lately) or work on my novel. Seldom do I drop everything and walk outdoors to enjoy the brilliant colors of autumn or call a friend or better yet, meet a friend for a walk amongst the brilliant colors of autumn or for coffee outdoors. This school year I’ve tried to balance the demands of a demanding job, to satisfy my creative calling, and to learn the technology skills I need to use to do both well, but I also don’t want to neglect the part of me that requires the sun on my face and the feel of stretching my legs on a long walk. More on that in another post.

Who I would like to pay tribute to here is a woman for whom creativity and poetry was mathematical–seems a contradiction of terms to me because I’m language oriented, but I understand the elegance of math, just not the mechanics of it. I wish I did. I know I would have a far greater appreciation of the world and the workings of minds like Alan Turing’s, the man credited with breaking the Enigma code, or Ada Lovelace’s, the first computer programmer.

Ada King, Countess of Lovelace

Ada Lovelace was the only legitimate child of the Romantic poet, George, Lord Byron, and his wife, Anne Isabella Noel. Theirs was a stormy relationship and one that inspired Ada’s mother to foster in her a love of logic and math  to prevent her from developing what Anne Isabella Noel regarded as the insanity (read poetry here) Ada’s father suffered. Despite her mother’s influence, Ada was fascinated with her father even though he left her mother and her when she was only a month old and died in Greece when she was only eight years old. Perhaps the influence of his reputation as a passionate, free thinking poet rubbed off on her after all or was handed down in her DNA. Whatever the reason, Ada became a mathematician who approached her subject using, to quote her, “poetical science.” She described herself as an Analyst and a Metaphysician.” I believe she had the same free-thinking tendencies, the creative vision, if you will, her father had and was able to make connections no one else had done because of those tendencies.

Her mathematical talents led her to begin a working relationship and friendship with the brilliant British mathematician Charles Babbage, working in particular with him on his Analytical Engine. Babbage called her his “enchantress of numbers.” After she translated an article about the engine written by an Italian military engineer, Luigi Menebrea, Lovelace added her own extensive notes that she called simply Notes.

The significance of Notes is that many consider it to contain the first computer program, (and here’s where the description of it escapes me) an algorithm that was to be carried out by a machine. Ada Lovelace’s remarkable accomplishment took place in the 1840s. Over 150 years later I struggle to understand basic computer coding to deal with my blogging program or my interactions on the web for my technological teaching needs, but I appreciate the intelligence that went into making those technologies possible. Her research and Notes along with Babbage’s work on the actual hardware paved the way for the work of Alan Turing and others of the Bletchly Park mathematicians who broke the code of the Enigma machine. Their successful breaking of the code is credited with saving Britain and, very possibly, the world from Nazi Germany and Japan. If you extend that credit, we would have to also thank Lovelace’s mother and Lord Byron’s the scoundrel ways for inspiring Lovelace’s mother to raise her to become a clear-eyed, logical but creative thinker!

Tomorrow is Ada Lovelace Day, a day celebrated world-wide to honor the contributions of women in science, technology, engineering, and math. My hat goes off to the women like Ada Lovelace who have made our world what it is and have made technology to ease our handling of information. I just wish I were better able to understand the complexities of how it all works. I also wish there were a way to handle the new tasks created by technology. Wait, no I don’t. I love my world of language and the images and emotions it conjures. I’ll leave it to those women (and men) who make it possible for me to reach out to the world with my words. Tomorrow, October 13, I’ll raise a glass to the women who have made this blog possible through technology! Here’s to you Ada Lovelace and your poetical science!