The House I Grew Up In
I walked through gardens of tumbleweeds.
The back door swung like a metronome.
Spiders gnawed at windowsills.
The kitchen smelled like cigarettes.
The living room was a coffin filled with dust.
My bedroom opened into a star-filled sky.
I ran through hallways of empty picture frames.
My key chain rattled against my teeth.
My car began to burn in the driveway.
Sidewalks gave way to quicksand.
You said I could come home again.
Published in the Dunes Review, Volume 20, Issue I
Lewis Mock teased the crowd with a bit of Hendrix-style “Star Spangled Banner” on his red Gibson guitar, before pouncing on the riff of Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water.” Bill Warshaw set the tempo on the high hat of his DW drum set. Chris Cave joined the groove on his Nord Electro 4 keyboard as Bill drummed that steady beat we all knew and loved. And last, but not least, Jonathon Jambor jumped in on his Fender bass. Had we gone back in time? Was it 1969? Had we stepped behind a magic curtain in order to watch Birth, the band we loved during our adolescent years, perform live in Dodge City, Kansas? No! We weren’t in some Dorothy-induced-dream sequence; we were watching Birth perform live at Liberty Hall in Lawrence, Kansas, for the 2018 Kansas Music Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony (KMHoF). Birth friends and family members were ready to rock.
Lewis, Bill, Chris, and Jonathon showed their passion for playing rock and roll music at an early age in Dodge City, Kansas. Their moms were best friends, they lived near each other, and they all shared a deep love of music. Birth began playing gigs in 1966/1967. Dodge City is known for its history, infamy, and its hazy-filtered stories depicted on television (Gunsmoke), movies (Dodge City, circa 1939 with Errol Flynn), and countless fictional tales. Tom Clavin’s excellent book Dodge City details the town from an historical perspective, and Robert Rebein’s books Headlights on the Prairie and Dragging Wyatt Earp provide an insider’s look as to what it was like growing up in Dodge City during the seventies and eighties. For most people around my age growing up in the fifties, sixties, and seventies in Dodge City, dragging Wyatt Earp was a rite of passage. The hotter and faster the car, the better for driving down the famously-named boulevard. But there was more to life than boyfriends, fast cars, and living in a town where Boot Hill was a major tourist attraction: Music roared from our car stereos and radios as we cruised the streets of Dodge City. In dance halls and church basements, we discovered things about ourselves that our imaginations were just beginning to intuit as we listened to live music.
Hometown bands such as Friar Tuck and The Monks (KMHoF Class of 2008) and Birth rocked our world at various venues in town, and our parents were allowed some peace and quiet (“Turn down that stereo!”) while we moved and grooved to live music. Although home stereos, car radios, or 8-track tape players provided reliable ways for listening to our favorite music, there was something magical about listening to a live band play music. Plus, if a boy asked a girl to dance, well, that was the coolest thing ever. Otherwise, we stood in place, clapped along to the beat, and sang along to the lyrics to the songs we knew and loved. Birth made those songs live and breathe.
According to Chris Cave, Birth was “always a cover band. We played songs that people knew. We bought records at Ben Franklin and at Eckles Record Department. We played songs we liked. We wanted to get people singing and dancing and just engaging with us and each other. Music was a door to the world beyond Dodge City during those times.” Not only did Birth provide a door into possibilities for life elsewhere, for those of us who loved listening to Birth, we did our chores and homework, and followed house rules just so our parents would give us a ride to listen to Birth play music. We wanted to be with our friends, and we wanted to hear rock and roll music.
In Daniel J. Levitin’s book This Is Your Brain On Music, he suggests that “when we are young, and in search of our identity, we form bonds or social groups with people whom we want to be like, or whom we believe we have something in common with. As a way of externalizing the bond, we dress alike, share activities, and listen to the same music…This ties us into the evolutionary idea of music as a vehicle for social bonding and societal cohesion” (231). My friends and I knew that if we showed up somewhere Birth was playing the songs we loved that we would be surrounded by like-minded people. We could dance to the beat, sing along to the songs, and for an hour or two, experience the joy of being with people who mattered to us. As Charles Fernyhough reminds us in Pieces of Light, “Songful memories show how closely the making of autobiographical memories is linked to our sensory and emotional experience of the world” (55). We didn’t know it then, but we were creating memories that we would be able to relive much later in life.
As years passed and people left Dodge City and went their separate ways, Birth continued to play gigs, although I was never able to attend one prior to my high school reunion in 2013. During our reunion weekend, we reconnected with old friends, and we enjoyed the fabulous music of Birth as they rocked the Dodge House on a Saturday night. (Please read “Reunion” from October 2013 on this blog for more of that story.) Almost five years had passed since I had last seen Birth perform live, so I was very excited about hearing them play again.
On Friday night in Lawrence, Kansas, the DoubleTree Inn provided the venue for an acoustic performance by Birth. Other bands played before Birth, and we cheered those bands on as we chatted with old friends. When Birth finally took the stage, floor space in front of a pool table, fan mania erupted. It was if we were back in junior high, only we were all much older and hopefully wiser. We still knew the words to the songs, we could still dance, and no one can out hoot and holler a group of Dodge City fans when they are in the zone. According to Chris Cave, Birth “winged it throughout the entire acoustic jam. Lewis would not tell us in advance what songs we were going to play, but he drove that bastard home. It turned out to be one of the peak experiences I’ve ever had playing with Birth. Playing acoustically was something we had never done before, and it actually inspired us to think about what it really means to be Birth.” Lewis said that for Friday night’s gig, they “didn’t have a plan. I just played whatever came to mind. For the first song, I told Chris I was going to play in the key of E, so he could have the correct harmonica. I thought of ‘Get Back.’ They guys had no idea what I was going to play.” Well, for the Birth fans in the audience, we felt as if we were watching the well-oiled machine we knew and loved.
To close out the evening, Lewis led the band into an old Beatles song, “Blackbird,” and when he sang “you were always waiting for this moment to arise,” I felt a shiver of the past run through my veins. Paul McCartney’s inspiration for the song he wrote in 1968 was the civil rights movement and what was happening in Little Rock at the time. As Lewis sang the song, I flashed back to the turbulent times of the sixties when we watched the evening news with our parents and wondered what was going to happen next. Would we grow up in a world so full of despair and war? What would our future hold? Music seemed to be the key to whatever would happen in our lives, and protest songs and love songs both had a place in our music repertoire. We learned to get through our days with music as our main medicine.
After Birth played the final notes of “Blackbird,” and finished their acoustic set, my friend Gretchen and I returned to our hotel. After a night of sleep, and then running around Lawrence on Saturday morning, we headed to Free State Brewing next to Liberty Hall for the Birth “Meet and Greet.” The room was packed. We mingled, laughed, and cheered the members of Birth on, promising to be out in full force for the induction ceremony. We did not let them down. We headed to Liberty Hall and positioned ourselves close to the dance floor. Where else?
When Kathy Quinn from Fox 4 News in Kansas City introduced the band before Lewis Mock’s induction speech, we were thrilled at seeing our hometown band up on stage under the big lights receiving this great recognition. When Birth took the stage again a bit later for their thirty-minute set, the “sea of birth” as Erin Mock, Lewis Mock’s daughter referred to us, we moved and swayed as if we were ocean waves rolling into shore. How appropriate that Birth would begin their set with “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple. Fernyhough says that “A song that might have been heard many hundreds of times can nevertheless send the listener back in time to its first hearing” (54). Oh, I stepped through that time machine, and it was 1972. Damn, it was good to be alive, and here I was with some of the same friends I had back then. Dancing. Singing. In the music zone.
Since the band only had a thirty-minute time slot, they had to be tight. According to Bill Warshaw, they could see the clock timing down from the stage, and they “used the whole thirty minutes.” The band played Spirit’s “1984,” the Stones’ “Jumping Jack Flash,” (where we were literally jumping), Free’s “All Right Now,” Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen,” the Beatles “You Can’t Do That,” Cream’s “Crossroads,” and Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times Bad Times” before ripping into “Born to be Wild” by Steppenwolf. We had this. As one Birth fan told Lewis, “Birth was the soundtrack of my life.”
As the members of Birth left the stage, I felt as if had run a half marathon again. I was both exhausted and exhilarated. Some of us took a short break from the action even though there was much more music by other inductees to follow. I had to go outside to breathe in some fresh Kansas air. I knew that I had witnessed and been part of something truly wonderful. Not only was I lucky enough to be in the company of such great music fans, but I was thrilled for the members of Birth and the recognition they so richly deserved for their musicianship, their love of entertaining, and their heartfelt desire to connect to their fans.
For the fans, we headed our separate ways the next day, with our promises to get together soon, and to stay in touch. For the members of Birth, parting was also bittersweet. Chris Cave said that “The moment was book-ended: from the moment I started practicing at home for this event, to the Sunday morning that we travelled home and had a brief hug and goodbye at breakfast. That was a moment! And a tough one at that.” I can only imagine. I did suggest to Bill Warshaw that the band should get a bus and go out on tour. After all, why break up such a good thing? Friends? Family? Great music? That Dodge City blood running through our veins? He said, “Sure, and we’ll get Tara Hufford to paint the bus in a hippie theme.” Sounds good to me. Birth fans will be ready to roll. I have my red dancing shoes ready to go.
What does it mean to you to be an inductee into the KMHoF?
Lewis: To be voted in, put on the ballot, be inducted, and to have so many people show up blew my mind. It was overwhelming and beautiful.
Bill: I guess to be there with all of that other real talent like Kansas, Melissa Etheridge, and Mike Finnigan (to name a few) is just plain humbling.
Jonathon: I admit this event was completely off my radar. As Lewis said in his acceptance speech, Birth was really all about sharing the music we loved with our friends. We didn’t do it for the money or notoriety—or even to bug grownups. We weren’t trying to change the world or make any kind of statement. We just loved playing those songs for all of you. And the $1 at the door thing? We just did it because that’s what you did at a concert. Heck, we would have done it for nothing. What will we do with this accolade? Personally, I will ask for an additional fifty bucks when we offer to play for next year’s prom at Minneola.
Chris: It’s such an honor. It strikes me as phenomenal the way we came in. Other bands have CDs, posters, promo photos, a website, Facebook page, YouTube videos, etc., and we didn’t have any of that. We never did this for fame and fortune. They (KMHoF) opened doors for us. They didn’t even know if we could perform, but we promised them we could! They took us at our word and couldn’t deny the amazing support of our fans, from the overwhelming number of votes we got from our Fanbase. Friends and families helped us gain access into the KMHoF. As Lewis says, it was as close to the Grammys as he, or any of us, was going to get.”
What moment during the induction ceremony stands out as “the” moment?
Chris: The whole thing was a moment.
Jonathon: Well, to begin with, my musical tastes have changed a lot. I still like music from the 60s, but not of the 1960s, but rather that of the 1560s. I am much more into hymnody than popular music these days. I would have to say that the most touching part of the weekend wasn’t the induction ceremony itself, but seeing so many old friends there: It was very touching.
Bill: One memorable moment for me was on Friday when we rehearsed at Stan Herd’s studio, and his friend Stanley Sheldon showed up. Sheldon was the bass player for Tommy Bolin and Peter Frampton on the Comes Alive album. He is currently touring with Grand Funk Railroad. Needless to say that I was a little nervous when he showed up.
Lewis: The minute I played the first chord on my guitar for the first song. I thought are we really freaking doing this? I looked at the guys and wondered how did we get here? All of my life I have dreamed of playing on the stage at Liberty Hall. I went to high school in Lawrence and graduated from Lawrence High School. I also went to KU for a while, and I saw so many shows there. I grew up as a kid in Dodge listening to KOMA radio out of Oklahoma City, and they were always advertising the ‘Red Dog Inn’ (now called ‘Liberty Hall’) in Lawrence where The Fabulous Flippers played as well as the Roaring Red Dogs and many other of the great Mid-Continent Bands. As a kid, my mom worked with The Fabulous Flippers, and I worshipped them. I always dreamed of playing music on that stage, and now I have. It was a dream come true.
Most people understand the basic rules about ice: Coaches teach hockey players to keep their sticks on the ice. People who live on lakes know that when the hues of water under the ice begin resembling summer colors to stay off of the ice. Ice fishermen allowing their fishing shanties to partially sink during weather warmups should rethink their hobby. Drivers quickly learn that black ice on roads can cause a carousel of spinning cars and trucks and swiftly bury them in snow-filled ditches. Signs remind us that bridges freeze before roads. Our mothers tell us early on to stop chewing ice or our teeth will start to look like craters on the moon. When we are older, wizened drinkers advise us to avoid ice when drinking red wine or scotch. A friend recently told me that ice cube balls are better than cubes in beverages, and bigger is better. I am ashamed to say that I did not know this rule, but I will abide by it as soon as I receive my new ice cube trays. Last week, I learned another new ice rule, and I feel the need to share this with the world: Do not be a giggling gallivanter strutting across wet sand on a beach along Lake Michigan in March. Wet sand sometimes masquerades as very, very slippery ice.
When I was much younger and discovering the rules of the world in Kansas, my mother often said to me, “You are walking on thin ice, young lady,” when I would inform her and my father of some new adventure I had decided I needed to embark on. After being told no, I often swore. Since my father had a habit of swearing, it’s something I grew up with, kind of like having our own secret language. My mom, famous for her downward-head-tilt and dagger-like-mom-glare, frequently warned me to watch my language. Rebuttal time existed in the confines of my room or down by the dam where I complained to my dog, the cottonwood trees, and the Arkansas River. Thin ice! Language usage! It was a lot to learn for a teenager who was mostly interested in music, dogs, and boys.
In western Kansas, we really didn’t have much ice other than the ice my mother made in silver ice cube trays to fuel our passion for very cold iced tea. If only my mom had known about ice cube balls, but maybe no one had invented them yet. When the irrigation ditch running parallel to the road in front of our house froze over one winter, I put on a pair of ill-fitting ice skates. I skated down towards the Wilroads Gardens Elementary School, about a half a mile away, on the skinniest ice rink in the world. This wasn’t the Netherlands, and I was no Gretel. Ice wasn’t really something I learned to negotiate.
At the age of 21, I left Kansas for California where I discovered earthquakes and traffic. I quickly learned that pulling out in front of oncoming traffic was a requirement if a person wanted to get anywhere. I moved to Michigan a few years later, and I learned an entirely new set of rules for winter driving. I landed a job with a construction company rebuilding the downtown fire station in Ann Arbor. We worked out of a trailer on-site, and I was the office manager which basically meant that I typed reports on an ancient blue typewriter, fielded phone calls for my boss, and listened to grown men swearing about everything from the weather to the ups and downs of the Michigan Wolverines. I was hired because my future boss asked me if I minded people swearing. Seriously. I told him I was perfect for the job, and I called my father that night to thank him for all the years he had prepared me for this decent-paying job.
I had lived in Michigan for a few weeks, when I got my first taste of a Michigan blizzard. Since the fire chief and my boss said that the weather was going to be bad, I decided to park my four-speed Toyota station wagon in a garage underground. As I left the garage that day, I started up the ramp, and my car slid right back down and into the spare tire on the back end of a pickup truck. The following “BOOM” provided me more attention than walking down the street in a mini-skirt. My next stop was at my new car insurance agency where the confused agent asked me to repeat the story about five times. Even after I showed him the blown out rear window, he still asked me for the umpteenth time how I managed to blow out the window and not cause any damage to the pickup truck. Didn’t he believe me? Did he want to go to the scene of the accident? I was freezing! He told me I ought to cover up the gaping hole in the back of my car until I got it fixed. No s*#t, Sherlock?
From then on, I realized that ice rules were strictly followed in Michigan. When playing hockey or ice skating, one should always have sharp blades, or a person might lose an edge and fall down. The Great Lakes freeze over some years, but people should only drive across them on snowmobiles along a tree-lined path if they don’t want to die. Inland lakes claim a few bodies, people, and vehicles, every year because someone drank too much red wine or scotch with incorrectly-sized ice and decided to go for a joy ride. Chewing ice is only allowed if someone is a patient in a hospital and not allowed to eat edible food. When driving on snow-covered roads, drive like a person with a brain and not a death wish. I suppose I should stay off of the ice, but since I live in Northern Michigan, I don’t have a choice.
So far this year, I have willingly placed myself on ice for a variety of reasons and I managed to injure myself each time. In December, as I cross-country skied in the woods, I hit a patch of ice. My rear end hit the ground like a meteor dropping from the sky without any media coverage or fanfare. After a few choice swear words for no one but myself, I thrust myself upright, and I skied off to search for someone to feel sorry for me. At Cross-Country Ski Headquarters, I walked to my car, loaded my gear, and waited for my son to arrive after his much longer and more difficult ski journey. He was fine. Me? My left elbow still vibrated (California-shake style), and my neck seemed to be bit more compact as if I were a bobble head doll stuck in an awkward position.
In February, my son played in a pond hockey tournament in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Near the downtown of St. Ignace, I ventured out onto East Moran Bay (Lake Huron) to watch his team play hockey and shoot photographs. After trying a variety of footwear the day before, ice clamps on my tennis shoes and snow boots, I decided on my brand new boots with special technology geared just for walking on ice. I quickly learned that if snow fills in the spaces between all of this “special technology,” then I could perform a combination of those wild sixties dance moves, the mashed potato, the jerk, and the pony, all at once. My spectacular landing didn’t really hurt, because I had three layers of clothing on. I managed to save my camera, swear in front of a group of small children (What boots were THEY wearing?), and, along with my husband in his regular winter shoes, to watch the game and shoot pictures without further incident.
Having survived February mostly unscathed, I decided to go on an adventure with my photography pals, Sandi and Jo. I felt confident about starting out at Esch Beach, south of Empire and near Sleeping Bear Dunes along Lake Michigan. We had already stopped along our route to shoot pictures of sheep and eagles (not together!), now we were ready to shoot pictures of the water and the beach. I headed north walking along the shore towards Otter Creek. Waves rolled slowly towards the shore. I had on hiking boots and carried my camera in my left hand, the camera strap snug around my neck. One minute I was up, and the next minute I was down. What appeared to be wet sand was actually a thin layer of ice along the shore. I fell on my left side, clutching the camera so hard that my hand hurt much worse than my leg, which suffered a nasty little bruise below my knee. But that wasn’t the worst of it.
When I hit the ground with my camera, my lens shot into the sky like a fat pop bottle rocket before it began its first and last swim in Lake Michigan. Jo saw me pop up off of the ground and immediately jumped into the water to save my lens, thoroughly soaking her Converse tennis shoes. Sandi, watching the scene play out before her, attempted to help both of us at once. She later said she felt a bit “dazed and confused” by all of the action playing out on the beach. Although I was dirty, bruised, and angry at my own stupidity, I swear I heard my mother’s voice say, “See! I told you that you were walking on thin ice!” Even though she passed away in 2008, those words rang in my ears like church bells. After drying off, cleaning off, and pondering the fate of my lens, we continued our photo journey to Glen Haven and Glen Arbor. We ate lunch at Art’s Tavern where I ordered a nice cold beer to soothe my ego. After a brief rest, we headed to the camera shop in Traverse City. The shop’s employee Molly cleaned all of the sand out of my camera, and my bruised but functional camera survived my attempt at killing it by the icy shores of Lake Michigan.
We made it safely back to Higgins Lake, munching on exquisite brownies Jo had made and tasty treats Sandi brought along, before parting ways. After Jo and Sandi headed back to Midland, I realized that I was really sore and still very dirty. I thought about how my mom and dad would have been proud of me for picking myself up after yet another huge error in judgment. I guess that’s something they always knew about me: I’ve always been willing to walk on thin ice, because I like the danger.
First of all, no matter how many people have joked about it over the years, Gregg Allman did not write “Melissa” about me. In my bluesy, sultry-voiced, still-developing-mind, I imagined that if he had only known me, he would most certainly have written the song about me. Having one’s name associated with a highly popular song is sort of like telling people you are from Kansas. You wait for the chuckle and the inevitable comeback: “Did you know Dorothy?” from the The Wizard of Oz. Or better yet, was I actually Dorothy in disguise? Hilarious! As the character Cher would have said in Clueless, “As if!” I decided I should stop wearing pigtails for the rest of my life, and that my gingham dress had to go. I haven’t quite given up the red shoes yet. I do believe that if I create the right playlist for myself, I can become anyone I want to be. After all, we have had the power all along to let music guide us down whatever long and winding road we choose to take.
Even if I had stumbled across a yellow brick road, I can’t imagine life as a gal named Dorothy. What must she go through to have a name so associated with a fictional character? I have loved my name all of my life, and I thanked my mother a few times during my terrible teens for bestowing it on me. According to my mother, I was named after a relative who was born in the 1800s. It was as if my mother had been waiting all of her life to name someone Melissa. Luckily, I came into her life before our dog Stinker. I doubt if even Gregg Allman could have come up with lyrics for that name.
According to Gregg Allman’s memoir, he was searching for a name to use in a song he was working on, and he heard a woman calling for “Melissa” in a grocery store. In my young and very fertile imagination, I imagined it was me. One problem though: I had never been to Florida, which is where Allman was when he heard a woman calling for a young girl in a grocery store.
When I was in high school, my head inflated with a music-filtered ego, I imagined a cute teenaged boy with long dark hair and deep brown eyes, essentially George Harrison’s look-alike, strumming his guitar, and singing to me. The room would be dark. He would stare into my eyes. After he was through, he would lean forward and tell me how beautiful I was. That actually happened to me once at a party, only at the end of the song, the young guitar player asked if I liked the way he played the song. I said yes, and then we stared at each other, clueless as to what was supposed to happen next. Unfortunately, romantic fantasies do not always end well.
My love affair with the late Tom Petty’s music grew out of listening to his songs and realizing how perfect some of them were for my running playlist. In the 80s, I used a Sony Walkman with cassettes in them and in the 90s, I had a portable CD player to listen to tunes. Listening to the same CD for a six-mile run made me slightly crazy. Around 2010, I received an Apple iPod Nano that turned my life around. Playlists! A device I could stick in my pocket! Of course, Apple has now discontinued the iPod Nano, and, naturally, I dropped mine the other day. The face cracked, but it still works. Kind of like me. I’m not ready to switch to my phone for a playlist or whatever new thing Apple is selling for my playlist, because it won’t fit into the pocket of my workout pants. As Tom Petty sings, “I Won’t Back Down” until I don’t have a choice. I’m very stubborn, and I thank my late father for that distinctive trait.
I have only recently returned to walking on the roads with a definite pep to my step since my surgery in April to fix an acetabular labral tear in my right leg. My surgeon wants me to hold off on running until April 2018. I am being very patient and listening to my doctor on this one. I recently graduated from physical therapy, and I will miss those weekly trips to Traverse City where I drove the back roads and enjoyed checking out the animals at the beefalo farm on Fletcher Road, slowing down while passing the sheep farm on Boardman Road, and avoiding deer making bad decisions all along the way. In the past six months, I have seen eagles, hawks, and a sheriff stopping speeders in front of me (whew!) on a routine basis. My music playlists have all been extremely helpful in getting me pumped up for physical therapy. As the Allman Brothers sing, “I’m just looking for some good clean fun.” And there is no place like the physical therapist’s fun house to experience that good-time feeling.
On Labor Day weekend, I listened to Tom Petty’s song “U Get Me High” on my playlist as I walked the 5K along Lake Superior in Marquette, Michigan, during the weekend’s races. My son ran the half-marathon, and he had been competing in road races all year. This was the first race I was able to participate in since November of 2016. I had asked my physical therapist, Josh, to write a note giving me permission, so that my family would believe that I had healed enough to walk in a road race. Yes, walk, not run. I was thrilled to be out in the rain and wind, inhaling the air and being part of a group of people who loved road races. I wondered what some of their stories were as I walked along, singing to the songs on my playlist. After the race was over, I enjoyed a beer with my son and husband at Blackrocks Brewery, and I could not erase the happy grin on my face as we sat in the bar. I am now gearing up to walk the Turkey Trot in Traverse City on Thanksgiving Day. I walked in the Turkey Trot last year, but I was in a lot of pain. Did I mention that I am stubborn, and I should not have been participating? This year, I am ready to walk pain-free. I no longer need a note from my physical therapist.
During all of my travels over the years, either walking on the road or driving, I have realized that depending on radio stations, including the multiple offerings on Sirius, or listening to my CDs does not always fit my mood. My trusty little iPod with its randomly named playlists (Walking, Training, Marquette) works perfectly in the car or when I am out walking on the road. When my friend Susan and I took a road trip to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula this summer, I created a playlist with songs I knew would remind us of our high school days, and other songs I knew would make us feel the happiness groove as we worked our way along Lake Superior’s shoreline taking photos and collecting rocks. Although my right leg was far from healed, I could move around enough to get where I needed to go. Music and great friends have always been my inspiration to move.
I know that as time moves forward, my leg will continue to heal, and I will participate in more road races. As far as my photography goes, I can now bend low enough to the ground to shoot photos I could not take for a long time. I can also climb steps now, so that will open up another vantage point for me. When my husband and I were at Tahquamenon Falls a few months ago, I ventured down the 94 steps to the brink of the falls to shoot photos, and then climbed back up. My heart was racing, but I don’t know if it is because I was woefully out of shape, or had a super adrenalin rush. After all, as Tom Petty sings: “It was a beautiful day. The sun beat down. I had the radio on. I was driving…runnin’ down a dream.” It might have been a small goal, but in my last three visits to Tahquamenon Falls, I had only stared at those steps as if they were lined with rattlesnakes. Someday, I kept reminding myself. That day arrived.
In Gregg Allman’s last CD, he covers an old Willie Dixon song with great poignancy. Gregg passed away on May 27th this year. The lyrics to the song are words I wish we could all live by: “I live the life I love, and I love the life I live.” Life is full of challenges, and some days are really, really tough. The death of someone you love, cancer, a brain tumor, and a broken heart are just a few of the things that can knock us down. Music, even if we have to seek it out, can lift us up again. I hope your playlists inspire you as much as mine do, and I hope you never hesitate to update your playlist if it isn’t helping you get your groove on.
On a 37-degree August morning, steam fog lingered above the clear water of Higgins Lake. The waning days of summer, always layered with the memories of those I have loved and lost, seem to pass too quickly in Northern Michigan. Steam fog rising above the water fascinates me because while it is of this earth, the nature of it seems so ghostly, a place where secrets float on water, a scene that will unfold only when the above ground temperature and the temperature of the lake water meet for the first time that day. Steam fog is like a blush on the face upon meeting someone for the first time, someone you may or may not spend the rest of your life with. Or the rubbing of a match against a hard surface, and the sudden glow of a flame before it settles into a flicker of light. Or the feeling of grief when it surrounds your head and your heart making you feel as if you might never break free of its grip. You wait for the blush to fade from your cheeks. You blow out the match once it has served its purpose for you. You slip in and out of ephemeral memories until your body and the earth seemingly collide and force you into action. You must tell stories about those you have loved and miss so much. This is the burn, and this is the fade.
I met my future husband in August one year, and we married the following year on August 26th. Two days later, we celebrated my father-in-law’s birthday on the 28th of August, but he died in 2004. My father died in 2012 on August 27th, and it seemed as if he had chosen this date. Those three days in August became a twisted nursery rhyme for me, and instead of “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod” by Eugene Field, one my mother used to read to me, these three days became “Anniversary, Death, Birth.” They say things come in threes, and depending on whom you believe, these can be three good things or three bad things. Stars, planets, and galaxies remind us of our smallness. Width, height, and depth are necessary measurements we use in order to understand the dimension of things. Red, yellow, and blue are primary colors that can be blended to create other colors. The three days of August that hold so much meaning for me create their own mix, a steam fog settling in and disrupting the tangled vines of memory running through my brain.
As fall approaches at Higgins Lake, I will likely awaken to more steam fog as the nights grow colder and the temperature of the water continues to drop until it begins to freeze. I know the hummingbirds that frequent my feeders are fattening up before they head south. On the first morning I wake up and realize they are gone until the spring, I will settle in with my cup of tea, and skim through all of the photographs I have taken of them over the spring and summer months. Will they return in the spring? Will I be here? That’s it, you know. We have to live each day to its fullest, because we never know what the future brings.
I was sorting through a problem a few days ago as I walked three miles. I wondered what advice my mother or father would give to me to handle a particular situation. Quite clearly, almost as if I could hear their voices in unison, I understood that I should let the problem go. In other words, it would resolve itself. Like steam fog slowly evaporating, and sunlight warming up the air, I realized the solution to my problem was as simple as one, two, three: Let it go. I thought of those last few moments with my father as he was taking his last few breaths in August of 2012, and how his eyes opened one last time, and he looked at me as if he understood something that I, too, would someday understand. The burn, the fade, and the remembering.
I grew up in a family of storytellers. On a typical Sunday, my grandmother would show up at our house after attending the Presbyterian Church in Dodge City, Kansas, and during Sunday’s meal of roast beef, mashed potatoes, gravy, and corn, my mother and grandmother would sharpen their wordsmithing skills as they told their favorite stories. One of my grandmother’s favorite stories involved a relative crashing through an outhouse as he sat for his morning constitutional. My mother enjoyed telling stories about her artwork. Drawings, decorated eggs, and handmade jewelry were so much more than the materials they were made from. Although my mother tried to teach me how to decorate eggs and draw pictures of people and places, I found my creative side through storytelling. From a very young age, I began writing poems and songs to play on my guitar. I learned from the best—and not just from my mother and grandmother. I recently attended the Bear River Writers’ Conference at Walloon Lake in Northern Michigan. Wordsmithing and listening to each other’s stories were the featured attractions.
Once again, I was excited to be in a workshop run by The Living Great Lakes author Jerry Dennis. I first attended the Bear River Writers’ Conference when it was in its infancy at Camp Daggett in 2001. My friend Darcy Czarnik Laurin and I attended our writing workshops, had a memorable canoe ride along the swollen Bear River, and survived with the help of a preacher who guided us out of our very precarious situation. Paddling is difficult when your canoe is stuck on a log in a fast-moving river. Darcy also tried to kill me with a paddle, but she still claims she was trying to whack a spider crawling on my back. But that’s another story.
Workshops are interesting beasts. As a freshman comp, literature, and creative writing teacher at SVSU, now retired, I understood that writing was difficult for many students, and providing honest feedback on their work was essential in order for them to improve their skills. Just because a student’s mother liked his or her poem, did not mean it worked. I never quite knew what to say to a tearful student demanding I change my opinion.
As writers and readers, we have a responsibility to dive deep into what another person has written, explore its meaning, and give constructive feedback. Personally, I prefer feedback on my writing to be brutally honest, as does my long-time friend poet Chris Giroux, a professor at SVSU. We exchange our writing with each other in order to make it better. Honest criticism always works for me. Bring it on.
I have gone to the Bear River Writers’ Conference nine times since 2001, and I have attended Space, In Chains author Laura Kasischke’s workshops four times during a span of sixteen years. One year I opted for The Art of the Personal Essay author Phillip Lopate’s workshop, and it was truly memorable. My fourth time in one of Jerry Dennis’s workshops would allow me another chance to practice my skills as a writer. The feedback on my writing from each of these authors over the years has been instrumental to my growth as a writer.
I was very concerned about attending Bear River this year after the crazy leg surgery I had done on April 7th. Since I have a very long recovery, I wondered how I would get around the grounds of Camp Michigania, and how I would be able to sit for long periods of time both in workshops and listening to authors read. Not to worry! When I showed up on registration day, the Key Administrator, Jessica Greer, handed me a key to a golf cart so that I could get around easily. She had also placed me in the nearest cabin to the Education Center so that I wouldn’t have as far to go around campus. Life in the slow lane wasn’t so bad after all.
In workshop, I was offered plenty of opportunities to stand up and stretch, and people were very kind in making sure I was comfortable. Although it is always intimidating to be in the company of so many good writers, there was a feeling of kindness and empathy as we worked our way through revisions. Nature, grief, longing, memories, history, and the need to understand how the world works were some of the themes present in our stories. We listened carefully as each person read. We offered feedback to make the pieces stronger. Yes, it was a very good workshop.
Baseball batters often have a walk-up song played before they step up to the plate. As one man in our class was about to read, I wondered what his song might be. He did not share his song with us if he had one. My song has been “Texas Flood” by Stevie Ray Vaughan since 1983 when it came out. My son was a year old, and life was wonderful. I don’t play baseball, and my short-lived attempt at playing softball when I was barely pregnant with Matt was disastrous. I was that grown up out in right field messing with my hair as a fly ball headed my way and dropped dead in the grass a foot in front of me. I did, however, become a runner, and for the past thirty years, I have run road races all over the state of Michigan. Since I injured my leg in October 2015, and especially since my surgery for an acetabular labral tear, I am on the disabled list. My physical therapist said that I should not even attempt to run until next April. In everyday life there has to be a theme song or a song that seems to get your heart pumping and your blood moving. From the first moment I heard “Texas Flood,” the guitar licks and the words have somehow mattered to me. That song is always on my playlist.
I hope that if you are reading this, you have a walk-up song that pumps you up before you step up to the task of being an empathetic and kind person in this world today. Listen to people’s stories when they tell them to you. Read what thoughtful writers are concerned about. In an essay for Ploughshares titled “Poetry, Science, Politics, and Birds” by writer Bianca Lech, she says that “a world with more lovers of books is worth striving for.” In addition, she suggests that a world with more birders would indeed connect us to nature in ways that would bring us joy. As a birder myself, I agree wholeheartedly. Isn’t that what we should strive for at the start of each day? A little walk-up song as we head out the door, a willingness to listen to each other as we tell our stories, and, at the end of the day, a book to read to learn something new about the world and to connect us to others? As we watch the sun go down and eventually go to sleep, our dreams will prepare us for tomorrow and the chance to do something that matters.
“Fly away through the midnight air / as we head across the sea / and at last we will be free. You’re a bluebird.” –Paul and Linda McCartney
Oh, to be that bluebird. Or an eagle flying overhead, alone in its solitude of majestic beauty. Or a tiny hummingbird, wings propelling it forward towards nectar from a pot of flowering calibrachoa. Via migration, birds return to their homes, year after year, sometimes wintering thousands of miles away. The older I get and especially now that my parents are deceased, the more I have the desire to return to the place I grew up in order to breathe in the air, soak in the glorious Kansas sunshine, and wade deeply into the river of memories. Right now, my body is going through some intense physical healing after surgery on my right leg, and this has made me appreciate even more those moments in my life when my family and friends have joined me in another one of my migrations towards the house I grew up in.
About a year and a half ago, I took an awkward step off of a friend’s porch. Since then, I’ve put my body through every kind of treatment available to try and fix my injury. I repeatedly told physical therapists and doctors that something still wasn’t right even after all of the treatments. I was not healing. I would walk or run one day and be completely unable to walk the next day. I certainly did not help myself by attempting to run or power walk road races when my leg felt strong. Once I cycled into the insurance-driven loop of procedures (x-rays, physical therapy, steroid shots, waiting for appointments, etc.), it would take over a year before I finally received approval for an MRI.
Even then, the initial doctor who read my MRI said that he didn’t see a problem; plus the hospital where I had the MRI done could not figure out how to send the results to my doctor in Traverse City and into the Munson system. I ended up taking a copy of the CD I had received on the day of my MRI with my results to Traverse City. Luckily for me, my new orthopedic surgeon, Dr. O’Hagen, disagreed with the initial findings, and he agreed that something needed to be done. As someone who had been getting up every morning for the past thirty years to run before I did anything else for the day, and then falling into this routine of barely being able to go outside and take photographs of my beloved eagles, loons, pileated woodpeckers, chickadees, sunrises, well, anything to do with Higgins Lake, I was going stir crazy. My daily pain level hovered between an eight and nine (out of ten). I was one pissed-off chick.
On April 7th, I had arthroscopic surgery in Traverse City, and the “no problem” that one doctor found was fixed by Dr. O’Hagen. He repaired my acetabular labral tear, cleaned up all of the surfaces of my hip joint, stretched the socket out to make sure it went back in right, and he used two anchors and sutures to repair the tear. He cut my illiotibial band in three places, removed all of the painful bursitis, and stitched me back up. The bruise on my right leg and hip is the size of Texas, but it is a most lovely shade of purple.
I have a long road to recovery, and my goal now is to walk and hike without pain. Running, something I love like dark chocolate, is in the distant future. I do believe that my age played a part in some of the comments I received in my treatment last year at a different facility. “You are older, so you are going to have pain” is the clear favorite, told to me by a male PT and runner. This is despite the fact that my x-rays, and eventually my MRI, showed great bones and very little arthritis. No, the reason I had pain was because I had an acetabular labral tear. When I told my new PT (Josh) in Traverse City what I had been told last year, he laughed and said that “It would make [his] job easy if [he] could say things like that.” Physically, I will continue to heal and will end up doing the things I want to do again. If the body can heal itself over time with proper care, how do we heal emotionally when our mind and bodies ache from missing someone? I think of my daughter and my parents every day, and I miss them beyond words.
It was for this reason, in part, that I flew to Denver, Colorado, to spend time with my cousins, their families, and some friends for a few days in late January. While in the Denver area, my cousin Julie took us to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge where we saw eagles, bison, deer, and hawks among many species roaming the area. Do not miss going to this beautiful wildlife area. My cousins also took me to the Coors plant in Golden, Colorado, and, on another day, I took a trip up into Poudre Canyon with my friend Susan, and we saw bighorn sheep, birds, and slackliners. We stopped to watch one particular slackliner as he found his inner strength, walking across a tightrope high above the ground. I can’t imagine what kind of endorphin rush he was hypnotized by, but I think I understood his desire to be a part of the air we breathe.
Before leaving Denver on a Sunday, Audrey and I viewed the expanse of the Rocky Mountains from the roof of her daughter Lauren’s apartment building. Once we hit the road, we began the slow descent out of the mountains towards Kansas. With about 70 miles to go before we hit the Kansas state line, we stopped at the Queens State Wildlife Area near Eads, Colorado. On a cool and windy day, we parked at the end of a road and stared in amazement at the reservoir exploding with snow geese. There were so many birds that I could not capture them all in a single frame. The water seemed like an endless beach of white sand, only this sand was on the move and making noise. Audrey and I were spellbound. It was difficult to leave such a beautiful area.
We continued our drive, telling family stories to each other, marveling at all of the hawks we were seeing, and the murmurations of starlings popping up into the brilliant blue sky. It was as if birds were guiding us to our destination wherever we went. After a long day, we arrived in Dodge City and checked into our hotel. After dinner and a few adult beverages, available in the casino next to our hotel, we went to our separate rooms for the night.
While in Dodge City, we visited old friends, and made new ones as we learned more about the town we grew up in. I hadn’t seen Dena, a friend I grew up with, in over 40 years. Sam, the reference librarian at the Dodge City Library, was extremely helpful with information as it pertained to Wilroads Gardens, a community east of Dodge City along the Arkansas River, where I grew up. Audrey and I had lunch with friends of my parents one day, and it felt so good to talk about my parents and hear stories of the past. We drove past houses and places that had meant something to us when we were younger. We went to Wilroads Gardens and drove to the house I grew up in. Liz, a friend who had grown up two doors east of me, had forewarned the new owner. We met Don, and he was kind and gracious. He allowed us to cut through his field so I could go stand down by the dam near what used to be the Arkansas River, a place that was extremely important to me growing up. As I worked my way past tangled vines and tumbleweeds towards the now abandoned dam, I heard a meadowlark somewhere near me, welcoming me home.
That night, I slept well in my hotel room, but in the morning, I was awakened by someone whispering: “Melissa.” I sat up in my bed, expecting that Audrey had somehow found her way into my room. Although my room was empty, I could not shake the feeling that someone had been there. Despite an initial feeling of eeriness, I felt calm and peaceful. Jennifer Ackerman, in The Genius of Birds, says that birds have the “ability to do something we can’t do: modulate their deep sleep by opening one eye” (51). If only I had been able to do this, I might have seen who was responsible for the voice bringing me comfort and healing. It was as if the spirits of my parents and grandparents were telling me that I would always find peace in the town I grew up in, and I could return to Michigan, now soothed with some emotional healing, through the sharing of memories, landscape, and stories.
Back in in Michigan, I watch eagles, hawks, pileated woodpeckers, loons, and chickadees on almost a daily basis. Since I am hobbling around on crutches for a while, I am limited as far as taking pictures. I am frustrated, but I can also sit back and imagine the life of these birds. Where have they been? What can I learn from them? They can travel places I cannot. If only I could fly and soar at a moment’s notice to the place where I grew up, breathe in the air, and find the younger version of me. I would explain to her that she would one day return again and again to this spot to understand how it held her steady for all of those years, but also gave her wings to fly.