Mark Jarman’s “Ground Swell” is one of my favorite poems. I taught this poem in my creative writing classes, and gave my students the following writing prompt: What is your ground swell? My students had some amazing stories to tell.
If you click on the link to Poets.org, you can listen to Mark Jarman read his poem. Enjoy!
Ground Swell by Mark Jarman
Is nothing real but when I was fifteen, Going on sixteen, like a corny song? I see myself so clearly then, and painfully-- Knees bleeding through my usher's uniform Behind the candy counter in the theater After a morning's surfing; paddling frantically To top the brisk outsiders coming to wreck me, Trundle me clumsily along the beach floor's Gravel and sand; my knees aching with salt. Is that all I have to write about? You write about the life that's vividest. And if that is your own, that is your subject. And if the years before and after sixteen Are colorless as salt and taste like sand-- Return to those remembered chilly mornings, The light spreading like a great skin on the water, And the blue water scalloped with wind-ridges, And--what was it exactly?--that slow waiting When, to invigorate yourself, you peed Inside your bathing suit and felt the warmth Crawl all around your hips and thighs, And the first set rolled in and the water level Rose in expectancy, and the sun struck The water surface like a brassy palm, Flat and gonglike, and the wave face formed. Yes. But that was a summer so removed In time, so specially peculiar to my life, Why would I want to write about it again? There was a day or two when, paddling out, An older boy who had just graduated And grown a great blonde moustache, like a walrus, Skimmed past me like a smooth machine on the water, And said my name. I was so much younger, To be identified by one like him-- The easy deference of a kind of god Who also went to church where I did--made me Reconsider my worth. I had been noticed. He soon was a small figure crossing waves, The shawling crest surrounding him with spray, Whiter than gull feathers. He had said my name Without scorn, just with a bit of surprise To notice me among those trying the big waves Of the morning break. His name is carved now On the black wall in Washington, the frozen wave That grievers cross to find a name or names. I knew him as I say I knew him, then, Which wasn't very well. My father preached His funeral. He came home in a bag That may have mixed in pieces of his squad. Yes, I can write about a lot of things Besides the summer that I turned sixteen. But that's my ground swell. I must start Where things began to happen and I knew it.
Pretzel Tour Three
In the summer of 2009, Jeanne Beilke phoned me from a road trip she was on with Christopher Cave and Jon Jambor. All of us had gone to Dodge City Senior High together and graduated in 1973. Jeanne, Chris, and Jon had been touring the roads of Kansas, Colorado, and Oklahoma on their motorcycles. After hearing how much fun they were having, I wondered if Jeanne would agree to hit the road with me the following year. Since Jeanne and I had not seen each other since we had graduated from high school, I wasn’t sure if she would want to spend time on the road with me. When my mother died in 2008, I found myself wanting to see Dodge City, a place I had not been to since my parents moved to Michigan in 1992. Were Dorothy’s words true? Is there “no place like home”?
I contacted Jeanne, and she agreed to travel with me. To visit friends and family in various locales, we planned to fly into Denver, Colorado, head south to Route 66, head east to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and finally wind our way north and west to Dodge City, Kansas. After viewing the strange route we had planned, Jeanne came up with the name of our adventure: “The Pretzel Tour.”
We posted our ideas on Facebook, and our simple plans grew exponentially. Micki Holladay and Rachael Livingston joined the tour. Destinations and parties were planned. I had not seen Micki or Rachael since the mid-seventies before I moved to California. Friends constantly asked me if we would all be able to get along. I had no idea.
Jeanne flew into Detroit from Virginia Beach, Virginia, and I saw her for the first time in thirty-seven years. After we were together for about ten seconds, it seemed quite apparent that we were going to have a very good time on our trip. We flew out of Detroit and into Denver. We rented a car, and tried to find our way to Aurora, Colorado, to meet up with a high school friend, Richard Osborn. I managed to get us lost, pointed out the “swirly things” in the distance (tornadoes), and we eventually met up with Richard. Jeanne told me I had been out of Kansas too long if I referred to tornadoes as swirly things.
Jeanne and I headed to Denver. She drove us to her sister’s house, and my cousin Julie Bowline picked me up. The next day we met up with a group of high school friends who lived near Denver: Susan Maynard Wolfe, Marty Goff Hahn, Robin Troyer Friesen, Mickey Webster Winfrey, and the other half of the Pretzel Tour gang, Micki Holladay and Rachael Livingston. Some of us had thirty-seven years of catching up to do. We laughed so hard my stomach hurt. I am surprised the Wynkoop Brewing Company did not kick us out.
Two days later, Jeanne, Micki, Rachael, and I headed to Boulder, Colorado, in Micki’s car to meet up with Ted Larson, yet another person originally from Dodge City. Part of our Pretzel Tour plan was to head south to Route 66, and Ted suggested we take the back roads. We hit CO 286 and the Collegiate Peaks Scenic Byway. Every time we saw a spot that looked interesting, we stopped. We were in no hurry. As Micki drove, we settled into a routine of telling stories and listening to music. When Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” came on, we talked about how much we loved this song when we were in high school. Rachael and I declared it as our “favorite-favorite.” All of us sang along softly, each of us lost in some memory we decided not to share as Robert Plant’s voice seemed to take us back in time.
We worked our way to Alamosa for the night, and hit the road the next day. During the days ahead, with Micki always behind the wheel, Rachael riding shotgun, and Jeanne and me in the backseat, we eventually worked our way towards New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Rachael and I drove out to the house I had grown up in, and I felt strange as I stood in the driveway. I had been thinking about Miranda Lambert’s song, The House That Built Me, and realized the significance of wanting to go home again. There are a million stories to tell, but I will save those for another day or in a book.
At one point along the way, an old friend asked us who was in charge. We all started laughing. Was one of us supposed to be in charge? Unless you count my penchant for bossiness, we all got along splendidly, and Jeanne, Micki, and Rachael put up with me.
We discussed the possibility of Pretzel Tour 2 the following summer. A friend of mine from California, Denise Manson Torres, joined us. Because of our various schedules, it seemed as if Michigan would be the logical place to tour. We hit Northern Michigan with a vengeance. During the trip, I started missing turns when I was driving. Places I had been many times before seemed confusing to me. Micki, Jeanne, and Rachael gave me the ribbing I deserved, and they found a beer koozie for me with this saying: “I’m not in charge. I just know what you should be doing.” Not only was I missing turns, I was becoming bossier by the minute.
As we parted in early August, we discussed our plans for Pretzel Tour 3, but we did not decide on when or where. Three months later, I found out I had a brain tumor. I figured that would be the end of just about everything in life I loved, including my trips with this fabulous group of women.
Pretzel Tour 3 begins August 1st. Jeanne, Micki, and I will meet up in Chicago and begin the trek on Route 66 as we head towards our destination at the Lake of the Ozarks. Rachael will join us as we spend our days at Gretchen Leonard Steffen’s house. We will tell stories, drink beer, and enjoy each other’s company. All of us have been through many challenges in life, and somehow we have managed to work our way through the losses and disappointments to become the women of substance we were destined to be. We are all damn funny, and we like to tell stories. My friends are willing to put up with me as I make this journey, knowing I will mess up my words when I talk, and my memories will be suspect at times.
Ladies, I am ready for the adventure to begin, and I am still working on getting rid of my bossiness, but I will bring my beer koozie just in case.
Couldn’t Stand The Weather
The cover of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s album Couldn’t Stand The Weather shows him playing his guitar as a tornado approaches him. Unlike Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Vaughan seems unconcerned with the approaching storm, seemingly playing through the twister as if his guitar will protect him from danger and potential death. Sadly, Vaughan was killed in a helicopter crash in 1990 at the age of 35. I was 35 at the time, Matt was 8, and Jim and I had celebrated our 12th wedding anniversary the day before Vaughan’s death. From the moment I first heard music by Vaughan, I was hooked. In 1988, his music became a talisman for my broken heart.
There were no signs of my brain tumor in 1988 when my daughter Nicole was born and died four days later. She died of anencephaly; her brain did not develop fully. A line in Vaughan’s song “Couldn’t Stand The Weather,” seemed to speak directly to my sorrow: “Like the train that stops at every station, we all deal with trials and tribulations.” Was this my trial in life? In 1988, the answer was yes, and despite watching my mother die of Alzheimer’s in 2008, and finding out I had a brain tumor in 2011, the answer to that question is still yes.
Parents expect to outlive their children. That’s a basic fact. Peggy, a very dear friend of mine, learned this cruel twist of fate when her son Johnny died on Easter Sunday, April 20, 2003, when he was twenty-three years old. Not a day goes by that our families don’t think about our children. I know many other parents whose children have died, the reasons vary, and when I hear someone ask how one gets over the loss of a child, I say: “You don’t get over it; you just learn to deal with it better.”
As I began researching information on meningiomas, I couldn’t help but think of the connection between my mother, my daughter, and myself. Even though my mother is not my biological mother, I started asking myself: What the hell happened to our brains?
Since Nicole lived for only four days, I can only imagine what she might have been. For my mother, I watched her slow decline into something unimaginable as she changed from the loving mother she was into someone who would not recognize me towards the end of her life. My mother the prankster and storyteller slipped into the land where memories and words no longer existed.
My father is now slipping into the land of dementia. Even though he lives in a nursing home not far from me in Michigan, his mind seems to have erased the past years where he and my mother lived in Michigan after moving here in 1992. He is convinced that people he knew in Dodge City are running the kitchen and working the night shift at the nursing home. Most of these people he refers to are dead. I pretend they are alive.
One night I dreamed that my mother called me and needed help. She said: “Your dad and I are in danger. Help us.” When I woke up, I told my husband about my dream, because it was so upsetting. I also wrote about the dream in my journal. Later that day when I visited my father at the nursing home, he said: “What does your mother think about me in the nursing home?” My father had not brought up my mother’s name since mid-April when he was still in the land of memory and remembering she was dead. My response to my father: “She is concerned about you.” As I walked out of the nursing home, the dream seemed like a snake crawling inside my skull, warning me of danger, but for whom? Was the dream purely for my father? For me? For the family?
In “Couldn’t Stand The Weather,” Vaughan sings “Ain’t so funny when things ain’t feelin’ right; daddy’s hand helps to see me through.” What would I be like without my father when he could no longer help me as if I were a child? At Nicole’s funeral, I remember leaning into my father, sobbing, holding me as if I were the child, not the almost thirty-three year old daughter. When my father learned I had a brain tumor, he was supportive, caring, and came to the hospital to watch my Gamma Knife surgery on a closed-circuit television. The memories of that seemed to have disappeared now, and he no longer asks me how I am. He’s more concerned about his checkbook and escaping the prison he thinks I have placed him in.
I have heard from quite a few friends of mine that they admire my positive spirit through my losses in life and dealing now with my brain tumor. What choice do I have? We all deal with things in life, and I am no different than anyone else. When my beloved dog died recently, I had a moment where the pity party in my brain began its full dance again, but, as typical for my blessed life, my family, my cousins, and some very dear friends did the one thing that seems to get overlooked in times of grief, of sadness: They listened to me.
If I look at the big picture, I have to say I am damn lucky. I have lived a life full of adventure, have a wonderful husband and son, have grown up with some wonderful cousins who are like sisters to me, and met wonderful people who became my friends. So whatever ride I am on now with my father and his fading away, and the brain tumor that radiation has hopefully begun its magical shrinking act, I’m facing the storm like Stevie Ray Vaughan did. I’m slinging my guitar like a talisman around my body, and playing my songs no matter what is headed my way.
Naomi Shihab Nye is one of my favorite poets, and her poem about Kansas is particularly significant to me now in many ways. Enjoy!
Driving across the center of Kansas
at midnight, we’re talking about
all our regrets, the ones we didn’t marry,
who married each other, who aren’t happy,
who should have married us.
Ah, it’s a tough world, you say,
taking the wrong road.
Signposts appear and vanish, ghostly,
I’m not aware it’s the wrong road,
I don’t live here,
this is the flattest night in the world
and I just arrived.
Grain elevators startle us,
rimmed by light.
Later you pull over
and put your head on the wheel.
I’m lost, you moan. I have no idea where we are.
I pat your arm.
It’s alright, I say.
Surely there’s a turn-off up here somewhere.
My voice amazes me,
coming out of the silence,
a lit spoon,
here, swallow this.
Words Under the Words, 8th Mountain Press, 1995
Dodge City, Kansas, is a town rich with history. Known as the Cowboy Capital, its mainstays were lawlessness, buffalo, cattle, bars, fights, and the fictional character of Marshall Matt Dillon. Gunsmoke, one of the most influential shows my parents and I watched, provided an interesting look at how Dodge City was portrayed on television.
One of my favorite scenes from Gunsmoke is when Matt Dillon faces a group of men who want a prisoner released and says: “get out of Dodge.” Some of us did leave Dodge, but we chose to; no one forced us out of town. Nevertheless, after moving away, I could always count on someone saying one of three things: “Guess you got out of Dodge,” “Did you know Dorothy?” or “Are you a cowgirl?” Yes, these were typically pick-up lines, and, no, they didn’t work.
Gunsmoke aired in 1955, and Dodge City became even more popular. As I grew up, I noticed an increasing number of little girls wearing cowgirl outfits. I was reminded of this recently when several Dodge City cowgirl photos were posted on Facebook. Micki Holladay, Judy Neves David, and I were examples of cowgirls in our town, parading around in our cute cowgirl outfits, holding toy guns in our hands, and seemingly aiming at someone or something. In the photos of the three of us, I have to say Micki at least looks as if she knows what she is doing, or perhaps she is aiming the gun at whoever is taking the picture as if to say: Stop it or I will shoot. Eventually we tossed our toy guns aside, grew out of our cowgirl outfits, survived our teenage years, and moved on.
Micki “wanted to be a veterinarian” when she grew up. Her mother said she “could be anything she wanted.” Micki attended Dodge City Community College in 1973-1974 before getting out of Dodge in 1977, and moved to Las Animas, Colorado. She eventually moved to Greeley in 1978 and worked for Sears, a store she had also worked for in Dodge City. She returned to college in 1990 and began working towards a nursing degree, receiving her Bachelor of Science in Nursing in 1994 from the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. Micki’s mother always stressed the importance of “life-long learning,” and Micki continues to do so to this day. In 2010, she began working on her Master’s (MSN) degree at Regis University in Denver.
Judy wanted to be a teacher when she grew up. Judy and her sister would play school, and in sixth grade Judy met a “deaf education teacher that [she] admired,” and never “considered doing anything else after that.” Judy’s mother provided “exposure to the arts” and “encouraged her to write.” After graduating from Dodge City Senior High, she spent one year at Wichita State University before continuing her education at Louisiana State University where she earned her bachelor’s degree in Education (Speech and Hearing Therapy). In graduate school, she earned her master’s in Speech-Language Pathology. Although Judy did not grow up on a farm, she considers herself “an old farm girl.” Despite the outfit she had when she was young, the only cowboy boots she owned “were those ugly white ones with taps on the bottom that [she] wore for DCHS drill team.”
And what did I want to be when I grew up? I have no idea. I’m still working on it. My parents ran a restaurant, but we lived on a farm, raising cattle, pigs, and chickens. I had a horse until 1965, but Willie was just about as mean as a horse could be, and my father never brought Willie back to our house after the big flood that year.
I hated school. Despite the good grades I earned until I graduated in 8th grade from Wilroads Gardens, I took a sharp turn after riding the bus into town for 9th grade and junior high. By the time I hit Dodge City Senior High, I was more interested in skipping than actually attending class. My parents never seemed to be too upset about my report cards, and I finally found out why when I delved into my adoption information last year.
According to the State Department of Social Welfare of Kansas, circa 1955, my parents were “interested in family life” and “environment.” According to the document, “Scholastic achievement doesn’t seem to appeal to this couple as much as personality and ambition.” Unlike Micki’s mother who encouraged her love of life-long learning, and Judy’s mother who provided exposure to the arts and encouraged her to write, my mother was more interested in me having a good personality, and I did not let her down.
After high school, I wandered and made stupid decisions just about every day, and when I turned 21, I became a bartender at the Dodge City Country Club. My personality fit in well, but under no circumstances would my mother let me tell my grandmother I was a bartender. Cocktail waitress? Yes, I could admit to that job, but for some reason she did not want me to tell her I was a bartender. I made much better tips as a bartender, but that didn’t seem to matter.
One day, “get out of Dodge” seemed to burn a hole in my personality-driven brain. In August of 1976, I quit my job, boarded the westbound train to California, moved in with a friend, and got a job as a secretary at Laguna Sportswear. The personality child had found her space in the universe. College still didn’t interest me, but California boys and the beach certainly did. Life was good, and on August 26, 1977, I met a guy from Michigan who just happened to be visiting. Naturally, against my parents’ wishes, my friends’, and those of my boss at Laguna, and I packed up my car, convinced my friend Cari (originally from Michigan) to accompany me, and we drove from California to Michigan with a pit stop in Dodge City to visit my parents. I tried to convince them I wasn’t insane.
Instead, life got even better. I became a mother and settled into life in Midland, Michigan. Just as the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz thinks life would be better if he “only had a brain,” I decided it was time to see if mine actually functioned. At the encouragement of my husband and then seven-year old son, I went to college and earned a bachelor’s degree at Saginaw Valley State University in English/Creative Writing. I was actually in the Honors Program! I then went to Michigan State University for a degree in creative writing, and graduated with nearly a 4.0. At the age of 41, I had finally made my parents proud of me, found the ambition that seemed to go along with my personality, and realized I might turn out okay when I grow up.
I am a cowgirl. I am a farm girl. I am a mother, wife, daughter, and friend. Although Micki, Judy, and I wore our cowgirl outfits to please our mothers, or perhaps ourselves, none of us grew up to be cowgirls. But something always draws us back to the beginning, when the world was waiting for us, and we were waiting to pull the trigger.
I saved Woody from a fire once, but I couldn’t save him from kidney failure and old age. As I watched Woody struggle as he walked and moan as he climbed into his bed each night, I realized that I had to do the right thing. When Woody stopped eating, I knew it was time.
On January 14, 1997, my friend Vicki called me and said she knew of a dog I might be interested in. SOS Animal Rescue in Midland had found Woody at a pound after someone had dropped him off. Woody was currently living in a house about five miles from me, and I made arrangements to meet him. The minute Woody came bounding up the stairs from the basement of the house in wild pursuit of a cat; I knew I had to adopt him. I left the house with Woody in my arms, and surprised Jim and Matt when I walked in the door. Woody didn’t bark for two days, and I wondered if he had ever learned how. I was wrong. If he had been a singer instead of a barking dog, he could have toured with Johnny Cash.
Woody’s original name was Buster. He was no Buster in my eyes; He was Woody. I saw nothing wrong with renaming him; after all, my mother and father renamed me after they adopted me at two months of age. My birthmother named me Connie. Jo. My mother renamed me Melissa Jean. The name Melissa was based on a relative my mother had known when she was young, and my middle name was my mother’s sister’s name. From the moment I picked Woody up and drove him home, we became kindred spirits.
Woody soon began to be in charge of the house and our lives. He slept when he wanted to, ate when he wanted to, and he spent an enormous amount of time wanting one of us to play with him and his stuffed animals. We soon learned that Woody hated water, and when we first brought him up to our old cottage at Higgins Lake, he barked at waves. Woody loved to sit on the dock with me, but I had to forget about the notion of spending quiet time on the dock if waves were rolling in, their smacking noise steadily beating against the dock and boat. Eventually, he would give me a look that let me know he was worn out, and it was time for him to go in for a nap.
Woody loved to dance when he was happy. When I arrived home from work, or even if I had been out running and only been gone for 45 minutes, Woody would dance with joy at the sight of me coming in the doorway. He squealed, he twirled in circles chasing his tail, and then he would twist the other way around, squealing, suddenly stopping and waiting for me to pick him up to give him a hug. He was always happy to see Jim and Matt, but he typically just gave them a little twist and shout and not the full-out dance routine. If you have never seen a twelve-pound dog do the twist, you are missing out.
Woody envisioned himself as a lover boy. Despite the fact that we had him neutered a few days after we got him, Woody thought he was a love machine. He tried to make love to any dog that happened to come near him. Gender didn’t matter, and he didn’t have a species requirement either. We were once at Peggy and John’s house with their menagerie of dogs and cats, and Woody chased Brutus, a twenty-one pound cat, around the house constantly. He eventually caught up with Brutus and tried to do what we referred to as the mumbo-jumbo. Brutus didn’t seem to mind, but we did break up the action much to Woody’s disappointment.
In December 2004, a fire broke out in our house. The men who were refinishing our wood floors happened to leave their sander next to a large container of polyurethane in our laundry room. They had been gone for about twenty minutes before I heard a pop, ran to the other end of the house and saw the fire. To make a long story short, I grabbed Woody as I called 911 and got us out of the house. We ended up watching the action from the across the street at a neighbor’s. Luckily the fire damage was small compared to the severe smoke damage. The stuff we lost? I really didn’t care. I had Woody and that is all that mattered.
In the summer of 2005, our vet told us Woody had cancer in one of his legs and sent us to a specialist in Rochester Hills. My friend Patti went with me to the clinic. It was a very sad place. The vet at the cancer center said they had also discovered a tumor in Woody’s lungs. The bottom line: for about ten grand, we could have Woody cut open, take out the tumor, and then he could start chemo for his leg. Woody looked at me as if to say “I don’t think so,” so I said, “I don’t think so.” He never complained about the cancer in his leg, and he still barked at waves, squirrels, chipmunks, and us if we were too slow in doing what he wanted to do.
Last year, Woody’s vet said Woody kidneys were failing. I figured Woody could beat this diagnosis. Woody was our wonder dog. He seemed fine, a little slower when running and jumping, but he seemed okay. At the vet’s recommendation, we began feeding him special dog food, and he adjusted quickly, although he occasionally let us know he preferred steak and chicken. He still followed me everywhere, always wanted to be the life of the party, and slept on the floor next to me in his little bed.
A few months ago, we began to see a change in Woody. He still greeted us at the door, but the rock-and-roll dance had become a slow waltz. He no longer barked at waves, he no longer wanted to make love to dogs or cats, and he ignored his beloved toys. My heart began to break slowly, because I knew I was going to have to make a decision. I did not want Woody to suffer.
I learned a lot from Woody in the sixteen years we had together. Years ago, my friend Helen pointed out that Woody didn’t take crap from any dog, large or small, waves, or anything else he considered trouble. Helen told me I was a lot like Woody. By coincidence, I happened to listen to a Sheryl Crow song on my way to work every morning to pump myself up to deal with administration bureaucracy and students filled with excuses: “I ain’t takin’ shit off no one, baby, that was yesterday.” For my office, I bought a painting of a dog with tattoos and lots of piercings. He wore a t-shirt that said “Bite Me” and was called “Mad Dog.” I imagined Woody in this outfit, and I realized I was the human version of Woody/Mad Dog.
Mornings are most difficult for me now. I hear Woody waddling down the hall towards my office looking for me, his eyes filled with cataracts, his nose guiding him as if he were the great hunter searching for truffles. He lies down next to my chair and waits while I write.
Later, we will go to the end of the dock, and wait for the waves to roll into shore. He will look at me as if to suggest his barking days are over and indicate, by the turn of his head, that it is time to return to the house. As I carry him, I can feel him slipping away from me. Inside, we both take a drink of water and head for the couch. I lift him up next to me, and he snuggles in and falls asleep while I wait. I imagine the cycle of life, spinning loved ones towards me, but also away from me, and wonder where I am in the continuum.