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.
With the drop of the needle on a brand new turntable my son bought me for Christmas, “Where Did Our Love Go?” by the Supremes blasted from the shoebox-sized speakers on my desk. Static, crackling noises, and the occasional skip over a story-there-somewhere scratch in the vinyl all contributed to a 33-rpm rewind into the past. I danced and sang as if no time had passed since my parents had given me my first two rock-n-roll albums in 1965. I soon followed the Supremes with the Beatles IV album. My husband and son seemed to fade into view as I reverted to my ten-year old self. Musical nostalgia worked its magic fingers into my heart and soul.
When I was young, my parents played music in our living room on a stereo that was as long as a bathtub, but not as wide. One of the first albums my parents bought specifically for me to play on the living room stereo was Burl Ives Sings Little White Duck. Am I fascinated today with ducks and all things feathery because of this? Is Burl Ives responsible for my obsession with listening to a song repeatedly until I am sick of it? I still have the album. I’m resisting the urge to play it right now on my new turntable.
Matt’s gift to me triggered memories that I had long forgotten. Daniel Levitin in The World in Six Songs, suggests that “music triggers memories long ago buried, and this seems especially true of popular love songs” (278). While growing up in Dodge City, Kansas, my mom, dad, and I listened to music on the stereo and in the car. Radio station KGNO catered to my parents’ crowd, but I loved listening to KEDD, “The Rock of Dodge City,” on the AM radio dial. On television, we watched The Lawrence Welk Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, Hee Haw, Shindig, The Monkees, and any show we could find that focused on music. I learned the ways of love by listening to music in my home and car. Music created a different version of an idealized fairytale romance than books did, well, at least the books I was reading. Is there anything more romantic than listening to George Harrison sing “Something” as you sit in your bedroom and contemplate life? If the bedroom walls in the house I grew up in could talk, they would tell you about a dreamy-eyed teenager who spent an enormous amount of time imagining her life, framed in a song.
I could also dream on the dance floor when I ventured out to listen to Dodge City bands live. Friar Tuck and the Monks at the National Guard Armory! Birth live and on-stage at the Warehouse! Their covers of popular dance songs, and especially love songs I was sure were being sung to and for me, further sent me spiraling upwards to the land of all things musical, and downward into an avoidance of anything called homework. Whenever I hear a song from my past, a story always seems to mirror the lyric of the song.
If “memory wants to be true to the way things are, but it also wants to tell a story that suits the teller” (162), according to Charles Fernyhough in Pieces of Light, then some of my stories seem a bit confusing to me now. Why was I so obsessed with Grace Slick? As soon as I got home from school during the week, and long before my parents would arrive home from work, I would rush to the stereo, insert a spider (45-rpm adapter) into the record, slide the record down upon the spindle, let the music begin to play, and then sing and dance. Yes, I was that weirdo. I played “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love” while I worked on my best Grace Slick impersonation. Was it just her voice that compelled my fascination with those songs, or the forbidden desire for an altered state of mind? Or did I just want a very cool boyfriend who could play a rocking guitar? The story I would tell today that would suit my older and wiser self is that I loved the freedom of belting out a song about love in my house, and singing “White Rabbit” made me feel very cool and dangerous at the time. When my parents were home, I played music in my room, and in our small 1940s farmhouse with paper-thin walls, I started to believe my name was “Turn it down.” When I sang with my mother in the kitchen, we were as loud as we wanted to be.
My mother and I both loved to sing, and she taught me the art of making up silly songs in the kitchen while doing dishes or eating fried carrots as fast as she could make them. My father would sit in the living room, a mere twenty feet away, smoke his cigar and drink a Coors beer after a hard day’s work. I think he enjoyed hearing us as we became giddy with laughter at our nonsensical verse. We could really cut a rug in that tiny kitchen.
When my son was growing up, I realized that music was another way in which we could spend time together. I liked playing with cars and Legos, but music had a way of working its way into our lives every day. We played music constantly in our house, and Sesame Street worked its way into our daily lives. I can sing “C is for Cookie” and “Rubber Duckie” to this day, and my son is 35 years old. I also started making up songs just for my son. I still make up instant songs, and I wrote songs for the workplace band I used to be in.
Over the holidays, we were visiting the neighbors and their extended family, and my 88-years-young neighbor mentioned a song I wrote, “Radio.” I had performed the song with the band, The Cremains of the 10th Circle, when they visited my home a few summers ago. She and some of her family members, friends, and neighbors, had attended our basement rock-and-roll party. Perhaps this was my Grammy-award-winning moment. Someone remembered a song I wrote and performed. Hold the applause, and pass me a beer!
Rod Stewart sings that “Every Picture Tells a Story,” and I believe that every song I love has a unique story hiding behind the lyrics if I am willing to pay attention to it. My memories of the first time I heard Stevie Ray Vaughan’s song “Texas Flood” are a bit muddled though. Even though I cannot remember what radio station I heard it on, or where I was at the time, I remember thinking that I had just fallen in love with a song, a guitarist, and singer. I could not get enough of that song. Is there a difference in our memory-making process when we are older as far as falling in love with a song? I wonder.
I still love the Beatles and the Supremes, and I easily time-travel to that space and time when I could dance and sing in my house and feel nothing but love and joy surrounding me. Yes, there were many, many nights I listened to songs of heartbreak in my room as I grew up and teenage boys messed with my heart, but I also played songs that forced me to get up and dance.
When I was with my cousins in Tulsa, Oklahoma, last September, Sybil played “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars on her phone for us. I have the song on my running playlist, so I knew the song well. We all began to do some sort of version of dancing. We had it. We owned it. And now whenever I hear that song, I am safe in the arms of music nostalgia. How will I tell this story ten years from now?
For the moment I think about my mother, and how she would have joined us jitterbugging our way around my cousin Audrey’s house that day. I am fortunate that my parents, especially my mother, loved music so much that it was a necessity, like bread and water, in our daily lives. So even though the Supremes “Where Did Our Love Go?” and the Beatles “Words of Love” may have opened my eyes to the ways of love, I believe that songs I have yet to hear will be teaching me many more things as I dance and sing my way into the unknown.
In the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Butch tells Sundance that he’s “got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals.” Bifocals, or not, vision is critical to anyone’s success. Different activities require varying degrees of vision, and on April 23rd, my “vision” skills were put to the test.
Early that morning, I tapped into my “do not break anything” vision skills. At the start of the Houghton Lake 5K Trail Run, my son and I, along with about two hundred and thirteen other runners and walkers, listened carefully as the gentleman starting the race gave us some advice. He warned us that we would be running through mud, puddles, tree roots and rocks (marked by orange spray paint), and “you’ll see.” Since Matt and I had both run the race the previous year, I wasn’t too concerned about the mysterious “you’ll see.” Instead, I found myself preoccupied pondering the presence of bears in the woods and my mostly rehabbed iliotibial band. One of my neighbors had recently told me that her daughter had photos of a bear wreaking havoc in her daughter’s back yard at Higgins Lake. I had visions of bears wandering away from Higgins Lake, swimming across Houghton Lake, and hiding in these particular woods waiting to pounce on unsuspecting runners. I reminded myself to stay in a pack with other runners at all times. The whoop-whoop sound of a State Police Trooper’s siren signaled the beginning of the race.
I quickly lost sight of my speedy son as he surged ahead. I kept pace with a large group of runners for about the first mile, and then I hit a section of very deep ruts. A large pile of cut timber lined one side of the trail, so I assumed the ruts had been caused by trucks and equipment. I lost sight of people in front of me, and I could not hear anyone behind me. I felt the slip-slap-slop of my hips trying to realign themselves after each awkward lateral move. As soon as the ground smoothed out, I picked up the pace as I avoided orange rocks and tree roots, crossed over swampy areas, hip-hopped over hula-hoop-sized puddles, and somehow prevented myself from falling when I tripped over an unmarked tree root. I crossed the finish line mostly intact. My “do not break anything” vision skills had guided me along the trail. It was time to head home and prepare for the day’s next event. My vision for a poem the previous year had led to an opportunity to read it in public.
When I was young, I never imagined myself as a runner, even though I racked up some blue ribbons at track meets. I stopped running when I graduated from my small country school and started ninth grade at the junior high in Dodge City, Kansas. I did, however, start writing at a young age, and I had visions of being published as early as my teenage years even after I received my first rejection letter from Seventeen magazine for my heartfelt poem about being confused about boys.
My inspiration for the poem that the Dunes Review had recently accepted for publication stemmed from a vision I had while visiting my cousin Audrey in Kansas in 2015. One night the cicadas were so loud that the stars in the sky seemed to vibrate. Birds shimmied to the beat. Dogs in the neighborhood howled. I scribbled down lines in my journal. A writing prompt from writer Laura Kasischke’s workshop at the Bear River Writers’ Conference a few months earlier popped into my head. I imagined myself standing in front the house I grew up in out in the country east of Dodge City. I began working with the lines. Was I under the spell of poetic vision? I seemed to be breathing in images from the past, both real and imagined. The poem began to take shape, and after months and months of revision work, my vision paid off in the best of ways: publication and the chance to read it to an audience.
As my friend Julie and I began our journey to Traverse City, I told her that when she, friend Jeri, and I had been at Brilliant Books the previous fall, I had mentioned to them that the Dunes Review hadn’t accepted any of my work since 2010. Over the years, I had submitted a piece occasionally for the biannual lit magazine, only to have it rejected. I convinced myself that this vision during my previous visit to Brilliant Books had somehow led to the subsequent acceptance of the poem for the new edition of the journal. I was scheduled to read about midway through the list of writers, and when it was my turn to read, I stepped up to the podium. In a voice that only the ghosts of dead authors could hear, I said the title. Fellow writers and audience members quickly encouraged me to speak up. I stopped, placed my right hand on my sore right hip, and said, “Hello” in a weird sort of British accent, and started over. I have no idea why I used a British accent, since I grew up in Kansas and lived there for twenty-one years before moving to California for two years. For the past thirty-nine years, I have lived in Michigan. As Hoyt Axton once sang, “I’ve never been to England, but I kind of like the Beatles.” Apparently my vision skills had somehow been affected over the years by listening to the Fab Four, reading a gazillion books by British authors, and watching the movies Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility far too many times. Most likely my Michigan/Kansas accent worked its way into my reading, but I can’t seem to remember.
After the reading, Julie and I headed back to Higgins Lake via the backroads. We quickly realized that we would both have our “driving at dusk and then into total darkness” vision tested. Anyone who lives in Northern Michigan knows that if you are driving at night, you are destined to encounter deer making poor decisions. They will lurk silently around every corner. They will stand idly along every straightaway glaring at you with their cataract-like eyes. I turned on my “deer-vision” as I slowed the car down and prepared for the one hour plus drive.
Deer mocked us on each two-lane stretch of highway. At various locations along the backroads, we felt as if we were characters in a horror movie. Night of the Deer Zombies seemed like an appropriate title. At one hilly curve, nine deer nonchalantly watched us as I slammed on the brakes. I had a brief vision of MDOT renaming this part of the road “Dead Women’s Curve” in our honor. The vehicles that had been following us since Traverse City willingly played this game of hop-scotch with us as I alternated between complete stops and sixty miles per hour. Not once had the other drivers attempted to pass us. They somehow sensed my “deer-vision” while they were probably wearing their bifocals. I briefly considered stopping at Military Road, jumping out of my car and demanding a thank you for guiding them through deer hell, but, alas, I could not convince my hands to un-grip the wheel. Julie and I figured that we had avoided over forty deer.
By the time I pulled into my driveway, I was worn out and wound up. My legs hurt from the morning’s trail run. My husband inquired about the reading, and I launched into a ten-minute soliloquy about reading my poem and the exhausting drive home. I grabbed a beer and sat down on the couch. I closed my eyes for a moment and imagined myself riding off into the sunset à la Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I don’t plan on robbing any banks and going out in a barrage of bullets. My vision for a happy ending goes like this: I will be running a road race at the age of ninety (certain to win my age group), composing a poem in my head that the editor of the Dunes Review will love, waving at the deer hiding in the woods, and dreaming of a nice cold beer after I cross the finish line.
I have two poems in this issue. Also check out poetry written by friends CJ Giroux (February) and Todd Mercer (January).
New blog piece coming soon!
When I taught creative writing at Saginaw Valley State University, the end of each semester was always interesting. Countless family members died, some for the second or third time that semester (oops!); computers in the computer labs constantly ate people’s homework (an update on the dog ate my homework excuse); and current students warned prospective students via RateMyProfessors.com to avoid taking classes from me. I was called bitchy, sexist, extremely funny, great, a poetry goddess, and one student wondered “Why does she even work? Her husband is a chemical engineer.” Goodness! I had no idea I shouldn’t be working.
I met a lot of wonderful students over the years, and I would like to thank them for everything I learned from them. Several years ago, I wrote an essay after a long day of grading. Whether or not you are a teacher or a student feeling the end-of-the-semester blues, I hope I can bring a smile to your face. This is my story:
Forty-three creative writing portfolios are stacked in various piles on my desk. I open the seventeenth portfolio during my grading hell: the week between finals and when grades are due at the registrar’s office. Each portfolio consists of four poems, two flash fiction pieces, one long fiction piece, and the artist’s statement. General themes have been suicide! Murder! Car crashes! Deadly illnesses! These are all subjects I have forbidden my students to write about. And yet, the students write them anyway as if to test my rules.
I open portfolio number seventeen. I begin to read the student’s long fiction piece, and I am hopeful she has learned something from my class. Will she apply what she has learned over the course of the semester to her final work? Will my comments have mattered to her? Will she demonstrate a clear understanding of what it takes to be a good writer?
I am startled when I read the line: “She woke up from a comma.” I blink. I read it aloud: “She woke up from a comma.” I look up, search for the hidden camera, and I wonder how in the hell someone wakes up from a comma.
I begin to imagine the feeling of being in a comma. How would my body be positioned? Would my head be the round blob that positions itself as the foundation of the comma? Would my body be the tail, always facing left? How would I wear a mini-skirt? Would I be forever stuck in time wearing pants with one leg longer than the other? And I would always be barefoot, my feet thin fish. My arms would hang at my side forever like the universal symbol on countless women’s restroom doors. I would never be able to wave at my friends, play guitar, or point at something in the distance. Or flip someone off.
I imagine awakening from a comma. I would un-bend my legs, locate my arms, and spread them from my sides like wings. One leg would magically shrink, and I would have two proportionate legs with regular feet in four-inch red heels. My knob of a head would suddenly sprout hair. I would be beautiful, younger, a feminist icon with a cheerleader’s smile. People would line the streets to watch me pass by, every day a parade for me, the woman who woke up from a comma.
And after I woke up from my comma, I would be suicidal, crash my car, murder someone, die of a deadly illness, and sell my soul to the devil for a hot cup of tea. Period.