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.
I’ve got the elliptical trainer blues, baby. This winter weather is so unkind.
I’ve got the elliptical trainer blues, baby. This winter weather is so unkind.
I can’t run on icy roads, and dangerous wind chills are freezing my mind.
I haven’t been able to run outside for over a week. Is this any way to start a new year’s resolution to run more and become more fit? The last time my running shoes hit the pavement—wait, the icy, snowy, dangerous roads, I practically had to crawl up a hill that I had managed to slip-slide down ten minutes earlier. What fresh hell was this? After the men in the DTE Energy truck shook their heads at me as they tried to avoid running over me on Killer Hill, I wondered if I should do the unthinkable: work out inside. This was the beginning of my winter madness—thus far—in my basement torture chamber, home of my elliptical trainer.
The elliptical trainer is new and somewhat beautiful, well, if you are into workout equipment. Our ten-year-old treadmill started spewing plastic parts and trying to strangle our feet by feeding the band into the motor. I decided to switch from a treadmill to an elliptical trainer, because I had a vague memory of working out on an elliptical trainer at a gym I went to a long time ago. Perhaps a new style of workout was just what I needed. ET would be my comrade in arms.
ET’s perfect face consists of a shiny screen with pre-set workouts of various resistances and speeds. Its arms move, whether or not you are holding on to them, and they are oh-so fit. No chicken wings for this wily girl. ET’s legs are sturdy—sort of like a hockey player’s legs. Although ET’s feet are enormous so that even a small elephant could go toe-to-toe and slow dance, it has a smooth glide to it. I feel as if I am cross-country skiing on it or replicating the sixties dance the monkey. I tried watching television as I became acquainted with ET. I soon found out that trying to navigate the remote with my right hand while ET kept throwing quick right jabs at my face just wasn’t going to work out. Come on woman, I said to myself, use your iPod! Pretend you are out running the roads and feeling happy. The moment I heard Miranda Lambert’s “Gravity is a Bitch” from my playlist, I felt as if I had been reborn.
Yes, ET allows you to stride, work your muscles, swear, sweat, and do it all to a beat, but it is not running. I want to break up with ET, but Mother Nature keeps flipping me off. Doesn’t she understand how much I miss not bonding with her? Doesn’t she miss my interaction with rude drivers on the road? I’m almost positive my husband misses hearing my ten-minute soliloquies about my daily running experiences. After I work out on ET, I trudge upstairs, look longingly outside as if missing a long-lost lover, and curse the snow and ice. The chickadees, blue jays, nuthatches, cardinals, and woodpeckers seem to sigh along with me as they shoot back and forth between the snow-covered pine trees before dipping down into the various birdfeeders in our yard. The deer tracks in the yard remind me that something is moving around outside at night. My tracks from snow shoeing several days earlier have all but disappeared.
One of my goals for the New Year, dare I say resolution and incur the wrath of those who say the word resolution is de rigueur, is to whine less about things I cannot control and do something about it instead. Well, dang! I also decided to swear less this year, but I blew that one about a minute after I announced it to the family. Should I create a new goal/resolution? Are goals and resolutions merely a lost cause for me in 2015? Absolutely not. I will continue to bond with ET until the dangerous wind chills die down, and the roads are somewhat safe. Although the sides of the roads are a little narrower now with all of the snow that has fallen, I will soon be out there waving at the snow plow drivers as I jump out of their way and give the peace sign to drivers who refuse to move over. My blues will evaporate the minute I hit the road in my hat, gloves, and several layers of clothing. I will breathe the rapturous fresh air. For the time being though, I think ET is in the mood for a little J.J. Cale: “They call me the breeze. I keep blowing down the road.”
Excuse me? As I ran north in the bike path on A1A, just north of Ft. Pierce, Florida, and south of Vero Beach, I spliced my way through a contingent of men wearing hard hats repairing power lines and placing new poles at varied logistical points on the east side of the highway. I kept a wary eye on the traffic zipping along at 45 miles per hour about five feet to my right. Although the sidewalk is much safer, it’s also the absolute worst substance to run on. However, since I am accustomed to defensive running, I continued on my steady pace, occasionally glancing across the road, admiring shoreline vegetation creating a natural buffer between the road and the Atlantic Ocean. The color of the water reminded me of Paul Newman’s eyes. As Butch Cassidy once said to the Sundance Kid, “Boy, I got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals.” When a person is biking, walking, or running on A1A, it’s best to have one’s eyes intently focused on the road. I’ve got vision.
And I was paying attention even though my mind was on the fact that I was not in Florida on vacation. My mother-in-law fell and fractured her pelvis two days after arriving in Florida in early October, so my husband and I are here to help in any way we can. So even though my emotional focus was on her, mentally I told myself to keep my focus on road. No bike riders were approaching me, I was in a cone zone, and the “Sidewalk Closed” sign gave me no other option than to run on that noodle of a bike path. Suddenly a man in a black SUV slowed down next to me and screamed: “Get on the sidewalk” while he angrily gestured towards the ugly strip of leg pain. I smiled and motioned downwards toward the clearly labeled “Bike Path.” What was his problem? Get on the sidewalk? Had he completely missed the “Sidewalk Closed” sign? I flashed the peace sign and went on my way.
This wasn’t my first time running on this particular stretch of road. I am respectful of bicyclists, and I always move out of their way by easing onto the grass or the sidewalk next to me so that they have a clear shot of the road. I am constantly amazed at their skills as they negotiate this busy highway. I am quite used to bicyclists, runners, walkers, animals, and automobiles sharing the road where I live around Higgins Lake, Michigan. There are no sidewalks, and far less traffic moves on the road. On a typical fall morning there, it’s not unusual to see more wildlife than cars or people. I’ve yet to have a turkey or deer try to run me off the road. In Florida, it seems the ornery wildlife drives an SUV. The man’s neck looked like a turkey’s neck as he screamed “get on the sidewalk.” The thing is, I don’t know if he was upset because I was on “his” bike path or if he just didn’t like runners sharing the road. I will never know. He didn’t exactly seem like someone I wanted to have a conversation with. Ever. I wondered if he would have screamed at a man running on the road. Perhaps I needed to puff out my chest or look mean or something. Luckily, he continued on his southward journey down A1A.
The next morning, I checked the paper and saw that low tide would occur about the same time as I normally run. I’ve tried running on the beach, but I always feel as if my hips are being displaced because of the angle of the land or my arches will never return to their normal state after being subjected to the squish-and-release sand traps. I decided I would power walk next to the ocean. I headed out with my walking sandals on and hit the beach. Paul Newman’s eyes beckoned.
As I journeyed north, I listened to the light crash, splash, breathing noises the ocean made as I made my way over thousands of sea shells. Osprey, seagulls, and pelicans flew above the water searching for a morning snack. Sanderlings, small and very entertaining shore birds, danced near me, constantly pecking at the sand with tiny black bills in their quest for buried edible delicacies in the sand. Fishing boats occasionally puttered past me or headed out to sea. Several jellyfish lay helplessly in the sand as if waiting for the tide to rise again and return them to the sea. A coconut in the distance momentarily made me think of my beloved dog with its dark brown texture. How odd, I thought, to compare my dog, dead for two years now, with a coconut. My vision segued into hallucinations but only for a moment.
After walking for almost two miles, I spotted another person walking towards me. With the exception of the “Get-on-the-sidewalk” screamer, most folks in Florida are all too eager to say hello and give a hearty greeting. I realized I wasn’t ready to speak to anyone yet. I imagined that I had lost the ability to verbalize. My solitary sojourn had somehow changed me: I was at peace with the world. My vision was clear. Despite all of the upheaval in the world and in my personal life, something about the push/pull of the water, the stick-legged birds daring me to run, and the absolutely reckless abandon I felt at not uttering a single word for at least thirty minutes had hypnotized me and washed away all negative thoughts. This was a hallucination I wanted to hold onto. I turned around to head back and avoid speaking to the man coming towards me, and much to my amusement, there were about twenty people at various distances behind me. I would have to speak. I cleared my throat just before I offered a cheery hello to the first passerby.
As I made my way back to the condo, I greeted everyone I passed. I stopped to take pictures of two very different looking and very dead jellyfish. I picked up several seashells for my collection. Shore birds continued zigzagging near me. The waves continued their hypnotic heartbeat. I felt lucky to be alive. There is always something about the ocean, a lake, or a river that gives me sustenance.
The next day, I headed out for a six-miler on A1A. Because of traffic, I stayed mostly on the sidewalk. I absolutely hated it, but no one screamed at me. In fact, an elderly gentleman walking with his wife, told me I was marathon ready. I always appreciate words of encouragement no matter how off the mark they are. I’m just working on getting back to my half-marathon running body. Another man apologized to me for not moving over as I came up behind him. “Sorry, I didn’t hear you,” he said as he adjusted his headphones. “No problem,” I said and gave him a thumbs up. Although my legs were sore from the pounding of the sidewalk, I was happy as I returned to the condo and greeted my husband. It was time to shower, get dressed, and head to the assisted living place my mother-in-law is recuperating in.
There are people of various ages at the facility. They work on healing their bodies or their minds just so they can negotiate a room or a sidewalk. Getting dressed can sometimes take an hour. Memories of my mother and her losing battle against Alzheimer’s disease flood my brain as I greet every patient I walk by. I remember how lucky I am that my body still allows me to walk on the beach or run along a road. I know that can all change in an instant. Get on the sidewalk? Sure, when I have to. Until then, I will run and walk when and where I can. As Matthew Wilder once sang, “Ain’t nothin’ gonna break my stride. Nobody’s gonna slow me down, oh-no.” Run on, my friends, run on, for as long as you can.
On March 9th, 1973, I turned eighteen, and I had no idea what I wanted (with apologies to Alice Cooper). On March 10th, 1973, Pink Floyd released Dark Side of the Moon, and I listened to the album so often I could hear it in my sleep. In “The Great Gig in the Sky,” Clare Torry’s voice seemed to explain life—without a word. The firestorm of emotions in her voice, alternating between sensual whispering and wailing, suggested a profound sense of loss. She seemed to capture the very essence of high school: angst—in stereo. My 40th high school reunion will be held this summer in Dodge City, Kansas, and I am looking forward to the stories as we whisper and wail our way back through the maze of high-school memories.
Although I would have preferred focusing on music and my social life in high school, my parents had other ideas: go to school, work, do chores, and all of that boring stuff. My mother most likely knew all of the words to “Stairway to Heaven,” whether or not she really wanted to, and when my fabulous friend Susan made a poster of the lyrics as a gift for my 18th birthday, my mother quipped: “Don’t you listen to the Eagles or Carole King anymore?” Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin were just a few albums I played endlessly in my room. If my music began to drive my mother crazy, she would crank up some Tom Jones on the stereo in the living room to counteract the hippie music blaring from my room. If my father was home, his favorite phrase was: “Turn it down”—to both of us.
We lived in a small 1940s era farmhouse, and I had zero privacy in my room: A door from the kitchen led into my room. Door number two led into the bathroom, the only bathroom in the house, and door number three led into my parents’ bedroom. My parents had an additional door which led into the kitchen, so I eventually convinced them to keep the door between our bedrooms closed. In order to get to our bathroom, a person had to enter door number one, take a good look at my room, and then enter through door number two for the bathroom. Another door led from the bathroom into a closet where I stored my clothes, my mother stored the swearing jar, and my father kept an assortment of work clothes and odd items. My bedroom did not have a closet, so I dressed in the closet without a mirror to gaze into. Hopefully that will explain my lack of fashion sense for most of my life.
One day, as I listened to the Eagles on my stereo, my mother yelled: “Turn off your stereo; I want to hear the birds.” She was in the kitchen on the other side of door number one. I carefully lifted the needle off of the album. A minute or two went by, and in a much quieter voice she said: “The birds are gone. You can play your music again.” I dropped the needle at the beginning of “Earlybird” again. She yelled: “The birds are back! Turn off the stereo.” We repeated this process several times. She finally opened door number one, stepped into my bedroom/grand-central station and said: “The birds are on the record.” We grinned at each other like drunken fools. “I think I like it,” she said. We danced for a minute before she walked out of the room and left the door open.
I muddled through the rest of high school working part-time at the Kwik Shop, spent little time on homework, and a lot of time on my social life. I remember walking across the stage, my gown covering my t-shirt and shorts, and practically skipping as my sandals slid me into the future. It was the end of high school and the beginning of…what? Life? There was no going back. I could not change my grades or my lack of enthusiasm for any class that did not involve writing poetry. I did not want things to change. I loved my friends, telling stories, and listening to music.
Our music is considered oldies music now, and I still love being with my friends and telling stories. Now that I am older and forty years have passed since my high school days, I guess I have finally grown up. I miss dancing with my mother, and my father trying to control the noise pollution in the house after a hard day at work. I actually miss constantly being in trouble. Here’s to the class of 1973: Dodge City Red Demons! Let’s go!