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.
*This essay was previously published in the Bear River Review 2015 issue.
My mother gazed at the six-foot tall Christmas tree. My father and I stood next to her and watched her focus on the decorations. I unwrapped an ornament from the small box I had carried into the nursing home. “Were you looking for this?” I placed an egg into the cup of her outstretched hands.
She examined the red and green velvet-covered egg as if she might find the key to her past. She traced the small gold angel on the front. She opened the tiny hinged door and peered inside. A small white angel holding a mandolin stood on a white cloud-like pedestal. My mother glanced up at me. Behind the mask of her illness, an unspoken question seemed to hide. I wondered if she recognized the egg as one she had decorated years ago. She was no longer verbal. She handed the egg back to me, her thin white fingers still smooth and beautiful at the age of eighty seven.
I unwrapped three more pieces of my mother’s artwork and placed them on a table next to her. As a child, I had watched her poke tiny holes into each end of the egg, blow out the yolks, and then carefully clean the eggs. She used goose, ostrich, and hen eggs for most of her work. She dyed some eggs with onion skins before scratch-carving intricate scenes on them: An owl in a tree. A farm in Kansas. A fish, Pisces, made for me when I was sixteen. On other eggs, she used scraps of material, jewels she picked up in antique stores, or fingernail-sized toys, angels, or skaters. She created miniature scenes inside each egg. It was her way of telling a story. One day, she no longer recognized her workroom as her own.
As I presented each egg to her, several of the staff members cooed and commented over each one. I said, “My mother decorated our Christmas tree with eggs every year. The local paper ran a story about her once with a picture of my son holding one of her eggs.” My mother looked at me as if I might be lying.
We continued examining the eggs, and I explained the history behind each one. My mother nodded her head as if she might be agreeing to my version of the events. My father leaned in to point at a miniature skater in one of the eggs and said, “You made that one for your grandson.” She frowned at him as if this statement could not possibly be true. My father’s eyes began to water, and he walked over to the one of the easy chairs in front of the television, sat down, and began talking to one of the other residents.
My mother’s eyes began looking past me towards something unseen, and I knew she was growing tired of my nonstop storytelling. I began wrapping up the eggs and returned each one to the small box. “When I get home, I will place these on my Christmas tree. You can see them again when you come to our house.” The hint of a smile crossed her face. A gift for me.
I approached my father and said it was time to go. He walked over to my mother and bent down to kiss her goodbye. She turned away from him. I reached for my father’s hands and reminded him to put his gloves on.
We passed through the double doors as the loud alarm went off signaling our departure. Snow had begun to cover the cars, sidewalk, and dead grass. My father said, “I’m sick and tired of this weather,” as he smacked his cane down on the sidewalk. I looked at his face filled with sadness mixed with anger, and I realized that the loss of my mother would forever be my father’s deepest sorrow. We made our way to the car as the wind swirled around us. As it increased in its volume, it was as if a thousand choir bells ringing.
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.
And isn’t that what literature requires, really, for the writer to feel like her life depends upon it?
I am not certain when I first realized I had a problem with language. Memories six months prior to my SBT (Stupid Brain Tumor) seem to come and go, and some memories are nonexistent. If not for stories from my friends and family, and the writings in my journal, some so strange they fail to make sense, it seems as if I ceased to exist in mind and spirit while my body lay in wait for embalming. I felt as I was a stranger in a new country, and the language barrier made me invisible.
Instead of displaying the gift of gab that my mother would accuse me off having when I was young, I began hesitating over each word, fearing some dreadful malapropism or simply using the wrong word (like dock) when I was actually describing the hoist. I had to walk on the dock to get to the hoist which held the boat, but for some reason, my brain now found ways to avoid the logical sequence of events or find the correct word. As the Beatles famously sang, “Say the word and you’ll be free.” Well, damn, I wanted to be free, and I felt as if my life depended on it. I began to retreat more and more into my home office, lie down on the couch, and watch television. I became hooked on NCIS and the character Ziva David.
Ziva David’s character, played by actress Cote de Pablo, is a former Israeli Mossad agent who becomes an NCIS Special Agent. Ziva’s malapropisms, called “Ziva-isms,” are well known to NCIS viewers. As Ziva adapts to American culture and its plethora of analogies, idioms, and slang, she also shows her fellow agents that she doesn’t take crap from anyone. As I became addicted to NCIS marathon days, watching five or six shows in a row, I felt as if someone was “jerking my brain” (chain) as Ziva said in one episode. The NCIS family became my family, and I gave up reading books and writing.
Time passed and my frustration grew with my inability to comprehend anything more complex than People magazine. One day, as I stood in my office, staring at hundreds of my books, I noticed Laura Kasischke’s book of poetry, Space, in Chains, sitting on a shelf, by itself, as if waiting. I began rereading her poetry, and when I finished each poem, I sat still and listened to the quiet. I decided I was in language rehab.
Eventually, I began reading novels again, slowly, as if I was learning to ride a bicycle. I wondered if I had finally adjusted to my anti-seizure medication or if the radiation from my Gamma-Knife surgery had opened up a sliver of thought in my clogged head. One day I opened my writing journal, and instead of recording my thoughts for the day, I attempted to write a poem. It was horrible, but I sent it to my friend Chris Giroux. Chris and I became friends when I taught at SVSU, and we had been exchanging our writing for many years, providing feedback, ripping what needed ripped, or praising each other’s work when we got something right. I began spending less time watching NCIS and more time writing. I felt the jerk, jerk, jerk of my brain as it tried to move past language rehab and into the real world.
As luck would have it, around the same time, a former student of mine, Alie Buckley, contacted me on Facebook. She had started a blog, http://ifcoffeecouldtalk.wordpress.com/. Alie asked me how I was, so I told her about SBT. She encouraged me to start a blog and share my story. Alie became my teacher, showed me how to start a blog, and offered to read my posts before publication and give feedback. Again, I felt the jerk, jerk, jerk of my brain, and started to write for a different purpose: I wanted to tell my story. Perhaps if I wrote it, I would understand it.
I published my first blog post on June 14, 2012, and the process has been cathartic, therapeutic, made me laugh as I write, and made me cry far more than I ever imagined it would. I realize I am writing now because my life depends on it.
I am still addicted to NCIS and spend the occasional afternoon on the couch watching reruns when my headaches or balance issues sideline me. I believe I am making progress in this battle against SBT, and I am hoping language rehab will soon be a thing of the past. But as I have learned, friends and family provide the constant source of strength I need in my life, whether or not I am in language rehab. So if you see me out somewhere, and we strike up a conversation, and I pause for a moment, wait. My words are forthcoming: They are on the slip of my tongue.
*Schulman, Helen. “First In Her Class.” The Friend Who Got Away. Eds. Jenny Offill and Elissa Schappell. New York: Broadway, 2005. Digital Print.