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.
In Sheryl Crow’s song, “Everyday Is A Winding Road,” she sings “I get a little bit closer to feeling fine.” I have been attempting to use this approach to my life as I negotiate the path having a brain tumor has put me on. This philosophy was recently in play as I waited for my flight at the airport in Manistee, Michigan, I noticed a small dog running alongside a man driving what looked like an oversized golf cart tugging a small plane. The flight to Chicago would take less than an hour, and this was my first flight without my husband since my brain tumor invaded my life. I figured the dog would bring me luck.
As the plane rose above Manistee and headed towards Chicago, I watched the incredible view of the coastline and Lake Michigan. Micki Holladay, Jeanne Beilke, and I had decided to rent a car in Chicago and travel Route 66 until we reached Lebanon, Missouri. Once there, we would cut to the west and travel to the Lake of the Ozarks and stay with Gretchen Leonard Steffen and her husband Robert. Rachael Livingston, the fourth member of the Pretzel Tour Gang, would be there waiting for us. Jon Jambor, another high school friend and dubbed an associate Pretzel, would also be joining us.
I had not seen Micki, Jeanne, and Rachael since August 2011 during Pretzel Tour 2. My seizure, followed by the subsequent discovery of my brain tumor, was in late October 2011. I had not seen Jon or Gretchen since Pretzel Tour 1 during the summer of 2010. I wondered if my language, memory, and emotional problems would be noticeable or if I would be able to hide them. I also have balance problems, and I wondered if I would fall down somewhere or wipe out in the middle of a tourist stop on Route 66.
Our adventure started well, and we stopped at a lot of tourist spots on Route 66. On the second day of our trip, Micki slipped her personal mix of music into the cd player. Nat King Cole’s version of “Get Your Kicks on Route 66” set the stage for our journey:
“If you ever plan to motor west, travel my way, take the highway that’s the best. A-get your kicks on Route 66.”
We were getting our kicks, no doubt about it. However, I was having trouble with the heat and humidity, so I tried to rest when I could and stay out of the sun. I think Micki and Jeanne were afraid to let me try my map skills after my most recent bout of getting lost, but during a torrential downpour, severe weather, a horrific bus accident that shut down 55 on both sides, and crazy detours, my mapping skills were put to the test.
We had been travelling along on Route 66, which parallels 55, when Mother Nature showed us who was boss. With Micki driving, Jeanne riding shotgun, and me trying to negotiate Google maps from my iPhone in the backseat, I thought I was guiding us to a little winery just north of Litchfield.
In what became known as the “Litchfield Incident,” I guided us to Litchfield, where water gushed out of downspouts and small lakes covered the streets. The sky stayed the same dark gray. As Mr. Blue Ball on my Google map happily bounced along as we made forward progress, we stopped in amazement as we reached our destination: Litchfield’s police department and fire station. No winery was in sight. From that point forward, I was relieved of my duty to guide us anywhere.
After a fantastic trip on Route 66, we set aside our quest for the history of the Mother Road, and headed towards Gretchen’s in the Lake of the Ozarks. As a child, my parents used to take me to the Lake of the Ozarks, and they had once taken Gretchen and me there for a weekend of water skiing and goofing off. I was overcome with happiness in this place that was somewhat familiar, but also so unfamiliar.
My friends were incredibly kind to me, reminding me to take my medication, helping me down the steep slope of Gretchen’s driveway, and encouraging me to traverse the floating dock. I tried to keep up, but I could no longer do so. I spent a fair amount of time sleeping or resting, enjoying the beauty of the lake, the joyous laughter of my friends, cuddling next to Gretchen’s dog Dakota, a Golden Retriever, and talking back to a very large parrot named Poncho.
After leaving Gretchen’s lake house, Jon led the way to Lawrence, Kansas, with Micki and I close behind. Rachael and Jeanne brought up the rear of our caravan. Jon parted ways with us, and the four of us had a beer and a bite to eat at the Dynamite Saloon. After walking around for awhile, it was time for Micki, Jeanne, and I to head east towards Chicago. Rachael had to head back to Tulsa.
We spent our last night together in downtown Chicago. I was too tired to go out for dinner with Micki and Jeanne, so I got comfortable in my bed and watched the Olympics. I was exhausted: I wanted to go home. I wondered if I had made a mistake. Had I let enough time go by to be out in the world? Could I last one more day to reach the comfort of my husband and my home?
The following morning seemed to go off without a hitch; no second edition Litchfield incident seemed to be in my forecast. Jeanne was scheduled to fly out of O’Hare airport later in the afternoon, and Micki and I headed to Midway. Although Jeanne and Micki had their boarding passes, I did not: Public Charters out of Manistee was small, and I had to wait to get my pass from their check-in booth. Micki and I arrived around 12:30. She was ready to head to security. Public Charters did not open until 4:00, so I had no way to go through security without a boarding pass, and the section of the airport I was stuck in had few chairs, lots of screaming children, an over-priced snack bar, and restrooms tucked in corners. I panicked. What if I had a problem? What if I couldn’t figure out how to get through security without becoming confused?
In “Modern Friendships,” an essay by author Phillip Lopate, he suggests that “Friendship is a school for character, allowing us the chance to study in great detail and over time temperaments very different from our own.” Learning to understand my frailties over the past year, and even longer as the brain tumor wedged its way into my psyche, I realized I needed to confess my concerns to Micki: I was scared.
Micki walked me over to the escalator and we rode downstairs to a large area filled with people on our right headed to the baggage claim area and people on the left joining the long line of folks waiting to go through security. Carefully, she explained to me just what I needed to do.
We returned to the upper area, where Micki spent time talking to me before it was time for her to go through security and head to her concourse. She reminded me of what I needed to do when I finally got my boarding pass. As she walked towards the escalator, I reminded myself that I used to be the confident one, and the friend anyone could count on to help through a difficult time. Wasn’t that part of me still there? Had the brain tumor eliminated what I considered my best attributes?
I finally secured a seat to wait for my airline to open its booth, and two small boys ran up and sat next to me. Their teenage sister sat down on the other side of them: Our foursome was complete. The children played games; I pretended to read my newspaper.
Once again, in my lucky life, things fell into place. Public Charters opened at three—an hour earlier than predicted. The man and woman behind the counter asked me if I would like to check my bag even though it was a carry-on. I sent it on its way. All I carried now was my small over-the-shoulder bag. I had three hours until my flight.
When I arrived at security, I noticed a sign for an “Express” lane. I asked the woman there if I was a candidate for “Express.” She smiled, said yes, and sent me down the hallway past all of the people standing in line. As I rounded the corner, another woman waved me through. I placed my bag and shoes in a bin, sent everything through the x-ray machine, was waved through the metal detector, and made my way to my concourse.
As I approached my boarding area, I heard a voice call my name: Micki was waiting in the concourse. We had a short conversation and another passenger joined in as we discussed the boarding process.
Later, after Micki boarded her plane and took off for Denver, it was finally time for me to board my flight to Manistee. The pilots flew near the magnificent downtown Chicago area as we headed north and eventually east. We entered a bank of clouds at one point, but soon the clouds disappeared, and I looked out my window and saw Lake Michigan below me. A freighter cut a smooth path across the water, and I realized that I, too, was part of something moving forwards, and what I left behind would be memories in the wake of kindness bestowed on me by friends and shared stories with people from my past.
Lopate, Phillip. Getting Personal. New York: Basic Books, 2003. Print.
“Everyday Is A Winding Road” by Sheryl Crow, Brian MacLeod, and Jeff Trott
“Get Your Kicks on Route 66” by Bob Troup, 1946.