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.
We are not a rock band, but we could be. Collectively, we are four women who love taking photographs. Sandi Beaudoin, Jeannie Dow, Jo Przygocki, and I have all taken photography classes from Jerry Meier of Meier Camera in Midland, Michigan, so that we can improve as photographers. After six years of asking, Jo finally convinced Jerry to take a class on the road to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Our first stop was Mackinaw City, where we lined up along the shore, set up our tripods, and began shooting pictures. From the challenge of photographing a lit-up Mackinac Bridge while a freighter slid magnificently underneath, to the gentle morning fog and mist percolating above the Upper Tahquamenon Falls, we were focused. I, however, felt like my camera and I were on two different planets. Suddenly, it was exam time, and my brain decided to take a vacation.
Besides my brain being on a separate vacation than my body, I was in pain. I had received two steroid shots the day before, one in my leg and one in my groin, for a nagging injury that is now celebrating its one-year anniversary. I only have myself to blame. Trying to run through an injury is a very bad idea. Since I haven’t been able to run a road race for months now, or even run on the road, my endorphins are at an all-time low. Somehow this lack of a natural high has also affected just about everything else I do. While I stood on the beach with four fabulous photographers attempting to take a shot of the freighter American Integrity going under the bridge as the sky began to darken, I had a case of brain freeze and fumble fingers. Shutter speed? Aperture? Manual? Program? Define those terms! Use in a sentence! By the time I figured out what I should do, the sky was dark, and the freighter was halfway to Gary, Indiana. We packed up our gear and moved on.
Our next stop was the Headlands International Dark Sky Park. After a short four-mile drive, we parked, loaded up our gear, and walked a mile along a spacious path to the shoreline along Lake Michigan. We quickly learned that we should not leave a lantern on, because a voice from the dark will shout “turn your light off.” We also discovered that setting up our tripods while it was still light out would have been very advantageous, because the dark sky park is really, really, dark, and you can use only the tiny red lights on your headlamp. Later, Jeannie said that “learning the relationship between the shutter speed, ISO, and aperture in order to achieve the star trails” from Jerry was crucial in being able to get the shot she wanted. Once again, I learned that I tend to panic when under pressure. The clouds moved in, we packed up our gear, and walked back to the van. It was time to take off our Troll hats (people living south of the Mackinac Bridge) and journey to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and join the Yoopers.
Jo drove us through the night as we made our way towards Paradise, and we began to wonder if “Almost Paradise” was more than just a song. We made our turn and headed to Tahquamenon Falls. We arrived shortly after midnight and settled into the cabin Jo had rented for us near the Upper Falls. With no television or Wi-Fi, we enjoyed the sound of our own laughter and stories.
The next morning, we headed towards Munising for our first attempt at shooting waterfalls. Although all of us had taken photos of waterfalls, Jerry was with us, and we would be able to ask questions and make the necessary adjustments to our camera settings on the spot. Since it was a Saturday, the Munising Falls area was filled with photographers and sightseers. After deciding we had the shots we wanted, we headed to the parking area. Park Ranger Cheryl Debelak provided us with some wonderful suggestions as to where we might want to go next. We explained that I was injured, and so long hikes were out of the question. After brief stops at Miners Falls, Miners Castle Overlook, and Chapel Falls, we worked our way to the Log Slide Overlook, one of my favorite places in Michigan’s UP.
The Pictured Rocks area along Lake Superior is difficult to describe because it is so beautiful, and depending on where you stand, hike, sit, or camp, the terrain can be spectacularly different. At the small overlook above Lake Superior, you can see Au Sable Point and its lighthouse off to your left, and the Grand Sable Banks to your right. At one spot along the trail, the dunes seem to drop off right into Lake Superior. Hiking down to Lake Superior at this point is not for the faint of heart.
As we headed away from the Log Slide, and off towards Grand Marais along H-58, we continued our discussion of what worked and what didn’t work for our photos, referenced songs we liked, and told stories. At some point during our adventure, Jeannie had referred to us as “Jerry and the F-Stops,” and the name fit us like a lens cap. After taking a few shots of the lighthouse in Grand Marais, and, once again, me listening to a complete stranger telling me what I should be doing (How do I attract these people?), we headed to the Lake Superior Brewing Company for dinner and drinks.
Although the place was packed and out of whitefish (WHAT?), we had a great meal and adult beverage of our choice. We also wrote our names on the bathroom door, all with the assistance of our waitress who provided us with a Sharpie. I have never seen a bathroom and its door covered in so many names! If you are ever at the restaurant, look for our names. We are famous now. We went to the gas station across the street where the attendant seemed unaware of the old adage that one should never smoke a cigarette next to someone gassing up a vehicle. Apparently he hasn’t blown anyone up yet. We drove back to our cabin at Taquamenon Falls and relaxed. We had an early photo shoot planned for the morning.
Our last morning in the UP proved to be cloudy and misty. We headed to the falls. We were the first vehicle in the parking lot, and as we walked along the path, we began to hear the sweet sounding roar of the falls. I set up my tripod from above the falls while the rest of the group headed down about 100 stairs to shoot closer to the falls. I was jealous. I cursed my leg, my stupidity, and my stubbornness, and then I attempted to photograph the falls.
While alone, the more pictures I tried to shoot, the more frustrated I became. I got out my notes, and I tried to get my brain to work. When the group came up from the falls, I complained that I absolutely could not get a good shot. Jerry immediately looked at my camera settings and explained what I needed to do. I breathed a sigh of relief, and we headed to another part of the falls.
While the group, once again, climbed down to another vantage point below the falls, I focused my camera from an overlook facing the top of the falls. This time I got the shot I wanted. Although I have yet to get one of those dreamy waterfall pictures that Jeannie, Jo, and Sandi are so good at taking, I know that I will get one eventually. As Sandi said during one of our discussions on the trip, learning to “take my time and do the math,” is essential to taking a good shot. Clearly this is something that I need to work on.
We stopped briefly at Whitefish Point and shot a few photos before beginning our drive home. Our conversations in the car were also instructive as we reflected on what we learned. We also pondered non-photographic knowledge such as the amazing number of songs that have the words “sunshine” or “rain” in them, the five things men and women should never say to each other, and we discussed our plans for the immediate future after our weekend.
There is something to be said for taking the show on the road, and the benefit of having the teacher along to guide you on your way. Being with friends I happened to meet along my journey into photography was the best part of all. This made me think of the creative writing classes I used to teach at Saginaw Valley State University, and the connection between nature and writing. I tried to take my classes outside at least once a semester, and I wish I had done this more. The similarities to taking photographs are quite apparent. For me, the creative process works best, despite repeated failures in taking photographs or receiving rejections on poems or essays I have submitted for publication, when I am living and breathing my subject matter. When Jerry taught our classes in Midland, we did not spend all of our time in the classroom and talk about pictures. Instead, we were out in the field shooting pictures of a full moon rising, car lights, sunsets, people, and buildings with unique architecture. What is it about the interaction between nature and humans that subconsciously forces us to get our creative juices flowing?
I imagine most of us have pored over photographs remembering the people in the photos, reminiscing about the landscape, and telling stories about the time someone did something memorable enough to warrant bringing out the camera to shoot a picture. What if you are in the photograph? How does that alter your perception of the moment? Do your memories instantly trigger at the moment of recognition? What if you were not in the photo, but, instead, were the photographer? How will your memory store the moment? After three days of shooting photographs with this group of photographers, not only do I have photographic evidence of my trip, but I also have a new appreciation for the art of photography. Sandi said it best: “The more you learn, the more you realize what you don’t know.” My learning curve has been as steep as a Sleeping Bear Dunes Climb.
Ten years from now, I can only imagine what my memories will be of this particular moment, or the stories I will tell about my weekend with Jerry and the F-Stops. In the song “Photograph,” by Ringo Starr, he suggests that “all I’ve got is this photograph.” Sometimes that can be a beautiful thing. Freeze Frame.
Perhaps the hot summer sun festered an old love-sick sore in his mouth. He leaned against his seal coating squeegee as if it were an extension of his self-esteem. He grinned at me as he smoothed out the driveway he worked on, the smell of seal coating oozing through the humid air like burning tires. “Good morning. Beautiful weather.” I agreed and smiled as I continued on my morning run. As the road curved to the right, I glanced towards the left. “I fancy doing me some of that,” he said as he pointed towards me. His face morphed into a venomous leer, and his inference was quite clear. His young coworker looked horrified and quickly lowered his head. Mr. Fancy That seemed quite pleased with himself as if this line had worked somewhere for him before. His smiled reeked of delusionary charm.” I quickened my pace as I ran the last mile home. The theme song from Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone started playing in my head like an unwanted earworm.
Cue the music. Hasn’t everyone had a Twilight Zone moment? Imagine Rod Serling’s serious voice delivering the unwelcome news. Over the years, I have heard plenty of strange comments while out running or during random conversations with people. Really? Did that person mean to insult me with that compliment? Did you mean to suggest that I am older than dirt? When someone tells me I look good for my age, should I say thank you? A student in one of my creative writing classes one year had described a character as “old” in her one of her short stories. I made the mistake of asking how old the character was in front of the class. The student pointed at me and said, “Your age.” Well, thank you so much. It was certainly a TZM (twilight zone moment) for me, but I think the rest of the students in the class thought it was the most hilarious thing they had ever heard. Running the roads or teaching classes aren’t the only places I have experienced a TZM.
A woman I barely know came up to me at the end of church one Sunday and said she wanted me to “sing a duet with [her] much-younger boyfriend.” She asked me if I was married, and I quickly flashed some major sparkle at her. She said she needed to check, because she didn’t want me to steal her man away from her. This woman is 86 years old. She said her boyfriend had a really long beard as if I might find him to be irresistible. I’m thinking: ZZ Top? Would he be “A Sharp Dressed Man”? Chris Stapleton? Would he be my “Parachute”? I knocked that vision out of my head and thought about my husband: He reminds me of a young Sam Elliot, mustache and all. I fancy that.
I wondered about this sudden sexual power I had. Okay, so it was only twice in the past six months, but I still wondered what sort of message I was sending. I sweat when I run, and my running clothes are actually pretty boring. When I go to church, I wear jeans and a nice sweater or shirt. Being prematurely accused of stealing someone else’s man before I had even met him seemed a verifiable TZM. I thought of Mickey Gilley’s song “Don’t the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time?” This Baker Knight penned song was a number one hit in 1976. In 2016, the lyrics took on a whole new meaning.
Suppose closing time is really just a metaphor for aging. Epiphany! I must be getting more desirable the older I get. I was on board with this notion. I now had a reason to live. I now had something to look forward to. I wasn’t getting older; I was getting prettier.
For most of my life, I was referred to as cute. Not beautiful. Not gorgeous. Not pretty. Cute and funny. These are just the words a teenage girl wants to hear as she watches all of her friends get selected for homecoming court or prom queen. At church camp one year, I had the misfortune of being referred to as a cute puppy. Imagine the hit my self-esteem took on that one. I was thirteen at the time. Luckily the puppy stage was short-lived, and in high school, my nickname was Missy. When I moved to California, I informed everyone that I wanted to be called Melissa. After all, it is my name.
I don’t really consider myself cute anymore. I’m too old for that. I’m tolerable. I don’t break mirrors when I look into them. I try not to look horrible in public. I try not to scare my husband in the morning. According to most of the women’s magazines I occasionally read, I don’t even really exist. It seems that once women reach their fifties, well, the advice columns drop right off. I have no idea what to wear anymore without Glamour magazine telling me what’s a “do” or a “don’t.” I do know that women past thirty should never, never, ever, ever wear a skirt that hits above the knees. Apparently, thirty is when “Ugly Knees Syndrome (UKS)” kicks in. I bet each one of you out there has been offended by a woman’s ugly knees at some point. I have also been reading articles about “crepey” skin. When I first saw the word, I thought it was a typo for creepy, but, no, crepey means basically old skin. Cher does not have crepey skin despite being almost 70 years old. Apparently there are ways around this unfortunate development with our skin as we age, but I have decided to stick with the face I was born with. And I am not going to go hide in a coffin until I die.
I am basically happy with myself right now, and my husband seems content with me even if I haven’t washed my hair for three days, put on makeup for a week straight, or bothered to put on a shirt that doesn’t have the name of a road race on it. And for me, he is my sharp dressed man even in his blue jeans and t-shirt. He’s been my parachute for a long, long time.
I guess when those occasional Twilight Zone Moments happen, I will remind myself that I am obviously getting prettier at closing time and that my puppy dog days are over. However, as I slip closer and closer to the twilight years, I plan on singing songs, running or walking, and showing off my ugly knees, crepey skin, and all of the other things that will happen to my body right before closing time.
The morning’s gray sky dripped with humidity and the promise of rain. I could not wait for the rest of my day to get started. The members of the band I used to be in were coming to my house to play music. For several years, I had dreamed of the ReCremains reuniting and playing music on my lawn with Higgins Lake as the background. Mother Nature laughed at this plan. After 1.5 inches of rain fell, I stared at the large green sponge that used to be my lawn. This was no place for electrical equipment. We would have to rock in the basement instead.
One of my former students, Christi, arrived first. Bandmates Lori and Kirker arrived soon afterwards and began unloading equipment from their car. Their amps, guitars, cables, and percussion instruments were added into the mix of my guitars, amps, piano, and keyboard. After figuring out a plan for setting everything up, we warmed up our fingers and voices by playing a few songs. Our friends, Peggy and John, arrived to watch the band perform. We chatted in between songs and awaited the arrival of Mike, Bill, and their families. We needed our piano man and our bass player.
Even though I was among friends and at my own house, I had performance anxiety. I had not practiced with the band for over a year. When I retired from Saginaw Valley State University in 2010, and my husband and I moved to Higgins Lake in 2011, the commute to SVSU became problematic. When my SBT (Stupid Brain Tumor) tried to take over my life, I wasn’t even sure if I could play guitar again.
There is something to be said for both a runner’s high and the way one’s brain works on music. When I was recovering from brain surgery, I soon realized that I always felt better when I ran every day and listened to music. I finally attempted to play guitar. Again. I started writing songs. Again. I read and reread books such as This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin and Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks. I soon discovered that although I could not remember things that happened six months prior, I could remember the words to practically any song I had ever heard whether it was Sinatra or Stevie Ray Vaughan. Music was the fix I needed; it was stronger than any medicine could ever possibly be.
After everyone else arrived, plus our neighbors from next door and my mother-in-law, Mike sat down at the piano, Bill fired up his bass guitar, and we began to play. I wished for our former drummer Frank, but he now lives in Virginia. I don’t remember what song we played first, but between songs, I spoke into my microphone: “I am so happy.” I repeated this many times throughout the afternoon and evening.
We ran through a bunch of our original songs, and when we played “Radio,” a song I had written years ago for the band, my fingers flew across my guitar, and my voice felt strong. We continued playing original songs we had written over the years: “Monkey Groove,” “Cream City,” “Carnival Clown,” “Swamp in My Heart,” “A Happenin’ Place (If You Happen To Be Dead),” “Highway Michigan,” “Lather, Rinse, and Repeat,” and so on. Occasionally we sang a cover song by the Stones or the Beatles. Christi sang Blondie’s “Rip Her to Shreds.” At some point, Peggy picked up a cowbell and joined us as we made merry music. We played “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison for Peggy since she had requested it. We also received requests for an Elvis song, and Bill broke out some major bass moves while singing “Jailhouse Rock.” Bill’s granddaughter Alara requested “The Alphabet Song” and “Wheels on the Bus.” We gladly obliged. She sang along and danced. Similar to a runner’s high, playing music had kicked my mind into happiness overdrive.
Eventually we knew it was time to stop. We were all exhausted. Although we had taken a break to eat dinner, we had been playing music for close to four hours. Or was it longer? My legs felt as if they might break. My voice was hoarse from singing and yakking into the microphone between songs. My neighbor, Jessica, suggested stand-up comedy might be in my future. I may seriously consider that. Not!
When I went to bed that night, even though I was exhausted, it took a long time for me to fall asleep as I relived the night’s musical madness. The next morning, I went down to the basement and looked around. The room that had been alive with music and mayhem seemed different now. Better. I had rocked in this basement with friends.
When I still taught at SVSU, author Ken Follett came to campus one year. My husband and I were lucky enough to be invited to the meet-and-greet. Instead of talking about writing, we ended up having a short conversation about playing guitar. He said that playing in a band made him a much better player. I realized this was true. The more I played music with Mike, Frank, Bill, Kirker, and Lori, the better I wanted to be as a musician and a songwriter. When Brei and Danielle, two SVSU students at the time, sang with us for a short while, I wanted to be a better singer, although I knew my alto voice could never compete with their vibrant sopranos. Despite this, I began to feel more confident.
Although Mike still encourages me to play lead guitar licks during songs, I still freeze up the moment he motions towards me. I am happy playing rhythm guitar and singing. I know I am the worst musician in the band, but they put up with me. They also seem to like the crazy songs I write, and with guidance from members of the band, those songs have become better than when I penned them as I sat alone with my guitar.
I am already planning on next year’s event: August 2015, on the lawn, under the light of a bright full moon. I am thinking of songs we could cover: “Moondance,” “Werewolves of London,” and “Fly Me to the Moon.” But it is the ReCremains original songs that really highlight the heart and soul of this group of musicians. Our poetry. Our brains on music.
Recently I attended the Bear River Writers’ Conference at Walloon Lake in Michigan. I had attended this conference seven times over the last thirteen years, so I wasn’t a newbie. As a retired creative writing and literature teacher, I knew the dynamics of a writing workshop, and I also understood what it was like to be both teacher and student in a writing class. Since I had not been to a writing conference, taught, or read my work in front of other people since 2010, that little anxiety bug that resides in my head and utters nonsense in times of stress started yakking at me much like the voice little Danny hears in The Shining. Instead of “redrum,” I kept hearing “go-home” as if it were a single word. What was I afraid of?
After turning off of US-31, I sped up and down the roller coaster hills of Camp Daggett Road, before turning onto Camp Sherwood Road. Camp Michigania was one mile ahead. I had time to turn around or to “consciously uncouple” as Gwynneth Paltrow recently said of her split with her husband. But as with any tough relationship, or the prospect of one, I forged ahead, parked my pickup truck in the parking lot, and wobbly-walked up the steps of the Education Center. I had promised myself that I would absolutely not mention my SBT (stupid brain tumor) to anyone at the conference. I knew the writer whose workshop I was in because I had been in his writing workshop at Bear River in 2006. He had also come to SVSU several times to read his work and had come to one of my creative writing classes. A friend of mine who knew him had told him about my SBT at one of his book signings. On Thursday evening, he came over to where my friend and former SVSU colleague Chris and I were sitting and said hello. I started feeling a bit better about things at this point.
During the first workshop Friday morning, we worked our way around the table introducing ourselves. Everyone sounded so fabulous. I was last to speak, and suddenly I felt as if Pepto-Bismol vomit was spewing out of mouth: “I have a brain tumor! I couldn’t write or read for the longest time! I still have problems with words!” As I realized what I was doing, I prayed that the floor of the Nature Center where our workshop was located would swallow me up, and my body would be devoured by the masses of mosquitoes lurking in the shadows outside. “Go-home, go-home, go-home” reverberated in my head like the heartbeat of a dying woman.
As my fellow workshop participants headed out of the workshop to their chosen happy places to write, I stayed behind for a few minutes to apologize to the author at least fifty times. He was very kind and gracious. As I headed towards the gazebo to write and wait for Chris, I thought about all of the reasons I should leave. Immediately. With the vibrant blue water of Walloon Lake in front of me, birds singing in vibrant staccato-like trills, and bumblebees buzzing the nibs of flowers in the tall grasses, I decided I might as well work on my writing assignment even though I had no intention of returning to workshop the next day. I wrote as if mosquitoes were biting my fingertips.
Before long, Chris arrived, and it was time to head in for lunch. After asking about his workshop, I launched into a babbling rant about my inadequacies as a writer, and that I thought it was best if I headed home. The worst part, I confessed, was that I had blabbed about my SBT, and I was convinced that everyone in my workshop hated me. I’m surprised Chris didn’t dump his salad on top of my head or stab me with his fork. The acoustically awful cafeteria seemed to be morphing into a madhouse for my whininess. Before I could find something else to complain about, a woman named Shanna from my workshop walked towards our table. I prepared myself for a verbal smackdown. Instead, she asked if she could join us for lunch. Chris gave me the snake-eye look that seemed to suggest that not everyone hated me.
Saturday morning, I woke up with a word hangover. As I drove from Charlevoix to Camp Michigania, I cranked up some blues music and sipped on some tea. My head hurt from thinking about writing. After breakfast, I headed for my workshop. I hadn’t felt this whiny since I used to get my period.
In writing workshops, each person reads his or her work. Everyone then offers feedback on how to improve the piece. I awaited my fate: Fix this. Fix that. What? My piece wasn’t perfect? I had work to do! My meadowlark was out of place! My unfinished triangle was confusing. The dreaded “R” word raised its head: Revision. I felt like a student from my one of my teaching days. I wanted to shout, “But I worked so hard on this piece.” Weren’t they impressed with my metaphors? My structure? As part of the assignment, we had only been allowed 250 words. I had followed the assignment. Although I received positive feedback, I completely blocked it out. Everyone else’s stories were so much better, and they had all been told to expand their pieces. I was told to pick out one thing from my piece and write a new piece, and I had to keep it at 250 words. What fresh hell was this? Waa—Waa—Waa…I just wanted to go home and feel sorry for myself. Instead, I went to lunch. I needed some fresh chocolate chip cookies.
As Chris, Shanna, and I ate lunch together, I tried to focus on the conversation about writers, readings, observations, etc. While they spoke of positives, I just whined. I was a pain in the ass. Chris and Shanna told me to stay at Bear River and just write. What? Just write? Crazy advice. Shanna went to her cabin to write, and Chris and I walked over to the Education Center. We picked a room with comfy chairs and sat down to write. A rattling ceiling fan sounded like a washing machine. I complained, and Chris moved with me to another room with uncomfortable chairs. We sat down at a round table and began to write. A man showed up, parked himself at a table next to us, and began typing on his computer. I thought of the shower scene in Psycho with its screeching music. I searched my surroundings for a knife, but luckily for the stranger sitting next to us, none were available. As I tried to focus and write in my journal—by pen—I noticed people outside smiling. I could not imagine what they had to be happy about. People breathing fifty yards away bothered me. I had to leave. I munched on chocolate chip cookies from my bag as I drove away from camp towards US-31.
I drove back to Peggy’s and found two wet dogs and no sign of my hosts. They had left me a note: “Gone sailing.” I stomped to the basement and began writing on my computer. Revision! Delete! Word choice! Imagery! Sentence variety! Coherence! Grammar! Structure! Will I put my readers to sleep! I killed it at 251 (rebel!) words, changed my clothes, and headed back to BR for dinner and the evening’s “famous-writers’” readings. As soon as beer became available, I sucked down two and listened to the first two of the three authors. After listening to two poets, I had to get out of there. I couldn’t even stay for the big name author who had flown in for the conference. Chris followed me out, and we sat on the front porch and talked about his writing for his workshop. Eventually I headed towards Charlevoix and watched the sun slip down over Lake Michigan. Hypnotized by the pinks, blues, and purples surrounding the orange orb, I pulled into a scenic area and snapped some photos. The world suddenly seemed beautiful again. I slept soundly that night.
When my alarm went off at 6:30 a.m., I tossed all of my bags into my truck and headed to the last day of the conference. I met up with Chris, and we headed to the cafeteria. As I stood in line waiting for my omelet, one of the “famous writers” from the conference stood next to me waiting for her omelet. Once again, I had diarrhea of the mouth, as my mother used to refer to my incessant babbling. Even though I had never spoken to Ms. X in my life, had never actually read any of her work or knew much about her, I blabbed on and on about how fabulous she was. I couldn’t believe what I was saying. Who was I? As we parted, she smiled and said it had been nice meeting me. I thought, “Really?” We hadn’t exchanged names, and the entire conversation had been about how wonderful she was. Is that really meeting? I wondered if I was having some sort of hormonal meltdown. Tampons, anyone?
When the final workshop began at 9:00 a.m., I was thankful I was up third in the rotation of readers. I felt like a bloody leg in the middle of a shark-filled ocean. Despite my intense desire to jump out of my chair and leave the room, I listened to my fellow workshop writers and realized they were giving me some sound advice. After my moment in the hot seat, I thanked my fellow workshop comrades for their comments and settled back into my chair for the remaining workshop stories. I gave feedback when I felt as if I had something worthwhile to say, and I marveled at some of the stories people in my workshop were sharing.
After lunch with several people from my workshop, I located some cookies for the ride home and stuffed them in my bag. Chris was busy with his own workshop group, so I slipped out of the cafeteria and headed for my truck. As I headed out of Camp Michigania for the last time, I sipped on some tea and reached for a cookie. In less than two hours I would be home. I thought about the pieces I had worked on for my workshop, and I realized they each had some good things going for them. I had written about growing up in Dodge City, Kansas, subject matter I had written about often, but I had not explored in depth yet. I thought about the advice writer Natalie Goldberg gives in Old Friend from Far Away: “What you fear, if you turn toward it, will give your writing teeth” (13). I guess that could be sage advice for just about anything. It was time for me to go home and get to work.
As a runner, I love the daily group of bicyclists who ride 26 miles around Higgins Lake, Michigan. The lead bicyclist yells “Runner Up” as they pass me, and the rest of the gang greets me with cheery hellos. After 25 years of running at paces varying between 8-minute miles and 12-minute miles, I find that I enjoy running more than ever. The fact that I have a stupid brain tumor, something I found out after I dropped during the Zombie race in Traverse City in 2011, I am more determined than ever to keep on running. As an added bonus, there is always the chance something unexpected might happen. Weird comments? Hands on my rear end? Dogs? Thunderstorms? Run, Melissa, Run!
I began running as a way of surviving my grief when my daughter Nicole died in 1988. Running became my high, and although I ran very slowly in the beginning, I kept chugging out miles, and people in my then Midland, Michigan, neighborhood cheered me on as I did my 1.4 mile loops, over and over again. Eventually, I courageously ventured out on roads a bit further from home, and that is when the fun began.
On my first encounter with random-stranger-weirdness, I was several miles from home when I sensed someone coming up behind me, close enough to feel the air from his spinning tires. As I turned, a young man on a bicycle looked at me and said: “Oh, you looked younger from behind.” What? My running shorts made my rearview look younger than I actually was? I did not know if I should slap this young man or give him a hug, but before I could respond, he sped off into the distance. This was just the beginning of running into weirdness.
During my first 10-mile Crim Road Race in Flint, Michigan, I decided to wear a water belt that held two small bottles of a water/Gatorade mix. I had no idea what to expect, and I wanted to be hydrated. About halfway through the race, I felt someone’s hands behind me, lightly touching my belt and my rearview, before I received a little swat. As I turned, a man about my age said “I like your belt,” smiled at me, and continued running. Once again, he must have liked my rearview better than my front view, but was it necessary for him to touch my ass? I ran the rest of the race snuggled into a pack of people who seemed uninterested in my rearview. I never wore that water belt again during a road race.
During another one of my training runs, a car full of men stopped me one day to ask directions. Seriously? Men asking for directions? I was running towards them, so they had not seen me from behind, so that could not have factored into the situation. I kept moving and pointed west and yelled out “two miles and turn right.” They thanked me as they drove off, so perhaps they really did need directions. Perhaps I was oversensitive.
On another training run several miles from home, I ran on a sidewalk next to M-20 in Midland, Michigan. M-20 is a nasty road with four lanes of traffic and a center lane in the middle. M-20 is also notorious in a weird Midland way. When I taught at Saginaw Valley State University, I once had a student from Midland inform the class that her parents would not let her drive out M-20 because “that is where all of the bad people live.” She continued her rant by informing the class that “all of the professional people live north of town,” and she was “so lucky to live there.” Since the Midland Princess had no idea where I lived, I let her dig herself into a deep hole, before I told her I lived out M-20, and I actually ran the roads out there. She seemed shocked that I would venture into this obviously dangerous part of her mall-induced-funky universe. But, as luck would have it, I did encounter a small gang of hoodlums one day.
As I ran on the north side of M-20, a group of teenage boys sauntered along the sidewalk on the south side of M-20. During a lull in traffic, one boy yelled: “Hey, old lady, can’t you run any faster?” His little friends laughed in solidarity. Damn whippersnappers. I ignored them as best as I could and continued running. Clearly the Midland Princess had been correct. There were some very bad people on M-20, and I hoped they all moved to the north part of town, up near the mall and the college girls who were afraid of them. Although I had never truly been afraid of people while running, I had an unfortunate run-in with a dog one day that actually did scare me out of my running nirvana.
Near the end of my run, I felt peaceful, happy, and tired. From the side of the road near a house I passed practically every day, a German shepherd charged out of the yard dragging a long chain connected to his dog collar. As I got closer to him, he started snarling at me and showing his teeth. Foam shot out of his mouth like some weird bubble machine. We began a careful dance. I heard someone screaming, and I realized it was me. “Come and get your dog,” I yelled in vain between screams. The dog continued circling me, and I turned into a statue in the middle of the road: A screaming statue.
I heard a vehicle come up behind me, and turned to see a man motioning for me to get into his truck. I am not sure if he saw my rearview, my face, or the dog, but my savior had arrived. He put his car into park, jumped out, and ran around the front of his truck. “Hop in. I will divert the dog,” he promised. The dog’s momentary confusion allowed me enough time to grab the door handle and slide my shaking body into his truck. The man ran back around the front of his truck with the dog following closely behind him, and hopped into the driver’s seat. After a few more minutes, the dog moseyed back into his yard as if nothing had happened. Although I only lived a half a mile away and had no idea who this man was, I gladly accepted his offer to take me home. It seemed like a very smart thing to do, and it was. If only I had used some common sense the day I tried to outrun a thunderstorm.
I somehow passed all of my math classes in high school, but I think teachers felt sorry for me. If only they had let me write poetry, I could have shown them I understood rhyme and meter, which is kind of like math. In college, my husband had to tutor an algebra-book-throwing-whiny-wife several times a week. If he had to be out of town, I somehow figured out the problems myself, but the way I figured them out always amazed my professor, and my husband began calling it “Melissa math.” On my sad attempt at outrunning a thunderstorm, I failed to figure out a simple story problem: You are three miles from the car repair shop. The storm is approaching at forty miles an hour. You currently run a ten-minute mile. The storm is approximately fifteen miles away. At what time will the storm reach you? Do you call someone to give you a ride, wait for your husband to get home and take you, or do you decide to run to the car repair shop to pick up your car?
Run, of course. About a mile from the auto shop, I heard thunder. I started running faster as the skies opened up. As I crossed the five lanes of M-20, ran up to the door of the shop and pushed open the door, a huge roar of thunder seemed to signal my arrival. Lightning seemed to strike the pavement where I had just been. The lady behind the counter took one look at my soaked hair, clothes, and shoes, and asked: “Did you walk here?” I said: “Nope, I ran.” She said: “Looks like you got here in time.” As I pulled out my charge card and attempted to squeegee it dry on a paper towel, I smiled and said: “Guess I should have run faster.” She handed me my car key and told me to have a safe trip home. I drove home with a new appreciation for the Weather Channel, but still doubted I would use a story problem the next time I wanted to outrun Mother Nature.
These days, I check the Weather Channel forecast and radar before I head out onto the road. I place my Road ID on my left wrist so that if I drop, someone will find me and call my husband. I am more afraid of someone touching my rearview or a thunderstorm than anything my body might want to do to me. I know that during a run, I will see a friendly face and receive a cheerful greeting from someone. I may never run a half-marathon again and say “I want beer” as I cross the finish line, but if I know I can go out on the road and hear “Runner Up,” well, that is more than enough for me.
During Memorial Day weekend, my husband and I went for a walk, and I wore my very bright, hard-to-miss pink running shoes. Since it was a holiday weekend, when the lake is overcrowded with “trunk-slammers” as my late father-in-law used to call them, the roads were filled with runners, walkers, bicyclists, people with dogs, garage-sale enthusiasts, and drivers on the road using their vehicles as weapons of mass destruction. Because I tend to focus on the latter with fits of anger, it is easy to forget there are also a lot of friendly people who are more than happy to strike up a conversation on a beautiful day.
Anyone who knows me is quite aware that I will stop and have a twenty-minute conversation with a complete stranger on just about any topic. Sometimes a 45-minute walk or run can turn into a two-hour morning event, which is why I usually walk or run solo. When I return from my solo runs or walks, I always have stories for my husband whether he wants to hear them or not. I tell him the latest about a neighbor’s health woes or about the truck driver I flipped off and yelled “f*****” at for almost running me off the road. My husband shakes his head in an all-too knowing way. Yes, I have a potty mouth, and I wear pink running shoes. My father would be so proud, and my mother would have handed me the swearing jar. Sometimes I walk with my husband though, and I try to behave myself.
On a beautiful Saturday morning during Memorial Day weekend, Jim and I approached our local shopping area which consists of a hardware store, bank, grocery/booze store, and a tourist trap that sells fresh fudge, t-shirts, and knickknacks. A young woman, perhaps 30 years old, stood in the parking lot snapping photos, turned towards me, smiled, and said: “I love your pink shoes!” Even her eyebrows were exclamation marks! I thanked her, and Jim and I continued on our way. I could tell people were admiring my shoes as we continued on our Treasure Island Loop, named so because we end up on a dead end road where we look out across the water towards a small island in the midst of the big part of Higgins Lake.
As my husband and I continued our walk, I practically bounced along in my pink shoes while he pretended to ignore my rapid-fire monologue about everyone we passed by. As we rounded the corner near Detroit Point, a very nice woman, perhaps a few years older than me, holding a garage sale in her driveway said: “I love your pink shoes.” Well, damned if I wasn’t forced to stop and talk to her about my pink shoes.
As she inspected them, she told me that she had recently been to an outlet shoe store and wanted to buy some “aqua-colored shoes,” but the salesgirl told the woman she was “too old to wear aqua-colored shoes.” My new friend and I cackled in delight at the salesgirl’s stupidity. My new friend said she would soon be shopping at another store for some bright aqua shoes. We cackled again and agreed that at our age we could wear any color shoes we wanted. As I caught up to my husband, who was clearly not interested in a philosophical discussion about shoe colors, I began thinking of guidelines, masked as restrictions, of what women are told to do, or not to do, as they age: No long hair after age 40 (or 50 depending on which magazine you like to read). If your hair has ugly gray sprouts, dye your hair as soon as possible or you will look OLD. Never, ever, ever wear a short skirt. After all, someone might fall over dead from seeing an attractive, in-shape woman’s knees if she is over 40. I remember walking down the hall with a male colleague at Saginaw Valley State University one day, and a young woman walked out of the computer lab and into the hallway in front of us. She wore low-rise pants and a shirt that was cropped off somewhere between her pierced belly button and her amplified cleavage. As she turned, and we caught a glimpse of her thong underwear, my colleague said to me: “Well?” as his eyebrows rose into very large question marks. Well, indeed. At least she wasn’t over 40, or we would have had to call the campus police and have her arrested. When I went to college as an undergraduate and eventually graduate school, I was a hockey mom, always on the run, and basically wore blues jeans and t-shirts.
High school was another matter. I graduated in 1973, and I am sure a few teachers at Dodge City Senior High probably got an eyeful of legs and breasts as they traversed the halls. In the late sixties and early seventies, we wore mini-mini-skirts, crop tops, low-rise pants, and bell bottoms, and many of us tossed our bras, instead of burning them, as we began to wear whatever the hell we wanted to wear. But gossip spread quickly around my high school, and my wardrobe choice one day became a minor cause célèbre. I made the mistake of telling one of my girlfriends that I had decided not to wear a bra, safely hiding my lemons behind the pockets, breast high, of my dark blue t-shirt. It wasn’t long before I was walking down a hall on my way to class when I felt the end of a finger, like the pointed end of a rifle, roll down my back. “No bra,” the teenage boy snickered, as he ran to tell his friends. By the time I got to my next class, I felt as if I had a “Kick Me” sign taped to the back of my shirt. Good grief. Free from the restraints of the horrible bras we had in the sixties and seventies, my lemons held on for dear life as I was continually attacked from the rear. Somehow I survived that day and never told anyone after that if I was wearing a bra or not. As I got older and bras became more comfortable, I felt a little more compelled to wear them. I still hated them, but when I realized that breasts, even lemons, will sag as the aging process robs of us our loveliness, I decided to wear a bra on a regular basis.
Now that I am somewhere between fifty and death, there are some things I miss. I do miss my long hair, and I am trying to grow it back out. I refuse to dye my hair any longer. The money I am saving from not being blonde, blonder, or blondest will be well used for a nursing home somewhere in my future. As for short skirts, yes, I still wear them, but not the really short ones I used to favor. Years ago, a student of mine asked me if I was a runner as she stared at my calves. To my horror, I realized my calves were larger than my lemons, didn’t sag, and were very well defined. Such is life.
If my new pink shoes can help me return my calves to their glory days, then I will have made a very smart purchase. Even if they don’t help my calves, they have already paid off, as clearly the pink shoes are a conversation starter, and the envy of at least two women. So I will keep wearing them as I head out on the roads listening to Bruce Springsteen singing about a “Pink Cadillac,” my footfall in line with the beat of the drums, and my lemons tightly snug in the sports bra du jour, I will feel the wind blow through my short gray hair, and I will try to keep my swearing to a minimum. I will run past houses and businesses flying the American flag, and glide into memories of days of the past, missing my father, a veteran of World War II, and my mother who encouraged me to wear whatever I wanted to wear as long as the dishes were done before I walked out the door.