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.
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.
After reading the Guitar World January 2013 issue loaded with articles on Led Zeppelin, something deep within my subconscious stirred, a cerebral moment, if you will. Was there a cosmic shift in my thinking? Was I suddenly able to play Led Zeppelin songs on my guitar as if by osmosis? I wish. Instead Robert Plant appeared before me in a dream, looked at me sincerely as if to impart some rock-n-roll wisdom and said: “You need to wear more eye shadow.” When I awoke, I climbed out of bed, made my way into the bathroom, and flipped on the light. Yes, I was still me; face scrubbed clean the night before, then reloaded with lots of moisturizer. Perhaps it was time for me to branch out, put on some makeup, take a test drive down fashionista lane, and see what the world held in store for me. In order for me to embrace my outer goddess, I was going to have to face my inner demons.
In first grade, I met my first eye shadow demon: Ms. M. In case she is still alive and desperately searching for what may have happened to me over the years, I will not use her full name. Ms. M had the fortune, or perhaps misfortune, of being my first grade teacher. I will admit I was not an easy child to deal with. I hated being in the classroom. I would rather have been doing chores on our farm, or helping my father at his restaurant. I tried to be nice to Ms. M, follow her rules, and behave in the classroom. Unfortunately, I managed to screw up any good will I had worked for during the school year one fateful day on the playground.
I loved recess. The swings! The running! The screaming! What’s not to love? At the end of our allotted time, we were expected to line up as we marched back into school. One day, I happened to end up in line next to a little boy all of the first-grade girls had a crush on. I decided it was time for me to really impress him, so I pointed in front of me and said: “Go ahead, you old son-of-a-bitch.” Unfortunately I said this right in front of Ms. M, and she yanked me right out of line. “What did you call him?” she asked. “A son-of-a-bitch,” I said, not sensing the trouble I was in. She informed me that no one talked like that in school, and she would “deal” with me when we got inside. I tried to explain to her that my father said those words all of the time, but Ms. M clamped her hand over my mouth and told me to be quiet.
Once we returned to the classroom, I expected Ms. M would send me off to the principal’s office, a place I would really get to know as I worked my way through grade school. Ms. M decided to handle the situation herself and ignore protocol. She told me to come up to the front of the room and apologize to the class. I did. She then sat on the edge of her desk, pulled me up onto her lap as if I were a rag doll, bent me over her knees, and smacked me on the butt. Hard. I immediately burst into tears, she let me go, and I looked up at Ms. M and realized her blue eye shadow began at her eyelashes and snaked its way right on up to her eyebrows. I gave a little scream and ran back to my desk.
I made my way through the remainder of the day, but continued to worry about how much trouble I would be in at home. Strangely, my parents weren’t mad at me, but the next day, we had a new rule at our house: If anyone used a swear word in front of my mother, that person had to put a nickel in the swearing jar. My father contributed on a regular basis, sometimes four or five times a day, and I managed to avoid the swearing jar all together. I also learned to avoid Ms. M at school since I had become deathly afraid of the weird blue skin above her eyes. I never wanted to be that close to her again.
As I grew up, I experimented with my mother’s makeup, but she basically stuck to eyeliner, mascara, and lipstick. By the time I hit seventh grade, I finally received permission to wear mascara and eyeliner, although lipstick was out of the question. Meanwhile the swearing jar swelled to epic proportions as the years went by, and I began contributing again. My mother emptied the jar when the change reached the top. I have no idea what she did with the money, and I don’t think my mother ever swore.
Over the years, I have tried to give up swearing, but some situations just call for a good swear word. As for makeup, well, I have tried to give makeup a chance, but I am not sure I ever got the hang of it. I love my eyeliner and mascara, and I always wear ChapStick® and lip gloss. As for eye shadow, yes, I have worn it over the years, but I was always afraid I would end up looking like Ms. M. After dreaming of Robert Plant and his makeup advice, I decided to give eye shadow a chance. Perhaps it was time to reach my inner rock star, find my eyelash-to-eyebrow shade, and scare the hell out of some small child.
After I showered, I looked at my naked face in the mirror: Perhaps I did need eye shadow. I found an old eye shadow cheater kit with directions on how to apply the brown and gold powder to give me a “smoky look.” I then added eyeliner and mascara. Just for good measure, I added some lip gloss over my ChapStick®. I looked in the mirror and wondered if Robert would approve. I thought about Ms. M and wished I could tell her that the only thing I remember about first grade is her meanness and that son-of-a-bitchin’ blue eye shadow. Rock on, Ms. M, wherever you are.
When I taught creative writing at Saginaw Valley State University, the end of each semester was always interesting. Countless family members died, some for the second or third time that semester (oops!); computers in the computer labs constantly ate people’s homework (an update on the dog ate my homework excuse); and current students warned prospective students via RateMyProfessors.com to avoid taking classes from me. I was called bitchy, sexist, extremely funny, great, a poetry goddess, and one student wondered “Why does she even work? Her husband is a chemical engineer.” Goodness! I had no idea I shouldn’t be working.
I met a lot of wonderful students over the years, and I would like to thank them for everything I learned from them. Several years ago, I wrote an essay after a long day of grading. Whether or not you are a teacher or a student feeling the end-of-the-semester blues, I hope I can bring a smile to your face. This is my story:
Forty-three creative writing portfolios are stacked in various piles on my desk. I open the seventeenth portfolio during my grading hell: the week between finals and when grades are due at the registrar’s office. Each portfolio consists of four poems, two flash fiction pieces, one long fiction piece, and the artist’s statement. General themes have been suicide! Murder! Car crashes! Deadly illnesses! These are all subjects I have forbidden my students to write about. And yet, the students write them anyway as if to test my rules.
I open portfolio number seventeen. I begin to read the student’s long fiction piece, and I am hopeful she has learned something from my class. Will she apply what she has learned over the course of the semester to her final work? Will my comments have mattered to her? Will she demonstrate a clear understanding of what it takes to be a good writer?
I am startled when I read the line: “She woke up from a comma.” I blink. I read it aloud: “She woke up from a comma.” I look up, search for the hidden camera, and I wonder how in the hell someone wakes up from a comma.
I begin to imagine the feeling of being in a comma. How would my body be positioned? Would my head be the round blob that positions itself as the foundation of the comma? Would my body be the tail, always facing left? How would I wear a mini-skirt? Would I be forever stuck in time wearing pants with one leg longer than the other? And I would always be barefoot, my feet thin fish. My arms would hang at my side forever like the universal symbol on countless women’s restroom doors. I would never be able to wave at my friends, play guitar, or point at something in the distance. Or flip someone off.
I imagine awakening from a comma. I would un-bend my legs, locate my arms, and spread them from my sides like wings. One leg would magically shrink, and I would have two proportionate legs with regular feet in four-inch red heels. My knob of a head would suddenly sprout hair. I would be beautiful, younger, a feminist icon with a cheerleader’s smile. People would line the streets to watch me pass by, every day a parade for me, the woman who woke up from a comma.
And after I woke up from my comma, I would be suicidal, crash my car, murder someone, die of a deadly illness, and sell my soul to the devil for a hot cup of tea. Period.
When did you last show empathy towards another human being? Is being empathetic something you practice on a daily basis? Are you sensitive to the suffering of others? Sounds simple, right? I always thought so. However, I have begun to realize that the conscious desire to be an empathetic person is not something everyone has. Or, perhaps, some people just lack their empathy bone.
I guess most people know where their funny bone is located. The long bone of the upper arm is known as the humerus, and when one pronounces the word, it sounds just like humorous. Hence, the funny bone. So if most people know where their funny bone is located, I wonder if people know where their empathy bone is located. Probably not. As far as I know, we don’t actually have an empathy “bone” since it is a cerebral entity, but we should not have to bang our heads or elbows in desperation to discover that we might actually be sensitive to another person’s pain and suffering. Should we? When is the last time you felt empathy for someone? What was it like? When is the last time you dealt with someone who clearly had no empathy bone? Did you crack that person over the head with your funny bone? Well, if the person I am writing about had been sitting in the same room with me, I would have smacked her with my humerus, and it would not have been humorous.
During an online discussion about creative writing, a friend of mine wrote about a student breaking down in class. Then, FBG (Facebook Gal) suggested that in creative writing classes (and I am guessing elsewhere in life), “adults have bigger demons, less innocence, and bigger panties,” and thus should be able to deal with criticism and not cry in class or anywhere else for that matter. I, along with others, pointed out that perhaps the student was just going through a tough time or having a bad day, and the age of a person should not dictate how many demons one has or how much innocence (or lack thereof) one has.
FBG then informed folks participating in the tremulous thread of conversation that she worked in a hospital, and she attempted to suggest her previous comments were about someone in high school and not a “full grown woman.” Following that, FBG tried to clarify who had the right to cry in public: “Having cancer is having a bad day, and [she] hardly ever see[s] them cry about it.” These are the following two posts:
Me: “Yes, FBG, having cancer sucks. I happen to have a brain tumor, and I can tell you about having a bad day. If you don’t see me crying, it doesn’t mean I don’t cry in private. I am a full-grown woman (whatever that means) if that makes any difference.”
FBG: “I’m not going to argue with a woman with a brain tumor, but I am curious as to why my comments are received [sic] color coated like skittles by all the other commentators. Hey I used a simile!” She followed her last comment with a smiley face.
Well, shiver me empathetic timbers! I told my husband that if I am ever in a hospital where this woman works to make sure she stays far away from me. I wouldn’t care if she showed up with fifty smiley faces, and she was writing similes by the dozen.
Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on one’s point of view, my friend who posed the original question, decided to delete the post and all comments. Luckily I had printed off the post and the comments, because I wanted to reread the comments at my own leisure and try to make sense of how the conversation had taken such a weird turn. I should have remembered something my mother taught me years ago: “Don’t get into a pissing match with a skunk, because the skunk always wins, and you will come out stinky.” My idea for an updated version of this analogy would be this: “Don’t get into a pissing match with a complete stranger on Facebook, because that person always wins, because you stop responding in disgust.” But in all actuality, that person doesn’t really win the argument when he or she decides to deride the conversation by demonstrating a clear lack of an empathy bone.
Now perhaps FBG is really a nice person, and she just had a bad day on FB. Perhaps she does have an empathy bone. She does, after all, work at a hospital. I wish I knew which hospital it is, since it is a hospital where cancer patients don’t cry in front of her. I would have welcomed this scenario when I spent so many years in numerous hospitals and nursing homes when my parents were dying or when my daughter lay dying in the hospital.
Perhaps my empathy bone is overdeveloped. After all, I am a “full grown woman,” and “I’ve got bigger demons and less innocence.” It certainly is true that I have “big girl panties.” But I think my empathy bone started gaining strength after years of sitting in my office at work, and either reading student journals or listening to students who have suffered abuse at home; or young women who have been raped; or young men who have been beaten by their fathers for years; or students whose parents are going through a divorce and it is just killing them; or students whose parents or brothers or sisters are dying of cancer. And, yes, a great many of these students cried, and I cried along with them. Why are we so afraid of tears? Aren’t tears the lubricant for one’s empathy bone?
I want to thank FBG for making me think about ways in which I can be more empathetic to others. I am working on ways to be kinder to others every day—and am working on the notion that someone might be having a bad day if he or she tries to run over me when I am out running. Sometimes I can feel my middle finger start to rise in protest, and I want to shout the word “asshole,” but I am working on those nasty past behaviors of mine.
FBG also taught me a lesson: Not everyone is going to cut me any slack just because I have a brain tumor. In other words, I need to keep my big girl panties on at all times and deal with my demons. If someone wants to make a simile out of my misfortune, well, that is his or her right. A smiley face is optional.