Old Paths, New Boots

I’m a walker. Every morning I lace up my boots, pull on my bug shirt, and head out along the paths behind my house. If I’m not at home, I search for the closest trail or forge a new one. Over the years I have hiked the mountains of British Columbia and the forests of Algonquin Provincial Park, the sandy belly of Bulls Island in South Carolina, the remote backcountry of Denali in Alaska. Most of these trails are rugged, but sometimes a paved path can provide a lesson or two. My boots have taken me from one Dayton Metro Park to the other and around the asphalt walkway at the Yankee Trace Golf Course. Show me a path to follow, or one to blaze, and I’m there. Broken-in, sturdy, my hikers have been constant companions for more than ten years, unyielding on the rocks of Maine, unintimidated by the climbs in France, unwavering through the boggy forests of northern Michigan.  They have carried me through heat, rain, and snow as I explore the wonder of the natural  world. Imagine, then, my sorrow when the footwear that accompanied me on these jaunts lost their soles. Oh, the humanity!

Mourning the loss of not one, but two pair, of comfortable, broken-in, stoic boots, I actually considered having them repaired. Then I took a closer look. One pair no longer repelled water. Every time I wore them, they made those weird squelching sounds, and my socks would be wet enough to wring out. The other pair simply sighed and separated at the seams, the right sole flapping awkwardly as I surveyed the wildflower garden at the end of my walk. To be fair, my boots had been warning me, the leather uppers creaking, the tread all but lost. For months I kept telling myself it wasn’t that bad, but the truth is, it was. Like all things man-made, my boots had reached their endpoint of usefulness.

In the book and the movie based on Cheryl Strayed’s novel “Wild,” when her footwear gave out, she simply ordered a new pair from the outfitter and they appeared at a check point. Oh, that such restoration were available to casual but committed hikers like me. Anyway, you know where this going. I liberated the laces, tossed the old boots, not without trepidation, and went on the hunt for a new pair. But I sought not just any boots. The new ones needed to be just like the old ones. High tops to give my ankles support on rugged terrain. Laces just the right size for double knots, made of fabric that didn’t  untied halfway along the route. My new boots needed to have arch support to match the configuration of my feet. In other words, reincarnation! Except no one makes the exact same kind of boots now. I prowled the Internet, used the brand name to narrow my search, Googled and Amazoned and L.L. Beaned. Each retailer had a good selection to offer, but no way was I leaving this choice to chance.

I prefer to try boots on. Fit is everything when you’re miles out from your base. Will they breathe with me? Keep my feet dry? Are they too heavy? Do they flex over difficult terrain? Will the new boots carry me along those old paths, grow into comfort, ease concerns during difficult passages? Will the new boots sustain me as I continue to rack up miles and memories? After scouring the local markets, I end up at Field & Stream, where a delicious dark-brown ankle-high pair of Timberlands catch my eye. They slide on easily, glide over the fitting area floor, and steal my heart. Just to be certain, I try on other brands, but the Timbies win out.

Stepping out on the trail, feet snug in the new boots, I ponder the connection between walking and writing. My literal boots carry me forward. How about my literary boots? What supports me as I follow this literary journey? Am I writing through familiar territory or exploring new lands? Am I following an old path or charting the untrod trail? Since I have added poetry to the mix of things I write, am I tightening the laces of my desire? Will I stay on the familiar until I reach the spot where the known trail ends and the unknown begins? The joy is in the journey, they say. I’m inclined to agree.

Perhaps you, too, stand there, boots laced, walking/writing stick in hand, deciding whether to go on or go back. Trust those new boots and plunge ahead. Beauty waits. Discovery beckons. You and your new boots were made for this.

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A Post-July 4th OpEd

Now that the firecracker sky has paled to morning mist, I take a deep breath to process why I felt so sad yesterday. The answer requires little rumination. As a nation, over the course of the last eighteen months, we have become less than we could be, and I am heartbroken. The battles we fought as women, as people of color, as union workers, as environmentalists, as patriots, must now be waged all over again.

This is not a partisan rant. This is a deep-seated cry for all of us to wake up to what is happening. The alarm is sounding, people. We can ill afford to hit the snooze button.The pond scum has risen to the top of the food chain. Men and women with no expertise, no concern for anything other than their own deep pockets, have been placed in charge of the most critical departments of our administration. The speeches given by our president echo those of the most notorious madmen to occupy the world stage. A promise to make the nation great again smacks of Germany pre-World War. Don’t believe me? Do yourself a favor and read the addresses given by Hitler. Better yet, read the fiction novel White Rose, Black Forest by Eoin Dempsey. “Enemies of the state” is not a term invented by our contemporary president. The press was vilified prior to the cataclysm that threatened the entire world. Scapegoats were created. Mass rallies where people chanted slogans intended to inflame and incite took place much as these ‘campaign rallies’ do today. The rise of ICE as a police force reminds one of the rise of the Gestapo. It is not enough to wring your hands, or bury your head. Every citizen is called upon to be vigilant in the face of this onslaught. Our Constitution demands that we hold government accountable to us.

Every American who understands that freedom doesn’t exist just in the moment, but exists as a legacy we pass on to future generations is tasked with defending our freedoms. Therefore, in the spirit of Independence Day, I call upon all legislators to examine their very souls, find the courage to stand up for their convictions, put aside the one-issue politics, and defend our values. Will we agree on everything? Of course not. But the essence of our nation is compromise. The document we hold most dear evolved out of a congress of compromise.

I have tasked myself with the following, and I ask you to consider doing the same:

  1. I will not stand silent in the face of injustice. I will lift my voice in defense of the tired, the poor, the huddled masses.
  2. I will work to register voters. The laws being passed make it increasingly difficult for even the most adept of us to stay registered. I must help those who cannot navigate these new requirements.
  3. I will work the polls. There are never enough volunteers to man the stations. It’s only one long day. You can do it! Businesses: I suggest you offer time off without consequence for employees willing to serve in this patriotic process.
  4. I will VOTE in every election. I only have one vote, but it matters. One plus one plus one adds up to a groundswell of support.

P.S. To each party – Democrat, Republican, Green, Libertarian – I ask that you abandon the negative ads and tell us what positive actions you will take to make good change happen.

Family Matters…

When we set off in early June on our Mediterranean adventure, I had plans to write about the sailing ship, the ports of call, the new experiences. But when we returned, I found myself once more embroiled in elder care issues. My mother, still the life of the party wherever she goes, has slipped deeper into the hallucinatory dementia that has made inroads in her always-fertile imagination. One day back from the trip, I got back on the road and made the drive to Pennsylvania to deal with the need for more care.

As the oldest of seven children, my role has always been well-defined and set in blood. I am expected to make things happen. While the family dynamic revolves around discussion, a tactic my father encouraged and enabled, this does not always lead to resolution. Thus, I bring the hammer, corralling the varied opinions into cohesive action. My resolutions are not always greeted with cheers. Despite the disagreements, need outweighs dithering. ‘Git ‘er done’ is not just a southern rallying cry. It is also the basis for our family matters.

Case in point: When Mom decided she could no longer take care of the large house on Euclid Avenue in Sharon, the process stuttered along until I showed up with phone numbers of electricians, plumbers, and realtors. Five days later the repairs were mostly done and the house listed for sale. To be fair, several of my brothers helped out as much as they could with moving, but the impetus to make it happen came from me. I have accepted this role, settled in to the inevitable second-guessing that occurs after the fact. Like Caesar, I show up, I see what has to be done, and then I do it.

But at some point, I need to return to my life, to those chores and passions that lie on my path. I refuse to feel guilty about this. One does her best, than moves on. I do worry about the brother who has taken on the bulk of my mother’s care. With several siblings unwilling or unable to lend a hand, he bears the burden and the stress. While others may walk away, he has chosen not to do so.

Family matters. Despite the challenges, I continue to love, to care for and about, to worry over, and to encourage. The matters that arose as we grew out of that nuclear home and into the wider world complicate our attempts to provide for the mother who bore us. What bothers me most is how, as Yeats predicted, the center does not hold. No amount of love can offset the pull of illness, economics, distance, personality. Of course, for a writer, this is the stuff and substance of plot, theme, and character development. But it makes for some uneasy family gatherings.

My mother once told me a story about her childhood with the admonition, accompanied by serious finger pointing, that I couldn’t write about it until she passed. Well, at age 94, she is close to the end stage of this worldly journey. Hallucinations rule her mind, providing endless fodder for head-shaking and laughter. She is, she informs us one day, in love again…with a Scotsman. The next day he is displaced by a handsome Hungarian living in Poland. Her birth family members all turn into eight-inch fairies who boarded a plane and flew away. There are moths living in her mouth. The tales, as real to her as they are not to us, fascinate, but they also make us despair. Try as we might, we cannot return her to reality. Nor can we abandon her to the encroaching darkness. So, we argue, wring our hands, discuss ad nauseam the options ahead. And we pray…for guidance, for inspiration, for courage. When it comes to all these difficult times, family matters.

June Bugs, Fireflies, and Writers…

It started about a week ago, the light battering against the front door as soon as the sky darkens and the porch light snaps on. Those fat, hard-shelled bodies pile up like driftwood, their legs bent at awkward angles, their movements dulled from blunt force trauma. No matter how hard they try, they never reach the promised land of light.

In another week or so, the male fireflies will emerge from wherever it is they hide, stretch their wings in the dusky evening, and flit over the field, searching for love in all the right and wrong places. Those little lanterns in their tummies will flick and flame. The females will wait coyly, not blessed with such visual displays of sexual readiness, until the right one comes along. Sometimes, when the night grows long and the pulsing wears thin, I wonder if the odyssey brings an appropriate reward. Do all the lighted repositories of reproduction find a host, or do the wallflower flies hang out together, uncertain of their next move?

Once before, I wrote a column about this. I wondered if I was a June bug or a firefly. Now, farther along my writing journey, I realize I am both. Each day I sit at my computer and batter away at the door between me and the light of publication. Sometimes I perceive a crack in the wall of rejection and wiggle through to find publication awaiting. Other days, I am the firefly, winking my interior sun in patterns I hope will attract that rarest of creatures – success.

Each of us is blessed with opportunity. It hangs out there in the void, a light that flares and fades just out of reach. Each of us must decide how hard to pursue that elusive goal. Will I batter, fly, or flutter to a stop. I guess I’d rather end up with a concussion than snug in a lonely bed of regrets.

Shine on, fireflies! Bumble away, bugs! Life is waiting for those who risk the flight…

Mother, May I?

When we were kids, playing outside was a required activity. Our mother ordered us to leave the house and ‘get some fresh air.” Until we were old enough to have chores, that’s exactly what we did. We claimed the clovered yards, the dandelioned spaces, the treed empty lots, establishing forts or excavating holes for marble games. We climbed construction equipment, acrobated across the beams of houses under construction, fished in mud puddles. Most of all, we organized games – tag, hide and seek, “Mother, May I?.” Our games were unisex, nondenominational, and equal opportunity melees.  Everyone in the neighborhood came to participate. But if age and size did not matter, what did count was a strict adherence to the rules. Break them and you were out.

In “Mother, may I?” one rule was paramount: you had to ask the caller for permission to advance and specify what kind of step you wanted to be given. Giant, small, twirly, jump, hop…ask the wrong question in the wrong voice and you couldn’t move ahead. The “Mother” held the power. Not so different, I suppose, from the real situation in all our households. Father might have had the final word when he returned from work, but during the day, Mother was the one who held the reins, the sergeant who directed the course of our lives. We spent large chunks of our leisure time playing this and other outdoor games. No one wore a watch. I was often late for dinner. My mother, never pleased with my tardy ways, referred me to my father for punishment. I ignored her warnings, seduced by my taste of freedom, the sense of living untethered, unbound. Despite the certain consequences awaiting me, I persisted in coming late to the table.

One of the best things about a childhood spent outdoors is that sense of unscheduled time, how it slows and stretches and offers the long view. Like the giant steps you are ordered to take as you try to reach the caller and win her place for your own. I still spend a great deal of time outdoors, walking neighborhoods and parks. What strikes me now is the emptiness of the lawns, the lack of children’s voices calling each other on the spring wind. I rarely see kites parsing the sky’s phrasing. What once was commonplace has vanished. Now, too often, playtime is  structured, orderly, doled out like candy, in small amounts so as not to become an expectation. There is little opportunity for the spontaneous joy, the unexpected wonder.

My life has been a whirlwind this past month. Too much to do, too little time. Both my mother and my mother-in-law are in their nineties, achieving milestones, to be sure, but enduring physical deterioration that precludes the easy grace with which they used to move. Pulling out photographs, I contemplate the ravaging of their once-agile bodies. I ponder, too, my own future, as my past chirps at me. I consider those long-gone days when mothers set the rules and children asked, in whispery voices, “May I?”

I will miss these women who shaped my life, one during my early years, the other throughout my marriage. I do what I can to ease their difficulties, send flowers, bring candy, but it isn’t in the gifts we buy that we prove our love. It is in the way we choose to ask the question. Mother, may I take those steps you couldn’t in the era in which you lived? May I create something of beauty to honor the life you gave me? May I craft a story worth sharing with those who come after me? May I live in the freedom of a life unbound by antiquated restrictions and outdated prejudice?

I listen, with the tiny ear of my heart, to the answer they do not realize they are giving, an answer that matches the question: Yes, daughter, you may take one giant step…into tomorrow. It is an answer I pass on to my own daughters, and to all the women who stand at the edge of the grass, waiting to move on.

 

Planting Seeds…

The time has come to prep the garden, to churn the soil, to sow the spring cold-crops that will bring the first warm-weather harvest. As always, I will plant old favorites and try one or two new items. Thinking about the peas, spinach and lettuce that will sprout makes my mouth water in anticipation of the salads and sandwiches to come. When I go out to check my plots, I fluster a mother duck who has laid her eggs up next to the house. Her chosen nursery resides along my route to the raised beds. I startle as much as she does. Ducklings would change my game plan. Unfortunately, my appearance  frightens her away. The eggs, abandoned through fear, will never hatch.

Isn’t it true that every best-laid scheme suffers a setback or two? In addition to the fowl nursery in the flower bed, the weather forecast promises snow. With temps too cold for outdoor activity, I postpone my trip to the garden center. Adding more soil and manure will have to wait. But all is not lost. The seeds sleep in the garage, quietly expectant. The earth warms ever so slowly. Movement happens, if only in tiny increments. Patience remains the word of the day, the month, the year.

As in gardening, so in writing. The plans I carefully prepare at the turn of the year begin to unravel shortly after I ink them into my master calendar. Revision #8 finished by the end of February? Not quite. Twenty queries out by the end of March? Um, only made it to the halfway point there. Spend three full days polishing the latest manuscript? An email for a conference in Cincinnati comes across my screen. I curtail the writing hour to register. Life brims with necessary distraction. I can’t ignore one aspect of the process for another. As in gardening, so in writing. Each step of the process deserves respect and attention.

Fear, as Frank Herbert wrote in his novel DUNE, is the great mind-killer. Just as my presence spooked the duck and the weather delayed my tilling, criticism and rejection leave me adrift, uncertain, contemplating surrender. Life would be simpler without the compulsion to write. Yet those seeds of ideas are still there, tucked into their packets, waiting to be planted.

There is no way to avoid the unexpected turns. Every fracturing of the grand scheme occurs because LIFE intrudes. Bathrooms need to be cleaned. A grandson has minor surgery and Grandma travels to help out. The nursing home calls with news of yet another fall by an elderly relative and, again, the day’s production is put on hold. A friend passes away unexpectedly. Grief swoops in.

It isn’t only daily life that forces changes to the schedule. Rejections point the manuscript in a new direction.  More queries must be created. Research requires more time than expected. A new story craves attention. The blog must be drafted!

As the months wind on, carrying me further from the initial plan, I weed the seeds already sprouting. A non-fiction piece finds a fundraising venue. Reviews and interviews are off for editing. The manuscript revisions continue, a short story blooms with fresh ideas, a fantasy story adds new chapters. Creativity resides among the dark, untended niches of my mind, waiting to be fertilized, watered, warmed by the sun of my imagination. As long as I am open to the possibilities, they will sprout.

May your garden grow!

 

Grinding It Out…

I used to coach tennis. Those years remain among my favorite times as an educator. The young women who gifted me with their talent and commitment will always have a special place in my heart. But being a competitive athlete is tough. The girls and I had a mantra to sustain us during the long seasons. When the matches get tough, keep on grinding. That meant digging deep inside yourself, grasping the strength coiled there, and pushing through the hard times. Watching those young women stick to a game plan despite being sometimes over-matched or ill or in pain taught me more than they could ever know about grit, determination, and perseverance.

As a writer, I confront those ‘grinding’ moments on a regular basis. I suppose I ask myself several times each month, is this worth it? When those rejections arrive, or my queries are ignored, or my writers’ group says my new idea just isn’t working, I weigh the cost of going on against the disappointment of letting go. Which I can’t seem to do. Because the writing means more to me than the pain. Then I grind.

So much about this writing game is muscle memory. Sit, pound out the words, read, repeat. Just as tennis drills involve establishing that rhythm, teaching your body to react, practicing footwork, writing has its own set of drills. The journey begins with setting aside a time and place to make the work appear. This requires giving up, letting go, adjusting my life to exclude those activities that take away my writing time. It also means teaching my brain to ferret out the perfect word, the crafty line, the plot points that complete the arc of the story. This writing game demands that I do the grunt work of research and evaluation, of drafting and revising. Before the piece takes the court, so much difficult work must happen. I grind on.

There is glamour in winning. Watch those amazing Open tournaments. Attend a local match. Admire the men and women who endure heat, injury, and long sets to lift a cup and thank the audience. See them sweat, mourn a loss, celebrate a victory. For writers, victory comes with publication. But the moment is short-lived. We return, shrug off the afterglow, and pursue the next great tale. Perhaps, then, for writers, vindication occurs before that moment of victory, when the essay, story or poem reaches for us, passion takes hold, and we follow the memory, swinging at the ball of story, following the lob or cross-court shot into something beautiful, something moving. In the space between, the grinding transforms us. We emerge stronger, fiercer, more determined.

See you on the court!

Sharing Space… Literary Citizenship and the era of Me

It’s so easy to be caught looking inward. Navel gazing has never been so attractive. The culture of entitlement that surrounds us paves a yellow brick road to the Emerald City of Envy and invites us to pamper ourselves, celebrate our own egos, and neglect that which doesn’t touch us. Me, me, me scream the ads. “We’re all deserving,” suggest the self-help gurus. Mine is better than yours, sniff the armchair critics. Narcissus would be proud.

Recently, one of my author friends posted a question regarding writers who trumpet their own books as ‘the best of the year.’ Should we, he asked, be so blatantly self-centered? I submit that a good literary citizen remembers that we are a community of writers, that none of us succeeds without the helping hand, the lift up, the constructive critique,and the shoulder to lean on when the burden becomes too much to carry alone.

I have spent a significant amount of time, effort and money practicing my craft. As much as possible, I strive to be that good literary citizen for my fellow practicioners. Often, when I need that hand or shoulder, the pickings grow slim and the road long. But, still, I persist! 😉 To keep myself on track as I plod along, I have constructed a checklist of good lit citizen qualities. Forthwith, a path to achieve that most precious of status cards…the Good Literary Citizen Award.

1. Offer to mentor. What a gift to have someone point out the pitfalls, provide a road map and listen as you try out ideas. New and/or aspiring writers benefit from this. I only wish I had been fortunate enough to have a mentor early on.

2. Share information…about conferences, opportunities, meetings, workshops. No one knows everything, and what may not work for you may be just the thing for another writer.

3. Support writers, especially on social media and web sites but also in person. How flattering to be recommended, invited, included, applauded.  Nurture a network you may use someday. Vote for their books, mention their work, attend readings and launches.

4. Be generous. Offer to read and critique, without monetary reward when possible. The paying gigs will come later. Provide honest, constructive criticism. Speaking for myself, I won’t get better if I don’t know what needs to be improved.

5. Find a writing group where you can use your talents to promote yourself and others. We’re not all good at everything, but we are all good at something. If you’re a strong editor, offer that skill to others.

6. Be enthusiastic. Writers share a passion not easily explainable to non-writers. We all experience rejection. My computer file folder is filled with those NO emails. But, you know what? It only takes a word and a hug to pick me up and set me back on the path.

7. It’s easy to get lost in our own ambition. I remind myself that my greatest accomplishment may not be the best-seller I want to write, but the one I champion in another writer’s life.

I have witnessed the jealousy of writers, the tendency to find fault in others as a way to promote one’s own writing. It’s not pretty. I prefer to think that, as someone wiser than me suggested, a rising tide lifts all boats. Here’s to achieving the impossible dream…may you earn your card, as I hope to do, one small step at a time.

A Discourse On Loss

“No man is an island.” John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions

As 2017 closes out its run, I struggle through the immensity of unmooring that the year has brought.  My bubble life of structure and belief in the common decency of man has suffered a knock-out punch. As a child of the sixties, I am no stranger to turmoil. However, the bouts of political insanity that rock the country strain my belief that goodness will triumph. A minority should never determine the course of the ship of state, yet this is exactly what has occurred. The loudest voice, the vilest attacks, have set adrift the progress of our nation. I am no quitter, but I despair. Even the best of fighters hangs up the gloves eventually. That sick feeling in my stomach caused by tremors beneath the bedrock of our democracy lingers. Despite the efforts to raise my voice  – the phone calls made, the petitions signed, the marches joined – those in power are not listening. I am not an island. Connected by history and inclination to the best that we can be, I mourn for us.

“Grief is a plastic surgeon.” Sherman Alexie, You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me

This old year passing has brought personal loss that I did not anticipated. Two dear friends and kindred souls passed away in the fall within a month of each other. The grief rises with me each day, rides my shoulder as I clean and bake and pray. It does, as Alexie suggests, carve new patterns in the grain of life. What once was treasured together-time has morphed into pictures in an album and memories already slipping through time’s erosive hand. Although I did not take for granted the road trips, critique sessions and working lunches, I see now how fleeting those moments were.

“Sorrow floats.”  John  Irving, Hotel New Hampshire

The last twelve months have required more patience than I ever imagined I had. My mother-in-law, 96 on the cusp of 97, and my mother, 94 this coming March, suffer the ravages of physical and mental ailments. I juggle visits to the nursing home with power-of-attorney requirements and long-distance discussions with trips to the emergency room. Each day brings a new challenge, not the least of which is the knowledge and expectation that this, too, shall pass as they do. Grief isn’t finished with me yet.

I know I am not alone. The world suffers. Death visits us all. How do we find strength, hope, and grace amid the emotional debris? One source for me is books. Reading the words of others who have entered this arena gives me courage. Recognizing the vast sweep of human emotion assists in placing my own grief in perspective. Although my post this month is grim, the promise of peace rises, like Picasso’s flower in the painting “Guernica,” from the wounded heart.

A child laughs. A woman decides to run for office…and wins. The dough rises in the pan, spreading the yeasty smell of home and hearth and hospitality. Words cover the page, sometimes in abundance, but more often in quiet runs.

A new year walks beside me, buoyant and full of expectation. I must make it count.

A December Manifesto: 2017

One.

I am only one, but I have a voice.

As a human being, as a citizen, as a child of the Creator, I must use that voice to speak out for good.

Evil cannot be ignored or excused.

Not for political gain. Not for corporate greed. Not out of apathy.

In this season of peace, when all religions share hope, I must nourish the flame of that hope.

More alike than we are different,  a cut bleeds red on all our skins.

A light illuminates the deepest shadow.

If I shine my light, I illuminate a circle in the dark.

Two.

If you join me…

Two together  can enlarge the circle.

Two together can dispel those shadows.

Ghandi said be the change you wish to see in the world.

Martin Luther King called us to lift every voice to the mountaintop.

Change I must be. No excuse to pass the torch, to wait for another to do the work.

I am only one. If you hold my hand, we become two, then four, then ten and a thousand.

If I carry my candle to the foot of the Lincoln Memorial to stand in silent vigil, will you join me?

No protests. No violence. Only silence and light and a voice raised in thanks and blessing, in concern and caring.

We will sing together. We will carry all our children on our shoulders and in our hearts.

Together, we will brave the perils of the journey.

Each of us is one, but merged we become a force for change.

I am only one, but I have a voice.

Stand with me. You, too, are only one, with a voice that can move the world.

Let us raise those voices together.

Allelujah…