Lost in Reminiscence

 

There are probably as many different kinds of writing groups as there are types of writers. And when it comes to definition, there’s no right or wrong, no good or bad. What’s most important is for a group to decide what works best for them and do it.

Some groups meet for support since there’s nothing more energizing than spending time with other writers. Some meet for instruction and the format may resemble a classroom complete with writing prompts and assignments. Still others meet for critique, an opportunity to give and receive constructive feedback. Writing groups can include any combination of, or all of these elements.

For anyone interested, the internet is filled with information and advice on how to make the most of writing groups and the critique process. Here’s some of what I found. What is critique? Critique is offering your impressions, reflecting on how a piece of writing affects you. It is also offering suggestions for improvement but not necessarily making corrections. After all, this is the author’s work and they have the final say.

Commenting on word choices is effective when it is more general than specific. For example, saying “instead of using the word ‘dark’ you should say ‘murky,’ ” may not be very helpful. Better to point out that the use of a certain word conveys weakness where perhaps a stronger word would better get the point across. Or saying use of a certain word sounds harsh. Ask the author if they intended to be harsh or would a more neutral word have better results?   The author then can use your suggestion and look for a word that better defines the feeling they’re trying to capture.

One purpose of critique is to give feedback as a reader. Was the story interesting? Did it hold your attention? Do you care about the characters and what happens to them? Then also give feedback as a fellow writer, focusing on the technical issues such as the need for tightening the writing or even omitting extraneous information. Other elements include how the story flows, whether transitions from one topic to another are smooth or not or opinions about how and when certain facts or incidents appear in the story.

Passing out copies to all is helpful because reading along can increase the impact leading to better critique. Commenting on punctuation and grammar can be done in writing before returning your copy to the author. Then line-editing doesn’t need discussion during group and allows better use of the available time.

Writers are articulate, creative individuals who enjoy people and love to talk. Hence, writing groups can easily drift into casual discussions that have little to do with the process of writing. This type of diversion is sometimes referred to as reminiscing. Writers are expected to reminisce and, as an essay and memoir writer, everything I write is reminiscence! But it’s entirely another matter when time is taken up with talk of someone’s own personal experiences, philosophy or beliefs rather than focusing on the writing under discussion.

The dynamics of writing groups are fluid and ever evolving; many writers report how important a writing group was to their development and success. It’s a challenge to find that middle ground between structured discipline and free reign (critique Nazi’s vs anything goes). Successful efforts will be rewarded with enjoyment of the group’s activities while increasing productivity and fulfilling your writing ambitions. Write on!

 

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The Collector

(Bessemer, Mi. 1980) The hum of the car engine, the soft music on the radio surrounded me in a warm, protective bubble. Why can’t life, I wondered, be as soft and airy as the lake effect snow floating down outside the car window. After living in Upper Michigan for several years, brought here by my then boyfriend, now husband, the fairy tale seemed to be losing its glitter.

I remembered his excited phone call to me. I had just finished college and he had taken a short trip to check out a new opportunity. He’d excitedly explained how this was his great chance to make good, He’d hooked up with a real estate developer eyeing the prospects in this remote place, romantically called “Big Snow Country.” The area was on the cusp of an explosion of new development with a new ski hill, the fourth within a twenty mile radius, being planned. That would only make it more attractive to the big city vacationers, and investors wanting to escape onto the ski hills and into the woods for a respite from their high pressure lives. He’d won me over, worn me down. So, off to a new adventure we went.

The snow scrunched under the tires as I drove into the driveway. I noticed lights on in several houses on our road located in the middle of the ski area. Skiers here for escape. Me too, I thought, as I turned off the ignition and sat, taking in the silence. Collecting my thoughts.

Though my husband had a real job, he’d also recently gone into the bar business. The bar, closed for several years and purchased for next to nothing, seemed like a toy, his latest diversion. I hadn’t been part of the decision. After the novelty wore off, the bar had begun to take over our lives.

Invariably, on our way to a planned social engagement, we’d always have to “stop in.” Just for a minute, to see how things were going. Had the bartender shown up? Was anyone shorting the till? Most often, we’d end up never leaving. After multiple times, being trapped until closing, I’d begun to take my own car. At least, I could leave when I wanted to. On this particular evening, he was his usual self, sociable to everyone but me. After several hurtful remarks, I knew this night would end the same as countless ones before. So, I left.

Our lives had changed drastically when I’d gotten a job in my profession as a social worker for the county. I was feeling pretty good about myself. He‘d commented to one of his friends that I no longer cared about him. I only cared about my new life and the friends I was making.

What really bothered him was that I was no longer the “go-fer” in his construction business. He was accustomed to having a to-do list for me each day; but I was no longer the waitress working nights, always available and helpful.

The ramifications of that change were nothing compared with my latest worry. His new preoccupation with guns. Calling himself a collector, our spare bedroom was slowly filling with rifles and shotguns, all neatly placed, leaning against the walls. They were valuable collector items, he said. What was the big deal, he wanted to know. Since we had no real neighbors, he set up a target off our back deck. He’d load a gun and go out to shoot. Returning to the house, he’d often set the loaded gun down on the coffee table and insist it should stay there. Even the fact that friends were reluctant to bring their children to our house didn’t budge him.

As the reality of life in the UP came home to us, his mood changed. Between the difficulty of making a living in an economically depressed area and realizing we would never really belong in such a close-minded place, his drinking had escalated. Trouble sleeping, erratic behavior, the feeling that everyone was plotting his failure in both business and socially added to his discontent. When he put a loaded pistol on the shelf above our bed, I paid attention.

With a sigh, I took the key out of the ignition, walked into the house and stood in the dark for a long time. The house was quiet, peaceful. No noise. No trouble. No husband. I was jolted back to reality by the sound of my own voice, echoing through the empty house: “You are going to get out of this. You have to get out of this before you go crazy. Or end up dead.”

That night, I began to plot my escape. I knew I had to be patient, wait for just the right time. Get him when he’s feeling conciliatory, when he’s sober. My sister and a friend were planning to visit for a ski week and were going to stay at our house. I took that for the opportunity it was.

I knew the best time to talk was early in the day. I knew he’d be at the bar, setting up for the coming night. I closed my office door and dialed the number. I began the conversation by reminding him about my sister’s visit. Why should they have to tolerate our problems, I asked. Wouldn’t it be better if he just stayed at the bar for that week. The bar had been an old hotel back in the hey-day of the ore mining good times. Good times that were now long gone. I knew there were sleeping rooms above the bar because he’d actually stayed there a few times when he’d been too impaired to drive home.

He must have been wanting to impress someone within earshot of his phone conversation, because he treated it like a business call, agreeing without argument and little comment. Later, he came over and got a few things to get him through the week. I’d lucked out.

I was able to welcome my sister and her friend with no stress. The week went along well. Each night after my work and their skiing, I had lots of fun showing them the highlights of the area. My sister’s friend marveled that no matter where we went, I always saw someone I knew. Always the hellos and introductions. Being from a large city, she I thought that was so great. And I thought it was too. See, you can make it here alone. You have friends, I said to myself. I was feeling hopeful that I’d have a nice, new life once this was over.

Near the end of the week, from work again, I placed another strategically calculated phone call to the bar. I appealed to his senses, remarking that he had probably had as nice a week as I had, not having to deal with the constant tension and conflict, always present between us. I ventured that this probably meant we should face facts and accept that we should separate.

And he agreed. Though we were still far from a total resolution, at least that decision had been made. He came over to the house while I was at work and took more of his things. I began to believe this would work out without incident. Silly me.

What followed were the usual games of divorcing parties. Thinking this could be settled easily with one lawyer, only prolonged the experience and led to multiple court date cancellations. Finally, I hired my own lawyer, cut my losses and got things settled as best I could. Several months after the court hearing, my relief was rocked when I got the notice of a tax sale on the house I’d been awarded. So, the money I’d given him to pay taxes had gone elsewhere! This began a tumbling succession of blizzards that blanketed my attempts at recovery.

The next year, I was unnerved when attending a workshop on the newly identified Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, common to Vietnam veterans. This was 1981 and just in the previous year, PTSD had been included in the latest DSM-III, the bible of psychiatric diagnosis labeling and coding.

The day of the conference, I recall how my anxiety increased as I heard the litany of symptoms. Escalation of drinking. A short fuse. The anger. Aggressive behavior. Waking from troubling dreams. Flashbacks. So, the preoccupation with guns was normal!? This suddenly explained so much.

Driving home from the VA Hospital in Iron Mountain Michigan, I had to actually stop the car due to my shaking; I was barely in control of the vehicle. For a few minutes I actually thought that if I’d known what was going on, perhaps I could have helped him. Then I came to my senses. After getting home and back into the daily routine of work and life, the intensity of those feelings seemed to slip away.

But the relief of being done with this and having survived with few residuals was once again smashed when I was packing for my move back to civilization. Emptying out long closed up and never looked into drawers and cabinets produced a package wrapped in newspaper. It was thin and narrow, about a foot long. The newspaper was old and wrinkled. It had been there for a long time. As I unfolded it, I began to shake again. It was a machete, I’m sure from his Army tour of Vietnam. He’d bragged about all the souvenirs he’d secreted back through the mail and in his duffle bag. So, this weapon had been within five feet of our bed all the while we’d lived together in that house.

I called my friend, Lucia, who worked at the local domestic abuse shelter and she talked me down. He’s gone. He can’t hurt you. This is over. I don’t know how I disposed of it but I did. And this would be my second last problem before this time of my life was finally resolved.

In the last stages of moving, the electrician I hired to fix some small thing, found that electrical wires had been routed to by-pass the box. The electrician apologized and said, of course, he had to report this. The police came out to take pictures and I told them my side of the story. Long after my move, the Lake Superior District Power Company would sue me for back charges. After all, I owned the house and I was there best chance for recouping. Luckily, he ultimately settled it. Are we finally done now?

It took five years after the divorce for me to wrap up everything and make my exit. I moved downstate, went to graduate school, on to new work opportunities and life. But I’m a collector too. Aren’t we all? I know this collection of thoughts, experiences and memories will never completely fade from my memory. Now that it’s over, I have come to value many things about this experience, look back in fondness at friends I’m still in touch with and, most importantly, know if I can survive this I can do anything.

 

Girlfriends

Published in Booklovers Magazine; Aug/Sept/Oct 1998.

Book Review: GIRLFREINDS by Carmen Renee Berry and Tamara Treader, Wildcat Canyon Press, Berkely, California, 1995, 229 pgs, $12.95 (soft cover).

It has been said of the baby boom generation, that no prior group has had more propensity to turn inward, to analyze and think about every aspect of their lives and their relationships. It has also been said that this penchant has resulted in the profusion of books being marketed which dissect and analyze it all.

For example, books which detail sibling angst and birth order, the relationships between mothers and sons, daughters and fathers and every other variation one can think of, are well represented on the shelves of the local book shop. Add to that the multitude of titles which study the intricacies and complexities of work and social relationships and we have enough reading material to carry us to the millennium and beyond.

Perhaps the book under review is a perfect example of the result of that deep yearning to figure things out. It’s a little book and perfect as a gift which probably has added to its brisk sales. My initial thought, after finishing the last page and hugging it a bit, was that I wanted to share it with my own treasured girlfriends.

The book is tidily divided into various categories which eventually cover every possible source of friendship and stage of development from girlhood through adult life. Each section, aptly named, covers a specific time of our life or type of friendship.

The first section, “Telling our Stories,” provides a perfect explanation of why we need to regularly see our women friends. This could be useful when discussing our needs to the men in our lives who probably secretly wish that male friendships were more like that. Reading the book made me feel lucky once again.

“Discovering Friends” highlights the differences and similarities we find in each other that seem to draw us to certain people at certain stages of our lives. “Sharing Girlhood Adventures” recounts how we became the kind of friend we are. It also helps us recall who was instrumental in developing our friendship style which began as a young girl, how we got through some tough times and how we changed due to the influence of a friend.

“Outlasting Transition” discusses how friends help us survive life changes and losses. This section also investigates our feelings when we lose touch with a treasured friend. Everyone can relate to how you run into someone or get a phone call or letter out of the blue and it’s like no time has passed and you just pick up right where you left off. Finally, the pain of ending friendships when there is a misunderstanding is handled with a short but honest discussion.

Lastly, “Women’s Rites,” discusses the importance of rituals and celebrations in maintaining friendships. Ideas such as book discussion groups and other friendship rituals sounded nice.

The stories ran from touching to mundane, from sad to hilarious but seemed to only scratch the surface. One must wonder what kind of book would have resulted had there been fewer stories but with more depth. Perhaps there would have been less repetition.

One of the authors is a former licensed psychotherapist who is the author of several books including one entitled: When Helping You is Hurting Me. The other is a publisher and intellectual property attorney. Though they indicate that they conducted many interviews, little or no information was given on how they chose the people interviewed or how they conducted their research. A bibliography, both fiction and non-fiction is included and the last page gives an address to send “an extraordinary story of friendship you would like to share,” for any new editions of the book that might result.

The book is a quick and easy read. It served as a panoramic trip through my own friendship history. More than once or twice, I remembered a friendship I had not thought about for a long time. It was a nostalgic and lovely trip into the past, through the memories of friends recalled. For that alone, it was worth the time.

Dumped

As I entered my darkened office early in the morning, the message light blinked ominously. The call had come in at 7:00 pm the night before and I recognized my friend’s number. That’s odd, I thought, as I pushed the button to listen. I was home last night and she knows I never work at night. As soon as I heard her voice I felt a pang of both annoyance and relief.

In a mumbling, scattered way, she said she needed to step back. Needed to take care of herself. This hurt her but she needed to do it. She couldn’t be “available” to me anymore though she valued our friendship. I held the phone limply in my hand for a moment and let out a sigh. No surprise, I thought, after her e-mail several weeks ago, when she’d matter-of-factly listed the topics we could no longer talk about. Those forbidden topics comprised most of my life.

She’d been my first, and for a time, only friend in a remote, small town that was my new home. We’d met at work and I was so grateful for how her friendship eased my adjustment. But, soon, my discomfort signaled that our trip down the friendship highway was approaching a fork in the road. Her need-to-be-needed had dominated our relationship.

She always had to do things for people, giving superfluous gifts and performing gratuitous favors for people she hardly knew. This was unsettling since we were both social workers by training, so “giving” and “doing for” were constant issues in our work. A common misconception about social workers is that we are nice people who are helpful. That’s somewhat true. But, more often we do difficult things such as pushing people to change or to face their responsibilities. She was running her personal life as if it was a charity; this was my first, up-close experience with how boundary violations can also impact a private life and a personal relationship.

Don’t get me wrong. It was really nice when she took a former co-worker to every one of her cancer treatment appointments. And, it was very thoughtful how she donated some of the proceeds from her jewelry-making hobby toward a massage or a mani/pedi for someone having health problems. But it’s how she swooped in to almost anyone’s life, becoming their guardian angel/chief advocate, that seemed way out of whack.

For example, I watched in disbelief, when she completely took over the life of Irene, a neighbor she hardly knew. When Irene’s husband had serious health issues, my friend made darn sure the couple fully discussed a secret that had endured for over thirty years in their marriage. They must talk this through, she insisted.

Then, when Irene became a widow, my friend was busy, oh so busy getting Irene’s life in order. This went so far as arranging for long-estranged family members to meet and talk and selling and disposing of the deceased husband’s personal effects. Hearing her tell it, it was obvious who was in charge. Where does it end! Well, it didn’t end until she’d told me, a total stranger to this couple, many intimate details of their life. I couldn’t help wondering what she told people about me.

Early on, our relationship was fun. We shopped, liked movies, loved to go for coffee and talk. But as her private social service agency grew, there was less time for me. And I adjusted, finding other friends and expanding my social life without her. Hearing the latest tales of how she’d eased another hard life became tedious. Funny how her topics weren’t off limits.

Another quirk was her need to be sure everyone knew just how kind and thoughtful she was. Prime example, I was at her house with several other women for a movie. In the living room, off in the corner, I noticed a small chair, handmade from the branches of a white spruce tree. These are lawn and front porch decorations quite popular in the area. And expensive. Once everyone was seated (the audience in place), she dramatically presented the chair to one of the women.

“When I saw this I thought of you right away, Barb, and just knew you’d love it.” Barb, who could have bought the chair herself had she wanted it, looked embarrassed. The other women in the room looked puzzled (why her and why now) and everyone was quiet. Lots of looking down. I was relieved when the movie started.

Between her taking over people’s lives and giving, giving, giving I began to think of her as the Mother Teresa of our small town. That led to seeing her as a hybrid of Mother Teresa (caring for the sick and poor) and Oprah (giving a prize to everyone in her audience). And that’s the thing about small towns. Her reputation ballooned as she became known far and wide as that saintly woman who did so much for those poor, needy people.

Some years back, I’d worked at a large inner-city hospital operated by the Daughters of Charity whose mission is to treat the poor. They regularly held employee seminars to address the role of the helper. What they taught is that it’s necessary for helpers to understand that, in helping, their own needs are met as well. It’s when helpers are seduced by those warm fuzzy feelings that the helper/helpee relationship can become unhealthy and unequal. Everyone knows the “feed a man a fish” story. True success is when people become self-sufficient and helpers are no longer needed.

I related this learning experience to book club during our discussion of “Eat, Pray, Love” since the author, Elizabeth Gilbert, had decided a young mother she happened upon in Indonesia absolutely must have a house. Gilbert tells how she recruited friends to put money into a house fund. Long story short, the young mother never did get a house because that wasn’t what she wanted. And Gilbert had never bothered to ask the young mother what she wanted. As I was telling this story, I glanced over at Mother Teresa/Oprah, hoping she’d see the similarities. Glassy eyed, robot stare. No acknowledgement.

When I ended my marriage, I located, moved to and decorated a new apartment, filed for divorce and then called my friend from work to tell her my news. She was flustered and unbelieving. She abruptly said she had to hang up. Within a half hour she called back saying she’d gotten into her car and drove out to find my new address. She said it looked nice. Was she giving me the approval I wasn’t asking for? Clearly, I’d broken a major rule.

“How can that be?” she asked. “Why didn’t you tell me before now?”

“Well,“ I replied in a light, matter-of-fact way. “I just didn’t want to be a project.” She didn’t miss a beat, asked no questions and we never talked about it. Though she didn’t get it, it felt good to tell her the truth.

When she came to see my new apartment, I said how happy I was in my new home. All I still needed was a scarf for a bedside table. Next time she visited, with a dramatic flair, she presented me with a box of, not one, but three lovely and expensive scarves. So I’m not capable of picking out a scarf by myself? Sad thing is we’d now missed out on a friendship-building opportunity of going to lunch and shopping for a scarf. I guess it was more important for her to hit the caregiver jackpot.

Our friendship was distant after that phone message which I didn’t even respond to. We never did talk about it. I accepted the obvious: there had been very little balance in our relationship. As always, it’s the Buddhist in me that wonders what I’m meant to learn from this.

Being dumped causes pain regardless of the circumstances. And as anyone would, I felt a twinge and went through the usual deliberations. What did I do wrong? Is there something I could have done to prevent this? Then I came to my senses.

Maybe I wasn’t needy enough. Yet I valued the friendship and I did need her, but on a smaller level. We were both outsiders in this closed up, small town and I’m glad we were able to support each other through that. I’ll always remember how I relearned the valuable lessons in giving and receiving.

For a year and a half after the phone message, I only saw her at group activities. We were cordial, superficial. Then I heard she was selling her house and moving out of state. One week prior to her move, we had lunch. As we’d exhausted her moving news and all other trivial topics, suddenly tears welled up in her eyes.

She said how much she valued our relationship; she hoped we could stay connected. I said: “sure.” I thought: “whatever.” She said she was sorry for how things had turned out. I’m not sure what that even meant. And I didn’t ask because it didn’t seem to matter anymore. Long after her move, mutual friends who still heard from her excitedly passed on her hello to me. I’d nod, say, oh that’s nice. And that was the end of it. I don’t miss those blinking message lights.

Where’s the Humor?

At a well-established writing conference, I paid $150.00 to take a humor class entitled Where is the Humor in Your Life —Everywhere. It was five days with 1 ½ hours of class time each day; that’s a total of 7 ½ hours of instruction. Being a nonfiction, memoir writer I wanted to add humor to the family stories I liked to write. A few days before the start of class the instructor sent an e-mail asking us to bring laptops or a flashdrive so materials could be downloaded. An organized instructor with an agenda. I was getting excited.

On the first day, with no introductions or ice breaker activity, the instructor feverishly passed out a flood of paper hand-outs even though we already had these on a flashdrive. His entire curriculum focused on a wide variety of writing prompts and he insisted these could be applied to and improve any type of writing.

The prompts included “fakes” of personal ads, disclaimers, grocery lists, e-mail addresses, complaint letters, epitaphs, honey-do chore lists, t-shirt slogans as well as creating captions for Gary Larson cartoons and Onion headlines. This type of humor was more improvisation and required quick, pithy responses. So, this class will help me become Comedy Central’s next stand-up sensation? Hardly.

Half way through the first day, a student timidly asked if we could go around and find out what each of the seven class members was working on and maybe get to know each other. This seemed revolutionary to the instructor but he grudgingly agreed. We began the go-around but only two people, one was me, got to say anything before the instructor did a quick detour back to, you guessed it, his prompts.

I’d said I was working on a short piece about the challenges of dealing with my 94 year old mother who refused to wear her hearing aid; I wanted to add some humor without seeming uncaring. As class was breaking up, the instructor walked across the room to tell me I should put that project aside and concentrate on the writing prompts he was presenting. I mentally saluted the Nazi writing master, sputtered to my friend as we walked out to the car and fumed all the way home.

I thought overnight about quitting or transferring to another class. Okay, I reasoned, this will activate a side of my brain I don’t usually use. Trying to remain open minded, I put aside the feeling of drowning in a mountain of information, none of which dealt with my own writing, as the course title had suggested.     I decided to give it a go. Bad decision.

It became clear on the second day that the instructor’s entire repertoire had been exhausted the day before. From then on, he ran out of steam during the first half hour of each class and asked us, his students, “so, what do you want to do now?” Oh my. I wouldn’t ask that if I were you! No telling what could happen if someone allowed their true feelings full reign and answer that question honestly.

The mood and the teaching methods of our instructor set a pattern of confusion and chaos that would drive the class throughout the week. He seemed the absent minded professor when forgetting what had been discussed a half hour ago, changing the subject mid-stream and generally cutting off interesting discussion to return to his beloved prompts. Get me some Haldol! Not sure if it’s for him or for me!

Our class was made up of people motivated to work and already funny before they walked in the door. Two students actually belonged to an improvisation group in their hometown and were the most familiar with performance comedy. They seemed to get it; but even they were rolling their eyes along with the rest of us as the class hobbled along each day.

On day four, after we’d exhausted every attempt to address our own writing, someone wrangled approval of picking one of the prompts, whichever one we wanted, and bringing it to class completed on the final day. Obviously, I wasn’t the only one who needed thinking time.

The instructor must have noticed the lack of enthusiasm and silence as he slogged over his tedious material. He commented that the memoir class he was teaching in the morning was upset with him because he was encouraging them to embellish their stories and actually lie. He seemed put out by their reaction.

Out of curiosity, I looked in the class bulletin. His class was titled: Creative Memoir Writing: Let’s Lie This Time! The description stated “famous memoirs lie a lot. So why not you too?” It continued with comments about “spinning the truth” and “making up the truth from scratch.” Perhaps, I began to think, this man is dangerous to the creative process. Who do I call at the New York Times to rat out the guy as the next James Frey of “A Million Little Pieces” debacle?

I understand it’s important to be open to new ideas and realize there’s always something to learn. Now that the class is over, I’ve grappled with that thought. What, indeed, did I learn? Humor is very hard to write and the elements of humor include writing the absurd and the silly. Perhaps now I’m more aware of the need for a strong punch line and more comfortable being outrageous. But at $30.00 per session, doing a short writing exercise and chatting seems too little for the money. It was a stretch to complete the writing prompts and to apply this to my own writing. But try, I did:

Onion headline: “Daughter taken into custody after taping hearing aide to elderly mother’s head. “   Ewe! Icky!

During a noontime program, a celebration of their 50th year in operation, the Director mentioned that although the workshop was sponsored by a large university, they must support themselves and it was their desire to grow the program. I figured I owed them the truth. That would help them. Here’s my evaluation:

TO:                  Workshop Planning Committee

FROM:            Disappointed but hopeful

Congratulations in reaching your 50 year milestone. I support your goal of growing and sustaining the program and plan to attend in the future. In order to grow, it’s necessary to have interesting classes taught by competent instructors. The following is a demonstration of my disappointment at what I learned in the humor class I attended.

Fake E-mail: Humorinstructor@slimcurriculum.unabletofocus.mayhave dementia.repetitive.com

Onion headline: Humor class stages coup. Instructor run out of town on a rail. Seven students hailed as heroes

T-shirt: Deviate from the handouts at your own peril!

Fake Personal Ad: Writer/instructor seeks like-minded students who will not tire of discussing the same ideas over and over and who will allow instructor to put forth only his ideas.

I hope you will find this helpful in your future planning:

A Moment in Time

Published in BookWoman, April-May, 2011\

 

“Put motivated writers with unique talents into a room and watch the cascade of creative ideas flow!”………..unknown author

bookWriting conferences can really get the juices flowing and give all writers precious time to clear the mind, ignite the soul and enliven the creative ideas often pushed aside in the rush of daily life.

I’d attended Write by The Lake Writing Conference in Madison, Wisconsin several times and always came away inspired. Only to slid back into old habits and end up with little to show for my efforts. Not so this time. I was about to become part of a collage of writing creatively that would have a beginning, a middle and an end!

In June 2010, Amy Lou Jenkins, the instructor for a non-fiction, writing for anthologies and memoir class, began the first day with introductions. It was clear that I was surrounded by multi-talented women with diverse life experiences.

One woman and her husband had produced an off Broadway musical. Another had worked for UW at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research. She’d taken this class to write about something besides cheese, she laughed. Another, a special education teacher, wanted readers to see the poignant and sometimes humorous side of teaching the developmentally challenged student. We had one PhD in biochemistry, two educational psychologists, several teachers and various business women involved and successful in all levels of professional work. We came together to write about our lives, the parts that were personal and private. The supposedly small stuff.

In Room 112 of the Pyle Center on the Madison campus, thirteen women settled in for five days of work, sharing, self-discovery. Each morning, the class included instruction, discussion and in-class writing, then an assignment for the next day. As we took turns, reading and giving feedback, we began to sort out who we were and what we wanted to accomplish in our writing life.

Amy Lou had spent the last morning talking about how publishing was changing and giving us an overview of the latest print-on-demand technology choices. For self-publishing, the old days of being the second-class step child of the book world was finished. It had now become a viable choice and a credible way of getting yourself into print.

Even today, I can visualize the last hour of that last day, close my eyes, see and feel it all over again. All it took was Amy Lou saying, “You know, with all the wonderful stories you’ve created this week, you could publish your own anthology.” A hush fell over the room. How cliché is that? But a hush did fall over the room! I think we were dumbstruck and just sat there for a moment. Thinking. Then there was a voice. Followed by other voices.

“I could do the copy editing,” someone said.

“I could do the layout,” another said.

“I could do the graphics.”

“I can check out the self-publishing programs that are out there.”

“I could set up a Yahoo Group so we can stay in touch as we’re doing this.”

The energy in the room was inescapable. By the time we left that day, we had a timeline and a business plan. We’d be each other’s editors. Each of us would submit two short pieces, the ones done in the class, or others, to two other class members for final critique. They’d edit and return the pieces to the writer. When each writer was satisfied with their stories, they’d send them to the book editor. The completed stories should be submitted by the end of July. Then the copy editor would be finished by Labor Day.

Meanwhile, the book editor would research all the self-publishing options. She recommended CreateSpace because it was so accessible and part of Amazon.com. OMG. Our book will be for sale on Amazon.com!

Once that decision was made, the graphic artist and the layout person worked their magic. A flurry of Yahoo e-mails announced each step of the process as it was completed. It looked like the finished product would be submitted and available by mid-October. Class member Annette, quipped: “Well, that takes care of Christmas gifts for this year!”

When the final announcement came that the book was available, I got on Amazon.com right away. My hand shook a little as I entered the title: A Moment in Time: Room 112. And like magic, there it was! I ordered several copies which appeared in my mailbox within a week. How could our modest little project be a real book, complete with ISBN number, blurb on the back, glossy cover complete with lovely picture, table of contents and biographies of each writer.

CreateSpace has staff to help out whenever needed and prints books as they are ordered. That way, authors can order all the books they want, when they want. They can then give them as gifts or sell them at book events. It’s a more streamlined and less expensive way for authors to get their book out there, no longer having to buy the large quantities usually demanded by vanity press publishers.

I included news of the book in my holiday letter and was tickled when old friends reported they’d purchased and enjoyed it. When I gave copies to my family, they insisted I autograph it for them. My book group and writing group gave accolades as well.  Then, organizers of Write by the Lake Writing Conference expressed an interest in having us do a short presentation at next year’s conference.

So now I’m back down to reality and wondering where does this take me and my writing. Perhaps this means that I no longer have a legitimate excuse for not getting my many years of writing into an organized and presentable format. When I describe this experience, I say I was lucky enough to be in a room with several very talented people because all I did was submit my short pieces and then glory in the results. And it was glorious!

The Front Porch

A coffee table book on an unlikely subject caught my eye as I browsed through the book store. Front porches. How, I thought, how could there be enough to say about front porches to fill an entire book? But on looking through it, I saw many pictures of front porches of every size and style imaginable with interesting people sitting in groups eating, drinking, playing cards, reading, sleeping.

The peace and comfort of the images jumped off the pages and seemed to justify the book’s thesis that a front porch is where the real activity of families happens. I then realized how much of my own family life had occurred on two particular front porches of my life.

Both porches were so similar, stretching across the entire front of each house, with screens that had to be put up and taken down each season. Both were also furnished with a tattered old porch swing or a couch, a couple of wicker rocking chairs, discarded footstools and end tables. Everything that might have been donated to charity ended up on the front porch

The front porch at my parent’s Madison home is where we end up on any fair weather day. Even though it’s crowded and clumsy when maneuvering snacks and drinks, it seems to be the place where most of my family feels free to kick back, enjoy each other and discuss the most important topics of our day. I’m sure the laughter of my brothers and sisters echoed through the neighborhood as we cajoled Dad to turn off his far right wing talk radio. The faint refrain of the gleeful cries of Badger fans from nearby Camp Randall blew down the street, making us feel we were in the midst of the action.

But the front porch of my high school years in Fond du Lac was, to my mind, the most comfy place in the whole house even though it wasn’t really even in the house. I’d come back from shopping and that’s where I headed, flopping down on the cushioned old rocking chair to show my latest finds to whoever was around. I’d spent hours out there reading. What was most fun was watching, and listening as the world walked by. Amazing what people said when they thought no one was within hearing range.

All through high school, on most nights after supper, we migrated to the front porch as soon as the dishes were done. The faint beams from the living room were our only lighting, casting silhouettes as we settled in. That’s probably why we talked so much. The shadows promoted a feeling of anonymity. The radio played softly, the night air was fresh and activity on the street was nonexistent. It was a perfect time for dreaming.

Mother would make popcorn almost every night. My younger brothers and sisters came and left depending on how hungry or curious they were. It was mostly mom and me. High school was tough and having someone who was interested in my latest crisis was heartening. She’d first ask general questions about school, classes and friends. Then she’d get around to my latest crush or boyfriend. How was it going. That kind of stuff.

Things intensified in my senior year, when it came to Don, an older guy I was seeing and who had real potential in my eyes. When Don had met someone else and we were no longer dating, the situation seemed ripe for mom’s analysis. She was full of ideas about what I had done or didn’t do to keep him interested and what I could or should do to get him back.

At first I enjoyed these talks, but after a while, we seemed to be going over the same stuff. Mom was more interested than me. I look back now and wonder if she was living through me a bit. She seemed to really get a kick out of my stories and was full of advice.

As the weeks turned into months, I had given up on Don and moved on to other boys and interests but she seemed so persistent. Couldn’t we talk about something else, I wondered. I remember the night I purposely didn’t go out to the front porch after supper. Mom seemed hurt but accepting. Her little girl didn’t need her in the same way. Mom had five other kids to talk to and worry about, so I’m sure she found someone else to nurture.

I cherish those times on both front porches. Though part of different stages of my life, both hold fond memories of family life, serious family drama and invitations to peace and comfort.

Orange Crush Memory

When I was a small child, my mother’s very large, close family had a Sunday tradition. Everyone came to grandma and grandpa’s house for the day. Every Sunday. It made for a big party to have everyone in one place. Mom’s five siblings, their spouses and nearly a dozen of my cousins ranging in age from infant to six years. The kids had run of the house and yard and we always had a big meal at the end of the day. I have lovely memories of those times.

On one of those days, my grandpa seemed especially animated. He teased my sister and me, then charmed us to take a walk with him.

“Come on, you guys. Let’s go get an Orange Crush.” he coaxed. Who could resist?

He took each of us by the hand and away we went down the street. Wow! We get to go with grandpa. Just us, not the little kids. As the oldest grandchild, I felt so big and oh, so special. After walking a block or two, we came to a small building and grandpa opened the door, shooing us inside.

It was different than anyplace we’d ever been before. Not like someone’s house and not like a store. In this big room was a long, high table lined with stools and other small tables and chairs scattered around the room. There were colored lights all over. A huge mirror covered one wall and music played from a big box in the corner.

My sister and I sat at a table and enjoyed all the attention from the people who were sitting around talking and laughing. True to his promise, we each got a bottle of Orange Crush and a bag of chips. Wow. A whole soda and a whole bag of chips for my very own! Finally, not having to share!

Two men were playing a game, using long sticks to hit at colored balls. Everyone yelled when a ball went into a hole in the table. This sure was fun. We started yelling along with everyone else when a ball went in. Grandpa was laughing and talking; he knew everyone and seemed a lot happier here than when he was back at home.

All of a sudden, my Aunt Marge came in, throwing the door open with great force and then slamming it once inside. She looked real mad. She came over to our table, helping us up and leading us to the door, leaving our soda and chips behind. While doing this, she began to yell.

“What are you doing?” she shrieked. ”You know you aren’t supposed to be here! And bringing kids to such a place! What’s wrong with you?”

My sister and I were scared. What had we done wrong? I hadn’t ever seen Aunt Marge act like this. She was one of my favorite aunts, always took me places and talked nice to me. Until right now, that is!

Aunt Marge walked us home, all the while, kind of talking to herself and being mad. Grandpa stayed and as we walked out, I remember hearing shouts and laughter. What was so funny, I wondered.

I was scared and when we got back to grandma’s, I was sure we would get a spanking for doing this bad thing, whatever it was. Instead, everyone ignored us and we were told to go and play.

In the dining room, Grandma had a Singer sewing machine, one of those with a pedal that you pumped to make it sew. She’d often let us unhook the belt and then move the pedal all we wanted; sometimes we did this for hours, pretending we were on a trip or driving around town on errands. On this day, we got very busy sitting under the sewing machine, pumping the pedal. I tried not to think about what was going to happen.

Aunt Marge stomped around the house, repeating pretty much what she had said all the way home. Then the whole place got quiet. A little later, Grandpa came home and then things really got quiet. We never got spanked or scolded and nothing more was said about our trip. Everyone pretended like nothing had happened.

Many years later, home from college for a weekend, I was reminiscing with my mother and mentioned this one time when I’d seen a totally different side of Aunt Marge. When I started telling the story, Mom got a funny look on her face. At first she seemed preoccupied and thoughtful. Then she finally spoke.

“Well, maybe I should tell you, your grandpa had a drinking problem. “ Then she told me her version of that day. She praised Aunt Marge for her courage to stand up to Grandpa; I could tell Mom wished she was more like Aunt Marge.

From that, a dam seemed to break and she let loose with a flood of stories. She cried when she told me how his drinking had caused the family so much trouble over the years. Grandpa, an electrician, had owned his own business and that was lost due to his drinking. Then he owned a bar and that was lost also. He even left his family for some time and went to Chicago with a woman. But after a while, he wanted to come back, promised to stop drinking and grandma let him return.

“Your Uncle Bill,” Mom said, “was really treated bad by him. One time, your grandpa had his drinking buddies at the house and they teased Bill, who was probably eight or nine at the time. They kept getting him to drink until they got him drunk. They laughed when he lost his balance and fell on the kitchen floor. He was still sick the next day. When they finished with Bill, they got the dog drunk. All the guys laughed and had a great time. Your grandpa was really in his glory.” I’d never seen Mom look so angry. Or so sad.

“I think because I was the oldest he seemed to hate me the most,” she continued. There was no stopping her now. “He made his own beer in the basement and he made me clean the bottles. He was never satisfied with my work. I was too slow or didn’t get them clean enough. He yelled at me all the time. I hated him.”

“But that’s not the worst of it,” she went on. “When I was sixteen, one time, I tried to stop him from hitting your grandma. He got really mad. I got kicked out of the house and had to go live with Aunt Gert until I got out of high school. But then, when you were born (I was the first grandchild), then he let me come home again. I guess he had to because your dad was in the service and I had no place else to go.” Mom became quiet and seemed to sink deeper into the chair. I’m not sure if she was feeling relief or shame.

That day, my relationship with my mother changed forever. Now it made sense when she put herself down and minimized her feelings. I understood why she never wanted to bother anybody and why she gave in so easily to other people’s demands. Especially to my father’s. She always seemed to think she hadn’t done enough or hadn’t done something good enough. I thought she seemed depressed and now I knew why.

When her depression got really bad, I talked her into trying an Adult Children of Alcoholics group. It took some plotting between my sister Karla and me to find a group at just the right location and at the right time. Getting ready for the first meeting, she said okay she’d go, but she wasn’t going to talk. But then she did talk. After that meeting, she couldn’t understand why she was so tired. She slept most of the next day, she said. She went a couple of times and said she was surprised to hear stories so similar to her own. I thought this might help her and it did for a while. But in the end, it didn’t seem to make much difference. Old habits die hard.

I now understood how Mom’s past made it difficult for her to be the advocate I needed and the role model I wanted. Yet, I see her in my memory working hard, always trying to get things done. She’d tried so hard, raising six kids and being a dutiful wife. Maybe she was a good role model after all, even though I’ve turned out to be mostly what she isn’t.

To this day, all I have to hear are the words “orange crush” and multiple memories come up. It was during my illustrious college career that I discovered Orange Crush as the best ever hangover cure. I recall many a Sunday morning, dragging myself to my student housing kitchen for a clear glass bottle of that orange elixir. And it was in 1988 that REM released their alternative rock, war protest song, Orange Crush, objecting to the use of Agent Orange in the Vietnam War. Add to that this child’s innocent allure of a soft drink that leads to newly learned realities of adult problems and real family drama.

Farewell, Corky!

Thoughts on the passing of my father, Corky Holmquist …..Read at his service Nov 2, 2008

It’s an understatement to say that Dad was a colorful person who had strong opinions and a real knack for connecting with people. He seemed able to talk with anyone who came his way. We loved his sense of humor and knew we’d always hear something interesting and funny every time we saw him.

It was complicated and somewhat more challenging, to have Dad as a father. And, being the oldest, it was especially daunting. I’ve always said I was raised in a boot camp what with dad being a policeman. He was pretty regimented.  Meals were on time. It was a “do as I say not as I do,” “children should be seen and not heard” environment. I often joked how I went through high school with a cop car in my driveway which did wonders for my social life.

It became really interesting when I got to high school. I babysat to earn spending money; as I approached graduation, I wanted to go out more, at least on Saturday night. I’d make plans with friends, but if a babysitting job came in, I had to cancel my plans. That was the rule. Even if someone called ten minutes before my friends were picking me up. That was the rule.

So, I hatched a secret plan to build a social life. I invented babysitting jobs. This worked like a charm until one night Marge Erickson, the person I’d said I was babysitting for, called at the last minute. The jig was up! But I didn’t know it yet because I was out at the cottage.

One of my girl friends had met some guys from Milwaukee who came up on weekends and we partied with them at a local cottage. Dad grilled Kris (my sister), who ratted on me. You’re forgiven, Kris. But, policeman that he was, Dad was hot on the trail of this miscarriage of justice and drove out to the cottage and made me come home.

Once we got home, we were all standing uneasily in the kitchen. I wasn’t sure what was next, since we hadn’t spoken a word the whole way home. Dad pulled the stick, the famous stick, out of the kitchen junk drawer. Hum, I thought. Aren’t I a little old for this? Dad handed me the stick, then turned around and stuck his backside out to me.

“Go on,” he said, pointing at his posterior. “Give it to me. I must be a really lousy parent if you’re acting like this. Go on. Give it to me. I deserve it.” I think I slapped down the stick on the kitchen table and retreated to my room. Dad’s attempt at reverse psychology didn’t stop progress. I think, from this incident, we finally came to a truce. I could go out on Saturday night.

And this was only the beginning of my adolescent search for freedom, a search that was successfully completed when I went to college the next year. Which leads to my next confrontation with Dad’s concept of effective parenting.

When I moved to Oshkosh the summer before the fall term at UW-Oshkosh, Dad drove me to move into the attic apartment I would share with another girl. The car was crammed with all my worldly treasures and when we arrived, Dad helped me haul everything upstairs. We stood on the back porch to say our awkward goodbyes. He was clearly uncomfortable, shaking his head. Then he let me have it in typical Corky fashion.

“Slim, this is a really bad idea. You’re making a really big mistake. Why don’t we just put all your stuff back in the car and I’ll take you home.“ This, of course, led to an argument and Dad going off in a huff. It took me decades to figure out he was being a typical dad, having issues about letting his oldest out of the nest. He was pained about my choices, then and later. I think he finally came to see this is what parents have to do.

Dad and I talked about books and had very spirited discussions about all kinds of issues. While I was in college, I’d bring home a book, he’d read it and then we’d have our own little father/daughter book discussion group. We seldom agreed but I really loved our discussions.

In later years, Dad went to the dark side of politics. I never could figure out how this working class man who has benefited greatly from the social amenities of a democratic society, could become so ideological. Family get togethers were especially challenging. Most of my siblings and I had made an unspoken pact to change the subject when politics came up. Which it always did.

Family get-togethers went something like this: Corky:  “Can you believe what that horse’s ass Slick Willy said to Congress about that trade agreement?” Bud: “So, what do you hear from Inky? Is he still working at Oshkosh Truck?” A few minutes of regular conversation would ensue. Then the next round began. Corky: “Did you hear how Rush let those liberals have it the other day about that affirmative action baloney they want to ram down our throats?” I’d reply: “I noticed how great the garden is. It sure looks good. How many tomato plants did you put in this year, Dad?”

These times resembled a ping pong game. Ping, ping, ping goes the ball as we’d do our darndest to get the talk off hot topics and back to the routine issues of daily life.

Then there were the wallpaper books. Dad got them from a home decorating store and spent hours and hours compiling them with every cartoon and editorial printed about Slick Willy. Dad was sure Clinton was a dangerous man who planned to take over the world.

“He has plans, diabolical plans,” Dad warned. “You wait, these things will be important. I’ve got to keep a record.”

When a friend of mine was looking for an unusual kind of joke gift for her husband’s birthday, I offered her one of the wallpaper books. Dad was excited and happy to pass it on. I didn’t have the heart to tell him it was a joke gift. Well, the joke was on me. My friend’s husband actually loved it.

I guess the political issue is a classic example of how you can always love someone and yet not like or agree with their attitudes or behavior. When it became clear Dad and I could no longer have a civil discussion, I was saddened but found comfort in remembering our spirited talks of long ago.

Karla tells me Dad had recently become as disillusioned as I was with the current state of affairs in our country. So there is hope. Perhaps Dad was coming more to the center. Just so you know, Dad, on Tuesday, I will, in your honor, be voting for a liberal.

Dad’s spiritual journey was as unique as the other facets of his life. He’d become recently captivated by a book on Native American spirituality (God is Red: A Native View of Religion by Vine Deloria Jr.) and seemed to find some comfort there. I’m pretty sure, according to his belief he has not gone to heaven. So where is he, I ask? I think his spirit is roaming the woods up north near Rhinelander where the hunting shack was located. He’s reliving those happy times with his hunter cronies, enjoying the scenery and still looking for that elusive deer. He’s having long soulful conversations with any and all Native American shamans who happen by, reading thoughtful passages from his personal sacred text.

The measure of a man’s life is often calculated by memories preserved through time. If this is a fact, Corky will be remembered by all of us as the serious, funny, truly remarkable man he was. Dad was a hard working police officer and responsible breadwinner, a dependable husband, a stern father and grandfather, a loyal friend and an honest person. He lived a very full life and leaves behind values and ideals that have been instilled into our lives.

Though it is very common to have differences with the important people in our lives, Dad has been a strong force and a powerful influence on each of us. And in this way, he will always be with us.

New Label….Age-Old Quandary

I couldn’t help but wonder, what if it had all turned out differently? My whole life would have gone off on another track if I’d become the mother of twins. They’d be mature adults by now. What brought this to mind was the chance reading of an article in a professional journal.

The article outlined ways social workers can help people communicate about losses, specifically, “reproductive losses.” So, now there’s a new label to describe the wide range of incidents including miscarriage, stillbirth, spontaneous and induced abortion, ectopic pregnancy and medical terminations. Results of the study say silence has resulted in “passive oversight that reproductive losses are significant life events from which women’s self identity emerge.” I felt like it was yesterday.

I was living in an isolated, Upper Michigan small town, fresh off a divorce and into my second rebound relationship. He was nice enough but I didn’t fool myself that there was a future. After several light periods, morning nausea began; tenderness and bloating signaled subtle changes. I’d always used birth control, had never wanted children and had been vigilant in maintaining that decision. But something was stirring in me.

Without even knowing for sure I was pregnant, I found myself declaring that, if my worst fears were confirmed, I would keep this baby. I would raise this baby though I knew, in my heart, I’d be doing it alone. I also knew this would change my slowly forming plans to leave this area where I no longer had connections. I just remember how resolute I felt.

It was on a Friday that I actually faced reality and scheduled an appointment for a pregnancy test the following Monday. But that night I was awakened with pain and had a miscarriage at home. The fetus was tiny but so fully formed. It fit into the palm of my hand. I’d been able to see the eyes, ribs, fingernails, penis. After holding it for a moment, I put it in a jar, then laid down to get my bearings. The pain started again. Afterbirth I thought. Within a half hour, another fetus was released and placed in the jar. He drove me to the hospital emergency room while I cradled the jar in my lap. I recall, lying in the exam room, waiting. I looked over at the jar and wondered.

After an examination and D&C, the doctor informed me the surgery had gone well. The IUD, long over due for changing, had been named the culprit and removed. I had been, the doctor explained, actually about five months pregnant, which explained the fetus’s advanced development. The wall of the uterus was bare and they’d probably starved, he said. Not my fault, nothing I had done, the doctor repeated several times.

I went home the next day and back to work on Monday. I wasn’t prepared for my response. I’d get up, get ready for work and start my usual day; but suddenly I’d be overcome by feelings and had to go home early. I couldn’t stop the tears. The sadness lasted a week or so. And then I went on with my life. Didn’t seem to miss a beat.

From there, I’d picked up where I’d left off on my plans to move to an urban area. Of course, the relationship didn’t work out. I finally made a real decision when a year after moving I had a tubule ligation. It still took some thinking before I did it. These are life changing decisions we make. I got my graduate degree, worked at several challenging and satisfying jobs, found a new husband. Life was good.

But every now and then, I’d think about that time. While I never wanted children, why was I so determined to keep that baby, I wondered. That still puzzles me to this day. And how would my life be different? I’d sometimes toy with the details and pretend the babies had actually been born in April 1985.

I already owned a house so I’d have stayed there instead of putting it up for sale. My job would have continued, boring but stable. I’d have been a single mother. How hard would that be, in that closed-minded, traditional, rural place? I’d have been pitied by some, talked about behind my back by others and have found a middle ground among my limited support network.

The article discussed the high incidence of depression, anxiety and PTSD, found in women experiencing reproductive loss. Sometimes those feelings lasted for years. Sometimes those feelings negatively affected future decisions. Other than the short time after the miscarriage, I haven’t been sad. But I have been inquisitive.

I distinctly remember standing in line, waiting to go up to get my graduate school diploma, thinking. Instead of being happily here, I could be the mother of two four year old children, living in a rural area and struggling with a going nowhere job. I recall at the celebration of my second wedding, thinking. I could be the mother of two eight-year old children whose thoughts and wishes I’d have had to consider before taking this leap.

At each hallmark of my life, I wonder what my twins would be doing now.  What would they have made of themselves. What would I, as a reluctant mother, have made of them. I know I didn’t make a choice. Miscarriages happen more often than we think and I believe it’s nature’s way of saying there was something not right. It’s for the best. I recall not telling very many people and the ones I did confide in, seemed to think it was just a blip in my life plan. I’m glad to see that there is more attention being given to the loss of an unborn child. Silence never bodes well.

But now, with retirement, I’m looking at it once again. I wonder if I’ll ever wish I had grown children to help me through the challenges of aging. Would they be there for me? No guarantees. But then that’s life, isn’t it?

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