Thursday, April 17, 2014

I'm Back--part 2

So on my way back from the Festival of Faith and Writing I got a phone call.

But, first I have to tell you about coming back from Grand Rapids. If you read part one of this post, I’d alluded to my fragile sense of mortality. This past winter had snowed me, the cold wore me down. What I considered part of my mental and emotional psyche had been buried under what meteorologists were calling a mini-ice age. I felt like a giant ground sloth.

from Field Museum
So I cooked up a plan. I was going to ride my bike back from Grand Rapids to Chicago. Of course I came up with this idea back in the warmth of December. I did research and booked tickets on Greyhound because I could bring my boxed bike, re-assemble and be good to go. Sort of. I unpacked the bike at the GR bus station to discover I’d left the front wheel back in Chicago.

One snafu behind me. I had my husband UPS the wheel and borrowed a bike to get to the conference the first day. By day 2 and 3 I was using my own wheels, literally, to get around.

Always a moving part in the mix was weather. I saw models where everything from hail to thundery downpours were predicted. Highs in the 60s but considerable wind—from the wrong direction. Then I noticed there would be a significant dip in temperatures as the week progressed. Not sure how all this would impact the ride home.

Also I had no GPS. I printed out on paltry paper Google directions.

I never felt so vulnerable as I did on Sunday a.m. after thundery downpours to mount my bike and immediately tip over from the weight. I couldn’t even ride in a straight line there was so much shimmy in the front fork. I slowed down to cross potholes—and there were millions of them! I just knew any little thing and I was going to fall into a ditch with all the fresh roadkill and not be discovered until next spring. I rode sooo sllooww.

But, the weather held in there. I got about 60 miles down the road, using the Google directions that at one pt blew out of my front bag and into the street where I had to ride in a circle and lasso them. I didn’t make it to my projected campsite and stealth camped along Lake Michigan where by 5 pm an evil wind blew in off the lake in the form of thick fog and the temp dropped 25 degrees in 10 minutes. No joke.

That night I camped in gale force winds and freezing temperatures. I made it through warm and cozy and bundled up to ride the next day in my rain pants—only instead of rain, ice pellets came out of the sky. The wind was also an issue—from the wrong direction.

The second night I almost made it out of Michigan. Again I didn’t make it to my destination and stealth camped in some woods. I heated up a can of soup, brushed my teeth, got into longjohns and crawled into my sleeping bag. Eventually I fell asleep. Around the lunar eclipse I awoke and unzipped the tent to pee by a log I’d designated—and it was a winter wonderland. That shush shush sound was snow falling. It was as if the trees had shed feathers. It was beautiful, and oh so cold.

The next morning I thought it would burn off, but it was still there. Rare glimpses of blue sky had no effect on the snow and ice. The roadways were a flashpoint of slickness. I passed an elementary school where a digital read-out/red-out flashed 30̊. The wind—from the wrong direction—was off the lake. I felt like I was riding uphill wearing 6 sweaters. I was wearing 6 sweaters.

In Michigan City (in Indiana) I called it quits—or rather my husband called me to ask if I wanted to be picked up. I said yeah. Felt bad. But didn’t change my mind. He met me at a hot chocolate shop in an hour. What would have been 70 more miles for me—or another day of riding, through Gary and Hammond and what they refer to as East Chicago, or what we recognize as those tall mountains of landfill and refineries.

So I’m BACK and still alive and writing and reading and so excited about what comes next. As I mentioned I got a phone call while riding by that stormy grey/green lake with churning waves—the call was from Carol with the Peaked Hill Trust and my application for a residency at a Dune Shack in Cap Cod had been approved!

Once I thaw out I’m going to Cap Cod in mid-May to write in my very own Dune Shack

Watch this video.

If by any chance you—both of my readers—feel compelled to send a donation of $20 to help with my travel expenses (I’m not biking, the woman laughed, “honey you couldn’t ride over that much sand”) e-mail me or leave a comment. I surely would appreciate it—and I’ll send you a FREE PDF of my book Freeze Frame: How to Write Flash Memoir. Thanks for considering.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

I'm Back!

I cannot begin to tell you how much I was looking forward to this writer’s conference after what seemed like a forever winter (ongoing?).

I kept checking the website at least once a week to see if new writers had been added as speakers. I signed up for the Festival newsletter and got updates. I read the recommended books—not all of them, but enough to tell you I loved Chris Beha’s Whatever Happened to Sophie Wilder. Please read this book—it is a mystery, not really, in a style that reminded me somewhat of Oscar Wilde (Pic of Dorian Grey). The mystery it turns out has to do more with incarnation and transmutation, about grace in the face of struggle.

I also needed this conference. I needed a piece of warmth in the midst of what felt like human coldness. It was a spark. A rekindling. What I hoped would be the start of spring.

Well . . . .

I’d been attending the FFW since 1994, twenty years. So I’ve gotten used to what to expect. The first person I ran into—and this is the kind of conference where it is possible to run into authors and actually say hi and have a quick conversation, in fact speakers often show up at other speakers sessions, oh the warmth, the new life springing!!—was poet Luci Shaw, who, and I don’t think I'm exaggerating, holds the cornerstone to this event. She is a stalwart presence. Yet I was still surprised that she was the first person I might run into. This was a very good sign of fresh air, what I’d been craving.

Later Luci would hit it out of the ballpark. At her session almost every seat was filled at the C-FAC. At the end of the hour I had to knock about a dozen people all over age 70 out of my way to get to the bookstore. We were ALL racing to buy her books. Within minutes, no joke, after picking up a copy of Adventure into Ascent (IVP) all her books were sold. I could have re-sold the copy in my hand, flipped it for more than I’d paid. The line for book signing stretched into next Sunday. Way to go, girl.

I sat in on Exclusion and Embrace Miroslav Volf, Scott Cairns, Marilyn Nelson (loved your necklace, girl!), Anne Lamott with her self-depreciating wit that empathizes with me, me in the upper deck, struggling to feel spring and sparks or a creative edge. Plus dozens more I’d never heard of, but was so glad I was finally finding out about. Right now my request queue at the Chicago Public Library is out of control.

There was the general conversation about: Are people still reading today? Huh, yeah. This is a conference, a particular group of attendees that have no qualms about reading, writing, and buying books. They find themselves in words. From words spring new life. Words made flesh. Words of bone and blood. Words that filled me up and pushed winter aside.

And mortality. And the all too frequent news that someone I know has died. It’s been that kind of winter—that tries the soul and makes us doubt. Am I still here?

I’ll be blogging more this week—because I’m BACK!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Hidden Valley Ranch--still hidden

Memoirous is about memories. Memory-ish. Last week I taught a class in Winnetka, at OCWW (Off-Campus Writers Workshop. Not sure why campus, because we are definitely not on any campus.) I led a seminar on writing memoir. My abilities are of the –ous and –ish variety. A kind of instructing where I tie in life experience and what I think of as horse sense.

Reaching back in our mind for a memory, and from there building. One memory leading to another.

Preparing for the class I had a synapse flash of memory. It was triggered from reading the Collected Poems of Ron Padgett, a second-generation poet of the New York School (which was never a school—just as OCWW was never on a campus). There was a line hidden Valley Ranch and immediately I wanted to Google my memory banks. As a kid my family went two or three times to a horse farm in Kentucky—not even to the horse farm country of that state, closer I believe to the wasteland side, where nothing grows except commercial real estate. Hidden Valley was tucked in there somewhere.

Somewhere because even the vastness of the Internet cannot bring it up. There is no cyber footprint that I can find.

I still remember the sweatshirt my sister and I had from the ranch. A ranch of sorts. I seem to remember a concrete stables. I’m not sure what we did at the resort. There might have been a volleyball pitch and a playground with rusty playground equipment. The highlight was a guided horse ride. We were placed on sleepy dotering horses that probably dropped dead soon after the ride of old age. In the heat of a Kentucky afternoon we’d ride dusty trails with flies wasping around us. Later we’d take a dip in the pool.

It was a family-run operation, on a shoestring.

We probably had a kitchenette in our room in order to save money on meals. That’s how my family ran things. On a shoestring.

Later we’d trade up for vacations at Myrtle Beach S.C. and after that my parents (without kids) would travel out West, eventually doing a package trip to Europe, the kind where a group pulls in in a motor coach, snaps pictures, before re-boarding and going on to the next site. They loved it!

It’s hard to believe I can’t even re-visit the ranch on the Internet. I guess I’ll have to rely upon my memory. Images of rust and dust and horses long gone.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Order of the Universe

People can be so awful.
Nicolae Ceaușescu was awful.
I was horrified when I saw pictures of little AIDs babies crying in their beds,
rocking back and forth in their cribs,
infected and abandoned because of Ceaușescu and his repressive policies.
Then I felt sorry for Ceaușescu and Elena his wife when they were shot,
their bodies lined up for evidence on Christmas Day 1989.
Then later I hated all the ugly regime architecture that he wasted
million, trillions of leu building while his people starved.
But I was sure to visit the Palace when I was in Bucharest.
At the time I was checking out Casa Laura built for AIDs orphans,
but now empty. All the children had managed to grow into adulthood
and the ones still needing supervision because of disabilities were
finally placed with loving families.
I felt sad that the house was no longer needed, but
heartened that it had fulfilled its mission.
I felt bad about the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Hapsburgs,
and the assassination of the Archduke and his hat-wearing wife Sophie.
Yet the monarchy had to go so that a re-drawn modern Europe could emerge.
I celebrated when the Wall came down and Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia declared independence, except a few years later when conflict in the region resulted in
genocide, mass graves, and ethnic cleansing.
This year marks one hundred years since the Archduke’s touring car
made that fateful wrong turn.
All this to say, one thing has to happen so the next thing can take place—
and after that is over, comes something else.
People can be so awful, but just wait
things will change.

Monday, March 31, 2014

A Small Thought

Suddenly I am struck by the thought:
I am old.
Not very old, but older.
Just as I am no longer beautiful,
though I was never beautiful.
Just as I'm no longer thin,
not that I was ever that thin.
So while at this very moment I am not old and fat,
it cannot be denied--
I am not who I used to be.

Rest in peace--Dawn Mortimer, an old friend, but not so very old.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings--ah, me!

This time of year always causes me to beat my wings against the bars of my winter cage. As a kid growing up in a suburb of Dayton, Ohio I was familiar with Paul Laurence Dunbar and his poem “Sympathy.”

I KNOW what the caged bird feels, alas!
        When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
    When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
    And the river flows like a stream of glass;
        When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
    And the faint perfume from its chalice steals —
    I know what the caged bird feels!

I also struggled with another kind of desperation. I couldn’t grow up fast enough and get away. Even though I was a good enough student I hated high school. If I had to hear one more fellow student talking in a voice loud enough for all to hear about a weekend party or a “kegger” I’m sure I was going to puke. I was more of an observer. I’d sit back unimpressed, all the while plotting my escape. I would graduate and go as far away from Centerville and whatever the heck a bedroom community symbolized as fast as I could.

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
        Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
    For he must fly back to his perch and cling
    When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
        And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
    And they pulse again with a keener sting —
    I know why he beats his wing!

Paul Laurence Dunbar was from Dayton. I would hear frequently references to Dunbar High School on the TV. Dunbar High was on the “wrong” side of town. There were news stories about gang violence, homicides, etc surround Dunbar.

Recently I went to a program/play at the Poetry Foundation, At Mother Dunbar’s Request. It was a wicked cold night to be out, but inside the small room with the blinds drawn it felt as cozy as Mother Dunbar’s front parlor. It was a small cast—written and directed by Paxton Williams, who also played Dunbar. It was meant to be an evening of poetry selections representing the range and seasons of Dunbar’s work, plus music of the time, all sewed together with stitches of Dunbar’s life.

Some of the poems were painful to listen to. The dialectal ones—of which even as a kid I was aware that Dunbar was not particularly proud of—where Paxton/Paul spoke of darkies, coons, by the back cabins eating chicken and dancing and lawd lawd lovin’ deh master made me cringe. I remember trying to read some of these dialectal ones in high school and without an ear for it, they were a tough read. Hearing them recited there was a musical quality to the poems and a fierceness to the words that bestowed a dignity on even the ones written in vernacular—particularly a GREAT rendition of “When Dey ‘Listed Colored Soldiers” by Lauryn Whitney (Mrs. Dunbar, Paul’s mother). Listening to “Jump Back Honey” was a real treat. Yeah, it had a minstrel flair, but in the mouth of an African-American performer it didn’t feel stolen or co-opted—more like a Harlem display of public affection. Just like how rap can characterize the urban experience. Do I love rap, not always; do I love minstrel, not really, but I can appreciate what’s trying to be said. And, of course, this is how Dunbar made money. His dialectal poems were very popular when he was alive. After his death they sort’ve sunk his reputation. By the time I was reading him he was not taught in my high school.

Of course it was the more lyrical poems that drew me in. “We wear the Mask” and “Sympathy” and “After Awhile.”

It was a great evening and when I left, even though it had begun to snow, my spirit was lifted.

  I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
        When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
    When he beats his bars and he would be free;
    It is not a carol of joy or glee,
        But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core,
    But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings —
    I know why the caged bird sings!
DEAD at 33!


Friday, March 14, 2014

The Book of My Lives (memoir-ish)

Dear Readers (thanks both of you) as you know I am a fan of Aleksandar Hemon the famous author from the former Yugoslavia, from Sarajevo, Bosnia who now lives in Chicago, used to live in Uptown—all this to say he is a Nowhere Man.

Reading his “memoir” The Book of My Lives I can see how easy it is to subvert memories. He comes from a country with a long history—where memory is just as long. I love how Hemon has always interjected into his fiction autobiography, while at the same time his non-fiction reads like a story. The past is a tricky thing—depending upon where one stands in a room, the angle changes. Genre with Hemon is just as fluid. I got the sense when reading The Book of My Lives that so much of his life he has had to re-think.

War has a tendency to do that. And, not just any war, but a soul-tearing, ethnic cleansing war. Not just a civil war but a holocaust and tsunami put together.

How does one rebuild memories or reconcile their perceptions to this new reality? Stories of Hemon’s childhood, growing up in the “hood in Sarajevo—one gets that . . . nothing will ever be the same. It was Thomas Wolfe who said you can never go back home, but Sasha Hemon really can’t—because all the markers, the building he lived in as a boy, the park where he played, the shops, the stadium were blitzed, bombed, turned into rubble. Even his childhood friends, teachers, neighbors—they no longer exist. All that changed when they were asked to take sides, show their loyalty, deny prior associations. Everything—truth, what others call truth, our enemies truth subverts memory.

Thus it is free to roam, to cross borders.

In The Book of My Lives we learn how it once felt to be a boy growing up in Sarajevo, and also the foreignness of that particular dream. The little blue alien man on the cover represents what it is like to go from one place to another and never belong.