A Frayed Knot: Picking Our Way Through The Need

So this piece of string walks into a bar. (Stop me if you’ve heard this.) Bartender growls, “Hey, you. We don’t serve your kind in here. Beat it.” Hurt and angry, the string heads home to her apartment. There she ties herself into complicated loops, and frizzes her ends till she’s nearly unrecognizable. Then she goes back into the bar and orders a beer.

“Hmmm,” says the bartender suspiciously. “Aren’t you that same piece of string I just threw outa here?”

“Oh, no,” the string says innocently, “I’m a frayed knot.”

Ba-dum-bum.

Not the best bar joke ever…but close!

This joke popped into my head recently after reading these lines from Kim Stafford’s book of post-election poems, The Flavor of Unity,

“By writing, thinking, and talking, clarify your vocation, so you can enter the fray without being frayed.”

Copyright 2017 Kim Stafford. Thanks, Kim!

During the Civil Rights Movement, and more recent movements who use nonviolent resistance, participants had to learn to conquer their fear–of prison, of violence, even of death. The most famous freedom song, We Shall Overcome, contains the lyric, “We are not afraid.” Not being currently on the front lines of any struggle, but instead struggling to choose among the many, many causes calling for support since Trump’s inauguration, being AFRAID is not my issue–but being FRAYED? Yes. ‘Fraid so.

My email box and Facebook feed fills daily with calls to contact my congressional reps about the environment, or health care, or immigration, or…you know. If you’re an American, you’re probably getting the same emails. Sign this. Send money to that. Attend this meeting. Join that march. There is too much need out there to do it all.

Which is why I’m very much looking forward to the online course I’ve signed up for with Quaker writer and teacher Eileen Flanagan, entitled, “We Were Made For This Moment.” The intro to her course reads, 

In this time of tumult, fear, and hatred, the world needs the gifts that you were born to share. You may not be sure where to use them. You may not know how to use them to greatest effect, or even if you can make a difference at all, but you know you need to do something to work for a more just and loving world. You are not alone! The purpose of this online course is to help you to meet this moment.

Finding one’s purpose, to me, means finding my path. This means, of course, choosing some paths NOT to take. It’s never easy; we all want to contribute, be supportive, “be there” for each other, or vulnerable people, or the planet. But when we try to be everywhere, we fray…and–mixed metaphor alert–we burn out.

I want to walk a path and stick to it. I look forward to some guided discernment. I also look forward to hearing how you might have dealt with this same issue. How do you keep yourself in the fray without fraying?

 

 

What Do Writers Make? If We’re Lucky, The Same As Teachers: A Difference

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week! And please be patient…I’ll get to the teacher part of this post by the end. But first…

I’ve discovered a new identity in my post-teaching career: community pro bono writer. What began five years ago as a monthly gig, writing the Spotlight on Lopezians for our lil’ paper, has morphed into being the on-call writer for a large portion of the non-profit groups and events on our island.

For example, in the past year+ I’ve written articles for:

  • Earth Day celebrations
  • a rock concert to benefit our school
  • a presentation on Cuba
  • a concert to benefit our local radio station–no, make that two different concerts for KLOI
  • a presentation on fighting climate change
  • the Home Tour, which benefits our community center
  • a brand-new business (OK, this one wasn’t non-profit, but the article was a feature, not an ad)
  • a community kitchen
  • the winner of the community Spirit Award
  • the Dump
  • the dedication of a plaque honoring the founding of our community garden/Farmers’ Market space

All this while maintaining my pace of 10 Spotlight features/year…and oh, by the way, writing my novel.

And none of this has earned me a dime.

I know some champions of writers, most notably Kristen Lamb, who rail against writers giving their stuff away for free. I appreciate hugely this lobbying effort. But do I feel like a turncoat or a wuss for agreeing to write for nothing?

No, I do not–for several reasons. When I said I haven’t earned a dime, that doesn’t mean I haven’t earned anything. Here’s what I’ve earned:

#1, Boldness. No one tricked me into this. The Spotlight articles paid 10 cents a word up until I took on the “job,” but the paper’s editor informed me up front that they were losing revenue and could no longer afford even that minimal $80 fee. I could take the gig or leave it. And I took it because…

#2, Publicity. My articles have created a much larger audience for me than if I had relied only on the few dozen locals who’ve read my books. So when Book #3 comes out, or if/when I apply for a position where writing counts, my work not only speaks for itself, it speaks to everybody here.

#3, Friends. My articles have been a great doorway to meeting new people and learning their back story.

#4, Warm Fuzzies. Pro bono writing for good causes feels good. I struggle sometimes to fit in all the community involvement I feel called to. Driving places, phone-calling…those are harder for me. But writing? Easy as pie–and keep in mind, I’m really good at pie.

All of which brings me back to teachers. All teachers eventually get sent this wonderful spoken word piece by (former) teacher Taylor Mali, “What Teachers Make.” It used to speak to me as a teacher. Now, I’m finding that it speaks to me as a writer as well.

So I’ll say it again: Happy Teacher Appreciation Week. If my little articles can make a portion of the difference I once made in people’s lives as a teacher…I’ll take that proudly.

Sometimes All You Need is To Be Smacked Upside the Head by a Golden Eagle

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m a “mentor” of a little girl. Just after that post, I attended a meeting for mentors, where we were asked to share something we appreciated about our “mentee.” One fellow mentor said he loved that his kid “gets me out of my head.”

Anyone relate to that?

For those of us without small children or even pets around the house, getting out of our heads can become a strangely invisible challenge: we aren’t aware of how badly we needed to do it until something flies by and–aaahh…That’s better. Perspective restored.

Today I was running along my usual gorgeous route, which just happens to pass through the scenery depicted on this blog’s cover photo. No slouch, as scenery goes. But was I digging those craggy rocks, that deep blue ocean? Ha. Not a whit. I was stuck deeply in my own head.

Rehearsal schedule. Grocery planning. When am I going to get my garden going? Three pieces to edit–not including my own. Article to write. Need to catch up on sleep from three 3 a.m. bakery get-ups in a row. Time with Mate–when’s THAT supposed to happen? And am I going to have time to practice my subjunctive before the next Spanish class?

Then a golden eagle flew over my head. Followed by another golden eagle.

Imagine two. (orig. image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

I’ll admit–several dozen bald eagles might’ve flown over, unnoticed, as I ran along–and good job, baldies, getting so common after nearly going extinct and all. But goldies? They stopped me in my tracks.

I’m sorry that’s what it took, but it did the job. Aaahh…That’s better. Thankyouthankyouthankyou. Perspective restored.

Care to share a similar getting-out-of-your-head experience? Child, animal, plant–or something not of nature? I would love to hear.

Real-Life Flower Children: Rediscovering the Best Kids’ Game Ever

Note: if you are any of the following, you’ll want to skip today’s post:

a) a human child

b) someone who doesn’t enjoy human children

c) someone who’s in a stage of life where what human children enjoy isn’t particularly relevant.

You’re dismissed! See you next time.

Everyone else, come celebrate with me the simplicity of playing out in nature with a child…and a stick.

Yes, a stick. No, not to throw–that’s dogs, people, not kids. (Unless you’re talking bridges and streams, in which case you’re playing Poohsticks, and don’t let me stop you!)

When I was a kid, my favorite solo game (when my older sisters refused to play with me) was Stick Dolls. Take a stick. Dress it up in leaves and flowers, using grass for a sash. Name it.*  Game on.

*Often flower names like Lily or Violet–but I definitely had a long-lived pair named Beth and Roger.

Fast-forward 40 years to now, when I am Very Much Not a Kid. My own are grown, but not (yet, if ever) in grandkid-production mode. So of course I’d forgotten all about Stick People…till I got myself a Little Sister.

Well, technically, she’s my “mentee” and I’m her “mentor,” through a program we have here on our too-small-for-official-Big-Brothers/Sisters-organizations island. But it’s the same thing. We meet once a week and hang out, cook, do crafts, and PLAY.

Guess what our favorite game is?

Meet Rose Stick–always stylin’.

Guess what my heart was doing the first time I taught my little girl about Stick People?

Yeah. It was SWEET. That was two and a half years ago. Rose Stick has gone through a few iterations, and developed a family: little sis Daisy, big brother Bill, and parents Rainjewel and Bob. (My lil’ girl saves her creativity for the gals, it seems.) But Rose is very much herself. Some days all she does is forage for tiny food to serve on bits of bark or seashell. Other days she chases bad guys who try to kidnap her sister.

But the whole time, Rose Stick is helping me teach my little girl about nature. Dandelion hat? Absolutely–dandelions are an invasive weed. Calypso orchid hat? Nope–that’s RARE.

Salmonberry blossoms? Absolutely!

But these little beauties are off-limits.

And Rose’s bedding? Moss and lichen are only OK to use if they’ve been kicked loose by someone else’s feet; no picking. They’re slow growers, vital to the ecoweb.

Who knew this stuff was even more precious than flowers?

Anyway, that’s it–this post is just me sharing my joy at rediscovering my inner Flower Child. And wondering…anyone else play like this? Or see their kids do so? Please share a story!

 

Writing Prompts: A Hate-Love Relationship

“I don’t have TIME for writing prompts. I have serious revisions to work on!” 

Those were my thoughts a couple of weeks ago when my writing group met without anyone’s writing to workshop. We’d made a commitment, as a group, that when this happened, we would do writing exercises. Whoever hosted that week got to assign one.

My writing colleague/friend chose, “Create a list of scents from your childhood, good and bad. Then pick one and write about it.”

Luckily I LOVE my writing group. So I submerged my bad attitude in a pool of pleasant acquiescence. Inside I was thinking, “Argh. I’ve just ripped the guts out of chapters 5-8 of my new novel–the last thing I need is to be freewriting about my childhood!” But I followed instructions.

Here’s what my pen wrote:

Most people would call it a stink, not a smell: goats and their manure, goats and their milk. Goaty. Yes, hay is involved, and other sweet notes: warmth; cream; the nuzzle of a muzzle; baby-goat lips; that conversational “meh-eh-eh.” But mostly: ew. Little pellets everywhere, like those imported chocolate cordials, only made of shit. But they didn’t smell like shit. They smelled goaty. Hearty. Healthy. Researchy. Unique. Cute. Intelligent. Second-class but proud of it—“alternative,” like my school, my entire childhood. Goat Barn. Who has goat barns? No one I knew. Who could tell proud stories of being butted, of making “milkshakes” by bouncing a goat on one of the gangplanks across the muck? Who could use a goat as a safe spot in a game of tag and turn her teats into milk-guns?

Don’t worry. This stroll through the goat barns of yore is not going to cause a sudden veer toward memoir. I’m still working on chapters 5-8, and I’m still blogging about–as you see–whatever I feel like.

But this writing prompt, unwelcome as it was, did me an unexpected service: it reminded me of how important my weird childhood is to me, how I treasure that uniqueness…

My folks still have a goat or two, just for funsies.

…like everyone treasures his/hers/theirs. How we define ourselves gives us the courage to move forward. Sometimes that self-definition inhibits, and boy, when that happens, we have work to do. But when it empowers? We need to run with that.

So now, when my revisions start getting the better of me, when I start to wonder, Is this work even worth it? Is anyone even going to read this? Who cares?…all I have to do is think about that goat barn. And I’m armed “to the teat” with a powerful sense of worth.

Darn right, I have a story to tell. I was practically born in a barn. Thanks, Writing Prompt!

That same writing friend also shared this post, “On Hating Writing From Prompts,” by Alice Lowe, on Brevity’s Blog. Writing? You’ll love this. You know why.

 

 

A Call to Right

Like many millions of us, I’ve been examining what my role is, as a new citizen of Trumpmerica. This post from my author friend Iris Graville captures an idea I love: Writer as Righter. What do you think?

Iris Graville

A plastic bag dangled from the door of our mailbox, a thin cardboard box raincoated against the drizzly, winter day. Suspecting the box contained a book I’d ordered, but not remembering which title I was awaiting, I walked briskly home, my yellow lab changing his trot to a sprint to keep up with me.

bookWhen I freed the box from the bag and tore it open, a thin, green volume slid out—Kim Stafford’s latest collection, The Flavor of Unity: Post-Election Poems. kimThe son of poet William Stafford, Kim greets the dawn each day as his father did, “writing the date, a few sentences about the previous day, then an ‘aphorism’ (a thought, a pattern observed, an idea…), and then a poem, half a poem, or notes for a poem.” While some of this writing eventually ends up as published poems, Kim finds that, “mostly, this custom allows me simply to…

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Road Trip VII, Days 32-34, Sheridan, WY back to Lopez Island: Going to America, Big-Time

When we Lopez Islanders take the ferry to the mainland, we call it “going to America.” We are literally insulated–“insula” being Latin for “island.”

Road trips take Going to America to a new level. 34 days. 23 states plus one Canadian province. A (rough) total of 65 friends and family members. More bike paths than I can remember.

…like this rails-to-trails path along the Illinois River Canal

The Mate and I set out on our seventh Road Trip more or less as usual: same camping gear (barely used, thanks to the weather), same cooler, same road food. (Remind me to tell you about Noodlebag sometime!) And of course, same ol’ Red Rover.

In the ferry line: almost home!!!!

But something felt different this year, striking out across this huge, gloriously varied country. That something was our new president. Knowing I was driving through state after state where the majority had voted for Donald Trump made me…cringe a little. Mainstream Republican is one thing. But this pussy-grabbing, egomaniacal, racist ogre? How was I possibly going to relate to my fellow citizens in the rest areas, parks and motel lobbies?

The answer: focus on our American commonalities.

Commonality #1: Sports. We sports fanatics share as much passion–maybe more–as political parties. Tarheel Nation probably comprises a lot of Trump voters. When we’re cheering our beloved Heels to another possible national championship, we love each other.

Haven’t made it to the Dean Dome since ’15, but–there in spirit!

Commonality #2: Love of landscape. Whether we love it for loud recreation like snowmobiling and hunting, or more quiet pursuits like hiking or horseback riding, I know our love of the beauty of the land is the same. We might use different language–“sacred” vs. “awesome,” “transcendent” vs. “niiiiiice”–but we are talking about the same thing.

“Whose woods these are I think I know…”

Best way to appreciate nature: be a tree!

Commonality #3: Judgementalism. Somehow, I find comfort in knowing we all share this flaw. A small example: I find myself feeling “judgy” when staying with friends who don’t compost or recycle, or who buy produce that comes from halfway around the world. But at the same time, I have friends who probably judge ME for my ginormous carbon footprint, with all the driving and flying I do.

A larger example: Indian Country. We passed, and passed through, many reservations across America. Somehow the land that makes the most impression on me is in the rural mountain West–probably because, unlike the eastern states and the west coast, the swath that runs from Montana south to New Mexico LOOKS THE SAME as it did 150 years ago. (Again–not talking cities here. Just the land.) Driving past the site of Little Big Horn or Sand Creek, for example, I have no trouble visualizing exactly what those warriors and soldiers would have seen as they confronted each other, or the view families would have had from their encampments.

All that land was theirs. Now almost none of it is; it’s been swallowed up by a dominant, unsympathetic culture. If I were Native, would I be able to contain my rage? So who am I now to feel like my country’s been hijacked by the supporters of Donald Trump? I’m still part of the mainstream.

I’m not saying “it’s all relative.” Of course there are extremes I don’t hesitate to call Bad: pussy-grabbing, for instance. Big no-no. But this trip has helped remind me that the people I struggle to understand probably have just as much trouble understanding ME.

 

In the middle of a long day crossing Montana on I-90, we stopped at the Missouri Headlands State Park.  It is, as the name implies, the beginning of that body of moving water we call the Missouri. It’s a good place: Lewis and Clark’s party camped there for three days.

Not a bad camp spot.

Lewis and Clark were sent by Jefferson to stitch our country together, west to east, by waterways. They failed, of course–Mighty Mo don’t cross no Rockies!–but the land routes they found served the same purpose in time. And of course, as American culture spread across the continent, other cultures were soon shattered.

“This rest area is your rest area, this rest area is my rest area…” See you there, America.

The lesson here? “This land is your land, this land is my land.” We may not agree on much. But in asserting my love for this big ol’ country, I’m not going to whine about it having become “unrecognizable” to me, as some on the left like to do. I DO recognize American culture, warts and all. And some of those warts are mine.

 

 

Road Trip VII, Days 29-31: Down ‘n’ Out in Estes Park, Colorado–NOT

Getting sick sucks. Getting sick on vacation in Estes Park, Colorado, gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park? That’s a bit harder to sound-byte.

Pretty sweet spot for a town, right?

On the one hand, I couldn’t do my usual racing-around-seeing-things stuff. Hiking? Noooo.  Biking? Also a no, thanks. Shopping–nope. And it’s hard to get excited about discovering restaurants when you’ve lost your appetite.

But on the other: I’m on VACATION. I get to lie around and not feel pressured about all the work I’m not getting done! What could be more fitting?

Even better, attitude-wise: getting sick when you’re vacationing with a friend with a scary heart condition.

The one hike I did manage, at 9,000-ft. altitude, had me gasping for breath and walking in slo-mo. Which is exactly what our friend does ANY day he hikes at altitude.

Pretending I don’t feel like curling up for a nap

So, Gretchen’s pity-party was swiftly cancelled. I spent the rest of the weekend soaking up scenery from the car or the window of our rented cabin, and soaking up friendship.

Long’s Peak–a LONG way away, thanks to the miracle of telephoto

Rocky Mountain hiiiiigh….from my car window….

Oh, and that friendship that was in danger of being tested by sports fanaticism? The sports gods were kind to me: our friends’ UCLA Bruins lost on Friday while our beloved North Carolina Tarheels won, so we all cheered together on Sunday as the Heels advanced to the Final Four. Just so you know. 🙂

Thanks, Nature. I needed that.

It’s a lesson I can’t seem to learn too often: compassion and gratitude beat back self-pity every time.

Road Trip VII, Days 22-28, Shaftsbury, VT to Fort Collins, CO: The Ultimate Adventure-Buddy Challenge

You’d think, after a month on the road, that we’d be heading straight home now–next stop, our dear evergreen Washington State.

Instead, we’ve diverged to Colorado. We have an adventure-buddy date.

Seven years ago, when our retirement from our primary careers turned us into annual road-trippers, we found kindred spirits in a pair of friends from North Carolina. On every trip since 2012, we have met our Adventure Buddies somewhere along the way. We rent a house for three days, take turns cooking, and go for lots of hikes.

2012, Moab, Utah:

Arches National Park (duh)

2013, Sedona, Utah:

A little late snow that year!


2014, Yosemite:

Who took this pic? Our Adventure Buddies, of course!

2015, Yucca Valley, CA (near Joshua Tree):

…and great Mexican food nearby too!

2016, Anza-Borrego State Park, CA:

Thanks, Adventure Buddies!

At the end of each day, we watch college basketball together, men’s and women’s. See, our buddies are Tarheel fans like us. North Carolina, remember? If we meet during the eastern portion of our trip, there are regular season games to watch. And if, as now, we meet in late March, there’s the NCAA championship. In the rare years that Carolina’s not in the Sweet 16–yes, we Tarheel fans are that spoiled–we can always root against Duke together.

This year we’re meeting in Estes Park, Colorado, right next to Rocky Mountain National Park.

This place.

So, this should be a perfect weekend, right? #1 seed Carolina’s in, playing this Friday. And Duke? They’ve already choked lost to a lowly 15-seed.

Except.

Something I forgot to mention: these NC friends of ours moved to LA. As in UCLA. Whose team is also in the Sweet 16. Playing Friday.

Luckily for our mutual friendship, UNC and UCLA aren’t playing each other Friday. So we’re free to cheer for both.

Except.

If both couples’ sports-gods prayers are answered, both our teams will win. Then they have to face each other.

How ’bout that for a test of friendship?

I’d like to think that, on Friday, I’ll be wholeheartedly cheering for the UCLA Bruins to beat Kentucky. And I will be. Mostly.

But I gotta admit, more than a teensy part of me will be secretly hoping they lose. Just so we can all cheer on the Tarheels, together, on Sunday. If Carolina loses and UCLA wins, I’ll be a huge Bruins fan.

And if it comes to UNC-UCLA? I’ll be cheering first and foremost for our friendship. Of COURSE.  What kind of person do you think I am?    🙂

 

 

Road Trip VII, Days 17-21, Durham, NC to Shaftsbury, VT: Marching Madly Back Into Winter

What kind of idiots drive north into a named winter storm…when they don’t have to?

Allow us to introduce ourselves: Wing & Mate.

We did make a few prudent choices. We delayed leaving NC for a day to let the worst of Stella pass. And we stayed as far east as possible, away from the storm’s edge, even though that meant sticking with ugly ol’ I-95 instead of taking the prettier inland route. We may be idiots, but we’re not STUPID.

We also opted to take it slow, leaving late in the morning and spending the night halfway to Vermont, in a motel in Wilmington…where we got a good lesson in reality.

Reality can thin out a bit on road trips. In our little car-bubble, whatever we’re used to becomes whatever IS. So I got heartily sticker-shocked at that motel. But since it was the last room available I swallowed hard and paid–I’m embarrassed to say how much–to avoid the losing proposition of racing around the internet just before rush hour trying to find a better deal.

The motel was full of families. In summertime or over Christmas this is expected, but we could tell these weren’t folks on Spring Break. Sure enough, we learned that a major power outage had forced them from their homes. And here we are, on a purely discretionary trip! Talk about perspective. I chatted with a couple of ladies over breakfast, and when they wished me “safe travels,” I wished there were a way to say, “safe stay-at-home!”

The New Jersey Turnpike took all my attention as navigator, as other freeways snaked in and out, trying to lure us into NYC. Nothing looked attractive, even under snow, which tells you something. (Sorry, NJ…maybe someday I’ll discover the “Garden” part of your statehood.) But once safely in the Hudson Valley, headed for Albany, we both relaxed, enjoying real mountains for the first time since Asheville. 

Snowy mountains. You gotta love any scenery that calls to mind words like “serene” or “majestic.” 

Majestic, shmajestic–I wanna make footprints!

“Whose woods these are I think I know…” (snowshoeing along a section of the Appalachian Trail)

Snow angel! (We coastal Northwesterners can’t get enough of this.)

OK, snow is cool. But the REAL draw of this adventure? Cute little cousins.

…and cheese-eating dinosaurs

And their adorable sheep-herding donkey Ben:

March is a terrible time for lambing in VT. Cousin Jesse had to bring the flock into the barn.

Ben being modest. He has work to do.

So: March Madness in basketball, yes. And in the lives of good ol’ Wilmingtonites just trying to make it through winter. But the northeastern roadways? Piece o’ cake. Shame on us for doubting the Yankee ability to deal with snow.