An Unsilent Knight

The first snowfall of the season settles over the ground in the late November twilight. I stand at the window, dancing with the snowflakes and thinking about my mother, all those years ago pregnant with me, her due date passing as she, too, gazed out the window, wondering where my father was, if he still lived. World War II had ended, but danger continued to stalk the globe. Around her family’s store/home, winter promised to call, as it does today, and I, restless, waited until the third of December to venture into the storm.

It is impossible to escape the ubiquitous seasonal music, the barrage of advertisements urging us to spend, spend, spend, yet more important concerns intrude. At our borders, we witness the relentless assault on every value we pretend to espouse. Women and children are driven away from asylum, tear-gassed, vilified. In a season dedicated to peace, among people paying lip-service to a Savior, hate abounds.

History provides no solace, Through the ages, mankind has seen fit to use religion as a battering ram. Regardless of sect or creed, every doctrine has a story of destruction in its DNA. Tolerance dies when one group seeks to impose its beliefs on the ‘others.’ But somewhere, faint and far-off, a single voice whispers a silent night. Somewhere holiness takes root. One hand stretches toward another and we lift up our voices in chorus. The knights of harmony refuse to remain silent.

Will goodness and light ever triumph, or are we doomed to repeat again the deadly cycles? I believe it is only in remaining mute that evil wins. Each of us must walk a path of our own choosing. No one path serves all men and women, but there are signposts to guide us. Each great religion offers a roadmap, a way to be true to the best of our nature. You are free to select yours. I have made my choice — not to stand silent in the face of so much wrongness. That is the harness I will wear as 2018 fades to black and 2019 takes the stage. I will be an insolent knight, tilting those windmills and working for change. So, this holiday season — and it is a season as more than twenty-five individual holidays occur around the world during this six-week period, may you add your voice to those advocating reason and hope.

Although Dylan Thomas wrote his beautiful poem to his dying father, I often hear the refrain as a call to arms in every instance where reason and goodness are under attack. “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.”

Merry Christmas! Happy Hannukah! Happy Kwanzaa! Merry Holidays! May you walk in light, lift your voice in the service of what is right, and be the change you want to see in the world.

Swimming Upstream

This is the time of year for it…the time when salmon, who spend their early lives in rivers before heading out to sea, return to those same rivers to spawn. Fueled by their ocean feedings, they are fortified for the arduous journey back to their birthplace to begin the cycle all over again. Driven by instinct, clear on where they belong, the fish fight currents, leap obstacles, evade bear claws and anglers as they stretch toward the goal. The marathon touches anyone lucky enough to observe it. There is such grace and strength in the run. Each salmon knows its purpose. Instinct compels them on. If you interviewed a sentient example of the species, asked it why it perseveres, I’m pretty sure the answer would be “because I have to.” The impulse hidden in the genetic makeup refuses to be ignored.

I think writers, indeed all artists, are the salmon equivalent of homo sapiens. We are driven to produce our art. Fueled by a desire often difficult to express, we endure long solo sessions typing or hand writing, pushing past the censor that shouts, ‘you’re no good’ or ‘you can’t write that.’ The interior command to ‘do it’ doesn’t come from a tennis shoe ad.Rather, like the salmon, the instructions are buried in our DNA. Ask a writer why she pursues this lonely, at times agonizing, at times subversive task, and the answer matches the salmon’s response: Because I have to.

The fall migration period of salmon roughly corresponds to the autumn calendar. From September through November, the rivers teem with fish determined to reach the headwaters, to grab the prize each seeks – the continuation of the species. For writers, the prize frequently equals publication. Nothing like seeing your work in print. Better yet, receiving payment for all those hours spent crafting a poem, an essay, a story worthy of replication in a journal, magazine, or book. But with NaNoWriMo, the annual write-a-fifty-thousand-word-novel in a month challenge, in full swing, other goals arise. The writer tests herself against the word count. Accepts the dare to finish or revise. Hopes for the chance to read in front of an audience. And more important for me, as a writer, I hope for the validation of my  peers, to be considered a good/great writer. In the end, through my words, I desire to touch a reader, to evoke emotion, to make him/her think more deeply about what it is to be human.

So here I am, sitting at my computer, banging out a blog post, thinking about a manuscript, outlining a new non-fiction piece. Sometimes I lose sight of the end game. Sometimes I tire of the rocky uphill climbs, listen to the boo bird on my shoulder. Once in a while I crash against the boulders of rejection. On occasion, the bear catches me. Still, as always, I insist on returning to the river where my ideas spawn, grateful for the chance to create again.

Happy Thanksgiving, writers and readers! I am grateful for your presence in my life.

Sailing the horizon…a cautionary tale

The ship unfurls seven sails. Music from the TV series “Victoria” plays over the deck. In the distance, the silhouette of Italy jumps up and down like one of those graphs for  height changes in the Tour de France. The houses shelter on the edge of cliffs, tile-roofed and shimmering like the watercolors in a Frederick Kubitz painting. Except Kubitz chose to depict the coast of Maine and these grace the Tuscan coastline. I’m in love with the past that settles across my vision like a field of flowers.

Our ship, the Windstar, carries us forward, channeling the horizon in a series of perfect photo ops. I lean on the rail and imagine the Phoenicians heading toward Spain, the Greeks facing the straits of Gibraltar, the Romans claiming territory with their tradesmen and their soldiers. History fills the clefts in the hills, marches upward on the cliffs, unfurls in the sea beneath the ship. Captivated by the rhythm of sea and sky, I become a time traveler, bridging past eras with present experience.

Is this not what writers do? Poets, essayists, novelists, memoirists…we stare at the horizon and craft narratives, sailing beside all those who wrote before us, captive to the urge to conquer story, to trade our goods for favorable terms — the esteem of readers, the recognition of our peers. Perhaps, in our eagerness to reach that horizon, we overlook the perils around us. Ships founder in a storm. Sea monsters lurk under the waves. Antagonists chew at our resolve. Naysayers, especially the censor inside us, repeat warnings.

Still, like the ship I ride, we sail on. The second week of June, 2018, when I sail, provides perfect weather. Blue skies, fair seas. Not a raindrop in sight. But in the distance, a storm gathers. In the way of all things natural, the tempest will come. Are we ready? Have we done our drills, measured our response to adversity, claimed space on a lifeboat? As I continue my writing journey, I like to think I am prepared to last the course, but just in case, I pack an emergency bag of ideas, rhymes, essays, and a compass to guide me on the trip.

The Seasons of Our Lives

Early morning fog wafts across the highway. Dawn, like a fan dancer in nature’s club, waves her veils across the land. One more trip to PA to consult with my siblings about our mother’s delusional dementia. Earlier in the summer, she was still mostly Irma. Now when I arrive, she is mostly gone, living inside the weird, funny, sad, unbelievable story her brain is crocheting over her memories. These drives are not fun.

Along the way, I plug in my iPod and crank up my list of favorite tunes. Bob Seger rocks about night moves. Hall and Oates describe the method of modern love. The Dixie Chicks remind me how much I miss their honest lyrics. Then Stevie Nicks slips in beside me, observing the passing of time, asking, “Can I handle the seasons of my life?” Landslide. Right.

The days shift. Each Facebook post brings a smile or a new tremor. The road may go on forever, as Tolkien wrote, but we do not. Our stories have an ending, and the journey there is not always a pleasant one. How to handle the changes that arrive, book-ended by solstice nights, shelved between the C of compassion and the R of responsibility? Decisions loom like headlights, oncoming, shrouded, daring me to stay the course or veer into disaster.

Lifting my gaze to the rear view mirror, I notice my eyes, intent and anxious, checking for impatient drivers. Amid the press of appointments. the phone calls to doctors and lawyers, the weighing of my mother’s express desire to remain where she is against the need to ensure her safety, I find myself standing on Fleetwood Mac’s mountain, staring into the reflection of my own life and wondering how to do this thing called adulting.

The iPod shuffles through the albums. The Eagles fill the car with a new tune. “Do something,” they croon, and I put my foot on the gas and motor on. August is winding down, summer on the wane. Autumn beckons with leafy fingers, stained now with the colors of her time. I drive on, unable to turn back, sailing, along with Stevie, into the next ocean’s wave.


Old Paths, New Boots

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Post-July 4th OpEd

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

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

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

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

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

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

Family Matters…

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

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

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

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

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

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

June Bugs, Fireflies, and Writers…

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

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

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

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

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

Mother, May I?

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

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

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

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

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

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


Planting Seeds…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May your garden grow!