Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Dear Pen Pal

Long before Hello Kitty and stretchy bracelets, having a ‘pen pal’ was all the rage. A magazine, the name long forgotten, matched up pen pals..sort of an eHarmony for the elementary school set.

When I was ten…the age I decided I wanted to be a writer (or the First Lady, or Mrs. Donny Osmond, or save the seals and the environment) a girl named Diane and I started corresponding.

She was a couple years older and lived in Pennsylvania, a fact that just now comes back to me all these decades later. We hit it off and even spoke on the phone several times over the years. We never met but the written word cemented our friendship.

One summer night after my sophomore year in high school (the grade my youngest son is in now), I came home from my job at the ice cream/sandwich shop run by a local pain-in-the-keister businessman. The pay was low, the work was mundane, and at the end of the night we had to make the restrooms hospital-clean.

My mom, my Rock of Gibraltar, told me Diane’s mother had called. Diane and her boyfriend had been killed in a van accident that evening. If my pen pal had lived, she would have been a vegetable.

I sobbed into my mother’s arms, my sophisticated 16-year-old bravado dissolved.

Since then I’ve lost friends to the ravages of disease, but never one whose only connection to me was words.

Cherish the power of words. They have the ability to bind, to wound, to wrap us in a cocoon of love and warmth or shatter our illusions and make us no longer whole.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Guest Post - On Balance

Four years ago my good friend poet Kirk Judd and I journeyed to Tennessee to attend the SAWC (Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative) fall gathering. It was a glorious October weekend filled with opportunities for renewing creativity and making new friends. One of these is guest blogger, Jim Minick. Jim is an essayist, a poet, a teacher, and the author of The Blueberry Years, a memoir on blueberry farming and family. He and his wife, Sarah, currently live in Virginia. The topic here is near and dear to my heart, and Jim is an extraordinary friend. - PAH

On Balance

By Jim Minick, author of The Blueberry Years

When I was working intensely on The Blueberry Years in the first six months of 2009, I developed a pattern for what became my ideal day. I wrote at the computer from roughly 9:00 to 3:00, with a break for lunch, and then I headed out on our farm to do something physical. In the winter, I took a mattock and chopped bushes of invasive, multiflora rose. In the summer, I took a hoe and chopped thistle, again, an invasive, non-native plant that, untended, can cover a pasture in a few years, leaving nothing for the cows to eat.

This balance of work, of mental with physical, of creating with “destroying,” all of it seemed to fine tune my whole being. Our bodies and minds were both created for action, both meant to be used, and only in our recent history have we become a nation of couch-veggies. Yet writing, while great for keeping the mind sharp, seldom physically exercises more than the quick, soft pushups of fingers on keypads.

So getting out every afternoon released that morning’s pent up physical energy. And nothing like the pleasure of killing a thorny rose to also work out a thorny problem in the prose. Usually, though, I found a certain inner blankness in the afternoon where I could focus just on finding the next thistle or stepping into the center of a massive rose bush to uproot it with a few swings of the mattock. Always I sweated, even in winter, and often I swore as the thorns tore skin or cloth. But also, always I stopped to rest, listen, watch, and listen some more—the physical world once more becoming more alive than the one in my head.

The blueberry, the “hero” of The Blueberry Years, also echoes this theme of balance. It was first domesticated 100 years ago by a man and woman working together. Frederick Coville brought his scientific understanding of the blueberry, while Elizabeth White brought her family’s land and her community. She recruited her neighbors, the “Pineys” around Whitesbog, New Jersey, to find wild, exceptional bushes and bring her samples. Then, in the dormant season, they ventured into the swamps to dig up these plants and bring them back to the growing nursery. Soon Coville and White had a huge project, and in six years time, they were able to sell the first domesticated crop of blueberries.

In our own blueberry field, we can see in a plant’s leaves if the soil is ‘out of balance’ and needs some amendment, like sulfur to lower the pH.

Or when we prune, we try to balance the number of new canes with the old. And here, when I forget about the day’s troubles, when I just focus on the plant and lose myself, I begin to find some inner balance as I imagine what each bush needs to become, begin to see what to cut and what to keep. What is and what could be. I work to bring some openness to the berry bush’s interior, and I try to imagine a space in its heart large enough for a sparrow to fly through. Balance on my haunches to snip a few canes and create that space, and then move to the next.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A Week from the First Day of Autumn….

The first day of fall is a week from today and will technically mark my third prairie autumn. I’m always a tad confused by this bit of calendar counting. We moved to Nebraska from West Virginia right around the 4th of July, 2008. So, while we’ve lived here just over two years, it’s the third autumn I’ll experience in the flatlands.

Is that right? Ah, math and semantics…the former my nemesis, the latter my solace.

A few more weeks forward marks the one-year anniversary of this blog. Erik, my older son, would have just left for his second sojourn to German. I would have still been carrying around the last ‘Erik goes to Germany’ pounds and facing the prospect of turning the big 5-0.

Hence, I decided to do what writers do: procrastinate by blogging.

Even so, productivity this year has not been at an all-time low…a couple books got written, and currently my mom and I are thrilled to be working on a Christmas novella for our current publisher.

My three-times-a-week blog has become weekly if not sporadic.

And I’ve dropped, if not all the pounds I wanted to, quite a few. Even more importantly, I haul my behind out of bed every morning to get to the local YMCA and take great classes taught by awesome instructors… I come home, eat breakfast, gulp coffee, and walk.

A far different lifestyle then the work practically 24/7 one I lived previously.

And thanks to the wonders of a social media site, I can be in contact with old friends and much-loved students, many of whom are getting married, having babies, becoming the wonderful adults they were destined to be.

So this morning as I’m walking, glad for the long-sleeved tee I pulled out since there’s a real chill in the air, sadness overwhelms me.

In just shy of three months, I will turn 51. I think about the friends I’ve lost, some who didn’t see 40, others who didn’t see 50. I so embrace my life and am so reminded again of the finite-ness of it.

Again, I am reminded of the wonder and sorrow of holding on and letting go.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Puppy Love Redux

My first crush was on a little red-haired boy named Tommy, an ‘older man’ of four.

I’ve confessed before to bopping his sister on the head with a toy truck when she got in the way of my ‘pursuit’ of him. Over the years, I carried a torch, no matter how briefly, for other boys until I met the one who made me hope the flame would never be extinguished.

Many factors shape who we become as adults, including previous loves, likes, and the more than occasional passing fancy.

What prompted this introspection was a good friend’s musing about her child’s upcoming first date. She wasn’t sure whether to be proud or cry, knowing the first heartbreak is the natural next step.

As parents we want desperately to shield our children from heartbreak, while at the same time being keenly aware that love and loss is an integral part of the growing up process.

My favorite scene in the movie Jaws, which in 1975 was my first official date, takes place at night aboard Robert Shaw’s boat. Roy Scheider listens as an inebriated Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss swap fish stories and compare shark bites.

One upmanship takes over and Dreyfuss shrugs out of his shirt, indicating his chest and the greatest wound of all:

As Hooper, he says: “There. Right there. Mary Ellen Moffit broke my heart.

Not long after, the Great White chomps Robert Shaw’s Quint in half. Somehow I think a broken heart is more easily mended.

Sure, sometimes whether you’re a teenager or an octogenarian not even diving into a pint of Ben & Jerry’s can cure what ails you.

But we can take something valuable away from each time we’ve loved and lost. Even though I didn’t marry one, I gained a life-long affinity for redheads from my pre-schooler crush on Tommy F. in that Detroit suburb back in the 60s.

If you don’t open your heart to the possibility of loss, how can you know love?

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints,—I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life!—and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning