Wednesday, June 29, 2011

So many books, so little time

Back before I was even pregnant with my first son I harbored this little fantasy of what life enceinte would be like. I imagined something akin to an extended beach vacation (a smooth, sandy Great Lakes beach) where my only responsibilities were to plump out and devour all the books I ever wanted to read.

I got the plump part right at least.

Instead, right up to my delivery date, I taught two classes at Northern Arizona University—much of the time in pain from sciatica. Between grading and clearing out the spare bedroom as a nursery, reading took a back seat. My husband, Ralph, was teaching fulltime at NAU and commuting up and down the mountain to Arizona State University in Tempe for his final PhD class. Our son Erik’s December birth coincided with Ralph finishing his coursework.

I went back to teaching parttime a semester after Erik was born. Sleep deprivation and school work trumped reading. It horrifies me to think of it now, but I only read one book that entire year: a Barbara Michaels romantic suspense novel that obviously did not keep me in too much suspense.

Fast forward to late summer 1995: I’m recovering from the C-section birth of my second son (my mother, God bless her, ‘edited’ my legs out from many of the pictures of me in bed holding my new baby. A career as an old-timey circus sideshow attraction was surely an option for me then…and I ain’t talking about the Bearded Lady.).

Why I chose as post-pregnancy reading material the Kazuo Ishiguro book from the library I did, the title of which escapes me and even a trip to Amazon doesn’t enlighten me, I’ll never know. I still have nightmares about that book. The ceaseless repetitive surreal scenes did not mix well with the pain pill Percoset. I soon abandoned both the narcotics and the novel.

Books are my vocation and avocation. Ever since my mother introduced me to the Honey Bunch series when I was five, I was hooked. They sure beat Dick, Sally, Jane and their insipidly named pets, Spot and Puff. A voracious reader from that age on, I soon ‘graduated’ to Nancy Drew and never looked back. The year I was ten I read “The Catcher in the Rye” and “True Grit,” both probably too gritty for a ten-year-old, but there was no turning back.

The only time my mom ever censored my choice of reading materials was when I was in 7th grade. The Detroit Free Press was serializing excerpts from “Sybil,” the story of a woman diagnosed with multiple personalities. One morning the newspaper was missing. My mom explained she threw it away. That day’s installment contained graphic descriptions of abuse Sybil suffered as a child at the hands of her own mother. Naturally I dug the paper out of the trash and read it.

And I’ve regretted doing so to this day.

Over the years, I’ve belonged to four book clubs in three states and read countless tomes crisscrossing genres. About a week ago someone posted a question on the West Virginia Writers, Inc. Facebook wall asking people their favorite authors. Nearly a week later the thread is still going strong. I responded with just a smattering of my favorite books and authors.

And I’m constantly discovering new favorites.

But also over the years something alarming has happened. Some of the joy went out of reading—and writing. Granted, I write to earn money but also because it’s akin to a calling with me. That’s a part of writing I never talk about except to say I knew from elementary school on I wanted to be a writer and have never really veered from that path.

In the dead of winter of this year, my mom and I had a heart-to-heart talk. We both wanted to make writing fun again. And so we have.

That decision opened the floodgates of reading joy. I’m no longer approaching every book I pick up as a ‘textbook,’ wondering if I should try something new, stretch my skills, stick to tried and true, the list is endless. I’m not saying I won’t do any of those things, but for now I’m at peace writing in the voice my mom and I do best together. And ideas for exploring future projects ‘out of my comfort zone’ are already scribbled in a notebook.

This summer, ‘thanks’ to foot surgery, I find myself with lots of reading time and no maternity clothes in sight. So I’m devouring books the way I used to race through the adventures of Nancy and her pals Bess and George.

There are so many books I still want to read (and write) and I need to embrace my enforced stillness rather than railing against it.

Who knows? I may even spend a few hours revisiting “The Secret of the Old Clock,” or “Harriet the Spy” or Harry Potter or pick up Anne Tyler or Jonathan Franzen or Lynn Austin or—the list is endless.

And I, for one, feel like a kid whose just been let back into the candy store.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Life in the Slow Lane

First some housekeeping: Recently I returned from my 9th WVWriters, Inc. conference. The event is held annually at Cedar Lakes in Ripley, West Virginia. Every year I come home saying “That was the best conference ever.”

This year was no exception. It really was the best conference ever.

Being around like-minded people is energizing, refilling the creative well. And believe me, I never use phrases like that. I’m a journeyman (woman) writer, not a weaver of sumptuous words.

Seeing dear old friends and making new ones is priceless. I totally want to adopt the amazing couple, Doug and Telisha Williams, who entertained Saturday night with their own brand of Americana music. Everyone in the universe should check them out.

And instead of breaking down weeping when it came time to leave, I either avoided good-byes or did my best Mount Rushmore impression when faced with the partings.

It worked.

I remained dry-eyed all the way home to the prairie, 1,100 miles away.

Inside I was a soggy, blubbering mess, but all things are made sweeter by being laced with bittersweet.

One day after returning, I had foot surgery -- a tendon sheath sliced (or something like that) and toes pinned (my surgeon, the anesthesiologist, the nurses, the staff, the amazing PT who sent me to the surgeon… all rock), and here I sit. I’m ‘non-weight bearing’ for two weeks, hobbling horribly around on crutches. Granted, the end result will be less pain and much better mobility. My advanced years goal is to still be able to hike in Rocky Mountain National Park in my 80s, so more mobility is all good.

In the meantime… here I sit.

I always blame my husband’s Viking lineage for our older son’s wanderlust, but I too bear responsibility for Erik’s boundless energy. (As a holding on and letting go aside, said son is heading to S. Korea this fall for another study abroad program marking his third trip overseas.) I’ve written this before: When all the toddlers in our Arizona playgroup were happily rolling trucks in the sandbox and swinging on a tire swing, Erik was heading for the Mexican border.

When I was four my parents took my little sister and me to the Detroit Zoo to see a Tasmanian Devil all the way from Australia. I wouldn’t say I’ve exactly been a whirling dervish my whole life, but I don’t like to be still. If I didn’t like to eat so much and have peasant forebears, I’d probably be thin.

Being fairly immobile has been… challenging. That no one in my family has knocked me over the head and buried me in the backyard is a testament to their fortitude. My family deserves kudos.

During several scary tornado warnings the other evening my mother put a chair in the hall (which she had determined was the safest spot upstairs) for me and refused to go down to the lower level to our ‘storm shelter.’ I haven’t been this touched since she allowed me (the daughter of a public school administrator) to attend a Catholic high school when I was miserable at the public high school in the town we moved to right before my junior year.

In addition, my younger son is being nice enough to help me overcome my tendency to resort to not-so-nice language when I get frustrated. (There’s a financial incentive in it for him). And my husband is not bonking me over the head with my crutches when I get uber frustrated that the simplest tasks elude me.

My friends have also rallied. I have been touched by the gestures of those both near and far. Calls, visits, e-mails, texts, Facebook messages have inundated my heart. An arrangement of lilies worthy of a royal wedding grace my living room, thanks to my friend Ann Snider, the mother of four… who is holding on and letting go herself as her oldest son is on his LDS mission trip for two years. She is courageous indeed.

Another beautiful arrangement sits on my buffet, a gift from my longtime friend Susan Case. Susan coaxed me though Erik’s first trip abroad to Germany when he was only in high school. Her daughter had been a foreign exchange student several years previous.

Too numerous to mention are my many other supportive friends. It takes a lot to spend time, in person or virtually, with a cranky woman on crutches!

This morning I escaped for coffee with my exercise pals (that was my exercise!) and learned the sister-in-law of one of the women just fell off a horse when the saddle loosened. Broken ribs and a punctured lung resulted. Once again, I’m reminded to quit whining and remember how fortunate I am. I’m slated to be off crutches (I hope!) in another week and plan to have more mobility when I can stomp around in my Herman Munster boot.

In the meantime, maybe it’s time to enjoy life in the slow lane?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Procrastination Nation

I’m sitting here at my computer, surely having exhausted every possible procrastinating tool. If I were my own ‘friend’ on Facebook, I’d hide me in my newsfeed.

Today it took me longer to unpack from my trip to my ninth West Virginia Writers, Inc. Conference than it did to drive from Cedar Lakes to Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, the first leg of the trip home.

In between I did umpteen loads of laundry, went to the dentist, waited around for the surgery center to call with a time for my toe pinning / ankle tendon slicing / Frankenstein’s Monster foot apparel fashion statement ‘procedure’ tomorrow morning.

I even took time to dig out an old photo of my father in his Kalamazoo College marching band days in honor of my friend-since-6th-grade, Sandy Plenge Taube’s, posting her dad’s photo on Facebook for Father’s Day week.

Since I really have to go to bed, I’ll cut to the chase. Friends…whether those since elementary school who take time to check on you, or newer ones, like my gorgeous friend Franny, whom I met in exercise classes at the Y (and who called to see if I needed company after surgery tomorrow), or like-minded writer friends who are more like family you never want to part from…are invaluable.

They are worth embracing -- physically and spiritually -- and revering. Tonight my heart literally aches for those I just left behind and those I haven’t seen in years but who still remain close in my heart.

The pain of missing those is far more brutal than a few swipes by a superbly skilled surgeon.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Summer Camp for Writers

I am not a camper. My idea of ‘roughing it’ is staying at a Holiday Inn. My few experiences sleeping under the stars have done nothing to disabuse me of this notion.

In 7th grade my science teacher, Mr. Herring, decided to take half a dozen of his students camping in the woods. In October. In northern Michigan. I’ve never been so cold in my entire life. Later, he told my parents (not unkindly) I was the worst camper he ever had.

I took it as a compliment.

Many years later while living in Arizona, my husband and I wanted to climb the nine-mile Potato Patch hike overlooking Jerome and the Verde Valley. The Grand Canyon is visible at a distance. He assured me this involved pitching a tent at a very nice campground. Sleeping on the ground, even in my 20s, was not my cup of tea, the clincher was the bathroom ‘facilities’….or lack thereof.

That was our first and last camping trip.

Over the years he’s looked longingly at little pop-up trailers and talked wistfully about the fun we could have in our retirement traveling around the country. He also used to hold out hope I’d actually get on the back of his motorcycle again (as I did for a brief period in college when we first met).

Ain’t gonna happen. He’s come to terms with it the same way I’ve come to terms with he’s never going to care (nee obsess) about clutter the way I do.

Then I discovered (thanks to my late great writer friend Mary Rodd Furbee) ‘writers camp” for adults. For more than 30 summers, West Virginia Writers, Inc. has held a conference where like-minded people can be revitalized creatively as well as make new friends and reconnect with old. As long as I’ve been going the locale has been Cedar Lakes Conference Center in southwestern West Virginia. Cedar Lakes offers charming rustic cabins and a better-than-many-hotels lodge. Geese, a covered bridge, and a lovely little chapel also dot the landscape. Gentle rolling hills envelope the area.

Cat Pleska, the president of West Virginia Writers, Inc., took the photo below at last summer’s conference.

Attending year after year to see old friends, make new, and get those creative juices flowing is akin, I think, to the fond memories many people have about traditional summer camp.

My dad tried to send my four siblings and me to summer camp one year, but we all came down with chicken pox. Darn. However, I revere and embrace the few days I spend each summer at Cedar Lakes at the best little writers’ conference in the country.

Past presenters have included Gretchen Moran Laskas, author of ‘The Midwife’s Tale,’ an Oprah book club selection; the indomitable Lee Maynard; Cheryl Ware, from whose pen the delightful children’s series featuring Venola Mae books took flight; Brad Barkley, an award-winning novelist; Jim Minick, whose memoir on starting a pick-your-own-blueberry farm with his wife garnered a multitude of rave reviews plus a whole host of talented others. This year, Cheryl and Jim will be back to present workshops, and Lee will be reading from his latest book. Pitch sessions to an agent and editor are also available. And it’s not too late to register.

Camaraderie, creativity, and best of all…no camping on the ground.

Can’t be beat.