After being married for twenty-seven years, I still love it. Even though it’s not always easy for two flawed individuals to live together, I enjoy my husband’s companionship. I like the way our personalities dovetail and we usually manage to pick the other one up when we’re down. But I have discovered a drawback to a long marriage: the inability to throw anything away. It stands to reason that the longer you live, the more stuff you accumulate. And when there are two people in the house, there’s the potential to accumulate twice as much stuff. Add kids to that and, well, it’s a minimalist’s nightmare.
I’ve noticed an appealing practice among the people in my circle who’ve split up with their significant other: they seem to have a much easier time tossing extraneous belongings. And not just a contractor bag or two of thinning tee shirts. I’m talking metal artifacts from the back corner of the garage. Entire boxes of knickknacks, china sets, Christmas ornaments, counter-hogging kitchen gadgets. The list is endless. How do they do that? Don’t get me wrong, hubby’s stuck with me for life. But on this not-so-minor issue of decluttering, I have to admit, I’m a little envious. I mean, I’m happy to be united to my husband in matrimony. I just wish we weren’t so attached to our material possessions. Oh, to have the freedom to toss!
Could it be that the force that keeps me and my husband together is the same force that keeps us married to the long-forgotten honey extractor in the basement, years after the black bear snuck into the backyard and made off with one of the hive boxes, leaving my husband no safe choice but to pass the apiary supplies off to another hopeful honey collector? Should I take it as an auspicious sign that he has hung onto the same fifty-seven neckties for years even though, thanks to a more relaxed attitude towards his teaching career and two years of a pandemic where we’re lucky if people remember to put on pants before they leave the house, he no longer wears ties? Should I believe that if he retains antiquated clothing, there’s a good chance he’ll hang onto me for a while?
I realize this sounds one-sided. Like hubby is the sole offender in this junk accumulation. I should not abuse the power of the pen here. I have my share of piles of indecision. Small totes of framed photos shoved in a corner–but where to hang them? Miscellaneous cups, bags, and boxes of, well, miscellaneous stuff. Not to mention a drawer of photos that really should go into scrapbooks, but. . .you know. . .life. So who’s to blame? That’s not really the point. (She says defensively.) What IS the point? It’s time to clean it up!
After all, St. Augustine said, “Order brings peace.” I want me some of that! The problem becomes how to chuck junk without causing marital discord. I had this conversation with an otherwise happily married friend of mine. She told me that while her husband was out for the day, she discarded a bunch of his stuff that had been piled up in the garage. I was shocked by her audacity. It was HIS stuff. And she didn’t even ask him first. I was on the edge of my seat wondering how she managed to do this act which I deemed heroic in the realm of wifedom and still manage to remain married. Perhaps she’d cleared some extra space, but she did not escape unscathed. At least in my eyes. Her husband didn’t talk to her for a couple days after that. It was one of those instances where the culprit thought it more advantageous to ask for forgiveness after the crime had been committed than for permission prior to acting. I’m not sure I want to take that route.
The alternative? Discussion. A healthy discourse between a husband and wife who wish to respect and honor each other and live in harmony, just without so many rolls of chicken wire that might be useful someday (but that elusive day never comes), piles of unfiled mail, and cords that never seem to fit the current inventory of electronic gadgets. Why is it so hard to have that conversation? I’m worried about hurting his feelings. Now that I’ve written it, although it’s how I feel, it seems absurd. I’m asking him to bring a rusty wheelbarrow to the dump, not a puppy.
I guess that’s what it comes down to. Sometimes in order to get to the good stuff, we have to endure the things in life that are less fun. Sometimes–most times–this means having the difficult conversations. Judging by the state of things here, we have a lot to talk about. For better or worse indeed. That’s ok. It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve had to roll up our sleeves. And it won’t be the last. It’s not easy doing things together. But–for me, at least–it’s better than doing it alone.
Today we welcome guest blogger Peter Johansson. Pete has been a nurse for twenty-six years and a parent for twenty-seven. He currently cheers for the Seattle Mariners from his home in Olympia, Washington, with his Wheaten Terrier, Jonesey. This piece originally appeared on Pete’s blog, The Gentleman Knucklehead: Having Raised and Ethically-Minded Son on a Diet of (Mostly) Movies and Baseball
This week… a reminiscence. No more, no less.
It’s 2005, and my son, The Knucklehead, is ten. Easter comes early this year, which means The Knucklehead’s spring break from school falls before the baseball season, which means our ballpark trip will wait for the summer. But it’s been a long winter, and we’re up for a road trip, so we decide to head to Cooperstown, NY to spend a few days at the Baseball Hall of Fame. It’s only about three and a half hours away by car, should be a fun trip.
Now, usually, when traveling with The Knucklehead, we’re not looking for luxurious or gracious accommodations. Generally, it’s chain motels, and I keep a traveler’s eye out for the places that have an indoor pool or a free breakfast we can carb up on before starting the day. During the summer, we’ve even thrown up the tent at campgrounds to stretch the budget a little. Kid friendly and/or cheap, in other words, is what we’re used to.
But this is a shorter trip, and as I pore through the AAA guide before we go (2005, for me, is still pre-reliable internet), I notice the bed and breakfasts. Knucks and I have never been to one together, and I’m not sure that I’ve ever really been to one myself, at this point. I discover that there’s one within an easy walk of the Hall of Fame, and since the baseball season hasn’t started yet, they’re still offering winter rates, which brings the price down to motel-range anyway. Sure, why not? The Inn at Cooperstown it is. I call up and make a two-night reservation.
The plan is to grab The Knucklehead when school lets out, swing by his mom’s to pick up his stuff, and head right up to Cooperstown. With luck, we’ll get there around 7:00 PM, have a nice dinner somewhere (an after-school snack already packed in the car), and chill out with the hoity toity at our ritzy B&B.
Luck, at least for that evening, is not with us.
We end up getting hit with one of those late winter/early spring snow squalls the Northeast is known for. Only this one is determined to show us who’s boss, and as the inches start to accumulate, the traffic on the interstate slows to a crawl, and an eventual stop. Two and a half hours after we’ve left, we’ve traveled roughly twenty miles, and we’ve come to a standstill between exits. And since I worked all night the night before and grabbed about four hours’ sleep that day, I’ve been drinking coffee. Which presents us with a new problem:
“I have to micturate.”
Note: Micturate is a splendid and useless word. It’s splendid because of the sound of it; you can’t say it without taking the time to precisely enunciate. Go ahead, try it. It’s useless because it means exactly the same thing as urinate so there’s no reason to haul it out except to show off (the word, that is). I discovered it, as all nurses do, in Nursing 101, after which it is immediately forgotten by most nurses and other medical professionals. I’ve never encountered the word since nursing school, except in the film The Big Lebowski (“Am I to understand that every time a rug is micturated upon in this fair city…?”). The only reason I remembered it is because before I was a nurse I was an English major, and so have a habit of collecting cool-sounding words like micturate and ineluctable which I’m going to work into a post one of these days. But I digress.
“Can you hold it?”
“Doubt it. I have to micturate like a race horse.”
A handy thing about being a nurse is that instead of coming home with the odd purloined office staple, I come home with the odd purloined hemostat. Or urinal. One of which is stowed under the driver’s seat for just such an emergency. And since traffic hasn’t moved for the last five minutes, now’s my chance.
The Knucklehead is in the back seat, so he can’t see what I’m doing, except leaning forward a little. All he hears is “Ahhhhh.”
“Did you just pee?!”
“IN YOUR PANTS?!”
“No!” I’m laughing now. “I have a urinal. See?”
I quick run out to empty it on the shoulder of the road and hop back in the car.
Knucks is impressed. “I wanna try.”
“OK,” I tell him. “Remember, you have to stay low so other people can’t see you. But lean forward a little so you make sure it all hits the urinal. Try to kneel on the floor if you have room. I don’t want you peeing all over my back seat, Mister.”
Can you tell that this is already a highlight of our road trip?
Eventually traffic starts moving again, but there’s no way we’re making Cooperstown that night. Fortunately, I know of an unadvertised (from the road, that is) hotel a mile or two off the interstate, and in about an hour we’re there, lucky to grab one of the last few rooms. A call up to Cooperstown to let them know we’ll be there tomorrow (the people at the B&B are understanding of the weather and won’t charge us for that night), and we hit the sack. If tomorrow morning is anything like tonight, we may have to rethink the whole vacation.
But as we’re falling asleep, the snow is ending, and by the morning the road crews are on top of the situation. We even get a warmish clear day, so when the sun comes up, we’re a go for New York state. In fact, we pull into Cooperstown by 10:30 AM, so we haven’t really lost much of our Hall of Fame time anyway.
The Hall is great. It’s holy ground for baseball fans, especially old-school fans like The Knucklehead and me. At ten, his knowledge of baseball history rivals most adults’, so it takes us a few hours to check everything off the list we want to see. We’re Red Sox fans, so the Holy Grail of The Hall is Curt Schilling’s bloody sock from the ALCS the previous fall. A few random malcontents on the internet had tried to accuse Schilling of painting the sock with ketchup for drama’s sake. I offered my professional medical assessment:
“That’s dried blood. See how brown it is? That’s how blood dries. Not ketchup.”
“Seriously,” Knucks agreed, as if he needed any convincing. “Where do people come up with this stuff?”
We spent the rest of the day haunting the memorabilia shops, souvenir stores, and bookstores of downtown Cooperstown. Even today, the internet is no match for what the shops of Cooperstown have to offer. Stuff you didn’t even know existed is around every corner. I was on the prowl for baseball books. I believe that baseball writing is among the most beautiful writing in all of sport–when you have to write about the game 162 times a year (not counting spring training and playoffs) you either throw up your hands in despair or settle into a rhythm. To read baseball history is to read the social, racial, and economic history of America. I came to Cooperstown hungry for the written word. I would not be disappointed.
In one particular shop, I found a treasure trove of titles I’d been looking for, some out of print. I stepped up to the register with a stack of books, on baseball history, baseball strategy, and baseball analysis, and a couple for The Knucklehead as well (who was also spending his own money on swag of his own). I pulled out my credit card and the woman behind the register of this tiny store said, “I’m sorry, sir, our credit card reader is down…”
Crap. I was irked. I didn’t have my checkbook, I really wanted these books, I didn’t have enough cash, and wasn’t thrilled about paying a fee at an ATM. I started doing the arithmetic in my head to weigh which of these I was taking home…
“… but these books are all from my sister’s shop,” the woman continued. “So if you’d like to take them there to pay for them, it’s just down the street and around the corner. She’ll be able to run your credit card there.”
I was stunned. Was I being treated like a grown-up? Was I being shown trust?
This is Cooperstown, New York. The Baseball Hall of Fame sits in a small town where small-town courtesy, honesty, and respect still thrives. It’s a place where people welcome and trust strangers because they’d rather not live in a world where they can’t. Where the occasional breach of trust is a small price to pay for expecting, and bringing out the best in people.
The clerk was smiling at me. “Oh, okay,” I slowly replied. “Thank you, that would be great.” I slowly walked to the door, arms loaded with merchandise. Surely this was a trick, or I’d misunderstood.
Nope. As I looked back at the register, the woman already had her attention on her next customer.
Knucks and I walked outside. “This is incredible,” I told him. “There is nothing to prevent me from simply walking away with – what – $80 worth of books. Her sister’s place isn’t even within view of here.”
“Wow. That’s amazing.”
We walked down the street and around the corner and found the sister’s shop. I walked into the store and explained what happened. “Oh, yes,” the proprietor there told me. “These are my books. We can check you out here.” I had no indication that her sister had called ahead, or that we were expected. I’m grateful The Knucklehead was there to witness that transaction. I think he got a glimpse of this country, maybe or maybe not how it was, but how it could be. If we just choose to make it that way.
After dinner (a sports bar/restaurant seemed fitting, and let’s face it, they’re hard to miss in downtown C-town) we head back to our lodgings for the night, where our car has been parked all day. We got a quick look in daylight when we pulled in, especially impressed by the spacious front porch on the place. When we checked in we were eager to hit The Hall, but now we have our chance to really soak up the inn. This has nothing of the motel/hotel vibe we’re used to. It’s kind of like staying at an elderly aunt’s house, only it smells better, and you’re not getting yelled at to help with the folding chairs. We like it. I like that there’s no television in our room, which I appreciate now more than I did when I booked our stay.
Motel rooms seem designed to insulate and contain you from the rest of the world; at a bed and breakfast, I learned that the common areas are half the reason to be there. This being March, we were deep in the throes of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, and Knucks was keen on catching one of the games. * So we headed downstairs to the main floor to see if one of the communal televisions had a game on.
We needn’t have worried. It seemed like every guest in the inn was parked downstairs on the couches or armchairs. We felt like we were in someone’s living room, and there was a holiday feel in the place. In a bar, it’s too noisy to really talk, so you watch the screen. Here, you can’t help but converse with the people around you, “Where are you from, what do you do, first time in Cooperstown,” and so on. After a while you fell into honest conversation with your innmates, whether you meant to or not, something nearly unheard of in a motel lobby. Knucks and I had been on our feet all day, immersed in each other’s company. It was a great way to relax at the end of the day, to stretch out and trade stories with friendly strangers. There’s something about the ambience of an inn, we learned, that makes you protective of its atmosphere of warmth and civility. It’s a special place, and part of the enjoyment is in adapting yourself to its tempo and patterns.
At halftime at one of the basketball games (my boy and an older gentleman from Vermont seemed particularly caught up in the action), I stood up and said, “Hey, Knucks, I’m going to go up to the room and read for a while. Come on up when you’re ready, let me know how the game turns out.”
Translation: I trust this place, and I trust you. I trust you to be a considerate guest. I trust your judgment with people. So I’m giving you a little freedom. Try it on, see how it fits. You know where to find me.
The Knucklehead sauntered into the room less than an hour later, with the air of a young man experienced in the ways of the bed and breakfast.
“Whatcha reading?” he asked me, and I told him, and he told me who won the game, and he jumped into his bed with one of his books. We passed the next hour or so, until we fell asleep, each absorbed in his reading, punctuating the quiet every ten minutes or so with one of us calling out, “Hey, listen to this,” when one found something particularly interesting in his book. There was a time for earnest conversation on this trip. This was a time simply to enjoy each other’s company.
I wish I remember what we were served for breakfast the next morning; I only remember that it was leisurely and excellent, and that my ten-year-old had disposed of his usual breakfast fussiness in favor of a more grown-up inclination to try something more sophisticated. We took one last walk downtown before we left that morning; after sleeping on it, Knucks had decided which baseball cards he wanted to spend his money on, and I picked up the FDR bobblehead you now see to the left of the bookshelf at the top of this post. (Honestly, how could I pass up something like that?) We grabbed hot dogs for lunch and headed home.
Thankfully, the ride home was unremarkable; the snows of two days ago were gone. We made good time, and managed to do all our micturating at rest stops. But there’s nothing like traveling with your kid. Something about you and something about your knucklehead gets unwrapped on the road that doesn’t at home. The unfamiliar light of a new environment seems to freshen up a subject you thought you knew so well. Or maybe it’s that in a strange place, there’s more comfort in the familiar. Either way. It’s our travels together that create the shared stories that nourish our relationships.
Stories like this one.
*Me, not so much. I don’t understand basketball rules or strategy, and a basketball game seems proof of Zeno’s Paradox; the closer you get to the end of a game, the more it seems to recede away from you, what with the ever-increasing fouls and time-outs. This from a fan of a potentially endless sport, mind you.
Today, the Little Town Writers Guild is happy to welcome guest blogger P. Jo Anne Burgh.A long-time Glastonbury resident, Jo Anne is an author and a lawyer. When she’s notat her day job, Jo Anne writes fiction, blogs, sings in a local chorale, and composes biographiesfor adoptable shelter cats. Her short stories have appeared in a variety of anthologies andjournals. State v. Claus (Tuxedo Cat Press, 2020) is her first novel, and My Brother, Romeo (Tuxedo Cat Press, 2021) is her first novella.
For more information about Jo Anne and her work, visit her online at www.pjburgh.com. You can also find her on Facebook (P. Jo Anne Burgh, Author), Twitter (@PJoAnneBurgh), and Instagram (@pjoanneburgh). Her books are available at www.tuxedocatpress.com.
I never used to have any use for audiobooks. They weren’t real books. Real books were in print, on paper. Maybe on tablets, but that was as much as I was willing to cede. Audiobooks—originally on tapes and CDs—seemed like a great idea for when I was out walking or driving, but they required too much concentration, because as soon as my mind wandered—traffic light, somebody crossing the street, hawk swooping across my path—I lost the thread and had to back up. I tried to embrace the audiobook of Frances Mayes’ Bella Tuscany, telling myself I’d only listen to the tapes when out walking. The incentive plan, I thought. Instead, after countless backups to capture moments I’d missed because of things I’d seen or heard around me, I gave up entirely. The walks ceased, and the tapes ended up in a box in the garage. Clearly, audiobooks weren’t for me.
Years after I’d written off audiobooks, I received an offer to create one. The editor of a journal that had published one of my stories, “The Protectors,” had worked out a deal with Audible where they’d hire an actor to read some of the stories from the journal. Did I want to “The Protectors” to be part of it? Absolutely!
Audible hired the actor, a gentleman named Jamie Renell. He and I exchanged a couple of emails about how I wanted the story to be read. (In a perfect world, the narrator would have sounded exactly like Dan Blocker playing Hoss Cartwright.) I didn’t bear any of the expenses, but I also didn’t have any say in the blurb for the story post (which, in my humble opinion, is Not Good). But no worries—Jamie did a fine job, and Audible paid me a princely $125.00 for the privilege.
I listened, of course. On the evening I received notice that it had been uploaded, I settled into the bathtub with a glass of wine and listened to my audiobook. It was definitely odd to hear someone else reading my words. Everything in me wanted to add inflections that nobody could have known unless they lived inside my head. The audiobook might not be perfect, but it was fine, I decided. So when the story ended, I set it aside and returned to putting words on pages.
Then came the day when Michelle Obama published Becoming.
If you haven’t seen the hardcover version in the stores, trust me: it’s a doorstop of a book. It’s the kind of book you look at it and think, “I could literally spend the rest of my life reading this one volume.” Plus, it cost $35.00, and to me, that’s a lot to pay for a book. So even though I was very interested in what she had to say, I set aside the idea of devoting a million hours to reading it and went on with other things.
Several months later, Audible sent me another of their offers: “Sign up now and get a book free!” The notion of a free book always gets my attention. If someone ever wanted to lure me into a dark cave in order to torture me and maim me and hold me captive forever, all they’d have to do is dangle a free book at the opening: “Hey, look! It’s that book you’ve been wanting to read, and it won’t cost you a dime!”
So I signed up, and I got Becoming for $35 off the cover price—in other words, free. Which was nice, but it turned out that wasn’t the best part, not nearly. The best part was that Michelle Obama read it to me. To me. When I was having lunch or cleaning the bathroom, she was telling me about growing up in Chicago. As I drove up to Tanglewood that summer to hear Yo-Yo Ma, Michelle told me about how, on the day the Supreme Court issued its decision about same-sex marriages, she and the girls sneaked outside to see the White House with its rainbow lights. It was glorious.
The next celebrity memoir I acquired was Alison Arngrim’s Confessions of a Prairie Bitch. In case you’ve forgotten, Alison Arngrim played Nellie Oleson on Little House on the Prairie. I’d read the print version of her book, and I loved it. It’s like spending an evening with a smart, fun, gossipy friend who knows all the dirt and isn’t shy about sharing it, and yet also has some deep, important things to talk about. But I’ll tell you this: reading it on the page isn’t nearly as entertaining as hearing her read it aloud. The woman is an actress, for crying out loud. She’s not just reading her book—she’s performing it. Everything in me wanted to sit down with her, open a bottle of wine, and have Alison tell me her story—the horrible stuff (dealing with how her brother sexually abused her), the hilarious stuff (her gay father’s penchant for publicity, no holds barred), the juicy backstage stuff (Michael Landon’s refusal to wear underwear under those tight pants and Melissa Sue Anderson’s weird behavior with the other kid actors), Alison’s activism for AIDS, and how she ultimately used Nellie Oleson to get a bill passed in California to protect abuse victims.
Michelle Obama got me sucked in to the celebrity memoir audiobook genre; Alison Arngrim cemented my passion for it. Since then, pretty much all I listen to in the car are celebrity memoirs on audiobook. My beloved (although he doesn’t know he is, because we’ve never actually met) Yo-Yo Ma did an Audible original about his life last year, and I reveled in it as I drove home from rehearsals for my chorale’s concert. (He even played the cello, which you obviously cannot do in a print book.) I spent much of April, 2021, listening to Carol Burnett tell me about her experiences coming up in show business as I spread mulch in my garden. Julie Andrews told me about her life with Blake Edwards (I still don’t understand the attraction) while I drove back and forth to rehearsals in Cheshire. Betty White regaled me with stories of her early days in the business as I drove hither and yon, shopping for my elderly parents and carrying meals to them. Sutton Foster ostensibly chatted about crafting, but really confided in me about her family issues as I shoveled my driveway after my snowblower died.
Which is not to say celebrity memoirs are my only audiobooks. I listened to Older, by Pamela Redmond, who also wrote Younger, which was turned into a television series starring Sutton Foster, who read the audiobook of Older which was narrated by the character, Liza, whom Sutton had played on television, which made it feel as if Sutton was narrating her own life, or Liza’s, or both. Most recently, I’ve been reveling in The Secret Life of the American Musical, by Jack Viertel, a person I’d never heard of who apparently has an encyclopedic knowledge of the American musical theater and whose explanation of how a musical is constructed is a master class in how to construct any piece of fiction. Craft and musical theater anecdotes, all in one. Does life get better?
There’s something vibrant and intimate and thrilling about somebody telling you their personal story. Not just writing it down for you—and don’t get me wrong, that’s lovely, it’s what I do and I’ll stand by it to the day I die—but talking to you, just as if the two of you are friends enjoying lunch and maybe a glass of wine or two and they’re spilling some stuff they might not otherwise say. If you don’t believe me, listen to the Howard brothers, Ron and Clint, in The Boys (another doorstop of a book) as they tell you about their parents and their families and their lives in show business and how they came to be where they are and who they are. You may be folding laundry or driving around town as they tell their tales, but I dare you to forget the moment when Clint tells you how, when he was filming The Red Pony at age eleven or thereabouts, he was required to kill—and I mean, really kill—a live bird by bashing its head against a rock again and again until it was dead. Seriously—that child was required to murder a bird on camera. WTGDF??? And nobody stepped in to protect him. Even his father, who watched out for his sons on sets over the years—even Rance Howard himself said Clint had to do it. Somebody—his father or the director, I don’t remember now—said that the bird would just have “take one for team.” Little Clint made sure he did it right the first time so he’d never have to do it again. Adult Clint, telling about this, said in the book, “You can watch the scene if you want. I can’t.” I’m sure it’s powerful on the page, but I guarantee that’s nothing compared to hearing the pain in his voice as he tells it.
To be fair, not all celebrity memoirs will be home runs. When Audible ran a 2-for-1 sale, I downloaded Dolly Parton’s memoir. Make no mistake, this woman is a gem: her Imagination Library has given away nearly 1.8 million books as I write this. Even if she couldn’t sing a note, this alone would be grounds for worshipping her. But her audiobook assumed a level of familiarity with her life and work that I don’t possess. It’s fair for her to assume I, as a reader/listener, know her songs and her life, but I don’t, and this knocked some of the shine off the story for me. Ah, well. She’s still amazing. All I’m saying is that you may not love all the memoirs, and that’s okay. Personal opinion, after all.
Obviously, not everybody reads their own work. Michael Landon would undoubtedly have done an amazing job with his memoir if he’d ever written one, but he was busy with other things right up until he died, and so it fell to Alison Arngrim to talk about how he conducted himself on the set of Little House—not just how freely the alcohol flowed on the set (pause for gasping), but how he treated the child actors the same as the adults, with the same expectations and the same respect as professionals—and how, as a result, “as we like to say, ‘Cast of Little House: no arrests, no convictions.’ And I do believe we owe that to Michael.” But Michael will never be in a position to weigh in on the subject, which leaves us with Alison, who tells it perfectly.
Some people like to have novels narrated. If that’s your preference, I won’t say a word against it. For me, though, the best audiobooks are the ones about real lives, narrated by the author—the books where somebody sits down and talks to me about their real story. Because for those few hours, we’re pals. I’m hearing the intimate details you only share with your closest friends. Your tone, your inflections, your pauses. The part where your voice cracks a little bit because nobody—and I mean nobody—should ever have made you kill a poor, defenseless bird, but nobody stood up and said, “Are you cracked? Don’t make this child do such a horrible thing!” Except that nobody said anything other than “do your job,” and you murdered the bird, and it’s haunting you decades later. Terrible on the page, but so much more heartbreaking to hear the voice.
Now, I look for celebrity memoirs read by the author. Today, when Audible had a sale, I acquired Martin Short’s memoir and Margaret Atwood talking about writing and life. When I finish Jack Viertel’s story of the American musical theater—which is practically like a memoir because of his intimate knowledge of the subject, and also because he speaks of the theater as if he were talking about his own family—I’ll pick one of those to listen to when I’m driving back and forth to rehearsal. These people—these strangers whom I don’t quite know yet—will tell me about their lives. They’ll explain me how they got where they are, what they were thinking and dreaming, how they became the person I encountered one night when I turned on the television and thought I was seeing who they really were.
But don’t take my word for it. Try them for yourself. Listen to them. Hear their stories, just as they tell them. Make them your friends.
Learning to control my dreams has been a blessing. It’s saved my ass many a night since I mostly wind up in terrifying situations almost as soon as I close my eyes. Dec calls them nightmares. The Night Mare is a demon horse who grabs you in her teeth and tosses you up on her back. Then off you go on the Wild Ride, sometimes called the Wild Hunt. When the Night Mare takes off there’s nothing to do but hold tight to her mane, bend low over her neck, and hold on for your life. Then off you go, flying over high hills and low hills, rabbit trails and wild boar traces, rivers and valleys. All the while the Night Mare is trying her damnedest to buck you off, gnash you in her teeth, or fling you ass over teakettle down to the rocks below. It’s the rare rider who lives to tell of the Wild Ride.
I’ve actually only taken the Wild Ride once in my dreams, but I have often been chased through the swamps and woods by a ravening pack of wolves. Dec says the pack is led by Fenrir, the wolf who brings Ragnarök—the end of the world.
I said, “Thanks, Dec. That’s super helpful.”
Dec slugged me. He can dish it out but he can’t take it. Anyway, he didn’t have any suggestions for dealing with wolves except to tell me to fly. Dec says you can fly in your dreams, but he couldn’t tell me how. He says I have to learn it on my own.
I tried putting my arms out like Superman—in my dreams, I mean. But I couldn’t get off the ground. Then I tried running off a cliff. But other than looking like Wile E. Coyote, arms circling wildly, and feet climbing air, no go.
Finally, in desperation, as the wolves were closing in on me, I jumped up on the picnic table and whirled around to face the pack.
“Bring it on,” I yelled, ready to fight to the death. The leader of the pack came flying up straight at me. I tackled him and quick, bit off all his feet—Chomp! Chomp! Chomp! Chomp! As he lay there stunned, the rest of the pack just sat and looked at me, stunned and expectant.
“Here’s the deal,” I said, “He gets his feet back but you lot can never chase me again.” And they all nodded.
I woke up. Then I nudged Dec awake. “I still don’t know how to fly,” I whispered. “But let me know if you ever have trouble with the wolves.” Dec grunted. I turned back over and drifted into a dreamless sleep.
Jason and Terri cycled into the campground in the early evening. We noticed them right away as they circled the loop in search of an open site to claim. Cyclists have antennae that hone in on other cyclists. I suppose it’s like Harley motorcyclists we see, who wave to other Harley riders as they pass on the road.
“They are loaded down, like us,” Barb commented as they whizzed by. We were already cleaning up our dinner dishes and preparing to walk the loop before retiring for the night.
We were three days out from Anacortes, Washington, starting at sea level, on our first long bicycle tour. We hoped to cover 1800 miles over the next month or so. We were newbies to bicycle touring, filled with excitement for the adventure that loomed ahead of us.
We stopped to chat when we saw them setting up a tent on the opposite side of the campground. Jason was a tall, blond, fit looking guy and his wife, Terri, with shoulder length auburn hair, greeted us with a big smile. They were on their first bicycle tour too; only with much more ambitious plans. They were going from the West coast to the East coast and gave themselves the entire summer to cover the 3800 miles. In talking, we realized we were following the same route, at least as far as somewhere in Montana.
We left them with the comment, “Maybe we’ll see you tomorrow along the way.” We wished them safe travels and headed back to our site in the Diablo Lake campground.
We were early risers, believing in getting most of our day’s mileage done by mid-to-late afternoon. That day, in the North Cascades range, we faced two mountain passes, which would test our legs and our lungs. I tried not to think ahead to the five passes in four days that we had planned. These first two were enough to solidify my focus. The steep uphill grades demanded quadricep muscles that pumped like pistons. The task at hand—get over the two summits in one day and camp somewhere on the other side of Washington Pass.
We each carried sixty pounds of gear. Our silver-grey packs, were attached over each wheel, front and back. They held food, clothing, tools and first aid supplies. Bungeed atop our racks, over the rear tire, were sleeping bags, mats, tent parts and a spare tire for each of us. The high elevation and the 6-7 percent grades required a grit that ignored the pull of gravity, ignored oxygen-deprived muscles and urged us to stay in the lowest gears, pedaling round and round. I found myself counting the poles on the guard rails we passed. It distracted my mind from focusing on cars that passed a little too close, on the road’s sharp curves and on the relentless up, up, up of the climb. Starting at 1200 feet in elevation, I gritted my teeth and pedaled hard enough to make the 4,875-foot summit. Seeing the sign for Rainy Pass gave me a feeling of accomplishment, tinged by the knowledge that we still had unfinished business. We ate a lunch of nuts, fruit and chocolate in the cold air at the side of the road. We were halfway done!
Snow filled the woods at the top of the pass, sending a chill through us in spite of the sweat we generated on the ascent. We dug heavy North Face jackets out of our packs and put them on. Washington Pass loomed ahead of us at an elevation of 5,476 feet. Of course, the highway dropped down from Rainy (rats!) before it pointed to the heights of Washington Pass. An RV site on the web describes this section of road as a dangerous, bad road. I wouldn’t argue that point. We braked hard on the downhill, then pushed even harder on the climb. We set small goals.
“Can you make it to that big fir?” Barb called back to me. “How about we go for fifteen minutes, then take a rest?” She rode in front of me as the stronger cyclist but checked in with me frequently. We never walked the bikes; they were too heavy for that! Throughout the day our mantra prevailed. Just keep the pedals turning!
Once there, we didn’t linger at the Pass enjoying the victory of the moment. Rain had started when we were on Rainy. How appropriate! It made the prospect of the downhill ride a scary challenge on wet, steep and curvy pavement. We put on our yellow rain gear and stiffened our spines. We had an urgent need to get down the mountain and off the road as quickly as possible. My fingers ached from squeezing the brakes on the steep ride. Rain dripped off our helmets and into our eyes as we hugged the inside of S curves and sped downward.
The sign for the Early Winters campground was a heart soothing sight! We pulled in just as the rain tapered off. We split up the chores. Barb set up the tent, while I got some dinner cooking. The smell of mac and cheese wafting into the damp air was the reward for our day’s effort.
We kept an eye out for the young Oregon newlyweds, expecting them to arrive at any moment. We went to sleep that night disappointed, when they didn’t show up. Our best guess was that, being younger and stronger, they had gone on past this campground to Winthrop, a town about ten miles further down the road.
The next morning we dragged our feet getting packed up. We don’t know why, as we usually were up and out by seven or eight a.m. at the latest. It was closer to nine o’clock when we walked our heavy bikes to the campground entrance, prepared to hop aboard, get our feet on the pedals and go. Much to our surprise, we saw two figures on bicycles hurtling down the mountain toward the campground. It was Jason and Terri!
They saw us and pulled off the road into the campground entrance. Both were shivering and clearly upset. It didn’t take much convincing to get them to accept our offer, as we wrapped them in our heavy jackets. Although it was early summer, we knew biking in the mountains required warm clothing. They had not prepared for that. I pulled out our stove and heated up some soup to get them warmed and replenished while they told us their story.
They had started much later than us, maybe closer to noon. On the way up to Rainy Pass, a huge black bear wandered along the edge of the road as they cycled past. Seeing a bear is a scary experience, especially when you aren’t in the shelter of a vehicle! They kept going as the rains began. By the time they actually reached the top of the Pass, a thick fog settled in and made it much too dangerous to continue going.
They decided to set their tent up in the snowy woods and tackle the downhill in the morning. But visions of the bear haunted them. Every snap of a twig in the surrounding woods had them on high alert. They were afraid to cook anything that might generate odors that would attract a hungry bear. They went to bed hungry themselves. They hardly slept. The fact that they didn’t have warm jackets or anything but a thin tent wall between them, the wind and dropping nighttime temperatures added to their misery.
By the time we saw them the next morning, they were frazzled. They shivered in the cold and considered ending their trip when it had barely begun. Jason, the biking enthusiast, had convinced his wife that this was going to be a great, fun adventure. Jason related all this, while Terri sipped her soup, looking downcast. She did wonder aloud why she had let Jason talk her into this. That frosty morning, she wasn’t buying the “fun adventure” of it!
Enter us. Two women, twenty years their senior, with warm jackets, cups of soup and words of encouragement. We were in the right place at the right time! After they warmed up and were ready to go on, Jason asked if they might ride with us “for a few days.” We were delighted to have the company. Little did we know that there were more “adventures” to be shared as we moved through the Cascades of Washington, across northern Idaho and on to Montana.
“A few days” stretched into almost two weeks. Our shared experiences included a walk-in clinic visit for Jason in Okanogan. It included the discovery of dangerously worn brake pads on Barb’s bike right before tackling a potentially disastrous 8% downhill. We shared a hitchhiking experience, trying to get through major road construction, that left us relieved. On a lighter note, there was even a pie-making challenge in Idaho. But those are stories for another day.
We parted ways twice during those two weeks, but we always managed to meet back up somewhere along the route. What stands out in my mind is what happened following a lunch stop in a small-town restaurant. We planned to on to Glacier National Park, while they wanted a rest day or two, with friends in White Fish. Standing by our bicycles, Jason faced us, raised his hands with the palms towards us and in a serious, formal voice, he recited an Irish blessing, directing it to us. It was a moment I still treasure.
We thought we’d never see them again. But they surprised us in Glacier a few days later. We were using our rest days to explore the park. Back from a Red Bus tour, settling in our camp site, another biker yelled over to us, “Hey, there’s a young couple looking for the two of you.” Could it be?
Yes, it was! Jason and Terri. We reunited that evening with hugs and talk about our plans. The next morning, they were tackling the Going to The Sun Road leading up to Logan Pass. From there they would head east with the state of Maine in their sights once again. We decided to ride with them to the top of the pass, carrying half of their bags on our bikes to make the ascent easier for them.
The road from Lake McDonald up to Logan Pass is a spectacular twenty-four miles. Breathtaking is no exaggeration. On a bicycle, with cars passing on your left, there is only an eighteen-inch wall to keep you from catapulting over the edge and tumbling down the mountain. It is nerve wracking for cyclists. Still, the anxiety it creates and the exertion it requires are overshadowed by the scenery, which is truly mind blowing.
We hugged a final goodbye in front of the Logan Pass sign, knowing we had made friends for life.
BTW, we received a post card in late August that year. It declared, “We made it!”
We couldn’t have been happier for them.
Two years later we covered 2800 miles ourselves, going south to north across the US.
Three years later we covered 3800 miles, going east to west across the US.
Five years later we covered 2500 miles through Alaska, the Yukon Territory, British Columbia and Alberta, Canada.
Through it all, it was the people we met along the way that made the tours memorable. The Jasons and Terris, who began as strangers and ended as friends. There were the lessons learned along the way; the laughs and, yes, the tears that taught me more about myself than any formal schooling could have. For all this, and for Jason and Terri’s part in the early experiences, my heart is filled with gratitude. And for all you travelers, I offer the Gaelic blessing Jason offered to us.
Walking for me is “a homeopathic salve,” passed down from my father who discovered, when starting to take daily two-mile walks to make sure our border collie had ample exercise, walking has healing powers. These daily treks down our road then up steep Judd Avenue, to the fields of the F. A. Berry School, gave Dad healthy doses of nature therapy. His blood pressure lowered and his mood improved. Alternative medication for an overburdened mind. Dad continued to take walks after our pet died, always after he returned home from a day of teaching. After retiring, walking worked best for him first thing in the morning. Where one walked was key for Dad–there needed to be stretches of quiet, some fields and/or woods tossed in. Later on in life, there was one other thing that was key to Dad’s walks. An additional benefit I overlooked. In fact, if it had not been for this pandemic, I might never have realized what I was missing in my walks. A step that continues to make all the difference in my staying emotionally healthy even in the worst of times. As it did, I know now, for my father, after Mom died and he ended up living alone. The wave.
March’s end, 2020. I had a plan. The thought of a “pandemic” scared me but my “survivor mode” rarely fails me when dealing with bad times. The dictate received from my workplace to work from home came as a blessing. No more worries about riding the train and then a crowded shuttle from the rail station to my job site. An unexpected rest from four plus hours a day of commuting time. What quality time this would add to my life! Instead of leaving the house at 5:35 a.m., my new workweek plan included getting outside as soon as the streetlights blinked off to walk a section of my town’s Greenway. Oh, to start the day with fresh air, noting changes in plants, trees, and birdsong. Deciphering Goat Brook’s conversations would infuse enjoyment daily into my life.
The first morning of the not going to the workplace, I parked at the crowded lot of our local Dunkin’ and set out on the Greenway. Ten minutes into the walk, as I entered the narrow rock cut part of the trail, my stress level could have blasted a tunnel through the resistant igneous rock. About fifteen people had already passed me, none making any effort to widen the space between us or covering their noses and mouths. I couldn’t help think the train would have been safer where social distancing and mask wearing were beginning to be enforced. Instead of looking for pileated woodpeckers and hawks, I was looking for ways to avoid the next wave of people passing. I quickly figured most of the Greenway was less than six feet in width because if I lay my 5’11” body across the narrow path, my head would for sure would hang off the asphalt. Over and over, I found myself stepping off the path to avoid others. The walkers and runners were not just singles and pairs. I practically scaled down the embankment to the brook to avoid a power walking posse that refused to fall into single file when passing me. This was not a walk; it was an ordeal. By the time I returned to the parking lot, the recreational path was clogged with so many people, it looked like a walk-a-thon was taking place!
Returning home, I felt utterly defeated. Because of caring for a family member with a pre-existing respiratory condition, I had to do my utmost to stay COVID-free. The Greenway must be avoided. What was supposed to be my lifeline for the day-to-day of a troubled time, in reality, was a mine field. What to do? Like for Dad, walks along brooks, through fields, through quiet woods always provided me peace that others find through meditation. And living alone, advancing into an uncharted, troubled time like a pandemic, I needed to walk daily. Locally, so as not to cut into my workdays. Food for the soul.
Dejectedly, I realized the safest place to walk was my neighborhood. How would walking up and down two long, parallel streets, dotted with homes on quarter-acre to half-acre lots, offer “a change of scenery” for me? No brook or pond and very few wildflowers lining the roads. There were woods behind the homes on one of the streets, but none bordering the road. However, I knew it was better than isolating myself inside. Maybe, at least on the weekends, I could drive to a state park or land trust trail that would have few walkers out early. So, I reworked my pandemic survival plan. At twelve noon each weekday, I’d take a forty-minute trek around the neighborhood loop.
It was three weeks before I acted on this plan. Yes, it took that long to actually motivate myself to pound the pavement. I extracted myself from the house precisely at noon and started off. Grumbling thoughts drowned out everything for the first three blocks. It was like when walking in a cloud burst, the oppressive rain is one’s sole focus. I finally became aware of my surroundings when a black squirrel crossed the road–I thought the family of them were wiped out by the red-tailed hawks. And look, a small cluster of purple crocuses in bud–my first crocus sighting of the year! A breeze kicked up and whistled through some hemlocks adding background music. Was that a robin, keeping ahead of me flying from lawn to lawn?
I moved close to the side of a road as a car came towards me, slowing to make an exaggerated veering movement as it approached so as not to hit me. The driver, a frowning, elderly man, clutched the top of the steering wheel. Likely someone from the neighborhood, but I didn’t know who he was. With over thirty years of commuting to a workplace more than fifty miles away, I knew only my immediate my neighbors. As the car approached, I found myself raising my hand and waving at the driver. Seeing another human being outside, even though in a vehicle, made me do it. The car slowed down a bit more and then the man smiled and waved back at me!
The warmth and happiness I felt were as if frozen emotions inside of me were melting from the inside out. And with a simple wave, I had passed on warmth to someone else. Human connection–I realized I was craving face-to-face human encounters as much as the need for the balms of the natural world. Two blocks later, an SUV came down the road. I tentatively waved at that vehicle. As if surprised, the woman hesitated, then waved back. Again, I felt a fluttering inside. And a memory surfaced. Dad. Dad had picked up the habit of waving to vehicles after Mom died. Not normally a gregarious person, when he walked he would wave to each and every car and truck that passed him. And on those times when I visited him and rose early enough to join him on the walks, the drivers either waved or beeped back.
My noon walks turned into the lifeline I so badly needed to keep life balanced during this pandemic. For the first time since moving to this town, I’m able to absorb the day-to-day changes of each season around the neighborhood. So much to see. Beds of flowering bulbs, leaves tentatively emerging and the hawks and ravens making themselves at home. And I am still waving. Many might say my waving has become excessive. I wave, not just to personal vehicles, but to the mail lady, the kindergarten bus driver, the Seniors bus and the Amazon delivery person. Nearly everyone smiles and waves back, including the frowning elderly man. And once in a while, when I think of Dad and his passing on the secret of healing of walks to me, I wave to the sky. And am sure Dad is waving back.
Growing up, we accepted our hardships as God’s blessings. My stomach spoke loudly. It growled when supper was a cup of porridge with a distant flavor of chicken or beef. The beef bone the butcher gave mother–when she was eyeing the huge beef hindquarters or the solid loins hanging on hooks–would swim in our broth for a week. Customers with pockets full of money purchased red, thick steaks. Meanwhile she cupped in her hands the three coins she would use to purchase a pound, a half-pound, or perhaps a quarter pound of the flour the store owner was ready to throw away because it had hatched the first few weevils. Those coins were all she could manage to earn doing other people’s chores. Her hands were always rough, and her prayers were strong.
“God, merciful and bountiful God, thank you for the food we are about to eat. We would not be on this earth but for your love.” Mother improvised these or similar words before every meal. Dad had left us a couple of years before. If I read mother’s mind correctly, she considered his departure a blessing. One less mouth to feed. As she prayed, she raised her pious gaze towards the wooden cross hanging at the corner of the room. My innate cynicism caused me to rebel almost every time she did this. I had seen crosses in churches, and in the homes of my classmates. All the other crosses had the body of Jesus, bloody and pierced in his chest by a soldier’s lance, and by thorns on his head and nails in his hands and feet. My mother’s cross was a plain cross with no body attached to it. It was not carved or polished. It was two plain sticks crossed and glued or tied together. That was the simple image mother venerated.
We, my two younger brothers and I, survived our misery and our mother. She passed away, in our teenage years, as the result of a hit-and-run accident. I’m not sure anybody found out, or cared to find out, who was responsible for her death. She had been mowed down underneath the wheels of a vehicle, and, a few days later, we were dragged to an orphanage, and from there to the home of a naïve older couple who had taken pity on us. We were teenagers, that is, we tended to be a little difficult and to question authority. But that was mostly in our minds. We were mostly docile in our actions and appreciative of the good food and warm beds the kind couple gave us. But as soon as we were of the age to do it, we found our way out of that house and into the world.
Because I expected nothing from life, or from anyone, I lived from day to day, not looking for opportunities or trying to fulfill any pre-determined goals, but reacting in the name of self-preservation, jumping from task to task offered to me out of charity or out of opportunism, since I was cheap labor.
My brothers took different paths. Joe, the middle one, who for one reason or another was always running away from girls trying to kiss him, ended up married when he was 19. I saw him from time to time, usually holding one of his children’s hands. He and his wife shared his in-laws’ house. He seemed happy enough.
Johnny, the youngest, always the adventurer, spent a few years at sea aboard a merchant ship. He connected with a guy in the cardboard business, and the last time I saw him, he was even driving his own car. Not bad for a guy raised on porridge and prayers.
My life, without any intention on my part, took a different turn. I have talked to people who have a lot of ambition and desire to have this and the other thing. Because I was raised believing in the providence of God and never dreaming of being better off than I was or possessing much more than I possessed, I had no such illusions. To this day, as long as I have a clean bed to sleep in and a meal or two a day, I consider that my mother’s connection with her wooden cross worked its wonders.
A few years ago, I came across a man who owned a small vineyard. He had inherited a plot with strong vines that had produced good, red grapes of a variety only known in this part of the world. Until the time of his grandfather, his ancestors had produced good wine, but his father, a physician, had not been interested in taking advantage of his heritage. The vineyard was in a poor state when the man’s father died, and he found himself intent on reviving the property and the livelihood he had inherited. He convinced me to work, not for him, but with him, at reestablishing the vines and attempting to produce wine.
From my jobs here and there, I had learned to deal in agriculture. I enjoyed digging my hands in the soil and seeing things grow through the marvel of nature. Mother’s idea of God giving us what we needed, somehow, was represented in the fertility of the soil, although I never knew if mother only recited the theory but may have never experienced the reality that would have confirmed her beliefs. As I worked on other people’s lands, I realized that we had been so poor that even these basic miracles had not been for us.
From the moment we met, David Carver and I bonded. I had just turned 22, and he, a good 10 years older, embraced me as a younger brother. He took me to his land. We laughed at the work in front of us. It was only 3 or 4 acres, but it had not been touched in years. He had stopped visiting it after his grandfather died when he was a teenager. His grandmother was still alive. She ran a music business of some sort, and she appeared to have no interest in her husband’s vineyard. It was totally up to David–to “us” —to revive his grandfather’s and his ancestors’ craft.
Once we cleared the vines of all the undergrowth that had been choking the gnarly branches while also providing home to dozens of other creatures, we waited for the right time to prune them. David hired temporary workers, some already trained to do this work. I found myself in the strange role of supervisor. I would not have been capable of dreaming this life.
David and I moved into the house on the vineyard property. During the first few years we never had much time to think of girls or socializing. We seldom took a break from work and went out to a restaurant. On some occasions we invited the workers–our workers (it is weird to say that, when I could have been one of them)–to cook a meal together and taste wines made from the same grape variety as the vines we were trying to resuscitate. Sometimes we invited their girlfriends and wives to join us. I felt more relaxed and at home partaking with them than when I accompanied David to see his childhood friends or his grandmother.
David’s mother was living in a foreign country and rarely visited here. I met her once. She shook my hand, looked me up and down and smiled. “Peter, I’m glad David found such reliable help,” she said. I reciprocated her compliment, and that was that. I didn’t know what to expect at meeting her, but she seemed legitimately thankful knowing that her son was not alone.
After two years of hard work, and the assistance of a well-known winemaker, we managed to produce our first batch of wine, quite possibly reminiscent of David’s ancestors’ wines. That was finally the moment when we took a few weeks off. We didn’t go away. It was time to really enjoy the house and pamper ourselves a little. I learned that concept from David, who insisted on it. We listened to music that I had never heard while growing up, but that soothed my spirit. I spent hours trying to understand life and the concept of money and wealth. It was at this time when I sensed that one day I could be married and raise kids of my own, who would be much better off than I was in my childhood.
One day I sat on the front porch sipping a glass of lemonade and observing the orderly rows of grapevines, bare, after a season of good production. A small bird landed on a vine, perhaps attracted by the lingering smell of the ripe grapes, or perhaps flirting with its counterpart sitting on the next vine. My eyes rested on a branch. It was twisted, but not bent in any direction. It was of such beauty that I was called to possess it. I got up from the chair, found a pair of pruning shears in a toolbox, and proceeded to cut it. After that, I cut a smaller branch, less twisted, more youthful looking than the other. Instinctively, I tied them together with a piece of cord and made a cross. I thought of my mother and her prayers. She never taught us any specific doctrine. I barely knew the story behind the man on the cross. I just knew that her faith in that cheap cross and in the Divine Providence was strong enough to plant the right seeds in us. I wish she could see us now!
Once upon a time, as they say in fairy tales, I knew nothing about hiking, biking, hitchhiking and white-water canoeing. Nothing at all, until I met Brian, who was, so many years ago, a quirky, dry-witted college kid who was on occasion prone to bad behavior.
With Brian, I had many firsts: my first trip on a ten-speed bike, my first time white-water canoeing, my first time hiking a mountain trail, and my first go at hitchhiking for fun.
I’ll start with my first ride on a ten speed, which at Brian’s suggestion was a trip from Burlington, Vermont, to Montreal, Canada. Our route, covering slightly more than one hundred miles, took us over the causeway that separates two large bits of Lake Champlain in northern Vermont, and across miles of mostly flat countryside. For the trip, I’d borrowed Brian’s brother’s ten speed which was a fairly heavy bike with a few problems that made for slow going.
We peddled out of Burlington on a cool day in late May smack into an annoying spittle that was propelled horizontally by a cold breeze from Canada. Since we were heading due north, this unpleasantness pelted us in the face for mile after mile. Sixty-three miles in all. Sixty-three wet miles on a hard bicycle seat that left my butt in a world of hurt.
After the first mile or two, I rarely saw Brian, except in the distance when I’d see him heading out from a rest stop as I was peddling up to it. I was a greyhound, a very slow greyhound, chasing a mechanical rabbit that was always just out of reach. On the second day my butt never touched the bicycle seat. Instead, I sat on the backpack I’d strapped to a small rack over the rear wheel. That was my introduction to ten-speed bicycling: sixty-three hard miles in the driving rain on the first day, with a growing pain in my butt thanks to Brian.
In the spring of 1972, Brian invited me to join him on a trip to northern Maine for the Kenduskeag Stream Canoe Race. At the time, it must have made perfect sense for an inexperienced canoeist like me to enter a race on a barely thawed river north of Bangor. Though called a stream, in early spring the Kenduskeag was a roaring cataract overflowing with frigid snow melt, while harboring pockets of ice at its banks. Brian had paired me with his college pal, Rich, also a canoeing novice, in a rented boat. The rental agent had made us swear we weren’t going to use it in the race. We lied, and off we went with the heavy aluminum behemoth: a sloth compared to the high-tech canoes used by most of the participants.
The start of the race, after a participants’ breakfast of pancakes and eggs, was an uneventful paddle on flat water. We’d been warned about the stream’s rapids, especially the treacherous stretch of churning water at Six Mile Falls where organizers had positioned a power boat and wet suited rescue team to pull swamped and dumped boaters out of the icy water. By dumb luck Rich and I made it through the rapids, which proved to be a short lived miracle. While celebrating, we ploughed into the concrete piers that supported the highway bridge we were about to head under.
Immersion in nearly freezing water is a shock to the system. My canoeing partner was yelling, “I can’t breathe,” as I bobbed like an apple for a short way down the river. Novices that we were, we were clad in jeans and wool shirts instead of wetsuits like most of the other competitors. The rescue team did it’s work and within minutes we were back on board paddling our tub madly in order to generate enough body heat to stave off hypothermia. A short while later when rain set in, bringing a rare early-spring bout of thunder and lightning, we figured we’d better get out of our metal canoe if we wanted to survive the storm. As we approached the bank, the canoe’s front end caught a downed limb that was lying just below the surface. The impact spun the boat sideways and sent us overboard for a second time. We scrambled to shore through a leafless thicket watching our high-riding canoe head merrily downstream. In fear of hypothermia, we picked our way as fast as we could through a forest of saplings. It was slow going in cold mud under the weight of saturated clothes, but about four hundred feet downstream we found our canoe trapped by a tree limb that had fallen into the water. The rest of the trip wasn’t as memorable, just long, hard, frantic paddling lest we die a cold, wet death along a wooded river bank three hundred and fifty miles from home. I recall two other things. We finished dead last, setting a course record of over four hours in a race won in a little more than an hour. I also felt immense pride at having finished a race that a third of the competitors had quit.
The next April, Brian and I decided to hitchhike as far south as we could in three days, spend a day wherever that brought us and spend the next three days heading back to Connecticut. At the end of the first three days, we were in Knoxville, Tennessee, where we spent the night at a fraternity house helping the brothers finish off stale beer leftover from a weekend party.
The next day we headed toward home with our first overnight stop planned for Lexington, Kentucky. Without much delay, we arrived at the base of Interstate 75, which hadn’t yet made its way through Tennessee into Georgia and Florida. We’d assumed it’d be easy to catch a ride, given the number of college students driving back from spring break to campuses in Ohio and the Midwest. It wasn’t. For a few hours, we stood at the side of the road while hundreds of cars passed by. Many were stuffed with college kids; their heads resting on their shoulders in back seats, or leaning on arms propped against the windows in the front passenger seats. Many of the college kids, the awake ones, laughed at us on their way past. That changed when we were joined by an apparition we’d seen walking toward us. It was a boy of twelve: his face half scarred by fire that took one eye and left him a face fit for a child’s nightmares. He said his name was David and he carried a cardboard suitcase which held his possessions: a pair of pants, a pair of underwear and the book Black Beauty. He was running away to his aunt’s house in Ohio, he told us, to get away from his step-dad who beat him sometimes when he was drunk. Could he join us? he asked. I suppose we wanted to say “no,” but given his condition, there wasn’t any room for it. With David in our little knot of travelers, getting a ride was going to be impossible. So when the grey sky started to leak wet snow, we gathered some supplies and as a trio made our way up a gravel road into the hills. Once past the shacks that lined the bottom of the hill, we followed a trail a few hundred feet into the leafless woods where we set up camp. For shelter, Brian strung up a space blanket which was nothing more than a sheet of woven plastic backed by shiny foil. The flimsy thing was supposed to reflect heat back on whoever was using it. The blanket, about the size of a single bed, wasn’t big enough to shield three people from the weather, but was big enough for the person in the middle to remain dry, while the two on the outside were subjected to whatever kind of weather fell on them.
It’s hard to do justice to what happened that night. Better judgment went AWOL when we let David drink one of our beers as we sat around the campfire. I retired early to my sleeping bag under the space blanket while David and Brian were noisy with conversation, storytelling and later, singing. At one point David danced around the fire, losing footing in the mud before picking himself for more dancing.
Later, perhaps about 10:00 p.m., the two joined me under the shelter of the plastic blanket. Brian, high and dry in the middle, was snuggly tucked in his sleeping bag. I was on one side half exposed and David on the other was equally exposed to the wet snowflakes that drizzled down on us. I was miserable, but at least I had a sleeping bag. I’m embarrassed to write that David did not. At first light, when I got up to make a fire, I found David shaking from the cold like a dog trying to pass a piece of bone. I don’t recall how, but we managed to warm him up and dry him out.
Before we walked out of the woods at around eight in the morning, David said he was going home. Apparently one night in the cold was enough to make something like a home with an abusive stepfather seem tolerable. He also said he’d had a good time.
As he walked off toward whatever uncertainty waited for him at home, Brian and I headed to the on-ramp of the interstate, where within a half hour, we became passengers in souped up Chevy on our way to Lexington.
When I got back to Connecticut, I sought out a Mason friend who I thought might be able to connect David to a Shriners Burn Center. Within about a week, she got back to me. David had been in their system. Sadly, they had done all they could.
I never heard anything more about David, and from time to time I’ve wondered how he’d made out in life; if he’d been strong enough to endure it.
I do know how Brian’s life turned out, but that’s another story for another time.
“I wish I had a book sale for every time I’ve heard someone say, ‘My life is crazy! I could write a book!’ But I suppose I’d have to refund the money for everyone who’s said it and then didn’t do it—which is just about everyone I’ve ever heard say it.” Me, Saving Our Lives: Volume Two—Essays to Release the Writer in YOU
We all have life stories worth saving. If you’ve read any of my work or spent five minutes talking with me, you’ve heard me say this. I’ve been encouraging people to write down their life stories for some time now, with varying degrees of success. My attempt to lead by example through writing essays and leading workshops has been a good start—but only just.
Most people like the idea of writing a whole lot more than they like actually doing the writing. It’s hard to motivate people to take the time to write down even one little life event, let alone to make the practice a habit.
But what if we made it easy? What if we provided large-scale instruction and encouragement for it? What if we set aside the time for it and made it fashionable? What if people sat down and did it because, well, everyone was doing it?
What if we made it a holiday?
On Christmas Eve in Iceland, everyone gets a book as a gift. After the excitement of exchanging and unwrapping books is over, everyone—now get this—everyone finds a comfy place and spends the rest of the evening actually reading their new books! Can you image anything so civilized? They call it Jolabokaflod, the annual “Christmas Book Flood.” It’s a big deal.
That’s a great way to get people reading. The closest thing to get people writing that I can think of is NaNoWriMo (www.nanowrimo.org), the National Novel Writing Month, that encourages people to write at least 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November. Anyone can join in. Lots and lots of would-be novelists have given NaNoWriMo a try and many published works have come of it. There’s a whole supportive nonprofit organization behind it to get people informed and involved. But, still, it takes a lot of individual drive to commit to it—especially in November which is a pretty busy month for most of us. The activities don’t reach out to people who are not already at least wannabe writers and participants have to squeeze their writing in between work and other personal obligations. Though I have considered giving it a try, I’ve never been able to get myself to do it. It’s a lot.
So, I thought, how about if we combine these two ideas, somehow making them more universal, more convenient, more manageable, more palatable and more fun?
My solution? National Write It Down Day. March 23.
National Write It Down Day (NaWriDooDah?) will be a real holiday. The day’s activities will revolve around getting at least one life story written and saved—regardless of age, skill-level, confidence-level or physical ability. All people will find encouragement. All special needs will be accommodated. All stories will be celebrated.
While I haven’t worked out all of the logistics, I would expect that traditions will evolve over time and within groups. Here are a few ideas to get the Write It Down Day wheels turning.
As I said, Icelanders encourage reading by giving everyone A) a new book and B) time to read it. Similarly, on National Write It Down Day, everyone gets a new, age-appropriate hardbacked notebook and a pack pens. In subsequent years, as people learn what they prefer, their gift-givers can branch out to other kinds of writing supplies. Eventually, everyone will find their preferred brand of notebook and pens (or pencils or crayons or hammers and chisels) and will receive brand-spanking new ones every March 23.
This is my dream.
But who will be the gift-givers? Family members, employers, school districts, charitable foundations, donors, etc. If we truly want to capture the stories of all people, then we must make the effort as a society to get this small gift out to every story owner—who is, as I have said a million times, everyone who is currently alive.
On the morning of the big day, once the notebooks have been torn from their festive wrappings with “oohs” and “ahhs” and the pens have been unwrapped and ripped from their cards with “Hurrays!” and “Huzzahs!”, Write It Down Day traditions will develop around three guidelines—encouragement, writing time and sharing.
The basic structure of the holiday is quite simple and is based on some of the best practices of writing teachers. First, explore the possibilities. Observe, reminisce, relive good times (or not so good times), dig out old pictures, chat with your grandma and narrow down your topic. Big folks mentor the little folks and the little folks, by their very existence, remind the big folks why they’re doing this in the first place.
In other words, find your story, your one small thing. Help the little ones to find theirs. Use your writing book for notes, lists, ideas, observations—any details that might help you to narrow your scope and write your story.
Second, write the draft. This is the solitary part of the day where you find a comfy place, minimize distractions and “get into the zone” that lets the writing happen. Continue to refine and narrow and fit the story into the time you have to write it.
And, finally, share what you’ve written—with your family, your co-workers, your online friends, around the dinner table, in front of the fire, at a reading party, with cocktails and canapes, coffee and biscotti or tea and scones, in large groups or small, indoors or out. This will be the highlight of the day, the grand finale. It can be as lavish or as simple as you want to make it. The only stipulations are that everyone present has had the opportunity to commit a life-story to words and that everyone who wants to has a chance to read that story to an audience.
You get the picture.
And then, at the end of the day, everyone prints, punches and places a new story in a prized personal binder of stories that has been building up over the years.
It’s a heartwarming picture straight out of Currier and Ives.
Now, just how all of this plays out at your house is a matter of personal inclination, situation and/or means. All the holidays that we celebrate in our culture have their raison d’etre and their basic list of “must-haves.” But there is then a lot of wiggle room when it comes to the particulars. If you celebrate Christmas, what kind of tree you have and how you decorate it is completely up to you. How many people gather at your Fourth of July barbecue and what you serve, what kinds of birthday gifts and parties your kids get every year, how spooky your house looks at Halloween, what kinds of fixings accompany your Thanksgiving turkey—all are a matter preference. Write It Down Day will be a lot like that. It supplies the bones and you dress them up any way you want—as long as the day results in your having committed one life story to words in order to save it for all time.
This might be a tall order for a single day, especially at first. Some preparation might be in order. That is perfectly fine. Know thyself. If you need to prep ahead, do it. If not, wing it. Up to you. Some NaNoWriMo writers go into the month with an outline or maybe even a book already in progress. These are the “preppers.” Others go in with nothing and sit down on November 1 to a blank page and hope for the best. In writer-talk, these are the “pantsers,” or those who prefer to fly by the seats of their pants. Which way is better? Whichever way works.
Icelanders are most definitely preppers. Excitement for Jolabokaflot, begins in late September with the annual release of the Bokatidindi, a hard-copy catalog published by the Iceland Publishers Association. It includes every book published in Iceland and is mailed to every single home in the country. If this is not a full-scale effort to generate (and maintain) interest, I don’t know what is. Icelanders pour over the catalog with great anticipation and the book-buying begins. Remember dog-earing the pages in the JC Penney Christmas Catalog or the Sears Wish Book in hopes that Santa would get the message? The Bokotidindi is like that—but only for books. Can you imagine?
I think that Write It Down Day can take lessons from both preppers and pantsers. There’s no reason that some aspects of the pre-writing phase can’t start before the day itself in preparation for the actual, day-of writing. And perhaps this can be precipitated by a mailing to every household in the country that generates excitement and encourages the discovery and narrowing process to begin.
My head is brimming with ideas for making Write It Down Day real. Greeting cards, dedicated binders, parties, games, read-a-thons, family books, publishing opportunities, conventions, signature cocktails, billboards, logos, hats, bookmarks, participation prizes—all encouraging, affordable and fun. The details are nebulous right now but will, I’m sure, come into focus with time.
The question is, how do we kick this thing off?
What better place to sow the seeds of this wonderful new tradition than in school?
I see teachers wincing already. One more thing to be responsible for? The founding and grounding of a new national holiday? Don’t we have enough to do?
I feel you. I’m a teacher, too, a thirty-six-year public school veteran, and I can say without a doubt that you are doing this already. All we have to do is to create a day to make it special and help cement its importance in a generation. That’s all. C’mon. It’ll be fun.
School is the perfect place to take a day and dedicate it 100% to the capturing of at least one, small personal story per student, teacher, staff member and classroom gerbil. What better place is there to prove that we all have stories of value—worth writing and worth saving? If we start now, by the time this year’s kindergarteners graduate from high school, they will each have, at minimum, thirteen life stories committed to words (and possibly pictures) that are theirs forever—to keep, to share, to pass down. Chances are good that they will have developed a respect for the process, an understanding of its importance and confidence in their ability to produce a piece of writing that has value.
And they’ll want to keep on doing it. And to encourage others to do it. And then, VOILA—we have a tradition.
Imagine the binders that we could fill up with personal stories, family stories, wonderful stories, preserved-forever stories.
I can hardly breathe for the joy of the possibility.
Imagine every person finding a new life story every March 23, writing it down, sharing it with others, collecting it in a binder and passing that collection down to the next generation. Imagine a person of ninety-five having a collection of at least ninety Write-It-Down-Day life stories to pass down. My ancestors have passed down exactly zero written stories to me. I’d be thrilled with one. Imagine if my gramma, an immigrant who lived through two world wars, a depression, a flu epidemic and countless personal trials, was encouraged to write down just one of her life stories each year. She died young at 68. Still, I’d have more than sixty stories of her life—in her own words—to read, to learn from, to find myself in, to cherish. It’s staggering to think of this treasure trove of personal, historical and cultural knowledge that is now lost for all time.
Because the members of the Little Town Writers Guild have been around the block a time or two, some of us feel compelled, as we stand on the threshold of a new year, to share some words of wisdom. So please grab a cup of something warm and a leftover holiday cookie or two and join us as we usher in 2022.
From Chris Armentano:
For 2022, I offer this advice: take up boxing, especially the kind where the instructor gathers your most furious punches in plate-sized mitts without striking back. In the past year at the age of seventy-three I’ve learned that after stretching, warming up cold muscles and elevating my heart rate, it’s good to hit something. Sixty-one years ago, when I was the smallest kid in the neighborhood, boxing might have come in handy. These days, as I look around at aging friends wobbling from the decades’ long accumulation of life’s blows, I hope it’s possible to fight back. This year, I urge them all to join me to keep punching.
From Amy Nicholson:
I gave up on New Year’s resolutions years ago. It wasn’t worth the guilt and grief I subjected myself to when I didn’t live up to my own unrealistic expectations. Instead, for the past few years, I’ve chosen a focus word for the year. I decided that if I lacked the fortitude and perseverance necessary to finally stop biting my nails or–glory be–exercise every day, I could at least choose where to set my sights, a guiding star to motivate me and direct my choices for the coming year. In 2019, I chose JOY. Feeling a little too punny, in 2020 I chose FOCUS. My word for 2021 was BALANCE (in daily activities, not on a balance beam). In 2022, I’ve decided I’m returning to JOY. I’m content with my life. My goal is to allow those deep-seated feelings of gratitude, wonder, and serenity to bubble up to the surface and overflow, drowning out the doubt, fear, anxiety that can squelch my joy. I long for levity. A lightness of heart that manifests itself in more smiling, laughing, perhaps even singing and dancing. What will your word be?
From Gail Ouimet:
The past couple years have seen a disturbing trend in our culture toward the acceptance of name calling, rudeness, division, classism, racism and prejudice in many forms. This spurs me to look forward to a shift in 2022. My wishes are:
*That we all embrace life with open hearts.
*That where and when we see life become hard for people, we reach out to support, without judgment, so that others feel seen, heard and valued.
*That we each accept the challenge to be the best versions of ourselves, acknowledging our flaws, without being defined or motivated by them.
*That we all live lives that embody peace and love, expressed through right thought and right action.
From D. Margaret Hoffman:
I’m not much in the kitchen. But last year, even though my baking skills have repeatedly earned me a grade of “P” for Pitiful, I reached back to an old family tradition and learned to make Christmas pepparkakor, a Swedish ginger cookie that we used to get every Christmas from our dear Auntie Mae. I practiced until I got them right—spicy, crispy, tasty, dunkable, sort of uniform, generally not embarrassing. So, this year, I dubbed them “My Official Christmas Thing” and placed them at the center of my holiday platters and gifts. This was risky as it required me to bake several batches and I have seldom mixed a batch of anything the same way twice. Still, I went all in. I floured up my new rolling pin and baked like a crazy woman
On Christmas Day, the pepparkakor were a hit. Ginny, who bakes as naturally as she breathes, couldn’t keep her hand out of the proverbial cookie jar. Seeing her enjoy something, repeatedly and on purpose, that I baked, was worth more to me than a hundred bake-off blue ribbons stacked on a golden cookie sheet. And then, Lesley, queen of bakers and mother of the cinnamon buns that my family has breakfasted on for more Christmas mornings than I can count, asked me for the recipe. “I’ve been looking for a ginger cookie recipe and these are soooooo good,” she texted. Yup. You saw it. Six Os.
I did it. I found one small thing, made it mine, put it out in the world and made some happiness. Feels soooooo good.
And so, I face 2022 with new determination to put more energy into small things. When I get ahead of myself, feel overwhelmed, take a wrong turn or feel like quitting I will incorporate the Lesson of the Pepparkakor into a living, working mantra to set myself straight. And here it is:
One good cookie, well-baked and sincerely appreciated, is, for now, enough.
Happy New Year!
From Jennie Nimtz:
Instead of making resolutions, which I break as easily as a china teacup falling on marble flooring, I choose a single word, a mantra of sorts, for each new year. A word, that when thought of, whispered or prayed about, begins each day on the right track. Or redirects a bad day. After the 2021 deaths of my sister and a beloved friend and onset of serious illness for two other loved ones, “HEALTH,” hands down, for 2022, was a no-brainer. Or so I thought. Unexpectedly, in early December 2021, a dark horse of a contender appeared. Better put, a dark buck. And the word winner, by a long shot, for the year 2022 is SPIRIT.
I was out the door by 5:10 a.m. that December morning, needing extra time to brush snow from my car and then safely drive to my daughter’s home to babysit. The two inches of snow that descended on the area overnight still clung to my neighborhood’s roads. I prayed that the nearby state road would be clear. After navigating down to the last narrow street that paralleled Route 64, I sighed audibly seeing the sanded black surface of the state road. Then, gasped and braked to a stop.
Just ahead of me, in the middle of the road, stood an adult buck. I don’t know how the point system is figured out for deer’s antlers, but this buck had a substantial rack. The magnificent creature remained motionless, staring past the windshield, right at me. I felt no fear and it showed none towards me. After I remembered to switch off the high beams, the buck moved deliberately off to the side of the road. However, when I eased the vehicle forward, the creature swung around and plodded, inches in front of the car, over to the other side and out of view. I could see the matted hairs of its dense coat and nose breath in the cold. Instant goosebumps on my part.
Peering right and left for possible other deer in the shadows, I moved the car forward a foot at a time. I saw none, but there again was the buck. Uphill in a snowy driveway. Watching me. I stopped again, mesmerized by the dark form of this animal, framed by the still, night sky, snow-draped trees and uncleared driveway. I felt that jolt of anticipation a child feels on Christmas Eve, hanging their stocking and then later, in bed, hearing a noise outside. Oh, I know white-tailed deer are not reindeer, but this creature, I had no doubt, could pull a sleigh. There was something about this encounter that brought back emotions tied to believing in Santa and the magic of the holiday season. These emotions soon melted into joy, peace and something more powerful than childhood magic. Spirit. That’s the word that sprang to mind. The Spirit of the holiday season and all it stands for. An inexplicable warmth spreading through me from the inside out. Something not fully felt for years. The sensation glowed within me all day, this spirit for the holidays and for life. I told myself it must not die out.
So, SPIRIT is my chosen word for 2022. A single word made up of so many other words, some of which I selected for past years: love, hope, cherish, compassion, kindness, strength, friends and family. I believe it even covers health. I will keep my spirit ignited throughout 2022 and beyond—an eternal flame for future years to come. Though I have to admit, rather than thinking about the actual word, I likely will be envisioning a large buck with a massive rack, framed by a snowy landscape.
I pray your spirit finds you as well as we advance into 2022. Happy New Year.
Granted, the last couple of years have been tough. But if we can find the fortitude to keep putting one foot in front of the other, if we can face the future with purpose and a will to act, if we can find our fight, our joy, our humanity, our focus, our spirit—then we’ll be OK. The choice is ours.