“Nana, where are you?” Charlie, two-and-a-half, calls out from the living room.
“I’m in the kitchen.” I’m surprised he doesn’t see me because the kitchen and the living room have a semi-open design.
“Nana, where are you?” he repeats.
I assume he didn’t hear me. “I’m right here.” I turn around and realize he isn’t talking to me.
He’s holding a Little People person by a Little People house. It’s the Little People person who’s calling into the house, looking for his nana.
Charlie’s playacting, but he’s borrowing from real life. If he doesn’t see me immediately when he arrives in the morning, he yells, “Nana, where are you?”
Next, the Little People person, still peering into the Little People house, asks, “Where are you, puppy, where are you?”
I’m drawn into Charlie’s world of make-believe. I search through the bin of figures, looking for the Little People dog. I can’t find him. But I find the Little People sheep. “Here’s a sheep for your farm,” I say. Behind him is a Little People barn.
Charlie grabs the sheep, laughs, and says, “Puppy!” He’s willing to suspend reality in his theatrical world. I roll with him. He returns to his production company where he’s a scriptwriter, a director, and an actor, playing all the parts. I sit on the floor, a few feet away from him, like an extra in a movie. He takes no notice of me.
He’s on to the next scene. “This is my bed,” he says, laying the Little People person, who represents him, on a lime-green bed in the second-story bedroom of the plastic house. He picks up two other Little People and brings them face to face. Imitating smooching sounds, he refers to them as Mom and Dad. How sweet.
Next, he says, “Bupba’s back,” signaling his grandpa has entered the scene. Then he picks up a small red toy—Spiderman has joined the show, saying, “Grab your ee-ee.” Not wanting to interrupt a director’s creative process, I don’t ask what motivates Spiderman’s concern for a blankie.
After a few minutes, I rise off the floor and return to the kitchen, leaving Charlie immersed in his playacting. His world of dialogue, actors, and shifting scenes continues for another twenty minutes.
I’m glad I saved some of the toys his dad and uncle played with when they were boys.
Before we had grandkids, my husband, when cleaning the basement, would ask, “Can we get rid of these old toys?”
“No,” I’d say.
“What are you saving them for?”
“What if we don’t have grandkids?” he’d ask.
“What if we do?”
And we do—four of them, ages nine, seven, four, and two-and-a-half. And they all play with the toys I saved. This morning two-and-a-half-year-old Charlie has morphed them into his world.
In about ten years, the dialogue with my husband will start anew. He will ask, Can we get rid of these old toys?
No, I will answer.
What are you saving them for?
What if we don’t have great-grandkids? he’ll ask.
What if we do?
Already, I imagine them on my living room floor, directing their own Little People productions.
Cabela, 77 in human years, nestles on the right side of the couch. Ziva, 66 in human years, nestles on the left side. I’m 61, yep, in human years, and sitting at my desk, joining a virtual author chat hosted by Honest Dog Books in Bayfield, Wisconsin, an hour-and-a-half away.
It’s excessively cold outside, which explains why the dogs and I aren’t going for a walk. At our combined age of 204 years, our enthusiasm for walking at night in subzero temperatures has ebbed, so this evening we’re opting for warm intellectual stimulation.
We’re going to listen to two authors talk about their books set in immensely cold parts of the world, places that make the western tip of Lake Superior feel like a tropical vacation destination, even in winter. Miniature snowballs of marshmallows bob in a cup of hot cocoa warming my hands. On the couch the dogs remain curled up in heat-conserving positions. While other attendees join the author chat, I leave my seat to slip on a pair of thick wool socks over my flimsy book-themed socks.
Andrea Pitzer (Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World) lives in Washington, D.C., and Blair Braverman (Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube) lives in northeastern Wisconsin. Around another 140 people join the event. Miles and even time zones apart, we’re all together this evening listening to Pitzer talk about her narrative nonfiction book and Braverman talk about her memoir. Because both authors and the audience are having a good time, the authors, along with most of the audience, stay another fifteen minutes or so before calling it a night.
The polar vortex, having parked its big-mass front over much of the country, intends to overstay its welcome for at least another eight or nine days. In search of relief, I make plans to call Honest Dog Books and order both deep-freeze books from last night’s talk. (Books always make me feel better.) During this arctic cold front, I could read books set in warm locations, but I decide it takes daring to read books set in the Arctic where winter submerges itself in darkness. I’ll also need more hot cocoa, another pair of wool socks, and a flannel-backed quilt.
I could order the books via Honest Dog’s website, but I miss going into bookstores. I bypass technology, which allowed last night’s virtual gathering, considered futuristic when I was in high school, and call the bookstore.
“Is it okay if I order books by phone instead of using your website?” I ask.
“Oh yes, certainly,” the clerk answers.
I miss perusing locally-owned bookstores, places where the books I pile on the counter to buy become catalysts for conversation, places where clerks are as thrilled to talk about books as I am.
I order Icebound. And we discuss Pitzer’s research methods.
I order Ice Cube. It’s one of the clerk’s favorites.
I order The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. He wasn’t at last night’s author chat, but I’ve heard him talk about his book (another online experience). I don’t usually read young-adult novels, and I don’t read fantasy novels. But my pandemic-mode response to life has been to be more adventurous.
I order first one, then two, then three Valentine-themed packages of chocolates. The clerk and I chuckle each time I increase my chocolate order. (Chocolate also makes me feel better.)
The clerk and I talk for seventeen minutes. More than half our conversation is about books. After I hang up, I feel like I’ve had a near-small-bookstore experience. I smile.
At three o’clock the mail arrives, and my nine-year-old granddaughter retrieves it.
“Nana,” she says, dashing up the stairs, “you got a package.”
My four grandkids, ages two-and-a-half to nine, know boxes arriving in the mail have potential.
As soon as I say, my books, the older grandkids lose interest.
I lift the books from the box and lay them on the kitchen table. The two-and-a-half-year-old, with the speed and dexterity of the Artful Dodger, seizes one and runs into the living room.
“This my book, Nana, this my book,” he says, with the cadence of a parrot.
“That’s Nana’s book,” I say.
“No, Nana, this my book. This my book, Nana.” He sits on the couch and looks at the cover.
He’s grabbed Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. I’m certainly not telling him the name of the book. In my mind I can hear his parrot-like repetition of the title. I can hear his parents ask me, What did you say to Charlie?
“That book doesn’t have pictures,” I say.
The mention of pictures redirects his attention, and he exchanges my book for a children’s book on the coffee table.
I retrieve my book and place it on my bookshelf. By six o’clock the grandkids will be gone. By seven o’clock, I’m planning on hot cocoa, a quilt, one of those deep-freeze books, and at least one piece of the Valentine-themed chocolates from my hidden stash.
“Sometimes a letter is better than a phone call. It’s nice to get something besides bills and junk mail.” –A wise woman, age 95
Texting and emailing are fast, but let’s write someone a letter. If we text and don’t get an immediate response, we believe we’re being ignored.
If we email and don’t get a nearly immediate response, we believe we’re being ignored.
If we write a letter and don’t get a reasonably-timed response, we think the other person is busy. It takes time to write a letter, address an envelope, put a stamp on it, and drop it in a mailbox—it might be weeks before we believe we’re being ignored.
Let’s write someone a letter. We’ll write to someone we don’t see because of the pandemic. Or someone we haven’t talked to in a long time. Or someone who lives down the block but we don’t see because of the pandemic. Or someone who lives in assisted living or a nursing home whom we’re not allowed to see because of the pandemic.
The pandemic has shrunk our worlds. Maybe we don’t have much to say in a letter. Yet, we can say something, almost anything. Remember our 95-year-old wise woman, It’s nice to get something besides bills and junk mail.
On the table, our blank piece of stationery resembles a wide-open prairie unbroken by forests or mountains. We grab a pen and write words, our tracks across our prairie. Perhaps our minds become as blank as the endless prairie sky on a still day. We need to look down, think small, see the individual prairie grasses and flowers.
We can write about
our dog who scratches its back on the cedar bush when it’s outside.
our cat who’s playing with our pen while we’re writing.
the green beans growing in our garden.
the rabbits who ate our tulip blossoms.
rearranging our furniture. (This counts as an indoor workout during the pandemic.)
our four-year-old grandson who told his mother, “Well, if you don’t look in my room, it’s nice and tidy,” when she asked him if it was clean.
the book we read, the TV show we watched, the movie we streamed. (But we’ll play nice and avoid spoiler alerts.)
unexpected objects we found when cleaning our drawers and closets. (Eventually, we’re all bored enough to pandemic clean.)
finishing the sweater we started knitting five years ago.
the 1,000-piece jigsaw we completed in a week.
the spicy chili we made that makes our eyes water but clears our sinuses.
our winning streak at Yahtzee.
our favorite sports team.
We can grumble about
the weather. It’s expected. We want to know if it’s hot, cold, rainy, snowy, windy, or foggy. Honestly, we do. (It gives us permission to fill up some of our prairie land on our paper with our weather report.)
work, spouses, children, parents, pets, anything. We want to know we aren’t the only ones who don’t have a Brady Bunch life. Thankfully, handwritten letters don’t live in cyberspace.
the upcoming forecast. If we still have space on our page to fill, we can end with more weather. (It’s not the same as complaining about our current weather because this is forecasted weather.)
our favorite sports team.
We can describe the setting in which we’re writing our letter:
the waning daylight or the full moon shining outside our window,
the sleeping children down the hall or the dog curled up by our side,
the falling snow or the drenching rain,
the orchid that bloomed yesterday or the Christmas cactus that’s fading,
the Irish Folk music or Madam Butterfly springing from our radio.
In our letter we can thank
a parent, a sibling, a child, a relative for some kindness, past or present.
a friend who’s always there for us.
the former neighbors who welcomed us into their homes when we were children.
our eleventh-grade teacher who believed we could write.
If our letters aren’t that interesting, we’ll take comfort because even if we’re boring someone paragraph by paragraph, they can’t interrupt us. But they’ll read our letters because they came from us, and we wrote to them. Our ho-hum letters ease the pressure on them to entertain us with subtle wit and scintillating stories. And we’ll read their letters because they wrote to us and answered our letters.
We’ll write letters because we’ve run out of drawers, cupboards, and closets to clean.
[This essay was inspired by my friend, Phyllis, who turned 95 years old on January 31, 2021. She also inspired the title. I send her cards and letters, and when she thanked me the day after her birthday, she said, “Sometimes a letter is better than a phone call. It’s nice to get something besides bills and junk mail.”]
Open mics are one place I always get more than I give. I listen to writers read their poems, stories, and essays. Some read quietly; some perform. I laugh, sigh, hold back tears, and sometimes shift in my seat with the rest of the audience. Open mics give writers a place to share their writing, to gauge an audience’s response to their work, and to collect inspiration.
Memorable events happen at open mics. A father attended his first open mic to listen to his adult daughters read. He composed a poem about lichens during the intermission and read it after the break, receiving a raucous round of applause. A woman read her poem, a humorously honest tirade about the struggles of single parenthood, and the audience cheered with laughter. An elderly man read his story about funeral homes providing hospice care to make the progression from dying to burial more efficient, and it was disturbingly funny.
I started writing at age sixty. I started going to open mics at age sixty. It’s a correlation based on causation. Take my word for it.
I went to open mics, but I wasn’t ever going to get up and read.
Then I won a writing contest. I wasn’t able to read my story with the other winners at the reception. But that felt like winning too because I don’t like public speaking. My voice wobbles. My knees shimmy. My hands vibrate. At the same time, I’m inside of myself, feeling my body prepare to flee the tigers prowling in the audience and having an out of body experience.
Someone told me, “You should enter your story in Writers Read.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
My brain twitched as it was explained. Writers submit short stories, essays and poems. Judges select pieces to be read by the writers in front of an audience while being recorded to be played on Wisconsin Public Radio. What I heard: Enter a story, if the judges select it, YOU HAVE TO STAND IN FRONT OF PEOPLE AND READ—OUT LOUD.
I remembered my eighth-grade acting debut as the Wizard of Oz. I was the man behind the curtain. My part was small, but I was going to be mighty. On the night of the performance, my bellowing Wizard voice, perfected in rehearsals, sounded like a whimpering munchkin. I’d come down with a bad case of stage fright. I gave up acting.
A couple of years before I started writing, I recalled listening to Shonda Rhimes, a television producer, talk about her book, Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person. Rhimes, an introvert, avoided media interviews because she had panic attacks. Then she decided for one year to say yes to things that scared her and write a book about it. So, I said yes and submitted my story to Writers Read.
My story was selected. Elation and apprehension. I’ve domesticated my stage fright over the years, but it’s an uneasy coexistence.
The program organizer advised participants to practice, READ AT OPEN MICS, and attend rehearsal the night before the performance. I envisioned tigers drinking beer and flexing their claws while I read my story at an open mic, but I was saying yes to all of it.
I practiced, reading to my iPhone recorder and listening to myself. I read at two open mics, working to make my story come alive. The spectators were friendly and supportive because many of them were also reading. Some readers were smooth and entertaining. Some were nervous and small voiced. But all of the readers gave me confidence that stage fright wouldn’t leap up and swallow me.
A week later when I read in front of the Writers Read audience, I didn’t sound like the mighty Wizard of Oz, but I didn’t sound like a whimpering munchkin either.
I decided to read again at another open mic, but two months later the pandemic shuttered community gatherings. Live open mics have been replaced with virtual ones. Recently, I read an essay at Superior Shares, a virtual gathering. For an hour I heard writers read their work to an audience. Some people came just to listen. When it was my turn, I was nervous, but I could tell other readers were nervous too. People shared joy, laughter, and heartache through the gift of their writing. The audience was supportive.
Even though virtual mics are live, the audience isn’t gathered in one place and the computer screen diminishes a sense of intimacy. But it’s not as intimidating to read to a group of small faces on a screen. Clapping and cheering are replaced by mime-like clapping and comments in the chat section. But the comments are a bonus, immediate feedback about something an audience member likes about a writer’s piece.
I’m hoping we can return to live open mics soon, but in the meantime, I’ll attend the virtual ones, sometimes to listen and sometimes to read. If you’ve never read at a live open mic because you see your own tigers in the audience, try reading at a virtual one. It’s a good way to ease into the world of public performance. And fortunately, the open mic host doesn’t send Zoom invites to the tigers.
[“Unlabeled” first appeared on Brevity Blog on January 13, 2021.]
Ask me how I decide if I’m going to write about an event as fiction or nonfiction. I have a mental flowchart for that, and I can explain it clearly.
Ask me how I choose a point of view or tense. I can’t explain that as easily, but I sense when my choices aren’t working and try a different approach.
Ask me if I consider myself a writer, and the waters are murkier. It depends on the day. Did I write? Did I get a rejection? Did I submit a piece of writing? Did I walk away from the computer thinking I just spent hours writing crap or I’m excited to work on this tomorrow? Did I spend any time learning about the craft of writing? Did I spend time with other writers? When did I last get paid for something I wrote?
Most days I call myself a writer, but there are days I call myself a pretender.
Ask me if I consider writing a hobby, a job, or a profession, and the waters are an oil-slicked quagmire. Recently, as a panelist in a presentation about beginning a writing career after retirement, I was asked, “Is writing your hobby, job, or profession?” and I stumbled over my answer.
Sometimes writing looks like a hobby. I learn about it, spend money on it, try to perfect it, and want to put it on display when I’m finished. Occasionally, I earn money, which has never happened with my real hobbies. But most of my writing, like the crafts I create, is given away, published without pay. It’s satisfying to be chosen, but if my writing doesn’t pay for itself, maybe it’s a hobby. But I’ve never devoted this much time to a hobby.
So, maybe I should consider writing a job. Just a low-paying job, really low paying. If it’s a job, maybe I should figure out how to get myself a raise. I could write articles for magazines. I’ve tried. I start them, save them in a file, and abandon them, returning like a remorseful lover to a story or an essay that I jilted while in pursuit of a paycheck to give my writing legitimacy.
I could do corporate writing. A couple of years ago, I met a woman at a writers’ gathering who said she made good money at it. But I love writing fiction and essays. I told her about my first story, which had recently won a contest. (I was probably obnoxious, like a mother showing off pictures of her firstborn.) Others talked about memoirs, novels, or poetry they were writing. Somewhere among all the chatter about craft and books and resources, the woman looked at me and said, “I need to make time for my writing.” Her words and the look on her face have stayed with me. She was young and needed the income. I’m retired and free to explore my passions. So maybe it’s not a job.
I can’t call writing my profession. Yes, I belong to two writers’ associations. I subscribe to a writing magazine and read it cover to cover when it arrives. I subject my work to critique and critique the work of others. I enroll in classes. But I don’t treat writing as a business. I don’t need to pay the bills with it. I don’t have a website or a Facebook page. I’m not writing a book I need to market. Not yet anyway.
Maybe writing is my occupational hobby.
Yesterday, my nine-year-old granddaughter clarified the whole issue.
I had my four grandkids for the afternoon, and at three o’clock, I learned I needed to read at a virtual open mic. I was on the sub list and another reader couldn’t make it. I asked my grandkids to play quietly while I rehearsed.
My seven-year-old grandson asked why, and I told him I needed to practice.
But my granddaughter told him, “Because Nana’s a writer, and she’s a good writer.”
The grandkids cooperated, more or less. My granddaughter sat at the table drawing pictures. Two of my grandsons played in a bedroom and the toddler napped on the couch. I pulled out a 500-word essay that was published this summer. I knew I could read the essay in under five minutes. Halfway through I realized my granddaughter was standing behind me.
When I’d finished, she asked, “Is that a true story, Nana?”
“Yes,” I said. “Even the part about the gun in the kitchen cupboard, but no one got hurt.”
Still, I wondered if the piece was good enough to read at the open mic. I started looking for something else, verbalizing my angst as I did.
“Nana, you should read the story you just read. It’s really good.”
I took my granddaughter’s advice and read the essay.
She’s right. I’m a writer. A hobby, a job, a profession? For now, the label doesn’t matter. On this day, at this moment, I’m a writer.
[“Silent Negotiations” won second place in the fiction category in the 2020 Hal Prize Writing Contest. In her comments about the story the judge, Jane Hamilton, wrote, “the poetic compression is impressive.”This story and the other winners of the 2020 Hal Prize Writing Contest can be read at Door County Pulse.]
“I’m not going to Italy,” Harold said. He dipped his bread—toasted and buttered by Alice—into his sunny-side-up eggs and broke the membranes, which Alice had taken the utmost care to preserve. Yolk oozed across the plate. He moved his bacon to the side.
“You don’t have to,” Alice said, “but I’m going.” She sprinkled sugar on strawberries she’d picked yesterday while kneeling in the sandy garden soil. She wanted to see their daughter without Harold. Their son-in-law was stationed in Italy with the Air Force. He was halfway through an eighteen-month training before shipping out to Vietnam.
Alice was thirteen years younger than Harold. She’d once thought it romantic to marry an older man. Other women had gushed about his dancing skills, good looks, and charm. Alice pictured his wavy hair, sparkling eyes, and dazzling smile as if she were looking at the photograph taken of him on the night they met in 1932.
He asked her to dance four times, including the last dance. Alice was flattered. Just twenty-two, she taught at a one-room schoolhouse. With a plump figure and looks some called pleasant, but most called ordinary, Alice had resigned herself to the fate of a spinster teacher. But Harold asked to see her again.
The courtship of the thirty-five-year-old bachelor, who owned a business, and the young, plain, buxom school teacher caused tongues to wag among the women who’d expressed interest in Harold. Over the years, Alice had wished one of those women would’ve prevailed with him.
“I’m not going to Italy,” Harold repeated, donning his fedora. “I’ll be back for lunch.”
“You don’t have to,” Alice said, “but I’m going.”
She wanted to stroll along the beaches of the Adriatic Sea without Harold. A dozen years ago an accident made walking difficult for him.
Alice spent the morning ticking through a list of chores before starting lunch. At noon Harold returned and took his seat at the head of the table.
“You’re not going to Italy,” Harold said. His pale, foggy-blue eyes crept above his black-rimmed glasses, which hung low on his nose.
Alice dished up the noon-day meal. Fried potatoes spooned into a bowl decorated with red poppies. Pan-fried chicken placed on an oval platter, its porcelain finish cracked with fine, lop-sided lines. Garden-fresh asparagus laid on a cream-colored, rectangular dish. Alice set the food in front of Harold. He’d told her many years ago he liked to fill his own plate first.
In 1933, after becoming engaged, they took a train to the World’s Fair in Chicago. Alice’s Aunt Fanny and Uncle Stanley chaperoned. Harold raved about the exhibits from all over the world, and Alice anticipated a life of adventure with a vacation every year or two. She felt lucky. In their small town, a handsome man with social connections and a thriving business guaranteed her status.
Six months after their trip to Chicago, they married. Harold, now thirty-six, told her he wanted children as soon as possible. Their trip to the World’s Fair in Chicago would be the only part of the world he ever took her to see.
Alice watched her previously fun-loving husband work long hours and put his money in the bank. She suffered two miscarriages before giving birth to a boy who grew up wild and headstrong. More miscarriages and another son who ran wild. Another miscarriage, then a daughter, obedient and calm, who grew up to be both a gifted scholar and musician. A daughter who wrote and tempted Alice with rapturous descriptions of the Adriatic Sea along the Italian coast.
“I’m going to Italy,” Alice said, “to see our daughter.” I’m going to see the Adriatic. They ate in silence.
After finishing his meal, Harold gripped his fedora. “I’ll be home for supper. You’re not going to Italy.”
“I’m meeting the travel agent this afternoon.”
At two o’clock, Harold glanced out of his office window and saw Alice in her blue station wagon heading toward the city.
At five-fifteen Harold arrived home. Alice was cooking supper.
“I’m going to Italy with you,” Harold said.
Alice almost screamed, No.
But Harold didn’t like hysterics. She tightened her grip on a pair silver tongs, willing her disappointment down the utensil and into the browning pork chop she’d lifted from the cast iron frying pan in order to flip it.
Alice knew Harold wanted a response. She flipped the sizzling pork chops and replaced the lid with a clang. He’s dull. Her hands whirred as she lifted lids and attended to each pot of gurgling food with clattering spoons. He’s tight-fisted. A symphony of percussion above the stove, she played at her domestic chores. He’s exacting about how his house is kept.
Harold’s scuffling feet shifted her thoughts. She glimpsed his crooked backside and sloping shoulders as he wobbled out of the kitchen to wash up for supper. He won’t be able to walk along the Adriatic coast.
Alice dished pork chops onto a platter trimmed in roses, which had belonged to a mother-in-law she’d never met. When Harold was eleven, his mother died, a scant month after his father’s death. Other than a picture, the platter was all he had left of her. He liked it to be used.
Harold sold his family home to build Alice a big house after they’d married. She ladled hot, homemade applesauce into a pink depression glass bowl. She never went without a new dress or a reliable car. She scooped green beans slathered with butter and sprinkled with salt and pepper into the cut glass bowl Aunt Fanny and Uncle Stanley gave her as a wedding present. He never strayed. A strawberry-rhubarb pie nested in a daisy-festooned pie caddy the Ladies’ Society gifted her on her fortieth wedding anniversary. Marriage to Harold had made her small-town royalty.
“Ahem.” Harold cleared his throat to announce his return. She knew he wasn’t going to say it again, about going to Italy with her, but he still expected a response.
“I’ll get another ticket tomorrow,” Alice said.
Harold teetered as he took his seat at the head of the table.
[Author’s note: In 2019, my grandkids and I celebrated the first day of summer with a day trip to Two Harbors. Originally published on Perfect Duluth Day Blog on May 11, 2020.]
At 7:30 a.m., my daughter-in-law launches three-over-the-moon-excited explorers into my house. My grandkids and I eat a hardy voyagers’ breakfast of eggs, sausage, and fruit. After cleaning the kitchen, I prepare to leave home with them for a day-long jaunt. I stow hats, jackets, and spare clothes in a canvas bag and drape Evan’s blanket across the top. Almost three years old, it’s his first adventure with us, but he’s not going without his fluffy fleece blankie.
It’s the first day of summer. Warm spring days near the shores of Lake Superior were scarce this year, and even though the first day of summer delivers sunshine, it’s miserly with warmth. I live four city blocks from Lake Superior, and while I can imagine living closer to it, I can’t imagine living farther from it. Most adventure days with my grandkids involve the lake, even if it only provides scenic backdrop.
“Can we bring our adventure bags?” Michael asks. He’s six, a seasoned explorer like his sister Clara, almost eight.
“Can I have a ’venture bag?” Evan asks.
“Sure,” I say. He beams. If his siblings have it, he wants it.
Clara’s and Michael’s bags are too big for Evan, so I fetch a small cloth bag. I sift through postcards and choose some Minnesota ones. I add a toy and a book and present the bag to Evan. He slips one handle over his left shoulder and the other handle over his right shoulder. The bag rests against his chest, like a breastplate of medieval armor worn by a knight.
“I have a ’venture bag,” he crows. He belongs.
“Yes, you do.” I validate his initiation into our group of explorers. He doesn’t know his bag lacks plastic binoculars, a cheap compass-whistle gadget, auto bingo, and maps.
We arrive just before the Two Harbors Lighthouse Museum opens. It’s easier to shepherd three excited children through thin crowds.
To reach the lighthouse grounds, we pass through the gift shop. My grandkids scout toys and trinkets while I buy our tickets.
Beyond the gift shop, we enter a pilothouse that once perched atop the Frontenac. Built in 1923, the iron ore boat was wrecked in 1979 during a blinding snowstorm when she hit a reef near Pellet Island. The pilothouse overlooks Lake Superior, but she’s anchored to land and keeps watch over the same expanse of lake day after day, year after year. She witnesses Lake Superior’s moods, from calm ripples lit by clear skies to crashing waves darkened by angry churning clouds.
My grandkids take turns at the wooden wheel and steer a nonexistent boat to nowhere, but they covet the wheel more than anything else in the pilothouse. When it’s not their turn at the wheel, they each stare at the radar screen, which no longer sends or receives signals. Artifact by artifact they circle inside the pilothouse, and wait for another turn at the helm. I don’t come from a family of sailors, so I’ve never waited for a ship to return safely to harbor. But as my grandkids explore the pilothouse, my thoughts are with sailors who work dangerous jobs. State-of-the-art communications, radar, and forecasting make their jobs safer, but Lake Superior is a daunting adversary when storms crisscross her waters.
While my little seafaring urchins quibble about whose turn it is to steer, I envision the crew who used the equipment in this pilothouse for the last time. I see them alternating between reading instruments and watching a swirling snowstorm. Today the wheel is chained to a brass rail, so young sailors, like mine, can’t go wild at the helm. In 1979, the wheel turned freely, but that didn’t help the crew keep the Frontenac from slamming onto a rocky reef, making her hull howl and shudder as it buckled.
Lake Superior is a boneyard of vessels and sailors. Clear across the lake to the east lies the Edmund Fitzgerald. She was seized by waves, which broke her. She sank with her crew. Up the shore is Pellet Island near Silver Bay where the Frontenac struck a reef. She met her demise, but her crew survived. She’d landed on rocks, which held her up.
“Who wants to see the lighthouse?” I ask. I’m answered by a chorus of “me, me, me.”
We trek up the slope and climb the gray wooden steps to the lighthouse. Clara and Michael scale the tower stairs, more interested in looking out the slit windows than at the displays. When they reach the ladder gallery, the porthole windows give them a bird’s-eye view of the green, gently sloping grounds. “Can we play outside?” they ask. The inside of the lighthouse doesn’t capture their fancy like the inside of the pilothouse did.
The small wooden steps curving along the tower wall are perfectly sized for children, and Evan confidently ascends placing one foot above the other. After reaching the top, he triumphantly descends by sitting on his butt, scooching to the edge of each step, and lowering himself to the next step. At the bottom of the stairs, he raises his hands above his head, then slaps them on his thighs and says, “Again!” He’s enamored with the pint-sized stairs, but it doesn’t take much to coax him outside.
My grandkids scamper up and down the grassy slope, and I’m grateful for the combination of wrought iron and chain-link fencing surrounding the grounds. The sun sits higher in the sky, and we’re no longer alone. I suggest we toss rocks into the lake.
We amble down the trail to smooth rock formations hugging the shore. Like nimble-footed mountain goats, Clara and Michael climb the formations and pitch rocks into Lake Superior. They gather rocks for Evan, who stands close to me. He throws them, but most fall short of the lake. For a quarter-hour, my grandkids toss rocks into a lake that will spit them back up during her next temper tantrum. I worry one of them will slip and fall off the rocky mounds.
“Who wants to go to Burlington Beach?
“I do,” says Clara.
“Me too,” says Michael.
“Me too,” echoes Evan. If his siblings are going, he’s going.
Burlington Beach has a gentle slope to the water’s edge.
In the time it takes to drive to Burlington Beach, which is under a quarter-hour, Lake Superior changes her mind. She pulls a shade of gray over the morning’s blue sky and dials up the wind machine. The four of us stand on layers of pebbles and stones. The wind infiltrates my clothing, and I wonder how long I’ll have to stand on this beach and freeze while my grandkids toss stones. Michael’s teeth are chattering. And Evan, tilting forward, braces himself against the wind, which has carried off his voice. Clara burrows her hands into her jacket pockets and speaks for them, “Nana, it’s really cold.
Back in the van, they ask about our picnic lunch. The gray skies and gnawing wind don’t speak of picnics.
“We’ll have a picnic in the van,” I say.
“Yay, yay, yay,” they cheer.
I drive to the big white rooster that welcomed us to Two Harbors several hours ago and park the van. We eat and talk about the day’s adventure. The cold temperatures and gusty winds have clipped our plans, but our memories of today are already warm.
The editors desire longer titles to capture the attention of readers. The two stories I want to submit have one- and two-word titles.
I stare at the computer screen trying to think of longer titles. Zip. I close my eyes trying to conjure up longer titles. Zero. I reread my stories, hoping for inspiration. Zilch.
I don’t feel rebellious enough to ignore the guideline. I like my one-word title, but I agree my two-word title has to go. One of my writing friends who read the two-word title (along with its story) advised, “Titles are important. You might want to think about a new one.” Maybe my title composing needs fine-tuning.
Instead, I rationalize my lazy title-writing behavior. Does it really matter?Who remembers titles? We aren’t supposed to judge a book by its cover, so why judge a story or an essay by its title?
Then I remember my first encounter with Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine shortly after its release. Someone pointed to it in a bookstore and said, “That’s a good book.”
“Oh,” I said. The title didn’t capture my imagination.
A couple of years later, my daughter-in-law said, “I think you’d like this book,” while handing me Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. We’ve similar tastes in books, so I read it and loved it. I’d judged a book by its title. It was time to work on my titles.
Research is a good way to avoid writing, revising, cleaning, so I start with research.
I learn titles can’t be copyrighted. Nice to know. Still, I decide against recycling titles by literary giants or literary middleweights or any other writer. But what about a quote from Shakespeare? His works are in the public domain. I search Shakespeare+quotes+youth+death. I find a five-word quote and pare it down to four words, change one word and use a synonym for another word to best fit my story. Inspired by The Bard, I’ve doubled the length of my two-word title, and my writing friend says, “The new title ties in better with your story.”
I’m not stoked about changing my one-word title, but I’m game for more research.
I pull an American short story anthology and a recent literary journal off my bookshelf. The two books contain a total of sixty-three short stories and creative nonfiction narratives. Twenty-one of them have one- and two-word titles. Thirty-three percent. Captivating or not, short titles exist. I keep my one-word title.
I don’t submit either title to the no-one-or-two-word-titles publication. Self-reflection about this behavior is another essay.
“About the title,” a friend starts, “wait—let me finish.”
He’s been teaching writing so long he recognizes the look flashing across my face. At the same time, I know that look is on my face. I’m already taking a deep breath and reminding myself about feedback rules: Listen. Don’t defend. Don’t argue.
We’ve met for coffee, but first he’s giving me feedback on a flash essay. The essay is 493 words. The title is twelve words.
“Normally,” my friend says, “lengthy titles are discouraged.”
I didn’t come across a too-long rule in my research, but I know a twelve-word title isn’t the norm. I’d written two titles and torn between them, I weaved them together.
“But,” he says, “this title works. It mirrors the tone of the essay and sets up the irony revealed at the end.”
Bingo. He understands. Even if he hadn’t, I’d have kept the title. Sometimes a writer has to know when to disregard feedback. But I entertain the idea both of us might be wrong.
The twelve-word title is accepted for publication in a yearly collection of short stories and creative nonfiction.
During my research, I find some practical advice for title writing: Engage in a mindless task, think about titles, make a list, then ask your readers which title they like.
Having a story in need of a title, I begin cleaning—my mindless task of choice. (Cleaning and writing have a symbiotic relationship in my world. I take turns doing one to avoid the other.)
After an hour, I’ve five possible titles. I send the story and titles to five different readers, asking them to vote. The first four readers each select a different title. The fifth reader votes for a previously selected title. Without a definitive outcome, I pick the title I like and enter the story in a contest.
Months later I learn my title placed second in the fiction category.
I finish my third revision of a flash essay, which has been declined twice. Something in the essay speaks to me, but something’s been missing. Now, I feel the essay says what I want it to say. Out it goes to readers. One reader writes, “powerful ending.” Perhaps I’ve nailed the meaning I wish to convey.
But she began with, “The title is too philosophical.” Yep, she’s right because the essay is about my father, who was a difficult man, and philosophical is where I’m at.
Another reader writes, “This title is perfect.”
I’m not changing the title, so I embrace the second opinion.
I spend the afternoon submitting the title to publications featuring flash essays. Maybe this time.
Writing is tough, but titles aren’t an easy chew either. I write short titles and long titles. I write titles I love and titles I tolerate. Feedback is contradictory.
This essay is on its third title.
And the job I’d least like to have? Writing titles or captions.
Almost every night I take my dogs for a second walk, sometime between the end of Wheel of Fortune and nine o’clock. During our winter walks, the cold air is warmed by Christmas lights strung on houses, trees, and bushes. I never tire of seeing the lights sparkle on a cold winter’s evening. From a house with a single lit wreath to a house with strings of lights illuminating every possible structure, tree, and shrub, I love them all.
This year, because of the pandemic, I expected to see fewer Christmas lights. I based this on my experience around Halloween, having noticed fewer Halloween lights and decorations, in keeping with fewer trick-or-treaters.
Christmas lights remind me of my childhood Christmases in the 1960s and 70s. Our house was a busy place. Both my parents worked and had four children born within eight years. But at Christmas my mother created magic in our living room and dining room, which flowed together as one long rectangle.
She strung multicolored C7 lights and hung old fashioned ornaments on a Christmas tree she chose for its perfect shape, fullness, and generous size. She stopped using tinsel sometime before I was old enough to remember, but I have a picture of my sister and I sitting in front of a Christmas tree festooned in the silver stuff. My mother said with a dog and two toddlers, tinsel was everywhere.
She framed the big picture window in the living room with a string of pastel lights sheathed in plastic opaque icicles. In the corner of the dining room, we had a built-in, floor-to-ceiling hutch. She created a winter wonderland on the part of the hutch meant for serving trays, first laying out fresh boughs of pine, then weaving twinkle lights through the boughs, and finally spraying the arrangement with canned snow.
The lights made the rooms glow because before she decorated, she cleaned and polished every surface. Humble and old, those rooms in our 1907 farmhouse shone with warmth and welcome.
And when the schools closed for Christmas vacation, my siblings and I spent many hours in those rooms. We played a version of twenty questions in front of the Christmas tree. Taking turns, one of us would silently pick an ornament, and the rest of us would start asking questions, trying to guess the ornament. We lifted wrapped presents from under the tree, shaking them, attempting to guess what our faraway relatives had sent us.
At twilight we sat on the couch in the sparkle of the pastel icicles, staring out the picture window into a farmer’s field and the woods beyond, talking about we wanted Santa to bring. When my mom bought a used upright piano and put it along a bare wall in the dining room, I played Christmas carols and my siblings and I sung, our small voices combing as one rejoicing sound.
On Christmas night my siblings and I sat around the dining room table, playing with board games and art supplies we received every year. Christmas lights shimmered and music played on the stereo. The relatives, who’d joined us for dinner, had all gone home, and the dishes had been washed and put away.
I remember those Christmas-light days as peaceful and other worldly, a respite from our hectic childhood days. Twinkling lights on a tree or a house or a city light post carry me back to the magic my mother created.
Although I expected to see fewer Christmas lights this year, I was amazed by the number of people who decorated their homes for the holidays. Walking my dogs up and down the streets has turned into a warm hug from Christmas Past, a wonderful gift in this year of uncertainty and anxiety.
“Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.” ― Kurt Vonnegut
Because of the pandemic, I provide daycare three days a week for my grandchildren, ages nine, seven, four, and two. In addition, I serve up homeschool lessons for the oldest two and a dash of preschool curriculum for the four-year-old. My favorite lessons involve artwork. It’s their favorite too.
Many of our art projects are prompted by ideas from the internet. But Thanksgiving and childhood memories about bringing toilet paper rolls to school for art class inspire our latest project: Toilet Paper Roll Turkeys.
In art-teacher mode, I whip up a model paper roll turkey to inspire my three oldest grandchildren. (Two-year-old Charlie will be happy to play on the floor with an empty roll.) With pride, I text pictures of my model turkey to family and friends. They ooh and aah appropriately, much in the manner of a proud parent attaching a child’s work to the front of the refrigerator.
Before the grandchildren decorate their turkeys, I cover each roll with brown construction paper. On the day of our class, I sprinkle the table with scissors, glue, pipe cleaners, googly eyes, construction paper, stick-on faux gems, glitter foam sheets, popsicle sticks, and stickers. They eye the smorgasbord of craft supplies, eagerly waiting for permission to dig in.
I place my turkey on the table. “You can use this as a model, but decorate your turkeys any way you want. If you want to add googly eyes or something heavier, like pipe cleaners, to your turkey, I’ll hot glue it on so it stays.” My glue gun is heating up on the kitchen counter.
“I know,” Clara says. She’s nine years old and likes me to know that she already knows plenty. She also loves arts and crafts.
Michael, the seven-year-old, digs through the supplies and grabs a sheet of Caribbean-blue glitter foam.
“I don’t want to make a turkey,” Evan says. “Can I just cut and glue paper?”
“Sure,” I say. Evan’s four, and today decorating a paper roll to look like a turkey isn’t his thing.
Charlie is playing on the living room floor with his plain paper roll and toy cars.
Clara and Michael sift through the craft supplies searching for the perfect ingredients to bring their turkey visions to life. Clara chatters about her plans, sharing every artistic decision out loud. Michael’s hands do his talking as he grabs a pair of scissors, uncaps the glue, and adorns his paper roll. Evan cuts and glues random chunks of colored construction paper, but he’s stealing glances of Clara and Michael dressing their turkeys.
Evan yields to temptation. “Can I make a turkey?”
“Sure,” I answer, handing him the third brown-papered roll. He reaches into the supplies and gathers his fixings. I hand him a box of sparkly stickers because his little hands can manage them. He’s smitten with the googly eyes and amasses them in different colors.
Meanwhile, I’m slinging my hot glue gun, attaching googly eyes and wings and tail feathers fashioned out of pipe cleaners for Clara and Michael.
Evan’s ready to have his turkey’s eyes glued on. He points to a spot; I glue on an eye. He gets another eye, points to another spot, I glue. This cycle is repeated five times, and he’s on his way for a sixth eye. “Enough eyes,” I say. Past experience with four-year-old children and art supplies tells me if I let him, he’ll have dozens of eyes on his turkey. It will be creepy, but even scarier our googly-eye stock will be seriously diminished. “It’s time to decorate your turkey with some other art supplies.”
Charlie appears, his tiny fingers clutching the table. His eyes, barely rising above the table’s edge, scan the goods. He says, “Nana,” which covers a lot of ground. I hand him another plain paper roll and he scurries back to the living room floor.
After the turkeys are complete, I’m amazed by the personality of each one. The spiced-up creations made by my grandchildren eclipse my bland turkey.
Clara’s turkey is attired for Mardi Gras. Its twirled red, orange, and yellow pipe-cleaner tail and wings are combined with a sparkling red belt and a yellow hat topped with a red glittery foam feather embellished with a faux lilac-colored gem. Her turkey is ready to strut down Bourbon Street.
Michael’s turkey, with glittery blue wings sporting shimmering purple and neon green spots and glittery blue legs, looks like a butterfly. “Very nice,” I tell him. I don’t question his color choices. I imagine his turkey as a butterkey or a turkfly wanting to flit from clover to clover. Perhaps it’s masquerading to avoid the axe and being placed on a platter at the dinner table.
Evan’s turkey is the most unique, in the way only a four-year-old can interpret a turkey. Asymmetrical, it’s a Picasso turkey. Its eyes look up and down, left and right, none of them aligned. Both its wings protrude from the right side, something Evan insisted on when I asked him if he was sure. A green foam airplane sticker flies from the left of its forehead to the right. Its beak is a mauve foam saxophone sticker. Its mouth is a glittery green J and its feet are two sparkling raspberry-colored F’s. Evan has channeled Picasso, whom he knows nothing about. But maybe Picasso channeled four-year-old artists.
As each turkey is finished, I place it on the ledge of my kitchen window. The turkeys, including mine, strike impressive poses. Throughout the day, as the grandchildren wander through the kitchen, one of them will stop and admire the turkeys, always with special attention paid to his or her own creation. Evan asks, more than once, “Can I hold my turkey?” I hand it to him, he holds it, then hands it back to be returned to the flock on the ledge.
Vonnegut’s advice, “Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow,” rings true. And his conclusion, “You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something,” shines on the faces of my grandchildren. They’ve created something.
I look at my turkey and remember the peace I felt while making it. And even though it’s ordinary next to my grandchildren’s turkeys, I feel joy because Vonnegut is right—I’ve created something.