The book is dead, nestled among dried leaves and small pine cones, partially covered by the branches of a pine tree nearly sweeping the ground. Sun-bleached pages catch the light and bounce it like a beacon.
Broken open along the spine, its pages swollen by last week’s rain and snow are baked dry. Two pages fused together, blown vertical and dried by the wind, stand perpendicular to the ground, a gravestone for the book.
I walk past, but stop. I turn, and look. I debate.
The front of the book is mangled, its cover rolled under itself. A splotch of sky-blue color entices me to retrace my steps. I want to know its name, but I don’t want to touch the book. It’s a corpse.
I’m walking my dogs, so I juggle leashes and mittens, remove my phone from my pocket, and snap several pictures, like I do in cemeteries to record family grave markers.
Who did the book belong to? How did it end up on the ground? Did someone finish it before it was lost?
I crouch down next to the book, thankful it’s not mine.
Centered on the top of the left page, I read, Ken Follett.
I’ve read some of his books: Triple, Hornet Flight, Night Over Water, and Eye of the Needle—one of my favorite books. The snippet of sky blue on the cover tells me it’s not The Eye of the Needle. The blue is too cheerful, matching none of the cover art I’ve ever seen for that book.
My dogs stand at the end of their leashes while I stare at the book. Still crouching, I contemplate turning the book to read its title.
I let it go.
I stand, leaving it in peace, its fused pages standing perpendicular to the ground, a gravestone for the book.
Writing is fun and frustrating. The lists for what make it either fun or frustrating are almost as varied and numerous as the people who write. (I read a lot of essays written by writers about the ups and downs of writing.)
Sometimes I wrestle with a short story or an essay for days or weeks (or months). I wrangle with voice, tense, point of view, structure, characters, dialogue, and a bunch of other writing concepts. Finally, when I feel I’ve pinned the piece to the mat, I set it aside for a while. At this point, I’m not ready for another match with a new story or essay idea that’s been patiently waiting on the sidelines.
I want to keep writing, but if I’ve struggled with a piece, I need a break. I need to watch a good movie, laugh with friends, binge watch British TV shows. And, I need to write fluffy! (Sometimes I even need to write fluffy during an epic clash with a story or an essay.)
I’ve developed some fluff strategies:
I write about humorous events. I’ve written about losing a belt and the odd way I found it, learning to use my new pressure cooker, my fear of reading at open mics, a takeout order gone awry, and a chaotic art project with my four grandkids. There’s often humor lurking beneath the mundane. I don’t worry if my writing is funny or not; I just enjoy writing about something that amused me.
I write outside my typical style. My writing tends to be unadorned. But sometimes I yearn to write something flowery, jacked up on purple prose (but hopefully, I draw the line at a pale shade of lilac). I splash on too many metaphors, adverbs, and adjectives, like cheap perfume. These pieces often sound old fashioned. In this vein, I wrote a flash essay about visiting Split Rock Lighthouse in the 1970s with my father and again in 2017 with my grandchildren. Editors keep declining it, but one of my readers said it’s one of his favorites. (His friend told me to ditch some of the adverbs and adjectives, so I cut one adjective.) I wrote an essay about my tulip buds being eaten by rabbits during the pandemic spring of 2020. And, I wrote an essay about trying to write and take care of four grandchildren thirty hours a week. Both essays are a lilac shade. But I like them because they capture how I felt.
I write about writing. I always have something to say about writing. I’ve covered writing titles, avoiding household chores so I can write, wondering if I’m a real writer, writer’s block during the pandemic, and a rebellious character in a story who refused to follow my plot. Right now, I’m writing this essay (and I have more rough drafts about writing saved in a file).
I ask myself what if questions. One of my relatives said of my dog, “Ziva is such a cat.” Her accurate assessment of my dog’s personality made me wonder, Could I write a story about a dog that behaves like a cat? It’s not a fine literary story or even a literary story or maybe even a story, but when I read it, it reminds me of my relative and my dog, both of whom I love. I wrote my only historical fiction story based on my great-grandfather’s parents by asking, What if a certain event hadn’t happened?
I wrote a spoof on romance stories. At least I think it’s more spoof than satire or parody. I don’t consider myself a writer of spoof, satire, or parody, but it’s fun to try. I smile more when I try to write humor. Smiling relieves tension, and that’s the point of my fluffy writing interludes.
I write for or about my grandchildren. I enjoy this for the same reason I like taking pictures of them, reading to them, or walking down the street with them. Or doing anything with them.
I write for my blog, which prefers light, fluffy pieces and always accepts my work. It’s nice to know I won’t be getting a rejection letter.
For me fluffy writing is like a good walk, a session of yoga, and a good night’s sleep. It gets my blood flowing, centers my being, and energizes me. It’s like watching episodes of a Keeping Up Appearances, a British sitcom, after watching the lives of characters unravel on Upstairs, Downstairs, a British drama. It’s like topping a healthy sweet potato casserole with large sugary marshmallows.
And now, fluff break is over. Time to wrestle with the next story idea that’s been waiting for its match.
[Author’s note: In the summer of 2019, I took care of my grandkids, and we went to the Superior Public Library once or twice a week. During the summer of 2020, the pandemic and social distancing kept us at home and playing outside.]
Three grandkids, five days a week, seven hours a day, and a limited budget summed up my summer days in 2019. Anything free was good, so when the Superior Public Library hosted a free presentation about monarch butterflies, I took Clara, almost eight; Michael, six; and Evan, almost three.
The presenter discussed butterflies and their stages of life. Clara who loves nature, absorbed every word. Later, she remarked, “That was a really good presentation.” Michael listened intently, too. But Evan scampered from chair to chair. Finally, I took his hand and retreated to the Children’s Library with him.
Before the butterfly talk, Clara and her brother, Michael, spotted plastic cups lined up on the table. Each cup’s rim supported a chrysalis suspended from a stick.
“Nana, can we take one home?” Clara asked.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “Your mom has a lot on her plate with school and work.”
I didn’t know the presenter would be giving away flying insects. Vibrant colors and eye-catching patterns aside, a butterfly is a flying insect.
“Can we keep it at your house?” Clara is the Princess of Plan-B Solutions.
“No, what if it emerges when I’m sleeping?” I imagined the butterfly carousing through my house and dive-bombing my head in the morning while I drank coffee.
“Monarchs move slowly after they emerge,” the presenter said, “and the chrysalis will turn nearly black before the butterfly emerges, so you’ll be prepared.” The presenter wasn’t siding with me—he had cups and cups of future butterflies to pass along.
Clara looked wistful and dejected at the same time. I couldn’t tell her I was afraid to look a butterfly in the eye. It could’ve been worse—she liked spiders too. If the presentation had been about spiders, we might have been offered a spider’s egg sac.
“Okay,” I said, “we’ll keep it at my house.”
“Yay.” Clara celebrated with a double fist pump. Michael grinned.
After the presentation we took the chrysalis home, and I set it on my kitchen table. Each time Clara, Michael, and Evan came over, we checked the chrysalis for any sign of blackness.
A few weeks later, instead of greeting me with good morning, my husband said, “That butterfly flew out of its cup while I was eating breakfast. Scared the heck out of me.”
“What did you do with it?” I asked.
“I put the cup in front of it, and it walked back in the cup,” he said. “I put a piece of paper toweling over the cup.” I remembered the presenter saying a newly emerged butterfly moved slowly.
An hour later while I ate breakfast, the butterfly knocked the paper towel off the cup and flew down to the floor. I screamed. My heart thumped. I used my husband’s cup technique. The butterfly walked into the cup, which I took outside and placed on the patio table.
Fifteen minutes later, my grandkids arrived. They dashed up the side stairs and onto the deck. I went outside to greet them. The butterfly, still on the patio table, basked in the sun.
“Look,” I said, “the monarch hatched.”
Beating wings interrupted their oohs and aahs as the butterfly took flight up and over the roof of the house.
“Our butterfly waited to see you before it flew away,” I said.
Clara nodded knowingly.
“Yeah, it really did,” said Michael.
In the weeks that followed, every time Clara, Michael, Evan, and I saw a monarch butterfly in my yard, I said, “Look, it’s our butterfly.”
One day, Clara, my little naturalist, set me straight, “You know, Nana, there are more monarchs around here than just ours!”
[I orignally wrote this story in 2019 for my grandkids and included picutres of them and the butterfly with the story. I printed a copy for each them and stapled the pages together. They each enjoyed having their own “book” about our butterfly experience.]
“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.