I’m writing this post just so you know I’m still alive, although not writing much of anything.
I figured out how to photograph sun rays a few days ago, completely by accident. Mark was in the process of trying to contain an aggressive fire he had started while burning leaves at the edge of the woods. (He adamantly maintains it was always under control.) I was trying to prevent him from burning the woods to the ground. Sometimes beautiful things happen from unexpected circumstances.
I was born in a small town near the middle of Ohio along the I-75 corridor, north of Dayton, south of Toledo, called Piqua. My parents, and their parents, and grandparents, and further on back in their genealogy lived in Piqua. Most who immigrated here from Germany, or Ireland, or England, settled in Piqua and established homes and families. Many are buried in Forest Hill Cemetery along the river in the north section of town.
Even back in the 1950s, it wasn’t easy to find a job in a small town. When my dad returned from the service in the mid-1950s, he started working for NCR in Dayton, Ohio, about an hour’s drive away. In the 60’s my parents packed up our bags and moved us there. Neither my mom or dad really wanted to go. My mom didn’t work outside the home. All her family and friends were in Piqua. Over the years, my dad made no secret of the fact that he always missed Piqua. My parents had conversations about moving back “home” during their retirement years. They finally made it back in January of 2013, when they were both buried in Forest Hill Cemetery.
I understand the allure of small town life.
So, this morning, as I watched a CNN report on Beattyville, a small town in Kentucky where people are struggling to get by, it brought me to tears. I am a small-town girl at heart.
But sometimes you have to move. Times change. Opportunities shift. Throughout history we can find example after example of towns and cities that once prospered but then failed. The Dust Bowl comes to mind (probably because I just watched the documentary on Netflix). Sometimes we see cities that came through a rough patch and are beginning to thrive again. Buffalo, NY, is a good example. Buffalo was a rich city at one point during the height of waterway commerce. Then other forms of transportation developed and Buffalo was left with empty grain silos decomposing along its riverfront. The good news is that Buffalo is finding a way to reinvent itself. It is finding a way to thrive in the country and world as it is today.
My husband, Mark, and I visited Bakum, Germany last summer. It’s a small agricultural town in northern Germany about a half-hour’s drive south from Bremen. We’ve traced Mark’s ancestors back to Bakum from 1530 until 1850, when they emigrated to Amerika. In some ways, you could argue that Bakum is Mark’s family’s “hometown.” Certainly it was his great-grandfather’s.
In the early 1800s, the population in Bakum grew at a fast rate and the farming communities became over-crowded. People were living in barns, sheds, bake houses, in any available structure they could find. There was no food to eat. Parents struggled to provide shoes for their children. Poverty was rampant. Mark’s ancestor, Bernard Dominicus Grote, lived in the farming community of Elmelage and worked as a hired hand on land owned by the Knese family. Dominicus’ brothers all lived nearby on other farms. They all went to St. John the Baptist, the small church in town. I’m sure they did not wish to leave their family, their hometown and their homeland to come to a strange country with a language they couldn’t understand.
But they did. Like other ancestors of probably most, if not all of us.
I’m not talking about immigration right now. I’m talking about people following opportunity and doing what they need to do to survive. There is nothing new about this. It is the story of human survival from the beginning of time.
I truly hope our country can find a way to make things better for the folks in small towns who have lost their local industries and jobs. No one wants to see people suffer like that. But I also believe the way forward is exactly that, forward. Not back.
I wrote and published Where Memories Meet with the goals to educate and commiserate. I wanted to give readers who had little to no experience with Alzheimer’s a clear understanding of what was involved, as least to the extend that my family experienced it, and I wanted to reach out to those who were currently, or had been, dealing with a loved one with Alzheimer’s and let them know they were not alone. I understood.
A few weeks ago I received my first negative critique of Where Memories Meet. (The good reviews I rush to post, the negative ones, not so much.) As a writer it can be demoralizing and utterly discouraging when you receive negative feedback. It took me about a week to lick my wounds and resurface from the cave I had crawled into.
I requested feedback from a Writer’s Digest contest I had entered the book in, and the critique came as an email with the subject line, “You asked for it.” Which I’m sure was their standard response, but which particularly drove the point, and it was a sharp one, home.
The reader clearly didn’t like the book, and after reading the comments, I suspected he or she hadn’t read very far into it. The critique quoted a particularly benign sentence from page 13 and I seriously question whether the reviewer read any further than that.
The reviewer informed me that when one was writing about life and death matters, it was important to bring the character to life. I agree. In fact that was one of my most important goals and guiding principles as I wrote Where Memories Meet. I aimed to transform my father for the reader. And I took the risk of moving my story line backwards in steps through the seasons to do so, even though some readers found that difficult. I wanted the reader to see that the silent, largely non-responsive human life was a bright, multi-faceted, productive, and devoted father and husband before the disease took him away piece-by-piece. Or maybe I should say, “inch-by-inch.” Had the reviewer finished the book, I believe he or she would have seen that.
He or she also chose to compare my nonfiction memoir and oral narrative to the fictional Still Alice. I read Still Alice. I liked Still Alice. I was not writing Still Alice. I was not writing fiction. I read a lot of nonfiction, and today authors are doing an increasingly better job at making nonfiction compelling reading. I acknowledge that I might have been better at doing this.
What hurt the most was the reviewer’s comment that I told the story “inch-by-inch.” In my cave, licking my wounds, I chewed on that one for a good long while.
When I resurfaced, I responded to the Writer’s Digest contest. I was particularly disappointed because I had always viewed WD as a help and encouragement to writers, in particular to self-published writers. I didn’t find anything about the feedback I received to be helpful—only mean-spirited, discouraging, and demoralizing. I told them the review made me feel like I should apologize for asking the reviewer to read my book. I said that I made a mistake in entering it in the contest, and that was a mistake I would not be making again.
The positive outcome from this painful episode is that the reviewer unwittingly nailed it on the head, gave me a new insight into my family’s experience, and inspired me to write the post at my author website, Inch by Inch, about helping someone with Alzheimer’s.
Reading Steinbeck makes me yearn to write excellent fiction, and at the same time despair of ever doing so.
To a God Unknown is one of Steinbeck’s earliest novels. I don’t pretend to fully grasp all that the author intended to convey. But it did provide me with a lot of food for thought, primarily regarding mysticism; humanity’s desire to worship or commune with something larger than the here and now; and the struggle between changing worldviews, in this case between “pagan” ritual and Christianity. Always fascinating to think about.
We don’t write the way we used to, or at least the authors of the books I’m reading don’t. Maybe I’m not reading the right books. Steinbeck’s story is loaded with content, and concepts. Let’s face it, it’s not a fast car chase along Highway 1, a natural disaster, or a gripping tale of betrayal with guns blazing. A modern reader might think To a God Unknown is, frankly, slow.
We can’t read a novel by John Steinbeck with the same mindset as we read Dan Brown. Steinbeck writes, “Her crying was as satisfying and as luxurious as a morning’s yawn,” (37). Chew on that for a moment. The author achieves a lot of description and understanding with this simple 12-word sentence. There is nothing earth-shattering here, but there is a very clear portrayal or understanding of not only how it feels to unburden one’s heart with tears, but also to yawn—satisfying and luxurious.
Former school teacher, young wife and new mother, Elizabeth says to her husband, the protagonist Joseph Wayne, “I used to think in terms of things I had read. I never do now. I don’t think at all. I just do things that occur to me,” (114). And when Joseph’s brother tells him, “You love the earth too much. You give no thought to the hereafter.” (117) These statements convey something rather profound about differences in the ways we live.
After Joseph’s wife tragically dies, he returns to his house:
“The clock wound by Elizabeth still ticked, storing in its spring the pressure of her hand, and the wool socks she had hung to dry over the stove screen were still damp. These were vital parts of Elizabeth that were not dead yet. Joseph pondered slowly over it—Life cannot be cut off quickly. One cannot be dead until the things he changed are dead. His effect is the only evidence of his life. While there remains even a plaintive memory, a person cannot be cut off, dead. And he thought, ‘It’s a long slow process for a human to die. We kill a cow, and it is dead as soon as the meat is eaten, but a man’s life dies as a commotion in a still pool dies, in little waves, spreading and growing towards stillness.'”(136)
To be a great writer requires more than a talent with words; it requires a great depth of thought.
Our attention-spans have grown shorter in the fast-paced computer age we live in. We don’t read the way we used to. We shouldn’t write the way we used to. But we should be pushing the boundaries of thought forward. Taking time to observe. Contemplation. We can’t write and complete a John Steinbeck novel, a great novel, in the month of November.
Steinbeck, John. To a God Unknown. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.
I step out onto the front covered porch. Arthur pulls on the lead in my hand. I am warm enough in my pajamas and robe on this mild winter morning.
Arthur stops at the edge of the porch. I always think he sees, hears, or smells another animal when he does that. Maybe he’s just being sure.
I look around also. It is dark, but my eyes adjust and I can see the silhouette of the branching arms of the locust tree. Four porch lights glow across the front of the vacant house to my left around the bend of the lane. Straight ahead a series of small bright lights from the homes on a neighboring street shine through the winter woods barren of leaves. I’ll not see those lights come spring. The new neighbors’ house to the right, at the corner, is brightly lit on both the back and the left side that are visible from where I stand, perhaps to discourage burglars. I wonder if our motion-detector security lights around back where it’s near the woods still work. The new neighbors’ strand of Christmas lights sparkle across their back porch rail.
Arthur tugs and pulls on the retractable dog leash as he steps off the porch and meanders through the foliage in the landscaping that stretches across the front of the house and along the bend of the sidewalk to the tree.
I notice a drip, drip, drip from the rain spout to my left. Otherwise I hear nothing except the steady drone of distant traffic. The juvenile owl, with its awkward squawk must not be visiting this morning. Ah, now the soft whistle of a train miles away breaks the silence.
Arthur is taking his time.
The sky is beginning to lighten to a dark gray-blue, as the place where I stand, on this glorious planet we call home, turns towards the sun and the dawn of a new day.
I dress more for comfort than style, you might say. Unless you are my daughter, and then you might say that I never dress for style. But I maintain I do have a style, and it is called, comfort.
One of the things I like about my particular style, is that it requires little to no ironing. Wash, dry, fold or hang-up and my clothes are ready to wear. There are one or two exceptions for special occasions, like Christmas.
I wanted to wear a light-weight wool sweater today for the family party we are hosting. It is a rich cranberry color and mostly I save it for the holidays. I washed it, dried it flat, and it is not ready to wear. Iron on a warm setting, the tag informs me.
So I pull my rickety ironing board out of the closet, unwrap the iron’s cord from the handy shelf/bracket I installed in my closet five years ago expressly for that purpose, and plug my iron in.
My mother taught me how to iron.
In fact, when I was young, I loved to iron. My mom would save my father’s hankies, and all the pillowcases for me to iron. In those days she didn’t have a steam iron. She dampened the things that needed to be ironed, which I suspect were most things in those days before the miracle of permanent press happened.
Mom had a shaker bottle that she filled with water. She would lay the clothing or household article flat on the table or ironing board, and sprinkle it with water. Then she rolled it up and placed it on its end in the laundry basket to wait its turn. I can remember it as clear as if it happened yesterday.
I would unroll the damp pillowcases and go to work on them with the iron, transforming the wrinkled and damp to dry and smooth. I folded the pillowcases as I worked. I folded each one into thirds lengthwise, making a long narrow, neat column that I would fold in half and again into fourths, pressing each section as I went and ending with a nice neat little square that stacked perfectly in the linen closet.
I can’t remember the last time I ironed a pillowcase.
I liked doing my dad’s hankies even more. They were quick and sweet and made a nice little square when folded in half eight times.
I still have one of my dad’s hankies. I stuck it in my pocket when we cleaned out his room in the nursing home the night he died. I took it with me to the cemetery at his funeral where I dampened it with my own tears and pressed it between my fingers.
Maybe I’d still enjoy ironing pillowcases and hankies today if I took the time to do it.
You probably thought I gave up, or forgot about all of you. Not so. Just re-evaluating what I want to be when I grow up, and whether writing continues to have a role in my life.
Two years ago, at the beginning of this month, the challenges with my parents, as Mom tried to take care of Dad and Dad continued to decline with Alzheimers, jolted into high-gear-crisis-mode and we were on a speeding course of doctor’s appointments, hospital stays, and so forth, that led to both of their deaths by the end of January. The only good thing I can say about all of that is that it is over. And I will never have to go through that particular trauma of losing my parents again. Gratitude.
I also think that because of all the events that occurred during this Holiday month of family celebrations, December will always be bittersweet for me. It might have felt that way anyway. Holidays can be difficult for many people for many reasons. There are plenty of Christmas songs out there to remind us. But I do not feel the pain this year, more a quiet peace and contemplation with a few tears thrown in here and there. Sometimes it seems like Mom and Dad have been gone forever. And sometimes I am back in the Hospice room with Mom like it was yesterday.
Maybe this dichotomy of joy and sorrow that I find so inherent in the Christmas season is a lesson. Perhaps it is a reminder that this is what our lives here on this planet are about, learning to have joy in the presence of the inevitable sorrow.