While in college the second time, this time for an English degree, I took several creative writing courses from Jeffrey S. Hillard, a professor who was an excellent poet and writer, and also was well-loved by the students. After graduating, I worked with Jeff on web editing RED!webzine, a publication Jeff initially started to share stories of transformation in the lives of prisoners and individuals reentering society and of innovations making it happen.
Jeff is an excellent poet and recently won a poetry contest sponsored by the Cincinnati Public Library. I wrote the following poem in Jeff’s Poetry class at the College of Mount St. Joseph in 2004.
I post it here in honor of National Poetry Month.
White airy puff balls leave flower stems to float away
over grass where I lie and watch how clouds do float away.
Squirrels and rabbits scramble for food, a spider clings to a twig.
Geese, like an arrow, in the sky slice through, float away.
Fresh sprouts shoot up, a delicate green mist covers the wood.
Fragrances of jonquils and hyacinths wrapped in blue float away.
A breeze of warm air carries whispered voices of
mothers, sisters, friends, lovers, who float away.
I plant a seed in the rich black soil of the earth and watch
as the children born from my womb float away.
A cricket chirps and so do the restless birds
who chatter of morning but soon float away.
For more about the ghazal poetic form see Poets.org.
In April, I’ve had three speaking events about Dancing in Heaven. I wanted to share a few of my experiences with you.
A gathering of women
This morning I’m being true to my initial conception of Random Thoughts from Midlife and am blogging about what was on my mind and in my heart when I first woke up this morning.
I was still experiencing the love and care from a group of women gathered at the home of a friend I knew in high school and with whom I’ve been recently re-acquainted. I met Nancy Henry the summer before my freshman year of high school. She was a close friend of one of my sister Carol’s friends and the two of them got the two of us together. My memories of Nancy from all those years ago include Pot-O-Gloss, hot steam electric curlers, walks at night, papers read aloud in English class, and a trip to Florida. As often happens, we drifted apart and lost track of each other until her daughter and my youngest son brought us both together at an Arts Works opening day. We sat together in the balcony of a small auditorium. I met her husband there and learned her name is now Nancy Chadwick. Recently we’ve shared lunches together and an evening out with husbands. I am thrilled to have her, with all her intelligence, wit, and compassion, back in my life again.
Nancy is a writer waiting to begin. I am a writer who compelled myself to finish. Nancy has been a tremendous supporter of my efforts. Last night she hosted an event at her home for her book club and other friends to discuss Dancing in Heaven. As has been the case, it was an uplifting and emotionally draining experience for me to talk about Annie’s story. But the women were awesome. It’s an incredible experience to sit in a room filled with women who have read the words from my heart, yet want to know more. Who, in some cases, have shed a tear over my written words, yet still listen intently for more.
One woman said, “I was reading Dancing in Heaven at an athletic event, and it made me cry. I had to stop reading it until I got someplace private.”
Her friend standing beside her said, “She called me and told me not to read it in public.”
The first women who arrived at Nancy’s last night were a mother and daughter. They were family members of a young man named Michael who had been born with cerebral palsy. “Your book was like reading our story,” they said. “We related to so much of it.” Since they were talking about Michael in the past tense I asked if he was gone now and found out that he died over 20 years ago at the age of 21. Michael’s sister said, “The obituary at the end of the book said it all for me.” She said, “You expressed exactly how I felt. I didn’t know there was someone who really understood our experience.”
From the beginning I have felt that readers validated me and my family’s experience with their comments, reviews, and questions. Last night I felt the great wonder of validating the experience of someone else.
I know I’ve had my ups and downs with the whole self-publishing journey, but nights like last night make it all so worth while.
Nancy Henry Chadwick has my unending gratitude.
Cincinnati Authors class
On April 5th I visited Jeff Hillard’s Cincinnati Authors class at the College of Mount St. Joseph. This was the second time I’d done that and both were easy, fun, and rewarding experiences for me. Jeff likes me to speak a little about why I wrote the book, my writing and publishing process, and the aftermath. The students are extremely well-prepared. Since Jeff uses the book as part of the coursework, the students have read it, discussed it in small groups, written personal responses, and generated questions before I ever step foot inside the door.
Afterwards, a non-traditional student came up to me and told me he has a child with cerebral palsy, but who is highly functioning. I think he said his child was even married. He said he felt bad or a little guilty that our family had had it so rough compared to his. And he wondered if I ever resented other people whose disabilities weren’t as severe as Annie’s. The question really surprised me. I said, “When I see someone who is disabled, I see the abilities they have. I focus on that. And I celebrate and rejoice in that. I don’t resent them for being able to do whatever it is they are able to do. It makes me happy to see it.” This is my truth.
I hope Jeff realizes how much I appreciate his past and continued support.
Friends of the Library at Kettering College
One day last month I answered the phone and it was a high school classmate who I hadn’t spoken to in years, except through messages here and there on Facebook. I remember Teresa Hutson as being a quiet student in the honors classes with me. I never knew her outside the classroom, but always liked her. Teresa falls in the category of those people I would make the effort to get to know better if I had a chance (not that I would want the chance) to do high school all over again. A missed opportunity. There are others.
Now her name is Teresa Hutson Simmons and she is a librarian at Kettering College of Medical Arts in Dayton, Ohio. Teresa has been following my blog and, in particular, my self-publishing journey. Over the phone she told me she had the privilege of putting Dancing in Heaven in the international book catalog (I’m sure she used other terminology, but this is the best my memory-failing brain can do this morning). She invited me to come and speak to the Friends of the Library group and students from two of the members’ classes.
Last Wednesday I did that. It was a different experience from my two previous classroom experiences at the Mount because these students had not had the opportunity to read the book, although several members of the FOL had read part or all of it.
I started with my usual two opening comments. “I want to tell you that I am not a public speaker and it makes me nervous,” I said. “I usually calm down eventually.” I got out my little travel pack of tissues and placed it on the table. “The other thing you need to know is that I cry easily. This is an emotional topic for me. I’m not likely to get out of here without shedding a tear or two.” I said. “I’m okay with it if you are.”
The students were from psychology and sociology classes, so I tried to tell the story and select readings that might be of interest to them. I spent pretty much time talking and reading. Then we opened it up for questions. I was pleasantly surprised at how many thoughtful and good questions came out of the group of students with so little advance preparation. These are people who will be working in the medical field. When Teresa asked me to come she said, “We are trying to teach our students how to be compassionate professionals. Your book addresses that from a family’s perspective.”
Sometimes the things that make me cry surprise me and everyone else. Teresa had explained that we were in the Honors classes together throughout high school, and that I was a cheerleader. One of the students asked why I thought I was able to succeed or do well, or why I didn’t act out for attention given my family circumstances. “I never wanted to make my parents worry about me,” I said, and I got all choked up and could barely finish. “They had enough to worry about.”
Thank you, Teresa, for the opportunity to speak to future medical care-givers. It was a wonderful experience and you’ve been a great supporter.
I read her name before I spoke with her. I talked to her over the phone before I met her. When I finally did meet her, I had no idea that such a huge influence on my career as a writer would come from such a tiny, yet feisty, well-loved woman.
When I decided to go back to college for an English degree, I found Elizabeth Bookser Barkley’s name in the College of Mount St. Joseph promotional materials. I was tentative about going back to school. I had quit my career as a chemical engineer (1979 degree from the University of Dayton), after working for Procter and Gamble a mere 3-1/2 years, to become a full-time stay-at-home mom. I really didn’t know if I had it in me to tackle college work again with other students less than half my age.
I found the courage to call Elizabeth Bookser Barkley and she steered me to the right course with which to begin. She continued to subtly steer me, something she excels at, through the remaining years I spent at the Mount working on my degree. I took five courses with her as the professor; when a position opened as a Writing Center Consultant, she recommended me; when she needed an editor for the school’s newspaper that she monitored, she asked me to do it.
Elizabeth Bookser Barkley, known as Buffy by her students and colleagues, is a professor and chair of the Department of English and Modern Languages at the College of Mount St. Joseph, Cincinnati, Ohio. She is also a freelance writer who contributes to a variety of Catholic publications. You can do a simple google search of her name and find multiple articles and books written by Elizabeth Bookser Barkley.
The article I’d like to draw your attention to is one that was published yesterday (January 4, 2012) in the Cincinnati Enquirer and is now available online entitled, “The power of the pen.” I hope you take a minute to read it. I think it will make you smile.
While at the College of Mount St. Joseph earning my English degree several years ago, I worked as a writing consultant in the writing center. We assisted students in every stage of the writing process from idea generation to final editing. I heard more than one student complain about writing, I can tell you. My response was “It is an honor when someone wants to read what you wrote. They are interested in getting inside your mind. They want to know what you think.” I don’t always have this idea of respect and esteem in the forefront of my mind when I’m writing. But it is the simple truth.
I took a course while at the Mount called Exploring the Sacred. It was a wonderful combined English and religion course, taught by a team of two excellent professors: Elizabeth Bookser Barkley (Buffy), and Alan DeCourcy. One of the books we read was Martin Buber’s I and Thouwhere he discusses the nature of relations. In a bare-bones simplification of his idea he maintains that the expectations we impose on relationships reduce it to an “I-it”-ness. Whereas if we have unconditional love and acceptance we elevate the relationship to an “I-thou”-ness. Really listening, seeing another person fully and respecting that, elevates them from an it to a thou.
All you really have to do is think of how you view the employee at the cash register or the slow driver in front of you and compare that to your child, sister, or spouse. I could go into a lot of examples here, but that isn’t the focus of this post. The focus is to share how it feels as a writer to have individuals read what you write.
I’m experiencing this wonderful, scary, validating feeling over and over again with the launch of Dancing in Heaven.
On Saturday November 5th, I was the guest speaker at Jeff Hillard’s Cincinnati Authors class at the College of Mount St. Joseph. To be perfectly honest, I was anxious about this class from the time Jeff asked me to participate up until I was sitting at a desk Saturday morning and had begun to speak. I don’t have a lot of experience with public speaking and it makes me nervous. I also was concerned I would cry. It has always been difficult for me to talk about Annie, even before she died. Sometimes I would be having a discussion about her with someone and I would try to say something that struck a hidden nerve and I would tear up. I never saw it coming.
Fortunately, one of the students gave me a perfect segue. I had asked them to introduce themselves and tell me their majors. Since they all had recently read the book, most of them also volunteered what they thought about Dancing in Heaven. One woman said, “I am emotional. It made me cry at times.” I answered, “I cry easy too. In fact, I cry when I talk about it sometimes.” I reached in my purse, took out a little pack of tissues, and said, “Don’t worry about it if I do. I’ll recover.”
It was extremely validating for me to be there and hear their comments and questions. They got it. They really got it. And in some cases they saw things in the story that I missed myself. It’s amazing to me that I wrote this book from my own personal experience, and yet I continue to learn more about my own experience by the light that readers shine on it.
One of the first readers of my book was a high school classmate of mine who now works as a home health aide for a disabled young man. “I remember the first time I met Annie at your home on Gainsborough,” she said. “I remember being afraid.”
I don’t think it’s terribly unusual for people, especially young people, to be uncomfortable or even afraid when they see someone or something they don’t understand. My dad once told me when he was a child he was afraid of people in wheelchairs. But I had forgotten this aspect of my experience.
Many of the students in the Cincinnati Authors class had a relative, a neighbor, or knew someone who was like or similar to Annie. “My nephew has a rare disorder and was only expected to live eight years. He’s eleven now. What would you tell his parents?” one student asked. “I’m going to share this book with my neighbor’s mother. He’s a lot like Annie. He smiles whenever I go over and visit him. I don’t know if he knows me or not,” another student said.
I sent a copy of Dancing in Heaven to another high school friend who had been particularly helpful. He emailed me last night after finishing it to thank and compliment me. Here’s the miraculous part. He wrote, “Coincidentally, I loaned your book out to one of my staff today as she just received a diagnosis of cerebral palsy for her four-month-old baby who has been demonstrating seizures and other symptoms. . .I think she will find inspiration and strength from your memoir.”
I could go on and on. It’s uplifting for me to see the effect Dancing in Heaven, Annie and my parents really, have on readers.
But I want to end with this comment from a student in the Cincinnati Authors class because it had a big impact on me. A few students had gathered around me after class. One of them said, “Annie was lucky. Your family was perfect for her with your parents and their abilities to make the things she needed.” And then another man said, “Or, to look at it another way, Annie was perfect for your family.”
We needed her more than I ever fully realized. She was perfect for us.
On Saturday I visited professor Jeff Hillard’s Cincinnati Authors class at the College of Mount St. Joseph to talk about Dancing in Heaven. I’m going to tell you more about my morning there next week, but for now, I wanted to introduce Jeff and the Cincinnati Authors’ class to you.
Jeff is a well-loved English and Creative Writing teacher at the College of Mount St. Joseph. I first met him when I took his Poetry class in 2004. I later took a Fiction: Short Story class from him as well. He is an interesting and energetic teacher with a lot of ideas. Jeff also is an awesome writer and poet.
I’ve worked closely with Jeff over the past three years as web-editor for his online magazine, RED!webzine, stories of transformation in the lives of prisoners, and of individuals re-entering society, and the innovations making it happen.
Jeff recently self-published a small ebook aimed at getting youth interested in reading called A Bunch in a Month. It is a month’s worth of daily devotional for ages 9 – 15. Each day has a Bible verse followed by an inspirational short story to encourage young readers to think about what it all means to them in their own lives.
Jeff created the Cincinnati Authors course in 1993. He is the only instructor of the course. “I created it because I believed students should become acquainted with local and regional writers whose work is incredibly meaningful and deserving of attention,” he says.
I asked Jeff a few questions about the course.
What do you hope students will get from the class?
“I hope that students will become familiar with the great wellspring of writing and writers living “right under their noses”; that is, there are many working writers in Greater Cincinnati – past and present – that have made a literary impact in both quiet and large ways. I hope to connect students with those writers.”
How often do you teach the course?
“I always have a “revolving door” of writers coming into the course. Since 1993, I have brought over 70 writers into the class. For about 12 years, we only rolled out the course once every two years. Now, it is so popular that we roll it out nearly every semester – certainly once a year. The genres we cover vary from children’s literature to screenwriting. Naturally, it also involves fiction, poetry, journalism, essay writing, and memoir writing.”
“Past authors are plentiful, too many to name. One of my favorites, of course, is the major American novelist Thomas Berger, who is Cincinnati’s greatest all-time novelist – and the strangest. He is from my hometown of Lockland, and he is basically a recluse who lives in New York. He has written 23 novels and his place in the country’s pantheon of major novelists is secure. He wrote the novel Little Big Man, which was made into a movie starring Dustin Hoffman. He also wrote a novel, Neighbors, that was made into a movie starring the late John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd of Saturday Night Live. Berger is by far both our strangest writer and most significant ever coming out of Cincinnati. By the way, I know Thomas Berger fairly well. His parents, in Lockland, were wonderful supporters of me in my early writing career. And they told me many stories about their famous, extremely private son.”
The students in the Cincinnati Authors class read the authors’ books, then journal and hold small group discussions about them. The author then comes in for a discussion and question and answer period. I was happy to be able to share my memoir, Dancing in Heaven, with this very attentive class. I’m going to write more about my experience there next week.
Well, I woke up with a blank mind this morning and I just posted a photo of Italy yesterday. What do I do?
That’s not completely honest. My mind was actually quite actively trying to solve the challenge of transferring a clunky Dreamweaver-built-and-maintained website (Redwebzine.org) I am web editor for to a sleek and jazzy blog. There are many advantages to this as far as I can see. (Which admittedly may not be all that far.)
Are you paying attention Jeff? (Note to self: send Jeff an e-mail linked here.)
Jeff Hillard is the originator and editor of Redwebzine. I met him at the College of Mount St. Joseph over 10 years ago where he was my teacher for a few creative writing classes. He has an amazingly sharp and active mind. His writing and especially his poetry are simply stunning. And it seems so easy for him.
To those who don’t know him well, or are initially acquainted with him, Jeff can seem sort of intimidating. At least I thought so. But I think what I mistook for frowning arrogance and disapproval was simply Jeff inside his own mind. (Note to self: cancel above note to self.)
The people who know Jeff well realize he is one of the most generous, empathic and kind-hearted individuals you might ever meet. (Not sure what to do here about Jeff. Do nothing and let fate take its course.)
Anyway, Redwebzine is Jeff’s brainchild that he awoke with in the middle of the night—you can read all about that in his first letter from the editor.
I need to get back to my point. What was my point?
I am something of a Jill-of-all-trades, mostly self-taught. Not so good on a resume, but it’s worked out pretty well for a stay-at-home-mom with a short attention span.
Now I’m immersed in learning about the blogging world. As a newbie blogger I welcome all helpful tips solicited or un-, unlike the author of an article I recently read on unsolicited parenting tips that I’m not going to link here because I found it insulting to the mature busybodies of the world—a group I am intimately involved with.
If you have any helpful tips or suggestions on evolving, or perhaps it is devolving, from a website to a blog please comment below.
I cannot choose but think upon the time When our two lives grew like two buds that kiss At lightest thrill from the bee’s swinging chime, Because the one so near the other is. —George Eliot from “Brother and Sister”
George Eliots’ poem, “Brother and Sister” touches a place deep in my heart. Like Eliot, I am a younger sister. My sister Carol and I were nearly inseparable in our childhood. In fact, my memory sometimes confuses what happened to her with what happened to me. I remember that one time my mom left a little red pill on the shelf above the sink, and thinking it was a piece of candy I climbed up on the counter and ate it. My sister Carol has the same memory, only she remembers she was the one who climbed up and ate it. One of us got in big trouble over that one. Eventually my mom settled the debate when she verified that it was in fact Carol who did it. And this makes sense to me because I was often the watcher while she was the doer.
I have very few childhood memories of which Carol is not an integral part.
People many times thought we were twins as we were only a year apart in age. My mother often dressed us alike and I was near in size to Carol. But I never felt I was her equal; she was the older and the wiser one
I held him wise, and when [she] talked to me Of snakes and birds, and which God loved the best, I thought [her] knowledge marked the boundary Where men grew blind though angels knew the rest. If [she] said “Hush!” I tried to hold my breath; Whenever [she] said “Come!” I stepped in faith. . .
We lived in a childhood paradise in our humble single-story three bedroom home on the very outskirts of Piqua, Ohio. We had two cherry trees in the back yard, a swing set, a sandbox made from an old large rubber tractor tire, and a wonderful lilac bush. We spent long and lazy days in the trees, or in the sand, or on our bikes. Sometimes we would skate on the sidewalk with metal skates that fit over our shoes and came with a key. I can still remember the fierce vibrating sensation as we rolled down the rough concrete sidewalk on the little metal wheels of our skates.
One day Carol wanted to make paint. She had the brilliant idea that if we crushed small colorful pebbles into a fine powder and added water we could use it to paint pictures. We collected our pebbles and each found a larger stone to use as a grinding or crushing tool and set about our business on the concrete patio beside our kitchen door. When we finally produced enough crushed rock to mix with water and paint with we ended up with only wet paper covered with tiny rock specks. We were lucky we didn’t put our eyes out with flying rock chips.
In retrospect I guess Carol wasn’t as wise as I thought she was at the time. But my memories of those days by her side are precious to me. I can recall them and feel again as I did then; I can almost smell the fresh cool air and hear the birds that used to sing as we’d play outside in the early morning hours.
Long years have left their writing on my brow, But yet the freshness and the dew-fed beam Of those young mornings are about me now, When we two wandered toward the far-off stream . . .
[Her] sorrow was my sorrow, and [her] joy Sent little leaps and laughs through all my frame. . .
School parted us; we never found again That childish world where our two spirits mingled. . .
But were another childhood-world my share, I would be born a little sister there.
An excerpt from a paper written September 2004 for the course Survey of Women Writers at the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, Ohio. Work Cited: Eliot, George. “Brother and Sister.” The Norton Anthology: Literature by Women. Eds. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. New York: Norton, 1996. 831-835. Pronouns in brackets replace the masculine ones Eliot wrote about her brother.