Re-Writing Life

What do you do when your first novel receives great reviews, and people urge you to write more? That’s the real test. Last week I listened in on a live interview with Edwin Hill, author of Little Comfort and The Missing Ones. He mentioned how there is a delicious freedom with the first novel—no expectations, no deadline, nobody waiting anxiously for the arrival of the book. The second book presents the real challenge.

For subsequent works, you must write under pressure of expectations. Can I fulfill the requests of readers and maintain integrity with mywriting? Do I have more stories inside, worthy of being shared? How long will it take? And how long will the readers wait patiently for an attempt?

It was definitely a challenge to write a second novel. You’d think, now that I’d done it once, the second novel would be easier. But that was not so. It was hard, writing Sonata of Elsie Lenore.  I wanted to satisfy my readers. I needed another suspenseful tale, utilizing pianos and piano technicians as characters. I wanted to provide readers with another Izzy story.  After all, that was what several readers specifcally asked for.

But Izzy was all storied out. I tried mightily to write Elsie Lenore with Isabel Woods as the protagonist, but it just didn’t work. Maybe she could be the narrator then? That didn’t work either.

The seed of the Elsie story germinated 20 years ago, and was nourished by events since, but there was nothing quite as concrete as the events that wrote themselves in the Sundrop story. I had to introduce new characters, as well as keep the older ones, and it was HARD. It seemed that Elsie Lenore just didn’t want to sprout. Or she did, but the seedling was all twisted and wrong. The story didn’t flow. Even after I had a complete draft, and was re-working the three parts, it wasn’t coming together. I  finally realized it was because this was no longer Izzy’s story. I was trying to make it another Izzy adventure, but this story belonged to someone else. It belonged to Stefano.

And I re-wrote the entire book. Several times.

Elsie Lenore has been through so many re-writes and revisions, I have lost count, but there are 6 different outlines in my computer files. Six major revisions later, Sonata of Elsie Lenore was released–shortly before the world screeched to a halt with the COVID-19 pandemic, and that added a new layer of complication. Everything looks different through a coronavirus lens, but I hope the final product is one that readers will enjoy, as they follow Stefano Valdez from Izzy’s piano shop in Kansas to Cuba and back again. I hope they cheer him on as he grapples with major failures and shortcomings in his personal life.

It’s true that the biggest part of the writing job, is, in fact, revising and re-writing. Polish the prose. Edit for clarity and flow. Do it again and yet again. And when you realize that the story just isn’t working the way you envisioned, you have the prerogative and the privilege to start again. Indeed, more than a prerogative and a privilege, it may be more of an obligation to re-write.

This makes me think of our global situation today. Right now, our society, our culture, and our species own the same prerogative. The same obligation. The pause in life gifted to us by COVID-19 has allowed us to step back and take a look. Things just weren’t working out too well for most people–not to mention most of the living things on this planet. Were they? This is the perfect time to re-write our future. We may not receive such a chance again.

As we move from isolation cautiously back into the social realm, let’s tread carefully, step out in a different direction, and when the path forks, flip a coin and try something different. Only one thing is certain. We can’t go backwards. Forward is the only way to go.

Let’s re-write our future together.

Awakenings

For the last few weeks, I’ve contemplated the question raised by Marvin Swanson decades ago. What things do hamper our awareness of our immediate surroundings? Things that distract our minds, keep us focused on inner dialogue, perhaps. Though he noted several young friends who were television addicts forty years ago, I suspect Marvin would be amazed to find that today we can take our screen distractions to any place at any time and ignore what’s happening in front of us.

 

From Marvin:

I’ve been thinking of what puts blinders on awareness: feeling down, worry, being an eccentric wheel around an unproductive crush, too much alcohol or drugs.

And what increases awareness? How can one develop greater awareness? It often seems to take a change from the ordinary—a change of feelings, of routine, of environment. How can we make the familiar stand out in freshness and newness? Go outdoors. Enjoy stimulating conversation with a new acquaintance. Read a good book. Listen to music. Sometimes a good TV show or movie works. A change of season helps too.

Awareness is increased by (1) change (2) time to analyze experience. Can we add more to our list?

MS

What have I missed by being self-absorbed? How can I break out of that box?

What works for you?

On the Courthouse Lawn

The annual Flint Hills Folk Life Festival was held last weekend on the shady lawn surrounding the historic Chase County Courthouse in Cottonwood Falls, Kansas. Each June, the organizers of this event plan it to coincide with the Flint Hills Symphony concert performed by the Kansas City Symphony.

“The Earth Has Music”

A freak storm on the eve of the symphony weekend ended up cancelling the big musical performance, but the Folk Life Festival continued. Wandering music lovers discovered music on the lawn, just a few miles up the road. There was even a bit of dancing.

If you took a closer look at the exhibits, you’d find artists demonstrating skills from the nineteenth century. You might find a basket weaver. Or an artisan busy making handmade soap. You’d find a field station for a frontier army, and Union soldiers patrolling the grounds. A mountain man displayed crafts and toys made from feathers and skins. A row of tents under the elms held many textile crafts with artists hard at work. And you might even be invited to try your hand at various activities. I helped with a quilting bee, learned about Tunisian crochet and rug twining, as well as conversion hints to turn my grandmother’s old red-eye Singer 66 treadle sewing machine into a hand-cranked version.

You could find a potter, busily throwing new kitchen pots on an old-fashioned kick-wheel or a woodworker making spoons from chunks of firewood. If you get thirsty, how about some homemade lemonade, or even root beer? And to remedy the nibbles, some kettle corn, hot and fresh. You might even find a book or two written by a prairie author, featuring life in those Flint Hills surrounding the historic courthouse.

If you took some time to sit in the shade a spell, and exchanged pleasantries with some of the other visitors, you would encounter people from several nearby communities–Council Grove, Americus, Emporia–as well as Wichita and Kansas City. You  might even find folks from as far away as Minnesota and Texas, who had chosen this weekend to explore the Kansas Flint Hills.

Disappointed symphony fans who took the time to look around returned home with an unforgettable memory from picturesque Cottonwood Falls. With nature weirding into increasingly unpredictable and extreme weather events, the skills on display at the courthouse might even come in handy in the not-so-distant future. Take cues from the youngsters dashing around the courthouse, inventing games, twisting ropes, and flying feather kites. Life without all those electronic gadgets might have its upsides too.

 

 

To the Butterflies Among my Friends

Fly away, my friend.

Follow the map written on your heart.

Let your colors blaze in the sunshine as you skim across the ocean of prairie, its fall blossoms dancing in the breeze.

Dart through the forests until you find a safe harbor for the night, a leaf among the autumn leaves.

In the morning, push on. You have places to go and things to do.

Have no doubts regarding the course of your flight.

Though your path may trace circles and spirals in the air, and double back toward the waving bluestem heads, it is true to your heart.

Flutter on, a dark speck against expanse of the universe, with an occasional flash of fire when the sunlight catches your vigor.

Do not worry if no others follow the path you break. They follow the maps of their own hearts, and none can know what is written for another.

Though destinations are one, it is the journey which paints life with purpose.

Your journey is your own, unique and wonder-filled.

Congregate with others along the way, sharing shelter and sustenance.

And do not despair if their paths depart from yours.

You will have gained strength and stamina during the gatherings.

But follow your own heart. Cling to your purpose.

Stay with your course and Godspeed, my friend.

 

To Trees, with Love

 

Lately, I have been looking at trees with renewed awareness and appreciation-the tips of spruce trees traveling miles in little circles when brushed by the wind; the clone communities of aspen, connected underground in secret companionship; the shade and shelter from blazing mountain sunshine; home to countless wild birds who wake us at first light with their songs; source of fuel, of energy, of life for the rest of the world’s systems.

Aspen in Colorado

Have you ever listened to hear a tree’s gentle message? Weeks now after completing my first read of Richard Powers’ The Overstory, I am practically at a loss to describe the novel’s impact.

“…the word tree and the word truth come from the same root,” Powers writes more than once in the pages of The Overstory. I looked them up. He’s right.

Toward the end, Nick (a character whose family history was wrapped up with American Chestnuts) gestured toward a stand of conifers where he was involved in creating artwork on a scale to be seen from orbiting satellites. “It amazes me how much they say, when you let them. They’re not hard to hear.”

To which his anonymous companion chuckled. “We’ve been trying to tell you that since 1492.”

My own journey with trees in particular and plants in general goes back decades to my own childhood. I had numerous pet plants and I named some of them. There was Katrina, the pea plant, and Elizabeth Mames, a wandering Jew given to me by my 5th grade teacher. Elizabeth Mames fills my summer flower boxes still, purple foliage with small tri-petal blossoms.

Elizabeth Mames around a mailbox.

No stranger to aloneness that is often chosen but sometimes enforced, it never failed to fill me with peace when I worked with plants. I shied away from human crowds. Still do. But I felt at home under the trees. Did they speak to me? Not in words, exactly. Maybe with sensuality.

Here’s a poem I wrote as a young college student.

The Lonely Pine

Alone and lonely I met the Ponderosa pine,

Relaxed beneath its radial limbs,

Savored, in my loneliness, the sigh of wind

Through its thousands of fingers,

Pondered the cylindrical split of each

Cluster of three needles fallen to Earth,

Savored again the lonely whine of each live needle

Brushed by the strong south wind,

And I loved that tree.

None but me had ever noticed

—really noticed—that Ponderosa,

and we were companions in loneliness.

At that moment I sensed

All grasses of the prairies,

All trees of the forests,

All birds of the air,

All fish of the sea,

And all creatures of Earth

Were engulfed in the loneliness I knew.

Then, too, I sensed

That though all life may receive

And respond to love,

Only we humans initiate

The silting in of canyons of loneliness.

And then I loved

The Earth and its life,

So all things might be free of loneliness

Forevermore.

After reading The Overstory, I’m not sure any longer that only humans can make the first move toward reconciliation and community. Maybe the botanical world is trying to tell us something. If you can hear them, listen.

 

Tears for a Tree

 
Passed daily on my way to anywhere—
The world’s most beautiful tree,
Stately, spreading limbs, shading
Cattle on hot summer days,

Praying to the sun through winter’s dormancy,

Rustling leaves in a fresh spring breeze,

The symmetry—the shape—taking my breath,
My admiration, my appreciation, my awe.

Set in the valley downstream from our pond,
Water and sunshine in abundance,

A monument along the highway,
A monument to life, the perfect cottonwood tree.
 
But not quite.
 
Mired against a culvert passing beneath the pavement,
The roots incomplete, impossible to anchor against moving water
Or against steel.
One night rain poured in sheets

And the wind blew.
The gale caught those beautiful boughs and
Toppled the tree.
 
The entire tree.
 
Next morning the sun shone on the ruined giant,
Uprooted by wind where the roots found no anchor.

I cry for the tree. And I wonder:
How many times have I been seduced by the
Appearance of perfection?

How many times have I basked in the seduction
Of incomplete beauty?
 
How many times have you?
Have we all?
In the dearth of the stately tree,
May the dry crumbling leaves

And the severed roots and branches
Remind me that beauty may beckon
Though it is flawed with hidden imperfections.
Monuments which steal our devotion
May crumble in life’s storms.
 
Beware what we revere lest a wind come
And topple the monarchs we extol.
Nothing, but nothing, is without a fault
And danger
Waits within that which is most alluring.

Grateful for Small Things

I recently read a book on the recommendation of a friend. The December Project by Sara Davidson is a collection of thoughts she shared through conversations with Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, a higly acclaimed Jewish leader who landed in the US as a young man after fleeing from the Nazis.

The book inspires and assists people as they approach the ultimate check-out point in life. Its final section is a set of exercises to help people navigate their personal last chapters. I found several of those ideas to be applicable to life in general. They could easily be adapted to any situation, at any season of life—good habits to nurture regardless of age.

I will share some of those over the next few posts, offering them as the first building stones for a gap-spanning soul bridge to work toward healing our world.

The first exercise: “Give thanks. . .Why not begin each day by giving thanks?” One way to do this is to make a “gratitude walk” a regular practice. What is a gratitude walk? A short walk you can take anytime or anywhere. Attune yourself to the surroundings and feel gratitude for what you see, hear, or think.

Items in your home can spur memories from the recent or distant past. Offer a grateful heart. The scenic beauty of your local park or a vacation trip generate many reasons to be thankful. Smells in your kitchen can inspire thanks for nourishing food.

Another of the tips suggests hanging a bell in a place that often moves, such as on your car’s visor or mirror, or a frequently used door in your home. Whenever you hear the bell, pause a moment to breathe and think a thought of gratitude.

Lately I have felt overwhelmed by situations or events out of my control. It is hard to feel thankful. Recent election results come to mind, as well as the national news headlines. I find that I have to look small in order to find inspiration for gratitude, but small can be wondrous and beautiful.

April is a favorite time of year with the abundance of spring flowers. Two of my favorites appear on bushes, lilacs and spirea. Looking small, to the delicate whorls and tiny petals, I find reason to pause in wonder.

Together, the lilacs and spirea are a patriotic pair. We celebrate red, white, and blue as our national colors. But what do you get when you mix red and blue? Purple, of course. Mixed together, we are a beautiful spring bouquet, as intricate and miraculous as the tiny flowerlets of the spirea and lilac blossoms. I am thankful for the array of our differences.

While hunting Easter eggs yesterday, Grandson and I discovered a miniature miracle. Remember Charlotte’s Web? We found a clutch of newly-hatched and itty-bitty spiders dancing on invisible threads above the daylily leaves in our yard. These tiny creatures know nothing of the world’s human events. They just go about doing their spider things on a miniscule scale. I am thankful for the opportunity to peek into their lives, for the moment we spent watching on the bright spring afternoon, and the gift of being a witness to their launch.

Think small. You can always find something marvelous and be thankful.

 

Grandmother’s Stories

I remember being fascinated by the stories my grandmother told of her early days. Horses and wagons. Moving to Kansas in a covered wagon. The tornado which destroyed their farmhouse a few months before my dad was born. The floods they endured after record cloudbursts up-river.

What kind of stories will I be able to tell my grandchildren? Or my children theirs? What could happen if we don’t take immediate steps to change the direction we’re headed? These might become the good old days of fairy tales and adventure stories.

Just imagine. . .

The silver-haired woman smoothed locks of the squirming girl child in front of her. “Hold still, Cam, dear. Two minutes. I’ll get your braids done.”

“Aw, Gran,” the child protested. “I hate when you fix my hair. It hurts.”

“The longer we wait, the more it will hurt. Shush now and sit still.” She combed the locks with knobby fingers, veins of age rising on the backs of her hands. “If only I had a comb.” The woman sighed.

“What’s a comb, Gran?”

“It’s a tool to help work out the knots in a little girl’s hair.”

“You used to have a comb, didn’t you? Years ago, when you were little?”

“I had many things, Cam.”

“Tell me.”

“We had plenty of combs and brushes for our hair. And our teeth.”

“Teeth! You combed knots out of your teeth?”

Gran laughed. “Not exactly. We brushed our teeth to keep them healthy.”

“So they wouldn’t fall out of your mouth, right?”

“You remember, child. Yes. We had a lot of things you’d never believe.”

“Like what?”

“Like cars, to drive us wherever we wanted to go.”

“On wheels?”

“With rubber tires. And we had a whole house for every family. And plenty to eat, with appliances to fix our food.”

“What’s a ‘plance’?”

Gran laughed. “Appliance,” she pronounced the word carefully. “Appliances were tools for a house. There were refrigerators for cooling our food to keep it from spoiling, and stoves to cook our meals. We had tools that would chop our food, or mix it up so we could bake cakes and pies in our ovens.”

The old woman’s fingers worked quickly, easing tangles from the child’s hair. She traced a part down the middle of her granddaughter’s head and tossed half the tresses to the front, across Cam’s chest.

“Tell me about the water,” Cam said.

“Oh yes. There was water, running from faucets in the kitchens and bathrooms—water to wash our food—and the dishes we ate on. We had water to wash ourselves. Even our hair!”

“You washed hair?”

“My yes. There’s nothing that feels so fine as a soft and silky head of clean hair.”

“And you could wash every day?”

“Every single day. Twice if we wanted to.”

“What about the flushes?”

“Our fancy toilets? Every family had one or two in their houses—special thrones for a privy. And you could flick the handle on the tank and flush your products down with swirling water.”

“Like magic.”

“It seems so now, little Cam. It didn’t seem magical to me then. When you have so much that is right at your fingertips, you get lazy. And you take it all for granted.”

“Like it will always be there?”

“Exactly. Like it was always there and always will be. Then something happens that shakes you awake and you realize how lucky you have been.”

Gran finished the second braid, knotted the grimy ends and tied a bit of twine around it.

“Tell me the story again, Gran. Tell me about how you lost my grandpa.”

Gran removed a polished stick from her own silver hair and shook her locks until they cascaded around her shoulders. “What—has Philip given you a day off?”

Cam grinned. “He’s off somewhere with the scouts. Tell me the story again.”

“About Grandpa Stefano?”

“Yes.”

“Ah. That story.” Gran combed her own hair, smoothed it into one long tress and twisted it to the top of her head. Holding it with one hand, she fished the polished stick from her worn skirt pocket and worked it through the twist until her hair was again secured neatly on top of her head. “I think you’ve heard this tale before. Where should I begin?”

“Where you always do.”

“Of course. It’s always best to begin at the beginning. Come with me, Cam. Let’s walk.”

Imagine the wasteland where Cam and her grandmother would walk. Then think of the huge wildfires we’ve seen each of the last two springs. Think of the erratic and unpredictable weather patterns. Think of the epidemic of earthquakes influenced by fracking procedures. We could be one, maybe two, generations from a life very different from what we now know. Our choices matter very  much.

Vote, while you still can. Vote for a candidate who respects the voices of the little guys. If we can’t change our leadership, our landscape and our future could look very bleak.

 

Diversity Lends Stability

One of the first lessons in Timothy Snyder’s book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century is “Beware the One-Party State.” Isn’t that what we have now in our country? If not yet, we are certainly approaching it. There’s something immoral, unethical, and deeply wrong with a system that inaugurates a candidate even though his opposition won the approval of voters by a significant majority. There’s also something immoral, unethical, and deeply wrong with a system that allows the majority party in Congress to re-draw voting district lines so their candidates have a clear advantage.

It doesn’t take much intelligence to realize a society is stronger and more stable if all views have a voice in our capitals. The great art of negotiation and compromise benefits us all. We have been created with a wondrous variety in interests, opinions, and talents. Rather than try to squelch those who hold differing views and talents, we’d all be better people if we tried to understand and learn from those who are different.

Diversity lends stability. Sound familiar?

Those of us fascinated by the study of science understand that ecosystems thrive when populated with a wide variety of species. In such vibrant systems, even if one species is decimated by a disease, others can adapt to fill the thinning ranks. If an area is home to only one kind of plant, and a pest or disease invades, the area is laid waste very quickly.

Contrary to some popular beliefs, science and scientists don’t really have an agenda to thrust on the rest of us. Scientists are curious thinkers. They notice something in their world and they want to know why it is the way it is. They watch,  measure, take things apart, get into the very smallest building blocks with increasingly technological equipment. And they keep asking questions. Ecologists noted over and over that “Diversity of species lends stability to an ecosystem.”

Even if you’re not a fan of modern science, maybe you are concerned with finances and the economy. My advisors recommend a retirement plan that utilizes multiple funds, guarding against the dire possibility that one failure would wipe out your life savings. (“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”) Many people have watched their pensions disappear after economic disasters in recent years. Let’s not watch our entire country go the same way, with a government run by one party that answers to a few wealthy individuals.

Diversity lends stability.

If, for no other reason, this one reason makes it important for people to vote. Those of us with the opportunity to cast votes in an upcoming election must take the opportunity seriously. My congressional district is one of those. Advance voting is already open and I voted today. I voted for the candidate of the “other” party—the one not in power in Washington. To my friends and neighbors in this 4th district, I urge you to vote as well. Cast a vote to support a diverse Congress. Vote for James Thompson because diversity lends stability.