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Learning to Write
Gen X: rural mountain town, California, US
Graphite in My Arm
A piece of graphite is lodged in my upper left arm. Even at age fifty, the broken pencil tip remains visible. When you open a package of new pencils, the cedar smells like a lumber yard. Whenever we drive over the Sierra Mountains to visit my mother’s family near Hollister — a six hour trip of listening to Johny Cash, Tammy Wynette and the Beatles on 8-track tapes –, we pass by the lumber yard in Jackson. I inhale deeply the scent of pencils.
For a long time, I didn’t know I had graphite in my arm. I thought it was lead. When I learned to write, I made errors with the lead tip and erase them carefully with the eraser dark red like Dyntene gum. I don’t like Dyntene, but my mother chews it. I don’t eat my pencil eraser, but I recall classmates who’d bite them off.
Lead worried me. For years I watched the black spot on my arm, looking for signs of lead poisoning. I don’t recall where or when I learned about lead poisoning but I recall the fear gripping me. I didn’t want to have to explain to the adults why I wasn’t practicing my writing homework.
I was fiddling. My arm was the fiddle, my pencil the bow. With an enthusiastic thrust across the imaginary strings, I poke the pencil deep in my upper arm. It’s a wound I hid, a scar I’ve never revealed.
But it was my first true lesson in writing — it’s not the shape of the letters, but the depth one is willing to go to extract a story.
This is in response to Irene Water’s latest Times Past memoir prompt. Join in at the comments here or on Irene’s post, giving your location at the time of your memory and your generation.
The Work of Memoir
By Irene Waters
As you read this I will be sitting on the high seas, nearing the equator, out of range of the internet so I will start by apologising for what will seem my tardy response to any comments. Don’t worry I will get there and look forward to coming back to a conversation in full swing.
Initially, I was planning for this post to discuss what memoir is but decided that I have already written a post on the difference between memoir and fiction so instead I will direct you to that and write instead on the work of Memoir.
Have you ever thought about why you read memoir? Have you ever noticed that you read memoir differently to the way you read fiction? I know I do. I am supercritical with memoir if I find what is written to be unbelievable. If I discover after I have read a memoir that it is not true – I feel angry, duped, used. I never feel that way about reading a fictional work. We feel this way because we read believing the story to be true.
For the reader, a memoir can be a guide through the human experience. It may be an experience that the reader themselves is undergoing and they are looking for an insight into another person’s experience on which they can draw strength for what they are undergoing or give us an understanding of a different kind of life. We can learn from another’s true life experience as we know these real-life characters lived, and we can get guidelines from them as to how we can live our own lives. For the inarticulate, a memoir may offer expression of what they are feeling but which they find impossible to express. It lets the reader know they are not alone with what they are experiencing. Predominantly in reading memoir, we are looking for how the narrated “I” deals with situations to become the “I” of now. We are looking at identity creation. We are honing in on the reflection of memoir.
This brings us to what I find fascinating with memoir – all those different “I” characters. Have you ever thought about how the author – the narrating “I” is telling his/her story and yet is a different person to the person they are narrating – the “I” then or narrated “I” who is a constructed “I”. There is also a past or historical “I” who is the person who can be verified as having lived but this “I” cannot be reproduced exactly as they were in the past. Finally, there is an ideological “I” who knows the cultural rules of the time. Identity is embodied in all these “I”s that we meet with memoir. P. Eakin said: “We learn as children what it means to say ‘I’ in the culture we inhabit, and this training proves to be crucial to the success of our lives as adults, for our recognition by others as normal individuals depends on our ability to perform the work of self-narration.”
If you are writing memoir are you aware of your “I” characters? I believe this is why people read memoir and why memoir is written. It is the biggest difference between fiction and memoir – the narrating ‘I’ as the present day person who does the remembering and offers reflections and interpretations of the past events allows us to see how the author’s “I” character has changed. If the memoir is a ‘coming of age’ story we will read how one ‘I’ changes to another. In a conversion narrative the ‘I’s will be separated by a chasm. It is not unusual for there to be circumstances where the “I”s don’t like each other or understand each other. This is one circumstance where third person can be used in the writing of a memoir (past tense first person is normal) as it shows the disconnect between the ‘I”s.
The modern way of writing memoir using fictional techniques I believe (and remember this is my opinion) detracts from the reason people read memoir. If you use all show, not tell you are allowing the reader to construct their own thoughts on how you got there, how your identity changed and they lose that important part of memoir – the reflection by the narrating ‘I’. This loss leads to the loss to the reader of the author’s gaining of self- awareness and the impact this has on their identity creation. This is one of the fictional techniques that I am loathe to encourage to the exclusion of telling. Would love to hear your thoughts.
Next month I will look at dialogue in memoir.
Please feel free to join in Times Past. This month thanks to a suggestion from Charli, we are going to stay at school and examine learning to write. Write a post of your own and link up to my Times Past Page, leave a comment in my comment section or in the comment section when Charli posts her memories of learning to write. Don’t forget to put where you lived at the time of the memoir, your generation and whether it was a rural or city area. Look forward to reading them on my return.
Reflection on Graduations
This is my own reflection on my experiences with high school graduation. Rough Writer and memoirist, Irene Waters, has linked her monthly prompt, Times Past to the Carrot Ranch Community in an effort to offer a greater breadth of writing opportunities. Literary art can take many forms and creative non-fiction is one. You can join in with Irene’s prompt at her blog site, Reflections, and Nightmares.
Join in an be sure to include your generation and location (rural or urban, country). I’m a Gen-Xer from a rural area in the US, reflecting upon my millennial children’s graduations in the suburbs of Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.
When I think of high school graduations in the ‘burbs of the Midwest, I think of how wasteful the expenditure on the parties. We are talking the equivalent of a modern wedding. When I graduated, it was typical for families to have parties go out to dinner, but it was something the immediate family did. My own graduation came at a difficult time in my life and I did not enjoy let alone experience such celebrations.
When my kids each graduated, I was most proud of the fact that they were going to college. I come from uneducated roots and was the first in my father’s family to ever go to college. My children watched me graduate from college and it never occurred to them to think they wouldn’t go. High graduation was important, but not take-a-loan-from-the-bank important to celebrate.
We were the anti-graduation party-poopers of the ‘burbs.
While neighbors scrubbed garages clean and rented huge tents, tables, and chairs, and coordinated with other neighbors to not host parties on the same day (yes, there exists an entire season of grad parties), we celebrated with less pomp and circumstance.
My eldest graduated from an environmental science alternative school known informally as the Zoo School. She and most of her classmates placed importance on their scientific studies and held events like The Recycled Prom where students attending dressed in clothing from thrift stores not the $500 dresses at the Mall of America. They were not materialistic.
However, my eldest daughter graduated naked. Good thing she had a cap and gown, for that was all she wore to step upon the stage to accept her diploma. I didn’t know until I hugged her afterward.
My middle daughter also graduated from the Zoo School but wore a dress. Her graduation infamy came a few weeks later as she was moving out of our house and she accidentally caused a mattress to ignite when one of her friends flicked a cigarette butt and it caught in the box spring of the mattress. Flames lit up the back of their truck in full sight of the swanky grad party going on next door. They stopped, grabbed a garden hose and doused the flames as part-goers gawked.
Embarrassed and not sure what to do with the sodden mattress, my daughter and her friends dragged it around to the backside of the house and propped it up to drain. After they left and it dried enough, the mattress rekindled! And it caught our house on fire. Good thing the grad party was happening next door. Fire trucks arrived and my next door neighbor ran into the house to rescue our pets. We were fortunate that the siding was all that burned.
No one has forgotten the graduation party that the Mills Family tried to burn out.
My son did not graduate from the Zoo School because he wanted to run cross country for our public school. Not only did he not want a party, he didn’t want to walk to receive his diploma. He said college mattered, not high school. He graduated from college twice, once with a BA and again with a Masters. I was there to see him walk both times proud of his accomplishments.
We went out to dinner.
January 2018: Times Past
By Irene Waters
Unlike Charli scooping snow from her porch as the Lady of the Lake weaves her winter charm and C. Jai, holed up escaping the cold, I hail from the Sunshine Coast of Queensland and our weather is glorious. Warm to hot days with inviting surf and river activities. Pools to fall into or exercise with noodle. Sultry breezes blow at night and palm trees sway. It is a delight wearing light, possibly skimpy clothing. In other words, I’m having fun in the sun.
Reading this you may wonder what has this to do with Times Past. This is the present. Charli and C. Jai prompt me to think of the few very cold experiences I have had and they have given me an amount of understanding as to what it is like to live in a cold climate. As a memoirist I believe that from our past we create the future we wish to have. Our experiences give us our identity and without our memories that identity fades and disappears as in those suffering from dementias. Reading memoir is a way for finding understanding of a life different from your own, to learn that you are not alone with the condition you find yourself in, sometimes it allows the inarticulate to find expression for what they themselves are going through and they provide social histories. Unlike some who perceive memoir writing as naval gazing, and a second-rate form of literature, I see it as a crucial part of identity creation and life itself. Everyone tells memoir and most fiction has elements of memoir buried within it.
Memoir is a part of a genre called creative non-fiction. Creative non-fiction is a true story told in a compelling way. This means it has a narrative arc as in fiction and it uses elements from fiction in the writing of it. Memoir has as a sub-genre only recently started to be studied and has few rules. In this nine month series that Charli has invited me to present I will examine what elements make up the genre, areas of danger in writing memoir, memory, writing other types of creative non-fiction, writing memoir as fiction, fictive elements, BOTS and the narrator in memoir.
On my own site, Reflections and Nightmares, in the first week of the month I will give a prompt for a challenge called Times Past. This is a monthly memoir prompt challenge that I hope will give us social insights into the way the world has changed between not only generations but also between geographical location. The prompt can be responded to in any form you enjoy – prose, poetry, flash, photographs, sketches or any other form you choose. You may like to use a combination of the two.
I invite you to join in. Charli is going to post her response on the third Friday of the month. If you wish to respond there are three ways you can do so: respond in the comments section of my post (these can be any length) for the month giving a link or ping back to your post, link on Charli’s post or in her comment section with a 99 word flash response. With your contribution please include with the heading your generation, (these can be found on the Times Past page ), the country that you lived when the story took place and whether you lived in a rural or city area at the time.
In the post on the 2nd Friday of the month I will give the prompt and the address where this can be found on my site. This month the prompt is High School Graduation. Was high school graduation a big event for you or did it pass unnoticed? As a city baby boomer high school graduation was not an event that my school, at least, made much of a fuss about. I believe that this may have well have changed with different generations and certainly by geography. I know from the American television shows (Gidget, Happy Days and numerous movies) that in the States high school graduation was quite different to what mine was.
Looking forward to your memories.
Wind howls across the high mountain desert of Gallup and rocks my RV with a steady wave-like rhythm. I’ve heard the joke several times already from locals: spring arrives, depositing Arizona in New Mexico. With the airborne sand, I do believe it’s from across the state-line to the west. It’s so gusty here, highways post windsocks to warn of cross-winds that can tumble a semi or RV. For now, we’re rocking while stationary.
It’s more than windy today at the ranch. I thought I scheduled a guest for the series Raw Literature, checked the calendar and see that I scheduled next week! In the midst of a move and a break-down, it’s just another hiccup. I’m fond of lemonade so today’s scheduling lemons gave me opportunity to participate in Irene Water’s fascinating memoir prompt, Weather: Times Past. What’s unique about her prompt is the collection of data based on memory, generation, region and urban or rural proximity. Participants and readers get to compare experiences. It’s open to anyone, and as is the case with most responses to prompts, this is a piece of raw writing.
Memory of a Gen X Buckaroo, Weather in Rural North California
The old Californios Ranchos sat inland from the coast where fog creeps in by night and burns off by mid-morning. This region is home to cattle ranching, centuries old. Before there was California, there were the Land Grant holdings of Mexico and the original Missions of Spain. Weather didn’t change ownership; gold did. When Sutter discovered a gold nugget at his lumber mill, the (18)49ers poured into the region, and the US claimed it as a state: California.
To the ranchos, a change of hands didn’t mean a change in work. The miners needed to eat, and the ranches provided beef.
Some men came to mine, others to set up businesses. My family came to ranch, raising cattle, apricots, turkeys, hay or managing ranches. One grandfather was the foreman for an original rancho and another bought it after making his wealth by turning his ranch into a golf course. For generations, both the men and women in my family rode in the San Benito Horse Show & Rodeo. I even won several trophies for horse showing and one for goat tying, all before I was of an age to go to school.
This is buckaroo country — a culture unique to the Californios influence of the Ranchos style of ranching and horsemanship. And like any agricultural community, it’s always focused on the weather. In rural California, dry spells could turn into years long droughts, and rain could flood the dry river beds. It was a deluge-fueled flood that first caught my attention in regards to weather, and it was so severe, it cut off ranches from communities. One of my earliest recollections is standing with my parents on one side of a raging torrent of water as my grandparents stood on the other side. That memory has transfixed a fascination and horror of floods.
Many more times I would stand over flooded rivers in other states, drawn to relive the earliest memory of how water could swell so vast and swift, muddy and full of churning debris. Such has been the weather cycle in California and I wonder how the earliest ranchos managed. And that is how I begin raw thoughts for historical fiction. The confluence of memory and history and curiosity.
So I will end with a trio of flash fiction (at this rancho, its always 99 words, no more, no less) based on where my thoughts led me.
The Bad Dream of a Californios Girl
Maria shouted across the arroyo swelled with frothing mud. “Papa! Vaya con Dios! Papa! Mama!”
“Maria! Maria! Wake up. You’re dreaming the bad dream.”
Maria gasped in the dark, feeling her Aunt Tessa’s hands. “I’m awake, Tia.” Outside, she heard rain splatter against the hacienda’s shutters. She shivered.
“Maria, I’ve fixed of a cup of cocoa.” Her aunt lit the hurricane lamp and Maria saw the steaming cup sitting on the small table by the window. Her aunt had fixed her cocoa five years ago when she escaped across the flooded arroyo. The flood that swept away her parents.
The Only Path Left
Father Sean Kincaid, nudged the mare to press forward in the rain and sopping ground. He’d experienced thunderstorms back in Missouri, but this was different. God Almighty had forged a sky river the first 12 days of 1851. Hadn’t scripture promised an end to God’s flooding wrath?
The bridge he’d crossed earlier was gone. Not a splinter remained. Sean’s chest tightened. On the other side was his parish church. Behind him was Rancho Santa Ana he had failed to reach because of a landslide. He looked up. Not to God, but to the steep incline he’d have to traverse.
Capitan reared and snorted. The stallion charged his herd, pushing mares back, away from the river overflowing its banks on both sides. A deadly lake, pooling in the moonlight, eroding pasture. Capitan whinnied, turning on any horse who tried to bolt in fear.
“Damn stud save them mares,” Joe said, over coffee. The old ranch-hands gathered after mass at Kincaid’s Cantina.
“Unlikely, Joe.” Corey Fairfield expressed the skepticism of a vineyard owner. Educated.
Patty poured toppers. “Unlikely? As unlikely as your sons serving in the Pacific?”
Corey flushed at the chuckles. Their sons were Marines. Good horse-sense meant survival.
Times Past: 4-Wheeling the West
Gen X, rural California, USA
Granny-gear is as expected: slow, slow enough a toddler can drive. If that sounds surprising, you’ve not grown up on cattle ranches in the American west. Every buckaroo has stood behind the wheel (yes, stood because to sit is to lose sight over the dusty dash).
“Hold it straight, follow the rows,” were the instructions I remember.
Where are the adults, you might wonder. On the back of the truck, flaking hay.
Back when I was a toddling buckaroo on one of the oldest land grant ranchos in northern California, my task was to steer the truck straight so the adults could cut the wires on rectangular bales of hay (each weighing about 125 pounds) and peel away portions. The hay was dry and it came off in chunks called flakes. The herd of 300 black ballies (a nickname for the cross-breed of Black Angus and Red Hereford for which some calves were born black with white faces) trailed behind to get their winter hay.
Winter in this part of California was the wet and rainy season. It turned the blond hills green for a brief time. While the hills had time to grow grass beneath massive oak trees, the cattle roamed the barren hay fields and ate nubs and dry flakes. Feeding was a daily ritual and everyone worked, even the toddlers. Though I don’t recall thinking of my driving chore as work.
Just like with horses, I never had a fear of driving. Probably because I was exposed too young to have the common sense to fear large beasts and steel cages on wheels. By the time I was 13, I no longer lived in buckaroo country. My parents moved to the Sierra Nevada mountains where my mom ran a general store and my dad logged.
I worked in the summer logging camps, leaving for the job in a logging truck at 4 a.m. I had to be back by 3 p.m. to saddle my horse and ride out to check the cattle for a local ranch. My task was to keep the cattle from coming off the high summer pastures. Any I encountered, I’d have to push back to the mountain springs among quaking aspen.
Granny-gear took on new meaning this phase of life — it’s the lowest gear used to slow a logging truck on a mountain pass or a exit the rough-cut switchback known as a logging road. Hardly a road! Heading off the hill, as the phrase goes, requires low-gear and high prayers. I used to enjoy listening to C. W. McCall’s Wolf Creek Pass, an 8-track tape my dad had:
We’d gear down for our own Sierra Wolf Creek pass (the song is about a hairy switchback in Colorado) and at one corner I could see the wreck of a Cadillac from the ’60s. I remember the belch of the jake-brake as we approached and geared down to granny. We never lost a load, or a truck, either.
At the logging camp we had an old Willys Jeep, the kind the US used in WWII. The thing about a Willys is that in granny-gear it could go up, down, over and across anything. After lunch, I was allowed to take the Jeep for a drive, and I found pioner trails and even old mining camps in this ride. And many old roads required granny-gear and 4-wheel drive.
4-wheeling is a distinct western heritage and why so many people in the US West drive trucks. It’s what replaced the Conestoga wagon and horse. For me, a truck is a work vehicle. We have the Mills farm truck and have hauled our own firewood and had many adventures in it. But I still dream of one day having my own Willeys.
And you bet I’d take that Jeep 4-wheeling the back-roads of the west in granny-gear.
Join me and others in a look at wheels from Times Past with Irene Waters.
Courage to Care
Thunder claps and I awaken. The camp trailer is dark and I reach up to feel the paper towels and garbage bag just inches above my head. Damp, not dripping and the bag still holds. Too much moisture and pooled water will break the seal of packing tape around the plastic between me and a leaking ceiling seam. The latest leak I’ve stuffed with paper towels and change them out when they reach saturation.
I relax until the rain cuts loose. I’m beyond crying any more, having sobbed yesterday when I cried out in frustration, “I want to go home!” I yell it at my husband when he arrives from his contract job. We exchange frustrated barbs until one dog scrambles up the wall, trying to get into the overhead bed. The dogs are a litmus test for stress. We are in the danger zone and I simply sit down in the chair that aggravates my sciatica and let tears slide down my cheeks. Home. Comfort. Security. Certainly many are worse off than me, but I’m weary. In the dark of night before the thunder arrives, I shower in a cement public restroom and cry beneath hot water until I can’t cry any more.
When the rain cuts lose, splattering the aluminum roof that is my transition between homes, I know it will take a few hours before the water pools and leaks. I have no tears left so I roll over and go back to sleep, wishing I didn’t have to wake up. Yet cold water dribbling to my hip does the job, and my day renews.
Waking up to news of Trump’s nomination does nothing to lift my spirits. I don’t bother making the bed, and the routine I’ve established this week dissipates into apathy. Politics are nothing but brand campaigns and I’m clearly not the target audience. Where does civic concern for a nation go when brands force sides as if this were a choice of pops — Coke or Pepsi — when the people need water? I was going to write letters to my state rep to express my outrage at the injustice of a state that tolerates veteran homelessness. The house we rented for nearly four years stands empty; all the real estate sites list it as “CLEAN and now ready to SHOW and SELL.”
When I first saw that selling point, I felt punched in the gut. Clean? CLEAN? As if our living there had made the place dirty? I’m a writer who used to work from home and although housekeeping was not tops on my daily to-do list, my home was not dirty. As if to invalidate my sense of reality, the property managers will not give back our security deposit despite the cleaning I did and the housekeeper I hired to shampoo the carpets. Feeling as if the world sees me as unclean stabs me in the heart of shame; shame from childhood, family incest, isolation. Having broke the silence decades ago and the cycle for my own children now grown, I’m pained to recognize that shame still exists in the shadows of self.
It’s hard to get motivated to write civic letters when water drips from my trailer and shame clouds my head.
Two motivations I’m trying to embrace allow me the opportunity to write through my shame:
- From the Honeyed Quill, Shawna Ainslie posts: EMERGENCY #LinkYourLife PROMPT: Fear, Compassion and Community Action. #LinkYourCompassion.
- 1000 Voices for Compassion: Compassion and Courage.
Compassion is not something I see this morning following the hate-stirring rhetoric of a man who embodies the worst of America, yet seems capable of convincing others that his brand of hate is a cure-all. Compassion is not something I’m feeling. Then it occurs to me — it takes courage to care.
From self-care to that of others, it takes courage. We risk much to admit we are in need or struggling, but that’s where self-care begins. I’ve not been bashful about expressing my experiences current or past, though it is painful to do. How can one break the silence without speaking? I don’t want to dwell in anger or be the sum of my circumstances, nor do I want to be avoided by friends, family or readers because I speak out my truth — the good, the bad, the ugly.
Speaking out has its dangers. Anger can consume. I found it difficult to let go of even for a weekend, but denying my anger doesn’t make it go away either. I have to face it, feel it and make choices as to how to direct it. I have to be real (and compassionate) in acknowledging that shame is still an issue for me. I read a blog this morning by a survivor of sexual abuse who states she had no shame. It made me feel mine all the more keenly — like now, I’m ashamed of my shame.
Not feeling emotion only leads to the numbness I felt when the rain began before dawn.
Self-care, self-compassion is where healing can begin. And it’s okay if healing has to begin again and again. Establishing a routine in homelessness is one way I’m trying to take care of myself. Walking is another. But these are not enough for my circumstances. I’ve pushed hard to get my veteran husband into VA counseling for PTSD and I’m going to behavioral therapy sessions, too. I’ve signed up for an online workshop called Unshamed. I’m asking for help, even when it embarrasses me to do so, and I’m also being honest about what I can handle at the moment.
I’m homeless. I can’t have huge expectations upon my productivity.
Without self-care we can’t care for another, let alone a stranger. If we don’t have the courage to examine who we are and what we want out of our brief lives, we will fall into the traps of fear, perfectionism and judgement. It’s good to acknowledge what makes one fearful. I’m terrified of not having a home and here I am, not having a home. I’m not perfect. I can’t compare myself to another abuse survivor and feel inadequate because she has conquered shame and I’ll most likely go to the grave with mine. I don’t know that I can ever scrub it clean enough. But it doesn’t make me dirty. When I accept my own weaknesses, I can be more forgiving of another person in their weakness.
It takes courage to care for others when I facing my own fears. It took courage to help my brother-in-law yesterday to find his own DVA rep when his politics and lack of empathy upset me. I could have chosen to ignore his question of how to go about VA benefits, after all, he didn’t even thank me and he gave me a “chin up” talk as if I had no right to feel overwhelmed by my leaking trailer or lack of home. I could have taken delight in thinking, “Let him figure it out,” knowing how difficult it is to navigate the VA system. It even took courage to correct my own thoughts when I felt like comparing his service to his brother’s (my husband). He didn’t see combat! But I stopped myself and remembered that he served. It took courage to care, to look up his DVA and send it amidst my own pain he has no capacity for understanding.
Compassion doesn’t mean we don’t feel negative emotions. Courage is what it takes to overcome those barriers of our own negativity and that of others to show compassion. Both courage and compassion are acts.
Writing is a powerful tool for exploring and expressing voice. No matter what we write professionally, personally or in community, voice is what resonates. And the truth is more powerful than purple prose. Maybe that’s why I squirm when trying to read Trump’s speech. Even the annotated version by NPR only adds to the either/or struggle between 2016 US presidential candidates. Facts are not always truth. The truth is that politics is playing upon fear. Trump’s entire campaign message is summed up in his speech: he will restore safety to America if he wins. But who is stirring up the feeling that America is un-safe? America is in need of self-compassion and Americans need to overcome their fears through the courage to care for others.
A writer and comedian whom I admire for speaking truth with humor and compassion is Jon Stewart. He gave me back my motivation this morning. Truth has a way of calling us to action with justice and purpose; lies and denial use hate and fear to agitate action. Stewart offers us the revelation that Trump can’t give Americans back their country. He says to those wanting to take back America:
“You feel you are this country’s rightful owner. There’s only one problem with that. This country isn’t yours. You don’t own it. It never was. There is no real America. You don’t own it. You don’t own patriotism. You don’t own Christianity. And you sure as hell don’t own respect for the bravery and sacrifice of military, police and firefighters.”
Further he says, “Those fighting to be included in the ideal of equality are not being divisive. Those fighting to keep those people out are.”
Full version is on YouTube and worth watching. More so than watching any of the RNC speeches.
What you do own is this: you own your truth; you own your experience as a human being; you own your choices; you own your actions. I own my leaky eyes and leaky un-home, but I also own my resolve to speak out. I’m not living the RVer’s lifestyle, nor am I having a grand adventure. I own my stress and shame, but I also own expectation to be treated with human dignity. I have the courage to speak my voice. I am not silent. I am not perfect, but I am not silent. I will continue to look for ways to take care of myself, my husband, our two dogs and others in my life.
As much as I want to wrap my arms around the world and invite every weary traveler of hardships to sit by my campfire, I will start with those I see — the blogs I read, the people I encounter. Compassion starts with me. It starts with you. Have the courage to care where you are right now no matter how shitty or spectacular life might be. Circumstances don’t dictate one’s capacity for compassion and courage. Compassionate and courageous people will trump…well…Trump-like hatred.
If you are having difficulty today, please reach out here. Speak out, use your voice. There are communities where compassionate and courageous people reside. Read their stories. Respond. Add your own.
#LinkYourLife is found on Facebook, Twitter, The Honeyed Quill and OTV Magazine
#1000VoicesforCompassion is found on Facebook, Twitter and you can link up to monthly themes.
Times Past: Grainy Memories
As a child, I knew the marshmallow give of hot tar while I padded barefoot down the street to the summer swimming hole. I’ve felt the tickle of moss while wading in irrigation ditches, shoes off and jeans rolled up to my knees. I understood sand to be grit I used to wash camp dishes in the dim light of dusk with a creek as my sink. I might be a seventh-generation Welsh-Scots-Irish-German-Basque-Portagee-Dane born in California, but I did not grow up a beach-comber. Cowabunga, surfer dudes and California dreaming was not on my side of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
My only memory of oceanic beaches from childhood is a fuzzy recollection of the clam-digger who drowned; a story I already shared.
To participate in Irene Water’s Times Past prompt, I’m dipping into more recent memory because I simply didn’t spend my childhood upon any beaches. Yet, I do have one summer when I lived along the south shore of Lake Superior, a great inland sea. I followed the feel of sand between my toes to that time. For the record, I’m a Gen X Baby-buster and this is my creative interpretation of adult memories from rural Wisconsin, USA.
Unchained on Sioux Beach
With each step the sand sings to my bare feet.
I’ve lost my home, my job and now I just let loose the leashes on my dogs. Fear clutches the breath in my lungs and I wheeze. Yesterday I walked out of my office, the one I had for 11 years, after shaking hands with my own replacement. 90 days ago a judge said, “I’m sorry, I have no choice.” 80 days ago my husbanded dumped jeans and t-shirts into the back seat of his car, dismantled his aviation toolbox, set trays in the trunk, and said he had to go west; it was a job. 30 days ago I declared myself a Craig’s List dealer, giving strangers my phone number and address, giving away books, suits, dishes, furniture and everything my husband left in the garage, wishing I smoked cigarettes after each transaction. 10 days ago my boss called me into to her office so she could cry. She said, “I’m grieving.” I’d have grieved, too if only tears could have breached the shroud of terror and loneliness. Five days ago my staff held a going away party with jazz and cake. Despite having disrobed my life’s accumulations, they gifted me new stuff as if homelessness was not my destination.
Damp and coarse like Kosher rock salt used to freeze home-made ice cream, I feel the sand scrub my feet.
This morning I awoke in a spare bedroom not my own, having slept in a borrowed twin bed and surrounded with the last of Things That Still Matter — three crates of books, enough clothes to make choices, a small writing desk and a laptop with a hopeful half-drafted first-novel. It is not my first first-novel. I had cheerfully told everyone I was going to Wisconsin, to the fishing village where my novel was set to finish my book, as if foreclosure had made me Hemingway. The two dogs remained with me even though they limited my ability to find places to sleep and write. They Still Mattered. They remained my last fragment of scheduled time with a persistence to go outdoors. They had to pee early this first morning when I felt the weight of loss upon me like a death shroud. We could have stopped at the clumpy patch of grass, but I could hear the seagulls and Lake Superior close-by. So I went to Sioux Beach, took off my shoes and removed the leashes on two dogs who had only known their house, yard and neighborhood walks.
Sioux Beach stretches vast and empty. So much sand is alien to me.
In this place, as far away from my former home and office as mars is from earth, I force out the fear strangling breath in my lungs. I watch the unleashed bigger dog lunge after seagulls, his dark coloring a beacon on the beach dressed in khaki and white. The water tumbles to shore in waves, making semi-circles of washed pebbles and foam. The smaller dog, roan and lighter, sniffs with curiosity at the water’s lapping edge. I imagine I’m at the ocean and look across the bay until land is no longer visible. Later I’ll learn that even though Lake Superior is an inland sea, its fresh water wave action is due to a sloshing bathtub effect. Gunmetal storm clouds from the nor ‘east can bring 14 foot swells.
Above the surf I still hear the sand.
Quartz particles rub with each step and emit a sound like a tiny singing bowl. For the remainder of spring and summer, I’ll discard my shoes to walk upon this sacred beach. My feet will become polished as if I could afford weekly pedicures. Fear falls away and home becomes defined by where I am and who I’m with in the moment. Structure diminishes, that of houses and time. In the places polished clean by sand, creativity enters and I finally finish a first-novel. I discard my own leashes and trust what comes back to me. These first steps in the signing sand on Sioux Beach are like a return to living fully engaged and alive. Unchained.
I write thank-you notes in the sand to bankers who robbed me with pens as big as ceremonial halberds, watching waves erase the diminished letters of BOA.
Times Past: Mystery of Laundry
Standing in the grocery aisle I stare helplessly at bright plastic containers labeled with biblical promises to remove my stains. Nearing the half century mark and I still have no idea how to do laundry properly.
Women’s work. Historically this is true. Soiled doves, the frontier prostitutes of mining camps often began their careers between the sheets by first washing them. A woman in need of money could always find work in a mining camp washing men’s union suits and socks. Even Sarah Shull, a competent accountant, had to find work as a laundress in the mining town of Denver, Colorado after Cobb McCanless was killed and she no longer had a benefactor. His widow certainly wasn’t going to take her in, dirty laundry as Sarah was to the family.
But this is not a historical reflection. Writer, Irene Waters, calls us to reflect on Times Past in our own lives. She asks if laundry is women’s work. This intriguing monthly prompt is a generational and geographical comparison. So let me state, I’m a Gen-Xer and I grew up in rural California.
My mother was the queen of the laundry. Why, I have puzzled all month until the point I can delay no more (or miss the chance to participate). As a child, my parents practiced the typical slave labor of ranching or farming families. The idea was to birth many hands to work the fields or cattle. My father changed it up a bit by only having one set of hands. Also, he traded his cowboy boots for logger’s corks and he bought my mother a store to run in a town of 99 people (for those of you who follow the flash fiction at Carrot Ranch, yes, I just realized the connection, too).
The store was an old mercantile built the same year as our house: 1861. It catered to winter skiers and summer campers, a true mountain tourist town. We lived summers in my father’s logging camps and I worked for the ranch that encircled our small town with summer pastures. I did everything as a kid — stacked cordwood, bagged ice, pushed cattle, cleaned dishes by hand, stocked shelves and fed our horses hay. But never was I tasked with laundry.
As far back as I recall we always had a modern washer and dryer. My mother did the laundry as if it were some homage to my father. His family was big on cleanliness and town clothes had to be spotless. My mother used liquids from various jugs to whip up some sort of cleaning cocktail of which she never revealed its secret. Thus my extenuating befuddlement regarding laundry.
No one ever taught me.
Thrust on my own, I had to use the laundromat with coin operated behemoths. I bought Tide because it’s what my mother used, but all the other ingredients seemed redundant to me. Of course, my clothes began to look dingy. Not that I was particular about that. I had children and discovered the dreaded laundry monster, an ever-growing pile of dirty clothes where items morphed like mold. Where did all those clothes come from? Never did I cater to my spouse the way my mother did. By the time my kids could reach the wash machine lid and understood the dryer wasn’t a carnival ride, my family was on their own!
To this day, I’m stumped buying laundry detergent, trying to figure out which ones will really set me free. Besides, I sneak my clothes into my husband’s loads. Woman’s work? Not if I can help it!
Times Past: Food From the Sea
Generation X, Rural Northern California
Foam-edged waves pushed kelp across wet sand. I don’t recall the waves at Monterey Beach (California) being big or crashing. My focus was on the semi-circles of water that glided toward my yellow rain-boots (or were they red?). Benign wave remnants after the ocean crested further down the slope of beach where I was not permitted to go. Wave remnants, like early memories, glide across my mind. The memory of the rain-boots might not be from that day. But I do recall stopping my chase to watch the men in dark waders — my father and his father clamming further out where I could not go, dragging another body up the shoreline instead of buckets. It’s fractured, that memory, but in family lore the day the clam-digger drowned in a deadly riptide we stopped going to the beach. And it must be true, because I don’t have any other childhood memories of the ocean.
When Irene Waters posted her new monthly challenge, Times Past, I knew I’d want to participate. I never considered memoir to be among the styles of writing I’d pursue, but reading the memoirists who write flash fiction as Rough Writers, I am up to their challenges in return. I’m eager for Irene’s Time’s Past because it will form a revealing look across generations and place. She offers that we can respond to her prompts in any form we like. I’m going to use it to challenge myself within the form of creative non-fiction. Her first prompt is: The first time I remember eating in a restaurant in the evening.
I cannot think of seafood without thinking about the body of the drowned clam-digger. It never fully struck me the man was dead, but the solemnity of the adults and the curiosity of seeing an ambulance lodged in my mind like a mis-filed note. Somehow it comes up attached to the seafood folder.
The first time I ever ate out at a restaurant in the evening — a huge deal in the 1970s for a kid — was the Ormsby House Seafood Buffet. I was born near the coast of northern California, but moved to the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains by age seven. The nearest big towns with restaurants were Stateline (Lake Tahoe), Carson City, Minden and Reno. These were the big Nevada city-centers (well, big to a kid who lived in a town with the population of 99) which catered to the gaming industry. My parents often went to Carson City when relatives or friends visited. Adults only.
On this particular occasion I was invited to go and allowed to bring a friend. I was nine. We went to the Ormsby House, an older yet elegant high-rise casino. Most of the casinos offered a seafood buffet on a Friday night, but this was supposedly the best one. Excited for my first evening restaurant meal, I felt I had been dropped into the Willy Wonka factory for seafood. There was squid salad with diminutive whole squid among cold macaroni; oysters Rockefeller; shrimp cocktail; and clams in the shell. And that was the salad bar! I had cracked crab legs with steaming butter and a wedge of lemon. For years I’d recall that meal, but it was the only time I ever went.
Later, not far from the garish blinking lights of Carson City’s casino row, my father set up a temporary tree stand, and from the ages of 12 to 16 I helped sell Christmas trees from that lot. I often dreamed of going to the Ormsby House, but we were in work clothes and covered with pitch and the scent of pine. Instead, every night my father would hand me cash from our collection and I’d trot across the street to buy us all dinner in a bag from the fast food chain, Long John Silvers. I discovered hush-puppies (fried balls of cornmeal batter) and deep fried clams. It was a good seafood fix.
Once I moved away from California, I moved further and further from those Pacific coast waves and fresh seafood. In Minneapolis I found Sea Salt, a little seafood stand at Minnehaha Park, and it was one of the only places to find fried clams. Every Christmas, I’d put tins of smoked clams or oysters in my children’s stockings along with an orange and peppermint stick. When they grew up and we had friends or spouses join us in the stocking exchange, they found the smoked clams odd. Now, I crave the fish and chips served at the local gas station four miles down from Elmira Pond, not for the fish or potatoes but for the side of Pacific Ocean fried clams they serve with it.
And I wonder who that man was. Like the true color of my rain-boots, I may never know.