Writing As Art

Writing Myself Home
I don’t know if I could
or even if I should
dig through the debris
of buried memory
to get to the place
where I can face…
myself.

I wrote the above poem in the late 1990s and when I wrote it, I suspected it had to do with my mother’s mental illness and my fear it would happen to me. I had a good life with a husband who loved me and the daughter I’d always wanted, but something was always gnawing at me? I never felt satisfied, and my mother’s memory hung over my life like a grey cloud. I quit writing shortly after when work and family life took priority.

I came out to myself 12 years later. It would take another 6 years to come out of the “having a mentally ill mother” closet.

Last Fall after moving back to North Dakota, I read a call by the BisMan Writer’s Guild for a collaborative touring art show called The Art of Writing, sponsored in part by the North Dakota Art Gallery Association. Artists and writers were to submit samples and if an artist selected a piece of writing (or vice versa), they would create pieces of art inspired by the other’s work. I wanted to submit my poem, but it needed a title.

After having spent two years drafting, rewriting, excavating, and shaping my memoir, I realized the poem was a way to express what I could not. It was the beginning of “coming home” to myself. Then a year ago September I moved back to my home state of North Dakota. I literally and figuratively had come home, thus the title Writing Myself Home.

Today The Art of Writing touring show opens for a month at the James Memorial Art Center in Williston, North Dakota where I spent the first six years of my life. My poem, in word art, will appear with the piece of art created by the artist who was inspired by it.

An Artist’s Reception will be held on Friday, September 17th from 7:00 to 8:30 PM, one year from my first full day as a North Dakota resident again.

Life truly has come full circle.

Coming Out Stories During Pride Month

I’ve attended Pride events large and small in the last decade, but nothing moved me more than Capital Pride last Saturday on the grounds of the North Dakota State Capital in Bismarck. This town I grew up and fled from, finally felt welcoming…and the rainbow cloud over the festivities confirmed that.

In preparation for Pride, a local bakery held a 100-word Pride story contest with prizes for first, second, and third places. Stories were submitted. Prizes were awarded. There was, however, no publication of the stories.

Our stories deserve to be told for we are your daughters, your sons, sisters, brothers, your mothers, fathers, and yes, even your grandparents.

My military-related coming out story was published Wednesday, 23 June on The War Horse. The following is my tiny personal coming out story…

“I’m Proud of My Gay Daughter”
said the pin I wore to my first pride event.
Daisy came out as bisexual in 2001 at 16.
Five years later, she dated a woman.
I worried for her career and safety.
Five years after that, I came out.
I had to start over…again.
When I broke the news,
Daisy tucked me under her wing.
At 56, I’d lived in many closets.
If Daisy hadn’t come out, I wouldn’t have either.
And that pin I wore to the 2011 Motor City Pride?
Daisy wore one that said
“I’m Proud of My Lesbian Mom.”

Leaving the Safety of Your Comfort Zone

The comfort zone is a psychological state in which one
feels familiar, safe, at ease, and secure.
You never change your life until you step out of your comfort zone;
change begins at the end of your comfort zone.

Roy T. Bennett
Tracking the US cases became a daily obsession in the early days. This was from 13 March 2020

This month I’ve struggled with how to process the last year. I’ve wanted to write a post remembering the last week of normal life before the world shut down. The sign in CVS saying they were sold out of isopropyl alcohol and antiseptic wipes. The lines of worried patrons pushing toilet-paper topped carts down grocery aisles waiting to check out. Feeling foolish wearing a mask for the first time, like I was playing cops and robbers.

Shit got real for me when I heard Tom Hanks had Covid-19.

Michigan locked down, we were third in the nation for covids deaths, and every day seemed more surreal than the last. Each lockdown day was marked on the calendar, as if I was doing time. I dyed my hair purple. I doomscrolled social media searching for the coronavirus cavalry and watched a young woman in YouTube videos explaining the pandemic to her past self…and was horrified when she asked what year it was.

As the telework days turned into months and Spring turned to Summer in the chaos that was my personal life, I tried to hike every day at the state park across the street to prevent the walls from closing in. I needed something to look forward to so I set a retirement date of 31 July 2021. I moved closer to family to have a home base and quit numbering the lockdown days on the calendar.

Searching for and buying a home via Facetime turned out easier than I imagined, and packing up and selling the home across from the state park I loved to hike was gut wrenching. Having worked from home with a lockdown mentality, it was tough having people in my home getting it ready for sale, but it had to be done.

I was nervous about traveling because the last thing I wanted was to catch was the virus. With the Uhaul hitched to my Outback, I headed to my new life, and spent a restless night in a hotel halfway there, the first since being locked down.

Moving back to North Dakota in September, it seemed as if people were in denial about coronavirus and I felt like I was living in an alternate reality. The first weekend in my new home, the neighbor across the street with the Trump signs in her yard wanted to have a gathering of the neighborhood ladies to get to know my daughter and I.

“Where would we have the gathering?”

“In my Living Room.”

“I don’t really feel comfortable with that. I just moved from Michigan where we had refrigerator trucks parked outside hospitals.”

“Well, by October can be pretty cold. I guess we can play it by ear.”

The Friday before the Sunday gathering, my neighbor called to say she had Covid and the gathering had been delayed. I was relieved. Shortly after, local cases skyrocketed and the state hit the national news becoming North Dacovid. I questioned whether I had made the right decision to move back to my home state.

The upsides of the move were the first holidays spent with family in decades and access to great medical care when my daughter had emergency surgery in December. I had spent months avoiding people and hospitals, now I had to be there for my daughter. I focused my thoughts on her to avoid disaster-sizing the what ifs. My temperature was checked when I arrived at the hospital, they only let one visitor in at a time, everyone was masked, and they moved around like normal people in the land of the living. It was the beginning of starting to feel comfortable again out in the world, yet staying masked and protecting myself.

Hiking in the mountains near Tucson

I was so glad to put 2020 behind me, hoping that with retirement on the horizon 2021 would be a better year. After the national chaos that was January, February loomed large on the horizon with memories of Portland, the last trip I’d taken before the pandemic. I needed to step outside my comfort zone again.

I’d seen reports of people flying and I had an airline credit with Delta, which was still committed to social distancing. I booked a flight to Tucson, a place I visited in the past, had family and friends who wintered there, and thought it might be right for me in retirement. At least it would be an opportunity to enjoy a long weekend in the warmth of the Arizona sun.

Tucson was everything I remembered and more. With a higher elevation, hiking and bike trails surrounded by mountains, the RV resort with their tennis and pickleball courts, and activities of every kind got me hooked. In my short long weekend trip, I made plans to winter there myself.

Returning home, I set my sights on planning the rest of my retirement dream. I ordered a 16′ Scamp to be delivered in August 2022, then found a 1973 13′ Boler as an interim solution until my Scamp is ready. She’s one of 10K ultralight fiberglass campers that were manufactured in Canada between 1968 and 1988. I won’t have time to do extensive renovations before I hit the road, but the original upholstery is really quite groovy. And she’s light enough to tow with my Outback.

I filed my retirement paperwork and with plans in place, it was just a matter of tying up loose ends…but the nagging shoulder pain I’d been nursing since the move last Summer had other plans. After an MRI revealed tears in the right rotator cuff, an orthopedic surgeon gave me the option of surgery or taking a wait and see approach. I’ve got places to go, things to see, and I want to lead an active retirement with biking, pickleball, and camper hauling, so surgery is scheduled for Tuesday, March 30th.

Life without the use of my dominant arm isn’t the way I imagined the last few months of my working life, but better I get it taken care of so I can enjoy life on the road. I keep reminding myself it’s just another speed bump and growth opportunity. I’ve come through worse so I’m keeping my eye on the prize…an active retirement and a new goal. #ambidextrous

Seeking Center After Capitol Chaos

With the upheaval of 2020 behind me, I was so hopeful going into 2021. Who could have predicted the chaos in Capitol in Washington, DC on Wednesday…yet it’s not surprising given the rhetoric that has been spewed the last five years. A few years ago after the president’s tense exchange with a foreign leader not known to be an ally, I remember an early morning commute to my day job when I looked to the sky and wondered for the first time ever, if bombs were going to start falling.

It’s A LOT to process.

I couldn’t watch the live feed of the mob storming the Capitol because I started thinking Where are the police now? Surely they’ll stop this like they did the earlier protests this year. When that didn’t happen, my next thought was Is this the moment we lose our nation, the one I swore an oath to defend the Constitution against enemies foreign and domestic?

My chest tightened, my muscles tensed, and my anxiety increased.

So I went shopping at Costco to avoid watching and I hoped for the best. But I’ve been hoping for the best for the past 50 months since the president was elected when I saw him for what he was…a failed businessman who had used the system and women for his benefit and pleasure.

When meeting high school classmates in Washington, DC in December 2016 to share the joyous celebration of a classmate’s retirement, I avoided discussions of the recent election until I could no longer. Two classmates starting talking about visiting the gift shop to buy inaugural kitsch for Christmas when the discussion turned to politics, “her emails”, and what a good job they were expecting him to do as a businessman.

“I’m not so sure,” I said.

“Well, he’ll grow into the job. I have faith,” one said.

“I hope you’re right, because you have more faith in his abilities than I do.”

Social norms have been shattered, there is reduced faith in our institutions, and a deep social divide separates our nation while Covid-19 kills more than three thousand Americans a day, the equivalent death toll of 9/11…every damn day.

Like so many Americans, I was glad to see 2020 come to an end and looked forward to a vaccinated future so our lives could return to some semblance of normalcy. I can only hope this is our darkest hour and the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t an oncoming freight train.

Yesterday I sought contemplative refuge walking a labyrinth. The gloomy, grey sky overhead seemed appropriate given recent events. With each and every mindful step, I focused on my breathing, the rhythm of my heartbeat, the honking snow geese overhead in their V formation, and the multitude of varied rocks thoughtfully placed on the North Dakota prairie by the Benedictine Sisters of nearby Annunciation Monastery.

As I navigated the winding path, I became aware of how similar a labyrinth is to life and world events. Each step takes you closer to the spiritual center, a goal, a more perfect union then a sudden shift finds you in the farthest ring, impatient and wondering when you’re going to arrive again.

At long last once getting to the center, you realize although you’ve arrived, your work isn’t done…but you walk out knowing you have arrived before and will again.

NaNo Month of Turbulence

This is the first time since I started writing that I didn’t “win” National Novel Writing Month, completing 50,000 words by the end of November. Being a recovering perfectionist, it was hard to let go of that goal but with pre and post-election chaos, the closing of my Michigan home, and Covid-19 numbers spiking, I figured it might be hard to focus.

In past years, I would have given up everything to avoid failure and pull out a win. Instead I spent a restorative last weekend of the month at the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in Western North Dakota. On the way, I visited New Town Sue (the World’s largest holstein cow) and The Enchanted Highway where the world’s largest scrap metal sculpture “Geese in Flight” stands 110’ tall, 150’ wide, weighs 78.8 tons. The meandering trip was a well needed break from the four walls and subdivision city living that I’ve come to know the last two months.

Instead of sitting in the house grinding away at a story that went to the dark side on Day 2, I chased sunrises and sunsets amid the stark beauty of the Badlands. Instead of inventing new characters, I delighted in the whimsy of a huge fiberglass cow and fantastical scrap metal sculptures that were larger than life. Instead of taking a walk on the city sidewalks, I hiked five different trails and scoped out the Maah Daah Hey trailhead for a future hike. And instead of domesticated city dogs, I relished seeing bison, big horn sheep, and wild horses in their natural habitat.

The weekend adventure served another deeper purpose for me as well. Growing up in North Dakota, I lived life small and afraid to venture outside my comfort zone. These past two months, I’ve felt myself reverting back to that person which made me sad, like I was losing a piece of myself. I needed this weekend to remind me that I’m an adventurous soul who is always learning, growing, and seeking out new experiences.

This November I redefined winning. I reconnected to my wandering spirit and got my butt in the chair writing again. Plus, there’s always NaNoWriMo 2021.

Land of the Hand

MI PalmUnless you’re from Michigan or know someone who is, it may not occur to you that Michigan is shaped like a mitten. I’d grown up in a boring rectangle state and lived for years in California, the long, misshappen left coast.

When my family moved to Michigan in 2000, we were mystified why people put their hands up to show me where they lived. I know, it seems so obvious now, but never in my 45 years had I seen anyone present a body part to describe geography.

At the time, my daughter was a high school sophomore. Having had enough of the hand, when asked where she lived before, she threw her left arm over her head, bent her elbow, and pointed to a spot about 2-3″ from her armpit on the outside of her arm. I love her quick wit and thought it was brilliant.

I’ve come to love my adopted state, but I’m still not comfortable using my hand for directions. My default is using directions and miles in relation to cities. Next year, I’ll celebrate two decades of being a transplanted Michigander…maybe then I’ll start using my hand.

Deathiversary

Today marks the one year anniversary of my Father’s passing. It’s been a year of firsts in what I’ve come to call my grief hibernation. I lost my Mother when I was 30 but that was different. I lost her to mental illness long before she walked out of a North Dakota state hospital on a frigid February day and died of hypothermia.

Pa was my rock, my go-to guy through out-of-state moves, joining the military, marriages, a miscarriage, the birth of my daughter, divorces, coming out, and finally marrying my partner. My Father fought for and won custody of my brother and I during the era where children were assumed to be the mother’s responsibility, regardless of mental state.

“Guess what I did Pa?”

He was never quite sure what I would say next, and inevitably, he would respond, “You did what?!”

Whether it was joining the Marines, skydiving, signing up to run a marathon, or getting a promotion, he was always my biggest fan and cheerleader. This was the guy who water-skied in the Missouri River for 12 straight months without a wet suit so clearly I was my Father’s daughter.

Last01
Pa bought this personalized plate for his last new car. It’s a bittersweet reminder that he was the last of his siblings to pass.

My Pa had prepared for his passing by writing his own funeral service and obituary in 2008. After writing them, he called each person he listed as pallbearers, asked them permission to include them, and then proudly read them his newly written obituary. To say my father was a character is an understatement. He ended his obit with “P.S. If you want to put in that he loved to gamble at Prairie Knights you can, also he loved to dance in his younger days.”

 

My Father also planned for his granddaughter and I to deliver eulogies. How on earth would I be able to stand in front of an audience of friends and family and talk about his life without sounding like a blubbering fool?

I listened to the song “Dance With My Father” on repeat and boo-hoo’d my way through the days until “the day” arrived. I really wanted the eulogy to talk about what he meant to me as my Father, but I knew everyone in the room had lost someone very special to them, for so many different reasons. So this is the eulogy I wrote and read:

On behalf of the family, thank you all for coming to help us celebrate the life of our Father, Don D. Sinness (as he liked to call himself).

My Pa impacted and touched the lives of so many people and a stranger was a friend he just hadn’t met and talked to yet. He had a great sense of humor and he loved to make people laugh.

He had this uncanny ability to uplift a person’s spirit just by being present and listening. The next time he saw you, he’d focus on how you were and what was going on in your life, even though he himself was often fighting a medical battle.

My Pa had charm, character, and compassion. He was many things to so many people…a fatherly figure with support and advice, a shoulder to cry on when you needed it, a brother and uncle who loved his extended family, a compassionate ally to transgender co-worker, a fun dancing partner to kick up your heels with, the old Goat roper you loved to party and smoke cigars with, a Grandpa who loved to play 6-5-4 and made you feel like the center of his universe, a best bud you looked forward to catching up with every day, a fellow MDU retiree you could reminisce with, a guy you knew you could count on to do what he could to help if you were having trouble, a loving partner and caregiver to his wife of nearly 45 years.

To us, his wife, kids and grandkids, he was our Rock of Gibraltar and we will miss him terribly.

One of the last things Pa said to me was “It’s time for you to be a brave Marine now.” Pa, it sucks that you’re not here anymore but I’ve got this. Thanks for being my Pa.

Father. Grandfather. Rare Gem.
My Rock. Confidante.
Love You Much. Miss You Always.

90 Years Loved

img_1915Last weekend I spent five days with my extended family in North Dakota. I’m always relieved to come home to Michigan this time of year because the weather never seems quite as bad as the frozen, windy North Dakota prairie.

My Aunt is now the matriarch of the family and the sole survivor of her generation. As my cousins and I celebrated her 90th birthday, I wondered how it was possible we cousins had gotten so old. With a 15 year spread and the oldest cousin being in his mid-70s, I’m the only one who isn’t retired.

Seems like yesterday we were chasing after our kids, yet in the blink of an eye we’re the grandparents, the elders. When you’re raising your family, the days seem endless but the decades fly by all too quickly.

When I was 18, I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of North Dakota. Now reflecting on the many trips I’ve taken over the decades to return to my Dakota roots, I am the person I am because of those roots.

Work hard. Love much.