Beauty…or A Love Letter to Trout Lake

On March 26th, I bundled up on a 30-degree day and headed to Island Lake State Park across the street from my home. After a week of Michigan covid cases rising from 60 to more than 560, the walls were closing in and anxiety was mounting.

img_4815I’d never had the courage to hike on my own, but over the past five years I’ve found strength and healing in nature. On that March day, I hiked 1.7 miles. In the early morning hours, it feels as if the lake and trail are my own.

Hiking the same trail brings the comfort of familiarity yet awareness that every day is unique. I’ve watched the trail transform from winter’s leafless slumber to fluffed up Summer foliage threatening to hide its treasures from interloping humans.

The sandy road surrounding Trout Lake can only be reached by foot, bicycle or park ranger patrol. The lake, oh the lake with its still water reflecting the deep coral and blue sunrise as if you are seeing double. As above so below comes to mind, yet ripples remind me it’s but an illusion.

trout-lake-sunrise-beautyOne day might be gloomy and overcast while the next is crisp without a cloud in the sky. Give me a tequila sunrise with interesting cloud formations over a clear sunrise any day of the week.

I’ve seen sand castles, socks on trees, forts, moats, and beach trash, lots of beach trash like Hungry Howie pizza boxes, empty Oberon bottles, and abandoned towels. Just be zen and don’t react, I tell myself. Then I get pissed off at the inconsiderate beachgoers and mutter “Seriously, pack it in, pack it out.” I remind myself to bring a bag next time.

Once a neon translucent teardrop hanging from a tree caught my eye as I passed. It appeared to be a fishing lure wrapped around a branch, but looked more like a charm decorating a tree for fishing season.

img_5602Mother Nature is a gifted artist and my photographs don’t do her justice. They don’t capture the steam rising in tendrils from the lake. My still images make the mallard swimming across the lake and the sandhill cranes flying a V formation with their rattling bugle calls above my head seem insignificant. But I’ve stored those scenes firmly in my head and heart so when I’m living a landlocked life, I can relive them.

Today I took my 68th hike since the pandemic hit. While Michigan cases spiked early making the state number 3 in the country, we’re now number 18 thanks to our Governor’s steady guidance. Work tells me I’ll be teleworking through the end of the calendar year. For now, I cope by hitting the trail at dawn, listening to nature waking up, watching steam rise from the lake, and savoring every sunrise…at least for another six weeks.

Week 1: How Are You Doing?

balance blur boulder close up
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It’s been a week since we started social distancing in our attempts to flatten the curve. Weirdly, I miss my commute to work where I listen to podcasts of shows I never have time to watch, Audible books, and music. I also miss the personal interaction with other humans. As an introvert, I’m surprised by that but I guess I shouldn’t be. When I was working from home in real estate a decade ago, I welcomed the chance to work with clients face to face. The difference now is that it’s not a choice. Michigan cases have gone from 60 to 560 over the past week and based on reports from other areas, it may continue to worsen for awhile.

I’m grateful to have a day job where I can work from home. I’m worried about the economic fallout, especially for those people whose lives depend on serving the public. As Stephanie Land, author of Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive, writes in the New York Times, “Social distancing is forcing us to make decisions that go against our capitalistic nature: to cut back. Remember who this affects the most — the hourly wage workers who have no option to work remotely, no safety nets and, still, families to feed.”

black laptop computer turned on
Photo by John Dubanek on Pexels.com

After a work week struggling with a new normal, I needed an escape last night to avoid going down a rabbit hole. Thankfully my Facebook buddy Gordy offered just the medicine I needed…listening to musicians via Facebook Live.

First up was from Stay In Your House Shows with five different Michigan musicians: Dan Rickabus, Steve Leaf, Loren Johnson, Justin Stover (Stovepipe), and Emilee Petersmark. Unfortunately, I was too late for performances by Dan and Steve, but I thoroughly enjoyed Loren’s soulful voice, Stovepipe’s quirky “Haunted Americana” songs, and Emilee’s crazy wicked talent on covers and originals. The heartfelt messages from the artists made me feel like I’m not alone in my anxiety. Stay In Your House Shows hasn’t announced when their next concert will be, but I’ll definitely be tuning in.

Then I saw that Bobby Jo Valentine, a musician I’ve followed since hearing him perform locally, was on Facebook Live. Bobby Jo’s soulful lyrics “…when life gets complicated, when life gets hard to understand, the simple things are sacred, like the touch of another hand…” brought me to tears. It was yet another reminder of the power of connection.

img_4143Earlier in the week I had read about Keith Urban, John Legend, and other musicians doing live streaming for their fans. After listening to the Stay In Your House Show artists and Bobby Jo talking about being musicians who earn their living doing live shows, I’ll be supporting them and their music making this time of social distancing tolerable.

This morning I started my day with a 1.7 mile hike around the lake across the street. I’m intentionally avoiding news, taking care of myself, and reaching out to friends and family. That’s what is important to me right now. How are you doing?

Healing My February Funk & Reclaiming Its Blessing

For the past two years, I’ve dreaded February with its deep Winter chill and memories of loved ones passed. This year will be different, I thought as a booked a Corporeal Writing workshop in Portland, Oregon. I’d never been to Portland, my memoir was in a stuck place, and the workshop was being facilitated by two memoir writers I admire, Pam Houston and Stephanie Land.

img_3908I signed up for the workshop, booked a flight to arrive two days early to allow for sightseeing, and reserved a room at a hotel in Downtown Portland. I was ready for an adventure and to take the month back from grief’s grip.

The flight left Detroit later than scheduled, so when we landed in Seattle, I had to run from one end of the terminal, catch a tube, then run to the other. Breathless, I caught my connecting flight just before the doors closed. Once I arrived in Portland, I could hail a Lyft for around $30 or take public transportation (the MAX) for $2.50 directly from the airport to Downtown. I figured the trip cost enough and I’d taken public transport in DC, so surely I could navigate the MAX.

The ride to Downtown Portland was about 35 minutes. Sitting directly across from me was a middle-aged couple that looked uncomfortable with public transportation and distrustful of any characters they might run into. They tried to appear casual but her body was pressed up against the wall and her husband sat with his hand on her thigh. As people walked by, she would tense and his grip would tighten. They never met my eyes, keeping them averted to the floor. I recognized that tension, that stress, that woman…I used to be her, afraid to venture out of my comfort zone.

Upon arriving downtown, I checked into The Society Hotel room, dropped my bag, then took the MAX to meet my cousin. Tim has lived in Portland for 30 years, and we couldn’t remember the last time we saw each other. It was great to catch up and re-connect again.

Running_For_Good_Semper_Fi_SisterFirst thing Friday, I had to see the massive bookstore I’d read so much about. Powell’s City of Books didn’t disappoint with three stories, nine different levels arranged by topic, and one million books under the roof. It was cool to see my story Semper Fi, Sister on the shelf and representing in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Running For Good.

When talking to a staff member, I commented that I had traveled with a small suitcase and had no room for more books.

“Well, if you buy 10 books, we’ll ship them home to you for a flat rate.”

“That would be great, but I don’t have time to look at everything I want now.” This was sightseeing day and my Powell’s visit was a recon mission. I had places to go and things to see.

“We’ll hold your books for three days. When are you leaving?”

“Monday. So wait. You can hold these two books, I can come back and add to stack…then Sunday I can pay and you’ll ship them home for me?”

“We will.”

It was a brilliant marketing strategy that I eagerly took advantage of over the next three days. I gave them my books to hold then spent the rest of Friday roaming Downtown Portland. In my research of things to do, I was excited to see the “Walk of Heroines: Honoring the Women Who Have Illuminated Our Lives…”at Oregon State University. Although the garden was underwhelming (not surprising this time of year), my favorite quote was from Dorothy Allison in 1992 who said, “Write the story that you were always afraid to tell. I swear to you there is magic in it.” So I’m finding out.

Voodoo_Doughnuts_Portland_OR

On the way back to the hotel that evening, I came across “Voodoo Doughnuts”, known for their crazy combinations and decadent pasteries. Though I didn’t try Maple Bacon, Voodoo Bubble, or Oreo-topped Dirt, the apple fritter was delectable. The lines out their door are a testament to Voodoo’s popularity.

Finally, workshop time with Pam and Stephanie arrived. Among the many things I learned is that my memoir doesn’t have to be linear, it doesn’t have to follow the traditional hero’s journey, and it can be written in any form I damn well want it to be. That felt liberating.

My long weekend adventure was over all too quickly. I’m still processing what I learned at the workshop as well as my affinity to The Society Hotel.

What I remember most about the trip were the connections I made with my classmates and the serendipitous conversations I had with the people during my travels: Christian, the Army officer traveling home for his sister’s wedding; Domi, co-founder of Corporeal Writing who witnessed my embarrasing faceplant on my recon visit; the couple from Sacramento I met in the Voodoo Doughnut line who commented they’d visited Powell’s but didn’t personally know a writer until me; Tom, the pony-tailed nightshift history buff and dayshift manger Anthony who filled me in on the fascinating history of The Society Hotel; Doug, the Portland Airport blues guitarist who soothes frazzled traveler nerves; and the Michigan organic seed growing couple traveling to a conference. Each and every person I met helped heal my February funk.

I thought my Portland trip was about reclaiming the month from grief, but in the end it was a reminder to live a connected life with those around me. And to celebrate my parents…I am their living legacy.

A 2020 Look Back at Y2K

The first weekend in the new year, my daughter and I opened the time capsule we had buried at the dawn of the new millenium.

It’s funny the stories we tell ourselves. In a previous post about the time capsule, I described going to the cabin to bury it on New Year’s Eve. When we opened the time capsule, taped to the cover was a baggie with the letters we had written ourselves and a four page cover spread from the San Luis Obispo Tribune dated January 1, 2000. Unless they published early, we hadn’t gone to the cabin until New Year’s Day.

So what else was inside? Just as we remembered it, an old Sony cell phone we used for emergencies only. Note the handy quick reference card tucked inside the zippered case. But why didn’t we include the charger?

In a little box marked “Open Me First” was a whole lot of nothing, insignificant trinkets.

“Mom, why did we pack all this junk?”

“I have no idea. What were we thinking?”

There were some old CDs, a cassette tape, a program from a middle school play my daughter stage managed, our custom goth Christmas card, keychains, and Gidget the stuffed dog who was the ‘Yo Quiero Taco Bell’ mascot back in the day.

Most interesting were the letters we each wrote to our future selves. The past two months I’ve struggled with the reality that 20 years have gone by in the blink of an eye. It’s hard to wrap my head around all the changes that have occurred in the span of those years. Changes we could never have guessed would happen to us.

Then, there were the two poems that were published in Unity Magazine in 1999, the first sales of my fledgling writing career. My letter talked about finally knowing what I want to do with my life…be a writer. Eight months later we would move from California to Michigan. Then life got in the way. Finally, 19 years after I wrote that letter, I reconnected with my writer self and last year I had my marathon story published.

It’s taken me over a month to write this post because the reality that I may not be here in another 20 years has rendered me mute. The mean spirit of our current reality makes me ponder whether that’s a bad thing. On the other hand, I’m not going down without a fight.

When writing about my life at age 25 for an English 101 class at Mira Costa College, I wrote, “I want to pass hot-dogging down a ski slope when I’m in my 90s.” I thought maybe I could will my body to ignore the inevitable decline of aging. My arthritic joints tell me I’ve not been so lucky.

My letter included the following poem I wrote to my future self about aging:

Yield to the seasons of life.
Gracefully embrace the wisdom
of passing years, while ignoring
disappointments and regrets
in the past.

Be thankful and grateful
for all that you have
and all that you are.
For in the end,
memories are all
you have left.

A memorable moment ~
a memorable millenium ~
a wonderful life.

Some words from my letter have never been more true. My letter ended with “I’ve always been a late bloomer and only now am I coming into my own…I hope this finds you happy, healthy, and living your dream.”

I am indeed.

Who I Want To Be

I’m turning into my father. Yesterday I withdrew my name from consideration for a promotion at my day job. I had received word earlier this week that I had passed the third of four hurdles in the promotional gauntlet and my interview was scheduled for Tuesday, January 28th. With more responsibility and stress, I felt conflicted about the job. But, I reasoned, the bump in salary would make a big difference in my pension when I retire in a few years.

When sharing my news and conflicted feelings with a recently retired friend, he asked if I had run the numbers…what my pension would be without going for the promotion and what it would be with the promotion. I hadn’t, assuming it would be a big enough difference to make the sacrifice worth it.

nautilusYesterday I ran the numbers and did some serious soul searching. Other than my NaNoWriMo fiction win, my writing has ground to a halt since I applied for the promotion back in August 2019. Maybe it’s a coincidence, maybe not. Then I thought about getting the call for the third hurdle in the gauntlet just before the New Year. Since then, it was all about cramming, studying, and preparing. I haven’t written a blog post or anything of substance, and my next two weekends would be spent in interview prep, not writing.

I’ve worked hard for the past 14 months, and writing is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I realized my momentum would be seriously curtailed with new responsibilities. I’ll withdraw my name, I thought and immediately felt a huge sense of relief. Then pride and that part of me that always wants to do the best, giving a 110% kicked in. I’ll see what the numbers say, maybe it will be worth it, I told myself. The numbers told a different story.

I’m turning into my father. A shift-worker his entire life, I couldn’t understand why my father didn’t want to be considered for an 8 to 5 job promotion. When I asked him why, his answers never satisfied me. I couldn’t fathom why you wouldn’t want to pursue the next rung…until I finally felt that way myself yesterday.

Today I attended a Poetry Workshop and in a session lead by Jan Shoemaker, learned about writing a poem using an extended metaphor with the title as the subject. I struggle with metaphors, but this is what I wrote:

Promotion

The war rages on, each side fighting to be heard.
I listen to the pleas with measured breaths,
not wanting to rock the boat, yet
consider joining the struggle.
My father’s faint whisper, barely imperceptible,
becomes louder.
“Don’t do it.”
“Why?” I ask. “It’s who I am.”
“Because,” he says. “Who do you want to be?”

Indeed.

Closets, Scarlet Letters & Memories

I have a love/hate relationship with Facebook. I hate that it’s become a tool to divide our country, but I like keeping in touch with family and friends and I especially love seeing memories from years gone by pop up in my timeline. These are always a gentle reminder of where I used to be, and how far I’ve come.

Three years ago yesterday, I wrote the following post after a magical weekend of reconnection in Washington, DC with some fellow members of my high school band, (ironically organized through a stealth Facebook group):

DC Class of 73 cropped43 years ago when I graduated high school, I couldn’t wait to get the hell of out dodge because I felt I had a scarlet letter tattooed on my forehead…my mother was mentally ill and was institutionalized at the state hospital. Few people knew and I didn’t let many people get close enough to me to find out, so high school was a pretty painful place for me. To the select people I’ve discussed my family situation with, I’ve said coming out of the closet for having a relative with a mental illness has been FAR more difficult than coming out of the closet as an older lesbian.

Fast forward to our 40th class reunion, it felt great to rekindle friendships and make new connections. Then a group of ~35 classmates, friends & family made a stealth plan to descend on DC the weekend of December 3rd to celebrate the season and the wonderful career of our classmate Army Colonel Tim Holtan, the Commander of “Pershing’s Own”. During the weekend, I reflected a lot on my journey…my military service, how band was my one high school joy, how proud I was of Tim’s success, and how tired I was of living in a closet. In short, the weekend was magical and I feel so very blessed to be a part of my beloved Class of ’73 family.

There, I said it publicly…closets & scarlet letters be damned.

I re-wrote that last line five times as tears were streaming down my face. I waited 10-15 minutes before I gathered up the courage to post on Facebook. Brené Brown describes describes the nausous feeling you have after disclosing something deeply personal as a vulnerability hangover. The old fear of judgment reared it’s ugly head and as was my habit, I wanted to delete the post and shrink away in shame. Not this time, I’m done, I reminded myself.

Five days later as I read the post comments and bathed in the love and support of family and friends, I was reminded of the power of sharing our stories. The truth does set us free, but there is still the hard work of untangling the emotions surrounding that truth.

Three years ago my post was behind the Facebook privacy wall. Now, it’s public. Closets and scarlet letters be damned.

 

Y2K, A Time Capsule, and Change

It’s hard to believe there is only one month left in this decade. My wife tried to tell me 2020 belongs with the 20teens, but I’m not buying it. Remember the chaos of the pre-Y2K days and the impending doom of the new millenium? Again, hard to believe it’s been 20 years because it’s been largely forgotten, overshadowed by what happened 1 year, 9 months, and 11 days later.

At The Rally of Writers conference I attended in April, Jan Shoemaker, the workshop facilitator, gave us prompts and we had about 5-10 minutes to write our response. The topic was: Waiting for it to explode. We also had to include the following words “wherever there is life, there is a twist and mess.” In response, I wrote this:

Y2K, New Year’s Eve. We escaped to our off the grid cabin unsure whether the world we left would survive. We each wrote letters to our future selves imagining what our lives would be like in a couple of decades; I wrote of my writerly dreams. With a circa 1999 cell phone, we buried a time capsule, sure that we nailed the future. But wherever there is life, there is a twist and a mess.

I’d forgotten about the time capsule, a 18″ x 12″, 6″ deep plastic tote sealed with duct tape. We had unearthed it from it’s hiding place in the California Central Coast when we sold the cabin. We hauled it to Michigan and from one place to another, then I got custody in the divorce.

The tote is heavy and it rattles. My daughter and ex remember what’s in the time capsule. I only remember the three letters we wrote, and the cell phone. 

Our lives today look nothing like we could have imagined. And what did we think we would need to preserve to show what life was like at the dawn of the new millenium? I look forward to finding out soon.

Writing Fiction, NaNoWriMo Style

2019-NaNo-Winner-BadgeNaNoWriMo 2019 is a wrap and it was oh so very different from last year’s win on many levels.

First, last year I was a NaNo Rebel because I wrote memoir. I knew what the story was (or so I thought), and didn’t have to make up anything. This year, I tried writing fiction and I finished my shitty rough draft with 50,373 words. Since non-fiction has always been my go-to, this month has totally been out of my comfort zone, which was the point. Blogging provided my non-fiction, real life outlet and I was surprised by how much grief dominated my posts this month. The fiction I wrote, on the other hand, was more about resilience and the power of love. Interesting.

NaNo-2019-Daily-Word-Count-Deb-SinnessSecond, last year as a first time  participant, I didn’t know whether or not I could really do it because 50K is a hella lot of words. I knew I’d need the support of the local Lansing NaNo group for inspiration. With their write-ins, I got a head start on my word count and never looked back. This year, I had a death in the family so I only participated in one local write-in. There were six days I wrote less than 500 words a day, and two days I wrote nothing at all. But I knew because I had finished and ‘won’ last year, I could do it. So I kept at it, stringing one word after another, no matter how much of a slog it became.

Third, these fictional characters have a mind all their own. That surprised me, never having written fiction before. I mean, it was my fingers doing the typing but what was coming from my brain through my fingers seemed to come from nowhere. That’s some magical shit right there.

Fourth, you know how when you find a great book to read that can’t put down and you have to stay up until 2 AM reading because you want to know how it ends…only to be disappointed because the air came out of the tires at the very end? Yeah, that’s a little how I feel about my shitty rough draft. But then again, I’m a recovering perfectionist, my goal was to hit 50K words, and I wanted to write “The End,” so there’s that.

Which brings me to my final point. I hate to admit it, but as an INFJ, I’m a pantser. It seems like in every other area of my life, I’m a planner. As much as I’ve tried to plot and outline my ideas, my brain just doesn’t seem to work that way with writing; I have to write my way in to figure it out.

So today is the final day of National Novel Writing Month and I came in just under the wire, whew! How was your month? Whether you hit 50K words, or just wrote your first sentence by overcoming the fear of putting words on the page, celebrate your progress. It’s more than we started the month with. After all writing, as in life, is not just about the destination. It’s about enjoying and celebrating the journey.

Giving Thanks for the Memories

I tried writing a post for Thanksgiving yesterday, but I finally gave up. Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty to be thankful for, yet I was filled with a sense of melancholy that I found hard to express.

This is that time of year when my thoughts inevitably turn to days gone by and those no longer with us at the Thanksgiving table. The memories surround me. I ate the Thanksgiving dinner my wife prepared at the sturdy ball and claw oak table that was my paternal grandmother’s. The same table where she changed my diapers, taught me to play Crazy 8s and Go Fish. The table that bears the dice dimples from countless games of 6-5-4 with my father.

I know I’m blessed to have had so many happy memories of holidays spent with loved ones. Lots of people are not so lucky, which I was reminded of when I saw a blog post from Sark called Happy Thanks~Grieving While Wildly LivingShe beautifully captures the complex emotions many of us feel and shares her “love and transcendent wishes for people to be able to deeply grieve while wildly living.” Thank you Sark for helping put into words what I could not.

So on this, the day after Thanksgiving, I’m filled with gratitude for all that has happened over the last year and memories of past Thanksgivings. I also recognize that grief will sometimes sit beside me at the table and I’m okay with that…it reminds me of those who have loved me. I live wildly as their legacy.

 

Grief Comes in Waves

I’ve learned grief isn’t something you get over, it’s something you learn to live with. You never know when a new wave is going to strike without warning.

My guilty pleasure is The Voice, and I usually watch it when I’m walking on my treadmill. Today I watched the Top 13 perform, and when I heard contestant Marybeth Byrd was going to sing the beautiful, heartbreaking “Go Rest High on That Mountain” by Vince Gill, I was immediately transported back to the days following my father’s death. I was one of the family members giving a eulogy, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get through it.

Every morning and evening that I drove his Subaru Forrester the 30 minutes to and from town, I had this song and one other on repeat so I could embrace and settle into the grief. It helped. I did some gut-wrenching, ugly crying and was able to deliver the eulogy my father deserved.

Which brings me to today, nearly two years later. When Marybeth’s tribute package rolled, she spoke of her beloved Grandfather who passed the night before she left for her blind audition. Marybeth no sooner began the song when grief rolled through me again. I damn near fell off my treadmill.

I recently attended a book reading by my friend Gordon M. Berg, author of Harry and the Hurricane. The book details the true account of his seven-year-old father living through the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926. His father rarely spoke of his experience, and Gordon only learned the details after his death, when his mother told him.

Gordon ended his talk imploring us to ask our loved ones “What is the worst thing that’s ever happened to you, and how did you get through it?” That is one of the many questions I wish I had asked my father.

Who is someone you’d like to ask that question? Do it…before it’s too late.