Free to Not

Censored mailTruth is, if someone had asked me that last day in Nebraska what my takeaway from the retreat was, there was one thing clear.

I feel free to stop writing for publication.” Sounds strange, I know. Most people come away from a writer’s retreat inspired about a new project or renewed in their commitment to an ongoing one.

But a stop sign is also direction.

Nobody asked and I was glad. I wasn’t ready to say it aloud. Once I returned home, once I unpacked and settled, once I processed and considered, surely I’d go the other way with it.

I swear, I must have been absent from school the day they covered gut feelings and how to go with them.

* * *

Tammy writes about “Living the Small Creases of Your Life.”

There are times you live in the hidden nooks-n-crannies of your life, as if it were a shrinking back. But that’s not entirely true. It’s really a folding into your life. One that’s necessary and truer.

There it is again. Permission. What seems like shrinking back is really a folding in.

Ideas pop, and against the too-long-blank canvas of my mind, they splash like fireworks. An old voice pitches to me. Write an article. Write a series. Query today. They will love it!

But I have this other investment I’m making, see? My peak creative time is spoken for.

* * *

NEXT MORNING again, before sunrise, I start a letter.

When the sun comes over the roof of the house across the street, I pull the curtain a bit, to keep the blinding ray at bay. Just 5 more minutes. That’s all I need and I’ll be done. Always the same, every day.  Just 5 more minutes, please.

The dog lies tucked in beside me in the upholstered chair, tight. I sometimes imagine he is sending me sentences, but pay no mind to that. It’s the least of my insanities, but I have changed chairs since rescuing him, so he has a place.

He’ll not stir until the printer prints. I get up for coffee or a sweater and he doesn’t lift an eyelid. But he knows when he hears that printer, his breakfast is not far off.

I pick up a pen,
I sign,
I fold the paper into thirds. These are the small creases into which I am tucking my everyday life, a mixed bag of a ramble, all so much nothing that turns out to be something to someone else.

* * *

SHE’S GONE DOWNTOWN and surrendered herself. Five days after I’m back from JT, she goes – just as instructed, just as she needed to do, just as arranged for in her plea agreement. We won’t be meeting at Panera again, not for a very long time.

Today I got a response from her, stamped on the back that it had been seen by the censors first. My postman’s gotten used to this, the regular influx of screened mail.

It’s arrival means my first letter got there okay! I’m happy for that.

“You never told me that story!” she writes. “I’ve read it three times so far.”

It’s crazy math, I know, but one letter read 3 times means more to me than one article seen by thousands.


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When Telling Your Story is a Scary Thing

When Telling Your Story is a Scary Thing

Jacinda's scrollwork

Kathy O, who lived 5 doors down the street, would, when things weren’t going her way, pack up all the dresses she’d brought for dress-ups and head home, leaving the rest of us sitting there. That’s just how she was.

Why am I thinking about her today? Now?

I’ve been picturing Lewis & Clark, looking west,
about to head off to places they’ve never been,
not knowing in advance the full distance,
how long it might take,
what may be required of them.

I would have been dead weight on that expedition, what with bears and mud and weather and needing to lift boats and supplies and carry the whole shebang around waterfalls. Traveling upstream! And not speaking the language of so many they encounter.

I would not have said yes
(not that I would have been invited).

I’m forced to face this truth about myself. I would not have gone. I’d have hunkered down in my cabin, stayed put and let someone else go.

I shiver, just thinking about that journey, and I think I know why.
That same fear is close to me, not far. Not 2 centuries ago.

I, too, stand on a frontier, like most of us do at least once in our lives. We stand, and what lies ahead is a frontier to us. We don’t know what we’re heading into. We might have ideas about it. We may have heard bits and pieces from what others said they thought they saw when they were out there, or what they heard someone else say, but really we don’t know for sure what’s out there, what we’ll face.

We don’t know about it
and we don’t know about ourselves,
whether we have what it takes.

It becomes clear me, when I visit the Lewis & Clark exhibit and I feel the slug in me resisting, saying, “NO WAY I’d sign up for that” that I see where I truly am, standing on my own frontier, weighing the inconvenience of it all and leaning toward staying home by the fire with a cup of tea.

I see this about myself, that I’m all for someone else making the trip and I’ll come to a museum and learn all about it. But blaze the trail, me?
Would I be willing to be that inconvenienced and discomforted?
Am I willing now, on my own frontier?

Or will I, like Kathy O, choose to pack up my story and take it home?

And if I do, who will I be leaving out there all alone, to shiver in the cold?
I keep thinking about that father at the cookout.

In their book “On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life that Lasts,” Ann  & Charity remind me to stoke the creative fires by getting out and doing something different, something artful perhaps. Something other than writing. On purpose. I am sometimes big on theory and short on follow-through.

Frazier 1
ALL OVER TOWN, I see billboards for the Lewis & Clark exhibit at the Frazier History Museum. “Walk 7,000 miles in their shoes, without the blisters.”

“I’m definitely going to that!” I say.

I set a reminder for Sunday afternoon. “Go to the Frazier this week?” But when Sunday arrives and I hear the alert, the coming week feels too full. I change the alert to the following Sunday, to be reminded again.

The following Sunday, same thing. I move the reminder forward yet another week.

There’s always so much to do.
There’s always dinner to make, the dog to walk, a Lowe’s return, a call to make, a call to take, packing or unpacking, a letter to write, workmen due, a birthday card to buy.

I keep driving around.
I keep seeing billboards.
I keep meaning to go.
I keep resetting the reminder.

And what about the story I promised to write? Just where am I with that?
Stuck. I have no idea where I am. This is no time for wandering museums.

I go to the Frazier.
I’m not there 10 minutes on the frontier with them, facing the enormous challenge, the great distance that must be covered, the dangers that lie ahead, the work, the discomfort, the very real possibility of not surviving, or worse, turning back before reaching the end point,
than I see more clearly than ever
my own frontier,
my own fears.

Now I know where I am, a good thing to know.
But I had to go downtown to learn it.

More details in coming posts.
Frazier 3
Frazier 2

Mary and Martha cup

Since moving to Kentucky, I’ve gotten involved with teaching English to refugees. They work hard and occasionally despair of ever learning the language well enough to make it here, and there’s no turning back.

But every so often I see a light come on in one of their faces and I know they are starting to get it. They are starting to think maybe they can learn to navigate the waters of their new circumstances.

Nothing beats seeing that light in their faces. It’s the light of hope.

I SAW THAT SAME LIGHT recently on the face of a father who’s sustained a tremendous blow he hasn’t been able to talk about. For two years now, he’s barely been able to talk about it. But then I told some of my story and something happened.

We are at a cookout.
Men stand over the grill, discussing cars.
Children play tag.
I cease playing hide-and-seek and sit on the patio, chatting. When I reference my story, the great wound sustained and my ensuing withdrawal, that father lights up. He sits upright in his chair and says, “That’s what happened to me!”

And there’s that look, the look of someone who, for the first time in a long time, is starting to think that, while there’s no turning back, there’s a lot of life ahead, and maybe, just maybe, the waters can be navigated.

Nothing beats seeing that light, that hope.
I am again reminded: Our stories, when we risk sharing them, have the power to help set captives free. This is important work in this world.

If I hadn’t stopped playing hide-and-seek, I would have missed it.

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The Story You Wish Wasn't True About You

The Story You Wish Wasn’t True About You


somewhere over Des Moines

ON the trip home from Nebraska,
the same storms that force a rerouting
also yield views I wouldn’t have wanted to miss.

That’s how it is with reroutings.

* * *

SUNDAY I was late coming home.
Monday first thing workmen came
to tear out the old screen room
and make way for something new.

No time to process
a notepad full of jottings,
a head full of stories.

There are people in and out.
There’s sawing and hammering.
The dog keeps an eye on everything,
apprising me of all arrivals at high pitch.

But today a carpenter
told about buying his first car,
how it was the ’70s and he had long hair
and the salesman didn’t think he could afford it.
He went to the bank and withdrew the full amount from his savings,
asking for it in pennies.
The bank couldn’t oblige,
so he settled for taking it all in $1 bills.
which he took back to the dealer –
not in neat packets,
but loose in a brown paper grocery bag –
and dumped on the salesperson’s desk.

I love a good story better than just about anything
and am glad for the all the sawdust and hammering
and trucks in and out the driveway
that have brought me one.

* * *

THIS is the prayer that came to me at retreat’s end,
that I would see clearly the rerouting,
that I would step in that direction,
that I’d follow through on it, all the way,
not take a stab then leave it half-done.
* * *

I wheeled the suitcase up the walk for the last time, nodding goodbye to the big burr oak while a choir of birds practiced their Sunday song.

I considered all I was taking home with me that I had not carried in and all I carried in that I was leaving behind and I deemed it a good exchange.

Others have blessed me with their stories and by turns I have come out of hiding a little with my own.

There is something better than answers. At times what’s more valuable is knowing the questions worth wrestling with. And letting the rest go.



Flight to Omaha

On the flight from Detroit to Nebraska , I sat next to a man from Iowa who had hoped to sleep. And he did, some, but woke when I smiled big as we headed out over Lake Michigan. Chicago appeared in the distance like toothpicks set in clay, then grew larger and larger until, at last, we flew right over, so high up I’m sure nobody knew we were there, 8:30 on a Friday morning. A ribbon of water that went south forever I guessed to be the Mississippi. The land is a patchwork quilt beneath us another hour until the Missouri River comes into view and I see Omaha sitting there on its edge, just like on the map. Just like I imagined.

From inside the airport in Omaha:





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