Clocks, stoves and life & death coincidences

As a child, I grew up singing a song about a clock that counted the seconds of a man’s life. “My Grandfather’s Clock” – Are you familiar with it? The refrain goes like this:

“Ninety years without slumbering
tick, tock, tick, tock
His life seconds numbering
tick, tock, tick, tock
It stopped, short, never to go again
When the old man died”

I recall this song, which I’d always considered a made-up story, because I’ve been thinking a lot about my mother. Her 100th birthday would have been this month. She lived a full, active life until she passed on nine years ago.

Mom's stove served her faithfully.

Mom’s stove served her faithfully.

On the weekend she died, my husband and I drove to Preston, the small eastern-Iowa town where she lived. We intended to spend the weekend, knock off the list of chores Mom invariably had for us, and return on Sunday afternoon. A typical weekend visit home.

When we walked into the kitchen on Friday afternoon, Mom (age 91) was standing at the stove canning tomatoes. That stove got a lot of use, every day for more than 30 years, since putting meals on the table three times a day was a task Mom thoroughly enjoyed. Because it was so well used, it’s no particular surprise that the stove was on its last legs. In fact, three of the four burners worked intermittently, if at all, and the fourth gave out that day.

Well, my mother couldn’t live without a stove, so we all trooped down to the local hardware store, which also sold major appliances, and picked out a new stove. They delivered it to her house on Saturday morning, in time for Mom to bake an apple crisp and cook lunch. Don’t you love small town Iowa?

That same morning, I convinced Mom to throw out the dish cloth she’d been using because it was worn to threads, held together mostly by the thread she used to sew each new hole closed. With a new stove and a new dish cloth, she was all set.

That afternoon, my husband I drove to a nearby town to finish off the list of chores. As we left, Mom lay down to listen to Rush Limbaugh and take a nap, as she did every afternoon.

When we returned, barely an hour and a half later, we learned from a neighbor that while we were gone, Mom got up to defrost the deep freeze. In the process, she had a stroke. Less than six hours later she was dead.

Past the shock of her sudden passing, I couldn’t help but think about Mom’s stove and her dishcloth. They gave out on the day she died. Just like the Grandfather Clock.

Cosmic coincidence? A mysterious link between animate and inanimate? The workings of my idle mind trying to make sense of life and death? I don’t know. But it was curious, and something I think about.

Have you ever experienced something like this?

Murals fuel & memorialize Irish conflict

Murals as a form of political, social, and cultural expression rose in importance during “The Troubles” – a 30-year conflict that began in 1968 and divided Northern Ireland. Though The Troubles more or less ended with the Belfast “Good Friday” agreement of 1998, murals continue to be a powerful method of communication. Often called the Belfast Murals, these graphic messages are also prominent in Derry where conflict was also heated.

Here are a few I saw on my recent visit to Northern Ireland.

A Protestant, King William of Orange and his victory at the Battle of the Boyne are still celebrated by Irish Protestants.

Protestant, King William of Orange and his victory at the Battle of the Boyne are still celebrated by Irish Protestants.

The republican prisoners commemorated in this mural sought prisoner of war status. Rather than wear prison garb, they opted for blankets; their action became known as "the blanket protest." The prisoners also initiated a hunger strike. Some died before the protest ended.

The republican prisoners commemorated in this mural sought prisoner of war status. Rather than wear prison garb, they opted for blankets; their action became known as “the blanket protest.” The prisoners also initiated a hunger strike, with some dying before the protest ended.

This mural commemorates a a young girl killed during The Troubles. The girl's father continues to visit the mural regularly.

A young girl was one of the thousands of civilians killed during The Troubles. The girl’s father  visits the mural regularly.

Some believe the British Army must be held accountable for the deaths they caused during The Troubles.

The campaign continues to hold the British Army accountable for the predominately Catholic deaths they perpetrated during The Troubles.

The fight for a united Ireland continues.

Arguing for a united Ireland.

Murals take on new causes as well as old.

Artists take on new causes as well as old.

An artist works on a new mural.

New murals are created, as artists take up current events and new causes.

The history of Northern Ireland is complicated. Loyalists – Unionists – Republicans – Nationalists – Catholics – Protestants. Even with repeated explanations by our guides, I am confident I don’t have it all straight.

What these murals did for me was convey the tremendous emotion surrounding all of the issues. More than words, these murals told me the issues remain, even though, thankfully, people aren’t still killing each other.

On Memorial Day, we remember those who fought and died for our country. With these visual reminders, every day is Memorial Day in Northern Ireland.

Readers: Have you seen murals used in a similar way in other parts of the world? If you have, please share.

How important is “place” in writing?

My recent trip to Ireland has me thinking again about the importance of place to a writer. Ireland has a rich written history, including literary greats James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, and W.B. Yates. Those names were prominent as we toured the Emerald Isle landscape that inspired their writing.

The distinctive tabletop mountain, Benbulbin, inspired Yates' poetry.

The distinctive tabletop mountain, Benbulbin, inspired Yates’ poetry.

At the 2,000-year-old Drumcliff Church, we visited W.B. Yates’ grave and then, as we drove through the countryside where Yates lived and wrote, we were treated by our guide Eilo to recitations of Yates’ verses.

After choosing subjects for his verse from a number of other countries, Yeats said:

“I convinced myself … that I should never go for the scenery of a poem to any country but my own, and I think that I shall hold to that conviction to the end.”

In view of Benbulbin – Yates’ favorite mountain – I listened to the rush of a waterfall, gazed at sheep pastured in fields ringed with ivy-covered rock walls, and knew exactly why Yates came to the conclusion to center his writing on this place.

Woven into Irish place are centuries of conflict – British vs Irish, Protestant vs Catholic – aspects of Irish place that continue to influence Irish writers today. 

Author David Lawlor and I enjoyed an all-too-brief writer chat.

Author David Lawlor and I enjoyed an all-too-brief writer chat.

A treat during the tour was having lunch with historical fiction writer David Lawlor. We met via social media and I’ve become a big fan of his writing.

In 1921, at just age 20, Lawlor’s grandfather joined scores of IRA men in an attack on the Dublin Custom House. Lawlor’s grandfather survived; others did not.

Each day, Lawlor walks to work past the Custom House, a symbol of British rule in Ireland. The social and political history Lawlor traverses daily inspired his series of novels set in the years surrounding the Irish War for Independence.

Everywhere I travel, I am inspired. In fact, inspiration is one of the reasons I hit the road. But, as I left the emerald landscape of Ireland and returned to the green fields of Iowa, I was affirmed in my own decision to write stories based in Iowa, past and present. I also know that if I ever need more inspiration, it will be waiting for me in the homeland of Yates and Lawlor.

To read more about Lawlor’s grandfather and other ‘bit players of history’ visit Lawlor’s blog History With A Twist.

If you enjoy historical adventure stories, you’ll enjoy Lawlor’s book “Tan” and the subsequent books in the series.

How important is staying plugged in?

“Is it plugged in?” That was the first question tech support always asked back when computers were new and I called to find out why the alien on my desk wouldn’t work.

Dutifully, I’d untangle my feet from the writhing morass of cords under my desk and track the computer from the wall outlet to the back of the computer. With embarrassing frequency, the connection was loose. Plugged in securely, the computer returned to life.

Ireland - Plugging into a new source of energy.

Ireland – Plugging into a new source of energy.

Eventually I caught on to that game and checked the connections before I called tech support. When I smugly assured those helpful wizards that my computer was indeed plugged in, they had this head-slapping advice:

“Then unplug it, wait 30 seconds, and plug it back in.”

Following their advice, the computer almost always blinked rapidly and woke to do my bidding. My word. If life were always so simple. Anne Lamott suggests that it may be. She says:

“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes .. including you.”

For much of the past many months, I’ve worked diligently to write the first draft of my novel. For most of this time, I’ve been securely plugged in, writing most days and thinking about the characters and story when I wasn’t writing. I have made great progress, though with increasing frequency, my energy lags.

I know it is time to unplug and re-boot. To that end, my sister and I embark this month for a trip to Ireland. We have no Irish ancestry that we know of, but we are both drawn to the green of the Emerald Isle, to the coastal landscapes, to the people and the pubs. The sense of place is important to my writing, and I am fascinated to see the place that has spawned so many great writers and enduring stories.

During most of May, I will be unplugged, literally and figuratively. No computer. Limited wi-fi access. Any writing I do will be old school, using the notebook and pencil in my pocket.

When we return, I expect to plug in, blink rapidly, and spring back to this life, fully charged with the energy and perspectives travel invariably offers.

I look forward to sharing thoughts on my journey – when I return and plug in again. In the meantime, I wish you moments of unplugged luxury, too.

Courage – Would you have enough?

Harriet Tubman – abolitionist who liberated more than 700 slaves.

Harriet Tubman. Oskar Shindler. Esther. People iconic for their courage and the bold actions they took to save the lives of others, actions that put their own lives at risk.

Every time I hear a story about someone who stands up to society, their peers, their family – someone who goes against the norm – to right an injustice, I wonder if I would be so brave. Fortunately, I have never had to put my own life on the line; fortunately, most of us never have to.

But most of us do encounter events in our daily lives when we see something happening that we know is wrong. Then we face the choice: engage or walk away, speak up or remain silent.

I confess, I have failed the test more often than I like to admit. One time in particular sticks in my mind.

For 30 years I worked in the public relations business, a job that sent me all over the United States interviewing farmers, veterinarians, and scientists who used my clients’ products. One trip to a North Carolina tobacco farm in 1977 opened my eyes to race relations as I’d never experienced it before, while leaving life-long scars on my heart.

As the interview wound down, the farmer and I were standing in the yard, exchanging pleasantries about the weather and local sports teams. Just then a young black boy, maybe eight or nine years old, came out of the barn.

“Hey, Joseph.” The farmer waved him over. “You need to dance for this lady.”

The boy stood, his arms limp at his sides, his bare feet covered in the soft dust of the lane.

I blanched. Dance for the lady? “Oh, no,” I excused myself. “I need to be going.”

“He likes to do it. He’s a real good dancer,” the farmer insisted.

The boy looked at me. I cannot recall if I smiled or even met his eyes.

Dance for the lady? All I could think about was slave owners forcing their slaves to entertain visitors. Sweat poured down my neck. Thunder roared in my ears. My eyes swam. I wanted no part of this. Yet I could see no way out.

The boy danced for me. And I said nothing.

Why? Out of some misguided sense that I would offend the farmer, my client’s customer? Because I was so shocked I didn’t know what to say? Because I was a coward? I really don’t know. What I do know is that I will always wear the shame of not stopping that demeaning act.

Confronted with a blatant injustice today, I hope I would do better, that I would have the courage to act. But who knows for sure? The circumstances are seldom simple, the decisions seldom clearcut.

The question of if, when, and how to engage in the face of injustice is at the heart of the novel I’m writing now. In the course of her work as a consultant, my main character must face her own biases and decide how long she can remain on the ‘it’s not my job’ fence.

The story is autobiographical only in that the issue is one I’ve always thought about. Like me, my main character doesn’t always get it right.

What has your experience been in speaking up – or not – when you saw something that seemed unfair?

You just never know

Fork in the road

The unplanned-for route may be the right road after all.

If you just spent four years in college to become a teacher, would you take a secretarial position instead? I did and found myself on a path loaded with unexpected opportunities.

After graduating in 1972 with a degree in speech & English education, I faced the hard reality that I could not land a full time teaching position. Needing regular income, I did the unexpected – what some probably considered unwise. I took what I could find – a position as editorial assistant at an association magazine, a position that could more accurately have been labeled ‘secretary.’

Recently, I returned to my alma mater, the University of Northern Iowa, to share my career experiences with several classes of creative writing and public relations students. Bright, young people receiving a good education and preparing themselves for jobs in their chosen fields. Just as I did.

After I told the students about my start in a secretarial chair, one young woman asked, “Did you regret taking that secretarial job?”

“I didn’t,” I told her. Not then. Not now. Not at all.

I needed the paycheck, but beyond that, I explained, everything was new to me and an opportunity to learn. I knew nothing about the publishing business and I jumped at the chance. As I took on assignments, I found I had a talent for writing. Then, six months after I started, the man who had been editor for 40 years retired and they gave me his job. Unexpected. Unpredictable. Unbelievable.

New-found skills, industry knowledge and a boatload of connections came with that job. Then my husband pointed me to a Help Wanted Ad for an ‘ag journalist.’ “Sounds like what you do,” he said. I applied.

It turned out to be a position at a small public relations agency. I knew nothing about public relations, but it sounded interesting. I took the job, an entree into another new industry. That position led to one at a larger agency where I worked for 20 years, learning a host of new skills, with emphasis on product marketing, developing messages for clients and teaching them how to deliver those messages, moving up the ladder and finally earning the position of President.

Then I came to Robert Frost’s famous fork in the road  – a time when I could stay on what had become a well known and well respected career path or strike off in the new and unknown direction of creative writing. I took the road less traveled. But I was remarkably well prepared for that road. All those previous experiences ensured I had the skill set not only to write books but also to effectively market them.

In Steve Jobs now-famous commencement speech to Stanford University, he points out that it’s only in retrospect, looking back on life, that we can see the dots and how they all connect. Someone looking at my career path now might think it was all brilliantly planned out. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, I worked hard, took advantage of opportunities, and built my skills. Just as important, I think, was staying open to possibility.

I hope some of the students I spoke with experience – and embrace – the unexpected along their career paths. I hope they are able to look past the job title. Because you just never know. Maybe the real future starts in a secretary’s chair.

Have you had a you-just-never-know experience? Do share.

How important is the frame?

A few years ago, as I walked the Crystal Bridges Art Museum grounds, I spotted a single picture frame set on posts in the middle of a soccer-sized field. Intrigued, I walked out to look closer, reasoning that this frame must be quite important to command such a space.

Framing nature at Chrystal Bridges Museum

Framing nature at Crystal Bridges Museum

As I circled the nondescript structure, I realized that the frame gave form to whatever you saw through it. The frame and what it held were equally important.

My friend Mary recently enclosed an open air deck with windows. She found that the window frames focused the way she looked at the trees, buildings, and landscape beyond, causing her to appreciate the views from her deck in ways she hadn’t before.

Framed for drama and impact. Photo courtesy of Morguefile.com

Framed for impact. Photo courtesy of Morguefile.com

Frames are, of course, nothing new. They show up everywhere in everyday life – movies, TV, computers, pictures on the walls, windows – each one encouraging us to focus on, to look at, something in a particular way.

As writers we make decisions daily on what story to tell. We choose the frames with purposeful intention.

Memoirists choose what parts of their life to share. In my memoir Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl, I picked stories from those formative years when I was between 8 and 12. Years when the values my parents taught us kids came into focus (and conflict) in my young mind. The very same events depicted in my childhood memoir could have told a much different story if I’d used them to frame a look into the sometimes unhealthy ways I existed in my first marriage.

As I wrote my novel Go Away Home, deciding the time(frame) was one challenge. If the story began in 1900 and the main character Liddie was 10, the story would be entirely different than if the story were set in 1913 and Liddie were 16. The technological, political, and social differences between 1900 and 1913 change what might be included in the frame, not to mention the differences between how a 10-year-old and a 16-year-old would view herself and her actions.

In my work in progress, literary fiction set in Iowa, the main character is forced to face her own prejudices when she sees life through the frame of immigrants working in a meat packing plant.

Recently, I joined several authors at a retreat where I read a paragraph synopsis of my latest work. Because I mentioned one relationship in this synopsis, the listeners jumped to the conclusion the novel is a love story. It is not. Clearly, the frame I had chosen for my story was wrong.

In the wrong frame, a beautiful tree is blah. In the right frame, something mundane comes into compelling focus. Change the frame, change the story.

Taking writing on the road

Writing can be a solitary business. When I’m working on a writing project, as I am now with my novel in progress, I get to my keyboard each day by 9 a.m. and do my best to stay on task until noon. I dive headlong and alone into my story – forgoing phone calls, emails, social media and texts. For the past couple of months, I even set aside blogging. (Did you notice?)

I was urged out of my writing isolation by an invitation from Janet Givens who offered her home on Chincoteague Island, VA, as a retreat space for writers she’s come to know via social media. Since my writing friend Mary Gottschalk and I love a good road trip; we love talking writing; and we love the inspiration that inevitably results from our time together, we loaded the car and headed out.

Friends & writers - Mary, Shirley & Carol

Friends & writers – Mary, Shirley & Carol

We looked forward to joining the authors on Chincoteague Island, but the journey to get there was an equally important part of our experience. In Harrisonburg VA, we spent a night with Shirley Showalter, author, friend, dairy farmer’s daughter, and co-founder with me of I Grew Up Country. The beauty of the Shenandoah Valley grew more vibrant in color and meaning as Shirley and her husband Stuart shared their Mennonite and family history. Thoughtful conversations about next stages in writing and life made it difficult to move on.

Natural beauty deep in the earth.

Natural beauty deep in the earth.

After a morning at Luray Caverns and an afternoon in the Shenandoah National Park, we were welcomed to Charlottesville, VA, by Joan Rough and her husband Bill and their dogs – Max and Sam. In between tours of Monticello and the University of Virginia, we tucked conversations on Joan’s upcoming memoir, Bill’s playwriting, and art in general since Joan’s creative talent manifests in many directions.

Making avatars into real people. Mary, Carol & Joan.

Making avatars into real people. Mary, Carol & Joan.

Monticello in spring

Monticello in spring

 

 

 

Finally on Chincoteague, we joined Janet, poet Merril Smith, memoirist Marian Beaman and author/nurturer of women’s voices Susan Weidener. Loosely structured, the retreat became whatever each of the authors wanted. Blogs. Poetry. Editing. Essays. Marketing. Technology. Who knows what will result when a group of creative minds come together? Friendship. Sharing. Support. Inspiration. Synergy, for sure.

Synergy: the creation of a whole that is greater than the simple sum of its parts.

Every day of the trip brought new thoughts, new inspiration, new friendships and richer understanding of renewed friendships. I hope you’ll take a moment to look into each of the women from this writing journey. You won’t be disappointed.

Cooking together deepens the writing experience.

Cooking together deepens the writing experience.

Even though writing can be solitary, I’ve never felt alone. The synergy of weeks like this are one reason why. As I return to working on my novel, I’ll do it with renewed enthusiasm and insights ignited by this trip.

 

One bit of Synergy: Our discussions of social media techniques led me to make a couple of changes. I added a box you can click to notify you of responses to comments you make. And, I moved the share buttons to the handy position below. If you find these posts interesting or helpful, please share with your friends.

Iowa Caucus yields host of winners

Des Moines, Iowa, caucus goers stand to be counted. Action of great interest to media. Photo courtesy of Robin Fortney

Iowa caucus goers stand to be counted. Action of great interest to media. Photo courtesy of Robin Fortney

I woke this morning with a profound sense of peace. In spite of blizzard force winds raging overnight, it was remarkably quiet. Political ads no longer filled the airwaves. Campaign text messages no longer flooded my phone. Local coffee shops are devoid of TV cameras and candidates. Can it be true? Are the caucuses really over? Is it safe to go back in the water?

The Iowa Caucuses – a rather quirky political event – begin the process of selecting the next president of the United States. This year was particularly exciting with spirited competition in both parties. 

You can read ad infinitum about the caucus results, who won and who lost and what happens next, elsewhere. As I participated in the caucus, I saw winners of a different ilk.

Winners

Celebrity Spotters. During caucus season, if you don’t add to your life list of personalities seen up close and personal, you made an effort not to. I stopped for coffee one morning and ran into Chris Christie. Another day, I set up my computer at a coffee shop to write and was completely distracted by a CBS TV crew filming Chief White House Correspondent Major Garrett interviewing average Iowans. A friend planned to see all of the candidates this season. Her only requirement was that they come to her part of Des Moines. She tagged more than 75%.

Iowa Tourism.Caucus tourism” is a real thing. People from all over the country and all over the world come to Iowa in the dead of winter to see democracy in action. And to participate. Tourist volunteers from across the country arrive individually and in small and large groups to knock on doors and staff phone banks for candidates. Some visit just to enjoy the rallies and soak in the energy.

The Candidates – Iowa’s grassroots approach forces candidates to leave behind the soundbite, look voters in the eye, and explain their positions. Hillary Clinton is stronger because Bernie Sanders forced her to engage at a level she may not have otherwise. Ted Cruz held events and talked with voters in every Iowa county while Donald Trump opted for large events where he controlled questions and blocked media. Look who won.

Both Parties, New voters, Future voters. Caucus participation was record breaking this year in part because candidates brought messages and style that attracted voters young and old who didn’t think the establishment spoke for them. Nothing but good in all those new, enthusiastic voices. May they stay engaged. Caucusing is a family affair and many families bring their children who grow up seeing their parents involved in democratic action.

The Rest of the U.S. – Already the field is tightening up as non-viable candidates drop out. Believe me, after watching political ads ad nauseam for months, I know you want to thank us for taking one for the team.

And losers?

Every caucus, the inevitable Why Iowa? question surfaces. The complaint is that Iowa doesn’t represent the country so it doesn’t deserve the honor. I  suggest Iowa does represent the country in the best possible ways.

  • Intelligent people who take the time to learn about the issues and engage the candidates.
  • Engaged people who can gather with neighbors, stand in public representing vastly different candidates and views, and go on being good friends and neighbors at the end of the night.

I am prejudiced, but I gauge the Iowa Caucuses a success. In any case, we happily pass the baton to New Hampshire while we enjoy peace and quiet for a couple of months knowing it won’t last. Soon after the November election, we’ll start seeing people again, potential candidates testing the water for the next go round.

Did you caucus in Iowa or watch the event from afar? What did you think?

Cleaning out, letting go, starting fresh

Photo courtesy of: MorgueFile.com

My office bookshelves were nearly this bad. Photo courtesy of: MorgueFile.com

I ended the old year as I often do – by cleaning out my office. This December gave me an even better opportunity to clean out, though, since my husband and I agreed to tackle remodeling my office – the last room in our house to get a new ceiling, new flooring, new paint. Since every surface would be new, every single thing had to come out before we could begin.

Touching every item twice – going out and going back in – as well as the weeks when boxes filled our bedroom and furniture distributed through the rest of the house, gave me ample opportunity to consider what was there and how much of it I really needed.

It also allowed an opportunity to look at my life and how it has changed – or stayed the same – over time. From this exercise I observed:

Letting go takes time. When my mother passed away in 2007, many of her things came into my office. Everything from memory books to hats to estate documents. For the first time, looking at these things, touching them, remembering, did not leave me in tears. I was able, finally, to give away, to throw out, or to consolidate the memories to a couple of small boxes. There may be a time to let even these go. Maybe in another 10 years.

The same could be said for the books and files from my 30-year career in public relations consulting. I finally admitted that if I hadn’t looked in these files for 14 years, it was unlikely I ever would. Out they went.

Themes arise. I found no fewer than 10 sketch pads of various sizes, each with less than a dozen pages used. Since childhood, I have yearned to draw. I hadn’t realized how persistent that yearning has been over the years. It may be time to act on this interest in a more purposeful way. Drawing and writing are not far apart, I think.

I kept all of the sketch pads and all of the drawing materials, consolidating them into one place. I should not have to buy new when I take up drawing again.

Losing pounds. Like many, I often think about losing a few pounds at the end of the year, though I commit to that idea about as well as most and with less vigor each year. In December, I succeeded in spades. I estimate I shed a good 50 pounds, probably more, of books and files. knickknacks and gifts never given. I was stern with myself, and I think I did a pretty good job. Not the pounds I usually think of shedding, but even so, I now walk into my office feeling ‘lighter’ with all the clean, open space. It cheers my mind to realize that I know what I have and where everything is.

I spent almost no time at all writing in December, giving myself over happily to the holidays and family and remodeling the office. Now I start the new year fresh, with a new coat of paint, new clarity, and new purpose. I hope last year ended as well for you and that you, too, look forward to 2016 with optimism.