Going deep inside – Perspective 3

Carlsbad Caverns - "Curtains"

These “drapery” formations evoke a whale’s mouth.

Recently, I’ve considered perspective from high up in a hot air balloon and up close at Cadillac Ranch. I also had a chance to go deep with a visit to Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico.

I’ve been in caves before, but always in the company of others. I toured the massive spaces of Carlsbad Caverns on my own.

I walked to the Big Room (rather than take the elevator) via the Natural Entrance Trail, a steep descent of 1 1/4 mile that takes approximately an hour. I’d never been so deep under the earth’s surface. What would it smell like? Feel like? Sound like? Would I be afraid to be nearly 800 feet under the earth’s surface?

Carlsbad Caverns - Stelagtites

Stalactites connect to stalagmites and eventually form pillars.

With conscious dawdling, I let other visitors overtake and pass me on the trail, leaving me to soak in the experience alone.

The trail was dimly lit and impressive formations enjoyed greater lighting, but there were points where the space was darker. I found those places, stood still, closed my eyes and waited, exploring sensory input as it reached me.

Underground, no traffic, wind, or animal sounds penetrate. Would I be able to hear anything? I stilled the noise in my head and waited. Eventually, there it was, the sound of a water drop plinking into a pool. Not often, not regularly, but there.

Eyes closed, I soaked in total blackness. No street lights, no car lights, no sun, no moon. Impenetrable black. After a few minutes, still turned toward the darkest place in the cave, I opened my eyes. I could barely make out the black pool where the water drops fell. That was with the faintest trail light bleeding in. I wonder what else there was in the darkest places my eyes could not reach?

"Popcorn" created fairy villages and Oriental shrines.

“Popcorn” forms fairy villages and Oriental shrines.

Temperatures in the cave are a constant 56 degrees year around. At one point, I turned to look back up the trail and felt a breeze against my face. As I considered why they might be ventilating the cave, I happened upon a trail sign. As it turns out I’d come upon the one spot in the cave where a natural draft from the surface finds its way deep underground. I chuckled.

After an hour and a quarter on the trail, when I finally reached the Big Room, I had a passing thought that I’d seen all I needed to see. Could there really be enough to hold my interest? Oh, my, yes. The name ‘Big Room’ understates the treasures of a cavern the size of six football fields – a cavern large enough to house Notre Dame Cathedral.

Carlsbad Caverns - Pillars

Pillars as tall as Notre Dame Cathedral reached the top of the Big Room.

Walking the trails that wound through the Big Room took another hour. Along the way, I saw formations that were whimsical, naughty, majestic. reminiscent of Broadway shows and Biblical stories.

Rather than fear, I felt awe. These caves have been forming for hundreds of thousands of years. Some of the formations are still growing. Long before people existed. Long after people are gone. These caverns were, are, and will be.

Touring Carlsbad Caverns reminded me of the work memoir writers do as we dig deep in the experiences of our lives and try to make sense of it all. Memoir writers who do the hard work go into the dark places and discover unexpected treasures. The experience may make them laugh or cry. It may be irreverent or holy. But in doing so, the writer learns some of the truth of her life. With luck, she then writes a story that conveys that truth to the reader.

From high above – Perspective

It's a whole different perspective from the ground.

It’s a whole different perspective from the ground.

Hot air balloons float over my house in Des Moines with some regularity in the summer. I’ve watched from the ground and wondered what it would be like to go up in one. What would it feel like? What would I hear? What would I see? How would it be differing than looking at the ground from an airplane seat?

The soft arms of a saguaro reach toward us.

The soft arms of a saguaro reach toward us.

Being up in a balloon would provide an entirely different perspective. Of that I was certain. When I visited my sister in Tucson, we agreed it was time. A first-ever opportunity for both of us.

I’ll cut to the chase. The entire experience was magnificent.

Early morning light painted a soft fringe on the saguaro cacti. Were it not for this flight, I’d never have thought to describe a saguaro as “soft.”

Our shadow preceded us as we flew toward Sombrero Peak.

Our shadow preceded us as we flew toward Sombrero Peak.

Floating along at 400 feet, we spotted javelinas, coyotes, deer, and rabbits threading through the cacti, skirting around buildings, traveling close, but not too close, to each other. From this perspective, we saw them all exist in the same territory, aware of each other perhaps, but for the moment in a live-and-let-live mode.

I felt child-like delight watching the shadow of our balloon against the mountains as we drifted along.

Right over the top of Sombrero Peak.

Right over the top of Sombrero Peak.

With blasts of heat from the burner – the only sound disturbing the morning silence – we rose to 2,000+ feet and crested Sombrero Peak in the Tucson Mountains. Our pilot who’d been flying for 30 years had never flown directly over this peak. His delight made me think how wonderful it is to discover new pleasure in something you do all the time.

Light and dark shadows on the mountain range.

Light and dark shadows on the mountain range.

From greater heights, we enjoyed the patterns of fields, a quarry, and the mountain range – designs we could never take in with our feet on the ground.

Recently, I wrote about Cadillac Ranch and the importance of taking a closer look. There’s equal value to getting the “30,000-ft” view.

In life and in writing, it helps to step back (or in this case, ‘up’) every once in a while. To get away from the minutiae. To see how the larger pieces fit together. To gain new perspectives on what I thought I knew.

Thanks for joining me on this flight of fancy. How do you step away from the details and gain bigger picture perspective? Please share.

Can you believe your eyes?

Seeing something with your own eyes is proof. Right? At one time or another, most of us have said: “Seeing is believing.” or “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Drifts pile 20-30 feet high - ideal for sledding and snowboarding.

Drifts pile 20-30 feet high – ideal for sledding and snowboarding.

We’ve also said the opposite when reality goes against what we know or believe to be true – “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”

I experienced a disconcerting disconnect between my eyes and brain when I visited White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. Encompassing 275 acres of desert, White Sands is the largest gypsum dunefield in the world.

Coming out of the snowy Midwest as I’d done, my brain was conditioned to to see white as snow. To expect cold. To be wary of ice.

Prefer to sled barefoot? Snowboard in shorts? Try White Sands.

Prefer to sled barefoot? Snowboard in shorts? Try White Sands.

As I drove further into the park, leaving vegetation behind, the 20-30-foot high drifts of white looked like snow. I grabbed a coat as I got out of my car only to remember it was 70 degrees out.

Graders cleared the roads, scraping away drifts of white, leaving packed white surfaces. I touched my brakes lightly lest I skid off the road at the next curve. I accelerated with great caution fearful my wheels would spin out.

White Sands National Monument - Silhouette

Reality is distorted in White Sands.

Visitors to the dunes did nothing to clarify. Barefoot kids in shorts played at winter sports, sledding and snowboarding off the steep dunes.

As a writer, I often draw on my own experiences for emotion and sense. My time at White Sands gave me a whole new well of disorientation from which to draw.

Even though I was in the park for five hours, I never did reconcile the reality of what was there with what my mind believed to be true.

I really could not believe my eyes.

What’s the value of taking a closer look?

“You have got to be kidding,” I whispered when I drove past the Cadillac Ranch west of Amarillo, Texas. The famous line of ten Cadillacs planted front bumpers in the ground and rear bumpers in the air was barely visible in the distance.

A tribute to America's love of driving?

A tribute to America’s love of driving?

I shook my head, unable to believe I’d driven 75 miles out of my way to see this landmark. Another sucker, I thought as I made a U turn at the next I-40 exit, back tracked on the frontage road, left my car on a cold, grey day, and trekked a quarter mile across a barren field to look more closely.

The nearer I came, the more intrigued I grew. The cars began to pop with color and texture, with messages left by previous pilgrims to this shrine. The rusted out cars were so covered with spray paint the surfaces bubbled like lava. It was not unrealistic to question whether the cars could have remained upright sans paint. Graffiti memorialized Mom, love, and messages of dubious intent.

Cadillacs as sculptures.

Cadillacs as sculpture and writing lesson.

From a distance the Cadillac Ranch was a big nothing. Close up, it was a fascinating essay in excess, in silliness, in commentary on America.

As I walked around each car, marveling at what these monoliths say about all of us who came there, I realized Cadillac Ranch stands as a tribute to one of my first writing instructors, Mary Kay Shanley. Mary Kay always exhorted us to take a smaller picture, to take a closer look. She gave huge assignments, all to be completed in no more than 250 words.  

Mary Kay would have us write about the Cadillac Ranch, but tell an entire story by focusing on one car. One axle. One wheel. In 250 words.

From a distance, Cadillac Ranch underwhelms.

Cadillac Ranch from a distance

Her assignments were not exercises in the impossible, though sometimes they felt like that. Her point was that if you focused small, zeroing in on the core points that really mattered, choosing each word with care, you could convey more meaning with greater effect in 250 words than if you used three times as many words without care.

With the right 250 words, you’d feel as though you knew the Cadillac Ranch even if you’d never been there. That lesson is one I’ve always remembered. Thanks to Mary Kay for drumming that concept into my head. Thanks to the Cadillac Ranch for a timely reminder.

If you visit:

If you happen to pass through Amarillo, take a half hour and stop at Cadillac Ranch. It’s better up close – just like good writing. And take a can of spray paint. It’s encouraged.

For a even more pleasure:

Sign up for Mary Kay Shanley’s newsletter, Words & Other Worthy Endeavors. Whether you write or not, you’ll enjoy spending time with Mary Kay. Her website is under construction at the moment, but you can reach her through LinkedIn.

Soaking in natural beauty

Some places encourage – perhaps even demand – that a person stop thinking, stop talking, and simply soak in nature. Sedona, Arizona, is one of them.

I had the pleasure of spending two days this past week in the natural beauty of red rock splendor. A Pink Jeep Tour was worth the money as we journeyed to remote locations and learned about the geology, botany, and human history of the area.

I invite you enjoy some of the beauty, too.

Red rocks reveal history of millions of years.

Red rocks reveal history of millions of years.

View from the top of Submarine Rock

View from the top of Submarine Rock

Cactus frame red rocks.

Cacti frame red rock spires.

Cyprus tree may be a 1,000+ years old

Cyprus tree 1,000+ years old

Pink Jeep Tours get two thumbs up.

Pink Jeep Tours get two thumbs up.

Writing take away? It’s no wonder so much art is created in Sedona. Nature inspires me when I take time to absorb what it has to share. Then  I return to the keyboard refreshed and with new insights.

Where do you go for inspiration?

Marketing a book with a “Use By” date

This  cartoon circulated on Facebook, and I laughed because it hit me where I was. When I indie published Go Away Home this past July, I geared up for intensive marketing over the long term. I didn’t realize my new book would have a “Use By” date.Simon or Peter Cartoon

I published the novel through Createspace for worldwide distribution, and I also printed a quantity of books through a traditional printer to use locally because the per copy price was significantly better. I also printed bookmarks in quantity. If it took me a year or more to use up the supply, that was okay. It’s not like they were going to spoil.

Then Amazon Publishing came calling, acquired my book, and what do you know? Now there is an expiration date. I can market the current edition of my book and distribute the bookmarks until July. But when the new edition launches, the first edition goes off the market.

I can’t bring myself to recycle them. So, what to do with more paperback copies of the book and more bookmarks than I can use through my normal channels in the next five months?

This month, as I drive to Arizona to visit family and friends, I’m spreading the love with my book and bookmarks. In each town I visit, I find the public library and gift a book. In each rest area and restaurant, I hand out bookmarks and leave a few on tables. I feel a little like Johnny Appleseed, only I’m sowing the love of reading.

This is my idea of the day. Do you have ideas for other uses for books and bookmarks with a Use By date? Let me know. The clock is ticking.

Tips for being in two places at once

The magic of a modern-day book launch.

file0001820510540I’m not in the habit of defying the time/space continuum, but this month I’ll be giving it my best shot. July is the official launch of my World War One-era novel Go Away Home, and the month is packed.

My first event is a library book talk today. The week of July 8, I return to eastern Iowa where I grew up for three events. At the same time, I’ll be zipping through cyberspace making the first four stops on a virtual book tour. The rest of the month repeats the challenge with more blog stops and more in-person events each week. July’s last event (at least that I know about right now) is July 25.

Maybe the best I can hope for is not to meet myself coming and going. I’ve taken these steps to ensure a smooth launch:

  • Written four versions of a presentation that focuses on Writing History. It’s a challenge to anticipate what audiences will want to hear, but my journey from memoir to fiction with an emphasis on the historical commonality seems a good place to start. With four outlines in hand, I can adapt on the go as the presentation evolves based on audience questions.
  • Wrote a multitude of guest posts. Invitations by author/bloggers Shirley Showalter, Annamaria Bazzi, David Lawlor, P.C. Zick (July 9),and Christoph Fischer (Aug 4) to visit their blogs have helped me prepare for interviews, focus my thinking and get the word out. I’m grateful to them for hosting me.
  • Product in place. My eastern Iowa events are in towns without bookstores. Since I know from my memoir experience that people want a local place to buy the book, I’ve arranged with two pharmacies, the county historical society and a library to stock copies.
  • Media outreach. I’ve returned to my public relations roots to prepare media materials and made them available on my website. I’ve targeted pitches to key media for interviews. I’ve made sure local media in the geography surrounding my events have news releases and images well in advance.
  • E-mail marketing. On the theory that people who know me will be most interested in hearing about Go Away Home, I’ve sent a series of targeted e-mails to everyone on my list. The response has been encouraging and sends me forward on a wave of good feelings.

Modern technology is a wonderful thing. Without the Internet, wi-fi, and cell phones, this would not be possible. Time will tell how my body reacts to being in two places at the same time.

No doubt, I’ll arrive at the end of the July exhausted. During the month, I know I’ll have reconnected with old friends, met many new friends, and had a lot of fun.

I think I’m prepared. I hope so. But are there other things I should be doing? If you think of something, let me know. It’s not too late. After all, if I can be in two places, surely three can’t be that difficult ;)

How did transportation open up your world?

As a farm kid, getting my driver’s license was a huge step. Without it, the bus to and from school was my only option. With a license, I could participate in cheer leading, sports, choir, speech contests, and a multitude of other activities. A license was my ticket to the outside world.

Janet Givens

Janet Givens

Since she lived on the Kazakh Steppe, Janet Givens has been exploring cultural differences and how they are bridged. She’s invited me to her blog to talk about how transportation plays into bridging those gaps as they did for me growing up on the farm and for Liddie, the main character in my upcoming novel Go Away Home.

Transportation: The path between worlds: Carol Bodensteiner

Posted by Janet Givens on May 21, 2014, in Crossing Boundaries, Life, Travel

I’m pleased to have Carol Bodensteiner join us this month. But in the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that for nearly the first year I was active in social media, I got Carol confused with Shirley Showalter. They both wrote memoirs of growing up on a farm, both had blond profile pictures, and both were from somewhere west of me. But I’d read Carol’s memoir Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl early on, so when Shirley announced the launch of her book, Blush, earlier this year, and I realized she’d grown up in Lancaster, PA, I figured it out. 
I came to see these two remarkable women for what they truly are: twins separated at birth … (Read more)

How has transportation figured into expanding your world? Or restricting it? We invite you to join the discussion – here and on Janet’s blog.

Transportation – The path between worlds: Carol Bodensteiner – See more at: http://janetgivens.com/transportation-the-path-between-worlds-carol-bodensteiner/#sthash.pVZLCbLP.dpuf

A tale of two cemeteries

Wilmington National Cemetery

Wilmington National Cemetery

Every grave holds a story. That’s one of the reasons I’m drawn to cemeteries. So many lives. So many stories. Yet we know so little. Only tiny bits of information. Names that may suggest country of origin. Dates that attest to a life long-lived or to one cut short by a childhood disease or war. A line may suggest relationships: husband, father. We’re left to guess at all the rest.

In Wilmington, NC, we found two cemeteries that told larger stories of people as a whole. As we drove down Market Street, we spotted the pristine white stones and regimental layout of a national cemetery. Equally interesting was an historical marker pointing toward a Confederate cemetery.

At the Wilmington National Cemetery, we were fortunate to meet the cemetery superintendent, a former member of the marine corps. He shared that the cemetery was established to hold the remains of Union soldiers from the Civil War. Of the 2,039 Civil War soldiers interred, 698 are known and 1,341 are unknown.

The stones of black soldiers who fought in the war are marked “U.S.C.T” – United States Colored Troops. The officers who led these colored troops were white. Their stones also say U.S.T.C. You can tell they were white men because their stones also include an officer rank. Black men were never officers.

The cemetery also includes the remains of a group of Puerto Rican laborers who died in the influenza pandemic of 1918.

Stones tell the stories of men and women who served in subsequent wars: Korea, Vietnam, World War I and World War II.

The cemetery is full or almost so. Family members may still be interred in the same graves as their service men and women.

Oakdale Cemetery

Oakdale Cemetery

We moved on to the Oakdale Cemetery, thinking it was a comparable space for those who fought on the side of the Confederacy. It was that and so much more.

When we drove through the cemetery gates, we realized we’d come upon a much different land – a cemetery unlike any either of us had ever seen before.

Driveways curved through trees hung with Spanish moss. Cement stair steps bearing family names led up to raised grave areas. Canopies over freshly dug graves told us this cemetery is still active.

Unlike the military-straight lines of the National Cemetery, Oakdale graves have been laid out following the curve of the land. The tropical climate of the area encourages lush vegetation to over-grow the stones and black moss to make even newer stones appear ancient. The apparent haphazard layout of the graves and stones makes mowing by machine impossible.

Oakdale is designed in a Victorian mode. Sections were planned as a maze of curved avenues winding through the hilly terrain. Native and landscape vegetation interspersed by iron fences and garden furniture contribute to a garden look. In the mid-nineteenth century, people used cemeteries as parks where people strolled, picnicked and socialized.

As we drove through the cemetery, we did not think about this garden aspect. The gray skies and rain contributed to an over-riding sense of foreboding. We agreed the site would be the perfect place for a very scary movie.

While Oakdale does contain the Confederate Memorial Monument (which I realize as I write we didn’t see), the 100+ acres include much more. Within the cemetery are the graves of 400 who died to a yellow fever epidemic, a Hebrew section, Masonic and Odd Fellows sections, and the graves of political, business and social leaders. Notable among those buried at Oakdale are: a female Confederate spy, North Carolina’s first governor, and broadcaster David Brinkley.

Every grave told a story. These cemeteries did, too.

Bears, turkeys, deer & butterflies

Great Smoky Mountains make “amazing” an overused word

My friends told us to keep our eyes peeled for wildlife as we drove along the Cades Cove loop in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. We could see deer and wild turkey. If we were really lucky, we might spot a bear. Cars stopped along the road would be a sign something was up.

Black bear and cubs

Black bear and cubs

We hadn’t been in the park a half hour before the first cluster of cars brought us to a stop. We searched in the direction all the cameras pointed and spotted a black bear foraging in the leaves, digging for something to eat. The bear was a good distance away and paid us no mind. How exciting to check bears off our wildlife list so early in the day. Amazing, we said, and drove on.

In quick succession, we spotted turkey in an open field and deer in the woods.

Cades Cove

Cades Cove

We drove on, stopping periodically to see the log cabins and churches of the people who settled in Cades Cove in the 1800s. The valleys traded beautiful views, abundant clear water, and plentiful wildlife in exchange for what must have been a hardscrabble living scratched from rocky fields.

The first settlers in Cades Cove

The first settlers in Cades Cove

The cemetery stones told us stories of the first settlers, wars fought, and the challenges of living past childbirth.

We hiked to a waterfall. Five miles roundtrip, over log bridges, up increasingly steep hills. Billed as a moderate hike, I realized the past few months of more limited activity due to my broken wrist have taken their toll. The waterfall was beautiful, though, and the diversity of wild flowers, tiny black rat snakes and startling blue-tailed lizards were a bonus.

Great Smoky Moutain, Cades Cove, church, cemeteryBack in the car we continued the loop only to be stopped by another cluster of cars. A woman gestured “five” and waved toward the woods. We scanned the trees and were rewarded with a mother bear followed by two cubs. They were coming toward us. I had my window down and camera clicking.

The mama bear kept coming. Without a look in our direction, she sauntered across the road and climbed the hill on the other side. She looked back for a moment to ensure the cubs followed, then they all disappeared into the woods. Amazing!

My friends could not stress how unusual it was to see these bears. In their many trips to the park over the last decade, they’d never seen so many bears, so close. We drove on and spotted two young deer with velvet antlers resting in deep grass twenty feet from the road. From time to time, we’d spot deer in the woods. One bounded across the road amidst the cars. Wild turkey were abundant.

Butterflies clustered on the ground

Butterflies clustered on the ground

As if we needed more to entertain us, clouds of butterflies were everywhere. As we headed out of Cades Cove at the end of the day, we were rewarded with one last bear sighting. He was quite a ways away, but the now familiar black against green was easy for us all to spot. The crowd of stopped cars helped.

Whether it was the pleasant temperatures or the time of year or serendipity, who can tell? But the day, the weather, the wildlife, were all amazing.