Down the Rabbit Hole with COVID19

The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down what seemed to be a very deep well.

Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her, and to wonder what was going to happen next. First, she tried to look down and make out what she was coming to, but it was too dark to see anything; then she looked at the sides of the well, and noticed that they were filled with cupboards and bookshelves; here and there she saw maps and pictures hung upon pegs. She took down a jar from one of the shelves as she passed; it was labelled “ORANGE MARMALADE,” but to her great disappointment, it was empty: she did not like to drop the jar for fear of killing somebody underneath, so managed to put it into one of the cupboards as she fell past it.

“Well!” thought Alice to herself, “after such a fall as this, I shall think nothing of tumbling down stairs! How brave they’ll all think me at home! Why, I wouldn’t say anything about it, even if I fell off top of the house!” (Which was very likely true.)

–Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

This passage / image has been playing on repeat in my mind since the start of the COVID19 “Shelter in Place” which, for me at least, began on Friday, March 13th, 2020. Coping with my mother on hospice in a nearby assisted living facility, everyday objects passed by as we plummeted into this strange place.

Every day we try to solve last week’s — yesterday’s — last hour’s problems, only to find them irrelevant in the new now.

“Down, down, down. There was nothing else to do, so Alice began talking again…. when suddenly, thump! thump! down she came upon a heap of sticks and dry leaves, and the fall was over.”

Stay well, friends, and stay grounded.

© 2020 Sarah White and Lewis Carroll, public domain.

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Reflections on 19 episodes, 1.5 years, and a true story, well told

Starting August 2018, Suzy Beal’s family adventure has been unfolding here, one chapter each month through February 2020–19 episodes in all. And what an adventure! In 1961, teenage Suzy’s family moved to Europe, built a sailboat, and took up life on the high seas. The memoir takes readers from “Heading East” via Volkswagen van from Newport, Oregon to cross the country and the ocean, destination Barcelona and Mallorca to live while building the boat. True Stories Well Told leaves the family, a bit shaken by their shake-down cruise “Living Aboard” the newly launched sailboat, as they “shelter in place” for winter in Toulon, France, before attempting life aboard again next spring. As the series concludes, I asked Suzy to describe what it was like to have her writing featured in this way.

Circe in Sete Harbor

The experience of having one chapter a month from my memoir published on Sarah White’s blog True Stories Well Told has been terrifying, exciting and valuable.

Terrifying because it’s the first time I’ve put myself out there in the publishing world. I’m not sure if I feared rejection or felt insecure in my writing skill, but I made it a New Year’s resolution to submit one piece a month. Once I decided to submit, I quit worrying about the rejection slips.  I found truestorieswelltold.com where I submitted an essay and Sarah accepted it.  She suggested we try a once a month serial from my memoir and I was hooked.

 Exciting because, I’ve never thought I cared about being in print and guess what, I do. Once my work was accepted in several publications, I realized I was on track and heading in the right direction.  This gave me the courage to continue. I still receive rejection slips, but some of my work is accepted and the thrill of receiving the email saying “Suzy, we want to publish your piece,” outweighs the disappointment of rejection.

The valuable part comes from looking at my work with a more critical eye and making the necessary changes. During the last year and a half I’ve been on Sarah’s blog, I’ve learned to take my writing more seriously.  Realizing there are others reading my pieces has given me a new perspective.  Until now, I’ve thought more about what Iwanted to say rather than what I wanted my readers to read.  I’ve developed a better sense of what it is to have a connection with my readers. I still have a lot to learn, but I’m committed. Being responsible for a chapter each month on truestorieswelltold has been an incredible opportunity and has helped shape my writing experience.   Thank you, Sarah.

I have really enjoyed this experiment as well. I didn’t ask Suzy to share the series with me ahead of time. Just like my readers, I had no idea from month to month what adventures teenage Suzy would encounter next. The coming-of-age story embedded in the family-adventure story has me charmed.

What happened next for the 9-member family (plus Rusty the dog and Anitra the cat) living aboard a  32-foot sailboat is not so comfortably shared with a public audience, and so we close the series here. Thank you, Suzy!

Readers, did you enjoy the series? Leave your comments on this post.

© 2020 Suzy Beal and Sarah White

Suzy Beal, an occasional contributor to True Stories Well Told, has been writing her life story and personal essays for years. In 2016 Suzy began studying with Sheila Bender at writingitreal.com

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Let’s add some reading and writing (forget the Arithmetic)

These are troubling times. I’m self-isolating (as if my lifestyle weren’t already pretty self-isolated, as a home-based freelance writer). I’m trying to meet the world as if I were the one carrying contagion, protecting those around me with social distance, as opposed to the all-too-easy stance of fear of others carrying contagion to me.

Talk about isolated, let’s talk about my mother, locked down in an assisted living facility where all activities have been cancelled (even Bingo!) and meals are brought to the rooms. I hope she’s watching old movies, not the 24/7 freak show on cable news!

How are we going to cope with weeks or months of this? Well, one thing you can do is read more. ‘Tis the season to unplug from your social streams (after you’ve gotten a good boost of connectedness, and resisted click-bait fear links) and open a book. How high is your bedside pile? What about the pile by your armchair, your sofa, your dinner plate? Let’s make a dent in those piles, people!

Another thing you can do is write. Get a few more musings down for that memoir of yours. Journal. Pull out a diary from a distant year and add some new thoughts from the you-now about the you-then. This is a perfectly great moment for time-travel and memory is the safest seat on the bus.

Here’s the call to action that blends my recommendations to read and write  — send me a book review!

Any book, as long as it’s a “True Story, Well Told.” Memoirs, creative nonfiction, history, biography, bring it on. Click here to read some of my reviews on this blog, if you’d like an example.

You could write a review of a genre-crossing book like this memoir in graphic novel form.

Book reviews are formulaic. To save you googling it, here’s my cheat sheet:

  1. Describe what is on the page. Summarize major sections in the book, to convey how it is structured. No spoilers, please.
  2. Identify the genre (memoir, biography, etc.) and assess how it fits in the genre. Dead center or peripheral? A genre-bender, like a memoir in graphic novel form? (Think Persepolis.)
  3. Share your opinion of the author’s writing style. Does it suit the intended audience?
  4. For bonus points, consider literary devices. What did the author use and why? ( Here’s a quick quiz if you’d like to refresh your memory of what I mean by “literary devices.”)
  5. Wrap it up with a bow. Do you feel satisfied at the book’s end?

I’m eager for new essays to publish here on True Stories Well Told. I hope I’ve inspired you to read, write, and review while we all hunker down!

© 2020 Sarah White

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The School of Hard Knocks

By Melodee Leven Currier

 

I loved school and did well – until the third grade — when I was traumatized by my teacher.   As she walked around the classroom she would stop at my desk and plink my head hard with her thumb and index finger.  My hair was in braids, so it really hurt my scalp.  After she did this a few times, I told my mother and she and my step-father, who was a teacher, had a talk with her.

The next day, the teacher announced to the class they could all go to recess except me.  She then told me to follow her and she took me to the principal’s office.  No one else was around when she showed me a large wooden paddle with eight holes and two rows of wire across the top.  Then she screamed at me “If you go home and tell tales out of school again, I’ll beat the tar out of you!”  I was completely terrified and couldn’t wait to get home and tell my mother, but this time she didn’t do anything about it.  That was a turning point for me — I was no longer the fun loving, extroverted child entertaining the class with a song, a hula dance or memorizing poems.  Trust in teachers and adults dissolved and my attitude and grades forever plummeted.

Melodee in grade school

The next year in the fourth grade during “milk break,” a nickel was collected from each student who wanted to order white or chocolate milk.  I was the only one who didn’t want milk, so my teacher made an announcement to the class “When Melodee grows up her bones are going to break because she doesn’t drink milk.”  I was 23 years old when I got my first cavity.  I wonder how many “milk drinkers” can say that.  That same teacher scared the class by saying that when we grow up there won’t be any vacant land left.  Some things you never forget.

In the seventh grade, out of the blue, my teacher announced to the class “Melodee is spoiled!”  I don’t know what prompted her to say that.  She had no idea what I was dealing with at home with a mother who didn’t want any children and a step-father who violently beat me with his belt every chance he got.  I certainly was not spoiled.  Some teachers don’t know the difference between a problem child and a child with a problem.

The only teacher I ever had that I really liked was my sixth grade teacher.  She was so kind and gentle with everyone.  When I was in my twenties, I saw her at the grocery and told her that she was my favorite teacher.  I don’t believe she remembered me then, but it felt good to let her know.

When my son was in grade school, he had some mean-spirited teachers too.  When I had him repeat the second grade, the first day of class his teacher asked if anyone wanted to get the flower vase for her.  Then she said “John, you were here last year, you know where we keep the vase, would you get it?”  That was embarrassing to him and decades later he still remembers how humiliated he felt when she said that.

I was a young single mother then, lacking the courage to speak up for my son when he told me just as my mother hadn’t spoken up for me when I was his age.  We have a responsibility to our children to say or do something when they aren’t being treated respectfully.  If we are not being heard, we need to go to the next level – or higher up if necessary.  The School of Hard Knocks has taught me many lessons over the years.  Speaking up for myself — and sometimes others — is one of them.

While it’s not possible to change history, the future is a clean slate.  Make it one that years from now you can look back and be happy to have history repeat itself!

© Melodee Currier

Melodee Currier left corporate America in 2008 where she was an intellectual
property paralegal.  Since then she has devoted her time to writing and has
had three eBooks (www.amazon.com/author/melodeecurrier) and numerous articles published on a wide variety of topics.   Her articles can be read on her website www.melodeecurrier.com.  Mel is an occasional contributor to True Stories Well Told.

 

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Snap Judgment

By Sarah White

When we meet a person, we make an assessment based on a few signals—the coat they’re wearing, the car they’re driving, the state of their hair. But can we ever trust the accuracy of that snap judgment? And conversely, what can we ever know about the judgments others make about us? We’re mostly ships passing, completely at sea in our attempts to see and respond to each other.

 

My mother had been hospitalized the week before and it had snowed the day before. Cars all over town were white with road salt. With a worried head, I stopped to fill the tank and purchase a car wash. My thoughts ran along the lines of, “Whatever reasonable preparations I can think to make, I’ll always do something unnecessary and leave undone something crucial. But I can be fairly certain I’ll need gas, and since my mother bought the car for me, I should take care of it.” At the pump across from me was the cleanest vehicle I’d ever seen. It was a shiny black GMC step van. Painted on the side was, “Madison Custom Polishing and Plating Service.

To distract myself from my worries, I started a conversation with the rough-looking fellow who was gassing it up.

Sorry, I have nothing to illustrate this story with.

“In a business like yours, you must have to keep that thing really shiny,” I said. He replied, “Would you believe it’s got over 400,000 miles on it?” Then he said, “I do custom plating. Want to see an example?” He reached into his pocket, then extended his closed hand toward me. I bent to look as he opened his fist.

In his palm was a shiny silver object. Slowly I recognized the shape as two elephants making the beast with two backs. There was excellent detail picked out in the conjoined shapes, and yet they were as smooth as a silver-plated buckeye.

“Nice!” I said.

“Did you see what it was?” He must have been used to more of a negative reaction.

“Elephants fucking,” I replied. “Nice work.”

Encouraged, he reached into his other pocket and again presented me with a closed hand. In his palm: Two hogs in coitus, plated gold.

One time is funny, two times a little creepy. “You’re naughty!” I said, wagging my finger. “Madison isn’t safe with you on the streets!”

He laughed, finally satisfied with the reaction he got.

I turned back to my gas pump and shut off the flow, climbed in and drove off to the carwash, leaving the plate-metal pocket pornographer behind.

 

How long will I be wondering about why he picked me to reveal his pocket treasures to, and how far off from truth am I in my perceptions of him?

 

© 2020 Sarah White

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Living Aboard

This is the 19th and final episode of a travel memoir that is unfolding, one chapter each month, here on True Stories Well Told, about teenage Suzy’s family move to Europe to build a sailboat and takes up life on the high seas circa 1961. Click here to read the earlier episodes.

Circe under sail

Our first “shakedown” cruise took us around the Island of Mallorca and over to Ibiza, then back to Puerto before leaving for France.  I got seasick as soon as we hit the open sea.   My brothers had made several trips with Dad, but this was the first time for the rest of us including our dog Rusty and cat Anitra.

We thought we’d lost Anitra not long after we headed out, but we found her hidden in the towels in the “head.”   Whenever Rusty needed to relieve herself, she would go to the stern of the boat and bark. The boys would pull the dingy we towed up alongside, Rusty would jump in and do her duty, and then one of the boys would reach down and pull her back on board, while under full sail.  When we came into a harbor for the night, the boys took turns taking the dingy ashore to clean it out.

We soon realized we would need to make a harness for Anitra.  She would sneak off the boat as soon as we put into dock.  We trained Rusty to go look for her and more often than not she would be on another boat.  She hated her harness, but it was the only way to keep her from running away.  The boys tied the harness to the mainmast, so she could be on deck and see what was going on.

Anitra in harness

From my diary

August 27 – We sailed to France to the Bay of Roses.  Some of us were so sea sick we couldn’t even stand.  Mom, Jan and I stayed in our bunks.  Conrad and Frank, too, seemed to be sick.  I carried a bucket around for us to throw up in. The dog threw up in my bunk!  Dad, Tom, Hank and Carl were on deck most of the time.  The sea was so rough Dad tied the boys on ropes to the main mast.  I just wanted the motion to stop and tried to imagine myself gimbaled like the light fixtures.  The boat heeled over on its side so far, I thought we were all going to drown.

August 28, 29 – Port Vendres, France

August 30 – Sete, France –  We didn’t drown but the memory of that feeling didn’t go away soon.  We sailed into the French port of Sete.  Dad had given us directions on how to behave when the Port Official came aboard.  They searched for contraband or items we needed to declare such as liquor.  Dad had placed several bottles of wine in the wine cabinet and one bottle of Spanish Fundador Cognac.  These bottles, he would declare.  We all knew that he had dozens of bottles under the floorboards in the bilge, which he didn’t plan to show the police.  When the official came aboard he visited with Dad, asked questions, and wanted a tour around the boat.  When they came back into the salon Dad gave him a drink of cognac and with a twinkle in his eye handed the Port Captain a bottle of cognac for himself. I worried he might find the bottles hidden in the bilge, but he didn’t.

August 31 – We arrived in Marseille harbor late at night, in a storm.  The boys on deck had to find the harbor entrance in the dark with rain pouring down.  With the sails down, we motored into the harbor looking for a safe berth for the night.  The fumes from the diesel engine made me sick, but I climbed off my bunk and Jan and I made some soup because we knew Dad and the boys would be hungry.  Mom was too sick to get up.  Finally, they found a berth, and we dropped anchor and motored in stern to the dock.

The next morning, Anitra woke us with her crying and trying to get out on deck.  When we opened the companion way door, we found ourselves in the middle of the morning fish market.  Fishermen had their boats tied up on both sides of Circe.  They had their fish out on display for sale.  One of them started feeding Anitra tiny eels.  She ate them as fast as she could.  We created quite a scene in the middle of the fish market with our boat full of children and laundry hung on the lines to dry out.

Mom doing laundry

Many French people came up to the boat to ask questions about where we were from and where we were going.  Everyone seemed friendly, and they appeared to admire family of nine with cat and dog on a boat.  Our lack of knowledge in French became immediately apparent.

Circe in Sete Harbor

The port authority let us stay there until the afternoon, when we had to move the boat to the Yacht Harbor we hadn’t been able find the night before, in the dark.  We stayed two nights in Marseille and then headed east for Bandol.

September 2 – Bandol – Another little French town on the coast. Tom and Hank learned Bridgett Bardot lived here and went searching for her.  We were catching on to how this would work.  During the day we would set sail the head out to sea going east along the French Riviera.  By late afternoon Dad picked a harbor for us to spend the night in.  After the Marseille experience, he gave up nighttime arrivals.  We pulled into the harbor, dropped anchor and settled in for the evening.  Mom, Jan and I did the meal preparation and cleanup, while Tom, Hank and Carl did the deck work.  Conrad and Frank had pet chore with the help of Carl.

Tommy, Hank, Rusty, and Carl

September 7 thru 29 – Cannes –  As we came back to the Yacht Port in Cannes from doing our shopping, we heard her screaming.  We knew it was Anitra –  there was no doubt.  We thought maybe a dog had found her tied to the mainmast in her harness; my brothers took off running for the boat. We found her over the side with her “tail end” just in the water.  She had tried to jump to the boat next to us, but her harness rope wasn’t long enough.  The boys pulled her back up on deck and Jan took her below to dry her off.  After this episode, Mom decided to have Anitra “fixed”.  Pequeñas Cosas!  Carl, Jan and I went with Mom to the vet.  Mom didn’t speak much French, but she made herself understood by making a scissor sign with her fingers.  We left her overnight, which was difficult.  It took Anitra several days to recover, but after that she was easier to handle and she quit trying to leave the boat.

September 28 – San Tropez – Heading west once again, back to Toulon. Where to spend the winter? Mom and dad had a plan for spring which was to go along the coast of France and Italy to Greece, where we would spend the summer.  But, first we had to get through the winter, which would be cold and damp in this maritime zone.  They decided on Toulon, so we left Cannes and headed back west along the French Coast at the end of September.

As soon as we found a slip for CIRCE, I moved ashore and lived with a French family to learn French and take care of their four children. Once again I found myself in the difficult situation of trying to learn a new language and make myself understood, I knew how to do it this time, but I missed my friends and didn’t want to make new ones.  I wondered how many more new experiences were in my future before I turned eighteen.  My friends back in Oregon were preparing to graduate from high school and go to college. Where would I be when they graduated?

Frank, Dad, Carl, Suzy and Jan

© 2019 Suzy Beal

Suzy Beal, an occasional contributor to True Stories Well Told, has been writing her life story and personal essays for years. In 2016 Suzy began studying with Sheila Bender at writingitreal.com.  Please leave comments for Suzy on this post.

 

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It Is What It Is

By Christel Preuss

A stock photo of a woman who is not Christel or her neighbor Fran!

She was our next door neighbor, when my husband and I and our three young children moved into our house, back in 1991. At the time I was 35 and she seemed “old”; she had just retired the year before, and was 63. Her husband, Amos, was also retired and played horseshoes out in their back yard. For many summers, I heard the clang of horseshoes hitting against the metal post or the thuds of misses as he practiced. Amos grew tomatoes next to our garage, and some years came over to pick raspberries from our patch when there was an overabundance. Occasionally she’d send over a batch of cookies or brownies that were extra, after her family had come for a visit. I knew she belonged to St Dennis church, made cards on her computer, and quilted.

The years went by and my husband left. My children grew up and also left. We continued being neighborly, but never really close.

Then in 2009 Amos died. And a year later she sold her house and moved to a senior apartment complex about two miles away.  During the following year I saw her once or twice at a local restaurant with family members.

The next year in 2011, I called her at the beginning of the New Year to say hi and catch up. I began to learn more about her six children, three who lived nearby and the other three spread across the U.S. She also told me more about her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. We continued this “New Year’s check-in” call for several years.

Then in the summer of 2016, I called her on a lark, after my own mother had died, and for the first time, I asked if I could visit. She said sure. When I got to her apartment, it turned out she was getting ready to move again, this time into an assisted living facility nearby. Her eyesight was failing and she was needing extra help. She seemed resigned to this new move as she told me, “Christel, it is what it is.”

Two weeks later, after her move, I visited again.

She seemed to appreciate my company and encouraged me to come again, if I had the time…

And so it began. First, I visited on different days but then settled on Sunday afternoons from three to five. The routine of regular visits seemed to be reassuring to her and fit my schedule as well. So I came every week, like clockwork.

The first year, I learned she loved to read, but couldn’t navigate Audio CD books anymore. I contacted the ACCESS program who introduced me to the “Talking Books” organization for the visually impaired. I asked her if she wanted to sign up, and she agreed. This gave her access to a simple machine and lots and lots of books. It was a lifesaver for an avid reader!  We continued to talk about our families and I began to feel like I knew hers more. We began walking the hallway to get in more exercise. I would lead the way and she would follow with her walker. She did her best to follow my directions, “Go left, right, no left, forward.” She could still see shadows of movement then.

The second year, we began watching the Packers and the Brewers. I’m not an avid fan, but I began to know the statistics and rooted for the teams. Occasionally, I brought in dinner from “Dairyland,” a favorite restaurant of hers. She enjoyed the Reuben sandwich with fries and chicken rice soup. It was nice. As the year went on, she began skipping the hallway walk saying she was tired and not up to it. I had to accept, that it is what it is.

The third year, I began recording and transcribing stories she’d been telling me about growing up in Reedsburg, Wisconsin. She also began saving Oreo snack packs she’d received from the facility to share with me. Then we began working crossword puzzles…I would read the clues and number of boxes as well as any letters known already. She was quite good at them and we both felt like we’d accomplished something when we solved one. We weren’t walking the hallway anymore and she stopped being able to stand up unassisted.

Then one May Sunday in 2019, she wasn’t there. Her room was unchanged, but she was gone. I talked to an aide, but she couldn’t tell me anything (upholding facility privacy issues). Then I thought to use her phone’s speed dial to reach her daughter. I learned she was at St. Mary’s hospital so I headed there.

As I walked into her room on the Cardiovascular floor, she was sitting in the Lazy Boy chair in the corner. I said my usual greeting, “Hi Fran, it’s me Christel.” Her face broke out into a big smile and she seemed to breathe out a sigh of relief. And so we began our visit. I learned how she had gotten to the hospital the evening before by ambulance, and everything else that had occurred since. She was waiting for test results and seemed alright, yet I was worried.

Two days later she was transferred to Hospice. I visited her that same evening and we talked about how things were going now. Some of her family from far away were coming and she was looking forward to seeing them. She even said she might be there for weeks, who knew. Before I left, we talked about our friendship, and she said how much it meant to her and how appreciative she was of my visits.  I assured her I valued our relationship too.

Two days later I returned to find Fran sleeping. Her breathing was labored and she wasn’t awake. I took out the transcripts of the stories she had told me, and while holding her hand read them back to her—hoping she would find comfort in them as she slumbered.

She was gone the next day, May 31, 2019.

At first, Sunday afternoons were difficult—I missed our routine, her updates about her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, her interest in my life and family, the crossword puzzles, the Oreos.

Seven months have passed, and I still miss Fran, a neighbor who became a dear friend. As I think back on her life and our relationship I realize they have taught me some lessons:  to keep active; to stay open to new experiences; and to never underestimate the power of showing up. Because in the end, it is what it is.

© 2020 Christel Preuss

Christel Preuss lives in Madison, Wisconsin and dabbles with words now and then.

 

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