The Algebra Cheaters

By Marlene B. Samuels

At home, during dinner, I sit next to my father at the kitchen table. I tell him about my cheater classmates, about the ways in which they write on their arms, how much it disturbs me and how much willpower it takes for me not pick up my books and move to a different seat. First, he grimaces. A second later, his face is transformed by the  cynical smile with which I’m more than familiar. When his sleeves are rolled-up, I see his numbers and they, too, look as though they were scribbled on his arm. They appear to be a faded black — more like charcoal gray, and are followed by the geometric symbol of great significance. The symbol, a triangle, is a special code designating him as a Jew,  that triangle representing one-half of the Star of David.

In the decades since he was marked with them, my father’s numbers have seeped into his skin so deeply, they reach down into the very core of his soul. Unlike my cheater-classmates, he was anything but the master of his own skin-scribbles.

“So nu?” he asks me in his Polish-accented English, “Do you think for these boys who do such writing on their skin, they have answers? You know something what I learned?” He asks. “Maybe these boys will pass their algebra quizzes by their cheating, yes?”

I shrug my shoulders, not sure what my response should be and wonder if there is a correct answer to his questions. But my father continues. “What I want to know is if these boys, these cheaters, would be able to solve important problems if their lives depended on this? Ach, maybe but probably not, huh?”

I don’t really understand what he’s asking me, what he might say next, or where he’s headed with his seemingly disjointed comments and questions. One thing of which I am absolutely positive—my father’s talk is a lesson that will be tied to the five numbers tattooed on his right arm.  “You know my numbers?” He asks me. His question is rhetorical. “I passed such tests like what those nicht guttnick (no good) cheater boys never in their whole lives would imagine there could be! And you know something else?” He adds, “Still, I know nothing from the answers. Maybe you could say because of this, I’m also a cheater, huh?” He laughs at his last remark, inhaling with an airy little sniff that suggests he’s greatly amused by his own verbal cleverness.

“So, you know I never cheated in math, yes? But you know what else? For sure I cheated at death! Those boys what are in this class of yours? Do you really think that for eine sekunde (one second) their cheating would for them help if they had to pass the staying-alive tests like what I had to pass —every second of every day of every month for those four years when I was in hell?”

What I do come to realize, during our dinner conversation, is that in my next math quiz-day, whatever distress I may experience upon seeing the cheaters’ arms is likely to be replaced by different emotions. Maybe I’ll regard them as fools? Or will I feel pity for them? Because I now realize that their lack of awareness, lack of worldliness, and their naïveté about cheating versus knowing would, under different circumstances, surely be their death sentences.

© 2021 Marlene B. Samuels

Marlene Samuels earned her Ph.D. from University of Chicago where she serves on the Advisory Council to the Graduate School, Social Sciences Division. A research sociologist and instructor, Marlene is conducting research, with partner Pat LaPointe, for their anthology about female-to-female relational aggression. Marlene edited and coauthored The Seamstress: A Memoir of Survival, is author of When Digital Isn’t Real: Fact Finding Off-Line for Serious Writers, and is completing her book, Ask Mr. Hitler: A Memoir Told In Short Story. Marlene’s essays and stories have been published widely including in Lilith Magazine, Our Echo, Story Circle Network Anthologies, Iowa Summer Writers’ Anthology and others. Marlene divides her time between Chicago and Sun Valley, Idaho with her amazing, emotionally-supportive Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Ted and George. 

Posted in Guest writer | Leave a comment

Madagascar, 1967

By Marg Sumner

No one has ever accused me of traveling light. In August 1967 I deplaned in Madison, Wisconsin, carrying a train case, which every proper female traveler had in those days, but somewhere along the line I lost my white gloves, the other travel essential. I’d spent the summer in the island nation of the Malagasy Republic (aka Madagascar). I bore a valiha (a stringed instrument made from a 3’ hollow bamboo stalk), a souvenir spear (also 3’) and a raffia souvenir (3′, of course) ostrich. For good measure, I was wearing a 3’ broad sombrero. I got off the plane with some attitude as well. My best friend Carol was there, so good a friend that she sacrificed the final episode of The Fugitive to welcome me home. I doubt my homecoming gift to her matched her sacrifice.

Souvenir ostriches in the market where I purchased the one I carried home.
The zoma (market) where we bought food & souvenirs. Those heaps in front of the women are grated carrots, mixed peas/carrots, tomatoes and maybe some other vegetables. 

In June 1967 I left Madison on my first plane to New York, my first ocean liner to Rotterdam, followed by a bus trip to Paris, and another plane ride of 16 hours with a refueling stop in Djibouti, East Africa, landing in Tananarive. In 1967 were you familiar with even the words Djibouti, Tananarive, Malagasy Republic? Maybe you’d heard of the country’s actual name of Madagascar.

Ten weeks later I flew toward home via Kampala (another proper noun that didn’t enter our lexicon until Idi Amin began to slaughter his fellow Ugandans). We refueled in Malta and picked up white apartheid-spouting exchange students from South Africa. Then to Paris, New York, Chicago and Madison.

I went to Madagascar traveling light, but with significant baggage. I remember bringing popcorn (a huge hit) and an album of Mahalia Jackson, that powerful gospel singer, also welcome. I was a small-town good girl, good enough to be chosen by a community committee that gave me a recommendation strong enough to convince the exchange program staff in New York that I was substantial enough for their most challenging placement, the politically unstable country of the Malagasy Republic.

That was my facade. I was a teenage Potemkin village. My life to that point consisted of intense pressure to excel, to provide solid proof that my family was all that it portrayed itself, exemplary big fish in a small pond. And behind the Potemkin village? Thirteen years of emotional and sexual abuse. I was nothing; I was the color of oatmeal.

Senator Mitch McConnell could have been speaking of me when he said of a fellow annoying senator a couple decades later, “Nevertheless, she persisted.”

Madagascar filled me with primary colors, and they were everywhere. The view from my bedroom window was partially obscured by a poinsettia tree (a tree!) in full blood-red blossom. Bougainvillea bloomed everywhere. Thorny hedges deceptively softened by red flowers. Cloudless blue skies, mirrored in terraced rice paddies. Two-story ocher farm houses. Heaps of hell-hot peppers in the market. The fact of the colors I understood, but beyond that, what can I say? I drank in the new, the weird, the inedible and the edible, the incomprehensible, the unimaginable, all defined by their colors. Madagascar filled my soul.

I came home to resume my position as primary punching bag (literally), but I was no longer empty. I had color in me and a sense that I could achieve something. My life was red now; the oatmeal nothingness was banished. I haven’t achieve anything great, but I reached average. Of course there were soul-crushing expanses, terrible missteps, physical and mental catastrophes. Nevertheless, I persisted. Colors have never left me. I am a substance (slightly subnormal, to be sure), but I exist in color.

© 2021 Marg Sumner

Marg Sumner is retired from 40+ years of copyediting and proofreading other people’s words. The tables have turned and she now writes and suffers the slings and arrows of copyeditors. This is her first (and most difficult) piece in what she hopes will be a series of travel vignettes.

Posted in Guest writer | 1 Comment

My Circle of Life

By Elise Brooks

I had waited and waited, bringing up a family of my own first. Finally, at age forty, it was happening…

Mesmerizing pictures of animals and breathtaking scenery fill my screen as I scroll gazing in awe. I have wanted to see South Africa ever since mum told me about her home when I was only four years old. Goosebumps tingle my skin as I recall her voice.

I discover an organisation called Kuwantu looking for volunteers to work on their Big Five game reserve. In exchange they provide accommodation and food. Paperwork and applications complete, I pack my backpack and board the plane for a thirty-hour flight.

Stepping off the plane, daylight and heat smack me in the face. Port Elizabeth is a coastal industrious town. Vast mountains, bushland, and jungle can be seen in the distance, no rolling green hills and not a sheep or cow in sight. I am warmly welcomed by the staff at my accommodation, as soon as my head hits the pillow I’m out like a light I have not slept the whole trip.

A guide picks me up to take me to Kuwantu. Volunteers sleep together in dorm-style cabins on bunks. I wake to the most memorable wonderful sounds, birds of numerous varieties and insects chirping, my favourite the lions and tigers roaring. Temperatures reach over forty degrees during the day dropping to below zero at night. An elephant gives me the pleasure of visiting just over the fence behind our cabin. He’s a magnificent bull male with tusks protruding a meter out in front.

We set off on our first game drive. I am both amazed, scared and in total wonderment. I see a jackal first, then zebra, rhinos, springbuck, many birds— glorious sights ingrained in my memory. Next, we see termite mounds meters tall, wildebeests, giraffe, hippos, elephants with a baby calf, mongoose, buffalo, warthogs, peahens, and starlings with their vibrant jade and green feathers. We witness a herd of elephants pull an elephant out of a large hole she had fallen into.

In the rehabilitation shelter, animals recovering from injury or being bred are kept before being released back into the wild. White lions, tigers, and cheetahs are here and orphaned baby monkeys from Brazil. We got to hand feed them.

Elise Brooke in South Africa, with African elephant

Thursdays are spent at the local school feeding the children. Other work we do includes clearing fence lines of long grass, vegetation control (chopping down cactus with machetes), mending fences, tree chopping, and road maintenance (breaking up concrete with pickaxes). When needed, we plant plants from the nursery back into the bush, or help count the animals weekly. Fence clearing is frightening because we are amongst the lions roaming, and the electric fence must be disabled. Guides are trained to keep watch for any lions. At a moment’s notice a whistle meant “get your ass in the truck now or be the lion’s lunch.”

I enjoyed helping the local vet the most. We helped tranquilise and capture a lioness. After the vet darts her, it takes ten minutes before she goes down. We wait for the vet to check that she is asleep before loading her into a cage and onto the trailer to be moved to another part of the reserve, to even out the predator/game ratio. A very surreal experience, up close and personal with the Queen of the Jungle. Touching her rough fur and feeling her warm breath. She is much bigger than I expected; one of her paws is the same size as both my hands spread out.

 Nine lions from the pride, including a male, are hiding in the bush. I am very aware we are surrounded by all eyes of the jungle. Bones crunch under my feet as I walk across their feeding grounds to the safety of the truck.

My experience working with these animals, the change of pace, Africa’s way of life, the people I met, and conversations I had, all impacted on my thinking, changing my life from here on.

I had the space, quiet, and stillness to hear my heart. I felt happy and connected experiencing my mother’s homeland. I realized how happy I could be, It becomes obvious to me that I have not been happy for a long time. Africa showed me how short life is in the jungle.

Upon landing back in New Zealand I am determined to be happy now not later. I quit my nursing job of eighteen years, completed a Creative Writing Diploma, and went on to write three books about my life, fulfilling my dream of a writing career.

I absolutely recommend this experience to others. Do whatever it takes now to fulfil your dreams and never stop dreaming.

© 2021 Elise Brooke

Elise Brooke grew up in Hawkes Bay NZ and now lives in the beautiful east coast Gisborne. She has written and published two autobiographies in her book series, “The New Zealand Dream,” under the pen name Sheila. She wrote these books to inspire and give hope to others. Her passion is creative writing in the genres of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and online content. Her website is https://www.mynzdreamblog.com.

Posted in Guest writer | 1 Comment

Travel Musings

I have just recently begun to allow myself to dream of real live travel again. In fact, I’ve put down a deposit on a tour of Italy next fall through Viaggi di Gusto. Will I go? Or will this be another year of “staycation”, desired or not? Let Linda introduce you to the joys of both. – Sarah

 

 

By Linda Lenzke

“You don’t have to go far to travel.” — Me

“If you lived here, you’d be home by now!” Firesign Theater

 

I often introduce reminiscences and musings with a quote or two. The same is true today as I muse about travel, or the lack of it. The first quote, I attribute to myself, “You don’t have to go far to travel.”  The second to a favorite radio and improv comedy troupe from my hippie days, Firesign Theater, when we traveled in our own imaginations with help from mind-altering substances, “If you lived here, you’d be home by now!”

Yes, both quotes capture my experiences with travel, or the lack of it, this pandemic year. To some degree I’ve been on an extended staycation. A staycation, defined by the Urban Dictionary is “A vacation that is spent at one’s home enjoying all that home and one’s home environs have to offer.”

I was laid off from my 12-year career on February 27th, 2020, the eve of the pandemic. I was told it was due to a company reorganization, not my performance. I suspected it may have had something to do with my age and/or progressive politics. Gratefully and very quickly I found a new position with an LGBTQ+ community center, employing my decades of work as an activist and a volunteer. Grateful.

Staycations

Because of the pandemic my new half-time position, would not begin for a couple of months, so I had an unscheduled staycation. As I’ve aged and my travel budget has lessened, I’ve grown to like staycations. I usually take one in the spring wherein I still go to work, yet attend the Wisconsin Film Festival for 10 days, after work and on weekends. I get to travel again in my imagination, visiting people and places outside of my day-to-day life. I’m a lifetime cinephile and have had adventures since childhood sitting in movie theaters or my darkened living room.

In early fall, I usually take my second staycation, scheduling an extended period of time the waning days of summer, my favorite time of year.  While students return to school after their families unpack from vacation and pack those back-to-school backpacks full of brand-new school supplies, I take a break from my day-to-day work routines and make my “to-do only if I want to lists.”  

For me the essence of a staycation is to practice spontaneity (yes, I admit that I need to practice), sleep in if I want to, brunch at home or out with friends, attend movie matinees on weekdays, plan lots of coffee dates, stay in pajamas if I want to and take a vacation from showering for a day, and most importantly write, and edit, and write some more. I read too, essays and blogs, opinion pieces online, poetry and movie reviews and reread my journals.

To some degree, the latter describes the extended staycation I’ve been on during the lockdown, shelter-in-place at home. Even when I returned to work at my new job, due to the pandemic, I worked a hybrid schedule, two days at the office and two days at home. Though I skipped showers some days, added lounge wear bordering on pajamas to my daily wardrobe, I had to give up brunches and coffee dates with friends and movies in theaters. On the other hand, I added streaming subscriptions for more online content and Zoomed with friends, for work, to learn, and to practice my recovery. I traveled sitting at my desk in my writing alcove. I blogged and journaled a lot too.

Travel for Work

I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to travel for work over the years. When I worked for a children’s book publisher, my sales territory was the East Coast states. I would attend gift shows and book fairs, plus travel for a few days and visit my independent booksellers to introduce them to our new frontlists and write orders. I stayed in NYC at Times Square when I exhibited at the Javits Center.

I visited some of my favorite places, Boston, MA, Portland, ME, Providence, RI, and for library conferences in Portland, OR.  When I worked for Mercedes-Benz and other luxury car brands, I traveled to Germany for my first and only to-date international travel, and in the states, trips to Las Vegas, Chicago, and more. As much as I enjoyed the places I visited for work, I tired of the hotels and room service, the separation from home and my daily routines.

Travel for Pleasure

My favorite part of traveling for pleasure is in the research, pre-planning, and list-making before a trip, whether it’s a vacation to a favorite destination, mine is Provincetown, Cape Cod, or an extended stay in Door County. I prefer staying in Bed & Breakfasts, cabin getaways in Northern Wisconsin, or camping at my favorite State Parks. As I age, I might consider Glamping as an option.

I’m a car aficionado, so I enjoy a weekend road trip, especially during the changing of the seasons. Those tend to be more spontaneous and are impromptu adventures, whether discovering an antique shop, roadside diner, small town supper club, or nature preserve or park.

Future Travel Plans

On Friday, I received my second vaccination. In two weeks, according to the CDC, I’m good-to-go. My upcoming travel will consist of visiting family again, celebrating holidays that I sacrificed the past year, and a road trip to my friend Janet’s new home in Minnesota, who is Louise to my Thelma.  

In the end I must admit, I’m grateful. I survived a pandemic year. As an ambivert, I learned to lean into and enjoy my introvert habits. As an extrovert, I’m ready to hit the road again!

©  2021 Linda Lenzke

Linda lives in Madison, Wisconsin and has been writing poetry, prose, comedy, and spoken word monologues for the past 35 plus years. She’s a founding member of LGBTQ Narratives Activist-Writers, self-publishes poetry chapbooks, and blogs at Mixed Metaphors Oh My! Recently, Lenzke joined Madison Independent Filmmakers and is the creator and co-producer of a web series in production, Hotel Bar. 

Posted in Guest writer | 1 Comment

Finding Sanctuary in Turbulent Times

By Seth Kahan

Periodically I head to the wilderness with my dog, just the two of us, to clear my head and allow deeper stirrings to emerge. Alone in Nature, with a capital N, I have been able to find sanctuary. I have tried churches and synagogues and community centers to no avail. It is with trees, rain, mountain streams, bears, dirt, and campfires that my soul finds its place in the world.

In the summer of 2020 I headed into the Adirondacks, along the North Fork of the Bouquet River, with my companion, Sita. She is a 110-pound German Shepherd, and a soul mate if ever there was one. The two of us carried our packs into the northeastern forest, to spend five days and four nights alone along the trail.

I had been suffering. For almost four years. Bleeding inside as I watched our 45th president have his way with the country, enabled by 52 senior statespeople who stood by while he visibly abused his power and authority. It was the culmination for me. It reminded me of Hitler’s rise to power, enabled as it was by men in positions of authority. Our national leaders, the Republican Senate, did not have to explicitly come out and say what he said. They only had to turn their heads and allow him to say it. It had me in knots. So, off to the woods I went, looking for solace from non-humans.

Our time together in the Adirondacks was tremendous. Even the one day that rained from dawn to dusk, confining the two of us to our tent mostly, was a spiritual reprieve from the ordeals I faced at home. It allowed me to settle inside, to find my Center, with a capital C to accompany the capital N mentioned above. It happened slowly and dependably.

When Sita and I emerged from the wilderness I walked slowly, feeling the Earth give beneath my step. I was connected to the planet, literally grounded. I had the dirt under my fingernails and in the tiny ridges of my fingerprints to prove it. Each breath was a prayer. 

The car, big, shiny, and metal, was my bridge back to the world of humans. On the way down from the parking lot to the highway I hit a rut and dislodged a panel under my door. Fitting. The woods took one more part of me that appeared to the outer world as perfect and gave it a good, hard knock, whacking it out of its perfect position. I didn’t mind. It felt right.

Not twenty minutes on the road and it came up, like vomit, a surging anger buried beneath the peace.

It was the thought of children being torn from their families, used as a deterrent to immigrants, without regard for the psychological damage inflicted. The fury was stark against my peace, and I pulled over. What do I do? I was scared.

I knew that I wanted to be engaged, and to do that I needed to know the truth of the atrocities. How would I digest what was going on in my world and remain clear-eyed so I could take right action? Sustainable action that makes a difference, makes an impact, that was my goal. And already I had been knocked off balance. 

My quest was clearly defined. I needed to know how I would take care of myself, provide my inner world with the stability it required for me to gain clarity about my position, my assets, and my methods for disarming this looming corruption in human values. 

That’s when the second wave came, grief. It poured over me and I was a drowning man. Just a few years earlier I had basked in the glory of our first African-American president winning his second term in office. Never mind his accomplishments, his election was our accomplishment as a country. We, the people who had launched an experiment in representative democracy on the backs of slaves… we, the melting pot of immigrants who fought a war, brother against brother, to forge equality… we, the crafters of the 13th, 14th, and 19thAmendments to the Constitution embedding equality in our laws. It all washed away as I watched tens of millions of voters go beyond electing a white supremacist to organizing, speaking out, and perpetrating violence out in the open without repercussion. 

I fought for air. Coming up again and again on the side of the highway in my little car, with my trusted companion in the back seat watching in silence as I sobbed and heaved. I knew in my heart of hearts there was a way forward for me. But first I had to let go of what I thought was stable ground. I had to open myself to the horrifying reality of my nation and its citizens. I reached up and thankfully found something to grab onto.

It was nothing, really. 

Nothing literally.

It was the emptiness of my own being. The severely bare experience of life that I re-discovered in the woods along with the wolf-like creature who now panted in the back seat. There was something important that I had regained that was not dogma, nor was it ideology. It was a sense of my own life and the value I brought by virtue of my own existence. 

I remember the story of the Buddha being challenged while he was achieving enlightenment by the king of the demons. He was asked something like, ‘What right have you to have this experience?’ In response he simply put his hand on the Earth. That story zipped through my mind and reminded me that my experience of life is real, including my grief, anger, and desire to respond. Something deep inside anchored, not to the Buddhist tale, but to my sweat and tears, my grime that now felt holy to me. 

I took the time to waver and wobble until I finally came back to my position behind the wheel. I didn’t want to just start driving. I felt too raw. I was unsure of my response time as a driver. I sat there until the profundity of the moment began to pass. This, too, was part of my quest in the wilderness, this re-entry. 

I came back and re-engaged. Made phone calls. Reached out to friends. Organized responses. And important to me and my sanity, I set a date for my next camping trip with my canine companion. Here the balance swings for me: between the state of my society and the truth of wilderness. I am a pendulum. I have a pivot, that fixed point from which I swing. The pivot is my experience, my awareness. Simple as that sounds, for me it takes a good deal to keep it strong and healthy. Including regular trips off the grid with Sita. 

©  2021 Seth Kahan

Seth Kahan (Seth@VisionaryLeadership.com) helps leaders identify, influence, and leverage emerging trends for business growth. But he can still hang out and tell stories.

Posted in Guest writer | Leave a comment

If You Give the Old Folks a New Trailer…

By Joan Connor

I happily bicycle up to my trailer, climb the three fold up steps, fix a meatloaf sandwich and wonder if I will go home tomorrow. Home to a house that holds me hostage to my stuff. Is this truly how I feel? Or will I breathe a deep sigh of thanksgiving for my belongings, pay the HOA fees for this month, and then quickly unpack the trailer of its perishables and dirty laundry. I don’t aspire to receiving another phone message from the HOA president, “When are you moving your trailer? We have rules and it has been three days. I am getting calls about it.”

As I munch the delicious meatloaf slathered in no-sugar ketchup, I count the RVs (recreational vehicles) out the windows of our very temporary site. Twelve units are within my vision, some motorhomes and some trailers. My nearest neighbor told me which ones were parked permanently, not just for the winter as in snowbirds coming south for the Texas sunshine. She meant year-round, including sizzling summers, in this Lakeway RV park northwest of Austin. La Hacienda is home for many.

Some spaces have garden-like plots tended to by their permanent proprietors. We are nestled within a shady grove of trees with trailers circled about like covered wagons around a campfire. Several residents have canopies covering the designated picnic table assigned to each space. BBQ grills dot landscapes that also claim four-wheelers, tow trailers, cargo trailers, baby swings hanging and wooden fenced decks. Bicycles lean expectantly along-side the campers. I pedal my cruiser on the parallel streets to check out the neighbors’ patio furniture and plant collections, pumping hard on the small inclines.

The outdoor rooms appeal to me – temporary gazebos housing comfy cushioned furniture. I cruise past the couple working on several motorcycles under their temporary gazebo. I admire the flowering red geraniums on the picnic tables. I view empty spaces soon to fill with folks passing through, parking for a night or two and visiting the area just as we are doing.

My husband and I are temporary occupants in this RV park taking our new 29 foot travel trailer on its maiden voyage. As seasoned RVers, we are familiar with hooking up the sewer hose, water hose, electricity and cable connection. Both of us are retired and finding great enjoyment spinning our wheels. Our previous camping expeditions were in a small motorhome I bought as a single woman. However, as we unhook the trailer from our 1995 Ford 150 we are quick to conclude that the 150 had to work hard to get us here. “Going up hills will be a process in slow motion,” Hubby remarks. If you “give” the old folks a new 7000 lb. trailer to pull, it is likely they will need a bigger truck for their next journey. The retiree’s version of If You Give a Moose a Muffin.

This trailer is definitely not going to be traveling the “off road” adventures that pull me to camping like the little box of colored magnets I had as a child. Traveling into forest service parks and onto BLM land (Bureau of Land Management) for boondocking, free camping with no hook-ups, might occur. However, with this “home on wheels,” we need to be more “on-road” as in black topped paths with no sharp curves. The boondocking set-up pleases me. I like the aura of camping as I place a propane stove on the picnic table, fry up the bacon and percolate coffee in the blue speckled enamel pot. La Hacienda is not conducive to such primitive behaviors. This is RV suburban lifestyle at its finest.

My mind conjures up new thoughts. What if I put a truck camper on the bed of the “new to us” bigger pick-up that we now must acquire?  Then we could leave the big trailer, go off into the wild woods for a night, and then back to the luxurious trailer with its shower, two recliners, all hook-ups and a queen-size walk-a-round bed. So if you give the old folks a new trailer, then they must acquire a bigger truck. If you give them a bigger truck then they will want a camper top to take into the woods. And if they have a new camper top then they will need sleeping bags because the bed in a truck camper is really difficult to make up.

And then, with all this stuff, we come back to the townhome with its HOA rules and limited parking. Is the truck camper considered an RV and not allowed in the driveway for more than three days? Guess we’ll find out, and no, I don’t want to admit that if you give the old folks too many toys then they must find a bigger driveway. 

Hostage to stuff? Surely not!

©  2021 Joan Connor

Joan is currently pursuing an MFA with Lindenwood University, Simultaneously she indulges in various online writing classes, painting by number (or not), learning the fiddle, and RVing with her very agreeable husband and furry four-paws, Ava. 

Posted in Guest writer | 1 Comment

Happy International Women’s Day!

This morning I invite you to revisit a post I published here on March 8, 2012, about my personal connection to International Women’s Day.

 

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Frauentag_1914_Heraus_mit_dem_Frauenwahlrecht.jpg

“Hearts starve as well as bodies–give us bread but give us roses.”

 

Posted in Sarah's memoir | Leave a comment

The Grief Compactor

By Sarah White

My best friend died. 

It’s that simple, just a dull, dumb fact. 

She passed on May 1, 2020, of a cancer detected so late she—and I—and her sister—barely had six weeks to get from “oh no!” through “why?” and “what next?” to the goodbyes we couldn’t say because of hospital COVID19 regulations. This left me with some stuff to process.

My friend and I met as young entrepreneurs in the 1980s on the women’s networking trail. We began meeting for lunch to whine about the headaches of business. We soon discovered that we both turned to nature for solace and restoration, and began hiking the Baraboo Hills on Sundays. Once our businesses succeeded enough that we had employees, we had the flexibility to get away for longer nature immersions. We began camping and kept it up for ten years or more. We eagerly put in our reservations the moment the state parks system opened in January. We packed the trunk of the car full of gear at least once a month, from May to October, then popped it up to fill campsites in every corner of the state. Other friends joined us when possible. We were a rolling party, decorating our campsites with cheap streamers and holding “Parade of Tents” contests. She moved to a house on my street. We added weekly Friday cocktails to our friendship traditions. For decades we had fun. 

But situations change. In the last year before she died, we saw little of each other—I had my mother to look after and she had a new boyfriend. We agreed we would have seasons of closeness again, and gave each other the space we needed for our other relationships. Until the cancer diagnosis. Then my best friend died.

Her sister, who had arrived the moment the diagnosis was pronounced, was suddenly left with the problem of my friend’s houseful of stuff, a burden impossibly heavy for someone so grief-stricken. She had a dumpster delivered to the driveway. 

Every day the sister hauled stuff out of that house. My friend had exquisite taste. In spite of her frugal ways, there was not one cheap, ugly, or poorly made item in her house, from the furniture down to the jewelry. The dumpster filled with all her lovely stuff. One month later, off it went to the county landfill.

Almost a year has passed since then. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about that dumpster. I have no knowledge of such things, but Google tells me it was a 20 Yard Dumpster, 22 ft x 7.5 ft x 4.5 ft, capable of holding 4,000 – 6,000 pounds of stuff. At random moments it overtakes me—the image of that dumpster-sized volume, all my friend’s lovely things still together, surrounded and overlaid with other people’s trash. 

One Saturday recently I happened across a pop-up event at the Garver Feed Mill, a project of the Dane County Department of Waste & Renewables in collaboration with Madison Children’s Museum. It featured a trailer about the size of that dumpster, outfitted with art made from trash and educational panels explaining what happens at the landfill. “The Trash Lab is a mobile exhibit designed to educate and motivate us to create less trash and rethink our relationship with waste,” says its website

I went up to one of the docents, the one whose day job is at the landfill. “I have a sad question,” I said. “Don’t be freaked out, but I’d like to know…”  I told her about my dead friend, the dumpster, and my perseveration. “Is it all there, still roughly dumpster-shaped, all her stuff?” 

The docent replied, “Well, yes it is most likely all together.’ Then her tone shifted to the voice you’d use to explain to a child that her puppy was terminally ill. “But we use a compactor,” she said. “It’s incredibly huge, you can’t even imagine until you stand next to one of its wheels, higher than your head. It rolls back and forth all day over the landfill. We have to compact the stuff, you see, so it doesn’t take up more space than necessary. Otherwise, we’d need new landfills sooner.” I could tell she was afraid she was wounding me. But somehow, I felt healed by her words.

My friend’s stuff is there, a strange invisible memorial, resting in peace. It is like our camping gear, a whole domestic arrangement compacted to as little space as possible. But unlike our camping equipment, this stuff isn’t going to pop up, ever again. Even so, somehow my grief feels compacted as well, smaller, more compartmentalized. Someday I will probably need to unpack it. But for now, I can think about something else.

©  2021 Sarah White

Posted in Sarah's memoir | 6 Comments

Shadow Puppets

By Marlene B. Samuels

My father had grown somewhat soft and lazy during the two years since our family had emigrated to the United States, a laziness that began to blossom the Saturday he pulled into our driveway with the first new car of his life. At Sunday dinner, he announced his plans to drive to and from his tailoring shop beginning the following day, “Because saving the time from walking will give some extra hours for me working in my shop, no?” He explained to us in Yiddish.

 

That October Saturday, my senior year in high school, would prove especially significant.  Is was the day my father drove his new aquamarine Cutlass Oldsmobile home from the dealership, his ecstasy enhanced when he noticed that the car’s odometer registered a mere twelve miles. But before driving it home, he’d scheduled one stop — to his tailoring shop in the suburban village of Winnetka, where we lived. His critical mission: rearrange all the sewing machines and furniture inside Meyer’s Tailoring Shop so everything would be parallel to the massive picture-window facing Oak Street. The purpose wasn’t for him to face the street but for him to be able to observe his car. He’d already planned to park it in front of his shop, a guarantee for day-long pleasure. 

 My father’s shop was situated directly across from the Winnetka Police Department. He’d befriended every officer on the force, all-American guys who never seemed to tire of hearing his harrowing tales of surviving the Nazis. Consequently, he never had to move his behemoth automobile to comply with strictly enforced two-hour parking ordinances other than when he drove home at 6:00 p.m.  

Each workday, my father sat stalk-straight behind one of his sewing machines. His work-boot clad feet, like stone blocks, commanded the steel pedals of factory-model Singer machines. Throughout the day, he’d glance up over the frames of magnifying glasses that threatened to conquer his face. His bushy black eyebrows rose with every view of his car, adoringcontinuousglances: when he stood ironing, cutting English woolens for trousers on the padded table in the workroom’s center, or pinning customer’s jackets for fittings on the mannequin.

 My father’s ecstasy was profound. The Cutlass Oldsmobile —his joy, was the ultimate symbol of his Americanization, fueling his emerging sense of modernity. On weekdays, in warmer months he could be found, during lunchtimes, perched on the sidewalk’s edge. A clean towel grasped firmly in his left hand, gripping the roof-trim for balance with his right, my father polished his way rhythmically around the car until it shone like sapphires.

One brutally cold February afternoon, I’d begun my walk home from studying at the Community Library. It was five-thirty, the time my father always commenced his “closing-the-shop” routine. Four blocks from the library,  Meyer’s Tailoring was on my route home. If I carefully timed my departure, I was assured a ride home with him. Each day, on my approach, I observed him through the window rushing about, turning off lights, unplugging machines and always checking that one extra time to be absolutely certain he’d turned off the iron.

I crossed Oak Street to face the squat Tudor building housing his shop. A moonless night had descended upon the village and in that darkness, no light from the shop’s window illuminated the street, nor did I see my father performing his routine. The street lamps hadn’t yet turned on so I stood, in blackness of the sidewalk, watching. It seemed he’d already turned everything off so I decided to wait out front, positive he’d appear outside momentarily to lock up. But while I waited, a narrow light-beam burst alive in the shop’s back fitting room, shining through blackness like a star thrown off course.

That single light emanated from an industrial clip-lamp affixed to the rod of the fitting-room the two of us had created together with sheets and curtain rods. The powerful beam cast elongated shadows across the workroom’s linoleum flooring. I continued to stand outside, motionless, continued to stare through the massive window perplexed by that single light aglow. But as I waited, the village street lamps came alive and light beams danced from the Oldsmobile’s hood. The car was still parked in its space. 

Like a moth lured toward a lightbulb, my eyes riveted to the brightness emanating from the shop’s back room. The moments passed. My pupils adjusted and as they did, silhouettes of two intertwined figures took shape behind the fitting-room’s curtains —  a short man, a tall curvaceous woman. Together, in the back room of Meyer’s Tailoring Shop, they swayed like carnival shadow puppets.Their rhythmic performance simultaneously mesmerized and perplexed me, hypnotizing me with their slow-motion dance. I was utterly enthralled when an arctic February wind of brutal ferocity, stung my cheeks. My spell was broken.

I abandoned waiting for my fatherthat night. I also never again waited for him after that night. I began my walk home. To my amazement, the wind’s brutal bite had energized me; my steps quickened, my strides grew longer, a new realization grew inside my heart with every block toward home. As I moved farther from the village, the wind dissipated but the cold grew ever more bitter.  

©  2021 Marlene B. Samuels

Marlene Samuels earned her Ph.D. from University of Chicago where she serves on the Advisory Council to the Graduate School, Social Sciences Division. A research sociologist and instructor, Marlene is conducting research, with partner Pat LaPointe, for their anthology about female-to-female relational aggression. Marlene edited and coauthored The Seamstress: A Memoir of Survival, is author of When Digital Isn’t Real: Fact Finding Off-Line for Serious Writers, and is completing her book, Ask Mr. Hitler: A Memoir Told In Short Story. Marlene’s essays and stories have been published widely including in Lilith Magazine, Our Echo, Story Circle Network Anthologies, Iowa Summer Writers’ Anthology and others. Marlene divides her time between Chicago and Sun Valley, Idaho with her amazing, emotionally-supportive Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Ted and George. 

Posted in Guest writer | Leave a comment

Lentil Underground: Renegade Farmers and the Future of America, by Liz Carlisle

Review by Sarah White

Who are we, these people who love to read about people who start businesses, plucky Davids in a world of corporate Goliaths? Lentil Underground is the kind of book we delight to stumble upon, then wake up early or stay up past bedtime reading, and sigh when, all too soon, we turn the final page. (Really? For a book about lentils?)

No, stick with me here. There’s a good story. 

Author Liz Carlisle was a country musician fed up with the discomforts of touring when she decided to return to her childhood home in the high, dry Montana farm country. Even more, she was fed up with the lies she’d been telling through her music. “I’d grown up on country radio, and I loved weaving romantic agrarian lyrics into pretty melodies,” she wrote in the Author’s Note that opens Lentil Underground. She continued…

Life in the heartland was not what I’d thought. Farming had become a grueling industrial occupation, squeezed between the corporations that sold farmers their chemicals and corporations that bought their grain. To my disappointment, I discovered that most American farmers weren’t actually growing food but rather raw ingredients for big food processors…. It was a losing game for the farmers, who kept sinking further into debt as their input costs rose and grain prices fell. But the arrangement was great for the corporations, which kept right on dealing chemicals to their captive suppliers of cheap corn, soy, and wheat.

So disenchanted was Carlisle that, as she put it, “I quite the music business and joined the lentil underground.” She took a job with US senator Jon Tester of Montana, where her work involved communicating with farmers. Before long, a group of farmers caught her imagination. They were not complaining about the costs of chemicals or the price for commodity grains, but seeking help growing a crop that didn’t require chemical inputs or selling at fixed prices to Big Food. The crop they’d found provided its own fertilizer, and commanded premium prices in the organic foods marketplace. The magic crop? Lentils. 

Carlisle quit her job, enrolled in UC-Berkeley to pursue a PhD, and made a dissertation project of studying the lentil farmers in her Montana birthplace. Many were, like her, raised on these Montana farms, but unlike her, they were looking for a way to farm their family land without being driven to bankruptcy. 

And that’s where Lentil Underground begins. Over the course of 17 chapters, divided in 5 parts, Carlisle follows the courageous farmers who organize cooperatively to start the companies they need to manage harvesting, packaging, and distributing their organic lentils. (They soon expanded into heirloom wheat and other grains.) The brand they started, Timeless Natural Food, grew this “lentil underground” into a million-dollar enterprise, selling to hundreds of natural food stores and restaurants. 

There are two stories here—one about growing businesses, the other about growing a movement to buck the entrenched power of agribusiness. 

Two things make this book work: the memorable characters Carlisle found and the power of her writing. The talent she brought to her romantic agrarian lyrics shows here. Take this sentence, tossed off in the description of one of the farmers involved: “The man’s bearish arms emerged robustly from his sleeveless T-shirt, more like verbs than nouns.” Or this, less metaphorical but powerful in its simple clarity: “Suspended in a late-twentieth-century no-man’s-land of corporate greed, people like Dave Oien and Russ Salisbury had to dig underneath the shallow traditions of modern agribusiness, to find richer soil in which to root their visions for a workable rural society.”

The lesson I take from this combination of immersion reporting and lyrical writing is that, should you have the ambition to write long-form creative nonfiction, when you find an outstanding character to center your story on, you have found gold. Quit your job, clear your calendar, and run with it if you can. 

Dave Oien is the character who leads the parade in Lentil Underground. While Carlisle is in the story reporting from her first-person point-of-view, Dave is its central protagonist. Whole chapters go by in which Carlisle is a silent shadow following Dave’s tireless work to recruit farmers to grow these new (unsubsidized) crops, create distribution networks for their products, and keep the supply and demand in balance in the face of farming’s tremendous uncertainties. 

Reading Lentil Underground, I felt new respect for every journalist who sets out to learn the story of a unique tribe and bring it to an eager reading public. After reading the book, I felt newly committed to my own project, the Big MFA Adventure of writing about Glory Foods and the quest to make soul food convenient outside the south. 

While the milieus of Montana lentils and southern collard greens are as different as soul food and haut cuisine, the human spirit driving both stories is the same. Let the Davids win! 

© 2021 Sarah White

 

Posted in Book review | 1 Comment