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.

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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. 

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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.

 

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

 

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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

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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. 

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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

 

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Viewing Life through Loss

By Brenda Thomas

It takes about three steps to get from the door to the mailbox perched on a post next to the front porch. Regardless of the Minnesota weather, I take that short walk sans coat. If the porch isn’t wet from rain or covered with snow, I also forgo shoes. When I opened the mailbox on December 29, the below freezing temperature gave me a quick chill on the outside, but the return address on one of the envelopes brought a chill on the inside as well that day. In the stack of mail was a Christmas card from a dead cousin.

The envelope was postmarked on December 22. My cousin died December 27 while the card was en route from Wisconsin to Minnesota. I didn’t open it right away. I was in the middle of preparing supper and didn’t want to rush through reading it. Even though I didn’t know what it would say, there was a gravitas about it since I knew it was the last Christmas card I would ever receive from her. Any other year I likely would have opened it, done a quick read, and added it to the stack of other Christmas cards and letters on the ledge at the top of the stairs. But that card was different from the others and 2020 was not like any other year.

2020 has been different in a lot of ways, one of which is funerals. Even with COVID-19 raging in Wisconsin, that was not the cause of my cousin’s death. Yet, she would have a COVID funeral with limits on how many people could attend, required social distancing and/or masking, maybe livestreaming, etc. By now, we all know the drill. That was my fourth relative to pass away during 2020, whose funeral was like that even though none of them died of or with COVID-19.

When my father-in-law passed away in March in Minnesota, only immediate family were allowed at the funeral home for the viewing and that was limited to ten. The only funeral we were allowed to have was a brief graveside service outside on folding chairs spaced six feet apart under a wall-less pavilion on a concrete slab at the top of the highest hill in a veteran’s cemetery. In May, my aunt in Ohio passed away. I watched a livestream of her funeral with its limited in-person attendance. In November, my husband’s uncle passed away suddenly in Idaho. Only his immediate family were allowed at the viewing and he has not yet had a funeral. Then, in December, my cousin passed away in Wisconsin. I watched the livestream of her funeral with its mandated limited attendance and social distancing.

Behind and to the left of my laptop, from which I watched her funeral, was the Christmas card I had received from her leaning against a mug. Inside the card was a typed Christmas letter that began with a quote: “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”

That saying has been attributed to a variety of people. Regardless of its origin, the point seems to be that we can’t go back in time and change what we’ve done or what’s happened to us. Some of our problems are of our own doing, but some are not. However, we can control our responses to things that are beyond our control and can change our behaviors. Knowing what I know about my cousin’s life, I can understand why she would have liked that saying. During her funeral, friends and family alluded to the problems and challenges that she experienced, but they spoke of her inner strength and outward sweetness in the midst of and in response to those problems. My cousin would not have taken credit for that. How do I know? Because in her Christmas letter she also wrote, “As we close out this wild ride of 2020, I can’t help but reflect on how God has blessed me.”       Less than a month after my cousin died, her 100-year-old mother (my aunt) passed away in Wisconsin. She had recovered from COVID-19 in October, but there is no recovery from old age. Her funeral is tentatively scheduled for the spring. It’s a new year, but many of the same old challenges persist as does that pesky virus.

2020 was a challenging year for the entire world. Some of those same challenges continue and different ones are yet to come. Many have experienced the loss of jobs, friends, or family and also will in this new year. All of us, to one degree or another, have experienced some sort of loss or inconvenience, even if it is just in not being able to go where we used to or gather with friends and family in ways we did before COVID-19.

Though many have died, we are still alive. We can’t go back, but we can start where we are. What attitudes or actions do we need to change?

©  2021 Brenda Thomas

Brenda Thomas is a freelance writer and online educator.

 

 

 

 

 

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One again, it’s time to “Throw me somethin’, Mister!”

Mardi Gras arrives February 16 and, even though January and February parades have been canceled (like just about every other fun aspect of life in COVID-world), one tradition continues: it’s time to “Throw me somethin’, Mister.” It’s not plastic trinket “throws” I want, but your stories, true and well told.

NEW ORLEANS, LA – MARCH 27: A view of empty Bourbon street in the French Quarter amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on March 27, 2020 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Orleans Parish has reported at least 1,170 cases, and recorded 57 deaths from the coronavirus. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images). Source: https://time.com/5814933/coronavirus-pandemic-cost-4-trillion/

On this blog–which has just entered its eleventh year, can you believe it?– I publish writing prompts, book reviews, and stories from my own life, but my favorite content is YOUR stories. 

Here are the guidelines. Now throw me somethin’, Mr.,  Ms., whoever you are! Send your stories to sarah.white@firstpersonprod.com.

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Despite Covid19

By Kurt Baumann

According to Webster’s Dictionary, the word “serendipity” means “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought.” My old fifth-grade teacher explained it as “looking for something and accidentally find something else.” That describes my day, on Thursday, December 3rd, when I found something that I hadn’t had for a while.

My original goal was to work on a paper for my writer’s group, First Monday, First Person, and read it at our next meeting. On her way to do an errand in Sun Prairie, for some work on her car, Joan, a nice lady from my church, agreed to drive me to the Columbus Library, then take me back home at 3:30.

Before that, I had some errands to do. Since it was the third of the month, my Social Security benefits were directly deposited to my checking account. Since I use this day to pay my monthly expenses, as well other bills, and do grocery shopping, it’s a busy day for me. After phoning for a taxi, I was driven to my bank, where I did my transactions.

Since March 2020, COVID19 has made its presence known. Wearing a mask when riding in a taxi, because of possible airborne virus transfer contact with the driver, was a rule of the taxi company. American National Bank’s branches, in Beaver Dam, passed the same rule, and closed its lobbies, for the same reason. Drivers had to steer through the bank’s drive-thru while customers talked to the tellers through the drive-thru intercom. This is how I withdrew my money, and made money orders to pay my bills.

After my errand at the bank, the taxi dropped me off at the post office where I mailed my bills and Christmas cards. COVID19 rules were in effect there, too. People wore masks and did social distancing while waiting in line. From there, I walked to Recheck’s Food Pride, where masks and social distancing were required, did my grocery shopping, and phoned for a taxi which took me home.

 Despite COVID19.

 Joan arrived at my place at noon, drove me to the Columbus Library, and we arrived at 12:30. Sadly, I had forgotten that a person had to make an appointment to use the personal computers. Making matters worse, the library would be closed from 1:00pm-3:00pm. Before getting out of Joan’s car, I used my Trace-Phone to call the Library and make an appointment, managing to secure time on a P.C for half an hour. At 3:30, Joan would be back for me.

 COVID19 had thwarted me again.

 For half an hour, I printed various articles I had wrote and submitted. Two of them I sent to the leader of my writer’s group. She had been nice enough to put it on her blog, “True Stories, Well Told.” I enclosed them with my Christmas cards and sent them to my various relatives. These were as close to Christmas gifts my budget could afford–and I wasn’t above bragging. Since I couldn’t finish my article in time for my writer’s group meeting, I also printed up some old “Letters to the Editor” submissions I had made to the Beaver Dam Daily Citizen, over the years, to read when we virtually got together.

Kurt researching on COVID19

When the Library closed at 1:00, I left, having two and a half hours to kill. Looking for a place to eat, I saw a tavern that was open. Though I don’t usually visit them, I decided to make an exception. Once inside, I ordered a Diet Pepsi and was disappointed when I found out they didn’t serve any food. Despite that, I prepared Christmas cards to my relatives and enclosed my articles into each of them. The bartender, a heavy-set, thirty-something lady, with dirty-blonde hair was since enough to give me some Scotch tape so I could seal the flaps of each envelope.

After that, I relaxed, drank some sodas and played a couple of songs on the digital jukebox. Before I left. I was told that there was another tavern around the block that served food. On my way there, I stopped at the Columbus Post Office and mailed my Christmas cards. The new tavern was a basic bar and grill on the outside, but on the inside had an Old California decor. It had a warm atmosphere of heat from the kitchen and spicy odors of Mexican food

I ordered a salad along with a Diet Pepsi and had a late lunch. It could have been COVID19 or mid-afternoon when people were at work, but I was the only customer there. I can’t recall how long I stayed there, but I enjoyed the meal, thanked the owners, and left to return to wait at the Library. Joan came by a little earlier that I expected, but I didn’t mind. She drove me back home, to Beaver Dam, and dropped me off at Park Avenue Sports Café, where I relaxed and had some coffee before going home.

I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t finish my article, but it occurred to me that I actually had a good time that day. COVID19 may have closed a bank lobby, instituted a mask mandate and social distancing in post offices and grocery stores, even limited the hours at the library—but it didn’t stop me from enjoying the day, despite having to change my schedule. 

Thanks to serendipity, I sat in a Columbus tavern, drank soda, prepared my Christmas cards, listened to songs on a digital juke box, mailed my Christmas cards, had a Mexican meal in another tavern, drank more soda, and had a good time doing it—and COVID19 didn’t stop me from doing it.

Can anyone believe I did all that? That Thursday, December 3rd, part of me remembered how to appreciate life.

Despite COVID19.

©  2021 Kurt Baumann

Since 1983, Kurt Baumann has lived in Beaver Dam involved in his community theater, church, and contributer to his local newspaper. After working a variety of jobs for most of his life, he has retired to do some writing. He has written one book: The Written Works of Kurt Baumann.

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Salama Who?

By Marlene Samuels

Almost everyone in my family had some kind of crazy weird foreign accent, as did almost everyone in our immigrant Montreal neighborhood. Jake, my brother, and I had a saying between us: “If you’ve got an accent and we can’t understand what you’re saying, then you’ve got some big troubles!”

My Polish-Russian father spoke English quite well — at least most of the time except when he got all riled up. At those times, he began to sound exactly like Boris Badanoff from the old Rocky and Bullwinkle hour. My Romanian mother was a dead-ringer either for Zsa Zsa or Eva Gabor. For anyone old enough to remember the Green Acres television show, my mom easily could have been an audio substitute in the event that Zsa Zsa ever developed a serious case of laryngitis.

Then there was our Aunt Esther’s husband, Uncle Sigmund —Ziggy for short. He was a German-Jewish Holocaust survivor utterly incapable of pronouncing the letter “W”. Consequently, “V” and “W” were indistinguishable from one another and to uninitiated listeners, they also sounded like “B”.  The most challenging times were when Uncle Ziggy asked for more “vater” at one of our family dinners. He stood a very good chance of being served more butter or vice-versa. Once Jake and I moved out of Ziggy’s earshot, we’d amuse ourselves by impersonating our views of Nazi guards, muttering to each another, “Achh, vee half vayz of making you Chews talk!” Our performance always was followed by our outbursts of hysterical laughter.

Aunt Esther, our mother’s sister, had her own unique linguistic problems. Other than the fact that she, too, sounded like one of the Gabor sisters, Esther was totally incapable of comprehending any difference between “kitchen” and “chicken.” To my aunt, those two words were both interchangeable and indistinguishable from one another. We were accustomed to her asking whether we’d like another piece of kitchen or if we could bring her another towel from the chicken.

Jake and I were particularly amused when our father, with the greatest seriousness, attempted to correct our mother’s pronunciation of English words. During our summer holidays in the Laurentian Mountains, our father cautioned us daily, “Better you should be careful! You need always to look inside from the flowers if you’re going to pick them. Remember, sometimes beans are hiding inside them.” Jake and I couldn’t fathom why our dad thought beans were inside the flowers.

“Do you think someone puts beans in them or maybe where Dad grew up in Poland, beans grew inside flowers?” I asked my know-it-all older brother.

The greatest mystery of all however, continued to be the meaning of that single expression our father invoked during a wide range of events. It was his catchall single phrase — applicable to a multitude of emotions and circumstances: anger, frustration, disappointment, and on a few very rare occasions, surprise or delight. My father modulated his voice when using the phrase so that it suited whatever situation was at hand. We’d been listening to the expression during the entirety of our young lives yet remained baffled about what it actually meant especially because Dad applied it to so many situations.

“Salama witch!” Shouted our father if he dropped his sewing-needle on the speckled linoleum floor of his tailoring shop. “Salama witch, that’s wonderful!” He’d announce when hearing good news. “Salaaama witch!” Screamed my father after he’d spilled hot coffee on his crotch and another time after he’d knocked a glass of water off the table.

At long last, our remarkable day arrived, the day on which Jake and I unwittingly learned the true meaning of Salama Witch.

One beautiful, warm Sunday morning our entire family gathered at our house to have brunch together. Uncle Ziggy and our father had just come out of the house to make a quick run to the grocery store. Jake and I sat on the front steps playing “Fish” with our cousins. The two men approached our father’s massive green Ford and it was at that moment we heard Dad suddenly scream at ear-piercing volume, over and over again, “Salama witch, salama witch! You bastard, you goniff (thief)! Salama witch! What in the hell is going on here?”

He and Uncle Ziggy had come upon our neighbor who was busy syphoning gas out of our father’s car. Where upon Ziggy immediately chimed in, also screaming at full volume, “Son of a bitch is right!  Verfluchtener Gauner! (God damned thief),” he screamed in German. “Son-of-a- bitch for sure, you bastard!”

©  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. Visit her website, marlenesamuels.com.

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