I confess: Last week got a little not-busy-but-full (see my riff on that linguistic distinction from a few weeks ago), and my writing time got compressed to the point of near disappearance.
I did somehow find time to get out and play with my cameras, though. So instead of inundating you with more words this week, I thought we'd take a break and look at pictures together. Less verbiage, more visuals.
Here are some shots from my springtime rambles. I hope you enjoy them.
WARNING: If you're not a fan of legless things that slither, skip photo #21 (right after the yellow lady slipper orchid)
What are your favorite signs of spring?
Phobic alert: If you don't appreciate certain slithery reptiles, you may want to skip photo #7 below.
One recent Friday afternoon, as the Wander Women hiking club set out on a segment of the North Country Trail, our leader Mary made a suggestion.
"What would you think about doing part of our hike in silence, just listening to the birds and other sounds around us?"
Now, we're a chatty bunch of women—so chatty that one name we considered for our group was the Walkie Talkies. But when Mary clarified that we could converse on the outbound part of the hike and be quiet on the return, we all thought we could manage that.
So we hit the trail and found ourselves talking about—not talking. Gina mentioned a silent meditation retreat she'd attended. Being quiet during meditation wasn't a problem, she said, but it was a real challenge at mealtimes. A zealous foodie, Gina likes to ask questions about what she's being served, especially when the food is as interesting as it was at the retreat. She held her tongue, though, and just let it savor the tastes instead of wagging to analyze them.
As we traveled on, passing by a lake and meandering along a stream, our topics of conversation covered varied terrain as well. We talked about books and movies, summer travel plans, the upcoming Enchanted Forest event, anything and everything that came to mind. When we reached the turn-around point, we paused to take a breather and tie up any loose conversation threads before starting the silent trek back.
Soon, the shuffle of leaves beneath our feet, the gurgle of the creek and the rustle of wind through the pines engaged us as fully as our trail talk had. We did find ways to communicate, though, silently pointing out trail blazes, tree roots to avoid stumbling over and a daring hognose snake that had stretched out across the path.
We did break our silence at one point, when we passed through a campground, and a camper made friendly overtures. But after exchanging pleasantries, we continued on in quietude.
At the end of the hike, we took a few minutes to share our impressions. We'd all heard sounds we might otherwise have missed—from the creaks and groans of a swaying tree to the gravelly call of some unidentified creature near the lakeshore. We speculated about what sort of animal might have made that sound. My guess was a rail—a secretive, ground-dwelling bird that lives in marshy areas. Mary, unfamiliar with that type of bird, thought I said "whale." The look she gave me suggested she thought the silence had unhinged me.
In fact, the silence had made me saner. Our weekly hikes always leave me feeling calmer and steadier, but this one gave me an even greater sense of peace.
There's a reason for that, I learned by looking into the science of silence. Researchers who set out to study the effects of various kinds of music on breathing rate, blood pressure and blood circulation in the brain found that two minutes of silence between musical tracks was more calming than even the most relaxing music. (Read the study here.)
In another study, scientists looking the effects of baby mouse calls and white noise on the brains of adult mice expected to find that the baby sounds spurred development of new brain cells in the adults. As a control, they also exposed some mice to two hours of silence a day. Guess what: the mice that got the silent treatment showed increased growth in the hippocampus, the brain area involved with formation of memories. The mice exposed to sounds, on the other hand, showed only short-term neurological effects, no long-term changes.
I can't say for sure that my memory was any better after our silent walk in the woods. Then again, I can't say it was any worse. Maybe with a few more wordless walks, I'll remember where I left my camera case.
Sunshine smiled on the Enchanted Forest, AKA Camp Newaygo, for at least part of last Saturday, but Sunday's downpours had fairy-folk scrambling to take shelter under toadstools. No worries, though. Quick-thinking Camp Newaygo staffers whisked gnome homes and pixie palaces out of the wet woods and into drier hiding places, where twinkly lights made fairy-house hunting just as enchanting.
The occasion was the two-day Enchanted Forest walk, a fundraiser for the independent not-for-profit camp located on 104 acres along a chain of lakes in the Manistee National Forest region of mid-western Michigan.
Last year's Enchanted Forest event was a great success, and this year's appeal to artists and craftspeople to create and donate fairy houses again yielded a fanciful assortment of tiny abodes—forty-seven in all.
It's always fun to see what imaginative people use to craft these dwellings: tree stumps, gourds, clay, copper wire, twigs, feathers, tin cans. One of this year's creations was made from a cowgirl's boot. Another had a hornet's nest worked into the design.
Ray and I got a close look at many of them when we helped hide the homes in the woods and along the Wetland Trail early Saturday morning. Then, as visitors began arriving and heading out with trail maps, we made the rounds again to watch them discover the little houses.
We had fun watching visitors' reactions to our own creations, too, both the fairy house and the story that went along with it.
"We were so excited to see families outside and enjoying the houses that were hidden on the trails," said Christa Smalligan, the camp's Events and Facilities Director. "Camp Newaygo is a great place for families to enjoy activities together. I heard many kids found some fairies in the woods."
If you missed out on the enchantment—or if you'd like a chance to relive it--here's a look at more of the fairy houses and the weekend's fun. And if you'd like a fairy house for your very own, all the houses pictured here--and more--are available for purchase on ebay through May 8. Proceeds help fund the camp's youth and family programs as well as renovations to facilities such as the Foster Arts and Crafts Lodge.
On the last Wednesday of every month, I serve up a potpourri of advice, inspiration and other tidbits I've come across in recent weeks. In honor of National Poetry Month, celebrated every April, I'm sharing thoughts on poetry and language. And with this, a salute to my friend Cristina Trapani-Scott, whose poetry chapbook, The Persistence of a Bathing Suit is due out from Finishing Line Press next month.
Plus this month's bonus: a preview of the fairy house Ray and I built for the second annual Enchanted Forest event at Camp Newaygo, coming up this weekend (April 29-30), and the story we co-wrote to go along with the house.
Poetry comes nearer to vital truth than history.
The poet lights the light and fades away. But the light goes on and on.
-- Emily Dickinson
A poem is not simply words on a page but a way of touching the stars and having the stars that have fallen into the sea touch us. Our lives are poems. Everything arrives and passes away as it should, and we don't know the ending--which is the moment the entire poem, its meaning and music, is revealed--until the last line is written, even though it has perhaps existed in the eternal now all along.
-- Sawnie Morris, in Poets & Writers magazine, November/December 2016
Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.
-- Leonard Cohen
Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire.
-- Roland Barthes
As a poet and writer, I deeply love and I deeply hate words. I love the infinite evidence and change and requirements and possibilities of language; every human use of words that is joyful, or honest, or new because experience is new . . . But, as a black poet and writer, I hate words that cancel my name and my history and the freedom of my future: I hate the words that condemn and refuse the language of my people in America.
-- June Jordan
Poetry is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toe nails twinkle, makes you want to do this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own.
-- Dylan Thomas
But words are things, and a small drop of ink, falling like dew, upon a thought, produces that which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think.
-- Lord Byron
Poetry is the language in which man explores his own amazement . . . says heaven and earth in one word . . . speaks of himself and his predicament as though for the first time. It has the virtue of being able to say twice as much as prose in half the time, and the drawback, if you do not give it your full attention, of seeming to say half as much in twice the time.
-- Christopher Fry
Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people.
-- Adrian Mitchell
All the fun's in how you say a thing.
-- Robert Frost
And now for something completely different . . . it's time to unveil our creation for this year's Enchanted Forest event at Camp Newaygo. Once again, the design is based on a story featuring Fairy Archie and his sidekick Hughie the Humongous Butterfly. It'll probably make more sense if you read the story first. (And if you missed last year's installment, you can read it here.)
Be sure to come back next week for more fairy house pictures and a full report on the Enchanted Forest event.
Are you having a busy week?
Oh, my calendar and to-do-list are plenty full, as usual: appointments, meetings, writing projects, household projects, pitching-in projects, activist activities, email and phone calls to catch up on, matters to check on (Where's my refund for those down mittens I returned last month? What's happened to the guy who's supposed to be re-staining our house? Why isn't insurance covering my upcoming dental work?).
But I'm not going to say I'm busy. You know why? Because I have purged that word from my vocabulary, at least as it pertains to my own doings. The inspiration for this linguistic vanishing act came from an editorial I read in Mother Earth Living in early 2015.
"For many of us today, 'busy' isn't something we are from time to time when we're working on a big project. It's the state of our lives. It's our default setting," wrote the magazine's editor-in-chief, Jessica Kellner. "Being busy. . . validates our existence in an unsure world—if we're constantly busy, our lives must be important."
But all that busy-busy-busyness can feel awfully frenzied and stressful, can't it? Don't you wish you could still do all the things you need and want to do, without feeling frantic?
Maybe you can. Maybe you just need to trick your brain, Kellner suggests. She cited a number of studies showing that simply changing one's mindset can have profound physical effects. For example, septuagenarians instructed in an experimental setting to live as if they were 22 years old sat taller, performed better on manual dexterity tasks and even looked more youthful after only five days of thinking young.
Could a similar mental ploy help alleviate our sense of overload? Kellner thinks so.
"Perhaps if we stop saying we're so busy, we'll stop feeling so busy," she concluded. "By aiming our thoughts toward serenity and calm, we might actually achieve serenity and calm—without changing anything about our daily schedules."
Intrigued, I started my own experiment, simply substituting the word "full" for "busy" when thinking and talking about my everyday activities. The change was subtle, but almost immediately I noticed a difference. "Busy" had felt like a burden. "Full" felt like a blessing.
How fortunate I was to have so many interesting things to fill my days. And if they weren't all so interesting or rewarding, well, that's where another mind-shift could come in handy.
This one I came across more recently in a blog post by Bella Mahaya Carter on She Writes, a website for women writers.
Carter shared her own to-do list from a recent day—a familiar-looking litany of pleasant enough activities (yoga class, edit memoir, write thank-you notes), along with a fair share of less-appealing tasks (clean kitchen, unpack from trip, grocery shop).
Admitting she probably wouldn't get to everything on the list in one day, Carter wrote, "It helps to remind myself that it doesn't matter if it takes me two or three days to complete these items. What does matter is that everything on my list I'm doing for love."
That's pretty much how Carter reacted when she first heard the love-centric notion, put forth by spiritual psychology pioneer H. Ronald Hulnick. When Hulnick told Carter's class at the University of Santa Monica, "The only reason to do anything is for love," Carter was skeptical, and immediately started thinking up exceptions.
But then she stopped herself and decided, as an experiment, to act as if it were true.
Her to-do list didn't change much, but her approach to doing the things on that list did, and life felt lighter as a result.
"For example, instead of complaining about cleaning my house, I focused on how much I loved my family and my home, and how great it was that I was able to clean my home," Carter wrote. "It also occurred to me that I was lucky to have a home."
The love filter also helps her choose new activities. When asked to do something she's not sure she wants to do, she asks herself: Where is the love here?
"I root around and sniff out the love. If I don't catch its scent, I say no and move on."
Though I'm having a little trouble finding the love in toilet cleaning (don't ask me to sniff that one out!), I'm trying to keep Carter's words in mind as I decide how to allocate my time each week.
Now, let me ask you again: Are you having a busy week?
Photo of Bella Mahaya Carter: http://www.bellamahayacarter.com/
All other images are free-use stock images.
Late last year, I was scrolling through Facebook posts when I came to one that stopped me short. Posted by my friend and former University of Michigan colleague Lara Zielin, it began:
My last post of 2016 has taken me all year to write. I haven't wanted to admit this, but here's the truth. . .
Lara went on to reveal that her thriving career as an author had withered. She had been in a slump for the past twelve months and had even questioned her own worth.
My first reaction was sympathy. As a writer who's trying to become a published author, I know how difficult and tenuous the whole process can be, and how one's self-esteem rides up and down on successes and failures. My heart broke at the thought of sunny, upbeat Lara being knocked down.
As I read on, my sympathy turned to admiration. Most of us use social media to trumpet successes and share happy occasions. How rare it is to read such a frank account of, as Lara put it, "humiliating failure."
Lara's year-end post ended on an optimistic note, but rather than giving that away, I have asked Lara to tell you herself about facing failure and moving forward from there.
Do you ever feel inexplicably drawn to read a particular book? This happened to me recently at Barnes & Noble, when I looked over at the new releases section and felt the mysterious pull to read FORWARD, a memoir by soccer player Abby Wambach. Mind you, I don’t like soccer. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game in my life. And I had no clue who this woman was or why I should care about her story. But the tug toward the title wouldn’t relent, and I took it home.
Turns out, the universe was right. I wasn’t far into the book—12 pages to be exact—when this passage hit me over the head:
I love [soccer] for what it gives me: praise, affection and, above all, attention. When I’m on the field I don’t have to plead to be noticed, either silently or aloud; it is a natural by-product of my talent. I loathe it for the same reason, terrified that soccer is the only worthwhile thing about me, that stripping it from my identity might make me disappear…Already I know I’m incapable of falling in love with the game itself—only with the validation that comes from mastering it, from bending it to my will.
I read the words again and again, marveling that someone was brave enough to articulate what I felt, too. Only in my case it wasn’t soccer—it was writing.
Or, I guess I should clarify and say writing novels.
Writing books was the only thing I’d wanted to do since I was a little kid. I can remember the first story I wrote, when I was eight years old—not the text itself, but what the paper looked like, and what the pencil felt like in my hand. I’d write so much over the next decades that I would give myself a callus I still sport to this day, a permanent rough spot that has altered shape of my finger forever.
It didn’t take long before the idea of what writing could do for me went hand-in-hand with the act of putting words to paper. This will be how I become famous, I would think. This is how I will leave my mark. This is how I will show people I matter. That I’m worth something.
These ideas were pressing, even when I was very young. They were very deep, buried in a dark corner of my subconscious, and completely inextricable from the hard work of getting better at my craft and my determination to make a career out of books.
Fast-forward a few decades, to 2007 when I sold my first novel. It hit shelves in 2009. I was writing young-adult at the time, which was a perfect fit. I thought, this is it, and I kept going. My second book came out in 2011, followed by my third in 2012.
I was under contract for a fourth book, which wasn’t coming as easily as the first three. It felt forced and uncertain. I wrote several versions, and each time my editor encouraged me to go back to the drawing board—to fix the characters, their motivations, the language…hell, all of it.
To make matters worse, the books I did have out weren’t selling well at all. My shaky foundation of self-worth started to wobble. What if I wasn’t good at this? What if I wouldn’t or couldn’t become a writing success? Desperate to take a break from young adult, I started writing romance.
In 2014, I sold a trio of small-town romances at auction, giving me enough money to quit my full-time, big-girl job and take something part-time while I pursued this new venue. For a hot second, it was great. Until it wasn’t. These books didn’t sell well either, and when I pitched my publisher on a new series, they didn’t bite. They washed their hands of me and moved on.
This caught me completely off guard. I figured my publisher would maybe low-ball me on the money but keep collaborating. After all, I was hardworking, I hit my deadlines, and the books I’d produced—while not bestsellers—had garnered great reviews and even an award nomination.
This just wasn’t the case. And when my agent shopped my idea for the new series around to other romance publishers, no one would bite. My romance career had flamed out as spectacularly as it had started.
In the meantime, the fourth book I’d written for my young-adult publisher was done, and I was enormously proud of it. After years of laboring over this story, I felt like I’d finally gotten it right. I thought, okay, romance is dead, but young-adult is still kicking, I can still be a success in this genre.
My editor wasn’t a fan of the book at all—a historical middle-grade novel about a young girl who works at a logging camp for a winter in the Wisconsin Northwoods. I’d called it the book of my heart. I think if she could, my editor would have called it a hot mess.
At this point, we all agreed it would probably be best if we parted ways. My young-adult publisher broke the contract with me, and any potential revenue streams I had through publishing—not to mention opportunities for the success I so badly craved—were gone.
But Lara, you’re thinking, just write a new book! Just keep trying!
And I would, I swear I would, if I had any ideas coming to me. But not only had my contracts dried up, my ideas had, too.
Which brings me back to Abby Wambach and her memoir. When she couldn’t play soccer any more—she had essentially aged out, and her body was fighting her with injury after injury—she fell apart.
And I guess I did too when I couldn’t write novels anymore. I gained weight. I didn’t feel much like going out.
I kept asking my husband, “What do I do? Writing novels is the only thing I’ve ever wanted.”
To which he would continually reply, “Just hang out in this uncertain place. Don’t fight it, just face the not-knowing and see what comes up.”
I also had to face the fact that I was using success through novels as a way to make up for my perceived personal inequities. For years, I’d looked at myself, found myself lacking, and wanted to fill that void with external success. My husband would continually remind me: There is no void. He would tell me I was enough, just as I was. There was no hole to fill. I didn’t have to prove my worth.
So I hung out in the not knowing and, it turns out, my husband was right. I was still a writer, just maybe not a novelist. Or not only a novelist. I discovered I loved copy writing and was awesome at it. I found I had a passion for nonfiction and realized that I could to put pen to paper to fight injustice. I even got an awesome new business idea, which I’m in the process of starting up.
For her part, Abby Wambach came out of her spiral too, and now she’s in a new role fighting for equity in women’s sports (particularly with regard to pay), and she’s a commenter on ESPN. I can’t recommend her memoir highly enough. I was inspired and moved.
The text at the very front of the book—before chapter one, even—gets me every time I read it. Abby wrote it to her four-year-old self. It’s true of Abby. It’s true of me. If you’re struggling with any of these same things, I want you to know, it’s true of you, too:
Don’t try to earn your worthiness. It’s yours by birthright.
Fear no failure. There is no such thing.
You will know real love. The journey will be long, but you’ll find your way home.
You are so brave, little one. I’m proud of you.
Do you have a facing-failure story to share? Have you ever been forced to change direction and then realized that shift was more gift than setback?
Recently, Ray and I passed the twenty-five year mark as a couple, and in a few months we'll celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary. I realize those numbers aren't record-breaking—we all know couples who've been together twice as long or longer. And my mate and I aren't claiming to be paragons of contented couplehood. Still, we've learned a thing or two about durability over the years.
Here, then, is a handful of those lessons, offered not as instruction, but as an invitation for you to share your own thoughts about what makes a relationship endure, whether it's a marriage, a friendship or a close connection with a family member.
But sometimes, separate
I spend most mornings practicing yoga, meditating, reading, writing and answering email, while Ray goes for walks and putters with projects in his workshop. On weekends, he might head off to a car show or woodworking demonstration, and I might play with my camera or attend a writing workshop. When we come back together, refreshed by our individual pursuits, we have new experiences and insights to share and more to talk about than whether it's time to take out the garbage.
The five-to-one formula
A few years after Ray and I got together, when I was still a staff writer at the Detroit Free Press, I wrote an article about research at the University of Washington's "Love Lab." That’s where psychologist-mathematician John Gottman was engaged in a long-term study of hundreds of couples, trying to tease out behavior patterns predicted marital success or failure. One of Gottman's key findings was that lasting marriages have a magic ratio of five times as many positive feelings and interactions as negative ones.
Ray and I don't keep a running tally--how silly would that be? But we seem to have developed an internal counter that prompts us to balance every tense exchange with a slew of more loving ones. It makes for a sense of safety and comfort that fosters even more warm feelings.
Rough patches? Sure, we have those. Doesn't everyone? And we're not always graceful about getting through them. One thing I've learned to keep in mind, though, is that everything changes. If you're patient and calm, something will shift, and you'll find a way through.
Now it's your turn. What have you learned about creating and maintaining lasting relationships?
On the last Wednesday of every month, I serve up a potpourri of advice, inspiration and other tidbits I've come across in recent weeks. This month saw the beginning of spring--at least that's what the calendar said; the thermometer hasn't gotten the message yet. Maybe we can urge the season along with a few spring-y and nature-y quotes.
Your treat for reading to the end of this post is a look at the winning entry in Maple Moon Farm's FEED THE STARVING ARTIST contest, featured here last month.
. . . you don't have to travel a thousand miles to experience wilderness. There's always a creek nearby, a place behind a fence where nobody goes, a tree root pushing up through the sidewalk. Sometimes it's just a bench where you sit and look at something beyond yourself. Dawn is a wilderness. . . It's what you become when you let the place saturate you. I'm talking about the way your heart changes. It becomes inseparable from the place.
-- Craig Childs, writer, naturalist and wilderness explorer, interviewed in The Sun, June 2016
Spring passes and one remembers one's innocence.
Summer passes and one remembers one's exuberance.
Autumn passes and one remembers one's reverence.
Winter passes and one remembers one's perseverance.
― Yoko Ono, Season of Glass
For 99 percent of the time we've been on Earth, we were hunters and gatherers, our lives dependent on knowing the fine, small details of our world. Deep inside, we still have a longing to be reconnected with the nature that shaped our imagination, our language, our song and dance, our sense of the divine.
-- Janine Benyus, biologist and author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature
It is spring again. The earth is like a child that knows poems by heart.
― Rainer Maria Rilke
Tonight I discovered nature. For the first time, I saw it. For the first time, I didn't look at it; I listened to it--not with my ears, although I did that too, but with my eyes. Instead of pushing out at it, trying to understand it, I let it speak to me. On my left, some distance away, was the highway. From there I could hear man--man always striving, never quite there. Then I looked at the stars. They were silent, and powerful beyond all effort. They were stars being stars and therefore brilliantly alive. How puny are words about stars.
-- Hugh Prather
When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest. The only thing that could spoil a day was people and if you could keep from making engagements, each day had no limits. People were always the limiters of happiness except for the very few that were as good as spring itself.
― Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
How strange and wonderful is our home, our earth, with its swirling vaporous atmosphere, its flowing and frozen liquids, its trembling plants, its creeping, crawling, climbing creatures, the croaking things with wings that hang on rocks and soar through the fog, the furry grass, the scaly seas.
-- Edward Abbey
It's spring fever. That is what the name of it is. And when you've got it, you want—oh, you don't quite know what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!
― Mark Twain
Love all the earth, every ray of God's light, every grain of sand or blade of grass, every living thing. If you love the earth enough, you will know the divine mystery.
-- Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
For every person who has ever lived there will come, at last, a spring he will never see. Glory then in the springs that are yours.
-- Pam Brown
How will you glory in this spring? Maybe a bit of gardening? While we're thinking about growing things, take a look at some of the entries in Maple Moon Farm's FEED THE STARVING ARTIST contest. The theme was "Local Food and Local Farms" and the winner, multimedia artist Kendra McKimmy, received a $250 gift card to the farm. You may remember Kendra from an early HeartWood blog post about her sister Linda's restaurant, Hit the Road Joe Coffee Cafe.
Her winning entry in the Maple Moon contest featured a print from a 1934 farm calendar and locally-found tree parts, against a background of ground-up dried bean pods from her garden last year. Amazing work from one of the area's most gifted artists.
I've been to art festivals, jazz festivals, strawberry festivals, logging festivals, Polish festivals and festivals whose themes were hard to figure out. At every single one, I've found something beautiful, engrossing, strange, entertaining or tasty. Yet nothing inspires me like a book festival.
Thousands of people, all gathered to celebrate the written word, to listen to favorite authors read from their work, to discover new authors, to have conversations about books! In this age of quick-hit info-bits and constant distractions, it's good to know that so many people still choose to engage deeply with a 300-page tale.
I found abundant evidence of that phenomenon at the Tucson Festival of Books earlier this month. My main reason for going was to participate in a masters workshop for winners and finalists in the festival's literary awards competition (I was a finalist). I'll share more about the workshop in a moment, but first, a few impressions of the festival, which itself was worth the trip.
The two-day Tucson Festival of Books attracts more than 130,000 book lovers to the University of Arizona Mall and nearby venues, making it the nation's third-largest book festival (behind the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and the Library of Congress National Book Festival). And the event enriches more than minds: visitors pour at least $3 million into the local economy.
Some 400 authors participate in presentations and workshops on topics ranging from current events to zombies, and still more authors are on-site, selling and signing books at their booths.
A legion of 2,000 or so volunteers assists with the event, welcoming festivalgoers, greeting and escorting authors, selling books, carrying boxes, managing lines, posting signs, answering questions and giving directions (especially in that one wacky building where all the odd-numbered rooms are on one end and the even-numbered rooms are on the other!), and making the ubiquitous announcements inviting attendees to become Friends of the Tucson Festival of Books.
Consider this: the whole festival—readings, lectures, panel discussions, musical entertainment, kids' activities, even a literary circus—is free of charge to the public.
And this: All proceeds from the festival go to sustaining the event and supporting local literacy programs. Since 2009, the festival has contributed more than $1,450,000 to groups that work to improve reading and writing ability among children and adults in Southern Arizona.
That's only a small sample—the tip of the saguaro, if you will. I couldn't even begin to hit all the sessions that appealed to me.
With sixty performances taking place during the festival, there are ample opportunities to give your brain a rest and listen to music instead of words for a while.
During one mid-day break, I feasted on blue corn tamales to the accompaniment of the most indefatigable yodeler I have ever heard. Honestly, she went on for what seemed like half an hour. And she was good. (So were the tamales.)
By far the most entertaining hour of the whole two days, though, came courtesy of author Michael Perry. I mean, how can you not laugh at a guy whose website is called Sneezing Cow? I had bought his book, Truck: A Love Story, when I came to the festival and masters workshop two years ago, and I enjoyed his funny and tender accounts of life in rural Wisconsin (kinda reminded me of another rural community I know well). So when I saw his name on the program, I made sure to get to the Arizona Daily Star tent early enough to nab a seat.
Oh, was I glad I did. Perry had the audience cracking up—and occasionally tearing up—for the whole hour. My favorite was his piece on farmer yoga, from his new book, Roughneck Grace: Farmer Yoga, Creeping Codgerism, Apple Golf, and Other Brief Essays from on and off the Back Forty (which I couldn't resist buying in spite of limited space in my luggage).
Want to know more about Arizona insects? There's a tent for that. Take a virtual tour of nearby National Parks? There's also a tent for that. Learn about self-publishing? Yep, that, too.
Meanwhile, the indoor lectures offer tips on writing and publishing fiction, poetry and nonfiction; getting your book reviewed; promoting your artwork; navigating the entertainment industry, and other helpful topics. I took advantage of three of these free workshops: "Nonfiction – Finding an Agent," taught by Daniel Connolly, author of The Book of Isaias; "Telling Your Story – Biography v Memoir," by Lisa Napoli (whose memoir, Radio Shangri-La, is a favorite); and "The Ethics and Personal Issues of Writing," by Joyce Maynard (whose memoir, At Home in the World, is another favorite).
Striking up conversations is easy—after all, you can always talk about books. And you never know what else will surface. I shared a lunch table with a Tucson couple who, I discovered, were originally from Kalamazoo, had relatives in Fremont, and used to spend summers at Diamond Lake in White Cloud, all close to my Michigan home.
At another mealtime, a lively bunch of strangers saw me eating alone and invited me to join them. All members of the Western Writers of America, they enlightened me on a genre about which I knew nothing. Among other things, I learned that western novels are enjoying a resurgence in popularity. Plus, the authors get to wear some mighty fancy duds.
Outside the booth of a Muslim organization, several young men put a different spin on friendliness. Smiling, they held signs that read, "MEET A MUSLIM. ASK ME ANYTHING." I stopped to talk to one pair and asked what kind of response they were getting. Their smiles widened. "Overwhelmingly positive."
As the festival wound down, the masters workshop warmed up with a Sunday evening get-acquainted reception. Monday morning, we got down to business with a full, two-day schedule of craft talks and readings by the faculty, poets Dana Levin and Monica Youn and authors Joyce Maynard, Michael Tolkin and Mark Beauregard.
I have pages and pages of notes from their talks, full of gems that I will return to again and again. One comment stands out as especially relevant these days. In her opening remarks, Joyce Maynard noted that, at a time when compassion is lacking, it falls to writers and poets to be "the holders of empathy."
Each day we also split up into groups of ten, sorted by genre, and spent two to three hours discussing the pieces of writing we had submitted. Joyce Maynard led the nonfiction workshop, and she wasn't kidding when she warned us she'd be tough. She zeroed in on misleading lead-ins, flabby prose, irrelevant details, rambling sentences, sloppy structures, vague and timid language. Ouch, ouch, ouch. She counseled us to write with intention, spending as much time thinking as putting words on the page. She told us to throw out writing that isn't working, rather than trying to patch it up. Most of all, she urged us to write our most difficult stories, honestly and shamelessly.
"Go to the nerves that are alive, the dark places, the things that don't work out, the odd things you're obsessed with."
I came away with a freshly-sharpened set of writing tools and the determination to use them on the essays I've been struggling with. I also came away with nine new writing friends. I've been in workshops where participants developed a strong rapport and others where the group just never clicked. This one clicked, perhaps, as someone joked, because we bonded like trauma survivors after enduring Joyce's critiques. Whatever the reason, I look forward to trading work and encouragement with Kelly, Gerry, Jane, Sara, Steve, Lee Anne, Arlyn, Roz and Kirsten.
Not ready to leave Tucson? I don't blame you. Come along on another walk through the festival and its surroundings.
I'm traveling this week, so I thought you deserved a getaway, too. Unfortunately, I can't take all of you with me to Tucson; instead, I'm sending you to the exotic island of . . . Big Rapids!
Oh. Big Rapids isn't an island? Or exotic? Well, it sure seemed like it a few weeks ago when the Polynesian dance troupe Aloha Chicago (I know--Aloha Chicago?!!?) came to town as part of the annual Big Rapids Festival of the Arts.
That evening transported me back to my Samoa days, when friends and classmates used to perform some of the same dances I saw on stage. Just the sound of the drums made me feel like a teenager again in the "land of frangipani and Fanta."
If only I could reproduce those sounds here! I guess you'll have to use your imagination, inspired by the pictures below. Bon voyage!
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.