I celebrated a birthday last weekend. It wasn't a milestone birthday in the sense of marking a new decade or half-decade, but for reasons I'll get to in a moment, this year feels like a significant one to commemorate all the same.
Not that I really need significant to celebrate; I just like to celebrate. I've never understood those people who say their birthday is just another day. Maybe it's the five year old in me, but I want my birthday to be special. Not necessarily attention-must-be-paid-to-me special (although, okay, I do love opening cards and reading Facebook posts on the big day), but definitely not-my-usual-routine special.
This year my birthday fell on a Saturday, when plenty of not-my-usual-routine options were available. The day started with a surprise gift from Ray—a handmade wooden box shaped like a camera, with a camera store gift card hidden inside. Then, with his workshop cleared of anything I wasn't supposed to see, Ray gave me a sneak preview of the fairy house he's building for Camp Newaygo's Enchanted Forest event.
A little later, we took a drive to Big Rapids, where we stopped in at Authorpalooza, a book fair where some of my writer friends were selling and signing their books. You'll hear more about that event in an upcoming post. For now, I'll just say it was a delight to see a roomful of people talking about books on a sunny and unusually warm day when so many other possibilities beckoned.
Soon, those sunny-day possibilities beckoned to us, and we left Authorpalooza to stroll along the Riverwalk, shoot a few pictures and watch chunks of ice careening down the Muskegon River like tubers on a summer afternoon. We capped off the day with dinner and Drinkin' Buddy Session Ale at Newaygo Brewing Co., followed by cake, ice cream and birthday-card-opening at home.
Definitely a not-my-usual-routine day. In fact, an altogether glorious way to spend birthday #67. Which brings me to some of the reasons I'm feeling especially celebratory this year.
First, it was fifty years ago that I turned seventeen in American Samoa, during the year I chronicle in my memoir, Mango Rash. The night of my poolside birthday party at Pago Pago Intercontinental Hotel stands out in memory not only because I was heartsick over the boyfriend who was moving back to the States, but also because I was surrounded by a cadre of loyal and big-hearted friends—Samoan and American—who embraced me in spite of my eccentricities.
In that Samoa year, I came to understand impermanence as never before—through a house fire, a hurricane and numerous wrenching departures. But I also forged some of my most durable friendships. Val, my constant companion in Samoa, is still a cherished friend. Though I can no longer amble over to her house in my flip-flops—she's in North Carolina, I'm in Michigan—we keep tabs on each other on Facebook and catch up with long phone conversations about once a month. Wendy, too, is still dear to my heart, as are many more Samoa comrades and friends from other times and places who've stuck with me through the years (plus all my new friends here in Newaygo!).
That same year, fifty years ago, is significant for another reason. In the late summer of 1966, I was first diagnosed with cancer. Every day of every year since, I marvel that I'm still here. Now, with the half-century anniversary of that diagnosis approaching, I have even more reason to rejoice. I wish I could report that the past 50 years have been completely cancer-free. They haven't been—I've had a couple of recurrences—but the last episode was 25 years ago. Another milestone to mark.
Interestingly, in light of my usual willingness to celebrate almost anything, I've never been one to commemorate my cancer anniversaries. It's partly because I refuse to let the disease define me, and maybe also because I'm also a touch superstitious, afraid that making a fuss about my good health might jinx it. This year, though, I can't resist taking note of these anniversaries (especially if extra cake and ice cream might be involved!).
My sister-in-law Joy recently reminded me of yet another anniversary to observe this year. It was on my seventh birthday, sixty years ago, that Joy and my brother had the first date that led to their enduring marriage. Joy remembers that night for how upset my parents were that my 21-year-old, med-school-bound brother had skipped his little sister's birthday dinner to go out with a girl who was still in high school. All I remember is how entranced I was with Joy when she and my brother made a brief appearance that night. With her cat-eye glasses and shoulder-length pageboy, she was the most glamorous creature I'd ever laid eyes on.
When she and my brother married later that year, Joy and I became sisters—forget the in-law part. And like most sisters, we've had both tense and tender times. But lately, tender has far outweighed tense, and I've realized I truly love Joy as a sister. So this year, I celebrate the strength of our sixty-year sisterhood.
As long as I've got so many big things to celebrate this year, why not celebrate some small ones, too? I'm starting a list, and after reading mine, maybe you'll make a list of your own and share it here. Here's the beginnings of mine:
In 2016, I hereby resolve to celebrate:
As a child, my favorite books were the ones about wandering through the forest and discovering something magical—a key to a hidden treasure chest or a tiny doorway in a tree that led into otherworldly realms. My older brother fueled my fantasies with artifacts he claimed to have found in the woods that bordered our backyard: a pixie's acorn-cap beret, a stone with a hollowed-out depression that could've served as a fairy's washbasin, and once, a miniature bronze goblet that an elf had surely left behind.
Alas, I never found a secret door or gnome house, no matter how I searched those same woods. So you'll understand why I'm excited to learn that I'll soon have a second chance at Camp Newaygo's "Enchanted Forest" event. On April 30 from 3 to 6 pm and May 1 from 2 to 5 pm, visitors to the camp can wander the surrounding forest, with the help of a trail map, to search for fairy and gnome homes.
Between now and then, Camp Newaygo—an independent not-for-profit camp located on 104 acres along a chain of lakes in the Manistee National Forest region of mid-western Michigan—is recruiting creative types to fashion one-of-a-kind fairy and gnome dwellings for the event (and for the little creatures that will no doubt inhabit them!).
Young visitors will also have a chance to make a fairy wand or gnome hat and to enjoy a tea party. Local greenhouses will be on hand, selling supplies for fairy- or full-sized gardens. The week after the event, the houses will be displayed and auctioned off, with proceeds going to support improvements to the camp's Foster Arts and Crafts Lodge, built in 1949. That's where generations of campers have explored painting, pottery, dark room photography, nature crafts, jewelry making, tie dye design, wood burning and other activities. But the lodge is no longer adequate for the camp's growing number of campers and programs. (In addition to being a girls' residential summer camp and a coed day camp, Camp Newaygo offers year-round community events: dinners, girlfriend getaways, winter sleigh rides and more.)
"The proposed renovation will maintain the building's integrity and original structure, as well as winterize the facility to include a restroom, heat, insulation and high-efficiency windows," says Christa Smalligan, the camp's events specialist.
I love the whole idea of this project, not only because it brings back memories of my childhood imaginings, but also because it showcases our creative community in a way that will benefit this very special place. What's more, the project builds bridges between established artists and young creative spirits.
This won't be the first time Camp Newaygo has called on Newaygo-area talent. In 2009, the camp started a program called Stone Soup Studio, in which local artists and creative minds designed and made mosaic lamp shades for the newly-renovated Lang Lodge.
"The Enchanted Forest event has allowed us to reach out and provide another opportunity for creativity," says Smalligan. "I'm excited to see the unique perspectives people take in making each fairy home and garden."
You can certainly expect a unique perspective from Valerie Deur, who plans to create a "pixie palace" in a mossy tree stump.
"I believe in little people, and I have a special fondness for pixies," says Deur, who once co-wrote a book about pixies with her daughter and even donned pixie outfits, complete with turned-up-toe slippers, for the photos that illustrate the book.
"I'm thinking of making this house a retirement condo for pixies," she says, "although of course all small creatures would be welcome--pixies don't discriminate."
Valerie and Christa have got me thinking up designs for fairy-sized structures I might make from the twigs, acorn caps, stones and feathers I collect on my walks through the woods, and I caught Ray rummaging through the recycling bin for inspiration the other day. How about you? Can you resist this creative challenge?
The camp would like to have 25 to 30 little houses to hide in the woods, so that's going to take a lot of busy hands and fertile minds between now and April 1, when creations need to be finished and delivered to Camp Newaygo.
Here are a few guidelines to follow:
And mark your calendars for the walks on April 30 and May 1. If you can't make it, rest assured I'll share pictures and details of my enchanted adventure.
Meanwhile, I'd love to hear about other examples of creativity in service of community, here in Michigan or wherever you live.
When my husband and I told friends we were moving to Newaygo, some thought that was a made-up name for the phase of life we were entering or the Nirvana we were seeking.
"New Way Go?"
"New Age, Oh?"
"Come on, where are you really moving to?
By now, enough of those friends have visited us in West Michigan to know Newaygo is a real place. A real remarkable place. It's a place of fields and forests, sliced through by the Muskegon River, the North Country Scenic Trail, and a growing network of bicycle paths. It's a place where artists, writers, musicians and all manner of interesting folk have crafted an open-hearted community.
Of course, we knew next to none of this when we decided to move here. We'd simply fallen in love with a house in the woods and snapped it up after little more than a hasty Google search to check out the area (It's got rivers and lakes! And a bicycle path somewhere! Sounds great!).
Only after we'd signed the papers did the middle-of-the-night misgivings begin. What would we find to do during the long, dark winters? Besides each other, who would we talk to? And were all those camouflage-wearing guys we saw around town sportsmen or backwoods wackos?
As we ventured out to explore our new surroundings, we saw hints that kindred spirits inhabited these parts: the funky, artsy café down the road; a neighbor's People for Peace yard sign; a glimpse of an art gallery and a hip-looking coffee shop in town. Then we began to meet those folks. Linda, the café owner, welcomed us with fair trade coffee and an imaginative menu. Through her, we met her sister Kendra, mixed-media artist and earthy-householder. Those two women introduced us to Ellie, yoga instructor extraordinaire at Woodland Yoga, and the Monday-morning yoga women and Tuesday-morning yoga men, who made room for our mats in class and for us in their social circles. A flyer posted on the café bulletin board tipped us off to a writers' salon at the coffee shop in town. We checked it out and met the leader Sandra—a poet and chanteuse who also runs the coffee shop's weekly open mic. Through the salon, we met more fascinating people. Little by little, connections grew.
Now, nearly eight years after buying the house and four years after moving here permanently, we've come to know many more good and talented folks and found a sense of community we lacked in our pre-Newaygo life. And with the lifestyle changes we made when we moved here, we've found space and time for creative pursuits that previously got pushed aside by busy schedules or deadened by nightly TV watching. Did we have to move to the woods to accomplish this? Certainly not. I know people who are building community and doing extraordinarily creative things in Detroit and other cities large and small. The fresh beginning of a move or a new life chapter can kick-start the process, but more important is a commitment to cultivating creativity, connection and contentment wherever you are—in physical space, in phase of life, in circumstances.
In posts to follow, you'll meet other people who've made that commitment—some from here in Newaygo County, others from outside the area—and together we'll explore the rich terrain of crafting a creative, connected life. Of course I'll share my thoughts and report on my own projects, but I promise this won't be all about me!
I invite you to visit often and share your experiences, insights and suggestions of people, places, projects and topics to feature here.
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.