With this week's post, I'm introducing a new feature called Last Wednesday Wisdom. On the last Wednesday of every month, I'll serve up a potpourri of advice, inspiration and other tidbits I've come across in recent weeks.
This installment comes with a bonus: If you read all the way to the end, you'll get a sneak peek at a few more fairy houses created for the Camp Newaygo Enchanted Forest event, plus another surprise photo. So read on (and no fair jumping to the end to see the pictures first!).
Creativity is merely a plus name for regular activity. Any activity becomes creative when the doer cares about doing it right, or better.
-- John Updike
When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.
-- Ansel Adams
Even work you consider to be your worst is good for something. Every effort teaches you about your desires and tendencies, or guides you toward some new possibility, or shuts the door on an avenue you mistakenly thought was the right one.
-- Novelist Téa Obreht, quoted in The Writer magazine
The women whom I love and admire for their strength and grace did not get that way because sh*t worked out. They got that way because sh*t went wrong, and they handled it. They handled it in a thousand different ways on a thousand different days, but they handled it. Those women are my superheroes.
-- Elizabeth Gilbert
Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.
-- Martin Luther King
You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep spring from coming.
-- Pablo Neruda
Are you ready for your treat now? Me, too! But before the fairy house preview, here's a new creative challenge. Ray made up a fairy tale to go with his fairy house. Can you come up with one for your own or someone else's fairy house? (If you missed the earlier preview, find more inspiration here.)
Now take a look at these creations by "Sylvan Sally" Kane, "Elfin Eileen" Kent, "Diaphanous Diane" Sack, "Linda of Lilliput" Cudworth, "Spritely Sue" Schneider and her granddaughter "Artsy Ayla":
LINDA OF LILLIPUT
SPRITELY SUE AND AIRY AYLA
And finally, in response to last week's post on serendipity, Cindi McDonald of San Antonio sent this:
I have no story, but I do have a pic.
Thanks, Cindi, fairy house builders, contributors of wisdom. . . and readers! Have you come up with any fairy stories or do you have discoveries from the past month to share?
The picture you see on the left is a postcard I keep inside a cabinet door above my desk. Every time I open the cabinet, I see the card—a reminder of a vacation in 2006 that took an unexpected, but fortuitous, turn and taught me a valuable lesson.
I'll come back to the postcard and the story behind it in a moment. First, I want to share a more recent experience that prompted me to think back to that trip and its unanticipated consequences.
On a drizzly Sunday afternoon a few weekends ago, a group of us gathered at a friend's house to talk about enhancing serendipity in our lives. We were brought together by Maadho'okiid Marsha Reeves, a local holistic nurse and keeper of Anishinaabe lifeways.
Our discussion began with thoughts about what serendipitous experiences have in common: a surprise that shakes up our plans and expectations, but leads to something new that "feels right" (and often, downright delightful).
Because of that element of surprise, I'd always thought of serendipity as a random occurrence. But as the afternoon went on, I came to see that there are ways of promoting "happy accidents," or at least being more open to their possibilities.
One way is through the Gifts of the Seven Grandfathers, Marsha told us. In the Anishinaabe tradition, these teachings—Wisdom, Love, Respect, Bravery, Honesty, Humility, and Truth—are tools we can use to live a good life. By actively using these qualities, we can connect to the spirit realm where serendipity comes together. "All we need to do is be willing for Spirit to act through us, and it happens," Marsha said.
Though this was my first introduction to the Gifts of the Seven Grandfathers, I could see how valuable these teachings would be when life goes in unexpected directions.
For me, Humility is a big one to keep in mind. Even though experience has taught me that life doesn't always follow the script I write for it, I persist in believing things will unfold the way I expect them to. When they don't, I'm incensed. How dare anything thwart my plans, my well thought out, logical plans! At such times, it might help to pause and remember that plans are only plans and that reality may have a better idea.
That's where Bravery can come in. It takes courage to let go and trust that the new way will turn out all right, even if it it's not what I had in mind.
Then there's Truth. When I get hung up on over-planning, my mind is too full of its own chatter to hear anything else. It's only when I quiet the commotion that I can hear messages that seem to come from a deeper place and ring with truth. Ceremony and ritual—even something as simple as lighting a candle—can help us settle down and access those deeper truths, Marsha said.
I knew nothing about Anishinaabe teachings when Ray and I set out on that vacation I mentioned earlier, but I think the spirit of serendipity was with us on that trip. Read on and tell me what you think:
There we were, rolling along through Colorado in our small motorhome, bound for the Grand Canyon. The GRAND Canyon! Can you blame us for scurrying a bit as we passed through Denver and on down toward the New Mexico border? Near the border, we passed through the town of Trinidad, but I'm not sure I noticed anything about it.
A few miles beyond Trinidad, we ascended Raton Pass. As we started back down, Ray got a worried look and said, "Uh-oh, hang on," as he steered—no brakes, no power—to the shoulder. The engine had stalled and wouldn't start again. A couple of hours later, a tow truck arrived and hauled the motorhome back to Trinidad for repairs.
But guess what: it was Friday of Memorial Day weekend, and the repair shop was about to close for three days. The motorhome came back to life enough to limp across the highway to a "campground" that looked more like a long-neglected parking lot. So instead of grand vistas, we found ourselves staring at weeds and power lines.
Now we had three days to kill and not a clue what to do with all that time except drive back to Denver in our tow-behind Jeep to pick up a part the repair shop had ordered before closing for the holiday weekend. Did I mention that daytime temperatures were in the broiling range, the Jeep had no air conditioning, and the rest area water fountains were out of order?
We made the Denver trip early Saturday morning. Then, eager for distractions—and cool refuges—on the drive back to Trinidad, we took a side trip to Manitou Springs. There, we wandered the art-filled streets, drank from the mineral spring-fed fountains, encountered colorful characters, snacked on chicken wings and Fat Tire Amber Ale and felt thoroughly refreshed in body and spirit.
The next day, we slept in and lounged around all morning, then drove the Jeep to nearby Trinidad Lake State Park, where we hiked to the top of a hill overlooking Trinidad Lake. Maybe the views weren't grand, but they were pleasant, we were outdoors, we were hiking on a beautiful afternoon and life felt fine.
From the park, we wandered along Highway 12 and came upon the town of Stonewall, where a 250-foot-high wall of sandstone juts out of the earth like the dorsal fin of a gigantic subterranean creature. Later, I read that the spring waters around Stonewall are said to be enchanted. Easy to believe.
Perhaps some of that enchantment led us to our next stop. Just when hunger overtook us, we saw a sign for Monument Lake Resort, followed it and found an adobe-style structure built in 1937 by the WPA and the Izaak Walton League. We ate lunch on the resort's pergola-shaded patio overlooking Monument Lake—another lovely vista.
Legend tells of two Native American chiefs who, searching for water for their people, met at this spot and embraced in peace. A lake formed at their feet, and a volcano erupted, enclosing the two leaders in rock in the center of the lake. Their peaceful spirit still prevails and settled over us as we looked out on the lake.
Back in the campground that evening, we reflected on how much we would have missed if our trip had gone as planned and we'd hurried on to our destination. Before we left Trinidad, I bought the postcard—a view of Fisher Peak, Trinidad's most distinctive feature—as a reminder to let serendipity disrupt my plans more often.
And by the way, the Grand Canyon was still there when we finally arrived. And it was just as grand as ever.
Do you have a serendipity story to share? Have you found ways of enhancing serendipity in your life?
We interrupt our regular blogging for this dispatch from Fairyland (also known as Camp Newaygo):
A building boom is underway in preparation for the Enchanted Forest event, April 30 and May 1.
"The demand for twigs, stones, clay and moss is through the (tiny) roof," said Gnarly Gnome, manager of building materials. "Creativity is at an all-time high."
Indeed, our inquisitive, roving sprites have spotted activity throughout Newaygo County and beyond. Here are some of their surveillance photos and reports:
Over on the banks of the Little Muskegon River, fairy godmothers Brenda Huckins Bonter and Maureen Roslanic have been working some powerful magic with clay and imagination.
Croton resident Valerie Deur, who's rumored to be part pixie, has transformed a tree stump into a palace for tiny folk of all sorts.
Meanwhile, Diane "Diaphanous Di" Sack plans to take stump transformation to new heights with a multistory creation in this stump.
One evening, our sprites flew all the way down to Ada, where a fairy house-making party was in progress at Heather Lane Pottery. The intrepid imps returned with photos of these enchanting dwellings created by the group, which includes Lisa Boerema, Mary Beth Cooper, Dorrie Crago, Cortney Horan, Linda Kilmer, Janet Krueger, Terri Oostendorp, and Sue Monterusso.
Even my own home was invaded by those snoopy sylphs, who just couldn't stand the suspense of waiting to see what Ray has been up to in his workshop. They captured these pictures of the process and end result.
Feeling inspired? It's not too late to craft your own fairy house. You have until April 1 to finish your creation and deliver it to Camp Newaygo. So summon your muse, fire up the glue gun and get busy!
Sherlock Holmes gave me a cunning look (you can't put anything over on that guy); Tinkerbell sidled past me, angling her wings so as not to poke me in the eye; and I found Waldo—he was behind the giraffe.
No, I wasn't on a flight of fantasy, I was at Authorpalooza, a showcase for local, regional (and beyond) authors in nearby Big Rapids. The event was part of Festival of the Arts, a month-long, annual celebration that offers an eclectic mix of performances, participatory projects and workshops—from welding to cupcake decorating, from Shakespeare to stand-up comedy, and a whole lot in between.
As Alice Bandstra, president of the Mecosta County nonprofit arts organization Artworks, describes it: "We build community and memories through the Festival, while we are expressing our creativity and having fun."
That's exactly the point of Authorpalooza: creativity, community and fun. It's a chance for authors to meet and learn from one another and for readers to connect with writers and even rub elbows (or wing tips) with characters from favorite books. The costumed characters, new to the festival this year, were members of the Ferris State University honorary theatre fraternity, and let me tell you, they were convincing. I followed Little Red Riding Hood around for half an hour, hoping she'd mistake me for Grandma and share some goodies.
The real reason I was there, though, was to support my author friends, discover new authors and—let's face it—feed my dream of someday being one of those published authors with a table full of books to sign.
I started at the table of Wendy Nystrom, a children's book author who spent two years in Iceland, where her fantasy stories are set. I met Wendy through Second Monday Writers Group, which meets monthly at Artworks, and I admire her imagination and energy.
Much of that energy has gone into organizing or co-organizing Authorpalooza events for the past three years. The book fair started as a project of the Friends of Big Rapids Community Library, featuring twenty-five authors, and grew from there.
This year's event, the first to be part of Festival of the Arts, was held in space donated by The Gate Entertainment Center. If you think an entertainment megaplex with an 18-lane bowling center, game arcade and sports bar is an unusual venue for a book fair, you're not the only one. I wondered about the fit myself. But Authorpalooza was set up in a quiet, corner room that felt worlds away from the crash of bowling pins.
Wendy recruited authors through a writing events page she administers on Facebook. "I could have had fifty or sixty, but I only had space for forty," she told me. (Click here for a list of this year's Authorpalooza authors.)
One of those authors was Big Rapids author Betty Stolarek, who writes fiction as Rebecca Thaddeus. Betty recently retired from a thirty-eight year career teaching writing, and now she and Phillip Sterling, a poet and writer of fiction and nonfiction, offer writing retreats at Three Ponds Farm, Betty's roomy and writing-friendly home on twenty acres on the outskirts of Big Rapids. I've attended two of those retreats and come away each time with fresh insights into my work and writing in general.
When we chatted at Authorpalooza, Betty filled me in on plans for the next workshop and shared the exciting news that her novel One Amber Bead, a family saga that takes place in Poland and the United States, is being translated into Polish.
Next, I stopped to talk with Susan Stec, a head-spinningly prolific author of paranormal fiction and another Second Monday Writers friend.
Susan, who lives with her "perfectly normal" husband and three "also normal" King Charles spaniels on 50 acres of woods, fields and streams in Newaygo County, describes herself this way on her website:
I've always been weird, even as a child—might've been influenced by all those fairies and trolls living around Grandma's house. Could've been because my mother had dreams that came true, and Grandma read tarot cards. I don't know, but I don't think it's because I'm two different people (my family loves them both) and one of us talks to ghosts.
Yeah. That's Susan, all right. But there's nothing weird about her reasons for participating in Authorpalooza.
"At every signing event I have participated in, there is at least one young writer who wants to know how I got where I am. I love sharing this knowledge and giving encouragement to others, hoping they develop an uncontrollable passion for building their own worlds to share with others," she says.
One budding writer in particular caught Wendy's attention this year. "This teenage boy came all the way from Hastings with his grandma. He spent two hours walking around and talking to every author, and he had a folder and took notes."
Wendy, Susan and Betty also get a kick out of meeting their readers face to face, exchanging tips with other authors and raising the visibility of writing within the community.
"I've always thought that reading and writing were collaborative functions," says Betty. "From other authors I've gotten ideas on marketing and spreading the word about my writing. I also use opportunities like Authorpalooza to market my writers' retreats, so that's a way to inspire others."
I think what they're all saying is, there's always more to learn, there's always someone you can learn from, and there's always someone who can learn from you. I'm sure that's as true in other endeavors as it is in writing.
How does your community encourage interactions among people who are passionate about the arts?
In high school, it was the parking lot of Griff's Burger Bar. In college, the Starlight Terrace, a terrazzo-floored, sky-lit space filled with café tables on the student union's fourth floor. In my mid- to late-twenties, it was a homey Northern California bar called Jambalaya that hosted poetry readings and plays, as well as the house band's rollicking music on weekends.
I remember these places not so much for their physical features (though I can still picture Jambalaya's homemade tablecloths and the compass design in the center of the Starlight Terrace floor) as for their feelings they evoked. Each place, in its time, was the place to go and find a sense of belonging. You could always count on running into at least one person you knew, but more often, a whole crowd of friendly faces. And because these were all public gathering spots, there was also the chance of meeting someone new and exciting.
When I moved with my parents to American Samoa for a year in my mid-teens, I wondered if any such place existed for kids my age to connect. The driving age was eighteen, and even if we younger teens had been allowed to drive, there were no burger joints with parking lots where kids could hang out. But, as I discovered within a week of my arrival, there was the tennis court. By day, it was nothing but a rectangle of pitted concrete surrounded by rusty chain-link fencing, but every evening, it was the place to make the scene and socialize.
Here's how I describe that social scene in my unpublished memoir, Mango Rash: Survival Lessons in the Land of Frangipani and Fanta:
Girls in Bermuda shorts and summer tops clustered together, alternately whispering and shrieking, glancing over their shoulders at the older boys, who hung back in the shadows, cigarettes dangling from their lips. A couple of younger kids, not yet in their teens, rode Sting-Ray bikes in figure-eights, slicing through the crowd like swift fish through a reef. A Samoan boy shinnied up a palm tree and threw down coconuts; someone cleaved off the tops and passed around the unhusked nuts for drinking. Not exactly lime Dr. Pepper, but I'd give it a try.
The night had the feel of a midsummer evening in the small-town America of my childhood, where all the neighborhood kids drifted out of their houses after supper for a game of Kick the Can. Without cars or other signs of status, we weren't adolescents posing as adults; we were just a bunch of big kids who'd come out to play under street lights and stars.
That tennis court was where I met the motorcycle-riding, cigarette-smoking bad boy who would be my romantic interest (and my father's bane) for most of my stay on the island. Now, many decades later, I'm not looking for romance when I head to a gathering place; I'm just looking for conversation and connection. Some days, not even that. Some days, it's enough to sit quietly, tapping on a laptop or writing in a notebook, in a cozy, familiar place where others come together.
Often, the place my friends, neighbors and I choose is Hit the Road Joe Coffee Café, a comfy eatery five minutes from my house. Local artists' ceramics, jewelry and metal sculptures (all for sale) decorate the walls, and more than seventy species of birds have been spotted at the feeders outside the windows. On Monday mornings, after class at nearby Woodland Yoga, a group of ten, fifteen, or more women (including me) crowds around the big, corner table and shares tidbits about local goings-on, recently-read books, herbal remedies, Netflix movies, and the proper undergarments to wear beneath clingy knits. On Tuesday mornings, the men's yoga class—a smaller and less rambunctious group—holds court after their hour of down-dogging, Warrior II-ing and Savasana.
Once a month, the café owner's eldest daughter Tracy Murrell, an award-winning chef, stokes her creative fires to produce a six-course dinner. At other times, the café hosts readings, talks and films on topics ranging from beekeeping to human trafficking. In winter, there are weekly domino games and twice-a-month euchre parties.
Hit the Road Joe is the hub of our little community, but that didn't just happen by chance. Owner Linda Cudworth and her sister Kendra McKimmy, a mixed-media artist whose wares are displayed there, filled me in on the story during a recent post-breakfast chat.
The sisters' commitment to community-building began nearly 20 years ago, when both women were part of a collective that operated an art gallery in downtown Newaygo. Until then, "there were all these kind of freaky people living out in the middle of the woods, but we didn't know each other," says Kendra. The gallery and an adjacent coffee shop owned by graphic designer Pat Brissette drew creative types, and connections grew. Eventually, Linda, who worked at Pat's coffee shop, began to dream of owning her own café closer to home.
"She wanted to be able to walk to work," Kendra explains. Linda envisioned an old, funky space, where customers would feel at home. When she couldn't find anything that quite fit the vision, Linda, her husband Chris, Kendra and a contractor built Hit the Road Joe next door to the farmhouse where Linda and Chris lived at the time, and they proceeded to funk-ify it with a tin ceiling, counter, tables, chairs and anything else they could glean from a Grand Rapids bar that was being demolished.
With an emphasis on fresh, local food, Hit the Road Joe soon attracted customers, but it was Linda's outgoing nature that kept them coming back. I remember the first time Ray and I visited the café, soon after we bought our house down the road. We knew hardly anyone in the area and didn't know how locals felt about outsiders, so we were timid about venturing into what looked like a hangout for local folk. Would we be welcomed or met with hostile glares? We needn't have worried. Not only was our waitress friendly, but before we'd finished our coffee, Linda emerged from the tiny kitchen, wearing something tie-dyed I'm sure, and made her way to our table to get acquainted. From then on, she always remembered not only our names, but other details about us and our lives, as well as our drink orders and food preferences.
Linda never has had qualms about using the restaurant as a forum for discussions of controversial issues, such as proposed developments and the pumping of water for bottling from a local spring.
"She has a commitment to these kinds of things," says Kendra. "Maybe it's not always the best business decision, but she has stuck by it." Ultimately, some people on opposing sides of the issues have become loyal customers, not necessarily won over to a different viewpoint, but won over by Linda.
Nowadays, you may not always see Linda when you visit Hit the Road Joe. Her youngest daughter Keeva Filipek has taken over managing the restaurant, and Tracy and middle daughter Vanessa Farrel work there every other weekend. Still, the café that many customers refer to as "Linda's" has the welcoming feel she fostered over the years.
Where do you feel welcome? I'd love to hear about your favorite hangouts, recent or remembered, and what makes them special to you.
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.