One of my favorite January rituals is choosing a calendar to hang in our kitchen. More than a place to keep track of events and appointments, the right calendar can be a thing of beauty to admire every day.
For the past three years, I've been delighted to find photographer Gail Howarth's calendars for sale at Artsplace in Fremont. I've been a fan of Gail's photographs since I saw a collaborative exhibit of work by Gail and painter Renae Wallace at Artsplace a few years ago.
This year, Gail is donating profits from calendar sales to Mel Trotter Ministries, a Grand Rapids nonprofit organization that works with homeless people. Gail is also undertaking a photography and writing project with the organization. I've invited her here today to tell us about her work and this new project.
One thing that has always appealed to me about your photographs is the way you create extraordinary images from everyday objects and scenes—an old chair in a barn, a pile of driftwood, a rusty bicycle in a patch of weeds, a weathered fence post. What is your process for finding subjects for your photographs, and what do you look for in a potential subject?
I feel as though my subjects find me. It is true that I carry my camera most of the time and that I often have a goal in mind when I go out for the day. However, what is on my camera at journey's end is seldom what I planned. I photograph a broad range of things, as you mentioned. I am attracted to things old and broken, beautiful landscapes, and interesting people. Often, I travel the same roads or walk the same paths and see nothing of interest. Then with a shift of light, I see the location or an object as though for the first time. This fascinates me and keeps in a state of wonder and awe. A potential subject is anything that tells a story. My hope is that my photography not only be beautiful but also conjures memories or inspires the viewer to create a tale about the image.
What are some of the most unusual or surprising places you've found good subjects?
I love old abandoned places. This is not unusual these days, as there is an entire genre of photography related to "abandoned places". However, it is where I am most surprised and intrigued. First, my storyteller's mind is intrigued by the possibilities of why a thing or place was left behind. Second, I am surprised by what is left behind. A girl's saddle shoe, the curtains, an apron over a bed frame, a lifetime of someone's greeting cards scattered upon the floor, a woman's purse, and so on and so on. Some images are heartbreaking, yet oddly beautiful.
I was surprised to read, in the text on the back of your 2017 calendar, that you started out with little or no confidence in your skills as a photographer. What helped you grow and develop confidence in your abilities?
I have always had an eye for composition, but I thought my photography was ordinary. Honestly, it was my friend's comments on Facebook that made me believe I might have something more than snapshots.
Then Renae Wallace, a painter from Fremont, Michigan, began asking me if she could paint some of my images. Of course, I was shocked, honored, and so pleased. That eventually turned into our exhibit at NCCA - Artsplace: Of Time, Transition and Reflection. Words cannot even begin to describe how wonderful that experience was. Renae is a gem. A dream came true when Lindsay Isenhart said yes to the project. Everyone at Artsplace was incredibly supportive. Faune Benson Schuitema even helped me pick all the materials to frame and mat my work. The community came out in earnest to support both Renae and me. It was then that I knew I was on my way and felt like a real artist.
How have your techniques and approaches to photography changed over time?
My technique improved once I learned more about all the settings on my camera. Instead of just taking a shot and hoping for the best, I learned how to set the camera for the best capture. Additionally, I started shooting in RAW versus JPEG and picked up a couple of higher-quality glass lenses. I learned Lightroom and Google NIK for editing. I do have Photoshop, but have not yet learned it. Perhaps this year.
My approach is different, as I take more time with setup and take fewer images versus taking too many images and then sorting through for the best one. That was very time-consuming. I also ask for opportunities to photograph things that interest me. In the past, I would miss many opportunities because I was too shy to ask.
This year, you're donating profits from your calendar sales to Mel Trotter Ministries. How did you come to be involved with the organization?
I worked as a practice management software trainer for Patterson Dental. When Mel Trotter Ministries Dental Clinic purchased the software, I became their trainer. Over the years, I would occasionally be called upon for follow-up training. I felt at home with this group and felt strongly that their mission was important. I was moved by their conviction to help and I would think, if I ever left my job I would want to be part of this.
In early 2016 I began to feel more and more unsettled in the career I had loved. As the year progressed, I found myself thinking more about photography and writing and less and less about my job. One day when I was training the dental staff at Mel Trotter, I mentioned to Janice Keesman, Director of Clinics, how I was feeling. I told her I was considering leaving my job to pursue my passion. I mentioned that if they ever needed help, I would still like to be considered. That resulted in many discussions, and finally a job offer. I work in the clinic three days a week and spend the rest of my time cultivating my life as an artist.
In addition to donating calendar profits, you're working on a photography and writing project for Mel Trotter Ministries. Tell us a little about that project—what you're doing and what you hope to accomplish with this work.
This is truly a labor of love. The project is so important to me that I do it on my own time. Mel Trotter Ministries is an organization that serves the homeless. It provides overnight shelter, meals, residential programs, job training, counseling, the dental clinic, chiropractic care, vision, legal services, and so much more.
The project was born soon after I began working in the dental clinic. Patients often said the same phrases to describe what was happening in their lives. They went like this: No one hears me. No one sees me. I am invisible. I thought perhaps I could help. With my camera and writing skills, I could give them a voice, a face, and increase public awareness of homelessness.
Mel Trotter Ministries publishes my pieces on their website. I will be including the blog posts on my own site soon.
Additionally, I would like to create an exhibit for ArtPrize and/or other venues to increase awareness.
How has your work with Mel Trotter ministries affected you personally? As an artist?
One cannot work at Mel Trotter and not be changed. First, it has deepened my personal relationship with God. It may sound quite absurd, but I did not expect this. I think the usual things you might think: I am more grateful, considerate and have deeper compassion.
But, I would also say, I feel a bit more of a burden of responsibility in caring for those less fortunate. I find it difficult to leave the building between 4:30 and 5:15 pm. That sounds terrible, but I have a tender heart and my mind has a hard time wrapping my head around the extent of the issue of homelessness. That is the time when the homeless women check in for the evening. They wait in line and security goes through their sparse belongings before allowing them entry where they will receive a meal and bed for the night. I often see the same women day after day. There is no age limit. Some are very young and some very old. Some appear to be frightened, angry, resigned, and yet others quite joyful. And I wonder, where are their families, why does no one care enough to open their doors to these people, and what does the future hold for them?
As an artist, I would say it has been a call to action. I am one person. What can I do? I can and will use my words and camera to do whatever I can to help.
The photos of yours that I've seen in galleries and on your calendars have focused mainly on places, objects and wildlife/nature, and not as much on people. Your new work with Mel Trotter Ministries is all about people. Is this a new direction for your work overall, or just for this particular project?
I like photographing people, but not in a studio setting. Lighting with flashes, reflectors, and the use of backdrops is a mystery to me. The project at Mel Trotter is an extension of something I started in November of 2016. I began asking people to think about for what they were most grateful while I photographed them. I used the light that was available and processed the images in black and white. The result is a very raw image. Some people cried while others beamed radiantly. The first person I photographed for the gratitude project taught me that what I was asking was not a minor request. I was asking people to become vulnerable and to bare a part of their soul. I am grateful to those who participated. To be allowed a look into someone's soul is an honor and needs to be treated respectfully. This is what I hope to bring to the Mel Trotter Project.
What directions do you want to go with your photography in the coming year?
I would like to pair writing with my photography more often. I will definitely be reviving my neglected blog. The folks at Mel Trotter have asked me to also photograph and write about the volunteer of the month and have begun asking me to photograph events. I am hoping that Renae Wallace and I can begin another collaborative project soon and am open to collaborative projects with other artists, but there is nothing in the works. Perhaps this is the year that I will finally learn Photoshop.
Anything else you'd like to add?
My work is available at NCCA - Artsplace in Fremont and at MB Woodworks & Company and Market 41 in Newaygo. Online I can be found at:
I am also starting a small gallery by appointment at my home in Holton.
From time to time over the past couple of years, I have written about the remarkable group of women with whom I spend nearly every Monday morning. We start with yoga—either a class with Behnje Masson, who drives up from Grand Rapids every other week—or a group practice session. Then it's on to breakfast at Hit the Road Joe Coffee Café, where we appropriate the biggest table (and pull up extra chairs and tables when our group is at full capacity).
I've mentioned how our breakfast conversations ramble, touching on books, movies, politics and passions. But have I mentioned that these stalwart women can also get mighty silly when the mood strikes?
As it did on the morning of the corset. Kathy had discovered the article of clothing—a stretchy, satiny creation from an era when women wore "foundation garments"—among the belongings of her mother-in-law, who had recently passed away at the age of 98. She brought it to breakfast for show-and-tell, but this group couldn't be content to just pass the thing around.
After waiting until the table of men from the nearby church camp had left the premises, Valerie hopped up, undid the corset's side zipper, and began tugging it up over her yoga clothes. The more she wriggled, the more we giggled.
Camera phones came out. Then, like Cinderella's stepsisters, we all wanted to try squeezing ourselves into the magical undergarment.
I don't know about the other yoginis, but I fully expected that slipping it on, I'd be transformed into a svelte, glamorous, Hollywood-worthy creature. Seeing the cellphone picture Sue took of me quickly shattered that illusion.
No matter. The real transformation was that moment of lightness, of letting go of whatever concerns were constricting me and sharing a laugh with friends I've grown to love in the five years since we moved to this community.
Another opportunity to let loose together came up a few weeks ago at Camp Newaygo's annual Christmas & Cocktails event. For the past several years, our group has reserved a couple of tables at this annual women-only shindig. If C&C sounds like a wild and boozy girls' night out, it really isn't—not for the yoginis, at least. We might sip a cocktail or a glass of wine, but it's dancing, not drinking, that's the draw.
In past years, we've rocked out to the tunes of piano woman Alesha Nicole. This year, Camp Newaygo changed up the entertainment with BellyDance Grand Rapids. No corsets here! In fact, in reading up on belly dancing, I learned that when this style of expressive dance first became popular in the U.S., in the 1890s, Victorian sensibilities were affronted by the dancers' uncorseted gyrations. Imagine!
We, however, delighted in the dance performance, especially the part where the male waiters—who had served us so capably and even recited poems composed specifically for each table--took to the floor to swivel and sway with the belly dancers. A few brave women from our group gave it a shot, too!
The rest of us held back until the rock 'n' roll came on. Then we were on our feet for the rest of the night, bopping and twirling against a backdrop of glittery lights.
When the music ended, and we headed out into the cold night, we all glowed a little brighter.
What's the most fun you've had with friends lately?
Whether you celebrate Christmas, Solstice, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Pancha Ganapati, Seinfeld's Festivus for the Rest of Us, or some other winter observance, this is a festive time of year. The lights, the sparkle, the special treats, the gatherings with people you love (or try to) all combine to brighten the season.
Now that I think about it, this whole year has been pretty festive. Sure, it's also been stressful in a lot of ways, but there's been a lot to celebrate and plenty of events centered around celebration. Though we didn't set out with this goal in mind, Ray and I ended up attending a record number of festivals this year, from the Baby Food Festival in Fremont to the Blueberry Festival in South Haven.
I've taken HeartWood readers along to some of these events, but looking back over the year, I realized there were several I hadn't shared with you.
So take a break from the holiday bustle and join me as we hit the highlights.
National Blueberry Festival, South Haven
Newaygo Logging Festival
Muskegon Polish Festival
Newaygo Christmas Walk
The 2017 National Book Awards were announced last week, and while I'm always interested in checking out the winners and finalists for additions to my To-Read list, I paid more attention than usual this year. That's because I was rooting for one particular book on the nonfiction finalist list: David Grann's Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.
Although Grann's book didn't win in its category, its selection as one of five finalists speaks to the story's significance and the skill with which Grann researched and wrote it. That's reason enough to take note, but there was also this: Killers of the Flower Moon is the book everyone was talking about on our recent visit to Oklahoma. Cousins, classmates, complete strangers—all had read or were reading or were about to read the book and wanted to talk about it. Having just read it ourselves, and still feeling stunned by the story, Ray and I wanted to talk about it, too.
In fact, we wanted to do more than talk, so while in Oklahoma, we made a pilgrimage of sorts to Pawhuska, the town where many of the events described in the book took place. More about that in a moment.
To bring you up to speed if you haven't read the book, it's the true story of a series of murders of wealthy members of the Osage tribe in the 1920s. Forced onto seemingly worthless land in northern Oklahoma, the Osage had the foresight to secure collective mineral rights to the property, which turned out to be rife with high-quality oil deposits. By leasing the drilling rights to oil companies, the Osage made a fortune—more than $30 million in 1923 alone. (That's the equivalent of more than $400 million today.)
At the time, the Osage were, per capita, the richest people in the world. They built mansions, owned fancy cars, sent their children to prestigious schools—and attracted the attention of schemers intent on separating them from their money by any means necessary, including mercenary marriage and murder.
Whole families turned up dead from mysterious illnesses, secretive shootings and suspicious fires, as did investigators sent to look into the killings. With more than two dozen people murdered between 1920 and 1924, the killing spree became known as the Osage Reign of Terror.
Eventually, agents from the newly reorganized Federal Bureau of Investigation solved the murders. Grann details that investigation and its devastating revelations, then—with the help of Osage Nation members he met while researching the book—goes on to unearth a deeper conspiracy. As Dave Eggers wrote in his New York Times review of the book, "Among the towering thefts and crimes visited upon the native peoples of the continent, what was done to the Osage must rank among the most depraved and ignoble."
Growing up in Oklahoma, I heard stories—both official and personal—about injustices and atrocities committed against indigenous people. In Oklahoma History classes, we learned about the Trail of Tears (as well as the accomplishments of such leaders as Sequoyah and Quanah Parker). Yet I never heard or read a thing about the Osage murders, though Pawhuska is only 80 miles from my hometown.
Apparently, neither did most Oklahomans—including some you might think would have been well aware. At the Osage Nation Museum in Pawhuska, I overheard a conversation between another visitor and guest services representative Pauline Allred, an 87-year-old Osage/Ponca woman.
"I guess you grew up hearing about the murders," the visitor said.
"No," Ms. Allred replied. "We knew something had happened, but no one would say what had happened."
Today, the horrific story is no longer kept quiet; copies of Grann's book are prominently displayed in the window of The Water Bird Gallery in downtown Pawhuska. A monument on a nearby hilltop marks the spot where the Million Dollar Elm once stood. In the shade of that tree, auctions for oil and gas leases were held in the 1920s, with such notable oilmen as J. Paul Getty, Harry Sinclair and Frank Phillips bidding the big bucks that brought prosperity—and eventually tragedy—to the Osage Nation.
Steps away from the Million Dollar Elm monument, exhibits in the Osage Nation Museum document that awful chapter, but place it in the context of a long history and rich culture. When we visited, the museum was preparing to open an exhibit by renowned Osage artist and activist Gina Gray, whose distinctive style blends traditional images with contemporary style. The nearby Osage Nation Cultural Center offers classes in traditional skills such as fingerweaving, moccasin-making, beadwork and ribbonwork, and the Nation's language department is actively engaged in revitalizing the Osage language through classroom and online courses.
Encouraging signs of the Nation's resilience. Yet we also saw signs that controversy continues today, once again involving energy production.
Approaching Pawhuska from the west, we drove through a vast wind farm. In town, we saw placards reading "NO TURBINES." We learned that the Osage Nation has been fighting wind development in the area for years, asserting that the enormous turbines—located on privately-owned ranches to which the Osage still retain mineral rights—are a "scenic blight" on the prairie landscape, and that the wind developments could disturb graves and archaeological sites.
"They're eating up the landscape," said one Osage man quoted in a 2015 Tulsa World article. "They're devouring our history and culture."
Several years ago, the federal government, acting on behalf of the Osage Nation, sued the wind farm developers, arguing that the construction process interfered with the Nation's mineral rights. Turbine construction involves digging a large pit for the foundation, crushing the underlying rock and using the crushed rocks as structural support. Though not a typical mining operation, the removal and altering of rocks does constitute mining, government lawyers maintained, and should not be done without obtaining mineral permits from the Osage Nation.
The initial court ruling came down in favor of the wind developers. But the Osage Mineral Council appealed, and while we were in Oklahoma, the original decision was reversed. For the wind farm already in operation, the developers must negotiate a new lease with the Osage Nation, and any future developments must have the Nation's consent.
How the situation will play out remains to be seen, but whatever the outcome, it will be one more chapter in the compelling story of the Osage of Oklahoma.
The bearded man with the gray ponytail sits at a table, alone and looking like he wants to keep it that way. When he speaks, it's to talk about a time in his youth when he decided "I should not befriend new people, because they're likely to die." Even now, he goes on to say, "I still don't get too close to many people."
Flash forward to another scene. Same man, same beard and ponytail, tattoos visible on his forearms, but now he's prancing around in a red tutu over striped pants, sporting a red nose, a pink ball cap and an oversized, polka-dot tie and yukking it up with a gaggle of kids and a bunch of other burly guys who are just as outlandishly attired.
What accounts for the shift between scenes? The man in the red tutu is 71-year-old Vietnam veteran Mike O'Connor, who summoned a different kind of bravery to take part in an experiment in humanitarian clowning, traveling to Guatemala with a group of other veterans to spread smiles in hospitals and orphanages. In the process, he and the other Vets stepped out of the "suffer zone" into a more playful, loving space.
Clownvets, a program of physician Patch Adams's Gesundheit! Institute, is the subject of a documentary film-in-progress, and in a bit I'll tell you how you can help the filmmakers finish, distribute and promote the film.
But first, a bit of background. I first heard about the Clownvets project from my neighbor Mark Kane, a licensed psychologist who has seen from his work with veterans how trauma affects the mind, body and spirit. In fact, it was Mark's exposure to Vietnam veterans as a conscientious objector working with the American Friends Service Committee years ago that prompted him to become a psychologist.
"Post-traumatic stress, in a variety of names, has been with us since the beginning of time," says Mark. "It's not really a disease like polio is . . . It's normal people reacting normally to very un-normal circumstances."
Statistics on the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are sobering. In the U.S., more than twenty Veterans commit suicide daily. Many more experience physical and psychological symptoms that ripple out to affect their families and communities. As a step toward relieving some of that suffering, Adams and the Gesundheit! Institute came up with the idea of introducing Vets to humanitarian clowning.
Known for his work with warriors experiencing PTSD, Mark was asked to help recruit Vets for the Gesundheit! project. All he knew about Patch Adams at the time was that Robin Williams had depicted him in the eponymous 1998 movie, but Mark quickly learned more about the clowning physician and got onboard with the project.
Getting Vets into tutus and rainbow wigs isn't as crazy an idea as it may seem. The nonprofit Gesundheit! Institute bases its holistic brand of medical care on the notion that the health of the individual is closely tied to the health of the family, community, society and world. A leader in the development of therapeutic clowning, Gesundheit! has been sending trained volunteers around the world since 1985 to clown in healthcare settings and distressed communities. They soon learned that it wasn't only the people on the receiving end who benefited from silliness and "spontaneous, interactive play." The clowns themselves—even those who'd started out depressed—came home happy.
In 2015, the first cohort of Clownvets traveled to Guatemala, and the experience was transformative.
"They saw that they could be part of the solution, instead of causing devastation," says Mark. In the film, several of the Vets, including Mike O'Connor, reflect on the experience.
"I never thought that I would interact with people the way that I did," Mike says. "It's probably a good thing for me, because I do like to isolate, and I couldn't there. It brought me a little bit out of my shell and helped me to interact with people once I got back home."
When the first group of Clownvets returned, they helped recruit volunteers for a second trip in 2016.
That's when Chilean filmmaker Esteban Rojas, a longtime friend and collaborator of the Gesundheit! Institute, got involved. What Esteban saw "blew his mind," to quote from an online write-up about the project. "Listening to their life stories, hearing the horrors that they went through, but also seeing how their faces changed while trying the clowning, convinced him that this story needed to be told."
A month later, Esteban traveled to West Michigan to film Mark and some of the Vets in their daily lives and interview them about their experiences. Mark took on the role of producer and has been working closely with Esteban, co-editor Luis Bahamondes, and executive producers Charlotte Huggins and John Glick on the film, which includes material filmed by a different camera crew on the 2015 Veterans clown trip. Veteran Mike O'Connor has signed on to the film project as a consultant.
Another friend of ours, Eldon Howe, is also involved with the film. In his day job, Eldon is owner of Howe Construction, a company that builds ecology-based, disaster-resistant homes all over the world. But he's also a talented singer-songwriter who expresses himself musically through guitar compositions. Some of his music is included in the film's soundtrack—the perfect accompaniment to footage of our West Michigan environs.
I had a chance to view an early version of the film, and to say I was impressed and moved is a huge understatement. Though I had talked with Mark on many occasions about the Clownvets project, I never quite grasped the enormity of its impact until I saw on screen how the Vets and the people with whom they interacted were lifted up through clowning.
Wearing silly hats, splashy costumes and of course, red noses, the Clownvets and Gesundheit! staffers gently coax smiles out of children and adults who are living with serious physical and emotional conditions. They hold hands, play with puppets and blow bubbles and kisses.
As Mark puts it, "the red nose works as an excuse to connect these men and women with love, compassion, laughter and friendship, things that for these heroes seemed forgotten."
"Clownvets" is well on its way to becoming a high-quality, 90-minute feature film, but it has hit a roadblock. Funding has run out, yet there's still more work to be done: filming additional scenes and interviews, finishing the editing, tending to other technical details.
That's where you can help. First, view the movie trailer here. Then, please consider making a donation in support of the project. Visit the Gesundheit! Institute's "Donate" page, and under the heading "How would you like to support our work?" select "Support the Veterans Clown Trip Film Project."
You're also invited see a preview of the film and meet some Clownvets in person at a "Fun-Raiser" this Friday, November 17, 6-10 p.m., at Ferris State University's University Center, 805 Campus Drive, Big Rapids.
Short of cash? Too far from Big Rapids to make the preview? You can still help by spreading the word about this project on social media. The Clownvets will reward you with a slew of heartfelt smiles, and maybe they'll even blow you a kiss.
* Photos: Gesundheit! Institute
We're back from our travels, and do I have a lot to tell you! In coming weeks, I'll share stories of people, places and experiences on the road, as well as some closer to home.
First stop: Stillwater, Oklahoma, my home town, where we attended my graduating class's 50-year (!!!) reunion. I reconnected with friends I hadn't seen since high school and strengthened ties with those I've stayed in touch with.
Every time I meet up with these schoolmates, I feel comforted by our shared past. Many of us have known each other since kindergarten or first grade. We lived within blocks of one another, knew each other's parents, siblings and pets, played countless backyard baseball games and croquet matches, and giggled through many a sleep-over. Other longtime friends I came to know through church groups, scout troops and other clubs, where we learned values that shaped us into the grown-ups we became.
At the reunion, my school friends and I pored over old pictures, remembering carefree days, favorite teachers and a few who were definitely not our favorites. That was fun, but I got just as big a kick out of finding out what my classmates are doing in this current phase of our lives.
Many, I was delighted to learn, are using the freedom of retirement to explore their creative sides.
Terry, who retired from the florist business a few years ago, now applies his artistic talents to stained glass. His wife Robin stitches stunning quilts. The couple hosted one of the informal open houses that are my favorite events during our reunions, and Robin showed us the sunny studio they recently added onto their home. That's where Robin's quilting group gathers and Terry does his glass work (probably not at the same time, I'm guessing).
At another open house hosted by Keith and Holly, Keith told us he spends his time these days "fixing things and making things." When we asked what kind of things he makes, he took us to his workshop and showed us the wood and metal creations he's working on, as well as a few finished pieces. A former CPA, Keith always yearned to work with his hands. Now he's satisfying that desire, and from the way his face lit up when he showed us his projects, it was clear how much pleasure they've giving him.
Kay, a former school library media specialist, spends many hours tending to her flowers at Lily Hill, a 13-acre spread north of Claremore, Oklahoma. Somehow she also finds time to make lovely things, like the striped socks she knitted for me. The colors are inspired by the peacocks that roam around Lily Hill, and the package she surprised me with was decorated with a few of their feathers. Those colors just happen to be my favorites, and the socks were a perfect fit.
Cindi, a longtime dear friend, insists she's not creative. Yet her talent for nurturing friendship takes just as much energy and attention as making physical things. Over the years, we've diverged in many ways, but Cindi's steadfast allegiance has kept us close, and for that I'm eternally grateful.
Which brings me to another thing I want to share about my classy classmates, another thing for which I'll always be grateful.
Our last year of high school was a challenging one for me. I wasn't even supposed to be in Oklahoma, attending Stillwater High School. A year earlier, my parents and I had moved to American Samoa, where we planned to live for two years (that's a whole other story, and trust me, the memoir will be published someday). I was supposed to graduate from Samoana High School and then return to the States for college.
My diagnosis with a life-threatening illness cut short our stay in Samoa, and we returned to Oklahoma at the beginning of my senior year. All of a sudden I was not only the girl who'd lived in a faraway place and returned with a weird accent and strange habits, I was also the girl with the scary disease.
My classmates could easily have shunned me, not out of unkindness, but out of fear. I was a reminder that life was not all parties and pep rallies, that even our young lives could be in jeopardy. But not once did I feel anything but unconditional acceptance. My Stillwater friends sent me cards when I was in the hospital and welcomed me back when I was able to return to school.
Looking back, I realize now just how much open-heartedness it took for them to treat me the way they did. Talking with some of my old friends at the reunion, I expressed my wonder at their compassion.
"It never occurred to us to treat you any other way," one said. "We were just so glad to have you back."
See what I mean about classy?
While I'm taking a break for relaxation and recreation, I've invited some of my fellow bloggers to fill in with guest posts. This week's is from scientist and author Mark L. Winston, who blogs at The Hive. Mark's story takes place in a scientific setting, but I think you'll agree that the underlying message applies to all sorts of situations in life.
Everything I Know I Learned From Hermit Crabs
Noon. I joined Mark on our shady, makeshift ground cover. We ate a snack and gulped down water. I tested out my safety glasses. The sun was a complete, round, orange ball. I ducked back in the shade. Twelve fifteen. A tiny Pac-Man bite showed in the top right section of the sphere. Someone shouted, "It’s starting!" Over the next half hour, we kept checking. The Pac-Man effect increased and the air began cooling, even though the sun cast shadows. By twelve-forty or so, standing in the sun no longer felt intolerable.
By one p.m., the sun appeared as a slivered, orange crescent. One-fifteen. Like sentries on cue, several hundred people wrapped their eyes in safety glasses, bent their heads back, and stared skyward.
One fine swath, only a 15-minute drive from our house, is the Michigan Nature Association's Newaygo Prairie Nature Sanctuary. I visited the site last Saturday with a group from the River City Wild Ones native plant organization. Led by Michigan Nature Association regional stewardship organizer John Bagley, we poked around the prairie for a couple of hours, admiring such late-summer bloomers as rough blazing star (Liatris aspera), gray goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis), fern-leaf false foxglove (Aureolaria pedicularia), prairie sunflower (Helianthus petiolaris) and cylindrical blazing star (Liatris cylindracea).
Before long, members realized they needed to do more, and the group began purchasing sensitive property to set aside as sanctuaries. Today, the organization maintains more than 170 sanctuaries throughout the state.
- Fern-leaf false foxglove, a bushy plant with bell-like, yellow flowers that are popular with pollinators, is semi-parasitic and needs oak trees to survive.
- Porcupine grass has a nifty way of getting its seeds into the ground. The long, bristle-like awn coils and uncoils in response to changes in moisture, drilling the seed into the ground.
- The small, white flowers of sweet everlasting (Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium), smell like maple syrup when crushed. Sweeeet, indeed!
Night before last, an eclectic group gathered in the basement of Artworks cultural center in Big Rapids. There was Chris, a dental hygienist; Théa, a former social worker; Sally, a retired educator; Susan, an artist who's, well, hard to sum up in a few words; and me. All brought together by our interest in writing—and in improving our writing.
That one suggestion you gave me last time has added two-thousand words to my document!
This did read much better for me, and now I have a clearer idea of the story. I'm more pulled in to what's happening.
There is a difference between a run-on sentence and a long sentence that moves the story along. I've read 93-word sentences that are absolutely amazing. If you were to break one of those up, it wouldn't work.
Ohhh, so I need to open the chapter with what the hell is going on!
I think you're nailing the struggle I've had all along with the voice I want to use to tell the story.
I didn't feel like I was reading this just for this group; I was reading because I enjoyed it.
In one form or another, the Artworks Second Monday Writers have been carrying on like this for a dozen years. Founded by poet and writer Phillip Sterling, the group originally focused on fiction. Later, under the guidance of writer-photographer-biologist Stephen Ross, and then with writer and all-around lovely person Mikki Garrels at the helm, the group expanded to include writers of both fiction and nonfiction.
Below, I'll share a few tips for writers' groups, in case you're thinking of starting one of your own (or already belong to one and need suggestions for making it work better).
I’m currently working on a horror/supernatural story. It involves Dhampirs hunting old school demonic beings, set in a dystopian future. I've worked in many different genres, including Sci-Fi, fantasy, non-fiction and poetry.
At the moment, I work as a dental hygienist in Lakeview Michigan.
I consider myself a skilled Hunter/Gatherer and resale shopping a blood sport. My work-in-progress, A Wilderness Guide to Resale Chic, is loaded with tips on how to sniff out treasure and navigate unpredictable resale terrain. Its message: You do not have to be born rich, win the lottery, or max out your credit cards to dress well and surround yourself with beautiful things.
My background as a Licensed Master Social Worker and Cognitive Therapist informs my approach; having grown up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula gives me an edge. My adult years in Chicago supply field experience: true tales and insider information.
In addition to being a member of the writers group, I contribute to several Michigan newspapers and have been published in Michigan History magazine and Health and Safety magazine.
I live on the Muskegon River near Big Rapids.
I also write poetry, essays and non-fiction stories.
A retired early childhood educator and social worker, I also did Trager Bodywork and taught Movement Therapies for many years. In the mid-1980s, I lived and worked in Mexico and Central America with my husband, where I learned to speak and read some Spanish. In December 2016, I returned to Cuba, a trip that serendipitously coincided with the week of national mourning for Fidel Castro.
In addition to writing, my interests are travel and learning about history and culture, reading, drawing and outdoor activities that correlate with the seasons, all balanced with political activism. I delight in caring for and playing with my granddaughter.
Editor's note: Sally is also my neighbor and a member of the Monday morning yoga class and the Wander Women hiking group.
I write paranormal romance/humor, urban fantasy and horror for adults, new adults and young adults.
My current project is a young adult urban fantasy that I'm co-authoring with Christopher Rizzo. I will write a seventeen-year-old shapeshifter wolf who does not accept her role in the wolf pack. Christopher is writing an angel with faery blood who was sent to earth to earn his wings by saving the shifter.
Where I draw my characters from: I grew up in the streets of Bridgeport Connecticut, and that's where I got my education. By ten years old, I took care of my sister and brother and our four-room apartment while my mother worked two jobs. The city was a melting pot of good and evil, and by ten I knew it well, above and below ground, and was cold to its hardships. In my writing world, I weave reality with mythological creatures, fantasy, folklore, legend, and a fair share of humor, because without humor there is no sanity.
What makes me smile: Walking in the woods, rainy days, and listing to the coyote at night. My art—watercolor, acrylics, book-cover and marketing graphics, stained glass. Listening to classic rock and writing.
You can find me and my books here:
- Start small and build gradually. It's more productive to create a solid core of writers who work well together than to fill seats.
- Commit. Show up for meetings and do your homework, allotting plenty of time to read and provide thoughtful critiques of other members' writing.
- Have a plan for lulls. There may be times when no one has anything ready to submit. Instead of cancelling the meeting, use the time to share tips, discuss a writing book, exchange information about workshops or play with writing prompts.
- In critiquing, look at big-picture issues such as plot, character development, dialogue, voice and pacing, but note smaller problems, too, especially if the same problems crop up frequently in a writer's work.
- Mind your manners. Present your comments respectfully and listen to others' comments on your work with an open attitude. Try not to interrupt, defend or argue.
- Begin and end on a positive note. Even the most leaden piece of writing probably has some shiny parts. Starting your critique with a positive remark puts the writer at ease, and ending with encouragement softens the blow of tougher comments.
- For many more excellent suggestions on starting and sustaining a writers group, with details on how to give and receive critiques on all sorts of writing, see The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide, by Becky Levine, from which these tips were adapted.
from the heart of the woods
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.
Last Wednesday Wisdom