Santa came to our house early this year. Though he arrived in an SUV, not a sleigh, and he wasn’t “dressed all in fur from his head to his foot,” his long beard and the twinkle in his eye gave him away.
Truth be told, a visit from this Santa was high on my Christmas wish list. I’d often seen him around town and wanted to know how he ended up in Newaygo instead of at the North Pole. Turns out he grew up right here in Newaygo County and after a couple of decades away, returned to make this his home.
While he admits to owning a few red suits, and he’s been seen in the company of reindeer, this Santa, who calls himself “Charlie Johnson,” doesn’t claim to be the real Santa. Then again, he doesn’t claim not to be. He told me the same thing he tells children who press him on the question.
“Santa can’t see billions of kids all at once, at every mall, so he has helpers that help him out. It’s up to you to decide which one is the real one.”
There are so many of these surrogate Santas, in fact, they’ve formed a brotherhood, mingling (and jingling, no doubt) with one another at Santa schools and Santa conventions. Every October, Santa Charlie heads to the Charles W. Howard Santa School in Midland. There, some 300 Santas, Mrs. Clauses, and elves brush up on everything from the history of Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus to proper dress, reindeer habits, radio and television interview tips, and other useful tidbits. Most of all, “it’s about the spirit of being a Santa,” says Charlie.
Of course, cookies are served, along with pointers on the do’s and don’ts of Santa-ing.
The number one no-no: don’t promise to grant a wish or bring a particular gift.
Santa Charlie has a few of his own rules of thumb, as well. “I’m more of a low-key Santa,” he says. “I think the kids respond to that better, especially the littlest ones. I won’t force them to sit on my lap. If the parents try and put them onto my lap, I’ll say, ‘No, hold them, or see if they’ll stand beside me.’”
In a venue where Santa can move around a bit—on the Santa Train that runs between Coopersville and Marne, for instance—Charlie resorts to stealth.
“I’ll sneak up behind them while their parents are holding them and do a photo bomb so the parents can get their picture of the kid with Santa.”
He laughs—more of a chuckle than a ho-ho-ho—and another voice pipes up from the corner: “Santa is the most-photographed icon in the world.” That’s Mrs. Claus, AKA Carol Nickles, who came along with Santa Charlie on his visit to our house. The couple met at Santa school three years ago and became an item about a year later. Now they’re “having a blast” making the Santa scene together, says Carol.
At a recent Santa convention they performed in the talent show, harmonizing on a swing tune called “Holiday Romance” while accompanied by a Mrs. Claus from West Virginia. Carol, a seamstress, wore a glitzy red ball gown she’d created, and Charlie was gussied up, too.
“So fun, so fun,” Carol recalls.
Also fun: Appearances at the Rooftop Landing Reindeer Farm in Clare and field trips with busloads of other Santas and Mrs. Clauses from the Midland Santa school to the steam train in Owosso and Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland in Frankenmuth.
“Can you imagine these big coach buses pulling up to Bronner’s and all of us getting out?” says Carol. “Now, we’re not dressed in Santa garb, but there are all the beards, and we’re wearing red and green.”
Santa-ing isn’t confined to the Christmas season anymore. “Christmas in July is starting to be thing,” says Carol. She and Charlie were invited to add their festive flair to the Star 105.7 radio booth at one such event. Charlie agreed on the condition that he wouldn’t have to wear his full Santa suit in 85-degree weather. Instead, he came up with a “Santa casual” ensemble of red shorts, a Santa-print Hawaiian shirt, and a straw hat, and Carol lightened up her Mrs. Claus-wear accordingly.
“Most people would say being a Santa is a calling,” says Carol. Charlie agrees, though Santa-ing doesn’t consume his whole life. He’s plenty busy with a variety of other activities, even after his recent retirement from TrueNorth, where he ran the LifeLink program and coordinated the Newaygo County Senior and Caregiver Expo. He’s often seen playing harmonica at River Stop Café’s open mic nights and running the sound board for Lion Heart Community Theater productions and concerts at Dogwood Center for the Performing Arts. This time of year, you’ll also find him caroling with the men’s chorus that strolls through Newaygo during the yearly Christmas Walk.
Alas, our house has no chimney, so I couldn’t put Santa Charlie to the test of exiting the traditional way. He just walked out the front door like anyone else. But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight . . . Oh, who am I kidding? His windows were rolled up; I didn’t hear anything. I’m pretty sure, though, that as he drove away, he wished us “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”
What are your favorite Santa memories?
You know how it is when the day you’ve dreamed of for a long, long time finally arrives? Sometimes it’s every bit as magical as you imagined it would be. Other times, compared to that glorious fantasy, it’s a dud.
I recently experienced the dream-come-true of celebrating publication of my book, Mango Rash: Coming of Age in the Land of Frangipani and Fanta, with friends and loved ones. Fortunately, the reality was anything but a dud.
It was pure magic.
Looking back on the occasion, I realize it was more than a book launch. It was equal parts reunion, time capsule, and celebration of friendship.
It was, of course, also a fabulous book party. Newaygo County Council for the Arts/Artsplace generously hosted the October 25 event, three days after the official publication date, and Artsplace knows how to throw a party. Everything was set up beautifully (who knew stacks of books could be so artful?), and the mood was festive.
Many guests dressed in tropical attire, adding to the merriment, and my publisher Behler Publications even provided an enormous, lavishly-decorated cake.
As for the reunion part, three friends from Samoa days—Valerie, Barry, and Beverly, all of whom are in the book—traveled from afar for Mangorama weekend. Though I had spent time with all three of them in recent years, Val and Bev hadn’t seen each other since Samoa days, more than 50 years ago, and it had been almost that long since Val and Barry last crossed paths.
As we continued the celebration over the weekend, we reminisced and laughed over pictures (did we really ever look like that?) and reinforced bonds that formed in that remarkable time and place: Samoa in the Sixties.
Other friends from my Detroit and Ann Arbor days also made the scene. That’s where the time capsule comes in. My whole writing life flashed before me, remembering time spent with these friends back in our Detroit Free Press, University of Michigan News Service, and Ann Arbor writers’ group days.
Those flashbacks continued into the following week when I had a second book signing at Artworks in Big Rapids. For several years, I belonged to a writers’ group at Artworks, and during that time I revised the manuscript that became Mango Rash. It was such fun to see friends from the Artworks writer’s group at the reading and for all of us to reflect on the long journey from manuscript to book.
Still more memories came flooding back at the Croton Township Library book signing a few days later, where I connected with another writing friend. Kendra Lachniet and I were in the Fremont Area District Library’s writers’ group together, and Kendra has been supportive of my work all along.
So have all my friends, writers and non-writers alike. Celebrating with them over the past couple of weeks has reminded me over and over how blessed I am to have a circle of such kind, caring, generous, and FUN pals.
Whether or not I published a book, whether or not I ever publish another, I couldn’t ask for more.
Chris Martin at www.chasinglightphotos.net
What with summer activities and chores and the myriad details associated with the launch of my memoir Mango Rash, I confess I haven’t been doing much new writing lately. I was inspired to make an exception, though, when I received a compelling request earlier in the summer from one of my favorite Michigan authors, Anne-Marie Oomen.
She was appealing to writers in her circle to join in an undertaking she called the Lake-love Letters Project. The idea was simple: write a love letter—no more than 400 words—to the Great Lakes or a specific lake. Not a huge investment of time and energy, but an important one, as Anne-Marie’s cover letter made clear.
I love our waters: lakes, rivers, wetlands, little sinking ponds, remote swamps. If it’s wet, I’ll probably like it. And of course, I’m worried about all of them, as I know many of you are. I often wonder what I can do. I’m not a scientist, politician, lawyer, not even a very good journalist. I often feel inadequate, a “fish out of water” when it comes to this work. This year, a question I asked myself: how might I use my small gifts a literary artist (creative writer) to do something for our beloved waters.
She went on to relate that just as she was considering how she might make a difference, she received a letter from Liz Kirkwood, director of the regional water organization For Love of Water (FLOW). The letter explained that in July, the International Joint Commission of the Great Lakes would meet in Traverse City. Liz wanted to enliven what might otherwise be a dry discussion (subject matter notwithstanding) by involving artists who are passionate about our water.
As Anne-Marie described it in her letter,
She had a vision: at the final meeting with the commissioners, could we showcase our love of water in a way that would involve the arts, particularly the writers. She spoke of the arts as one heart behind all the science and legal work. I was so grateful for her rare understanding. And she offered an idea that I could run with. Could we writers and artists do something with love letters to our waters. Love letters? Yes!
I usually take my time responding to requests that ask me to write, edit, or critique something. I like to consider what else is on my to-do-list and how interested I am in adding to that ever-expanding list. This time I didn’t hesitate. As soon as I found a sliver of writing time, I drafted my love letter. After a few revisions, I sent it off to Anne-Marie.
Here’s what I wrote:
Dear Lake Michigan,
You’re not like the others—the ones I grew up with. In that flat and dusty land, those pretenders to the title were mere puddles. Knowing no better, we suited up, dived in, toweled off, sat on shore with sandwiches, staring out across their dense, red-silted expanses, thinking, “Well, this is nice.”
Then I met you, and I had to expand my vocabulary. I’ll admit it: you dazzled me, spangled like a rock star, necklaced with villages whose very names enchant: Empire, Pentwater, Saugatuck.
The only time I didn’t love you as much as I wanted to was on that blustery September day I ferried across your liquid skin. Your ups and downs! How they unsettled me. Betrayed, I sulked until I reached the other shore and looked back at your troubled face, your spectrum of shades.
You, too, carry burdens, I realized in that moment. And also this: I may have loved you since we first met, but I haven’t really known you. Let me know you now.
Just before the commission meeting, Anne-Marie reported that nearly 100 letters submitted to the project would be presented in book form to each of the commissioners. In addition, she extracted sentences from some letters and shaped them into a ten-minute script to be read as part of the presentation to the commission. “Your words made a beautiful praise song to the lakes—thank you!” she wrote to contributors.
So often, writing feels like a solitary, inwardly-directed pursuit. It was gratifying to take part in this project, and it made me think about other ways I might merge my passion for writing with the issues I care about.
How can you apply your talents to something you care about?
FLOW’s video of the entire Traverse City meeting can be viewed here. The Lake-love Letters Project portion begins around minute 14 and continues to minute 28. FLOW and the commission also plan to post the entire collection of Lake-love Letters on their websites.
What signals the beginning of summer to you? Do you wait for the calendar to tell you it’s officially begun, or do you declare it underway once you’ve planted a flat of annuals, fired up the grill, or popped open a beer on the back porch?
For me, those are all sure signs, but what really kicks off summer is the first festival of the season. Around here, that’s the Newaygo Arts & Crafts Festival, held over the Memorial holiday weekend.
Some years the festival is better than others (with my definition of “better” based on an index I derive through complex calculations weighted heavily by the ratio of actual artisans and crafters to booths occupied by gutter-guard salespeople and chiropractors).
This year, I have to say, the festival was outstanding. Not only were there lots of vendors offering interesting wares, there was also a new addition, “Let’s Art Newaygo!”, that I hope will become a regular feature of the annual celebration. This juried art show and competition showcased the work of twenty-two artists, displayed in thirteen businesses throughout Newaygo. You could think of it as a smaller-scale ArtPrize, the Grand Rapids extravaganza of the arts that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors.
I spent a blissful couple of hours strolling around Newaygo, checking out the works of art. Then I headed back to the River Country Chamber of Commerce booth in Brooks Park to cast my vote in the People’s Choice competition. (Read on to find out which pieces were selected by the judges and the People’s Choice voters.)
I was fascinated to see the variety of materials and techniques the artists used. There were paintings, photographs, sculptures of metal and wood, stained glass windows, and multi-media works. Several artists made creative use of recycled or repurposed materials, which added interest.
I could go on and on, but words don’t do justice, so I’ll let you take a look at more of the art. And if you’re in the Newaygo area, you don’t have to settle for pictures—the works will be on display through June 10, and printed guides to their locations are available at local businesses and libraries.
Last Saturday I celebrated an occasion I’ve never celebrated before: Independent Bookstore Day. It was so much fun I plan to put it on my calendar every year.
All around the country indie bookstores hosted special events, like the Michigan Author Jamboree my friend Janet and I attended at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Montague. A chilly wind just about blew us into the store, but inside by the fireplace, with warm drinks in hand, all was cozy.
The event opened with a workshop on how to present your book to prospective readers. Led by author Ingar Rudholm, the workshop offered easy-to-apply tips on quickly engaging readers and keeping their attention.
We all had a chance to practice our book pitches during the workshop. And it was a good thing we did, because after the workshop, any authors who wished to do so were given ten minutes to get up on stage and talk about their books to an audience of readers.
Following those presentations, authors signed and sold books at tables near the front of the store. Even though I won’t have books to sell until October, I took the opportunity to spread the word about Mango Rash, hand out information cards, and sign up subscribers to my newsletter, Mango Meanderings.
Beyond promoting my own book, though, I was excited to connect with other Michigan authors. It’s always interesting to hear how authors began writing and what led them to write the kinds of books they write. I also learned about Written in the Mitten, an online community of published and aspiring authors that shares information on local author events.
Most of all, I was happy to show my support for independent bookstores. These welcoming spaces are more than stores, often serving as community hubs and performance venues. They enrich their neighborhoods and boost local economies. As publishing professional Valerie Peterson noted in a 2017 article, even some well-known authors got their start at local independent booksellers. “For example,” she wrote, “Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi hosted an unknown John Grisham's first book signing event.”
So mark your calendar for the last Saturday in April 2020 and plan to celebrate next year’s Independent Bookstore Day. But don’t wait until then to celebrate independent bookstores. Visit often, and buy books!
As for me, I’m heading off tonight to Flying Bear Books for poetry night.
In some ways, the third Monday in March seemed like any other Monday. Early that morning, eleven of us trooped into Fae Wood Studio, the serene space that’s been our yoga home for the past couple of years. Just as she had on so many other Mondays, our teacher, Behnje Masson, led us through a series of moves that refreshed our bodies and boosted our spirits.
Our spirits needed boosting more than usual, because—appearances notwithstanding—this Monday was not just any Monday. It was our last class at Fae Wood Studio, and for now, at least, Behnje’s last time to travel to Newaygo to teach us.
For this community of yoginis, this ending marked yet another change in a long history of practicing and studying together. More than twenty years ago, our neighbor Sally Kane initiated the class, teaching every Monday morning in her basement. When Sally went back to school to become a teacher, Ellie Randazzo appeared at just the right time. Ellie took over Sally's class and went on to add more classes, build a devoted following, and eventually open her own studio, Woodland Yoga.
As I've written about before, yoga with Ellie, followed by breakfast at Hit the Road Joe Coffee Café became a can’t-miss Monday-morning routine for the group (which I joined about seven years ago), and friendships flourished in the process.
When Ellie died unexpectedly in 2016, we were adrift. Yet we kept our Monday morning yoga-and-breakfast sessions going, even when we had to squeeze into someone’s living room or loft to practice together. Then, through a charmed confluence of events, Ellie’s sister Kathy invited us to use her newly-established studio, Fae Wood, and Behnje offered to drive up from Grand Rapids twice a month to teach us. It was an ideal arrangement, one we’ve been privileged to enjoy for almost two years.
But just as Ellie always taught us, change is inevitable. Sure enough, everything has shifted again, and it’s time to readjust.
After deciding to move back to Grand Rapids, Kathy has sold her home and closed Fae Wood Studio. Meanwhile, Behnje’s studio in Grand Rapids, From the Heart Yoga, has moved into a new location and needs more of her time and attention. All of that means we’re adrift again.
But sad as we are to see this chapter close, drifting for a bit may not be a bad thing, especially with all the possibilities swirling around us: continue practicing together at a new location, carpool down to From the Heart Yoga, try out other local yoga classes.
At the end of our last class, we gathered at the back of the room, near Ellie’s favorite statue of the Hindu archetype Ganesh. Behnje talked about the importance of letting go of what you’ve lost, without trying to figure out in advance what’s coming next. She used the image of casting the old into a stream and just waiting to see what flows back to fill the space left open.
It was fitting that this last, momentous class happened to fall in the same week as the vernal equinox, a time associated with balance, but also with change, cleansing, and new beginnings. As we contemplated this latest change, we could feel winter loosening its grip, allowing us to move forward into a season of growth and beauty.
It was a good time, too, to be reminded that yoga itself is all about change. As instructor and author Cyndi Lee writes in the March/April 2019 issue of Yoga Journal, yoga “offers a myriad of experiences, many that we could never have predicted.” The point is not to nail a particular pose and hold onto it to dear life (no matter what we may think as we totter in Tree pose), but to adapt, adjust, and explore the range of possibilities.
“See how your actions come together to make certain poses, and then notice how that experience dissolves and is over. We are learning the truth of impermanence. Since everything arises and passes, we try to appreciate it in the moment that it is here.”
I’m happy to welcome Peter Gibb to HeartWood today. I met Peter when I took—and greatly enjoyed—his workshop, “The Joy of Mindful Writing,” at the Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference last fall.
Peter’s award-winning memoir, King of Doubt, is a beautifully-crafted story of self-discovery—a must-read for anyone who’s ever experienced self-doubt. (Is there anyone who hasn't?) When I learned he has a book on mindful conversation in the works, I cleared a space on my bookshelf in anticipation.
As he relates on his website, Peter grew up shy and isolated. Not exactly a conversational whiz. Eventually, though, he caught on to a few secrets that he honed and shared over a 22-year career of teaching, consulting, and coaching conversational skills “on 4 continents, in 3 languages, to Fortune 500 companies, to leaders of the emerging democracies in Eastern Europe, to doctors and bakers and just plain folks, hungry to learn.”
I’m honored to have Peter as a guest today. At the end of his post, you’ll find a link to his website, where you can take a quiz to learn your dominant conversational style. I encourage you to check it out. I took the quiz and not only gained insights into my habits in conversation, but also got tips on tweaking those habits toward more effective and satisfying face-to-face communication.
Now, here’s Peter . . .
First, I’m delighted to be a guest on Nan’s blog. So much interesting talk happening here, and such important topics.
Is there any human activity that has the potential to bring us contentment and provide real connection, more than Great Conversation? Conversation is a master life skill. Essential for parenting, teaching, leading, making friends, getting along with colleagues, selling . . . you know, just about anything and everything you do will be more successful and more satisfying if accompanied by Great Conversation.
But here’s the rub. Not all Conversation. In fact a great deal of conversation isn’t conversation at all. It’s just talk. Talk that does not bring us contentment or connection.
A great deal of talk consists of what I call “Serial Monologue.” This is talk in which two people, supposedly engaged in conversation, are actually just talking heads, listening mostly to their own voices. Rather than paying attention to what the other person is saying, they are more frequently:
Further, when such talkers do respond to the speaker, the most frequent type of response is what I call a “Grabbing Response.” Here is an example:
Person A: “I just got back from a great trip to San Diego with my family. We had a terrific time.”
Person B: “San Diego, we were there in fall of ’17, but it was cold most of the time.”
Person A: “The zoo was really wonderful. My Clara left saying she wants to become a Vet. I’ve never seen her so excited.”
Person B: “Really. We take our kids to the zoo at least once a year.”
Person A is all excited to tell about her vacation, but Person B pretty much disregards everything that A says and launches into whatever story comes to mind. A conversation should be like a dance of connection, but in fact this one is more like a football game, each side trying to grab the ball and score points on some mythical scoreboard. Person B grabs the spotlight from A and changes the topic from A’s vacation to B’s cold vacation in San Diego and how one of the children is going to be a Vet.
Instead of creating connection and contentment, this kind of talk fosters isolation and frustration. Neither talker feels heard or acknowledged. There is no real connection.
What Ears Can Do
We were given two ears but just one mouth. There must be a reason. The most critical ingredient for Great Conversation is “Deep Listening.”
The first step toward deep listening is to get rid of grabbing responses and start using “reflective responses” instead.
Imagine how different this conversation might have been, had it gone something like this:
Person A: “I just got back from a great trip to San Diego with my family. We had a terrific time.”
Person B: “You sound so excited. San Diego. What made the trip so exceptional?”
This is a “reflective response.” There are many types of reflective response, too many to go into here. They all validate the speaker, mirroring back some aspect of what the speaker has said and often inquiring for further about the topic. Note that in this particular response, Person B validates a feeling (excited) and then inquires for more detail (what made the trip so exceptional?) There is no telling my own story, or giving advice, or judgment, or distraction. It’s basically listening, reflecting and inquiring. Simple? Well, not always, but what a difference it will make.
The Power of Listening
Learning to become a more conscious, committed listener is the single most important step you can take to move your conversation from talk to connection and ultimately to “Great Conversation.”
So what exactly is great conversation? Well, that’s a longer conversation. The best I can do in this short time is to say that it’s a skill we can all develop. It’s based on four values whose first letters spell the word C.A.R.E.
If you’d like to learn more about Great Conversation, please visit my web site, http://www.petergibb.org/. Scroll down a bit on the home page, and you’ll see an invitation to take the “Conversational Style Assessment,” a short survey that will help you discover your dominant conversational style. You’ll learn which of four basic conversational styles (Observer, Nurturer, Performer, and Explorer) is your default mode. You’re not locked into any one style for life. You can change your conversational style, but knowing your default style can help you to get oriented and on the path to Great Conversation. Take the assessment and you’ll get a personalized report back from me.
I also have a blog that discusses issues of Great Conversation once or twice per month, and a forthcoming (but not for at least 18 months) book, titled Beyond the Weather: 5 Steps to Great Conversation. If you’d like to be notified when the book is released, please sign up on the drop down form on my web site, or email me: email@example.com
Thanks for Listening. I hope to visit with you again.
Today is my birthday! I was going to be all low-key about it—just let it slide by without a mention. But when I noticed it would fall on a blog-posting day, I couldn’t resist sharing some birthday thoughts with you.
Besides, this one’s a biggie: 70. Just typing that number makes my jaw drop. Me?? 70?? With the dicey health history I had from age 17 on, there were times I doubted I’d ever see this many candles on my cake. Yet as the years piled up, I allowed myself to hope—and then believe—I just might.
When I did envision myself at 70, I imagined I’d be living a slowed-down, reflective life, sifting through mementos and old photo albums, processing the past, while practicing meditation and yoga to keep me grounded in the present. What I didn’t imagine was that I’d be so involved in new projects and interests and so jazzed about what’s still ahead.
It helps that we live in a community of energetic, engaged people around my age and older who are doing interesting things: playing and recording music, making art, writing and illustrating books, tending gardens, devoting time and talents to worthy causes. (By the way, if you missed my post on Bea Cordle, an inspiration to us all at 90+, be sure to check it out.)
Last year, the stars aligned to make good things happen with my writing and photography. Now, looking forward to the publication of my memoir, Mango Rash, later this year, I’m loving the idea of being a debut author at 70. Toward the end of last year, I also achieved my goal of hiking 50 miles of the North Country Trail, earning that coveted patch for the vest I wrote about in a previous post. This year, I’ve signed up to try for 100 miles (and another patch!), and though sub-zero temperatures and icy trails have set me back lately, I’ve at least made a start toward that goal.
Yet in spite of my undampened enthusiasm for projects and passions, this time of life does feel different in some ways from my earlier years, and I do feel the need to take time out for reflection, for putting things in context and looking back as well as forward.
In that spirit, Ray and I have been looking through all my photo albums, in order. They start with photos from before I was born—ancestors, my parents’ early lives—and continue up to 2003, when we switched from film to digital and I got tired of sticking pictures on pages.
Though I’ve dipped into these albums from time to time over the years, I’ve never gone through them this way, one after another, in the span of a few weeks. Doing that now, I notice threads that run through the decades. One is my love of nature, from childhood romps in the woods to more recent treks on nearby trails. Another is appreciation of art, evident in snapshots from settings that range from tony sculpture gardens to funky street fairs. Travels—around Michigan and beyond, by motorcycle, RV, or other conveyance—are another theme.
Most meaningful, though, are the faces that keep showing up, year after year, in different situations and places: the friends and family members with whom I’ve shared both celebrations and somber occasions. It's gratifying to realize how many of these people I'm still in touch with and have talked to or exchanged email with in the past week alone. Remembering the roles we’ve played—and continue to play—in one another’s lives gives me a deep sense of connection.
Within the pages of my photo albums, I also find reminders of the losses that come with a long life. So many faces in those photos belong to people who have passed from this life and whose presence I miss. At this time of life, the losses come closer together, and the bonds among those of us who remain grow stronger.
When I embarked upon this photographic time trip, I didn’t give much thought to its significance. It was just one of those “someday, I’ll . . . ” things that I felt like doing now. Now, as I pore over pages, I realize what a profound experience it is to look back over a lifetime and contemplate what it's all been about. At a time when it sometimes seems things are falling apart, there's also a sense that everything's coming together.
As I anticipate the coming year—and years—it's with a keen awareness that there's really no way of knowing what may come, and no point in either worrying or fantasizing about what-ifs.
All I can say for now is, "So far, so good."
Share your thoughts about the stage of life you're experiencing.
From the beginning, I have tried to keep HeartWood politically neutral, partly as a haven from all the discord around us, and partly because plenty of other outlets exist for expressing my political views, if I wish to do so.
I'm not about to change course here, but I do want to remind readers that we have an important midterm election coming up next week. I encourage you to vote!
In case you need more encouragement, here are some other people's thoughts on voting and democracy.
Voting is like alchemy—taking an abstract value and breathing life into it. Voting is the expression of our commitment to ourselves, one another, this country and this world.
-- Sharon Salzberg
Every election is determined by the people who show up.
-- Larry Sabato
Elections belong to the people. It's their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.
-- Abraham Lincoln
Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.
-- Franklin D. Roosevelt
Voting is a civic sacrament—the highest responsibility we have as Americans.
-- Christine Pelosi
As I think of it, democracy isn't like a Sunday suit to be brought out and worn only for parades. It's the kind of a life a decent man leads, it's something to live for and to die for.
-- Dalton Trumbo
Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the American people themselves and the only way they could do this is by not voting.
-- Franklin D. Roosevelt
Democracy is the only system capable of reflecting the humanist premise of equilibrium or balance. The key to its secret is the involvement of the citizen.
-- John Ralston Saul
Not voting is disrespecting the best of what this nation stands for.
-- Thomas Hauser
Deliberation and debate is the way you stir the soul of our democracy.
-- Jesse Jackson
Voting is the foundational act that breathes life into the principle of the consent of the governed.
-- DeForest Soaries
Dreams, determination and a life's artistic work—that's what transformed a nondescript vacant lot in Detroit into an urban sculpture park.
City Sculpture is the creation of Robert "Bob" Sestok, who has been making art in Detroit since the 1960s. I met Bob in the early '80s, when the neighborhood now called Midtown was in its grittier incarnation as the Cass Corridor. Bob was already a fixture in that community, as one of the founders of Willis Gallery and part of the Cass Corridor Movement, a group of artists whose unconventional methods and materials reflected the crumbling, post-industrial environment of the time and were influenced by the abstract expressionists of the 1950s. Some of those artists, including Bob, were featured in a 1980 Detroit Institute of Arts retrospective exhibition, "Kick Out the Jams: Detroit's Cass Corridor, 1963-1977." (The title was a nod to the debut album of the rock band MC5, which played at the opening of an art show Bob organized in 1972.)
I've always been amazed at Bob's ability to segue seamlessly from drawing to painting to printmaking to creating massive metal sculptures. Many of those sculptures are displayed in public spaces in Detroit, its suburbs, and other locations around Michigan and beyond. Other pieces accumulated over the years in the alley behind Bob's studio.
But Bob had a bigger vision for those works: a public space to display the sculptures right in the neighborhood where they were produced. He didn't have to look far to find a good spot. A block away from his home and studio was a city-owned vacant lot that fronted the John C. Lodge Service Drive. A conscientious neighbor and his kids had been mowing the lot and keeping it trash-free, and when that neighbor died, Bob took over the job.
"I was cutting the grass and thinking, 'Why don't I own this?'" Bob recalls. So he bought the property from the city and then spent about a year cleaning it up, repairing the sidewalks, installing a fence and pouring concrete slabs for the sculptures. Once that work was done, he spent another week or so moving and positioning the sculptures.
"As soon as I did that, all of a sudden the news media got wind of it, and I was on all the television channels and in the newspaper," says Bob. "It was quite a big bang."
And quite a change for an artist who has always been more comfortable just doing his work than being in the public eye.
"I kind of shy away from stuff like that," says Bob, "but I was willing to do interviews and tell people about the work in the park. So I'm a little more public today than I have been in the past, but that's the nature of having a space like that. And it's a fun thing to have. People go there from all over the place."
Like Tyree Guyton's Heidelberg Project and Olayami Dabls's MBAD African Bead Museum, City Sculpture has become a destination landmark, as well as a showcase for an individual artist's life work.
"Tour buses pull up, school buses pull up, kids get out, all kinds of people," says Bob. "We give tours. People contact me if they want to have the artist's viewpoint of the park. I do a little talk. We've had thirty or forty people at a time."
He also throws a party in the park every summer. "It's kind of a big thing for me to put together," he says, "but I get local musicians and it's a lot of fun." This year's event, scheduled for Saturday, August 25, features Ethan Daniel Davidson, The Drinkard Sisters, Danny Kroha, Denise Davis and the Motor City Sensations, and Botanical Fortress.
I'd been hearing about the park since it opened in 2015, but hadn't had a chance to visit it until a few weeks ago, when Ray and I drove down to Detroit to have lunch with another old Cass Corridor friend who was back in town for a couple of days. We arrived a little early, and since the restaurant where we were to meet our friend was only a few blocks from City Sculpture, we made a side trip to the park to check out Bob's creations.
Seeing so much of Bob's work in one place was truly impressive. Thirty-two sculptures of welded steel, crushed aluminum, car parts, and garden implements are artfully arranged around the well-maintained site. A bench beneath a tree offers a place to sit and reflect. Even with traffic whizzing along on the Lodge Freeway, City Sculpture feels like a haven.
The works on display reflect Bob's eclectic approach to making art, a style he has described as the absolute lack of a single, cohesive style.
"When people ask who made all these, I tell them, 'Well, they could've been made by a lot of different people, because nothing looks the same.' There's a lot of diversity in my work. I think that keeps me moving forward."
A graduate of the College for Creative Studies (then known as the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts), Bob is known not only for his sculptures, but also for his paintings, including both permitted and unauthorized public art pieces. Among the first were murals commissioned in the early 1970s for the Edward W. Duffy Company, a pipe and tubing supply business. More recently, Bob created a mural for musician Jack White's Third Man Pressing, a vinyl record manufacturing plant in the Cass Corridor.
White remembered seeing the Duffy Company murals when he was in high school, and once he became a successful musician with his own factory, he got in touch with Bob to commission a mural for the record-pressing facility.
As for unsanctioned street art, Bob says he's pretty much "retired" from that line of work. "All the buildings I painted on were rehabbed or torn down. I said, I don't want to have my art destroyed completely."
The desire to preserve his art also has him thinking about the future of City Sculpture. "Now I'm becoming more of a businessman and trying to get corporate sponsorships," he says. "I created a nonprofit, which I'm thinking to turn into a foundation to manage the park." He plans to turn over management of the foundation to his daughter Erika, who grew up in the neighborhood and has experience in park management.
Meanwhile, Bob keeps making art and displaying his work in different venues. He recently delivered five sculptures to Michigan Legacy Art Park at Crystal Mountain in Thompsonville, and he's currently in a show at Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum in Saginaw.
"I'm a lucky guy," he says. "I've got a job for my life. I can't stop—I just keep doing my thing. I like to discover things and challenge myself. If you don't challenge yourself, you're not learning anything. You have to push yourself and reach outside of your comfort zone in order to be prolific."
With nearly one hundred sculptures, more than five thousand drawings, and some one thousand paintings completed to date, he should know.
City Sculpture is located at 955 West Alexandrine in Detroit.
To help support City Sculpture, visit https://www.citysculpture.org/donate/
Bob Sestok has exhibited at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago), Cranbrook Museum of Art, and Marianne Boesky Gallery (New York City), among others, and had work in ArtPrize 2009. His work is held in numerous collections, including the Detroit Institute of Arts, Cranbrook Museum of Art,and Wayne State University. He has received grants from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and The Kresge Foundation.
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.