I've made this point before, but it bears repeating: No matter how alluring your destination, the stops along the way are often just as memorable.
That held true on our recent travels. In between our longer stays in Stillwater, Albuquerque and Memphis (yes, we covered a lot of ground!), we found fascinating diversions in such places as Elk City, Oklahoma; Tucumcari, New Mexico; and Fort Smith, Arkansas. More about those discoveries another day; today we're visiting a couple of places that are even farther off the beaten path.
We happened upon the first while trying to find our way to Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument, southeast of Albuquerque. Even with a GPS, it's a confusing undertaking, because the monument comprises three separate sites: Quarai, Abó, and Gran Quivira.
It helps to get your bearings at the visitor center in Mountainair. After driving so long we were sure we must have missed a turn somewhere, we finally arrived at Mountainair. I figured we'd buzz through the visitor center, pick up maps and move on. But a glance around town convinced me to linger a bit longer.
Though the business district is only a few blocks long, Mountainair is clearly a haven for creative souls. Mosaics and murals decorate walls and fences; sculptures stand in parking lots and protrude from building fronts.
I was particularly taken with one mosaic installation, Reptile Rendezvous, in front of the national monument's visitor center. Created by artists Samantha Baumgartner, Rebecca Anthony and Tomás Wolff, the piece features a larger-than-life snake stretched across the top of a curvy, concrete bench, with smaller ceramic lizards scattered about.
Sunflowers show up in a number of murals around town, a nod to Mountainair's annual Sunflower Festival. With a juried art show, live music (this year by groups including the Folk City Hipsters and Nervous Nation) and a sunflower hat contest, it sounds like a can't-miss event.
Unfortunately, we did miss it, by a couple of weeks. But we weren't too late for lunch, and we were ready for a refreshment break by the time we finished looking around town. We found just our kind of place: Alpine Alley Coffee Shop. The friendly folks, outstanding food and artsy, eclectic décor reminded us of our hometown hangout, Hit the Road Joe Coffee Café.
The next day, we found another treasure along New Mexico's Turquoise Trail. You may already have read my account of visiting Leroy Gonzales in Golden, but there was more up ahead in Madrid. Though a bit more touristy than Mountainair, Madrid still has a funky, handcrafted feel.
I especially loved the colorfully decorated mailboxes that lined the road.
Ray especially loved Maggie's, the movie set diner where scenes from the 2007 comedy "Wild Hogs" were shot. The building is a gift shop now (Wild Hogs t-shirts anyone?), and the haughty woman selling souvenirs the day we visited was no Marisa Tomei. Still, it was a kick to see the place—and the Wild Hogs Adopt-a-Highway sign on the way out of town.
One of the most memorable highway highlights wasn't a sight at all, but a sound. Just west of Tierjas, New Mexico, we detoured off I-40 to travel over the Singing Road. On this short stretch of old Route 66, rumble strips are configured to play "America the Beautiful," but only if you drive over them at exactly the speed limit, 45 miles per hour.
Having traveled through quite a few amber waves of grain, admiring purple mountain majesties and fruited plains, we felt like singing along. But before we knew it, the rumble strips had run out, the road was back to humming its usual monotone and we were off to see what other surprises the highway had in store.
This month's collection of wisdom is a mixed bag, a reflection of what I've been thinking and doing since we returned from vacation. First came the obsessing over all the things I needed and wanted to catch up on, then the realization that I didn't need to do them all at once. When I settled down enough to set priorities, it was with a renewed commitment to my creative projects, both ongoing and new.
I also spent some time reflecting on our travels and on the benefits of travel in general. And then, because my daily at-home routine involves at least a little attention to the news of the day, I sought guidance to help me keep distressing events in perspective.
Finally, travels over and routine restored, I found comfort in being right where I am, right now.
We have to fight them daily, like fleas, those many small worries about the morrow, for they sap our energies.
-- Etty Hillesum
I believe that if you do not answer the noise and urgency of your gifts, they will turn on you. Or drag you down with their immense sadness at being abandoned.
-- Joy Harjo, Crazy Brave
Work is love made visible.
-- Ama Ata Aidoo
We see achievement as purposeful and monolithic, like the sculpting of a massive tree trunk that has first to be brought from the forest and then shaped by long labor to assert the artist's vision, rather than something crafted from odds and ends, like a patchwork quilt, and lovingly used to warm different nights and bodies.
-- Mary Catherine Bateson
You throw an anchor into the future you want to build, and you pull yourself along by the chain.
-- John O'Neal
The more I traveled, the more I realized that fear makes strangers of people who should be friends.
-- Shirley MacLaine
We say, "Seeing is believing," but actually . . . we are all much better at believing than at seeing. In fact, we are seeing what we believe nearly all the time and only occasionally seeing what we can't believe.
-- Robert Anton Wilson
I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, nor to hate them, but to understand them.
-- Baruch Spinoza
Perhaps the most radical thing we can do is stay home, so we can learn the names of the plants and animals around us; so that we can begin to know what tradition we're part of.
-- Terry Tempest Williams
The little things? The little moments? They aren't little.
-- Jon Kabat-Zinn
What's on your mind as this month draws to an end?
I had barely stepped out of the truck when . . . "GOOD MORNING!"
The voice filled me with warmth on that damp morning when I'd stopped for a better look at an unusual roadside assemblage along New Mexico's Turquoise Trail, between Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
"Come on in! Take all the pictures you want." The man with the welcoming voice emerged from behind a rustic fence of planks and crooked tree limbs, decorated with railroad spikes, old tires, metal barrels, cast-off toys and colorful bottles and jars.
From there, he hustled me over to the "gold mine," a mirror-backed tunnel that Leroy winkingly told me extends all the way to the Ortiz Mountains in the distance. Then a stop at the cantina, another trompe l'oeil façade of corrugated metal and cow skulls.
When he invited me to step inside a small structure behind the cantina, I didn't hesitate, even before he assured me, "Don't worry, it's perfectly safe." Inside, the walls were covered with tacked-up notes that previous visitors had left in the spiral-bound guestbook Leroy keeps on a table out front. I read a few, then he showed me a plastic storage tub filled with more notes and letters and a collection of photos visitors have taken of him and his surroundings.
"Stay as long as you want," Leroy said as he headed off to tend to his creations. "Just let me know when you're leaving."
By the time we said goodbye—me with a bunch of photos in my camera, Leroy with a few bucks I left in the tip jar, along with my promise to send him some pictures—I was in high spirits.
In just a short visit, this man whose main mission in life seems to be welcoming people into his world, had cast a colorful light on my day. I hope I carried some of that color and sparkle away with me.
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 blogger/photographer Ruth Daly, who blogs here. Whether or not you carry a camera around, you can apply these insights on slowing down, focusing on details and really learning to see, to your everyday observations of the world around you.
Art of any kind takes a ton of focus and mental energy. And most of us are working it in between our day jobs and family responsibilities. But in today’s world, writers must also market themselves, and that’s like adding on a third job. Marketing takes a ton of time and education, and so we’re squeezing every second out of the day blogging and interacting on social media and running giveaways and learning about what else we need to do to promote our work.
In the midst of all those activities, we’re losing time to write. That was hard enough to find in the first place! On top of that, we’re living in a world of constant distraction. There are just so many things vying for our attention, and we often lose the battle and succumb to watching YouTube videos instead of writing (or painting or composing).
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.
Lately, we've been taking drives through the countryside with no particular destination in mind—sometimes only for an hour or two, other times for a whole day. A couple of Sundays ago, we headed out with the vague intention of ending up somewhere around Pentwater, a lovely little village northwest of here, bordered on one side by Pentwater Lake and on another by Lake Michigan.
After driving through forests and rolling farmland, we came to Cherry Point Farm and Market and couldn't resist stopping. I'd heard about the farm—one of the oldest operating farms in Oceana County—and its lavender labyrinth. We could see from the road that the lavender was in bloom.
Many people use labyrinths for meditative walking; the spiral pattern suggests a spiritual journey or one's path in life. Lavender, with its calming scent and medicinal properties, seems a perfect fit for the design.
By the time we'd taken in the gardens, it was noonish, and breakfast had worn off. Lucky for us, lunch was available in the farm's Board Room, a pole barn paneled with barn wood and furnished with mismatched chairs and plank tables topped with charming little sand-and-stone-filled lanterns. The menu was as appealing as the setting: whitefish chowder, tomato basil soup, and a selection of sandwiches, some garnished with homemade cherry jelly or cherry mustard.
As a kid, summer was one long stretch of opportunity. More time to play—yay!—but even better, more chances to make stuff. Popsicle stick baskets at Girl Scout day camp, Plaster of Paris plaques at vacation Bible school, clay doodads and woven plastic lanyards at my school's summer recreation program. Plus an imaginative assortment of creations my neighborhood playmates and I dreamed up, like costumes for our backyard circuses and hula hoop shows.
I still see summer as an ideal time to pursue creative projects, and I guess I'm not the only one. The cover of the latest issue of Writer's Digest, billed as "The Creativity Issue," hooks readers with such headlines as "Train to Be Creative on Demand: 7 Ways," "Turn Your Inner Critic Into Your Greatest Ally," and "3 Artist's Techniques Every Writer Should Try."
Collect ideas, images, random thoughts, quotations—anything that catches your attention—and stash them where you can peruse them at your leisure. That place might be a pocket notebook, a file folder (physical or virtual), a drawer filled with paper scraps, a box on your desk or a bulletin board in your studio. Resist the urge to organize your collection. Random associations that emerge from the jumble just might trigger original ideas.
Speaking of random associations, you don't have to wait for them to appear, you can prod the process. On a blank sheet of paper, write down whatever words come to mind. The words can represent ideas, categories, topics or objects, or they may just be interesting in their own right. Randomly draw arrows between pairs (or groups) of words. Use the results to inspire a poem, a story, a collage or a painting.
I know—you got in trouble for doing this in school, but now doodling is in vogue. Witness the recent book, The Doodle Revolution: Unlock the Power to Think Differently, which posits that doodling is no mindless waste of time; it's a focusing technique that helped Einstein, Edison, Henry Ford, Marie Curie and other brainiacs innovate and problem-solve. Last year I got hooked on Zentangle and found it relaxed and cleared my mind, making room for new ideas. And by the way, daydreaming is also allowed—it's a pathway to insights, a 2012 study suggests, because it helps us tap into memory, even in the face of distractions.
If you're a writer, try your hand at painting. If you're a musician, write a story. Push beyond your comfort zone, and you'll exercise new creative muscles. In the process, you're bound to encounter other creative types and benefit from cross-fertilization. (For more on crossover creativity, see this blog post from last summer.)
A regular warm-up routine—say, sharpening pencils, doing a few stretches, reading something inspiring—can be a wake-up call to your muse. But be sure your routine fits your rhythms. Maybe you're at your creative best first thing in the morning; maybe you don't get fired up until after midnight. Find your personal golden hours and make the best of them. That said, don't be afraid to shake things up from time to time. While routine can get you in the zone, monotony can turn you into a drone.
For years, my morning routine has been some combination of meditation, yoga, reading over breakfast, then buckling down on whatever writing project I have in the works. But lately I've been altering the pattern—sometimes taking my camera out on the back porch for an hour or so before breakfast, sometimes doing my yoga just before lunch, sometimes writing in the evening. It's amazing how refreshing those small changes have been!
Decisions, decisions—every creative project seems to require a slew of them. Should I start my novel at the beginning of the heroine's ordeal or midway through? Should I add one more image to this collage or take one away? The urge to make a choice and move on is powerful, but sometimes it's best to sit with the uncertainty as long as you can. As one of my writing mentors advised, "Don't be afraid to get in there and make a mess." Eventually, clarity will come.
Your creations may not be all sunbeams and rainbows—how boring that would be! But whatever you're creating, I hope the process brings you satisfaction and a sense of joy. For me—and I'm guessing I'm not alone—joy is the juice that keeps the muse amused.
"A Few Short Rules on Being Creative," by Thierry Dufay, HuffPost, August 14, 2014.
"18 Habits of Highly Creative People," by Carolyn Gregoire, HuffPost, November 15, 2015.
"How to Be More Creative," A.J. Jacobs, Real Simple.
"9 Ways to Become More Creative in the Next 10 Minutes," by Larry Kim, Inc.com, August 11, 2014.
"7 UP: These 7 simple exercises will build core strength in your creative muscles," by Gabriela Pereria, Writer's Digest, September 2017.
"The Benefits of Daydreaming: A new study indicates that daydreamers are better at remembering information in the face of distraction," by Joseph Stromberg, Smithsonian.com, April 3, 2012.
"30 Tips to Rejuvenate Your Creativity," by Joel Falconer, Lifehack.
Now in its 25th year, Creekfest is a reunion of "kin," who may or may not be related in a strict genetic sense, but who all share genes for enjoyment of good music, good food and good times.
Held on Paul and Valerie's wooded property on Coolbough Creek, the event goes on for a full weekend, with many of the 150-200 or so attendees camping on the premises.
Things get rolling Friday evening, when local chef Tracy Murrell offers Thai specialties. Music and merriment typically follow.
Part of the fun is just taking in the setting. The "cabin," its additions and outbuildings have been constructed over the years with the help of friends. And everywhere you look are Paul and Valerie's creative touches, from Paul's metal sculptures to Valerie's moss gardens, to various intriguing objets d'art placed here and there. You could wander around for days and still not see everything.
Still more music followed, and went on until the early morning hours, long after we'd gone home to bed. We would've stayed longer, but Ray had another festive event to attend the next day—a car show in New Hudson—and he wanted to be up by 4 a.m., about the time things wound down at Creekfest.
"For one reason or another, each Creekfest is the best ever," she says. "Sometimes I've had to stretch a bit to say that, but each year has its best-ever moments, this year included."
"The music, the kids, our kinship and love, the camaraderie. Even the dogs keep things fun and lively."
All things considered, though, this year was the best ever. And next year? Better still.
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