I realize the past couple of months have been anything but a holiday for many people: those who’ve faced illness themselves or cared for ailing family members, those who’ve lost loved ones, others who have lost their jobs or whose professions put them in harm’s way. My heart goes out to all those people and everyone else who has been negatively impacted by COVID-19.
I feel fortunate that so far, at least, this time of isolation has been a kind of respite for me. When it all began, back in mid-March, I thought to myself: Well, I always wanted to go on a creativity retreat in some peaceful place. Here’s my chance!
And for the most part, that’s how I’ve approached it. Here in our quiet patch of woods, with no outside commitments, I’ve been free to focus on projects I find it hard to concentrate on when I’m always on the go. And a funny thing has happened: The further we get into Stay Home – Stay Safe, the more protective I’ve become of my free time and solitude.
Like most people during this time, I’ve been deluged with a mind-boggling number of invitations to Facebook Live events, Zoom gatherings, free webinars, and other virtual happenings. My internet service’s dwindling data allowance won’t permit me to join in most of those, and while I truly regret having to turn down some invitations—especially From the Heart Yoga’s Zoom classes and chats with my yogini sisters—I haven’t minded passing up the rest. They’ve felt like distractions, in the same way that outside commitments often do.
So how have I been spending my precious retreat time? Let me count the ways . . .
I’ve been working steadily on my novel-in-progress. Rather than spinning out pages, I decided to take a more disciplined approach, guided by the process Lisa Cron champions in her book Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere). The title itself was enough to sell me on the book, and as I work my way through it I’m becoming even more of a fan.
It’s hard work, requiring a lot of thought and a lot of writing, followed by digging deeper, thinking more, and writing more. Being able to spend hours in concentrated work, not just stolen minutes here and there, has led to much-needed breakthroughs. Finally, I’m getting some clarity on how to achieve what I’m trying to achieve in the story I’m working on.
Early in our Newaygo life—around a decade ago—I scoured flea markets, antiques shops, and ebay for interesting picture frames, visualizing a gallery of old family pictures in our upstairs hallway. Those frames have sat in a trunk in the guest bedroom all these years, waiting for me to fill them. Every month of every year I’ve thought I’d get to it, and every month of every year has somehow gotten filled up in other ways.
Finally, I gathered frames and photos, did the necessary prep work, and with Ray’s help, hung them in the hall. Here are the pictures that now have homes:
While I was at it, I framed a few more of my nature photos to hang in my studio and the guest room. I’m happy seeing the empty spaces filled and even happier having done something that had been on my to-do list far too long.
3. Lending a (Virtual) Hand
A volunteer opportunity cropped up: entering data for a ballot initiative for which I’d helped gather signatures. I thought, Why not? I certainly have the time! It’s a simple task—just taking names, phone numbers, and email addresses from cell-phone photos of petitions and entering the info onto a spreadsheet. A little hard on the eyes, but easy on the brain, which suits me fine right now.
Every spring, one of our tasks is cleaning up downed trees and branches in the patch of woods around our house. Ray cuts up the wood and runs the small and medium-sized pieces through the chipper. I gather up the chips and spread them on the paths we’ve made around our property. This year has yielded enough chips for me to create a new path or two. In the process of making many chip-laden wheelbarrow trips, I rack up an astonishing number of steps, according to my Fitbit. Between that work and my wanderings in the woods (see item #4), I’ve been covering some serious miles.
Enter the North Country Trail Association’s Hike 100 Challenge. The idea is to hike 100 miles in a year. Normally, those miles have to be on the North Country Trail (though it doesn’t matter whether you hike the same mile 100 times or cover 100 unique miles of trail). But this year, in response to shelter-in-place directives, the association bent the rules to allow all miles walked in April and May—in your backyard, around the house or neighborhood, on the treadmill—to count toward the total.
I’ve been keeping track, and I’ve already passed the 60-mile mark. I could very well hit 100 by the end of this month.
5. Woods wandering
True, I do this all the time, not just when we’re on lockdown. But spending time in nature has been particularly restorative during this time of unprecedented events and uncertainty. I hauled out my cameras, which I’d been neglecting while busy with book promotion, and discovered anew the joy of wandering around, photographing flowers, flowing water, and woodland creatures.
Here are a few shots from my wanderings. You’ll find more at the end of this post.
6. Trying something new
I read an article by nature photographer Melissa Groo about an unusual technique for photographing fast-moving birds in flight. Intrigued, I tried it out that very afternoon, trying to catch chickadees and nuthatches coming and going at the bird feeder.
While my results aren’t quite where I’d like yet, in terms of sharpness, I was happy to at least capture a complete bird—not just tail feathers at the edge of the frame—on a fair number of attempts. I’m showing you these not because they’re anything to brag about, but because they represent the kind of patient, try-try-again attitude that’s easier to adopt when you’re not trying to fit so many things into your day.
7. Resting and reflecting
Emptiness is the pregnant void out of which all creation springs.
-- Wayne Muller
The above quote is from an article titled “Fear of Rest” in the May issue of The Sun magazine, excerpted from Muller’s book Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest. As so often happens, I came across the article at precisely the time I needed to read it. Musing on the necessity of rest—and our resistance to it—made me more appreciative of having time to intersperse rest with periods of activity. The older I get, the more I respect rest, but I still need reminding sometimes that it’s a legitimate use of time, not only to restore the body, but also to feed creativity.
How have the past couple of months been for you? How are you feeling about re-entry?
Enjoy a nature break . . .
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
In this week’s blog, you’ll meet Mark Andrews, one of my favorite West Michigan photographers.
Born and raised in Newaygo County, Mark got the travel bug early in life on trips with his family. He went on to work in the travel industry, for airlines and tour companies, including a stint in Barbados.
“I started with photography in the 80s with an old film camera and fell in love with taking pictures,” says Mark. “I worked for Kodak in the early 2000s as a sales rep selling digital cameras and had some training over the years with them. Most of what I’ve learned has been over the internet and practice, practice . . . ”
Mark is especially fond of photographing places that evoke a sense of the past – Cuba and old Route 66, for example.
In addition, he has visited and photographed Iceland, Ireland, Scotland, Greece, Turkey, China, Russia, Philippines, Mexico, much of old Route 66, Hawaii, and National Parks including Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Arches, Grand Canyon, Zion, Great Smoky Mountains, Canyon Lands, and Monument Valley.
Where hasn’t he been, you might ask. Well, still on his list are the Amazon, Ecuador, Israel, Italy, Spain, Lisbon, “and a whole lot more.”
In this post, Mark shares tips for taking better travel photographs, as well as advice on finding travel deals to your dream destinations.
Tips for Taking Better Travel Photos
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.