Thursday, June 22, 2017

Is it the goal or the game?

Cabin mates Angela, Shirley and Wendy.
              I was really looking forward to spending my annual week at the Peninsula Writer's Retreat at Glen Lake. Back in 2010 I polished my first novel "Great News Town" here. In subsequent years I wrote several chapters of each of the next two: "One Shoe Off" and "Full Moon Friday." I really needed a week to concentrate on writing my current historical novel, "Crown of Gold."
             I arrived with a goal to write the next three chapters. Instead I rewrote the first chapter three times.
           And climbed to the top of Alligator Hill to look out over North Manitou and South Manitou islands in the early morning fog.
            And watched a sunset that made the hill look like it was a forest fire.
            And listened as a rumbling team of earth movers gobbled up the old log cabins next door and replaced them with carefully layered gravel and sand and topsoil.
             I reconnected with writer friends I hadn't talked with in years and met new ones whose enthusiasm and creative ideas warmed my soul.
             But no, I didn't reach my original goal.
            "My business training tells me to set goals," said cabin mate Wendy Schweifler. "But if I go off kayaking or enjoying a good meal it's important too. It's part of the process."
             "I spent a whole day trying to create a better narrative arc," reported cabin mate Angela Sweet-Christian. "The next morning I decided it was too forced and went back to the original. I thought I had wasted a day, but I didn't because that work was valuable too."     
              "I've been slacking on my writing for too long," said our third cabin-mate Shirley Jones."My goal was to become re-impassioned about a book I've been working on.  And, wow, the muse was with me!"
               Our speaker Mary Ann Samyn told us writing is about revealing the truth in ourselves. That is the ultimate goal, not a certain number of pages or words or chapters.
                Hmmm... sounds like confession.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Executive order from the past

"Order #11" sounds like something from the recent  parade of presidential pronouncements. Was that the Muslim Ban? Or the one about dumping coal waste into streams?
          Actually it's the name of a 150-year-old painting by George Caleb Bingham. It depicts an 1863 order by Union General Thomas Ewing that evacuated four counties in Missouri, confiscating all property of the residents and burning all the farms.  The order was in response to a raid by Quantrill's raiders on Lawrence, Kansas. Guess you would call Quantrill's Raiders the terrorists of the 1860s.
        And like most knee jerk reactions to terrorism, the order went too far, punishing people who had nothing to do with the crime. Some of my son's ancestors, the Mockbee family,  were among those run out of their home and forced to flee halfway across the state. The Mockbees weren't slaveholders. They weren't even Southern sympathizers. They just had the bad luck to settle in Missouri where the disagreement between Missouri and Kansas was the hottest.
          Those four counties became a barren, burned-out graveyard dotted with crumbling chimneys where farm houses used to be. They remained deserted until well after the end of the war two years later. Bingham was a Union supporter but he painted this work to show the world that the Union had gone too far in Missouri.
          I was back in my home state recently to do some genealogical research in the State Historical Society and was pleased to discover this painting on display there. It really brought to life a little bit of family history.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Triple XXX rated week

Della, Carol and Sue at Christopher Wren Church at Westminster College
I didn't grow up with sisters, but adulthood brought me a bevy of sisters-in-law. In addition to the wives of my three brothers I also found myself related to my husband's sister, Carol, and Della, the wife of my husband's brother.
            For a dozen years we shared babies and Christmases and reunion dinners. We decorated family graves together on "Remembrance Day." We helped out when our husbands put in a "new bath" in the family farm house. We exchanged cards and presents and telephone calls.
           But our marriages didn't last as long as we'd vowed. Della and I became part of the divorce statistics. Carol eventually was widowed.
           This week the three of us were sisters again. We gathered in Missouri at Carol's house which hasn't changed all that much in the thirty-some years since the divorces. It still echos with the memory of the booming voice of Carol's late husband, Newt. And I can almost smell the shiny red cinnamon apples Aunt Opal always made for family dinners. Now the energetic little boy running around in superhero undies is the grandson of Carol's middle child, Susan. So I bounce little Gabriel on my knee just the way I used to bounce Susan.
            Carol, Della and I  spent a day visiting graveyards. There are a few newer graves now and many of the old remembered names. We visited the Churchill Museum at Westminster College where the British prime minister gave his famous Iron Curtain speech. And we ate tables full of food, much of it prepared by Carol's daughters and granddaughters.
            We laughed and talked and recalled all those babies and Christmases and dirty dishes to wash.  We may be exes, but we're still sisters.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Thoroughly Modern Modern

Matching dresses for the steno pool 
      Did you realize that the word "modern" -- meaning "of or pertaining to the present time" -- was first used in 1580? That's right. Shakespeare would have considered himself Thoroughly Modern Will.
       And that's part of the joke in the musical "Thoroughly Modern Millie," which opens June 2 at Grand Rapids Civic Theatre. Small town girl Millie Dillmont heads to the big city in 1922 and thinks she's reached the peek of modernity by bobbing her hair and putting on a short, fringed dress.  She and her friends are the trendsetters of almost a century ago, tapping away to tempos of yesteryear and talking in a lingo that was as hip then as today's texting.
      Based on a 1967 film starring Julie Andrews, the 2002 stage version featured a spicy score by Jeanine Tesori and turned the title performer, Michigan's own Sutton Foster, into a Tony-winning star.
Carly Uthoff rehearses Millie
      Civic's director Allyson Paris has some ideas to make the local production even more modern. Like the Broadway version, Civic's show will use projected subtitles to add to the comedy of two Chinese characters in the story. But Paris doesn't plan to limit the projections to subtitles. She has a few fun surprises in store.
        "Projection is the way of the future in scenic design," Paris said before a recent rehearsal.
        Costume designer Robert Fowle has 20 volunteers working on a collection of flashy flapper togs for the large ensemble, but even these styles have been updated to today's tastes. The straight, boxy dresses make everyone look fat, Fowle said, so he's added a little shaping to his designs.
Audiences can count on a ton of tap dancing, as well, with lots of large production numbers and 18 ensemble members who have honed their dancing skills in Civic's tap dancing classes.
          "I want the audience to leave tapping down the aisles," Paris said.
          The show runs through June 18.


Saturday, April 29, 2017

Walk on, brother! Walk on!

Another weekend, another walk.
         Last weekend I joined about 1,000 people in Grand Rapids to walk for science, one of many such marches across the country.  Now if there's something that shouldn't be controversial it's science. Science has been saving our lives and making them simpler for centuries. Who could possibly be against science?  And besides, science is true whether you choose to believe it or not!
         Today's march is a little more controversial -- climate change. Although 97 percent of scientists agree (see last week's march) that man-made pollution is causing major climate problems -- melting the polar ice caps and flooding entire nations -- big money is funding the 3 percent who disagree. They're the same ones who insisted the sun orbits around a flat earth!
          Next weekend I'm marching Saturday and Sunday for causes close to my heart. Saturday I'll participate in Great Strides to raise money for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. My son has cystic fibrosis. Since he was diagnosed at the age of 2, CF research has added decades to his life  (Yeah Science!). He turned 40 this year.
         Then Sunday I'll be marching in the 40th annual Hunger Walk to raise money to fight hunger in West Michigan.
          I may need a new battery in my FitBit!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Hate is strong and mocks the song

"I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" has been my favorite Christmas song since my Vietnam-era college days. But this year the words seem particularly relevant.

The song about holiday refrains of "Peace on Earth" is based on a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow not long after his soldier son had been seriously wounded in the Civil War.  In one stanza Longfellow laments:

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;

“For hate is strong, And mocks the song  
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

       Although our country isn't at war now, hate seems to have taken over like dandelions popping up after a spring rain. Trump's whole campaign style was about inciting the anger and hatred simmering in the heartland. He blamed Mexicans and Muslims and media and Hillary and China -- and anyone else who happened to tick him off. Some of his followers took up this poisonous refrain and used it to lash out physically. Even some normally responsible, Christian people have rallied round his claims of greatness while the rest of us are still shaking our heads saying, "Didn't you hear what he just said?"
       I guess what scares me the most is not the hatred I see among his followers but the tendency to respond with equal venom. I don't like the anger he triggers in me. But lately I'm seeing a hopeful response, people really putting into practice "Love Trumps Hate." Individuals stepping up to protect and advocate for those likely to be victimized.
       Longfellow must have seen similar signs of hope because the poem has an upbeat ending:
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The Wrong shall fail,The Right prevail, With peace on earth, good-will to men."

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Broken angels

About 18 years ago I started hanging only angels on my Christmas tree. I bought out all the angel ornaments at the local department store the first year. Then every vacation I would pick up an angel or two wherever I went. I have angels of shell from the Bahamas, simple pottery ones from Mexico, beautiful blown glass from Europe and a shiny copper angel from Michigan's Upper Peninsula. When friends learned of my obsession, they added to the collection.

Of course over the years there have been accidents. Several have lost fragile wings and one wooden puppet angel lost a leg. I've tried repairs with glue and wire but to little avail. 

This year I put up a smaller tree and didn't need all the angels in the collection so it was easy to choose only the perfect ones and return the broken ones to the box. But this curly-haired cutie looked up at me with such a sweet, innocent face that I realized that was the wrong choice.

God is perfect. The rest of us are broken. Some of us are impatient, quick to anger. (Guilty). Some of us are greedy or selfish or irresponsible. Maybe we're forgetful. Or a little lazy. But God loves us anyway. He displays us proudly on the tree of life, warts and all.

So I hung the broken angels where everyone can see them. And the tree is better for their presence.