Enduring Friendships

Enduring Friendships

web-natcheztrl-e1450370163848124 years ago, I was biking alone on a Klobuchar bicycle trip. Beginning in 1974, Jim Klobuchar, the former Star Tribune columnist led annual, weeklong Jaunt With Jim rides throughout the state of Minnesota. It was 1992, and I often was in the habit of doing something new. I picked adventures even though I wouldn’t know anyone. I often felt as if I was making up for my lost childhood, teenage-hood, and early adulthood. In my twenties and thirties, I was ready to tear up the world. Do what I want. If an adventure piqued my interest, I’d ask myself, “Will I regret it if I don’t do it?” If the answer was yes, I was on to my next adventure.

I met the two men in an abandoned town on a Sunday afternoon. It was a picture out of an old western movie. Two men riding into a dusty quiet town on their bikes, while the damsel was sitting on bench eating lunch.

I overheard them lamenting about the lack of . . . anything. They were hungry.

“I have food,” I said. I always had food. It didn’t matter where I was going, I was sure to have food. When you are one of twelve children, you pack a lunch. “I’ll share what I have,” I added.

Out came the trail mix, the crackers, and the sausage. I even had dessert.

Galen told me he was a school teacher. I would meet Bonnie, another of his school teacher friends later in the ride.

Galen and Bonnie invited me to bike the Natchez Trace, a historic forest trail which extends from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee. I met George on that trip. Together we biked in Glacier National Park and the historic Sun Road. That was Jody’s first trip with us.

Last year, Jody and I went to George’s funeral. He was 86 years old.

Klobuchar said, “Friendships developed that are still alive. That’s really my biggest satisfaction — bringing people together and sharing the road together.”

Gary Lund

Gary Lund

Gary Lund and I are very much in that category. 24 years later, we continue to email almost daily. He remembers our first meeting, saying it was the most miserable bike riding day of his life. It was a ride from Litchfield to Montevideo. Rainy, cold, and wet. He noticed me at the lunch break in Wilmar where we were both freezing, trying to figure out how to dry off and warm up.

Later that day he would see me in the ditch with a flat tire. He asked if I wanted help. I quickly tossed him my tube. We were together off and on for the rest of that week. When I wasn’t with him, I was with Bonnie and Galen, stopping in cafés and waiting out the rainstorms.

Gary was a front of the pack guy. I was grateful for his friendship. He was there to patch me up when I took a spill. Then he took a spill and I patched him up. We laughed lots. Talked lots. Never about politics or religion. There was no need. Our friendship wasn’t based on that. It was based on sharing food with people who were hungry. It was based on sharing our lives although they were different.

My life is fuller because of these people. I’m grateful our friendship has endured time and differences.

I imagine that they are reading my WordSisters column now. Thank you, friends.

Back To School Blues

For 22 years—first as a student and later as a college instructor—the school year framed my days. Consequently, the first day of school still evokes strong feelings.

red-plaid-lunch-boxWhen I was younger, heading back to school touched off a prowling anxiety. Worries stalked me at odd moments—What if I can’t find my room? What if none of my friends are in my class? What if the teacher is picky and mean? Once classes were underway, anxiety gave way to feeling trapped. Oh God, I’m stuck in school for months on end. Lectures, homework, tests. Somewhere between Day 1 and Day 2, I accepted my fate and began to acknowledge bright spots—a teacher who liked to joke, Oreos in my plaid lunchbox, or a book I didn’t mind reading.

 

When I began teaching college English, I discovered teachers often dread the start of school, too. For me, it was a sinking feeling that began several weeks before school started. Oh, God, I need to make a syllabus, which means I have to decide exactly what I’m covering: choose readings, dream up in-class exercises, and plan the assignments. What if I get a handful of surly students? They could completely undermine the class dynamic for 10 weeks. tan-brief-bag

My anxiety culminated in a night-before-the-first-day-of-class nightmare. Every quarter, I dreamed a variation of this dream: I’m 20 minutes late to class. I’m walking down an endless corridor and can’t find the room I’m supposed to be in. I finally arrive only to realize that I’m in my pink chenille bathrobe and the students have given up on me. Some of them are already in the English department office complaining about me. My stomach would be roiling when I woke up. As I stuffed my leather briefbag with mimeographed syllabi, lecture notes, and my grade book, I laughed at how ludicrous the nightmare was.

 

This fall, on the first day of class, I was surprised to again feel a frisson of nerves. What if I got lost or showed up late? Just to be sure, I double checked the transit routes and downloaded a campus map. What if the professor thinks retirees are cranky know-it-alls? Do I really want to show up twice a week and sit through lectures?

Wait. Yeah, I do. Anxiety about the first day of school may be deep-seated, but it no longer makes sense. I’m only auditing a history class at the University of Minnesota. There’s no pressure to perform as a teacher or as a student. In the rush of those habitual feelings, I’d nearly forgotten that the beginning of school also sparks an invigorating sense of a fresh start.

backpackI loaded up my backpack with the three heavy textbooks—ooof—and set off.

Bookstores Beat Amazon for Browsing

I love that I can zero in on several pairs of cool shoes on Zappos that will fit my hard-to-fit feet. Yippee! The Internet brings me things I can’t find locally. Problem solved! I have happily spent time searching for deals in the clearance sections on Banana Republic, JJill and Macy’s websites (usually when I should have been doing something else). Score—70% off! But I do not love browsing on Amazon to find books I might enjoy. For that, nothing replaces the sense of discovery and delight I experience in brick and mortar bookstores like Magers & Quinn, Common Good Books, or Subtext.

Amazon’s “Recommended for You” algorithm is too simplistic. Just because I recently read a book about the Holocaust doesn’t mean I want to read three more books on that subject. At least not right now.

The trouble is—I don’t always know what I want to read. Until I picked up Praying Drunk, a collection of short stories by Kyle Minor and One of Us, a novel by Tawni O’Dell that’s set in Kentucky coal country, I didn’t know I would enjoy them.

Magers & Quinn

Magers & Quinn

Browsing in a bookstore is almost meditative. I give my mind and feet permission to wander and I open myself to discovering what’s there. When I find a good book that wasn’t on anybody’s bestseller list, it’s a pleasure. The title or cover lures me. After reading a few pages, there’s a moment of victory, “Yes! This one will be good.” I feel inordinately lucky. It isn’t just a book. It’s a good read—sometimes a journey to an interesting place. Other times it’s a respite from a bad week.

If I find a book, I buy it, but often I am torn. I also love to read ebooks. I can read in bed without turning on a light and bothering my husband. I can carry 10 pounds of books in a 1-pound device when I’m traveling. Unfortunately, ebooks lead me to Amazon. Buying there just hastens the demise of all those independent bookstores that I love. If independent bookstores could offer books in either paper or digital form, I’d gladly buy my ebooks from them. They’ve earned the sale by giving me a great experience. Amazon is procurement, not browsing. Visiting a bookstore is an adventure.

What I Overheard the Gnomes Saying

Start of the Race.

Start of the Race.

Amazing Race, a reality television game show is the only television show that our family watches on a regular basis, so it wasn’t that much of a stretch when Crystel requested an Amazing Race scavenger hunt for her 12th birthday party.

A garden gnome was the children’s passport and the first clue stated how important their gnome was:

Before the Amazing Race is over Shin Bee and Antonio will forget their Gnome in a restaurant incurring a 1/2 hour time penalty.

Before the Amazing Race is over Shin Bee and Antonio will forget their Gnome in a restaurant incurring a 1/2 hour time penalty.

Find a gnome. The gnome must be with you today, always. One of you must hold it, carry it, and have it on your person at all times. Both of you are responsible to tenderly attend to your gnome until you are on the mat at the finish line. If you are ever without your gnome it is a ½ hour penalty. This penalty will be served before you can step on the finishing mat.

Crystel using Peachie the gnome for support. She is about to get her feathers plucked.

Crystel using Peachie the gnome for support. She is about to get her feathers plucked at Bella’s Salon.

A ruckus in the corner of the living room draws my attention. Two gnome brothers are about to go at it. One has a hoe he menacingly swings above his head.

“I had it worse than you,” he hollers.

“No, you didn’t,” the other argues. “Look at my hat. I’ve had this HAT ever since the19th-century.” The gnome starts to sob. “I remember … when the

Zipporah and Natty finishing a challenge. At this point, Gnomio, being held by Natty, still has his conical hat.

Zipporah and Natty finishing a challenge at Richfield Veterans Memorial Park. At this point, Gnomio, being held by Natty, still has his conical hat.

German children … called me Gartenzwerge (garden dwarf).”

He is overcome with grief and drops his water pitcher. The black jug lands at his feet spilling its contents. “What is it with children these days?” He sits down, not caring that his pants are getting wet. He rests his head in his arms, lets loose with his tears.

Crystel and Allie completing the 'take a selfie with a dog' challenge. Peachie safe in Allies left hand.

Crystel and Allie completing the ‘take a selfie with a dog’ challenge. Peachie safe in Allie’s left hand.

“Yeah, but, yeah but …” the gnome with the hoe says, “At least YOU were found. My children caretakers couldn’t even find me. I would have stayed in the crook of the tree aaaallllllll day if it wasn’t for their

mother. Darn electronics!” He peers down at the hole in his brother’s conical hat. “Maybe he’s right maybe he does have it worse. I can see right down to his feet. I knew he never had any guts.” He touches his head. “At least I still have my point.”

Gnomio overlooking the make a homemade pizza and drink challenge. He's shaking his head. "This isn't going to turn out," he says. 2 cups of flour for the drink was used instead of 2 tbs.

Gnomio overlooking the make a homemade pizza and drink challenge. He turns his back to whisper,  “This isn’t going to go well. 2 cups of flour for the drink was used instead of 2 tbs.”

The gnome lowers his hoe, sits next to his brother on the grass and places his arm gently around him. “Children have lost their ability to see.” He pauses, then goes on, “And, to read, for gosh sakes. The clue clearly showed where to look for me.” After a moment, he starts to chuckle, “Did you see those two girls running all over Donaldson Park? At the playground, in the soccer field?” He bowls over with laughter. “They weren’t even close to where I was.” The gnome finally realizes that he is the only one

Lighting fire with a flint. Crystel and Allie will do as there ancestors before them did ... steal fire from a competitor. Though they can't read a clue well they can think outside the box.

Lighting fire with a flint. Crystel and Allie will do as there ancestors before them did … steal fire from a competitor. Though they can’t read a clue very well they can think outside the box.

laughing but he can’t help himself. He raises his eyebrows. “Oh, my,” he exclaims. “That is quite a hole. Forget about going to the repair shop for that.” He grabs his tummy, shakes with glee.

Only when it is quiet do the gnomes think to inquire where their older brother is. Maybe they are thankful he isn’t around. Lately he has insisted that they listen to his sermons from the mushroom platform that he has created. His daily pontificating drives the brothers crazy.

Zipporah choosing her route at the Ghostly Gangplank at MOA. This was a first for her. All a part of the Amazing Race.

Zipporah choosing her route at the Ghostly Gangplank at MOA. This was a first for her. All a part of the Amazing Race.

They found their brother sitting under the mushroom talking softly to his pet bluebird.

“They called me Gnomie,” he says unhappily to his pet.

“Cheer, cheer, cheerful, charmer,” the bird says in a melodious, gurgling whistle.

“That wasn’t the worst of it,” he was telling the bluebird. “They abandoned me in a restaurant. All they could think of was money, money, money, winning, winning, winning.”

Antonio and Shin Bee high fiving it when they learn that Crystel and Allie took the time penalty for not finishing their sushi at Masu Shushi & Robata at the MOA. However, they will forget Gnomie at the restaurant incurring their own time penalty.

Antonio and Shin Bee high fiving it when they learn that Crystel and Allie took the time penalty for not finishing their sushi at Masu Shushi & Robata at the MOA. However, they will forget Gnomie at the restaurant incurring their own time penalty.

The two brothers crawl under the gold chanterelle mushroom and join their brother. Apricot scent is in the air.

“My two girls called me Gnomio,” the one with the hole in his hat says shrugging his shoulders. He had a lot bigger problems to think about.

“I was Peachie,” says the one with a hoe. He reaches up to take a nibble out of the tender mushroom stem. “Mmmmm,” he says.

“Stop it,” says Gnomie. He bats at his brother. “The altar will fall.” He measures his brothers with his eyes. “I think we can all agree that it wasn’t a good day to be a gnome.”

All three solemnly nod their heads.

Children’s laughter is heard in the background, oblivious to the gnomes sorrow.

What surprised me the most about Crystel’s Amazing Race is how similar it was to the reality show. Clues misread or not read, shouts of unfairness, competitors talking their way to the front of the line, and a gnome (passport) forgotten in the heat of the race….. but most importantly the day was a whole loft of fun for competitors, drivers, video and camera crew.

Comfortable on Any Turf

Lisa

Lisa

More than a dozen years ago, Lisa Taylor Lake founded the writers group that eventually gave rise to WordSisters. Lisa’s original inspiration was that we could provide vital insight and feedback to each other. Over the years, the group grew to be so much more—mentors, cheerleaders, and true wordsisters. In spring 2012, Lisa died of cancer and this March, we are honoring her with two blogs—this one and one in a few weeks. Ellen & Elizabeth

I had belonged to Lisa’s creative nonfiction writers group for years before I learned she also wrote poetry. Inspired by classes she had recently taken, Lisa had created a chapbook of her poems and reserved a cozy room at her church for her first poetry reading.

When she invited our writers group to the reading, she had confessed to nerves, even though she regularly spoke in front of groups for her work in the state health department’s communications office. This was different, she said. This was her poetry. It was personal.

And it was beautiful. As she read, her audience of two dozen listened quietly—until several of us couldn’t suppress an ooh at a particularly lovely line. Silence broken now, as Lisa continued, more of us expressed mmms, oohs, and aahs, and shared appreciative nods and smiles. Our response emboldened Lisa to mention she had planned to end with the poem she had just read, but if we would like, she could read one or two more. When we applauded wildly and said yes, please, more, she stepped back, momentarily overwhelmed, and then she obliged us with pleasure.

Afterward, ever the good hostess, Lisa flitted among us, greeting people, directing us toward refreshments, accepting compliments, her eyes and feet virtually dancing.

Years later, my husband David and I sat at a lacquered pine table in a dark booth while I wondered what I had gotten myself into. An essay of mine had been accepted by a local online literary journal. A local church sponsored the journal and the editors celebrated each issue’s publication with an author reading at the Turf Club bar. Well, not in the bar itself—in the bar’s basement.

Lisa was the first of my friends to arrive, her eyes twinkling as she took in the wood-paneled walls sporting mounted fish and game. She and David ordered beers and discussed the typography of the beer signs and the design of the amateur northwoods landscape paintings that filled gaps among the taxidermy.

As I read, I remember the sensation of all eyes—those of the patrons, the bartender, and the mounted deer—fixed on me as people listened. Afterward, I felt the adrenaline rush of finishing without tripping over words or a microphone cord. Now I understood why Lisa was aflutter after her poetry reading—the lightness of heart that comes from risking and successfully entering new territory.

The last time we heard Lisa read her poetry, she looked artistic and angelic in a full-length turquoise dress that she couldn’t get over buying for herself for the occasion. The skirt flowed around her ankles so that she appeared to float rather than walk. We entered her church again. This time, many more of us filled a larger room that featured a wood-beamed vaulted ceiling and arched stained-glass windows.

Lisa’s writing group, our writing group—Ellen, Elizabeth, Rose, Jill, Brenda, and I—sat together, WordSisters well before Ellen and Elizabeth began this blog. We oohed and aahed over the dress, but moreso over the depth of meaning in her poems and her greater confidence in sharing them with us. We were not the only ones to surreptitiously wipe away tears, and not only as a reaction to her beautiful words.

Lisa could be comfortable in a vaulted spiritual space or in a basement bar decorated with dead animals. Lisa was game. (And as I write that sentence, I can hear her politely questioning whether I’m perhaps overreaching in my attempt at word play.) But she herself wrote in her essay, “Meeting with Royalty” about spending Christmas in England, “I was game for any adventure.”

Lisa took her good manners and tactfulness, her keen observation and sense of story, and her openness to new experiences with her wherever she went. Hiking and writing poetry along her beloved North Shore. Dressed like a tsarina in long underwear, a long wool coat, and a Russian-styled hat to see Britain’s royal family go to church. Tired and angry at a car and a relationship stuck in the mud. Driving with her sister to a family reunion—she wrote that they were “two gals pushing sixty in a rented red convertible that was pushing seventy.”

I hope Lisa pardons my paraphrase of that essay’s opening sentence, but it’s one of my favorite images from her stories: red-headed Lisa holding onto a broad-brimmed hat to protect her fair complexion, ever practical, yet speeding along joyfully with someone she loves, whether she was traveling on well-trod or unfamiliar turf.