My Daughter, My Inspiration

At 3 years old, Crystel couldn’t speak. She couldn’t say her name. The only one who understood her was her brother, Juan Jose’. He’d interpret for us.

One time, Jody, Juan Jose’ and I were at a campground, and each mom had reached it by a different path. Each mom thought the other had Crystel. Juan Jose’ said it the best when we found Crystel eye to eye with a white double-bearded goat. “Cissy, I so scared my heart go out then come back in when I see you.”

The goat chewing her cud, the little girl waiting for her family to find her.

It was tasked with her daily homework. A folder filled with pictures. I pulled a photo out, she named it, and we would go through the stack. Except, I gave up. I didn’t understand a word she was saying. I couldn’t comprehend how she would get any better.

It was her speech therapist that said, “Crystel’s the hardest worker I have. She always does her best. Are you doing her homework?”

That evening we started again. With Crystel in my lap, I pointed to a picture of fire.

“Ire,” Crystel said.

I moved my finger to a firefighter.

“Ireighter.”

To a shark’s fin.

“in.”

Of course, Crystel did get better, and she graduated from speech therapy by the time she was eight years old. She no longer allowed Juan Jose’ to speak for her.

She had a voice. She had determination. She had fortitude.

I became a believer. Crystel would be able to do anything that she ever wanted to do because she would not quit. Even when her mom did.

Crystel and Juan Jose’ are sophomores in high school. They start losing electronic privileges if their grades drop below a B-. Crystel is a straight A student. It doesn’t come easy for her. She studies nightly.

She will not let me or anyone else determine her life. She will not allow herself to be mediocre.

Her passions catch fire.

On several occasions, she has created convincing PowerPoint presentations to persuade Jody and me. I had no plan to travel to Japan. Her presentation included facts, photos, and vibrated with excitement. We will now be traveling there for the summer 2020 Olympics. We have a map of Japan in our kitchen. We have a Japan vacation fund.

On our latest trip to Guatemala, it was at her insistence that we kayaked to a waterfront house for sale in Guatemala on the shores of Lake Atitlan. Walking around the property, I realized that Guatemala had truly entered our hearts. Our every other year visits would no longer be just about visiting the birth families. Crystel was right. Anything was possible.

She ran the Wood Lake half marathon this summer with a friend. 13.1 miles. 8.22 min a mile. She had not yet turned 16.

Crystel has recently become a vegan. If it was anyone else, I might think that this is a phase she is going through. Because it is her, I understand that she has embraced the lifestyle. She prepares and cooks her own food. I find this impressive, but it doesn’t surprise me.

Crystel meets storms head on. Her face to the wind. She is living. She has a hunger to be and to do.

Her current life plan is to be a Futurist. A Futurist is a person who studies the future and makes predictions based on current trends.

Based on current trends, she will be just fine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Only In My Dreams

Only in my dreams do I sprint toward the hurdle. When I’m two feet away, I bring my right leg up to my butt and quickly extend it over the bar. It’s a beautiful thing, a split in midair. I continue scaling hurdle after hurdle until my final sprint across the finish line.

I’ve never done hurdles. I was the high schooler who after running the anchor in a relay or the 200-yard dash, went to the restroom, pulled a cigarette out of my gym bag, and smoked in the last stall.

Last week, I didn’t smell the tell-tale odor of cigarette smoke at Juan Jose’s conference track meet. No girl was hiding in the last stall.

I love watching Juan, Crystel, and their teammates run. I’ve known most of the team from kindergarten. At the meets, I can tell who the runner is by their body build, their stance and style before they even hit the straight away, their legs pumping up and down, their breath filling their lungs, and their arms propelling them forward. I stand twenty-five or fifty yards from the finish line, hollering, “Go Richfield, Go!”

It doesn’t matter to me where the runners place. It’s their heart that I love. I’m drawn to the winners and the losers, who give every ounce of energy that they have to the race. I’m drawn to the runners who strategize in the 800 and mile, who plan their break away, two hundred or a hundred meters from the finish. I’m drawn to the runners who starts at an all out run in the 200 and 400-meter dash, who have expended it all by the time they cross the finish line.

That is courage.

This track year, I was particularly drawn to a little guy with red hair, a sixth grader, who lined up for long distance races, who had to know that he was going to end up last or second to last and ran every race anyway. He stayed true to his nature and when he was one hundred meters from the finish line, he sprinted as if he was going to be first. I imagined him levitating, running on air those last one hundred meters. His feet were no longer on the ground, he had sprouted wings.

I remember that feeling. I quit smoking my 2-pack-a day habit in my mid-twenties, and started running marathons. I was like that red-headed sixth grader. Regardless of where I would place, I sped up towards the end of a race until my feet were off the ground and I was flying into the finish.

My days of levitating are most likely over due to a knee injury.

I’m okay with that. I can push myself in other arenas.

I’ll cheer on others. Celebrate with them.

The 200-meter race, is usually one of the last events of the meet. It was wonderful to witness the Richfield runners being first in every heat except Juan who was second in his.

Placing last, first, or second, it doesn’t matter. What matters is heart.

Secrets of a Successful Writers’ Group

Several years ago, Lisa, our writing group’s founder, tried to quit. She feared the realities of her treatment for stomach cancer (belching, gas, occasional gagging, and a backpack of liquid food that connected to a port in her stomach) were off-putting. She was also discouraged, because “she wasn’t contributing anything,” meaning that she didn’t have any writing to share with the group.

WordSisters

The WordSisters a few years ago — Brenda, Jill, Elizabeth, Ellen, Lisa, and Jean. Rose is behind the camera.

The other five members of the group listened, but as she talked, it was clear that thinking about writing gave her a break from thinking about her health, and she still enjoyed our company. One member suggested that we could all chime in with our own bodily noises if it would make Lisa feel more comfortable. We swiped away tears and laughed ourselves silly at that suggestion. Lisa agreed to stay involved in the group.

We support each other as writers.

That moment exemplifies the basic philosophy of our creative nonfiction writers’ group and why we’ve been together for 13 years: we meet to support each other as writers. Sometimes that goes beyond reacting to each other’s writing.

Besides giving each other feedback about writing projects, we also provide moral and tactical support:

  • Celebrating our publishing victories and sympathizing when someone’s work is rejected.
  • Sharing our grant proposals and writing award applications, even when we’re competing for the same grants and awards.
  • Offering support when a member’s personal life is trying.
  • Organizing our own writers’ retreats.
  • Launching a campaign to get Lisa published when she didn’t have the energy for submissions.
  • Attending each other’s public readings.
  • Organizing several extra-long review sessions to provide feedback on book manuscripts.
  • Recommending marketing and promotional ideas, most recently for Elizabeth’s House of Fire book launch.

Most of all, we believe in each other.

Announcing the Publication of House of Fire – an Inspiring Memoir by Elizabeth di Grazia

“In it together—from inspiration to publication” is the WordSisters theme, and today I want to congratulate Elizabeth on the publication of her memoir, House of Fire (North Star Press, 2016).

Layout 1House of Fire is the realization of a writing dream begun 13 years ago when Elizabeth entered the MFA program at Hamline University. The book is also the culmination of a personal journey that began when she was a little girl growing up on a farm in Western Wisconsin.

From the time she was 4 until she moved away from her family of origin at 19, she was sexually abused. Incest caused two pregnancies, which resulted in one abortion and one adoption. Although the memoir documents those soul-sapping experiences, the book focuses on healing and the transformative experience of creating a healthy family. DSC07148

The path to parenthood was bumpy sometimes, but Elizabeth and her partner Jody were determined and persistent. In 2003, they adopted two infants from Guatemala. Today, their created family is happy and healthy—wonderful in itself—and also a testament to people’s incredible capacity to heal and move from pain and loss to joy. Elizabeth would be quick to tell you that sexual abuse doesn’t have to define a person. She is surviving and thriving.

Although it springs from harsh realities, House of Fire is joyful and inspiring. It’s available in paperback and as an ebook.

 

“I’m Not Afraid”

Cheryl Strayed at Concordia College

Cheryl Strayed at Concordia College

Saying “I’m not afraid” over and over got Cheryl Strayed from the Mohave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State – over an eleven-hundred-mile solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. I tried it myself this week–the mantra, not the hike–and it worked. I got through another moment. Cheryl Strayed had many moments on the trail with dangerous animals, a snowstorm, and misery.

Monday, October 20th, I was with over 2,000 people listening to Cheryl as she spoke from the lectern at Concordia College.

She dropped bits of wisdom throughout the night.

“Don’t make fear my God.”

Her book reading was different from all others that I’ve attended in that she never read a word from Wild. She talked to us. We could have been gathered around a very large coffee table.

I had her book, Wild, for as long as it took her to do the hike – a summer–before I read a word. I was resistant because I didn’t want to be disappointed. I thought the praise for her writing might be because she was a local girl done good, and if I picked up the book the story would fall apart in my hands.

Enough people recommended Wild that I finally opened to the first page. Whoa.

I looked around the gymnasium at Concordia. A couple thousand people, including me, could relate to her story. How did she do that?

“It’s the only book that spoke to me,” said my friend sitting next to me. Her husband passed away eight months ago. “People know that I like to read. I got a lot of books, but this was the only one….”

“How can I bear the unbearable?”

October 22, 2014 091Cheryl called her hike a universal journey. A journey of finding who we are and then coming to peace with that. “Grief is love,” she added.

Therein lay my answer. Universal truths. Truths that apply to all people.

“Love is the nutrient that we need.”

“Alone with something I couldn’t lift but I had to lift it.”

December 5, Wild will be coming out in movie theatres.

Cheryl invited me to the after-party. She invited all of us. How did she make me feel included in her trajectory?

Her author page on Facebook has 105,627 likes. She’s been accessible, not losing herself in her climb.

In my research of her many interviews and talks around the country she didn’t lose herself in the publishing process or the making of a movie.

“In a heroic battle to make my way back to myself.”

During the evening Cheryl spoke about refusing to allow herself, her writing, or her story to be pigeonholed. Wild isn’t just for women. 50 percent of her correspondence is from men.

She left me with a ‘how to’ for when my book sells: Go in expecting respect and politely inform others. An artist shouldn’t defend his or her work.

Her book is powerful but she is even more powerful.

“I’m not afraid,” I can imagine her … me … and all of us … continuing to say on our own personal hike.