Company of Strangers

Bell ringers, crowded parking lots, a too-warm coat in a too-warm store waiting in line to pay, missing a gift box, losing a gift receipt. Bright lights and glittering messages of sales and making others happy. A barrage of noise and pressure camouflage what was once Christmas. Thanksgiving’s turkey barely forgotten and three weeks of hurry up to run.

Away from the malls, eight school choir members dressed in the winter jacket and hat uniform of kids their age line Fish Creek’s historic Alexander Noble House’s porch while dozens of friends, family, strangers, holiday lovers gather on the walkways. Young boys kick apart snow chunks along sides of the gathering. Flashing Christmas lights hang around the necks of middle-age women. Babies watch from cocoons of blankets and scarves. Couples relax within each other’s arms or stand side-by-side exchanging private looks of contentment.

Candle flames flicker in a playful breeze, burning holes in plastic cup that offer minimal wind protection. Most stay lit for the community Christmas caroling led by a choir director’s strong tenor. Everyone beyond the age of teenage angst sings. Confidence is found in the company of strangers on a mild December evening waiting for lighting of a tree maybe twelve feet tall. Choir members stand absolutely still, sway on booted feet, move from one foot to another as the crowd owns old songs, contemporary songs, religious songs. The night could go on longer as people unconsciously edge closer to each other.

The temporary community chorale doesn’t need a soaring Rockefeller Center tree to proclaim Christmas. When the switch flips and hundreds of white lights sparkle, the moment becomes special. People clap. Some call out Merry Christmas. The tree festivities end without a pitch for funds or a speech by the someone with a title, just the exchanging of holiday wishes as blown out candles return to a box.

Happy holidays to all of you. May you find times of comfort and peace in the coming weeks and all of 2020.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.