Recipient of a Jerome Travel and Study Grant

Jerome_foundation newJody met me at the end of the driveway. In her hand she held a yellow envelope addressed to me.

Notifications on two prior occasions from the Jerome Foundation came by email: We’re sorry to inform you….

This was an envelope. A large envelope. I opened it slowly and carefully which isn’t my nature. Rejections don’t come in such packaging. This could only mean one thing.

As I pulled out the contents I realized that I’ve been a beneficiary of much goodness: wonderful teachers, mentors, my writing group, peers, friends, and family.

In November of 2012, participating in Mary Carroll Moore’s weekend workshop, “How to Plan, Write, and Develop a Book,” at the Loft Literary Center, I understood for the first time what my book was about: A Woman’s Search to Be Seen. Using her W-shaped Storyboard and Three-Act Structure, I left her workshop with an outline and edited structure for my near completed manuscript. That weekend, I revised several chapters and was able to reach a new depth in my writing.

More importantly, I was excited about my writing and my book, HOUSE OF FIRE. I had been working for ten years on finding the right structure to tell my story.

guatemala-map[1]After applying and receiving a Next Step Grant funded by the McKnight Foundation, I attended a one-week writing retreat with Mary Carroll Moore at the Madeline Island School of Arts, September 2013 and participated in two twelve-week online classes – “Your Book Starts Here: Part 3.

Since winning the Loft mentorship, I have been working closely with mentor, Mark Anthony Rolo.

Under his tutelage, I enhanced the structure of my book to weave in my present story with back story. For example, on our flight to adopt Antonio and Crystel the sun is setting when the plane descends into the airspace above Guatemala City. Three large volcanoes dominate the horizon and I ruminate how both me and the Guatemalans were literally running from fire in 1974 when I was 15-years old.

And now, receiving a Jerome Travel and Study Grant allows me to travel to Guatemala to research indigenous Mayans and Mayan heritage to inform my memoir. I’m truly blessed. This trip is critical to finishing my book.

The trip is detailed field research on the traditions and history of Antonio’s and Crystel’s homeland. Besides the powerful emotional content intended for the last chapters, my visit will also provide insights that will enrich the whole manuscript.

Pacaya Volcano

Pacaya Volcano

Following Antonio and Crystel visit with their birthmothers we will travel by van to Panajachel and board a lancha to take us to Santa Cruz la Laguna, a small pueblo located on the northern coast of Lake Atitlan in Solola, Guatemala.

Situated half a mile above the shore on the mountainside it is home to indigenous Mayans.

Accessible only by rocky footpaths and lanchas, Santa Cruz is a virtual island on the mountainside.

Because of its isolated nature and small size, Santa Cruz is a great home base for our stay. We will be employing indigenous Mayan guides to explore small, traditional Mayan villages around the lake. The guides will be much more than guides as Antonio and Crystel will daily be seeing their own rich café au lait skin.

Santa Cruz la Laguna

Santa Cruz la Laguna

During our travel I will create a record of the voices, landscapes, and villages of the indigenous Mayans. Following my return home I will be able to create prose that truly draws its inspiration from the specific natural setting.

I’m lucky and grateful to have won a Next Step, Loft Mentorship, and Jerome Travel and Study Grant. Receiving these grants will help me complete HOUSE OF FIRE.

Antonio and Crystel, of course, understood the nuances of winning the Jerome Travel and Study Grant but it was Jody and I who were doing the HAPPY THANKFUL DANCE in the driveway.

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Everything That Rises Must Converge

405My experience as a Loft Mentor Series speaker.

It had been going on for some time before I noticed. My daughter was choosing an adult out of the people milling about at the Loft Literary Center after the Mentor Series Reading, taking him or her by the hand, and leading the person to open floor space. Once there she generated a dance routine for the adult to follow. After their two-minute routine was complete, she released the adult back into the gathering and chose a new person. Each person learned and performed a never-done-before dance routine. My son followed along videotaping each jig.

Who is this girl? And what magnetism does she possess that adult men and women will willingly leave the fold (and food) to dance with her? Even Jerald Walker and Mark Anthony Rolo, acclaimed authors and mentors, followed her as did many others.
All I could do was stare and see if anyone needed saving. They didn’t. They were enjoying the girl.

At three-years old, this girl could not talk intelligibly. Part 3 of my memoir, House of Fire, speaks to this. Thank God for the goat, it begins. During one of our camping trips, both my partner Jody and I thought that the other person had the girl. When I understood that neither one of us did all I could think was, The girl can’t tell anyone her name, where she lives, or who her moms are. We sprinted back to the the animal pens, which was the last place we saw her. She and the white double-bearded goat stood in companionable silence, the goat chewing her cud, the little girl waiting for her mothers to return.

The girl was diagnosed with articulation disorder and on two occasions we were asked by the school district to have her tested for autism. Jody and I refused. We were afraid she’d be mislabeled.

I mentioned this to a fellow mentee on Friday night, told her that I was in awe of the girl. She said that the girl just needed the right fertilizer and that Jody and I provided it for her.

I think she’s right.

I thought about myself. How my life’s work has been to be visible, to stand and speak my truth.

All this love, this fertilizer, brought the very best out of the girl and me on Friday night, the night of my Loft mentorship reading.

I recalled a quote,

“Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge.” Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Yellow tulips flowers. (3)[1]I did the only thing that I could do when we got home. I presented the girl with a bouquet of tulips that I was given. After all, she gave quite a performance.

“Whose belly did I come out of?”

dsc00095[1]July, 2013. My cell phone rang. I stepped out of the dining hall at Tomahawk Scout Reservation, in Northwestern Wisconsin, wove through dozens of 10-year old Cub Scouts to reach the flagpole. “Hold on, hold on,” I said to the caller. I looked up to the sky hoping that a satellite would keep us connected. Jerod Santek from the Loft Literary Center was on the other end saying that I had won the 2013-2014 Loft Mentor Series for Nonfiction. “Can you hear me?” he said. I could. But after submitting to the competition for over ten years and being a finalist four times, I didn’t know what to say.

Friday, April 18th, at 7 p.m. I will read an excerpt from my memoir, HEALING FIRES.

“Whose belly did I come out of?” five-year old Crystel asks. “Yours or Mama Joey’s?” Milk spills from her spoon into her cereal bowl.

Thirty years of breaking free from the cycle of violence and discovering my true self prepare me to start my adoptive family. The challenge of creating a home of love, safety, and joy is tested by dysfunctional ghosts and dark memories from the Wisconsin farm where I was raised.

It’s the culmination of my work with mentors Mark Anthony Rolo as well as my work with Loft Literary Center instructor Mary Carroll Moore.

Also reading is Jerald Walker and my fellow mentee Pamela Schmid.imagesGECE7253

Mark Anthony is an enrolled member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. His memoir MY MOTHER IS NOW EARTH won the 2012 Northeastern Minnesota Book Award and was nominated for a 2012 Minnesota Book Award.

When I opened Mark Anthony’s book and read his first lines, “My mother wants to be buried in fire. She races into a burning farmhouse, letting serpent flames twist around her legs,”my mouth fell open. I had submitted a writing sample that started with these words, “I’m on fire. I scream. I run. Flames chase me. I fall to the grass, slapping at my shoulders, my back, my side. Digging my shoulders into the ground, I pitch back and forth, back and forth. The fire follows.”

Under Mark Anthony’s tutelage, I have restructured my memoir to merge my past and present story just as spring water runoff flows to creeks and further downstream joins the river and finally the ocean that embodies us all.

Jerald Walker’s STREET SHADOWS: A MEMOIR OF RACE, REBELLION, AND REDEMPTION was also very influential. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Jerald is a recipient of the 2011 PEN New England/L.L.Winship Award for Nonfiction and his book was named a Best Memoir of the Year by Kirkus Reviews.

When I read Jerald Walker’s memoir, I finally understood how I could meld past and present together in my memoir. I studied his structure, counting the number of pages he used for his present story and then his past. I attempted to locate where he brought them both together. All the while, I resonated with his efforts to rise above the circumstances that he was born into.

7ac30fe0b702dd387b1f0ab4fcd06c36[1]Pamela is the creative nonfiction editor for Sleet magazine. Before receiving her M.F.A. degree from Hamline University, she spent more than a decade reporting and editing for the Star Tribune and the Associated Press.

Pamela says this about her memoir, “In MY BIG BOOK OF YEARNING, I chronicle my son’s arduous journey to speech and reflect on the way words empower and ensnare. I also try to untangle the threads of silence that took root in my family generations earlier, before giving rise to this little boy who desperately wanted to speak but could not.

”Pamela will be reading an excerpt that explores Eli’s fascination with music, and the way music can bridge the gap to speech. “When I sang, I became somebody else, someone more certain and sure. When it was just Eli and I and the songs, I felt the scales of a dragon on my back.”

Please mark your calendars for April 18th at 7 p.m.

Join Jerald, Pamela, and me as we read to you from our memoirs.

Loft Literary Center

1011 Washington Ave. S

Minneapolis, MN 55415

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Being A Role Model

13355524[1]Recently, while Mark Anthony Rolo was visiting the Twin Cities he stayed at our house. Mark Anthony Rolo is the nonfiction mentor for the Loft Mentor Series and offered to devote a Saturday working with the nonfiction winners. Since he travels from northern Wisconsin, I extended an invitation to him and his dog. Our house would also serve as a meeting place the next day.

I’m sure that I told Antonio and Crystel that Mark is one of the Loft Mentors who’s working with me, but Crystel didn’t really understand until I said, “He wrote a book. It’s in the living room. The one with a picture of him and his dog Rock on the back cover.”

She got the book. At that very moment, Mark was sitting by a fire we had built in the backyard.

“That’s him? And that’s Rock?”

“Yes.”

6815689230_1497703279[1]Crystel loves books. Finally, it clicked that she had an actual living author right in her backyard. That was almost too much for her eleven-year-old brain to grasp.

I was hoping, as any mother might, that this also elevated me in her eyes.

Antonio and Crystel spent a lot of time playing with Rock, tugging and pulling and throwing. And, even though they could have left during the adult chatter around the fire, they didn’t disappear. I hoped that it was because they found us interesting, but truth be told, their electronics were banned for the weekend. So what else is a kid to do?

Later that evening, Crystel couldn’t contain herself any longer and told me, in the presence of Mark, that she was going to write a better book than me.

Mark making his mother's bread.

Mark making his mother’s bread.

Around noon the next day, she pulled me to the side in the dining room and said, “Are those people in there famous?” She motioned to our living room.

I thought of the four of us, all mentorship winners, all wanting to publish a book.

“Yes, they are,” I said. “They’re authors. They’re going to publish their books.”

That evening, long after everyone had gone, Crystel asked if she could read Mark’s book. “You’ll have to ask Mama Jody. I think she’s reading it.”

“Sorry, I’m reading it, Crystel,” I heard from the other room.

On Monday when she came home from school, she asked if she could take Mark’s book to school the next day. She had told people that a famous person had stayed at her house and she had the book to prove it.

Lately, Crystel has begun to ask, “Can I work on my book now?” And then she brings her computer over to where I’m writing and she writes with me.

This Saturday, she’ll meet another famous person, Ellen Shriner, my WordSister partner.

9780985981822_p0_v2_s600[1]Ellen is reading at SubText Bookstore. Contributors will read from Holy Cow Press’s anthology The Heart of All That is: Reflections on Home.

You’re all invited to the reading — 7p.m. on Saturday.

I love being surrounded by famous people and that my daughter wants to be one too.

The Loft Mentor Series: Navigating the River Together

Mark Anthony Rolo

Mark Anthony Rolo

I had competed to be a Loft Mentor Series participant for many years, but now that I had been selected as a 2013-2014 Mentor Series Winner, a ‘so what’ attitude misted over me. I hate to even admit it because it sounds as if I didn’t care that I’d won. I did care. That’s why I paddled like heck against the wind and upstream to reach my destination. Now, that I had won, I pulled my paddles into the canoe, and drifted into the eddy.

Winning hadn’t changed me. My circumstances hadn’t changed. And, I had no idea if I would change during the Mentor Series. Nothing was promised.

All I knew is that I didn’t have to paddle anymore. That was unbelievable to me.

A potluck would be my introduction into the Mentor Series. I didn’t know any of the winners personally and I knew only one of the mentors, Mary Rockcastle.

Mary greeted the others and me as if she were an ambassador to the program. She has a knack for making a person feel good. If her gig as Hamline’s MFA writing program director doesn’t work out, she could be an emissary. She’s comfortable discussing a wide range of topics from colonoscopies to colloquiums. How can you not feel at home? Whatever nervousness I had in joining this potluck dissipated quickly.

Mark Anthony Rolo, nonfiction mentor, and Vanessa Ramos, Loft program manager, were the last to arrive.

Vanessa’s smile and effervescent personality is visceral. I was drawn toward her.

Waiting for Mark was nerve wracking. He was the person I would be working with for a year. I had read his book, felt as if I knew his past, which wasn’t that different from mine. But what if I didn’t like him? Do you like every writer you meet?

Mark isn’t hard to miss. He looks like his book jacket cover. He’s big. And, his dog is big.

What is it that some people possess that as soon as they walk into a room you feel at ease? It is almost as if their energy is forging the way and their physical self comes after. Mark has that characteristic.

Right away, I could tell Mark was accessible.

Mark Anthony Rolo and Rock

Mark Anthony Rolo and Rock

He didn’t put on airs that he was different from anyone in the room, and he had done his homework. He knew what piece of writing belonged to each of us. I made a quick note to myself to get my paddles in the water because I was about to be left in the eddy while he and others traveled on. I hadn’t read anyone’s work.

All of a sudden, I knew what the Mentor Series was about. It was about learning, supporting, and paddling to the next marker. People who could help me get there surrounded me. I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t going against the wind. I wasn’t going upstream. Instead, I was embraced by other canoeists and we could navigate the river together.