Newspaper Memories

When I graduated from college, I knew two things:

  • I had a degree!
  • I had no idea what to do with it…

I’d spent the last three years devoting myself to reading and writing, and I’d earned my bachelor’s degree in English a year early and with honors.  In college, I was “the wunderkind.”  My professors respected my work and encouraged my curiosity.  Out of college, I was a twenty-year-old kid with a lot of debt and no real job experience.

I wasn’t scared for my future. I had an abundance of confidence, but not cash.  So I did what any slightly lost, mostly broke kid would do:  I applied to every job for which I was even marginally qualified.  Thankfully, a couple of employers took a chance on me.  One of those employers was the local newspaper – a freelance gig, sure, but a chance to get my name out there and make money doing something I loved.

Growing up in the theater had cured me of shyness, and college had taught me to write well and concisely (and quickly, if I had to).  Writing for a newspaper – interviews, deadlines, etc. – was a natural fit and I loved it immediately.  Talking to people and writing about it didn’t feel like work.  Having the opportunity to meet people in my community and share their accomplishments was a privilege.

My first article was about a sweet elderly lady who made prayer bears and prayer flowers for grieving families and families whose loved ones were in the hospital.  In the fall of 2007, I sat with her for a couple of hours in her living room.  I’d prepared questions, but the conversation was so easy and so honest, I didn’t need them.  As I was packing to leave, she made me a set of my own prayer flowers, and prayed for my health and success.

From there, I met with a 97-year-old ham radio operator and we talked about the days when radio was new and exciting.  To her, it still was.  I interviewed two little boys who decided to grow out their hair and donate it.  They wanted to honor their grandmother, and they didn’t care at all that people said they looked like girls.  I walked around a hospital and spoke to volunteers who often came home utterly exhausted and still wondered if they could do more.  I spent an afternoon with a church youth group as they were preparing for a mission trip.  For many of them, it would be their first airplane ride, and not one of them was afraid.  They were just excited and eager to help.

I handled quick deadlines.  I worked late.  I wrote on my lunch break.  I skipped dinner.  I learned to take decent photographs for the first time in my life (much more difficult than I thought it would be…).  More than anything, I realized that people have good things to say, and it’s important to hear them.

In 2009, Graham and I moved from Abingdon for what we thought would be a temporary stay in Northern Virginia.  The prayer flowers from my very first story came with us.  All these years later, they still sit on a shelf in my study.

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I look at them often, and they remind me that the people we meet are never just a means to an end, and that kindness and compassion are real, tangible, and enduring.

My Grandfather’s Guitar

My grandfather’s guitar sits in a corner of my study
untouched, gathering dust.
When I was young and he was already old, it could pull notes straight from the air
through his fingers and into my ears.
I can hear them, though he is gone and his instrument’s gone quiet.
When I was young, not even ten,
he’d pick it up and start to play and then I’d go still,
stuck to one spot until he was done.
My grandfather’s guitar in his hands made magic, but I was too young to understand
that music is magic made real for a moment.
A fret and a twang and he’d made something that didn’t exist before
and wouldn’t again.
I sometimes imagine myself back there, wearing muddy tennis shoes with tangled hair,
just listening.

I can hear it, but no song ever sounds the same twice.

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Because Neil Gaiman Said So

I’m not convinced that creative block exists. I think writer’s block is a clever thing made up by writers—because we’re really clever—where what we’re actually talking about is getting stuck. But I don’t believe there are Gods of Writing that go, “For the next five mornings, he shall be blocked.” –Neil Gaiman

Graham and I saw Neil Gaiman at Wolf Trap last night, and he was every bit as funny and engaging as I knew he would be.  He answered lots of audience questions, recited “The Jabberwocky,” read from several works, and even shared a couple of deleted scenes from the upcoming TV adaptation of Good Omens.  All very exciting and more than worth the cost of a ticket.  And also phenomenally inspiring.

Every writer I know, lots that I don’t, and, well, me too – we’ve all hit…the wall.

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If you write (or engage in any sort of creative activity, I think), you’ve known that terrible feeling, that awful moment when, even though things have been going perfectly well and you’ve been dutifully churning out words for the last eternity (or, you know, hour, give or take) or so, suddenly everything grinds to an agonizing halt.  And then, you’re stuck.  Writer’s block.

I’ve heard various pieces of advice on how to combat writer’s block.  I’ve read that long walks help, that a change of scenery or some music or caffeine or alcohol might help, and I’ve tried a fair number of strategies myself.  Nothing, though, has ever resonated with me quite so well as what Neil Gaiman said last night – that it doesn’t exist! – and his advice for moving forward is so simple, so reasonable:

KEEP WRITING

Or, more specifically:

The thing I use to combat writer’s block is to have more than one thing that I’m writing. If I really get myself stuck on something I’m writing, I can just do something else.  –(also) Neil Gaiman

I don’t want to say that hearing my idol, my favorite living writer, give this simple advice in person last night was a revelation, but, truth is, it was.  I, and I hope I’m not alone because that would be so sad and discouraging, have always assigned some sort of cosmic power to writer’s block.  “The muse just isn’t singing today,” I’ve said to myself.  Or, “I wish my imaginary friends felt like talking today.”

No more of that junk after last night, that’s for sure.  I’ve always had multiple ideas swimming around in my head at any given time, but I’ve never felt comfortable leaving a project behind before it’s well and truly finished.  I tried it today, after being stuck for a pretty long time on my magnum opus, and I really am feeling better.  It’s like working on something different cleared the cobwebs out of my brain, and now I can see the path forward where I couldn’t before.

Neil Gaiman was right, of course.  So, until next time, keep writing.

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Beowulf, Epics, and Why Curiosity Matters

I can’t remember what first sparked my interest in Beowulf.  I was in high school, though I can’t remember what year.  I was hungry for stories and itching to immerse myself in subjects that challenged me.  It could have been that the Lord of the Rings trilogy was going strong in theatres, stoking the collective imagination of a generation ready for magic and epic battles between good and evil (having been primed by Harry Potter and his many adventures).  It could have been a new phase in my lifelong interest in historical esoterica.  I’m not really sure, and it doesn’t really matter, because I have loved Beowulf ever since, and I’m not about to stop now.

My first encounter with Beowulf was shepherded by Seamus Heaney, and I’ve long called his work the “gateway translation.”  This is the iteration that gets you into the story.  Heaney’s meticulous attention to the cadence of the verse; his talent for turning arcane sensibilities into relatable one-liners; and his easy dedication to presenting Beowulf – the original man, myth, and legend – as not only an adventurous, brave soul in search of a noble calling higher than himself (and seeking a little glory along the way, because why not?), but a flawed human being just like all the rest of us, all serve to draw new readers into this old story.

I’ve read Heaney’s translation now more than any other, and I’m about to do it again.

Over breakfast last week, I read a magazine article called “Beowulf is Back” by James Parker.  The crux of the article – that this ancient epic just won’t go away – got me thinking, not only about Beowulf and why I love it, but about why people love epics.  Why do we obsess over heroes?  Why do we frame our world in terms of good and evil?  Why do we love a battle scene?  Why do we still look to a text older than our language to find answers about ourselves today?  And what does all of that say about us?

I don’t know.

Really, I’m not sure.  I could fill pages with my assumptions, but I don’t really want to do that, and I don’t think anyone really wants to read it.  Instead, I’m going to look at Beowulf with fresh eyes, and see what I learn.

Here’s the plan:

Over the next four weeks, I’m going to reread Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, and then I’m going to read, for the first time, three graphic novelizations of the story that James Parker mentioned in his article.

I’m looking at this challenge in two ways.  First, it’ll be fun – I love Beowulf, and I’ll have four weeks’ worth of Beowulf, and that is exciting.  Second, it’ll satisfy my curiosity.  What can these different interpretations of the same story tell me about why we just won’t let Beowulf fade into obscurity?

If I haven’t yet convinced you that Beowulf is worth your time, or if you’re not into old stuff, or if, for reasons I will never understand, you don’t like to read, I’m sure you’re asking yourself why I want to do this.  The simple answer is, because I am curious.  I want answers.  I want answers to lots of questions, actually, but I’ll settle for the Beowulf-related ones for now.  I believe that we should always be thinking, we should always be asking questions, and we should always, always, always be curious.  A curious mind is a powerful one, and those who wonder are seldom ever lost.  People who ask questions make discoveries, and sometimes those discoveries change the world.  Sometimes, they just scratch the intellectual itch that people like me can never quite shake.  But, and at any rate, no one ever amounted to anything who didn’t first ask questions.

And so, off I go, into Heorot once more, to see what I can learn with thirty-year-old eyes and a brain that often forgets where I left my car keys.

And it all begins with “Hwæt…”

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Inauguration Day 2017

I’ve been trying to process the change that’s coming.  Today, I’m of two minds.  I am proud of my country’s peaceful and celebrated transfer of power, and I believe in the fundamental strength of our democracy.  But I am terrified, because President Trump does not represent me at all.  I find him childish, vindictive, and hateful.  I think he is a terrifying and dangerous combination of ignorant, incurious, and arrogant.

I am worried that he will be a poor steward of our economy, our safety, our reputation, and our relationships with our allies.  I am afraid that he will do lasting harm.  And I am sad that so many of my fellow Americans voted for a man who embraces, with zeal, the worst of our past – xenophobia, racism, and a bent towards isolationism that ignores the reality of the world we live in – in the name of “making America great.”

This man will move our nation backwards.  And if his administration proves otherwise, it will be the happiest I’ve ever felt to be wrong.

BUT

I still believe in the goodness of our people.  I believe that we can heal the wounds this presidential campaign has created.  I believe that we can build commonalities rather than walls.  I know, deep down, that we are a fundamentally decent people.  I know that fear comes from ignorance.  I know that power is finite.  And so I believe, with everything that I am, that together, with patience, kindness, and love, we the people will continue to build a country that makes us proud, keeps us safe, welcomes the oppressed, comforts the broken, and remains a shining beacon of freedom in this world.

This is my country.  This is our country.  Together, we will succeed or fail.  And I believe that we can succeed.  That we will succeed.

That we must succeed.  Together.

New Year, New House, Same Me

I’ll be honest – I’ve never made a New Year’s resolution that I’ve kept.  I believe that we should always strive to be more kind, more honest, more engaged, more fulfilled, and just happy, but for me, setting goals because the calendar’s turning over feels a little, well, artificial.

It’s 2017 – twelve days in – and I’m sitting in my same chair, writing on my same laptop, using my same brain, in my new (old) house.

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I know that this house will become a project not just for 2017 but for life.  And I mean that in a couple of ways.  Graham and I will spend this year (and the years to come) making this charming old farmhouse everything it was ever meant to be.

And that is my hope, not resolution, for now and for always, for all of us in 2017 and beyond.  That we appreciate ourselves for who we are.  That we set the path for who we will become without fear or doubt.

That we embrace our flaws and build beautiful things with them and make our lives everything we want them to be.

I wasn’t perfect in 2016, and I expect I’ll be the same ridiculous person in 2017.  And I’m pretty okay with that.

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But as I look ahead, with my same eyes, I am excited and a little scared, and hopeful, always hopeful, that I will keep working and writing, that I will keep singing and dancing and having fun, that I will learn and try and fail and succeed, and that I will do my part to make this world everything I believe it can be.

Books Aren’t the Problem

I wrote a post last night – Censorship Isn’t the Solution – about something that makes me angry, and about which I feel very strongly.  Book banning, censorship in education and in public libraries, has always frustrated me.  I see no sense in removing books from shelves when they make people uncomfortable, because that is why books exist.  Learning is a beautiful challenge, and to step outside of your comfort zone is tough, but brave, and yes, educational.  Books should make you feel, even when the feelings aren’t good ones.  That’s what learning is.

While I was working last night, I searched for quotes from famous writers to inspire me, and came across this one:

“Real readers finish books, and then judge them; most people who propose banning a book haven’t finished it. In fact, no one who actually banned Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Satanic Verses’ even read it.”

This is an excerpt from a letter written by John Irving to a high school in New Hampshire that banned his book, The Hotel New Hampshire, and deemed it “inappropriate.”  I can’t say whether John Irving is correct that many people who demand the removal of books from shelves in schools and public libraries haven’t actually read them from cover to cover, but I suspect that he is.  I have a recent personal experience, actually, that leads me to believe him.  

My grandfather spent a lot of time at UVA’s hospital in Charlottesville recovering from a major surgery that eventually ended his life.  While he was there, his children, my mother and aunts and uncles, took turns spending nights with him so that he wouldn’t suffer alone.  My mom often spent time reading during her assigned nights, and one of the books she read, at my suggestion, was Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box.  She left it for my uncle when he took over the watch from her, and it stayed in the hospital room after my grandfather left.  We all pretty much forgot it was there, in the rush to get him home.

Recently, and it’s been over a year at this point since my grandfather passed away, Heart-Shaped Box made its way home to my grandmother, mailed back with a letter from its last reader tucked into the pages.

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The letter is signed with only a name, so I can’t get in touch with its writer, but it says, in part:

“I had a harder time reading your book.  The first chapter alone was very hard to get a grip on.  I find the aurthor [sic] soul to be dry like sand.  He could describe but he could not connect to the reader with a spiritual connection.”

Elsewhere in the note:

“I closed the book finding nothing I could capture of interest.  I truly tried to read this book, but I think I was left out.”

And then, the conclusion:

“So, I have mailed you back your book.  I only got to Chapter 6 after 14 attempts.  And thankful that Chapter 3 was short.”

Before I go on, let me make one thing perfectly clear:  The person who wrote this letter had every right to put the book down before finishing it, and to voice her opinion about what she’d read.

I am not attacking her, her letter, or what she wrote to my grandmother.  It was a kind gesture to send the book back, and it was thoughtful to write a note about it to share her perspective. I do think her letter is illuminating, though.  She found a lack of spirituality in the book that she didn’t enjoy.  She said that Joe Hill’s thoughts were bizarre, and that his soul “is truly numb like a zombie.”  And so, after several attempts and lots of thought, she didn’t finish the book and sent it back.

I imagine that many of those who raise the call to ban a book do so after coming across an uncomfortable passage or two, and deciding based on only that information, only on that opinion, in context of the book or not, that the book is not appropriate for any audience.  This kind of thinking is flawed.  There is no reason to remove access to a book for everyone when one person has vocalized discomfort.  The book is not the problem.  The reader is the problem.  The reader’s failure to look at the big picture is the problem.  The reader’s failure to analyze the text and determine its message is the problem.  Another quote I came across last night, from a letter written by Kurt Vonnegut to a school board leader in North Dakota:

“If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hardworking men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered children know that. And we all know, too, that those words really don’t damage children much. They didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us.”

It is the responsibility of a free society to share ideas.  When we silence the voices that confront our darkest deeds and bring them into the light, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to learn from our mistakes and build a better future for our children.  We deprive our children of the opportunity to become better people themselves.  Those who call for the removal of literature from the shelves of schools and public libraries do a disservice to their communities.  To ban books is to ban free thinking, and that is a dangerous path to walk because it is the path of ignorance, and ignorance has done a lot more harm in this world than any book.

Censorship Isn’t the Solution

It came to my attention tonight that To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have been temporarily removed from Accomack County school bookshelves after a parent complained about the use of racial slurs in both.  Here’s one of the articles I read, if you’re particular like me and you’d like to verify the facts for yourself: Virginian-Pilot Article.

Yes, folks, censorship right here in my beloved Old Dominion.  We’re starting the holiday season off right with some good old-fashioned book banning.

I don’t mean to be cruel or dismissive.  I understand a parent’s concern for the welfare and safety of a child – I’m not heartless.  Both of these books address painful topics, even for adults, and it’s important to be sensitive to how children might feel when they read such ugly, hateful words.  But read them they must, because erasing the history of racism in the United States doesn’t change the fact that it happened.  Glossing over our nation’s past in the classroom, or worse removing it from the shelves altogether, doesn’t help our children.

Books aren’t, and were never meant to be, safe.  Literature helps us confront the darkest parts of ourselves.  Stories should challenge us, inspire us, and arm us with knowledge and perspective as we live every day in this world.  To be uncomfortable, to be sad, to be happy, to be angry, to be frustrated while reading is to learn, and learning is a beautiful, difficult, maddening, absolutely and vitally important thing.

Nasty words in books don’t hurt us.  The world hurts us, and books help us process that pain.  We shouldn’t, must not, deny children that opportunity.

Thanksgiving 2016

I am thankful every day – for amazing family and beautiful friends, for the choices I have the privilege to make, for opportunities and new days and sunsets and ice cream and adventures and wine and every good thing in my life.  I’m not happy to be thankful.  I’m happy because I’m thankful.

And today, I’m happy to celebrate at home in the mountains.  But, you know, it’s good this holiday only comes once a year, because it’s not even noon and I’ve already eaten more than my weight in delicious things and I don’t know if I could handle this much thankful every day.

Happy Thanksgiving from our (smoky) little corner of Virginia!