Heroes

GrandpaBW

A hero and his granddaughter, circa 1984

I want to tell you a few things, about heroes.

Heroes aren’t only found in storybooks; they are real people, flesh and blood.

Heroes are larger than life. They inspire us through their examples; they inspire us to be the best versions of ourselves.

Heroes are selfless. They love deeply, and they protect the people they love.

Heroes guide us. They teach us about the world, and how to find our way through it. And when we are ready, they gently push us to follow the paths that call to our longing hearts.

Heroes wield a courage that awes us. Even when time takes its toll on their bodies and their minds. They fight to stay, to give their loved ones one more day, one more week, one more year.

Heroes give us hope. They teach us about the strength we have in ourselves, even when we don’t see it. When a grown granddaughter holds her grandfather’s aged hand and laughs in delight at a memory – when she was small but sitting tall on his shoulders as he galloped across the lawn – and knows that feeling of invincibility will stay with her always.

Heroes live forever. We take them with us, as we go on through life, telling their stories and using the lessons they’ve taught us.

We sing their songs, we carry their names and their deeds, we hold their memories fast and close. And they live on.

In loving memory of Mel Anderson
March 9, 1932 – August 21, 2016

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Writing amidst distraction, writing beyond excuses.

(Or: An ode to a typewriter.)

(Or, or: Buy, beg, borrow or steal a typewriter. Do it.)
Get one.

Get one.

I’m going to be brutally honest with my own self in this post. I’ve been terrible as a writer this month. I can count on one hand the number of times I sat down and focused and wrote more than a page of words. This includes my grocery lists. I’ve thrown out a sentence of new stuff here and there, but the primary focus has been on editing my travel memoir for publication (which, yes, has been pushed back and then pushed back again). The thing is, lately there’s always a reason for avoiding it – dog, work, cleaning, nap, writer’s block, whatever. Excuses.

I recently came back to my hometown in Minnesota after six years in Tempe, Arizona. I aim to stay in the tundralands awhile. The four-day cross-country journey could have provided some unique inspiration, had I not been driving twelve-hour days with a wriggly 70-pound puppy and all of my shit in the backseat, with barely enough time to eat a gas-station meal before passing out in the next dingy hotel room in the next town, in the next state over. Excuses.

Arriving home was another unique opportunity to write what I was feeling, from moment to moment: who hasn’t moved home after a long hiatus to find it unfamiliar, to find yourself a stranger even to members of your own family, unsure of your place in the place you grew up? It could have been a goldmine of inspiration. But there were jobs to hunt, and a 70-pound puppy to acclimate, and trashy daytime TV to watch. More excuses. And in between Live with Kelly and Michael and afternoon DIY programs on Home and Garden network, when there might have been a space to fit in a page or two… hopping onto a computer to use Microsoft Word, for me, has presented its own unique set of built-in digital distractions. (I curse you, Facebook. I CURSE YOU.) Hell, I haven’t even touched this blog, mainly because I was embarrassed I had nothing exciting to report, no status updates on any of my projects. Nothing new to say.

Excuses, all excuses. And not even good ones.

It took me two solid weeks of this – the procrastinating and avoiding and Facebooking – before I remembered the antique typewriter that was hidden away somewhere in my closet, where my mother had stuffed my old prom dresses, graduation gowns, and crumbling boxes of childhood memorabilia. I had found the typewriter at a garage sale, one summer when I was home from college, more than a decade ago. Forty dollars spent – a lot of money for an underemployed college kid and summer-employed day camp counselor – for a thing that would largely resemble an oversized paperweight and/or doorstop for the next ten-plus years. At the time, I bet I thought it was just an impulsive purchase, an antique whim… but now, I believe that something in me, something visceral, understood the truth in my future self and fought for it.

One week ago, feeling slightly depressed and completely aimless, desperate for a sign that I hadn’t forgotten how to form coherent thoughts on paper, I unsnapped the metal clasps that held the lid on the bulky protective case. My typewriter is an antique, a Remington Noiseless Model 7. Before I struck a single key, I did the research; my machine was manufactured shortly after Germany and Japan ceded their intentions of world domination. It is not travel-friendly: a solid lunk of metal with the heft of iron or an equally heavy alloy, and sharp yet delicate moving parts. The white paint that fills in the engraved trenches on the black plastic keys, to reveal the letters and numbers, is chipped and faded; some of the letters’ placements on the keyboard I hit only from the muscle memory of my fingers. There are rust spots in places; I wouldn’t know how important (or not) those places are, much less whether they could be replaced in the event the rust has eaten through some vital mechanism.

In spite of all of that, it still works.

When I’d located it, I quickly Googled “typewriter ribbon,” and imagine my surprise to find that there is still a market for typewriter-using writers (a.k.a. hopeless romantics, a.k.a. writers at the end of their rope). My universal ribbon was waiting in my mailbox a few days later. With the corresponding manual long gone (I don’t think the Model 7 even came with one, a casualty of the phenomenon of buying someone else’s “junk”), I decided to just go with it. Loading the spools was oddly natural. Things fit into place because of my hands but more importantly just because they fit, and when I loaded a sheet of paper and hit the first few keys, a mere test run, something happened, and I was off. Things ceased to exist outside of the clack of keys and the occasional bell-ring ding of the line break. No Kelly and Michael. No cell phone. No social media. Nothing but the sound of metal hitting ink ribbon hitting paper, and the sound of the story unfolding from my head.

Twenty minutes and five pages later, I stopped. But really, I will not stop. Thanks to a 70-year-old hunk of iron, I found my stride again. Removing myself from the siren call of modern technology somehow also lifted the fuzziness of self-doubt, and even twenty minutes renewed my confidence to write, and at least attempt to write well. And for those of you who find yourselves in a similar predicament – wrestling with your own day-to-day distractions, or simply craving a break from the bombardment of digital chaos that floods your screen every time you log on to your computer – that 40-dollar “paperweight” at your neighbor’s yard sale or the local thrift store might just be worth it.

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Surviving parvo.

It has been a disgracefully long time since I’ve touched this blog. A lot of my writing plans, intricately plotted out along a timeline, have been pushed into hiatus for one reason or another. And please don’t get me wrong, many of them – such as work crises that include going into the office on weekends and skipping lunch breaks – are quite legitimate reasons. Not the least of which is the reason I’m choosing to write about here, because it affects another living being I have grown to love dearly, and almost lost because of it.

Layla

Layla

That is, parvo.

The canine parvovirus is a stealthy, insidious, diabolical disease. Upwards of 90 percent of dogs who are infected with it, and are left untreated, will die. It turns your healthy one-year-old fuzzy fireball of energy and sass into a bag of bones and skin, with barely the energy to lift her head. It is devastating for young puppies who contract it, puppies that haven’t completed their vaccination series. My healthy one-year-old fuzzy fireball of energy was fully vaccinated, received her vaccines on schedule from our veterinarian. And she contracted parvo sometime within the past two weeks.   READ MORE.

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Poetry without judgement.

Of course, writers are their own worst critics.  To this effect, and perhaps as our own way to fight the inner critique, a few years ago (actually… quite a few years ago, now), the lovely Jennifer Rose, the witty Alex Maki and I decided to embark on a little experiment.

We thought,

“What if we could create a space where people, especially people who perhaps don’t normally write poetry, could try their hand at it?  Without feeling intimidated or judged?  Where all submissions would be welcome, and feedback/critique offered only if invited?  But let’s up the ante, and create this space in an online forum, to connect with others, strangers, who might be looking for the same thing.”

poetryThanks to Blogger, we were able to create this space.  We named it “Terrible Poetry from Terrible People” (and no, the implications of the name are not lost on us; we figured we might as well start at the bottom and work our way up to greatness).

Here’s the thing: ironically, the vast majority of the poems on this site are the opposite of what you’d expect.  They are incredibly GOOD.  Many of them are gorgeous feats of literary art, in all honesty to the point where people should be giving our contributing poets money to read the beautiful words they’ve written.

I went back to the site the other day and browsed through past contributions, and was simply in awe of how well that project worked for awhile.  It has been some time since we’ve had regular postings on it (sadly, we had events and obstacles in our lives that interfered, slowly weaning us away from it), but with all of my recent epiphanies about writing in general – and renewed resolve to hit some benchmarks with my own writing – I realized I’d love to see this blog shine again.

So click here and take a look.  Wander around the site awhile.  See if anything strikes a chord.  Let me know if you’d like to post something of your own.  As I said… write poetry without judgement.  And see what great things can happen.

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“Arrival”

(otherwise known as the much-delayed excerpt from ‘The Red Earth Sings Beneath Our Feet’)As promised, and then promised again.

When I went to Tanzania in 2010, I knew, ahead of time and on some basic level, I would come away from the experience changed. I didn’t realize the extent of that change until 6 months after I returned. This is an excerpt from the journal I faithfully wrote in every day while in-country, which remains the heart of the story I wanted to tell.

Sunday, July 18.

This morning I woke up under my mosquito netting and remembered I am in Africa.

Please pinch me.

The neighbor’s rooster was making a racket a half-hour before my alarm went off. All the other roosters from within a half-mile radius—and from the sound of it, there are a swarm of them—joined in. It was raining lightly, and I could almost taste the damp soil essence wafting up to my window. All of it—the sounds, colors, the feel of the air on my skin—is very different. I don’t yet have the words to explain or describe it. I hope I will eventually.

Arriving in Kilimanjaro was rather anticlimactic. I saw nothing but a smattering of lights that [my German row-mate on the plane] Papa Pavel said was Arusha, Tanzania’s third-largest city and an hour’s drive from Moshi. We deboarded the plane in the balmy night. I have never walked out of the maw of a monster of a 747 into open air, breathing in the newness from the open door; never descended the open staircase onto the tarmac, still warm from the afternoon sun.

A young man with a Cross-Cultural Solutions sign met me and Rachel, another CCS-Karanga volunteer, at the arrivals gate. Daniel was entertaining and welcoming, and kept making us laugh (“Jenifa, welcome, hellooooo…”) which was good because it was distracting our attention from the crazy drivers. Apparently it is common practice to drive with your brights on at night, and flash them at oncoming cars in greeting (Daniel: “It’s like how we say ‘Jambo’ with our cars”). Apparently it is also practice to drive on whatever part of the road you feel like, although Tanzanians usually drive on the British side of the road. In any case, it was too dark to see much, and I was exhausted. Almost too exhausted to feel much of the washboard dirt road we turned onto to drive through Karanga village.

We were met at the door by Mary the housekeeper, Mama Lillian and Baba Fulgence. Mama Lillian is the Karanga program director, and is—as she puts it—”a new mother to you all.” Baba Fulgence is like your favorite grandfather. You know, the one who magically pulled coins from behind your ear and sang songs with you when you were a kid. After a glass of mango juice and an animated discussion about John Cena (WWE was on the TV when we arrived), Rachel and I were sent off to our beds, feeling extremely grateful and welcomed. And absolutely exhausted.

This morning, I stood on the second-floor veranda and noticed avocados swinging from branches not five feet from my face. We have an avocado tree! And the avocados are as large as my open hand.

It is much too overcast to see Mt. Kilimanjaro. Apparently we can catch glimpses of the largest peak, Uhuru, on very clear days, through my bedroom window in the early morning.

After breakfast, our new group met for orientation and paperwork. During which we discussed in great detail the CCS policy banning sexual fraternization. I’ve known Mama Lillian for all of 12 hours, and I’ve already gotten the Sex Talk from her. Such a mother!

Besides me, there are five others just starting out, all women. We’re very diverse in our life and work experiences, but have bonded already, merely from embarking on this adventure at the same time. We received more information today about our placements, and I received something of a surprise: my placement has changed. I will now be volunteering at Kiwodea, a women’s empowerment center and nursery school that is within walking distance of Karanga. This is incredibly exciting, as I will get to work with women in the community on economic sustainability issues and business creation. And will get to play with kids. I will find out much more tomorrow, when our site supervisors come to the Karanga house to share lunch.

After orientation, we went on a driving tour of Moshi Town. It was very fast and thus hard to see much of it, but we drove through the main market street where women in brightly patterned kangas (wrap skirts) were selling fruit and vegetables and shoes and belt buckles and anything else you could imagine. Most of it was a blur, and I am looking forward to going back to explore on foot, with my camera.

Home base is beautiful. Karanga, in all its simplicity, is beautiful. To get to and from home, we journey about a half mile over a dirt-packed washboard road that is determined to eat the axles off the van. It is a brain- and- backside-numbing experience, that half mile. Greeting us by our gate is Brenda, the three-year-old neighbor who fearlessly plants herself in the dirt in front of us, usually with a stick or an item she stole from another kid.

There are numerous quirks, living in a house in an African village, which I think are entirely unique to this experience. At night, you can hear bush babies jabbering and whispering to each other in the trees—they sound like small children laughing. During the day, right around lunchtime, the neighbor’s goat starts yelling; he sounds like an old man with a hernia and a bad case of indigestion. When the wind is particularly strong, it pulls the coconuts from the clutches of the palm trees and drops them directly onto the tin roof of the dining area, scaring the living daylights out of all of us. The laundry room is our backyard, and my “washing machine” is a hose, a bucket and my two hands. There are birds and bugs and other flying things I have no hope of ever identifying. And there is a fine red dust that clings to everything—leaves, tree trunks, walls, feet, goats… everything.

It is all still wavy around the edges, as though I’m walking through a dream I had a few years ago about how this experience might feel. I am having some difficulty connecting to the realities of this place, and that I am really here.

Yet, at the same time, it feels like I always have been here. Or was supposed to be. Odd.

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