Monday, July 31, 2017

Echoes in Our Own Backyards

John Rankin House, Ripley OH, Summer 2017
"The great eventful Present hides the Past; but through the din of its loud life, hints and echoes from the life behind steal in." --John Greenleaf Whittier

Ah, what a chance for the hints and echoes of the past to break through the walls of the present! We recently took a mini-road trip, hubby and I, to historical sites relatively close to our backyard. In all the years we've lived near them, this would be our first visit to each. We traveled just up the Ohio River from us and into eastern Ohio, branching off on seemingly back roads. Back roads to us now, but major points of activity over 175 years ago for the people back then. And what a group of people they were, as we were soon to find out.

John Rankin house
John Rankin House, Ripley, OH. The story of abolitionist John Rankin and his family is amazing. I had already begun reading Ann Hagedorn's Beyond the River, the Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad, and was fascinated with the in-depth account Hagedorn presented. I knew of the 'house on the hill,' and how a lighted candle would be lit night after night as a beacon for escaping slaves across the river in Kentucky. What I didn't truly comprehend, though, was the depth of compassion John Rankin--and others in this small town of Ripley--had for these shackled, oppressed people until I actually stepped into that house on the hill.
view of Ohio River from hilltop
These weren't just people you read about. These were real people whose stories stir our hearts, risking their lives to free others. Their children were also involved, often escorting fleeing slaves to the next 'station.' There were the beds they slept in, the kitchen fireplace where they cooked their food.  In a Cincinnati Enquirer interview (March 16, 2003), just after her book came out, Hagedorn was quoted as saying, "I was drawn to the people in the book because as a reporter I had covered crime for years...But after years on the crime, grime and slime beat, I really wanted to write about people with good values, people who did something bigger than themselves. People here were on the front line of the war against slavery simply because they wanted to do the right thing." It is estimated that over 2000 slaves passed through Rankin's care to freedom between 1829-1865. I echo Hagedorn's words, again from the interview: "And I learned things. I learned that the Underground Railroad was really about choices--the choice of slaves to escape, the choice of a free black (see J. P. Parker, below) to risk helping them and losing his or her freedom, the choice of white people to believe in racial equality enough to risk life and livelihood to help. There's a lot to be learned from people who made those incredible choices." Walk the original wood floors where these people walked, climb steps to upstairs rooms where Rankin's 13 children slept, look out over the wide river where desperate people risked everything to cross, and you'll feel the same way.

John P. Parker House
John P. Parker House, Ripley, OH. The Underground Railroad network in Ripley included a man born into slavery, John P. Parker. His story includes being sold at the age of eight and made to walk ragged and barefoot from his original home in Virginia to Mobile, AL, chained to other slaves. In Mobile he was sold to a doctor where the doctor's sons taught him (illegally) to read. Eventually he purchased his freedom and moved to Cincinnati. By 1849 he settled in Ripley. His story is also fascinating. He owned a foundry, working there during the day and helping fugitive slaves escape at night. During the Civil War, he was a recruiter for the 27th Ohio Volunteer Infantry (Colored) Regiment. He was a successful entrepreneur and inventor with at least three patents to his credit for agricultural inventions. Though we didn't get to tour this home (it was closed the day we were there), it stands as a testament to courage, determination, and vision. Parker's book, His Promised Land, the Autobiography of John P. Parker, Former Salve and Conductor on the Underground Railroad now sits on the top of my reading pile, close to Hagedorn's.


U.S. Grant Boyhood home
Boyhood Home of Ulysses. S. Grant. Ulysses S. Grant, 18th president of the United States, was born in Point Pleasant, OH and grew up in Georgetown, OH, just up the road from his birthplace. I've read some about President Grant, even did a post about him a couple of years ago (see  Moving Rocks, and Historical Figures) where I shared about a humongous rock that Grant, when 15 years old, moved into town from the local creek when none of the men could complete the task. I always thought I wanted to see that rock and now I can say I did! I also learned more about the man who became Commander of the Union troops and later President of the United States. More than that, I got insight into his childhood and the acquaintances and close associates that influenced him and his family. Many were deeply involved in the Underground Railroad in the area, a fact chronicled in a book I discovered while there:  Ulysses Underground, The Unexplored Roots of U.S. Grant and the Underground Railroad, by G. L. Corum. Another incredible book I scooped up!
rock moved by Grant, 2540 pounds

Oh, the whispers and echoes of that time that continue to resonate.

We also visited Kentucky Gateway Museum in Maysville, KY, and had supper at The Olde Wayside Inn, a restaurant on the historical stagecoach route called Zane's Trace. This old-time building at one time hosted such dignitaries as Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and General Santa Anna after his defeat in TX by Sam Houston following the Battle of the Alamo. The location and owners of the time also played a significant role in the Underground Railroad network.

All in all, it was a significant trip, effective in pulling back the curtain and letting the hints of the past filter into the mind, settle and percolate. I'm sure some of the threads will show up in my writing. For sure people I only once read about have become alive in my mind.

Are there places in your 'backyard' you always thought you'd visit one day but haven't? What are some of the local places of interest where you live that you would recommend others visit?
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Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Happy 4th, with an Erma Bombeck Smile

image courtesy Pixabay
"You have to love a nation that celebrates its independence every July 4, not with a parade of guns, tanks, and soldiers who file by the White House in a show of strength and muscle, but with family picnics where kids throw Frisbees, the potato salad gets iffy, and the flies die from happiness." --Erma Bombeck, 1927-1996, writer and columnist

Happy 4th to all! Hope your celebration is special and your potato salad stays fresh :-)

Familiar with Erma Bombeck?  She could sure offer up great humor, especially some of her takes on parenthood. Many times she managed to be funny and profound at the same time. She also was a prolific writer. Some of her titles include: If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits?; The Grass is Always Green Over the Septic Tank; When You Look Like Your Passport Photo, It's Time to Go Home; and At Wit's End.

Samples of her quips:

"Never go to a doctor whose office plants have died."--Erma Bombeck

"All of us have moments in our lives that test our courage. Taking children into a house with a white carpet is one of them."--Erma Bombeck

"Housework, if you do it right, will kill you."--Erma Bombeck

"I have a theory about the human mind. A brain is a lot like a computer. It will only take so many facts, and then it will go on overload and blow up." --Erma Bombeck

Hope you enjoy the holiday. What's your favorite picnic food or Fourth of July tradition? Do you have a favorite Erma Bombeck quip or story?
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Saturday, June 24, 2017

A Word from Washington Irving

June 2017

"There are certain half-dreaming moods of mind, in which we naturally steal away from noise and glare, and seek some quiet haunt, where we may indulge our reveries and build our air castles undisturbed." --Washington Irving

I've never done an official tally of the types of reading I do in a week, but selections often range from children's books to historical fiction, nonfiction, YA, inspirational, classics, history, poetry, devotionals, books at the library that catch my eye, and titles others suggest...it's no wonder I'm all over the map when I sit down with a book. This time it was a quote, particularly the one above, that sent me reading. All I knew about Washington Irving (1783-1859) was from my high school days when we had to read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. So who was this man? He speaks of things we can identify with: a writer's affinity for quiet moments and our need for space in which to build our stories. What else might he have added to the discussion?

Well, it turns out, quite a lot...

courtesy google images
1. Contributions. Washington Irving first and foremost is credited for perfecting the American short story. That's why his Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle (found in his widely popular The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon) have endured. If you have not read them in a while, you might want to--in retrospect they are quite a hoot. Ichabod Crane, the schoolmaster in Sleepy Hollow, infatuated with the local beauty, finds himself up against his rival for her hand, the reckless Brom Bones, and then...well, if you remember, there's a headless horseman who throws his head at Ichabod, the disappearance of the schoolmaster, and the later discovery of the man's horse, saddle, and...a smashed pumpkin. And Rip Van Winkle is the rather feckless and ne'er-do-well henpecked husband who disappears for twenty years. The humor in the situation is summed up in the story's final lines: "Even to this day they never hear a thunderstorm of a summer afternoon about the Kaatskill but they say Hendrick Hudson and his crew are at their game of ninepins; and it is a common wish of all henpecked husbands in the neighborhood, when life hangs heavy on their hands, that they might have a quieting draught out of Rip Van Winkle's flagon." You have to read the story to capture the picture in full!

"For my part," Irving once wrote, "I consider a story merely as a frame on which to stretch my materials. It is the play of thought, and sentiment and language; the weaving in of characters, lightly yet expressively delineated; the familiar and faithful exhibition of scenes in common life; and the half concealed vein of humor that is often playing through the whole--these are among what I aim at."

The Alhambra, courtesy google images
2. Travels and Positions. Irving was born to a merchant family in New York City. Later he traveled widely, especially throughout England and Europe, and eventually served in a variety of diplomatic positions including a term as U.S. Minister to Spain. There he had access to the American consul's extensive library of Spanish history which he drew upon to write A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. It was published in 1828. He also lived for a time in Granada, Spain in the famous Spanish castle, the Alhambra, built by the Moors in the 15th century and later home of Catholic monarchs. From this experience he wrote the book The Alhambra. It's a place of particular pull for me since I had the privilege of visiting there a few years back the first time my son and his family lived in Spain and with the fact that his family just recently relocated there again. Later, back in America, Irving wrote a number of books based on his travels to America's frontier.

3. Name and Other Associations. Yes, Washington Irving was named for George Washington. He was born on April 3, 1783, the week of the British ceasefire that ended the American Revolution. So his mother named him after the the war's hero, General Washington. When he was six, the two actually met when Irving's Scottish nanny approached the now first-president of the United States, who at this time resided in NYC, and said, "Please, your honor, here's a bairn named after you."

Irving later became friends with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, won the admiration of Sir Walter Scott in Britain and Nathaniel Hawthorne in America, and also hosted Charles Dickens and his wife at his home during Dickens's American tour in 1842.

4. Marketing. Is it possible that Washington Irving pioneered the art of marketing a book? Well, his approach to selling one of his first books falls either into the category of marketer--or schemer. He wrote A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty under the pseudonym of Diedrich Knickerbocker. It was a satire on local history, poking fun at the city's "Dutch elite" as it has been described. Prior to the book's publication, Irving set up his hoax. He placed a series of missing-person advertisements in New York newspapers, suggesting that Diedrich Knickerbocker, forthcoming author, had gone missing. Irving's ruse apparently generated a lot of interest. Sales of the book took off when it came out.

5. Stamp on Culture. And speaking of Diedrich Knickerbocker, think of the influence this one fictional character had on the culture then--and now: "In his attempts to embody the traditions of his city in an amusing form, Irving met with a success which must have astonished himself. Within forty years after The History was published, Knickerbocker insurance companies, Knickerbocker steamboats, omnibuses, bakeries, ice factories, and magazines were all profiting by the fame of an Old Dutch historian who had never lived at all, except in the imagination of Washington Irving. The Knickerbocker legend had become part of the national heritage" (source: American Poetry and Prose, Norman Foerster, Ed, Houghton Mifflin, 1960). Today we see the name associated with New York's professional basketball team. Another cultural vestige? In 1807, while collaborating with his brother William on the literary magazine Salmagundi, Irving ascribed the nickname Gotham ("Goat's Town") to the city of New York. This was way before Batman came along.

6. Encourager and Crusader. It has been said that Washington Irving was quite willing to help aspiring authors, including Edgar Allan Poe. "There is not a young literary aspirant in the country," a George William Curtis once noted, "who, if he ever personally met Irving, did not hear from him the kindest words of sympathy, regard, and encouragement." Also, because he himself struggled against literary "bootleggers," Irving championed for stronger copyright laws.

Maybe this is more than one wants to know about Washington Irving, but I found myself fascinated with this 19th century writer. His influence continued for generations. It's also been said that he had the attitude of a gentleman, "solidity of character, honor, courtesy, and kindliness," and a love of both the Old World and the New. Hmmm, maybe he's someone I'd liked to have met. At any rate, I sure identify with his words above. These may be what we used to call the "lazy-hazy" days of summer, but they haven't been so lazy around here. Seeking those quiet moments where air castles--or word pictures for us writers--is an ongoing quest. The swing above looks inviting. Anyone for a push?

Any special places that you seek out to find those quiet writing moments? What author, past or present, would you like to meet?
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Friday, May 19, 2017

Happy Moments in the Little Things

Tybee Island, GA 2017
"Perfect happiness is a beautiful sunset, the giggle of a grandchild, the first snowfall. It's the little things that make happy moments, not the grand events. Joy comes in sips, not gulps." --Sharon Draper

This time last week we experienced two out of the three 'little things' mentioned in the above quote: beautiful sunsets and giggling grandkids. Thankfully there was no snow!  It all came about when our whole clan (parents/grandparents, kids, kids-in-law, grandkids) gathered at Tybee Island Beach off the coast of Savannah, GA. There we enjoyed happy moments in the little things and tucked them away: collecting shells, jumping waves, morning and evening walks, climbing to the top of a lighthouse, exploring an historical city. Not to speak of the bedtime stories and meals shared together. All good stuff. We stored moments up, sipped and savored. Sharing a few of those moments in snapshots...

"People forget years and remember moments." --Ann Beattie

"We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts 
are conscious of our treasures." --Thornton Wilder


"Well, that's what life is--this collection of extraordinarily ordinary moments. We just need to pay attention to them all. Wake up and pay attention to how beautiful it all is." 
--Alexander Payne


 
    "I always did something I was a little not ready to do. I think that's how you grow. When there's that moment of 'Wow, I'm not really sure I can do this,' and you push through those moments, that's when you have a breakthrough." --Marissa Mayer


"Do not the most moving moments of our lives find us without words? " --Marcel Marceau

Part of the reason for this trip and its collection of special moments came about because members of our family--our son and his family--are soon to embark on a move to Spain. There they will be afforded many new opportunities as they engage in work in the mission field, and so they will be blessed with their own very special moments as they establish their lives there. (They were there for a period of time a few years ago. I blogged about that here.) And so this one is for you, Keith, from one of your childhood favorites:

"It's a magical world, Hobbes, ol' buddy...Let's go exploring!"--Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes

What special moments have you tucked away in your heart recently? Ever been to Savannah, or to Tybee Island? Any special celebrations in your family coming up?
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Sunday, April 30, 2017

On Walks, Metaphors for Writing, and Mile Markers

on nature walk April, 2017
"When you're writing a book, it's rather like going on a very long walk, across valleys and mountains and things, and you get the first view of what you see and you write it down. Then you walk a bit further, maybe up onto the top of a hill, and you see something else. Then you write that and you go on like that, day after day, getting different views of the same landscape really. The highest mountain on the walk is obviously the end of the book, because it's got to be the best view of all, when everything comes together and you can look back and see that everything you've done all ties up. But it is a very, very long, slow process." --Roald Dahl

A long walk as a metaphor for writing a book? Perfect--especially for a those of us who thrive on walks and writing. Thanks, Mr. Dahl for the analogy.

Blogging is a bit like taking that long walk, too--all those steps (posts), vantage points (exploring so many subjects), rewards (friends and encouragement), and results (accumulated writings you wouldn't have otherwise). And then one day you look back and say: wow, look how far I've walked! 

This just happened to me. I blinked and realized my last post was number 400. How did that mile marker almost slip past? Sure didn't know starting out where this hike would take me :-) 

Any mile markers come along for you recently? What metaphor would you use for writing a book?
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Thursday, April 13, 2017

Latest, Most Favorite Feathered Friend: Carolina Wren

Carolina Wren April 2017
"A Carolina Wren stands on the neighbor's deck, belting out his song, repeated, repeated, repeated. His whole body stretches and bulges with the effort, and I wonder as I have many times before: How can so much sound come from such a tiny blot of keratin and muscle?...I still remember the scene vividly: the loud, pealing notes that drew me to a woodpile where a cinnamon-colored bird stood in the late-evening sun, quivering with life and an alien language. I was totally hooked." --David J. Ringer, audubon.org

I'm hooked now, too. The day stands out in my mind: out on my walk, going up the hill, and suddenly I'm hearing the prettiest song from a bird I'd ever heard. Distinct enough from the usual birdsong of the morning to tell me there must be a new feathered friend in the neighborhood.

Startled by the tune, I looked up into the trees at the side of the road and discovered this little guy, pictured above. I'd never seen a bird like this before and was glad I had my camera along in order to capture the moment. A truly serendipitous moment. It was as if he was posing just for me.

What is uncommon to some, of course, is common to others. On my return home, I immediately sought out information, first finding out the bird's name--the Carolina Wren--and then discovering that it is the state bird of South Carolina. Obviously more common there than here in Ohio, it generally prefers warmer climates. But, as I learned, this species of bird will extend its range further north if winters there are mild--which was the case for us this year. 

And I was right to be surprised by its song. The bird's music volume far outweighs its size. This wren has even been described as the "terrier of birds"--acting and sounding like it's 5Xs bigger than it is. It also has a repertoire of dozens of different song variations. Samples: twee-dle, twee-dle, twee-dle; jul-ee, jul-ee, jul-ee; and ger-man-ee, ger-man-ee, ger-man-ee.

Fun, flighty, fascinating. A most favorite encounter for me this week...

Are sightings of the Carolina Wren common in your neck of the woods? What rare sightings of bird have you ever seen? Any fun, flighty, fascinating or favorite encounters (feathered or otherwise) in your life recently? I hope so. We certainly can all use a lift!

Bird Food for Thought:
"The very idea of a bird is a symbol and a suggestion to the poet. A bird seems to be at the top of the scale, so vehement and intense is his life, large-brained, large-lunged, hot, ecstatic, his frame charged with buoyancy and his heart with song." --John Burroughs

"There are joys which long to be ours. God sends ten thousands truths, which come about us like birds seeking inlet; but we are shut up to them, and so they bring us nothing, but sit and sing awhile upon the roof, and then fly away." --Henry Ward Beecher

"The author O. Henry taught me about the value of the unexpected. He once wrote about the noise of flowers and the smell of birds--the birds were chickens and the flowers dried sunflowers rattling against a wall." --Chuck Jones

"When we 'lose our mind' and 'come to our senses' in the fullest possible way, the chattering, texting, e-mailing, twittering mind will eventually quiet down and almost silence itself. This is a sacred and connected silence...It's like a deep, still pond reflecting the stars of the night sky. I believe this is the baseline for human consciousness, and I'm convinced that the birds are the best mentors in the natural world for bringing us to it." --Jon Young, What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World
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Monday, March 27, 2017

On Creeks, Mucking Around, and the Writing Process

March 2017
"People sometimes ask me to quantify how much time I spend in the different stages of the writing process. That's a tough question. If you held my favorite teddy bear hostage and forced me to answer, I'd say roughly 5% goes to Pondering and Mucking Around, 15% is spent Scribbling, 70% is Boiling Down the Bones, and 10% is figure out how to Craft Chords and Singing." --Laurie Halse Anderson, madwomanintheforest

Adventures in the creek happen occasionally around here when hubby takes grandkids exploring. This was the case recently (kids ages 8, 6, and 4). They think it quite a lark--at least this time of year when the mosquitoes haven't come out yet.  There are stones to overturn, salamanders to find (they call them geckos), elusive crawdads to search for, splashings, rock skippings,  and balancing acts on tipping rocks. Although they did bring usable footing for the occasion (rubber boots, crocs, and flipflops), they still came in the house with wet pantlegs and dirty feet--and of course stories to share. But that's par for the course when mucking around in the creek on a Sunday afternoon. (photo sans kids: an after-the-fact re-creation since neither I nor my camera accompanied the original exploring party)

Laurie Halse Anderson (above quote) divides her writing process into percentages, saying that  5% of her process is spent "pondering and mucking around." Doesn't that tell it like it is in the first stages of writing? I love her creative way of describing her practices and found these treasures when I visited her blog at madwomanintheforest. And what prompted me to go there? I just finished reading her fantastic Seeds of America Trilogy (Chains, Forge, and Ashes), was moved and inspired by the stories, and wanted to learn more about the author.

About the Seeds of America Trilogy, from Amazon:
"What would you risk to be free? It’s 1776 and Isabel, Curzon, and Ruth have only ever known life as slaves. But now the young country of America is in turmoil—there are whisperings, then cries, of freedom from England spreading like fire, and with it is a whole new type of danger. For freedom being fought for one isn’t necessarily freedom being fought for all…especially if you are a slave. But if an entire nation can seek its freedom, why can’t they? As war breaks out, sides must be chosen, death is at every turn, and one question forever rings in their ears: Would you risk everything to be free? As battles rage up and down the Eastern seaboard, Isabel, Curzon, and Ruth flee, separate, fight, face unparalleled heartbreak and, just like war, they must depend on their allies—and each other—if they are to survive..." 

Loved this series. Ms. Anderson is also the author of the award-winning YA contemporary novels Wintergirls, Twisted, and Speak, along with numerous other books.

She is an engaging writer. And it's always a treat to get a glimpse into a successful author's life. She elaborates on her methods in her post, "The Bones of the Writing Process--Part 1", where she describes the stages of her writing process as:
  • Pondering
  • Mucking Around
  • Scribbling
  • Abandonment
  • Boiling Down the Bones
  • Chords
  • Singing
  • Storytelling

Of Mucking Around, she says: "When the idea takes solid shape--I know a bit about the character and I think I know a couple of the book's important moments of conflict--I start jotting things down. I play a lot of 'What if' games and start exploring the relationships..." (note the word exploring!Of Scribbling she means the first draftOf Boiling Down the Bones and Crafting Chords: "Let me explain that last 80%. It's rather important. Other people call it Revision."

And Singing? "You've got chords now so you can sing! With your imagery in place, with your plot and character development in place, now you can really plunge into the vast ocean of language and come up with precisely the right words to elevate your prose to a new level."

I don't suppose she had creek beds and salamanders in mind when she visualized this imagery (though maybe she did!). But her words help us traverse the rocky streams of writing and come out of it with a sense of discovery, and with our own stories to share. I've done my share of mucking around in this latest project, but that's okay. I'm like a kid making discoveries in the creek. Although I am looking forward to hearing those chords sing.

How about you? What stage are you in? Have you read any of Ms. Anderson's books? Do you have a favorite series of books you would recommend?

And if you want to see one amazing writer's cabin, check out the youtube video: Mad Woman in the Forest Gets a Cottage. Custom built for Ms. Anderson, it's a place to dream of. It even has a magic window. You'll wish you could put your boots on and truck over to a place like that for all your writing needs. 
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