putting on style and agony

My current book commission is a trove of so many stories it is sometimes hard to stay on-task. Every box I pry into or ancient-looking book I pull off the shelf at The Cedars (my client’s wonderful, completely haunted old family home) opens some deep vein of another story that, in and of itself, is novel-worthy. A movie could be made from such a book about Civil War-widowed G-Great Grandmother Jennie Bessie. Without her “darling husband,” and no other prospects for livelihood, Jennie took her five littles (age 11 to 2) to Kansas-Nebraska territory in 1878. I have her diaries to work from, and have stayed for long stretches in the headspace of this brave woman. Naturally, I had to go meet her.

Fortunately, I had a copy of an 1889 plat-map that indicated the location of Jennie Bessie’s claim. On Good Friday, a day when all government offices in Hodgeman County were apparently closed or tumbleweeds had pulled down the phone lines–I couldn’t rouse a soul down there to advise me–I headed without much of a strategy in hopes of finding this remote place where the Widow Simons and her young brood took turns freezing and starving for ten years. No one in the Simons family has been back there in almost 150 years, so I had no directions to follow. There were no roads on the map, only the Santa Fe Trail. I wasn’t sure how to find Jennie Bessie’s land with any certainty, but I took off from Lawrence and drove west and southwest. About 48 miles from where I thought it should be, I noticed Ft. Larned and decided to stop and ask for help.

A fresh-faced, digital-native named Canvas was the young docent (an oxymoron if there ever was one) who welcomed me at the historic site. Canvas wasn’t a bit daunted by the challenge. He studied my map, then manually plugged the coordinates of Jennie Bessie’s land into his iPhone’s satellite navigation app, which he then pinged onto my phone. For the next 65 miles, I just kept watching the blue dot of my car get closer to the red flashing dot of the claim’s latitude and longitude on the landscape. Eventually, I had to turn off the paved road onto washboard-gravel, proceeding slowly the last ten miles or so until the two dots were joined on the screen. Then I stopped the car, looked around, and this is what I saw:

It was the limestone block foundation of her house—the one Jennie Bessie had built to replace the newly-completed soddy that soon-after collapsed during the only big rain they’d have for the next two years. From her diaries, and son Collie’s writings, I knew exactly what I was seeing… even the creek in the distance—the one perpetually dried-out or flash-flooding. I stood right where the door had been… the very door where the horse named Bird finally stopped, having found its own way for many miles through a blinding blizzard with Jennie Bessie wrapped in a quilt in the wagon bed to keep from freezing to death. Inside that door were her cold, hungry children who would finally have something to eat.

If I’d discovered the holy grail it wouldn’t have thrilled me more than finding this arid, godforsaken place. I hadn’t seen a sign of life for miles and miles but, surprisingly, I didn’t feel alone. The wind, unruly, exuberant and strong, blew from every angle, jumping up and knocking into me like a big dog. There was a meadowlark song-talking, pausing occasionally in case I might sing-say something back, which I did, but not in a word-way. My reply was to feel the presence of stories in this place. My mind went into them until some sound said there was surely a rattlesnake dozing between these stones–a descendant of the one Collie stomped to death after it bit Bird, the beloved, reliable horse who was buried near the maple tree Jennie had transplanted from back home. It also didn’t survive.

As I sat on the hewn-limestone blocks, warm and companionable, I imagined how different this would have looked in her day. Instead of parched corn or sorghum fields, this would all be strong prairie tall grass, undulating and verdant. It would not feel desolate but hopeful, at least early-on. After the two-year drought, Jennie Bessie had to find work teaching in any nearby town where she could board with Grace, her toddler. The older sisters, Julie and Etoile were also sent to board with town families, leaving Collie (age 9) and Louie (7) on the claim until they could prove it up by 1883.

They abandoned it in the end, but she kept her family alive, reunited her children and raised them to become incredibly successful adults. This was Jennie Bessie Simons, “and don’t you forget it while she was teaching school and putting on style and agony.”

And I am the luckiest wordsmith in the world who gets to tell her story.

Joshua Tree

Come to the desert, she said. It’ll be fun, she said!! So I joined my intrepid traveling besty Laura Kate for some much-needed time away from the frozen north.

For the record, I have been working. Lots of progress on Chapter 8 of the newspaper family saga… I think my writing was improved by the clarity of the air here in Yucca Valley. Laura found this cabinista near an old water tower, so we moved in, left the shades up day and night, and got used to the lack of hot water. (sortuv)

As badly as I want to describe the warmth of the desert thawing me out after a long-stretch locked down at Swanchurch, the truth is it was frickin freezing in the Mojave Desert… I mean it snowed. As in snow. That’s all I’m going to say about that.

Posting on his Happy birthday–the greatest hiker of them all, Don Miller!!

The Charlie Millard Band

As soon as you think you’ve landed The Charlie Millard Band safely in a genre, their next song sends you spinning back into a cosmos of musicality and originality that defies compartmentalization—and gravity, for that matter.

Yes, that’s Charlie nearly levitating from the kinetics of his voice and virtuosity. This guy is theatrical the same way a Tesla lamp is electrical–Charlie is amped, and so is everybody listening.

Charlie plays ambidextrously on two keyboards (often simultaneously) and leads vocals from paean to ballad to blues with this swinging arc that you realize was a segue when he’s moved seamlessly onto the next song. The energy just keeps ramping up.

Waits and Cave waft into the mood, but the Millards–Charlie and Jercat on guitar, harmonica, and back-up vocals–own their own sound, with help from Will Harris on drums.

Jercat and Charlie co-write and perform together with an easy blend you’d expect from damn fine musicians who are obviously having a great deal of fun with this family affair.

The last song isn’t over, even after they’ve left the stage… it’s still playing in your mind. When it finally ebbs, check out their touring schedule at http://www.hattiejanemusic.com and plan accordingly.

the art of reconstruction

Just walking around Berlin, history speaks to you in the present tense.

You are aware of the stolpersteine—the small, square brass “stumbling stones” in front of buildings and houses engraved with the names of Jewish families who lived there followed by the date and location of where they were transported during the Holocaust.

Grunevalde is a lovely, upscale suburb on the outskirts of the city. As you walk up the ramp leading to the former freight yard at its train station, you’re aware of hollows in the concrete wall alongside. It takes a minute to register that what you’re seeing in a weird reverse bas relief are crumpled, mangled forms of human bodies… an impression where a head was pitched at a strange angle, a hand reached, or two bodies once huddled close. The effect is sobering to say the least.

This is more than “dark tourism,” it is one of the most unforgettable of the “never forget” memorials I’ve ever seen. It was installed in 1991, and on January 27, 1998, the Deutsche Bahn established an accompanying tribute to Gleis 17 (Platform 17) at the top of the ramp. Here, from the late 1930s to 1945, thousands of Jews waited in long queues here before they were “dispatched” from this platform to concentrations camps. The dates of the transports, the number of people they carried, and their destinations are all recorded on little brass plates at very edge of the track.

And if you go to the Bebel Platz, a large, beautiful square in downtown Berlin surrounded by the state opera, a cathedral, and Humboldt University, you could miss a memorial to “The Empty Library” if you don’t look down. Inset among the cobbles is a strong, clear plexiglass cover revealing a full scale 20K-book library in which all the shelves are empty… faceless mannequins stand zombie-like in a few places. A plaque off to the side explains the infamous book burning event the Nazis staged at this very spot in March 1933.

This is not a morose travelogue, but for a very long time now, I’ve been trying to express a view of what Art can do, beyond amaze us. I’m still not there, but it has something to do with reconstruction… the kind that delivers redemption.

Berlin is, in my opinion, exemplary of what reconstruction of a traumatized place should achieve. The point is not to erase, destroy, or revise history—especially dark, deeply regrettable, horrifically tragic events—but alchemize it through Art.

Wherever there is reconstruction, there was destruction. I believe reconstruction is an artform that is only partially concerned with structure… it is far more focused on meaning and transformation.

When all we do is address the problems on a structural level… we build again, we reconstruct… we cover it with grass… we may even erect monuments, but we put ourselves at great risk of repeating the past… of looping the scenes with the next generation, and the next, if we don’t let the artists do their work.

In the 1990s, I lived in Richmond, Virginia, a place that embodies the complexity of reconstruction. Today, the images of activism that toppled Confederate monuments show the rage no one was prepared to express in those days. After all, the Civil Rights Era had already done all that heavy lifting 25 years earlier, right? Well, to that, I submit that you can judge the mental health of a place by its art, and the most prominent artistic expressions of Richmond’s identity until recently were its Confederate heroes that gave Monument Avenue its name.

Having been raised in the north just a couple hours from Motown, and relocated to Colorado after college in Iowa, I came to Virginia blissfully unaware that some of the people there believed the South would rise again, and still had strong views about “the war of northern aggression.” One silver-haired docent at the Confederate White House Museum told me in a convivial tone that the South only lost because “We ran out of bullets.”

Fast forward to the 2020 destruction of the Confederate statues centering a brick-paved bastion of aristocracy… the sacred ground running through the old moneyed neighborhoods known as the Fan. A stoic Robert E. Lee covered in a riot of spray paint… the same for J.E.B. Stuart, Jefferson Davis, Matthew Maury… every monument “rebranded” until you reached the untouched shrine to native son Arthur Ashe, at the end.

By 2021, all Richmond’s confederate monuments were removed, which was the right thing to do… so far. Again, deconstruction is only half the equation. The right reconstruction has everything to do with embodying the wisdom gained, and that must be the bailiwick of art, not policy. I know there is the business-end of this equation, but that’s not the solution. The answer lies in the mind of an artist the Muse calls up for duty at just such a time as this. Could there be any greater example than Maya Lin, the Asian-American sculptor and designer of the profoundly moving Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC?

In 2018, the removal of Ianelli’s 1936 art deco masterpiece* from Bronson Park in Kalamazoo, Michigan, was a stellar example of a community trying to do the right thing. Unfortunately, the decades-long indigenous objection to that colonial cause célèbre—a rifle-toting settler lording in size and manner over the conquered Native American—did not prompt this action. Needed repairs to the fountain were more expensive than removing it, so the can of worms was re-opened. Still, I’m proud of the outcome so far… but there’s more to do… destruction necessarily leads to reconstruction. The right kind of reconstruction repairs a damaged place (and people) with a healing, circumspect beauty.

Today, if I’m at Bronson Park, I feel regret that the Ianelli Fountain is gone, then I feel guilty. I’m a white-privileged, middle-class woman who grew up with fond memories of that fountain… of kids splashing around in the pool, concerts, picnics on the grass beside it. Back then, I never saw the conquered Indian, at least that’s not what that meant to me. But that’s the problem… I wasn’t bothered by the message it reinforced about deplorable aspects of human history because that’s not what the fountain meant to me.

The good people of Richmond—certain ones anyway—saw a hero, a man of great honor and integrity in Confederate General Robert E. Lee sitting 60 foot high on his horse well into the 21st century. They did not see that monument as the festering flashpoint that would be triggered by George Floyd’s murder.

Where, at Bronson Park (or on Monument Avenue or in Minneapolis or or or…) is La Pietá to express what we have learned from the undeniable evidence of an unconscionable (or, at the very least, gravely mistaken) past? …to help us recognize our own unconscious biases before they’re perceived or experienced as racism?

Sometimes it takes a pillage…. or a mandate… but much more effective is a powerful, intrinsic, art-inspired motivation to force us out of the comfort zone of a familiar narrative and up the learning curve. When we know better, we do better. 

Every one of us has a moral and ethical obligation to engage in knowing better, and doing better. It’s not enough to be “Woke” or bumper-stickered or engaged in some form of virtue signaling. None of that conveys what happens next.

Berlin has given the world a model of history, memory, awareness, understanding, accountability, and action welded into an identity that’s palpably, profoundly expressed everywhere with art.

When reconstruction brings that kind of redemption, it is surely the finest work of art.

© L. Seaver, January 2023

* Kalamazoo Removes Sculpture Depicting Armed White Settler Towering Over a Native American | Smart News| Smithsonian Magazine

a poet on my writers’ block

Just made the remarkable discovery that Richard Katrovas writes and teaches from the Rust Belt. Michigan wordsmiths are a special breed–I’ve been to AWP where they were huddled in their own session trying to process the Lake Effect. It’s very fitting that Katrovas live in the Mitten, at least when he’s not living in New Orleans or Prague, a succulently seasoned place that could only be improved by the presence of my daughter, which it was when during our stay there this summer.

a lovely window dressing in Prague

As for Katrovas, here’s an affable grin (and bear it) of an especially “winning” verse…

Love Poem for an Enemy

By Richard Katrovas

I, as sinned against as sinning,

take small pleasure from the winning

of our decades-long guerrilla war.

For from my job I’ve wanted more

than victory over one who’d tried

to punish me before he died,

and now, neither of us dead,

we haunt these halls in constant dread

of drifting past the other’s life

while long-term memory is rife

with slights that sting like paper cuts.

We’ve occupied our separate ruts

yet simmered in a single rage.

We’ve grown absurd in middle age

together, and should seek wisdom now

together, by ending this row.

I therefore decommission you

as constant flagship of my rue.

Below the threshold of my hate

you now my good regard may rate.

For I have let my anger pass.

But, while you’re down there, kiss my ass.

Welcome, cuzins!

Groom Aaron & Bride Michelle at their trailer-trash bash

No shotguns needed at the nuptials I mean nupchuls for Aaron and Michelle, my friends who decided to throw a big wedding I mean weddin’ bash the likes of which none of us has ever seen. That may be a bit presumptuous on my part as the guests did a shockingly good job of looking like this was just another Saturday night at the Bitely Tavern for them.

The invitations scrawled on the back of a Busch beer carton set the stage…

Friends – I mean ‘cousins’ – were the players…

There wasn’t a dry eye – I mean mouth – in the crowd, including the happy couples’.

If you think you’ve seen the man (a rescue helicopter pilot) and wife (a physician’s assistant specializing in ER and trauma) before, please forever hold your peace about that, and just let them have some well-deserved fun.

…I sure did!


Row house handrail, Harlem, 2013

Early in her amazing career, my friend Leslie spent some years in New Guinea teaching English quite unsuccessfully to remote villagers, the Papuas (the fuzzy-headed people). Over a lovely dinner at L’Ybane last week in NYC, she described the difficulty of finding a way to bridge their pigeon English to its proper expression. It wasn’t that they weren’t capable of the cognition, she explained, it was that she found herself not wanting to change their way of expressing their world. They said “mouth-grass” instead of mustache. She didn’t want to alter that, and found herself adjusting to their way instead. For example, the Papuas were familiar with 1) the shape of the blades on an electric mixer, and they knew that 2) the white man’s Jesus lived up there in the sky somewhere. So when a certain hovercraft made its first appearance over the island nation, the locals referred to it as a “mix-master-belong-Jesus.” That said helicopter to them. Whenever she corrected them, they would nod sweetly and affirm the circumstances of their lives relative to the object: yesyesyessss, mix-master-belong-jesus bring medsin. That was all they wanted to know about helicopters.

Nowadays Leslie is a consultant to federal asylum program based in DC. She works with foreign victims of horrific torture—usually young women—helping them learn English and adjust to life in the states. She tells me those years with the Papuas helped her develop a skillset she now relies on daily to avoid common word-triggers including “family” and “darkness” and “men.” She says a creative vocabulary is also essential in understanding what the women are trying to say to her. Knowing how “push-me-go/pull-me-come” translated to handsaw helps Leslie comprehend what she is hearing from these women who, under certain circumstances, still bleed sometimes…and will bleed for the rest of their lives.


vision (and revisions)

A lot of serious writers would have a problem with the robust photoshopping of their headshot, but In a Perfect World (the name of my regular column in the #HandsandVoicesCommunicator) I don’t even need photoshopping (such is the power of my vision) so I was kinduv, pretty much like HELL TO THE YES, I mean yes when our new media and marketing sorceress #BrookeMontgomery showed me the promo for the Seaver Vision Award 2022. Those of you who know me, don’t bother DM’ing about the makeover–it’s all Brooke! ❤

Since my profession and my passion for Deaf stuff are vectored on my writings,* I’ll post this opp on my writing blog. Those who’ve won the Seaver Vision Award since its inception in 2012 are making life better for families with children who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing (like mine). If you know somebody who should be under the spotlight of appreciation, here’s what to do: https://www.handsandvoices.org/about/seaveraward.html

If you need a vision of how it all turns out–that your kids you worry about endlessly will grow up and live a life of their own some powerfully capable day, here’s my beautiful boy Dane in the mountains he loves:

* https://iwastoldtherewouldbenomath.wordpress.com/2020/12/24/we-interrupt-this-commercial-message-with-a-deaf-child/

blog it already, girl

My friend was thinking about starting a blog and I recommended WordPress (you’re welcome, WordPress). And so she has launched prolifically: https://whatdoesntkillyougirlmakesyoustronger.com/

I’ve known Sheryl since shortly before her August 2014 wedding day (pictured). She married into a wonderful farming family that I’ve known since grade school, which qualifies me to say her hubby Scott is one of the world’s nicest human beings. They’re facing some incredible challenges right now. I’m intentionally not using the c-word. Sheryl has found the healing benefits of off-loading some weighty emotions into her writing, and sharing those lessons from the school of hard knocks.

What Doesn’t Kill You, Girl, Makes You Stronger is as intimate as a diary, and as useful as a medical journal (one written understandably). It’s a navigational, inspirational tool. I’m so glad Sheryl is sharing what she’s lived and what she knows… this should be required reading for anyone working in the field of c (not gonna capitalize it either).


There are lots of swans here, which is why I call my writing retreat Swanchurch. Here are two trumpeters (blackbilled) and a mute swan (not as quiet as you’d think) just off my dock a couple springs ago.

Every spring, I hold my breath in anticipation of the signets. A banner crop of six in 2018 holds the record for most babies, also for most losses, which is a story about snapping turtles.

This year, Keats and Shelley (the pair–whichever pair–that claims my stretch of the river as theirs is called Keats and Shelley) had two signets two days ago.

Today, there’s only one. I’m not posting a picture of that.

There are swans here year round… they are photogenic in all seasons. I could post a hundred more pictures, but will leave you with this one from last autumn at Swanchurch.