the write stuff

I write every day for a living, and as a hobby, I also write (and take photos).

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If I could do this any other way, I’m sure I would. But perhaps you can relate–knowing what you are here to do brings a kind of peace along with torment . . . the poison and the antidote . . . the creative imperative . . . the sleeping and waking. Elaine Pagels quoted it best here:

“If you bring forth that which is in you, what you bring forth will save you.
If you do not bring forth what is in you, what is in you will destroy you.”
– Elaine Pagels quoting from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas

Chris’mas Story

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Winter Light at Wild Turkey Road near Sebewaing, MI

Along about Exit 88 on I-94 Westbound, there is a plastic Santa Claus sitting on top of a steel fence post, part of an old woven-wire fence that separates the highway easement from a swampy horse pasture.  He’s back in there a little ways, hidden in the brush and hard to see.  It looks like someone was picking up cans, or generally policing the road bank, and found him there.  What do you do with a good Santa Claus that you may have found while picking up cans on a summer day?  Put him up on a post for others to enjoy, of course.  My wife, Jamie, and I rarely pass that way without trying to spot Santa.  He always makes our day.  We wave and say “Hi Santa!” Be it midnight on a Tuesday in June, or four pm on a random February day.

We don’t decorate for holidays much at our house.  We have dogs and a cat.  They wreck stuff.  We kind of feel that a lot of seasonal decorating is for retired people who have time and money.  Our money is tight and if we are not working we need to sleep.  Life has tired us out. We used to paint the town red every weekend, Hell, we’d give it two coats and stay up for 3 days to watch it dry.

Now we are exhausted, and things that mean more work  just don’t make sense to us. We’ve seen lights, we know a lot about conifers, and wreaths of arborvitae. Holly grows in the swamp down past the old farm. Seen it all. Did it. Know where it is if we need it, don’t feel the need to drag it into the house so we can clean it all up again in three weeks.

But if you want to see a couple in their 50’s get excited, just watch along I-94 at Exit 88 when we come by.  We’ll be craning our necks to see if we can spy Santa sitting on his perch, bringing joy to people like us, too tired to decorate at home, but not too jaded to appreciate the random gift of a stranger who thought Santa would look good on the fence.  It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if we start collecting  Santas to stick on fence posts wherever we go.  Decorating the house for Christmas is an overwhelming task.  For some reason scattering Santas around the countryside doesn’t seem like too much work.  Merry Christmas!

(Guest Blogged by Chris A. Ross, Attorney, and a BFF since 6th grade. Thanks, Tallz!)

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Somewhere up near West Branch, Michigan, where the hills in the distance are sand dunes.

$26 for the happiest day of his life

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He knocked on my front door, needing money . . . the exact amount to the penny for a bus ticket to Chicago: $25.65

Did I have any odd jobs he could do?            (this got my respect)

Overcoming my default NO, I said I figured I had $5 for pulling weeds out of the cracks in my driveway.

It’ll help, he said. And he started yanking at the crabgrass.

After about five minutes, I couldn’t stand the white privilege roiling off me; I approached him with a better idea.

OK, I’ll cover the full price of your ticket if you write about the best day of your life.

He just stared at me, confused.

How do I do that, he asked.

So I handed him a can of Cherry Pepsi, something to sit on, a notepad and paper.

Just tell me what happened that made it happy, I said. Write what you remember.

I went back into my house. Every time I peeked through the curtain or around the door frame, the boy was writing intently.

After 20 minutes, I went to see how he was doing. I asked if he would read it to me and said he would, but it made him shy. Shyly, he read. Sensei-ish, I listened.

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I liked his theme and told him so. He said he wasn’t done yet, so I went back to my work. Maybe 15 minutes later, he was ready. Did I want him to read it out loud again? I said no, you don’t have to.

He returned the notepad and pen. I shook his hand and gave him an envelope with $26 cash in it.

Congratulations, I said, this is your first paid writing project. You are now a writer. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Go to Chicago and keep writing even if no one is paying you. One day they will. You’ll be amazed by your life one day.

I’ve no idea why I felt authorized to say that, but that’s what I said. I think I just always wanted someone to say that to me when I didn’t know who I was.

Then he smiled awkwardly, trying to hide his broken front teeth. He thanked me and walked off.

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Later in the early evening, I was walking Nessy and saw a nearly full can of Cherry Pepsi sitting on the curb just up the next block from my place. It wasn’t thrown down, not even dented; somehow politely, it was just sitting there, punctuating the end of our exchange.

It charmed me.  It embarrassed me.  It was something I would have done at his age when I wasn’t brave enough to say no thank you . . . decades before I learned how to be the person  I myself needed when I was 17.

oh, the places you will go

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Now recovered from the jetlag, and the miserable sick that I was while abroad last month, I shall post some pix and remember how beautiful the Alps were (and still are).

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Hallstatt is a a wee postcardian town that for most of its phenomenally long existence (its salt mine has been continuously worked since hundreds of years BCE) remained accessible only by boat over the Hallstattersee.

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It’s hard for me to imagine ordinary life in such an extraordinary place. How could anyone struggle with the mundane when every view or scene is magnificent?IMG_6678IMG_6663
Of course, I know better but that’s what’s so amazing about traveling. The sensory responses on every level change the way my heart beats . . . from tha-thump to a full percussion of feeling.

1. Anaphora on Me: My favorite review ever was when B called me a “polyglot.”

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2. A guy in my group at the famous Iowa Writer’s Workshop I attended always wrote on my work, “enough w/the ellipses” and crossed them out.   I like love ellipses… they are so SOC (stream of consciousness), so conversational…  so thought-full.  So  “I could keep going…” because “I’m still thinking” about all this…  I like using them and I like it when others use them.  So this guy criticizes my use of … which only makes me want to use … more (3. OK, I just outted some passive-aggressiveness here).  I think I’ll start including them on grocery lists and client invoices—right after the Balance Due total.  Maybe even when I sign my name:  Leeanne…or Liana.  (See what I did there?)

4. My three children are all named after a person and a place. I kinda want a do-over on one first name because it doesn’t fit him all that well, and he doesn’t like it so much. Maybe we should have held off until his personality started showing up. That’s what my kids did with their new kitten because they couldn’t decide between Seamus or Kitty Man or Clement Parmalie.

Maybe someday my son will choose a name for himself that works better—fine with me.  Do what you gotta do so you can Be Who You Really Are…like the poet/performance artist at said Iowa Writer’s Workshop who renamed herself “Blueberry Morningstar.” Apparently, this feels better than “Louise Johnson” when demonstrating how to make noises with your body and pencil to an audience of sardonic writers.

5. I genuinely enjoy smart, tasteful cursing.  In my writing group, (www.lakeeffectwritersguild) all members are required to demonstrate intelligent use of the F word in order to remain in good standing. So it was with no small disappointment that I heard my friend Kristine, who had just polished off her second margarita, announce that her New Year’s Resolution was to stop cursing. She wanted her sons to be able to recall something honorable about her, but she doubted that she had many admirable qualities, at least compared to her own mother.  She felt guilty that she hadn’t been a more exemplary mom, but maybe she could just accomplish this one small thing. I could tell she had started out trying to say something funny, and was as discomfited as the rest of us by this turn towards vulnerability.

The light, tipsy mood of the New Year’s Eve party faltered as we heard her confession. I thought I should maybe save my friend by owning some dark truth of an equivalent nature… just dismal enough to norm regret, but not spiral us down too far, it was New Year’s Eve after all.  Before the pause in the room got really awkward, my other friend Suzy blurted out “what the hell kind of resolution is that?” And Tom jumped right in with “yeah, f#@k that.”  A group release of expletives and laughter rescued the evening, the glasses were refilled, and the subject quickly changed to the canoe trip we all took on the Meramec last spring when Pete got Ann’s swimsuit off WHILE she was driving home because the sand in it was just chapping her ass, (she didn’t want to pull over to strip down because she’d lose our caravan). In the interests of curse-accuracy, Rick pointed out that this was not how to use ‘chapping your ass’, and Ann said, well, you didn’t see my ass. Pete said “well, I sure did” and Ann suggested that maybe he’d like to kiss her ass.

The rest of the night we played board games, drank more margaritas, ate too many rich foods, and did our level best to shoot Kris’s resolution all to hell.

6. I like roller skating and ice skating… and not reading long blocks of copy on a blog. For being a person who finds it hard to read long blocks of copy on a blog, I sure am writing some long blocks of copy.

7. I apologize to anyone who also doesn’t like reading long blocks of copy on a blog…sorry. You’re welcome.

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I’m a little unfocused sometimes.

8. But speaking of audiences, once I attended a lecture on reincarnation by famous psychiatrist and author, Brian Weiss, MD. He said he was going to attempt to hypnotize the entire room for a past-life regression.  I was skeptical, but settled into the relaxation exercise, the whole while thinking, rats, I’m still here and I’m still me.  Finally, he said, “ok, I’m going count back from three, and when I get to one, just look down at your shoes.” I slowly opened my eyes and saw smartly pressed wool pinstripe pants leading right down to a man’s polished wing-tips, circa maybe 1912.

9. I travel a lot for work, mostly by air. Typically, there is an oversized John Deere executive passed out beside me, blissfully unaware of his snoring or that his black leather wing-tips are squeaking rhythmically against the seat frame in front of me. The woman in that seat is coughing virally in the general direction of, but not actually into, her bent elbow, her head craned sideways so the germs are propelled directly back into my breathing space.  Sometimes I just loathe air travel, but not always. There was that time an inexperienced father traveling alone with his miserable wailing baby took me up on my offer to walk the aisle with her.  I swaddled her snuggly into her blankets, sang with the hum of the engines, and felt her little body relax into sleep. When I looked up, everyone’s grateful, soft smiling eyes were canonizing me.

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10. Global Warming is my fault because I voted for Ralph Nader.  Jon told me I’d just thrown my vote away, and that people like me cost Al Gore the election…I explained that I’ve just grown too apathetic to find a greater motivation at election time than cancelling out my father’s ultra-conservative vote.  Jon shook his head, sighed, and told me that I could not afford to remain so blissfully unaware of the world around me.

I only wish I was blissfully unaware of the world around me…if only.

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The sacred harp is your voice.

When there were no instruments or skilled vocalists or ready musicians
to accompany our voices in songs of praise, which happened often enough
in poor, rural places in the early days of America, music was created simply
with voices varied in pitch and harmony.

FASOLAers

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So it happened that my friends Paul and Laura invited me to join them for a weekend in the Bethlehem Valley–one of my favorite off-the-grid places near the Missouri River during the FASOLA singing this spring. The event is held annually at St. John’s, a tiny white-steepled cupcake of an old church on a tall-treed, slat-fenced curve of Missouri Highway 94. “You’ve got to see this, you’re going to love it . . . bring your camera,” Laura enticed.  I never need much of an excuse, in fact, I usually invite myself to the vineyard where they live in a perfect valley between hillsides bunched with Cynthiana grapes.  My car rockets around the hills and I leave the world behind me.

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This time, the FASOLA singers transported me further still.

FASOLA (fa…so…la) is also known as Shape Note singing.  ” This is a very old method of sight-reading music for those who don’t understand how to read music. The relation of pitches to each other is found by using the scale fa sol la fa sol la mi (shapes are shown above in the page header) which is similar to the one we are all familiar with from the film, The Sound of Music, do re me fa sol la ti, except that the first three notes, “do re me” are replaced with “fa sol la” and the ti with mi. Although there are some secular songs written in the shape note style, mostly all the songs are hymns.  A singer does not need to adhere to any religion to sing these hymns, though it can be more moving for a singer if the words have meaning for them.” (I ganked this explanation from http://fasolamichigan.org/)

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The Shape-Note singers all mark time with their fingers or hands metronoming not side-to-side but up and down, up and down.  And they sing LOUD. There’s a sign-up sheet in the back where you can volunteer to lead the next song . . . because everyone can do this, remember?  By “everyone” I don’t mean Paul, Laura or me, of course. We declined several vigorous attempts to recruit us into the direct vocal experience.  Paul and I just smiled and did that thing people with cameras do—we acted like we were on some sort of important commission from the Pope or National Geographic and fidgeted with the equipment.  In fact, we moved straightaway up to the balcony where the best angles were waiting. I really don’t know how Laura escaped the limelight.  She just did her level best to stay under their radar in the back pew, projecting her inner Goody Moeller.  I smiled down on her from on high–Paul chose wisely with this girl.  I’ve been vetting the candidates since his bachelor days.  I would know.

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FASOLA enthusiasts at this conference included some people who seemed to, ummm, not get out much….for like these last 60 years or more they’ve mainly moved between the chicken coop and the kitchen.  I imagined the FASOLA sing-in as the highlight of their year, and I’d be very concerned about giving offense with this presupposition if I thought any of them had access to the internet and were likely to see my blog.  But I’m not even sure they’ve got access to electricity. They are not Mennonite (I asked) so the mystery of their early 20th Century look and strong German names remains unresolved . . . unknown and thoroughly, entirely delightful to me.

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My friend Paul is a well-equipped, state-of-the-art professional photographer and artist, so my lensvy (the envy of another’s lenses) goes into hyper-drive when I’m at the studio he shares with Laura, who is also an artist.  They’re both incredibly talented, witty, beautiful and if I didn’t love them oceans of long-time, I’d probably hate them anew for every amazing thing they manage to be gifted at–did I mention they are also foodies as well as vintners?

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Plus, Paul lets me use all of his equipment, his cameras and lenses–anything I want. He shows me ways to do things, gives me advice like “always turn around and see the shot you’re missing behind you.” He hands me a lens or filter like a scrub nurse—before I’ve asked for it because he knows what I need more than I do. And he’s a most willing mule carrying around all this stuff I don’t know the names for just to make me happy.

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Paul has been profoundly good at our friendship for well over 25 years now. When he reads this he will mutter uncomfortably and make a smartass remark to Laura to cover his embarrassment (wait for it wait for it… yup).

Thank you for everything, Pauly-wog . . . for being there for me every single time.

Your calm voice is a sacred harp.

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Words & Pictures © Leeanne Seaver July ‘12

Sisu . . . to do what must be done

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It is a Finnish word that cannot be translated directly into English, but we understand the concept of Sisu.  It means having the courage to do what must be done.  There’s nothing exclusively Finnish about that assignation, still I respect that they have a word for it . . . that this concept can even be reduced to a single word.

A lot of Fins, Franks, and Scots settled in Northern Michigan, up at the Sault (pronounced Soo) and points west across the Upper Peninsula (UP).  Plenty of them settled in the Lower Peninsula, below the Mackinac Bridge, where they mined and logged and bore sturdy children who had to grow up too fast.

Folks in the UP refer to anybody living below the bridge as a “troll.” I am not Finnish, I’m Scottish-American; but I am a troll, born and bred, and like most people from this rust-belted, snowblinding place, I am familiar with Sisu.

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Michigan is shaped like a mitten, easily recognizable on the map of the United States. We natives just hold up our right hand to locate and navigate ourselves (and to annoy the non-natives). My great-grandfathers and uncles of that hardy era built the sand road around the tip of the Thumb of Michigan. They cleared a lot of the land up that way when they homesteaded. They were Clan Ross folk from Cromarty on the Black Isle, and the McGeachys from the Kintyre Peninsula of Scotland by way of Ontario, Canada.

For the record, McGeachy is pronounced McGathy—it’s a Gaelic thing. In my ancestry are names so Gaelic and vowel-less that I sometimes use them in an internet password because they already look encrypted.  At any rate, the family made it to Michigan before the Civil War, which was a long time ago, relative to U.S. history. As such, I can’t explain how—several generations later—my Grandpa Ross seemed to have a little bit of a Scottish brogue. He would say “wee” instead of “little” when describing a small thing. He must have picked it up from his grandparents, although he himself was born August 13, 1900, right there in a log cabin in Huron County that has been twice replaced by larger frame houses on the homestead.

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So my family has been in America a long, long time, some of them were here during Colonial times. One of my great-great grandfathers from Port Austin marched with William Tecumseh Sherman from Atlanta to the sea. He was wounded and limped badly ever after, walking with the help of an elaborately decorated cane, I’ve been told. I wonder what happened to that cane. I don’t have it, but I still have the story because I am the Seanachie of this generation.

The Seanachie is the person who keeps the family stories. I was set aside for this duty as a child by my paternal Grandfather Gillespie (also Scottish; he said our name derives from gillie, the Gaelic word for servant, and Spey, for the River Spey. I’ve no idea if this is actually true . . . there is no one alive to dispute it). When everybody was out playing lawn darts during family gatherings, I was seated in my grandpa’s study for the newest installment of family history. I was miserable about this back then, but am grateful to have this genealogy today. And I am constantly shocked by people who don’t even know their own mother’s maiden name. Geez, I can tell you the maiden name of my fifth great grandmother (on both sides of my family); and I know how her name became Anglicized to “Mustarde” but that’s another story.

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In the summertime, it’s very hard to imagine northern Michigan’s sugar-beeted, evergreened, pine-strawed landscape as the frozen white cerement it becomes shortly after Thanksgiving. That feels far away in the campfired, star-smothered nightscape of August . . . my toes circling acorn cups in sugar sand dimpled by the rain. It’s a forestful place.

Honestly, I love Michigan frozen or flowing in all seasons, although I’ll admit that early spring is endurable only for the promise of lilacs. My muse gestates and the Great Lakes are amniotic. I can feel the heartbeat of the stories I’m holding inside me.

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There is something so reassuring about the land here, and the water . . . the plentitude of flora and fauna. It’s good to feel life going on about its business, taking happiness and sadness in stride. There has been amplitude of both, but the sad stories still get told—the baby brother who went missing one bleak, frigid day of winter over 125 years ago—this is where that happened, to my family in this place.

I try to imagine my great grandmother, Catherine, who was just a girl then . . . her frantic siblings—all 11 of them searching—one no doubt had been in charge of this toddler. Their anxious father and desperate mother—my great, great grandmother—her name was Ladesna Ann Ross, nee Schell. She was actually German, not Scottish, and her father was killed by Indians at Schell’s Bush which later became Herkimer, New York. That was before the American Revolution. Some stories do not have a happy ending. This is how we learn Sisu.

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Today, the land that was my ancestors is still in the Ross family; at least some of it is, although my Rosses have a lot of other names now. But we’re all drawn to the old homestead under a sailcloth horizon that stretches over rows and rows of navy beans edged with rock piles and copses marking the end of one farm, and the beginning of another. These fields are older than most of the trees now. They square off in neat 40 acre parcels, quilting the spans, and then diffusing into the forest that grows right out to the Huron waterline if you let it. Of course, we never owned that land because “you can’t farm a beach.”

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In all seasons, the seagulls coast the cotton-clouded skies from Port Austin to the Saginaw Bay, as they always have. Their ancestors no doubt saw the whole thing. Somewhere in one of the deep ditches along Etzler Road, little Donald McGeachy’s frozen body was found by Albert Hokkanen, the neighbor boy whose parents still spoke Finnish. An anguish that could not be born was added to the family lore. It was a very long time ago, but several generations later I still feel that story hanging in a low place of my heart like a cold fog.

Somehow life went on . . . glacial. Time pried the grief slowly from another day, a month, and then a year, and another. But a wee quiet thing with no voice at all like an unmatched sock . . . an empty swing or the wind in sotto voce  . . . he was lost and we couldn’t find him. Life would break apart again.

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It broke and mended, broke and broke but mended because it had to . . . there was no choice. We do what must be done. Life goes on, says the wave to the shore . . . the sand to the rock. You carry the sad stories in your heart carefully like shards of glass. You hold up your right hand, bleeding but alive . . . now navigate. This is Sisu.

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© words & pictures by Leeanne Seaver 8/2012 Photos taken in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan