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.

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.


What does a book #published in 1668 have in common with how #SeaverCreative (that’s me) approaches every #bookcommission? If you can decipher the olde English of the preface, i.e., the Praemonition, by “physic” (a.k.a. doctor), astronomer, and author Wm Ramesey writing about “Wormes” (they’re eating us from the inside out, doncha know) some 20 years before the apple fell on Newton’s head, you’ll make out his strong disclaimer against #plagiarism.

YES, he acknowledges, “wormes” are serpents of the Devil, but tries to understand them biologically. This is as ambitious as it is dangerous; biology doesn’t exist as a science yet. In fact, science is struggling to be recognized and those trying to get a foothold find themselves swinging from a rope on the gallows.

In this climate, Ramesey dares to mingle the “Sacra Profanis” but his thoughts are his own, bigod (who is watching–tensely)!! #sacriligious #CartesianDualism

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Is this the last surviving copy of Ramesey’s book published in 1668?

Here’s the thing: This is just one of so many rare books just sitting on a random shelf at The Cedars, the most amazing place where my fascinating new book client lives. When I retire to my rooms after a day’s work, I can’t even sleep for the wonder of what’s crammed into the shelves within an arm’s reach of my pillow.

To wit: Here’s a pic from the last chapter (“Our hands are full”) in Abbott’s two-volume history of the Civil War published in1866.

It’s written in the present tense. 

Repeat: It’s written in the present tense!!!

I don’t know how these rare books and many more have made it to this place unscathed–and neither does my client. But here’s what I do know: It is a rare privilege to get to curate, write, edit, form, and shape books for a living. Some days I can hardly believe I get to do this. #ILoveMyJob

the Infrasound then the Silence

One of my favorite reactions to the publication of Proud But Never Satisfied* was from his brilliance Arthur Daemmrich who acknowledged the strangeness of how quiet the world becomes after one’s book is released: “You put a ton of work into a book and then the first response is silence. It takes months for reviews and for feedback and for people to notice it is out there!

Actually, we’ve been blessed by good reviews so far, thanks to gracious pre-readers; but, in many ways, Daemmrich was spot-on. The distance between writing and publishing is vast. In spite of knowing where you were headed the whole time, reaching the destination is strangely unexpected. It’s like getting out of a car you’ve been driving hard for (in my case) three straight years–long enough to no longer notice the sonorous hum of the highway–then there’s just a deafening silence.

All of the sudden, you’re even not in the vehicle… and that’s when you hear how loud it all was… by not hearing it at all anymore.

Indeed, it feels like I’ve moved to a vacuous planet uninhabited by the infrasound of writing a book… the constant conversation, the noisy notepad near my pillow, and the back&forthing with my sources, my clients, the editors, designers, publishers, and my own inner-circle of trusted advisers whose job is just to get the pour right on a G&T at the end of deadline-driven week.

Nature and my CPA abhor a vacuum, so I’m happy to be back at work on another book commission. Still, I wish I had the courage to hang-out in that silence until I could hear the sound of my voice.