War for Words

I’ve been waging war lately. A frustrating internal battle of wit and words that has me quite literally stalled. Words, or more accurately the right words, aren’t flowing out on the keyboard in the normal effortless manner. Sculpting my thoughts feels more like hacking away at marble with a dull ax, everything crashing out in some crude mass – misshapen and not at all consistent with the vision.

I think I’ve identified the source of the conflict. A confrontation between head and heart, training and instinct, I am my own worst enemy. Trained in the hard sciences, I made a long career in crafting concise documents for public consumption. Less was more, and precision critical in an attempt to place complex problems in clear view of a diverse U.S. audience. The expansive, alliterative storyteller had to be packed into the recesses of my mind to allow the organized scientist center stage.

Now, when I need them both, they refuse to play in my literary sandbox together. I’ve trained myself to disregard one or the other and the toys aren’t being shared. The problem is especially pronounced when I attempt to write about topics of substance where there are facts to share. Piled onto the melee are the typical strife, struggle, and stress of everyday life and the pugilists seem surrounded with chaos.

Oh to bring order to this mess!

Relax – the first word of encouragement from my youngest sister appears to be the keyword in the solution. Relax my mind – take a break, quit banging away at the keyboard only to backspace the words into oblivion. Write without documenting, visualize, and let my mind hear what I want to say. Relax my body – take a walk, practice yoga or Tai Chi or just stretch. Relax my conventions – there are no rules for my blog, it is mine and I can combine expansive, alliterative, creative voice with facts and figures to my own delight or demise.

So, with that, I’m off to the outdoors to relax and enjoy what’s left of a beautiful sunshine filled day. From there I will cultivate the energy to quell the combatants and hone the messy edges of my manuscripts.

Porridge

“Malt-O-Meal, Malt-O-Meal . . .” I soon realized that my thoughts were being played out verbally as the lady with the shopping cart beside me hustled away. She looked back as if to confirm my psychosis and nearly took out a crossing shopper at the corner of the cereal aisle. I’m sure the sound of my chant was laced with anxiety and quite unnerving to those within earshot. Other moms probably understand the serious repercussions that can ensue from not being able to find the right breakfast cereal. The specific request from Cereal Lover (my youngest son) was for Malt-O-Meal, “Don’t forget my favorite.” He sang out as I dropped him off at school. Now the tick list of grocery items was going to have a blank spot and the disappointment from Cereal Lover at home was going to be very tough to accept.

My chant carried on in my head since I couldn’t find the box that I was searching for. Looking further, names of the potential replacements played in my mind as each box was read. Grits, grits, quick-cooking grits, old-fashioned grits, grits, Cream of Wheat – yes! That was familiar. As I grabbed the box, I spotted a store clerk near the end of the aisle.

“Hi, can you help me?”

“I’ll certainly try.” The clerk smiled.

“Where’s the Malt-o-Meal?”

“The what?” Now the store clerk was questioning my sanity. “Would you normally find that in the cereal aisle?”

“Yes, but I guess not here.” I felt a little dejected.

I don’t know anything about grits and here in Morgantown there are boxes and boxes of grits. I should probably try them sometime; of course prepared by one of the local experts as my attempt at cooking them would likely not turn out favorably. As I put the cereal in the cart I mused – there are some things that are quite different south of the Mason-Dixon Line and breakfast cereal is one of them.

This incident led to the recall of a summer long before sitting at the kitchen table in my great-grandmother’s house in Parsons, West Virginia.  I wasn’t quite five years old and our family was visiting my dad’s mom and grandmother. My little sister and I wanted oatmeal for breakfast and were served the warm bowls with brown sugar and CREAM. Having not experienced cream in our oats before (only milk), we promptly spit the offensive porridge back out into the bowls. My mother, mortified by our behavior, chastised us vehemently and ordered that we eat the “wonderful oatmeal” that had been made especially for us. At this we both bowed up, and ended up expelled from the table in tears with our stomachs protesting.

There were probably things that my mother could have done to make that memory turn out better. As a mom, I took this thought out of the grocery store and practiced the script to let Cereal Lover down easy. It started with “some things aren’t the same south of the Mason-Dixon Line.”

Looking at the Leap

We’ve all experienced it, the “holy crap” moment when we finally let loose and take a leap of faith. Maybe it was when you finally popped the marital question, or said “yes” to the same. Likely it was the day that you decided (or found out) that a baby was on the way. Buying a house, quitting or starting a job – they are all leaps into the unknown, and so we jump breathlessly into the abyss.

My husband and I took the most outrageous leap of faith when we set out to remodel our house. It started nearly the moment we moved in. The major tasks complete, buried in boxes, the kids asleep, I stood in the doorway to the master bathroom and looked. I was hit hard with the reality, (buyer’s remorse?) of the condition of our newly acquired home. The outdated cabinet falling apart under linoleum countertop left unfinished on the ends, toilet and shower smashed together on one end with nary a hair between, the shower door dangling open showing peeling paint and broken tile within. I broke down sobbing, braced within the doorframe, I couldn’t move. Certainly this breakdown was an exhausted coalescence of closing on a mortgage, packing and moving our boxes of belongings, and keeping the kids present and accounted for in school. Or maybe it was a peek into a proximate madness. My husband’s gentle arms wrapped around me, “I’ll make it beautiful for you, you’ll see.” He assured. I took a deep breath and let loose the doorway. So we planned, researched, strategized, and searched the stars and the gut to determine when to jump.

For nearly a year we stood on the precipice curling and stretching our toes over the edge, poking our noses out just far enough to peer into the deep crevasse, and would pull back – “Not yet.” But ours was not to be a calculated leap; we were forced off the edge by Mother Nature. A winter storm that froze the house solid resulting in damage to the heating system and subsequently to the walls propelled us into the uncharted depths of a DIY remodel so extensive it took nearly half a generation to complete.

So I take a new leap into a chronicle (not chronological) of the endeavor. I look back and find catharsis in seeing the project as an assemblage of humorous sketches in the taking apart and putting together of a place called home.

Written Wanderings

It seems I’ve always been a writer. Expressing through a pen thoughts, feelings, dreams, making up stories, this was all part of living. Then came adulthood with real work, family, community – and the writing took a back seat to all that seemed important at the time. I was the same person, but part of me was contained in unexpressed prose. I’m happy that this new life gives me time to be a writer again. I have the blessing of words back; I can speak in a familiar way and take you, my reader friend, along for the journey.

So where should we journey? Back to a time not so long ago when I was a child? Living a summer adventure in the Ohio valley, running in the heavy air and damp grass, watching fireflies glow and then disappear in the twilight. Or maybe we will go to Parsons and walk by the river with my tiny hand in the firm grasp of my father’s and listen to the stories of his youth and a simplicity of life that has flowed away like a single drop of rain in the ocean of time.

We could take a journey of the senses – a romp through sights and smells and sounds. Each etched in a memory for me and an experience for you. We can travel together on a textural quest and feel the wild Wyoming wind sharp and bracing against our skin or breathe the hot, dusty, sagebrush summer air.

Come along with me and we can revel in being young and reckless, bouncing around in the back of a pickup truck. Or join me in contemplating the passing of youth and the heft of raising a child – or four – to become young citizens of an ever more complicated world. We may venture to lean on each other in loss and wander the cold, dimly lit paths of grief to reappear in the warmth of humor that was tucked under a memory.

Maybe we will begin along a well-worn road and take a detour to something unfamiliar. It is probable that we will trek along only to careen off of a cliff and fly away to something new. (Oh, that happened today.) Wherever we go, it will be made joyful by a companionship of words.

Where shall we journey, my reader, my friend? So many places to experience together, so little time in our lives to take the quest. Come with me and see new places, or view the familiar places through new eyes, just take a moment – you’re invited, and I am ready – to write.

Appalachia Song

There is something comforting and attractive in what is familiar to the senses. Each of us is tuned in to notice what says “home”. Usually this comes from the elements that surrounded us as children, so the music of the familiar is initially composed by our family.

Many times during my childhood we travelled from our western haven in Wyoming eastward to family in West Virginia. Great-grandma, grandma, and my aunt’s generous family were the focus of our visits. The visits were summer excursions into the dialect and rhythm of Appalachia. The singing of cicadas, the chorus of songbirds, and the language of my family wrote an indelible melody in my subconscious.

As a child you do not understand or comprehend the way that your extended family influences your life. This hidden influence was brought to my attention in a local restaurant on our first house hunting trip to Morgantown. I could feel the change in my demeanor when I heard our waitress speak; the familiar surrounded me and I quite suddenly felt relaxed.

“She sounds like my cousin.” I told my husband when the waitress left our table.

“How’s that?”

“It’s the way she speaks.” I couldn’t accurately describe at the time what it was in her voice that reminded me of my cousin. I have now pinned it down to a few sounds that strike the familiar notes. Most prominent is the short “a” that sounds like “awe”. This vowel pronunciation makes “grandma” sound like “grandmaw” and easily slips its way into even the shortest conversation.

There are also certain terms and colloquialisms that I pick up in my sojourns about town. When heard, the statements almost always cause a giggle to escape me and I hope that the speaker doesn’t take offense to my chortle. Typically the grocery store is where the most familiar phrase comes within earshot and it usually has to do with a shopping cart. “Junior, go get grandmaw a buggy,” I overhear and an image of my own grandmother pops up, along with a stifled chuckle. I really should try to get this reaction under control since it probably looks like some sort of strange spasm.

I catch the nuances of sound faster now. Maybe I walk around more aware, listening for the harmonies of language that fill the local dwelling places. Each restaurant, market, and shop a place to imbibe in human sound. Every outdoor venue presents the opportunity for orchestral compositions from fauna of earth and water and sky. My ears and mind work together to knit the memories of childhood into the fabric of my current place in life, weaving something comfortable into what is new.

In knitting together the past and present, I sift through each experience collecting tidbits for the project. One such experience was last fall when my aunt came to visit our new house. She brought family photos, home canned vegetables, and the melody of a dialect song from my childhood, all things that warmed the space between our new house’s walls to begin to make it home.

Night Sky

The patio is our refuge from the world, a place where the background sounds of the neighborhood mix comfortably with a quiet personal spot for perfect relaxation. Late in the evening, you may find us chatting languidly over a glass of wine enjoying the dance of fireflies in the trees that surround our backyard.

“Beautiful evening.” The man of few words, my husband, succinctly observes.

“I miss the stars.” I sigh.

In nearly every way our lifestyle and living conditions here in West Virginia have made this new home “Almost Heaven” – yes, just like the song. However, most of the stars are missing from the sky.

I knew that the vast western sky was going to be something that I would be leaving behind. As moving day from Kemmerer was drawing near, I would gaze out with awe and wonder at the huge aqua palette that God used for the day, and feel a melancholy ache in my heart. But looking up at the night sky would instill a sense of regret; I knew that many of the stars in the sky were going to disappear with the density of humanity in the east.

If you have ever visited the remote places of the earth you may know the sight. Wyoming’s starry night sky defies description. Your view of the sky in Wyoming is unobstructed – seemingly even by the air itself. No humidity, no pollution, and at night, no light. As you look out toward the horizon on a moonless night the velvet-black sky hosts a sparkling veil of stars too numerous to count.  On a night when the Milky Way pours its shimmering white blanket across the sky, you can imagine walking up into the heavens along its path.

Some time back I met up with some women who were trekking across Wyoming. They were from the eastern states and were taken breathless by the night sky.

“I won’t be able to describe this to my friends.” One woman said to the other. “They simply would never believe that there are so, so many stars.”

Her friend replied, “And a sky so big, dark, it really is very empty.”

Yes, even though the sky was bursting with stars, she described it as empty. I do know what she is saying, and I came about it back shortly after my college years.

As a summer hand for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, I spent many weeks in a remote spot at the south end of the Big Horn Mountains. This central Wyoming location was a full two hours away from the city of Casper, and an hour from any evidence of civilization. I studied and mapped the ecology of the area by day and spent the nights alone with only my dog and a campfire for company. As the fire would dwindle, I would look up into the vast Wyoming sky and feel the closeness of millions of stars; almost near enough to touch. Even so, the black sky was empty, a lonely expanse. I felt very tiny, no more than a speck of dust in the turning of time. Truly, it was the most humbling experience I had ever had and one that will never be forgotten.

I see that big Wyoming sky in my mind’s eye and hope to visit it soon. Until then, I will miss the stars.

Kemmerer’s Music Festival – Oyster Ridge

Are you looking for a barrel of fun for the weekend? Not much money? Need a break where you can be yourself and feel perfectly comfortable? If you are in or near southwest Wyoming the Oyster Ridge Music Festival http://www.oysterridgemusicfestival.com/index.html is the place for you beginning Friday, July 26. This weekend marks the 20th year of the festival that swells the host area to nearly twice its population and gives the music lover an opportunity to sample the up-and-comers of  bluegrass, folk, blues, country and rock – most of it a mish-mash of many combined styles – musical bliss and it’s free!

Early on the going got pretty rough for the free music festival. The little town of Kemmerer, Wyoming is a sleepy haven of coal miners and ranchers speckled with a smattering of public service and government workers; not folks that typically engage in social musical entertainment. I recall driving by the Triangle Park in the late ‘90s, knowing that the music festival was in “high gear” with nary a soul in sight, the lonely band on the stage singing into the empty space. I looked on feeling sad and guilty, sad that yet another local celebration seemed to be dying before my eyes and guilt that I wasn’t contributing with my presence. I returned home after some errands to announce to my husband that we should be in the park supporting the musicians and the community.

“Maybe next year.” He said and went on with the work at hand.

“There might not BE a next year!” I retorted with some desperation.

Lucky for us there was a next year. We spread a large quilt on the grass of the park and positioned the family around to partake of the music. We delighted in the entertainment as we whiled away a Saturday in the summer sun. By evening everyone was up dancing barefoot in front of the bandstand. We went home with dirty feet and singing souls . . . we were hooked.

In the following years, we dropped all projects and plans so that we could wallow in the “Oystergrass”. It wasn’t long and we were volunteering, my husband at the beer booth and me at an information booth. When family came to visit we would drag them along drawing them into the musical revelry. Over the years we eagerly awaited ORMF saving back vacation days to fully enjoy the three days of music and merriment in the park – with an extra day off to recover on Monday. We watched as former residents would return for the community celebration, and always delighted in the many friends that gathered together over blankets and beer.

I brought Oystergrass to West Virginia with me on a bumper sticker that went the way of the dodo when my car was rear-ended several months ago. (Heidi, I need a new bumper sticker!) I also found a way to reuse those music festival t-shirts that had become ragged around the edges from so much wear – pillows. Leaving behind the people of Kemmerer and especially the Oyster Ridge Music Festival was more difficult than I could have imagined. There is a big blank space in my calendar for this coming weekend, an emptiness that I long to refill. Hopefully next year I can revisit and revive, but until then I will need to get by on the spirit of Oystergrass that I brought in my heart, the friendly spirit that gathering around music can bring. I hope to sprinkle it around the neighborhood a little and watch it grow.

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Sights and sounds of ORMF: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=GT7sXYiO9Bk