Writer’s Block

Originally posted on bottledworder:

Singapore
July 8, 2015

I have my word processor open but I’m thinking of the ants this morning. They are not the ticklish, harmless, black ants climbing all over the tabletop I wrote about earlier (from coke can to mouthwash) but a line of red ants on the concrete walkway that were crossing my path this morning. It was clean concrete which made the goal-oriented line of industrious moving red dots more well defined next to my memory of the haphazard black ants from last night.

Clean concrete makes me think of the dry, fresh concrete on the bathroom floor next to the window. It’s lighted up by the bright, dazzling sunlight of these hot, summer afternoons on this tropical island. The concrete is warm, fresh and clean and I know that if I were to put a drop of water on it, it would spread outward slowly absorbed by…

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What Venison, Water Diversion and Baseball
Taught me about Good Writing

By Thomas Hiatt

“Will my article be interesting enough?

Writers often assume they must have some grand subject like war or earthquakes to be compelling. However, some of the most engaging articles I’ve read have been on such not-terribly-sexy subjects as water diversion to farmland and how to turn your fresh venison into a tasty stew.

As an example, before 1989 or so, I never cared much for the game of baseball. Glancing at the television, I thought it preposterous; basically men-children paid millions of dollars to play with sticks and rocks and run around in circles. (When my younger self played T-ball – basically baseball without a pitcher – I had such little interest in it that I wandered into the stands, oblivious to my turn at bat. I wasn’t even sure of where the bases were and would take off into the out field – to the cat callings and cussings of my team mates.)

Then revelation came in the form of Shoeless Joe, a novel by W. P. Kinsella. It is strong testimony that this book simultaneously improved my view of both baseball and the state of Iowa. (I became so fascinated with the state that I brought my father and older brother down to Dyersville, location of the Field of Dreams baseball diamond.)

The novel fascinates because baseball is metaphor for lost idealism, simpler times. The bond between father and son, the land’s fertility; all of the universals draw the reader into this “book about baseball.” Take any subject, make it sing and the audience will find you.

But this blog is not really about baseball, Iowa, or W.P Kinsella, but rather the innate power of good writing, which has an innate power outside it’s given subject. An article on venison stew can be about the ethics of hunting, about self-reliance, about innovation, rural vs. urban lifestyles, et-cetera. A piece on water diversion to farmland can also delve into ecology, private vs. public rights, what we serve at our tables and so on and so forth.

Compelling writing pulls the reader into the writer’s world – even if that world is not of initial interest to the reader.

As the book says, “Build it and they will come.”

NOTE: Tom Hiatt is a fellow Libran and member of the Fergus Falls Writers Group. He is originally from Minneapolis, but has fallen in love with Western Minnesota since moving to Morris in 1994. Tom, who says that our writing group has been a blessing both in terms of improving his craft and in fostering wonderful friendships, has written for several area publications including the Morris Sun Tribune, the St. Cloud Times, and Senior Perspective, as well as numerous short stories with a novel pending.

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Life Interrupted – – –

I vow to myself and I promise my friends and readers (if only in my mind) that, yes, I will structure the time. I will set aside creative hours, preferably morning, and sit here rat-a-tatting on the keyboard. I will be fluid and insightful and never, ever succumb to writers block.

I vow. And then I lose the bet. Usually in the summer when the garden is pre-eminent and the farmers market is predominant. But other times as well.

When this intervention, this strangulation of thoughts and creativity, settles in with paralyzing aplomb, it feeds upon itself and grows with alarming
speed. Then personal fretting and guilt abound and exacerbate the condition. It is the writer’s curse. And so, here I am once again.

In the meantime, the in-between time, I will use this space to feature writer friends who have something to share, who are fancy free with their words just now and can fill up the empty spaces in Snowbirdredux, thereby lessening my guilt, reducing the pressure, while inspiring me to join in.

Stay tuned – – – – –

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ROOTS AND WINGS

Four years ago as new residents of Minnesota, my husband mentioned during a grocery shopping trip that he thought he would “pick up some lamb chops.” “Great,” I said, or maybe even “Yum.” However, as I began browsing the dairy aisle he called out that he couldn’t find the lamb. “Nonsense,” I said, “It must be here.” I searched up and down the meat cases to no avail and decided to ring the bell for the butcher.

“Lamb?” he said with a quizzical expression, “well maybe at Easter.”

What! Beef, chicken, turkey, ham, walleye, bison, venison, lutefisk – and no lamb?

I realize now that it must have something to do with “mutton” and the perception that lamb is a far cry from tasty. In googling, I discovered that lamb for consumption should be less than 2 years old, usually slaughtered between 4 and 12 months. Mutton is not only older but has stronger flavor and tougher meat, was considered “cheap” food for the military, often over cooked and dry, hence the perception carried “home” that it was not something to eat as a treat.

Somehow we didn’t get that message in California. Leg of lamb remains the preferred Easter dinner choice, and chops are always a culinary delight. So, who knew?

We celebrated this Easter after finding just four lamb loin chops at Service Foods and they were labeled “fresh” (most likely meaning they were local, grass-fed lambs). Served with a combo of veggies they were divine. Minnesotans, you don’t know what you’ve been missing.

My Personal Chef aged them uncovered for three days in the refrigerator. The day before the holiday, he rubbed them with fresh garlic and pepper on both sides, and on Easter afternoon he added kosher salt (which would draw out the juices if added before that time) and let them rest at room temperature for one hour. After heating a cast iron skillet in a 375 degree oven, he browned them on the stove top and finished them off in the oven for about 7 minutes. Ahhhh.

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Because it was a special occasion, if just the two of us, we decided to “dress for dinner.” The Chef donned his dark green cashmere vest sweater over his usual t-shirt. I spent time rummaging through my closet, trying on various combos before deciding upon black tights (the chosen standard of my youth) and a grey, Norwegian looking sweater dress, set off with almost new grey and silver earrings. And so we dined in style amidst the heights of gastronomy, Californians with a touch of Minnesota.

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Earlier that morning at the Unitarian Church in Underwood, Minnesota, the message had circled around the topic “Making Easter Meaningful in a Unitarian Universalist Church,” highlighting the conundrum that Unitarians (I considered myself a Lutheran Buddhist before I became a Unitarian) often face within the context of traditional Christian rituals and beliefs. The truth lies within the fact that Unitarians don’t actually practice rituals or even entertain specific beliefs, all the while embracing truths within all religions. A fact succinctly expressed in my favorite part of each Sunday service, the chalice lighting, where members come up and light a candle for a current joy or concern after reciting together – “This chalice is a symbol of our community. No single belief includes us here; no disbelief excludes us. Our celebration of life and common search for meaning bind us together.”

Someone asked me once, what was the point if we didn’t recite scripture or celebrate miracles or follow a liturgy? Someone else (not a Unitarian) jumped in before I could reply and answered, “It’s because they’re Humanists.” Humanists. It might well have been an indictment, but I took it as a compliment, as in humanitarianism, as in “devoted to promoting the welfare of humanity, especially through the elimination of pain and suffering, the doctrine that man’s obligations are for the good of the whole.”
Sounds like Jesus to me.

In fact, the first listed official Purpose of our church begins with the phrase –
“Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and openness to the forces which create and uphold life.” And continues with – “Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life.” They certainly are less about the praying and the pontificating, and more about the doing – Habitat for Humanity, Lunches for Seniors, Someplace Safe. If there is a community need, the Unitarians are inevitably there, sleeves rolled up and serving.

But back to the morning talk which contained a number of insightful questions about how a Unitarian can celebrate Easter without caring or needing to focus upon a death and resurrection. The main thought that resonated for me personally concerned “Roots and Wings,” an analogy around the truth that for the majority of us that morning, “roots’ would be represented by our Lutheran (or Christian or Jewish) upbringing and “wings’ would be the Unitarian experience.

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The past Palm Sunday found us with family at the Shepard of the Prairie Lutheran Church in Hickson, North Dakota, celebrating the baptism of Charlee Marie, my cousin’s granddaughter. I must admit that my brain dozed off that day during long readings and recitations, but there was a certain sweetness about the occasion, and a comfort in the familiar old church within the history which had a lot to do with who I am today. I love going downstairs after the service and have the church ladies exclaim about the fun they had with my mother in elementary school and ask “Aren’t you Jennings daughter?” and smile approvingly.

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There were times when I didn’t fit into my Lutheran Sunday school because I dared to suggest something that seemed wondrous to me but not appropriate to the teacher who then, made me feel shamed. But there was un-deniably also a providence and blessing and history which would form my being and become my roots.

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The wings began to grow much later with many things – meditation and a study of Buddhist philosophy, the discovery of the written genre dubbed Magic Realism, the passion of the garden and creatures of the wild, and yes, the humanism of Unitarianism.

Easter can be celebrated in many ways and from multi-layered contexts. And right now I’m dreaming about having some left-over lamb to wrap inside a piece of lefsa.

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BEE-PREPARED

_1639 I’ve become the go-to person in our community of late whenever a friend or friend of an organization wants to sort out and understand the criteria for protecting our pollinators. I’m certain that it’s not because I have an exceptional expertise, but more likely because I have been particularly vocal on the subject and tend to craftily interject the “safe seed question” into otherwise everyday conversations. Would I like to go plant shopping? “Ah….do you have a few minutes? Can we talk?” Yes I know I wrote letters to the editor every week this month, but don’t you have some room in the latest edition? “Wait. Stop the car! That gardener is planting perennials in the city park!” Much of the confusion has undoubtedly occurred because two years ago we began to see articles about bee colony collapse and the danger of losing our natural pollinators and what that would mean for the food chain. For instance, in May of 2013 an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune proclaimed – “You can help bees by adding native plants” and went on to suggest creating a garden in your own back yard by planting bee balm, purple prairie clover, cup plant, asters and giant hyssops. The cover of Time Magazine in August 2013 featured a photo of one lone bee and the headline – “A World Without Bees – The price we’ll pay if we don’t figure out what’s killing the honeybee.” Yet again and again we were told that WE could be the solution. Unfortunately this trend exemplifies the adage that a little knowledge can be dangerous and recent articles have confused the public further by stating, for instance – “If you’re planting pollinators you just might be killing the bees even faster.” HUH! you say. At this point I should be directing you to scholarly sources like http://www.beeaction.org and http://www.xerces.org and hopefully you will take the time and follow through. For a quick-y perspective, however, I will offer my amateur understanding and here’s the story. Because farmers had been dousing their fields with pesticides for decades and that continued to be a concern, in the early 1990’s a new tool came on the market which was hailed as less dangerous to humans. The tool was labeled neonicotinoids and today they are the most widely used pesticides in the world. The name which encompasses the word – nicotine – should give you a hint. When will we learn? It took too long to realize that an acceptable social habit was actually deadly while the big tobacco interests spent a fortune telling us otherwise. Too late for many. In agriculture these neonicotinoids are used in virtually all row crops today, including corn, cotton, soybeans, canola, sunflowers and sugar beets. If you go into your own personal garden shed and read a few labels on the sprays you use, look for Imidacloprid, Clothianidin, Thiamethoxam, Acetamiprid, and Dinotefuran. Yep. Sorry. Neonics by another name and you’re killing bees too. How does it happen? This insecticide, which permeates the tissues of the plant, whether systemically or sprayed, affects the nervous system of the insect resulting in death, paralysis, or at the very least, confusion so that it can’t find it’s way home to the hive. And primarily, how does this take us back to personal plant and seed choices? The answer lies in the fact that over 40% of the seed companies in the United States have been bought out by Monsanto. And they haven’t changed the names. So you don’t suspect. And what do you think they are systemically inducing into their seeds? Bingo. And seedlings that are developed by wholesale suppliers and sold to local nurseries, in more abundance than we would like to imagine, use systemic neonicotinoids in their products. One of my most fun things in life used to be going to a nursery like a kid in a candy store, gathering up exciting bounty for my garden. When the seed catalogues arrived each year, it was heaven. Like making a list for Santa. And now, the fun is spoiled. And so, what is the answer? At this point we all need to arm ourselves with knowledge. Google beeaction.org and xerces.org. Refuse to buy plants from local nurseries that don’t answer our needs or questions. Make certain that our seed companies have signed the “Monsanto-free” pledge. There are many trustworthy and safe seed sources such as – Baker’s Creek Heirloom, Fedco Seeds, High Mowing Organic, ION Exchange, Johnny’s Seeds, Livingston Seeds, and Xerces. Occupymonsanto360.org lists many more. And what of the nurseries? I have yet to find a local source which guarantees GMO free plants. However, if we keep asking the right questions, demanding safe pollinator merchandise, and show that we have done our homework, changes will be made if only from the interest of economics. I sometimes worry that I may have inadvertently planted killers in my new Minnesota garden. Pulling plants isn’t the answer because the chemicals linger in the soil, spread to their neighbors and even pollute water sources. But mainly, I care and hope you do too.

And one more thing. While you’re doing your homework, make certain that your pollinator plants are the specific varieties native to your area. Your bees and butterflies will thank you and live on.

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MAY DAY

“Now is the winter of our discontent,” began Richard III in Shakespeare’s soliloquy. I might say the same. In our four years in Minnesota we have experienced the light winter, the normal winter, the winter of enormous snowdrifts, and now – the winter of extreme frigidity and minimal snowfall.

It’s not only disconcerting to see brown fields in January, it’s getting pretty close to a deal breaker to be forced to scurry, head down and gasping, incredulous and possibly frost-bitten, from automobile to shelter, day after dreary day. I just realized that only “in my head” do I scurry. In reality I slowly plant my feet, flat-footed with great care and caution, praying all the while that I not hit a patch of black ice which might send me flying upside down. How in the name of Odin did my great-grandfather, Jorgan Jacob Johannesen, ever manage to survive his first winter in this country by digging out a shelter along the bank of the Red River of the North? And ski the one hundred and one miles to Alexandria to purchase supplies with his last five dollars, tying the provisions to the skis and walking all the way back? Some days I can barely make it from the garage to the kitchen door.

And my diatribe doesn’t begin to cover the worst of this blasted, current winter. It turns out that snow is our friend. It is god’s ecologically perfect insulator and undoubtedly the very reason that Jorgan could even think of living below its depths. Who knew that the sewer pipes might freeze without a cozy blanket of snow? Not once, but twice so far here on Mt. Faith and everyday since, I live in fear and trepidation. The first time the noxious seepage flooded our basement, I was lucky to retrieve the boxes of Christmas ornaments which had been previously marred by a fuel oil spill last year. Two plumbers and a pumping company later (with weekend overtime fees), we were finally able to turn on the water and “use” the facilities.

Then once again this past weekend I heard the horrific sounds, not unlike multiple monsters burping and rumbling from deep within the toilets and drains. Another call to the pumpers and now a new resolve, with more below zero temperatures looming ahead and spring nowhere in sight, to trace and mulch the sewer line. But where? And how to know the trajectory? The pump company said they didn’t encounter ice until after 75 feet and it likely took a few twists and turns on it’s way to the street. The city said the line was “clear from their end.”

I’ve since learned that the “freeze line” in Minnesota is typically five feet down. Oh dear! What will this mean for the lilies – Casa Blanca and Anna Marie’s Pride and all the other precious Orientals and Asians? And for the penstemon and salvias, the delphinium and black eyed Susan, the new red twig dogwood, the crab applies, the bee balm and milkweed in the new pollinator garden and all my others darlings? Now I’m scared. Last year I bought straw bales from my friend Dave and spread them out among the perennial beds. This past fall I was lazy, remembering all the raking and messiness in the spring and decided to trust Mother Nature to do the job. Who would have suspected that Minnesota in February would be waffling from day to day between one inch and nothing of snow? And somewhere between zero degrees and 40 below?

I suspect this means that on some distant day in May there will be weeping and wailing across the breadth of Otter Tail County as gardeners everywhere look in vain for their prize rugosa rose, their grandmother’s peony (Yikes!), their beloved tiger lilies.

And no, we’re not giving up on Minnesota in spite of my diatribe (and thank you for letting me rant) because the benefits still outweigh the minuses. But as spring eventually appears, I know I will be out in the garden each and every day, watching and worrying, checking for fresh green shoots, standing guard above the beds like a worried mother pacing the floor until her children arrive safely home. Blessed be.

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SPOILER ALERT

How did you feel when you first learned there wasn’t a Santa Claus?

I can remember the time as clearly as anything in my childhood. A neighbor girl who was a year older than me blurted it out one day as we skipped rope down the block. “There isn’t really a Santa Claus, you know-oh,” she singsong-ed. “There is too,” I said as I skipped a beat. “No there isn’t,” she insisted, stopping and turning around. “Ask your mother.”

Cymbals clashed. Lightning struck. The world spun.

Can it be true? Why would they lie?

That evening I stood in one corner of the dining room next to the telephone table, trying not to glance past the side wall which opened upon the “sun room” where the magical, tinseled tree would stand, grasping at my knuckles behind my back as my mother set the plates and silverware. Several times I started to speak and finally under the fear of eternal distress, I blurted out – “Sandra said there isn’t really a Santa Claus.” Mother’s initial silence and the stricken look on her face spelled the truth. She didn’t lie. I’ll give her credit for that. My mother sat down suddenly in the chair by my side and with a serious demeanor I had never seen before and after a brief silence, intoned words I can’t precisely remember. Something about fun and love and the “spirit of” and something more about being a “big girl now.”

That was the first and likely the most difficult disillusion.

There have naturally been others throughout the years. I am forever scarred by the time I shared a thrilling spiritual revelation about native Americans standing out in nature and raising their head and hands to God instead of going inside a man-made structure and bowing down, followed by the Sunday School teacher making me feel humiliated and confused. There was the shocking reality of seeing “Whites Only” signs on rest rooms and drinking fountains on a trip across the south, or the lies and secrets of some elected officials and my consternation that the world doesn’t always work in the best interest of our planet and it’s inhabitants. To name a few.

The latest disillusion occurred one morning this past week as I sat, as usual, in my comfy chair with a freshly ground dark roast cup of coffee, sharing the Minneapolis/St. Paul Star Tribune. We have a ritual. I pass him the Sports and the Variety (which he must read first so I will end up with the pleasure of two daily crosswords – the New York Times and a slightly less difficult but clever version). I take my time with the front section, local news and business, pausing over various international issues and commendable op-ed essays. It’s my favorite time of day. Traditional, languid, a time of sharing and togetherness before tackling the tasks and commitments ahead.

This day, however, I didn’t get past the reportage on the bottom of the third page. In a horrendous, heart-stopping and bitter awakening I read the following quote from 1890 – “The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are master of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians. Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; it’s better that they should die than live the miserable wretches that they are.” And then the writer followed it up after the slaughter of as many as 300 Sioux at Wounded Knee by demanding that the U.S. government “wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth.”

I am still reeling from the identity of this abhorrent racist, a beloved author who informed and enchanted my childhood every bit as much as Santa Claus. I read and reread his books and gathered my neighborhood pals to read the volumes to them. I transferred the love of his fictional world to my children, driving them to conventions that celebrated the author. Throughout his lifetime my son collected first editions, illustrated the tales and worked on a new manuscript that would enhance the long running story line. Recently I even named our new kitten after a character from the series.

How could you? A lifetime of dearly embraced touchstones about truth and reality, about what it means to seek wisdom or wish for courage or engage one’s heart of hearts and learn that, above all, there is no place like home. Dreaming over the rainbow will never be the same again. L. Frank Baum, for shame. You have been far more a disappointment than Santa.

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