Writing’s Unexpected Rewards

In a world dominated by rejections, victory is all the sweeter.  When the email arrived, informing me that my piece “Late Arrival” had been accepted for Northland College’s WritersRead event, my heart danced.  As a writer, I celebrate any success, no matter how small.  Even seeing my work linger longer than usual in the “In Process” status of a publication’s submission process constitutes a win in my book.

I’d heard that the event was “a hoot.”  A friend who has read several times described it as “the best party for writers and readers anywhere.”  I was excited for both the opportunity and the entertainment.  But I woefully underestimated the impact of being a participant.

Nineteen pieces were selected for reading at the late January event.  Eight of us were from Duluth.  Sheer distance precluded our attending the scheduled rehearsal, and we were encouraged to arrange our own.  Little did I suspect that would set the stage for reaping the true value of the event.

As a group, we descended on the Spoken Word Open Mic night at Beaner’s Central Coffeehouse.  It was packed, due to an earlier political rally, and it was a long time before any of our names were called.  But one by one, we made our way up to the small stage, took a deep breath and read our pieces to an audience.  Just knowing there were friendly faces among the crowd was a boost, and certainly having live listeners was good preparation for the real thing.  I admired the quality of the work in our group, and relished their comments afterwards.

Just for good measure, a smaller group of us gathered in the black box theater at UMD about a week later.  This time we were reading only for ourselves, with the benefit of immediate feedback, discussion and do-overs.  I was beginning to get a feel for the generosity of these seasoned writers, and the unending support they gave one another – including me, the neophyte.

The evening of the event, participants gathered beforehand in the stainless-steel kingdom of the college kitchen.  While being treated to fresh pizzas made on the spot and sipping wine, we mingled.  In the quirky informal space it was easy to feel the spontaneous camaraderie among this collection of writers.

As promised, the event attracted a good crowd.  I marveled at the enthusiastic support for writers in the small northern communities along Lake Superior.  They were a lively and receptive audience as we each got up and read our piece.  Being second on the program quickly dispelled my nerves and I could settle in and enjoy the remainder of the readings.  The genres covered nonfiction, sudden fiction, micro-fiction, twitterature and poetry.  Each reader brought something unique to the event’s theme, “Gut Instinct,” rendered through humor, wit, poignancy and suspense.  I felt honored to be among the talent represented there.

The Duluth contingent heartily congratulated each reader from its numbers.  At the conclusion of the deliveries, we naturally clustered together.  Relishing the experience, snapping group photos, recalling snippets of the stories to savor, we ended the evening on a high note.

Duluthians at WritersRead

By pure happenstance, I met up with the bulk of the Duluth writers at breakfast the next morning at Café Coco in Washburn.  We swarmed a long table and spent the next two hours talking writing.  The spontaneous and genuine conversation was encouraging, supportive and friendly.  Despite my novice status, I felt a sense of belonging.  These people were here for me, as I was for them.  We all had something to share.  We all had something to give one another.

Duluth writers at Cafe Coco

I drove home filled with inspiration, ambition and gratitude.  Being selected to read, what I considered my “win” was only the beginning.  I felt like a writer.  I felt like I belonged.  I had a new source of support for the lonely act of writing.  I couldn’t wait to write more, work harder and submit more.  Even if it meant more rejections.

Note: Wisconsin Public Radio recorded the WritersRead event, and aired the first hour on Friday, February 16.  Click here to listen online or download the recording.
(Shameless plug – my reading is 8:48 into the recording)

The Alternative to Skiing

The shuttle deposited us in a sea of deep white snow.  Just me, Susan and our snowshoes, and a big sign marking the entrance to the Superior Hiking Trail adjacent to Sugarloaf Road.  “It’s well marked,” the driver told us.  But once in the woods, the trail was just a vague indentation in the snow.

She promised us we’d need our snowshoes, as opposed to the other trails near the highway.  “Those are so well used, you can walk them in your boots.”  We went for virgin territory, and we got it.

Snowshoeing SHT

Ahead, tall tree trunks cast long shadows, crisscrossing the soft white snow.  Baby pines, the next generation of towering trees, added green décor complimenting the deep blue of the sky beyond.  The enticing scene beckoned.

This was a cross-country ski trip, but we had abandoned our skis for the day.  The day before, the cold temperatures and chilling wind tested our mettle skiing the frosty trails, speed whipping away our meager warmth faster than we could generate it.  So we decided on a day tromping through the woods instead.

We didn’t have to go far before we had tracks to follow.  Animal tracks.  Plenty of deer scampered around.  Rabbits left their signature imprint.  Some tiny critter stamped out a precise symmetrical trail, a perfect wintry zipper.  But it was the wolf imprints that held our gaze.  Impossibly large, they forged ahead on the trail.  Other padded feet came and went, but these tracks stayed with us for the duration of our hike.  I hoped our canine companion knew how to read the blue blazes to keep us on the right trail.

High in the sky, the bright sun delivered warmth whenever it reached us.  In the dark shadows of the trees, the temperature plummeted.  The deep silence of the woods was broken only by the plunge and shuffle of our snowshoes.  Gasps of delight, and “oh this is so beautiful” escaped our lips, confirming the choice we’d made for the day’s activity.

Susan snowshoeing SHT

Reaching the ridgeline, the trees thinned and we had the promised expansive views of the lake.  Traveling high above the shoreline we could see for miles, a full 180° or more.  Each creek we crossed had some form of a wooden bridge – a reassuring sign we were still on the trail.  Crossing Crystal Creek was the most challenging, scrambling down a deep ravine to reach the covered bridge at the bottom.  Climbing back up the other side proved to be easier.

Snowshoeing SHT 1

The sudden appearance of numerous snowshoe tracks marked our approach to the Caribou River.  The spur route down to the parking lot was impossible to miss.  Already missing our wilderness route, we followed the river and admired its icy formations as we returned to our car.

I’ve hiked bits and pieces of the Superior Hiking Trail through the years.  It’s a treasure that’s easily taken for granted.  This winter excursion reminded me how the seclusion of the trail works its magic.   During that trek the rest of the world fell away. My mind rambled as I paced.  I reveled in the nature surrounding me.  And I never regretted skipping skiing that day.

Molly snowshoeing SHT

 

The Fitness Geek

There is a fine line between passion and obsession.  Sometimes the only difference is who is describing the behavior.  My passion for exercise and fitness is hardly a secret.  A day without pushing my body makes me feel lazy and crabby.  Rich knows.  He calls it obsession.

Second only to the activity itself is my compulsion to track it all.  The notes on a small calendar have long since been replaced by a Garmin GPS watch and SportTracks on my PC.  Through the wonders of technology I can see at a glance just how many miles I have run and cycled and the kilometers I have skied over the days, week, and years.  It’s beautiful.  I thought I had it all.  Until my birthday.

Recognizing that I couldn’t track my lap swimming with my Garmin, Rich gave me a Moov Now device.  The little red button slips into a flexible rubbery band and is totally waterproof.  I failed to see how it could track my swimming, but gave it a try.  I downloaded the app on my phone,  paired it with my device and pressed “start” while still in the locker room.  Doubt lingered.  I barely felt the light band around my wrist as I swam back and forth, back and forth.  Ok, for 2 miles in the pool.

Moov Highlights

After showering, I retrieved my phone and clicked End.  When the data finished downloading from that red button, I took a gander.  Wow.  It knew everything.  It knew exactly when I started swimming, what stroke I was swimming, how many laps I’d done (2 more than I thought), how long it took me for each flip turn, how much time I was actually stroking, and when I finished.  It would have recorded rest time, if I’d had any.  Averages were calculated for stats I couldn’t even recognize.  

Moov Laps

It was almost creepy.  But not enough to stop me from studying the results.    From the lap by lap graph, I could see how my flip turns took longer near the end – documenting that slight pause I knew I was taking as I tired.  My Distance Per Stroke average was below the “ideal range” so it gave me two paragraphs of coaching advice for improving my efficiency.  At its most basic level, it kept me honest if I lost track of my laps.

I had no idea technology had advanced so far.  I’ve lived without all this data for years.  I don’t really need it all, but still…  It’s pretty cool.  How can a techno geek resist?  Now I wonder what it can do for my other activities…

But that wasn’t all.  Removing more gift wrap revealed a pair of spur clips for my running shoes, with LED lights.  I couldn’t even feel them when I ventured out in the dark on my next pre-dawn run.  But Rich said he could see me all the way down our pitch black road.  Hating my safety vest, I immediately took to these glowing wonders.  And I sure got noticed on the Lakewalk.Molly with shoe lights

I was impressed.  These were real winners.  So Rich confessed that he had help.    Entering something like “gifts for runners” in Amazon’s search box brought up a wealth of options for the fitness obsessed.  I guess I don’t really care what he calls it.  This fitness geek loves her new toys.

Writing Retreat

The snow crunches under the wheels of my car as I move slowly down the drive.  Pulling up in front of a rustic building, I exit my car to find chickens pecking the frozen ground and horses neighing across the way.  Surrounded by crisp cold air, I hurry into the office to confirm my reservation and pick up keys to the Tree Lodge.

The cluttered office and scruffy environs matter little.  This is a retreat after all, and I intend to install myself in the cabin for some serious progress on writing my book.  I am soon joined by Kristina, and we quickly make ourselves at home in the two story dwelling.

Molly by Tree Lodge

Billed as a place to retreat from the busy world, Shire in the Woods hosts 7 cabins in a square mile of woodlands in central Minnesota.  Although it’s possible to see bits of the other cabins through the leafless trees in winter, the environs exude seclusion.  We are self-sufficient with the food and supplies we have brought, and stock the cabin with firewood to fend off the winter chill.

It doesn’t take us long to get down to work.  Despite the simplicity of the place we welcome the modern wifi, plugging in laptops and tapping away on our keyboards.  Kristina graciously helps me navigate the murkiness of my material, teasing out themes and probing my purpose to help me organize my stories about bicycle touring.  In time, my premise statement evolves – an elusive concept I have been pursuing for months.

Molly and Kristina on writing retreat

Kristina pursues her own project, finding an agent for her heart-tugging book for infants and nursing mothers, Sweet Moments: Celebrating the Bond of Breastfeeding.  It’s amazing to find we can work in isolation right across the table from one another.  The camaraderie furthers our work, rather than inhibiting.  Warm meals of whole foods and sharing our passions flavor the progress.

Morning brings clear skies, below zero temperatures and restorative sunshine.  Huddled by the fire, sipping tea and coffee, we labor on.  Keystrokes are punctuated by periodic conversation, questions and diversions.  When my work drifts off course, Kristina gently guides me back into focus.

Kristina walking the trailNoontime takes us out for fresh air and an explore.  Totally confused by the hand drawn map of the trails, we strike out for ourselves choosing the most obvious straight path.  When it becomes as twisted and convoluted as the map, we just go with the flow.  The sun warms our faces and the blue sky outlines the tall trees that make wispy shadows on the new dusting of snow.

Kristina’s departure to meet the afternoon school bus and resume her motherly role leaves the cabin empty and quiet.  So I bury myself in continuing the work I started.  Soon I am plunking down post-it notes on a poster board, positioning and moving them around to find order among the chapters.

Storyboarding

I’ve never spent time alone in a cabin in the woods before.  Not even our own cabin.  I tend the fire, listen to the clock tick, eat my dinner while perusing other peoples’ memoirs and sip my cold white wine.  The wifi is just strong enough to allow me to listen to Pandora music, with periodic pauses to buffer.

My final morning is cozy and warm.  I have finally mastered the wood stove and heat pumps out faster than my work.  Still I putter with my storyboard, certain that I have not yet found the right flow.  But I’m infinitely farther along than I was two days ago.  I haven’t written a single word, but I’m finding the glue.

I have Rich to thank for this writing interlude.  He found the Shire and presented it to me for Christmas.  Perhaps he sensed I was losing my way on this book.  I haven’t solved all its mysteries, but I’m ready for forward momentum again.  Taking time out to retreat from the world with the help of the right writing partner has put me back on my path.

Gliding Again

Fickle winter.  It teases us with cold weather but fails to deliver on the snow.  It wreaks havoc with my motivation and my love of the outdoors.  My identity as a cross-country skier is in shambles.

For weeks I have been unable to get excited about skiing.  I can’t drag myself across the street to ski on trails that are barely covered, and I convince myself that I’d rather go running anyway.  Despite slipping and sliding on the icy or snow-clogged Lakewalk, I take refuge in the familiar.  I just can’t get over the hurdle to embrace skiing instead.

But the recent snowfall engineered a shift.  It actually looks and feels like winter.  Distant memories return.  Suddenly I feel the draw of the trails.  The pull of a new blanket of snow.  The sun filtering through the trees and glinting off the soft white powder.  The crisp air brushing my cheeks.  It is mine for the taking.  This time I can’t help but answer the call.

On mySkiing ungroomed Lester first foray into the woods I discover that I beat the groomer to the trails.  Instead of crisp firm corduroy, I find soft untouched snow with a packed base not far beneath.  All sounds are muffled by this new fallen splendor.  The hush quiets my mind as the powder slows my skis.  I am moving in slow motion, but it makes no difference.  For once it’s not about the pace, it is all about the experience.

Lester on groomed trails

Day two and I’m eager to return.  The groomer has worked its magic in my absence.  I am early enough to enjoy some virgin terrain, cutting my own diagonal slices through the sculpted surface.  The tall pines still wear their mantle of white and the forest floor is a series of soft undulating mounds pocked with occasional animal tracks.  Whether real or imagined, the air feels fresher than ever.

I knew there was a reason I loved winter, I’d just forgotten what it was.  I’m glad to be out gliding again.

Holiday Cheer

Amazon packages arrive by the truckload.  Wrapping paper flies off its rolls.  The sweet scent of once-a-year cookies wafts through the house.  Christmas meals fill every nook of the freezer.  Carefully crafted holiday greetings travel far and near.  It’s easy to get caught up in the trappings and “must do’s” of the season.  I should know – I’m a prime target for succumbing to holiday stress.

But the season has a wealth of feel-good experiences as well, and this year I happily overindulged my love for music and theater.  All in the name of Christmas.

Ben and Mya at the GrinchIt has become an annual tradition to take our older grandchildren to see a Christmas play.  This year we hit the big time, taking Ben and Mya to the Children’s Theater in Minneapolis to see “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”  It was Dr. Seuss to the core, and so very true to the book with a very green Grinch whose mouth sparkled redness.  I knew the experience reached the kids when Ben leaned over to me mid-performance, and whispered, “This is really good!”  He took the words right out of my mouth.

Just two days later, Rich convinced me to go see the Canadian Pacific Holiday Train.  Although it travels through the Twin Cities, he insisted we needed to experience it in a small town.  A four hour drive took us to Plummer MN, where indeed we were treated to an energetic community that rallied around the arrival of this brilliantly lit train.  At 6:00pm the train slowly approached the crossing, its holiday colors reflecting against the local grain elevator as it passed.  Once stopped,Holiday Train a draw-bridge like door came down with fog pouring out and laser lights pulsating.  The country music performers where already in place and performing by the time it was fully open.  Pressing against the stage, the crowd bounced to the music, performers hand-bumped the kids up front, and we all sang “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” with the musicians.  Thirty minutes passed Holiday Train Concertquickly, then the train resumed its journey – on to the next town.  Its whole purpose is to support local food shelves, and indeed the evening’s take from locals as well as a generous donation from CP covers half their needs for the whole year.  My heart glowed as brightly as my face in the glimmer of the retreating train.

Returning to Duluth the following day, we turned to home town entertainment.  That very night we had tickets to “A Christmas Carol” at the Duluth Playhouse.  No matter how many times I see that show, it always delights and conjures up the goodwill of the season.  Topped off with wine and Christmas cookies with friends in the light of their decorated tree, it was an evening hard to beat.

East Holiday ConcertOur finale involve another tradition – a school Christmas concert.  This year I insisted on revisiting my past, attending the East High School Holiday Concert.  Memories of my years in choir and the Choralaires came flooding back as I watched from the balcony.  But even more pronounced was the depth of talent and commitment of the young musicians and their directors.  The performance underscored what an amazing opportunity these youngsters have to participate in such excellent ensembles.  I know now that it’s something they may never experience again in their lives.  Shivers ran down my spine as the entire assembly of students closed the evening with “Carol of the Drums.”

Quite a blitz for one week.  An abundance of holiday cheer, certain to propel me through the remainder of the Christmas season.

Move over Laptop

Sewing slipper jammiesSometimes the writer has to take a backseat to being a Grammy.  My office space allotment has ample room for my laptop and was designed with plenty of surface area for spreading out notes and research materials.  It just does not accommodate a sewing machine and yards of material without a bit of compromise.  So when my inner Grammy takes over, the laptop gets shoved aside.

It’s well known in this space that I have an annual appointment with the sewing machine and piles of fuzzy fleece.  What started as a single pair of slipper jammies, also known as Grammy jammies, has multiplied into four such outfits fitting little bodies from 10 months to 7 years.  And next year already promises to push the total to five.  No matter what the number, I press on and rue the day when the older grandchildren start opting out of such cozy comforts.

It feels a bit like an assembly line.  Cut, cut, cut.  Sew, sew, sew.  A zipper here, a cuff there.  Gripper feet for all.  The outside world hardly exists.  All I see is red fleece, goofy reindeer faces and a needle bouncing up and down in rapid motion.  I cannot rest until the last piece is in place.  The final stitch sewn.  It is a labor of love.  When I am finished, they come to life – four little visitors inhabiting my couch.I am lucky this year.  I found Christmas fleece, which has become a rare commodity.  That means an early delivery so that the kiddos can wear them for the run up to the holiday season.  When I produced the customary cloth gift bags last weekend, the older ones already knew what must be inside.  Kids sure learn fast.Ben, Mya and Isabel in their Grammy Jammies

I had to entrust the final pair to the US Mail.  Through the marvels of FaceTime I was able to watch Maren rip through the packaging to reveal her very own Grammy jammies.  A style show ensued.Maren models Grammy Jammies

My task complete for now, the laptop has been restored to its place of honor.  With this little interlude behind me, my writing resumes.  Bits of fuzz and pins linger in my workspace.  I smile, looking forward to Christmas when all four grandchildren will pile into our house – in their matching togs.