Hiking Toward Home: In Which a Middle-Aged Woman Forges Her Trail

IMG_8334I have hiked five miles of the Appalachian Trail. It’s true, but I usually announce this with my eyes cast downward. Not because I think five miles is paltry; for me, it’s an accomplishment. My reticence is due to the circumstances of my achievement.

So, yes, I did cover a handful of miles of the North Carolina portion of the AT. But I did it with guides, people who walked before me as an example of where to put my feet; how to navigate a root-heavy curve; when to steady my pace. Those same people also toted my luggage from inn to inn as we spent our nights in soft beds after eating delicious meals prepared by hands other than ours. We awoke to smiling hosts and hot coffee before setting out for the day. (Over the course of the trip we logged more than five miles, only part of which was on the AT.)

Does it matter that I’ve never “roughed it” a day in my life? What if I mentioned the ice storm that cut off our power for four days, causing my parents and me to huddle in blankets around the fireplace, or reminisced about rolling out my sleeping bag onto the hard ground outside Mentone, Alabama, while at Camp DeSoto, or noted the semester I spent in Indiana living in a cold, sparsely furnished rooming house while teaching? Without wireless or cable? Without my husband?

If I were to talk about any of those experiences as real challenges, you would not reward me with your awe.

There are other things I might impress you with, like not marrying until I was forty-one and being okay with having lived alone so long. Trusting that my life has purpose, even though I never had biological children. Spending three days in the hospital with an undiagnosed infection that threatened to wipe out my white blood cells.

Still, I have not “roughed it” a day in my life. When I was single, I had good friends and encouraging role models who crafted fine lives for themselves without romantic partners. When I was diagnosed with endometriosis and told that any fleeting chance I might have had for bearing a child had passed, I did not think that meant my life had no meaning. I had not dreamed of having children, even though almost everyone around me assumed I longed for offspring. And with the hospitalization two years ago, I was lucky to have access to good healthcare, and to be blessed by a peace that passes all understanding.

In my younger days, I needed your approval. Never one to take a chance and then beg forgiveness, I sought permission even when none was required. Back then, I hungered for your acknowledgment. If you praised me, all the better.

My younger days are gone. It’s one of the joys of aging, this trusting of Self. At long last I no longer crave the noticing of the world. My own awareness is enough.

In the writing workshops I facilitate, we write in response too prompts. I wrote this after reading “The Hike,” by Genie Zeiger, as printed in The Sun Magazine. I encourage the folks gathered around my table to go where the writing takes them, without worrying if it relates directly to the prompt. So I took my own advice, and this is what I came up with on a Saturday morning in Nashville. What does the poem bring up in you? Write for twenty minutes. I’ll set the timer. Go!

https://www.thesunmagazine.org/issues/395/the-hike

 

MayBelle on Marriage {Don’t Worry, This Won’t Take Long}

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Back in 2002, at age forty-one, MayBelle, who theretofore had been considered an “old maid,” transitioned to someone who “married late.” She resents both those descriptors, as you might imagine MayBelle would, because there were no guarantees—or requirements—she would ever marry. MayBelle is delighted that cultural norms have shifted at least somewhat although not enough to suit her–especially in the Deep South where she lives–toward realizing marriage is not the only route to happiness.

One element of such partnering is a numbers game, along with a dash or two of serendipity and a handful of what might only be described as “secret ingredients.” MayBelle’s parents did not promise her a prince, riding a horse or otherwise. They were too busy telling her she had to go to graduate school so she would be positioned to support herself. MayBelle is driven to distraction by people who fill little girls’ heads with seemingly surefire notions of weddings and white-picket-fence happily ever afters (is this really a thing?) as if it’s a done deal. Some folks get it, and some don’t. (MayBelle knows she’s talked about this before, but that’s how much it bugs her. She appreciates your indulgence.)

Several of MayBelle’s mentors have been women who never married. Her Aunt Vannie, for example, who lit out from Water Valley, Mississippi, for Greenwich Village and made a life for herself by herself. What a fabulous broad she was. MayBelle still wears a shawl (black and white, from England) and a big ol’ topaz ring she got from Vannie, that enticing woman now long laid low. And her Aunt Theora, who took up painting later in life and developed into an acclaimed, self-taught artist.

Here’s another thing MayBelle loathes: “Why did you wait so long to marry?” Because, she wants to snap back, it took that long for Precious to get here. Plus, if you must know, the only guy who asked her before that was drunk at the time, and the only one she thought she might have wanted ended up marrying a friend of hers. Two friends, actually, after the first one divorced him.

MayBelle may have been a little slow to matters of the heart, not having dated much in her life, but she did know enough not to say “I do” simply to avoid living alone. So when MayBelle and Precious, who is six years older than she, announced they were getting married she thinks they were as surprised as anyone. And really, really, grateful.

MayBelle heard the whispers, though, people saying they wondered if she knew everything about him, and did he know how much MayBelle adored (the word “worshipped” might have been employed, for emphasis) her father?

“No wonder she didn’t marry until after her father died,” was an especially insightful barb tossed her way. (Did MayBelle’s sarcastic tone come through there? If not, let her know and she’ll try again.) Baggage all around. Of course there’s baggage, MayBelle wanted to shout; we’re alive, aren’t we? And in our forties, for goodness sake. No baggage, no fully lived life, thinks MayBelle.

Those comments reminded MayBelle, in an intensely personal way, about the need for minding one’s own business: Don’t think you know best about other people’s lives. Tend your own instead.

And here they are, celebrating fifteen years of marriage. It’s not a lifetime, they realize, or an assurance of fifteen more, but it’s what they’ve got, and they’ll take it. They celebrated, in part, by hiking to a beautiful spot in western North Carolina, even though Precious’ idea of outdoorsy is being on the golf course and MayBelle has only recently taken to exercising. This is what marriage looks like to them: Walking side by side, even when the husband wears shoes meant for strolling, not trail trekking, and the wife keeps asking if they should turn back. Four feet, two hearts, one team.

MayBelle and Precious are not the kind of people who think love is enough. They don’t post on social media (Can you imagine Precious on Facebook?) about having “the most perfect spouse in the world,” and they don’t take much for granted. They think you need love, sure, but you also need luck, and a bit of work. Commitment helps, and trust, and all sorts of other intangible components that contribute to tangible sustainability.

So MayBelle and Precious can both tell you when they “ just knew” they were meant to be together, although they can’t necessarily tell you one another’s favorite flavor of ice cream. And no, they don’t have an “our song,” but if they did, it would be John Hiatt’s “Have a Little Faith in Me.”

 

 

 

 

Walking “Into the Fire” and Coming Out Renewed {On The Sun Magazine’s Retreat}

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Just back from another great trip to Wildacres for The Sun Magazine’s “Into the Fire: The Sun Celebrates Personal Writing” retreat.

“Life-changing,” said a fellow Pilgrim Writer who went with me. I don’t think she’s overstating the matter. Top-notch presenters, beautiful scenery, good food, and kindred spirits. Plus, it’s in western North Carolina, my soul’s home country, so I’m always fed there.

In short:

Krista Bremer: I didn’t attend any of her workshops.

John Brehm: Don’t tell Precious but I think I’m in love. John is a poet who teaches in Oregon. He’s edited a volume of poetry for those of us who work in the realm of mindfulness and who are tired of relying on Rumi and Mary Oliver exclusively. And although Oliver’s “Wild Geese” is hands down my favorite poem in the universe, and Rumi’s “Guest House” opened up the work of my heart, it’s nice to have other options. His workshop, “The Magic of Metaphor,” helped clarify what metaphor is (I know, I know; by now I should have a handle on the difference between metaphor and simile and how to employ them effectively but, alas, I didn’t until I met John, who says he doesn’t make a big deal about trying to distinguish the two, so it’s no wonder I like the guy) and how we can use in it our writing, be we poets or creatives of another sort.

Frances Lefkowitz: Her workshop, “The Art of Short: Flash Fiction and Micro Memoir” was great. And by great I mean accessible, informative, and a whole lotta fun. People raved about her last year at the retreat, so I was glad to get the chance to hear her this year. (She was the only repeat teacher from 2016, if memory serves, which it doesn’t sometimes now that I’m, you know, old.)

Heather Sellers: One of the best writing teachers around. Buy her books Page After Page and Chapter After Chapter if you want to write, and hear her live if you get the chance. I did not attend Heather’s workshops as I had the pleasure of hearing her at Kentucky Women Writers a few years back.

Marion Winik: Let’s just say she’s “candid.” I knew Marion’s work from her days on NPR. She was a bit crude for my taste during the workshop, but her model for memoir has already changed–for the better– how I write, and teach.

My most treasured memories, though, will be the people I communed with, whether sitting in Adirondack chairs facing the mountains or while passing the lemony green beans (delish!) at the dinner table. People of varying ages and assorted physicalities, people who have been published widely and people who just like to read, people from all over the country, brought together through their love of the written word and their respect for The Sun—what it publishes, all it stands for, how it informs and inspires.

One evening, I talked with a twenty-something neuroscience major from Tulane. Egads I could not stop staring at this rare, lovely creature; so young and full of promise and smarts and drive; “You’re going to be a neuroscientist?” I kept repeating. “Who plans to work in impoverished countries?!” Then there was a Quaker from Up East, who knew all about the Earlham School of Religion, a Quaker seminary in Indiana where I’ve taught; the woman I had met five years ago when I led a workshop in Seaside, Florida, but hadn’t seen since; and a retired lawyer who wants to write memoir but is hesitant to reveal herself. “Quite the challenge, then,” we joked.

What a luminous assortment of humanity, this gathering. It’s worth going simply for the people you’ll meet, even if you don’t write.

But I hope you will, of course. I hope you will write your hearts out, fellow pilgrims, for it’s the sharing of our stories that saves us.

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On Driving Dicey Mountain Roads, Learning to Write, and Making New Friends

IMG_5716Long an admirer of The Sun magazine, which I think publishes the best writing around, I was delighted when the opportunity came up for me to attend the magazine’s writing retreat at Wildacres Retreat Center in western North Carolina. (Meaning I hadn’t signed up in time but was notified when someone cancelled and I was first up on the waiting list.) Wildacres hosts some fabulous sounding workshops for all sorts of creative types, and I plan to return. It’s lovely, Wildacres, set apart–far, far, apart–from all things distracting, among verdant greenery and rustling wildlife. Peaceful, natural, and away from cell towers. And the food is good…

Getting there was tricky, what with downed road signs, dense fog, and my innate ability to “get turned around,” but every tricky curve up the mountain was worth it. After the last turn off anything resembling a well-traveled road, and fearing I was hopelessly lost and possibly in some trouble–the fog was really that hard to see through and I didn’t have cell reception–I stopped at the only commercial entity I’d seen for miles.

“I think I’m lost,” I said as I opened the door to the charming Books and Beans, which is just like the bookstore I dream of opening one day: cozy, full of books of all varieties, comfy chairs by the fireplace, strong coffee, set in the mountains. There may have even been a dog by the hearth, it was that perfect.

“We’re all lost up here,” said the woman behind the counter, smiling. Thankfully I was just two miles from my destination. A vanilla latte and two books later I was on my way.

As usual at these kinds of gatherings—I go to a lot of writing workshops; they’re like vacation for me—I’m nervous at the beginning, wondering if I “fit,” and then, within a couple of hours, I am settled and confident and in my element, surrounded by kindred spirits who care about words with the same intensity that I do. Which means they’re sort of obsessed.

I was familiar with only one writer scheduled to present, Leslie Pietrzyk, as I had read, and enjoyed, her Pears on a Willow Tree (Harper Perennial). Two writers new to me–though perhaps I have read their work in The Sun and simply misplaced their names, something I do more and more these days, misplace things of import–are already favorites.

When Joe Wilkins read from his The Mountain and The Fathers (Counterpoint) I looked around the room to see if everyone else was hearing what I was hearing: well-crafted sentences of such feeling and awareness that I moved to the edge of my seat just to draw a little closer. I subsequently bought every book he had for sale that weekend.

Another writer I’m glad to know about is Chris Bursk, a poet who was funny and heartfelt and one of the best workshop leaders I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience. He was generous, engaging, and knowledgeable, willing to share whatever he knew that might help the rest of us write better poems. And he handed out kazoos, so bonus points for that.

IMG_5850Upon returning to Nashville my husband and I went to hear Richard Russo at our fabulous library. He was in town promoting his new book, Everybody’s Fool (Knopf), which I look forward to reading. Russo was just as I had imagined he would be in real life: engaging, approachable, considerate, and smart. When asked what informed his writing, he responded, “I write about the things I notice twice.”

I love that so much. We all notice things once, but what draws us back for another look? Maybe even a third or a fourth circling round. That’s where the gold is, right?

Not only did I learn something about writing at both these events, but I also met interesting people, like the man who told me to check out St. Paul and the Broken Bones after I told him I had enjoyed hearing the Alabama Shakes in Asheville recently. (Seriously, people, run to listen to them if you haven’t already. Brittany Howard belted it out like I’ve never witnessed before. Stunning.) My new friend was spot on with his suggestion, for St. Paul now sits at the top of my current playlist.

And the woman who lives in New York, whose writing is searing and moving and tender, which I learned only after returning home and going online as she was too humble to tell me she’d been in literary journals many of us dream about publishing our work.

IMG_5736I applied for a job at The Sun a while back and although I made the first cut, being invited to critique issues of the magazine, I was not called for an interview. I’m glad I didn’t let any disappointment keep me from attending this retreat. For there is always something to learn about the practice of writing, a bit of inspiration to glean, a recommendation to take to heart, a fellow pilgrim to meet.

What informs your writing? What do you look at twice and want to know more about? In other words, what haunts you so much that you’re driven to write it out?

Amy Lyles Wilson