Our family has a holiday sock gifting tradition that has provided me with more than a week’s worth of red, green or black footwear decorated with bears, wreaths, candy canes and sparkle. Usually in the Midwest I can wear boots and jeans enough to camouflage my collection beyond the respectable boundaries of holiday celebration.
Tonight I wear the one pair I keep for Christmas Eve. Tiny angels blowing on delicate horns float on a black background. I call them my Angels We Have Heard on High socks. For twenty-four hours these socks bind me to my faith heritage, to remembering the message of hope Christians embrace in the story of the Christ child sent to earth to save God’s people.
Perhaps I’ll wear them longer this year. Maybe if enough leaders had socks to remind them of why people gifted them with the responsibility of power, we could find our way to some easier level of peace on earth.
To you and yours I send one simple message: If it is not possible to have peace on earth, may we at least live at ease with each other. Pax.
Diane Foley’s son was killed as a horrific political statement by extremists who would do the same to my child or yours. And even though he died a hero, telling the world what was happening in Syria and Iraq, the man so brutally treated was first Diane’s son, her boy. A man she raised to be strong, compassionate, loving. While coping so gracefully with their loss, Diane and John Foley became America’s faces of the pain of thousands of families whose lives have been damaged by the savagery of the Islamic State militants.
As a family grieves for their loved one, the bigger world goes about living in the most ordinary way. While those grieving stand in church or at a graveside or in the sudden quiet of their home, other people are experiencing wonderful things or a day when nothing more difficult happens than toast burning at breakfast. Because of ISIS, the media brought Diane Foley’s grief to millions of homes where so many women, whose sons or daughters are trying to make a difference in a very difficult world, feel her loss.
Perhaps James Foley’s death is more than television news to me because we share the Marquette University Jesuit experience. And I am humbled by what he managed to contribute to the world as a writer. His death assures his life work will not be forgotten. Perhaps that is the best comfort for Diane Foley.
Tonight I am working in a hotel room in Monticello, IN, the lake resort town where my husband’s family is gathering to celebrate his mother’s 90th birthday. We have been the advance crew assigned to sprucing up the house and putting a few details in place. Much of this activity has culminated in daily trips to Walmart and Ace Hardware. If you can’t find what you think you want at one of these stores, you probably don’t need it.
The guest of honor for Saturday’s gala is a busy woman. Well-wishers of all ages call or stop by her house. She taught in this town until she was 68 then continued reading at the same school to for an additional 20 years. She still reads at the Senior Center once a week. We won’t talk about the signs that suggest she is slowing down, we’ll celebrate how she keeps going.
Celebrating the release of his new book, Garrison Keillor has been in the news. A mere 71, he says he won’t be slowing down. People still listen to Prairie Home Companion and enjoy Keillor’s poetry as well as The Writer’s Almanac. There are other important fiction writers, older than Keillor, who continue to release new works—Margaret Atwood, PD James, Philip Roth to name a few.
Which all suggests that writers don’t have the opportunity to retire. If our minds are working and the words still flow, we don’t dare turn off our computers or throw away our notepads and pencils. Maybe we’ll shift our writing time from midnight to midmorning and limit word count to short stories or novellas. For some of us who started at this profession later in life, we have to hope to be blessed like my mother-in-law and celebrate our 90th birthday with publishing a little something.
The view from a hospital room is always the same—a bright spot suggesting that everyone else is moving along on a normal day while your world has become different. The next fifteen minutes, two hours, full day are controlled by virtual strangers speaking the same language, but with meanings you can’t decipher owning a layperson’s knowledge.
You wait in hospitals. Noon is a relative term for something that will happen in the early afternoon. There’s a reason for jokes about ‘hospital time’ as those inside reread the morning paper, watch home remodeling shows, drink coffee or ice water out of Styrofoam cups. Just like the cable guy might get hung up on the appointment before yours and blow through your afternoon, the doctors have patients with conditions that demand unexpected time. Except you aren’t sitting on a hard gurney wearing a loose short gown tied in the back over a bare bum as the cable guy adjusts someone else’s wires. You can talk on the phone, eat a sandwich, dig in the garden. Compared to a hospital, you have incredible freedom waiting at home for a repairperson.
There is fear in hospitals, or at least apprehension. Will the kidney stone have to be surgically removed? Will meds reduce fluid accumulation? Are the migraines caused by a mass where it shouldn’t be? The staff is busy. Machines beep. Monitors squawk. Nobody runs in with comforting words. They’ve seen it before and know everything will be okay. Or not.
Miracles and mistakes all happen in hospitals. Babies respond well to strong antibiotics. Old people have their systems brought back to stability. Surgery makes pain disappear. Infections develop that resist treatment. A procedure minimizes one discomfort while creating another.
Loved ones are trapped in a time warp between the outside world and hospital. They mix work and worry. They skip breakfast to be in a parent’s room when the doctor rounds at six in the morning, carry in lunch around mid-day for a specialist’s visit and check on progress before heading home too drained to answer family’s phone calls, shop for groceries or rest. They ask for more specific information about discharge times and hope a boss will remain understanding.
Whether patient or caregiver, urban or suburban, traditional or holistic, patient-centered or teaching center, the view from a hospital room is always the same—a bright spot that suggests everyone else is moving along on a normal day while your world has become something different.
It could have been a good joke. Did you hear the one about two priests, a pregnant woman and a guy in big hat? Wait for the punch line.
Another Tuesday morning at Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. Two young priests in full-length cassocks stand with arms outstretched as a TSA agent runs a wand over their bodies. The pregnant woman in front of me is called aside to remove lotion bottles from her carry on bag. A tall man with a tall ten gallon cowboy hat asks the agents to hand carry his new purchase through security. The security folks agree.
My ticket has “TSA PRECHK” on the top. I don’t have to remove my shoes. I’ve flown enough this year on one airline to earn this small special dispensation. The pregnant woman isn’t happy with differential treatment and grumbles as she eases out of her heels. On the other side we redress, reshuffle the things we carry, check our tickets and id are easily available, and disperse into the early business morning crowd.
There was a moment when we were a spontaneous community. Then the common experience is over and we are merely strangers who have successfully navigated a small challenge at seven thirty in the morning.
For some reason I need to write about these four people. On the tram to the concourse I consider taking out my laptop. I pass a collection of tables and think about stopping. Seasoned traveler, I get to the gate area and claim an end seat. The words haven’t disappeared, the sensation is still fresh, nothing else has distracted my thoughts.
Perhaps this small group stands out because each person so clearly carried unique identifiers into the homogenized crowd of dark-suited business travelers. The young priests proclaimed their faith, the pregnant woman could be called a mother, Mr. Cowboy carried his self-identity high above most of us. In a busy world where blending in is a valued skill, they were exceptional. Somehow they’ll find their way, as one grouping, into some future writing.
As for my Green Bay Packer logo jacket, well the insignia is tastefully embroidered on the left chest. Not really noticeable unless someone is looking closely at strangers in a crowd.
Amsterdam is a large airport, busy even at six thirty Sunday morning. Like many European airports it has transfer centers where passengers can check on their next flight or make changes to their reservations. It’s a good idea that would make more airports in the Untied States friendlier to visitors.
The KLM 330 empties hundreds of people journeying from Minneapolis to the cities and countryside’s of Scandinavia, Europe or beyond. Young people with more dreams than goods, parents nervous about shepherding kids through other countries with limited language skills, business people carrying the universal black packs stuffed with laptops and binders. I might be one of the older people on the flight making my way to Copenhagen where I’ll meet my niece for days of sightseeing.
Traveling out of my comfort zone triggers creativity and words– a small poem in a notebook carried in my purse, a short story about my grandfather on a legal pad, a character sketch on the iPad. Each sense is tuned to unknown stimulus. How to create a character from the Frenchman next to me in economy seats who devoured Dan Brown’s latest book during the eight-hour flight then left it on the seat. He offered it to me, but I am already traveling with more luggage than I want to carry including a book in hand and two ebooks. Wondering what language the man three rows back mutters during numerous visits from the crew that earned him a new seat mate for the second half of the trip, a tall man in a dark sport jacket and khaki slacks who said nothing. Trying to decipher the smells along the canals outside the hotel. Enjoying the undertones in the ice cream bought from a vendor along the walk.
The cabbie, a recent Turkish immigrant, spoke little English. The hotel staff moves from English to Danish and French or German. I listen for the little French or German I remember from relatives. The Danish words are difficult to tackle and I want to be independent, not so American. But then the glorious Sunday afternoon sun makes the waterways sparkle, people move along with weekend laziness, the server tells a small joke about the man playing violin for spare change and I am a world away from home in a good way.
My father is dying. The many physical failures of his eighty-five-year-old body have gained control in a way no medical intervention can defeat. He has a health directive in place so our family waits. In this holiday month a Christmas tree lights his apartment and seasonal music has become lullaby and comforter.
After the first assault of pictures, he will not watch the news from Connecticut. He said “We’ve seen this before” and asked the channel be changed. After growing up in a family of hunters and serving in both World War II and the Korean conflict, he has never owned a gun and doesn’t believe people living in the United States need guns in their homes. While more lucid earlier this week we spoke about a two year old boy killed by a brother only twice that age with a gun found under their father’s pillow. My father was saddened by the event.
My tears yesterday and today come from the sadness my very small family is experiencing, and for the horrific grief families in Newtown will carry forward for so many decades.
How sad to think that as a nation we have nothing to offer these families. No hope that there won’t be another massacre. No government protection of innocent lives against weapons meant to kill many people with minimal effort. We are not safe—not in movie theaters, shopping malls, colleges, churches, kindergarten classrooms. Powerful individuals with deep pockets of money have better friends in our government than young parents of beautiful children. If President Obama visits Newtown, I would have him bring every member of our Senate and ask each of them to sit for an hour with the family of a victim, to comfort a now childless mother or motherless child, and to carry that memory every day of their lives. To be simply human among real people.
When people ask what they can do for my family, I ask for their thoughts and prayers. That’s appropriate when losing our patriarch. When I ask what I can do for the families of Newtown, prayer seems like a less than satisfying offering. But they are in my prayers.
So many things can be said about being American. People wear red, white and blue or paint a flag on their chest. There are bumper stickers about my land and your land. Tonight fireworks will make thousands of small children cover their ears and thousands more clap their hands in delight. Obamacare, recall governors, tax reform, cities in disrepair. That’s all democracy in action.
Standing on Highway 42 in Egg Harbor, Wisconsin is about as American as the Fourth of July. Lots of people from Milwaukee, Illinois, Minneapolis stream come here to remember what it was like to live in a small town or to watch their kids have a blast catching candy from friendly strangers on floats built on someone’s driveway.
The Democrats marched. The Republicans marched.
The Catholics marched. Didn’t see any Lutherans self-promoting. (Garrison Keillor would have a few choice words about that.)
The University of Wisconsin marching band rode on wagons. There was a woman with camel and a cow on a truck and elegant clowns dancing together. A guy sang in Italian, a Latino boy lassoed by-standers, and the Belgians announced their festival.
The vets opened the hour tour of local pride with one of their own pulling the last float asking no one to forget his pals who lost their lives in Vietnam. Under hot sun on a rare ninety plus degree day in this town on the shores of Lake Michigan people applauded until the end.
Tuesday was a hectic mixture of personal obligations and working against the clock to complete research on a project before Wikipedia began its 24 hours of darkness to protest anti-piracy legislation. Feel confused by the issues and arguments of SOPA and PIPA. As a writer, intellectual property protection is important. As a writer, access to information is important. Both our senators support the legislation and they are good representatives. From healthcare to fracking, educational standards to immigration policy, the national issues are presented with such extreme emotion that my stance is to choose to not have a position in every battle.
Establishing traction after returning home from Ireland continues to be rugged. The pile of mundane matters pushed aside for the holidays and trip preparation still devours spare hours and the health of a family member has required significant time. Wikipedia-less Wednesday might be a boon with one less distraction to writing one more sentence or paragraph.
Good news is that a new short story is developing and a speculative fiction short story begun on the way home from Paris may have found its dramatic arc. No small accomplishments. Tomorrow facts can be checked.
A new iPod keeps music within reach. Right now classical piano fills in the quiet. Adele had her turn earlier. Time for fresh tea.
She stands in front of a packed room, eyes closed, smile on her face, and recites stories about Ireland and snowdrops and home. Paula Meehan, a Dublin poet, has decades of work to share and decades more to produce. Nothing about her homeland is too small to examine or too large to expose—an artist with courage.
When Minnesota Cold was released in 2009, Sarah Palin was talking about death panels hidden in President Obama’s healthcare plan. My first radio interview as an author, I was asked about national healthcare policy. For a person who usually listens to new acquaintances’ political beliefs before disclosing my own, the experience was jolting. If you write speculative fiction with political and social themes, you will be asked for your opinions. Of course.
Leaving Ireland tomorrow. Back to the quiet of my office and to a regular schedule and everyday life. February’s AWP swarm of thousands of attendees representing all parts of the creative and business parts of the writing world will fill another notebook with stuff I need to manage, but these eight days with ten other writers has filled my heart with stories.