A Nudge at the Right Time

Sometimes that’s all it takes.

I have some really great friends. Two in particular come to mind, both writers, both having written fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Good people. They’ve experienced challenges in their lives, like the rest of us, but both contain a generosity of spirit that allows them to nurture someone else who’s hurting even in the midst of their own travails. They’re an inspiration to all who meet them, and if I manage to return even a bit of the kindness they’ve given me, I will do it without question or reservation.

At any rate, I’ve written here about the effect the past couple of years has had on my ability to write. A lot of people rallied round and rah-rah’d, assuring me that I’d come out of the malaise, that my words were waiting and I just needed to knuckle down and try (as though I hadn’t), but these two particular friends built a nest of eider around me; not to protect me from life’s hard knocks (nothing does that), but to give me space to hurt and mourn, because that’s what I was doing – mourning not only the loved ones lost, but the cherished occupation I could no longer access. These friends were gentle and encouraging, and when the time was right (notice of open submissions to Tupelo Quarterly) they encouraged (not nagged) and put on just the right amount of pressure.

Yes, I must have been ready for it, otherwise no amount of encouragement would have made me submit somewhere I didn’t want to, or didn’t feel I ought. And though this submission comes with a bit of uncertainty, well, hell, don’t they all? We never know when we’re going to be published. (At least most of us don’t.) So, yeah, the girl has picked up the gauntlet again…with a sense of relief I can’t quite express.

But as for these friends — John and Shifra — you’re lifesavers and I love you.

 

A Hearty “Thank You”

…to the staff and patrons at Estacada Library in Estacada, OR for the opportunity to be the kick-off presenter for the 2022 Adult Programming. I appreciate all who attended, eager to learn more about my friend Roger Henneous and his remarkable elephants through my book ELEPHANT SPEAK. Special thanks to Library Director Michele Kinnamon, and especially to Adult Services Librarian Leslie Pearson who first contacted me about the possibility of participating, and who then served as my contact person, as well as my Zoom Guru for the event. I could not have done it without her.

Finding Light

I received the following response to my post “New Year, New Attitude” from Andrea Buka:

I am coming to the same realization as you about cumulative grief. It is overwhelming sometimes.

Last week I came to the realization that I cannot abide spending a third year just waiting it out. Waiting for what? I need to find practices that are healing and counteract the grief and depression. For me this is a resolve to get more exercise and to make things. Cook again, sew again, journal again. And less time in Facebook and more in real books.

I know exactly what you mean when you talk about the dark feelings taking over. I think they sucked away the last 2 years of my life. Thank you for sharing your writing about the dark and the light. It makes me hear your voice, both when I am reading it and later on, too, when I need it.

Thank you, Drey.

It’s an unfunny reality about bad feelings that when they first begin, we often work diligently to try to dispel them. But over the long haul (at least in my experience) they can wear us down, eroding our belief in the light, battering us until, when light does emerge, we sometimes turn away from it, unwilling to believe in the reality of its existence, or that it will endure, that we can trust it. Instead, we wind ourselves deeper in darkness like burrowing beneath the bedclothes because that’s what we’ve come to know, and we hate it, but it’s now our normal and it feels safe even as it’s sucking us dry.

I can’t speak to Andrea’s experience of the past two years, but that’s where I’ve been. Initially, it was too much all at once…too many disappointments, too much loss, and too much sudden change. I’ve never been good with change. I like it (sometimes), but I prefer when it’s initiated by my own hand and comes on at a pace with which I can cope. (Good luck with that; it’s not in the nature of change to be so accommodating.)

The change that (for us in the US, at least) rumbled in the distance in 2019 and landed in our laps in 2020 was sudden and crushing. If you looked closely (assuming you could bear to), you’d find it was faceted, this weight, and each facet mirrored further change, further turmoil and loss. We cowered in our caves in fear of what was outside, because now an invisible monster stalked our streets and whispered at the window, crept in under the door, lodged beneath our fingernails. The monster kept us from those we love, from those who we offer strength, and who offer us strength in return. It cut us off at the knees. Its light illuminated our best nature (consider all those who worked to feed the destitute, and every frontline person who risked their own lives laboring to save the ill) and shone harshly on our worst. (I’m put in mind of the woman who was quoted as saying, “Why should I care about strangers?”)

I envy those who found purpose early on. At the beginning I thought Shelter in place? I’ll get so much writing done! And I did…for awhile…until one psychological blow after another shut down my resources. I felt drained of all vitality and emotionally battered, unable to persist in the exercise I knew I should do, unable to make myself sit and work, to be productive, unable to even make a dent in the stack of books beside the bed.

I’m still trying to understand that time. “That time” makes it sound as if it’s over. If only it were. But it’s ongoing…and changing,  had you noticed?…but what I’m discovering with the beginning of this new year is a reemergence, in myself, of a warrior spirit. And she’s fairly well pissed off. 

Not at myself. (There’s that, at least.) I can, and must, forgive my own inertia these many months. I can, and must, honor the grief I’ve experienced, the many deaths, some very personal, others those strangers that woman spoke of, because how can any Human Being not shake at their core by the knowledge of over five million deaths (and counting) across the globe. It’s like contemplating the stars; your brain can’t contain the immensity.

But now it’s time for me to move toward the light again, to find it, and to create it if I can’t find it, because I need it. Northeast Ohio, where I currently reside, is not a place renowned for sunlight in the winter. Days here (weeks on end, sometimes) are cloaked in an undifferentiated gray (what my husband’s cousin has dubbed the “Kent Cloud”) without nuance or texture. On those rare days with a peek of sunlight, I will bundle up and stalk the neighborhood, or one of the area’s many walking trails, and turn my face to the light.

Coming in late yesterday afternoon from one such walk, I stopped and marveled at a tiny speck of yellow in the grass by our front stoop. It was a dandelion; closed, yes, but only just, waiting for any brief moment of warmth, of sun, to stretch wide and reach toward the sky.

 

Hitting the Road Again (Metaphorically Speaking, That Is)

For those of you who like to tune in to listen (and, I hope, participate) to a discussion of elephants and writing, I’m doing a Zoom presentation through the kind auspices of The Estacada Library in Estacada, OR on Thursday, January 13 from 6:30-7:30, PST. (Contact the library at https://www.cityofestacada.org/library for details.)

Wonders Never Cease

I’ve been a fan of Krampus for a long time. I appreciate the balance he brings to the holiday, and I like to think that he and old Santa are quite fond of one another, working in tandem as they do. I’ve watched most of the Krampusnacht videos on YouTube (and if you haven’t, you should), but I never expected to meet him.

Color me startled, but who knew there was a conclave of Krampuses (Krampesi? Krampusei?) (Ah, I just Googled it: di Krampi) in Ohio of all places.

Yeah, I know….no one seems to think anything goes on in Ohio. I hear it all the time from people who discover we’ve moved here. The resounding question is always WHY? And there are those who tell us they’ll NEVER come visit because who, like, goes to Ohio ON PURPOSE?!

Their loss.

Because not only are there venues where to you can meet and greet these lovely folk, but there’s also a polka band that performs with them, and puts on a stellar and thoroughly kick-ass polka version of “The Night Before Christmas.” I kid you not. (And if anyone had told me 13 months ago that I’d be singing the praises of a polka band, I’d have said they were nuts, but I’m here to tell you right now that the Chardon Polka Band is stupendous. (Here you go. I dare you.) The loud hooting you hear is me and my daughter Theresa.

As Theresa put it halfway through the show, “I’m smiling so much, my face hurts.” Me, too, kid.

 

New Year, New Attitude

As Patti LaBelle sings it, “I got a new attitude.”  I’m trying anyway, and isn’t that half the battle? 

So Happy New Year to all. Don’t know if you partied hearty or kept it low-key like us (fabulous meal cooked by my husband, eaten while watching the National Theatre production of “Romeo and Juliet”), but however you chose to ring out the old/ring in the new (or not), I wish you a coming year of peace, prosperity, health, happiness, and mental equilibrium.

The change in my attitude can partly be blamed on writer John B. Valeri, whose annual year’s end poem hit the mark, as usual. Damned astute guy, our John. He picks up on the universality of feelings. I’d like to share it with you:

Take This Moment, Make This Wish

Do you feel a world apart
When all you want is to be together
Did somebody break your heart
When you thought you had forever

Do you feel miles away
When there’s only time or distance
Did you forget the words to say
When you were met with resistance

If you feel alone this December
It might do you good to remember

We all look up to the same sky
We breath air from the same trees
We all search for reasons why
We can agree to disagree

Take this moment, make this wish
Peace to all, and happiness
The joy comes from within
So that’s where we begin

Do you feel left in doubt
When you used to know your mind
Did you look within, without
When you left it all behind

Do you feel you’ve lost your way
When you used to have direction
Did you somehow go astray
When you reached the intersection

If you feel lost this December
It might do you good to remember

We all sleep under the same stars
We are warmed by the same sun
We all carry our own scars
We can be the change that starts with one

Take this moment, make this wish
Peace to all, and happiness
The joy comes from within
And that’s where we begin

**********

That’s where we begin…. And so I shall. 

I also read something recently that talked about the cumulative effect of grief, that as each grievous thing occurs, if you haven’t had time to process it even a little, well, it’s piles up like sludge in a pipe until you’re overwhelmed. I think that’s a lot of what’s been going on with me. Not just exhausted with another year of pretty much keeping to ourselves (for those who care, yes, we’re vaccinated and boosted), but shouldering the loss of so many individuals we know and love.

But if I hope to keep the dark feelings from taking over forever (and I have the good example of certain relatives to know what that looks like when it comes home to roost), the change needs to come from inside me. Wish me luck.

It’s Alive!

Luke Perkins

This fellow here is my nephew, Lucas Richard Perkins. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Luke died last November after a 30-year battle with Cystic Fibrosis.

And believe me, he gave the bastard a beating. Cystic Fibrosis, life itself, and that thing we all fall prey to called “bad life choices” had slowly robbed Luke of just about everything he loved. Understandably, it made him resentful and so very, very angry that not many people could reach past that rage. (Although I’m happy to say that I recently learned from his mom that in the days prior to his death, he found a way to set aside the pain and become who he was at heart – a warm, compassionate, loyal, and loving human being.)

Anyway, a few weeks (maybe months) after Luke died, I felt compelled to write a poem about him. “Compelled” is too soft a word to describe the experience; basically something out there in the ether grabbed me by the brain and hand, shoved my ass into a chair, and disgorged five or six stanzas unlike anything I’d ever written. It took a couple more days to bring it to a finish, and when it was done I felt like I’d been possessed. Luke was something of a writer himself, although never had a chance to explore where it might have taken him, and I like to think he took advantage of the writer in the family to let us know he’s okay. There’s plenty of folks out there who’ll say that’s bullshit, but their opinions don’t matter. I know what I know. And even if I don’t know what I know, if it brings me, and Luke’s other family and loved ones, a measure of peace, where’s the harm?

I posted the poem to his Facebook page because I couldn’t think of where else to put it. As you might guess from the picture, motorcycles figured prominently in Luke’s life, but I couldn’t imagine any motorcycle magazine printing poetry. Ray Agnew, a long-ago friend from high school and an accomplished musician, read the poem and asked if he might set it to music. I was understandably thrilled by the offer and of course said yes. Ray took the project and ran with it, bringing in other talented musicians including his son Zane.

I’m proud to announce the song “Heaven’s Highway” (words and music by Melissa Crandall and Ray Agnew; music by Ray Agnew) is now available for purchase (a bank-breaking 99-cents) on Amazon music. You can also hear it on Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IDU2Alr-a2w. ALL PROCEEDS are donated to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation in hopes of vanquishing this awful disease that has affected too damn many of my family.

Thank you, and happy listening.

Momentum Like a Long, Low Swell…

…is often how it goes in this game of writing, or at least that’s my experience of it. Famine, feast, famine. It’s an oft-used example, but it really is a lot like one loose pebble on a hillside. Once it begins to roll, you can either end up with a landslide or it’ll get lodged against something else, halfway down the slope.

I gratefully take the work of progress as it comes. And it is work, make no mistake.

So I’m happy to announce the next little progression in the life of ELEPHANT SPEAK: A Devoted Keeper’s Life Among the Herd. It’s very early days yet, but on January 13, 2022, from 6:30pm to 7:30 pm, I will be guest of honor on Zoom courtesy of the Estacada Library in Estacada, OR (https://www.cityofestacada.org/library). The thing I love about these online meetings is that people from all over the globe can tune in, so please pass the word along to those you know who have an interest in elephants. I plan on showing pictures from the life of elephant keeper Roger Henneous, telling a bit about him, and maybe sharing a story or two that didn’t make it into the book. I hope you’ll join us.

1974 Press Photo Roger Henneous, Portland Zoological’s head elephant keeper. Jim Vincent/The Oregonian

Coping with All that’s Been

“What a year” has become so cliché that no one is saying it much anymore; we merely give one another that look and move on. We all know where we’ve been, at least to some degree. No need to belabor the point.

Like many creative sorts I’ve spoken to over these many months, I’ve run into a rough patch. I’m envious as hell of those who’ve experienced little negative impact on their work, or who’ve actually increased their output. Well done, you! But that’s not me.

This fallowness, for want of a better word, began well before the onset of COVID, back around the time I sent in the final final manuscript for ELEPHANT SPEAK. I chalked it up to exhaustion. I’d been working steadily on the book for almost six years without a break: writing, researching, crafting, editing, more researching, and many wonderful telephone calls with Roger Henneous. Once the book was in the hands of Ooligan Press (all hail Ooligan Press!), it’s no wonder I felt the desire–nay, the need–to kick back and relax a bit, let the old creative batteries recharge. I’d been writing (and lucidly dreaming) of nothing but elephants for so long, it seemed impossible that state of affairs wasn’t going to continue. But, of course, it didn’t. The book was done, the elephants celebrated, Roger introduced to the world. Then COVID hit, and not quite a year later, Roger was gone.

After a couple of weeks, I felt eager and ready to begin my next project. And that’s when the trouble started. Kurt Vonnegut said one should write from one’s areas of deepest passion. I agree. The problem was, I felt passionate about nothing. Old snippets and ideas of stories lay before me like seeds dead in the ground. I couldn’t seem to jump-start anything.

I did have a bit of reprieve last fall/winter. From October 2020 to this past spring I had a steady run of poems pouring out the ends of my fingers. Some of them were even good (although most weren’t). Then even those passed and I was left with…well, pick your metaphor: the sound of sand blowing across an open courtyard; silence that echoes loud as a cathedral bell; the open vistas of a dead planet.

Really, it kinda sucks.

I’ve even tried to make the words come, although that’s patently ridiculous. So I’ve now given myself permission to back away from the computer and all those old ideas. Maybe if I clear the way of ancient stuff, something new and wonderful will appear. (If the universe is listening, I’d love to do another elephant book, maybe one about the elephants in captivity, before they’re gone and we no longer know their stories, a coffee table book with lovely pictures.)

*****

That’s not to say wonderful things haven’t happened. To whit:

I just returned from a short visit back to Connecticut during which I connected with some much-loved and much-missed friends, and presented a talk on ELEPHANT SPEAK hosted by the wonderful Bill Library in Ledyard, CT:

And I’ve recently been contacted by the folks at the Estacada Library in Estacada, Oregon to do a Zoom presentation for their Adult Winter Reading Program in which they “offer the most engaging programming.” I’m honored to be asked, to have accepted, and I look forward to working with them.

*****

Last year, just after Thanksgiving, my nephew Lucas Perkins lost his battle with Cystic Fibrosis. In the weeks that followed, a poem emerged which I subsequently posted to Facebook. (I say emerged, but it was more like the work was generated through me by the hands of another, maybe Luke himself.) Singer/Songwriter Ray Agnew read it and asked if he could put it to music. The result of our collaboration, “Heaven’s Highway” will be available for purchase on Ray’s website, http://www.rayagnewsongs.com/, beginning November 1. (You can also find out about it on his Facebook page, Ray Agnew – Singer/Songwriter.)

Thanks for being there.

My Elephant CuP Runneth Over

A quick shout-out to the Kent Free Library, librarian Kristen Pool (acting manager, Adult Services), and the lovely folks who joined us for a Zoom event last evening to discuss ELEPHANT SPEAK and the world of Roger Henneous. We had a terrific turnout given that many people are forgoing Zoom now for outdoor events, and a lively discussion afterward. (And a special thank you to listener–and raffle winner!– Geoff Thompson who offered excellent questions, insight, and a recommendation that I talk to his local bookstore in California about stocking the book. Thanks, Geoff!)

Oregon Zoo, March 2020, with Sung Surin (aka Shine) and keeper Joe Sebastiani