Bill Bryson, My First 5k, and a Reckless Betrayal of My Childhood Sanctuary

It seems like all of us have a favorite musician or author, someone whose every work lines our shelves, bought simply because it was produced by an artist we admire. For instance, my husband automatically buys every MXPX album. For my own part, I collect the works of a few people: the Indigo Girls, Garrison Keillor’s collections of the News from Lake Wobegon, and the works of Bill Bryson.

Ah, Bill Bryson. Synthesizer of history, relater of amusing anecdotes, shameless lover of the adverb “arrestingly.” The first work of Bill Bryson’s that I came across and immediately had to have was A Walk in the Woods, his fascinating and humorous book on the venerable Appalachian Trail. I’m a fan of travel writing as I rarely travel and certainly have not done any of the sort of world travel I envisioned myself doing when I was a kid. I’m a huge fan and student of the natural world and I love history. Combine all of these interests and you have the ideal reader for A Walk in the Woods. While I’ve enjoyed and even relished reading his other books, it’s this first one I read that I keep coming back to.

Now, you may recall my summer hike at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore with my sister, Alison. If not, you can read about it it here, here, here, and here. I’m already looking forward to and brainstorming our next hike. We can’t take off weeks and months at a time, leaving work and family behind, to hike through whole states, but the impulse to get outside and just start walking down a beguiling trail that disappears into the woods is one I feel often. So imagine my glee at finding a used-yet-never-opened audio version of A Walk in the Woods read by Bill Bryson himself. Now as I drive I am accompanied by Bryson, the incomparable Stephen Katz, the insufferable Mary Ellen, and a host of other wonderful people walking the AT.

These were my companions as I drove to my hometown of Essexville on Friday in preparation for my very first 5k race on Saturday. I’d been training since late July (ever since my muscles stopped screaming at me after my hiking trip, in fact), though I slacked off a bit in October (for some strange reason I can only be diligent at something–anything–in two-month intervals). But as I drove toward the “thumb-pit” of the Mitten and listened to Bill Bryson talk of mountains, I had a renewed sense of the value of real physical exertion, of sweating and struggling to accomplish a goal with one’s body.

When I started running in July, my goal was simply to be able to run for five kilometers without having to stop. That’s it. And I was so far from that goal, I thought I would be very lucky to reach it. In fact, it only took a month of running three times a week to reach that goal. In the process I lost more than ten pounds (I was also watching what I was eating) which, according to knowledgeable people, is the equivalent of losing 30-40 pounds of pressure off your joints whilst running. So the process of training has been very beneficial and I was just happy that I wouldn’t completely embarrass myself.

The morning of the race was dreary, cold, and drizzly, and during the first mile I thought perhaps my fingers might go numb, but by mile two I was feeling good. My sister and I ran together the entire time and crossed the finish line at almost the same second. Our time was more than twice the time of the winner (who ran it in 18:56–just over 6 minutes a mile) but we did it and it was for a good cause.

The route brought Alison and I past our old junior high and high schools, my husband’s childhood home and church, many former homes of friends, and our own house, which we lived in from 1983 to 1998. We jogged by and marveled at the size of trees we remembered helping our father plant. We puzzled over the strange fencing choice of later owners. And I realized with a measure of horror and sadness that someone had cut down my beloved apple tree.

My tree. The one I spent untold hours sitting in, just me and my little girl thoughts. The one I could scamper up in but a moment, knowing, as I did, where all the right limbs were. The one that was covered in perfect, fragrant white blossoms that gently rained down on us each spring. The one that dropped bucketloads of tiny, deformed, sour green apples all over our lawn, which my sister and I would then have to gather in plastic grocery bags before dad mowed. (Alison, being the older, more responsible sister, would rush out to do the chore immediately upon being asked, while I, the slow-moving and distracted second child, would wander out once I heard the mower in the side yard to find that she had picked up all the hard green apples and left me the brown, gooey, rotting ones. Every time.)

It was gone. In its place was a little chintzy wooden jungle gym with a plastic slide, such as you might buy at Menards or Home Depot. A jungle gym? Why would you remove a gorgeous tree God clearly made for climbing and replace it with a freaking jungle gym? Did they not see that this was like draining a perfectly lovely lake only to replace it with one of those hideous blue inflatable above-ground pools? Now, I had asked my parents several times for a jungle gym as a child. Our neighbor had one, but we could only use it if he was out there, already playing, and invited us to come over. But Dad always said no. He didn’t want one because he thought they were tacky. They are. Still, you wouldn’t have had to cut down the world’s most perfect climbing tree to fit one into the yard. Why would they do such an idiotic and heartless thing?

But the race went on and I had to leave behind the monstrosity of the jungle gym in order to complete the task at hand.

On the way back to our parents’ condo after the race, Alison and I stopped at Tim Horton’s for coffee and a snack and met someone that Bill Bryson might describe as “an arrestingly congenial white-haired gentleman wearing a bright red shirt that declared on the front in bold white block letters, ‘Official Canadian Greeter,’ and on the back ‘Cliff, Numéro 1.'” When pressed, Cliff admitted he was not Canadian but that he had visited Nova Scotia with his wife. He said many other charming, old-man things and was a delightful addition to our respite from the gray drear outside.

After showers and lunch and Scrabble, I headed home again accompanied by the voice of Bill Bryson describing his dissatisfying attempts to cover portions of the Appalachian Trail a bit at a time without his boon companion Stephen Katz. His vague disappointment matched the rainy weather through which I drove. And then about the time he and Katz met back up to tackle the Hundred Mile Wilderness in Maine, the rain stopped and the clouds in the distance over Lansing broke open, pouring the evening sun down upon earth with gracious abandon. At home I weathered an attack with Nerf swords carried out by my four-year-old son and chased a foam football around the yard as he, with fits of giggles, through it backwards over his head to me in the deepening twilight.

We have no good climbing tree at our house, a thought that occasionally pains me as I see my boy scampering around at the many parks in our city. I feel in some way I have failed him by not providing that essential structure that afforded me so much desired solitude. But at least, I can now tell myself, there’s nothing sacred for some heartless future homeowner to cut down.

Why I’m Hoping for a Long, Cold, Snowy Winter

Wednesday of this past week my son and I spent the lovely 70 degree afternoon pulling up the vegetable plants, gathering herbs for drying, putting away sand toys and garden tools, and breaking up sticks for kindling. Soon I’ll move to wood pile near the back door and we’ll put tarps on the outdoor furniture and I’ll gather in the last of the lettuce and beans. Like the many busy squirrels we see burying nuts all over our yard, we are beginning the process of readying ourselves for winter.

It’s simply shocking to me, but I have realized over the years that most people don’t like winter. (Can you believe it?) They don’t like snow and they don’t like cold. Now, I can understand disliking gray clouds and pitch black mornings–though I’m trying to not let them get to me–but I love snow and I love cold. I love that for four or five months of the year I can wear sweaters and scarves and boots and hats. I love shoveling the driveway after a big snowstorm. I love taking hikes in snow up to my knees. I simply love the way winter makes you acutely aware of being a living thing.

Summer is easy. If your car breaks down or you get lost for hours in the woods during the warm months, you know you’re going to be all right. It’s only in winter when we are reminded that we are warm-blooded beings who are significantly different from the frigid, dead world around us. There’s an excitement and a fearful thrill to being outside in a foot or two of snow as the mercury drops well below freezing. And there is a palpable sense of contentment and joy at being inside on the couch in front of the fireplace, wrapped in a blanket, sipping a hot drink and listening to Bach or Duke Ellington.

Winter means five months of no yard work (beyond occasional shoveling). No weeding, no mowing, no raking, no planting, no trimming, no harvesting. It’s five months of talking yourself out of going out of the house (which is so overrated) and instead enjoying being home and doing homey things. It’s five months that slow you down a bit and give you a break from the bustle of the warm months. Winter means no rushing because it’s too dangerous to drive that fast. Winter means feeling like a daredevil adventurer when you drive across the state to visit family at Thanksgiving and Christmas and can tell them about how you cheated death, how you turned into the skid and avoided a colossal accident. Winter is helping that unfortunate person with rear wheel drive whose car got stuck, and feeling just a little bit smug about your winter preparedness. (How hard is it to stick a shovel in your trunk?)

I am hoping and praying for a very cold and snowy winter. Before you curse at me through your screen, consider that this is not just because I like snow. It’s because a huge part of our state’s economy depends on it. Unless you’ve been under a rock all summer, if you live in Michigan you know that the uncharacteristically early and warm spring, followed by the brutally hot and dry summer, brought our agricultural sector to a standstill. The crops that survived were sub-par and, because of supply and demand being out of whack, quite pricey. Maple syrup, cherries, apples, cider, peaches, corn–all of it suffered. And the people who grow it, process it, and ship it suffered too. Apparently the one silver lining in this agricultural nightmare is the wine industry. Grapes like hot, dry weather. (So buy lots of Michigan wine, please.)

Last winter in Lansing we had only one significant snowfall and much of the rest of the state was green most of the season as well. So who suffered while people were happily going about in shirtsleeves and even shorts? The entire winter resort/sports sector, people who normally plow our streets, ice fishing, places where you can tube or ski or ice skate. And probably many more I’m not thinking of. Our whole state depends on a good cold, snowy winter.

I’m getting ready for one.

Hemingway’s Michigan

After the writers conference ended on Saturday, we drove through 133 miles of dense fog, construction, rain, and starless night up 131 to Acme, Michigan. This was not our ultimate destination, but a convenient resting place on the way to drop off our son at my sister’s house to play with his cousins (after brunch at the amazing Pearl’s New Orleans Kitchen). We then drove another 40 miles through the pouring rain to Petoskey, where we were finally going to take a free tour of Hemingway’s Michigan that we won at a silent auction last October.

Ernest Hemingway Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Though he lived in Oak Park, Illinois, Ernest Hemingway spent his boyhood summers up in northern Michigan, fishing the streams and exploring the wild landscape. These experiences are the basis of many of his short stories, most obviously the Nick Adams stories. Our guide to Hemingway’s boyhood haunts was Michael R. Federspiel, author of Picturing Hemingway’s Michigan and director of the Little Traverse History Museum in Petoskey. After a short time with the museum’s Hemingway collection, we all piled into Michael’s SUV and spent the next 90 minutes in literary historical bliss.

While the weather could have been better, I try to make it a point to enjoy myself despite rain, snow, or cold. And I did. I had such a wonderful time discussing Hemingway with our guide. I saw the places that were important to a young Ernest Hemingway, including the home where his pithy writing style was likely born, the general store where he picked up the letter from Agnes that told him their love affair was just a child’s game after all, the home his mother built as a getaway from Windemere across Walloon Lake, the restaurant where he and Hadley had their wedding reception, the pier he used as a model for the one in “Up In Michigan,” the  Hemingway farm now covered in forest, the library where Hemingway, in his Italian uniform, spoke to the Ladies Auxiliary about his wartime experiences.

Each spot, surrounded by the peak of fall color and bathed with cleansing drops of rain, sat unmoved and undimmed by the passage of time. These homes and businesses have been marvelously kept up, so that you would never know they were more than one hundred years old and once echoed with the footsteps of a soon-to-be-famous man. When you know the tragedy of his life, of how he purposefully, and often with a dreadful finality, shut nearly every door of friendship, love, and family that were open to him as a young man, you can really sense the heavy weight of choices and circumstances. If he could have but held to the careless, joyful days of those endless summers. If he could have held in higher regard all those people who cared about him and worried over him. Would his fate have been different?

To see the setting of Hemingway’s youthful summers in the grey pallor of a fall rainstorm is to see what was to become of him.

Along with the tour, the auction winnings included a signed print of a woodcut and one of Hemingway’s poems, “Along with Youth,” which seems a fitting way to end this post. He wrote it in a rented room in Paris in 1922, the year after he visited Walloon Lake for the last time for his wedding to Hadley.


A porcupine skin,
Stiff with bad tanning,
It must have ended somewhere.
Stuffed horned owl
Yellow eyed;
Chuck-wills-widow on a biased twig
Sooted with dust.
Piles of old magazines,
Drawers of boy’s letters
And the line of love
They must have ended somewhere.
Yesterday’s Tribune is gone
Along with youth
And the canoe that went to pieces on the beach
The year of the big storm
When the hotel burned down
At Seney, Michigan.

My Take on the Breathe Writers Conference 2012

This past weekend my husband and I attended the Breathe Christian Writers Conference in the Grand Rapids area. The speakers included a good friend of ours, a former coworker, a freelancer of mine, and my husband’s agent, so I was excited to attend and see familiar faces as I thought deeply about writing. I love writers conferences. If fact, I really like the whole conference experience. The lanyards, the tables of books, the feeling of going to class, the comradery, the hum of ideas as they buzz around in people’s heads.

For those of you who may not have been to such a conference before, here’s the skinny on the sessions I attended and whether or not I think I will be able to put what I learned into action in my writing.

Writing a Personality-Packed Book Proposal by Lorilee Craker

Lorilee has had my job before. She’s been a freelancer for me. My company has published some of her books. We’re friends on Facebook. But it was so nice to finally see her face to face. She has a wonderful personality and her workshop on proposals was very well done and helpful.

Writing from Your Passion and Perspective by Tim Burns

I found the first half of Tim’s presentation interesting and helpful. He talked a bit longer than I thought was necessary on Peter’s life and I would have preferred more time for the “students” in the room to interact on the subject so we could hear from each other about where we come from in our writing. This session also led me to ask once more the question that has vexed me for more than a decade: So if my life is not laced with tragedy (as were the lives of Tim’s example writers) how exactly to I draw deep as a writer from what feels like a comparatively shallow well of experience? Can happy people with blessed lives be compelling writers?

Finding Your Voice–And Your Story’s by Dave Lambert

Former executive fiction editor at Zondervan (bonehead move cutting all those experienced editors from your staff, Zondervan) and also a former editor at Howard Publishing of Simon & Shuster, Dave Lambert was knowledgeable, had excellent illustrative examples, and had the manner of a good teacher. I think this was my favorite session by far. While developing a voice in fiction cannot be taught, exactly, and it cannot be manufactured, this session gave me a lot to think about in terms of how my POV affects everything in my story and helps define my voice over time.

Conquering Your Writing Fears by Sharron Carrns

I don’t have a lot of writing fears. More like one specific fear. Okay, maybe two. But I’m not riddled with them. Still, Sharron’s candid and thoughtful presentation, along with her very helpful handout, did help me realize that there is not one thing out of place for me in my life when it comes to being meant to write and set up to publish. I’ve always had tremendous parental, scholastic, and spousal support for my writing. My education has been just what it needed to be. I’ve worked in the business for over a decade. The only piece that I need to continue to work on is the actual writing! So this session gave me another little mental boost. Write, write, write!

Common Mistakes Novelists Make–And How to Avoid Them by Jocelyn Green

Another case where the speaker had a great handout full of clear examples (many from lovely and talented authors I work with in my publishing house). Jocelyn had much good advice to give.

Beyond the workshops, I loved Alison Hodgson‘s talk on the sort of courtship rituals involved in writing and publishing. Her piece was laced with the pain of having lost her home in a random act of arson, of wanting to write but not knowing quite how to draw it all out, of seeing herself almost as a “fake” writer, and of the continual process of coming to grips with the fact that when you are a writer, you must write. She had me cracking up and welling up the whole time. What a talented woman.

And now we come to the keynote speaker, Terry Whalin. His Friday talk, “Never, Never, Never Give Up” was great. Lots of encouragement and stories of people who finally made it because they wouldn’t give up. I enjoyed hearing his stories at lunch of his time as a Wycliffe Bible Translator and his adventures in South America. But his talk Saturday seemed scattered, less prepared than the one the day before. It didn’t seem particularly on point and instead dripped with name-dropping that a generous person would call…tacky. But by and large he has a lot of helpful resources for writers out there on the interwebs and he seems like an endlessly energetic person. His positivity will rub off on you. And that’s always a good thing.

If your interest in writers conferences has been piqued, find one in your area. Just start Googling. If you’re in the midwest, plan on joining us at Breathe 2013. I just may be one of the speakers. ;)

One Chapter Leads to the Next

As season gives way to season, so the ending of one chapter of life is the beginning of another. There are the obvious transitions–graduations, weddings, births, deaths, divorces, jobs begun and jobs ended–those abrupt moments that change everything. But unlike in books, when white space and large numerals indicate the next chapter, sometimes in life we only recognize the ending of one thing and the beginning of another in hindsight. The change is so gradual–the drifting apart of spouses, the slow fizzle of friendship, the long development of a talent until it finally defines us.

I have been through many a hobby and many an interest, as you have, I’m sure. At one point or another I have filled up my free time with stamping, painting, making jewelry, selling Pampered Chef, taking care of pet lizards and mice and tree frogs, making mosaics, developing my gardens, leading nature walks, making quilts, sewing a closet full of clothes, decoupage, seeing nearly every movie in the theaters, making paper, going to the gym…and I could go on. (You may notice the glaring absence of housework from that long list. This was not an accident.)

One hobby that I have been particularly proud of over the past six years is being a docent at Potter Park Zoo. 50+ hours of every year since 2006 I have given over to educating people about our zoo, conservation, ecology, and many different kinds of animals. I have worked firsthand with some amazing animals and some amazing people. And I have loved each moment of it. But I find that this is a chapter that is ending for the time being. Those precious hours need to be put to a different use.

I have also, for the past several years, been sewing steadily, creating around 75 items of clothing (more than 40 of those in just the last year as a regular contributor to The Sew Weekly) and more than 30 quilts. It garners me a lot of compliments and it is a fun and rewarding hobby. I have committed to finishing a quilt for my son next year and I’ll do some more outfits for the Sew Weekly to close out 2012. But I find that this is a chapter that is sort of ending for the time being.  Those precious hours need to be put to a different use.

What use? Why would I voluntarily end activities that pleased me and often helped others? For the simple reason that I need to use that time to write.

People often ask me how I find time to do all the things I do. We all get 24 hours a day. Most of us have to work to make a living. Many of us have spouses and children to care for. When I was feeling overwhelmed by responsibilities as a young mother going back to work I made a schedule for my days, not to follow exactly, but simply to see if it was possible to do all that I had to do. I filled up my 24 hours quickly and sat back to look at my work, amazed and feeling pretty satisfied that I had fit everything in. Then I noticed that I had forgotten to allow any time for showering, dressing, making meals, or even eating. So I had to reprioritize. I couldn’t make more time. I had to cut things out and cut things back. I had to reclaim time.

And at this point in my life I must reclaim time again. I must sacrifice some good things in favor of something better. Writing. In November I am doing National Novel Writing Month, devoting my extra time to writing about 2000 words each day. Beyond that, in 2013, I am devoting the time I would have used for sewing or tramping around the zoo to finishing and revising my second novel. And starting a third.

To find the kind of time one needs in order to really make a go at writing, to make it more than a hobby, one must be willing to let go of other things, even if they are good things. Because even I can’t do it all (even if to some people it seems that I can). And you can’t either.

Is one chapter of your life slowly and perniciously turning into the whole story of your life? Maybe it’s time to wrap that chapter up and start on a fresh page. If you want to write…then maybe it’s time to write.