Category: imagination

Learning Happened Here

Nine years ago this winter, newlyweds Dave and I stood in the middle of a relative’s field and decided to build a sort of nest here, a home on some land outside of town. Farmers in this area generally alternate between soybean and corn crops, and 2005 was a corn year on this particular Wurth property, so we stood in the softening brown rows of recently-harvested stubble and imagined a home. I still have an ear of corn that the combine missed that season. It’s propped in a corner of a downstairs windowsill, to remind me of what was here before me.

We weren’t the first builders on this site. A local historian, also a Wurth relative, told us that in the early Twentieth Century,  a one-room country school stood on this very corner. Constructed on every southeast square-mile corner down this main road, Amherst Township country schools, like most, had to be accessible for walking children.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and I’m thankful for many things. One of them is that education has always been one of the first priorities for settlers on the Great Plains and the West, a legacy of which I am a happy beneficiary. In most homesteading communities, once shelter was erected for people and animals and crops were planted, even far-flung neighbors gathered to discuss their children’s education. Even before it was compulsory, education was a dream American settlers claimed for their children.

So, learning happened here, long before we built our dreams. Down in this ground, there may be chips of slate, rusting nails or broken toys. Maybe crumbling bits of a schoolhouse foundation and broken glass. Around where I sit at my desk, children gathered when a school bell rang, for study and play, reciting lessons, expanding their thoughts and becoming citizens of the wider world. A coal stove belched smoke and glowed to keep out the winter chill. Chalk dust hovered in the air and a water bucket with a dipper probably stood in the corner.  Books fell on the floor. Inkwells spilled. Feet scraped on hardwood floors. I wonder where the outhouse stood? There’s a thought. No wonder this soil is so fertile, and my flowers so bright every summer!

Considering the old school that stood on these corner acres, I’m even more grateful to live in this place. Thank you, children, for being an invisible but real part of my history. Thank you, teachers, for all you gave. You still provide joy, as I remember.

For those of us who take comfortable, well-equipped schools, computers and information for granted in this digital age, let’s put our energies into teaching our children what’s most important. Let’s teach them to be grateful for the people who were first in their places, and the richness of history that surrounds them.

Let’s teach them how to think and how to learn, before they leave our nest.

Golden Women Writing the West

Go West, Woman Writer…

IMG_1498Women weren’t specifically encouraged to “Go West” as pioneers in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, but many did, nonetheless. They went as single women, wives, entrepreneurs, investors, farmers and ranchers, including and beyond the stereotypes of madams and soiled doves. (Hollywood’s John Wayne in his Western characters never met most of those women, but if he had, he may have been delighted and a bit intimidated by their strength and spirit.) Some of their genetic and spiritual great-granddaughters, Women Writing the West, gathered in mid-October in Golden, Colorado, at The Golden Hotel and The Table Mountain Inn. I was delighted to join them as a new member. We came not to pan gold or rope steers or run hotels, and not even to brew beer (a nod to Coors, at home in Golden), but to consider what it means to write the history and experience of the West.

WWW logoWomen Writing the West is a nonprofit association of publishers and writers who set down the Western North American experience via journalism, nonfiction articles and books, screenplays, mass media and children’s literature. They write contemporary, literary, historical and romance novels, short stories, and poems, but these categories only begin to describe their artistic ventures. This year was the twentieth anniversary of the organization, and many Founding Members were present for special honors.

This autumn, Golden beckoned farmers, scientists, ranchers, teachers, and even businesswomen, from Canada, Alaska, South Dakota, Virginia, California, Oregon, New York, Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, New Mexico…well, you get the idea. The West lives everywhere.

Key conference speakers included Sandra Dallas, Susan Wittig Albert and Corinne Brown. Panelists led us through sessions as varied as Writing the West for Kids, Women’s Fiction, Place as Character, Self-Publishing, Trends in Publishing, Social Media and Collaboration Strategies. Mystery series author Margaret Coel led an inspiring session, My Journey with the Arapahos, that I’ll never forget. I learned so much, and came away so inspired, it’s hard to sleep at night…but I keep a notepad on the bedside table, to catch ideas.

IMG_1524The Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum hosted the readings by, and reception for, this year’s WILLA/LAURA awards finalists. There were beautiful quilts on display, including the one WWW members made for this 20th Anniversary celebration.

CherokeeOn Friday Night, we met at the American Mountaineering Center to screen a new film, The Cherokee Word for Water, about Wilma Mankiller, the late Native American activist and modern Cherokee Chief. Her husband, producer and director, Charlie Soap, film producer Kristina Kiehl, and the young star who played Wilma in the film, Kimberly Guererro, met with us for a Q & A after the screening. View the film trailer and watch for this amazing story of how a community saved itself with hard work and “gadugi,” soon showing online or in a theater near you.

IMG_1508While the West is a physical region and encompasses an historic era, it truly lives, as one conference writer said, as a state of mind. In the West of the imagination, anything can happen. Fortunes can be won and lost, lives are wagered on a bright future and the wealth of our nation daily expands beyond our founders’ dreams, out where the tumbleweeds roll, the buffalo snort and the silicon harbors data.

418px-Baby_Doe_TaborBeing a woman in the West was always something special, yet usually untold. Many have heard of the Unsinkable Molly Brown, or even Baby Doe Tabor, Colorado’s Silver Queen, who lived in glitter and died in squalor. But if you want to know Grace Robertson, a teenage bride alone on the South Dakota Prairie, read Dawn Wink’s novel, Meadowlark. Karen Casey Fitzjerrell’s Forgiving Effie Beck, which just won the 2014 Will Rogers Gold Medallion Award, leads you through a mystery of a woman gone missing in 1930s Texas. To see frontier justice through a woman named Emilee, read Retribution, by Tammy Hinton, which garnered the 2014 Will Rogers Silver Medallion Award. To learn the secret of the Little House on the Prairie writing process, read Susan Wittig Albert’s A Wilder Rose, about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. For heartwarming Women’s Fiction, try Journey to Sand Castle, by Leslee Breene. If you prefer nonfiction and want to consider health, ecology and the power of connection with the natural world for healing, begin with Susan Tweit’s Walking Nature Home: A Life’s Journey. I met each of these women, and I’m saving more to write about in future posts, as I experience their work.

IMG_1586The highlight of the conference was the women themselves, and I basked in their warm welcome. Their voices, their love of writing and their encouragement inspire me to both live and write more deeply. As Margaret Coel put it in plainspoken Western style, “People tell you all the time what you can’t do. Don’t listen to them.”

IMG_1564On Sunday morning, to send us off in high style, many of us gathered for a High Tea, featuring our best historical costumes. Corinne Brown presented an amazing array of Western women characters telling their stories, deepening my appreciation for our foremothers’ sacrifices and endurance.

The great beauty of the West is in its still-to-be-explored history, changeability and multicultural fabric, reflected in and by this happy gathering of writers and publishers. Among them, this writer has claimed a new homestead.

WWW 2015 CatalogFor a pdf catalog of more great books by and about the Great Plains and West, go to this link and click on the “View the 2015 Catalog” button at mid-page. Take a leisurely walk through wild country…no cowboy boots or turquoise jewelry is required… but then again, they might get you faster service.

Imagining All Summer in a Day

rainy day by jenny rolo

rainy day by jenny rollo

“‘Ready?’
‘Ready.’
‘Now?’
‘Soon.’
‘Do the scientists really know? Will it happen today, will it?’
‘Look, look; see for yourself!’
The children pressed to each other like so many roses, so many weeds, intermixed, peering out for a look at the hidden sun.”

— Ray Bradbury, “All Summer in a Day”

After last year’s threatened drought, it’s rained heavily this spring, seemingly everywhere in the U.S. Thunderstorms, floods and tornadoes rattle, wash and shatter us with their scope and power. Weather changes can be dramatic and deadly. Sometimes they bring on physiological reactions to humidity, temperature atmospheric pressure changes. More rain? Drip. Ouch. Sigh. Bleh.

Seeing our potential ten-day forecast for another eight days of consecutive rain, I almost let my head thump down on my keyboard in despair. I caught myself in time, though. It sure would be nice to look forward to more than two days in a row with sunshine…I was going to whine and complain, when I remembered something better. Better than whining and complaining, you ask? Why, yes.

A story.

1975 ray bradbury photo by alan light

1975 ray bradbury photo by alan light

Decades ago, I first read Ray Bradbury’s short story, “All Summer in a Day.” What I could remember of it haunted me, so I reread it today, to find it even better than I’d remembered. Bradbury tells of a human-inhabited, colorless, perpetually stormy and jungle-like Venus, where sunlight breaks through to warm children’s skin for only two hours, every seven years…that is, if human frailty doesn’t corrupt even that irreplaceable pleasure. Can you imagine experiencing all summer in a day?

Rereading “All Summer in a Day” made me think about childhood and weather, how rare and lovely and terrible they can be, sometimes all in one classroom or one moment. I’ve written and read many short stories since I first read this one. Few have made such an impression or felt so pure, complete, balanced and starkly perfect in their storytelling. I aspire to write this well.

venus in transit, june 5, 2012, nasa photo

venus in transit, june 5, 2012 by nasa

From Ray Bradbury’s online biography, here’s what he had to say on his 80th birthday: “The great fun in my life has been getting up every morning and rushing to the typewriter because some new idea has hit me.” Something tells me this is a man who found heat and light, words and meaning in almost any sort of weather.

On June 5, 2012, just a little over a year ago, Ray Bradbury died during the Transit of Venus. During that event, from our limited, but well-lit vantage point in space, cold Venus appears to cross the flaring, disc-like surface of our sun. Nice ending, sir, to a well-told life. Thanks, too, for the story. I’ll ponder it and it will warm me during the next several hours, days, or years, of rain.

Who Doesn’t Like to Read?

Sometimes being an avid reader begins or ends in childhood…(click post title for video).

Short Attention Span Summer Fiction

our dust storm, 2012

Our Iowa summer days seemed long and hot, due to drought, but the season stopped short of our expectations for rainfall and yield. It also held a few surprises. That’s not a cloud towering over the farmhouse by the trees in the picture above, but prime Iowa topsoil in flight; fortunately, it was a short-lived, springtime dust-eater that blew through in less than an hour. It left grit in our teeth and ribbons of black soil strewn across my hardwood floor, blown through the ventilation holes below my sliding glass door. All summer, I hoped for and missed the usual sizzle, crack and wash of thunderstorms. Maybe next year.

In celebration of short things, you might enjoy a (brief) visit to an online literary journal, wigleaf: (very) short fiction. Short fiction, short shorts and even flash fiction (which is not only short, but written in a prescribed period of time)–these are fun-sized fictions for fast people hurtling through long distances, short on time and feeling late. Or, even for you.

Try wigleaf. I especially enjoyed “Shorn,” by Sarah Beth Childers.

From time to time, I’ll post other literary journal connections. Good stuff. Sometimes strange and always new.

Measure your day not by minutes, but by stories. It’ll sound better that way.

Mysterious Mathematics, Beauty and Truth in Fractals

image from zoom sequence of a Mandelbrot set

Fractals fascinate the eye, but their beauty is more than skin deep. Their self-similar structure iterates, meaning it repeats a process where the result forms the starting point for the next step. Their structure originates in and develops out of their geometric, mathematical formulae. While only recently acquiring their name, in 1975 from Benoit Mandelbrot, mathematicians explored related concepts in the 17th century.

In 1918, Gaston Julia published a paper on the formula for the design we now know as Julia sets. Other contributors include Sierpinski, Koch, Menger, Harter and Heighway, Before the mathematical potential of computers, however, theorists were limited in following their formulae beyond one dimension to their macro- and microscopic potential.

a series illustration of a Koch snowflake

As in so many other areas of discovery, computers have liberated mathematicians to study formulae in greater depth. Computers also permit fractals to express their nature in colors and three dimensions, beyond imagination.

My son introduced me to fractals ten years ago. (As for the frontiers of mathematics, my son and daughter have both boldly gone where I’ve never dared to go.) My attraction to fractals is artistic but their underling logic appeals to me, as well; I recognize suggestions of fractals in nature in the patterns of blood vessels, tree branches and crystals, the coil of a snail’s shell, the fronds of a fern and even in a cluster of broccoli.

a Julia set

Link here to Wikipedia’s page on fractals. Far better than I might, this page gives a broad overview of the origins, evidence and characteristics of fractals in science, creative works and nature. It also provides an abundance of links to take you beyond that page, if you dare. This Wikipedia page illustrates and animates a zoom sequence of a Mandelbrot set as it repeats. The illustrations I’ve included are in the public domain, from Wikipedia, as well.

No genius, I’m grateful for the mathematicians and computer scientists who materialize these beautiful truths for our eyes and minds to appreciate. It’s hard to look at fractals for very long without sensing that there’s something very important and true going on in their interplay of mathematics and matter. As literature is my preferred domain, for my tribute to the science, mystery and art of fractals, I quote John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”

“‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’—that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Toys and the Children We Are

Baby Pattaburp from dollreference.com

If your mother was like mine, you didn’t constantly hear her say, “You’re such a great kid, you’ll rule the world someday,” or “You’re such a beautiful princess,” or “You’re so special…I want you to feel good about yourself.”

Don’t get me wrong. I could tell when I was behaving myself and when I was acting like a bad person. I developed a useful conscience and had only temporary delusions about ruling the world. The only person who ever called me “Princess” was one of my Grandpas.  As for being special and feeling good about myself, that came in time. It may be controversial to say so, but my parents made me earn self-esteem and I think they were right to do so.

But back to your mother. Maybe she was like mine and said some of the most loving words a mother can say:

 “Go out and play!”

It seems that most children today, if they play at all, do it indoors. That would explain the “Play 60” campaign on television, showing famous athletes modeling outdoor play with kids. We see a rise in childhood obesity and an entire generation of young people who will probably need thumb joint replacements by the time they’re fifty because they play with so many video games and cell phones. (Yes, I have a cell phone and I am jealous that I can’t thumb-type to text).

When my kids were young, I was one of a generation of mothers who became fearful of what could happen to our children if they weren’t constantly supervised. After watching the news, we had nightmares of abductions and worse. I hope I didn’t keep my kids on too short a tether…you’d have to ask them.

Jollie’s Jacks

“Go out and play!” If you were as fortunate as I was, your mother said this to you often. Sure, she had ironing to do and wanted to get you out of her hair for a while so she could watch General Hospital and As the World Turns. But that doesn’t negate the gift she gave you. She was telling you to occupy yourself and develop an imaginative life. The best toys do both of those things, occupy and develop imagination, whether a child is indoors or outdoors. This post is the first I’ll write on toys–a grand topic beyond one sitting that deserves attention and remembrance.

I’ll start with toys of the 1960s and 1970s. This was my heyday and it was a great time to be a kid. Companies like Mattel, Marx, Ideal and Wham-O induced us to nag our parents so they’d buy us those toys from the very loud Saturday cartoon commercials. That was back in the day when Saturday morning was the only time we could watch children’s television. There weren’t any special channels for kids. Most of my inspiration for the toys I wanted came from those cartoon commercials and the Sears Catalog.

My most memorable toys were always dolls; Barbie, who gave me glamorous but unrealistic ideas about what my body should look like…Penny Brite, who fit in my pocket…Baby Pat-a-Burp who taught me how to deal with colicky babies…Chatty Cathy who made me realize I’m an introvert and, of course, Cheerful Tearful, who introduced me to bipolar personality disorder. I had an entire collection of Liddle Kiddles and assorted micro-dolls. Doll-related items were also important; clothing, bottles, a miniature metal kitchen and a metal doll house that somebody sat on, denting the roof, furnished with small wooden furniture. I had so many dolls my parents finally cut me off, cold, when I turned ten. It was probably a good decision.

photo by LoveButlerVintage on ETsy

Miscellaneous: Tiny red crystal radio. Jacks. Etch-a-Sketch. Finger paints. Bubbles. Jump rope. Chinese jump rope. My Girl Scout utility knife (still have it). The black Motorola transistor radio my grandma Laura gave me (still have that, too.) Chemistry set. Creepy Crawlers and Fun Flower Factory. A gray-haired troll. I made houses out of shoeboxes, complete with furniture and cloth curtains. The best ever house was made from a refrigerator box. I had a toy iron and ironing board, which failed to inspire me to love ironing. A kite or two, which I couldn’t seem to fly. Superballs–black, red and sparkly ones out of vending machines–by the boxful which all ended up in the rain gutter or under shrubs. My pedal car and, of course, my bike.

When I was a girl, there was a lot of gender sorting, as far as what girls or boys played with, but most of us crossed the lines to borrow and try out lots of things. “Boy” stuff I loved: Boys’ Life magazine, the Boy Scout Manual (honestly, they had all the good information and merit badges), wood burning set, marbles, GI Joe, Hot Wheels and the bright orange racing track that looped the loop, plastic army men, toy guns, an old army canteen and a compass.

Channel Craft marbles

Toys I wanted to swipe from other kids: A complete collection of Dr. Seuss books (there was the first hint of my rampant literary nature) and the boy next door’s new birthday bike. I also wanted to steal any stuffed bear or animal I saw (because of allergies and asthma, I couldn’t have them). As Goodhusband put it, toys gave us our first lessons in “thou shalt not covet.” From the toys I couldn’t have, I learned not to steal, to have self control and to appreciate what I had. I learned that some kids’ parents spoiled them rotten. Only years later did I realize this was a disservice and not an advantage. I also learned that I couldn’t have everything I wanted. These were very useful life lessons. Toys were also the means to learn about sharing. Not a fun lesson, either, but some of us learned it. Some clearly didn’t and you know who you are…

When we see our old toys in the attic, at a flea market or on a website, adrenaline jolts us back into feeling young. It wouldn’t surprise me if endorphins flow, too. For generations, kids have cherished, worn out, misused and used up their favorite toys. Some have been passed from sibling to sibling or bought and sold at garage sales. Some adults become serious toy collectors, perhaps to recapture memories from toys they had, or to soothe the pain of the things they didn’t.

Toys shape reality. As children, we use them to practice for the grownups we become; as adults, we look at them with longing, seeking to reconnect with the children we still are, inside. When we give toys to children, we make important choices for them. Not only are we concerned with toxic paints or safety, but we might consider that some toys lead our children to be more or less creative, healthy, compassionate and intelligent.

Here are more links to vintage toys. Channel Craft is a great company building retro toys for today’s kids.  TimeWarp Vintage Toys is one of Goodhusband’s favorites, as is RetroPlanet.com. I have no association with these sites and I’m not endorsing them as vendors or authorities. I provide links because their sites might knock loose some memories.

our kite

As you look, remember that it’s not over for you, with toys. Why, just two years ago Goodhusband and I bought that amazing six-foot kite in the picture and I actually flew it!

Today I’ve been self-indulgent, listing my favorite toys, hoping to jump start your memory. What were your favorite toys? The ones you lost? The ones you couldn’t have? What toys do you buy now? In posts to follow, I’ll look at other aspects, uses for and eras of toys. Make suggestions in your comments, please…then, go out and play!

A Place Between Pain and Imagination

As I enter my eighth year of chronic pain from untreatable daily migraines, I’ve come to wonder how it affects my ability to be creative and spiritually present in my life. Distraction is often my only defense. This may be an asset for my imagination–even when I’m too miserable to write, I can let my mind wander into fictional alternatives. But pain makes the more pleasant realities of my daily life elusive. It also can lead to separation from spiritual disciplines and the people I love.

I guess it’s a Catch-22. There is a territory that I inhabit, somewhere between my often-painful physical surroundings and the landscape of imagination. I suppose everyone has such a place, rarely described but very useful in dealing with life’s less pleasant moments.

So, what’s the landscape in your imaginative world?