Saturday, May 8, 2021

Mother's Day 2021

Recently I participated in a six week writing session with North Carolina Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Greene. From the beginning session she told us it was not a "how-to-write" class. Neither was it a class about her poetry, although we were fortunate that she did share with us. 

Instead this was what she called a "creativity salon," and wow did she pull out the creativity from us. I was fortunate to be among the most talented siSTARs a zoom class could dare to hold. We shared class writing assignments with one another. We had homework and again shared our inmost thoughts after a week of digging deep into our pasts. After all, this was a class based on memoir writing, actually more pulling those memories from the deepest compartments of our brains. We wrote of personal stories we had never revisited. Private thoughts. We became instant kindred souls.

One week's assignment was to write about our mothers. On this Mother's Day of 2021 I want to share a bit of my mother with you through part of what I wrote. She would be one hundred ten years old this year had she lived past 2003. 

She was here for September 11, 2001 and watched the ensuing tragedy. She was also here for the flu epidemic of 1918, so she would have experience to share through the recent Covid pandemic. She was a teen of the Great Depression and an adult of the Greatest Generation. She outlived her husband and her son. She had a wisdom I didn't fully appreciate. Until now, if even.

My mother passed from this earth at the age of ninety-two in the way she wanted to go. In her own bed. On her own terms with her mind fully aware. When the couple that bought her house asked about her dying there and seemed hesitant to purchase because of that, I assured them that whatever aura she might have left behind was pure satisfaction, for she had a happy life despite the struggles. 

I would love to have her back again to answer questions that I'm sure she answered time after time, but I wasn't listening. 

I apologize, Mother. I should have listened. 

That's the key to my disappointment now. I wasn't listening. Tell me again, Mother, about my grandparents. I never met any of them, so you were the lifeline from them to me. What about your childhood and college. I want so much to imagine you and Daddy as a young married couple during World War II. What about the years raising my brother and me? 

I doubt you ever told me, but I want to know if the dreams you had once upon a time ever came to fruition. Did you forfeit any dreams? Were they replaced with a life far better than you dreamed?

Another activity in our Creativity Salon was to write an "I am from..." poem. What I wrote was partially about my mother, or somehow influenced by her:

I am from coal fields and steel mills and smut clinging to the front room curtains.

I am from empty coal mines drained of their worth, silent steel mills and boarded storefronts.

I am from parents moving south, seeking a life beyond unemployment lines.

I am from a mother snatched from her comfort zone and placed in an alien culture.

I am from a family learning new rules of conduct that were on the brink of cracking as the fifties melted into the sixties.

I am from learning to use the appropriate water fountains, swimming pools, theatre seats.

I am from a strictly defined society kept apart from any hope of interactions.

I am from a mother who clicked off the television set when images of fire hoses spraying demonstrators bothered her too much to watch.

I am from parents who fretted daily, every moment, I'm sure, while my brother served his country in Viet Nam.

There was more in my I am from... poem, but here I want to keep the spotlight on my mother, because on this Mother's Day, I want to make sure the world meets her and doesn't forget her. This creativity salon allowed me to see the world from her point of view, and today I'm sharing that. 

I'm proud to be from her!

Catch of the day,

Gretchen




Saturday, May 1, 2021

Hoop Hike Revisited

 

Every so often one of my books comes out of the shadows and says, "Hey, remember me?" I've found this to be one of the most fun rewards of being an author because it pops out of the blue, from nowhere except the heart of a reader. One case in point, Hoop Hike, my picture book I wrote with illustrator Bobbie Gumbert.

This book mulled around in my mind for several years before I actually started the writing process. It came from my taking field trips with fourth graders to the local state park. One of the activities we did was to go on a hoop hike, a simple concept, but one that a teacher could milk for all it was worth. We carried one hoop per three students and when I said stop, they threw the hoop beside the trail we were walking and recorded what they found inside their hoops, charted and graphed the data. 

But I couldn't figure out how to capture this activity into a story, until I was doing an author visit with a group of first graders and we went on a bear hunt, one of my favorite ice breakers. The rhythm struck me. The repetition, too, where children repeated each phrase after me.

Me: "Let's go on a bear hunt."
Them: "Let's go on a bear hunt."
"Okay."
"Okay."
"Let's go."
"Let's go..."

...and the children followed my lead and slapped their legs as we "walked" on the bear hunt.

About midway through the hunt, I began thinking about "Let's go on a hoop hike..." and the rest is history. I established a rhythm, and as I wrote I imagined readers echoing my words. "Let's go on a hoop hike."

Except that history has turned on me and come back with a text from my thirteen year old granddaughter, Reagan: 

<Can I use your Hoop Hike book for my book character dress up day at school?>

<Of course!>

Even though Reagan is now in seventh grade and this book is the most elementary of my published books, she had a special right to use it for "dressing as a character day" because the main character in the book is Reagan Roo.

Her.


She's come a long way since then, but I couldn't be happier. I hope the teacher was impressed, too. It's not too often that a student on "Book Character Dress-up Day" can come as herself. 

What fun!

Catch of the day,

Gretchen




Monday, April 26, 2021

On being a storycatcher

When I first proclaimed the title "Storycatcher" for myself, I was not really aware of its implications. It just seemed like a fitting label when I innocently attached it to me and my works. I've written books from the stories I've caught, yet there are many personal stories shared with me from other people who never intend to see them in print. These people just want to unload the heaviness or find a common ground with my humanity.

Storycatching comes with baggage, for sure. When I capture a story someone shares, I tear off a bit of their soul and pin it into mine. Amazing fact, there's room aplenty in the many corners of my own soul for them to unburden on me. Saying the words aloud for the first time ever often brings them relief. Sad fact, often those stories tear at my soul so much, I toss and turn and think on them at three o'clock in the morning. Knowing what secrets lie behind a person's masked smile is an onus that I have learned to accept.

Last week, for one example, I was walking laps at the gym. I've been there long enough that I have become acquainted with stories of others walking beside me, talking as we go, so when one particular man waited at the curve and asked if he could talk with me, it was nothing out of the ordinary. He didn't hesitate and blurted out right away, "Today's the day my brother was killed, seventy-seven years ago." 

The anguish in his voice, even though muted by the required mask, brought tears to my eyes. "He was returning from a bombing mission over Germany. The plane was almost back over England, but then was shot down by enemy fire." 

We kept walking and my heart began breaking for the soldier killed, and as he continued, for his family. "We didn't know he was dead for eight days when the telegram arrived. Eight days of praying the daily prayers that he would be safe in the war, and he was already dead."

He went on, "There were survivors. One came to visit my mother after the war ended and told her about his last hours."

I asked questions. He had answers, rehearsed and rehashed over the seventy plus years. His brother was only twenty-one years old. That's what kept me up at night. His life was ahead of him, but it ended in a fight for my freedoms. A man I would never know. A promising life cut short.

Storycatching is not all fluff and "Mama in the backyard chasing chickens." It is down to the core capturing. It is never-forget-the-past retelling. It is a necessary part of being human.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Ghost Gardens

I heard a new term recently. I knew the concept, but never realized it had a name attached to it. 

Imagine a bunch of daffodils as if in a flower garden in the side yard. House gone. No life around. No explanation for a garden in the middle of nowhere.

Hence, ghost garden - 






I've witnessed several ghost gardens in my hiking the backwoods of the Carolinas. These clumps of flowers appear faithfully every year for no reason at all except that they can. I've thought often of the flowers. Who planted them. Why there is no house.

As a storycatcher I yearn to know the story behind the story, but in nearly every case where I've seen a ghost garden, the land is as bare as the explanation. As a writer I am compelled to create the reason. I can't help myself. 

And then I start. What if?

My mind will weave a story, build a cabin, add characters to come alive and plant bulbs.

That's what writers do, so please excuse me while I mull a while.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen


Monday, April 12, 2021

Ernestine and Me

 

Introducing my new friend. Ernestine Paschall Shade.


We've worked together for over two years to write her life story, and what a story it is! It's out in the public now and I can't wait for you to read it. 


As we worked through the personal interview process, Ernestine repeatedly gave credit to God and her mother's prayers for how her life turned out. When time came to select a title for the book, I knew that phrase somehow had to be included. Although I came on the scene years after her mother Inez passed, I feel like I know her from our many discussions.  

Ernestine and I are involved now in a zoom workshop with NC Poet Laureate Jacki Shelton Green and a group of talented writers from our area. We were to select an artifact from our home that would introduce us to the others in the zoom meeting. I was caught off-guard at first, but after a week of walking around my house, I found the one item that defines my past and the reason I live in North Carolina, a model coal miner my mother kept on the top of a bookshelf as her reminder of a life once lived. It represents the job loss my father endured when I was a young child and our migration from the mountains of western Pennsylvania to the Piedmont of North Carolina.

Through this amazing series of zoom-sharing activities, both Ernestine and I have dug deeper into our pasts. One such activity has been to develop an imaginary "Human Museum" of artifacts that tell our individual stories. Coal miner goes first into mine, along with the tiny lantern that hooked to my grandfather's safety hat when he entered the mine each workday. 

I talked with Ernestine as to what artifacts from her early years (she's over ninety) she would include. The oldest item she could think of was the piano her father gave her as a child. She talks lovingly of it in the book, still has it, and cherishes it greatly. There's also the autograph book from her senior year at Bennett College where her mother led off the signature pages with words of wisdom.

Most precious of all is the Christmas card she received from her seventh grade boyfriend that she saved through all the years of moving from east coast to west and back again. Their love story is one for the "Human Museum" for sure, full of miscues and star-crossed love. How it unfolded was the best part of the book to write.

With God and My Mother's Prayers is available at Tybrisa Books in Lenoir or from Ernestine herself. Start with the preface and imagine you are walking through a museum that tells a compelling story of love, faith and devotion to family. It's a must read.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen



Sunday, April 4, 2021

He is risen!

 Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed!


A penny post card from the thirties.
The message still rings today.

Have a blessed Easter.

Gretchen


Monday, March 8, 2021

International Women's Day

In my writing career I have captured stories and shared the lives of many people in western North Carolina. In every case I have been awed at the accomplishments of each and every person.

Today I want to feature three of them, my three women...and oh, what women they are.



What a privilege to be entrusted to write the stories of their lives. They touched me in ways I never anticipated when I first cracked open a blank notebook and began the process. Each of them chose different paths in life, a major in the Salvation Army, a physician, an educator, but beyond their photographs on the book covers, they are strikingly similar.

They had passion in their chosen fields, a passion that only the outstanding amongst us has.

They had determination that no matter the challenges, they could accomplish the task.

They had a strength that served them well and brought them through their dark, uncertain days.

Most of all, they had faith in God. Each faith story impressed me and drew me beyond my own beliefs into a glimpse of what belief in a Higher Power really meant.

I worked with Jean and Ernestine in person, recording their stories, always pressing, questioning, each session squeezing more and more information out of the recesses of their minds. They were delightful and I miss our interactions.

Jane, however, had passed away before I was approached about the book. I worked with her husband and her friends and colleagues to capture the real person beyond the many photographs. Hearing of her life second hand was different from the other two, but in the end, I knew her as well as I did the others.

These wonders of the world truly need to be honored not just on a designated day out of three hundred sixty-five, but every day. Their stories might just give hope to other women that they, too, can make a difference in their own corners of the world. 

Catch of the day,

Gretchen