Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Pictures and Words Day 26: Follow Tarrow Creek

Photo/Writing Prompt: Starts With T

"Don't worry, you'll find it without trouble. Just follow Tarrow Creek."

I paid for my water and protein bar and thanked the convenience store clerk. He handed me my change then went back to restocking the shelf of motor oil.

Stepping outside, I had to shade my eyes against the afternoon sun. The heat of the July day drifted over my skin like the rush of air from opening an oven. I smoothed my honey brown hair into a high ponytail, Then I tightened the straps of my backpack and headed in the direction to which the clerk had pointed. The trail head was tucked into a grove of maples off Third Street. If my information was accurate, it would lead me to Tarrow Creek and the creek would lead me to Crescent Beach.

Crescent Beach was a pristine half mile stretch of sand carved out by time, tides, and wind. Few people new of it; even fewer had visited it. It was accessible by boat and by way of the dense forest through which Tarrow Creek ran. I couldn't remember how I first heard of Crescent Beach but when I did, it went straight onto my Places to See list.

When the hiking trail, clear cut and packed down, reached Tarrow Creek, it crossed the narrow channel of water via a haphazard bridge made of two by fours. From there it continued south but I needed to head east. I stood at the edge of the creek, one stride's departure from the trail. I squinted my eyes in the shadows cast by the high sun filtering through the branches. No path was discernible but I refused to be deterred.

Based on my research I knew I had seven miles to go and from what I could see now, those miles would be slow going. I'd worn shorts due to the heat but wished now for pants to guard my shins from the low lying underbrush of the forest. Within the first two miles my legs looked like I'd rubbed them with a thorn bush. A few of the scrapes showed blood but it dried quickly enough to be ignored. My arms below the edges of my t-shirt sleeves weren't in much better shape.

I swept spiders off my shirt and ticks off my ankles. I did my best to give a wide berth to a nest of garter snakes. Harmless as they were, I still had no inclination to draw nearer. I paused over a pair of does staring at me before they fled. Countless birds filled the air with their songs and movements, unseen from their hiding places in the tall trees. I tried to sear into my memory the image of two sandhill cranes walking across one of the few clearings I came upon. They lifted their spindly legs in high steps through the tall, stiff grass. One let out a call and they both took flight, their wings loud in the amphitheater of the surrounding woods.

Always I kept Tarrow Creek to my right. Sometimes my steps went along its bank, sometimes I wandered from it but not enough to lose track of its bubbly brown water. I listened to it gurgling through piles of stones and rushing around small bends in its course. I took one break, sitting upon a fallen tree on the bank. The water swirled around each branch breaking the surface of the creek.

Then finally, finally, I saw the end of the creek. I saw it reach through the last of the trees to the beach and pour down into the lake. Here the creek widened. The sun painted perfect reflections of the trees and clouds onto the flat surface. I pulled off my shoes and socks and tucked them under one arm. When I waded into the creek, the cold water startled my overheated nerves. Then I ran. I ran the yards to the beach, my legs splashing from the creek right into the lake. When I saw, as I fully expected, there was not another soul in sight, I tossed my shoes and bag up onto higher ground then added my shirt and shorts to the pile. I dove down until every inch of me was submerged then popped back up, laughing.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Pictures & Words Day 25: Today I Am Noticing

Photo/Writing Prompt: Pretty

Today I am noticing what is right in front of me. Every single weekday, I drive past this boat landing and the adjacent patch of park land. Rushing to the office, rushing home, I pass by this flash of prettiness. Sometimes I make sure to turn my head and glimpse the view as I drive on down the road. Other days I am distracted, focused elsewhere on this or that.

When I left home this morning, I noticed I was ahead of schedule by a few minutes. I could drive a little slower, not watching the clock with each mile to calculate whether I'd make it to work on time. The slightly slower drive, the brilliancy of the sun, and the longing to draw out the time before I stepped into my cubicle for the day all combined to heighten my awareness of the scenery along the 25 miles of countryside road. I noticed graceful cranes in the fields and a stately hawk perched atop a fence post. I noticed the horse and its foal grazing in the early sunlight. I noticed the water each time it came into view.

For once, I pulled over when I came to this spot. I didn't fly by. I didn't simply smile over the beauty then forget it. I parked the car, stepped out with my camera, and savored what was in front of me.

Beauty works a strange magic. It inspires an array of reactions: gratitude, joy, wonder, sadness, peace. It is always worth noticing.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Pictures & Words Day 23: From Under the Roses

Photo/Writing Prompt: Below

Nina began lying down between the rose bushes on a sunny day in her eleventh summer of life. Mother planted them at precise, equal distances from each other, spaced for their greatest benefit. She explained the science to Nina once but Nina admittedly did not listen.

It was difficult to explain why she'd done it the first time. She had a fight with her older sister who, at fourteen, thought she knew everything and Nina knew nothing. "You're still a child," was the accusation thrown over her sister's shoulder as she'd sauntered out of the room. Nina had wondered what was wrong with still being a child then tried to return to her reading. Her eyes wandered distractedly from the page to the window behind the sofa, and to the flower beds outside the window. Setting the book aside and turning herself around, she rose to her knees. Nina propped her chin on the back of the sofa. Her long, blond hair fell in curtains against each of her cheeks.

The rose bushes were excessive in their blooms this summer. They seemed to be showing off, lording it over the lesser flowers in the beds across the aisle of plush green grass. Nina's gaze lowered to the soil covering the roots of those bushes. Her mind's eye saw how perfectly she might fit in that space between and without another thought she dashed out of the room, down the hall, and out onto the back patio. Outside on the sun warmed bricks, she kicked off the black shoes she still wore since lunch with her grandparents. This called for bare feet.

She was right. She fit perfectly on the patch between the pink roses and the yellow ones. Nina pressed her back against the dirt, trying to feel the life beneath her, the hidden roots responsible for the vibrant petals gathered into sculpted blooms above her face. Suddenly she thought she did feel them. A throb, a pulse pushed against her in return and Nina let a gasp escape before she realized it was the vibrations of Daddy's car pulling into the driveway.

It didn't matter though. She knew it was all there. She remembered Mother digging up two bushes once. Nina had sat on the grass and watched. Mother explained about the roots, about how much they mattered. Nina listened that time, wondering all the while over their ugliness. Such ugliness to produce such beauty. It was entirely incongruous in Nina's mind. She'd learned that word four days ago and this was her first opportunity to use it.

Nina laid like that for an hour. She felt the sun start to burn her bare feet. She heard her mother and father's banal chatter over what was for dinner, what tomorrow's weather might be, and whether grandma seemed more or less confused today. She felt Freckles, their gray, long haired cat, paw at her legs where they extended out on the soft grass. Nina thought a hundred thoughts, remembered a dozen memories, and not a single other soul knew of it. It was the finest hour of her life.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Pictures & Words Day 22: Today I Am Writing

Photo/Writing Prompt: Today I am...

I have spent the last six months diligently editing my Full of Days manuscript. Diligently doesn't mean long stretches of time on any given day though so I am only half way through the novel as of today. A few minutes here, a lunch break there. Progress is progress though. With each page that I turn over to move to the next, I am more excited about the finished draft than ever before.

So, today I am writing.

I am stealing moments where I can to put my pen on these pages. Timothy and Annabelle are playing together happily. The scene before me, this pair on the floor and my manuscript on my knees, is one I treasure. It does not happen nearly often enough so it is a delight to capture it here.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Pictures & Words Day 20: Treat Yourself

Photo/Writing Prompt: A Cool Drink

This afternoon I'm having a few hours of a "Treat Yourself" day. My fellow Parks & Rec fans understand. Keeping the day more affordable than the spending sprees of Donna & Tom, I have indulged myself in a haircut (which, let's be honest, ladies, is essentially a mini spa treatment). I am currently sipping this cool drink, pleasing to the palate, while I read a book (a sweet treat of the finest variety). Soon I will leave for my appointment for an hour long massage. If you listen closely, you can probably hear my sigh of anticipation through your screen.

The funny thing is that the plans for this afternoon of enjoying a few just-for-me treats motivated me to make the whole day good. After a short, restless night of sleep, I awoke ready to move. Rather than another day of putting off my intention of a morning workout, I changed out of my pajamas, grabbed my sneakers and weights, and headed to the living room to work up a sweat in the quiet of the early morning. A welcome extension of this, I had a renewed desire to eat healthfully today instead of taking up my old habit of considering unhealthy food to be one of the primary ways I can "treat myself." Good breakfast; good lunch. I wore one of my favorite, most comfortable outfits. I made sure to laugh with both of my kids in the short time we had together before leaving home for the day. I kissed my husband a few extra times.

Maybe an ordinary day holds more opportunities to treat yourself [well] than I realized before.

Pictures & Words Day 19: Then I Remember

Photo/Writing Prompt: Sometimes I...

Sometimes I forget how it felt the first time you kissed me, or even held my hand. The nerves, the doubts, the thrilling hope; the sensations have faded like a dress left out in the sun. The vibrancy has dimmed. If I put that dress back on though, if I slip back into the seams of that memory, then I remember it all. The substance of it is no worse for wear. It still envelops me and I sink gladly into it.

Sometimes I forget, but maybe that's how it should be for the sake of the sweetness of remembering.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Pictures & Words Day 15: Don't Forget to Play

Photo/Writing Prompt: Play
(2 pictures because they are one moment together)

"Don't forget to play." Of all the things for my grandfather to say on his death bed, this was not what I expected.

I drove down from Detroit to see him one last time. The nurses said he would likely go in the next twenty-four hours. When I entered his room at the nursing home, pulled a chair up beside his bed, and waited for him to wake, I wondered what I could possibly say. Mom said he knew the end was around the corner. His clear mind was housed in a body exhausted to its limit. Grandpa was always full of advice and information. He could tell you something about everything while never claiming to know it all. My own mind was still blank when Grandpa's eyes opened. They were watery and dim. Short, sparse gray hairs stood askew upon his head. Grandpa was a big man, tall, broad, and thick. Even in his diminished state, he filled the standard issue bed to its edges. He lifted a hand, gesturing for me to lean closer. I did and he planted a kiss with his dry lips on my cheek. That's when I knew I wasn't going to come up with anything worth saying. I didn't have to though. Grandpa started right in.

"Patrick, I'm glad you're here."

I nodded. A lump was forming in my throat and I didn't trust myself to speak.

"I was thinking about you and that little boy of yours. And the little boy you used to be."

He reached for the plastic cup on his bedside table. I held it while he sipped water, the gurgle of air bubbles in the straw the only sound in the room.

"You were such a serious little one. Wanting to be older, wanting to be bigger, wanting to do important things."

I chuckled quietly. "I was, wasn't I?"

Grandpa had no smile though. He went on. "I know you're frustrated at that job. Feels like less than what you should be doing."

I ran a hand over my thinning hair. We'd had plenty of conversations on the topic.

"You are doing important things." He narrowed his eyes when I began to shake my head. "That boy, he's your important thing."

He needed another drink. I could see the strain that it was for his neck to hold his head up from the pillow for those few seconds.

"When your Laurie died, I knew your son would be okay. I wasn't so sure you would be okay, but I knew he would be. He's your important thing and you're doing it right. Can I give you just one bit of advice though?"

"Of course."

He hand engulfed mine. "Don't forget to play."

I'm sure the puzzlement was written on my face. "What do you mean, Grandpa?"

"Just that!" His deep voice rose urgently. "Don't forget to play! You have so much on your shoulders, so much worry. I see it in you from every angle, Patrick. Your son needs to see you play. He needs to see you laugh and smile and enjoy yourself. When he's older, he'll understand without a doubt how hard you worked to provide for him. He'll realize all the sacrifices you made. But don't let him wonder if you enjoyed your years with him. Don't let him question that."

I smiled then, aware that of all the advice he could give me in this moment, this was exactly what I needed to hear.

Grandpa's face relaxed and his eyes lost their focus on me. "You remember how we used to play, Patrick?"

"I do. I remember you teaching us baseball in the backyard. I remember sitting on your shoulders for half a mile to reach the river and filling my jar up with tadpoles. You used to carry me around upside down and I'd tell you what I saw that was different than when I was right side up."

Tears were trickling onto his leathery cheeks but he was smiling so I continued.

"I remember you pretending to be a bear and chasing us around the field behind your house. There was one night we had a board game marathon and you tried to play Twister with us. We all laughed so hard that Grandma almost peed in her pants. I remember the whole family going camping out at Carter Lake. It was the only time all year we could count on Dad taking a couple days off from work. You and Dad taught us boys how to handle a canoe but our first time out alone we tipped it. I remember surfacing next to Greg and the two of you were up on the shore laughing at us."

Grandpa nodded. I squeezed his hand and added, "It made me want to tip it a second time so I could hear you laugh that hard again."

His eyes refocused on me, brighter than before. "So, you'll remember to play?"

"I will."

Grandpa died several hours later. My brother Greg and I were there beside him. My mother, too, but she had dozed in her chair. His passing was so quiet, so calm, that it was over before we realized she was sleeping through it.

After the funeral, the whole family went to Grandpa's favorite restaurant. We had reserved most of the tables in there and still had trouble finding seats for all of us. Everyone swapped stories and memories, laughing and crying together. As we walked out to our cars later, my little boy squeezed in between my brother and me. Without a word we both grabbed his hands and swung him as high as we could manage. Giggles poured out of him and he shouted, "Again, Daddy, again!" I could hear my grandfather's laugh in my ears as we lifted him again.


Pictures & Words Day 14: This is Why

Photo/Writing Prompt: An Emotion

If I could hang this one on a museum wall, the tiny gold plate hanging beside it would simply read "Giddy." This. This right here is why I try to always carry a camera. It's not only so I can capture and preserve and share the moments that matter. It is so that I do not miss the moments that matter. With my camera in hand, I am looking for them. I am on watch for those fleeting bits of life that are too easy to pass by without absorbing their value. Maybe you're better at catching those moments than I am. For me, the camera helps.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Because the Saints Said So: Be You

I was introduced to St. Francis de Sales while I was in my sophomore year of college. In the context of a community of incredible, fun, faithful, hilarious, supportive women, I read his classic, Introduction to the Devout Life. If I name the top five books that have affected my life, that is likely to always hold steady among them for the rest of my years.

One of the hallmarks of de Sales' spiritual advice is high, challenging standards. Another hallmark is gentleness. He did not divorce the two notions. I had trouble narrowing my focus down to just one quote from this most excellent spiritual writer so here are a few to consider:
Do not wish to be anything but what you are, and try to be that perfectly.
Do not lose courage in considering your own imperfections.
Have patience with all things, But, first of all with yourself.
Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength.
These snippets are written alongside mandates for the men and women who call themselves Christians to be exemplary in their moral choices, in the use of their time and talents, and in the practice of virtue. Reading St. Francis de Sales' spiritual advice is like reading a dissertation on Jesus' command to "be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48).

Never does it become too much though, never more than a person can handle. For de Sales makes clear that to seek to be this living image of God also requires a kind realism. Realistically, know yourself. Know your strengths and your weaknesses. Your passions. Your hopes. Your temptations. And lovingly, patiently cultivate your unique self.

You know when I have failed the most in living a life that glorifies Christ? When I have tried to ignore who I really am in order to be what I thought I needed to be. Inevitably, in such misguided efforts, I become exhausted and overwhelmed. I give up. I resent the real me for showing up yet again. What a pitiful way to live.

St. Francis de Sales knew better. He took the Lord's words to heart: "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 22:39). As yourself. Loving yourself is not a hippie or new age notion. No, it is rooted in the supreme reality of Christianity, that God loves you unconditionally and thus sacrificed Himself to save you. How logical then that I am deserving of love from myself and all others are deserving of love from me.

The standards, the virtues, and all that is encompassed by a God-glorifying life comes about in the day to day manifestation of that love. Love seeks the beloved's greatest good. This is no less true when we are considering ourselves than when we are considering another person. So, "have patience with all things. But, first of all with yourself."

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Words & Pictures Day 13: 3001 Marley Road

Photo/Writing Prompt: Black & White
*Disclaimer: The title is not the actual location of this picture. It's a fictitious address for the purpose of the story.

The solitary lamp post at the end of the dirt drive was encompassed by wildflowers. They stood tall and bristly with names unknown to Tate. Tate stopped at the edge of the road, a narrow two lane stretch of countryside cracked pavement. He fixed his green eyes on the dirt path in front of him. Plenty wide enough for a car yet not a trace of tracks upon it. No divots typical of gravel driveways from the repeated passing of the same vehicle day after day. Nor were there any fresh disturbances of the dust and pebbles to signify recent activity. He stepped sideways to the crooked mailbox. The rusted door creaked as it was opened just enough to see inside. Empty. He checked the blue numbers painted on its side again.

3001.

Yes, that was the address he was given and this was the only Marley Road in the county, or any of the neighboring counties. He'd checked. Tate rubbed the scruff that grew over his cheeks and chin in the last two days. He had packed his bag in a hurry and his razor was forgotten.

A breeze wafted through the trees, rustling the leaves like the sound of a dozen whispering children. The wildflowers' heady scents rose to his nostrils. The early sunshine was warm already and Tate wiped away the bead of sweat trickling down the back of his neck.

His eyes kept returning to the lamp post. It was lit. Someone is here, it announced. A solemn, proud butler at the entrance to his master's home. Can I help you, sir?

Yes, someone is here and by God, I certainly hope you can help me. Tate nearly answered aloud before laughing uneasily at himself.

Elections; earthquakes and hurricanes; Afghanistan and Iraq. Tate had covered them all and much more. He'd followed each story wherever it led, to whomever it led, until his pen was satisfied. None had tortured his nerves like this one. 27 years. That's how long he'd followed this story. 27 years of questions, theories, interviews, leads - some adding a piece to the puzzle, some detouring him from the right path.

27 years to bring him here. 3001 Marley Road, Black Mills, Wisconsin. A lamp post and a dirt drive and a house beyond the trees in which, if he finally had it right, Tate would find the brown haired girl he watched get kidnapped when he was 7 years old.