There are so many birds out here in the woods that I put earplugs in so I can sleep past dawn every morning. I do–it just can be so deafeningly loud. And one bird just tried to come inside. There’s a screen on this window, but he fluttered around to check it out.
“What are you doing?” I said to the bird. “You have to stay outside.”
He was only three feet away, so I know he heard me. But he just fluttered around some more, looking for the way into my room. Then it cheetered as if in a huff, and flew away. It was very small and purplish, but I don’t know what kind it was. The woods are very exciting this time of year.
Yesterday there were six large turkey vultures nested together on the cedar tree outside. It was really something. I wasn’t sure how those spindly branches could hold that weight without snapping. The vultures travel in a group, you know, and most of the time, they look for dead bodies. I am a writer, but I admit I am stumped as to what to compare these vultures to. Thankfully, nothing comes to mind for “beings who group together looking for dead bodies.”
One thing you may not know about the woods is that the shortest distance between any two points is through the woods. I’m not kidding! For example, our mailbox is more than half a mile away–if you’re driving. But if you just take a walk down the trail, (and then are willing to kind of stumble down a steep slope, mostly on your behind) you can get there in s only about five or ten minutes. Voila.
So too with tonight’s book event. Ladies and Gentlemen, tonight I am the featured author at a book group that meets—and I’m not kidding—through the woods. They are not meeting in the woods—that would be a little weird, and, of course, it gets dark and buggy by 8:30pm. No, instead there is a book group meeting at the neighbors, the next house up. They are a retired dentist and wife who live in a log cabin not unlike our own. They aren’t super close, I mean, I’ll have to walk about twenty minutes… through the public-owned woods and then past a deer-blind and through some woods owned by people who we never see. But to be honest, I’m walking there because it is the shortest way. If I drove to the book group, I would either have to: 1) take the car up the road that we never, ever drive because it is a gravel road without gravel-=the county calls it “Grade B, Not Maintained”, or 2) drive all the way to the highway and back down the neighbor’s gravel road, which would feel really silly and take approximately forever.
The shortest distance to this book group (who are discussing my book “My Family and Other Hazards” tonight, is to walk through the woods. Which I will do. As the sun sets. Along the ride about 50 feet above the river. (A great hardship, as you can imagine.)
“Bring a flashlight,” my husband said.
“I’ll probably walk along the road on the way home,” I replied, “but yeah, I’m taking a flashlight.”
It’s very exciting to me to take a walk in the woods to arrive at a little party where I will be served a glass of wine. You know, small exciting things. That’s what life is all about anyway, isn’t it? Small exciting things? And they just all read my book. So… that’s very cool.
(And after this little excited rant, you kinda hope I don’t slip in the dark and slide down the ridge towards the road below, don’t you? )
I have been getting letters from readers… more this past summer, then fewer in the fall. Around Christmas time I started to receive another wave of them — perhaps some copies of the book were given as Christmas gifts, or at least that’s what I was told when some generous folks bought multiple copies at booksignings along the way. So a new audience of readers might have been looking at “My Family and Other Hazards” recently.
In any case, several weeks ago, when the doldrums of winter were beginning to set in, and while I was floundering (I admit) to get some momentum on the next book(s), wondering if I should just write to please myself, or try to get a wider audience by writing Humorous Book A or Midwestern Book B, and then wondering if I should just hole up and write more weird poetry …. this letter arrived in my inbox. I am posting it here, (with permission from the author, deleting his last name, just out of respect and privacy). Because sometimes the words of a stranger can make you stop in your tracks. And sometimes, that is just what you need.
Subject: Many thanks
From: Eric _____
Date: Wednesday, December 17, 2014
I just finished reading your book last evening. I can not thank you enough for a memoir like this. It was exactly what I needed this Christmas.
Like you, I grew up in Decorah. I had both of your parents as teachers. Reading the pages, I could see both of them come to life in front of me,. At one point towards the end of your book, you describe your dad rubbing his hands together. I can still see him doing that in the chemistry classroom.
I graduated in 1988, the same year your dad retired. He was at our senior banquet. He had some pretty great laughs that night, and some great things to say to 150+ students going out into the world.
About 16 months ago, I was diagnosed with cancer. I figured it was a little thing. A couple of trips to chemotherapy, I would be perfectly fine and get on with life. Well, it turned out to not be so little. It was a fast spreading germ cell cancer. I had 4 rounds of in patient chemotherapy. My mom came out from Decorah to take care of me after each of these hospitalizations. 79 and she still was there to take care of her kid. After that, there was a surgery to remove what the chemo had treated to see if it was dead or living. Turned out to be all dead. However, it was an 11 hour surgery that took me a long time to recover from. I was told I was cancer free, only to have the cancer return 2 weeks later. I had two more rounds of in patient chemotherapy before being referred to The Nebraska Medical Center for a possible stem cell transplant. I was a good candidate. They harvested my own stem cells and did 3 stem cell transplants, which were accompanied by 3 more rounds of tough chemotherapy. Everything seemed to work, until my 100 day check up when they found what looked like live cancer again in my liver. I needed to have another surgery. I called my mom and broke the news to her. She just asked when I wanted her to come back out. I told her I would get things scheduled and we would plan it. Four days later, my mom died. Once I got through the funeral, I scheduled the surgery. I am not sure how it happened, but the spot that looked to be live cancer turned out to be scar tissue.
So, after healing from all of that, I am feeling good. In the middle of all of this, I also lost my job since I had used up all my sick, vacation and FMLA time,
But I digress. I tell you all of this because, your book made me laugh and smile and cry in the best ways possible. I guess knowing your parents, knowing Decorah, and just having you hit the feelings of nostalgia, longing and love of your family, no matter how much you may have just wanted them to go away when you were growing up, hit the spot for me I can not imagine going through life without my siblings and all we do for each other. I know my parents brought us up as a unit, as supportive people. With both of them gone for the first holiday, we are still making sure we see each other and laugh and eat and spend our time together. It will be strange for me. Last year I was home recovering from my first surgery at Christmas. It was the first time I had not spent December 25 in Decorah. It is a pretty magical place.
Congratulations on an absolutely wonderful book! And thank you for sharing with the world. You certainly made one former Decorah person sitting in Omaha a very happy man.
So (it’s June again)… I hesitated to share this letter, because this one really hit me. Grateful? You bet. But that isn’t the half of it. Isn’t life weird? There are things in life that you do because you know you have to do them– in my case, write a book. We don’t always know what drives us, do we? And yet, we are driven. It’s weird. Life is weird. But isn’t it an amazing thing to learn that your creation actually worked. At least for one person. Someone who was on the front lines battling the Big Important Battles. To know that the things you were trying so hard to express actually may have helped someone, or in any case, found a kindred soul.
I am sharing this in the hopes it may inspire you, in this new year, to Do the Thing That You Know You Have To Do. This is how we are guided — that’s my opinion — that nagging feeling we get. So, if there is something, some project, that you have been thinking you need to do, I am saying: Do it. Share it. Put it out there. Take that risk. See what happens. Please, please do. This is your year, 2015.
(I had to ask Eric if he was in remission. He says he doesn’t know yet. I will need his permission to say more, because that seems fair.)
Thank you, Eric. For writing this letter to me. And for giving me permission to share it.
Whew, baby. It’s been a great week, especially if you are measuring by quantity of laundry you are toting in your suitcase, or how satisfyingly exhausted you feel…. or even by the number of nice things people have said to you.
Yup, this week was the first leg of the Mini Golf-arama Book Tour, and all is well.
We sold out at Prairie Lights on Tuesday. Imagine that? I mean, wow… Wow! (If you type the word “wow” at a time when your fingers are one key too low at your keyboard, it comes out “sos.”) When i began the event I felt a bit overwhelmed. There was such a great turn out that night… I was a bit gushy behind the podium… (I admit it). Jan Weissmiller, the owner, has always looked a bit like an angel to me, you know, the fair hair and big eyes… she sat in the audience and laughed and laughed… then gave me a big hug afterwards…. This is the bookstore I used to visit when I was just a graduate student getting my mfa at the University of Iowa…. I saw all kinds of famous writers give readings at this place. Then this week…. wow. I can’t believe it was my turn. Honestly. No matter what else happens in my life, I can always say that once upon a time, I sold out at the reading event at Prairie Lights. Check out the history of the place.
This week I also gave a lecture at the ISWF, did events at two other bookstores in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, I met Charity Nebbe of IPR in person… I feel like a kid home from summer camp: I had such a packed week of activities that I don’t even know where to begin…
Can I tell you more later, gator? Me eyes are a bit droopy… I feel like calling it a night… or just relaxing a bit… ah… summer… the windows open, the birds singing, the woodthrush starting his evening song…. i love the woodthrush… and it’s nice to be back in the woods again… (however briefly! Three nights home, then we leave for Leg 2!)
Good gracious. Sorry I haven’t posted anything here, but the past coupla’ weeks have been a little… hmm… I’m not sure how to put it into one word. Blurry? Busy? But “busy” is such an overused word, and really, some of the time of the last couple of weeks was also spent eating brined goat meat, you know, how you do, when it’s Midsommer and you are invited to a Danish party with a large bonfire next to a cornfield. Like you do… with the option of eating some Sami goat meat “baked 12 hours at an exact temperature of 167 degrees, then spiced with fresh rosemary, sage, basil, lovage, and oregano, then packed in brine,…” served on bread with horseradish and generous doses of Akvavit…. I have survived the last two weeks, many interviews and radio spots, and also the goat.
But today is the PENULTIMATE day… the book comes out tomorrow, July 8th. Which is weird. It’s a little like giving birth, but mostly it’s not at all like giving birth. Because my tummy is not too big (even if slightly gassy from my oatmeal), also, no one is giving me small dainty items in the Kleenex-box-colors of pink and pale blue. Which is a relief. (Those pinks and blues always seem a bit creepy, you know.) Also, no diapers.
You can hear me do a :10 minute interview on Wisconsin Public Radio tomorrow, Tuesday, July 8th at 4PM central on a show called “Central Time.” With the lovely host, Veronica Rueckert. (You can stream it at this link too.)
Yesterday there was a review in the Sunday edition of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
But the review that takes the cake came out last week in the Decorah newspaper. You might not expect much from a small newspaper, but the reviewer was so freakin’ well-written. I’m just awestruck. I mean, it’s a small town, you might expect a small-town flattery, but instead, she wrote this thoughtful review. She really understood the ideas I was getting at. So rewarding. I told my husband, “I had completely forgotten that when people read the book they might actually tell me nice things.'” Wow. Thank you, Julie, of the Decorah Newspaper. (And for making me realize this might not be a lot more pleasant than pushing out an actual child. )
In the past week I recorded a spot for “Wisconsin Life” on Wisconsin Public Radio. (I don’t know if it has aired.) And some other interviews that have slipped my Monday-dazed mind at the present. It’s a weird world, to be sure.
“When did the book come out?,” I was asked in a phone interview just minutes ago. “In minus 12 hours,” I answered. Yes, tonight, if you were like some kind of Harry-Potter-crazed fan you could line up outside your bookstore and buy a copy at midnight… although, you know, the likelihood is not that good, and I wouldn’t recommend it anyway, there is a storm in the forecast… but in any case, you can buy your copy tomorrow. Or you can just read this blog instead, for other crazed rantings of a woman in a-kind-of-labor.