Valley Views & Varmints: Tiny Lights

Please visit Weelunk to read my latest in the Valley Views & Varmints series.

This week: Whether you call them fireflies or lightning bugs, they need a little help to flourish. Please give it a read to find out what you can do for them.

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Vandaleer

I’ve got a piece up on Vandaleer about the recent West Virginia Writers’ Conference.

Writing about writers, knowing writers will be reading what I writered about them – geez. No pressure, man.

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Big News

I endured a rough patch in April and May. As the weather refused to warm, I engaged in regular self-abuse and derision at my perceived lack of success. I received many a rejection letter for my book. Autoimmune brain fog hampered every effort to write something new (as evidenced by the silence on this site). Spring was a real shit show in writer-land. I was ready to give up and go to law school.

But with the West Virginia Writers’ Conference and the boost of self-confidence I gained in winning that competition, I feel now that I’m still on the right path, and that forward momentum is key to staying out of that mental pit.

Weelunk, Wheeling’s alternative news and blogging platform, has given me a golden opportunity. Every alum of Chatham University’s nature writing program dreams of an opportunity to reach out with their words, to affect positive ecological change. I’ve been given this chance.

My regular Weelunk column, Valley Views & Varmints, will soon be debuting on Weelunk and appearing with regularity!

Yesterday, a picture of me looking sweaty and bedraggled appeared in an introductory post.

Thanks, summer, for your bounty.

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West Virginia Writers’ Conference 2017

I’m pleased to write about another fantastic trip down to Ripley where I and two of my fellow Ohio Valley Writers attended the 40th West Virginia Writers’ Conference at Cedar Lakes. I won three awards: honorable mention and first place for two essays in the non-fiction category, in which I competed against 56 other brilliant writers, and second place in the Pearl S. Buck Award for Writing for Social Change category.

What makes the West Virginia Writers’ Conference special, I think, is West Virginia itself. I’ve been to other writing conferences. I went to AWP in Washington, D.C. in February, and it was very businesslike, very efficient. AWP is a monster machine, with hundreds of panels, hundreds of publishers, and thousands of people. I learned a lot at AWP. I also wore myself out to the point of exhaustion. And while I did do some networking, the crowds made it difficult to really forge any new connections from scratch. It’s hard to remember faces in such a literary cacophony, and the faces who did invite me to submit my manuscript said no thank-you several months later. In a perfectly nice way, mind you.

John & Alice joined me at this year’s conference.

West Virginia Writers is like camp. We’re a small state and a ferociously proud one. And while the news will never tell you that we’re full of word artists, they come out of the hollers for this event, and they’re a most enjoyable crowd. They’re friendlier than church-folk, even. West Virginia writers are like puppies: they wag their tails when you show up and welcome you with excitement.

Moonshine under moonshine.

Plus, there’s moonshine. Apple pie flavored. Meta bonus points because I was drinking moonshine while bathing in the Strawberry Moon’s shine.

I learned things, but more importantly, I connected with the other writers in a way I did not do at AWP or any other conference I’ve attended. These are folks with whom you can sit down at any meal in the dining hall – quite literally just plop yourself down with strangers – and become friendly and feel supported. There are no jerks. There are no douchebags. We are bonded by our West Virginian-ness.

The bucolic spirit of Cedar Lakes, Ripley, WV.

And in our state, that’s not a bond to underestimate. Our love of our home, despite all of the negativity it endures from both the inside and the outside, emerges in conversation. It spills out in workshop when the leader asks who returned to West Virginia after living elsewhere and twenty hands shoot up. We are not only proud to be from West Virginia; we are all in love with West Virginia. And no matter how many times we land in the 49th spot on an unenviable list, we resist that label. We’re more than an opioid addiction. We’re more than an incest joke or a color on a political map. This place is our home, our bloodline. And that blood runs through the veins of this conference, too. Our state is our spectacular main character; it creates our narrative tension and our blessed resolution.

Ohio Valley Writers took home 5 awards.

Does this kinship flow at other conferences? I cannot fathom a Manhattan writers’ convention. I can’t imagine passing a group of New York writers sitting beside a bonfire and being invited to join them. In what other world can I approach an esteemed author and come away with a hug or an invitation to call them up for a chat? Who else might toss me a cold beer and exchange a few bad-cat stories or an hour of bluegrass music?

At every writers’ conference, I come away with something of value: a new technique, a business card, a signed book. When I leave Cedar Lakes, I’m also coming home with a renewed sense of community, of deep and enduring pride to be a West Virginian. From the hollers and panhandles of our state the writers come forth for this annual pilgrimage, and though it’s writing that brings us together, it’s our love of our land that we truly share.

This year we took an oath. We swore to support one another in literature and friendship, to remember the great authors who wrote before us:

West Virginia Writers Pledge

And we remain a pack, as the pledge suggests. For forty years the West Virginia Writers have kept the torch burning in support of one another, of the story tradition. It’s one I’m so proud to be a part of.

 

 

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I SUP

There’s nothing like a weekend away at Piedmont Lake to really clear the head and calm the soul.

I got the weekend away, but it wasn’t so much clearing and calming as it was chaos and calamity. I don’t know why minor accidents follow my family around everywhere, but in three days Ben spilled six drinks, Nugget broke a glass and tore a screen, Maya pooped on four different neighbors’ lawns, and Shawn popped Ben’s favorite raft with a nail.

Still, it’s good to be out there. A few hours feels like a few days when the sound of traffic and sirens and television are quelled.

Ah, the glorious silence of nature.

In addition, I finally got to play with my birthday gift: the paddle board I’ve been wanting for years but have always been too cheap to buy. We’ve enjoyed our kayaks for years, but stand-up-paddling is an entirely different kind of fun. The kind that promises both exercise and humiliation.

It’s been a chilly May. Consequently, the water temperature hovered somewhere around 75. Great if you’re a bass; not so much if you’re a swimmer. It didn’t bother Andy at all. The boy is impervious to cold. Ben, however, spent most of his weekend wet and blue-lipped, shivering yet refusing to get out of the water until I forced him into a hot shower.

Everybody got a chance to paddleboard, though.

I’m proud to say I’m the only one who didn’t fall off. And while that may have more to do with the new prescription sunglasses I was wearing, I like to think it’s just because I’ve got the balance of a Flying Wallenda.

Unfortunately, there’s only so much skill to go around.

 

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Doormats, Weasels, and Jerks

A few weeks ago I had a series of interactions with jerks. A rude man on the phone, an argumentative dental insurance company operator, and a neighbor who gave her handyman permission to drive his truck on our lawn, leaving wet, muddy ruts. Jerks come in threes, I think, like disasters.

On such days, the world feels overstimulating and abrasive, like a cheese grater on my arm. People present their worst selves in clusters, and I want to respond by being a jerk back. A bigger, snappier, more clever jerk, but a jerk nonetheless. An eye for an eye.

But my parents raised me to rise above. Don’t be petty. Don’t be petulant. Do the right thing. Be kind. These are the values we all try to impart upon our children and for good reason. We can’t all be jerks, and we cannot exist as a society if we only exist for ourselves. We need to make an effort to get along, to extend the olive branch often, for the betterment of everyone’s lives. Sometimes, that means swallowing what a jerk dishes out for the sake of moving past the moment.

It’s easy to take that high road to an unhealthy extreme, though.

I always take the high road. Always. You can count on me never to start a fight. To play it safe and calm and cool.  And I don’t think that’s necessarily something to brag about. My regular refusal to engage in any sort of confrontation really means I lack spirit. I don’t stand up for myself. I’m not up here trotting along the high road on my moral high horse. No way. I’m here because I’m suffering from elevated levels of door-matitude.

Unfortunately, door-matitude is tricky to overcome because I’ve allowed it to persist for so long. It’s easy to tell myself that I’m doing the mature thing by turning away from a jerk and refusing to engage them. What I’m often doing is letting them off the hook because it’s hard to step up. To further complicate the matter, there’s a distinct difference between solidly standing up for myself and acting like a petty little weasel. Everyone should practice the former, whereas weasels just make trouble. (They steal your keys and hide them under the couch every chance they get.) But as healthy as it would be to practice assertiveness, it would also feel really good to let my petulant inner punk out of the bag.

My friend Thomas once claimed I wasn’t the kind of person who started the fight; I was just the person who ran in at the end and kicked the loser when he or she was on the ground. But he was wrong. I’m nowhere near the fight. I’m the person sitting on the fence, watching, where nobody can accuse me of taking a side or throwing a punch or being anything less than totally neutral.

Talk about a weasel. That’s not even neutrality. That’s just wishy-washy.

I don’t know where I got my wishy-washiness, but I have plenty of examples in my family of people who not only stand up for themselves, but also allow themselves the pleasure of a little pettiness, now and again. No one could ever accuse Shawn of being wishy-washy. Recently, we received a notice from our neighbors about our trees. Our yard is bordered by a row of townhouses. The back porches look right into our yards, and the owners routinely tell maintenance workers to their drive big trucks on our lawn without so much as asking our permission. (And that’s the thing: we’d totally say yes if they did.) One worker borrowed a wheelbarrow, trashed it, and drove off without a word. Another broke off a tree branch.

When a cantankerous letter arrived demanding that we remove our pine trees from their view, we declined to do so. We did, however, trim the branches that had grown into their airspace and cleaned up some of the overgrowth. At this point, I’d have been content to let the whole affair fizzle and diffuse. Not Shawn. He wasn’t done, and went out and bought two more baby pine trees, specimens which will grow rapidly to heights of 40 feet and will block the neighbors’ view of our yard. And the sunset. And the sky. He enjoyed every minute of it, and he tends to those trees as he would his children.

How I envy both his carefree ability to say to the jerks, “Screw you guys,” and the smile on his face very time we talk about the baby trees. They hold the sweet promise of years of completely legal neighborly annoyance. I’d have let the neighbors push me around, but Shawn just plants more trees.

Hopefully, Shawn will impart upon our kids the desire to take less crap than their mother does. I want my children to feel confident when they take a position. I want them to know they’re on the side that aligns with their moral compass. Wishy-washiness and door-matitude will never serve them. Not only does fence-sitting show weak moral character, but you also spend a lot of time bent over in the bathroom plucking splinters out of your ass.

Benjamin has never displayed the attributes of a fence-sitter. He always knows where he stands, and that’s right there in the thick of the fray, brawling for all he’s worth. Andy, on the other hand, takes after his mother. He’s anxious, he’s slow to act, and he’s always worried about doing the right thing.

Recently, Andy’s fourth-grade class spent several weeks participating in the World Peace Games. They divided up into various countries and tribes, and together they worked through crises and learned how a global society functions, for better or for worse. Andy was assigned membership in a small tribe with few members.

He was also secretly given the role of the game saboteur.

I wondered how this would affect him. The saboteur’s job is to ruin things at just the right moment, e.g. poisoning the cattle, introducing disease, and dropping atomic bombs. Timing is everything, and if Andy was found out and convicted in World Peace court, his part of the game would be over. Plenty rode on his ability to be sneaky and snarky and devious, and I wondered if he would find the intestinal fortitude to take it on. Yet he had an enviable job, I’d say. Specifically given permission and instructed to throw a monkey wrench into everything.

I’d love to go back to eighth grade and drop an atomic bomb on the girl who told me my ideas were stupid, and to shut my fat mouth before she smacked it.

For the first week Andy seemed a little hesitant. He made it out like he was waiting for the right moment, but I thought maybe the idea of souring everything felt wrong to him. He had friends in various countries and tribes. He’s a sweet soul who feels uncomfortable when the people he cares about are uncomfortable. In the car after school my desire to live vicariously as a person who not only eschews the fence but blows it up entirely grew stronger each time he told me he was waiting for the right moment to strike.

Waiting for the right moment. I’ve said that many times as a way to justify inaction. When I don’t want to take a side or take a stand, I pull the I’m waiting card. And I worried that Andy might do the same.

And then one Tuesday he got into the car with a fat-cat smile.

“How was school?” I asked him.

“Oh, it was great,” he said. And continued to grin.

“What happened?”

“Well,” he said. “The members of my tribe were real jerks today.”

“Oh buddy,” I said. “I’m so sorry.”

“Yeah. They were so mean. They told me I was going to ruin everything.” He smirked. “So I just decided I would.”

I held my breath for a second. “And?” I asked.

Andy, saboteur extraordinaire

“I poisoned my own tribe’s water.” The smirk turned into a toothy grin as he leaned back against the seat and added, “Some of them burst into tears.”

Apparently, I won’t be plucking splinters out of Andy’s bum after all.

 

 

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For Rent

Our next door neighbors are moving out. They’re not just moving across town; we won’t be able to “meet in the middle” somewhere and have lunch. Meeting in the middle would require me to make reservations in Kansas City, and that’s a long way to go unless I’m really craving ribs. They’re going to Phoenix, to live near their family and be with their grandkids.

And I hate it.

Easter dinner, family and friends.

My family owns three houses together, in a row on National Road, built by my ancestors one-hundred years ago. My parents live in House #1, I live in House #2, and House #3 is a rental property. We’ve rented it to businesses and we’ve rented it to families. I honestly think I prefer renting it as an office space. Workers show up at 9am and depart at 5. They’re not there on Saturday mornings when I’m feeding my fish in my Hello Kitty fleece pants. They’re not there staring out the window on a Sunday afternoon watching me read a book and scratch my butt. And most importantly, they’re not there to talk to me and be my friend. Because in a rental home, friendships always end in heartbreak.

For Rent: century-old home

Some lovely tenants have rented these homes. When I was growing up, a family with five children moved in next door. That day, heaven opened its doors and sent to me, a lonely six-year-old with a boring baby brother, an endless supply of playmates. Our dads built a two-story clubhouse for us. We put on circuses in the backyard and watched Inspector Gadget and He-Man every afternoon. We rode Big Wheels on the driveway and played kickball on summer evenings. And then they had to move out and my heart broke. They moved only a mile down the street, but we went our separate ways as children tend to do when they’re out of sight of one another.

Other memorable and kind families lived in these houses, but just as memorable were the losers. The family to whom my mom, then pregnant with me, gave a puppy she found on the roadside. They tied it up out back and threw water on it when it barked. (She took the dog back.) The people who moved out and left three-quarters of everything they owned for my father and uncle to sort through for four months; the people who moved out and left all of the dirty diapers. And let’s not forget the dude who ran a travel agency scam out of the house. As the FBI was breaking down the door in the front, he was bolting out the back . (We inherited his couch, though I suspect it was tainted with bad vacation mojo given that, for several years in a row, we were plagued with ill-timed weather and a disturbing recurrence of the same awful episode of Suzanne Somers’ 90’s sitcom Step by Step).

Some jerk hammered nails into the beautiful mantles, to hang Christmas lights or stockings or homemade venison sausage. A group of Mormons moved in and somehow released a dwarf hamster named Gray Cloud, only to find it a few weeks later flattened on the road out front. Their kid put holes in our hose with a set of darts.

The jerks are easy to hate, but they’re also so easy to say goodbye to. Though they may leave chaos when they move out, they also take with them a dark cloud of irritation. Boy are we glad those idiots are gone, we say, and then we turn our hopes to the future because the next tenants might be freaking awesome. That’s a grand feeling. It’s like opening a wedding gift to find a tasseled silk throw pillow with your faces on it. It’s appalling, but there’s no way that the next gift won’t be an improvement.

Sue’s view of me one spring day.

The next gift, the next tenants, were freaking awesome. Sue and Ernie were our friends. They fit in here, and that’s never an easy feat to accomplish because it takes a special family to live in these old Victorian homes. They’re hard to heat, hard to cool. Stairs creak. Ceilings crack. Sometimes water drips down. Once in a while a bat swoops in. While you’re waiting for the shower to heat up you can knit a cowl or write a sonnet; none of the plugs fit the outlets. You need an adaptor. You need a fan. You need pliars. You need a repair guy. There’s a door that won’t shut; a window that won’t open. The kitchen floor slopes to the northwest. The porch kinda sags. There’s a squirrel in the attic. Wrens live in the mailbox.

I once calculated how many times I ascend and descend stairs in my house, on an average day. The number was 64. So in addition to deep pockets for the utility bills and patience with critters in your personal space, you’ll also need healthy knee joints. Because don’t think for a second that the laundry machines are going to be anywhere near the bedroom. That’s right, buddy. The washer is two floors below you, and somebody plastered over the old laundry chute. Start hauling.

Empty, again.

Notice: House for rent! Charming old Victorian rich with history. Good bones. High ceilings. Lots of character. Stately entryway with dark wood stairs.

When you find a tenant who sees beyond the quirks and annoyances in your old house, you’ve found a kindred spirit. I’m not here for ease of living or an unburdened bank account. I live here because this is my ancestral home. A tenant, however, shouldn’t be expected to understand or appreciate these things. It’s just a rental, after all. They move in for a few years, and then they move out and move on.

A constant in the background.

My friends, Sue and Ernie, did appreciate these things. Maybe not the 64 trips up and down the stairs. Maybe not the bats in August. But they knew they’d been woven into the tapestry of a family’s legacy. And in so doing, they became part of our family. When neighbors choose to cross the property line, boundaries blur. When I look at photos of my kids playing outside, I see Sue and Ernie’s house in the background. When I look at Sue’s photos of her yard, her visiting grandchildren, I see my house in the background. We became part of each other’s landscapes.

When I told Ben and Andy that Sue and Ernie were moving back to Phoenix to be with their grandkids, Benjamin said, “But I thought we were their grandkids.” I understand his sentiment. These days, I have many wonderful acquaintances who drift in and out of my day. I know a lot of kind, friendly people. But I have very few dear friends. And as I pause to get up from my desk and realize they’ve just driven away for the last time, I know I now have even fewer.

Next time, I’m not falling for this love-thy-neighbor stuff. I’m sticking to my side of the fence. I’m going to wave and go about my business and never get attached again. No more drinks on the porch. No more happy holiday barbecues and birthday parties. No more hugs, no more chit chat and laughter.

Sad, lonely sunroom

Come on, crappy tenants. Come take a look at the house. Meet your new neighbors. We promise to be gruff and rude and blare music and never share a margarita on the deck. We promise to keep our shades drawn and leave our dogs out to bark. You can rent the house, but don’t fall in love with us.

Because we can’t let ourselves fall in love with you.

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