Friday, August 14, 2015

A writer "retreats"

 I wrote this reflection on stealing away for a couple of days of writing two years ago and then set it aside...and here it is. Better late than never!

The writer in me was craving some peace and quiet, some long-term sitting time, some mental room in which to grow and nurture a thought plucked from thin air.
The rest of my daily life was having absolutely none of that idea!  The last few years have gone by with the speed and fury of a cyclone, carved up by job, commute, new grandbaby, elderly relatives in decline, funerals, household chores, writers’ conferences, wrestling with nature rather than ceding the field of battle over my ten little flower beds, and…of late…the addition of two “spare” cats to the household while their owners (my children) went temporarily overseas.
It seemed that I could hold no train of thought for longer than five minutes, and I was wilting from the lack. A dear friend of mine who I had first met at an idyllic writers’ retreat led by the late poet Norbert Blei was headed back to the idyll earlier this summer for a glorious full week away from reality.
I knew full well the value of that environment, and that recharging of the soul. I had experienced it for myself three times in the past decade, driving north along the western shore of Lake Michigan to “The Clearing” in Door County, a collection of log cabins and larger gathering places and campfire pits set on the shore of Green Bay, augmented by three hearty meals a day with the plates whisked away by the staff so that “the writers” could get back to work…or not. Another year, when my checking account permitted but my work schedule forbade my going up to The Clearing  I rented a tiny cottage on the lake and repaired there for a week of replenishing solitude. I hiked shaded trails, lived mostly like a hermit, and wrote…and napped…a lot.
Oh, this year as my friend prepared to launch into her writer’s Eden, I was so jealous! But a combination of scheduling problems and finances conspired to keep me from going with this time. A week away from home at a place like The Clearing is never cheap. Add to it the post-divorce costs associated with parking the dog in a kennel for a week and paying someone to drive over to feed the cats and make them feel validated, and the idea of a week-long getaway rapidly rose to the level of “pipe dream.”
Still…I knew I needed to recharge. Badly. And so I improvised.
I co-opted my youngest son and his wife, newly returned from a semester abroad “across the pond” in Ireland, to move in to the house while I’d be gone and play zookeepers to Lucky the dog and the four felines who had kept me in conversation, kitty litter and carpet shampoo for a number of months. One of the cats was theirs, and while I had grown incredibly fond of little Finnigan over the course of seven months, there was payback to be reaped. Knowing that the cats would not be “home alone” and full of mischief was a HUGE weight off my shoulders.
Then I got on line and started looking for a cheap motel room for an entire TWO DAYS that my other commitments didn’t cut into.  And lo and behold, I found a lovely place just two miles from Kohler Andrae state park, site of what I consider the loveliest beach in the state of Wisconsin. SOLD!! I booked the room and started to pack.
My needs, when you got right down to it, were very simple: a bed and a bathroom, breakfast, free WiFi, and above all, peace and quiet. Armed with my laptop computer, a picnic basket full of “gluten free” snacks and fruits, and several cans of Diet Coke, I set out to recharge my batteries.
It didn’t take long. I could feel both life and creativity flooding into me before I even stepped on to the sandy path leading from the parking lot to the beach. I felt my state of eternal vigilance and rapid responsiveness—dog, cats, elderly mother, kids, work, laundry, boyfriend, and the occasional raccoon in the garage—relax, and new trains of thought start to grow and evolve. I felt the daily realities and timetables and litter box maintenance fly right out of my head on the breeze, to be replaced by whimsy, and mischievousness, and, dare I say it, imagination.
Leaving the motel for the first time to head toward the beach, I drove past the ruins of an older motel, in full swing of being reclaimed by nature. It gave off the disturbing feel of the Bates Motel…about twenty years after abandonment when Norman Bates got locked up at the end of “Psycho.” It was desolate…and atmospheric…and I stopped to snap a lot of photos. A place that creepy has just got to find a spot in a story some day!
An early morning trip to the shore revealed that I was indeed the first person there, and I walked into sand shrouded in mist rising from the rains of the night before. The sand between the grass in the dunes was still pockmarked by raindrops, and I set my little blanket a few hundred feet from a gathering of seagulls at the water’s edge. While I am a rabid fan of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s book “Gift From the Sea,” I admit I broke her cardinal rule that the shore is no place to work, but a place to replenish. And so I wrote.
I was writing “old school,” of course. I had left my iPhone in the car’s glove compartment, and the laptop back at the motel room. I was equipped with those most antiquated forms of writing accoutrements—a pen and a pad of paper.  But sitting there, surrounded by wind and waves and footprints in the sand, the thoughts and images just kept coming as though Pandora’s box had been opened. And every piece of dialogue that I jotted down, every shred of character development or backstory that emerged, invariably led to more. It would have been criminal NOT to write it all down! Nefariousness, clues, atmospherics, troubled families, emotional scars, observations of modern society—they all would have flared and then disappeared on the wind like leaves in autumn, gone for good if not pinned to the paper.
There were breaks in my action, of course. I can’t sit by the shore and not be lulled by the sight of rolling whitecaps. Or stretch out full-length and watch clouds pass by…or even just close my eyes and listen to the sounds of the wind and water. This is truly my favorite beach, reminiscent in size and endless, unbroken horizon of the shore at the edge of the ocean. While you may not spy any dolphins playing in the surf at daybreak, I personally find that the dearth of sharks and jellyfish is more than a fair trade-off.
And so it went. A trip to the beach followed by the trek back to the motel to read and research and type, after a quick shower to remove sand and sunblock. Write, rinse and repeat.
I will drive back toward reality and routine in a few hours, but not before I return to the beach one more time with pen and paper in hand. As I chatted the day before with the motel manager, he offered up the location of yet another “inspirational” place for a writer to visit, known to the locals yet off the beaten path. If I had another day or two to spare, I’m sure I’d find my way there, drawn by the promise of broken foundations and ruined buildings, grown-over gardens, and cliffs at the shore.  I’m keeping the exact location of that one to myself.

Because I just know there has to be a “next time.”

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Printers Row magic 2015!!

The magic started early at this year's Printers Row Lit Fest! Okay, getting up at four in the morning in order to drive to Chicago early enough to unload books and supplies at the Chicago Writers Association tent instead of carting them from the parking lot was ghastly. BUT!!!! What a marvelous day from the get-go! The first adventure started upon arrival, with the discovery that somehow there were no black tablecloths provided to cover the beat-up folding tables that authors set up books and displays on. Gasp!
As we stood there and wondered what to do next, "Havana Lost" author Libby Fischer Hellman looked around us and noticed that the posh "beaux art" Hotel Blake stood literally across the street from the CWA tent. Libby and I have followed each other's literary adventures for years on Facebook and by CWA emails, but had never actually met in person before. She had a splendid "eureka" moment regarding the possibility of renting some tablecloths from the hotel, and enlisted me for the procurement detail. She pitched our plight to the hotel staff at the front desk, and I threw in a "and we'll donate our books to the hotel library too" offer for good measure.

Five minutes later, a stack of elegant white tablecloths arrived to save the day, and she and I and "No Turning Back" author Dan Burns gratefully handed off signed copies of our books. The rest of the day proved to be just as fun. Even the weather was great, sunny and not too hot, and the wind didn't pick up and knock over my large poster until I was nearly ready to leave. (In earlier years I've been known to duct-tape the poster to the tent supports...)
I shared a table for several hours with author Jessica Cage, who writes paranormal fiction featuring werewolves.
You couldn't find two sets of subject matter or writing styles more different, but we reached total accord on the fact we thought the "Dark Shadows" movie remake with Johnny Depp was AWFUL! I sold nearly every copy of "When the Shoe Fits" that  brought along, which is always a nice development. Then, when my four hours were up, I turned my "it's got great 'chi'!" section of the table over to my friend David Berner, who was there with his books "There's a Hamster in the Dashboard" and "Any Road Will Take You There.
Later on, I had coffee at Printers Row with my friend Ann, and then crossed to Chicago's west side for an annual post-Printers Row dinner with my friend Paula. Both women have been incredibly supportive and encouraging of my writing since I started blogging back in 2007, and I am thankful every day to have good friends who nudge me along to see bigger vistas than I do on my own.
Once more, Printers Row Lit Fest proved to be the most fun I have as an author all year. So glad to have the connection! I'm already planning to be there next year, with one new book...or perhaps two! 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

INDIEFAB and IWPA Award finalist!

I’m happy to announce that my essay collection, “When the Shoe Fits…,” has made the list of finalists in Foreword Reviews’ 2014 INDIEFAB Awards...and also won FIRST PLACE in its "biography/autobiography" category in the annual Illinois Woman's Press Association's annual communication contest. Now, on to nationals...!!!! 
When the Shoe Fits

Friday, February 20, 2015

Squirrel Mercies



I have changed the steps of the dance.

The bird feeder sits on the back deck, in square view of the window over my kitchen sink, as it has for the past twenty-five years or more. The feeder is now cracked and weatherbeaten, as is the deck that it sits on, attached by a brace of wood . And if I'm going to be perfectly honest about it, okay, I admit I've developed a few lines and creaks of my own in that time frame too.

The feeder has a hinged roof, and the simple design contemplates that two panes of plexiglas contain the sunflower seeds that I could pour in from the top every few days, refilling the tank when the level gets low. I have long since abandoned that as an ideal, ever since the neighborhood raccoons discovered that by ripping out the plexiglas they could access the entire cache of seeds at once. Usually in the middle of the night. It would drive the dog--my first dog Muttsie, followed when she passed by Shadow, then by Rocket, then Bandit--absolutely bonkers. In fact the racoons broke one of the two panes, rendering the entire assemblage utterly useless for storing anything but a cup and a half of sunflower seeds at any given time. 

This winter has seemed particularly harsh and brutal, and so I've taken up the duty/challenge/gauntlet of stepping out on to the porch every frigid morning to set out a cup or two of "hulled" sunflower seeds for the birds. I buy this pricey variety of seeds because they comes with the hard black shells removed. It makes an easier meal for a number of birds that wouldn't otherwise come to the feeder. Cardinals and goldfinches can easily crack the whole seeds open with their strong beaks. Nuthatches naturally would have to work at it a little harder. 

And so every morning I am greeted by a mixed flock of hungry birds hanging out on my deck, giving me reproachful stares and impatient glances until I don gloves and boots and a down coat and emerge with the plastic container holding their breakfast. It is a colorful assemblage that settles down to eat between fluttery comings and goings--woodpeckers in black and white, buff and red; white and red-breasted nuthatches; cardinals; chickadees; goldfinches; snowbirds.

Other than a trio of babies that decided to check out the porch one night last summer, I haven't noticed any raccoons making midnight forays lately. Let's face it, the birds clear out the seeds I put out in the morning by lunchtime. However, there is the occasional squirrel...or even two...that stop by. 

I have long been entranced by the comings and goings of squirrels in the forest and on city streets, their chittering backtalk, the grace with which they jump from branch to branch, the way they run up and around a tree trunk like a stream of mercury. That they are intelligent and wily and resourceful there is no doubt. But for years they were scarce in my yard, and entirely absent from the deck. It was simply a matter of environment--when the house and the deck were both new, the forest where they lived was much farther away. Over three decades, however, natural succession has taken root. Small saplings have become trees, shrubs have migrated nearer to the edge of the yard, and the forest drew closer to the house. And so did the squirrels.

When Bandit was still alive, I enjoyed watching him chase them from the feeder and the porch. Bandit was what I sometimes called my "Lazarus dog," a chocolate lab/beagle mix with a bad liver who had come back from the precipice of death more times than I could remember. And despite his age, on his good days he was blazingly fast. And he loved to chase squirrels like greyhounds love to chase mechanical rabbits. 

We evolved a routine over time that relied on a pas de deux of pantomime and whispers. Once I spied a squirrel at the feeder, I'd duck out of sight and whisper "squirrel" in Bandit's direction. He'd spring to his feet and race me to the back hallway so that I could throw the screen door open like the starting gate at Churchill Downs. The squirrel would get a head start, of course, as soon as he heard us bumping around in the narrow hall, all elbows (mine) and wagging tail (his) but that never deterred Bandit from turning on the speed and chasing his prey deep into the woods. He never caught one, but we both appreciated the chase. It made me laugh with delight every time to see how much enthusiasm he brought to the pursuit.

Bandit eventually died, and in his place came Lucky, a wolf-sized border collie mix with even more speed, and a taste for wildlife. Rabbits in particular, but I think he'd eat just about anybody. I have literally wrestled in the snow over a frozen rabbit carcass with this dog, and I only won half the battle.

One day I decided to try out the "chase the squirrel off the porch" routine with Lucky, and he spooked that squirrel so badly that the squirrel ran right past the first couple of big trees with a slavering dog hot on his tail, and eventually found shelter in a third. 

The thought has crossed my mind lately that Lucky might actually catch one. The snow is deep, and his legs are long, far longer than the squirrel's. And I really don't want that to happen. And so I have entirely quit giving my dog notice at all.

And so this morning, as it has several times since winter started, I noticed that there were no more birds on the porch, and that a luxuriously fluffy tail and set of furry, squirrel-sized haunches completely filled up one side of the feeder. I went from window to patio door to get a better view, then back again. My movements must have given me away through the glass, because suddenly the squirrel perched himself at the edge of tray, nose facing toward the forest, one eye on the house. I tiptoed to the back hallway, and opened the back door, then the storm door. "Scoot," I planned to say, but in fact he was way ahead of me.

At the first sound and movement from the doorway, the squirrel launched himself off the porch as though he was parasailing from a cliff. Front paws outstretched, he glided downward a good dozen feet or more, his tail serving as a rudder in the wind. Then he caught solid ground and scampered away in lightning-like bounds toward the woods to the east, leaving pockmarks in the pristine snow cover from the house to the closest maple tree twenty yards away.

Safe at last, I thought with a smile...and then my eye was drawn upward as a red-tailed hawk with a notch in one wing soared into view from the west and began to circle the trees. Within the confines of the forest, I'm pretty sure that my little squirrel visitor will be safe for a while. In the long run, I'm not placing any bets on his future.

But at least, while I'm on duty filling and watching the feeder, I know he'll get a hard-earned meal once in a while. Even if he has to cross a no-man's land of bare, unprotected lawn, and then elbow the woodpeckers and chickadees out of the way. And from now on, at least, I guarantee there won't be a dog on his tail. 









Saturday, January 3, 2015

My Growing Bolder connection!

Way back when "Running with Stilettos" was just a wee new blog and I had JUST collected a bunch of essays from the blog into a book of the same name, I was surfing the internet one night looking for something else. It was close to seven years ago, somewhere in the summer of 2008.

And while I didn't find the link that I was looking for, I came across an ad for something called "Growing Bolder," a website based in Florida that devoted itself to the message (at least as I understood it!) that instead of bemoaning the fact that we are all inevitably growing "older," we should celebrate that we can and often do grow "bolder" in our choices.

Given that I was shopping for my first motorcycle jacket at the age of fifty and had only started wearing spike heels not very long before that, you could say that I was "all in" from the start! For years I posted paragraphs and essays at the Growing Bolder site, sharing news, challenges, photos, and encouragement on a "member page" personal blog. There were ups and downs, joys and sorrows, challenges and satisfactions...and demons wrestled to the ground.

In my own literary world, I wrote three more books, and learned to enjoy speaking in front of groups of people instead of wanting to run from the room. Growing Bolder turned into a media juggernaut, expanding to radio, TV, magazine, and now a documentary. The GB website has undergone a sleek new redesign recently, and I am so very happy to note that while the "member pages" part of the site is gone, I've been folded into the official "GB blogging team." Woo hoo!!!!!

And so I expect that just as hearts expand to hold more love, my writing output will expand a bit too. I'll still be posting here at Running With Stilettos...and I'll still be adding to my "author website" as well. But come on over to check out Growing Bolder too! Not just for what I'll be writing, but for everything the website has to offer in terms of inspiration, and encouragement, and pushing one's limits, and trying new things. Because we can ALL use more of that to keep us "growing bolder" instead of "just growing older."

Monday, December 22, 2014

Elegy for a Barn

NATIONAL FEDERATION OF PRESS WOMEN 
First Place winner, "photographer-writer"!!

I drove past the barn for the first twelve years without seeing it. I have two reliable ways of driving to and from my office nestled in a quaint Art Deco courthouse on Lake Michigan’s shore. One takes me fifty miles, but follows straight and angular lines, more or less, delivering me to a thirty-mile stretch of interstate that goes by in a blur, nearly on auto-pilot, before disgorging me to the exit ramp.
The other route is the one I call “the back roads,” and travels a two-lane winding path up hill and down dale, shaving miles off the total but adding in time where the speed limits drop going through a series of small towns. All things being equal, the two paths take the same amount of time to get from my house to my destination.
It may seem counterintuitive, but when the weather turns bad, you will always find me crawling my way home on the back roads, where the traffic is much sparser and the large trucks nearly non-existent. An accident at night on the interstate in a blizzard nearly two decades ago, triggered by a passing semi-trailer, haunts me still.
Sometimes I take the back roads because the interstate is clogged for the summer months with orange barrels and paving equipment and other inconvenient phenomena of road construction. And yet other times I’ll take the rural route just…because it is quite lovely. Yes, the fact that it has sharp turns and S-curves and hills and valleys requires that I pay more attention as I drive. It wends its way closely past houses and barns and forests, and I am vigilant for any signs of movement of errant deer or possums or dogs or children. But the vistas and horizons are splendid, and the change of seasons unfurls like a tapestry.
There are barns and sheds and cows in abundance on this drive. Most of the barns still in use are painted the traditional red with white trim, and most of the cows are black and white Holsteins renowned for their milk production, and so I might be forgiven for assuming a certain sameness to the rural landscape.
A few years ago I began to accompany my friend once a month or so to weekend garage sales, and so my awareness of “rummage sale” and “garage sale” signs started to rise. And one day, on the way home from work, I crested a tall hill and noticed a sign in a yard on the other side of the road advertising a final moving sale. Had the yard been on the side of the road that I traveled I might have stopped, but it wasn’t, and the dog was waiting patiently for me to come home and let him out, and so I kept on driving.
Some time after that, I noticed that the house appeared completely deserted. No vehicles were parked in the driveway, no lights or other signs of life shone from the two-story frame house. I wondered what treasures I might have picked up at the yard sale had I only stopped. And I kept driving past, without any more curiosity, as the days wore on and a realtor’s sign went up by the driveway.
And then, one day I crested the hill again and happened to look to the west, and noticed the sagging barn and sturdy silo beside it, illuminated by the afternoon sun. Part of the wood-shingled roof had caved in toward the middle, and light streamed through the hole across old hay bales and wood plank walls, creating interesting shadows. And I thought “Hmmm…..”
I had recently joined the ranks of persons who own smart phones that also take decent photographs, and so my “carpe diem” spirit of photography was starting to rise. I had begun to scan the roadsides and the horizons as I drove, more alert than before to the lighting and the backgrounds and the possibilities of barns and cemeteries and groves of trees and banks of wildflowers.
And yet I still drove past the barn again and again, nervous about pulling in to park and take a photograph lest someone—a local cop, perhaps—might think of me as a mischievous trespasser, an interloper to be unceremoniously ejected upon discovery. And the barn’s position at the top of a hill made suddenly slamming on the brakes to turn in to the driveway on a whim an unsafe proposition.
But I plotted and I planned and I hypothesized, and finally one day I stuck my courage to the mast. I decided to throw caution to the wind and finally pull in to the driveway to take a photo or two. With traffic close behind me, I reluctantly drove past, and then turned the car around at the next intersection and returned to park in the shade of a tall tree. I stepped out and snapped a few photos from the base of the ramp that led to the hay mow, cropped one and filtered it through Instagram, and posted it on Facebook. And then I beat a hasty retreat, counting my blessings that the weather and the traffic had cooperated with me.
Not long afterward, my younger daughter came home for a few months after spending time out of the country doing contemporary circus work. She is an artist by nature and by training, and a photographer as well, and so my suggestion that we take a day to just wander the countryside looking for old barns and graveyards to photograph was accepted immediately. I told her about the barn I’d been passing on the way to and from work, and that seemed as good a place as any to start. Plus, I really wanted to go back and explore some more, and a pair of photographers complete with artistic business cards would surely seem less like trespassers than just one person.
The trouble was, I really couldn’t remember exactly where the barn was. Like I said, between the cows and the barns and the trees, much of the landscape often looked…ahem…the same. And so we slowly drove the rural route, keeping our eyes on the east side of the road. The day was a bit grey, and the drive a bit foggy, and I half-wondered if I’d imagined the whole adventure, or whether we’d driven past the barn without noticing it in the mist. I cracked jokes about the barn being “my Brigadoon,” an imaginary place that came to life just the once and then vanished. And then the barn came in to view and we both lit up with smiles.

The place still looked deserted, and so we parked in the driveway and brought out our cameras. We picked our way through weeds and branches, and explored the ruined structure from all sides. My daughter was braver than I, and entered the lower section of the barn where cattle had once been kept. I snapped photos on the floor above, of the open roof and the rafters, and then circled around the base, peering through broken windows and admiring sagging doors and rusted hinges. She found the entrance to the silo and took some spectacular photos looking up from the center. The wind and the weather had stripped nearly all the original paint from the worn boards, but under the shelter of the eaves some vestiges of the original red paint remained.
There seemed something still grand and noble about the failing structure, echoes of work and usefulness, and industry, and productivity. We finally drove off to find other barns and other places to photograph that day, but exploring “my Brigadoon” had been the high point of the day.
I took to planning my drives home to take me past the barn when the light was good, or the change of seasons spawned new configurations of light and shadows. I began to think through my stops based on how much traffic was behind me, and just when I should pull over at an intersection or parking lot to let the following cars pass allowing a little more breathing room and a few more seconds to snap photos from the road shoulder. I shot moody, atmospheric pictures from a distance, looking north in the mornings as the sun rose in the east, but I also knew that the afternoon allowed the best shadows reaching across the barn walls as I stood with my back to the sun.
And then the real estate sign came down and there was evidence that a family had moved in. I saw a dark Suburban parked by the house. Colorful flowers in pots materialized on the front porch. I gave up any thought of pulling into the driveway any more to take pictures, and contented myself with pulling over to the side of the road at the crest of the hill, the car’s hazard lights flashing while I stepped out.
And then the unthinkable happened. As I drove past one day, I noticed that there was more daylight filling the barn. It was engaged in the slow, deliberate process of deconstruction and removal. I felt overtaken by a sense of mourning, a palpable sorrow that this grand ruin that had given me so much joy and so much inspiration would finally cease to exist.
I found myself taking the back roads more and more often, just to catch one more glimpse, or take one more picture, before it disappeared. Day after day I held my breath until I recognized its outline on the horizon at the top of the hill. More than once tremendous winds buffeted our part of Wisconsin, and I dreaded the thought that the next time I drove past, I might see only a wrecked pile of boards and shingles brought down to the ground by nature and gravity.
But the barn remained standing, even as its sides vanished a little more each week. It began to resemble a roof kept aloft on single posts, and I could see clear through the building from all sides as I drove past. My daughter came home again to visit, and once again we made the pilgrimage to “my Brigadoon” with our cameras.

 This time I drove well in to the yard, and knocked at the door of the frame house to ask permission to walk around the barn and take pictures. The young woman who answered explained that she and her family were renting, and that the barn actually belonged to someone else. So basically, we could walk around as much as we wanted with her blessing. She had fallen under the barn’s spell herself already, and had avidly photographed it herself, even replicating the “inside the silo” shot my daughter had taken months before.
It was sunny and cold in the late fall afternoon as we picked our way around the barn inside and out. There were piles of rubble behind the building that had not been there the first time we went exploring, as well as giant branches full of prickers that stuck to our pants if we brushed by them. I took myself out to the surrounding farm fields to get a long shot or two, and then walked up the ramp to what used to be the hay mow but now was just so much empty space. I could see the countryside fall away for miles from where the back wall had once stood. My fingers froze quickly in the breeze when I took my gloves off to work the camera shutter. Eventually the cold drove us back to the car and we returned home.
I know that the end is near, and that one of these days as I drive up the hill the familiar peak of the barn roof will no longer mark the horizon like a cathedral spire. But I am still grateful for the sense of adventure and beauty and wonder that it stirred in me when I finally opened my eyes to register what I had passed, unseeing, for so long.

Farewell, “my Brigadoon.”

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Live Lit in Chicago!!

It was a dark and stormy night… No wait, it was a lovely sunny autumn afternoon!

It had been quite a while since I’d played in the sandbox of Chicago’s thriving “live lit” scene. Two years, to be exact, since I’d stepped up in front of an audience at a Chicago Writers Conference “after hours” event to read one of my favorite essays, “Mink Recycling.” (And yes, a hand-me-down mink stole and chandelier earrings were involved that night.) But here I was, hurtling along in three lanes of southbound interstate traffic, headed back to my beginnings in the city of the big shoulders.

A lot stands in the way of getting to Chicago to read out loud very often, most of it made up of more than 120 miles of pavement between my home and my home town. And the occasional stretch of horrible winter weather, always a wild card when planning to show up someplace on time.

But the itch to read in front of a crowd again had been creeping up on me, and when the hosts of the “live lit” series That’s All She Wrote, Angela Benander and Jessica “J.H.” Palmer graciously folded me in to their September event, I was tickled pink, totally excited, and absolutely thrilled. Plus, I had a new book to promote, “When the Shoe Fits…Essays of Love, Life and Second Chances,” and it behooved me to get out from behind the keyboard a bit more often.

If you’d asked anybody I went to high school, or college, or law school with, they might die of shock. Public speaking was not only not my long suit, it quite apparently filled me with terror. Difficulty breathing-hyperventilating-unable-to-get-the-words-to-come-out-without-laboring efforts terror. There’s a reason I’d been so comfortable as a writer for so much of my life—I could hide behind a keyboard and work and rework my words until I got them right, then dispatch them with a keystroke or two to their destinations.

I had striven hard in law school to get this pathological fear and tendency toward panic attacks under control. A courtroom is no place for the faint of heart, and a prosecuting attorney is in court most of the time. I quickly found my comfort zone in the beautiful little Art Deco courthouse I work in on the shore of Lake Michigan. But when the call went out a few years ago at the start-up of the reading series, Essay Fiesta, I sensed another personal challenge was at hand, and dived right in.

Over the next couple of years, I read at several Essays Fiestas held at The Book Cellar, and a couple of “open mic” sessions at The Beauty Bar hosted by the literary magazine, “Two with Water.”

This upcoming night with That’s All She Wrote upped the ante just a little more. Not only had “live lit” expanded into a thriving, competitive scene of occasionally intense physicality and theatricality (e.g. Ian Belknap!) in Chicago…this one was being staged at the upscale Great Lakes Tattoo Parlor on Grand Avenue just west of the Loop. With free beer, no less!
Seriously, you have to admit that the words “live lit” combined with “tattoo” and “free beer” just have a naturally edgier cachet than, say, a bookstore or a bar. Yeah! So into my shoe closet I dived and pulled out my new electric blue suede high heels. Then, like Dorothy skipping down the road in her ruby slippers, I made my way to a section of Grand Avenue I’d never actually traversed while growing up in the city.

I had picked an essay I wrote back when I was still just blogging at Running with Stilettos, before I ever decided to collect my essays into a book…and then two…and then two more. “Cordless and Dangerous” was what I brought to the feast on Sunday, a recounting of my first post-divorce power tool buy, a cordless drill.

On the surface, it told the tale of how I wrestled with fixing a broken pasture fence by myself one day and the series of comic missteps and lessons learned the hard way until the job was done. But it was also about that moment that a divorced woman eventually faces, when there is a crisis at hand that requires a tool kit, and literally no one else to call to fix it, and the only thing left to do is to take up the gauntlet, walk into a hardware store and say—in essence—“rack ’em.”

It is the distance between considering your only tools to be baking pans and mixing bowls, and understanding the difference between a flat-head and a Phillips screwdriver. Between throwing your hands up in despair and wailing “oh no, what am I going to do?” and asking yourself “now where did I put that d—n hex wrench?”

So up to the microphone I stepped, and explained. About myself and the fact I was happy to be back in my home town again. About this particular essay and the emotional journey it represented. And about yet one more thing I valued about the storytelling surge in Chicago.

And that is that as person after person takes their place at center stage, I am drawn back to the same vibes I felt as a parent of young children in grade school. I’ve raised four kids, and so have spent more hours than I can possibly remember sitting in churches, and school auditoriums, and gymnasiums, waiting for recitals, and Christmas programs, and spring concerts, and any number of choreographed performances to start.

And as the lights would dim for the audience and the program of the night was about to start, I remember there would be a collective hush of anticipation and a leaning in, a clutching of the heart as it were, as a tide of good feelings and hope flowed silently toward the stage. Call me a sentimental fool, but that’s some of the same stuff I feel at an event where writers are “reading out loud.”

I was amazed and humbled by the talent and humor and passion of my fellow performers that night!

Angela Benander told of the personal challenges of a solo camping trip, only some of which had to do with the physical tasks of pitching a tent or starting a fire.
Jessica Palmer brought us along on a tenth wedding anniversary trip where she introduced her very urban husband to a former boyfriend and current organic farmer.
Paul Dailing, a journalist who writes the blog 1001 Chicago Afternoons, did a searing stream-of-consciousness journey to the grinding realities of “bond court” in the Cook County criminal justice system.
Karen Genelly, a former Chicago Public School teacher, had us screaming in our seats with laughter at her narrative of teaching “sex ed” every day for six weeks to middle-schoolers.
And in a gosh-its-a-small-world connection, the last performer was Karen Shimmin, who currently co-hosts Essay Fiesta! Karen started us off with laughter at the comic side of setting out to buy a camera lens from a talkative shopkeeper, but then seamlessly segued into a moving reflection on the randomness of horrific events that can happen when natural forces such as gravity and falling ice collide with the man-made forests of skyscrapers.
In yet another “six degrees of separation” moment for me that night, I met Chicago storyteller Lily Be, who co-hosts and produces the story-telling series The Stoop. Turns out Lily goes to the same Catholic church, Maternity B.V.M. on North Avenue, where I made my First Communion and attended all eight years of grade school. Who knew?
I felt my brain synapses absolutely crackling as I finally left Great Lakes Tattoo when the evening was done. Once in my car, I checked my smart phone for a map of how to get back on the Kennedy Expressway from my parking space on a side street, but could make no sense of it.

But…no worries. As a Chicago girl, I am as oriented to the zero-sum significance of the intersection of State and Madison as a homing pigeon, and so I headed eastward, the opposite direction of home and directly toward the Loop. The skyscrapers that had gleamed warmly in the setting sun as I drove in now glittered in the dark like rhinestones in moonlight, a lighthouse beacon of vast and familiar proportions.

Instinct steered me like the North Star to a marker I recognized. Two left turns later, I was on the highway ramp at Ontario, hurtling toward the Kennedy Expressway, delighted to find that the northbound “express” lanes were open in my favor at that late hour.

I gunned my tiny Honda into the express lane, whose steep no-margin-for-error concrete sides felt like the entrance to an Olympic toboggan chute. And then, with the twinkling lights of the Chicago skyline dimming in my rear view mirror, I drove back home to my house in the woods.