Dealing With the Dry Spells

This photo helped me out of a writing slump. What works for you?

I’ve been in a writing slump for a few weeks. The hardest part about being in a writing slump is recognizing it for what it is. I feel slow, like I’m walking through jell-o all day. I have a constant sense that something is wrong, but I don’t know what. My emotions become flat – no great joys and also no deep sorrows. It’s tough, when this happens. Sometimes I even have the realization that if I would just write something, I would feel better. But the writing doesn’t come easily and it’s lousy writing and I start to beat myself up.

Then something happens that turns the switch in my brain back on, and the “aha” moment of realization lights the light, and I’m back.

This time, a few simultaneous things ignited the fire. As I write this, we are away from home, visiting dear friends, and Kathy reminded me yesterday that I need to keep writing no matter what. There was also some new activity on this blog that brought me back to the site and to some new blogs I hadn’t seen before. (Thank you, poetart!) And yesterday some new inspiration enabled me to write a poem that was much improved over recent mediocre lines.

It’s weird how inspiration arrives, sometimes. Yesterday it was a quick glance at one of my laptop’s desktop photos. I have a bunch of pictures that rotate every minute; they are all from our “Great Adventure” travels of last summer, so there’s nothing new there. But this one shot of Capitol Reef National Park suddenly put a poem in my head and I wrote it out quickly.

Perhaps the next time I’m drowning in a writing slump, I’ll recognize the signs for what they really are, and I’ll remember what I need to do in order to pull myself up over the edge:

  • Be patient — don’t beat myself up
  • Read favorite poems
  • Read favorite poets
  • Read my own blog
  • Read other blogs about writing and poetry
  • Remember that I need to write as much as I need to breathe

Here’s a question for other writers: What do YOU do to pull yourself out of a dry spell?

Life is good.

When Going On a Trip, Don’t Leave Your Suitcase in the Kitchen

This week has been exceptionally busy and fun, starting with a visit from my dear friend Lorna. We became lifelong friends during the few years when we were teaching partners. Our principal had an idea that we would be good for one another so he told us to go team teach English and Social Studies, with total autonomy and collaboration. When we found ourselves in the same classroom with the same goals, what resulted was an explosion of energy and magic. Not that we were perfect, by a long shot, but soon we could practically finish one another’s sentences, and pick up nuances in order to expand ideas for one another and truly challenge kids. We were teaching with joy, and it was good.  Although those years were short, we constructed a foundation for a forever kind of friendship.

Lorna lives in Prince Edward Island now, and so we cherish any time we can have together – we hadn’t had more than a few hours here and there for a very long time, so this three day chunk of time was heavenly. We spent the first day catching up, and the second day working together on some projects. The third day was just for fun. It was a great formula and it worked perfectly. We stayed up until outrageous hours of the night, woke up before the crack of dawn, and ate ice cream two days in a row – what could be better than that?

At the end of her visit I was leaving to spend a few days with my son and his family in South Dakota. And I do mean at the very end – I would actually be leaving my house before she did!  I tried to be organized and she was really supportive of me getting things done. At the scheduled hour of my departure I told her I was pretty sure I had everything I needed and if I didn’t have it with me I didn’t need it. There was a crazy moment when my husband and I were leaving and the company was staying, but we got into the car and sped off to the airport in the still-dark-and-way-too-early-morning.

A few minutes down the road my phone rang – we had left my suitcase in the kitchen. Lorna had raced up the hill to my stepdaughter’s house next door to use her phone – we no longer have a land line, so she didn’t even have a way to call us right away! We turned the car around and raced home, and there she was with the suitcase at the entrance to our very long driveway, giving us a faster getaway.

I still managed to get to the airport on time. Thank goodness she was there – I might have arrived at the airport early, sans suitcase!

So, I write this post from the kitchen in South Dakota where I have spent many happy hours. Kiersten brought the kids to the airport to pick me up, and there’s nothing better than arriving from a long journey into the arms and smiles of grandchildren!

I’m not sure of what the week will bring, but tomorrow I get to teach a home school art lesson; I’m going to have the kids play with mixing watercolors. They’ll paint donuts on the paper with plain water – lots of water so there will be surface tension, and then we’ll dab bits of colors into the water and see what happens. It will be an adventure, I’m sure. (Thanks to Lorna for the idea, AND for tripping over my suitcase.)

Life is good.

A Christmas Gift, Three Years in the Making

The work area of my new space -- I love it.

I am the kind of person who gets a lot of ideas, many of which are grandiose and crazy – at least, that’s what my husband thinks. He cringes when he hears me say, “I have an idea . . .” because he knows it means he is going to have to build something or tear something apart to transform it into something else. He’s really very good natured about it all, though.

We moved into our present home in 2003; it’s very small, and I would do my school work at the kitchen table – grading student work, lesson planning, etc. Three years ago he agreed to my biggest idea yet: we could winterize our seldom-used one season porch and make it into an office for me. It’s a 12 x 12 foot space – plenty of room, with windows overlooking the yard and some of our garden areas. He got to work right away, replacing the old broken windows with new ones, and installing a new entry door to replace the screen door, since this would be the new entrance to our home.

That’s when we ran into trouble. In the winter, when deep snow covered the roof, the door wouldn’t open because the roof would sag. Work stopped while we figured out how to fix it in a way that would not only allow the door to open, but would also make the roof safe. The problem was compounded by the fact that the rafters also interfered with the door opening even when there was no snow. My husband is a very handy guy, but this problem was tough; he’s also not one to ask for help, so time passed and the cobwebs started to grow in the corners.

I tried to remain patient, but it was tough; I needed a work space! At one point, in frustration, I moved the kitchen table out of the house, bought a couple of two-drawer file cabinets and a ready-made countertop and turned the kitchen into a makeshift office. We ate in the living room. Still no solution to the door problem.

Last June, this is what it looked like! Yikes!

Then, a year ago, I visited my sister in Florida and discovered that she had a front door that opened to the outside. Aha!

We special ordered a new door, Doug was able to reinforce the roof fairly easily, and work (sort of) began again. Winter arrived, and it was just not possible to work out on the porch in the freezing cold.

By the time the ground thawed and the thermometer rose, all energy was focused on my retirement, scheduled for the end of the school year in June. The week I was officially retired, we started in on the renovations with new vigor. I cut and placed insulation in the walls – both the foam core and batts. Doug focused on the carpentry, putting up the bead board walls, bookshelves, and window trim. I painted everything as he worked.  Then we had another interruption: our vacation, our “Great Adventure” – the cross country journey we had been planning for nearly two years as the celebration of my retirement. We left the porch as neat as we could get it, and set out on what turned out to be a true great adventure lasting nearly three months.

We arrived home in October, and thankfully the weather remained warm enough that we could still work on the porch/office project. The climax of the work took place over a few days when Doug ventured up to the roof and removed the metal roofing, leaving the porch open to the sky. He placed foam core insulation which I had cut to size into the rafters, and batts on top of that. It was much easier to do this from the top down rather than struggling from the bottom up for several reasons. There was no ceiling, only rafters and metal roofing, and dripping condensation was a significant problem when it rained. We didn’t want to install the new ceiling before the insulation went in, and we had to fix the whole problem of moisture getting in there and ruining the new construction. Once the insulation was in place, new plywood went down, a layer of plastic and the metal roofing, which I had pressure washed. Fortunately we had no rain for the duration of that work!

Next , back inside now, the new ceiling went up, and the details of caulking, trim work, sanding, and painting moved the project forward.  We finished the room just in time for the Christmas tree to go up, and for the holiday snow village to be displayed in the curio cabinet, now out of the barn for the first time since 2003.

It was the best Christmas gift ever – my very own creative space. Office, art studio, reading room, library, whatever it might be called.

Life is good. Very good.

Bucket List Item: Buffalo Roundup @ Custer State Park, Part Two

This final holding area agitates the buffalo; you can see the tractor with wings on each side to help push the animals toward the chutes.

In my last post I described the rounding up of the buffalo herd as witnessed by some 15,000 visitors, including my husband and me, at Custer State Park in September. The next part that happens is the processing of each animal. The whole purpose of the roundup is to maintain the wellness of the herd. With that in mind, every animal is weighed, examined by a veterinarian, and given vaccinations. Calves are branded, and it’s also determined which ones will be sold. This is how the park makes sure that it can sustain a healthy herd. The number to be sold varies each year, depending on how much rainfall there has been and the quality of available grassland; the land alone must be enough to sustain the herd, because the park does not provide any additional food supply.  The sale of the buffalo is done by auction at the end of November; the proceeds are impressive – last year’s sale raised some $250,000 for the state parks. Who buys these animals? Other parks around the country buy them, as well as ranchers and meat producers.

In the chutes, handlers work hard to keep the animals safe.

There are groups of buffalo that are actually rounded up ahead of time. We didn’t know this before we arrived at the park, but three days before the roundup we saw them already in the corrals. Some research has revealed that some animals are rounded up ahead of time to reduce their level of stress and agitation.  Once the animals are rounded up, they are left to settle down for a week or so before they are processed. These are the ones that are processed on the day of the roundup; it gives the visitors a good look at what happens after the herd is corralled, and how the animals are handled as they are pushed through the chutes.

The stressed buffalo become combative in the small holding pen.

It’s hard to describe the complex system of fences and gates coming off from the large corral. The buffalo are herded into a series of pens that become smaller as the animals are moved through from one to the next. The final holding pen is small, and the buffalo do not like it; they become visibly agitated and aggressive, and since these were the bison that had been rounded up days earlier, it’s easy to understand why the handlers give them time to settle down. From here the animals are pushed single file into a chute, where a gate closes between each animal so they cannot fight with one another. They are finally pushed into various other corrals or returned to the park, depending on the animal.

This mournful cow became separated from her calf, and tried to find a way to get to it.

It was all fascinating, and we were fortunate to stumble accidentally into some great bleacher seats, right at the top with a pretty good view into the holding pens and the entrance to the chutes. We didn’t know anything beforehand about the process, and we both agreed that we have new respect for the power and potential danger of these animals, regardless of their size.

The most agitated and aggressive buffalo of the day was an average sized cow, who simply refused to go through the entrance into the chutes. As the animals are pushed toward that gate, the available space gets smaller and smaller. Most of the bison resign themselves to the fact that they must go forward, and they cooperate, more or less. But this cow was tenacious and stubborn, and I couldn’t believe how she could flip herself around, making a U-turn in a space that was smaller than herself. The handlers tried and tried to coax, cajole, and push her through, and time and time again she resisted. Several times they released her back into the next-larger size holding pen, putting her back in with a few other animals.

But every time, she would twist herself around, jump, fight against other bison, or perform other various gymnastics to make the task impossible for the handlers, who are all park employees with lots of experience. During this whole process, the experts were keeping a sharp eye on her health and stamina, and when she began to stumble from exhaustion, they simply released her back into the larger herd, hoping that she would be able to settle down and be more cooperative after a few days of rest.

On the other hand, we also witnessed a few very large bulls who obviously had the size and power to challenge the handlers at any step along the way, and some of them just trotted forward and entered the chutes like well behaved school children.

This bull is starting a warning charge against the people with cameras lined up along the fence.

One didn’t like the visitors who were gathered around the fence taking pictures, and he gave a scary warning charge for them to get out of his way. There were a few “mama bison” that had become separated from their calves, and their agitation was hard to watch, as they tried to force themselves back through the corral fences to get to their young; they, too, would fight off any other animals that approached, and we wondered if the terribly uncooperative cow was experiencing that same kind of trauma.

"Mommy hug"

Clearly, we learned, it’s not necessarily the comparative size of the buffalo that makes it dangerous. They ALL have the potential to be dangerous; they can run up to 45 mph, and they can jump as high as six feet. We have visited Custer State Park many times, and have seen many examples of visitors stupidly getting too close, or trying with their cars to force the buffalo out of the road so they can proceed along their way. We have also heard stories of visitors who have been killed, or cars that have been trampled – all due to provocation. Buffalo are not the ones to start trouble, and so they appear to be gentle and not unlike cattle. But after watching the roundup and processing of some of these great beasts, I certainly have a new understanding of their power and capability. They are beautiful, magnificent, and a joy to watch, from a safe distance.

Life is good.

Bucket List Item: Buffalo Roundup @ Custer State Park, Part One

Cowboys ride horses and trucks to round up these fast beasts

On the last weekend of September my husband and I attended the Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup and Arts Festival in South Dakota. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for many years, but as a teacher I never could, since it’s always held during the last weekend of September. Once I knew I was retiring, though, one of the first things I thought of was that we could go to the Roundup this year, so we’ve been looking forward to it for quite awhile and it was actually the impetus behind our whole Great Adventure – “Let’s do stuff we could never do before!” We made our campground reservations in January – and that’s really something to be said considering our aversion for planning ahead.

It was everything I hoped it would be, and more.

You can see the South Viewing Area behind the trees.

The Roundup is held annually in the fall (this one was the 46th), and has a specific purpose: to maintain a healthy herd that the resources in the park can support. The size of the herd can vary each year, according to weather changes (such as drought) and conditions in the park; 1,300 is the currently published number. During the roundup, every animal is checked and vaccinated. Females are examined to determine if they are pregnant and calves are branded. Most importantly, perhaps, is the culling; every year a certain number of buffalo are sold at auction, held in November. The proceeds last year reached approximately $350,000, and the money stays in the state park system to support its programs. The sale also ensures that the park’s natural resources can support a healthy herd. It’s all part of a system of checks and balances.

Looks to me like the fish in "Finding Nemo"

About 15,000 people attended this year’s Roundup. There are two viewing sites: North and South. We were pretty confused about which one we wanted to go to, but since our campground led easily to the North side, and a park ranger we talked to indicated that the North side was an excellent choice, that’s where we went. It turned out to be a perfect decision once we realized where the herd would be coming from. We could see the whole thing; the people on the South side were too close to see part of it since the hills blocked their view of the herd.

We set the alarm for 4:00 a.m. that morning, got up in the pitch black to feed the dogs and take them for a walk. I have to confess that my husband did the walking in the dark part while I took care of loading the car with our chairs, camera equipment, water, and other things on our list of what to bring. We left around 5:00, still pitch dark; we noticed that just about everyone else in the campground was up that early, too. Even though we were staying in Custer State Park, we had to drive several miles to the viewing area; Custer is one of the largest state parks in the US, encompassing 71,000 acres.

Sunrise at Custer State Park

Parking lots opened at 6:15 and we got to the end of the line at about 5:30, about a mile from the parking lot. As we waited, it was fun to watch the line of headlights grow longer and longer, and eventually we realized that the 6:15 opening time was planned to coincide with sunrise!  It’s helpful to be able to see when you’re parking in a prairie. Lots of park staff/volunteers were there to guide us into the right place, and we were happy with our early arrival. Once parked it was a grab-your-chairs-and-run situation, and we got places in the second row from the fence. Would that wire fence hold back all those buffalo if they decided to run this way? Nope. But the cowboys know what they are doing, and so we all pushed forward as much as we possibly could.

The actual roundup was scheduled to begin at 9:30, but it was after 10:00 before we saw any action. That was OK; there were lots of people to talk to, and everyone we met was friendly and having fun. There was a tent where pancakes and coffee were available, plenty of porta-potties, and weather that was delightful. Chilly early morning mist cleared away and the temperature rose into the 80s, clear and sunny.

We could barely see the line of bison as they crested the far ridge.

Finally, we saw dark spots rising above the ridge in front of us, behind the South Viewing area. It was much like an old Western movie – the buffalo crested that ridge, appearing bit by bit, and many people in the crowd noted it sure didn’t look like there were 1,300 of them. From the distance they didn’t even look very big the herd maintained the same shape as they traversed the prairie. It looked to me rather like the schools of fish in Finding Nemo.

Because of the heat, the cowboys let them move slowly, lumbering across the grass until they got closer to the goal: the gates leading into the large corral area. Near the end, though, we could feel the ground shake and hear the deep rumble of the running beasts, and the crowd cheered and yelled as the animals were driven into the enclosure.

It was amazing to watch hundreds of buffalo run through the small gates in the fence.

Once the herd came over that ridge, the whole round up happened fast. People took pictures, and videos, and talked and laughed, and the next thing we all knew, it was done. Visitors are welcomed to view the herd in the corrals, and can also watch the process of handling the animals through the chutes and finally back to the larger enclosures or back into the park. Stay tuned!

Life is good.

Me and Georgia O’Keeffe

I have written several blog articles during the last few weeks that I never published here, I think mostly because I didn’t take the time to polish them while we were traveling. But in my head I know that I wrote them, so there’s a disconnect for me between what I’ve actually published here and what I THINK I’ve published. One of those essays is about our visit to Georgia O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch, and I do want to share this with you, dear readers, even though it’s long overdue.

Pedernal, as seen from Ghost Ranch

On the last day of our stay in Santa Fe, my husband and I drove out to the Ghost Ranch, some 70 miles to the north. We were able to join a “Landscape Tour” of the property (now owned by the Presbyterian Church), piling into a small bus with a very knowledgeable volunteer and a dozen other visitors, to see parts of Georgia’s country — places where she actually walked, seeing the very cliffs she painted, and seeing her mountain, Pedernal. She said of Pedernal: “It’s my private mountain . . . God told me if I painted it often enough I could have it.” (Quoted from “Georgia O’Keeffe Landscape Tours,” http://www.ghostranch.org/museums-and-activities/o’keeffe-tours)

It was about 1970 at the Museum of Modern Art when I first saw her work (thanks to my sister for that amazing visit to New York), and it was love at first sight. I knew then that I wanted to take photographs that would reveal the deepest parts of my subjects, through close ups and specific focus points. Is it strange to form a connection between a painter and a photographer? I don’t think so – it was a seamless leap for me as I realized, oh so many years ago, that a photograph can be just as artistically well designed and well crafted as a painting. I’ve been working at it ever since. With digital technology at my fingertips now, it’s way more fun and way more creative than it used to be. I do also love to paint, but I am a much better photographer than I am a painter. Perhaps that’s a choice I’ve made somewhere along the way.

The Cliff Chimneys look different today due to some landslides, but you can still see her perspective.

Going on the Ghost Ranch tour, for me, was something magical – and I left with hundreds of new photos as well as a strong desire to pick up a paintbrush and figure out how I can take what I know about O’Keeffe’s amazing abstract art and make it my own. I don’t want to imitate her work, but the simplicity and depth of her paintings touch me in a way that makes me want to create art that conveys a similar love of the subject. I’ll be working on that for awhile, I think.

We have been “back” in South Dakota for several days as I update this article. Visiting my family here has been, as always, a joy. Yesterday morning my daughter-in-law asked me to give the girls a lesson in using the watercolor paints I bought for them earlier in the summer, and we had such a delightful time, laughing and painting. None of us wanted to stop when it was time for lunch, but we had to, and have planned to continue painting upon my next visit sometime later in the winter.

Tonight, I read a book to the kids that they had checked out of the library just this morning: Georgia Rises: A Day in the Life of Georgia O’Keeffe by Kathryn Lasky. Of course I was thrilled at the chance, and it was fun to add more information about O’Keeffe than the book revealed. My seven year old granddaughter was enthralled and wanted to know more. I turned to my computer and brought up a YouTube video interview with O’Keeffe which I think truly made it real for her. At one point where the interview gets a little dry I asked her if she had seen enough, and she emphatically said, “No!” She watched the whole thing, and then we looked at images of O’Keeffe paintings, (this link will take you to the painting of the Cliff Chimneys that I photographed, above) and she loved it all.

What greater gift can there be between granddaughter and grandmother than for that passion to be passed along?

Life is good.

Nemo Road

This is the bike that took me through the hills and valleys of Nemo Road.

Back in 2001, my husband and I spent a month in the Black Hills of South Dakota. My son was getting married, and I wanted a lengthy visit so that I would be familiar with the area he was about to call home. Geoff and Kiersten were working most days, though, so Doug and I had plentiful time for exploring the area on our motorcycles.

One day, we decided to drive out of town on Nemo Road, which begins in Rapid City, and runs for miles and miles through the Black Hills to the town of Lead. What would be interesting about this ride was that there were warnings posted, that bikers should avoid Nemo Road due to road construction. But we had heard some other bikers talking about going that way, so we decided to do the same; we had heard that it was a beautiful ride through some of the prettiest parts of the Black Hills.

“Road Construction” hardly describes what was going on, though. “Earth Moving” is more like it. In many places one couldn’t yet determine where the actual road would be. We were in a line of motorcycles all on the same journey, and I was terrified. I didn’t have more than a few years of experience, didn’t feel very confident in my abilities as a biker, and I thought I was done for. Seriously. The “road” was soft dirt in many places, mud in many others, and we were dodging construction vehicles and some formidable road equipment. There were uphills, downhills, and lots of curves, all in  places that had no firmament.

It was the most scared I’ve ever been.

But I couldn’t just pull over and quit. There was no place to pull over TO, and I couldn’t quit because there was no place to leave my motorcycle. I had no choice but to keep going.

I fought back tears. I prayed. I coached myself with positive affirmations. I think I can, I think I can. And somehow, I made it through.

I made it through.

It was a huge personal triumph that has stayed with me, and it will always be a symbol for me of triumph over seemingly impossible obstacles. Nemo Road is my Rubicon; it was a point of no return that changed me forever.

Yes, Dear Readers, this story does have current applications. During our travels this summer, I have had two occasions to use my “Nemo Road” experience to face my fears.

The first time was at the Grand Canyon. I have been seriously afraid of heights for much of my adult life, and the first time I visited the North Rim, in 1997, before Nemo Road, there were some walkways that I did not attempt. This year when we were planning the visit, my husband challenged me about it; I remained skeptical. But he had planted the seed, and after thinking about it for awhile, I approached Bright Angel Point with new resolve. I wasn’t sure where in ’97 I had turned back, but I recognized it right away when we got there.

Me, at the very farthest edge of Bright Angel Point.

It was a narrow bridge with no shoulder, but it did have railings, and this time around I took a deep breath and strode across. Doug was so proud that he told the people around us what a great accomplishment this was for me. Several people in the group cheered me on and one lady offered to take a picture so we’d have a great souvenir for the record book. It was a great moment.

The second time I remembered Nemo Road was this week, at Mesa Verde National Park. This park encompasses an astonishing number of ancient cliff dwellings built into deep canyons. Most of them can be seen from roadside overlooks, but the park offers several ranger-guided tours so that visitors can actually walk through the dwellings. There are severe warnings for people who want to sign up: “Caution: All tours involve climbing narrow, uneven steps and climbing ladders. They are strenuous.” It was the ladders that got to me; my old fear of heights raising its evil head one more time. Doug and I talked about it, though, and he again commented, “Remember Nemo Road. You can do this.” I considered it overnight and decided I would never have this opportunity again to see these amazing cliff dwellings. I did it, and it wasn’t scary at all.

The moral of this story, of course, is about facing your fears. But it’s also about having that one turning point when you know deep inside yourself that you are capable of more than you ever believed possible. I don’t know if my fear of heights has actually disappeared, but I do know that it has lost a lot of power.

Do you have a Nemo Road?