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Of Pantsers and Peculiar People

10 Jan

Trying something new this week, so I’m asking you to bear with me, and tell me in the comments whether this works. It’s called being a Pantser. Apparently, some writers take a long time to organize their thoughts in an effort to enhance the clarity of their message. Others, pantsers, write by the seat of their pants. This concept that scares the dickens out of me, but it could hold merit for someone who can’t find solid blocks of time to map out plans. Rather than test this concept on my work-in-progress, I’ll toss my blog to the guinea pig arena and see what truffles out.

For starters, I have no message today. Most of my blog articles are born after days or weeks of mulling certain situations or challenges. Today, however, I turn to the internet for ideas, and search for January National Observance.

Holy Guacamole! There are a LOT of national observances in January. And, depending on which links I click, the observances are different! Now some make sense. For example, it’s National Get Organized Month, and Soup/Crockpot Month, and Tea Month, all of which I can understand. It’s also National Mail Order Gardening Month, Radon Action Month, and California Dried Plum Digestive Month. Yowzer, now that’s something that could put me off blogging for another year.

Before I continue (welcome to the ADD mind), I’m distracted by my curiosity and I ask, by what authority are such events ordained?  I searched a bit and found that, while there is an official listing of national observances kept by the Library of Congress, it’s way more boring than the unofficial lists that grow on their own accord. So, we’ll stick with unofficial.

Then, as the ADD pulled me further down one unofficial source, I learn that the daily observances are far more interesting. I’m sad to learn I’ve missed Festival of Sleep Day (Jan. 3). I could have really devoted myself to that one. I’m also elated to learn that today is both One Day We’ll Look Back at This and Laugh Day and National Peculiar People Day.

Eureka! I’ve found my pantzer blog, because I can honor both with one story about a man who was both peculiar to me and the instigator behind my own sense of humor, as well as a fine example of how we can look back on bad days and still smile: My dad.

My dad was the only person I’ve ever known to get his ear stuck in the car door. Near as we can figure, he dropped his keys as the door was closing and leaned down just in time to get pinned. (NOTE: and only children of HIS would have run to get the camera to take pictures of the helpless, red-faced, yelling man before drawing straws to decide which of us would set him free while the others escaped).

Dad fathered nine children, although there’s debate among his offspring about whether he loved his dogs more. He lived in a world of patterns and impulse. Solitaire every night at the kitchen table, always with a bag of pretzels and can of Pepsi at the ready. Popsicle in his favorite chair just before bed. (After he passed, we found stacks of thousands of Popsicle sticks in his work bench area of the basement.) The impulse? Encouraging us to put Pop Rocks in Grandma’s martini, quitting job after job because of perceived slights and offenses, and a willingness to drop everything for a new adventure—once even moving the entire family out of our home and into a houseboat for about three years. He also lived a Walter Mitty-like secret life the nine of us are still shaking our heads over and trying to understand. Perhaps I’ll explain more when I write Mom’s story, but that’s about four years down the road.

Anyway, our tale takes place in the early 70s, at a particularly sad time of my childhood. My mother had been rushed to the hospital in the ninth month of pregnancy. The doctor was telling my father that she had lost the baby. My dad, a retired Marine Private First Class and proud of his ability to adapt to any situation, asked the only question he could.

“Is there anything I can do? For her or for you? I really want to do something.”

The doctor gave what must have been a typical response to such a request:

“We can use some donors. Lots of donors. Why don’t you see if you can round some up.”

My dad was off like a shot. This was something he could act on.

He raced out the emergency room door and was gone for about 20 minutes. To this day I hope my mother was still under sedation while this scene went down, because I cannot imagine anything she might have wanted more than her husband by her side. Then again, she married him, so…

Dad returned, out of breath and panting heavily, holding three rather flat boxes above his head like a championship trophy. He went straight to the nurses’ station and asked that the doctor be paged.

“He’s quite busy sir, perhaps I can help you,” said one of the nurses.

“No, he asked me to do this and I want to let him know I did.”

Take the bus or stop for sugar? Tough choice.

Donors vs Donuts- What’s a few letters?

After another 10-15-minute wait, the doctor appeared, disheveled, bleary eyed, and clearly ready to go off shift. My dad shot to his feet, grabbed the boxes and rushed to greet him.

“Doctor, here they are! There were many to choose from—Jelly-filled, frosted, chocolate—just too many. So I got two of every kind. He shoved the three boxes of donuts into the surprised doctor’s hands, grinning like a three-year-old holding up a piece of artwork.

Shaking the bewildered doctor’s hand, Dad then turned to the nurse and asked for Mom’s room number. “I think I should go back and see how she’s doing.”

Yes, yes, we would look back on that day and laugh. Many times.

Pantser, signing off…

Another New Beginning

2 Jan

Welcome to a new year, a new blog attempt, and, to a small extent, a new Portrait Writer.

I love the promise of a new year. I see the days ahead as a book full of blank pages that God, not I, will fill with joy and personal growth—if I allow Him to. This year, I am determined not to grab the pen from Him so often, and I’m excited to see where it leads.

You see, I learned quite a bit about this wrestling for control last year as I tried to fill the pages in by myself. In fact, 2018 was for me a year of frustration, disappointment, and significant bouts of outright anger, because I wasn’t in control.

I learned a lot last year. If I had to put my finger on two verses that impacted me the most, they would be:

  1. Romans 8:28, which is a common verse, commonly misinterpreted: And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to Hispurpose. I cannot stop bad things from happening, or my train from derailing on occasion, but I can trust that God will get me back on track.
  2. Matthew 6:10, which scholars have changed over the years by adding a comma in a most unfortunate place. Consider this, the King James Version: Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. And here is the current, ESV version: Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Just look at those commas. They completely change the emphasis of what we’re praying. I now purposefully say Thy will be done on earth (and when I pray this verse with my congregation in church I’m jarringly off beat).

In summary, I’m learning that God’s will is NOT being done on earth, or we wouldn’t have been asked to pray for it. I’m learning that when evil has its way on earth and in my life, it’s not because God ordained it, but because evil rules this place—for now. However, God’s not surprised and can work that event for good, if I trust His plan.

So I have to concede, despite my optimism, that some of those pristine pages ahead will marred by heartache, self-doubt, and (for me at least) potentially anger-inducing stress because of Satan and his minions. I say potentially, because I’m learning to lean more on Jesus’ response to my situation and to see him as my paraclete instead of an idle bystander. That requires constant reliance on Romans 8:28.

Bannister

The Caps toque only adds to the look, doncha’ think? 

 

All of which brings me to this day, and a new beginning for my blog. Some would say I’m a day late, but one of my resolutions for the new year is to give myself more grace. Just yesterday I packed away the boxes of Christmas cards that were never opened, joyful to know I already have cards for next year, and I’m intentionally leaving the garland draped across my entry banister as a reminder that Christmas (or even life) is not about getting it all done.

I don’t usually make resolutions, but this year I have. Let’s call them goals, though, because it leaves room for God’s input:

  1. Knowing that my purpose in God’s kingdom is to write, I will write. My blogs may be short on occasion, but they will be regular. I shall keep my writing time sacred, and I will resume work on a collection of stories about people in our church family. I have a goal of 4,000 words per week. I’m considering putting a word counter at the bottom of my blog each week for accountability purposes, but I’m afraid of the pressure it will place on me to succeed despite my second resolution. . .
  2. I resolve to give myself more grace. Math has never been my best. . ., on the top 10, part of my vocabulary, but I’m learning to accept that I can only do so much in 24 hours. Writing takes dedicated time, as does traveling to Ferrum College to pick up our scholar, working my day job, laundry, grocery shopping, editing jobs, date nights, etc. Last year, there were many days when I actually tried, on occasion, to use all 24 hours available and STILL couldn’t finish. I’ve learned to be content that I’ve done my best. If only I could leave the green garland on my banister all year as a reminder of that. . . Hmmm . . . Let’s just say if you visit my home in July and it’s still there, you’ll know why.
  3. Finally, I will enjoy the way my pages flow. I don’t want to miss the blessings because of my temper tantrums. When I prayed yesterday for a word of knowledge for the year ahead, all I heard was “sacrifice,” (which immediately destroyed my “No Whining” resolution, so you won’t read about that here). But as I prayed, I realized I’ve confused sacrifice with being a doormat. I know my recent bouts of anger stem from knowing I’m letting others direct my path, and I resent it. However, while preparing for this writing yesterday, I came across these words from fellow writer Susan May Warren: “The secret to living your life to its potential is to value the important stuff above your own comfort.” Sacrifice is giving up something good for something better; It’s NOT putting everyone else’s wants before your own. My goal this year is to learn how to discern others’ wants from their needs, so I can love them generously, yet not get so involved in their plans for me that I ignore God’s. I must sacrifice some things to get there. Simple? We shall see.

Each of these points could make an entire blog, so I won’t expound on them here because I know you don’t need that much sleep. I will share a secret here, however. Part of my inability to blog last year was because I worried my words were leaning toward too much of Jesus and might be turning people away, as I have many friends camping in the secular world. I’ve decided this is not my concern. God will keep them reading my blog if He wants them to. Let’s study His words together, shall we?

In a nutshell, God has called me a writer, and so I will write in 2019. I’m glad to have you along for the ride. Tell me in the comments, what has he called you to do in the year to come?

Happy New Year!

Post Hurricane Pondering

20 Sep

My heart is with Althesina, my friend from Havelock, NC, who left the shelter because of overcrowding and now sits at home without electricity or running water. She’s waiting. She’s unsure when, or even if, she’ll return to her job at a New Bern riverside hotel.

Yet, she sings. At least to me. She has sent texts blessing the linemen who are working so hard outside, laughing over the irony of finding the car keys she thought were lost–as if she could use them–and proclaiming joy despite her situation.  I can picture her light emanating from the darkness.

For my part, it’s a helpless feeling. Of course, I’ll pray, and I’ll donate to relief efforts, but what I really want to send is a crate of  hope. It’s times like this that make or break people, and I’m praying for increasing trust in the Lord and His perfect, albeit unfathomable plan. This morning I’m reminded of a blog I wrote years ago when storms buffeted our own neck of the woods, and I’m re-blogging it this morning. If one person is inspired to keep going, it’s more than worth repeating.

North Carolina, our prayers are with you. The sun will shine again, honest.

Click here to read the blog. 

🙂

 

Pruned! There’s a Nap For This

13 Sep

A year ago, I made what I still believe is a right decision. I put family needs before personal wants, although, in fairness, I believed I could manage both. I now know I cannot. I also know the road back is not as simple as reversing my trajectory.

It took a potted plumeria tree to show me the road ahead.

We call it the Lily Tree, to honor its previous owner. Soon after we brought it home last fall its leaves began to drop. Sad looking thing—a three-pronged stick in a pot. However, a friend told us to be patient, saying it’s a hearty tree and worth the wait.

As instructed, we set it in a dark, quiet corner of the house and left it alone to nap, not even disturbing it with water. Apparently, the plumeria is the introvert of the tree world. This was difficult advice and counterintuitive to our way of thinking, but we ignored it.

plumeriaThis spring we set the tree outside, certain it had died. However, its three spindly branches developed green tips almost immediately, and within a few weeks sprouted tiny leaves. Only then did I allow myself to become emotionally invested. I looked up plumeria on line.

There I learned another name for this plant is frangipani, which is SO fun to say, and that it’s native to Hawaii—the source of those lovely lei flowers Hawaiians string together to welcome visitors to the island. Of course, this discovery gave me cause to whine.

Hey, why don’t we get flowers?

We researched possible reasons for this barrenness and discovered the plumeria likes certain nutrients. In case you’re wondering why I don’t name those nutrients, the botanic realm looks a lot like math to me, all those phosphorus levels. So, I recommend the following:

Look it up, sigh heavily, then turn it over to a problem-solving spouse.

My husband, whose thumb is far greener than mine, purchased some fertilizer and worked it into the soil. The Lily tree’s leaves fanned out and grew appreciatively. We’ll never know if flowers were forthcoming, because just when the tree seemed to be at the pinnacle of joyful thriving, a strong gust of wind blew the plant AND its heavy terracotta pot off our deck. Two branches snapped off and the third lay helpless atop a now-flat basil plant in the garden below.

As I stared at those pots, I saw a somewhat depressing similarity to my own life.

For more than four years, I lived the life I’d dreamed about since my teenage years. During that time, I was blessed to receive a glimpse of the writer I might be and know for certain that writing is my life’s calling. Every writer’s group, conference, networking contact, and writing class, as well as the feedback from people who read my books and articles, all fed me nutrients, to the point where I could practically feel the blossoms emerging.

And then my pot blew over.

Anyone who follows this blog has surely noticed the almost eerie silence about the place for the past year. In the few entries I did manage to write, I’ve remained true to my Pollyanna side, trying to paint a rosy picture despite evidence to the contrary. I sprouted green leaves even though I lacked proper nutrients.

To be frank, I’m in a season of inner conflict. Blessed with more than I need, yet somehow still unhappy because I don’t have what I want. Trying not to complain, because it feels wrong to whine about writing woes in view of the myriad people in my life suffering real trauma right now. So, I’ve been stuffing my emotions to the point where any time I’m asked, “How’s the writing coming along?” I practically burst into tears.

Because it’s not coming along. In focusing on the mundane demands of my detour, I’ve managed to dissolve nearly all ties to writing groups, magazines, contacts, as well as that part of my brain that sees a story in every situation. I paused a book project mid-way through the interviews, and it seems to be on perpetual hold. My leaves are gone. I’m a bare branch in a pot, left to nap in a quiet room.

I’ve been pruned.

Plumeria_StubMy gardener husband was not undone by either pruning. For the plumeria, he researched a bit more and learned that it’s likely not terminal. He set the pot back upright and gave the sagging tree some water. Then he picked up the branches and carefully pruned their leaves until they looked like two long cigars, which he set out to air dry. Then he planted them in a new pot, side-by-side so they’ll support each other through this traumatic time.

Apparently, if we bring them inside for the winter to rest in the quiet corner, we should have three thriving plumeria trees come springtime.

His solution for my own pruning was to give me wide berth and let me mope. He knows the more depressed I feel, the more I turn to the Bible for answers. He’s a wise gardener.

I learned that pruning is good news for both plants and people. The dream hasn’t gone anywhere, nor has the promise. In showing me Proverbs 13:12, He helped me see that those four years represent a hope deferred, a glimpse of a tree of life, a vision of who I’m meant to be.

Through reading the Bible, I’m reminded repeatedly that my status is not terminal. In fact, the passion to write is stronger than ever, with new ideas developing continually and those unfinished stories sill intact in a dark still corner of my brain. Resting. Waiting for spring.

Lately, I’m starting to feel as if spring might be on the horizon.

However, I won’t emerge as the same writer you knew a year ago. You see, I was elated just to be writing, satisfied to be producing beautiful shiny leaves. But that was never God’s plan. My tree is supposed to produce large, aromatic flowers. My tree had to be pruned to prepare me for more than I knew to ask or imagine.

plumeriaSo I’m going to essentially start over. Write a short blog here and there, attend a writer’s group or two, take on an editing assignment. This time, though, I will keep before me a vision of the plumeria flower to represent God’s plan for my life. If I have to, I will go about the mundane hours of each day singing, “frangipani, frangipani” (likely annoying my coworkers), to stay focused on the something better that lies ahead. I will remember (shout out to the poetry of Rob Thomas) that I am a black and white person with technicolor dreams. But I don’t have to be.

———————–

He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. –John 15:2

Time’s A-wastin’; What Can I Do?

10 Mar

“Determine never to be idle. No person will have occasion to complain of the want of time who never loses any. It is wonderful how much can be done if we are always doing.” — Thomas Jefferson

“Men talk of killing time, while time quietly kills them.” — Dion Boucicault

These two quotes represent opposing views of time. Which speaks more to you?

As we prepare to set our clocks forward tonight, I find myself slightly miffed at the prospect of losing an hour. While my practical side understands that, by some slight of hand, the hour will fortuitously appear back in the bank next fall, right now it feels like thievery.

Perhaps this is because time has been my nemesis lately. I seem to be preoccupied with finding some, particularly this mythical “free” time I hear so much about.

According to the internet, time is money, time is of the essence (of what, I’m not exactly certain), time [supposedly] heals all wounds, it and tide wait for no man, it flies, it runs out, it marches on, and it drags. The time can be right, ripe, near, or at hand. We can make it, spend it, keep it, mark it, lose it, save it, and kill it.

I hear time can stand still, as it did for “almost a day” for Joshua in the Bible (Josh 10:8,12,13) or even go backward like the 40 minutes that backed up for King Hezekiah (2 Kings 20: 9-11). However, being neither a leader nor a king, I’m rather certain that option is not available to the likes of me.

About the only thing we can’t do with time, I suppose, is understand where it goes.

calendar_daysSince taking on a “part-time” job a few months ago (has it been seven months already? My, how time—oh, nevermind). Anyway, since then, I’ve developed an enhanced appreciation for the stuff. It’s true that we appreciate something more when it’s no longer ours. At the end of the day I become frustrated that I accomplished so little of what I used to . . . in what I call my “free time.”

I’m in awe of America’s forefathers and all they accomplished in the time they were given. George Washington ran a country and a plantation, and still found time to write more than 17,000 letters (which have been preserved in a handy 52-volume set, in case you ever find YOUR free time). Newspaper man and Philadelphia postmaster, Ben Franklin served as the U.S. ambassador to France and “dabbled” in science and inventing. Aside from entertaining the ladies, his more reputable interests included demography (study of populations), the wave theory of light, meteorology, refrigeration, electricity, oceanography and ocean currents; he played the violin, harp, and guitar, he was an avid chess player, he established one of the first firefighting companies, invented the lightning rod, bifocals, and the Franklin stove, and travelled back and forth to FRANCE, for Pete’s sake. Still, he found time to write Poor Richard’s Almanac for more than 25 years and produce the first monthly magazine in America.

All I want to do is write a weekly blog.

Mind you, our forefathers didn’t have the internet or television to slow them down. Or electricity. And they travelled by boat and horseback (only one of which, come to think if it, seems conducive to writing).  In a strange sense, technology seems to have made us less productive.

In analyzing this perceived waste of my free time, I’m realizing that my frustration is not how with little I receive, but whether my pursuits during that time are worthy of having it in the first place. Some days this is what drives me; other days it’s what drives me nuts. Then it dawned on me. . .

It’s ALL free.

Time is one of God’s greatest gifts to us. Not a second of our lives is promised or deserved, let alone the hours, days, weeks and years we seem to accumulate so effortlessly. Some of us operate so far into the future we fail to see the minutes sitting right in our laps today.

timeI want every minute to count.

The first words I utter each morning—well, after “Are you kidding me? I just got to sleep!” and after whatever I mumble to my husband, which can vary depending on how long ago “just” was—so let’s say the first coherent comment I make each day is “Heavenly Father, thank you for one more day on this earth.”

Lately I’ve started balancing that thought by asking at the end of my day, “God, did I use it prudently?” He wisely doesn’t answer. Or perhaps I close my ears because I really don’t want to hear. Either way, I know the answer.

Time isn’t my nemesis. I am.

——————

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.—Ephesians 5:15-16

New Year, New Map, Better Compass?

1 Jan

The year has dawned like a magnificent sunrise over an expansive ocean,
with a freshness like clean linen, the newness of a tightly folded flower bud,
and the secrecy of a locked treasure chest. I’m giddy over the endless
possibilities of what lies ahead. – The Portrait Writer, 1 Jan. 2017

I just read my New Year’s blog from a year ago, and I have to smile. In a nutshell, my 2017 turned out absolutely nothing like I expected it would.

A year ago, I had two ghost-written books under my belt and had started a novel. I was writing short stories for two magazines, as well as 2-3 biographies every month for a company that produces church anthologies. I belonged to two writing groups and was pondering joining a third, and I registered for two writing conferences as soon as the opening bell sounded, certain that this year I’d have a book proposal to shop around. My life was ALL writing, and ALL figured out.

Somewhere between then and now I turned a corner and suddenly nothing looked familiar.  I lost the novel in a hard-drive crash. (No, it wasn’t backed up, thanks for asking.) I had to give up creating short stories to take a job that I both love and resent. Writing group meetings began to clash with other obligations, and even my blog fell to the wayside. At both writing conferences I felt like a fraud because I had very little to offer in any conversation. By July, I’d given up any hope of balancing work, family, and writing.

This is not a sad tale.

You see, in the same New Year’s article, I wrote, “I pray this year my focus is not on how I can better myself, but on how I can make life better for others. Forgive those who hurt me, reignite waning friendships, write encouragement for others. What does that mean, exactly? I have no idea, but I’m sure I’ll learn.”

Boy, did I learn.

Now that I’m on the looking-back end of this year, I can see that although the path I walked led away from my dreams (for now), it contained a few experiences I hadn’t anticipated. Some good, some awful, all necessary. I learned a lot in 2017, primarily, that ALL writing and ALL figured out is not how I’m supposed to live.

The highlights of my year include two rekindled long-ago friendships. First, Chuck and his wife Sam, from my Yuma, Arizona days (circa 1992) sent me a card out of the blue. Turns out they live just a few miles from where I’d planned to attend a book launch in May, so I tacked on an extra day to visit them. Within minutes of my knocking on their door, we picked up where we left off, re-living the days of our Marine Corps glory and swapping stories I’ll never put into print.

Then, through the wonders of Facebook, I found Vicky, my Boot Camp bunk mate from 1979 and my roommate and partner-in-crime for the first year of my Marine Corps career. As fortune would have it, she lives just miles from the Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers’ Conference site, so I tacked a day or so to the end of that trip as well. My friend meter is pegged, and I couldn’t be happier.

willas_site

Willa’s new home. Only the squirrel knows where…

Other highlights include seeing my youngest graduate high school and start college, taking a train across country with my husband, and spending a week in a mountain villa with the Fitzsimmons clan. We met in Steamboat Springs, Colorado to spread the ashes of Grandma Willa and Grandpa Jerry in an area that will remain unnamed because it maybe wasn’t legal to do so. That week was a time I hope to remember for ages. I enjoyed getting to know my husband’s family and sharing more than a brief visit after decades of whirlwind trips to Sacramento. It’s something we’d never done before, and I hope will do many times in years to come. It made me realize anew how important family is, and regret that it’s been many years since I’ve seen my own siblings in New England (and the ones in New Mexico and North Carolina).

jerry_hockey

So proud of this young man. And feeling so short these days…

In 2017, we were also able to travel twice to Pittsburgh to see our oldest, and we learned much about him we didn’t know—all good, of course. We even went to a midnight hockey game in the middle of nowhere to watch our goal tender in action.  Apparently, in Pittsburgh, hockey is so popular one often has to wait until midnight for rink time. That’s one of those occasions I’m glad to experience—once.

Finally, thanks to my new job and its excruciating learning curve, I’ve acquired TONS of new skills in areas I never would have expected to venture, particularly in Photoshop, InDesign, and (ugh) time management. I know that in God’s economy nothing is wasted, so I’ve learned these skills for a purpose that will be revealed at the right moment.

All this leads me to a familiar scenario. I am again looking at the year ahead with hope and excitement, understanding that I needed to take a break last year to assess my priorities. God, family, friends, writing. In that order.  Now I’m looking at ways I may be contributing more to our church this year—ways that both terrify and intrigue me because they employ even more skills I’ve yet to acquire. On the family front, we’re in the preliminary stages of planning a trip to New England in the summer, where I hope to interview siblings for my Mom’s story. I’m also planning to do more with friends this year. For starters, Althesina, I’m coming to see you in August, and Vicky, we’re gonna make that hike.

Finally, I believe I’m ready to start adding small writing assignments back onto my plate, starting with this blog. If I can keep blogging through January, I’ll add the novel to the juggling act. I’m also eyeballing ONE writer’s conference in June, but will make no commitment until I know I’m supposed to attend.

For now, I’ll just take joy in the fact that anything is possible on this first day of the new year.

——————————–

I know, O Lord, that the way of man is not in himself, that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps. —Jeremiah 10:23

Holey Bucket List! When Dreamers Meet Reality

18 Aug

Ah, the infamous bucket list. I’ve never met anyone who’s actually written one down, yet if you ask, just about anyone can rattle off their top five or six items. I believe we intentionally keep our lists untethered. It’s a brilliant system, really. Frees us from commitment and leaves room for updates as our world view and our sense of the ideal experience evolves. When I was a harried young mother, all I wanted was a good night’s sleep and to stay (sans children, of course) in a European castle. I’ve long-since given up on either of those ever occurring. Sleep, to me, is still a mythical suggestion, and most real castles are not the opulent fairytale fortresses of my childhood imagination. They’re cold, damp, and echo-noisy. I truly doubt people sleep in castles, except perhaps the residents of Windsor.

Lately, I’m becoming more aware of The List, whether because we’re free to travel now with the boys grown and chasing their own dreams, or because I worry about the ticking clock, and getting too old to enjoy travel. I think it’s most likely because I’ve become aware of a tiny hole in the bucket, and of the possibilities that have been leaking out. For example, in January, I had to mentally cross off “Drive through the Giant Sequoia tunnel tree” because the dang thing fell over. And this summer I learned that landslides have buried parts of California’s scenic Pacific Coast Highway, a drive I’ve never had a chance to experience. They will be repaired, but the new route might not be the same.

trainsigns

Aren’t these posters perfect? The adventure of my dreams!

So, when my hubby suggested taking a train to meet his family in Colorado, I just knew it had always been on my list, and I eagerly accepted. I couldn’t imagine anything more romantic than falling to sleep to the clickety-clack of wheel and rail; quiet dinners for two, whispering to each other as a debonair waiter uncorks the wine; or watching mile after mile of scenic countryside fly past me as I wrote volumes of nature-inspired prose.

Silly, silly girl.

It started off well enough. We stepped aboard the Capitol Limited, a massive steel monster headed from D.C. to Chicago. The porter showed us to a tiny sleeping cabin, helped us stow our bags and sent us off to a fantastic dinner. We ate “family style,” which is train talk for “We don’t have a lot of room, so sit here with your new family.” Not the intimate time for two we’d expected, but okay. We chatted with a young father and his 10-year-old son over dinner while the train wended its way up through the mountains, into Harper’s Ferry and the setting sun.

We returned to our cabin to find the porter pulling out the wee prison-mattress. He turned with a smile and said, “Try to get some rest.”

Not, “Good night,” or “Sleep well.” It’s as if he knew.

My idyllic “clickety-clack” turned out to be more of a “screech, clank, clank, JOLT,” filled with stops and starts, lurches and shakes, and metal-on-metal groaning. All. Through. The. Night.

Good thing I’m not a sleeper.

I hadn’t anticipated how much traveling we’d be doing at night. One bonus to sleeplessness was that I could text my oldest as the train pulled into Pittsburgh around midnight and tell him I was waiving in his general direction. He was up, and we e-chatted as the train chugged through town. I must say, Pittsburgh at night, with its myriad bridges adorned with iridescent lighting, is a sight I’d never expected but am glad to have witnessed. I’d put it on my bucket list if I hadn’t already seen it.

the_steps

Okay, guys…what is this?

We pulled into Chicago for a layover, a story I’ll save for later, except to say I hadn’t put “Stand at the top of Willis (formerly Sears) Tower” on my list. Fortunately for me, hubby had. What a view! Chicago’s Union Station (they’re ALL called Union Station, by the way) brought an unexpected thrill for him when we stumbled across this apparent-bucket-list-item for all men. A simple stairwell, it seemed to me, but to him, you’d think we’d climbed Mt Everest.

Back on the train, this time the California Zephyr into Denver, we again had little time to take in the view before darkness fell. What scenery I did see surprised me, although it shouldn’t have. Early on I recalled the phrase, “down by the tracks” and understood its implications. Once I accepted that we wouldn’t be seeing glorious vistas start to finish, I was able to re-frame my expectations and enjoy the splashes of Americana flying past: junkyards, fancy new windmills, rickety old trailer homes, backyard trampolines, dense foliage, phenomenal murals and graffiti, farm animals, cornfields, and U.S. flags hanging from every possible brace. Glimpses of the hundreds of beautiful stories going on every day across the country. I couldn’t write, because of the jarring train and my sleep-deprived fog, but I enjoyed the glimpses.

Dining remained interesting, despite a menu that never changed. We met new “family” at every meal and swapped tales that our old families have long-since tired of. I found something to love about every guest and every attendant, and more than just their value as future novel characters. Of course, my debonair waiter with the corkscrew turned out to be a series of wise-cracking, overworked servers with orders to keep us moving along. I thought I’d lost my mind when extremely thick-accented Guillermo kept asking if I wanted “basketballs” with my meal. I never realized how much that sounds like “vegetables.” (Go ahead, say it. You know you want to: “You want basketballs with that?”)

trainview

Typical scenic view from a moving train.

The same legs on our return trip took place during the day, enabling us to see much more graffiti and farmland. Still awake, when we passed through Indianola, Nebraska in the wee hours, I used the GPS to tell me exactly where Uncle John and Aunt Peggy’s house was and watched it fly by. It gave me a strange sense of connection—picking out this little home in the darkness, knowing its sleeping inhabitants. (I knew better than to send a text this time).

Romantic? Hardly. Quiet time for two? Not a chance. Writing time? Not a word. But don’t cross Train trip across country off your list too quickly. We had a blast. While our unmet expectations could have ruined the journey, once we reeled in the fairy tale and took the world as it zipped past, we were quite glad we did it.

Will we do it again? I hope so. I’ve heard the train trip across the Rocky Mountains is quite lovely. Doesn’t it sound romantic, flitting through the snow like birds? Enjoying the clear blue skies and crisp mountain air, snuggled in our parkas while Guillermo lights the flambé?

Ah yes, add that to the list.

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And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. — Exodus 13:21