Sunday, February 28, 2016

Making room

Yesterday a question popped up on our neighborhood association’s website. A 17-year-old Swedish exchange student was in need of a home until May 25. Anyone game? I took myself by surprise when I responded after giving it maybe 20 seconds of thought.

I’ve lived alone long enough so that I’ve become pretty much set in my ways. I don’t plan meals. I eat funny stuff. I’m seriously addicted to National Public Radio—day and night. There’s more, but you don’t wanna know.

I have a guest room with a good big bed surrounded by piles of my valuable “stuff.” The only closet in that room is filled with other “stuff” on its way out the door to the Goodwill.  Out-of-season clothes hang there and extra bedding is stacked on a high shelf. The shelves and cabinets in the room are loaded with favorite books, mailing materials, and way too many files of information for “one day I’ll write this story” projects. My bathroom is small. The only place to land cosmetics is above the toilet tank. I don’t have many, so it works for me but I manage to fill it up.

The essential fact is the room is available, used only occasionally when friends or family members visit. I live within walking distance of this student’s school. Our family has had exchange students in the past. Mark Rushworth, from the UK, who was 17 when he spent a year with us, remains a dear friend along with all his family. That experience could not have been better.

I like being alone. I treasure my privacy but right now I find myself excited about providing a comfortable home for this student. It’s not yet a done deal. There is paperwork to complete and at least one face-to-face meeting with the coordinator of the exchange program.

Meanwhile, I’m about to dig into that guest room and shape it up. I can’t think of a better reason to be nudged into some overdue organizing and decluttering. With any luck, I’ll be meeting my house guest within a day or two. Stay tuned.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Bess Letters

For more than three-quarters of my life, all but eight years of it spent in the US, my mom hasn’t been around. But not so long ago she showed up, big as life, in five old letters that arrived from England, sent by the daughter of her good friend and beloved maid, Margery.  She discovered them when cleaning out her mother’s belongings.

It was a second trip across the Atlantic Ocean for the thin blue aerograms. Their first was by sea, between 1941 and 1943, a more precarious trip because of World War II, the war that forced my family to leave the UK for the US, my dad’s country.

The letters are a walk back in history; funny, revealing, surprising, tender and a glimpse into another time and way of life. I call them the Bess Letters.

In October 1941, my mother, Betty wrote:

“You will be staggered to hear that since we arrived here, I have been managing without a maid. (Her children were one and four at the time.) I have a very nice girl who comes in on Saturday morning and two afternoons a week. She cleans all through and Mummy does the rest. Of course, we have no fires to do and hot water all the time, which makes life much easier, but still I have plenty to do with a hot lunch every day and then dinner at night.

“We are still determined to come home as soon as the war is over. It looks like America will be in it soon. What a terrible, terrible business it is….”

“I still smoke like a chimney and the grocers over here all have fags (cigarettes) so I hardly ever run out. They are much cheaper than at home and one soon gets used to them.”

“The news looks very grim at the moment. The Japs seem to have got a good start and are certainly making the best of it. I do pray that Singapore will be able to stand.”

She goes on to tell Margery that her brother, stationed in India with the British army, wrote that he hoped they’d be together again in ten years.

“Margery, I am so glad that you have another boyfriend and I hope he is good enough for you, let him do the spoiling this time.”

“I have had my hair cut off and a super permanent wave. I look pretty hot stuff, and I must say, it’s a relief to get rid of those hairpins.

She jumps from the mundane to more important things. My dad has been assigned a wartime job in Washington DC: “…we finally found a shack to live in down here…there are hundreds of people still looking for somewhere to live… We are only seven miles from Washington but it takes more than an hour to get into town.”

Margery had been taking care of our family canary, Huntsie. Betty says: “Please don’t worry about Huntsie. I am staggered that you managed to keep him alive for so long and I must owe you quite a lot of birdseed.  Have not told Libby but when she mentions him, I will tell her.”

And so her life goes on. A few years ago, I visited Margery in England and we’ve been in touch ever since.  In some ways, aerograms, a thing of the past, have an advantage over ephemeral emails.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Here's the "scoop."

It never stops being fun. I’m talking about my part-time job writing stories for North Forty News, based in Wellington, serving north Fort Collins and the small communities in the foothills of the mountains and in northern Colorado.

This week I met Becky and Frank Jackson in their 102-year-old house in Ault. They shared their passions with me as they showed me landscape paintings, a living room mural and diorama, solar-lit bird feeders, canoes with sails, trekking boots, prayer tassels and cowboy hats—all made by one or the other of them. They posed on a canopied bed in their backyard complete with fireplace, shower and spiral staircase to a rooftop deck with a view of the mountains. Rocks from the fireplace heat a Frank-built sweat lodge in the back corner of the garden. And guess what—the Jacksons operate a small B and B, making it possible for anyone in search of an escape from the “ordinary” world to check out this special spot for a couple of days.

The paper is doing a series on the small churches in the area-delving into their history and asking about attendance and prospects for the future. Bellvue, nestled at the foot of Rist Canyon, is the home of Pleasant Valley Church of Christ, founded in 1911. Marty Trujillo, minister there for 22 years still lives next door where he and his wife raised their three children. He has 10 beehives, a huge organic garden, likes to hunt, fish, bike and hike and says his congregation of 50 or so is just right. “We’re a family,” he says. “Get too big and it’s hard to be a family any more.”

I got so wound up during my Thursday morning interview with a middle school science teacher that afterwards I roared away in my little red Jetta, 36 miles an hour in a school zone. Good for a $98 ticket. I deserved it and it was worth it. And I promise not to write it off as a business expense. Vicky Jordan is about to receive the National Science Teachers Association award for distinguished teaching and I found out why.  Can’t do it justice here. See the March issue of the North Forty News.

Two legendary tennis coaches/players, supporters of the game, mother and daughter, Evie Hoeven Arterburn and Laura Hoeven Eckton received awards from a Fort Collins organization that promotes character in athletics. And yes, recognizing people like this does make a difference to them and even more so to the athletes they inspire.
Happy Valentines Day!

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Killer debut mystery novel

Everybody has a story to tell and many of us dream of sharing it on the page, whether in the form of a memoir, novel or piece of how-to, self-help or informative non-fiction.

Having a story to tell is one thing.  Accumulating the knowledge and technique to write it well and then applying the seat of the pants to the chair and the fingers to the computer to get the job done is a whole other ball game.

Yet the hardest of all is quite likely the process of sharing it with the world—of actually getting it published under circumstances that are likely to get it into the hands of readers.

This week, in the course of conducting an interview for the North Forty News, I had the privilege of getting to know someone who is right now basking in the glow of having published Killing Time, her debut mystery novel. The second book in the series will be out this fall and she has contracted to write two more.

Bravo! I say. Margaret Mizushima is a speech therapist by training and for two decades worked in her field, in a hospital setting and in her own rehabilitation business.

Then she went back to her ranching roots, working part-time with her veterinarian husband, caring for a herd of Angus cattle and learning how to write in rural Wellington, Colorado. She attended classes, went to writers’ conferences and joined writers’ groups in order to find out what it takes to write a publishable book. She delved into non-fiction at first but then decided she wanted to write a mystery.

It took numerous re-writes before Crooked Lane, a New York publisher showed an interest. They loved the characters she’d created but wanted changes to the plot. That took rewriting two-thirds of the book in a frenzied three-month period.

Last December the book came out. It has won awards. She’s been invited to speak at mystery writers’ events and to contribute to a mystery writers’ blog. She has
finished her second book. “It was easier than writing the first one,” she says. She’s on her way!

Maybe you have to be a writer to fully appreciate the enormity of her success. I’m just thankful for the part-time job I have that allows me to meet and ask questions of people like Margaret Mizushima. I can hardly wait until Stalking Ground comes out next September.