Road Trip

“Do one thing every day that scares you.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

Words haven’t come easy these last months.  I’ve struggled to simply hang on, to perform routine jobs – household projects, tasks at work – seeking a sense of normalcy in a suddenly abnormal world.  Other than two valued meetings, my once bright realm of writing dimmed into darkness.

Country Highway

But recently, out of the night shadows a plan slipped in that might help awaken my creative soul.  I decided to go on an adventure.   I would take a road trip.

So, early Friday morning I brewed strong coffee, grabbed suitcase and snacks, and climbed into the Honda Accord.  It was my husband’s car, the one he used on his daily commute.  Driving it, I still felt his warm presence.  I gave Ingrid her coordinates then began my journey across the vast green of Pennsylvania and beyond.  A three-day weekend lay ahead.

Over rivers and rolling farmland, through the turnpike’s mountain tunnels – Blue Mountain, Kittatinny, Tuscarora, Allegheny – I drove west toward Pittsburgh.  A quick stop at a service plaza netted farm-fresh peaches and a jar of homemade pear butter.  Occasionally I’d turn on the radio, scanning local stations.  Mostly I drove in comfortable silence keeping company with thoughts and memories.

Cathedral of Learning

As I neared Pittsburgh, partially cloudy skies greyed.  Ingrid guided me into the city and through the proper turns while rain splashed down.  The downpour didn’t last long.  By the time I reached my son’s apartment it was dwindling to a drizzle.

He’s a Pitt student, my middle son, as was his father’s father.  So after I toured his apartment we drove toward the University and parked.  We ate lunch at The Porch on Schenley then strolled over to the Cathedral of Learning, built during the early part of the 20th century in part by dimes collected by the nuns from area school children.  It’s a magnificent structure filled with beauty and knowledge.  My son showed me where he’ll attend classes and hear lectures this fall.  Together we walked around campus and I bought Pitt t-shirts – 2 for $12 at a corner street kiosk.  Too soon time ran short so we made plans for Sunday then hugged and parted.

I continued on my road trip, toward Cleveland and a Saturday writers’ workshop just south of the city.  It was the timing and location that first tempted me into registering for NEORWA’s one-day workshop.  It fit well with my needs, I thought, and might motivate me to begin writing again.  It was all that and more.

From 9 am until 5 pm on Saturday, prolific Texas author Candace Havens spoke to a group of 60+ writers on a myriad of writing topics.  She talked about goals, plotting, and brainstorming.  She gave a thrilling talk about Fast Draft – a way to generate the first draft of a novel in two weeks by writing 20 pages a day.  She discussed Michael Hague’s six-step plot structure, and Jim Butcher’s story arc. We broke for lunch and conversation with fellow writers.  The workshop continued into the afternoon –  “Revision Hell,” branding, marketing, and building an image in the marketplace.  An incredibly rich, motivating day.

Pitt Panther

On Sunday morning I drove back to Pittsburgh where I once more met with my son.  This time we enjoyed a full and varied Sunday breakfast buffet at Joe Mama’s on Forbes Avenue.  Under blue skies and sunshine, we again strolled around campus.  Then, as on Friday, all too soon it was time to part.

The drive east went smooth, despite heavy Sunday traffic and occasional summer road construction.  Two-thirds of the way home, I detoured down to the National Cemetery near Annville to visit my beloved’s grave.  The section where he rests isn’t filled so the sod is not yet laid.  The brown, barren ground around the granite stones gives it a stark appearance.  But that didn’t diminish the power of the site. For a long while, I stood in silent conversation then strolled back to the car.

I arrived home late evening.  It was a good trip for many reasons.  The open highway in fair weather brought some peace.   I cherished the visits with my son. I enjoyed NEORWA’s writers’ workshop and new writing friends made there.  I savored the warmth of memories relived.

And somewhere, along the way, a seed for a new story miraculously germinated and is taking root.   ♥

Keepers

As readers, we all have favorite books.  They are the stories we can’t bear to part with, ones that live on in our memories.  The books we’d keep on our shelves forever, if such a thing were possible.  Years may pass but their presence lets us know there is a wondrous volume just waiting for us to again open its cover and lose ourselves in some amazing world.

I admit that I’m a book hoarder.  To me books are precious.  It’s hard to let go of the many I’ve enjoyed and my to-be-read pile grows ever higher.  In time I know I must downsize.  I’ll need to pass on my scores of books, giving them to others to enjoy their magic.  My Kindle will make downsizing easier.  The frailties of old age will make it easier still.  But there are a few volumes I know I’ll cling to as long as humanly possible.  These books are my true favorites, my keepers.  I enjoy being surrounded by them and cherish their presence in my life.

As a writer, I dream of publishing a book that makes someone’s list of keepers.  I long to write words that might touch and inspire others even half as much as other writers’ words have touched me.  A grandiose dream perhaps, but not an impossible one.  I have faith.

Beyond books, there are other keepers in our lives.  I love movies and count many among my keepers.  Like books, favorite DVDs line my shelves so I can watch them again and again.   Last of the Mohicans, Gone With the Wind, Gettysburg, The Fugitive, Sweet Home Alabama, The African Queen…my list is long. Good stories and characters, well produced, well acted.  Like my keeper books, these movies have become old friends.

Some people keep and prize sports memorabilia; they cherish having it around them.  Other souls value music, or fine works of art.  They take great joy in its presence.

But I believe that the keepers to be most valued in life are not books, not movies.  They are not music, not art, not any sort of collectibles.  The real keepers in life are the people who live beside and around us.  Of course, we don’t refer to these folk as keepers, someone to cherish and hold on to.  Instead we call them husband, wife, son, daughter, mom, dad, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, cousin, friend, co-worker, or neighbor.  Whatever their name, they are the angels that make up our daily lives.  We may not always fully appreciate the goodness they harbor, but it is strong, rich, and true.

During my recent heartbreaking loss, uncounted angels wrapped their wings around me bringing a comfort I wouldn’t have thought possible.  Through words, prayers, and untold kindnesses, I knew I was not alone.  In the absence of my soul mate, I might have been lonely, but never, ever alone.

We all need angels in our lives, guardians to watch over us in time of crisis and need.  Through my grief, I’ve seen an overwhelming prevalence of goodness and sympathy in this world.   I’ve found there is a prevalence of true keepers.

Angels, all. 

From Sea to Sea

When we planned the itinerary for our May trip, it seemed logical.  Nothing really amazing, just a practical way to attend two family events in a limited amount of time. Our initial flight took us to Charleston, South Carolina and to a rented house set up on a hill the second row in from the ocean in Folly Beach.  From our porch each morning and night we saw, heard, and smelled the awesome salty breezes of the Atlantic.   It was our first visit to Charleston, a city of refined southern charm and beauty.

We took a harbor cruise to see Fort Sumter where, 150 years ago, the shots were fired that started the Civil War.  The War, as true southerners still call it, was to be over in a few months time.  It lasted four bloody years.  Back in Charleston we rode on a guided tour in a mule drawn carriage through the city’s historic district and passed by stately old homes.  As we rode near Battery Park, we observed a solemn celebration of Confederate Memorial Day celebrated each year on May 10th, the day Stonewall Jackson died.

In an awesome marketplace, we watched artisans weave Sweetgrass Baskets and string stone beads for necklaces.  A pretty young student (thanks, Abby!) guided us through the grounds of the beautiful College of Charleston.  We toured Middleton Place, a rice plantation on the banks of the Ashley River.  Everywhere, we ate fresh seafood – at a rural dive, at a crab shack near the ocean, and at our beach house.

At the Public Library and the old Court House, I scrolled through spools of old microfilm to copy family history.  We shot pictures of the house where my husband’s great-grandfather once lived, and then said a prayer at the church he attended. At Magnolia Cemetery we found his grave, and said another prayer.  Nearby lay the dead of the sunken Hunley, yet another reminder of The War.   Back at Folly Beach the ocean called.  We strolled barefoot over smooth sand letting the warm waters of the Atlantic wash over our feet.  Reluctantly, we said goodbye.

From Charleston we flew across green mid-western farm fields to Chicago’s O’Hare Field then on to the brown desert sands surrounding Las Vegas. A myriad of languages and accents sang out at airports.  The final leg of our journey took us to the wonder of San Francisco, a vibrant diverse city as beautiful as Charleston but different.  So different.

On Saturday we drove across the Golden Gate Bridge to San Rafael to attend a joyful college graduation on the peaceful grounds of Dominican University.  On our trip back to the city, at the top of a winding hilltop we gazed on the magnificent Bay that leads to the Pacific Ocean.  Early Sunday morning we strolled a few blocks to watch the fun of the Bay to Breakers race.   Serious runners, walkers, and costumed party-goers run 12 kilometers from the San Francisco Bay to the waters of the Pacific Ocean. This year is the 100th anniversary.   And everywhere, we enjoyed gloriously fresh food – fruits, veggies, crepes, seafood.

I’m on overload  now.  In ten short days we traveled from sea to sea.  Soon comes the return to the reality of daily life.  The best part of course, has been visiting with loved ones.  Aside from that has come a deeper appreciation for this land. Travel does that.  America is vast and her stories are boundless.  So much still to discover, and record.

Earthquakes & Flowers

We were parking our car in a Chinatown lot near the Philadelphia Convention Center when my sister called.  We had tickets for Springtime in Paris, the 2011 Philadelphia Flower Show. Paula’s voice held a note of urgency. She asked about our oldest son living in San Francisco, an untimely concern I thought.  We had not yet heard of Japan’s earthquake and the resulting tsunami reportedly headed toward the West Coast.

Walking into the flower show’s main gate seemed surreal. A possible tsunami was hours from San Francisco. The lines to the show were long and moved slowly. We could only wait. We entered under the arch of the Eiffel Tower, painted a light color against the black ceiling and awash with spotlights. Our son would return my call. Feathered and flowered carousel animals ran wild among blossoming cherry trees.  He would call soon; soon he did. Everywhere people stood in awe at the surrounding beauty. He and the rest of California were safe.

Surreal morphed into a vision, a landscape artist’s fantasy recreated inside the huge convention center. We strolled beyond the tower’s imposing structure and into a Parisian-inspired dreamland.

Sixty large scale gardens were featured.  We gazed on a Victorian salon adorned with flowers under glass, a floral decorated Patisserie, a carousel stage, an artist’s studio, a water lily pond and fountains, and an amazing shack inspired by the Louisiana Bayou and built by students. There was a topiary carved into Rodin’s The Thinker and another exhibit inspired by a painting of Edgar Degas.

After a few hours, we left the show and wandered across the street for lunch. The Reading Terminal is a fragrant, busy Marketplace dating from 1892.  It is filled with multiple markets — meats, fish, fresh produce, Philly Cheesesteaks, Amish bakeries, dining counters, and more.  Walking through the Reading Terminal alone would have been worth our trip to Philadelphia, but we had more flowers to see.

On our return, we encountered two polite protesters carrying a large banner.  They were part of a group protesting what they called PNC bank’s “environmental crimes” in Appalachia.  I later learned more about their protest in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Once back inside, we wandered by prize-winning miniature gardens, then among the one-hundred and eighty unique vendor booths. Wood patio furniture, unique light fixtures, metalwork, a myriad of seeds and bulbs, and quality jewelry. I was attracted to a stall featuring intricate carved porcelain night lights.  The artist was Marty Kubicki from Irvine, California.  I admired his gorgeous artistry then he and I spent several minutes discussing news from Japan and the west coast.

Finally, with feet aching from long hours on concrete, my husband and I left for the parking lot, then drove out of the city.  Late that day, as we settled into our suburban hotel room, we watched broadcasts of the heart-breaking devastation in Japan.

My stories are set in other time periods, before thoughts and pictures could fly around the world in seconds.  On Friday, in the course of a few hours I learned of a horrific earthquake and a possible tsunami, but that my son and the state of California were safe.

What must it have been like for those who lived in earlier times?  How did a woman cope when her husband or sons went off to fight in the Civil War?  Not knowing.  How did 18th century parents manage when their children moved to the new world, not knowing if they would see them again?

Writing historical fiction takes more than just research.  It takes immersing oneself into a different time and culture.  The creators of the gardens at the 2011 Philadelphia Flower Show immersed themselves in the Parisian culture, and were inspired to create awesome scenes. As writers we must do the same.  Doing so brings life to our vision of the world.

My heartfelt thoughts and prayers go out to the families of those lost in Japan.

Paris Day 6 – Last Day

If I don’t write about our last day, perhaps a part of us will remain forever in Paris, and so I’ve delayed this entry.  But time travels on, doesn’t it?

On Monday morning, October 18th, we rode the metro from Les Halles station to St. Michel-Notre Dame.  From there we walked the short distance to the Palace of Justice where Sainte-Chappelle is located.  Because of its location within the walled yard of a government building, security seemed extra tight.   The scanning was akin to airport security with belts, all metal, and cell phones needing to be removed before walking through the scanner.   Day bags were also scanned, just as at the airport.  Once through security, we walked back outside and toward the exquisite chapel.

Sainte-Chappelle (or “Holy Chapel”) was started by King Louis IX in the early part of the 13th century to house holy relics of Christ.  It was completed in 1248.  It served as both a royal chapel, and a place where the holy relics were kept and exhibited once a year.  Though it has been damaged by fire and flood, by the French Revolution and the ravages of modern pollution, it is a wondrous monument to faith and to the beauty mankind can create.   In the upper chapel especially, the mood was hushed with awe and reverence as we all gazed at the glorious windows.

From Sainte Chappelle, we strolled outside, through the courtyard, and toward the Seine.  We walked across the bridge to the Left Bank, then down the steps.  We’d decided to take a cruise.

After our cruise, we parted for a few hours.   My husband strolled over to the Musée de l’Armee and a visit to Napoleon’s tomb, while I roamed through the narrow streets and small shops of the city’s Left Bank.

In the late afternoon, we met back in our comfortable apartment on Rue St. Honoré, and dined at home on quiche and ham.  A quiet evening, our last night in Paris.

Paris Day 5 – St. Eustache & Dinner

Sunday afternoon we returned on the RER train from Versailles to the St. Michel-Notre Dame station then transferred to our home station at Les Halles.  We had not yet visited Sainte Eustache, a Gothic/Renaissance cathedral built between 1532 and 1637 and rivaled in Paris only by Notre Dame.   Sunday seemed an appropriate time.

Just prior to leaving for Paris, I’d heard from a distant cousin who shares my love of genealogy.  She wrote that if we had a chance, we should visit St. Eustache because of ancestral ties.  The guidebooks subsequently revealed that Mme. de Pompadour and Richelieu were baptized at St. Eustache. So were my seventh and eighth great grandfathers before they came to Quebec in the mid-1600’s.  When I read her email I smiled.  In the photos we’d seen of the apartment we’d already reserved, one window view showed St. Eustache.

The roof of the grand Cathedral was a daily sight for us from our 6th floor apartment; seeing it up close was awesome.  In the cooling air, we walked around the outside then stepped inside for a tour around the roped off perimeter of the seating.  Parishioners were seated but all was hushed.  A posting told us of an organ recital at 5:30, followed by the 6:00 PM Mass.

The pipes of a large wall organ echoed gloriously inside the huge church.  Later we were asked if it was doom and gloom or alleluia music. Neither and both, I think, and purely magnificent.  The sounds seemed to transport us back in time to an earlier era.

Mass was spoken and sung (beautifully) in French, of course.  Since neither of us are fluent in the language, we did not understand many of actual words.  But from the order of the Mass and from the intonations, we did understand the prayers, and their meaning.  Very moving.  Spiritual.

After Mass at St. Eustache, we walked over to a nearby restaurant,Au Pied du Cochon.  Although the restaurant was crowded we did not wait long for a seat.  We dined on beef and duck and vegetables, and shared a small bottle of Bordeaux.  Afterward we enjoyed dessert – creme brulee at its finest, and rich chocolate.   The suited waiter seemed amused when I wanted to take home our small empty wine bottle (labels make a memorable souvenir).  As we finished, our waiter brought us small glasses of Grand Marnier.  The fine orange liqueur provided the perfect ending to a delicious meal.

Monday would be our last day in Paris. I didn’t want to think of leaving.

Paris, Day 5 Early – Versailles

Sunday we took a day trip out of Paris to the Palace of Versailles.   Château de Versailles is located about 20 km. southwest of Paris, and started as a hunting cottage for Louis XIII.  His son, Louis XIV, the Sun King, transformed it into a lavish palace.  In 1682 it became the seat of the Royal Court and the French government.  Louis XV and Louis XVI enlarged both the palace and the gardens.

For a shorter walk, our guidebooks suggested we take the RER train to Versailles—Rive Gauche.  The train was filled.  After about 30 to 40 minutes, we arrived at Versailles—Chantiers.  The train stopped. It was not continuing to Rive Gauche.  Everyone eventually got off, some of us confused since the signs said this was the Rive Gauche train. Instead, we were directed to walk straight, through the town and toward the Château.  The walk took about fifteen minutes.

As it had on previous days, our Paris Museum Pass helped bypass the long line for tickets.   Just as we passed through security I heard a plop on the floor ahead, looked down, and saw a man’s wallet.  I picked it up and saw a Texas driver’s license.  My husband yelled “Texas!” to the crowds ahead, thinking the Texan would turn around.  No one responded so he gave the wallet to Security.   In the crowded tourist spots of Paris, we saw many warning signs about pickpockets.  Hopefully, the owner didn’t assume his pocket had been picked, and was able to claim his wallet.

The palace courtyard was vast, windy, and cold.  We followed the crowds  into the royal halls.  English audio tours allowed us to key in to each of the Salons, learning a bit more about the palace, and those who had lived there.  The Hall of Mirrors was especially stunning.  Just after the Queen’s bedchamber, where Marie Antoinette had given birth to her children, a ceiling restoration was in progress.

It’s difficult for me to describe my feelings as we walked the halls of Versailles.  The lavishness is beyond belief.  Rich, sumptuous. Seeing it helped me better understand the horrors that came in the French Revolution.  The story of the palace preservation for history is equally remarkable.

After the self-guided tour we stopped into a crowded cafeteria to grab a sandwich and salad.  We ate then stepped back into the courtyard with a plan to tour the gardens.   A bitter wind swept in.

There was to be a fountain exhibition at 5:30 PM, one of the last of the season, but it was only early afternoon.  On a warmer day we would have enjoyed seeing the lighted fountains, and the domain of Marie Antoinette.  But so much remained to see in Paris and only one day remained.  We strolled back through town toward the train.