Tuesday, August 30, 2022

My Favorite Hiding Places

Over the years, I’ve shared in my blog posts some of my favorite hiding places. These are secluded spots where I can be alone inside my head. It’s like a tabernacle for the less than religious like me to worship.

These retreats of respite come crowned with all kinds of monikers like secluded glen, woodland retreat, seaside monastery and one of my favorites, Vision Quest. Each space presents a very different atmosphere in which to explore the unseen but felt, the indescribable but imagined and the attitude adapted from altitude and surroundings.

Some are in Minnesota and others in California. The location, along with their respective seasonal changes, helps to add tone, color, mixture, hue and flavoring to the experience. The one commonality is their ability to open the abyss that is daily life and move on to a new level of consciousness in which to explore the unexpected. The mind works in funny ways-that way.

California seems to hold the lead in this vicarious mind-hiking exercise. It probably started a long time ago with several books on the wilderness.

‘On the Loose’ by Jerry and Renny Russell started it all and then continued on with Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling book ‘Wild.’ While I wasn’t quite up to doing the Pacific Crest Trail, I was motivated to get off my duff and go back to hiking on some mountain trails as I had in the past. The trails around Palm Springs turned out to be the answer.

Not that Minnesota was left behind. Our mulch garden in Minnesota is the result of shade trees gradually killing all the grass around them. It’s the perfect spot for hummingbirds, regular birds, and all sorts of woodland creatures to move about.

The two rocking chairs and gliders provide the perfect spot from which to take in the peaceful surroundings and listen to the birds and insects buzzing about. It’s a sanctuary right in my own backyard.

Along the the banks of the Mississippi flows a constant stream of pleasure craft, debris, vegetation, and unidentifiable objects. There is always a spot to find among the crags and rocks lining the riverbank to sequester myself and let the water do the thinking for me.

There is a trail in Lebanon Hills Regional Park that meanders around Schultz Lake and provides numerous spots in which to get down and dirty with nature. The Park is a wondrous mixture of bike trails and footpaths.

It’s a great place to retreat to an aging version of trail running; minus the serious ground-pounding. Summers in Minnesota offer up a perfect blend of warmth and humidity, chill and dampness that adds tone and texture to these mental wanderings.

California offers up a totally different perspective; minus the waterways and adding up a lot of elevation. Mountain trails cover hundreds of miles through a variety of terrain and difficulty. For residents and visitors alike, trail hiking is one of the perks of living in the desert.

Civilization ends not far from my home where the mountains and canyons collectively take over from putting greens and turquoise pools. There are a cluster of canyons, long revered in Indian culture and lore, that stretch for miles and miles for as far as the Raven flies. Long ago, the land twisted itself up into mountains, canyons, washes, and arroyos.

Skirting the mountains is a wash long favored by riders from the nearby Smoke Tree Stables. The wash is one big playground for hikers, riders, runners, mountain bikers and mountain goats. Add in the seasonal rattlesnakes, lizards and unnamed rodents and it’s a menagerie not to be missed.

For most of each year, the wash is quiet and serene; a great place to get lost inside your head. There’s usually a small muddy creek meandering by. The scrub brush is in full bloom in spring and nesting birds flitter about endlessly. The stillness there can be deafening with only a few fleeting sounds floating by. All is peaceful until once or twice a year when the rains come and wash that complacency away with astounding fury and force in just a matter of moments.

Fortunately for me, the wash isn’t the only place I’ve found tranquility and peace in this part of my world. As a fellow hiker commented the other day. “It really is one of the best playgrounds for adults in the world.” I’ve also found a host of other newly discovered venues to get lost in around the Coachella Valley.

Although it’s called a ‘hill’ at 2200 feet on most maps, Murray Peak is, in fact, the highest peak in the vicinity of Palm Springs. It’s been labeled a moderate to strenuous hike with a total distance of almost seven miles and a vertical gain of over 2200 feet. It takes an average of five hours for completion with only a few rest stops along the way. For the seasoned hiker it’s a refreshing walk up the mountain. For less conditioned souls, it can be a gut-buster and taxiing on the lungs.

Then several seasons ago, another trail caught and captured my attention. This one is called the Garstin Trail. That old goat path climbs up over two miles that switch back and forth and practically stumble over themselves in the process. Elevation rises from roughly 700 feet to 1500 feet up Smoke Tree Mountain. The trail rises to a plateau connecting up with the Shannon, Berns, Wild Horse and Eagle Canyon Trails. Even for the most ardent, experienced hiker it can be a gut-sucking, deep breathing endeavor.

But I don’t have to go high to get high. Closer to home in my backyard are two old orange Adirondack chairs sequestered behind my orange trees. I call it my secret garden.

To be honest, it’s nothing more than a couple of orange chairs (estate sale specials) in one corner of my small orange grove. Nevertheless, it’s a place to go when I want to get lost inside my head and escape my daily routine. The orange trees are neighboring a couple of lemon trees; all of which went through an off-season last season. So while the grove wasn’t as thick as usual, it still provided enough greenery to close me off from the rest of the world, literally and figurative.

Then again, it’s not the view I come for. Instead it’s the quiet that surrounds me, an occasional bee or hummingbird out snacking or tiny lizards scampering about my feet. It’s another world where I’m cut off from the real world, at least in my mind. It’s a wonderful place to reflect and refresh my perspective on life.

So from my Minnesota mulch garden to my secret garden in the desert, I always have a place to go hide and reflect on how fortunate I am to be living the life I am living.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Traces Left Behind

Truth be told, I still have a real affection for ‘Agnes’ and it would seem others feel the same way too. The story of this imagined love affair took me back to a time and place long since faded gray and vapid but still poignant to the mental touch.

Dinkytown courtesy of Hennepin County Library

While the affair lasted, it was a fun romp through places and people and bright hopes for the future. With my feet planted firmly in 2022, I could venture back to the mid-sixties and enjoy the experiences that Agnes and I shared together back then. A fair number of my readers seem to have enjoyed coming along for the journey too.

So far I have received two bonus checks from Amazon based on the success of ‘Agnes; Memories of First Love’ on their Vella platform. Writing a novella for this platform was a new experience for me. One never knows if this (not) new approach to story-telling is going to work or not.

While finishing up my story of romance and heartache with ‘Agnes,’ I began to ponder what I might do next if ‘Agnes’ was successful. It would have to be another serialized story that caught my audience’s attention and held it for fifteen or so episodes. As so often happens in the creative process, the core idea for this new storyline remained hidden from my consciousness for a while; three weeks to be exact. Until one day, out of the blue, it revealed itself at LA Fitness between the stationary bicycle and the treadmill.

While I had no idea how the story would end, there was the vapid shadow of a beginning in my grasp. It came in the form of an obituary appearing in the mail out of nowhere.

In this new story, the obituary came from the daughter of a woman I had been involved with many years before. It was more of a note than a formal obituary. The problem is that no one knew about our relationship back then. In addition, there were glaring errors in the notice. It almost seemed as if it had been written by someone who didn’t know the deceased very well at all.

From there, it got even more complicated. When I tried to contact the woman’s daughter I got nothing but dead ends thrown up in my face. Her daughter was evasive in her answers and sounded as if she hardly knew her mother very well at all. Further investigation revealed a pattern of deliberate misinformation and the distortion of facts. The one truth that was revealed was her mother’s love of the city lakes and their picturesque sailboats. So how did the daughter get that part right and little else?

I traveled to Southern Minnesota to make inquiries with an old acquaintance I hadn’t seen in years. He was even more dishonest in his answers. There were hints that the woman was still alive and they were an ‘item’ or at least he wanted them to be.

Then it got even more complicated.

That’s where the story stands thus far. I haven’t figured out an ending but I have managed to add numerous twists and turns in every episode and (I hope) one heck of a plot twist near the ending of the story.

Unfortunately, there are many other pressing projects screaming for my attention. So for now, I can only manage scratching at this outline as limited time allows. I love the idea of exploring ‘whatever happened to’. This past lover of mine and her evasive daughter seem ripe for the picking. It should be one heck of a writing journey when I finally get back to telling their story.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

What Are You Afraid of?

There are very few genres’ I haven’t, at least tiptoed around, in my writing explorations. I’ve slashed my way through the thick jungles of Vietnam. I’ve scanned the Western horizon for signs of Indian troubles. I’ve ran from shapeshifters through the ruins of Angkor Wat.

But to cozy up to an insecure, skinny hippo in the Pangani River under the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro was an entirely new experience for me. Undaunted by the challenge of talking to ‘little people’ verses my more mature crowd of readers, I stumbled ahead.

Thus was created my first children’s book: 'Waleed, the Skinny Hippo' written in English and Swahili. It’s the story of a skinny hippo who learns from a very wise fish that’s OK to be different. In fact, being different is something to embrace and welcome he is told. I’m delighted to report that the feedback on this first version of ‘Waleed, the Skinny Hippo’ has been fantastic. People love the bright colored pages, the cute and cuddly Waleed, and the moral tale of accepting oneself as you are.

As proud as I am of this first version, I did want to expand its reach as much as I could. Thus Vida and I decided to create two new versions of the first Waleed. So now I’m happy to report that besides being translated into Swahili, Waleed is now also available in both Spanish and Hmong.

Marketing, usually the bane of most writers, has always been a challenge for me. I am trying to get the story of Waleed out to various ethnic audiences in the Twin Cities. It’s been a slow and laborious process.

Despite the slow steps taken in marketing Waleed, it’s not too soon to think about a second book in the ‘Waleed’ children’s book series. I’ve decided that this next book will discuss the ‘concept of fear’ and how to handle it.

The idea of being afraid came from clichés thrown at me and other kids growing up. Unfortunately it was from a generation that thought tough love meant little affection and manning up to one’s fears. I’ve always thought that denying one’s fears or trying to ignore them was the wrong approach.

Based on that wrong approach and trying to correct it, I wanted to write a moral tale about facing one’s fears but not necessarily conquering them. I honestly don’t know if that is possible, especially for a little kid. The story, as it’s been roughed out thus far, is pretty straightforward.

Waleed is told about a magical river on the other side of the jungle. He is encouraged to go there and play with other hippos. But to get there Waleed must pass through this deep, dark, and perceived dangerous jungle. All of his friends leave him and enter the jungle. Waleed is all alone. He doesn’t know what to do. Finally he gathers up his courage and he too enters the dark jungle.

There are all kinds of scary sights and sounds in the jungle. Just about the time that Waleed decides to turn around and run away, he meets a wise elephant who talks to him about facing his fears and dealing with them.

I felt it was important to steer away from the clichés and pat phrases I had been bombarded with when I was growing up. While that older generation might have felt they were only trying to help, I think a lot of that advice fell far short of being helpful. The older generational ideas of masculinity and bravado proved to be obstacles to truly dealing with one's fears.

Waleed learns that fear can be managed and might not go away entirely. He learns that it is perfectly OK to be fearful of sights and sounds and things that might not bother other hippos. Like dealing with his weight, Waleed learns that he is unique as a little skinny hippo and he must handle his fear as he feels best suits him.

For human and hippo alike, that’s probably pretty good advice.

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Crossing The Styx

Whether you believe in this stuff or not, it makes for fascinating reading. While I haven’t taken to reading the morning obituaries each day or mystical readings about passing over to the other side, I have come across phrases that have (for whatever reason) latched on to my consciousness.

‘Crossing the Styx’ is just one such phrase. But it wasn’t the first to grab my attention. As a writer, I try to be attuned to phrases that capture a moment in time, a particular scene or an emotion. They all add to the vernacular toolbox I use every day to paint picture stories in the minds of my readers.

‘Goin' where the Southern cross' the Dog’ was one of those first such phrases. The phrase refers to a railroad crossing in the Deep South well known to locals and outlaws alike. A great description of this phrase comes from Greg Johnson of the University of Mississippi. This southern state has a rich and fascinating treasure lore of blues history and background.

Mr. Johnson explains:

“Many early blues singers used variations on the phrase “going where the Southern cross the Dog.” The expression refers to the place in Moorhead, Mississippi, where the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley rail line intersected with the Southern rail line. Many southerners referred to the Yazoo and Mississippi line as the “Yellow Dog” or simply the “Dog” or “Dawg.” The first historical reference to blues lyrics mentions this phrase: when W. C. Handy wrote about first hearing the blues in 1903 at a train station in Tutwiler, he described a man playing guitar and repeating the phrase “Goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog.” Handy later popularized the phrase in his “Yellow Dog Blues” (1914). Charley Patton sang the phrase in “Green River Blues” (1929), and Kokomo Arnold used it in “Long and Tall” (1937).

I explained in a previous blog how that phrase dropped into my consciousness one day out of the blue. Its origin is less important than the mental picture it painted inside my head. The words and the images that it conjured up emitted a confusing cauldron of feelings and emotions. Words and phrases can do that sometimes especially to a writer who is always on the hunt for impactful vernacular tools to add to his arsenal.

For me, it is the more iconic and historical phrases that I find most fascinating. Folk music is the perfect conduit for painting these mental pictures. Down through the ages, based on some semblance of reality, words and phrases from folk songs have given us ‘Old Hannah,’ the Southern convicts name for the punishing sun. ‘Delia,’ the name given to a bad woman, a ‘rounder’ or a ‘gambler.’ Like ‘John Hardy’ she was based on real life characters who gained immortality through song. Old railroad songs seem to be some of the most prolific image-makers.

Now another phrase stumbled across my consciousness

‘Crossing the Styx’ has been formulated in many different configurations like ‘The River Styx’ and ‘Journey Across the Styx.’ They all mean the same thing. The Styx, which was also a female deity, formed the boundary between the world of the living and the world of the dead according to the philosopher Hades. When someone died, the psyche (spirit) of the deceased had to cross the river Styx, carried on a boat by the ferryman Charon, in order to enter the afterlife.

The concept of this ‘other side’ has long since fascinated me. The Vikings had their Valhalla or Viking heaven. Religions down through the ages have talk about, preached about, and warned about life after death; making it sound like the final tabulation.

Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and other similar religions have their own take on this concept.

In their new book ‘The RE Generation’, Jack Uldrich and Camille Kolles talk about the influence of mystical experiences in our lives.

“Since the 1960s, the Gallup organization has been measuring the frequency of mystical experiences in the United States. In a recent poll, 84 percent of the respondents indicated that they had had at least one experience in which they ‘went beyond their ordinary self and felt connected to something greater than themselves.”

“In the same survey, a follow-up question revealed that 75 percent of the respondents agreed there was a social taboo against speaking in public about such experiences.”

That hasn’t stopped a lot of people, including myself, from trying to explore, examine and understand what isn’t easily understood. It’s a journey inside one’s head without guideposts, guidelines, or borders. There’s an easy way to stretch your imaginary muscles. Henry Miller, philosopher, poet, writer and a main character in my latest suspense mystery ‘Playground for the Devil’ said it best:

“The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.”

When my kids were just kids, I tried to do this. We would go hiking into the woods nearby and at a certain point; I’d have them sit on a log or the ground and ‘just listen.’ I made them sit quietly and listen to the sounds all around them; the birds, wind rustling leaves in the trees, distant traffic, etc. I wanted them to retreat back into their head and let their eyes see what hadn’t been seen before.

Then I would ask them what they heard and what they saw. We would talk about the visible foliage and the invisible animals around us. I wanted to them see beyond the trail we were following and embrace their surroundings. It was hard for them at first but gradually as they settled down, their senses became more attuned to their surroundings; sights and sounds and smells and atmosphere. I’d like to believe that these experiences are one reason both my kids and all my grandchildren are very active outdoors and have a great respect for their surroundings.

Try it sometime. It’s a fascinating and deeply satisfying experience.

Look beyond your eyes to where your vision melds into your memory and imagination. Let your thoughts roam free and see where they take you. Perhaps into another world, another realm just over the limits of your consciousness.

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

The Art of Conversation

It can happen any place in the world. Perhaps in a pub in Ireland, England or Scotland with a pint of Ale. It can be a quiet intimate sharing of ideas or a lively exchange of opinions and attitudes.

It can be in a Paris café with a tiny cup of strong black espresso, meant to be sipped for hours on end. But it’s more than just conversation. It is the sharing of ideas and facts and history handed down between generations and friends.

West Africa has its griot or storyteller.  This is the historian for the people. People would gather regularly around the griot and they would pass down the stories, histories and customs of the village communities.

Back in the day, families went out on Sunday afternoon to visit other families for conversation and coffee. Intellectuals, bohemians, and the like had their salon. Children sat around the campfire at night and told stories. I’ve often talked in less than stellar words about the ‘old men at the coffee shop’ who seldom listen and often talk mindlessly.

The military has its bullshit and bravado sessions. Workers have their shop talk and techies talk code. Conversations come in every shape, form, configuration, and stated purpose. It can be two friends sharing, lovers intimate cooing and delightful banter about nothing in particular.

It started for me about two years ago with six friends and associates I simply wanted to talk to. The pandemic was raging and close contact was fast becoming a thing of the past. I still wanted to meet and greet and share ideas so I came up with the idea of a C & C; a coffee and chat session. It was always outdoors and usually first thing in the morning before our regular lives took ahold of our day.

Then it grew last year with eight and now ten folks whom I meet up with to chat about anything and everything. It’s neither formal nor structured.  Some are only once or twice a summer while others are much more frequently. But they all bring something different to the table.

Different folks, different backgrounds, different perspectives. We’ve managed to avoid talking about politics unless our views are in close alignment. Even then I’d rather talk about something fun, enjoyable, stimulating, thought-provoking or satisfying.

My friend Bob, in California, loves to talk about his current writing projects and me about mine. We’ve found that our sharing critiques are really helpful in bringing a fresh perspective to any current project of ours. My friends back home bring a plethora of similar life experiences to our vernacular mix.

Not surprisingly, there’s been a weeding out process over time. Some of those folks have fallen by the wayside, busy with other aspects of their lives. The ones that remain continue to bring new visions, new challenges and new reasons for getting out of bed each morning.

It may have taken me a lifetime to find pleasure and great value in cerebral discourse and exchange but I’ve got it now…and it’s a hoot.