A Christmas Card Kind of View

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I owe it all to Rachel. I’ve written about this before, the way she made her kids believe in magic—the way that, for a time when we were very young, she glowed with humor and energy and wonder and beauty in everything she did, and the way that all came together at Christmas time. As I sit writing this, a few days before Christmas 2016, my 60th Christmas, it’s natural to look back upon other Christmases: childhood Christmases, falling-in-love Christmases, new-parent Christmases, teenage Christmases, grandparent Christmases, lonely Christmases…Christmases filled with family and friends—all of them precious in some way.

This year Mike and I will be in California and then Arizona visiting our kids and grandkids. We are so excited to be going together this Christmas, though our visits will be shorter than we’d like! (I have plans in the works for springtime…)

Every Christmas, since my first in 1956, when I was a six-month-old infant with a beautiful and entrancing mother—yes, Rachel, not to mention a kind and loving father, and a brother who loved me so much he called me “his present”—every December since, whether happy and relatively carefree, or saddened as I was while enduring hard times and loss, has left a lasting impact on my view of life. A Christmas card kind of view, Rachel Style.

The card is part Norman Rockwell, all homey and twinkly and smelling like home-baked Swedish spritz and candied oranges, but there’s a liberal dose of boozy smoke haze wafting over the rooftops and a neon tavern light or two blinking on and off in the distance just like Rudolf’s shiny nose.    christmas-decor-2013-017

The house on Sheridan Road had a fireplace the length of the entire living room. One memorable Christmas Eve, Billy and I were sitting on the rug in front of the fire, drinking cocoa and talking excitedly about Santa already being on his way to Wisconsin from the North Pole.

“That sucker is going get a big surprise when he drops down the chimney into that fire,” Mom said, taking a long sip of egg nog.

“Don’t scare the kids, Rachel.” Dad’s voice was always mild, and he assured us that the fire, which was blazing in a newly menacing way, would be out long before Santa and the reindeer arrived. Dad was an excellent camper and he knew how to put a fire out.img_1149

We knew Mom was just making “a funny” about Santa. Mom loved Santa. We knew that. After all, she’d taken us to Dickleman’s Toy Store to meet him, spent hours helping us prepare his favorite cookies, and, other than this one slip, she spoke of him in glowing terms, as if he were probably almost as magic as she was.

“He knows everything, and he loves you both more than anything in the world,” Mom had said, which pretty much made Santa her chubby, white-bearded twin or something, because that description fit her like my Barbie’s velvet gloves fit her tiny stiff hands, easy to put on, easy to take off. Magic.

Of course, Billy explained, Mom didn’t really want Santa to burn up in our fireplace. Still, it was unsettling. Later, she tucked us both in bed, nuzzled us, told us stories about Santa’s big night, and about the times she’d glimpsed him in the past. She’d once caught him bringing Rudolf right in on her clean carpet, she said, and another time Santa was rolling around on the floor playing with our dog, Duchess.

“Duchess loves Santa.” She patted Duchess, who was on the bed with us. “Don’t you, girl?”

Duchess wagged her tail and stretched. Billy and I drifted off to sleep. In the morning, there were presents under the tree and Santa’s cookies were gone.

Mom and Dad looked happy.christmas-decor-2013-013

Magic.

Billy caught the magic too, and no one else I’ve ever known has come so close to capturing Rachel’s spirit, style, grace, or humor.

“He’s a lot like me,” Mom often said, and she was absolutely right.

Billy didn’t just love people, he became their most loving and loyal supporter—celebrating with them and letting them take what they would, whether his love, money, home, possessions, or heart. For many years, on the day he cut down his Christmas tree, Billy jumped (I’m quite sure, naked), into a freezing stream in the High Sierras of Northern California. That night, wearing warm jammies and cozy socks, with the tree lit and decorated, and the fireplace burning, he would pile up loads of pillows and sleep underneath his tree. It was part of his magic, I guess.

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So many memories. There are a lot more, but it’s getting late. Anyway, I know you have your own Christmas memories, your own pictures of the people who shaped your view of this truly magical time of year.

May you be at peace, in your heart and in your life. May you recognize the true gifts and hold them dear. And may you be blessed with abundant and unconditional love.

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Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and Happy New Year to All!

 

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“Reading with Ghosts” Some thoughts on a post by Jenny Lawson, The Bloggess: “Sometimes tattered and worn = loved” August 9, 2016

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Like Jenny, I love used books, books that have a history of relationship with other readers that I can see and hold in my hands. The cover doesn’t need to be in great shape. There should be a name written in long hand somewhere within the first pages. Notes written in the margins. Words, phrases, paragraphs underlined. Exclamation marks, hearts, question marks in the margins. Old shopping lists stuck between the pages. Dedications to lovers, children, grandchildren, friends on the title page. This book reminds me of how very much I love being your mom.

Despite my librarian grandmother, my own library training and teacher training, and my years working in libraries and public schools, I’ve always been much more of a book sharer than a book protector. This doesn’t mean I condone random doodling, especially not of the tasteless variety, or nasty vulgarisms of any sort in any book (and I’ve seen plenty of those, believe me). And I am not advocating writing in any book that you do not own—please, respect all library books, and school texts! But I do appreciate a pithy comment that pertains to the content. I love knowing that I am sharing the experience of reading a particular piece with someone who found something striking enough to comment on right then and there, in the moment.Paris, 2013 154

Jenny Lawson says, “…reading those found books is like reading with ghosts, ones who eagerly point out their favorite passages or share their thoughts or questions in the margins.”

Books that I can remember writing in that are sitting around my house right now include:

Jane Eyre, A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Catcher in the Rye (probably my first!), The Diary of Anne Frank, Man’s Search for Meaning, Teacher Man, Rebecca, Atonement, Prodigal Summer, The Glass Castle, Learning to Walk in the Dark, and lots of poems—“The Raven” comes to mind along with some of Shakespeare’s sonnets. And memorably, the teacher edition of a literature anthology I used in my classroom for many years (not sure if this qualifies as defacing a public school text, but it did raise a few eyebrows during department meetings).

Funny story there. I was told, “That’s not your book! You can’t write in that!” back in 1998 by a wonderful teacher I respected and admired. Even so, I continued to write in the book. I planned on outlasting the book adoption cycle, and I wanted to remember what worked, what went flat, what insights, funny or touching, or what “light bulb” moments were expressed by my kids. When I retired in 2014 a young English teacher retrieved the same teacher anthology from the school library that I had written notes in for years. There hadn’t been a new book adoption in all of those years because the budget was just too tight for the district to purchase a new anthology. This new teacher wrote me a letter. “What a treasure!” she said. “Thank you for writing all of that down.”

A reader after my own heart. A teacher after my own heart. I hope she never forgets to write in the margins.Paris, 2013 108

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Sometimes tattered and worn = loved

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But Night Crawler is so much more Evocative

Our yard in May contains the world. Wisconsin teems with life. For many of us living in climates where the temperatures are at or below freezing for so many months of the year, this is a heady experience. One day you’re wearing your jacket and mittens and looking at everything brown and gray, and almost like Dorothy’s arrival in Munchkinland, the next moment goes blindingly Technicolor.

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A Few Minutes Ago…

It is grass that melting snow washes to emerald green. Tiny lime-colored leaves on black branches. Tulips, orange, and pink, and red. Daffodils, deep yellow and apricot. Lilacs, deep purple, lavender, and white.

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Munchkinland

Robin’s breast russet, and then those impossibly lovely blue shells their babies shed in unexpected places. I find one on the metal chair on the front deck. Cardinals, still here, looking tropical now, the crimson against the green. Red-winged black birds. White herons. Orioles, as orange as the fruit we feed them.

The sky at day, a brilliant blue, at night diamonds and velvet.

 

My husband calls me out to the yard.
“You have to see this.”
It’s dark and slightly cool. Wet.

“Look.”
He shines a flashlight across the lawn, catching the quiet, clandestine movements of thousands of earthworms.
They are everywhere. The lawn is undulating like the surface of a lake. I’m afraid I’ll hurt them.

He bids me come. “Step slowly. Lightly.”

I’m sure I shouldn’t be out like this, could never tread lightly enough. I say a quick prayer. “Please don’t let me do any harm.”

We stand together watching the glistening movement as the worms slide back into the ground. Everywhere the light hits them, they move. We talk about what they are doing. We’ve never learned.

I suspect they come up out the earth and the rich dark loom to gulp in the sweet, sweet air. My husband suspects it’s for sex.

We know very little about the life of worms. Such a common thing to know so little about. We feel silly, and are sure these must be things our parents were born knowing. Like the call of a mockingbird.

Then, a voice inside me says, Thibookworm-151738__180s is why they’re called night crawlers, Lori. And I know I am a complete dolt. How could this simple fact have escaped my attention all these years? Though it’s no excuse, night crawlers is not a term I ever remember being used in my family. Just earthworms, or simply worms. We didn’t fish, and we didn’t garden much. Out of sight, out of mind.

But “Night crawlers” is so much more evocative. Briefly, I picture little worm-sized, worm-shaped zombies crawling out of tiny worm-graves, marked by little crosses and a mausoleum or two—“Here lies Squirmy, Beloved Father and Husband”—our entire lawn a movie set for a new Tim Burton story.

graveimage                   How could I miss this?

“They’re good for the garden,” I say. (We’ve just planted tomatoes, peas, beets, onions, peppers, lettuce, and broccoli.)
“Yes.”
As we walk back to the house, I think, “And fireflies will be next.”

 

Rachel “Lori” Pohlman, Copyright 2016

*For some interesting facts on worms, such as the fact that, yes, there is some sex involved in night crawling (but that’s not all they do), go to: http://blog.nwf.org/2014/02/ten-things-to-know-about-earthworms/.

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Fireside Chats in Springtime

 

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Silly me. I had this idea to write a WWII-era literary fiction novel a while back. Quite a while back.

I spent a lot of time researching in between writing scenes. I felt I had a decent grasp on the time period; my dad was a WWII marine—I grew up waking to The Marine Corps Hymn–and though I majored in English, not history, I spent a good deal of time learning about and teaching the Holocaust to my eighth-grade classes when I taught The Diary of Anne Frank. I even wrote a YA novel about a Polish boy falling in love in war-torn Poland for my Master’s thesis in creative writing.

I’d just need to check a few dates here and there, maybe read a few more books and immerse myself in the movies and music of the 1940s, and presto! I’d be good.

Not so true.

What is true is that old saying about “the more you learn, the more you realize how much you don’t know.” Today’s epiphany: Go Deeper. I stumbled into going deeper today almost by accident. I was looking up a few Roosevelt quotes for a scene in my manuscript where my protagonist listens to the president on the radio. Just a few lines, you know, to add realism and texture to the scene.

                                                                                                Paris to home 2013 033   GO DEEPER

And I find myself, hours later, too torn up to write the scene. I’ll write it tomorrow, or maybe the next day. You see, I found recordings of Franklin D. Roosevelt speaking to the American public. I listened to them. Then I found recordings of the broadcasts made by the journalists who had followed him throughout his long presidency talking about him on the day of his death.

These recordings are priceless. You will need Kleenex. And maybe a dog. Or a loved one nearby. Luckily, my protagonist has a hankie, a dog, and a brother.

Fireside Chat           (Not my photo)                 Silly me? Yes. But also grateful me.

If you haven’t done so, and you’re interested, go to http://www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/archives/collections/utterancesfdr.html to get started.

Three dates you might be interested in:

January 11, 1944: Radio Address to the Nation- State of the Union message to Congress (30 min.)

November 2, 1944: Campaign radio speech from the White House—“The World is Rising” (15 min.)

December 24, 1944: Christmas Eve Address (5 mins.) Make sure to stay tuned for The National Anthem that immediately follows.

Rachel “Lori” Pohlman, Copyright2016

 

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Give Me Land, Lots of Land

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I lived most of my life in the West, quite a departure from the early Wisconsin years.  I write this on a United Airlines flight, rocketing across a black starry sky back into the West yet again, a vast desert landscape dotted with mountains and strip malls and the constantly pumping veins of freeways clogged with anonymous western humans.

Funny that I’m happy to be going this time.

For the first time ever I realize this, I am going by choice, I want to go. The West came to me as a young girl so suddenly that I had no dreams created to soften it. The journey there, several non-stop days of riding lodged into the back of a sixty-four VW Beetle, stuck into an area as narrow as my skinny-kid hips, clothing and personal belongings of all varieties, belonging to myself,  Dad, and Billy piled to the ceiling, covering the floor up to seat level, and totally obliterating the small oval back window.

It was hot. The heat was the most salient quality of the ride. That, and I did not know why or where or for how long I was being taken away from Kenosha and my mother. Just a knobby -kneed kid going along for the ride.

red-rock-canyon-1303620_960_720Blue Diamond, Nevada is quite an amazing place. Or, at least it was to me. The desert in summer. So stark. Cactus? Never saw those before. And it was nearly treeless. It was as if green was a forgotten color there. The long, silent two-lane road. Mirages wavering ahead of us, always staying ahead. I thought, if we could just catch up to one, I’d hear the splash of our tires going through the water like back home at Pet’s Woods.

Mountains made of naked red rock. Country music. And at night a dome of shooting stars like I’d seen at the Planetarium in Chicago once.

Off in the distance, a glow. “That’s Las Vegas,” Dad said.  “A bad place. We’re not going there.”

He took us to Blue Diamond. For a visit. Aunt Honey and Uncle David lived in a small stucco ranch house. Not an actual ranch, but there were horse stalls just a few blocks away. Aunt Honey was my mom’s sister, a smaller red-ponytailed version of my mom. When she tucked me into bed, I closed my eyes and imagined she was Mom; her voice sounded nearly the same. Uncle David was a tall man, with dark hair and crinkles around his eyes, crinkles I would soon learn that were both from living in the bright desert sun and from laughing.

They were animal crazy, these cowboy relatives, and this probably sealed the deal for me when I came to learn that Dad was going to drop Billy and me off there indefinitely. I could definitely stand to live in a house with an actual chipmunk named Mike who sat on our shoulders and ate out of our hands at meal times, a huge German Shepherd named Rip, a white Persian cat named Idgit, a goat named Easter, and a horse named Christmas.chipmunk-804573_960_720     I was allowed to go to the stalls alone and feed and groom Easter and Christmas. I fed them the wrong grain for a while and they put on some extra weight, but I didn’t get in trouble about it.horses-back-587609_960_720

Aunt Honey and Uncle David seemed happy together and also happy enough to have us with them. Billy and I fell rather easily into life on the desert. Though I cried a couple of times initially, Aunt Honey was always proud to remind me in later years that I cried even harder the day Mom showed up to get us.

By this time summer was over and we were attending school, making friends, learning to square dance and ride. We’d also each been given our own pet to care for, Billy got a puppy and me a kitty. Billy dressed up as a Vegas showgirl for Halloween, and I was a nun. We began to look forward to the next holidays, and a promised camping trip over Christmas.

So, it was a surprise when Uncle David drove off one day and came back several hours later with our mom. She swept into the house, smiling a smile so brilliant that I immediately wondered how I had ever thought she and Aunt Honey looked alike. I took in her blonde hair, cut in a bob just like my Barbie doll’s style, navy blue capris, crisp white midriff top neatly knotted at the waste, and high heeled sandals.

“Ally, you look fantastic!” said Aunt Honey.

Mom laughed. “I feel fantastic.”

This was a woman no one could ignore, no one could leave, no one could resist loving. I wished Dad were there to see her.

Billy and I gaped at her, unable to move until she moved in front of us, stooped down and enclosed us tightly in her arms. She smelled wonderful, like soap and spice.

“I’ve come to take you home,” she said, deeply dimpled.

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Welcome to WWA!

Serving Wisconsin Writers since 1948

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Sitting Shiva

In seventh grade, when I was still new to Orthodox Judaism, the general studies principal at my school lost his mother, and the students were bused, grade by grade, to visit him at his home,…

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Are your first 10 pages ready for an agent?

Great, practical advice from Christine Desmet, one of my favorite teachers.

The Writers' Institute

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Are your first 10 pages ready for an agent or other reader? Here are 10 Tips from Christine DeSmet

I help a lot of writers fix their opening pages. I witness many writers revise and then go on to feeling great about their progress, or they secure agent representation, do well in a contest, or publish and get reviewed well.

These pointers for the first 10 pages might help you move forward faster, too.

  1. Avoid opening with clichés such as a weather report, a character waking in the morning, dialogue from an unknown character, or a flowery description. Avoid having characters fall asleep or black out at the ends of scenes. (Yes, famous writers do this stuff. Yes, there are exceptions. And yup, you can do this in the middle of your book, but please don’t do it in the opening 10 or even first 50 pages. Just don’t, okay?)

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Yellow Submarine

A few months in the life–part of an in-progress memoir. Lori PohlmanFallWinter2015Mostly 079

The duplex days were numbered, and surprisingly sweet. Billy and I had to go to a different school, but I walked in the first day, and every day, with my new best friend. She was a quiet girl, but obviously respected among the kids and teachers there. She did, indeed, sleep in a very small bed in her mother’s room, but it wasn’t a crib.

“My three brothers are in the other bedroom,” Cheryl said, indicating her tiny wooden “youth bed” at the foot of her mom’s bed.  “This is my bed.”  Her eyebrows raised, disappearing under her bangs. “Bed,” she repeated.

“Yeah, it’s a bed.” I wasn’t about to argue with her, even though I’d never seen a “youth bed” before. It didn’t have really high rails on the side like baby cribs had, so I decided it was just some special privilege she had, being so small, I mean. A special bed just her size.

She gave me a knowing look, “I’m sure not gonna sleep in my brothers’ room.”

I didn’t know what to say. On my side of the duplex, my mom had her own room and I shared the other one with my brother. She seemed to sense my discomfort.

“I don’t mean it’s weird you share a room with your brother,” she said.  “He’s not that old and he’s just one boy.”

I nodded. “He’s not that bad,” I said.

Cheryl put a hand on my shoulder. “I believe you,” she said, her large blue eyes solemn. “Over here though, there are three brothers. Great, big, loud, smelly teenagers,” she said, “Ugh.”

They seemed pretty cool to me. I could hear their laughter, their deep voices, one of them strumming a guitar, a record playing I’d never heard before. They played a lot of Beatles music.

At school, no one gave me any trouble. I barely remember the place, to be honest, which probably means I had already entered my “amnesia” period. Huge chunks of time that I can’t remember or account for. The school year ended quickly, leaving us kids with long, largely unsupervised, summer days. I remember making holes in the dirt, paths for the clear and colored glass marbles-the cat’s eyes, the pearlies, and the steelies that we flicked expertly with our thumbs and forefingers. On a good day we could earn enough pennies to buy ourselves a bag of French fries at the Chat-n-Chew drive-in restaurant.

With Billy and his new friends, we explored the open concrete tunnel that ran the length of the property and beyond, always daring one another to go in just a little bit farther. We played Monopoly, a game I hated, and Billy would reach over and openly take all of Cheryl’s winnings, prodding her to talk to him. But she never would. When it came to him, she was mute.

“He took my money,” she’d whisper in my ear.

I was always ready to do battle for her, and in fact, enjoyed fighting with my brother. It was probably the only time I felt any power, though I always lost. Even so, I could fight, and he wouldn’t really hurt me back too bad, and was never mad at me afterward.

We kids began to settle in to this new life, and I suppose imagined that when summer ended we would go back to Curtis Strange School and become, rather than faceless new kids, kids who belonged.

But our dad had other ideas

.FallWinter2015Mostly 059We left Wisconsin before summer’s end.

 

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