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By Bob Chrisman


The idea of spring cleaning stayed with me through the night, but vanished this morning, when outside, sleet peppered the streets. My tax appointment required me to catch the bus to go downtown. I rushed around and all thoughts about the meaning of spring cleaning disappeared.

As I pulled the front door closed behind me. The sound of sleet hitting the grass and trees sounded like the dry, clacking bones of dancing skeletons. What an odd association. I played with that idea as I walked.

Monday, February 28, would have been my father’s 97th birthday (and the third anniversary of my mother’s death). Perhaps they returned as dancing skeletons to remind me.

My relationship with my father has troubled me for years. I’ve written about it and published the pieces on red Ravine. The troubled times between us and the difficult life he lived aren’t all I remember about him. Perhaps the idea of the skeleton came to me as a spring cleaning of sorts, a chance to pull out the good memories I hold of him and air them.

From my dad I received a curiosity about the world and the people who inhabit the planet. My father observed the goings on around him. He liked to see how people acted in different situations and could predict what they would do. He frustrated me with that ability when he would say, “I can read you like a book.” And he could too, which made me mad.

My father read voraciously: books, magazines, newspapers, whatever printed words he could find. When he attended family gatherings he would collect reading material and retire to a chair where he would spend the time reading.

His greatest pleasure came when he found a box of books for sale. He bought it, carried it home and searched for reading treasures. The contents of those boxes rarely disappointed him because he liked books about any subject. Really he just liked books in general. He passed on that love to me.

He instilled in me the importance of questioning everything, especially religion. We had the Bible in various editions, which the late 1950’s required in the fight against godless communism, but we also had The Book of Mormon and the Quran. Although a Presbyterian, he didn’t believe that one denomination, or Christianity itself, had an inside edge over other religions or spiritual practices.

He knew how to fix cars and kept our used cars in working order. We never owned a new car, only different ones. He bought odd cars like the brown, streamlined Hudson with the plush interior when the cars of the time favored extravagant fins over aerodynamic design.

He brought home a Simca, a tiny French car, and probably the only French car in the entire city. Unlike most American cars, the gearshift stuck up out of the floor rather than off the steering column. When the shaft broke off one afternoon, Dad welded a metal bar in place and would have driven the car forever had the giant hole in the rusted floor board on my mother’s side not allowed water from a giant puddle to gush up and soak my mother’s favorite pair of Sunday shoes.

The last car he purchased before his stroke was a Corvair, the Nader deathtrap. I learned to drive in that car.

He loved the outdoors and took us on long drives through the countryside to see how the land was doing. Despite my hatred of those drives and my frequently voiced wish for Indians to scalp us, I learned to love the landscape around me. Seemingly pointless drives in the countryside bring me peace nowadays.

He helped out the neighbors. The elderly man next door spent a lot of time at a bar. He sang and shouted as staggered up the sidewalk. He fell. My mother would say, “Len, go help him. He won’t make it up those stairs to his house without hurting himself.”

Although Dad left for work at 5:30 a.m. and the neighbor returned home well after midnight, my father pulled on his pants and went outside to help the man home. Frequently my father assisted the wife in putting her drunk husband to bed. He never judged the man and never complained about the loss of sleep.

My funniest memory of Dad involves a Sunday morning church service. As an elder, he introduced applicants who, as a part of the hiring process for ministers, preached a sermon. During the weeks prior to that Sunday, Dad had worked many long hours and not had much sleep. He introduced the minister and then sat down in one of the plush, red velvet cushioned chairs on the platform and promptly fell asleep. My father snored like an approaching tornado.

Aunt Annie, director of the adult choir, motioned for someone to wake him up. Despite a variety of hand signals, no one moved. My father snored his way through a rather lengthy sermon. When the guest minister finished, he waited for Dad to announce the final hymn, but my dad had died to the world.

My aunt asked the choir and congregation to stand and sing. Dad slept on. When the ministerial candidate realized that my father wouldn’t say any final words, the young man approached the podium. “I hope I’m not responsible for Mr. Chrisman’s sound sleep.” My father remained oblivious to the world and to the congregation’s laughter. The minister shrugged his shoulders and walked down the aisle alone to the main door to shake hands with members of the congregation. That incident became a church and a family legend.

As I write, sleet continues to fall. The skeletons dance outside my window. In my mind spring cleaning reveals fond memories of the man I called my father. Happy Birthday, Dad!




About Bob: Bob Chrisman is a Kansas City, Missouri writer who frequently writes memoir about his family. His last pieces for red Ravine were Exit The Telephone, Desecration Day, and Uncle Howard At The Cemetery.

Other pieces of Bob’s in which he writes with humor and compassion about his family members include: Aunt Annie’s Scalloped Oysters and The Law Of Threes. He also published these pieces about the life and death of his mother: Hands and In Memoriam. And he produced a trilogy about his father: My Father’s Witness, Bearing Witness, and My Life With Dad. Spring Cleaning In The Attic Of My Mind was inspired by the birthday anniversary of Bob’s father and Writing Topic — Spring Cleaning.

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By Teri Blair



The Big Read, all photos © 2010 by Teri Blair, all rights reserved.





Have you heard of The Big Read?


I found out about it completely by accident. I was perusing the CDs at my library, and saw one entitled The Big Read: An Introduction to My Antonia by Willa Cather. I took it home, and was enraptured by the 25-minute program. Ted Kooser talked about the significance of Cather to Nebraska, Garrison Keillor read excerpts from her book, and Colin Powell talked about the immigrant experience. What was this? The Big Read?


The Big Read began in 2006 by the National Endowment for the Arts, and is the largest reading program in American history. Their mission is simple: to restore reading to the center of American culture. Communities all over the country can apply for grants to explore one of the 31 Big Read titles. In addition to reading the book, related events are planned to last approximately one month.







When I plugged my zip code into The Big Read’s website, I was happy to find there was an event within an hour of where I live. On a Saturday in February my friends and I jumped in my Subaru and headed east to the small river town of St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin. As Thornton Wilder was from the Badger State, this community had chosen Our Town and The Bridge of San Luis Rey. We walked into a packed house at the Scenic Riverway Park building. The local organizers of the program spoke, a representative from the National Endowment talked about what is happening with The Big Read across the country, and we heard from Wisconsin author David Rhodes. He read excerpts from his book Driftless, talked about Thornton Wilder’s writing, and led a group discussion about what Wilder accomplished in his work. At the end of the program, we were all given two new books, a CD audio guide (just like the one I had found at the library), bookmarks, and a reader’s guide.


We were invited to join book discussion groups, and to come back for follow-up events. Wisconsin Public Radio will be performing a reader’s theater, and the local community playhouse will present Our Town.


I love to read, but like most readers, I get worried about the future of books and people to enjoy them. A faster and faster world makes a luxurious afternoon with a good book harder to claim. I am happy to support a program that is doing something tangible…something to bring reading back to the people.


To find out more about The Big Read (and to plug in your own zip code) go to:

http://www.neabigread.org.


Thornton Wilder, David Rhodes, From The Big Read Series, all photos © 2010 by Teri Blair, all rights reserved.




About Teri Blair: Teri Blair is a freelance writer living in Minneapolis and founder of the Poetry & Meditation Group of which QuoinMonkey fondly and frequently writes. (See Letter From Poet Elizabeth Alexander for the latest post on that group and Teri’s piece titled Desire And A Library Card — The Only Tools Necessary To Start A Poetry Group for a step-by-step on how to start your own.)

Teri has written many posts on red Ravine. Her first guest post, Continue Under All Circumstances, was written on the road during a 2007 trip to Holcomb, Kansas. She journeyed back to Holcomb early this year and wrote a follow-up piece published on red Ravine in March, Back To Holcomb, One Last Time.

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3043 - What's Left Behind, Orr Books, Uptown, Minneapolis, Minnesota, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

3043 – What’s Left Behind, inside what used to be Orr Books, Hennepin Avenue, Uptown, Minneapolis, Minnesota, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


While walking to dinner in Uptown a few weeks ago, I snapped a few photos of the shadowy insides of 3043 Hennepin Avenue, last location of the (almost) 40-year-old Orr Books.

The independent Minneapolis bookstore closed last summer. Read a full account of its closing in the related post, What Happened To Orr Books?


-posted on red Ravine, Sunday, October 7th, 2007

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Near the end of the evening, I felt like posting something. I looked at my book case and grabbed Kerouac’s On the Road. I’ve been wanting to read it for years. But there it sits, untouched. Occasionally, I pick the book up and roll the soft cover over in my hands, take my time running through the bio; I never read the book.

Tonight started out the same. I ran across a quote I liked and was going to post. But then something strange happened. I opened the book to a place near the end, the beginning of Part 4, and started to read.

He’s got my attention. I’m listening. And I think I might just finish the book.


“That’s only Ed Dunkle. He came back from Galatea, they’re gone to Denver now. They spent a day taking pictures.”

Ed Dunkle, his compassion unnoticed like the compassion of saints. Dean took out other pictures. I realized these were all the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered, stabilized-within-the-photo lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, our actual night, the hell of it, the senseless nightmare road. All of it inside endless and beginningless emptiness. Pitiful forms of ignorance. “Good-by, good-by.” Dean walked off in the long red dusk. Locomotives smoked and reeled above him. His shadow followed him, it aped his walk and thoughts and very being. He turned and waved coyly, bashfully. He gave me the boomer’s highball, he jumped up and down, he yelled something I didn’t catch. He ran around in a circle. All the time he came closer to the concrete corner of the railroad overpass. He made one last signal. I waved back. Suddenly he bent to his life and walked quickly out of sight. I gaped into the bleakness of my own days. I had an awful long way to go too.


2
The following midnight, singing this little song,

Home in Missoula,
Home in Truckee,
Home in Opelousas,
Ain’t no home for me.
Home in old Medora,
Home in Wounded Knee,
Home in Ogallala,
Home I’ll never be,


I took the Washington bus; wasted some time there wandering around; went out of my way to see the Blue Ridge, heard the bird of Shenandoah and visited Stonewall Jackson’s grave; at dusk stood expectorating in the Kanawha River and walked the hillbilly night of Charleston, West Virginia; at midnight Ashland, Kentucky, and a lonely girl under the marquee of a closed-up show. The dark and mysterious Ohio, and Cincinnati at dawn. Then Indiana fields again, and St. Louis as ever in its great valley clouds of afternoon. The muddy cobbles and the Montana logs, the broken steamboats, the ancient signs, the grass and the ropes by the river. The endless poem. By night Missouri, Kansas fields, Kansas night-cows in the secret wides, crackerbox towns with a sea for the end of every street; dawn in Abilene. East Kansas grasses become West Kansas rangelands that climb up to the hill of the Western night.

        -excerpt from On the Road by Jack Kerouac, Part Four, end of 1, beginning of 2, p. 254-255, Penguin Books

In my old age, I intend to collect all my work and reinsert my pantheon of uniform names, leave the long shelf full of books there, and die happy.   

     – Jack Kerouac

Submissive to everything, open, listening.   

  – Jack Kerouac, from Belief & Technique for Modern Prose

-related to post, Kerouac Goes To War

Sunday, July 22nd, 2007

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Mabel's Place, Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos, New Mexico,photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Mabel’s Place, Lawrence windows, Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos, New Mexico, February 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


A friend of mine told me she’s been rereading her old writing practice notebooks. She said it took her splat into the face of Monkey Mind; she also discovered a few gems.

Inspired, I started reading over notebooks from an Intensive writing retreat in Taos last year. It’s hard to reread the dribble and drat of writing practice. I’m glad I remembered my wading boots. It was getting pretty thick in there.

I found passions and complaints, all the frustration and fear, the rawness of sitting in silence. There was a whole paragraph on an ant crawling through a patch of light and into a crack in a floor plank. Another two on breathing in and out, the workers talking in the distance, the wind through the small corner window hitting the side of my face.

The same things kept popping up over and over again. But once in a while, there it was – a refreshing moment of clarity.

Natalie Goldberg teaches the practice of rereading in Writing Down the Bones. She devotes a whole chapter to it. She says time should pass, space between writing and rereading. Then there is a meeting of the minds:

The continuation of writing through all your discursive thoughts is the practice. A month later you recognize consciously the good writing when you reread your notebooks. At this point our unconscious and conscious selves meet, recognize each other, and become whole. This is art.

In the pages of that old notebook, I discovered a 10 minute practice from February of 2007, one of the last practices we did as a group in the zendo. The topic was to make a list of what we remembered about the last year of writing in the Intensive.

There was a strong feeling of intimacy, and of something ending. And at the same time, a fresh start.


What I Remember About Writing – 10 min

  1. Details. Write details. They bring the work alive.
  2. No sentimentality.
  3. Stand on the backs of the writers that came before you.
  4. Read everything by an author.
  5. Be grateful for writing connections.
  6. Give back to your community. Don’t just take.
  7. Have compassion for other writers. Study their lives.
  8. Study good literature, essays, and word counts.
  9. Ask questions. Listen for the answers.
  10. Don’t be afraid to look dumb.
  11. The more personal it is, the more others can relate to it.
  12. Love good books. Love other writers. Go where they lived and worked.
  13. Insights aren’t always followed. Sometimes they go back inside.
  14. Seeds from a Birch Tree, James Baldwin, John Cheever.
  15. Sugar Nymphs, Caffe Tazza, Ghost Ranch, the Harwood.
  16. Suspend judgment.
  17. Keep writing practice at my back.
  18. Writers labor over books.
  19. Do not waste this precious life.
  20. Study the minds of other writers.
  21. Practice and sitting teaches how to hold creative energy.
  22. The energy of resistance turned is awakening.

-list from a writing practice in Taos, February 10th, 2007

Wednesday, July 4th, 2007

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Lately, I’ve been feeling the changes that come with age. The bones are a little creakier, the eyes need more light and time to focus, and I don’t have the zip and vigor I did when I was 20.

When I was travelling the last few weeks, I could feel the effects on my mind. I would interview people and 30 minutes later not remember the details of what they said. Over and over, I’d ask my mother to tell me the name of a miniature gardenia or thin-leafed oleander she had pointed out to me just hours before. I could not remember.

Volumes have been written about ways to keep the body in shape when biological breakdown causes us to expend greater effort for less reward. But what about that most delicate of organs, the brain?

There is a June 15th article in Blogcritics Magazine about the effects of aging. In Ten Ways To Bench Press Your Brain, Craig Harper compares the aging body to the aging brain:

People typically slow down mentally as they age. They experience short-term memory loss (where are my keys?), process information more slowly, find it harder to concentrate and focus, are more easily confused, become vague, and tend to be less creative and less adventurous.

The moment we stop using it, we start losing it. The good news is that our brain (like our body) is amazing and can adapt (grow ‘muscle’) at any age. We can (to an extent) undo some, if not most, of the damage. It’s great to be in shape physically but what’s the point of having four percent body-fat, Olympian biceps, and veins on our veins, if we have a mind like a Dalmatian?

Harper, a motivational speaker from Australia, lays out 10 reasonable ways to keep the gray matter in shape.  And what’s #7 on his workout list?

READ!

I’m taking lucky 7 as a good excuse to set everything aside this summer and take action on the one thing most writers (and books on writing) seem to agree on: to be a good writer, you have to read! Read everything you can get your hands on (especially in the genre in which you write).

For other ways to increase brainpower, here is a shortened version of Craig Harper’s tips for exercising the mind. For the full article, head over to BC Magazine Sci/Tech – Ten Ways to Bench Press Your Brain:

1. Set goals.
The moment we stop setting goals is the moment we start going backwards. Without goals we don’t have to think, plan, rationalise, problem solve, or create (as much).

2. Laugh.
It’s not illegal to laugh, be silly, or have fun as you age. Although some grumpy old farts will take me to task on this, they’re wrong. “Hey Johnnie… pull my finger.” (So juvenile.)

3. Play.
“We don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing.” Two of my favourite people in the world are a (nearly) seventy years young couple who ski, ride mountain bikes, run up and down sand dunes, hike, lift weights, travel, help others, play practical jokes, and hang out with ‘silly’ young people.

4. Study.
You don’t have to go back to college and get your PhD, although you might, but maybe explore short courses, workshops, anything to blow out those cerebral cobwebs and get those rusty cogs turning once again.

5. Learn a new language.
Research tells us that people who speak two languages regularly age (mentally) at a slower rate than their unilingual buddies. They stay in shape (mentally) for longer. It even delays the onset of Alzheimer’s. Now, if you spoke three languages…

6. Express yourself creatively.
Write something: a book, some poetry, a business plan, or start your own blog. Paint, draw, or sculpt. My father began to paint at sixty-five, and now is an awesome professional artist. Invent something. A lot of the best inventors are crusty old guys. Come on, you crusty old guys… invent something!

7. Read.
Not just romantic novels. Read stuff that makes you use your brain, challenges you a little. Makes you think, reason, and remember; exercise your brain.

8. Consciously try and remember stuff.

It’s there, you just need to dust it off. Find your old school photos and name all your classmates. Try and remember (and replay in your mind) moments in time. Your first boyfriend’s, next door neighbour’s, brother’s… name (the one you kissed).

9. Do some mental workouts.
Crosswords are fun and great for your brain. Puzzles, problem solving stuff, Su Doku: force yourself to think, reason, and calculate.

10. Have a project.
Something to keep you thinking, communicating, planning, solving problems, and remembering. In general, bench pressing your brain.

Below are a few related posts with comments rich in book talk. One writer who frequents red Ravine is spending the summer reading the classics.

If you feel like adding your summer reading list to our comments section, it might inspire us all toward a few more presses at the bench.

What are you reading this summer?

Books With A Bang

Julio Iglesias Does Books

Writing Topic – 10 Slam Dunks

-The 1950’s – What Was America Reading?

-Dreams Of A Creative Insomniac

Tuesday, June 19th, 2007

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The Topic is short, sweet, maybe not simple. List the Top 10 books that have had the most impact on your life.

Your entire life. From the time you first started reading – or were read to by your parents – to the present moment. Which books (and by extraction, writers) had the most influence on you?

It could be pages memorized at age 25 from a book you haven’t picked up since. Could be authors who jumpstarted you at 13 and now collect dust on your middle-aged shelves. Maybe it’s a book you read last week.

Was it The Pit and the Pendulum, Siddhartha, Rapunzel, Harry Potter, The Color Purple, Breakfast of Champions, Journal of a Solitude, or Watership Down? Some, all, none?

Top 10 books that impacted your life. Slam dunk. Nothing but net.

Thursday, May 3rd, 2007
 

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