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By Teri Blair



Lawrence Welk’s Boyhood Home, Strasburg, North Dakota, July 2011, all photos © 2011 by Teri Blair. All rights reserved.


The Lawrence Welk Show was a Saturday night staple when I was growing up. My favorite acts were Cissy and Bobby, tap-dancing Arthur Duncan, and the guy on clarinet with big glasses. I didn’t pay much attention to the show’s host, though I wondered about his accent. I had a vague sense he came from the state just west of mine, but he mainly seemed tan and Hollywood and Californian. Not like the people I knew.

I’d seen his birthplace marked on my North Dakota map for years, and then one day, just like that, my mom and I decided to go. We checked out library copies of Wunnerful, Wunnerful: The Autobiography of Lawrence Welk. Mom read it first and told me she couldn’t put it down. I figured that was because she still watched his reruns on public television. Then I started reading it, and I couldn’t put it down either. That’s when I found out Lawrence Welk wasn’t just a tan and smiling Hollywood face. Far from it.

We took two-lane roads to get to Strasburg, ones where you can tell where you’re heading. Mom reread the first chapter out loud to us, the one about Lawrence’s childhood in North Dakota and his passion to play music and get off the farm. We wanted everything fresh in our minds.

Lawrence was born in North Dakota in 1903, one of eight children of immigrant parents. The ten of them lived in a tiny sod house, milked cows, and spoke German. Lawrence had four years of schooling before he begged his parents to let him quit. Since he knew how to read and write, they let him. A farmer wouldn’t need more than that, they figured. But Lawrence’s father had carried an accordion all the way from Europe, and that one musical box lit a fire under the third Welk son. He had an affinity for music, an insatiable appetite for chords and melodies and rhythm. He tinkered with homemade instruments, and learned everything his father would teach him about music.

Though his family assumed his future as a North Dakota farmer, Lawrence knew he had to live a different life. He didn’t know how he could, only that he must. Then when he was 11 his appendix burst. By the time his parents found someone with a car and he was driven to the hospital in Bismarck, he was almost dead. He lived on the edge of life and death while his poisoned blood was treated. Though only a child, he determined if he survived he would make his living as a musician. No matter what.

He spent the rest of his childhood hiring himself out to play accordion at every event he could find around Strasburg. Every nickel he made went to pay off the $400 accordion he bought through a mail-order catalog. A deep satisfaction stirred in him to watch the joy his playing brought to people, an intrinsic reward that would fuel him for decades.

The View From Lawrence Welk’s Bedroom, Strasburg, North Dakota,
July 2011, all photos © 2011 by Teri Blair. All rights reserved.


When he left the farm on his 21st birthday, his father predicted his ruin as a musician. He told Lawrence he’d be back in six weeks looking for a meal. What followed were years of small gains and huge setbacks—trying to find work as a musician during The Depression wasn’t easy. Lawrence often went hungry. One time his band quit on him, embarrassed by his broken English and the way he tapped his toe to find the beat. He was naïve and trusting, taken advantage of more than once. He had to start over again and again with nothing but his accordion. But his internal compass was undeniable. His wife said years later that he was like a cork. When one plan failed, he’d be momentarily submerged before he’d pop up in a different place with a new strategy. By the time he landed the television program, he had paid his dues and then some. He had already spent 30 years on the road playing ballrooms.

After our tour of the homestead, I slow-walked around Lawrence’s childhood farm. I stood in the places he talked about in the book: the spot by the barn where he asked his dad for the $400 loan, the upstairs loft where his appendix burst, the tiny living room where he listened to polka music. I went to Mass on Sunday at the German Catholic church and sat where he had. I looked at the stained glass windows, the same ones Lawrence had looked at when he was a little German boy. He didn’t know how his story would end, but sitting there, I did.

Lawrence knew who he was, who he wasn’t, and he stuck with himself. And from that, I take great inspiration. By the time of his death in 1992, he had had the longest-running television program in history, and had helped launch the careers of dozens of musicians.

What is possible when we don’t deny our true selves?




_________________________




About Teri: Teri Blair is a writer living in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her first piece for red Ravine, Continue Under All Circumstances, was written on the road during a 2007 trip to Holcomb, Kansas. She journeyed back to Holcomb in 2010 and published a sequel, Back To Holcomb, One Last Time. Since then, she has written Desire And A Library Card — The Only Tools Necessary To Start A Poetry Group, Discovering The Big Read, a piece about the largest reading program in American history, and Does Poetry Matter?, an essay about the Great American Think-Off.

Earlier this year, Teri was a writing resident at Vermont Studio Center in the heart of the Green Mountains. She finds inspiration on the road. Her writing pilgrimage to the Amherst, Massachusetts home of poet Emily Dickinson inspired the essay, Emily’s Freedom. At the end of September, Teri will be flying into Atlanta, Georgia to embark on her latest writing adventure — a two-week road trip in a compact Cruise America rolling along the Southern Literary Trail.


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By Teri Blair

This is the first time I’ve done a timed, 15-minute write on my Royal Deluxe manual typewriter. I bought this green machine in Amherst, Massachusetts—Emily Dickinson’s hometown. The man at the shop told me it was the model Hemingway used. Did Emily like chocolate? She like ginger-tasting things like ginger cookies and ginger cakes if memory serves.

My first strong memory of chocolate were the Mr. Goodbars Mom had hidden in her purse. We were allowed pretty easy access to her purse (she wasn’t private about it) and she always shared pieces of her Mr. Goodbar. There was an unwritten understanding if we didn’t ask why they were always hidden there, we’d always get to have pieces. Sometimes she’d shake up the mix and have a Hershey Bar with almonds, never plain. Even now, when I want to buy her a treat she is delighted to be given either.

She told us the story of the Milky Way incident during her childhood, a guilty memory that still taints her love affair with that particular brand. She grew up in Hawick, a tiny town in Minnesota. There was one general story, the type that had the post office in one corner. Her parents would send her to the store for supplies from time to time, and she was always instructed to charge everything to John Everson’s account. Once a month her father, the town blacksmith, would get his itemized list of charged groceries. These would only be the necessities his family of nine needed. There was nothing extra to throw around during the Depression. After Mom charged the Milky Way (and stole away to a private place to eat it), she lived in mortal fear of the impending grocery bill. They’d know then. She’d lied and wasn’t worthy of their trust.

But when the bill came, not a word was said. It wasn’t until Mom was about 50 that she told her dad about it. I remember it. Even though he was a kind, gentle man, she still didn’t want to disappoint him. He smiled, I suppose, and told her in his thick Norwegian accent that it didn’t matter. Knowing him, he probably went right out and bought her another one. He was sorry he couldn’t give his kids more. When they asked him for money when they were children, he’d turn his wallet inside out to show them it was completely empty. After he died and they cleaned out his house, she found that old wallet. She keeps it on her dresser.

They were broke. It was the Depression. They lived on potatoes, headcheese, and lefse. Maybe an occasional chicken some farmer paid his welding bill with. There were bums who came to their door begging for a meal. Her mom made them a plate of their starchy food. Surely no chocolate on the plate.


NOTE: WRITING TOPIC — CHOCOLATE is the latest Writing Topic on red Ravine. Frequent guest writer Teri Blair joined QuoinMonkey in doing a Writing Practice on the topic.

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By Teri Blair

15 minutes into the grief group I knew it was a mistake. There were still two hours to go, and the stranglehold around my neck was suffocating. It had been, as every attempt had been, an honest effort at finding my way around my father’s death. When he was alive, I thought something would change when he died. It hadn’t. It was all still there.

The grief group leader was hired by the funeral home. A funeral home that was part of a chain in the metropolitan area. He began by telling the group his pedigree. I thought this was to assure us he hadn’t just fallen off the turnip cart. He was a professional with twenty years of grief group experience. We could relax now. In his good hands.

But by the fifteen-minute mark, I saw he didn’t know how to establish boundaries for the group. He didn’t set any for himself nor anyone else. When he told us in flourishing detail how he would be buried in a purple casket, wearing a bathrobe and holding a martini, we had to listen. He needed us to laugh and think he was crazy. Outrageous. When the 70-something woman kept interrupting to loudly wail and moan about her 93-year-old mother “she never thought could die,” when one of the others began openly to flirt with the leader…. when all these things happened within 15 minutes I knew it was a mistake.

I looked at the door, wondering if I could bolt. Then he called me out by name. He knew it because of the name tag I wore. He said I must have a question for him, and that I could ask him anything. I thought There is nothing on God’s green earth you can tell me or show me or answer for me. When I said I didn’t have any questions for him yet, he could see in my face I wasn’t going to fall in line with all the other success stories of people he had helped over the course of 20 years. He turned ever-so-slightly hostile and said to me, in front of the group, that some people just aren’t ready to do the difficult work of grief.


NOTE: WRITING TOPIC — DEATH & DYING is the latest Writing Topic on red Ravine. Frequent guest writer Teri Blair joined QuoinMonkey in doing a Writing Practice on the topic.

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By Teri Blair



The Poets, Minneapolis, Minnesota, April 2011, all photos © 2010-2011 by Teri Blair. All rights reserved.



On June 11, 2011, four people will stand on a stage in rural America to debate one question: Does poetry matter?


19 years ago, a man named John Davis started an amateur philosophy contest called the Great American Think-Off. He wanted to give ordinary people a chance to voice their opinions on serious issues. Each year a question is announced in January. People have three months to submit a 750-word essay speaking in favor or opposition to the topic. Four finalists are selected to debate their views before a live audience, an audience who determines the winner. Each of the four receive a $500 cash prize, travel expenses, a medal, and the winner is declared “America’s Greatest Thinker.” John’s two-decade-old idea has flourished. In 2010 (Do the rich have an obligation to the poor?) there were hundreds of entries representing nearly every state.


I was barely awake on January 1st when MPR’s Cathy Wurzer announced this year’s question. I was listening to my bedside clock radio when I heard her say Does poetry matter? My eyes opened in a shot.

I’ve spent a lot of time since that day thinking about the question. Before I started a poetry group, poems didn’t matter that much to me. I admired poets, was in awe of poetry, but it wasn’t until I started reading poetry in earnest that it began to penetrate my life in any meaningful way.

Emily Dickinson, April 2011, photo © 2011 by Teri Blair. All rights reserved.

Now I see poetry everywhere: imprinted on the sidewalks of St. Paul, recited in films like Invictus, and incorporated into presidential inaugurations. Poetry distills events of our common human experience into a few words. I’m informed, assured I’m not alone, and given direction. I’ve read Bill Holm’s “Letting Go of What Cannot Be Held Back” dozens of times since my dad died. It gives me permission to set down the pressure to do something about death. I’ve committed May Sarton’s “Now I Become Myself” to memory, saying it over and over as I swim laps at the YWCA, continually calling myself to authenticity.

I knew the day I heard the question that I’d enter the contest. Not to win, but to document what happened in our poetry group. The words fell onto the page, and I felt closure for the group that had been so hard to disband the previous year.

On May 1st I’ll find out if I’m one of the four finalists. I hope I’m chosen, and I really hope I’m not. I want to share what my poetry group discovered, and can’t stand the thought of standing on a stage trying to think on my feet. I wasn’t on the high school debate team for good reason.


I want to hear from you: Does poetry matter? If it doesn’t, were you subjected to obscure passages in high school English class that left you with a bad taste in your mouth? Does poetry seem a lofty and inaccessible pursuit for snobs?

If poetry does matter to you, how come? Do you have a favorite poet?

Whether I’m nervous on the stage (or at ease in the audience), I plan to be at the Think-Off on June 11th. Maybe I’ll see you there.


To read more about the Great American Think-Off: www.think-off.org.



Ted Kooser’s Studio, Dwight, Nebraska (pop. 259), January 2010,
all photos © 2010-2011 by Teri Blair. All rights reserved.


________________________________


About Teri: Teri Blair is a freelance writer living in Minneapolis and founder of the Poetry & Meditation Group of which QuoinMonkey has fondly and frequently written. (See Letter From Poet Elizabeth Alexander for the last post on the 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’s first red Ravine guest post, Continue Under All Circumstances, was written on the road during a 2007 trip to Holcomb, Kansas. She journeyed back to Holcomb in 2010 and published a sequel, Back To Holcomb, One Last Time . In March 2010, she wrote Discovering The Big Read , a piece about the largest reading program in American history. Its mission is simple: to restore reading to the center of American culture.

Teri spent February 2011 with visiting writers and artists at the Vermont Studio Center, walking, writing, and finding inspiration by the Gihon River in the heart of the Green Mountains. Her last piece for red Ravine, Emily’s Freedom, is a photo essay about what she learned on a writing pilgrimage to Amherst, Massachusetts to visit the home of poet Emily Dickinson.

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By Teri Blair

This spring I turn 50.

The cleaning on my mind these days is an internal one. 50 is a significant marker, one that won’t be ignored. I saw Bonnie Raitt in concert the year she turned 50. She was playing the Grandstand at the Minnesota State Fair. She called out to the women in the audience, “Don’t be afraid to turn 50! It’s great!” And I could see she meant it, too—not just trying to buoy herself or us up. That was 11 years ago, and I was still in my 30s. 50 seemed like ages away. But it stuck with me. Her attitude.

I went to a 50th birthday party once for a woman who had a ritual to drop everything in her life that had held her back. It was done with drumming and shouting and people. Powerful stuff. She was brave and she made an announcement to her herself that she was turning a corner. A big one.

I don’t feel bad about turn 50. Mainly. There are things in my life I’m not satisfied with, but I don’t suppose that will every change. There’s some sort of release happening inside. A knowing that I don’t have all the time in the world. And because I don’t, I think about spring cleaning, and what needs to go and what needs to be aired out or left behind or turned over to the garbage heap. I don’t have my internal spring cleaning list completed, but it’s formulating. I don’t turn 50 until May 5th, so I’ve got some time.

I’m not sad about youth being over. That sounds bold and so against the grain of our culture, doesn’t it? I want to be healthy and strong. I want to take care of myself. But I don’t want to be 20 or 30 anymore. Nor do I want to pretend that I am. Nor do I want to watch someone half my age for clues about how I should live my life.

I am watching older women now. Elderly women. They seem far more interesting to me. I met one this month named Gladys—an artist/writer who has made it in the art world. She moves quietly and humbly through life. She listens well. She always seems grounded. Clearly, she had done her spring cleaning.


-Related to Topic post: WRITING TOPIC – SPRING CLEANING (HOMEMADE CLEANING REMEDIES). Also related to posts: PRACTICE — Spring Cleaning — 10min by QuoinMonkey, PRACTICE — SPRING CLEANING — 10min by Bob Chrisman, WRITING TOPIC — CLEANLINESS, and Wanda Wooley — The Lean Green Clean Machine.

[NOTE: SPRING CLEANING was a Writing Topic on red Ravine. Frequent guest writer Teri Blair joined QuoinMonkey in doing a Writing Practice on the topic.]

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by Teri Blair



Home of Emily Dickinson, Amherst, Massachusetts, October 2010, all photos © 2010-2011 by Teri Blair. All rights reserved.



On October 30th, 2010, I stood in a room I had wanted to be in for years. It had a bed, a desk, a dresser, a lantern, a basket, and huge windows. From this second story perch Emily Dickinson composed her wonderful, strange, profound poetry.

IMG_0656 window

Emily was born in the same house where she died. And with the exception of a few trips and a little schooling, she never ventured from her hometown. Ever. She lived for 55 years, becoming increasingly reclusive the older she got. She published seven poems under pseudonyms while she was alive, poetry that went practically unnoticed. It wasn’t until she died that the big discovery was made. Emily’s sister was cleaning out her bedroom dresser and found nearly 1800 poems in the bottom drawer. They were written in handmade booklets and on scraps of paper.

Four years after her death, Emily’s first volume of poetry came out and she was famous. Now, 124 years later, she is considered one of the most influential American poets; her work has never been out of print.


IMG_0658 ANNA

I drove to Amherst, Massachusetts with my niece, Anna. We pulled up to Emily’s house on Main Street, an impressive yellow brick surrounded on two sides by massive gardens. The moment we stepped onto this National Historic Site, I was looking for clues of how Emily did it. Was she simply brilliant, or was there some evidence of influence? Our tour guide told us that as soon as Emily’s first book came out, speculation about her largely private life began, speculation that has never stopped.

They honor Emily by sticking with the facts, only the things that are authenticated. I am compelled to do the same, simply observing some habits that made up part of her writing life.





A Period of Woolgathering


When Emily was 10, her family moved temporarily to a different house in Amherst. Her bedroom faced the town graveyard, and during those next impressionable years, she watched hundreds of horse-drawn funeral processions.

When she was 19, her father gave her a puppy she named Carlo. For the sixteen years of her dog’s life, they explored the woods and fields of Amherst together. Emily made extensive collections from what she found outside on these long hikes.

Contemplating death and observations of nature run heavily through Emily’s poetry.


IMG_0651 porch


Writing Practices


Emily was a voracious reader. Her family received daily newspapers and several magazines, all of which Emily read cover-to-cover. She read poets; Keats and Browning were two of her favorites.

She wrote at night by lamplight. Moonlight walkers consistently saw a light burning in Emily’s window. They didn’t know what she was doing. Though there were virtually no external rewards for her work, she kept writing. An internal force propelled her.


Simplicity


Emily’s life was very simple; there were few distractions.

She had only a handful of family and friends, and kept in touch with most of them through letter writing.

She baked. She read. She wandered through her gardens. She lowered baskets of gingerbread to her nephews and niece from her window. And at night…she wrote in her bedroom by lamplight.


♦     ♦     ♦


After the 90-minute tour, we were allowed to wander through the house alone at our own pace. Anna and I both gravitated back to Emily’s room. We sat on the floor, stood by the windows; we looked at each other across the room.

Can you believe we’re standing here, I asked Anna. She smiled and shook her head no. We kept looking at each other, smiling and shaking our heads because we knew. There was nothing more to say; and we could both feel the pulse of what had happened within those four walls.


IMG_0654 From The Garden Large

View of Emily’s From The Garden, Amherst, Massachusetts, October 2010, all photos © 2010-2011 by Teri Blair. All rights reserved.


When Emily died, the funeral was held in the library of her house. At her request, six Irish immigrants carried her casket from the house to her grave. She asked her sister to burn the thousands of letters she had amassed.

But she didn’t say a word about the poems in the bottom drawer.

Emily’s brother and his family lived in the house on the far edge of her garden. One time Emily’s niece, Martha, came into her room with her, and Emily pretended to lock the door so no one could get in.  She looked around the room—at the writing desk, lamp, and paper. “Martha,” she said, “this is freedom.”



“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of Me.


-Emily Dickinson c. 1861 from The Pocket Emily Dickinson,
Edited by Brenda Hillman, Shambhala Publications, 2009.



IMG_0670 in memoriam



About Teri: Teri Blair is a freelance writer living in Minneapolis and founder of the Poetry & Meditation Group of which QuoinMonkey has fondly and frequently written. (See Letter From Poet Elizabeth Alexander for the last post on the 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’s first red Ravine guest post, Continue Under All Circumstances, was written on the road during a 2007 trip to Holcomb, Kansas. She journeyed back to Holcomb in 2010 and wrote a sequel, Back To Holcomb, One Last Time. Her last piece for red Ravine, Discovering The Big Read, is about the largest reading program in American history. Its mission is simple: to restore reading to the center of American culture.

Teri will be spending the month of February at the Vermont Studio Center, writing, walking, and finding inspiration by the Gihon River in the heart of the Green Mountains.

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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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