Category Archives: Writing Travels

The travels that make up the writer are the travels of the soul.

Morning Walks

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Brother needs a shave…

I love morning walks, especially Sunday morning walks.

The Avenue had a big block party last night. There were hundreds of people crammed onto the sidewalks. I’m surprised to find the streets clean. The only sign of the reveling: a few abandoned chairs and several trash cans overflowing (but somehow tidy in spite of steady breeze out of the north). A pair of road closed signs lurk in the dewy grass.

There’s no one about, just like any other Sunday, but the memory of the big block party gives the whole place the feel of a town hung over. I suppose it’s the chill in the air too.

Even for late Spring it’s a bit cold.

I picture people snuggled up in bed with windows cracked open. They’re sleeping and dreaming and maybe just lying there thinking of getting up to make coffee or nothing at all or maybe making love in the way that you do when it’s too cold to throw off the covers.

The sun feels good as I cross out of the shadows on one side of the street to the other. I walk down a winding street, toward the edge of the big hill (upon which I am at the top). A cat watches me from the third story window of a hundred year-old house. The house gets painted every year and the trim looks thick and padded because the painters don’t scrape it down. The cat seems unimpressed with the world as cats often do.

As I walk down the hill, I slow my pace.

Everywhere there are signs of people getting ready for Summer. Porches are decorated with terra-cotta figures and strings of lights. Big, wrap-around porches are stuffed with white and chocolate-colored wicker furniture and all the cushions are bright red or yellow. Sprinklers are hissing and misting.

At the bottom, I cross the community gardens. There’s one lone person out working in their patch. One lone industrious soul breaking the pattern of a lovely lazy morning. Even the motorcycle cops roaring by look lazy, the bikes weaving just slightly in their lanes. Yet, this one person defies the world and claws up the weeds and carries some heavy thing or another and brings dangerous implements to bear upon the soil.

I cross the railroad tracks so that I can go back to thinking about nothing in particular.

By the time I make my return loop to the top of the hill, the Avenue will no longer be empty. The early birds at the cafe will begin to filter in and sure enough I see that they are there. The usual Sunday morning crowd. All waiting for the door to open, milling about in sun as the breeze blows puffy bits of poplar fluff around.

I think about the alleys I walked through and closed restaurants with their tables set for all those people who will come later today. I think about the empty shop fronts and the dusty squares of sunlight flickering across their floors. I think about the cat in the third floor window and I wonder what he’s looking at now…

And then, the lock turns in the door. In unison, we all watch as a bleary-eyed barista pushes open the door and scuttles back into the shadows. No one’s actually in a hurry to go in even though we’ve been waiting for this moment, but as soon as one makes a move we all head in that direction.

Best Mornings…

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No, I didn’t paint this… but maybe I should.

Today I am thinking of Best Mornings…

I am in a mountain vale in Switzerland. The evening before we snowshoed up the mountain, had dinner in a village near the top, then took a 45 minute sled ride back to the bottom. The sky was clear and packed with stars, buffeted by the glowing slopes of night-blue snow. It was an exhilarating evening, but nothing really compared to the dawn.

I woke to the end of the stars. From my bed, I watched the sun come creeping around the side of the mountain. Not over the top, but around the side. I leaned over and cracked open the window to catch some fresh air. It was so silent and calm that I heard the sound of water splashing down the ice fall on the other side of the valley.

I stayed in bed for some time just watching this morning begin. Soon, there was the sound of movement in the house and some time after that I could hear coffee brewing (and then I could smell it).

We are at the beach in South Carolina. The breeze is mild as we pop out from the trees, and as we come out of the dunes we see the sun has already slipped up out of the ocean.

The water is warm. The children are quiet as they take in the sunrise. We stand in place for a moment and let our feet sink into the sand.

There are people walking along the shore. We join them, walking along in that silent shuffle one does when looking for shells between the ebb of muffled waves.

This spell of silence breaks when the sun reaches a certain point in the sky. A dog barks and then people are talking everywhere. We walk back to the place we left our shoes and then slip back through the trees towards breakfast.

I’m having a bagel in Chicago. The shop is a corner place. I couldn’t tell you the name or even where it is now, but I remember the bagel. I remember the bagel and the crush of sleepy-eyed people. I remember the warmth of the shop and the sense of the city all around.

I remember the smell of newsprint and I distinctly remember telling myself I would not forget the name of this shop.

The plane leaves the runway. I’m crushed in the seat and I’m smiling. Behind us, Helios in his golden chariot gives chase but not even the sunrise can catch us as the plane goes up, up into the clouds and we cross time-zones going back into the hours that have passed, traveling almost through to the moment before I woke up.

I am in first class and I have five hours to do nothing but read.

It’s dark and I am running. I like to pretend that coyotes are following me in the woods. I know that they are not, but this is how my mind works when I’m running. I go down, down, down to the river.

There is no one other than me running in the dark. The sky turns purple then pink and then orange. I am miles away now, taking on a big hill. As I come to the top, the sun hits me full across my sweat-soaked face and shirt. My heart bursts with joy and exertion.

I still have a long way to go.

We hear the children giggling in the other room. They’re trying to stay quiet but it’s hard. Without moving, we can look up and see through the blinds that the morning is beautiful. We can smell it in the air coming through the open window.

We stretch, and then we pull up the covers and press our bodies together.

I am in front of the cafe, waiting on the dawn. I know that this is the right table to catch the sun at this time of year. It will rise in 3… 2… 1.


What are your Best Mornings?

Working Through Pain

This afternoon, I checked in on Twitter and found the tweet below by Tim Pratt:

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… which in turn led me to this tweet by Neil Gaiman:

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… which in turn led me to this this post on Neil’s blog:

A long, strange day. In the taxi downtown this morning I learned that there had been a sudden death in the family, and I went down to the sunshine of Union Square to phone people, and sort logistical things out, and breathe…

You must go, this moment, my writer friends, and read Neil’s post. Go on, click this link… I’ll wait.

Dedication of a Writer

Ok, now that you’re back, I’ll continue…

When I read that post, I remembered that I’d been watching this event unfold on Twitter. Yesterday, I saw this tweet by Pablo Defendini:

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From other tweets, I knew the signing had been going on for awhile, but no one knew what Neil Gaiman was going through. He worked for eight hours, reading for the audience and signing hundreds of books.

My heart goes out to the Gaiman family for the pain of their loss, but also to Neil directly because I know how it feels to keep working through pain.

Working Through Pain

I know what Neil means when he talks about working through pain and the intense gratitude one feels toward everyone who keeps the work coming.

Eight years ago, my mother suffered a terrible accident. I was scheduled to head off to Europe on business just a few days later. It seemed like she was going to get better, so I went ahead with my trip.

Unfortunately, she did not get better.

While abroad, I received news that her traumatic brain injury had worsened and that she was brain dead. I explained to my colleagues that I needed to go home early. They were shocked because I’d been working at our usual crushing pace with no sign of the turmoil in my life. How could I do that?

I told them how much I appreciated their kindness. I told them how much I appreciated the opportunity to work, because working was all I could do. I had to keep moving. The pain would catch up later. It always does.


That’s really all I have to say in this post. No lessons or morals. No lectures or funny business. Life is like that sometimes…

Salted Spring Fever and Hot Wax Zombies: Where Twitter and Old Posts Meet

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Chi-Chi and Brains doing their best zombie impressions for the fans.

Today, while I was out and about with my boys, we needed to find a place to get our car washed. Everywhere we went it seemed like there were hundreds if not thousands of cars in line for washing. Admittedly, this was the first nice day in a few weeks so every good Ohioan is bound to think that they’d better:

A) Chip off any ice remaining on sidewalks, driveways, or gutters… because it certainly won’t melt of it’s own accord on a sunny, 50F day.

B) Get their cars washed even though it is going to rain like crazy in two days.

C) [Optional for convertible owners] Drive around with the top down and the windows up.

D) Any combination of the above.

But then I had an idea.

Close to my house is a little service station. Only neighborhood people go there. We dropped by and sure enough we got right in line.

While I was sitting there, it occurred to me that I ought to tweet the occasion. For those of you unfamiliar with “tweeting” I’m not talking about being perched in a cage and singing my heart out (although I was sort of trapped in a car and blabbing so perhaps the metaphor is apt). I’m talking about Twitter, a little social service where you can put up messages of 140 characters or less where everyone can see.

Why would I do this? Do I really need yet another distraction from writing?

Well, for one thing, I tend to drink to much coffee and Twitter helps me get out all those words and quips that would otherwise clutter my journals and stories. This is a double-edged sword though as most people will tell you that my quips and caffeine-laden screeds are about all I’ve got. Excuses aside, I think Twitter is fun and I’ve met a lot of great people there.

So, there I was tweeting away on my iPhone when it occurred to me that the service station where I was getting my car washed was also attached to a 19th century family cemetery. In fact, I’d written a nice post about it a long time ago. One tweet leads to another and before I knew it I was putting on a little show: my car wash, the bizarre juxtaposition of some hard-working (though thoroughly dead) farmers, and the power of the Internet to share it all in real time.

Now that I’m home, I thought I’d share this bit of fun with everyone else as a sort of example of how you can work social networking tools into your blog and maybe get a few people to read some of your favorite posts. :)

[Editor’s note: The links below will open in a new window. In general, you’ll see the pictures I posted live on twitpic as we were off and exploring our neighborhood. If you’re interested in following me on Twitter, drop on by. I’m @hownottowrite (naturally).]
Finally found a car wash without 3000 people waiting! #wintersucketh
Almost there! #carwash http://twitpic.com/1e874
Of interest: this car wash happens to be right next to a 19th century family graveyard. No foolin’ wanna see a pic?
Almost through car wash. Zombie car wash pics up soon!
Car wash #inohiowehavenolife http://twitpic.com/1e8fc
We can haz car wash now. http://twitpic.com/1e8ha
19th century graveyard to the left. Gas station to the right. http://twitpic.com/1e8mq
This is the grandson of Ebenezer Richards b1774. Richards came from Wales. http://twitpic.com/1e8nw
In this shot you see tombstones and the entrance to the car wash. http://twitpic.com/1e8q4
Oh no! Zombies! :) http://twitpic.com/1e8sc
The weird thing is that most people do not know this is here. Nor do they realize that the car wash waiting line is level with corpses.
People waiting for a wash with no idea that dead bodies are just behind the wall. http://twitpic.com/1e8xf
A short distance away we have the Richards house. Built in 1807. http://twitpic.com/1e93l
Here’s an old post of mine about the house before restoration. http://tinyurl.com/5nb6t6
Last one. Can’t have a scary ghost house without crossing a bridge w/running water. http://twitpic.com/1e9a5
Thanks for all the comments, folks. A great afternoon mini-adventure for me and the boys!

The Poverty of Distance

“The prevalent fear of poverty among the educated classes is the worst moral disease from which our civilization suffers.” ~ William James

Like many county seats in Ohio, Lancaster was once a vibrant agricultural center. A town with money. This source of revenue dried up in the late 1920s in the run up to the Great Depression, but in Lancaster’s case the effects were somewhat dampened by blue collar factory jobs which carried the town up through the early 70s. Since then, there has been a steady if not sharp decline in the prospects of those living in Lancaster and similar communities across Ohio.

Rural poverty is something few people from the city can hope to understand. It isn’t that city life is so very different, but rather that we are often at such a far remove that it is easier to make assumptions.

Distance also plays an important role in art. As writers, the further we are removed from a situation, the less likely we are to capture the truth. However, the closer we are the more likely we are to skew our impressions in the opposite direction.

In the case of rural poverty, it is easy for a metropolitan mind to picture people with no hope and no resources. People struggling without any sense of where they are going. While those immersed in the day-to-day of rural poverty know it is far more complicated. They know that poverty inspires a fierce sense of pride in the possessions that cannot be stripped away by financial hardship, namely pride in family and place. Such is the intensity of this pride, that a writer might be swept up in a wave of sentimentalism and fail to provide context that helps explain the reality.

Writing about subjects where your personal emotions are intense requires time to consider the wider picture and time for revision to add balance. This is nowhere more apparent than in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, which in my opinion is so unbalanced that it weakens the central theme of the story. A writer cannot have all evil centralized in one class of character without creating a great sense of false good in the other.

My family comes from southeast Ohio and West Virginia, so I know a little something about rural poverty. At the same time, I live (and have always lived) in a very affluent suburb of Columbus. And so, I’m going to write a little about a recent personal experience to illustrate just how easy it is to fail from both sides of the equation.


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Fairfield County Fairgrounds Round Cattle Barn (b 1906)

This past weekend, I took my family to the Fairfield County Fair in Lancaster, Ohio. This was the 158th anniversary of the Fair, and since my family is from Lancaster it was a fixture in my childhood, the bridge between Indian Summer and true Autumn. But it had been a long time since I’d gone to the Fair, primarily because going to the Fair meant paying a visit to my grandmother.

My grandmother suffered a stroke many years ago and spent her declining years in assisted living and ultimately in an institutional nursing home. Over time, a few missed visits became a barrier in itself which only widened in time. Birthdays missed. Cards not sent. Pictures of great-grandchildren not sent. It was all reduced to a state of inevitability where I knew that the time of death was near and it was simple to rationalize my absence by saying things like “well, she didn’t really know who I was anymore” or just “what is the point of that at this stage.”

As a reader, you may be wishing for something here which will lift your spirit, but I do not have a tidy ending. I did not have an experience where I went to visit my grandmother in the nursing home and she recognized me. Or even a moment where I gained some sense of closure for myself… You see, my grandmother passed away two weeks before and it was planned that we would have a family gather at the cemetery before going to the Fair.

Maple Grove Cemetery is a short way out of town. It’s a rural cemetery, though not a terribly old one. There are mature trees and a sense of quiet. Yet, it also feels as if things haven’t quite settled, though I suppose that has more to do with the way the cemetery sits beside the road leaving you feeling exposed to the traffic.

The gathering was small. My grandmother was 98 when she died, and she always said that she did not want a service. “Save the money!” And so that is what her three sons did. They saved money by having her ashes buried during the week so that they didn’t pay $200 for weekend overtime. There was no pastor, either.

She was buried next to my grandfather. He died in 1950, leaving her to raise three boys on her own. Seeing his name on the stone, I realized that I had never been here before. I also realized that I’d probably embarrassed my father when I went to the wrong cemetery (one in town) and called him to find out where we were supposed to go.

When I was a child, we would travel down for the Fair. I remembered the rides and the midway, but most of all I remembered the food. My grandmother loved the powdered waffles, and they had to come from the place under the grandstand that had been there since 1912.

At the gravesite, my family was milling around, talking and catching up. My father had placed a powdered waffle on the bouquet of flowers that covered the grave and everyone thought that was fitting. Everyone talked about going to the Fair as planned, that we might all go together like we did so long ago when my father and his brothers were the same age as my cousins and I were now. But those days are gone. There have been divorces and deaths. New wives and husbands replaced the departed. New children had replaced us, but unlike my cousins these new children were all strangers to one another.

We all left the cemetery individually and traveled into town.

In many ways, Lancaster had grown. There were more stores and more people, but the stores were further out from town located by the newer housing developments. The inner core of old homes had deteriorated and there was a density to the decline here because there were just so many people living in it. Still, while there are some things in Lancaster that were universally upsetting, the truth is that I saw more pain because I had other memories to compare them with and I had my own personal shame to contend with as well.

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My boys were happy to go to the Fair, probably as happy as I had been. We walked together through the crowds. The boys called out to play the midway games and we ate powdered waffles from the place under the grandstand.

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We had lemonade and cotton candy. We walked through the round cattle barn. Then, we went to ride the ferris wheel.

On the wheel, I sat with my youngest boy. He was so excited until we got going and then he was terrified with every turn. That feeling of falling backwards was too much for him, and no matter how I tried to distract him by pointing out the hills I knew or the places in town I knew he would not be consoled.

When we got off, we ran into some of my cousins. We talked for awhile, but by now the sun was setting and we needed to leave.

The traffic around the fairgrounds is crawled so I couldn’t help but notice the Fairfield Inn, a little beer joint across from the Fair, was still open. I remembered driving by that place when I was child and the sun was setting at the end of Fair Avenue. I remember seeing the tiny, red neon letters B E E R, and when we drove past I got a glimpse of the same figures seated at the bar. It made me wonder just how much, if anything, had changed.

Driving home was quicker than I expected, even though the road was more crowded. I may be wrong about a great many things concerning my memories of Lancaster, but one thing I know for certain is that the road between Columbus and Lancaster has always gotten wider and the traffic heavier.


I wrote this post in support of Blog Action Day.