My Ford Van RV

Three days before the end of 2016 I said goodbye to my 19-foot Ford van. I should have gotten rid it ten months before, after our last return from Florida—it was, after all, 25 years old. Instead I let it sit all year in the driveway, an insurance black hole, while I worked up the will to sell it. But not until I got the 2017 bill did I finally let it go.

The Ford RV was the last in a series of vans that began the day I left my second marriage, driving away from Healdsburg, California, in a Plymouth minivan which my soon-to-be-ex husband said looked like a refrigerator. This slight did not bother me a bit (although apparently I never forgot it.). Moved by Joseph Campbell’s PBS mythology series, I had decided to become a test case for bliss. The Voyager was just the beginning. The next dream was Lake Michigan.

That took a couple years: The Voyager took me from a Holland town apartment where I could drive to the lake, to a Saugatuck home from which I could walk to the lake, to Beaver Island, where, from my window, I could gaze at the lighthouse on Paradise Bay. The minivan endured many a jouncing ferry trip from Charlevoix. I even drove it 6,000 miles around the U.S. side of the Great Lakes, camping in the back with a mattress, cooler and a one-burner stove. Five months of beaches, campgrounds and treasure hunts—I was dreaming big and writing about it. (The Fourth Coast, Penguin, 1993).

A couple years later, I injured my wrists “screwing on my new bed,” the Island story went. I had ordered a bed frame that arrived unassembled—a stack of boards and 54 black screws. A friend with a power screwdriver would have been handy in any of four directions, but independent me had to do it myself with a Phillips. The next morning, I couldn’t flip on the light. My right wrist, soon followed by the left, suffered such terrible tendonitis that I strapped each into a black leather bowling brace, took the ferry to Charlevoix and drove to Texas where I lived for two months on South Padre Island in the back of the minivan, mostly curled up in pain. But my legs worked and the beach was soft and warm and I thrilled at the spoonbills, flamingos and shrimping boats.

Back on the island, lacking mainland transportation was becoming awkward, especially when the lake was frozen and Island Air my only escape. I began to look for another vehicle to park “across” (as Island folk call the mainland). One day, shopping at Meijer in Holland, I spied a For Sale sign in the window of a huge gray van. Before you could say “Joseph Campbell!” I had a full-size Ford van parked on the grass at the Charlevoix airport, with a Voyager at home. I enjoyed my two-car life until I finally gave the Plymouth to my son who had been visiting from Laramie. Sadly, having spent too long on unpaved island roads, it died halfway to Wyoming.

Oh well. I’d fallen in love with the big gray van. It had screened windows, wood panelling, fairy lights along the ceiling and really comfortable velvet seats. I often camped on a mattress in its capacious back. One day, after eight years on the island, with the heroic help of an Island friend, I crammed my life into my van and drove it to the ferry dock. Across the lake and across the state we went, to the first floor of a stately town Victorian in Bay City, Michigan,.

I kept the van in Bay City for several years. Finally, tiring of repair bills, I put an ad in the paper and it vanished in a poof. It was the screens, I think, that sold it. I replaced the van with a used silver Subaru Forester. Although it was my first nonvan since California, I became quite devoted to my Subaru. For years it cruised me without incident to Florida for winter visits and, in other seasons, hauled gear and art work to shows all over Michigan. Still. It wasn’t a van.

One day I noticed an ad on Craigslist—a small motorhome was for sale within twelve minutes of my house. I was there in ten. The 19-foot van boasted a refrigerator! A propane stove! An actual bed! I could even stand up in it. And it was unbelievably cheap!

A month later, I drove it to Florida, camped at Cedar Key, right on the seashore, and a month after that drove it home without incident. The second year I brought a just-rescued miniature pinscher along, an adventure in itself. We hadn’t enjoyed the sight of palm trees long when, on U.S. 10 just west of Tallahassee, the steering wheel froze. Pulling on it hard, I forced the van out of the lane and we limped up an off ramp to a gas station. The hood was stuck and as an attendant and I were trying to get it open, a slim brown spectacled angel appeared in sandals and all white attire and fixed it, true story. On our third Florida trip, the Ford quit again, at almost the same mile marker, and again, we were miraculously rescued.

The stalling persisted. “Just change the thermostat,” I told mechanics, year after year, from Michigan to Kentucky, Alabama to Mississippi to Cape Canaveral, but they always insisted the problem was something else—the brakes, or the radiator, or the kingpins. I was hitting the credit card hard.

Still, we kept going to Florida, often leaving in below-zero temperatures. I tried the western route down I 65, the I 75 route through Atlanta and the eastern route through Washington D.C. down I 95. The breakdowns always began as soon as the weather warmed. I learned to not panic, to let the engine cool and start it up again. My rescuers were invariably kind. A secretary at a small industrial plant in Alabama suggested I turn on the heater. It would cool the engine, she said. That got us home.

Not until I finally demanded that the thermostat be changed did I learn that it was stuck, the bolt could not be turned, and no one would touch it. I found someone who would do it for $1,000, an amount I took off the price when I finally sold it to a nice young couple.

Last night I told a friend this story over dinner and confessed that I was already missing my RV. “I can’t seem to live without a van,” I said.

“That sounds kind of Freudian,” she said with a laugh. “Like ‘I just can’t live without a man!’”

“It’s Jungian,” I said. “A womb with a view!”

I’ve been checking Craigslist for a post-2006 Class B+ with a slide. Let me know if you find one. 

Write Now!

  I’ve been distracting myself with birds and flowers.

In 1975, writing for an Addison-Wesley reading program, I learned to love deadlines. Give me a deadline and a bunch of specs and I will delight you, on time. For many years “good work on time” kept me happily employed writing stories, poems and teacher’s guides for phonetic reading programs. I don’t write on assignment any more and with only myself to please—or not—productivity can be a challenge. So now I manufacture my own deadlines, or make a public commitment, like this one.

Without a deadline, I dawdle in ideas. But try as I might—and I never fail to really, really try—I rarely solve a problem in my head. I can no sooner write without my hands on the keyboard than I can will a spill of beads to sort themselves, or, in my sleep, untangle my lawnmower’s extension cord. Without physical involvement, nothing gets written.

Then there are distractions: recently my birthday, which felt like a big one—three-quarters of a century—was followed by a disturbing national event, followed by worldwide protests, during which my online used book business demanded attention, as did a contract from a publisher for a new edition of……

Excuses, excuses. Let’s get to it! A new memoir piece is in the works.

A NOTE ABOUT WORK YOU’VE SENT ME: Beaver Island word wizard Cindy Ricksters has a fresh addition to her Artifacts to Memories. And while I thank others of you for sharing your past writings, I’m limiting this website to current work: Write now!

Memoir Workshop: Tell me Less; Tell Me More

I finished my Great Horned Owl painting today, but I’m not using it in my memoir—over the years I have seen and heard many Great Horned Owls, but I can’t remember any particulars. Better I talk about why I painted this Great Horned Owl.

It’s a matter of focus. I don’t draw well, so I need help, especially when accuracy is a factor. For this owl I used a composite of photos from my own collection, my considerable bird book library and several copyright-free photo websites. Most of the great horned owls I found were either buried in a landscape (too much) or head shots (too little). An owl in flight didn’t fit the vertical format of my owl gallery. Focus can be tricky.

Recently I received work from several of you. Hurrah! I am encouraged that you are writing! Please keep it up. I thought I would check these pieces out for focus. 

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I was overwhelmed by the twelve-page single-space accounting of Dr. Andrew Templeman’s lifetime achievements. This paragraph, however, made me want to hear more:

While at the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, I directed a program in Remedial Reading Tutorials for about 200 black children from the Francis Cabrini-Green Housing projects just W of the church. The same number of young executive types from the City of Chicago came each week to meet their personally committed tutee and to sit with that child for an hour practicing reading. The tutors ranged from young lawyers to Playboy centerfolds from across the street at the Playboy International Center (the former Palmolive Bldg in Chicago). The school principal Margaret Harrigan told us after a few years of this work that the reading scores of these children had improved dramatically. She even used the word ‘miraculously.’

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Reading the nicely written two-page synopsis of Sheila Rieman’s life was like going to somebody else’s family reunion: A great party but what am I doing here? However, I’m really curious about that personal filer. More, please!

It has been said that in this life there are pilers and filers. I am a piler who continues to aspire to be a filer, mostly so I can keep my desk free from the piles of items that need action, filing, or tossing….I am fortunate to have married a filer, a neat one, at that. Sometimes I call him my personal Felix Unger. Johnny and I are opposites in many ways – especially in our political views, but we have managed to live together peacefully for nearly fifty-three years.   

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I got a beautiful piece from Fred Yandall. I asked him to write it again from a more personal point of view, a challenging task. However, his focus—waiting in the hospital while his wife was in surgery—was right on: an intense time in an intense place. Critiquing Fred’s piece put me in an editorial spin, so I’m trying this softer “tell me less/tell me more” approach.

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I found this piece from Beaver Island writer, editor, artist and long-time friend Cindy Ricksters focus perfect. She had written it in lines, like a poem, but I suggested she use normal paragraphing and we both like it better that way.

Old Tennies

I have a pair of old shoes that – tied together by their old, worn laces – hang from the knob on my studio door. By today’s standards for sneakers, they are pretty simple, and badly worn out besides. When they were new, back in the summer of 1972, they were glorious! White canvas with red and blue vinyl accents, thick white laces, rounded toes.

When plain white tennis shoes were the norm, these seemed very special to me.

I had recently become a mother, which changed my life and altered my perceptions more than anything else, ever! It filled my head with ideas. It spurred me to become the best person I could possibly be. My little family had moved to a cottage on Lake Pleasant. My husband and I had big plans for remodeling and modernizing it, for using it as our home base as we raised our family and traveled the world, one adventure after another. I had taken over a corner of the front porch as an area to make art. I saw myself as a young wife, good mother, creative person, all-good-things-await optimist…with a little hippie, flower-child funkiness thrown in for good measure.

These shoes underlined that image. I wore them with jeans and shorts and sundresses. I wore them as an irreverent touch with dress slacks. I wore them as I walked with my little daughter as she took her first steps…and for many steps afterward. I wore them as I took my first baby-steps into thinking of myself as an artist. I wore them until the rubber soles lost their tread and cracked, until the canvas was in shreds, until my perfect little life with all of its “happy ever after” had proven itself to be an average life, with normal struggles.

I’ve lost or tossed away many of the plans and dreams I had as that young optimist. I never could bring myself to throw away the shoes.

When I began painting years ago, Cindy used to make the most wonderful, helpful suggestions. Amazing, how a small change would make a big difference. You can see Cindy’s shoe drawings on her blog: https://cindyricksgers.wordpress.com/2017/01/09/36471/

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Please keep your work coming.  You can ask that I not critique you. I’m fine with that. I’m pretty good, though, and this year, for this project, I’m working for free, at least unless I get overwhelmed. (My usual edit fee is $30/hr.) You don’t even need a coupon! 

Barn Owl

I’ve never seen a barn owl, but that hasn’t stopped me from painting one, or including it in my memoir. After all, what’s absent in a life shapes it as much as negative space defines objects in a painting. And what’s not in my life, in any significant way, are barns. When I think about it, my familiarity with the scent of hay and manure comes not from actual hay and manure but from my lifelong insatiable consumption of stories and novels, many of which (oddly, since readers rarely are farmers) take place on farms, beginning with Peter Rabbit, Charlotte’s Web and countless picture books.

Oh, I’ve strolled through a barn or two. In the early 70s, when I was the public library director in Laramie, Wyoming, I visited a friend’s thoroughbred horse farm to watch a stallion, roped to farm hands on either side, mount a filly in heat. The moment was memorable; barn owls, if present, were not. A few years later, in a crowded corral on a Wyoming ranch, without so much as a by-your-leave, the rancher picked up my two-year-old son, plopped him bareback on a horse and led him about the milling corral before informing me that the animal had never been ridden. “Because Dylan has no fear,” the rancher assured me, “he’s safe.”  “I have fear,” I said. “Get him off!”

A few decades later and a thousand miles east I began frequenting a Michigan dairy farm, where—from the farmhouse screened back porch—I’d observe the herd of mottled cows flow purposefully out of a two=silo picture-book barn and into the pasture behind a large vegetable garden, and, later, as purposefully, back. During my twenty or more visits over ten years, I’ve never entered the barn itself, only the nearby calving shed, a smaller, newer structure with an aisle parting two rows of pens full of calves and cats, but lacking rafters and owls.

Perhaps because I gravitate to forests, my owl sightings are limited to gray owls, snowy owls, screech owls and great horned owls. Next time, I’ll check out the barn.

MEMOIR WORKSHOP:  Placing a piece in my memoir puzzle that appears not to fit has offered an irresistible challenge. Later I may have to ax it, but for now, I tell myself that my best work comes from fun.

Mother’s Bowl

To view the movie, double-click on the bowl, then click on it again in flickr.

MEMOIR WORKSHOP:  If you are balking at writing, why not describe your object on PhotoBooth (or the Windows equivalent)? I made this little movie five years ago, an early attempt at cataloging valued belongings and my first fling as film director, photographer and star. Recording a video on my MacBook Pro’s PhotoBooth was astonishingly simple: I just sat in front of my computer, adjusted the screen to a flattering angle and hit the record button. I could see exactly what was being filmed as I spoke. Sharing it with you, however, was another matter.

This video idea—an appealing short-cut to a quickie memoir post—landed me in a techno briar patch. I know how to format a photo to upload, download or otherwise export, but a movie? It did not plunk easily in place. Following advice from my son Dylan Kuhn, who has for several weeks been attending to daily emails, I uploaded my video to flickr, an online photo-sharing website. It took a while. I was tempted to just flatten the durn thing to a photo, but, reminding myself that a computer is not a toaster (Thank you, Dylan!), I was patient and now it works. I think. Let me know if it doesn’t.

NOTE: Ruth Blocksma, the unseen star of this video, began writing her memoir—Thirty-three Years & Twenty-one Homes—when she was 92. Using Google docs, we worked on it together for two years and I published 300 copies in April, 2014. We sold out by July. Mother turned 97 last November and lives in Shelburne, Vermont.

 

 

Screech Owl

My promise to write something about an object I love is dueling with my new nature card project. I am having so much fun with these little drawings—I wake up at six each morning thinking about the next one. I have decided to rely on the simple dictum that has served me for half my life: Follow your heart, use your head, move your a**. So here’s the screech owl that comes to my yard every winter. I never saw her until very late one night a few years ago she perched on a power line right outside my bedroom window and whinnied. She’s small, less than half the size of her better known relatives, but even from the dense cover of my neighbor’s well-treed yard, her eerie equine call penetrates a still cold night, and sleep.

MEMOIR WORKSHOP NOTES:  A writing project doesn’t always cooperate with early intentions. Novel writers often find their characters stubbornly ignore the plot line and head off in crazy directions. This sort-of memoir was begun to get my artist/writer self—and yours—functioning again and it’s working. Don’t let me throw you off. If you have begun your own writing project, go with what gets you up in the morning. By the way, is anyone trying this?