The Fine Art of Visiting

Sharing points of view politely, just like Grandma taught me. Now that we're visiting, join in the conversation!

Max Recommends a $1.99 deal

MAXrecommends

I have been missing Max something fierce lately. Just looking at this picture I recall the special connection I always felt when I looked into his eyes. He was a playmate to my sons, the charming secretary who greeted my clients, my stalwart companion through the events of my first husband’s suicide. My walking partner, after, as we put one foot in front of the other to heal.

He is also one of the few real-life characters in my novel THE FAR END OF HAPPY, based on the bones of my first husband’s suicide standoff as three fictional women—his wife, his mother, and his wife’s mother—struggle to make tough decisions, face shameful secrets, and cling to hope as they await word. That twelve-hour gauntlet changed us all. Including six-year-old Max, who could only shiver in fear beneath the thwomp-thwomp of the helicopter overhead and watch as his humans disappeared from the house, one by one, under the guard of policemen who would eventually return to take over his house and ignore his needs. From that day forward we were inseparable.

He was looking into my eyes, just like this, when eight years later I had to make the torturous decision to put him down. He was in so much pain, and I’d made this decision before with other animals, but how could I live without my Max? Yet once I finally made the decision he looked right into my eyes as if to forgive and tell me it was all right, I would be all right. After all, he’d had the final say when I’d “vetted” my second husband; he was leaving me in good hands. And as the drug that would stop that sweet, generous heart entered his system, Max sighed, lay down, and moved no more.

It’s been ten years since Max died. There have been times since then that cuddling with a four-legged friend would have been just the thing, especially last fall when both my mother and my aunt died, but I never got another dog. Turns out that I, too, am fiercely loyal. I had a bond with Max that I do not want to test against new possibility. He was the one who saw me through the greatest challenge of my life and together, for each other, we were brave.

He is with me still, and lives again in the pages of THE FAR END OF HAPPY. We hope you will download a digital copy at Amazon, NOOK, or Kobo. For today’s remaining hours it’s only $1.99, but I hope you’ll agree that a story inspiring us to find hope when facing one of life’s toughest challenges is a good buy on any day, at any price.

 

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#CHOOSETHISDAY on May 1

Today I am writing to ask all of you on Twitter and Facebook for your help—and it won’t cost you anything but a little bit of positivity.

After October 20, 1997—the day my husband chose death over life—“choose this day” became my mantra. Each day, no matter how sad or horrified or frustrated I felt by his suicide and the emotional mess it left behind, I chose life—and with this simple daily act, my sense of empowerment grew.

On Tuesday, when The Far End of Happy is officially released, I will have completed a 17-year arc by seeing my novel based on his suicide standoff through to publication. I told that story through the perspectives of the three women closest to him because these women are changed by the day—broken by it, yes, but also capable of healing and making a difference in the world.

Now I want to make a difference.

I want to write inspirational messages and cast them into the wild, random Twitterverse. I want people to be more aware of signs of depression and suicidal behavior. I want to share resources where people who are truly hurting can find help.

Will you join me?

choose.blueberries

On May 1, I am asking everyone I know on Twitter to post an empowering, positive message or quote using the #choosethisday hashtag. Why May 1? Two reasons: because “mayday” is a distress signal, and because “May Day” is an ancient celebration of renewal. Both play into the notion of positivity and suicide awareness that I hope to advance.

I’m hoping, through a massive number of retweets, to keep this going throughout May, and end with a Twitter event after Memorial Day that is still in the planning stages.

Might you add your voice to #choosethisday? Share your spirit with those who are hurting. A favorite inspirational quote. A small confession of what makes you come alive.

If you don’t yet follow me, please do so @kcraftwriter. I’ll follow you back. If you’re not on Twitter you can still play—I’ll happily accept #choosethislife quotes on my Facebook Author Page as well, and look forward to sharing in your inspiration on May Day and beyond!

Class Acts You’ll Want to Follow

If you are an avid reader, this post is for you.

Last week my debut novel, The Art of Falling, turned one year old. Since then my life has been like one long gratitude-filled surprise party and I wanted to share some of my experiences here. Watch out—I will be naming names!

Fan mail

I have to admit that until I became one, I had never written to an author before in my life. Granted, I became an author in an era when author contact is now much easier, thanks to websites, Facebook author pages and Goodreads. But truly, shame on me. I had no idea what incredible joy a short note would bring.

This excerpt is from my favorite note so far, because the reader was so far outside

I went through the library’s new release section and left with a pile of books, having chosen yours without even reading the back. I just liked the cover. When last night I couldn’t fall asleep I reached for the nearest book, yours, to help me along. It did not have the intended effect.

I was up most the night reading. Every now and then you read a book so true you just want to stand on the rooftops and shout to the world about it. I felt that way about The Art of Falling. Thank you.

My husband couldn't stop reading The Art of Falling even after the power went out.

My husband couldn’t stop reading The Art of Falling even after the power went out.

Facebook Likes, Amazon Reviews, and Newsletter Subscriptions

These are so incredibly important to an author! Goodreads reviews are super to create buzz for a title, but think about it: someone impressed with a review at Amazon can purchase the book with one additional click. If you only review on Goodreads, considering copying and pasting your review at Amazon as well. I have way too many to thank for doing this to single anyone out, but you all have my undying gratitude! And even if you follow your favorite authors on Facebook, subscribing to their newsletter means you won’t accidentally bypass an important post.

Street team support

These days authors rely upon “social influencers” to help them spread the word about their book, sometimes even organizing what they call “street teams” to help them in this regard. So how cool is it when you have some readers who so love your book, and so want to help give it wings, that they assume this role on their very own?

Yes, Nancey Brackett, I’m talking about you. Until my final road to publication, I only knew Nancey because her husband bought a motorboat from me. Then suddenly she became my greatest champion, and such a good friend I wonder what I would have done without her. She told all her friends about my book, once ferrying a buyer across the lake right to my dock. She held a dinner in my honor and invited friends she thought would like the book. She recommended it to her book club (and other clubs!) and hosted me as a guest when they discussed it. Nancey’s been invaluable.

Another lake friend, Amy Van Kirk, had no book club—but that didn’t stop her! She told some dozen friends they would love my book, ordered in enough copies to her local Barnes & Noble so they could buy and read it, then held a high tea for me in her house in Syracuse, NY, so we could gather and discuss it. That was so much fun!

Published author support

We authors can support one another in similar ways. Internationally bestselling author Catherine McKenzie, for instance, was a woman I’d never met until I read her book Hidden this summer. It was great, and I wrote a Goodreads review and a glowing post on Facebook about it. Next thing you know she had purchased The Art of Falling, consumed it in a day, and posted reviews to Facebook, Goodreads, and Amazon. She then went on to include it in her Huffington Post article, Ten Books You Might Not Have Read in 2014 (But You Really Should Read in 2015). Then reprinted the same list in her author newsletter. And then she ran her own giveaway of all those books on her Facebook Author page! Catherine is a dynamo and her support, for which I am so incredibly thankful, was a huge, delightful surprise.

Ann Garvin, founder of the Tall Poppy Writers <link> cooperative of women’s fiction writers I belong to, helped me add “Likes” by going to my Facebook author page and then, from among her own friends shown at the top, picked some she thought would like my work and invited them to also like my page! I hadn’t even known you could do that—she off-handedly said she did it while watching TV one night—but what a wonderful way to support a writer you like! All of my fellow Poppies, especially Sonja Yoerg, have helped spread my news through Facebook shares and retweets, along with so many other women’s fiction enthusiasts.

Joint (ad)ventures

From Meet the Author events on a Skaneateles Lake cruise boat to a signing in a tasting barn at a Thousand Islands winery, I had a lot of fun this summer cooking up schemes with fellow NY authors Therese Walsh and Ellen Marie Wiseman, women I knew only from Facebook yet who I now call good friends. Ellen invited me to share her table at the Lyme Community Days in her hometown of Chaumont, NY. That town may be tiny but they love Ellen! Fans of The Plum Tree had her second title, What She Left Behind, flying off the table all day and with each purchase this gracious author said, “Here’s my friend Kathryn Craft. Let her tell you about her debut novel.” Therese, author of The Moon Sisters, which I adored, invited me to join in on a retreat on top of a mountain north of lovely Asheville, NC with Catherine McKenzie and New York Times bestselling author Therese Anne Fowler, where I was able to complete my copyedits in peace by day, and in the evenings, steep myself in real-life publishing industry scenarios from women farther down the path than I.

Have you ever loved a book so much that you wanted to help the author in any way you can? What other ways have you found to do so? If you haven’t yet thought to do so but would like to, these are some class acts you can follow.

My Life as a Grand Bitch

This week at the lake (and God help me, perhaps next week as well), I’m visiting with an adorable, four-legged bundle of joy, eight-month-old Xena, while her person, Marty, is off on vacation.

Since Marty is my son, I am Xena’s grand bitch. This week I’m learning more about what that really means.

As those who follow me on Facebook already know, Xena is cuddly and full of personality. I mean, look at her here with Marty:

Xena and Marty

Wouldn’t you want some of that action?

The thing is, that’s the action she’s used to—and as a writer, I need my alone time. In a story, we’d say that this character set is well orchestrated for conflict, and indeed, I’ve met few of my writing goals since Marty left.

But since my grandmother, to whom this blog is dedicated, would have wanted me to speak only kindly of my guest, I shall.

Xena wants to tell me, in a most excited fashion, whenever she sees…anything. Life for Xena is one long eye exam, and she wants me to know her vision is excellent. She barks at anything moving outside the camp, and thanks to my awesome architect, Doug Gallow, we have a lot of windows (now covered in slobber). “Look, Grand Bitch! I can see Charlie Van Kirk raking leaves! [She’s not yet inured to the fact that Charlie rakes compulsively.] Oh no, Grand Bitch, some people are venturing out onto the water—danger! Oh—another moth! And what’s this, Grand Bitch—another neighbor is pushing a growling machine that’s eating the grass!”

I can’t ignore her because she’s also gone to the window, barked, then pooped. Deciphering can be tricky. I must be vigilant.

Xena wants to interact with me. A lot. Sometimes, consumed with Zen-like patience, she’ll let me type an entire sentence before sitting by my chair to look up at me imploringly. Have you ever tried to write while someone is staring at you, while wriggling, from just inches away?

Xena imploring

Then she goes and gets her rubber chew toy.

That’s because I had to hide the braided pull toy. In our first days together, when I insisted on working, Xena would jump up behind me, put her paws on my shoulders, and drop the knotted braid onto my chest, where its puppy slime and associated scent could not be ignored. So I’d fling it away (screeching may have been involved)—and the games had begun.

Those games had to stop.

Her only recourse now is the rubber chew toy.

Xena chew

She brings the toy over and chews it on my lap, “accidentally” nipping at my thighs now and then to make certain I know she’s there, until I give in and try to grab it. Then she pulls back with it and growls. If I go back to typing? Repeat last sentence. She growls until I leave my chair and try to grab it from her, which she lets me do, and then I throw it, and she races around the house with it as if it’s a grand prize. I can get in one more sentence, if I’m lucky, until the cycle begins again.

Xena has her own ideas about how to use furniture and camp features. If it’s quiet but a moment, she’s no doubt doing something…creative. Which I must snap a picture of, of course, for evidence.

Xenacreative2

Xena loves long walks. She is having more fun than I. Nose to the ground, Xena resurfaces road and shoulder like a late summer Zamboni.  During a one-mile walk she has co-starred in a hundred epic tales featuring frogs, snakes, birds, raccoons, and deer, simply by snuffling up olfactory remnants of road kill. Whereas I, the one who cares to use words fancifully to tell a story, has simply been saying, “Heel. Heel. Heel.”

(Of course I’m trying to use up some of her boundless energy, but when we get home and my position at the computer signals that it’s time for storytelling, she wants to sit beside me and share her version. This morning she barked for five minutes straight.)

Part of me wants to give up and let her roam on these walks—I’m a grandma, I have the right to indulge her youthful fantasies!—but although she’s svelte, she’s also pit-bull-mix strong. Teaching “heel” is the only way I can protect myself from her constant yanking.

Indeed she has turned me into the person that I, even before becoming a full-on grand bitch, have mocked through the years: that gray-haired woman who insists she is still strong enough to train a willful puppy. Look at that fool, I’ve thought, being pulled herky-jerky fashion down the road, all of her joints at risk, while she lamely mutters one word over and over. She’s going to hurt herself.

No longer will I be such a grand bitch toward my fellow dog walkers. From now on I will see such a woman as blinded by love, whose novel isn’t getting written.

And perhaps she is desperately counting the minutes until her son gets home, as is Xena.

Xena waiting

A visit from the fire company

What a difference two hours can make.

At 10:30 last night—after scant sleep the night before and a couple of glasses of wine with good friends at dinner—I shut down the house for the night and thankfully climbed into bed.

At 12:30 I woke up to a smell like burning plastic. (If you want to know how I know what burning plastic smells like, let’s just say it has something to do with my son, a stovetop burner, and a Rubbermaid pitcher.)

No detectors or monitors were beeping, but I flipped on a few lights to check for smoke. When I got to the stairwell the smell was truly sickening, and I did venture down one floor to look around.

But then, like any self-respecting, intelligent, independent-minded, problem-solving women’s libber would do: I went to wake my husband.

I do feel kind of  bad about that. He’s had a bad cold for a month and is now on antibiotics for a sinus infection, and while I’d only gotten three hours sleep the night before from his persistent cough, he hasn’t had more than three hours straight for more than a week. And I wasn’t even so sure he could help, even without his nose so compromised—I’m often sensitive to smells he never perceives. So when I woke him, and he immediately said, “What’s that awful smell,” I knew we had a problem.

We spent the next hour looking everywhere. But the smell was so pervasive by that point, and our respiratory tracts so raw, we could no longer tell where it was strongest. Dave, a retired safety man for a gas utility, suggested we call 911. I, who have not surrendered my preference for denial in the absence of empirical proof , argued against it.

We sat with our non-emergency, dumb with lack of sleep, propped up by adrenaline, afraid to go to bed for fear we would never wake. At 1:30 a.m. Dave finally made the call. The operator told us to wait outside our home.

responders

Within ten minutes a bunch of first responder SUVs arrived, lights flashing, along with the fire chief and assistant fire chief. Two big fire trucks we’d heard scream through town had parked outside our address and lit up our row of town homes like it was daytime. Eventually we entertained almost a dozen fully outfitted firefighters with oxygen tanks on their backs—roughly the same number of writers who had attended my afternoon workshop just twelve hours before.

Their procedure is to set an orange cone at the bottom of the steps and hook it onto the railing—each firefighter wears two tags on their gear, and when they enter a building they clip one of them to the cone so if someone doesn’t make it out, the others can figure out who’s missing.

firemen

As each of the firefighters tried in vain to wipe the snow from their boots before entering the house, I thought of the writers who had arrived that day in the snowstorm and asked if they should remove their shoes to save our pale carpets. Now, I just wanted to save our house.

The firemen searched the whole house, as we had. Using thermal imaging devices to look for hot spots behind walls and in other spaces unavailable to the naked eye, they double-checked their work inside and out, including the outsides of our neighbor’s houses. They tested the air inside for toxins. Every now and then they came outside so they could return to their search with a fresh olfactory perspective. But one thing impressed me: All of them took this quite seriously. Better safe than sorry, they said.

I recalled seeing a piece on TV where Gavin de Becker, the author of The Gift of Fear, said that most of us know when danger is present—then talk ourselves out of it. In his book he urges us to trust our gut instincts, and I’m glad we (ultimately) did. One of the firefighters told us how detrimental such denial can be: one homeowner called 911 only after their carbon monoxide monitor had been going off for five hours. The purpose of their call was to see how on earth to turn it off.

The cause of the harsh scent, the firefighters finally came to believe: our refrigerator. They unplugged it and pulled off a back panel to look for fire, which they did not find, but once it had been unplugged for a half hour the smell started to dissipate. Their theory was that something inside of it has burned out. In the first photo above, sitting at the top of the stairs, is a fan they’d brought along, but when the air tested safe they packed it back up and left without using it.

Sleep cycle now hopelessly skewed, Dave was wide awake by this point so stayed up to watch on TV a live Grand Prix race he had planned to watch taped today. I couldn’t get to sleep because my feet were so icy from standing out in the snow for an hour so I microwaved a sock full of rice and tucked it into the bottom of the bed to warm them. Then, after cracking the bedroom window for good measure, I eventually was able to catch a few hours of sleep.

As for our stainless steel side-by-side, it’s one of the few aspects of our home we never liked anyway. It doesn’t work wedged into a corner as it is, because we can’t open the door wide enough to get into it without a fair bit of contortion. We’ve chosen to fridge shop rather than see about repairing it. Anyone interested in the old fridge let me know within a couple of days—but consider yourself forewarned!

Have you ever chosen denial over gut instinct—and regretted it? I’d love to hear your story.

How Collecting can Change the World

Do you believe your child can change the world?

Do you believe you can change the world?

My stepdaughter, Silver, recently sent me the link to this wonderful, upbeat Sesame Street video, “Change The World.” She wrote, “If only parents, teachers, and society continued this message to all kids. Even if they believed it at five, I suspect if you polled a bunch of thirteen-year-olds many would no longer believe this.”

She has a great point, so I wanted to extend the conversation here. The incoming messages during our teen years do tend to signal a disturbing change from “Anything’s possible!” to “Who do you think you are?”

One way our children gain in personal power is through encouraging participation in activities that capitalize on natural talents. It occurs to me that there’s another way that doesn’t require quite so much running around.

I allowed my children to be collectors.

Collecting doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. When I was young I collected postcards my relatives found on their world travels; butterflies I caught, identified and preserved; and sea shells my parents brought back from various trips (I had never even been to the ocean). I then became obsessed with “anything little”—the tinier the better—and collected anything from worry dolls to miniature bottles to tiny Sunmaid raisin boxes.

Surrounding myself with items that struck my fancy, I learned that my interests and passions could change my little corner of the world and reflect my presence in it. I was the magnet that brought these items together.

My children funded their collections with their allowance. Since our move a few years ago, these collections found a new home in our basement. The minerals my older son bought languish in their plastic drawers; my younger son’s Beanie Babies slowly smother in a plastic trash bag. Not usually one to want anything to go to waste, this doesn’t bother me at all. They’ve fulfilled their function and earned the rest: my older son is pursuing a career in opera, and my younger son works part-time as a traffic engineer between gigs with his hardcore band that have allowed him to travel the U.S. and abroad. They are connecting with audiences and living what is important to them and, in their own small way, changing the world.

I can provide a longer case study. These days I collect books. And one year from now I will add one to my shelves—The Art of Falling—that carries my name on the front. The book will reflect a decade of consistent work on my part, and more than a year of work on the part of the publishing team. And it will reflect my chance to change not only my little corner of the world, but the little corners in which my potential readers sit—and it will be my honor to do so. Check out the cover, revealed today at The Blood-Red Pencil!

Then pop back here and tell me: what did you collect? Did you ever think about the fact that you were the magnet that drew these items, experiences, or people together?

Inner conflict and the self-employed

Might we not say to the confused voices which sometimes arise from the depths of our being, Ladies, be so kind as to speak only four at a time?

~Anne-Sophie Swetchine

The above quote, prominently displayed on the bulletin board beside my computer, suggests that I constantly suffer from the very thing I seek out in my characters: inner conflict.

I suppose it’s a right brain-left brain thing. As it so happens, both sides of my brain fight for prominence. Left-brained me—lets call her “L”— is constantly putting new programs in place to re-organize, compartmentalize, and otherwise tame my unruly life so that I can make good use of my time. L is the boss. She scribbles all over my planner. She is an unflagging optimist with a get ‘er done bent.

Card sharp

Card sharp (Photo credit: totallyfred)

Right-brained me is innately improvisational and her antics are most entertaining. When L dictates that we go to the gym every morning, alternating upper and lower body workouts with an all-aerobics day thrown in for good measure, R says, “But you can’t make me.” Some days L gets a workout just chasing R around the room. She isn’t evil—she may go along with L for a couple of days to make nice—but then she’s madly reshuffling the schedule and saying, “Pick a card, any card.”

Problem is, R is a real charmer. She’ll say something like, “I’ll just write this blog first thing while I’m fresh and work out later.” Why do we believe her? We have never yet convinced her to make good on her suggestion to go to the gym once her head is inside a project.

If you’ve thought such tugs of war between employer and employee are only staged on the corporate campus, welcome to my head.

I wish I could report that after thirty years of practice I have trumped “The Man” by creating for myself an anxiety-free work environment, but that would be a lie. L schedules meetings, R gets lost in the flow of writing and misses them. L decides I’ve consumed enough calories for the day, R celebrates another two thousand words with a beer and buttered popcorn. L says to record my life before forgetting its rich detail and R demands time away from the computer to go out and live it. L says turn around editing clients faster so you can make more money, R says she. Can’t. Rush. And performance reviews? Pfft. The IRS deals the cards on that one. Tax time is sobering for the self-employed. Yes, valid deductions are great, but it does nothing for L or R to see all their tussles add up to so little on the bottom line.

On my bulletin board, pinned beside the opening quote, is a full-page photograph from O Magazine, April 2003, titled “The Idea is Balance.” It offers a profile view of an empty wooden chair—and improbably perched upon its back is a peacock, its long feathers hanging on a heavy diagonal toward the ground. The chair may tip, the peacock may fall, but in this moment the pair is caught in a moment of calm. Finding the quiet, while knowing the stakes—that seems to be my greatest ongoing challenge.

The neat thing about this photo, though, is that both the chair and the peacock are facing the same way. I never realized that until I wrote this post. That’s the same way with L and R. They may have different strengths, and different ways of going about things, but they have no doubt that they’re playing for team Kathryn, and that they’re both desperately needed.

K: Well done, team.

R: Let’s go celebrate with an ice cream sundae!

L: But it’s only 8 a.m. and I have you scheduled for another 2,000 words…

(Okay, ’fess up—I can’t be the only one. In what ways does the struggle for balance manifest in your life?)

A fun test to see if you are more right- or left-brained. Can you see the dancer turning to her left? I can’t.

Yes to Banksy, No to Ku Klux Klan

Because I enjoy learning from others’ perspectives, I visit with all kinds of people, including complete strangers. This made me wonder: Is there anyone I wouldn’t like to visit with?

As a lifelong student of the human body, I check for all sorts of body signals to give me information on how people really feel. “You look great,” for instance, just isn’t as meaningful with an eye roll. “I have a better vision for our country” does not inspire confidence when the speaker is covered in a sheet from head to toe. So for me, the most off-putting scenario I can think of would be to try to visit with someone who is purposefully masking his identity.

That brings me to the pairing in this title. Banksy is a British street artist and activist my son introduced to me by sharing Banksy’s movie, Exit Through the Gift Shop, nominated for a 2011 Academy Award for Best Documentary. As you can see in the clip at the bottom of this post, Banksy scrambles his voice and hides his identity throughout the film. He had to. His work, often executed under the cover of night, walks the line between public art and vandalism. It isn’t exactly legal. But because his work is creative and masterful and thought-provoking and entertaining, I’d love to sit down and chat with him even if I was denied access to his face.

Members of the Ku Klux Klan, on the other hand, whose free expression is protected under our constitution? I have to admit, I’d have trouble with that one. Here’s what Banksy had to say about the Klan:

banksy-kkk-in-birmingham

This image, painted at an abandoned gas station in Birmingham, Alabama in 2008 then quickly defaced, is credited to Banksy.

Before moving to Bucks County, PA in 2009 I lived in Berks County, a neo-Nazi stronghold. Because I lived on a small farm we avoided most confrontation. So I remember well the first time my son and I encountered the Klan standing in the busiest intersection of Boyertown. We were leaving his Tae Kwon Do class; they were handing out literature.

“Why are they in costume, Mommy? It’s not Halloween.”

“They fear being known for their opinions,” is all I could think of to say. “In America we are free to live here no matter what we believe. Unfortunately, these people don’t think the same way.”

As a writer I suppose it’s possible that if I were ever to visit with a Klansman, I’d find the evolution of his perspective fascinating. But it threatens everything I hold dear. I don’t think I’d want to do it, and don’t think I could stomach it if he wouldn’t remove his hood.

In the arts we often hear that we should do the thing we don’t want to do because it will have power. Maybe. But my unconditional love isn’t perfect. I might need a few more decades of convincing on this one.

It occurs to me that, like Banksy, the Klan has historically crossed legal limits under the cover of darkness to express itself (although as recently as 2004, in a racially motivated Boyertown area cross-burning). Yet I’m drawn to the former, and repulsed by the latter.

Maybe the two halves of the above photo provide a clue as to why.

Exit Through the Gift Shop (entire movie).

*Does empathy always make you stronger, or does it sometimes feel too dangerous? Who is it you would never want to sit down and visit with?

Learning to Converse

When you are from a large family—I am one of five children—memories of time spent one-on-one with an adult are precious. I am especially fond of the times when my grandmother and I would go visiting. Hand-in hand, we’d leave our summer home and walk along the shoreline to other camps to see who might be available for a chat.

Certain of my family members would tell you I enjoyed this because I like to talk too much. I’d put forth a different perspective: I was learning the fine art of conversation.

This is not a milestone we typically discuss when thinking of childhood development.  First smile, first babbling, first time sticking the foot in the mouth, first words, first steps—yes. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard someone say “Little Johnny conversed today!” As a matter of fact, I hardly ever hear anyone using the word “converse.”

Yet I recall clearly the first time I walked in on my sons, who at the time were probably 4-1/2 and 2-1/2, doing just that. The miracle of it took me unaware, since this milestone is so often overlooked. Until then all communication came through me—but this day they were talking to one another, affirming their senses of self without need of my intervention.

That’s what happened on these visits my grandmother and I made. Each fostered a thoughtful sharing of opinions and stories in a setting far removed from the debate-fueled hubbub at our crowded camp, where I always felt a little lost. While visiting I listened to new perspectives; they asked questions. I answered; they chuckled. My comments were not adrift in a sea of other voices. I was learning who I was.

There were always tangible rewards. Mr. Bassett served marshmallows (a fisherman always in need of bait, he also fueled my comic book habit by paying a nickel a piece for frogs I caught). Mr. Brown offered peanuts, and Mrs. North would often give out a Golden Book (my favorite was Alexander Kitten, who always did his duty).

The rewards at this blog might be less tangible, but I hope it will be a gift nonetheless. In our age of information overload, I hope it’s a place where you can lay down the the burden of your long to-do list and engage for a few minutes with other people and a new idea or two. To this day I formulate my own opinions one of two ways: through conversation or writing. My goal here is to do both.

But a visit requires more than one participant. I very much would like to hear comments from you! Please consider leaving a comment and being part of the conversation so that together, through shared perspective, our understanding and wisdom will deepen.

As it turned out, learning to talk to all sorts of different people ended up being invaluable to my future career as a writer and small business owner. On those summer days of my youth I unknowingly soaked up lessons in storytelling craft, particularly voice and point of view. I honed my critical thinking. I shared my love of reading and learned rudimentary networking and interviewing techniques. I also developed an enduring love for the fine art of conversation.

pitcherflowersAfter those visits my grandmother and I would meander home along the road with sweets in our bellies, new ideas to ponder, and no pressing need to talk. And by the time we got back to our camp I had a fistful of wildflowers in my left hand, and a stronger bond with my grandmother in my right.

Do you have any special memories about going visiting, or learning the art of polite conversation? I’d love to hear about it.

For more on this topic check out The Four Secrets of Learning Masterful Conversation by Loren Ekroth, in which she says, “Conversation is like a dance, taking turns, following and leading.”