Monday, December 30, 2013

Another Year In The Books

This time of year tends to be both reflective and telescopic for me. As I prepare for what the new year promises, I also take stock of what last year brought to my life. When I look at 2013 from a writing perspective, it was a really, really good year. I had eight pieces published over the year, three of them paying. This was my most successful year from a publication standpoint, but as all writers know, "success" is not all about the publishing.

For instance, I feel successful when I get four pages written in a sitting. I feel successful when I do a reading and people come up to me afterward and say, "I really loved your story/poems." I feel successful when I take a piece I've written already and find a new twist to it or I enrich it by adding layers to it. My success is not always about what others see or say, but what my words do for me. Writing is baring one's soul, and when we do it well, it feels so much more satisfying than when we do it half-heartedly. And if we don't do it regularly, we feel badly. It's like a runner who has to run to feel better, to feel normal. I love that that's how I now feel about writing.

Along those lines, in addition to the published stuff, I've managed to blog 96 entries this year. I assumed that this was my best year ever, as I strive to blog twice a week (Sundays and Wednesdays.) I was surprised to see that 2010 I had 100 entries. Given the struggles of that year, a year that changed my life and outlook forever, I guess I see why I needed to write. It was/is my therapy.

A quick rundown of the 2013 publications and what they meant to me:

  • 2013 WI Fellowship of Poets Calendar: Angels With Dirty Faces poem. This was a poem inspired by my volunteering to help my son's Middle School Ministry. I took a single night's experience and made it into a humorous, heartfelt poem. Any poem that involves dodge ball and prayer is a good one in my book.
  • MidWest Outdoors - February: One and Done nonfiction story. This story describes a day with my daughter that I will always remember. It was a fishing trip where Sarah managed to catch a muskie on her first cast. I'll never forget the look on her face and the special moments between father and daughter.
  • Torrid Literature Journal - Volume VI: Can't Be Beat poem. A poem inspired while I was in a local coffee shop. I have always admired the beat generation writers including Brautigan, Ginsberg, Kerouac and the likes. It occurred to me that people (myself included) can get so sucked into the past, in some cases making it out to be way better than it was, to the point of missing the present and how wonderful it is. This poem is a manifestation of me working out the difference between past and present.
  • MidWest Outdoors - May: Passing It On nonfiction story. The story of our 2012 trip to the BWCA. The focus of the story was how my brother Tom and I try to expose our children to the wonders of the great outdoors by taking them to the BWCA, one of our nations last "untouched" wilderness areas. The story culminates in our sprinkling of Rob's ashes over the waters before we leave on Father's Day, 2012.
  • Torrid Literature Journal - Volume VII: Going Back poem. This is a sing-songy rhymey poem that's not really my style. What made an okay poem into a good poem was the way it was formatted. At the recommendation of a friend, this one was formatted to look like a winding river which is fitting because the poem is about going back to the BWCA and canoeing in rivers and lakes. I think that one change made it appealing enough to the publishers.
  • MidWest Outdoors - August: Brothers through Thick and Fin nonfiction story. A piece about the history of muskie fishing in our family among the four Landwehr brothers. The story included pictures of each of us with our fish, but also a small picture of the tattoo commemorating the fish I caught on Rob's birthday on the October after he passed away. (10/14/11)
  • Verse Wisconsin - October Of Ice and Minn poem. A poem about winters in my home state of Minnesota, inspired by a stay there over Christmas in 2012.
  • Off The Coast - Fall Winter Kite poem. A poem about flying a kite in my living room in winter, inspired by my somewhat drafty living room. Especially fitting given the winter we are experiencing in 2013.
So that's it. I can only hope to have this kind of success in the coming years. Of course all of it would be eclipsed by the publishing of my BWCA book, which I am currently marketing. I look at these as stepping stones.

I want to take time to thank you who have supported me and maybe even bought a book or magazine that I've been published in. It means a lot to have you there cheering me on. Without you I'm just another guy typing words.

And finally, I have to thank the staff and students at AllWriters' Workshop and Workplace for all they've done to help me succeed. Their feedback and tutelage have helped me turn my writing into something more real. You guys rock. (A special shout-out to my Mother in-law too, for her editing prowess. Thanks Mom!)

Going into 2014, I urge you to pursue something you love. Life is too short not to.

Blogging off...

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Voices of Christmas

Over the past few years leading up to Christmas I've done something on Facebook that I call the "Twelve Days of Christmas Gifts of Years Past." I post a picture of a gift I've received or gave when I was a kid back in the 70's, with a brief description of what it meant to me. Often times it sparks memories or responses from people who remember the item or associate it with a particular memory of theirs. Its fun for me to pore over the Christmas catalogs of the past and remember some of the crazy and eclectic gifts of the past.

Of course, as much as the gifts change over the years, what really makes Christmas "Christmas" are the people around me. Over the years, the faces grow older, and the places change, but the undercurrent of love, laughter and support stands true. Everyone gathered around the dinner table every Christmas would go to war for one another and the gift exchanges are just an extension of this appreciation for each other.

Some of the more memorable gatherings of years past included people like:

Cousins, Aunts and Uncles: Back in the years before we were teens, we used to get together with my Mom's sister's family. This meant lots of cousins and a whole lotta noise and chaos. Throw into the mix lots of smoking, cocktails, and laughter and enough presents to raise the national GNP, and you get a holiday blowout that outgrows itself. The first couple years without them was traumatic, but eventually our own families grew to create the same chaos level today.

When I married into another family, their tradition was much the same. Theirs was different in that they conducted a progressive dinner from house to house in the quaint little burg of Gorham, NY. It was appetizers and drinks at one house, dinner at another and dessert at a third. I really liked this tradition, but eventually it outgrew itself too.

My Brother Rob: As much as I miss having him around for dinner and the gift opening, one of the things I always go back to is how we would go to Midnight Mass together at St. Lukes Church every Christmas Eve. Back then, we were hit-and-miss church attendees, with more missin' than hittin', but we always made it a point to make it to Midnight Mass. The mass was always beautiful in the magnificent cathedral that was St. Lukes. Every year on the walk home he managed to catch me off-guard and hip-check me into a snow bank. I think by the fourth year I was onto him and we both ended up in the snowbank as I fought back.

Grandparents: My grandmother Dagny once brought stewed oysters to Christmas. It was an ungodly awful dish - no disrespect - but my stepfather made the point of having some and then raving about them, so as to not be rude. Well, she took that and ran with it and we had the oysters for the next 5 years. It was great having her around every year and she always made it a point to get gifts for all of us grand kids. She was known and feared for her inordinately wet lips when Christmas kisses were given out. She was love and she was loved.

Mom: Throughout the years she has been the steadying force of Christmas. She used to be in charge of the Christmas turkey, then it became the Christmas prime rib roast (roast beast), and still plays a major part in some element of the food coordination and preparation. She rallies the troops on where Christmas is this year, what time we're meeting and other specifics. I can't imagine Christmas without her, we are blessed to have her healthy and happy again this year.

Brothers, Sisters, In Laws, and Steps: There aren't words for everything these bring to the holidays. These are my equals who care about what my kids are up to, how I'm doing at work and in health. They give me their own updates and make sure we are taken care of when we come home, whatever the occasion. God bless them all.

Stepfather: My step dad always had to split the holidays between his natural children and ours, but always made it a point to be there for Christmas. He was a happy spirit.

Nieces and Nephews; They're all approaching teen-hood (or in it), so it's a whole different vibe, but it is so great to see these kids get along so well when they are plopped into each others' environments. The rattle and hum of kids from another room is both disturbing and comforting. Like my own cousins, there will come a day when they don't get together as much, but the foundation that is being laid today will carry through and keep them close for life.

Friends: We were paid a spontaneous visit by our longstanding friends on December 21st. They came over for other reasons, and ended up staying for an hour and catching up. Between them and our other close friends, we always have our "surrogate family" as I'm sure most everyone does. Those folks help pull the coasts closer for those of us who can't travel every year. I thank God for them and all the richness they bring to my own introverted life.

And so I encourage you to take a look around at your Christmas/New Year tables this year and realize that while this scenario may seem "typical" for you, it may be something much more meaningful to your kids, your brother or your niece. Enjoy it for what it is. These people are all on different tracks, but the common thread that weaves you all together is love. And if you can't see that Christmas gift for what it is, then you need to take a long inward look. Because as dysfunctional as it seemingly is sometimes, it is still beautiful, and you're lucky to have it.

Merry Christmas Everyone.

Blogging off...

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Post Solstice Post

Well I just dug out of a beautiful 6-7" snowfall and then took my daughter to work. Soon enough I will be going to Milwaukee to pick up my father and mother in-law to bring them here for Christmas. Earlier this morning I was wrapping Christmas presents with my son Ben in his bedroom while listening to Pandora's Christmas Channel on his PC. Later today I will be hunkering down to watch the Packers try to continue to weasel their way into the playoffs by beating a Pittsburgh team that is laughably bad this year. Then I will gather with the whole family to eat a delicious meal prepared by my better half and then settle in for a movie or just some laughter and discussion.

This is the lead-in to my 2013 Wisconsin Christmas, and I love it. May the spirit of the season be as good for you and your families this Christmas.

Blogging off...

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Angel Of Christmas Past

Dec. 23rd, 1973

I lay in my bed anxiously awaiting the coming of Christmas Eve. Our family always celebrates Christmas on Christmas Eve and the days leading up to it are always full of anticipation for me. I've just turned 12 years old and can't help thinking about the pile of presents sitting under the tree downstairs in the spacious living room of our house in St. Paul, Minnesota. My stomach is actually churning and shuddering likely in part from the twelve year-old Christmas diet of cookies, ribbon candy and egg nog.

I get up and start downstairs in my fleece pajamas where my sister Pat is sitting alone. It is past ten o'clock and my other siblings were all in bed, as was my mother, exhausted from the preparations for tomorrows celebration and cheer. When I get downstairs, Pat says "What are you doing up?"

"I can't sleep because I want tomorrow to be here. It's making my stomach hurt." I say.

"Well, come here and help me straighten up the presents under the tree."

I walk over and the two of us start mixing, straightening, and putting order to the mound of gifts under our big Norway Pine. She asks me what I got mom and then proceeds to tell me some of the major gifts that Mom got for the rest of the siblings. It is an unusually comforting time with my sister whose usual role is as the fill-in Matriarch when Mom's at work. Her demeanor when she's in charge is stern and purposeful. This is a pleasant change. It seems that Christmas softens everyone.

We finish the present organizing and I march up the stairs back to bed. The time with my sister calms my anxious stomach and I fall back to sleep, but not before filing the moment with my eldest sister into the deep recesses of my memory.

Dec. 24th, 1973

There are two rules on Christmas Eve at the Landwehr house. Number one is "no presents until the dishes are done." Number two is "Kids do dishes." Every year we gripe a little and then start quibbling about who's going to wash or dry. This year is no different. I help dry the last of the silverware and the large pots from the Christmas Turkey dinner.

While we slave over oily dishwater, the adults are out relaxing with cocktails and cigarettes in the dining and living rooms. It hardly seems fair that we should be burdened with what seems like 67 plates and related silverware and glasses, but the price is fair given the booty that lay beneath the tree; booty that would only become ours when the pearl diving was finished.

We finish up and crowd around the tree for the annual passing out of gifts. My mom's boyfriend Jack reads the gifts this year, one at a time. The task seems painfully slow, hurried only by the assistant "elves" - kids under ten years old. Like other years, this year I asked for several things, but really only one that mattered. I wanted more than anything an electric football game. The game where you spend 5 minutes lining up your players for 30 seconds of "action". It is not unlike the real game that way, except time is stretched out considerably more in the small version.

As the present passing comes to an end, I have a stack of 5 presents in front of me, one of which is obviously socks. While I sense there are some "toys" in the stack, there is nothing the size or shape of my football game which is about the size of the hood of a small car.

I try not to look dejected as I start opening the stack. The excitement around me is electric, but I'll have none of it. It could be a good Christmas, but it really won't be a great Christmas, that's for sure.

Oh, look, black socks.

I tear through the rest of the gifts, most of which would have made any other child ecstatic and while they're good, and I like them all, they all fall short.

I begin to feel bad for feeling bad. What a selfish boy. There's kids in China...

Then, when all the presents are opened, my brother Tom pulls a large wrapped box from the dining room.

A box as big as the hood of a small car.

What was your favorite Christmas present ever?

Blogging off...

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Eyes To See

My wife and I went to church this morning at Transformation City Church. As I mentioned we've been going there, checking it out and seeing if it's where we should be. It's a church in the heart of Milwaukee and their message and mission seem to mesh pretty well where we are as a family. I'll admit the first couple times I went, I was skeptical and somewhat resistant. It's a bit of a drive, and it's not really "my neighborhood" or "local" as they say. At the same time, their focus on the central city, the homeless, the poor and hurting is right where we're at. I approached today differently thinking let's just see where God can use me in this church and see what happens.

The message this morning was convicting and real. It spoke about how as a culture we've built a "system" of education to job to wealth accumulation to retirement to passing on an inheritance for our kids to perpetuate this system. The point wasn't that the system is wrong, but rather that it was not Jesus' system, but rather ours. It went on to say that we need to reach out to the hurting and oppressed so that they can get out of the broken system they're in.

Afterwards we were asked to help clear chairs for the church's Christmas potluck. As I cleared them I was still kind of reeling from the message. When I was done, I started to make my way to the door and noticed my friend Steve was talking to a guy who I assumed he knew, so I joined him. As I stepped into the conversation he said he was in a tough spot right now.

We both listened as this guy who I'll call Clarence (not his real name) poured out his story to us. He told us how he'd just been released from prison 3 weeks ago and that his was his first time coming to church. With a little pride, he showed us a state ID that he'd just received because the church helped him pay for and acquire it. He said he was fortunate to have found a job recently, but just a couple of weeks ago he was going door-to-door to see if people would pay him to shovel their walk. Eventually someone called the cops because they thought he was a scammer. He felt insulted and shamed.

Shamed for trying to earn a living.

Clarence then went on to tell us of his terribly abusive childhood and the horrendous, unspeakable things that happened to him at the hand of his mother and father who were into alcohol and drugs. He spoke of running away and how he lived on the streets for years, sometimes stealing bundles of papers and trying to sell them illegally to earn money.

He went on to say how he'd spent the last 12 years in prison and when he was released one of the jailers said he and people like him were their "bread and butter" and that he'd be back in someday to insure that. Clarence has vowed to never let that happen. He wants to do better. He even said he'd like to get to a place where he can help others that are either in a situation like his, or better yet, to avoid getting into one like he was.

This man said he never had a Christmas tree, and that he was going to ask the guy across the street with a tree lot if he could have one.

Never had a Christmas tree. 56 years old. Broken. Healing. Reaching out.

While he had a job, he said that he was worried about getting a bus pass so he could get around. They cost $17.50 and he needed 5 of them. About this time, my friend Steve pulled out a $20 and gave it to him. I have a "private stash" of money I keep in my wallet that, when it reaches a certain point, I put it into my personal account. I use it for stuff I want or, occasionally, gifts for others. I immediately reached for it and gave Clarence $40. If I'd had $60, I may have given that to him.

I tell this story not to elevate myself, to brag or instill guilt. I tell it because it sure seems like God put this guy in Steve's and my life - at this moment - to test and see if we were listening to what we'd just heard. It was so real and so raw. My only wish is that I wish some of you could have been there with me. This guy was living proof of a hurting, healing world out there.

Sometimes these hurting people come into our midst directly, like Clarence did today, but more often, we have to seek them out, go to them. That's what experiences like our Guest House endeavors have taught me. You don't have to go far to help, but for God's sake, please help somewhere.

I told my wife I think I just gave her stocking stuffers to a recovering felon in the name of Jesus, and oddly enough she was ecstatic. It brought tears to her eyes much like Clarence's story brought to mine.

Blogging off...

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Egg Nog And Birthday Blog

Today was my birthday, or as a friend of mine calls it my "Begin Day". They seem to come and go so quickly lately. For me, my December birthday is always a nice momentary diversion from the rush, hustle, cold and snow of the holiday season. Because my wife's is on December 7th, we typically just go out to dinner at our favorite restaurant, La Merenda. We rarely exchange birthday gifts, as its such a taxing financial time of year anyway. We agreed that except on the major birthdays (the 10's) we'll just consider our night out as our gift to each other. It has become one of my favorite meals of the year.

While all birthdays are good, when I think back to some of the more memorable ones there were some really good ones.

  • 11th (Golden Birthday) I got special treatment this day and got to go across the border to a tavern with my Mom and my Stepdad (to be) in Hudson, WI to watch the Viking-Packer game. Back then, home games that weren't sold out in advance were blacked out in the Twin Cities. It was great being treated even though the game was on a fairly fuzzy screen and the Vikes got whacked 23-7. Looking back, it was as cold then as it is this year, unfortunately. Since then, I've switched allegiances, but still pull for each of them when they're not playing each other. 

  • 30th -- We went back to the Twin Cities for this birthday. Mom fronted a surprise party by saying that she wanted to take me out for my 30th birthday. While we were out for dinner, friends and relatives filled Mom's house much to my surprise. I had suspicions throughout the day that day, because the phone seemed to be ringing excessively and mom was kind of sneaking around. It was still a great surprise though. Turning 30 for me was much harder than 20 or 40. I'm not sure why, but I think it's the realization that you're not "young" anymore -even though you are. If thirty is old, I don't want to think what 50 is. Ha!

  • 40th -- This was a much less celebrated birthday, but the cool thing about it was my wife solicited people to write me a card, or letter, or send me pictures of me. It was great fun seeing what people remembered about me, some of it good, some of it crazy. It was a great reminder that you don't have to have a big party to realize how blessed you are with so many friends and family.

  • 50th -- Donna was given strict instructions that there was to be no surprise party. In fact, I told her I preferred to have a really small gathering, which we did. It was great being with my immediate family and a few close good friends. The gifts were funny and Donna surprised me with a fishing Kayak. Best gift ever.

One birthday tradition that has been carried through from when I was a kid was my cake of choice is still an angel food cake with chocolate frosting. My wife delivered again this year and it was as good as ever. 

I think 52 is going to be a good year.

Blogging off...

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Thursday Jump Starts

Most of my weekday mornings are pretty typical, full of routine and fairly predictable. The exception to this are my Thursdays. On Thursdays I meet at a local coffee shop for an hour with a few friends for a sort of theologic discussion/book study/random thought session. It has become my favorite day of the week.

We always have a book we're working through, usually an edgy Christian book of one sort or another. We've studied a book by Newbigin that is out of print, then a book by Peter Rollins called Insurrection and are now working through Letters from a Skeptic by Gregory and Edward Boyd. We are taking on the "hard books" that challenge modern Christianity and challenge us to look at our faith and even our perceptions of what a Christian life is supposed to look like.

This group is kind of the antithesis of a group I was part of about 7 or 8 years ago. That group began with good intentions, namely challenging us to be men of faith and conviction. After a few years together however, it became a bit of a political hot-mess. It seemed that there was an understanding that somewhere in the bylaws of the Christian faith, you had to become a card carrying Republican.

I never got the memo on that.

I was a lone-wolf independent with Democratic leanings and because it was an election year, the Obama slamming was in full swing in this group. While I wasn't a big fan of his, I didn't think a "Bible Study" (because that's what we were at the time) was the place or platform for political discourse. I voiced my displeasure a couple of times when it came up and finally left the group because I didn't like what we had become. The group was Us vs. Them, Insiders vs. Outsiders.

So the new group is not that. We're quite the opposite. We realize that Church and State are separate for a reason. We realize both political parties have problems, and neither one is especially good at trying to regulate morality. We laugh at the people who think that Christian=Republican. Right now we're going through a study that is taking a close look at the Bible and challenging us to look at it more critically and realistically than maybe I've ever done in the past. I come away from these one hour gatherings energized and with my mind reeling.

I remember when one of the guys asked me to be part of the group one summer day. I told him I'd had kind of a bad experience in my previous group and left it at that. When I saw another guy from the group a couple of weeks later and he invited me, I took it as a sign that I should join them and see what the group is all about.

I'm glad I did.

Blogging off...

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Beneath The Surface

We returned from St. Paul on Sunday after spending another Thanksgiving holiday in Minnesota with my family. It was an extraordinarily good 4 days. The holidays are always a bit stressful going in, but I've found that once they're upon me, I have no problem putting all of my effort into enjoying the time I have with family and friends. This past weekend was a good chance for catching up and getting under the surface of how my family members are really doing. Because of the extended time we spent together, we have a chance to talk about more than the weather, the Vikings and the Packers - (and, this year, I really thank God for that.)

We stayed with my sister in-law at her spacious new apartment in New Brighton. Our kids hung with her kids and her place was very conducive to relaxing and serious down time. I cherish time with her because of all of our shared past memories, but also out of love for her and her girls. She has the formidable task of raising two teenage girls and through talking to her over this break it's clear she's working on doing the best she can. She's focused on being there for them and moving forward after the loss of her husband, my brother. I am amazed by how healthy she looks, of her positive outlook, and am grateful our family has their family to support, love and encourage.

Thanksgiving dinner was at my sister in-laws parents' house. My favorite part of family get-togethers is floating from conversation to conversation. When you tire from one, you excuse yourself and go to another. I covered everything from dinner conversation about a book on Writing Diction, to discussing how the annual thanksgiving football game was really the Dallas Corporation versus the Oakland Corporation, to pictures of harvested deer and bear and a couple dozen other subjects in-between. It is like watching a combination of the evening news, Ripley's Believe It Or Not, Big Brother, America's Got Talent and a dash of Jerry Springer all rolled into one.

Because my son has only one male cousin in the area, I managed to see my oldest brother for a good spell on Friday. We took the boys out for some archery practice in the back yard and I managed to definitively kill his fence with three arrows, completely missing the target. It was a blatant reminder as to why I don't hunt. I shoot like a cross-eyed pirate. We had some good laughs, but after the third one I think my archery ineptitude was wearing on Tom, so we quit.

He and I also had time to stop for a beer at the HammerHeart Taproom in Lino Lakes. It was a strange experience in some ways, mostly due to the foreboding music. (Picture Nordic-Goth-Rock). The beer was outstanding, but I told Tom that if I stayed and listened to the music for more than 20 minutes I'd likely shoot myself. He countered with if "If you stayed for two hours, you'd want to shoot everyone." That is what I like most about being around him, his sense of humor is wicked-funny. I'm always glad when I take some time to visit with him and his wife and kids.

Saturday brought the bridal shower for my niece. I dropped the ladies off in Inver Grove Heights and from what I heard later, the event was a great success. I am so fortunate to have such a tight family - including the spouses of us boys, labeled the "outlaws". My wife, Mom, Sisters in-law and nieces made such an effort to make Stephanie's day special that it warmed my heart.

After the shower, we all met up at a local tavern in St. Paul, the Spot Bar, touted as the first bar in Minnesota. It's a tradition of the brothers to go there on the day after Thanksgiving to watch the high school championship - often times it's my alma mater Cretin Derham Hall - but this year they bowed out early. When the ladies heard about it they wanted to join us. I got to sit and have pizza and talk with my brother and nephew for a couple of hours. You can't put a price on that kind of face time - especially given the distance we are from my family.

When he arrived, my nephew/godson surprised me with a Reggie White authentic NFL Packers jersey, "just because". It wasn't really a birthday present, he just wanted to thank me for all I've done for him over the years. I was touched.

Later that night I had great conversations with my sister and nephew. It was clear that there was a deep appreciation and respect for me, one only matched by my respect for them. Feelings came to the surface that don't usually in the short-time family gatherings. I felt loved by all the family and friends there and it was clear the feelings were mutual. I wish every weekend gave us the appreciation for one another that a holiday brings out.

The weekend was finished out with breakfast with Mom. We stopped on Sunday for breakfast, conversation and a bit of computer repair. Again, quality one-on-one time that I'm glad we took the time to do. She appreciated the computer help, but I saw it more as a chance to catch up on life. Because that's what the holidays are made for.

Blogging off...