Catcher in the Sky

It is late Friday, just after 10 p.m., and I turn off the news and walk toward the bright red bullseye on the front of the plain brick building. The news reverberates in my mind as I walk through the glass doors, a rush of cold air greeting me, a sterilizing splash that neutralizes the world still spinning out there.

Virginia Beach, 11 dead, 6 injured, suspect dead.

My daughter reminds me why we are here, in Target, and we march along the silent aisles, just like I did on that clear night nearly 18 years ago.

Planes into buildings, thousands dead, suspects sought.

I feel embarrassed, out of place, a fool for going about my business picking up cream for tomorrow’s morning coffee while families are being notified that their loved ones are dead; their lives will never be the same.

And yet, here I am, seeking normal, craving sterilizing silence, desperate for a task to keep me busy, occupied, distracted from what awaits outside those smooth sliding doors that seem so protective, comforting.

Isolating.

I continue about my shopping while the weeping of mayors seeps through my veins.

Cream. We have come here for cream.

I stand in some random aisle and listen to the swelling silence around me. There’s a hint of a page over stereophonic walkies. It only adds to the dystopian nature of my time here in the wake of tragedies that cry out for anything but the normal response.

Thoughts and prayers, more gun control, we demand action.

I remember a shot-less victim’s voice on the news telling me through tears that all she thought about was getting home to her 11-month-old baby.

The lives of many change in the hours after such a tragedy.

And yet,

yet

We say our prayers. We take to the streets. We demand change while the next suspect is loading up another cartridge and sets his sights on the ones who have made him feel this way.

I walk up to the cashier and a man half my age with the name tag “MR. BILL” helps me navigate the transaction. I am more flustered than I had originally believed. But of course, I’m also looking out for pickpockets, thieves, and gun-slinging disgruntles that make me want to know what the afterlife is really all about, if it is about anything at all. 

I think about other-worlds up there with the victims all together, gathered for some purpose or energy that they hope we can hear. They are the wise ones, after all. The whispers of first graders gunned down, of college kids and grandmothers, of high school seniors, all part of a club clamoring for some kind of voice, some way to break through the stratospheres of chaos and rain some wisdom upon us.

My daughter tells me it’s time to head home, and she leads the way through the double doors that slide open. The air out there is heavy, and yet

yet

I step through and slug through the night, heavy boots heading home to busy routines that mute the madness out here.

The next day I stay off the news, walk to the beach, and fill my head with jazz blues and the sounds of Miles Davis. I allow the notes to resonate, marinate within, a certain swirl of temporary healing until the next tragedy that breaks through my feeds, trumpeting fear, madness, and that same heavy weight of helplessness, searching for that bullseye target of sterility to get me through.

In my Miles Davis-infused meditation, I slip into a dream of weightlessness, and I become the Catcher in the Sky, building an out-of-sight high rise to reach the victims. Help them. Apologize for our ineptness at fixing this fixation with guns and violence and death. If I can’t save them here on this gravity-soaked America, I might as well grab my hammer and nails and climb high, leave behind the memories of senseless deaths and join them at their common-place space, an exclusive club they never wanted to join.

How do we stop it, I ask, hammer still in hand. How do we mend fences and rest weapons in weightless bins, send them beyond this common-place space? How do we dissolve the membrane between us and allow zero-gravity wisdom to rain upon us, teach us, save us?

They smile resolutely with unwanted experiences, but offer no words. Instead, I feel their wish in the aether around me. I absorb their wisdom and close my eyes, desperately holding on to the wistful permeations all around – and in – me.

I understand, I nod, as I feel myself being pulled down, hammer first, through the membrane that separates us, down and down and down, past the thin pieces of pine at the top of my high rise, past the three floors already built, and on to the sandy ground.

Terra firma.

The waves encourage me, and I turn back to my house and emerge with new wood and tools. My daughter joins me.

Maybe this will make a difference, she whispers.

I pull a thick black marker from my pocket and pick up a fresh piece of pine, two inches by ten inches by twenty-four inches. With quick precision, I pen the letters as big and as bold as I can. When finished, I pull six four-inch nails from my other pocket. She holds the handmade sign centered atop the front door, and I pound the six nails into the wood – bullseye strikes on each nail – securing the sign to the frame.

I step back, envision the Miles-high high rise climbing in the sky, the open pine planks, so skeletonesque, transparent. Welcoming. My eyes fall floor by imaginary floor: three, two, one, and settle on the black letters etched across the just-nailed plank.

I smile, resolutely, and raise my hammer to the letters as my daughter raises her hand, effortlessly as in zero gravity. We tap the pine as we walk through the gateway, and the passers-by stop, read the sign, and approach.

There is hope, they think.

There is hope.

To Exhale Experience: An Offering To The World

To me, every hour of the day and night is an unspeakably perfect miracle.
~Walt Whitman

How often we forget that we are gifted the perfection of finite hours within our lifetime, neatly packaged moments filled with experience. They arrive to us as much as we go to them, a mingling of synthesizing interactions that define our lives.

What we decide to do with them is inevitably our choice.

I spend excessive amounts of time in my car, which is limping along these days while the busier world passes me by. But in the slower commute to here and there, I am gifted the chance to observe not only the behaviors of others, but my own reactions to them.

When I am too much with this world, my reactions are swift, emotional, and often filled with raw anger and frustration. I allow myself to be a participant to the bustling ways of my fellow commuters. In remaining “there,” though, I expend an extraordinary wasteful amount of energy. And if, by chance, they receive my reactions, it only escalates into an exhaustive battle about, well, nothing.

I avoid these clashes with listening to a new soundtrack I created called “VW Core.” It comprises the top 137 songs that define my life, a gentle balance that includes everything from solo piano pieces to a few jams from the Grateful Dead.

To put it simply, it brings me back to the experiences that have defined my life, that rise above petty rants with passers-by.

So, as summer approaches, I am reminded of the unspeakably perfect miracles held within each hour of our days. I will be on Chesapeake Bay, or taking walks in the woods with my children, or exploring the trails that cling to the shores of our nearby watershed. And, in absorbing these moments from these miraculous hours, I will then share them here and with others, exhaling the experiences that define my life.

I invite you to do the same in the coming months. See the beauty in the hours gifted to us, and share what you find with others. It is the very least we can do to offer the world such wondrous miracles experienced.

It’s Time To Rename This Thing Called Blogging

I’m not much into branding, or rebranding, as this case may be, but I think it’s time that I abandon the generic term of “blogging” and get a little more specific about what I am actually doing here on the internet.

It doesn’t take a lot of research to realize that everybody has some kind of web presence now, and most people are on multiple social media platforms. In addition to a blog, they have Facebook profiles (yes, plural) and Instagram accounts (including the fake ones, or “finstas”); they also have accounts with Twitter, Pinterest, Snapchat, Tumblr, and other places that allow various forms of self-expression.

It’s all a little too much, if you ask me.

I’ve deleted most of the apps from my phone and have abandoned the majority of my sites in the last few months. So much of my time was being consumed by emotional responses to original posts or comments that had been left. Each “session” of checking my feeds left me exhausted.

So when I visited my blog this morning to see how much my writing has changed in the last few years, I felt ashamed, and even a little disgusted, that I had somehow strayed from being so open, so raw in my writing, with no particular audience in mind. I got swept up in branding, gaining some kind of following, and culling the best and finest words for posts that I had hoped would go “viral.”

What a horrible term to use for something we yearn for.

That’s why I want to change the name of what I am doing here, and I think it’s important for me to shout that out to the world, explain what I’m doing, and why.

I thought about naming this as my online journal, but it carries a weight with it that is just a notch or two above the horrible connotations associated with the term, “diary.” I’m 54 years old. I don’t need to put that wonder in the minds of readers that I’m chronicling what I had for lunch on any given day (don’t think for a moment that the irony is lost on me here; some food diarists are making six figures or more for writing about food).

I decided to do a quick search on Thesaurus.com for synonyms for journal. Here’s what they listed:

I was immediately happy to see that “blog” is not even listed. When I did a search for “Blog,” a much shorter list popped up:

I’m not trying to be difficult about this, but none of these synonyms really work for what I will be doing here. I’m seeing this space more as my “Leaves of Grass” that Walt Whitman first published in 1855 and then refined up to nine times in the last 37 years of his life. What I want to do here seems fairly aligned with Whitman’s attempt to capture his authentic philosophy of life and humanity as it evolved in his later years.

I want this space to be my “song of myself” from this point onward until I can write no more.

I don’t want to worry about offending or pleasing; what I will spill here is my song. What you do with it is really up to you.

So that’s what I think I will call it, at least for now. This is not a blog, or a journal. This is My Song, celebrating life and humanity as I see it.

The goal is to publish more frequently, more authentically, with content that is important to me, but accessible by you. Over the next few months, I’ll begin to re-design this site to reflect it as more of a songbook. I’m excited to see where this might go.

When Fire Reigns: Season 1, Episode 1 Published

On January 1, I set out to develop and publish an 11-episode podcast called, “When Fire Reigns.” It’s about the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 and the mayor who died just three months later, reportedly by his own doing. Today, I published the first episode, just one day before the 115-year anniversary of the great conflagration.

You can listen to it on Podomatic HERE. Or, you can check it out now on Spotify or (fingers crossed) on Apple’s Podcasts very soon.

It wasn’t easy to do this. Venturing into the world of podcasting is all very new to me, and I wanted to just throw in the towel more than a few times. I pushed on, though, thanks to my daughter’s pep talk and the support of my around-the-world friends.

Here’s what made it so challenging.

I’ve got all of the equipment (Blue Yeti mic, laptop), but I just don’t have the sound-proof space to do the actual recording. I ended up turning my car into a makeshift studio. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but it got the job done.

When I started editing, I wasn’t terribly happy with the quality of sound, but I decided to go forward with it anyway. I know I need to solve this little dilemma before I record next week’s episode. I’m committed to doing it, so I will find a place to record.

The other challenge was that I know how I want it to sound, much like a beginning guitarist knows how she wants a particular riff to sound, but just can’t seem to get there yet. That’s me. I could spend a full year trying to get each note just exactly perfect. But then I hold back a year’s worth of content that I could have shared with my community. What’s the sense in that? Get it out there, learn, and do it better the next time.

Anyway, enjoy. I plan on publishing an episode every week or two. I want to establish a routine and try to build up a little following. We’ll see. Right now, I’m just having a blast doing this.

So: Thanks for listening, if you get the chance. I do appreciate it.

It Comes Down To…. You

I’ve been reading a lot of Annie Dillard’s writing lately, and I stumbled upon a collection of essays she wrote about the writing life. It’s really unlike anything about writing that I’ve ever read. Dillard’s argument, to put it plainly, is that nobody really gives a darn about what you write. And if they do, it’s certainly nowhere near what you, as the writer, care about the work.

That’s some pretty dark, awakening news for us romantic hopefuls that our work is going to really make a difference. But she’s right; people who sell shoes have a far more important role in the lives of people who need to get from point A to point B, especially if they are walking the route.

In one paragraph, Dillon writes:

Putting a book together is interesting and exhilarating. It is sufficiently difficult and complex that it engages all your intelligence. It is life at its most free. Your freedom as a writer is not freedom of expression in the sense of wild blurting; you may not let rip. It is life at its most free, if you are fortunate enough to be able to try it, because you select your materials, invent your task, and pace yourself.

I could not agree more with Dillon’s sentiment. In writing Fossil Five, I have experienced that exhilaration and freedom.

But! In the very next paragraph, Dillon takes a needle the size of the Seattle landmark and obliterates whatever air we had left in our little ego:

The obverse of this freedom, of course, is that your work is so meaningless, so fully for yourself alone, and so worthless to the world, that no one except you cares whether you do it well, or ever.

!

I’d like to think she is a little wrong here, but I don’t think she is. When Fossil Five releases, the people who have invested in the story will enjoy the swirl around it, and those close to them will like the peripheral swirl that touches them like the outer bands of a tired hurricane. If I am lucky, the story will resonate on some level, however briefly, and will bring some oxygen to the dying flame of old love. But I’m no fool. As much as I want the world to embrace this book and the message it sends, its blip on the radar will be brief, and I will already be immersed in that next exhilarating project in a world of freedom and wonderment.

Why? Because that is what I do. It’s really all I can do: share with the world a small snapshot of what I believe to be right, to be just, to be necessary in a world that is transforming to the antithetical, transverse image of everything I grew up to believe just a few decades ago.

And make no mistake: I know I am in the minority here, and I know some old fool was probably writing some mindless book back in the 80s, as desperately as I have written mine, to save the world from wild teens like myself.

What it really comes down to, in the end, is you. I write to feel attached to a world I am trying feverishly to hold on to and share with the younger generations. I cannot stop it. Even if, in the end, my handful of readers pat me on the back and buy me a beer, asking me about what’s next instead of what is, I know I did it because I had to.

So do you because you have to. Even if no one really notices, or cares, or celebrates. Do you. Because in the end, it really does…. come down to you.

Building a Podcast: The Baltimore Fire of 1904

Now that Fossil Five is in the hands of my editors, I have decided to devote the month of January to building a podcast series on the Baltimore Fire of 1904. It was my thesis project in grad school, and after listening to a bunch of podcasts this past week, I think it is the perfect story to tell over 6-8 episodes.

The only challenge is that I’ve never done a podcast before. I had to dive in and decide what I wanted to do, and how to share it with the world.

The Plan

The first step, for me, was to figure out how many words each episode should be. I did a timed reading from the manuscript, and I read about 700 words every 5 minutes. I want my podcasts to be between 20 and 30 minutes each, so I subtract about 5 minutes for front and end chatter (ncluding intro and outro music), and I am left with anywhere between 2100 and 2800 words per episode.

A little more simple math: My script is already over 30,000 words. so 6-8 episodes is not going to cut it. I’m going to need about 10-12 episodes, even with a good edit of my script.

The Structure

Now that I know I’m going to be working with about a dozen episodes, I divide my manuscript into rough episodes. I look for the cliffhangers, the teasers, the time shifts — all the things essential to a complete episode. I decide that I’m going to have to trim it back an episode or two, and I see plenty of places where I can edit out some superfluous material. Not a big deal. I can add it in later if I need to.

The Music

One of the coolest discoveries I made last year while teaching speech was copyright-free music. I went to my favorite site, Epidemic Sound, and searched through their huge database to find the exact track I was looking for. You need to establish a free account, but it is simple and fast to download the audio track to use for your intro, interlude, and outro segments. And, because it is copyright-free, you have no worries at all about having your podcasts blocked for copyright infringement.

The Web Host

I did a quick search through the various podcast hosting sites, and I fell in love with Podomatic. They have several kinds of accounts (including a free one, which I opted for in the early stages of podcasting). Upgrading to their pro account seems seamless and simple, and you have the option to pay monthly or annually. These are the kinds of options I’m looking for as a novice. Your podcast gets pushed to all of the most popular sites, and you don’t have to spend a penny to get it up and running.

The Podcast

I am building my podcast episodes on GarageBand, another free software program with Apple. It’s intuitive, easy to use, and exports your file to an MP3 format. I’ve used GarageBand for other projects, and it’s never let me down. I use a Blue Yeti microphone to record the audio in any low-sound area I can find (no air conditioners or heating units, no refrigerators, no external announcements or interruptions). I break up the episode into 3-5-minute chunks and record each sub-segment, knowing that I will be placing short clips of interlude music between them. And, because I am not trying to record the whole episode in one block, I usually need just one or two recordings for each sub-segment. For a 30-minute episode, I’m usually done in under 90 minutes.

The Edits

Good audio recorded in one setting means clean editing. It’s really more of a splicing of music, introductions, and segues with the main story. It takes another 90 minutes to 2 hours to edit, and then I export the file and upload to the podcast server.

I plan on launching my first episode by January 15, and then release new episodes every week (this includes through the anniversary of the Great Fire in Baltimore that started on February 7, 1904).

Stay tuned! I’ll be announcing its launch soon.

In the meantime, don’t be intimidated by the how’s of podcasting. Just jump in and start recording. It’s the only way to push through the full process and create a publishable product!


The Evening Report: 13 December 2018

The Report

Earlier today, our school held its annual Poetry Out Loud Competition, where 11 students shared their personal recitations of two previously published poems. The rules regarding which poems you can use are simple: one poem must be 25 or fewer lines; the other must be written before the 20th century. The Poetry Out Loud website does a nice job of offering poems in each category.

All 11 students did a magnificent job of bringing their poems to life; some even brought me to tears as they captured the precise emotion in each line to evoke in us — the members of their audience — a strong memory and reaction, transcending us from a simple school auditorium to a rambling brook, an old house, a forgotten pasture.

As I sat there and listened to each student, I had to remind myself that they were merely 16 or so years old. They knew little, if anything at all, of the authors and their works; they knew even less about what it means to be an old woman looking back at the missed chances in her life.

And yet, they were able to tap into some aspect of the timeless poems to breathe new life in them, words that had been penned 50, 100, even 200 or more years ago. How was this possible? These students spend their hours studying, scrolling through newsfeeds, binge-watching their favorite shows, working overtime, and somehow finding the time to get caught up on the drama of high school.

How could students who spend so much of their time receiving endless streams of data at all hours of the day bring to life Wordsworth, Shelley, Dickinson, and others?

The Point

Simply put, these authors made a decision to capture the essence of humanity — of  a life however lived — in words, where metaphors, rhymes, and allegories swirl in a timeless tapestry, giving us the chance to know firsthand, as if the moment were happening right before us, what he or she experienced.

This is why we write. This is why we “love words, agonize over sentences, and pay attention to the world,” according to Susan Sontag. It is our attempt to make the fleeting moment timeless, so that others long after us can still smell the lingering smoke from last night’s fire, the paralyzing fear of opening a bedroom door, the hovering delight of the seconds following a first kiss. It is our timeless connection to the past, present, and future through words that capture the threads of that tapestry, woven timelessly as one.

Share your ideas, your thoughts, your words with the world. Let us know today that you have lived; allow others tomorrow to breathe new life in your words, as our 11 students did so eloquently today.

The Deeper Stories

GRETCHIE’S GIFTS:

Our gift drive for the children in Sinai Hospital is coming to a close, and we are in desperate need of some last-minute shoppers who want to make a real difference in these children’s lives.

If you are interested in donating a gift to the children who will be spending the holidays (and beyond) in the hospital, check out our 3rd Annual Gift Drive for the Sinai Hospital PICU. If you would prefer to make a donation, we will be shopping next week for the children and purchasing as much of the items as possible that are still on the list. You can PayPal your donation directly to us at Rusvw13@icloud.com.

As a small token of appreciation, I am making my anthology, Faith, Hope, and Legacy: A Christmas Collection, which features “Gretchie’s Gifts,” free to all who wish to download it. 
If you are interested in the story behind our gift drive and “Gretchie’s Gifts,” you can read it here.

The Future Story

FOSSIL FIVE and THE JAR COLLECTIVE:

My latest novel, Fossil Five, will be released internationally on June 21, 2019, under The Jar Collective, a collaborative publishing house for the creative works of Jodi Cleghorn, Adam Byatt, and myself. Look for more information in January 2019 about the Collective and Fossil Five‘s release. 
For now, you can follow the progress of publishing Fossil Five on these social media platforms, which will also be providing frequent updates on the upcoming book’s release:
Facebook: facebook.com/fossilfive
Twitter: @fossil_five
Instagram: instagram.com/fossilfivethebook
Web: fossilfivethebook.wordpress.com


The Evening Report with Rus VanWestervelt is a daily reflection that will be posted here at The Baltimore Writer between 8 and 11 p.m. each night. I encourage you to subscribe to my blog and be one of the first to read The Evening Report.