Because Dreaming and Doing Go Hand in Hand: Meet the Guys Who Want to Help You “Live Your List”

Live Your List

How many of you have a “bucket list”?  You know, that tally of life goals you’d love to achieve before you kick the bucket, as the popular saying goes.  Does it occasionally seem like  a mere catalog of wishful thinking, or have you set your list in motion but need a little help to finish it?

In this month’s installment of “Tell Me About It,” I asked authors, bloggers and speakers Jerrod Murr and Ryan Eller – two men who are the best kind of dreamers and doers, i.e., GIVERS – to talk about a cool project they call “Live Your List” – and why they’ve set out to help people just like you.

* * * * *

LW:  Jerrod, your website describes you as “not your average, shoot for the stars dreamer…Murr is a dreamer of dreamers.” Okay, that caught my attention…just what does that mean?

JM:  I find it difficult to describe yourself, so Ryan wrote this sentence for me. This is his description in his own words:

“When Jerrod and I were in college, one of our classmates described Jerrod as a dreamer of dreams, and it always stuck with me.  I try to surround myself with dreamers, and most people limit themselves to the preconceived notions of those around them.  Jerrod has no limitations on his dreams.  If he told me he was going to be the next person on the moon, I would believe him.” 

Jerrod Murr

Jerrod Murr

LW:  Ryan, on your website, Jerrod says: “Ryan gives hope to the dreamers and challenges leaders to step up and live a life of intention.”  Have you always felt it was your mission to lead and encourage others?

RE:  I come from a family of leaders.  I didn’t come from a wealthy family, a prestigious family, or even a well-educated family, but I came from a family of strong leaders.  Hard workers who have spent decades investing in other people without seeking fame or fortune.  I have been fortunate to be in an “iron-sharpens-iron” world from my youth.

LW:  Jerrod, you started your public speaking career at 14.  What were you talking about at that age?

JM:  At 14, I gave a speech to a huge crowd in Wainwright, OK, town of 300 people.  I was the Valedictorian of my 8th grade class.  I had three major points: 1. Thank you, Mom.  2. I believe in God.  3. Thank you, Mom.

LW:  Now I’ll be honest – I hadn’t heard of you gentlemen before coming across a mention of your bucket list project in a Facebook group – but I was immediately intrigued by this crazy thing you’re spearheading called “Live Your List.”  How did it start?

JM & RE:  “Live Your List” is the mantra we have adopted for our lives, business, and presentations. It’s a short way to describe living a life of intention.  We believe everyone should be proactive in how we live, dream big, set goals, play, love people, do more than you feel capable.  We, as a race, are incredibly strong and tend to underestimate ourselves.  Most of us just need a little encouragement.  The LiveYourList project is our way of practicing what we preach.  We are all about bucket lists and use that as a key concept in our life strategy.  With that in mind, the project helps people check off “buckets” and reach their dreams! 

Ryan Eller

Ryan Eller

LW:  And speaking of bucket lists…that term is familiar to almost everyone now, thanks primarily to the eponymous 2007 movie starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman – but do you think we’re more a nation of dreamers rather than doers these days?

JM & RE:  It completely depends on how you define dreaming.  We discussed this on a recent Live Your List podcast.  We are a nation of many daydreamers, wishers perhaps.  People who simply wish things were better or different.  The lottery winner mentality of dreaming.  But dreaming and doing go hand-in-hand.  Dreaming, for us, is more akin to vision.  You must have a vision for your life, then pursue that vision with reckless abandon.

LW:  Millions of people in this country, millions of dreams…how do you choose whom to help?

JM & RE:  Great question.  First, we can only help dreams we hear.  So go to LiveYourList.org to share your story or nominate a story.  We have a team that helps us decide which dreams to pursue.  From there, it’s a matter of resources.  We are putting up personal funds, as well as teaming up with incredible people who have offered talents and resources for the projects.  For instance, we have pilots who have volunteered to take people in the air, cosmologists who do makeovers, and farmers who let people milk cows.

LW:  Obviously the concept of giving is enormously important to you.  You are also both men of faith.  How does that drive what you do?

JM:  I wrote a book a few years ago called 30 Days to Give.  Shameless plug, would much appreciate you checking it out on Kindle or Nook.  Proceeds help the #LiveYourList project.  This book is an in-depth answer. The short answer is that our faith affects us deeply.  We believe we are called to be givers.  Case closed.  So give.  And we try our best.

LW: Where do you see the Live Your List project heading in the future?

JM & RE:  Definitely Antarctica, because we want to go there!  But truly,  the response has been incredible, and we are very grateful.  In only two months we were completing an overseas trip for someone, setting someone up to barrel race in a rodeo, sending an amazing teen to a professional basketball game, and more (secrets yet to be revealed).  We have literally hundreds of applicants and supporters, so even the sky is not the limit!  Actually, space.  Our answer is space.  That’s where LiveYourList is heading in the future!

* * * * *

Hmmm…sounds like Jerrod just may be the next person on the moon, as Ryan hinted.  How about you?  What kind of dreams and goals have you put on your bucket list?  What have you done to achieve them so far?  What would it take to bring them to fruition?  Would you be willing to help someone else cross an item off their list?  I’d love to hear from you.

To learn more about Jerrod and Ryan and the great work they’re doing (hint: it’s not just about bucket lists), visit them at http://ryaneller.com/ and http://jerrodmurr.com/ or follow them on Twitter at @Ryan_Eller and @jerrodmurr.  Thanks for your time, guys!

Next week is Book Review Monday…and I’ll be sharing my thoughts on the latest offering from a man I consider a national treasure, John Robbins, author of the bestseller Diet for a New America – and what he has to say about “The New Good Life” in a time of economic and environmental upheaval.  Hope to see you then!

 

 

“God Told Me I Was Supposed to Help Kids With Our Horses”

Equine therapy? I’d never heard of it when my attention was caught by a TV news broadcast last year on a group called Horses With a Mission. But I watched with great interest and thought, “What a cool idea. And that would make a great article. . . ” Months went by and while I never forgot that news feature, eventually deciding that HWAM would make a great entry in my monthly blog series, it took me a while to drive over for a personal visit to Bolaine Ranch and a chat with its founders, Bo and Elaine Barton, and a few of their volunteers. . .but I finally did last week. . .

* * * * *

“Well, we trail rode for years and years and had horses and everything, and one day we woke up and Elaine said, ‘God told me I was supposed to help kids with our horses. And I said, oh crap. And that’s where it all started.”

So Bo Barton, vice president of Horses With a Mission, explained the founding of the program in Groveland, Florida whose purpose is “To foster the physical, psychological and social well-being of individuals with special needs and disabilities through positive interactions with horses.” As their flyer continues, “The organization believes that persons suffering with psychological or behavioral issues will benefit by making personal contact with horses in an organized, supervised, safe manner.”

Founders Bo & Elaine Barton

Founders Bo & Elaine Barton

I was intrigued by the concept, and wanted to know more.

“How long has the ranch been in operation?” was one of my first questions, but I never expected Elaine Barton’s answer to reveal a sequence of events that left me marveling, “It sounds like it was just meant to be!”

“We’ve been here about two years,” Elaine told me while she waited for a student. “We started the process in 2010, but it took us almost a year just to get our non-profit set up. Then, in 2011, we actually started taking clients, but we weren’t here. The county wouldn’t let me be here because I didn’t have ten acres. So I went to another ranch maybe 20 minutes from here. That meant I had to load and carry my horse three days a week, drive him over there, take him out of the trailer, put him back in the  trailer. . .so after about the first season, we decided that wasn’t going to work. It was tough on the horses and us. At the beginning of 2011, we started the process of trying to get here. I went to the county when we first started the program and asked them if we could do it here and they said, ‘No, you don’t have ten acres and it would never pass,’ so I just had that mindset of, okay, it’s not going to happen, and then one day our pastor was speaking in church about how if you don’t step out in faith, it’s never going to get done. I felt like he was talking straight to me.”

From what came next, I had to agree.

“So I went back to the county and said, ‘You know what? I want to put the application in anyway. I’m just going to go for it.’ And they said, ‘Well, the staff’s not going to recommend you, so it’s probably not going to happen.’ I said, ‘I don’t care; I’m just going to do it anyway.’ It was $800 and non-refundable. I got on the docket to go to the County Commissioners meeting, and the staff did not recommend us—they stand up in front of the Board and they say, ‘We do not recommend this happening; she doesn’t have enough room, blah-blah-blah. . .’ Then I got to speak, and I got to tell them what we do and why we do it, show them some of the kids on the horses, pictures and that kind of stuff, and it went through unanimously.”

Score one for faith! But what was up with that ten-acre rule?

Elaine and a volunteer work with a student

Elaine and a volunteer work with a student

“In order to have any kind of riding program that’s commercialized, it has to be ten acres,” Elaine explained. “I don’t understand that because my horses have lived on five acres for 17 years.”

I didn’t get it either, but the story wasn’t over yet.

“The next step was that I had to get the conditional use permit,” she went on. “That was to be able to do what I wanted to do on the property. That took another probably four or five months and another, I think it was, $800 or $1200. Then it was the road issue.  We found out through this whole process that the road we drive on doesn’t really belong to us; it belongs to the guy across the street, so for the last 17 years we’ve been driving on a road that’s not even ours. I had to go to him and get him to sign a waiver saying that he would give us right-of-way. At first he didn’t want to because he was building a church and he didn’t want anything to hinder the process.”

Intervention came in the form of a little girl with impaired vision. . .or rather, her mother, who overheard a conversation Elaine was having in which she mentioned the possibility that the ranch might soon have to close.

“She said, ‘What?! She’s got to ride, this is the best thing she has all week!’ I said, ‘Well, this is the situation.’ She said, ‘My mother knows him very well; I’m going to call her as soon as I get home.'”

The call was made and the papers were signed in short order, Elaine took them to the county, and, “Supposedly now, we’re all legal.”

Which is a good thing indeed for the 60 students, both children and adult, who benefit from riding at the ranch.

* * *

“But how does it work?” was my main question about equine therapy. In answer, Elaine gave me this quote from Spirit Horse Therapeutic Center in Corinth, Texas, the program from which she and Bo received their training and certification. 

Volunteer Jessica with EZ

Volunteer Tammy with EZ

“We believe horses and ponies have an accessible spirit. . . They have an advantage over humans in that they don’t have ego to get in the way of their relationships. We also believe that children with disabilities have very accessible and beautiful spirits. . .this spiritual connection is what makes this intervention work.”

And on a physical level:

“The movement of the horse or pony stimulates the rider’s vestibular system (inner ear), which not only controls balance but all voluntary movement of the body,  including speech. . . (S)tudents who are under-stimulated become more active vocally and [in] body movement. Riders also learn vital skills [such as] following instructions, focusing, task-sequence participation and self-confidence.”

This last was echoed by a young couple, Joey and Zaida, whom I met at the ranch while their son was taking a lesson. He’s been coming to the ranch for about a year now and his parents had moved to the Orlando area “to get more answers” about his challenges.

“The real difference that I see is the interaction—he’s more confident,” Zaida said. “He has a lot of problems with speech.  The very first day that he took the therapy, the teacher said, ‘He’s different.'”  When Zaida told her about Bolaine Ranch, “the teacher said, ‘You know what? I saw a difference right away.’

“I was amazed and I was so happy. So happy. It’s so incredible that I drive an hour” [from her home, for lessons].

* * *

Ready for service!

Ready for service!

Horses With a Mission is a small outfit accomplishing some very big things for people with physical and mental challenges of all types, from Zaida’s son to a girl with the rare congenital condition Charge Syndrome. . .so afraid of all animals that she wouldn’t allow even a stuffed one near her, yet who now—at age two and a half—hardly seems happier than when she’s on the back of a horse.

“We have had so many obstacles, and every obstacle has been blessed and overcome,” Elaine told me. “And then, with the economy, it was hard to get people to donate, but when we need the money. . .I mean, we do not have funds. But when we need the funds, they seem to come through.” (The program charges $20 per session; most similar therapy sessions run much higher.)  “And that’s mostly just to help with the feed and the upkeep and such. Our goal is to become self-supporting to where we don’t have to charge.”

As I drove away, I hoped with them that such a day would come soon.

* * *

To find out more about Horses With a Mission and help them continue their good work, check out their website, email them at bolaine2@embarqmail.com, or stop by Bolaine Ranch at 13820 Gadson Street, Groveland, FL 34736. The ranch also operates a thrift shop, the proceeds from which go towards child scholarships and care for the horses.

Just tell ’em Lucie sent you.

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“It’s the Physical Universe Shimmering Before You”: Al Rocheleau on Poetry, Publishing, and a Few Things in Between, Part 2

In this month’s “Tell Me About It,” I enlisted friend, former writer’s group member, musician, author and poet extraordinaire Al Rocheleau to talk about the craft of poetry…and he didn’t disappoint.  This week in Part 2, we look at the cross-sensing aspects of synesthesia, relationship of music to poetry, the most important thing to consider before publishing, and, of course, Al’s groundbreaking course, “The Twelve Chairs.” 

Al’s poems have appeared in over 40 magazines in the United States, Canada, the U.K., France, Austria, and Poland.  His work has been read on WMFE, an affiliate of National Public Radio, and can be seen at Internet sites as diverse as the Surratt House Museum in Washington, D.C. and the Saint Bernadette Institute of Sacred Art in New Mexico.  His teaching articles are archived in resource databases of numerous colleges, high schools, and middle schools.  For many years, Al hosted popular online workshops and served as Poetry Editor and Senior Columnist at Amazing Instant Novelist, a writers’ site sponsored by America

Al Rocheleau

Al Rocheleau

Online.  In 2004, Al received the Thomas Burnett Swann Award from the Gwendolyn Brooks Writers Association.  He has lectured at Emerson College, the University of Massachusetts, and for many writer’s groups including the Florida Writers Association.  In 2010 his poetry manual, On Writing Poetry: For Poets Made As Well As Born, was published by Shantih Press.  It has been distributed to school and public libraries through Follett Library Resources and is also available from Amazon.com.  In 2012, Al developed and launched “The Twelve Chairs” seminar program, offering a 180-hour course in poetry writing for poets of all levels.  Al is a member of the Florida State Poets Association and resides in Orlando, Florida. 

* * * * *

LW:  I was intrigued to learn years ago that you have synesthesia.  For those who aren’t familiar with the condition, could you describe how your senses differ from the average person’s?  Is the condition more common among “creative types”?  Does it affect your creative process?

AR:  I think we are all creative types in our own way.  And I think we all have synesthesia to a greater or lesser extent.  It simply means we can sense across the various channels we usually assign to one external organ.  Those who experience this effect cross senses all the time; it is natural to such people, and they can be tested for a phenomenon that goes a bit further with them than with most.

This is the ability to “see sound, especially music,” “to taste a painting,” “to feel a sculpture as we view it from a distance” and so forth.  There are different types of responses; many synesthetes see two-dimensional things as three, and are especially sensitive to the shapes of symbols, which evoke colors.  Not the “idea” of colors – actual colors, to a greater or lesser degree.  As a result, most synesthetes have an “alphabet.”  Most of us knew this about ourselves from our earliest years – it was “just the way things are.”  A synesthete can tell you what color his letter “e” is, which is different, say, from the letter “s.”  Each color is of a particular shade: a synesthete would need more than Crayola’s 64-crayon box to tell you about his exact color alphabet.  When a synesthete sees a word, there’s a tendency to experience a myriad of colors according to the word’s construction.

It’s interesting, however, that no two alphabets among synesthetes tend to be alike.  I assign this to the fact that every person, not just those who might be considered synesthetes, lives and senses an external, physical universe from within our own, singular universe.  In other words, there’s your universe, my universe, and the physical one in which we appear to live and agree upon.  Seen as circles, where the three universes intersect is where we have the agreements of our symbolic communication, and where we create and respond to the arts.  Because we are all different in this way, I’m not surprised that each synesthete’s colors are not the same, yet I also understand that we see the colors, do so instantaneously, and that our own colors never change throughout our lives.  (This is one of the factors that is easily and irrefutably tested, and the University of Texas has a remarkable website in which one can test oneself.)

All that said, I still believe everyone has this ability to some extent.  I think it is where our response to “dark and light” music comes from, as well as our gravitation to metaphor – that idea of transfer of not only images and action, but of sensation itself as we perceive it.

As for what it all does to the creative process, I’m not sure.  Arthur Rimbaud, Vladimir Nabokov, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Anatole Scriabin, Leonard Bernstein, even Jimi Hendrix, had it in volume.  I suppose the ability to keep the senses “wide open” might expand both sonic and metaphoric possibilities for a poet; I know that even in free verse, I tend to “paint” with sound, with assonance, consonance, and internal rhyme.  I use the various vowel sounds, dark and light, hard and soft, like actual paint, so I suppose there’s something to that.

How Al sees the alphabet.

How Al sees the alphabet.

LW:  Earlier this year I became acquainted with the term “poetry therapy,” which brought a smile to my face before I read about how valid a tool it can be.  Have you ever used words to heal or be healed?

AR:  Haven’t we all used poetry as personal catharsis, as problem solving, as celebration, as a tool of mourning?  And haven’t we been called upon here and there to act as a channel or shaman to effect such emotional and metal wringing from the affairs of others?  It’s what poets do. It’s what children do easily; it’s what, even if we have forgotten how to be children, to display our emotions, to wonder in reverie, to arrange our images playfully – we aspire to return to, to what we felt and thought as children, and with that purity.  So yes, poetry can be real therapy, to a lonely senior, to a grieving wife or mother, to a war veteran, to anyone.  Poetry heals in its reading or its writing. The poetic utterance, and lift of the poetic wave across the arts, is a balm of mind and soul alike.

LW:  Like many writers, you’re also a musician.  What’s your take on the connection between the two disciplines?

AR:  Poetry is music, music is poetry. I once wrote an essay with that title which is not only in my book “On Writing Poetry,” but before that volume appeared, the essay had already been “borrowed” from the Internet and had bounced around schools and writers’ group sites from the States to France to Tokyo. Really, there was nothing in that essay except common sense.  Poetry began as song, from the Bhagavad Gita, from Ecclesiastes, from Homer and Pindar, and it is still song, whether Dylan Thomas or Bob Dylan, with or without accompanying instruments.

100 times.  That's how often Al wants you to listen to these master works.

100 times. That’s how often Al wants you to listen to these master works.

You know that I tell my poets to listen to the nocturnes of Chopin 100 times, whether in the forefront or as ambient music, in order to absorb the tone colors of pieces in various major and minor keys, to pick up the elasticity of rhythm, especially that stretching of the beat called rubato, as well and the dynamics of loud and soft. Even without musical accompaniment, the long and short vowels, as well as the hard or soft sounds of various consonants, create wavelengths just as does the shiver of piano strings, or air through a flute.  We make music when we recite poetry, and because of the unique properties of the human mind we also can read symbols off the page and still hear the music laden in the printed words.

When I play a Robert Johnson or Skip James tune on the guitar, or noodle on the keyboard with inaccurate counterpoint, or even when I listen to the performances of recordings played from a collection of 6,000 discs of all types, the poetry within the music – not only lyrics, but also lyrics – in fact, all of it, comes to me as poetry.  And with that inspiration, it hopefully returns to my own verse, and can be picked up by others.

LW:  Let’s talk about publishing for a moment.  I’m not sure how much respect there is for poetry in this country today, and when it came time to do my own first book, I ran up against voices ranging from “a chapbook is a great way to establish yourself as a poet” to “what does it mean to have a book few readers would ever come across on their own?”  Still another felt that there were already too many manuscripts out there already…all of which left me with the question, is it even worthwhile to print a collection today?  What advice would you give poets thinking about publication?

AR:  Oh, there’s that word again, chapbook. It’s a book, and yours happens to be a very good one. As you did, finally, when you are ready to publish, you publish. Whether its on your own, or through a publisher that takes the manuscript, there is a time to publish that’s individual to you.  I think it might be wise to submit packets of poems to various journals first and pick up a few credits.  Not only will it make you feel good, it establishes that somebody else has been interested in your work all along.  In any event, the big thing is not to worry about all the other manuscripts out there, how little it might sell, or anything else.  In the end, it’s about THE WORK. If it’s good enough, and you have enough of it, it certainly deserves to be in print.  In fact, it must be in print.   Publish Poetry

Just make sure you have made those poems the best they can be, and if you need to work them some more, even if you need to learn HOW to work them to perfection, take the time to do so.  No one’s pressing you for your collection.  First, know that your work is GOOD.  Poets sometimes go gaga over the popular poet-du-jour, and want to be like him or her.  For me, even when I look at those minor celebrities, large fish in very small ponds, it still comes down to how good the WORK is – this work, here, now, not who the poet is, or who somebody says they are.  The work speaks for itself – only the work.  I have seen “name” poets publish absolute drivel in some of the most recognizable journals in the country, and it was clear the work was accepted on the basis of perceived status rather than on the quality of the poems.  So as much as one might ask, “am I ready to publish?”, I wish some of the poets who’ve “made it” would ask themselves that same question regarding a poem or poems at hand, and publish based not on a reputation derived from some source, not on the fact that they can publish here or there, but rather, to assess and be assessed on the strength of the poems themselves.  If you have strong work, get it out there, get it in journals of your selection and then, when you think you’re ready, in your own collection.

LW:  You’ve gained a lot of knowledge of your craft over the years, and fortunately you’re not the type to hoard it.  Tell us about “The Twelve Chairs” program you designed and recently took through its inaugural year.

AR:  The project that has come to be known as “The Twelve Chairs” began with a desire to expand the material contained in the book, On Writing Poetry, into a comprehensive, practical course. It’s targeted for poets seeking to broaden the craft, scope and voice contained in their work, and to make use of all available resources to achieve those ends.  There are no prerequisites; a new poet could take this course as easily as a published, working poet.  It covers everything, and I would hope in a refreshing way.  I teach through the many disciplines, not just writing, and every seminar touches somehow on the breadth of the humanities, and on the arts specifically.  But it isn’t dry; we have fun doing it, never forgetting that our urge to create came from the workings of reverie and imagination as children.  As a result, my poets are just as likely to make a three-dimensional poem out of Legos as they are to discuss rhetorical devices.  And, my poets read and absorb centuries of master poetry, since those masters teach by example on every page they penned.

Al's "On Writing Poetry" - a must-have for any one interested in the craft.

Al’s “On Writing Poetry.” 

It is expected that by the end of the course each poet will have expanded his or her public outreach and publishing options via placement in quality journals and/or development and completion of their own book projects.  Or, they’ll just know and love poetry a whole lot more than when they started.  It’s called the Twelve Chairs because the classes are limited to twelve students, and the poets are hand-picked, not by reputation or proficiency level, but by their purpose and desire to learn.  That is how they earn their “Chair.”  I have high school students and septuagenarians in the same class, new poets and very well-published ones.  They all come for what they need and want to get their work to a higher level or a certain goal.

I’ve had college professors tell me that the material that is in the Twelve Chairs syllabus has never been presented as one ambitious, sequential whole to anyone – and that includes the content of many MFA poetry programs.  While many other poets and teachers could have done this, and many have certainly done parts of it, it takes a lot of time and commitment.  You have to do this while not pursuing much writing on your own.  I’m at that stage of life I guess, and I want to do it, to give back as I was given to, and to share the progress and experiences of forty years of writing poetry. After all, I could drop dead tomorrow!  And outside of the poems themselves, wherever they are out there still, and the few books, there would be nothing more of permanence to show for a life in poetry.  So it’s worth it to me to push the issue, to actually make this program available as long as I have students that want it, and as long as I or others are available to deliver it.

LW:  Any final words of advice to wannabe poets, already poets, or those just wondering what the heck poetry really is?

AR:  Poetry is life; it is humanity; it’s the physical universe shimmering before you in a way too many too often miss.  If you don’t write poetry, read it.  The poetic wave lifts, as it does from all art, and the amazing effects of aesthetics, so close to pure spirituality, will enhance your life.  If you’re going to write poems, and we’re all capable of writing good ones, take the time to do it right.  Learn technique and gain perspective.  Resources are out there.  “The Twelve Chairs” is here now.  Learn about the traditions and history of poetry, and bring the master poets alive for yourself. Moreover, bring them back alive for them (they earned that much), as you will do every time you read one of their poems, silently or aloud.  What you gain will make you want to read even more, and write more, and better.  In the end, poets write because they have to– within, it fills a need of both the mind and the heart; without, it reflects and effects the world at large.  Yes, it’s work, and the vocation can seem thankless at times– but it has to be done, because the world will always, one way or another, require it.  And in the end, it’s what you do.  No one says you have to do it, but you know you do. So do it well.

* * * * *

For more information on The Twelve Chairs program, contact Al at ARRO40@aol.com or call 407-592-4527.  “On Writing Poetry” is available from Follett Library Resources and Amazon.com.

“Always Look for the Perfect Word”: Al Rocheleau on Poetry, Publishing, and a Few Things in Between, Part I

Al's "On Writing Poetry" is a down-to-earth, highly valuable asset for anyone anyone interested in becoming a better poet.

Al’s “On Writing Poetry” is a down-to-earth, highly valuable asset for anyone interested in becoming a better poet.

In this month’s “Tell Me About It,” I enlisted friend, former writer’s group member, musician, author and poet extraordinaire Al Rocheleau to talk about the craft of poetry…and as I expected, he had a lot to say, on everything from sources of inspiration, to how societal literacy has changed over the years, to how a poet knows when their work is good…and that was just in Part 1!

Al’s poems have appeared in over 40 magazines in the United States, Canada, the U.K., France, Austria, and Poland.  His work has been read on WMFE, an affiliate of National Public Radio, and can be seen at Internet sites as diverse as the Surratt House Museum in Washington, D.C. and the Saint Bernadette Institute of Sacred Art in New Mexico.  His teaching articles are archived in resource databases of numerous colleges, high schools, and middle schools.  For many years, Al hosted popular online workshops and served as Poetry Editor and Senior Columnist at Amazing Instant Novelist, a writers’ site sponsored by America Online.  In 2004, Al received the Thomas Burnett Swann Award from the Gwendolyn Brooks Writers Association.  He has lectured at Emerson College, the University of Massachusetts, and for many writer’s groups including the Florida Writers Association.  In 2010 his poetry manual, On Writing Poetry: For Poets Made As Well As Born, was published by Shantih Press.  It has been distributed to school and public libraries through Follett Library Resources and is also available from Amazon.com.  In 2012, Al developed and launched “The Twelve Chairs” seminar program, offering a 180-hour course in poetry writing for poets of all levels.  Al is a member of the Florida State Poets Association and resides in Orlando, Florida.

* * * * *

LW:  So…why poetry?  As opposed to fiction, essay, biography, etc.?  Or have you dabbled in those genres as well?

AR:  When I was young it was all about the short story and preparing to be a novelist. I submitted my first story to a magazine when I was fourteen. By high school, I wanted to be the next Thomas Wolfe. But at the same time, I was introduced through a brilliant English teacher to the gamut of English poetry, from Chaucer to Shakespeare, Keats to Eliot. At Eliot, at “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” specifically, things changed. I couldn’t believe that amount of craft and fathomless profundity could be pressed into such a form. I was hooked.

I had intended to study with Anne Sexton at Boston University, and was lining up my ducks to do so when she committed suicide in 1974. So I hit the road, Kerouac-style (he and I were from sister mill-towns in Massachusetts), bounced around the country on a Greyhound Ameripass, lived in Berkeley, California for a time, came home, married, had kids, worked a workaday job, and in my real work time, wrote poetry. Forty years later, I’m still writing poetry, publishing, and teaching poets to write.

LW:  Since, as my piano teacher once said, “nothing exists in a vacuum,” who are your major influences?

AR:  Influences cross boundaries in the arts – among poets: Shakespeare, Donne, Dryden, Keats, Yeats, Eliot, both Cranes, and Bob Dylan; among novelists: Wolfe, Kerouac, Tolstoy.  Also, painters like Edward Hopper, Salvador Dali; among musicians: Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Robert Johnson, Van Morrison, Brian Wilson; among filmmakers: Luis Bunuel, Robert Altman.

LW:  I sometimes wonder – where does the gift of poetry come from?  The words, the images… Obviously training brings refinement, but is it simply a mysterious “gift”?  A matter of heredity?  Or something else?

AR:  Anyone can write poetry.  Horace was right about that.  While there may be something to be said for innate talent, I prefer to think some people simply have more desire to express than others.  To me, reading is as important as writing.  Both actions create images, associations, feelings.  Poetry is a physical wave produced by the act of writing or reading.  For that matter, poetry as a substance is produced by painting or viewing a painting, listening to, or playing music, watching dancers, or dancing, looking at a beautiful house, or living in it.  We are all, to a greater or lesser degree, attuned to the cross-patterns of the two most important forces of life – creation and admiration.  Some people have deep backgrounds and perspectives that can come from both experiencing life directly (really daring to do so), sensing it from works of art, or devouring its symbols from books, creating the images and associations that way.  At some point, you write down what you know, what you feel, and written poetry is an essential art – one we gravitate to, like playing an instrument, or painting, from the time we are young.  I hold that any person, however untrained, can write a great poem.  To write a lot of great poems, however, you have to work at the art a bit.  That’s why I teach all aspects of poetry to poets, from beginners to those who are well along.

Al Rocheleau

Al Rocheleau

LW:  Along the same lines, at least a couple of members of my family have always been baffled by my work.  For example, my mother once said, after reading one of my poems, “Well honey, it must be wonderful, because I don’t understand a word of it.”  Have you experienced similar reactions from those close to you?

AR:  Sure.  Just as you learned to write, you learned to read.  Literacy has two definitions; one is to communicate on a basic level.  We all do that all the time.  We can read work instructions, a newspaper, a book.  We can write a note (or these days, an email), a report perhaps, occasionally even a heartfelt letter.  But that is all on one level.  The other definition, that of a personal aesthetic response to what we read and write, goes much deeper.

Perhaps our parents (mine were Depression-era parents, had little formal education, even past elementary school) had no time for the humanities, especially the arts, past what you might hear on a radio or TV variety show or melodrama.

For most of us, we have for many decades taken most of our formal communication in one direction, from television, and that material is meant to be basic most of the time.  Actually, basic and declining.  There are no more Playhouse 90’s, Hallmark Hall of Fames.  Even a gothic soap opera like Dark Shadows, which we ran home from school to watch as children, and the Dick Van Dyke Show, with its wit and invention, were amazingly literate compared to today’s offerings.  It is not that anyone is stupid; we just don’t get the fare we used to get without trying hard to find it, and in single-parent families or two-parent working families, there’s no time to gain that kind of deep effect.  So we absorb on a basic level, the level of the note, the email, the abbreviated text.

When presented with art, and especially an art as condensed as a poetry, we aren’t used to dealing with heightened syntax and metaphor (beyond the cliché metaphor we use in sayings all the time), and if we can’t get an immediate understanding of what we are reading, having no time to savor nuance, we just shut off.  (Play a classical symphony for someone who has only been exposed to pop music, and you’ll get a similar response.)  We aren’t prepared for it.  Beyond the occasional lines we pick up from the popular song, poetry seems to escape most of us.  It wasn’t always that way.  As late as the early part of the 20th century, collections of poetry by Rudyard Kipling, Robert Service, Edgar Lee Masters and Edna St. Vincent Millay sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and going further back, so did new volumes of Byron or Wordsworth.  Back then, if you could read, and could afford a book, you devoured it, and poems were read over and over, their full content gleaned, the lines memorized. 

"It is not enough that poems should have beauty; if they are to carry the audience with them, they must have charm as well." - Horace (65-8 BC)

“It is not enough that poems should have beauty; if they are to carry the audience with them, they must have charm as well.” – Horace (65-8 BC)

Well, that was then, this is now.  People know what they know, and often aren’t interested in knowing much more.  Life is busy; we can debate how much of the business is required economically, and how much is useless or mindless cultural conditioning, but there you have it.  People don’t understand because they can’t give themselves the time to understand. That’s not a deprecating remark – they are still good people, still intelligent, capable people, and we love them no less for their response – but yes, that happens to all poets.  So we write for those who can still take the time to appreciate us, and know that, as it has been throughout history, when there’s a very happy occasion, or a sad one, the poet in the crowd will always be brought forth by those who usually say they “can’t understand” us, to say something profound, to make sense of what can’t be “understood” or fully appreciated in our lives.

LW:  Nearly every writer works to “get the words right,” but how do we know when they finally are?  Is it all subjective?  One definition I read from an editor was that, “If it looks good at 6:00 in the morning, it probably is good.”  Any truth to that, or is it too simplistic?

AR:  I guess that depends on how awake you are at 6:00 am.  A poem can be done in fifteen minutes, or not done in fifteen years.  I have experienced both circumstances.  The best thing I can say in this regard, is that ideally, you must have a perfect idea, and then the perfect words to express the idea.  I tell my students, “always look for the perfect word – there is only one.”  In creative reverie, entire poetic statements, even entire poems, can come quickly.  The editing process is not one of reverie, but of imagination, of searching, finding, coordinating – and then searching and finding some more.  Imagination can be an airy exercise, or it can be like driving spikes into railroad ties.  Work, in other words.  One has to find the right words, mold the right phrases, establish the right clauses, and then end, enjamb or break the lines into the sculpt that makes the poem a tangible object, something of three dimensions, that you can hold in your hands, radiating or directing its poetic waves as can be amplified and re-directed by the reader.  Sometimes you find that shining nugget lying on the ground, other times you have to mine the ore, and burn off the baser elements.  When it’s done, it’s perfect. At 6:00 in the morning, or any other time.

T.S. Eliot helped get Al hooked on poetry.

T.S. Eliot helped get Al hooked on poetry.

LW:  And speaking of getting it right – you rendered me a great service by putting my first poetry collection into order, something I had little idea how to do.  Frankly, I expected nothing more than an emailed list of titles in the order in which you thought they should go. Therefore, I was surprised by the level of work that went into it.  As I know other writers struggle with this, could you describe your system?

AR:  I don’t think there’s any one system that works best, but I have a way I developed over the years.  First, have enough really good, completed poems so that many don’t make your list at all.  Save those for further working, or to append to the Collected Poems of your dotage.

The ones you decide to keep now enter the crucible.  Yes, we love all our poems, don’t we – they are all just peachy – that is, until you completed that previous step, painful though it was.  We write poems based on our abilities to coordinate the three factors of a poet’s talent: craft, scope, and voice.  Craft, short for knowing and applying the tools of the trade, is learned and apprenticed; scope, or the combination of purpose, vision and ambition, is acquired through experience and sheer daring; voice is what emanates from the acquisition of the other two factors, combined with the aural impact (both off the page and in the air), originality, and spiritual volume of the poet.  All poets, and poems, contain at least some of each factor, whether learned or partly innate.  It is the poet’s job to develop the three points of what might be considered a triangle of potential power, just as this process, in turn, develops the poet.  In putting a collection together, one must decide on just how much of each ingredient has combined with the others to assess the ultimate worth and impact of each poem.  In quick-and-dirty fashion, each poem, I grade them.  A. B. C.  It doesn’t require more than that.  Based on the combination of craft, scope, and especially voice, that come out A, B, or C.  (If you’ll recall, D’s have already been culled at the very first step, separating the pebbles from the dried beans.)  You can at first list your poems any way you like, since it’s not a table of contents, just a list of things.  Then you must look hard at each poem, keeping the three factors in mind, and grade each in isolation.  Don’t compare (at least not yet).  Don’t cheat on this step – grade each one alone and honestly.

When you’re done, you have so many A’s, B’s, C’s.  The proportion of craft, scope, and voice will be different for each poem, as will its tone – dark or light or somewhere in between.  The poems grade out this way: A: a top-echelon poem in anyone’s regard, and certainly among your personal best, by way of craft, scope, and especially voice; B: an excellent poem of your personal estimate, one that you consider in the top 30% of all your poems; C: a very good poem, not merely competent; it may not have the ambition or striking voice of some of the others but the craft is still there, and you still have something to say that is unique.  Anything further is a detraction and…guess what?…you missed another D – take it off the list.

Hopefully, your proportions are somewhere along the lines of A: 10-20%; B: 20-40 %; C: 20-40%.  If not, keep working your poems and add new ones to the list when they are polished and finished.  That will change your proportions in the right way.  Remember that no one decides when a collection is ready except you, and that no one cares to read a single lackluster poem of yours.  So be honest with yourself, and make that list as good as it can be before you proceed.

Now, create the sculpt of your body of work.  Work along two lines concurrently.  One: string clusters of your best poems (A’s or A’s-and-B’s) as if they were the poles of a circus tent.  Obviously, you want to start strong, then position the next “pole” a quarter of the way in.  The next pole will not be situated at the half, but a bit beyond the half.  Think of the “golden ratio,” a proportional progress that expands past the mid-point, essentially between the second and third quarters.  Place the pole there.  Finally, you want to finish strong, so the last pole is at the end.

Each of those pole-clusters (again A’s or A’s-and-B’s) will be in “packets” or “clusters” of three, four, or five, depending on the length of your manuscript.  Beyond the midpoint, you can also station one of your longer A’s (or B’s) to extend beyond the halfway point, as mentioned, or just use extra poems of that quality.  The poems in between are going to be your other B’s and your C’s.  C’s are worked away from the poles.  They are still, of course, worthy poems, but they will not charge up the reader’s progress and overall appreciation of collection as the A’s and B’s will – hence they are not “poles,” just connecting “canvas.”  Does that make sense?  One can certainly use another method, but this does the trick for me. 

Don't call your work a "cheap book!"

Don’t call your work a “cheap book!”

And by the way, even if your collection is a narrow one, don’t call it a “chapbook.”  Chapbook from its origin meant “cheap book.”  No one’s blood and tears, not to mention sweat, should go into something cheap.  It’s a book.  If you’ve completed one, however modest, you’ve earned that title.

* * * * *

I had more to ask and Al had more great things to say in Part II, on synesthesia, poetry therapy, music, and, of course, what almost every writer wants to talk about: publishing…as well as the groundbreaking “Twelve Chairs” course he developed from his many years of experience.  You won’t want to miss it!

“Outlive the Competition and Understand You’ll Never Make a Dime At It”

In this month’s “Tell Me About It,” I turned the spotlight on the editor who gave me my first real shot at freelancing, David Cohea.  Aside from appreciating that fact (and that he continues to do so,) I was curious as to how he balances his roles as writer, poet and blogger as well as monthly magazine editor…and he didn’t disappoint.

* * * * *

LW:  I’ve seen a quote from you saying that “The past is my sandbox.”  What draws you to an earlier time?

DC:  Lots of things.  I studied history in college and am a lifelong student of old stuff.  So much of who we are is buried back there.  The saying is the motto for ReMIND magazine, the monthly retro/puzzle mag I created and edit for NTVB Media, a brand that celebrates (and sells) the retro vibe.

LW:  Tell us about how ReMIND came into being.  What were and are your hopes for the magazine?

David Cohea

David Cohea

DC:  My main day gig is managing King Features Weekly Service, a features service (comics, puzzles, text features) sold to about 800 weekly newspapers.  We’ve been looking for various ways to repurpose the content direct to consumers.  We prototyped a monthly features magazine called Pass Times four or so years ago, marketed to the senior population, but we couldn’t get the franchise concept off the ground.  NTVB Media (they create and sell TV guides for daily newspapers) approached us several years later about doing a puzzle book for them, and we developed one that had lots of “retro” content, stuff pulled from King Features archives going back to 1910.  We’re now headed into our third year of publication, and the jury’s out as to whether we’ve secured an audience for the magazine.  We also launched social media channels on Pinterest, Facebook and a blog on WordPress, hoping to net more of the retro crowd.

LW:  What’s the most difficult aspect of being an editor?  The most rewarding?

DC:  It’s hard trying to budget time for a varied plate of responsibilities when you love to keep hammering away on the fun stuff (like ReMIND).  The most rewarding thing about being an editor is seeing the stack of issues you somehow managed to get to the printer on time, error-free and filled with fun.

LW:  Years ago a freelance writer friend opined that “most editors are failed writers.”  In your case this is far from true, but do you have any comment on that sentiment?

DC:  Well, as the saying retorts, most writers are failed editors, too.  We need both in the mix.  It’s fun to wear both hats, though when you do both, you have to remember which one you’re presently wearing.

LW:  Authors have notoriously sensitive egos.  Have you ever found the editor/author relationship to be an adversarial one, from either side of the fence?

DC:  If I paid the big bucks for contributions, such contrasts would be stronger; in my too-miserly world, they’re only fleeting….I’ve found that generally there are two [types of] writers: those who see having their work edited as helping to get it to its best draft; and those who get annoyed with such intrusion.  The latter, I think, reflects immaturity, arrogance or both – many great writers suffer from these qualities.  ReMIND

LW:  A lot of people hesitate to actually call themselves a writer, no matter how long they’ve been at it.  When did you feel you could apply that term to yourself?

DC:  Probably when I knew that being a writer was hopeless in so many ways and loved working in its trenches anyway.

LW:  Seems to me I saw an old picture of you on stage with a guitar, reminding me that an awful lot of writers are also musicians.  Coincidence, or do you think there’s a special link between the two crafts?

DC:  I played loud rock ‘n’ roll for years and then it disappeared down a well inside, about the same time poems started coming up from the well.  Dunno why that happened (time to grow up?) , but as you say, it’s not surprising that the poetry of music spilled into the lyricism of poetry.

LW:  Do your roles of author and editor tend to balance each other, or occasionally conflict?  For example, do you find yourself more prone to editing yourself as you write, or holding your work to a higher standard because you’re simultaneously seeing it through an editorial lens?

DC:  Guilty!  Author and editor are in rough sync when I write for my own magazine – both personas assume they know the audience they’re writing for.  But since I get to play both roles I can indulge however I want.  In my bigger day job, I manage an editorial function, so I’m even more distant from the writer/editor mix.  My job is to figure out if our content has a market out there, and how best to profit in it.  I’ve sacrificed a great column, say, for a more popular, less expensive puzzle.

LW:  Some people might be surprised to learn that you’re also an award-winning poet.  Tell us about what poetry means to you, and how you approach it.

DC:  That award was a long time ago, when I thought Art had some kind of superior advantage over Heart…ha-ha.  Let’s just say I was humbled in such ambitions.  Maybe for me, Heart always occupies a somewhat greater ground than Art.  I mean, you can’t pay for a mortgage and marriage (and other costly festoons of Heart, like a lot of cats) on a poet’s salary.  So poetry became the underground career, indulged at the earliest hours of the day, around the margins of The Life.  I’m not good enough at it, anyway.

Furthermore, I’m not sure there even are readers for poetry anymore, so I content myself with carrying on my lyric conversations with the dead.  The only exception is a book I recently self-published titled Over Here, a series of narrative poems about soldiers returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan to a peace so strange it may indeed be the greater cause of PTSD.  I owe it to their sacrifice and need to put those poems out into the world.

LW:  You’ve written everything from poetry to political commentary, book reviews to financial advice columns…and let’s not forget about blogs.  Frankly, I feel like an underachiever!  What’s your secret?

DC:  Outlive the competition and understand you’ll never make a dime at it.

David's first poetry collection was published in October 2013.

David’s first poetry collection was published in October 2013.

LW:  What’s the greatest writing challenge you’ve ever faced?

DC:  Every next blank page is the greatest challenge… Platitudes aside, I’d say it was, for different reasons, a toss-up between writing a 750-word review of Thomas Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon (a novelist for whom breadth and depth of meaning is like naming the sea), and a speech for the president of the Orlando Sentinel in 1992, when I was the employee communications coordinator.  His language had to be parsed of anything language is interesting for and still be compelling.  In both cases, the editor I wrote for was unrelenting.

LW:  If you weren’t a writer, what do you suppose you’d be doing right now?

DC:  I’d be a manager at a media company – oops, that’s what I am.

LW:  A fellow writer told me she was once quite put off when an anthology editor “chopped up” and changed her story – and not just hers! – so much that it “didn’t flow.”  She asks:  “What rights does the writer have before publication?”

DC:  Up to signing the contract, every right.  After signing the contract – read the contract.  I’d say an editor is accorded reasonable right to edit, but if it’s questionable, ask someone higher up the ladder.

LW:  Let’s end on a serious note.  I have it on good authority that you’re a cat person.  Historically, cats and authors seem to go together like peanut butter and jelly, from Edgar Allen Poe and Catalina to curmudgeon Cleveland Amory and his beloved Polar Bear.  Aspiring young authors are anxious to know:  is feline ownership a necessity to their craft?

DC:  Absolutely.  Authors say they write, when actually every word is the product of catshine.  My calico, Belle, has to be within five feet of my chair or the muses have me say the dumbest stuff.

Belle Cohea, "politicking for dinner."

Belle Cohea, “politicking for dinner.”

Sweet Addiction, Sweet Grace: How One Woman Kicked Obesity’s Butt and Took Back Her Life…with a Little Help from Above

Sweet Grace book coverRecently I had the privilege of serving as an initial reader/evaluator for Teresa Shields Parker’s new memoir, “Sweet Grace: How I Lost 250 Pounds and Stopped Trying to Earn God’s Favor.”  Fascinated by her story, I knew it was one I wanted to share with my readers.  I had many questions about Teresa’s remarkable journey to emotional and physical health, and she kindly took time out of a hectic schedule to answer them here.

* * * * *

LW:  As someone who’s alternately fretted over, battled and ignored her own weight issues for many years, a book that promised a story of how one person lost over 200 pounds couldn’t help but catch my eye…and of course we all want a formula, or a quick fix.  It sounds like you did, too.

TSP: I learned the hard way that there is no easy quick fix.  Believe me, I tried all of them.  When you are morbidly obese, it’s do or die, literally.

LW:  You say in Sweet Grace that sugar and bread are like drugs to you.  Can we really be addicted to certain foods?

TSP:  Sugar is extremely addictive.  There is a lot of research out about that fact.  I hadn’t read the research when the light dawned for me.  If a person can be addicted to alcohol and get free by not drinking alcohol, I can get free from my cravings by not eating sugar.  It’s not just food or alcohol or drugs we can get addicted to, it’s anything that we think we can’t live without.

LW:  You’re very open about the indignities and embarrassments you suffered at your heaviest, as well as the ongoing struggles you endured both before and after your major weight loss.  In one chapter, you reveal that you were molested as a child.  Was there ever a time when you thought, “Oh, no, I can’t share that – it’s too personal”?

TSP:  I’ve always been transparent in my writing.  I only hesitate when what I share involves other people or the reputation of people who are deceased or for some other reason can’t share their side of the story.

LW:  In at least one instance, you changed a name to protect the guilty.  In general, how did your family react to the idea of your writing a book?  What did your friends think of the idea?

TSP:  My friends and family are very supportive of the book.  I didn’t reveal the name because finger-pointing does no good to anyone.  As a journalist, I have always told both sides of any story.  This book was a stretch for me because I am just telling my story, my side.  When a person is deceased, they have no voice to combat my point of view.

LW:  Your Christian faith played an integral part in your road to health.  How do you think your story might have played out differently without it?

TSP:  I know that God has placed inside every person, even those who have not accepted Him, the ability to overcome difficulties.  The human spirit is very resilient and resourceful.  However, even the infamous 12 steps of A.A. talk about submitting to a higher power.  When you have developed a harmful pattern with a substance, you need to tap into that power that only God can bring to get totally free.  My father’s father was an alcoholic, as well as most of the men in his family.  He chose to go the other way.  I always say he became addicted to Jesus and set that example for us to follow.

LW:  The term “sugar sensitive” was new to me.  Tell us about what that really means.  Do some people regard the concept as a fad or a largely fictional condition?

Before and after

Before and after…

TSP:  It certainly was not fiction to me.  It was the key that set me free.  There is a lot of research out there regarding the harmful effects of processed sugar on the body.  I even read one article that said we needed to put warning labels on anything with sugar in it.  However, people don’t like to think about giving up sugar.  I didn’t like to think about it.  Here’s the truth:  some people can eat sugar and have no issues.  Others, like me, cannot eat just one piece of candy or one cookie.  I cannot mitigate my desire for sugar.  So I totally stay away from it.  That boundary I have built in my life sets me free to be whole, healthy and happy.  I was not happy with myself when I was morbidly obese.  I was not happy that sugar controlled me, pulled me toward it.  I think that tree in the Garden was a sugar tree – just sayin’.

LW:  The support of others is usually considered vital to successful weight loss.  How did your family encourage and/or hold you accountable?

TSP:  The first and greatest support has to come from within.  In the final analysis, you hold yourself accountable.  You are the only one who really knows what you can and cannot eat.  You have to be bold and say, “I can’t eat that,” and mean it.  I have a weight loss accountability group I go to every week.  I know the leader is going to ask, “How did you do this week on your goals?”  Since truth is a major value in my life, I’m going to have to answer that question.  If I had a slip-up, he is going to ask what caused it.  This helps me process what I’m doing.  In my family, as in most, I set the tone.  I cook the meals, I buy the groceries.  That said, my husband is very agreeable about eating whatever I fix.  If we go out to eat, he accommodates me by avoiding pasta restaurants where there is really nothing I can eat.

LW:  Perhaps the most provocative question in the book, to me at least, was:  “If I got rid of the weight, who was I?”  You did get rid of the weight…so who are you right now?  What should we most know about Teresa?

TSP:  I am finally a whole, happy, healthy woman of God.  She was hiding beneath a mountain of weight for years.  I am more in touch with who I am.  I am not afraid to feel more deeply, to express the wide gamut of emotions from joy to sadness.  I am more deeply and passionately in love with my husband.  I miss my grown children terribly, as one lives in Japan and one in Wisconsin.  I want to help every person I see who is morbidly obese.  I look at them and feel their pain deeply.  I am and always have been a writer.  As such, I want to share stories that will cause people to laugh, cry and get the courage to be the best version of themselves they can be.

LW:  You indicate your belief that God may have given you the weakness of sugar sensitivity to draw you closer to him.  For many, including Christians, that’s going to be a radical statement.  Some will undoubtedly say that a loving Creator would not visit such an infliction on His child.  How would you respond to that?

TSP:  Read what Paul has to say about his “thorn in the flesh.”  He prayed not once but three times that God would take it away.  I relate very well to Paul.  My weakness for sugar and bread is something I prayed for God to remove for years.  That would be easy, right?  I wouldn’t have to do anything.  I gave in to my weakness.  We all have weaknesses.  I look at some people and think they don’t, but their weakness may not be something they consume.  It may be a greed for money or power or sexual exploits outside of marriage.  When we begin to admit our weaknesses and deal with them, our character begins to develop.  When we say no to the things that we go to instead of God (I went to food for comfort instead of God), that’s when we get closer to God.

LW:  Some, like me, know what they should do…what they have to do…yet even as they are encouraged and inspired by your story, and the brave frankness with which you’ve shared it, they’re still “not ready” to take the necessary first steps.  Can you offer any words to us?

TSP:  People ask me all the time how they can do this.  It starts with acceptance of their issue and the knowledge of what they need to do.  Then it takes ownership of the issue, which means you were going in one direction, but now you drive a stake in the ground, turn around and go the other way (kind of like repentance).  The final step will take you the rest of your life.  You act against what you just accepted and owned to become who you really want to be.   You have a firm vision of what you want and why.  Without that, nothing will change.  No magic fairy dust will fall.  You have to start walking it out every day, every second with every choice you make.  This is where the power of God comes in.  As we walk in obedience to what we know He wants us to do, He comes along and propels us forward.  It’s amazing, really.  I’ve seen miracles in my own life where this is concerned.  There was no bigger sugar or bread addict than I was, and there is no stronger proponent of this lifestyle. That’s just unbelievable to me.  It’s like I’m two totally different people.

LW:  Near the end of your book you talk about “embracing the gold” within you.  What exactly does that mean, and how can others do the same?

TSP:  That’s a hard question because it’s one I’m still working on.  I am wrapping my brain around the fact that I have “gold” inside of me that God has placed there, and to share with and minister to the world is amazing to me.  I’ve come to believe God when He whispers to me, “You are beautiful.  You are enough, just like you are.  I loved you when you weighed 430 pounds.  I love you now.  I created you for a purpose.  Don’t hoard everything I have placed within you.  Share it with the world.  Give yourself away on behalf of others.  Each time you do that, the gold within you shines just a little brighter.”

I’m really learning that I can only embrace the gold within me as I spend time with God.  For me that looks like shutting the door of my study and being totally alone with Him, quiet before Him, inviting Him to pour into me, speak to me and share His heart with me.  In these times He becomes my gold-polisher.  I believe we are too disconnected from God in the hustle and bustle of our lives.  It’s only in Him that we discover the gold he placed in us.

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How about you?  Have you struggled with weight issues and found victory…or does it seem like an insurmountable battle?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Want to learn more about Teresa’s story?  You can pick up a copy of Sweet Grace here.  And be sure to tell your friends!

Livin’ La Vida Retiree…Campground Style

This week I’m delighted to introduce a new monthly interview series, “Tell Me About It.”  First up is my friend Joyce Dykes, whom I met in 1999 when, as a temporary employee, I filled in for her at The Minute Maid Company while she helped her husband recover from surgery.  I ended up staying at Minute Maid for the next four years, and a couple of years after we’d both departed  (due to a parent company reorganization), Joyce and her husband, Wiley, took early retirement from their respective jobs as administrative assistant and landscaper to embark on their “Great Adventure” – one probably many of us have fantasized about at some time or other…

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LW:  Tell us about how you arrived at the decision to pursue an RV lifestyle.

JD:   My husband Wiley and I made the decision after I lost my job and he had medical problems [Parkinson’s] that made working difficult.  We had always enjoyed camping, hiking and travel.  We accidentally discovered a group of people called “Workampers.” Workampers live in their campers full-time and work in exchange for their campsite and possibly a small salary.  We decided we’d like to start our new experience in New England and applied to several private campgrounds.  We were hired by a private campground in Rockport, Maine and were so excited! 

What goes?  What stays behind?

What goes? What stays behind?

LW:  Was the decision scary, as well?

 JD:  Embracing this new lifestyle was really scary at first.  Family and friends couldn’t believe that we were going to live full time in such a small space.  Neither of us had any experience with the kind of jobs we’d be doing (working in the camp store taking reservations and registering campers, selling camp store items, cleaning campsites and making minor repairs).  We were very concerned about the economics of such a drastic change in lifestyle.  We decided to rent our house out (the mortgage was paid in full) so that if we didn’t like it, we’d have a place to come home to.  We sold off all our furniture and “stuff,” packed up some heirlooms and stored them.  I felt like I’d died and was going through my own things! 

But it was also exciting:  new places, new faces, new experiences, and a chance to renew our relationship.  Both of us vacillated between terror and euphoria.  I was surprised to find out how much things weighed – food, pots and pans and dishes, cleaning supplies and batteries, clothing, canoeing, fishing and hiking equipment…all together, it came to 874 pounds.

             

LW:  What unique challenges did you face?

JD:  A big concern for us in choosing to do this kind of travel was that I would be the driver.  My husband’s disability prevented him from driving.  Once we’d made the decision to give the workamping life a try, we had to decide what kind of camper to buy.  We bought a used 5th wheel travel trailer that had the basic layout we wanted.  Again, we figured we wouldn’t be out so much money if we decided we didn’t like the lifestyle.  We also had to sell our car and buy a truck the right size to haul the 5th wheel.  So now we had a 30′ camper in our yard, we’d sold most of our stuff, and it was time to pack up.  We knew we could only load 1,000 pounds into the RV, so we made three piles in our driveway:  things we had to take, things we’d like to take, and things we could live without if we had to.  We were also concerned that our 15-year-old cat might have difficulty with her changed living conditions.  She surprised us, though, because she seemed to love it!  She rode in the camper and was usually asleep somewhere when we checked on her.  She also learned to walk on a leash, although we didn’t “walk” her, she walked us! 

Senior kitty Monkey adapted well to her new digs on the road.

Monkey adapted well to her new digs on the road.

LW:  How did you decide where to visit?  Did you adhere to a schedule, or just let the road take you…or both?

JD:   The fun part was planning our trip to Maine.  We allowed six weeks to get there so we could see the country on our way up the East coast from Florida.  We’re both interested in history, my husband wanted to do some fishing, I like photography and wanted to do a blog of our travels, and we wanted to include some visits with relatives.  We did a lot of online research, questioned friends who’d traveled the area, and pored over maps and brochures.  We even came to enjoy our stops to do laundry and buy groceries.  We met so many interesting people — we hunted fossils with a young man near Washington, D.C. who worked for the Smithsonian and gave us a tour of the back rooms.  We met farmers selling local produce and had time to talk with a whole family that was working toward growing organic fruits and vegetables.  I was surprised to find that the new friends we made were as big a part of our adventure as the travel itself. 

Pemaquid Point Lighthouse, Maine

Pemaquid Point Lighthouse, Maine.

LW:  Tell us about some of your best moments.

JD:   Some of the highlights were a family reunion in Annapolis, Maryland, where we discovered a cousin who had also just bought an RV and was trying full-timing for the first time.  We also enjoyed getting off the highway and driving through some of the small, historic towns and visiting historic sites and parks.  Another interesting stretch of road was at Alma, which bills itself as the blueberry capital of Georgia.  Ihad started blogging along the way and recording our experiences as we went seemed to make us pay more attention to what we were doing.  We usually stopped early enough in the day to enjoy a walk before dinner.  And we enjoyed buying local foods to prepare for our meals.

 The first part of our trip was north on I-95 from Florida.  It was a ride through Revolutionary War and Civil War history.  We saw Patrick Henry’s birthplace in Studley, the Garrett farm where John  Wilkes Booth was captured after he assassinated Lincoln, and several  historic towns.  We spent a couple of nights in Westmoreland State Park in the Northern Neck of Virginia, right where the Potomac River flows into the Chesapeake Bay.  The park sits on top of high, sandy cliffs, which are loaded with Miocene era marine fossils.  We didn’t have time to do much fossil hunting, but each of us found a shark’s tooth.

Magnolia Springs State Park, Georgia.

Magnolia Springs State Park, Georgia.

 In the same area of Virginia, we saw Stratford Plantation, the house where Robert E. Lee was born.  While we were going through the house, I was thinking about how tumultuous those times must have been.  The house is amazing and the docent who gave us the tour was so knowledgeable about so many aspects of life in the 1700s and the Lee family.  She was dressed like an indentured servant, and we all felt as though we’d traveled back in time.  Daily life was so much more difficult then.  She described how the cook and helpers spent 10-12 hours every day cooking  in a room that could get so hot that there were little boys whose only  job was to keep the hems of the women’s dresses wet so that they  wouldn’t catch fire!

Stratford Hall, VA - birthplace of Robert E. Lee

Stratford Hall, VA – birthplace of Robert E. Lee.

Another great memory was our visit to Hershey,  PAThey have a free tour that covers the whole process of making chocolate, from the cacao bean growing and picking through the manufacturing process.  There’s also a mock-up of a Hershey Kisses plant where kids can make and wrap  their own kisses and a very large gift store.  It was in the nearby Amish country of Pennsylvania that I had one of my many “aha” moments.  I realized that we were looking for a more simple kind of life; not like the Amish, who live without modern conveniences, but simple in terms of living with closer to nature and to one another.  We found that living with fewer possessions was very freeing. 

As we got closer to New England, we enjoyed traveling some of the coast roads, taking pictures of lighthouses and enjoying rocky beaches that were so different from the sandy Florida beaches we were accustomed to.  Our last major stop before reaching Maine was Plymouth, Massachusetts.  We saw Plymouth Rock, which may or may not be where the Pilgrims first set foot on our shores in 1620.   When we finally reached Maine, it was deeply gratifying to settle down in the campground that would be our home for the whole summer.  It was as gorgeous as we had hoped, right on Penobscot Bay, with a lighthouse and lots of lobster boats in our back yard.  We learned our new jobs fairly easily and enjoyed the work.  The local businesses were all anxious for us to send our campers their way, so we got lots of freebies, including a schooner cruise, mini golf and restaurant discounts.   Long before our one-year trial period was up, we were hooked and began making plans to sell our house, buy a newer RV and find our next workamper job.  

Monhegan Island, Maine

Monhegan Island, Maine.

LW:  How did your family react to your new lifestyle?

JD:  My kids and grandkids enjoyed visiting with us when we were in nearby areas.  We were able to spend extended periods of time with them without having to actually live in their house.  The grandkids, in particular, got a large charge out of spending time in the camper and enjoyed the campground facilities.  We were able to spend time with each child individually, which Granny particularly enjoyed.  Plus, we were able to give my sons a break by babysitting so they could have some grownup time.

LW:  I bet a lot of people wonder how you managed in such a relatively small space, after living in a house most of your life.  I know I did!  Just how did you make it work?

JD:  One of the really fun things about living full-time in a small space was figuring out how to best utilize our space.  We found many helpful items in Ikea – I still use the magnetic bar I bought there to hang my knives and spatulas.  We bought Corelle dishes so we wouldn’t have to protect them when we were on the road.   A big challenge was the cat’s litter box.  We put it in the bathroom, but some people we know put it under a step, or  put a cat door in an end table cabinet.  Shoes are a big problem in an RV because most of them have platform beds.  I put eye bolts at the head and foot of both sides of the bottom of the bed, then I stretched bungee cords between the eye bolts and we stood our shoes upright behind the bungee cords.

LW:  How long did you live the RV lifestyle?  Is it really sustainable long-term?  And do you think it would be more challenging for singles than couples?

Joyce hiking Mount Battle in Camden, Maine.

Joyce hiking Mount Battle in Camden, Maine.

JD:  We lived full time in our RV for six years (2006 to 2011).  You have to have a good relationship with your spouse, especially if you have rainy weeks or if one of you gets sick.  I think you also have to enjoy quiet times to read and escape mentally, if not physically, from your spouse.  We enjoyed taking short trips at least once a week and spending time with friends and family (both together and individually).  And we both had activities that we enjoyed together as well as separately (hiking, reading, fishing, knitting, travel).

The Mayflower.

The Mayflower.

Probably the most challenging period for us was the year I was diagnosed with cancer.  We debated giving up the lifestyle then, but finally decided to move the camper near my doctor.  I had surgery and my  two sons each came for a week to help me out.  Then we stayed with Wiley’s parents for another week.  By then, I was well enough to move back into the camper.  We’d chosen a campground right on a beautiful Florida spring and it wound up being a good decision, because I had four months of chemotherapy, and I think living in such beautiful surroundings had a positive impact on my recovery.  I was even able to paddle my kayak on the spring and watch the birds and other wildlife, which was a great distraction.  One night we were visited by a bear!  It was very therapeutic.

The RV lifestyle would probably be more challenging for singles, although it would solve the problem of too much togetherness in a small space.  It would certainly be more work if you didn’t have anyone to share it with, at least when you were actually traveling.  Driving long distances alone can be stressful, and setting up and taking down at campsites usually requires two people.  But it can be done, and we’ve met singles who enjoyed it a lot.

LW:  You and Wiley are homeowners again, and just this month you sold your second camper.  Was that a bittersweet decision?

JD:  We sold the 30′ fifth wheel trailer a little more than a year ago and bought a house in a 55+ community because of health considerations.  Shortly before we sold the fifth wheel, in anticipation of our new lifestyle, we bought an 18′ travel trailer.  We enjoyed many short trips in that little trailer – in fact, one trip that started out to be a two-week summer visit to the grandkids turned into a two-month trip because Wiley needed emergency surgery.  We’d left with shorts and tee shirts and wound up buying winter clothes.  We got along just fine in the little trailer.  There’s a lot less housekeeping in such a small space!

Did Joyce have a run-in with a Puritan ghost?

Did Joyce have a run-in with a Puritan ghost?

We finally sold the little camper because we’re both getting older and Wiley is no longer able to drive or help with set-up and take-down chores.  It’s bittersweet, of course, but we hope to do a few more trips, maybe in a rental camper or in cabins.  It’s a new season in our lives and we’re enjoying our new home.

Wiley with a luna moth.

Wiley with a luna moth.

LW:  Any final words you’d like to share, especially for those who may be contemplating this lifestyle in their retirement?

JD:  Anyone contemplating this lifestyle should do a lot of planning – first to choose the camper, then to decide where they want to go, how long they want to stay there, and what they want to see along the way.  There’s lots of information on the subject.  We found it very helpful to go to RV shows where there were lots of different types of campers on display and helpful seminars.

Everyone deserves at least one great adventure in their lives.  Americans live pretty bland lives for the most part…our adventures are mostly vicarious (TV) or at least controlled circumstances (theme parks).  We go on sponsored tours and cruises and visit the places we went as kids.  We spend a week in the mountains or at the beach.  It can be scary to set out on your own with a broad plan that leaves plenty of room for spontaneous detours.  For us, it was one of the peak experiences that we’ll remember for the rest of our lives.

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How about you?  Have you ever tried the RV lifestyle, or considered it?  Want to learn more?  You can check out www.workamper.com for more information, then I hope you’ll hop on over to the blog Joyce kept during her travels, where you’ll find great photos and interesting history on some of the places she and Wiley visited.

October, or should I say “Pinktober,” is nearly upon us…the month when many advocate breast cancer awareness through various fundraisers and other means.  Now as someone with friends who’ve been affected by the disease, I’ve got nothing against awareness, but not all forms of it are effective, and some are just plain silly.  I hope you’ll join me here next week to add your own thoughts to the mix.  See you then!