Today's writing prompt was "How do others see you?" Here's what I wrote:
On the inside, I am fierce, and forceful - a warrior.
On the outside, I am invisible.
On the inside, I sparkle, and everyone admires my splendid-ness.
On the outside, I made a successful career in a leadership role even though other Finance people didn’t understand me.
On the inside, I despised office politics.
On the outside, I am concise, direct and honest, while being tactful and polite.
On the inside, I want to tell people what I REALLY think.
On the outside, I hired good people, coached and mentored them well, and continue to celebrate their success.
On the inside, I loved the more creative aspects of my job. And hated the rest.
On the outside, I left my job gracefully.
On the inside, I was crying.
On the outside, I am an old-ish woman whose contributions to the corporate world are no longer valued. I am a dinosaur.
On the inside, I have moved on.
On the outside, I have disappeared from the corporate world. And I love it!
On the inside, I find magic in simple things – and spin tales about them.
On the outside, I am quiet.
On the inside, I can fly.
On the outside, I am not listened to. Often enough.
On the inside, I convene with fairies, frogs, cats, and chickens.
On the outside, I keep a clean house, do laundry, shop, and cook.
On the inside, I love art, music, dance, beauty.
On the outside, I change home décor seasonally.
On the inside, I am deeply passionate.
On the outside, I cry at commercials. Silently.
On the inside, I dream about different lives, different personas, and make up stories about them.
On the outside, I make lists.
On the inside, I make lists.
On the outside, I am free.
On the inside, my imagination takes flight.
On the outside, I love my family and close friends.
On the inside, I love my family and close friends.
On the outside, I am a writer.
On the inside, I am a writer
My head and my heart are still back stage at Nutcracker. It takes a few days to decompress after each annual run. Backstage dust is still in my head, oozing out of my pores, encompassing my senses.
If you know the Nutcracker ballet, you know that it snows during the Snow Queen and King’s final pas de deux. The effect is magical from the audience. Backstage, someone pulls on a rope attached to a bag with slits on its sides, fake snow in the middle, hung at the very top of the ceiling. Whomever pulls the rope is supposed to rock it slowly back and forth, allowing the snow to drift gently over the dancers. Whenever one of my family members pulls the snow rope, there is a snow storm of epic proportions. A dump of snow. On top of sweaty dancers. After the main drape closes, the dancers giggle and scream and throw fake snow at each other. Fun. For them. Not for crew, and not for the directors.
We, backstage crew, have to clean up the snow before Act 2. And we know the snow is not supposed to be the star of the show. At least I know that. I am not sure my family members who work backstage know that. They are very much into fun. I feel for the directors who put on the most professional performance of Nutcracker in Sonoma county year after year, despite my crazy family creating blizzards. And for all of the other near disasters that occur backstage every year. I love preventing those disasters. When dancers go onstage, with costumes and props, on cue, I have done my job, and I am happy.
My safe place is as far away from the snow rope as possible.
Twenty-two years ago, I first walked onto the backstage of a theater. I was there to drop off my then 7-year-old daughter for dress rehearsal. Her first performance. A summer recital. In a real theater.
It was dark backstage. And dusty. The air was a miasma of sweat and hairspray. Those smells and that dust drifted into my brain and my heart like a drug. A very addictive drug. I inhaled. I’ve been hooked since that very first day.
That December, my daughter danced in her first Nutcracker. She was a clown. (That reminds me of a line from “Love, Actually” – “I didn’t know there were lobsters at the first Christmas.”) My husband and I worked as part of the backstage crew. We still do. We’ll never stop. Not until our bodies are too decrepit or the director bars the door when she sees us shuffling up the sidewalk with our walkers.
The minute I hear the first strains of Tchaikovsky’s overture, I am swept into the vortex of the magic of the Nutcracker. I love the dancing and the performance on stage. We perform a completely different dance backstage. One with precise choreography and training, but out of necessity, allowing much more improvisation. I love that one, too.
These images float in and out of my psyche. With apologies for the raw verse:
Ropes, weights, lights, drops, sets, props
Cute little mouse
Listen to the music cues
Make sure you check their shoes
Can’t have any laces showing
Dancers on adrenaline
With butterflies in stomachs
Stretch and twist to loosen limbs
Check the pointe shows once again
Adjust the costume, pat the hair
Breathe in and out, remember how
Wait In the wings, cue says “go now”
Dressed in black from head to toe
Crew performs its silent show
With flashlights, glue guns, drills, and motors
See everything, hear everything, in the know
Always be a step ahead
We’re ready with a light when needed
Or a prop forgotten
Handle backstage crowd control
Make sure the stage is set
Collect guns and swords as they come off
Remember to keep track of props
Possessed candles blink on and off at will
Drumsticks disappear at every single show
How we do it, I’ll never know
Backstage, dancers hurry
Running across in the dark
They don’t collide
They have bat senses
Or quick reflexes
I don’t know which
Too tired to talk
Too tired to sleep
By the end of the week
Do I have to go to school?
Do I have to go to work?
Thank you, Ann, for the many years of joy. We’re not done.
Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota, early 1919
With his gut churning, Clarence Samuel Swenson tensed against the wave of dizziness, a holdover from his head injury. “I will not pass out, I will not pass out,” he chanted to himself. He hated this weakness. He had been injured while in army training and never even left the country. He spent most of his time in the army in New York, first in a hospital, then in a rehabilitation center.
He had taken the train to Minneapolis to give his regards to Cecil. He and Jens, her fiancé, had become good friends in boot camp. Clarence closed his eyes and sent a quick prayer to Jens. He hoped he hadn’t suffered too much when he was killed in battle so far from home.
Clarence meant to send a letter introducing himself, but he wasn’t good with letters. He hoped Cecil would see him, talk with him without a proper introduction.
“Excuse me, Miss Hauge?” Clarence asked, “may I introduce myself? My name is Clarence Swenson. I was a friend of Jens’.” Clarence removed his hat and bowed.
Cecil froze at the mention of Jens’ name. Her pain was still sharp. But curiosity got the better of her. “Yes, I am Cecil Hauge. How did you know Jens?”
“We were in boot camp together and became good friends. He talked about you. He couldn’t wait to get home to marry you. His family told me where to find you. I don’t mean any harm or disrespect. I just want to pay my respects. Jens was a good man.”
“Yes, he was,” Cecil whispered, “a very good man.”
“Will you let me buy you coffee and we can talk more about him?” asked Clarence.
“I know I am being forward, but it would feel good to talk about Jens. Your friend is welcome to come along.”
Cecil wasn’t sure she wanted to talk about Jens but felt that Clarence needed to. And, she wasn’t going to step out with a man just after meeting him without her best friend Christine by her side.
“I was born in Tacoma, Washington,” Clarence told the girls over coffee and cake.“We moved a lot, my parents and sister and I. My father was always chasing his dreams. I was called up to join the army. Jens and I met on the first day at camp. We had so much in common, both of us first generation Americans with Norwegian parents.”
Cecil liked Clarence’s quiet demeanor, his serious eyes. He looked kind. “I think I want to see him again”, she told Christine as they walked home to the boarding house where they had lodgings.
Clarence was lost in his own thoughts. Why did he just notice how blue here eyes were? How they sparkled when she laughed. “I think I want to see her again,” he said to himself as he walked to the hotel where he had a room.
Brachiosaurus loved adventures. “I want to go exploring, “she told her friend Stegosaurus. “Come with me. It will be fun.”
Brachiosaurus and Stegosaurus decided to explore behind the chicken coop. They squeezed and squeezed and squeezed in order to fit. “Wow, it sure is smaller back here than I remember”, said Brachiosaurus. “Maybe it is because we are bigger now than when we were chicks”, explained Stegosaurus.
It was shady and cool behind the chicken coop and they had fun hiding from the other chickens all day. “Brachiosaurus, Stegosaurus, where are you?” called Triceratops. “Sshh,” whispered Stegosaurus when Brachiosaurus giggled. “Be quiet or they will find us.”
After a while, it started to get dark. The two explorers weren’t having fun anymore. They were hungry, and it was time for bed. Brachiosaurus pushed and pushed but she couldn’t budge. “Oh, no, we’re stuck!” cried Stegosaurus. “Help! Help!” they both clucked as loudly as they could. But no one heard them.
By now, it was very dark and cold, and Brachiosaurus and Stegosaurus just wanted to sleep in their roost with their chicken friends. “Stegosaurus, let’s push together. Maybe we can squeeze our way out of here”, said Brachiosaurus. They counted, One, Two, Three, and the pushed and pushed and pushed. It felt a little bigger behind the chicken coop. They counted again, One, Two, Three, and stretched their legs as long as they could. They pushed, and pushed, and pushed.
“I can move!” yelled Stegosaurus. “Yay!” Stegosaurus and Brachiosaurus slowly squeezed out of their hiding place. They climbed up to the sleeping roost and went to bed.
Since that day, Brachiosaurus and Stegosaurus don’t go on adventures. They are happy scratching in their yard, laying eggs, and playing with the other chickens.
I could eat turkey sandwiches and Thanksgiving leftovers until the cows come home. But the cows are now long home and in their barns. They’ve been milked. And fed. And put to bed. And milked again. Leftovers have been eaten. I really do love Thanksgiving leftovers. I could write an Ode, but I won’t.
Dibs and dabs – or drips and drabs – of leftover potatoes and gravy are gone. They had their day and it was glorious. What we call, “turkey carcass stock” has been simmered, strained and frozen.
Now, we turn to the other year-end holidays. I always turn with reluctance. I hate to leave the shared bounty of late fall. But, cozy fires in the fireplace (and nowhere else!), cookies, special family recipes, small get-togethers to celebrate the season with sparkles and fun, are nice to anticipate.
This is a spiritual time for me, a time for reflection in the flickering light of candles. To think about the past year as well as the next. To sense the earth turning towards the coming new year, still sleeping, but anticipating; knowing days will become longer and the sun become brighter soon.
After high school, I was accepted into an honors humanities and history program at a local university, which would fulfill all my non-math-and-science prerequisites. I accepted! I wanted to study science. If I could get those pesky prerequisites out of the way quickly, I would be on my way to becoming a scientist.
I was late to my humanities class, having changed my schedule to accommodate my science classes. I didn’t know the professor and didn’t know what kind of reception I would get, walking in late. At the door, I straightened my shoulders, took a deep breath, walked as quietly as I could into the room, and sat down in an open wedge in the circle of students sitting on the floor. Across the diagonal of the circle was a cute guy with long blond hair, blue eyes, and a smart-aleck attitude. I ignored him.
We met in the professor’s office, sitting on the floor, because there was no other space on campus. The professor had a comfortable paunch, grey hair, big sideburns, round cheeks, and he wore a cardigan sweater with leather inserts on the elbows. He rubbed his hands gleefully and got ready to try to teach philosophy to a bunch of teenagers. Because we were still teenagers.
Weeks later, after we had read the works of WAY too many philosophers in m opinion, we were given an assignment to write an essay comparing and contrasting their different points of view. I rolled my eyes and made my way to the science building, where I thought I belonged. With frogs and microscopes and the smell of formaldehyde.
Later that night, sitting in the study in my parents’ house trying to write my essay, my attention was drawn to 2 birds that were sitting on the telephone wires outside the window. I kept staring, and daydreaming; avoiding the assignment. My imagination soared out to where the birds were sitting.
I wrote an essay about birds sitting on a telephone wire, unaware that they were witness to countless conversations, and what would happen if they somehow interrupted them. How would conversations change? How would ideas differ? How much power would these birds have and what would they do with it? I turned in my essay, thinking the professor would give me a failing grade and kick me out of his class for not taking the assignment seriously.
WRONG. We assembled ourselves in our circle on the floor and the professor walked to the center gleefully. He bounced on his crepe soled shoes, rubbing his hands together yet again. A habit. He smiled from ear to ear. “We have something special today”, he said. “One of the essays was brilliant. It earned an A and I will give it another A if the writer will allow it to be read. Wow, I thought, someone took this seriously. Was it that guy across the circle?
Then the professor looked at me. NO. You can’t possibly be talking about my essay! But he was. And he read it. And he talked about how beautifully it referenced existentialism. I wanted to crawl under my desk. I was mortified. I thought I had failed, and he thought I was brilliant. That cute guy across the circle thought I was nuts. I shouldn’t have written from my imagination.
But I did. And after raising two wonderful daughters and after a successful career in finance, not science, I am again pulled towards writing and letting my imagination run free. That cute guy and I have been married for 42 years. And he still thinks I’m nuts.
South Dakota, Winter 1888
Elias shivered against the icy wind and pulled his overcoat closer. He rewound his muffler tighter around his neck and pushed at the fingers of his fur lined gloves. He thought, for the thousandth time, “it is colder here than in Norway.”
After landing in New York four years ago, Elias had made his way slowly west, always searching for his golden ring. It remained frustratingly out of reach. He worked as a stevedore in Chicago for a while, then got bored, or dissatisfied, he didn’t know which. He had itchy feet. He kept heading west. He landed and lost numerous jobs. His current job as a ranch hand paid good money and he was on his way to meet his fiancée. Sarah was a pretty young woman, a Norwegian immigrant like himself. Unlike him, Sarah was strong, humble, and hard working. Elias was a dreamer, always in search of the next adventure, sure that riches were right around the corner. His handsome face and easy smile made him friends, got him jobs, and, way too often, got him in trouble. They were married on December 4, 1888, a cold, white, wintry day on the high plains of South Dakota.
Elias’ feet were itchy again. He was tired of the cold winds off the plains and the endless fields of wheat. He was tired of ranching. “Sarah” he called, “pack up the baby. It’s time to move on. Westward Ho.”
This is delicious. I compiled it from several sources and changed some of the amounts of ingredients used. If you want a spicier broth, sprinkle in some red pepper flakes.
Clams in Ginger Miso Broth
24 small fresh Manilla clams
2 cups water plus more for soaking
¼ cup cornmeal
1 thumb size piece of fresh ginger, minced
1 large clove of garlic, minced
1 ½ tsp white miso paste
1 tsp low sodium soy sauce
1 large scallion, thinly sliced
Handful of cilantro leaves, torn
1 tsp avocado oil
When we last saw Sessel (now Cecil), she had moved to Minnesota, changed her name, found a job, and met a new friend. I tried to write more of her story, especially about the young man she was trying so hard to ignore. But, her future father in law kept barging in. So, here's some of his story.
Stavanger Norway, February 1884
Elias Swenson was excited and afraid at the same time. He was 16 and his father had finally consented to allow Elias to join his crew as a cabin boy. They were sailing for New York at first light, a voyage that would take them a month or more depending on weather and the winds.
An hour after they set sail on that clear February morning, Elias took a few minutes to hang over the rail on deck and look around. He saw whales blowing, a sure sign of schools of herring below. His stomach rumbled at the thought of herring for dinner. Then he realized that he might have to help cook. His enthusiasm waned. He thought cooking was women’s work. Beneath him.
After a month at sea and bone grindingly hard work, Elias’ hands were calloused and his skin tanned. He was also sick and tired of ships and the sea. His father put down his brass and wooden spyglass and smiled widely. He offered the spyglass to Elias. “Look son, there’s New York. We’ll dock at the outer harbor quarantine station first, then go through Ellis Island. Elias smiled as well, but his smile was wily and sly. He planned to jump ship in New York. He had no plans to go back to Norway.
Stumbling through back alleys near the docks in New York, Elias ducked into a doorway and hid. He was shivering and his stomach growling, but he didn’t mind the discomfort. It wouldn’t last. He planned to make his fortune here. Waiting until he was sure his father’s ship had sailed, he stood up, groaning, and left his hiding place in search of food and passage to Chicago. He had heard there were jobs for young men in Chicago.