A long time ago, I golfed with my Grandma Eiesland to spend some time with her. She is 96 now and no longer golfs — just walks and does exercises on her own. My grandmother is one of those stoics who bore ten children like it was no big deal. She got married right before the depression hit. She and my grandpa ran off to the next town to marry. She wore her second-best dress. When the grasshoppers ate all their crops in South Dakota (even the fenceposts), they packed their five children up and headed west to my hometown, Ridgefield, Washington, where they settled to farm the rich land and have the remaining five children.
So, I was golfing with her because I liked spending time with her. To me she’s one of those legends who doesn’t see it that way. She acts like doing what she did was just doing what anybody would do — that it wasn’t any big deal. But to me, it’s all romanticised, fascinanting, and legendary.
At one of the last holes, I teed up and whacked it. The result was like many previous. The ball flew straight toward the green, veered sharply to the right, and smacked a tree.
“Grandma, what am I doing wrong? How do I get rid of that slice?” I asked.
She looked at me hard. “Hit it straighter,” she retorted. Then, she grabbed her bag and walked off.
I retold the story to Paul and the girls. When anyone supplies excuses or whines about a seemingly unsolvable problem, one of us will inevitable say, “Hit it straighter.” Grandma’s dictum has become code for “figure it out.”
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a child. When I graduated from high school, I majored in writing and literature in college and landed an internship at a local newspaper. During high school and college, traveling was important too: I visited Mexico, toured Europe twice and lived in Costa Rica for a semester, wandering through Nicaragua and Guatemala.
Then I met Paul. After he arrived at my house after his states trip, Donald introduced him to me saying, “You two are perfect for each other. Paul will take you on adventures and you’ll write about them.” Adventure, traveling, writing seemed to be my natural destiny.
But we had to finish college. Then we had to work to pay for college and the babies came somewhere in the midst of all that. Suddenly, it was ten years later and I found myself up in a little cabin in the Ochoco Mountains of Oregon, 30 miles from any town, living on Paul’s teacher salary, with four daughters chirping for breakfast like baby birds in a nest. I thumbed through magazines like National Geographic Adventure and Travel & Leisure at the dining nook while my kids devoured blueberry pancakes and the new puppy misbehaved in the living room. I felt anything but travel savvy or adventurous. The only leisurely thing about my life was that I was still wearing my ugly pink bathrobe with no foreseeable moment of getting properly dressed. Once I did get dressed, if that was possible, every moment would go into maintenance like preparing something to eat and cleaning up what we ate, laundry, nursing, diapers, baths, and teaching reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic and correcting, nature study and drawing, reading aloud, vacuuming, laundry, and if I wasn’t doing that it was the interminal drive down the mountain to some activity for the girls.
Once a week I left to smash volleyballs down women’s throats — women who had time to highlight their hair and when they opened the door of the car, balls and books and garbage didn’t fall out and roll across the street. Or in the summer, I’d play softball so I could dive in the dirt and slide and hit the ball and get some kind of release.
When I drove to or fro from these excursions, I looked out of the window at the supreme beauty of where I live. That rare quiet moment would inevitably cause a a feeling to well up inside me — a feeling that made me want to weep and cry out with happiness — an unexplainable overwhelming desire to create, to express, to imitate God in setting boundaries on my universe, caging thoughts with words, corralling ideas with phrases.
Sometime up in that cabin, I decided to apply Grandma’s golf advice to my dream of being a writer. We saved for a computer. Then, I got email (Oh, joy!) I searched regional magazines for articles that I liked that I could emulate. I checked out an old Writer’s Market because I couldn’t afford to buy a new one. I only lacked an adventure to write about.
Paul always supplied that. Broke as we were, we always managed to go places for birdwatching. We packed our old, 15-passenger blue van and a trailer with tents, stoves, lanterns, books, etc. (Don’t forget the baby!), even included Paul’s sister, Anne, and sallied forth to San Padre Island in Texas for birding. It was an epic trip. We visited family and friends along the way, hooking up with a friend to bird in Arizona. It took us ten days to get to San Padre Island. When we arrived, we were so excited. We played, napped, and camped on the beach. The next morning we would begin our survey of this exotic birding Mecca.
The next morning, a tornado hit. We escaped, barely. The ocean almost washed our van away. After frantically grabbing items of our camp and throwing them into the trailer or van, we scrambled into Big Blue with wet sand blasted to our bodies and sped over the bridge with radio warnings blaring that it would soon be closed. The birds were long gone and we were due home. We toiled back across the miles, tails tucked between our legs. I thought to myself, “That’s a pretty good story.”
But I didn’t write it. I baked bread and scones, changed diapers, read classics, kissed little cheeks and prayed over little blonde heads at bedtime … and wished I had time to write. I’d open my laptop, answer my email, get mad at myself for not writing anything, try to write about anything, write about something but not finish anything, and then go back to homemaking.
Then, we decided to build a house. A log house. On our own. I stacked logs, grouted floors, painted closets, and installed shelves and bathroom fixtures while fixing dinner and helping my daughters do math, reading aloud, and correcting spelling. Right now, I think to myself, “That’s a pretty good story, too.” But I didn’t write that one either.
It wasn’t until Paul suggested another trip to Malheur Wildlife Refuge that I decided to plan ahead. I found a regional magazine, discovered that it had a section on outdoor adventures with kids, and read the guidelines. Then, I pitched the story to the magazine editor. The editor asked me to write the story on spec, since I had no clips. He also asked me to provide digital photos in 300 megapixel blah, blah, blah! I didn’t own a digital camera! We still used a 35 mm. I had no idea what he was talking about. But casually, confidently, I replied that it was no problem, like… I do this all the time, I am an amazing professional and I totally know what you’re talking about.
I called my dad to ask about the camera lingo. Then, I borrowed my mother-in-law’s camera. I brought my little notepad that I used fifteen years ago when I was reporting for the newspaper. Boy! Was I rusty! Luckily, I met people eager to answer questions and provide information. Then, we adventured while I recorded. We birded and hiked. We took a little detour to visit some volcanic craters. We visited a historic barn built by an infamous cattle baron.
The wonderful thing when I sat down to write was that I had some parameters. I had a purpose. Somehow, setting the boundaries was extremely comfortable to me and helped me to focus and produce from start to finish. I pulled out my old tools from writing for the newspaper. Start with a hook. Finish with correct and updated information. Know your audience. What do your readers want to know? When I submitted it, the editor was kind enough to give me some positive feedback and ask some clarifying questions. He liked the photos and … he was going to publish my article. I was elated.
Life took me for another detour soon after I had that clip in my hand. I decided to go back to work full-time as a teacher. My daughters’ activity schedules got more complicated. Life didn’t get any calmer. It took another year for me to land another assignment. But I just keep telling myself, “No excuses, no whining. Figure it out. Hit it straighter.”
Today, I felt deflated. I felt overwhelmed, confused, and disoriented. I decided to look back and take stock of what I’ve done — to look at my little successes and tiny victories and pile them together to give them a bigger appearance. I’ve got several clips I can use to pitch to other magazines. I’m writing almost everyday. I’ve started a blog. Small successes, for sure, but in my busy world, they count big. It feels like I’m starting a locomotive down the tracks. It’s slow, near impossible to get it going. But as the kids get older, I’ll start chugging along. By the time they’re out of the house, I’ll be on my way. It’s a late start, but at least I never gave up on what I wanted to do.
I’ll always be thankful for those three little words Grandma said to me at the golf course. That generation — the Builders — figured it out. They hit it straighter. They made life better for their kids in difficult times. I think today, these difficult times can serve us by distilling what we really want and give us the courage, discipline, and knowledge to get the ball to where we aim it.