"What have you been up to, AnnMarie?" she asked, plopping her suitcase on the kitchen floor and opening her arms for a hug. It had been a year since I'd seen her, and even though I knew her question was sincere, I simply didn't have the energy at that moment to tell her. So I said, "Not much. The usual."
NOT MUCH? THE USUAL? I am not in the habit of telling whoppers, but as I look back over the year just past, I know that she really didn't have time right then to listen to all that has gone on since last I saw her. And don't we all do that? Instead of pouring out the bucket of words that reveal the true answer to "How are you", or "What have you been up to?", we give trite answers, such as, "Fine" and, "Not much."
Even now as I look at the date of my last blog post, I see that it has been a long time since I updated. I think it is time, and I'll begin with a review of 2016, which was, without a doubt, one of the most remarkable years I've ever had, and one I could not have ever predicted.
January and February were "usual" for the most part. I was contracted to cook meals for a series of weekend retreats in Northern Michigan. Quilters. A dozen ladies each week gathered to sew, and I kept them fed. It was a fun 5 weeks in a picture-perfect wintry setting, and the time might have been idyllic except for the breast biopsy at the end of January. I am thankful that the results came back in my favor, but it was, in a word, unpleasant.
Also during that time my mother, then 91 years old, developed pneumonia. We thought we were going to lose her, but she pulled through. Miracles do happen every day.
In March, I had the honor of performing my quilt-themed songs at the American Quilt Society's Quilt Week in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. My sister-friend, Delphine Miller and I presented "Sisters' Choice", a musical trunk show, and I presented a writing workshop, "The Final Stitch" the next day. Driving together from Michigan to Pennsylvania and back was fun, and we were pleased to discover that we got along very well, even spending 24 hours a day together for the better part of a week. We watched late winter turn to mid-spring and back again as we traveled, viewed hundreds of stunning quilts at the AQS show, and deepened our friendship along the way.
April... What can I say about April, except although I had never dreamt that I'd ever visit the Middle East, I spent two weeks in the United Arab Emirates, which was an unforgettable experience. Sharjah is the Emirate just east of Dubai, and host of the Sharjah International Children's Reading Festival, where I was greatly honoured to teach creative writing workshops to hundreds of bright young people. As I look back at that experience, I know that the lessons I learned far outweigh any lessons I taught. I look at the world through different eyes; eyes that I like to think see past clothing styles, skin color, language, and customs, to hearts, minds, and the things that bind us all as humans. Universal similarities like respect for ourselves and others, family bonds, laughter, the desire to be heard and understood, a sense of home. I ate foods I could not name, but that I miss. I experienced heat like I'd never known and jet lag for the first time. I rode a camel, found a flower blooming in the desert, made friends from around the world, and find myself wanting to go back someday.
Just a week after returning to Michigan from UAE, April ended and May began with the North of 45 Retreat for Writers; an annual event in Curtis, MI where writers of all levels and styles gather to play with words and take a break from day-to-day distractions. We had a lovely time as the weather warmed along with our hearts. As I write, I am thinking about the coming retreat, and looking forward to reuniting with old friends and making some new ones.
Just a week after the Writers' Retreat, I got on a plane and flew to England. I used to think Europe was a long way away, but on the heels of the trip to to UAE (14 1/2 hours of air time from Detroit) the 6 hour flight to Manchester from Toronto seemed like nothing at all! I went as a bit of a tag-along with my partner's band, RPR, which was on tour in the UK for 5 weeks. Sure, I carried some sound gear into venues and helped with sound checks and CD sales, but mostly I just got in the van and saw the greenest, most flower-filled place I've ever known. Mid-May through early June in England was spectacular, The tulips were just fading when we arrived, and by the time I boarded a plane to come back home, the poppies were blooming alongside the roads. Everything that could produce a flower, did. Highlights were Evensong at Yorkminster, Lincoln Castle, walking the city walls of York, visiting my friend Christine (who I met in UAE!) and, contrary to common belief, the food! English cuisine is grossly underrated. I was struck by the contrast between the endless tan of the desert landscape I'd experienced in Sharjah and the boundless green of England. Completely opposite, equally stunning places.
My plane touched down just days before the June session of Author Quest, and I was back to words and children and all things familiar in my home state of Michigan. Author Quest is for kids, ages 10 - 13 who love to write. Since 2007 it's been a place where kids who feel a little bit "odd" in their passion for words on paper find their "tribe" and feel like what they do is as natural as breathing, which it is for some of us. The depth of thought and feeling that comes out in youth writing is astonishing. Some people wonder their whole lives what their purpose on this planet is. I need only to think of Author Quest, and I know that the role I play there is my "why".
It takes place three times a year; June, August, and December, and between the three, about 150 young writers make their way to camp. I have the privilege of working with some of the finest people I know, all with the same desire; to create opportunities for kids to reach the stars.
In October I launched another Writers' Retreat, Word Compass, which is much like North of 45, but smaller, and "family style". It took place in a big log house in northern Michigan, and will be repeated this year. It's open to anyone who writes, or likes to read, stare off into space, draw, or hang out with people who do those things.
Christmas was extra special,and bittersweet, as the whole family was together for the first time in many years. It's difficult to get everyone in one place when there are in-law families to consider, miles, and jobs to coordinate. But we all gathered at Maple Lawn, where Mom lives, for a meal, gifts, laughter, and many tears as mom told us that it would likely be the last Christmas we'd all have together. How fortunate we are to have had that time. How sharply we all felt the truth of her words, spoken with the kind of strength I've not heard from her in a long time. As Parkinson's Disease and age take a little more of her every day, I am grateful for every moment with her. She still plays the organ in the day room; sometimes with the skill that has been hers for decades, and other times when her frustration is heavy. She'll be 93 in May, God willing.
The rest of the year was somewhat ordinary, meaning that I did a lot of driving to interview people, wrote a lot, sang my songs for people, crossed the US-Canadian border a few times to be with my partner, whiled away a good number of days in the garden, and was ever mindful of how blessed I am to live the life I do.
Now that we're well into 2017, I mean to do a better job of keeping up with blogging. So if you, like my friend at the first 2017 quilt retreat, wonder what I'm up to lately, maybe you'll stop back here to find out. I'll try not to let you down.
Until next time.