Chasing Dreams, Achieving a Life With Ingenuity


Oh, I’ve done it; you’ve done it – admit it.

All the people I’ve come across at one time have done it.

We’ve said, “How come I never became a musician? “No? Maybe we asked, “Why wasn’t I an actor?” Still not it? Perhaps we asked “Why didn’t I … play sports/study for my masters/ take dance lessons/run for political office/start that baking business/Why didn’t I write that book?”

Getting closer?

Somewhere in your journey of life you came up short, despaired that you never excelled at that one thing that you enjoy or admire or maybe you did go after that dream or you didn’t break through to achieve eminence, fame, prosperity – whatever term fits the talent or industry to the road you didn’t take.

With the Olympics upon us, the questions may center on physical success. What of the many athletes who spend “their best years” trying out and not making the team? Or never gaining the sponsorships needed to just devote every waking second to come up to the quality needed to be on the world stage? 

Chances are, you’ve wondered, “Why didn’t it all come together for me?” Have you dared to ask aloud and heard the responses?

Let’s hum together. The airwaves are full of songs that exalt this theme: “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” (Rolling Stones), “You Got a Fast Car” (Tracy Chapman), “Glory Days” (Bruce Springsteen) and “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” (U-2).

 Killing Bono: I was Bono’s Doppelganger by Neil McCormick is an autobiographical book based on the author’s efforts to break into pop music as the front man of several bands simultaneous to Bono and U-2’s ramp up to fame in the 1980s and ‘90s. McCormick details his unbridled passion for music, living on the brink of poverty in order to live the life, rehearse, perform, lay day demo tracks, get music into the hands of agents and recording companies all while schoolmates Paul Hewson (Bono), David Evans (The Edge), Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr., became international rock stars.

McCormick’s treatise on fame, envy, insanity is at times painful and other times laugh-out-loud funny because of his downright honest take on his all-in lust for making it.  McCormick and brother Ivan’s bands included Frankie Corpse and the Undertakers, The Modulators, Yeah, Yeah!, and Shook Up! Frustratingly, he and his band mates falter because of bad luck or are always one step ahead or behind the industry. One mucky-muck insisted that it was Neil’s haircut that was hindering success.

 The book’s consistent theme centers on our constant compulsion to compare ourselves to others – a seductive, yet destructive way to live. It doesn’t help that frequently Neil and Ivan cross paths with the U-2 gang and the futileness of their musical mission is palpable.

Like a bear getting stung while licking trace honey from the beehive, repeatedly stung, but going back for more, McCormick takes any glimmers of faint praise to fuel his blind sojourn into pop music.

Ultimately, the on-and-off day job that helped pay for this hobby – writing – brought him recognition, fame, a lifestyle that still allows him to dabble in music. Today he is the London Telegraph’s chief rock and pop music critic. He seems to revel in his life of rubbing shoulders with musicians and writing about music from a knowledgeable point of view. Is he satisfied? Not quite. But he seems to have reconciled himself to a life that places him achingly close to that dream.

So many of us struggle with the tension between what we’re drawn to and what we’re good at that reading this book is a refreshing peek into a life of chasing dreams and then finding new ones that position us where our true talents lie.

Constant Companions: Friends and Books

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We’ve known each other longer than I want to say in print – suffice it to say that we met the first week of high school. Since then, we’ve matriculated through college, and one of us grad school; we’ve lived together as roommates, travelled some real and figurative roads together and apart, dated some frogs, broken up, dated again, married, and born children; we’ve talked through teething, teaching, sibling treachery and teens; each of us has buried a parent and weathered life’s disappointments.

Three friends who have lived in other places, again live in the same town, so we set up a book club in order to stay in touch. Like many book clubs, it’s friendship at the core – not the books themselves –that bind us.

We go on stints of meeting every month and then life interferes and we lay off for six months or more. Unlike some formalized clubs that have standing appointments, our troika seldom whips out a calendar to plan the next meeting, let alone the entire year. Why? Because we know it’s gonna happen. One day I’ll look at the phone and there’s a text from S_ with a heads up, or another time it’ll be me putting out the word in an email “Next week?”

Translation by Anthony Briggs.

Are we all on the same page, literarily? Heck no, but we’re all game and I guess that’s one of the reasons it works. For instance, when B_ proposed a couple of years back, “Let’s read War & Peace” I thought she was simply a wackadoodle. Certainly we’d delved into some pretty heady titles, but had our share of Chic-Lit, too. I believed the myths that it was too hard, too long, too many characters. No, B_ convinced us we are stunningly intelligent, capable and tenacious women. And so we took up the W&P challenge. I hefted that baby everywhere I went, reading on airplanes, dance class, beaches and on top of the bed. (Listen, if I get under the covers, it’s all over!) We broke the volume into thirds and met every other month during that time and I fell in love with Leo Tolstoy and his magnum opus. Three cheers for our trio – we did it and celebrated by eating at three different restaurants, French, Ethiopian and German (yeah, we’re a little bereft of Russian food here). Our translation was highly readable and by golly, I actually want to read it all over again. Someday.

Our latest book, the Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman, is itself a study of the relationship between women. Hoffman was inspired by a trip to Jerusalem, when she visited a place called Masada, a fortress built by Herod the Great that is situated on top of a large mountain, where a group of nine hundred Jews in the first century CE, who had fled their homelands from the invading Romans converged to escape the slaughter of their people.

The story is told from the points of view of four of the “imagination(fiction)created” women: The Assassin’s daughter-Yael, The Baker’s Wife-Revka, The Warrior’s Beloved-Aziza, and The Witch of Moab-Shirah.

Despite and because of the tragedies that led these four meet at the fortress, they form a familial-like compact.  “Love made you give yourself away; it bound you to this world, and to another’s fate.”

These characters, just like us, don’t always agree about religion, politics, working, or child-rearing, but together they are strong, resourceful, intelligent, sensitive and enduring. The quote after the title page says it all: “Let your burden be your burden and yours be mine.”

Next , we’ll read and talk about Girl Gone. I don’t know if that will become a classic, will elicit intense discussion or if I’ll care at all. While the measure of a good book is what you carry away from it, the measure of our friendship is that it can’t be measured, can’t be quantified, can’t be calibrated. It’s that it fortifies and strengthens my spirit until the next time.

Muir Enchantments

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July sun sets at Zephyr Cove, Lake Tahoe.
Photo credit E. Williams

In my happy place, the one I come back to again and again to refresh my spirit, I am closer here – Zephyr Cove, Nevada – to true self, centered on what is good, what is beautiful, what is joyful and what is pure. All at once, like a child again, I frolic on this beach at Lake Tahoe, drawing in the scent of pine after the cleansing rain downpour earlier today. Ambrosia.

The summer rain has calmed the surf, coaxing clear waters to reflect the brilliant sky above while the Sierra range itself acts as arbiter between heaven and earth. By sunset, the mountain peaks take shades of amaranthine, plum, cerulean and dun, the edges softened by the setting sun.

My heightened appreciation for the panoramic scenery this past week is due to finishing John Muir’s “The Mountains of California,” the first of his fourteen books (some published posthumously) devoted to the picturesque Sierra Nevada Mountain range.

Muir’s prose reflects his love and commitment to nature. A scientist by training, a naturalist in spirit and a writer prompted by the dire need for conservation, Muir emulated Emerson and Thoreau in style. But only his eye-witness to California and Nevada’s majestic treasure – the Sierra range – could inspire the voices of preservation that became the Sierra Club and gave birth to the national parks system.

The descriptions vary from the most minute — a example being the botanical studies of 20 species of alpine trees complete with their height, shape of cone, branch width and the animals each helps to sustain – to wide-sweeping grand representations such as of the mountain meadow ascribing the divine in nature. You are with him as he takes you by the hand for one of his walks in the Tuolumne Soda Springs:

“Bees hum as in a harvest noon, butterflies waver above the flowers, and like them you lave in the vital sunshine, too richly and homogenously joy-filled to be capable of partial thought. You are all eye, sifted through and through with light and beauty. Sauntering along the brook that meanders silently through the meadow from the east, special flowers call you back to discriminating consciousness. The sod comes curving down to the water’s edge, forming bossy outswelling banks, and in some places overlapping countersunk boulders and forming bridges. Here you find mats of the curious dwarf willow scarce an inch high, yet sending up a multitude of gray silky catkins, illumined here and there with the purple cups and bells of bryanthus and vaccinium.”

Reverential to nature, from time to time, Muir pokes fun at himself as his description of being stuck on a glacier, being entertained by a squirrel or hanging out in a tall pine in the midst of a blizzard. His writing comes from a genuine love for this glorious landscape. For Muir before me, captures the feeling I also have for mountain skies that their planes are painted with light, and symbolize for me, divinity. He often described his observations in terms of light. See here his description of the clouds dappled with sun:

“No mountain or mountain-range, however divinely clothed with light, has a more enduring charm than those fleeting mountains of the sky—floating fountains bearing water for every well, the angels of the streams and lakes; brooding in the deep azure, or sweeping softly along the ground over ridge and dome, over meadow, over forest, over garden and grove; lingering with cooling shadows, refreshing every flower, and soothing rugged rock-brows with a gentleness of touch and gesture wholly divine.”

My “Happy Place” is now irrevocably married in my mind with Muir’s prose that reflects our deep and abiding love of this western panorama.

The Gathering: Citizens with the Saints

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It’s actually here – The Gathering. That thing on the calendar that felt like it would never get here for Madeleine, our 15-year-old. Her dream of soaking up New Orleans in the cradle of jazz (at least to her mind) in the company of friends filled her with anticipation.

At the same time that corresponding trip for us has been a series of meetings, emails, fundraisers, a bit of anxiety – for me, it came up fast. Like life itself the young sense that time is dragging while the old(er) feel time accelerating.

Still, at the appointed time, the day came and now the adventure. Exactly what is this Gathering? The ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America) Youth  Gathering  for 2012 is appropriately themed “Citizens with the Saints,” blending  the rich faith history, diverse cultures and arts of New Orleans with the convention’s mission to service the city’s public education system, shrinking wetlands and housing. Right now 35,000 Lutheran teens have converged on Louisiana’s Big Easy to collaborate with nearly 50 different organizations during its outreach efforts, including the New Orleans Recreation Department, New Orleans Community and Schools Organization, United Saints, St. Bernard Project, UNITY New Orleans, Beacon of Hope, Second Harvest Food Bank and Common Ground Relief to use their hands to embody the three core practices the youth will be exposed to: Discipleship, Peacemaking and Justice.

We saw off Madeleine, seven other church youth and two chaperones two days ago. Already we have word that they have been working on rehabilitating a home in one of the Katrina-affected parishes (still damaged and rotting after seven years) followed by a come-together gathering at the Superdome with all the attendees with community music and prayer.

The view from inside the Superdome.

What else will they encounter as individuals, a small group and as a sea of youth? Possibly life-changing, certainly memorable, Madeleine will have tales to tell and much to process. Will she experience the dream she had in her head, or not? We pray that it will it exceed her expectations or change her in positive ways.  Armed with still camera and video camera, she hoped to come home with a visual record of the five-day trip.

Improvising with skill, like the jazz city playing host, the adolescents will be sharing a multitude of viewpoints of faith, God, belief, spiritualism, and their own journeys and then blend that with their own internal faith. The hope is that the sharing of faith and working together in community will enable each participant to acquire those skills and use them to broaden their own stories as caring Christians for decades to come. And as Donald Miller says in his book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I learned While Editing My Life:

“And once you live a good story, you get a taste for a kind of meaning in life, and you can’t go back to being normal; you can’t go back to meaningless scenes stitched together by the forgettable thread of wasted time.”

In Ephesians Chapter 2 we read: “Jesus is our peace. In his life and death on the cross, Jesus broke down the dividing walls so that we are no longer strangers and outsiders, but we are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God. The foundation of God’s house was built of apostles and prophets, and Jesus, the cornerstone, holds it all together.”

My fervent hope is that we all get that – that Madeleine receive it now at The Gathering and/or through other experiences and many other times in her life. But more expansively, that we all use our life as a positive story that has meaning, glee, playfulness, justice, peace, connectedness and LOVE in Christ.

Hero in the Household

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For the past 7 months we’ve had the privilege of having a hero living in our midst. Last year we had a famous English author and in 2010 we shared our space with an international fashion designer. No, this isn’t the Ritz, it isn’t even the Betty Ford Center. Our daughter, Marjorie, has been a Young Chautauquan for the past five years.

In the late 1870s through 1920s, Chautauqua (She-taw-kwa) was the adult education movement in the U.S. taking its name from the shores of Chautauqua Lake in upstate New York where it was born. The format “hit the circuit” with performers raising a tent under which to perform music, provide religious education, give political speeches. The backbone of the presentations were lectures. The tradition died off for some 70 years as radio and television became the pervasive form of entertainment in America. However, in the 1990s, Humanities programs across the US re-introduced this concept with a twist: a Chautauquan today is a scholar who portrays a significant figure in history by delivering a dramatic monologue in costume and in character. Following the presentation and while still in character, the Chautauquan answers audience questions about the life and time of his or her own character. This allows the audience to have a conversation with, say, George Washington or Louisa May Alcott. Then the Chautauquan steps out of character to take additional questions from the audience creating a unique learning experience for both the audience and the scholar.

Marjorie’s group, the Silver State Young Chautauqua Program chose the theme Heroes in History for 2012. For her, this meant one person – a hero to her mind – Miep Gies.  The Dutch citizen (Austrian by birth) who was raised as a foster child in the Netherlands applied for the post of temporary secretary for the company Opekta in Amsterdam. The company sold a pectin preparation used for making jams. She initially ran the complaints and information desk and became a close friend of the owner, Otto Frank. In 1935, after refusing to join a Nazi women’s association, she was nearly deported but avoided that uncertain fate by marrying her longtime fiancé Jan Gies. The two became the trusted protectors of Otto, Edith, Margot and Anne Frank and the van Pell Family. Miep became a close friend of the family and was a great support to them during the two years they spent in hiding. She retrieved Anne Frank’s diary after the family was arrested and kept the papers safe until Otto Frank returned from Auschwitz. She gave Otto the diary that has helped millions worldwide to identify one person – Anne — one family – the Franks — with the 6 million who died in the holocaust.

Meip GiesBringing history to life and giving life to history, is all of these things: fun, educational, personal, fulfilling, challenging. For Marjorie the research is at least ¾ of the fun. Because of her love of books, she thrills in going to the library, finding resources, talking to librarians, making of mission of finding first-person resources and fleshing out the stories. The main source to her work this year was “Anne Frank Remembered,” a memoir by Gies. Workshops for five months help the young people create the characters and prepare them for question and answer time. The performance piece takes Marjorie into new realms and this year, because Anne Frank (played by special friend Jade) is onstage with Miep, the process has been cooperative and instructive.

And now it’s show time. The young historians present their characters this week under the big tent as part of Reno’s community-wide Artown celebration. More information about the festival is here.

As for us, the heroine will live on in our hearts. Getting to know this character has brought home Miep’s notion that “even an ordinary secretary or housewife or teenager can, with their own small ways, turn on a small light in a dark room.”

Thank you Miep for making a safe haven, for shielding the persecuted, for comforting the hidden, for preserving the memory and for serving as a caring example of how to be.

Ode to Used Books

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The great objection to new books is that they prevent our reading old ones.
– Joseph Joubert

So ran my thoughts this week while browsing the aisles at Zephyr Books, a nearby used book store in Reno, Nevada. I have no ax to bear against any new book-seller – be it a large store with the newest best-sellers or a small independent bookstore with its ability to tap into the local readers’ interests. But I am so grateful that this third platform exists – that of the used book merchant whose stock and trade is providing an avenue into vintage books – still good, still reliable, still pertinent – but perhaps the publisher no longer stocks or prints those books or the books don’t enjoy the 2012 critics circle awards or a big push by literary publicists. The Barnes and Nobles of the world have limited space and want to market to the masses – what was hot two years ago, needs to go, go go to make room for the latest celebrity exercise craze or Part #215 of Janet  Evanovich’s Plum series.

In weaving the aisles of Zephyr’s organized shelves I marveled the copious categories of books and felt reassured that these volumes have a loving temporary home organized and upright in rough alpha order rather being put in someone’s shed or being thrown in a landfill. For these authors – every one  of them – still have a story to tell or information to impart beyond the suggested “Buy Before” or presumed “Best-by” date that is arbitrarily assigned by the New-to-You stores.

Not bound to be classics, like Jane Eyre or Catcher in the Rye, the books here are the magnum opus of another order – the literary Rembrandts of the 1990s or the niche books about geography or painting or Chinese politics that just never hit the stock shelves of the Wal-Mart that are well researched, polished and ready for your — and my — bookshelves.

The staff is friendly and willing to chat it up with you and they have a fun coffee bar to boot.

My Saturday sojourn companion was daughter Marjorie – 12 years old and brimming with Book Love/Lust – just like her Mama. Her quest was to gather books for a “new” bookshelf (more on that later) in one of six genres. “I need a book on Russia, Mom, or something from the 1920s” – such is her eclectic quest for knowledge. We walked out with a WWII book, a mystery and a realistic fiction.

But before our spree was over, we spotted three special books nestled in the Nevada section authored by my dad – her granddad. Yes, of course we have them at home, treasured for all time, but to see dad’s tomes displayed knowing that they are waiting for a special owner to purchase them, read and cherish them, did my heart good. A professional journalist, Dad had wonderful stories to share: “Sonny Boy” is an autobiography; “Nevadans” and “101 Nevada Columns” are a “Best Of” selection of his columns from the Reno Gazette-Journal where he (Rollan Melton) wrote from 1984 to 2002. His books never made national headlines or garnered reviews in the Times, but he imparted good news about our neighbors, neighborhoods and our state. Without this used book outlet – this dealer in our yesterday texts —  Rollie’s fundamental stories and talents would be relegated to a pulp mill. With it, readers and writers can find a new friend.

When it comes to Reading, It’s Our “Thing”


“John Wilkes Booth is dead,” I announced.

Silence in the car from our 15-year-old daughter. She gave me that look that said, “Are you messing with me?” Suddenly a hint of recognition,  “Oh, your book. Does this have to do with your book?”

“Yes, John Wilkes Booth is dead in my book, as well as in real life! I’ve been holding my breath.”

Quest of Lincoln's KillerManhunt by James L. Swanson IS a page-turner and a thriller proving that when a deft writer takes on a chapter in history, researches the subject, the characters, the mood of the nation, the region and scenes where the events took place and then guides his reader through this window into the past so adeptly, we can step into his time machine with him and not only understand, but thirst for more.

Now that I had Madeleine’s attention (the 15-year-old) we had a good laugh and talked about the realizations I had come to after reading the book and how I had forgotten the true circumstances of Booth’s run from Union forces and his ultimate discovery. Through my enthusiasm for the topic, her inquiries increased and our morning drive flew by.

Books have always been a connecting influence in our family. That’s bound to happen when the DNA on both sides of the family have readers, writers and editors, but mostly it’s the stories we share – oral or written – that bind us together as family and give our own family a shared history and shared passion for story-telling. I’m so glad that we have that “thing.” For some families it’s music or math, for others politics or practical jokes, still others can talk sports or the outdoors, while others focus on religion or medicine, or maybe it’s hunting or gardening – You get the picture. Sadly, some families don’t have that “thing.” That thread that can be picked up each time members re-unite. They can only talk about the weather or the Kardashians. And I’m glad our touchstone encompasses of stories and books because they are a source of comfort, of meditation, of escape, of learning, and of laughter. AND favorite books and stories can be passed through the generations for their very own time travel machine.

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