Home Sweet Missouri, Journey

To Fear, Standing Up, and the Indomitable Ms. A

The thing I remember most about my 11th grade English class was Joseph McCarthy.

My high school English teacher died last week. It wasn’t a quiet death, no it was sudden and violent. She was ripped out of the world and those that remain still haven’t come to grips with her departure.

Ms. A was a domestic violence survivor, but I didn’t know that when I sat in her English class my junior year of high school. I learned that recently, nearly fifteen years after she had me in class. She’d begun to write her own story, to give voice to her own experience. Her words, like her voice in the classroom, were a force to behold, simultaneously piercing and cataclysmic. And yet, it seemed that they gave her a sense of peace. Her death, then, was tragically perverse.

I, like many of my classmates and community members, am having a difficult time grappling with the reality of her passing. I keep thinking back to the lessons Ms. A taught me. They’ve echoed and reverberated through my lifetime; I learn and relearn them the older I get. This makes me smile, because isn’t that what every great teacher wants? Their lessons to just keep on educating, year after year?

Way to go, Ms. A.

I don’t really remember anything that I read in high school. I vividly remember all my favorite books from ages 4-14. And I have strong ties to many stories and poems and essays from my years in college and graduate school and beyond. But the four years of high school are a literary black hole in my life. I could psychoanalyze that but I think the easiest explanation is that I was preoccupied with a million other things. Read: I was an adolescent.

So, when I think of Ms. A, I struggle to remember what we read. What I remember was Joseph McCarthy. We studied the literature of the 1950’s and what I remember from that unit was an in-depth examination of McCarthyism and its implications. We read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. I remember the comparison of the Salem witch trials to McCarthy’s quest to rid the U.S. of communists (and homosexuals and artists and civil rights activists), and evaluating how Miller’s play served as a vehicle to express his views on the subject; to take a stand.

Ms. A also gave us the Harlem Renaissance. She gave me Langston Hughes’ poetry, James Baldwin’s stories, and Lorraine Hansberry’s The Raisin in the Sun, which was undoubtedly another of Ms. A’s lessons at work—here, a story providing a platform to highlight inequity and racism. Again, I don’t remember the story very well, but I remember the history and the implications of the writing on the world clearly.

These are some of the best examples of the power of words to shift perception, to stand up for something, to advocate through literature. In that regard, they rocked my world.

I was scared of Ms. A. She was sharp, took no shit and wasn’t afraid to stand up to the snarkiest of bullies. She was, in a word, fierce. I was scared of her, but oh, I admired her, I wanted to be just like her. Her actions and her demeanor showed me how to take a stand.

I kept in touch with Ms. A. She followed my writing, as well as my personal journey of travel and exploration. We had conversations about writing and social justice. The more I found courage to publicly take a stand in my own work, the more she encouraged me. Even in my mid (okay, late?) thirties, I can tell you, that still matters.

When I was a teenager I thought she was a fearless woman. Now, I know better. She wasn’t unafraid. She let her fear stand beside her as she stood strong, told her story, let her words empower her. She was an example of a woman who had plenty to be afraid of and was, but she stood up anyway. This lesson is her legacy and I will hold it close.

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St. Anthony's Stories

Leisel

            Leisel didn’t decide to become a vegetarian. It was simply assumed. No one in her family ate meat, though her father occasionally snuck a cheeseburger when he thought no one would notice. Leisel’s mom either didn’t detect his carnivorous indiscretion or she chalked it up to a lapse in judgment for the sake of familial harmony. Leisel could smell the meat on him, though; his body odor shifted, became danker and muskier. Leisel always knew.

She did remember becoming a vegan. She was eleven, the summer before sixth grade. The day was white hot and as she rode her Schwinn up the driveway, sweat dripping off her bangs and into her eyes, she saw a yellow moth caught in the grill of her grandmother’s sedan. She’d stopped, still straddling the bicycle, and watched the nearly translucent yellow wings flutter in the breeze, trying to convince herself that what she observed was just a little bit of life left in the creature’s smashed exoskeleton.

“We can’t save them all, ducky,” Gran said, letting her hand rest softly on Leisel’s sweaty hair.

Leisel decided right then that she would save as many things as she could. At eleven, this seemed like a reasonable commitment. It didn’t take long before she began to realize just what this meant. Her dedication did not waver. When she thought of the chicken in its tiny cage laying eggs for her baked goods, she quit eating eggs. When it dawned on her that her loafers we made of the large, gentle-eyed animals that watched her from their pastures as she drove to school, she stopped wearing leather. She often thought of that moth, the seemingly insignificant being that gave its life so her Gran could babysit while her parents went to the movies. Everyone thought she’d grow out this phase.

“You have admirable dedication, Leisel. It is a slippery slope, having a heart and conscience as large as yours, just remember that.” Gran said.

Leisel had never been out of Minnesota when she met Peter during her third year of college. He was wiry and coiled like a spring from his curly hair to his taut calves. He walked on the balls of his feet, bouncing almost imperceptibly, and his eyes darted quickly, always watching, assessing, considering. They graduated and moved into a one-bedroom apartment in an old, drafty brick building in St. Paul. They found jobs, he as a community organizer and she collecting signatures for various environmental causes on street corner. Their passion for causes stoked their relationship. They consumed one another like flames ravishing a meadow. Leisel thought she’d never be full, that she’d always crave more of Peter’s voice, his observations, his long, thin hands gesticulating wildly, spearing words as he spoke and holding tightly to her hips as they embraced.

One day he sat on the coffee table in front of her, his hands clasped between his knees, his eyes focused on her face, not scanning the room. She felt afraid of this attention. He told her he had to return to Montana, to his family’s ranch in Lolo, his grandfather wasn’t well. Leisel felt the tears prick her eyelids as she melted into the couch cushions.

“Come with me, Lees.”

Peter spent most of the two day drive warning her about various things about Montana: the bears, the roads, the gun-toting locals. He conceded that Missoula, just to the north of Lolo, was more liberal and progressive than most of Montana, but assured her that this was a blue oasis in a sea of red and she should not be fooled.

Leisel was not afraid.

He did not tell her about all the meat. Peter’s parents were certain that vegetarianism was a passing fad; that humans were simply meant to eat meat. They weren’t sure what vegan even meant and made little effort to accommodate Leisel’s diet. She ate the occasional salad and slice after slice of white bread. She was always hungry, but terrified that sneaking food between meals would offend Peter’s broad shouldered, vociferous mother.

Finally, Peter promised to take her out for a full meal. He took her to his favorite restaurant in Missoula, the one with more than one vegetarian entrée on the menu. Leisel’s mouth watered as she scanned the menu.

“May I get you something to drink?” Their waiter wore tortoiseshell glasses and a knit cap pushed back on his head. His slim black jeans were tucked behind the tongue of his Converse and Leisel felt her shoulders relax. There wasn’t a belt buckle in sight. “If you are interested in a glass of wine, I’d recommend this Cote du Rhone. This is a limited production and we have the only cases sold in the state of Montana. It is worth every penny, in my opinion.”

Leisel raised her eyebrows. “That’s a strong endorsement. Why so good?”

“This wine is a whole different wine drinking experience.” He shifted his weight as though he were ready to tell a story. “It’s like a meal. It tastes like dark, smoked meat. And—the richness, it’s hard to describe. I’m not much of a hunter, like, I only get one animal a year, right? But this wine, it smells like that hunting smell.”

Leisel recoiled. “Hunting smell?”

“Yeah, you know. That mixture of the earth and the snow and the firs and the animal itself. You know, that smell? It’s completely, well, unique. It’s rich and deep–it’s like a full-body encounter. I get a little shiver every time I smell it. It’s the best smell, it’s being alone, in the woods. It’s primal.”The waiter stopped and looked at her. She was nodding. “I get that shiver when I drink this wine.”

“I’ll have a glass of that, please.”

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Happy Little Writer Sarah, Journey

Beahans on a Journey Home

Team Beahan is taking a grand leap this summer. We are selling Casa Beahan in Seattle, putting all our worldly possessions in storage and going on the road for the foreseeable future. We are on a creative quest to find our new home. IMG_1156

Why? Why would we leave a house we love, a neighborhood we totally jive with, a community of friends that are our family in a part of the country that could simply not be more beautiful? That’s crazy.

Well, no one said we weren’t a little crazy.

We have been digging in and re-evaluating our philosophy on living and working for many months. We want, more than anything, for our life and our work to be fused, to achieve the ultimate work/life balance. I grew up watching my dad work day and night at his craft. I believe he did it because a) he is a hard worker by nature b) he had a family to support but more importantly, c) because he loved it and he couldn’t not do it. It was so integral to his life that while it was grueling and wore him down, it also fed his soul. And, frankly, he was really successful–a nationally known furniture maker. 

Mr. B and I want that too. I have gotten a big, beautiful taste of that in the last few months. I left my career in the nonprofit world to pursue writing, and it is similarly something I feel like I never stop doing. I never stop writing. I wake up and read to push my writing further. I write all day–sometimes it’s all day in my head, working out a scene or motivation. Sometimes I get out of bed to put the ideas that were churning through my head as I drift off to sleep on paper. My vocation is my avocation.

Anyone who knows us at all knows that we have been dreaming of opening up our own business. Mr. B has been day-dreaming about this since I’ve known him, and I’ve just gotten in on the action. The idea has morphed through the years, but the plan is pretty simple to start: a community arts center, a place where people gather to do, learn, show and see creative work. A place where we can write and paint and support others to do the same.

As all this discussion simmered and the creative energy burbled we began to see this plan emerge–sell our house, pay off everything we owe, minimize our expenses, nest-egg some away and invest in a trip across the continent to find our next home. I can feel all of our collective creative energy burbling to the top. It’s like in the process of searching, we are creating something as well. I am going to write this into a book. What makes all these places different? Similar? How do we react, both individually and as a couple? How does our art change?

Our quest over the next six months is actually quite simple. It’s a quest to find the place where we can build this life. Our criteria is pretty basic:

  1. Low cost of living–the less we spend on housing and transportation the less revenue we have to generate for ourselves.
  2. Community of creatives. It does’t have to be big, but one that we can contribute too and build our own life within.
  3. I want something smaller. I miss the quietness of the Ireland country roads, the simplicity of not having so much to choose from (I realize this is decidedly NOT the American way), wide open spaces and a community where people know each other.
  4. We love to be outside. When I am outside I do not want to sweat profusely all the time. I did my time in the Missouri humid summers, it’s miserable and I am not interested.
  5. Mr. B must be close to a movie theatre–not just the big box flicks, but the indies as well.

It’s a journey to find our place. It’s a game changer. It might lead us right back where we started here in the PNW, and that wouldn’t shock me. I’ve certainly returned before. But the decision to create a new life in the process, that feels big. To have a chance to soar above the mundane, to take a risk to live our life differently–that feels huge.

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Happy Little Writer Sarah, Journey

Halfway to Home

Haven't found the pot of gold, but it seems like a good sign.

Haven’t found the pot of gold, but it seems like a good sign.

I have been here for 18 days. I am well past the halfway mark of my retreat into the quiet and the writing.

I’ve never done this before. I have never gone somewhere and just stayed. Growing up we rarely took a family vacation that involved going to one place and just staying. We drove. We woke up in the morning, found breakfast and got on the road to the next spot. Sometimes we lucked out and found a random quaint town on the back roads in Wisconsin or New Mexico. Sometimes we found a Motel 6.

As an adult, same rules apply. My stays usually last about a long weekend at best. Usually that’s because the money runs out or the couch-surfing is only available for short stays. When I was in Ireland last, five years ago, I was here for something like three weeks and I didn’t stay in any town more than two nights. I managed to do a complete ring around the island, even making my way to the far-reaches of the Dingle Peninsula and the Aran Islands and the Antrim Coast.

This time, I’ve stayed put. I visited friends in Wexford and made a side trip to the Glencree Peace Retreat Center-that’s a whole different story. I slept in Bray. I staggered my departure time to make sure I didn’t hit Dublin commuter traffic. And when I finally made it past the tolls and back into the rolling hills I felt relief. Back to my cozy cottage, my laptop, my notebooks, the kitties, the fire.

I was talking to Mr. B last night on FaceTime (thank goodness for FaceTime) and I found my mood shifting drastically into tears. I spouted worries about money, holiday gifts, and obligations at home. When it really came down to it, though, I wasn’t crying about those things, because I’m not really worried about those things.

I’m sad to go home.

These 18 days have been perfect. I slowly unwound into this space, walked, read, ate bread and butter and walked some more (and ate more bread and butter—low-carb can go to hell). And then when I finally sat down, words started happening. Not even close to the way I thought they would, not on any of the projects I’d brought with me ready to tackle. But they came from deep recesses of my brain. They are scribbled on paper all over the cottage, the car, my phone, my purse. When they get stopped up, I take another walk, read another story, eat some more brown bread slathered in butter and jam.

Mr. B wrote me later and said “this isn’t a month long trip to Ireland to write but a trip to see if this life suited you.”

It suits me. I’m crying because while this is so great, I know I have to go home and make this happen there and I don’t know how.

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