Friday, June 28, 2013

Just when you think it’s all going south . . .

...your grandson  pitches his heart out playing his part to help win the baseball game. One more on the way to the championship.

I’m like any one of you. I watch the news. I hear people say and watch people do awful things. I moan and groan and wonder what the world is coming to. But the Pollyanna in me doesn’t take long to surface and I vow to keep my sense of North as in . . . maybe it’s not all going South. Someone is constantly reminding me to keep my eyes and heart open for the amazing.

For example. My shopping buddy, Karen, and I were sitting in the Cheesecake Factory for lunch one day not too long ago. That place packs them in and right next to us about a foot and a half away sat three young people, a guy and two gals. Karen and I chatted, the kids ordered, and the wait began for the yummy lunch this nifty place would bring to our tables. The kids were served and just as I was about to make a profound point about – good grief, who knows? – Karen gave me a nod and mouthed “look.” And I did. The three young people had bowed their heads for a quiet grace. Astounding. I reached over when they were done and told them how encouraged I was by that prayer.

And another. It’s almost five o’clock and I’ve become a dishrag from trying to keep two little girls entertained all day. Melodi is on my lap – it’s hot. The floor is covered with toys and I’m wondering what the devil I’ll fix for supper, the last chore of the day. I look at the clock. Five O One. Sigh. I probably need to check her sister’s diaper, too. I love my grand kids, but the old bod gets tired, ya know? Suddenly Melodi turns her baby blues on me, takes my face in her hands and kisses my nose. “I love you, Grandma,” she says real quick like. Just then, as I melt from her sweetness, I notice I’m not so tired after all.

And one more. It’s early, I’m in my jammies at the computer wondering if anyone will come to my book signing. Nerves are jangling about it. This book promotion stuff is wearisome but necessary. I know that and I’m hanging in there. The phone rings. It’s Barb, someone I haven’t heard from in a long time, but I’d sent her an invite to the signing anyway. “I’ve already read your book and loved it. I can’t be at the signing, but I’d like one for my daughter.”  I told her I have some in the trunk and we arrange for her to pick it up the next morning. While she stood in my cool morning kitchen we had a nice chin wag. Just delightful.

People can be awful and every day we’re tempted to wallow in gloom and despair. But if that’s all we look at the whole world can seem like 100 shades of black and gray instead of blue and pink and yellow, too. I think, for the most part, I’m going with the rainbow – like the double one that appeared after it rained on the ballfield last week where Sam pitched his awesome inning.

Next I’m expecting The Prize Patrol to pull up in the driveway, balloons all over the place, and a dapper fellow in a suit to come grinning towards me with a big cardboard check. For 5 Million.

Okay, okay. Even Pollyanna can’t pull that one off. Guess I’ll just stick with looking up, looking North, like Someone would have me do. Oh – and I’ll keep my eye out for Handsome Harry with that check in his hand.

Image: Free Digital Photos

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Clean Swept Floor

This essay was first published in Prairie Times in early 2012. I hope you enjoy and can relate.

The Beauty of a Clean Swept Floor
By Susan Sundwall

Several years ago I traveled east with my family to visit an old Shaker village. If you know anything at all about the Shakers you know how clean their communities were. In fact, cleanliness is next to godliness was a dictum they strove mightily to live by. As we wandered through the various old buildings, the meeting house, the school rooms and kitchen, I was particularly taken by the clean swept look of the floors. Of course no one lives in these places now, but one gets the distinct impression that the floors were always clean and cleared of clutter back then. I despaired when comparing them to my own floors.

I had this exact visit in mind the following spring as I vigorously swept winter from the patio. I was appalled at the crud lurking beneath the mud and leftover autumn leaves. But while sweeping I glanced back at intervals to view my handiwork. Nice. The patio seemed to be glad of the lifted burden and gleamed back at me all tidy and ready to face the sun again. Naturally that begged the question of when the patio furniture would be set out, what flowers would be planted along the patio border and whether the grill would need a good scrubbing before it came out of hiding. But those were thoughts I didn’t trouble myself with right then. I just kept sweeping and then gave in to the call of the fresh cup of coffee I’d set to brewing before the sweeping began.

Mother was the kind of housekeeper whose regimen demanded the floor be swept after the supper dishes were done every night (we kids were the dishwashers). Make supper, set the table, eat supper, do the dishes and sweep the floor. In that order. Like setting the family’s evening ritual into a comfortable old picture frame and it felt good to get it done. When the kitchen light went out everything was in order. I confess that discipline often escapes me now and I don’t always sweep the floor at night. I know, I know – I should and hereby resolve to be more vigilant in that area.

In case you think this is a big deal about nothing, consider the economic angle. Visit the home appliance section of your favorite discount store and view the stunning array of mops, brooms, dust bunny busters and vacuum cleaners. You can swiff, steam, buff, spot clean, foam and special tool your floor like crazy with all the equipment you find there. And the info-mercials! My stars, what they don’t go through to let you know the power of their product for keeping your floor spotless and eat off of clean. Probably the demos are rigged, but it sure sets up a lust in the heart for clean floors.These savvy marketers know what a great first impression a clean floor makes and more importantly, how to keep it that way. I’d love to know their annual sales figures, especially for that little robot guy that does the work all by itself. Genius.

Remember spring cleaning? Modern technologies have made it possible for us to have top to bottom clean homes year round. Most of us don’t have soot from the wood stove or cow manure from farm boots to clean up like our grandmothers did. But maybe we should again relish the prospect of throwing open the windows in April to let the spring sunshine in. That bright light sweeping into the rooms shows us the task ahead and fills us with vigor for the job. And then months later when autumn rolls around and the windows must be shut up again against old man winter, it’s a comfort to think that the rugs are all thoroughly shaken, the broom has been applied to all the spider-webbed corners and the fireplace is swept and ready for a log or two. Bring on the mulled cider!

Yes indeed, those Shakers were on to something. Their common saying, hands to work and hearts to God, hovered over their daily tasks and are still an inspiration to us today. A clean swept floor is tantamount to a well ordered life and a mind free of chaos. A beautiful thing.

Image: lamnee                                                                          Free Digital Photos

Friday, June 21, 2013

A Little Flag Waving

We hopped into the car, anxious to get going, to yet another ballgame. We have three outstanding young athletes in the family and try to get to every game. The other night on our way to one of them, we passed two kids on bicycles. I was instantly transported to a place in my mind where somehow boys on bikes make me think of what a great country this still is. The bikes were not fancy. Nope, they looked like they could be hand me downs. You know, kind of wiggly, maybe in need of some paint. The boys? Jeans, t-shirts, and crew cuts. Does it get any more Americana than that? I’ve seen similarly dressed boys walking, fishing poles over their shoulders, on their way to the bridge in Niverville that crosses over the outlet for the lake. Like Tom and Huck. So cool.

One town over, in Kinderhook, there’s a People’s Parade on the 4th of July. Folks put red, white, and blue bandanas on their dogs and kids. Radio Flyer wagons are festooned with crepe paper and little flags for the toddlers to be pulled along in. Small marching bands and the local Elks club pull out all the stops rousing the crowd with their music and courage. And when the parade is over, right there on the village green, the Declaration of Independence is read while everyone munches on hot dogs, yells at the kids, settles the dog, or listens with quiet intensity. Quite awesome.

Today I’ll be in the strawberry fields picking with my daughters-in-law and the grandkids. Shortly thereafter my kitchen will become a jam factory. We all ran out of jam way too early from last year’s efforts so we’re going into overdrive this year. We’ve done this for the last many years and it’s a glorious chaos of kids running around, fingers red from hulling fat berries, and someone calling over the noise “what do you want on your pizza?” when the men venture into the kitchen later looking for food. We’ll make them go and pick it up, too. I love that there are acres of strawberry fields, jam filled Mason jars, slamming screen doors, and pizza around the corner in my life.

Every time I sing The Star Spangled Banner, go to a church supper, hear the crack of a bat against a baseball, gab with a neighbor at the grocery store, zip by a field of corn reaching for the sun, or dip my toes into Kinderhook Lake, I feel grateful. Silly, sentimental woman that I am.

How about you? What are some of the simple ways you enjoy this land where we  live?  

Image: Free Digital Photos

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

For Writers

Today I'm posting an article that originally appeared in Writer's Weekly about two years ago. I wrote it shortly after my mother died and I felt the will to write take leave of me - for a while.

There have been so many deaths this year and at least three of them that I know of were for people too young. Why should an infant die, or a young man of only twenty one years, or a "beautiful man" as the young pastor, only 44, was called at his memorial service? The eternal question, I guess. For you who are writers take note; here's what can happen.

When Your Muse Gets Mugged

Death stops everything. And I don’t mean just in the person who’s died. It stops normal activity for however long it takes those involved to recover. It’s especially hard on the creative mind because like it or not, for those of us who count on imagination to survive, there’s often a high price to pay – like no productivity for months.

My 84 year old mother died recently. In the months before, she had been failing, but my sisters (all five of them) and I planned our first big trip together anyway. We had everything in order, the house rented, the plane tickets, the rental car reserved, restaurants chosen – and then Mom, who had rallied so many times, trumped us all by passing on to her reward. Needless to say I did precious little writing in the time when this all happened and didn’t even want to. Eventually, though, I had to wonder if my muse would ever return to sit on my shoulder after the awful mugging she’d endured.

Many people hammer out their grief in writing. I wrote a poem and a short eulogy piece that, combined with those of other family members, was read at Mom’s funeral service. I discovered that this cathartic manner of writing can lead us down paths we didn’t know were open to us. Writing in the moment can begin the healing process, but it may take a while before you feel you can present that writing to the world. Bear in mind, however, that your personal essay or poem may be the springboard for helping others whose muse seems also to have abandoned them.

Thinking about subject matter, consider first the children. Have you learned anything that might help young people cope with the loss of a close relative or friend? You may even have some tips about children and funerals. Four of my neices and one nephew spoke at Mom’s funeral and they were all under the age of 12 – quite amazing. Magazines devoted to the care and keeping of children may welcome your findings.

Sometimes we’re not as emotionally involved in the grief process but understand the problems others face. These may include funeral planning, wills, memorial services, insurance policies, death certificates, cremation vs. in ground burial and any number of other factors. On this, more practical level, there are also opportunities. A few years ago while attending my brother-in-law's funeral I noticed the large number of teens who were there. His children were young and their friends had come for support. It occurred to me that for some of them this may have been their first funeral so I wrote “How to go to a Funeral,” and sent it to a teen magazine. I covered every aspect from first hearing of the death and what to do and say, proper attire for a funeral, and how to conduct  yourself at the grave side and reception.

In additon, anyone who bears the responsibility of seeing to the guests who come to the home after the service might need some direction. Wouldn’t they welcome some practical ideas on what to serve or how to create a memorial picture board as my nieces did for my Mom, their grandmother? When you feel your muse once again at your side, reward her with some writing from the gut. There are many who need to read what you have to say.
A tender word of advise, though, be kind to yourself. Take as much time as you need to get back on your feet.  Your readers will understand and then welcome the writing that then comes from an older, wiser you. 

Image: Free Digital Photos

Monday, June 17, 2013


Years ago my husband and I traveled to Washington State to visit our son and his family. One of the the most interesting things we did was a trip to the Johnson Ridge Observatory, located in the heart of the blast zone at Mount St. Helen's - the volcano. Many of you remember the last eruption there in 1980 that blew down or scorched  230 square miles of forest. Yikes. Anyway, we learned much and one thing in particular piqued my interest; a phenomenon known as "the silent zone."

It intrigued me to the extent that when I got home I wrote an article, geared towards children, and attempted to sell it. Never happened. But as I perused my files this morning I came across it again and thought it might interest you. Let me know. Oh - if you have kids or grand kids they might be interested, too.

An Eerie Silence
By Susan Sundwall

When you think of the eruption of a volcano, do you think – silence? Probably not. Most likely you’re thinking – BOOM! So imagine living near Mount. St. Helen’s in Washington State on the morning of May 18, 1980, when the volcano blew its stack. You watch the whole side of the mountain being torn away but you can’t hear a thing. It seems impossible, but a ten-year-old girl named Darcy Mitchem had it happen to her. At the time she lived with her family about twenty air miles from the volcano. “We saw the blast, but heard nothing,” she says. “It was like an eerie silent movie.”

There were many reports from other people who had the same experience. Hikers and climbers on Mount Adams as well as nearby Mount Hood and Mount Rainier also saw, but couldn’t hear, the astonishing volcanic eruption. When Mount St. Helen’s blew, the energy released was equal to ten million tons of dynamite. So why couldn’t some people hear it? It’s because Darcy and the people on those other mountains were in what scientists call the sixty-mile “silent zone.”

Way Up and Back Again
In order for you to hear a sound, sound waves must travel through the air and into your ear canal. The sound bumps against your eardrum signaling your brain that there’s a sound. The sound waves from the Mount St. Helen’s volcano blast rose so high and so fast that there was nothing for the waves to bounce off of until they reached the upper atmosphere. The atmosphere acted something like your eardrum, bouncing the sound waves back. But the objects they hit back on earth were sixty miles away from the center of the volcano. People many miles away heard the noise, but people in the silent zone couldn’t hear a thing. How weird is that?  

Since the day of the big eruption there has been other activity on the mountain. From October 2004 to late January 2008 there were four explosions blasting steam and ash up to 10,000 feet above the crater. This was scary, but not like the big explosion in 1980 when the eerie silent zone occurred.

Volcano Visiting
If your family is planning a trip to the Northwestern part of the country you can visit the Johnson Ridge Observatory to see and learn more about the volcano. Each year, over 10,000 students travel to Mount St. Helens and check out the dramatic effects of the 1980 eruption. You’ll also find out how local plants and animals have responded

I hope this has added a bit of obscure, but interesting, information to your carry-all this Monday. And thanks for reading!


Photo: Teddy Bear [Picnic]                                                              Free Digital Photos

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

What if??

I hop on the scale nearly every morning. The last few days, though, the number hasn’t made me happy. Sometimes it bums me out for a whole day after those few moments on that dirty lying scale even if it’s up only a pound or two. But today I had another thought. What if four months ago I’d weighed a hundred and way too much? Sort of like the prize tuna you might see on that reality show, Wicked Ways. “Yo, Alphonse, take a looka here. Some nice fat fillets on this baby, huh?” 

Suppose that’s what I’m thinking when I got on the scale today but when I see that same number - Holy Tuna – down ten pounds! Why, I’d be doing the Yippy Skippy dance all over the bathroom – trying hard, of course, to keep from knocking over the planter with my (still pretty wide) hips. I would be over the moon with joy if that were true. I think for the next few days I’m going to pretend I’m a tuna. A tinier one – the kind Alphonse would throw back.

On my way to drop off some book flyers this afternoon I saw a young boy walking in the rain. It occurred to me that I should stop and offer him a ride. I did that once. A boy had fallen off his bike and when I asked him if he needed a ride he looked at me like I was Charles Manson in drag or something. He sort of crawled backwards on the ground and croaked, "That's okay, my mom's coming."

But, as I was worrying about this kid in the rain I thought. .  . what if I did give him a ride and he turned out to be one of those shape-shifters you read about in trashy novels. Yeah, what if I let him in the back seat and halfway up the road he shifts into a snarly bad dude with muscles out the window and pointy devil teeth. He garrotes me from behind, grabs the wheel, and takes my limp carcass down to the creek plopping me in to sleep with the fishes. Who would make hubby dinner then, huh?

Turns out I passed that boy on the way back and he was a teen not a ten year old. He looked a little bit surly so I was okay with passing him by. He’ll probably tell his kids about the old lady in a silver Toyota who left him in the rain that day. I’m glad I’m not depriving him of a great olden day’s story. He doesn’t know how lucky he is.

This rainy weather makes my hair frizz. Badly. I always covet the straight shiny hair of other women I know. Neither rain nor snow nor dark of night ever makes them look like Chewbacca on steroids. But until the cooler fall weather comes I’m stuck with it.

But what if I didn’t have this thick curly hair and instead had to use that spray can stuff that covers thin spots? I’ve seen commercials for something like that lately. Geez, what if I had to go that route. Of course I’d buy the stuff by stealth. I’d hit the CVS real early in the morning with no makeup on and a ratty scarf over my balding head. I’d scurry back home and lock the bathroom door to apply it. Yes, I’d read the enclosure. Give me some credit here. 

Anyway, it would look great. Sure it would. And I’d completely ignore that little trickle down the back of my neck later at the glamorous barbeque given by Don Juan of the Stars. I’d assume anyone staring would be admiring my J.C. Penney lavender lurex ensemble. Just kidding. I don’t know Don. But you can imagine it, can’t you?

All these “what if’s” are kind of scary so I guess I’ll quit complaining about my extra few pounds and frizzy hair. That way maybe the next shape-shifter I encounter will nod and know I’m one of them.

I’ll shift back to sleek haired and skinny come fall. Oh, yes I will.  

Image: Aduldej                                                                       Free Digital Photos                                                        

Thursday, June 6, 2013


The other day I was in my old recipe box looking for things that might suit for summertime eating. Some of them are on index cards, some quite old, some batter spattered and some in little plastic sleeves. I stopped, though, when I came to one for bean salad. On a yellowed card with a coffee ring on it and a piece torn out of one corner. Verna Belle’s recipe. And what a memory came flooding back.

In those days we lived just outside of Trenton, New Jersey and I was the mom of three, the youngest being still a babe in arms. As it happens a whole slew of us had moved to Jersey from various parts of the country when our husband’s company, Univac, relocated. Verna Belle was a new acquaintance and almost exactly twice my age. She and her husband had married late in life and one thing she and I had in common was that we’d both been born in Minnesota. It was so nice to know someone, at last, who didn’t laugh when I talked about using the “biffy.” Yup, that’s what the toilet is called in upstate Minnesota; sometimes abbreviated to the "biff."

Anyway, one drizzly morning Verna Belle asked if I’d like to take a trip to the Farmer’s Market near Princeton. The two older boys were in school and I told her, “Sure, sounds like fun.” Now, mind you, I was a real fashion diva in those days. Because it was chilly and damp I decided to tuck my long frizzy hair up under a bandana, a black and white one. It was in the time before I had contact lenses, so I sported a nifty little pair of Ben Franklins for clear vision. Remember those? John and Yoko would. I also had my gold colored macramé bag slung over my shoulder and my baby on my hip. So cool I could hardly stand myself. 

The market was under a huge canvas canopy and several people were milling around as we shopped. Did I mention it was chilly? We perused the fruits and veg and as the minutes wore on my nose began to run, just a little. Sniff. Sniff, sniff. Sniff, sniff, sniff. Okay this was getting a bit ridiculous. There’s only so many times you can try to suck that stuff back. So I rifled through my gold bag and found a tissue. I didn’t think I needed to do a big honking blow, just a tuck of the tissue end into the offending nostril, a nose tampon if you will. A little more readjusting of the kid, a delicate twist of the tissue and up it went.

Well, just then, at that exact moment, Verna Belle turned to me, thrust her hand out and said, “Feel my hand, I’m so cold.”

And here came my supreme moment of public humiliation. Did I pause a moment to think? No, I did not. Did I smile and finish the nose mop up? No I did not. Instead I let go of the tissue and felt her cold hand.  I was reluctant to touch her hand with my “moist” tissue in it and I couldn’t rudely ignore her plea for me to feel her hand. So I did the only thing a decent person could do, I let go and let the tissue hang. And that valiant tissue stayed put and dangled there for all the world to see. Did I recall seeing a commercial where the "stays put" aspect of these tissues was touted? Maybe. In any case, this one did and it fluttered out of my drippy nostril, right in front of the whole graduating class of Princeton there at the Farmer’s Market.


Okay, the graduating class was NOT there, but boy, it sure felt like the world was observing this disgusting public display. In truth it lasted about ten seconds. I laughed and let go of Verna Belle’s cold hand, retrieved the tissue from my nose – real diva like – and began an intense scrutiny of a bin of tomatoes. I couldn’t bear to look around. So un-cool I could hardly stand myself.

Funny how finding an old recipe can trigger a memory, huh? Oh, and the bean salad – it’s really, really good.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Three Duties of a Writer

You’re one of those prolific writers going at it hammer and tongs to forge pieces of writing for the world to embrace. Right? Me too. But as I’m going into my twelfth year as a wordsmith, I’ve come to a realization. Whether it’s a short story, an essay, an article or a book, each piece of writing does one (or more) of these three things:

1.      Entertain
2.      Inform
3.      Enlighten

And isn’t that what you want from what you read? Most successful writers are voracious readers and I count myself among them. From snatches of advertising while buzzing down the highway to huge tomes like David McCullough’s John Adams or Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings each fulfills for me one or more of the above mentioned duties. Superior pieces of writing will do all three. For instance, a novel that takes place in medieval times should keep you turning the pages (entertain), explore the peculiarities of the time period (inform) and lighten up some dark corner where suppositions and prejudices lie (enlighten). A book like this will let you know that the writer has imagination, patience for the research involved and a desire to inspire. But let’s break down our writing trinity a little.


Entertain literally means to engage the attention of, so that time passes pleasantly. How that’s done is open to interpretation, but we often link the notion to humor. So If you like to write humor and are good at it you will always find a market. In tough times or easy, people love to laugh.

The current trend of crafting thrillers or scare-the-pant off the masses writing (think vampires and zombies) will also garner sales as will humorous essays. Here are a few markets that are looking for your entertaining pieces.
1.      Aurealis – Pays $20 – $60
2.      The Last Page – Pays $1,000 for column


Ad copy, non-fiction, self help books, articles about money, writing, current events – write about these and the world is your oyster. And when you’ve researched and written your shining jewel consider one or more of these markets:

1.      Greater Good Magazine – Pays .25 per word
2.      Escapees – Pays up to $150


Oh boy, is green writing ever popular! This is where your passion and purpose can pay off big time. Explore both sides of the wind energy issue or write up a detailed analysis discussing why pony pumps are a viable way of extracting oil in small areas. Pick a disaster, highlight one aspect and write a piece to help children understand it. Investigate some recent environmental mistakes like the removal of wolves in Yellowstone, how coal puts carbon into the air and the effects of the ban on DDT, which WHO now recommends using to combat malaria in third world countries. Then shoot for one or more of these markets.

1.      High Country News – Payment begins at $100
2.      E Magazine – Pays .30 per word
3.      Dawn Publications – For your excellent environmentally sound book
4.      History Magazine – Pays $55 per printed page

It’s very true that writing to enlighten isn’t limited to subjects about the environment. That’s why I threw in History Magazine above. But every piece of writing you do must contain elements of the three main categories at the beginning of this article. Realizing this may cause you to scrutinize your last submission to big glossy magazine and wonder if you’ve done your job. I’ll bet you have, but if not there’s time to revise, recover and move on. Don’t waste any time in doing so.

I'd love to know if you sell (or have sold) to any of these markets and Bravo! for trying.

Image: Free Digital Photos