Book Camp Life

Book Camp 2019, Day 5

Content warning: Discussion of former suicidal ideation and plan.

Today was our last full day together, so we did things a little differently. First, no critiques! Second, no chores or curriculum like instruments, typing, or math.

Our theme today is cookbook poetry. Each kid brought a recipe from which to write a poem. Before we tackled our own odes to recipes, we worked on a group-written poem. We also traded prompts and wrote poems about such excellent topics as feet and toothbrushes.

Then a joke about a sex talk turned into an actual sex talk, which was essentially this: Sex is good not bad. It’s not a milestone but a relationship. Sex is most definitely not a bad word or embarrassing but must be approached safely and with consent. They can come to me any time about anything and find listening ears and nonjudgment, as well as care when they need it.

This morphed into a suicide talk. Because I’m just that talented and fun.

They said they all knew about my previous battle againt suicidal ideation. I told them that my foiled almost-attempt was the best thing that has happened to me, because it clarified that I want to be here, on this plane of existence, for the hard stuff. My eldest nephew died two years after that foiling. I sat in his hospital room and told him that I survived for just that moment. For all the hard moments. And the great ones. And the ordinary ones.

I have this theory that adults begin to self reject when it comes to adolescents. We tend to feel like maybe they are disinterested in us. So we back off. I’ve made that mistake, and I don’t intend to repeat it with these nieces and sons of mine. The output they demonstrate changes. The interests shift. Their individual ecosystems grow. But I intend to stay planted within those ecosystems. I will not self reject when it comes to them. So far, at 11-14, they insist they will be doing book camp until they are 80 (my intervening death from old age notwithstanding) and want to know whether future spouses marry in to the camp. I’ll keep planning them until they stop coming. And we’ll continue to have interesting, complicated, sometimes difficult conversations during book camp and other times.

Why am I sharing any of this? Because my theme this year is planting and watering. That’s what book camp is. It’s planting. Love, memories, friendship, knowledge, tradition, trust. And watering them year after year.

So, that was ten minutes they’d never get back, and they dissolved into giggles when it was over. We still had a full day of work ahead. But first, we wanted to make our own treat for the day. After much discussion, we all agreed on lemon cake balls and set out to hunt down the ingredients. Two grocery stores later and we returned home to start cake baking. While the first cake cooled, four kids took a walk and the fifth stayed home.

When we finally started our recipe poems, everyone was ready to settle in again. Poem forms included: acrostic, haiku, limerick, AABB rhyming, and free verse. They were silly and wonderful and made us hungry.

After completing our cake balls, we ate some as a reward, of course. A few of the kids still had some work to do on an opus or two, but then the kids scattered to devices until supper. We rounded out the day with mangoes, watermelon, and Captain Marvel.

Here are some of the suggestions for Book Camp 2020: character development all week; movie adaptations; publishing process simulation; group opus; picture books; adapting short stories from original screenplays; and cookbook camp. We had one valiant recommendation for a two-week book camp. And they want to make the prompt jars and group writes permanent. The fort has to be permanent, obviously. When I asked them about tours in the future, they enthusiastically affirmed their interest to visit both publishers and academicians to discuss writing across the disciplines. See? Just when I think they’re not into something, they tell my how very wrong I am.


The Reinvention of Me: Acknowledging My Ignorance

Here is a little poem I wrote during a long drive in an RV with my parents, my siblings, and my brother’s family. We were on our way to a funeral. The poem was my way of working through what I felt, which at the time might best be named wistfulness – a word bearing repeating in these lines. Working my way through all I felt – well, that’s taken quite a while longer.


Beyond the Lost Bridge

A man walks through the room as through life,
A gun slinging cowboy from yesterday’s West,
Daring anyone to come too close,
Stoically seated on life’s porch,
Allowing, willing, life to pass – unnoticed,
Whispering sweet pipe tobacco encircling.
Burned bridges stand ashen,
Distant in the moonlight of the journey.
Man’s legacy shattered, scattered by the wind,
By time, by long unbound family ties.
Hard life. Hard breath. Hard man at last
Casts wistful mind
On the unsaid, the undone,
The bridges burned
By many fires of a stubborn will.
Hard death. Hard breath. Legacy found.
Joined to memorialize a journey completed.
Wistful, wandering thoughts racing,
Echoing the loss of a chance,
Reflecting the loss of a bridge.


This is, of course, how I felt, how I wanted him to feel in that time. It’s taken time and some surprising conversations with another who knew him far longer and far better for me to realize that I don’t at all know how he felt in life, let alone death.

When I see my grandfather’s face, I recognize Middling’s ears and my nephew’s nose and love echos


I never knew where I stood with him. I never knew him at all. The visuals in this poem are the only things I feel sure were real. Even those are a young girl’s remembering and classifying: John Wayne with a pipe on a porch on a hill in Kentucky.

Over the years, I never spent more than a few weeks in Kentucky, and even fewer that I recall. Sometimes my heart pines for that place the way it pines for all of childhood.

One time, when I had a law office in a company, I thought I had gone mad. I could smell pipe tobacco. It transported me to that porch, to that place, to my people. It turned out to be vanilla rooibos tea – and I still swear it smells like vanilla pipe tobacco.

On a hill at the foot of a hill in Kentucky


I do not wish for more time with him, however awful that may read. I wish for more understanding of him. I wish I had known him in a way I wish he would have allowed. I wish that I understood why he was who he was and how that trickled through the family. I wish that I had had the tools to interact with him in a meaningful way – I was, after all, an adult when he died.

On the top of a higher hill in Kentucky, we buried him. Many of us walked the steep incline, and I think we had it better than those in a vehicle. The day was hot. The dirt was piled high and dark, so unlike the red clay of my home. It was a job for the menfolk – filling the grave with dirt after the niceties were complete. But I would not leave. I needed to bury him. I needed to know that I took part in his grave, even if I had no part in his life.

He was not particularly mean to me. He certainly never abused me. His relationships with others are for them to parse (or not); I know only a tiny fraction.

Sometimes there are gaps in relationships and we don’t know how to process the gap so we see it like the negative space of shadow and think it must be bad. What rests in the gap between me and my grandfather is not bad but blank.

For, lo, these many years, I believed I would need to confront his memory and forgive him. As it happens, forgiveness isn’t what I needed at all. Sometimes there are gaps in relationships and we don’t know how to process the gap so we see it like the negative space of shadow and think it must be bad. What rests in the gap between me and my grandfather is not bad but blank. And there is as much opportunity for me to fill it as there is for me to fill that gap between myself and other, even ancient, ancestors. He is my ancestor. I can and should relate to him that way: curiously, occasionally, healthfully.

It allows me to hear new stories of him with new ears. The only thing I know now is that he was a man with more complexity than I credited him. So I’ll not imprint on others’ memories of him. I’ll not contradict stories of his love or his life. I am forever grateful he had both, love and life. And that must suffice.

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