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Come this Friday and get a history lesson from Audrey

July 26, 20172 CommentsPosted in book tour, careers/jobs for people who are blind, memoir writing, public speaking

Hey! I’m doing another Writing Out Loud event in Chicago this Friday, and Audrey Mitchell (a writer from the “Me, Myself and I” class I lead at the Chicago Cultural Center) is going to be with me at this one, too:

Friday, July 28, 2017
1:00pm – 3:00pm
Ditka’s Restaurant, 100 E. Chestnut

Photo of Audrey Mitchell speaking into a microphone.

That’s Audrey being recorded for a video about our class.

I’ll be signing copies of Writing Out Loud afterwards like always, but the Friday presentation itself will be different than the others I’ve done lately. For starters, this one is at Ditka’s! The restaurant provides lunch (Dutch treat). Second, I’ll be giving a very short in-class writing exercise during this presentation. My hope is that a quick assignment like this might encourage attendees to start writing their own life stories. Third, I’ll have Audrey up there with me!

The event is sponsored by Skyline Village Chicago, a community of older adults in the high-rise neighborhoods on the north side of the Loop. You don’t have to be a member to attend the Friday Forum event, but you do need to bring $5 along on Friday to help cover the cost of the room. You also need to save a spot (no charge for that!), by registering online by the end of the day today, Wednesday, July 26, 2017. You may also register by emailing RSVP@skylinevillagechicago.org with Friday Forum in the subject line, just make sure to do it today.

I can promise you the whole event will be worth attending just so you can meet Audrey Mitchell and hear her read her work. Audrey’s parents came to Chicago from Edgefield County, South Carolina, during the Great Migration. Before signing up for my class, Audrey had spent hours at her computer tracking down genealogical information about her family. After even more time at the South Carolina Archives, the Old Edgefield District Genealogical Society, the Great Lakes Regional Archives, and Chicago’s Newberry Library, Audrey ended up with pages of names, dates, and addresses.

But no stories.

All her family stories were oral. None of them were written. Now Audrey is changing that. She’s getting family stories down on paper, and those of us who are fortunate enough to be in the Me, Myself and I class downtown get to hear her read them out loud every Wednesday .

Once it was decided that Audrey would be one of the writers we’d feature in Writing Out Loud, I took her out for coffee, brought my digital recorder (I told her it was running!) and enjoyed a couple of magical hours listening to her answer some lingering questions about her life story. Here’s an excerpt from Writing Out Loud where I mention that coffee date: Chapter 68, Why Audrey Stays in Chicago.

Audrey can tell how intrigued I am by all her research. Over a cup of coffee at a local coffee shop, she tells me more of what she’s learned.
The 1870 Census was the first U.S. census to list all persons, including former slaves, as individuals. “I don’t have their slave records, but I do know my great-grandparents lived in Edgefield County in 1870,” she says, reasoning that they’d stayed there after the Emancipation Proclamation. “I have oral history and written data to back that up, but what I’m missing is the voice of my older relatives, what they were thinking, what they were feeling and like that. That’s why I keep taking your class. So my stories don’t get lost like theirs are.”

She then reveals that she’s pretty sure she’s figured out who owned her great-grandparents as slaves.

I’ve heard this genealogy stuff can get addictive, but does she really want to know who the slave owners are? Audrey doesn’t skip a beat. “Oh, yeah!” she says.

I drum up the courage to ask an even more awkward question: Why?

Her answer is obvious. I’m embarrassed I had to ask.

“Most people do want to know who the slave owners were,” she says. “In most cases, they’re an ancestor, too.”

Audrey’s essay “Why I Have not Moved to South Carolina” is excerpted in Chapter 68, too. She’ll be reading that essay at the Skyline Village Chicago event at Ditka’s Restaurant this Friday, and she’ll be joining me for the Q&A afterwards to answer questions. I hope you can come! Just remember: you have to register by the end of the day today, Wednesday, to save a spot.

Mondays with Mike: It started as just another walk

July 24, 20174 CommentsPosted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike

Our friends Nancy and Steven (AKA Hanni’s people) were in town to see Hamilton this past weekend. If you haven’t noticed this yet, Beth kinda liked Hamilton. A close second to seeing Hamilton for Beth is seeing friends right after they’ve seen Hamilton, so she can get all giddy with them and talk about Hamilton.

So we met Nancy and Steven for a great Thai meal right after the Saturday matinee. At first, they were quiet—not because they didn’t like it, but because they were sort of stunned by how much they enjoyed the show. Steven, who shares my skepticism about pop phenomena, was especially surprised at how good it was. Nice to be surprised that way.

Gradually, though, Beth got her way and they were comparing notes about favorite moments. And I remain the only person I know who hasn’t seen it yet.

After dinner, we took a long walk starting with Millennium Park as our first destination. Chicago in summer is always bonkers in a happy way, and Saturday was particularly bonkers.

When we reached Millennium, we stopped to listen to the Grant Park Symphony perform some Broadway tunes with a couple of singers. The place was packed, and there was just a nice vibe.

Saturday night Millennium Park

From there, we crossed the serpentine bridge across Columbus Drive and landed in Maggie Daley Park. It has rock climbing walls and some terrific playground stuff for kids, and a ribbon of pavement that winds through—in winter it’s iced for skaters, but rollerbladers were out Saturday evening.

An area around Jackson Street in Grant Park—where the city puts on lots of its summer festivals—had been blocked off a day earlier. But I neglected to check what it was. So we meandered to Summerdance, where an absolutely terrific Salsa band was playing. I counted 12 musicians, including three violinists—which was unusual by the band leader’s own account (violins are expensive, he chuckled). Again, the place was packed, and remarkably diverse, and the crowd exuded a remarkably happy feeling.

From there, we sought to quench our thirsts. But as we headed west on Balbo, I saw mobs of people outside the Hilton, and across the street from the Hilton in front of the Merle Reskin Theater. This past weekend was the Blackhawks Convention at the Hilton, so at first I figured it had something to do with that. But as we got closer, it got weirder. Steven, who had asked questions about Maggie Daley Park and other sights along the way, asked, “Can you explain this one Mike?”

I couldn’t. These people were acting oddly. We had to dodge and weave to pass through them. They were all looking at their phones. And some had phones that were wired to backpacks.

And then Nancy figured it out: Pokemon Go. The area near Jackson had been blocked off for a special Pokemon Go event to commemorate its one-year anniversary. Apparently 20,000 Pokers convened. And apparently, initially anyway, they were very disappointed. A failure of servers or cell service—or both—made the start of it something of a fiasco, and Niantic, the game creator, issued refunds to anyone who asked.

Even on Sunday, the Pokemon people were everywhere.

But they solved most of the problems later, and the mob we saw was out to collect whatever the hell you collect. Many had brought auxiliary batteries in their backpack.

We finally made it through the throng and I was relieved that we’d given Whitney the night off. She probably would’ve been stepped on more than once, and the Pokers were so enrapt that they didn’t even notice Beth’s white cane, which made for some interesting moments for me, the sighted guide.

We sought the shelter of one of our local watering holes on Dearborn. But no. Even more Pokers, on both sides of the street, and filling our little fountain park.

Eventually, we found seats at a place on Clark, where we ran into a couple of friends from the neighborhood.

When I started explaining about the Pokemon people, one of our friends immediately thought I was talking about the new Poke place that just opened our street. It took awhile to straighten all that out.

I mostly love my city in the summer, but every once in awhile, it’s like drinking from a fire hose.

Book review: Richard Ford’s Between Them

July 22, 20177 CommentsPosted in careers/jobs for people who are blind, guest blog, memoir writing, writing

Al Hippensteel is the editor of The Dearborn Express, our free neighborhood newspaper, and he’s in the memoir-writing class I lead in Printers Row, too.

Before class one day Al asked if anyone might be interested in writing book reviews for the paper, and his fellow memoir-writer Lorraine Schmall jumped at the chance.

Her latest review is about a new book by Richard Ford, one of my favorite short story writers. I was so flattered to have Lorraine mention a writing prompt of mine in her review that I asked for permission to publish it here, too. Enjoy!

Richard Ford, Between Them: Remembering My Parents

by Lorraine Schmall

There’s a popular memoir-writing teacher whose assignments are simple phrases capable of many meanings in many contexts. For example, “What My Parents Believed” could be about parents’ beliefs in a higher power– or in aliens; in American cars or the Farmer’s Almanac; in sparing the rod or spoiling the child; in education or an afterlife; in fidelity or free love. Like a required ingredient in a TV cooking contest, the right phrase encourages creative thinking.

Image of book cover.

Richard Ford employs the same technique with the title and the content of his lovely memoir, Between Them: Remembering my Parents. He plays with the phrase “between them” to look back at his parents from different, and fascinating angles, in a way, that he hopes, “gives faithful, reliable, if sometimes drastic coherence to the many unequal things any life contains.”

He writes chronologically, so this intimate portrait begins with his concession that, as soon as Edna and Parker met in Arkansas, between them was something powerful and forever unknowable to a son, something which drew them together tightly and swiftly and intentionally apart from others; something he doesn’t begrudge them. He recognizes that between them and before him, was a carefree decade, most of which they spent together in an automobile or in diners or motels subsidized by the national company whose starch his father sold state-to-state. Ford wonders, and worries, whether he came between them, and forever changed, and maybe diminished what was before, after they were forced to make a home and a decision to live apart all but a few days a month after he was born.

A wordsmith who won the Pulitzer and has books made into movies, Ford cannot describe how his parents felt when he dropped into their lives: “It could only have been strange.” But he writes with some conviction: “They loved each other. They loved me.” From the stories he tells, it certainly seems so. Richard lived, trusting and sheltered and safe, between them.

And between them—and Richard’s sometimes close, often estranged and always unusual grandparents, he got all he needed and learned about the world. A once-restless mother whose own mother pretended they were sisters, and a father who could have been but never was more, they were in many ways like most parents—and Ford’s conclusion that he could never really know what they believed is a universal truth. “They elude me, as parents do” he writes, and so deftly encourages readers to reconsider their own memories of growing up.

Mondays with Mike: At home with the Roosevelts

July 17, 20175 CommentsPosted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike, politics, Uncategorized

One more post about our trip to Maine and I promise we’ll stop.

On our last morning, we packed our bags and headed to Campobello Island, over the border in New Brunswick, Canada. We had a long drive to Boston after Beth’s last workshop session that morning, so we wanted to leave out directly from Campobello.

While Beth was doing writing exercises with her classmates, I took one more walk—this time I headed to the Roosevelt Cottage. Cottage is a bit of a misnomer—the Roosevelt Cottage has dozens of rooms. Yet, because it’s not winterized (and summer only), and because it doesn’t have a basement, it’s called a cottage.

Photograph of a sprawling Dutch Colonial home on the waterfront.

Not bad for a summer place, eh?

The Roosevelt Campobello International Park is operated jointly by the U.S. and Canadian governments, which in itself is novel and heartening. A tour guide was standing in the foyer when I entered and immediately launched into an intro to the substantial history of the cottage, and of the island. The Cliff’s Notes: FDR summered on Campobello Island with his parents as a boy. He learned to sail, fish, and shoot a bow and arrow. In the beginning they stayed in giant luxury hotels, but they eventually built their own places, as did other wealthy families from the Northeastern United States. They’d take the train as far as they could go, then board steamships to the islands.

As the guide talked, a few other people filtered in and joined us before we left for a walk through the cottage. At the first stop, a little nook where FDR carved little boats out of wood, a fedora and pipe sat next to some carving tools. The guide said that the legend is that in 1939, his last visit to the island, FDR left his hat and pipe fully expecting to return.

Photo of FDR's hat and pipe.

FDR’s hat and pipe on the left side of the table.

I don’t think I can do the rest of the tour justice. But you’ve probably had that feeling—where you stand where a hero, a legend, once walked and you just feel something. The Park staff has done a marvelous job retaining or reacquiring original furnishings and belongings: There’s Eleanor’s writing desk. The bed where FDR convalesced after polio struck. And that’s the adjacent daybed that Eleanor slept in. The kids rooms, the kitchen. The giant megaphone FDR used to converse with fisherman on the water out front, sometimes asking if they could bring a NY Times back from Eastport, the town visible across the bay.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s writing desk.

The tour guide, who had been raised on Campobello, loved her work. She’d first worked there as a teenager, and she told a story about Franklin and Eleanor’s surviving sons visiting the cottage in 1979, and carrying on the way siblings do: Arguing about accounts of bygone days.

On the one hand, it was inspiring. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and their children were flesh and blood, just like everyone. They survived and led the United States and the world through hardship I can’t fathom. The history of their time was the history of my mother and father’s time, and I draw a straight line between it and my own history. As I walked through I felt proud and awed and hopeful.

But as I left, I couldn’t help thinking: Sorry, we’ve let you down.

I’m in a Lubec state of mind

July 16, 20177 CommentsPosted in blindness, guide dogs, memoir writing, Mike Knezovich, Seeing Eye dogs, travel, Whitney, writing
Maine lighthouse on a crystal clear blue-sky day, photo by Mike Knezovich

One of a gazillion lighthouses in the area known as Downeast.

I’m just back from the Iota Short Prose Conference on Campobello Island, where I was a student rather than a teacher.

Mike flew with me and Whitney from O’Hare, rented a car at the Bangor Airport and drove us to our destination: the easternmost point in the United States.

We settled right in to our quiet little inn in Lubec, Maine. Without the racket of air-conditioners in the way, we’d wake up each morning to the happy sounds of birds and enjoy a cup of coffee downstairs before heading outside so Mike could drive Whitney and me a couple miles to Canada.

That's me, author Beth Finke, with Seeing Eye dog Whitney in front of the Roosevelt Cottage at Campobello Roosevelt International Park

That’s FDR and Eleanor’s summer place in the background.

Those morning drives would start with a cheery, “Hello! Bonjour! Passports?” from the lady at the customs booth, then into Canada we’d go. Mike described the scene as we’d cross the water — often foggy, always beautiful — and I’d open my window to take in the mixed scent of sea and pine. After kissing me goodbye at the conference cottage, Mike would spend his days at lighthouses, on beaches, whale-watching, or visiting historic Roosevelt sites.

And me? I’d spend my day with writers at Campobello Roosevelt International Park, the site of the workshop. Some of my fellow Iota attendees were Canadian, and some were from the United States. One had come all the way from Jerusalem. one thing we all had in common? We all were accomplished writers. Some of us had published books, some taught English and creative writing at the college level, some wrote weekly columns for local newspapers, many had blogs. Sessions were led by authors Abigail Thomas and Debra Marquart. Their presentations and sessions were rich and pushed me out of my comfort zone — in a good way.

Abigail (I call her Abby now) is the author of New York Times bestseller A Three Dog Life. She fell in love with Whitney, the first service dog to ever attend an Iota Conference. And while she thanked me politely for signing a copy of Writing Out Loud for her, she couldn’t fool me: the thing Abby was really excited about was getting my Seeing Eye dog’s pawtograph (I stamped Whitney’s paw-print inside the front cover of Abby’s copy of Writing Out Loud).

Debra Marquart (Deb to me now, of course) is the author of a memoir, too. The Horizontal World is available from the Library of Congress talking book program free of charge to people who are blind, and I read it right before we arrived. Deb teaches at Iowa State University and must have had experience there with students who have disabilities — she thought to send her printed handouts to me online. I read them before class using my talking computer.

I used my talking computer to write my asignments in class as well. My laptop came in handy when it was my turn to read those assignments out loud, too: headset on, I’d listen quietly to my piece while simultaneously repeating the words I was hearing out loud for my classmates. That was, perhaps, the best thing about the entire conference for me: for a wonderful four days, I felt like I was in my own students’ shoes. Sitting around a circle, reading my own assignment out loud, hearing others read theirs, it helped me understand why the memoir classes I lead mean so much to the writers who sign up here in Chicago. My dozen or so fellow classmates and I developed trust and empathy — a community, really — through our writing. I’ll be using that trick –listening to my computer via headphones and reciting what I’m hering out loud — at my appearance at The Book Cellar in Chicago this Wednesday, too.

Delicious lobster roll on a rustic tabletop with Maine shoreline in the distance, photo by Mike Knezovich

A lobster roll. In the background, lobster traps. Did I mention lobster?

But back to Maine: the food wasn’t bad, either. Mike was invited to join us at the Iota Conference farewell dinner. Whole lobsters, literally fresh from the sea that day, for everyone! Mike and I were on our own for dinner on the other nights of the conference, and we feasted on lobster rolls, fresh haddock, salmon — you get the picture.

If you’re a writer who needs a shot of energy, I highly recommend Iota. And if you need a change of pace, scenery, and state of mind, I highly recommend Lubec and Campobello. For more, see my and Mike’s recent blog posts.

PS: If you’re curious about the in-class assignments I wrote and read out loud during the Abigail Thomas workshop at Iota, sign up for my newsletter. I’ll be publishing one of the impromptu essays I wrote at the writing workshop in my Writing Out Loud newsletter tomorrow.