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“We shape our dwellings, and afterwards our dwellings shape us.” ~Winston Churchill
It’s true.

We all have a land where we come from, a special place that even if the memory burns painfully, it still calls to us. It’s home. And we all know what that means, even if it’s difficult to articulate.

I’ve been thinking of the place that raised me, mostly due to images and videos that have come my way, as well as the onset of summer, which always seems to bring a hearkening with it, regardless of where I am.

I grew up in the hamlet of Cottage Grove, Oregon, nestled in the rolling green contour of the Willamette Valley. A place both Bilbo and Norman Rockwell would have been comfortable. It’s a land of distinct seasons, each with their own magic and color. The rain does come, fiercely and at other times drizzly and brooding. But even then its misty atmosphere has its own beauty.

The place where we grow up forms us, imparts itself to us in ways that can be both suffocating and deeply comforting. And as much as we love the security of home, we also want to see what’s around the next bend. I’ve always viewed this particular dichotomy as the pull of the valley, the push of the wind. The calling to where the womb formed me against the tension of the undiscovered adventure that awaits.

I’ve lived in a few places that have taken me away. After college in Southern Oregon, I lived in Los Angeles where I traded the green and wet for the concrete, gritty air and calloused environ. I then lived in Seattle, called the Emerald City for good reason. It’s beautiful, hugged on each side by islands and water and the sentry that is Mt. Rainier. I spent nearly a quarter of a century in the area and for the most part loved it. Most of my career was birthed there, as well as discovering deep friendships, opportunity, and yes, pain. Canyon deep, at times.

I then had the opportunity to live in a land that always had a romantic bent for me. Moving to Texas, first Austin, then to the East side of the state where piney woods give way to rolling cattle hills, gave me a chance to test that romantic vision. It was true, for the most part. The generosity of the people was nearly as expansive as the sky, but parts of the culture could be small. And the heat could be…intense.

Arkansas is where I currently call home. Living first in Little Rock, a vortex for the civil rights struggle now a cross section of expanding culture and southern hospitality. Ironically, I learned that my mother had lived in Little Rock for a short time right after World War II, which I found incredible as I had never imagined moving as far east as I had. For a while there, moving from Washington State to Texas, to Arkansas, I expected to hit water should I keep my heading eastward. Now, along with the woman who is the best part of me and our ever-growing furry menagerie, we’ve settled in the tiny community of Snowball. There’s a general store there and not much else. Well, that’s not accurate. The Buffalo River National Park is about a half mile from our property. More importantly, it’s the same community of folks I seemed to have grown up with. Older for the most part, industrious, kind and generous to a fault. They embraced us as soon as we moved here to build our dream home. And ironically, one of the reasons I love this little spot is that it reminds me of the Valley; where I played hide-n-seek, whispered dreams to the best friends you can only make at that time in your life (and gratefully deepening those relationships as you age) and eventually took a piece of it with me as I formed a life and home across the country.

It’s a little like a tree, isn’t it? An apple tree starts as a seed that falls in rich soil it calls home but then gets blown along, far away perhaps, only to settle in a new patch of soil where it makes its dwelling. It grows a trunk, tendrils out branches and sprouts leaves. Soon it bears fruit. And why? So that it can give of itself. The tree is planted to grow…and provide for others.

And so it is with us. I moved away from my home, from a land I cherished and always thought I’d return to settle down and breathe out my last days. But God had other plans, as He so often does. I have now found a new piece of land, new soil from which to grow. And in establishing a new home, I find comfort and purpose because I know we’re being planted not just for ourselves, but also to give ourselves away for others.

The Valley still pulls every now and again. But I no longer feel the push of the wind. Maybe that’s because I’m home.

 

Shining Soul

admin —  July 26, 2016

“We lost PJ Patterson this morning…Logging accident.”

I stared at the words on the screen in disbelief. My friend, Deena, had just let me know that one of our most beloved classmates had passed away. Suddenly. Without warning. Gone.

I audibly cried out ‘No!’ without realizing it.

I had been in the middle of a large writing project and the words that had been swarming around me simply evaporated. I got up and went outside and stared into the sky that was frustratingly benign. I was trying to recall the last time I talked with PJ. We hadn’t really kept in touch since high school except for the reunions. Strangely, that didn’t seem to stem the tide of emotion that was rising in me, especially when thinking of his wife, Jeanie and their kids.

My feet carried me across the yard and along a path as I tried to sort through the feelings. Memories of PJ quickly bubbled up. I’d known him from grade school onward and though we didn’t run in the same circles, he just always seemed…to be there.

Memory snapshots played in my mind’s eye…

…PJ, Mike Brinkerhoff and me carrying a large sheet cake to his house from Harrison Elementary school on the last day before Christmas break in our sixth grade year. I think his mom, Colleen, had made it and we were trying desperately to get it back to his house a few blocks away without dropping it. I remember it being huge and PJ saying something like, “…if this falls we might as well just stop and eat it…” From then on it was touch and go whether we make it or fall into a flour and frosting heap from hysterics…

…I was always very small for my age and in high school the disparity between me and everyone else was glaring. I’d get teased, most good-naturedly but sometimes not.  But whenever I’d see PJ come down the hall in my direction he’d always cock his head a little, and smile that wide, shining smile of his and say something like, “Hey, John, how’s it going?” And he meant it. PJ had a kindness of soul that was beyond his years and eyes that took you in when he spoke with you….

…My friend, Mike Hull, and I were forever shooting 8mm movies in high school. We needed a couple more fight scenes for a martial arts epic and I had gathered a couple of folks at a house but we were one bad guy short. I looked across the street and there was the Patterson house. I don’t why but I raced over there and sure enough PJ was home and I asked if he wouldn’t mind getting beat up in a pivotal fight scene. No sooner had I said it than he pulled on a tank top and headed across the street with me. I set up the choreography, which he thought was amusing. I was to confront three bad guys and with just a bamboo staff. I went through the moves with each bad guy and said we could do it several times until we got it right. PJ had never done anything like this before to my knowledge. So I cued our camera man and we spun, thrust and parried, and as I swung the staff at PJ – he flew backwards, as if I’d really clocked him. I didn’t but his reaction was so natural I couldn’t be sure. We called cut and I asked if he was alright and he bounced up, smiled and said, of course. Did we need to do it again, he asked? I said no, he was perfect. He said okay, glanced at me sideways and smiled again as if he was pleased he could help, and jaunted back across the street….

…seeing PJ and his then girlfriend and future wife, Jeanie, in the middle of the high school football field at half time of the homecoming game of our senior year. I was up in the top of the stands but I remember focusing on them as they were announced homecoming King and Queen. They were both good looking people but that’s not what I remember seeing at the time. It was the way they turned to look at each other. And for a few moments they kept that look between them. Something resonated in me and I remember thinking that I hoped I could feel and share that with someone someday…

The last time I saw him was two years ago at our high school class reunion. My wife and I were late getting to the pizza parlor for an informal get-together. As we crossed the parking lot to go in, a tall, lanky gentleman with a half-smile came up to me and it was PJ. He looked the same even though I hadn’t seen him in years. I introduced him to Dawn, my wife and he did a little respectful head bow, which I thought was endearing. We talked about our lives, his family, work in the woods and our life in the south. We laughed easily with one another and I can remember feeling so comfortable, embraced even, in his presence. After we said our goodbyes, I actually missed him, wondering why I hadn’t made a point to stay in better touch. But life sometimes carries us away on currents that makes it hard to hold dear all the things we should.

There are some people in your life who represent the best of childhood. They, and their families, seem to be a beacon to that time and all of the cherished moments of our early days. PJ was one of those for me. And I didn’t even truly realize it until after he was gone.

His family has posted several photos of PJ at work in the woods and engaging with family. One photo particularly caught my eye. He’s standing near a recently cut Douglas Fir. His chainsaw is leaning against the base of the massive tree and he’s kind of in profile, looking off past camera, his soul-shining smile on full display. He seems happy and content. It’s almost as if he’s saying…Thank you for this…for the joy of working in the woods…for the cherished family you have given me…for this life.

And I found tears sliding down my cheeks because I could now imagine another smile shining back at him, face to face, from the One who was now embracing him in a way that I’m almost sure is causing him to bellow out that joyous, bassy laugh of his.

I miss you, PJ. You’ve left a thunderously large impression.

And we’re the better for it.

When you first begin writing, the horizon extends promisingly before you. All you see is your creativity and the gift of your words that readers will surely devour. You know intellectually that there will be bumps but those will be quickly cast aside as your energy and muse pour on the coal, slinging amazing ideas into the world. And in this sunshine coated-beginning, you think you actually have very little to learn and a great deal of wisdom to share. Ah, youth.

I started writing seriously, and by that I mean sending my stories and articles out to be published, at age 23. I’d been a voracious reader for some time and had written some short film scripts and a couple of plays in high school but nothing that I’d show anyone, except to my closest friends with whom I shared my secret desire to write. It would be two years before I had my first professional publication. Acceptances came a little quicker after that, but so did the rejections. Lots of them. Hundreds of them, in fact.

So here, in no particular order, are a few things I’d tell that young but excited fella about what lay ahead…

  • As good as you think those first things you write are, they’re really not. What you’re feeling is a tremendous sense of accomplishment, not quality of writing. Nothing wrong with that. But as master Hemingway says, the first million words are crap. After that the quality starts to come. But it takes a while to write a million words.
  • Don’t be discouraged by rejection. You’re going to get lots of them. And when you get an editor’s personalized response, understand how rare those are. Rejection means you’re putting yourself out there and that you’re completing something. AND…it has nothing to do with you personally. It’s a particular editor’s view of your writing in that moment. Rejection also produces perseverance and tenacity…if you let it.
  • Finish everything you begin, even if it’s not working. Walk away from it for a while if you must but always complete the story, article, script or novel. If it still doesn’t work after you’ve finished put it in a drawer. Completing your writing gets you out of the habit of starting numerous projects and never finishing anything. Doing so also puts you ahead of 98% of the people out there who say ‘they’ve always wanted to be a writer but just couldn’t find the time.’ You are finding the time and it separates you from the pack. In some ways, it makes you a professional.
  • You’ll start out copying other writer’s voices; Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Mark Twain, Raymond Chandler. That’s okay, because almost every writer does this in a quest to write the kind of stories they like to read. But keep pushing through this period because your voice is in there and it will come out, but only with time. The imitations and cliches will fall away and your sensibilities, your filter of experience, your psychic roadmap – your voice – will emerge. Trust it.
  • You’ll reach a point where you’ve published a few things and then everything seems to stall. The writing seems flat. Your ideas dry up. You think you’ve reached the height of your capabilities. You haven’t. Just a plateau. Keep writing, climb over the hill and you’ll break through. Until you hit the next plateau. It’s part of the journey.
  • Your writing will get better if…you keep writing, keep reading, keep trying to improve, not settling for what has been and taking risks with your words. Don’t be afraid to try new styles, new genres, new techniques. It’s all good. And…never stop learning and be both a sponge and humble with criticism. Take your medicine. It’s good for you.
  • Write from your heart. You’ll hear that a lot but what it means is write from what moves you…what frightens you…what makes you deeply sad…what makes you ecstatic. Remember to write from that place where the real you exists. Not the masks you put on for others or even the ones you sometimes wear for yourself. No. Write from the naked you, the one that God created because that you is totally unique and he has something to say.
  • And remember, always remember why you started writing in the first place. Because it was fun. Because it takes you places where only writing can go. Because there’s something inside you that needs to get out. Because you’re supposed to. And because it’s a gift and you can.

The 23-year-old me was full of vigor, dreams, and a seemingly tireless work ethic. I miss that kid. Well, some of him anyway. What he also had was a lot of naiveté and ignorance about the writing business and his own words. We’ve grown up a lot since then (hopefully not too much) and I still carry that magic he always believed was in the stories. We’ve written some things that have had a touch of that magic and have even touched others. What a wonderful thing that is. But we’ll keep trying to get the magic perfect, where the story soars and goes beyond us. Yes. We’ll keep trying.

Because we’re a writer.

Sublimity

admin —  December 23, 2015

This blog has mostly been about writing or tangential topics of writerly stuff. But with the last entry titled ‘Moments’ we’re going to expand the breadth of what we discuss here, talking more about the moments that make up not just stories but life; yours and mine.

I had such a moment a few days ago. I had been on our property in the Ozarks looking at a fence that had just been put in to keep our ever-curious and Houdini-like horses on our side of said fence. I had taken three dogs with me and as we crossed hill and dale – always followed by the small herd of affectionate equines – I found myself reveling in a moment of sublime contentment. It wasn’t anything dramatic but it was one of those rare times when you are present and grateful for the moment itself, and for the day and all that is in it.

As I was cresting one hill the December sun pleasantly tingled on my face and shoulders and the far mountains seemed close through the leafless trees, surrounding us like a big granite hug. The horses had stopped to graze a few yards away, enjoying their own moment of contentment. My three dogs, Fergus, a large English Mastiff, Gabby, our gazelle-like Mountain Cur and Henry, our Benji Doppelganger, were racing into a pond, relishing the water and the simple joy of doing so.

I watched all this from a spot where I could see both sets of animals and I suddenly realized this was my life; not the far flung hopes of a future where we picture such things, but my real life, right now. I stood there and found my mouth halfway open, caught between a sudden rush of emotion where I wanted to gleefully yell across the property, and a profound thankfulness in the quiet, tinkling of time.

My friend, Derek, used to make fun of me because I always wanted to ‘walk the land’ and here I was placing foot prints in soil that was my own to steward. In such times as these I usually bow my head a little, giving thanks to the Lord because that is where my gratitude is breathed. And always after doing so I feel an electric kinship, a closeness, to Him. Though unseen He is still palpable. Words always diminish moments like these but that is the best I can do.

My thoughts turned to the past several years that had brought my wife, Dawn, and I to this moment in time. And again all I could do was shake my head in wonder as the dogs raced past, the horses lifting their heads for a moment then turning back to their grassy meal. I had a wife, a partner in life whom I was deeply in love with. I was surrounded by animals that I had bonded with and were my family, and our dream of building a home on a piece of land we had forged together was coming true. And to top of it all off, I was about to begin a new job adventure with two dear friends that took us all full circle in both our careers and lives.

I went over, scratching a couple of horses behind the ears and affectionately rubbed their muzzles before calling the dogs back to the car and climbing in. As I started the engine, I looked around at the land that had called to us and nodded again in thanks. We drove away as the horses watched us, the dogs panting and smiling back at them as if to say thanks for the playtime. I was smiling, too, and would continue to do so all the way home.

Moments

admin —  June 30, 2015

“Movies are made up of moments we remember.” ~ Kevin Costner

I think all stories are. At least the ones that stick with us. It’s why I’m drawn to writing so much from my own life. Not sweeping events. But moments. A sliver of time when something crystallized for me.

I’ve been thinking about why I write about the subjects I do. Much of what I pen are moments from my life that made an impact, both large and small. I’ll remember something that still seems important, even in the smallest of ways. When I write them down their meaning becomes clear. It may not be an overwhelming realization; rather, a clarification of something in the shadows. And I have found that even these small, personal moments seem to almost always have universal resonance.

To refer back to Mr. Costner when thinking of some of the films I love, a whole movie doesn’t unspool before me so much as one or two moments that define the essence of the film. When Scout is walking Boo Radley back to his house at the end of To Kill A Mockingbird, holding his hand and guiding him to the front door, there is a melancholy yet hopeful ache that rises in my chest…When Charles Norstadt, having just graduated from a military academy and receiving congratulations from his family, scans the crowd for the one person who truly impacted his life. At the very last minute, Justin MacCleod. The Man Without A Face, having been there all along, mentor and the only believer in young Charles, turns to catch his eye and they wave to each other – which hitches my throat every time….or when we’re brought into Sam Neil and Laura Dern’s wide-eyed expressions and then the camera pans up to reveal the massive brontosaurs of Jurassic Park, we along with the actors, cannot help but believe that dinosaurs once again rule the Earth. These moments and hundreds more like them move us and represent what is most glorious about storytelling. Transportation and belief.

And so it is with the stories I tell from my own life. A thousand moments that are protruding corners of a treasure chest sticking out of sand as well as full stories within themselves seem to bubble up at various times, demanding to be told…The glee of Mark Leabo’s face as he first shares his idea for the junior high haunted house…the cherubic laughter and by turns serious shadow that covers Eddie Linnum’s face as he relates to me the events of living aboard a B-17 at the height of the war…the mud-packed schoolyard at Harrison elementary on an Autumn recess as a football is hurled high, headed my way…the half-smile of my father’s face as he glances at me sideways just before he responds to another one of my hyper-delivered Marx Brother’s lines…these are the moments that have made up some of the stories I tell, as well as the moments of my life.

Each moment has a story to tell. And in the telling, I only hope I do them justice.

The Magic of Fridays

admin —  May 7, 2015

Friday was always the golden day of the week for me. Still is, in some ways.

When I was 11 or 12 Fridays not only meant freedom from school and the promise of the weekend ahead, it also meant adventure. Staying up late to watch Johnny stroll through his multicolored curtain with that wink in his eye. . .staying up even later to watch ‘House of Fear’ on Channel 13 where I was introduced to Karloff, Lugosi and Chaney. . .stealthing our way onto the high school football field on Saturdays to kick field goals. . .or racing our bikes across town to hike Mt. David. The possibilities were endless.

With writing it’s kind of been the same way. Holding down a full-time job and writing is trying at times. But you have to put in some after-hours work or there’s nothing on the paper to read. It’s like Lawrence Kasdan said: Writing for a living is like having homework everyday of your life. Albeit homework you, for the most part, actually like. Still, as the end of the week approaches and weariness crawls across my shoulders, I know that Friday holds the promise of magic on the page.

Writing can tax the brain and the heart. It takes perseverance and more than a little courage to take the time and effort to put forth words on paper that come together to tell a story. I hear fairly often when talking to someone when they find out I write that they, too, have always wanted to write. Just can’t find the time. But they have great ideas, they say. And I don’t doubt they do. I have a million ideas. Ideas are not the problem. The problem comes with taking the time to write them down and hope that in the translation from mind to ink, the idea isn’t ruined. So, yes, I understand that having ideas is great. But taking the time to write them down is the ditch-digging part. But it’s in the digging (or rather sculpting, which is a better metaphor) that the magic appears, almost as if the words are pushing you on, inviting you to complete their task, to create a forest of black on white, so that they can begin to weave their spell.

And sometimes the magic does happen. More often than not, my words don’t quite fully embrace the magic. But on Fridays, the words always seem to call in a hopeful manner with the same anticipation I had as a kid waiting for Lon Chaney to morph when the full moon crested the trees. The promise of Friday pushes the hard week aside and I find myself at the keys, enticing them along the path of the latest adventure.

And it’s one I hope to always take.

 

A Bonding of Souls

admin —  April 19, 2015

“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12.” ~Stephen King

Stand By Me (based on Stephen King’s novella ‘The Body’ from Different Seasons) is about a lot of things; grief, mystery, childhood, death. But at its core, it’s really about friendship. A celebration of the bond between boys that transcends time and circumstance.

I remember the first time I saw the film. At the end when the credits rolled, I sat there in the theater absorbing what the film had so beautifully conveyed, both explicitly and inherently. The film resonated with me in many ways. For one, some of it was shot in and around my hometown of Cottage Grove, Oregon. Secondly, I had friends very similar to those portrayed in the movie, and one character who was eerily close to one of my best friends when I was twelve. The film caused me to reflect on all of the friendships throughout my life and how they had shaped me.

I have had wonderful friends, which is probably why the theme of friendship is woven through much of my writing. Those bonds are important to me. Vital, even. And they fascinate me. Friendship can alter our lives in many ways and like love becomes part of our DNA in ways few things can. There’s just something about the connection that is made with another that ignites a spark in the soul; a leap of joy almost. It’s like CS Lewis observed when trying to articulate the nature of friendship: “Friendship arises out of mere companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.”  

I have also been most fortunate to maintain friendships that were first formed at an early age. These knitted partnerships have, if anything, strengthened with age. Like fine wine that brings forth character as it ages, so too have my friends added to the flavor of my own life. And I’m so very grateful they have.

So here’s to our friends, the ones who have traveled side by side with us through the seasoning of life. May they know how valued they are and what a true treasure they are in our lives.

“True friendship multiplies the good in life and divides its evils. Strive to have friends, for life without friends is like life on a desert island… to find one real friend in a lifetime is good fortune; to keep him is a blessing.” ~Baltasar Gracian

Story as Transformation

admin —  December 1, 2014

When I think of why storytelling is so important I believe it’s because it has transformative powers. When we fall into the world of a truly fine tale, we’re often not the same when we come out the other end. We’re changed, I think, for the better. We’ve moved around in the skin of people who’ve often had dramatic things happen to them, but have also often persevered and are changed by the events in their lives. We’ve lived with them through those changes.

And we can relate.

Storytelling, as is so often said, about conflict and change. As it is with our lives. Conflict inevitably comes and with it change; sometimes for the better, sometimes, not so much. But from the time Odysseus battled and journeyed to make his way home all the way to Katniss Everhard trying to save her family and friends through the brutality of the Hunger Games, we’re transported – and transformed – by the journey of the story.

Two examples come to mind. Ironically both true, which doesn’t take away from the story of their lives. The first is about a young man named Mephibosheth, told in 2nd Samuel. Mephibosheth was the son of Jonathan, who was the son of the first king of Israel, Saul. Jonathan and David, who later become king (after he slayed an arrogant giant) were best friends. In fact, when Jonathan died, David vowed to make sure any of his family members would be taken care of. As a young child Mephibosheth was accidentally dropped and became disabled. He was made fun of and often had to fend for himself. Mephibosheth came to the attention of David (now King) when David asked if there was anyone left in the house of Saul who he could show kindness to for Jonathan’s sake. David was told a son of Jonathan lived, but was lame in both feet. David had him found and called him forth. Appearing before the king Mephibosheth’s words, and David’s are telling:

“What is your servant, that you should notice a dead dog like me?”

“Don’t be afraid,” David said to him, “for I will surely show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan. I will restore to you all the land that belonged to your grandfather Saul, and you will always eat at my table.”

A king welcoming the least of us to his table. Reminds me of another story.

Mephibosheth was transformed by David’s unmerited favor. And in some ways, so are we when we read their story.

The second example is John Merrick. You may know him as the Elephant Man. A man who knew cruelty and pain – emotional and physical – as few of us could ever know, but who managed to keep burning within him a heart of hope that transformed the lives around him. He came to be friends with a doctor named Frederick Treves and both of their lives were forever altered by the friendship. He also became a favorite of London society after a particular well-known actress befriended him and was charmed and bowled over by his knowledge of literature, plays and poetry. He only lived 27 years, most of that in orphanages and in circuses who severely abused him. But his last years were lived in a hospital where he was protected and cared for. John Merrick thought he’d found heaven in the people that embraced him. What he never fully realized is that his life, and his child-like heart that continued to hope – regardless of circumstances – transformed most everyone who came to know him.

May we be transformed like Mephibosheth and John Merrick, thankful and doused in wonder by the story before us.

October’s Dance

admin —  October 31, 2014

October is a pinnacle time for me. Always has been. I actually get a little giddy as it comes around. But it’s also bittersweet. In the most Dickensian way it is the best of times, it is the worst of times for me.

Growing up October meant the shifting of hot summer days to blustery winds and the dance of the autumn palette of leaves. It also meant the coming of Halloween, the apex of adventure and good frights for every elementary school kid. The month has imprinted me with a heightened sense of the joyous hour of childhood. But it’s also left me with the residual sorrow that comes with losing a father in my teen years in the middle of Halloween’s month.

So it is as the air changes tenor and evening comes much sooner and the moon is playful and bright that I find myself of two minds; rising excitement; melancholy in reflection. Anticipatory embrace of the season; wistful yearning in what was lost.

I’ve written a lot with October as a backdrop. Mostly children’s fiction, a Halloween story or two, some non-fiction. It’s one of the most evocative times of the year to delve into. A sensory potpourri for the pen. Much like the joy and pain we experience in life, it’s hard to write about icy winds and skeletal trees without also having experienced the cobalt blue sky of a June day. Likewise, one cannot write about the bright light of joy or the effervescence of laughter without having experienced the hollow pain of grief and loss.

Still, I revel in the magic that is October, it’s duality in my life, the autumnal gifts it brings me as summer relinquishes its hold.

So I say come, October. I welcome you and all that you have been to me, with open arms.

Echoing Home: Writing For Place

admin —  September 14, 2014

I recently got back from visiting my home town in Oregon. A pleasant little village called Cottage Grove. I was there for both the wedding of a dear friend and a high school class reunion. Going back always filled me with nervous energy and anticipation. Of what, I’m not quite sure.

Hometowns are funny things. Whether our memories are pleasant or distasteful, they are always there, hovering in the backwash of our minds. We’re imprinted with place in our growing years because our senses are on fire. Whether it’s the freshly cut grass on a June morning, or the earthen musk of fallen leaves on an October evening, or even the steely wetness of silent, falling snow, our childhoods were made for memories.

But I’m always taken back by how powerful some of the images are that still linger. Part of that is that I recall them for purposes of story. But it’s also a little of the chicken or the egg thing. I will find myself writing a scene and the characters will be moving around on wooden floors in a gray, clapboard hut, filled with tools and I’ll suddenly step out of the story for a moment and think, ‘wait-a-minute, where is this place? I’ve seen it before.” And sure enough it’s the small shack that used to be the business of a plumber I knew back when I was a kid. I think I was in there once, maybe twice with my Dad. But I hadn’t consciously thought of that little spot on Gibbs Avenue, down from the First National Bank in over forty years. But my mind (and often my heart) never forgot.

That’s why I think setting and place are so powerful in fiction. Faulkner had his little county in Mississippi no one can pronounce, Stephen King has the dark woods of Maine, John D. MacDonald and Carl Hiaasen bring out the full bloom of both the coast and inland waterways of Florida and even our beloved Mr. Tolkien had his English countryside shimmered into the Shire we all know and love. When we think of their stories it’s often while recalling their ‘places.’

And me, well, I keep returning to the hills, back roads and quiet streets of the little town that formed me. Not always directly and often I mold it into a place that suits the writing at the time. But the Grove is always there, like a beacon. Never insistent. Simply patient. As if it’s waiting for me to call again.

And I’m grateful it is.