Saturday, November 28, 2015

Fractured families --- today and yesterday

We miss our family when they go off on their own. And we look forward to the times we can gather them together. Of course, it's been like that forever---sons and daughters grow up, spread their wings, and leave the nest to seek a life of their own. By the time we reach our October years we understand that. And we know too that often as not their leaving is a bittersweet moment---weighing the excitement of their hopeful beginnings against our own sense of loss.
I suppose that ambivalence is to be expected. After all, we raise our children with the implied understanding that one day they will strike out on their own. If we are so inclined we can cite biblical injunctions to justify their departure. It is that reality, that parting, that makes preparing our offspring to go off on their own one of our most important parental tasks.
It's happened in our family, and probably yours too---those days when we watched our children leave for some other part of the country, taking the next steps in their own lives. Though we had mixed feelings about their going---we realized that moment had been waiting for us for a very long time. Those partings happen often in today's mobile society, where families are apt to be spread all over the country, and beyond.
In most cases the "leavers" depart in good spirits, excited by fresh and hopeful possibilities, a new life chapter about to be lived out---with new chances to create their own future and continue their "becoming." In that light how can we, the ones left behind, begrudge their willingness to take a chance? Still, though we would never stand in the way of their growing and becoming, there is often a part of us that resists their leaving---at least a little bit.
In a very real sense they are a part of whom we are. In ways we often fail to understand we have depended on their presence to make our own life complete. Though we have no right or inclination to hold them back, we can't help but wish they would stay, or at least not move so far away. Those are the urges that separation produces. I suppose those feelings are as old as mankind.
Of course, in our world of interstate highways and on-time airlines that sort of parting need not be a permanent thing. There will be  opportunities for periodic reunions. Additionally, with today's connecting technology the sting of enforced separation has been softened. The internet and wireless communication, in all their many forms, have made staying in touch with separated family easier and more immediate than ever.
But now I ask you to pause for a moment to shift gears, to gather those thoughts of family partings and come with me to a another time, when leaving the family nest was apt to mean something very different.
You see, a year ago Roma and I spent days tracking her OregonTrail ancestors over flat, straight Nebraska highways and crooked, dusty Wyoming backroads---from the broad Platte River plain to the Continental Divide. We visited impressive interpretive centers and hiked along riverside trails---seeing first hand the challenges those pioneers travelers endured.
Though it was a satisfying and eventful journey, following the Oregon Trail to its Oregon terminus, at some point along the way I found myself dwelling on a wave of melancholy thoughts---October questions I had never seen anyone  address before. Those questions, and their sad answers, were a fact of pioneer life that guidebooks and documentary videos seem to ignore.
Think of it this way. For just about every Oregon Trail pioneer family that sold off most of what they owned to raise the hundreds of dollars their "Oregon dream" would cost, there were family and friends who remained behind---who gathered to say their good-byes as the hopeful travelers started off on their adventure. 
There were times, of course, when the departing travelers left no one behind, when the family remained intact. One of Roma's ancestors joined a wagon train made up entirely of more than 300 members of their Baptist church. The congregation emigrated en masse. And surely there were times when parents and even grandparents, perhaps too old to be undertaking such a venture, joined the overland company simply to avoid being left behind. 
Still, more often than not, families were destined to be separated---some leaving, some staying behind. In those days of wagon train travel, when that happened those parties could expect to live the rest of their lives on opposite sides of the Continental Divide.
For some of those left behind that emigration separation was not an entirely new experience. Chance were, only a generation or two earlier they or their parents had made a similar break---a shorter journey over the Appalachians to the OhioValley and beyond. That too had been a time of separation, of leaving home for good.
For the Oregon Trail pioneers that parting, that leaving for the “Promised Land,” was framed by the all-too-likely reality that they and the family members who remained at home would never see each other again. The odds of parents, who stayed behind to tend a farmstead in mid-America, ever seeing the son, daughter, or siblings who had moved half a continent away to the far-off reaches of a mysterious place called Oregon, were slim indeed. 
Think about that for a moment. How would you deal with that sort of parting---watching a son or daughter, a brother or sister, ride off to a new life that in all likelihood would never again include you? From the moment they turned their back on you for the last time, your only contact would be in the form of long letters from far away. Your relationship would be sustained by fond memories and words on paper.
Consider for a moment that harsh and very permanent kind of parting. Take a moment to imagine that your son or daughter is standing in the doorway, suitcase in hand, preparing to leave---forever. How does one get their mind around that?
Yet, in the name of creating a more promising life, they were leaving their family and past behind. It was the only way. And for those who were left behind? The more I think about them, the more I realize that there were two very different sets of heros taking part in that migration drama. 
Of course those wagon-train pioneers, the ones who made the long trek, endured a hard and dangerous journey. Theirs was the stuff of legends---the story of brave men and women, many of whom did not live to see the promised land. Because of their efforts our country now stretches from sea to sea. In a very real sense it was their willingness to leave their families, friends, and the life they knew that made it possible. 
Still, in a way I had not expected to find, I realize that those wagon-train pioneers were not the only ones to pay the price of separation. In ways that make present-day family separation tame by comparison, our October predecessors paid a price few of us would be willing to pay.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Want to join the club? No dues and no meetings

So what is it that brings you here to this blog site? Is this a first-time visit, or do you belong to the club? I’m referring, of course, to the regular members of the blog-reading fraternity. (Or is it a sorority?) I’m not sure what our members are called. Are they blog junkies or blog groupies? Whatever we call ourselves, it feels as though we have stumbled onto a most engrossing, stimulating, and sometimes addictive diversion---a perfect retirement pastime. If following the blogs of your choice is not already a part of your routine perhaps you ought to consider it. Are there times when your present world is not big enough to suit you, or doesn’t take you to the places you would like to go? If so, latching onto a blog or two can be a fun and painless way to expand your horizons. 
If there is a chance that might work for you let’s begin with the obvious---a working definition. Blog (noun) - a website on which an individual or group of users regularly record opinions, information, etc on a particular topic or range of topics.
However it happened, you have managed to find this blog, and I thank you for that. But did you know that there is a blog, or blogs, for just about everything under the sun? The bloggers you read may be seasoned experts or overeager novices. But no matter what the subject, someone out there is offering their own opinions and information on the matter---as well as creating a dialog about it, Take any interest, hobby, habit, or obsession imaginable and you can be sure that any decent search engine can locate one or more blogs that deal with it.
It is an internet-enabled pastime of course---a bit like visiting with your neighbor over the back fence. Except in this case your “neighbor,” the one who wants to talk with you about your favorite subject, may live on the other side of the world. Chances are he or she will bring unique insights and ideas to the conversation---something new for you to consider or explore. Best of all, you get to choose when to visit, whom you will visit with, and when to add your own input to the dialogue.
Perhaps you’re a “show me” sort of person. You know, someone who says “I’ll believe it when I see it.” If so, the test is oh-so-simple. No special computer skill is required. Just go to any search engine---enter a topic, any topic, in the search line, then add the word “blog.” It’s hard to imagine a legitimate subject that won’t produce multiple responses. Simply review the results of your search, choose a site that appeals to you, call it up and read. If you decide to join the online conversation you will be coached through that process.
At once you will find that you have stumbled onto a new kind of community, a virtual-village of folks who are excited by what excites you. For me that process began when I logged on to an inconspicuous website called Hitch Itch, where I was introduced to the world of full-time RVing, something that interested me a great deal. (Sadly my wife did not subscribe to the romance of making our home in a tin house on wheels.) She preferred her own fan collecting and genealogy blogs.
Anyway, there on Hitch Itch dozens of folks were posting their blogs---proclaiming the virtues of living full time in an RV, sharing their travel experiences, and staying in touch with each other. Though I am usually a silent observer, I occasionally add my input to some ongoing dialogue. On an irregular basis I follow the travels and trials of folks I’ve never met, and probably never will. 
We have become new-age Pen Pals. (Remember those?) In the same way the blog you are reading right now allows, those blogging Pen Pals have invited the rest of us to join them on their own unique journey---while we learn who they are and what keeps them going. It has the feel of an old-fashioned party-line, an intimate conversation posted for the whole world to read
As for myself, I have several reasons to be blogging. This October Years space is clearly labeled “a writer’s blog.” I use the format to explore, explain, and (gasp) promote my books. Hopefully that is enough to keep people returning to these pages.
Personally, I enjoy resurrecting some story I wrote years before to ask what I was trying to say and judge how successful I was. I’m always working on a new story, looking for ways to make them better. Writing a blog helps me do that. If, at the same time, I nudge some blog reader towards reading one of my stories I’m okay with that.
Finally, whatever your reason for being on this page at this moment I hope you’ll return often, and tell your friends about it. As always, I’ll keep asking for your comments, though few of you have taken me up on that.
 In the meantime, I hope you’ll check out other blog topics that interest you. There is a whole world waiting out there, tens of thousands of conversations going on at this very minute. Chances are there is one or more that you’d enjoy being part of. You have the computer and internet connection. (That’s how you’re reading this.) Why not visit Blogsville and see if one of the conversations ought to include you?

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Happily Ever After -- Or Not

It’s been a while since I turned these pages toward the “Writer’s Blog” part of our title, so I will begin with the obvious. Because my stories are about seniors, those of us in our October or November time of life, they naturally deal with “second-time-around” relationships. Though in today’s world those alliances are not all that unusual, certain assumptions are required to turn them into a story.
Consider for a moment, how adaptable are you? Are you the kind who could start over with someone new? Would you be willing to risk another relationship? Not everyone can or wants to do that. Yet that is not a rhetorical question for the October seniors I write about---the ones considering the prospect of a new life with a new partner. 
For some, those who have seen a promising marriage turn sour, a more hopeful second chance might be tempting. I’ve told a few stories about that possibility. But what about those who have suffered the loss of his or her life mate---whether suddenly or after a drawn out illness? Can there ever be “another time” for them? I’ve explored those possibilities too. In every case the resulting answers are personal and unique. There is no right or wrong response to dealing with such loss, and the daunting prospect of facing our remaining years alone.
In the face of so many variables, what makes me a credible creator of the relational settings from which to launch a story? Perhaps like you, I’ve spent a lifetime becoming one-half of a pair, learning to live with “the one.” (And she with me. Truth to tell, she’s had the tougher job.) At this October stage of the game would I be willing to go through that sometimes complicated learning process again? I can’t answer that, and hope I never have to.
Yet, to tell the story I want to tell I must set my characters in a place where “another time” is an option. In the course of ten novel-length “relational” stories I have tagged along as my Tanner friends, many of them as unsure as you or I, faced that possibility. 
The first part of that storytelling process is simple enough---introducing a pair of lonely and wanting seniors to each other, explaining how they have made their way to that point in life, and planting the seed of relational possibility---a glimpse of what they think they want. If I do my job well the reader will want to know more about their journey toward that place, which is the story I’m telling.
Lately however, perhaps prompted by this renewed blog-focus, I sometimes wonder if my depictions of a “second chance” relationship have been too simplistic. 
I understand that the blending of any two lives into a meaningful partnership is not an easy thing. That must be especially true when they come together late in life---bringing with them a lifetime of habits, preferences, and expectations. Our coming together with a life-mate the first time, all those years ago, required trust, chemistry, and patience. Though I’ve never been there myself, I am certain that a successful second chance, an October relationship, must include those same elements.
In a story I call Second Chances each of the Harris brothers has been widowed. Though not actively seeking a new connection, both are beginning to sense that being alone for the years they have left is not an attractive prospect. There’s nothing unusual about that. So with a typical male “go-get-her” resolve each of them charges off just like the first time---forty-some years before---assuming that if he can win “her” interest their pairing will succeed. Of course, each of them is defining “success” in terms of his first long and loving marriage. Their mind-picture of a new relationship is bound to look like a replay of that first satisfying time.
But it is not that easy, is it? There are so many variables. How can anyone be sure the formula that worked so well in one relationship will succeed with someone else, someone they are still getting to know? Small wonder that not all my stories have a gift-wrapped, happily-ever-after ending. Still, who am I to say they shouldn’t try? Actually, that is exactly the notion I am trying to sell---in a relationship or any other October pursuit, the way to “thrive” is to keep trying.
Perhaps you can tell that digging deep, looking for unseen motives is an occupational hazard for someone like me. If so, I accept it as the price of authenticity. I want the stories I tell to be more than feel-good caricatures of lost and lonely souls stumbling toward inevitable happiness. My Tanner friends know it’s not always like that in the real world. Fact is, you’ll find very few ivory towers in the October landscape.
When I step back to consider my own experience I remember when I first seriously considered a future with “her”---and how that youthful “me” charged ahead, relying on a naive “I know we can make it work” model. Fortunately, it did. But there were no guarantees. The best we can do is say our prayers, trust our instincts, and hope for a patient partner. 
That was true at eighteen. I’m assuming it is still that way at seventy. We give it our best shot and take our chances. Since I want my October Years stories to be credible, don’t be surprised to find there are times when “giving it their best” wasn’t enough to win the happily-ever-after my Tanner seniors were seeking.