Life, Faith, and Fiction: Everything is better in writing.
Author: Carrie Sue Barnes
Carrie Sue Barnes is a fiction author and blogger who fell in love with creative writing as a grade schooler in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. She resides now in Wisconsin with her family, often pulling her love for the Midwest into her writing. Carrie Sue's debut novel, The Hidden Legacy, was released in 2018 by Bold Vision Books to strong reviews. Since then, she has published several short stories and continues to write short fiction and faith-inspired reflections on this site. Carrie Sue loves reading, kayaking, hugging her children and friends, rewatching The Office, and connecting with readers in person and on social media.
On Wednesday night, one of my fifth graders asked how we still have so many stories and traditions from lots and lots of years ago. I talked about the natural passing of such things from grandparents and parents to children and grandchildren by living and sharing traditions and stories together, as well as other sources for passing on those pieces of life. We moved on with our class lesson then, but tonight his question popped back into my head
This is how it happens.
Playing Skip-Bo with my children for the first time and explaining how it was my favorite game to play with my Grandma Ebsch when I was a kid. Playing it with Grandma’s own set of cards, passed on to me after she died, I described how Grandma Ebsch adored playing card games of any kind and spent hours teaching her grandchildren the games too. Even as teens, we loved playing cards with Grandma, and I never tired of Skip-Bo.
Confiding these memories – smiling over it all and imagining how Grandma would be thrilled if she could play with us tonight – watching the two of them excitedly catch on to the game – this is how it happens.
We played Twister too, but that piece of entertainment affected my back more than my nostalgic heart.
I’m choosing a new writing notebook today. I am trying to think of the best way to describe this thrill. Picking this notebook stirs up anticipation much like a fresh adventure. I’ve felt it while packing for a trip to somewhere completely new. I’ve tasted it in the early morning preparation before running a race, and when launching my kayak into a new lake. It is laced with excitement, joy, and a nervous sense of responsibility to make the most of the experience.
This isn’t for writing my current novel WIP. It is the notebook for ideas and snippets that are born in any given moment of the day. It is hauled with me most everywhere and is missed when it’s left at home.
The last one held numerous unformed ideas, flash fiction stories, blog posts, and seeds and scenes of short stories. Meaningful moments were captured there. Characters were born there. The last pages hold the first draft of a letter that would change my life in a way I’d longed to see for years. There are still undeveloped ideas in it that I will try to turn into whole scenes or stories. It has served me wonderfully well.
It’s an important notebook, you see. I cannot wait to discover what will fill it.
The cafe I’m sitting in is the sort of place I used to write in regularly. That’s what I thought about as I walked through the chiming door into the buzz of conversations and the invigorating odor of coffee.
I used to….
The past tense of the thought unsettled me. How else to change it then but by writing in this place? I promised myself that before I left this table at a picture window overlooking the downtown shops, I would write something. I’d write for the sake of transforming my statement to the present tense.
So, here I am, writing something in this small-town coffeehouse with delicious pastries, soothing teas, and busy tables. Just as I should be.
I’m currently living in a meet-the-needs-of-this-day mindset. It neither allows for procrastination of things to be done today, nor for anxiousness about days ahead. That’s not to say I’m free from procrastination or anxiety (wouldn’t that be a dream), but I’m trying. I’m aiming. Some days I land near the target and some days I lose track of it entirely. My brain and my emotions are in recovery mode currently and I find I only have the capacity – emotionally, mentally, physically – for what is truly needed for the present day. Rarely more. In low moments, even that much is questionable, but only in the low moments.
I’m discovering the words and actions that help me silence the anxious, speculative thoughts. There is no ignoring the tension I carry in my muscles from the moment I wake until I eventually fall asleep in the middle of the night. My heels are dug deep in self-awareness, constantly in tune with the ways my body and mind need to be supported. It is both transforming and exhausting. I am counting on the habits I develop now, in this less than ideal place, to help me thrive beyond this leg of the journey.
My personal journal was all I could pick up for a while, but I’m breaking back into the novel WIP and blogging in recent weeks. The energy that writing gives, plus the unshakeable desire to write much, much more, propels me forward while other pieces of life right now are pulling me down. Undoubtedly, writing will continue to be one of my most encouraging companions as I transition from crisis mode to adjustment and acceptance to thriving on a new path.
Living in the present, carpe diem, and all that jazz have taken on new meaning lately. They are less about taking bold chances and more about expecting both God and myself to see to the needs of this day. “Give us this day our daily bread.” How often I’ve prayed that one line in sporadic moments through the last few months. For strength, clarity, wisdom, grace, peace… just for today. Tomorrow is still out of my reach, and that’s probably for the best. Today has trouble enough of its own, to paraphrase Jesus.
So far the track record for that little prayer being answered is as steady as can be. He makes a way and, one day at a time, I try to walk it. Maybe that’s as much as I ought to expect of myself in any stage of life, not only the one I’m navigating at present.
My tea is gone and I’m going home. I’ll be back though because…
The nose of my kayak dipped into the dark water at five-thirty. The five mile drive to the boat launch was a friendly race with the first streaks of color. No matter how many times I watch a sunrise, I am surprised by how rapidly it passes through its succession of colors. When I launched into the lake, everything reached by the light was bathed in a pink glow.
The crisp air of the new day, the mist riding atop the warm water, and the sun’s processional march of color were a breathtaking combination. God makes beautiful places, I thought over and over again.
This lake is edged by several homes, a youth camp, and abundant forest. At that hour, it was silent on every side. I was the only person on the lake and, at least in the first stretch, hardly more than a few birds had yet to break the quiet. I paddled and drifted. Paddled and drifted. The mist was invitingly mesmerizing, but each time I moved further into it, I paused to cease even the noise of my paddle cutting in and out of the water.
The silence was magnificent.
As the pinks and oranges gave way to blue, and the sun crept nearer the tops of the tree line, the bird calls multiplied. When I sat still, I could hear the flutters of wings and creaks of branches as the trees’ residents stirred to life. Before the sun crested the trees, the shadows slid away from the top down.
Eventually, maybe an hour in, came another kayaker. When she spotted me watching something on the edge of a little island, she drew closer and I pointed out the Great Blue Heron standing among the lily pads.
She was perhaps around 75, best guess, with a soft voice and smile. She asked how early I’d arrived and remarked on the goodness of enjoying the lake before it was busy with boats and the waves that follow them. She told me about the oldest heron nesting on the lake year after year, whom she calls Grandpa. We watched the heron on the island until it flew off with a whooshing flap of its blue-feathered wings. I wished her a good day as she moved on and I felt a vague sense of what it’d have been like to be there at that moment with my great-grandmother when she was the same age. Something in the woman’s manners had called my Grandma Walcher to mind right off.
I took my time skimming along the curves of the lake. Fish came to the top in clouds of bubbles. Turtles poked their triangle heads through the surface. The birds were musically relentless. Apart from the surfacing creatures though, the water remained flat and still. If I stopped paddling, even in the open spaces, the kayak barely drifted. Shining reflections doubled the views in every direction.
Around seven a.m., I told myself it was time to make my way back to the boat launch. I’d have time to drive home, unload the kayak, and shower before logging into work for the day. With a a bit of convincing, I pointed my boat in that direction.
From behind me, I heard a call of “Hooo! Hello!”
A soft shout coming from my co-kayaker. I turned around and we drew up beside each other.
“If you go back along the trees, there’s another heron. He’s on some dead branches almost all the way to the corner. They love to feed there.”
How am I to turn away from a tip like that one? Getting home could wait. I thanked my new friend before paddling where she directed. I wondered if asking to have tea and cookies with her later would be too odd.
Sure enough, he was exactly where she’d described. Perched, watching and waiting for more breakfast. He was beautiful.
Amazingly, he didn’t mind me one bit as I floated closer. I stopped among the first of the lily pads and sat still once again. Birds called to each other unceasingly. A pair of cranes began making a racket from a distant section of shoreline. I wondered if he was Grandpa, here for enough years to go about his day without concern over the noisy business of others (including intrusive humans in kayaks). Perhaps he was Grandpa, because he didn’t even stir when the morning bugle song rang out from the opposite side of the lake to rouse the campers from their bunks.
Leaving the heron to his morning meal, I did finally resolve to be on my way. That vocal pair of cranes and another heron provided more delightful distractions before I reached the boat launch.
The bird life among the reeds and cattails seemed to double in my final minutes on the water. It was now a quarter to eight, the sun fully up and me due at my desk very soon. Even though I couldn’t stay to sit among more of those birds or watch more schools of fish pop up to the shimmering surface, my joy from the morning was overflowing. It bubbled out in a laugh as I pulled my boat out of the water. I shook my head at all the pieces of beauty I’d encountered in the last two hours. I laughed more, and thanked God again and again.
“Cause you know just what we need before we say a word.”
I drove to Sheboygan today loudly singing songs in between talking to the Holy Spirit. I swear I could feel my sister praying for me from heaven. One of her favorites started playing, “Good, Good Father” by Chris Tomlin, and when these lyrics reached my ears, they looped round my mind a few times while the song continued on unheard. He already knows, I thought. He is in control.
It was a moment of surrender, which isn’t the easiest for any of us, I’d say, especially in the traumatic times.
Whether we believe in God as I do or the universe or nature or any other power above us, we all have a pull inside us to surrender. To give up an impossible attempt at being in control. We chase the relief of letting go. The peace of that surrender calls to us– peace that is oh so hard to make our own.
For a moment there, that peace rushed in and filled cracks and wounds and voids. Filled them whole. And even as that tide of healing slipped back out, it left all those places coated in the sweet holy water of real peace. And there was just a little more strength in me. A little more calm. A little more faith.
I am nearer to who I am trying to be, and even nearer to who I already am underneath the layers of alteration. I am nearer now than yesterday and last week and last month and last decade. That is all I’ll seek each day. That’s some of the daily bread I ask of my Father.
Some days it’s hard to feel any progress. Some days have me skidding downhill. Then some days the light down the path grows clearly brighter and bigger, and I know deep down that I’m moving toward it.
It was the perfect recipe. Perfect, though we couldn’t have known it before all the ingredients were there.
One small, midwestern town, where family lines run deep even as the population dwindles.
One school with a void where the music and band programs used to be.
One grand idea by an alumnus.
A few dozen eager alumni plus a handful of current high schoolers; all qualified band geeks.
One natural leader grabbing the reins with equal parts optimism and get-it-done practicality.
Nostalgia, added to taste.
When I graduated high school and then left for college in 1999, I was in one frame of mind: don’t look back. I wanted new, more, and different. It took years and plenty of road behind me to appreciate my school age years. I’m still working on it, honestly.
My parents continue to live in Stephenson, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. As well, at least a few members of our family have resided within a reasonable drive of our hometown since graduating high school. All seven of us siblings have made it a priority, as life allows, to continue gathering at the home in which we all grew up. So, fully leaving behind my small town roots was never my path, and for that I’m thankful.
In more recent years of this age of social media, I found myself reconnecting with high school friends. It was exciting to discover where our roads took us. Some were surprising and some not. I began to appreciate the memories with these individuals and enjoyed seeing each other’s adventures and families on Facebook and Instagram. Still, I didn’t attend reunions or make a point of reconnecting in person with more than a scant few people.
Among the best of my high school memories are the band memories. I loved band. There were only a few high school classes or programs I’d say that about, and band might be at the top of the list. So, when I was invited to join a Facebook group a few months ago called SHS Alumni Pep Band, my curiosity was high from the start.
The idea came from my old friend Ron. He’d recently learned that the Stephenson schools are now without both a music and band program. It saddened him, as it did all of us discussing it on the group’s page, and he proposed that we bring back the pep band for homecoming night of the varsity boys’ basketball season. The delightfulness of the idea was apparent, but could we do it? Was it even practical to try? Did any of us remember how to play? With ample brainstorming and reminiscence, enough people committed to the plan and there was no looking back.
I found myself signing on for my first hometown event in 22 years, and the closest thing to a high school reunion I’d yet to experience.
The level of interest and the reach of the appeal was fascinating. We became a group spanning five decades of graduating years. Literal generations in the same ensemble.
A couple months out from the homecoming game, we scrambled to find usable instruments and resurrect our dormant skills. Scott, a fellow ’99 graduate who lives in Stephenson again with his family, jumped on the tasks of digging up sheet music for each instrument and dispersing them online for all of us. He reserved the band room, now set up for Spanish classes, so local alumni could practice together.
I took my saxophone in for a tune up (aka to make it functional again) and borrowed a former bandmate’s extra alto sax to start practicing in the meantime. Later I found out my instrument, used when my parents bought it for my older sister before handing it down to me, would cost several hundred dollars to repair. The repairman was frank about it not being worth the investment. I’m still sad over not playing that saxophone again but thank goodness for my friend’s loaner.
Relearning the old pep band standards felt like a montage of comedically inspiring efforts. It was slow to start but eventually my fingers remembered what they were doing and my lungs built up a smidgen of endurance. It took a little longer each practice before my jaw started aching.
After a few weeks, I still doubted I could play the songs with other people. When it worked out to be in Stephenson for one of the Sunday afternoon practices, I loaded up the saxophone and arrived at the high school with all sorts of nerves. However, it only took stepping through the door of the old band room for those nerves to change to joy. We warmed up our instruments and greeted each other enthusiastically. I felt that coming-home feeling that belongs to the rare pieces of youth made up of only good things. Whatever that piece might be for you, for me it was band.
What I got a taste of during that practice was in full force on homecoming night.
The gymnasium was filled to the doors. Where typically only half of the bleachers are pulled out to hold the fans, this time every section was packed with people. That alone set the tone for the alumni band. There was a hint of stepping back in time to the games of our own high school years, when it was unheard of to only fill up half the gym. The entirety of the band seemed to adopt an unspoken mission to answer the excitement of that crowd with generous enthusiasm in our songs. Personally, my children’s eagerness to see their mom play in the band was contagious. I was thrilled to watch my family’s proud faces as they spotted me on the bleachers.
In the end, I think we thoroughly surprised ourselves. We were somehow all members of the same band despite our widespread ages. Playing together felt natural. The presence of our beloved band directors – teachers who remain favorites in countless students’ hearts – challenged us to hit the right notes… and roll through the notes we missed.
I can’t summarize everyone else’s emotions from that night but all of mine were tethered back to gratitude. As I write this a month later, that is still what I feel more than anything else.
For the crowd’s call for more songs after the game finished. For hugging my band directors. For blooking around from my seat on that bleacher and seeing friends. For the reminder of the greatness of a small town, and the celebration of the gift of music to a community and school. I’m grateful for all of it and for playing a part in it.
After the game, many of us trekked out to Belgiumtown Bar & Restaurant, a country tavern a few miles off the highway with delicious food and the friendliest bartenders around. They stayed open hours past their normal closing time and we savored minute after minute of visiting over drinks, laughter, and old favorites on the jukebox.
The reconnection of that night with the friends, the town, and myself filled my soul with good things. There’s no mistaking the value of it in this (and every) era of our lives. I hope very much that each person who played in the band or attended the game that night received a share in that goodness.
The weather yesterday, high 30s and sunshine, had me longing for a run. I settled for a superb, solitary walk on the mostly clear rec trail. I kept at a steady clip around a four mile loop I used to run on a lunch break sometimes.
Once the pavement was under my shoes, the ache to run passed and my mind’s gears got to grinding. It used to happen like that on a really good run and I was giddy over the experience yesterday. My, oh my, it’d been a long time since my imagination slipped into writing mode that easily.
Idea after idea took shape for the novel I’m currently writing. Each one flowed from the one before it. All of it made me grin as I walked through my town and filled my lungs up with fresh air.
Three times before reaching home, I ran through each of the notes and scenes I was writing without a pen. I repeated them to myself in the order they’d come to me, and at the end of each round, more new material came. It was a feast.
When I arrived home, I rushed through explaining to my husband why I had to get to my notebook and pen. I had to write all of it down before any of it disappeared, as unrecorded ideas are apt to do.
I don’t know how long I spent writing. I don’t know why everything worked yesterday when it so often does not.
I know I have eleven pages of new, solid character and plot development and scenes for my novel. I know it was a walk to rival any of my favorite runs.
I’m grateful, and I can’t wait to eventually share this book with you someday.