Happy Thanksgiving!  Today we celebrate the anniversary of the feast in which Native Americans helped the first immigrants survive in their new land. This week we've seen Native Americans brutally attacked for defending their right to clean water, while many Americans are being yelled at to "Go back to where you came from!" Of course this only makes us more determined to celebrate our diversity and come together as Americans, whether our families have always been here, or whether they came came here on the Mayflower, on slave ships, steamships, rafts, or airplanes. I'd love to hear about your "coming to America/always been in America" stories; I'd love to hear what you're especially thankful for (if you want to comment below)... Hope you have a happy holiday, everyone, with good company, good food, and good conversation: may your only fighting be over the wishbone!

Pictured is my great-grandfather, Alec Sherman, who emigrated from Kaunas, Lithuania, to New York, in the early 1900s, to escape enscription into the Russian army and to enjoy religious freedom--which he indeed found in America. He married my great-grandmother, Jenny Melkiur, who was from Latvia, and they moved to Los Angeles, where they spent the rest of their lives with their eight children, including my grandmother Sarah. My father's family came from Cork County, Ireland. I am thankful that all of my great-grandparents made the arduous journey to America, and that all of my ancestors lives intersected in such a way that I was born and am writing this today....


Anastasia the Romanian Snake Countess is not a major character in my book; I would hardly even call her a minor one. But she comes up now and again, and so I've been doing a little research on "lady snake charmers" of the circus. Like Eve in the Garden of Eden, these female snake charmers seem to have special relationships with snakes. They can communicate with them, dance with them, "hypnotize" them, and hold them. At a time when women's bathing suits consisted of bloomers and baggy blouses, these women's outfits were downright sexy. My character Anastasia died in a circus fire when her daughter was only 12. But I like to think of her, a young mother, charming snakes and wearing glitzy outfits, making her daughter proud.

It's been over a year since my car accident, and I've just gotten back to working on my novel. Although I still get headaches if I spend too much time at the computer, I can't tell you how good it feels to be thinking clearly and writing creatively once more...



I've been back from Europe for a couple of weeks now. I was there for two months, and had a fantastic time, living and teaching in Scotland and traveling to Dublin, London, and Prague on the weekends. (And having very few headaches!--I think due to lack of screen time, though I'd like to think it was the fresh Scottish air...)  Being home has been a mix of happiness (I'm home! With my family! And pug! And friends!) and sadness (I miss Scotland and my friends there, too).

But I am so glad that I was home when my beloved dog Rosie got sick. I took her to the emergency veterinarian in Madison and learned that she had bladder stones; the next day she had surgery from our veterinarian here in Baraboo. They removed two very large (walnut size) bladder stones and about 20 small ones. Poor Rosie! But they took very good care of her and now she is resting at home, on the mend.

The experience reminded me how much I love Rosie, how much we humans love our pets. Rosie is sweet, happy, funny, and kind--and she doesn't speak in words. For someone who works with words all day--my own, my college students', other writers', professional writers'--having a companion who communicates in wagging tails and big eyes is a beautiful, comforting balm.

I miss Scotland, I miss Europe. But I am very glad to be home.

I've been back from Europe for a couple of weeks now. I was there for two months, and had a fantastic time, living and teaching in Scotland and traveling to Dublin, London, and Prague on the weekends. Being home has been a mix of happiness (I'm home! With my family! And pug! And friends!) and sadness (I miss Scotland and my friends there, too).

But I am so glad that I was home when my beloved dog Rosie got sick. I took her to the emergency veterinarian in Madison and learned that she had bladder stones; the next day she had surgery from our veterinarian here in Baraboo. They removed two very large (walnut size) bladder stones and about 20 small ones. Poor Rosie! But they took very good care of her and now she is resting at home, on the mend.

The experience reminded me how much I love Rosie, how much we humans love our pets. Rosie is sweet, happy, funny, and kind--and she doesn't speak in words. For someone who works with words all day--my own, my college students', other writers', professional writers'--having a companion who communicates in wagging tails and big eyes is a beautiful, comforting balm.

I miss Scotland, I miss Europe. But I am very glad to be home.

I've been in Scotland for a week now, living in Dalkeith House, which is a 17th century palace built upon a 12th century castle. It is amazing to be living in a place with so much history. Mary, Queen of Scots stayed here, as did Bonnie Prince Charlie and James IV, who was married here. The attic and top floor held quartered Polish soldiers during World War II. The house has been owned by the Buccleuch family for hundreds of years; the Duke has leased the house to the University of Wisconsin system since 1986, when the first study abroad students arrived, which is what brings me here: I am teaching two classes to undergraduate students, mostly from the UW-system: "Wish You Were Here: The Art and Craft of Travel Writing" and "British Ghost Stories: Landscape as Inspiration." My first class starts tomorrow, and I can't wait!

Yes, the house I'm staying in has its own wikipedia page!:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dalkeith_Palace



     I had a difficult fall semester. I was hit by a car in August, and the attendant concussion made it difficult for me to read, write, think, and speak. Since I make my living by reading, writing, thinking, and speaking, this was a challenging and disturbing time for me, and I spent a few months not feeling at all like myself. My doctor prescribed preventive headache medication, and that, along with time, and rest, helped. By the end of December/early January, I was feeling more like myself again, and by the time the spring semester began again in early February, I was about 80% back to normal. I could speak well during classes. I could read on paper and on screens. I was even able to write a bit again, especially nonfiction/travel stories. And my headaches were just about gone.
     On March 20th, I got a severe headache that has ebbed and flowed but has not yet left me completely, as of today, May 4th. I have seen my doctor, and am seeing a chiropractor, getting regular cranial massages, and staying away from the computer for long periods of time, all of which is helping, but is not "curing" my headache.
     This is painful, and also, annoying. For a couple of years ago I was delighted to learn that my application to teach in the "Experience Scotland" program for University of Wisconsin-system students had been approved, and I would be teaching "Wish You Were Here: The Art & Craft of Travel Writing" and "Landscape as Inspiration: British Ghost Stories" outside Edinburgh this summer. I leave in about 10 days. I am getting so excited I can hardly sleep! But I am also worried that my headache will accompany me to Scotland.
     I am hoping the fresh air will do me good. I have other hopes as well: I am hoping that I am able to share my passion for literature, for travel, for Scotland, and for writing with my students. I am hoping that I'll be able to write some travel stories myself. I am hoping that my students return home transformed, that their world is bigger than it was. I am hoping (knock on wood) that all of us are healthy, that we overcome whatever difficulties we face, and that we learn a lot and have a blast.
     Whether or not you travel this summer (and will you? where to?), I wish the same for you!--that you learn a lot and have a blast. Isn't that what summer--and life--are all about?
   
"Did your Hogwarts acceptance letter get lost in the mail? Mine too. But not to worry, you can still experience all the magic of Harry Potter's world as long as you have a passport...and a few pounds."

Please check out myHarry Potter travel essay on IExplore!


http://www.iexplore.com/destinations/united-kingdom/Harry-Potter-Travel







I read most of Iowa friend Paul Lisicky's memoir The Narrow Door in a day. It's about his long friendship with the writer Denise Gess; Denise and Paul have an intense friendship that includes three hour-long phone calls and months without speaking at all. I am not giving anything away to say that Denise dies of cancer, and Paul is with her right at the end; her death is at the center of the book, which is written in the form of vignettes that move backward and forward in time (smoothly, in a way that is never confusing). And it is around the time of Denise's death that Paul and his husband of many years (16 years?)  break up. This relationship and its end is also at the book's center. The book asks, and in many ways answers: How is friendship like and unlike a marriage? How is the death of a relationship like and unlike the death of a person? How do we move on?

Those two subjects--friendship and romantic relationship--are important to the book because they give it a structure, a forward motion, a center. But in some sense the subjects were less important to me than the way Paul observed and experienced and wrote about them. One of our professors at Iowa, James Alan McPherson, used to tell us that good fiction is the account of what it means to be alive. In The Narrow Door, Paul gives us that account; he tells us what it means to be alive, what it feels like to be inside another person's mind. And this mind is really interesting and compassionate and smart and poetic to be inside.

I felt nostalgic the whole time I was reading the memoir. I was friendly with many people in the Workshop, but why didn't I forge more really close friendships? Why did I lose touch with so many people I liked? Why didn't I realize that I would never again spend two years with 119 other writers: why didn't I take the opportunity to get to know my classmates better? Why didn't I become better friends with Paul, whom I always liked (everyone liked Paul; there was no way you could not like Paul!), but whom I did not really get to know until I read this memoir.

The two most important themes that hung above the novel for me were not death and loss--those were just ways to write about the most important things--which were the passing of time and the difficulty and joys in knowing and loving another person. Paul writes this about the end of his relationship with M:
                To think that you can love someone so well that he'd forget the dead, forget his pain. To think of love as a laser beam of attention. To think that you could beam that attention toward him in such a way that he wouldn't even know you were doing it. To learn that your attention is doomed. Unwelcome, better having been put to other uses: helping the poor, working for the environment, for animals. To learn that you are only a pale winter sun, when you once thought you could have made the hillsides green.  --page 203

I kept wondering, as I read, why don't we say what we are thinking and feeling to each other? Why do we put up these guards, these barriers, instead of just flaying out our insides and letting people have a peek inside? What are we afraid of? Or sometimes we try, but words fail us, so we listen to Joni Mitchell and read Walt Whitman, who approach our intentions and feelings. (Those voices sail throughout the book, moving in an out like repeated notes in a jazz variation...)


Maybe it is through friendship and love that we come closest to being ourselves out in the world, but maybe it is through writing that we can reveal ourselves even more truly and deeply. If so, then The Narrow Door is among the highest forms of self-expression possible: through this book, Paul Lisicky is able to give us his account of being human. It is a gift he gives to the memory of Denise, and of course, it is a gift he gives to the reader. 

Dear Paul: Thank you.



My "Guide to Getting Boozy in Scotland" is up on iExplore!

http://www.iexplore.com/experiences/Culinary-Travel/boozy-in-scotland

In 2011, I spent the summer in Scotland living in Dalkeith Palace, outside Edinburgh, teaching "British Ghost Stories: Landscape as Inspiration," to University of Wisconsin students. During that time, I may have had a wee dram or two... This is my story about introducing yourself to "Scotland's National Drink" when you're in Scotland.

Please check it out, share it with your friends, and let me know what you think.

This is my first essay for www.iexplore.com, and I have to tell you, I am loving this site! There are great articles on just about every travel category you can imagine, and the site is interactive, in that you can "save" stories in "bucket lists" you create yourselves.

I don't know about you, but here in Baraboo, near Madison, Wisconsin, when I look out the window and see snow, my mind wanders to summer, and to me, summer means travel....

Luckily, this summer, I'm going back to Scotland to teach "British Ghost Stories..." and "Travel Writing." I will possibly try some Scotch whisky while I'm there...

Cheers!


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