Lighthouses in the Ice

More musings about the weather in my brain, by L. E. Taylor

A couple of months ago, I was moved to write about the changing seasons in my native state and how it affected my worldview.

Born in February, in the first half of the last century, my first bundled exit from St. Mary’s Hospital in the arms of my Grandma Helena, was not into a warm sedan beneath some covered, radiant-heated portcullis, but through a snow squall down a long expanse of stone steps to the curb.

It was not a hardship. Not for Helena, nor for my mother Grace. Nor for my father Elgan, a native southerner. And certainly not for me, who was their principal object of care. In the northern maritime states, as in the prairies and mountains, Up North is not somewhere else, it is home. However the cold might register on the thermometer, it could always be colder, and would certainly in time, be much warmer.

No big deal. Just the cavalcade of life

I was reminded of this fact as I watched a couple of televised events last week: the National Hockey League Winter Classic with the Toronto Maple Leafs playing the Detroit Red Wings outdoors, and the Forty-Niners-Packers game played at Green Bay Wisconsin. Both games were played in sub-zero temperatures, before full stadiums of 105,000 (Michigan Stadium), and 80,000 (Lambeau Field) respectively. The Michigan venue provided a constant blizzard that required frequent shoveling by cadres of snowmen on skates.

The weather was a hindrance to the players and a source of acute discomfort to the spectators. Commentators kept talking about it. Everyone loved the adventure. People who cherished their warmth above all things, of course, were not there.

An hour or so ago, a friend of mine sent me a collection of photos of a lighthouse festooned with layers of wind-sculpted January ice.* You can see more of these images by clicking here.

frozen-lighthouse-st-joseph-north-pier-lake-michigan-9

The beacon stands at the end of a pier in southern Lake Michigan. It is one of one-hundred-fifteen on the coastline of the State of Michigan, home to the most coastal lighthouses of any U. S. state or Canadian province. (Click here to see more Michigan lighthouses.) 

Spring, summer, and fall, these lighthouses guide mariners through the inland seas that form our state. For a century and a half they have provided light in the shrieking green scud of angry storms and the foggy blackness of starless nights.

That’s how they got their name, they are houses of light.

Cloaked in ice, with no ships to warn… they sleep.

Stay warm. Stay alert. The lights will come on in the spring.

Happy New Year.

Onward.

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*The image above is credited to Tom Gill. For more of his images, you can visit his page here.

A Great Lake State of Mind

Reflections on the seasons of our mortality, by L. E. Taylor

Fall comes early to my home state. It’s a fact of life’s rhythm that we carry with us wherever we roam.

Driving north out of Ann Arbor in August with the summer sun behind you, it’s not unusual a couple of hours out to suddenly spy a patch of red leaves high up on the deep green of a passing forest.

For a mile or so you work to reengage your denial of what that means. ‘Nipped by a freak night frost,’ you think. ‘Must be the lake effect,’ you mutter.

Inland seas on three sides define and temper our two peninsulas. Air off the fresh deep water cools and hydrates in the summer, moderates the frozen inland in winter. The bracing harshness of ever changing elements can invigorate and nourish. Then again, too much of any good thing can also kill you. In life as in poetry, that’s where the drama lives. The risk of joy too soon. Of inevitable disappointment.

‘Seasoning’ is an apt word for the wisdom we acquire along our way.

Thanksgiving has been a favorite holiday of mine since childhood. Cozy warmth in a candle- and hearth-lit house, jammed with young moms and dads and kids with a World War just over-with, a future ahead of them, and much to be thankful for. The cliché always dwells on the turkey and stuffing and cranberries; the pies and the glorious fragrance of it all.

I, outlier that I am, tend to remember instead the primal contrast of a warm, safe home secure against the bleak November winds that threatened, always out there howling but never gaining entry. Praise God.

One of the best of those Thanksgivings blessed me not as a child but as the father of two nearly grown teens, as the brother of a young Navy veteran with two of his own, and as the son of a gloriously young and funny 65 year old Mom. One late November, we were our family’s only survivors of loss and disappointment, of failures both unavoidable and self-imposed. We had decided to trundle ourselves Up North to gather in a modern retreat where I used to own a condo. It was tucked into a great native-growth forest of pines and cedars right on the dune-fed shore of the “Big Lake.”

The drive up began in a steely overcast. A two-car caravan held the folks and the supplies. Snowflakes began as soon as the night came. Soon dense flurries swirled hypnotically past our headlights. Just two hundred more miles to go, give-or-take.

Still rollicking in high spirits, our two carloads finally crunched through the untracked snow of a winding forest road and we came to a halt before the darkened summer retreat, now silent witness to the winter’s first snowfall.

We had landed.

The silence was palpable. Even as powerful lake winds troubled the giant pines overhead, the building itself shielded our merry band and baffled the roar of storm and surf as we trudged through the drifts to our door. Quickly the ancient midnight woods echoed with honest, rowdy gaiety, produced mostly by the youngest and the oldest of the last of the Taylors.

The Thursday feast, home cooked with everyone either helping or staying out of the way, was wonderful. The blizzard howled steadily out of the northwest, straight off the Lake. Next day, we drove the deeply plowed state road further north to “Fish Town”. We bought fresh caught white fish for dinner and smoked lake trout for Saturday lunch.

Firewood was stacked and sheltered outside so the hearth was always going. Nearly the entire western wall was of glass; tracked doors floor to ceiling. We kept them ajar for the pure air and as draft for the fireplace. The view framed the wild dark sea, an ever-present context to our doings. Even in the full black of night, we could step out onto the deck and in the moonless void could make out fearsome white-caps rolling in and crashing on the beach. We played poker and gin rummy. The youngsters, each bright with their own quirks and personalities, read and entertained each other. I don’t recall any television, but it must have been there. Somewhere.

As I revisit that November thirty years ago, I’m heartened. With years of bleak winters and lazy summers and crisp autumns in my wake, I’m reassured that much was learned from the dramatically changing seasons that would have been diminished without them. Summer is a brief chimera; winter, the norm. Live with it.

Onward.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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Notes & references.

Hemingway, Ernest; The Short Stories; Scribner; New York
- The Three Day Blow (one of the “Nick Adams” stories)
Hemingway, Ernest; A Moveable Feast; Scribner; New York
Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald (ballad; performer: Gordon Lightfoot)

If I Should Wake Before I Die

A Warning to the Zombie Nation
Observation & Opinion by L.E. Taylor

Yesterday, I met a remarkable woman. We’ll call her B’ushka.

B’ushka is one of sixty or so amazing men and women I’ve met over the past couple of months, all of them people who’ve found their way to one of my lectures in north Texas retirement communities. The topic of these talks was originally “Memoir Writing,” but it’s found its true branding under the simple moniker, “Great Storytelling.” This one-hour talk shares what I learned about mining one’s memories as I wrote down the stories that comprise my book, Elgan and Grace – A Twentieth Century Saga.

Well, sharing is part of it, yes, however the point of the one hour talk is not to brag about my book, but to assert that we all have stories to tell – and here’s how to do it.

These folks arrive, twenty-to-forty at each event, most in their seventies and eighties, writing materials in hand, to see if it’s true – that they really might reclaim a time and place where the first scenes of their own play were performed. That’s the hope: to grasp a tiny moment between thumb and forefinger, gently retrieve it from a dead past, and bring it back to life by writing about it.

They want to bring it back for many reasons.

B’ushka speaks with an English accent. But when she first spoke to me, I recognized the hint of a more exotic dialect. I will not divulge what she’s already confided in me, except to reveal that at the age of two, she was living with her parents in a Soviet gulag. The rest is a tale that must only be told by B’ushka. I’m willing to help her, if she wants me to.

These weekly blog essays are not merely some self-indulgent adventure in narcissism. They’re part of my own late-term commitment to choosing life. The storytelling lectures and workshops are another. They are all part of the process that began twenty-six years ago when I found myself disgorging a fragment of family lore onto a yellow pad. Soon I was transcribing it onto a tiny computer screen. I was hooked.

The mysterious process led to longer narrative, then in a couple of years it became a novel. It might even morph into a movie. But first, I had to set aside the reasons I couldn’t do it, and just… write.

How many among us go through life in a trance? Not doing the very things that can reveal a new life waiting to be lived. Look about you. A fog of mediocrity enervates a lot of people we know, and they opt for the easy cynicism of defeat.

Why is one’s potential rejected when the alternative is death?

Consider the evil plague that has snuffed out the great City of Detroit. Just a few decades ago my hometown was a world-class paradigm for industrial, financial, and cultural civilization. Today, we’ve seen the evidence of political corruption, lazy greed, and moral sloth. How many among us see this destruction and hideous waste, and just wring their hands? They aren’t angry, they are “sad.”

I have other words.

The amazing place once called Detroit is a main character in my book. But its historic truth bears no resemblance to the corpse that molders in its place. I am not sad; I’m furious. Old Detroit didn’t die; it was murdered. How do I know? Because I remember. I choose to remember.

Living a life of passive dissatisfaction cannot be the cosmic plan for anything with such astounding creative ability as the human mind. Consider the root of the word “inspiration” – spirit, the very breath of life.

But the stamina of our society seems to be slumbering away. Numb between the ears, slumped for decades staring at the TV or the Xbox, people remain mute members of a zombie audience. No ambition to mount the stage or take the field.

Or to get out of the gulag.

I remember the first little prayer I was taught by my German grandma:

Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.

It was comforting, I guess, to an Old European world of fear and short lives. That always seemed to me kind of grim for a child’s last thought at bedtime. It still does. Too soon for that! Wake up! Whether you’re six or ninety-six, wouldn’t you rather choose life? Me too.

Just wait till you read B’ushka’s story!

Onward.

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A Movie Whose Time Has Come

A reflection on Somewhere in Time… by L.E. Taylor

Well, it’s about time.

Thirty-three years ago I went to the theater to see a new movie that had been shot almost completely in one of the most romantic and beautiful locations in America. The fact that the location is also in my native Michigan had a lot to do with my eagerness to see it. I was not disappointed; in fact I was transported.

Because I had no interest in what movie critics think, I was way too busy nursing life’s wounds to read that the elite men and women of the media were scoffing at Somewhere in Time.

I loved it. And I have re-upped my fan-ship many times since, by way of Turner Classic Movies and my own well-worn DVD.

This morning (Monday, October 7th), during my daily browse of the American Thinker website, I came across a wonderfully affirmative article by independent critic David Paulin. Its opening paragraph gave me a nice start to my workday:

MackinacIsland_GrandHotel“Message to high-brow movie critics and cultural elites: Stay away from the Grand Hotel on Michigan’s Mackinac Island this weekend. 

No cynicism allowed! Not among the nearly 800 “time travelers” who arrived on Friday at the historic Grand Hotel — the start of a three-day gathering during which they’ll dress up in period garb and (in their minds) transport themselves back to 1912. The fanciful journey has been an annual ritual for 23 years now, bringing together incurable romantics from all over the country, and even abroad. It’s a celebration of the 1980 movie “Somewhere in Time“– a bittersweet love story involving time travel and shot mostly in and around the majestic 126-year-old Grand Hotel.

The film’s message: love is eternal.”

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The American Thinker article is much more substantive than I have room for in this weekly blog post. (You can enjoy reading it yourself; just follow the link below.)

So why pass this along today? Two points. 1) There’s been very nice fan response to my earlier movie recommendations – most recently last week’s small plug for Swept from the Sea, and 2) an observation that you may want to comment on yourself – about “Critics”.

Point #1 is self-explanatory. Lots of good reader suggestions for other films they want added to the lists. (Great! Watch for them in future LETsBlogs). A couple of days ago, in fact, a neighbor hailed me as I was getting into my car and asked if I owned Swept from the Sea. When I said no, he said he’d just ordered it after reading LETsBlog, and I could borrow it when he’s done. Good show!

Point #2 is well covered by Mr. Paulin’s article. Whatever the Vincent Canbys and Roger Eberts may sniff at from their Olympian perches, Middle Americans tend to trust movies that speak to them, whatever elites may opine.

My own tastes are also personal, and I admit my opinions are subjective. As a writer and a garden-variety movie fan, my biases are less than elite. The parts of the equation, however, all need to be there: Well-conceived and executed script; flawless production quality; intelligent direction: seamless, persuasive acting; strong musical score. But any expensive movie can have all those and still have me grabbing for the remote.

I’m sure you have movies that you love… just because you do. They speak to you, and the more you watch them the more you see in them to like. Please let us know what they are.

Meantime, please checkout David Paulin at The American Thinker.

(Don’t be put off, good reader, by the ‘spoilers.’ The movie is better than his synopsis may imply.)

So. If you want a good tip from a garden variety movie guy, have a peek at Somewhere in Time.

Onward.

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First Trip to the Museum, 1943.

There were no parking spots in the small unpaved lot behind the museum, so Daddy parked the Plymouth on a neighborhood street nearby. The eight year-old gripped the big gloved hand while the man’s other hand held on his fedora against the February wind. The little boy’s eyes stung as his dad led the way through a gust of flurries and they rounded the front of the great building. They mounted the cascade of steps and entered the Detroit Institute of Arts.

The boy’s heart leapt.

Just inside, the Sunday crowd was quietly festive, still milling about in their bulky mackinaws and long winter coats. Daddy removed his topcoat and hat and collected the boy’s wraps for deposit in the cloakroom to the right of the entrance.

The crowd thinned out for a second and the sight of a great marble entry hall, elaborately domed, and lined by suits of gleaming armor as far as he could see struck an image that the child would carry with him for a lifetime. This would be only the appetizer of a visual banquet about to be served. Continue reading

A Boyhood in Detroit

Remembrance; Commentary – by L.E.Taylor, author of Elgan and Grace

In the Eastside neighborhood where I grew up there was an understanding among families: When the streetlights come on, the boys go home. Enforcement was the job of parents; no-nonsense reminders by adults on street corners were not uncommon.

Within a couple of generations after the new century dawned, Detroit had drawn a flood of laborers from farms and mines in the South, from Canada across the river, and from afflicted peoples beyond our shores. Quickly, the town became a city of homeowners. (By mid-century, at well over 70%, it had far and away the highest per capita home ownership of American cities.) For most, the homes were their first, mortgaged on the strength of dependable employment in the planet’s greatest industrial metropolis.

Inside the homes that comprised each neighborhood lived a family. A tiny nuclear corporation, headed by a father and a mother. Their property was precious beyond its financial worth. Continue reading