Category Archives: family

“The Great Alone” by Kristin Hannah

Robert Service
Sometimes a novel ends up giving me the worst case of wanderlust. That is precisely what happened with The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah. I thoroughly enjoyed the novel. The Alaskan wilderness itself comes across loud and clear as a distinctive character. I particularly enjoyed descriptions of how Alaska changed from the 1970s to the 1980s. These descriptions were normally accomplished through Leni’s observations. It is this Alaska in all of its forms that I plan to visit one day.
It just so happens that I read the novel in the midst of a severe winter weather crisis that affected most of Michigan. Something about being housebound for a few days added to my enjoyment of The Great Alone. I kept telling myself “at least it isn’t as bad as winter in Alaska. At least I have power and indoor plumbing.” It made me feel better about my circumstances and helped me to empathize with the characters to some extent.
The characters throughout are wonderful. I particularly enjoyed Leni’s view of the world, her love of Matthew, and the protectiveness she exhibits towards her mother Cora. Ernst, Leni’s father, is, of course, a complex character designed to make us uncomfortable and question what we know about family dynamics. He largely drives the plot, and he is the reason why the Allbright moved to the Alaskan wilderness from Seattle in the first place.

Great Alone 2
Secondary characters that I particularly enjoyed were Large Marge, Mr. Walker, Geneva Walker, and Matthew. Even though Geneva Walker does not play a large role in the novel, her presence is felt until the end. Matthew’s tenacity, dedication, and love for the women in his life is exemplary. Mr. Walker seems to try to hold it all together under the worst circumstances. He even expands his business in the process. I admire his entrepreneurial spirit.
Then there is Large Marge. She makes it her business to know all that goes on in Kaneq. What may seem to be simple nosiness elsewhere may just save a life in wild Alaska. Her steady presence tends to help make everything right, even in the face of the worst situations. She knows how to handle just about anything. In many ways, I want to be like Large Marge when I grow up.
I largely focused on the characterization in this novel simply because I don’t want to give away much. The novel is definitely action driven. I will leave it at that. If you are looking for a solid adventure novel, this is it. In my opinion, it has the right balance of description and action. In the end, I truly cared about the characters – or at least most of them. I would recommend The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah.

Warning: The discussion questions include spoilers!
As a side note, I read this for the Standish-Sterling Book Club. This is very much the type of book I would hope I’d discover on my own eventually. You can find discussion questions for The Great Alone here.

Great Alone

Place and Space

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The idea of place keeps coming up.  I never realized it before, but I have ordered my life around a certain geography, a certain space.  In my case, that would be my hometown of Omer, Michigan – Michigan’s smallest city.*  It expands to include my grandmother’s house (my current home), the canoe livery, my parents’ home (my home from ages 3-18), and the nearby city of Standish.  If I expanded my personal concept of place further, I would include Bay City, the nearest city of any size – the city where I spent a good share of my 20s – and Saginaw, home to both Saginaw Valley State University and Delta College, where I was recently a student.  There are several others not mentioned here, but currently, those I did name create much of my world.

Although I recognize the fact that the places mentioned above – and more – have helped to shape who I am today, none are nearly as important as the people, family and friends, who inhabit those spaces.  They, too, exist in a certain space in one’s life.  When a loved one passes away, those spaces can loom large.  Instead of filling those spaces, our lives expand to make new room for others as they come into their lives.

If I were asked to list my memories of the places I listed above, I wouldn’t know where to start.  I would be quickly overwhelmed.  Not only would those memories be tied to those spaces, they would certainly be tied to family and friends as well.  For example, each day as I ready myself for the day ahead, I think of Grandma when I look in the mirror.  As a child and teenager, I spent many hours waiting for her to “put on her face” before heading out on our next adventure.  I love and remember those little routines and moments that make up and take up so much of our lives.

I am blessed to have the ability to carve out a space for myself in various places so strongly associated with my childhood.  As a writer who ultimately plans to write creative non-fiction centered around her early life, including childhood, there is no place I’d rather be.  That isn’t to say that I don’t dream.

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I often fantasize about packing up and starting over on the west side of Michigan, near Grand Rapids, or in my wilder days, Austin, Texas.  The Grand Rapids area makes sense.  My sister and her family live in a small town called Hopkins, which happens to be situated between Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo.  My sister, her husband, and their two boys enjoy the best of all worlds.  They live in a small town and can take advantage of all it has to offer.  The benefits of suburban and even urban areas are still near.  Add in the facts that I have a lot of family on that side of the state and western Michigan is growing like crazy, I must give it serious consideration.

Then there is Austin.  I don’t know if I have ever fallen more deeply in love with a specific place.  Even though I only lived in Austin for six months back in 2002, those experiences left a huge hole in my heart.  In Austin, there were plenty of tech jobs to pursue at the time.  When not working, I had endless opportunities to check out live music venues and crazy art installations with friends.

Oh, and did I have great friends!  For the first time in my life, I felt as though my life had come together.  It took everything within me to drive home to Michigan to finish my degrees at Michigan State.  I had no choice.  I can still see the heavy fog and sleet – and feel the tears rolling down my cheeks as I left on that drab December day.

Even though I daydream about moving to Austin every now and then, it won’t happen.  I am too tied to Michigan – by birth, and by the people and places I love.  As much as I adore Texas – all of it – that is another story entirely.  The reality is that I am not going anywhere.  I am as much a part of my family, Omer, and the Rifle River as they are a part of me.  It is now time to claim the space for myself.

* Yes, I realize that technically Lake Angelus has a smaller population, but it is in Oakland county, near Detroit.  It is close to and surrounded by Metro Detroit.  There is no comparison.

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Book Review: “The Stage is on Fire” by Katie Steedly

The Stage is on Fire Book Cover

It isn’t often that a book comes along and grabs you by the jugular.  Katie Steedly’s The Stage is on Fire did just that.  At the same time, I’ve struggled to write this review in the weeks since I finished the book.  I related to and adored the first two-thirds of the book.  The last third left me angry and upset, which I will get to later.  While I wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend the book, there are certain people I feel need to read the book, namely girls and women with Turner Syndrome.  Actually, I would recommend it to anyone struggling to find their place in the world.  That said, it is not for everyone.

Let me start with what’s working.  Almost immediately, Katie’s voice struck me as authentic and powerful.  She writes spirituality well, and never gives up on her quest to find her place in the world and create her own definition of home.  In the book, Katie details several moves across the country, her experiences in academia – good and bad, and her experience participating in the study of women and girls with Turner Syndrome at the National Institutes of Health in Washington, DC.  Turner Syndrome aside, I couldn’t help but relate to Katie throughout the book.

I am still in awe when I think of just how much Katie and I have in common.  We both taught at some point.  We are both writers.  Both of us have moved across country to pursue new opportunities and a new life.  In addition, both of us struggled with the idea of home and family at various times.  I could go on and on.  In the end, this is why I felt so disappointed in the ending.  It seemed to unnecessarily divide people.

There are several things that stood out and continue to stand out in the book.

  1. Her first teaching experience did not end well – hence the title of the book. Oh, I can relate.  In Katie’s case, she took the opportunity to further her education, eventually landing at the University of Texas in Austin.  She did what everyone needs to do when facing failure:  Get back up and try again.  She does this many, many times throughout the book, always seeking something more.
  2. She captures the journey to find our place in the world, peace, and meaning in life beautifully. I may not agree with her completely when it comes to religion, but I can fully relate to her need to explore what religion and spirituality mean to her.
  3. It took incredible courage for her to participate in the National Institute of Health study. It is much more intense and in depth than I ever dreamed.  Her description of what she felt emotionally while having an ultrasound knowing she will likely never experience pregnancy will stay with me.  I only wish I had written it.  Even though I experienced many of those same emotions as a child when I had an ultrasound, I wasn’t mature enough to fully express them at the time.  Now, as an adult, the fact that those feelings have been so beautifully put into words is a true gift.
  4. Did I mention courage? During her time in Austin, Katie decided to walk/jog a marathon.  A marathon.  Prior to this, there is not much mention of any athletics in the book on her part.  She is much more interested in drama, writing, and education.  Yet, she did it.  She accomplished the goal she set for herself, even if it was out of her element.

Oh, and dating.  It is worth mentioning.  Katie is far more adventurous in the dating  world than I will ever be.  At the time, she had yet to meet the right man.  I get the impression that that may have changed.  Her determination to not give up on love is inspirational – and something I desperately needed to read.

There is so much more in the book, but I will leave it for readers to discover.  It is important to note that the book is written as a series of essays.  I believe they are largely in chronological order.  Ultimately, it doesn’t matter much.  Katie clearly grows throughout the entire book, as does her definition of home.  It may seem to be a small point, but I wish the formatting of the Kindle edition included a full title page between essays.  Instead, they include small titles similar to chapter titles at the very top of the page.  In fact, in writing this review, I had to check my Kindle version to see if each essay included a title at all. Each essay stands alone so beautifully, it is a shame that this feature of the book isn’t more prominently displayed.

Now to discuss what isn’t working.  Frankly, I didn’t enjoy the last third of the book at all.  I almost put it down.  It became far too political for my tastes.  It is one thing to pick up a book on politics, knowing what you are about to read, it is quite another to dive in head first after reading a seemingly different book in the beginning.  I get why she wrote about politics.  It became an important part of her life at that point in time.  I don’t believe it was handled very well.  I left feeling as though she couldn’t even begin to understand anyone who didn’t agree with her politically, which is truly unfortunate.  No one has a monopoly on political truth.  No one.  I wish it had been handled with more care and less judgement.  I get the feeling that Katie would be the last person to think of herself as judgmental, but that is how the political aspect of the book comes across, whether that was her intention or not.

Politics aside, I am happy I read the book.  I am grateful that Katie can connect emotionally with people through her writing.  Her writing is just beginning to teach me how to express what I thought impossible.  For that, I am truly grateful.  I love the fact that I can annotate and highlight my Kindle version of The Stage is on Fire.  I will be coming back to it as I continue to write.  You can find her website and blog here.

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Grace’s Table

I don’t remember exactly when I first heard about Grace’s Table, but it has made a lasting impression.  My sister, Erica Wolbrink, met Lisa Anderson and became involved with Grace’s Table not too long ago.  It is through Erica that I learned all about Grace’s Table’s mission to help provide young moms with space to grow personally – spiritually, professionally, and as mothers.  Ever since I first heard about Grace’s Table’s mission, it stuck with me and captured my imagination – even though I have never experienced Grace’s Table in person.  I could never quite figure out why, until recently.

As I began participating in Grace’s Table’s latest social media campaign, I thought about why I feel so drawn to Grace’s Table’s mission.  It finally hit me.  As a single woman approaching 40 preparing to adopt and become a single mom, I can only begin to imagine what young moms feel at age 15 or even 20.  Parenting is hard enough; it is infinitely harder when trying to figure out your own identity, often in the face of limited resources and support.

I am blessed.  I have a wonderful education, bright career prospects, a home, and reliable transportation.  I am surrounded by friends and family who support and love me unconditionally.  Even though I am not yet a mom, I know where I will send my children to day-care and later school.  I have a fully-developed support systems, resources, and options.  And I am still scared.

I can’t imagine facing parenthood in the middle of adolescence or even in young adulthood.  As a secondary teacher, I fully understand that adolescence and young adulthood is a time of discovering one’s identity.  That self-discovery requires space and support.  Unfortunately, that is precisely what many young mothers lack just when they need it most.  Grace’s Table is seeking to provide that space and support for young mothers in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  I invite you join me in learning more about Grace’s Table, their mission, and what space for grace is all about.

Grace’s Table – Growth

#spaceforgrace

Dreaming Big

Bold and Brave

I am not sure when I settled, but I did.  Why am I content to shortchange myself?  Anything can happen.  I need to remind myself of that simple truth daily.

It is time I figured out exactly what I want.  The thing is that what I truly want are things out of my control.  How do I balance that with working towards other goals over which I do have some control?  This is the type of question that keeps me awake at night.  I am no longer content to sit on the sidelines and let things happen.  I would love to know precisely when I stopped trying.  As much as I hate to admit this to myself, I never stopped caring.  I did stop trying.

The sad thing is that I’ve always wanted to do it all:  wife, mother, teacher, business owner, and writer.  I am not even a wife or mother yet, and still the other three on my list give me fits.  My sister Erica thinks I am nuts for wanting to teach and help take over our parents’ seasonal business.  She points out that things are much different in education and our business when compared to the days when our mom balanced both.  I agree.  Still, Erica underestimates me.  I can and will have it all – just not all at once.

Frankly, it kills me when people give up on their dreams.  Why should I give up on mine?  I do not care if my plans are hard.  The best things in life are hard.  Nothing worthwhile is ever easy.  I wish more people realized how much potential lies within everyone.  We would all either be much happier – or lost in sorrow when we realize what we could have had if only we hadn’t given up.

If you are betting against me, be prepared to lose.  I am far from done.

Rumi Quote

The Writing Life

Me and My Dad – Camp Russell 1981

Sometimes the perfect word of encouragement comes out of nowhere.  For years now, I have equated my dad’s love of hunting, fishing, and all things outdoors with my love of reading, writing, and all things academic.  My dad built his life and lifestyle around his hobbies, and I hope one day to do the same.  Even though I long ago made this connection, I never explained it to my dad.  I never fully shared it with him.  He has no idea that I am as passionate about reading and writing as he is about hunting and fishing – at least I didn’t think so.  Well, I found out from my mom that my dad thinks I am meant to be a writer.  My jaw dropped.  I must let him know how much this means to me.  It is exactly what I needed to hear.

The thing is that I wouldn’t consider my dad and I particularly close.  Sure, we love each other.  We even go out of our way to tell each other that we love each other often.  It is just that we don’t have much in common.  In fact, I spend a lot more time with my mom simply because of how much we do have in common.

It is funny how time changes things.  As a child, Dad took me everywhere.  I was his sidekick.  Some of my best and earliest memories involve my dad – everything from watching him play basketball and softball to working at the canoe livery to hanging out at deer camp.

As an adult, we bonded over taking care of his mom and running the canoe livery.  My brother Garrett and I will be picking up where our parents left off:  We will be the new owners of Russell Canoe Livery once Dad decides to retire.  Yet, Dad and I don’t spend much time together.  Hopefully that will change.

One writing project I plan to attack sooner rather than later is my dad’s hunting stories.  I need to pick up where his cousin Lugene left off.  For many years I knew that she planned to write that book.  In fact, she even recorded several of his stories.  Sadly, she passed away before she could finish the project.  In the years since she passed away, it slowly dawned on me that it is now up to me to write the book.  My dad is a wonderful storyteller, but he is not a writer.  Hopefully this project will bring us closer together.  I am one lucky woman to have such support from my parents.

The three of us – Michigan State University 2000

Thanksgiving Weekend – 2002

2019: Old Ends and New Beginnings

2019

Ah. 2019. It is off to a good start, even if it wasn’t exactly the start I expected. There is so much going on that I am just now writing about the new year nearly two weeks in. After an incredibly interesting and complicated 2018, I may just get the opportunity to finally move forward with long-term goals I’ve been working towards over the last five years or so. Here is the update.

Russell Canoe Livery – Those of you who know me know what a big role the canoe livery plays in my life. Garrett and I will soon be the owners. I’ve spent almost all my 38 summers working and playing at the campground.

I’ve wanted to computerize our operations since I was a teenager. After slowly putting things in place over the last several years, we can finally take online reservations. Last year I took control of our website and overhauled it. I’ve also built active Facebook pages for both our main location in Omer and our Crystal Creek Campground. At this point, I am proud of what I have built from nothing. Stay tuned as I still have to tell the story of the extensive damage we experienced last year.

Not even two weeks into the year and one of my projects for the canoe livery this year is largely finished.

Teaching/Education – With my teaching certificate in hand, I am now looking for a full-time teaching position for the 2019-2020 school year. I am certified to teach social studies, Spanish, and business classes at the secondary level (grades 6-12). I have experienced extreme highs and lows in my teaching career thus far. Fortunately, I now have a much better idea of what I am looking for in an employer in the education sector (school district) thanks to my varied substitute teaching experiences. With apologies to Dave Ramsey, I will always have the heart of a teacher.

If I do indeed land a full-time teaching position this fall, I will formally start my teaching career exactly 40 years after my mother began hers. My resume and portfolio are updated and ready to go!

new beginnings

Church – My family’s church, which I attend regularly during the school year, is about to fundamentally change. It looks as though we will end up with a fundamentally new church when the process is all said and done. The building and many of the people will remain, but there is uncertainty regarding everything else.

I am excited. When the dust clears, there may be more opportunity for me to become involved. I am all about new beginnings.

Personal/Family – This fall I intended to begin the process to become a foster parent with the intention to foster to adopt. Unfortunately, I know enough about the process and similar situations that I found myself wondering if this is truly what I want to do. I want to be as clear as possible: Becoming a mother is a non-negotiable for me.

While I may consider other forms of adoption, I need to go through the process to become a foster parent. If nothing else, I will have everything together when I am ready to pursue any form of adoption.

On a personal note, there is nothing holding me back from a new relationship in 2019. Finally. I finally came to terms with the fact that I may have to do this all alone. So what? If I meet the right man, great. If not … there are way too many other things I need to do in my life.

House – Most of my things are actually in my home after being stored for so many years in my parents’ pole barn. I am slowly getting things where they need to be and how I like them. The next step: remodeling! That will have to wait until I get my career on solid ground; however, there is nothing keeping me from planning (or dreaming).

Genealogy – At the end of last year, I solved one of the biggest questions I had with regards to my family history. It was as simple as asking the right question in front of the right person. I am so close to solving another. So close. The second question has led me on quite an adventure. Once I have a definitive answer, I will share it here. It is quite a story – and it deserves to be told.

As you can see, there is so much to look forward to in 2019. It is shaping up to be a year of completing long-term projects and pursuing new beginnings. I hope to share it with you all. Stay tuned …

humble and kind