Community — Wherever You Find It — Matters

“How did you ever find Skaneateles, New York?” a friend asked when I said I was heading there for a book event. “It’s a lovely hidden town,” she explained, “but when you said you were headed to New York, I hoped you meant the Big Apple.”

Truth is I did not know much about Skaneateles. I looked it up and found it was in upstate New York and about 62 miles from Rochester and 140 miles from Buffalo. The most recent population count was 7,209. Make that 7,211. My friend, Sarah Goode, and her husband Kevin had visited there a few years back and decided to stay. Permanently. She and the local librarians invited me to come and talk about my book, and the work I love doing — sharing stories and the power of our personal writing. I went.

The first day Sarah and I hiked over to Skaneateles Lake, a charming “Finger Lake.” On our hike we passed dozens of small little shops sporting local art, women’s apparel, cooking goods, and locally made treats. Small and unique shops such as the Chesnut Cottage and the Rhubarb Kitchen Shop. At each stop someone said “hi” to Sarah, and often someone would wave at me, too, and say, “You must be the author!” Let me make this clear, I am not famous. Not even remotely. But this gracious town had plastered posters of my talk in the shop windows. It was heart-warming how they reached out to me!

We made our first stop at the community hub. It is the Skaneateles Library where librarians extraordinaire, Nickie Marquis and Deanna King, welcomed me as any writer dreams of being welcomed — they had promoted me, set up press interviews, and accommodated my talk with the perfect space and the latest technology.

That evening I opened my talk with a bit of my story. A tale of teaching story and writing to students, cancer patients, veterans, and writers. As is often the case, the crowd was eclectic in age and experience, but there was one common denominator. The room exuded an energy. A positive energy that could only come from a place where people felt a part of something wonderful. A caring community.

I shared stories of a Marine who wrote his way past his PTSD from combat and a stage-four breast cancer patient with a newborn who wrote a blog to help her find her find her path through cancer. I closed with poems by a woman who has overcome the trauma of rape by creating “you can overcome” poems. The audience laughed and even teared-up with me. They understood our need to break our silence, find our words, and use them to heal and transform our lives.

Afterwards, the locals asked wonderful questions. “How do I begin to write my story?” “How do I write about my trauma and not hurt others?” A local lawyer in purple tennis shoes stood in a long line to greet me, “I just wanted to say thank you for coming here. I had forgotten the power of writing, and I know I must tell my story!” The next night, a tall stately woman with a cream-colored straw hat, stopped me at the library’s guitar concert to whisper. “Thank you. I want you to know I am inspired by your work. Last night I pulled out my journal for the first time in a long time. I had forgotten how we need to find and share our stories.”

And I knew it was true. It was important to come here. The community I found was a treasure I will hold in my heart for a long time. It will make me work harder to build and find a greater sense of community in my own life. Small towns can be gems. Community — wherever we find it — matters even more.

Through Friendship and Loss

Firefly begonias are one of the few plants still blooming in my badly tended garden. The temperatures have tipped over 100 degrees almost every day this past month. I have had to do my walk at a local mall, and there is little chance that I will convince myself to pull the weeds or grasses that are strangling the roses and knocking out the delicate, whimsical stems of white gaura. This is my favorite plant, but you have to pull the weeds to avoid choking it.

You have to tend to friendships, too. Today I am packing again for a class reunion in Indianapolis. At the last reunion, we did the twist. We even tried to do the chicken, but I just jerked my limbs around and imitated my friend who was a master yoga instructor. After a few decades, we knew how to laugh at ourselves and celebrate our silliness.

The best part of that time together was being able to legally sip wine while sharing our stories. Forty years of them! I left Indy after college and the move to California was intentional. I wanted new experiences, a new way of life. I found it. Still, every time I return to Indy, I am grateful I grew up with these salt-of-the-earth people. They are kind. They listen. Rudeness has not wrapped its roots into the soil here. I feel grounded when I come here and visit with them.

At this last gathering, we celebrated our lives. Freddi had a photo exhibit at a gallery downtown. Penny and Gus flashed photos of charming grandkids. Ellen talked of her work helping refugees settle in her community, and Larry, who had moved to Washington, D.C., shared his experiences in working with homeless shelters.

But there was sadness, too.

I learned I had lost my best friend from high school to suicide, and this hit hard. She was the first friend who was careful to tell me the truth: “If you wear your hair that way, you look like a cat.” I changed it. “If you date Paul, you will have fun. If you date Bob, you will die early on a motorcycle.” I had fun dating Paul, and Bob was in a terrible wreck our senior year.

We called her Star. She did shine but more than the aura of her light, she had a gift for seeing the world as it was. I loved this about her. After high school, she moved first to California and then up north and landed in Idaho. I called but after a few years the phone numbers were wrong. Since we had lost touch years earlier, I was surprised that I struggled painfully with her death.

I still do. Tonight, I will pull the weeds that are wrapping their way around the white blooms of gaura. I will tend my garden in Star’s honor. Each day I realize more fully that you have to tend each friendship carefully. I will work on that, too.