Meeting Myself at The Clearing

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There is much sadness as I reread this short essay that Norb asked a group of us to write for a book on The Clearing he was planning to write. Norbert Blei passed away in April this year and The Blei-Tribe has been in electronic touch sharing feelings and memories about Norb and The Clearing. I just read Al DeGenova’s wonderful essay and I’m so happy he thought to share this with us. I know there will be much more sharing as we get together in Ellison Bay in a little more than a week. Here is my essay — Norb, I hope you like it!

It was a long Wisconsin drive, from Monona to Ellison Bay; I wondered if it would be worth it, this week in the woods, this escape from my life. It was 1986 and my marriage was pretty much ashes. I didn’t know it then, but the next five years would require the respite of a week at The Clearing to help me get through them.

I threaded my way through the peninsula towns: Institute, Egg Harbor, Fish Creek, Ephram, Sister Bay. Each little town was quaint as I progressed from inland Door to the tourist meccas along highway 42. In Ellison Bay I turned left at Gus Klenke’s Garage, a deserted building, grass grown around the door, a faded red sign naming this landmark. A little farther and I saw the sign for The Clearing and left turn; I almost missed it because it was the same color as the trees around it.

Driving through the coolness, I let out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding. This was lovely; if nothing else, this week, I would have this road to walk. I’d originally looked for music instruction, but settled for a week of writing––something, I hoped, would find its way to paper, but the further I drove into this place, the more I knew it wouldn’t matter.

My roommate was already there, a woman from Chicago named ClaraMay. From her voice, I knew she was a smoker and, like me, a recovering alcoholic, so it seemed fate that we had been paired as roommates. She was in the Advanced Class, I was a Beginner, and we would have slightly different schedules. We hit it off right away and spent the first night talking until midnight.

My writing experience consisted of transcribing government rhetoric from a dictaphone into letters and mimeographs and very little else. I had a reputation for doing schtick from the “rules” that were passed down from the Administrative Office and had a group of people who followed my satires. I had written a newsletter when I was eight or nine, using a dial-a-letter, kiddy press typewriter. During my drinking years, I’d written bad poetry, including frustrated pencil stabs into the paper. That was the sum total of my writing experience. Somehow I knew that this place would change my life.

The highlight of the week was Norb. I was eager to learn and with his suggestions and prompts, I wrote both prose and poetry. This first week at The Clearing was the beginning of almost thirty years of putting words down on paper giving me more pleasure than anything I’d done previously. We all want to be great for Norb––the women get crushes on him and he is a great source of fun and help to the male students.

In the beginners group, one of the assignments is to write an essay about The Clearing. We have all week to do this, Friday looming large as the days go by. I had a portable typewriter that I was using and finished my project, I gave a sigh of relief and a Yeah! and slammed the top down on the portable case, cut the electric chord and blew the fuses for at least three cabins. The graciousness of Don Bucholtz saved me from dying of embarrassment. The next twenty-five years brought new friends, increased love of poetry, some facility in writing and a week to look forward to all year long.

The benefits were many: the lasting friendships, brilliant poppies, bells that call us to meals, Cliff House, the fire circle, Friday night parties, and the glorious sunsets. The weather has been as changeable as weather is in Wisconsin. One year it was so hot, the black top was melting and sticky with no fans in the cabins; many years have been filled with rain and thunder boomers, some cold enough for extra blankets but, without fail, the sun comes out part of the time to give us the opportunity to have a drink and share some chips and crackers before supper. The second year I went, there was a young woman with a flute and the sound of her playing added another dimension to the peace of the setting. Each year I returned to greet more friends until the week resembled a reunion as much as a learning experience.

As the years progressed, I learned about writers from many countries and ethnicities. One year I was Norb’s “helper” and checked assignments and was in charge of one class of poetry for the beginners. There have been many helpers over the years, culminating the past five or so with Susan O’Leary shouldering the responsibility of the beginning class. Susan is a Buddhist and has shared the experience of walking meditation and her calm demeanor and sense of humor. Two others that made a lasting impression were Edith Nash and Joe Patrick, both gone now.

In January, 2003, my son died. The months following were difficult. I drove into The Clearing’s shaded lane and cried all the way to the parking lot. A dear friend had lost her son two weeks after mine, and we shared a room that year and gave each other strength. I began to write the book about Jason that would eventually become “Just What Is a State of Grief.” Each poppy seemed to bloom for me that summer.

I originally thought I’d miss the music, but music goes on independently. People bring their instruments, I’ve carried a guitar back and forth a few times. For a number of years the Peninsula Music Group always gave their concert at the Schoolhouse, filling the air with lovely ensemble orchestra and groups of strings and piano solos. This past year, our dear friend Aldo brought a Native American flute, and haunting notes filled the room along with his beautiful poetry. The Clearing has been and continues to be my entertainment, education, solace and haven and where I find my better self.

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Published in: Uncategorized on June 1, 2013 at 7:08 pm  Leave a Comment  
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