Bernadine Lortis - In Her Own Words
I grew up on a farm in western Minnesota on the prairies of the Buffalo Ridge, one of seven children. My father, a tenant farmer who inherited a rare eye disease from parents unaware they were carriers, moved us from farm to farm as blindness encroached on him and he tried to provide for our lives. We children shifted from one-room country school rooms to another, walking over a mile in all weather extremes—blizzards, rain/wind storms and scorching heat. Although I can't remember ever being taught to read, an itinerant teacher, responsible for all eight elementary grades enlisted my help to teach younger children to read and I loved school. I'd often arrive tardy though, tempted by the sights and sounds of nature—meadow larks' songs, gophers popping up among the rush of melting snow, the greening roadside ditches, grasshoppers warning of the oncoming winter. Seasons dictated the rhythm of our lives.
We could afford only the very basics needed for survival which didn't include books in our house but I craved reading. Hot summer days, I'd escape the endless work, sneak off to a lonely school house through thigh-high grasses and weeds, peer through dusty windows to gaze at those desired books waiting on a shelf for school to begin again. Labeled as "high strung" (meaning, I think, overly sensitive), I wasn't interested in playing in the hay loft or sledding; I wanted to be alone. I'd use my school pencil to draw birds, flowers, animals and people on whatever paper I could find. When my father finally moved us to town, I was sixteen, first introduced to the luxury of an indoor toilet and hot/cold running water and, later on, to a large city where he became a masseur. Now we could attend good schools and I encountered the boundless treasure of public libraries. I became what I remain: a reading fanatic!
Later, degrees in Art and Education led to a career in Interior Design and then teaching which I chose to carry out in segregated inner-city schools before integration, law of the land, was put in force. Then the birth of a profoundly disabled daughter directed me to Special Education for a period. I devoted most of my remaining years to her care, advocacy for others in her situation and to social justice. I gave up drawing and painting but I kept paper near me wherever I was and wrote down conversations I'd overhear, thoughts, ideas and dreams as they would come to me while a part of my mind was otherwise occupied gardening, cooking, traveling or driving (I confess I went through a few red lights). When I enrolled in a short story writing class at a near-by college, I found assignments took too long to finish so turned instead to poetry to fulfill my hunger for expression, never intending my words for others’ eyes. Besides reading volumes of poetry, I studied "How-To" books by Natalie Goldberg, Anne Lamont, Steve Kowit, Brenda Ueland and others. I appreciate Mary Oliver and Ted Kooser for their plain-spoken, accessible work and advice.
After my daughter died last year, I gathered up oodles of snippets and scraps I discovered misplaced in her medical files, in recipe books, shoved in back of drawers, glove compartments, crumpled among gardening tools, used as book marks. Some were water-stained from sitting near the sink/toilet where I scribbled dreams when I'd awaken during the night.
Persuaded by friends, I submitted a creative nonfiction piece describing the day I had to place my daughter which, coincidentally, was accepted for publication the day before her death. This encouraged me to work on these partial poems and to submit them. Like everyone, I've had my share of rejections this past year but have been fortunate to have many accepted.
I still carry a small notebook and find inspiration all around me as I walk, ride, drive or just sit, night and day. Now I try to write 'something' most days, drawing on feelings and experiences from my childhood and teens through adulthood so the voice changes accordingly and subject matter has no bounds. New ideas spring up when I sit down to write, often too quickly for me to record them and the result ends up to be totally unlike what I begin. Often I listen to music—all types—both for background and to eliminate outside distractions because I have a diagnosed anxiety problem (high-strung?). For me, varying the music produces different outcomes. I do love reworking my poems, often finding rewrites more pleasurable than writing that first draft. Themes of seasons, nature, relationships and parents pervade my work but I remain open and grateful to whatever arrives.
Recently I've found and joined a thriving, diverse literary community, participate in poetry readings and workshop groups but realize that no matter how many of these events I attend, what I really need to do is sit alone and write. Write (almost) every day. Sure, some days are more productive but all writing leads to more writing and what lies in between the not-so-good days is sometimes surprising. I try to stay alert as a Buddha, pay attention and appreciate the world I'm privileged to remain a part of as I age. I've learned that there is never enough time so the need to prioritize and manage small segments is paramount.