"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Love at First Write

A sunset for Switched at Birth

Three weeks before my husband died, I fell in love with someone else. I was swept off my feet, had a funny feeling in my stomach, and realized that person would be important to me the rest of my days. And it all happened because of a letter she’d written.

Yes, I said “she.” She, as in Beth Westmark. Oh, by the way, she’s married to the love of her life, has a chocolate lab named Maggie, lives at the opposite side of the U.S. from me, and I’ve never met her.

Confused? Do I have your attention? This is important, so please pay attention.

Late February, 2007. I had returned to writing exactly a year before, after not writing anything for forty years. The circumstances of my husband’s final illness, the toll it took on me, and what happened after a late night meltdown were the impetuses behind that return. I enrolled in online writing classes to practice my chosen craft. That February I was taking “Creating a Sense of Place” at the ed2go online site, and the first assignment was to write a letter describing a place to someone who had never been there.

I wrote mine, posted it, and began to read those of others. Then I came to Beth’s. I could use the words “awesome” and “blown away,” which have become trite, and certainly for someone who aspires to be a writer, not at all adequate. Nonetheless, I can think of no others. Beth’s letter assignment awed me in a way I have seldom felt. I knew then that I had to stay in touch with this person, read every word she writes, and wait impatiently for her books. I knew there were going to be books.

Half-way through the course, my husband died from the disease that had taken him away from me long before his body was vanquished. Though we had long expected it, circumstances threw me and our relatives into turmoil. I thought about dropping out of the writing class, then realized that I was clinging to it as a sanctuary. And my complete and utter fascination with the writing of this person who called herself "Beth" drew me away from my worries and problems and concerns, and gave me precious moments of surcease while my equilibrium slowly returned.

Those online classes are set up to protect the privacy of the students and instructors. We are encouraged not to reveal our real names or our e-mail addresses, and the site censors deleted those addresses if they were posted. Fortunately, a group of students from a previous class had created a Yahoo site to keep in touch, so I implored Beth to meet us there, using my best powers of persuasion, which lean more toward brow-beating than finesse. (I chose that word “finesse” intentionally, and soon you will know why.)

She did. Real names and e-mails were exchanged. Better yet, Beth had been blogging at Switched at Birth for several years, and once I figured out what a blog was and where to find one and what to do with it, I became a regular reader. Beth lives in Florida; I live in Alaska. We e-mail frequently, but have never met. We have talked on the phone once, though, after I posted something about her blog on my blog, and she called to say thank you.

I like Beth. I like her a lot. But, what I fell in love with was her way with words, her finesse with those things comprised of circles and lines and squiggles and serifs.. Once before I had “met” a writer in an online class whose soft touch with words impressed me. Beth also has a soft touch with words, as if she knows the exact weight and the exact import of each carefully selected word. She knows the effect that word will have on the reader, and she carefully shapes her words and chooses their companion words to define a subject or a character or a thought in such a way that the reader is swept away on gossamer wings of imagination.

That is not to say she always strolls arm in arm with Aristotle in bucolic dream fields of esoteric philosophy, as she once wrote about. Nor are the themes of her stories fanciful and light-hearted. She has, instead, many writing moods and many tales to tell. She brings her part of Florida alive for the reader, and when she travels to another part of the country, the reader is right there with her. There is more, much more, but you need to see for yourself.

Her writing has influenced mine in ways I find hard to describe. When I want to write about something in a style other than my usual tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecating, lead-dog-short-of-a-dog-team manner, I think about Beth’s writing. That slips my mind into another realm, I "taste" her way with words, hear the way she weighs them, and then I do the best I can. My written words will never measure up to hers; she is a master at what she does.

So today, when I went to my e-mail and saw a note from Beth, I opened that one first. It was a “Dear John” letter, so to speak. For various reasons, she wrote, she is closing down her blog, taking a road less traveled but one most sought.

I had a lump in my throat, both for my loss at losing her writing, and out of concern that something bad had befallen the lovely Beth. I read on, and hope—that thing that is supposed to spring eternal—jumped right up and shouted, “How-deee!!!”

Beth was taking what I hope will be a sabbatical from her blog while she pursues writing in a more diligent and dedicated manner. She will collect her previously written stories and essays, add to them, and combine the whole treasure to produce a printed volume or two. She is ready to take that step, that journey. It is one every writer dreams of, aspires to, hopes for, and at times shrinks from in a fear intense enough to send them scurrying to their bedroom closet where they curl up on the floor in a fetal position with eyes closed.

I await the result of Beth's brave journey anxiously. If she doesn’t come on a book tour to Moose Pass so I can get her to autograph a copy, I just might journey to Florida. I’ll be sure to let you know when her book is published, assuming I’m still here chatting away and you’re still there reading what I write.

Sadly, today I removed the link to Beth’s blog from my own site. I will miss it. I already miss it. As a farewell to Beth’s Switched at Birth, and as a tribute to her writing skills, with her permission I am posting the letter she wrote, the one that made me fall in love.

by: Beth

Dear Craig,

I've reached that stage of life where my sins of omission far outweigh my sins of commission. Regret over words not said, actions not taken, and suffering right in my face improperly diagnosed. These are the things that keep me awake at night.

The old preacher who befriended you in that tiny town where you were living led us to the small frame house by the railroad tracks.

The dilapidated wooden swing on the porch whispered of better times. We slowly followed the reverend to the front door. He jiggled the key and twisted the loose knob, pushing on the humidity-swollen door until it opened.

Collectively taking a deep breath, we stepped over the threshold.

Oh, dear God, so this is how you were living.

The nearly overpowering smell of cigarettes and old beer mingled with garbage and mildew. The black futon along one wall with two dirty pillows arranged at one end told me this is where you slept. The view from there would have been just right for watching the hundred or so discount videotapes stacked on a shelf around the TV in the corner.

Where, how, could we begin? My box of black trash bags, roll of paper towels and can of spray cleaner seemed puny and pitiful for the task. Not to mention the emotional tsunami threatening to engulf us. Your Dad had barely moved a muscle from the moment we entered. We looked at one another for a long moment. The pastor's kindly small talk sounded tinny and far away.

I started, finally, with emptying the overflowing ashtray on the scarred coffee table in front of the futon. Realizing it made more sense to reconnoiter the whole house to assess the size and shape or our immediate task, I moved from the living room into the kitchen.

There was a drain board beside the sink, piled high with clean plastic food containers. I recognized them. We always sent you home with a cooler full of the meatloaf that you loved and other home-cooked foods for your freezer.

The tears that had started in my eyes froze when I turned to see the far wall. Empty cardboard beer twelve-packs were flattened and neatly stacked at angles, from floor to ceiling, like demented wallpaper. I slowly opened each of the kitchen cabinets. Carefully arranged empty beer cans filled each shelf.

I had to get out of there fast, Craig, and so I retreated to the bedroom. Morning sun came through the front window and illuminated your perfectly made bed. It looked so crisp, with a designer sheet set and comforter that I was sure your Mom must have sent. The labels were still attached. I could see from your construction industry continuing exam workbooks on the desk, and partially completed applications for the local junior college nearby that this was the place you would come to work when you could manage to hope.

We couldn't stay much longer, Craig. I hope you understand. Your friend helped us arrange your things for storage, and we returned for them last October. Your pickup truck is still in our yard, parked out by the old red storage building. Several folks have called, wanting to buy it. We don't return their calls.

Maybe we failed you. Maybe not. But know this: you are loved; you are missed. And the light is still in our window for you, as it always was.




  1. Beth is a powerful writer. It is obvious why she will be greatly missed.

  2. I, also, received an e-mail from Beth and although disappointed that she won't be posting on her blog for now, I'm excited that she's going to get to work on other writing dreams.

    It's her time. I returned her e-mail with best wishes on her future writing endeavors. I agree that she has the talent to be as successful as she wishes and I'll join you on your trip to get our books signed by her when her first book is released.

    Beth must have posted her letter to Craig previously somewhere because I remember reading it previous to today. The quality of her writing is evident in that I remember her words well. I read a fair amount of written words and yet this letter left a long-lasting impression on me.

    Thank you for this beautifully written post. The world gifts us occasionally with just the right person who touches us exactly when and how we're in need of that human connection.

    Beth has and will continue to touch more and more of us as she paints her thoughts and feelings on pages and pages for our nourishment.