Writing & Photography
For travelers, history buffs, readers, writers, and even the health conscious
While I've made a living for 35 years as writer/editor/author of non-fiction, my passion also includes fiction and personal essays. Following is a sampling of what I have to offer in both. I would greatly appreciate any feedback -- good or bad. Thanks. Jeff Miller.
- Pathfinders -- A special place teaches special lessons .
Note: Previously published in the Rocky Mountain News and Grit magazine.
April 19, 1917:
"...I could not be true to the convictions I hold if I were not ready to die for them,
to fight and die for a principle which must be made to survive in the world. And having come to this conclusion, I feel that few men feel more strongly than I on this -- and so I am ready to do my part against Germany or to die for what I believe is right."
In an age of fax machines, computers and cellular phones, those handwritten words would never have found their way onto paper...and my grandfather would never have talked to me so eloquently across 80 years.
Throughout history, words like these, scrawled by countless "average" men and women writing to their families, sweethearts or simply to themselves, have given those who came later a sense of continuity, a communion with the past. They have enriched our individual and collective heritage, fleshing out the facts and figures that many see as history.
Don't get me wrong, as a professional editor/journalist I welcome the computer and embrace the high-tech age of communications. I cherish the effortlessness that comes with these machines because now my full attention and creativity can be focused on what I'm trying to write and not on the tools I'm using.
But I wonder where this will leave history, historians and, even more important, the average person who will never know the thoughts, the feelings, the passions of family members who have gone before.
Today, even if written words are left behind, they won't be handwritten -- reflecting the uniqueness of the writer -- they'll be in the impersonal, deadened print of dot matrix or laser imagery.
Somehow we -- as a society and as individuals -- need to achieve contradictory goals: to speed up and to slow down.
We need to speed up in our professional lives. The world is spinning faster and if we don't assimilate more and more information -- increasing our productivity and staying on the cutting edge of technology -- we will be flung aside like the outside child in crack-the-whip.
But at the same time, we need to slow down in our personal lives. We need to evaluate what we have learned. We need the time to order our thoughts, contemplate questions that have no answer and try to express ourselves in the demanding medium of written communication.
We can achieve such goals and learn tremendous lessons in the process of writing -- to ourselves and to others. It is a way to bridle our unbound passions, bring order to random thoughts and organize complex ideas.
But more important, the handwritten word is a legacy to our children and their children -- a way for the past to affect in some small way the present and thereby the future.
My grandfather has had a tremendous effect on me. Aside from my father, he was the single most important male influence in my life -- and has become more important since his death because his letters speak for him...and I listen.
I have all his letters and diaries from the 14 months he was behind German lines as a "delegate" in World War I's Commission for Relief in Belgium, which fed and clothed more than 9.5 million Belgians and French from 1914 until the end of the war in 1918.
While much of what he wrote is of historical importance, it is his strong feelings toward German atrocities he saw and the Belgian woman he loved that gives his writing its magic. His pen makes the words sing, shout or cry with life. There's vibrancy, the urgency of youth, honor, integrity and idealism. While the ink has faded, the message hasn't; from across 80 years the words resound with a tone that matches my heart and gives it strength.
After reading the letters, the lessons didn't stop -- I had to reconcile the 26-year-old writer I had come to know with the 79-year-old grandfather I had known as a teenager. In doing so I found some answers in my own life and comfort in the knowledge that the principles and honor of youth can survive the ravages of time.
I also have some of his correspondence from after the war. One is a 15-page handwritten letter to his family back in Glendale, Ohio, describing the birth of his first child. That child is my mother -- the circle is complete, the heritage is there and I am the better for it.
Now, after reading and learning from my grandfather's material, I am struggling to write more letters and commit more thoughts to paper. I feel better for it, I think my mind is just a little sharper and, in my more conceited moments, I hope that generations to come will be grateful that someone took the time.
Previously published in Islands Magazine.
I know how Canada geese must feel when it’s time to head
north for the summer.
Four hours drive north of Toronto, in Lake Huron’s Georgian
Bay, there’s a rocky island of stunted pines and creosote-
smelling cabins, no different from a thousand others
scattered through this lake-and-islands country. Seen from
a distance, it blends in with the surrounding islands to
form an uninterrupted, featureless green horizon that looks
like the mainland. But every summer I’m able to leave the
dock at Pointe au Baril Station and unerringly find my way
through the maze of islands without even thinking.
I learned to do so sitting on my grandfather’s lap at the helm of his motor launch, nicknamed the Big Blue Top. We’d leave the dock, wind through the s-shaped cannel, swing around Turning Island, and cut between Grave Island and Bald Rock. Then we’d steer down the center of Shawanaga Bay, with the mainland a mile to port and the seemingly unbroken chain of islands to starboard.
As a child, I could never see how we’d find our own island. But at just the right moment, Bonpapa, my grandfather, would tell me to look to starboard, and I’d watch in awe as the land slowly began to pull apart. Suddenly open water would appear, and we’d swing into the north channel and home. Osawa Island.
My grandfather had been taught how to navigate the islands by his father, who had brought the family to Georgian Bay in 1906 for a summer in the wilderness. Arriving at Pointe au Baril Station by steamer (there were no roads then), they paid Indian guides to lead them to a suitable island. Tents were pitched, camp ovens set up, prvies built, and secluded places—one for men, another for women—established for what would become ritual morning dips in the lake.
During the day the women wore long dresses, the men starched collar shirts, while the children ran barefoot and free. At night around the campfire, everyone would sing songs, play games, or watch shooting stars.
Animals and Indians hadn’t yet receded into the shadows of memory. Bears still lumbered into the clear waters to fish for bass, perch, and muskie, or waddled into blueberry patches for a leisurely afternoon of
gorging. Bald eagles still waltzed with the wind. And the
somber Ojibwa would glide up in their canoes and offer
birch bark baskets and trinkets decorated with porcupine
quills, bear claws, and deer teeth. In the early years they
bartered for clothes and blankets, then for money. Later,
they were gone.
By the time I arrived, the family had a bought an island and named it Osawa (Ojibwa for “brown,” our family name). Cabins had been built, and five camps (for my grandfather and each of his four siblings) had developed. Only a few cabins had generator electricity. There were no radios, TVs or telephones.
As a child I spent every summer on the island, playing with a flock of cousins and learning from my grandfather. (Until I married, I never understood why my father didn’t want to spend a month or so with 50 or 60 in-laws.)
Bonpapa taught me what his father had taught him: When paddling a canoe by yourself, always sit in the bow and face the stern. When using a crosscut saw, let gravity and the blade do the work. And if you cup your hands just so and nestle your lips to your thumb joints, you can answer the plaintive call of the loon.
In my teenage years the highlight of every summer was a week’s canoe trip—without adults. Ten to 15 of us would fill our canvas-covered wooden canoes with supplies, then head out across open water toward uninhabited islands. We slept under the stars or under tarps tied to the overturned canoes.
After a week away, when we’d finally turn our canoes homeward, there was always a moment of confusion and hesitation as we’d stare at the thin green horizon that we knew was really hundreds of small islands. Where was Osawa?
I still remember the time I raised my paddle first and said, “There.”
Today Osawa hasn’t changed much. Now, though, the family is nearly 200 strong, the sixth generation having joined the yearly migration.
Every time I return to the island, I’m surprised to find the beauty more intense than I remember. It’s especially so in the late afternoon, when a stillness settles in, as the day takes a deep breath and holds it for a moment before sighing into sunset. And when the loon calls like a lost soul searching for home, my thoughts once again turn to my pathfinder—Bonpapa.
Why is it that people—and animals, for that matter—go back to the same place year after year? Is it habit or something coded in the genes?
For me, it is family, and roots that run so deep they draw sustenance from past generations. So every spring I guess it’s not too surprising that when the geese are flying and the breeze is scented with the smell of pines, I get the old urge to head north—and it feels right.
Three million Americans live every day with what Colin Firth so painfully recreated in the Oscar winning movie. But when the director called “cut,” Firth could speak normally again. An anguished moment in time for Firth, lasts a lifetime for so many others.
I’m one of those others.
It was encouraging to see the movie sensitively portray such a disabling problem. And it has, no doubt, generated a lot of sympathy for stutterers, which is good. But what stutterers really want is more understanding and help. Maybe the following few thoughts and suggestions might be helpful toward that end.
Up through young adulthood, I stuttered on every third word and hit the side of my thigh to get words out. When I realized I couldn’t do that all my life, I began knocking my knees together to jar the words free. Later, concerned about how conspicuous that was, I grew one fingernail longer than normal and would drive it into a permanently open wound in my palm. When the pain became so intense that I’d focus on it rather than my speech “block,” the errant word would finally tumble out.
I was one of the lucky ones—too stubborn to let my impediment stop me from trying to speak. For many stutterers, silence is the only answer. They rarely use the phone, don’t participate in class, refuse to go to social events where they know they’ll have to speak, and don’t apply for jobs where talking is mandatory. They become prisoners of a solitary confinement guarded by themselves.
Thankfully, after 13 years of speech therapy conducted by dedicated speech pathologists, I’m relatively normal (discounting, of course, my steamer trunks of emotional baggage). Occasionally I have speech problems, but I now have the mental tools to handle the situations with only minor discomfort to myself and those listening.
Stuttering is more prevalent than most think. Approximately 3 million Americans (including my father and older brother) are afflicted. While many young children experience some kind of speech problem as they develop language skills, most grow out it. Unfortunately, those 3 million Americans, or 1 percent of the U.S. population, never do.
While there is a cursory understanding that stuttering exists—mostly because of celebrity confessions of childhood affliction—few Americans really know much about it or how to respond when encountering a person with a speech problem.
Here’s a quick primer:
• Scientists are still debating the causes of stuttering. Some believe that a genetic propensity needs to be coupled with the right type of environment. In the 1930s, one seemingly heartless scientist took normal children and created stutterers through environmental manipulation. While what he learned has helped generations of stutterers, that is of little consolation to those who lived with the scientist’s “success” for the rest of their lives.
• Whatever the initial cause, stuttering invariably becomes a tremendous psychological ailment that’s tied directly to self esteem. That’s why the hardest thing for most stutterers to say is their name, and why most stutterers do not stutter when they are alone.
• Men are three times as likely as women to stutter.
• Yes, it’s true what Colin Firth showed—stutterers don’t have problems when they sing. It has to do with the rhythmic pattern of speech. Some severe stutterers have found success with the placing of a tiny metronome in their ear and talking to a set rhythm.
• While speaking, stutterers are aware of problem words coming up and will go through a rapid mental checklist of safe words that might work as substitutes. That’s why it’s especially difficult for stutterers to recite set text—it robs them of their substitution ability.
• It’s a bit ironic that the how of speaking can many times get in the way of the what. If a stutterer concentrates on too many speech therapy tools—slow speech, soft contact on tough initial sounds, controlled breathing, and phrasing—it leaves few mental facilities left to concentrate on what they are trying to say.
So what should you do—or not do—if you come across a stutterer?
• When hearing the first stammer from a stranger, don’t assume it’s some kind of joke and laugh (a reaction of many). Take a few seconds to pick up physical/visual clues that the person is either joking or struggling to speak.
• Do not blurt out the word you think they are trying to say. Be patient and let them take the time they need to get the word out.
• Especially in adult-child interactions, do not tell the stuttering child to slow down or think about what they want to say—they know exactly what they want to say, they just can’t get it out!
Remember that any physical problems you might see or hear—clenched jaws, pursed lips, body tics, or repetitive sounds—are only the outward manifestations of major struggles taking place in that person’s solitary confinement. If you show a bit of patience—give an extra bit of your time—your compassion just might be the key to unlocking their painful silence.