Mondays with Martin: Winding Roads

David Martin

In 1829 the future President Martin Van Buren wrote to then President Andrew Jackson, asking him to slow down on his progressive moves to face the future in the young United States of America.

 

Dear President Jackson:

The canal system of this country is being threatened by the spread of a new form of transportation known as “railroads.” The federal government MUST preserve the canals for the following reasons:

ONE: if canal boats are supplanted by these new “railroads,” serious unemployment will result. Captains, docks, drivers and lock tenders will be left without means of livelihood, not to mention the numerous farmers now employed growing hay for horses.

TWO: Boat builders would suffer, and towline, whip and harness makers would be left destitute. 

THREE: Canal boats are absolutely essential to the defense of the United States. In the event of the expected trouble with England, the Erie Canal would be the only means by which we could ever move the supplies so vital to waging modern war.

As you may well know, Mr. President, “railroad” carriages are pulled at the enormous speed of 15 miles per hour by “engines” which, in addition to endangering life and limb of passengers, roar and snort their way through the countryside, setting fire to crops, scaring the livestock, and frightening women and children. The Almighty certainly never intended that people should travel at such breakneck speed.

Martin Van Buren,

Governor of New York

 

This letter, which was written three years after Thomas Jefferson died, might be the ultimate example of conservative thinking. Really, canal boats are better for the United States than railroads? Now, we know those roaring and snorting engines that “endangered” passengers in 1829 are still vital to our country’s economy, and fifteen miles per hour is no longer “breakneck speed.”

Mankind’s journeys have come in many fashions: horses, bicycles, boats, railroads, automobiles, airplanes, computers, cell phones, and space travel. Whatever our mobility mode, look for the roads less travelled. Life seldom follows a straight line from point A to Z, and our personal journeys add clarity to the telling of our stories. They allow us to have fun with the written word and build the creative corners of our minds that we did not know existed. Each paragraph we write acts like a railroad car of its own, carrying characters, messages, and a cargo of ideas across vistas that complete the breakneck train-ride of our lives.

 

Some people think Monte Walsh was the best western novel ever written (1963). Since the author also wrote Shane (1949), Jack Schaefer captured the timely saga of a dying way of life, where the lonely cowboy meets the changing modern way of living. It is ironic that the Monte Walsh movie of the same name takes place in Harmony, Arizona.

My father always wanted to be a real cowboy, like Tom Mix, Lash Larue, Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Shane, and Walsh, but when he returned from WWII with three Purple Hearts, his legs and feet were so damaged by bullets and shrapnel that they were unable to do the hard riding and physical work a cowboy must do every day. He only took his boots off to sleep, because he could hardly walk without their firm, high arch support. I imagine him talking with one of these cowboys, and they are wearing their favorite pair of leather boots.

Dad’s favorite companion was a beautiful Morgan mare named Gin. She ruled every pen and pasture she entered. Her eyes were alert. Her ears were always up. When I looked at her, I could see her thinking about how to survive in a world of animals and humans. Gin lived for thirty-three years, which is old for horses. From her, I learned it is a mistake to assume all animals will react identically to the same stimuli. Some need rewards at every turn. Some only want encouragement to achieve superior results. People are the same.

 

Every day, Mom suffered, because she hoped for an educated life, one that provided a better living, one where people graduated from college and became professionals. She flinched every time she heard the song “Don’t Let Your Sons Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” That ballad was not her friend. While she let me work with Dad during the day, she made sure I spent an equal amount of time with her in the town library, at piano practice, and doing homework for school. She smiled the most when we had late night chats in the kitchen, puzzling over life’s questions and the abstract ideas I found interesting in the books I read. 

She let me find my own road in life. I wanted to be myself, but I had a hard time learning who that was. I searched for years to discover me. Many of my blue highways did not appear on maps. I rode horses in saddle club contests and learned cowboy lingo. I read Victor Hugo all night and loved the flow of his words. I coached young boys how to put basketballs into nets and took those skills into classrooms to score points with teachers who listened to me. I pumped gas and learned some of the oil business. I balanced a checkbook for the first time and took great pride in being thrifty. I drove grain trucks and felt the land’s treasure riding in the back. I delivered newspapers and brought the world news to my customers’ front doors. I wrote magazine articles, managed a church, studied philosophy, fed cattle, and learned how to adapt in life in order to survive. 

I was frustrated with my imperfections. However, when I discovered “perfection” was just another word, and there were no perfect human beings, no perfect Standard English, no perfect religion, no perfect student, no perfect teacher, no perfect parent, no perfect planet, and no perfect god, I relaxed. I stopped looking for and expecting perfection in myself and others. The word “progress” interested me. If I improved a little each day, that was enough. This realization gave me reason to ride more trains and investigate more winding roads. 

 

One day in my biology high school class, when I was dreaming out loud with friends, I said that I wanted to go to college and do something exciting, but I did not know what to study. 

My teacher heard me and said, “Oh, you are just your father’s son. You will be like him and run his gas station or one of his farms, someday.” I can still hear her tired, raspy voice say those words. They haunt me still.

She hardly ever talked to me, because she was my mother’s and father’s teacher, and she believed I was an average student, having known them. She did not see anything special about them or me, and I did not expect that she ever would. Still, this hurtful comment was not what I hoped to hear from any adult teacher. She was full of negativity, darkness, lack of hope, and I never felt inspired in her classroom. That day, I almost let her kill part of me, my dream of becoming the first person in my family to earn a college education. 

 

After school was out for the summer that year, I was working with Dad, one day, and we walked into his favorite saloon for lunch. He seemed so comfortable that a chill of premonition went down my spine. That bar represented his life and the status quo he liked. I just wanted to eat, get back on the tractor, finish my day’s work, and in the evening go to the library. I wanted to live my life, not his. In high school, I knew that if I wanted to write, I needed to read more. I felt like a little bird with a broken wing, because I could not get off the ground. When healed, I imagined flying high, soaring with words beneath my wings. Mom would like that.

I had plans to read, write about topics that were fun to investigate, and discover substantial information that would pull me into my future adult life. My pearls of joy were those books resting on the rows of shelves. Each volume was a treasure of its own, and I dreamed that one day my name would have a place on a shelf, too. 

That night, a librarian asked me, “Are you a writer?” 

She caught me off guard, and I blushed. “Well, I want to be one, someday, but I don’t know if I have what it takes to get started.” 

She said with a smile, “You won’t know until you try.” 

 

Winding roads have curves, and some have bridges. Forgiveness is a bridge between leaving the past and improving tomorrow. I learned to face difficult times, when I found chaos is where creativity is born. The more I read, the more I changed, and the toughest times taught me the most. Those books led me over rough waters, where I learned to forgive myself. When I opened the books, I imagined light erupting from the pages, and I walked forward into their light. One of the earliest self-affirmation bridges I experienced was when my passion for reading helped me through my toughest year. I read 150 books in 12 months. I felt more confident about a lot of things when that year ended. Those bridges taught me to not let my limitations define me.

Once, Dad looked at me, and without speaking, he asked, “Why do you want to be different?” 

I responded in the same way, “Some of me is you. Some of me is Mom. I just want to be me. That is who I want to be.”

He did not know what to say, so he said nothing.

Years later, I heard Bob Marley sing what I felt: “One love, one heart, let’s get together and feel all right.”

With these lessons, I grew page by page. I dug deeper. I thought harder. I saw further.

When I was lonely, I found puppies that took me in. Every dog needed a boy or a girl. Children liked their dogs, and dogs liked their boys and girls. Puppies helped me make the best of the way things turned out. They taught me to be humble enough to be coached, and I learned even the youngest and smallest in a litter can learn. The most stubborn puppy changed his attitude, when motivated to do so. When my furry friends were stubborn, I got down on the floor with them, let them lick my face, looked them in both eyes, told them what they had to do, and never let them do otherwise. They did not forget the look in my eyes, the tone of my voice, what I told them, and how much I cared for them. If they didn’t follow my commands, I did not care enough. 

 

Grandfather was a positive role model for me in many ways, and I felt lucky to be around him on the weekends, when Mother and I came for visits on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. When I was a little boy, maybe eight-years-old, reading did not come easily for me, and opening a book required much planning and effort. 

One day, I walked into Grandfather’s library, and there was a half-cut apple on the card-table next to his comfortable reading chair, a steaming cup of coffee, three open books lying next to each other, Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” playing on the big radio, and hand-written notes on a large, yellow tablet. As I sat down, the breeze outside ruffled the shades in the open window. 

He was the smartest man I knew, and his interests included agriculture, human evolution, politics, and the St. Louis Cardinals. There was no question I ever asked him that he could not answer. At that age, all I had to do was listen. When he talked, he kept me at the end of his out-stretched arms, and when he felt an important point in the conversation was about to arrive, he squeezed my shoulders for emphasis, so I would know to remember what he said.

We lived in a small town, and as far as I knew, no one important lived there. To most of the townsfolk, Grandfather seemed like any ordinary 60-year-old man, but he felt special to me. Although he farmed every day, I never saw him sweat. How is that possible? I asked my mother that same question. She said she did not know, so I watched him closely. After a few weeks of diligent observation, I could see that he never hurried. He never pushed. He smiled all the time, and he talked to all the animals on the farm. It seemed as if he had the best job in the world. What did this mean? 

Grandfather was an organizer, a planner, and he never did anything or spoke a word, unless he thought about his actions ahead of time. He always got up early, before the sun rose, and when it was the coolest part of the day, he did eight hours of work before noon. Then, he would eat lunch and take a nap. When he worked in the afternoon, he was in the shade, if possible, took ten minutes out of every hour for a cool drink, put his feet up, and rested awhile. His smile always showed up, because he enjoyed what he did. His love for farming was contagious, and we all wanted to help him. 

One day, after lunch, he and I sat on the shady front porch. His eyes were closed, as he rested, before he went back to the field to work. I was listening to a train going down the tracks in the distance, blowing its whistle.

I asked him a question. “Grandpa, will I grow up to be like you?”

He opened his eyes, slowly. “What did you say?”

“Well, you seem so happy all the time, and you like what you do every day. I don’t know anybody else who likes what they do so much. I want to be like that.”

His eyes got bigger, and he laughed. “If I help other people and do a good job at it, that is a good thing, right?”

“Yes.”

“We are a family, and we are supposed to help each other in as many ways as possible. Well, being a conscientious farmer is doing God’s work. Feeding people healthy food is one man’s way of praying. I often feel like an artist of the soil, when I drive my tractor during planting season. I plow, disc, till, plant, weed the rows, and harvest the crops. When I take care of the Earth, it takes care of me. Our heaven might just be below our feet.”

“I’m not sure I understand all of that. Last week, my teacher tried to tell us what a metaphor was. Did you do one of those just now?”

“Maybe.”

“It would be nice, if more people worked with those goals in mind, right?

He stood up to go back to work, arranged his hat, placed his hands on my shoulders, and squeezed them.

Then, he smiled and said, “In the future, instead of planting soybeans, wheat, and corn every spring, wouldn’t it be great to have a tractor that could plant truth, justice, and freedom for all? In the fall, we’d harvest knowledge, intelligence, and wisdom. Those different crops in the barn would come in pretty handy, when we needed them. We must never limit ourselves. We will never know what we can achieve, until we try.”

I replied, “I want a job like that.”

He hugged me, and I saw his eyes twinkle. 

“Don’t over think it, sonny,” he said. “Just begin.” 

Mondays with Martin: Best Friends

By David Martin

For most of his Nebraska farming days, Grandfather Edgar Schock had no tractor, and he said the smartest thing he ever did was buy two, black, Belgian draft horses, because they saved his life and farm, while providing for the family, when he was unable to do the work himself. Every morning and evening, he brushed them, lovingly. In turn, they protected his tuberculosis-scarred lungs.
Blaze and Lady always had good grain and hay to eat, and Gramps talked to them, when he was in their stalls, as they were his children. Their affectionate eyes watched him, constantly. Horse and human, their bond was sensitive, strong, and intuitive. Their ears followed his quiet sounds, as he fed them, but like radar, they went suspiciously flat when strangers were loud or got too close.
Although he was quite ill, Grandmother said that Gramps never seemed as sick after his friends arrived. He was awake before sunrise and could not get out of the house fast enough, after eating his own breakfast, in order to care for those two beautiful animals, his best friends, and give them their first meal of the day. Both horses seemed to know how important they were to this skinny, two-legged creature, who worked every day in the fields with them
and thought it was a privilege to join their team.
He became an artist of the soil and used these heavily muscled paintbrushes with bobbed tails to color in fields of corn, alfalfa, and nature’s unique composition. At the end of exhausting workdays, the four-legged corn eaters with broad hooves, soft noses, and gentle hearts stuck their mouths under the surface of the cold tank water and blew bubbles like kids, laughing together at a summer swimming pool.
The only time Mother saw her father cry was when the big truck came that cold day and took the horses to the sale barn. He could not say goodbye to his old friends. After they left the barnyard that last time, Gramps was never as cheerful or stood as straight in the sun.
“Farming was never the same after that day,” he said.
The next week, a red metal tractor appeared. The deliveryman said it could do the work of ten teams and would not need corn and hay for fuel.
Weeks later, one evening after we finished supper, he got up from the table and left the house without telling anyone where he was going. Grandmother looked at me and nodded her head, so I followed him. He walked down the path away from the house into the cornfield and disappeared. I walked quickly to catch up with him.
“Hey, where ya goin’ so fast?”
He was surprised to see me and slowed down, so I could catch up with him. He rubbed tears from his eyes with one hand and put the other on my shoulder.
“I wanted to go to the barn and pet Blaze and Lady, but they’re not here, now, so I’m going to talk to the corn. In the field, those horses, wherever they are, will hear how much I miss them. Life is not the same without my friends. Tractors get hot but are never warm. That pair nudged me in the back with their noses when we talked, looking for another wedge of hay at day’s end, and thanking me for loving them the way friends do. I’ll never have buddies like that, again.”
“Hey, Gramps, I can be your buddy.”
He laughed, coughed, and more tears rolled down his cheeks.
“I’d like that.”

Mondays with Martin: A Personal Trinity

By David Martin

 

  1. You Must Be There 

the music is playing 

and it sounds like heaven 

so you must be there

 

the night glimmers when 

you slip on that white dress and 

we hold each other close

 

our love moves to the rhythm 

and the temperature rises 

as the floor becomes ours alone

 

one two three one two three 

we keep pace with each other 

together our hearts create tomorrows

 

this is our song 

everything we feel we are 

let’s dance like we mean it

 

2.  Together 

 

Here he comes 

running into this moment 

we have on a sunny morning

 

from beyond the darkness of sleep 

from a time of warm shadows 

from the happy sprinting which moves

 

the dry pages of my book 

and drops the necessary facts of life 

like bones at my feet causing his black eyes

 

above a panting tongue and wet nose 

each holding a caring passion for me 

and I can almost hear his words in between

 

his rapid fire barking 

“ruff — ruff — ruff” 

let’s walk now

 

3.  Now Is the Write Time 

 

If Ted Kooser can send poems to Jim Harrison, 

now is the “write” time to compose a verse for Vince McAndrew.

He motivates me to elevate my thoughts.

 

I can’t explain this situation. 

I don’t even write rhythmical composition. 

It is a darned hard thing to do.

 

With Kooser’s model and Vince’s acceptance, 

I will write a poem every . . . , well, whenever I feel like it. 

Then, I am going to burden him with their interpretations.

 

It doesn’t matter if he comments or not,

because I know he will have better things to do, 

but having an audience is better than pitching horseshoes.

 

Beware: we have a poet-in-progress, and 

he is a card-carrying member of Over Writers Anonymous: 

No Fear — No Perfection — Only Progress.

 

This new poet may attempt William Kloefkorn’s  

“Snowball Theory of Composition: 

Inspiration, Perspiration, and Compression,”  

 

which will create little treasures 

without a Map Quest app to move molehills, 

if not mountains.

Mondays With Martin: This Moment

By David Martin

I am a little bird
with broken wings, afraid of the future.
My cracked dreams flutter, lack direction,
and refuse to take flight.

When I struggle to find purpose,
it is not necessary to travel 4,000 miles for a perfect photograph
or seek answers in barbaric places where crisis rules.
Destiny will take care of itself.

It only takes 39 digits of pi
to calculate the circumference of the universe
to an accuracy the size of a hydrogen atom,
yet, I spend little time measuring the boundary of my heart.

When the community counts and respect for truth rules,
where people meet to find the best among them is holy ground.
The urgent must not displace the important,
and there is no substitution for amputated spirits.

Not yesterday. Not tomorrow.
Not history. Not mystery
Today is the focus.
I am grateful, now.

I didn’t come this far to go somewhere else,
and my little corner of the world brightens.
In the trying, the healing happens.
This moment is the answer.

Mondays with Martin: Beethoven or Baseball?

David Martin

When I write at a computer, I often hear instrumental music with a piano leading the melody. I never notice words or lyrics. As I place my fingers on the keyboard, I sense a concert hall and a quiet audience, waiting. I hear a symphony in the background, and I see Ludwig van Beethoven in my mind.

Why music? Why the piano? Why Beethoven? More importantly, why at the computer? After years of wondering, the answer became clear to me one night, as I tied sentences together and coasted into the 3 a.m. darkness.

When I was young, my mother and I argued weekly about how much time I should practice the piano. There was a nice Baldwin in the house, and she wanted me to play it.

One day, I heard Mother talking to her friends about classical music. The name “Beethoven” came up in their conversation, and I paid attention every time his name was mentioned. “He was the best German composer,” she said.

At first, I was curious if I could make my fingers please Mom, and I was serious with my lessons for awhile. I practiced, diligently, so I could perform at a planned student recital a few months away. Would she think I was a little Beethoven? The stage fright I experienced at that small gathering killed my interest in playing. I knew Beethoven was beyond my reach.

However, the biggest competition for my piano playing time was baseball. I wanted to play centerfield for the New York Yankees when I grew up. Mickey Mantle, I imagined, was my big brother. I was the oldest child in my family, and I needed a brother to look up to, so I picked him. Fast, strong, able to hit on both sides of the plate, and unstoppable chasing fly balls that would be hits against other outfielders in Major League Baseball, he was my hero.

I loved the grass in “my office.” It smelled good. I thrived on the isolation in the outfield and knew it was my job to manage the players on either side of me. I dared batters on the other team to get a ball past me. That did not happen often.

The respect I got from the coach and the rest of the team motivated me to concentrate on the ball coming out of the pitcher’s hand on each throw, so I could get a jump on the batter’s swing, as he made contact. I had to cover more ground than any other player. I wanted to be the best I could be, and I felt excited when I caught a line-drive on the run, grabbed a pop fly out of the sun, and threw a frozen rope from deep center field to home plate before the opponent on third could score.

My fingers were meant to throw baseballs, not find middle “C” on the piano. I liked the feel of my hand around the leather ball. I felt the gift of strength in my arm, and if I kept practicing, I would receive more praise from my coach and teammates.

Every Saturday at 10 a.m., God bless her, Mother would make sure I was seated on the piano bench doing my scales to warm up before practicing the new piece my instructor assigned for the next session. Weekly, this routine took place. My desire to improve was not as great as hers. While she dreamed of “Moonlight Sonata,” I dreamed of the Chicago White Sox visiting Yankee Stadium.

In the spring, one Saturday morning, my life changed. As I sat on the piano bench absorbed in a new piece of sheet music, three of my closest friends knocked loudly on the front porch door, only a few feet away from me, as I was lost thought.

Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom.

I nearly fell off the piano bench in fright.

One of the boys yelled, “Hey, Dave, we’re going to the baseball field, and we need you to practice some plays. We want to win that first game of the season. Come on.”

Quickly, Mother said, “Tell them you can play in about an hour, after you finish your piano practice.”

“But, Mom, they need me now,” I replied.

“Your promise to me comes first,” she whispered.

The boys on the porch were all older friends from the neighborhood. They played infield positions, because they did not like the outfield. They thought playing there was boring and too much work. They felt better on the dirt, and they needed me to back them up in the outfield.

I was not going to win this contest. Either my friends or Mom would not like my decision. I could always do piano practice later, like my friends said. They would not wait forever. I knew I would be grown up soon, and the Yankees would call me.

Mom’s hands slowly folded across her chest. Her eyes filled with tears.

Beethoven or baseball? I knew that I loved centerfield more than the piano, so I made my move. Fifty years later, I still feel my legs slowly sliding off the piano bench and moving toward the front door.

“Mom, I’ll be back after baseball practice,” I reassured her, but I did not hear her say anything.

As I reached for my leather glove, she reached for the music pages.

When I stepped through the door onto the porch, the oldest boy put his arm around my shoulders and said, “We need you, buddy,” and the other boys agreed.

As I started down one of the many roads I took to reach manhood, I imagined my piano music being torn in half.

Today, in my mind, I sense a bust of Beethoven behind me when I type, and I always write with his music in the background. His powerful notes calm me and let me find inner paths to explore with words. I have no fear of him, anymore, so I write on.

I find time each day to type a little “music,” and sometimes, I talk to him. The music of reflection is a solitary tune. I roll through the storm clouds of life listening to “da-da-da-dum,” as I hear notes coming from the keyboard. The letters that make my words become piano keys, and I don’t look over my shoulders anymore.

Composing my “music” on paper shows me I learned to listen, while playing the piano and running in the sun. I learned the most in both activities when I did not talk, because there is power and strength in finding silent spaces during the day.

The secret of composition is to not think of the ending and what comes before the last page. The best plan is to write one sentence at a time and measure the steps, thoughts, and days in key strokes.

Today, when I watch a ball game, I recall all the fun, challenges, and respect I received at such an early age playing with my friends. Those days defined who I would become many years later. I liked sports, and I could not get my fill. I would love to return to those games and play them one more time.

I raise my hands above the keyboard, once more, and hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with those famous four notes. I am still practicing, Mom. This time I hope to make music, as I struggle to form complete sentences and developed paragraphs. I listen to Beethoven’s notes, but I write my own internal rhythms and play my own tunes.

Mondays With Martin: Who Knew?

David Martin

 

 

 

 

 

 

Editor’s note: This essay from David Martin was initially written when Fine Lines was “only” 25 years old.  It’s a little older now, but the essay’s message is just as relevant. 

25 Years: Who Knew?

Fine Lines is dedicated to the development of writers and artists of all ages. Our publication started out as a classroom newsletter in 1991 and has now turned into a 50 state writing network and a 501 (c) (3) non-profit educational organization. The first issue was four pages long and allowed many students new opportunities to show others their clear thinking and proper written expression. Each online, quarterly issue is about 300 pages of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and art by “authors and artists in process.”

Now, 25 years later, Fine Lines receives creative writing from authors of all occupations: prose articles of medium length, reflective essays on diverse topics of life experiences, what one learns through the writing process, and poetry in all forms. We have printed writing from a six-year-old, a 94-year-old great-grandmother, ministers, janitors, doctors, lawyers, scientists, teachers, and students of all educational levels. In this quarter century of effort, we published writers from every state in this nation and 38 foreign countries: Argentina, Azerbaijan, Australia, Barbados, Bhutan, Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, Dubai, Egypt, England, Germany, Iraq, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Indonesia, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Mexico, Pakistan, Poland, Russia, Scotland, Sicily, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, Togo, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, Vietnam, and a US Navy aircraft carrier in the South Pacific. Who knew this wonderful development would happen to a little journal like ours?

To paraphrase George Orwell, good writing is like a window pane, and the editors of Fine Lines hope to assist developing writers see through their windows more clearly. The bottom line of our work is to help writers develop their full potential. Often, we see ourselves as “writing coaches” and value reader participation in this endeavor.

Our Fine Lines mission is to provide a beacon of hope for the misunderstood, share a global vision of improved literacy, embrace the passion of human diversity, understand the need for clarity in all communication, and create the lives we desire through the written word. Led by dedicated volunteers who provide creative oversight, we are an inclusive, nurturing, writing community engaged in the thoughtful pursuit of beauty and truth.

Composition is hard work, and we are proud to show its rewards in each issue. We hope readers share with their friends, students, and fellow writers who love creative expression and celebrate our language. Join us in forming the lives we desire through the written word. Writing of life’s experiences, emotions, and discovered truths brings order to chaos, beauty to existence, and celebration to the mysterious.

In our four anthologies each year, many authors attempt to improve the world through constructive composition, clarifying their views of the world and using words to develop better pictures of humanity. At the beginning of the latest technology age, it took 40 years to sell 1 billion computers, 20 years to sell 7 billion cell phones, and 5 years to sell 1 billion digital tablets. This record teaches us not to settle for the here and now. Dreams show us the world we wish to inhabit. With proper written expression, we can do better and go farther.

Each issue is a collective art gallery of emotions and feelings. There are so many stories behind each page and new-found joys of using words to communicate with others. How nice it is to be heard. How wonderful it is to share a warmth of rhythm and a flow of understanding from one human soul to another. Our stories are simple gifts. Our writers find inspiration by not running from their passions. They compose with purpose.

People of reason need poems, songs, and stories that bring life to the page. Facing the blank page is the first step of creation. Our creative writers deeply inhale that open space. They breathe in and out and become sisters and brothers of that nothingness. In happiness and celebration, they use metaphors as medicine. They write every day to heal hearts and souls. They invite the lines to take them in. We are a collection of broken pieces, but with the help of others, we can restore ourselves. Nature gives us grace to start again with a new blank page. We must tell our stories.

“Everyone on this road is going somewhere” (Roy Rogers). My father believed that and lived an unusual life. He had so many stories that he was the hit of every party he attended. He knew every cowboy in the county, and they knew him, too. He felt potential was overrated. Having the ability to do any job, accomplish any goal, and complete any project required two things: passion for the task and a tough discipline to see the work completed. Artists, athletes, and cowboys must learn to finish their jobs. “Nothing great in the world has been accomplished without passion,” said Friedrich Hegel. However, those people who deliver as much effort in the fourth quarter of their lives, as they do in the first quarter remain the most productive.

Fine Lines strives to be a motivational manifesto for new writers of all ages who have stories to tell the world. Our editors search for the purity of characters’ messages. We are looking for our homes. We are searching the place to do our best work. We want to know where we will be safe. What is your story? What do freight train whistles mean? Do you hear music in unusual places? When that one person whispers your name, how do you respond? When sleep is hard to find, what does the light rain falling on the roof mean? This is what we are all about. Slow down. Look people in their eyes. Touch them with words. Share your voice. Help others. Make yourself available to the world. Write it down.

Hope is alive for “young writers of all ages” in our publications, and self-expression comes to the surface in all creative forms. We mark their growth process line by line and page by page. Fine Lines echoes Umberto Eco, “To survive you must tell stories.” Each Fine Lines issue is an inspirational journey. The most important door to view the world of knowledge is through an open mind. We take the 26 letters of the English language, rub them together in sentences and paragraphs to start fires that turn into essays, songs, and poems, as the light of wisdom winds its way toward understanding who we are and what we must do with our days. There are so many ways to pray.

Move to the front row of your life and capture the most important part, the “now.” Life is influenced by diverse mediums: dance, theater, poetry, electronics, and cinema. They are an ongoing exploration of the world. Use the anticipation, excitement, and doubt in life to appreciate the calm moments, which prepare us for the chaos that follows.

“How does anyone grow a national literary journal with no staff, no money, and no advertising?” The first answer is “Most don’t try.” The second answer is “Fine Lines found a small group of dedicated volunteers, a couple of administrators who looked at the big picture of literacy and schools, teachers who recognized our potential, a lawyer who wanted his colleagues to write better like our authors do, and students of all ages who loved the idea of sharing their ideas with the world.”

The need for increased literacy is prevalent, and we want to do our part to speak for those who have no voice. We want to let good grow. Words bring hope and magic in so many ways. When things don’t go the way we want, we turn the page. We evolve a little each day. Stories matter. Words matter. Who knew?

Dedication, writing daily, giving our journals personal names, and encouraging them to come alive in front of our eyes, like children, can make us better writers. “Amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work” (Chuck Close).

Through the past 25 years of organizing, editing, publicizing, and communicating our mission, Fine Lines has played a part in cultivating a new generation of writers, artists, and insightful souls who appreciate the value of creativity. The work has been our engine of change and growth; the readers have become our products. We work to cultivate the value of creativity. It is my hope that we will succeed for twenty-five years more.

 

Write on.

 

David Martin

 

Mondays with Martin: What My Students Taught Me

This David Martin essay captures a great deal about what it means to teach.  It’s also funny.  (And should have been posted earlier this week.)

 

David Martin

In forty years of teaching, some unusual classes have come my way. In elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, community colleges, universities, graduate schools, business workshops, and retirement homes, the students have been challenging and pleasant, unpredictable and insightful, unprepared and inspiring. The following sixteen English classes gave me a true education because the students taught me how to listen.

JOURNAL WRITING — “BIC 101”

For this class, knowledge was needed in athletic taping. There were a lot of wrist sprains because so much volume was produced. Assignments were graded by the pound. Just like chopping boards in karate class where the person swung his hand through the object, the journal writer wrote through the pain. Students learned to quickly switch to the other hand, when their normal writing fingers fell quietly limp by their side. I read every page, and they knew it, because all the writing came back graded, stamped, or commented on. No one could hide in this class, and usually, I knew more about each student than the school counselors did. Frequently, a counselor would appear at my classroom door and want to talk about “Freddie” or “Lilly,” because I encouraged all students to write about what concerned them at school, at home, and in life. This was a great way to “back into class” and informally work with student issues, while teaching composition at the same time.

GENERAL ENGLISH — “Duck”

Slow learners with low metabolism traditionally filled these classes. They often exhibited symptoms of chronic jock itch. Alex asked to be excused to the restroom every time I assigned in-class work. The last time he was in my class, I said he could not leave to avoid the classwork, so he stood in the middle of the room, loudly cleared his throat of more phlegm than I thought any human being could possess, and spit a large volume of sputum twenty feet over the heads of students through an open window, as they gagged and laughed. He earned an immediate pass to the principal’s office and never returned. Now, every time I hear someone clearing his throat, my impulse is to lower my head.

REMEDIAL ENGLISH — “Little Birds”

Corrective surgery was performed on an out-patient basis. Much physical therapy was advised. Once, under all the rubble, I found an honor student, who had fallen in disgrace, because she was brilliantly disorganized. She regained her throne and earned a scholarship to the Kansas City Art Institute. The journal I encouraged her to keep became the right side of her brain, where she could impulsively place her many thoughts, feelings, and ideas. Enthusiastically, she opened it every five minutes to jot down thoughts worth keeping, and every evening before bedtime, she organized them, so logical order entered her world before she went to sleep. Her grades improved within one week’s time. We are all little birds with broken wings. We just need someone to care about us and help show the way through the fog of life.

ETHNIC LITERATURE — “From Around the World”

Diane arrived in class at 8:30 AM dressed in buckskin and tennis shoes with a United States flag draped around her shoulders, alternately singing the national anthem and saying, “I don’t feel well.” I soon found out she was drunk, because an agency was removing her daughter to a foster home and committing Diane to a psychiatric hospital. She won a second place award in a city-wide essay contest titled “One Nation under God,” when she addressed the inequalities her Mexican American brothers and sisters were experiencing in this country. She was scared while she wrote the paper and asked me, several times, if she should give it to the judges, because she was afraid of being deported. I told her to do what she honestly wanted to do. She walked silently up to my desk, laid it down without a word, and walked out of class. I was as proud of her, then, as when she received the announcement that she had won one of the three prizes. Ethnic writers are probably the only true original writers we have left, because their eyes haven’t experienced cultural assimilation. Conviction, determination, and resolution can surface in our students at any age. We must be ready when it arrives.

ACADEMIC ENGLISH — “The Price Is Write”

Most of these students were college prep types. If they didn’t know the answers, Mom and Dad bought them wholesale.

HONORS ENGLISH — “Are You Ready?”

I had to throw out the teaching style that says, “Follow me, guys.” I was forced to bring in a new format, “There it is, ladies and gentlemen. Go get it. There will be a test afterwards and pro scouts from Yale, Harvard, Vassar, Dartmouth, Wisconsin, Stanford, John Hopkins, and UC-Berkeley will be here to time your SAT sprints with hand-held stopwatches, so be ready.”

ENGLISH METHODS CLASS — “4 Steps”

English majors may acquire the essence of all Teachers College education through four easy steps. Simply put into practice the following: make your students believe that you see them, hear them, understand them, and will try your darndest to help them every day.

COLLEGE COMPOSITION CLASS — “Check Them at the Door”

I don’t have to stand when I talk to maintain silence, but this class got very quiet, when a uniformed policeman showed up to finish his degree. He brought his partner to patrol the hall, while class was going on. Eventually, I had to ask both of them to check their guns at the door, because a female student who was a tank driver for the National Guard was becoming annoyed. She stood up in class and said, “This is not Dodge City. You should not wear uniforms to class, and it would be a good idea to leave your weapons in your cruisers.” They did.

JOB CORPS ENGLISH — “It’s Part of My Job”

My football coach liked to tell his team, “When you make a tackle on defense, keep your head down but your eyes up. That way you can see which way the ball carrier is moving, and you will protect yourself from injury.” — Many years later, I had to tackle a student in front of his barracks and sit on him until the police arrived. He began sniffing glue in his room, came to class very high, and tried to set the building on fire after receiving the assignment “How did you spend your summer vacation?”

LAMAZE ENGLISH? — “Tell the Paramedics to Go to the Second Floor”

As varied as my experiences have been, at least, I did not have to teach the English class my friend taught to a junior in her high school. This teacher got to deliver a baby in the girls’ bathroom next to her classroom between passing periods. The student was so small that none of her friends noticed she was pregnant, and even her parents did not know she was expecting.

ADULT NIGHT SCHOOL — “No Empty Cups”

This simply meant fifteen-hour days. Sometimes, it is known as the “red-eye” class or “Caffeine-College.” Every ten minutes, I changed what we did in class, and every thirty minutes, I asked the students to stand up and move to accomplish a class objective. This kept them from falling asleep at their desks. I talked to them while they moved and got to know them better when the class “shifted.” They didn’t know I was still teaching, as we laughed and told each other stories about our families and what happened during the day. Universal education never stops.

BUSINESS ENGLISH — “Everyone Uses It”

Teaching a toilet paper salesman to write is a unique experience. All he was interested in was figuring volume sales, analyzing the folding technique of “crunchers” and “wadders,” the numbers of sheets per visit, and studying Thomas Crapper and Mr. Whipple. Wizards come in all shapes and sizes.

HOSPITAL ENGLISH — “It’s Time to Operate”

Here we patch and mend like a M.A.S.H. unit. After a period of time, we send the students back to the front lines. I remember Tommy not being able to write anything of consequence, until he started to trust me. When this happened, he allowed himself to cry over his mother’s death, a year before. Between the tears, he was able to scratch out an essay that would have earned a B+ in any teacher’s classroom. He did all the other class assignments, but he came into my classroom every Friday afternoon for two months, sat in his seat, and reread that paper, while I worked on student grades. Most of the time, the room was silent. Once in a while, he would ask if he could reread the paper aloud, because he thought he made an improvement or two. When I asked to see the paper and reread it like it was a first time submission, I gave it an A+ grade. I handed it back, and he smiled, then cried, again. He thanked me for listening to him, as he left the room for the last time. The rest of the school year, I saw him in the hall, frequently, and he always had that letter folded in his shirt pocket.

STRAIGHTJACKET ENGLISH — “Never Close Your Eyes”

Instructors of these classes try to keep the students awake without allowing them to injure themselves, fellow students, or teachers. John was up, down, and “off the wall” every day, but he never changed his blank, expressionless face. When I asked him to write on the class assignment, he looked at me and said, “Why would I want to do that?”

TERMINAL ENGLISH — “Do Your Homework, Then You Can Eat Supper”

Here the patients will not recover in their lifetimes. Teachers of these classes are like nurses in coronary wards. They must be rotated regularly to prevent burnout and severe depression. Bernie was a favorite student of mine. He misspelled words like “was,” “does,” and “God,” but he is now an athlete at a state college. Once in a while, I will receive a postcard or an email from him. The last time he contacted me, part of the message went like this. “Hi, Teach. I may pass my English class this year. The new, young teacher likes me, she said, because I make her laugh. Thanks for your help last year in that writing class. Can you send $100? I am getting too skinny.”

CEMETERY ENGLISH – “Her Last Goodbye”

Mary had writer’s block, because she couldn’t forget that her grandmother died on the family’s porch swing. She was Mary’s favorite relative. Her grandmother was resting on the swing and asked Mary to fix her a cup of hot coffee. Mary went inside to the kitchen, made the coffee, brought it to her, and set it on the table next to the swing. She forgot to bring the sugar and cream and had to return to the kitchen for them. When she came back to the porch, her grandmother was sitting up straight with the coffee steam spiraling upwards past the smile on her face. Mary could see the light was gone from those loving eyes. Fourteen-years-old and without another person in the home to help, she had to deal with the rescue squad, the police, and the coroner. Mary went on to win a national writing contest when she got over her writing block caused by this personal situation. She asked me to go to the cemetery with her to say her last goodbye. Her mother and father approved, so we both took our journals with us and wrote in them as we sat by her grandmother’s grave. Mary still writes to me, all these years later.

 

Listening is the most important part of any conversation, and most of us do not try hard enough to master this skill. People who were born to be “radios” need good listeners. I wish more of us would develop this talent. The students in these classes taught me so much, and thank goodness, I let them teach me about life. One girl said, “You seem to care more about us than other teachers do. You hear what we are saying.” Surely, that is the best compliment I have ever received. In every class, each student was a unique, bipedal poem.

“I will do what’s right.

I will do my best.

I will show others I care.”

-Argyle, TX, Elementary School