My mother is an avid newspaper reader. As a girl I can remember finding her with the paper spread across the dining room table. She would read it cover to cover, clipping recipes, reading aloud the latest hint from Heloise or cutting articles to send to various family members that she was sure they’d appreciate. My favorite memory, however was watching her giggle as she read the Erma Bombeck column of the week. She, like so many of her generation, would tape it to the refrigerator for the rest of us to enjoy.
Imagine my delight when I was invited to participate as faculty in the 2016 Erma Bombeck Writer’s Workshop this past March in Ohio at the University of Dayton (Erma’s alma mater and mine as well!) I had been eyeing this writing conference as a participant for years and had never managed to register in time for one of the 200 sought after slots.
To make the most of the adventure, I arrived two days early so I could have some time to stroll down memory lane. I wanted to settle in, perhaps see a few old friends, walk the campus and rattle the bushes to see if I could scare up a few ghosts. Two of my five brothers went to this school, the three of us spending a combined total of fifteen years walking these streets. As I drove into town, I slowed my car as every corner seemed to stir a memory. Those were good years.
The location of the conference, the Dayton Marriott, made me smile. It opened in 1982 when I had just graduated from college and was starting my teaching career. The bar in the hotel was considered snazzy (remember when we used to use that word?), a step up from Tim’s and Flannigan’s, two of UD’s legendary watering holes. It is also situated just up the road from Carillon Historical Park, a well-known Dayton landmark on which stands a 150 ft. carillon that rings throughout the day. The sloping lawn that surrounds the carillon also happens to be the exact spot where I began a journey with the man with whom I have shared the last thirty years of my life.
After checking into the hotel, I walked along the Miami River to the park. Spring had just begun and the budding trees swayed in the cool breeze. I climbed the sloping lawn and stood at the base of the carillon. As the sun slid down the sky behind the UD Arena across the highway, I reminisced about the girl I was at twenty and the boy he was at twenty-one. We had sat on this very lawn in our bell bottoms and UD sweatshirts and shared a tender first kiss. How little we knew of life then. How far we have traveled together since that moment so long ago.
Dusk was soon upon me, but I knew that I would not leave until I heard the carillon ring. I circled the base and came upon a door on which is inscribed a portion of a poem by Longfellow, written upon hearing that his son had enlisted with the Union army, much to his dismay.
…It was as if an earthquake Rent the hearth-stones of a continent, And made forlorn The households born Of peace on earth, good-will to men! And in despair I bowed my head; “There is no peace on earth,” I said; “For hate is strong, And mocks the song.Of peace on earth, good-will to men!” Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, With peace on earth, good-will to men.”
I had forgotten about this door. Now a writer, I read each word with a new reverence, marveling how Longfellow could capture the heartache and fear of an entire country in just eighty-nine words.
At the stroke of six, the bells above began to ring and I smiled, looking up to watch them, the evening breeze soft upon my face. There is something about the sound of bells I can’t resist. I love how they stir a yearning, deep and primal within me. How I feel them in my center, a sacredness. When I hear the rich pealing of bells, I instinctually look in their direction. A calling I can’t ignore.
And I thought, too, of how writing was like this. A calling, deep and primal that, try as we might sometimes, we simply can’t ignore. Then I imagined the hundreds of writers journeying here to this small spot on the planet as if the tolling of these bells were calling them. As if Erma, herself, was calling us to this unlikely haven to gather courage, to sharpen craft, to claim our art. To celebrate and continue her important work of capturing the complexities of the human experience in just a few words.
As writers we hold whole universes in our souls. Page by page we share stories that chew on life, love, loss and the blessings of family and friends. Page by page we try to somehow lift our own little corner of the globe through frank observation and humor, just as Erma taught us to.
Soon the other writers arrived, one by one, with suitcases, laptops, and hopeful smiles. From the opening ceremony it was obvious to me that this would be no ordinary writers’ conference. The energy and excitement that infused the air was palpable.
I watched as instructors and participants alike laughed and learned together. We connected in deep and powerful ways as we wrote and shared about deep and powerful things. The family atmosphere was disarming and reaffirming.
Buoyed and inspired I left the conference with new friends, renewed vigor, and cheeks that ached from abundant laughter. On my way out of town I drove past the carillon and smiled to myself again, hoping that two years hence I would stand at its base once more, called back to Dayton not only to reminisce about the girl I was at twenty but to continue to celebrate the woman writer that I have become.
Thank you, Erma!
For more information about the 2018 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop stay tuned at www.humorwriters.org