In loving memory of those fellow writers who made it OK for me to be a writer too:
Todd Park- Aviator, cyclist, writer, friend
At 50, Todd Park did not look like a man whose bone marrow teemed with 50% cancerous cells. He had no symptoms. Settled into a new job in his hometown of Salt Lake City, Utah after a naval career and other post-military employment gave him a lifetime of moving, a simple blood test taken for a discount on health insurance led to an unexpected diagnosis: acute myeloid leukemia. An avid writer, Todd blogged the raw physical, mental, and emotional experience of his treatment for this deadly disease. That blog became this posthumous memoir, Popcorn from the Void, fulfilling the commitment he made to write a book about his experience to help others struggling with leukemia.
Susan House- Mentor, teacher, writer, friend
Written for the Midtown Writers June 3, 2016 annual reading:
To my mentor Susan House, with love
The first thing you need to know about Susan is that Susan is dead. I don’t know how she died or exactly when she died but in April word got around that she was indeed dead. The second thing you need to know about Susan is that she is the reason I am standing before you tonight. You see, I have been a writer my whole life but I didn’t know it until I was about 30 years old. Nobody had ever given me permission.
Susan House was large, larger than life. She wore flowing skirts of cotton that could shift around when she got too sweaty in the thick Chicago summer heat. Susan’s hair was salt and pepper, mostly salt, and she was losing it. She would sit at her desk behind the low cube walls, knees wide, hunched forward, her large belly sagging, and her thick fingers gripping her hairy legs. I would talk to her, tell her stories, and she would rock back and forth laughing, her head thrown back with that wide gapped tooth grin. She would talk to me about her previous career as a welder, her love for Studs Terkel and ‘A Coney Island of the Mind’ by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
In 2002, after a year of full-time work while going to school double time for my B.S. in Information Technology, I had thoroughly lost my mind and desperately needed an outlet. That job was at a non-profit community organization that specialized in education and workforce development, including adult literacy. Susan ran that program and because Susan was a writer, there was a writers’ group held every Wednesday night. She invited me to join them repeatedly until one night, I finally did.
I didn’t think I belonged there, not being a writer myself, but I had always longed to be one. You see, my self-perception was so distorted growing up, that I filled notebook after notebook with stories wishing desperately that somehow, someway I could be a writer. That first night in my first writers’ group, I collected my courage and leaned into the trust Susan had built between us. I read my stories out loud. I didn’t die. I didn’t even get booed out of the room. I kept going back.
The writers’ group was associated with the Neighborhood Writing Alliance which regularly published the Journal of Ordinary Thought. Susan submitted our work whenever there was a call for submission. All writers in the alliance were guaranteed to appear in that journal at least once a year so it was not so big a deal to be published in it. But when I opened that first journal I had been accepted to, my story was on page one. I could not believe someone like me would have their writing displayed to prominently.
My first public reading, just like the one we are participating in tonight, was as a member of Susan’s group. We were at the Uptown public library in Chicago. She took my hand and walked me up to the lectern, kept her arm around me as she introduced me, and then sat down to let me speak. I could barely read it, stammering and feeling so embarrassed and naked by my raw words, words I still speak today but no longer back away from. I finished to thundering applause; I finished to murmurs, “I didn’t know she could write like that”; I finished to Susan hugging me so tight I cried; I finished knowing I was a writer.
The last thing I am going to say about Susan is my regret. I had not seen her since I left Chicago in 2003 and I had barely talked to her in all that time. There was a memorial service held at that library two weeks ago by former members of the writers’ group and people she had taught to read. They read her work, words I haven’t heard in 13 years, and I missed it. And so I finish here tonight in honor and in gratitude to the woman who freed my voice and gave me permission to be a writer by reading one of her poems.
-Copyright C.M. Mounts, June 2016