Endless Summer

When I saw it, I knew. It was van Gogh. I knew it not by his distinct style, but by the raw emotion that radiated off the inanimate canvas. I stood at the opposite end of the gallery and cried.

It was endless summer.

Specifically, it was “Olive Trees with Yellow Sky and Sun” hanging in gallery 355 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Experts believe it depicts autumn, November in Saint-Rémy, based on the vibrant orange and yellow paint. It was created just seven months prior to his suicide. It stands as the only time art has moved me to tears. And what moved me was how he captured the sunlight.

I know that blazing day.

I forgot about endless summer. Life became as adult life does, a series of days in which there is work to be done for the sake of survival, and a shot at happiness one day when the bills stop exceeding the money. When you’re young, all things are possible if you can just decide what you want to do.

Endless summer of youth.

There was a large field behind the grade school with a gravel track and baseball diamonds. It was June and it was covered with dandelions. Some had turned to seed. And I lay there, relaxed. No hurry, no worry… uncommon for me. In that moment of breeze and blazing sunshine that broke behind the passing clouds, the dandelions glowed as if they were lights themselves. I felt like I belonged. I felt like I was exactly where I was supposed to be. I felt one with creation.

All was right with the world.

Laying in the field behind the school in the last days of junior high, dreaming of the life to come, blowing cottony seeds in the wind like candles for wishes. What does the future have in store for me? Will I be happy? Will I be loved?

I, so consumed with grief at the tender age of 12. I, who sought solace in the arts and nature. I, who buried myself inside my own head, inside my dream world. I was ill prepared for the hard realities that would become my life.

But that girl… she was in love with the promise of endless summer.

Life back then, it was hard. I never felt safe or like I belonged anywhere. I knew I would escape to high school. I was convinced that it would be a better experience for me. I was wrong. I was wild and out of control. 13 years old in massive grief with a fuck-off attitude. Not much has changed.

While other girls were concerned about the brand of jeans they wore or their hair and make-up, I was trying to come to terms with my father’s death and the upheaval in my family. I couldn’t relate. I couldn’t see the value of the trivial concerns of others. I still can’t. But innocence was how I was supposed to be. That was stolen from me at too young an age.

That girl… she cried for van Gogh.

We make our choices and try to live with the consequences. Once I was in college, I worked my ass off. I never wanted to be financially dependent and vulnerable to anyone else. People hide how abusive they are… people die. So, as I watched other young people be young, while I held my face to the grindstone, time slipped away. Those years I was meant to be light and free, gone.

But twenty years later, I took up cycling.

That first summer ride along the bluff of the Mississippi River under the sparse clouds and impossible blue sky- that light made the leaves look silver; the heads of flowers, tiny lamps. The sun outlined every detail in the fabric of life. The endorphins rushing through me sucked all the color through my eyes and etched it into my brain.

Endless summer means peace, it means being fully present, it means being shocked into the now by the astonishing beauty of the natural world. It is being in harmony with the flow of life without distress. And on that day, it was OK for me to hope, OK for me to want love. I did not have to be embarrassed by my longing of dreams forgotten.

That endless summer day split my flaming heart.

 

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, June 2019

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Public House

A friend texts and asks if it’s true: Do writers write drunk and edit sober? I tell her what I know. Those are drinkers with writing problems. I can’t write drunk. All that will do for me is limit my vocabulary. But I suppose it’s a method to loosen the tongue, release the tension and anxiety that often comes part and parcel with bearing one’s soul to the page.

But it is Friday night. These are my coordinates. I am in this bar with all strangers.

The bartender knows me. I recognize a regular, the waitstaff. It is the beginning of patio season and there are people laughing outside. I sit at the bar inside in the hope of being left alone. Yet, I am here to be among others so that I am not at home alone at the end of the long work week.

Across the bar, there are women eating dinner together, buddies drinking, a gay couple on a night out. There is a lonely, run-down man waiting for takeout. My side is full of solitary people. Exhausted, broken, searching- and I am the only woman, my face buried in this journal. It is uncommon and I get noticed. I’m not here to drink and I’m not on the make. Occasionally, they are suspicious that I am writing about them.

What of it.

I don’t want to cook dinner. I am lonely and trying to have some company outside of my home and my cats. I’m working through my feelings about all that’s happened in my life over the past year: mom’s cancer, career upheaval, casual sex… what a mess.

People don’t talk to me. I actually don’t want them to. How many times have I tried to fit in and failed? I do not accept their social pecking order. See and be seen. I don’t really understand the unspoken rules of human social interaction. Spit it out asshole. What are these weird social constructs, weird class issues, weird ideas about who has and who has not, what’s in and what’s out?

I’m out. Period.

At times, I feel everyone’s defeat, the long slide off broken dreams into mediocrity, the surrender to aging and lost purpose. Longing for days past. Occasionally, people will try to figure out who I am. I have been asked if I write for the paper by fame seekers. I’ve sat in places where it is not uncommon to see local celebrities. Who are you? No one. But I am trying to go for it as if writing books meant anything.

I am clearly a professional here for happy hour on the occasional Friday. The bartender likes me. I tip. No trouble and deep in thought. But also, he thinks I’m cool. Maybe he’s a writer too or a musician or an artist of some other flavor. Like it or not, I have become a regular, a neighborhood fixture. I am part of the scene.

Lady, loner, writer.

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, April 2019

Cycle St. Paul. Hills and All.

I am seated on a steel bench just after lunch: June 25 at 12:30, hot sun, and worries about my sunburn getting worse. I cycle this university campus. Indeed, I was here 18 hours ago peddling my bike up the hill to the student center. I’ve cycled over 800 miles this season getting ready for RAGBRAI, most spent on the terrain of St. Paul. I hear a lot of groans from other cyclists when I tell them I choose to train here.

No really. I choose to ride these hills.

RAGBRAI is a 7-day ride from the western to eastern border of Iowa. About 20,000+ cyclists make the journey annually during the last full week of July. It averages about 468 miles in total length, which means 67+ miles per day. I can also expect over 12,000 feet of total climb. Iowa is not flat.

Have I mentioned the corn sweat?

I frequent a coffee shop downtown. It’s a good mid-way point and I have spent many hours there in the off-season writing (not in spandex). But it is summer, and the baristas are impressed by my mileage. I got a 50-mile ride in last Sunday and plan for 55 miles the next. I come into town by way of Shepard’s Road and out again by Big Rivers Regional Trail.

I often see eagles hunting along the river. Soaring grace until a fierce dive to the fish below. I feel that way on my bike. I feel like I am flying. There is no other world besides the connection between me and the steel bike frame… the bike tires and the road… the road leading forever to the horizon. Sometimes, the meditation is so deep I really believe I can go on for days. Then I stop for a snack and a dose of reality.

I came to cycling in 2014, about a year after my back surgery.

A friend asked me on a whim, “You wanna ride RAGBRAI with me?” I knew what it was having attended the University of Iowa as an English major years before. But I had never cycled before. I thought there was no way I could ever do such a thing.

Then I paused.

Two years earlier, just after my 40th birthday, a disk in my spine herniated and cut into my spinal cord. Intense waves of pain and weakness in my left leg caused it to randomly stop working. Some days, it was all I could do to walk the few blocks from the bus stop after work and lay on the floor all night. This went on for nine months: pain, mobility loss, and isolation all stealing my life and dignity away. Then I got back surgery. I got my life back. And I got asked to ride a large, insane cycling event.

My leg was working again… why couldn’t I ride RAGBRAI?

There is something about the slow pace of 14mph that allows you to see the world in a way that driving does not: deer darting through the high grass, tiny flowers of yellow and blue, and every butterfly that lights upon them. But that’s fast enough that if you are panting, and a June bug decides to commit suicide by flying into the back of your throat, you have little choice but to swallow it.

Hey, it’s fuel for the ride.

We are so spoiled in the Twin Cities by our extensive system of bike trails and lanes. I’ve tried cycling in other cities, in other states, but there is simply not the same quality and quantity. This place is dedicated to cycling access. I feel safe here. I don’t have to ride on the streets and when I do, there are safe places to do that. Without it, I don’t think I would have taken up what has become one of the best parts of my life.

Thank you for that St. Paul… ride on!

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, October 2018

Resolution

It’s the new year. Like most people, I overdid Christmas. I celebrated with reckless abandon knowing that the last two weeks of the year are to feast, imbibe, and be rowdy. Let’s face it: I travel for Christmas, I’m not exercising in the hotel gym even if you paid me, and I am not cooking at home. So, letting go of my fitness goals is just reality and I embrace it.

But then New Year’s Day shows up with its fresh calendar and same old life, same old body. There seem to be two types of people- those who make New Year’s resolutions and those that don’t. For those that don’t, I get it. The turning of the year does not change your life. New Year’s Day is just January 1st.

But I fall in with those that make resolutions. Or I at least reaffirm my commitment to the goals I already have and work toward every other day of the year. I meditate on where I was at this time last year. What in my life has changed? What did I learn? What am I grateful for and what was hard and painful? And I readjust my course.

I have three major goals guiding my life at all times: Health, Wealth, and Purpose.

Health is paramount. Everything else is built on this single goal because without it, you cannot do anything else. Ask people with chronic illness and they will tell you this truth. Health  goals for me include physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. The big ones of course are diet, exercise, and managing my depression. But it also includes meditation and prayer, seeking companionship with those who love me, and recreation.

Wealth at its simplest definition is money but I mean more than that here. Paying off debt and saving for the coming rainy days. Focusing on my career and what I want to do before I retire. Planning for major purchases like a home. Managing my current possessions and budgeting for my current bills. At the end of the day, money is green paper but life without it is so mean we dedicate a third of our lives in its pursuit. But I understand that it is simply a tool that I must use in order to function in our society, not the purpose for living.

Which brings me to my last goal- Purpose. What is my life’s purpose? I have enough work, projects, and writing to shut myself off from the world for the rest of my life. I could isolate and focus only on my plans, accomplishing them one by one, and maybe stop to appreciate how far I’ve come but that’s unlikely. There are always more plans to be made, more goals to achieve, no time for satisfaction… But that is not what life is for. That is not what brings life meaning.

My life’s purpose is simply this:

  1. Learn how to love others. Learn how to allow others to love me. Both require the hardest of all: Learn how to love myself
  2. Write my truth and share it with the world
  3. Live well according to my Higher Power’s guidance

It’s not about resolutions. It’s about refinement and recommitment. It’s about gracefully accepting the lessons of time and allowing all those big, big plans of youth to fall away to focus on what really matters. Time passes so much faster than we realize. It is the most precious commodity we have.

And what I would say to you for the New Year is simply this: figure out what you really want and resolve to do that in whatever capacity you still can. What else is this time for?

 

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, January 2019

Sell Out

I had an odd experience in February 2009. I went home to see my mother, about a month after the end of my last long-term relationship (I’ve had two). When I walked into her kitchen, she said in surprise, “It’s nice to see you… I haven’t seen you in a long time…” She didn’t mean physically. She meant my spirit, my being, my inner self. I asked her how long it had been since she had seen ‘me’.

1993. Sixteen years. Before I sold out.

I knew what she meant. Back then, I intentionally changed who I was. I hated who I was. I wanted something more, something different, something that I thought was better than what I naturally am. I gave up being an artist in favor of a technical career.

I am a sellout.

No, it’s true. I am a musician, a pianist. Most people don’t know that because I gave it up many years ago. I used to bleed music. I could read it before I could read language. Mom says I wrote my first song at age three… musical notation, not lyrics.

My sister taught me to harmonize when I was very small, in the bathtub while washing my hair so that we could sing together in the beautiful acoustics of the bathroom. From that moment on, I bled music. When I would hear melodies, I would write accompaniment in my mind and sing harmonies. I thought that was what I was supposed to do. I knew very few melodies to songs for I’d only sing in harmony.

I was in band, choir, and theater. My mom provided me with piano lessons. But I was terrified of performing solo. I did not excel at playing instruments because I was afraid to practice and I didn’t do it enough. I think the only way I got through being a lead in the school musical was because I was pretending to be someone else. That and the stage lights and being a natural ham…

By the time I went to college in 1990, I was listening to music no less than 12 hours a day. It was all I ever wanted to do as a career. Music was my first major in college. I practiced and practiced and my abilities flourished. But I had to face a soul crushing truth. While music easily flows into me, it does not easily flow out. I have such horrible musical performance stage fright that it crippled my ability to be a professional musician. It broke my heart.

When I finally gave up hope, I stopped playing music and singing altogether. I refused to even look at a piano for five years. If I walked into a room and there was a piano in it, I would intentionally turn my back on it. It had defined who I was for so long that it crushed me thoroughly to give up my dream of being a professional musician. I could not face it.

I switched over to writing, an English major in 1992, but soon the voice in my head that told me I wasn’t good enough took its toll and I turned to a technical career. Many people told me it was a good thing to put away frivolous and childish things in favor of real work, that I was better off this way. Welcome to the machine.

To me it was a betrayal of my ideals, my belief that one should pursue one’s passions, one’s calling instead of money. I justified my choices by thinking that I was getting a great day job so that I could afford to do what I wanted to do the rest of the time. That has turned out to be true at this stage of my life. This is in fact what most artists must do in order to survive. The problem was that I wasn’t pursuing my arts at all and did not for many years. It took its toll on my psyche and my relationships.

My last long-term relationship was with a drummer who played out at clubs with friends. Watching them stirred up the call in me to play music again. The greatest gift I ever got was a keyboard in October 2000, celebrating my 28th birthday. I did play it for some time but never got over my trouble of playing in front of others. I got ‘caught’ by friends once playing Bach’s ‘Toccata and Fugue in D minor’. They told me they thought the classical music station was on… so sweet.

In 2005, I made a conscience choice to stop playing music in favor of writing. To play the piano at that level took a lot of time and practice. I felt like I could either be OK at piano and writing or give up one to excel at the other. I chose writing. Now I bleed ink instead of music. Music comes in, words go out. Mom says I wrote my first poem at age six. Of all the great many gifts with which I have been blessed, I believe writing is my greatest. I believe it is my calling and strangely, my crippling stage fright with music has forced me to write instead.

But I know in my heart that my fear of performing music is a personal challenge associated with my inability to accept myself and allow myself to be vulnerable. In 2014, I started to take on that challenge. I took voice lessons for the first time at age 41. That experience with my wonderful voice teacher Julie broke up a lot of my stage fright. I sing out now with much greater ease and joy. I sing out publicly and willingly participate in karaoke. You can see a video of me singing ‘Natural Woman’ here:

I guess my point is that we take many roads to find ourselves, even some that lead away for a time. But ultimately, we do eventually point toward home. And it’s never too late to find joy in those things we truly love. My music may not look today like I wish it could have but I do have it. It is forever part of the artistry that I am.

 

Copyright C.M. Mounts, November 2018

Months in review: Jul-Oct 2018

It’s November and this post was intended to be a quarterly Jul-Sep check-in but then life happened… I’ve had celebrations, out of town visitors, and/or business travel every weekend for the past five weeks. Since I mostly write and blog on the weekends you can understand my absence this past month. But really, who’s keeping track?

I submitted a piece for publication. It’s been over a decade since I last tried. Back then, I was writing children’s stories. If you know me, this fact may come as a bit of a shock- but it’s true. In the early days when I was first breaking out and sharing my work, they were simple, funny stories and did not disturb the deep fibers of my soul. Fast forward to today and you can read the lyrics that erupt when I strum those fibers.

I submitted the story after a friend and someone I consider a writing mentor urged me to do so. It feels like the natural next step to my writing career, such as it is. I have been asked by others why I am not published. And the answer is easy: because I don’t try. But the natural progression of questioning leads to why I don’t try, which I don’t have a good answer for.

You can chalk it up to laziness or perfectionism, but the truth is that it’s just the constraints of a professional working life. Consider our 168 hours every week, minus 56 of sleep (if we are lucky), minus the 60 hours dedicated to weekday work prep, commute, meals, and work day. That leaves 52 hours to rest, clean, shop, exercise, socialize, read, write, etc. Now add in the random universal chaos generator and there you have it. It’s not an excuse, just reality.

There is writing and then there is writing business. Searching for appropriate markets takes time and effort I am not willing to dedicate to my poetry and short fiction. So, I blog it here dear reader. I did manage to post ten times in the last four months, as well as attend open mics around town. This blog is my own magazine, entirely constructed of my work, for free and for my true fans.

But… what are my writing goals? What is it that I want to have accomplished by the end of my days? It’s not fame and fortune. We all know that is the same dream as winning the lottery. Still you can’t win if you don’t have a ticket, right? But I really don’t want that anyway. My dream is more about making a living outside the cube farm from the fruits of my creative writing. Maybe it’s my retirement dream, I don’t know.

My mission in writing is to make my readers feel the way I feel. I want others to know that they are not alone in this world. That the feelings and longings that they are ashamed of are a natural part of this human experience. I find life to be incredibly isolating- some of that by choice and some by circumstance. The difficulty of finding kindred spirits is universal. There are so many paths through life and different kinds of people navigating them. We often face the same trials with different responses and perspectives. I can learn from your experience and maybe you can learn from mine.

But those deep fibers have not rung out yet and finding markets for such stories will require fortitude, energy, and faith that I can and will find my place. That last one… that one fails me too often. Who exactly wants to read about all this crap rattling around in my head and heart? I have no great ego around my writing that makes me think the world needs to hear me, yet I am angered by the suggestion that I am not trying hard enough. I have fantastically wild dreams about my ideal writing life even while I still punch the time card…

The question I ask myself is why publish? Why not remain safe, pouring my guts out in anonymity? Why not leave all the notebooks behind and shock whoever is tasked with putting my final affairs in order? When I was first published in the Journal of Ordinary Thought back in 2002, a publication of the now defunct Neighborhood Writing Alliance in Chicago, I simply could not believe it. Yes, this was the parent organization of my writing group and yes, we were all guaranteed publication (unpaid) once per year, but there was still nothing else like seeing my writing in print. Some unknown someone was going to read it and react to it for good or bad. And in 2003, when I finished the first draft of my first novel, it felt as great as my college graduation. I felt like I could fly to the moon and back again.

Maybe that ride is reason enough for me.

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, November 2018

Perfect World

Wake and journal.
A few pages.

Coffee, but all after
I feed the pets.
They won’t wait for me.

Nor will my muse.
Write anyway.

Breakfast.
Morning, raw creation.

Lunch.
Afternoon, read or edit.

Cats won’t let it be past 4.
They get fed at 5, as do I.

Evenings dedicated to jazz, to wine,
To poetry read aloud to a lover,
To dishes, to hot baths, to hot sex.

Paycheck.
Public speaking.

Finished books.
Finished drafts to be books.
Drafts in progress. Drafts to be.

Cycling, cooking.
Music, dreaming.
Dancing, travel.
Dining, friends.

 

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, October 2017