I AM PLEASED AND HONORED to introduce Sara Etgen-Baker. I met Sara virtually when she submitted her work for inclusion in the anthology, Times They Were A-Changing: Women Remember the 60s and 70s. Since then, Sara has been a regular reader of and commenter on Writing Through Life, and we have engaged in numerous Facebook conversations on journaling and writing memoir. I’ve always been impressed with her writing and asked her to share one of her stories, along with a bit about her writing process.
In response, Sara wrote “Fishing for Words,” a personal essay about why and how she approaches her writing practice. “Pixie Dust and Quilts” is a heartwarming memoir vignette about her family’s quilting tradition.
Fishing for Words
by Sara Etgen-Baker
MY FATHER was a devoted fly-fisherman who couldn’t seem to resist the almost masochistic urge to wake in the quiet predawn hours and stumble, blurry-eyed with his loaded thermos out of the house. He drove to a nearby icy cold stream or lake where he lowered his boat into the water, cranked the outboard engine into action, and navigated through the occasional murky waters taking note of the invisible currents and the direction of the wind blowing across the water. He eventually anchored his boat near the shoreline, disembarked, and stood at the water’s edge casting his lure into the open water never knowing what he’d reel in. Often he gazed at the water for hours believing he could get a fish to bite on the lure and then pull that fish from the realm of the mysterious water into the world of his reality. And when my father caught a fish, he removed the hook from the its mouth and more frequently than not released it back into the water from whence it came. Sometimes he nabbed a fish he called “a keeper,” for it was the perfect fish suitable for his family’s consumption.
Growing up, I thought my father was rather fanatical about fishing and often wondered what drove him to be the angler that he was. That is, until I became a writer. Suddenly his fanaticism made sense to me. I, too, possess a similar masochistic urge to wake in the quiet predawn hours and stumble blurry-eyed with a loaded cup of coffee out of the kitchen into my office. I lower myself into my chair, crank my laptop into action, and navigate through the scattered papers, journals, scrapbooks, and photographs strewn across my desk taking note of the invisible currents and the direction of the ideas blowing across my mind. I eventually anchor myself to my desk and stand on the precipice of creativity casting my mind onto the blank screen never knowing what I’ll reel in. Often I stare at the glassy screen for hours believing I’ll pull something from the realm of the mysterious into the world of reality I’m creating. I catch a phrase or two, but more frequently than not I remove them, releasing them back into the realm from which they came. Sometimes I nab a paragraph or even a page or two that I dub as “keepers,” for they contain the perfect combination of words suitable for reader consumption.
Indeed, anglers and writers share some similar behaviors. Both enter into a staring contest with potential, a challenge devoid of guarantees. When an angler stands at the water’s edge gazing at a glassy pool or a river proceeding with the freedom and discipline only the natural world can finesse, he’s scrubbed clean of life’s trivia and distractions. Watching the water, he’s confronted with the unconscious as surely as the writer who stares into the humming blank screen each morning, praying that from the fathomless gray, prose will rise. Both fishing and writing are largely acts of faith—a belief that there is indeed a rich run of fish or ideas lurking below. The angler’s false casts and hooked branches as well as the writer’s convoluted first drafts are all part of some cosmic ritual designed to seduce a shiny gem to the surface.
So, why do anglers and writers persist in what seem to be such fanatical pursuits? I can’t speak for anglers; I can only speak for myself. I know if I don’t write consistently, I’m unhappy and suffer a type of melancholy defined only by its absence. So, I must have a need to write. Perhaps that need comes from the thrill of getting a nibble, playing with an idea, and reeling it in. When I gaze into that glassy screen, I’m much like an angler scrubbed clean of life’s trivia and distractions. Time collapses into itself leaving only the pulse and rhythm of the moment. In those rhythmic moments, my characters speak to me. I listen and write their stories. I don’t plan. I get out of the way, letting the story take me where it wants to go. I suppose I just love the adventure of taking that seemingly fearless, intuitive leap of faith onto a higher ground rich with ideas and imagination, never knowing what’s going to happen or what I’m going to reel in. In the end, it’s the not knowing that keeps me writing and fishing for words.
PIXIE DUST AND QUILTS
by Sara Etgen-Baker
Mother slipped the vintage key into the keyhole turning it ever so slightly clicking open the locking mechanism to Granny’s cedar chest. She lifted the lid, and the hinges—stiff as an old man’s arthritic joints—complained as they reluctantly snapped into place. But once open, dust swirled and danced from inside the cedar chest into the cool, dusky air inside Mother’s attic.
“Look, Mama! They’re escaping!”
“What pixies, darling?”
“You know. Granny’s magical pixies.” I swiped my hand through the air hoping to capture one of them. “Here they are, Mama. Can’t you see them?”
“No, I don’t see them. All I see is dust.”
“But it’s pixie dust,” I insisted, “and the pixies are dancing all around us.”
“Honestly child! You and your imagination!”
Although their dust hung low in the air, the pixies dove right through it and twirled their limbs, releasing even more of their magical dust into the air. I watched as their dust engulfed us in a cloud of shimmering glitter. Indeed, there was something magical about opening Granny’s cedar chest and sitting next to Mother while she rummaged through its contents.
“Oh, look!” Mother reached inside the cedar chest. “Here are some of your Granny’s quilts.” She retrieved a rather tattered-looking patchwork quilt. “Oh my!” Her eyes misted with tears. “Granny made this such a long time ago.”
I brushed my fingers over the fabric, outlining the intricate patchwork design. “Did the pixies help Granny make her quilts?”
“Well, hmmm.” Mother rubbed her chin. “In a way of sorts.”
“It was the Depression, and times were tough. The harsh Kansas winter was drawing near, and Granny didn’t have enough money to buy blankets. So, she gathered up all the worn-out garments she could find, cut them up into small squares and strips, and sewed them together to make quilts to keep us warm. You see this fabric here?” Mother ran her fingers over a delicate pink and purple calico print. “It came from a dress I wore during first grade, and this lacy fabric came from Aunt Dulce’s wedding dress.”
“But what about the pixies? What did they do?”
“Granny often fell asleep in her chair while stitching together the quilt pieces. I awoke on one such night curious about the finished quilts she’d placed inside her cedar chest. I peeked inside; when I did, the pixies escaped and hovered over her. Each one took a turn; and one-by-one they stitched the quilt pieces together for her. After working all night, the following morning the pixies returned to the cedar chest and fell asleep.”
“Oh!” My eyes widened. “Have they been sleeping all this time?”
“No, I don’t think so. Pixies are shy creatures; so once they finish their work, they disappear until they’re needed again. That’s why we rarely see them and their magical deeds.”
Mother gingerly folded the quilt and dug deeper into the cedar chest unearthing a box containing scraps of material from a bygone time. “What a delightful surprise! These’ll make a beautiful quilt.”
From that day forward, Mother made lots of quilts; and I grew up watching her make them. Her early quilts were like her mother’s, utilitarian and prudent. But her later quilts were creative projects—works of art if you will. “I always wanted to be an artist,” she once confessed. And she was. Mother was a tireless painter whose fabric became her canvas. The shapes, colors, and designs were her paints, her stitches were her brush strokes, and she painted such fabulous pictures with her fabrics and stitch work.
But in her sixties, Mother—a diagnosed diabetic—contracted the flu. Her temperature spiked as did her ketone levels, and she lapsed into a diabetic coma. She emerged from the coma but developed diabetic neuropathy—a debilitating disease that blurred her vision and numbed her hands. Despite her diminished eyesight, Mother continued quilting—painstakingly feeling the fabric, cutting the shapes, and hand stitching the pieces together. And how heroic she was in making those stitches; what a martyr she was silently suffering from the pricks and misery her needle inflicted. Even when blood dripped from her fingers, not a single tear emerged from her eyes. These were some of the first lessons I learned in personal heroism, courage, and fortitude.
And when I asked her how she managed to continue making quilts, she’d smile a pixyish, whimsical smile and say, “It’s Granny’s magical pixies. They’re always here when I need them.”
Mother has since passed, and few of her quilts remain. Yet when I’m having difficulty in life or feeling overwhelmed, I yearn to curl up with one of Mother’s quilts. So, I gently open the lid to Granny’s cedar chest where two of Mother’s quilts are stored, snap the now rusty hinges into place, delve into its contents, and retrieve one of Mother’s quilts. I wrap it around me and climb into bed, remembering her love and soaking up her courageous spirit. As the night swallows day, my weary, troubled mind relaxes and my eyelids become heavy. Before drifting off to sleep, I see them again—Granny’s magical pixies—dancing around the room. And Mother was right: Granny’s magical pixies always appear when I need them.
Sara’s love for words began when, as a young girl, her mother read the dictionary to her every night. A teacher’s unexpected whisper, “You’ve got writing talent,” ignited her writing desire. Although Sara ignored that whisper and pursued a different career, she eventually re-discovered her inner writer and began writing memoir vignettes and personal narratives. Some of her manuscripts have been published in various anthologies and magazines including Chicken Soup for the Soul, Guideposts, My Heroic Journey, The Santa Claus Project, Wisdom has a Voice, Finding Mr. Right, Table for Two, and Times They Were A Changing: Women Remember the 60s & 70s. She’s also writing her first novel, Dillehay Crossing. When not writing, she enjoys spending her time with her husband, Bill.
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