Category Archives: Writing

50 thoughts on turning 50: #22 Flowing with the river of life

life is a river

For most of my life, I’ve been consumed with finding my purpose in life. I believe that I’m here for a reason – that God created me for something and that I’m not here by accident. And yet I’ve never really felt like I could put my finger on what that reason and purpose was.

Then a few years ago, I stumbled on a quote by Cardinal John Henry Newman, which reads in part:

“God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons.”

I wrote about it in this post, 50 thoughts on turning 50: #17 Be a link in the chain. But I wanted to take that thought a bit further today, after reading an article last week written by local sportswriter Scott Pitoniak, in which he looks back on forty years spent working at his dream job. Continue reading

50 thoughts on turning 50: #21 Reading the Bible

Judges 19 and 20 - one of the stories in the Bible that still haunts me.

I used a daily devotional Bible and kept a journal of notes and questions. Judges 19 and 20 – one of the stories in the Bible that still haunts me.

Religion, faith and spirituality have played a large part in my life – both good and bad. So it only makes sense that I address the issues as I muse on 50 years.  There’s no way I can tackle them all in one post so I’ll break them up.

Today? The Bible. Or more specifically, reading the Bible.

A few years ago, author John Marks interviewed me for his book, “Reasons To Believe“.  He had introduced himself to me as a former evangelical and he was writing a book about religion and faith. I can’t remember a lot of the questions he asked, because years later I still dwell on the first one: “Do you believe everything in the Bible is true?”

Of course, I told him, but as the words came out of my mouth I felt this check in my gut. Wait, I said. I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it like that.

Turns out that a lot of my answers to his questions were “I don’t know” or “I hadn’t really thought about it.” How he managed to actually find enough to use for the book is amazing.

I met John in 2005; over the next year or so we talked many times but his questions challenged me. So I set out to read the entire Bible, cover to cover, to find out if, in fact, I believed everything in it was true.

My answer to that question today: I still don’t know. But I can tell you this. After reading the whole Bible, I have a heck of a lot more questions than answers. Continue reading

50 thoughts on turning 50: #17 Be a link in the chain

tammy annemarie reunion

Tammy and AnneMarie at the reunion

Two summers ago, in 2012, my high school class held its 30 year reunion. I  had followed the planning on Facebook for the better part of a year. Although it didn’t matter.

I wasn’t going.

I don’t have fond memories of high school, the way some of my friends do. It was a stressful time. I was insecure and dorky and generally felt like I was just taking up space on earth someone else could better use. So the thought of meandering down that memory lane with what were essentially a bunch of total strangers didn’t appeal to me in any way.  (You can read my post about why I wasn’t going in this post.)

At the last minute, I went.

I can’t explain why. It was just this little feeling in the back of my brain that said, “Go.” So about 48 hours before the event, I called Anne, the girl organizing the reunion. I asked if I could still come and if she needed help.

The answer to both was “Yes!”

I suggested to Anne that maybe I could collect information from everyone, like current contact information, where they work, where they live, how many kids they have, stuff like that. She said yes, that she would use it to help give away door prizes (like who traveled the farthest to get there; the winner of that one: from Africa).

But I had an ulterior motive: I was on deadline for a column. When you’ve got writer’s block the best thing you can do is do something different. If I had contact information for people, I could get in touch with them later if I needed to. Continue reading

50 thoughts on turning 50: #7 Dear Diary

dear diary 002

I watched the documentary “Mortified Nation” yesterday, which showcases the stage show, Mortified, where ordinary people get up in public and read from their childhood journals, letters, stories and other personal writings. It’s part comedy, part therapy, and fully hilarious.

So of course I went and dug out my own childhood journal.

My childhood musings are not as valuable as say, the diaries and letters of Jacqueline Onassis, whose papers, it was reported today, are expected to fetch $1.6 million at auction.

But they are pretty darned amusing.

For the record, I did a lot of story writing as a child. Most of the stories I wrote featured talking animals, and in one case a talking sea sponge named Harry. Apparently I put that idea out into the universe when I was in elementary school and someone picked up the energy decades later to create a wildly successful cartoon. Although in all fairness, my sponge Harry didn’t wear pants, square or otherwise. But in my story we did go to the movies together to see “Peter Pan.”

I read my journal to darling husband last night, and I have to tell you that it made for some fine entertainment. Continue reading

Friday the 13th: new book, the emergency room and puffy fish lips

So how does an award-winning freelance writer, blogger and newly published author celebrate the release of her book? Why, by going to the emergency room, of course.

I’ve been battling bronchitis for six weeks now, and after seeing the doctor twice, doing antibiotics and steroids (oral and inhaled) I was still sick. So I went back to the doctor late on Thursday, and he sent me for a chest X-Ray and blood work Friday morning.

I expected when he called with the results that he would tell me that I had pneumonia, prescribe me in some antibiotics and call it a day. Instead, he said my chest is clear (no pneumonia) and my blood work was normal (no sign of bacterial infection). There was, however, something off in a test he ran to see if I was having a blood clot issue.

Apparently when you tell your doctor that you’re short of breath and feel like a cat is sleeping on your chest, it makes him wonder if you have a blood clot in your lungs. He’d done an EKG in the office the day before, but I didn’t connect that he thought my chest pain might be an issue with my heart. I’ve coughed so much over the last six weeks I’m in pain all over. He said, “I want to do an EKG” and I said, “Sure, yeah, whatever you want to do.”

When he gave me the results of my chest X-Ray and blood work, the conversation went something like this: Continue reading

Ending 2012 with firefighters on my mind

Mike Chiapperini

Lt. Michael Chiapperini

I’ve spent the last two days watching funerals on TV. West Webster Firefighters Michael Chiapperini and Tomasz Kaczowka were laid to rest and their services were aired live on one of our local news channels. (You can read more about the events that led to their deaths in this post.)

The services were so different. Chiapperini was married with children, and his funeral service focused on his family and on his 25 years with the West Webster Volunteer Fire Department and his 19 years with the Webster Police Department. The first hour was spent with first responders filing past his casket.

Tomasz Kaczowka

Tomasz Kaczowka

Kaczowka was just 19 years old, only a year out of high school; his funeral service was much more religious in nature, focusing on his committment to his Polish- American heritage and his strong ties to his church. The first hour of his service was a traditional Catholic mass.

In both cases, thousands and thousands of first responders from across the U.S. and Canada stood in formation outside the church or school where the services where held. Appropriate, as the two died together in the line of duty on the morning of Christmas Eve when a madman started a fire to lure first responders to the scene, and then gunned them down.

They died together, mentor and mentee.

Different funeral services, yes, but, like their lives, together they seemed to perfectly bookend the life of a first responder. Chapparini was the more experienced public servant, leaving behind a long legacy of public service and in the dozens of young people he’s mentored over his lifetime – one of them being Kaczowka. Kaczowka was in the spring of that call to a lifetime of service. That lifetime, though shorter in years, leaves a lasting impact that will be felt for decades through lives of other firefighters and coworkers who knew him.

On this last day of 2012, my original plan was to look back on the year and recap the positive changes I’ve made in my life and the obvious progress towards regaining my sense of self.

In other words: me, me, me, me.

But the events of the last week have left me pondering less about myself and more about the nature of service and community. Continue reading

Three lessons I learned this month about following God

So I’m up at 7 AM because I need to write. Not want to write or have something I’d like to think about writing. I neeeeeed to write. Like, if I don’t write it, it’ll cause me great pain.

It’s about the concept of following God.

As you know, I’ve volunteered for a project recently. Without going into a lot of details, I was ready to work. Ready, willing, and able to do this and this and that, because I’m very experienced at this and this and that, and I’m very good at this and this and that, and the project needed this and this and that.

Perfect match, right? So I volunteered. And talked at length about doing this and this and that and thought I was part of the team and all was good.

Except – and if you’ve ever volunteered for something and God was in any way involved – this and this and that just wasn’t happening. That and that and this other thing were going full speed ahead, and a whole lot of other that and that and this other thing were happening and successful. Except me and my this and this and that were over on the sidelines by ourselves saying, “Hey, what about us?”

It’s frustrating, isn’t it?

The problem, of course, wasn’t the project. The problem was me. I was focused on what I’d volunteered to do, not on what was being done. Sure, I can do this and this and that, but maybe this and this and that isn’t needed any more. Or maybe someone else stepped up to do this and this and that and they do it just fine.

But I wanted to help. I wanted to be part of the whole thing. I offered and they said yes and then everything moved and I was left behind.

Really. Even I see how glaringly arrogant that sounds.

So lying in bed last night, feeling left out - boo hoo for poor me - it occurred to me that if I focused instead on what did happen instead of what didn’t, maybe I’d learn a lesson.

Or three.

Here goes … Continue reading

Emma Moore, Sarah Bardwell and me

It took months, but a reward was finally offered for information leading to the disappearance of Emma Moore. While the citizens took up the search immediately, the mayor and police insisted Emma left town of her own accord. When her body turned up in the river, they were proven wrong.

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately doing research on a woman named Emma Moore, who I learned about when I went on the “Mischief, Murder and Mayhem” tour at Mt. Hope. (For the record, I am there so much I joined the Friends of Mt. Hope and volunteered to be a tour guide in the spring.)

Anyway, in Rochester, NY in 1854, Emma Moore went missing. Left home one night and simply disappeared. She was a single, 37 year old seamstress who had a loving family, a good job, some money of her own, and no reason to leave town without letting her family know where she went.

Her disappearance stunned the community, and for months afterwards thousands of citizens met nightly to coordinate a search for her – since the Mayor and police refused to believe she’d come to harm or investigate her disappearance.

The citizens scoured the areas surrounding the city, the lake, the river. They followed every lead and interviewed hundreds of people. They raised money and donated time and diligently searched for the woman they hailed as a modest woman of impeccable character.

Then in March of 1855, the body of Emma Moore was found, frozen in the river. When the coroner examined her body, he found she was six months pregnant.

Her 26 year old fiance was the prime suspect, but while an inquest found that Emma had drowned, the jurors were unable to determine if she had been murdered or if she committed suicide. Emma Moore is buried in an unmarked grave in her family’s plot, the woman once known for her impeccable character hidden away forever due to the scandalous nature of her death.

I’m fascinated by Emma Moore, her life and her death. In an era where woman had few rights or money of their own, she had a little money – about $20 cash left in her room, $20 cash on her when she disappeared, a savings account with about $100, and notes that indicated she’s lent out small amounts of money to friends.

In an age when woman married young, she was single into her middle years. Unmarried and with a much younger fiance. Was that unusual? Despite the fact they were engaged about 3 years, why didn’t they marry? He apparently had lost fingers in an accident and was unable to work (he was a cutter in a tailor’s shop); how would Emma have felt about working to support a younger husband – because upon marriage, anything she had would have become his.

How unusual was it for a woman to be sexually involved with a man to whom she wasn’t married? We like to think of our ancestors as pure and innocent, but was that really how it was? An unmarried, pregnant woman today doesn’t raise an eyebrow. But in 1854? Another story.

And of course, there’s the big mystery: Why did she disappear? Who knew she was pregnant? Was she killed or did she commit suicide? There’s much to believe the truth lies with the former.

I’m also enamored with the story of another woman, Sarah Bardwell. Her interment records indicate that she died of “insanity”. How does one die specifically of “insanity”? I get that you can die of causes related to insanity – suicide, walking naked around town in December and freezing to death. But just … going insane until you die?

Sarah Bardwell died of “insanity” after spending the last 25 years of her life in an asylum.

So I did a little digging and found a newspaper notice of her death, which said:

“Under the effects of religious excitement, at a time well remembered by many of our old citizens, Miss B. suffered mental injury, from which she never recoverd, and the latter years of her life were spent in an excellent Asylumn at Brattleboro, where her friends had placed her with the hope of restoration at first but where she remained for comfort and safety.”

From all accounts, the Asylum in Brattleboro was fairly progressive; treatment included nature walks and painting and music and lots of rest. And the “time well remembered” is most likely the Finney revivals that swept Rochester in the 1830s, making the city a hot bed of evangelism for the entire nation.

“Insane” is a little subjective, in this case. So you know I’m doing research into the Finney revivals, what a “mental injury” from that experience might look like, and what it would be like for a woman to be committe to an insane asylum in the 1850s.

What ties these two women together? When Emma Moore disappeared, Sarah’s brother was the Police Justice.

One of the things I’ve determined this year is that maybe my purpose is to give voice to those who can’t tell their own stories. It’s a general idea that I’ve been able to apply specifically without committing myself to any one genre of writing. And that realization has been really helpful for me. I can share about animal issues, although I find that I’m less and less interested (and often completely turned off by the aggressive, angry, divisive animal scene; but that’s a story for another day).

More importantly, I can share Emma and Sarah’s stories, two women lost in history but whose stories are interesting and important.

And soon, I’ll be sharing about some children in Uganda. Stay tuned for more on that.

On a trip in 2006. Nope, still don’t know how the plane stays in the air. (That’s Key West below. If I have to crash, I guess it’s as good a place as any, right?)

In my continuing effort to pull out columns that might be worth reprinting in an e-book, let me share another of my favorites. It’s from 2008, just after the airlines started charging passengers to check their luggage. (Who knew I would be right, and that airlines would start charging to check our first piece of luggage? Really, I should play the lottery more often.)

Anyway, for the record, my brother-in-law, who is both a commercial and military pilot, has tried for years to explain to me how a plane stays aloft. I still don’t get it. Not that that should surprise any of my regular readers.

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That’ll Be An Extra $25, Please
by Joanne Brokaw

I need to emphasize right at the start that I’m not an aeronautical expert. I can’t figure out how a plane flies without flapping its wings like a bird, so it will come as no surprise that I don’t understand the new airline policies about luggage.

If you’ve traveled by plane recently you know that most airlines, in an effort to offset rising fuel costs, are now charging passengers anywhere from $25 to $100 to check a second suitcase.

I thought perhaps the airlines were encouraging passengers to pack lighter so the planes would weigh less and therefore use less gas. But on a recent flight, our take-off was delayed so the crew could add ballast to the plane because, as the pilot happily informed us, the passengers “didn’t check enough luggage.”

Excuse me. Did you want me to check a second suitcase or not? Because I had a lot of stuff I could have packed if I knew you needed more weight. I just didn’t want to pay an extra $25 to haul three pair of black boots, two jackets and four pair of jeans through the friendly skies, just in case I changed my mind about what I wanted to wear while I was in Ohio for 48 hours.

I’m not sure what the charge for checking a second suitcase is intended to accomplish, if it’s not to make the planes lighter. Sure, the airlines will generate some additional income – for a while at least, until passengers learn to stuff everything into one suitcase. Then they’ll be forced to start charging us for the basics, like checking our first suitcase, using the lavatory during a flight, and breathing pressurized cabin oxygen.

First, though, the airlines are trying to save a few bucks by flying more slowly. One airline expects to save $42 million this year [at the time of this writing] by extending each flight by two or three minutes.

So let me get this straight. First you make me cram everything I need into one suitcase (and still keep it under 50 pounds) while you turn around and add extra weight to the plane? And now you’re going to fly slower (as if being suspended magically in the atmosphere for hours isn’t nerve-wracking enough already)?

How about a compromise? I’ll agree to pay an extra $25 for a suitcase filled with shoes so that your airline staff doesn’t need to add ballast to the plane, and I’ll be patient and wait three more minutes to get to my destination. In exchange, you’ll have let me collect tips as I undress in the security line. If I have to remove half of my clothing just to get to my gate I might as well get something in return.

Think about it. With a long enough wait going through security, I could make enough money to pay for that extra suitcase.

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Read more columns from the archives

I’ve been going through some old columns, written over the years for a variety of community newspapers or niche magazines. Someone suggested I compile them into a book.

That seems like a lot of work, so just for kicks (and to keep the blog fresh) I thought I’d start sharing them here. Up first: one of my favorites, written about the kid who checked out my groceries. I imagine Spencer now, drifting his way across the country and charming middle-aged moms from coast to coast. Keep the dream alive, kiddo …

Youth and Groceries
by Joanne Brokaw

At the grocery store today I watched Spencer, the checkout boy, as he talked a blue streak to the middle aged mom ahead of me in line, exuding youthful energy as he scanned broccoli and toilet paper, bantering with her young boy about how great it is to be sick because you get to miss school and watch cartoons all day.

When it was my turn in line, he greeted me with his usual “How’s it going? Did you find everything you were looking for?” and then suddenly said, “You have amazing eyes. What color are they? Blue? Green?”

“I don’t know,” I replied, a bit startled. “It kind of depends on what color I’m wearing, I guess.”

“You don’t know? Well, you’re wearing grey so today they’re blue. Piercing blue-green. Great eyes.” He flashed his surfer smile and shook his shaggy bangs out of his eyes as he stuffed my tilapia and cat food into a bag.

The grey he was referring to could have been the old grey hooded sweatshirt I was wearing, or the dark circles underneath my eyes that come from a lack of sun or sleep, or maybe from the stray grey hair that was poking out from my messy ponytail. Either way, it was clearly not a come on; I have leftovers in my refrigerator older than this kid. It’s just his natural personality, his ease with himself and with others, his ability to simply make conversation, unable to not converse. Continue reading