It's Tuesday, November 8, the first snow day of the season in Billings. Ordinarily, I'd have stayed in, but today I went out, and I'm glad I did.
I delivered 40 fresh new copies of my debut novel, 600 Hours of Edward, to Skyview High School in Billings. That was the last of four deliveries I've made to Billings schools, for a total of 150 books. And the beauty of this is that I am merely the messenger, the delivery driver. These books—to replenish previous (and tattered) copies of the novel that have been in the schools for around a decade—landed where they did because of a community that answered the call. I asked for donations, enough to purchase those 150 books at a steep discount from the publisher, and my community funded the campaign inside of 12 hours.
And when I say community, I mean Billings—so many people in Billings—but I also mean the larger community I'm privileged to call my own. Teachers in Virginia kicked in donations. A coworker in Ohio ponied up. Friends in Texas. People I didn't know until some cash landed.
They did this because I asked for help in putting books in kids' hands. In this strange time in America, when we hear so much about taking books away from kids, these generous donors put books in front of them.
It's a beautiful, radical act.
As I so often do when the subject turns to the ties that bind us, I give thanks to teachers for doing what they do even as a significant slice of the population wants to fight them, deny them what they do well, castigate and smear them. This is shameful, yes, but it's also not new, and we can either let these angry, outsized voices have the floor, or we can meet them with a different set of values.
English teachers where I live were instrumental in getting 600 Hours on the approved curriculum reading list for the high school level here in Billings. They saw a contemporary story of a neurodivergent character, one set in the town where their kids live, and they did the heavy lifting to ensure that they could teach that book in their classrooms.
As I said in the Billings Gazette article about the first book delivery—thank you, Gazette—those teachers' dedication puts a responsibility on me that I'm only too happy to carry.
“They’re the ones who pushed for this book because they know how to reach these kids. And if they’re the ones who are making sure of that, I’ll be the one making sure they have the books.”
A word about the asterisk up above.
Yeah, they're our kids. I sometimes get a lot of pushback on this—"they're not my kids"—and I really wish someone taking the opposite view would spend just a little bit of time thinking expansively about the idea and the implications of abandoning it.
My trip through public education was, in many ways, a disaster. It was also one of the most important factors shaping who I became and how I see the world. Certainly, public education is not perfect, and certainly, reasonable people can disagree on how to shape it, fix it, whatever.
But we cannot, must not lose our responsibilities to ourselves and each other and the generations coming up behind us. Public education is a compact, an agreement that we will provide our kids with a basic education, as a community, knowing full well that our investments in those kids now are really an investment in our own future as a society.
If we lose that, I'm afraid we lose everything else.
So, today, I finished delivering some books. Backed by my community. Hopeful that the fight can be won. Determined to keep fighting, either way.
Even though it's been a lively few weeks, Elisa and I have been feeling the pull of something peaceful. We scuttled our anniversary plans at the beginning of the month because Spatz the Cat was ailing, then a calendar filled with wonderful things—the High Plains Book Awards for me, a new novel launch for her—conspired against just-the-two-of-us time.
Today, we grabbed a little of that, heading off on a day trip to one of our favorite places anywhere, Chief Plenty Coups State Park. There, less than an hour's drive from Billings, is a place both sacred and accessible to all, a preservation of the great chief's words and artifacts and vision. Every time we go, we take a lunch, then we visit the museum, then we take the long, looping walk around his home and his orchard, basking in the quiet and the peacefulness.
A visit truly is a salve.
On the drive back home to Billings, just outside the town of Pryor, I stopped for one more picture. You can't see much; the gate at the property was closed and locked, and my little iPhone camera couldn't do much with the scene.
Out there, though, is a house that once belonged to a rancher named Herman Hamilton, who is long dead and even longer not the owner of the spread. And somewhere on that patch of land where the house sits once sat a tiny little trailer home, way back in the early 1960s. It was there that my mother and father lived for a short while as Dad helped Herman tend to his ranch.
The time that they lived there far predates me. They've been divorced for nearly 50 years—almost the entirety of my life—and probably haven't been in each other's presence more than a dozen times in all those years. When I'm with them in the same room, it's less a case of the gang is back together and more a case of my looking at them and wondering, "How the hell did this pairing ever happen?" (Answer: Youth and beauty and mutual desire. Move on, Craig.)
Anyway, this isn't about that, not so very much. It's not even about this place that sits mere miles from somewhere Elisa and I regularly go. No, this is about the adage that gets fixed to Montana sometimes when it's described as one small town with really long streets.
Herman Hamilton, you see, not only was my dad's long-ago employer but also was my best friend Bob's great uncle. Bob, whom I've known only since 2013 or so. Bob, who became friends with my dad because they both owned condominiums in the same development and were chatting one day and Dad mentions Herman Hamilton and Bob says, "Holy crap ..."
The world really does shrink sometimes.
(Herman was also a bank robber of some repute in the 1930s, but I suppose that's another story for another time.)
And It Will Be a Beautiful Life, the novel that came out last year, won the 2022 High Plains Book Award for fiction last night. It's an honor that has left me gobsmacked and very, very proud, but this is only tangentially about that.
Here's the tangent: As part of the High Plains Book Awards festivities, finalists in the 12 categories were offered two nights at a Billings hotel. When that offer was extended a few months ago, Elisa and I looked at it and said "hey, much-needed staycation." By the time the dates rolled around, our cat had reached a point where she needed more hour-to-hour attention (she's fine, really, much better than we thought she'd be a couple of weeks ago), so Elisa and I spent time together during the days, then split at night. She came home, and I took the hotel room. "Staycation" became "mecation." It happens.
The hotel was close to a neighborhood in Billings where I once lived, in a different stage of my lifetime. Both mornings, I got up and took a long walk through North Elevation, a downtown-adjacent enclave of historic homes and wide streets and mature trees. It was less nostalgia—although there's nothing wrong with that—and more pure peace and beauty. Billings' signature park is there. A damn fine coffeeshop is, too. I had every reason to go and no reason not to.
At the end of the first day's walk, I posted a Barenaked Ladies video on Facebook, along with this: "How it feels whenever I come to the North Elevation neighborhood ..."
I'm going to say now that I didn't quite capture the sentiment. "This is where we used to live" applies in a limited way, but the factors that make it past tense are more nuanced. The person with whom I lived there lives there still, from all appearances much more happily, and when you care about someone—as I do, still—you want only happiness for them. There's not a thing in those many blocks that is a heartbreak now, not even the memories of the pets I've loved who have crossed over. It's all good. Better than that, it's all beautiful.
Plus, I still live here. Not there, but here. The distance between the two is only a few miles and a good chunk of a lifetime.
When I heard the name of my book called out Saturday night, this is exactly what I thought of first: I'm home.
Not on a stage. Not standing next to two writers I consider wonderful friends. Billings, where I live. I said as much in my acceptance speech (if you can call it that; I was entirely unprepared, having not allowed myself to think my book might win): After nearly two years away in Maine, I came home to Billings in April 2020. I didn't know for how long. I still don't, as far as that goes. But this is where I used to live, and it's where I now live, and it's as home to me—all-the-way-in-my-bones home—as any place has ever been or is ever likely to be.
That's what I thought of on those walks through an old neighborhood. That's what I thought of on that stage. That's what I'm thinking of now. And you know how it is when you're home: You know where you are.
When we headed out for Maine in 2018, I described the leaving this way in an interview with Ed Kemmick and the late, lamented Last Best News:
"There’s going to be that moment when I have to come to grips with the fact that I’m leaving the most important home that I’ve ever had and going somewhere else."
So it did. But the leaving didn't take. I came back.
The other thing I couldn't help thinking about Saturday night was a similar time, 12 years earlier to the day, when I was a much younger, much more ignorant man. In 2010, just months after my first novel was released, it won a High Plains Book Award. I might have been forgiven at that moment for thinking it would be forever thus: release a book, collect a prize. I might also have been gently prodded to see the bigger picture around me, because I was spectacularly screwing up some pretty basic parts of my life with neglect back in those days. I might have listened, adjusted, flown right.
Then again, I might not have done any of that. Being headstrong is its own affliction, cured by only one thing, if you're lucky enough to survive the medicine.
My prescriptions were coming, about the writing life and about life, delivered in amazing highs and crushing lows, all the pain and pleasure I could ever want. Need another song? Try this one:
The joy is not the same without the pain.
My mistakes are here in Billings. My regrets. My glories. My aspirations. The erstwhile friendships I hope I can repair. Still others I wouldn't even attempt to, mirages that they are. What's behind me and what's ahead of me, all of it ready to be examined and experienced.
Most of all, the one I love, who has her own definitions of home, who is striving to be of it and in it. Together, we will honor those answers and those places, be they physical or emotional or both.
So, before I go off on a burst of happiness, I should do this: In the interest of consistency and intellectual rigor, I must adhere to my basic sense that happiness, as an emotional state of being, is highly overrated. It's too reliant on current circumstance to be trustworthy, and the factors that spur it—good news, fortuitous coincidences, pure serendipity, and the like—are too transient to be relied upon. My aim in saying this isn't to knock happiness—if you have it, brother or sister, be thankful for it and keep it as long as you're able—so much as it is to cast a vote for its more durable cousin, fulfillment. If you're fulfilled in where you are, whom you're with, what you're doing, where you're headed, you have something to hold tight to when the transience of happiness is with you and when it's against you. That's my theory, anyway.
That said, I'm pretty (burbly-happy curse word) happy these days. Let me count the reasons ...
1. One night in Big Sky
I'm just back from Big Sky, about three hours from where I live. The board of the Big Sky Community Library chose And It Will Be a Beautiful Life as the community read (One Book Big Sky) for the fall. Tuesday night was sort of the capstone of the event. I drove out, had a wonderful chat with folks who read the book, spent the night, and came home.
It was a soul restorer in all the best ways. When writers and writers gather, it can be a lovely thing (see below), but it can also be a release of the pent-up frustration that only writers know and thus are in position to help each other through. When readers and writers gather, it's straight-up love. How lucky was I to spend an evening with a bunch of people who read my book, read it closely, had such interesting things to say about it, and wanted to come talk with me? The luckiest. No doubt about it.
I rode those good feelings all the way home. The drive from Big Sky to Bozeman is one of the most visually arresting things you can see anywhere in these United States, so there's that, and believe me, I drank it in (figuratively). I made stops at libraries in Bozeman, Livingston, Big Timber, and Columbus, planting seeds for more days and nights like the one I'd just enjoyed. Here's hoping.
2. The blessings of good friends
I think I'm only just now getting my considerable arms around how emotionally bereft the pandemic has left me (and so many other people, judging from what I'm reading and what I'm hearing). Honestly, I thought being chased inside and away from gatherings was a small blessing amid a horrible event, but it wasn't that at all. Now that I can see and meet the people I want to see and meet—while still being careful, of course—I'm realizing how much I craved it.
Just in these past few weeks, I've gotten to hang in Butte, Missoula (thank you, Gwen Florio and Malcolm Brooks), Livingston (thank you, Amy Zanoni and Maggie Anderson), Bozeman (thank you, Betsy Gaines Quammen and Kryssa Marie Bowman), and Big Sky. I've had the fellowship of brilliant writers and thinkers, genuinely good people, and people who lovingly tend to the cultural life writ large. Man. I've needed that so much. So much. Happy? Yeah, I'm happy. But grateful most of all.
3. The work is going well
OK, look, here's where I keep it honest: If my publisher had said, sorry, kid, but your manuscript stinks and I'd received a lot of hate mail and my dog was snubbing me, would I be Mr. Happy? I would not. This, of course, underscores my point about fulfillment vs. happiness. I work to a standard I set so I can know I've done my best regardless of what a gatekeeper says (or, at least, so I'll have the gumption to try again if I find the door closed). I try to approach the world with an open heart because I believe that's how we get past at least some of our divisions. I engage with my dog so he knows I'm his, and he's mine. That's fulfillment. The happiness of it comes and goes.
But I can't deny that I'm really, really enjoying every side of the work right now: The creation of it, when it's just me and an idea and the challenge of getting from here to there. The production of it, where I interact with the publisher I wanted to be with and who wants my work on his list. The carrying it to readers and interacting with them, which can be such an incredible validation of the work put in. The awards, both realized and potential (talk about transience). I'm as energized for all of it, the whole arc, as I've ever been.
In Missoula, while waiting to eat lunch, I happened upon a meeting with a well-regarded poet and fiction writer and a genuinely good human. I don't know him well, but I like him, and even so, in the worst of my do-I-want-this-anymore crisis a few years ago, I deleted him (and a whole lot of other writers) from my social contacts, in a clumsy, flailing attempt at ridding myself of reminders of an endeavor I wasn't sure I wanted anymore. So there I was in Missoula, nonexistent hat in hand, apologizing for something I'm sure he didn't even notice, telling him I was in a dark place. He was kind and compassionate, as I expected he would be. I still appreciate the grace. I hope, the next time I'm on the other side of that conversation, I extend it to someone who needs it.
I'd like to think I've learned something. Certainly, I appreciate that the want-to came back to me, and I'm going to nurture it as much as I can. But what happens when rejection arrives (as it surely will), or awards don't (ditto)?
I don't know. I'll try to remember now and then and remind myself that I can be in both places. Just not at the same time.
3b. That was a lot. Here's an anecdote.
So I'm driving home from Big Sky and I'm talking on the phone—hands-free—with Elisa and I'm saying much of what I said above, only differently, and I'm telling her how energized I am, and I'm hearing how energized she is, and we come around to You, Me & Mr. Blue Sky. It's the novel—a romantic comedy that goes deeper, as Elisa's work does—she and I wrote together in 2018 and 2019. We released it ourselves ... and pretty much let it flop around out there. Our crises of confidence coincided. Those were hard, broken days. We had no energy for much of anything, and certainly not for getting out and trying to introduce a book to the world. We were too adrift in our personal lives to have the fire for the professional. Frankly, there were times I wasn't sure we'd make it.
But we did, and we have, and we're going to. Elisa is back, too, and she said, you know what, we should put a new jacket on that old novel we never really got behind. Freshen it up. It's a story of brightness and hope, and it has this dreary cover that doesn't fit it. Let's give it some love.
OK, she didn't say that exactly, but that was the gist.
And here it is, dressed to meet the readers we hoped it would meet.
Elisa didn't join me in Big Sky because our cat, Spatz, has been ailing. The most recent health issue was one that had a small sliver of hope for resolution and a rather wide, grim likelihood in terms of what we'd have to do. I had an appointment I had to keep, and Elisa decided to stay behind and tend to our girl.
And our girl, not for the first time, has proved resilient. Her issue has resolved itself—or, at the very least, has recessed into a place where she's her old self again for however long that lasts. She was a surprise when she came into our lives, and we've resolved to enjoy her for as long as we have her. That horizon, delightfully, has widened. We're thrilled.
As Elisa is given to saying, she's our Rushmore, Max.
Life has some funny cycles. As I write this, I'm just a handful of hours home from a couple of days in Great Falls, that visit coming on the heels of another Great Falls trip the previous week. Before that, I think the last time I was in Great Falls other than just passing through was ... 2010? 2011? A long time ago. I hope this means I'll be going back sooner rather than later. I like that town.
I was there to take part in a panel discussion of Montana authors, sponsored by the Great Falls Public Library as part of the Big River Ruckus festival. It was a blistering-hot morning, and my planet-sized melon sizzled. As is often the case for literary events, we didn't have a big crowd (I believe the applicable adjectives are "small" and "appreciative"), but we had good times in abundance. I joined poet Dave Caserio (a Billings denizen, like me) and writer Kristen Inbody, and we had a rollicking good time talking about writing in the West, ideas, how place figures into our writing, and much more.
Whenever I do an event, I'm put in mind of a line from a Pernice Brothers song: It doesn't matter if the crowd is thin / we sing to six the way we sing to ten ...
It's a funny line, of course, but the sentiment is dead-on. I've seen everything there is to see at readings, book signings, and the like: small gatherings, no gatherings, full houses, whatever. Whatever you get, you deliver as best you can to whoever was kind enough to show up. It's a charming business in that way. Every hand that's there to shake—or the only hand that's there to shake—is another chance to make a connection. And connections are everything. One person showed up? Great! Take that person out for dinner or a drink. The whole town showed up? Fantastic! Now you've got a party.
Love is love, and we love the stage ...
Before heading home Sunday, I drove out northwest of Great Falls to see the dairy farm my father grew up on. It was only the third time I've been there, and the second was just a drive-by, but I remembered the route just fine. I drove down the long driveway to where the house is, but nobody came out, and I wasn't about to go knocking on doors, so I took a quick look, then slipped out of there quietly.
Here's a nice shot from atop the bench, about a mile and a half from the farmhouse. Sorry for the telephone pole bisecting Square Butte.
When I talk about writing and where it comes from, as I did during our discussion Saturday, I'm apt to talk about how we are born with stories. We're not blank slates. Going to a place that was formative for my father (in mostly devastating ways, unfortunately) is a good demonstration of what I mean. It allows me to put eyes on his life, to process it, and to make sense of my own. Because of the way his life was shaped by his early experiences, he had a story to transfer to me, one that I would start to carry when I came into the world, along with the one I would live out in my own days. The same is true, of course, with my mother, and her parents, and his parents, and their parents before them, and on and on. The stories are inside us, already coded. We draw them out, interpret them, weave them with imagination and memory (in the case of fiction), give them purpose. It's a beautiful thing. Even when the underlying material is made up of mostly terrible things.
"Before you climb the mountain, first the foothills must appear."
It was a long, hot, empty drive home for Fretless and me. He mostly slept. I mostly sang along with the random shuffle of iTunes, something I can get away with when I'm alone. (I certainly wouldn't subject any human to my singing voice.)
On the final stretch home, I received a particular delight when iTunes served up one of my favorite songs but also one that doesn't often swim to the top of the heap. I suppose most songs remind us of something, someone or some point in time. Certainly, this one does that for me. There's a tinge of melancholy, though, because it's a reminder of a friendship I miss. It's been many years since it went by the wayside, and I've come to embrace something I was told a long time ago when I was seeing a counselor while in the midst of divorce: Some friendships are like cab rides. They have a beginning and an end. Indeed, they do.
Anyway, it was nice to hear the song at that moment, with my head where it was (reeling in other memories), to recall good times with someone who was a good friend, and to put out a silent wish: I hope the good life has found you where you are.
It certainly has found me. Coming home—to Billings, to Elisa, to Spatz the cat—is the best arrival I've ever known. It makes the leaving worthwhile.
Come October 1st, it will be six years of marriage and about seven and a half years of togetherness for Elisa and me, and let me tell you: That's long enough that most of the stories have been told, mine to her and hers to me.
We scooted away for an overnight trip to Great Falls this week. I had an event at Cassiopeia Books and an overdue acquaintance to make with owner Millie Whalen, and it was nice that Elisa and I could get away, just the two of us, for a little while.
On the trip home, one of those untold stories spilled out ...
Great Falls is where a lot of my family lore resides—my father, born in Conrad, grew up around there, and he and my mother married there long before I showed up—but it's not somewhere I often go. In nearly sixteen years of living in Montana, I've been only a handful of times, far less often than I've been to Missoula or Bozeman or Livingston or Helena or, heck, Miles City or Glendive.
But in 1992, I almost moved there. That's the story that had gone untold.
Now, when I say "almost," some qualifiers are in order. I wanted to move to Great Falls (or thought I did). The sports editor at the Great Falls Tribune at the time, a wonderful guy named George Geise, wanted me to move to Great Falls. The man who could make it happen, a senior-level editor at the paper I'd just as soon not name (but whose name I've never forgotten), made it clear I wouldn't be welcome there.
The reason: I didn't have a college degree, and he didn't think I was qualified for the job without one. (I still don't have a sheepskin, but that's another story.)
Now, let's be clear: This guy was flat-out wrong. I could handle the job I'd applied for (sports copy editor/page designer). I was handling it at a paper of similar size in Texarkana, Texas, and I would go on to handle it at progressively larger, more prestigious papers. I would, in time, become well-decorated and well-traveled. I would lead workshops in editing. I would direct a large sports department at a large West Coast newspaper.
I would ... but I hadn't yet. Not in 1992. Then, I was a 22-year-old kid with some talent and, in fairness to the Executive Who Shall Not Be Named, some cockiness that was a bit out of proportion to the skills I'd honed to that point. And that imbalance, I think, would have been a perfectly valid reason for him to say, "Sorry, kid, not going to happen here."
But that's not what he said. He fixated on the degree I didn't have. I didn't get the job. George Geise was disappointed. So was I. There was personal history to unearth in Great Falls, and I was already well in love with Montana, an affair that goes on and on. I thought I was missing out on something important.
So, stuck for a while longer at a job in Texarkana I no longer wanted*, I made a resolution, one that has stuck for 30 years:
No way was a guy like that going to be right about me.
I made sure of it.
*—In Texarkana, the single most appalling moment of my journalism career, now more than three decades old, happened. When Magic Johnson rejoined the NBA after his HIV-positive diagnosis, I played the story big on the front page of the sports section (as did just about every paper in America). The next day, a copy of the page was in my mailbox, the story circled in red pen, along with a note from an executive at the paper: "Magic Johnson is an immoral HIV carrier, and none of our readers care about him." I should have quit on the spot. It's to my eternal chagrin that I did not. I did, however, start looking for a new job immediately.
Did I miss out on something by not finding my way to Great Falls in 1992? Well, yes. Something. But not everything, and not the most important things.
I didn't make it to Montana and stick here until 2006, when I was 36. Within a couple of years, I was writing books, something I'd have not even attempted 14 years earlier. By the time I got here, I'd already dug into the personal history that was faintly compelling me in my early 20s. I'd found my grandfather and closed an open question. I'd begun to talk to my dad about his life and his memories, so I could find ways to get closer to him. In subsequent years, I'd help, in whatever meager way I could, to put ghosts to rest.
The headstone pictured below on my grandmother's grave (in Great Falls) went in just 15-plus years ago, well after her death, as my father began to forgive her for the ways she'd wronged him, a thawing of feelings that came about because he and I started digging in the hard soil of his past.
On some level, I'm just guessing, but I doubt any of that would have happened the way it did if I'd shown up in Great Falls at the callow age of 22 and burned through that job the way I burned through others during that time in my life. Montana might have been over and done with before I could have gotten to know her. I might have missed the best years I've enjoyed here. The very best years of my life, as it turns out.
So far, anyway.
This is a story of a bookstore. It's a story of a bookstore that was baked from scratch, with not a lot of ingredients, by a lot of people who'd never baked a bookstore before, trying a method that, if not unprecedented, certainly is uncommon.
The bookstore is This House of Books, in the town where I live, Billings, Montana. Its name is a nod to perhaps the most famous work of perhaps the most famous Montana author, Ivan Doig. What we call it is one of my favorite things about it, but not my very favorite. No, my very favorite thing about it lies within the many people who love it and sustain it, and then that smaller set of stalwarts who ensure that it keeps going, who dig deep into their own pockets to give it an occasional transfusion, who pour their sweat equity into its needs, which are both predictable and unpredictable. Who are there for the biggest moments in its life. Like when it moves, as it did this holiday weekend, going from one lovely downtown space to another.
Elisa and I offered some modest help with the move, just a few hours and just a few dolly loads. We're part of the larger support system, the people who shop there, who invested early in its co-op model, who take advantage of its generous policy of holding events for local authors. Today, for example, I dropped in for an hour and helped stock shelves (including my own, below). A small contribution. The stalwarts, they'll be there into the deeper hours, as they have been all weekend. Bless them. We would not have this community pillar if not for them.
And it is a pillar, a status the bookstore has achieved against what Alex Chilton, in another context, called "unbelievable odds." It's the brainchild of author Carrie La Seur, whose admirable tenacity ensured that we didn't just talk about having a bookstore in Billings but also got it done. Its funding model was suggested by former Billings mayor Chuck Tooley. It wobbled into a standing position on underfunded legs, but it found a way to walk, and it's walking still. That's thanks to talented and selfless folks who volunteer their time and energy. And, of course, it's thanks to the people who shop there.
The continued existence of This House of Books feels personal to me, and not because of the money Elisa and I have sunk into it (not all that much, relatively speaking) or the labor we've done (ditto). No, it feels personal because the bookstore exemplifies the promise and the attraction of where we live. It feels like a stand for the homegrown, the funky, the only-in-Billings, the same as the non-chain restaurants and the little shops and the independent coffee bars here. It feels like something the billionaires and the hedge funds can't get their claws into, if we don't let them, if we consider where we buy and why and act on those values. Downtown Billings was a moribund place for many years, and it's not anymore. I'd like to think our little bookstore has something to do with that.
If you've got one—an independent bookstore—cherish it. If you've always dreamed of owning one, feel free to claim a piece of mine. Ours.
Today's little trip through the memory banks requires us to visit late summer 1978, a suburb of Fort Worth, Texas, called North Richland Hills, a neighborhood (and its elementary school) called Smithfield. Smithfield, in fact, was what most folks who lived there called the place back then. North Richland Hills, now a sprawling burg of about 70,000 people, was a relatively new concern in those days, having been voted into its own municipality 25 years earlier when Richland Hills, the now much smaller adjacent community, declined to annex the area. By 1960, North Richland Hills had gobbled Smithfield, a freestanding community to its north.
The census in 1970 put North Richland Hills' population at just a shade more than 16,000 people. We were 30,000 strong by 1980, so you can sort of suss out the math for '78. We were getting bigger britches, for sure, but we were a cozy group. If you were to cleave off the people who thought of Smithfield as Smithfield, because that's what it had always been to them, you'd be left with an even smaller subset.
Anyway, it was a different time and, in its way, a different place from what it is now. I was a different boy. There at the left, that's a pretty good approximation of what I'd have looked like (minus the wicker chair) as I pedaled off on a summer day to our neighborhood school, Smithfield Elementary, to see if the classroom assignments for the coming school year had been posted.
When I saw that I had been assigned to Charlotte Cooke's classroom, I know I was overjoyed, for that's the teacher I'd been hoping to get as I moved on from second grade to third.
So here's the thing: I didn't spend long in Mrs. Cooke's class. Maybe a week. Maybe less. I don't remember, exactly.
What I do remember is that a new third-grade teacher started at Smithfield that year, a newly minted graduate who had been a late hire and was getting her first classroom at our school. As I recall, a class was built for her first by asking for volunteers to shift over from their assigned teacher to this new one. After that, the administration would do it by conscription.
Again, here's where the finer details are lost to me in the intervening 44—holy shit, 44!—years, but I do remember that I volunteered. I do remember being concerned that if kids didn't act like they wanted to be part of this new teacher's class, she would get discouraged and think she was unwanted. I am certain—utterly certain—that given my affection for Mrs. Cooke, volunteering wasn't what I wanted. I felt like I needed to do it. Where such a notion came from, I have no idea.
I've made a lot of stupid decisions in my life. Made a lot of fortuitous ones, too, and volunteering for Donna Spurgeon's third-grade class in 1978-79 is a standout in the latter group. I loved her almost from the get-go—I do recall some initial cold feet about leaving Mrs. Cooke's class that my mother told me I'd have to overcome, having made a commitment—and I've loved her straight through. She later had my sister (twice, I think, after she moved up to a fifth-grade classroom), she changed schools and I kept up with her, I visited her classes a few times through the years, I was able to wish her a "well done!" when her retirement came through, and we keep the conversation going on Facebook even today.
Back then, in 1978-79, I ended up feeling like I got the best outcome possible. Mrs. Cooke still figured into things, teaching me the perilous math of third grade (fractions!) and breaking me of the annoying habit of making my fours look like nines.
But Donna was an all-timer, the kind of teacher I made it a point to keep up with as the seasons changed, for both of us. She started as a teacher (and even raked me pretty hard on my language skills, as evidenced by the report card above), then ended up as a friend.
Doesn't get any better than that.
So what of Mrs. Cooke. Well ...
Sadly, I didn't keep up with her. I liked her, appreciated her, enjoyed her instruction, but time went on and so did I. And so did she.
But let's go back to this idea of Smithfield as a place in time and as a heart's memory, just for a second ...
There's a dedicated group of people who are from where I'm from, who've stayed, who haven't let the idea of Smithfield get too far away even as its time as a stand-alone town recedes. Every year, first weekend in May, there's a reunion. Living several hundred miles away, as I do and as I have for most of the past 35 years, I've never been to it. That's my failing. This year, I sent a stack of books to be included in a raffle, to hopefully play some small part in keeping these annual get-togethers going.
A few days after the event, I got a text message from one of the organizers. She said someone had dropped by, seen the books with my name on them, and remembered me. Charlotte, she wrote. She was Charlotte Cooke, and she's Charlotte Williams now.
Well, I'll be damned. A torrent of memory came on. You can see it, in every paragraph above.
The organizer, LaDonna Powell, and I launched a conspiracy. We'd send her a book. I'd enclose a card. We'd spring a video chat on her. We'd close this circle that's been hanging open since Jimmy Carter was president.
There she is, and there I am, all smiles for our long trip back to each other. I'd like to say I would have known her on sight, on the street, but I probably wouldn't have, and I'm certain she wouldn't have known me. But as we talked—just briefly—I could see the flickers of kindness and care that made her such a wonderful teacher for all those years, one whose classroom I badly wanted to be in when I was 8 years old and rode my bicycle down to the school to see if the luck of the draw had been with me. It had been, and yet I asked to be reassigned, which turned out to be only one of the most consequential decisions of my growing-up years.
Sometimes, it all works out.
What I said to Mrs. Williams, in our chat and in the card I included with her book, is between the two of us. In the broad strokes of it, I can say only that I'm grateful. For the kindness of the teachers I've known, whether chosen by me or for me. For the intercession of LaDonna. For the chance to say thank you, and to mean it.
Several months ago, one of my journalism and writing heroes, Tom Zoellner, invited me to review Saving Yellowstone for the Los Angeles Review of Books. I was a bit cowed by the prospect, to be perfectly honest. I don't have any standing, in senses literary or academic, to critique the work of Dr. Megan Kate Nelson, the book's author. I hadn't yet read her previous book, The Three-Cornered War, which had been a Pulitzer finalist. I was, upon first consideration, well out of my depth and not particularly inclined to take on the assignment.
And then I reconsidered. If Dr. Nelson's literary ambition is to peel back history and explain it to a general audience—as well seems to be the case—then I'm about as general as they come. I'm curious and informed, I live in the region where the events of Dr. Nelson's book unfolded, and I try to live my ideal that an engaged life and mind require making some inroads into all you don't know (a considerable pile for me) and challenging those things you think you do know (also a considerable pile).
In those ways, I was redeemed by reading and reviewing Saving Yellowstone—and by backtracking to read The Three-Cornered War. The review speaks for itself, I think. Beyond the completion of my assignment, the book has stayed with me. I've repeatedly recommended it, in sometimes obnoxious ways (see the tweet below). I've put it in the hands of friends. I've pondered the way Dr. Nelson's presentation of history—as something connected, something that breathes and reverberates—stands at odds with the lessons of the garden-variety public education I received in my Texas suburb, in which events were stand-alones and dates were to be memorized and regurgitated.
Dr. Nelson's book details the Hayden expedition into Yellowstone, yes, and the establishment of our first national park, but also so much more, including the influences of capitalism, the literal and figurative erasure of Indigenous peoples, how the grappling with Reconstruction was not just a southern story but also a western one. One of the jarring lessons of the read, for me, was seeing the way the Grant administration's attempt to bring freed slaves into the body politic lay parallel with a policy of dispossession and extermination of Indigenous peoples in the West. The aims of the former policy largely failed; the aims of the latter were vastly realized. The result of both has been lasting inequality. The book is a triumph of dot connecting, of context, of presenting the bigger picture that lies outside conventional framing. It cannot be read without the realization that the fracture points of yesterday linger today.
In the reading, I was reminded of something I often impart to editing clients when I sense that their narrative has gone passive (something that is NOT an issue for the history Dr. Nelson illuminates or the way she goes about telling it). The "and then, and then, and then" structure of storytelling will not compel an audience's attention or investment. I mentioned the polished-up version of history I absorbed and spat out for tests in my youth. That's how it was often (not always, but often) presented to me: Here's this. Here's this. Here's another thing. Here's still another. Hey, why is your head down and what's with all the drooling?
Dr. Nelson's book, a work of scholarship, clicks along the way good storytelling does. It has sinew and electricity and a heaping measure of "but therefore ..." It moves. It speaks. It is kinetic.
You must read this book.
Yesterday, I drove from Billings to Livingston to see a lecture by Dr. Nelson and by Dr. Shane Doyle, who detailed the fascinating history of Indigenous peoples in Yellowstone.
Their presentations were sponsored by Elk River Arts & Lectures and the Park County Environmental Council and served as a fundraiser for the All-Nations Teepee Village, an event "to honor and recognize the many Tribal Nations with connections to Yellowstone and highlight the indigeneity of the landscape." To learn more about that effort (and to donate), go here, please.
I've been in Montana for a while now--much longer in my heart than in my physical presence—and every day that has included a trip to Livingston can be filed away under the heading of "Best Days." Beers and yuks with the great Scott McMillion (who wrote the quintessential Livingston appreciation). A quick bite and more imbibing with Marc Beaudin. Chatting with Elise Atchison and Max Hjortsberg and Tandy Miles Riddle. Seeing pals on almost every corner.
May your life be blessed with interesting travel and good friends.
I've been fortunate enough to have had some terrific honors bestowed upon me. Fifth-grade spelling bee champion. Sixth-grade student council president. I mean, do I have to go on? We're talking biggies here.
It was just about this time of year in 2017 that, perhaps, the one that means the most to me came around. The Billings Education Association—the union for public school teachers in the place I call home—honored me as its Friend of Education.
It was deeply meaningful to me for several reasons. One, I'm a child of public education (thank you, Birdville Independent School District and Smithfield Elementary, Smithfield Junior High (now middle school) and Richland High School). Two, public school teachers have had a profound effect on me at every stage of life. They've been mentors and influencers and friends. I was born to one. I married one. Three, I truly believe that public education is a compact we must hold with each other, no matter how fraught things get (I'm not terribly optimistic about how things are going in that department, but I still believe in the compact). Public education is the ultimate investment in our future, together.
I could go on and on. I have, in fact.
Whatever the teachers in my town felt in calling me their friend five years ago, I send it back in triplicate to them. English teachers at West High School here in Billings were instrumental in getting 600 Hours of Edward on the approved curriculum list at the high school level, and for years now, some of them have been teaching it. It blows my mind, still. And the bargain I've made, straight along, is that if you want me to visit the classroom, to talk about writing and creativity and life beyond high school, tell me when and where and I'll be there.
The pandemic, as you might imagine, took a bite out of that bargain.
And yet, there we were last week, a handful of English classes at West—juniors and seniors—and a creative writing club, and we were working through one of my favorite writing exercises, The Word (I am not its inventor, by the way, just an enthusiastic adopter). Each class, I'd have the kids tell me their name and give me a word. We then ran a random-number generator to choose a single word that the entire class had to use as inspiration for a short story. Writing time: 20 minutes.
It's a hell of a thing, I'm sure, to show up one day at school and hear that some dude you've never met before wants you to spend most of a period writing. But these kids did it, and their enthusiasm, generosity, and talent leave me hopeful for their futures and my own. For every period, I wrote alongside them, ending up with nearly 3,000 words of material, by far a busier day than I usually have.
I'll spare you the whole passel of short stories (unless you really want to read them), but here's a taste:
When we got the dog—a 48-pound, 40-inch-long, 14-year-old basset hound—I named him Lightning because, among other things, I was into irony.
Lightning’s name was Dexter when he was stuffed in a kennel at the humane society, on account of his previous owner, an 84-year-old woman named Mildred, up and died one day and Dexter was found sleeping in the small of the back of her tumbled-over carcass, and Mildred’s kinfolk didn’t want him. And you might say that if a dog has borne a name, any name, for 14 years, he ought to be allowed to keep it for the rest of whatever time he has left. And, OK, that’s a fair point, but Dexter is a crappy name and no more fitting the hound he was than Lightning was. So I changed it. My prerogative.
We didn’t get off to a good start, Lightning and me. First night, I put him up on the bed, and he walked around behind my shoulder, I thought he was snuggling in, and he lifted a leg on me. New house, new bed, new people—I guess I can’t blame him, but come on, man. He pooped on the rug the next day—the good rug, that was the problem, not that frayed thing in the den—and I thought, well, Lightning, you ain’t long for us if you don’t straighten up and fly right soon.
I needn’t have worried, as it turned out. I’ve come to believe, in the looking back, that the speed of him—opposite the name we’d hung on him—was the secret to his longevity. That dog just wasn’t in a hurry for anything, which kept his heart rate low and his blood moving agreeably. “Lightning, dinner,” we’d say, and we’d wait for the lumbering, this long dog who could have two feet on different sides of a corner, and he’d come into view and he’d eat at a luxurious pace, like a cow working its cud. “Lightning, let’s get in the car!” Same thing. That dog moved in a way that would make a sloth say, “Damn, that’s one slow-moving animal.”
Ironic, then, that the event for which he gained his fame around our house, the reason Judy would grip him by those jowls, unbidden, and say, “You’re the best dog ever, yes you are,” was a moment of alacrity. Megan, our youngest, just a baby, crawling for the curb and the traffic beyond, we’re bound up in watching Mitchell show us his batting stance there in the front yard, and she’s nearly to the asphalt, and here’s Lightning, moving at his bah-doop-dee-doo pace and he snags her diaper in his teeth and pulls her back.
That’s a good boy.
We said goodbye to him last night, the fadeout that we’d seen coming and were still flabbergasted by when it arrived. Lightning, staring up at us, our expectant faces in his, our tears surfacing, and here’s that old floppy-tongued kiss, the one we’d had a thousand times and would never have again, and he’s gone, gone, gone, not so much a flashing discharge of electricity but a shattered star lighting up our days and nights.
After writing and sharing—the kids were great about that, too—we talked about what I like so much about this exercise, that in the letters and meaning of a single word, there's a fuse that can be lit and burned down into a burst of creativity. It's one of the most magical things I know of, how you can tap into memory, word association, imagination and pull a story right out of yourself. It's entirely egalitarian. You don't need permission. You don't have to wait for someone to judge you worthy. You just need time and inclination. You need a pencil and a piece of paper and the willingness to get busy.
And the thing is, long before I ever thought about these things, long before I ever knew what a writing prompt was, long before I ever imagined trying to build a life around words, I had teachers who pushed me, who had lamplight and were willing to show the way, who truly and honestly believed that each child in their care had purpose and something to offer. On the surface, I don't have much in common with those kids I met last week—I'm older than their parents, in many cases, and from a generation that must seem decrepit and dated to them. And yet, the successors of those teachers I remember with such fondness and admiration are in the classroom now. Still pushing. Still guiding. Still believing.
How lucky we are. What a shame it would be if we lost it.
Craig Lancaster is an author, an editor, a publication designer, a layabout, a largely frustrated Dallas Mavericks fan, an eater of breakfast, a dreamer of dreams, a husband, a brother, a son, an uncle. And most of all, a man who values a T-shirt.
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