Saturday, September 12, 2015

Confused and Tired - Summer in the Sun by Charlie Steel

My editor believes this article meanders too much and should not be published.  I disagreed and coerced her to lessen her standards and edit it.  Perhaps she is right.  So this article comes with a warning: Beware of the seemingly unrelated aspects.  The central thread of this article I believe IS: What I did, encountered, and thought about, while on vacation.  I KNOW, a bit of a stretch.
My summer home---a 27 foot Pearson sailboat, August 2015
Not so many years ago I owned a 45’ Columbia Sloop and sailed it from New Jersey up the Atlantic, past the Statue of Liberty and through the 32 locks of the Erie Canal to Lake Huron.  I anchored her off-shore near a home I have in Northern Michigan.  I do know how to sail, but that’s another story.  This one is about how I spent these last two months living on the Pearson sailboat, doing a lot of painting, cleaning, and repairing, along with a little fishing, some swimming...and thinking about writing, mortality, and the legacies we leave behind.
I was awakened early each morning to the raucous sounds of seagulls, the haunting call of loons across the bay, and water slapping onto the shoreline and hulls of boats.  I put on my trunks and hobbled around that little boat.  I ate oatmeal bars for breakfast, and swallowed the handful of pills that keep me alive.  A LOT OF THEM (18) and then got to work restoring the old, yet sturdy, craft.
Some repairs were superficial and cosmetic, others were necessary for the structure and integrity of the vessel.  I fixed a large leaking hole in the deck by drilling it out and filling it in with fiberglass.  It was a lot of work but turned out looking nearly like new.  I gelcoated over crazing and dug out blisters, painted the deck hatch blue, sanded the mahogany, varnished until the wood became a shiny golden brown.  The rest of the summer I waxed and polished until the old sloop shone.  This included the deck and hull.  Then before I left the marina, I winterized the boat, covering the wood with plastic and the deck and hull with a thick coat of wax to protect the finish.  I will remove the wax when I return in the spring.  (My neck and shoulder still hurt!)  Working on that boat was physical, but in many ways it was just like carefully constructing and writing a story. Like a good story, it took a lot of care and attention.
During those months on the boat, I spent time by myself. Being alone was nothing new for me. Until circumstances made it necessary to care for my elderly mother, I had lived alone for months at a time up on my Colorado mountain.  Living by myself on that craft all summer was a reawakening, it renewed my senses and made me feel alive.  I really had an enlightening time out there on the water, enjoying the crisp cool mornings, the hot sunny days, the gentle winds, and the strong summer storms with their heavy rains, lightning and thunder.  In a way, this summer invigorated me---it brought me back to life. 
You see, life has a way of throwing curves at us and the walls that we build around ourselves as people and as writers sometimes get torn down without warning.  I thought my walls were thick and strong and impenetrable.  They served me well when I worked behind the Iron Curtain for the government and later as a state Child Protection Worker.  I could escape from those stressful jobs and hide inside my emotional fortress to think, dream, and write countless stories.  Over the many years few people, not even my parents, were invited into my stronghold, and then, only so far---UNTIL---my strong-willed, widowed mother, was forced to live with me.
Last year my mother died.  She was 91 and for the last six and a half years I took care of her.   She was in fairly good health and came from a family known for its longevity.  I expected her to live many more years.  All that changed the day she fell and was injured in the doctor’s office.  Following a week of horrendous complications and treatment, she was gone.  Up until the solitary road trip to Michigan on U.S. Route 80, I hadn’t really recovered from her unexpected death.  On the trip, she was still much on my mind.
As far as I am concerned her death has everything to do with this blog.  And in those last six and a half years, she became one of my most honest, astute, and influential critics.  Besides I am proud of her and miss her, and I wanted to pay her tribute.  How often as writers do we use the various personalities of people we know when we create the characters in our books.  My mother lives in many of my stories as she certainly was a colorful character.
MOM – 90 years young - On the ranch.
It was the loss of her driver’s license (about six and half years ago) that caused me to step in and end up being her partner and to some extent caregiver.  (I promised to never allow her to reside in a nursing home).  Despite her age, she was quite active and acutely mentally alert.  As I said, all her life she had been a very strong-willed person.  After some adjustment to invading each other’s space, neither of us being particularly enthusiastic about the circumstances, we eventually worked out our differences.  To my amazement, we became buddies and close friends.  During those few years we did everything together: breakfast, lunch, supper, going out for dinner, to the movies, and staying home and reading books, watching  the news and Turner Classic Movies (her favorite pastime).  She also read my stories and made succinct and valid criticisms.
What insightful conversations we had about writing, life, and politics.  She was very opinionated and hated anyone who didn’t stand up for the working man.  As far as movies went, she had an endless knowledge of actors and was able to recall where she was when she first saw a particular film.  To my great surprise, my mother was always a stimulating companion.  When she died unexpectedly, I was greatly shocked, and returned to being alone once more on my Colorado mountain.  I found myself becoming pessimistic about the future.  Mortality is what I thought about as I started out on my summer trip and why Mother’s demise ended up being so significant to me.
Being there alone on the boat gave me time to reflect.  Apparently change is a good thing every once in a while.
All through the summer I thought about life, death, my mother, and the legacy a writer hopes to leave.  As an old man with a varied lifetime of experience, I have indeed, over these seven decades, formed some hard opinions.  Reflecting on my past, I once again thought about the many shameful choices that I have made.  I have come to realize how very important it is for a writer to leave a legacy of work of which one can be proud.
Perhaps all of us, as writers, are also preachers.  We WRITE what we THINK and what we BELIEVE.  In my opinion, as writers we have some power to do good in this world and effect change for the future.
Anyway, it has been a while since I have written a blog, and today this is my contribution.  I hope you found it somewhat interesting and not as my editor states: “disjointed and confusing.”
I wish all my fellow writers the very best and hope that the Western Fictioneers Convention will turn out to be a good and uplifting experience for all who attend. 
Not going this year but perhaps some time in the future.
All the best to everyone.

Charlie Steel 


  1. Thanks for the insight, Charlie. Reminds me of a friend who was into sailboat racing. He said to experience it without setting foot aboard a boat was to turn your air conditioner on the coldest it will go, stand in the cold shower with a fan blowing on you, light hundred dollar bills, and throw the down the toilet as fast as you can. Attempting to light the bills in the shower and wind enhances the frustration.

    1. Gordo,

      So true when I had the 45' Columbia sailboat. Just to dock and store the boat each year cost a small fortune. But fixing the mast, boat and engine repair, and even diesel fuel was EXACTLY like flushing hundred dollar bills down the toilet as fast as possible.

  2. Didn't know we could write about sailing. Wow. Don't get me started. But then, I shipwrecked. God telling me not to go around the world by myself. I had a pulmonary embolism just when I would have been in the middle of the Indian ocean, if not shipwrecked and winched off the rocks by a rescue helicopter (thanks to my EPIRB). That's a book I have not yet been able to write.

    1. Chuck,

      Those who have sailed long distances through storms, near large ships that would run you over, and suffered engine failure, etc., all have quite a story to tell.

      Sorry you lost your boat. It must have been a harrowing experience.

    2. AND, Chuck Tyrell, any person is indeed fortunate to survive such a medical issue. Hope you are doing well now.

  3. Good analogy of sailing and storytelling. I've never taken the opportunity to sail but always thought of it as a tremendous challenge--just like writing: lots of moving parts, attention to detail, adapting to shifting winds, compensating the sails. But the payoff is worth it all.

    On another note, it's amazing when, as adults, we're able to better appreciate our parents. But you took that a step even further and actually became good friends and companions. Great memories to treasure and hold on to. Thanks for posting.

    1. Tom,

      Thank you for your kind comments.

      My mother liked sailing with me, the few times she went.

      It is tragic to lose parents you care about, double tragic to lose one who is a close friend.

  4. Charlie, I absolutely loved this post of yours. As Tom says, you really wrote it with a great eye to the analogy of sailing and storytelling.

    And I loved hearing about how you and your mother solved your differences and came to be good friends in adulthood. My mom and I butted heads for years, but thank goodness we became "women friends" as I got older, before she slipped away to Altzheimer's.

    I'm glad you had a good chance to think, and ponder (which aren't always the same things!) LOL and get to that place of inner peace and understanding. That can take a while. But I can't think of any place better to do it than on a sailing vessel. Sure wish you were going to be at the convention this year, but maybe next time around.

    Great post.

    1. Cheryl,

      These comments are so very kind. Thank you.

      How tragic to hear your mother suffered such a dreadful disease. How wonderful that you became adult friends.

      My mother was strong and stoic. I do indeed miss her.

      It was good to get away to another setting and just enjoy the water and come to some kind of answer to who and what we are.

  5. What a touching tribute to your mother, blended with some equally touching insight about life. You're a treasure, Charlie. I suspect you've had a bigger impact and left a larger legacy than you realize. :-)

    (On a totally different topic, I've owned a boat, too. No matter how much we love them and find freedom on deck, "a boat is a hole in the water into which one pours money." I hope yours hasn't been and never will be. :-) )

    1. Kathleen,

      Thank you. At this point I don't know much about anything. But I do know how important it is to edit and publish ones work.

      Yes, a boat can be very expensive. This little 27 foot Pearson costs a bit of coin to dock and store for the winter. But a boat gives so much pleasure and when riding the wind, sails aloft, hull plowing through the water, it becomes pure pleasure.

  6. Charlie,

    Thanks for not listening to your editor. It's difficult (and courageous) to disclose the struggles that go on behind the storytelling. Blessings to you as you write the next chapter of your life.

    I'm sorry to hear you won't be at this year's convention. I'd love to hear more of your adventures.

    All the best,

    1. Vonn,

      Thank you. Not a lot more to tell about anything. The next chapter is to somehow get my stuff edited and published.

  7. I think it's a great blog, Charlie. But I could never live on a boat. I can get seasick in a bathtub'

  8. Jim,

    Sorry to hear that. I bet it has to do with a sensitive equilibrium system. You know, those things in your ears.

    But you ride Yankee and isn't that a lot of moving about?

    Thanks for writing.

  9. How very lucky you were to be able to step in and care for your mother, and to have that precious time to remember. It's rare in today's world that we have the chance to give back what they gave to us all those growing-up years. It's also rare to enjoy such a loving relationship. Treasure every memory!

  10. J.E.S. Hays,

    Yes, I was lucky that I could step in, luckier that we settled our differences, and became friends. You're right that I did have a chance to care for mother as she had cared for me as a child. Some pleasurable experiences we had and some not so much.

    Your words are very kind, thank you.

  11. Charlie, this was a most interesting and insightful post. Thank you for sharing it.

    I am so sorry that you lost your mother from complications after her injury. That must indeed have been hard to come to terms with.

    As always, you write beautifully and from the heart. I always enjoy your writing and wish you well in the editing of the many stories that I know you have written.

    I am sorry that you won't be at the convention, but I hope to see you at future ones.

  12. Dr. Keith,

    Thank very much for these kind and carefully written words.

    I wrote more of an explanation about my mother but deleted it. Perhaps the last moments of her life should never be told. I can say she died with as much dignity as any human being could under the circumstances.