I've recently written a couple of columns that have produced a veritable flood of reader responses. Which, I have to admit, is immensely gratifying.
For the most part. Not always, however.
When you're writing for publication, the safest way through the maze is to imagine you're writing to family.
Maybe your mom will read it to your dad, give Aunt Connie a few snippets over the phone, cut it out for the neighbor. Your grown children might show polite interest (if it's close to their birthday), and that's about it.
You never open your eyes wide enough to imagine strangers reading every word. To do so would be to invite paralysis.
Thus it continues to surprise me when people write or call me, expressing an opinion of something I have written or telling me how a column or blog post paralleled their own lives.
Or jumping off something I wrote to tell me -- often -- incredible stories of their own.
The rush that produces is like mixing rainbows with triple shots of espresso. Makes me feel like I'm here for a reason.
Earlier this month I talked about a book that is going to come out, a compilation of a third or so of the columns I've written in the past almost 13 years. As I explained then, it's nothing I've felt any real urge to do in the past.
But, goodness, your responses were waaaay flattering. Many of you sent in one or more memories of your favorite columns that you hope make it in.
"Your columns have never failed to touch my heart. I've laughed and cried, and enjoyed each and every one of them since we moved back to Walla Walla 4 years ago and began subscribing to the paper," Karen A. wrote. "Each time I go out to work in my yard I think of your step-mother (I hope I'm remembering this correctly) gardening in her bathing suit!"
You do remember right, Karen, you do. While I have many other memories of my stepmother, Mary, I'll never forget that day, either.
Darlene was equally specific -- "Among them I would recall: your gratefulness for the presence of John Yantis in your life, a father figure for a young girl; the story of your grandmother's roses (I have one rose bush from the many my mother grew); your tribute to your brother; and the new relationship with another grieving spouse."
Thank you, Darlene. Can I just say something? I LOVE that you liked the John Yantis column ... it was the only way I could hope to pay his family for that father's love they willingly shared with me.
Others wrote in, telling me that my columns about my late and deeply loved older brother -- who dealt a real blow to the stigma of developmental disability -- impacted and encouraged them. Beth, Judy, Harry, Carolyn and more, thank you. That you loved Dwight through my work makes me cry.
Speaking of crying, I also wrote another column on Aug. 17. It was an open letter -- wail, really -- to God, asking for some respite in this searing grief that is making me all kinds of crazy.
Many of you wrote in and I had a few sweet, sad phone calls. This is not a new problem, of course, and a lot of men and women have the scarred hearts to prove it.
There is Karen, who just lost her husband of 30 years. "I truly understand your pain and grief even after 19 months. The loss of someone you shared so much of your life with does not come easy to the heart .... It seems I could handle the big things like talking to the doctor about his imminent death but just yesterday going to the grocery store for the first time to buy food only for myself brought me to tears ... You are doing the best you can with the circumstances you are in. God bless you."
And Sue, who is almost at a five-month anniversary of her husband's death after 21 years of marriage. "I have lived and do live each and every one of those feelings. I cry just to cry some days. People might find that odd but I can't help it. However, like you I have a job and I enjoy it and there are things I still enjoy ... I have tried everything; talking to people, reading books on grief, crying, being so busy I can't breathe, isolation. It just plain doesn't help. Just know there are so many of us out there and we care about you. You are indeed a good and kind person."
See? It's easy to be lulled into a sense of feeling loved, understood and protected. Like a cocoon of fuzzy care, held up by a community of angels. Or some sort of good beings.
But, thank goodness, Gary set me straight, and in all capital letters at that.
He began by mocking my letter, making my first sentence his own. '"DEAR GOD THIS HAS GOT TO END.'"
Then Gary got into the meat of his complaint. "PLEASE. WHAT MAKES YOU THINK THAT THE READERS THAT PAY GOOD MONEY FOR THIS RAG WANT TO SEE THIS KIND OF 'POOR ME' SYMPATHY BEGGING GO ON AND ON. WE DON'T GIVE A FIG ABOUT YOUR POOR 'MISERABLE ME' LIFE. HOW LONG CAN YOU POSSIBLY MILK THIS?? YOU NEED TO UNCURL FROM THE FETAL POSITION AND GET A LIFE!! FIND SOMETHING IMPORTANT TO WRITE ABOUT OR MAYBE A CAREER CHANGE IS INDICATED.
/S/ YOUR (sic) MAKING US MISERABLE
P.S. ANYONE WHO REFERS TO GOD AS 'DUDE ON HIGH' SHOULDN'T EXPECT ANY TYPE OF GRACE!"
I didn't try to interpret Gary's punctuation or postscript style, preferring to let the raw energy come fully through.
Here's what I want Gary and everyone else to know. First, compulsory reading of my column has been outlawed in 29 states, including Washington. Please don't feel like you ever have to read "Home Place" ever again.
Second, well, I don't know which part to address next. What I consider honesty Gary calls "milking." Who I see as a loving, amazing God -- with a hellavu sense of humor -- Gary sees as someone else, it appears. What I view as part of my career, he believes needs to stop.
Oh, Gary, I do write about important people, nearly every day. I get to write about folks who change or save lives, I write about people with tremendous courage, incomprehensible problems and iron-strong characters.
I so love it -- feel honored and blessed every single time. So, Gary, I don't think I will change jobs, thanks anyway for the suggestion. I'm keeping this one until someone else says I am not. And that someone wouldn't be you, Sir.
Thanks to all of you for writing. You are my real paycheck. Even Gary.
Sheila Hagar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom or by calling 509-526-8322.