On writer’s block

“A man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to do it.”

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

Whenever I hear someone talk about “writer’s block” I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Henry Ford: “Whether you believe you can or you can’t, you’re right.’

Chapter 26 – Neshnala’s Saga: Missy Reyner

“Well” – Ro was a little surprised, but at the same time not really that surprised – “that’s Missy, but that isn’t quite the Missy I expected.”

Missy was Melissa Reyner, who was standing next to her father at a table in Des Moines’ famous Duff Brothers Waffle House, her favorite restaurant.

Ever since the divorce, Missy and her father would cap off their weekends together with a mid-afternoon meal at the waffle house, then Frank would drop her off at his ex-wife’s and head back to Lee’s Landing; for the last six months that had meant for his evening with Ro. But Ro was coming to Des Moines to meet with Johnna Mack on Monday to check on her progress in preparation for defending her Iowa sport shooting championship.

“Why don’t you come in on Sunday afternoon? I’d like for Missy to meet you,” Frank had said. Ro had agreed with some trepidation, not being able to think of a legitimate reason why she shouldn’t.

Ironically, the plan was that after dropping Missy off, Frank would not join Ro at her motel but return that evening to the state park to be ready to go to work the next morning, leaving Ro in Des Moines by herself.

Frank had proudly shown Ro all kinds of school pictures of his daughter, and while the girl smiling down at her – Missy was easily an inch or two above six feet, close to three inches taller than Ro – was the girl in the pictures, the pictures hadn’t come close to capturing her uniqueness – oh, call it what it was, her “far out look.”

Not only was she very tall, but also very, very thin. Her auburn hair, just a few shades browner than Ro’s brick red, was in a long bang swept across her forehead and was tipped in fluorescent green. Her large-frame, tortoise shell glasses completed a look that proclaimed, “I am a nerd, and proud of it!”

The girl glanced at her father, her expression expectant, then turned to Ro and extended her hand, “Hello, Ro. I’m really glad to finally meet you.” And, of course, there were those eyes, her father’s eyes, dark and intense and looking right at you with genuine curiosity.

The girl’s handshake was firm, but not aggressive. “I’m glad to meet you, too, Missy,” Ro answered, perhaps a little less enthusiastically than she had wanted.

All throughout her not quite three-hour drive from Lee’s Landing, Ro had rehearsed a variety of approaches to what she might say after they got the obligatory greeting out of the way. But Missy quickly took care of that…

“No, I mean I really am glad to finally meet you,” Missy said with what could only be called an admiring look.

They sat down and ordered, Ro taking the girl’s recommendation to try the pecan waffle; Missy ordered one too; Frank opted for his favorite, a Reuben sandwich.

“I’ll bet dad hasn’t told you you’re on the bulletin board in my room at home.”

Ro frowned, having no clue what to say. What first jumped to mind, “I wonder what your mother thinks of that, having a picture of her ex’s girlfriend on your wall?” she didn’t articulate.

She finally stammered, “Your bulletin board… Uh… Why?”

“I collect pictures and articles about strong women – Princess Diana’s up there, so are Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Amelia Earhart… I call it my Wall of Fame.”

Ro blinked… She had done exactly the same thing on a bulletin board in her childhood room, among her collection of “strong women” were Lewis and Clark’s invaluable guide Sacajawea, the world’s first great female athlete Babe Didrikson Zaharias…and Amelia Earhart. It was like, they had this unexpected connection, which both made her feel good, but at the same time was a little scary.

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

Chapter 25 – Neshnala’s Saga: Seekers

But what Neshnala did seem to have done was awaken something inside of her, something probably already there, perhaps had always been there, just never noticed; an awareness of the vastness and diversity of things, but at the same time an appreciation of the essential interconnectedness and inexorability of things.

What she was now thinking was frightening because it was so contrary to what she’d always believed, or what she had wanted to believe: that she was the one in control of her own destiny.

Ro sucked in her breath. “So that’s what that meant!” she muttered to Pete, then explained: “Do you remember me talking about Mrs. Klein’s homeroom” – it was when Ro was in ninth-grade – “and how she used to have these inspirational quotes projected up on her whiteboard every day for us to think about? I just remembered one of those quotes because it suddenly makes sense. It was a Buddhist proverb: ‘When the student is ready, the teacher will appear’.”

Thinking about the “conversations” she’d had with Pete over the years about her goal of becoming a cop, Ro snorted: “How many dozen times did I say in one way or another I thought I’d found my path. But what if it’s the other way around, Pete, what if it’s like this, ‘When the seeker is ready, the path becomes clear’?”

She thought back to when she’d quite unexpectedly, even to herself, announced to her fifth-grade class she was going be a cop… Not grow up to be a mother, or a doctor, or a pop singer – a cop… Quite unexpectedly…

She thought of Sonny, whose father had introduced him to golf as something a father and son could do together… Not play catch, or attend a stock car race, or watch sports on TV – golf… Only to discover, quite unexpectedly, the young man was very good at golf…

She thought back to when Atti, who was only fifteen at the time, had, quite unexpectedly, admitted to her friend she’d slept with a boy, not because she was even remotely infatuated with him, but just because she was curious about what the experience was like… Not day-dreamed about it, not sneaked an erotic book to read, not looked at pornography online – had sex with him… Quite unexpectedly…

“I was supposed to be a cop,” Ro muttered out loud, articulating what was becoming clear, “Sonny was supposed to play golf; Atti was supposed to collect experiences.” That brought a small laugh, because she’d never quite thought of Atti like that, yet knew it was a perfect description of her friend – a collector of experiences.

“Okay,” she said aloud to the teddy bear, “let’s finish this out… So, where does this ‘supposed to’ thing come from? I think it’s inside of us, always has been, we just need to let it out.” She snorted, “I know… We can ignore it, we can deny it, we can even fight with it, but it’s always there, waiting patiently for us to be ready.”

Ro pursed her lips: “You’re right, I did leave out someone didn’t I?” After a pause: “Um… I guess it’s because I don’t think Frank’s path has found him yet.” She didn’t know exactly why she said it, except it was how she felt.

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

“When writing a novel, a writer should create living people; people, not characters. A character is a caricature.”

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)

That’s all well and good, Ernie; but if you actually DO create a living character, you darn well know they have the nasty habit of keeping you awake until all hours of the night demanding you pay attention to THEIR story – how come you didn’t warn us about that?

Chapter 24 – Neshnala’s Saga: 2003

(This is first part of a draft chapter from the next Ro Delahanty novel, “The Berlin Fiddle”.)

Ro had learned if she didn’t feel sleepy within a few minutes of lying down, she wasn’t going to sleep; this morning was one of those times.

After their stop at Brody’s, Frank had gone back to the park and she’d returned to her apartment, undressed and climbed into bed. She’d really thought she was tired; they had made love half the night, they’d gone out to see Neshnala, then to Brody’s. But now she found herself sitting up against a pile of pillows looking across the dim room at Peter Panda in his usual spot on top of her dresser.

“What’re you staring at?” she said with mock impatience to the three-foot teddy bear that had been her “roommate” since she was two years old. Her sounding board and confidante, she thought of him as her version of Wilson from the Tom Hanks’ film “Cast Away.” Clearly well-loved, he had several bare spots in his “fur” and because one corner of his mouth was missing had this silly, but at the same time inscrutable smile.

“Whaddya mean, ‘Is something’s bothering me?’ No…,” she insisted.

After a pause: “I know I can’t sleep. That doesn’t mean something’s ‘bothering’ me.”

The teddy bear just stared back with an expression that said, “R-i-g-h-t…”

“Okay, I guess you could say ‘bother,’” she said with resignation. “But, it’s not like upsetting… It’s more like so much has happened I kind of need to sort it out.”

“Like?” she said, repeating Pete’s question: “Well, let’s see – I became a deputy sheriff,” there was clear pride in her voice; “I’ve got a new ‘boyfriend,’” she said “boyfriend” as though it had quotes around it; “I was in a shootout with some bad guys,” this matter-of-factly, like it was a normal part of her job; “I helped clean-up body parts after a pretty horrible accident,” also matter-of-factly; “Sonny’s going pro,” this was with affection; “Atti’s really excited about her new job,” also with affection; “and I got to pay my respects to Neshnala,” this with wonderment.

“What?” she said with a frown of disbelief. “No, I am not jealous of Sonny and Atti. I can’t believe you even asked that question. Why would I be jealous? I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do. They’re doing what they want to be doing.” She shrugged, “See, all’s right with the world…”

After a pause: “Why are you looking at me like you don’t believe me?” She rolled her eyes, answering the teddy bear’s question: “Oh, so you think I’m agonizing… Well, I suppose I am, but about what? I don’t think for one second that Sonny shouldn’t be playing golf or that Atti shouldn’t…”

Her mouth dropped open and she sucked in her breath, like something important had just occurred to her: “…Atti shouldn’t be who she is.” Then, shaking her head added, “No, that’s a cop out, Pete… It’s too… Too pat… Too easy…”

Even though Ro was aware the stuffed animal had no facial muscles and couldn’t change its expression, she “knew” one eyebrow went up, encouraging her: “Okay… Keep going…”

“But, where do you want me to go?” she demanded, confused by a jumble of thoughts.

She plucked at the light blanket that lay across her lap… She stared out the window… She adjusted the position of her butt… She plumped the pillows, again…

“I know I’m stalling,” she finally said to the teddy bear, then laughed because she almost added, “Give me a minute,” the very same words she’d said to Frank a little over two hours ago when she was resting her fingers on Neshnala.


“Oh god,” she sighed, staring at Pete.

Suddenly connections started to fall into place, things began to make sense. When she’d approached the tree, and touched it for the first time, her only expectation – at least that she had been conscious of – was to pay her respects. It was a private ritual she’d repeated with literally hundreds of old trees for as long as she could remember. When she could touch a tree, she did; when she couldn’t, she pointed, but always with the same silent mantra: “I respect your age and your strength and what you’ve seen.” She didn’t know exactly what it meant, except it was how she had always felt around old trees.

Ro hadn’t really expected Neshnala to respond, no tree ever had.

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

Chapter 23 – Neshnala’s Saga: 2003

After a few seconds she heard Frank shuffle his feet, not impatiently, more like just wondering what if anything was going on. There’d been no lightning bolts or thunder crashes to mark her first touch of the venerable tree, just the usual quiet whisper of the breeze in the leaves overhead and the occasional rustle of night creatures stirring.

Still standing with her fingers on the tree’s flank, her head slightly bowed, Ro said, “Give me a minute.” She meant it both for Frank and for the tree.

“No problem,” Frank said, “take your time.”

She smiled to herself, thinking Frank was now surely having second thoughts about getting involved with this crazy tree-lady.

Ro frowned… Something was happening… There was a kind of emerging awareness of things she had never felt before. No, that’s not right; she’d always been intellectually “aware, ” but now it was more like she was actually a part of the rich and sticky, life-giving sap running up and down Neshnala’s flanks… Part of the vast number of rings in its core – she didn’t know how she knew, but knew, indeed, the tree was very, very old… Part of the tree’s measureless network of roots that over the centuries had clawed their way deep into the revitalizing earth… Part of the great shoulders of branches over her head, some thicker than her thigh, with their endless branching into smaller branches that in turn branched yet again and branched yet again to support millions of leaves soaking up the warmth and life-giving sun.

Ro’s frown quickly changed to a smile. She had always loved Neshnala. Its immense dignity had taken her breath away the first time she’d seen it, and it was taking her breath away yet again. It was so utterly, overwhelmingly beautiful, like sex, but certainly not erotic; filling her with understanding, not about anything specific – “Oh, I can speak Latin now” – but just about the Essence of things – and yes, she did think of it as having a capital E, like a sacred cannon – the totality of things.

She had no idea exactly what this Essence might mean or where it might take her, but just that for now it was enough.

With a contented sigh, she dropped her hand and stepped back. Turning to Frank, she said, “Thank you for that.”

“Did you pay your respects?”

“Yes, I did,” she answered, perhaps a little cryptically, hoping he didn’t push for more information because she had no idea how she could explain to him what had happened between her and Neshnala, since she didn’t yet understand it herself.

“Good,” he said, turning back toward the truck. Glancing at his watch, he added, “I’ve heard there’s this Brody’s Bakery in town that’s just opening for the morning and has these fantastic fresh donuts. Wanna get one and some coffee?”

Ro knew the place. It was on Taylor Avenue a little over two miles from her apartment. They had half-a-dozen bakery display cases as well as a dozen small booths for those who wanted to eat their donuts while still warm. When she’d been a third shift dispatcher, at least once a week or so a deputy would show up at the sheriff’s headquarters at the end of his shift with a dozen fresh donuts from Brody’s for the office staff.

“Let me pick-up my stuff at the cottage and you can follow me there,” she said.

“Sounds like a plan.”

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager


“Keep a small can of WD-40 on your desk — away from any open flames — to remind yourself that if you don’t write daily, you will get rusty.”

George Singleton (1958- )

So, I guess Singleton has found the one-thousand-and-SECOND use for this versatile product.

Chapter 22 – Neshnala’s Saga: 2003

Frank rolled off the bed and walked over to a dresser, picking up a ring of keys. He sorted through several, then held one up, adding with raised eyebrows, “Well, I happen to know somebody who has a key to the gate… Let’s go…”

“It’s three o’clock in the morning…”

“That means nobody’ll bother us.”

Because the previous afternoon had been a pleasant, though overcast mid-50s, Ro had worn jeans, a dark green, knit Henley-style shirt and a light windbreaker jacket. Her Glock 19 off-duty gun was locked in the gun safe in Frank’s office. Now a chilly, low-30s, Frank loaned her a fleece-lined hooded sweatshirt.

Neshnala was on top of the bluff toward the back of the state park, while the ranger’s cottage was near the front of the park below the bluff. The only way for them to get to it was to leave the park’s front entrance, go around to the west side of the park and re-enter on the Neshnala Road, which wound through wooded hills and valleys to the Neshnala meadow.

It took nearly fifteen minutes to reach the long, narrow parking lot adjacent to the tree. At one end of the lot were a couple of thick wooden posts with a chain between and a sign that said, “Service Road No Access.”

Frank unlocked the chain and they drove the roughly fifty feet to the ten-foot wide gate in the chain link fence that surrounded the tree, the truck’s headlights throwing a wide swath of light across its dark base, its shadowy crown looming overhead, blotting out a huge chunk of the sky.

They climbed out of the truck and walked up to the gate. As Frank unlocked it, Ro asked, “Have you ever touched Neshnala?”

“Lots of times, whenever we mow the grass or pickup leaves or fallen branches,” Frank said, matter-of-factly.

He swung the gate partly open and held it for Ro to enter first. She was used to seeing the entirety of Neshnala’s immense presence in daylight, tall and proud. Now, just seeing its huge trunk and the underside of its great cap of branches and leaves, the tree had an eerie, brooding look.

As she started slowly walking toward the tree, still some fifty feet away, she had to work her way between, or step over the great gnarled knuckles of its roots that thrust up from the ground.

She felt… Afraid? No, not fear. Neshnala was awesome, ineffable, but not fear-inspiring. Maybe a little apprehensive? Yea, that was more like it… A little nervous about what she might find; or not find… That idea was disquieting; while she didn’t have any idea what to expect, she knew she was expecting something.

“I’ve wanted to touch you for so long, what if I’m disappointed? Frank didn’t seem to think touching you was such a big deal,” she thought, silently addressing the tree. She recalled her second-grade school mates whose attitude had seemed to be pretty much like Frank’s: “Yea, it’s a big ole tree; but it’s just another tree. What if they’re right?”

In the wan light from the truck’s headlights, the tree’s wrinkled bark was a ghostly gray.

When Ro finally reached the tree – Frank a couple of yards behind – she did what she always did with her favorite old trees, reached out, put her finger tips lightly on its bark, bowed her head slightly and whispered under her breath, “Respect.”

Ro felt what she always felt when she was near any old tree; a pleasant, but mild sense of peace and, at the same time vigor.

As she always did, after a few seconds she went to take her hand away and move on with the rest of her life… Except she found this time she didn’t want to lift her hand away. It wasn’t as if the tree was somehow holding her, it was more like she had this need inside to stay there, waiting…

For what, she didn’t know… Only that she knew there was some reason to wait…

To be continued…
(C) 2018 Dave Lager

Chapter 21 – Neshnala’s Saga: 2003

Rolling her eyes in exasperation, not at Frank’s question, but at her difficulty in expressing her thoughts, Ro stammered, “They’re… They’re… I don’t quite know the right word… Comforting? I feel good when I’m in the trees… Really good, like… Like I’m among friends…Energized somehow… But it’s not like I get the so-called runner’s high from the trees, that’s different… It’s more like this feeling of peacefulness…”

“And do you always touch them?”

“Yea, whenever I can, the really old ones, anyway.” She saw herself running along the narrow dirt trails. If an old tree was close to the path she would run her fingers lightly along its rough bark and mutter, “Respect,” as she passed. If it was off the trail – ten, twenty or more feet – she would just point at it and nod her head, again in reverence.

And she always stopped at Neshnala.

Frank cocked his head to one side, asking, but not actually saying, “And…?”

This conversation was turning out to be a lot more “personal” than she had originally thought.
With a sigh, as if she was afraid she was admitting to something that was going to be embarrassing, Ro said, “I’m showing my respect.”

“Oh,” Frank said with a nod, as if that was the most natural of answers, then rather unexpectedly asked, “How many times have you visited Neshnala?”

“Hundreds,” Ro said with a shrug. “The first time I think I was in second grade on a field trip. Bill Cummins” – the recently retired Five Falls park ranger that Frank had replaced – “told us it was believed to be at least 250 years old and that the Sauk Indians that lived in the area called it Neshnala, the Tree of Knowledge. As I said, my dad and I used to hike up to see it all the time and now, whenever I run out here, I always go through the Neshnala meadow.”

“Have you ever touched Neshnala?”

Ro reared back, stunned at the question. For as long as she could remember the tree had been surrounded by a six-foot high chain link fence.


“Would you like to?”

Her mouth dropped open. Of all the life experiences she might wish for, that was one Ro never thought she would or could have. In some corner of her mind she had to have known that Frank, as the park ranger, had the key to the Neshnala fence, but it had never occurred to her to ask him to open it for her and let her in.

“Oh my god, yes,” she said with excitement.

To be continued…

(C) 2018 Dave Lager

The demon keyboard

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

—George Orwell (1903-1950)

No wonder my keyboard seems to have this strange power over me…

Scroll Up