When a Member of your Writer’s Group Dies

James O. Phillips

In mid-April of this year, the Tunnel Fire engulfed more than 16,000 acres northeast of Flagstaff, Arizona, prompting the evacuation of more than 700 homes. One of those homes was that of Jim Phillips, a long-time member of the speculative fiction writers’ group of which I’ve been a part about fifteen years. Jim joined the group when he used to live in Duluth, Minnesota, and was a member of Lake Superior Writers. After he retired, he moved to Arizona, where he lived alone with two cats for at least half a dozen years. His nearest relatives lived several states away.

After the evacuation ended, a neighbor noticed that Jim’s Jeep was in the same spot it had been before the evacuation. Concerned, the neighbor apparently called the police to do a welfare check on Jim. They found him dead of “natural causes.” He had been dead for several days.

It was during this time we were supposed to have our monthly Zoom meeting to discuss our writing. We hadn’t heard from Jim about his availability for the meeting, so we delayed it until we learned more about his status. It just seemed weird to have a meeting without him.

We were aware of the evacuation and thought maybe he left his home so fast, he forgot to take his phone charger or something. That would be like him. My emails and texts to him remained unanswered, which was unlike him.

There are two other women in our group besides me, Linda and Lacey. Linda is retired and had a bit more time on her hands to investigate what was going on with Jim. Lacey has her own blog (Lacey’s Late-night Editing) and wrote a post that goes into detail about the events, should you be curious.

Linda doggedly tracked down information about Jim and called me when Russ and I were on vacation in Yosemite National Park to deliver the sad news. I was shocked, to say the least. We knew Jim had some health issues, but he had seemed fine the month before when we met via Zoom.

Like I told an acquaintance recently, Jim just “up and died on us with no warning.” It was disconcerting, and it took me several days to get out of my funk, even though I was surrounded by the unsurpassed natural beauty of the park. I found comfort in that beauty.

I’ve become a fan of Spotify and its various music mixes. A song called, “Resist the Urge” by Matt Sweeney popped up in my Daily Mix during vacation. Although I don’t agree with the song’s encouragement not to grieve someone’s death (you need to feel all the feels!), I do like the lyrics that say, “If you need reminders, look around at what is huge and wild and there you’ll see the way . . . I may not be there bodily, but in the wind, I’m here.”

Jim enjoyed hiking and getting out in nature. He often regaled us with tales of his hikes around Arizona. I felt he would approve my turning to nature to grieve. There wasn’t even a funeral for him that we could attend to share our grief. Not even an obituary we could find online. However, Jim started a speculative fiction group in Arizona and a member wrote a post about him (with Linda and Jim’s sister’s assistance). It’s fitting and such a good remembrance of him.

I especially appreciated this comment in the post: “The writing communities of Duluth and Flagstaff will fondly remember Jim for his scientific curiosity, love of all things science fiction and horror, his wicked sense of humor, his keen editorial eye, and his promotion of the Oxford comma.”

Our writers’ group at the Grand Canyon, 2017. From left: Linda, me, Jim, Lacey, Lacey’s husband Ivan and baby.

Since we couldn’t attend a public funeral, my writer’s group decided to hold a ceremony of our own. Last weekend, we gathered in Willmar, Minnesota, (the halfway point between all of us geographically). We had lunch together and then made our way to a state park north of town, where we hiked a short way on a trail (“Trail J,” for Jim). We found a small grove of oak trees and ventured off the trail to sit among them. I’m sure Jim would have approved of the location.

We shared our collective memories and feelings about Jim. We all were grateful for the visit we paid him a few years ago in Flagstaff, where we all gathered for several days. We visited the Grand Canyon and met with the writer’s group he had organized there.

As Lacey so aptly said in her blog post, losing a writing friend is different from losing a “regular” friend:

There is a part of me, a deep and essential part of me, that these three — now only two — people know more intimately than anyone else in my life. To share your writing with another, especially in its formative stages, requires a great deal of vulnerability. And from that vulnerability comes a trust that rivals the trust I have in my husband, my best friend, or my mom. Because time and again, they have proved themselves worthy to be allowed into my inner landscape, the world of my mind that is shared only sporadically with those I share my “real life” with.

Losing one of the few people who I consistently trusted with that part of myself is no small thing. And grieving it is no small task, especially when it is tied up so closely with the very thing I have turned to throughout my life to process everything else. But it’s the only way forward.

Jim provided a unique viewpoint on our writing that no one else will be able to match. Besides that, he was just an all-around good person. Even though he died alone with his cats, the ripples from his death reverberate through our lives, and it’s going to take some time to recover.

I couldn’t write any fiction for about six weeks after his death. When I did try, my output was only half of normal.

I’m okay with that. It’s going to take time to get over this.

When we met in Willmar, we didn’t bring any writing to critique. We’re saving that for our next meeting in August, when Lacey will be in Duluth (from her home in South Dakota). I suspect this meeting will be difficult without Jim, but we know he would want us to continue forward. He’d want us to keep writing. The WORST thing we could do is stop writing.

So, we will keep moving forward, keep putting words to paper. Keep hoping they are worthy.

We’ll miss you, Jim.

Pelican Spring

An American white pelican comes in for a landing on the St. Louis River, MN. The bump on its bill denotes that it’s a breeding bird. The bump falls off after the birds have mated and laid eggs.

Last week I took the long way home from work. My route took me past Chambers Grove Park, which is in the far western part of Duluth, along the St. Louis River. I had heard that the pelicans were back, resting there on a stopover during their migration north, and I wanted to see them.

I brought my camera in case the birds were close enough for me to photograph. Alas, the experience reinforced my thought that I really need to buy a more powerful telephoto lens! Also, the light was right in my face, harsh and white, fading out everything on the far side of the river where the pelicans rested.

Luckily, a few were flying around, and I was able to get at least one good shot.

According to the Duluth News Tribune, pelicans were “virtually unseen in Minnesota between the late 1800s and 1960s. Fishermen destroyed them out of the erroneous belief that they competed for game fish, and pesticides took a toll.” They mostly prefer nongame fish and do not compete with anglers.

No pelicans in this shot (but they are nearby). I just liked the cloud and water patterns. St. Louis River, MN.

Thanks to environmental reforms and protection, their numbers have recovered. Minnesota boasts one of the largest populations of nesting white pelicans in the world. I thought I’d share my photos from my sojourn with you.

If you’d like to see some better, close-up images of the birds, please visit Richard Hoeg’s blog, “365 Days of Birds” for some great shots.

Despite the snow we’ve been having lately, their presence is a sure sign that spring is coming.

Challenge: Describe Your Community in One Word

Duluth city lights as seen from the water at night.

Duluth city lights as seen from the water at night.

In a short chapter in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, (Chapter 33) Gilbert and her friend discuss how every city and its inhabitants can be defined in a single word, and that each community is different. For instance, their word for New York City was ACHIEVE. Their word for Stockholm, Sweden, was CONFORM. For Naples, Italy, it was FIGHT.

During a lunch outing a few years ago, my girlfriend and I decided that the word REMOTE fit our city of Duluth, Minn., not only for geography but for the people. Duluth is often the butt of jokes from the rest of civilization as being at the end of the world. This since it is so far north, and it serves as the end of the line (or beginning?) for highways, railroads, and shipping routes. If traveling north, we are a last bastion of goods and services before one reaches our friends in Canada.

As for the people, although we are “Minnesota Nice,” we can be hard to get to know. Some of us have lived here for several generations and we have our own cliques – like in the state of Maine, there are those from “here” and those from “away.” And you’re not really from “here” unless your grandparents were born here.

The harshness of the long winter can also make Duluthians seem remote – it’s too damn cold to shoot the breeze when you meet someone on the sidewalk, or we’re too tired from shoveling snow to have energy to socialize. It can take time for new residents to break through and find connections.

Imagine my interest when I saw an article, “Remote Minnesota: Where is the most far-away spot in Minnesota?” in the latest Minnesota Conservation Volunteer magazine (produced by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources). The author describes his quest to find the most remote and primitive spots in the state. He defined remote as a place farthest from any type of road, including Forest Service roads and private driveways.

Of course, with so many roads and driveways, it wasn’t Duluth. With the help of a Geographic Information System specialist, the author finds the spot on the shores of Knife Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota — twelve miles from a road.

The most primitive spot in the state is the bog country north of Red Lake. The author and his wife visited both places and described their experience. They found these wild spots “places where our imaginations can simmer.”

Now that the most-remote place in the state is official and it’s not Duluth, maybe I should change the defining word for the city. Also, several years have passed since my girlfriend and I defined it, and in the meantime, Duluth has earned national accolades, such as “Best Outdoors City” to live in. Not to mention all the microbreweries popping up everywhere. Perhaps we are getting too hip for REMOTE.

Duluthians, what do you think our defining word should be now? Readers outside of Duluth, what word would you use to define your community? I’d be interested to hear!

Beer: A Love Story

Woman holding glass of beer over her head

Woman holding glass of beer over her head (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s not my love story; I’m more of a wine person. But I did meet someone who loves beer. A group I’m a member of met at the new Canal Park Brewing Company in Duluth a few days ago. In addition to our group meeting, we got a tour of the on-site brewery by Jeremy, one of the brew masters.

Jeremy is just four days into his job and it shows. Bright-eyed and bushy-faced (he has a sparse beard), he spoke with true enthusiasm. He comes to northern Minnesota from Milwaukee, which, of course, is known for its beer. Jeremy has a good pedigree; he’s done college work in biochemistry and almost has a doctorate in it. It sounded like the only thing standing in his way was some impatience with academic bureaucracy.

He’s done a lot of work with yeast and home brewing, and he worked as a volunteer for a well-known brewery in Milwaukee, the name of which I can’t recall because I was drinking wine at the time. And I’m drinking a nice zinfandel as I write this, which is not helping.

Anyway, this is Jeremy’s first paying job at an official brewery. He showed my group around the temperature-controlled vat room (a cool 53 degrees) and the warmer room where they store the hops. We also got to see the fancy computer panel that he uses to cause various mysterious things to happen to the brews, and the hopper that dispenses the grain so vital for the operation.

So it was the lure of this job that brought him to Duluth, and also . . . you guessed it . . . a woman. His lady friend happens to work for the competition: Fitger’s Brewhouse , just up the shore of Lake Superior a bit.

Seeing someone so obviously well-suited to their job was fun, and it was nice to think that love was an important side-benefit of Jeremy’s move north. Being a fly on the wall during one of his conversations with his lady friend about brewing and what their respective work places are up to would be so interesting. Do they share trade secrets with each other or keep mum for fear of giving the other an advantage?

Although I didn’t drink the beer so can’t comment on it (and you wouldn’t want me to), the food was notable, the wait staff attentive, and they were patient with someone like me who had questions about which entrees are best to eat for someone who can’t tolerate wheat (yet another reason I don’t drink beer, besides the taste). I had a Jaeger burger, which features smoked gouda cheese, black forest ham and sautéed wild mushrooms (without the bun), along with some garlic mashed potatoes.

And Jeremy answered all the questions we threw at him. I could tell he loved the topic of beer and I’m sure he’ll do credit to this profession. So, if you’re ever in Duluth, stop in at the Canal Park Brewing Co. And no, they are not paying me to say that!

Snow Angels with a Cause

Snow Angel 019B

Making a snow angel harkens back to a northern childhood winter ritual, usually performed with friends. It’s just not something you do alone. You flop down and swish your arms back and forth, usually ending up with a cold face full of snow. I remember creating many while growing up. Ever the perfectionist, I worked hard to get up and out of my angel without leaving evidence of footprints or handprints; as if the angel truly fell from the sky into the snow.

Last weekend, about 2,000 people lay down in the snow together, flapping their arms and legs. They gathered at the University of Minnesota Duluth’s football stadium, trying to break a world record for the most snow angels created simultaneously.

I’ll cut the suspense; no record was set (we would have needed about 9,000 people for that) but the event raised money for a good cause: clean water for Ethiopians. It was organized by a Duluth Rotary Club and Proctor High School DECA.

I attended with my teenage son, two of his friends, and one of the boy’s mothers. Although things were a bit confused, and certain people’s feet got cold because they didn’t listen to their mother and wear boots (ahem), the mood of the crowd was one of hope and whimsy.

The hope wasn’t centered so much around breaking a record as it was on bringing the community together for a common purpose. There’s something about so many people gathered to do the same thing that serves as a reminder of the power of the individual.

Whimsy was present, of course, in the act of creating the snow angels. It was also in the costumes some wore so they would be able to pick themselves out in the aerial photo taken by a helicopter that flew overhead at the appointed time.

Hope and whimsy: it was in this spirit that all of us gathered. And for a few minutes, we truly were snow angels with a common cause.