October…a prose poem in three stanzas

If April is ‘the cruelest month,’ October is the most seductive. I am thrice bitten…by the whisper and crunch of fallen leaves, the distant call of migrating geese, the yawning fields and garden beds settling into slumber. October crooks a finger and I lean into the wind, eager to grow hobbit feet and slip off among the trees, to follow streams and trails, to sleuth the beauty hiding beyond the next turn. The seasonal sights of orange lanterns strung beneath black spiderwebs, the excited squeals of children anticipating the candy feast to come, the pop-up costume stores enticing me to become someone else, if only for one night — all underwrite  the ancient appeal of the mystical and the magical. So, yes, I am seduced by the round-eyed, plump, hip-swishing month of October.

My writing revels in the same roly-poly autumnal slide. Each manuscript exudes an Octoberish magic. After much planting and weeding and harvesting, the stories I have incubated over the summer now breathe on their own. I am Victor Frankenstein strapping the monster to a table, primed for the lightning. I am Dracula outside the window waiting for an invitation to crawl into the story. These characters, once only shadow, now appear fleshed out and sassy. I am the Wolfman howling under a fat Octoberine moon as my plot runs before me. My stories, crafted from musing and imagination, insist on breaking free, following their own unexpected course. I am my own childhood self, ringing doorbells, shouting trick or treat, anticipating the unexpected as it pops out from page, daring me to stand firm.

Among the last of the wildflowers, bushy heights of Michaelmas daisies, I lift my face to the breeze, inhale the wood tang from the fire pit and let the harvest chant of dying crickets settle on my shoulders. October sends an embrace, a love letter written in clear, star-stressed skies and coyote howls echoing from the wood. Indoors, in the author’s den, worlds brim with chaos and anarchy, but I wield the final penstroke. I get the last word, laugh the last laugh, can be the Poe or Shelley of my October days. Write on, the ghost of summer whispers, and fall holds its breath.


Honing the Harvest…

Listen. Do you hear that? The rustling of autumn grasses, the chirring of locust wings, the goodbye calls of flocking birds as the earth turns to bounty and binds itself to a new season. I have spent the summer planting, tending, filling the freezer with vegetable goodies, preparing for the months when the soil slumbers. As I put my garden to bed, the fertile blank spaces of my writing await a different kind of harvest…words, phrases, plots, themes and, above all, hope.

This month I send out queries for my newest manuscript, one I have weeded with special care, watered with conviction and fertilized with research. Now, I must offer it to others, this lovely growth of stem and flower. Like a table filled with farm produce at the market, my wares will splay themselves on someone’s desk, waiting to be purchased, shucked and served to hungry readers.

Okay, that paints a pretty picture, but it fails to reveal all the sweat equity invested in both my literal and my figurative garden. I’ve removed the props from my beans and tomatoes, chopped the once-laden plants into mulch. So, too, I’ve gathered the fruits of my prose, inspected them for insects and blight, stored the notes and revision cards, and practiced patience, perhaps the most important tool in the gardener’s and the writer’s box. I have also cultivated my writers’ groups, who protect, support, defend, nurture and prod me to go on. The willingness of fellow writers to critique, inspire, suggest, encourage cannot be overstated. Without them, my writing would never flourish.

I don’t know where you are in your writer’s garden. I do know that in the soil garden, there are blights and insect deprivations and too much heat, too much rain. With writing, there is always a lack of time or attention or inspiration or focus. Yet the planting goes on, so we can reach the harvest, savor the bounty and hone our harvest skills for the next great adventure. Prepare the soil, lay the compost and wait for the seeds to sprout.


Sharing Summer’s Grace …

No philosophy this month. No deep delving into the writer’s psyche. This column is about summer, about fireflies and crickets, wildflowers and mist rising above the pond, about  reading on the porch and wading in the water. This time, I’m writing about all the grace shadowing our lives, if only we dare to reach for it.

As July transitions into August, the garden offers beans and tomatoes in heaps and handfuls, while the carrots drill their way into fullness. The marigolds planted at the edges press against the sides of the raised beds, warning off the insects that come to feed on the leaves. Sometimes I swear they’d take to flight if they could. But nothing daunts the bunnies. I find their marks in the bottom half of the bloody butchers (an heirloom brand with a sweet taste and a thin skin), their rasps of canines against the eggplant rind. Along the back of the lawn, the wildflower garden shifts from coneflowers to Queen Anne’s lace. Prairie sunflowers wheel, ironweed flashes, and in the field, swaths of brown-eyed Susans wave as I slip between the grasses, my dew-wet boots barely rustling as I pass. The landscape is a cathedral. If I can’t find God residing in these vistas, I won’t find Him anywhere.

Some afternoons, rain lashes the siding, a jazz medley of percussion and drums. The Canadian barrel fills, ready for use on the impatiens, geraniums and petunias climbing out of the pots. Hummingbirds flit around the feeder, zooming in for sips as they protect their approach with chittering and stealth attacks.

Caught up in chores and worries, it is easy to ignore the simple beauty around us, the generous offerings of grace. These days, I remind myself frequently to pay attention, to open my arms and my heart and just breathe.

Writing insulates, cocooning the writer in the story being created. Stepping out of the fictional into the real involves disconnecting from the word, reconnecting with the world. And what a rich world it is, this august August.  The natural gifts of earth and sky offer all the blessings of this season.  I hold them out to you to taste and touch.

May these ‘dog days’ bring a special grace to your journey.

Saving Space For Sorrow…

When I’m immersed in a plot, one of my favorite lines to ponder is a quote from a John Irving novel The Hotel New Hampshire, I believe: “Sorrow floats.” Of course, in the novel, Sorrow is a stuffed dog, but in my experience, personal now as well as professional, sorrow is that emotion that sneaks up on you when you least expect it, scares the shit out of you and then begs for attention. There isn’t a doggy treat in the world that will satisfy the chap.

I’ve been reading an eclectic mix of books this summer: dystopian, paranormal, fantasy, literary, non-fiction. The one thing they all have in common is an inordinate amount of inexpressible sorrow. Art imitating life. And, reading the news from around the world,  that truth continues to batter into us. Many mornings I wake up with a fair amount of  dysfunctional anxiety, courtesy of our current government and society in general. No wonder old-timers refer, with profound sadness, to the “good old days.”  Maybe they weren’t so good, but they didn’t seem to harbor the precise amount of terror that we face today. Or perhaps that’s just wishful thinking and faulty memory.

See, sorrow is that visitor who usually arrives unannounced, although there are times when we can anticipate that arrival. Which is worse? The sorrow you see coming or the one that blindsides you? Is there any way to prepare for that crush of loss, that unfair tumble into the dark side? If you could tell the future, would you really want to know?

Where am I going with all of this? Well, my two current manuscripts both deal with sorrow in different ways, so I suppose this is a plea for a philosophical outburst of comprehension and acceptance. We anticipate joy, plan for pain, pursue happiness, accept suffering. But we put sorrow in a box and stuff it under a cushion, unaware of its longevity, oblivious to its nuanced intrusion into our lives. If we set aside a space and a place for it, would we deal better with the aftereffects?

Finding Your Trail…

hike 3Okay, here’s the thing. I’m a hiker. Not a biker. Not a runner. Not a motorized vehicle mama. In the water, I paddle. On land, I walk. I like the slow and steady pace of placing one foot in front of the other, the closet rumble of a well-fed stream just out of sight, the chatter of birds annoyed at my intrusion or simply sharing the day through song. I listen for the rustle of wind through the prairie flowers and grasses, the scurry of unseen animals in the brush. Revelation is scant steps away. On a good day, the sounds of the freeway two miles beyond the trees drift away and I am left with an elemental connection to the world around me.

Now, I’ve tried  other modes of getting from here to there. I owned a bike once, had a carrier for the kids and a basket for purchases. But that was a while ago, when the roads were less crowded and the number of distracted driver did not exceed the square root of one. We live now in an era when any one at any time may choose phone over attention to the road, wander over the center line or onto the berm, forget that he/she is not the master of the highway. My home is located in two-lane, backroads territory. Narrow streets and harried motorists make me leary of cycling. I’ve also given jogging a try, frequently and with little success, over the years. I challenge myself to run – one block, then two, then three. But before I’ve reached the end of the first section, my brain  whines, “Really? You want to run? What for, girl? Your feet work just fine. Besides, if you stop this foolishness, all your inside parts will stop jiggling.” (Yes, my brain does address me in that superior, smart-ass tone.) So I end the experiment, tighten my bootlaces and step onto the trail.

At the beginning of May, I had the good fortune to attend the International Trails Symposium in Dayton, “Where Trails Take Flight.” Lucky me. I could drive back and forth from home each day, no need to schlep a suitcase and adjust to a hotel room, all so I could learn more than I ever expected about trails, which are more than a path through the woods. There are scenic, historic, recreational, bike, re-purposed rail corridors, greenways in cities and reclaimed industrial sites in depressed areas around the country. Trail people are visionaries, seeking ways to expand the horizon of the moment, to encompass tomorrow in that meander through the woods, that stroll through the industrial heart of a city. The closing luncheon featured a presentation on how the trails-as-transportation revolution can revitalize and reclaim our cities and towns, and give us back our liveable space.

Which got me thinking about writing and writers and the trails we follow as we pursue our craft. Frequently, especially at writing conferences, some author presents a formula or recipe for writing. We argue the merits of outlining versus pantsing, of traditional publishing versus indie. But there is no one right way. There are only trails, branching off through the forest or across the tarmac, disappearing among the trees or perching along the ridge of a mountain or staggering through town. Scenic, historic, recreational…accessed in multiple ways by multiple trail-ers.

Every trail, on land or on the page, is one of discovery. For me, hiking works best. I expect to be surprised, so I try hard not to anticipate. Oh, I know where the trail begins, and I usually know where it ends. But the route I follow emerges as I go.

So, here’s the message I brought home for myself. Perhaps you will adopt it, too. Find Your Own Trail. If the path does not reveal itself, blaze a new one. You are unique. So is your vision. Who knows what wonders we’ll encounter along the way?

Happy Trailing!

April in Paris…continued

The trip to Paris and Normandy turned out to be more than we expected…in so many ways. I suffer from history overload and the urge to sip Calvados by the harbor in Honfleurs. Along the way, I kept a journal, but all I had time to record were the events themselves. My reaction to each day’s journeyings, such a complex set of emotion, rumination and evaluation, remain buried, ready for exhumation at a later date.

First, the weather. It was cool but sunny most days. Only on the final walking tour of Ile St. Louis and Ile de la Cite did I suffer from the chill…overcast, biting wind and the shops were all closed so I couldn’t even buy hot chocolate! 😦 Still, the images remain affixed to my memory bins…the Eiffel tower in the daytime and lit up at night, the flags at the landing beach in Normandy. The photos below offer a small sample of all we visited and the tremendous emotional lift we experienced as we traveled through the towns and the centuries.

Then, the land and its stories. D-Day is as palpable along the coast as it must have been that gloomy JUne day when the ships assembled off the coast and the young men prepared to storm the beaches, climb the cliffs. The cemetery, Museum and battle ruins on Omaha and Utah beaches gathered me in, whispering the names of the brave lads who knew the odds and charged forward anyway, willing to sacrifice their lives to restore peace and freedom to the people of France and the rest of Europe. Courage lives on there.

My favorite ruin was Chateau Gaillard, Richard the Lion-Hearted’s fortress three hundred feet above the River Seine. The wind crowed that day, too, challenging us to stand against its push as we listened to the stories of the building, of the princesses held captive and one strangled within the keep, and of the eventual surrender of the once-proud citadel. History mows down even the bravest and strongest…

The fellow travelers – Diane and Ann from Australia; Steph and Jon from Lincolnshire, England; Richard and Dorothy from California — each with a story of his or her own to share, of other travels, of life in their peculiar portion of the world. I promised to wrap them into a story of their own, so I’d best get busy writing.

So, recording each day’s travel log, I allowed stories to incubate, acknowledged the tendrils of plot snaking out to entwine around my psyche. Somewhere, a heroine lifts a sword, a soldier dons his battle gear, a child sneaks aboard a ship and ventures far from home. The traveler gathers memories, the writer weaves them into a tapestry, not as intricate as the one in Bayeux, but worthy fo the telling, nevertheless.

“April in Paris”…to be continued…

What seemed like a far-away dream in Januray of 2016 is close to reality. In two days I will board a plane and head to the City of Lights, journey up the Seine and stand on the beaches where men like my father and father-in-law mounted one of the greatest offensives in history. I intend to cry, to honor the fallen with my tears and my thanks. Along the way, I will gather details like flowers, press them between the pages of my journal and, later, mount them in stories.  Thus, I kill two birds with one stone…personal adventure and professional venture…can a writer ask for more?

To satisfy my wanderlust, I am willing to travel wherever opportunity takes me, although I must admit a preference for places where outstanding cuisine is an important measure of the culture. 😉 In any case, I will leave behind my percolating manuscript, the seething rot of the current political administration and the urge to check my news feed for breaking information. When I return, God willing and the creek don’t rise, the manuscript will be ripe for revision, our Congress will discover its duty to the country and act appropriately and the myriad notifications on all my electronic devices will have managed to activate their self-destruct mechanism. (Nah, don’t think that’s going to happen.) In any case, this blog is unfinished, and will remain so until I return.

If you, too, are wandering, I wish you Bon voyage! Godspeed! and Happy Travels!

Ides and Clover and the Fever of Spring

As predictable as the calendar, I turn the page to March and recognize the Bard chanting lines from “Julius Caesar” in my head:

Caesar: Who is it in the press that calls on me?/I hear a tongue, shriller than all the music,/cry “Caesar.” Speak, Caesar is turned to hear.

Soothsayer: Beware the ides of March.

Given the raucous, unsettling, weird political times in which we find ourselves, perhaps we all should heed the call: Beware. But it isn’t just the world of men who calls a warning. Nature, too, is shaking her finger at us. Pay attention. The turmoil in our government is matched by the topsy-turvy weather. Record somethings happen daily: floods, high temps, mudslides, snowstorms. Beware, indeed. Gaia, you have my attention

My local swell of earth and sky also sends a message. Two months before their usual arrival, the red-winged blackbirds have returned to the pond. They perch on the worn, brown stalks of cattails and squawk out in bird code the daily briefing. Buds are flourishing  that should still be asleep. If the temperatures plunge, all that blaze of spring glory will wither. While neighbors relish the opportunity to go coatless, a deep uneasiness takes hold. This spring fever may bring an illness that cannot be cured. And all along the path I walk in the nature park, clover breaks the surface. Too soon, I murmur, as I pass, but plants obey the beat of a different drum, the light and warmth of the day beckoning them out from slumber.

Caught up in the strange rhythm of the moment, I follow my writer’s heart to the core of story, drafting and revising, aiming for a resolution to my personal angst over the times in which I find myself and the situations in which I involve my characters. They, too, are swirling in the fever of my spring planting…seeds of plot and character and theme and prose rich enough to send them skyward. That’s what we hope for our creations, whether they are seeds sown in the earth or seeds scattered on the page. Caught in the loop of expectation and concern, I pursue the end game, ever mindful of the danger along the way. Beware, traveler, but stay steady. The course is rocky, but the reward is great.

Chasing the Valentine: Love and Inspiration

February 14. It’s only one day, after all, but expectations run high. Candy, flowers, candlelight. Music, movies, sex. A ride on love’s express, arms outstretched, waiting to capture the golden ring. One day in winter’s dark month to wish and hope and celebrate. So swiftly here and gone, which makes me wonder about the nature of expectations and the truth that underscores love.

Media campaigns convince us that heart-shaped valentines spell that truth, that a Hallmark card and an expensive bottle of wine equal the forever-love we all seek. I don’t believe it. Love, the kind we aspire to possess, lies deep below the superficial. It is mined from disappointment and grief, displayed in defeat and disaster, exposed when despair is replaced by hope.

I’m as romantic as the next person, some might say more. Last year I planned a special dinner, bought the perfect card, hoped that roses might appear by my plate. But life has a way of changing the most carefully laid plans. Right, Robert Burns? As Sunday morning rolled us toward delight, my mother-in-law struggled to breathe. By early afternoon, we were called to transport her to the emergency room. And that is where I spent my Valentine’s Day, interpreting the nurses’ comments (MIL is very hard of hearing), texting family members as the lab results came back, planning the week around the order to hospitalize. Romance took a back seat to familial love. Sitting beside her, watching her struggle to oxygenate, I thought about real love. Real love doesn’t flutter in and out, a naked baby with a bow seeking a tender soul to dazzle. Real love resides in the nitty gritty, down and dirty everyday actions that make up our lives. It fills the wrinkles in our lives, the creases in our souls.

Now, a year later, both my MIL and my own mother (in their 90s, God bless them) are approaching that end point of this earthly life, and I am wallowing in paperwork associated with their various needs, financial, legal, spiritual. Is it love that drives me on? Is it love that sustains me during the long hours, the Internet searches, the endless pieces of their lives spelled out in forms and documents? Even as I write this, I’m thinking about those cards we used to write for classmates: Be true. Be Mine. Kiss me. I think I’ll compose a special valentine letter for each of them, a tribute to their longevity and the contribution each has made to my love of life.

Twang! The arrow lifts free from the string and wings toward a target. I follow the arc, leaping from the practical problems of my very real life to the crafted lives of my characters, I search for incidents and events that reveal genuine love, the kind that holds us afloat, lights our personal darkness, shines brightest when the lights go out. There, that’s a forever Valentine we can believe in.

Taking Stock: The Janus Factor

The old year passes. The new one slips into place. The creative mind and the practical one juggle for position on the rim of tomorrow. I stand on the brink of the unknown, contemplating the void before me. Do I step back from the edge or leap forward? My choice balances between what has been and what will be. Unable to resist the pull of temporal gravity, I shuffle closer, breathless, wondering, and stare into the face of the Janus Factor.

You remember that ancient god, the two-headed coin, the backward glance fused to the brow-furrowed squint into the future? I’m well acquainted with this deity. As a writer, I have no real choice in the matter. My past accomplishments, documented by publication or rejection (plenty of those to call upon when ego threatens) drag at my heels. Future works hang like ripe fruit just beyond my outstretched hand. Borrowing a sports term, I teeter on the cusp of go-hard or go-home.

Among the multiple files on my computer are two serious contributors to my Janus factor: the first is a list of submissions, documented by date and cost and result. Each year going back to the true beginning of my writing career, that calendar day I realized if you send nothing out, nothing will happen, I have compiled proof that I’m not a dilettante at this writing business. I’m a serious practicioner of the art. The NO responses to submissions outnumber the YESes, but the pages prove my commitment.

The second crucial file is my idea box. It brims with titles and first lines and final paragraphs, bits and pieces of creativity awaiting a forever-home. They repose in unquiet lines, anxious, impatient, more than eager for their turn on the page.

Here, at the beginning of another year, I am caught between prior work and future production, between published pieces and works-in-progress.The looking-forward profile on my Janus coin trembles with nervous energy. “Get on with it,” the head advises. “Time passes.” The backward-facing silhouette sighs over past success, lost opportunity and the weight of daily living that gobbles time, prevents progress. Both counsel me to continue the quest. Auld lang syne might sound good on New Year’s Eve, but Carpe diem is best for tomorrow. Happy Writing Year!