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!

Long Time, Longer Journey: A Groundhog in Training

The season’s blessings approach this winter of my discontent and I, steeped in the release of my latest novel and deep into the draft of my next venture, have rarely looked up from the keyboard. Yes, I’ve been ‘away’ for a while. The nightmare in November, otherwise known as the election, has sapped my will to post. How to reconcile the angst in a way that followers of both political persuasions can accept? Still, I carry on, hiking the fields, staring at the pond, drawing sustenance from the earth. Perhaps that is as it should be. I have borrowed from the groundhog playbook and settled into my winter den well before the weather shifts into gear.

There is value in withdrawing from stridency. Solitude begets calmness, increases fortitude, nurtures commitment. I make, and break, a vow to cut off contact with social media, arguing that a wound constantly bothered will refuse to scab and heal. The best of comments on the small screen are marred by the worst of attacks by smaller minds. But then here comes December, sneaking up behind to kick my sorry ass into a new dimension.

The holidays – Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanzaa, and others that fill this calendar month – beckon, not with consumeristic glee but with candles and cookies and prayer. That advent wreath on your table, that menorah in the dining room, that kwanzaa flame reminding me of virtues tested and found strong, shake their fiery fingers and whisper, “There is goodness in the world. Find it. Feed it. Carry it like an ember in the pocket of your soul.”

The road goes on forever, Bilbo Baggins said, and I am one more pilgrim trudging down the path. I’ll hunker down, draw within, fatten up for the journey to come, the rivers to ford, the battles to engage. I would like you to travel with me. Here, take my hand. After the clouds, the sun will shine.

Carving Pumpkins

 

One of my favorite October rituals is carving pumpkins for Halloween. As soon as those orange gourds appear on the gardening lots, I experience a visceral need to stroll the fields, weighing the choices. It is not an easy decision. Size, weight, and surface area are integral to the creation of funny, spooky or downright creepy pumpkin faces. Once the selection has occurred, I load the potential jack-o-lanterns on my cart and, Sisyphus-like, push them toward the car. Once home, I spend more time arranging them in suitable groupings. (Did I mention I don’t buy just one?!!) The carving itself waits until October 31st. That way, I have plenty of time to sketch out faces, prepare my special pumpkin knives and anticipate the tactile pleasure of pulling out pumpkin guts. The smell of the fleshy interior is distinctive and so very fall-ish. And those seeds, rinsed and de-gooed, make for tasty roasting. All in all, it’s a feast for the senses, to be sure.

Carving pumpkins is a lot like crafting a story. Anticipation plays a huge role in the preliminary writing stage. I wander through my ideas, searching for the strands that most speak to me in the moment. Once the decision is made, I collect the disparate elements and bring them to the page, contemplating the next step. What will happen as these characters develop? How will they look, act, think, react? Can I trust myself to create just the right tone as I write the story? With the initial decision clarified, placement of plot lines becomes central to the development of the work. Pacing can make or break a piece. My line-by-line synopsis grows as the story does, a useful guide for the more intricate carving to come. Change and re-arrange are essential elements. Once the draft is complete, the real work begins, the increasingly subtle use of the metaphorical knife to shave away the unnecessary bits and reveal the inner life.

October fades, like the light, echoing ancient rites, blending the pagan and the Christian as the calendar turns. Observing the blend of primitive and modern, listening to the excited greetings of miniature ghosts and superheroes, I am transported into fantasy and imagination, two places where the artistic and creative life thrives.Within the glow of candlelight and toothy pumpkin grins, I find inspiration to continue my journey through the fields of story.

Happy Carving!

Why Am I A June Bug When I Want To Be A Firefly?

Dusk, and the porch light snaps on, its electronic eye vigilant against the growing darkness. Soon, they begin the slow circling of the light, their plump bodies thumping on the glass. Restless, always seeking to attain the elusive prize, to become one with the light, they blunder on. When sun touches the concrete steps, I find them there, laid out, lifeless, their energy spent reaching for success.

Meanwhile…in the wildflower garden, the fireflies wing their way to immortality. Fluttering, streaking, wrapped in light they carry within themselves, they cavort above the grasses, their mating goal only a brief spark away. Beauty, grace and effortless flight, these marvels of the night realm win the prize with minimum effort and maximum grace. Oh, to be a firefly!

Sitting at my desk, stretching mind over matter, fingers pressing keys, I push my ideas toward the light of publication. It is hard work, this striving toward the golden ring, but I keep battering away. There are times when a respite from the ambitious yearning would be welcome, but my genetic makeup precludes quitting. Like those plump and driven bugs, I press myself into the battle over and over again.

Why do I write? Because I have to. As with any passion, this one requires dedication, perseverance, a belief that the goal can be reached if only the lover strives long enough.

Tireless, thick-skinned, the June bugs hammer against the odds. Tireless, less armored against rejection, I blunder on, longing to be that firefly that grasps the prize the first time but conscious that my path is longer, my goal less sure. I may not get there, but I will exhaust my effort in the cause. Because, in my soul, I am a firefly, waiting to be transformed…

A Gardener’s Guide to Writing (part II)

Status update: I’m feeling quite Juney these days. June bugs by the porch lights…Juneteenth celebration upcoming…anniversaries of June weddings…even the June-ipers are blooming with berries (okay, that one’s a stretch, but the observation is true!). The raised garden beds rendered a fine crop of cool-weather spinach and lettuce. Now those plants are wilting, while the peas hang heavy on their stalks, the carrots and green onions are sprouting and the tomatoes…well, they’re just getting started. To everything, as the Bible says, there is a season.

Ideas are like seeds, surprising in their appearance, responding to the proper stimulus, reaching toward the sky when well-established. With careful tending, each will blossom and bear fruit. But sometimes the terrain is just too inhospitable, the winds too strong. Sometimes they just fall on rocky soil. Past performance is not the measure of future yield.

In my Documents file and in folders stashed in my file cabinet, I have pages filled with titles and opening lines and plots. This is my secret seed bank, stockpiled against the Armageddon of writer’s block, although if I’m being honest, that has never been my problem. Rather, I have an overabundance of stories, far too many to cultivate now. Too little time, too little space. Just like in my garden, I’m forced to cull the crops. If I leave all those little carrotlings growing, not a one of them will become a full-grown carrot. So, too, with my tales.  For ideal harvest, I must doom some to oblivion so that others may persevere. Truthfully? I lean heavily on faith. What else explains my willingness to believe  that the tiny seed in my hand/head, buried in the dirt of my garden/imagination will actually give rise to something wonderful?

How do you select the best kernels to sow? I examine my ideas for size and weight and viability. The shriveled, the half-husked, the runts I toss or combine with other, sturdier seeds. Such specificity may mean I overlook the one prize-winner among them, but I can’t dwell on might-have-beens. Like the seeds that flourish, the stories that thrive and grow and produce the best result are those I have chosen, cherished, tended and plucked at their peak moments. Good writers, like good gardeners, know that they are at the mercy of the elements — some plants/tales just don’t make it to the table.

Happy planting!