Revise, Revisit, Redo

Celestial events are on my mind lately, influenced at least in part by this week’s solar eclipse. We didn’t see it here but some of my friends and relatives back east had a spectacular view. Even people who don’t normally follow these kinds of things seemed to be talking about it.

Some gardeners believe eclipses, moon phases and other activities in the heavens can impact our plants and gardens. The Farmer’s Almanac even provides information to help gardeners follow celestial rhythms. But gardeners aren’t the only ones who take their cues from gazing skyward. Many of the writers I know do too, particularly when it comes to the planet Mercury.

Mercury, in case you didn’t know, is the closest planet to the sun and the fastest one in our solar system. It rules communication of all kinds, as well as publishing and everything related to that industry. It rules other things too (technology, including computers, and travel being two of the biggies). Three times a year Mercury appears to move retrograde or go backwards for about three weeks at a time. When that happens, lifestyle stories sometimes pop up in the news or on social media feeds warning that Mercury is about to play havoc with communication, travel plans or our computers. And it’s true, if you follow the patterns, that there are more Mercury-related glitches during a retrograde period. But writers love it when Mercury is retrograde because it’s the perfect time to revisit manuscripts and refresh them. In fact, it’s the perfect time to do anything that starts with the prefix ‘re.’ And Mercury is retrograde right now.

Ironically, until the solar eclipse, I’d been too busy to notice. We have five yards of fish compost in our driveway waiting to be spread on the garden beds we’re revamping. I have a manuscript sitting on my desk needing to be reassessed and revised. There’s recycling that needs to be dropped at the depot. An orchid that needs to be repotted. All of these things are calling to me because in a few days we’re heading to the mainland to revisit family and friends and I’d like them done – or well underway in the case of the manuscript – before we go. The eclipse made me take a step back and look to the heavens. That’s when I realized I’m caught up in a number of Mercury retrograde activities. Does that mean I’m in the celestial flow? I hope so.  I’ll report back in a few weeks. When Mercury goes direct.  

What Would You Do . . .

                                          

. . . if you were guaranteed a positive reaction to your effort or decision?  Follow me down the rabbit hole (after all, it is nearly Easter).

I was talking to a friend recently about our mutual realization that we probably worry a bit too much about what others think. We didn’t go deep into the why of it; we were intent on enjoying our lunch. Instead, we briefly shared how this trait shows up in our respective lives. Curiously, we didn’t touch on how (or if) it impacts our creativity, though we both pursue creative work.

A few days later, I told a different friend, this one a talented visual artist, that I wanted to create a mosaic with our house numbers . . . something I could put on a large rock for the end of our driveway. I’ve had the idea in mind for over a year. We live on a cul de sac and the house numbers are not sequential or in any way logical. The numbers we have on our house are often overlooked by delivery folks. We need something with more presence at the street. I could get a rock engraved, but I wanted something different. Something with a little more color and interest.  Something personal.

I’m not a visual artist. I’ve made a couple of mosaics in my life, with guidance, and I had so much fun doing them! And while I’m happy with the mosaics I made, I’m under no illusion that they demonstrate any great artistic or design skill. Still, I love that I was able to create something visual like that myself. Why not do something similar on a rock?  I wondered. Especially since I already have a decent-sized rock waiting to be used.

I started thinking about the shape of the rock in question . . . I considered colors . . . I began to cast around for design ideas.

That’s when it hit me: the end of our driveway. Our driveway.  And instead of feeling filled with anticipation and joy, I felt a tiny jolt of horror.

The rock, or, more specifically, the mosaic, would be on full display for everyone to see. Not everyone would like it. Some people might even point out its flaws, for flaws it would certainly have.

I’d stepped right back into worrying what other people would think.  

Mr. Petrol Head can relate. After twenty+ years of sporadically working to restore a 1959 Sunbeam Alpine, his restoration is nearly complete. So much so that he’s finally taking it to a couple of British car shows this summer. Everyone who comes loves cars, so he’s sure to get a lot of positive feedback. But he’s likely to get some ‘constructive’ feedback too. “It’s not 100%,” he admits. “And someone is bound to notice.”

Regardless, he’s taking a risk and putting himself out there. Instead of asking himself what he would do if he was guaranteed only a positive reaction to his efforts, he’s asking himself the only question that counts: what is he so excited to do that it doesn’t really matter what kind of reaction he gets?

I admire his attitude. The question is, can I embrace it? Only time, or more specifically the rock, will tell.

My March Reads

Today is the spring equinox, that point in time when day and night are the same length all around the world. As we in the north tilt more towards the sun, our days get longer and our nights get shorter. Warmer weather is coming and so is spring. Speaking of spring, our clocks ‘sprang’ forward an hour last weekend, marking a return to daylight saving time. Regardless of whether you think that’s a good or bad thing, this time of year definitely calls on us to get out of the house and be more active. For me, that means more time in the garden and the occasional bike ride after dinner. For now, though, the evenings are still cool, so I’m quite happy to curl up with a book after dinner. Here’s what I’m reading this month.

The Happy Life of Isadora Bentley by Courtney Walsh

Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life by Hector Garcia & Francesc Miralles

Three Souls by Janie Chang

Books read to date in 2024: 16

Words Matter

                                              

This week is Words Matter Week, a time devoted to the celebration of words.  Started six years ago by the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors, the goal is to promote opportunities for (and bring awareness to) people who make a living with their words. And I can certainly get behind that!

This year, however, I’m thinking about the importance of words generally, not only written ones, and I owe it to my neighbor.

For the last few years, she has hosted foreign high school students during the school term. This year, she has two students living with her – a student from Spain and a student from Japan. Japan and Spain happen to top the list of places we’d like to visit in the not-too-distant future, and when I mentioned that to my neighbor, she suggested we meet the two young women to talk about their home countries. So, we got together.

Prior to visiting, we brushed up on our Spanish and also practiced saying ‘hello, it’s nice to meet you’ in Japanese (Konnichiwa, hajimemashite). We took smallish maps of Spain and Japan with us so the girls would have a visual to point out their hometowns, and also because we thought it might help prompt conversation about other areas of their respective countries.

The Spanish student was chatty and outgoing, and given that she’d been in Canada for six months, she had a good grasp of English. The fact that we could communicate even a little in rudimentary (and terribly rusty) Spanish also helped. The Japanese student, on the other hand, was reserved and shy. She had arrived in Canada a few weeks earlier and was only beginning her English immersion program. We know almost no Japanese, so we communicated as best we could with gestures and Google translate, but it wasn’t easy. And because the Spanish student was more extraverted by nature and more fluent in English, she tended to dominate the conversation.

Until I said one word that changed everything.

We were talking about food. We’d already discussed Spanish tapas, paella and pan cot tomate, as well as a number of other Spanish regional dishes. Turning to the Japanese student, I mentioned how much I loved Japanese food. She nodded politely. But then I said I’d made dashi the week before.

“Dashi?” she asked.

“Dashi,” I repeated.

Her face brightened. She grinned and leaned forward, visibly wanting to be part of the conversation, whereas only minutes before she had, quite literally, been on the edge of it.

“With kombu and katsuobushi,” I added. “And then we strained it, added shiro miso and used it as a broth to poach our fish and cook our soba.”

Her whole demeanor changed; her grin grew wider. Suddenly, we were speaking her language. She held up a finger, scrambled to her feet and raced from the room. Seconds later, she was back carrying single serving packages of Japanese snack foods which she pressed into our hands. “For you,” she said shyly, sitting down again.

After that, the proverbial ice was broken. Sure, we were still dealing with a fairly significant language barrier but it felt easier somehow. We had forged a link, all because of a single word.

Words do matter.  They help us connect with, learn from, and care for others. And last week, in a very small way, we were reminded of just how powerful that can be.

Happy Words Matter Week.

Kindness Goes a Long Way

                                       

Today is Pink Shirt Day, an annual event against bullying that’s held in Canada and New Zealand to raise awareness about bullying, especially in schools. It started in 2007 in Canada, and it’s held here on the last Wednesday of February each year.

Books can’t eliminate bullying, but a good story may help people recognize and call it out in their own lives. Most of all, though, a good story often provides victims with insights, coping strategies and much-needed comfort and support. Here are some books on bullying for young and not-so-young readers.

For the picture book crowd:

Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon by Patty Lovell; illustrated by David Catrow

Lunch Box Bully by Hans Wilhelm

I Didn’t Stand Up by Lucy Falcone; illustrated by Jacqueline Hudon

What If Bunny’s Not a Bully by Lana Button; illustrated by Christine Battuz

Bird Boy by Matthew Burgess; illustrated by Shahrzad Maydani

One by Kathryn Otoshi

Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes

The Recess Queen by Alexis O’Neill; illustrated by Laura Huliska-Beith

Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson; illustrated by E. B. Lewis

Dear Bully of Mine by Vicki Fraser; illustrated by Cody McGrath and Sean McGrath

For older readers:

Camp Disaster by Frieda Wishinsky

Starfish by Lisa Fipps

Jennifer Chan is Not So Alone by Tae Keller

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

Bullies Rule by Monique Polak

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina

Blubber by Judy Blume

Some Girls Are by Courtenay Summers

To This Day by Shane Koyczan

Dear Bully – Seventy Authors Tell Their Stories by Megan Kelley Hall and Carrie Jones

My February Reads

The snowdrops are blooming, the hyacinths are poking up out of the soil and the buds on the trees are starting to swell. We still have another month of winter before the official start of spring in March. But spring is coming, and that means a much busier time for me as I juggle writing and reading with garden activities. Right now, though, I still have lots of time to curl up with a good book. And here’s what I’m reading this month.

Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewell by Pico Iyer

Welcome to Beach Town by Susan Wiggs

Lost Japan: Last Glimpse of Beautiful Japan by Alex Kerr

Books read to date in 2024: 10

Love Through the Ages

                                          

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone.

Some people go all out for Valentine’s Day; others don’t. A friend of mine has terrible anxiety around the whole idea of celebrating on February 14th because she remembers feeling rebuffed during Valentine exchanges as a young child in elementary school. Other people, like Mr. Petrol head, believe Valentine’s Day was created for commercial purposes only and love doesn’t need a specific date to be celebrated. I agree on the latter, but I’m not so sure the origins of the day are as crass as he believes.

Valentine’s Day, which is sometimes referred to as Saint Valentine’s Day or the Feast of Saint Valentine, began as a Christian feast day honoring a martyr named Valentine. By some accounts, St. Valentine was a Roman priest and physician who was martyred during the persecution of Christians by the emperor Claudius II Gothicus in the year 270. Apparently, Valentine defied the emperor’s ban on marriage (he thought it distracted young soldiers), and married couples in the spirit of love until he was caught and sentenced to death.

Given that this is ancient history, the tale has taken on a number of different versions over the years. Some sources even suggest there were two men named Valentine who could have inspired the holiday. Nevertheless, by the 14th century, St. Valentine was accepted as the patron saint of lovers. And the responsibility for that rests with poet and author Geoffrey Chaucer, often called the ‘father of English literature.’

His 14th century poem, “The Parliament of Fowls”, is the first known reference to St. Valentine’s Day being a day for lovers. William Shakespeare and John Donne followed Chaucer’s lead and by the 18th century, the idea of expressing love with flowers, sweets and greeting cards was well-established.  Even back then, however, there was some criticism of the commercial nature of the day.

In 1858, an editorial in the London Journal supported the exchange of cards on Valentine’s Day but observed that ‘the predominating sentiment should be the sentiment of love,’ adding that home-made cards are much preferred as mass-produced Valentines are ‘very trashy and not a little vulgar and the result of mercenaries for hire.’

Clearly rebelling against the commercial tone of Valentine’s Day isn’t new. That said, celebrating love isn’t a new thing either. And I’m all for that, regardless of the form the celebration takes.  

Small Things

                                                             

I met a writer friend for coffee last week. She had a pacing issue with her manuscript and wanted to talk. She’d lifted out a key scene to use as a prologue and she didn’t know how to deal with the narrative gap she’d created. I hadn’t read her novel (and she wasn’t asking me to), but she felt somewhat overwhelmed with, as she described it, her conundrum. I listened, I asked a few questions and after a few minutes, I made one small suggestion. And by small, I mean small. Yet that seemingly small suggestion prompted an idea in her mind that led to the workings of a solution.

Small things can have big consequences, life-changing ones. Just ask someone who missed a plane on 9-11. . . or someone whose loved one didn’t.

We don’t always know the consequences of the decisions we make either. I’ll never forget the two women I overheard one morning in a coffee shop dissecting the previous night’s date. Apparently, she had a terrific time; the guy in question was intelligent, charming and attractive. But as she told her friend, “I just can’t get over the size of his nostrils.”  Small things, nostrils, though apparently not so in this case.

Small things can spin our lives in directions we don’t expect (I wonder what would have happened if that woman had gone on a second date?) and small things can take our art in new directions too.

It’s the big markers we usually think about when it comes to our art – getting a book published or going on an author tour; selling a painting or having a show. Those things are important milestones and definitely worth celebrating. Even finishing a book or a painting or sculpture is a big deal. No question.

Yet it’s the small, seemingly insignificant steps that get us to those big finish lines. Motivational author Julia Cameron believes that work begets work and that “large changes occur in tiny increments.”

All the more reason to celebrate the small things. And perhaps even embrace them. Especially when it comes to nostrils.

The Unnecessary Freezing of Water

I agree with Carl Reiner who once said he found snow to be an unnecessary freezing of water. Nevertheless, when last week’s storm dumped a foot and a half of snow on our lawn, I tried to embrace it. And embrace it I did, for about two days. Just long enough to wrap up a deadline, read a book, clean the house and surf warm vacation spots. Then I was ready to get outside and walk. To get outside, period. But, alas, the snow kept falling.

So, I did what any writer worth her sand and salt would do in my position – I googled snow references in literature. It helped. For one thing, it kept me from looking outside and shivering. For another, it reminded me that some people do find snow beautiful.

In case you’re in the midst of a hellsnowscape, here are some lovely passages to help you see the beauty.

“I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says, “Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.” Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass

The snow did not even whisper its way to earth, but seemed to salt the night with silence.”  Dean Koontz, Brother Odd: An Odd Thomas Novel

“The old curly birches of the gardens, all their twigs laden with snow, looked as though freshly decked in sacred vestments.” Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

“It snowed all week. Wheels and footsteps moved soundlessly on the street, as if the business of living continued secretly behind a pale but impenetrable curtain. In the falling quiet there was no sky or earth, only snow lifting in the wind, frosting the window glass, chilling the rooms, deadening and hushing the city.” Truman Capote, American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from the 1940’s Until Now

“It snowed last year too: I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea.” Dylan Thomas, A Child’s Christmas in Wales

“I remember that winter because it had brought the heaviest snows I had ever seen. Snow had fallen steadily all night long and in the morning I woke in a room filled with light and silence, the world seemed to be held in a dream-like stillness. It was a magical day. And it was on that day I made the snowman.” Raymond Briggs, The Snowman

“Snow flurries began to fall and they swirled around people’s legs like house cats. It was magical, this snow globe world.”  Sarah Addison Allen, The Sugar Queen

A snowball in the face is surely the perfect beginning to a lasting friendship.
 Markus Zusak, The Book Thief

“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” James Joyce, The Dead

“There’s just something beautiful about walking on snow that nobody else has walked on. It makes you believe you’re special, even though you know you’re not.” Carol Ritka Brunt, Tell the Wolves I’m Home

And finally, to end on a hopeful note, here’s my (current) favorite passage about snow: “The sight of snow made her think how beautiful and short life is and how, in spite of all their enmities, people have so very much in common; measured against eternity and the greatness of creation, the world in which they lived was narrow. That’s why snow drew people together. It was as if snow cast a veil over hatreds, greed, and wrath and made everyone feel close to one another.” Orhan Pamuk, Snow

Happy New Year

It’s a new year and a fresh start. For a variety of reasons, I was a little slow out of the gate on my new beginning, but I’m back into my routine this week. The holiday decorations are packed up, I’ve done my annual planning for 2024 and I’m ready to get to work. That said, I’m also making sure I leave time for reading. I read 74 books last year and I’d like to surpass that number in 2024.

Right now, we’re in the midst of a bitter Arctic outflow with snow in the forecast. Some people love the cold but I am not one of them, so I’ll be spending what free time I have over the next little while in front of the fire with a book on my lap. Here’s what I’m reading this month.

Someone Else’s Shoes by Jojo Moyes

Skogluft by Jorn Viumdal

Other Birds by Sarah Addison Allen

Books read to date in 2024: 4