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
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.
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.
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
When I began planning my November blogs, I did a quick search, as I always do, to check literary events and birthdays for the month. I was struck by the number of literary types who were born in November.
In fact, a number of well-known authors were born today, November 8th. Bram Stoker, best known as the author of Dracula was born. So was Julian of Norwich whose Revelations of Divine Love became the first book written in English by a woman; Margaret Mitchell who wrote Gone With the Wind; and Kazo Ishiguro who wrote The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go.
Writers born on other days in November include Neil Gaiman, Robert Louis Stevenson, George Eliot, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Voltaire, C.S. Lewis, Mark Twain, Isaac Singer, Carl Sagan, Kurt Vonnegut, Lucy Maud Montgomery and Margaret Atwood. Whew, that’s quite the list.
November feels like a bookish kind of month. It has, as someone once said, a poetic soul. The days are often foggy and moody, we’re surrounded by brilliant color from the changing leaves, the crisp air is scented with cedar and pine, and there are many book-related events and activities happening this month too (it’s Picture Book Month and National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo to name just two).
Here’s to all the writers born in the month of November, and to the longer nights that give us more time to read the wonderful books they’ve written.
Today is International Artist Day, a time to celebrate all kinds of art: paintings, sculpture, mosaics, photography, textile art and more. Launched in 2004, IAD is designed to honor the contributions all artists make to society. These days, though, one of the common themes I’m hearing from artists is ‘how can we (or even should we) create when world events are so dark?’
Artists work hard to produce their work, though when judged against something like, say, a peace treaty between nations, a painting or a sculpture inevitably comes up short. Maybe that’s why so many creative types are questioning themselves lately.
Novelist Theodore Dreiser once said that “art is the stored honey of the human soul.” I love that quote almost as much as the one by Thomas Merton: “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”
So, yes, the news is grim but the arts – and artists themselves – have a place and a role to fill.
Since the beginning of time, artists have communicated ideas and even kept records of important events. Through many different mediums, they record history, the good and the bad, and they help us make sense of it. Artists show us the truth, or at least the truth as they understand it. They tell us stories, they pass on traditions, and they forge connections with others. Artists add beauty to our lives which raises us all up. Some even say that artists offer the world messages of hope, and I think a message of hope, in a world filled with bad news, is a message we can all get behind.
So today, on International Artist Day, I hope you reach out to an artist to lift them up. Maybe tell them that your world is just a little bit better with them in it.
The world outside my window is misty today. The rain is falling, the wind is up, and the autumn leaves are swirling. The garden is nearly put to bed for the winter, though the hardier leeks and chard and kale are still in the ground promising us some good eating ahead. Inside, the fire kicks on more often in the mornings now, the manuscript revision calls, and there are plenty of books waiting to be read. Here’s what I’m enjoying this month:
Thanksgiving, which we’ll be celebrating in just a few days, is one of my favorite holidays. I love the focus on food, friends and family, and the generosity of nature. There’s a joyful simplicity around Thanksgiving. And this year, as I gratefully pick the last of our tomatoes and dahlias, I’m giving thanks for everyone who has been a teacher in my life.
It is back-to-school time after all, and every morning now I hear the laughter of children heading down the trail to the nearby elementary school. Teachers are gearing up with lesson plans and activities; some are reaching out to authors to see if they’re available for talks and workshops (I am!).
I’m taking a few workshops myself this fall – some single ‘just-for-fun’ one-off classes and another in a more professional vein that will run once a week until December. My first session of the latter was yesterday. It was quite a change to sit back and let someone else lead. As I looked through the binder of information the instructor had assembled for each of the participants, I was struck all over again about how much goes into the process of teaching, whether that’s in a structured academic environment or in a more creative studio space. It takes time, energy, and effort to instruct others well.
Last spring, I took a one-day security course at VIU ElderCollege in Parksville. It was fantastic and incredibly worthwhile. Sadly, Vancouver Island University announced this week that it will end its affiliation with ElderCollege on December 31st after 30 years. The university cited financial difficulties as the reason. The decision is a real blow to the many islanders who have benefited from ElderCollege over the last three decades. But the 3,000-member organization isn’t closing the doors just yet. Board members are determined to continue providing ElderCollege courses. They aren’t sure how, but they’re determined not to let the organization fade away.
Let’s hope they’re successful, because learning is something we can all be thankful for.
Today is the autumn equinox, that point of the year when we have 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of night time. From here, as the calendar marches us towards winter, the days get shorter and the nights get longer. Trees lose their leaves; plants go dormant or die; and animals begin to hibernate. Humans tend to draw inward at this time of year too, and since I have books to write and books to read, I’m fine with that. Here’s what I’m reading this month:
Where the Forest Meets the Stars by Glendy Vanderah
Prom Mom by Laura Lippman
Kitchen Bliss: Musings on Food and Happiness (With Recipes) by Laura Calder
The idea that we don’t always get instant results came to mind again recently. On this date in 1501, Michelangelo started carving the statue David . . . and he finished it three years later. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, considered one of the greatest masterpieces of all time, took Michelangelo four years to paint (and speaking of churches, La Sagrada Familia Basilica in Barcelona – one of Gaudi’s most famous works – has been under construction since 1882 and it’s still not finished).
In my small corner of the world, I’m revising a novel I’ve been fiddling with for probably three years now. Some books come together quickly, but others don’t. I’m more accepting of that than I used to be. Maybe because I’ve been at this writing gig for decades. Maybe it’s life experience. More likely it’s a combination of both.
And as always, the garden (and nature generally) reminds me on a fairly regular basis that some things take time. For instance, I’m harvesting tomatoes right now. We have a glut of them and they’re especially sweet this year, especially fresh off the vine. But they’re also wonderful in other ways too. I turned some into confit last week . . . it took about five hours in a very slow oven. While that was cooking, I filled the dehydrator with tomato slices. The process of getting them to sweet, dried rounds took a couple of days.
All things in good time. Or, maybe that should read: time makes all things good.