Welcome 2018! (Or, plans for the new year)

Happy New Year! Happy 2018, dear readers!

Well, can you believe it? We’ve made it to the start of another year. Another 365 days around the sun to do some things. It’s exciting and terrifying. Like a new journal with 365 pages and we have to come up with something awesome to do. That’s a lot of pressure to make something wonderful, important. You know, not to waste the year just by having fun. But I think having fun is part of the point of creating, instead of trying to compete with people’s perfect Instagram or Twitter posts.

So what are you planning to do this year? What do you want to accomplish with your art or work or anything in between?

I always have super-audacious plans. Always. And I don’t accomplish all of it, even if I get a lot done. I seem to think that there are always more hours in the day than 24 and that I’ll never get sick or burned out or tired. But life has a way of bringing a reality check to any plans. However, I try not to let that get me down.

So what am I planning on doing this year?

I’m going to do a lot more calligraphy for the sheer joy of it (and because it’s important to remember that not every hobby has to become a hustle). I received some amazing gifts of new ink, nibs, and a whole ream of practice paper for Christmas and am looking forward to practicing and creating beautiful writing. I’ll probably share some photos, too, but I’m doing it for the joy of it and not for any hustle.

I’m going to continue writing with intention (check out Chuck Wendig’s post on this for inspiration). I’m still writing the first draft of what I started before NaNoWriMo and worked on through November (in between travel and getting a truly awful cold) and I’m hoping it will wrap itself up in the first couple of months of the year so I can let it sit and I can revise it later in the year. It’s the slowest I’ve written a first draft, but I also feel it is probably the most intentional writing I’ve done in fiction, too. It’s been frustrating sometimes to write slowly, but it feels like the words are coming out better, truer, with meaning. I’ll let you know how it looks once I get into the revising.

But I want to continue writing with intention, even if it is slower. I’m going to continue writing Saturday Shorts, which feed my need to play with fiction writing and satisfy my desire to complete a project. I hope you’ll continue reading them and hopefully enjoying them.

I want to read more books this year. I keep track of the books I read throughout the year and books I want to read. I have a healthy list and will hopefully get to read a lot of them in the coming weeks. I may share some thoughts on them from time to time and hope you’ll share books you love with others, too.

I’m looking forward to a year of continued creativity and art, with work and activism knit up into it all, too. Plus many cups of tea, naps in the sun with my husband and cat, talks with dear friends, and some travel for inspiration, too.

I hope you have a wonderful plan for 2018 that brings a smile to your face and keeps you buoyed through the inevitable difficulties of life that lay ahead for us all. I hope you have a supportive community, full of friends and family, that keeps you going. And I hope this year we make the world a better place in anyway we can. As Desmond Tutu wrote, “Each time we choose good, we add to the human treasury of goodness.” And that’s something I think we can resolve to do in our art and life. Let’s increase goodness in the world this year. That’s a plan worth resolving to accomplish.

Happy new year, dear readers. 🙂

Saturday Short: Endings and Beginnings

photograph of sunset over the ocean

“Wherever there is an ending, there is also a beginning,” Teacher said with that half-smile that made us know she was testing us with some private joke.

“That is obvious,” Jessica said with a sniff. As if she couldn’t care less about the matter, but actually was determined to sound the smartest and get the answer the quickest.

It was the last day of school for the year and I knew that we wouldn’t be allowed to leave for the Festival until one of us got to whatever point Teacher was making. The sounds of hammers and flutes could already be heard over the wind in the eaves and I jiggled my knee under the desk.

Teacher was still smiling and waiting for us to get to the answer. Mother said Teacher could have been a mystic in a cave, just a bit removed than the rest of us. On a different wavelength, she’d say, but not without fondness.

“Where there is a beginning, there is also an ending,” Joselle said as she tried to imitate Teacher’s half-smile. On her it looked like a smirk and matched her personality.

“Often, yes,” Teacher said. But that was not the answer she was looking for.

There was always a lesson to learn and I stifled a sigh while I fought the impulse to fidget in the wooden chair. It would creak and I didn’t want to be called on. I just wanted to run outside while there was still light because the days were short. And I wanted to get a maple candy with the change that would jangle in my pocket when I ran. I didn’t care about riddles and wisdom, even if they were from Teacher.

My mind wandered and the answers of the others in my class were merely humming nonsense in the background as I strained to hear more of the Festival’s sounds of preparation. When my name was called, I bolted upright out of my dream.

“What do you think it means?” Teacher asked.

All eyes were on me. I hated that. I wasn’t clever or fast or witty. And I didn’t have the personality to pretend.

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “But it makes me think of the end of the year and the beginning of the Festival.”

Teacher said nothing but slightly, ever so slightly, nodded.

“And,” I continued, “I think someday I’ll care about beginnings and endings, but right now is more important to me…now.” I finished and felt my cheeks warming and no doubt they were now red. I wasn’t an elegant speaker either.

But Teacher smiled, a full smile. “Class dismissed.”

I smiled back and sprinted out of the door into the last sunlight of the last day of the year. A good beginning or ending, no matter how I looked at it.

Saturday Short: Portal Key

photograph of carved stone cornice on bridge pillar If you are ever in trouble, go to the portal key. It will know what to do.

Her mother said that every day on their walk to her elementary school. Every day when they crossed the bridge and passed the one, faded, carved stone pillar in the middle of the bridge. Her mother would touch it lightly with her fingertips, as if reassuring herself it was still there.

Still solid, she’d sometimes say so soft it was nothing more than a puff of breath.

When she was six, Flora never thought there could be trouble in the world. There was her, her mother, and her routine. There were always cookies on Tuesdays and singing on Sundays. Herbs in the summer and chestnuts in the winter. Nothing changed and no trouble could ever penetrate such a bubble.

But that was before today. Flora narrowly missed crashing headfirst into another commuter walking, head down against the wind. The sky overhead was grey, the color of the sidewalk, and smelled like rain wasn’t far off. Tears soaked the collar of her shirt as they skidded down her cheeks like the tires behind her.

She couldn’t look back. She wouldn’t look back. She only had to make it to the portal key. It would have to save her. The scene at her house, etched into her mind, told her no one else could.

Shooting out between two bicycles, Flora ran across the street, straight towards the portal key. Behind her a man shouted for someone to stop her, but she dodged the startled couple pushing their stroller. She slapped her hands on the stone, cutting her palms at the same moment she felt someone drive into her, not expecting her to stop and she fell with a scream over the bridge.

Screams from the couple with the child raised as someone tackled the man who had pushed Flora over the edge. But when the couple looked over the bridge, there was no sign of Flora, no ripple in the water, and while they would never admit it to the other, they both saw a scene for a brief flash that made no sense. But they were soon brought back by the crying of their baby and the sound of police sirens drawing near.

But sometimes late at night they would awake from a dream and remember they saw a tea shop floating in mid-air about the creek that day on the bridge advertising Flora’s cream in the plate glass window, before they fell asleep again.

Thoughts at the Start of NaNoWriMo

Happy November! Can you believe it is already November? I feel like part of the year has gone missing, like it’s rolled under the couch and now we can’t find it so the year has been ridiculously short (and yet also feels like the longest year ever. Time is weird and wibbly wobbly, too.). So you know what November means. No, not quite turkey time here in the United States, but it is the start of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month).

I quite love NaNoWriMo. This is my fourth year of participating and it really is a lot of fun. It’s frenetic, too, because how could it not be? It is the start of the holiday season after all. But it is a wonderful month for writing amongst others here, as the days grow too short and the nights grow too long. For me it is hibernation weather, so having an outside impetus to get me out of the house after work is a happiness and getting out of the house to be surrounded by other writers is a joy.

It’s a slightly bonkers and wonderful thing to attempt to write 50,000 words in a month, crammed between life and work or school/work and life or any other combination of things we have on our plates. But it is fun and it is community-building and I love it.

I love the sound of keyboards clicking and pens scratching as we race to get in our world count for the day. The word sprints where our hands might actually get ahead of our thoughts, instead of the other way around. The laughter that only comes when everyone is just on the cusp between elation and despair that only other writers, other creatives, other people trying this mad thing can understand.

For most of the year, I’m a solitary writer. I prefer silence when I write as noise and music distracts me. I like the quiet of morning and evenings to write, when the cat curls up asleep next to me and my tea is still warm in my mug. I set deadlines and goals just for myself and keep them, more or less. But in November it’s my time to break out of that routine, to find comfort writing in a group, and to learn from others even if it is only by diffusion as we all lean over laptops and notebooks scribbling until our hands can’t take any more. But in November the ideas and compassion and encouragement swirl freely and I only have to reach out my hand to grab some to last me through to the next writing session.

So if you’ve never tried NaNoWriMo before, or you are an old-hand, I hope you’ll join us on this journey this month. Find your home region, go to a write-in or two, and be amazed at how much fun writing with your community can be. You never know what inspiration may come only when you are in the final stretch, typing as fast as your fingers can fly. It’s November 1st and anything is possible, dear writer, anything at all.

Saturday Short: A Haunted House

photograph of a house at night that appears like it could be haunted

Everyone knew the house at the end of the block, the one with the peeling paint and dry-rotted steps, was haunted. Everyone knew this like they knew that rain came from the sky and Tuesday always followed Monday. No one ever questioned how everyone knew this fact, but everyone knew it.

The house stood empty for years, since the beginning of time a high school student said when daring his friend to run up and knock on the door as they stood on the sidewalk facing the house, the sun going down, down, down as it was wont to do daily. His friend didn’t take the dare and they both lived until a quite respectable old age. Neither questioned how a house could stand since the beginning of time, if one assumed houses didn’t grow like trees or cats or mountains. But then, it was never quite safe to assume.

No one thought that anyone would ever live in the house again, assuming that someone once had. No one at city hall could say for certain who owned it. Perhaps it was now a ward of the town, like other abandoned property. But not even the mayor wanted to set foot in the house, not that he’d admit he was a bit afraid of it.

So the house stood empty except for the pigeons that roosted in its attic, coming in through a broken window, the baseball that broke it long since forgotten, lying under a shroud of dust. And a fox who lived quite happily under the porch steps, hauntings meant no never mind to foxes who have more important worries.

That was, of course, until a jaunty sold sign appeared in front of the house one day. It was the talk of the town. No one knew who bought the house and everyone wanted to be the first to know. Such a storm of gossip hadn’t whirled through the town since the cows escaped at the fairgrounds and ate the flower showcase. Everyone thought someone else was to blame.

No one saw anyone move into the house, no moving vans, no contractors, no sound of hammers or drills or saws, no movement inside, though everyone seemed to find a reason to saunter by the house. There was no change until one day the town awoke and the house looked brand new. It was like someone waved a magic wand. The sold sign now announced an open house at midnight the next day.

It was the talk of the town and everyone came. They lined up on the sidewalk and at midnight the front door opened and strains of music, sweet and slow, came wafting down the steps. And everyone moved forward as one towards the house.

But not the fox, he watched from across the road, in the moonlit shadow of a box hedge. The house now longer was home, but haunted and he was clever enough to know when it was time to move on. He faded into the night as the first person stepped into the house, crossing the threshold of the world.

 

Saturday Short: A Confusion of Chiffchaffs

photograph of chiffchaff on branch

Chiffchaff by hedera.baltica on Flickr (CC-BY-SA)

There was always someone who was more brilliant or faster or more clever, always. At least, that’s how Sharyn always felt. She kicked a rock out of her way as she walked home from school and dragged her backpack behind her. The rock skittered off into the bushes and startled a bird into flight. It was some kind of warbler. She wasn’t sure which kind.

The bird flew up to the lowest branch of the nearest tree and cocked its head to the side, considering her. “Why are you glum, human?”

Sharyn stopped so suddenly that her backpack hit her calves, but she didn’t notice the sharp pain. Her eyes went wide as her mouth dropped open.

“It’s rude not to answer. What’s wrong, human?” the bird asked again.

“Birds don’t talk.” Sharyn squeezed her shut and was sure when she opened them the bird would be gone.

It wasn’t.

Instead, it was closer, sitting on the top of the bush it had flushed out of only a minute before.

“Well, I don’t know about all birds. But I am a chiffchaff.”

“A what?”

“A chiffchaff.” The bird drew itself up to its full, small height and puffed its dull-yellow feathered chest. “The most noble of birds. And you still haven’t answered my question, human.”

“Oh, yes.” She scratched the back of her neck. “I’m not as fast or clever as the rest of the kids in my class.”

“And that’s why you are sad?”

“I’m not sad.” Her words sounded like a lie even to her.

“Of course not.” The chiffchaff, whose name was George, but they weren’t friendly enough yet for first names. “But they can’t be that clever.”

“Why?” Sharyn screwed up her face in question.

“Well, they’re not talking to me, now are they?”

“No, but how does that make them not clever?” Her head began hurting her like when she was trying to solve a long division problem with a remainder.

“Think harder.” The chiffchaff seemed to smile.

Sharyn started gnawing on her bottom lip. “Oh, I don’t know. I’m confused.”

George laughed and it came out as a rolling twitter. “Oh, no. A confusion is a bunch of us. You haven’t experienced that…yet.”

And she forgot all about feeling dull or unhappy as she smiled. And George chatted with her entire way home before he took off and joined his flock in the tree in her front yard. She knew then if she remembered nothing else, she’d remember it the chiffchaff and its flock, a confusion.

Saturday Short: The Community Bookstore

photograph of two polaroids of bookstores

It used to be, back when your mother and father were young and there were still such things as penny candy and magic, there was a bookstore in every town and every one was different. Some were so small that you would have sworn it could have fit inside a shoebox.

Yet the proprietor always managed to find the exact book you needed, when you needed it, even if you had no idea that particular book was going to make your heart sing.

Others were so large that you could lose whole gaggles of children amongst the stacks. Some did, only to be found at closing time by the store cat, asleep with picture books open in their laps.

Nowadays, when people live next door to each other for years, yet still can’t rightly tell each other’s name, there are fewer bookstores and less magic, too.

But if you’re lucky enough to find one in the town where you hang your coat at the end of the day, go in and say hi. Put your phone in your pocket and gaze around in wonder as you step over the threshold into a place of joy and welcome.

Find that book you’d forgotten, which made you brave when you were young. Pick up a slim tome, on the recommendation of a handwritten sign stuck precariously between the spines, that may just save your soul. Buy the fat novel with a title that tickles like déjà vu at the base of your neck on the advice of the bookseller whose smile crinkles the corner of her eyes when you say yes and who whispers that the book is one of her favorite friends.

There’s still magic in the world, though it’s hidden more often than not. But you can find it wrapped up in the pages found in bookstores owned by people whose veins flow with prose and poetry. Don’t be shy, come on in, and if you listen closely, you’ll hear the books call your name, too.

~~~

Dedicated to Renee on the occasion of the Grand Opening of Books on B. Thank you for bringing back magic, warmth, and community into our downtown through your bookstore. May all the pages of your days be blessed.

Why I’m a Hobbit (and not an Elf)

I know, I know. I’m not really a hobbit either, I’m simply a human. But of the two, I’m more of a hobbit than an elf (even if I really, really am enamored of the elvish interpretation of Art Nouveau). Why does this even matter? Well, because I was thinking about how what we believe is a good life, a worthwhile life, a life to strive for influences what we create.

Okay, I know that seems like a bit of a stretch, but I can explain. First, I love Tolkien’s writings and his worlds. I love Peter Jackson’s interpretation of Lord of the Rings (I mean, really, who can hear Sam’s speech near the end of The Two Towers and not get misty eyed?). And I really, really love Hobbiton. I grew up in a small farming town and I love villages. I love the countryside and gardening and tea and community and everything about it. I love the idea of having a simple life, a rooted life. I’m definitely a Baggins though because I love to have an adventure or two, too, but then I want to come home to a place that feels like home.

I sometimes wish I were more like an elf, but I’m not. I’m not graceful all the time and I’m sure not wise (yet) and I definitely can’t walk on snow. But perhaps that’s not the point and that thinking I should be like an elf is a way of perpetuating the idea that a life needs to be extraordinary to be a good life, while research tells us that joy is found in the small moments of what can appear from the outside as an ordinary life. (I highly recommend watching Brene Brown’s talk that touches on this idea, which got me thinking about these intersections between life and writing and meaning more deeply, again as her work usually does. Not to mention, having the courage to be vulnerable and keep sharing what I create and write, even when it’s scary.)

So what does any of this have to do with my writing? My love of Hobbiton and a hobbit’s life shows up in my writing even when I’m not conscious of wanting to put themes such as home and belonging and peace and good tilled earth into it. It shows up in my writing worlds that feature great open spaces and rolling countryside and people on reluctant adventures and the belief that people can create a better world, a just world. Thinking about what is meaningful to me allows me to more fully embrace the stories I’m writing, dig deeper and write what’s true (even when it cuts a little more closely than what seems fully comfortable).

I get to choose what’s a good and meaningful life for me and you do, too. And it’s fine for me to be a hobbit and for you to be an elf or a ranger or whatever else floats your boat and gets you home to where you need to be for your writing and creating. So if you need me, you’ll find me in my hobbit hole and I’ll put the kettle on for tea. Until then, watch your feet…(you know the rest). 🙂

Saturday Short: A Run of Chickens

photograph of a flock of chickens

“Chickens” by E Gregory on Flickr CC-BY-NC

The thunder rumbled across the valley and rattled the bottles in Ani’s shop. She glared at the grey clouds blotting out the afternoon sun, making the world look flat and grey. A crack of lightning looked like it would split the mountain in two. She hated the thunderstorms at the border between the seasons.

“As if the gods themselves were fighting over the change of the tide.”

A rumble of a different sort caught her attention as a gaggle of her neighbor’s children came rushing in the back door of her store as the next wave of thunder shook stifled yells from them.

“Careful! Careful! You’ll break your necks running like that through my stock!”

They came skidding to a halt, their tracks across her floor a study in mud. They fanned out around her like chicks, looking up with their wide eyes.

“Auntie Ani, tell us the story,” the eldest cried as he jumped with the next burst of lightning. The storm drew closer. He would soon be too old to not pretend the storms didn’t scare him.

She raised an eyebrow. “Oh, what story would that be?”

The sudden downpour of rain, pounding on the roof almost drown out their reply.

“Oh, that story! Well, I suppose we could do that, but clean your feet and the mud on the floor first.”

They scurried away and her floor was clean before she was able to shutter her windows and draw enough cushions around. The older children dragged the rest and plopped down.

Then Auntie Ani began her tale about the real reason for the storms. She wove her tale for an entire hour until the storm had ran dry and moved on and the sun wiped away the last of the clouds from the sky and the children were smiling with their storm fears forgotten.

“And,” she concluded wagging a finger that would soon be gnarled with age, but not today. “That is why one must always be kind to a run of chickens.”

A rooster crowed from across the square as if to signal his agreement.

“Or else the great goddess, Thunder Chicken, will send her fury after you and you’ll never be rid of the storm again.”

The children nodded sagely and Auntie Ani smiled before she shooed them away. She watched them as they scattered to their houses and hoped she would die before she ever saw the great goddess bird again.

Saturday Short: A Mural of Buntings

photograph of two painted buntings

“Painted Buntings” by shell game on Flickr CC-BY-NC-ND

“You must make your paintings come alive!” my teacher said as she shook her paintbrush at my canvas. “What’s this? This is not alive. Feel your painting!”

I stifled what I wanted to say by biting the inside of my cheek. The last thing I wanted was for my painting to come alive. I looked over at my teacher staring at me, along with the twenty other sets of eyes in my two o’clock intermediate oil painting class, as if waiting for me to speak and felt my cheeks get hot no doubt as red as the chest of the bird I was beginning to feather into being.

“I don’t think paintings come to life is such a good thing,” I mumbled.

“Not a good thing?” My teacher snorted as if my words were somehow offensive smelling. “To paint is to be alive. To not show movement, the feeling, the essence of life, what is it worth then?” She threw up her hands and turned her attention to the student next to me.

My shoulders sank with relief and I went back to carefully daubing crimson onto my canvas, assiduously ignoring those who still stared at me. My teacher and I were not talking about the same thing. I knew this, but hoped she never would.

At the end of the hour, everyone packed up their oils and moved their easels to the perimeter of the room to dry. I was the last one in the room even though I didn’t want to be, but my painting was beginning to worry me. If I just stayed away for a few days, everything would be fine.

“You know,” my teacher called over her shoulder as she opened the door to leave. “If you don’t start showing life in your paintings, you won’t do well in the class. I know you can.”

I looked back at my canvas, half-covered in paint and felt the pull I always did. I should never have taken out my brushes, should never have come back, but I didn’t know anything else. All I’d ever wanted was to paint.

The sun was on the other side of the building when the screams woke me the next morning, my paintbrush clutched in my hand. I watched the coffee spread across the floor, my teacher heedless of it staining the hem of her skirt as her eyes flitted about almost as fast as the birds that had torn ragged holes in my canvas.

I smiled, half with wonder and half with worry at the birds whose feathers rained fine droplets of paint whenever they flew. At least this time I’d known to paint something small.

“A flock of buntings is called a mural, you know,” I said and my teacher’s still-shocked gaze came to rest on me. “How’s that for alive?”