Thursday, December 13, 2018

Memento Vivere

It is a shining fall morning and my husband, our three sons, and I are hiking at one of our favorite local trails. I say ourfavorite, because its a place weve visited regularly since the children were small, when the twins, Emmet and Zephyr, rode in backpacks and our oldest son, Milo, ran down the mossy trail, stopping to dig up Indian cucumber root and wild sarsaparilla and gnaw on spruce gum. Me and Papa are the plant eaters,hed declare. But today those children are disgruntled. They are eleven and fifteen years old and have better things to do than go hiking with their parents on a bright October day.
So begins my latest published essay, "Memento Vivere," which is about impermanence, growing children, and the artist Andy Goldsworthy and appears, alongside some gorgeous photography of Goldsworthy sculptures, in the Winter 2018 issue of Still Point Arts Quarterly, and which you can read, download, or order in hard copy here. Hope you enjoy it!

Monday, December 10, 2018

November Writing

I spent November trying to relearn how to be a writer who also works a full-time job. I remember back when I used to have small children and I made a zine, then blogged regularly, then went to graduate school, I was sometimes asked, "How do you find time to write?" I wish I'd had a satisfactory answer then, because I really need it now. One big difference is that I used to have children who went to bed at 8 p.m. Now the twins stay up till 9, if I'm lucky, and M until who knows when. And, though it's hard to believe, since I was so much closer to twinfant sleep deprivation days back then, but I think I need a lot more sleep now. If I don't get my 8 hours of zzzzz's, I'm zombiesque all day, which doesn't leave me much time for me. But I've been trying my best, and this is what I've come up with:

Early Mornings. Keeping in mind the essay "Five a.m., Writing as Ritual," by Judith Ortiz Cofer, I endeavored to get up at 5 every morning. I failed most days, but I did manage to get up sometime between five and six, which gave me somewhere between 15 minutes and an hour of writing time, in a silent house, with no one around being distracting; it's been a constant war between the gratification of a long writing session and the warm coziness of my bed.

NANOWRIMO. I've never participated in National Novel Writing Month, which falls in November every year, because in November I'm too busy panicing about the impending holidays without doing anything to prepare for said holidays. But somehow I decided that this year, during the month when I was starting a new job would be the perfect time to do my first NANO. And by doing NANO, I don't mean I signed up on the website (I didn't even visit the website once), nor did I track my word count, which came nowhere near the 1500-odd words per day required to reach the NANO goal of 50,000 for the month. I didn't join any discussion groups or attend any write-ins. What I did do was work on a novel every day of the month, working from premise to plot, sketching out scenes, fiddling with character details, laying out a rough outline, and revisiting one of my favorite fiction-writing guidebooks. I did not write a novel, and I'm totally fine with that. Perhaps by next November, I'll have a terrible first draft of this one and can rewrite it for NANO.

Lyric Essay. I took a workshop with the Maine Writer's and Publisher's Alliance on writing the lyric essay, which I've been interested in learning more about for a long time. From the workshop I got a better grasp on the form, assembled a reading list, and have a few ideas for lyric essays of my own. Now I just need more time...

Podcast. Coincidentally, I discovered the Marginally Podcast, which is about writing while working a day job, at almost the exact moment I returned to work and have been binge-listening to all the back episodes during my commute and breaks. When I was writing full-time, I had a vision of incorporating "professional development" into my days, but I rarely made time for these activities because I was so focused on getting my book done (and, I admit now that those days are gone, wasting too much time on leisurely breakfasts, obsessive news-following, and, though I wouldn't call this a waste, playing outside). Now, though I'm ever mindful lest I become not a writer but a person who takes writing classes or attends writing conferences or listens to writing podcasts, I feel like this is the exact kind of professional development I need—how to fit writing into the teensy margins of my life. I enjoy the hosts' back-and-forth chats about how they struggle with writing-while-working as well as the advice from their many guests. My writing community is mostly spread far afield, so it's been fun to listen and pretend I'm part of the conversation. I've picked up a few helpful tidbits along the way, like touch (or poke) your work every day, and the concept of default mode, that time when you're doing something like walking, that doesn't require a lot of mental concentration, and your mind can wander (I stopped listening to the podcast during my morning commute after that, so that I have at least a little time during the day to let my brain just be).

I've brought these habits with me into December, which is the month in which I really need to start panicing about the holidays (and actually doing something about them). I'm still getting up early to write (though taking Sundays off now), pecking away at my novel every day, listening to podcasts, and squeezing in writing, and writing-related tasks like submissions, publicity, website updates, editing work, inbox cleanout, etc., whenever I can—once the kids finally go to bed, after I walk for the first half of my lunch break, during stolen moments on the weekends. After the holidays are over, however, I'm determined to take at least a couple of weekend days per month to focus solely on writing, so that I can delve more deeply than 15 to 30-minute sessions allow. Because I need to expand my margins.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Showing Off ~ And Achieving Goals

I don't brag much about my kids on this blog, because it's much more fun to complain about them. Conflict is the essence of story, right? In fact, I don't write much about them at all anymore. I'd like to say that it's because I'm respecting their privacy and their agency over their own stories, now that they're getting older, but the reality is, older kids are just less interesting than little ones. Or maybe it's that parenting concerns are less urgent—everything is not a crisis anymore. Whatever the reason, I'm breaking that rule, and the not-bragging rule as well, because….

M won a pageant last weekend!

Each year, his school holds a fundraising event, which is part talent show, part mock beauty contest, in which senior boys perform group dance numbers, walk the catwalk in leisure wear, and show off their talents before a panel of faculty and staff judges and a crowd of adoring parents and classmates.

You'd never peg me for a stage mom or a pageant mom. I'm not even a very good sports mom because, while I get excited when my kids' team in general and my kids in particular do well, I also feel a bit of anxiety about the other team and the other kids. Whenever there's a winner, there have to be losers, and that doesn't sit well with me. (I was the mom who used to tell my kids after soccer games, in lieu of the score, "As long as you did your best and had fun, you're a winner!") I felt that same anxiety about all the enthusiastic young men onstage Firday night. At least the event didn't require much pageant mom-ing. I wasn't backstage with the can of Aquanet or anything. All I had to do was sit in the audience, take lots of pictures, and cheer.

M's participation was part of a long-held dream. He'd attended the contest his freshman year and, when I picked him up afterward, declared his intention of winning the prize when he became a senior. He held onto his dream for the next three years and Friday night brought home the crown in a tight race with a group of boys who dislpyed a lot of great talent, good humor, and inspiring enthusiasm. It's an inspiring story of having a goal and achieving it, and I've refrained, mostly, from saying things like, "Imagine if you'd made up your mind to become valedictorian instead." M, for his part, isn't resting on his laurels, but has now set his sights on the next big dream: Prom King.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Making Space

C and I started our house when I was pregnant with M, and at the time we didn't expect to stay here more than five years, let alone have twins four years later. So we only planned one bedroom. This worked fine for several years, since all the kids preferred sleeping in our bed anyway. But eventually things got tight. Over the years, we've adjusted the furniture to make use of the space, starting with bunk beds with a double on bottom, that the twins shared, later adding a loft bed for Z when he and E were ready for their own space. But as the boys continued to grow, the room has shrank, and M has been agitating for his own space, so for the last several months, C has been working to transform a corner of our basement into a bedroom.

When last we saw the chosen space, I'd transformed it into the Lego corner, but over time it became the dumping ground for whatever toys and junk no one wanted to deal with otherwise. It took a lot of transporting of stuff to the barn (yes, I know, not an ideal decluttering method, but this was C and M's project and I didn't have the time or inclinaiton to sort and find new homes for the stuff). A lot of weekends later, the corner was transformed into this:

It's so bright and sunny, not to mention fresh and clean, that I wondered why we didn't make a room here a lot sooner—for me. Wouldn't it make a nice writing studio?

But I'm a nice mom and didn't steal the room for M, but rather moved his furniture for him while he was at work. The room's cozy, just enough room for bed, dresser, desk, but it's a room of his own, and it's good preparation for dorm life.

A friend on Instagram suggested it looks a bit like this space:

I guess there are worse places to sleep than Van Gogh's bedroom. The rest of the basement still looks a lot like the first photo in this post (inexplicably, cleaning and organizing a space does not make it permanently clean and organzied). 

And here's the lad himself, in one of our many attempts at a senior photo.

Monday, November 12, 2018


I was astonished when, scanning through my email this afternoon, I opened a message from the Sunlight Press, announcing they had nominated my essay, "The Sparrow's Song," for a Pushcart Prize. This would be thrilling news to receive at any time, but at this moment, when I'm reconciling my identity as a writer with this new reality as a 9-5 worker bee, it's an especially welcome surprise.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

October 2018 Reads

A roundup of books I read over the last month. You can see past lists here:

September 2018 Reads
August 2018 Reads
July 2018 Reads

Well, I'm making up for my very frivilous book reading all summer with some serious reads this fall. (And much shorter lists, you'll note.)

Poetry. I won't say I resumed my poetry in the morning routine, since it didn't last longer than a week or two—as much time as it took to read William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. A few Romantic poets were cited in the series of environmental literature lectures I've been so very slowly watching, and this was the only one I happened to have on my shelf. (Wordsworth and Shelley, I'll be looking for you at used bookstores.) What do I have to say about it? Lots of sort of lion-and-lamb religious sentimentality, especially in Innocence. A little more clear-eyed view of the inequalities of the Victorian world in Experience (little chimney sweeps feature regularly). As I've said before, I don't know enough about poetry to give a good critique, and while I didn't hate it, I can't say I feel compelled to pick it up and read it again anytime soon, though I would love to see some of Blake's original illustrated versions of the poems.

Nonfiction. Many years (we won't say how many) after first learning about Transcendentalism in high school, I finally read Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson. I now understand why everyone talks about Emerson but no one ever actually suggests you read him. Because all through this book? He didn't really say much of anything. Lots of vague generalizations. There are some nice aphorisms, like "But if a man were to be alone, let him look at the stars." I have no idea what that means, but it sounds nice and would look good on one of those Craftsman style fireplace tiles. Maybe part of my problem with the book is that whoever owned my copy before me underlined and annotated the text, by turns rapturously agreeing and vehemently arguing with Emerson. She (I say "she" because of the handwriting) obviously came at the text from conservative Christian point of view and got very bent out of shape when Emerson personified Nature, as a sentient entity ("humanism!!!" she shouted in the margins). Maybe if I hadn't been so distracted and entertained by her comments, I'd have paid more attention to what Emerson had to say. Then again, maybe I wouldn't.

I read Nature as a prelude to that most famous book by Emerson's friend, disciple, and squatter. I will confess here to having never read Walden before. I've started it many times, but never gotten much beyond the initial chapters of nickel-and-diming the building of the cabin and the cost of buying beans. I just never felt it was relevant to my life, and it seemed like a lot of senseless rambling. This time, however, the book struck a chord with me. Maybe because I was coming to the end of my own personal Walden, two years plus a bit (Thoreau spent two years at the pond, while writing the book to follow the seasons of a single year) at home, spending time reading, writing, and appreciating nature. I wasn't—and never will be—as free of responsibility as old Hank, but it was perhaps as close as I'll get to the simple life. It was very interesting to read Thoreau's musings on work—that the more you work the more stuff (and food) you need, or think you need, so then you have to work more to maintain those things and get more things—as I prepared to return to the working life.

"I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and rather not a new wearer of clothes," he writes. Oh, dear, becasue my year of now shopping, which had not been going all that well anyway, went all to hell with the prospect of a new job and nothing to wear to it.

I also thought his musings on the content of newspapers as really just gossip very relevant to social media. And I was amused by his taking of "homeopathic doses" of gossip by walking into town each afternoon. (The occasional dip into Facebook can serve the same purpose, no?)

And, of course his descriptions of the natural world are just outstanding. There's a passage on owls that particularly stood out for me. It's too long to quote here, but I loved the line: "I rejoice that there are owls. Let them do the idiotic and maniacal hooting for men." I wonder what my anonymous annotator of Emerson would have to say about Thoreau? (Humanist!!! Pagan!!!).

Edited: A comment I got on FB informed me that I wasn't clear in this description about whether I'd enjoyed reading Walden. Here's how I responded: 
"I did find it enjoyable. This time. A dozen other times I wanted to throw it across the room. HDT struck me as boring, rambling, pompous, and entitled. But this time he was funny, self-deprecating, and self-contradictory (an unreliable narrator in the most endearing way) and honestly rapturous about the natural world. I don’t know what changed, but I think it was me not him."
Read-Aloud. Finally, the boys and I are nearing the end of our Amelia Peabody series, finishing up Children of the Storm in October. This one took us longer than usual—I think the start of the school year knocked us off our game—and it had a kind of complex plot, but it's a good one with lots of thrilling moments and twists. Having reread all these books at least twice over the past five years and reading them again now, I can see clues are planted along the way, all of which I of course missed the first time (or two or three) that I read the books.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Upcoming Publications

It's been a fairly dry year with regard to publication around here, but two pieces that have been long in coming are set to be published over the coming months.

First, an essay about life, death, autumn leaves, and Andy Golsworthy will come out in the Winter edition of Still Point Arts Quarterly on December 1. You can go here for a free digital subscription or to order a print copy.

Second, I have a short story, which I wrote way back in MFA days, and which has gone through many, many iterations and revisions, about love and life and fear and hiking in the desert, will come out as part of the collection This Side of the Divide: Stories of the American West on February 12.

You can go here to read more about the collection, and here to pre-order a copy.

I'm thrilled to see both of these pieces in print, and their imminent publication has reinvigorated efforts to get my last few orphan short stories and essays (those which haven't been back-burnered indefinitely, that is), out into the world.
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