It’s coming. For weeks I’ve heard house finches tossing their songs into the chilly morning air. (Those are the birds that sound like they’re unraveling a ball of yarn and reach a snarl at the end that makes them mad.) Most of the robins over-wintered here instead of going to Florida, but they’ve been singing, too.
Daffodils and hyacinths bloomed in that “huge” (see above) snowfall we had last week, but they’ve always been reckless fools. And as cheery as crocuses and pansies are, I hunt for less showy signs.
Willow trees are showing the faintest color. If you stare at the branches, they still look like brown wires, but if you stand back, you can see that yellow-green aura. Deep in the woods, you can spot redbuds putting out teeny purple fists, not even the size of a squirrel’s ear.
This morning I drove past a tree just barely setting buds. I passed the same tree later in the afternoon. After it had lapped up hours of warm sunshine, the buds were bigger, stronger.
Yeah, that’s spring we see. Every day it takes a bolder step. Let’s go meet it!
My evenings and mornings are spent on my Photoshop Elements online class. I’ve learned to do the most simple tasks like resize an image, save to the web, etc. But now we are getting into the nitty-gritty techniques. The course is put together well, with examples on photos provided by the instructor. I couldn’t figure out what the sample photos were for. Then I realized that everyone else has the instructional video open beside the sample photo, so they can follow along.
I am too embarrassed to admit to the instructor (but not the rest of the world, or at least the two people who read this blog) that I don’t know how to use Windows. I open and close the screen 500 times. And I’m using the techniques on my own photos, or trying to. So don’t tell Kim Klassen, please. I’m trying to get up the nerve to ask her where the “okay” button is once you’ve done a task.
Fortunately my days are spent working on something I do know and love–the material for my retreat. I spread out some of the stuff on the floor. Yes, it’s only 9:00 a.m. but I already require Keebler mint-stuff-in-the-middle cookies. People who have their first drink at 9:00 can always claim it’s dark under the front porch. Doesn’t quite work with cookies.
The retreat–first weekend in March! in Luray!–has twenty people signed up. I’m amazed. We are covering place in fiction and memoir, with forays into deep mapping and personal geography. My biggest problem is cramming a month’s worth of material in a weekend. But we’ll chat while we eat and play with art journaling in the evenings, one big happy family.
In addition to the lessons I’m preparing (they will go in the vintage-y Better Homes and Gardens notebook), I’m also making a welcome package for each participant. The list of stuff I’m bringing gets longer every day. The weekend just won’t be about writing–I’m hoping to create an event that will inspire people and send them home looking at the world in a new way.
And thigh-high tights (a misnomer) that slipped down with every step. But not at the same time, thank goodness. I’m back from Roanoke and my Big Moment as Founder’s Day speaker at Hollins University.
The night before the event, I was invited to dinner at President Nancy Gray’s house. I wore a vintage black wool crepe jacket embroidered with jet beads, a black skirt, and, because I didn’t want a wad of material around my waist, opted for the disasterous thigh-high tights. When President Gray met me in the living room, I was yanking the tights up through my skirt. She pretended not to notice and asked if I was ready for the event the next day. I told her I would wear underclothes that stayed in place. She gave a little laugh, but I suspect she was re-thinking her choice of Founder’s Day speaker.
A trip to Roanoke wouldn’t be complete without eating in K&W cafeteria. I love cafeterias! No, to the salads. Yes, to the desserts!
The next day I sensibly wore black slacks with this thrift shop jacket. For good luck I wore my mother’s aurora borealis pin and the necklace and earrings my husband gave me for our Valentine’s anniversary.
People kept asking me if I was nervous. I wasn’t, actually, even though only my husband had read my speech. But I did get nervous when I was robing with the Board of Trustees. My mortarboard threatened to slip off despite my stabbing my scalp with about fifty bobbypins. My robe covered me from throat to mid-calf so I could have been wearing a sweatshirt with one sleeve ripped off and boxer shorts and no one would have known.
The senior class and guests were seated first to a Bach fugue that shuddered the walls of the chapel. Then came the processional–the faculty and the Board of Trustees. And then the person with the mace (I’m really not up on this stuff!), the chaplain, me, the Chair of the Board of Trustees, and the Vice President for Academic Affairs. I marched through the very large chapel, praying my hat would stay on, and up on the dais.
The Hollins Concert Choir sang Mendelssohn’s “Lift Thine Eyes.” They stood in front of me in their long black gowns and pearls–beautiful, strong, smart, young women. I looked at the seniors in their decorated graduation robes and realized that for the first time in my life, I was actually part of an undergraduate tradition. For a few minutes, I was truly a Hollins Girl.
The Chair of the Board of Trustees introduced me and it was time for me to speak. All the preparations and thinking about this day (since last April) was finally here. I talked about the most widely-read literary alumna, Margaret Wise Brown, and how my journey to Hollins began with her. The room was very quiet. Then my twenty-minute speech was over and my hat did not fall off.
Afterwards, there was a reception. I chatted with the descendents of the founding family (Hollins was the first women’s college in Virginia, established in 1842), sipped punch, and ate a grape-sized cupcake. Amanda Cockrell, director of the children’s literature graduate program (my boss) and novelist, took me to dinner with her husband and other guests.
It wasn’t until 2:37 the next morning when I woke up abruptly that the enormity of it all hit me. I walked down that long aisle in robes! People–lots of them!–listened to me! That was my name on the program, with an embarrassingly long bio.
On my drive back, I spotted hawks and acknowledged vultures, all of them guiding me safely home. And when I walked in the door, I found three of the vintage potholders that line the half-wall in the kitchen lying on the floor. A three-potholder trip told me I had been missed.
I re-hung the potholders, hauled in my bags, fed the cats, and went to my computer to write down the ideas that had unreeled in my head down I-81 and I-64, before my thoughts were lost.
Thirty-three years ago today, we were married. The Blizzard of ’79 had struck and we one of the very few cars on the road. I wore boots (and I don’t mean pretty fashion boots) with my dress. We were the first couple to be married on that snowy Valentine’s Day morning. My husband said later the Justice of the Peace had garlic breath. The witness, the JP’s secretary, sat typing in the other room and I worried our marriage wouldn’t be legal because she wasn’t present.
Because I had to be married on Valentine’s Day, because I had to be a Bride of Snow (the title of a chapter from my favorite children’s book, A Diamond in the Window), my husband started a tradition of giving me a piece of ruby and diamond jewelry, usually heart-shaped, on our anniversary/Valentine’s Day.
It’s been some years since I’ve received any jewelry. It’s always been enough that we go to dinner somewhere nice or, in the past few years, to tea at Pinkadilly.
I had just dropped a lump of sugar in my Earl Grey when my husband put a card and a box on the table.
And then another card and a smaller box. Sweet tokens from the sweetest man in the world. I will wear my new necklace and earrings when I go to Hollins tomorrow. Even though he can’t go, he’ll be with me.
Yes, here’s to another year together.
On Wednesday, I will leave Fredericksburg and drive over the mountains to Roanoke. Thursday afternoon, I’ll deliver the Founder’s Day address to the Class of ’12. The Founder’s Day convocation is traditionally given by an alumna. It wasn’t that long ago that I graduated (’07) but I was beyond thrilled to be asked.
I was asked to talk about Margaret Wise Brown, the most widely-read Hollins literary alumna, and also a little about my own odd journey to graduate school. I wondered what I could say to these young girls when I had skipped undergradate school and didn’t get a degree of any kind until I was 52.
Did my degrees open doors? You bet. But it was my master in children’s literature from Hollins, the degree I earned “for myself,” that sent me in the direction of the work I’m doing now, the work I was meant to do once I found the right door. Yet I haven’t crossed over the threshold. And that’s good.
Irish poet and philospher John O’Donohue says,
At any time you can ask yourself: At which threshold am I now standing? At this time in my life, what am I leaving? Where am I about to enter? What gift would enable me to do it? A threshold is not a simple boundary, it is a frontier that divides two different territories, rhythms, and atmospheres.
Every step I take, every decision I make, every word I write, reminds me I’m in two territories. I search myself and the world around me for the gifts I will need on my journey. I recognize Lima, the Roman goddess of thresholds, and ask her to protect the young Hollins women about to start their journeys, and all of us, at any age, setting off on new frontiers.
Persnickety is our outdoor cat. She came to us in the winter of 2004. We already had three cats in the house and none of them got along. So we kept her outside.
She’s about 14 now, maybe 15. Her overactive thyroid (common in cats) keeps her thin, despite the numerous hearty meals she has every day, and her fur falls out. When I pick her up, I almost drop her, she’s so insubstantial. She’s sensitive to the cold, even though we heat the garage on below-freezing nights.
Then I found a heated cat bed. The answer to a shivering old cat’s prayers. She purrs in her sleep. This is one happy cat.
This little set of vintage tin dishes was given to me (not “gifted”!) by dear friend and fellow Hollins Girl, Christina Rukavina. That bright red and lake blue are my favorite colors! I had a notion to divide the set, displaying half in our 50s style breakfast room and the rest in my office with my other vintage toys.
But when I put the dishes down on the windowsill in my office, just like this, they said, “Leave us right here.” That gorgeous blue inside the teacups exactly matches the blue I painted my old toy box and spice rack that sit just below the windowsill.
I took the above photo with the manual control on my Canon S95, using the lowest f-stop to create a blurred background. The Canon only goes to 2.0, not low enough for a macro shot, I don’t think. I wanted to get rid of the houses in the distance.
In my Elements class last night (taught by Kim Klassen) we went over the Tools. I’m using Elements 10 and I discovered the Blur Tool, new to Elements 10! You have to use it in Guided Edit and it’s not perfect, but I was thrilled. Now I can create pleasingly blurred backgrounds to get rid of clutter and bring the object into focus.
I was so excited last night, I could hardly stand it! (It doesn’t take much.) As we delve into those confusing layers and masks (what are they for?), I know I can manage one tool in the kit, at least. If I can remember how to do it again.
I lasted exactly five days on Project 365. On January 5, I didn’t feel like taking pictures since life was taking a downturn. I certainly didn’t want to take photographs at the hospital. I felt guilty because there went one of my “reminders” for 2012. Out the window in five days!
Then I read about the Annie Liebovitz exhibit, “Pilgrimage,” at the Smithsonian. The exhibit showcases the photographs in her new book Pilgrimage. Her subjects range from Sigmund Freud’s couch to Thoreau’s Walden Pond, a departure from the posed portraits she is best known for.
Speaking about the project, she says there are no people, but they are present. She roamed the countryside years working on this project. ” . . . It comes at a segue in my life where I’m taking care that my work feeds my head, heart, and soul.” I can certainly relate to that.
Liebovitz admits, “I’m not a landscape photographer–for me, the pictures [in Pilgrimage] are more of a notebook.” I love the idea of taking daily photographs as a “notebook” of my life. But I don’t think I want to remember every single day in the year. Plus not that much happens in my life. I can take only so many pictures of my cat and my keyboard.
On a PBS special about her life and work, Liebovitz advises artists of all stripes that you can’t plan art. But you show up and notice what is there. Little things end up making the piece but often you don’t know what you have.
Which brings me back to Project 365. I’ve found Project 52, where people take one photograph a week and post it. That sounds more doable. And some people on Project 365 take “make-up” photos when they skip a day. The important thing is to have the camera in your hand and not just when you are going someplace special.
I haven’t abandoned Project 365, just relaxed it to Project 52. Instead of posting all of my photos, I’m putting them in plastic pages in a binder, a casual sort of scrapbook. When I have January finished, I’ll show you how I’m recording the year in bits and pieces, instead of 31 days of snapshots.
Meanwhile, I’ve started an online course in Photoshop Elements 10, and taking another online course in basic digital photography, and am still learning my new Canon S95. I’m learning slowly, my way.
Once a year the Big Flea comes to Fredericksburg. Saturday we had breakfast at Cracker Barrel and then headed over to the Expo Center.
I’m always on the look-out for old luggage, McCoy violet pots, Kodak cameras, Coro costume jewelry, Bakelite, Swanky Swig juice glasses, 40s tablecloths and about a thousand other things. But this year I told my husband I wasn’t after anything in particular. I was so laid-back, we waited in the car until the line of people went inside.
I strolled down the aisles, giving the booths a casual once-over. But then I spied a booth decked out with vintage jewelry, chenille bedspreads, compacts, purses, and fur coats. It was Katie-Bar-the-Door.
I try to control myself. Really, I do. It’s just stuff, after all. I was determined not to be like those other people, the ones who were in the parking lot before we were, even (we were 45 minutes early). The ones with vanity plates like, “TY CLCTR.”
But I always enter a sort of trance, filled with deep longing for just about everything on display. Several booths showcased old toys and it was all I could do to keep from Macing everyone else so I could play quietly. Or spell out my name.
I longed to heap bead bracelets all the way up both arms and drape an ermine tippet over one shoulder (I don’t believe in wearing real fur but these are vintage pieces and after all, that weasel would be dead by now anyway.)
I wanted to sit on the floor and play board games.
I wanted to pack up a picnic and head to the park.
My husband and I split up. When we met at the refreshment area, he had bought me an old camera and I had bought him this Goldrush gameboard.
It was too cold for a picnic so we left, happy with our new finds, to eat lunch at our favorite place.
“When everything else is gone from my brain . . . what will be left is the topology of my childhood, the dreaming memory of land . . .” Annie Dillard
Every September I go to Bell House, the home of Alexander Graham Bell (also known as “Alexander Cram Bell” on the Christmas ornaments made as a town fund-raising project). For seven days I eat luxurious breakfasts, walk along the Potomac, listen to the locals. And I write, often coming home with nearly 100 new pages.
People say, you have a huge home office. You have no kids. You can work all day long if you want. This is true, but not exactly. All of us who work at home know we stop to toss in a load of laundry, start supper, vacuum when we can’t stand the cat hair another second, sheet the bed, run to the store, the library, the cleaners, back to the store for something we forgot. A freelancer’s day is not one long uninterrupted idyll.
Which is why we need retreats. And why I’m thrilled to be teaching my very own retreat: “The Landscape of Your Past: Place as the Basis for Memoir and Fiction.” I’m all the time going on about how important place is to our work. Now I get to put my money where my mouth is. For two days, I will show people how to mine their pasts for subject material, using specific images (not ideas) from our lives, based on place.
We tend to forget we’re impacted by our geography, past and present, and that the landscape of our lives gives rise to our work. In this retreat we will learn to create personal maps to serve as the foundation for memoirs, stories, and longer fiction.
The path to place-based writing came to me in part as an offshoot of creating mixed-media art. The first thing I learned in my early days of scrapbooking was that while my hands were busy with memorabilia and paper, the back of my brain was chewing over a writing problem. Soon I began creating projects directly relating to my work.
When I wrote my thesis memoir for Hollins, I created nearly twenty mixed-media projects to help me push past difficult places in my past. In the retreat, we’ll explore art journaling and map-making. The emphasis will be on reaching for deeper meaning in our work, not making beautiful projects. As much as I admire the gorgeous art journaling I see in magazines and on blogs, making beautiful pages serves no real purpose to me.
We’ll be using the simple materials I use, nothing intimidating. I’ll also bring the resources I use in my own novels, including the trespass-photo board I made for the novel I just finished. (I’ve reached a new level in place-based fiction, one that may involve getting my you-know-what shot off, but hey, it’s for my work.)
If you’ve signed up for the retreat and are still on the fence, get in touch with Valerie Patterson, my friend and classmate who has set up this whole thing. You will come away with new friends and renewed energy for your work. We’re meeting at the Mimslyn Inn in the Shenandoah Valley, where my family has lived for ten generations.
Spring will just be waking up in the Valley. The perfect time to get together and write and talk and enjoy each other’s company.