A few years ago one of my Hollins students, who was also finishing up her degree at Longwood University, gave my name to the library at Longwood. They invited me to speak in the spring of 2013. During the Q&A, someone asked if I had any hobbies. I replied, “Trespassing,” and then quickly explained my interest in photographing abandoned buildings in Virginia.
The special collections librarian at Longwood, Amanda McLellan, asked if I would consider having my photographs on Greenwood Library’s Digital Commons website. I was stunned. My work is okay for my blog and my personal pleasure, but good enough to be displayed in a university collection?
You’d think I’d jump on this opportunity before she changed her mind. Life got in the way, for months and months. In fact, I saw Amanda at a conference where I was speaking more than a year later (an invitation that came from my Longwood appearance). I promised I’d get my act together.
I set aside time to think about it. What would my page look like? More important, I needed to say something. To me, a picture is not worth a thousand words. A bunch of photos of abandoned houses would have little meaning without some kind of context.
Last summer I wrote a draft of an essay to accompany the photo gallery. Was it good enough? I was like a deer in the headlights over this project. My photographs and my words were going to be out there. I finally finished the essay in November. I began sending photos after New Year’s, nearly two years after my initial invitation.
When the gallery appeared, I was floored. The project looks so professional! My thanks to Amanda and everyone at Longwood who waited patiently for me.
My photographs finally have a home beyond my computer files. The gallery will grow–I have lots of photos to send. And I’m already thinking about a slightly different series of photos that will continue the theme.
I invite you to take a look at my page, Looking for Home, at the Greenwood Library’s Digital Commons. The essay appears first. Scroll to the end to click on the gallery pages.
I’m proud to have my work accessible to a larger audience, something I never dreamed when I picked up my first digital point and shoot camera a few years ago. Isn’t it amazing how one thing leads to another?
Once upon a time a kindly old couple longed for a new kitten. They had the perfect home, a cozy cottage with lace-curtained windows, lots of sleeping nooks and interesting things to look at. The couple went to the animal shelter. The first kitten that ran over was all black with long, fluffy fur. He fit in one hand. Yes, they said, instantly besotted, he’s ours. We’ll name him Atticus. He’ll be a dignified cat.
The shelter said Atticus was four months old, had been found as a weanling, and was part-Persian. They gladly turned him over to the kindly old couple. A little too gladly, the old woman thought.
Atticus set one paw in the cozy cottage and took off. He ran, bounced, and jumped for two solid weeks. He never walked, never rounded a corner without sliding into a 180 degree skid. “That’s what walls are for,” the kindly old man said indulgently. Less enchanted, the old woman said, “He’s part-Persian and part Tasmanian devil.”
Although well-fed at the shelter, Atticus had shared a “condo” with three other cats (who were thrilled to see the back of him) and there was competition at the food dish. In his new house, he couldn’t get enough to eat. He ate everything, much of it stolen. Bread. Sauerkraut. Green beans. Tomato juice. Black coffee! The old woman had a weakness for sweets. Atticus developed the same craving.
The old couple (the kindliness was wearing off) stood at mealtime with plates held high or with Atticus in another room. Every morsel of food had to be stowed in chew-proof containers. It was like camping in Yellowstone, with a four-pound black beast on the loose. Like Yellowstone’s bears, Atticus got in the garbage can. He didn’t tip it over, but vaulted into it. The old woman got tired of finding the cat peering up at her like a possum in a burn barrel. She bought a new trash can with a lid.
Life in the cozy cottage changed. The lace curtains had to be flipped over the curtain rods. Those interesting things to look at had to be put away. The sleeping nooks? Atticus never even cat-napped. He was on the go 24/7. The cranky old couple snuck off to the sleeping nooks, exhausted.
The real battles took place in the bathrooms. Atticus dearly loved water. He loved sinks, bathtubs, showers, and especially toilets. After baptism by toilet—the cat’s first big surprise—he teetered on the rim and played. Then he patted his wet little paws on the old woman’s face. “A toilet drinker!” she said in disgust. They kept the toilet lids down.
But Atticus found something new to do. He ripped tissues out of the box, one by one, filling the sinks. The old couple turned the tissue boxes upside-down. Whump! Whump! Whump! the old couple heard one evening. What was that? Guess who’d learned to unroll toilet paper. Now they had to keep the bathroom doors closed. If they forgot . . .
Atticus went on his first vet visit as a four-month-old kitten. He came out a six-month-old cat. “Shelters fib,” the old woman said knowingly. “They shave a month off their age to make cats more appealing, like doctoring photos of mail-order brides.”
Meanwhile, the wild rumpus continued. Sounds like horses stampeding in a Western and someone moving furniture echoed all over the cottage. By the time the old man came home from work, the old woman needed to lie down in a dark room with a cold cloth on her forehead. “He’ll settle down,” he told her. “When?” She wanted curtains at her windows, her pretty little things on tables again, wanted to eat sitting down, reclaim her bathrooms, and, most of all, enjoy five seconds of privacy.
Atticus spent lots of time in the old woman’s office, walking on the keyboard, batting the computer mouse, losing pens, and discovering things on the computer the old woman never had, like the time she suddenly had Excel and didn’t know how to get it off.
In rare moments, Atticus climbed into her lap and leaned back against her arm. He looked up at her and purred. He was a powerful purrer, like a motorboat. He patted her face with his paws and nipped at her neck. She realized this unmannered creature saw her as his mother, sister, playmate, and prey, sometimes all at once. The old woman typed with one hand so she wouldn’t disturb the warm young cat asleep in the crook of her arm.
Already he was heavier. She couldn’t hold him in one hand any more. He was growing fast. And one day—in the far distant future—he might settle down. Maybe even suit his dignified name.
When my life is seriously off-track, my default position is to haul freight. Maybe it’s because I live in Children’s Book Land where the temptation (and reality) to run away is attractive to every kid at one time or another and I’ve never outgrown the tendency.
In my early twenties I was in a situation I couldn’t extricate myself from easily. I drove home for the weekend whenever I could. I slept in my old bedroom. My mother cooked my favorites. I shot the breeze with my stepfather in his woodworking shop. I took my mother antiquing. At the end of the weekend, I could face that situation a little better.
After I was married, we lived three miles from my parent’s house and I visited often. But if I wanted to, I could run away to that house, sleep in my old bedroom, have fried squash and pie-dough roll-ups for supper.
Then my parents died and my old bedroom was gone. I still found myself wanting to run away. I want to go home, I sobbed to my husband once. And where is that, he asked. I squeezed my eyes shut and remembered the Homeplace in Shenandoah County, where my mother was from. I could go there. Just get in the car and drive over the mountains to the Valley. I’d get a motel room and—but the image dissipated like a mirage.
Thomas Wolfe warned us we can’t go home again. But sometimes I’d still long to climb in my truck and drive west, just drive and drive until I found a spot to stop and rest.
My latest running-away spell came in December. The year was nearly over, I told my husband, and I hadn’t written what I’d wanted to write. Where had the time gone? It seemed I sat in my office every day, yet had little to show.
Always sensitive to my needs, he suggested I go somewhere to fill the well. Expand my horizons so I wouldn’t feel boxed-in. Yes! I agreed. I could run away to a week-long workshop in some place warm! Don’t wait till spring, he urged. Find something happening in January. It was pretty late to get into a conference, but he scoured the Net.
He found a writing retreat in Florence, Italy, a workshop in Key West, and another in St. Petersburg, Florida. Italy was out of the question. The Key West workshop had me foaming at the mouth because Lee Smith was teaching fiction, but not only was it full, the wait list was full. Eckerd College Writer’s in Paradise workshop was still taking applications for two more days. Florida in January! Paradise, indeed.
You couldn’t just pony up the tuition, you had to turn in a good-sized sample of your project and be accepted. I didn’t have a project, really. I had sort of an idea and one chapter of a middle-grade novel. But the Gulf-side campus was so pretty and the faculty so good, I spent those two days working on my submission.
Meanwhile, my husband was figuring the logistics. How would I get there? Where would I stay? It was too far to drive (900 miles). I would have to take two, maybe even three planes each way. The on-site hotel was probably already booked. I could stay elsewhere but I’d have to rent a car. Surprisingly, no meals were included.
When I sent in my application, I learned I’d be notified December 24. The week-long conference began January 17. I thought about all those plane reservations I’d have to make in a very short time. I thought about the hassle of changing planes, renting a car. I thought about what I’d do with my coat.
And then I thought about being away from home. My home. At last, after living in this house nearly twenty years, and being married nearly thirty-six years, I realized that where I lived with my husband was home. Not a childhood home that has been gone for thirty years. Not some mythical Homeplace. My place, my home, was right under my feet.
I can stop running. If I feel boxed-in, it’s because I let myself be tossed off-course. If I need to enlarge my vistas, I only have to drive a few miles to quit squinting.
As Thoreau wrote in Walden, “Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature, and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito’s wing that falls on the rails.”
I signed up for two online courses, one on short-form memoir, the other on nature writing. They will be a nice break from children’s writing, cheaper than flying anywhere and I can sleep in my own bed. On pretty days, I’ll pack a lunch and drive to a quiet, nearly-empty library in rural King George County, where I will work, deliberately.
I start those classes today. If I write anything decent, I’ll post it here (Hallelujah, you’re thinking, something else on this blog besides her infernal whining!).
It’s a new year. Shall we crunch right over those nutshells? And blow those mosquitoes’ wings out of our way?
This has been a year of Twirlies. This is my term for the impetuous thoughts and notions that ricochet in my head, often arriving in that liminal space between sleep and waking.
People with mood disorders can be struck with “flight of ideas” or “grandiose thoughts,” both of which are severe symptoms, but the Twirlies are much milder. So mild they seem possible. Reasonable. Really good ideas, even, and in my case, usually book-related. The problem is that they are not always feasible. And I have too many of them.
2014 started off-balance. I wanted desperately to get back to work after two solid years of dealing with medical issues, other people’s and mine. And so I began vigorously cranking out new ideas. I’ve always been very good at this. I’ve been known to dream book ideas and even dream stories, complete with printed text. It’s not restful sleep.
Being a writer and having the Twirlies seem to be part and parcel of a creative life. Ideas are ideas, however they are delivered. But the Twirlies are different—an enormous waste of time and sometimes hard to come down from.
So what exactly are Twirlies? I can remember a few from 2007, a year I was exhausted and stressed from too many projects, travel, and writing my master’s thesis. I thought about doing a book about Mark Twain when he visited the Jamestown 200th or 300th anniversary. I ran that idea by my thesis adviser, a Twain scholar. An entire book about Twain’s brief and mostly insignificant trip?
The worst Twirly of that period, the one that embarrasses me even today, was deciding to make a scrapbook of Margaret McElderry’s life. Margaret McElderry was the last of the original children’s book editors. By 2007, she had retired from her imprint.
I raced to tell my husband, the idea glittering in my mind. I’d do this wonderful thing for an editor I’d admired my entire career! My husband listened carefully and told me that while this was a “good idea,” it would be hard to make work. Why would this editor let a total stranger be privy to her private photographs and documents? I’d go to New York, I argued. I’d show her my scrapbooks and she’d be thrilled to have me make one for her.
Sometimes I get the Twirlies when I need to feel engaged with the world, craving a bigger life than I have.
Last month, I decided I would volunteer at an animal refuge 30 miles away, one that keeps cats, dogs, and even livestock that can’t be adopted. I offered to photograph and write a book about the place, which meant I’d require free access. I even filled out waivers. But when I was told I wouldn’t be permitted to interact with the animals—unsafe for both the animals and me—I fell out of the mood. I didn’t want to wash cat bowls.
The Twirlies are often aided and abetted by the Internet. After the refuge fiasco, I found the blog of someone doing an interesting project. I decided I would write to this person, but I had too much to say for an email. I spent an entire weekend tracking down the address. I planned to write this person a long letter, include part of my own writing, detail all my own interests, and even send along some childhood drawings I’d photocopied. Mercifully, I didn’t follow through, which is generally what happens with Twirlies.
There were more Twirlies this year, minor ones like impulse-spending and writing too-long, too-confessional letters, and not-so-minor ones like impulsively making promises I couldn’t keep.
Then last month Winchester left us and the Twirlies sank deep, like koi in an iced-over pond. I felt fragile, glass-like. I became very, very quiet. No Twirlies could save my cat. No Twirlies would save me.
The Twirlies are, I believe, the result of not being involved in meaningful work. A restless mind reaches out, searches, and latches onto shimmering ideas. Despite my longing for a meaningful project, the Twirlies drive a wedge between me and my work.
I needed to figure out what the Twirlies were, what they were doing to me, and how to control them. I sat down and put together my own self-help book. Seriously. I listed my issues and my goals. And then I researched each problem and came up with solutions. I’ve read a hundred self-help books over the years. The information in them would make sense, but I’d forget it.
This self-help book is tailored to my personal problems. It has inspirational quotes, and quoted material from books, articles, and the Internet, distilled into short chapters. It has solutions I can implement immediately, and longer-term solutions I can work toward.
There is a separate chapter called “Twirlies.” I had to analyze this particular issue on my own. I figured that when my mood goes in either direction, I’m more susceptible to the Twirlies. I spend money. I stay on the Internet. I’m too chatty. And I’m bombarded with ideas. But ideas are also part of my own creativity. How can I tell the difference?
My solution: Sit on the idea. Don’t feed it with the Internet. If the idea is valid and good, it will persist and grow. If it’s not, it’ll wither and be forgotten.
On my desk is the red binder called Daily Plan 2015. 40 pages, single-spaced. It seems almost pathetic to put together my own self-help book, but I’m glad I did. It’s one Twirly idea that is the most beneficial way to start the New Year.