Flipping the Switch: 2017

Posted January 2nd, 2017 by Candice

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I’m late putting up a New Year’s post, owing to the fact I had a book due, I was hospitalized, and there were all those holidays.  Being in the hospital for three days (and three mostly sleepless nights) gave me plenty of time to think about the coming year and change.  A new year usually generates resolutions, goals, or “word of the year.”

I have no resolutions because, like most people, hard resolves tend to shatter within a matter of weeks.  I’m too old to have goals:  it’s all I can do to keep moving forward with my writing career and teaching.

I used to have a “word of the year.”  I remember my first word of the year, claimed back in January 1987.  It was “onward” (stolen from my Mary Engelbreit calendar).  I was all ready to charge onward into a year of writing when, just after New Year’s Day doctors gave up on my ill stepfather and sent him home to die.  Not the kind of onward I’d hoped for.

The magazines I read while I was sick devoted whole articles to promoting “no” as word of the year, perfect sense for people who hurl themselves from one place, one activity, one day to the next.  I’ve felt that way myself this past year.  To me, “no” sounds strident.  I plan to practice saying “no,” but I don’t want to wave that banner for 2017.

If I had a word of the year, it would be “wonder,” a commodity we have precious little of when every question can be answered with a swipe.  Pull out a phone and curiosity is immediately smacked into fact.  Close on the heels of “wonder” is “pay attention.”  (Two words, so I cheat.)

All around me people chatter, multi-task on phones and laptops, drive while eating and drinking, walk with headphones, eyes straight ahead.  Everyone seems to have tunnel vision.  I’m the only one who stops in the Walmart parking lot to watch a flock of Canada geese fly low overhead.  It’s an astonishing sight, always, and deserves our attention.

The end of the year is also time for assessment.  Since I’m deep into my career, I’m not about to flit off in another direction (that too-old thing again).  I ponder why I’m doing what I do, and that inevitably leads me back to my childhood self.  At ten, I was so full of wonder, I could barely stand up.  Everything was fascinating:  dirt, birds, stars, rocks, dinosaurs, clouds, trees.  I couldn’t get enough of the world around me.

Annie Dillard talks about waking up in her book An American Childhood:

Who turned on the lights?  You did, by waking up.  You flipped a light switch, started up the wind machine, kicked on the flywheel that spins the years . . . Knowing you are alive is feeling the planet buck under you, rear, kick, and try to throw you . . . Do you remember, remember, remember?

I do remember. And I want some of that feeling back.  It’s still there, underneath the dailyness of cleaning toilets and buying milk and washing the sheets.  The planet ripples a little when I have to sit down to emails and go to appointments.  I’m older, not dead.

So here’s what I’m going to do this year.  Wake up.  Be wide-eyed with wonder.  Because I’m a grown-up, I’ll call it a project.  I’m keeping a nature journal, writing down what I see, what I’m paying attention to.  Even if I can’t go outside, I’ll observe from the window.  I’ll draw in it, maybe paint a little.  Use photos.  The important thing is that I’ll make note I was aware of this world, every day.

I’ll share some of what I see and hear and experience with you (which will be mercifully better than my endless whining).  You can come, too.

Flip the light switch again.  Pay attention with me.

Wonder.

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Angels in the Woods

Posted December 16th, 2016 by Candice

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It starts in late October when I pick up special-issue Christmas magazines.  Something fires in my brain.  Visions of cut-out sugar cookies, homemade breads for neighbors, our house turned into a picture-perfect vintage winter wonderland . . .

For Type-A control-freaks like me, Christmas represents the pinnacle of overachievement.  Pull out garland, lights, and mistletoe!  Dig out candles, ornaments, and tinsel!  My head teems with craft projects and design decor.  Never mind I have a ton of work.  Forget that perfection isn’t a realistic goal.  On with the show!

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After I’ve browbeaten my husband to hang the outside lights, I go to town with fake greenery and bead garlands.  No demure holly branches or pine cones for me.  Pile on the glitz!  This year I added a vintage tin barn on our porch as a touch of the unexpected.

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The inside of the house is next.  Rather than install one lavish display (I used to put up a seven-foot tree loaded with Victorian ornaments and would dress fifty bears), I “curate” vignettes of heirloom and vintage decorations.  My mother-in-law’s putz village always resides on the hutch in the dining room, but everything else is featured in different displays each year.

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I enjoy unpacking family treasures, aware I’m the final caretaker of these fragile old things.  I honor other people’s traditions—my husband’s, my stepfather’s, my grandparents’.  And of course, my own.

In my memory map, the Christmases-that-actually-were sit at a crossroads with the Christmases-that-never-existed.

~ ~ ~

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Each year when I set out my out my tiny plastic nativity, I am ten again, spending a precious dime on my first decoration.  That year, 1962, my stepfather cut down a cedar tree, scraggly and with a “bad” side, from our woods, and nailed two crossed pieces of lumber as a stand.

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My mother brought boxes of ornaments down from the attic.  I decorated the tree by myself, as I would the rest of my life.  My mother set out the gold-painted turkey carcass sleigh pulled by three mismatched reindeer.  Holiday cards of carolers were Scotch-taped to the mantel.  I wanted more.

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When I grew up, I decided, I’d decorate my whole house.  I’d open all my presents on Christmas Eve, not just the one I was allowed.  Supper would be party food eaten under the tree: cashews and French onion dip with potato chips, sugar cookies and ginger ale punch.  Christmas Eve held all the magic.

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With money from my first job, I bought decorations from Dart Drug, glitter-dusted sugar-plum garlands, candy canes, and pink plastic gumdrops.  At seventeen, I was already into themes.  Since then, I’ve blasted through several phases: Victorian, early children’s book, primitive Americana.  None of them felt genuine.

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One dusky December afternoon, I went into our woods and climbed a half-fallen oak tree.  I took two package tie-ons shaped like angels from my pocket.  Wrapping the pipe cleaners around my fingers like puppets, I listened to the angels.  I was nine and understood every word they whispered.  It was the only time Christmas ever felt real, that cold afternoon alone in the woods, but not that far from home.

~ ~ ~

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I was 35 when my mother died and wanted nothing to with Christmas.  I bought a small artificial tree and decorated it with miniature Charlie Brown ornaments from Hallmark.  Christmas Eve day, I insisted we go to Williamsburg.  It grew dark and still I had no plans to drive home.  As the Royal Albert outlet store was closing, I rashly purchased a set of bone china, originally priced at $1200, for $200.  I craved beautiful things but they did not bring back my mother.

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We ate Christmas Eve supper in a Holiday Inn on the way back home.  I glimpsed my reflection in the window, noting the tightness around my mouth.  We used the china exactly once.  And when we moved, I never found the little artificial tree or the Charlie Brown ornaments.  They had vanished.

I learned you cannot run away from Christmas, but for years and years, I dreaded the holiday and raced through the season like I was running through a burning building.

~ ~ ~

Heartburn started in August.  The only way I could cope with Christmas was to bury it in elaborate decorations and cookie exchanges with people I barely knew and rich lunches in restaurants where I was never comfortable.  I wrote zesty holiday letters and agonized over selections of Christmas cards.  The postage stamps had to coordinate.

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I created a schedule:  shopping done by Halloween, letter written before Thanksgiving, cards started on Thanksgiving evening, packages mailed by December 8, cards mailed by December 9, tree up December 10.  The check-list was less a tradition and more a set of marching orders.

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December 26, everything was put away except the tree.  No Southerner, even one as anal as I am, would tempt next year’s fate by taking the tree down before New Year’s Day.

We did “city” stuff, like attend The Nutcracker at the Kennedy Center and hear The Messiah by the National Symphony.  I wore velvet and diamond earrings.  I was thin back then and always cold.  Inside and out.

~ ~ ~

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In my heart, I wanted to live in the country.  I wanted to cut our own Christmas tree and haul it back to our farmhouse in a red ’55 Chevy truck.  I wanted to stay up on Christmas Eve and hear the animals speak at midnight and see angels.

I wanted to make peace with Christmas.

I wanted to go home.

~ ~ ~

After a while, I realized that the house I live in is home and I could keep fighting Christmas or reach a compromise.

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I let go of the schedule (mostly).  I cut my present list.  I choose the parts of Christmas that are important to me.  But I still make a huge decorating fuss.

Eventually I wound my way back to the old mercury-glass ornaments and my mother’s mismatched reindeer.  Creating artful displays lets me feel like a window designer.

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Yet I get tired and cranky, as many women do this time of year.  We’re the ones who pull it off like a rabbit out of a hat.  For me, the stress of unattainable perfection weighs heavily and, in truth, no one gives a rip if the pink pre-lit tree clashes with the red pre-lit tree next to it.

For some reason, I feel Christmas gives me a chance to make right the failures and goals I didn’t achieve the previous eleven months.  No one heaps those expectations on me.  I do it all by myself, just as that ten-year-old girl took on decorating the tree all by herself.

 

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If I’ve learned anything this year, it’s that I need to do less.  To be still and quiet.  To find a patch of woods.  To wait for the angels.  If I listen,  they might whisper to me again.

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Go Out. Report Back.

Posted November 14th, 2016 by Candice

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Last week I wrote about being “between selves,” referencing an essay by writing teacher, Heather Sellers.  I’m still mining that essay, “The Wizard in the Closet,” which is about how Sellers’ FSU writing mentor, Jerome Stern, shaped her into a writer (and a person).

As Stern’s grad assistant, Sellers often ran errands for him: “picking up a writer at the airport, dropping off a poster at the printer, hanging flyers on bulletin boards, getting a book from the library.”  And when she returned, Stern always asked her, “What did you notice?  What was interesting?”

Most of us don’t notice much of anything when we’re doing errands because we aren’t looking for anything interesting.  We’re just in a hurry to buy rolls for supper, mail a package, fill up the gas tank, grab a latte at Starbucks.  Only something extraordinary would make us pay attention, like falling into a sinkhole.

Sellers’ professor insisted that she take note of what was happening and find the story in it.  “He taught me that all writers are essentially travel writers . . . Only after shaping the trip into a narrative could you honestly say, ‘I’m back.’”

I took Stern’s advice to heart.  The next time out, I’d pay attention and find the story.  As it so happened, my husband and I went to lunch at a café in Spotsylvania Courthouse, a new place for us.  I sat down, ordered a BLT without the T and not much L, and checked out the scene.  My gaze locked on an older couple sitting in the booth across from us.

The man wore the county uniform of John Deere cap, flannel shirt, suspenders, green work pants, and brogans.  His wife had on a long knit skirt, a red flowy top, and sequined Converse sneaks.  Pinned in her dyed black hair were two coral roses.  Neither had any teeth, but that didn’t hinder them from chowing down burgers and chili while keeping up a brisk dialog with each other and a chatty waitress.  Immediately I fixated on them.

My husband changed seats with me so I could observe better.  I peeked around my menu.  My ears practically bent forward like tuning forks so I could eavesdrop.  Amazingly, the woman talked about museums.  I itched to take their picture and record their conversation in a notebook.  But I didn’t have my camera or even a scrap of paper with me.  What kind of a writer goes out unprepared?

I ate my BLT, forking out the still-too-much L, as the couple finished their meal.  Although they’d cleaned their plates down to the shine, the woman asked for doggie bags.  I watched as they carefully scraped bits into Styrofoam boxes, poured dregs of sweet tea into to-go cups.  When they left, the exotic air in the café leaked out into the autumn day.

What did you see? Jerome Stern would ask me if I were his student. I imagined myself proudly relating a colorful description of the farmer and his festively-dressed wife.

What happened? Stern would press.  I’d stammer that they ate and talked and packed a doggie bag before leaving.  Even telling it in my head, it sounded skimpy and anecdotal.

I glanced around the café.  A line of crayoned placemats hung like pennants from the counter.  One child had a drawn a cross and the word Faith.  Another showed a sleek racecar.  The woman in the booth behind us grilled the waitress about every single ingredient in her order.  I cain’t touch dairy.  A group of retirees in badge-studded VFW hats grumbled over politics. Why hadn’t I noticed all this before?

In my search for story, I’d chosen to focus on the curious and strange, ignoring the fact the rest of the restaurant offered up a whole novel on a platter.

What happened? Well, that part is up to me.

The couple aren’t characters by themselves (maybe they are, but you know what I mean); not until I let them interact with others in the café.  Or give them lives outside the café.

Suppose they get into a beef with the non-dairy woman over the rights of cows?  Suppose their granddaughter drew the racecar picture on an earlier visit—and they’re raising her because her mother is in jail? Or the doggie bags contain their supper for the next few days because today is their anniversary and they splurged?

There are the stories.

Heather Sellers realized her mentor wasn’t just trying to get her to observe, but to stretch beyond observation and note-taking.  (What do we do with all those notes anyway?) So she wrote a short story about a character that combined her own traits with those of a fellow student she didn’t care for, and gave the character the assignment of breaking up with a fictional boyfriend.  “I made the whole thing up, but it felt like the truest story I’d ever written.”

I never got to take a class with the late Jerome Stern (or with Heather Sellers, yet), but I appreciate knowing this new practice however it came to me.

Go out.  Pay attention.  Report back with a story.

 

 

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Between Selves

Posted November 7th, 2016 by Candice

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Recently I attended our regional SCBWI conference.  It was a great conference, as always, and like old home week.  Lots of people came up to me:  Hollins students, retreat attendees, critique clients, workshop attendees, even someone who heard me speak at a romance writers panel in 1982 (“You were a girl!”).  I was pleased that people touched base or shared great news.  But it seemed they sprang away like gazelles while I spluttered, “Wait!  Here’s what’s happened to me . . .”

I realize that after nearly 40 years in the business, I’m sort of a fixture: Oh, that’s Candice Ransom, she’s published a gazillion books.  I won’t deny that it’s nice to be well-published, but it isn’t always a picnic.

I came home from the conference wondering why I hesitate to mention my news.  A large part of this reticence stems from a mother who told me never to brag.  And she practiced this herself.  If, for example, my aunt boasted that my cousin had made all A’s and one B, Mama would rather be thrown under a semi than report that I had made straight A’s.  (This was after my early high school years in which I’d flunked Home Ec, P.E., algebra.)

Why did I feel isolated among people who love children’s books as much as I do?  I watched and listened to the participants.  They were bright-eyed with excitement and I could tell many were on the cusp of wonderful things.

Some of my hesitation to join in was my natural shyness.  I’ve never felt comfortable in large groups, even if I know everybody.   Then, too, I sense when I come to this conference each year, I’m a different person, in a different place.

Five years ago, I believed I’d finally reached the writer self I’d launched myself toward for so long.  But things went wrong and I was tangled in confusion and frustration.

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A few days ago I stumbled on an essay by my favorite writing teacher, Heather Sellers.  In the essay, which is about her favorite writing teacher, Sellers says that “all of us, always, are between selves . . .”  It makes perfect sense.  I’m between selves again.  Not exactly here or exactly there.  Yet.

If Sellers is right, then everyone at the conference (and anywhere else) was between selves.  Many were coming into their own as writers, connecting with the right agent, meeting an empathetic editor, hearing the one piece of advice that resonated, writing down the one sentence that jolted them from a rut, jotting down the title of the one book they needed to read.  Some, however, may have been experiencing a kind of fugue, and were waiting for the fuzziness to clear up.

That would be me.  I’ve shed the husk of that recent failure, but I’m still crawling toward who I can be.  As Sellers says, “We forget how painful it is [sometimes] to be between selves . . . and that it is in that desolate gap that everything true and useful is happening.”

I’m taking notes, Ms. Sellers.   And if I actually reach that “person-in-the-making,” I know I probably won’t get to stay there long.  But that’s okay.  Maybe the leap to the next self won’t be as far.

Now I will tell my news for this year:

  • I have a new agent who makes me work and gives me hope, the best combination ever.
  • I have a three-book contract from Random House for three more Step into Reading Level 1 readers.
  • I have just been signed to write the sequel to my 2017 picture book, Amanda Panda Quits Kindergarten.
  • I am working on a nonfiction book with National Geographic.
  • Next year I will have five new books out!

 

 

 

 

 

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Why I Went Back to Jazzercise

Posted October 31st, 2016 by Candice

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As you grow older, you realize there are a great many things you can’t get back:  your childhood home, your size two body, your mother’s moonstone pendant you lost in the front yard and never found no matter how many times you raked through the grass.  In this era of ever-facing forward, you may think some decisions are irreversible.

Like how you exercise.

I never did a stroke of exercise unless forced at knife-point.  Then I turned 40 and realized that whenever I walked upstairs parts of me were still moving even after I reached the top.  I crept into a neighborhood Jazzercise class in 1992 and stayed (although in a different town and studio) for 18 years.  And then I quit.  I was teaching and gone all summer.  My work seemed to take all my time.  I didn’t like the music any more.  I would walk instead.  I’d take up running!

And I did, but only if it wasn’t too hot, too cold, too windy, raining, or a squirrel hadn’t looked crossways at me.  I’m the Goldilocks of outdoor activities.  I joined Curves and dropped out.  Tried Zumba, but it wasn’t like Jazzercise.

When my husband had open-heart surgery, we joined a nearby gym and I discovered that even if the gym was next door, even if it was in my house, I would only climb on the leg press machine if it blocked access to the bathroom.

I spend my days in my office, or hovering around the goody drawer.  At 64, I look great on paper as far as sugar, cholesterol, blood pressure, and BMI.  While my weight isn’t terrible, I’m nobody’s tiny thing, as my mother would say.  Then there are my moods.

Depression is insidious.  One of my first symptoms is a sense of disappearing.  I stop looking in mirrors.  I don’t feel present when I’m out in public.  I am nobody.  I don’t count.  Meds help, but only so much.  My days lose shape.  It happens almost every fall, but two weeks ago I decided to reverse a decision I’d made.

I went back to Jazzercise.  I was very nervous.  I was six years older and more things hurt.  Would I remember the moves?  Would I pass out from exhaustion?   More important, would I be welcomed?

And then there’s the stamp of fuddy-duddyness associated with Jazzercise.  Once, in my summer graduate class, I mentioned Jazzercise.  My younger students snickered.  When I asked them what was so funny, they said, “My mother did Jazzercise!”  “My grandmother did Jazzercise!”  I checked my pulse to make sure I was still alive and then I told those girls that if they walked into a Jazzercise class right now, the “old ladies” would mop the floor with them.

Jazzercise has always changed with the times.  No more leg warmers or Sweatin’ to the Oldies.  Yes, the morning class I attend is largely made up of retired people.  The woman I dance next to is 80.  She’s in better shape than many women half her age.

What inspires such loyalty?  Sense of family.  Was I welcomed back?  You bet I was.  I’d forgotten names, but not faces, and no one, it seems, had forgotten me.  Going to the gym, or walking or running by myself offered no sense of community.  People come to class week after week, year after year to work out and work through loss, problems, and illness.  Jazzercise gives shape to our days.

The first four classes were rough.  I had four different instructors who never repeated a number.  I concentrated so hard to learn routines smoke poured out of my ears.  Yet I left with a feeling of pride as I breezed through after-class chatter and out into the sunshine.

I was back.

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Cleopatra’s Robe

Posted May 13th, 2016 by Candice

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When I think about the stars and how far away they are and how many, I get so I have to sit down.

And then I remember that matter cannot be created or destroyed, which means nothing ever leaves.  Not dogs or fleas or mockingbirds or Jefferson’s eyelashes.  The dust stirred by the hem of Cleopatra’s robe is still here.  It all returns, all of it, some way or another.

My mother could have been a color or a drop of rain.  What if I missed her?  Will she come back again?

Strawberries in May

Posted May 10th, 2016 by Candice

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No tuna for the cats this week.  These are the first of the season and Social Security only stretches so far.  Time for homemade strawberry shortcake with real cream.

Fifty years ago you kissed Estee Lauder Swiss Strawberry off my lips.  When all the kids had measles, you picked tiny wild berries and put them in my great-grandmother’s Satsuma teacup.  At your passing, my world turned red.  How would I get by alone?

This evening for supper, fresh hot biscuits, sugar-topped and brown, will pillow an old woman’s memories.   The cats will have the cream.

Spring cleaning for this blog!  Once a week, I plan to post a photo and write a story that has nothing to do with me or the photo.  Artist’s exercise:  take a photo, print it, and live with it for a week until it tells a story.

“The Way Mama Could Peel Apples!”

Posted April 28th, 2016 by Candice

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Something was wrong.

Sick of being buttoned-up, jammed-up, grown-up, I tore out in the Little Red Truck, down a wide-open highway, windows down, eating a Twix bar, CD player blaring Waylon and Willie in “Good-hearted Woman.”

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It wasn’t too long before I met the girl who used to drive barefoot down tree-dappled backroads, sipping the dregs of a Pink Fink Slurpee, Neil Diamond’s “Brother Love Traveling Salvation Show” blasting from the a.m. radio.  My redneck didn’t-give-a-damn self.  How I’ve missed her.

Spring brings planting sprees, cleaning spurts, and spells of restlessness.  We stand at the edge of summer, one leap from quarry-deep memories of “laying out” and evening jaunts to nowhere in particular, while we declutter the garage and tackle weeds.

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At night I hunt that summer girl in my dreams.  The brick rambler where she grew up is there (last night a forest of cellphone towers rose up in place of our woods), yet bumbling around inside is a nearly-sixty-four-year-old woman, confused and disoriented.  The woman is confused and disoriented awake, too.  Her memory is failing.  Huge chunks of her past have crumbled to dust, like slabs of ceiling plaster fallen onto a concrete floor.

When we sold my childhood house in 1990, my husband took photos of each empty room, every forlorn corner.  The other day I came upon those pictures.  When did Mama change the kitchen counter?  Was the linoleum always that color?  Pictures don’t lie, but they didn’t match the images in my head, patched-together fragments from actual life and night-time stumblings toward a ghostly home.

Last night I finished Dimestore: A Writer’s Life, the memoir by my favorite writer, Lee Smith.  Smith’s novels are like going home, even if you’ve never set foot in Appalachia.  In the chapter entitled, “A Life in Books,” Smith speaks of the joy in her work:

     For the time of the writing, I am nobody.  Nobody at all . . . though I say I am no one at all, my every sense is keen and quivering.  I can smell the bacon cooking downstairs in my grandmother’s kitchen that winter morning in 1952.  I can see the bright blue squares of the kitchen wallpaper, bunches of cherries alternating with little floral bouquets . . . my grandaddy’s Lucky Strike cigarette smoke still hangs in the air, lazy blue, though he is already up and gone . . .

     I am there now, and I want to stay there.  I hate to leave that kitchen and come back to this essay.

I know exactly how she feels.  It’s a harder trip for me to find our old kitchen, but necessary.  You see, I left something important in there.

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In her memoir, Smith recounts Eudora Welty’s visit to Hollins College where Smith was a student.  Lee Smith hadn’t read any of Welty’s work, but she high-tailed it to the library after Welty’s reading.  Eudora Welty opened a path for Smith to follow, much as Smith slashed a trail for me.  In her own memoir, One Writer’s Beginnings, Welty said, “My imagination takes its strength . . . from what I see and hear and learn and feel and remember of my living world.”

Lee Smith quit writing frivolous stories about stewardesses and evil twins and began writing “plain stories about country people and small towns,” her own ‘living world.’  What Welty and Smith call “plain stories” I call kitchen table stories.  The ones we told around the table after supper.  The ones I’ve forgotten.

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My work depends on tracking down that kitchen.  Lately my writing has felt stale.  My characters seem less like real kids and more like actors directed on a stage.  Part of this is driven by a trend towards over-sophistication, a thicket of “swirly” covers in the children’s section of Barnes and Noble, and other factors that have led me to stray from writing truthfully and directly to my audience.

On that drive, I stopped at an antique shop, one of the best ways to jog my memory.  The shop was divided into booths, some set up like old-timey kitchens.  I lingered by Formica tables laden with Melmac plastic or green Depression glass dishes.  Picking up a copy of The Moffats, a 1941 children’s book by Eleanor Estes, I read the first lines:

     The way Mama could peel apples!  A few turns of the knife and there the apple was, all skinned!  Jane could not take her eyes from her mother’s hands.  They had a way of doing things, peeling apples, sprinkling salt, counting pennies, that fascinated her.

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I closed my own eyes as joy pierced the fog I’ve learned to live with.  I owned this book in paperback, all of the Moffat series, in fact.  But I carried the wonderful old hardcover to the check-out.  I’d re-read the story of a family steeped in their living world, find my place at the table as nobody, nobody at all, and, hopefully, my salvation, as well.

Photos are from my collection of vernacular snapshots.

 

 

Are You a Hummingbird or a Jackhammer?

Posted March 27th, 2016 by Candice

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Last fall, social media buzzed with Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk on creativity.  Gilbert, who has led workshops on finding your passion, presented the flipside at Oprah’s event.  While she herself has followed her passion all her life, she understands that not everyone is cut out of the same cloth.  She divided people into jackhammers—those who doggedly pursue a dream—and hummingbirds—people who explore many interests.

I realized instantly which group I’m in.  I have little patience for people who don’t know what they want to do with their lives, students who dither over majors, or anyone who doesn’t single-mindedly follow a childhood calling.  I’m tedious to be around.

If someone asks me how to become a children’s book writer, I’ll reply, “How bad do you want this?” and then I’ll scare the pants off that person by telling them to forget about going to the movies or messing around with friends or taking vacations that have nothing to do with work or belonging to organizations or even having coffee.

Once I was asked to give a writing workshop on a cruise ship.  When I laid out the schedule, the director said, “People can’t do all this.  They’ll want to take Pilates and go shopping.”  “Pilates!” I shot back.  “They’ll have work to do!”  And so it’s gone my entire life–everyone else out shopping and taking Pilates while I did my work.

I mentioned the jackhammer-hummingbird discussion to my husband.  “Why is it I’ve only ever been able to do one thing?” I asked.  He said he actually admired my ability to stay with a passion sparked when I was seven.  I’ve never quit, he said, not when I was sick, not when people I loved were dying, especially not when my career sank, more than once.  “You don’t know the word ‘no,’” he said and I was stunned.  It was true.

But I hate the comparison to a jackhammer with its implications of being single-minded, noisy, intrusive, capable only of tearing up pavement.  Who wouldn’t want to be a hummingbird, a delightful fairy-like creature?  Hummingbirds zip from one interesting flower to the next, pollinating joy wherever they go.

In my life, I’ve known lots of hummingbirds but only one other jackhammer.

When my cousin David was ten, he went with my aunt to the drugstore.  David slipped behind the counter to watch Dr. Hook fill his mother’s prescription.  From that day on, David wanted to be a pharmacist.  He attended college and pharmacy school.  After graduation he worked for pharmacies before opening his own.  David had other interests, but never wavered from the dream that struck him at age ten.

I was around ten, too, when I began sorting out my own interests:  watching birds, drawing, reading, writing stories.  Yet I loved writing the most.

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The only time my love of writing flagged was in seventh grade.  Everything flagged in seventh grade.  I went from a small rural elementary school to a big intermediate school.  I weighed 72 pounds.  I had bad sinuses.  The bravado I’d stockpiled when I was ten and eleven dissipated in that new place where I had to change classes, open a locker, and, worst of all, change out in gym class.

My favorite class was three-hour ESG (English, Social Studies, and Guidance), though you’d never know it by my grades:  Cs and Ds in Social Studies, and Bs in English.  I adored Miss Dail.  She was young, just out of teacher’s college, and pretty.  She wore fashionable A-line skirts, Peter Pan collar blouses, circle pins, loafers.

I so wanted her to like me, but she didn’t because I was skinny and adenoidal and crooked-toothed and wore hand-me-downs.  Miss Dail warmed to the “Annandale” girls, the cute, bubbly ones who’d traveled and were already interested in boys and clothes and make-up.  I was still playing with Ellsworth and watching birds.

I tried to get her to notice me by doing long extra-credit reports on subjects like Australia and honeybees, researching in the library before school started, copying them in my neatest handwriting, including pictures, and putting them in store-bought covers.

I turned the reports in along with regular homework.  And heard nothing.  Nothing at all.  Near the end of the year we had a unit on careers.  Miss Dail set up a long box with folders on various occupations.  I already knew I wanted to be a writer but was sure that wouldn’t be in the box.  I needed a real job.  I also wanted to be a bird scientist.  I rifled through the folders but couldn’t find ornithologist.  I went up to Miss Dail’s desk for help.

She smelled wonderful, light and sweet, and wore a crisp Madras blouse.  I told her my occupation wasn’t in the box.  “What is it?” she asked.  “Or-nee-thee-o-LO-gist,” I said.  I could spell the word and knew what it meant but I’d never heard it said.  “What?”  Now she was irritated.  She wanted me away from her desk, my open-mouthed breathing away from her, my pale green face out of her sight.

She took me back to the box, ripped through the remaining folders, and yanked one out.  “Here,” she said.  The folder was labeled Forest Ranger.  So I wrote up my occupation on being a forest ranger, picturing myself on a fire tower with binoculars, scanning the sky for birds.  No wonder I got Cs and Ds.  Nothing about seventh grade seemed to fit me.

On the last day of school, Miss Dail joked with the cool kids as she returned papers.  She handed me back my extra-credit reports without a word.  There was a check mark on the covers, but no grade, no note, only the barest acknowledgement of my efforts.  I felt flattened, but decided from then on I’d please myself.  Watch birds, draw, read.  Write.

In high school thoughts of or-nee-thee-o-LO-gy were buried under a burning desire to become a writer of children’s books.  At fifteen, I started writing for publication, submitting a picture book I’d illustrated myself in red, blue, and black ink pens, and a mystery novel that was so firmly rejected, the return envelope bore tire tracks.  My mother steered me into secretarial courses, hoping I’d abandon this outlandish notion.

My senior English teacher recognized my desire.  After class we talked about how I’d become a writer.  She treated me like a real person.  (By now I weighed 98 pounds and had had my adenoids removed.)  Miss Boyle lent me a new book, The French Lieutenant’s Woman.  She thought I’d love it, but Fowles’ story was beyond me.  I didn’t want to disappoint her so I kept the book and kept the book and kept the book until near the end of the year when she asked for it back.

That spring Miss Boyle also tried to get me a scholarship at a small college.  The scholarship covered tuition but nothing else.  My family had no money for room and board.  I wouldn’t admit that so I told her I couldn’t see how college would bring me closer to becoming a children’s writer.  Between the book and the scholarship, I’d disappointed the only teacher who’d ever shown the slightest interest in me.  I would follow my own path.  And Miss Boyle would have new students the next year.

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One day near graduation, I sat alone in our living room.  The 1970 Spring Children’s Book World had come in the Sunday Washington Post.  On our scratchy harvest gold sofa, I read every book review, studied every single ad with an eye toward my future.  I would do this thing, become a children’s book writer, just like all these other people who’d had books published that spring.  I even picked out a publisher:  Lothrop, Lee, and Shepard.  They published the kind of books I wanted to write.  At seventeen I was beginning to understand how to play the game, though I was barely in it.

me 90

I stumbled and made mistakes, but never, not for a second, lost sight of my goal.  Even though I reached that goal ages ago, I haven’t stopped because there are more stories inside me.  A lifetime of reading and writing has led my curious mind from flower to flower, knowledge that has been funneled into my work.

I dislike Elizabeth Gilbert’s divisive terms of jackhammer and hummingbirds.  I don’t like being pigeon-holed in any way.  I doubt anyone does.

Those things I loved when I was ten—art, reading, writing—I do them all as part of my work.  Outside, birds flit by.  Sometimes even hummingbirds.

 

Not-So-Secret Source: My “Paper Man”

Posted March 19th, 2016 by Candice

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At the writing retreat in Luray a few weekends ago, participants wanted to know where I got the variety of ephemera I use in writing-related art projects.  “My Paper Man,” I said.

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Since I’ve been collecting–well, anything, I’ve had a source.  Bottle Man, Postcard Man, Teddy Bear Woman, Depression Glass Man.  Right now the “man” in my life is John Whiting of Whiting’s Old Paper.

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I stumbled on his shop in Antique Village north of Richmond several years ago and, in a way, have never left.  Thanks to John’s business, I have more than a dozen suitcases crammed with ephemera.

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I’ve bought vintage photographs, magazines, catalogs, books, postcards, photo albums, calendars, maps, scrapbooks, greeting cards, comics, and all sorts of oddments like a jump rope that hangs in our breakfast nook and a 1930s hairnet (for the package graphics) framed and hanging in my sitting room.

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These National Geographics date back to 1916, but none with a whiff of the last 40 years.

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A rack of cabinet cards among piles and heaps of snapshots.

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Some ephemera is categorized for collecting specialists, like Elvis fans.

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This isn’t a place where you breeze in for one little thing.  You need to spend time and be prepared to dig.  Though John has everything organized, there’s a LOT of paper, narrow aisles, and teetering piles.

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John’s shop is on speed-dial for Hollywood props people.  The 200 Life magazines that papered the John Nash’s shed in “A Beautiful Mind?”  From here.  Whiting’s ephemera has been featured in many movies, including “Like Water for Elephants” and “Lincoln.”  John provided maps for the latter movie, and earned a bit part as Lee’s cartographer.

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Those Time magazines above are small versions sent to the military during WWII.

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Today I didn’t have “want” list, like going into a chocolate shop with no particular flavor in mind.  But lately I’ve been interested in photos from the 40s, 50s, and 60s.  I have a collection of vernacular snapshots stored in a vintage 45 record suitcase (natch).

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This beauty was just sitting there.  I’ve been searching for a wooden photograph album.  More than 100 pictures still in it (dealers often strip photos to sell separately).

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How could I not have the image of this little girl with book satchel and lunchbox, gazing so earnestly into the lens?