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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
These National Geographics date back to 1916, but none with a whiff of the last 40 years.
A rack of cabinet cards among piles and heaps of snapshots.
Some ephemera is categorized for collecting specialists, like Elvis fans.
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.
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.
Those Time magazines above are small versions sent to the military during WWII.
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).
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).
How could I not have the image of this little girl with book satchel and lunchbox, gazing so earnestly into the lens?
Yesterday I discovered a new British writer whose work (what I’ve read of it) makes me gasp. Yesterday, our first real spring day with daffodils blooming and birds carrying twigs, we went to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, the second most visited cemetery in the nation ( after Arlington).
I’ve always loved cemeteries, especially ones with old headstones and unusual statuary. Hollywood is 135 acres of winding paths, old roses, holly trees, and thousands of people laid to rest. As I strolled among thickets of granite and marble, I thought about the new writer I’d discovered, Graham Joyce, author of—his term—“Old Peculiar” fiction.
In his most recent blog post, Joyce wrote:
There is a place near Leicester called Wistow. Any English place that ends with the suffix stow or stowe means “holy place.” It’s a bit special and a great place to walk the dog. It is a place with an energy, and a good energy at that. When the last eclipse occurred we decided on a whim to go there to view the eclipse. When we arrived a surprising assembly of people had already collected there, drawn by a similar unconscious force.
It didn’t take us long to find the Iron Dog, one of the most popular attractions in the cemetery. The grave of the three-year-old girl, who died in 1862, is shrouded in legends. Caretakers have claimed the iron Newfoundland moves. Others have seen the girl and the dog playing at night.
There is a depression in the field outside the church where St. Wistan’s blood was said to have flowed, and one day of the year, you can actually see Wistan’s hair grow from the grass. I’m told this is a rare grassy herb and not hair at all. But it’s a good story.
Forsythia makes my heart lift. We had a huge forsythia bush by our driveway when I was growing up. I’d cut branches and bring them in for my mother. When we moved to this house nineteen springs ago, I planted a forsythia bush. It died. And so did the lilac and Rose of Sharon bush. Any dirt that can’t sustain forsythia is mighty poor.
There are 52,000 graves in Hollywood, including two presidents (Monroe and Tyler, three if you count Jefferson Davis), two Supreme Court justices, and, this being Richmond, twenty-two Confederate generals and more than 18,000 Confederate soldiers. Since I grew up and still live on former battlefields, I’m familiar with the anguish of war beneath my feet.
If you half close your eyes and let your imagination run free you can watch another remarkable historical event unfold in front of that same church where Wistan was put to the sword. You can see both King Charles 1st and his military commander Prince Rupert galloping past and up to the mansion hidden by trees just a hundred yards or so from the church. Their army has just been routed by Cromwell at nearby Naseby and they desperately need a change of horse in order to get to the safety of Leicester. In their haste they change horses but leave the royal saddle behind. I’ve seen the saddle. It is crimson and silver and enormous. A thing of great beauty.
The cemetery is bounded on one side by the James River, an ancient waterway that has carried soil and stones from the western mountains for eons. Clack. Clack. Clack. Below a coal train rolled slow as a funeral procession, each car mounded with black gold blasted from those same mountains. The train, pulling at least a hundred cars, snaked past the city, bringing power for lights and laptops, leaving behind a blighted moonscape. Warm breezes brought out VCU students who lolled on blankets with their devices.
So maybe it’s just a grassy field. But, with the weather being high, we took a rug and a picnic and settled on the bank of the river for a lazy afternoon. The Sence bubbled away gently, flowing as it does towards the River Soar and into Leicester in the distance.
The sun made me sleepy. I wanted to stretch out in grass speckled with bluettes. Maybe next to an angel who would guard my dreams.
If you’re prepared to put your head down on this grassy spot, you are of course courting ghosts. As the clouds drifted by overhead something glooped in the water of the Sence and I let my eyes close.
Despite this perfect day, I felt vulnerable and uncertain. Where was my work headed? After all these years writing for children—all I’ve ever wanted to do—would I only leave behind a pile of books? Nothing I’d written is that good or important. It would be so easy just . . . to stop.
I put my head down and gazed up at the clouds and thought: why would anyone want to die? Then my old friend the Heron flew up from the river. Did it fly from right to left or from left to right? Oh, let’s not get into that. It’s just beautiful.
What would be written on my tombstone? I’ve often joked it would be “She Wrote the Boxcar Children Series.” Too bad it won’t be “She was a good writer and a good friend.” But a spider claims that elegy. At lunch earlier, I told my husband the dream I’d had the night before. In the middle of all the chaos was a kernel of something wonderful. At least I thought so. Like most people, my husband wasn’t keen on hearing my rambling dream.
Even though much of my writing has the flavour of dreams I rarely describe a character’s dream. The act of writing is not dreaming. In any event, when you’ve had your go at analysing the dream all you’re left with is the shiny pelt of a once-beautiful creature.
Hollywood Cemetery is so peaceful, I told my husband it was the perfect place to be buried. Much more atmospheric than modern Stonewall Memory Gardens with its flat bronze plates that tractors can mow over. My husband, not surprisingly, quoted Socrates: “Is life better than death? Only God knows.”
I did dream and I had the notion that something was speaking to me, only to wake and find that a dragonfly with a wingspan the size of my hand was buzzing my ear. As I blinked up at the sky that buzzing turned into an aeroplane’s drone, high, high, in the blue. I wondered where those people were going for their summer holidays. Oh this mysterious life, full of cloud formations and dragonfly language and the auguries of herons and aeroplanes and the kingdom of dreams.
Over the river, a burst of seagulls caught the sun on churning white wings. I watched their flight. Angels are always present.
It’s not the diagnosis of cancer that will shock you, though that is enough. It’s the shocking clarity you are left with about life. And if a dragonfly buzzes my ear like an aeroplane I’ll still be going, ‘What did it say?’
Actually I know what the dragonfly said. It whispered: I have inhabited this earth for three hundred million years old and I can’t answer these mysteries; just cherish it all.
I thought about the wonderful kernel of my dream and decided to keep it close for a while but not bury it. I shut my eyes and saw its wavering green shape, its clean gold lines. And when I opened my eyes again I saw my husband, sturdy and steadfast.
And in turn the Heron asks, with shocking clarity as it flies from right to left and left to right: why can’t our job here on earth be simply to inspire each other?
These excerpts are from Graham Joyce’s last blog post, dated August 7, 2014. He died on September 9, 2014, of complications from lymphoma.
Last week I read this wonderful book, My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop. I lapped up every syllable about 82 independent bookstores, envious that I don’t have a bookstore where everybody knows your name, where books are recommended, where your own books are promoted.
The first bookstore I ever entered was Books and Cards, located in an industrial strip shopping center by a gasoline tank farm. Glamorous, it wasn’t. But I was seventeen, and could not believe such a wonder existed in Fairfax County. The store carried greeting cards, stationery supplies, and paperback books stacked on tables.
I snatched up the new U.S. Ballantine edition of The Lord of the Rings. I’d read library editions of the trilogy, out of order because some clod would have checked out The Two Towers or The Return of the King. At home I handled the 95 cent paperbacks like the Book of Kells. Lined up, the covers formed a small version of Barbara Remington’s famous Middle Earth poster. Now that I owned books, I wanted more.
The next time I remember going into Books and Cards I was eighteen, out of school and working as a secretary. With my first paycheck, I bought ten Yearling paperbacks: Elphi the Cat with the High I.Q., The Furious Flycycle, Charlotte’s Web, and others. I added a one dollar book rack and gave the bundle to my seven-year-old niece. It was the best, most heartfelt present I’ve ever given. Susan read all the books, even the hard ones.
Books and Cards closed and for a long while there were no bookstores in my life. Eventually, chain stores popped up in malls: Brentano’s, Waldenbooks, B. Dalton. While I loved having access to books, the stores looked alike from mall to mall. I knew about bookstores with cozy reading nooks and resident cats that were like second homes to real book people like me. Where were those stores?
Crown Books opened, the first big box bookstore. I loved Crown. It was close! It had a lot of books! But it wasn’t a second home. Neither were Crown’s replacements: Borders, Books-a-Million, Barnes and Noble.
We have a B&N and BAM in Fredericksburg. About once a week, I walk into one or the other. And walk right back out again. I rarely buy anything. I don’t feel comfortable. I don’t feel welcome. I don’t even feel like I’m in a bookstore.
When I finished reading My Bookstore, I felt bereft. And then I realized—there was one of those bookstores nearby! I just hadn’t properly claimed it. Riverby Books has been in downtown Fredericksburg for years. I’ve gone in occasionally. I liked the store, but didn’t trust that it would stay in business.
One day this fall I stopped in. Sunlight sprinkled the linoleum floors with gold coins. I went up the stairs and pulled out a book on wildflowers from a pile on the steps. I went down the stairs and sifted through a box of vintage Golden Books, a bargain at $2.50 each. I snapped up a dozen.
Riverby Books is located in a quirky old building. There are plenty of reading nooks. No resident cat, but that’s okay. They sell used and old books, interesting books, books you can’t find at Barnes and Noble. Books you didn’t know you wanted until you saw them.
I never walk out of there empty-handed. Or empty-feeling. A trip to Riverby fills up that book-shaped space. At home, I’ll read my new acquisition, then make room for it on one of my bookshelves. If the book is very special, it might sit next to my prized Ballantine edition of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
The early stages of working on a novel are like the bright winter sky the day after a snowstorm. Clear, expansive, filled with promise. You and your new project stride hand in hand toward a great working partnership.
Then you get busy and soon it’s been months since you and your novel have so much as glanced at each other. Oh, you keep the research notebook on your desk but not front-and-centered the way it was during those lovely bright-sky days. It’s as if you went on an around-the-world-trip and sent your novel one lousy postcard—from the airport.
Novels-in-progress, like couples in a relationship where one partner has wandered off, have a right to be miffed. Expect a cold shoulder when you finally get around to picking up your project again.
You skim your background material, reread the paltry handful of chapters, cluck your tongue at the ambitious schedule you’d set way back then. Worse, you realize your main character’s voice has grown silent. It had been growing quieter day by day, week by week, and you knew the risk of ignoring it, but all that stuff got in the way.
How to get back in your novel’s good graces? Chocolates and roses? Nope. Apologize and vow, “I’ll knuckle down and work every single day all day long?” Nope. You know that’s a promise you can’t keep. All that life stuff is still going on. Some days you won’t get to your desk. Some days you’ll work on something with a higher priority.
Enter the mini-book.
As an amateur photographer, I’ve found when I’m not taking cat pictures, I photograph subjects that pertain to my work. Even if don’t know why I’m taking a particular photograph, later I’ll look at it and realize it’s a facet of some new work. I believe the seeds of projects are planted much earlier—often years—before the work reveals itself.
Like a lot of us, I’ve made keepsake books using commercial labs like Shutterfly—albums of our house, trips, etc. When the finished product arrives in the mail, it’s a book! I can hold it in my hands, open the covers, turn the pages!
One afternoon I was looking at my on-screen file of images compiled for the novel. I thought, I should make a book about my book. Portable, purse-sized, a little book to keep me connected to my novel-in-progress.
I turned to my favorite photo processing company, Artifact Uprising. Based in Colorado, Artifact Uprising uses only recycled materials and promotes the practice of moving images from cameras and computers to something tangible and lasting: prints, calendars, cards, and books.
Because I most often shoot in a 1:1 aspect ratio (square, reminiscent of Polaroids and sixties Kodak prints), I chose their Small Square book, a softcover format perfect for my 5 by 5 images. I designed the layout with a photo on one side of a double-spread, text on the other. The text is mixed: dialog and narrative directly from the novel, sprinkled with quotes that reinforce my theme. I didn’t use the working title of my novel for the title page. The mini-book has its own title.
Creating these little books (I’ve made two) takes several days of concentrated effort. I comb my notes, reread the chapters, mull over my intentions, and listen to my characters. While this seems like make-work, I’m actually reconnecting with my novel. The process of choosing photos, selecting texts and quotes, and matching the narrative to the photos pushes me deep into the project.
And when the package lands in our mailbox, along with Artifact Uprising’s classy thank you card, I’m so excited. The fine paper and high-quality processing make even my photos look wonderful. My words seem more real than they do on computer print-outs.
Best of all, my novel and I are back on speaking terms! The mini-book is small enough to fit into my slimmest cross-body bag. I can take the mini-book with me everywhere, pull out a tangible piece of a project that mostly lives in my head, drink in the images, and hear my main character’s voice, clear as the winter-crisp sky.
Every December, when my life unravels due to too many cookies and too little real work, I begin my search for a planner. I have started many planning systems. Teacher planners, DayRunner (remember those?), ARC (Staples system). Last year I began a bullet journal.
Bullet journals are wildly popular and I loved the idea of customizing my own planner, but it didn’t work for me. I disliked drawing the calendar every month and didn’t understand how to “migrate” tasks using the symbols. I became a bullet journal drop-out.
Passion Planner to the rescue! I read about Passion Planner in the Washington Post and ordered one immediately. The Passion Planner has everything! So many pages to fill! So many areas to check off and write in and—well, plan. I loved coloring in my daily schedule. But there were too many pages to fill and too many areas to write in. I felt like the planner was running me.
By June I’ve usually quit whatever system I’ve started. Why on earth is this so hard? Experts at Franklin-Covey say planners “help people feel organized and in balance. They create harmony and inner peace.” Time to grab my share of harmony and inner peace!
This year I went full-bore and bought three planners: a Leuchtturm 1917 (the notebook most bullet journalers prefer), a Passion Planner, and a teacher’s planner. I also bought fun Post-Its and pens. Then I sat down at my dining room table and, in a separate notebook (only the truly anal will understand), mapped out why previous planners had failed and what I really need.
More than one planner is overkill, according to efficiency experts. Maybe so, but I can’t find a single system that will keep me on track, organized, goal-directed, and let me be a little creative. So here’s what I came up with:
The teacher’s planner will go with me to Hollins. Last summer I didn’t carry my Passion Planner because it was too bulky and wound up double-booking two events on the same day. The teacher’s planner is thin, simple, and doesn’t take any time to update.
The Passion Planner is the workhorse. It stays on my desk and is my weekly scheduler and monthly planner. I skip all those fill-in pages about five-year goals (at my age I don’t even buy green bananas) and what I’m grateful for. I color in blocks of time, using a color key I devised. Easier than symbols. Instead of highlighters, I use twist-up crayons.
Still, the Passion Planner doesn’t have room for book lists, blogging ideas, quotes, etc. So I divided up my new bullet journal into sections about 30 pages each. Freed from monthly lists and migrating tasks, this is my fun take-with-me journal/planner. I added pockets to the end papers and Post-Its. While many BuJo devotees create gorgeous calendars in theirs, I opted for a set of calendar cards (Michaels, $1.99) anchored with clear photo corners.
I found myself writing too much under “Books I’ve Read.” I want to keep this journal a little leaner. So I cut out the pages I wrote on in last year’s failed bullet journal for additional sections, like reviewing books. This is not a journal I carry around. Because I added tabs to both bullet journals, I worried about them getting bent or torn.
I don’t want to tell you how much time I spent looking for a journal cover. Then I stumbled on these simple pencil pouches at Walmart. They’re colorful and have compartments for pens. My journals fit inside perfectly.
For writing and doodling, I use Pilot Precise pens, Pentel Sliccis, and Stabilos. I store the pens and a 6-inch ruler in a Vera Bradley e-reader case I found on sale. All the Post-Its, pens, planners not in use at the moment are corralled in a Michael’s storage box.
Leuchtturm 1917 (Amazon, different colors/styles, about $18)
Passion Planner (order direct, large size $30)
Tim Coffey teacher’s 16-month planner (B&N, $19.00)
Mead notebook insert pencil pouch (Walmart, less than $5)
Storage box (Michaels, $9.99—use a coupon for half price)
Pilot V-5 Extra Fine roller ball pens (I buy these by the dozen—they come in colors, too)
Pentel Sliccis gel pens (Amazon, about $19.00)
Stabilo 88-point Extra Fine markers (Amazon, about $17.00)
Faber-Castell Paper Crafter Crayons (Amazon, $11.00/set)
Wow! Big investment! The pens and crayons will last a long time and so will the box if the cat stays out of it. The planners aren’t cheap. Yet if factor in I’m both labor and management, with no secretary, I think it’s worth it. Plus I like color!
Check back in June. I’ll let you know how it’s going.
My new planner set the course last week: work, two trips to the library, three trips to the gym. Time to crack the whip! Get back in the harness! But by Thursday, I was sick of my own dictums. I needed to get away from my desk, my office, my house. The wheels of the little red truck needed to spin on distant pavement.
I felt at sixes and sevens. Already the new year seemed to be sliding away. I wanted to work. I wanted to not work. A break was in order. So we hit the road for Westmoreland County, far enough away to feel we’d actually gone somewhere, close enough that I could still get in a half day’s writing.
Hundreds of gray-backed seagulls, driven inland from the Potomac River, gossiped in cropped corn fields. Silos and cellphone towers shouldered heavy clouds, pushing the leaden ceiling higher as we drove east. Bungalows napped like cats around a wood stove.
My camera finger itched. Donna Hopkins had photographed a house along this stretch. I wanted to see it, too. After parking the little red truck, I crunched through years of fallen leaves to the back door. It opened easily and I slipped inside. Maybe I’d find the answer to my restlessness in those chill-damp rooms.
What I found was an all-too-common story: an old place rented by people who dropped behind on rent, were most likely evicted, and packed in a hurry. The house next hosted squatters. And then . . . no one.
My footsteps echoed on plywood rotted through in spots, revealing a flooded basement below. Dark water mirrored my face, wavery with indecision and conflicting desires.
I left the house, aware I’d asked for more than I deserved. Did the family who once lived there get what they deserved?
Maybe the people who left behind Christmas ornaments bought shiny new bulbs for a real pine tree in the corner of their own living room.
Maybe they nailed a horseshoe over a doorway, prongs up to hold only good luck.
I hoped they were safe and warm.
On the road again, we stopped in the tidy little town of Montross.
We ate lunch in The Art of Coffee, a former gas station. My sandwich came with carrot sticks and a chocolate chip cookie, which made me feel cherished, like a second-grader opening up a packed lunch from home.
Small pleasures pushed back the January-ness of the day, a cup of soup, a cookie, a different point of view. On the drive back home, the clouds parted and blue limned the flat horizon. My outlook brightened.
Rebecca Solnit says “We treat desire as a problem to be solved . . . though often it is the distance between us and the object of desire that fills the space in between with the blue of longing.”
Truck wheels followed the pavement to our house, where the cat wanted his own lunch, my work waited, and the distant blue faded, becoming the next blue just beyond.
Is it Saturday? Every day the last few weeks has seemed like Saturday. Or a holiday fixing to get ready to happen. In grocery stores, I squint over lists of special food for Christmas Eve, Christmas morning, Christmas day, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day breakfast, New Year’s Day.
Today when I woke up, I reviewed do’s and don’ts for starting the year off right. Calendars bought, but not yet hung. Indoor decorations down, but trees still up. Can’t afford to skip any opportunity for good luck or tick off Janus, the god who rules this day. Tradition says that in the first hour of the new year, you should do what you want to do the rest of the year. I planned to write in my brand-new journal during that first hour.
First Atticus must be fed. He launches out of the laundry room (we put him away at night so we can have some peace), tail fluffed in his usual overnight indignation. Takes a step and then—thump!—sits down and raises a hind leg. Runs two steps then—thump!—up goes the hind leg. This behavior indicates back-door trouble common to long-haired cats. I sigh, wondering if I need the scissors or just a wet paper towel. Dingleberry duty is not how I want to spend the next 356 days.
I manage to write a half a page in my journal before my husband comes in my office, sleep-rumpled and needing coffee. I make breakfast. Yesterday I vacuumed and did the laundry to leave the first day of 2016 unstained. I even took out the trash last night. Yes, those activities are strictly forbidden on New Year’s Day, old-time beliefs weighted with dire consequences.
Next I gather the little tinsel trees that brightened every room in the house. I can’t put them all away. One must stay in my sitting room. The royal blue or the turquoise? Wait. What’s wrong with this picture?
A weak winter sun strains to break through the clouds that stayed over us like awnings the last two weeks. At least it’s not raining. Our across-the-street neighbors are taking down their outdoor decorations. They move like clockwork toys, methodically wrapping cords and winding garlands.
Since this is the first year we put up outside lights, we aren’t so methodical. I’m pretty sure our neighbors did not swear or kick boxes clear across the garage, or knock over the vintage Raleigh bicycle and scratch the truck door.
Kids in the cul-de-sac play a stunted form of softball. Instead of flipping a coin and calling heads or tails, they flip a soda can and call “Ipod” or “Iphone.” I sigh again.
Being a Southerner, I have the New Year’s food thing down. Hoppin’ John (black-eyed peas, rice, onions), cornbread (yellow food is good luck), and greens. Once I cooked our greens with a new dime, to increase our prosperity in the new year. My husband told me never do that again.
He’s from Pennsylvania and brings his own traditions to the table: pork and sauerkraut. I throw ham in the Hoppin’ John and pinch my nose at the sauerkraut. Pennsylvania Dutch also eat donuts on this day. The ring-shape symbolizes the full circle of the year.
Eating chicken or turkey is bad luck—you’ll “scratch in the dirt” all year. So, chicken, no; donuts, yes.
The day slid away from me and I became grumpy. I wanted to work on my 2016 schedules, write something besides a journal entry, finish reading a book. I spent the last hour of daylight carrying sweet-and-sour meatballs to an ailing neighbor. I don’t know what that action signified luck-wise. I took something out of the house! But I was also the neighbors’ “first-footer,” the first person to cross their threshold, a sign of good luck.
Walking back up our driveway, I noticed the darkening sky streaked with pink. Maybe tomorrow when I open my eyes, the sun will actually be shining. I resolve to treat the second day of this tender new year a little more gently.