Lion Or Lamb?

Folk adages suggest that March, that sly, greening mix of Ides and shamrocks, comes in like a lion. Roaring with wind and bluster, the days extend tendrils of promise as spring tints the undergrowth, then settles like a lamb just in time for April to glide in on soggy shoes. Hmmm…reality doesn’t always conform to this old saw, but we find comfort in the thought. Weary of wintry blasts, our hearts skip a little thinking about less restless days and milder temperatures.

Of course, this got me thinking about what kind of writer I choose to be. Am I a lion, bold, predatory, submitting and entering contests, willing to take bigger and bigger risks? Or am I a quieter soul, given to gambols across the word landscape, waiting for time and luck to change my course? Do I lead the pride, stalk, attack? Or do I follow the leader, easily herded and easy prey for stronger, fiercer writers? It is a fine line to follow, that knife-edge between abrasive and bold, yet I suspect each of us has, at our core, that instinct to hunt.

One of my 2019 commitments is to be more pro-active in sending out work. While this may appear on the surface to be an easy resolution, there are pitfalls. Editors typically take a long time to respond. Contests provide deadlines months out from the initial call. Agents fall into several categories: the ones who respond immediately (Thank you, dear ones!), those who tease with requests for full manuscripts and then seem to forget you, and those who provide no response at all. I can deal with the first two. It is the third that makes me crazy.

Every article I’ve ever read on queries includes a caveat about being professional and courteous. Shouldn’t those admonitions apply to agents as well? A NO reply is temporarily ego-crushing. A NO RESPONSE is an on-going open wound. Did my query arrive? Did I pick the wrong agent? Did my sample end up formatted in some crazy, unreadable font? Most of all, when I hear nothing, I spend too much time pondering the final question — What did I do wrong? Yes, I know the number of queries received by agents makes their job difficult, but email provides an easy way to send a reply. I, for one, would deeply appreciate knowing definitively where I stand. But…the lion wastes little time on the one that got away, choosing instead to pursue the next one in view.

So, dear reader, have I wandered too far off topic or is the meandering spot on? Like the unpredictable month of March, a post can begin with one thought and segue sharply into another. It’s interesting to study my writer’s interior monologue, to follow the twists of my fevered mind! But, I insist on returning to the initial question. Which are you — lion or lamb? Which do you want to be?

Drop me a comment and tell me what you think…:)

Of Bloody Moons and Purpose

During the Blood Wolf Moon in January, close observers witnessed a bright flare on the lower right quadrant. Astronomers hypothesize a small piece of a comet or an asteroid hit the surface. This one bright and blazing strike captured the imagination of earth-bound viewers. Still, the brief encounter probably won’t leave a mark visible to the naked eye. Who can say what the lasting impact will be?

Contemplating the brevity of moonstrikes,  I thought about how ideas appear as if out of nowhere, strike our mental moons, and disappear. Then I segued from thinking about the writing process to contemplating the writing purpose. What is it that calls me to put words on a page, to examine the motivations and desires of fictional characters, to sit silent at my computer for hours while the house clamors for attention and my interior nag reminds me I need to go to the gym? Although I aspire to win my stories a wider audience, I acknowledge the reality that that may never happen. So, humbly, my life is but a blip on the surface of time. How do I make this tiny flare count for more than a brief and fleeting moment?

I know I read more into the social climate these days than most people do. I suspect the majority are more concerned with their next meal or paycheck than they are with the moral implications of genetic manipulation or the consequences of a warming earth. In this current culture of celebrity, when consumerism drives the global economy and buying is king, the importance of virtue, the healing nature of art, the impact of compassion seem to cede space to the uglier side of human nature. I  ponder the rise of spectacle over substance and wonder how my personal fragment of space dust will find its intention amid the blare of the extraneous.

As a writer, I feel compelled to infuse my words with meaning, to create stories that combine wonder with revelation. My daily life, too, should reflect that deeper purpose. the raison d’etre, for being here in this precise galactic moment. My trajectory is uncharted, and perhaps that is the point. Each journey is a constant unfolding of that purpose. With a little luck, someone will be watching when I land.

An Unsilent Knight

The first snowfall of the season settles over the ground in the late November twilight. I stand at the window, dancing with the snowflakes and thinking about my mother, all those years ago pregnant with me, her due date passing as she, too, gazed out the window, wondering where my father was, if he still lived. World War II had ended, but danger continued to stalk the globe. Around her family’s store/home, winter promised to call, as it does today, and I, restless, waited until the third of December to venture into the storm.

It is impossible to escape the ubiquitous seasonal music, the barrage of advertisements urging us to spend, spend, spend, yet more important concerns intrude. At our borders, we witness the relentless assault on every value we pretend to espouse. Women and children are driven away from asylum, tear-gassed, vilified. In a season dedicated to peace, among people paying lip-service to a Savior, hate abounds.

History provides no solace, Through the ages, mankind has seen fit to use religion as a battering ram. Regardless of sect or creed, every doctrine has a story of destruction in its DNA. Tolerance dies when one group seeks to impose its beliefs on the ‘others.’ But somewhere, faint and far-off, a single voice whispers a silent night. Somewhere holiness takes root. One hand stretches toward another and we lift up our voices in chorus. The knights of harmony refuse to remain silent.

Will goodness and light ever triumph, or are we doomed to repeat again the deadly cycles? I believe it is only in remaining mute that evil wins. Each of us must walk a path of our own choosing. No one path serves all men and women, but there are signposts to guide us. Each great religion offers a roadmap, a way to be true to the best of our nature. You are free to select yours. I have made my choice — not to stand silent in the face of so much wrongness. That is the harness I will wear as 2018 fades to black and 2019 takes the stage. I will be an insolent knight, tilting those windmills and working for change. So, this holiday season — and it is a season as more than twenty-five individual holidays occur around the world during this six-week period, may you add your voice to those advocating reason and hope.

Although Dylan Thomas wrote his beautiful poem to his dying father, I often hear the refrain as a call to arms in every instance where reason and goodness are under attack. “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.”

Merry Christmas! Happy Hannukah! Happy Kwanzaa! Merry Holidays! May you walk in light, lift your voice in the service of what is right, and be the change you want to see in the world.

Swimming Upstream

This is the time of year for it…the time when salmon, who spend their early lives in rivers before heading out to sea, return to those same rivers to spawn. Fueled by their ocean feedings, they are fortified for the arduous journey back to their birthplace to begin the cycle all over again. Driven by instinct, clear on where they belong, the fish fight currents, leap obstacles, evade bear claws and anglers as they stretch toward the goal. The marathon touches anyone lucky enough to observe it. There is such grace and strength in the run. Each salmon knows its purpose. Instinct compels them on. If you interviewed a sentient example of the species, asked it why it perseveres, I’m pretty sure the answer would be “because I have to.” The impulse hidden in the genetic makeup refuses to be ignored.

I think writers, indeed all artists, are the salmon equivalent of homo sapiens. We are driven to produce our art. Fueled by a desire often difficult to express, we endure long solo sessions typing or hand writing, pushing past the censor that shouts, ‘you’re no good’ or ‘you can’t write that.’ The interior command to ‘do it’ doesn’t come from a tennis shoe ad.Rather, like the salmon, the instructions are buried in our DNA. Ask a writer why she pursues this lonely, at times agonizing, at times subversive task, and the answer matches the salmon’s response: Because I have to.

The fall migration period of salmon roughly corresponds to the autumn calendar. From September through November, the rivers teem with fish determined to reach the headwaters, to grab the prize each seeks – the continuation of the species. For writers, the prize frequently equals publication. Nothing like seeing your work in print. Better yet, receiving payment for all those hours spent crafting a poem, an essay, a story worthy of replication in a journal, magazine, or book. But with NaNoWriMo, the annual write-a-fifty-thousand-word-novel in a month challenge, in full swing, other goals arise. The writer tests herself against the word count. Accepts the dare to finish or revise. Hopes for the chance to read in front of an audience. And more important for me, as a writer, I hope for the validation of my  peers, to be considered a good/great writer. In the end, through my words, I desire to touch a reader, to evoke emotion, to make him/her think more deeply about what it is to be human.

So here I am, sitting at my computer, banging out a blog post, thinking about a manuscript, outlining a new non-fiction piece. Sometimes I lose sight of the end game. Sometimes I tire of the rocky uphill climbs, listen to the boo bird on my shoulder. Once in a while I crash against the boulders of rejection. On occasion, the bear catches me. Still, as always, I insist on returning to the river where my ideas spawn, grateful for the chance to create again.

Happy Thanksgiving, writers and readers! I am grateful for your presence in my life.

Mother, May I?

When we were kids, playing outside was a required activity. Our mother ordered us to leave the house and ‘get some fresh air.” Until we were old enough to have chores, that’s exactly what we did. We claimed the clovered yards, the dandelioned spaces, the treed empty lots, establishing forts or excavating holes for marble games. We climbed construction equipment, acrobated across the beams of houses under construction, fished in mud puddles. Most of all, we organized games – tag, hide and seek, “Mother, May I?.” Our games were unisex, nondenominational, and equal opportunity melees.  Everyone in the neighborhood came to participate. But if age and size did not matter, what did count was a strict adherence to the rules. Break them and you were out.

In “Mother, may I?” one rule was paramount: you had to ask the caller for permission to advance and specify what kind of step you wanted to be given. Giant, small, twirly, jump, hop…ask the wrong question in the wrong voice and you couldn’t move ahead. The “Mother” held the power. Not so different, I suppose, from the real situation in all our households. Father might have had the final word when he returned from work, but during the day, Mother was the one who held the reins, the sergeant who directed the course of our lives. We spent large chunks of our leisure time playing this and other outdoor games. No one wore a watch. I was often late for dinner. My mother, never pleased with my tardy ways, referred me to my father for punishment. I ignored her warnings, seduced by my taste of freedom, the sense of living untethered, unbound. Despite the certain consequences awaiting me, I persisted in coming late to the table.

One of the best things about a childhood spent outdoors is that sense of unscheduled time, how it slows and stretches and offers the long view. Like the giant steps you are ordered to take as you try to reach the caller and win her place for your own. I still spend a great deal of time outdoors, walking neighborhoods and parks. What strikes me now is the emptiness of the lawns, the lack of children’s voices calling each other on the spring wind. I rarely see kites parsing the sky’s phrasing. What once was commonplace has vanished. Now, too often, playtime is  structured, orderly, doled out like candy, in small amounts so as not to become an expectation. There is little opportunity for the spontaneous joy, the unexpected wonder.

My life has been a whirlwind this past month. Too much to do, too little time. Both my mother and my mother-in-law are in their nineties, achieving milestones, to be sure, but enduring physical deterioration that precludes the easy grace with which they used to move. Pulling out photographs, I contemplate the ravaging of their once-agile bodies. I ponder, too, my own future, as my past chirps at me. I consider those long-gone days when mothers set the rules and children asked, in whispery voices, “May I?”

I will miss these women who shaped my life, one during my early years, the other throughout my marriage. I do what I can to ease their difficulties, send flowers, bring candy, but it isn’t in the gifts we buy that we prove our love. It is in the way we choose to ask the question. Mother, may I take those steps you couldn’t in the era in which you lived? May I create something of beauty to honor the life you gave me? May I craft a story worth sharing with those who come after me? May I live in the freedom of a life unbound by antiquated restrictions and outdated prejudice?

I listen, with the tiny ear of my heart, to the answer they do not realize they are giving, an answer that matches the question: Yes, daughter, you may take one giant step…into tomorrow. It is an answer I pass on to my own daughters, and to all the women who stand at the edge of the grass, waiting to move on.

 

Sharing Space… Literary Citizenship and the era of Me

It’s so easy to be caught looking inward. Navel gazing has never been so attractive. The culture of entitlement that surrounds us paves a yellow brick road to the Emerald City of Envy and invites us to pamper ourselves, celebrate our own egos, and neglect that which doesn’t touch us. Me, me, me scream the ads. “We’re all deserving,” suggest the self-help gurus. Mine is better than yours, sniff the armchair critics. Narcissus would be proud.

Recently, one of my author friends posted a question regarding writers who trumpet their own books as ‘the best of the year.’ Should we, he asked, be so blatantly self-centered? I submit that a good literary citizen remembers that we are a community of writers, that none of us succeeds without the helping hand, the lift up, the constructive critique,and the shoulder to lean on when the burden becomes too much to carry alone.

I have spent a significant amount of time, effort and money practicing my craft. As much as possible, I strive to be that good literary citizen for my fellow practicioners. Often, when I need that hand or shoulder, the pickings grow slim and the road long. But, still, I persist! 😉 To keep myself on track as I plod along, I have constructed a checklist of good lit citizen qualities. Forthwith, a path to achieve that most precious of status cards…the Good Literary Citizen Award.

1. Offer to mentor. What a gift to have someone point out the pitfalls, provide a road map and listen as you try out ideas. New and/or aspiring writers benefit from this. I only wish I had been fortunate enough to have a mentor early on.

2. Share information…about conferences, opportunities, meetings, workshops. No one knows everything, and what may not work for you may be just the thing for another writer.

3. Support writers, especially on social media and web sites but also in person. How flattering to be recommended, invited, included, applauded.  Nurture a network you may use someday. Vote for their books, mention their work, attend readings and launches.

4. Be generous. Offer to read and critique, without monetary reward when possible. The paying gigs will come later. Provide honest, constructive criticism. Speaking for myself, I won’t get better if I don’t know what needs to be improved.

5. Find a writing group where you can use your talents to promote yourself and others. We’re not all good at everything, but we are all good at something. If you’re a strong editor, offer that skill to others.

6. Be enthusiastic. Writers share a passion not easily explainable to non-writers. We all experience rejection. My computer file folder is filled with those NO emails. But, you know what? It only takes a word and a hug to pick me up and set me back on the path.

7. It’s easy to get lost in our own ambition. I remind myself that my greatest accomplishment may not be the best-seller I want to write, but the one I champion in another writer’s life.

I have witnessed the jealousy of writers, the tendency to find fault in others as a way to promote one’s own writing. It’s not pretty. I prefer to think that, as someone wiser than me suggested, a rising tide lifts all boats. Here’s to achieving the impossible dream…may you earn your card, as I hope to do, one small step at a time.

A Discourse On Loss

“No man is an island.” John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions

As 2017 closes out its run, I struggle through the immensity of unmooring that the year has brought.  My bubble life of structure and belief in the common decency of man has suffered a knock-out punch. As a child of the sixties, I am no stranger to turmoil. However, the bouts of political insanity that rock the country strain my belief that goodness will triumph. A minority should never determine the course of the ship of state, yet this is exactly what has occurred. The loudest voice, the vilest attacks, have set adrift the progress of our nation. I am no quitter, but I despair. Even the best of fighters hangs up the gloves eventually. That sick feeling in my stomach caused by tremors beneath the bedrock of our democracy lingers. Despite the efforts to raise my voice  – the phone calls made, the petitions signed, the marches joined – those in power are not listening. I am not an island. Connected by history and inclination to the best that we can be, I mourn for us.

“Grief is a plastic surgeon.” Sherman Alexie, You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me

This old year passing has brought personal loss that I did not anticipated. Two dear friends and kindred souls passed away in the fall within a month of each other. The grief rises with me each day, rides my shoulder as I clean and bake and pray. It does, as Alexie suggests, carve new patterns in the grain of life. What once was treasured together-time has morphed into pictures in an album and memories already slipping through time’s erosive hand. Although I did not take for granted the road trips, critique sessions and working lunches, I see now how fleeting those moments were.

“Sorrow floats.”  John  Irving, Hotel New Hampshire

The last twelve months have required more patience than I ever imagined I had. My mother-in-law, 96 on the cusp of 97, and my mother, 94 this coming March, suffer the ravages of physical and mental ailments. I juggle visits to the nursing home with power-of-attorney requirements and long-distance discussions with trips to the emergency room. Each day brings a new challenge, not the least of which is the knowledge and expectation that this, too, shall pass as they do. Grief isn’t finished with me yet.

I know I am not alone. The world suffers. Death visits us all. How do we find strength, hope, and grace amid the emotional debris? One source for me is books. Reading the words of others who have entered this arena gives me courage. Recognizing the vast sweep of human emotion assists in placing my own grief in perspective. Although my post this month is grim, the promise of peace rises, like Picasso’s flower in the painting “Guernica,” from the wounded heart.

A child laughs. A woman decides to run for office…and wins. The dough rises in the pan, spreading the yeasty smell of home and hearth and hospitality. Words cover the page, sometimes in abundance, but more often in quiet runs.

A new year walks beside me, buoyant and full of expectation. I must make it count.

A December Manifesto: 2017

One.

I am only one, but I have a voice.

As a human being, as a citizen, as a child of the Creator, I must use that voice to speak out for good.

Evil cannot be ignored or excused.

Not for political gain. Not for corporate greed. Not out of apathy.

In this season of peace, when all religions share hope, I must nourish the flame of that hope.

More alike than we are different,  a cut bleeds red on all our skins.

A light illuminates the deepest shadow.

If I shine my light, I illuminate a circle in the dark.

Two.

If you join me…

Two together  can enlarge the circle.

Two together can dispel those shadows.

Ghandi said be the change you wish to see in the world.

Martin Luther King called us to lift every voice to the mountaintop.

Change I must be. No excuse to pass the torch, to wait for another to do the work.

I am only one. If you hold my hand, we become two, then four, then ten and a thousand.

If I carry my candle to the foot of the Lincoln Memorial to stand in silent vigil, will you join me?

No protests. No violence. Only silence and light and a voice raised in thanks and blessing, in concern and caring.

We will sing together. We will carry all our children on our shoulders and in our hearts.

Together, we will brave the perils of the journey.

Each of us is one, but merged we become a force for change.

I am only one, but I have a voice.

Stand with me. You, too, are only one, with a voice that can move the world.

Let us raise those voices together.

Allelujah…

October…a prose poem in three stanzas

If April is ‘the cruelest month,’ October is the most seductive. I am thrice bitten…by the whisper and crunch of fallen leaves, the distant call of migrating geese, the yawning fields and garden beds settling into slumber. October crooks a finger and I lean into the wind, eager to grow hobbit feet and slip off among the trees, to follow streams and trails, to sleuth the beauty hiding beyond the next turn. The seasonal sights of orange lanterns strung beneath black spiderwebs, the excited squeals of children anticipating the candy feast to come, the pop-up costume stores enticing me to become someone else, if only for one night — all underwrite  the ancient appeal of the mystical and the magical. So, yes, I am seduced by the round-eyed, plump, hip-swishing month of October.

My writing revels in the same roly-poly autumnal slide. Each manuscript exudes an Octoberish magic. After much planting and weeding and harvesting, the stories I have incubated over the summer now breathe on their own. I am Victor Frankenstein strapping the monster to a table, primed for the lightning. I am Dracula outside the window waiting for an invitation to crawl into the story. These characters, once only shadow, now appear fleshed out and sassy. I am the Wolfman howling under a fat Octoberine moon as my plot runs before me. My stories, crafted from musing and imagination, insist on breaking free, following their own unexpected course. I am my own childhood self, ringing doorbells, shouting trick or treat, anticipating the unexpected as it pops out from page, daring me to stand firm.

Among the last of the wildflowers, bushy heights of Michaelmas daisies, I lift my face to the breeze, inhale the wood tang from the fire pit and let the harvest chant of dying crickets settle on my shoulders. October sends an embrace, a love letter written in clear, star-stressed skies and coyote howls echoing from the wood. Indoors, in the author’s den, worlds brim with chaos and anarchy, but I wield the final penstroke. I get the last word, laugh the last laugh, can be the Poe or Shelley of my October days. Write on, the ghost of summer whispers, and fall holds its breath.

Honing the Harvest…

Listen. Do you hear that? The rustling of autumn grasses, the chirring of locust wings, the goodbye calls of flocking birds as the earth turns to bounty and binds itself to a new season. I have spent the summer planting, tending, filling the freezer with vegetable goodies, preparing for the months when the soil slumbers. As I put my garden to bed, the fertile blank spaces of my writing await a different kind of harvest…words, phrases, plots, themes and, above all, hope.

This month I send out queries for my newest manuscript, one I have weeded with special care, watered with conviction and fertilized with research. Now, I must offer it to others, this lovely growth of stem and flower. Like a table filled with farm produce at the market, my wares will splay themselves on someone’s desk, waiting to be purchased, shucked and served to hungry readers.

Okay, that paints a pretty picture, but it fails to reveal all the sweat equity invested in both my literal and my figurative garden. I’ve removed the props from my beans and tomatoes, chopped the once-laden plants into mulch. So, too, I’ve gathered the fruits of my prose, inspected them for insects and blight, stored the notes and revision cards, and practiced patience, perhaps the most important tool in the gardener’s and the writer’s box. I have also cultivated my writers’ groups, who protect, support, defend, nurture and prod me to go on. The willingness of fellow writers to critique, inspire, suggest, encourage cannot be overstated. Without them, my writing would never flourish.

I don’t know where you are in your writer’s garden. I do know that in the soil garden, there are blights and insect deprivations and too much heat, too much rain. With writing, there is always a lack of time or attention or inspiration or focus. Yet the planting goes on, so we can reach the harvest, savor the bounty and hone our harvest skills for the next great adventure. Prepare the soil, lay the compost and wait for the seeds to sprout.