Wandering the Classical World

I’m back from my trip to Greece, but my heart remains in the space between the blue sky and the blue-on-blue sea, in the waters that birthed Poseidon, the mountains that hosted Zeus. Wherever you dig, the Greeks say, you uncover another glimpse of the ancient world.The soil coughs up ramparts and pottery, imparting truth and mystery in equal measure.

I walked the streets of Athens, immersed in the bustle of city life. I sampled the cuisine at a street-side restaurant and contemplated the adventures waiting for me. The following day, with great care for the slippery rocks that underpin it, I climbed to the top of the Acropolis, then spent time in the Museum there, marveling at the old city hidden beneath the new. Next year, the uncovered ruins will become part of the museum experience when visitors can tour the city underground.

Each day brought a new adventure. One day, with fellow travelers, I clapped the perfect acoustics of the Theater of Epidaurus and inhaled the pine-scented air of the healing center of Aesclepius. Another morning I passed through the lion gate  at Mycenae, stared into the tombs Schliemann found. On the island of Hydra, I marveled at the displays of patriots’ swords, models of ships, and pictures of the heroes who fought for Greece. Each moment carried portent, an awareness of history riding my shoulders.

In the harbor of Poros, a school of fish came by, jumping in the morning sun as the five-minute ferry rumbled closer and I, enchanted by the sparkle of waves that watched the birth of so many wonders, welcomed the birth of new ones in my own creative space. I thought to discover poems in the patterns of sea and sky. Instead, I discovered stories, dug up from the soil of past and present conversation.

Perhaps, in the virtual landscape of our own writing lives, we carry personal history like seeds that flourish only with time. All those humming voices of characters, those dream-like settings and half-voiced themes need time to rise. Like the beehive tomb of Atreus, perspective is everything. We build not knowing who will wander through our landscapes but certain that, for us, the journey is everything.

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…:)

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 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.

 

Finding Your Trail…

hike 3Okay, here’s the thing. I’m a hiker. Not a biker. Not a runner. Not a motorized vehicle mama. In the water, I paddle. On land, I walk. I like the slow and steady pace of placing one foot in front of the other, the closet rumble of a well-fed stream just out of sight, the chatter of birds annoyed at my intrusion or simply sharing the day through song. I listen for the rustle of wind through the prairie flowers and grasses, the scurry of unseen animals in the brush. Revelation is scant steps away. On a good day, the sounds of the freeway two miles beyond the trees drift away and I am left with an elemental connection to the world around me.

Now, I’ve tried  other modes of getting from here to there. I owned a bike once, had a carrier for the kids and a basket for purchases. But that was a while ago, when the roads were less crowded and the number of distracted driver did not exceed the square root of one. We live now in an era when any one at any time may choose phone over attention to the road, wander over the center line or onto the berm, forget that he/she is not the master of the highway. My home is located in two-lane, backroads territory. Narrow streets and harried motorists make me leary of cycling. I’ve also given jogging a try, frequently and with little success, over the years. I challenge myself to run – one block, then two, then three. But before I’ve reached the end of the first section, my brain  whines, “Really? You want to run? What for, girl? Your feet work just fine. Besides, if you stop this foolishness, all your inside parts will stop jiggling.” (Yes, my brain does address me in that superior, smart-ass tone.) So I end the experiment, tighten my bootlaces and step onto the trail.

At the beginning of May, I had the good fortune to attend the International Trails Symposium in Dayton, “Where Trails Take Flight.” Lucky me. I could drive back and forth from home each day, no need to schlep a suitcase and adjust to a hotel room, all so I could learn more than I ever expected about trails, which are more than a path through the woods. There are scenic, historic, recreational, bike, re-purposed rail corridors, greenways in cities and reclaimed industrial sites in depressed areas around the country. Trail people are visionaries, seeking ways to expand the horizon of the moment, to encompass tomorrow in that meander through the woods, that stroll through the industrial heart of a city. The closing luncheon featured a presentation on how the trails-as-transportation revolution can revitalize and reclaim our cities and towns, and give us back our liveable space.

Which got me thinking about writing and writers and the trails we follow as we pursue our craft. Frequently, especially at writing conferences, some author presents a formula or recipe for writing. We argue the merits of outlining versus pantsing, of traditional publishing versus indie. But there is no one right way. There are only trails, branching off through the forest or across the tarmac, disappearing among the trees or perching along the ridge of a mountain or staggering through town. Scenic, historic, recreational…accessed in multiple ways by multiple trail-ers.

Every trail, on land or on the page, is one of discovery. For me, hiking works best. I expect to be surprised, so I try hard not to anticipate. Oh, I know where the trail begins, and I usually know where it ends. But the route I follow emerges as I go.

So, here’s the message I brought home for myself. Perhaps you will adopt it, too. Find Your Own Trail. If the path does not reveal itself, blaze a new one. You are unique. So is your vision. Who knows what wonders we’ll encounter along the way?

Happy Trailing!

Taking Stock: The Janus Factor

The old year passes. The new one slips into place. The creative mind and the practical one juggle for position on the rim of tomorrow. I stand on the brink of the unknown, contemplating the void before me. Do I step back from the edge or leap forward? My choice balances between what has been and what will be. Unable to resist the pull of temporal gravity, I shuffle closer, breathless, wondering, and stare into the face of the Janus Factor.

You remember that ancient god, the two-headed coin, the backward glance fused to the brow-furrowed squint into the future? I’m well acquainted with this deity. As a writer, I have no real choice in the matter. My past accomplishments, documented by publication or rejection (plenty of those to call upon when ego threatens) drag at my heels. Future works hang like ripe fruit just beyond my outstretched hand. Borrowing a sports term, I teeter on the cusp of go-hard or go-home.

Among the multiple files on my computer are two serious contributors to my Janus factor: the first is a list of submissions, documented by date and cost and result. Each year going back to the true beginning of my writing career, that calendar day I realized if you send nothing out, nothing will happen, I have compiled proof that I’m not a dilettante at this writing business. I’m a serious practicioner of the art. The NO responses to submissions outnumber the YESes, but the pages prove my commitment.

The second crucial file is my idea box. It brims with titles and first lines and final paragraphs, bits and pieces of creativity awaiting a forever-home. They repose in unquiet lines, anxious, impatient, more than eager for their turn on the page.

Here, at the beginning of another year, I am caught between prior work and future production, between published pieces and works-in-progress.The looking-forward profile on my Janus coin trembles with nervous energy. “Get on with it,” the head advises. “Time passes.” The backward-facing silhouette sighs over past success, lost opportunity and the weight of daily living that gobbles time, prevents progress. Both counsel me to continue the quest. Auld lang syne might sound good on New Year’s Eve, but Carpe diem is best for tomorrow. Happy Writing Year!

Long Time, Longer Journey: A Groundhog in Training

The season’s blessings approach this winter of my discontent and I, steeped in the release of my latest novel and deep into the draft of my next venture, have rarely looked up from the keyboard. Yes, I’ve been ‘away’ for a while. The nightmare in November, otherwise known as the election, has sapped my will to post. How to reconcile the angst in a way that followers of both political persuasions can accept? Still, I carry on, hiking the fields, staring at the pond, drawing sustenance from the earth. Perhaps that is as it should be. I have borrowed from the groundhog playbook and settled into my winter den well before the weather shifts into gear.

There is value in withdrawing from stridency. Solitude begets calmness, increases fortitude, nurtures commitment. I make, and break, a vow to cut off contact with social media, arguing that a wound constantly bothered will refuse to scab and heal. The best of comments on the small screen are marred by the worst of attacks by smaller minds. But then here comes December, sneaking up behind to kick my sorry ass into a new dimension.

The holidays – Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanzaa, and others that fill this calendar month – beckon, not with consumeristic glee but with candles and cookies and prayer. That advent wreath on your table, that menorah in the dining room, that kwanzaa flame reminding me of virtues tested and found strong, shake their fiery fingers and whisper, “There is goodness in the world. Find it. Feed it. Carry it like an ember in the pocket of your soul.”

The road goes on forever, Bilbo Baggins said, and I am one more pilgrim trudging down the path. I’ll hunker down, draw within, fatten up for the journey to come, the rivers to ford, the battles to engage. I would like you to travel with me. Here, take my hand. After the clouds, the sun will shine.