Of Beginnings and Endings and All in Between

The sun crosses the screened-in porch in long southerly slants. In the pond, ice forms small swirls, the pull of freeze and thaw evident as the temperature plays tag with the water. Six deer bound into view, stopping long enough to eat a snack and check the rear for predators. And the meadow, once full of tall grasses and wildflowers, lies spreadeagled and naked across the horizon.

My boots crunch and squish as I wander. Straining to see beyond the obvious, I listen to the land whisper its dark mysteries. Here, where the thin skin of nature reveals its beating heart, the old year slips away. A new one waits, sleeping all around me.

I walk and I take stock…where I was, where I am, where I will be. Ending and beginning and everything in between.

The wonder of this season embraces me. Despite the bustle and noise of groceries and malls, I sense within a still, small kernel of peace. I can bid 2014 adieu, albeit it with mixed feelings. There have been so many blessings. New students. New friends. A new house. A new grandson. So much joy in watching our daughters and sons-in-law and grandchildren grow.

There have also been more challenges than I anticipated. Pain has become a frequent visitor. Shots of cortisone in both wrists to combat sinotenovitis and carpal tunnel. Double vision and scleritis, side effects of my treatments for hemifacial spasms. Which leads to highway multiplex: images of six lanes instead of three. Signs that jump and wriggle when I squint at them. Two doctors have suggested, with some seriousness, that I wear an eye patch. Aargh! Pirate Jan at your bleeping service. So annoying. Sometimes frightening. I face the limitations of age and wear and tear on my body. Yet these issues pale when compared to my friends who are coping with blindness and Parkinson’s and kidney disease. Who am I to complain of such petty inconveniences when they deal with true difficulties?

I walk and I take stock…who I was, who I am, who I will be.

What great act will I perform? What small kindness? Whom will I comfort in this new year? The chance to renew, to start fresh, to make a difference gives me courage. The opportunity to be of use to those I love and to those I admire, to expand my own knowledge and contribute to growth excites me.

I walk and I compose, form characters and dialogue and narrative and description. I savor the past year’s publications and anticipate the new year’s possibilities. The past stays put but the future is mobile. Beneath my feet, next spring’s grasses sleep, the wildflowers nap inside their hulls. Like them, I take my time, enjoying the passing of one season to another.

Walking. Taking stock. Offering benediction.

With every hope that your endings will be smooth, your beginnings wild and happy and your in-between peaceful and full of joy.

Channeling Grammy

The metal has darkened with the baking. Although I can’t be certain of its exact age, the cookie sheet was a staple of my grandmother’s kitchen long before I was born. Perhaps a hundred years of bread and buns and holiday kolachi have burnished the metal, colored the bright aluminum with a patina of brown and gold, impressed it with the goodness of homemade food. Although I have scrubbed it well since it came to me, the stains remain, ciphers of past kitchens and shared recipes.

I tug it free from its dark hiding place in the cabinet and spread my granola across the surface, inhaling the oat and pecan and coconut smells of the present. Other aromas intrude: yeast and butter, eggs and cinnamon. Closing my eyes, I’m carried back to early Lenten mornings when, fresh from her baking chores, Grammy would deliver the hot cross buns to our door. At Christmastime she would carry in the nut and poppyseed kolachi, each crust bronze from the oven, each roll  lush with orange-spiced filling. For more than forty years I have tried to match the splendor of her pastry. My attempts are adequate, but they don’t match the memory. I’m good, but I’m not Grammy.

When I spent nights at her house, she would counsel me on the proper way to knead the dough, the correct way to fold the pastry, the proper temperature to wash your hands before and after baking. Scalding. To kill the germs. Tender child hands rebelled but she kept them under the running stream, insistent on a cleanliness essential to the process and to the era when she learned the craft.

Grammy grew up in a restaurant family. Her parents ran an establishment that served the workers from the steel mill. Breakfasts for the working man, lunches to fuel their return to an environment that demanded constant toil and caution. One slip and the molten steel would claim you for its dinner. One of my high school classmates died that way, losing his footing as he walked above the open hearth, disappearing into the mix as the liquid boiled up. When I read about his death, I remembered my grandfather returning from the mill at night, climbing the hill with a blackened face and clothes saturated with the smell of oil and fire. Grammy, standing in the doorway, her own hands flour-dusted with the goodness of the evening meal, offered him the only gift she had to counter the danger. Fried chicken. Pot roast. Pork chops. Not food for the tray I use now, but meals to fill the emptiness in the belly and soothe the turmoil in the soul.

I take her recipes from the box in the cupboard, the ones I pried from her memory before she died. The amounts are not definitive. A cake of yeast. Do they sell yeast like that these days? A handful of this and a pinch of that. A secret ingredient forgotten or deliberately omitted. She was proud of her handiwork, my grandmother. Widowed young and left with few resources to cover her expenses, she turned to the only skill she had, supplying baked goods for the small groceries and family restaurants in our industrial town, baking for individual households that  no longer wanted to bake for themselves. Then the small mom and pop stores fell out of favor, victims of the new grocery stores and their ability to buy in quantity and sell cheaper. The restaurants too became fewer. Chains arose and the hearty meals served family style also fell from grace. The demand for her baked goods dropped off. She went to work in a ladies’ clothing store. But she didn’t stop baking.

Once a week she brought her loaves to our chaotic household, a small bungalow bursting with the energies of my six siblings, a father who worked three jobs to make the ends meet and a mother who was not a cook too busy with other chores to bake daily bread. If I close my eyes, I can see the crusts gleaming, still warm from the oven. If I concentrate, I smell the warm yeast aroma of the freshly baked dough, the creamy butterscotch pies and meringue tarts. My mouth waters as my memory replays a moment when the world seemed all about the goodness of bread, the warm taste of family.

I run my hand over the baking sheet, cool now, scraped free of the stubborn granola bits, and wipe it dry. Each pass of the cloth is a caress for a grandmother, long-gone but still remembered. Each time I bake my own goodness, I bring her back to me, stringing my own recipes along the thread that binds us together.

The BIC=WIP Formula

Nothing truer than this old saw: the moment I decide to devote myself to writing my fledgling novel full-time, my life explodes: a new house to arrange, an old one to sell, a new grandchild on the way, an additional fall class at the university, elderly relatives with serious illnesses. The weeks whirl by, and the time I expect to spend working on my stories becomes crowded with other responsibilities. Finally, for a day or two, the merry-go-round slows and I decide to implement a formula espoused by many writers: BIC.

What the devil, you ask, is BIC=WIP? Nothing more and nothing less than BUTT IN CHAIR equals WORK IN PROGRESS. The key ingredient of BIC is perseverance. You must sit down and you must stay down. This means no bending to the earnest entreaties of spouse and children to come be by them. NO caving in to the dreaded Are you done yet? question. No checking social media every ten minutes. And no playing Candy Crush. The imperative is so simple it appears to rival a zen revelation – a writer must write. Period.

The key product of all this butt-time is expansion. I say key because if you follow this system, your writing will expand, in quantity and in quality. Now, a corollary of all this sitting down time may be that your ass will expand. A small price to pay. Next time you attend a writers’ conference, do a discrete study of successful writer butts, then ask if they work out to reduce the drag on the posterior.

Time has always dominated the writerly discussion. Truth is there’s never enough, not for anyone, not if you’re serious about making the most of the hours you are given. And all the social networking demanded of writers threatens to overwhelm the writing itself. Our other roles in life clamor for their fair share of the clock. So every writer must master the art of sitting down and writing. Of course, I don’t claim to have the perfect way to do that. I’m a ponderer. Much of my pre-writing doesn’t take the form of journaling or warm-ups. I simply think the story, sometimes for months. I remember hearing that John Steinbeck, whose writing I envy, would compose in his head. When he wrote out his stories the old-fashioned way – longhand – they seldom needed more than a cursory edit. Geez! Yet in many ways, that’s what I do – write the stories in my head. Of course, this makes me  less of a conversationalist. In the middle of a car ride or over dinner, I’m apt to blurt out some strange what-if question. What if there were bats as tiny as moths? What if you could point a freeze gun at an irate customer and stop him/her in the moment? What if you bumped into a table and a part of you fell off?

By the time I put BIC in my padded desk chair, I have scenes mapped out, characters positioned within those scenes and the arc of the narrative drawn. That’s when things really begin to happen. Those pesky characters I’ve spent weeks developing take over. I can’t tell you how many times I thought I knew what was going to happen only to find out, from that BIC position, that something else was taking place entirely. I consider this one of the great gifts of the writing process, and I wonder why Steinbeck’s characters never did that to him. Well, maybe they did, and he just knew them so well, he could write the new storyline their way and move on.

What I’m saying doesn’t qualify as hard science. It’s not original, and it isn’t easy. But (pun intended,), the formula works. So, take the pledge with me. BIC. Maybe not every day, just as often as life will allow. No matter whether it’s two days a week or every day, once you plant yourself, I’m betting the story will grow. Ready, set, sit. Let’s see what happens.

And Now We Are Six…

Spent the past weekend visiting my mother in Sharon, PA. Descriptive words for the area include depressed, economically abandoned, sad. The flavor of old-world sensibilities persists…festivals featuring Polish sausage, Italian meatballs or Hungarian cabbage rolls. The flattening of vowels represents the immigrant parents and grandparents who shared the homes or watched the children or came together for family celebrations. Driving up State Street, I sense time and history withdrawing from the present, abandoning the town to its uncertain future.

I never lived in Sharon. By the time my parents moved there from Struthers, Ohio, I had married and moved out of their world. But my six younger siblings – four brothers, two sisters – remained in my parents’ home for several more years. They share a history I know only through their stories. Listening to them at our gatherings is like opening a present…Or a time capsule, one I didn’t help fill. I feel a void. What they experienced together I will never share. They have anecdotes and adventures, wild tales of escapades conducted without me. And they have secrets…every once in a while one escapes during conversation, reminding me of all I missed.

My sister Kathy, third in line, served as the bridge between me and the others. A typical middle child, she bore the brunt of their teasing and the weight of their trust. When we were little, I hated that she followed me everywhere, begging to be included in my life. Since her swift, unexpected death last fall, I have wished many times that I could have her back for one more conversation.

For many years we concluded each family gathering by toasting our good fortune – that we were all still together, that no matter how much we argued, at the end of the evening we were still brothers and sisters, still friends. That tight group of seven has been shattered. Getting back together means more now than it ever did, overshadowed by the knowledge that now we are six, that our moments tick away and only love survives, manifest in the hugs and laughter and love you’s we give as we depart.

I never lived in Sharon, but part of my heart resides there, still invested in my first family and the bond we will always share.

A Moving Experience

The first time my husband decided we need to move from the ‘big’ house to a smaller space, I cried. He had recently completed the transformation of a small bedroom into a marvelous library/study. All my books had a place to call home. When we bought the carriage home, all my babies lost their place in the world. Packed into boxes, they spent two months in storage before being exiled to the garage until their new shelves were completed and they could reclaim their proper station. Oh, the inhumanity…

Fast forward…six years later, we are once again on the move. Turns out a smaller space wasn’t ideal for a workshop and a library. Back into boxes they went – every last volume. I tried to console them with neat labels: section #1, A to Ba, section #3, M to N…a mini-dewey decimal hybrid so I could find them when they were needed. You won’t go to storage this time, I whispered. They didn’t whisper back.

We’re in the new house now, but the shelves that will become my new library are only pencil lines on a drawing board. In the loft that is my personal writing space, I’m immersed in the waters of literature. At first, I leave the books in their labeled containers. Easier to re-shelve when the time comes, I rationalize. But as the days pass, I have to liberate the captives. I’m not immune to the voice of Flaubert, to the poetry of Poe, to the measured essays of Montaigne calling out for rescue. Arthur C. Clarke demands attention. Jasper Fforde’s Tuesday Next pouts. The novels of J. K Rowling wave their magic wands at me.

Now, lifted out of the cardboard, my books swim at my feet, peek over the bannister, scale the filing cabinets. Playful or morose, mysterious or chatty, the volumes of my personal library accompany me on my daily writing arc. Sometimes I stop and peruse the titles. Sometimes I panic, wondering where I put my most recent Mike Mullen YA. When I locate the book, I relax, assured by its presence that, despite the long wait, ASHFALL and all my other lovely friends will soon be home again.

The Fellowship of the Work(shop)


In the post- Antioch Writers’ Workshop glow, I find myself staring across the pond behind our house, imagining the work fellows as a kind of hobbit band, ferrying books and presenters and attendees through the thick hedges of the publishing world. We soothe self-doubts, calm nervous first-time pitchers and fetch water for the readers at the nightly presentations. Our dependence on each other comes from our mutual love of the art and craft of writing, our camaraderie from the joy we find in laboring over words, trying out titles, searching for venues to accept our poems and stories.

During the week-long journey, we experience the exhilaration and exhaustion of sixteen-hour days, meals on the run and brains on fire with new ideas. A poem grows from a prompt, the outline of a story from a morning presentation. Observing all the eager attendees, we share their joy and angst.

It’s true that workshops aren’t always serendipitous. Some years, trolls show up at the conference, disguised as editors or agents, presenters or participants. Orcs wander in, looking for a dream to slay. But some years the fairies appear, bearing gifts that stir us to become better scribes of the human experience. So it was this July of 2014. Hats off to editor Nathan Roberson and agent Hannah Brown-Gordon for their kind and thoughtful assistance to all who signed up to talk to them.

The hot afternoon wanes. A hiker strolls the path carved among the high grass. I sip my lemonade, Bilbo-ish but with enough Frodo in me to relax for now on my porch, anticipating the next workshop adventure when the wizard calls.