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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Counting Down while Counting up

Ah, the year-end swan song. This year, out loud, we are chanting, “Thank God” for the end of 2009, but if you listen to my heart folks, you’ll hear: “Thank God for 2009.” OK, the bank account is suffering. That’s the check mark in the negative column. Here though, are the positives:

1) It was a forced decision, sure, but I finally moved on from the career I was good at, but that didn’t inspire or enrich me--well, other than financially.

2) I began Middle Passages--unplanned, in shock, but out it came, like a river after a torrential rain fall. Through this blog I learned that not only can I write, I will write, and I can hold myself accountable to make sure that I do write--regularly. Stay tuned, because it’s going to get even better.

3) I was published, twice. Once in a sort of semi-major publication. Oh, I wish you all could have seen my face the day the editor of the Boston Globe Magazine called me to tell me she’d be using His and Her Unemployment. If I recall correctly, there was some dancing involved--witnessed by visitors that were in our house that day. There, another positive. Become “redundant,” write about it, get published. Who knew?

4) Including payment for His and Her Unemployment and All Together Now, (which occurred before I set up my D/B/A bank account) as well as the six, count ‘em, six writing projects that I completed by year end, LCS Writes, my freelance writing business, is actually in the black. It’s a very tiny black; more like a shadow really, but maybe in 2010 it will pay me a salary.

5) I have blog readers who are supportive, kind, generous in their comments and over-the-top helpful for which I am over-the-moon grateful.

6) For the first time in my 51 year old life, I am in love with what I do.

So there you go. If that’s what happens in a bad year, bring on 2010. There’s the glass half-empty or the glass half-full mentality. Pop the champagne. My glass is bubbling over.

Best wishes to all of you for a safe celebration and a fulfilling, prosperous and healthful year.

What are some good things that happened to you in 2009?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Sharing a Lesson Learned

Quite recently, I discovered the value of conducting thorough research when writing.

Those of you who read my two Shelby and Henry vignettes may remember that yesterday I had Henry washing his hands daily with Fels Naptha, an old fashioned bar soap that really exists. I know, because it’s the miracle elixir my grandmother recommended when a head-to-toe case of poison ivy threatened to turn me into a screaming, itchy maniac the summer I turned eighteen. Scrubbing with the bar dried up my festering rash faster than anything else on the market.

Several years later, I worked with a woman who swore by Fels Naptha to calm the effects of Poison Ivy exposure, and to eliminate her most difficult laundry stains. Since the timing of that information coincided with the purchase of our first home on a hillside lot erupting with the shiny three leaved vines, at that time I bought my own bar. These days, although we use it for Poison Ivy rash prevention more than anything else, scrubbing with it when we accidentally encounter the insidious plant in our garden or yard, we are never without it in our home. And head's up--along with drying the itch, it does a spectacular job curing "ring-around the collar."

Therefore yesterday, it seemed logical to me when I was trying to get Henry’s hands clean, that I use the same yellow soap. I was pretty sure I had spelled the product name wrong when it came up in my draft, and while I kept on writing, I reminded myself to go back at the end to check the proper spelling before publishing the post--which I did.

My mistake though, was that I didn’t read anything else about Fels Naptha. Having felt its drying properties personally, late last night it occurred to me that regular use on the skin may not be a good thing. Turning to my best buddy, Google, I investigated further and decided that it would probably be a lot better for Henry if I scrubbed his muddy hands with a different soap. Something about the name “Naptha” being another word for benzene solvent, a possible carcinogen, didn’t feel right.

For more information, click here: Ehow.com and if I inspired you to think about scrubbing up with the stuff every night, you might want to revisit that idea. I have apologized profusely to Henry, and he’s OK with it, because although his hands are pretty grimy right now, he knows that this exercise taught me that if in the future I want to be trusted by my reading audience, I’ll check these things out first.

So, you can rest assured, if Shelby and Henry become long term characters for me, I’ll make a change in his grooming habits. That said, you can’t scare me. I’ll continue to use the soap when I accidentally yank up Poison Ivy, because, like Henry, I have a hard time keeping my gloves on, and avoiding that particular nightmare itch is worth every bit of the risk.

Monday, December 28, 2009

A Little Bit More...

Shelby leaned over the bottles and gazed out the window to check on Henry. As she anticipated, he was on his knees in his new garden. One blue jean leg was tucked into the back of his work boot, his brimmed baseball cap sat high on his brown curls. She watched as he smoothed his palm over the muddy hillocks where he’d planted tomatoes last week. At least his gloves were tucked into his back pocket. No matter how many times she asked him, Henry would start the day with his hands covered, but as soon as he was eye level with his greenery he’d toss them off and thrust his fingers into the damp ground to relocate earth worms and tamp the soil around his seedlings. Though she had taught him to scrub his hands thoroughly with Fels Naptha, the bar laundry soap that Gram used to swear by, it was a rare night that Henry didn’t go to sleep with dirt under his fingernails.

Shelby watched as he patted the soil around the zucchini and the cucumbers, and knew that soon she would have to walk out there, take him by the arm and lead him inside. Henry would stay with his babies all night if she let him; she’d learned that from hard experience.

Although he was only seven minutes younger than she, it had been a long time since Shelby had thought of Henry as a twin brother--for so long now; they’d lived more like mother and son. When Gram was alive, she had seen to Henry’s needs, but for the last 13 years, Shelby and Henry encompassed their own little nucleus of family. And though Henry’s mind had never grown beyond his ten-year-old self, each morning she chuckled as he greeted her with his sing-song, “Morning, morning Shelby,” while sliding into the bench at the table, grinning at the strawberries and chocolate milk she placed in front of him. “Morning, morning Henry,” she’d smile right back.

She was aware that people who didn’t know them assumed that she and Henry were husband and wife. Most times it didn’t take long--they'd see Shelby hand him his napkin at a restaurant and remind him to wipe his mouth, or the way he looked down at the ground and etched the dirt with his booted toe upon encountering a stranger, and realize that Henry wasn’t “all there” as she had overheard Vera telling her sales manager on the telephone.

To Shelby though, Henry was more there than anyone. Though his garden was by far his favorite, Henry threw himself into all his projects, rarely slowing down. And whenever he saw his sister after an absence, he’d smile and call, “Hi Shelby, Shelby. How ya doing Shelby, Shelby?”with a smile so vast, you'd think she'd been gone for years. Shelby held tight to the blessing of Henry’s sweet disposition, his kind humor and the lack of temper, well aware that many families, regardless of intelligence, had things much worse.

Absentmindedly fingering the daisy petals, she again peered out the window to Henry, and saw from his profile that he was singing to his plants. Henry’s garden was one of the underlying reasons that this house was so perfect. Though the façade of the Victorian stood 20 feet from the street, the lot was narrow and deep, with plenty of sunny space out back for Henry to plant his vegetables. Yes, she’d dug a little deeper into the principal of their joint inheritance than she should have to produce the purchase price, but as she watched Henry mouth the words to music she couldn’t hear, she knew she’d done the right thing.

Comments anyone? I have no idea where this is going...

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Merry Christmas

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Wishing you light and joy, and a New Year in which all dreams are realized.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


My year is approaching its end with a chrysanthemum display of fireworks, as Diana at Writing Roller Coasters honored me with The Superior Scribbler Award! OK, it’s confession time. Since February when I began navigating the blogging world, I’ve read so many beautiful blogs, always envying the stamps lining their sides and wondering whether I’d ever write well enough to get one. Now, in a matter of weeks, I have--count’em--three.

I still ponder, when I page back through Middle Passages, what people think as they read—as in: “What, is she nuts? Sharing all that over the Internet? And she thinks she can write?” Little by little I’m getting over that, as a result of the kind and helpful comments from my (hooray, as of today) 45 followers. I have learned, since making that decision to join a writer’s group on LinkedIn, which led me so quickly to other writers who also blog, how valuable it is to have a support system.

My own group of virtual followers gives me the strength and inspiration to move forward, and through you all, I’m gaining the hope and confidence that Middle Passages may be only the start. Each of us is bent on improving our own skills while motivating and nurturing others in what can be a solitary quest. I'm so grateful to know that I'm not at all alone.

So, thank you. To those who read and to those who comment, you mean the world to me.

And though I’m supposed play the award forward; it’s a crazy time of year. My holiday gift is to hold off on bestowing the Scribbler on others, right now anyway--though there are so many talented writers out there, I reserve the right to do so in the future.

Monday, December 21, 2009


As we were creeping at a guarded 35 MPH down the slippery highway yesterday amid blowing snow on our way home from my sister’s house, sixty miles away, I forgot to say goodbye to autumn. I didn’t remember that the Winter Solstice arrived today, in spite of the fortuitous timing of the storm that roared up the east coast. Even as we gasped in pleasure upon arriving home to discover that some plowing angel had taken a whack at the twelve inches of snow covering our driveway, I forgot that fall was over.

I am big at acknowledging departures, in that I need to, no, have to recognize them. As testimony to this, one of the diaries that I have stuffed into the back of my closet contains a page written just before midnight on the eve of my 17th birthday. The entire sheet is covered with the number “16” as I attempted to ring out the digits like a wet towel, to use them all up before I turned a year older. I still do that, although not on paper. My husband laughs, but reminds me to chant the last vestiges of my age before we go to bed the night before my birthday, adding the final drops of liquid as the current year swirls down the drain.

Nostalgia swarms over me at the end of each school year. As regular as the phases of the moon, a lump grows in my throat on the last day of classes as I realize my daughter will not be in sixth grade, in middle school, an eight grader, a sophomore, ever again. And I remain unfinished, un-chewed and undigested when people leave me unexpectedly. To this day, I grieve my college friend who passed away suddenly, but also remember with angst the buddy who merely drove home at the end of a term without telling me, because she didn’t want to say goodbye.

As with all kinds of endings, I typically acknowledge the exodus of the seasons. So even though due to the distraction of yesterday’s first snow I’m a day late, here goes.

Goodbye autumn. Goodbye yellows and reds and the fusty crunch of leaves, acorns that pummel us in the backyard, the flocks of starlings crowding our trees in the mustard color of vintage afternoons. Goodbye to the pine cones that pile on our yard from the monster bottle brushes towering out front, to the hills of pumpkins and gourds mounding in nurseries by the side of the road. Goodbye to crisp mornings that warm in the afternoon, to drifting sea smoke fogging the pond when cold air hits warm water, to the sharp crack as teeth bite through the skin of a just-picked Macintosh.

I couldn’t cope if I didn’t know that these hard-swallowing goodbyes are chased by ensuing hellos—today, it’s the white crotched shawl tossed with abandon on the earth, the reflection of the sun that makes us tear up and long for sunglasses. Soon enough, it will be to the squeak of boots on icy earth, stars that pinwheel closer in frozen air, to the snap and dry burn of the fire after you throw off your gloves and reach your hands in close. Hello to days that are growing, of dawns that begin an infinitesimal moment sooner, a sun that hangs on a purple horizon a shade longer before plummeting us to blackness. Hello to the yell of hockey players, the slap of the puck, the smooth square of an ice rink shoveled out from frosted banks.

And, hello to edge of the year that fades out like a cinema ending but deep down holds tight to a kernel, the bud of a beginning, the nub of new life, wrapped like a breakable ornament gripped carefully in a snow covered palm.

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Friday, December 18, 2009

The View From Here

Winkie the cat and I have retired to the front of the house where the 50- year-old cast iron baseboard radiators, well--radiate, unlike the helpless burners beside my cubby at the rear of our home. Fourteen years ago we completed a renovation back there that required tearing out the old heating system and “modernizing” things. Hmmm, as so often is the case, “new and improved” isn’t always so. Let’s just say the fleece scarf I am currently wearing around my neck would be enhanced by the addition of a hat and gloves, and yes, I am inside. Sorry to say, dubious Yankee frugality does not allow adjustment to the self-timer on the thermostat--yet anyway (we can discuss this again in February).

While marginally warmer, relocating the laptop to the front of the house affords a lovely view of the rime building up between our inside storm windows and the original leaky glass panes--here “new and improved” might mean so--but replacements are a dream that will have to be packaged beside a successful business writing career.

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Ah, the holidays. A skim of ice crusts on the pond down the street and the grass crunches under our feet. The car coughs and puffs white frost, failing to warm up during short trips to drop off at school, to the grocery store, the pharmacy. While there is no snow yet, the thermometer is doing it’s best to convince us that Christmas is only a week away. We however, start tomorrow on my side of the family which means, if I can get this blog post written and complete the last class in my grant writing program, a massive baking project for this afternoon. Holiday preparation is good fun but guilt inducing, as I attempt but fail to neglect Middle Passages, an outlet that many months ago felt a tad self-indulgent, but which has morphed into an essential part of my day.

Here’s an early resolution though. I’m proud of what I have accomplished over the last year, and pleased with my efforts over the past week. That said, for the next few days, I’m going to absolve myself of anguish if I can’t get everything done.

And, I’m going to put on a hat and bake a lot of cookies. If anything, rubbing my hands together over a hot stove may help to keep me warm.

What do you do to cope with the challenge of holiday stress?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Message in One...

The bottle sat on the window ledge half-full of water with the stem of a drooping daisy leaning on the lip. It was small, with a rounded top, the kind they plugged with a cork in the days long before the twist-top was invented. Shelby wondered what was in the clear glass container originally. It was too small to hold anything of substance, wine, soda--or “cordial” she was pretty sure they called it back in the day. It had a long narrow neck and she could picture it stacked among others in the backroom of an old time apothecary, where sunlight streaming through dusty bottles of potions painted green, amber and white rainbows on stained wooden shelves.

Henry dug the bottle up yesterday when he was yanking the crab grass from around the granite boulder at the end of the patio. “Here's another for your collection,” he said, passing the muddy container to her. Grabbing the hose, she rinsed out the dirt and later, placed it next to the other three he dug up earlier in the week. They were starting to realize, she and Henry, that in the time before landfills and recycling centers, people simply buried their trash out back.

The house was over one hundred years old, with tilting bones and squeaky floors. She loved the way the panes in the windows waved, distorting the images outside like carnival mirrors, although she wasn’t sure those windows were going to be much of a blessing in the winter. But still, the house had character, that’s for sure. The three sided porch had beckoned her right inside the first time she saw it—gosh, was it three months ago already?

That day, as Vera Smyth toured Henry and her around what seemed like the countless split-levels and track built ranches in their price range, Shelby hardly dared to hope that they could afford something like this. But then Vera pulled over, Shelby looked up and knew, that whatever it took, she’d find a way to make sure this house became their home. It stood as it had since the 19th century--a country Victorian, built close to the street, with peeling white paint and faded cranberry shutters. The right side of the porch was screened in; she could see a wooden swing hanging from chains just beyond the door.

Shelby had gripped her arms in disbelief as she gazed around the inside--at the original wide pine planking in the living room, the cast iron wood burning stove in the corner of the brick floored breakfast nook, but it was the picture on the stairway wall that did it. As soon as they saw that, they went right back to Vera’s office and signed the offer papers.

Buying it meant just about emptying their bank account; they wouldn’t be replacing the quivery windows anytime soon. Sydney shuddered a bit when she thought about heating bills and the winter winds that would shift and blow right through her billowing panes. But she didn’t care because now, behind the kitchen, up a half flight up on the narrow stair landing, the faded black and white framed photograph was hers. Left by the former owner, who had told Vera it was there when she bought the house, it was taken at the turn of the century. In the picture, the road wasn’t paved yet and the left side of the porch was missing. It must have rained that morning. The driveway leading to the barn was embedded with water filled tracks.

So many times as she climbed the stairs, Shelby would pull the picture off the hook and stare, searching for clues to the history of her home, imagining herself laced in a whalebone corset underneath a white muslin blouse and a sprigged skirt that swished above her ankles. She saw herself approaching the barn with a tin pan filled with mash that she spread out to chickens that clucked around her like school children. And she envisioned dosing a tousle-headed toddler with a teaspoon of elixir from a bottle like the ones that kept appearing in the backyard, whenever Henry tried his hand at landscaping.

The brain is fried, but scene storming still seems to work. This started with one of the bottles we actually did dig up from the boulder by the back of the patio, but the rest is imaginary. What kind of things from real life do you use to jog yourself to write?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

When Nothing Comes, Something has to Go

The brass clock clicks on noon as I lean my head on the wooden shelf of my cubby and wait for the words to come. Inhale. The edge of the panel digs into my temple. No topic today, though there’s is a whirlpool inside--ideas relating to two small projects I am in the middle of. I’m on hold with both and finding it difficult to force my focus elsewhere.

I could, I suppose, wander down the carpeted steps to the basement and the laundry that I put in while my daughter was in the shower this morning. I forget. I always do. By the time I remember, its 6:10 a.m., I’ve got no clean socks, and it will go another day if I don’t gather it up. Right. Now. At least I turned the water to “cold wash” so the resulting trickle in the shower was lukewarm. Sorry to say, the words I received upon our daughter’s exodus were not.

Our basement however, is the cat’s domain. She crawls on top of the vinyl boat cushions my husband stores in the rafters and sleeps until mid-afternoon. If I wake her, I’m in for it. She’ll stand by me at my writing chair, winding herself in and out through my legs, yowling. If I try to pick her up, she’ll run away. She might let me pet her, but that inhibits the typing and though she purrs while I stroke her, one second too long and she nips my legs. The laundry will have to wait my friends. In the drier. Tomorrow. 6:10 a.m.

Earlier, I was able to pull my thoughts from the freelance work long enough for a final review on a essay for an on line contest—I adapted a blog post from a few months ago and have spent weeks polishing it up. Today I dared to press send. I don’t expect to win, but am patting myself on the back. In truth, I could wait another six weeks and still find changes to the piece, because writing is never done. But at some point, you have to have faith that your baby can manage away from you, even though you’ll bite your nails with worry and pray it puts on a good showing.

Writing, in so many ways, is about letting go. You have to trust that you’ve nurtured and cherished the piece long enough to let it out to the real world—that along the way, it has absorbed the best lessons you’ve learned—which is something I can’t give myself credit for with today’s Middle Passages post.

Do you post on your blog when you are clearly stumped?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Shades of Gray

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Sometimes you don’t know what you get until you see the picture--the same way you don’t really see what you wrote, until you wait a suitable spell and reread.

In this case, the sea was back-lit by the sun skulking on the edges of fast moving clouds. The wind by the water snapped like a clammy dishtowel in the hands of a teenage boy, stinging, damp and musty. One lone seagull sat on the iron bars of the seawall, facing the wind dead on. With ruffled feathers he shifted his weight from foot to foot, leaning on the force of the air, unlike his peers who beat their wings, gliding on the rising currents above. Behind the bird, there was a promise of sunshine, a deepening pink to the eastern sky, and a ray refracting from the camera lens, unseen until I reviewed the picture.

When I plugged the memory card into the computer, the stream of light reminded me of writing. For a while now, I’ve resisted going back and reading my old posts, afraid that a spotlight would highlight my naiveté like the cast off diary of a sixteen-year-old. This weekend though, I clicked back, through March and May, August and for the most part, cringed. In a few posts though, there were moments of clarity, a beam of light invisible at first to the naked eye, but upon a revisit, filtering down, pointing to a gem, something beyond the screen, a nugget of out reach, an idea it might be possible to dig up from the sand and slowly develop into treasure.

Do you go back and read your old posts? What do you find?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

In Awe

If you would like a dose of inspiration from a 15-year-old writer who is wise beyond her years, read this:


Friday, December 11, 2009

Sweet Surprise

Fridays have been hard writing days for me lately, but today I’ve had a reprieve because first of all, this is my 250th post. It’s not a round number, not 100 or 200 or 300, but still, it’s a milestone--like a half birthday, or Christmas in July. I’m allowing myself to celebrate some and you are welcome to join me. Trust me, on February 4, 2009, I had no idea all this writing was ahead. I may be broke, but I’ve proved my tenacity. So what do you think? Chocolate cake? A glass of bubbly? Maybe I’ll just sneak a reindeer sugar cookie that my daughter baked from scratch from the stash in the freezer. (Trust me, they are awesome and cute enough to photograph, but I can’t, because they may be Christmas gifts to a few of my readers--Shhh, don’t tell.)

Ok, I’ve brushed off the crumbs. In addition to that accomplishment, yesterday, my 40th follower signed on. Thank you, Mary Anne. All these posts later, I am still questioning my writing skill, aware of how much more there is to learn, taking baby steps to get there. The slow boat works best for me, and yet I do long to be closer to shore. So when someone with a blog I’m unfamiliar with throws me a life jacket, it takes away the seasick feeling and things become, shall we say, less squishy inside? At a minimum that’s worth a cup of hot cocoa, the Ghirardelli kind, made with milk. Or, if you want, you can try this recipe (it comes out a little chunky at the bottom but it is out-of-this-world rich.)

Hot Cocoa

2 Tbsp sugar
½ tsp cornstarch
2 Tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
Dash of salt
1 cup milk
¼ tsp vanilla extract

Mix sugar, cocoa, cornstarch and salt in a large mug. In a separate container, heat milk on high (100% power) 1-1/2-2 minutes in the microwave. Pour hot milk slowly into dry mixture, stirring thoroughly.

Yum. Sorry for the digression, but I feel a sugar high coming on because there is one more thing to celebrate. Yesterday, I scraped the bottom of the creative writing barrel, so I forced myself to slog through the swamp and fog of a forced time write that felt like crawling through glue. After the fact, the old attitude took a nose dive, which I am pleased to announce, changed direction when I received a “lovely” surprise. Diana, over at Writing Roller Coasters, gave me an award! Diana, your timing is impeccable. On to the bag of mini-chocolate chips--hey, we're celebrating, remember?

The rules upon acceptance of Diane's award are to link the person who awarded you, then find up to fifteen new blogs and link them in your own blog. I don’t have fifteen new writers that I’ve been reading and learning from, but I have a few. And, yes, I happen to be a rule follower, but that said, I hereby absolve everyone below from following the rules…unless of course, you want to.

Bridget at J.B. Chicoine-Aspiring Novelist. She may be self taught, but she’s also teaching me.

Rae, at Us in Tejas. Not only did Rae grow up reading ALL of my favorites, Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden, Nancy Drew, The Little Princess, but she also read Trixie Belden!!! I thought I was the only one in the world who loved Trixie and Honey and Mark and Brian and Diane. Oh and don't forget redheaded Jim! Rae, you are my soul sister! Do you think Trixie and Jim ever ended up together?

Kristi at R.A.W. Random Acts of Writing is new for me. She’s made me laugh this week. Kudos to Kristi.

The WM Freelance Connection earned my “follow” because I’m in the process of developing my own freelance business. However, much of the information there will help all writers. Give it a try. (Shameless plug here: please click on my website link above and forward it to your business acquaintances.)

Tricia over at Tailspinning, is a wonderful read, although she’s already well known to many of you. I am secretly envious of her WIP which takes place in the sea. Tricia believes in signs from the universe; right now hers are seashells and that’s enough for me.

Thank you again Diana for helping me finish the week on a high note—what a fun party.

Um, has anyone seen the Rolaids?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Timed Writing

Fingers lurch across the page. Green mechanical pencil stutters, stops, surges again, scribbles, x-es out, crosses off. Forbidden. The rules of timed writing exclude editing. Write, free flowing, whatever comes, get it down, pen your mind to the page, no pause--though, what if I am staring at an image and the words won’t come? Like, the Christmas tree in the bistro corner--how to describe the gold ribbon flowing through the artificial branches?

A word lurks somewhere in the darkness, behind a wall, a locked door, trapped in a spider web way down deep. A moment ago, it took seconds for “artificial” to arrive in my brain, to travel to my fingers--my mind an empty hole, even the word “fake” slumped down in the basement, rusting chains pulling at its legs until it muscled its way to the top of the stairs. Back to the ribbon--does it weave, river, lace, snake through the branches? Which one is right? Doesn’t matter. Don’t edit. No checking the thesaurus. Move on. Fix it later.

See the man beside the tree, in front of the window? The sun glares on his full face. Squinting, he shifts his chair; my shoulders thrust forward as it scrapes across a squeaking chalkboard. Grey hair, unkempt beard--oh gosh how long it took me to plug in the word "unkempt." Should it be unruly? Curling? Something better? Move on.

Gold wedding ring on his left hand, purple fine gauge sweater layered over a bulging waistline, frayed blue jeans brushing the white cotton socks tucked into scuffed leather Topsiders. He gestures to the man across from him whose face is puffed and pink--too much Thanksgiving food, or whiskey last night, given the bloodshot eyes. Whiskey drinker slouches in the chair--extended legs reach across the aisle like the low side of a see-saw outfitted in bone colored kakis. In an accent, faintly English, he discusses joint-venture capitalists while the fine white hair flops on his forehead like, like, what? I don't know--move on.

A stringy haired woman sits with her back to me, face encased in black-armed sunglasses she wears inside. Why? Prescription? Forgot her glasses? Eye surgery? Her red wool coat crumples to the floor. She reaches down to tuck it on the back of the wrought iron chair, still holding a Styrofoam cup of coffee in one hand—nope—paper—no--cardboard. Move on.

Turning, she catches me staring. Her pale face is wrinkled white leather; she leans on her palm, blue veins pulse from her bony hand. I look away; cast my eyes down, just a coincidence she’ll think, I’m not writing about her. She leans her face back into the hand and I see swollen knuckles, evidence of age that doesn’t appear on the thin frame I view from behind.

Glance at the watch. Ten minutes is up. Hand cramps. Brain hurts more. Words stumble and lurch and stagger across the blue lined page. Pat my pocket for the keys. Shrug into a jacket. Close the notebook. Gather the folders. Toss my cup.

Take a breath.

Move on.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Painting Dreams

This morning I woke from a dream, that in typical fashion, depicted a combination of things I know, in places I don’t. Standing behind our house, which looked normal except for the addition of a porch, I wondered about the next door neighbor’s home. In this fantasy, it was for sale. His dwelling too, looked the way it is in real life, white with green gingerbread shingles, perched on ledge, surrounded by wilting hemlocks. As I slept though, both of our properties changed considerably, however, in the distance a garden from real life appeared. The combination of actual and imaginary conjured up a stunning image, so I thought I’d try to describe it. You’ll find the authentic garden in a photo at the bottom.

A white columned porch gazes across the green styled lawn to bulging rhododendrons weighted in purple, open-mouth blossoms--pillowing like wads of colored cotton. At the edge, the land humps down a reckless slope, rocks and roots and furrows tripping to a lake, resting long and black and still below.

At the far shore, a terraced garden climbs giant steps, cypress and ewes shaped with master shears--formal shrubs carved like shaved poodle legs, bottle brush greenery bristling under a painted pagoda. Overhead, uncombed pines circle tight as they lean on jutted hips, fold their arms and stand guard.

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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Taking Stock

Twenty years ago next month, my husband and I were on a coast-to-coast flight when an almost catastrophic equipment failure occurred that landed us in Iowa. We were flying cross-country on the first leg of a frequent flier sponsored trip to Australia, to visit my sister who lives there, when one of the engines failed. As the plane dropped altitude and greasy smoke poured into the cabin, the laconic voice of the captain announced: What you think just happened, did. We just lost one of our engines.” Tears spurted out of my eyes; I gripped my husband’s hands and prayed. After what seemed like an interminable time we bumped down safely onto the runway of the Des Moines airport where we all hollered and cheered, in spite of the fire engines racing toward us. Needless to say, we were a day late getting to our final destination, but the point is, we arrived.

When that memory percolated up though the time and distance of the last two decades, it inspired a kind of “It’s a Wonderful Life” to flicker through my brain. That is to say, I pondered what the impact might have been, (pun intended—you’re allowed to groan) had we not landed safely.

Granted, our daughter’s life, on which we’ve had obvious and far reaching influence is duly, and joyfully, noted--but that aside, I wonder what might now be different, had we not been gifted those twenty years that now roll off our hips and over our expanding waistlines.

To be sure, there were circumstances that occurred before we left on that trip when I know our actions had consequence. With no ulterior motive, Tim and I introduced our roommates, who ended up marrying each other. At their wedding, two of their friends met and later also tied the knot. Both couples have raised a several children. Perhaps one of them will become a rocket scientist, or discover the cure for cancer. Or maybe they’ll just grow up to be happy, contributing adults.

My quiet, helpful husband has his own stories I know. As for me, back in my lifeguard days, an Asian exchange student who couldn’t read English walked off the deep end without knowing how to swim. After I yanked him to safety, I’m not sure which of us shook more. He disappeared from the beach that day and that was that. Where is he today?

In my first post-college job, I answered phones for an employment agency. One day, an applicant met with one of the career consultants, and departed with a job interview scheduled in the next hour. Walking out the door, she realized she had no money, so I loaned her a few bucks for the subway so she'd be on time for her meeting. Later that afternoon, she returned with my cash and a flower, after which I never saw her again. Did she get the job? If she did, what did it mean to her? These are the kinds of things I wonder about from before that fateful flight. But after that plane ride, I can’t point to anything specific. Though as a rule, I try to practice random acts of kindness, nothing comes to mind. If only I had a wingless angel like Clarence, to show me what I’ve done that matters.

Perhaps it’s the time of year, but I find myself contemplating whether I’ve ever altered the course of a life—unknowingly performed an action that would have been missed if way back when, that second engine had given out too. In some, “play it forward” kind of way, we all touch others, I know. But while I’m confident my family and friends would miss me, I’m pretty sure that unlike George Bailey, my absence would not spell the demise of Bedford Falls.

I’m waxing philosophical here, but it's a good thing. Because if anything, this long buried memory has tapped me on the shoulder like Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, to Ebenezer Scrooge, reminding me to be mindful to make the next twenty years (knock wood), count.

How have you impacted others? What do you hope to accomplish in the next 20 years?

Monday, December 7, 2009

Can't Get out of My Own Way Today...

So you get this instead of a half written blog post that I hope will reach completion tomorrow. And, I own up. This picture isn't from today--it's from last December.

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Friday, December 4, 2009

Friday Afternoon Errands

It may have been above the Walmart parking lot, but there aren't too many things as dramatic as a late fall sky, a few minutes prior to sunset.

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Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Full Circle Cliché

I am rubbing my hands together, in an, “Ok, let’s get down to business" manner.

The resume I produced earlier this week for a finance executive was accepted with pleasure. This morning, I received a call requesting a last minute review of an almost-complete marketing brochure. Over a two hour period I bashed out minor revisions (there may not be time for large scale changes) and a major overhaul if they have the flexibility. A check of email a minute ago delivered positive feedback to both, and the potential for further business. Perhaps purists will call me a hack for this kind of writing, but tough. I need to get paid for something. How lucky that I may be successful at work that gives me such joy?

In truth, I thought I’d be bored with resume writing, but shrugged my shoulders. No one gets to do what they want all the time, right? However, after a phone interview with the finance man, which with 20 plus years of experience, I can do in my sleep, writing the resume provided an entertaining challenge. I drew on my past experiences hiring numbers-types and pulled a professional piece together over a matter of hours.

My reward for that job well done was the surprise marketing assignment this morning. How fun to climb into the head of the advertiser, into the heart of the consumer, to build a compelling piece that will sell to both. While I’m writing, I’m quizzing myself: How do I differentiate? What are the benefits of hiring [my client] verses another vendor? What’s the best way to build that into language that pops, and results in action by the customer? It involves a thinking, creating, thesaurus-ing, total immersion, the same way every other type of writing captivates me. Whether it’s a resume, a brochure, a blog post, an essay, or a shaky attempt at a short story, time leaks away. When I look up, an hour has passed and I’ve missed the whole thing.

About 12 years ago, there was an opening at my old company for a copywriter. I was the HR associate responsible for interviewing viable candidates. The copy chief was a favorite of mine; it was a bonus that I loved his area of expertise too. For this particular recruit, he required final candidates to offer a writing sample, which involved developing an ad campaign for Valentine’s Day.

Without telling anyone, I took the test home and crafted a jingle--which I brought back to work and laid in my front desk drawer. My work was good, but corporate politics were stronger. I yearned to send my test to the copy chief, to be considered for the job, but that meant telling my current management about my wish, and our senior executive was unforgiving about perceived breaches in loyalty. Had I expressed interest and not been hired, I would have put a drop-dead halt to my career.

Mentally chastising myself for cowardice, I went on with life. The Valentine ad sat in my desk for years, long after the copy chief passed away from cancer, through three promotions and three office moves, until the summer of 2008, when, during what ended up being my final office relocation, I purged it.

I can’t, nor would I want to, change the past. The confidence I have to take this writing leap now is a direct result of all my experience in former roles. Sitting here today though, I am at a hub of a wheel and everything I need and want is traveling down the spokes to meet me. Finally I’m working with words.

If only my old friend the copy chief was here to read them.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Night Stories

In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Professor Dumbledore allows Harry to use his “Pensieve.” The Hogwarts headmaster stirs his wand in the bowl of gelatinous goop containing all of his own memories, and withdraws a single clear strand.

I’d like to pluck my own memories from a Pensieve, but in addition, I wish I had a basin to fill with my dreams. On full-moon nights, when I sleep, I plummet to the deep ink of a dark chasm, sliding down mine-shaft walls to a place where rules are meaningless. Actions transpire in multi-dimensional patterns, scenes flicker like a temperamental TV screen; faces appear and blend and merge with wrong names and I travel to locations I know, but don’t recognize. Each film fractures like broken window panes that splinter me from scene to scene.

Some of my dreams foresee the future, like one I had my sophomore year in college. After a late-night cram session for a psychology midterm, I woke screaming from the image of my white-haired professor, dressed in a green trench coat, standing over me with the raised handle of a butcher knife clutched in his gnarled hands. That dream predicted failure on the exam—though I was in good company, as no one in the entire class passed.

Other dreams however, the ones that arise from slivers of reality blended into the buttermilk churn of imagination, the ones that fade quickly into the drifting fog of obscurity, are the birth of stories, I’m sure, if we hold on to them. J.K. Rowling after all, devised the game of Quidditch from ideas she encountered in a dream.

So I’m wondering what kind of tale I could make from the vision I remember from last night—when our temperamental cat, who like any other feline, hates water, jumped into a frothing Jacuzzi and hollered and scratched at me when I performed the requisite rescue. As soon as I dried her matted fir with a towel, she leaped back to the edge of the tub, plunged in and continued swimming. I stood puzzled, watching her sodden striped head as she breast-stroked amid a lather of bubbles rising like islands surrounded by tropical waves, suds that grew and heaved and piled, until they spilled like lava onto the wet tile floor.

Tell me about a time when you wrote a story from a dream.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

115,441 but not Counting

I thought I would take a break from Middle Passages today, since it is a “write for pay” day, as in, I have a freelance job that involved preparing for and conducting an 80 minute phone-interview, then downloading the information into a professional resume for an unemployed finance executive. After the phone call and a first pass at the CV, I was mentally cooked, so I turned to my photo stash seeking a suitable substitution for today’s blog post. Unfortunately, my pocket digital is broken and I haven’t been lugging the heavy Nikon when I’ve been walking; as a result, pickings are slim. It won't be so easy to extricate myself from the Middle Passages hook that is currently holding me up by the back of my itchy wool sweater.

In an attempt to distract myself from the siren call of this blog, I read my regular writer’s posts, and realized just how many of you are recovering from NaNoWriMo (for those who don’t know, National November Writing Month, and trust me, I didn’t until recently.) According to the NaNoWriMo website, which bills itself as a “fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing,” the goal is/was to write a 175-page (50,000-word) novel between November 1-November 30.

Since I am not writing a novel, or at the moment, even close, NaNo wasn’t on my agenda, but over the 30 days of November, I was in awe of those who jumped in, regardless of whether they reached their word count goal. Reading these aspiring novelists produced a little hole in my belly where envy chewed like a teething dog. All month long, I was in high school again, sitting at the long cafeteria banquet table all by myself until, it occurred to me, I haven't been totally left out. I have a word count. For fun, I took a look.

The Word document that has been the repository of all my Middle Passages posts since last February is now 227 pages long. This blog has prompted me to produce approximately 115,441 words over the last ten months. At this rate, I’ve written an average of 11,544 words per month, which would not have earned me a winning button to post on my blog from NaNo, but feels like a heck of an accomplishment to me. So I’m taking a Rolaid and telling my stomach to shut up.

Until I get my land legs a little more firmly on the ground through www.LCSWrites.Com, it's OK to be the long haired girl in the oversized sweatshirt peering from under her bangs in the corner. Baloney sandwiches still taste good because I'm learning, and success is in the quality. I’ll take my 115,000+ words and thank them for helping me to improve at this craft that I love. I may be stuck at that empty table, but someone from the upper mezzanine has started down the cafeteria steps and is looking my way.

I’m pretty sure I won’t always be sitting alone.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Recipe for Adventure

In 2005, a few weeks prior to Thanksgiving, I went on a work sponsored trip to Japan, which is where the parent corporation was headquartered.

The journey was billed as an award, but to be candid, if you were at a certain level in the organization with enough longevity, your time would ultimately come. I wasn’t in a rush to travel so far away from my husband and daughter, but that year, when they reached into the hat, my name came out. So on the 20th anniversary of my start date, I boarded a plane with a few other folks and headed to the Far East.

In retrospect, it was a trip of a lifetime. We were treated like visiting heads of state, with a dedicated tour guide who escorted us to peaceful temples overlooking reflecting pools all over Kyoto, onto the bullet train that slipped by the cloud-topped vision of Mount Fuji, to Tokyo. The “work” of the week involved touring Tokyo’s fashionable shops with executives from America, meeting with Japanese counterparts to exchange knowledge, and standing in front of a crowd of local management to give a one minute speech (in the native tongue) thanking our host company for the visit. The last involved late night rehearsals and much panic, but what’s one minute in the scheme of things?

Other than during that required speech, there was enough English around to get by. So besides a mystery surrounding toilets which I will not go into here (except to add that the seats were heated!!), to me, one of the largest cultural differences we experienced surrounded food. As palate sophistication goes I lean, albeit slightly, toward the adventurous side, but this week vaulted me well over the top.

Over the course of the week, we ate sea urchin (slimy), jellyfish (crunchy), squid (call it calamari and I’m home) eel, and octopus. Mind you, most of it appeared in front of us, well, in its virgin state. One night we were relieved to walk to a restaurant that specialized in something called Ishiyaki, where food is grilled on a hot stone. When the squid tentacles on the hot grill began to wiggle, my table mate and I burst into a fit of hysterical giggles. Composing ourselves, we swallowed duck, tofu, chicken necks and seaweed.

Mid-week, we traveled to what was billed as a traditional country inn, and kimono clad women presented us with artfully designed platters of sashimi--tuna, sea breen, squid, salmon eggs and more octopus, before being rewarded with miso soup, cooked beef and chicken. Wheat gluten, soyba noodles with tempura, and cutlass fish enhanced our chopstick talents.

On our second to last day, we climbed into taxis at 4:00 a.m., heading for the renowned Tsukjii fish market, where vendors auctioned off fish that had been offloaded moments earlier. After watching men hacking warehouses full of just-caught fish with machetes, we wandered to a market-side café and ordered sushi for a pre-dawn breakfast. The highest quality fish in the world arrives at that location. Still I wasn’t surprised when the raw tuna I tried to force down at that early hour threatened to swim back up. That night, the menu included sukiyaki, Kobe beef sautéed in broth with veggies, finished with a dip in raw egg.

Though it was an adventure I’ll remember forever, when I arrived home after a sixteen hour plane flight, nothing tasted better than the plate of jarred spaghetti that my husband and daughter served. Nowadays, I'll eat sushi. But last night, peering at plastic wrapped plates inside the fridge, moaning about creative recipes to enhance four-day-old food, memories of my Japan trip trickled back. I didn’t write much about our travels. I saved memories by taking hundreds of pictures, and jotting notes about the food. And with my 5:00 a.m. breakfast of out-of-the water fresh tuna in mind, I decided I could embrace turkey one more night.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Darren McGavin has nothing on me

One of my favorite movies of all time is A Christmas Story, based on tales written by Jean Shepherd, staring Darren McGavin. You’ve probably seen it; it usually plays in a repetitive loop prior to Christmas. Based in 1940, it’s an ageless hoot. If you are a fan, like me, then you’ll be able to hear the family patriarch’s voice as he cavorts around the house yelling “It’s a major award! It’s a major award!”

That’s how I felt yesterday when the clever, funny and yes, scrappy Sarah over at Sarah with a Chance bestowed the Honest Scrap Award on me! Only Sarah’s award is a lot better than what Darren McGavin pried out of the hay-packed box he received (I won’t ruin it for those who don’t know the movie). The honor is more on par with Ralphie’s “Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle.” So a huge thank you to Sarah for putting me in such gifted company.

The rules of the award dictate that I tell you ten honest things about me…

1) My mother used to call me “Lizard.” I’m not sure whether that was a play on the spelling of my name, or because as a child I was so skinny I looked like one.

2) The second toes on each of my feet bend at 90 degree angles. I've always though that it’s possible they pulled little lizard me out that way.

3) My father used to say that I love my husband Tim because he looks like Tom Selleck. My husband’s grandmother used to say I love Tom Selleck because he looks like Tim. Hmm. Anyway, a million years after Magnum PI went off the air, I still catch my breath when I see that guy. (Which one? Guess.)

4) I was an English major but I can’t spell. Regular Middle Passages readers probably already know that.

5) If I allowed myself to watch TV during the day, I’d be a Food Network addict.

6) I love to cook. It provides an outlet through which to nurture those I love.

7) I love to eat what I cook. It provides an outlet through which to nurture me.

8) Though I have hosted 14 out of the last 15 Thanksgivings, this year was the first time I ever roasted a turkey.

9) I don’t sing in the shower. I sing in the garden—often phrases of Latin pieces I learned in our high school Acappella Choir. “Oh Magnum, mysterium…” Thankfully, our closest neighbor is never home.

10) By far, my proudest accomplishment in life is raising our beautiful, smart accomplished daughter, with whom we are blessed. No other word does justice to the feeling.

OK, so now I’m supposed to award the Honest Scrap award to 10 blogs that I think deserve recognition. Since Sarah already awarded two that I would have nominated (Through My Eyes, and Tales of Extraordinary Ordinariness) I won’t get to 10, but here are some lovely writers you should check out:

Sharon at Musings of a Mercurial Woman

M.Heart at Secret Notebooks – Wild Pages

Simon at Constant Revision

Therresa at The Chocolate Chip Waffle

Amy at AmyMusings

Thank you again Sarah! I'll try not to shoot my eye out.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Day After

We’ve shoved most of the furniture back in place, washed the kitchen floor, sorted the silverware and dispatched it back to the dining room. The china has been stacked and returned to the cupboard. Tablecloths churn in the washer.

It takes three days of prep and one morning of clean up for a meal that lasts an hour—with a bonus of time before and after with family. If anyone asks, yes, our small house can accommodate 30 for a sit down Thanksgiving, but the day after means big time recovery mode. After a turkey sandwich with stuffing and cranberry for lunch, I have discovered the couch. Exhaustion shrouds like a dull fog. The cat has settled herself purring on my shins. Rain buckets down and outside, pine trees droop with needles that hang like just washed hair. Droplets merge and blend on the window panes, creating clear Rorschach’s patterns I’m too tired to interpret. Water ricochets off the gutter to drum on the firewood stacked below.

The house is almost back in order; for the moment there is no need to move, so I’m thinking, for the rest of this day, I won’t.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Online Essence

My dad passed away on Thanksgiving six years ago. Late that night he sat in his arm chair with a glass of scotch and closed his eyes. Every year since, as I prepare pies, set tables and mash potatoes for my husband’s family, Dad is here with me. It’s a good thing. He spent his last day comparing and enjoying desserts at my sister’s house and went away from us happy and at peace. Since I started heavy-duty holiday prep today, he’s on my mind. I’m indulging myself and resurrecting this piece I wrote four years ago.

Two years after my father died, I find myself Googling him. A Boolean search with quotation marks in the right place allows me to eliminate the thousands of entries pertaining to an Australian car model with the same name, and hone in on my dad. As of this date, a record of a donation he made to the Friends of Harvard Celtic Studies pops up, as well as an acknowledgement of his status on the board of trustees at a local bank. Scrolling down, I discover legal articles of incorporation he filed as an attorney for a local restaurant chain--and two archived notices of his death.

Recently, a family friend died under tragic circumstances. The day after the funeral, I sat down in front of the computer again and Googled this man’s name. When I located a picture of him and forwarded it to others in my family, it struck me that among the many things that have changed with the advent of the Internet, the Web has altered how we process grief.

While Google has become a mainstay for those trying to track down old friends and classmates who still live, I’m finding it a comforting resource in which to stay connected those who do not. In my Dad’s case, an attorney whose law firm bore his name until several years ago, the footprints I locate on the Internet keep family history fresh, in spite of his passing.

Once my Dad retired, his law firm name was purchased by a larger group, after which a typical transition took place. For a few years, the merged business combined the names of both corporations. It was a mouthful for the receptionist but eased the transition for clients of my dad’s firm. Once a suitable time went by, Dad's office name was dropped entirely. So his name is off the masthead, and I find myself wondering whether his picture still hangs on the wall of the conference room named for him, an honor bestowed upon his retirement.

But while the physical evidence of his senior partnership may be a thing of the past; confirmations of my dad’s professional life are everywhere on the Internet, records of business he conducted personally, as well transcripts pertaining to partners and associates of the old law firm in which my dad’s name had center billing. Before this online age, when a firm changed hands, the stationary was replaced and those seeking the legal past had to travel to the Registry of Deeds or a county courthouse. Now old case law featuring my dad is available at the click of a mouse, easier to find and read and print.

Without the Internet, it would have unlikely for me to stumble upon a letter my Dad wrote to Time Magazine in 1938, taking issue with a sports article about an up and coming Boston hockey goalie. Post Internet, I typed in a few letters, and was elated to find unexpected proof of my sixteen-year-old Dad, a rabid sports fan.

These little surprises help me know my dad more, even though he’s no longer here to share the stories in person. Yes there is a grave to visit, and photo albums and keepsakes, but they offer the finite and unchanging “bricks and mortar” of my dad. At times that I feel particularly sad about his passing though, the computer offers consolation in confirmation of his everyday life--his essence called up by my fingertips, any time I need to see him.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Taking Flight

The autumn aviary migration is underway; Juncos and Starlings flit their way through our woods on their way to warmer climates. Yesterday, I was driving through the brown leaves that skittered down a two lane highway when a mass overflowing with birds exited a tree--flying low enough toward me that I gasped. Before I could twitch a muscle on the gas pedal, in one single shadow of wings and bodies, the flock arched themselves up, aiming toward the sky.

I am not a bird watcher. I am clueless as to the telepathy, aerodynamics and physics that induce countless birds to change direction at once, without crashing amid a flurry of drifting fluff. As they veered away though, I found myself positioned on a platform in our high school auditorium, hypnotized as Mr. Sullivan, the choral director, swooped his baton in an attempt to pull flawless harmony from our group of Glee Club singers.

A good choir leader performs with a fervor that mesmerizes his flock, encouraging and manipulating the purest sound through the direction of his stick. The birds reminded me of this--standing in front of a composer while he taps the stand in front of him, raising his arms before slashing them down, the signal to commence the piece in four-four time. Balancing on tiptoes, he stabs toward the sopranos, lifting his pointer to elevate their voices, prodding it at the tenors so they’ll open their mouths and build with unified sound. Holding out his palms, he shapes the song, coaxing the altos, quieting the basses, bequeathing a complexity to the melody by lifting it high, then chopping with his hand so all mouths close in synchronized suspension.

The orchestration of the birds, their seamless chemistry, makes me wonder if somewhere there’s a bird maestro. White haired and corpulent like Mr. Sullivan, maybe he teeters on the balls of his feet, beating time and pointing with his wand, guiding the enthralled flock over my car, under a bridge, around a tree, leading them to a telephone wire with the same finite precision a choral director utilizes to ensure voices blend--songs and wings soaring--then coming to rest--with plumage soft as silk on the weighted cable far below.

For just a second yesterday, as the birds climbed the wind above me, I was startled enough to think, “This must be what it is like to see music.”

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Just Keep Swimming...

Do any of you know Dory, from Finding Nemo? She's how I feel right now. Not in a bad way, but like there is a goal out there, and I'm going to figure out how to get to it, no matter how mixed up I seem.

To that end, there was no post yesterday, because, among other things, I was going back and forth with someone to finalize this:


Cross your fingers for me. If this works, I get to keep writing.

Today though, is dedicated to pie crusts (2 apple, a cherry and a pecan...maybe two of those) that I will make and chill, to roll out on Wednesday. Then there are about five table clothes to iron. Ugh.

Happy Saturday folks!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

More "Scene Storming"

Pulling out the socks catapulted her to a damask Queen Anne chair situated in the corner of a pink room that smelled faintly of Rive Gauche and roses. Towering pines from the front yard brushed purple shadows onto smooth painted walls. In front of the window, her grandmother sat in the chair, gray curls bent low over a wooden darning egg. With knotted fingers, she fitted the tool into a wool argyle sock and began to mend a hole in the heel. On the drop leaf table behind Grandma rested a brown tinted picture of Grandpa, dressed in his Army Uniform from World War I, the only one she had ever seen in which he still had hair.

Returning to her own present, she pulled her heel-less socks from the drawer thinking, “How does one actually darn a sock? Who does that anymore? It’s another skill dying with the generations.” In her house, socks with holes landed in a wastebasket, but in Grandma’s day, wool was too dear to toss until heels became knobby from repeated repairs.

After Grandma passed, the egg resided in the lowest drawer of mother’s cherry highboy, beside her quilted sewing basket and the dented metal cookie tin filled to the top with odd buttons. That darning tool never left the drawer, its smooth maple wood a talisman, or a testament to memory, because mother didn’t use it.

As a child, it never seemed important to notice how clothes were mended; that sewing drawer spelled entertainment. She remembered fingering the soft grain of the molded egg when she reached inside the bureau, though her real target was the button tin. Digging her nails under the rim and wedging the top off, she’d dip in for a palm full and let the treasures run through her fingers. Laying them out on the floral carpet, she’d sort by color, by size, by beauty. Breaking a long thread off a spool, she’d feed the shiniest buttons on to the string, whirling the collection in circles before pulling the two ends away from each other tight. The string would bounce back and forth, the buttons continuing to spin until the momentum died. Knotting the ends together and looping it over her head produced an elegant princess necklace.

Her present button tin, sky blue with snow flakes painted on top, sits behind the glass doors of the spare bedroom curio. Originally it was a container for holiday nuts, but shaking it now gives a satisfying clank. Who knows where the darning egg went though.

Fingering the holes in the synthetic argyles she held in her hand, she balled them together and pressed them once again to the back corner of the drawer.

Anyone care to critique?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Catch

The sea smoke came back and finally, I got it. I did.

It’s the first cold day. Out the dark window this morning the thermometer registered 32; our breath bloomed white in front of us when we entered the garage. With the mild weather we’ve had lately, the pond down the street is warmer then the air. As we drove by it, mist materialized from water that reflected like a warped mirror; strands of vapor copied gray on its chalky surface.

Every autumn for years, my daughter and I have driven by similar scenes on our way to drop her off at school. Each time it’s a surprise. We catch a glimpse of rising steam beyond leafless trees and both exclaim “Oh look!” Invariably, I follow up with, “If only I had the camera…” before accelerating past the pond on the way to her school.

Before, when we would encounter this phenomenon, after depositing her, I had to continue six miles farther to work. This morning, she exited the car, and conscious of the of the rising sun’s potential to evaporate the mist, I raced home past rock walls to retrieve the Nikon.

There is something about this need in me, to capture the essence of a picture with words and on film. When not glued to the computer writing my brains out over the last nine months, I’ve been running around taking shot after shot, often of the same subject, trying to frame the moment, to define an instant; to catch a perfect execution—hoping somehow to freeze the emotion conjured by the scene and share it, so I’m not the only one.

I’m not a skilled photographer, the same way I’m not an expert writer, but I’m an eager one. It makes sense how each compel. With every piece I create, the first draft produces a snapshot, a sketching of the total scene. Follow up photos are like edits, clarifying and refining. How about if I crouch on my knees and shoot up through the trees? What will the print look like from the bend in the road, from behind a split rail fence, above the waving paint brush fronds of the leggy marshland grass?

I don’t own Photoshop or extensive photography software, though Picasa helps some, and editing my image is like revising a final draft. The story, the subject, the big picture if you will, rests there on the page; the details are clear. Now it needs cropping and highlighting, an air brush here or there, adjustment to the film grain, the tint.

There’s joy in each attempt, and awe at what I capture. But with every picture I take, as with every piece I write, the passage of time unveils what I might have focused on differently, pared away, angled for a unique effect—hints, reminders and sometimes full blown lessons that keep me whittling things down and refining, always toward the goal of exposing the most evocative view.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009


A wicker basket of laundry folded but not put away.

One hour walking (um, trespassing really) with a friend down a cracked private road that humps like a dinosaur’s back through craggy monoliths soaked from churning salt spray. Lately we’ve tempted ourselves to stroll farther, each time with fingers crossed that we aren’t escorted out in handcuffs. “Sign officer? What sign?”

A quick stop for a cup of coffee to go, lightened with cream, “shaken, not stirred” by the coffee shop clerk.

Homework. An hour online researching a foundation for a theoretical grant I’d be writing for a new senior center building in our town, if I actually had accountability for writing it. Bingo. Who knew I’d discover a generous philanthropic organization founded in memory of a woman who used to live about a mile from me?

Another hour studying the lesson above, and then an online quiz. (100% thank you very much. You gotta love open book tests.)

Forty-five minutes reading and commenting on the blogs I follow.

Approximately fifteen minutes analyzing how to set up tables for a sit down Thanksgiving for 28, 29 or 30 people (TBD), while allowing a path to the kitchen for me, and one to the restroom for everyone else. (Don’t worry, all guests contribute to the feast.)

A “to do” list beginning this weekend, of things to accomplish ahead of time to make T-Day run smoothly (nervous breakdown not included).

A scroll through a Word document called “I Can do This,” now over 200 pages long, containing drafts of every blog post I’ve written, as well as aborted passages never published, in hopes that it would jog an idea for today.

A visit to Dancing with the Gorilla, because “I Can do This” gave me nothing. (I’ve used that trick too many times before.) Choosing from Darnell’s list, I’ll try to“storm” something. It worked the last time I was stuck.

Oh dear, I’m distracted. Anyone care to supply me with their favorite, easy, delicious, and make ahead Thanksgiving recipe?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Sea Battles

The night my now-husband slipped a diamond on my finger; he teased that if I rejected his proposal, he’d exchange the solitaire for a sailboat. Ecstatic, I listed to port, as if my hand bore the weight of a vessel instead of a ring. Having been with him for three years prior, I thought I knew what I was in for.

From the age of 10, Tim sailed a 12-foot Cape Dory during summers at the beach in New Jersey and by the time I came along, he was piloting his father’s sloop off the coast of the Massachusetts South Shore. Though I’d learned rudimentary sailing during my teenage days skippering a Sunfish on a quiet lake, a 25’ Cape Dory plowing through the rock-strewn coast offers a different dynamic.

Nevertheless, I stretched out on the vinyl cushions lining the cockpit or wrapped my legs around the rails at the bow, laughing as we churned through rolling waves and the frigid ocean spray. I manned the tiller when he raised the sails, but other than that, he was the captain. I was along for the company, and sorry to say, the tan, though a few years into our marriage, when he wanted to purchase that boat from his Dad, I agreed without a qualm.

Then we became parents.

Our daughter arrived in August, so sailing ended for me that year and over the next summer, with a busy toddler scooting around, treading anywhere near the craft was out of the question. By the time I stepped back on board life was about safety and balance. The boat removed all of that.

Each time we pushed off without our daughter, the magnet of parenthood yanked at me. Knowing we had a child on land, I couldn’t shake off my conviction that regardless of my husband’s skill, at sea nature is in charge. Winds rise suddenly, tipping the boat, or shift unexpectedly forcing sail-flinging jibes. Sometimes they die, leaving you drifting at the mouth of the harbor where jagged rocks gnash like monster teeth. My responsibility as a mother amplified these perceived terrors ten-fold. So, while Tim continued to experience unremitting joy as we heeled at steep angles, my knuckles tightened. Gripping the gunwales, I locked my teeth and tried to act ask if my insides weren’t quivering jam.

To make matters worse, when our daughter was old enough, we strapped her into a life jacket tied to a safety line, but seasickness claimed her first journey. The illness was never repeated but as she grew, boredom factored in. As soon as she could speak her mind, I became the sheet line in the tug of war between my spouse’s compulsion to skim across the sea and our daughter who wanted to do nothing less. My escalating panic influenced me to partner with her, so my husband spent many of our summer weekends sailing all alone.

Shamefully, I simmered with resentment at this lack of time with him until a compromise arrived in the form of a twelve-foot dory with a fifteen-horse motor that he bought for a steal. Something about this pretty vessel spoke to all of us. No longer at the mercy of the wind, after church on Sunday mornings, we grabbed bagels and all hopped on for breakfast on the breakwater jutting into our harbor, or we cast off for a water-front tour before Tim went out for a sail. At 11, our daughter earned her boater’s license and became skipper. As a result of these happy family outings, after every few trips on the dinghy, I’d convince myself to take one on the sloop, and thankfully some of the peace that I used to encounter on the sailboat descended once again.

Now a teen, our daughter has a social life and Tim persuades me to join him on the sailboat more often. Although I’m still shaky, he keeps us on an even keel and over the last few summers I’ve even dangled my feet over the bow. There I welcome the salt spray, inhale the sea breeze and embrace the hesitant calmness I’ve rediscovered, along with an unexpected bonus. A six-foot cockpit in the middle of the ocean allows enormous opportunity for one-on-one conversation.

These days, when we come in from sailing together, I take a look at my ring-clad left hand, knowing that now that it supports the weight of the boat, we've both emerged victorious.

Friday, November 13, 2009


(Happy Birthday, CCT!)

Recently, I excused myself from the computer to pick up my daughter from school while mentally lingering at the Windsor chair in front of the keyboard. Backing out of the driveway, I drove down the street, turned right and stopped at a red light. Advancing on green I continued, over the ridge, past yellow “school zone” signs and the gentle rise leading up to the long brick high school--where apparently, my daughter stood, her mouth forming a wide O, as I zipped by.

By the time I arrived at a stop sign about a half mile down the road, I grasped that I had sailed past the school without noticing, and turned myself around. Crossing my fingers that my daughter hadn’t seen me, one look at a teenage smirk accompanied by her wrinkled brow clued me in that I was bagged. “Mom,” she said, “you didn’t just drive by, you sped by!” We howled until tears flowed at what she called my “senior moment,” but what I know was something else.

That was bad, but today was almost worse. My walking buddy and I finished our jaunt, after which we planned to meet up for coffee. She took the lead in her car, and I bumped along behind in my jeep, past granite walls and blond grass waving in unmowed fields, over a causeway ribboning through high tide marshes, until she disappeared. Though, of course, she didn’t. I had once again drifted away from my car while contemplating a piece I am struggling to write and failed to observe that she had moved far ahead.

This unnerved me. My rational mind knew she had accelerated out of sight, yet because I had stepped away from consciousness, if you will; when I came to, it was as if she had vaporized--a rabbit lost in a magician’s hat. After an anxious moment in which I contemplated whether she had driven into the marsh, I caught up to her. When I owned up to my lapse in concentration, she asked “Didn’t you see the two trucks that cut between us before the construction zone?” “Hmm…Let me think. Trucks?”

Since I began spending a significant portion of my day writing, these mental hiccups are on the increase. In the shower the other day, when the words ricocheted like the spray against fiberglass walls, and I conditioned my hair before washing, I wondered if all writers travel without going anywhere.

Do people who are, say, a tad more rational, accountants and lawyers, doctors and the like, stay rooted in cement blocks of the here and now while writers climb into cerebral hot air balloons to rise on capricious winds of imagination?

Is this just me, or do all writers drive by their daughters while immersed in words and phrases? Do the especially good ones crash their cars along the way? Don't get me wrong. I love being engaged in this regard, but it has me wondering if additional auto insurance may be necessary.

Um, you will be kind and let me know if instead, I need to investigate Alzheimer’s units, right?

Are you able to disconnect your writing brain and return to bricks and mortar reality, or do you sometimes float, like me?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

What if?

“Damn it, where is it!” she cursed softly, reaching into the bulging leather of her designer Coach knock-off.

Probing the bottom, her fingers wrapped around a dried up tube of Lancôme Champaign pink, and a wrinkled grocery receipt dated October, 2007. Boneless chicken was on sale that day.

Crumbling the sales slip and tossing aside the lipstick, she reached into the bag again. “It’s gotta be in here,” she muttered, feeling for her wallet in a side pocket. Rifling through, she found seven dollars, a quarter, exactly thirteen pennies and a dry cleaner receipt—“Oh, that’s where my linen blouse is. Who cares? I’ll buy ten new blouses. Come on, come on,” she moaned, opening an inside pocket. Pursing her lips, the old Girl Scout phrase: “Be prepared” drifted through her mind. “Well I sure am,” she thought, as she placed the unused plastic contact lens case on the counter beside her old eyeglasses. Pushing her current half-rimmed frames up on her nose, she smirked at herself, “Good thing. You never know after all, when you might be ‘blindsided’—ha, ha.”

Purse pocket number two revealed her cell phone, mercifully turned off, two chap sticks, a pay stub, hand disinfectant and a small bottle of aspirin.

Digging through another interior pocket, she yanked out a hairbrush, eyeliner—burnt umber—ugh—hadn’t used that color in years—and her pocket calendar. Leafing through the calendar, she noted the bold red print on today’s date. “Check lottery ticket.”

“Got that right anyway. Oh why do these purses have so many pockets?” Reaching into a zippered compartment, she emptied out a mirror, a stale pack of Juicy Fruit, two crumpled tissues and a scrap of paper with a color code for a paint intended for the dining room scribbled on it.

Turning the purse over and shaking it, she winced as a compact umbrella landed next to the rest of her bounty. An additional thirty-seven cents plus an unwrapped breath mint rolled to the edge of the counter where the lottery clerk leaned. “I know it is here. I know it is. I had it just before I came in.”

“That’s fine lady, but it’s not going to do you any good, if I can’t see it.”

Burrowing to the bottom of the purse, she plucked at the lining, pulling it inside out. “It was here, I saw it. I compared the numbers with the newspaper. I know I have it.”

The clerk raised one eyebrow.

Sweat beaded under her arms as she pawed through the pile on the counter. “This cannot be happening to me. I’m not crazy. I took the ticket out this morning. I signed the back. I sent the kids off to school. I put on my jacket. I drove down here. Where could it have gone in the meantime?”

“Maybe right there?” the clerk responded, pointing to a folded corner of paper sticking out of the breast pocket of her navy windbreaker.

“YES!” She cried, grabbing at her coat. There it was—the lottery ticket containing the numbers 5, 7, 8, 15, 22, and 28—representing the combined birthdays of her children. Grinning, she held it up next to the sign indicating the matching numbers of the previous day’s Mega Million lottery:

Pay out $2,456,327.00.

“I knew I wasn’t crazy!”

“No, you’re not crazy,” the clerk said unfolding the ticket. “But you are calendar-challenged. This ticket is for last week’s game.”

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Time is Not on My Side

It's early, I know it is. But we took our enthusiastic high school junior on a drive-through at two universities one state away today. As I was showering this morning I had an out of body experience. This can't be me. How is it possible that a short year from now we will be doing this in earnest? It's Veteran's Day. I am so grateful for all of the heros past and present who have assured us of our freedoms, our country, our culture. I pray for them all.

Today though, there was an additional offering of thanks going up. Our lives have been so blessed.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Nothing Ventured...

"We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same." Carlos Castaneda

For the first time since the dark ages, I am taking a course--online--but an honest to gosh, you have to register and pay for it class, and it starts tomorrow. The topic is necessary in order for me to push myself forward. It’s called “A-Z Grant Writing,” and the subject matter will layer as a part of the larger package wrapped around my freelance writing business. The more you can do, they more they can pay you to do, right?

Other then the knowledge it will offer in the short term, signing up for this course produced baby steps in another direction. The thought of taking writing classes has always hovered over me, like a helium balloon with a string just out of reach. The thought of standing on a ladder and catching that thing fascinated but frightened me.

Why the nerves? Well, other then training seminars, the last time I was in school there were no such things as email, the Internet or laptops. Online courses existed in science fiction, a story line for the first Star Trek series. I feel so ancient that I envision myself walking up to my cubby tomorrow and trying to sit properly without bouncing up my hoop skirt.

But, thanks to Middle Passages, I’m ready. Once this class is complete, there will be an intriguing “Writing for the Web” and then, fingers crossed, maybe I can earn enough freelancing to move on to something even more compelling. Say, a fiction writing course?

Here’s the luck of Liza though. The online professor releases lectures on every Wednesday and every Friday. Tomorrow as I mentioned, is the first lesson. I’m nervous, but anxious to get on with it, and wouldn’t you know? Wednesday is a holiday. Both my husband and my daughter will be off.

The first day back to school might have to be a sick day. If there’s no blog post tomorrow or Thursday, you’ll know why.

What goal did you achieve recently that you found difficult to begin?

Fiction Follies

Last week, I stepped out of my comfort zone and decided to enter a short story contest at Tales of Extraordinary Ordinariness.

The timing was perfect. I read Suzy's blog that morning, and with no idea what to write that day myself, decided to go for it. Suzy offered a first line and a last line; the rules were to fill in what happened in between. As I mentioned then, if I completed a story, I'd consider posting it here. My disclaimer? I've never done this before...written fiction that is, unless you count junior high and high school. So don't judge me too harshly. It's all about improving, and I used the contest as an exercise in "voice," to see if I could write the way an eight or nine-year-old girl from the 1960's would speak.

May I offer a huge thank you to Suzy because, no matter what the result, it was a blast! With no further ado, here you go:

Uncle George was crazy as a shit house rat. Gramps said he got that way from the service, but to tell the truth, we couldn’t remember him any different. Sometimes he smelled funny and for a while, he came dressed in a costume almost every time. A joker’s hat, a frog’s head; for the last one he came as a giant crab with his arms hidden inside blue poster boards cut like claws and stapled together. Guess he wasn’t cooked yet.

That day, Linnie and me ran to the door before he saw us and there he was balancing on his good leg trying to kick the doorbell with his gimpy foot. “My saviors!” he hollered, as we yanked at the door. It was swollen; in the damp air it always was. It took the two of us jerking it together to open it wide enough for him to slide through. Then he chased us squealing to the kitchen, waving his pinchers.

That time Ma sounded kind of mad. “Can’t you ever arrive dressed like a normal person?” “Naaa. What fun would that be? Where’s Harry?” he responded, strolling over the worn linoleum to the fridge, then glancing down to his crab arms and laughing. Slipping his hands from the claws, he handed them to us. “Have at it you two, but don’t break them. I’ll need them when I see Georgie” he said, reaching into the top shelf for a Budweiser.

Georgie? Linnie and me froze. Even Ma’s eyes bugged out on that one. Georgie was short for Georgiana, Uncle George’s daughter who he hadn’t seen in almost two years. Before the costumes started, as long as we could remember, Uncle George, Aunt Metta and Georgie showed up for all the holidays and birthdays and a lot of weekends in-between. Most times, Linnie, Georgie and me scampered to the attic for the dress-up trunk and dragged it to the yard. The splintered planks of a wooden dock Dad stored in the high grass by the fence made a cool stage. Dad used to joke that what we lacked in talent we made up for in noise, but we weren’t always the noisy ones.

The last time they all visited together, Aunt Metta screamed at Uncle George. We heard him yammering in the kitchen as usual, but then there was this gigantic crash and we could hear Aunt Metta saying: “Sylvia, I’m so sorry!” and then louder, “George! Can’t you ever just stop?” Next thing we knew, Aunt Metta skedaddled out the door like that roadrunner on Saturday cartoons hollering “Georgiana, let’s go. We’re leaving right now!” She grabbed Georgie under the armpit and yanked her up, not even letting go when Georgie screeched, “Ow Ma! That hurts.”

Behind them, Uncle George tilted back a beer can with one big gulp before throwing it in the grass and limping to the car. Aunt Metta yelled: “I’m driving!” before doors slammed and they peeled out of our driveway. That night in bed, Linnie and me discussed things and we’re pretty sure Aunt Metta was crying.

After that, they didn’t come back. One night when Ma was tucking us into our pineapple-post beds under the slant roof up in the eves, she told us that Uncle George didn’t live with Aunt Metta and Georgie anymore and that was it. They didn’t show up for Linnie’s and my eighth birthday, or Georgie’s ninth, at Christmas, or even the Fourth of July picnic at Nannie’s and Gramps.’ That stunk, because Linnie and me got stuck with Orin, our second cousin on the Jarvis side and he’s only six. Sometimes Ma helped us send Georgie letters, but that’s not the same.

About a year after that fuss, the doorbell rang on Halloween, and Uncle George stepped inside wearing a fireman’s outfit with a plastic hose he squirted at Linnie and me. On Thanksgiving he sat down to dinner with a cooked turkey hat that had drumsticks for ears. On Valentine’s he got out of the car holding a bow and arrow and Ma said: “Put that right back George.” For Easter, it was a whole bunny outfit and after a while, it didn’t need to be a holiday. When we knew he was coming, we waited giggling, to see what he would wear. You probably won’t believe me, but one time he dressed like a bumble bee.

So anyway, it was big news to hear that Uncle George was going to see Georgie, let me tell you. Mom looked at him in that way she has, the one where her eyebrow jackknifes up, and you know she figured out you snuck two ginger cookies from the tin she packed for the veteran’s shelter.

Looking at the beer in his hand he whispered “Son of a gun!” and turned back to the refrigerator. Opening the door, he placed the can on the top shelf and pulled a pop from below. Cracking the top, he took a swallow and said, “I’ve been dry for thirteen months. AA five nights a week. I’m going to kick it this time Syl. I’ve been talking to Metta and tomorrow, I’m driving to Tennessee. I have a sponsor there, and Metta’s dad has an opening driving a forklift. That means,” he said, swooping down on me and Linnie, “I have one afternoon left to spend with my girlfriends.” Wrapping one arm around Linnie and one around me, he dragged us toward the door before turning to face Mom, waggling his eyebrows up and down. “Wanna come?”

“You betcha,” grinned Ma, tugging at the knot and yanking off her apron. She shouted upstairs to Dad: “Field Trip!” Grabbing the bread from the counter and reaching for the baloney from the fridge, she called to me “Mellie, get the cooler from the porch!” and started slathering mayo. It was Labor Day weekend. We packed up and went to Far Rockaway beach for one last ride on the coaster.

I would be delighted to receive constructive criticism. Please let me know what I could have done better? Your comments would be so very welcome.