A quiet stillness

It’s October. A time for wood-burning candles that pop and snap, for steaming cappuccinos (decaffeinated please), and entering the threshold into the dark time of the year.

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The streets are littered with yellow and orange leaves. There’s outdoor work to be done but most of it will wait until next year—painting the other two sides of the shed, painting the deck floor, digging up the patch of dirt to plant tomatoes.

And for the writers among us, we are 15-days away from NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month).

I’ve not yet participated in NaNoWriMo. Writing 50,000 words in a month that holds a couple of birthdays, the Thanksgiving celebration, and a fun but frenetic day of Christmas candy making is too intimidating. And I’m still working on my first novel.

However, I am there in spirit. There’s something about the barrenness of November that lends itself to the pursuit of a creative endeavor. Even with the revising of a story. There’s something about going ever deeper into the lives of our characters, of polishing the plot, of shining the light brighter on a certain scene That’s enthralling.

A couple of years ago, I took a week of vacation to go to a retreat home. An acquaintance who owns a second home in a small village, situated mid-hillside, overlooking the Mississippi River. I stayed there three nights. And I couldn’t get online with my computer although I could read my writing blogs via my phone. I’ve refused to access my various emails and facebook pages through my phone). And there was no television. Only the big window which overlooked the river to watch the eagles and the barges.

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That disconnect? That silence? Broken only by a wood-burning candle or Advent songs I had brought along? A balm to my soul. 

Although these short days are hard, especially when they are grey and cloudy, they are blessed days. A time for mystery. A time for the dark soils of our souls to be fallow, to lie still, and gather energy for the spring that always follows.  

Book Review

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This story, My Name is Lucy Barton, written by Elizabeth Strout, ©October 2016, has several time-braids in it.

  • We see Lucy as a young girl living with her family in an uncle’s garage, and after he dies, in his small home, and learning at school that she is different, shunned, because a life of poverty doesn’t teach social skills.
  • We see Lucy in the hospital in New York, a young married woman and mother, needing an extended stay after a routine surgery and the relationship that exists between her and Mom.
  • We see bits of Lucy as a newly married, adjusting to life in New York, and developing the odd friendships that she’s able to manage.
  • We see allusions to issues of abuse and neglect, family dysfunction and loneliness.
  • And we see references to Lucy’s future self, a published author, from which this story is told.

It’s a slender book, a complex story that in some ways remains elusive. There is direct naming and there is that which is not said, which is not spoken

But there are times, too--unexpected--when walking down a sunny sidewalk, or watching the top of a tree bend in the wind, or seeing a November sky close down over the East River, I am suddenly filled with the knowledge of darkness so deep that a sound might escape from my mouth, and I will step into the nearest clothing store and talk with a stranger about the shape of sweaters newly arrived. This must be the way most of us maneuver through the world, half knowing, half not,

The book stirred feelings in me: curiosity first, wondering if this author could keep my interest. Then gradually, I was caught up in Lucy’s life. Sometimes I would be deeply immersed in Lucy’s point-of-view and then other times the camera lens backed away and distanced itself from knowing Lucy too completely.

The focus of the story is Lucy’s relationship with Mom. We read of tenderness, of half-asked questions, and we witness love in all its faultiness expressed through human limitations.

Senior Bus Trip

No. I'm not over the age of 65. But my parents went on senior bus trips and had formed friendships with several couples who also regularly took these trips. And, this being Mom's first bus trip as a widow, she invited me to come along. I was delighted as they would be exploring Minnesota's North Shore.

Lake Superior, looking west from Split Rock Lighthouse

Lake Superior, looking west from Split Rock Lighthouse

We met the bus at 7:00 am and Mom's friends had saved seats for us to sit near them. Our luggage went beneath the bus and just a bag or purse went on the bus with us. Within two hour of leaving, we were in the Twin Cities, northward bound on the freeway. The travel agent and her helper were serving a continental breakfast when all of a sudden...

You knew I had a story, right?

And speaking of stories, I finally finished my novel! Today!

Revision 4 is completed and formatted to send off to a couple of beta readers. I'd anticipated being done in the spring. Then I thought I would finish by the end of August. But my 1939 story braid derailed when I found a picture of a WWII Sunderland Flying Boat over what I thought was a sleepy quiet village. So I researched and added in pertinent events. 

With the story done, for now, I'll clean up my files so I can be ready to work on Revision 5 in December. 

And now, for the rest of the bus story:

The travel agent and her helper were serving a continental breakfast. The agent was in the aisle near us with a glass of juice in hand. All of a sudden the bus driver stepped on his brakes. She flew forward (yes, we were horror-struck, bus aisles are not meant for falling bodies) and her cup flew up.

I don't know where the cup landed but the majority of the juice landed on the front of my t-shirt. But that wasn't the immediate concern. After a short while with everyone holding bated breath, the agent figured out she was fine, just juice spattered. One of the men helped her up. 

Now remember we're on a bus with seniors. And the narrow aisles and bus seat arms are not helpful for getting someone up off the floor.

Someone made a comment and when the agent laughed and thanked the man, relief and humor started flowing through the bus again.

And now that we knew she was ok, I thought about me! Good thing I had a tank top underneath my t-shirt.  And Mom had an extra sweatshirt in her bag as mine had received some fallout from the splat on my t-shirt. Though I didn't need her sweatshirt. That bus was warm!

We did not get to our hotel rooms until 9 pm that night. Along the way we stopped at the train museum in Duluth and had lunch, rode a vintage train to Split Rock Lighthouse, toured the lighthouse and the old homes of the lighthouse keepers, and then drove to the city of Tower in dusk.

That night, at 9:30 pm, Mom and I sat across from one another at a restaurant. One other table had customers. And boy-howdy, did that cream of wild rice soup and those chicken wings taste mighty fine. And the waitress was superlative in her hospitality.

Being baptized with cranberry apple juice? Now that's a vacation to remember! 

 

It's autumn

Finally it feels like autumn. Last week, it was difficult to watch the leaves fall and the fall-ish rays of the sun, and step outside into 85+ humid weather. Not typical for this area.

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Now I'm ready for apples from our tree! Applesauce, apple crisp, and apple pie (with ice cream, of course). And stews and roasts and chili, tomato beef chili and white chicken chili.

And soon, I'll be heading on a mini-bus tour with Mom to see the fall colors. I'm looking forward to it. We'll be seeing Duluth, touring Split Rock Lighthouse, and seeing a Bear Center! Then in the evenings when we relax from our day trips, I'll work on my story. Two more chapters and I'll send it off to a couple of beta readers.  

Are you able to take time to appreciate autumn?

I forgot!

Janet Reid, literary agent extraordinaire, held a flash fiction contest over Labor Day weekend. And I forgot to post about it. Because, yes, I did get a mention in her comment column on the Monday, when she determined who was the winner.  I was not a winner. Not even on the short-list or the long-list, but getting a mention is superlative!!  

The prize? Snappsy the Alligator (Did Not Ask to be in this Book) by author Julie Falatko and illustrations by Tim Miller.  

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We were to write, once again, a 100 word flash fiction story. What five words were we required to use?  Snap, gator, ask, tie, iron!

And here's my story: 

She dips a wee brush into the miniscule lavender paint-pot, her slouchy red chef’s hat askew.

“What?” she snaps, “You never seen an artagator in her natural environs?”

Bemused, he responds, “It’s such an unusual…trade. How’d you first know you wanted to be a chocolatier?”

Seanair.

Ah. Grandfather. That explains her tetchiness upon their entry into the thatched shop.

Artisanal chocolates pose on glass shelves. Dark sweet squares, smooth as a mirrored loch, display miniature likenesses of heather or thistle. Velvety surfaced truffles fortify fillings of liquid whisky or bramble habanero cream.

Between the chocolates and grandfather, she’s a keeper.   

Some week

Last week, the pipe to my toilet leaked and my clothes dryer died. I'm a newish homeowner yet. Love it. But these repairs! 

And then, I bumped into a big barrier as I worked on the last chapters of my Work in Progress. I'm finishing with the historical piece. Amalie lives in Scotland during WWII and I thought I had placed her in a sleepy burgh. I'd researched to make sure the train went through the village at that time. I've seen it in the present-day and decided to google 1930 pictures to see what types of changes there have been. 

And there it was, the Royal Air Force Flying-Boat Squadron. Right in the village I chose for her beginning as early as summer 1938. 

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Not a quiet sleepy village. Argh. 

I've had a whole week to think, to research other potential villages (holy cow, what a wonderful distraction!), or maybe invent a village. I've made a decision.

And...it's a far far better thing to have discovered this now rather than after I've submitted to agents or editors to become embarrassed afterwards! 

So I've more work to do and it's time to get at the revisions. 

But as we go about our week, there are many catastrophes happening in our world:

  • fires in north west U.S. and Canada,
  • hurricanes around the gulf and the Caribbean,
  • an earthquake in southern Mexico,
  • the flooding in India, Bangladesh, Nepal,
  • the slaughter of the Rohingya Muslim in Myanmar,
  • and the ongoing wars.

May we hold each of these places in our hearts and pray or offer thoughts of peace, wisdom, and the recognition that we are all on this planet Earth together. as we live through these days.  

a new Iona Community book

I received a gift in the mail the other day, We bring you everything, and tip it out in front of you published by Wild Goose Publications

In the ancient Celtic Christian tradition, routine parts of the day received prayers and this prayer book follows that tradition. There are prayers for chopping carrots and starting an engine. There are prayers for refugees and justice and peace. And there are prayers for vision of God's kingdom and the beautiful tapestry of creation.

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Though it is a small book, there are many authors, who are either Associate Members or Members of the Iona Community. I contributed a prayer, O Ancient of Days, as I lifted up my concerns for the world that we live in today.

The Iona Community of Scotland was founded in 1938 by Rev. George MacLeod, a Church of Scotland (or as we say in the U.S. Presbyterian) minister. A Glasgow minister, he brought together unemployed craftsman, during the time of depression, with ministers in training. Together they rebuilt the Iona Abbey cloisters as a sign of hope, a symbol of rebuilding community life in the larger world.

Today, the Iona Community is a Christian Community scattered throughout the world. Full members follow a four-fold rule: 

  • daily prayer and reading of the Bible
  • mutual accountability for the use of time and of money
  • meeting regularly in family groups
  • pursuing action and reflection for justice, peace, and the integrity of creation

Endings

It's The Big Solar Eclipse Day! It was sunny here but now the clouds are coming in. In Minnesota, we'll have only an 80% eclipse. It feels a lot like the Isle of Iona in Scotland during the short days of December.  

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And today, I've been thinking a lot about endings. Especially as I wind up this second revision on my story before I hand it off to a beta reader.  I've also been thinking about endings in the sense of history. 

 

How do we choose which memories, which people to lift up in reverence?  

Two questions that are important to ask, according to Josh Marshall of TalkingPointsMemo.com

  1. What is the person known for?
  2. How did they earn a place in our collective public remembrance?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

A German pastor theologian, Bonhoeffer moved away from Germany in disagreement with Hitler's use of the Christian churches for his propaganda. Bonhoeffer moved back to Germany in 1939.

What is Bonhoeffer known for?

He was an anti-Nazi dissident and a key founding member of the Confessing Church movement. He wrote The Cost of Discipleship and put his life on the line for his beliefs in Jesus by vocally expressing his opposition to the persecution of Jewish people.  He became involved in the conspiracy to overthrow Hitler. Arrested in 1943, he was transferred from prison to a concentration camp. He was executed on 9 April 1945. 

Robert E. Lee

Son of Revolutionary War hero--Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee, Robert E. Lee graduated in 1829 from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. In April 1861, President Abraham Lincoln offered Lee the command of Federal Forces. Which Lee declined. 

What is Lee known for?  

When Virginia seceded from the U.S on April 17, 1861, Lee resigned from the U.S. Army and accepted a general's commission in the Confederate Army. He served as military advisor for Jefferson Davis, the Confederate President. He later led the Army of North Virginia and in 1865 was appointed by Davis as General-in-Chief of all Confederate forces. Lee surrendered two months later and the Civil War ended. After his parole, Lee became president of Washington College (now known as Washington and Lee) in Virginia until his death in 1870.

 

If you are interested in learning more about the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865), the Reconstruction (1865-1877), or the Jim Crow laws (segregation and disenfranchisement laws against people of color), you can read Josh Marshall's article, Some Thoughts on Public Memory or National Trust for Historic Preservation's article, Statement on Confederate Memorials: Confronting Difficult History.

The Last Letter: A Book

I recently finished a wonderful book: The Last Letter by Susan Pogorzelski. It's a semi-autobiographical account of Susan's experiences living with Chronic Lyme Disease told from the point of view of 15-year-old Amelia. For anyone who has dealt with or had a loved one deal with a misdiagnosed disease that sucks the life out of you, this book takes a creative approach to letting you know you're not alone. The story will draw you in. 

Susan is a consultant, editor, and creative coach at Brown Beagle Books, and an all around great cheerleader for authors and a courageous speaker for Lyme Disease sufferers. 

In June, Janet Reid, Literary Agent at New Leaf Literary Agency, sponsored one of her 100-word flash fiction contests with this book as the reward (no, I did not win). We had to include five words in our story:  last, letter, pogo, ease, lime. 

This was the week we had two winners! Go here to read Janet's analyses and the qualities she looks for in determining the winning entries.  

This was my entry:  

Sidewalk Café

“Gah! Why can’t I remember its name?”

Complaisant, I listen to ma femme courageux.

“Ugh,” she taps a fist to her forehead, “Italian. Begins with the letters p-o.”

I savor the shish ta’ook with tabouli, melding and mingling the aroma. Délicieux.

“Pobo…poco…”

Ha! She is returned! Ma femme méthodique.

“Podo…pofo…”

Gone, at long last, la fatigue.

Bless.

La cuisine Lebanese? Her favori.

Pogo...pojo…”

I relish her energie.

“Polo…pom—”

Ah! Anticipation is merveilleux.

“That’s it!” Delight dances on her lips, “The Pomodoro!”  

This Lyme Disease? Long has ma femme laborieux.

“See! I will be a writerly dame!”

Wordsmithery

Wordsmith describes a person who works with words and is a skilled writer. 

I'm not laying claim yet to being a skilled writer but I have been working on words rather than plots or characters or settings.

I've been working with revisions of my first full draft since January.  Until July, the revisions focused on plot holes and whether or not my characters were realistic. And I needed to write a few new scenes.

But a couple weeks ago, I finished with that piece of revision and editing. Now I've moved on to wordsmithery. Why don't I just send it off to my beta readers? Because my story was over 100,000 words. So in the interest of finding all of my extra thats and justs to cut I came across Janice Hardy's column on August 4, 7 Words that often Tell, Not Show. And intrigued, I decided to apply it straight away to my story. 

By the way, I've saved the version of my story before all this wordsmithery stuff I'm doing just in case I edit the life out of it.

What's the difference between tell and show? (Check out Grammar Girl definition here.)

  • to tell is to summarize a scene or an action
  • to show is to let the reader experience the scene or the action through specific details and a specific point-of-view of one of your characters

Which is preferable? Readers like to escape into the specific details of a story but there are times when summarizing or telling works better. It all depends upon the scene or action. Transitions, that have nothing important happening within them can be told. 

With Janice Hardy's Fiction Writer column I've searched my documents for the seven words she listed and determined whether I needed to change my sentences or if they were fine as written. My weakness (besides adverbs and gerunds) are the to (verb). And no, I did not take out all my to (verb)s! Check out Janice's column here as she explains it very well and creates examples. 

One of the interesting side effects of doing a search to determine if I need to change a sentence, is that I am not so caught up in my story (yes, I'm still in love with it). I notice each sentence as a stand alone. And the highlight feature allows me to notice how often I use certain words or phrases within a paragraph or a page. Repetition that may irritate certain readers! 

Happy writing!