Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

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Christmas Lights and the Gap

December 1, 2016

I’m not sure why my dad always chose the coldest day in December to put up the outside Christmas tree lights, but invariably, he did. First, he’d ramble up to the attic and hand me boxes of green and blue lights, and then we’d spread them in the living room to check if they worked. Instead of going to Wal-Mart and buying a new string, we’d carefully replace each defective bulb until all 8000 lit the room.

The tree outside was enormous. Dad would climb on his tallest ladder and use a rake to get them as high as he could. He swore a few times, and our feet froze, but when he’d flip the switch, and the tree blazed with blue and green lights, magic happened. For me, nothing was more beautiful. I never noticed the gaps, void of light that my dad pointed out, grumbling about his work, wanting perfection.

We don’t do outside tree lights at our house now, but I am in charge of stringing tiny, white bulbs on our inside tree. Really, it’s a thankless job. They tangle; they get stuck on branches; they burst; and they crack. But at the end of the day, the room is lit with magnificent light: until. Until I see what my dad saw—the gaping hole, a spot in the middle of the tree too tall to reach. By the time I’ve noticed, the kids have covered the branches with ornaments and tinsel, and it’s too late to fix. The gap remains.

I’m trying hard to reverse my thoughts about the holes in life.

Too often, an artist desires perfection, unable to see the beauty in the entire piece and instead, focuses on the gap. Writers and painters adjust, repair, and fine-tune their work until it’s done, but often, they continue to see a tiny hole; something that’s not quite right in their eyes. Most writers I know look at their published work and still see holes to fix. Not big ones, not ones that anyone else sees, but the tiny slices that need repairing only to the artist.

As a writer, I’m always editing (just ask my kids). But I’m working on letting go of the perfection. There may always be a gap. That’s the way life works. And if the rest of the world sees beautiful light, so should we.

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Quotes

November 21, 2016

Let us be grateful to people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom. -Marcel Proust

 

Life’s challenges are not supposed to paralyze you; they’re supposed to help you discover who you are. – Bernice Johnson Reagon

 

One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper patterns at the right moment. -Hart Crane

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Ellie’s Flowers

October 25, 2016

This was printed in the Summit Daily News. It’s a reminder of the simple, good pieces of life, and because writers get lots of rejection, writing this helped me remember the positive.

Last month, my daughter came home from college for a brief 12 hours; long enough to do four loads of laundry, buy a few groceries, and eat a home-cooked meal. I’d like to say the reason she came was to see all of us, but it wasn’t. Not really. Her main purpose in returning was to show her roommate the Rocky Mountains in all their spectacular golden glory and to summit a peak.

The girls arrived late Saturday afternoon, enough time to do a little shopping and take photos before dinner. On the way to the grocery, we drove by Lake Dillon and showed off yet another Summit County gem. Ellie’s roommate, Becca, hails from the hills of Virginia—beautiful mountains in their own right, but no match for our massive peaks back dropped by a brilliant blue sky.

Becca snapped pictures. Once out of the car, she spun in circles, baffled by which direction to look. “It’s all so incredible,” she said, snapping more photos.

She’s right—we do live in an incredible place. Of course, we have our days: days of drizzle and sleet and snow that make it difficult to drive and too cold to move, but overall, living in Summit County is a privilege. Nature radiates in all directions.

After buying a few supplies for their dorm room, the girls planned to hike and take more photos before dinner. But first, Ellie said, she wanted to see one more thing, show off one more piece of Summit that she had missed while living in Boulder. I wasn’t sure what could be more beautiful than the mountains, the aspens or the sparking lake. But she knew: Frisco Main Street flowers.

During the summer, Ellie was a flower girl, employed by the Town of Frisco to water and weed. She spent eight hours a day working outside, sometimes alone, sometimes with a crew, but always taking care of the flowers.

“They’re still looking good,” she said, filled with obvious pleasure. To her, the boxes of geraniums and baskets of petunias that lined Main Street were pretty, worthy of pointing out. But they also represented something more. The flowers had grown and blossomed under her care. Ellie had nurtured them, and she found pride in their loveliness.

Although I love our mountains and breathtaking views, watching my daughter point out her beloved flowers made me rethink the definition of beauty. There’s no doubt that Summit County has a spectacular landscape, but beauty can be found in small, everyday matters. Taking ownership of one’s job or watching plants grow can provide insight and strength. Splendor found in the simple slices of life reminds us that even on the darkest of days, there is light.

The following morning, Ellie and Becca woke at 3:30 to climb Mt. Bierstadt. They made it to the summit by sunrise. Their pictures were spectacular, but so was their simple, celebratory milkshake at a diner down the road.

It’s hard to beat the brilliance one sees when climbing a mountain at dawn, but there are pieces to life, smaller and less obvious, that are equally lovely. Life’s everyday moments like smelling the flowers or enjoying a milkshake offer the opportunity to find beauty and significance everywhere.

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Character Lessons From an Innkeeper

October 4, 2016

Someone I knew, although not all that well, died recently. In total, I had no more than a dozen conversations with Richard, but his words, his presence, and his energy influenced me. A loss is hard enough when you know someone well, but when you lose someone who plays a small but impactful role in your life, it can be confusing and certainly jarring.

When I heard Richard had died, I was sad; sad for him, his family, and his friends. I was sad for the small hole in my life but also sad for other strangers, who’d known him only marginally, but would miss his presence.

Richard worked at an old mountain inn, which was almost always empty and not at all fancy. I went there to write because the town was quiet, I knew no one, and could get a lot of work done in a short period of time. I had no distractions, except one: Richard.

Sometimes I’d arrive at the hotel last minute, because it wasn’t the kind of place one needed a reservation. Richard would wave his hands in the air, greeting me like a long-lost celebrity. He liked to talk, but I had deadlines and work to get done. Eventually, I learned to plan intentional evening writing breaks to listen to Richard’s stories. I never regretted it.

At first, Richard’s tall tales made me scratch my head. Were they really true? But as I got to know him, I realized they were. Richard lived in the middle of nowhere, but he’d been places. As he poked the logs crackling in the fireplace, he’d tell me about his mother, growing up on a farm, and picking apples. He shared incredible adventures about his time in the military. He told me about quinoa growth in South America and the complicated legalities of water rights. He was a lobbyist with a strong political bent. Richard was not a gossip but knew everyone in town and beyond.

Once, I sat silently as Richard spent an hour arguing with an older man who had opposing political views. They remained civil, agreeing to disagree. Later, I mentioned how it was nice, rare these days, but nice they respected each other’s views. Richard answered in his usual, enthusiastic voice, “Why get angry when someone disagrees with you? If we all thought the same way, life would be big time boring.” He was right, of course. If we all had the same politics, the same religion, and the same interests, life would be ‘big time boring.’

From what I gathered, Richard’s time was anything but boring, but I didn’t realize how significantly his stories made me think about life. Every time I left town, a piece of him found its way into my writing and into my world. Not only did Richard help me realize the importance of taking time to talk and cultivate unforeseen relationships, but he also taught me something about character development; a necessary piece of writing.

As a fiction writer, I use a variety of tools to create believable characters. The enneagram, character sketches, psychology tests, and archetypal profiles all help me build the people in my manuscripts. There are times I want to cheat and make it easier for myself by not doing the needed work to deepen a character. But when I do, the characters fall flat. By living his life fully and deeply, Richard reminded me to make characters complex, rich with detail, and unexpected. A complex character can make or break a story. I think Richard felt that way about life—you make it or break it by the kind of world you build.

I’ll miss Richard, but I don’t regret the time I took to ask a few questions and listen to his stories. He lived a large life. So should we all.

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Quotes!

June 29, 2016

 

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Barn with Art Installation at Djerassi

If you have that unconquerable urge to write, nothing will stop you from writing. –Theodore Dreiser

You can’t crush ideas by suppressing them. You can only crush them by ignoring them. – Ursula K. Le Guin

Writing is physical work. It’s sweaty work. You just can’t will yourself to become a good writer. You really have to work at it. –Will Haygood

Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail. –Confucius

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Ants, Honey, and Human Dependency

May 31, 2016

There is a tree in Nicaragua that is not the tallest tree. It is not the most beautiful tree. It is not a sweet smelling tree. And yet, it is a powerful tree; one that offers wisdom, as all plants do, if one is willing to listen.

Like miniature swords, long spiky thorns poke from the branches of the tree, swearing off enemies. They do their job well. The barbs are sharp and painful, and they hurt. They are also full of honey. Because of the honey, the tree is covered with ants, which bury in the thorns to feed on sweet nectar. In return, the ants pee (ecosystems at their most sophisticated are also often at their most basic) on the tree, offering much-needed liquid, fuel to carry itself through a long dry season. The tree gives food; the ant gives drink.

Magic.

But sadly, perhaps terrifyingly, enchanting global ecosystems are in danger, becoming bewitched. Until I ventured to Central America, I had no idea jungles turn brown. They do. They remind me of Ohio in November, not the most stunning time of the year. The tropical trees drop their leaves, leaving barren branches and matted, crunched-up grasses below. In a perfect world, the rains begin in May, and within a few short weeks, the landscape becomes lush. However, because of global warming, the six-month rainy season has been shortened; hurting crops, farmers, plants, and animals.

But why should we care? We have nothing to worry about: we can buy our bananas at Safeway.

With an increasingly long dry season (I’m sure the same could be said for an extended rainy season), ecosystems all over the world are in danger. John Muir once said, “God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools.” ‘Tis true: we are responsible for the future. Will we act the fool? Turn our heads? Or will we come to the realization that although we can buy bananas at Safeway, we share one planet?

Like it or not, we depend on a healthy structured environment, and our world is contingent on a balanced system. Ants and the thorny tree rely on each other to survive. Not only is it a fine balance, but it is also their relationship that makes it work. Many people talk about the need for relationships: with God, families, peers, and partners. And I agree: relationships are essential components to a healthy, vibrant life. I would also add that a strong and equal relationship with our environment is essential.

We can’t take without offering back.IMG_9157

The thorn tree might not be the most beautiful or popular tree in the jungle, but it knows it can’t stand alone. It survives by sharing its nectar with ants. Their relationship is key to their survival. Likewise, our survival as humans is dependent on our relationship with the environment, not just on ‘earth day’ but on all days.

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Books in Nica

May 17, 2016

Choosing a book, or many books, to read on vacation can be challenging. Will I be in the mood for a mindless beach read? Will I want to learn something and discover personal growth? Should the book be work related? Completely literary? In the end, I almost always choose a bit of everything. In my line of work, reading is as important as writing.

In April, my family traveled to Nicaragua for two weeks. We had lots of time on planes, in the airport, on the beach, waiting at restaurants, siesta-ing, and even during the middle of the night when temperatures hovered near 90 with no air-conditioning. Thank God for e-readers!

Lots of people ask me for reading suggestions, so I’ve listed what I read in Nicaragua. However, I think it’s important to prepare for a trip and read a related book or two before arrival. I began with The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War by Gioconda Belli, and while on the plane I devoured a collection of short stories set in Panama: Come Together, Fall Apart, by Cristina Henriquez.

This next selection was chosen because I wanted to read adult literary fiction. I picked A 100 Foot Journey by Richard Morais because it’s set in three different countries. Because I was traveling to a foreign land, I could appreciate the nuances that come with cross-cultural living. Next, I read My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout, which is new and on many best seller lists. I love Elizabeth Strout, and the book did not disappoint. I also love Chris Bohjalian’s and was surprised to find Trans-Sister Radio, a book of his that I hadn’t yet read. Given the debate about gender-neutral bathrooms, it’s a book that everyone should read RIGHT NOW.

By reading, 250 Things you Should Know about Writing by Chuck Wendig, I did a little work, right? And because reading middle grade and young adult is also part of my job, I read I will Save You: Matt de la Pena, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky: Heidi Durrow, and This is Where it Ends; Marieke Nijkamp, but they were all so good that I can’t call it work.

Personal growth and well-being are always part of my routine, and I read parts and pieces of these four books: Awakening the Energy Body: Kenneth Smith, Defy Gravity: Caroline Myss, Courageous Dreaming: Alberto Villoldo, and Dark Nights of the Soul: Thomas Moore.

Did I have a favorite? Nope. Each served their purpose for different reasons, and I enjoyed them all. Developing a selection of books to read takes a bit of planning, but it’s well worth it.

We also took phones away from our kids, and they balked as only teenagers can. But guess what? They read—a couple of books each! Parents shouldn’t be afraid to pull technology from their children. Of course, kids will complain; that’s their job. No one said parenting was easy. But here’s the upshot: reading improves writing skills ten-fold, triggers receptors in the brain, and offers new worlds, an escape, a welcome respite from an overly stimulated world. Parents can’t mandate books like teachers can, but if kids don’t have an alternative; they’ll read. And odds are? They’ll like it.

Happy reading on your next vacation! Summer anyone?