Category Archives: holidays

A time and a place for gratitude

Thanksgiving. A time to reflect and be grateful. It should be easy in this land of plenty, right? Except this past year it hasn’t been all that easy. We tend not to be truly appreciative of things we take for granted, and we take a lot for granted, until someone tries to take them away and then we’re all, “Oh, hell no.”

It’s been an “Oh, hell no” kind of year.

. . . and then I wrote several hundred words about things that have transpired this past year to make it difficult to feel thankful . . . until I (gently) slapped myself upside the head and said to myself, “What the hell is wrong with you? No one wants to hear that.”

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So, instead, here are a few things that have succeeded in making me immensely grateful and appreciative in the past twelve months.

I have siblings. No matter how difficult certain losses and situations have been or inevitably will become, my sisters are there to share them. I am so grateful I’m not an only child.

I have writer friends. As much as I love and treasure my non-writer friends, there is a special camaraderie among writers, an understanding that doesn’t need to be explained about the struggles and triumphs of being a writer. I am immensely grateful to have found the community of smart and funny writers over in the comment section at agent Janet Reid’s blog. This is not the only place where my writer friends congregate, but it’s by far the most plentiful and diverse sampling, which has value all on its own. I appreciate that Janet tolerates our neurotic brand of crazy creativity even as she attempts to educate us about an agent’s perspective of publishing.

Speaking of that blog, Janet occasionally hosts flash fiction contests, which I occasionally enter. [WARNING: shameless self-promotion ahead] [someone has to do it] [apparently] The competition is FIERCE and I never expect to win or even be a finalist. It’s great practice, but this is not my forte. I mean, please, I can barely say hello in 100 words, let alone tell a complete story incorporating five ungainly prompt words. Except, this past weekend, my entry DID manage to be a finalist.

These were the prompt words, first names of the authors whose books were the prize:

Tony
Peter
Mick
Nick
Bill

This was my entry, exactly 100 words:

* * *

My brother’s joint was the kind they’d slip you a mickey sooner than start an honest fistfight.

The regulars played billiards in the back, the snick of balls an accent to rough voices. Couldn’t compete with the tony clubs on the north side, but the table felt was immaculate. Priorities.

Conversation petered out as I stepped up to the bar.

“We don’t serve cops.”

“Good thing I ain’t planning to order one.”

We traded hard stares, harder memories.

“Cut bait while you still can, Frank.”

He sneered.

Priorities.

Goddammit.

I held the door for the Feds on my way out.

* * *

These were Janet’s comments (she generously tells us what she liked about each finalist and/or why she chose it, which is remarkably educational):

“That first line is one of the best I’ve seen in a long time. The importance of a good first line can not be overstated. And the ending is sublime. This is a perfect story.”

SQUEEEE. And yet, even with it being a “perfect story,” someone else won. THAT’S how tough these contests are (if you want to see the other finalists and winner, they’re here). But I was just thrilled, to put it mildly. A few words of praise from someone with her experience go a very long way. And for that I am deeply thankful.

Let’s see, what else.

Oh, I know! Some of you might remember that last December my Bossy Older Sister gave me a birthday gift of a year of flowers, specifically orchids. I received the twelfth delivery yesterday and I think they’re the most beautiful of all. Of course, I’ve said that about each month’s delivery. This pic makes them look rather pink, but they’re actually a deep rich cranberry colour.

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Here’s a shot from above, the colour is a bit better:

I’m grateful for her generosity and creative gift-giving skills. I posted pics of a few of the early months’ orchids last spring but sort of got distracted and forgot to post the rest of them. So here they are, April through October (slideshow):

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Aren’t they gorgeous? What’s that, you say? One of the pics is not like the others? Well, imagine that.

IMAGINE THAT.

Yes, that is yet another thing for which I am grateful and thankful and OMG SO EXCITED ABOUT and very much looking forward to in the coming year.

What have you found to be thankful for in this “Oh, hell no” year?

 

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Filed under health and well-being, holidays

Reflections and resolutions and the requisite splatter of blood

You all know I don’t make resolutions at the New Year. I’ve said it more than once over here, and explained why. Mostly because it seems like an artificial point in time but also because this time of year has historically been so stressful (for me) that resolutions would tend to be along the lines of “burn it all down.”

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But this year . . . this year feels different. I feel different, more resolute. Actually, in going back to re-read a few older posts, I see that last year at this time felt different as well. I resolved then that 2016 was going to be the year of me being selfish and saying “no” and focusing on what I wanted to do, which was write fiction.

To a great extent, that’s what I did. I made significantly more progress in 2016 than the year before — just shy of 100,000 words, a vast improvement — but not as much as I had hoped.

This past year has been really tough for a lot of us, myself included. It has gotten to the point where things that I’d normally take in stride have felt devastating. Things that would normally not feel personal have piled on top of troubles that are very personal and their combined weight has been overwhelming. It’s been an accumulation of tragedy. Following waves of communal grief. Shared anger and frustration and a feeling of helplessness. It has all added up this year and become a relentless self-perpetuating cycle of trauma.

That’s not healthy.

There are so many awful things I can’t do anything about, I’ve lost sight of what I can influence and achieve. But I do think recognizing a problem is a necessary first step in doing something about it. So, there’s that.

*   *   *

I’ve been re-reading portions of my novella, A PLACE TO START — looking at some details for the sake of continuity in the second book — and came across this scene toward the end where Mac (our hero, for those who haven’t read it) (why haven’t you read it?) and Charlie (a wise old mountain man) are having a little heart-to-heart. I skimmed it, as it wasn’t the scene I was looking for, and then stopped and read it again. And again.

Why? Well, see for yourself:

“Life is chock full of pain and death. You can spend all your days anticipatin’ it and, by God, you won’t be disappointed.”

“I don’t spend time anticipating it.”

“Sure you do. That’s all you been doin’ these past three years. Waitin’ for someone else to die. Ain’t no way for a young man to live.”

Mac couldn’t even remember the last time he’d felt young. “We all grieve in different ways.”

“That’s the truth. But after a time, it’s just purely selfish. It ain’t helpin’ those done gone and it sure ain’t good for the people still here. Wallowing, is what it is.”

Mac couldn’t argue with that, but still. “Harsh words.”

“Truth often is.” He spat again. “Fact is, you got a choice, the way you look at things. And you been focused for so long on those moments of pain, waitin’ on the next one, you done lost sight of the happiness and peace in between ’em.”

“Aye. Haven’t seen much of either, lately.” Except with Jo.

“That’s ’cause you ain’t been looking, son. There are whole long stretches of it, between the pain, days and weeks and even years of it. There’s love mixed up in there too, if you ain’t too dense to see it.”

You know, sometimes I read a thing I wrote and can’t quite believe I wrote it. It’s as if past me was giving advice to future me, like I knew I’d need to hear those words someday.

So, that’s one of my resolutions for 2017. Change the way I look at things, try to focus on the positive and happy and peaceful in between the inevitable moments of pain and grief.

While I can’t change certain things, I can limit my exposure. I’ve been doing that already, to a degree, since November. I can certainly set a timer before I look at twitter or facebook or news sites. I can unsubscribe from RSS feeds that I tend not to read anyway and get rid of some clutter. I can mute a good deal of the negativity and anger, and try not to engage in it myself. Maybe. Probably.

In the week since Christmas, I’ve resumed my focus on good eating habits and cut back on consumption of adult beverages and chocolate which, to be honest, had increased a wee bit since November. *sigh* I can’t avoid the fact that my work involves sitting in one place for hours each day, but I can set reminders to get up and move more often. Release some endorphins. Or, failing that, a kraken or two.

I can’t control when people send me text messages and emails, but I can control when I read and reply. In fact, yesterday I spent hours getting rid of hundreds of old unread emails from various group feeds, admitting I’m never going to read them. Given the rapid changes in publishing, most of them were obsolete anyway.

I definitely can’t control whether some idiot mouse decides to enter my house, as one did the night before last, nor can I stop The White Ninja from playing with it to the point of bloodshed. Again.

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Cats are barbarians.

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But I guess I can be glad all I have to do is clean up the mess and not chase the stupid doomed thing myself. Small mercies.

So, those all are positive and constructive things I can do to improve my mental and emotional state. It’s helpful as well to keep in mind that there were a lot of really good things that happened worldwide in 2016. If you need a refresher, take a look at this powerful listing in the twitter timeline of Commander Chris Hadfield, Canadian astronaut and all-around good guy (keep clicking “show more” at the end to see the entire list of 46 items):

Really, go read it. I’d missed hearing about several of them.

*   *   *

I’m also resolving to do something I hope will improve the consistency and volume of my writing output. No promises about what it’ll do to the quality.

The other day I was scrolling through twitter and saw a spreadsheet graphic someone had made where she’d not only tracked her writing, she’d blocked out time during the year for vacation and sick days and flex time and holidays– just like she would if she were working a “real” job. It was complex and colourful and highly organized. It was also a real eye-opener.

Yeah, I know, everyone says you need to treat writing like a “real” job. No surprise there. And I thought I had been doing that, until I saw that schedule and realized . . . I don’t have one. What an idiot.

Thing is, I know how to work hard. I know how to get stuff done. I know what it takes to meet deadlines. And I know I haven’t been doing it. Not the way I would if it were a “real” job with a real schedule.

How do I know? Because for the past two years I’ve been keeping track in my own complex, colourful, highly organized spreadsheet of all the words I’ve written. I can see exactly how and when I’ve been slacking off. Not holding myself accountable. Indulging myself when I should be demanding the results I know darn well I’m capable of achieving. Getting lost in the escape of reading when instead I should be writing.

If I were my boss (and I am) I’d have fired my ass by now.

Yes, I’ve had reasons for some of that behaviour. As I said, tough year. But that certainly doesn’t account for all of it. Some of it, I’m now convinced, is due to a lack of structure.

So I’m going to make a writing schedule for the coming calendar year, with concrete goals. Not just to keep track of what I’ve written, which is good and necessary (for me), but to plan out what I intend to do and when. Create a familiar framework within which to get shit done.

I’m going to schedule four weeks of vacation, something I’ve never had at any job, ever. I’m giving myself a week of sick time and all the weekends and holidays I didn’t get to take off while working in retail finance, even though I wasn’t part of the sales team. In some ways, it feels like I’m still stubbornly making up for that lack of time off, even now.

That sounds like a lot of non-writing days, doesn’t it? I imagine you’re wondering just how, exactly, I expect all that time off to improve output. But here’s the important part, the part I’ve been missing: The rest of the days will be for work.

No more vague feeling of every day being the same, of not having a sense of whether it’s a work day or a weekend or vacation, which makes it way too easy to procrastinate and simply take the day off since there is always tomorrow. And the next day. And the next.

I’m going to hold myself accountable for sticking to it, even if it gets all irregular and pear-shaped at times. Which it will. But I can already tell that having a schedule mapped out will make it easier to get back on track when life tries to derail me. Which it will.

I wonder whether this sudden enthusiasm for a schedule is just a sign of getting older and sensing time slipping away more quickly each year, feeling the need to control it somehow or at least force it into neat categories. I’m sure that’s part of it. I never worried about this when I was younger. Of course, when I was younger I had schedules and expectations imposed on me by others. In this strange new stage of self-employment, the first couple years without a schedule was the most liberating feeling of sheer relief– I have no words for it.

But it feels like it’s time for some order and routine again. Maybe I’m just fooling myself and doing this will be setting myself up for failure and future feelings of inadequacy and guilt and shame. Or maybe it will work.

Won’t know if I don’t try. So that’s my new plan of attack, even though I’m wondering why it took me so long to figure this out. Nope. Not going there. Regrets are useless.

*   *   *

For a change, I’m feeling all resolute at the same time of year everyone else usually does. Time to move forward and make the coming year what I want it to be. And every year after, for however many more there might be.

One thing 2016 demonstrated quite clearly is that none of us are guaranteed more time than this moment right now. And as old Charlie might say, “Not makin’ the most of the time you got just ain’t no way to live.”

We all have varying interpretations of what it means to “make the most” of our time, our talent, our energy. However you define it, my wish for all of you is that you manage to accomplish that in the coming year.

May it truly be a Happy New Year, for all of us.

 

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It’s never nothing

Let’s see, where were we . . . in our last episode, our heroine was tied to the tracks and a train was approaching, with no (capable) help in sight.

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Sorry, wrong story. Maybe it’s just me, but that sort of sums up how helpless I feel lately.

My dad used to say: “It’s never nothing.” It was his version of: “It’s always something.” November has proven that adage, several times over.

I know, some of you are waiting to hear the final results of NaNo. It wasn’t a complete bust, although Life sure did its best to get in the way.

First there was the election. And the results, which we are just not going to talk about, because . . . well, just because. But I eventually convinced myself to stay mostly offline, or at least not look too long or too hard at twitter and facebook, and I was starting to re-focus on writing.

Then, the day after Thanksgiving, my mom made an unscheduled trip to the hospital’s emergency room via ambulance. I’m not going to get into medical details over here — my personal privacy policy makes HIPPA look like a freakin’ sieve — but I will say that she was there for five days (mostly due to it being a holiday weekend during which certain tests were not going to happen unless it was an emergency) (I’m very grateful she wasn’t considered an emergency), and then she was discharged to a rehab/transitional care place.

And then, not even 48 hours later, in the least fun text I’ve ever received at 4 AM, came word that she was right back in the hospital again. Where she still is, as I write this. But she’s getting better, albeit slowly, and we expect she’ll be headed back to transitional care in a day or so.

Never have I been more aware of how relative is the term “better.”

As you might imagine, trying to concentrate on writing (or anything else) with all this going on more than 1200 miles away has been damned near impossible. Honestly, I haven’t tried very hard in the past week. You know, priorities being what they are.

But I did manage to write 20,057 words in November, split between two different manuscripts. Probably that’s 20,057 words more than I would have written if I hadn’t participated in NaNo. Astonishingly, some of those words seem to do what I want them to do and might not even need to be deleted during edits.

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So, no, not 50K words. But I’m calling it a win.

Don’t judge me. I need a win right now.

My plan for December is to just continue focusing on writing. And try not to panic at the sound of the phone ringing or the notification that a new email or text message has arrived. Any celebrations in December, including my upcoming birthday, are going to be small and quiet. Understated. Practically invisible.

No, I’m not being a Scrooge. I’m simply acknowledging the truth that I’m not in the mood for celebration. I’m listening to that inner voice advocating self-care over forced displays of holly-jollity.

I can’t fix all the problems in the world. Hell, I can’t even fix all the problems in my own little corner of it. But I can write stories that, if I get it right, might provide a few moments of distraction and enjoyment for someone at a time when that’s exactly, perhaps desperately, what they need.

God knows, stories have certainly helped me get through this disaster we’re calling 2016. If my stories can do that for even one person, I’ll be calling that a win as well.

 

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On gifts and giving

My sisters and I have pretty much stopped sending each other gifts for birthdays and Christmas. There have been some notable exceptions, but this has been the mutual agreement for many years. So when my youngest sister mentioned she’d sent me something for my birthday, which was a week or so ago, I assumed she meant a card.

I was surprised when I received a package that was somewhat larger than a card, and far heavier and thicker. Of course, there was a birthday card enclosed. It was funny and made me laugh. Here’s a picture of it [from baldguygreetings.com] which is not good quality because I’m propping this stuff up on my laptop screen:

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And the inside:

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If you can’t see it, that last item says:

“THEY HAND WRITE YOU A LETTER ON COLLEGE RULED BINDER PAPER:
This would be the most caring person in the world — if you were in the 4th grade. But since you’re not, this is weird and to be honest, a little creepy. This person has the potential to be a stalker. Be careful. Seriously.”

So it totally cracked me up when she did indeed enclose a hand written letter on college ruled binder paper, written as if she were in 4th grade (yes, I deleted my [real] name).

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She also sent photocopies of two different things I had written and sent to her, although not when I was in 4th grade (which might have been a plausible excuse).

One of them was a photocopy of a letter I’d written (in cursive, no less, demonstrating I was once capable of legible penmanship) when I was living in Atlanta and she had just moved, or was about to move, to Chicago. I referenced sending two “silly gifts” but don’t say what they were. I don’t remember writing it and neither of us can remember what I sent. It’s pretty sappy. You don’t need to see that.

The other paper is a copy of a poem I apparently wrote for her when she turned 13 and I was a month shy of being 17. It’s too ridiculous not to share:

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Can you read it? Probably just as well if you can’t. I have no memory of writing this either, although I do remember that I used to write “poetry” [ahem] ALL THE TIME when I was younger. Some of it I put in writing, but most of it was just in my head, usually composed while in the shower (I was hell on my parents’ water bills). But there you have it, proof that I’ve always been more than just a little weird. It must have been pure torment to have me as an older sister. Or a younger sister. Or daughter, for that matter.

And then I got to the gift-wrapped item in the package, which turned out to be a book. It made me cry.

It’s an old book, slightly water damaged and musty smelling and perhaps even a bit moldy around the edges. A book my sister “rescued” from the basement library in our parents’ house several years after the epic flooding back in . . . whenever it was. Mid-80s? It’s one of the books deemed to be “not too badly damaged,” therefore escaping the heartbreaking dumpster fate of so many other tomes. This book:

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You might think this is a really weird gift. I mean, it’s pretty much just an ordinary school textbook. You might wonder why seeing it made me cry and why I will always treasure it. Here’s why:

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This is one of my dad’s books. My dad the high school English teacher/debate coach who died way too young almost 20 years ago. That’s his distinctive writing in the margins, his characteristic underlining of words and phrases. That’s the look of every student paper he graded for his own classes over the years, every book he read, every thought-provoking article in some publication or other. It’s the look of every single paper I ever wrote, after it had been turned in to and graded by some other teacher and then grudgingly, at his insistence, handed over to him for the red (or blue) pen treatment.

And damn, I’ve missed seeing that. Of all the hundreds of books in my house, this is the only one (now) in my possession that was his. It’s an amazing gift, one I never would have thought to ask for. A gift I didn’t even know I wanted. My sister knew. It holds the same value and memories for her, after all, and I was moved by her thoughtful generosity in parting with it.

Since this is a traditional time for giving, and not solely because of MY birthday, it seems to be a good time to say I hope the gifts you receive — and the ones you give — this holiday season will be similarly meaningful and worth treasuring.

And apart from material things, or perhaps more accurately, in addition to tangible forms of generosity . . . in the coming year, I hope more of us will give the gift of attention and understanding and compassion to those who suffer and struggle. I hope more of us will grant that precious gift not only to those we know and love, but especially to those we don’t, who live in nearby and far off places we’ve never seen, whose hardships we might recognize or will never know, whose humanity is exactly like our own.

Thoughtful generosity.

If I could give each of you a gift to share, it would be that.

 

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Celebrating the day . . . on a different day

I’m trying to distract myself from the fact that I think I’m coming down with a cold. And also from the memory of what I was doing one year ago today (rest in peace, Mitty).

I’m feeling thankful for so many things, but today I’m especially thankful that I’m not the one in charge of making a huge Thanksgiving Day feast. After a couple decades of doing that, it’s been a relief these past few years to have an extended break from it. And it’s highly entertaining to “watch” as my daughter in Boston does it instead.

Here’s a series of text messages she sent me last night:

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I’m exhausted just reading it. She told me today that she’s planning to not only make turkey soup with leftovers, but also turkey and Andouille sausage gumbo, which is what her in-laws in New Orleans do with their leftovers. “They eat maybe two turkey sandwiches and then use the rest to make gumbo.”

All of this is truly hilarious given that this is the child who would eat only six things when she was young, while her brother ate everything. Really, she was impossible.

Her husband the MD and a couple of his also-MD friends are working a series of night shifts at the moment, so they all are having their feast bright and early on Friday morning (hence the inclusion of breakfast food on her menu). My son and his wife are spending today with her family and we’ll have our “Thanksgiving” dinner Friday as well, though not in the morning. We’ve all adjusted our concept of holiday to fit the circumstances. You figure out pretty quickly that celebrations are more about the spirit of the thing and happiness is not constrained by a date on the calendar.

But I won’t be making turkey, thankyouverymuch. I’m planning slow-cooked BBQ pork tenderloin and scalloped potatoes and asparagus and . . . whatever else comes to mind. Maybe that marinated tomato/cucumber thing I haven’t made for a while. Maybe even some Brussels sprouts (my daughter sent me a great recipe) (who knew they could be delicious?).

I think I have some ice cream, if anyone has room for dessert. Highly unlikely, in my experience. But I suppose it’s not really Thanksgiving without some kind of pie, so here, enjoy the apple pie my daughter made. Doesn’t it smell good?

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I hope you all are finding things for which to give thanks, whether you celebrate this particular holiday or not. If you’re reading this, please know that I’m thankful for your presence in my life. On all the days.

 

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