Antici…PAtion!

This Week’s Bit of String: Silent night

One of my earliest memories takes place at Christmas. My small New England town put on a Christmas pageant at the church, one of those crowned white ones on a pristine green.

Candles glow in frosty windows as Mary and Joseph journey to the manger and kneel respectfully. Junior high angels dance down the aisles, bare feet thumping over cast iron grates, and the kings stride in their colourful robes. 

At the end, the choir sings “Silent Night” as everyone files off the darkened stage. Kings, shepherds, angels and kindergarten cherubs. Joseph, penultimately, exits down the centre aisle and finally Mary, sombre and alone, disappears into a side door. The lights come up and everyone bursts into “Joy to the World.”

Some of my favourite ornaments, carrying lots of memories

Can you spot what they forgot? My just-turned-three-year-old self was keenly aware that everyone left the infant Messiah behind. The wooden box-manger only held a doll, but I was inconsolable; to me dolls were as real as anything. I was outraged at the abandonment, sobbing amongst the heavily coated crowd. 

My parents found the girl who played Mary, but I wanted nothing to do with that traitorous mother. Then I was introduced to the person who owned the Baby Jesus doll, and that alone calmed me down.

I still wonder at the order of that pageant, unchanged in decades. Through the ensuing years, I loved the pageant, thought it beautiful–but also tenderly sad. That’s Christmas for you, I guess; moments of quiet, of loss, of sudden delight. I was taught that when setting up a collection of short stories, you showcase the best ones first. Maybe it’s our instinct to start strong, but this can result in an anticlimax.

Maintaining Order

Four decades and an ocean now separate me from that distraught doll-defending girl at her first nativity play. I’ve been around long enough to know my ideal festive sequence of events, even if I can’t always control it.

The key is to avoid letdown. You have to hit your checklist in the right moments, before the season over-ripens to wistfulness. Most Christmas films have an element of nostalgia and wish fulfillment that’s too sad the day after Christmas. The build-up is the best part of Christmas, really. Putting ornaments on the tree is a lot more special than taking them down. 

There can be a lot of stress at Christmas, but Obie the Bosscat is keeping on top of things.

The word anticipate shares a root with capture. It means to grasp something beforehand. That’s quite exciting, isn’t it? Not like the tedium of just waiting, because at least we know that December 25th will, in fact, arrive (unlike a lucrative writing contract, for example).

I get Christmas tunes playing in my earbuds during hikes around mid-November, and the lights and decorations go up at the very start of December, so I can enjoy them for longer. Everything must be in place for the cosy moments between all the running around. At some point, I will be reminded that it matters more to me than to others, and each sparkle will disappear from centre stage.

Heightened Sensations

Christmas forms strong memories because it engages all our senses. We associate smells, tastes, sights, sounds, and feelings with the holiday. When a moment incorporates all senses, I think our memories cohere around it more firmly.

We’ve got Christmas songs, both jolly or deeply moving, we’ve got sparkly lights and shiny ornaments and the contrasts of crimson berries against sharp green holly. We’ve got smells of cinnamon and pine, and tastes of citrus and chocolate. We’ve got the sensations of warm hearths and fuzzy jumpers and the bracing chill from anaemic skies.

Stopping to smell the roses

Great storytelling engages all the senses as well, which is why Christmas stories and films and songs can be particularly moving. Listening, viewing, reading them, and even creating our own helps us to seize those moments because otherwise, we might forget the bits that turned out how we wanted, when some events inevitably proceed less smoothly.

I wonder if our relentless preparations are partly an attempt to find exactly the right combination of sensory stimuli that make us feel young, make us feel loved and valued as we believe we once did. We are desperate to capture something, maybe that outpouring that George Bailey finds at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, or the kindness and mutual appreciation of a goose dinner at the Cratchit family table.

What are your favourite moments to capture in the holidays? How do you manage to seize them, and do they fall before December 25th or after?

Fever

This Week’s Bit of String: Overheated eyeballs

I have this bad habit of getting coughs. These aren’t misguidedly romantic chest coughs that might have made it into an epic nineteenth century novel or opera, just ugly, scraping hacks. My throat spasms into wretched fits. It carries on for weeks, my ribs get bruised, it’s exhausting.

Often, I’ll briefly get a high temperature with it. The kind of fever that crawls up behind your eyeballs and tenderises your skull. It’s not great for productivity, but does inspire vivid descriptions, if I do say so myself.

It may be a sign that I’ve been doing too much. I feel I should be able to Do All The Things. After all, I eat plenty of fruits and veggies, and get up early for exercise and fresh air. However, I seem to get sick when I’ve been completing a big writing project while also, as always, working full-time and taking care of my family. It’s as if that extra creative endeavour pushes me over the edge.

Hiking during our camping weekend–totally worth it.

At the moment, I’ve just missed a couple days of work for flu-like symptoms, probably a back-to-school virus, so now I’m trying my best to be quiet and not start coughing. This followed a weekend camping trip to the Peaks and copious reading about story structure, plus overtime planning resources for small group interventions at work, doing critiques for other writers, trying to finish a short story and while I haven’t quite begun the next rewrite of my novel, I’m thinking REALLY hard about it, ok?

Health Warning

Can writing affect our health? Is it one thing too much? I definitely am less grouchy when I’ve been able to write, preferably in a quiet setting, unlikely though that last bit is. I think it helps my mental health—but maybe it’s just that I place high standards on myself and I feel better for Getting Things Done, whatever the things may be.

Writing is a passion—and the root of that word is bound up with suffering. It is ‘that which must be endured.’ Hard, necessary work. It is absolutely fun and exciting, too! But it takes a lot of effort and relentless, toiling THOUGHT to make it good. So yes, it probably does impact our health.

I always felt guilty missing work if I picked up a bug while traveling, or if I’d run myself down finishing a novel. Was it wrong of me to let my personal interests impede my contracted employment? I worried I was behaving as selfishly as I perceived people who always called in sick on Mondays because they were still hungover. I’m still not convinced I’m being completely fair to co-workers or to my family in how I expend my energies.

But there are other fevers that make our brains itch. Characters that pummel our skulls from within and ideas that sputter up from deep inside us. We’ve got to write.

Incandescence

Sometimes, I do great work when I’m sick. I wrote a play during an extended bout of flu. It was about a team monitoring a whole city’s worth of subconsciouses, spying on people’s dreams to solve crimes.

I call this one: Still life of a working writer mid-term

Weird, I know. But kinda cool? Anyway, it did get through a competition and we performed it. Someday I might develop it further than a single act, and make a series of it or something.

In the same way that extreme weather or stress sears certain things into our memories and forms indelible creative impressions, health events can crystallise ideas.

From the tuberculosis that ravaged the Bronte family to Stephen King’s childhood ear infections which he writes about in his memoir On Writing, it does seem as if cycles of illness and health sharpen our imaginations. Have you ever found this?

While I was sick this week, my brain came to a screeching halt over work things like differentiating Science vocabulary on independent or dependent variables. But it did present me with a striking novel-related sequence, like a dream Eve or Cain might have. It unfolded before me as I trudged to work (and didn’t stay long). My elevated temperature practically distilled my story’s essence better than my healthy brain could.

What links do you see between your health and your creativity?

Stuff of Legends

This Week’s Bit of String: A new political slogan?

I work with some amazing students and love my job, but the start of the school year is hard. Somehow there are always vast new tasks to train ourselves in, you know, during our spare time. Plodding to work in the mornings, a mental run-through of the day’s requirements almost overwhelms me.

Then I remember something that makes me smile: “Lying dog-faced pony soldier.”

I know this is ridiculous. It’s not an ideal phrase for the President of the United States to be spouting, even if it’s a movie quote. President Biden including it in a rambling answer about climate change in Hanoi recently probably didn’t advance the cause. (I’m linking to the entire press conference transcript because most of it was on-topic and coherent. I mean, you should hear the other guy.)

But it gets stuck in my head! Is that a writer thing, that words not even sung can repeat relentlessly in our minds?

Siblings are such an influence–here’s all of us recreating a childhood photo

And it’s so random, it makes me laugh. Biden says his brother liked to say “lying dog-faced pony soldier” when quoting a John Wayne film, that it was an insult a Native American character hurled at a cowboy or something. Seems like this alleged movie line gets stuck in the President’s head, too.

It’s weirdly inspiring that a random detail can live on, lodged in the minds of people who never saw the original source. It’s a little different from how the written word lingers in our minds. There’s something special about the oral tradition. I don’t know if we can capture it in our writing, but it’s worth celebrating in its own right.

Family Lore

This is extra strong in families. Maybe it’s because of our deep fondness for each other, and our affinity to one another’s voices, plus shared source material. When someone we grew up with, for example a sibling, tells a story, we can picture especially vividly its setting and characters.

While creating resources on persuasive techniques this week, I learned that the word anecdote basically comes from the Greek roots “not for publication.” (See more on the word’s origins here.) These are little stories that are either too biting, or would lose too much of their aural charm were they printed.

A lot of our favourite family references and legends become so because of how they sound when spoken. We didn’t even have to be there when it happened, we just love hearing about it. Humour’s always a hit, as well as special oral characteristics.

Rhythm: When my sister worked at the town recreational summer camp, she later recounted one boy’s plans for the rest of the day. Imitating his weary exasperation, she recited: “All I want to do/ Is go home/ and eat my sandwich/ and go outside/ and look for salamanders. But I never FIND any salamanders!” Punctuated with sighs, it’s almost like a poem. Sometimes I find myself planning my day to a similar rhythm.

Intonation: On a trip to Naples once, my brother went to the opera. There was a poorly older woman sitting nearby who kept unwrapping cough sweets during the show. This provoked the wrath of a German man in the audience. My brother quoted the man as he complained to the frail woman during the interval. ‘When you go to open up your BONBON… it is AWFUL!”

Transferring the Magic

Just within the last month, I found myself telling someone the bonbon anecdote—in my dreams. It’s that integrated in my subconscious, and I was never even there. I wonder if it sticks with any of the friends I might have mentioned it to in real life.

Blame it on the mushrooms

Sometimes, a little story weaves itself so inextricably into our fibre, we think it is ours. A secretary at my old job back in the U.S. told me one of the company’s engineers once submitted a receipt from a vegetarian meal with his travel expense report. He’d had a delicious mushroom—but the receipt was truncated so instead of asking to be reimbursed for shiitake, he was passing on a charge for “one large shit.”

My husband got such a kick out of this story, he came to believe it was a secretary at his company, across the ocean, who told him the story about one of their engineers. There my husband was, animatedly sharing it at some gathering, and I couldn’t help capping it off, somewhat mystified: “But that’s my story.”

That was only shock talking, though. The tale did not originate with me, and obviously I never intended it to end there either. I think it’s clear that stories, particularly when they’re passed on orally, get absorbed and possessed by all listeners. Isn’t that quite magical?

Are there special anecdotes you’ve heard that become living legends?

Pest Control

This Week’s Bit of String: A pestilence of Shoulds

Do you ever imagine your abstract stresses as actual creatures? I find it makes them more grapple-able.

Lately, the word should is plaguing me. If it came to life, I think it would be a multi-legged trudger, low to the ground with clinging claws. It would blast out barks: Should! Should! and be a right pest.

My mind gets infested by Shoulds, particularly in the summer. During term-time, there’s little question about what I have to do. There’s work, there’s squeezing in chores and writing deadlines and exercise and family commitments around that. But if I get time to myself, I’m overrun with quarrelling Shoulds. The guilt of leaving things undone becomes weightier, because what excuse do I have?

I’m no artist but… I’m thinking stout caterpillar body, claws of a sloth, and stubborn pug face.

You should be writing, a voice in my head says quite frequently. Editing my novel, inventing a whole new book, polishing and submitting short stories, putting effort into a Twitter presence—I should be working on all those things.

But there’s also the cluttered house, and my garden in a riotous bid for attention, and the thought that there’s no time like the present to get extra exercise and stretches in, should I be attempting some sort of social life, and actually, what if I caught up on sleep and reading; shouldn’t that benefit me in the school year?

If I created a word cloud based on my thoughts, the biggest word in it might be should—apart from family member’s names maybe, and definitely the cat and probably, embarrassingly, peanut butter (the latter accompanied by the phrase “should absolutely not eat anymore of it today…”)

‘Tis the Season

For most of my summer, I go to my family overseas. There are wonderful little vacations encased in this, but home time has a serious intensity to it so that I bristle if it’s called a holiday.

Up at sunrise during the summer to seize every moment

As an immigrant, my herd of Shoulds has extra directions to pull me in. And the limits of time give their claws an extra sharpness. It’s super important to me that I help out my parents and siblings and child while I can see them, but that we also make fun memories, and keep my husband entertained since it is, in fact, his vacation, and that I get moments to feast my senses on the mountains and lakes and rivers of home—all while keeping up with writing and exercise. So the Shoulds run rampant.

Without my teaching assistant job playing the alpha role among the Should herd, it’s hard to figure out which Should is in charge. Each seems quite as demanding as the others. Yes, I should dig into writing, but think how bad the weeds will be if I leave the garden any longer. And have I really recovered my strength enough for a new term—maybe I should spend an afternoon lying around reading.

The Long Game

The word should is rooted in debt and guilt. Any argument I come up with against one therefore sounds like an excuse to shirk. Which Shoulds can we allow ourselves to ignore?

Taking my pick.

I’ve tentatively decided one thing. I’m not ready for another deep edit of my Eve novel yet. I’m too frustrated now. I’d have her jumping up and down by the third paragraph shouting “Read me, fools!” like she’s Maleficent or something. I need time to think before the next edit and submission rounds. Maybe I’ll have mulled it enough by next weekend, maybe I’ll leave it for half-term or even next summer.

You know what I ended up spending lots of time on for the end of my break? Foraging. I turned myself into a scrappy little squirrel to combat my scruffy little Should flock. I walked the lanes for hours picking blackberries and elderberries, and cooked them together into jam. With its murky elder depths, I’m hoping it will ward off winter colds. Nothing leaves you helpless at the stubby, plodding feet of a Should herd the way illness does! So maybe I’ve played my priorities right. We’ll see.

What do you do when pestered by Shoulds?

What’s in a Name?

This Week’s Bit of String: A little baby cat

We got a 4-month-old kitten a few days ago. I will try not to go on about him too much–the photos should speak for themselves–but I’m smitten. 

Getting him relatively early means we can rename him. Goodness knows if he’ll respond to it; how powerful can a verbal moniker be compared to Dreamies and feather toys, cardboard boxes and head rubs? But the process of choosing a name was exciting and also, in a way, revealing.

I viewed this as acquiring a new family member. So the name had to fit with our family culture. That’s not something I actively think about, and this caused me to consider it. 

Naturally, our family traditions and favourites are a transatlantic mashup of American and British. Should I call the cat something to connect him with my home country? I liked the name Cricket, since he is black like the crickets in New England whose song I associate with home. And as he finds his voice, Kitty McKittenFace has revealed himself to have a crickety little chirp. But the name didn’t fully suit him.

I didn’t want a conventional black cat name, not even Inky or something with writerly implications. A literary name, that would do. A Shakespearean one even, given we just had a grand time in Stratford-Upon-Avon and the Royal Shakespeare Company theatre. No one with a tragic fate though–that eliminates a fair few of the Bard’s characters.

We settled on Oberon. The cat has a royal bearing, I think. We can shorten it to Obie, and link it to Star Wars as well if we see fit. Our Obie does have quite a stare; you’d think he was trying to use the Force on us in order to get his food bowl filled. (Scifi and adventure films are another part of our family culture.) And if he turns out a bit standoffish–which so far he is not, much to my excitement–we can call him ObeRon Swanson, for one of our favourite Parks and Recreation characters.

Character Names

Finding a title for a story can be loathsome. Nothing seems quite right… But naming characters is more painless, even enjoyable. There are so many connections you can make with a name, so many clues for readers. For example:

What: What does the name mean? Courage, humility, purity, illumination–lots of names have meanings like these and they can give a hopeful note to a character’s trajectory. I used to attach importance to this as an adolescent writer, but on the other hand everyone is brave, humble, pure, and illuminating at times, so we can’t lock ourselves or a character into any one attribute.

When: What does the name say about the contemporary events of the story? Is it a trendy name given by up-to-date parents, or a name that reflects indifference to fads? On the 2nd of November, 2016, we bought our last pets before this one–a pair of guinea pig brothers who took up residence in our lounge for the next 5 years. With the [now infamous] American election a couple days away, my husband and I wanted to name them Barry and Bernie, but our kiddo chose Fred and George instead. Mischief managed!

Where: Where is the name from? My name is Russian because my dad loves Russian literature. I have no Russian heritage. But it says something about the family who raised me, and introduced me to all sorts of art and literature. As I’m looking into my next project, I want one of my main characters to be an immigrant with a name that gets shortened to Nil, drawing inane comments now that she lives in the UK. I haven’t found a name that fits these particulars yet. Would it be culturally insensitive if I made one up? It’s funny, the notions we get stuck in our heads.

Who: Who else has this name? Often names come from a family history, but they might link to other figures also. I have a draft of a dark comedy story where some celebrity parents name their kids Ursula and Gaston, after Disney villains to shock people with how enlightened they are.

Why: Why was this name given to them–not by you as the writer, but by whoever named them? Writing my novel about Eve, I kept reading the Genesis account of creation. She’s only called “the woman” until after Eden. That’s not as outrageously disrespectful as it sounds though, since all Adam’s name ever meant was “the man.” If they were the first humans on earth, their species and gender would need no further specification.

How: How do others react to the name, and how does the character feel they are living up to it? I don’t usually give characters unusual names, because I have one and it complicates things. How people respond to my name reveals something about them. They might force it into something they know, like Natasha. They might immediately forget it rather than attempt pronunciation. Or they might say, “How unique. I’ll definitely remember that.” It makes things interesting… Maybe I will use such observations in a story one day.

What’s your strategy for naming characters? Are there any character names you’re particularly proud of?

Literary Locations

This Week’s Bit of String: Under the patchwork quilt

My grandparents’ guest bedroom was one of my favourite places. A rocking chair in the corner, a handmade crazy quilt on the bed. Shelves of AMC magazines that my Grandpa kept, unwilling to throw away anything with portraits of cinema’s Golden Age stars. The nightstands, under the dropped eaves, were metal and wire 1970s pieces loaded with books.

The books would change, and I never delved into how or why. Was my Grammy exchanging them with her sisters? Did my older cousins swap them out? However it happened, rootling around in this bedroom was where I discovered Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.

This is the quilt from Grammy’s house, in a writing corner I briefly had here before some, erm, home “improvements” commenced

It was an abridged version, still hefty, a yellow hardcover with that plastic that peels off in satiny strands if you pick at it distractedly while you read. There were a few black and white illustrations, the sisters each given distinct appearances. 

I was 9 or 10 when I found the book and read a few pages while my siblings ran around. The opening image of Jo stubbornly tomboying, sticking her hands in her pockets and whistling, made me laugh and I read it to the others and we all mimicked the gesture.

Family Home

At that point, my grandparents had lived in their Vermont house for at least 50 years, raising 6 children there. A pastiche of wallpapers, AM radio, the smell of American chop suey or home-baked donuts, and all objects well-worn, softened at the edges. Keeping the same house for so long felt magical, as if the air we breathed there was different, the atmosphere more sustaining.

During my latest summer visit to New England, I took a trip with my two sisters down to Massachusetts to see Orchard House, where Louisa May Alcott lived with her family (after they’d moved dozens of times, due to financial struggles). It was a hundred degrees out, with a major heat warning cautioning everyone to stay inside. Fortunately for us, Orchard House is gently air conditioned, preserving the many artefacts within.

Recognise it?

We were amazed at how authentic the place still is. Nearly all furnishings were used or made by the Alcott family. Paintings by Louisa’s youngest sister May (aka Amy), doll clothes stitched by Lizzie (Beth), crocheted bedspreads and even the wedding dress of the oldest sister Anna (Meg). We were quite awestruck.

In the master bedroom, there was even a timetable devised by Mrs. Alcott (Marmee), allotting how many hours the girls ought to spend on learning, on chores, and on other types of enrichment. It reminded us of the chore charts our mother would create to encourage the three of us plus our brother to each do our share.

A Room of One’s Own

While my clever and crafty sisters took great interest in different crochet and knitted pieces, I geeked out over Louisa’s room. She had her own writing desk, a white, rounded table her father built her. It jutted out between two sunny windows. This was exceptionally rare, for a women to have a desk.

The desk was ornamented with a nautilus-shaped inkwell, very Transcendentalist, and pens given to Louisa by her mother. Mrs. Alcott had composed a little poem to go with them, a prayer that the Muse would keep Louisa’s creative fires burning. Such obvious support really moved me.

I’ve now read Little Women more than once, unabridged as well as that old abridged version, along with some of Alcott’s other works. If you’ve also read it, and/or watched the film adaptations (two of the more recent ones were filmed at the actual Orchard House so it is instantly recognisable), you’ll remember that Jo (aka Louisa) writes up in the garret, and stores her pages in a disused tin kitchen. However, Orchard House doesn’t have an accessible attic.

Schoolhouse behind Orchard House where the Alcotts and other Transcendentalists educated newly freed people from Missouri.

Much of Little Women is based on Louisa’s life, and I’m sure in the dozens of other places she lived while growing up, she did write in attics and in all kinds of nooks and crannies. I wonder if she looked back on those corners with the most nostalgia, and perhaps even found them more inspiring, despite the wonderful space she ended up with.

Certainly, creating a writing garret for the character of Jo was a brilliant authorial choice. Think of how many young, non-affluent readers Louisa made writing feel accessible to. You don’t need a desk, or a view, or a room of your own to write. Not according to Little Women, anyway.

That was something that I loved about the book growing up, and the Winona Ryder film version that came out when I was in high school. Thoughts of Jo, bundled up against the cold, writing through the night really motivated me to work harder. Whether it was under that quilt on my grandparents’ guest bed, or in a basement corner on a typewriter that cost $5 at a yard sale and that I later abandoned after finding a snake in it, or in countless notebooks on bumpy bus rides or squishy sofas or prickly theatre seats at dress rehearsals; whether it was with shouting children or my husband trumpeting upstairs; whether it was scribbling at a bar between taking orders from customers or in the back of a woodworking shop while my students were learning new skills on a field trip… Sometimes, the most unlikely writing places are the ones that stick with us. They yield the hard-earned words, they witness the flood of the ideas that simply will not be kept back.

After all, a main message of Little Women is how hard work makes life feel more meaningful. It was nice to see this backed up by the many loved, homemade objects in the Alcott house, just as I remember them being in my grandparents’ home.

What sorts of places have you written in, and who are the writers or characters that have inspired you to do so?

Summer Bucket List

This Week’s Bit of String: Can we fit it? … Yes we can

Packing time! 48 hours now till I’m on my flight to New Hampshire, to my son, my parents and siblings and childhood home, friends and haunts. To lakes and mountains and trees, to root beer and Dunkin’ Donuts.

I’m already getting distracted. My point is, time to decide what goes in my suitcase. They’ve changed the allowance from 23 down to 20 kilos maximum. This should be ok; I know by now what not to bring. I don’t need much in terms of dressing up or fancy footwear. I don’t need many books for myself because I often don’t get time to read; it’s all I can do to find moments for daily scribbles so I don’t forget all I’ve seen, what was said.

Busy bee.

Concurrently with my packing, and with cleaning the house and weeding and trimming the garden before I go, I’m going deep with novel edits. This is only my second pass through my story of Eve. It’s familiar territory but not quite as much as an Aer Lingus flight from Bristol to Boston. I’m still learning what I really need and what I might not. It will take me a few more journeys to figure that out, I suspect.

The Days are Just Packed

Even more than keeping my suitcase light and my writing clear and engaging, planning the time while I’m away is a huge challenge. Thanks to working in school and getting a longer summer holiday, I have three weeks in my native country, but that isn’t much when it’s also one of my only chances to Mum for the whole year.

One thing I’ve learned as a writer—and parent—is that the worst thing we can do is tell ourselves there’s plenty of time. It sounds a bit sad, but most people I’ve discussed this with seem to feel the same.

If we are busy, we know we have to dedicate time to something. If we have more free time, we develop a more cavalier attitude and assume we’ll get to everything we want to do.

ALL of it… Photo from 2007.

There’s so much fun I want to have with my kid, and with the rest of my family. We’re hoping to try tubing down a river with rapids and a covered bridge. I’d love campfire chats, board games, kayak sessions, listening to music together, maybe get him to build/ squash a sandcastle or two for old times’ sake. But he’ll also be working, so I’m looking forward to joining him at summer camp for writing workshops, and cooking some of his favourite dinners for when he gets home. We have things we need to troubleshoot together; job applications to fill out and things like that.

Being apart means I feel ready to appreciate even the work of it. Baking in a hot kitchen, coming up with cover letters for prospective employers. It’s not what everyone looks forward to doing when on vacation, but I will feel privileged to do it when I’m finally around more people I love.

Summer Goals

Do you have any aims for the summer? The Internet is rife with reading lists and exercise recommendations. I find them daunting. I just want to read and exercise daily and I’m going to have to be flexible about that.

Exercise: I’ll keep up my daily early morning hikes. No choice; I’m addicted. But I’ll also be incorporating 10 minutes of stretches, at least every other day because the last term at school viciously made me feel my age and then some.

Self-care: Also, I want to have a bath and soak the stiffness out. We don’t have a bathtub here in the UK but my parents do in the US, and on this matter my sister holds me very accountable. She’s already on my case. I’ve got the Lush bomb for the occasion. That’s it, that’s the goal.

Reading: If I can read almost every day, I’ll be happy. So far so good, since school ended last week. What utter bliss, once a morning hike has been completed, and then a bunch of chores and visits sorted, to stretch out with a book for an hour in the afternoon. I’m hoping to keep that routine going while away, and clear five books from my own, personal TBR list this summer.

White Mountains, New Hampshire. Just go with the flow, man.

Writing: There are my daily scribbles, of course. I’ve got a luscious thick notebook for observations, memories, exchanges, ideas. It should last me the weeks I’m away, and keeping up with everything I want to remember is a big commitment. However, I’ve also been pushing myself this summer to sit down and put focused effort into a writing project, for a couple hours maybe four times per week. I had lost the habit of that, since I could only write in small windows of time. It feels so good to stretch my concentration muscles again, to sit editing and not letting myself get distracted. I’d forgotten I was capable of it!

Parenting: My number one priority for the next three weeks. Anything that makes me feel like a mum again will do. Hearing complaints face to face instead of reading a Facebook message. Teaming up to show his dad Field of Dreams so he knows what we’re quoting when we say things like, “Peace, love, doooope!” All of it.

My goals are probably a bit more open-ended than targets are meant to be, but I prefer the term feasible. I advise a slightly gentle approach, because you never know what crises might come up. Do whatever it takes to enjoy each moment, whether it’s relishing a challenge or making yourself relax for once.

A Christmas Glossary

This Week’s Bit of String: Unexpected roots

Shortly before last Christmas, we heard of a place in Gloucester called Gaudy Green. Bit odd, we thought, so my husband looked it up. Apparently it comes from the city’s Roman days. The Latin term gaudium means “joy.” That’s how we learned that gaudy doesn’t have to be bad–nice to know when you’re about to deck your halls.

That revelation inspires me this year to look more deeply at common words of the season. What can we find by studying certain well-used terms?

Gaudy

We often use this term derisively about something that’s a little too much. A bit overdecorated, maybe cheaply, or maybe overused gold. But in addition to sharing an etymological Latin root with “joy,” gaudy may also draw on the old French word for the weld plant, also known as dyers’ weed, for its yellow dyeing properties. So “gaudy” has links to the colour yellow, and to joy and gladness. Why not, then, revel in what glitters?

Licensed to gaud.

Festive

Sure, this links to feasts and food. But what atmosphere and mood befits this term of the season? Proto-Italic and Proto-Indo-European root words hint at the sacred, with connections to temples and the divine. At the same time, there’s the old French term feste which means “religious festival, holy day; holiday; market, fair; noise, racket; jest, fun.” As pleasant as quiet time can be, it’s refreshing to think that a properly noisy, clamorous family dinner is also completely appropriate for a religious holiday.

Merry

The Germanic root for this pleasant term is murg, meaning “short-lasting.” It’s thought that the meaning evolved based on the principle that time flies when you’re having fun. Anything that doesn’t last (like Christmas, I guess) must be good. More interestingly, during the late 1700s merry developed into slang for sexual activity, such as: “Merry-bout, an incident of sexual intercourse.” Someone tell the Fox News crew that when they insist on wishing everyone a merry Christmas whether they celebrate or not, they’re also wishing them a sexy Christmas. 

Comfort

The word comfort is a bit like the term self-care, and makes me wonder about what’s genuinely comfortable. Is it curling up in a ball or stretching our legs? Helpfully, a look at the Latin root word tells us it comes from the phrase “to strengthen.” Of course–fort is related to “fortify.” When we take comfort, we should be deriving strength. When we give comfort, we should be providing strength. Comfort is not an end, but a means. A rest stop, or a build-up; whatever’s needed.

“A rosy dawn settles all around…”

The angels said Christmas is meant to be about comfort and joy, and those have broader meanings than we realise. In light of that, let us be grateful for what strengthens us, whether noisy or quiet, and for what bring us joy, gaudy or not. Short-lasting though it may be, Christmas contains many moments. We will stow the sad ones to use in future creations, and cherish the happy ones.

Deck your halls as you see fit, friends, and draw strength. 

Resolving

This Week’s Bit of String: View to a sundown

During the recent heatwave, we went out for a late evening drive, finding ourselves at a viewpoint on a local peak. The large car park was almost full. Students in pairs or trios enjoyed the views, family groups packed up disposable barbecues, friends took stock of the situation while balancing MacDonald’s cups on their car roofs.

We wandered to take in the sunset, while dragonflies patrolled the scabia and thistles, and kids laughed and the tractor haying in the pasture below turned on its lights. It was the eve before all restrictions would be eased (despite covid cases rocketing to the same levels as January) and, whether intentionally or not, people were keeping their distances.

We came here in the beginning: March 15, 2020. My husband and I went to a local film festival to see the silent movie Beggars of Life accompanied by a live bluegrass band. There were quite a few empty chairs in the theatre, as people started withdrawing from events, but we thought we’d go, try something a little different, fully knowing it might be our last night out in a long time.

After the movie, we stopped at the same viewpoint and looked at the stars filling in the gap between peak and ground. It felt precipitous.

Unfinished Business

Most people I know are worried about the timing of lockdown’s end. The delta variant of covid seems so contagious; every day we hear of more people having to isolate. The sun has not set on this pandemic.

Even if cases were way down, I think I’d still feel… anticlimactic, perhaps, about lockdown ending. Some people sorted their lives out during that time, it seems. I fear mine is in more disarray than when we started, and I can’t be the only one.

We are all this wind-shoved tree. Still standing…

My son’s first year at uni was a bit rubbish with all the restrictions; now he doesn’t know what he wants to do. Still working full-time, my husband and I didn’t accomplish any stunning DIY feats. We didn’t even have a clear-out since the charity shops and tip were closed. When the toilet and shower leaked under the floor, we peeled the laminate away revealing splintery, water-stained boards, but we couldn’t figure out what to do beyond that. Any further solutions would involve turning the house water off for a while, and we had no other place to go.

I took a lot of good walks—and also got plantar fasciitis and tennis elbow which made many of those hikes quite painful. I finished a handful of stories, and even found publications or events for a couple of them. But I haven’t had the energy or support or just the time to myself to properly tackle rewriting my novel. The loneliness of being an immigrant was more acute than ever. Maybe survival is the one thing I have achieved through lockdown.

Survival Mode

Let’s not underestimate the importance of surviving these times. And let’s not discount the monumental effort of it. When we’re spinning in a frenzy, we’re not going to make an accomplished journey. One about-face and then another don’t really equate to coming full circle.

A strip of wildflower seeds in our garden has brought us as much joy as our carefully planted roses and veggies. Chaos can be ok.

Most stories are written to show character development parallel to event progression. I’m not sure real life is like that. We are constantly challenged, and sometimes it’s not until the next really big test that we might notice what we learned from the last. Getting time to process something is a myth, at least in my existence.

So we emerge, reminded that time and family are incredibly precious. I don’t really care how little I’ve written for publication in the last 16 months, I have notebooks full of daily scribbles on how my husband and son were doing and what small things we did for each other. The clutter in my house hasn’t stopped me working lots of overtime right next to it, from a corner in my dining room; the injuries I had didn’t stop me going out for my alotted local exercise.

We’ve all learned what we can push on through, despite being cut off from others. Very likely, we’ll be doing that some more in the near future. This chapter is ongoing, even if the format’s changed. There’s no resolution yet, but we have resolve to keep working toward one! How are you getting through it all?

Restarting

This Week’s Bit of String: How to begin a writing day
Battle-scarred fellow traveler

Let your brain drag you out of bed.
It will have jolted you awake several times already, nervous, excited, random, clamouring to achieve release.
It’s been asking, Is this really allowed, is your partner genuinely ok with you spending a whole weekend day on writing work, will you be able to keep up with everything else, is your kid all right too (always is your kid going to be all right), am I smart enough, do I have the stamina, the wit, the imagination to get anything done?
And you’ve been telling your brain, you’ll have none of those things if it keeps waking you.
But this time you must get up, get outside, have some fresh air while there aren’t too many people for you to slalom around.
You have to feel as if you’re ready. You exercise your body to get permission to exercise your mind.
You don’t need the hoodie. No one cares if your frame is visible, if it’s gotten bulkier.
You have been working hard. You have the right to slice through space as bluntly or as sharply as you like.
The same goes for the page. You have the right to be heavy-handed in your first draft. Anything you say can only be used against you when you are ready to reveal it.
Swerve around the mud-spattered fallen geranium and poppy petals.
Nod a greeting to the other early morning travelers: determined snails and industrious blackbirds.
Indulge in the futile summoning of every cat you see, haughty after its night out.
Your legs are stretched. Your brain has been pounded into a rhythm. It has been lulled into focus.
You are prepared with snacks. Fruit and nuts, a politically incorrect tuna sandwich and some chocolate-coated pretzels.
You are an ambitious squirrel, you are a reckless, rule-flouting heathen.
You are a person of great imagination and careful planning, who has reserved fuchsia socks with penguins on them for this occasion.
The blinking cursor awaiting words on your document isn’t taunting you, it’s jumping up and down with excitement for what you’ll come out with. It adores you.
Give the page what it wants, open the cage door and pour your mind into its arms.

Back to the Projects

It’s been a while. The lockdown of 2021 was a tough one, and I haven’t had time to write for submission. After a long lapse, after constant flirtation with exhaustion, I wondered if I had the concentration for it anyway. I booked myself a writing day, using Writers HQ’s online retreat (which are wonderful and free, by the way, try them out here).

Bit rough, but the way through is visible.

There are ideas to work on. There are even plots. My goal was to finish one story, rewrite another, and edit a final one. Submissions will happen once again! It’s hard to contemplate the emotional roller coaster of submitting work when isolation has knocked you down. That was part of my issue, not to mention a dearth of submittable work, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. So I am building up my arsenal of stories, as well as my perseverance to once again plough through the inevitable rejections en route to some kind of success. It takes a lot of rearranging around the weekend chores and the weekday job, but I’m excited.

Daily Words

Despite my inability to write for possible publication, I have been writing every day, in my journal. Each notebook lasts 2 or 3 months, filling up with observations from my walks, reflections on current events, and details from family life. In each notebook cover I write something I want to remember for the period.

The inner jacket of the notebook I started just after Christmas says: “Small steps, long pauses, unlimited restarts are allowed.” And there did come a pause. I’m glad I told myself it was allowed. There was enough stress without beating myself up for not publishing anything.

Now I’m ready to fit in a bit of creating again. If you’re not, I hope you enjoy your break.

There’s a lot in life we can’t do over. But with writing, we can! We can stop and come back to it as many times as we like. Readjusting our balance doesn’t mean we’re not writers, any more than reworking a piece makes it less of a story. If you have to focus elsewhere for a while—let yourself. We know you’re a writer. Your work knows you’re a writer. You will meet again, in better times.

I started my latest journal a couple of weeks ago, and this time the cover has a line from an Avalanches song, “Frankie Sinatra.” It’s highly inappropriate, but I am a sucker for a catchy tune. The lyric goes, “Like Frank Sinatra bitch I do this shit my way.”

Folks, it begins.