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What We Keep

Thanksgiving meditation

Yearly we are told to list what we are thankful for. Some years it’s easier than others. But I find that I am thankful at this season for odd things. That we are not promised a world without sorrow, for one. There are empty spots in the line-up of the beloved, and it makes it easier when Sorrow builds her nest, to remember that no one ever said you were immune and exempt.
Thankful for the power of story, the gift given to artists – to take sorrow and make art.
Thankful for the twinge in the right knee because, not to sound too much like Pollyanna, that means the damn thing’s still there.
Thankful for the freight train snore of the dog at the foot of the bed; in Edith Wharton’s words, “little heartbeat at my feet.” Thankful that someone has finally clipped his toenails.
... for people who used to drive me crazy who I can now make use of in fiction.
...for the grouchy old coot ahead of me in Kroger who insulted the checkers, and made me look like a saint.
...for ice storms that keep us from going places that we didn’t want to go.
...and that so far the cat hasn’t climbed the Christmas tree.
Not a bad list.  Read More 
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Other people's business

I am inordinately set up about having (after several tries) got a piece in the Readers Write column of The Sun magazine. Every month they publish a list of topics and upcoming deadlines for submitting a short personal essay on each subject. Mine was “Cars,” a paean to my long-ago 1961 red convertible bug, in which I learned how to navigate the L.A. freeways and did many things my mother didn’t know about. My father bought it for me in the course of an evening’s poker game.

Readers Write is always the first thing I read when the new issue arrives. They are mini-novels, tiny memoirs of a moment or a person or, often, a trauma of some kind. But almost as often of a moment of joy, or understanding, on topics like Privacy, Trying Again, The Refrigerator, or Fire. Some are signed. Others are “Name Withheld.” Writers are instinctively interested in other people’s business, so small wonder it’s my favorite.

Years ago we spent the night at a favorite inn, Deetjen’s in Big Sur, where there are no telephones in the rooms, no television, just a fireplace and a journal for guests to write something in. I sat up most of the night reading the one in our room. There is something about anonymity, about knowing that the next guest is someone you will never set eyes on, that frees the tongue, or the pen. The one that I remember best was the entry by a woman who had come to the inn to break up with her lover, written as he slept beside her. I’ve always wondered what happened to them, written their story in varying ways in my head. Maybe she is someone I have read in The Sun.
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We Twee

Hollins campus buzzards observing the death of the English language
For some reason I am driven absolutely batty by the fashion for shortening words cutely: nutrish, delish, merch...

I don’t know why this irritates me so much, but it absolutely does. It’s just so adorable and twee you half expect it to blow you kisses. Gack. I am sure there are other examples but these three are the ones I see everywhere, as if every copywriter in the country has suddenly had the same attack of Traumatic Cuteness Overload, rendering them tragically incapable of writing a dignified sentence.

Waste not, want not, however, so there is apparently also a corresponding urge to add the missing bits to something else: bootylicious, pinkalicious, and others no doubt even more revolting. When my doctor starts discussing my condish with me, I am taking whatever condition my condition is in to someone else. Read More 
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Rocks

We have been stealing rocks. Since we live in an old riverbed, this is not hard. The alleys abound with them, and every time it rains, enough to build a chimney with wash onto the road that goes through the park. I feel a bit furtive with my sack of rocks, stealthily putting promising ones in as we walk the dogs. But a load of the things costs a mint, and I need flower bed borders, so we embark on a life of crime.

It’s very satisfactory setting the day’s haul in a line next to yesterday’s, slowly encircling the columbine and the hydrangeas, like coming to the end of a story and knowing you’ll have the ending in your pocket tomorrow.

Rocks can’t be rushed, any more than stories can. They takes eons to form (so alas do my stories) and they are particular who they will sit next to. They are heavy and you can’t swipe too many at a time in the same way that it is inadvisable to steal too much of your neighbor’s personal life for your fiction. A small bit here and there, then a chunk or two from a different person is safest.

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A bug in the works

With the first frost last Thursday night, the spiders are gone. I can’t say it distresses me when cutting back the browning stalks of the black-eyed-Susan, not to come face to face with one of the big black and yellow orb weavers that put out their nets for lunch just at a kneeling gardener’s eye level. But I miss their busyness in the autumn Spider Moon when they are doing their part in the insect ecosystem, the Great Chain of Bugness, even if I scope out the coneflowers and the daylily stalks before I wade in there. One took up housekeeping in the lotus this year, stringing her web between the stalks. I fear that that’s the mister behind her in the web, victim of a fatal romance.
I still see the bumblebees but they are fewer and fewer. The agastache that they love to bumble in has died back. When the Mexican sage has gone, they will too.
The milkweed bugs have left too, to wherever they go. I don’t know where they come from either, they just show up in late summer, a crust of tiny yellow dots on the milkweed and butterfly weed, progressing to orange and black nymphs and then handsome winged fellows.
Earlier in the year there was a praying mantis on the lotus. She swiveled her head at me, clearly wondering if I was edible. Too big, she decided, and moved on.
A few crickets are holding on in the basement but the garden feels empty, so many bug lives wound up. Sometimes after a frost I find small crisp bodies. I have to remind myself that a winter garden isn’t dead. Somewhere there are eggs, next year’s bugs in waiting.
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Dia de Los Muertos

Since we are transplanted Southern Californians, we miss the Day of the Dead and so we have an annual party to import our favorite holiday. For some reason I always manage to write a lot during the mad preparations for it. I have found that nobody has as many stories as the dead do.

In Mexico and much of the Southwest November 1 and 2 are celebrated as El Dia de Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. They coincide with All Saints Day and All Souls Day of the Christian calendar, but the tradition is older, with its origins among the Aztecs. On those turning-of-the-year days, when the borders between the worlds are thin, those who have gone through the door to the next world may come back to visit. The children, los angelitos, arrive first, on November 1, followed by the adults. Graveyards are spruced up and houses are decorated with skeleton figures and sugar skulls to remind us that death is just another world. Families make altars where they place the things that the departed loved. Candy for los angelitos, cigars and whiskey for the old men. I find myself shopping for them in October the way I shop for the living in December.

I like to think they appreciate it. Certainly they tell me stories. “Remember the gardener who was so good with roses,” they whisper in my ear. “Remember when he shot his wife’s back-door man and all the rose growers in town put the arm on the judge?” And I do. I remember as if I was there. “Remember Cousin Willetta?” they murmur, and I recall the family lottery of who-would-drive-Willetta, because Willetta didn’t drive, and listen to her complain for hours that no one could fit a shoe properly these days because she bought fives when she needed sixes. She was a sod widow and her sister was a grass widow and they lived together with six cats and made dreadful jam. My husband’s grandfather is there too, handsome and feckless, who sang for eight hours on a bet and never repeated a song. His wife stumps along behind him, a woman not to be trifled with, so tough that when he died, everyone called her Pa. They all come to visit, the newly lost a comfort to think of again, the distant ones just a nod through the wavy glass of the front window, their hands full of history.

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Down South

A fine weekend in Birmingham with the Southern Breeze SCBWI for their Writing and Illustrating for Kids conference.

My mother was from Birmingham and my childhood summers were spent there with my mom, grandparents, and a large cast of aunts, uncles, and cousins, acquiring a Southern accent and a loathing for grits. My grandmother’s front lawn had tree wells, rock-lined columns surrounding the tall pines that had been there when the house was built and the ground leveled. We regularly lost badminton birds down them and had to crawl gingerly down after them, batting spiders from our hair. We slept in one of the two spare bedrooms (my mother and my aunt in the other) in an assortment of cots, a double bed, and a youth bed that still had rails on it, arguing about who got to sleep next to the fan (no air conditioning) and listening to the squirrels bowl acorns up and down the attic floor above us. One summer we packed up the Arkansas cousins and the Mobile cousins and went to Panama City for a week, probably just to get us all out of my grandmother’s hair. My cousin Lucy, the eldest of the lot, was given the job of letting us get in her hair instead. As a teenager I drove my grandmother in her ancient black and aqua Plymouth from her house to the grocery store in English Village every day and was rewarded with limeade from the drugstore.

I wish I had had the time to drive by and see that house again. I only spent one month a year there, but I remember it as well as the house I grew up in.

This trip to Birmingham, I gave a workshop on “Is an MFA for You?” and obviously hope it is. Four of our Hollins Children’s Literature graduates were conference participants, including the SCBWI regional advisor, the redoubtable Claudia Pearson, who not only did a lot of the conference organizing (and introduced me to shopgoodwill.com, to my husband’s dismay) but hosted the faculty and volunteers at her house for dinner afterward, and sent me on the road with coffee in the morning.

If you want to write for children or teens, there is no more supportive organization of writers. You’ll find them at scbwi.org and be very glad you did. And for anyone contemplating an MFA in writing for children, the text of my talk is here:
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The Story Mine

People ask writers where stories come from, and all I can ever say is that they just are. We are stories already, even if some are inadvisable to tell.

I treasure what I remember of my parents’ storytelling. They were both writers and had been married for seventeen years before they had me, and as a child I always thought of that time as a sort of exotic landscape, peopled with characters who were now dead or mad or lost in some other way.

The Depression era house in Flushing, New York that they shared with multiple relatives and in-laws, all writers, had an interdimensional feel to me when I thought of it. Two enormous box turtles roamed the halls, the residents stocked up on groceries and whiskey when someone sold a story, and the cook carried on conversations with the cats until said whiskey was locked up. My uncle drove my aunt, the only one with an actual job, to the train station every day in a horse and buggy. When a lady in a chauffeured car pulled up and asked him, “My good man, who do you drive for?” he tipped his hat, gave his own name, and added, “the noted author.”

There were always dogs, including the ones who independently charged an ice cream cone at the drugstore the day they weren’t taken for their usual walk and cone, and the one who bit a Senate candidate. Later in California, there was a house in Topanga Canyon with a tree growing through the living room, and a goat that was serially sold to each new resident, a kind of initiation. They weren’t inclined to censor their storytelling for youthful ears, so I heard about night my [relative redacted] showed up on their doorstep with a lamp and said, “[wife redacted] threw this at me but I caught it.” I heard about the wicked multiple-great uncle who murdered his brother-in-law, and about the attic where my father made bootleg beer with a bad-influence friend while his own father, a circuit court judge, was out of town.

Why does their life always sound more interesting than mine? There is a sense of not having lived up to a sufficient number of mad friends and improbable road trips. And yet it takes a span of years for dangerous and not-thought-through to transmute into interesting. Maybe the interesting stories can safely be told only when the participants have left.
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The bedridden heroine

Being bedridden in Victorian fiction always sounds so lovely – sitting piled against lovely pillows in a lovely lacy bedjacket while people bring you cups of tea and soft boiled eggs and sit at your feet for advice on how they should conduct their lives. I could get into that. It is definitely not the same as being in bed because you are too sick to get up and stagger around. The Victorian heroine has a small fluffy dog with a pink ribbon to keep her company. I have three pugs who all snore and hog the pillows. The cats arrive too, in the hope that you have a fever and are warmer than usual.

The bedridden heroine is a variant of the woman known as “the angel in the house” who was just too good to be true, and whose little dog didn’t snore. She has her origins in a mid-nineteenth century poem by Coventry Patmore about the ideal woman whose only wish is to please her husband. As Virginia Woolf later said of her, she “was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed daily. If there was a chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it...”

Children’s Literature scholars know her as Katy in What Katy Did, or Pollyanna who when her legs are paralyzed is cheerful that they are at least still there. And then there’s Beth in Little Women. We all wept over Beth and promised to grow up to be just as good and kind as she was, if at all possible, which it wasn’t.

An incentive to get up and out of bed. If I turned into her my husband would assume that goblins had taken me and left a changeling.
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Present tense irregular

I have always thought that a mad aunt locked in the attic gave a household that certain je ne sais quoi that lent a literary feel to the whole establishment. Now we have the next best thing, a mad grandfather clock. It’s really more a great-grandfather clock, that being who it belonged to, and apparently it has lost its ability to count, perhaps the first sign on the road to clock dementia.

Keeping it running has always required regular house calls from the Clock Man, a mad genius whose idea of fun in his off hours is reassembling clockworks. Occasionally it gets grumpy and stops chiming, and he came out so many times to fix it that he taught my husband how to reset the chimes. Apparently it doesn’t like being fooled with by amateurs. It has started chiming again but in an odd pattern. Mostly, it chimes one, two and three quite adequately, then starts with one again at four o’clock, two at five, and so on until it gets to nine, at which point it chimes seven, then gets on the spot with ten at ten and good for eleven and twelve.

It requires interesting math to keep time by it. It’s striking four so it must be seven. Time to get up. Unless it really is four. Is it dark outside? No. It must be seven. You can’t quite trust it. It may really be four or it may just be sulking.

We had high hopes that it was actually self-correcting for a while when it started chiming eight at nine, but last night the hour hand began dangling at six no matter what time it actually is, and this morning the minute hand fell off and is wedged somewhere in the bottom of the case.

We have called the clock psychologist.
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