I have a HUGE birthday looming large. One of those this-can’t-be-true numbers. An age you associate with your mother, or maybe even your grandmother. I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around it.
I’m trying to focus on the positives like (1) I’m still alive and semi-kicking, and (2) after this many years on the planet, I’ve finally wised up. And I mean street-smarts. Not the accrual of a lifetime of erudite wisdom, but enough slaps-up-the-side-of-the-head so I finally get it.
Since life doesn’t give you a second chance to Play It Again Sam, I’m at a loss what to do with XX years (can't say it) of life experience. Yes, I can apply what I’ve learned to future challenges and to interactions with people I would rather bitch-slap than treat cordially. I could pass my thoughts on to the younger generation, but chances are good I’ll be met with eyes rolling or the “that was then and this is now” look. Guess what kiddos? The human condition isn’t that unique and the same mistakes are repeated generation after generation, so save yourself some grief and listen up. Here we go:
After weeks and weeks of shoving thoughts of novel revisions aside to prioritize everything and everyone else, I’m finally back in the thick of it—back into serious writing mode. When I dive into the lives of my characters, I’m Alice Through the Looking Glass and the real world slips away behind me. My field of focus goes no farther than the computer screen in front of me and the imagery created by the typed words.
I’m back to drinking cooled coffee and pulling leg warmers on over my jeans because the floor under my desk is the coldest spot in the house. I’ve learned not to take a quick break to put the kettle on for tea unless I am willing to stand in the kitchen and wait for the water to boil. Walking back to my computer, if “only for a minute”, is a recipe for a ruined kettle, which would be the least of it. Something tells me that if I burned the house down, my supportive husband might rethink being so generous about my writing obsession.
I’m at the stage of revision where I’m re-examining how and when characters divulge information to ensure a steady buildup to the big life-changing reveals, and to avoid secrets being disclosed too soon. I’m deepening some of the character’s emotional responses and internal dialogues. Dialogue is being tightened and the manuscript checked and rechecked for consistency in style, capitalization, etc. I’m trying to be methodical about the process so that I move forward in a straight line rather than my usual spiral. I created files: “cut – use elsewhere somewhere”, “deletions and additions”, and “outline” – a synopsis of each chapter, tracking said changes. There’s more, but I can feel your eyes glazing over from here. Bet you’ve guessed that I’m one of those peculiar writing-major types that actually enjoys the editing and revising process.
So instead of rambling on about a process that puts most people into a comatose state, I’m going to insert an excerpt from the novel, just a few paragraphs from Chapter Six.
Background: Paige has only been at DDS for three months. She’s the youngest instructor and is still at the bottom of the learning curve. Paige is also struggling with a mixture of grief and anger after the death of her mother just eighteen months ago. At 24 she’s alone: no mother, no siblings, and no father—a shadowy figure her mother would never talk bout. Paige has come across a worn, frayed folder in a box of her mother’s junk files that has turned her world upside down.
Christmas is packed up. It’s taken three full days to get the house back to normal after the holidays, and it’s been exhausting. As my mother used to say, after the Lord Mayor’s show comes the donkey cart. To put it in contemporary terms—creating Christmas is festive; cleaning up after Christmas, not so much. So, why do I continue to put myself through this? A few friends, who keep holiday madness to a minimum, recently posed the same question.
I can’t use our kids as an excuse. They’re not kids anymore. My son, step-son, and step-daughter are creeping closer to middle age and, being the unconventional souls that they are, they could do without the traditional trappings of Christmas. There are no grandchildren to create Christmas for—no little faces to light up at the sight of the decorated tree, no little hands eager for Christmas cookies, no excited exclamations at the sight of filled Christmas stockings and wrapped gifts. Christmas has changed, but my husband and I haven’t. I should put up a sign: Beware - confirmed Christmas junkies live here.
Even though I moan about how much work it all is, once the house is wearing its happy, Christmas face, I feel a quiet contentment settle in. I begin to crave eggnog and the scent of mince pie baking. And then there’s the tree—I can’t see myself giving up the annual ritual of putting up and trimming a tree. Each ornament carries a special memory, from the miniature ballet shoes my grandmother gave me, to the delicate china tea cup purchased in London. My husband is no better. He plays Christmas music in November, and his collection of outdoor snowmen keeps growing, even though front-yard assembly is becoming a physical challenge.
As I’m shoving boxes onto a high shelf, I wonder if everyone’s right and it’s time to give most of this up? It’s a lot of work, and if no one but us cares about the house being all Christmassy, is there a point? On my last trip down the ladder, with my joints scolding me, I had a light bulb moment. Why do I think I shouldn't bother if I’m decorating only for us?
This line of thought goes way beyond Christmas. This is about being steeped in the ideology that one has to always put others first, and doing something just for your own enjoyment is self-indulgent. But honestly, who's insisting that I/we create a traditional Christmas for them? No one. Which means the doing-for-others philosophy is a smokescreen I’ve been hiding behind. If I were a millennial instead of a baby boomer, I don’t think I’d be having this conversation with myself. I feel like I am peeking out from under a blanket of years of conditioning. All of a sudden, the blanket is more cloying than comforting.
So, I'm tossing aside the mantle of martyrdom and, from now on, I will own my love of Christmas schmaltz with no explanations or justifications given. Our holidays will be exactly as over-the-top or low-key as our elfish, Christmas hearts’ desire. That doesn’t mean you might not hear some very non-Christmassy expletives drifting out our front door as the reality of putting everything up meets the limitations of aging bodies, but once I spike the eggnog, it will all smooth out. Trust me on this one.
A fresh new year, full of promise, is about to unfold before us. We’ll wish each other Happy New Year, often with our fingers crossed behind our backs. Happiness is so very elusive, and yet we are ever hopeful. The threshold we stand on today, between the old year and the new, offers the opportunity to review, reconsider, release the negative, reaffirm the positive, and resolve to treat both ourselves and those around us with a gentler touch in 2019.
I have a New Year’s ritual of sorts—releasing my artsy, new wall calendar from its wrappings. The entire year is laid out before me, clean and fresh. I turn the pages slowly, savoring all the stunning photographs. Each new page is a delicious blank slate, embodying the promise of what might be. I run my fingertips over the neatly delineated days, in their clean white squares. The blank dates tantalize and tease. Which will become noteworthy memories? Which will offer new opportunities? More importantly, will I recognize an opportunity when one presents itself, especially if it takes an unexpected form? A new year gives us all the chance to let go of our preconceived concepts and open ourselves up to being delighted and surprised.
Being a woman of contradiction, as much as I embrace the idea of spontaneity, I’m also a confirmed list maker and planner. Juxtaposed to the ideal of simply going with the flow is my to-do and project list for 2019. It’s already well-fleshed out with plans, goals, deadlines, and tickets purchased for events. I’ll most likely have many of the clean, blank boxes inked-in before the end of first week of January. Makes me wonder whether the part of me that craves security fears the unexpected? Do I need to ward off adversity by not allowing it to wedge itself onto my filled calendar? Does that mean I can accept life unfolding at the whim of the “powers that be” only if it doesn’t sidetrack my plans? One more thing to ponder as I move into 2019.
As for the close of 2018, I can say that I’m ending the year relatively content with life. I hope that my progress up life’s learning curve was at least commensurate to the rate at which my hair has turned grey. I took on some new and challenging projects and continued to build confidence in my abilities. I’ve also learned a few lessons to take forward with me, like changing an unrealistic definition of friendship. While being a good friend remains important to me, I’ve been around the block enough now to recognize that sometimes a friendship really isn’t, and it’s time to walk away. Maybe age has jaded my idealism a bit, but on the up side, I’m still young at heart with enough zeal to pursue my passions, develop my talents, set some goals, and put energy into nurturing some new friendships.
I’m pleased to be part of blended family comprised of interesting individuals, and I have a supportive husband who does his very best to understand me. I am blessed with enough material comfort to remind me that I should never complain and to spur me to give back. My prayer to the "powers that be" is that I can face next New Year's Eve with few-to-no regrets, and at least one dream or two fulfilled. If I am nothing else, I am an optimist.
That said, I can wish all of you a “Happy New Year” with enthusiasm, and my fingers are not even crossed behind my back.
Just before Christmas 2013, my husband surprised me with a large, gift-wrapped box. I wasn’t sure how to react. We weren’t supposed to be buying each other gifts, and I’d stuck to my side of the bargain. He picked up on “the look” right away--I’ve never been good at hiding my feelings—and he assured me that he hadn’t bought me anything, he was re-gifting.
Confused, and with considerable trepidation, I unwrapped the large box and pried it open. Beneath the packing paper were several cumbersome, bubble-wrapped objects. My confusion deepened. I pulled two of the oddly shaped bundles out of the box and ran my hands over them. I looked at David in disbelief. I could feel the unmistakable contours of a train engine and cars through the protective wrapping. Tears of joy started to flow. How had he tracked down my son’s long-lost, handmade, wooden train? It had been gone for fifteen years.
December 1982. I was a single mom and, without overstating, financially strapped. Nonetheless, I was on a mission to find that special gift from Santa for my almost, three-year-old son.
Wandering Tucson’s Fourth Avenue Street Fair, a booth filled with old-fashioned, handmade, wooden toys stopped me in my tracks. The artisans, John West & Sons, were true craftsmen, eager to show off the workmanship of each toy. These were non-mechanical toys, ready to be animated by a child’s imagination. The vendor pointed out solid maple biplanes with propellers that spun, firetrucks with ladders, and helicopters expertly doweled, but a delightful, four-car train won my heart. I ran the train along its shelf. It was perfect.
This gift had great significant to me. It had substance. It was handmade, not plastic, breakable, or fake. It was ‘real’ and would last. Somehow it represented stability. I held my breath and flipped the price tag over. I could do it. It would take every cent in my shopping budget, but that train would be under the tree, waiting for my son on Christmas morning.
That Christmas train claimed prominent shelf space in our home for sixteen years, until one day in 1998 when I noticed it was missing. Light bulb moment. My son’s stepfather had recently moved to Florida to remarry. The train must have made the cross country trip with him. I was crushed. That train set meant more to me than my ex, or even my then teenage son, would ever understand.
Fifteen years later (2013), during a phone conversation with my son’s stepfather, I asked whether he still had the train set. He’d been divorced for a few years. When he moved out of the house in Florida, he left most of his belongings behind. He had no idea where the wooden train might be. His guess was in a box, buried in the depths Liz’s (ex-wife), storage shed; they were not on friendly terms. My quest was hopeless.
My husband, David, saw my disappointment. He is a very resourceful man. Somehow he tracked Liz down, telephoned her, explained the situation, and while they were still on the phone, she found the train stashed in a box in her closet. She would be happy to ship it to me. She understood. And that’s how I ended up receiving the best, re-gifted Christmas gift ever.
Today the wooden engine and four cars are displayed in my living room, next to a framed picture of my son with the train, Christmas 1983. It will forever bring me joy, and I will forever be grateful for its return.
I’ve been out of the car-buying loop long enough for Goggle maps to replace a glove box full of folded maps, and for ignition keys to become a thing of the past. When I bought my last car, PDAs and mobile phones had not yet merged technologies to create smartphones, and I’m pretty sure Bluetooth was just static in some computer engineer’s brain. Connecting all this stuff to one’s car was still Star-Trekian technology. The newest thing out was cruise control—a very big deal.
Buying a car used to involve strategic planning. The first rule of the sport was to keep your cards close to your chest. Having the upper hand was essential to avoid driving off the lot with a “deal” that left you bankrupt, or worse, with a lemon and no warranty. Once a gleaming prospect was winnowed out of the pack, the hood was lifted. I limited my comments to the engine’s cleanliness. Tires were kicked--never sure why--and gas mileage and RPMs were discussed. The driver’s seat was adjusted, mirrors checked for visibility, and the key turned in the ignition to listen to the engine. The radio was checked for reception and static. Was the antennae retractable? A major bonus. Sensing a serious interest, the salesman waxed eloquent about reliability, air bags, improved construction, and windshield wiper speed. It was show time. Calculator in hand, negotiations could take the better part of a day.
While peeling potatoes for Thanksgiving this year, my mind wandered, aimlessly unsealing memory pockets. This sorting process usually occurs at night, triggering insomnia. To clear my head, I jotted bits and pieces down.
ThisThanksgiving, there were many things to be grateful for, especially having all the “kids” over for dinner. We don’t take their presence at our table for granted. They’re all active, childless, busy adults. Their interests are varied, and their perspectives different from ours on how best to spend a holiday weekend. Both my husband and I are mired in the traditions we grew up with.
Thanksgiving in my parents’ home set the bar high for holiday expectations later in life. From the ceremonial uncorking of the wine to including friends who might have otherwise spent the day alone, my parents demonstrated an exemplary generosity of spirit. There was always room for one more at their table. As my mother used to say, “There but for the grace of God goes you.”
At nineteen, I cooked my first Thanksgiving dinner for five. I was young and broke but optimistic. I was appropriately thankful, but I think there was much I took for granted. Feeling genuinely thankful doesn’t always happen naturally. It is a learned mindset. Learning is not always an easy or pleasant process.
Fast forward about fourteen years. I was newly divorced, with a son just under three-years old. My ex-in-laws wanted him for Thanksgiving, so I decided to make the best of it and go to a holiday buffet with a friend. As I stood on the doorstep of my in-laws’ house handing over my son, the scent of Thanksgiving permeated every cell of my being.
I don’t think anyone would ever call me stingy, but I’m not a big spender either. I choke at the cost of a pricey new outfit, and cringe when the grocery store checker reads me the grand total. I consider myself a relatively frugal person, but there’s one major fatal flaw in my frugality. I’m totally hopeless with coupons. It doesn't matter what kind—the “buy one get one free” deals on meals or the “cents off” for drugstore and grocery store items. When the cashier hands me coupons along with the receipt, the paper they are printed on is a waste of a good tree.
I love the idea of thrift. Who doesn’t want to save a few bucks when shopping? But somehow I seem to be unable to turn the theory of thrift into reality when it comes to saving money with coupons. I’ve placed a clipped stack right by my purse on the kitchen but managed to walk right out the door sans coupons anyway. I’ve even put them on the passenger seat of my car. That should work, right? You’d think. But, there I am, half way home with a full load of groceries before I notice the coupons sitting there, mocking me.
Some things never change. I started to write this post, I came across a short piece of flash fiction I wrote a few years ago, based on my ineptitude for couponing. It sort of says it all. Full Price Frances was published in 2014 by ALongStoryShort; however, their links are no longer active so I’m going to copy the text and repost here. It’s light and a bit daft, but maybe it will make you smile. (Please click Read More, lower right, to see the whole story.)
Full Price Frances
With a sigh of impatience, Frances shoved the ad flyers, the scissors, and the remaining unclipped coupons to one side of the small kitchen table. She propped her sandalled feet onto the cleared space and switched her cell phone to her right ear.
"I don't know, Michelle. This coupon-clipping thing is just so time-consuming."
Frances tried to modulate the exasperation in her voice. She examined the chipped nail polish on her big toe while her sister's voice harangued in her ear. Darn, she was sure she had a $5.00 coupon for her next nail service, but where was it?
"Michelle, I'm single. I just don't need that much stuff. I get out of the office so late, I usually just get take-out anyway… yes, I know you and Mom want me in your couponing club. Sounds like fun."
Frances grimaced and picked at the ruined pedicure.
Like a lot of you, I’ve been on a major clearing-out-clutter tear. A few weeks ago, three large bags of winter clothes joined a trunk full of items bound for a charity thrift shop. Last week boxes of household items were taken to a non-profit for their annual yard sale. I’ve culled my shoe collection and emptied bins of holiday decorations. The kitchen cupboards and pantry are re-organized to the point that my husband doesn’t know where anything goes anymore. (He’s decidedly unappreciative of my efforts.) I even tossed out stacks of special-interest magazines, but only after tucking unread articles into sheet protectors and snapping them into a big binder. How’s that for overkill?
The house is reasonably ship-shape, or at least heading that way, but I still can’t shake feeling edgy, almost twitchy, whenever I stare into a closet. It’s like my body's been taken over by an alien being with a compulsive need for order. Think of it as a Stepford-wife-on-steroids version of PMS.
When I sat down long enough to mull over this uncontrollable urge to purge, I came to the conclusion that my zeal to over-organize is, in fact, a “productive” coping mechanism. This revelation hit me after listening to an onslaught of mind-numbing TV newscasts, receiving word that our one healthy dog needed surgery, learning that yet another friend had passed away, and processing it all with too many glasses of red wine.
What I have come to terms with is this—the unvarnished truth—the stress of life’s minor upsets is accumulative and can quickly shift from exhausting to unmanageable. We become targets in a carnival game. We take the hit, bounce upright in time for the next pitch, and then over we go again. Do you know what I mean? To heck with having a five-year plan, how about an uninterrupted five-day plan? I'm still waiting for that to happen.
When I can’t cope with the news of another mass shooting, out-of-control wildfire, political derailment, or when crisis-after-crisis tempts me to pull the covers over my head and stay in bed all day, I change my focus and diligently put my own house in order. Yes, it's all feel-good smoke and mirrors: a vain attempt to find the elusive nirvana of a serene life and a calm mind. The truth is that no matter how many times I redo that pantry, neither my personal ducks nor those of the world will ever line up in rows as neat as the serving spoons in my kitchen drawer.
Coping with life’s challenges while trying to stay emotionally balanced is like being caught between the two maxims, Life is What Happens While You're Making Plans and Man Plans, God Laughs. Only I have to tell you (your mouth to God's ear), sometimes it’s not so damn funny.
The manuscript of Dancing Between the Beats is back in my hands. It spent July through September with Joshua Cochran: published author, poet, and current head of the English department at Pima Community College (PCC). He read through most of the draft for a general developmental/content edit. His input was, as expected, invaluable.
As I work through Joshua's notations, I find everything from a confidence-boosting “wow” in the margins, to “ground us in setting”, “refine delivery”, and even few eagle-eye line edits. I am paying attention to all. He also pointed out that I overused the word just. I think overused is a gentle understatement. When I searched the document, I found 533 iterations of just. If I use this word in speech as often as I did in the draft of my novel, you have my permission to slap me the next time you hear it coming out of my mouth.
Between input from Joshua Cochran and in-depth critiques from my writing group, Vista Writers, the hard work of revision can now seriously begin. I'm still working through line edits before delving deeper. Next will be the more time-intensive process of major revisions: grounding the reader in setting, tightening the tension, using more internal dialogue to add depth to characters, and killing my darlings (as per William Faulkner). I’ve created a revision outline to help me stay on track and plan to stock up on coffee.
The hardest part of the revision process is the self-discipline involved. I'm anything but a person of routine, but to tackle the task on hand, I will have to set a writing schedule and avoid distractions. Did anyone say squirrel?
My blog is a window into my world and I’d love to learn about yours, so feel free to comment.