(Every year the Society of Southwestern Authors sponsors a writing contest for writers of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. The SSA contests are open to non-members, so entries come in from all over the country. This year was the first time they included a category for first-chapter, novel submissions. I think they were a bit overwhelmed when thirty entries hit their mailbox.
Winning entries are published in SSA’s annual publication—The Storyteller; however, only the first page of each first-chapter entry is included in the hard-copy publication (space constraints.) But, thanks to SSA’s wonderful techie types, digital files are now up and running on their website, meaning that the winning chapters can be read in their entirety.
I’m guessing you suspect this is more than an info dump about the SSA contest. Right you are, of course.
Sometimes you just have to take a deep breath, fill out the entry form, and pop that sucker in the mailbox, and trust me, every single time a little bit of your heart goes with it. Yup, even though Dancing Between the Beats is still undergoing final revisions, I entered the first chapter, Enter Stage Right, anyway. I entered without expectations, but paid the extra fee to receive written critiques from the judges. Always invaluable in any contest.
So, imagine my surprise when I received an email, not just with critiques attached, but with an invitation to the awards ceremony (yesterday), because my chapter won an Honorable Mention (that means 4th or 5th out of 30). I’ll take it! I’d expected to end up on the “to be shredded pile.” I'm quite pleased. If interested, here’s the link to the full first chapter: (P.S. - May 22. Just FYI, since the contest, the first chapter, particularly the first page, has been revised, and consolidated. Might pop it in to another post. Much better.)
I worried and stressed over having to read an excerpt, but I survived the mike, and if you want to read just the bit I read at the ceremony, you can find that here:
Spring in the Sonoran desert is as fleeting as a meteor streaking across the night sky. For a precious few weeks, we’re treated to sunny temperate days, cool nights, and welcome cloudbursts that bring, if Mother Nature finds us deserving, a glorious show of wildflowers. This is one of our jackpot years. Swathes of lupines, poppies, and globe mallows transform otherwise bland roadsides and stretches of desert into tapestries of vibrant blues and bright yellow-oranges.
In my own backyard stalks of hot pink penstamen stretch skyward, and long stems of globe mallow droop with hot orange flowers. The onset of wildflowers signals backyard gardeners to drop everything and get outside before the window of opportunity closes. I’m part of that group: an unabashed, avid gardener. To be truly candid, I’m probably more of a plant addict. There, I’ve said it. Much like my passion for dogs, I’ve rarely met a plant I’m not interested in getting to know better. For me, there’s nary a difference between a weed and a wildflower. If it blooms, it lives in my garden.
First on the agenda this spring was major pruning. To bushwhack a path to the less invasive, smaller salvias and lantanas, several feet had to come off the flowering, bird of paradise shrubs. Next, the bottlebrush bushes, already beginning to bud, were pruned and opened up. Once their thickening buds bristle open, worker bees will stake their claim. Waiting to prune a bottlebrush until the bees are busy working is a foolish game of gardening Russian roulette.
Maneuvering through my maze of plantings can be challenging, even to me. A jab from the sword-like daggers of a small yucca, playing hide-and-go-seek under an overgrowth of intertwined lantana, drove that point home. Pun intended. Swearing, and moving with more caution, I raked up a winter’s worth of fallen leaves and trimming debris, working carefully around ribbons of irrigation lines. My back told me it wasn’t happy, but my brain appreciates the focus of landscaping and planting. It quiets, and the receptors in my mind relax and open.
The solitude of my garden, the repetitive nature of the work, and the superb listening skills of my plants, give me permission to speak freely. When I’m outdoors and away from human voices, thoughts flow with a clarity that escapes me when sitting at my keyboard, or even when conversing face-to-face. Watching bees diving in and out of mallow blooms gave me an idea for a short piece of fiction. A couple of brilliant phrasings also floated to the forefront, but sadly drifted off like fluff from the milkweed pods. Note to self: tuck a small notebook in shirt pocket and try to keep notes free of garden-soil smears.
The time spent digging and trimming saves me from the therapist’s couch. Lost in the work, I find closure for those unresolved issues that niggle away in the recesses of memory. Trimming around some prickly aloe veras, I imagined in-depth conversation with an ex-close friend. By the time I was done internally expounding, I attacking dead stems with a little too much vigor, and stopped just short of chopping into an irrigation line. Stream of consciousness in the garden, as freeing as it is, might not be the best route to go when working with clippers and shears.
So, until the heat hits and drives me indoors, if your phone call goes to my message machine or your texts go unanswered, assume I’m in the backyard, engaged in plant therapy. Be happy, maybe even relieved. It could be you on the receiving end rather than a geranium.
Maybe it was waking up to an email that another uncle passed away; maybe it was the recent anniversaries of deaths; maybe it was the ring of the phone rousing me from a deep, dream-state, sleep, but whatever the cause, my untethered thoughts spiraled off in this direction:
At this moment, life is on cruise control with very few bumps in the road, but…. It only takes one text, one email, one blood test, one summons to the boss’s office, or one second to freshen lipstick in the rear view mirror, for the light from the sunniest day to get sucked into a black hole. Life can spin us off our axis faster than a hurricane can fell a tree, and every time we retell the story, we’ll say something like, “But the day started out so well. It was just an ordinary day…. I never saw it coming….” Even years later, the disbelief will resonate in our voices.
I don’t know about you, but when my phone rings before 7:00 a.m., my guts contract like I’m being laced into the 18-inch-waist of a Victorian corset. The absolute worst omen of disaster is being blasted from sleep by the shrill sound of the telephone. I don’t react well. I can’t breathe; my heart races; and my mouth dries out like the Sahara Desert at noon. Why? Because too often disaster has struck in the early hours of the morning.
New Year’s Day, many years ago, I awoke to the call that my future husband’s mother passed away in the wee hours of the New Year. Three weeks later, the very day I was to arrange hospice care for my grandmother, an early morning caller urged me to rush to the hospital; my grandmother was near death. A year later on the Fourth of July (my husband was overseas on a business trip), I answered a frantic 4:30 a.m. call from my stepmother. She’d arrived home from a night shift to find my father sprawled on the bathroom floor. He’d died alone. And the story continues—my mother rushed to the hospital with a heart attack, a gut-wrenching betrayal by a close family member, a cancer diagnosis….
Each time my life was diverted off course, I rallied. What other choice is there but to suck it up and do whatever has to be done? But once the heartbreak was handled and the end of the tunnel was in sight, I promised myself and the heavens to begin living more in the moment, appreciate every day, and never take anyone or life itself for granted again. Blah, blah, blah.
I don’t obsess about aging, but I do wonder how many years are left before I hit my expiration date, which triggers thoughts about how I want to spend those years. Milestone birthdays do that to you. My hope was to morph into one of those wild and wacky older women featured on greeting cards. You know the ones—blithe, self-possessed, laughing and kicking-up their heels arm-in-arm with a group of equally, age-defiant, female friends. Sadly, over the past few years, that image shattered like stress cracks in auto glass as, one by one, my longtime friends all moved away. The exodus started out small, and then spread like a starburst as the layers of glass split, leaving me kicking up my heels alone, via emails, Facebook, or text messages.
It’s said that ‘real’ friends go for months without seeing or talking to each other, and then pick up where they left off. I’m not a big believer in that line of thinking. For me it’s the day-to-day stuff that sustains intimate relationships. When friends are out of touch for too long, catching-up is overwhelming, so we condense, skimming over details and leaving out major chunks of the saga of our lives. We fall out of sync, and close friendships drift into the Christmas-card exchange category, and fall out of the sharing-over-coffee, intimate friend category. Maintaining close friendships takes effort and usually proximity. Close friends stay… well…close.
Which brings me to why I’ve been MIA, with no blog posts, for the past two weeks. My best friend is here, visiting from England. Her airline ticket was a birthday gift from my husband. How great is that? To make things even better, her birthday falls a few days after mine.
Background: Jo and I met when we were puppies, in our early thirties, and bonded like cement. She moved home to England in 2001 to take care of her ailing, elderly mother. For eighteen years we’ve lived a continent and an ocean apart, but distance hasn’t dampen our friendship. We chat on the phone, email, and catch-up in person during Jo’s almost annual trips to Arizona.
Everything I’ve learned about how to be a good friend I’ve learned from Jo. She’s a big-picture person, in it for the long haul. Jo can brush things off, balancing a friend’s bad day or miss-speak against the broader picture of their true nature. Since I am prone to irritation and don’t hide it well, I truly need and appreciate a friend who will both cut me slack and slap me upside the head when I need it. She makes me lighten up and laugh—not always an easy task. Jo checks in often, remembers birthdays, prioritizes get-togethers, and celebrates her friends’ successes with honest pleasure. Now, I’m not as good as Jo at any of this. She sets the friendship bar pretty high, but I try my best to follow her example.
Jo has a great generosity of spirit. Before she moved back to England in 2001, she gave her group of girlfriends her “buddy list”, with each person’s contact information. We all knew each other on some level, but our real connection to each other was Jo. The string attached was that we were all to get together often enough to become friends ourselves. And so we did, to the benefit of each one of us, as different as we all are. Now when Jo visits, getting the group together is something we all look forward to. We’ve had some great times.
Six of us in Jo’s circle have birthdays within days of each other (all Aquarians.) You can guess what this means—a major excuse for a party. This visit we pulled five of the six together (and three spouses) for an uproarious, celebratory dinner at a local, cowboy steakhouse. The wine and margaritas were flowing, and laughter was abundant. I’ll insert a picture taken at the beginning of the evening. As the dinner progressed, the rest of pictures are a blur of animation with ladies talking across, around, and at each other, sharing cell phone pictures and toasting everything we could think of.
Wacky, wild, crazy ladies! Thanks to Jo, there might be potential for some heel-kicking-up in my old age after all.
IMAGES: Top left: Just before Jo moved home to London. Top right: As requested, group outing - we made her a poster of this picture. Center bottom: Recent group dinner celebrating five Aquarian birthdays (top left, a friend of Jo's and now ours who moved to AZ from Portland.)
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.
Lynn Nicholas - AUTHOR oF Dancing Between The Beats
My blog is a window into my world. My rambling posts tend to be slice-of-life narratives, inspired by