We’re all fine here, now, thank you. How are you?

How are you holding up?

Y’all doing okay?

Going crazy yet?

These are the standard greetings in the Coronazoic age. And now it’s the monthly IWSG question: In this time when our world is in crisis with the covid-19 pandemic, our optional question this month is: how are things in your world? (Want to see some other great IWSG posts? Check out the list of participants here. (Powered by Linky Tools)

So, how am I? I’m fine.

I’m a homebody by nature, and I’m very good at entertaining myself. So for the most part, I’m one of those annoying people that get ridiculed regularly in quarantine memes. I’m working at home–productively–and making time for professional development. I’m writing regularly, cooking from scratch, reading, getting adequate sleep on a regular schedule, taking walks outside, and working in my garden. Hell, I’m exercising more than I have in years. I think it must be quarantine-induced insanity, but I’ve become obsessed with my step count and hyper-competitive in the FitBit Workweek Hustle challenge I participate in with co-workers. As I write this, it’s not quite 2 PM, and I have over 10,000 steps. But I’m not in first place–damn you, Sue B.–so I need to find a way to blog and walk at the same time.

I’m also more relaxed than I’ve been in at least two decades. Call it quarantine if you want. I’m calling it an extended retreat or maybe a sabbatical.

So, yeah, I’m doing just fine.

But.

When I lie in bed at night after a long day of productivity and feeding the FitBit, I look at my husband and wonder if I’ll lose him to this damn disease. Or if he’ll lose me. If our son will lose a parent. Or (please, God, no) both parents.

I read about someone younger than me dying of this thing, and I feel the tube in my throat, hear the rasp of the ventilator. Or feel the air hunger as I gasp on a gurney in a hospital hallway, because there are no ICU beds and no ventilators.

I should make a list of all our accounts and insurance policies with passwords and contact information, so if I go, my husband and son will know what to do. But I don’t do that. I can’t do that. Because I am a coward, and if I do that, I will have to face the possibility such an act implies. And I can’t.

Better get some more steps in instead. Gotta catch up to Sue B. Does that woman ever sit down?

I contemplate the next few months–or years–and I remember my father’s stories of growing up during the Great Depression. Of going to bed hungry. Of squabbling with his siblings over the last chicken foot. Because that’s what the children got: the feet. The adults were working to help the family survive and needed the meatier pieces so they would have the strength to keep going.

Please, God, don’t let my son have to live like that.

I look at my friends list on Facebook and wonder whose page will become a memorial. Whose family will grieve. Whose spark of life will disappear from the world forever.

And I take another walk or pick up a book or watch another webinar until the blanket of denial is thick enough to shield me from the possibilities I cannot bear to face. I lounge in an oversized Def Leppard t-shirt and grease-stained yoga pants, fashion icon that I am, and grasp at whatever I can reach to keep the fear at bay, to retain some sense of control in a world running further off the rails with every presidential press conference.

How am I doing? I’m fine. We’re all fine here, now, thank you.

How are you?

 

Noticing

2020-03-22 12.01.54.jpgAs it has for many of us, my world has grown smaller in the last few weeks. We aren’t under a shelter in place order here in Arizona (yet), but the number of coronavirus cases is rising rapidly, and most public facilities are either closed or restricted.

Like most Gen-Xers, I’m good at entertaining myself. I also know how to cook, and I enjoy time at home, away from people. But still, having to be home for an extended period of time can get monotonous, even for an introverted librarian/writer like me. And so I’m consciously looking for ways to improve the experience.

Sunday afternoon, my husband and I took a walk in the Coconino National Forest near our home. We lingered in the woods, taking pictures of interesting tree trunks, 2020-03-22 12.04.25.jpg

smelling the sharp scent of Ponderosa pine, and admiring the patterns of lichen on boulders.

2020-03-22 12.27.49.jpg

We admired a baby pine sprouting beside a stump, life from death, the promise of hope and rebirth in this strange, dark time.

2020-03-22 12.09.32.jpg

We spent way too much time studying a mysterious glob of melted plastic, likely a remnant of the 2010 forest fire, the scars of which still mar these mountains nearly a decade after the fact.

2020-03-22 12.03.37.jpg

We discovered a tiny cactus peeking through the pine needles on the forest floor.

cactus.jpg

In other words, we noticed things.

Little things. Unglamorous things. Things we’d normally cruise right past with little more than a passing glance–if we looked at them at all. But our world is smaller now, and the pace of our lives has slowed to a crawl. There’s time now to see, to take in, to notice.

Many years ago, I signed up for a drawing class at a community college. I’d never been able to draw even a decent-looking stick figure, but I let myself be talked into taking a drawing class.

I plead temporary insanity.

On the first night, the professor heard me whine, “I can’t draw!” He came up to me, studied me with crinkled, professorial eyes, and informed me of the following:

“Your problem isn’t that you don’t know how to draw. It’s that you don’t know how to see.”

He had us draw our own closed fist. And I found myself studying the details of my own hand, the lines, the curves, the creases and whorls, and reproducing them on a page in a sketch pad. The result would win no prizes in an art show, but it was recognizably a hand.

I had drawn a hand. A real hand.

My hand.

With my own hand.

That old professor had been right. Sort of. I knew how to see, but I’d never taken the time to notice. To really look at something in its minute detail. To shut out all the distractions and busy-ness of the world and focus on a single, simple thing and see the magic in it.

I’ve carried that lesson with me these last thirty-some years. Oh, I forget it often enough. I let busy-ness crowd out magic, I run on the hamster wheel of life and berate myself for not doing more, better, faster. Work more, write more, make more money, do more laundry, why is the house such a mess and the garden full of weeds and my body out of shape and…

Yeah.

Hard to make room for magic in all that doing.

But on Sunday I made room for that magic. Amid the fear and the disruption and the absurd shortage of toilet paper, I made room for magic. For wonder. For joy.

I took the time to notice–and found healing and peace in that noticing.

IWSG: My love-hate relationship with writing

Insecure Writers Support Group BadgeThe January question for the Insecure Writers Support Group Blog Hop is:

What started you on your writing journey? Was it a particular book, movie, story, or series? Was it a teacher/coach/spouse/friend/parent? Did you just “know” suddenly you wanted to write?

I’ve always written, and I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with writing. I hated writing assignments in school. Hated. Them. I’d whine and complain and fuss and struggle and whine and complain some more. Then I’d suck it up, write the stupid paper, and get an A on it.

At the same time that I was being a huge whiny baby about writing assignments, I was journaling. I started a diary when I was about 10, which expanded into a journal by the time I was in middle school. My journals then were either spiral notebooks or stacks of binder paper held together with ancient report binders I inherited from my grandmother. Yes, I inherited office supplies from my grandmother. I still have a few of ‘em too. Did I mention my grandmother died in 1979? Anyone wanna buy a vintage porcelain stamp licker?

2020-01-07 18.38.33

But I digress.

So I’d sit in my room writing, copying down song lyrics, or jotting down the weekly top 40 from Casey Kasem for posterity. Yes, the entire top 40. All 4 hours of it, just about every Saturday morning. I was a nerd with no life, OK?

But I digress.

In my journal I collected ideas and pop culture and random written crap the way a magpie collects shiny things. And I wrote. Sometimes pages at a time. Sometimes I felt compelled to write. Sometimes I still do. But if someone told me I had to write a particular kind of paper about a particular kind of thing, well, that was an epic tragedy that required large amounts of whining.

After I became a librarian, I started writing academic pieces for publication: book reviews, journal articles, and book chapters. The whining continued, usually some version of the famous Frank Norris quote:

Don’t like to write, but like having written.

2+ decades on, that’s still an accurate summary of my feelings unless I’m journaling or doing some other kind of low-effort writing.

So why, then do I write anything more challenging than a summary of my day? I suppose the answer is the writer’s version of the bit about the mountain-climber climbing mountains because they’re there: I write because I have something to say.

But there’s another part to my writing journey, the part that started a bit over 5 years ago, when I started writing fiction at the ripe old age of 47. I told some of that story in an earlier post, Talent is Overrated, so I won’t repeat it here, but the gist of that post is that though I’d dreamed of being an author since I was a kid, I never tried, because I thought I had no talent.

The process of overcoming that negative bit of self-image was gradual, and I’m not entirely sure how it happened, but I do remember three key incidents:

  1. A former intern and friend gave me a copy of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, with a lovely inscription encouraging me to take up creative writing.
  2. I read Diana Gabaldon’s account in the Outlandish Companion of how she came to write Outlander. Tl;dr: she decided to learn to write a novel by actually writing one. That got me to thinking that maybe the same method could work for me, even if I had less spectacular results than she did.
  3. I realized that ~2/3 of my life was over (probably, if one believes the actuarial tables), so if I had any unfulfilled dreams, I’d best get busy. There’s nothing like an awareness of one’s mortality to give one a solid kick in the keister.

So one afternoon, I Googled “how to write a novel,” found the website for the snowflake method, and got started.

I still have a love-hate relationship with writing. I still prefer to have written. And I still whine and carry on when I have to put my butt in my office chair and type some damn words already. I do not, however, copy down the top 40 every week, because today’s music sucks. Now get off my lawn.

But I digress.

 

Want to see some other great IWSG posts? Check out the list of participants here. (Powered by Linky Tools).

Christmas past–with Krylon

christmas_ornamentNote: A version of this piece first appeared on my garden blog three years ago. I’ve mostly retired that blog to focus on this one, but I hope to share a few pieces from it—and from other past blogs—on here from time to time. I’m busy preparing for a long-awaited holiday road trip, so this seems like a good time to recycle something from the past. I hope you enjoy it.

Christmas is one of those times when past and present converge in a strange time warp. Memories haunt this time of year, resurrected by the familiar sights, sounds, and scents of Christmas: happy memories we try to recreate for our kids and grandkids (often at the cost of our own sanity) and sad memories of loneliness, dysfunctional families, or loved ones no longer with us. The ghosts of Christmas Past and Christmas Present blur together in a muddle of memory and emotion and nostalgia. It’s no wonder people drink a lot this time of year.

But this isn’t going to be an essay on the joy or heartbreak of Christmas or (heaven forbid) how to do Christmas right (damn you, Martha Stewart!) Instead, I’m going to share one of my Christmas stories with you, the first memory of Christmas I have. So come on in, find a comfy chair, and join me for a visit to my Christmas Past.

The first Christmas I remember was when I was somewhere between 4 and 6 years old, so sometime between 1971 and 1973. We lived in the country in Northern California, and we were, ahem, dirt poor (garden jokes = dad jokes with dirt, not to be confused with dirty dad jokes). I don’t remember the presents I got that year, though I’m sure there were one or two. What I do remember are the ornaments. My mother bought a dozen royal blue Christmas balls, and those were the only ornaments we had. So my mother, being the creative problem-solver she was, decided we would make more. We cut up styrofoam meat trays and some other sort of packaging we had lying around, glued bits of eucalyptus to them (California, remember? Not a lot of evergreens where we lived except for juniper), and coated the results in silver spray paint. A Krylon Christmas! See? When I describe myself as a California redneck, I’m not lyin’.

Somehow my parents had found the money for an artificial tree, and that year it was festooned with blue globes and silver eucalyptus meat tray parts. Awesome, huh?

The last of the blue balls (ho ho ho – I said, “blue balls”) broke about 20 years ago, but I still have a few of the Krylon-coated meat tray ornaments. There’s a picture of one of them at the beginning of this post. Here are some more:

They don’t have much eucalyptus left–it’s worn off over the last nearly 50 years of loving use–but they’re still around, and I still hang them on the Christmas tree. Each time I do, I think of my mother, doing the best she could, making something beautiful out of what she had and could afford–and teaching me to do the same.

I’m not poor now. We aren’t rich, but we have what we need and some of what we want, and that is a blessing beyond measure. But the lesson I learned that Christmas, cutting out scraps and gathering bits of eucalyptus, has stuck with me. For me, it’s part of the allure of gardening. You can start with almost nothing–a tiny seed, a fragile transplant, a cutting–and nurture it into something beautiful. Growing things is a form of magic to me, a way to make something out of (almost) nothing. Gardening also teaches me to find clever uses for stuff that other people throw away: garden art from recycled materials, pots from yogurt containers, winter-sowing containers from takeout boxes, and, of course, compost from kitchen scraps and yard debris. Reuse and repurpose and recycle–and make something beautiful. Thanks, Mom, for teaching me a lesson that has shaped my life all these many years. It’s the best Christmas gift you ever gave me.

2019 update: My mother passed away in late September. May this post and the one I wrote last Christmas stand in tribute to the woman who gave me more than I can ever say. I miss you, Mom.

 

Same blog, new focus

2018-12-28 17.06.06 maddieWelcome to my revamped blog! New and improved! Get it while it lasts!

OK, seriously… For those who don’t know, I’ve been teaching myself how to write fiction since 2014. I’m happy to report that after 5 years of significant effort, I suck a little less than I did when I started. I’m working on what I hope will be the last round of revisions before I send my newborn novel out to beta readers. (It’s a time travel romance – did you know that’s a genre now? Thanks, Outlander!)  According to various Writing Experts, now is the time I should be building an online presence and readership, so…

Rather than create yet another blog (I have several, most of which haven’t been updated since my son still thought I was cool), I decided to repurpose this one. It contained a few political essays, most dating from the 2016 election (shudder), so I removed them, tweaked the look and feel, and, voila, I now have an author site! Isn’t the internet wonderful?

So if you subscribed to this blog for my scintillating political observations, I pity you I hope you’ll stay for my scintillating observations about writing and the torture adventure of finishing a novel and trying to get it published. And if you’re new here, welcome! Pull up a chair, grab a drink, pet a greyhound (that’s Maddie in the picture, modeling my husband’s Call of Duty cap), and hang out.

Christmas with Mom

christmasThe Crum family Christmas spirit this year could best be summed up with a hearty, “Bah, humbug.” One of our dearest friends died this year, Tony is recovering from his fourth major surgery in less than two years, and my mother is in the late stages of dementia, meaning this will probably be her last Christmas. Our decorating consisted of buying a tiny live tree from Home Depot that I’m pretty sure is mostly dead now. Our shopping consisted of replacing the refrigerator that died right after Thanksgiving, along with the microwave that died a week later. So it’s Christmas, and we aren’t feeling it. I plan to cook our traditional roast beef dinner and visit my mom. That’ll be the extent of our holiday cheer.

For those who don’t know, my mother lives in an assisted living home here in town. She’s almost 91, and over the past decade dementia has taken most of what made her, well, *her*. Her body, however, keeps humming along, seemingly oblivious to the fact that her brain left the building sometime in the late oughts. I visit her, of course, a ritual I have come to dread. Each time I wonder what new piece of her the disease will have taken. At least she still knows who I am–most of the time. Today being Christmas, of course I will visit. So I stick a Santa hat on my head, paste a smile on my face, and clomp up the stairs to do my filial duty. Tony, ever the supportive husband, tags along.

We walk into a Hallmark card. Christmas tree bedecked with lights and candy canes next to a cozy fire with snowflakes falling softly outside the windows and a Hallmark Christmas movie on the TV. It checks every box on the American Christmas fantasy list. Martha Stewart would be proud. Almost grudgingly, I admit to myself that maybe we should have made a bit more of an effort at home.

I get out my knitting, and my mother and I attempt what passes for conversation these days.

“How have you been, Mom?”

“Oh, fine.”

I start knitting and listening to the Hallmark movie.

“I’m so glad to see you.”

“I’m glad to see you too, Mom.”

LeeAnn Rimes is the female lead in the movie. Some generic clean-cut businessman-type guy is her love interest.

“I’m so glad to see you.”

“I’m glad to see you too, Mom.”

LeeAnn sings some made-for-the-movie Christmas song. I don’t catch many of the lyrics, but her voice rings clear and powerful through the scene. The woman’s got some pipes. I wish I could sing like that.

“How are things at home?”

“Oh, not bad.” I tell her about Tony’s latest surgery–again. It’s been less than 15 minutes since the first time, but she’s forgotten. She probably forgot about three seconds after I told her. I tell her about our son’s upcoming trip to Portland.

LeeAnn sings. LeeAnn tells her fictional love interest she’s turned down a job across the country to stay in their fictional town. He looks appropriately lovestruck.

“I’m so glad to see you.”

“I’m glad to see you too, Mom.”

Someone else in the movie is singing now. “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.”

Tears prick the corners of my eyes. “Silent Night” has always been my favorite Christmas song. So many memories. Playing it on my flute for middle school concerts, singing it to my son as a lullaby when he was small enough not to care that I can’t carry a tune in a bucket.

“Round yon virgin…”

I hear my mother’s voice, almost a croak, more chanting than singing, so quiet I doubt anyone else in the room can hear over the person warbling on the TV.

“Mother and child.”

I join in. I sound almost as croaky as she does, forcing the notes past the lump in my throat. How long has it been since my mother and I sang together? 40 years? 45?

“Holy infant so tender and mild.”

I wipe the tears away quickly, hoping no one sees.

“Sleep in heavenly peace.”

We manage one more off-key line of our impromptu duet before the movie cuts away from the song, and the moment is gone like a snuffed-out candle flame. I fish around in my purse for a tissue and wipe my eyes as unobtrusively as I can. I blow my nose and mumble something about allergies.

“It’s so nice to see you.”

“It’s nice to see you too, Mom. Merry Christmas.” And I mean it with all my heart.