September 22, 2016

Greetings, dear ones.

Apparently there is a rule that one must never include dates on one’s blog posts, as they might betray inconsistency in one’s blogging. To which my only possible reply is huh. To be honest, this post started out as September 20, 2016 and, well, you can see how well that worked. I’m inconsistent, in so many things. For so many reasons, as well. But in my inconsistent way, I love this space, my little writer’s shack on the vast internet plains, so here I am again.

Shall I tell you a story? Not five months worth of story, just a day or two. Trust me, the five month version would be largely this: I took the back roads to avoid the road work, as I did every morning. At the halfway point I checked my time, then told the kids we’d be late again. They shrugged. I swore softly as traffic settled us on top of the bridge. Again. Yes, that thrilling.

Instead, this story starts with a trip to the Burlington Book Fest. Actually, it starts with an entire summer of almost no rain. We have been in drought conditions. Extreme drought, to be precise. The only worse category is exceptional drought, which is what California has been living through. Imagine day after day of spotless blue skies and sun. Now imagine brown grass and empty streambeds and ripe apples the size of walnuts. That’s how things have been. This is even worse than the year our well dried up (which led to this story). That drought ended the day they came to drill our new well. Literally. We had tons of drilling equipment in the backyard and it poured for days. By the time the new well was hitched up, the old one was bubbling merrily away.

That maybe should have been a clue to how our family long weekend was going to go. The original plan was to take a week and stay in the Lake Champlain area and hike. Then it shrank to a three day weekend. The day of the Book Fest–warm and lovely. The two days after? Rain predicted. The forecast for the coast–our second choice–much much more rain.

What we discovered is that we didn’t know anywhere that we wanted to go that wasn’t outside, but a outdoors day trip in the rain meant being wet all day. So we compromised. We headed west, where there would be less rain, and looked for places that we could be either indoors or out.

We ended up at The Mount. The Mount is the former home of Edith Wharton, and it’s the kind of little writing cottage you might create for yourself if you were drawing from three trust funds in 1902. You know the sort of place: forty-six rooms and garden walkways bordered by square trees a la Alice in Wonderland. (Yes, I’m aware that this is called topiary, but…SQUARE TREES.)

scaled-housescaled-garden

Somehow, despite being there on a possibly rainy Monday in mid-September, we found ourselves in the midst of the largest tour group ever. A group so large that we could not all fit in the palatial rooms of the house together. We scurried away on our own, reading the signs in each room. As we darted ahead of the zombie hoarde…er, tour group, I found myself feeling like something less than a writer. This is not a new problem, but the setting sharpened the focus. After all, I haven’t written enough books to fill a library shelf or two, and may never. I do not have much literary fame. I don’t host frequent (any) salons, and the trees around my house are simply tree-shaped.

Also, my writing never takes place at desks, unlike it appears Edith Wharton’s did. However, my family found an informational panel which said that the photos of Edith Wharton writing at her desk were all staged. In fact, it continued, Edith Wharton wrote in her bed, with her dog under her elbow, and almost never at a desk. Score one point for real writerdom; subtract one for the constant lack of truth around the writing life.

(For the record, I write in bed for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that I do not have a desk. I could write on the couch, but the light coming in through the windows behind makes it challenging to see the screen. That room is the only non-bedroom workspace in the house, aside from the kitchen, of course, which is even less writing-friendly, and the bathroom, which would like nothing more than to steam my computer to death. In my dreams, I have a room with space for a comfortable chair, and some books, and me, computer in tow. It may not be forty-six rooms, with marble fireplaces in most of them, but it would still be bliss.)

After wandering the damp-but-no-longer-rained-on gardens, we left The Mount and headed to Chesterwood. I knew exceptionally little about Daniel Chester French prior to our visit, aside from the fact that he was the sculptor of this. Now I know…more. That he felt the small details were key to the work, for example, and therefore spent a great deal of time trying to get Lincoln’s hands just right.

The gardens at Chesterwood are decidedly simpler than those of The Mount. This year, the grounds are home to an exhibit called The Nature of Glass. As the name suggests, the pieces use glass, some exclusively and some in combination with other materials. I love this fellow, made of glass and granite. I suspect I’m made of much the same.
cropped-fellow
(Sculpture by Thomas Scoon)

Sculptors use different workspaces than writers. The studio at Chesterwood includes doors several stories tall, with a bit of train track running under the floor and on outside. This could be used to move work in progress into a range of natural light throughout the day. High above the workspace is a bank of windows to let northern light in, and this was the light he typically worked in.

Which again brings me to writing. I’ve written very little this year. Let me clarify: I’ve written very little fiction this year. From a writing-as-a-business standpoint, this is a mistake. From a life-as-a-journey perspective, it’s exactly as it should be. I’ve been feeling as though the stories I want to tell don’t fit through standard household doors, and I’ve been trying so hard to understand how to make them fit. It’s been an embarrassingly long process to realize that maybe the answer is to change the doors.

There’s one last piece to mention. Along the walk in the woods at Chesterwood, there’s a small memorial. It’s a young child, carved in stone, lying beside a bunny. On the plaque below it says: Theresa Cunningham Loved This Place.

Just as I’ve struggled with the shape of what I want to write, I’ve also struggled with the why. This year, this country…they’ve’s eaten away at my soul, sometimes with a constant gnawing, sometimes in giant gulps. It’s been hard to write because the very act of writing stories can feel so pointless at times.

I took a picture of the memorial. I realized that it goes with the giant doors for me. Writers often tell the same story in many different ways, trying to find the truest way within. It may be a love of opera, or of revolution, or of family. It may not be love at all. This year has tempted me to write from any number of spots that seemed true, all in response to the world, but none of them have been mine. I’ve had to strip it all down, to try to find the spring that feeds my own writing, whether anyone reads it or not. The answer is a single, simple thing: Jennifer Mason-Black Loved This Place.

Be well. Be true.

cropped-tc

Bits of news

The really big news around here is that both Phoebe nests are occupied! With any luck, we will have a bumper crop of flycatchers this year. I suspect there will also be a bumper crop of Cooper’s hawks, given the close to constant presence of the adult hawks in our yard.

It’s mid May, and the lilacs are just blooming, and the leaves are finally getting bigger, and it has been COLD. So cold we only turned the heat off this week. The ticks have been fierce, which maybe wouldn’t be so bad if I would just stay on the roads, but it’s so much more fun to wander off trail.

When Coco Cat first came to live with us, the vet gave us strict instructions to only feed her wet food. We tried. We tried so very very hard. I’ve spent hours browsing cat foods in the pet food warehouse, trying to find some wet food she would eat. The answer seems to be that she simply won’t. On the bright side, I’m now familiar with a vast number of cat foods, if you’re ever in need of a recommendation. She spends 96% of the time sleeping, and the remaining 4% attacking anything that moves. Feet under a blanket, for example.

Callie Dog, on the other hand, is so old that her motto seems to be screw it. She doesn’t wait to see if we’re looking before getting on the couch, she just crawls on up. Something looks interesting to eat? Why not eat it? That particular track has been tough on her digestive tract, by the way. Last night we hopped in the car to run a short errand. She pushed her way out of the house to come too. Given that she’s roughly 100 in human years, we just go with it all. Except the eating anything part. We try to keep that to a minimum.

One small bit of book news. There was a really lovely review of it at NPR yesterday. As someone who grew up listening to a LOT of NPR, I have to say that seeing my book come up on their site was something of a thrill.

Enjoy the spring, dear ones.

Red Trilliums

May 17, 2016

You know, I started out writing something much longer and more complicated, but the truth is that those of you reading here, by and large, have been here for the long haul. You were around to read about the start of Blue Riley, and about what happened when her story sold. You may very well have been one of folks who responded to my request for help with details around Wyoming in winter or the wonders of I-90. You’re the people who know about Wren, and about how I vanish into my head every spring, and how much I like turtles.

So I don’t need to tell you all those things again. It’s simpler to say this: once upon a time there was a girl who loved words more than anything, and she made a deal with sadness once and gave up all her words to try to stave off change and loss, and then she realized that didn’t work, and she took her words back again. If there is a piece of me in Blue, it is that piece that puzzles over how the words fit together, and what it means to write something, and to say it out loud, in front of people.

But the thing about books is that once they are out in the world, they become about the readers far more than the writers. If the world of a book being read could be seen from afar, I suspect it would look much like a jigsaw puzzle being fit together. Every individual reader a piece; their own lives, their own stories, shaping the part they create. It becomes so much more than a book, so much more than words on a page made by one person alone somewhere. In reading we are alone, but we are also together in a truly incredible way.

All of which is a long way to get to the point: DEVIL AND THE BLUEBIRD is out in the world today. Thank you for being part of the journey.

Final cover

Busy brain

Apparently this spring will come to be known as The Time In Which Jen Forgot All The Things She Was Supposed To Remember And Many Other Things It Would Have Been Nice To Remember. Yes, it’s that bad. I consider it a monumental accomplishment that our taxes made it in on time. It’s not that I need more calendars or reminders that go beep. I think the underlying issue is that I need time off. I need the chance to flush my brain out completely and start it up again, clean and shiny. There’s something in this getting older business that isn’t kind to brains.

Which also means I’ve forgotten to point out that I’ll be at the West Hartford Public Library in Connecticut tomorrow at 1:00, talking about books and publishing journeys with Carrie Firestone, Karen Fortunati, and Rebecca Podos. This afternoon I really should make some notecards to remember what to talk about. (Sample card: Main character is BLUE RILEY. Looking for her sister, CASS. Carries GUITAR. SPEAK UP JENNIFER.)

Aside from that? The birds are returning. Phoebes first, making it clear that the shed and the power line belong to them. The other day we drove past a deer and a turkey waiting by the side of the road together, most likely for Totoro’s Cat Bus. That same morning a bobcat bounded across the road by the beaver pond. Things are getting busy here.

Adventures in illness

It snowed last Monday. There were thunderstorms last Wednesday night. It was 20 degrees and windy on Saturday night while my son slept in the woods with his outdoors class. Spring is a challenging adolescence in Massachusetts, this year even more than most.

WARNING: hospital stories involving bodily functions follow. Proceed at your own risk.

Things have been equally tempestuous around here. Dear Spouse spent six weeks tangling with pneumonia. Six weeks of a cough that would not end, and not sleeping, and, eventually, codeine and lots of antibiotics. Right about when he returned to good health, and just in time for my daughter’s birthday, I developed a kidney stone looking for a way out.

Glamorous, right? We can add kidney stones to the short list of things I never bothered to worry about before but will now think about regularly. I’m one of those people with very high tolerance to pain, yet somehow I found myself crawling on the floor of the ER public restroom when confronted with the agony my kidney created for me. As luck would have it, the ER was packed the day we went in. I spent my time in the waiting room next to a man with blood trickling from beneath the bandages swaddling his head. Occasionally a nurse would come out and ask if he was feeling dizzy or confused.

You know, the usual ER good times.

As luck would have it, a bed eventually opened up in the hall. After changing into a johnny and lounging for a bit with the other hall dwellers, I was whisked away for my first ever CAT scan. Thanks to House, M.D., I knew that I was very likely to die while being scanned, but at that point it was preferable to surviving. The very cheerful technician who introduced me to the machine explained that I would hear a voice telling me to hold my breath, at which point I should…hold my breath. Or, if I couldn’t hold my breath long enough, I could try small shallow breaths.

After laying there for a bit with my arms over my head, I started to think that perhaps I’d missed the voice. Or maybe the speaker was broken. I started to worry about this to the point that I tried to hold my breath a bit, only that didn’t work. Instead, I took the shallowest breaths I could and hoped for the best. I did that up until the point that a voice came from nowhere and told me to hold my breath. Apparently the speakers did work.

Also, I didn’t die during the scan.

I did, however, have to vomit immediately afterward, for approximately the thousandth time since I’d woken up that morning. The cheerful technician, a middle-aged man with a shaved head, stood beside me and patted my shoulder with tiny birdwing taps, a kindness for which I am eternally grateful. And then he told me I should jump back in my traveling hall bed so that they could find my nurse and give me drugs.

I am not a enthusiastic user of pharmaceuticals. I may have had several cavities filled long ago without Novocain. By choice. It’s simply who I am. However, I also found out that I’m someone who will lie in a hall in a johnny for as long as it takes to be given morphine when passing a kidney stone. Even when it requires four tries to hit a vein sufficient for an IV, thanks to my level of dehydration. I will even almost suggest that we skip the anti-nausea meds and go straight to the morphine when the nurse appears with her multiple syringes full of drugs.

IV in, morphine in, anti-nausea drugs in…at the point it seemed ideal to nap. For hours. At some point I was moved to a room, possibly by flights of tiny winged unicorns. It made no difference to me. It may have made a difference to Dear Spouse, who no longer had to stand by my bed in the hall, but could sit and stare at a wall in the room.

The things about kidney stones is that they just have to come out, and mine was small enough that it would come out on its own, so I was sent home with some drugs. Or rather, I was sent to the pharmacy with some prescriptions and lots of bruises and bandaids from all the IV attempts, only to discover that the doctor had an invalid DEA number. Back to the hospital, joining many of the same people in the waiting room, to wait for a new script from a new doctor.

The rest of the story? Not very exciting. The stone that eventually passed was exceptionally small and unimpressive. It only took 24 hours to escape. And then life was back to normal. As normal as this spring has allowed.

Traveling, traveling

For those of you who like to to join me in my occasional voyages across the internet, today I am at Adventures in YA Publishing, discussing how to write correctly. (Spoiler: I don’t really have an answer.)

In other news, it has been warm, then cold, then warm, then cold here. It’s a race to see if we can feed out the last of the birdseed before the bears appear. The daffodils have been growing off and on all winter, while the chickadees have been telling us it’s spring for about a month now. I picked a fine year to try snow tires for the first time ever.

Be well. Tell me something happy–I would dearly love to hear it.

More housekeeping

Guildtop

Lovely, isn’t she? A 1968 Guild, used to woo me many years ago, and still full of music. She’s the inspiration behind Blue Riley’s guitar companion as Blue travels the country in search of her sister.

It’s been a busy week for Devil And The Bluebird. On Monday, the first trade review came through: a starred review from Publishers Weekly. That was followed by a Kirkus review today, also starred. Rather heady stuff.

My attempt at celebration this weekend involved, as is so often the case, a husband with pneumonia AND a reaction to his antibiotics, an attempt at buying myself a cake (because baking my own cake seemed so everyday) that ended with congratulations written in the brownest of brown frostings, and watching movies with the kids. It is an odd but charmed life, is it not?

The small screen life

First, a housekeeping note. If you are a U.S. Goodreads user and wish to do so, you may enter an ARC giveaway for DEVIL AND THE BLUEBIRD. Ten copies are available; March 17 is the closing date for entries. There will be two future (non-Goodreads) giveaways for a finished copy available internationally. One is for Twitter users, but I believe the other is entirely blog-based. I’ll point them out when the time is right.

We’re supposed to have a new schedule in our lives which includes going to many more movies. That has not actually worked so far, thanks to illness and weather. This weekend, I stuck to home viewings instead. First up was What We Do In The Shadows. By Jermaine Clement (of Flight of the Conchords) and Taika Waititi, it’s a mockumentary about vampires, which includes such pearls as hanging out in downtown Wellington at night, trying to get an invitation to cross the threshold of a club. There’s a fair amount of mock blood as well, so perhaps not appealing to anyone offended by such things, but I enjoyed it.

Then came Eden, which was my son’s choice. I’ve never been to a rave (let’s be honest: raves have never existed anywhere on my mental geography), or even to a club, and I definitely know nothing about the rave/club scene of Paris in the Nineties or any other time. Almost nothing. My son’s interest convinced me to read up on it a bit.

Eden covers several decades in the life of a French DJ, from aspiring to successful to failing, in a dreamy haze of music and drugs. Not, however, in the usual American style, filled with scenes of intense drama and a need for resolution and forgiveness. I’m a bit tempted to watch it again before returning it. I’m easily fascinated by things I know little about, doubly so with things involving creation of some sort. Watching a brief scene of two DJs discussing the qualities of electronic beats actually is something I enjoy.

As the current cinematic offerings leave kind of a lot to be desired, I may be looking at many more weeks of home viewings before we start our new movie schedule. It’s okay. If I can actually remember to return Netflix DVDs, we should survive. If you have a viewing suggestion, please toss it my way.

Artifacts

We recently became the proud owners of a turntable. Shopping for it consisted of asking has anything changed in the last twenty years, and hearing in response well…this one has a USB port. Which was more or less perfect for my level of interest in discussing technology.

We immediately rescued the lonely vinyl relegated to the basements and attics of relatives. What followed was complete and utter memory overload. Smell may be the shortcut to the past, but music has to come in not far behind. While I could have bought many of the albums on CD, or downloaded them, there is something about the nature of vinyl that cannot be recaptured. (Yes, I know I’ve argued the same point with books. Let’s slap that Luddite label on me and move on.)

When I listen to these old records, it’s not just the music that reaches me. It’s the tick of scratches that my mind waits for when I hear the same song in some superior undamaged form. It’s the physical nature: the shape, the weight, the sound translated into grooves that can be traced with a fingertip. There’s an intimacy required in the choosing, the placing, even in the removing from the sleeve.

But the thing that I’m thinking about today, as I sit here listening, is how CDs stole something I never noticed: patience. When I was a kid, setting the needle on a record made me nervous. I didn’t like the sound of it touching down. As a result, I tended to listen through a whole side, which made the experience of hearing the songs I loved that much sweeter. They weren’t fragments; they were part of a broader landscape. Years of listening to CDs has accustomed me to getting what I want and moving on.

What does this all mean? Perhaps nothing more than that today I’m little lost in nostalgia.

The writing on the wall

This is what hangs on my bedroom wall, my side of the bed:

Hope

It arrived there one gray afternoon, courtesy of my daughter, who knows the power of words. (She also knows the limits of her mother’s ability to decorate any space; the collage on the other wall speaks to that.) It is the first thing I see many mornings, and what I stare at when the writing doesn’t want to come.

I think a lot about hope. It may be my age. While I plan to have decades still to go, I don’t retain that sense that all choices remain open to me. It may be my mental health, because buoyancy has never been one of my traits, and hope has always been a necessary lifeline. Whatever the reason, it’s on my mind most days, in some form or another.

Last year I read something that stuck with me. Unfortunately, the source has not, because…well, I’ll explain that in a minute. Let me first say that it’s possible that it came from this interview in The Sun. As I cannot locate my copy of the entire interview, I can’t confirm anything, but in the interest of trying to give credit where credit is due, I’m suggesting that it may be the source.

Back to my actual point: in an interview I read last year (that one or another), there was a comment about hope, about the possibility of living a fulfilling life without hope. At the time, it made me angry, which is why I don’t have a reference at hand. Yes, it made me so angry that I stopped reading and erased it from my mind. Hope is HOPE. Life without hope means…giving up. Right? Isn’t hope what gets us out of bed in the morning? Makes us try to do things?

Hold that thought for a moment. We’ll come back to it.

My dog Callie is very old. We thought last year would be her final year. It wasn’t. This year may be it, or she may choose to continue on even longer. The future is not ours to know. What we can know is that there is no recovery from old age, no miracle cure for arthritis, nothing that will make her heart or her kidneys those of a young dog. Our goal is simply to keep her as pain free as possible while respecting her life. A dog’s life, after all, is very in the moment. If the moments are all pain, or all deeply drugged oblivion…those are not places we seek to strand her.

My first experience with death was unexpected and terrible. I’ve spent much of my life since then afraid of it, afraid of loss and pain, afraid of fear itself. The kind of thing that hope is, ultimately, an meaningless buffer against, because death waits for all things.

In this place of no hope for endless life or returned youth, Callie is happy. She climbs up on the couch more and more often, with less and less apology when we find her there. She occasionally will run stiff-legged across the yard, laughing at the end. She’s taken to insisting on an extra meal before bed most nights, which we give her. She’ll often prance at the door and shake her head at us–Calliespeak for Hurry up slowpokes, I’ve things to do. Even when it feels as though Death sits beside her on her bed, she continues with life.

Which brings me back to that article…I’ve thought about it a lot over the last year. I’ve talked with people about it. I’ve written a story about it, because writing is my research lab, the place where I manipulate variables until I understand something.

My pondering and my experiments and my life have brought me round to a new place. I’m no longer angry at the idea that life without hope may be enough. Hope is a bridge. Hope has gotten me over chasms that my depression told me were impossible to traverse. When my mind has insisted I stop, hope has suggested I look around the corner first, just to see what might be coming.

But I don’t need a bridge through my whole life. I need to spend most of my time with my feet on the ground, with the grass brushing my legs, or the snow chilling them, or the water washing them clean. There is still much to be said for a life in which I will never be depression free, in which Callie will eventually reach her end. There are still moments of snow drifting free of the trees in a sudden shimmer, of laughter over a ridiculous joke. There are still extra dinners to be had before bed.

It is enough.

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