Tagwinter

October 8, 2015

The sky is spotless blue. The maple in the front yard has turned red, more or less overnight. The windows are closed, leaving our noses with reminders to clean the litter boxes and check the bin of onions for bad ones.

Summer is gone.

For all our work canning–peach jam, tomatoes, salsa, grape jelly from the feral grapes in the woods–we do not have enough to make it through the winter, because the winter is always longer and harder than we plan for.

Yesterday, I was given something to eat by my son and two friends. A little nub of a flower–Spilanthes, though I didn’t know it at the time. Eat it, go ahead, it’s not poisonous, they said. I did eat it, and trusted that the not-quite-burning sensation that followed would fade, and it did. Eventually. Once that feeling ended, I was left with my mouth, only something slightly difference than before, my tongue exploring the corners, everything awake, alive. But there had been that moment, that almost-burning place where I had to remind myself that it would end, trust that what I had been told was true and it would not last forever.

Winter won’t last forever either. No, it’s not here yet, but the red in my yard tells me that the trees will be bare all too soon. We are transitioning from flowers beneath the windows and hummingbirds to moons glimpsed through barren branches and owls.

In the meantime, there are pumpkins to roast. There are turkeys in the yard daily, and in the road, and roosting in the trees at night. There are autumn olives for picking along the borders of fields. There are wool socks, and knitting to take out, and patches of sunlight to sit in. There are books to read, and, hopefully, books to write.

The season of home begins, for everything on this land, in these woods. Burrows and berries and acorns and sleep. It is time.

April 25, 2015

So busy.

So, so busy.

From now until the beginning of June I’m managing three projects–all important, all demanding, all positive. They’re curtailing my ability to do all sorts of things, including checking in here. I miss it!

For now, let me leave you with a brief update of the world outside my window. Yes, we did have brief snow showers the other day (it is late April, is it not?), and yes, it has been in the thirties multiple nights this week, but…there are crocus blooming in the lawn, and daffodils in the sunny spot by the garage, and mating wood frogs in the pool we keep for them, and peepers at night.

Winter, you have overstayed your welcome. Whether you accept it or not, we are leaving you behind and continuing on. There will be bird nests, and asparagus, and leaves again. Soon. We’ll welcome you back before long, I promise.

Building a story

The bare bones of the story.

My daughter found an ill or injured goldfinch beneath the bird feeder. We contacted a bird rehabilitator. We did what we could. The bird died.

That’s all a story is, at it’s most basic. Event, reaction, action–some jumble of the three. Even those where it seems nothing is happening, somewhere. somehow, there’s a shift, a window opening or closing, a hand tightening to hold back a memory and failing, succeeding.

Events. Reactions. Actions. Found a bird. Tried to tend. Bird died. In the strict sense, that is my story.

Only it’s not. It’s lacking a few things. Yes, it details a few choices that suggest one set of characters over another. We have a bird feeder. We stopped for the bird. We called someone else about the bird. Those decisions suggest at character, but the world is full of people who would try to rescue a bird. What would make this my story?

Shall we start with some setting? Something like this?

The January cold had returned. During the walk up the hill, through snow frozen into layers so brittle that no one could be heard over their crackle, the air had been pleasant. Now, as the dark began to settle in, it turned bitter. Black shells littered the ground beneath the bird feeder they’d hung a month ago, evidence of the crowds of birds and squirrels that came during the day.

My characters, Jennifer and Daughter and Bird, now have a landscape of sorts. I could add more details, their home, for example–yurt, cabin, McMansion, castle. By omitting that detail, I’m making assumptions that the reader will fill in a house in the woods, instead of a fourth floor apartment, or the remnants of a crashed spaceship.

We also now know that Bird will be found in the cold. Bitter cold, to be precise. Bird will not be a fledgling stranded on the ground while trying to figure out her wings.

What more should I add? Setting gives something, but not enough.

The children kept their winter things on and left to walk Dog almost immediately. Once upon a time, Dog would have dragged them up and down the hill and through the woods. Now she moved slowly, arthritis and age weighing down her every step. Each day, Jennifer whispered a little prayer to Dog, asking her to stay with them longer, to not leave so soon on the heels of the cats, the horses, but she knew the end would come before long.

A little something about the emotional landscape of the characters, to match the physical. Shall we continue?

Daughter returned almost immediately. Jennifer’s first thought was about Dog, but the words that tumbled from Daughter’s mouth had nothing to do with her. “There’s a bird under the feeder. I think it’s sick. It’s hiding in the stone wall right now.”

For a moment, Jennifer wanted nothing more than to say no. “It will be fine,” she would say, knowing that the dark was coming, and with it the weasels and the owls and the foxes. She didn’t want to invite Death into the house again, not with Daughter there.

But she put on Son’s boots and followed Daughter out into the cold.

In theory, the physical and emotional landscapes should be working at this point to provide some tension. In a story without an obvious villain, unless Death counts, there still must be tension, right? Without that, we have found a hurt bird, tried to tend, it died. Tension is the system of tendons and ligaments and muscle that make the story move, thereby moving us.

At first glance it looked as though the bird could be fine. A little cold, a little stunned, perhaps. There had been a hawk in the yard today. Had this little one had a close call? Would a good night’s sleep make everything better?

Then she saw the labored breathing, the way it sat fluffed up, alone in the fading light, all the others gone to roost. “Oh, little bird,” she said.

Are those questions necessary? Perhaps not. Perhaps those are the sort of things I write in and later cut, once I understand everything the character was thinking.

Again, the longing to walk away, to tell Daughter that it would be fine and let the night take care of it. As she shifted, the bird flew, and she all but clapped her hands. A short flight, away, and then back again, behind her, the sound of its wings so close she didn’t dare move.

“It’s between your feet, Mom.”

This isn’t a big story. This isn’t one where the Bird Ambulance will pull up, sirens tweeting, and Bird Heroes will jump out and push Jennifer and Daughter aside, telling them that everything will be okay. This is just a mother and child in the dark with a dying bird. It holds your attention only as long as the characters do.

“Oh, little bird,” Jennifer said again. She crouched, slowly, the bird cocking its head and watching her. Perhaps this story will have a happy ending, she thought. Perhaps this will be one of the ones that ends with opening a box and watching a bird fly off into the morning light.

It flew again, this time to the front step of the house, where it sat, hunched, its breathing obvious even from fifteen feet away. No, this bird would not live, but Jennifer would do what she could. “See if we have a small box,” she said to Daughter.

This story could very quickly become overburdened with detail. It is not a how-to manual for caring for injured wildlife. The readers have already been warned, in so many ways, that Bird will not survive. The payoff is in the characters, not in explanations of phone calls or spaces cleared of cats.

If we changed the players, made the bird an owl hit by a car, or a rare hummingbird washed north in a storm, or an albatross, if we made Jennifer and Daughter innocent of death, or indifferent to birds…all of those would set the story on a different track. We started out in the switchyard of possibility, but at this point, as character and action become linked, the ending becomes certain.

The bird died in the box Daughter had filled with an old turtleneck that no longer fit. They examined it, the tiny claws, the closed wings. “We gave it what we could,” Jennifer told Daughter. “A quiet warm place to die.”

Not that she could comfort herself with that fact. For all she knew, the bird had died of shock because she had handled it. No, the bird was dying even when it had flown, even when it sat between her feet and struggled to breathe. The bird had come to them to die, and she couldn’t help but wonder if even birds fear the thought of waiting alone for Death in the dark.

Anthropomorphizing. But minds crave stories, crave connections. And grieving children long for answers.

As they snuggled together that night, Daughter crying quietly, Jennifer tried to find the right pieces, the ones that could take away the sadness. All the sadness, all the goodbyes.

“I know it seems like a lot,” she said. “It is. My life is much longer than yours right now, and in it there have been terribly sad things. I know how that feels. There have also been amazing things, like you being here with me. And a whole lot of days that are just days, bits of happy and sad and nothing much, all rolled together. All those things, they help us figure out who we are. They help us know how strong we are, and how much we can love, and how brave we can be. We get to feel it all.”

And the words seemed like so little, but they were all she knew to say.

Welcome, Spring

And a fine Equinox to you all.

Today started out with sleet on the roads and ice on the trees. It’s ending with blue sky, and temps in the forties, and rivers running down the hill. In New England, winter and spring can share a day like that. I’m following their lead and working on balance today. A dozen things I’d like to be doing, a dozen things I should be doing, and this little sliver of time in which to do them.

I could, for example, clean cobwebs from corners, or I could figure out what to make for two different potlucks in the next week, or I could research public transportation in Syracuse.

Or I could watch a documentary about kids playing chess while knitting myself a hat with yarn I picked out today (multitasking–has to be good, right?), and then stay up late finishing the book I’m reading. Is there really any question as to which is the right choice?

No, there isn’t, is there?

Greetings from the last days of snow

Did you miss me?

Hopefully not. Hopefully, your life has been so unbearably rich and full that you haven’t had even a minute in which to think, oh, that blogger, the driftwood one, where has she gone?

If that’s not the case, if you’ve been checking your email every day, hoping for my return, I apologize. But don’t tell me. Make me believe you haven’t noticed I’ve been missing.

I should be back to my usual erratic schedule. There is sun now, and less snow than there was, and the chickadees have started their hey, come here often call in place of their it’s winter and yet I’m still cheerful call, so I have to assume spring is near. The kids and I had a snowball fight the other day with bare hands and wet snow, which tells me I also forgive winter and will be ready to see her once she comes round again.

But for now I have no interest in thinking about anything but the possibility of open windows and warm breezes in the near future. Is it warm where you are? Have you, by any chance, seen grass? There will be no green around my house for some time still. I’m trying to appreciate the moon on the snow instead. A night hike might be the perfect thing to do.

Tell me something about how your winter has been. Unless, of course, you’ve been enjoying some other season, in which case you should work on making me jealous. Trust me, it won’t be hard.

Sunday morning snapshot

The house smells of curry. My hands do as well, faintly, the tips of my fingers a little yellow from messing about with spices. Stronger than curry is the scent of clementines when I touch my face. That, more than anything, more than the snow outside, more than the chill wind that blows in when someone opens the door, tells me winter’s coming.

There are chickpeas bubbling on the stove. There’s bread rising on the counter. There’s a new sourdough starter fermenting in the corner. Ripley, the “young” cat at seventeen, is migrating around the house with the sun, finding a warm patch here and there.

(Have I told the story about how Ripley got her name? She came to us at one week old, when her feral mother dropped her by the side of the road. Aside from being much too young to have no mother, she also had been exposed to distemper in utero and had a terrible case of the shakes. I felt like she needed a tough name in order to survive, and at that moment the toughest one I could think of was Ripley, mighty fighter of aliens.)

Our old lady dog is sleeping on the recliner. It’s a break from my son’s bed, which she believes was bought for her and which she generously shares with him. She likes winter coat season because coats that drop to the floor are also fair game as beds.

There’s tea that’s already been drunk, and tea still to be made. I owe my dear spouse a chapter of Crossroads, and owe myself another game of solitaire. I still have carrot soup to make tonight as well, and it seems like the kind of day when all I should do is bake. Almond…something with almond, because that is what I want when things turn cold. There’s the threat of a nor’easter this week, and that brings out the chipmunk in me, stashing food around the house. I’d be grateful to pass through another winter without any of the weeklong power outages we’ve had every few years of late.

But that is not today. Today is blue sky and brisk wind and pines dancing in the back yard. The kind of day I could find fox tracks in the fresh snow if I were to look. The kind of day to close my eyes and start to imagine a Montana blizzard, and a seventeen-year-old girl wandering out into it and finding…well, that’s mine to write.

April update

More snow! Yes, for all my talk about how winter must end, it simply won’t. Yesterday I had the pleasure of a) having my teeth cleaned; b) doing my taxes; c) calling the IRS to clarify something I’d received conflicting information on, listening to the same thirty-second music loop for an hour, and then being hung up on; all while d) sleet pounded on the windows.

But we have frog eggs in a wading pool in the backyard, and the phoebes have returned to work on their dilapidated nest, and the daffodils are blooming, so I’m holding fast to my belief that warm days will come.

I’m putting the finishing touches on a novelette this weekend, one that was supposed to be a nice little short story. It isn’t. I’m finally feeling back in the writing groove (yay!). I’ve also been doing research for Crossroads. It’s been a very very long time since I’ve worked on any novel outside of the Aware world, and it’s taken me a while to switch tracks. It’s hard to believe I’ll ever have the same closeness with another set of characters that I have with Wren and Isis and Juno.

But I think Crossroads, which I keep trying to write as Crosswords (the story of a girl who trades her soul for a chance at winning the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament) (hey, wait a minute, that actually sounds like something fun to write…), will be something good. Blue Riley (Really it’s Sapphire Blue, but my mom was weird that way) has this determination to her that I love. And hiking boots, worn leather hiking boots, and bravery, and…well, I’m getting there. We’ll be friends yet. There are some sections of her story that I’m dying to write.

In which I do not manage to summarize 2012

I started writing up some great state of the year post yesterday. I stopped when an owl came to visit. In the last week, the snow has finally arrived. There are tracks running through the backyard–dog, fox, children–and the leaves we didn’t rake are now hidden away.

The skies have been gray as well, and against such a background–dull silver and the black of branches–a flying owl stands out clearly. She landed in one of the pines and stayed there for much of the afternoon. During the winter, when the nights are so silent, owl calls carry a long way. It’s how I’ve come to think of winter nights since moving here fifteen years ago, a time of moonlight on snow and great echoing voices.

The owl came to usher 2012 out. The sun is here to welcome in 2013.

I’m not sure what to say about 2012. If I take a simple arithmetic approach, it had many pluses. It was a year in which I had seven stories published, completely overshadowing 2011’s two. There was a brief giddy period in the spring in which I sold every story I had available to sell, and I suddenly felt like a WRITER.

What I discovered is that I am very much in my adolescence as a writer. I’m tripping over my own feet everywhere I go, and stressing over the unruly state of my hair in the morning. At some point I will grow out of it, know who I am and where I am going.

But…but there is power in adolescence too. There is freedom in not yet knowing it all, in testing and trying and rushing into places that maturity would dictate foolish.

There is fun.

The thing about writerhood is that there is no clear graduation date. I’ve passed most of my arbitrary markers at this point. I sold my first story. I made my first professional sale. I earned my SFWA membership. I received an invitation to submit. I made it on to paper and into the library. I have an agent.

I still don’t feel like I know what I’m doing.

Both my children are involved in wilderness skills classes. They have fire challenges regularly. Make a fire that …burns this long, this high, with these materials. Make your bow drill, find your tinder, work with wet logs.

The path to the fire varies. The fire itself still warms.

This is my 2013 goal. Keep learning. Find those challenges and test my skills. Learn to keep my feet under me, learn that unruly hair has its own beauty. Listen to the owls on winter nights, enjoy the sun on my face on a January day.

Happy New Year to you all!

Interlude

Yesterday there were thirteen turkeys in the front yard. Four adults, and the rest half-grown young ones from this year. There were also two turkeys in a pine tree out back. If you’ve never seen a turkey in a tree, trust me, they don’t exactly look at home there.

There are chipmunks with full cheeks everywhere, and red tomatoes, and apples coming in. There are beautiful, spotless blue skies, and that wonderful light that tells us the dark is coming. It’s the time of year to wonder why I didn’t spend more time outside, and why summers are so short in New England.

In another six months the snow will be almost over, and the sun will be stronger and stronger. We’ll be waiting for the birds to return, and the grass, and hungry for the first asparagus of the year. We’ll be thinking about no longer wearing coats, and cracking open windows now and then.

But for today, the trick is to look neither back nor forward, to stay right here, in this perfect, endless summer afternoon.

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