Pansies!

Garden centers are selling pansies. Out of all the flowers in the world, pansies are not particularly ‘lookers’. Their blooms are small, like silly little comic-faces and they get scraggly too fast (I know: you’re supposed to pinch them back) and they have no scent.  Still, I will pick up a few plants and pop them into the window box outside my kitchen window, and even if it snows again, these brave blossoms will reassure me that spring is almost here.

March is always a teasing month.  After some stunning, cloudless, warm days, yesterday and today are cold and rainy (but not snowing!) today with winds that keep the metal chimes left hanging on the porch since summer, furiously tinging away. Yesterday, the neighborhood hawk went swooping so low across the sky,  I was able to see him shifting his red tail, catching the wind steering him to a a distant tree. I say ‘he’ because upon landing, he  hopped onto the back of another hawk.  Mating hawks in the neighborhood – exciting. Watch out squirrels!

Yesterday we spent the day cleaning up outside, working in our shirt sleeves, pausing to drink tea and eat lunch in the sun.  Glorious!  Four crocus in bloom – a set of purple on one side of the garden and yellow on the other.  By the time the sun retreated below the tree line, the yellow ones had tightened up into torpedos against the cold of night. There is a lot of work to be done – we beat a quick retreat indoors from winter. Broken birdhouses, flower pots, garden furniture and tools, half-done projects are strewn about, abandoned to the winter elements.

Yesterday, we raked leaves – a job we do not do in the autumn, preferring to mow them up into shreds for mulch. At least that’s our reasoning. But there are bags worth of leaves out there still, and my compost pile is full.  We cut back the butterfly bushes to  stubs and made trips to the dump. Our neighbors do this before winter sets in, but by the end of summer, we preferred to spend our free time kayaking and then, we just lost heart.  Closing down our favorite season makes us sad.  Now, fired up for spring just around the corner and glad to be in the sun, we attack these tasks with joy.

Also in the spirit of clean-up, I am back to my book for rewrites based on the good advice of a venerable agent. It’s been months since I’ve immersed myself in this story – my story – and while I feel inspired to make it stronger, I am also dragging my feet, reluctant to recollect those dark days again, like a return to winter. Perhaps I can pretend I am revising fiction – but then – what a different story I would tell.

More Snow and Some Good Books

Dashed hopes of an early spring as we get walloped by another snow storm. Good thing I have my wall of ‘books-to-be read’ in place – a dam against the winter doldrums. Thanks to my sister for alerting me to Claire Keegan’s short story in last week’s New Yorker. She warned me that I would not be able to read it with dry eyes and of course, she was right. I’m talking sobs.  The next day I searched for more Keegan at the bookstore (yes, it’s nice to work in the proverbial candyshop!) and scooped up a collection of short stories, Walk the Blue Fields.  Not a sentence that doesn’t sing. Her writing is powerfully poignant without being manipulative. Familiar characters for anyone who grew up with an emotionally unavailable father. Publishers will have to go back and print more of her books because there were none available to order when I checked – lucky I found one on the shelf. If you’d like to read the story:  www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2010/02/…/100215fi_fiction_keegan

Shadow Tag, Louise Erdrich’s newest book also held me in an emotional headlock for the two days. I have so far to go as a writer – whew – each of Erdrich’s sentences are perfect and not one to spare.  An almost frightening thread of passions (love and hate) runs through the book, woven through gorgeous images of a frigid, winter.  But there is no reprieve when the thaw comes. Such smart and poetic writing and a compelling, painful story – very close to the bone.  Although I felt an all-too-familiar sense of dread throughout the telling of this doomed marriage, I could not tear myself away.

I am also reading an Advance Reader Copy of a book due out in March: If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous.  A young American woman goes to Japan to teach English not long after her father commits suicide. It reads a bit like a memoir – or maybe I think that just because I read everything with a comparative eye to my own book and wondering how to tell the story, weighing the pros and cons of telling a tale in fiction vs. non-fiction.  Watrous tells a good story.  She brilliantly captures the life of an expatriate in Japan and what a perfect setting for the shocking and strange, sad limbo land of being a survivor of a loved one’s suicide. Read this and you’ll fall in love with each of the strange and wonderful characters in this tiny Japanese village where the main character – Marina – finds for herself and brings to others, healing and hope.  A good read that I’ll look forward to hand-selling in the store.

What next?  I guess I could get back to the WordPress for Dummies book to try and figure out how to make this site a little more interesting…zzzzzzzzz.

Winter’s End

The last week of this short, cold and snowy month is here, and with it, welcome signs of spring. The sun’s pace seems to have slowed as it slips across the sky, lingering a little longer in warm patches throughout the house.  The dog follows the light, curling into the heat and I try and make it up into the bedroom to read by the last glow, mellowing into reds and finally, blues of dusk-to-night. Garden catalogues are stacked and two cherry trees ordered.  Yesterday, the snow mostly melted, we walked the yard, assessing what needs to be done.  There will be at least another snow, or maybe more – but we are on the right side of winter – the final leg – so I can bear it.  The branch tips are heavy with buds and the birds seem to be singing different songs and for a few hours each day, I forget about the cold night still ahead.

Snow Day

A welcome pause.  If I close my eyes and listen, it is as if I live in the country surrounded by woods. All I hear (besides the dripping sink!) is the whoosh of wind through the trees. The usual drone of traffic from the nearby highway is muted by snow – already 6 inches deep and falling so fast that the plows can’t keep up. Nothing to do but stay inside, read, write, cook, dream. Maybe the laundry.  There is no urgency and it feels like a real vacation day. And outside, everything is beautiful.

There are things I need to do – like sort my tax papers out for next week’s appointment with my tax wizard. There are things I should do like sort out messy closets, but my loves are out of the house – and here in this relative silence, alone, (sweet because it’s rare) I feel motivated to do none of the above.  I miss working on my book but feel in a strange hiatus as I wait with fingers crossed, for a response from the agent who has agreed to consider it.  I do not feel ready to move on to the next thing – for one, there is no obsession (yet) to tell a story – not like there was with Light Between Shadows, but also because, I am (hopefully) imagining feedback and suggestions from agents and editors that will have me back to the drawing board.  I wait and try enjoy this limbo, like a snow day.

Here is what I will cook today:

Thinly sliced beets tossed lightly in olive oil and sea salt and roasted until they are crispy.

Roasted leeks, onions, garlic, garlic, and more garlic, and potatoes into a pot with chicken stock with lots of fresh ginger. Half of it pureed with a handful of frozen spinach. Yum.

Learning to Love Winter

Well, love is probably a stretch, but I am trying to improve my seasonal attitude. Just now, forced out into the morning cold by my dog’s baleful eyes and desperate door-scratching, I shivered along the street and tried to think of things I love about winter. The heat and glow of the fireplace, flannel sheets, the fragrance from my Jasmine plants, sleeping…  But these are indoor pleasures, more about hiding from these dark, cold days. To really love winter, I must move beyond my inclination to hibernate.

I want to find some joy out here in this frozen world, I think.  Searching our quiet street as Tetley pulls me farther away from the warmth of our house, I notice how blue the sky looks and how good it feels to fill my lungs with cold, fresh air.  I see the birds flitting about, their markings more vivid against the muted hues of the brush and snow covered ground. Just then, as if campaigning for a spot on my mental list, a hawk announced it’s presence, high up in the trees in the small wood by my house.  Magnificently, it arched it’s wings, flipped it’s broad tail and flew across the sky just above me and I feel – joy.  I always bemoan  the months of the scraggy, sepia landscape, and long for the lush greens – but what am I missing?  Today I will bundle up and take a long walk and look a little closer at everything.

The Promise of Brighter Days

Snow is virtually gone – washed by the past few rainy days.  At the end of the driveway on a sloping bit of land, the strawberry plants I transplanted out of the vegetable garden last summer, are a stunning green against the wet brown leaves and earth around them. In fact, the plants seem to have multiplied under the icy cover of the past two weeks. I let myself be thrilled by these crazy promises of spring – although it is not yet January and there will be plenty of snow and frigid days ahead. Technically, winter has just begun. Still, this glimpse of green and the pile of seed catalogues on my table feel like harbingers of spring.

This is partly how I navigated through some bleak days in my life: years of my husband’s addiction, his suicide, my bout with breast cancer.  Although there were times it was difficult to see the light, I always could imagine brighter days lay ahead. Nature is the key for me.  Throughout the seasons, there is always comfort to be found in the natural world. Planting bulbs, for example.  Placing the parchment skin covered bulbs into the cool autumn earth was an act of hope. Winters of the world or of the soul can feel long and dark but the bulbs helped me to believe that life would get better: a faith rewarded each spring as the crocus, daffodils, tulips and hyacinths emerge from the still-cold earth.

Christmas Morning

The silence is beautiful.  My loves are still asleep, no trucks go by and I cannot hear the usual drone of traffic from the turnpike. After days, weeks of frenetic activity, finally, everything is still.  The room, the house, the street outside and beyond all seem to be in quiet meditation – focus within and on the breath. Breathing.  Not enough of that of late – remembering to breathe. All because? Preparing for this day: Christmas. And here we are. I am happy to just be able to stop. We will open presents, I will happily cook shrimp and an array of vegetables and later in the afternoon, we will walk across the street for a shared meal with our dear neighbor friends. I will keep breathing delicious, calming breaths and remembering the quiet of this morning.

Winter Solstice

These last few darkest, longest nights of winter have been stunning.  The snow seems to be illuminating the slice of moon hanging in the sky and the stars appear to be dropping to earth, their flashing glow is so bright. I’ve seen more than one meteor rip across the horizon – making my heart leap.  Thank you Tetley the dog, for forcing me off my corner of the couch into the darkness so I get to see the show.  My inclination is to hibernate rather than experience this glorious dimension of winter.

Somewhere, tucked into a corner of the garage are snowshoes and cross country skis I have picked up from tag sales or thrift shops over the years thinking that if I did something fun in the snow, I’d like it more.  Perhaps this year I’ll test that theory. But I savour the extra in-door time winter allows for — no garden work to do so I can read inside by the fire, or (even more decadently) in bed.  I’ve been reading Mary Karr’s Lit – a brave and vivid memoir.  A harrowing story of her alcohol abuse, but she manages to be funny and so likable. I find myself rereading some sentences multiple times, admiring and envious of their beauty.

I have been reading memoirs pretty compulsively. What is this compulsion we have to share our lives, or look into other’s? To find some kind of recognition, shared experiences, insights into the human condition? I’m also, just curious. I like to see the world through another’s eyes, sense the workings of their heart.  Fiction of course does this too – often more artfully – but there is something about a well done memoir that I love.  I first wrote my story as a novel – it felt safer to do so.  A dear friend from the bookstore read it and suggested that it would be more powerful in my own voice.  I took her suggestion and in doing so, feel like I found my voice.  It was frightening at first but ultimately, cathartic to just tell my story.  It continues!

Beginning

It’s days before Christmas and everything – including me – seems to be running on fast forward.  Of course being in retail, I feel like I’m in the center of the storm, but no one seems immune to the ramped up speed of everything.  I try and catch myself to slow down, look around, breathe.  But I can’t help wishing it was January and we were past all of this hoopla.  No — March — the first day of spring!  Then, I catch myself – I’ve learned this lesson, haven’t I?  The dark days make the bright ones brighter – I must savour them too.

It’s bitter cold and although the shortest day has just passed, night still comes early.  We have a Christmas cactus perched precariously on a window sill in the kitchen. For most of the year it sits ignored, occasionally it falls into the sink as if to remind me it’s there. I push it back into the pot and splash the dust off with some water and put it back again, where it is almost out of sight.  Every year around this time this little plant valiantly puts out a blossom or two.  Wow.  It sits as a center piece on our table today and looking at it, I smile.  There are things for me to learn from this spindly succulent.