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Archive for the ‘Comforting things’ Category

photo copyNew Englanders are a reserved bunch.  My sister-in-law down South moved to a new home at the same time I moved to where I live now.  Within a week, she had five pies on her doorstep.  Here, it took me three months to meet my first neighbor.

Which is why spring in New England is so important.  It’s the time of year when we get a little giddy, when we throw caution to the wind, when our faith through the dark winter days is rewarded. This morning I drove past a house I’ve gone by almost every single day since September, a tiny nondescript ranch a long way from better times.  But I’m not sure I’ve ever really seen it before today, when the front yard was a riot of color, brilliant sunshine yellow daffodils against the bright pink of cherry blossoms.

Someone had to plant each one of those bulbs, digging down into the hardening earth, had to imagine how the flowers would look against a tree decked in its finest.  I hope the thought gave them a quiet chuckle, hope it helped them get through what seemed like an endless winter. It’s a gray day here today, but I’m carrying that image with me as a promise that spring is really here, even if there’s not much evidence yet.

Because sometimes all you can do is hope for better, more brilliant times, for something lovely to awaken from the darkness.

What, you don't have a luna moth chrysalis and praying mantis egg sac hanging around your house, waiting to hatch?

What, you don’t have a luna moth chrysalis and praying mantis egg sac hanging around your house, waiting to hatch?

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I was going to link to this poem today — it is one of my favorites and I try to read it every spring. But it is gray and rainy here, so I thought we needed something more upbeat.

In my family, I am notorious for becoming infatuated with a song and playing it obsessively, until EVERYONE including the Slobbering Beast groans when they hear the first few notes.  (My son recently reminded my husband how lucky he was not to carpool with us in the morning because “You don’t have to hear about Jane and that dude wearing a corset all the time. Which is just weird.” Lou Reed, wherever you are, I salute you.)

But sometimes I hit on a winner, like this one. It has become our morning wake-up song, our roll down the windows and sing on the way home from school song, our dance around the kitchen after dinner song. Play it a few hundred times — it grows on you. (And read the ticker tape at the bottom if you need a laugh.)

Enjoy.

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So yesterday was a holiday here in the states. Which means my children had the day off. They are mostly very good at entertaining me — they build snowmen, they make up crazy dances, they try and explain their electronic games to me — the upshot of which is that I have a hard time doing any work in their presence. (I did hide in my study during the late-lamented football game on Sunday, because  I personally feel that if I am going to waste perfectly good brain cells there ought to be alcohol involved, and everyone else in my family HAD to watch it and it was too early for wine.)

And tomorrow they are saying may be a snow day, which at our house involves pajamas and popcorn and movies and reading and everything but WORK.  Because I only have my children and their childhood for a brief time and work is forever, ya know?  Except that I am only really working two days this week, because my daughter also has off FRIDAY.  Which means … I am screwed.

So, in lieu of a REAL blog post, I am leaving you a very pretty picture of what snow looks like near me. (Without the Slobbering Beast this time, because the day I took the picture he was curled up on his bed, completely over the white stuff. As am I, come to think of it.)  Enjoy, and if you want a longer blog post next time pray for school next week.

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I have news for you

(9th century Irish)

I have news for you:
The stag bells, winter snows, summer has gone
Wind high and cold, the sun low, short its course
The sea running high.
Deep red the bracken; its shape is lost;
The wild goose has raised its accustomed cry,
cold has seized the birds’ wings;
season of ice, this is my news

(More Celtic poetry here)

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When I was a little girl, it wasn’t Christmas until my mother dragged up the nativity music box from the basement.  It was a big plastic replica of the manger scene, complete with cow. When you wound the key in the back it played Silent Night, and it smelled like a cross between a new Barbie and the dank cool air of the cellar. I loved it dearly. My mother put up with it for probably 10 years, and then one day in a fit of purging it disappeared.

I was remembering that nativity scene as I looked around my house today. These days when I close my eyes and picture Christmas, I see white walls, a simple green tree with pine cones, maybe a burlap skirt. A few plain green wreaths scattered about. One or two starfish. Something like this:

When I open my eyes however, that is not what I see. I see holiday throws on every surface, a flurry of hand-cut snowflakes dangling from the balcony, an overabundance of nutcrackers dancing across my mantel and a talking chipmunk, a dragon/egg warmer and a mouse holding a holiday tete-a-tete.  This is not a harmonious mix.

The talking chipmunk and friends.

The talking chipmunk and friends.

Some days I long to open up that Pottery Barn catalog and disappear into that faux serenity, that magical lifestyle where toys stay in their tastefully monogrammed bins, champagne glasses are always full and sparkling,  and singing chipmunks cannot be found. But then my kids build a manger out of magnatiles, or hijack baby Jesus and leave a ransom note, or pore over the Christmas books, reading favorite lines aloud to each other, and I think those perfectly decorated rooms look just a little bit lonely.

Christmas, at least here, is about the plastic managers. It’s about loving the imperfect items for what they represent. It’s about an electric current of joy so strong that it powers the whole holiday season, waking us all with the excitement of possibility, making the house shine more than any tinsel or lights ever could.  And that’s so much better than any catalog still-life.

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Sun and shadow

Sun and shadow

Today was the first day of school, and it’s tradition for me to drop off the kids and then bawl my eyes out. Three years ago, when my son transitioned from kindergarten to first grade, I didn’t even make it out of the parking lot. The second grade teacher on parent duty had to pat me on the shoulder and tell me to keep my sunglasses on so I wouldn’t upset the students.

But today I didn’t cry. Part of that is because the schedule is different this year: My son actually started school last week, and my daughter was with me when we dropped him off.  (At his specific request, I did not exit the vehicle.)

“You’re not going to CRY, are you?” my daughter asked from the back seat, a sweet combination of comfort and amusement. So I put my sunglasses on, swiped away an errant tear, and spent the day enjoying her company instead of my usual first day ritual, which is to take myself off to the hill where I hike.  That day, when her brother started school, the girl and I were talking about something in the future. And I said, without thinking “That will be six years. Right around the time you start college.”

“Six years,” she echoed, and we looked at each other, a bit aghast. More than two-thirds of my time with her is through — it was light years ago that she was a six-year-old, starting school herself, and light years beyond that a tiny newborn, when what seemed like unending time spooled before us.

But today it was her turn to start school, a new place where I know she will be happy, since I have researched it as only an over-protective, ex-reporter can do. And still it was more than bittersweet, dropping her off at the door where she’ll spend most of her waking days, in a sea of teachers and other students I may only ever come to know by name.

“You’re not going to CRY, are you?” she asked from the back seat, amused and a little panicked. “Because if YOU cry, I’ll cry.”  And so I put on my oversized sunglasses once more and assured her I would not cry. I offered to walk her in on this first day, and she was willing to let me, but the boy was bellowing “GO GO GO! She’ll be fine! I have to get to school too!  Don’t cry!” And so I let her go.  I drove off, watching in the rear view mirror as we moved away from each other, she growing smaller and smaller in the distance.

And then I took the boy to school, where we met up with one of his friends, and they played ball in the back seat until it was time to go in.  And then at last, in the sudden silence, I drove to my hill. There are other places that are more beautiful,  that offer a longer trail or a more scenic one, but this spot is so tightly wound into the fabric of my children’s childhood that there is no other place for me on days when I need peace or comfort. In my mind the hill is always the green of springtime, with short new grass and robins overhead. And today, my first time there in several months, that picture is what I was expecting.

But of course it was different. It’s September now, not May. The grass is high, almost to my chest, turning brown along the edges, ready for mowing.  The tall grass tunnels in, narrowing your options, making it more difficult to choose another way.   In past years I’ve run to the top, but today I took my time, winded by the humidity and a summer spent choosing beach walks over pounding along the sidewalks. It was supposed to rain, and half the hill was cast in shadow. When I reached the top, I sat and thought about all the times I’ve done this route, and how often I’ve had a baby or a toddler or small child along with me.  And I might have shed a tear or two then.

But it is hard to be melancholy with a dog, especially one who has had to be polite and on-leash for most of the summer and suddenly finds himself with room to run. The Slobbering Beast stretched out his legs and spronged through the tall grass like a rabbit, urging me on with friendly persistence until at last I got up and took the path toward the woods, the trail curving along ahead of us, dark and mysterious, with secrets of its own for us to discover just around the bend.

Happy Beast

Happy Beast

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ImageThere’s a saying I keep on my bulletin board, the place where all the schoolwork fit for display is hung.  It says “When you’re a parent, the days pass slowly, but the years fly by.”

I’m not a ‘quality time’ parent. I’m in it for the details, not the days at Disney World (although those days have been pretty fine too).  I’m in it for stolen minutes stretched across my daughter’s bed, listening to her talk; for playing catch at the pool or beach with my son and marveling at his reach; for long car rides and afternoon walks and any time I can get them alone and just be.

Summers are the best days for that. Summers are the breath between school and sports and work, the long slow exhalation as we throw off a schedule that’s too tight. I’m off to long hot days, to sticky Popsicles that stain tongues blue and green, to water gun fights and wiffle balls and hermit crabs and fireworks. To sunburns, to too much sand, to chlorine scented hair and water-wrinkled feet. To all the tiny moments that make up these days, to treasures I can hold on to when another year has flown. Because after all this time together, my kids are still some of the most interesting people I know.

See you in September.

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It’s spring in New England, at least for a little while. Summer vacation is right around the corner. I have a lovely craft post all planned — you’re really going to like it — but between baseball and soccer, baseball and recitals, baseball and concerts and more baseball, I haven’t actually written it yet. (Also, the deadlines. I think of Douglas Adams and his quote “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make when they fly by” often at this time of year.)

But do not despair! I bring you something else. I went for a hike today with a friend (totally necessary for my sanity) and after I stopped by one of my favorite gardens and took pictures. I am sharing them with you, because next week this garden will look totally different. The peonies and the irises — two of the best spring flowers — will be gone, replaced by other, more heat tolerant plants that are lovely in their own way, but don’t share that sense of sheer, exuberant joy, as if they could not wait to burst open. Or maybe I just feel that way because their life span is so brief.  Either way, here:

 

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And here:

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These are for you.

Did you know that irises are one of the sweetest-smelling flowers? The name comes from the Greek word for rainbow, and the flower signifies courage, faith and hope — the epitome of spring in New England.

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As you rush through your own busy days, remember to breathe. Preferably someplace where you can smell the flowers.

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The news has been so bleak this year — tragedy after tragedy. It can make you wish for a redo, a chance to go back to December 31st and live it all again with the foresight and strength to make everything better. But that only works in fiction. In real life, the gray cloud of angst and disaster seeps into your clothes, clings to you like dust, stays with you through the day, changing your mood, coloring the expressions you use.

Combine that with a laundry list of trite yet necessary end-of-year chores, plus deadlines, and it has the makings of emotional disaster.

So for today, I’m controlling what I can, even if it’s not what I’d like to be able to fix. I’m changing a simple expression “I have to” to “I get to” and changing my mood as well. It’s a simple thing, but it reminds me of how much I have to be grateful for in this life. I get to make a deadline, and get paid for doing work I love. I get to pick my kids up from school — a school that’s intact, with teachers who care for them – and take them to after-school activities. I get to walk the Slobbering Beast, who reminds me every day to find the joy in my steps.

What do you get to do today?

Don't forget to smell them.

Don’t forget to smell them.

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Hope

IMG_4553It is spring in New England, that brief heart beat of a season that lives between freezing cold and scorching heat.

When pink petals fall from the sky like snow.

Miracles pop up from what was frozen ground only weeks ago.

And for a single shining moment, anything is possible.

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Last Wednesday, halfway through that terrible week, I took my son and his friend hiking. I needed to be outside, to disconnect from the news, to work my muscles and remind myself that this grief, although it felt as though it had landed on my doorstep, didn’t belong to me.

Because it feels as if it does. It feels as if these tragedies that keep happening, keep popping up on the internet, are just a breath away from those that I love. Boston especially — I’ve walked down that street, I know people who were at the Marathon, friends of friends were injured. The muscles of my heart feel as if they’ve been working too hard these days, as if they’re damaged. I understand the definition of heartsick.

Today I went back to the hill where I hike. I went alone, but it was raining and cold, not weather for cheering up. So I stopped in at the preschool at the base of the hill, where my children went to school, and I sat on the floor and I watched the teachers. I watched as they mediated an argument between two children who wanted to play with the same toy. I watched as they explained, over and over and over again, why the blocks couldn’t be stacked past a certain point. The teachers wiped noses. They passed out snacks. They praised the children when they used kind words, and reminded them of those words when they didn’t. They did all these things with patience and grace, in the hopes of making the world a better place one small child at a time.

There was a sign at the door when I came in, a reminder to parents that the school is a safe place for little ones, as much as any place can be these days. It was a reminder for me, as well.

Advice

Advice

So here’s what I have for you this week. My family is going through a retro phase for our weekend movie nights. We’ve been watching Leave It To Beaver, a few episodes every time. I thought my children might find it hokey, but they’re fascinated  by the trouble Wally and Beaver find themselves in. And despite the stereotypes on the show, there’s something comforting about a world where parental authority and confidence is so absolute, where no one ever gets hurt and adults know the right answer to every question.

In last week’s episode, Beaver and Wally had a run in with Lumpy, a mean bully of a boy.  Beaver and Wally try to thwart him, to no avail. At the end of the episode, Beaver asks his dad: “So you just can’t beat a guy like Lumpy?”

“Sure you can, Beaver,” the father replies. “Sure you can. You beat him simply by not being like him.”

On this rainy day, it helps to remember that.

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My dad grew up in Southie. If you aren’t from Boston, aren’t from Massachusetts, that has different meaning for you. To me, it means afternoons spent at my grandmother’s house, listening to white boys wearing gold chains pass on the sidewalk outside, trying to understand what they said. It means going to the playground with your grandmother as a ten-year-old, looking at the five-year-olds playing there, and realizing that any one of them could take you.

It means being young and far away from home  and homesick. Not for any one person or place, exactly, but for a sense of the familiar. And then hearing that accent — that godawful, wonderful accent — spoken on the Tube by some punk, loud-mouthed Boston kid in jeans and a Celtics t-shirt — and smiling for the rest of the day.

It means having absolutely no interest in sports, not even in the Red Sox (okay, maybe the Red Sox) but hating New York on principle.

It means taking the train into Boston as a teen with your friends and realizing that all the stuff you read about in history books, the stuff that made your country, happened HERE, and that the founding fathers were pretty bad-assed after all.

It means that your husband — who can navigate anywhere in the world — will sometimes turn to you, the geographically impaired, after following a maze of one way streets to say in frustration “Where the hell ARE we?” and you can actually tell him.

It means driving through a blizzard at 65 mph with cars passing you on both sides. It means drinking Dunkin Donuts iced coffee instead of Starbucks in the summer. It means understanding that when Paul Revere did his midnight ride, he wasn’t shouting “The British are coming” so that people could hide. He was doing it so that they would stand up and  fight.

It means that you swear allegiance at an early age to a city that pretends not to give a damn about so many things, but really cares so much. A city whose heart is big enough, open enough to break for those who are grieving. And tough enough to move forward, to give the finger to whoever did this. Tough enough to say,  in that awful accent,  ‘We ain’t done here. You haven’t beaten us, asshole. You never will.”

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Frodo: I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.

Gandolf:  So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.

Boston. I love you. You wicked tough, wicked cool, wickedly awesome city. To the people running toward the explosion to help instead of away, to the first responders, the doctors, nurses, police, to the residents offering cell phones and clothing and food and shelter to strangers, you give me hope.  Because of you, when I talk to my children I can say “Look at the heroic deeds of so many!” instead of focussing on the evil actions of so few.

If we must live in such times, there’s no place else I’d rather be.

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I have a friend who thinks June is the darkest month. The kids are out of school, tourists crowd her tiny town, and she’d like nothing better than to curl up in bed with the air conditioner on high until September. (This is not me, I swear.) Another friend can’t stand December and all the forced cheer and shopping the holidays bring.

Me? My darkest month is February.

There’s a reason it’s the shortest month of the year — any longer and it would kill us. It’s usually cold and dreary, and if by a miracle it happens to be warm, there’s MUD.  (I’m guessing E.E. Cummings never had to brush out a pastured horse or clean up after a dog and two kids.)  True, there’s a week of vacation, but  if you manage to go away, everyone else is there too. And if you stay home, everyone is bored with snow, the local attractions are insanely crowded, and someone is always sick.

You can see being around me in February is an uplifting experience. (My sweetheart, wise man that he is, plies me with chocolate and champagne on Valentine’s Day, so at least I’m cheerful for a few hours.) So this year, I’m making a list of things that make me happy, activities that refresh my soul and the souls of those who have to put up with me.

Happy List

  • Climbing into bed with clean sheets and a new book. (Any recommendations?)
  • Walking in the woods with the Slobbering Beast.
  • Getting lost for a few pages in the book I’m writing.
  • Waking to find my bird feeder filled with blue birds.
  • Listening to my son laugh.
  • Watching my daughter dance.
  • Seeing my two kids play together happily.
  • Stealing alone time with my husband.
  • Doing something physically challenging that leaves me exhilarated when I’m done.
  • Reading any of the bloggers I’ve linked to in my sidebar. (C’mon, people, update — for me???)
  • Having school cancelled on account of snow.
  • Sledding at our favorite hill.
  • Tulips.
  • Teaching someone to read.
  • Getting real letters in the mail.
  • Surprising someone with a tiny gift or act of kindness.
  • Being warm.

What’s on your list?

In February, we need to be the light.

In February, we need to be the light.

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Writers these days are funny people. (Perhaps they’ve always been.) I spend hours at my computer, creating imaginary people, and then a few hours more interacting with other people who, for all I know, may well be imaginary too. (Have you seen some of the Face Book profiles out there?) It’s a life wholly of the mind, no body required.

Charles Dickens was a writer who knew the importance of getting out and about. According to a book by Jill Lepore, Dickens would write in the morning from 9 till 2, then prowl about the streets for as long as he had written, taking in the streets and sights of the day.

This year, I want to bring a bit more balance to my world. I want to spend more time outdoors, more time shutting down the constant chatter of my mind and shutting off social media, time spent observing what is around me, what I’m doing right this second, right here. For the next four weeks, I’m trying to get out of my mind (my eight-year-old helps me with this daily) and back into my body. I’m going to hike or do yoga as many days as possible, take a walk after dinner with the kids and the dog, stomp through the snow. I’m certain it will improve my  mood, and there’s evidence it might improve my writing as well.

My hiking partner.

My hiking partner.

What are your plans for 2013?

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My favorite place...

My favorite place…

This is the view from the parking lot of my children’s preschool.  It’s a magical place, where every single teacher is amazing beyond words. I hike nearby, and sometimes I’ll stop in for a little-kid  fix. I love watching the three and four-year olds tippy-toe running, their hands outstretched, confident someone will be there to dust them off if they fall.

Both of my children went there, and since they are such completely different personalities I had two completely different experiences. My son, active guy that he is, spent most of his time outside kicking a ball, digging in the sandbox and racing about with his little buddies. My daughter is more reserved, and spent most of her first year observing, rather than joining in, the activities. Even the second year, she was tentative. If there was any conflict at all — if another child wanted her toy, for example, or her spot at the craft table — she’d often just relinquish the item and walk away rather than cause a fuss.

She was my first, so of course I fretted. I wondered how she’d be able to handle herself as she grew older, in settings that weren’t as nurturing as this one. I worried about how she felt. And the teachers, who taught me so much there, would gently remind me that every child is different, and that she needed to have the space to figure out some of these things on her own. When I think of my children, in my heart’s eye they are always back at that school, round-faced and sweet and innocent.

Last night, we went to fencing.  (Yes, I am still fencing. I do not appear to be getting any better at it, but at least I’m not getting any worse.) We’re taking class at a different location this year, with the same instructor, but the group of kids are all strangers to us. When we walked in last night, a handful of the younger boys were exuding that type of energy that automatically signals a tough class — bouncing around, knocking into each other, driving the instructor a bit crazy.

One of the boys was being particularly difficult, and when we fenced he kept making these giant swashbuckling gestures, flailing as if he wanted to remove my head and helmet both, whacking me wherever he could reach.  He was fencing ‘like a jerk’ as my instructor says.  It was not a fun match, and while I usually go easy on the littler kids, by the end I was perfectly happy to deploy my superior height (yes, he’s a young one) and cunning and beat the pants off of him.

My daughter was in line next, and as I passed her I whispered to watch out for him.  She nodded, a little too nonchalantly for my liking, then went off to fence him while I moved down the line to my next match. And of course I fretted, straining to see her out of the corner of my mask. She’d retreat from him, I just knew it. She’d let him push her around, let him score touch after touch because he’d back her into a corner and rather than fight such an aggressive personality, she’d just give up and walk away. He’d hit my side once, particularly hard, and I worried about her getting hurt.

When he lunged forward, she calmly stepped back, and used the force of his attack to impale him on her blade. She stabbed him in the heart. And then she did it again. When she finished with him, her next match was me, and she beat me fair and square for the first time — 5-4.  And when she won, she smiled.

My own heart might have been a little sore, watching her and remembering the preschooler she’d been, but I was very proud.

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The tree is up, the outside of the house is decorated, and the holiday cards are in process. Every year, December seems to go by faster and faster — the month hasn’t even started yet and I already can feel the days slipping away. I want to pay attention to every single second this year. I want walks in the snow, nights curled up just gazing at the tree, meals eaten by glow of candlelight. I want carols on the stereo and lots of time just hanging out, reading or talking or playing board games. I’ll let you know how that plays out sometime in January, ok?

In the meantime, here are some ways to make the holiday season more merry for you and your loved ones:

Watch From Time to Time It’s written and directed by Julian Fellowes, the selfsame fellow behind Downton, and you’ll recognize several of the faces.  It’s a lovely, haunting story set at Christmastime during World War II.

Invest in your inner writer (or the inner writer in someone you love).  If you live in New England, consider giving a gift membership to Grub Street, or a workshop or class. It’s a great organization that truly helped me grow as a writer (and continues to do so). Which reminds me, I need to renew my own membership….

Eat chocolate. Okay, chocolate makes a good gift too. I’m particularly fond of Taza chocolate, especially their chocolate mexicano line. It’s sweet and spicy and addictive.  I also love the dark chocolate sea salt caramels from Whole Foods. (An awfully nice friend gave me an entire box just before Thanksgiving, and I have hidden them away for those dark writerly moments of the soul.)

Give a book. Sadly, I cannot post many of the books I plan to give because a certain eleven-year-old who lives in my home has figured out how to subscribe to my blog. (It’s bad enough when they snoop in closets for presents!) But I can safely share two here. They are:

  •    Summer and Bird, by Katherine Catmull.  I loved, loved, loved this fairy-tale esque story so much that I might have captured it from the local library several times in a row.  I’m planning on purchasing it so it can live on my shelves without guilt.
  • Papertoy Monsters.

    Our paper monster family. Aren’t they cute?

    A cross between origami and cartoon art, the book has over 50 teensy  monsters, each with its own backstory, to be pressed out and glued or folded together. Both my kids love making them, and I may have created a few on my own when they were asleep one night. I’m not confessing.

What’s on your holiday list this year?

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Sandy

There’s a character in my new book.  She’s wild, impetuous, the kind of woman everyone takes notice of when she walks into a room, a woman who leaves a trail of heartbreak and destruction wherever she goes.  Her name? Sandy.

Yesterday, the real Sandy tried to sock my city in the eye.  She blew out the lights, ripped down some trees, and shut down the schools, but spared us the worst of her wrath. My kids will remember the day as one on which we played Monopoly, lit the beeswax candles we bought this summer, and wore pajamas all afternoon.  I know others weren’t so fortunate, and my thoughts are with them.  Take care, my friends. Wherever you are, I hope you are safe.

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When I quit my job to start freelancing, lo these many years ago, I was very serious about my work space.I had a little office, and I would trundle up there each morning with my patient brown dog and sit in my seat until I had made the requisite number of phone calls or written the necessary number of pages.  The room had sliding doors with a teensy balcony that overlooked the barn and horses. A cowbird would sit on the balcony and harangue me, and eventually I turned my desk to the wall so I would not be distracted.

An office came with this house, too, and although I turned my desk to the wall to avoid the view and focus on work, distractions managed to creep in.(See below.) I became adept at writing a few sentences, reading a story, then writing a few more.

Last year, my husband redid my office for my birthday. He painted it two gorgeous colors, found a beautiful wooden table, and set the whole room up. But now that both my children are in school, I find it hard to write there. My office is suddenly too quiet. Instead I sit at the kitchen table, overlooking the hummingbird feeder. I type a few lines, glance up the clock, type a few more. I pretend I’m telling a story, not writing a book. The new dog, not as patient as the old, is unhappy with this routine. He sits outside in the sun, watching the neighbors and waiting for the clock to show 3 p.m., the hour when distractions begin.

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Has anyone seen my summer? It was here just yesterday.

I swear, I took good care of it.

I might have taken my eyes off of it, just for a moment, to look at a sunset.

I did forget to hold it tightly on the water slide, but we were going so fast.

It could have slipped away that day at the beach, the one that lasted till it was too dark to swim.

Or maybe it disappeared when we were at the amusement park.  The kids promise they didn’t lose it on the teacups.

It’s possible it escaped when we were napping on the sun porch yesterday.  I only dozed off for a second, but when I woke, it was gone.

I miss it, and I want it back. If you find it, would you please return it to me?

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My daughter took this picture this morning.

Summer in New England is short and temperamental.  The warm weather comes and goes in a flash, the sun visits and then retreats. It’s fickle and gorgeous and a season to appreciate but not to count on.

Because we were away for two weeks, and then recovering for another week or so, I missed the narrow window of opportunity for planting out my garden.  It’s too late for my sweet pea and nasturtium seeds, although I did manage to throw some radish and lettuce seeds in the ground before we left.  And because we are getting the house painted this summer — and the vegetable garden is right next to it — and because we spend most of these warm months bopping about, making the most of the sunshine — I’ve decided not to do anything else.  This will be the first time since I’ve owned my own house that I won’t have at least a pot or two of tomatoes.

I’ll miss it, miss the intoxicating scent of home-grown basil, the fun of making my own salsa from scratch with ingredients I’ve not only chosen but grown.  But I’ve decided to focus on what I have this summer, on the unexpected delight and abundance that can occur when you cede control. We never pruned the roses this year, we’re letting the mint grow rampant (I know, I know — we won’t be able to find the house) and the wisteria and clematis received only the most cursory haircut.  The lavender is so full and lush it has fallen over, and I can’t decide whether to cut and dry it or simply enjoy it the way it looks today. It’s a jungle, but a beautiful one.

The lavender hedge smells amazing in the hot sun.

The wisteria and the mint may take over the house.

The clematis is taller than the shed.

Wherever and however you spend your summer, I hope it is a beautiful one, filled with unexpected pleasures and delights.

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I’ve been cheating on you, my pretties.  Whilst you thought I was here, slogging away at the computer, I was actually there, eating scones with clotted cream, drinking pots of tea, and walking about the Irish countryside.

You know all that stuff about how poetic the Irish are?  It’s true.  One rainy day, I asked an old codger how long a particular hike was, and he turned to me and said “How long is a piece of string?”

(The answer, as I found out after walking for two hours, is damn long.)

I got to see my husband down a pint, show my daughter the Book of Kells, and watch my son charm the local populace in two languages. (If the Irish for hello didn’t work, there’s always his signature “Hellloooo, ladies!”)

I watched my parents and MIL experience Ireland for the first time.

And saw a white horse upon a green hill. (A gray and brown horse too.)

I did a little tiny bit of research for my next book.  I’d like to write it in this sweet cottage.

Tea, anyone?

Failing that, if I ever make the best seller’s list I’ll celebrate by staying at this country home, which I didn’t discover until my last day of the trip. Anyone care to join me?

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Last week, as I faced off against my ever cocky teenaged fencing opponent, it occurred to me: I was going to lose.

Sadly, this is not the first time I’ve been graced with this epiphany. I have never been the speediest turtle, nor the most coordinated.  Because I am old and crafty and gifted with decent stamina and taller than everybody under the age of 10 in class, I’ve been able to hold my own for the first few months.  But now, the little ones are improving and gunning for me.  The older teens, the ones who have the agility of Spiderman and the reflexes of Flash, have been killing me since day one.  And the middle group, the ones who make me work for my wins, are catching up.  Last week, I got skewered badly enough that my husband, who after seeing me kicked across the barn by my temperamental TB tends to be pretty blase about my daily injuries, actually noticed the bruise.

So, as I stood there staring across the blade of Mr. Teenaged Superhero, I realized I needed a new strategy, one which, even if I couldn’t win, would allow me not to lose. Preferably a strategy that did not involve being shish-kabobbed.   So no more mad dashes forward.  No more desperate attempts to land a hit. No more leaving my vulnerable side exposed as I charged across the floor.

And you know what?  It mostly kind of worked.  I emerged unscathed from my first match, and got hit only once during my second. (Granted, these were short practice sessions, not full-on matches, but I was pretty happy.) Of course, I didn’t score any points, and not getting hit sometimes involved throwing myself backward in a distinctly ungraceful way as opposed to the fluid footwork my instructor prefers, but hey, you can’t have everything.

Writing is a little bit like fencing a superhero.  It’s a business which, if we’re not careful, will stab us in the heart every time we let it.  We get a form rejection from our dream agent. The editor who bought our best friend’s book won’t even glance at ours. Our contract is for a miniscule amount, not the six-figure check we’d hoped for.  We sell a single book, not the three title series we’ve worked on for years.

If we see each setback as failure, there’s no reason to keep at it.  Instead, we need to change how we see the game.  The form rejection is a chance to hone our query until an agent can’t refuse us.  The editor who turns down our novel is telling us the writing’s just not ready and giving us a chance to improve. The small advance gives us room to grow. The single title takes the pressure off during the writing process.  If nothing else, we can focus on one chapter, one page, one sentence, on making those words as perfect as we can, one word at a time.

I don’t fence because I expect to be in the Olympics.  I do it because, even when I’m losing, it’s fun.  Or it’s supposed to be, anyhow.  It’s only when I lose sight of my goals, when I focus too much on winning, that it becomes unpleasant.  And, ironically, the more I try to win the more I leave myself open to mistakes.  So if I can just focus on enjoying the game, and on not losing, I come out ahead.  It’s the same with writing.

At the heart of things, writing is supposed to be enjoyable, and it’s far too easy to lose sight of that fact.

I’m a Penguins fan (the cartoon, not the hockey team).  And as Skipper says, “That’s not failure.  That’s redefined mission objectives.”

Happy writing.

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It is spring, and the bloody bluebird, instead of laying eggs, is sitting on my bird feeder, gobbling up the grubs and then flying his fuzzy blue you-know-what off to someone else’s nesting box.  (To be fair, the bluebirds DID begin a nest, but their nest has disappeared and a chickadee is happily building there instead. Digression: Did you know that bluebirds and chickadees use totally different material for their nests?  Bluebirds use primarily pine needles, and chickadees use moss.  These are the things you learn when you have a bluebird competitor who is willing to share information right down the street).  The crows are having a fine time scooping up the leftovers, and it is darn cold out.

BUT — on the bright side, the asparagus is poking green shoots up.  We had some last night for dinner.  The radishes and lettuce seeds are in the ground. It is bound to get warmer soon.  And I’m writing as much as I can, storing up words and chapters for my next novel before school lets out in a few short weeks and these hours are no longer my own.

I hope spring is treating you well, wherever you are.

This is Microsoft's asparagus. Ours is pencil-thin and delicious.

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When my daughter was born, I promised myself that I’d stand firm against the sea of plastic I saw other kids playing in.  I wanted only handmade, beautiful toys for her, in the Waldorf tradition, made by elves who only ate organic food, drank milk from virgin yaks,  and shunned sugar.   We even went to a Waldorf play group for two years, until I had my second child and the 45 minute drive became too crazy.

And then, somewhere along the way, I found myself drowning in the same sea of plastic and more.  There’s an air hockey table in the basement, along with a full-sized basketball arcade game, from the same godparents who are just dying to buy a pony.  There’s a scooter that was supposed to be an outdoor toy, but that my kids prefer to use for runs to the bathroom or to the kitchen.  There are enough stuffed animals to set up a toy store. And while I stood firm against Bratz dolls and violent action figures, I did get sucked into American Girl Dolls and Thomas the Train. (Curse you, Mattel!)

But despite the concessions, I have managed to keep one small Waldorf-esque tradition — the nature table.  Each season, we deck it with natural (or natural looking, since I’m a sellout these days) materials that represent what is happening outside.  I’ve done it in different places in the house, but it seems to work best on our dining room table.  It’s such a part of our lives that I don’t even notice it most of the time.

The other day we had a loud, rowdy play date that seemed to involve almost all of the toys in the house.  (And to complete my fall from grace, lots of processed sugar, too.) And then I was passing by the dining room and I heard one of the visitors say “You know what I like most about your house? It always has something from nature in it.”

Even when you think they’re not paying attention, apparently they are.

At least one of these things is from nature, right?

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Or at least February vacation, so if you’re expecting a real blog post, you are sadly mistaken. Instead I thought I’d share with you a few of the activities we’ve done in between the playdates and the sleepovers.  (I’m not including the part where I pry the DS from my son’s hands, of course.  That goes without saying.)

We’ve watched Microcosmos — you’ll never look at your backyard the same way again.  (If you are squeamish, you may not even go outside again.) It’s an award-winning movie about the natural world, up close and personal.  If you are watching it with kids, be warned : It features a ladybug one-night stand and some serious snail lovin’ that could lead to an interesting discussion.

We’ve found all the Dr. Seuss books we own (a grand total of six) for a Seuss-in.

We’re teaching the Slobbering Beast  how to do this …. — I’ll get back to you on how it works out.

We’re working through our final Kiwi Crate, featuring pirate activities.  (Although my son has enjoyed it so much I may have to sign up for more.)

And I’m stealing time to read The Snow Child.  (It is gorgeous, and check out the book trailer — it reminds me of Where The Wild Things Are.)

Where are the Wild Things?  They are at my house.  So that’s it till next week.

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A few weeks ago I was watching an episode of Downton Abbey. It was the scene where Lady Mary breaks it to Matthew that he’ll never walk again, and probably never sire children, either.  And then, at the conclusion of this cheerful conversation, she asks brightly “Would you like some tea?  I would!” and trots off to make a cup.  I couldn’t help but laugh.

A cup of tea just isn't enough...

My junior year of college, I was lucky enough to spend a semester in England (thanks, Mom and Dad!!) taking classes and working for a member of Parliament.  My MP was of the party that was in power, which meant he had a gorgeous office in Parliament, and I got to do exciting things like research the effect of wind turbines on livestock and examine why soccer hooliganism was an increasing problem.  (As opposed to one of my dear friends who I met on that trip, whose MP was not in power, who had a cubicle of an office and got to spend her time filing.) I was young and American and probably a large pain in the ass, but Mr. X bore it all graciously.  He overlooked my inability to distinguish between Manchester United and Liverpool, my mispronunciation of the River Thames (coming from New London, I always said the A) and my constant snacking on Hob Nobs.

And then one day when we were working late he asked me to make him a cup of tea.  I of course being a good American girl hopped up, found a clean cup, heated some water in the microwave, and then started rustling through the cabinets, trying to find a bag. I still to this day remember how he stopped what he was doing when I put the cup of hot water on his desk.

“What,” he asked, all British restraint clearly gone, “is this?”

“Well,” I said, “I’m still looking for the tea bag.”

This, as you can imagine, did not go over well. And while I can’t remember what paper he was trying to finish, I do recollect quite clearly that the next morning we had a lesson in Tea.  It was a long lesson, and involved ideas that were foreign to me, such as the proper temperature of the pot, the use of a tea cozy, and the benefits of savory versus sweet biscuits.

Tea, thanks to Mr. X,  became an ongoing part of my education.  I sampled clotted cream in Cornwall, tried English Breakfast at a tea house near Windsor Castle, and had tiny sandwiches and cups of Earl Gray in china cups, brought by pages inside the lunch room for Parliamentary members, overlooking the River Thames.  (I pronounce it correctly now.)

When I came back home, I kept in touch with the friend whose MP was not in power.  We met a few times a year, and always tried to visit at least one tea house where we tucked into sandwiches, scones, and yes, tea.

One day, she suggested we meet at a restaurant that specialized in Japanese tea for a change.  I was reluctant — no clotted cream? no scones with lemon curd? — but my friend, who has been to Japan, persevered, and gradually my tastes evolved.  I still love a milky cup of English Breakfast and sugar on morning when it’s cold and raw out, but most days I take my green tea straight.

The stuff my friend got me hooked on is expensive enough to qualify as a present, not a foodstuff, and I’m always grateful that my husband keeps me supplied at Christmas and birthdays.  But what I don’t always remember to appreciate is the experience.  Whether English or otherwise, the tea isn’t the only point.  It’s the ritual, the warming of the pot, the waiting for the water to heat, the leaves to unfold — that creates a space in time, that slows down the day a bit and allows you to gather your thoughts and your strength, if necessary, for what is coming.

Before my kids were born, I collected all kinds of tea paraphernalia — fancy clay teapots, antique English tea strainers, speciality cups.  These days I tend to just grab the nearest mug and go. But today, and tomorrow, and for as many days as I can remember, I’m going to take the time to warm the pot, and use the time while I’m waiting just to breathe.  I hope  you do the same.

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John Scalzi, a writer I really like, did a very kind thing this week: He gave writers and editors the chance to share information about their books in his blog’s comments.  A type of writerly gift guide for the holidays, if you will.

I thought it might be fun to do something similar.  So I’m going to use this post to highlight five businesses that have wonderful products.  They are all local (to me, or to places I visit frequently) and small, but they produce some of my very favorite things.  If you are looking for the perfect holiday present, hostess gift, or stocking stuffer, you can’t go wrong with any of these. (Aaaand in the interest of full disclosure, I have no ties, connections, or relatives in any of these businesses.  I get nada from recommending them, other than the chance to share them with you.)

Plum Island Soap Company.  My pediatrician affectionately refers to one of my children as “the creature from the blue lagoon” because said child has such dry, scaly skin.  The only thing I’ve ever found that helps is this company’s baby balm.  I started applying it as a diaper cream (no more diaper rash!) and moved on to coating said child from head to toe with it at night.  Then I stole the jar and started using it myself.  Great for chapped hands, dry elbows, or any other area.  The company also makes soap that smells so good, my babies would try to eat it.  Finally, they have a black licorice line of products, which means I am a customer for life.  And unlike the products mentioned in this scary article, Plum Island Soap Company’s stuff doesn’t have any frightening ingredients, so you can use it as often as you like.

Three Sisters Farms In summer, our first stop at the farmer’s market is at this stall. Glenn, who owns the business with his family, is remarkably patient with all of us as we ask questions and handle products.  Their beeswax candles smell like heat and flowers mixed together, and in winter I light them just to remember the sun’s glow.  (Last year, my son saved his money all summer long to purchase an enormous dragon-shaped candle, which he refuses to burn.  He keeps it next to his bed to scare the dark away.) I’m a particular fan of their lavender honey — I dole it out in cups of tea like a miser — but their raw wildflower honey is pretty sweet too.  A jar would make an awfully nice gift for your favorite writer, don’t you think?

Bridgewater Chocolate.  Back in the day, I would send these chocolates to clients, and a box of Bridgewater truffles was the best possible gift I could think of for my agent and editor.  Their candies are  rich and dark and sinful and if you buy them, plan to have them shipped to their final destination.  Otherwise your family will find you hiding in a dark closet, clutching the box meant for Great Aunt Mabel to your chest and eating them as fast as possible.  (I, of course, would never be found in such a position.  I wait till the kids are at school to open the box.)

Norm’s Atomic Barbecue Sauce.  I put barbecue sauce on food instead of ketchup, and Norm’s has the best I’ve ever tasted.  It’s smoky and sweet with just enough of a kick to let you know this isn’t kid stuff.  I bought two jars last year, meaning to give one as a gift, and by September I’d gone through both of them.  His sauce is good on eggs, on french fries, on cheese sandwiches … this summer, I got smart and bought three bottles.  Only one is left, so I guess I need to decide how much I really like a certain family member.

Sunny Window.  Every year, I attend the same holiday craft fair, and one of the highlights is walking into the room and inhaling the scent of

Sunny Window’s products.  Lavender, lemongrass soap, sage lotion … it’s all gorgeous and gorgeously displayed, and there is always something new and unique.  This year, it was tiny boxes made out of orange peels, beautifully decorated and faintly scented with citrus.The owner, Nancy, also does workshops, and I’m thinking the lavender class might be just the thing to chase the winter blues AND the writer’s block away.

Batch Ice Cream.  Let’s just put it out there — I’m not a fan of ice cream.  Oh, I’ll eat it in summer, but give me a choice of how to spend my calories and chocolate and cake win, every time.  Except that a few weeks ago my husband brought home a pint of Batch’s Ginger Ice Cream.  And I ate the whole thing.  By myself. I think I showed remarkable restraint by not running to the store immediately to sample their Cinnamon and Chocolate Bits, or their Salted Carmel, but one can only be strong for so long.  Showing up at a holiday gathering with a few containers of this ice cream and an attractive scoop might make you very popular indeed.

My local indie bookstore.  I have three that I consider ‘mine’ — two within driving distance of my home and one that I can visit only in summer. All offer personal customer service, and have turned me on to writers I might never have discovered on my own.  Books are the perfect gift — they’re compact, yet they contain the world inside, and there’s one for almost everybody on your list.  (And if you are buying Evenfall this year for someone, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.)  Plus, you can pair the book with a meaningful experience to make it a unique event the receiver will treasure forever.  Here’s a great guide to help you get started, updated for 2011.

Whew.  So that’s my contribution to your gift list for this year.  Now I’d love to hear your suggestions!

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It’s time to stock up on wine.  : )

What, you were expecting something else?

I’m lucky.  For the most part, holidays around here are drama-free.  On Thursday, I can honestly say ‘Thanks” for all my family members, extended and otherwise.  But even drama-free holidays can still be stressful.  So over the years, Bill and I have come up with our own rituals.  On Wednesday, after the kids are in bed, we’ll pull out “Home for the Holidays” and watch it.  Imagining Robert Downey Jr. as your relative helps put everything in perspective.

Later, I’ll speed read through a few chapters of Amy Bloom’s A Blind Man Could See How Much I Love You. The beautiful, dysfunctional family celebrating Thanksgiving at the heart of this collection of short stories never ceases to enthrall me.  (True story:  Many years ago, I got to interview Ms. Bloom.  I prepped for a week and she still managed to scare the bejesus out of me.)

What are your pre-holiday rituals?

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Before we moved to the suburbs, we lived on a run down horse farm in a town with a population of maybe 3,000 people.  I do not joke when I tell you that the cows often outnumbered the human residents.  My husband probably deserves sainthood for staying there with me for that long, but I loved it.  Everywhere you looked, there were trees. You could stand on the back deck and look out and literally not see another house anywhere.

When we moved to our current residence, there was a stand of scrub oaks in the front of the yard.  My husband suggested we take them down — they’re not particularly attractive and they shed leaves in fall like crazy — but I was adamant that they stay.  If you look carefully — if you squint and blur your vision a tiny bit — those trees block out the neighborhood from the front of the house.  When we first moved here, I did that quite often. Later, when I’d adjusted to being back in civilization, I’d put a baby monitor, sealed in a plastic bag, under those trees, and fill the feeders that hung in front of them.  My children would come down for breakfast, sleepy-eyed, and listen to the chatter of the birds, the fat flickers and the cheerful chickadees, as they ate their oatmeal.  If I couldn’t give them a forest in their backyard, I could at least let them hear what one sounded like.

Later still, I found out that the land on which my neighborhood is built used to be a sawmill.  The man who sited our house grew up riding his bike here through the trees.  His grandfather owned the land, and every now and then, he’d talk about how it used to be, and he’d sound just a tiny bit wistful.  He’d used the last boards harvested here for beams in his barn, which is where I kept my horse when we moved.  I liked the idea that although Centurio was no longer in my back yard, a part of my yard was in his stable.

During last week’s storm, we lost big branches from our scrub oaks.  A few more dangle precariously from their tops.  The oaks are no longer just unattractive nuisances — they’re dangerous, and they must come down.  We went out this weekend and marked the ones slated for execution with duct tape, which turned out to be almost all of them.  My husband, good sport that he is, promised me we’d replace them with  dogwoods, with japanese maples and weeping cherries and white spruce, all the trees that I love.  It will be much prettier, and I find I’m okay with it.  But a tiny part of me will miss those scrub oaks, and the forest they contained.

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