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It’s summer.

My car, with which during the school year I drive the highway so often I could do it in my sleep, stays in the garage. I take long walks instead. Occasionally with my husband, less often with one of my children, even more rarely with the whole family.  We’re at the stage in life where there are games for the kids to play and friends to connect with and social media calling to them at all hours, it seems — a constant distraction. So my walks are mostly solitary. I wander the beach, watching enviously as young families build sand castles and catch minnows and play tag with the waves.

Sometimes it’s early and the parents are bleary-eyed, sipping their coffee. It feels like just last weekend that I was them, desperate for just a little more sleep, but loathe to say no to an early morning trip to the beach and donuts on the sand, when one of the hardest parts of parenting was getting them to hold still long enough to cover them with sunscreen.

I’ve taken to collecting sea glass. There’s a beach not far from us where it can be found almost by the handfuls. But I prefer a less-crowded spot a little further away, where the glass is harder to find. Some days I come home with nothing, some days with a scant two pieces. Yet somehow all the searching makes me treasure each piece more.

I keep the pieces in an old apothecary jar, spotted by my husband and one of the kids on an excursion this summer. It’s a thing of beauty, tall and curved and delicate, the glass so thin I hold my breath each time I lift it from the shelf to add another piece. It’s so large that at this rate it will take me years to fill it, and there’s comfort in that thought.

Unless, of course, it slips from my hands and shatters. A disaster I regularly imagine, each piece a wicked sharp-edged weapon beyond anyone’s skill to repair.

And yet.

This morning as I held a tiny piece of sea glass, I wondered what it once was. Bright blue, it might have come from a bottle, but it’s equally possible it was once someone’s heirloom. A beloved vase. A perfume bottle.  A frame, sun-glinted on a mother’s dresser.  The loss perhaps not heart-breaking, but mourned all the same.

And now that identical glass sits in my hand. Its sharp edges have been worn away, and time and the roughness of the waves have transformed it into something else. Something entirely different, yet still treasured.  Stripped to the very essence of what it once was and lovely all on its own.

I still hold my breath as I replace the jar upon the shelf. I still treasure it in its current form. But I’m coming to realize that sometimes, beauty can be found after the breakage too.

 

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Hi there!  I’m over at Writer Unboxed, talking about a topic that is very dear to my heart — how to create readers and read more yourself.  (Hint:  It has nothing to do with balancing books on your head.)  Please stop by and let me know what you think!

 

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I love the holidays.  I love the tree, I love baking cookies and gingerbread with my kids, I love the presents, I love the peace, and I especially love the TWO WHOLE WEEKS off from school.  If we could only have snow and have it be 80 degrees at the same time, I’d be in heaven.

One thing I especially love, and have since my daughter was a baby, is making the holiday cards.  It’s one of my favorite activities, and since my oldest was little and I strapped her in angel wings, I’ve spent days each winter planning what I would do.  This sounds obnoxious, as if I’m striving to be Martha Stewart, but believe me when I say that despite my best efforts, the cards remain pretty simple and success is hit or miss.  But I finally realized this year why I love creating them so much.

Christmas cards are ALL character and NO plot.  (Ahem.  Does this sound like any author you may know?)  Each year is an opportunity to create a perfect little vignette, with no worries about rising action, microtension, or conclusions.  (Sorry, Donald Maass. I feel like I’m letting the team down.)

This year, however, my characters revolted.  After over a decade of taking direction, they’ve decided that next year, the Christmas card is theirs.  And while I’m sad I won’t be able to get to the rest of the fabulous ideas I’ve planned, I understand. (Plus, there’s always the chance they’ll forget and I’ll get to do it my way anyhow.)

So, to celebrate the end of a run, I thought I’d put together my thoughts on what makes a holiday card successful.  And if there’s some writing advice in there too, forgive me.  Just don’t listen to me on plot.

  • Pick a theme.  Even if you only use one photo, find a way to tie it to something larger.  I love using a line or two of a poem or holiday song in the greeting, and having the photo reflect what’s written. For example, in one of my earlier cards, I dressed my baby daughter in her pink tutu and snapped pictures while she twirled.  The line under the photo read “While visions of sugar plums danced in their heads.” Just like in novels, a strong theme can carry you through.
  • Be unexpected.  One of my favorite cards from last year showed a family on the beach in bathing suits, enjoying the warm weather.  Their card read “Dreaming (NOT!) of a White Christmas.”  (And taking your reader somewhere unexpected keeps them turning pages, too.)
  • Keep it fun.  My son is notorious for looking like a Grinch in pictures.  In the past years, in desperate attempts to make it look as if we’re not torturing him, I’ve had him sit in an old-fashioned horse carriage, pull a sleigh as fast as he could on the beach, jump on a trampoline, and pelt his sister with snowballs. (Guess which activity got the biggest smile out of him?) Just like in writing — if it’s  not fun for you, it shows through to your reader.
  • Keep the photos as big as you can.  And my rule is that in general, people on my holiday list really only want to see my kids. I’d rather have one great photo of the two of them than five smaller ones of the family. And lastly…
  • Make friends with a great photographer!  I’ve always done the photos for our cards myself, but this year my friend Kevin Harkins of Harkins Photography offered to take them for me.  The results were fabulous, and such a memorable way to (possibly) end my favorite tradition. To see our card this year as well as some of the outtake photos, hop over to his blog. And tell me — do you love doing holiday cards too?  If so, tell me about your favorite in the comments!

    The Slobbering Beast, shot by Kevin Harkins

    The Slobbering Beast, shot by Kevin Harkins

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It may come as a surprise, but I’m not the most organized person in the world. (My husband and mother don’t need to chime in on this.)  My organizational strategies are few, but hard-won: The keys go on the hook right when I walk in the door, or I lose them. The phone goes on the charging station, or it disappears. Twice a day I walk through the main rooms of the house, starting in the left corner and working to the right, restoring whatever has escaped to its rightful spot.

Which is why sights like this:

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Creative doll house space that needs maid service

 

and this:

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Sewing corner that would make Martha Stewart cry

make me crazy.  Sometimes after a long week, I admit it — I lose my cool and yell about the mess of plastic and paper we’re drowning in.  And for half an hour, everyone under the age of fourteen scurries around, putting their laundry away and moving the toys from the floor to under the bed.

But I always wind up feeling horribly guilty about these rants. Not just because I hate to yell but because I’m torn.  Childhood should be a time when kids learn organization skills, it’s true (although I had the most organized parents in the world and not much rubbed off, so I’m leaning toward nature over nurture on this one) but it should also be a time of insane creativity.  It’s a time when kids don’t know the rules, so they have no compunction about breaking them.  They can dream big, because no one has yet told them how small their space is in the world.  They can make a mess, and create something beautiful.

It’s not just things that are over-organized, either.  Almost every minute of my children’s day is scheduled.  My youngest goes to a school where even recess now has ‘stations’ to choose from. Gone are days when kids could play tag (too rough) practice cartwheels on the grass (too dangerous) or wander aimlessly through the playground. And after school, the days of just hanging out in the neighborhood with friends or on the couch reading are over, too — the neighborhood is empty, because everyone’s at soccer practice, and if anyone’s just hanging on the couch, they’d better be studying for that math quiz.

But if everything is scheduled, everything is put away, when does serendipity strike? When do the unwashed petri dishes lead to penicillin? When does the time on the couch lead to a book that leads to a hobby that leads to a brilliant idea? When do our kids have the time, and the opportunity, to connect two unrelated things and make them sing? For that matter, when do we?

Or as Steve Jobs said:

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”

If you schedule every moment, if you put everything away neatly in its place, you’ll have a well-organized life, it’s true.  You may become brilliant at taking tests. But then that sewing corner may never lead to this:photo 2

 

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And this:

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Random paper clips arranged in a pattern on the floor

 

won’t ever have time to grow into this:

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And who knows what else the world will miss?

(Tell  me — how do you balance organization and creativity?)

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I think, somewhere between when I opened my eyes in June and blinked in September, there was a thing called summer.  I have memories of warm beach days, dripping ice cream, hot buttery lobster rolls, the smell of suntan lotion and chlorine, but they happened so fast it’s as if I dreamed them.

On the last day of school, the top of my daughter’s head was just below eye level, my son somewhere way below.  Somehow, they both grew three inches in that blink of an eye, my daughter now juuust as tall as me.  Not taller.  I swear.

This is the first school day in eight years I haven’t cried. How could I?  Both my children went eagerly  striding into that morning, looking forward to friends they hadn’t seen all summer, to new teachers, to taking their place in the world. Which is as it should be.  There’s nary a trace of the babies they were — the pictures hanging on my walls of chubby-cheeked toddlers are so removed from the here and now it is as if they belonged to someone else. I catch glimpses of them once in a while, mostly when their older counterparts are sleeping.  They’re not gone for good, but they are vanishing fast.

A billion years ago when I started freelancing, I had one rule — the television stayed off and the computer stayed in the office. But then my babies were born, and time to write was so scarce that the laptop became a fixture on the kitchen table so I could squeeze in a line here and there, between feedings and games and cleanups.  Somehow it stayed, even when the children grew up and went off to school.

But this summer we had no internet access, so the laptops mostly stayed closed.  Less Facebook, less email, less checking of random websites.  I felt guilty not keeping up with writing groups and the blogs of my friends, but there was relief, too. And then in September, the internet and all its distractions returned.

I think it’s time to renew my old vow, and banish my laptop to the office during hours when I’m  not working.  The days are going too fast, and I want to have control over how I slow them down.  And it’s not just me who has been distracted — I see it happening now to my children, too, and I need to set a good example.  Plus, selfishly, I want as much time as I can squeeze out of them, want to glimpse those babies as often as I can, and I know the one place they’ll never be found is in the glow of a blue screen.

So my fall resolution, as it were, is to write with more intention and less distraction.  To create specific times to use technology and specific time to banish it.  To seize back the hours I’ve given to the internet and spend them as I choose, both mourning the past a little bit and looking forward to the future.

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What are your fall writing resolutions?

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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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Last week I was sitting on Rory, listening to my instructor correct some point or other in my riding, and another person in the class commented on what a lovely head set Rory had as he stood there.  His head and spine were perfectly rounded, he was mouthing the bit, and he looked like a real dressage horse, instead of a get up and go hunter. (Like this, if you are looking for a visual.)

“I know,” I said. “I can get him to relax into it when we’re stopped, but not when we’re trotting.”

You know how the second the words come out of your mouth, you regret them? I should know better to ever, EVER  tell a riding instructor I can’t do something, because they will take it personally. They will devote the rest of their lives to making sure that I can. Or at least the rest of the lesson. And this instructor is no different.

“Of course you can,” she said immediately. And I silently cursed the person who had commented as I dutifully went off at the trot to get Rory on the bit.

But here’s the thing. People call riding a conversation, and it really is. No matter how big and powerful you are, no matter how harsh your aids, you cannot make a horse do something he doesn’t want to do.  You may prevail for a while, you may get your way that day, or the next, maybe even the third, but at some point in time there is going to come a reckoning, and it is not going to be an attractive one.

Instead it’s like getting a three-year-old to eat their peas.  You ask nicely.  You mix them with a bit of honey, maybe, and you’re not surprised when they come back at you.  You give it some room and you ask again. You mix them with carrots, you use them frozen to soothe sore gums, and eventually, if you’re persistent and you really, really want it, you have a three-year-old who will eat peas.

Let us say that Rory does not like peas in any way, shape, or form.  We’d had this conversation on our own, with me kind of suggesting, in a timid way, that he might want to try them, and him spitting them back out at me hard.  No peas for him, I’d decided.

Because the other part of the conversation of riding is that once you ask a horse for something, you have to follow through. You have to mean it, to really commit, because if you don’t, then the horse has just learned that he doesn’t have to respect you.  That you aren’t serious about this, and he can ignore whatever other suggestions you might have, which can get dicey when you’re outside and you ask him to pay attention to you, not to whatever is blowing in the breeze, or when you ask him to go over a jump.

But here was my instructor, telling me to give Rory some peas, telling me I was capable of doing this, that I NEEDED to do this. So I swallowed hard, and started the conversation.

It went about like you’d expect.  Rory huffed and puffed and behaved a little bit like a punk, tossing his head hard at me and stomping sideways. It wasn’t a full-scale temper tantrum, just a little bitty one, the equivalent of a toddler dumping his dish on the floor. No real malice, just curiosity about what would happen. Nothing personal.

“You can do this,” my instructor said. “And if it helps, I’ve never known him to buck.”  It didn’t help one bit, since I have a mortal fear of bucking based on past painful experience, and whenever anyone says that it’s the equivalent of saying the Titanic had plenty of life boats.

But I stayed with it, despite the huffing and puffing. I breathed and unfroze myself from the self-protective frame I’d immediately folded into.  I kept asking, nicely, and eventually Rory got tired of putting on a show. He recognized that I meant it, and he dropped his head, rounded his frame, and looked a little bit like a dressage rock star.

After, my instructor took me aside and reminded me that I had the skill to do this.  I had the talent, even if I hadn’t used it in a decade. That I should be able to get on a horse even after 10 years and politely and firmly explain what we were going to do, and then do it. That it’s not just skill, but self-confidence too.

Publishing is a very similar conversation.  You can’t make an agent take you, you can’t make a publishing house buy your book. You can’t make readers fall in love with your story.  But you can be prepared. You can be as skilled as you possibly can be before you start that conversation. You can commit all the way to making it happen, to getting better and better, to not taking the rejection personally, but to getting back to a place of strength for the next time you ask. And the time after that. And every single time going forward. Until at last, you get that yes.

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My little girl on my big sweet non-punk horse.

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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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My daughter is blessed to have people in her life who love her and enjoy sending her beautiful things to wear. We spent lots of the holiday at home on the couch, reading and watching movies. I mostly did that in jeans (sometimes pajamas) but my daughter often chose to wear her new clothes. She came down one morning in a gorgeous print dress someone had sent her, for a day that involved little more than eating, napping, and possibly eating again.  I was all set to send her upstairs to change when something made me bite my tongue.

Yes, it was a fancy dress. But shouldn’t all our days together rate as special occasions?

We did the math this weekend, my husband and I, over a bottle of wine. In a little more than five years, she’ll be winging her way toward the start of a new life. Five years worth of weekends, of vacations, of Friday family movie nights. Less if you factor in high school, when I’m told those family nights become scarce. Suddenly 52 multiplied by five doesn’t seem like much.

I want every day with my kids to be special, to have meaning and weight and be a joyous occasion.

In my china cabinet I have beautiful cups and saucers that belonged to my grandmother. They’re fragile, they have to be hand-washed, they always seem like a little too much work to bring out and use. So they sit there, except on special occasions. My children have few memories which include them, which is a shame, because my grandmother loved those cups. She would have loved seeing us use them.

I think my daughter has the right idea. Our ‘best’ — best selves, best lives, best hearts — ought to be on display every day.

(Confession:  I did ask her to change out of her white ‘fur’ vest when dipping chocolate, however. There are some limits.)

What do you save for best these days that you ought to be squandering?

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We had a chance to take a last-minute trip last week, to Ireland. When we were lucky enough to go two years ago, I had plenty of advance notice. That meant I checked out the six-disc audio book on Ireland’s history, signed us up for online Irish lessons, collected movies on Irish culture, and basically created a home school Irish program with which to torture my children.

This trip, there was no time for any of that, so I tried a quick review.

Me to Boy: What do you remember about Irish history?

Boy to Me: Hmmm. Well, when they weren’t fighting everybody else, they were trying to kill each other.

Me: Good enough. Let’s go!

So with that and a Dia dhuit, we were on our way. And you know what? We had a great time.  Maybe we didn’t see every castle and museum in a 25-mile radius of where we were staying, but we saw enough, and we had fun.

My husband booked a trail ride for me. The day I was supposed to go, it poured. Absolute buckets. So the instructor suggested we do a private lesson inside.  She asked if I’d ridden before (I had) and wanted to know what I’d done.  And about fifteen minutes later, she was saying things like

Instructor: “Okay!  Pick up the canter at the letter F!”

Me: “I haven’t cantered in years!”

Instructor: “That’s great!  Canter now, please!”

And so it went.  Every time I said I hadn’t done something in years, she would give a perky reply and tell me to get on with it, and in no time at all I found myself facing a two-foot jump.  Which doesn’t SOUND very high, but when you are sitting on top of a large animal and you’ve just realized there’s no seat belt, it’s more than high enough.

But here’s the thing:  My brain was making little gabbling noises in the back of my head, but my body remembered.  My body was saying things like “Shut up. We can do this,” and shortening reins and lifting my butt out of the seat. And when I shut down my brain and just moved, didn’t think, everything went surprisingly well.

As writers, we live a ridiculous amount of time in our heads. For me, that means not just when I’m writing, but when I’m living, too — I’m always analyzing everything, teasing apart whatever meaning could be hidden in a conversation, a glance, a silence. This habit can get in the way — of creating, of relationships, of simply living. Sometimes, we need to tell our brains to shut up and get out of the way.  It’s a lesson I need to be reminded of again and again, and when I am, whether by design or by accident, I’m always amazed at how present I feel, how sharp everything seems, and often, how much fun I (and those around me) manage to have.

Tell me — how does your brain get in the way? And what are your tricks for shutting it down?

Tall horse

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Whenever we see babies, I always think (and sometimes say) how much I wish you and your brother were still that age. If I say it aloud, someone — usually a stranger — will tell me I don’t mean it, that (insert age here) is a lovely age, too.

Here’s a secret: I do mean it. I mean it with all my heart.

I’d take three again, the year you had such terrible tantrums I feared for your well-being, actually called the doctor to see what I should do. I’d take three-almost four again, when you started preschool and we began that long, slow separation process that still continues today.

Image Five, when you started kindergarten, and I watched you walk so bravely into a classroom filled with strangers, then went home and cried with your brother? Absolutely. The delicious chubbiness of nine months, when your elbows had elbows and your hair was something from a Shirley Temple movie goes without saying.

Even twelve. Someday, off in the very close future, you’ll be sixteen, and I’ll be longing for twelve — the year you are almost, but not quite, as tall as me, the year you’ve started a new school with new challenges and new friends and new opportunities, the year you’ve begun to look so much less like a child. Someday, I’ll see the year of twelve in a haze of golden light, because it will be a year that you were still mine.

You’re not, of course. You never have been. You have always been very much your own independent person. But it’s easier to pretend when you are little that I can hold you forever, keep you safe, keep you happy, keep your heart from being broken and your spirit intact.  I could still soothe your hurts with a hug or a kiss, distract you with a lollipop or toy. The hurts that are coming — and you will have some — won’t be banished so easily. The joys that are coming — and you will have those too — won’t be as easily shared. They will be your own, and you may tell me about them or you may not.

So I miss three. And eleven. And every single age you’ve been, even as each one takes you a step further down your own path. I’m glad I’ve been on this journey with you, glad to be your traveling companion, if only for a little while. No matter how far ahead you may wander, I’ll always be here cheering for you (quietly, so as not to embarrass you).

I may miss three, but I’m awfully proud of twelve.

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We’re about 6 weeks from the end of school right now, and the activities are crashing over us like big waves at the beach. There’s not a lot of time to catch a breath, and before I know it, this year will be gone. I have mixed feelings about this, but very little time for introspection, which is probably a good thing. But I’ve managed to snatch just a moment to share a few bright and shiny distractions with you. Check them out, and let me know what you think.

  •  Am I the only person who missed this when it was happening? The coolest astronaut since Tom Hanks in Apollo 13. (Aside from his taste in hockey teams, of course.)
  • This movie. Crazy good. Made me think again how important character development is.
  • The Glass Wives.  It’s Amy Sue Nathan’s debut book, and I cannot wait to read it. I’ve parked it next to my bed as an incentive to help me get through the next few weeks.

What’s on your must read or watch list?

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Awesome

We had a wedding this past weekend, the pictures of which I’ve plastered across Facebook because it is so rare for the four of us to be in the same place, dressed up, and clean. (We usually manage one out of three.) The bride was my oldest niece, who was five and my flower girl when I was her age. Like all milestones, this one was bittersweet: Watching her, I couldn’t help but remember the tow-headed baby girl who had brought her stuffed bunny to my house for sleepovers, who’d eaten her weight in fresh raspberries when we’d gone berry-picking, who’d let me carry her through Disney for her first time at the park, hot and sticky and smelling like suntan lotion. I watched her laugh with her mom, my sister-in-law, who was laughing at them both for crying as my niece walked down the aisle, and it made me laugh and cry too.

I’ve had a front row seat as my sister-in-law has raised her children, and I’ve been lucky to learn so much. Her babes are all much older than mine, and I may have been a bit smug at times as I watched her navigate the minefields of dating and dress codes, of driving and grades and college and all that comes with adolescence, but those times are far behind me. That future is bearing down too fast, and all I can do is buckle in and prepare for the ride.

I caught glimpses of that future at the wedding — my daughter, looking lovely, dancing with her dad, echoing the dance my brother-in-law had done with his own daughter just minutes before.  My son, fueled by his first Coke, dancing to Shout, fist-bumping the groom’s frat boy friends. My brother and sister-in-law, exchanging glances throughout the night that said Look at our baby, look how beautiful she is, look at what we’ve done together. 

It’s possible I might have gotten a bit teary myself, were it not for the following conversation held over much-anticipated slices of the wedding cake. (The wedding, like marriage, was not without its small disasters — the poor groom, done in by heat and nerves, fainted at the altar.)

Me: I’m so glad it worked out. For a minute there, I thought it was going to be worse.

Small boy: Worse? How could it have been worse?

Me: Well, he could have gotten sick.

Small boy: Really?  Right up there on the altar and everything?

Me: Yup.

Small boy, slowly: That … that would have been awesome!

Cake -- small boy guarded it all night.

Cake — small boy guarded it all night.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about the choose your adventure books that were popular when I was young. Remember those? You’d read a few pages, and then make a choice — turn to page 21 to search for the treasure in the mountain, skip to page 35 to search by the sea. Your choices determined whether the characters succeeded or failed.

The kids are growing up, and we’re facing choices these days. So much seems to hang in the balance. If we choose the ‘right’ school, pick the ‘right’ sport, steer them toward the  ‘right’ peer group — will their story end the ‘right’ way, with a healthy and happy life? That’s the question that keeps me up at night.

The truth is, I never cared much for those adventure books. Being able to control the plot might have been exciting the first time, but the story never captured my imagination the way other books did. They were billed as stories to read again and again, but I only read them once and then gave them away. The books I turned to — The Hobbit, The Dark is Rising, The Chronicles of Narnia — might not have had huge plot points I could control, but each sentence was crafted with exquisite care. Strung together, page after page, they required patience from my 10-year-old self to decipher, but the whole added up to such a wonderful story I couldn’t help but read them again and again.

I tell myself it’s not the big plot points in my children’s lives that make them who they are. It’s not the choice of schools, of sports, of activities. It’s not who they hang out with (even though their friends are all lovely). It’s the smaller moments — the time we spend in the car together, the family movie nights, the trips to the beach. It’s reading on the couch together, the chore of feeding the Slobbering Beast, the times my husband and I choose to be their  parents instead of their friends, no matter how often I wish it could be the other way. It’s a million tiny moments, strung together with as much care as we can muster, done as often as we can. Those are the moments that make up their story. Those are the moments upon which their ending depends.

Tree Lined Rural Road

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We have lots of bookcases in our house, and they all have their own purpose. The bookcase in the basement, for example, holds the baby books my kids enjoyed looking at when they were toddlers. (They’ve been chewed and drooled on and I still can’t bear to part with them.) In my office, I keep reference books, books on writing, and a few copies of my own novel, one of which is in German. (I can’t read German but I like just to look at it sometimes.) Upstairs, are three bookcases — two for the kids, packed to overflowing, and one that I can remember standing in my great-uncle’s hallway. That one is filled with a motley collection — leather-bound books I inherited from him and will never read, travel guides, novels and textbooks from classes I took. Dignified books all.

But it’s the bookcase in the living room that holds the stories closest to my heart.  This is where I keep my favorites, the books I turn to again and again, the ones I buy extra copies of just in case.  Some are high-brow, others popular, but I love them all. Divided into fiction and non, alphabetized, it’s one area of the house that’s always in order. (No comments on the rest of my housekeeping, please.)

Today there was a book in there that didn’t belong, stuck in by a small child who was using said book as a convenient hiding place for small treasures. It made me laugh, and then it made me think about all the authors forced to share space on my shelves, and how they would react if seated together at a dinner party.  Amy Bloom is next to Jane Austen — the sharply observed witticisms that must pass between them! Nora Ephron — whom I imagine being able to converse with anyone — is paired with William Faulkner, which could be interesting, but I cannot see Marguerite Duras and Alan Duff together at all. (Although an animal heat runs beneath both of their books, so perhaps I am wrong.)

Who shares space on your shelves? Do they cohabit well, or are there some odd pairings?

From poetry to pop-up books and everything in between.

From poetry to pop-up books and everything in between.

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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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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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A very bright kid I know likes to share what he calls the “irrelevant statement of the day” every time I see him. I’m stealing the phrase and using it here, because this blog post is a digression.  Today I’m not talking about writing or kids — I’m talking about killer whales.

Okay, it’s not TOTALLY irrelevant.  There is a book involved — Death at Sea World, by David Kirby. I am obsessed with this book.  I have read it twice in the past month.  It is a history of killer whales in captivity, specifically at Sea World.  It looks at whether keeping giant-sized, intelligent,  highly social animals in the equivalent of bathtubs is humane or crazy-making,  and it details not just the attack that killed trainer Dawn Brancheau, but also a host of other, lesser known incidents, some of which also resulted in death.

Here’s why I’m fascinated. For over half my life I’ve been around big animals.  Not orca big, true, but the Slobbering Beast is the first pet I’ve had in 13 years that didn’t top out at over 100 pounds. I’ve trained big dogs, shown them, loved them, and been concussed by them. And that’s just the dogs.

I’ve also had horses. And since I wasn’t gifted with a million dollar trust fund, I learned about horses the way lots of young women do — by saddling up whatever I could afford. That included a mare that fell asleep on me in the cross-ties and nearly broke my back, another that liked to jump paddock fences in the middle of a lesson and gallop the hills, a former stallion who tried to mount any mare that stood still on a trail ride, and a gelding who, when he wasn’t kicking you across stalls, was doing a credible imitation of a bucking bronco. Not only would he throw you, you had to ride with someone else on the ground at all times because once he got you off, he came back around to finish the job.

(True story: I took the bronco to a horse whisperer-type  clinic, and after we got him saddled and into the ring, the poor cowboy who had to ride him turned to me with the most mournful gaze ever. “You tiny women,” he said. “You always bring me either the nastiest horse or the biggest one.  You tiny women will be the death of me.”)

I rode like this because I was young, foolish, and loved what I was doing. At yet, aside from a few truly bone-headed choices I’d prefer not to share, I have always, always kept in mind that these animals were exactly that — animals.  I wore a helmet and sometimes a safety vest. I carried a crop and used a bit. Because much as I loved every horse, my instructor had taught me there would be days when he or she would not want to do what I was asking, that it would go against the animal’s personality , its nature, or simply its mood.  And that my safety could depend upon my being prepared for that refusal.

I teach my kids the same thing — to love animals, but to respect their nature. Much as you love the Slobbering Beast, remember he is a beast. Don’t stick your face too close to his, don’t put your hand in his mouth, don’t put yourselves in a position where your safety depends on trusting him to do the right thing.  Because the right thing to you and the right thing to him may be completely different. 

These trainers — the people who got in the water with the orcas — were also often young and deeply in love with the animals and what they were doing. But they don’t call orcas “fluffy bunny whales” — they call them killer whales. Whether the name is a misnomer or not, the fact remains that — unlike domesticated dogs and horses — these are wild animals.  They do not share our history, and they do not share our element.

And that is why although I am awed by the courage of the trainers who entered the water with orcas, I am also flabbergasted by the hubris that made people think we could control the outcome.  In Kirby’s book, in case of an attack the orcas are trained to return to the side of the pool when a trainer slaps the water with her hand or sounds a specific underwater tone.

I once held the number nine  spot in the entire country for obedience in my breed (my father used to like to point out that probably only nine competed). I’m a decent trainer.  And yet  I can’t guarantee a reliable recall on the Slobbering Beast a hundred percent of the time. Would I trust my life — or my children’s lives — on my ability to call him to heel when he’s chasing a squirrel or removing the drain pipes from the house? Not bloody likely. And yet that was the extent of the orca trainer’s arsenal in an emergency — the simple hope that this wild, intelligent animal would always do what it was being asked to do.

Apparently OSHA agrees that hope alone doesn’t create a safe working environment. In OSHA versus Sea World, the government agency ruled that a slew of safety measures would be required for future trainer/orca work.

I think orcas are beautiful.  By all accounts, they sound intelligent and social. But after seeing videos like this, would I want to get in the water with one?

Would you?

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So, today there was no school in our town, since several of the schools are polling locations. Normally, I am happy happy happy to have my children home, but today, I was looking at three deadlines that raised their hairy eyebrows and leered menacingly at me.  Not to mention that I am doing a pretend NaNo this month (more about Nano here) and the only thing that makes my pitiful word count goal more pitiful is not meeting it.

To distract myself from the work that would not be getting done, I packed up my two kids, borrowed two more, and headed to the Museum of Science, where we spent the next five hours playing with pirate stuff and being eaten by Woolly Mammoths. There are fabulous Woolly Mammoth eating pictures, which I cannot show you, because I have made a deal that I will only post child-approved pictures here, and those particular pictures were not approved. I do have this lovely picture of myself in a wind tunnel, looking rather bemused. (That’s because the two small boys were taking advantage of my momentary lapse to run helter skelter through the museum, and I was counting the seconds until the tube would pop open and I could reclaim them.)

Just wait until this thing opens…

It was a lovely, fun day, and it kept me distracted from both the deadlines and the election.  All I will say about that tonight is that the five of us did stop off to vote on the way to Boston. The kids were thoughtful, and asked good questions, and were interested  in how people in the same town, in the same neighborhood, can believe different things and vote for different people and still all wake up in the morning and still be neighbors and friends. It’s hard, but what amazes me even more is that somehow, every four years we manage.

See you in the morning, neighbor.

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I am behind today. There are many reasons, including the holiday weekend (in the US Monday was Columbus Day) and the fact that someone was Put Out about having to run in almost rain conditions. Can you tell?

The Slobbering Beast does not care for damp.

Instead of rocketing along at near-heart attack pace, we took a more leisurely approach today. Which was wonderful for my lungs, but not so great for time management. So I am asking you to go and play with these links, and I’ll be back next week with a real post.

What does your brain look like on Jane Austen? NPR finds out.

Are you a gritty writer or reader? My friend Vaughn Roycroft asks the question over on his blog. (My answer: Not so much. The world is a pretty gritty place already, and I try not to add to it. My reading exception is John Sanford, whose Prey books and hero are awfully gritty but very compelling.)

Can changing your genre change your career? Newly repped author Kell Andrews thinks so.

And finally, what causes a published author to disappear? (Besides grumpy Slobbering Beasts and poor time management skills?) Find out here. (Link stolen from the wonderfully readable Jan O’Hara.)

Happy Reading!

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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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Review

Audio books listened to:  Nine

Favorite: No Passengers Beyond This Point, by Gennifer Choldenko (Caveat: The Graveyard Book will always be my very favorite.  As my children grow, I find it more mournful, but each summer that we listen it’s like running into an old friend.)

Sharks sighted: None (Thank God!)

Boat rides taken: Two

Lobster rolls eaten: Five

Oysters consumed: Embarrassingly, too many to count.

Summer Song: Call Me Maybe (What can I say — blame the US Swim Team.)

Summer Wine:  Grangia, from the winemaker Elvio Tintero

Meltdowns by children: none

Meltdowns by mother: one

Blue moons witnessed: One

Emergency trips to the vet: One

Emergency trips to the dentist: Three

Number of teeth pulled: One

Chapters written: Let’s not talk about that, shall we?

Perfect sunsets watched from the beach: Three

Days I would love to have back so I could live them all over again: Every single one

How was your summer?

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Is it hot where you are?  It’s been brutally hot here.  We’re keeping cool by dipping into the ocean, into pools, having water gun fights.  Some of us are devouring our own weight in watermelon, others (ahem) are quietly turning into iced green tea addicts. Listening to The Graveyard Book again in the car — my favorite audio book ever — helps create a few chills, too.

I’m having lots of fun with this, too.  I bought it on sale last year, and this year I sprang for the tool kit, which is completely unnecessary but awfully fun.  We’ve made chocolate pops, lemon-lime pops, and various juice flavors, but my favorite is this recipe from Orangette.  I’m thinking about trying green tea and honey (the kids say yuck!) and after the kids are in bed I might try my hand at a few adult recipes I’ve come across.   How are you keeping your cool?Zoku Quick Pop Maker

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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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Apparently I need this t-shirt!

This was originally a snarky post to the driver who almost sent me into a ditch when I was out jogging this weekend, but cooler heads have prevailed. (Lady in the tan SUV, you can thank my husband. In the meantime, back away from the accelerator!)  While I calm down, I’m sending you over to Vaughn Roycroft’s blog (Did you know Roycroft means Royal Craftsman?  Neither did I, but he’s certainly well-named) for a post that compares house building to writing.

And when you get back, I am sending you right back out to buy Last Will, by Bryn Greenwood.  I have quietly stalked Bryn’s blog for years, and whenever she posts a bit of what she’s working on, I can’t get it out of my mind.  So when I had a chance to win this book, I couldn’t resist.  And I won!  And now I can’t put it down.  It’s quirky and odd and funny and not like anything else I’ve read lately. So go buy her book, darn it.  Particularly if you are a woman who drives a tan SUV.  Because lady, after what my husband made me pull off this blog, you owe me.

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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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Years ago, when we lived in Connecticut, our house overlooked  a meadow.  It was wide and grassy and bordered a copse of trees, the perfect habitat for birds.  We’d put up a large bird house to attract purple martins, because we also had mosquitoes the size of eagles.  And then one day when I was working at my desk, a flash of blue at the edge of the yard caught my eye.  It was brighter than a jay, slightly larger than a chickadee, and with a breast as bright red as a robin’s.  I’d never seen a bluebird before, but my handy Audubon guide confirmed what this cheeky visitor was. Within a few days, he’d moved into the bird house.  And then he brought friends.

Over the summer months, I counted at least four male blue birds.  It was an excess of excitement — they’d swoop around the garden, like fat little fairies who’d fallen into a vat of dye. My birding friends were amazed and impressed — until the bluebirds discovered my car.

Back then, we had a one-car garage, and my husband, because he commuted, had dibs on it. My vehicle, an enormous SUV, hulked in the patch of gravel off to the side.  Because I towed a horse trailer, the SUV had oversized side mirrors. One of the bluebirds discovered it and, convinced his reflection was a rival, would sit and scold all day long.  Of course, while he was chattering, he also pooped — a lot.

For weeks I would show up at gatherings, the right side of my car brilliant white with bird poop.  I suffered through more than my fair share of “Don’t let the bluebird of happiness crap on your car jokes’ until I came up with the bright idea of taping  brown paper sandwich bags over the mirrors.  This worked fine, so long as I remembered to take them off before I got in the car — otherwise I was liable to take out a mailbox or two. The bluebird of happiness had turned into a big fat pain in the rear.

When we moved to our new house, I set up a feeding station almost immediately.  We brought our old bird houses, too — the ones supposed to be too big for bluebirds — and lo and behold, the bluebirds followed us here. I knew they weren’t the same birds, but it was comforting, when everything was new and strange, to have those bright flashes of blue outside my window.

And then one summer, the bluebirds stopped coming. In early spring, when they usually start checking out the houses, the garden remained empty.  I didn’t see a single bluebird – until I happened to take a walk down the street one afternoon.  There, in my neighbor’s yard, a pair of the pint-sized chirpers sat on a nesting box, one built specifically for blue birds.

I was crushed — they’d abandoned me! I immediately forgot all the bad words I’d said about them and set about trying to woo them back.  Now my neighbor and I engage in a friendly rivalry for who can attract the most nesting couples. (Friendly enough that he even gave me two nesting boxes of my own.) I spend a crazy amount on bird food, but it’s worth it — I had a mated couple of my own last year that laid and hatched four eggs.

A bluebird is on the feeder as I type this, fat and sassy and full of himself.  There are pine needles in the nesting box, a good sign.  Happiness is fleeting and changeable and sometimes messy.  Grab hold when you can.

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What happened to spring?

It has been pointed out to me that I’ve been sounding a wee bit melancholy lately.  I suppose I am.  Living in New England is a special gift.  You see, first hand, how fast the time goes with the changing of the seasons, how quickly the buds blossom and disappear.

Heck, sometimes we don’t have to even wait months for a change of seasons — in New England, it can happen in a day.  On Saturday, for example, we were frolicking outside in shorts.  Today, I had to dig out the winter coats and explain why they must be worn to my son, the future lawyer, who argues each decision as if before the Supreme Court. The robin that was having such a good time in my bird bath two days ago is clearly regretting his decision to visit us. “What’s WRONG with this place?” he’s clearly thinking, miserable and hunched up in the rhododendron bush.  “Who turned the heat off?”

An excellent question.  Not one I can stay to answer today, though.  Instead I’m going to direct you to some interesting links that I stole from friends, as well as do some blatant self-promotion.  (WHAT?  A writer’s gotta do what she’s gotta do these days.)

How can something without feet be so smart? The incredible mimicking octopus. (Think it talks back to its mother?)

Can your kids fend for themselves in the kitchen? My friend Jan O’Hara talks about why this skill  is important, and steps you can take to make them more independent.

Amy Sue Nathan is celebrating the one year anniversary of her blog Women’s Fiction Writers with a mega book giveaway.  Head over there for a chance to win some great books!

Finally, since I post to this blog only on Tuesdays, I wanted to let you know that on Friday I’ll be guest blogging for one of my very favorite virtual people, Rosemary DiBattista. (I keep trying to meet her for a drink and make her nonvirtual, but it hasn’t happened yet.)  She’s funny, warm, and kind, and she has her own book series (!!) coming out beginning in 2014.  She’s a doll.  And she’s letting me share one of my best recipes (the one that doesn’t involve ordering pizza and opening wine) so please remember to stop by!

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