Monday, December 31, 2018

On Laughter, Pick-Up-Sticks, and New Years Resolutions

December 2018
"Laughter is the sun that drives winter from the human face." --Victor Hugo

We had a good laugh following Christmas festivities this past week, one sparked by a gift given the children--a box full of games including this vintage one, Pick-Up-Sticks. And the laughter that rang out around the game table was a great pick-me-up in itself, let me tell you. The proclaimed winner was truly dexterous. It was even stated that maybe he had missed his calling--he would have made a great  neurosurgeon!  In reflecting back on the game, and the people around the table, I've tapped the activity as one of my cherished memories of the day.

Laugher--often spontaneous, most likely contagious, and in a lot of ways healing. In the echoes of laughter one often forgets the weightier issues of the day, exchanging them for lighter moments, lifted spirits, and just flat-out fun. We ought to laugh more often.

Thus it is that I set my only resolution for this year: I will open my heart to more laughter. Yes, I will have goals--writing goals, personal goals, goals to help me grow. But resolutions? How many of those do we really follow through on? This is one resolution that is attainable. 

So in the spirit of laughter and its value, I share some of my favorite quotes on the subject (and similar topics):

--- "Earth laughs in flowers." --Ralph Waldo Emerson

--- "As soap is to the body, so laughter is to the soul." --Jewish Proverb

--- "He who laughs, lasts!" --Mary Pettibone Poole 

--- "Humor is the universal solvent against the abrasive elements of life." --former Senator Al Simpson

--- "Joy is the best make-up." --Anne Lamott

--- "A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones." --Proverbs 17:22

--- "It is bad to suppress laughter. It goes back down and spreads to your hips." --Fred Allen

--- "A good laugh heals a lot of hurts." --Madeleine L'Engle

And speaking of Madeleine L'Engle, I appreciate this story that she tells in her book, A Circle of Quiet, The Crosswicks Journal, Book One: "One of the greatest weapons of all is laughter, a gift for fun, a sense of play which is sadly missing from the grownup world. When one of our children got isolated by a fit of sulks, my husband would say very seriously, 'Look at me. Now, don't laugh Whatever you do, don't laugh.' Nobody could manage to stay long-faced for very long, and communication was reestablished. When Hugh and I are out of sorts with each other, it is always laughter that breaks through the anger and withdrawal...Paradox again: to take ourselves seriously enough to take ourselves lightly."

Do you make resolutions or set goals, or both? How important is laughter to you and your family? Do you have a favorite quote on laughter? What is your favorite table game?

Wishing all who might drop in here a happy new year, with all the pick-me-ups that a good dose of laughter can offer. May laughter visit, lift, and help carry you through any long winter days ahead...

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

On Short Stories, O.Henry's Gift of the Magi, and Writing Gifts

courtesy Wikipedia Commons
"One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies..." --from O.Henry's The Gift of the Magi

This time of year brings to mind an all-time favorite short story, O. Henry's The Gift of the Magi. It's a story that planted itself in the heart years ago and took root while other short stories simply faded away.

Familiar with the tale? Young Della with glorious, cascading hair cannot afford what she would like to give her husband for Christmas: a watch chain befitting his most cherished possession, a fine gold pocket watch that had been handed down from grandfather to father to himself. So what does she do? She visits Madame Sofronia and... (I don't want to spoil it for those who haven't read the story! But I offer a link here at American Literature online if you want to read it for yourself.)

At the same time, without Della's knowing, dear husband Jim ("James Dillingham Young") has himself done the unthinkable in order to purchase the one beautiful thing he knows his wife would be pleased with, which was...

Can you fill in the blank? O. Henry, pen name of William Sydney Porter (1862-1910), was a master of irony and plot twists (hence The O. Henry Award, an annual American award given for an exceptional short story, first presented in 1918). And although The Gift of the Magi was written in 1905 and in the language of the day, the writing is timeless, enduring, and endearing as well. The title of the story is an allusion to the Christmas story of the Magi bearing gifts for the Christ-child (Matthew 2:9-11 NLT).

Gift-giving. Gift receiving. For writers, the writing gift goes two ways. As author Amy Tan has been quoted as saying, "Writing is an extreme privilege but it's also a gift. It's a gift to yourself, and it's a gift of giving a story to someone."

In a recent entry over at Writer Unboxed,Vaughn Roycroft authors the article, "The Gifts of the Writing Life" (found here) and enumerates a list of gifts he believes a writer receives. Among other things, he includes heightening empathy, broadening outlook, stick-to-it-ive-ness and fortitude. In his concluding remarks, he says: "So regardless of our pub status or sales, regardless of whether we made our word count goals or all of our deadlines this year, let's remember the gifts we are receiving simply by way of doing what we love."

I think O. Henry would agree.

On my list of gifts that I believe a writer receives, I would add:
--a sense of exploration and discovery
--an increased awareness of detail and beauty
--challenge offered, challenge accepted, challenge ongoing!
--great friends

Echoing the question that Mr. Roycroft asks in his article: What gifts has the writing life given to you? I think it's important to occasionally review all the reasons we stay the writing course :-)

Merry Christmas to all who celebrate. And happy writing to those who continue to open--and give--the gift of writing.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Something Told the Wild Geese, by Rachel Field

on November walk 2018
Something Told the Wild Geese
by Rachel Field

Something told the wild geese
It was time to go.
Though the fields lay golden
Something whispered,--"Snow."

Leaves were green and stirring,
Berries, luster-glossed,
But beneath warm feathers
Something cautioned,--"Frost."

All the sagging orchards
Steamed with amber spice,
but each wild breast stiffened
at remembered ice.

Something told the wild geese
It was time to fly,--
Summer sun was on their wings,
Winter in their cry.

Sharing my latest-discovered, and today's-most favorite poem. What a beautiful, evocative example of writing that speaks of this, the autumn-season-heading-into winter. Poet Rachel Field (1894-1942) was also a novelist, children's book author, and playwright. She was the first woman to win the Newbery Award  (1930) for outstanding children's fiction. The award was for her book Hitty, Her First Hundred Years, a story told in the POV of a tiny wooden doll who gets separated from the little girl who owns her and the doll's subsequent travels. I haven't read the book yet but now plan to find a copy, especially after I learned that the doll that inspired Ms. Field's story currently resides at the Stockbridge Library Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

Want to hear a beautiful rendition of the poem, Something Told the Wild Geese? You can hear it sung to music by the Von Trapp Children--who themselves come from a storied past, their great-grandparents being none other than the Von Trapp couple that inspired the cherished movie classic, The Sound of Music. The song link can be found here on youtube.

What about you, any favorite fall poems that speak to you this time of year?

(and, if you're a Sound of Music fan like me, you might also like to experience the Von Trapp great-grandkids singing Edelweiss. You can find a beautiful sample of their rendition here.)

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

On Life's Rusty Tools, A Quote by Anne Lamott

October walk 2018
"It's funny, I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But then when I grew up I found that life handed you these rusty bent old tools--friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty--and said 'do the best you can with these, they will have to do.' And mostly, against all odds, they do." --Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith

As a kid, I had similar ideas, thinking that once we were all grown up we'd act, well, we'd act like adults. We've got a lot of learning to do, don't we--all the way through life. So as one month ends and another begins, especially one which focuses on thanksgiving, I propose we add gratitude to Ms. Lamott's toolbox--a very-grownup tool that never gets rusty or bent, or goes out of style.

Agree? In addition, what tool of choice would you add to the mix?

Monday, October 15, 2018

Elizabeth Varadan's Carnival of the Animals, and An Interview

One of the best parts of blogging over the past few years has been the meeting of people who share in the passion of writing. Getting to know them—even if it’s only through cyberspace—and follow them in their journey to publication is an added bonus. When one of those now-friends announces the exciting news that their book has been published, we celebrate with them.

Today I am pleased to help celebrate the publication of my blogger-friend Elizabeth Varadan’s latest book, The Carnival of the Animals (Belanger Books, 2018). The Carnival of the Animals is a story collection for children based on Camille Saint-Saëns’ 19th century musical fantasy, The Carnival of the Animals. Although geared for readers grades 2-5, the book is ‘layered’ so that older readers can enjoy it as well. There are thirteen tales based on the thirteen animals in Saint-Saëns’ work, and they all take place in different countries.

I caught up with Elizabeth to ask her about her book and her journey to publication.

Welcome, Elizabeth! First may I say I read your first book, Imogene and the Case of the Missing Pearls, a MG mystery that included none other than Sherlock Holmes himself, and enjoyed it very much. You obviously write in varied venues. What inspired you to write The Carnival of the Animals? 
The idea of a collection of stories occurred to me one night over dinner when my husband and I were talking about music. We both like all kinds of music, and Saint-Saëns’ musical fantasy is one of his favorite pieces of music. I said, rather flippantly, “I should write a story about each animal. Afterwards, the idea started growing on me. I love to do research, so the challenge I gave myself was that each story had to happen before the date Saint-Saëns wrote the music.

Of the thirteen animals you wrote about, which is your favorite?
Oh, gosh. That’s really hard to say. I liked each one as I wrote them, and each is so different. I like them all.

I know that you and your husband spend a period of time each year in Spain. Have any of your travels inspired one or more of the animals in Carnival?
Actually, “The Burro from La Mancha” was inspired by our visit in 2005 when Spain was celebrating the IV Centennial Anniversary of the publication of Cervantes’ Don Quixote. I had seen the musical The Man from La Mancha years and years ago, and the idea popped into my head, “What about a burro from La Mancha? A burro who hears a poet relate the tale of Don Quixote and then sets off to have adventure of his own . . .? So that was great fun. I actually read Don Quixote for this story, and I must say, it is a truly funny novel. 

What is one highlight you experienced in writing this book? A challenge?
A repeating highlight was finishing each story. As I say, each one was so individual. It was like writing 13 separate books. Which was also the challenge. As much as I love research, I had no idea how much research I would end up doing. Each story called for its own special research. I suppose another highlight was how helpful people were when I contacted them for special information. It’s wonderful how supportive of writers people are.

What does a typical writing day look like for you?
Ha-ha-ha. I really don’t have a typical day. I have days when I read all day for information or inspiration. Other days when I write for a few hours. Some days when I write all day like a maniac. Other days when I just journal. And some days when I don’t write anything at all.

You’ve now published four books for children along with short stories and poetry. What piece of advice might you share with aspiring authors just starting out in their publication journey?
Follow your own dream, not someone else’s. Try everything. Find good writing groups that are both supportive but hard-nosed. And read! Nothing improves your own writing like reading terrific writing by masters. Most of all, persist. Keep writing your stuff and sending it out.

Congratulations again, Elizabeth, on the publication of The Carnival of the Animals, and thanks for sharing with us some insights into your writing journey. Wishing you all the best as The Carnival of the Animals makes its way into the hands of children in the days ahead!

“Thanks to Elizabeth Varadan, you will roar with the lion, bound over clouds with the unicorn, dance with the tortoise, weep with the elephant, feel the friendship of a magical bird, know the enduring love of a swan…and more. Best of all, you will enjoy the genuine magic of this carnival of creativity!’ –T. A. Barron, author of The Merlin Saga

“In the Carnival of the Animals, Varadan takes us through a colorful world of animal stories that will entertain readers of any age. Her whimsical style and effortless storytelling allows her three-dimensional characters to leap off the pages, causing the reader to feel for and love the characters she’s created. These stories beg to be read aloud to children again and again. The subtle morals of her tales give hints of fables while introducing young readers to well-known characters like Don Quixote and Shakespeare’s Puck. Since Carnival’s characters are from all over the world, these stories will spark discussions with young children about cultures, languages, and even animal habitats. Truly a wonderful work of art.” –JaNay Brown-Wood, author of Imani’s Moon

“The stories in Elizabeth Varadan’s The Carnival of the Animals are a wonderful tribute to Camille Saint-Saëns’ musical suite. Children will be drawn to the clever, charming narratives and come away with a real appreciation for both the stories and the music that inspired them.” –Steve Richardson, author of Canlandia and Lavender Blue and the Faeries of Galtee Wood.

“A beautifully penned tale inspired by the musical suite The Carnival of the Animals, by Camille Saint-Saëns. The story and its settings will delight children of all ages. Varadan’s magical menagerie is marvelous!” –Victoria Lindstrom, author of The Tale of Willaby Creek

Read an Additional Interview with Elizabeth:

Visit Elizabeth at:

Links to Elizabeth's Books:

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Spiderwebs, Katherine Paterson, and Words to Ponder

late September morning 2018
"A friend of mine who writes history books said to me that he thought that the two creatures most to be pitied were the spider and the novelist--their lives hanging by a thread spun out of their own guts. But in some ways I think writers of fiction are the creatures most to be envied, because who else besides the spider is allowed to take that fragile thread and weave it into a pattern? What a gift of grace to be able to take the chaos from within and from it to create some semblance of order." --Katherine Paterson

The spiderweb that revealed itself in the morning light the other day sparkled and begged to be photographed--which I was happy to oblige. Later, curiosity prompted me to seek out words and ideas that might have been written comparing spiderwebs to the writer. I was not disappointed. Ms. Paterson expresses the thought magnificently in the above quote--that of taking fragile threads (our ideas) and weaving them into a beautiful pattern, and creating order from internal chaos. What a great way to describe the challenges a writer faces. Love it!

Ironically, I'm currently reading one of Katherine Paterson's books: Gates of Excellence, On Reading and Writing Books for Children, a classic first published in 1981. We know Ms. Paterson best as author of the Newbery Medal winners Bridge to Terabithia and Jacob Have I Loved, and Newbery Honor Book  The Great Gilly Hopkins. Overall she has written more than thirty books, sixteen of them for children. Along the way she has graciously shared insights from her life and experiences. For example...

On Writing Novels:

"A novel is not born of a single idea," she is quoted as saying. "The stories I've tried to write from one idea, no matter how terrific an idea, have sputtered out and died by chapter three. For me, novels have invariably come from a complex of ideas that in the beginning seemed to bear no relation to each other, but in the unconscious began mysteriously to merge and grow. Ideas for a novel are like the strong guy lines of a spider web. Without them the silken web cannot be spun." (See, there's the spider web again!)

On Reading:

"Read for fun, read for information, read in order to understand yourself and other people with quite different ideas. Learn about the world beyond your door. Learn to be compassionate and grow in wisdom. Books can help us in all these ways."

"The gift of creative reading, like all natural gifts, must be nourished or it will atrophy. And you nourish it, in much the same way you nourish the gift of writing--you read, think, talk, look, listen, hate, fear, love, weep--and bring all of your life like a sieve to what you read. That which is not worthy of your gift will quickly pass through, but the gold remains."

On Life:

"What I have come to believe is that joy is the twin sister of gratitude. I am most joyful when I am most grateful."

"It seems to me that there are two great enemies of peace--fear and selfishness."

"You don't have to fight dragons to write books. You just have to live deeply the life you've been given."

And to think all of these thoughts and words-to-ponder grew out of one simple unassuming spiderweb that twinkled its way into the day and awakened us to a moment of beauty. It was a good day.

Any one quote by Ms. Paterson that resonates the most with you?

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Ansel Adams and September's Inspiration

Half Dome, Merced River, Winter, by Ansel Adams, a print (Amazon
"I knew my destiny when I first experienced Yosemite." --Ansel Adams

We finally made it, hubby and I, to the Ansel Adams exhibit at Cincinnati's Taft Museum before the exhibit's closing date. We would have missed a great treat if we had let this one slip from our fingers. I've always admired the iconic black-and-white photos of nature, particularly of our national parks, that Mr. Adams is famous for, but to try and absorb the genius, beauty, and compelling images all assembled in one place as these were, was a tremendous opportunity.

Cincinnati Taft Museum
Ansel Adams, A Photographer's Evolution was on view at the Cincinnati Taft Museum most of the summer, ending September 16. Billed as a showcase of a career-spanning collection of the photographer's work, the display attempted to "trace the evolution of Adams' magnificent style," beginning with rare early scenes from the 1920s and progressing to later prints he made shortly before his death (source). "Spanning the photographer's entire career," words displayed for the visitor at the beginning of the tour stated, "this exhibition reveals Adams as a poet of light both in the field and in the darkroom." The exhibit featured 42 of these marvelous photographs. Mesmerizing and instructional at the same time. Image poet and photographer in the same package. I loved it.

Ansel Adams (1902-1984), photographer and environmentalist, was born in San Francisco. He experienced the aftershocks of San Francisco's great earthquake as a four-year old in 1906. He contracted the Spanish Flu during the 1918 flu pandemic and became seriously ill, taking several months to recover. He aspired at first to a musical career after years of studying the piano. But ultimately, after his father gave him his first camera, a Kodak Brownie box camera, after his first visit to Yosemite National Park in 1916, he turned to photography as his passion and purpose. "The splendor of Yosemite," he wrote of his first view of the valley, "burst upon us and it was glorious...One wonder after another descended upon us...There was light everywhere...A new era began for me" (source).

And so, as I often do, I took a look at this man, Ansel Adams, and what he might have left behind in words as well as art. Highlights of my discoveries:

--"Suddenly I saw what photography could be: a tremendously potent, pure art form, and austere and blazing poetry of the real."

--"Photography is not only what you see, but also what you feel."

--"When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence."

--"How high your awareness level is determines how much meaning you get from your world. Photography can teach you to improve your awareness level."

--"I can look at a fine art photograph and sometimes I can hear music."

--"Today we must realize that nature is revealed in the simplest meadow, wood lot, marsh, stream, or tidepool, as well as in the remote grandeur of our parks and wilderness areas."

--"I hope that my work will encourage self expression in others and stimulate the search for beauty and creative excitement in the great world around us."

--"Life is your art. An open, aware heart is your camera. A oneness with your world is your film. Your bright eyes and easy smile is your museum."

And finally, a quote we writers can identify with:

--"One of the most important pieces of equipment, for the photographer who really wants to improve, is a great big wastepaper basket."

"In 1975," the exhibit noted, Adams "ceased making fine art prints for the open market. He selected 70 negatives he saw as his most important works--known collectively as the Museum Set--and began printing them for placement in museums." Six images in the Taft's gallery were among the 70 Adams selected, chosen from a field of over 2500 photographs attributed to his seven-decade career (source). What an agonizing process that must have been, to narrow such a wide range of images into only a few dozen for display. How does one choose one equally beautiful photograph over another?

September's inspiration: Ansel Adams, photography, poetry in photography, beauty in our world, dedication, passion. What artist--photography or other medium--inspires you? What has been September's inspiration for you so far?