Books to Write By

 

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Writers are always working to hone their craft. We never stop looking for ways to reach beyond our natural gift of storytelling. It can be taking formal course work to pursue an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) or attending conferences, but it can also be to listening comments of other writers as they critique our work, or working with a mentor.

I have also found books on the topic of writing to be helpful. There are a few old favorites that I return to when I have a question or need to review.

Earlier this week, someone asked me which “writing books” I have found helpful, so here are seven of my “go to” books:

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The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler: Inspired by the work of Joseph Campbell,  Mr. Vogler take you through the fundamentals of the hero’s journey, character archetypes, and power of myth to tell a compelling story. I found that even romance stories have these elements which have been used by storytellers since we first gathered around the fire and spun tales to entertain and educate.

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No Plot, No Problem by Chris Baty: Written as a resource for National Novel Writing Month  Mr. Baty takes you through the process from the blank page to the first draft in thirty days. Written with humor and solid advice, I found it got me through the first draft of my first novel without going crazy.

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Firsts in Fiction: First line Hooks, Hints, and Help by Aaron Gansky:  This slim volume looks at that all important first line of your story. As a writer and teacher, Mr. Gansky uses this little book to make the process a little less scary. Beautiful examples of the worst and the best first lines are given in the text.

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The Irresistible Novel by Jeff Gerke:  We all want to write that “can’t put down” book. Mr. Gerke takes you through “the rules” of writing. He explains the reason for the rule, gives arguments for and against, and then lets you decide if you want to follow or break the rules. He also discusses how to emotionally engage your reading and psychology of storytelling from Jung to Campbell.

These last two are by the same author, James Scott Bell. It was hard to narrow down which of his excellent books in my library which to choose. As an author and instructor, all of his books are informative.  Here are my two favorites –

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Write Your Novel from the Middle  – This looks at the structure of the novel, finding that one point in the middle that defines what the story is all about. When I used this to do the last draft of my novel The Princess of Sweetwater, it took on a new, unanticipated direction when I defined the “mirror moment” in the story, and I fell in love with it all over again.

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How to Write Short Stories and Use Them to Further Your Writing Career – This is one of the newest additions to my library. After participating in a webinar about the book, I decided to purchase it. Writing short for me is a challenge, rarely are my stories shorter than seven thousand words. Since reading this, I have finished two short stories and am submitting them to anthologies.

So how do I chose which ones to plunk down my hard earned cash and take home to read? A quick search online reveals thousands of books on how to write anything. It’s hard to narrow it down. I look for books written by people I like and respect.  If a book is written by someone I’ve never heard of, I will do a little research into who they are and what their credentials are. Also, I have found that recommendations from my writer friends often prove to be good choices.

What are some of your favorite writing craft resources? List them in the comments below.

Until next time . . .

The door is always open, and the kettle is always on.

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Criticism and Rejection

Rejection is part of the writing business. I found I need to have a thick skin, or I won’t last long. It is a given there will be things said about my writing that will cut deeply.

Critique groups are one of the places you may feel the sharp knife of criticism and rejection. I hand over my precious manuscript to be read by members of the group, and I have copies of theirs. I spent hours carefully reading and noting, what I believe will be helpful, constructive criticism.  I hope they will do the same for me. Then we meet on the appointed day, sit and wait for them to tell me how wonderful I am.

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There are two types of groups – the first is the ones I sat through in college, there are forty or so students and somewhere is that one person who just wants to see if they can make someone cry. They often don’t comment on the writing but attack the writer. Saying things like – you’re the worst writer I’ve ever seen, this was a waste of paper and/or my time, or seriously, you call yourself a writer? The whole time I sit holding back the tears wondering why the professor or grad student who’s the moderator is allowing this verbal abuse. It was because of this type of group I stopped writing for nearly twenty years.

The second critique group is preferable. This is a smaller group, generally no more than five (but there are exceptions.) These are real writers, who want to be their best and want me to also be a better writer. They can be tough. If something in the story isn’t working they tell me with bare-naked honesty. Yes, it still hurts, but it’s the writing, not me as a person. I have gone home several times, mad as a cat forced to take a bath. I lick my wounds for a few days, telling myself they are wrong, wrong, WRONG! Then I look at the chapter and, damn it, they were right, and I make the changes. Real critique groups are a blessing.

Then, of course, there are those dreaded Rejection Letters. I’m sitting here right now with my first rejection in front of me. I’ve re-read it a dozen times, sipping my English Breakfast Tea, and wondering what was wrong with my story? The letter doesn’t give me much of a clue.

March 1, 2017

Tess DeGroot,

Thank you for submitting your short story, Ghost of Tanager Lodge, to XXX’s 2017 annual anthology edition of the ‘XXX’ series, “XXX.” After reviewing your submission, we have decided not to include your story in this installment; however, we look forward to any other stories you submit to future ‘XXX’ compilations. The 2018 volume’s theme, title, submission guidelines, and deadline will be announced April 1, 2017.

Some of the possible reasons for receiving a “1” may have been: more telling than showing, high rate of predictability in the plotline, lack of or ineffective storyline/plot/characters, or poor editing (or not edited at all by a second-party editor), and some failed to meet the minimum requirement of containing a ghost or haunting. You are encouraged to continue to hone your skills and submit again to future ‘XXX’ editions.

Thanks again for submitting.

I’m sure it will be the first of many.

My friend and fellow writer, Brent A. Harris, has been commiserating with me as he got the same later for the story he submitted. He’s been writing longer than I have and has received his share of rejection letters. He said it “took a year and 30ish rejections” before one of his stories was accepted.  He now has two stories published in anthologies, Tales of Wonder  and Tales from Alternate Earths

But we’re not alone in facing rejection. Isaac Asimov displayed his rejection letters on the wall of his office. Stephen King hung his on a nail next to his desk until the nail fell out of the wall. J.K. Rowling recently tweeted some of her rejection letters to encourage new writers.

Nobody said being a writer was easy. When I write, I risk being cut to my very soul every time I share my words. Yes, there will be criticism, rejection, and even have a few bad reviews along the way. But as Brent said, he “will dust it off and revise it to submit elsewhere,” and I will do the same.

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Brent recently shared a writer’s prayer with a group we belong to on Facebook:

The Writer’s Prayer:
Grant me the words to write the story
The wisdom to revise and edit
The success to keep me going
And the rejections to keep me humble

These words are now on a card on my desk, a reminder to keep telling stories, to keep taking risks, and to take the writing seriously but not myself.

Until next time . . .

The door is always open and the kettle is always on.

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A Lenten Journey

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We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on, this is not the end, but it is the road. – Martin Luther

I’m sitting here with my cup of peppermint – jasmine green tea, think about the journey that is about to begin.  A forty-day journey through the season of Lent, which starts this Wednesday with Ash Wednesday. It is just the midpoint of the adventure that I embarked on in November with Advent and then Christmas. The trip began with the joyful preparations and celebration of the birth of a child, but now I am descending into the desert. It will be cold and inhospitable. It will be frightening and painful. But I travel with the knowledge that if I enter into the valley of dark despair that is the days of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, I will emerge renewed in the glory and rejoicing that is Easter.  I make this journey every year remembering past years and past lessons learned. It is a time of fasting, prayer, and giving; the three disciplines of Lent.

In the household where I grew up, the Lenten and Easter seasons were of greater importance than those of Advent and Christmas. My mother believed that there was no point in celebrating Christmas unless you then faced the discomfort of Lent and the joyful relief of Easter morning. The story that begins at Christmas is meaningless without the climax and resolution of Easter. This point was brought home to me when comparing the number of seasonal decoration boxes she kept. There were ten boxes for Advent/Christmas season but twenty-one boxes for the Lent/Easter holiday.  Mom liked Christmas, but she loved Easter.

It was my godmother, Lorraine, who gave me the travel imagery for the church year. In a letter she wrote to me when I was in high school, she spoke of the “Great Journey.” At Advent, our traveling companions were Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, and Zachariah. We traveled with them as they prepared for the birth of the long-expected child. At Christmas we were joined by innkeepers, shepherds, angels and kings as we rejoiced in the birth of a child promised so long ago. But with Lent, we enter a desert place with Jesus, his disciples, and the women. We feel their pain and anguish. We cry within them at the foot of the cross. We follow with hesitation the women as they approach the tomb and are filled with surprise as we discover it empty. We exult with them when they are reunited with their beloved teacher and learn he is so much more.   And before he departs he tells them and us that the journey isn’t over – so now we must carry on.

I know as I experience this journey I will be asked, “What are you giving up for Lent?” While most people will respond naming a food item, such as chocolate, what you do without means more than that. “Giving something up” is part of the Lenten discipline of fasting. For the past few years, I have observed Lent by completely unplugged from the internet, except when necessary for work and writing. This year, I’m doing it a bit differently. I will not be on social media just to play. Instead, I will continue post, but I am limiting my participation to this blog and posts about faith, music, and writing.

By limiting my online time, it will give me more time for the discipline of prayer. I find in the rush of life it is too easy to let time for prayer just slip away. As part of my prayer time, I will use a Lenten calendar of sorts. I have a dish with sand, shells, and candles. Each day as I do my Bible study and prayers, I will as a stone to the display, for a total of forty. When Easter arrives, I will add a small plant. Just like an Advent calendar, it will mark the passing of days through this season.

 

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Lenten Journey Dish 

 

For the last discipline, alms-giving, I am going to abstain from visiting on a daily basis (sometimes twice a day) my favorite coffee bar and the money that would have been spent on that will be donated to Lutheran World Relief.

Won’t you join me on this journey? Here are some resources I’ve enjoyed using:

This year members of my congregation, Trinity Lutheran Church in Victorville CA, are using Martin Luther’s Catechisms: Forming the Faith by Timothy J. Wengert.   Each week reading through a chapter and discussing as a group to exam the growth of faith and our role in the church.

Busted Halo is a website for young adult Roman Catholics. It features several Lenten resources. In previous years, they have had  Fast Pray Give: A Lenten Calendar  Each day, like an Advent Calendar, a new devotion is made available with a challenge to fast, pray and give.

Lutheran Hour Ministries also offers a great Lenten devotional that you can have sent to your email or print out. This year it is From the Cradle to the Empty Grave 

Have blessed journey and I leave you with the prayer from Martin Luther –

Lord Jesus,
You are my righteousness,
I am your sin.

You took on you what was mine;
yet set on me what was yours.

You became what you were not,
that I might become what I was not.

Amen

Until next time . . .

The door is always open, and the kettle is on

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Joy of Reading

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I love to read, and I enjoy passing on the love of reading to others.

It doesn’t take much to encourage a child to explore the endless possibilities of reading.

No, I’m not a parent. I am an educator, an aunt, a Girl Scout volunteer, a writer and a voracious reader. I have a lot of experience with children and books. I’ve learned that you don’t have to be the child’s parent to help them learn to love reading. Through the years I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t . . . So here is my recipe for raising a child that reads:

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  1. Read to them, starting at a very early age. (Yes, I’m saying read to babies in the crib.) Reading to infants and toddlers has benefits that include not only bonding between the reading adult and the child, they learn to connect reading with being loved. It also lets them hear the language played with (Remember how much fun Dr. Seuss is?). For older children, it is a chance to share a book and then talk about what you’ve read.

I read a novel every winter with my students. Without fail, if I am excited about the story, I will have one or two teens tell me, “That’s now my favorite author.”  And for the remainder of the school year, I will see that “reluctant reader” with a non-assigned book in their hand to enjoy.

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  1. Let them see you reading silently. Children, I have found learn best by example, so model the behavior you want them to follow. If an adult they trust and respect does something, they are more likely to do the same. Actions really do speak louder than words.

I always have a book on my desk, along with a magazine or journal. If I have a few minutes between groups, I read. My students see me with my nose in a book as they enter my room, and sometimes they ask what I am reading.

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  1. Fill your space with reading material – books, magazines, comics, newspapers – so something is always at hand to read. A social worker once told me when she does a home visit she looks for printed material (books, magazines, newspapers). If she sees more than five, then the chances of the children in this home graduating from high school jump significantly.

My house and my office have a variety of printed material. I will loan books from my office to students.

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  1. When you find something you really like to read, be enthusiastic about it. If you’re excited about it, it may generate the child’s interest in the book or subject.

I recently finished a young adult novel that was absolutely fantastic. I shared my thoughts with the school librarian and several students. The book was purchased for the school library, and now there is a waiting list to read this book.

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  1. Let them “book graze” or as one of my English teacher friends call it, “book tasting.” With book grazing a child goes to the library and checks out two to three books, then they read the first chapter. If they like what they have read, they can finish the book. If they don’t like it, for any reason, they just take it back and check out a different book. Unlike an assigned reading from class, they do not have to finish the book merely sample part of the text. Sometimes they don’t read for enjoyment because they haven’t found an author or a genre they like. This activity introduces them to a wide variety of writing styles and genres. When a student finds something they like, they can ask the librarian to help them find similar books.

I encourage book grazing with most of the children and teens I know. Just last week I had a student, who had skimmed several books,  come back to me and wanted to know if I could recommend a book similar to the one they had just finished.

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  1. Give books and magazine subscriptions as gifts. If the child you know has a special interest it is easy to find material on that topic to share with them.

All of my “kids” know if they get a present from Auntie Tess, it will almost always be a book. Generally, it is either a book I read at their age and really loved or a book in a genre I know they already enjoy.

Each of these examples produced concrete positive results.

This is so important because reading has benefits beyond being just relatively inexpensive entertainment.  Reading can, just to name a few examples, improve vocabulary skills, teach critical thinking skills, helps develop resiliency, learn empathy, and assist the development of better language skills.

Depending on the source, reading teachers recommend students read 15 minutes to 30 minutes daily (that’s about 1,140,000 – 2,600,00 words a year!) The amount of time spent with their nose in a book had been linked to better school performance and improved self-esteem.

I can’t think of a better gift to give my “kids” then literacy and the benefits brings.

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Here’s a list of some of my favorites:

The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen. Hannah doesn’t want to do to the Passover Seder, but this year will be different as she is transported back in time to face unspeakable horrors. Reading interest level  4th – 6th grade.

The Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. Life is hard for Jess Aarons, being the only boy squished between four sisters, but his life changes with Leslie Burks moves in. Jess learns many lessons from Leslie, the hardest one will follow a tragic accident. Reading interest level 4th – 8th grade.

The Red Necklace by Sally Gardner. A mysterious gypsy boy, Yann, lives in Paris at the dawn of the French Revolution. He must use his newly emerging powers to stop a murderous count and save the beautiful heiress, Sido.  (This is the book that has the waiting list at my high school.) Reading interest level 6th – 12th grade.

By the Great Horn Spoon! by Sid Fleischman. Set during the California Gold Rush, follow the adventures of a boy and his trusty butler. Will they strike gold or go home empty handed? Reading interest level 4th – 7th grade.

Shadow of a Bull by Maia Wojciechowska. Manolo has a secret – he’s a coward. Everyone expects him to be a great bullfighter like his father, who died in the bullring when Manolo was only three. He must make a choice to follow in his father’s footsteps or forge his own path. Reading interest level 5th – 9th grade.

If you’re wondering if a book too easy or too hard, a reading teacher taught me this trick when I was working in a bookstore: Have the child turn to a random page and read. How many words were new or difficult? None – the book will be easy to read, 1 to 2 – a little bit of a challenge, but within their reading level, 3 to 4 – more of a challenge, but if it’s of interest they will be able to read. More than four – it’s probably going to be too difficult at this time.

All this talk about reading makes me want to go pour a cup of Earl Gray tea and curl up with a good book.

Please tell me your favorite books to share with children and teen in the comments.

Until next time remember . . .

The door is always open and the kettle is always on.

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What is Love?

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Sonnet 116 by William Shakespeare, 1564 – 1616

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

 

William Shakespeare was a great writer of romantic poetry and dramas, perhaps one can even argue the greatest. I love the images he gives us in Sonnet 116. I picture a lighthouse, a ship at sea, and a storm. He writes that love is “an ever-fixed mark” and “Love alters not.” It is a guiding star. It doesn’t change when you see the other’s faults.  But is true love unchanging? I think answering in the affirmative is too simple of a response.

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On Valentine’s Day weekend we focus on romantic love, that first love that draws us together and drives us nuts. It’s fun, and it’s exciting, but I know from my own experience those feelings don’t last forever. Sorry Hallmark.

I think Tom Hiddleston is more accurate when he said, during an interview for his vampire love story Only Lover’s Left Alive in 2014, “Real love is strange and changeable… but also somehow constant.”

My experience has been real love is fluid, constantly changing and unpredictable as the ocean. When you first fall in love it’s like getting pounded by a wave. It’s exhilarating. Your heart races. Your vision is blurry. You can’t wait for next one to knock you off your feet. As you spend more time together, you learn to ride the waves. You learn to take on gnarly waves, flat seas, riptides, and storms remaining afloat together. Just like the ocean is in constant motion, ever changing, so does the relationship between two people, if it is to last beyond the rush of first love.

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I love my husband, but if I expected us to still be acting like the young couple were thirty years ago I don’t think we’d still be together. We like, other long-marrieds, have matured and that has changed the relationship. I find there I times when the giddy love-struck playfulness is still there – just not every day, all day. Mature relationship shifts with the tide and we become what our partner needs at that moment. At any given moment, I find I may become caregiver, parent, sibling, teacher, playmate or lover to my husband depending on his mood, his needs, his desires. And he does the same for me.

What did I get for Valentine’s Day from Clayton? Nothing. That’s right, he didn’t buy me flowers, candy or jewelry. He didn’t take me out to a fancy restaurant. But last week, he came home from a comic show with a Loki pendant, just because he thought I’d like it. This week, he drove me to work even though it was out of his way, just because my car was in the shop. And today, he’ll proof read this blog for me, just because I asked him. I think I prefer these little everyday demonstrations of his affection than a big show of it once a year.

So Happy Valentine’s Day! I hope it was full of love and laughter that continues throughout the year.

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Update: I originally posted this two years ago, and not much has changed. Married life is still full of its ups and downs, but I wouldn’t change a thing. And what are we doing for Valentine’s Day this year? Same thing we do every year – come home from work, a pot of tea, walk the dogs, cook dinner, and watch a movie.

Until next time . . .

The door is always open, and the kettle is always on.

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Train Tracks and Tea Cups

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Sitting in my room with my cup of jasmine green tea with peppermint, I can hear the train whistle as it passes through Victorville. If it weren’t for the trains, Victorville and Barstow wouldn’t exist. They were “train towns.” And the sound of them passing through makes me nostalgic.

I love trains. I think it’s in my DNA. One great-grandfather was a chaplain serving workers building and repairing the lines in the Ohio Valley. Another was a coalman for a freight line.

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I will ride a train – any train – when I get the chance. Yes, even the replica trains of Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm, or the little kiddie trains at the park.

One well-remembered train ride from my childhood was on a Santa Fe Railroad passenger train. We boarded the train at the old Santa Fe Depot (now Amtrak) with a group of friends. The wooden benches faced the windows and were painted yellow and red. They air smelled of diesel fuel and salt water. We disembarked at the small station at Del Mar and hiked down to the beach. Just before sunset, we boarded the train back to San Diego. The next day, there were no more Santa Fe passenger trains.

The summer before I was married I went to Europe and road the rails. From Amsterdam to Vienna, to Istanbul, and Paris. I shared meals and stories with fellow passengers. On the ride to Istanbul, aboard the “Orient Express,” to meet my former exchange student “sister,” as we passed into Hungary. The border official walked off the train with my passport. To say I was panicking would be an understatement.   The father of the family I shared the compartment with ran after him. He returned a few minutes later and reassured me it was “Okay, it okay.” (The only English he knew.) The official was only going to get the three-month stamp for my passport. He had apparently thought I would get off the train in Budapest rather than continue to Istanbul.

The last time I was on a train ride was the year I went to San Francisco for National Novel Writing Month’s Night of Writing Dangerously. An all-night writing marathon. There was a large group of us participating the Great Train Escape. As Amtrak’s Coast Starlight Express left Los Angeles and made stops along the way, more writers joined the car reserved for us. I think about thirty of us were on the train. We talked, we wrote, and we didn’t sleep. I was kept my mind humming with copious amounts of Earl Grey tea and the lovely views from the window. Who knew cows like to wade in the ocean? Or that pelicans would race the train? For the trip home I took the inland route, closer to the route that would have been taken by my heroine, Princess Victoria, as she headed south to find a new life, determined to chart her own course.

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When given my choice, I will take the train. Trains were once the preferred way to travel before personal vehicles and airplanes.  To me there is something special about sitting in the observation car with a cup of tea, of course, watching the scenery go by. And if you’re lucky, there will be an interpreter to tell you about the sights and culture you are passing through.

The dining car is a special experience. Maybe not as fancy as it once was, but still you need a reservation for your seating time. Somehow the food tastes better served on China plates than from a paper bag from the café car. Before the addition of dining cars trains stopped at the famed Harvey House to eat and rest.

Yes, I feel romantic about trains, especially the old steam engines. Maybe that’s why they appear so often in my stories. Trains made it possible to get people and goods to the western United States. In the days of the wagons trains, if it didn’t fit in the wagon it was left behind.

I have one train ride I am planning to do in the next year – the Grand Canyon Train. You board the train in Williams, Arizona and then board the train at their 1909 era train depot. The train takes you to the south rim of the canyon. Spend a day or two at the lodge there and then return to Williams.

Riding along the train tracks with a cup a tea will always bring me joy.

Until next time . . .

The door is always open and the kettle is always on.

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Literacy and Math

Books can raise awareness, create interest, and teach skills in a fun and powerful way.

A Teacher's Reflections

When I was in first grade, I mastered math placement.  Really.  Math is not my strong suit, but my teacher read aloud Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag.

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The repeated text in the book is, “Hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats.”  I have come to chant those words, slapping my leg to the beat, every time I read this book to my preschool class.  I tell the children they need to help me say the words, and each time it appears in the book, they chant along with me, loud and clear.  Maybe my first grade teacher did the same thing.

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The illustrations are pen and ink, yet finding all those cats- hundreds and thousands and millions and billions and trillions- pulls children in.  They clamor to see the pictures.  The book was written in the 1920’s and continues to be a…

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Ugly American

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Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible. – Dalai Lama
I’ve noticed an ugly trend lately – America is getting meaner. For the past few decades, there had been what appears to be a shift in our culture toward the negative.

Social media is used to bully and demean, political parties resort to name-calling, violence is commonplace, and few even use the basic manners. The images I see and encounters I have on a daily basis feed the image of the “Ugly American.”

A prime example is how the Twittersphere lit up during the Presidential Inauguration. During the day’s events, a stream of tweets went out commenting on the appearance and behavior of a ten-year-old boy, Barron Trump. I will admit the media commentators have a history of saying negative things about presidential children, but these comments cross the line into the realm of bullying. Before the advent of social media these comments would have had a much smaller audience, today within seconds the entire world has been exposed.

I see it with my own students. The words “please” and “thank you” are not common in their vocabulary. Yesterday, when one literally knocked me over, his response was “by bad, ” and he kept moving. Many seem to think nothing of talking about threatening someone for the slightest wrong.  Boys speak of girls as if they were only good for one thing.

Many of the teens and adults meet as I go through my day, seem to feel any thought which crosses their mind should be spoken aloud, regardless of the consequences. And when the outcome is negative, they respond as if they are the victim.

This saddens me. There was a time I could have a conversation with someone whose point of view differed from mine without it turning into an argument. We could disagree without being disagreeable.

Maybe it is time to actively work to recapture that part of the past when we were polite to each other and treated our fellow citizens with respect.

When I was growing up my parents expected me to treat others, even those who showed me disrespect, respect.

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One reminder was the “Thumper Rule.” If you have seen the Disney film Bambi, you’ll remember this. In the scene where we meet the little rabbit, Thumper, he repeats a lesson from his father, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.

This was often repeated when I as a child when I would speak ill of someone. There is a difference between negative criticism and helpful comments. The latter is said with respect and love and not to tear the person down.

Another was “Just because you think it, doesn’t mean you have to say it.” I find myself repeating this one often to my students and hearing my own mother’s voice as I do. I think she said this to me countless time. But it’s true, not every thought needs to be given voice.

When I was in college, I covered my dorm walls with inspirational quotes. One was a bust of Plato with these words: Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle. Everyone I meet is facing their own difficulties. I don’t know what they are, but I can choose to be kind and not add to their hardships.

In March of 2014, the Dalai Lama visited Capitol Hill and address members of Congress. During his speech, he said “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”   Even in the most heated of situations, I can choose to be kind and take about the facts and not make personal attacks.

Recently I ran across a poster that had a great acronym: T.H.I.N.K. Before you speak, tweet, post, Instagram, or text ask yourself – Is it True? Is it Helpful? Is it Inspiring? Is it Necessary? Is it Kind? In other words, why are you saying this?  I have it in my classroom, and it is often used to direct conversations.

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As Mother Teresa said, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” I hope my words, my writing, my actions are ripples sending kindness, love, and respect out into the world.

Until next time, remember . . .

The door is always open the kettle is always on.

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Sunny Days & Backyard Friends

ny Sunshine, beautiful, glorious sunshine! This weekend we’re getting a break from the storms, and it’s wonderful outside. It’s nice to be able, even in winter, to sit on the back patio with a cup of tea (Earl Grey today.) and work on my final touches to my WIP progress. It feels so good to be warm.

For the past week, we’ve had cold, clouds, and rain. The rain came in mists, splatters, and downpours. In many ways, the rain is a blessing. We have been in a drought in California going on five years now. Here even in the desert in good years, rain is generally a rare thing.

The drought has left my home showing the effects of little rain. I have ten stressed mulberry trees dropping small branches and bark. We’ve watered them as much as we dare but the rain will help.

The rain though welcomed, has also brought its problems too. For the community, the saturated ground can’t hold any more water so streets are flooding and higher areas have mudslides. At home, we discovered a leak caused by wind damage to the roof. (Ah, the joys of home ownership, but that’s another topic.)

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As I sit on my patio and take in the warmth of the sun, I can see over my neighbor’s rooflines the snow-covered peaks of the San Antonio mountain range. At the birdbath, sparrows splash. House finches and lesser goldfinches are at the feeders happily chirping. Hummingbirds are buzzing around me asking for their feeder to be filled.

On days like today, backyard bird watching is full of surprises. All winter long there are the usual variety of sparrows, finches, and doves. I have had western tanagers, Bullock’s orioles, and robins passing through. Once a lazuli buntings passed through, rare here in the desert, the pair stopped in my yard to rest while migrating.

Yesterday, as I sat on the patio editing my novel it suddenly got quiet, too quiet. No splashing. No cooing. No chirping. I looked up, and ten feet from me at the birdbath was a sharp-shinned hawk. He looked at me and then went back to drinking.

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Sharp-Shinned Hawk

The peace was broken, when Rowdy Girl spotted the hawk. She thinks nothing of chasing down Rock Doves, Ravens, and Crows who dare to come into her domain. Off like a shot, she bounded toward the offending bird. The hawk gracefully went up on a tree branch, studied the barking dog for a moment and flew off.

When he had gone, the chorus of birdsong resumed and Rowdy Girl resumed her nap.

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Rowdy Girl

Wild birds bring joy with their beauty, grace, and song. They have even attracted the attention of my characters as they enjoy a lovely winter picnic.

From my WIP: The Princess of Sweetwater

 As they approached the sheltered mountain pond, Hiram said, “Close your eyes.”

Victoria squeezed them tight.

He brought the wagon to a stop and put his hand on her arm. “You can open them    now.”

She opened her eyes.  The sun glinting off the snow and ice made everything sparkle like diamonds. “It’s beautiful. It reminds me of the mountains near my home.”

They ate their lunch enjoying the antics of scrub jays and sparrows pecking at the frozen berries on the overhanging branches.

“Let’s go for a walk.” Hiram closed the picnic basket. He took Victoria by the hand and led her down the narrow trail.

Once in an open area, Victoria broke away from Hiram running ahead of him. She scooped up some snow and landed a snowball on his shoulder. In return, he sent one which knocked off her hat. On her next throw, she lost her balance and slid down the slope. Hiram ran after her catching her before a snowdrift engulfed her.

“Are you okay?” He laughed, gasping for air.

“Wet.” She took a handful of snow and tossed it in his direction.

“Let’s get you home, and you can put on something dry.”

On the ride back to town, Victoria sat nestled in Hiram’s arms. She had never felt so safe or so happy in her life.

We have nine weeks left of winter, time to enjoy the snow, the winter visitors in my backyard, but especially curling up on the couch in a blanket with a good book and a cup of tea.

Until next time remember –

The door is always open, and kettle is on.

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Carrie, me, and my dragons

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Here we are at the start of a new year and my first blog for 2017. I’m am finding this a difficult one to write because I am going to tell you something. I’m going to tell you my secret, well one of them anyway.

Back in October, I went to a writing conference in Los Angeles. A group of us were sitting together talking about, what else, writing. The topic came up about blogging. Most of us had a blog.

One gentleman asked, “How many of you are posting on a schedule?” Most of us had to admit, we weren’t good at that. Then he asked our reasons: “too busy,” “working on other things,” and “family” were the most common explanations given. Then he turned to me.

I took a deep breath and pushed down the fear telling me they really don’t want to know.

“I sometimes get swallowed by my own darkness.”

All eyes were on me, I was either going to get told that I was being silly, or they were going to quickly move on.

They did neither.

“Go on,” said the man who now seemed to be leading the discussion.

“Some days it’s hard to write when the anxiety or depression or both are controlling my thoughts.” I blinked hard, tears were threatening.

“Have you ever thought to write about it?”

“No.”

“Too close to home?” He had an understanding look in his eyes.

“That, and no one really wants to hear about it.”

“Maybe someone needs to hear it, you never know.” This from the older woman who reminded me of my grandmother.

That conversation was about two months ago, and I shoved it to the back of my mind. Then Carrie Fisher died.

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Carrie Fisher, who played the feisty Princess Leia, a damsel not-so in distress and who could also be the hero. Who fought her own battles with depression, anxiety and bi-polar disorders. She faced them bravely and unashamedly wrote about her experiences.

Her death caused me physical pain. I was surprised by the depth of my emotions at the news. Someone my age (she was only five years older than me) shouldn’t die suddenly. It felt like I’d had lost my sister. I never met her, but I felt I knew her, and that if we had met she would understand me.

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Now it’s time to tell my secret: Some days, I am fighting twin dragons, named Anxiety and Depression.

I am one of the forty million Americans suffering from anxiety and depression.

Officially my diagnosis is “mixed depressive disorder.” That means I suffer from both depression and anxiety.

I’m also considered “high functioning,” which means I can still function on my own without intervention, most of the time, without anyone noticing there is a problem. In other words, I’m really good at hiding it.

Depression, for me, shifts and changes. I can feel like I’m being forced to wear a heavy, lead-lined suit of armor all day and my whole self feels painful and exhausted. Sometimes, it feels like I’m hung over, my brain hurts, my body aches, light and sounds hurt. At other times, I feel like my soul has been pulled from my body and I feel numb.

Then the anxiety kicks in. It can be just a small paranoid voice saying I’m not good enough and other people are judging me, leading me to think I will lose my job or all my friends. It can be I’m worried or afraid for no reason. Or it can be full panic mode, especially if in large crowds like Comic-Con or Disneyland:  I’m going to get trampled. I’m going to get lost and never find my husband/friend again. The world is coming to an end.

When both happen at the same time the conversation in my head goes something like this:

Anxiety says, “The house is on fire! Run! Escape! Get the heck out of here!”

Depression responds, “So? It doesn’t matter. No, I don’t want to move. Who cares?”

How do I deal with it all?

For me, it’s a matter of diet, exercise, sunshine, and meditation. I do better when I eat a diet free of processed foods – no white flour, no sweeteners, nothing artificial. The exercise activities I find most helpful are walking and Tai Chi. Being outside enjoying my desert sunshine helps by body produce not just vitamin D but also brain chemicals I need to help my mood (really, I don’t understand how this works, but it does.)

You’ll notice there are no medications listed. Currently, I am not on any. I have been on some in the past but found two problems. The first was it sucked the creativity out of me. I didn’t write. I didn’t make music. I didn’t paint. And yes, I wasn’t “sad,” but I was never truly happy either. The second reason is, I developed an allergy to one of the anti-anxiety meds, and trust me, a head-to-toe rash isn’t fun.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying medication is a bad thing. For some, it is the only reason they can function. I say bless you doctors for helping develop those drugs. It is that, for right now, they are not the right path for me. The situation may change in the future, and I’m okay with that.

I take it one day at a time. Some days are better than others, but I move forward.

What can you do to help someone dealing with a mental illness?

First and foremost – listen. If they want to talk, just listen. No questions. No judgments. Just be there.

Second, encourage them to follow their treatment plan. Sometimes when things are going well the person with mental health issues may be tempted to stop taking their medications, going to counseling, or eat off plan.

Third, ask them what they need. Don’t assume to know what is needed.

And finally, don’t ask they why they feel this way. When I’m feeling anxious, I truly have no idea why. I just feel nervous and worried.

As I write this, I feel anxious. Tears are forcing their way to the surface. My heart is pounding. I want to delete this. Keep my secret to myself.

But I won’t. I need to say this publicly. There is no shame in my diagnosis and if I’ve let someone out there in the blogosphere know they are not alone, all the better. . . just as Carrie had.

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This is my path, with all its good and bad. I will walk it with my head held high and will hold the hand of any who want to walk it with me. And if I leave the path for a while, I may be off fighting my dragons again, but I’ll be back. I promise.

Remember, the door is always open, and the kettle is on the burner.

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