Paper, Pens, and Post-Its

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Backpacks for a new school year

Book stores top my list of pleasant stores to visit. Office supply stores come in second. Yesterday I stopped into Office Depot to buy a medium spiral notebook, the size that fits in my purse. A helpful young man directed me to Aisle 13 where I found a 3-pack with red, blue, and black covers. Of course, I couldn’t check out yet. What if I’d forgotten something? Better to refresh my mind. So, I strolled other aisles, as I’m prone to do. Good thing. I soon recalled I hadn’t yet picked up my donations for Project 1649, Rock County’s organization that helps homeless youths. I kept roaming but with a new purpose. I wandered, analyzing, choosing.  Backpacks, pens, pencils, highlighters.

From an early age I’ve loved school and office supplies. I guess it’s how I roll. In first grade I had a box of Jumbo Crayons. In those days, the eight colors came in a heavy, flat cardboard box with a lift-off lid. I recall placing the colors in a special order. Purple and orange were always in the center. They were the royalty, the king and queen. Brown and green were on each side, the courtiers. And on. Not sure why I did this, except for my enchantment with stories my mom read from Grimm’s Fairy Tales. As I arranged the vibrant colors, I’d think of the stories. A daydreamer.

Vintage ad for Nifty Notebook

Vintage ad for Nifty Notebook, 1963

The appearance of the Nifty Notebook in about 5th grade awed me. It had a such a cool, sleek look with it’s two top holes, and magnetic pencil box. A vintage ad from Newspapers.com shows it on sale for $.98 with filler paper at $.69. It was a bit pricey for a large family in the early 1960’s. I knew if I wanted such a cool notebook, I’d have to buy it myself with earned money. And I did. I saved and bought a lovely green version. Although I only used it for a year or so, I held on to it for ages, buried in my bottom dresser drawer, then in a box. Memories.

August is the month to hunt for and buy school supplies. Shopping for them, or even just strolling through the stores brings back the excitement of Back-to-School. Backpacks, three-ring binders with fresh packages of notebook paper, colorful pocket folders, pencils and pens, erasers, rulers, scissors, index cards, composition books. And who can forget the fragrant smell of a new box of crayons?

IMG_4830 I recall shopping with my sons for their supplies when they were young. It was a fun time, bursting with anticipation for a new school year, a year to be filled with learning and creativity. Using their brand-new supplies, they learned printing, handwriting and telling stories. They painted and colored. They wrote spelling words and numbers. They made images from their growing minds.

I’ve been a student, a mom, a secretary, and a writer.  In the wonder and joy of each profession I’ve needed these supplies. They’re the tools used to communicate and to create. Of course, I haven’t touched on the technology that first came in my sons’ middle years. The wonder of that is for a different post.

Moving Forward

Last week I traveled to Wisconsin to visit my siblings and to attend WisRWA’s 2013 Write Touch Conference.  I also, unexpectedly, bought a house.  

It’s been a long eighteen months since my loss.  During that time, I’ve kept busy with my day job and various house projects.  But despite living in the East for close to 25 years, at heart I’m still a Midwesterner; most of my family still lives there. Last year I decided that when I retired in 2014, I would move closer to home. A logical decision, one that felt right in spite of the added drama so many nearby kinfolk might bring into my life. 

On the Internet I began to follow the southern Wisconsin housing market.  On trips, I began dragging siblings with me to see houses.  Most recently, I made offers on two separate houses, both non-productive.  On this particular trip, however, nothing seemed to fit.  Last  Wednesday, after two afternoons of seeing an assortment of selected listings, I parted with my realtor and headed back to my brother’s.  “We’ll find something next visit,” I thought.  “There’s time.”

Lovely Cape Cod

Minutes later, my realtor called about a new listing she’d just seen on their in-house board. 

When I drove up the quiet, tree-lined street to meet her in front of the brick Cape Cod, its traditional charm greeted me.  Mid-tour through the empty house, I called my local sibs, pleading with them to meet me at the house despite the busy dinner hour.   During their tour, each of them privately pulled me aside.  Although they may rarely agree on much, each said the same thing.  “If you don’t buy it, I will.” 

Bright Sun Room

Bright Sun Room

An hour later, back in the realty office over take-out pizza and store-bought peanut butter cookies, my realtor guided me through my offer to buy.  My husband and I, during our 38 years together, bought four houses.  And, as mentioned above, over the past few months I’d written up two other offers.  This still felt strange, alone.  At the form’s bottom, there are two spaces for the buyer to sign – generally husband and wife.  I signed the top line, noting the other line with a degree of sadness.  Thoughts raced through my mind.  It’s serious business, committing to buy a house, alone.  It’s serious business, committing oneself to an 850-mile move into retirement, alone.

Bedroom

Bedroom

Of course, I’m not alone. Everywhere loved ones reach out in support.  My friends.  My realtor.  My family.  My sons.  And always, my husband.  During the very long 22-hour wait for the seller to respond to my offer, I felt his warm presence.  I believe he would love this house.  (Well, maybe not some of the wallpaper, but that can be replaced.)

Right now I’m in mid-process. Inspections completed with closing scheduled for summer. With luck, all will move smoothly. It’s a friendly house with good bones. With some repairs and a few minor changes to make it my own, it will comfortably meet my needs when I retire and in years to come.  It’s a bright, airy house that, next year, I’ll make into my home.  

I’m moving forward.

WisRWA President Anne Parent chats with Keynote Speaker Michael Hauge

WisRWA President Anne Parent chats with Keynote Speaker Michael Hauge

By the way, the WisRWA Write Touch Conference was great.  I heard dynamic speakers, enjoyed wonderful visits with old friends, and savored the joy of forming new friendships.  At times, though, I had a tough time focusing on conference business.  In my mind I kept walking through the rooms of my new house. I stripped wallpaper, arranged furniture, entertained family and friends, read, and created new stories in that glorious sun room.  I’m glad my roommate and other writer friends were understanding, and that our Keynote Speaker, Michael Hauge, offered a DVD.  

Traveling American

“There are always flowers for those who want to see them.” ~ Henri Matisse

Last week we had a sudden death in our family. I needed to travel from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin so I went online to make airline reservations.  Since I had to fly in two days, the fares were close to $1,000; normally it’s a $300+ flight.  Someone mentioned a “bereavement fare.”  I called the airlines, gave the information they needed and was booked on a flight at a closer to normal fare.

Soon after the funeral bad weather thundered across the Midwest.  Massive storms dumped snow and ice.   Shortly before I was to leave for a 2-hour drive to the airport, American Airlines called with news.  My flight was cancelled and I was re-scheduled on a Tuesday flight.  I stayed in my hometown another night.

On Tuesday, the first leg of my trip was delayed.  That delay jeopardized my connecting flight.  The agent at the counter quickly put me on standby for an earlier flight.  Subsequently I was seated on that and made my connection.

Several years ago my husband traveled a lot for his job.  His words of advice came back to me.   “You just go with the flow.”   So during my Tuesday travels I did that.  I also watched other travelers (a favorite activity of writers, I think).  While many sat back with books or laptops, or simply rested, others whined — about everything.  I heard way too many gripes about airlines overbooking, lost luggage, and delayed flights.

It is because of those complaints that I’m writing this post.  Throughout my journey I saw only kind, professional helpfulness.  My sincere thanks to American Airlines and its hardworking employees.  Thank you…

  • to the ticket agent who walked me through the bereavement fare and booked my original flight
  • to management for the call notifying me of the weather related cancellation and rescheduled flight
  • to the agent who offered a standby change so I could connect to my final flight
  • to those who de-iced the plane, the mechanics and ground crew who kept things safe
  • to the flight attendants who brought me a sense of security
  • to the pilots who kept the flights on course
  • and finally, to the baggage handlers who brought my suitcase home safely.

You all made this emotionally draining trip easier.

Some folks seem to believe that the purchase of a ticket in life buys nothing but smooth sailing.  It usually does but sometimes bad things happen beyond control.  When they do just go with the flow and thank the person who guides you through, whoever that may be.

For now I’m saying thank you to American Airlines.

Birth and Death

Last week massive storms ripped a 2,000-mile swath across the land. On Tuesday at 1:32 am, in the middle of the heavy Wisconsin blizzard, a text message appeared on my cell. It was from my brother. “At the hospital,” his words read. I didn’t actually see the message until I woke around 5:30. By then more messages revealed that, a few hours earlier, my niece had given birth to her second daughter.

Out of the snowy dark came the glorious wonder of life.

A few days later, I received another sort of message from a dear friend, also in Wisconsin.  “My son died yesterday afternoon,” she wrote in part. “I was with him and sent him on his way.”

Out of the snowy dark came the terrible wonder of death.

I understand the joy my niece feels. After all, I’m a mother with three children of my own.  Only a newborn baby can bring such a glad fullness to the heart.  The memories of those early hours never leave.

When I learned of the birth, I wanted to hug my niece and her new daughter. But hugs will have to wait until my visit in May. My grand-niece will no longer be a newborn then, but I will hold her and welcome her into my life.

It seems to be a time of new babies in our family.  A happy time. Sadly, it’s also a time of passing. In the last few years alone, we have lost four loved ones.

Through those losses, and others, I understand a little of what my friend feels. And, just as I wanted to hold my newborn grand-niece on learning of her arrival, I wanted to hug my friend in comfort at her loss.

Life and death touches us all at the most basic level.  They are shared experiences.  Sometimes I am awed to see the depth of caring generated by others when babies are born, or when people pass from this life.  To me those feelings reveal the inherent goodness in humanity.

As a writer, it is something I hope I re-create in my stories.

Welcome, Avaeh Nicole!  Rest in peace and love, Jimbo.  ∞

Winter Muse

I’ve always been fascinated by winter. I’m not sure why.  Maybe because I was born during the month of January.  It could be because my parents were from northern Minnesota or that their ancestors all hailed from northern Europe.  From my Wisconsin childhood, I recall snowbound winters and a few temperatures of 30 below, not wind chill. Whatever the reason for my fascination, even though I most enjoy the crisp, colorful months of autumn, I feel most at home in winter.

This year I should be ecstatic.  Winter has walloped the land with blast after blast of vicious storms.  The wicked weather has caused schools and highways to close. On ice-coated highways cars crash, and trucks jackknife.  Downed power lines send tens of thousands into the black, cold night of an earlier time.  Not good, but I never said that I liked winter, simply that it fascinates me.

I grew up hearing stories about the deep snows and blizzards of Minnesota.  My grandparents and great-grandparents were farmers. In their youth on the northern plains, they had no central heat. Indoor plumbing consisted of a kitchen sink with running water. As a child, my mother attended a one-room schoolhouse where they warmed wet mittens and cold lunches on the wood burning stove. Imagine the smells created by that steamy mixture.

Maybe its because of these true stories that many of my own fictional tales are mainly set during the winter months.  To me, the season signifies a time of change, and of conflict.  In historical works especially, life is a continual struggle. While the primary trouble in my stories is always between people, winter provides a great background.  It adds conflict to an already conflicted tale.

Weather of any kind helps to set a mood in stories.  It adds to the realism.  It can be the gentle touch of a spring rain, the glaring heat of July’s sun, or the whipping winds of winter.  Generally, winter works best for me.

Writers, think of your own stories.  Do you have a recurring season that inspires your work?  Please share. 

Secrets

In writing a novel, there are many ways to enrich the characters.  Some writers fill notebooks with complete details.  They include every aspect:  height, weight, hair and eye color, college attended, hobbies, astrology sign, mother’s maiden name, father’s occupation.  The writer plans carefully and leaves nothing to chance.  All this detail, whether or not it is eventually spelled out in the book, helps to make the character real, both to the writer, and subsequently to the reader.

A few years back at a conference workshop, I heard a statement about character development that I found far more helpful than creating long lists of detail.  “Give your hero a secret,” the speaker said.  “What does he not want anyone to know?”  A secret adds rich layers to a novel.

On Sunday my husband and I took a bus into New York City to meet up with our oldest son.  We enjoyed the day, walking around together, stopping into shops and cafés, seeing the sites.  As we paused for several minutes to look out over a snow-covered Central Park, a thought occurred to me.  Cities, like characters in a novel, have secrets.  These secrets can be anywhere.

Who sleeps in a snow-covered maintenance shed in Central Park?  What lies buried under mounds of uncollected garbage?  What crime was just committed backstage of a Broadway play, or in the halls of justice? Essential to the plot, these are all secrets in setting.  They are simply waiting to be revealed.

On our ride home, I mused over the term “setting secrets.” I realized that I had several ingrained in my own stories.  A construction site hides a murder victim.  A farmhouse conceals a kidnapped child.  A small town denies its guilt over an injustice.  In each of these stories, I believe my description of the setting became deeper, and darker, because the setting hid a secret.

I’ve heard it said that thinking of your setting as a character will add richness to your story.  Take it a step beyond that.  As you do for your characters, give your setting a secret, too.  See what happens. 

Mothers & Daughters

I’m thinking of her today. Her gentle voice and proud image linger about me.

The relationship between a mother and her daughter can follow many paths.  A childhood friend was incredibly close to her mom. The two of them talked, laughed and shared silly secrets. Yet another good friend and her mother were like strangers; they barely spoke. At various times I have envied both. Why?

She was generous in her legacies. I cannot fault her for that.

From her I learned the value of family. She was an at-home wife and mother with a large family. At a time when bottle-feeding was rampant in America, she breastfed her babies. When store-bought Wonder Bread became the national favorite, she kneaded and baked wholesome homemade bread and cinnamon buns filling our home with an awesome aroma. Our childhood meals always saw us seated together around the table. As a young mother through the 1950s and 1960s, she regularly used her Kodak, snapping pictures of all those she loved and recording our history for posterity.  Throughout her life, she treasured family and family gatherings.

She also loved to read. Another cherished legacy, one that led to my writing. From my earliest days, I saw scores of books on the shelves of our living room – REBECCA, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, JANE EYRE, and a magnificent edition of the complete works of William Shakespeare. In junior high, I brought home Victoria Holt’s MISTRESS OF MELLYN from the school library; that started our shared immersion into gothic romance and then romantic suspense. How she loved those books – a rambling cliff side mansion, a dark, brooding hero, a heroine in danger.  Sometimes, I think she saw herself in the role.

From her I learned dignity, self-esteem and stubbornness.  She took great pride in her appearance. Each morning, and whenever she left the house, she would preen in front the mirror, freshening her make-up and hair. For nearly four decades she sold Avon cosmetics. It brought in some cash, but it also brought luxury into her life. In her last years, after we all convinced her she was too ill to continue with it, she secretly signed up again and struggled to sell for another year.

Still, there were aspects of her character that I rejected. Parts of her were a puzzle I could not solve, a riddle I never understood. Sometimes, I think I will spend my remaining years trying to understand her, and our relationship. Penance.

It’s now been 3½ years since she left us. Today, she would have been 83.

Happy birthday, Mom. I love you.  ∞