On birds

Birds sing after a storm; why shouldn’t people feel as free to delight in whatever remains to them? ~ Rose Kennedy

ravenI never thought of myself as a bird lover.   My feelings toward the creatures may have started in adolescence when I first read Poe’s “The Raven” then saw the dark movie with Peter Lorre.   Quoth the raven, “Nevermore.”    Then came Hitchcock’s “The Birds” where flocks invaded a peaceful California town bringing with them chaos and terror.  For a short while after that I was repulsed by their reptilian quality.   But slowly some birds flew into my life bringing with them a fascination, and more.

As I matured, I remember watching a lone hawk soar against a blue sky; my heart beat faster.  I became awed with the sweeping silver V of snow geese overhead.   After a dreary winter, the brilliant red of a cardinal in the oak tree, or a bright blue jay in the maple, brought wonder to my soul.  I began to smile whenever I heard the first robin’s song in spring.  Who could not?

Mourning Dove eggs

Mourning Dove eggs

Many years ago our young family moved from Wisconsin to southern Indiana.   The winters there were warmer than our former northern home. One year I left a large hanging geranium on our side porch for the winter.  Careless me; eventually a year-end  cold spell hit and the plant died. In the early spring I found that a pair of grey mourning doves had nested in the planter.  I suppose the dead plant made a ready-made nest for the doves.  Each dawn when I went outside for the newspaper, I was greeted by intriguing coos.  As the young chicks grew and finally flew away, our whole family was awed.  Of course the next winter, I purposely left the hanging planter on the porch.  We all smiled when the gentle pair returned to hatch another brood.

yellow finch

Yellow Bird

Years later a smaller bird came to visit our new home on the East coast.  Our master bedroom sported a large arched window.  The east-facing window didn’t allow for sleeping in.  But for a while, it wasn’t the sun that roused us on weekends.  One Saturday spring morning Tom and I woke to an odd sound. We were puzzled until we saw a yellow finch, tapping against the arched window.  He came to visit regularly that spring, and the next as well.  Tom named him “Yellow Bird” and for a few years he became a part of our lives.   Yellow Bird, our happy little alarm clock.

My new parrot lamp

My new parrot lamp

Parrots, to me, are loud creatures, like an obnoxious drunken step-uncle in the bird family. I never thought a parrot might come into my life.  Then several years ago, my youngest son created a funny series of animated videos about a pirate, Amish J. Pirate.  And, as we all know, pirates have parrots.  Arrghhh!  Overnight, it seemed, I found myself strangely drawn to parrots.

Recently I’ve been searching for a new lamp.  I didn’t want a novelty lamp, just the right-size traditional table lamp to put in the front window in my living room.  For weeks I browsed in stores, in catalogs, and online.  And I kept returning to one particular lamp described as a ginger jar ceramic hand-painted parrot lamp offered by Lamps Plus.  No matter how many others I looked at, this one called to me.   So I ordered a parrot lamp, the last in stock.  A parrot lamp.  So much for traditional.  Arrrghhh!

My new lamp arrived today.  Looking at it warms me.  It makes me grin;  I sense Tom’s smile, too.  I guess there’s something to be said for parrots.

cartoon-parrot-007

Road Trip

“Do one thing every day that scares you.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

Words haven’t come easy these last months.  I’ve struggled to simply hang on, to perform routine jobs – household projects, tasks at work – seeking a sense of normalcy in a suddenly abnormal world.  Other than two valued meetings, my once bright realm of writing dimmed into darkness.

Country Highway

But recently, out of the night shadows a plan slipped in that might help awaken my creative soul.  I decided to go on an adventure.   I would take a road trip.

So, early Friday morning I brewed strong coffee, grabbed suitcase and snacks, and climbed into the Honda Accord.  It was my husband’s car, the one he used on his daily commute.  Driving it, I still felt his warm presence.  I gave Ingrid her coordinates then began my journey across the vast green of Pennsylvania and beyond.  A three-day weekend lay ahead.

Over rivers and rolling farmland, through the turnpike’s mountain tunnels – Blue Mountain, Kittatinny, Tuscarora, Allegheny – I drove west toward Pittsburgh.  A quick stop at a service plaza netted farm-fresh peaches and a jar of homemade pear butter.  Occasionally I’d turn on the radio, scanning local stations.  Mostly I drove in comfortable silence keeping company with thoughts and memories.

Cathedral of Learning

As I neared Pittsburgh, partially cloudy skies greyed.  Ingrid guided me into the city and through the proper turns while rain splashed down.  The downpour didn’t last long.  By the time I reached my son’s apartment it was dwindling to a drizzle.

He’s a Pitt student, my middle son, as was his father’s father.  So after I toured his apartment we drove toward the University and parked.  We ate lunch at The Porch on Schenley then strolled over to the Cathedral of Learning, built during the early part of the 20th century in part by dimes collected by the nuns from area school children.  It’s a magnificent structure filled with beauty and knowledge.  My son showed me where he’ll attend classes and hear lectures this fall.  Together we walked around campus and I bought Pitt t-shirts – 2 for $12 at a corner street kiosk.  Too soon time ran short so we made plans for Sunday then hugged and parted.

I continued on my road trip, toward Cleveland and a Saturday writers’ workshop just south of the city.  It was the timing and location that first tempted me into registering for NEORWA’s one-day workshop.  It fit well with my needs, I thought, and might motivate me to begin writing again.  It was all that and more.

From 9 am until 5 pm on Saturday, prolific Texas author Candace Havens spoke to a group of 60+ writers on a myriad of writing topics.  She talked about goals, plotting, and brainstorming.  She gave a thrilling talk about Fast Draft – a way to generate the first draft of a novel in two weeks by writing 20 pages a day.  She discussed Michael Hague’s six-step plot structure, and Jim Butcher’s story arc. We broke for lunch and conversation with fellow writers.  The workshop continued into the afternoon –  “Revision Hell,” branding, marketing, and building an image in the marketplace.  An incredibly rich, motivating day.

Pitt Panther

On Sunday morning I drove back to Pittsburgh where I once more met with my son.  This time we enjoyed a full and varied Sunday breakfast buffet at Joe Mama’s on Forbes Avenue.  Under blue skies and sunshine, we again strolled around campus.  Then, as on Friday, all too soon it was time to part.

The drive east went smooth, despite heavy Sunday traffic and occasional summer road construction.  Two-thirds of the way home, I detoured down to the National Cemetery near Annville to visit my beloved’s grave.  The section where he rests isn’t filled so the sod is not yet laid.  The brown, barren ground around the granite stones gives it a stark appearance.  But that didn’t diminish the power of the site. For a long while, I stood in silent conversation then strolled back to the car.

I arrived home late evening.  It was a good trip for many reasons.  The open highway in fair weather brought some peace.   I cherished the visits with my son. I enjoyed NEORWA’s writers’ workshop and new writing friends made there.  I savored the warmth of memories relived.

And somewhere, along the way, a seed for a new story miraculously germinated and is taking root.   ♥

Day by Day

In 1993 two friends had a dream.  Anne Kelleher (Bush) and Lorraine Stanton sought to form a group in the Lehigh Valley for writers who shared the goal of writing and publishing book length fiction.  The first meetings of the Greater Lehigh Valley Fiction Writers’ Group (GLVFWG) were held in Lorraine’s living room in Phillipsburg.  Although a novice, I was pleased to be among the first five attending.  For a short while, I served as President of the fledgling group.

As the group grew, we formed strong critique groups. Soon we relocated to a private club.  Then, seeking to control luncheon costs, we moved on to a public library.  We discussed becoming a chapter of Romance Writers of America (RWA), but it was felt that would exclude writers of other genres who had already joined. At some point “fiction” was dropped from the group’s name.

There were growing pains along the way, as members and officers came and went.  Within a year or so, personal reasons caused me to resign my position.  I subsequently left the group.  My writing dwindled.

When I started seriously writing again, my interest had shifted to RWA. I was, after all, writing romance and I liked the support of the national organization.  Still, over the years I’ve watched GLVWG.

The group still meets in the same library, not far from my home.  It also hosts a solid spring conference in March.  The Write Stuff brings together writers of all genres.  But January’s meeting was on Indie Publishing, a hot topic now, and one I’m delving into. And so on Saturday, I attended.

My Daily Pic - January 29

After the business portion of meeting, writer Joan Zachary gave an inspiring mini-presentation on using your camera every day.  She advocated always having a small camera at hand, and to shoot every day.  She’s done this for the past year and posts on Flickr.  Over time, she said, story ideas emerge from photos taken.

I love this day by day mini-goal, a kind of photo journal.  So today around 4:20 pm, when the sun was in the western sky, I took my camera outside and shot a picture of our bird feeder.  To me, it’s a sign that spring is coming, even if it is only late January.

Bart Palamaro speaks at GLVWG on Indie Publishing

Saturday’s main speaker, Bart Palamaro, gave a superb talk – Indie Publishing 101 – what it is and isn’t, the current state of publishing, finances, skills needed, legal matters, and so on.  The primary areas to “hire out” in Indie Publishing are editing (finding a genre specific editor), and possibly cover design.  He referred us to many online sources and links.  The best rule of marketing an Indie (or any) book, is to write a good book, then another, then another.

After lunch, Bart led about twenty-five writers through an informative, well-organized two-hour presentation on the nitty-gritty, step-by-step process of actually publishing a book on Amazon KDP.   Excellent!

So good to see the growth and maturity of this group that was once only a dream.

On February 1st I’m starting a new project.  Under the guidance of Nancy Herkness, twenty-seven New Jersey Romance Writers have vowed to each write 30,000 words in February. We call ourselves the 30Kers. Using a Yahoo Groups loop, we’ll keep each other motivated, and submit our number counts along the way. It’s new stuff, no editing as we go.  The goal is to simply produce.  Nora Roberts‘ words are a favorite….”You can fix anything but a blank page.”

I need to write again.  I need to immerse myself in a new story, to lose myself in my characters’ lives.  So, day by day, I’ll write.  And, day by day, I’ll take a picture, too.  Maybe I’ll even post a few.

To all my writer friends, thank you for sharing your knowledge, your ideas, and your friendship.

Day by day.  

Keepers

As readers, we all have favorite books.  They are the stories we can’t bear to part with, ones that live on in our memories.  The books we’d keep on our shelves forever, if such a thing were possible.  Years may pass but their presence lets us know there is a wondrous volume just waiting for us to again open its cover and lose ourselves in some amazing world.

I admit that I’m a book hoarder.  To me books are precious.  It’s hard to let go of the many I’ve enjoyed and my to-be-read pile grows ever higher.  In time I know I must downsize.  I’ll need to pass on my scores of books, giving them to others to enjoy their magic.  My Kindle will make downsizing easier.  The frailties of old age will make it easier still.  But there are a few volumes I know I’ll cling to as long as humanly possible.  These books are my true favorites, my keepers.  I enjoy being surrounded by them and cherish their presence in my life.

As a writer, I dream of publishing a book that makes someone’s list of keepers.  I long to write words that might touch and inspire others even half as much as other writers’ words have touched me.  A grandiose dream perhaps, but not an impossible one.  I have faith.

Beyond books, there are other keepers in our lives.  I love movies and count many among my keepers.  Like books, favorite DVDs line my shelves so I can watch them again and again.   Last of the Mohicans, Gone With the Wind, Gettysburg, The Fugitive, Sweet Home Alabama, The African Queen…my list is long. Good stories and characters, well produced, well acted.  Like my keeper books, these movies have become old friends.

Some people keep and prize sports memorabilia; they cherish having it around them.  Other souls value music, or fine works of art.  They take great joy in its presence.

But I believe that the keepers to be most valued in life are not books, not movies.  They are not music, not art, not any sort of collectibles.  The real keepers in life are the people who live beside and around us.  Of course, we don’t refer to these folk as keepers, someone to cherish and hold on to.  Instead we call them husband, wife, son, daughter, mom, dad, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, cousin, friend, co-worker, or neighbor.  Whatever their name, they are the angels that make up our daily lives.  We may not always fully appreciate the goodness they harbor, but it is strong, rich, and true.

During my recent heartbreaking loss, uncounted angels wrapped their wings around me bringing a comfort I wouldn’t have thought possible.  Through words, prayers, and untold kindnesses, I knew I was not alone.  In the absence of my soul mate, I might have been lonely, but never, ever alone.

We all need angels in our lives, guardians to watch over us in time of crisis and need.  Through my grief, I’ve seen an overwhelming prevalence of goodness and sympathy in this world.   I’ve found there is a prevalence of true keepers.

Angels, all. 

No Words

I met him the day after Christmas.  He was a college student visiting a close friend of his, my roommate’s fiancé.  From our first meeting we were drawn together.  Soul mates.  We wrote letters.   We telephoned.  In those pre-Internet days, over an 80 mile distance, we courted.

And we fell in love.

The day he graduated from college, he proposed.  Foolish me, I thought he was joking.  I mean, I always just knew we’d eventually marry.  Why did he need to ask? Somehow, I was wise enough not to say so.  After a stunned minute, I simply said yes.  A planner, he later said proposing to me was the most impulsive thing he’d ever done.

Before we wed he had to answer Uncle Sam’s call to duty.  He did a tour overseas.  Daily letters helped bridge the distance and gave us time to deepen our friendship.  A month after his discharge, we married.

We saved for and bought a small home.  Later we became parents of a beautiful son.  In three years another fine son followed and I relished motherhood.  He worked hard and also earned his CPA.  He took a job transfer, 400 miles south.  When he went to grad school nights for his Masters, I typed his papers.  I gave birth to our third, another wonderful son.

Another job transfer, this one to the east coast.  A few years later we moved a final time, this time building a house, instead of buying an older one.  We were determined not to move again, to keep our sons in the same schools.  The time sped.  I returned to work.  Our sons entered high school then began to graduate and go on to college.

He continued to work, with a commute that grew ever longer as traffic increased.  During this time he also ran for School Board.  He served as Treasurer and won election after election over a period of 12 years.  He earned the title of fiscal watchdog, working toward financial responsibility, unafraid to cast a dissenting vote when one was called for.

We spoke the same language, liked the same movies, and music.  Though born of different backgrounds, we shared the same values, the same beliefs.  And we talked together, not just the necessary chatter of two people who live in the same house, but deeper conversation.  He was my best friend, and my one true love.  And yet, he could still surprise me.

Always we saved and found time for trips together, to the East (when we lived in the Midwest), to Florida, the Grand Canyon, Quebec, England, and other shorter trips.  It was important for us and our sons.  We loved the adventure.  We loved seeing new places, immersing ourselves in culture and history.

With our sons grown, in late 2010 we flew to Paris and spent a magical week wandering museums, dining out, attending a French mass at St. Eustache, visiting Versailles, cruising the River Seine.  Months later he spoke of returning in our retirement to play an i-Pad accordion on the banks of the Seine.  Other trips also lay before us – Rome, a train trip across western Canada, and a Baltic cruise to Norway and St. Petersburg.

In the pre-dawn hours of November 30th, I woke to a still silence in the house.  I found him laying on the bathroom tiles.  The coroner called it a massive cerebral hemorrhage.  I could not speak.  “There are no words,” said some, writers all.  No words for the shock, and grief.  No words for the unfairness.  His whole life he worked hard, giving of himself for the good of others.  No words, except it shouldn’t have happened.  He should have had more time.

Wrapped though I am in the comfort of family and friends, I feel I’m only moving through life, doing only what is needed. At times I think I’ll walk into the next room and find him there, reading his newspaper, talking to our sons, laughing.  The tears come and go but I’m learning to anticipate them, to sometimes even welcome their healing power.

He is ever in my thoughts.  On Thursday he woke me with a simple word, as he did so often on days he left early for work.  “Debbi,” he said.  And I woke, knowing he’d been there.

On Saturday, for the first time this season, I ventured into the stores with their Christmas mania.  As I roamed the aisles only pretending to browse, I listened and watched.  A mother tugged hard on her daughter’s arm.  A father sternly directed his son to follow his list.  A woman’s harsh voice spoke to her cell.  Part of me ached to tell them, life is fragile and so fleeting. Nurture and love it.  

Love one another.  ♥

Dear Mom

Among the family treasures Mom left behind were packets of her personal letters.  The earliest ones were written to her parents in the months after she divorced my father.  My brother was four; I was a toddler.  Mom was preparing to marry again.  Her new marriage would take her over a thousand miles from home.  Usually she wrote to both parents but one letter was addressed only to her mom, my grandmother.

  “Mother, I know what I’m doing so don’t worry.  I am very happy…and I’m sure everything is going to work out perfect.  (He) loves me and thinks a lot of the kids.  We have very nice plans for the future.  We are so happy when we’re together and we have talked everything over, and we seem to feel the same way about everything.”

Mom, Tim, and Grandma

A twenty-five year old daughter, writing to reassure her worried mother.

A few weeks ago my dear aunt sent me another letter Mom had written, one I had never seen.  This one was written in southern Wisconsin and mailed to my uncle in northern Minnesota.  It was written five years after the letter mentioned above.   By then my brother and I had been joined by two younger siblings.

“The children are going to Sunday School here now at the Faith Lutheran Church….We have been going to church there too, every Sunday since they started Sunday School.”

I know my uncle cherished his sister’s letter.  In those pre-Internet days when phone calls were only for holidays or emergencies, letters were how people communicated, how separated families kept in touch.  Letters were eagerly awaited. Receiving one was a gift.

“We had another letter from Jim and one from his fiancé…Elizabeth.  They are going to be married August 15th.  She sent a clipping of their engagement and her picture out of the paper.”

Just as my uncle had when it was new, I enjoyed receiving this letter, so many years after it was written.  It brought back precious memories from days gone by.  It gave me a glimpse into our family’s history, written in Mom’s fine penmanship.

“(All of us) went for a picnic in Palmer Park on Sunday.  Really enjoyed it.  The (kiddies) went in the pool.  We roasted wieners and marshmallows.”

This picture is from another Sunday, in another park, but the same year, and with the same people.  Along with Sunday School, picnics became a regular event, an inexpensive way to gather with family, and enjoy each others company.  I’ve had a copy of this picture for years but when I read Mom’s words about the picnic, it reminded me anew of those warm, carefree days.

In the letter my aunt sent me, Mom also wrote about my little sister’s illness, and of my step-dad’s still fledgling business, how much money he’d earned the week before, and his hopes for a city contract.  These small details make this particular letter even more priceless, more poignant.  More poignant still is what she could not write in it.  Just over a year later, an unforeseen accident would take the life of her youngest son, my brother Tim.

I believe in the value of holding on to old family letters.  While some details may seem insignificant now, in a few years time they’ll refresh treasured bits of memory, and serve as a part of family history.

The Internet has pushed letter writing into obscurity.  For the wordier among us, it has been replaced by e-mail.  Others rely on Facebook or Twitter for rushed messages. Twitter only allows 140 characters but a lot can be said in a few words.  I can almost see a snippet from one of Mom’s letters tweeted to the masses “Baked a chocolate cake today.”   Those words alone would remind me of her.  Of course, it wouldn’t be in her handwriting, on the prettiest stationery she could afford.

I do like aspects of the new social media.  I love the ability to almost instantly see pictures of my grand-nieces and grand-nephews blowing out their birthday candles.  I love the shorthand way of sending an animated electronic greeting card.  And I know how very much military families treasure frequent e-mailed messages from loved ones serving overseas.  I do hope they think to print them, or save them in some manner, for the future.

Tucked away, tied in ribbon and stacked in a sturdy box are letters my husband wrote to me when he was stationed overseas.  In another box are those I wrote him.  We haven’t looked at them in years, but each one was received with as much joy as any e-mailed message.  In old age we’ll sit down and re-read these letters written and mailed with love, and loneliness.  Memories will awake.

Do you save old family letters?  How long has it been since you received a handwritten letter in the mailbox?  How long since you sent one?   ♥